THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 17

Subject:  Virtues – Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues

Event:  Ben Franklin’s birthday, 1706

Today is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), writer, inventor, printer, and founding father.

Franklin was a Renaissance man in every sense of the term.  He aided Jefferson in the drafting of The Declaration of Independence, persuaded the French to aid the rebel colonies in their fight against England, negotiated the peace with England after the war, and helped in the framing of the U. S. Constitution.

Benjamin Franklin National Memorial.jpg
Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, Philadelphia,  Pennsylvania (Wikipedia)

Perhaps Franklin is best known for his writings in Poor Richard’s Almanack, published between 1733 and 1758. Full of proverbs, wit, and advice, Poor Richard’s Almanack made Franklin an eminently quotable figure even though he freely admitted that fewer than 10 percent of the sayings were original.

In his autobiography, which was published in 1791, Franklin recounts one particularly interesting project he undertook when he was only 20 years old.  It was what he called a “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”  

Franklin’s project began first as a writing project, a list of the virtues that he felt were necessary to practice in order to achieve his goal of moral perfection.  As he explains,

I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express’d the extent I gave to its meaning.

The names of virtues, with their precepts, were:

1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Franklin arranged his list of virtues in strategic order from one to thirteen and created a calendar devoted to mastering one virtue each week. Practicing each virtue, he hoped, would lead to making each a habit, and his thirteen-week plan would culminate in his moral perfection (1).

The idea of identifying virtues and practicing virtuous behavior did not begin with Franklin.  Dating back to the fourth century B.C., Plato identified in his Republic the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.  The noun virtue comes from the Latin virtus, which was derived from the Latin vir, meaning “man” (the same root that’s in the word virile).  Thus, the original sense of virtue related to manliness, and the qualities that were associated with men of strong character, such as moral strength, goodness, valor, bravery, and courage (2).

As Plato says in his Republic, youth is a vital time for the forming of character, and the stories that are told to youth should be chosen carefully based on the virtues they teach:

Anything received into the mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What was Franklin’s project, and why did he carry it out?

Challenge – Tale of a Trait:  What is the single most important virtue or commendable trait that a person can practice, and what specific story would you tell to illustrate its importance? Write an argument for the one virtue you would identify as the most important — one of Franklin’s virtues or another of your choice.  Present your case for why this virtue is so important, along with a specific story or anecdote that illustrates the virtue’s benefits.

Sources:

1-Project Gutenberg’s Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, by Benjamin Franklin

2-Online Etymology Dictionary.  “Virtue.”

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 16

Subject: Spotlight Effect – Barry Manilow T-shirt

Event:  Birthday of Thomas Dashiff Gilovich, 1954 

In an old joke attributed to comedian Jerry Seinfeld, it is said that more people fear public speaking than fear death.  This means that at a funeral the majority of people would rather be in the casket than at the podium delivering the eulogy.

While it is true that many people fear public speaking, it’s doubtful that it is a fate worse than death.  What is true, however, is that we all tend to let our imaginations overestimate how much our actions and appearance are noticed by others in public situations.   Proof of this comes from the research of psychologist Thomas Dashiff Gilovich, who was born on January 16, 1954.  

In Gilovich’s best-known study, he had his subjects put on a shirt with a big picture of Barry Manilow on the front.  Gilovich wanted the t-shirt to feature the picture of someone who most subjects would be embarrassed to be associated with.  Manilow, the ‘70s singer known for schmaltzy pop, fit the bill. Telling his subjects that he was conducting a memory study, Gilovich had the t-shirt-clad subjects walk into a room.  As they entered, what they saw was a room full of seated students facing them.  After the subjects left the room, Gilovich asked them to estimate what percentage of the students in the room would remember their t-shirt.  Gilovich also asked the students in the room if they remembered whose face was on the t-shirt.  

The results revealed that the t-shirt-clad subjects grossly overestimated how much they were noticed.  They estimated that just under half of the students would remember the shirt; in reality, fewer than a quarter remembered seeing Manilow’s mug.

Gilovich also conducted the study by having subjects wear t-shirts that were considerably less embarrassing.  Even in these cases, though, the subjects drastically overestimated how many people remembered the shirt.

Gilovich dubbed his discovery the “spotlight effect,” an appropriate name to describe how inaccurate our perception of reality is.  Naturally, since we experience the world from our own first-person point of view, we put ourselves at the center of our own universe — in the spotlight.  This egocentrism distorts reality; the truth is that others are focused much more on themselves than on us (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the spotlight effect, and how did Gilovich’s study show the difference between perception and reality?

Challenge – Spotlight PSA:  Write a public service announcement that informs the audience about the spotlight effect and that persuades them that public speaking is nothing to fear.

Sources:  

1-Gordon, Amie M.  “Have You Fallen Prey to the ‘Spotlight Effect’?Psychology Today 21 November 2013.

January 16: Eponymous Adjective Day

El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha.jpg
Title Page of the First Edition

On this day in 1605, Miguel de Cervantes published Don Quixote. Cervantes’ novel, originally written in Spanish, remains one of the most influential, most reprinted, and most translated books ever written.

The novel’s plot begins with an ordinary man named Alonso Quijano who voraciously reads romantic tales of chivalry. Alonso becomes so obsessed with the stories of knights errant that he decides to become one himself.  Taking the new name Don Quixote de La Mancha, he mounts his horse Rocinante and joins forces with his sidekick Sancho Panza to battle the forces of evil and to defend the weak.

Deluded and clearly insane, Don Quixote attacks windmills, thinking they are hulking giants.  Ordinary inns to Quixote become castles, and peasant girls become beautiful princesses.

Literary critics call Don Quixote the first modern novel, and the critic Harold Bloom argued that only Shakespeare approached the genius of Cervantes’ writing.   William Faulkner read Don Quixote every year, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky proclaimed Don Quixote his favorite literary character (1).

Often when an idea or a style originates from a specific person, that idea or style takes on new meaning, not just as a noun but as an adjective.  There are many examples of these proper nouns that become eponymous adjectives (sometimes called proper adjectives), such as:  Darwinian, Epicurean, or Kafkaesque.  When proper adjectives spring from literature, it’s usually the author’s name that transforms from noun to adjective (as in Orwellian, Shakespearean, or Byronic), but occasionally a character comes along who is so distinct and so unique that the character’s name takes on a more general adjectival meaning.  Cervantes’ Don Quixote is such a character.  Check any dictionary and you will see that the adjective quixotic refers not just to Cervantes’ famous knight, but also to anyone who is “exceedingly idealistic, unrealistic, or impractical.”

Today’s Challenge:  Autobiography of an Adjective

What are some examples of adjectives that derive from the name of a specific person, real or imaginary?  Select one of the eponymous adjectives below and research the etymology of the word, including the biography of the person behind the word.  Then, imagine the person behind the word is telling the story of how he or she became so well known that his or her name became an adjective.  Also, have the person explain the meaning of their adjective as it is used today and also what ideas or styles it embodies? (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Arthurian, Byronic, Chauvinistic, Darwinian, Dickensian, Epicurean, Faustian, Hippocratic, Jeffersonian, Kafkaesque, Leninist, Lutheran, Marxist, Newtonian, Oedipal, Orwellian, Platonic, Pyrrhic, Reaganesque, Sisyphean, Stentorian, Trepsicordian, Victorian, Wilsonian, Zoroastrian

Quotation of the Day:  It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth. –Miguel de Cervantes

1- Bloom, Harold. The Knight in the MirrorThe Guardian. 12 Dec. 2003.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 15

Subject:  Crowdsourcing – Wikipedia

Event:  Wikipedia launched, 2001

On March 13, 2012, The New York Times announced that after 244 years, The Encyclopedia Britannica would no longer produce its print edition.

First published in 1768, the Encyclopedia Britannica became the most recognized and authoritative reference work ever published in English.  Its more than 4,000 contributors included Nobel Prize winners and American presidents.

In the 1950s, The Britannica was sold door-to-door, and many American families invested in the multi-volume repository of knowledge, paying in monthly installments.  The last print edition, produced in 2010, consisted of 32 volumes and weighed 129 pounds. Its price tag was $1,395.

An incomplete sphere made of large, white, jigsaw puzzle pieces. Each puzzle piece contains one glyph from a different writing system, with each glyph written in black.
The Wikipedia wordmark which displays the name Wikipedia, written in all caps. The W and the A are the same height and both are taller than the other letters which are also all the same height.

Although it went out of print in 2012, the true end of the Encyclopedia Britannica began 11 years earlier, on January 15, 2001, when Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched their free, web-based encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Instead of Nobel Prize winners, Wales and Sanger took the counterintuitive approach of inviting the public to write and edit its content.  This approach, commonly known as crowdsourcing, allows Wikipedia to capitalize on the internet’s power to reach a wide number of both writers and readers.  As The New York Times wrote in 2012, 

. . . Wikipedia has moved a long way toward replacing the authority of experts with the wisdom of the crowds. The site is now written and edited by tens of thousands of contributors around the world, and it has been gradually accepted as a largely accurate and comprehensive source, even by many scholars and academics. (1)

Wikipedia’s reputation as a reliable source grew stronger in 2005 when the peer-reviewed journal Nature published a study comparing science articles in The Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.  The scientists comparing the articles discovered no significant difference in the accuracy of the two encyclopedias’ content (2).

As of 2020, Wikipedia features over 6 million articles in English as well as additional content in 285 languages.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  When compared with ‘The Encyclopedia Britannica,’ what made ‘Wikipedia’ such a counterintuitive idea in 2001?

Challenge – My Favorite Wiki Topic:  Of all its millions of articles, what is one Wikipedia article you would recommend?  What are some interesting factoids found in the article?

Sources:

1-Bosman, Julie. “After 244 Years, Encyclopaedia Britannica Stops the PressesThe New York Times 13 March 2012.

2-Giles, Jim.  Internet Encyclopedias Go Head to Head. Nature  14 Dec. 2005.

https://www.nature.com/articles/438900a

Tags:  Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, crowdsourcing

January 15: Snowclone Day

Today we celebrate the birth of the word snowclone, which happened precisely at 10:57 pm on this day in 2004.  The creator of the neologism, or new word, was Glen Whitman, an economics professor at California State University, Northridge. Writing in his blog, Whitman was looking for a snappy term to describe the increasingly popular practice, especially in journalism, of adapting or slightly altering a cliché.  For example, folklore tells us that Eskimos have a large number of words for snow.  This oft-repeated factoid spawns spinoff phrases that fit the following formula:

If Eskimos have N words for snow, X have Y words for Z.

A quick Google search reveals the following snowclones:

If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, fibromyalgics should have them for pain.

If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, the Nicaraguans have a hundred related to the machete.

If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, Floridians should have at least as many for rain now.

If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, we have let bloom a thousand words for fear.

Glen Whitman exudes pride when talking about his lexicographical invention, the bouncing baby “snowclone”:  “If I can claim no other accomplishment when I die, at least I’ll have one neologism to my name!” (1).

The word that was born in a blog is now being cataloged by blogger Erin Stevenson O’Connor at his website snowclones.org.  The following are some of the additional members of the snowclone species which have grown out of a variety of popular culture sources:

In X, no one can hear you Y from the tagline for the movie Alien:  “In Space, no one can hear you scream.”

I’m not an X, but I play one on TV from a 1986 cough syrup commercial:  “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”

X is the new Y from the world of fashion:  “Pink is the new black.”

X and Y and Z, oh my! from The Wizard of Oz movie line:  “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

I X therefore I am from philosopher Rene Descartes’ famous quotation:  “I think, therefore I am.”

This is your brain on X from a famous anti-drug public service announcement:  “This is your brain on drugs.”

My kingdom for a(n) X! from a famous line from Shakespeare’s play Richard III:  “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

Today’s Challenge:  Send in the Snowclones

What familiar proverbs might you adapt into your own snowclones?  Use the proverbs below along with the Snowclone Formulas to generate your own ideas.  Select your best snowclone, using it as the title of a paragraph.  In your paragraph, explain the wisdom behind your snowclone proverb.

Familiar Proverb                                                              

Snowclone Formula

The bigger they are the harder they fall.                   

-The Xer they are the Yer they Z

Actions speak louder than words.                                

-Xs speak louder than Ys

The pen is mightier than the sword.                           

-The X is mightier than the Y.

Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.                         

-Don’t count your X before they are Yed.                                                             

Don’t judge a book by its cover.                                    

-Don’t judge a X by its Y.

Necessity is the mother of invention.                         

-X is the mother of Y.

Too many cooks spoil the broth.                                  

-Too many Xs spoil the Y.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Snowclone: “A multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers” -Geoffre Pullman

1-McFedries, Paul.  Snowclone is the New Cliché.  Spectrum.ieee.org. 1 Feb. 2008. http://spectrum.ieee.org/at-work/education/snowclone-is-the-new-clich.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 14

Subject:  Innovation/Analogy – Bill Klann’s visit to an abattoir

Event:  Henry Ford starts his first assembly line, 1914

In 1909, Henry Ford had a vision to “democratize the automobile.”  This vision began to be realized on January 14, 1914, when Ford’s assembly line began to produce his Model T.  Certainly Ford deserves credit for making the automobile affordable and accessible to the American people; however, there is one man — one of Ford’s employees — who also deserves a large share of the credit.  

In 1907, a machinist named Bill Klann got a job working for the Ford Motor Company.  Previously he had worked for an ice company, a streetcar company, a brewery, and a shipbuilder.  After demonstrating his talents for problem-solving and for building heavy machinery, Khan was tasked with speeding up the production of engines for Ford’s Model T.

In 1913, Klann toured a slaughterhouse in Chicago.  There, he observed the butchering of hogs, cattle, and sheep in the abattoir and was especially captivated by the way that the animal carcasses were transported through the facility on overhead trolleys.  Instead of being butchered in one place, different parts of the carcass were cut off by different butchers as it moved through the facility.  As he watched, Klann had an epiphany:  maybe this process for disassembling animals could be adapted for assembling automobiles.

Klann first applied his idea to assembling just engine components, and it worked so well that soon an assembly line was built for building entire Model T engines.  By January 1914, the entire automobile was produced via the assembly line process.  Before Klann’s idea came to fruition, it took 12 hours to produce a car; now it took just 90 minutes.

The Ford Motor Company’s ability to produce more cars in less time and with less labor allowed the company to reduce the price of each vehicle.  Soon a Model T was cheap enough that an average American family could afford it.  Ford’s vision of “democratizing the automobile” had been realized, and a large chunk of the credit goes to Klann.

Klann’s invention of the assembly line should be remembered as a celebration of the human mind’s ability to generate ideas through analogies — to make connections between even the most disparate ideas.  Watching butchers dismember animals doesn’t seem like a very logical pastime for a machinist whose job is to put things together.  Nevertheless, Klann’s imagination went to work, allowing him to see similarities in dissimilar things — to envision how the process of slaughtering cattle might be transformed into a process for constructing automobiles (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How did analogical thinking by Bill Klann contribute to the success of Ford Motor Company?

Challenge:  Invention By Analogy

Research other examples of inventions and ideas that have come about through analogical thinking.  Klann took ideas from one domain — the slaughterhouse — and applied them to another domain — the auto factory.  What is an example of another inventor who applied this type of thinking?  What did he/she invent?

Source:  

1-Pollack, John.  Shortcut:  How Analogies Reveal Connections Spark Innovation and Sell Our Greatest Ideas.  New York:  Avery, 2014.  

January 14: Curmudgeon Day 


On this day in 1919, writer and commentator Andy Rooney was born in Albany, New York.  Rooney worked for decades as a journalist and writer-producer for television, but he is best known for his weekly commentaries on the television show “60 Minutes.”  Between 1978 and 2011, Rooney presented over 1,000 mini-essays sharing his unique and slightly cranky insights on everyday topics, such as almanacs, eyebrows, jaywalking, paint, and the English language.  For 33 years, “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney” was must-see television.

The appeal of Rooney’s three-minute monologues was his homespun insights on the mundane.  But another part of his appeal was his consistent curmudgeonly tone, like that of a cantankerous uncle who is bothered by just about everything.

On Apostrophes

Because I write my scripts to read myself, I dont spell “don’t” with an apostrophe.  I spell it “dont.” We all know the word and it seems foolish to put in an extraneous apostrophe.

On Birthdays

Age is a defect which we never get over.  The only thing worse than having another birthday is not having another one.

On Progress

I keep buying things that seem like the answer to all my problems, but Im never any better off . . . . And this is universal. Edison invented the lightbulb, but people dont read any more than our grandparents did by candlelight.

On The Moon

Remember when the astronauts brought those rocks back?  They said it might be weeks before the scientists could analyze them and give us their results.  Do you ever remember hearing that rock report?  I think the scientists are embarrassed to tell us those rocks are just like the ones we have on Earth.

On Dictionaries

The argument in the dictionary business is whether to explain the proper use of English or whether to tell you how it’s being used by the most people — often inaccurately.  For instance, I never say “If I were smart.”  I always say “If I was smart.”  I dont like the subjunctive no matter what the dictionary likes. (1)

Today’s Challenge:  Mini-Monologue on a Mundane Matter

What are some pet peeves you have about everyday objects, events, or ideas?  What and why do these things frustrate you? Write a Rooney-esque monologue that expresses the reasoning behind one specific pet peeve or frustration.  Go beyond the obvious, by providing your unique insights on what makes this thing so bad and how either it should be changed or what it tells us about society. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: I don’t like food that’s too carefully arranged; it makes me think that the chef is spending too much time arranging and not enough time cooking. If I wanted a picture I’d buy a painting.  -Andy Rooney

1-Rooney, Andy.  Years of Minutes: The Best of Rooney from 60 Minutes.  New York:  Public Affairs, 2003.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 13

Subject:  Motivated Reasoning – The Dreyfus Affair

Event:  Publication of Emile Zola’s open letter, J’Accuse, 1898

On January 13, 1898, a front page letter was published in a Paris newspaper by the French writer Emile Zola.  Zola’s letter was addressed to the president of the French Republic and was written in defense of Alfred Dreyfus.  In his 4,000 word letter, Zola accused the French government and military of a cover up and of falsely convicting an innocent man of treason (1).

Front page  of the newspaper L’Aurore for Thursday 13 January 1898 (Wikipedia)

The events discussed in Zola’s letter began four years earlier.  In 1894, a torn-up document was found in a wastepaper basket that caused the French military to suspect that someone in their ranks was passing military secrets to the Germans. After a brief investigation, French officials found no solid evidence to convict anyone; however, one man, Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the General Staff, was accused on highly circumstantial evidence.  In a time of heightened anti-semitism, Dreyfus’ Jewish heritage made him an easy scapegoat. Even though Dreyfus had a sterling record and did not fit the profile of a spy, a case was built to incriminate him.  Despite the fact that experts disagreed, army authorities declared that Dreyfus’ handwriting matched the writing on the memo. When a search of Dreyfus’ residence yielded no evidence of espionage, they concluded that he was crafty enough to hide anything incriminating.  Also, the fact that Dreyfus studied foreign languages was interpreted as evidence of his desire to conspire with the enemy.

Not only was Dreyfus found guilty of treason, but he was also court-martialed.  In a humiliating public ceremony, his sword was broken in two and his military insignia were ripped from his uniform.  Next, he was shipped off to Devil’s Island, a penal colony off the coast of South America.

Zola’s letter brought public scrutiny to the Dreyfus Affair.  It revealed that the French authorities knew the identity of the actual culprit and that they were covering up evidence to save face.  Zola’s accusations were not without consequence for him; he was convicted of libel and sentenced to one year in prison.  However, his courage resulted in eventual justice for Dreyfus, who was eventually pardoned by the President of France and went on to serve with distinction in World War I (2).

In a 2016 TED Talk entitled Why You Think You’re Right — Even When You’re Wrong, Julia Galef presented the Dreyfus Affair as a case study in the dangers of motivated reasoning. Like the French military in the Dreyfus Affair, we sometimes employ emotionally-biased reasoning to produce the verdict we want to be true in favor of the actual truth. We cherry-pick evidence that supports our side, and we rationalize to make a case sound better than it actually is.  Galef calls motivated reasoning the soldier mindset and argues that it is an unconscious cognitive bias that needs to be exposed and rooted out.  Galef also prescribes a more sound, reasonable approach called the scout mindset.  Instead of seeing what we want to see or being defensive, we need to seek first to understand.  We should be skeptical of our own conclusions and value the pursuit of truth over our fears of being right or wrong.  The pursuit of the scout mindset means testing your own claims and understanding that changing your mind is not a sign of weakness (3).

One powerful way to understand motivated reasoning is to see it through the eyes of a sports fan.  Imagine you are watching a basketball game, a game where your favorite team is competing for a championship against a longtime rival.  Imagine your reaction when your team is charged with a foul that results in points being taken off the scoreboard.  What would be your honest reaction?  Would your emotions motivate you to find immediate fault with the referee’s call and begin to construct rationalizations for why the call was wrong?  Or would you calmly accept the call and defer to the referee’s indifferent judgment?  Most honest fans — short for “fanatics” — will admit that their emotional investment in their team prejudices them and blinds them to objective judgment.  In addition, they are rarely even consciously aware of their own bias. To further understand the impact of motivated reasoning, compare the reaction you have when your team is called for a foul versus when your team’s opponent is called for a foul?  In the latter case, do you spend any time or emotional energy scrutinizing the fairness or justice of such a decision?

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How did motivated reasoning result in the injustice of the Dreyfus Affair, and why is it so hard for the average person to practice the scout mindset?

Challenge – Open Letters:  Zola’s open letter is just one of many examples of this unique genre of communications.  What makes the open letter interesting as a form is its dual audience:  the addressee and the general public.  The content of an open letter is targeted at a specific individual or group, yet the letter is published in an “open” public forum.  One of the most famous open letters ever written, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” was itself written in response to another open letter.  In his letter dated April 16, 1963, King was responding to a letter published in the Birmingham Post-Herald in which eight Alabama clergymen challenged his presence in Alabama and his strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism.  Research open letters, and find an example of one that you find interesting.  Explain the letter’s rhetorical situation:  who was the writer, what were the target audiences, when and why was it published?

Sources:  

1:  Zola, Emile. I Accuse 13 January 1898.

2. Harris, Robert. The Whistle-Blower Who Freed Dreyfus.  The New York Times 1 January 2014.

3. Galef, Julia. Why You Think You’re Right — Even When You’re Wrong.  February 2016.

January 13: Language Myth Day

Legend has it that on this day in 1795, the U.S. Congress voted on a bill that would have established German as the official language of the United States.  The legend continues by claiming that the bill failed by only a single vote, a vote surprisingly cast by a man of German heritage, the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg.

As is usually the case, the truth behind the legend is much less astonishing.  There was in fact a language bill considered by Congress on January 13, 1795, but instead of giving the German language any official status, it would have merely mandated the printing of federal laws in both German and English.  In the course of debating the bill on January 13th there was a casting of ballots that failed by a single vote, but that was merely a motion to adjourn, and there is no evidence that even that vote was cast by Muhlenberg.  The final vote on the translation of the federal laws was rejected by Congress one month later, and there is no record of the final vote numbers (1).

The whole truth is that the German language never came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the official language of the United States.  Furthermore, although there have been attempts to make English the official language of the United States, the truth is that the United States has never had an official language.

Today’s Challenge:  What’s the Verdict?

What are some examples of language or writing rules that you have been taught in school?  Are the rules valid, or are they merely myths?  Like the myth of the German Language Bill, various myths have been perpetuated through the years regarding the use of the English language.  Although there may be some kernels of truth in each of these rules, a true investigation will reveal that the rules themselves are fallacious.  Investigate one of the English language rules below, or one you have encountered from your own experience, and research the validity of the rule.  Write up your verdict using evidence and examples that reveal the rule’s validity or falsehood.

Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.

Never use the passive voice.

Never split an infinitive.

Use the article “a” before words that begin with consonants; use the article “an” before words that begin with vowels.

Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Only words in the dictionary are real words.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. -Joseph Campbell

1-Do You Speak American?  Official American.  English Only.  Pbs.org. http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/officialamerican/englishonly/#baron.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – JANUARY 12

Subject:  Imagination – “To Build a Fire”

Event:  Birthday of American author Jack London, 1876

It seems appropriate that the American author Jack London (1876-1916) was born in the middle of winter  — January 12, 1876, to be precise.  His best-known works take place in winter settings, specifically in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush.  His best-known novel The Call of the Wild (1903) recounts the adventures of a sled dog named Buck.  London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” one of the most anthologized stories ever written, is also set during a typically ice-cold Yukon winter.  

The only human character in the story is an unnamed man who is making a trek on foot to a mining camp, accompanied only by a husky dog.  Like thousands of others who migrated to the Yukon territory in hopes of striking it rich, the man in the story is a newcomer to the region, inexperienced in surviving in such a harsh landscape.  While the dog’s instincts make it aware of the dangers of the extreme cold, the man is not fully conscious of the potential peril of traveling alone in such extremely low temperatures. 

The man prepared for his trek by dressing in warm clothing and by packing some food and matches.  But as London explains early in the story, the man lacked one vital thing necessary for survival:

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination.  He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.  Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost.  Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all.  It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.  Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks.  Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.

This paragraph foreshadows the man’s downfall.  He knows how to build a fire, but he fails to fully imagine what might happen if he builds his fire in the wrong location.  (Spoiler Alert) The man dies from the cold in the end, but it was a lack of imagination that was the true culprit, not the cold (1).

Imagination is the human species’ superpower:  the ability to create pictures of future possibilities and to explore ideas in the mind that are not currently present.  London’s story reminds us that failures of imagination aren’t just dangerous, they are sometimes fatal.

In a case of fact being worse than fiction, in October 2019, a 47-year old man decided to live-stream his climb up Japan’s Mount Fuji.   Even though he titled his video “Let’s Go to Snowy Mt. Fuji,” this man lacked the imagination to prepare for the climb and to anticipate what might go wrong.  Wearing only street clothes and no gloves, he struggled to climb as the trail became more and more slippery.  His tragic, but predictable, final words were, “Wait, I think, I am slipping!” After online viewers contacted authorities, searchers began looking for the man.  He had almost reached the 12,389-foot summit of Mt. Fuji; however, his fatal fall took him down to the 9,800-foot altitude (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How can a failure of imagination be fatal?

Challenge – Demise of the Witless:  The Darwin Awards are a catalog of real-life failures of imagination.  The failed attempt to summit Mt. Fuji won the 2020 award.  The Darwin Awards website entitled it “Pinnacle Of Stupidity.”  Research another Darwin Award candidate or “winner,” and explain what happened and how it showed a failure of imagination.

Sources:

1-London, Jack.  “To Build a Fire.” 1908.

2-2020 Darwin Awards.  “Pinnacle Of Stupidity.”