THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 31

Subject:  Cognitive Fluency – Easy = True 

Event:  “Easy = True” article published in The Boston Globe, 2010

Thinking is hard work, which is why so few people do it.  –Henry Ford

On this day in 2010, an article was published in The Boston Globe entitled “Easy = True.”  Written by journalist Drake Bennet, the article was about an emergent hot topic in psychology called cognitive fluency.  Cognitive fluency is a concept that relates to the ease at which we are able to think about something.  It seems obvious, but cognitive fluency reminds us that we don’t like thinking too hard and that the human species has a definite preference for things that are easy to think about.  These are the things we pay more attention to and the things that we remember better.  As a result, when we are presented with information, the easier it is for us to process, the more valid we perceive it — for example, if it is written in a clear font, if it rhymes, or if it is repeated.

We have a clear, instinctive bias for things that are familiar to us, which makes sense when you think about the way that our brains evolved.  Familiar things presented less of a threat, while unfamiliar things required scrutiny, which could be the difference between survival and being poisoned by a plant or eaten by a predator.

One excellent illustration of cognitive fluency comes from the research of psychologist Matthew McGlone.  He presented subjects with unfamiliar aphorisms, half of which were written in rhyming form, such as “Woes unite foes.”  The other half of the aphorisms were written in non-rhyming forms, such as “Woes unite enemies.”  Not only did people find the rhyming aphorisms more pleasing to the ear, but they also rated them as more accurate than their non-rhyming equivalents.  McGlone calls his discovery “the rhyme-as-reason effect.”  Most of us would intuitively realize that a rhyming slogan was more catchy and easy to remember, but how many of us would guess that the rhyming phrases would also be perceived as more inherently true? 

Whether we are delivering or receiving persuasive messages, cognitive fluency has important implications.  As stated by psychologist Adam Alter, 

Every purchase you make, every interaction you have, every judgment you make can be put along a continuum from fluent to disfluent. If you can understand how fluency influences judgment, you can understand many, many, many different kinds of judgments better than we do at the moment. (1)

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is cognitive fluency, and how can knowing about it make you more persuasive?

Challenge – Parallel Proverbs:  The key ingredients for cooking up a more persuasive, more digestible message are repetition, clarity, and simplicity.  Rhyme and alliteration — which involve repetition of sounds — are two of the most common methods of repetition, but a more sophisticated method of repetition is parallelism, which involves the repetition of structure, such as Caesar’s famous declaration, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” which follows the repeated pattern pronoun verb, pronoun verb, pronoun verb.  Identify a proverb or aphorism that contains both wisdom parallelism.  Explain why you think the proverb is both well written and well reasoned.

Sources:

1-Bennett, Drake.  “Easy = True”  The Boston Globe  31 January 2010.

January 31: Factoid Day

Today is the birthday of American writer Norman Mailer (1923-2007).  Born in New Jersey, Mailer graduated from Harvard in 1944 and then served in the Philippines during World War II.  After the war, Mailer published a semi-autobiographical novel called The Naked and the Dead.  Based on his experiences in the war, The Naked and the Dead was incredibly successful and brought Mailer fame at just 25 years of age.

Writing in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, Mailer coined the word “factoid,” a word that has taken on a number of interesting usages in the past few years.  In his biography of Monroe, Mailer defined factoids as “ . . . facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper . . . .” In its original sense, a factoid was not, as some believe, “a small fact”; rather, a factoid was an untruth that was stated as if it were an actual fact and was repeated so many times that many believed it to be true.  A classic example would be the often-stated belief that the Great Wall of China is visible from space.

It’s appropriate that Mailer would coin the word, considering the fact that his writing often blurred the lines between fiction and journalism.  For example, Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his novel The Executioner’s Song, a book that he called a “true-life novel,” and which is based on the actual events surrounding the execution of Gary Gilmore for murder by the state of Utah in 1967.

Because so many people have mistakenly mixed up the meaning of the words fact and factoid for so long, factoid has recently taken on another, opposite meaning to Mailer’s original definition.  Today when people use the word, they mean “a trivial or fascinating fact.”  So, we can sum up the interesting history of this word by saying the word that originally meant “a fake fact” has evolved to mean “an interesting fact.”

As a result of the history of the word’s usage, lexicographers would call factoid a contronym — a word that has two opposite definitions, as in the word “dust,” which can mean “to add fine particles” or “to remove fine particles.”  These words are sometimes also called “Janus words,” based on Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, gateways, and doorways (See January 1:  Exordium Day). Other examples of contronyms are apology, bolt, finished, handicap, trip, and weather.

Today’s Challenge:  Factlet or Factoid?

To clarify the often confusing and contradictory definitions of factoid, columnist William Safire suggested a new word be added to the English lexicon:  factlet, meaning “a small, arcane fact.”  By adopting factlet, writers would help readers differentiate between the two meanings of factoid.  How do you determine whether something is true or false?  When you’re reading, how do you determine whether something is fact or fiction?  Using a recent newspaper or magazine, gather five interesting factual details based on a variety of different articles; try for factlets – small, arcane facts.  Once you have a list of at least five factlets with citations, use your imagination to create five factoids — details that sound plausible but that are made up.  Finally, select a random item from your list of ten, and read it to a friend to see if they can tell the factlets from the factoids.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t. -Mark Twain

1-Marsh, David.  A Factoid is Not a Small Fact. Fact. The Guardian.  17 Jan. 2014.

https://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2014/jan/17/mind-your-language-factoids.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 30

Subject:  Anchoring – Death of Gandhi study question 

Event:  Death of Mahatma Gandhi, 1948

On the evening of January 30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was killed when an assassin fired three bullets into his chest at close range.  You have probably heard of Gandhi, and you might even have known that he was assassinated.  But, do you know how old he was when he died? 

Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, age 78 (Wikipedia)

This question was the subject of an ingenious psychological study conducted in 1997. It’s a study that helps us to better understand human thinking and the connection between our rational thinking and our intuitive thinking. It’s also a study that reveals that our thinking and our decisions are not as independent as we think they are; instead, they can be influenced by outside forces that we often are not aware of.  

One of those forces is numbers.  For example, when you are shopping for a new refrigerator, do you pay attention to the “recommended retail price”?  Similarly, when a teacher is grading a student’s essay, do you think she is influenced by the student’s previous grades on essays or by the essay she graded previously?  Psychologists call this anchoring: the mental process by which we make estimates by latching on to reference points for comparison.

In the Gandhi study, 60 German university students were asked how old the Indian leader was when he died.  For 30 of the students, the question was preceded by the question “Was Gandhi older or younger than 9 years old when he died.”  The other 30 were first asked, “Was Gandhi older or younger than 140 years old.”  Logically speaking, neither number — 9 or 140 — seemed a likely hint to his actual age, yet the results of the study showed that in both cases they influenced the students’ estimates:  the students who were asked “Was Gandhi older or younger than 9 years old,” guessed an average age of 50 years old; the other group which was asked “Was Gandhi older or younger than 140 years old,” guessed an average of 67 years old (1).

At this point, you probably want to know how old Gandhi actually was:  he was 78 years old.

The message of anchoring is that our minds work by making comparisons, whether or not we are aware of those comparisons.  To avoid this cognitive bias, be alert to how you’re comparing things, and be especially alert to how an initial piece of information, such as a number can influence your thinking.  For example, if you are negotiating a salary or buying a new car, pay attention to the first offers presented; also, realize the advantage of being the one who offers the first number.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is anchoring, and how does it influence us?

Challenge – Buyer Beware:  You can bet that companies know how to employ anchoring to manipulate consumers into paying more for products.  Do some research on how marketers use anchoring to prey on the weak minds of consumers.  Write a brief PSA that explains the trickery of anchors and help people avoid it to save money.

Sources:  

1-IB Psychology. Key Study: Gandhi and the Anchoring Effect. Strack & Mussweiler, 1997

January 30: Blurb Day

Today is the birthday of American author and humorist Frank Gelett Burgess (1866-1951).  Some might argue that today should be “Purple Cow Day” because Burgess is best known for the four-line nonsense poem, “The Purple Cow”:

I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one,
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one!*

Although “The Purple Cow” is one of the most quoted American poems of the twentieth-century, Burgess is also known for another momentous literary achievement:  the coining of the word “blurb,” the short promotional descriptions or reviews by which consumers judge a book by its cover.

The story of the blurb begins in 1906.  Burgess was promoting his latest book Are You a Bromide? at a trade association dinner.  To capture the attention of potential buyers, he created a dust jacket with the book’s title and a brief description.  To make the book more eye-catching, he added a picture of a fictitious young woman he called Miss Belinda Blurb. The name stuck as a way of describing the promotional text that publishers place on book jackets.  Today, the term is also used to refer to the written endorsements by fellow writers or celebrities that are found typically on a book’s back cover.

One could argue that American poet Walt Whitman should be given some credit for inventing the concept of the blurb — though not the word itself.  After Whitman published the first edition of his poetry collection Leaves of Grass in 1855, he received a letter of praise from the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely of fortifying and encouraging.

Seeing an opportunity to use Emerson’s words for promotional purposes, Whitman had them stamped in gold leaf on the spine of his second edition.

Today blurbs have expanded beyond books.  They’re written for movies, for websites, and just about any product you can imagine.

Today’s Challenge:  Judging a Book by Its Blurb

What is a book, movie, or other product that you are enthusiastic enough about to endorse with words of praise?  Brainstorm some titles or products you really love.  Then, select one and write a blurb.  Image that your words of praise will be placed on the actual item and that your words will determine whether or not consumers buy the item.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  . . . consumers aren’t stupid, and they’ve grown increasingly cynical about the dubious art of the blurb. After you’ve been tricked into paying for a couple of really bad movies because of one, you realize the difference between real praise and a plain old con job. Every good blurb of bad work numbs the consumer’s confidence and trust.  -Stephen King (3)

*A purple cow is the mascot of Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

1-Dwyer, Colin. Forget the Book, Have You Read This Irresistible Story on Blurbs?  NPR 27 Sept. 2015.

2-Letters Of Note. I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career.  6 Dec. 2010.  http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/12/i-greet-you-at-beginning-of-great.html.

3-King, Stephen.  Stephen King on the “Art” of the Blurb. Entertainment. 20 Mar. 2008.  http://www.ew.com/article/2008/03/20/stephen-king-art-blurb/2.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 29

Subject:  Vivid Imagery – Chekov’s “broken glass”

Event:  Birthday of Anton Chekov, 1860

Today is the birthday of Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).  Chekhov began writing as a way to support his family when he was a teenager, selling stories to newspapers.  Although he is today recognized as one of the greatest fiction writers of all time, Chekhov’s first love was medicine.  He described his relationship with medicine and writing with an apt metaphor:  “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.”  

Portrait of Anton Chekhov by Osip Braz (Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, Chekhov had barely started his career as a doctor when he contracted tuberculosis, which took his life when he was just 44 years old.

We look to great writers like Chekhov to find the secret of transforming our thoughts into words — words that in turn will allow our ideas to come to life in the minds of our audience.  One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to “show, don’t tell.”  This is great advice, and the three-word maxim is an excellent example of concise writing; however, the irony of “show, don’t tell” is that the statement itself does more telling than showing. For a better, more illustrative version of this advice, we can turn to a quotation that’s often attributed to Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Here we have an example of the kind of concrete language that creates a vivid image in the reader’s mind.  Concrete language engages the reader’s senses, allowing the reader to see, hear, feel, smell, and/or taste vicariously.

Although the “glint of light” quotation is consistently attributed to Chekhov, an investigation by Garson O’Toole has determined that it’s more of a paraphrase than a direct quotation.  

At his website www.quoteinvestigator.com, O’Toole reports that the source of the quotation is a letter that Chekhov wrote to his brother Alexander in May 1886.  As we can see by Chekhov’s advice to his brother, sensory imagery is a must:

In descriptions of Nature, one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball (1).

Too often writers don’t follow Chekhov’s advice.  It’s okay to talk about abstract ideas like love, war, freedom, or failure, but to truly show and to truly evoke images, the writer must use concrete language that engages the reader’s five senses.  This is the type of language that creates a dominant impression in the mind of the reader.  

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell describes in detail the thinking process that happens when we write.  In this description, he shows how our thinking can go wrong, but more importantly, he also provides an antidote:

In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meanings as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose – not simply accept – the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impression one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. 

As an example of a passage that both Chekov and Orwell would approve of, here is an excerpt from Wilfred Owen’s poem about World War I, “Dulce Et Decorum Est.”  Notice how instead of telling us that “War is hell,” it show us:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What does it mean to “show, not tell” when writing, and what kind of thinking must a person do to apply this principle to their writing? 

Challenge – Show Me the Details:  How can you support a generalization with strong imagery and sensory details that create a showing picture for your reader? Support a telling generalization with specific showing details that make a dominant impression on the reader.  Select one of the generalizations listed below or generate your own.  Then, use sensory language that engages your reader’s senses, by including details that the reader can see, hear, feel, taste, and/or smell.

-Learning a new skill can be difficult.

-Persistence is an essential trait for successful people.

-Failure is often a springboard for success.

-Procrastination is a major problem for students.

-Summer is the best time of the year.

Sources:

1-Quote Investigator.com Anton Chekhov. 30 July 2013.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 28

Subject:  Flashbulb Memory – Challenger Study

Event:  Challenger Disaster, 1986

On Tuesday, January 28, 1986, at precisely 11:30 EST, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart shortly after takeoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  The explosion killed everyone aboard. 

Challenger on the way to the launch pad (Wikipedia)

Not only was the Challenger disaster a major tragedy of the United States space program, but it was also an unprecedented public tragedy:  it is estimated that 17% of the U.S. population witnessed the launch on live television.  This audience included thousands of students who watched from their school classrooms to see Christa McAulliffe, a high school teacher, who was attempting to become the first teacher in space.  

At the time of the tragedy, psychological researcher Ulric Neisser was in the midst of research on human memory, attempting to better understand how memories are stored and retrieved.  He saw an opportunity to test the accuracy of what is known as flashbulb memory, a supposedly vivid and detailed memory of a dramatic moment, such as the memories that people have of remembering where they were and what they were doing when JFK was assassinated in 1963.  Based on his own flashbulb memory of December 7, 1941, Neisser was having doubts about just how accurate these memories are; he initially remembered hearing the news of the Pearl Harbor attack when the broadcast of a baseball game he was listening to was interrupted.  He later realized that although this was a vivid memory, it could not be true.  There were no baseball games in December.

Seizing on the recency and the public nature of the Challenger tragedy, Neisser saw an opportunity to gather more data on flashbulb memories. The day after the tragedy, Neisser asked students to write down detailed accounts of where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of the Challenger explosion.

The next step in Neisser’s research required patience; after waiting nearly three years, he then asked the same students to recount their memories of the fateful day.  Although all the students were confident that their memories of the day were accurate, the results of the study revealed something different: one-fourth of the students had memories that were completely different, while half had memories that were somewhat different.  Less than ten percent of the students got all the details correct. 

Neisser’s work gives us all a better, more realistic picture of human memory.  It shows that even those memories that seem most vivid and distinct to us may not be completely accurate.  Each time we access a memory, we reconstruct it and potentially conflate some details, such as how Neisser remembered listening to a baseball game when it was more likely a December football game (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is a flashbulb memory, and what does the research show us about how accurate these memories are?

Challenge – Memory On Trial:  What are the implications of research on flashbulb memories when it comes to eyewitness testimony in a trial?  Do a little research on this topic, and write a paragraph that provides instructions for jury members that tells them what they need to know about the fallibility of human memory.

 Sources:  

1 – Talarico, Jennifer. “Flashbulb memories of dramatic events aren’t as accurate as believed.”   The Conversation 9 September 2016.

January 28: Right Words, Right Time Day

On this day in 1986, President Ronald Reagan gave a short speech that he did not want to give, yet it was a speech that needed to be given.  A shocked nation, and world, had just witnessed the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, an explosion that killed everyone aboard including Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher who was attempting to become the first teacher in space.

On that fateful and tragic day, Reagan was planning to given another speech entirely, the annual State of the Union Address. When the Challenger exploded at 11:39 EST, Reagan immediately cancelled the State of the Union Address, the first time in modern history this had been done.  Reagan’s staff then went immediately to work on the difficult task of crafting the right words to describe the day’s tragic events.  

The principal writer of the speech was Peggy Noonan.  She knew that writing this speech would be a difficult task, not only because of the terrible circumstances that required it to be written but also because of the many different segments of the audience that would watch it.  Because of Christa McAuliffe’s participation in the launch, children across the country had witnessed the explosion.  The speech had to balance sorrow with perseverance; it had to honor the dead but also make it clear that life would continue; it had to admit the failure of the mission, but also make it clear that exploration of space would continue.  If all this was not enough, it also had to consider the disaster in light of geopolitics; after all, the Cold War was still being waged at the time.  The U.S. had never lost astronauts in flight before, and the Soviets would be watching to see how the American president addressed this tragedy.

The final text of the speech that Peggy Noonan wrote deftly hit on each necessary element and adeptly addressed each of the segments of the varied audience.  The text also included a historical analogy by noting that January 28th was the anniversary of the death of Sir Francis Drake, who died at sea in 1596.  Like those who died aboard the Challenger, Drake died dedicated to the task of exploring new frontiers.

As Noonan crafted the speech, she remembered a sonnet that she had memorized in 7th grade.  It was a poem called High Flight and was written by a 19 year-old, World War II aviator named John Magee.  It is a poem that celebrates the majestic experience of flight, and what made it especially poignant is the fact that its young author was killed in a mid-air collision just months after he composed the poem.  It’s Magee’s words that eloquently end the speech:  “[The Challenger crew] slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.

Ronald Reagan’s national eulogy, given less than six hours after the explosion of the Challenger, is an excellent backdrop by which to examine two important principles from classical rhetoric:  exigency and kairos.   

Exigency is the Latin term for “an urgent need or demand.” In other words, the exigency of a speech or composition involves the catalyst that caused it to be written.  Understanding exigency helps us explore the backstory and the occasion of a speech as well as the writer’s motivation for writing. To fully understand Reagan’s speech, for example, we must understand the historical context in which it was given and the preceding events that “demanded” it be given.

Kairos is the Greek term for “timing” or “timeliness.”  The Greeks had two concepts for time:  chronos and kairos.  Chronos was used for “linear, measurable time”; it’s the root we find in the English word chronology.  Kairos, in contrast, relates to the “opportune time” for something to be done, or the doing of something at the “exact, most advantageous time.” Understanding kairos helps us to better explore the timing of a speech.  As we can see by Reagan’s address to the nation, for example, the speech’s kairos is what makes it so memorable. Reagan was able to say the right thing, with the right tone, at the right time.

Each speech, article, or other piece of writing you read has its own rhetorical situation, which includes exigency and kairos. As demonstrated by Reagan’s speech, by analyzing who the speaker is, why he is speaking, when he is speaking, and to whom he is speaking, we gain a much more complete understanding of not just what is said, but also how it is said.

Today’s Challenge:  Audience Analysis

What were the different segments of the audience for Reagan’s Challenger Address, and how did he specifically address each one in his short speech?  Read the entire text of Reagan’s speech. Then, write an analysis of how the different segments of his audience would have taken his words based on the exigency and the kairos of the speech.  Look at the following segments of the audience separately:

The General American Public

Elementary-Aged Children

The Family Members of the Astronauts

The Employees of NASA

The Soviet Union

Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger
Address to the Nation, January 28, 1986
by President Ronald W. Reagan

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering.

Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.

We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”

There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” (2)

Quotation of the Day:  By using kairos as a guiding principle for your own texts, you can bring interest and timeliness to your writing projects. So when you begin to write, think of the moment that your writing will enter into—the audience that will read it, the conversation that it joins, the history surrounding the topic, and the words you use to craft your argument. Awareness and use of this knowledge create beautiful writing that, like turning the key in your door at the end of a long day, seems perfectly timed, effortless, and just right.  -Kate Pantelides, Megan McIntyre, and Jessica McKee (3)

1-Moyer, Justin Wm. Exactly the Right Words, Exactly the Right Way: Reagan’s Amazing Challenger Disaster Speech.  Washington Post.  28 Jan 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/01/28/how-ronald-reagan-explained-the-challenger-disaster-to-the-world-its-all-part-of-taking-a-chance/.

2-NASA History Office.  Address to the Nation.  http://history.nasa.gov/reagan12886.html.

3-Pantelides, Kate, Megan McIntyre, and Jessica McKee.  Kairos.  Writing Commons. 16 Apr. 2012.  http://writingcommons.org/open-text/information-literacy/rhetorical-analysis/rhetorical-appeals/595-kairos.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 27

Subject: Creativity – Remote Associates Test

Event:  Birthday of Sarnoff Andrei Mednick, 1928

Look at these three words:  DREAM, BREAK, LIGHT.

Does a fourth word come to your mind automatically, a word that is associated with each of the other three?

Psychologist Sarnoff A. Mednick, who was born on this day in 1928, sought to better understand creative thinking.  After interviewing scientists, architects, and mathematicians to identify their creative process, he noted that one key element of creativity is associations from memory. Being creative means being able to make associations and to connect ideas, especially ideas that aren’t immediately obvious. 

Based on what he learned about creativity, Mednick created the Remote Associates Test (RAT) in the 1960s as a method of assessing creative thinking.  The test is made up of word puzzles where the solver must examine three words — such as DREAM, BREAK, LIGHT — and identify the single word that links all three: DAY — as in “daydream,” “daybreak,” and “daylight.”

Some psychologists argue that the RAT is more a test of linguistic ability or problem-solving than creativity; nevertheless, Mednick’s invention remains a popular instrument.  The RAT not only helps us ponder the relationship between memory and imagination, but it also meets the criteria of Albert Einstein’s definition of creativity:  “Creativity is intelligence having fun” (1).

Try the following examples, which range from very easy to very hard:

  1. dew, comb, bee 
  2. preserve, ranger, tropical 
  3. sense, courtesy, place 
  4. flower, friend, scout 
  5. sticker, maker, point 
  6. right, cat, carbon 
  7. home, sea, bed 
  8. fence, card, master 

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the RAT, and what insights does it give us about creativity? 

Challenge – Mother Tongue Lashing:  What one word fits between the words ‘Jelly’ and ‘Bag’ to form two separate compound words? Jelly __________ Bag  The answer is the word “bean” as in jelly bean and beanbag.  This is a variation of the RAT called Mother Tongue Lashing. It takes advantage of the wealth of compound words and expressions in English. For each pair of words below, name a word that can follow the first word and precede the second one to complete a compound word or a familiar two-word phrase.

  1. Life __________ Travel
  2. Punk __________ Candy
  3. Green _________ Space
  4. Rest __________ Work
  5. Word  __________ Book
  6. Rock __________ Dust
  7. Spelling __________ Sting
  8. Night __________ House

Sources:  

1-Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Answers to the RAT:  1 honey, 2 forest, 3 common, 4 girl, 5 match, 6 copy, 7 sick, 8 post

Answers to Mother Tongue Lashing:  Answers:  1 time, 2 rock, 3 back, 4 home, 5 play, 6 star, 7 bee, 8 light

January 27: The Book of Qualities Day

On this day in 1984, J. Ruth Gendler published The Book of Qualities. In Gendler’s unique book she writes individual profiles of over 50 human emotions, using personification to bring each to life.  In Gendler’s book, we’re reintroduced to familiar emotions, like joy, innocence, and discipline — not just as abstract ideas, but as living, breathing individuals.  

Each of the profiles is an excellent reminder of the power of personification to enliven writing.  In our normal life, we don’t have the power to breathe life into inanimate objects.  When we write, however, he can wield this rhetorical superpower by employing personification.  With personification, it’s as if we’re putting arms and legs on an idea, allowing it to walk around the room.  We can even teach it to talk.

In the following examples, Gendler employs personification to introduce us to “Despair,” “Stillness,” and “Confidence.”   Notice how she employs specific action verbs and concrete nouns:

Despair papered her bathroom walls with newspaper articles on acid rain.

Stillness will meet you for tea or a walk by the ocean.

Confidence ignores “No Trespassing” signs.  It is as if he doesn’t see them.  He is an explorer, committed to following his own direction.

Today’s Challenge:  Abstractions in the Flesh

How would you bring an abstract human emotion to life using personification?  Write a profile of at least 60 words on one specific human emotion.  Use your imagination to explore what the emotion would look like, what kinds of things it would be doing, and what it might say if it could talk.  Select one of the qualities below from The Book of Qualities, or come up with one of your own.  

Anger, Beauty, Certainty, Doubt, Excitement, Fear, Guilt, Honesty, Imagination, Jealousy, Loneliness, Perfection, Suffering, Terror

Before you write your profile, read the following example.  It’s on humor; one quality that Gendler doesn’t write about in The Book of Qualities:

Humor is unpredictable.  He hides around corners and jumps out when you least expect him.  He’s optimistic, healthy, and smart. Never depressing or anxious, he thrives on the unsuspected and spontaneous.  He’s a great companion, constantly reminding you to loosen up, look at the bright side, and smile more often.  He loves to break up fights — when he’s around no one has the strength to make a fist.

Quotation of the Day:  There is no armor against fate; death lays his icy hands on kings. -Jane Shirley

1-Gendler, J. Ruth.  The Book of Qualities.  New York:  HarperPerennial, 1984.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 26

Subject:  Cortical homunculus – The brain’s map of the body  

Event:  Birthday of neuroscientist Wilder Graves Penfield, 1891  

Imagine what your body would look like if each of its parts were in proportion to how much of your brain was dedicated to sensing with them or to how much of your brain was dedicated to moving with them. How much larger, for example, would your nose be in comparison to your foot?

2-D cortical motor homunculus (Wikipedia)

Because of the work of the neuroscientist Wilder Penfield — who was born on this day in Spokane, Washington, in 1891 — we have an accurate picture of how the human brain sees its body.  

Sharon Price-James Sensory Homunculus from the front
3-D sensorimotor homunculus (Wikipedia)

Penfield’s cartoon depiction of the human brain is called the cortical homunculus, or “cortex man.”  This cartoon presents a distorted image of the human body based on how much of the brain is dedicated to the motor or sensory functions of different body parts.  Because, for example, a large portion of the brain is dedicated to sensing with and controlling the movement of the fingers and the lips — as opposed to say the arms or the legs — these features are drawn to appear much larger than they appear on an actual human (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the cortical homunculus?

Challenge – My Eyes have Seen the Glory of the Homunculus:  After a meal you might have heard someone use the expression, “My eyes were bigger than my stomach.”  In this context it is obviously meant in a figurative rather than literal sense.  However, with knowledge of the cortical homunculus, you might argue that the expression is literally true.  Explain.

Sources:

1-PBS. “Wilder Penfield 1891 – 1976.”

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/bhpenf.html