In every field, there are artists who rise above the rest of us. I look up and marvel at the beauty of the stars. My Uncle Ned, who's a Harvard/University of Michigan-trained PhD astronomer, sees and marvels at astrophysical processes that go far beyond my surface appreciation of a pretty night sky. The same is true of art, music, cooking, botany, architecture, and almost every human endeavor.
William Safire, who died Sunday at the age of 79, was an artist in the field of language. And his voice will be missed.
Artists and experts don't just know more about their subjects; they actually see them differently. Which has its pros and cons. Painters don't just see objects, they see a mix of light and shadow. Ever since becoming a pilot, I no longer see clouds as just pretty puffy things in the sky. I see high Cirrus, which means I may need to depart earlier than planned, because a change in the weather is coming. A breezy day isn't just nice. It means turbulence in the pass.
The ability to appreciate far more layers of detail means that far more details can also irritate. My brother David can appreciate many more fine points of a symphony than I can. But he'll also be bothered by the fact that the horns in the second movement came in just a tad too late. And once you understand the technical elements of a subject, it can be hard to look at it without that magnifying lens. There's a line near the end of the movie Men in Black where the Tommy Lee Jones character, about to have his memories of aliens erased, says that it's going to be nice to be able to look up and see just a beautiful starry sky again.
As they delve further into the details of their art, artists also run the risk of getting lost in their own personal forest of specifics and language, leaving the rest of us too far behind to follow. Which is fine, as long as you don't care about communicating any of your ideas or the wonder of your discoveries to the rest of the world. I interviewed a NASA scientist once who insisted that to say the satellite he'd worked on had a near-equatorial orbit was untrue. It was, he said, a low-to-mid-inclination orbit. I explained that the book was for a lay person audience, and most people didn't inherently know what a low-to-mid-inclination orbit was, unless we explained it further. "Well, any intelligent person knows!" he exclaimed.
The same possibility exists with language. There are purists who, I suspect, are writing more for their own enjoyment than the comprehension of the audience. They're in love with multi-syllabic words, even if only six people in the audience know or can envision what those words mean. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that, any more than with a jazz artist who cares more about reaching the pinnacle of intense self-expression than commercial success. In fact, I think it's important to have some purists out there, if only to remind the rest of us that the world contains magnificent mountains beyond the familiar, local hills we see and use everyday. It's just important to be clear about the goal, and be okay with the consequences of your choices.
William Safire was fascinated almost to the point of obsession with the details of words, leading to many arcane debates with his readers over seeming minutiae of nuanced word origin, usage or meaning. Live by the sword, die by the sword. And there were undoubtedly times when his own love of little-known words kept readers away from the ideas he was expressing. But he also asked and explored thought-provoking questions--including, inthis 2008 blog entry, whether perhaps Pliny the Younger was the world's first real blogger. And in a world where the instant-word-factory-assembly-line crunch of blogging and email, and the word-annihilation of texting and Twitter (LOL if u no wht i mean), the presence of those who still love, explore, and use the full depths and twists of the English Language--or any language--becomes even more important if the art is not to die out.
I'm not a purist of language; I'm as concerned with getting the point across as I am with the beauty of the words I put together to do it. But I am still a practitioner of the art; a member of the symphony, if not its artiste solo perfectionist. And so I truly appreciate those whose passion skill and knowledge act as a beacon for the rest of us, pulling us further along than we otherwise would have gone.
Ammon Shea, a dedicated word-lover, wrote a book last year about the year he spent reading the Oxford English Dictionary, cover to cover. (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages). His obsession for the task drove those around him nuts, and I can't say as I have the passion required to follow in his footsteps. But I loved his book, and all the discoveries he allowed me to share. To think! There's actually a word for a fear of dinner parties! Who knew?
I also don't have the stamina of a William Manchester, whose biography of Winston Churchill stretched over three volumes--the last of which had to be completed by someone else, because Manchester suffered a series of strokes that left him, in his last years, unable to write. In commenting on the tragedy of a man whose life's work was the loving caress of words having lost his ability to find them, essayist Roger Rosenblatt recited one of Manchester's passages about Churchill's funeral:
"When his flag-draped coffin moved slowly across the old capital, drawn by naval ratings, and bare-headed Londoners stood trembling in the cold, they mourned, not only him and all he had meant, but all they had been and no longer were, and would never be again."
Manchester, Rosenblatt noted, most likely "had only the scantiest idea where that sentence would end when he began it. Only when he caught up with it could he know. But then, there was another sentence running ahead of him. There was always another sentence. And now there isn't." I still look at Manchester's words ... and Rosenblatt's framing of them ... and feel as if I've been blessed with a combination of master performances so beautiful and perfect that if it they'd been played out in a concert hall, I would have shouted aloud, "Bravo!"
Communication doesn't have to be taught. We learn it instinctively as small children. But the art of language; exploring words and crafting them together with rhythm, poetry, and meaning, is a learned and practiced skill that few ever master as well as Manchester, Keats, Shakespeare, or Safire. Like master chefs, musicians, athletes or scientists, they show us what's possible, and add a layer of nuanced beauty to a sometimes overly practical world.
I didn't always agree with Safire's detailed focus or opinions. And sometimes his immersion in his art may have stood in the way of getting his point across to a broader audience. But maybe, the point he really wanted to get across was simply how much richness there was in this language we use everyday, if only we'd take the time to explore and savor the forest with a little more attention and depth. And on that point, his message was inimitably, powerfully, and exceptionally clear.
When President Obama left, I stayed on at the National Security Council in order to serve my country. I lasted eight days.
In 2011, I was hired, straight out of college, to work at the White House and eventually the National Security Council. My job there was to promote and protect the best of what my country stands for. I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman––I was the only hijabi in the West Wing––and the Obama administration always made me feel welcome and included.
Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this––or because of it––I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America's Muslim citizens.
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
Polymath computer scientist David Gelernter’s wide-ranging ideas about American life.
Last month, David Gelernter, the pioneering Yale University computer scientist, met with Donald Trump to discuss the possibility of joining the White House staff. An article about the meeting in the Washington Post was headlined, “David Gelernter, fiercely anti-intellectual computer scientist, is being eyed for Trump’s science adviser.”
It is hard to imagine a more misleading treatment.
By one common definition, anti-intellectualism is “hostility towards and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectual pursuits, usually expressed as the derision of education, philosophy, literature, art, and science, as impractical and contemptible.”
Here is the exchange that I had with Gelernter when I reached out to ask if he would be interested in discussing the substance of his views on science, politics and culture.
Tucker Carlson’s latest reinvention is guided by a simple principle—a staunch aversion to whatever his right-minded neighbors believe.
Tucker Carlson is selling me hard on the swamp. It is an unseasonably warm afternoon in late January, and we are seated at a corner table in Monocle, an upscale Capitol Hill eatery frequented by the Fox News star. (Carlson, who typically skips breakfast and spends dinnertime on the air, is a fan of the long, luxurious, multi-course lunch, and when I requested an interview he proposed we do it here.) As we scan the menus, I mention that I’ll be moving soon to the Washington area, and he promptly launches into an enthusiastic recitation of the district’s many virtues and amenities.
“I’m so pathetically eager for people to love D.C.,” he admits. “It’s so sad. It’s like I work for the chamber of commerce or something.”
“No… it’s a magic potty,” my daughter used to lament, age three or so, before refusing to use a public restroom stall with an automatic-flush toilet. As a small person, she was accustomed to the infrared sensor detecting erratic motion at the top of her head and violently flushing beneath her. Better, in her mind, just to delay relief than to subject herself to the magic potty’s dark dealings.
It’s hardly just a problem for small people. What adult hasn’t suffered the pneumatic public toilet’s whirlwind underneath them? Or again when attempting to exit the stall? So many ordinary objects and experiences have become technologized—made dependent on computers, sensors, and other apparatuses meant to improve them—that they have also ceased to work in their usual manner. It’s common to think of such defects as matters of bad design. That’s true, in part. But technology is also more precarious than it once was. Unstable, and unpredictable. At least from the perspective of human users. From the vantage point of technology, if it can be said to have a vantage point, it's evolving separately from human use.
A new report explores why those who benefitted from Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion supported the man who promised to reverse it.
Here’s a question that’s baffled health reporters in the months since the election: Why would people who benefit from Obamacare in general—and its Medicaid expansion specifically—vote for a man who vowed to destroy it?
Some anecdotal reports have suggested that people simply didn’t understand that the benefits they received were a result of the Affordable Care Act. That was the case for one Indiana family TheNew York Times described in December:
Medicaid has paid for virtually all of his cancer care, including a one-week hospitalization after the diagnosis, months of chemotherapy, and frequent scans and blood tests.
But Mr. Kloski and his mother, Renee Epperson, are still not fans of the health law over all. They believed that it required that Mr. Kloski be dropped, when he turned 26, from the health plan his mother has through her job at Target — not understanding that it was the law that kept him on the plan until he was 26.
Neil Gaiman’s remarkable new book has triggered a debate about who, exactly, owns pagan tales.
Myths are funny. Unlike histories, they are symbolic narratives; they deal with spiritual rather than fact-based truths. They serve as foundations for beliefs, illustrating how things came to be and who was involved, but they’re often sketchy about when or why. There’s a brief scene from Neil Gaiman’s new book Norse Mythology that does a remarkable job of capturing just this: the wonderfully nebulous sense of being in illo tempore—the hazy “at that time” of the mythic past. It begins, as many creation myths do, with “an empty place waiting to be filled with life,” but in this instance some life already exists. There’s Ymir, whose enormous body produces all giants and, eventually, the earth, skies, and seas. There’s Audhumla, the celestial cow, who licks the first gods out of blocks of ice. And there are three brothers—the gods Ve, Vili, and Odin—who must devise a way out of this timeless nowhere:
All in all, the United States has already set more than 2,800 new record high temperatures this month. It has only set 27 record lows.
Most people handle this weather as the gift it is: an opportunity to get outside, run or bike or play catch, and get an early jump on the spring. But for the two-thirds of Americans who are at least fairly worried about global warming, the weather can also prompt anxiety and unease. As one woman told the Chicago Tribune: “It’s scary, that’s my first thing. Because in all my life I’ve never seen a February this warm.” Or as one viral tweet put it:
The Key & Peele comedian Jordan Peele makes a confident, richly textured debut as a writer and director.
The opening scene of Get Out is a familiar horror-movie image—a stranger walking an unfamiliar street, in the dead of night, nervously looking over their shoulder at every rustle of sound. The setting is the suburbs, a frequent favorite of the slasher genre, only the victim is not a scantily clad teen girl, but an African American man, uneasily navigating what seems like hostile territory. A car pulls up alongside him, blasting the dirge-like old-fashioned ditty “Run Rabbit Run.” “Not today,” he mutters, turning around and walking in the opposite direction. But of course, his fate is already sealed.
Get Out was written and directed by Jordan Peele, one half of the legendary sketch-comedy duo behind Key & Peele. That show had a remarkable grasp on the visual hallmarks of the film genres it often mimicked, and its humor often lay in the preciseness of its parody. But Get Out is no mere pastiche. It’s an atmospheric, restrained, extremely effective work of horror with a clear point of view, a darkly hilarious movie that never trips over itself in search of a cheap laugh or scare. What might sound like a one-joke premise turns into something richly textured; what might seem like an easy metaphor is, in fact, anything but.
High-school textbooks too often gloss over the American government’s oppression of racial minorities.
Earlier this month, McGraw Hill found itself at the center of some rather embarrassing press after a photo showing a page from one of its high-school world-geography textbooks was disseminated on social media. The page features a seemingly innocuous polychromatic map of the United States, broken up into thousands of counties, as part of a lesson on the country’s immigration patterns: Different colors correspond with various ancestral groups, and the color assigned to each county indicates its largest ethnic representation. The page is scarce on words aside from an introductory summary and three text bubbles explaining specific trends—for example, that Mexico accounts for the largest share of U.S. immigrants today.