THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 3

Subject:  Mortality  – Steve Jobs’ Commencement Address

Event:  Memento Mori, January 3

Champaigne’s Vanitas (c. 1671)(Wikipedia)

Today is Memento Mori, a day to remember our mortality.  In Latin, memento mori translates, “Remember that you must die.” The Latin phrase was put to use in ancient Rome to prevent leaders from falling prey to hubris.  When a Roman general paraded through the streets after a victorious battle, a slave was strategically placed behind the general in his chariot.  As the general basked in the cheers of the crowd, the slave’s job was to whisper in the general’s ear:  “Memento mori” or “Someday you will die” (1).

Memento Mori is not just for Roman generals.  And although it was just one day on the Roman calendar, there’s an argument to be made that it should be honored every day of the year.

After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, Apple Founder Steve Jobs gave a moving commencement address at Stanford University, reminding graduates that facing our own mortality is no morbid exercise; instead, it is motivating:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart (2).

The practice of reflecting on our mortality is an ancient one, going as far back as Socrates.  For the Stoic philosophers, memento mori was essential.  Instead of facing death with fear, they sought to reframe death, transforming it from a negative to a positive.  Like Jobs, they viewed death as a tool that helped them stay humble and stay awake to the gift of each new day’s opportunities to live life to its fullest.  As the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, “It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.” 

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is memento mori, and how might it help a person live a better life?

Challenge – Skulls for Sale:  Imagine you are marketing a model of the human skull meant for display in classrooms.  You think that this model should be placed in every classroom in America to remind students of memento mori.  Write the text of the catalog description of your skull, making the case for why teachers should need it in their classrooms and why students should be familiar with memento mori.

Today’s Word Day: Happy Latin Phrase Day.

Sources:  

1-Crosby, Daniel. Memento Mori – The Ancient Roman Cure for Overconfidence.

2-Jobs, Steve.  “Death is Very Likely the Single Best Invention of Life.”  The Guardian. 10 Oct. 2011.

January 3: Latin Phrase Day

Today is Memento Mori, a day to remember our mortality.  In Latin, memento mori translates, “Remember that you must die.” The Latin phrase was put to use in ancient Rome to prevent leaders from falling prey to hubris.  When a Roman general paraded through the streets after a victorious battle, a slave was strategically placed behind the general in his chariot.  As the general basked in the cheers of the crowd, the slave’s job was to whisper in the general’s ear:  “Memento mori” or “Someday you will die” (1).

Memento Mori is not just for Roman generals, however.  After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, Apple Founder Steve Jobs gave a moving commencement address at Stanford University, reminding graduates that facing our mortality is no morbid exercise; instead, it is motivating:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.  (2)

As Steve Jobs reminds us, everyone dies, but their words live on; the same is true of languages, especially the Latin language.

Because of the great influence of the Roman Empire, Latin was the primary language of education in the West from the Middle Ages until the mid-20th Century.  The major works of science, law, history, religion, and philosophy were all written in Latin; therefore, for over a thousand years, proficiency in Latin was a must for any classically educated person.  

Today the English language has replaced Latin as the lingua franca, and many view Latin as just another dead language. Nevertheless, the residue of Latin’s past influence is very much alive in English words with Latin roots as well as many legal, literary, and scientific terms.  For example, common words like dictionary, vocabulary, description, and civilization all derive from Latin.

Today’s Challenge:  Latin’s Not Dead Yet

What Latin phrase, expression, or motto might you use as the central focus of a commencement address?  Research the English translations of the Latin expressions listed below. Select one, and as Steve Jobs did with memento mori, use the expression as a central theme for a brief motivational commencement address.

faber est suae quisque fortunae

astra inclinant, sed non obligant

aut viam inveniam aut faciam

bono malum superate

docendo disco, scribendo cogito

fortes fortuna adiuvat

honor virtutis praemium

magna est vis consuetudinis

nulla tenaci invia est via

omne trium perfectum

praemonitus praemunitus (3)

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  

I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.

And were an epitaph to be my story

I’d have a short one ready for my own.

I would have written of me on my stone:

I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

-Robert Frost

1-Crosby, Daniel. Memento Mori – The Ancient Roman Cure for Overconfidence.

2-Jobs, Steve.  Death is Very Likely the Single Best Invention of Life.  The Guardian. 10 Oct. 2011.

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/oct/06/steve-jobs-pancreas-cancer.

3-McKay, Brett and Kate. The Art of Manliness. Latin Words and Phrases Every Man Should Know .  http://www.artofmanliness.com/2013/07/25/latin-words-and-phrases-every-man-should-know/.

January 2:  55 Fiction Day

On this day in 1974, President Richard Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act which established a 55 mile per hour speed limit on the nation’s highways.  Nixon’s effort to conserve gasoline was spurred by the 1973 oil crisis where Arab countries declared an oil embargo, dramatically increasing U.S. gas prices (1).

Just as reducing your speed when driving increases fuel efficiency, reducing your word count when writing increases your communication efficiency, making every word count.  One excellent way to practice limiting your word count is by trying your hand at an exciting new genre of writing called 55 Fiction.  In these short, short stories, you must not exceed the 55-word limit.

Since 1987, Steve Moss, the editor of New Times, a California newspaper, has held a Fifty-Five Fiction Story Contest. The contest has spawned two books of 55 Fiction:  The World’s Shortest Stories and The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death.

As Moss explains in his introduction, 55-Fiction is a little like a one-minute episode of “The Twilight Zone,” or “what O. Henry might have conjured up if he’d had only the back of a business card to write upon . . . .” Shakespeare said it best: “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and in the 21st century, where sound bites compete for our limited attention span, 55-Fiction is the perfect form (2).

The keys to 55-Fiction are a good story, concise — yet clear — writing, and a denouement with a payoff. Surprise, irony, and/or humor are the hallmarks of truly great short, short stories.

While 55-fiction is fun to read and write, these are not just frivolous throwaways. The writer of a good 55-Fiction piece must practice many of the key techniques of any good writer: clear diction, vivid detail, concise language, careful revision, and thoughtful editing.

Here are a couple of examples:

Last Call
It’s a dark summer evening. Lightning strikes in the distance. Two young lovers rendezvous. She lies sleeping. He kisses her soft, yet strangely warm lips. He makes a toast to his love and drinks. As he swallows, his cell phone rings. He grabs it with a trembling hand. “Romeo! Stop! Listen! Juliet’s not really dead!!”

Alone
He shivered in the darkness. Long ago, there had been 12 in his pack, disappearing over time. Only he remained. Suddenly, a change; the light at the end of the tunnel was coming nearer. Giant hands grabbed him, pulling him towards the light. God, perhaps? Then, a voice: “Mom, we’re down to the last soda!”

Today’s Challenge:  Fifty-Five Test Drive
What is an anecdote that you can tell in no more than 55 words?  Write your own 55-word short story. Use the guidelines below. If you can’t think of an original story, consider adapting something from classic literature, as in “Last Call.”

Five Guidelines for Writing Fifty-Five Fiction:

  1. Like any good story, these stories need a setting, characters, conflict, climax, and resolution.
  1. Stories may be any genre: sci-fi, romance, detective, horror, parody, etc.
  1. Don’t try to write exactly 55 words on your first draft; instead, try to write a short-short story on the first draft. Then, go back to revise and edit until you’re down to 55.
  1. Humor, puns, suspense, or parody are encouraged.
  1. For more examples of 55 Fiction, go to the New Times web site.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Less is more. -Andrea del Sarto

1-http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=4332

2-http://www.newtimesslo.com/special-issue/8/55-fiction/how-to-enter/

 

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 2

Subject:  The Curse of Knowledge – Tappers and Listeners

Event: The book Made to Stick published, 2007

Whenever you write, there’s a temptation to do more telling than showing.  This is because of a major writing and thinking obstacle called the curse of knowledge — the principle that says that once we know something, it is hard to remember what it was like when we didn’t know it.  On this day in 2007, authors Chip and Dan Heath published the book Made To Stick:  Why Some Ideas Die and Others Survive, which first explained the concept of the curse of knowledge for a wide audience.

The reality of the curse of knowledge was first demonstrated in a 1990 study by Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology.  Newton created a game where the players were given one of two roles:  “tappers” or “listeners.”  The tappers were given a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and were instructed to tap out the rhythm of the song on a table.  The listeners were then asked to guess the song.

When asked to predict how successful the listeners would be in identifying their songs, the tappers predicted 50%.  This prediction wasn’t close.  Of the 120 songs tapped out, the listeners guessed only three, a 2.5% success rate.  The curse of knowledge explains the large disparity between the tappers’ predictions and their actual success rate.  As they tapped out their tunes, they could not avoid hearing the song in their heads; the listeners, however, only heard the taps.  The tappers were “cursed” by their knowledge of the songs’ melodies and were unable to imagine what it was like for the listener to hear only the tapping (1).

To avoid the curse of knowledge, writers must do more than just TELL their point; instead, they must also SHOW it with specific, concrete, and varied evidence.  Furthermore, writers must try to see their writing from the perspective of the “listeners” — the audience — continually asking themselves what they are trying to say, whether or not they are saying it clearly, and whether or not it can be understood by someone who has never encountered the topic before.

As George Orwell wrote in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), effective writers are always thinking about their audience and are always interrogating themselves to make sure that they are being clear:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? (2)

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How did the results of the tappers and listeners study illustrate the problem that the curse of knowledge presents us when we try to communicate?

Challenge – PSA – How to Lift the Curse:  Write a public service announcement for speakers and writers on why understanding the curse of knowledge is essential for effective, clear communication with an audience.

Also on this day:  The prolific writer, biochemist, and legend of science fiction, Isaac Asimov was born this day in 1920.  As the author of over 500 books, Asimov knew how to overcome the curse of knowledge.  He was also humble enough to laugh at himself.  Read this anecdote that Asimov told to illustrate the difference between education and common sense.

HAPPY 55 FICTION DAY!

Sources:  

1-Heath, Chip and Dan Heath.  Made To Stick:  Why Some Ideas Die and Others Survive.  New York:  Random House, 2007.

2-Orwell, George.  “Politics and the English Language” (1946)