The War of the Emerald Ash Borer

One chilly autumn afternoon, Sir John and I set out to walk in a bit of urban greenbelt which we haven’t visited in some time. The sky was grey, the trees were bare, the path was covered in dull brown leaves. Since this is an urban area, even when we appeared to be deep in the woods, we could still hear the roar of traffic at a distance, and since even the vines had lost their leaves, we could see houses and their back gardens through a fence. It was all very drab, chilly, and ordinary.

We walked about five miles, looping out on a paved path shared with runners and cyclists, and back on a once-gravelled trail used only by walkers and the occasional horse. When we were about half a mile from the parking lot we’d started from, the trail began to slant downhill, toward a branch of the river, and suddenly the undergrowth was bright green again. We saw a deer grazing, her tail a white flag. We walked on toward a gently arched bridge, passing a white deer skull balanced at the edge of the stream. I said, “You know if we cross that bridge, we’ve had enough signs that we shouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves in the middle of the War for the Oaks or the War of the Emerald Ash Borer or something.”

We crossed. We reached a liminal space, where woods, prairie, and houses came together. We met only a mountain biker in a fluorescent vest, accompanied by two black Labradors each wearing a glowing collar, one green, one blue. And then when we were nearly back to our car, another group approached us: a silver-muzzled blond Lab leashed by a silver-haired man, and by his side a woman with an owl’s head . . . .

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Things to do

So we have come to live in Bizarro World. There is a rift in the space-time continuum, only half the passengers understand this, the Enterprise is stuck and can’t make it over to bail us out, and Sisko and the Bajorrans are too far away to do anything clever with the wormhole. What now?

Some of the people whose blogs I read regularly are already thinking about how to react: Christine, with a comforting post; Cloud, with a thoughtful one; Fie, with characteristic refusal to quit. And John Scalzi’s worth a look. In The Middle makes a statement I can get behind.

I expect part of the reason I am so stunned is that I am not, in general, a very political person. I tend to cultivate my own garden, focus on the things I can change, ignore the ones I can’t, avoid conflict, political debate, and activism, and just sort of float along, sticking my neck out for nobody, as Rick says in Casablanca. I have only so much energy and only one life, and I like contemplating lilies (if you have two loaves of bread, sell one and buy a lily).

Thus, in that lily-contemplating spirit, while I’m going to be looking for ways to help people who help immigrants, I’m also a patron of the fantastic blog Medieval People of Color, because people need to know that the European Middle Ages were not a white supremacist’s fantasy land, and of Pamela Dean, because we’re going to need some more good escapist fiction.

It’s a start.

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I don’t know what to say to my students tomorrow.

My students who are Muslim, mixed-race, American-born black, American-born of Hispanic descent, West-Indies-born immigrants. Those are just the ones I know I will face tomorrow . . . so many other faces of other backgrounds, from other semesters, are in my mind, including a young woman who found out, months before her 21st birthday, that she was illegal, in this country illegally, brought as an infant, which her parents never told her. These students know, better than I do, how racist this country is. I don’t want them to have to comfort me. But I’m not sure I have it in me to be their older, wiser, reassuring professor.

Rewards

Although I’m not in the TLQ group, I often follow along because it can be motivating to see other people’s efforts to get to the truly important stuff, and comforting to see how/when/why they have trouble getting to it (since I also often get distracted by the Urgent rather than focusing on the Important).  This week’s topic made me want to write about something I started doing last week (that is, before this topic posted).

I don’t do well with external rewards, no matter what they are.  Either I want the thing now, rather than later; or I’m going to do it later whether or not I am done with the tasks; or I find that I don’t really want the thing after all, in which case it’s a lousy motivator.  And yet just having the satisfaction of having completed a task does not necessarily motivate me, either.  It may feel like way too small a portion of the whole thing: I wrote a paragraph of my book, big whoop; how many hundreds of paragraphs to go?  Or it may be something that provokes disproportional anxiety (hello, phone calls), so that the delight of having it over with is dwarfed by the agony of doing it combined with the feeling that I am doing-it-wrong because I can’t manage to think of this as the simple task it is for other people.

Okay, so having already admitted that I’m both perverse and pathetic, I will now tell you how easily I am motivated by a kindergarten technique: colored stars.  On difficult days, I keep a list not of things to do but of things I have done, and I assign myself points for them and draw colored stars or flowers to celebrate having done them.  I choose points depending on how hard it feels to do things.  The easy routine things like administering cat meds are one point; writing 400-500 words is five points; calling the insurance company is at least 10 points.  I don’t do anything with the points, like adding them up to win prizes of some kind.  It’s just a way of acknowledging to myself that that task took some energy and so I should get some recognition for it.  Drawing a star or flower or doodle takes very little time, a few seconds for a one-pointer, maybe a minute for something fancy to celebrate a ten-point task, but it’s a creative break from doing harder things.  And getting a page full of colored doodles for things I have done is surprisingly motivational.  I think drawing them myself is important.  Stickers don’t have the same effect unless they’re part of a design I have made.

Next year I’ll see if this works for grading.

Lapsus digiti

I needed to search for an idea, and typed “the vale of bad scribes.”

This vale of tears, filled with bad scribes.  The mountain valley where no good scribe will venture to teach decent techniques.  The steep alley off the main drag where the bad scribes, who can’t afford the rent in a better location, set up shop. The retirement community for those whose eyes are poor and hands shaky.  I can think of so many interpretations of this phrase, though it wasn’t what I was looking for.

IOW, reach must exceed grasp

In a review of a biography of economist Albert O. Hirschman, the New Yorker includes this quotation:

“Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened.  In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming.  Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.”

The reviewer continues, “People don’t seek out challenges, he went on.  They are ‘apt to take on and plunge into new tasks because of the erroneously presumed absence of a challenge—because the task looks easier and more manageable than it will turn out to be.’  This was the Hiding Hand principle . . . . The entrepreneur takes risks but does not see himself as a risk-taker, because he operates under the useful delusion that what he’s attempting is not risky.  Then, trapped . . . people discover the truth—and because it is too late to turn back, they’re forced to finish the job.”

Malcolm Gladwell, “The Gift of Doubt,” The New Yorker, June 24, 2013, pp. 74-5.

This explains the Octopus phenomenon rather well.  I don’t think projects are going to be such a big deal until I’m well into them.  And then they’re much harder and less manageable than I expected them to be.  But I love the notion that this hassle will force me into being more creative and brilliant than I would otherwise have been!  It’s an empowering way to approach a task that has turned daunting.

His wife (Sarah Chapiro Hirschman) has a good quotation, too.  “It is impossible to know what is best and . . . the present is so much more important—because if the present is solid and good it will be a surer basis for a good future than any plans that you can make” (p. 76).

So, since nicoleandmaggie take Thursdays off, here’s your economics-related post for the day!

The joy of spam

Great lines from spam comments:

  • I’ve learned to use a teabag.
  • I have tried it, and brownies.
  • I say to you, I definitely get irked.
  • Inspiring quest there. What happened after?
  • I was told I had problems sleeping.
  • Be sure to eat something before you leave.

And my responses:

  1. Congratulations!  Much less messy than loose tea, and easier in the office.
  2. I expect brownies are better; stick with them.  (Wait, did you mean for housekeeping, or the cookie bar?  I think my response probably applies to either, actually.)
  3. Oh, me too, me too.   I try not to say it too often, though.
  4. They lived happily ever after, of course.
  5. I think you’d know about it before anyone else.
  6. Good advice; keep your blood sugar from crashing if there’s a long line to be seated.

 

Chaucerian grading scale

In the spirit of this post, I offer the Chaucerian version for your delectation.  Extra credit for identifying the quotations.

A

Right as oure firste lettre is now an A,
In beaute first so stood she, makeles.
Hire goodly lokyng gladed al the prees.
Nas nevere yet seyn thyng to ben preysed derre.

B

Al that writen is,
To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille.
. . . . . . . . .
Thow hast thee wel yquit
And gentilly.  I preise wel thy wit,
Considerynge.

C

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge. . . .
Of usage—what for lust and what for lore—
On bokes rede I ofte, as I yow tolde.
But wherfore that I speke al this?

D

Namoore of this.
That ye han seyd is right ynough, ywis,
And muchel moore; for litel hevynesse
Is right ynough to muche folk, I gesse.
I seye for me, it is a greet disese.

F

Thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord.
Thou doost noght elles but despendest tyme.

Thys may wel be rym dogerel

In th’olde dayes of the Teching Kynge,
Who knew best how to manage everythynge,
This land was filled of grading fayerye.
Th’endityng elves, with her compaignye,
Daunced ful ofte on many a scolar’s book,
Esily seen by any that myght look.
This was the olde opinioun, as I rede;
But now the worde is come that elves be dede.
For now the service and utilité
Of Blacke Borde and such futilité
That filleth every classe and every halle
As thikke as leves that in autumn falle,
This maketh that ther ben no fayeryes.

Balladry

One of my forthcoming pieces is about a set of verses I have spent five years tracking through various manuscript collections, including some very tattered assemblages of loose sheets with odd notations. Among them I discovered some tantalizing stanzas. Though I have not found anything quite like them elsewhere, I am tempted to try my hand at finishing the ballad they appear to belong to:

The dame called her scriveyn near,
and said the gome vntil,
“Use yr best yr fairest hand
to write my lord this bille.”

He wroot it with the quill of goose,
he wroot with quill of swanne;
ever the lady shook her head
& said sche wd haue nane.

He wroot it in the light of moon,
he wroot in light of sunne;
ever the lady shook her head
& said again he mun.

He took in hand a quill of doue,
and wroot in lettres fine;
again the lady shook her head
& [indecipherable] line.

At last he laid his ink aside,
& dropped his weary head.
& then there came a little man
dressed in green and red.

“What will ye gie me, Thomas True,
what will ye gie for mine,
if I write this bille for you
in letters true and fine?”

Paleographer Barbie

Apparently there is now a Computer Engineer Barbie. I learned about this from a set of letters in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. One said, “Even though Barbie is a computer engineer this year, she is still a Barbie with a a disproportionate body type and plastic must-have ‘career’ accessories. In a time when young women need better self images, this Barbie still doesn’t convince me that Mattel is on the leading edge of engineering images . . . . ” Um. I really hope you’re not saying that women (or men, for that matter) with disproportionate body types can’t be computer engineers. To put it bluntly, people with big breasts can be smart, too. I had very much hoped that the stereotype of women in STEM fields being mousy nerdish un-sexy types had passed. But perhaps not.

Aside from that, of course you need the accessories. Barbie is a toy. When you play with toys, you either have or make stuff that goes with whatever imaginative adventure is at hand. Artist Barbie can have a palette and easel; Physician Barbie a stethoscope and syringes; Chef Barbie a whole array of miniature cooking implements. But as Sir John said, “What does this one do, sit in front of a computer and complain about her aching neck every once in awhile?” I thought it would be hard to tell Computer Engineer Barbie from Mathematician Barbie or any number of Barbies engaged in work that mainly takes place inside one’s head. I suppose English Professor Barbie and Historian Barbie would have big piles of books as well as the laptop, but really, it’s hard to tell one intellectual worker from another by the accessories (now that the day of slide rules has passed).

And then I thought, “Oh, hey: Paleographer Barbie!” Besides the laptop, she can have a ruler, a magnifying glass, and sheets of lovely writing: a page of Insular Minuscule, a page of a tidy Gothic book hand, and a page of Italic (let’s not frighten the children with fifteenth-century English Secretary Hand. Time enough for that when they’re older). Clothing includes a big woolly sweater, since most libraries and archives are freezing, and a blazer with huge pockets, since you often aren’t allowed a bag of any kind (Yale wouldn’t even let me have my glasses case, though en revanche, the Beinecke is at least warm). Since some libraries provide clear plastic bags for one’s belongings, there’s another possible accessory.

Anything else you think Paleographer Barbie should have?