Dynamist Blog

Amazon is More Accurate, But Less Fun

After I was diagnosed with breast cancer, one of my mother's friends called a bookstore to buy her this book. The clerk was puzzled. "The Dr. Seuss Loves Breasts Book?" she said. "I've never heard of that."

Kidney Blogging, Cont'd

Speaking of large churches, one advantage of belonging to a large congregation is that it gives you more potential kidney donors. But, as this story from Seattle illustrates, it's hard for people who need kidneys to ask for donors. Assuming they believe what they preach, more religious congregations should step up and encourage living donors, whether to members or others. As I noted in this USA Today article, "If every Baptist congregation in the country found a donor for one kidney patient, the waiting list would vanish and that's just the Baptists."

I got a nice note from Brenda Lagrimas, the woman to whom Tom Simon donated a kidney:

Hi Virginia! I heard from Tom (Simon) about your recent diagnosis with breast cancer, and I am so sorry to hear about it. Please know that I am sending nothing but positive thoughts your way. I can't begin to know what it's like to be dealing with cancer, but I know what it's like to have to undergo treatments that help you live, but make you feel crappy at the same time. It's not easy, but it's what we have to do. I hope your treatments aren't too horrible, and I hope the medicine does what it needs to do. I wish you the best and you will definitely be in my prayers!

Aside from the sweet sentiments, echoed by many readers (thank you one and all), Brenda makes an important point about dialysis. It is not a cure for kidney disease. It's like having chemotherapy every couple of days every week for the rest of your life.

Virtual Church

PowerPoint sermons and hymn lyrics, giant video screens, and webcast services have become a normal part of worship in many American churches. The WaPost's Virgil Dickson and Catherine Rampell report on the trend and debates over its merits.

"I think God would be pleased with this," said the Rev. Grainger Browning Jr., pastor of the 10,000-member Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington. "I don't think that God would want us to try to evangelize like Jesus did 2,000 years ago."

Or would he? Critics of high-tech churches contend that the big screens, flickering lights and Internet take away from the traditional atmosphere. They also say that some churches are using so much high technology that they look and feel more like entertainment venues than houses of worship.

"I feel like it's too much and it takes over the worship," said the Rev. Dorothy LaPenta, pastor of the 150-member Hope Presbyterian Church in Mitchellville. "People will just be sitting there, their eyes fixated on the screen. They're waiting to be given something instead of participating."

Robert Defazio, 62, a member of her congregation, agrees. "If a minister is worth his salt, he is going to be able to get the message across by what he says, not by what he shows," he said....

"It is a substandard substitute, when you compare it to what God intended," said Michael Hall Sr., pastor of the 125-member New Beginnings Community Ministry Center in Bowie. "How can we break bread? We're not going to have dinner over the computer."

When Protestant reformers stripped Christian ritual of its appeal to all five senses, putting preaching and music at the center of worship, they certainly weren't thinking about digital media. Centuries later, however, the simplified forms of Protestant services are exactly those that transmit easily as bits.

What the Post writers cast as a controversy--and certainly each side think its way is the right way--looks a lot like benign market segmentation. Some people like to worship in a big crowd and to enjoy the many activities possible in a large church. Others want a more intimate setting, where they know all their fellow congregants. The good news is that, unlike 500 years ago, nobody's getting killed over these disagreements about the best form of worship.

On a semi-related historical note, check out Ben Schwarz's fascinating Atlantic review-essay on Eamon Duffy's books on pre-Reformation English worship, The Stripping of the Altars and Marking the Hours.

Back to School (and Soccer) with Spirit of America


Spirit of America is soliciting donations for two back-to-school projects to help kids in Iraq. Operation Back Pack in Western Anbar Province was started by LTC Linda Holloway, an Army reservist and professor at Alabama A&M. As the name suggests, its goal is to provide back packs filed school supplies--25,000 of them.

The second project is also looking for school supplies, but is less focused purely on academics. Here's the request (from the guy in the photo):

My name is Sgt. Zeigler I am the Information Operation NCO for 3rd Battalion 7th Marines. We are trying to develop the city of Ramadi and improve the way of life for its people. So far there, we have had many successful projects and currently are establishing a soccer field for the local neighborhood. I am writing because we don't have a lot of funding for soccer balls and other items the people could use. We are also trying to develop a soccer league but uniforms are not available. The schools in the area are currently being refurbished but school supplies are not accessible for us to hand out to the children. These are only a few of the projects we have but there are many more [and] any assistance that your company can provide would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time.

For more information on the projects, or to donate online, click through the links.

8 Random Facts, with a Kicker at the End

Some time ago, John Witter tagged me with the "8 Random Facts Meme." Although I enjoyed discovering the other blogs he tagged, I won't continue the chain letter by tagging eight other bloggers. Here, however, are some random facts about me:

1) When I was a kid, I read the complete list of Nancy Drew books, which was quite a difficult achievement since the school and public libraries considered Nancy Drew unworthy of inclusion in their collections.
2) I have been to every state except Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and, despite living two hours away for seven years, Oklahoma. When I originally wrote that list, I included Kansas, but then I remembered a jaunt from Kansas City, MO, just to cross the state off the list. (My trip to Kentucky was similarly perfunctory.)
3) The first European country I visited was Sweden. The first countries outside North America I visited were Hong Kong, then under British rule, and Japan, with a stopover in an unpleasant transit lounge in the Taipei airport.
4) My real initials are V.I.P. The I stands for Inman and, no, Bobby Ray is not a relative.
5) Despite my Anglo-Scottish-Polish ancestry, I have beta thalassemia trait, which is supposed to be a characteristic of people from Mediterranean countries.
6) In college, I had several English seminars with David Duchovny and thought that, while he was very smart, his eyes were weirdly far apart.
7) I was the tallest kid in my first grade class and most of my other classes through elementary school. Using a formula from Dr. Spock, my grandparents calculated that I'd be 5'11" when I was grown. I'm 5'5". But I think I'm taller.
8) I have breast cancer and start chemotherapy next Friday. Despite an aggressive type of cancer, my prognosis is good, thanks largely to the monocolonal antibody drug Herceptin. The research behind my specific regimen is described here. Yet another reason I'm extraordinarily happy to be back in L.A.

Warning: Bad Words Ahead

Jesse Walker writes:

My favorite substitutions are in the edited-for-TV version of Repo Man, which I believe was cut by the film's actual writer-director. He decided to replace the original film's swear words with deliberately inane phrases. "Fuck you" became "flip you." "Motherfucker" became "melon farmer." The result was actually funnier than the original movie.

Another reader suggests some s.f. competition for my Battlestar Galactica example:

How about Joss Whedon's "Firefly" show (and "Serenity" movie) in which the swearing is in "Chinese"? It's set in a future where man has left "Earth that was" and taken to space, and Chinese is the chief language in much of the 'verse where men live. The actors admit to making much of it up, but it may have been scripted as "real" Chinese; presumably the TV censors don't speak Mandarin, either. The characters also used what might be corrupted English swear words; "gorram" is a common one.

Finally, my old (actually, oldest--since we were 3) friend, Marjory Morford reminds me that our seventh-grade social studies teacher read Of Mice and Men aloud to his classes, changing all the curse words--someone spotted the crossed-out words in his book--and, I realized years later, substituting "getting drunk" for "going to whores."

More on Swearing

In response to Steve Pinker's comments below, my friend Cosmo Wenman sends this link to a terrific piece on the evolution of swearing by Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. Here's an excerpt:

If you have your characters use historically accurate swear words, they're apt to sound no more offensive than your grandmother in a mild snit. The only way to convey the potency of their oaths is to have them use modern swear-words, even if they're anachronistic....

The words those "Deadwood" characters would actually have used had religious overtones rather than sexual or scatalogical ones. They would have peppered their speech with "goddamn," "Jesus," and particularly "hell," a word that 19th-century Americans were famous for using with a dazzling virtuosity -- "a hell of a drink," "What in hell did that mean?," "hell to pay," "The hell you will," "hell-bent," "Hell, yes," "like a bat out of hell," "hell's bells," and countless others.

Back then, those oaths were strong enough to spawn a whole vocabulary of the substitutes that H. L. Mencken called "denaturized profanities" -- "darn," "doggone," "dadburned," "tarnation," "goldarn," "gee-whiz," "all-fired," and the like. (It's only in the 1920's that you start running into substitutes for "fucking" like "freaking" or "effing" -- another sign that it wasn't used as a swear word before then.) But if you put words like "goldarn" into the mouths of the characters on "Deadwood," they'd all wind up sounding like Yosemite Sam.

Growing up in a nonswearing household, I heard plenty of words like "dadburned" and "dadgum." But it's true they'd sound weird on HBO. In my high school production of Ten Little Indians, the drama teacher substituted liberal use of the shocking Britishism "bloody," which wouldn't shock anybody in South Carolina, for the offensive "damn." Then there are the Shakespearian expletives like "swounds" and "sblood" (short for "God's wounds" and "God's blood), which actually require footnotes. The most ingenious use of dramatic swearwords is, not surprisingly, on Battlestar Galactica, where, in keeping with the idea of a recognizable but different human civilization, the crew uses the all-purpose words frack and fracking, which don't offend any TV censors.

The Importance of Permanence

Jay Rosen has a smart post on the demise of TimesSelect. (His "consent decree" metaphor doesn't quite work, but don't let that stop you from reading.) In keeping with his own strategy for high Google rankings, it's not only thoughtful but brings together other people's insights. Here's a sample:

Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 says NYTimes.com is ahead of other sites in "realizing the value of premium content by opening it up to the web?s link-based economy." When the Times bought About.com it brought an open-to-search mentality into its organization, and it's paying off. (About 80 percent of About's traffic is from search.) Times Select was always in conflict with that.

The reasons why were captured in Simon Waldman's guest post at PressThink, The Importance of Being Permanent. (Jan. 2005) As the director of digtial strategy and development for the Guardian Media Group (UK, but soon to launch in America), he had come to realize that the professional premium is better located there. Etch yourself into the Web as a record of key events. Waldman spoke lines the Times has accepted in its consent decree abandoning "Select."

Permanence is about ensuring you have a real presence on the Net. It is a critical part of having a distinctive identity in an increasingly homogenous landscape. It is about becoming an authority and a point of reference for debate. It is about everything we want and need to be.

Without permanence you slip off the search engines. Without permanence, bold ideas like "news as conversation" fall away, because you're shutting down the conversation before it has barely started. Without permanence, you might be on the web, but you're certainly not part of it.

Now they want to be a part of it. Not a good sign, then, that pay wall logic lives on in the archive policy the Times has adopted after Times-Select. Staci Kramer had this: "Much of the NYT's archives--the past 20 years and the public domain years of 1851-1922--will be opened, Vivian Schiller, SVP and GM of NYTimes.com., told me in an interview earlier today. Some content from 1923-1986 also will be available for free but the primary use of those years will be for e-commerce, Schiller said."

From World War One to the end of the Cold War it makes sense for the Times to charge? Well, I guess they didn't consent to everything. There are still executives at the Times company holding out against the logic of the open Web. For these people it's truly midnight in the cathedral of news. The Times has decided it's better off in the bazaar.

Now if my bosses at The Atlantic would let the magazine out from behind the subscriber wall. Since the site's redesign, Google News doesn't even pick up my columns.

Language and Human Nature

The new issue of Discover features an interesting interview with Steven Pinker about his new book, The Stuff of Thought, and what you can learn about human nature by studying things like how little kids learn verbs. Here's an excerpt:

In your latest book, The Stuff of Thought, you discuss cursing and note that, in America, "the seven words you can't say on television" have to do with sex and excretion. In other parts of the world, other types of words are more powerful, such as ones drawn from religion.

Yes, it's particularly noticeable to someone like me who comes from Quebec, where the worst thing that you can say to someone is "Goddamn chalice." That really brings it home for me. We do have a trace of that in swear words like "hell" and "damn" and "Goddamn," but they've really lost their sting, and it has to be related to the fact that religion has lost its power over many people.

I think the reason that swearing is both so offensive and so attractive is that it is a way to push people's emotional buttons, and especially their negative emotional buttons. Because words soak up emotional connotations and are processed involuntarily by the listener, you can't will yourself not to treat the word in terms of what it means. You can't hear a word and just hear it as raw sound; it always evokes an associated meaning and emotion in the brain. So I think that words give us a little probe into other people's brains. We can press someone's emotional buttons anytime we want.

And there's an additional layer, which would account for the fact that the content of swearing varies across history and from culture to culture. The common denominator is some kind of negative emotion, but the culture and time will determine which negative emotion is commonly provoked, whether it's disgust at bodily secretions, or dread of deities, or repugnance at sexual perversions. The second, additional layer is that you recognize that the other person is evoking — and is intentionally evoking — that negative emotion, and you know that he knows that you know that he is trying to evoke it. That's part of why it offends you. And that's why the choice of word matters, as well as what the word refers to — why "the F word" is obscene, but "copulate" is not, even though they refer to the same thing. But you know when someone uses "copulate," they're referring to copulation, whereas when they use the F word, they are trying to get a rise out of you. So there again you get to the pragmatics as well as the semantics.

Pinker will be speaking at my local Borders, on Westwood Blvd., on October 1 at 7 p.m. A full list of book tour engagements is on his website here.

Ansel Adams's Machine Age Aesthetic

Blake Gopnik's smart WaPost review of the new exhibit at the Corcoran gave me a new perspective on the Adams's work. An excerpt:

They may show nature, but the first thing I see in them is the Great American Automobile. When I look at "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," I see the Pontiac station wagon Adams was driving along Highway 84, at 4:49 p.m. on Nov. 1, 1941, when he caught sight of an old-time Spanish settlement in his rear-view mirror, then screeched to a halt to capture it on film. In the pueblo pictures, I see the fancy Buick that Adams drove 2,400 miles in 1927, speeding him and its wealthy owner from their homes in San Francisco to the Southwest and back. Those magical pictures of Yosemite put before me all the vehicles it took to haul the 200 hikers of the Sierra Club -- the young photographer was an assistant manager for its outings -- to the trailhead.

Of course, none of those cars are visible in Adams's photos. (Or not in most of them, at any rate. More on that below.) But they are a hidden presence that helps give his photos force and builds their meaning. Adams and his images are a product of the glory days of Machine Age America, and they speak about it.

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