THE WEEKLY BLAB
Volume 8, Issue 20 – January 6, 2014
A New Year, a New Semester
New Year’s Eve has come and gone, as has Christmas vacation. I took a few extra days off this time around (though I still lost nine vacation days this year, since I’ve long since reached the maximum rollover). I went in this past Friday, because there was an orientation for new international students I was scheduled to attend, as well as dealing with various paperwork that had accumulated. The orientation went well, with more than 50 students there from such places as China, India, Brazil, Serbia, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Pakistan, Nigeria, and no doubt several other countries I’ve forgotten. It’s amazing how diverse a place our campus is, with faculty from more than 40 different countries, and students from more than 80. The different perspectives our faculty and students bring are among the best things about SPSU.
Sunday was pretty mild—reaching about 46°—but we’re supposed to be about to go into a record-breaking cold spell, including the possibility of snow midweek. The email saying that we’re monitoring the weather and there’s the possibility the University’s opening might be delayed or even cancelled came true. As someone who has lived in the frozen north for much of his life, this always makes me laugh (and feel a little bit smug), though I have to admit that I like the fact that I can go around in shirtsleeves during much of the winter. I still remember my first year here, when our Chief of Police came by on a cold day, came to my office, and said: “Dr. Szafran, we need you to come to the window and confirm that what’s coming down is snow.” We both broke out laughing.
I’m sorry we delayed the start of classes, because I’ve got an 8:00 AM MWF class in Inorganic Chemistry that I was looking forward to teaching. Lots of people think that Organic is the killer course in the chemistry curriculum, but in reality, Physical Chemistry is the harder for most students who have taken both. It’s just that lots of people (pre-meds, biologists, and several others) have to take Organic Chemistry but can avoid Physical, so they never see how challenging things can get. Organic Chemistry covers the chemistry of the element Carbon, which admittedly forms more compounds than any other element. I liked it when I took it, especially the focus on understanding reaction mechanisms that constitutes the bulk of the course. Inorganic Chemistry was the area that I really loved, because of its wide sweep—it covers the chemistry of the other 102 elements (there were 103 elements when I first took it—more have been made since), and there are a lot of interesting surprises. Since the chemistry of any given element has enough meat in it that it could justify its own separate course, when you teach Inorganic Chemistry you get to pick and choose what to include, so there’s more room for individualism than in many courses. Anyway, I love it and hope my students will come to love it as well.
While newspapers love to run “top ten” lists about every conceivable subject, there are amazingly few such lists (regarding quality, not circulation) about newspapers—a brief search of the web only turned up two. I’m not sure what their methodology for rankings was, but I found a list of the top 200 newspapers in the world (here) on which the top ten were the New York Times (1), the Guardian (2, England), the Daily Mail (3, England), the People’s Daily (4, China), the Washington Post (5), the Daily Telegraph (6, England), the Wall Street Journal (7), USA Today (8), the Los Angeles Times (9), and the Times of India (10). I’ve read most of these on various occasions and think this is a pretty good list, at least of newspapers in English—it is obviously light on other languages.
The best thing about a good newspaper, other than coverage of breaking news items and editorials of course, is when they have articles on subjects that you’d otherwise never run across. The New York Times really shines at this, and this past week was no exception. Here are a few that caught my attention.
Nicholas Kristof, on January 1, wrote an interesting but depressing op-ed titled “A Girl’s Escape”, about a 13 year old girl named Marilaine who is a restavek—the Haitian term for an unpaid maid who lives in a stranger’s home and works for room and board. This is a form of child trafficking that has been called a modern form of slavery. Poor children from large families in remote villages are often left to this fate, where they wake up at 4:00 or 5:00 each morning, cleaning, fetching water, and washing dishes. They are also often beaten, and not allowed any contact with their families for fear that they may run away. As bad as this is, restaveks sometimes get more food and more education than if they had stayed with their own families. In Marilaine’s case, she was able to escape her “employer” and find refuge in a safe house. The family she had been working for was furious—they claimed she had been kidnaped, and denied having beaten her. The neighbors surrounded the free afternoon school Marilaine was attending and threatened to set it on fire unless she was returned to the “employer”. The police had to come in and negotiate to avoid a riot. When the safe house and police tried to return Marilaine to her village, her mother didn’t seem thrilled to see her. The villagers thought she had died years ago. When told she had to stay with her family, Marilaine burst into tears—she wanted to stay at the safe house and to go to school. The op-ed ends with the following statement: “That’s why what’s at stake in fighting global poverty isn’t just poor people’s incomes. It’s also dignity and freedom — and the right of a girl to grow up in something better than quasi slavery.”
It’s not only in Haiti that one sees examples of restaveks. There have even been cases of restavek-type situations reported in New York City and London in the past few months, and incidents of poverty-stricken people in various countries selling their children into prostitution or servitude are all too common. Corruption is rampant in many poor countries, and much of what aid funds there are never reach the poor. Education is clearly part of the answer, but little is available. Much of the news media is focused instead on the latest celebrity gossip. The world can surely do better about such a critical matter.
The Science section of the December 26 issue contained an article called “In the Human Brain, Size Really Isn’t Everything” by Carl Zimmer. It reports about a paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences by Harvard neuroscientists Randy L. Buckner and Fenna M. Krienen, who have come up with a “powerful, yet simple explanation” for why human brains are able to carry out complex tasks that other animals can’t. Size is part of it—human brains are huge in proportion to our size compared to any other species—but there’s more to the story. The outer layers of the brain are divided into specialized regions called cortices (such as the visual and the auditory cortices). Most of the neural tethers (connections) for other mammals and for early humanoids are from these sensory regions to motor cortices, which allow us to respond to various sensory stimuli. More connections are formed as the mammal grows. Buckner and Krienen argue that about three million years ago, when there was a large increase in human brain size, this had the effect of ripping up these tethers, allowing some to fall off the main tether and form new circuits. The new circuits linked one region of the brain to another, instead of being only from sensory areas to motor areas (with connections looking “less like an assembly line and more like the Internet”). While this means that we don’t respond as instantaneously to sensory stimuli as other mammals, it also means that new brain regions could communicate without any outside stimulus whatever. These new association cortices are what give humans their ability for abstract thought.
There are so many things that we don’t really understand about ourselves—why we are the way we are. Buckner and Krienen’s work may shed some important light on our most important aspects—why we think rather than just react, and how we’re capable of higher thought. Of course, this great power (to quote Spider-man) also gives us great responsibility to use our cognitive abilities for the greater good, a responsibility we too often don’t fulfill.
The travel section on January 3 had an article called “Traveling While Black” by Farai Chideya. In it, Farai tells about African-American experiences traveling in the US and abroad. In the past, black travelers faced significant roadblocks. From 1936 to 1964, there was a publication called “The Negro Motorist Green Book” (later, “The Negro Traveler’s Green Book”) that told where it was safe to stop, buy gasoline, eat, and stay when traveling. Georgia congressman John Lewis wrote: “There would be no restaurant for us to stop at until we were well out of the South, so we took our restaurant right in the car with us… Stopping for gas and to use the bathroom took careful planning. Uncle Otis had made this trip before, and he knew which places along the way offered “colored” bathrooms and which were better just to pass on by. Our map was marked and our route was planned that way, by the distances between service stations where it would be safe for us to stop.”
Today, things are much different. Elaine Lee, who runs a website called Ugogurl.com, writes: “Travel is the music of my soul…The biggest surprise about traveling internationally was to discover that in many parts of the world, it is an asset to be a black woman, unlike in North America, where it is often a liability. Travel to Africa is among the most healing of all. You go there and get part of your soul back.” There are still negatives too, of course, such as the US State Department advisory for Greece, which stated: “there has been a rise in unprovoked harassment and violent attacks against persons who, because of their complexion, are perceived to be foreign migrants. U.S. citizens most at risk are those of African, Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern descent.”
Farai tells about some of his more surprising travel experiences, such as when he was in China, he was nearly “invisible”, passing through checkpoint after checkpoint without being stopped, while others were searched. In southern India, he was able to explore areas of Mumbai and meet people who otherwise would have been suspicious of him. He concluded his article with: “For those of us blacks who travel — domestically or internationally, with financial ease or by saving for years — the world can be our playground, our teacher, our beloved. We just have to remember one thing I was lucky enough to learn as a child, and one that I was reminded of in Beijing that fall day. This world can be our place, too.”
Traveling from one place to another without difficulty is something that most of us take for granted, without realizing that it could be humiliating or dangerous in the past. I had seen a copy of the Negro Motorist Green Book at an exhibit at the William Bremen Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta at an exhibit titled “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow” (see this previous BLAB for details on the exhibit), and was well aware of the history of discrimination in the South (and the North too), but had never really thought about how it impacted something as “simple” as driving from one place to another to visit a relative or to see something new. The liberating power of travel is something else we often don’t think about—we just take it for granted.
Finally, the Media & Advertising section of the January 4 issue had an article titled “Banished for Questioning the Gospel of Guns” by Ravi Somaiya, telling the story of Dick Metcalf, a prominent gun journalist who had a column that appeared on the back page of each issue of Guns & Ammo magazine. In October, Metcalf wrote an article called “Let’s Talk Limits”, where he asked: “Do certain firearms regulations really constitute infringement?” and suggested that a mandatory 16 hour course in order to get a concealed carry license wouldn’t infringe on gun owner’s rights. The article, which was approved by the magazine’s editors, set off a firestorm of negative reactions, including readers threatening to cancel their subscriptions, email death threats, and threats from two gun manufacturers to cancel their advertisements if he continued to work there. Jim Bequette, editor of Guns & Ammo, then issued an apology to the magazine’s readers, and told them that Metcalf had been fired. Metcalf is now a pariah in the gun industry.
Regarding the situation, Richard Venola, a former editor of Guns & Ammo, said: “We are locked in a struggle with powerful forces in this country who will do anything to destroy the Second Amendment…The time for ceding some rational points is gone.” Metcalf is left wondering how a self-described “Second Amendment fundamentalist” has been ostracized from his community. “Compromise is a bad word these days,” he said. “People think it means giving up your principles.”
This was a really scary column, for reasons that have little to do with guns. People’s positions are getting more and more entrenched on a whole range of issues, with little or no willingness to hear someone else’s point of view or to compromise. Vilification of one’s opponents is increasingly common, both on the left and right. It’s not enough to disagree—we have to call the other person evil as well. This is seen every day in politics, and it makes us less and less able to address our problems. What’s worse, we have come to accept this as the way things are.
The answer to the above is obvious—we need to make some New Year’s resolutions: Resolve to use that extra space in our brains and the “internet” of neural connections to engage in higher thought. To recognize that we might not have a personal monopoly on what’s right and consider some ideas from the other side. To remember to help those who are less fortunate, even if we feel it is a drop in the bucket. To travel to see something new, enjoy the freedom, and expand our thinking a little more. Happy New Year!
This Week’s Trivia Challenge
In honor of the New Year, all the questions or answers to today’s trivia challenge have the word “year” in them. As usual, the first with the most takes the prize. No looking up the answers now! SEND ALL ENTRIES BY EMAIL TO email@example.com, since if you put them as a response on the BLOG, everyone will be able to see them!
- Traditional greeting at 12:00 am on January 1st.
- Big reductions in prices after Christmas.
- All high schools and colleges used to publish one at the end of the spring semester. Now, not so much.
- 1938 novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, it became a movie starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman in 1946.
- Television show that always began with “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…”