Saturday, November 19, 2011

Jeanne Kaufman

How to write. At times I am as perplexed with this idea as always. For in the beginning scribbles will dictate, often (if you let your mind to it) the eventual pace and direction of the statement you want to carry. But it’s the subject matter, an idea, a person in this case, that is the most troubling. For how do you construct a soliloquy of sorts about another person?
I knew Jeanne mostly as my “editor”. After parting with the little creation manifested by my wife, Jacquie and me, Jeanne wanted me to continue to contribute. My essays, rants, scribbles, and mumbles found a follower. I had at first thought this as a passing wish, one of those almost obligatory statements that usually have no definite time or purpose like, “sure, we should get together”; and it never materializes. But Jeanne reiterated her wish. She was serious. Serious, in fact, that she wanted to pay me a few coins for my troubles. Yes, she was resolved, but also - stepping back a bit - about contributing to our community.
Over the course of her tenure as owner of the Edge, she would never harp on an overdue article, or the contents of any submission. She trusted my meanderings which covered religion, politics, the arts, and the humanities. But when I was able to submit I was sure that it would soon appear. Our ‘relationship’ was for the most part, mostly that. But what I can observe, other than the immediate dealings we had, was something that is never spoken. For it was only by example that it becomes clearer. For, amidst the rapid pace of life, she cared considerably for the community.
I must first take a step further back in time, when we came to the heartbreaking decision to sell the Edge, for there was one discussion that is relevant now. We had wondered whether if a potential buyer would be a notable, long time resident; or, one of the more recent “Eastenders” – a person who fell in love with the community not only for what it is, where it is, but of its potential. A potential seen on a larger canvas than most are agreeable to. And when Jeanne bought the Edge, we found that it was the latter of the two. Someone who uprooted themselves and re-created a home, here.
Jeanne was committed to the diversity of the Arts and Culture that Eastend and area provide, regardless of whether it was home-grown, or from someone who was transplanted. In addition, with her own observations writ large and small in the pages of the Edge, she had a vision that was strong, sympathetic, and caring. She understood the community and said it was grand. But she also knew that it could also be better, for one of the greater unwritten sins is complacence. No one should accept that this is as good as it gets. For in these hills, in these ancient voices that echoes through the valley, in these hands that have toiled in the soils for seed, or wrestled herds of undisputed beasts, there is always hope for something better. For these were the demands set upon all our fore parents, and their parents before them, for they too, uprooted themselves, to come, and settle here.
I think now of Jeanne as my own personal pioneer, though I am certain it would be something she would rebuke. For her path was true and original. I wish, upon hindsight, that I would have learned more about her, from her. This is the sin of all of us, for we often take advantage of the living, believing that tomorrow another chance will come. We learn the most difficult truth that this is not always true.
Jeanne liked words; and so did I. For example, hagiography is a term used to describe saints. In broader parlance, it’s a form of writing that is filled with too much endearing emotion, rather than a view moderated by time, and space – a view less biased. Too close, too soon often provides a skewed view of a person.
I didn’t know her like I should, and this will be something I will always regret. But I will wrap myself in my hagiographic vision, and find comfort that she touched many of us here in Eastend and area. She found something here worth more than gold itself. In Eastend, amongst these people, amongst these hills, amongst these stories, she found friends, she found love, she found a home.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Blind leading the sighted

Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 2007, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 4-6. In a comparison with the review process in Behavioral Ecology (BE) and Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology (BES), two similar journals, an interesting trend emerges. BE favours a double-blind review process, where both author and reviewers are not identified, whereas BES prefers the traditional single-review process, where the author does not know the reviewer. The result is that in the double-blind review, a "7.9% [increase] in the proportion of female first-authored papers", and further, "represents a 33% increase in the representation of female authors". The standard single-blind review process may be a now quantifiable "bias" impeding "the progress of women to more advanced professional stages". Critics of the double-blind review note the increased administrative load that this policy engages in, and that in fact, they believe they are able to identify the authors anyways. The latter is in fact incorrect, and as the authors of this study show, with the former, who cares. "The ... compelling issue is whether double-blind review makes a difference" towards achieving a more unbiased policy. It does. So, why aren't more journals implementing this policy?

Monday, March 7, 2011

"At Large And At Small, Confessions of a literary hedonist" by Anne Fadiman

There are distinct times, when the world is grey and drizzly, a slight chill in the air that creates a day of inner wants. Moments of selfishness that are required for self preservation. It is on these days that a book becomes the sacred object near the heart. To find that soft spot in the house, and curl up with: to find that safe haven. Anne Fadiman's At Large And At Small is the type of book you would want to let in.

A collection of essays that plays at the edges of those who find reading central to their being. Not just the manufactured collection of words, but the simple production of words by people. Even those we can find in letters. Her father's day "had not truly begun" until the post arrived. "[T]o many tame citizens like me the morning mail functions as the voice of the unpredictable and keeps alive for a few minutes a day the keen sense of the unplanned and the unplannable" he would write. I agree.

The essays vary from the personal youthful endeavors of collecting nature and discovering the literary connection with author Nabokov to the dichotomous delight of discovering the owl and lark in some relationships. The ones who have not attained the level of awakening until the wee hours of the morning, and those who find the same at the moments of light, the minute of creation.

Without looking I purchased this volume, knowing already that author and reader, me, had a connection. Her earlier work, Ex Libris, was full of bookish wanderings and wonderings. But I suspect that I am of a minority. Bookishness is not a seller, which is possibly why I found At Large and At Small in the remainder bin. But I like discovery, if only under my own terms. Tweaked on something I like, I allow myself to wander through a collection of essays, not all of them hitting the mark for me, knowing that something will be appealing. And yet, stumbling in full light of day, on something I hadn't considered. For this is the experience of becoming aware.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Caught in the Web of Words. James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary"

Oddly enough, there is little in the way of biographies of the celebrated lexiconographer. This one, Caught in the Web of Words by K. M. Elisabeth Murray (Yale Nota Bene, 2001) is only one of a very few. It happens, by all accounts, to be one of the better ones as well. The trials and tribulations of the formation of the now standard English reference, and the early pursuit was no simple matter. To maintain the high standards in a consistent manner over decades would have been trying by any one's account.

Murray is equally concerned with the man, James Murray, as she is with the production of the OED. His early interest in science would, in hind-sight, be a pivotal trait for the development of the OED and author Murray explores James's early contacts with science. From his earliest points, "whatever he acquired he carefully identified and classified, and the discipline of closely observing and analysing the likenesses and differences of similar objects and deciding how to arrange the he found valuable when later he had to trace the complex history of the various senses of a word" (p. 34). Specifically, geology played a significant role, including publishing small pieces of geo-poetry and geological knowledge in local, small newspapers. Currently, I am on the hunt for a bibliography of James Murray, one that includes his early attachment to geology, archaeology, and other areas of natural history.

His work on the OED would come later in life, one spent early on as a teacher. Yet his urning to learn and express new knowledge, including languages and local history would take him elsewhere. At a time when understanding and curating dialects and languages was emerging, James knowledge, almost entirely self taught, would lead him towards a dictionary. One that was shouting out to be done in a country that claimed for itself the pinnacle of civilization.

In 1879 he issued An Appeal to the English-speaking and English-reading Public to find words of the earliest point, and their quotations. These would come out as "slips" of paper and would eventually mount into the 10's of thousands. Each one had to be arranged, verified, and written up. "Black" for instance "had taken his best voluntary helper...three months, a Scriptorium [the place where all was being produced] assistant another three weeks, and he himself a week more to master" (p. 255).

His vanity would get the better of him at times. His early isolation from the London center of all intellectual activity, and his work amongst the dons of Oxford made him sensitive to his self-taught past. At one point, "conscious of his humble origin and lack of university background, felt he must [at times] defer to the 'great men' at Oxford [for advice, wanted or not], exaggerating their authority and attributing to them the arbitrariness of a remote hierarchy" (p. 209).

Author Murray has done well with all the remaining slips of Murrayography with a balanced and thorough understanding of her grandfather. Certainly, the more recent books by Winchester (Professor and the Madman, 1998; and The Meaning of Everything, The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2003), Shea (Reading the OED, One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, 2008), or Mugglestone (Lost for Words, The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary, 2005), cover the entertaining or academic side of the pivotal document, the OED, but not of the idiosyncratic individuals who gathered all that is known and placed it into something that in itself is singular, readable and a reference. Author Murray has shown some of this in Caught in the Web of Words but I can't help that there is more to learn. More aspects of Murray's life for example to come to light.
No. 0899

Sunday, February 13, 2011

German Palaeontology Poetry

Eduard Morike (1804-1875) is described by the Chambers Biographical Dictionary as "weak, hypochrondrical, unhappily married and lazy." Still, he was to make a fossil collection of about 500 specimens, and at a time when professionalism and avocational was still somewhat blurred, without formal education he still wanted a post in the natural sciences. He did make a small mark, however, in the literary arena. Carolin Duttlinger (2007, Oxford German Studies, vol. 36) examines two of his works, Der Petrefaktensammler and Gottliche Reminiscenz in Moricke's Fossils: The Poetics of Palaeontology.
Unfortunately, neither are translated in this review [Furtrher, I lack any ability to comment on matters poetic. Yet, it is quite interesting to examine from strictly historical perspectives the intertwine of science and literature, especially in the 19th century.], but Duttlinger expresses that "Fossils played a dual role" for Morike, "while they underlined the fleetingness of transience of human life, they also embodied a reassuring sense of permanence and stability in their ability to preserve the past and transcend historical change."
After his Vicar service, the intellectual pursuits led him to science, particularly palaeontology, which provided for a brief time a "therapeutic function" in retirement. Morike's poetry in conjunction was able to include scientific terminology, the blend of the aesthetic and the scientific, forming imagery that was quite unique. Further, as in Gottliche Reminiscenz, the blending of Christian thought into the mix was threatening, some "arguing that the motif of Jesus holding a fossil entails a confrontation between theology and palaeontology."
His poems reflect "on the visual art, its capacities and shortcomings, both in relation to literature and against the wider backdrop of a world whose rapid expansion of knowledge is reflected in changing conceptions of time and history."
Another one of those interesting characters who experimented with literature and science, or the oddly conceived aesthetics of scientific objects.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Prairie Atheneum - EDGE

Our local weekly, the Eastend Edge, at times offers me space to write pretty much what I want. Here is an example from February 7th issue.
Prairie Atheneums
The cultural makeup of any given prairie town is far more diverse than most people think. When we see the dotted towns along the highway we don’t think of what they may contain. We know there is a rink, perhaps a curling rink as well. There will be at least one bank, restaurant (support for at least one male-dominated ‘coffee row’), and one grocery store, all fronted by a discontinuous line of pick-up trucks. And that’s it. That is our perception of a typical prairie town. But this would be a lie. Hidden in the recesses of coffee row, or in the living room of some nightly venture, a gathering of sorts occurs. An atheneum of thoughts are on the table.
An atheneum is a place of discourse and knowledge. We could in fact re-name libraries, if they were used beyond the myopic sources for lending books, as an Atheneum. Maybe, by this action, a library wouldn’t be so pejorative to many a young mind. “Atheneum” resonates as something higher, or at least more than a “library”. Atheneum is an activity of intelligent discourse as well as a physical store house. Atheneum is something that each town should aspire to. Atheneum is an ideal.
In an atheneum, the formality, like a book club of sorts, would only be loosely structured for discussion. The source for topics would be endless, thanks to the flooding of information through the internet. For example, in the January 14th issue of Science, the leading scientific publication in the world next to Nature, a multi-authored report on identified trends in human thought over the last 200 years. For the first time these trends are measurable and go beyond the subjective, anecdotal or suggestive. This is thanks to the internet search-engine giant Google’s digitization of over 5 million books, representing only about 4% of books ever published (there are over 5 billion words in these books). We now know that in 1900 there were 544,000 words in the English language; 597,000 in 1950, and 1,022,000 in 2000. Also, by examining the trends in the English language we are now able, for the first time, to ask questions with tangible answers like the evolution of grammar. Or, in the same issue of Science, another study showed that by simply writing down one’s worries about a high pressure test, moments before writing a test, actually improved ones test score.
The discussion points of any loosely constructed atheneum can broaden ones expression of knowledge, beyond the simple trivia collecting. And, within the small communities that which are prevalent on the prairies, the influence of expanding perceptions and thoughts will certainly manifest itself in how the community operates and its perception of itself in the world. For, rather than fitting the stereotype or the community’s history into the mass culture of a group, even a small community can create its own period of Enlightenment.
The reason why I dilly-dally down this road of discussion is that my previously held assumptions are no more. I had thought that the idea of an atheneum was only to be seen as a big city phenomena. An atheneum-like structure of skeletonized pillars, supporting the foreboding book-lined walls of a cavernous room, instantly reducing a visitor to a bowed moment of humility. But no. For the past five years there has been an Atheneum Society in our own neighboring metropolis of Medicine Hat. As I am told, it is a casual affair: “On a quarterly basis, we meet for a very nice meal, and a guest speaker”, pulling from the professional resources in the area. It can be a simple as that.
Whether in an idea form, or a physical structure, atheneum’s have existed for centuries. The exchange and discourse that occurs has led to some of the greatest advancements of thought, whether in the form of material and technology, or in the expressions, through art and literature. A vehicle to which we can consider what it means to be human in this period of time and in this little dot on the map.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Undermining of Science

"The data reveal a pervasive reluctance of teachers to forthrightly explain evolutionary biology" the authors Berkman and Plutzer reveal. "The data further expose a cycle of ignorance in which community antievolution attitudes are perpetuated by teaching that reinforces local community sentiment" Rhetoric? No. Just the results of a recent study in Science (2011, vol. 331, p. 404-405) where biology teachers wherewithal's come under scrutiny. As one would expect, in a survey of the practices of biology teachers, there are the extreme ends of what biology teachers teach. It is no surprise that 28% of those surveyed follow consistently the (U.S.) National Science Education Standards, where evolution not only is taught, but "unabashedly" so. And in this era of blatant, hard right fundamentalism, that 13% surveyed "explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design" in their biology classroom. But the focus of the authors wonderment is the group in the middle: the nearly 60% who really don't care one way or another, or, who are unable, and untrained to deal with the impending questions that evolution brings to the classroom.
These teachers deal with the issue in three ways; some teach evolution as only applicable to molecular biology (in absence of macroevolution of species), or as a necessary evil in teaching, or, and is more often the case, they teach "all positions - scientific or not." Remember, this is a biology classroom, not after school religious club meeting. Because of this lack of gumption and authority "The cautious 60%" the authors maintain "may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists."
Its really no surprise that those teachers who have taken evolutionary biology classes are more likely, statistically, to favor teaching the subject. Those who haven't had the classes are more apt to be in the fence-straddling 60% group. "Many nonresearch institutions lack the resources to offer a stand-alone evolution course regularly, however, and such institutions educate many high school science teachers [emphasis added]." By improving the requirements for the teachers, like evolution, is essential to improving high school biology. Though the teaching of the potential teacher is not the be-all, end-all either. In the U.S., there are several national science organizations that provide resources to teachers on issues like evolution. Making a stronger connection between the teacher and the recent advances in evolutionary studies is imperative.
But maybe we should just let the kids decide, our 15-17 year old. They can explore on the Internet, have the skill set and maturity to sift through the good, the bad, and the really ugly science. They should have some say on whats being taught. Oh, wait. They are students, not teachers.