naming of parts

Yesterday while thinking of names for my new backup hard drive, I learned the word journal (as well as journey and journalist, and the French cognate jour) is connected to the word diurnal, via the Latin diurnalis (“day”).

Today I learned that the word soccer is from the word association. Football Association became shortened to socca, and then socka, before becoming soccer.Soccer is social.

the lab is a dangerous place

I delivered the following remarks on March 3, 2005, at Bard High School Early College, towards the end of my tenure there as their first Associate Dean of Studies. BHSEC is a public school where graduates receive an associate degree from Bard College along with a high-school Regents Diploma from New York State. Towards the end of the institution’s fourth year of existence, during its second year on the Lower East Side, we formally opened some badly needed laboratories.

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Febuary

I was in second grade when we moved to a small town on the Ohio River, in the second month of 1972. The school was only a couple blocks away, just as when we lived in the South Bronx. But instead of taking an elevator down seven floors, walking along the Grand Concourse, and ascending stone steps up to the school, now we lived in a house, crossed a lightly trafficked road, and strolled into a single-story brick building with windows that admit dazzling sunlight.

Soon after, the teacher called on me to write the day on the blackboard. I wrote Febuary as the name of the month. The teacher said to the class, Can we tell William how to spell February?

This was new. Back in the Montessori, we wouldn’t have pointed out someone else’s mistake while in a group, certainly not with the encouragement of a teacher. We didn’t recite anything together aloud, except to sing.

I remember other moments from that time. I remember my father driving us around and announcing we had driven through the downtown, when downtown for us had meant looking up and seeing the World Trade Center being built. At school I remember being knocked from behind on the playground and having my ski mask pulled off because the older kids were playing a game and then quickly being picked up and receiving an apology, fashioning a triceratops of clay and pencils to battle with Laurie’s tyrannosaurus, removing the staples from weekly assignments sent home and smoothing out the papers so they would look good, pretending to read a simple storybook slowly as we went around the table because everyone else did.

I learned how to spell February.

facing mortality

In 1964, a British television program interviewed a number of seven-year-olds. Every seven years, they return to film the same people.

These individuals are about eight years older than I am. The first film I saw in this series was 28 Up, in the UC Theater in Berkeley when I was a graduate student, and since then I’ve looked forward to every release. 56 Up broadcast in England last May, but it’s appearing in US theaters only starting this week. It’s not showing anytime soon in Pittsburgh, but the Carnegie Library is awesome: they purchased and loan out a Region 1 DVD available only to educational institutions.

I identify most closely with Nick, a professor at the University of Wisconsin. How strange to see Nick and Susie appearing together at age 56; surely their lives would never have crossed but for this. Beginning at 1:17, he reflects:

[T]hey film me doing all this daft stuff… and then they present this tiny little snippet of your life, and it’s like, that’s all there is to me? … The idea of looking at a bunch of people over time, and how they evolve, that was a really nifty idea. It isn’t a picture really of the essence of Nick or Susie, it’s a picture of everyman. It’s how a person, any person, how they change… It’s not an absolute accurate picture of me, but it’s a picture of somebody, and that’s the value of it.

Susie adds:

But then we’re putting ourselves out to be that person.

A few minutes earlier in the film, Nick reflects on his elderly parents not doing well. The film shows him sitting near the graves of  his two paternal grandparents. He smiles at the memories of being with them, then weeps when he recollects his grandmother dying when he was five or six years old.

My children are around that age. One of my father’s brothers died today, R.I.P.

predicting the future

In constructing a time capsule or attempting to communicate with potential extraterrestrial intelligence, there is a fundamental tension between providing the recipients with particular information that they will find interesting, and doing so in a sufficiently general format so that the information can be deciphered and understood in context.

When I teach Meaning Across the Millennia, we listen to audio excerpts from the 1967 Meadow Elementary School (Baldwin, NY) time capsule to discover what children and adults of that time thought might be interesting to the year 2000. One fourth-grader reads news highlights. Because detailed historical records from 1967 remain available to us, what my students actually find interesting is not what the senders thought we in their future would find interesting: the boy’s choices of news items (e.g., the death of Cardinal Spellman, the Six-Day War, a teacher strike), his thick accent, and his vocabulary (e.g., “…Negro boys are soldiers in Vietnam…”).

When we compare the two Westinghouse Time Capsules of the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fairs, we also see there how the selection of items reflects entirely different cultures and expectations of the future. What is interesting is not the explicit messages, but rather the contextual detritus that permeates these time capsules, separated as they are by only a quarter century, and both intended to be opened in the year 6939.

We just can’t tell what the future will find interesting, or what the future will bring. In the first chapter of Old Man’s War, John Scalzi describes issues of Newsweek magazine in a military recruiter’s office of the far future. He published this novel in 2005. Here we are only eight years later, and Newsweek has ceased publishing in print.

encapsulating memories

At the end of last month, resting home from some typically indeterminate winter illness (which of course occurred during vacation), I read John Scalzi’s Redshirts for pleasure. While I was an enormous fan of science fiction in my youth, I rarely read the genre these days. But some review named this among the top SF books of 2012, and the self-referentiality and playfulness appealed to me. I found the novel so enjoyable and insightful that I wrote Scalzi a fan letter (which I haven’t done in decades) and decided to read Old Man’s War, the book which established his reputation.

The first three pages of Old Man’s War address the problem of encapsulating personal memory.

Kathy’s marker has her name (Katherine Rebecca Perry), her dates, and the words: BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER. I read those words over and over every time I visit. I can’t help it; they are four words that so inadequately and so perfectly sum up a life. The phrase tells you nothing about her, about how she met each day or how she worked, about what her interests were or where she liked to travel. You’d never know what her favorite color was, or how she liked to wear her hair, or how she voted, or what her sense of humor was. You’d know nothing about her except that she was loved. And she was. She’d think that was enough.

In this paragraph, Scalzi captures a key problem that a headstone shares with time capsules and with attempted communication with extraterrestrial intelligence: how to capture the essence of a person, or culture, or planet.

Orson Scott Card also addresses similar memorialization issues in his Ender books, most notably in Speaker for the Dead. Card synecdochically explores the problem of comprehending and conveying the nested existences of individuals, species, and civilizations. He lays bare the paradox that we may know least those to whom we are closest, and outlines how opinions can shift over time (as Andrew Wiggin, initially celebrated as hero, becomes reviled as xenocide).