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Monday, November 25, 2013

It's a meaningful life

Yesterday I finally read a book that's been on my list, so to speak, for a while: Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.It only took a few hours, as it is a very short and compelling (though not light) read.If you look up the book or Frankl online, you will usually a see one long quote from the book, it's one about how much he thought about his wife.
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife's image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory. 
He also directs a friend to deliver this message:  ‘Listen, Otto, if I don’t get back home to my wife, and if you should see her again, tell her that I talked of her daily, hourly. You remember. Secondly, I have loved her more than anyone. Thirdly, the short time I have been married to her outweighs everything, even all we have been through here.’ ”  As it happens, the message never could get delivered. The NYT obituary reveals that his wife, who was pregnant, had already been killed, a fact that he only alludes to in the book.
 I didn't even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing -- which I have learned well by now. Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved.It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether of not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all ceases somehow to be of importance....
Had I known that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undistubed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. [then he quotes from Song of Songs] " Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death." 
While this sounds very Romantic, Frankl really sees it as a way to keep going rather than clinging to the past. He married again (a Catholic this time) after the war.  

Finding meaning for life in love in this way is very Existential. In a nutshell, Frankl's philosophy and its application to psychology as logotherapy is Friedrich Nietzsche's assertion, “Those who have a why to live, can bear with almost any how.”

That is why he says that some people who had less physical strength survived the concentration camps than those with more -- because they had an inner life to draw on, something to make their suffering meaningful. He does admit, though, that these are not the majority of people, though he posits that any can pull it off attests to human capacity for spiritual (or, if you prefer, mental) dominance over physical conditions. 

However, one brief passage in the book that really struck me was his considering waking up a inmate who was suffering from a nightmare only to think better of it because no nightmare could be worse than their reality in the concentration camp. There is a type of suffering that can become overwhelming, even to the strong. And I do wonder why, as he demonstrates some familiarity with Scriptures, he didn't look at the story of Job. Perhaps he would say that the lesson there was also about finding meaning in suffering. Job could not take the pain when he could see no reason for it.

All this is pretty heavy stuff, but some lessons that he imparts have counterparts in much lighter contexts. Many years before Frankl published his pieces on logotherapy LM Montgomery wrote of one of his solutions. In one of the sequels to Anne of Green Gables (I believe it was Anne of the Island), Anne has a roommate of a rather flighty disposition.  She has difficulty making up her mind until the pastor that she ends up marrying advises her herself at 80 and consider what she would you have been glad she had done.  Frankl offers almost the exact same thing in his therapy for a woman who was suicidal. He has her visual looking back on her life at 80. That's when she realizes that, despite her present despair, her life is rich in meaning. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Public, or it didn't happen

The title is a variation on the "Pictures, or it didn't happen" demand that we sometimes see in comments on posts. The idea is that the visual is necessary to really convince the audience that the account is true. (Why seeing should be believing in the age of Photoshop and CGI is beyond me, but I can visualize things through descriptive texts).

To return to the title, though, it refers to the way some  extroverts see the world -- only things that happen in public really matter. In the introvert universe, though, what transpires in private counts just as much as what happens in public, sometimes even more so.

Lately, there's a trend to make introversion more socially acceptable by stressing that it's not a matter of being anti-social, just of needing to recharge with alone time. However, that really is an overly simplistic reduction. There are real differences between introverted and extroverted perspectives on interaction that extend beyond what one may prefer to do during leisure time to feel revitalized.

I believe that accounts for how extroverts forget about things that are very important to introverts but have no public impact. For example, after I had a baby and couldn't drive for a while, someone nearby promised she would drive my son, along with her own kids, into school. Even though she made the offer on her own and not in response to my request for a favor, she forgot all about it. Another woman I carpooled with for camp just failed to show up on the last day because she decided not to send her kid in then and couldn't even be bothered to let me know by phone.

 I don't think it's just a matter of general forgetfulness but the way extroverts process things require a more public event for them to rank as important. Letting down someone in private just doesn't count. On the other hand, should the introvert skip a party filled with people with no real common interests, well, that's a crime not to be forgiven.

More recently, I've seen this happen again in variations. The extroverts involved would, undoubtedly, claim that they are nice people. But they really have no empathy for the introverted way of thinking -- that which is private also matters, especially when it is a matter of keeping your word and not letting down someone who thought you could be relied on. But in their mind, only what happens in public is important.

Related posts:

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Masterpiece Marketing

The crowd waiting to get in to the Frick on Sunday, November 17th

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Today I visited the Frick Collection to see the special exhibit on view through January 19, 2014,  Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis. (Of course, I also went into the rest of the museum, but as I've there several times before, the real draw for me, as it was for the many people waiting around the whole stretch between 70th and 71st and even round back onto 71st -- in the rain as pictured here.)

The visiting  painting that is the unquestioned star of the special exhibit is  "Girl with a Pearl Earring." Not only does it illustrate all the promotions for the exhibit, but it  given pride of place -- the equivalent of a solo performance -- in the museum. It is the only painting hanging in the oval room. Its special position allows visitors enough room to cluster around it without blocking people's view.

The exhibition details tell a rags to riches story about the painting, both in terms of its restoration and in terms of its valuation. The audio guide, relayed that the star painting was sold for the equivalent of just $7, as relayed here:
The history of the acquisition of the Vermeer has by now become legendary. Des Tombe purchased Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1881 at a sale at the Venduhuis der Notarissen in the Nobelstraat in The Hague for 2 guilders with a 30 cent premium.  ...After Des Tombe’s death on 16 December 1902 (his wife had died the year before and their marriage had remained childless) it turned out that he had secretly bequeathed 12 paintings to the Mauritshuis, including Vermeer’s famous Girl with a Pearl Earring."4(from Quentin Buvelot, "COLLECTING HISTORY: ON DES TOMBE, DONOR OF VERMEER'SGIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING"in the Mauritshuis Bulletin , volume 17, no. 1, March 2004)

 Why should a painting that originally sold for just $7 become such an attraction? The answer is simple.   It is now Vermeer's  best known painting,  thanks to Tracey Chevalier's 1999 novel, which was the basis of a very successful 2003 movie. Now that's an interesting point in terms of marketing value. The Frick is well aware of the film's role in the painting's popularity and so is offering a showing of it on Monday evening, November 18th, with an exhibition viewing to begin at 5:30 and the film at 6.  

 Not to say that the painting is not worth of attention, but I seriously doubt that it would be considered so great a star if not for the attention cast on it by a bestselling book and well-received movie. It's certainly not the only painting by Vermeer to feature a woman in pearl earrings. One of the three Vermeers that the Frick owns is a later work of his, "Mistress and Maid" pictured here.  But no one wrote a book to popularize the story that the painting seems to tell and then went on to dramatize the same in a film, despite the suggestiveness of the woman's expression at being handed a letter by her maid.

It's something to consider: commissioning a book that could turn into a popular film to cast the spotlight on a particular work of art.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wife for sale in literature and real life

I'm currently in the middle of  Jane Austen's England by the husband and wife team of  Roya and Lesley Adkins. It's history made up a mix of documents, letters, and some references to Austen's writings, which is pretty easy to read for nonfiction, though I do sometimes tire of some of the details that seem to be thrown in simply because the documentation for them is on hand.

 While this book refers to a famous author to capture the attention of potential readers,  it ignores another one completely in recounting one way men sought to dissolve marriages without acts of Parliament -- by selling their wives. Though this practice was, in fact, illegal, it happened more than once.

Here's the account on pages. 17-18:

    One way of ending a wretched marriage was for a husband to sell his wife -- regarded as the poor man's divorce. Some sales were by consent of the wife, but at other times they were carried out against her will. Leaving a wife to a public place with a rope tied around her neck and then selling her, like an animal at market, was thought -- wrongly -- to be a legal and binding transaction, transferring the marriage to somebody else. Commentators considered wife-selling a barbaric practice, but it persisted to the late nineteenth century, and John Brand noted: "A remarkable superstition still prevails among the lowest of our Bulgar, that a man may lawfully sell his wife to another, provided he deliver her over with a halter about her neck.It is painful to observe, that instances of this occur frequently in our newspapers."
Two newspaper account of wife sales are cited. The second one also entails the sale of the couple's child in January 1815. It included a copy of the deed of sale:
"I, John Osborn, doth agree to part with my wife, Mary Osboren, and child, to William Sergeant, for the sum of one pound, in consideration of giving up all claim whatever, whereunto I have made my mark as acknowledgement."
What struck me most about these account is that absence of a reference to Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge.  In the novel, some of the guilt that pervades Hardy's work is the realization that the sale does not effectively dissolve the marriage. The shame of it is central to the plot.

In a Victorian Web post on the wife sale in the novel, Hardy's justification for the title character's wife going along with the sale is cited.
It may seem strange to sophisticated minds that a sane young matron could believe in the seriousness of such a transfer; and were there not numerous other instances of the same belief the thing might scarcely be credited. But she was by no means the first or last peasant woman who had religiously adhered to her purchaser, as too many rural records show.
A 1962  Macmillan edition included notes from  editors Andrew A. Orr and Vivian De Sola Pinto that attest to Hardy's having looked into wife sales in newspapers from the early 1800s:
Thomas Hardy had heard of such a case at Portland [not far from Dorchester, on the English Channel], and that it suggested this incident to him. In the "Observer" of March 24, 1833, the following extract from the "Blackburn Gazette" appeared: "Sale of a Wife--A grinder named Calton sold his wife publicly in the market place, Stockport, on Monday week. She was purchased by a shop-mate of the husband for a gallon of beer. The fair one, who had a halter round her neck, seemed quite agreeable."

Keith Wilson cites additional instance in the 1997 Penguin edition (revised in 2003). He observes  that Hardy copied into three such examples into his "Facts from Newspapers, Histories, Biographies, & other chronicles" notebook (now in the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester) One article describes a sale that takes place in the same time period as the sale in the novel:
one of these entries, dated 6 December 1827, is particularly relevant: 'Selling wife. At Buckland, nr. Frome, a labring [sic] man named Charles Pearce sold his wife to a shoemaker named Elton for £5, & delivered her in a halter in the public street. She seemed very willing. Bells rang.' See Christine Winfield, "Factual Sources of Two Episodes in The Mayor of Casterbridge(Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25 [1970], 224-31. (Page 328)
No halter  involved in the sale of The Mayor of Caterbridge.  In fact, the wife throws off her customary meekness in leaving he man who sold her to a complete stranger. She flings her ring off and throws it at him. She also expresses her expectation for a better future for herself and her daughter, having  had "nothing but temper" with her husband.

Related post:

Saturday, October 12, 2013

English literature's 100 greatest novels -- according to the Guardian

I see The Guardian is running a series on "the 100 best novels." Here's its take on Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.  I read it just a couple of years ago or so. It really struck me how Friday really shows greater intelligence than his white master in learning English, while our supposed hero can't even be bothered to learn Friday's real name. Such imperialistic blindness to insist that the burden of learning languages falls on the nonwhite.

Perhaps I'll follow along and offer comments on novels I've read. I have to admit, I never made it through Clarissa, though perhaps I'll push myself to read it in the near future. Gulliver's Travels, I read in college. It has enough incidents to keep  readers amused throughout, though the modern reader would likely find the 18th Century pace too slow. 

Related posts

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ethics and editorials

As a freelancer, I am always happy to hear of offers for writing jobs. Sometimes I decline because either no pay or very low pay is offered. But today I ran into something completely different: an offer to pay for articles I publish elsewhere in the interest of PR. This is how it works:

This type of PR freelance work is very trendy in the digital publishing space and I've noticed a lot of writers unaware of the potential. With your writing and contributing experience with sites like  ___ and others I think we would be a fantastic team. I would pay between $300 - $500 for these sites alone and more for others.
Please check out the project details below: I am currently working with writers in a wide variety of fields and would love to add you to my network. I know that many top websites do not pay their contributors, so I would like to offer this paid freelance work as a way for you to create revenue from your current unpaid or paid contributor jobs.Second half pay refers to the payment you will receive once you publish an article on any given site. This second half process includes things you already do like pitching, taking on assignments, submitting articles to the editor, and publication.For example, if we decided to work on a project for the LA Times:1. You would pitch an idea or take on a story given to you by the editorial team at the LA Times.2. You would come up with an angle for the story organically, and let me know if I have any sources for quotes, reference that would fit into your story.3. If so, I provide assistance in helping gather sources for the story to include in the article.4. You write the story and I pay you for your work ($X for LA TImes).5. You submit to predetermined publisher for publication (i.e. LA Times, etc.) and once published I pay the remaining portion of the payment (i.e. $X for publication).What I get out of it is working with you to create the articles before you publish so I can integrate my clients as sources as they relate to articles you're writing. If you decide a link to my client's site/page is relevant and makes sense within your article; then I will pay you for writing and publishing that articles due to the added exposure you provide to my client. I will also help you with SEO and title, subheading, keyword research for your articles so they rank better in search engines if you decide to collaborate with on any given article.Links are valuable in the online publishing space, so anytime you think one of my client's sites is relevant and would like to use them as a source, we can collaborate and use this payment structure. 

I'm not altogether naive. I know that content does get skewed somewhat by publishers who are sponsored by or who run ads for businesses. Sometimes it is done with more subtlety than others. For example, I spoke with someone whose business is getting paid by individuals and organizations who want to be represented in Wikipedia. The writing is all done to Wiki standards and has to sound objective, but the clients are the ones paying to get it done so that they will have that kind of web presence. 
 I also realize that some business reps are happy to talk to me because they value the exposure they get for free in my articles. However, it never occurred to me to seek payment from the sources of information or from rep of said source. Doing so seems to open up the potential for conflict of interest. Even if the client quotes are perfectly sound, having to take them into account because of the payment rather than because they are the best ones for the article is also a compromise of journalistic integrity.I ran this by someone who has been in the publishing industry a lot longer than I have. While he conceded that it could be construed to be somewhat unethical, he said that it was "not unlike traditional PR, " in which case the contact would pitch client sources directly to an editor, though money would not be offered in that case.  I've had a bit of that before: people wanting to get  what they are doing publicized.  But the reality is that I can only publish approved topics, and not everyone's business interest will fit the context. And I certainly can't adjust the SEO for the pieces that are subject to editorial changes.  Somehow, I don't think the publishers would take to kindly to my taking payment from another party when they already pay me for the writing work.  And that does have the potential to backfire. 

Also I find it questionable from a legal standpoint.If bloggers who receive compensation for their product endorsements are required to disclose that fact, why would it be legal for writers to take money from people who are pushing a particular agenda on another publishing platform without full disclosure?   Even if there are no legal pitfalls, though,  I don't like getting involved in anything that even smacks of underhandedness.

We would work together to craft stories and subjects to post on websites you currently contribute to, while collaborating on: topics, subject matter, sources, links, etc. in each article. Each freelance project involves paying a sum upfront for your time to create the article and the second half once the content is published by you on a site.

Obviously, the assumption here is that freelancers feel underpaid, as many publishers really do offer ridiculously low fees or even no pay at all (as Huffington Post is infamous for)  because the writer is given such wonderful exposure. The boards who do engage in that should now consider the potential downside to having writers who find other ways of making their writing work pay. 

Just as I tell clients who hire me for web content that I won't create testimonials for them, I don't like having to misrepresent a directed piece as an objective one. This is the kind of subtle moral question that George Eliot looks at in Middlemarch. One character lets monetary considerations influence a major decision, and another absolutely refuses to compromise on her moral scruples at the cost of an inheritance. Some of us are just too burdened by integrity to take advantage of all opportunities.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Happiness is

There's a song by this title written by Clark Gesner. It's from the musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" (1967)You can see the full lyrics here  and you can hear it on YouTube:
Let's just jump to the key 2 lines that drive home the point of going through all kinds of different things to describe happiness:
For happiness is anyone and anything at all 
That’s loved by you.
 In other words, happiness is not one-size-fits-all but a function of one's own subjectivity --whatever or whomever one loves. For some people that may be parties and rock concerts, while for others it may be reading a book on a beach and listening to a string quartet. Though one's choice of activity  is more social on an objective scale, that does not mean the individual is experiencing a greater feeling of happiness.
That's because happiness can be found in quiet contentment just as much as it is in outward celebration. Herein lies the problem of declaring who is the happiest of them all.  As researchers rush in where angels fear to tread, psychologist Will Fleeson of Wake Forest University headed an often quoted  2010 study that declared extroverted behavior is correlated with happiness.

The abstract puts it as follows:
In Study 1, participants reported their extraversion and positive affect every 3 hr for 2 weeks. Each participant was happier when acting extraverted than when acting introverted. Study 2's diary methodology replicated the relationship for weekly variations in positive affect. Study 3's experimental methodology replicated the relationship when extraversion was manipulated within a fixed situation. Thus, the relationship between extraversion and positive affect, previously demonstrated between persons, also characterizes the internal, ongoing psychological functioning of individuals and is likely to be explained by something capable of rapid intraindividual variation. Furthermore, traits and states are at least somewhat isomorphic, and acting extraverted may increase well-being. 

Sophia Dembling addressed the problem with the definitions of happiness here in her book The Introvert's Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World. As I suspected from the shortness of the chapters in the book, they are based on previously published blog posts. The one on the happiness study is at

For his research, Fleeson drew on a three-component model of happiness, using just one of the three components: Positive affect. That's the happy other people can see and hear, and it is strongly related to extroversion. The second leg of the stool is life satisfaction, which is more cognitive than emotional: Even if you're not feeling great at the moment, you know your life is pretty good all around. (Introverts have a little bit less of that kind of happiness than extroverts. We think too much, right?)
The third component of happiness is absence of negative affect--not having anxiety, fear, anger, frustration. "And the opposite of that is feeling at peace, at ease," Fleeson explained.
At peace, at ease. Those also sound introvert-ish to me.
So one could argue that introvert happiness here is being described as a sort of negative space. Feeling peaceful is not positive affect, it is the lack of negative affect.....
As she points out, though, the peaceful, calm type of happy is the one that introverts normally prefer to what she describes as "one long Mountain Dew commercial." Even though they do sometimes want to socialize as much as the next person, extended extroverted behavior drains them of energy, which would make them not exactly happy -- even if they are keeping up a socially accepted smile..
Oh, and whether introverts pay a price for behaving like extroverts is research for another day. Fleeson didn't explore the energy cost for introverts behaving extroverted, although he personally understands the need to crawl into a dark room after a stretch of interaction.
But he did say that when he had subjects sit at a table and assigned them to act either introverted or extroverted for ten minutes at a time, the subjects who got most exhausted by the task were extroverts who had to behave introverted.
 Maybe extroversion is a force so strong that suppressing it is exhausting. Or maybe introversion generates energy of its own, so intense it wears extroverts out. 
A note on the book, it does make some excellent observations about introverts, though as it is a short paperback, it is much less thorough than Susan Cain's book. I also found the short chapters too much like blog posts, which, as self-contained pieces sometimes overlap a bit with other chapters in the book -- though it's great for people who like to just read a couple of pages at a time.  Dembling  refers in places to Laurie Helgoe's writing, which I reviewed, along with Cain's and another name in the field of inroversion in Interesting that all these books are written by women. While the other three all identify their husbands as extroverts, Dembling is not altogether clear about that; it sounds like he is also an introvert, though more extroverted than she is.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Jane Austen's heroines: from extroverted Emma to introverted Fanny

If I were to rank Jane Austen’s heroines on a scale of most extroverted to most introverted, Emma Woodhouse would be at one end and Fanny Price on the other. Elizabeth Bennett would be pretty close to Emma, and Anne Elliot would be second to Fanny on the introvert end.  There are errors that result from both extremes, though Jane Austen seems to stack the deck in favor of introverted heroines.

Extroversion leads the heroine to err with nearly disastrous consequences in Emma. Emma is not to occupy herself in solitary pursuits like reading. There are a few references to her constantly writing up reading lists but never getting through the books on them.  She craves company and influence over others. So when her governess leaves to marry, she feels compelled to find a new companion in the person of Harriet Smith. Then she sets out to remake the character and even history of her friend, giving her unrealistic expectations.   Mr. Knightly castigates Emma for her attempt to redirect Harriet’s life, and  Emma concedes at the end that he was right. Emma likely sees the ugly side of extroversion for herself in the patronizing way Mrs. Elton directs Jane Fairfax.  

In Pride and Prejudice, the exchange in which Miss Bingley attempts to label Elizabeth by claiming that all that interest her is reading is very telling. While Elizabeth is a reader, she doesn’t want to be thought of as a boring bluestocking, a role which may be more readily embraced by an introverted character.   Elizabeth is nothing if not vivacious, though the person closest to her is her sister Jane who is her opposite in some way.  Jane is sweet and innocent, in the sense that she fails to suspect others of any motives less pure than her own. In contrast, Elizabeth is witty – sometimes bitingly so – and quick to judge others in a negative light.  Elizabeth is the one who concedes her error. But her friend, Charlotte Lucas, who proves most perceptive, suggests that Jane’s shyness was what made it possible for Mr. Bingley to doubt her genuine affection for him.

Mansfield Park’s heroine, Fanny Price, manages to win her heart’s desire though, even though she is careful to keep her feelings for her cousin to herself. Her introversion is not presented as a sign of weakness but of strength. She is certain of what is correct and will not budge from her refusal to participate in the theatricals even when everyone else gives up on any scruples of morals or modesty.  Fanny is the only one of Austen’s heroines who is presented as being perfect in the sense that she has nothing to improve on in the course of the novel as the extroverted heroines do.

What happens when an introverted heroine lacks that kind of confidence in her moral sense is presented in Persuasion. Like most introverts, Anne Elliot is a good listener, who provides calming comfort to the more highly-strung members of her family. But she comes to realize that too much listening to others is what caused her own loss of happiness when she allowed her friend (a woman who cast herself in the role of Emma) to persuade her to reject Frederick Wentworth.  As the novel ends happily, she does get a second chance, but she does first recognize the error of her former ways. While she is more right about others than extroverted characters prove, she has to learn to assert her own point of view. Ultimately she does, and gains the perfection and perfect happiness allotted to Fanny Price.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Happy (early) birthday, Shakespeare

I was wondering about April 23rd really being Shakespeare's birthday, given the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. I found that addressed at

In fact, we don't have a record of Shakespeare's birth, though we do have one of his christening on April 26, 1564. The assumption is that he was born 3 days before that.  However,  April 23rd of 1564 was a date based on the Julian calendar. What's the effect of the shift to the Gregorian calendar?

The Julian calendar was made up of 365 1/4 days a year. It defined the dates of Europe from the days of Julius Caesar in 45 BCE until 1582, adding up to ten extra days by that time.    Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar, subtracting those ten days with a massive leap forward. So that year the day after October 4th was designated October 15th.

England being England, though, and not considering itself subject to Catholic rule, adhered to the Julian calendar for nearly two more centuries. It only adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. By then an additon day was added on January 1, 1700. A day was also added 100 years later and 100 years after that. However, there was no additional day added in 2000.

According to the calculations of that blog, Shakespeare's April 23rd birthday actually translates into a May 3rd birthday in the Gregorian calendar.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The most memorable part of a book

I usually remember quite a bit from books I've read even years later. Sometimes I may forget the title and start reading a book only to realize I have read it before once I get to a more distinctive section. Then I will only read it again if it really has something going for it. Classic works, on the other hand, I do remember reading and reread deliberately.

It gave me a strange feeling, though, when I realized that the book I read in under 4 hours was one I had read back in my teen years. I remembered absolutely nothing about the plot or even the characters. But I did remember the pearl necklace. In Anna and Her Daughters ( in which the good are rewarded as Wilde's Miss Prism asserts is the meaning of fiction)  the narrator/heroine is given a very valuable pearl necklace to wear from the woman she works for. The woman explains that she had the wrong kind of skin for it, which caused the pearls to get discolored. Locking them up did not improve their conditions either. The young heroine agrees to wear them, and the pearls return to their original luster. The woman then tells her to keep them.

I read this 1958 book many decades after it was published, though quite a few years before Google, so I never looked into the question of curing sick pearls, as they are described in this book.  Even with Google, I haven't been able to find much about it beyond an eHow piece that says dry conditions can cause pearls to turn yellow and that agrees with what the novel claims that pearls need to be worn to retain their luster. There is a comment on that article that gets rather scientific in describing what causes the discoloration and insisting that it can't be reversed:

There is no scientific evidence to back up the claim that wearing pearls will prevent them from turning yellow. Pearls turn yellow because they are made of an unstable substance called aragonite which due to the immutable laws of chemical science will eventually crystalize into calcite which is a more stable structure of calcium carbonate. Both substances are forms of calcium carbonate. Once this has happened the pearls turn yellow and nothing can reverse it. Oils in your skin cannot keep this from occurring, and there is no scientific evidence or even scientific conjecture to back up this idea. ''Drying out''from air tight storage might cause the nacre to peel but drying out does not hasten the process from aragonite to calcite which causes pearls to yellow. That process is hastened by moisture and heat.

The eHow articles that give tips on cleaning pearls also warn not to soak them because they will absorb the moisture and become soft. Sevenson's heroine, though, makes a special trip to the seaside to place the pearls in saltwater, as she has been told that will improve them. And the book that, in combination with her daily wearing, reverses the discoloration altogether.

On this reading, I realized that the author intends the pearls to function as a kind of symbol without having to make it explicit. It still strikes me, though, that the image of the sick pearls being cured by being worn as they should really stuck in my head for a couple of decades when nothing else in the book did. 

Though I do tend to remember whodunit in mysteries, for other novels, concretely rendered images in books are much more memorable than plots. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dating Homer

From Geneticists Estimate Publication Date of  the "Iliad."
Of course, publication is not exactly the term one would use for an oral work, which, as the research shows seemed to have grown out of various other oral traditions that go back another 500 years or so before the "publication" date. Still, the language itself served as the bread crumbs that mark the trail of origins to when the compilation of stories known as the Iliad became set in the form that has been passed down to generations.
"Languages behave just extraordinarily like genes," Pagel said. "It is directly analogous. We tried to document the regularities in linguistic evolution and study Homer's vocabulary as a way of seeing if language evolves the way we think it does. If so, then we should be able to find a date for Homer."

The date they arrived at was 763 BCE, give or take 50 years.

The researchers employed a linguistic tool called the Swadesh word list, put together in the 1940s and 1950s by American linguist Morris Swadesh. The list contains approximately 200 concepts that have words apparently in every language and every culture, Pagel said. These are usually words for body parts, colors, necessary relationships like "father" and "mother."They looked for Swadesh words in the "Iliad" and found 173 of them. Then, they measured how they changed.
 They took the language of the Hittites, a people that existed during the time the war may have been fought, and modern Greek, and traced the changes in the words from Hittite to Homeric to modern. It is precisely how they measure the genetic history of humans, going back and seeing how and when genes alter over time.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Don't tell me what to like or re-post

I'll decide on my own what I like or wish to share.  I find any attempt to divide people into good and bad teams based on their choice to promote the post or not an insult to my intelligence.

When I see a post that includes the words "Like if you ..." or "Share if you ..." the last thing in the world I want to do is like or share. Not only do I not like the suggestion of chain letters inherent in such exhortations, but the posts themselves are often pointless.

For example, one of my Facebook connections put up the following picture post:

Really, this is beyond absurd. Why not then have "Like if you wish AIDs/stroke/dementia/asthma/diabetes/tuberculosis/malaria/
didn't exist." In fact, you can put in "Like if you wish flat tires didn't exist" or "Like if you wish blackouts (especially during Super Bowls) didn't exist."

Another Facebook connection put up the following, including the odd capitalization, shift from noun to adjective in "spousal" and use of "anytime" when "anything" was likely the word intended:

Abuse of anytime is Despicable - Animal , child or spousal

‎In other words, if I don't re-post that chain letter in a jpg, I prove I don't have a heart. Very intelligent way to promote your cause. And just how will  spreading this post help protect any child, spouse, or animal from abuse?

I see examples like these as social media at its worst in terms of equating a share with real care. People believe they are doing something for a worthy cause when, in fact, their actions do nothing to improve the situation. Liking and sharing does not contribute to safety, prevention, or research. It just allows people to show that they  consider themselves sensitive and caring individuals with nothing more than a click.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Big Bow-Wow & a Bit of Ivory

[This blog originally appeared on Big Data Republic in 2013. Unfortunately, all the content has been taken offline] 

Sir Walter Scott contrasted his style of writing with that of Jane Austen: "The big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. "While he characterized his work as large, Jane Austen called her own small, a "little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush."

Seeing themselves as such strong contrasts to each other, they likely would have been very surprised to be coupled together as "the literary equivalent of Homo erectus, or, if you prefer, Adam and Eve. " Using computational power to analyze 3,592 works published between 1780 and 1900, he concluded that Walter Scott and Jane Austen were the two primary influencers of all novelists who came after them in terms of style and theme.  Those are the types of discoveries that Jockers expound upon in his newly published book, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History.

Systematic textual analysis has a history that goes much further back than computers. The first concordance, according to The Word Crunchers dates back about 800 years. It was a most labor-intensive project, taking up the work of 500 friars. A Chaucer concordance took 50 years until it was read for publication in 1927. Computers entered the picture as early as 1951 when "I.B.M. helped create an automated concordance."  Those were the days of punch card programming, so “indexing all of Aquinas took a million man-hours.” It was only complete in 1974.   Ten years later, though, computers could analyze texts effortlessly, as depicted in the reports of a novelist’s favorite word in David Lodge’s novel Small World.    

The proliferation of digitalized books, courtesy of Google books is what makes it possible for computers to now process huge volumes of text from thousands of works.  Matthew Jockers, along with Franco Moretti, founded the Stanford Literary Lab in 2010. The research is done in groups along the lines of scientific investigations with the help of computer.

The approach is critiqued by a Chronicle of Higher Education article as The Humanities Go Google:

Data-diggers are gunning to debunk old claims based on "anecdotal" evidence and answer once-impossible questions about the evolution of ideas, language, and culture. Critics, meanwhile, worry that these stat-happy quants take the human out of the humanities. Novels aren't commodities like bags of flour, they warn. Cranking words from deeply specific texts like grist through a mill is a recipe for lousy research, they say—and a potential disaster for the profession.

It’s not just a matter of traditionalists feeling threatened by computer power. Algorithms that depend on Google books for meta-data tags may reach wrong conclusions.  Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist, is quoted as declaring Google’s tags "a mess," not to be relied on.  Aside from questions of accuracy, there is that of relevance. Researcher have to ask themselves: "What does this tell me that what we can't already do?"

I had the same question when I read the  article on Jockers. Aside from identifying the novel’s trail set by Austen, it points out the supposed revelation that the novels of George Eliot "more closely resemble the patterns of male writers."  Is it altogether surprising that the author of Silly Novels by Lady Novelists who deliberately adopted a masculine pseudonym broke the mold conceived for female writers?  That’s something that any student of Victorian literature should already know.

What this form of research could do that traditional studies do not is unearth the roads not taken by the literary canon. In a New Scientist article on Jockers’ work,  Nicholas Dames, chair of the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia University as seeing the value of this type of research to bring to light the full body of fiction "rather than the small percentage of canonical texts that are usually taken as exemplary." That opens up the consideration of the canon in a larger context, which can lead to questioning the marked trail of influence.   But that will only work if the Google Books data proves comprehensive and reliable enough to accurately represent the literature of the time.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Art reflecting life reflecting art

This week I saw the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for the first time. Among its recent acquisitions is a painting with photographic realism of the exhibit room in which it hangs. It's called Museum Epiphany III, and there's a very good write up of it at Art and Design Report,  and at Artfixdaily, my source for the picture, which is larger than on at the former site.

The woman and girl dressed in white sleeveless dresses echo the statues in drapery and pose with bent elbows and stand out from the rest of the people who are all dressed in dark  clothes more suitable for fall or winter.  At/ you can see a picture of the artist painting this work.

By the way, the people working at this museum  are the friendliest of all art museum staff I've encountered so far, and pictures without flash are allowed unless otherwise noted. Some museums, like the Frick Collection, do not allow any photography, even for sculptures around the fountain. The intent is to protect copyright rather than the artwork. You may be surprised how many art works are copyright protected.

It was explained in a New York Times article about Cameron's switch of paintings from the first to the second release of Titanic.
Artists’ copyright is frequently misunderstood. Even if a painting (or drawing or photograph) has been sold to a collector or a museum, in general, the artist or his heirs retain control of the original image for 70 years after the artist’s death.
Think of a novel. You may own a book, but you don’t own the writer’s words; they remain the intellectual property of the author for a time.
So while MoMA owns the actual canvas of “Les Demoiselles,” the family of Picasso, who died in 1973, still owns the image. And under existing law, the estate will continue to own the copyright until 2043.
If someone wants to reproduce the painting — on a Web site, a calendar, a T-shirt, or in a film — it is the estate that must give its permission, not the museum. That is why, despite the expansion, Google Art Project still does not contain a single Picasso.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

You say blue, and they said ...

I just started reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's latest book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder Among other things, he mentions the fact that Homer never mentions the color blue in his works and refers to Gladstones's theory that the Greeks had no name for that color. Observations of this are in a Radiolab under the title "Why Isn't the Sky Blue?"   It begins as follows:
What is the color of honey, and "faces pale with fear"? If you're Homer--one of the most influential poets in human history--that color is green. And the sea is "wine-dark," just like oxen...though sheep are violet. Which all sounds...well, really off. Producer Tim Howardintroduces us to linguist Guy Deutscher, and the story of William Gladstone (a British Prime Minister back in the 1800s, and a huge Homer-ophile). Gladstone conducted an exhaustive study of every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad. And he found something startling: No blue! 
I confess I did not sit through the 21 minute audio file, but do feel free to do so yourself. Instead, I wondered about whether or not the color blue is mentioned in TaNaCh -- the Bible. To be certain, I looked up the word in a Concordance, and found an absence of the word kachol. (There is a related word in Ezekiel 23:40,  which includes the phrase "kichalta eynecha" [you shadowed your eyes].) But there is no mention of blue as the color itself. Some translations do include the color, but that is because they are using it for the translation of   techeileth, a blue dye derived from a sea creature that gave a distinctive shade to cloth and thread used in the Tabernacle.

Other colors do appear in the Bible, though, most notably, "red," which is mentioned fairly early on, particularly when Esau describes the dish of lentils for which he sells his using the word adom twice.

Curious about whether or not this has been discussed, I did what modern scholars do and turned to Google. Then I found  Joel M Hoffman's response to  What color is the “blue” of the Bible? He also distinguishes between techeileth and the general color blue.
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