Google+ Followers

Monday, December 24, 2012

Dissertation on Charlotte Bronte

I completed my dissertation so long ago that the file format was saved on the 3.5" disc. Even my computer can't read that any more. Happily, I do have a paper copy on hand and a husband who has access to a scanner that could handle more than a single page at a time. I've uploaded the PDF here to make it easily accessible in an online format.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Beyond Pink

[this is a post I originally wrote on another one of my blogs. I brought  it out again here in honor of the month.  ] 
Gayle A Sulike, PhD, a medical sociologist and 2008 Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities for her work on breast cancer culture, is the author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health (Oxford University Press, 2011). Each chapter is followed by pages of footnotes for this carefully researched book that points out the dark side behind the pink ribbon. It is not a cheerful picture, nor a completely hopeful one, as very little true progress has been made in the battle against breast cancer, for all the fanfare of pink products, awareness, and the popularity of "the cause."

Certainly, every woman should read about how mammograms could actually fail women and, in some case, cause harm and should be aware of the risk/benefit ratio, the costs, and the questionable motives of some who benefit.  "Screening mammography is largely responsible for the ever-increasing diagnoses of stage 0 breast cancers, the types that are not technically breast cancers at all." (p.183). Such results stack the deck for the claim that early detection saves lives when the lives "saved" were never in danger in the first place.  In addition to false positives, mammograms can yield false negatives, meaning that the cancer that is there will not be detected. Generally, they are more effective at detection in women over 50 than younger women. In an article that appeared in 2009, "Chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society Dr. Otis Brawley said: 'I'm admitting that American medicine has overpromised when it comes to screening. The advantages to screening have been exaggerated" (p. 20).

Sulike also examines the mythology of the "she-ro" who must rise above her suffering according to the script tied with a pink ribbon. She also touches on "pinkwashing" as a serious problem that gets in the way of true progress. Infantalization of women results from a culture that considers it appropriate to offer teddy bears and Barbie dolls dressed in pink to those afflicted with cancer to show you care. Pink, of course, is the color strongly associated with little girls.  Would men be treated the same way?  Of course, some of this is based on feminist analysis, and reader may just find her take on the significance of Power Puff Girls debatable. But it is, certainly, an intriguing argument.

Her main points are encapsulated both at the beginning and the conclusion of the book. On p. 374 she says:  "Pink ribbon symbolism not only distract the public from the harsh realities of breast cancer and the actions that would be necessary to move toward  its eradication, it also produces a feel-good culture in which the idea that breast cancer is a good cause translates to a belief that supporting it is a good thing that will always lead to good outcomes. The pink ribbon effect demonizes and isolates those who do not happily accept all of the pink goodness the culture has to offer." 

The only weak part of the book is that she does not really build a substantial case for what would work to truly make a difference.  Is it even possible to eradicate breast cancer?  She does say that certain chemicals used by companies are linked to breast cancer, but I'm not quite clear on if she would say that the solution lies there. There are always contributing factors, but so many health conditions do prop up unexpectedly with no known cause. Nevertheless, the book is worth reading for its wealth of information and for its infusion of some healthy skepticism. It's good to  think before going pink or joining up with anything just because it is popular and seems to be  going for a good cause.

I also wrote about pink ribbon marketing last year in

Susan B. Komen for the Cure Criticism Leads to Fallout for Brands

The organization Breast Cancer Action launched Think Before You Pink in 2002 to serve as a watchdog over the pink movement. It calls for action to combat "pinkwashing": the practice of allying with the cause through pink promotions on the very products that contain ingredients linked to cancer. Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, states, "Shoppers need to know how much of their money is really going to breast cancer and what's in these products." By drawing the public's attention to the hypocrisy of these companies, Think Before You Pink has succeeded in pressuring Avon to change the formulation of some cosmetics and in getting Yoplait yogurt to go rBGH-free.

For some further reading on this approach, available online, see

Sunday, September 23, 2012

What do Cynthia Ozick and Snoopy have in common?

Their writing style and experience of  rejection
Cynthia Ozick's response to the routine of rejection from The New Yorker 
in a letter written on January 5, 1962 is one of the discoveries from the magazine's files shared in from It opens just like Snoopy's query letters:

For a number of years now I have been sending you poems, and until very recently I have always found you entirely reliable. Exactly seven days after each new poem has been dropped into the mail, it has come punctually home, accompanied by that little rejection slip of yours marked with the number 1 in the left-hand bottom corner. (You know the one.) You have, as I say, been altogether faithful and dependable. For example, it is never six days, it is certainly never eight or nine days. It is always seven days to the minute, and your conscientious devotion to precision all these years has been matched, to my knowledge, only by the butcher's deliver-boy, whose appearance is also predicated on a seven-day cycle.
This time, however, you have failed me. A poem of mine, entitled "An Urgent Exhortation to His Admirers and Dignifiers: Being the Transcript of an Address Before the Mark Twain Association by Samuel Clemens, Shade," reached you on December 18, 1961, and, though eighteen days have already passed, a daily inspection of my letterbox yields nothing. I have enough confidence in your hitherto clean record of never considering anything I have submitted not to be tempted into the unworthy suspicion that the delay is actually caused by your liking this poem. What has been shattered, I must admit, is my sense of serenity, of certitude, nay, of security — not to mention my sense of rhythm. Does this mean you can no longer be relied on to conform to the seven-day schedule you have consistently adhered to in the past? In short, is the Age of Doubt truly upon us? O tempora!
Or (but I venture this with a cheery hopefulness I do not dare to feel) is it only that you have finally gone and lost my manuscript? I realize I am probably being too sanguine in putting forth this rosy possibility, but I guess I am just basically an optimistic sort. Please reassure me that this, rather than some flaw in your clockworks (even to contemplate which disillusions me hideously), is the real nature of the difficulty.
I expect your answer in seven days.
Seven days later, she must have found herself in Snoopy's position here:
According to Yagoda, there was no answer in the files, though Ozick's stories were, eventually, published by the magazine.

As we know, Ozick went go on to achieve fame as a writer.  Snoopy also achieved fame, though not necessarily for his literary endeavors. Still, his persistence remains an object lesson and inspiration in the book Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Representing 100 years of childhood

Representing 100 years of childhood
At the rate of 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day, we have created 90 percent of the data we have in just the past two years. And while 10 percent sounds small in comparison, working with the data of the past presents the same challenges as any Big Data project. You have to consider what to include and what to exclude to come up with the questions, correlations, and contexts that relate to your concerns. They are key to the representation of your data, whether in the form of a report, an inforgraphic, or a physical exhibition.
Some of those essential components were missing in  the  Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.  It’s described as “the first large-scale overview of the modernist preoccupation with children and childhood as a paradigm for progressive design thinking. The exhibition will bring together areas underrepresented in design history and often considered separately, including school architecture, clothing, playgrounds, toys and games, children’s hospitals and safety equipment, nurseries, furniture, and books.”
Granted, it is impossible to show everything. Yet, I question the omission of an American Girl Doll. (The company that produced it was sold to Mattel  in 1998 for $700 million). The line was introduced in 1986 and was considered a significant departure from the Barbie style that had dominated the doll market at the time. These dolls represented girls rather than full-figured adults and offered some historical insight with their accompanying books. When they first came out, the $100 dolls also raised questions about how much parents are expected to spend on toys, something worth bringing up in relation to consumerism.
Of course, people get a nostalgic kick out of seeing the toys and furniture they associate with their own childhoods, like classic wooden and Lego blocks, an Erector set, an Etch-a-Sketch, a Rubik’s cube, a Slinky, and a Barbie house.  Still, the toys should have offered more than a trip down memory lane. While  the exhibit points to the rather obvious cause for the proliferation of toys associated with the space age, it does not explore how other toys were also a product of their times.
Aside from what different types of toys represent, there is the evolution within toy lines to consider.  For example, Lincoln Logs also started incorporating plastic and premade windows into its sets.  Tinker Toys evolved from simple wooden forms to plastic ones that included specialized pieces and set in pastel colors that were marketed to girls. These modifications raise questions about materials, imaginative play, and gender that should be considered in such an exhibit.
Without context and explanations, you just have random items that do not signify meaning. As Jean Aggasiz said, “Facts are stupid things until brought in connection with some general law.” The same holds true for data, no matter how big. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

It's Easy to be Evil

This morning, I was thinking about what I found so upsetting about people who neglect their responsibilities, ignore their deadlines, and fail to pay attention to the duties of their position. Then I remembered some key books that hit on the crux of the issue.

Dickens creates an unforgettable portrait of that type of evil in Bleak House. Harold Skimpole plays the role of the helpless infant who must depend on others because he just can't be responsible. Jarndyce acts generously with him because he sees him as helpless. But Dickens points out that the pose of helplessness itself is manipulative, and Skimpole is quite capable when it comes to scheming. In real life, too, I've found that people who put on the act of being too overwhelmed to remember that they have to get back to you and so cause inconvenience or even serious loss are not truly good at heart but devoid of heart like Skimpole.

To move to the world of nonfiction, in one of his books, M. Scott Peck identifies which of his clients are evil. One of them is a young woman whose preference is to keep driving when her car's gas gauge shows empty. She considers it a game to see how far she could go.But when she really runs out of gas, the burden of getting her mobile again falls on others. While Peck recounts the bad taste of gas in his mouth -- for he had to get the gas out of his own car by first sucking on a tube, he realizes that he is serving someone who is not merely careless but evil, for she demonstrates no concern for the consequences her choices inflict on others.

That's why the title is "It's Easy to be Evil." This is the form of evil that doesn't require the genius type of villain who hatches an elaborate plot to take over the world. That really is limited to the realm of thrillers. In real life, most evil is the result of just taking it easy -- ignoring the warning signs, the fact that someone is waiting for your call back or return email,   doing what you feel like doing at the moment rather than what you should be doing.

It is the type of behavior that makes managers just leave the report you submitted on time untouched for days or weeks and then expect you to turn in a new draft the day they finally bother to say they want changes.  This is the type of behavior that makes the bus driver come late every morning, keeping other people waiting and anxious. They're the ones who have no compunctions about letting down the people who are counting on them.  As a consequence of their neglect, the person who is committed to responsibility ends up looking bad and may even end up losing the job due to the fact that the person they are forced to rely on just couldn't be bothered.  That's the ultimate evil -- causing others to suffer for your own neglect.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Open a book and open up a subject

I checked out The Uncommon Reader, a novella by Alan Bennett published in 2007 in part because the title echoed the title of this blog. If you like to read for plot, then this is not a book for you.  There is not much action. However, it does have some nice observations on reading.
On pp. 21-22:
"briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up."
On  p. 34
 "A book is a device to ignite the imagination."

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Perspectives on creativity

Update:  Jonah Lehrer admitted he fabricated Dylan quotes for his book, see

I recently finished reading Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works. (New York: Houghton Mifflin 2012).  The book includes numerous anecdotes that are presented as proof that creativity does register on the brain (that's our scientific part) and that people get inspired from other people. OK, I simplified a bit but really just a bit. While he does give a nod to  people who get their "best ideas" in the shower or on solitary walks or in lonely and melancholy contemplation, the thrust of the book is that creativity is largely collaborative, something that is quite the opposite of the argument Susan Cain makes.

In a letter to Helen Keller, Mark Twain asserted:
The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of allhuman utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.
Lehrer doesn't quote the letter, though he maintain a similar stance: "The most creative ideas, it turns out, don't occur when we're alone. Rather, they emerge from out social circles, from collections of acquaintances who inspire novel thoughts. Sometimes the most important people in life are the people we barely know" (204.) 

Several posts back  I quoted from  Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking Cain  suggests that solitude is necessary for great achievement.  She quotes the following from  Steve Wozniak's memoir iWoz (pp. 73-74):

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me – they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

Lehrer also references Steve Wozniak's memoir, but he spins his inventiveness completely differently, saying "the innovations of the first Apple computers depended entirely on this Homebrew culture" (p. 197). That is the "horizontal interactions" that took place in the  club made up of like-minded engineers who swapped ideas in "friendly collaborations."

Cain had mentioned the club, but said that Wozniak saw the creativity itself that only works independently. Lehrer uses the exact same example to try to prove the opposite. That the two writers diverge in this way is important to note because some articles lumped them together because they both pointed to the fact that brainstorming doesn't work. However, Cain would say that is because one head is better than several, while Lehrer maintains a group does enhance creativity. His explanation for the failure of brainstorming is that the ban on criticizing any ideas is what makes it ineffective (160-161).

He then elaborates:
 the reason criticism leads to more new ideas is that it encourages us to fully engag with the work of others. We think about their concepts because we want to improve them; it's the imperfection that leads us to really listen. (And isn't that the point of a group? If we're not here to make one another better , then why are we here?) (161)
Cain's answer to that is that groups themselves inhibit creativity and simply allow the loudest person to assume leadership and direction. In fact, she did say so in her depiction of the failure of group work in classrooms. The introverts are utterly silenced and the outgoing kids just take over. There is no possibility of thoughtful criticism because the first one to assert something confidently gets everyone to follow suit. Now, I'm not saying it always is that way, but many group dynamics do have a leader and followers rather than equal contributions from all.

Lehrer touches on one of the problems inherent in collaboration; the fact that people tend to gravitate to friends. That is what Brian Uzzi, a sociologist, points out in identifying why so many Broadway shows flopped in the 1920s: "'the shows were too full of repeat relationships, and that stifled creativity." (142).The ideal mixture for success is made up a group of people who are not too familiar with each other, so that they have different ideas and will not just second everything their pals suggest.Being too comfortable, as one is when surrounded by friends, does not result in the best work.

Side note: what's fit to print and what is not has definitely been redefined. In my review of Orwell's Down and Out, I noted that the book includes an analysis of swear words in which not a single one other than "bloody" is spelled out. In contrast, Lehrer's book includes a number of quotes that include swear words that are not allowed to be pronounced on television. In fact, most books written in the 21st century seem to include them, whereas really old books, like Twain's letter quoted above, didn't even finish out mild swear words: Just before he ends off, Twain writes:
Oh, dam—
But you finish it, dear, I am running short of vocabulary today.

Related posts: 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Any other plain Janes?

Among Charlotte Bronte's claim to fame is her success in going against the grain of beautiful heroines. While her juvenilia did feature the standard beautiful type, in her two most popular novels, Jane Eyre and Villette, (The Professor also features a small and plain heroine, though she is not the central character of the book and is not as well delineated as her later heroines) her heroines fascinate based on what's inside rather than what's outside. They proved her capable of what she promised her sisters, " I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours." 

I was thinking about this now because it seems to me that literature (and films or television adaptions) are still peopled by beautiful heroines. If the girl was born plain, all she has to do is get the right dress, hair style, and makeup (perhaps also eyebrow shaping) to appear as the beauty she was meant to be.  Typically the one who appears mousy just sheds her glasses, shakes out her hair and gets the right dress to get noticed. 

In contrast, Jane Eyre resists that convention of the ugly duckling blossoming into a swan. When Rochester attempts to buy her gorgeous gowns and jewels, she does not feel the elation that girls typically exhibit when donning such lovely things. Instead, she feels her cheeks burn.  

There is also an interesting take on dressing up in  for Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette.  Normally, she dresses in shadowy colors and stays in the background, but on one night she dares to wear pink and spots herself in the mirror as if she had come upon a stranger. But the dress (italicized for the central role it plays in so many Cinderella type stories) does not win her the attention of the man she adores who is smitten by a superficial beauty until he turns his attention to another whose beauty is less showy but is still distinguished from the plainness of the heroine. 

I'm wondering: do any other novel achieve a heroine who does manage to captivate someone in a romantic sense even though she remains  plain? 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Perspectives on Introversion (this is a long post)

Within the space of a number of weeks, I read three books on introverts. I started with most recent and most publicized within that category: Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't StopTalking(2012) 
Unlike the authors of the other two books, Susan Cain is not a psychologist. She actually started out as a Wall Street lawyer, recognized her own ability to negotiate based on introverted traits and became a consultant and writer. Her book reflects some careful research and interviews with some insight based on her own experience.  

The pieces of the book may have functioned as separate articles. She talks about quiet strength in heroic figures like Gandhi and Rosa Parks – who partnered with the more extroverted Martin Luther King, Jr.  She runs through the problem for introverts at school who are utterly silenced by the dynamics set into play by group divisions and work places that  that torture introverts with open plans. She also looks at the contrast between Asian (quiet, introverted) culture and American (louder, extroverted) culture and how those caught between two worlds cope.  

While Cain is generally very positive about introvert traits, the book does include sections on faking it as an extrovert, which she calls “self-monitoring.”  It becomes necessary for any introvert whose life’s passion includes the necessity of interacting with groups of people, whether it is a professor who must deliver lectures or an author who must promote her book.

The second book I read on the topic was The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World by Marti Olsen Laney (2002).  I found this one seriously annoying at times. The fact that the author insists on referring to introverts as “innies” made me want to take Dorothy Parker’s advice about a certain novel and throw it with great force. However, I refrained from doing so because it was a library book and I was resolved to follow through on reading, for persistence is one of the great introvert traits.

Laney’s book is just loaded with advice, much of which is not particular to introverts – like pack sunscreen, drink water (add some lemon juice to pick yourself up) and dress in layers to assure comfort. She justifies the inclusion of such by saying that introverts tend to have sensitive skin and also may be more sensitive to temperature changes with a tendency to be cold. Well, I do slather on the sunscreen but not because of any introvert traits. Such practical but somewhat irrelevant advice is a minor annoyance, as far as this book goes.

 What is more problematic is the way she constructs an introvert. She stresses that introverts are set in a “throttle-down” mode which makes it take longer for them to process information and more stimulant-averse. That may be true, but really I have not found that being an introvert makes me any slower than other people. In fact, I move pretty quickly and efficiently. 

 The thing that most bothers me about Laney is that her book title is completely misleading.  The way introverts come off, poor, delicate, slow creatures who are easily overwhelmed, they really have no advantage. In fact, in order to survive they simply must learn how to act and talk like an extrovert. Laney includes party presentation advice. The lowest point for me in the book is when she offers suggestions to make small talk that include gems like “Isn’t the food delicious?” and “Isn’t this a lovely home?” Yup, that’s just what introverts despise – empty conversation just to fill in the silence.  If you have to resort to such stratagems, you may want to consider Lincoln’s observation, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”  

In contrast to Laney's approach, Laurie Helgoe’s book, IntrovertPower: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength (Sourcebooks 2008)   is the ultimate introvert manifesto. It pretty much say, “We make up at least half the world’s population; we have the right to be ourselves and not conform to any other standard.” She spends quite a bit of time debunking the perception that introverts make up only 1/3 of the world and so are overwhelmed by the majority made up of extroverts. She points to flaws in statistics and identification to make the case for over 50% of people qualifying as introverts.  Cain does touch on the perception of numbers but does not make the larger number central to her approach.

 I admit I found this book a lot more fun to read than Laney’s. It also flowed rather more organically than Cain’s. She does touch on Japanese culture, as Cain did, but in a much more brief and personalized way. The focus of the book nearly always comes back to Helgoe’s assertion of being an unapologetic introvert.  That is someone who does not buy into the argument that she is missing out on the fun that extrovert have: “The Socially Accessible introvert looks like an extrovert on the outside and sees extroversion as a bar that he or she can never quite reach. These individuals are often very successful in social arenas, but fault themselves for not having fun.”  That leads to feelings of “alienation from self” which can result in depression (p 27).  


Her positive spin on introvert traits really resonated with me, like the definition on p. 7: 

being an introvert does not mean you’re antisocial, asocial, or socially inept. It does mean that you are oriented to ideas…. It means that you prefer spacious interactions with fewer people. And it means that, when you converse, you are more interested in sharing ideas than in talking about people and what they’re doing. In a conversation with someone sharing gossip, the introvert’s eyes glaze over and his brow furrows as he tries to comprehend how this conversation could interest anyone.   It is also important to recognize that it’s not just a matter of preference, but of survival:
“For introverts, being ‘talked to death’ is very much like being beaten on the head. … most of us feel drained of life energy. Talk can hurt us, and protecting ourselves from harm is not rude” (133).

 In contrast to Laney’s advice for making conversation in social situations, Helgoe insists that you can be an introvert when interacting at a party: “Be real. If you want real, be real. You don’t have to keep small talk small. You can be polite without selling out. You can acknowledge someone without grinning from ear to ear. Let your depth be evident in your manner, and the people you meet will actually meet you.” (p. 153)

Along the same lines, (on p. 127) she offers ways “to ‘go deep’ with people you find through introvert channels:”
Introduce topics that bore you – i.e, ‘Where do you work?’
Ask questions that can be answered with ‘fine’ – i.e., ‘How are you?’
Ask question you don’t know the answer to – i.e., ‘When did you first know you wanted to teach?’
Ask for personal definitions – i.e., ‘Help me understand. When you say the film was ‘dark’ what does that meant to you?’
Observe. Notice how it’s going. Allow silence. Don’t try too hard.

Helgoe includes the biographical detail that she came from a family of ten children but chose to have only two because of her introverted nature.  While very devoted to her husband and children, she does not feel guilty about taking time – even overnight retreats – for herself. Like Cain, she likes to coffee bars, and will park herself in one for hours. But her preference is to travel out to one not in her neighborhood. In the inverse of the assumption of the “Cheers” theme song, sometimes she wants to go where no one knows her name. She wants to be around people that she can choose to engage with – or not – with no obligation to catch up and converse if she wishes to remain alone in the crows.

The three books touch on the pleasures and perils of mixed marriages, as conflict is inevitable when an introvert is wedded to an extrovert.  Cain offers a nice example of a compromise that does not make either side give in (see the-marriage-of-opposites), while Laney says she and her husband take turns selecting vacation destinations (I noticed that Amazon includes The Introvert and Extrovert in Love: Making It Work When Opposites Attract by Marti Laney PsyD MFT and Michael Laney (2007), though it has only 9 reviews)

All three introvert writers are women married to extroverts. They also all happen to be mothers – with Cain and Helgoe both identifying their children as boys, while Laney is already a grandmother.  So they do have much in common, and the books do, inevitably offer some overlap. However, each has her own take on what is central to the introvert experience. Cain’s is quiet, Laney’s seems to be a slower pace, while Helgoe’s is escape from intrusion.  Now, if I were to come up with my own take on introversion, it would be autonomy – being allowed the space and the independence to do what one wants without having to check with another. 

related posts:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Working alone

Emily Bronte, that author of Wuthering Heights and many poems, was the paradigmatic introvert as artist. She refused to accompany her sisters to London when Charlotte decided that they had to show themselves to prove that Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell were three different writers. Emily never wanted to leave home and had absolutely no craving for society or its adulation. Yet, she had a clear sense of herself as artist, composing without an audience.

 In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking  Susan Cain  suggests that solitude is necessary for great achievement.  She quotes the following from  Steve Wozniak's memoir iWoz (pp. 73-74):

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me – they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

There is a rather Romantic (with the capital R) association with the artist as solitary figure. William Wordsworth certainly cultivated that image with poems that refer to his solitary walks, "I wandered lonely as a cloud," and the like. 

In fact, he was often walking with his sister Dorothy or his friend and fellow-poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but he liked to project the image of the solitary artist alone in nature with his imagination capturing its sublime aspects. He also often reviewed the experience of his wandering by reading the account carefully transcribed in his sister's journal and projecting his solitary poetic presence into that to come up with poems that focus on his singular reaction to what he sees and experiences. So not exactly working on his own.

 The Bronte sisters actually began their expeditions into the world of imagination together with a famous account of naming their brother's toy soldiers and then using those names for the characters who peopled the literary landscape of some heady works.  True, they then went off in their own direction, though they did form their own kind of writing community.  In fact, no literate writer really works completely alone because s/he has the knowledge of the works of poetry and prose that came before. It may not be a conscious collaboration, certainly not the product of deliberate teamwork, but still the product of more than a single mind isolated from others.  

Related post:

The Great Introvert

This past summer, I reread The Great Gatsby. What I recalled from my first reading of this great American novel was that many of its strands are already in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. We have the outcast anti-hero who is desperately in love with a woman who marries another man. Her choice gets her the security of wealth and social position. In the mean time, her first love goes off and amasses a fortune in a some mysterious fashion and takes up residence near her home. Edgar treats Catherine with a lot more respect than Tom treats Daisy, and Heathcliff is a lot less sympathetic as a character than Gatsby.

I can't say, I had a great revelation at the time that I reread Gatsby, though I did mark the way Gatsby has to erase his past, which includes Mr. Gatz, his father, who shows up at the end of the book (rather like Josiah Bounderby's mother who reveals that his own life story is largely is his own creation in Hard Times).

 Now I have a somewhat different perspective on it, after having read Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.  Jay Gatsby who worked his way up assiduously through careful planning and delaying self-gratification exemplifies the profile of an introvert. He remains invisible at the huge parties he hosts, only relates to one person at a time, attempts to create a new persona for himself, and never quite feels at ease in the social circles he attempts to penetrate.  Tom exemplifies the extrovert, supremely confident and outgoing -- so much so that he shows off his mistress to his wife's cousin. In contrast, Gatsby has remained constant to his love for Daisy even years after her marriage to Tom.

The fact that Gatsby still feels connected to Daisy is not a reflection of their deep, spiritual connection, as is the case of Catherine and Heathcliff, but of the introvert's tendencies to form deeper attachments to fewer people. He has latched on to Daisy and then latches on to Nick, the only character in the book who has the ability to appreciate Gatsby for all he is and tries to be. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine's daughter is the one who has that ability and who can assure a brighter future for the next generation, which redeems the sins of the previous one.Thus Bronte's vision proves more optimistic --despite the haunting gloom it is associated with -- than Fitgerald's vision.

Related post:

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Prices rise, but not evenly.

I've notice the rise in prices of groceries and gas in the last several years. But I'm not old enough to know exactly how they compare to decades ago. I got curious about it after seeing a supermarket scene in a movie from the very early 60s. Eggs were advertised at 49 cents. Granted that's cheaper than what they sell for today, but not so much cheaper as one may expect. Eggs are generally priced anywhere between $1.50 and $1.99 a dozen, and I even managed to pick up some on sale for 99 cents this past year -- something that was far more common a few years ago.

It seemed to me, that given the rate of inflation, 49 cents would have been not so cheap back then. I looked up some price on Perhaps the 49 cents was some kind of special because, according to that, the price in the 60s would have been 57 cents, higher than the cost of a gallon of milk, which it puts at 49 cents. Currently, in my area, milk gallon prices range from $3.49-$4.99, with an average of about $4, depending on the store, the brand, and whatever other factors come into play.  That would mean that while milk prices have risen about 10x, the cost of eggs have only risen 3 to 4 times their cost then. Oh, and the cost of gallon of gas was 31 cents, so that has actually gone up more than 10x. Interesting, though, that the postage stamp then was only 4 cents, which would have made it cheaper than a local call in a payphone. A new home is said to cost $16,500.

If you jump ahead a decade to, you find  moderate increases in prices. The stamp now costs 6 cents, still less than call.  The gallon of gas is 36 cents. The dozen eggs are up to 62 cents. But the gallon of milk has more than doubled in price to $1.15.  The median household income is given as $8,734 (no comparable figure appeared for 1960). A house would have proved to be a good investment (as you can't hold milk for 10 years) because the new home price is $26,600.

By the time you get to 1980, home prices would have tripled over the decade to$76,499, though the median income would have only about doubled to $17,710. Other prices are as follows:

Cost of a first-class stamp: $0.15 
Cost of a gallon of regular gas: $1.25 
Cost of a dozen eggs: $0.91 
Cost of a gallon of Milk: $2.16 

The cost of a home would have doubled again by 1990 to  149,800. Other indexes include:

Median Household Income: $29,943.00 
Cost of a first-class stamp: $0.25 
Cost of a gallon of regular gas: $1.16 
Cost of a dozen eggs: $1.00 
Cost of a gallon of Milk: $2.78 

For the rate of inflation applied to British products and prices, see Eggs are a lot more expensive over the Atlantic than they are over here.
How prices have changed in 49 years

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Orwell's Down and Out

Review of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. (Harcourt, 1933). You can read it online at
Warning: this book may change your view of Orwell (who was born Eric Blair in 1903 in India) and will most likely turn you off eating in restaurants. 

This book vividly illustrates Orwell’s first-hand experience of poverty. After running out of money in Paris and pawning what he could, he works as a plongeur, a sort of combination dishwasher and general help behind the scenes in a hotel or restaurant kitchen. That’s where you get the details about how very far from sanitary the conditions are – even at expensive establishments. 

Later on he returns to England on borrowed funds, but his new employer is not yet around, so he is reduced to tramping and staying at prison-like homeless shelters, which he calls casual wards and experienced tramps call a “spike.” He gives a glossary of such terms in chapter 32 and then proceeds to analyze the progression of swear words with contrasts between French and English usage. This is rather amusing in this edition because no word beyond “bloody” gets spelled out. Every other word is signified only by _, so the reader really does not know which word he has in mind when he says “For example, __” (p. 177). Here he also remarks on the surprising fact that “cow” is the worst insult for women in both France and England, despite the fact that “cows are among the most likeable of animals. Evidently a word is an insult simply because it is meant as an insult, without reference to its dictionary meaning; words, especially swear words, being what public opinion chooses to make them” (p. 178). He also notes that an Englishman will desist from swearing in front of a woman, though a Frenchman does not, and French women swear themselves.

Orwell does not just analyze language here, but the attitudes towards the poor. He concludes that the poor are kept down and wrongfully classified as being of a different order than those with more money. He is highly critical of the social policies set up for the homeless in England. He argues that both the French plongeur and the English tramp is cut off from what is considered normal life because he cannot marry. The working man doesn’t have the time or the money with 15 hour days being the norm and wages just adequate to keep him alive with an occasional night out drinking. The tramp, he says, also does not have access to women. He ponders why there are so few women tramps and concludes that a woman is better off because she has the option to attach herself to a man and not suffer as much from poverty. That conclusion astounded me because Orwell constantly refers to prostitutes and includes a story told to him in Paris in which a young man boasted of the pleasure he had in abusing a young woman who was likely sold into the brothel by her parents. Victor Hugo depicted the fall into poverty of such women very well in Les Miserables, but Orwell does not give any thought to their point of view with all his pondering on the wrongs of society and the mistreatment of the poor. 

The book is filled with numerous character sketches and anecdotes. In England, we meet a “screever,” a pavement artist. Though he can earn quite a bit when times are good, he earns nothing from his craft on rainy days, and his life is nothing like the sunny one Dick Van Dyke portrays in the character of Bert in Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins - Bert The Pavement Artist) . In Paris, Orwell teams up with the Russian Boris who recounts the rather funny way he got out of his vow to a saint – and he is a self-declared atheist. There are also characters who tell stories about other people. One involves an elaborate scheme to smuggle cocaine into England from France. When the police come, the ones who have it try to pass it off as face powder, and … well, I won’t give that away. But the mastermind of the scheme and the swindle in the story is a Jew. 

Any time a Jew is mentioned, it is to bring up a bad character. Orwell even quotes a saying in chapter 13: “Trust a snake before a Jew and a Jew before a Greek, but don't trust an Armenian.” And he takes that as absolute truth in connection to a story about being cheated by a man he took to be an Armenian. The pawn broker who cheats his customers is a Jew. And Boris who is reduced to sharing the room of a Jew when he has no money considers himself to have descended to the lowest depths because Russians consider Jews too lowly to spit upon. Orwell also shows his prejudice toward other races. In chapter 22, when he insists on the equality of men of all classes in these terms: “Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear. It is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between rich and poor, as though they were two different races, like Negroes and white men.” He also seems rather appalled to see that blacks are allowed into the same casual houses as white. Though Orwell may be liberal in his view on the working poor and the destitute, they do not extend to women, minorities, or Jews.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Hsieh on Happiness and Zappos' Success is often presented as the paradigm of branding success. In Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, Tony Hsieh, the company's CEO tells the story of  the creation and evolution of the distinctive company culture alongside a bit of his own life story. Of course, the only reason everyone applauds Zappos is because it has turned out to be a success, but it was on the verge of failure many times. Hsieh sank a lot of his own money into keeping it going when he could not find other companies willing to invest  in it. Hsieh does not focus on success as such but on attaining happiness.

 Hsieh's book reminded me of two others. One is Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and the other is Robert Kiyosaki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad.  Hsieh's account of his  parents' expectations for him generally fits the model that Chua presents for Asian culture. The goal was to go to Harvard and then acquire a PhD. Along the way, the child is not only supposed to earn top grades but devote time daily to practicing an instrument Hsieh's out of the box thinking was at work there to foil his parents' musical aspirations by recording himself and replaying previous practice sessions rather than actually practicing during the designated time. He makes it sound like they never caught on.

Despite the stereotyped expectations, though,  Hsieh's parents did allow him to indulge in his passions for business ventures, some of which failed instantly -- like a worm farm -- and some of which actually took off with great success -- like his mail order button business.  In that way, though they may not have taught him the "Rich Dad" lessons, they did let him find out for himself, and that is the education he gains in college -- not from his classes but his various ventures, like the pizza business he sets up.

He does graduate from Harvard and accepts a job at Oracle that pays very well but leaves him very bored. On the side he and and a college friend who also works at Oracle set up what becomes LinkShare, a business that they, ultimately, sell for millions.  Though his parents could not see the sense in leaving a secure position to start something new and risky, (which would be the "Poor Dad" kind of thinking)  in his case the risk paid off very well.  It is the same sort of approach that he carried over in starting other companies and in devoting himself and his personal assets to building up Zappos.

At the end of the book, Hsieh shifts his focus to discussing happiness. He says his goal in writing was "to contribute to a happiness movement to make the world a better place" (p. 239). Now that sounds utterly sappy, but the idea of fostering a certain type of culture is that you create a context in which such statements are acceptable. He also said that Zappos is about delivering happiness to the world" (p. 230). Hsieh believes that happiness can function as an "organizing principle" for businesses. While for an individual, passion and purpose combine to arrive at pleasure, in a business, those two goals combine for profit.  There is something that is undoubtedly appealing in that model, but I do not buy it altogether. There are many businesses that are far more successful than Zappos who developed different models for their own culture of success.

There is also the question of happiness that Hsieh brings up: "Most people go their lives thinking, When I get ___, I will be happy, or When I achieve ___, I will be happy" (p. 231).  There is the low level of happiness that fades as soon as the novelty of having that ___ fades, and one reverts back to a state of looking at what goal to set up next. Hsieh's own story shows that he feels happy while in pursuit of certain goals. When he finds the thrill is gone, he does look for new ventures. Though he has not admitted to getting disenchanted with Zappos, he has taken on a new challenge --trying to turn around a big part of Vegas, around the company headquarters. Perhaps he feels that fits into his stated goal of making the world a happier place in a more substantial way than wowing customers with service in delivering their shoes, accessories, and apparel.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What are little girls made of?

 The full title of Lise Eliot’s book really explains her intent: Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into TroublesomeGaps -- And What We Can Do About It. The way it is structured, she goes through the differences that are “hard-wired” or innate and how the difference set by nature tend to get exaggerated by the nurture effect. Each descriptive section is followed by a prescriptive list of things to do to counteract some of those stereotyped paths that can prove detrimental to both boys and girls.

In her introduction, Eliot asserts that the two sexes do not originate on different planets but on neighboring states: “’Men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.’” The fact is that while “the mean male and female” ranks are not all that far apart, though “it’s only the extremes that make headlines.” Perhaps in the romantic spirit of vive la difference, most of what gets published about men and women highlights points of divergence beginning in childhood or even in the womb.

This book also ends up highlighting differences, though it does point out that some of them are completely due to parental and other response to a baby’s sex. Dress a baby in a pink outfit, and people will comment on how dainty, delicate, and pretty she is. Dress the child in blue, and you will hear altogether different types of comments. Experiments show people respond to the clothes cues rather than the child itself, for they do the same when the clothes are deliberately switched. Parents, of course, have the greatest influence on gender expectations, and already from the time a baby crawls, the boy is expected to be capable of greater challenges in slope than the girl (see pp. 66-67).

However, due to the fact that girls do mature somewhat faster, some parents feel their boys could be at a disadvantage in school with girls who have greater verbal development. Consequently, boys are more often selected by parents to start school later in the practice called redshirting.

In fact, school principals and teachers often promote redshirting for girls, as well, either by advising parents of children near the cut off dates to hold the child back for the sake of better competitive advantage or by forcing the effect on everyone by arbitrarily moving up the cut off date, say from December to mid-October or even September. Despite their claims of expertise, they could be setting people on the wrong track:

Whatever the motives, most research finds the practice of redshirting misguided. Although the older children in a class may have a modest advantage in kindergarten and the first few grades, their academic boost typically fades by later elementary school. There is also some evidence that children who were held back are more vulnerable to risk taking and other emotional and behavioral problems when they reach adolescence of their classmates.

Aside from that, it is possible that their on par performance that is due to being older than their classmates could conceal the fact that they have “true development delays or learning disabilities” that are better addressed earlier than later (144-145).

Eliot does take veer off a bit at times , as she seems to have it in for Leonard Sax.  Sax advocates educating boys and girls in separate schools, a concept that she devotes quite a number of pages to in arguing against it. Though she admits that boys do prove more aggressive and more competitive than girls and that they avoid playing together through most of the elementary school years, she maintains that they should work together in school in the same classrooms. The way she dismisses the records of success for women who have gone to all female schools is by saying that they were atypical – the best and the brightest in their day. Of course, once you start analyzing results in that way, you can dismiss the findings of many studies, including many of the ones Eliot refers to in her own arguments.

My particular greater concern here would be that the book’s premise can be turned on its head by those who would characterize themselves as conservative or “traditional.” Wouldn’t they be able to say that what her prescriptions demand is for people to work against the pink princesses and dolls for girls and superhero and construction toys for boys that they would naturally go for? That is exactly the type of thinking that gave rise to the Lego line “for girl,” which I discussed in a blog post elsewhere.  While I was reading Eliot’s descriptions of how girls play, it sounded to me like a corroboration of (should I say justification?) for Lego’s assessment that girls would not care to build unless they have dolls and accessories and feminine colors to work with.

That brings me to an even more fundamental question is something that Eliot merely touched on but didn’t really explore: the fact that the genders seem to have grown more polarized over the past few decades – just when you would think progress would have narrowed the gap. That is why people are so disappointed in seeing Lego tacitly characterize the standard sets as for boys. The pink bricks and “Friends” sets are supposed to be a godsend for girls who are assumed to otherwise never build once they outgrow the Duplo sets. Even things that were considered gender neutral now have to be labeled as either blue or pink. Based on the advertising and habits of children in the 1980s, people actually did not box boys and girls into such rigid categories as much then as they do now. I would really like to see when and why the road of girlhood started to curve back toward the 1950s .

Thursday, February 16, 2012

GPS, gender, and finding your way

I intend to post my thoughts on the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, and wanted to first provide some background to some earlier looks on gender differences as background. Back in 2005 I published the following piece on the differences between men and women with respect to asking for directions. The fact that many people now have access to GPS either built into their cars or on their mobile devices now allows both men and women to ascertain their route by asking a device rather than another person. However, the gender dynamics are still in effect, particularly in work situations in which women still earn less than men and in which men still hold over 90% of the  top positions.

Note: of related interest:

Why Don’t You Just Ask for Directions?     
Picture this:  You are on your way someplace that takes you through a neighborhood you don’t know.   What you read on your directions does not correspond to the streets you see in front of you.  You realize that you must have made a wrong turn.  What do you do next?  If you are a woman, odds are that you will try to call to someone or pull over in a gas station and ask for directions. But if you are a man, you will pull out a map to attempt to pinpoint your location and figure out how to get back on the road you were supposed to be on.  If you are a male driver accompanied by a woman, you may be pestered by companion as she urges you to ask someone how to go, especially if you had to check the map several times.  After numerous unsuccessful attempts to find the way on your own, you may grudgingly comply.  Who is the sensible one here, the man or the woman?  The answer is not so clear.  While the woman may succeed in getting on the right road faster by asking someone, she may also be given the wrong directions.   The man who tries to find the way himself may not always prevail, but he takes pride in not needing to turn to others for help.
            The stereotype that men never want to ask for directions is one that is well founded.  In her book, Talking from 9 to 5 (New York:  William Morrow and Co., 1994), Dr. Deborah Tannen recounts the story of one man’s refusal to admit he was lost, even when there was a real threat to his life and that of his daughter.   He was flying a private plane that was running out of gas and didn’t know exactly where the landing strip in the area was.  His daughter urgently called out, “’Daddy!  Why don’t you radio the control tower and ask them where to land?’” Of course, she meant that he should do just that but did not want to command her father.  Yet, he answered the question she expressed, saying, “’I don’t want them to think I’m lost’” (Tannen,Talking.25). 
While that is an extreme example, it is telling of the lengths men will go to maintain the appearance of being in control of the situation.  Yes, men do prove more adept at the spatial skills involved in using maps and more inclined to taking stock of their position with respect to compass points than women.  It is also true that women generally identify better with verbal directives than visual-spatial ones.  However, the difference in approach between men and women is not just due to gender differences in skills.   As Tannen explains, men’s refusal to ask directions stems from their concern to maintain their image as capable and independent drivers.  Asking for assistance undermines their status as self-sufficient individuals.   In contrast, women in the same situation prove to be only concerned with getting to their destination.  As women, generally, do not feel they have to prove themselves as navigators, they do not hesitate to seek assistance from others to attain their goal. 
            What is striking about this particular gender division is that it “runs counter” to the usual perception of the difference between “male and female styles.” The stereotyped view is that men are task oriented, “focused on information,” whereas women are more process oriented, and “sensitive” to the effects of their communication (Tannen, Talking 27).  As Audrey Nelson reports in You Don’t Say:  Navigating Nonverbal Communication Between the Sexes (New York:  Prentice Hall, 2004), her survey results indicates that women are perceived to “’have a clear perception of the total picture of communication’” (Nelson 22).   However, that perception is out of the picture when it comes to asking for directions.  Rather than being process oriented and sensitive to the connotations of seeking information from others, they are completely focused on the task of getting to their destination.  In light of that, turning to someone else for information makes sense, for it is an efficient means to the end of getting where you wish to go. In the situation of finding one’s way, “the women who ask questions are more focused on information, whereas the men who refrain from doing so are more focused on interaction – the impression their asking will make on others.   In this situation, it is the men who are more sensitive to the impression made on others by their behavior (Tannen, Talking 28). 
Men recognize that in asking directions that they are putting themselves at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the person who grants them the information.  Tannen explains in  You Just Don’t Understand:  Women and Men in Conversation. (New York:  William Morrow and Co.,1990): “When you offer information, the information itself is the message.  But the fact that you have the information, and the person you are speaking to doesn’t, also sends a metamessage of superiority. . . . the one who has more information is” in a superior position  “by virtue of being more knowledgeable and competent.  From this perspective, finding one’s own way is an essential part of the independence that men perceive to be a prerequisite for self-respect.”  It is always better to give than to receive if the object in question is information because the giver demonstrates his superior status based on the wealth that most valuable commodity of all -- knowledge. “Insofar as giving information frames one as the expert, superior in knowledge, and the other as uninformed, inferior in knowledge, it is a move in the negotiation of status”   (Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand 62, 63).  The one who bestows knowledge has a one-up position over the one who must ask for it.  So if you do not want to enter into the inferior position, you want to be the one telling, not the one asking.  Resolving your logistical confusion through the aid of maps in your own possession rather than other people allows you to show not only mastery of navigational skills, but, more importantly, self-sufficiency.  You do not open the way for another to bestow information upon you and thus keep your status intact. 
While you may think it doesn’t matter how you end up getting back on route, so long as you get there, the male concern for image maintenance is advantageous in situations in which they are in fact being assessed.  The difference in approach between men and women has significant ramifications for the world of work.  As Tannen explains in Talking from 9 to 5, female conversational styles can make them appear less competent than their male coworkers.  Of course, there are the factors of quality of voice and body language conveyed by one’s stance.  Yet, another reason why women sometimes fail to make the favorable impression they need to is that they ask questions, seeking explanations from others.  Some women even ask questions about simple processes that they do in fact understand because they intend the questions as conversational openers, a form of small talk.  What they don’t always realize is their questions may be used against them as evidence of their lack of knowledge.   In contrast, men who are conscious that the questions are perceived to indicate ignorance, tend to refrain from asking.  They can then either look the answer up themselves, or, more dangerously, proceed in real, albeit masked, ignorance just as they may continue down the wrong road without asking directions.  In the world of work, the male strategy is more effective in presenting the right impression of competence.  Self-assurance can yield more rewards than honestly working at getting the right answers.  Ultimately, there is real logic to the apparent madness of not asking directions, and there is a lesson for females to learn from the male method.