A rose by any other name

January 28, 2007

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According to an editorial in today’s Washington Post, “It’s become a fad among some conservatives to refer to the junior senator from Illinois by his full name: Barack Hussein Obama. … The senator, however, does not use his middle name. Those who take pains to insert it when referring to him are trying, none too subtly, to stir up scary images of menacing terrorists and evil dictators.”

First of all, let’s be glad the poor senator’s last name isn’t one consonant different.

The Post is a liberal newspaper and so doesn’t have much time for the likes of Rush Limbaugh and the other conservatives cited in the editorial, so its definition of “fad” may involve fewer people that it would take me to make the same categorization. But even if only two or three influential people are doing it, how stupid and potentially dangerous!

There are men and boys all over the Middle East called Osama (a friend of mine used to be married to one) and Hussein. There are men and boys all over Germany called Adolf. There are men and boys all over Italy called Benito and Cesare, not to mention girls and women called Lucrezia. That’s supposed to prove something about them?

If you start reading something into names, here are a mere handful you’d be disinclined to give your brand new baby: Myra, Ian, Charles, David, Jack, Elizabeth, Timothy, John (oops, there goes the English-speaking world’s most popular boy’s name), Edward, Jeffrey, … I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

“The senator, however, does not use his middle name.” Here’s my advice to Senator Obama: Start using your middle name. In fact, insist that it be used at all times and make a fuss when it isn’t. Beat the jerks at their own juvenile game.

Warning to my friends: I was named for someone who lopped off another person’s head. It was quite a while ago, but you can never be too careful.

Thank you to my serial-killer-named friend who brought the editorial to my attention.

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No entry

December 15, 2006
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This evening on my way home, I stopped in at CompUSA and bought a standalone numeric keypad and a USB hub. Like just about everything these days, each of my two new devices came enclosed in an almost-impenetrable bubble of very tough plastic. I am accident prone (that’s the PC way of saying “I pay the price for being clumsy and often impatient”) so hacking my way into this packaging is not something I approach with confidence.

I started with the USB hub. It took scissors and an Exacto knife, and I cut myself on the plastic container. Then there was an interior plastic enclosure that had to be pried apart. That done, I figured I deserved a break, a BAND-AID, and a glass of wine, after which, I attacked the keypad package. That one was easier (just as well, given the glass of wine). I could insinuate the scissors around the edge of the bubble and it opened. Out came the keypad, a cable, a battery, and a user guide.

“Remove the battery cover from the back of the keypad,” says the user guide, giving no further hints as to how this is to be accomplished. I’ve tried every which way, and I can’t do it. I’ve pressed the front of the battery cover and tried to slide it backwards, pressed the back and tried to slide it forwards, tried to open it with my fingernails, and tried to pry it up with a knife.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to CompUSA and ask them to show me how to open it.

Technology transfer and partnerships with industry are big in the federal government these days, so I have a suggestion for the Department of Homeland Security: Get together with the manufacturers of consumer electronics and between you I am sure you can come up with a foolproof way to keep terrorists out of the country. It will undoubtedly involve plastic bubble packs.


Berry Picking

October 22, 2006

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The place: the people mover between the plane and the terminal at Dulles Airport last Friday. The time: about 3:30 on Friday afternoon.

As soon as they sat down, the people on either side of me whipped out their BlackBerries or BlackBerry-equivalents, as did two people standing up. “This is always scary,” said the woman on my right to her standing companion, loudly enough to let us all know that, important as she was, the eight-hour flight from London would have meant a vast accumulation of e-mails demanding her immediate attention. A true candidate for Pseuds’ Corner.*

Once upon a time, people spent a few hours on a plane or went away on vacations, and their companies actually soldiered on without them. Whatever had to be done was done by someone else (if it was really that important) or else waited until they got back to work after the trip.

I doubt that the urgency of work-related tasks has increased significantly over the years, and I suspect that the business calls conducted loudly on cell phones from buses and metro trains and the compulsive e-mail checking over restaurant lunches are frequently unnecessary and can probably be summed up by a cartoon I saw some time ago in the New Yorker. A man is sitting in an empty subway car, mobile phone to his ear. The caption is, “Do you mind if I call you back later when there’s someone around to overhear?”

*Pseuds’ Corner: for the uninitiated, see Private Eye.
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Not my picture of the berries. I didn’t have the nerve to whip out my camera and photograph the important people around me, so I took this off a gardening Web site. I’ve forgotten which one, so I can’t properly credit it, but if notified, I will.


The Gospel According to Wikipedia

September 24, 2006

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“According to Wikipedia” is a phrase that is starting to precede pronouncements quite a lot in blogs, and it’s one that disturbs me.

I’m something of an information junkie. A former significant other once said to me, “All you care about is facts.” Not true, as a matter of … well … fact, but it’s true that I like to learn new things and gather new information, even if I don’t necessarily remember much of it two days later. So yes, I certainly do like facts, along with philosophies and opinions, but I like those facts to be correct—in other words, to be facts. I like information, not misinformation.

The idea behind wikis is wonderful—a resource to which anyone can contribute and that anyone can edit. And the idea behind wikis is horrifying—a resource to which anyone can contribute and that anyone can edit. Anyone. I suspect that Stephen Hawking isn’t whiling away his spare time contributing to Wikipedia. Contributors are more likely to be people like me, a thought I find very scary.

I don’t think Wikipedia existed several years ago, when I was teaching at a local community college, but if it had, my students would have been quoting it right and left, since a not insignificant number of them believed—in spite of my regular rants—that if it was on the Internet, it was true.

Misinformation, presented with authority, takes hold very easily. Think Piltdown Man, a hoax that held strong for 40 years. Think the supposed several hundred Eskimo words for snow, a debunked but still much-believed piece of misinformation. (To be fair to the Wikipedia article, it doesn’t perpetuate the Eskimo snow myth.) Think about the body of opinion that says the Holocaust never happened. Think about all the people who buy the Weekly World News because they actually believe what it prints.

Then think of the Internet, which spreads its reach a hell of a lot farther than the junk tabloids you can pick up at the checkout line in the grocery store.

People have a tendency to imprint on the first thing they read or hear. I’m no exception. It’s very hard to let go of that first belief, and I suspect many people don’t. So erroneous beliefs get passed on, then they become “reality” and “fact.” Wikipedia, for many people, is the stamp of approval on content. Hey, it says it’s an encyclopedia.

All of the above is not to say that I never look at Wikipedia. Sure, I look, and I find a lot of useful information and links, but I check anything I find there against other sources and look for other opinions, just the way I was taught, back in my student days when we had those heavy paper things that were such a bother to schlepp around—what were they called? Oh yes, books. I remember learning that some of those contained suspect scholarship.

So anyway, what is my point (I know I had one)? I guess it’s that it doesn’t hurt to practice skepticism and to teach our young people not to believe everything they read unless they are very, very sure of the body of scholarship behind it.


Five years on

September 11, 2006
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Back in our days of innocence, people used to say they’d never forget where they were when JFK was shot. I remember where I was—in London, doing my homework. My father called me down from my room.

It was unthinkable.

I remember—it seems so recent, but it really is five years ago—when the World Trade Center was hit and then the Pentagon, just two miles from where I live.

It was more than unthinkable.

I remember when I heard on the radio about the attacks in London, my home, just over a year ago. The unthinkable and the more-than-unthinkable had already happened in my lifetime and countless times in history.

It was inevitable.

I wish I didn’t think about, wonder, and dread what’s going to happen next. Our power to destroy becomes more and more lethal.

And more inevitable.


What price the Grand Scheme?

June 11, 2006
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Rubble from collapsed buildings in the streets of Yogyakarta in Indonesia, following the earthquake. (Photo: Oxfam America)

“There are no accidents or coincidences,” says someone who posted a comment recently to a blog I read.

“Everything happens for a reason,” says one of my neighbors about all manner of things from the trivial to the momentous.

A few weeks ago, I was a passenger in a friend’s car. We were ready to drive away after lunch in a restaurant. She looked in her rear mirror and all was clear, so she reversed out of her space in a row of parked cars. A man in the row of parked cars behind her also looked and saw all was clear so he, too, reversed out of his row. They met in the middle.

If no-coincidences-everything-for-a-reason conventional wisdom is to be believed, it was no simple accident, no unlucky coincidence that my friend and the other driver both backed out at exactly the same moment.

In a former life, I put a lot of effort into trying to teach causal reasoning to English 101 students, and I agree that behind every event or situation or occurrence of something is a reason or a series of identifiable reasons. But that isn’t what the proponents of conventional wisdom mean. They speak on the level of the Grand Design.

So carrying their philosophy to its logical end, my friend and the other driver must have been playing assigned roles in a cosmic drama. And in the Great Scheme of Things, there is a metaphysical reason for earthquakes and tsunamis, for planes to crash, for children to be abused, for people to starve, for someone who happens to be on the wrong street at the wrong time to get mugged, for one person to escape a burning building and another not, for someone who doesn’t deserve the job to get it over someone who does, and for my cell phone not to be working when I’m stuck in traffic and late for an appointment (and there I am, naïvely thinking it’s simply because I forgot to charge it.)

I miss the point of the no-concidences-all-for-a-reason view of life. If my car collides with a truck and is totaled, am I supposed to feel better if I believe that it wasn’t because of some unassociated collection of circumstances that put the truck and me in in the same place, or because one of us was going too fast, or because the road was icy—but that it was preordained?

I don’t buy it. I think life is pretty random.


When the bough breaks, the cradle WON’T fall

June 9, 2006
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Who spared Cock Robin?
“I,” said the sparrow,
“With my bow and arrow,
I spared Cock Robin.”

A couple of months ago, a colleague at work passed on to me the news that a few elementary schools in Oxfordshire are cleaning up nursery rhymes and fairy tales. “Your countrymen—oops, countrypersons—are at it again,” he said. Baa Baa Black Sheep is apparently now Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep, and the seven dwarves have been sanitized from the title of Snow White. Whether from the story itself wasn’t made clear.

According to the manager (which must be the new, improved name for headmaster) of two area schools, “No one should feel pointed out because of their race, gender, or anything else.”

Nor should children be exposed to unhappy endings, we gather: in the revised version, all the king’s men do put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Note to Oxfordshire schools: in the interests of equality, please ensure that the King admits women to the Grand Old Duke of York’s 10,000 persons.

In this brave new kinderworld, I suppose there’ll be no more baking blackbirds in pies, and Tom Tom the Piper’s son’s pig will become a beloved family pet instead of Sunday lunch. Red Riding Hood’s wolf will serve a prison sentence for assault and attempted corruption of a minor, during which time he’ll become a born-again Christian and upon release, spend the rest of his life helping the poor. It does my heart good.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the idea of making everyone feel accepted. Finally Polly and Sukey can come out of the closet, stop arguing about the kettle, and set up a nice little cottage industry knitting mufflers out of Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep’s wool.