I think that mediocrity is easy to measure while excellence is not, which creates a dilemma in the current era of objective assessment: when we insist on objective metrics of success — grades (for children), evaluations (for teachers), quarterly profits (for companies), recognized rules of writing (for authors), etc. — we motivate people to chase mediocrity.
For example, high schools in this country have been on a steady path toward more objective standards (starting with “No Child Left Behind”), while university professors, once they achieve tenure, are essentially accountable to no one. As a result, I believe, U.S. high schools fare terribly compared to the rest of the world, while our universities are arguably second to none.
Indeed, Forbes reports that “70% of engineers with PhD’s who graduate from U.S. universities are foreign-born.” These engineers come to the U.S. only for the education system that has no objective metrics of success, and, similarly, U.S. high-school students are unprepared for graduate work after their educational path based on test scores.
In the completely different realm of fiction, best-selling author Lee Child critisizes the writing industry for focusing on objective criteria of good writing, starting with the most well-known rule: “show don’t tell.” Writers follow the rule, Child says, because they’ve been “beaten down.” They are chasing mediocrity.
The now-defunct Bell Labs had a well funded department of researchers whose only job was to tinker; they were not required to demonstrate that they were earning their salaries. The department developed the transistor, the solar cell, the laser, and the first communications satellite, among many other innovations. Freed of objective metrics of success, the researchers were able to thrive.
The highly coveted MacArthur “genius” grants, officially the “MacArthur Fellowship” stipends, come with no strings attached and make no reporting obligations on the fellows, because, the foundation believes, the fellows “are in the best position to decide how to allocate their time and resources.” They don’t want to push their fellows toward mediocrity.
The catch is that I think there’s a place for mediocrity, because sometimes the alternative is ineptitude. Or to look at it differently, “mediocrity” is sometimes “competence.”
I’d rather have a mediocre airplane pilot than an inept one, for instance, so I’m glad the FAA requires (14 CFR 121) pilots to undergo “check rides” to demonstrate their continuing competence.
So we seem to have two approaches: an objective-assessment model that pushes people from ineptitude up to competence, but also pushes people down from excellence to mediocrity; and a more flexible model that allows people to excel but also to fail.
The trick, I suspect, is knowing when to apply each one.
In “Revenge,” a woman breaks off an affair with the governor, pitting Police Chief Kai Goodman against the State Police.
Like the first story, “Revenge” features Coyote “Kai” Goodman, whose past is so secret that even his cover story is classified. The setting is Warwick, NY, where, according to the official count, there are no spies.
To celebrate this release, the Kindle edition of “Checkpoint” — the first story in the series — is a free download, but only today.
I hope you enjoy reading “Revenge” it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
[You can also read this on the Huffington Post.]
A misguided debate is raging over English grammar. It began when authors Patricia O’Conner and Steward Kellerman claimed in the Smithsonian that “most of what you know about grammar is wrong.” Then the Huffington Post picked it up, and after that The Guardian.
The controversy is illustrated by a disagreement over “split infinitives”: is it, or is it not, okay to say “to boldly go…,” using the word “boldly” to split the infinitive “to go”?
Having written a column on (Hebrew) grammar for the International Jerusalem Post and with a PhD in linguistics to my name, I feel like I have a horse in this race. And as someone who likes talking to my friends, I have another horse in the race. As an author and lover of words, I have a third horse with my name on it.
Who Died And Made You King?
The first, and most traditional way, is what we linguists call “prescriptive grammar,” or, more snarkily, the “who died and made you king” approach. And it’s essentially a social policy, not unlike wearing white only after Labor Day. (Or before. Or Memorial Day. You know what I mean.) People in power make up rules and expect other people to follow them: Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t split an infinitive. And so on.
But Ms. O’Conner and Mr. Kellerman are misleading when they say that these are “phony rules.” They’re just like spelling: arbitrary agreements enforced by arbitrary language monarchs. There’s no good reason that the possessive “Michael’s” should have an apostrophe when the equally possessive “its” does not, for instance, but that’s the way it goes. The kings told us so. And the same is true of properly positioning prepositions and not inserting items into infinitives.
(Incidentally, the “with” in “put up with” is a particle, not a preposition, in spite of Churchill’s probably apocryphal stance that “ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put.” And Ms. O’Conner and Mr. Kellerman are simply wrong when they say that “to” isn’t part of the infinitive in English.)
But Everyone’s Doing It!
The second way to look is grammar is both more interesting and less appreciated. People naturally follow innate rules when they speak. Unlike the “who died and made you king” sort, which, as we’ve seen, are a social policy, these innate rules are akin to anthropology. People follow these rules without even knowing that they’re doing so. Technically part of “descriptive linguistics,” we might dub these rules “but everyone’s doing it.”
For example, in English, “I am” and “I’m” mean the same thing: “I am going to the movies” is the same as “I’m going to the movies.” But even so, an English speaker might say, “he’s taller than I am,” but never “he’s taller than I’m.” Hundreds of millions of Americans, Brits, and more all agree on this basic fact, in spite of mostly never having thought about it before. That’s the magic of the “but everyone’s doing it” camp: it sheds light on human behavior.
Similarly, we’re told to say, “it is I,” not “it’s me.” But descriptively that’s nonsense. If four people who knock on a door in America are asked “who is it?” they don’t answer “it’s only we.”
As a final example, English speakers innately know that profanity can be used to split a word right in the middle, but only in the correct place. This is why Laura San Giacomo’s foul-mouthed character in “Pretty Woman” can respond to a question about a name with “CindeFuckingRella,” and why a frustrated traveler might lament getting stuck in “MissisGodDamnSippi.” We know that this curious pattern is governed by rules because only some internal word slots allow expletives: speakers don’t say “CinFuckingDerella” or “MississipGodDamnPi.”
So when Ms. O’Conner and Mr. Kellerman write that a rule is “phony,” what they mean is that it is not descriptive. And they’re right that many a non-descriptive rule was promulgated in honor of the regent we call Latin. But even artificial rules are rules, and, like spelling, they have their place.
The Art of Writing
If the first kind of grammar (“who died and made you king”) is a social policy, and the second (“but everyone’s doing it”) is observational science, the third is art: what’s the best way to put words together to achieve a certain goal?
If you want clarity, then, for example, “writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided,” to quote William Safire’s 1979 column in The New York Times. (The dangling particles aren’t writing carefully. The writer is.) An even clearer example is replacing the awkward “sleeping soundly, the lion ate the campers” with the better “the lion ate the sleeping campers.” The reason to avoid dangling particles, in other words, is that they’re not clear.
Passives, too, generally don’t make for good prose. So instead of “the campers were eaten by the lion,” a good author will generally prefer “the lion ate the campers.”
And I’m reminded of a sign I saw in the restroom in Target: “All employees must wash your hands.”
But these rules, some of which are prescriptive, are only aesthetic guidelines. Really good authors know when to break them. This is why the second sentence of Lee Child’s run-away best seller The Killing Floor can be the three-word fragment, “At twelve o’clock.” And the second sentence of John Grisham’s The Firm can be the ungrammatical, “He had the brains, the ambition, the good looks.” (This is technically called “asyndeton.” Mr. Grisham’s second sentence is asyndetic.) A high-school student would lose points on an essay for writing either of these sentences, but Mr. Child and Mr. Grisham use them to create best sellers.
Deviate too far from the “who died and made you king” rules, and your writing will look ignorant and amateurish. Deviate from the descriptive rules and you’re no longer writing English. But deviate from the aesthetic rules, and you end up either with a mess or with a masterpiece.
Art is like that.
“My God, the soul that you have given me is a pure one.”
That line appears in the daily morning service, as if — as Debbie Friedman used to teach — reminding us that each day we start anew, untainted by whatever we may have done the day before.
Debbie used to add that if our religious schools could teach the students that they start each day with a pure soul, we’d be ahead of the game even if we taught nothing else. I tend to agree.
Yes, even by high school, sometimes earlier, the students think they have done something so awful that they have irrevocably destroyed who they used to be.
Certainly part of the problem is the entirely un-Jewish approach that equates sex with impurity. (I remember teaching a high-school class about the Kabbalistic poem “Lecha Dodi” some years ago, and pointing out that the word we usually translate as “my beloved” is, in fact, “my lover.” A surprised student asked, “so the prayer is dirty?” “It’s sexual,” I told her, “not dirty.”)
But I think the problem goes deeper.
I think that even the most forgiving among us are often relentlessly unforgiving of ourselves. We let other people have a bad day and don’t give ourselves the same permission. We accept lapses in judgment by others but not ourselves. We forget about callous remarks aimed our way while we let our own misspoken words haunt us.
We want to take back what we have done or said, and when we cannot, we feel we have sullied our soul.
Some mistakes are so monumental that we read about them in the newspaper and hear about them in courts of law. But most of us let far more mundane errors haunt us: an ill-advised comment, a road not taken, or a choice poorly chosen.
I think there’s a certain nobility to trying to live a blameless life, but an equally certain futility. We want to ask, “can I be perfect?” But the better question seems to be, “how do I react when I screw up?” Our morning prayer addresses that second question.
The prayer’s answer is that no matter what, we are still the very embodiment of holy purity. There is nothing we can do, say, or believe that can destroy the inner beauty of the human soul.
I want to be clear. I don’t know what a soul is, and I’m not sure I believe in a God that can give me a pure one. But I don’t think we should let the lofty language of the liturgy hide an important message for our daily life.
I write this in the first few days of 2013, when many people are engaging with New Year’s Resolutions: I won’t do… I will do… I’ll never again… I promise not to… And so forth.
But I think most of us have unfinished business from last year, last month, and even yesterday.
Maybe an appropriate resolution for moving forward is to start each day by reminding ourselves that the soul you have given me, my God, is a pure one.
[Reprinted from the Vassar Temple February, 2013 bulletin.]
This is a huge problem for me, because I use Amazon a lot.
As an author, I frequently order my own books to give as gifts from Amazon, because of the company’s winning combination of low prices; fast, cheap shipping; very convenient website; and superb customer service. For my research, Amazon is my preferred way to get the reference material I need. More generally, when I know what I want — and even sometimes when I don’t — I often find that Amazon is the best way to go.
Last night I had a conversation with my local UPS dispatcher, because the GSM World phone that I was supposed to receive on Monday hadn’t arrived by Tuesday night. The dispatcher explained that the drivers were overworked, and that DOT regulations required that the drivers come off the roads after driving for the whole day. Fair enough.
“But surely my package, delayed from yesterday, will get priority today, won’t it?” I asked.
“No,” was the answer. Then the dispatcher told me that the driver still had 60 deliveries to make, which, he thought, would take 4 hours. It was 7:30pm. The driver would come off the road at 10:30pm. My package would probably be delayed a second time. True to their “We Love Logistics” slogan, the dispatcher knew exactly what was going on, and precisely why I might never get my stuff.
Now, it’s just a phone. (I want it because I’m traveling to Israel next week, and my current GSM phone doesn’t have a built-in GPS. I’m tired of getting lost in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem, which is literally built in non-Euclidean space.) This obviously isn’t worth risking the welfare of the driver, and I told the dispatcher as much.
So on the one hand, this is a prime example of the much mocked “first-world problem.” As an author and scholar living comfortably in the suburbs of New York, I might not get a device of convenience dropped off at my door as quickly as I’d like.
But on the other hand, I’m worried, because I see this as part of an increasing trend that leaves critical infrastructure in the hands of private companies whose motive (quite legitimately) is profit, not service.
We used to rely on the United States Postal Service (USPS) to send things, because, at least since the Romans, we’ve known that the ability to mail things to each other is an important ingredient in civilized life. This is why the USPS offered first-class mail even to remote locations, and even at a loss.
Similarly, and for similar reasons, we used to use a regulated phone network to communicate. The phone lines in this country were built to service everyone. And, I just heard, the system was designed to work 99.999% of the time, which is to say that outages would be limited to about 5 minutes a year.
But now most people where I live use Internet phones and cell phones, so they rely on local cable and wireless providers for communication. These companies, while regulated, are not required to offer any particular level of service, the thinking being that “the market” will ensure high enough quality.
Surprisingly, everyone was surprised during Hurricane Sandy when so many people were unable to communicate. The cable and wireless providers, it turned out, were making a lot of money by skimping on reliability.
Likewise, I now find that my default way of doing my daily business is in the hands of a company that, by its own admission, isn’t up to the task.
I grew up grateful that I didn’t live in one of the many countries where things didn’t work. But is the U.S on the path to becoming one of those countries?
(Incidentally, Amazon apologized profusely for the delay — in spite of it not being their fault — and credited me what I would have paid for shipping. UPS didn’t apologize, and blamed the DOT regulations and the number of packages. More on this interesting difference soon.)
The stories feature Police Chief Coyote “Kai” Goodman, whose past is so secret that even his cover story is classified. The setting is Warwick, NY, where, according to the official count, there are no spies.
In the inaugural story, “Checkpoint,” a man evades a police checkpoint and unknowingly triggers his own murder. Police Chief Kai Goodman knows why. Do you?
I wrote this to be a fun diversion from my research (even though I try to have fun with that, too). I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Right off the bat, a question presents itself: Why do we use a secular date to delineate this Jewish custom, when all of the others are based on the Jewish calendar? And secondly, what’s the magic behind December 5? The answers take us on a fascinating journey through Jewish text, nature, astronomy, history, infrastructure, and politics.
There are in fact two times we add a mention of rain to our service. The first, more familiar now, is the short insertion in the Amida prayer about God’s power: mashiv ha-ru’ach umorid ha-gashem. God makes the wind blow and the rain fall. The second is an addition to the prayer petitioning God for bountiful produce: ten tal umatar livracha. Grant us the blessing of dew and rain.
The 1800-year-old Mishnah — the initial compilation of Jewish law and practice — discusses both of these in the chapter called Ta’anit (“fasting”), starting with the first one.
There was general agreement that the insertion should commence during the rainy season, roughly Sukkot. The Mishnah records a disagreement about the details. Rabbi Eliezer considered the first day of Sukkot a good time to start praying for rain, but Rabbi Yehoshua countered that no one wants rain on Sukkot, so it would be better to wait until the end of the holiday.
But Sukkot is a pilgrimage holiday, when it was common to ascend to Jerusalem by foot. If we start praying for rain right after Sukkot, it might rain on those who are walking home.
So regarding the second insertion, Rabbi Gamaliel says that we should wait until 15 days after Sukkot to start praying for rain, that half-month being a reasonable amount of time to walk back to the farthest extent of the Land of Israel.
The Talmud — the great codification of Jewish law and practice that contains the Mishnah and meandering commentary on it — expands on the Mishnah and explains that in Babylonia they didn’t start saying the prayer for rain until 60 days into the rainy season of fall.
Jewish geography is exceedingly simple. There are essentially only three places: Jerusalem, the rest of Israel, and the rest of the world. Therefore, we in New York live in the same place (“the rest of the world”) as the Babylonians, so we follow their custom. We start saying the prayer for rain 60 days after the equinox.
The equinox is either September 22 or September 23.
But the careful reader may notice that 60 days after September 22 or 23 is November 21 or 22, not December 5. So we keep digging.
Shmuel, in the Talmud section known as Eruvin, calculates the four seasons as each lasting 91 days and 7.5 hours, and assigns September 23 as the start of fall. Because his became the official Jewish secular calendar, the Jewish equinox is always September 23. But we still wonder why we don’t start praying for rain on November 22.
Shmuel’s year of four seasons lasted 364 days and 30 hours, or 365.25 days. The solar year, though, is actually 11 minutes and 14 seconds shorter. Because of this discrepancy, the Jewish equinox has slowly moved forward compared to the solar equinox, at the rate of approximately one day every 128 years.
The Catholic Church (by coincidence) also used Shmuel’s calendar, but unlike in Judaism, most of the Christian holidays are based on the solar date. By 1582, the official and solar calendars were 10 days out of sync, one result of which was that the springtime holiday of Easter was marching forward into summer.
So Pope Gregory fixed the calendar by doing two things. He dropped 10 days in October (the day after October 4 was October 15 that year), and, moving forward, he dropped 3 leap years every 400 years: years that are divisible by 100 would no longer be leap years unless they were also divisible by 400. (That’s why 2000 was a leap year even though 1900 wasn’t, and 2100 won’t be.)
In America and elsewhere in the world we use the Gregorian calendar.
The Jews, though, didn’t give a damn about Pope Gregory. So in 1582, the Jewish equinox moved ahead 10 days to October 3, the Gregorian equivalent of the Shmuelian September 23. Since then, 1700, 1800, and 1900 have been Shmuelian leap years but not Gregorian leap years. So now the Shmuelian equinox is the Gregorian October 6.
Sixty days after October 6 is December 5. And there you have it.
But don’t get too used to that date. In the year 2100 (a Shmuelian leap year) the day moves ahead to December 6.
[Reprinted from the Vassar Temple December 2012 bulletin.]