Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Why does "what the ----" mean what it means?

Let's start gently. If someone says "What the heck are you doing?" we know what he or she means. Adding the words "the heck" to the question "what are you doing?" makes clear that the speaker is expressing at least as much criticism as inquiry.

But why does the phrase mean this? How does "the heck" come to mean something like "madness" or "folly" - so that "what the heck are you doing" means "what folly are you committing?"

I'm not sure what "the heck" is. Is there even such a thing as a heck? Probably not, but there is a thing, or at least an idea, of "hell" and pretty clearly "what the heck" is a softened version of "what the hell."

But what does "what the hell" mean? Just reading these three words, by themselves, it's hard to figure out what they could possibly mean. But I guess they are a contraction of a phrase that would have some meaning: "what in the hell." Then the speaker is saying that what you're doing is something that fits in hell.

Fine. But why "what in the hell?" instead of "what in hell"? No one says "go to the hell" or "not till the hell freezes over." And they do sometimes say "what in hell" - those very words, which seem to do the job precisely. So where did the "the" come from? And where did the "in" go? Somehow, it seems, "in" got traded for "the."

There's another problem. We can understand "what the heck/hell" as a somewhat garbled reference to a locale where bad things are to be found. But what about "what the f---?" (I won't spell it out, this being a family-friendly blog.) "The f---" is not a place. I guess the usual human ambivalence about sex could make being "in" or associated with that activity a bad thing. But I still don't see where the "the" comes in.

Of course, we could explain "what the f---" as just a more surly or sexual version of "what the heck/hell," and that phrase, again, as meaning "what in heck/hell." But I wonder whether the whole location explanation (based on the invisible "in") is just after-the-fact rationalization. Maybe people just like to throw nasty words into their sentences, and like it so much that they happily throw grammar and literal meaning out the window in the process. 

After all, language serves us - not the other way around. The rules of grammar are rules we make. But I still don't get what the heck the rule is that explains "what the heck."

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why fanaticism comes in handy

Why do people believe with such intensity in things that have no direct bearing on their lives at all? Why, for example, would people kill each other because they disagree about the nature of the afterlife?

One answer is that the question of the true nature of the afterlife is important, and I’m willing to agree with that. But it’s still, shall we say, abstract. And someone else’s misconception about it doesn’t have much direct impact on us. So why do we get so upset about questions like this? And isn’t it a big disadvantage for us as a species if we get so irrationally upset?

Another answer is that we don’t actually get upset about questions like this; we get upset about other, much more material and rational questions – wealth, power and so on – and mask them in the language of ideals and abstractions. There’s certainly some truth to this too.

But that answer makes the assertion of our ideals seem like a charade, and a pretty transparent one at that. I think the capacity to believe, sincerely and even fanatically, in ideals is not a charade and not entirely a weakness. If people need to be part of groups to survive, then they need something to make those groups hold together, and hold together even when rational temptations might cause them to dissolve. Holding ardent, shared beliefs is a group-promoting behavior.

So it seems to me that over human history the capacity to become deeply attached to ideals was probably a useful survival strategy. Even martyrdom in the name of those ideals was probably useful – not to the individual giving his or her life, of course, but to the group of which the martyr was a part.

Certainly it might be argued that what was useful to our ancestors, living on the border of the state of nature, is now just dangerous for us. Fanaticism is dangerous for us – not only for the innocent victims of the fanatics’ zeal but even for the fanatics and their causes. To be clear, I'm not in favor of fanaticism at all. But still I fear we have not moved so far from the state of nature that group solidarity, which ardent belief fuels, has lost its value.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Visiting Norway's fjords

My wife and I have just been vacationing in western Norway, a very beautiful place. After I attended a conference of the International Association of Constitutional Law in Oslo, we headed west in a rental car to see the fjords. They were spectacularly beautiful – the sort of place you’d want to stay forever, if only Norway wasn’t so expensive, and if only the wonderfully long summer days weren’t inevitably followed by extremely long winter nights.

What’s more, the fjords are very accessible: Norway has built a network of roads, ferries and tunnels that make getting from place to place quite straightforward. The tunnels, in particular, are quite remarkable – they can be over 20 kilometers long and a couple of them included roundabouts like the roundabouts at road intersections above ground!

But here’s a funny thing: we were interested in learning something of the country, and so we would sometimes ask the employees in the hotels or restaurants we visited to tell us where they were from. The answer, repeatedly, was: not from Norway. We met a Swede, a Finn, and a German.

A few conversations aren’t a study, to put it mildly, but if we did stumble on an actual social phenomenon, perhaps it’s not so surprising. One person told us that Norwegians didn’t like to work in “service”; I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but Norway wouldn’t be the first country whose people delegated less desirable jobs to foreigners. I’m more partial to the theory a second person offered: that some Norwegians didn’t want to stay in the out-of-the-way fjord country. We thought staying there would be great, but we weren’t actually planning to stay, and fjords and mountains for many people don’t offer much of an answer to the question “what can I do on Friday night?”

Human beings aren’t an easy bunch to satisfy!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The admission fee at the 9/11 Memorial Museum

I haven't yet been to this Museum and am not sure I will ever want to. But we needed to build this museum. Now the museum is open, but it charges an admission fee of $24. 

I didn't like this news when I first heard it (thoughtfully covered, by the way, by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times) and I'm not thrilled by it now. But it is less troubling, and harder to fix, than I'd first thought.

It's been said that the reason for the high charge is that there is no federal subsidy for the museum's operating costs (and not enough subsidy from anyone else either). There's plenty wrong in Washington these days, of course, but evidently the federal government did provide $250 million, hardly a small amount, towards the memorial's construction costs. The museum's estimated operating costs are reported in Cohen's article as $63 million a year; should the taxpayers be on the hook for this sum too? (A major reason the costs are this high is security, at a site that, as its president has pointed out, has twice been attacked by terrorists -- though whether the security measures are actually necessary can certainly be debated.) 

How does one measure the value of a memorial? Obviously, in one sense its value is limitless and unmeasurable. But few things are really completely beyond valuation -- we determine, regularly, how much to spend on them, and how much we spend is a measure, however, imprecise, of value. So we might ask how the 9/11 memorial's value compares to other memorials, of which there are quite a few. Here's one such comparison, from a 2012 news report:
A report Sunday by The Associated Press noted that $12 million a year would be spent on security, more than the entire operating budgets of Gettysburg National Military Park and the monument that includes the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
Here's another: the US Holocaust Memorial Museum charges no admission fee, and receives $52.4 million in federal funding to help cover its operating costs. Can we say that these costs rightly measure the value of these memorials? Or are they at least as much the result of the vagaries of history and politics?

We might ask, instead, what the impact of the ticket price will be on the place this memorial will come to have in people's hearts. The answer seems to me to be that $24 is enough to mean that the memorial will not be casually visited by anyone who isn't well off. $24 isn't an impossible sum, but it is three hours of work at the current $8 minimum wage in New York - more than that, actually, since that minimum wage employee would have money taken from his or her paycheck for social security and other taxes. To decide to spend three hours or more's worth of income on coming to the museum, a minimum wage worker will have to really want to make this trip. Someone with less than a minimum wage income may be unable to pay this amount no matter how much she might want to. 

But the museum is not altogether beyond anyone's reach. The memorial's website notes that there are three hours of free admission on Tuesday evenings; discounts for military, firefighters and police; and free admission for 9/11 family members. Maybe it isn't really likely that many people would casually visit the museum anyway, even if its admission charges were much less. 

So perhaps the memorial will serve its purpose. For those who want to visit, it is there and not entirely out of anyone's reach. For those who remember 9/11 but do not want or need to visit a memorial, its simple existence may have meaning. But it is hard not to worry that over time the Memorial will become a part of the city's glittering cultural sphere, available to all under some restrictions but still primarily serving only a limited group of people. That will be too bad. Perhaps it reflects that this memorial is simply too elaborate, as some have suggested. Or perhaps it reflects that we as a people cannot afford today the sort of memorial we would like, and must therefore rely on the charity of some and the admission charges (and gift-shop payments) of others to sustain us. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

What's underneath us (or at least underneath Manhattan)?

Here’s an odd question: where is ground level in Manhattan, or more precisely in lower Manhattan?

I ask because I found myself the other day, in Tribeca (which is near the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan), looking down on a narrow space between a building and a street-level parking lot. It wouldn’t have been odd to look down there at a stairway coming up from a basement. But here what I was looking at, 10 or 15 feet below me, was ground, complete with a couple of trees growing out of it. It rather looked as if the street level where I was standing was not the true ground level at all, but rather the result of piling who knows what – concrete, pipes, power-lines, etc., etc., etc. – on top of the ground to reach where I now stood.

I tried to google this, and learned that Manhattan is built on granite that’s hard to tunnel down into. As a result, evidently, many Manhattan subway lines aren’t very far beneath the ground. But what I’m wondering about is roughly the opposite: how far above the ground has the city chosen to perch itself? I’m sure the answer is different in different parts of the city, but I begin to think that as a general matter the whole place has been built up several feet, at least, above the actual ground. New York’s skyscrapers are a remarkable sight, of course, but the idea that the bottom of the city, perhaps most of an entire island, might have been built up this much is quite remarkable too.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

And not to be forgotten - the persistence of anti-Semitism

While we’re on the subject of prejudice, let us not forget anti-Semitism, a vintage prejudice that definitely has not gone away. According to the ADL Global 100, a study based on a recent poll undertaken on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League in 101 countries, the West Bank and Gaza, with a total population of 4.16 billion, 1.09 billion “harbor[] Anti-Semitic attitudes.” That’s a somewhat murky phrase, but closer examination makes it seem worse rather than better. Survey respondents were “considered to harbor anti-Semitic attitudes” if they felt that at least 6 of the following 11 statements were “probably true”:

1.  Jews are more loyal to Israel than to [this country/the countries they live in – the latter phrase was used in countries where Jews made up no more than 0.1 % of the population]
2. Jews have too much power in international financial markets
3. Jews have too much control over global affairs
4. Jews think they are better than other people
5. Jews have too much control over the global media
6. Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars
7. Jews have too much power in the business world
8. Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind
9. People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave
10. Jews have too much control over the United States government
11. Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust

It seems from the ADL’s description that survey respondents were asked only about these 11 statements, and – without being a survey researcher – I can imagine that hearing this grim series of statements might actually have reinforced the respondents’ prejudiced feelings. So perhaps the results are somewhat overstated. But still it’s quite something to agree with at least 6 out of these 11, as the survey reports 1.09 billion people do (to be sure, with a statistical sampling error, reported as 0.97 % for the weighted global average, more for some of the individual countries).

If there are, as the Jewish Virtual Library website reports (for 2012), 13,746,100 Jews in the world, then it seems to be the case that for each Jew in existence there are about 79 people who hold a negative opinion of them. I wonder what proportion of those 1.09 billion anti-Semites have even met a Jew. It’s not surprising, given today’s world politics, that 74 % of those sampled in the Middle East and North Africa hold such views, but the statistics from the rest of the world also bear remembering:

            Eastern Europe:          34 %
            Western Europe:         24 %
   Sub-Saharan Africa:   23 %
   Asia:                            22 %
   The Americas:            19 %
   Oceania:                      14 %

Some things never change!

How far we've come -- and how far we haven't

You may know the Goya portrait that's now nicknamed “Red Boy” – a tremendously winning picture of a 4-year-old child of the Spanish nobility, decked out in a red suit with a big sash, in his right hand a string attached to the leg of a pet magpie, at whom three cats gaze intently and hungrily. It turns out, as the Spring 2014 issue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Bulletin (“Goya and the Altamiras”) explains, that Goya painted not only this little boy, whose name was Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, but several other members of his extremely rich and powerful family, the Altamiras. The boy’s father held so many titles that he used to sign things “el marqués conde duque” (27). Their wealth shouts across two centuries in these portraits. But there was one thing these tremendously privileged people didn’t have, that most people in the developed world today enjoy: decent health. Poor little “Red Boy” was dead at the age of 8 (34). Huge amounts of human efforts have transformed the lives of many, not yet most, people since he lived his brief years of privilege.

Meanwhile, however, in case you thought all was well at least for the privileged portion of humanity living in the developed world, here’s this note from a study by Katherine Milkman of The Wharton School and two colleagues, Modupe Akinola and Dolly Chugh, as reported by Shankar Vedantam for NPR on April 22, 2014 (and also by several other news outlets): The authors sent 6500 e-mails to faculty around the country, expressing admiration for the recipient’s work and asking to meet with him or her. The e-mails that were identical in every respect except the names of the signers, names that had been chosen to strongly suggest the gender and/or ethnicity of the supposed senders. 

The responses, however, were not identical. The e-mails seeming to have come from women and minorities were answered less, and the requests for a meeting were accepted less, than was the case for the e-mails sent by men and whites. (There were other intriguing findings: humanities professors stood out for their nondiscriminatory behavior, while natural sciences faculty discriminated more and business academics were the worst; black, Hispanic and female faculty behaved no better than their white male counterparts; and Asian students were subject to “tremendous bias.”) 

There are many such studies of what one hopes is unconscious discrimination – I blogged about another not long ago – but this is the first I’ve heard of that addressed the behavior of people who one might have hoped would be especially vigilant to avoid discriminatory conduct. It turns out many of them apparently aren't. And this isn't just irritating; Vedantam presents the study as shedding light on mentoring in higher education, and indeed the study can be seen as a rough gauge of the likelihood that a young person's search for senior mentors will bear fruit. Mentoring, in turn, can matter a lot to academic success. 

In sum: we’ve learned pretty well how to give ourselves our full span of years, but we haven’t mastered treating each other decently along the way.