Harold Pinter’s speech and the creative arts

Playwright Harold Pinter gave his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy on December 7, 2005. Because he has been operated for throat cancer and is not well, he delivered the televised speech from England. His voice was hoarse and he was in a wheelchair but the speech was riveting. It was a lesson in how to give a great talk with the minimum of motion, and people who are interested in developing good rhetorical skills could learn a lot from him. You see a master of words and pauses and inflection, the trademarks of his success on the stage, use them here to brilliant effect as he stares at the camera, occasionally gestures with one hand, and moves easily between art and politics. Once I started listening to his forty-five minute speech, I was riveted. (You can read the text of his speech or watch it here but I strongly recommend watching it.)
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Taking advantage of people’s poverty

I read in the paper recently of an incident where the wealthy son of industrialist and his friends were about to enter a Los Angeles restaurant. Outside the restaurant was a homeless person and this person offered the homeless person $100 to pour a can of soda over himself. The homeless man did so and the crowd of rich people laughed uproariously at this, paid him, and went on their way.

This story infuriated me, as I am sure it will to most people who hear of it. It seemed that these people were humiliating the man, taking advantage of his poverty for their warped sense of what is amusing.
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Why I blog

I reached a kind of landmark this week with this blog. I have been making entries since January 26th, posting one item each weekday, except for a three-week break in June. As a result I have now posted over 100 entries and consisting of over 100,000 words, longer than either of my two published books.

Why do I blog? Why does anyone blog? The Doonesbury comic strip of Sunday, July 3, 2005 fed into the stereotype of bloggers as self-important losers who cannot get real jobs as writers, and feed their ego by pretending that what they say has influence. The idea behind this kind of disparaging attitude is that if no one is willing to pay you to write, then what you have to say has no value.

Of course, there are a vast number of bloggers out there, with an equally vast number of reasons as to why they blog so any generalization is probably wrong. So I will reflect on why I blog. Some bloggers may share this view, others may have different reasons. So be it.

The first reason is the very fact that because of the blog, I have written the equivalent of a complete book in six months. Writing is not easy, especially starting to write on any given day. Having a blog enforces on me a kind of discipline that would not exist otherwise. Before I started this blog, I would let ideas swirl around in my head, without actually putting them down in concrete form. After awhile, I would forget about them, but be left with this nagging feeling of dissatisfaction that I should have explored the ideas further and written them down.

The second benefit of writing is that it forces you to clarify and sharpen your ideas. It is easy to delude yourself that you understand something when you have the idea only in your mind. Putting those ideas to paper (or screen) has the startling effect of revealing gaps in knowledge and weaknesses of logic and reasoning, thus forcing a re-evaluation of one’s ideas. So writing is not a one-way process from brain to screen/paper. It is a dialectic process. Writing reveals your ideas but also changes the way you think. As the writer E. M. Forster said “How can I know what I am thinking until I see what I say?” This is why writing is such an important part of the educational process and why I am so pleased that the new SAGES program places such emphasis on it.

Another benefit for me is that writing this blog has (I hope) helped me become a better writer, able to spot poor construction and word choice more quickly. Practice is an important part of writing and the blog provides me with that. Given that the blog is public and can (in principle) be read by anyone prevents me from posting careless or shoddy pieces. It forces me to take the time to repeatedly revise and polish, essential skills for writers.

When I started this blog, I had no idea what form it would take. Pretty soon, almost without thinking, it slipped into the form that I am most comfortable with, which is that of a short essay around a single topic each day. I initially feared that I would run out of ideas to write about within a few weeks but this has not happened. In fact what happens is what all writers intuitively know but keep forgetting, which is that the very act of writing acts as a spur for new ideas, new directions to explore.

As I write, new topics keep coming into my mind, which I store away for future use. The ideas swirl around in my head as I am doing other things (like driving and chores), and much of the writing takes place in my mind during those times as well. The well of ideas to write about does not show any signs of going dry, although it does take time to get the items ready for posting, and that is my biggest constraint. Researching those topics so that I go beyond superficial “off the top of my head” comments and have something useful to say about them has been very educational for me.

Since I have imposed on myself the goal of writing an essay for each weekday, this has enabled me to essentially write the first draft (which is the hardest part of writing, for me at least) of many topics that may subsequently become articles (or even books) submitted for publication. If I do decide to expand on some of the blog item for publication, that process should be easier since I have done much of the preliminary research, organization, and writing already.

All these benefits have accrued to me, the writer, and this is no accident. I think most writing benefits the author most, for all the reasons given above. But any writer also hopes that the reader benefits in some way as well, though that is hard for the author to judge.

I remember when I was younger, I wanted to “be a writer” but never actually wrote anything, at least anything worthwhile. Everything I wrote seemed contrived and imitative. I then read a comment by someone who said that there is a big difference between those who want to be writers and those who want to write. The former are just enamored with idea of getting published, of being successful authors and seeing their name in print. The latter feel that they have something to say that they have to get out of their system. I realized then that I belonged to the former class, which I why I had never actually written anything of value. With that realization, I stopped thinking of myself as a writer and did not do any writing other than the minimum required for my work. It is only within the last ten years or so that I feel that I have moved into the latter category, feeling a compulsion to write for its own sake. This blog has given me a regular outlet for that impulse.

I would never have written so much without having this blog. I would recommend that others who feel like they have to write also start their own. Do not worry about whether anyone will read it or whether they will like it. Write because you feel you have something to say. Even if you are the only reader of your own writing, you will have learned a lot from the process.

POST SCRIPT

Paul Krugman is an economist at Princeton University and is a member of the reality-based community. His July 15, 2005 op-ed in the New York Times shows how far politics has moved away from this kind of world and into one in which facts are seen as almost irrelevant.

Thanks to Richard Hake for the following quote by F.M. Cornford, Microcosmographia Academica – Being A Guide for the Young Academic Politician (Bowes & Bowes, Cambridge, 4th ed., 1949 first published in 1908), which might well have been addressed to Krugman and other members of the reality-based community, although it was written over a century ago:

You think (do you not?) that you have only to state a reasonable case, and people must listen to reason and act upon it at once. It is just this conviction that makes you so unpleasant….are you not aware that conviction has never been produced by an appeal to reason which only makes people uncomfortable? If you want to move them, you must address your arguments to prejudice and the political motive….

The reading level of this blog

I came across an interesting website recently. You type in the URL of any site and it comes back immediately with various measures of the site’s readability, including the years of education necessary to understand it, its clarity, and so forth. It also provides comparisons on these indices with various standard media such as newspapers and magazines.

So naturally the first thing that I did was put in this blog’s URL to see how I shaped up. Here is what I got:

Readability Results for http://blog.case.edu/mxs24
Average words per sentence 16.15
Words with 1 Syllable 3,230
Words with 2 Syllables 1,010
Words with 3 Syllables 561
Words with 4 or more Syllables 415
Percentage of word with three or more syllables 18.71%
Average Syllables per Word 1.65

That much was pretty straightforward. The other three numbers were more mysterious:
Gunning Fog Index 13.94
Flesch Reading Ease 51.07
Flesch-Kincaid Grade 10.15

The site helpfully explains that the Fog Index “is a rough measure of how many years of schooling it would take someone to understand the content. The lower the number, the more understandable the content will be to your visitors. Results over seventeen are reported as seventeen, where seventeen is considered post-graduate level.” Looking at the algorithm, it seems to depend entirely on the number of words per sentence and the percentage of words that have three or more syllables.

So it takes about 14 years of education (or up to college sophomore level) for someone to understand the content of my website. So clearly I am not going to get huge market share with my blog.

For comparison, some Fog Index Scores are given for other publications:

6 TV guides, The Bible, Mark Twain
8 Reader’s Digest
8 – 10 Most popular novels
10 Time, Newsweek
11 Wall Street Journal
14 The Times, The Guardian
15 – 20 Academic papers
Over 20 Only government sites can get away with this, because you can’t ignore them.
Over 30 The government is covering something up

Since my Fog Index score is close to 15, it seems like it is hard for me to shake the habits of writing in the style of academic papers even in the more casual setting of a blog.

The Flesch Reading Ease number “rates the text on a 100-point scale. The higher the score, the easier it is to understand the document. Authors are encouraged to aim for a score of approximately 60 to 70.” So I flunk this score pretty badly, it looks like. This algorithm, seems to depend entirely on the number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word.

The Flesch-Kincaid grade level, like the Gunning-Fog index, “is a rough measure of how many years of schooling it would take someone to understand the content. Negative results are reported as zero, and numbers over twelve are reported as twelve.” This seems like the same measure as the Fog Index, but uses average number of syllables per word instead on percentage of words with three syllables or more.

What is one to make of things like this? I find them fun even if I don’t take them too seriously. For one thing, you have to be skeptical of these instant computer-generated analyses of such complex things as writing. While these programs are great at doing numbers, one has to be wary of claims that they can accurately measure things like clarity and reading grade level. They all assume that the number of polysyllabic words and the length of sentences are the only factors, and that the nature of the content is immaterial.

This explains the results for the Bible, which had initially puzzled me. It is ranked together with TV Guide, although surely it is a more difficult book to understand. But it does use short words and sentences. This kind of algorithm also also might explain why the Wall Street Journal, which one might think is less readable than the New York Times, scores at three grades below it.

Suppose I want to become more easily readable. Should I use more words of one syllable? Or shorter sentences? Or both? Or is it the topics that cause the problem? When you write about academic topics, polysyllabic words (two already in this sentence!) creep in without any effort. Can I write about the Copernican Revolution (two more!) and avoid words like heliocentric (another one!)

To become more readable must I switch my focus from history and philosophy of science to Britney Spears? There are some prices that are too high to pay even for increased ease of readability…

Improving the quality of our snap judgments

In a previous post, I mentioned that my Race IAT results indicated that I had no automatic preference for black or white people. This surprised me, frankly. Although I am intellectually committed to thinking of people as equal, I am still subjected to the same kinds of images and stereotypes as everyone else in society so I expected to have at least a small automatic preference for white people. But the section on Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink on ‘priming’ experiments might give an explanation for the null result.

The priming experiments were done by psychologist John Bargh. What he did was give two randomly selected groups of undergraduate students a small test involving words. The results of the word test itself were not relevant. What was relevant was that the first set of students encountered words like “aggressively”, “bold, “rude”, “bother”, etc. in their test while the second set encountered words like “respect”, “considerate”, “patiently”, “polite”, etc.

After they had done the word test, the students were asked to go down the hall to the person running the experiment to get their next assignment. This was the real experiment because it had been arranged to have a confederate blocking the doorway, carrying on an inane and seemingly endless conversation with the experimenter. The experiment was designed to see if the set of students who had been unknowingly ‘primed’ with aggressive words would take longer to interrupt this conversation than those who had been primed with polite words. Bargh expected to see a difference, but expected that difference to be measured in milliseconds. He said “I mean, these are New Yorkers. They aren’t going to just stand there. We thought maybe a few seconds, or a minute at most.”

What he found was that the people primed to be rude eventually interrupted after an average of five minutes, but 82% of the people primed to be polite did not interrupt at all, even after ten minutes which was the cut-off time that had been pre-set for the experiment, thinking that no one would ever wait that long.

What these and other priming experiments suggest is that the kinds of experiences we have carry their effects subconsciously over to the next events, at least for some time.

This may explain my negative result because for some time now I have been studying the achievement gap between black and white students in the US. The more I looked at it, the more I became convinced that the concept of race is biologically indefensible, that it cannot be the cause of the gap, and that the reasons for the gap have to be looked for elsewhere.

Since my book on the subject (***Warning! Shameless plug coming up!***) called The Achievement Gap in US Education: Canaries in the Mine is coming out in May, I have been thinking a lot recently about these ideas and so I was probably ‘primed’ to think that there is no fundamental difference between the races, and hence my null result on the Race IAT test.

This ties in with other research that I quote in my book that deals with the role that teacher expectations of students play in student achievement. Teacher expectations are an important factor but a lot of the efforts to improve teacher expectations of low-achieving students have been along the lines “All children can learn!” sloganeering. But having teachers just saying this or plastering it on school walls may not help much, if they are not convinced of its truth. If people are conscious that they are being primed, then the priming effect disappears.

What is needed is for teachers to improve their overall expectations of students is for them to have opportunities to actually see for themselves traditionally underachieving students excelling. If they can have such experiences, then the inevitable snap judgments they make about students, and which can have an effect on student performance, may be more equitable than they are now.

I have long been in favor of diversity in our educational environments but my reasons were more social, because I felt that we all benefit from learning with, and from, those whose backgrounds and experiences differ from our own. But it seems that there is an added bonus as well. When we have a broader base of experience on which to base our judgments, our snap judgments tend to be better.

POST SCRIPT

The interesting radio program This American Life (which airs locally on WKSU 89.7 on Saturdays at 5:00pm and WCPN 90.3 on Sundays at 11:00am) also recently had an episode that featured the work of John Gottman, who has carefully analyzed the behavior of married couples and is able to ‘thin slice’ very accurately and predict, based on things that the rest of us completely miss, which couples will stay together and which ones will separate. Gottman’s studies were reported on in detail in Gladwell’s book.

To listen to this particular audio clip from the program, go to This American Life, click on “Complete Archive” and then click on the audio symbol for “The Sanctity of Marriage” that appears in the list of 2005 shows, and is dated 4/1.

Snap judgments

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. It deals with how we all make snap judgments about people and things, sometimes within a couple of seconds or less. Gladwell reports on a whole slew of studies that suggest that we have the ability to ‘thin-slice’ events, to make major conclusions from just a narrow window of observations.

I first read about this as applied to teaching in an essay by Gladwell that appeared in the New Yorker (May 29, 2000) where he described research by psychologists Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal who found that by showing observers silent videoclips of teachers in action, the observers (who had never met the teachers before) were able to make judgments of teacher effectiveness that correlated strongly with the evaluations of students who had taken an entire course with that teacher. (Source: Half a Minute: Predicting Teacher Evaluations From Thin Slices of Nonverbal Behavior and Physical Attractiveness, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993, vol. 64, No. 3, 431-441.)
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When good cheeseburgers go bad

We interrupt the regular series of postings on developing a philosophy on the stages of life to talk about far more important things, like what you should do when the people working at the drive-thru don’t get your order right. Why, you call 911, of course. At least, that is what this woman in Orange County supposedly did.

Here is the transcript of the call:

***

Dispatcher: Sheriff’s department, how can I help you?

Woman: Yeah, I’m over here . . . I’m over here at Burger King right here in San Clemente.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: Um, no, not San Clemente; I’m sorry, I live in San Clemente. I’m in Laguna Niguel, I think, that’s where I’m at.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: I’m at a drive-through right now.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: I went . . . I ordered my food three times. They’re mopping the floor inside, and I understand they’re busy . . . they’re not even busy, okay, I’ve been the only car here. I asked them four different times to make me a Western Barbeque Burger. Okay, they keep giving me a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, and cheese, onions, and I said, “I’m not leaving . . .”

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: I want a Western Burger because I just got my kids from Tae Kwon Do, they’re hungry, I’m on my way home, and I live in San Clemente.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: Okay . . . she said, she gave me another hamburger; it’s wrong. I said four times, I said, “I want it to go. Can you go out and park in front?” I said, “No, I want my hamburger right.” So then the . . . the lady came to the manager. She . . . well whoever she is, she came up and she said, um, she said, um, “Do you want your money back?” And I said, “No, I want my hamburger. My kids are hungry and I have to jump on that toll freeway.” I said, “I am not leaving this spot,” and I said, “I will call the police,” because I want my Western Burger done right! Now is that so hard?

Dispatcher: Okay, what exactly is it you want us to do for you?

Woman: I . . . send an officer down here. I . . . I want them to make me . . .

Dispatcher: Ma’am, we’re not gonna go down there and enforce your Western Bacon Cheeseburger.

Woman: What am I supposed to do?

Dispatcher: This is . . . this is between you and the manager. We’re not gonna go and enforce how to make a hamburger; that’s not a criminal issue. There’s . . . there’s nothing criminal there.

Woman: So I just stand here . . . so I just sit here and [block]?

Dispatcher: You . . . you need to calmly and rationally speak to the manager and figure out what to do between you.

Woman: She did come up, and I said, “Can I please have my Western Burger?” She . . . she said, “I’m not dealing with it,” and she walked away. Because they’re mopping the floor, and it’s also the fact that they don’t want to . . . they don’t want to go through there . . . and . . . and . . .

Dispatcher: Ma’am, then I suggest you get your money back and go somewhere else. This is . . . this is not a criminal issue. We can’t go out there and make them make you a cheeseburger the way you want it.

Woman: Well . . . that is . . . that . . . you’re supposed to be here to protect me.

Dispatcher: Well, what are we protecting you from, a wrong cheeseburger?

Woman: No . . .

Dispatcher: Is this like . . . is this a harmful cheeseburger or something? I don’t understand what you want us to do.

Woman: Just come down here. I’m not . . . I’m not leaving.

Dispatcher: No ma’am, I’m not sending the deputies down there over a cheeseburger. You need to go in there and act like an adult and either get your money back or go home.

Woman: She is not acting like an adult herself! I’m sitting here in my car; I just want them to make my kids a . . . a Western Burger.

Dispatcher: Ma’am, this is what I suggest: I suggest you get your money back from the manager and you go on your way home.

Woman: Okay.

Dispatcher: Okay? Bye-bye.

***

I could say that the reason for posting this is because of the light it sheds on what happens when all human interactions are believed to be under the jurisdiction of the law, or some other high-sounding stuff, but the real reason is that I found it to be funny.

Such stories are almost too good to be true, confirming our worst stereotypes of self-absorbed, self-indulgent people giving harassed fast food workers a hard time over trivialities. So I checked to see if it might be an urban legend. The people at Snopes have looked into it and report that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that such a call came in about two years ago. But since the Sheriff’s department did not send a squad car in response, they do not know if this was a genuine caller or some prankster having fun at their expense.

You can listen to the sound file at Snopes, where the transcript reproduced above came from. (I could not open the .wma sound file on my Mac, though.)

Problems with censorship

An amusing news item from the BBC website illustrates a real difficulty with censorship.

*******
A devout Baptist couple who bought a Doris Day DVD from a supermarket were shocked to find a sex film instead.

…….

“It was a pretty raunchy, explicit film, it certainly pulled no punches,” Mr Leigh-Browne said.

“My wife and I were very shocked but we watched it until the end because we couldn’t believe what we were seeing.

“The film became progressively more graphic, there was no plot to it, it was just sex.”

Alan and his wife Anne, 60, a retired teacher, complained to Safeway the next day and all copies of The Pajama Game were removed from the store.

********

What was interesting about this news item was that at the first sign of sex in the film this couple, despite being described as devout Baptists, did not stop watching but kept viewing right through to the end. Although they say they were “very shocked�, they clearly did not feel that they had compromised their souls by seeing this film.

This highlights a practical problem for would-be moralists and censors. In order to keep the world “pure” for the rest of us, they have to believe that they themselves will be uncorrupted by the things they have to view to check for content suitability. But how do we decide a priori who will or won’t be corrupted by this kind of experience? I can understand not allowing children to have free access to certain kinds of material, but how do we choose among adults? I have the feeling that most people, if asked, would say that they can watch such a video without being “harmed”, whether they would freely choose to do so or not.

Also, the news item said the couple complained to Safeway but did not say they actually returned the DVD…

And then there were two (entries)…

Thanks, Vincenzo and Jeremy, for the words of encouragement. I must say the fact that people actually read the blog (and took the trouble to comment) is quite an incentive to post more and post better.

But to follow up on Jeremy’s thought, I have decided that ultimately the blog (for me at least) is going to be a place-holder for those ideas and thoughts that I have to get off my chest but which are not ready for prime-time (i.e., publication as a book or articles). I am sure we all have such ideas. triggered by events in our lives, that occupy our thoughts for awhile and may even obsess about briefly, but which slowly disappear from our consciousness. I alwasy regret losing that initial flame of passion and concern. Just writing it down in a personal journal seemed a little pointless to me. The blog might be the place for them. Jeremy is right – we cannot predict what others might find interesting. Trying to do so is a good strategy for getting published but it does distort the message. The blog alows you to just say what you think and see what happens. (Thanks for the bloglinescom tip!)

I see that Vincenzo is using his blog to supplement his lectures. I use the web in my own courses but I used to use the Physics department’s own website template and now use Blackboard to create a course website. I am wondering about the possible advantages of using the blog over Blackboard. Vincenzo, why did you choose this method?

A final practical question. When I wanted to reply to Vincenzo and Jeremy, clicking on jms8 took me to Jeremy’s blog but vincenzo.liberatore did not work. It also seemed like to send private replies to people who comment on my blog, I need to use my normal mail utility and insert their addresses by hand. Is that how it works or is there something more streamlined that I am not seeing?

I am posting this publicly but will send copies privately as well.

My own blog!

Well, here we go into the (by now) fairly well charted waters of blogdom. While I regularly read quite a few blogs written by other people, the thought of starting my own was rather forbidding for several reasons.

The first was the sheer time and effort involved to keep posting fresh entries that might draw readers.

The second was that some of the best blogs I read were by people who seemed to either have sources of information that were not readily accessible to me (such as Josh Marshall) or who had the time (like Atrios) to scour the web for interesting nuggets that were missed or ignored by the mainstream media or wrote so wittily and cleverly (like James Wolcott) that my entries would be lame by comparison.

The third was that although I have many interests and have opinions on them, there are clearly people who have deeper knowledge in each of the areas that I am interested in. So what could I contribute that could not be found anywhere else?

Well, I figure the only way to find out is to venture in and see where it all goes. So this entry is the equivalent of slowly dipping my toes in the water. Hmm, not bad so far…