Word of the day: arithmomania

I learned a new word today: arithmomania, which means a compulsive desire to count things.

I found this word on Wikipedia, where I was reading about vampires. Among the practices used to keep vampires from emerging from their graves, people would sprinkle poppy seeds, millet, or sand over a grave. They believed that the vampire would stop to count these many small objects and, consequently, would not leave the graveyard.

I was instantly reminded of Count von Count, a character on Sesame Street. To help children learn their numbers, this Count would always stop to count things. He had a pale face, pointed teeth, and a long black cape—indeed, he was based on Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula. The joke that Count von Count loved to count was one of the many amusing things the writers of Sesame Street inserted into their educational programming for their own benefit and for that of parents and other guardians who had to sit through such programs with their children.

It is, of course, possible that the creators of Sesame Street knew about the European custom of tricking vampires into counting small objects in the cemeteries. It is more likely that they were unaware of the custom and simply liked joking about the title Count. It is even possible that the sentences attributing arithmomania to vampires are a prank that someone added to the Wikipedia entry. One can never be sure. J.

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About you

One person who is reading this post has been on my mind this afternoon. I have good news for you, Reader: things are not as bad as they seem. I know you have financial concerns, but I can assure you that what you need will be provided for you at just the right time. I know you are also worried about a dear one who is ill, but that person is receiving the proper medical care and will improve. I know that you recently had a strong disagreement with someone you love, and that you feel guilty about some of the things you said in the heat of anger. I can tell you that your loved one also regrets things that were said. A few gentle words from you, and an affirmation of your love, will calm the troubled waters of your relationship.

I know a lot about you. You are generally confident, but sometimes can be bewildered by the problems life throws your way. You like and respect most people, but a few kinds of people make you feel agitated and irritable. You are a good person, but not without faults, and you hope you have been able to keep those faults hidden. You aren’t sure how other people feel about you, and sometimes you are embarrassed by things you say or do that may seem peculiar to others. Yet you believe in the right to be yourself, and you do your best to avoid putting on an act for other people.

How do I know these things about you? Let me explain. Earlier today I was reading something on the Internet, and one thing led to another, and I went on an entire chain of interconnected items. One of those items was the Barnum effect (also called the Forer effect). What seems like a personal analysis can be built out of vague statements, combined with mentioning situations that are so common that they apply to almost anyone. When someone you trust tells you something about yourself, it sounds true—especially if the message is positive and comforting. People who experience the Barnum effect are frequently surprised that a stranger knows them so well.

The Barnum effect is used by astrologists and fortune tellers to draw and to keep an audience. It is especially effective in a crowded room, wherein general statements like those I used above produce a response from some of the people in the room. The performer then uses “cold reading” to make more precise statements to those people who respond to the initial statements. Cold reading involves watching a person’s facial expression and body languages to confirm facts about the person that a stranger wouldn’t know. Victims of cold reading are unaware how much information they are revealing during the conversation—they easily forget every wrong guess the performer made, but they remember all the right guesses that seemed to grow more detailed as they unconsciously confirm what the performer is saying.

A famous example of cold reading occurs in the movie The Wizard of Oz when a traveling performer meets Dorothy, gazes into a crystal ball, and tells her things about herself. (He also uses a bit of “hot reading” when he peeks into her purse and sees a photograph of Auntie Em.) His intentions toward Dorothy are kind, as he persuades her to return home. In most cases, people who practice cold reading are taking advantage of gullible people, often for money, but sometimes just to earn their respect and their thanks.

The Barnum effect combines with cold reading to make the performer appear to have genuine knowledge. When we are anxious to hear some good news, we will take the most general of statements and assume they apply uniquely to us. Personality profiles are popular for this reason—I generally am identified by Meyer-Briggs as INTJ, but I don’t really believe that the world’s population can be sorted into only sixteen types of personality. Quite the reverse; I’m convinced that many elements of personality exist, and that most of them flow on a scale rather than existing at one extreme or the other.

That said, I’m fascinated by the number of applications that exist for the Barnum effect. From making friends and influencing people to establishing a career based upon fraud and deception, the possibilities seem almost endless. J.

We remember

The primary national holiday of the United States of America is the Fourth of July, Independence Day. This holiday remembers, not a military battle or victory, but a document and the ideas it contains. The Declaration of Independence solemnly states that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” namely, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But a nation based upon ideas must still exist on the world stage, where wars and violent attacks are a way of life. Our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, remembers a British attack upon Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. This anthem is the first stanza of a four-stanza poem written by Francis Scott Key, who observed the shelling on September 13 and 14 of 1814 and saw that the national flag (at that time consisting of fifteen stripes and fifteen stars) was still flying at the end of the attack. Since that time, Americans have challenged one another to remember the Alamo, remember Gettysburg, remember the Maine, remember the Lusitania, remember Pearl Harbor, and remember 9-11. We also remember non-military tragedies, including the Hindenburg, the Titanic, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

These events loom in our mind as landmarks of history. We commemorate the lives lost, and we consider how our nation has responded to the attacks of our enemies. The sinking of the Lusitania and the bombing of Pearl Harbor were strategic military actions, but they drew us into World Wars. The terrorist attack of 9-11, on the other hand, was a deliberate act to oppose the ideas upon which the United States is based. Those who attacked were opposed to freedom, particularly freedom of religion and freedom of expression. They were opposed to the principles of human rights and the equality of all people. They chose the World Trade Center as a target because they fear economic opportunity which brings with it exposure to the American ideas of freedom, democracy, and liberty.

The War on Terror is different from the World Wars. In the World Wars we could identify our enemies, target their forces, and move toward victory in just a few years. Fighting the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS required different strategies and different goals. What is now America’s longest war remains a defense of liberty and freedom. We seek to preserve these ideas for ourselves, and we also offer them to all the people of the world.

We prevailed in the Cold War because our ideas were better than the ideas of the Soviet Union and its allies. We will prevail in the War on Terror because our ideas are better than those of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Military strength alone does not win wars; it provides, at best, temporary victories. The final victory belongs to those who are defending what is good and opposing what is evil.

We will not forget the three thousand victims of 9-11. We will not forget the police officers and fire fighters who fell while rushing into danger to save others. We will not forget the passengers of Flight 93 who refused to allow the airplane which held them to be used as a weapon against their country. They inspire us to continue to treasure the ideas for which our country stands. They inspire us to continue to support all those who battle to protect our nation and its principles. They inspire us to continue to pray for God’s blessings on our land and on all who live here. J.

The value of old newspapers

This week Doug asked me about the value of historic newspaper. Many people save them, of course: the newspapers that first gave the news that President Kennedy was shot, or that astronauts had walked on the moon, or that a war had begun or ended. I was sorry to have to tell Doug that the answer to his question is “absolutely no value at all.” That statement is more than a personal opinion; it is the word of a trained and certified archivist.

Why do old newspapers have no value? Let me count the ways:

  1. They printed so many of them. Most have disappeared into garbage cans, recycling bins, bird cages, and the like, but many copies of old newspapers remain stored in closets, attics, and basements. At least a bicentennial quarter is still worth twenty-five cents, but those quarters have not increased in value because so many were made. Even in the year 2076, a bicentennial quarter will probably be worth no more than twenty-five cents, because so many were minted.
  2. But newspapers diminish in value. If you tried to increase the value of a newspaper by putting it under glass and putting a frame around it, someone else might buy it from you, but probably only for the value of the frame. The buyer would most likely throw the newspaper away.
  3. For obvious reasons, newspapers are printed on low value paper. Over time, the acidic quality of the paper reacts to air, sunlight, temperature changes, humidity changes, and other factors. This is why newspapers become yellow and brittle over time. Their deterioration can be slowed by keeping them safe from sunlight and in a stable environment (unchanging temperature and humidity). Most of our attics and closets and basements are nowhere close to stable. In fact, it is very expensive to build a room that remains constant in temperature and humidity.
  4. As they deteriorate, newspapers release their acid onto adjoining surfaces, causing them also to darken and become more brittle. They can damage other papers which have more value, such as handwritten notes and letters. As an archivist, I always separate newspapers and newspaper clippings from other collections of paper. My first inclination is to discard the newspaper or clipping. I might, however, keep a set of clippings as an indication of the personal interest of the person who took the trouble to cut articles from newspapers. Especially if the clippings have underlines or handwritten notes, they are worth saving—not for financial value, but only for historic information about a person.
  5. Newspaper publishers and libraries keep copies of newspapers. To save storage space, they often preserve the images digitally or—more old-school—on microfilm. Some companies even make copies of old newspapers available through the internet. Because these images are readily available, no value remains in the original copy of a newspaper.

What should you do, then, with historic newspapers that you or your parents or grandparents have saved? My advice is to discard them. Use the storage space for more valuable items. Reduce your risk of fire, of insect infestation, and of damaging other papers you are saving. Get rid of excess baggage before you die, so that your family doesn’t have to wonder what to do with all your old trash.

If the newspaper has some sentimental value for you—maybe it is the front page from the day you were born—then take a picture of the paper before you discard it. Save that picture at least three different places: on your camera, on a desktop or laptop computer, on a portable memory, as an email attachment, or on the Cloud. Always save a digital image or document more than one place. From time to time you may wish to check your images; if one copy has been lost or damaged, you can replace it from one of your other copies.

But get rid of your discolored, crumbling, smelly, bulky newspapers. You will be glad you did. J.

The Times: they are a-changin’

 

Sixteen years ago (plus a few weeks), my family and I moved into the house where we live today. I arrived alone one Sunday—the others were staying with friends until the truck arrived with our stuff. I had a sleeping bag, a coffee maker, and a few other things I would need. I ran out to the store and bought I few things I had forgotten I would need—including a coffee mug—and made myself at home in the nearly empty house.

Early in the morning, when I was half-asleep and half-awake—for who can sleep soundly in new surroundings?—I heard a car stop outside the house. Somebody threw something at the house and then drove away. I wondered about that event as I drowsed, but when I was awake and dressed, I found a copy of the local newspaper lying on the front steps.

That morning, I phoned the circulation number of that newspaper, told them that the previous owners had moved, but I wanted to receive the daily newspaper. I gave them a credit card number, and for the past sixteen years I have had a newspaper to read each morning. There were a few days when delivery failed to happen because of ice and snow, but otherwise I’ve been able to eat breakfast and sip my coffee and read the world news, national news, local news, sports items, human interest items, comics, and opinion pieces at my leisure.

The newspaper is a mild luxury—rates rose to the point that I’ve been paying roughly a dollar a day to receive the news printed on paper. But I’ve read newspapers ever since I was a little boy and my father brought the afternoon paper home each day and picked up two different Sunday papers each week. When I was in college, my friends and I split the cost of a subscription and shared the daily paper. Rarely have I been without a newspaper to read each morning—generally only on vacations, and even then I sometimes was able to get access to a newspaper.

This morning, a note was included with my morning paper. The carrier is no longer going to deliver to some subscribers on her route. I assume that, since I received the note, I am one of the subscribers who will be dropped.

The newspaper is making a transition to becoming purely electronic and digital. The editors expect to keep charging a dollar a day for people to read the daily news on their phones and other devices. I am not going to be one of those digital readers. I already pay for an internet connection, and I can get news and sports information and even comics for no additional charge online. The newspaper office is closed today, but tomorrow I am phoning circulation, canceling my subscription, and asking for a refund of any outstanding balance.

For years the decline of the newspaper has been predicted, announced, and considered. The newspaper I’ve received for the last sixteen years is imitating many more famous newspapers in making this transition to a digital format. Many other newspapers have gone out of business. I suspect this newspaper will go out of business soon; I don’t think many of their loyal readers are going to pay a dollar a day for information already available online.

Change happens, whether we like it or not. I’m not really complaining—after all, I am sharing this news in a digital format. But I will miss that morning read, and getting the news off a computer screen will not be the same. It may take a while for me to adjust to this new way of life. J.