The third time’s the charm

Somehow I acquired the information that a vampire or similar undead being could only go into a dwelling place after being invited three times to enter. Some research on the internet this morning has convinced me that the three times is incorrect. That’s a shame, because the story I am about to tell would be much more interesting if it were true. As for being unable to enter without an invitation, that depends entirely on the author or scriptwriter, but it is a very common rule. Given the amount of trouble and damage these beings can accomplish, it’s only fair to limit them in some way. Of course they are accomplished at guile, deceit, and charm to get in the door when they so desire.

Garlic, silver, crosses, and other items are supposed to be effective against the undead. They do not work with telemarketers. Having your telephone number on the official “do not call” list is supposed to keep telemarketers away, but there are exceptions to that rule. Charities and political groups are exempt. Also, if you already have a relationship with a company, its telemarketers can call you to offer new or improved products.

So I was working at home one evening this week when the telephone rang. The caller was from the company that provides our television service. My family does not watch enough live TV (not counting DVDs) to get our money’s worth for that service, but it comes in combination with internet and telephone service. At any rate, this caller wanted to thank us for being good customers and was offering a special deal. A group of new channels would be added to our package at no cost for the next three months and only five dollars a month afterward. She listed the new channels she was offering and simply needed for me to say OK. Since this was a special offer for good customers, she seemed completely convinced that I’d be happy and agree to the offer.

I did not agree. I told her that we wouldn’t bother to watch those additional channels even if we had them, and I did not want to have to try to remember to cancel them after three months to avoid the higher rate. As if she had not heard me, she ran through the entire script a second time, again assuming that I was going to say OK. Again, I thanked her and told her we weren’t interested. At this point she asked what I like to watch on TV. Not mentioning the DVDs, I let her know that mostly I watched sports—especially baseball—and also kept up on local weather and news. Hearing the word “sports” she again tried to sign me up for this special offer, mentioning some sports-related part of the package. I politely declined the third time, and the conversation finally ended.

This is where I wanted to compare the telemarketer to a vampire who must be invited three times before entering the house. Since that is not the case, my analogy falls flat. Clearly, though, this telemarketer had been trained to continue the pitch until the third time she heard a “no.” That is a common sales technique and did surprise me at all.

Two nights later she called again—or, more likely, another telemarketer with the same offer and a similar voice. When she had spoken her spiel the first time, I politely replied that I had turned down that offer just the other day. In a polite voice, I added, “and to save us both time, I say again, no, and a third time, no.” My gambit succeeded: she ended the conversation very quickly and hung up.

It’s not like wearing garlic, but it works. J.

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Lyin’ with the liars

Is it wrong to lie to someone if that person is lying to you?

One day last week I was working at home when the telephone rang. The caller identified himself with a certain electric power company. He told me that technicians were coming to my house within forty-five minutes to shut off the power because we were behind on our payments. I let him know that this confused me since our electricity does not come from the company he had named. (That part is true; we’re part of an electric cooperative.) He verified my name and address and insisted that the power would be shut off unless I called his company at another number, and he demanded that I write down the number.

I did write it down, then I typed it into Google. Not getting any useful information about the number, I typed the name of the company and the word “scam.” I was led to a page that described his call and said that the follow-up call would be demanding that money be wired to keep the power from being cut.

A few minutes later he called a second time, apologized, and said he had given me the wrong number. He gave a different number that was one digit higher than the first number. I said I understood, told him good-bye, and hung up.

Then I thought of the lie I wish I had said. “I need to warn you that this conversation is being recorded,” I wanted to say, “and is being shared with law enforcement officials in your area as we speak.” If scammers want to scare me, why shouldn’t I give them a scare in return?

The next time a live person (not a recording) tries to convince me that the power is going to be cut or that something is wrong with my computer or that my credit card has been compromised, I will let them know that they are being recorded and can expect the police or FBI to be knocking on their door in the next forty-five minutes. I just wish I could see their faces when I tell them that lie. J.

Untitled

A bumper sticker forced me to smile yesterday—not so much because of its humor, but more for the sense of perspective it provided. “I had friends on that Death Star,” it said. Somehow life’s problems don’t seem so big when they are compared to the big problems other people have, whether in real life or in the movies.

I’ve been in an emotional trough this winter and spring. Several things have contributed to this low, some under my control and others not. Most of them I’m not inclined to share at this time. But two specific events this week have tested my spirit. We speak of “first world problems” and compare them to the violence, poverty, hunger, disease, and abuse that other people endure every day in this world. I’m not asking for anyone’s sympathy. (Prayers are always welcome.) But today I’m feeling stressed and blue, and I just thought I’d share a few things.

Wednesday I had the oil changed in my car. Thursday when I started the car, the “Service Engine Light” came on. I happen to drive past the service garage on my way to work, so I pulled in there and waited twenty minutes for them to open. A young man looked at the car quickly, said that rain water had gotten on the spark plugs, and the car was good to go. I got to work and back and to school and back without any problem. Then, Friday the light was on again. (Don’t sing to me about Paradise by the Dashboard Lights. Dashboard lights are always bad news.) I didn’t want to lose another twenty minutes, so I drove to work, and then stopped at the garage on my way home. The manager didn’t have a mechanic to spare—they were all in the middle of big jobs, so he suggested I stop by first thing Saturday morning. I did that, and after waiting half an hour, I was told that there is a small oil leak by the cam. It will cost about $100 to repair and will take about an hour. I didn’t have that hour today—I am scheduled to work all day—but the mechanic said the car will operate safely through the weekend. So I will stop by the garage again for that repair Monday morning.

It’s stressful driving a car with a warning light ablaze. It’s stressful not knowing what is wrong and how dangerous it might be and how much it might cost. It’s only slightly better knowing those things.

But now the plot thickens. When I got home Friday afternoon, I was told that my youngest daughter was at one of those clinics that have popped up around the city to replace hospital emergency rooms. Details were sparse, but she had hurt her foot. So I drove to the clinic. Her foot was being X-rayed when I arrived. She had been at the final run-through for a play in which she was scheduled to appear Friday night and today. She had spent hours rehearsing with the cast, singing, dancing, assembling costumes. This was to be a really big deal. The last two years her love for live theater has grown, and this was to be her first time on stage in a show for an audience. Career plans may be in the works.

Anyhow, the mother of another girl her age had driven my daughter home from the rehearsal, and my daughter realized that she had forgotten her house key. No one was home, and the front door was locked. She told the driver and the daughter that she could get in through the back door. Evidently this has been done before; no one ever told me. Our house is two stories, with a deck on the back that enters the upper floor; the deck is surrounded by a waist-high rail. There is no stairway to the ground. But my daughter said that with a boost from the other girl she could get to the rail and over and then get into the house. (Yes—we often left that door unlocked, because I didn’t think anyone could get to the deck from the ground. That has now changed.)

Instead of getting onto the deck, my daughter fell and landed hard on her foot. Then they proceeded with what should have been their first plan: they drove to the mall where another of my daughters was working and borrowed her house key. When my daughter came home from work and saw how much her sister’s foot was swollen, she knew medical help was needed and took her sister to the clinic. I met my daughter there, and soon the doctor was with us after seeing the X-rays. He said that no bones are broken but there is soft tissue damage that will need two weeks or more to heal. Meanwhile, she is to keep off the foot—no sports, no dancing, and definitely no performing in this play.

My daughter burst into tears. I felt heartsick myself. The doctor tried to lighten the mood, but to no avail. As we drove home, my daughter repeatedly berated herself for doing such a stupid thing. Though I was tempted to agree with her assessment, I was a good father and spoke more kindly to her, saying that accidents happen and there will be other shows in her future and anything else that came to mind to try to ease her burden.

Again, these events are on top of other stuff going on that I may or may not share. In the grand scale of life it’s small stuff. In fact, as I was driving to the pharmacy to fill a pain medicine prescription for my daughter, I saw a car ahead of me pull to a stop. The driver then turned into a driveway, stopped and got out of her car. I saw her begin talking with an older woman who was wearing a sweat shirt and what appeared to be pajama pants. The older woman had a confused look on her face. My mind supplied the rest of the story—perhaps accurate, perhaps not. Mom has dementia and went wandering, and her daughter had to drive around town searching for her. Impulsive teenagers and their fathers have no monopoly on life’s problems.

I hope your weekend is going well. J.

 

Privacy (and where yours has gone)

Never in history has personal privacy been more protected by law. Yet never in history have people sacrificed their own privacy so completely. 

If you confess a sin to your pastor or priest, that member of the clergy cannot tell anyone else that you have said—not even a police officer, or a judge and jury during a trial. Your confession remains private among yourself, your confessor, and the Lord. 

Health professionals are also required to keep your information confidential. They cannot even share your information among one another for your own good without your permission. If you are in the hospital and a family member or friend (or your pastor or priest) calls the hospital for information about you, the hospital workers cannot say anything about you—not even whether you are there. 

If you are a student, your teachers cannot discuss your academic progress without your permission. If you are under eighteen, your parents or guardians have access to that information; otherwise, even they cannot know your grades unless you allow them access. A professor, teacher, or instructor cannot even give you information about your grade by email or over the telephone because of the risk that some other person may impersonate you to get this information. 

Your financial information is similarly protected. Your bank, your lending agency, your credit card company, and anyone else involved with your money cannot discuss your finances without your permission. Even your tax returns are confidential and cannot be discussed unless you have given permission for that to happen. 

To protect all this privacy, the entities that use our information frequently inform us what they are doing with the confidential information we share with them. Medical clinics, banks, credit card companies, and the like constantly bombard us with written descriptions of what information they have and what they do with it. When we see the doctor or when we open an account or take out a loan, we sign documents about our personal information. How many of us read all those documents and remember what permission we have given these entities to share that information? How many of us are careful to restrict every bank and school and health-related facility to minimal sharing? How many of us acknowledge with our signatures that we have read the documents about privacy and approved their contents—without actually having read them or even received a copy of them? 

With all this protection, no one can stop you from sharing private information where and when you choose. You can put up a poster downtown telling anyone who reads it who you are, what your health and grades and finances are, and any other personal information you choose to share. You can write a letter to the newspaper or buy an ad and tell the newspaper’s readers anything you want to share about yourself. You can write a letter to a government worker—whether elected or appointed—and anything you say about yourself in that letter becomes part of the public record which any researcher may access. You may post information about your private life on Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, or any other social media platform, and what you have revealed about yourself is available to any person or computer in the world that has internet access. 

Even the research you conduct online is publicly available, unless you take extraordinary precautions to protect your privacy. Social media platforms and search engines and internet sites all keep track of your online activity, and the things you have done on your computer are available to government agencies, corporations, hackers, and anyone else curious about your life. Anything you tell your Facebook friends is public information. Prospective employers can read about your weekend parties. Prospective thieves can preview your vacation plans. Research an illness, and medical companies target you as a prospective consumer. Look on Google once to see if there was ever a purple Volkswagen Beetle (there was), and you will receive pop-up ads from Volkswagen for months. 

Some elements of this lack of privacy bother me less than they bother most people. If my neighbor is using the internet to learn how to make a bomb and then is using the internet to buy bomb-making supplies, I don’t mind the fact that law enforcement officers will be watching my neighbor and perhaps preventing a crime from happening, or at least shortening a string of potential crimes. For that protection from violence, I am willing to allow government agents to read about my political and religious views as I express them on Facebook or WordPress; the First Amendment protects me from any negative government reaction to my opinions. 

I am less content about my permanent record being open to private corporations whose interest in my life focuses on selling me goods and services I might or might not want. My on-line shopping and on-line research have created a public profile of my life that in some ways is frighteningly accurate and in other ways is comically distorted. Because I was curious about cerebral films starring Peter Sellers (having enjoyed Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, and Being There), I now see regular Facebook promotions for the Pink Panther movies. Similar searches for various actresses appears to have convinced some corporation that I am interested in dating Russian or Asian women.  

Ignoring advertisements for things I don’t want is easy. Sensing that news stories and other items are being sent my direction based on assumptions about my opinions bothers me more. Because I am comfortable with my own beliefs, I want and value access to a wide range of opinions and information. I prefer not to have amazon or Facebook or WordPress suggest to me what I might like because of previous online activity. I prefer not to have search engines tailor my results to choices I have made in the past. I prefer not to receive telephone calls or mail selected for me by a computer because of something I have viewed online. I prefer not to have computers monitor my thinking and try to predict my thinking, out of concern that their input today may well flavor my thinking tomorrow.

Since the 1950s (if not before), science fiction writers have warned of a future world in which machines think for people and tell people what to think. We are closer to that dystopia being reality than ever before. The machines that want to serve us—and that, along the way, may begin to control us—come not from a totalitarian government or a worldwide conspiracy, but from corporations that want our money, or at least that want to generate money by selling our information.

Can Congress or other parts of the government protect our privacy? Probably not. We tend to discard privacy for convenience far more often than legislation can prevent. The more we ask government to guard our privacy, the more likely we are to surrender that privacy to government. The more we reveal about ourselves to social media and other non-government agencies, the less privacy we keep to ourselves. Our best choice is not to legislate privacy, but to preserve privacy by our individual choices. J.

Movie review: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

I bought the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for one reason: the movie celebrates the city of Chicago. Other members of my family do not approve—not that they don’t love Chicago, but because they are involved in education. The depiction of high school, and especially of teachers and administrators, in the movie is insulting, no doubt. All the same, the movie is widely regarded as a reminder to enjoy life, to seize the day, and to make one’s life worth living.

Like many other John Hughes movies, Ferris Bueller involves high school students who are confronted with an adult world that they neither understand nor respect. Set in the 1980s (the time period in which these movies were made), Hughes’ work can be regarded as commentary upon the Baby Boomers, a generation that questioned authority and made their own rules in the 1960s, only to become every bit as rigid and authoritarian when they rose to positions of power. The youngsters in Hughes’ stories are not taking to the streets to protest, nor are they seeking Flower Power. In many ways they are conformists, even though they quietly resent the lives they are forced to live. Generally wealthy, well-dressed, even pampered, they lack a loving connection to their parents. As a result, they form their own tribal culture which grants them an identity which comes from themselves and not from the adults who make all the rules.

Ferris Bueller is supposed to be a likeable character. Even the school secretary reports that most students in the school like and admire Ferris—“They say he’s a righteous dude.” But Ferris is dishonest, manipulative, conniving, self-centered, and smug. Some reviewers have labeled him a psychopath. He breaks into the school’s computer system and changes his attendance record—probably also his grades, although that is not shown. He sets up an elaborate system of props and sound effects to cover his absence from his bedroom, should anyone check on him. He faces the camera and speaks to the audience (which is hardly new or clever; Woody Allen did it earlier, and far better, in Annie Hall). Ferris gives instructions about how to deceive one’s parents and be excused from school due to illness. Ferris’ sister Jeannie is not fooled by his ruse, and neither is the school principal. But the movie’s script demands that Ferris succeed at everything he tries. He is a prankster like Till Eulenspiegel; and, as with Till, the audience is expected to be on the side of Ferris Bueller.

Ferris has a friend, Cameron, who is also missing school due to illness. Ferris decides that Cameron’s illnesses are psychosomatic, a result of neglect from Cameron’s parents. Besides, Ferris does not have a car and Cameron does. In short order, Ferris browbeats Cameron into getting out of bed and getting dressed and driving to the Bueller house. He then forces Cameron to pose as the father of Ferris’ girlfriend Sloane, getting her released from school through the phony news of the death of a grandmother. Still manipulating Cameron, Ferris gets access to the prized possession of Cameron’s father, an expensive sportscar. With that vehicle, they escape into the city to enjoy a baseball game at Wrigley Field, lunch at a fancy restaurant, a German heritage parade, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Meanwhile, the school principal is determined to catch Ferris playing hooky. In a series of cartoonish events, Mr. Rooney attempts to visit the Bueller house, only to be struck by misfortune after misfortune. He is like Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner, except this time the Roadrunner has all the props from Acme. Mr. Rooney tangles repeatedly with a fierce dog. Then, when he finally gets into the house, he is attacked by Jeannie, who—not recognizing him—calls the police to report an intruder in the house.

In every story, something is supposed to happen to the main character that changes him or her. No such thing happens to Ferris Bueller on his day off. He catches a foul ball at Wrigley Field, he commandeers the sound system of a parade float to serenade his friends and the city in general, and he returns home in the nick of time to escape capture by his parents. Some people suggest that Ferris Bueller does not even exist in the movie. They suggest that Ferris is an imaginary character, created by Cameron to be all the things that Cameron cannot be. Although this explanation does not match all the events in the script, it does underline the key to the movie: nothing but good happens to Ferris, and he is unchanged at the end of the movie, but his day off does provide important changes in most of the other characters in the movie.

Sloane does not change. She is there mostly to stand next to Ferris and look pretty. Cameron admires her, and she shows warmth toward him, but she is definitely Ferris’ girl. They even speak lightly of becoming married.  This does not stop Ferris from flirting with young ladies on a parade float. Later, he interrupts a mad dash across the back yards of his neighborhood to introduce himself to two sunbathers. That’s how little respect he has for Sloane. At the same time, though, Cameron, Jeannie, and Mr. Rooney each experience important changes in the movie, changes that would not have happened without Ferris Bueller’s day off.

Cameron begins as a deeply troubled character. He is in bed with symptoms said to be brought on by neglect from his parents. As he prepares to heed Ferris’ call to drive to the Bueller house, Cameron suffers an anxiety attack, crying out and striking the seat of the car. Overcoming his rage, he then has a tussle with his best friend in the midst of his phone call to the school principal. The purloining of his father’s car weighs upon his spirits throughout the day off. Finally, when the group discovers that the garage attendants have taken the car for a spin (adding to the mileage recorded on the odometer, something Cameron’s father monitors carefully), Cameron drops into what appears to be a catatonic state. Even if he is faking it, his choice to respond to his problem in that way, and his success in holding the state for a good length of time, indicate severe emotional health problems. He ends his catanoia with the appearance of an attempted suicide by drowning—again, not an emotionally healthy choice.

After the episode at the swimming pool, the group returns to the garage holding the precious sports car. Once again Cameron suddenly strikes out in anger, kicking and flailing at his father’s car. Realizing that he has damaged the car, Cameron begins to assess his need to deal with his father, no longer to hide behind illnesses and silence. Before he can assimilate that reality, though, the car shoots out the rear of the garage and crashes below the house. “You killed the car,” Ferris observes. Although Ferris weakly offers to take blame for the incident, Cameron refuses. He is going to use the disaster involving the car to assert himself to his father. He is finally going to stand up for himself. This is the last we see of Cameron in the movie.

Meanwhile, Jeannie faces changes of her own. She begins the movie irritated with her brother and his ability to do as he chooses without any negative consequences. After she discovers students in the school hallway raising money to help with Ferris’ feigned illness, she tries to report his crime to the principal, but Mr. Rooney has already left the school in pursuit of Ferris. When Jeannie returns home, she senses the presence of an intruder in the house and calls the police for help. Waiting for them to arrive, she hears a noise in the kitchen. In self-defense she assaults the intruder, not recognizing him as Mr. Rooney. When the police arrive, they find no evidence of an intruder in the house, overlooking Mr. Rooney’s wallet, which he had dropped in the Bueller kitchen. (The police bumble as badly as every other adult figure of authority in the movie.)

Taking her to the police station to charge her with placing a false report, the police leave her for a few minutes sitting next to a drug-dazed Charlie Sheen. In their brief conversation, Sheen gives Jeannie a new outlook on life, beginning with the ability to let Ferris be Ferris without being bothered by whatever he does. Jeannie gets to act on this advice driving her mother home from the police station. Seeing her brother sneaking through the neighborhood, Jeannie begins to drive erratically, distracting her mother and delaying so Ferris can return home safely. He nearly makes it, but he finally is confronted by Mr. Rooney. At this point, Jeannie has found Mr. Rooney’s wallet in the house. She can vindicate herself before the police and still see Ferris suffer for his crimes. Instead, she uses the wallet to blackmail the principal and prevent her brother from the punishment he deserves. Is this turn against authority and responsibility a permanent change for Jeannie or only a temporary softening of her heart? We do not know; her part in the story is over.

This leaves Mr. Rooney. His car has been towed. His nice suit and shoes have been ruined. His body and his pride have been damaged. Now comes a final humiliation. A school bus, filled with students from his school, is ready to take him back to his office. Bedraggled like the Coyote after every attempt to catch the Roadrunner, Mr. Rooney walks down the aisle of the bus. The students stare vacantly at him; in their own way, they have faced a day as tough as his day. One girl takes sympathy upon the principal, offering him a seat and a piece of candy. Has Mr. Rooney learned his lesson? Will his bus ride help him to empathize with the students and care more about their lives? Again, we do not know. Mr. Rooney is left on the bus.

We do not learn about Cameron and his father, or about Jeannie and her new attitude, or about Mr. Rooney and his revelation. This is not their movie. It is Ferris Bueller’s day off. Because he does not care about these people, except for the parts they play in his own entertainment, we are not expected to care about them. Ferris underlines this attitude by addressing the audience one more time after the closing credits. Informing them that the movie is over and they should go home, he reinforces his point. He claimed a day off to enjoy himself, and the effect that has had on other people does not matter to him. In this, he completes his role as the merry prankster.

Moreover, Daylight Saving Time must be abolished. J.

Time to change time

Daylight Saving Time was never a good idea. It has become increasingly irrelevant. Yet, for no good reason, most citizens of the United States of America will change their clocks this weekend, losing an hour of sleep, delaying sunset by an hour but also delaying sunrise by that very same hour.

For most of human history, people awoke at sunrise and went to bed at sunset. Candles and lanterns provided some illumination after dark, and there have always been people whose careers or preferences caused them to work late into the night and sleep past sunrise. For the most part, though, people have found it easiest and most natural to conform their schedules to the created patterns of day and night.

Ancient civilizations divided daytime and nighttime into twelve hours each. Away from the equator, daytime hours were longer and nighttime hours were shorter in the summer; daytime hours were shorter and nighttime hours were longer in the winter. About one thousand years ago, new technology produced clocks that could measure hours and minutes and seconds, keeping them the same length day or night. With this innovation, sunrise could be described as happening at a particular time, such as 5 a.m. in the summer, 6 a.m. at the equinoxes, and 7 a.m. in the winter. Still, noon was understood to be the time when the sun was most directly overhead, and midnight really was the middle of the night, happening precisely halfway between sunset and sunrise.

Rapid travel, particularly that of trains, brought another innovation. Travelers complained about having to change their watches at every new city, so the world’s governments agreed to divide the planet into twenty-four time zones. Now people can travel from city to city and expect the time to remain the same, except when they cross a time zone line. At that point, they suddenly gain or lose an entire hour. In most places, noon no longer happens when the sun has reached the meridian of the sky and midnight no longer happens in the middle of the night.

By this time, efficient electric lights had replaced candles and lanterns. People found it easy to work or play late into the night. Rising with the sun became exceptional behavior rather than common. Given this change in habits, various governments experimented with changing the time once again. Pretending that they were “saving” daylight with the change, governments were merely tampering with time, making some locations experience midday and midnight up to two hours from the actual middle of the day or of the night.

Such tampering might have been justifiable in the twentieth century, but twenty-first century technology has made Daylight Saving Time pointless. Indeed, the next big change in our relationship with time could restore what was lost by previous changes. Thanks to the Internet, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and other inventions, the world could easily function with 1,440 time zones. Each of them would see noon and midnight occur within one minute of the actual midpoint of the day and of the night. A single world-wide time could be used to schedule all events of greater than local interest. (Why not Greenwich time, also known as Coordinated Universal Time (UCT)?)  Instead of promising that a television show would be broadcast at eight o’clock Eastern Time, seven o’clock Central Time, and so forth, the broadcast could be announced to take place at two o’clock UCT, and everyone would be able to convert that time into local time.

In fact, each home and business could have a timepiece in every room that shows both local time and UCT. Travelers with a GPS device would always be able to access both UCT and local time. For most people, the adjustment to a more natural flow of time would require no more than a month or two. Once this adjustment was made, time would remain stable and predictable in every place. No longer would we have to face two weekends a year in which our sense of time is wrenched and scrambled.

There is no reason to have the sun directly overhead at 1:30 in the afternoon or to have midnight closer to sunset than to sunrise. People who want to sleep late will sleep late no matter what the time is called; people that want to stay awake late into the night will stay awake no matter what the time is called. No daylight has ever been saved by Daylight Saving Time. Because it is possible, even easy, to return to a natural flow of time, it is time to do so for the common benefit of people everywhere. J.

Fact-checking, and another “Who Said That?”

One of my previous job titles is “fact-checker.” Yes, I checked facts. Instead of doing my own writing, I read what other people had written, checked their sources, consulted other sources, corrected wrong information, and made sure the company would publish something that was accurate and reliable. The writers were paid five cents a word. I was paid an hourly rate. I probably earned more checking facts than the writers earned for their work.

When I was in college, one of the assigned texts that every student read was a small book, How To Lie With Statistics. I checked amazon this morning and saw that the book is still available. Its only fault is that the examples all date from the 1950s. Aside from that, the book is wonderfully readable and extremely helpful. The title is, of course, a joke. The book does not teach the reader how to lie with statistics; it shows how other people lie with statistics and teaches the reader how to evaluate the data that others use to prove their points.

For example: on another blog last week a commenter asserted that 91 percent of scientists are atheists and 97 of biologists are atheists. I refrained from commenting (not wanting to enter the conversation), but I had many significant questions to ask. Who conducted the survey? How did they choose their respondents? How did they define atheism? The numbers quoted are so incredible (meaning unbelievable) that the survey is almost certainly skewed.

Perhaps they surveyed science professors in secular European colleges and universities. Perhaps the survey was conducted through a periodical whose readers are mostly secular scientists. Perhaps the survey was mailed in a package that Christians and Jews and Muslims would be likely to disregard. For that matter, perhaps the survey was designed to lump agnostics and deists into the category of atheists. If they intended from the start to demonstrate that most scientists do not believe in God, they had several ways to achieve that goal, and more than likely they used all of them.

A fact-checker like me easily becomes a curmudgeon (and when I place a post in the category “curmudgeon,” you can be sure I am not taking myself very seriously). Inaccurate information rankles me. A few years ago I was part of a trivia contest conducted as a fundraiser for a Christian camp. One of the first questions was, “Who wrote the poem that begins, ‘I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree’?” The correct answer is Joyce Kilmer, but the judges of the contest insisted that the author was James Joyce. I shrugged off the mistake and continued in the competition that evening, but I have not returned to the annual event since that year. (This paragraph actually belongs in Saturday’s post, but it slipped my mind then as I was writing.)

Some of my crabbiness probably stems from being done with winter and ready for spring. Some comes from stress helping my daughter deal with a broken phone, a broken car, difficulty at her workplace, and the last semester of college. Some stems from hope and uncertainty about my own future. I appreciate the patience and support of all of you. J.

 

Who said that?

“Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet.” –Abraham Lincoln

At least I think Lincoln said it… I saw it on the Internet.

In a world of fake news and other misinformation, historical facts and quotes are as unreliable as any other information. Type the name of any famous person into Google, and among the results will be a page of quotes. But on most of those pages, the quotes will be listed without any source, and in some cases the creator of the site was misinformed. As a result, if you type a famous line into Google, you may see it attributed to any number of people. Google does not know everything—it links your search to other people’s assertions, and some of those assertions are wrong.

Often a profound or clever line from an obscure person is credited to a more famous person. In his book Funny People, Steve Allen provides a list of quips that he suggests were said by Groucho Marx. He then reveals that he, Steve Allen, was responsible for every one of them. He admits, though, that they sound funnier coming from Groucho. Many statements about liberty and the danger of government oppression have been attributed to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other founding fathers of the United States. In more than a few cases, the lines were written and attributed to them long after they had died.

Ancient figures, including Socrates and Cicero, are sometimes quoted as deploring the state of their times, with young people failing to respect their elders, social morals on the decline, and a general lack of trustworthiness among the population. The point of the citation is to show that these problems have always been around, but, alas, the quote is a recent invention and was never said by Socrates, Cicero, or any other ancient sage.

I’ve approached people quoting Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, and other religious people of note, asking them in which document they found their quote. They admitted that they didn’t know where it was written, but they thought so-and-so had written it. In the case of Kierkegaard, the speaker told an audience that Kierkegaard had described Christian worship as a performance in which we are the actors and God is the spectator. When I spoke privately with the speaker, he admitted that he didn’t know where Kierkegaard had written that line, and I suggested that the speaker was probably misinformed. Years later I came across something similar in one of Kierkegaard’s works, with an important difference: Kierkegaard was discussing, not Christian worship, but Christian good deeds, which is an entirely different matter altogether.

(“Which is an entirely different matter.”)

Quoting out of context is as bad as inventing or misattributing a quote. Graduation speeches and other motivational talks often refer to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” They speak to the last three lines of the poem: “Two roads diverged in the woods and I—I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” Such speeches suggest that Frost encourages us to be unique individuals, to dare to be different, to refuse to follow the crowd, and so on. Frost recommends no such thing in this poem. Given the title, the poem could easily be read as an expression of regret and not a suggestion that we all should take the road less traveled.

Read carefully the following paragraph taken from a book written a little more than one hundred years ago. The book is called The Life of Reason, and the paragraph is found on pages 82 and 83; the entire book is nearly 500 pages long. The paragraph is part of a chapter called “Flux and Constancy in Human Nature,” the last of ten chapters in the section of the book entitled, “Reason in Common Sense.” Here is the paragraph:

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends upon retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement; and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird’s chirp.”

I cite this paragraph, not to agree with it—I particularly dislike the disparaging remarks about savages and barbarians—but to see if the third sentence jumped out at you as something familiar. Poor George Santayana, who is remembered for only one sentence (which yesterday I saw attributed to Edmund Burke—that started me down this road). Some years ago I heard the same sentence quoted by three different speakers at the dedication of a library building, and I doubt any of those speakers could have said who Santayana was, when and where he lived, and what he meant by that sentence. It fits on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker; hardly anyone would care to advertise the sentiment that most people are either too young or too old to learn.

Or, as Julius Caesar once said, “There’s hardly any point in speaking, when people are going to remember it wrong as soon as tomorrow dawns.” J.

Finding history with a metal detector

Let’s suppose that you got a metal detector for Christmas. You are waiting for the first nice Saturday or Sunday afternoon to take it out and explore with it. You know of a place nearby—maybe a place where a Civil War skirmish was fought—and you are eager to see if you can find some bullets or brass buttons or belt buckles.

Wait! Stop! Don’t do it until you know how to do it right. If you think you can find some stuff and bring it home and show it to people and impress them, you’re probably wrong. In a worst case scenario, you are actually guilty of vandalism and of destroying history.

Step one of the proper way to conduct historical research with a metal detector is to get permission of the owner of the property to search for items there. If the property belongs to a state park or a national park, forget about it—only professional archaeologists will be allowed to search there. On private property or maybe a city park, you may have luck getting permission. If you own the property yourself, you are free to do what you want, but you should still go about things the right way.

Having permission to search, you want to bring more than a metal detector and a shovel. Bring a camera, a pad of paper and a pencil or pen, and a set of small brightly-colored flags (orange is good) numbered from one to whatever.

When you arrive, chose a parcel of ground to search, and photograph it from several angles before you start searching. The “before” pictures are very important to researchers.

Sweep the area with your metal detector, and plant a flag on every spot where you detect an item. Don’t dig yet. When you have finished searching, take more pictures from several directions. Also draw a rough map of the parcel, showing the approximate location of every flag with its number. Your map does not need to be precise—the photographs will help with that—but it should show the relative position of the flags.

Next, one by one, dig up the objects that you found with the metal detector. Try not to move them as you unearth them. As each one becomes visible, take a picture of it where it lies. Try to include the flag in the picture with the number visible. Strive to make it clear exactly how the item is oriented within the parcel—maybe take every picture from the north, or in every picture make sure the flag is to the north of the item. Once you have photographed it in its place, you may remove it, clean it, wrap it, and bring it home.

Now, when a historian or archaeologist studies your items, he or she will be able to create a more complete account of the story they reveal. Knowing where they were in the parcel and how they were lying, the researcher will develop far more information than was possible just looking at the item without any context.

By the same token, let’s suppose that you decide to develop that weed patch or empty bit of lawn behind your house. When you start digging, you find some ancient stone tools, the kind that many people call arrowheads. (Most of them are too big to have been used on arrows. They were probably attached to throwing spears.) You might be tempted to scoop them up, throw them in a box, and show your collection to others later. But once you have moved them, they have lost nearly their entire value, unless you first document exactly how they were situated when they were discovered.

Once again, take some “before” pictures with your camera. Then flag each artifact and take more pictures. Photograph each item as it lies, and then you may carefully remove it. As you continue your project, keep track in the same way of every item you find. Only in this way can you preserve the story of what happened on your land long before you ever bought it and moved onto it.

Of course it would be even better if you invited some professional archaeologists to handle these items for you and for the sake of future researchers. Probably you are unwilling to delay your project for several months until they can work you into their schedule. Working with the discovered items the same way professionals would work with them is your best procedure. History belongs to all of us. Taking the trouble to preserve as much of it as possible is a task which also belongs to all of us. J.

O Christmas tree (Oh, nuts)

The story so far:

Last May we had a fire on our property—a good-sized storage shed/workshop went up in flames. The cause was a fault in an electrical outlet. As I was driving home after I got the news, I prayed two things: that the fire would not spread to the house, and that no one would be injured. Both prayers were answered. Less important, but also in my hopes, were the Christmas decorations in the back of the shed. Arriving home and seeing that most of the damage had been in the front of the shed, I continued to have hope for a while longer.

But the fire traveled up from the outlet into the rafters and then was carried to the back of the shed, where the decorations were stored. Most of those boxes were scorched, and many of their contents were singed. These contents included many ceramic ornaments and decorations that were hand-made by my mother, who is no longer around to restore or replace such items. Others were special gifts from other years, or special purchases from past Christmases.

The insurance company was very helpful, paying one company to tear down and replace the shed, paying another company to clean items that could be cleaned, and paying us replacement costs for ruined items we did replace and partial value for items we chose not to replace. Most of the cleaned items were returned to us at the beginning of November. I found the autumn decorations and was pleased with their condition. Now, as Christmas approaches, I am gradually unpacking those decorations and placing them around the house.

Our seven-foot artificial Christmas tree had been on the floor of the shed, underneath the other decorations. The cleaners firmly said—before we even had a chance to ask—that they do not clean Christmas trees. I set the tree up in the driveway to air, then left it in the garage until the new shed was completed. This week I finally brought it into the house. My family and I have looked at new trees in the stores, but nothing available now appeals to us. Many of the new trees come with lights already permanently installed, and the Salvageable family does not work that way.

When I was a boy, my father trained me to decorate Christmas trees with a very high standard of perfection. Every light must be attached to a branch; none of the lights can float in midair between branches or merely lay on top of a branch. They must be installed several inches down the branch so there is room to hang ornaments. They must go deep into the tree to give it full dimensions instead of being a cone of lights. In all my years of decorating Christmas trees, I have always insisted on following my father’s method.

I bought eight new strings of lights, each with 150 bulbs. That’s 1,200 bulbs to be placed firmly on branches. As I put them on the tree, I noticed a faint odor of smoke still lingering in the tree. I also noticed dirt gathering under my fingernails. The tree is fifteen years old, so some of that dirt could be from other years rather than ash from the fire. We bought this tree one January after the previous tree had toppled as my son added trucks and dinosaurs to its decorations. It remains full and lifelike, although five of the branches are held to the trunk by twist-ties. When all the lights were attached, I continued with other duties, such as picking up a daughter from dance class and getting the garbage out to the curb. While finishing the latter task, I saw that all the lights on the tree had gone dark. Not wanting to spend more time on it that night, I unplugged it and left it alone.

The next day it was found that only the bottom string on the tree was malfunctioning. I removed it from the tree and checked carefully for breaks in the cord, thinking that a cat may have chewed on the tree and cut the cord. Second I checked for loose bulbs. When both inspections failed to reveal a problem, I decided to change the fuses in the plug of the cord. Suffice it to say that, in an effort to remove and replace those fuses, further damage occurred to the plug, making the string’s replacement inevitable.

Before going to the store, I looked again at the instructions for the cords and learned that the old method of stringing all the cords as one line no longer works with modern lights. No more than three strings can be plugged in together. This appeared to mean that I would have to strip all the lights from the tree and reattach them. At the store, however, an extension cord was found to solve just that problem—the cord has three sets of outlets along its length, so it can be wound through the tree and bring power to all the lights.

I brought home that cord and the new string of lights, only to discover that I had grabbed the wrong package of lights—the cord was white instead of green. So that meant another trip to the store to make the exchange.

Today the tree has lights, but not yet any ornaments. Six boxes in the shed contain Christmas tree ornaments. (I hope one of them also contains the missing pieces to the manger scene—it is short an angel and two sheep and one other figure, probably a shepherd). Maybe tonight and tomorrow, and possibly stretching through the week, those boxes will be brought into the house, each individual ornament unwrapped, inspected, and lovingly placed on the tree. Many memories will be renewed. And we will have our Christmas tree throughout the coming twelve days of Christmas. J.