Live Long

Maybe you went through it too.  In your teenage years the fascination began.  Before you knew it, you had a stack of them tucked away, each well-thumbed and ogled over.  Guinness Books of World Records, I mean, of course.  We’re captivated by extremes.  While working on a fictional story the other day, I started wondering about longevity claims.  The Good Book suggests that once upon a time a century was the equivalent of becoming a teenager, and people were acting like teenagers well into their eighth or ninth centuries.  Modern scientific analysis provides an alternative narrative, putting upper limits at 120, with only one verified, and disputed, case putting someone over it.  Curious, I looked at Wikipedia.  Two pages (at least) address the issue, one on human longevity tout court and another on verified claims.  Since the lists include home nations, I began to notice a pattern.

The verified records tend to feature the United States, Japan, Canada, and Europe.  The unverified Russia, Latin America, and Western Asia.  This disparity struck me as perhaps a bias concerning the source of reliable information.  Not only affecting longevity reports, concerns about reliable data impact all our sources of information.  I’ve written about internet resources before, but here I’m mainly worried about the bias of “first world” records as opposed to the records of less developed countries.  Not only that, but in the case of longevity claims, those born in outlying areas—beyond the reach of official government recorders—are suspect when compared to those kept by city dwellers.  We tend to trust our own kind, especially when it comes to extreme claims.

Like John Mellencamp, I was born in a small town.  Official records, comfortably handwritten, indicate when and where that happened, to the nearest day.  (Birth is a process, of course, and doesn’t always obey conventional human time-marking practices.  Organic events are often that way.)  The fact of the existence of other people indicates that they too have been through this in some form.  The event was marked in the way of local custom.  It’s locally true.  I knew a doctor trained in Sweden.  She couldn’t practice medicine in the United States for fear of what boils down to competing forms of belief.  Xenophobia in medical practice extends to other areas of human knowledge as well.  We are taught to trust the information given by our own authorities, but not those of other cultures.  I’m suppose to accept that without question, but I wasn’t born yesterday.

Getting Medieval

Who doesn’t have a devil of a time keeping up with technology? My day is divided in almost Manichaean terms between having internet access and not. Once I climb on that New Jersey Transit bus—they don’t have restrooms, let alone wifi—I enter radio silence for God knows how long. Once safely ensconced at work, I once again have the net but I can only use it for work. The even longer commute home spells the end to internet access for the day, since supper and sleep await at the other end of the line. So when websites change in the course of a day or two, it’s difficult to keep up. The other day, for instance, I noticed on Wikipedia, in an article about the Devil, that the dark lord has a coat of arms. “That,” I thought, “would make an interesting blog post.”

That idea, like most of mine these days, had to be put on hold until after work. And between after work and getting ready for work again, the delay lasted a week. Maybe two. Then I went back to the page and the reference was gone. I can still remember that the coat of arms had three frogs on it—somewhat unfairly to amphibians, I felt—and I even recall precisely where on the page it was. When I finally had time to look it up, it was no longer there. Cached pages used to be easy to find, but who has time any more? There’s a reason that people of my generation still prefer print books. Yes, there are times when it’s difficult to remember where you read something, but at least the reference is still there when you open the cover again. It hasn’t vanished in a pique of editing enthusiasm. The strangeness of it all was worthy of comment—a coat of arms was a sign of medieval prestige. There’s no doubt that the Devil had his day in the Middle Ages.

I hear about people being bored in retirement. I’m so busy, though, that I’m going to have to request a desk in the afterlife. Not that retirement’s anywhere within sight, but I have so many projects going that I don’t know when I’ll ever have time to finish them all. Even a holiday weekend’s too short to make much of a dent. I don’t need another technologically driven mystery to occupy any more of my waking hours. Looking for a Wikipedia factoid that was deleted doesn’t make it any easier. They say the Devil’s in the details, but that presumes you can find the details where you left them. And if you happen find the reference, can you please also keep an eye out for my car keys?

Nobody’s Business

Working in academic publishing some insights are available that academics typically miss. For example, it isn’t unusual for a professor to ask why royalties aren’t higher on ebooks because “they don’t cost the press anything.” Ah, my poor, simple academics! If only life were so kind. Ebooks don’t require any ink, paper, or binding. They require a whole lot more than that. Ebooks require publishers to hire entire new divisions to oversee the complicated, technical, and swiftly-changing business of having ebooks in the format that they can be accessed by various reader platforms. Think of it this way: instead of buying materials, publishers have to enter an entirely new business area to sell what they always sold without it before. Now let’s twist the letter-opener just a bit more. Ebooks have exploded exponentially. Anyone with an Amazon account can be an author. Who buys academic books? University libraries. How to libraries decide what to buy? Well, let’s just say “it’s complicated.”

Now let’s go a bit deeper. Have you noticed that instead of fewer presses there are more and more of them? Stop and think about this. Universities have been churning out more and more doctorates for a system that has had a shrinking number of positions for at least the last three decades. Yes, someone’s entire academic career could have been spent in a vanishing profession and they never noticed. There are no jobs out there, my dear professors. Why do you continue to churn out graduate students? The student knows that s/he will be expected to publish. A lot. Librarians, whose jobs have gotten a whole lot more complicated, face budgets that have been simplified. That is to say, administrators say “Ebooks cost less, so libraries need less money. Besides, there’s Wikipedia.” A doctoral dissertation on a single word in a single verse on a single book in the Bible is not likely to get noticed in such a situation.

The fact is society is hungry for new knowledge. It just doesn’t want to pay for it. That’s the illusion cast by the internet: knowledge should be free. Tenured professors, however, don’t come cheap. Just ask the professional adjunct living out of his car and eating Ramen noodles heated up with the cigarette lighter. We don’t think about her, however, because she’s not writing books. Society wants an alternative to consumer capitalism. It just doesn’t want to pay for it. Presses start up because there is plenty of content out there—all those dissertations you direct—and anybody can make an ebook cheaply. Print-on-demand alone can keep a press in business. The knowledge pours out the facet, goes over the hands and down the drain. Professors, comfortable in their paneled offices, will never complain. You’ve beat the system—congratulations! But I just can’t help you with those ebook royalties. If you’ll excuse me, my noodles are getting cold.

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Growing Green

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I married into a family of singers, and when we gather at a cabin in the woods, singing breaks out. In the drought-tormented northwest, under an extreme fire ban, there was no campfire, but that doesn’t stop the music. Once campfire songs begin, “Green Grow the Rushes, O,” always appears. I’m no singer, but I spent a couple years as a camp counselor, and many years before that as a youth conference attendee in the United Methodist Church. I know the song by heart. Usually it is now a sign for the adult males to sneak back to the cabin rather than endure the twelve repeating verses. Nevertheless, the question invariably comes up: what do the words mean? We have a couple of lists, here and there, explaining the lyrics, but the fact is the origins and meaning of the carol are obscure. It’s origins appear to be England, but the countdown of twelve verses contain imagery that is Christian, Jewish, and pagan. Over time, many of the verses have, like most oral tradition, undergone corruption. In many respects, it is almost biblical.
While it might be fun to run down all the verses and discuss their potential meaning, that is a task best left to a day when I have my computer working again. With limited internet access and an iPhone from which to post, full-scale exegesis is a daunting task. One aspect of the song, in any case, is clear—it is generally accepted to be a Christian catechetical tool. Repetitive and, especially before adulthood, fun, the song rewards those with strong memories for such obscure phrases as “April rainers,” “symbols at your door,” and “bright shiners,” in the proper order. After the song is over the teaching begins.
I have a book of camp songs from my counseling days, and it suggests a hermeneutic key to the song. My wife studied musicology, and she provided a somewhat more authoritative source. Then, of course, there’s Wikipedia. On some of the verses there is a general consensus, but most are open for debate, with some seeming to point to pagan origins. Tied up with the fact that the song is, in some places, connected with Christmas, this blend of Jewish, pagan, and Christian ideas comes as no surprise. The age and origins of the song are unknown, but it features references to Greek deities, Jewish laws, and Christian miracle stories. Musicologists have had a crack at the song, and surely will examine it again. The strangeness of the lyrics suggest a mystery to explore. Some mysteries are still to be found around the campfires of the north woods on a summer’s night.
  

Today’s Truth

I spend a lot of time on Amazon. My job is one of those where it is a legitimate form of research—finding authors, seeing what’s already available on any given topic, checking prices. It’s kind of like those old, heavy tomes, Books in Print. Only lighter and faster. Of course, Amazon also lets anyone become an author. Often I’ll spy a name that I don’t recognize even after years of being in biblical studies. Many of these books are written by someone with a keyboard and an ego, but no real training. Then I came across what is surely a death-knell to civilization: books that are collected and printed articles from Wikipedia. Yes, that’s right—the source your professors told you never to cite is now available in book form. University Press (university-press.org) sounds like a reputable publisher, but as the website explains, this is a place to get Wikipedia articles on related subjects bound in book form. Author not included.

I don’t wish to single out University Press; many individuals and small-time publishers exploit the fact that just about anyone can generate enough words to constitute a “book.” Long before Johannes Gutenberg was an ink-blot in his parents’ eyes, books were hand-written. That was a form of natural selection since most of the populace was illiterate. A thousand pages written by hand are authoritative by any measure. The printing press gave rise to publishers—the gatekeepers of wisdom. The publisher decided whether ideas were worthy of print or not. Of course, I’m a bit of a hypocrite for writing such things, since most of what I’ve published has been declined a time or two before being accepted. In any case, the role of the publisher was to ensure the accuracy and orthodoxy of the book. Thus it was from Gutenberg to Wales.

Wikipedia is the first stop on many a quest for new information. With a high search engine optimization, and a built-in collective corrective, in theory Wikipedia should be mostly accurate. Depending on when you access it. A few years back I was researching a historical individual when I came across a sophomoric comment about said individual’s paternity. Since anyone can edit, I deleted the statement and read on. Still, since that time, doubts have haunted me about the combined wisdom of the human race. To hear politicians tell it, universities are merely liberal propaganda tools and the truth resides in politicians’ mouths only. I shudder at the implications. It used to be on Amazon that I knew the books had been vetted by some kind of expert reader (although they even let such as me work as an editor in the industry). Now each item has to be examined closely. For depending on the day and hour, the great wiki of truth is ever changing.

From Wikipedia, of course.

From Wikipedia, of course.

Horse Sense

In an article in last month’s Federalist, Tom Nichols lamented the death of expertise. Well, not exactly. Expertise is not so much dead as lost in the wash. In the days of internet reality, it is difficult not to feel an expert after half an hour on Wikipedia and with a glance at a few headlines. What concerns Nichols, however, is that those who have done the hard work of going through educational programs and heavy research to learn materials minutely and intimately, are no longer considered any more qualified to speak the truth about their subject than anyone else. The web is full of self-proclaimed experts, and even I was always a little alarmed at student papers that took online resources at face value (I warned students about us bloggers). We have truly entered democracy—intellectual democracy—and it is scarier than anyone might have imagined.

I’m not a snob. I grew up in a blue collar home and I generally trust blue collar people more than my more educated colleagues. In the working class, at least in my experience, if someone intends to harm you there is usually some warning shot fired across your bow. In the world of business and finance the unseen and surgical strike is carried out with far more finesse. Experts can make brutally efficient killers. It was only after years and thousands of dollars I had not yet earned that I could claim to be an expert on ancient religion. From the first day in the classroom (particularly at Nashotah House) I found myself face-to-face with self-acknowledged experts who put up with my instruction only by dint of ecclesiastical command. Being an expert meant I was to be mistrusted. I was the one who might lead astray. The internet was already out there, but it was only lurking in the background. In religion, expertise had been dead long before Jesus showed up on the scene.

The problem with religion is that nobody can have the whole truth. I used to show my students a photograph of the silhouette of a horse against a sunset/sunrise. You can’t tell which way the horse is facing—toward the camera or away. When I asked them which way the beast faced, some would say away, but most said, predictably, towards them. Then I would reveal that not one of us in the room knew the answer. Religion is like that. The photographer who stood near the horse knows, but the person behind the camera may as well be in heaven for all it helps us. I was an expert because I’d spent years learning arcane languages and looking at texts in as close to the original format as we had available. All I had learned is that no one knows the direction that horse is facing. Tom Nichols is right: we face a crisis of expertise. But for me the only source of truth may be found astride a noble steed.

Photo credit: Waugsberg, WikiCommons

Photo credit: Waugsberg, WikiCommons

Meaningless Words

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I’m glad to be back in New York City. It’s a funny place. A walk down the street can be an education. When I saw this shirt the other day, I had a thought—what happens when words lose their meaning? I’ve been fascinated by the concept of “bad words” since I was a kid. Although I never uttered them, I wondered why they were considered bad. That thought gets stretched out a big longer in this instance, to wondering whether overuse destroys the power of the swear. Although most religions claim taboo words are made that way by god(s), some psychologists have suggested that the function of swearing lies precisely in its ability to shock. If so, what happens when the shock wears off? We may need to come up with new words for copulation to take the place of the f-bomb. And it’s not just naughty words that are at risk.

I saw a report a while back that made reference to “Libertarian fundamentalist Jimmy Wales.” Wales is at least the co-, if not sole, founder of Wikipedia. The libertarian label didn’t surprise me, but the fundamentalist part did. Wales is no conservative religious believer. Of all people fundamentalists are the least likely to support a wiki concept where the final version is never nailed down. It would be like reading a Bible where the words keep floating around the pages, shifting combinations, changing meanings. Of course, the concept of words even having meanings is a matter of debate. A colleague of mine used to remind me, “words don’t have meanings, they have usages.” He was technically correct. Even the f-bomb, when uttered in other languages, as sophomorically portrayed in many a movie, has an entirely different usage.

Dictionaries are filled with archaic words. I don’t recall the last time I saw eftsoons in print, or iwis, or maugre. Have they lost their meanings, or just their usages? In any case they live on in written language history. Overuse of a word leads to calls for restraint among literary types, as when the word “awesome” got out of control a few years back. The case for the f-word is somewhat different. When I walk through the streets of the city it is obvious that it is one word that is in no danger of dying out. The gerund, or more properly, adjectival form ending in -ing, is freely interspersed in blasé sentences with complete abandon. For some people it appears to fill the mental pause generally reserved for “uh” or “um.” When it ceases to shock us, it will become just another Howard Stern of the lexical world. And some tee-shirts, I expect, will be available quite cheaply then.