Notes


Stamp out starving writers, buy their books!


We think you'll find something interesting here. There's lots to choose from. These posts just go on and on, backward through time.


Know what the word of the year was for 2016? Did you know that Oxford Dictionaries actually chooses a word of the year? Really? Scroll down a piece and you'll get the scoop on the Word of the Year.

Time is Money, Money is Time

The saying goes that time is money. On the other hand, you’ve probably heard that rich people live longer than poor people. So we can turn the old saying around and say that money is time. A few years ago, a movie with premise that time and money are interchangeable came out. The action-adventure sci-fi thriller was called In Time and starred Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried.

Amanda Seyfried:  In Time

Amanda Seyfried: In Time

The movie takes place in an alternate present where everyone’s diminishing 25-year life expectancy is visible in luminescent numbers on their forearm. The body-clock stops at age 25, after which you have a year in which to buy more time, if you have the money. If you don’t, you can gamble for it, beg for it, steal it — or give up and die. The premise is very interesting, but the film is disappointingly commonplace with the usual smooth talking rich villains, the lower strata of relentless killers, and the dashing heroic lovers who steal from the idle time-rich to give to the desperate time-poor.

The most interesting scenes are simple visuals where Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried — he with a shaved head and not-quite-shaved cheeks, she in a high-heels and tight miniskirt — run as fast as they can to escape thugs and the time police. The pair are good runners even when holding hands. It’s too bad everything else is so lame, because a movie in which more money means more time alive dramatizes an essential fact of life in the US today.

Nowadays, men in the top 1 percent can look forward to celebrating their 87th birthday, which is about 15 more birthdays than those poor guys in the bottom 1 percent. As a matter of fact, really rich men in the USA can look forward to living longer than men anywhere on the planet. Those other guys down in the bottom 1 percent of in the United States, can expect to live as briefly as men in Sudan.

Raj Chetty

Raj Chetty

These sad facts come from an investigation into wealth and life expectancy by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty and seven other researchers. The surprising news in this news is that for the poor, where they live will help determine how long they live. The rich do well in any city, but the poor – while generally living more abbreviated lives – live longer if they reside in, say, San Francisco or New York city rather than in Detroit or Tampa. According to the researchers, it helps if the place where you live has an abundance of affluent smart people and social policies which encourage a healthy lifestyle. To be specific, if a municipality reduces the areas where you can smoke cigarettes and increases the areas for bicycling and other healthful activities, all people will benefit.

Another effect of wealth is that it tends to even out the differences in life expectancy between men and women. Poor women tend to live 6 or 7 years longer than poor men, but as men and women rise in wealth, the difference in their life expectancy shrinks and at the top, women can expect only 3 or so more years than men.

Of course the movie is, as we tell our frightened children, only make believe. In real life a phone call doesn’t cost you a minute off your life, and breakfast in a really good restaurant won’t chop eight-and-a-half weeks from your lifespan. One of the In Time characters says, “Many must die so that a few can live forever.” The relationship of wealth to life expectancy in the United States isn’t that bad.  Not yet, anyway.

Easter

Easter eggsThese Easter eggs were made a generation ago. Delicate little things, real egg shells painted by hand, and the kids who made them have kids of their own now. These lovely ornaments spend most of the year in boxes stored under the eves in the attic, then come into the light for a brief time once a year.There’s no question that for Christians such hollow decorated egg shells came to symbolize the empty tomb of the risen Christ, but precisely when and where the symbol got its start is a vexed piece of history. No matter. Humans have been decorating eggs for thousands of years and for sure a lot of life starts with an egg. For Romans of Christ’s time, all life comes from an egg or, as they say, omne vivum ex ovo.  We too came from an egg and without kids all life would cease. So there they are, bowls of real hollowed egg shells painted by children. There’s resurrection for you!

WinterAconite, Crocuses & Garlic

Winter aconite 2016 450Winter aconite is one of the earliest signs of spring, but it’s rarely noticed. It emerges about the same time as those delicate and highly regarded snowdrops, while a thin blanket of snow still covers the ground. Winter aconite is a hardy plant, thriving and spreading with no gardener to care for it, and when the blossoms are gone the leaves grow ever larger, making a thick green bed. This flowering plant is a member of the same family as the common buttercup, and like the buttercup it’s just there, not much noticed, disregarded and rarely found in flower beds.
crocus 2016 450
For the flower gardener, crocuses are the first sign of spring. Gardeners are by nature optimists, planting seeds and nurturing seedlings in the happy expectation of a thriving, colorful flower bed. And those hopes are often fulfilled — sometimes fully, more often a bit less. But to have crocuses emerge at the end of winter you have to plant bulbs in the fall, and that takes real optimism, for by fall the garden is a hopeless mess and every despairing day is colder and darker than the day before. And you don’t get those masses of delicate blossoms unless you plant masses of bulbs and just the right depth, not so shallow they’ll be torn up by squirrels and not so deep they’ll never grow to sunny daylight.

Garlic 2016 450And for the vegetable gardener, the first sign of spring  is a green shoot of garlic. Like the optimistic flower lover, the vegetable gardener was busy the previous fall, planting rows of garlic cloves, covering them with a blanket of leaves and anchoring the leaves against the winter wind with twigs or light branches. The garlic grows a bit in the fall, takes a winter vacation, then starts up vigorously as the days lengthen and grow slightly warmer. Garlic has a flower but that comes later, meanwhile it puts its energy into growing tall — and, of course, there’s that subterranean garlic bulb that’s growing a bit bigger every day. If you like garlic, you ought to plant some, it takes little or no talent and the reward is great.

College Students & Hunger

Oliver Twist asking for more.You knew that college students in the United States were being crushed under a mountain of debt. In fact, in this country the total amount of college debt now surpasses the total of all credit card debt. But you probably didn’t know that student finances have reach the point where some students are going hungry – they can’t buy food and pay college costs at the same time.

Sara Golrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,is also the director of the Wisconsin HOPE lab which researches, among other things, the financial hurdles that financially strapped college students face nowadays. The lab has uncovered some worrisome statistics. It turns out that poorer students are simply going hungry. Or as the HOPE people put it, “food insecurity is a growing problem on college campuses.”

Food insecurity is defined by the US Department of Agriculture as a “…social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” In other words, sometimes you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. Surveys by the HOPE lab reveal that some students can’t afford to buy enough food to stay in college. They have to choose between food and, say, rent, family needs, or the courses required to graduate.

A survey at ten community colleges across the nation discovered that half the students said they were struggling with food and/ or housing insecurity. A whopping 20 percent were hungry and 13 percent were homeless. Professor Golrick-Rab’s team began to interview low income students at Wisconsin’s public universities and colleges back in 2008. At that time 27 percent didn’t have enough money to buy enough food, and 5 to 7 percent had gone an entire day without eating.

The problem of hungry students isn’t insoluble. One suggestion by the people at HOPE is for our government to make students eligible for food stamps by treating going to college as similar to going to work. That would certainly help.

(You’re right about the image at the top. The kid with the bowl isn’t a community college student. He’s Oliver Twist asking for more.)

Preaching In My Yes Dress

Preaching In MY Yes Dress cover imageJo Page, a friend who has contributed occasional posts to Critical Pages, has now written a lively and engaging book, Preaching in My Yes Dress. Ms. Page is a Lutheran pastor and this publication is partly a memoir and partly a personal report of what it’s like to deal with the bright and dark moments of pastoral work.

The story begins with friendly simplicity — “As Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story, luminescent Audrey Hepburn makes convent life masochistically chic – all that pious obedience and semi-sexual mortification of the flesh. As a little girl, I wanted to be Sister Luke.” The movie made a deep impression on the girl who, when she was nine years old, sensed a cause-and-effect relationship between her own sinfulness and the death of her father. Jo Page moves deftly back and forth between the troubled inner life of that little girl and the zig-zag plot of the movie, keeping the tone precise and light. That same deftness comes into play throughout the book as the author moves from tragic to comic events in her childhood, or from wanting to “get on God’s good side” as a youngster to enrolling in a seminary as an adult with a husband and two children.

The author avoids solemnity, but doesn’t hide or dodge serious problems when they arise in the course of her story. The full title of this memoir is Preaching in My Yes Dress: Confessions of a Reluctant Pastor. And that means Pastor Page is startlingly honest in depicting her doubts and the questions that arise, no matter her role – “Who can really tell what God’s will for us is anyway? Or if there really is such a thing as God’s will? Is it the will of God that we suffer? I just don’t believe that. But we do suffer. Sometimes it seems as though God is strangely distant, strangely silent. That’s when we end up making excuses for God for allowing the world to be as it truly is.”

Preaching in My Yes Dress is thoughtful, refreshingly candid and provocative. And though it touches on subjects such as the rise of the religious right, the patriarchal nature of scripture and church organization, it’s never heavy or belligerent. You can’t tell a book by it’s cover, but the the title of this one is a pretty good giveaway as to what’s inside. Actually, the cover is damned good, too.

You can visit Jo Page at her blog.

Encryption & the 4th Amendment

Constitution - We the PeopleAlas, there’s no right to privacy in the Constitution of the United States. The closest we come to that right is in the 4th Amendment which states that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probably cause —” and so forth.

For the past few years, the administration has been trying to get US companies to install “back doors” in their encryption programs. That way federal agencies will be able to access our otherwise private information. And now, as you know, a federal judge has ordered Apple, Inc. to hack its encrypted i-phone so the FBI will get into the device used by one of the killers in the San Bernardino massacre. Apple says No. Doing that, says CEO Tim Cook, would ultimately compromise the privacy of all i-phone users.

That’s a brave stand for privacy. And, frankly, if we have to rely on global corporations to protect us from government snooping, we’re in a bad way.

In 1890 a couple of law partners, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, wrote an article for the Harvard Law Review about privacy. In the years since then, it’s become one of the most famous articles ever printed in that review. In their article, the young lawyers found a right to privacy  — or, as they wrote, “the right to be left alone” — in common law, and also found it implicitly in a variety of statutes. It was a good start, but that was over 100 years ago.

Thirty years later, the same Louis Brandeis, by then a Justice of the Supreme Court, argued that a right to privacy was implicit in the 4th Amendment. The case was Olmstead v. the United States, and the question was whether recordings of wiretapped private telephone conversations constituted impermissibly seized evidence and consequently should be excluded from the trial. The case was well chosen to favor the use of wiretaps, because the people being wiretapped were in an outrageously huge bootlegging business. By a five-to-four decision, the Court said wiretapping had not violated the 4th Amendment. So Brandeis lost. As Chief Justice William Howard Taft said, there had been no searching and nothing had been seized, the conversation had been merely overheard. By the way, that decision was not overturned until 1967, thirty-nine years later.

The article written by Brandeis and Warren in 1890 had been stimulated by the invention of the camera and the public display in newspapers of photographs of private people. And in the 1928 Olmstead case, the decision followed upon the use of telephone wiretaps. In each case the interpretation of the 4th Amendment came in response to a technological advance that law didn’t cover. Now, of course, technology has advanced terrifically with the invention of the marvelous digital phone and all that it can do.

Clearly, any conclusive decision in the Apple case will have to involve an interpretation of the 4th Amendment. The Apple case, like the Olmstead case of 1928, is well chosen to favor the authorities, namely the FBI, since the phone they want to get into  was used by the perpetrators of the horrifying San Bernardino massacre. It’s a hard case. And there’s an old legal adage that say, “Hard cases make bad law”


If you’re interested, Critical Pages has an earlier post on Louis Brandeis.

Gravity Waves & Valentines

Valentine heart 120Scientists detected gravitational waves this past September, but spent the next four months checking their figures to make absolutely certain they knew what had happened and then, after giving it some thought, they chose to announce their findings this Feburary, just before Valentine’s Day. After all, these scientists are real flesh-and-blood people, not robots. They were as aware as you are that being swamped by love changes everything, affects your sense of time and space — alternately squeezing and stretching them  — as do gravity waves.

Linking gravity with Valentine’s Day gives a weight to the concept of love and meaningfulness to the notion of gravity. Gravity is powerful when objects are close to each other, but it weakens amazingly fast as the distance between them increases; in fact, it diminishes with the square of the distance and pretty soon it’s so weak as to be undetectable. Essentially, there’s nothing there. Phone calls don’t get returned, emails don’t get answered.

Scientists hoping to detect gravity waves searched for four years and got nowhere, no results. They shut down their equipment, improved it’s performance fourfold and began their search again. And they got lucky. Two intensely powerful gravitational loci circling each other closer and closer finally merged, devouring and sinking into each other in a fashion reminiscent of the poet Lucretius’s description of a man and a woman making love. The event, which happened 1.3 billion years ago sent waves across the universe which were picked up at the LIGO detector in Hannaford, Washington, and the LIGO detector in Livingston, Louisiana.

Those two points of pure gravitational energy were drawn to each other 1.3 billion years ago and the vibrations emanating from that mating have been traveling across the cosmos to us ever since, reaching us this past September, and expanding even now beyond us. It’s good to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Couple in bed 464

Shy But Happy Couple Making Gravity Waves

Our posts on earlier Valentine’s Day are accessible from the search box at the top of the page.

Ada’s Algorithm

Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

Maybe you know about Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, a very bright young mathematician who worked with the older scientist, Charles Babbage, when he was developing the first programmable computing machine — a precursor of the contemporary computer. If you know a bit more, you know that the machine, which was never actually built, was to be programmed by punched cards, similar to the punched cards that were used a hundred and more years later in the early computers of the 20th century. And if you’re like most people who know about Ada, that’s about all you know of her.

Ada’s life has the elements of a good gossipy story, and that’s the way it’s treated in James Essinger’s biography, Ada’s Algorithm. Or, as the book’s subtitle says, How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched The Digital Age. Ada’s father was as notorious for his bad-boy behavior as he was famous for his poetry, and Ada wasn’t able to escape the celebrity of his name. Probably the most decisive effect of having Byron for a father was that Ada’s mother constructed an educational program for Ada that was designed to stamp out any fanciful or imaginative tendencies the girl might have inherited from dreadful dad. Lady Byron gave birth to Ada on December 10, 1815, and thirty-five days later she folded back the covers from her side of the bed, slipped from her sleeping husband’s side, then bundled herself and her daughter in warm clothes and, with a maidservant, left their London house.

Ada never saw her father after that. George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a great poet but he wasn’t cut out to be a husband or father.

James Essinger’s light and chatty biography provides brief sketches of Ada’s parents and grandparents and, what’s more to the point, it gives the reader a good sense of how mother and daughter behaved in regard to each other. Lady Byron’s plan to protect Ada from whatever imaginative tendencies she might have inherited from her father included a good dose of mathematics. As it happened, Ada did very well in mathematics. Indeed, she excelled in that field and eventually directed her own studies and became a fine mathematician — not an easy feat for a woman in the early 19th century. She had a lively interest in science and technology, too. In 1833 Ada turned 18 and, following the custom of her class, she was formally introduced to society as a marriageable young woman. Young women of high social status were often presented at court and so it was with Ada who, wearing white satin and tulle, and accompanied by her mother, curtsied to the king and queen, and hobnobbed with the dignitaries there on that day in May. (more…)

Stamp Out Starving Writers!

Stamp Out Starving Writers! Buy their books!Start by patronizing your local independent bookstore. Bookstores have lots of books and they’ll be glad to help you find whatever you want. We mean books. They’ll match you with a book. Or just wander amid the stacks of books and you’re sure to find something interesting.
Bookstore kissing 210
Sadly, the couple pictured here aren’t taking advantage of the amazing number and variety of books at hand. But we hope you will.

You can see our other Stamp Out Starving Writers announcements by using the search box at the top of the page.

How Much Do Writers Make?

Monks in a ScriptoriumThe writers pictured above are monks in a scriptorium. They took vows of poverty chastity and obedience. Nowadays writers don’t take vows of chastity and obedience, but a lot of them feel as if they took a vow of poverty when they decided to try authorship.

Writers have never made a lot of money. That’s not news. What is news is that from 2009 to 2015, full-time authors’ income dropped 30 percent. No, that’s not a misprint. And part-time authors saw a 38 percent decrease over the same period.

Maybe you’re thinking that full-time authors found their income falling from, say, around $100,000 to $66,000 a year. Alas, no. In 2009, full-time writers averaged $25,000 a year from writing, and their income from that source dropped to $17,500.

These grim figures come from a survey “commissioned by the Authors Guild and conducted by the Codex Group, a leading publishing industry research firm.”

The Authors Guild chose to survey the period starting with 2009 because that was the year that publishing began to experience changes brought about by the digital revolution. In 2009, only 5 percent of readers had bought an e-book, but by 2015, 50 percent of readers were buying e-books.

The Guild put it this way in their Bulletin, “We’ve seen major consolidation within the traditional publishing industry, which means less diversity among publishers, and with most major publishers now owned by multinational corporations, there’s a tighter focus on the bottom line. These phenomena – along with Amazon’s strong-arming publishers and authors on price and other terms on its way to becoming an industry behemoth, leaving thousands of brick and mortar bookstores shuttered in its wake – have combined to make the business of authorship less profitable than it was six years ago.”

Writer maniac at keyboard

More Notes


Plenty of opinions here on Critical Pages, plus a lot of facts, but no alternative facts. Please don't misunderstand, we do like alternative facts -- after all, we're all writers here -- but we prefer the word fiction. It's shorter and everyone understands what we mean when say we're writing fiction.