Future According to William Gibson

 

 

 

Future According to William Gibson
Josh Ingram
WR122
Ginger Gough
3/16/15

 

 

 

 

 


Abstract
This paper provides an overview of the science fiction works of William Gibson as proof of his accuracy in predicting the future. A section is provided that shows other franchises’ take on a possible future but reveals that they are more fantastical than practical. The final section talks about the bleeding edge of science and references two authors who are looking to use science and technology to further the lifespan of humanity by transcending biology. It then ties their findings back to what Gibson had already been writing about.

William Ford Gibson was born in South Carolina in 1948. His father passed away when he was just six years old and his mother died about ten years later. After he lost his father, his mother relocated back to her hometown of Wytheville, Virginia, taking young William with her. As this was the mid to late-Fifties, he says that the modern technology of the time was not well-received in the town in which he now found himself. He encountered in the citizens of Wytheville a sort of “future shock”, to quote Alvin Toffler.     His response to this, he says, is what drove him to invert and to begin reading science fiction; his desire to write it began around age 12. When his mother passed, the Sixties were in full swing. During his late teens, he drifted across the US, eventually winding up in Canada where he earned a degree in English at the University of British Columbia.
    Gibson has published twelve books to date: ten novels (nine of which comprise three trilogies), one collection of short fiction, and another collection of non-fiction essays. He has also written a book with friend and author Bruce Sterling, called The Difference Engine, an alternate history novel set in the mid-19th century. The setting of his fiction (with the exception of his collaboration with Sterling and his third trilogy) has always been the near future. The scope of his stories, however, is not so far out that one cannot see in them the present day and age as well. With reference to this, he says he was taught (presumably at college) that “…imaginary futures are always, regardless of what the authors might think, about the day in which they’re written (Gibson, 2012).” Furthermore, his characterizations are varied and exceptionally well-drawn.
    This paper is not titled The Future According to William Gibson. Rather, it omits
the article “the” to show that when thinking about and looking at “the future”, it behooves people to read William Gibson’s past work and also to look out for what he will be publishing down the road. To date, Gibson’s books have provided a glimpse into a future that has happened in many ways as he described.
    This being said, Gibson, for all of the effort he has put in to showing his readers a possible future, has said that he is not “a didactic writer.” He said that he is not “couching some sort of message in prose fiction (Neale, 2000).” However, if one looks back on the futuristic points made in the books that he has written and published, they will see that he has been more right than wrong and that he is someone worth listening to and reading when it comes to knowing how technology will continue to affect the world.
    Gibson’s first novel was called Neuromancer. Published in 1984, it tells its story in a world where the internet is likened to another dimension, one that humans have access to by “jacking in” and then navigating around with their consciousness. That world continues on in the sequel Count Zero in which one of the characters declares “Sure, it’s just a tailored hallucination we all agree to have, Cyberspace, but anybody who jacks in knows…it’s a whole universe (Count Zero, 1986).” That same character labels Cyberspace (as imagined and illustrated by Gibson): “Mankind’s unthinkably complex consensual hallucination.” This is not too far a cry from the interconnected web pages that humanity is viewing on little screens around the world. The trilogy ends with the novel Mona Lisa Overdrive. Gibson has said that the trilogy—officially known as The Sprawl Trilogy—was set in the 2030s (Distrust, 2012).
    His second trilogy begins with Virtual Light, set in 2006. As it was published in 1993, one futuristic element in that book is virtual reality. While virtual reality had been in use prior to his writing it, he fleshes it out and predicts through the storyline that it will take shape and be a locale through which information is transferred and garnered and manipulated, much like his version of Cyberspace. Today, virtual reality visors are being mass-produced by Google and other third parties such as Oculus. Some visors are paired with cell phones whose screens provide the image.
    The second book in the trilogy that began with Virtual Light, is titled Idoru. The third book is called All Tomorrow’s Parties.
     Gibson’s third trilogy begins with 2003’s Pattern Recognition. The timeline for this story was based in the present world, post 9/11. The book’s release predates YouTube (About, 2005) and it deals with the emergence of internet video. The novel also deals with corporate branding and perception. The second title in the trilogy is Spook Country, about war profiteering and the third, titled Zero History, is about forthcoming trends in fashion. Zero History also develops a character who for the past ten years has been off the grid, recovering from a serious benzoate addiction. His name is Milgrim and he emerges back into society with what is essentially a blank-slate mind, hence the title of the book.
    As we all know, the opening line to Star Wars is, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” This expression indicates that all the technologically advanced and fantastical gadgetry shown is actually taking place elsewhere and before our time. It is therefore not practical to look to the Star Wars universe to see what’s coming in the future, simply put. While there are certain elements in George Lucas’ franchise that lend themselves to scrutiny and study—such as an understanding of the Mythic Structure¹—Star Wars is, for the most part, fantasy.

    Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek is a contender for studying up on future-prediction. The Star Trek storyline, unlike Star Wars, takes place—at least initially—in our solar system during the 23rd century and after. The technologies displayed for the viewer are more plausible than Star Wars, with handheld communicators and portable health computers aiding in medical science. We have already developed things like this today, far before the 23rd century. The overall tenor of the franchise, however, is more fantastical in feel. Gibson’s body of work takes place in a nearer future and deals with an incremental advance in technology that feels truer to life. There aren’t any alien races to be found in Gibson’s work either, so there is less requisite suspension of disbelief.
    Fast-forward about 500 years from our own timeline and one will enter the chronological setting for the Halo franchise. The storyline of Halo deals with the augmentation of humans in order to produce super-soldiers. These super-soldiers (called “spartans”) are warring against a group of seven different alien races (including a zombie-virus element) intent on the destruction of the human race. While that part of the Halo scenario requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, its depiction of technology and artificial intelligence is more in line with what technology may become, based on what it
¹ Mythologist Joseph Campbell was highly influential in the formation of the Star Wars universe. It is this writer’s opinion that much of the popularity of Star Wars is due to the fact that it takes very base elements of human nature and primal storytelling (such as what is found in the mythologies the world over) and retells them in a cosmic, galaxy-wide scope.
is now. One of the main characters of the Halo series is an AI construct named “Cortana”. The Halo franchise is owned by Microsoft and in 2015, they released Cortana as their answer to Apple’s Siri as a personal digital assistant.
    One can see, from these three sources of futurism, that a suspension of disbelief is required in order to see their scenarios as plausible. While Star Trek, and Halo take real elements from the present and push them out into the far future, Gibson’s writing is grounded in the technologies of the present as they might be extrapolated out into the near future. While one may not be inclined to look to the stars, as in astrology², or to certain other types of Science Fiction (well-written and entertaining as they may be), the works of William Gibson provide the reader with well-thought out and intelligent speculation as to what might happen based on what is happening now. As one reads through the oeuvre of William Gibson, they will see that the future that he writes about is getting closer, if not already upon us. He is quoted in The Economist periodical as saying “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
    The most prescient piece that Gibson has produced comes from his collection of short stories entitled Burning Chrome. It is simply one word. In the title story, published in 1982, the
²The Barnum Effect says that people will take something like a fortune from a fortune cookie or a horoscope and believe what they read simply because it contains an element about themselves that is more ambiguous than true with reference to their own life. Historian Will Durant says of Nostradamus: “At his own death (1566) he left a book of prophecies so wisely ambiguous that some one or another could be applied to almost any event in later history (Durant, 1957).”
word “Cyberspace” appears for the first time. He says in the introduction to the British edition of Burning Chrome that he wrote the word using a felt-tip pen on a yellow legal pad. The rest is history. He says that he’d “gotten to a point in [his] early fiction…where [he] needed a buzz word. It needed to replace the “rocketship" and the “holodeck” with something else that would be a signifier of technological change (Neale, 2000).” He says that he wanted an “evocative and essentially meaningless” word to further, not just the story, but also the style of fiction he was trying to write. The word “cyberspace” ended up becoming another label for what is known as “the World Wide Web.” For this reason alone, it is worth reading and listening to what he has to say about technology, the world, and the future.
    The Wachowski siblings’ Matrix franchise looks a lot like Gibson’s first trilogy. In contrast to Gibson’s setting,  the characters in the Matrix series of films are “jacking in” to another reality while their bodies lay prone and comatose in outside dimension. The characters in Gibson’s series, however, maintain the use of their body while their minds “surf” the data in the matrix (a word that appeared in the series, without a capital “m”). When one reads the Sprawl Trilogy, it’s as if they are reading an alternate timeline to what has actually happened in the real world thus far—far more revealing and prescient than The Matrix. It’s one way that things could have turned out—and may yet. We should be reading his books and learning from what he has to say.
    A main theme of the Sprawl Trilogy is something known as “conurbation.” This means that many cities have coalesced into one mega-city. Much of the story (when not in Cyberspace) takes place in a locale that stretches the length of the Eastern Seaboard, from New Jersey to Florida. While the trilogy doesn’t talk about space or time travel, some of the plot extends out into a space station orbiting earth.
    A fictional celebrity named Tally Isham figures throughout the trilogy. She has a perfect body and even mechanical eyes to replace the ones with which she was born. The main character of Mona Lisa Overdrive is able, through a projected tabloid experience, to virtually inhabit Isham’s body and live the A-list lifestyle. This is not too far a cry from the phone-app games that feature the Kardashians or Selena Gomez in all their glory. Nor is it that different from reality television where the viewer can live in the world of the rich and famous—if only for an hour a week, as in the case of the ever-recycling crop of reality programs.
    Midway through Mona Lisa Overdrive, Angie asks Continuity (the name of the AI in the house in which she’s staying) about “When It Changed”. The term “When It Changed” is the name for the worldwide event that predates the Sprawl Trilogy and encompasses all the activity that gives rise to the fictional setting Gibson presents for his readers. Angie asks “How recent?” did things change and Continuity answers: “Approximately fifteen years.” If the trilogy is set in the 2030s, that places the time for “When It Changed” around 2016.
    Gibson was writing about these things in the 1980s. He said in 2000, regarding his earlier work, that he “struggle[d] to recognize and accept that the heart is the master and the head is the servant. And that that [sic] is always the case except when it isn’t the case we’re in deep, deep trouble (Neale, 2000).” His earlier work, while uncannily prescient for the way that urban and technological life on earth ended up turning out, has an edge to it that softened over the years. During that time, many attempts have been made to translate Neuromancer to film, all unsuccessful.
    His second trilogy is called The Bridge Trilogy. In the mid-2000s, a giant earthquake (dubbed “Godzilla”) has leveled Tokyo. He talks about what are known as “nano-assemblers” that, little by little, incrementally rebuild the infrastructure of the city. Nanomechanical engineering is presently well-established in medicine and in some manufacturing (Moore, 2014). However, the scale at which Gibson employs the technology has not yet happened.
    In America, another earthquake has broken off the San Francisco Bay Bridge from its approaches and on-land anchors. Transients have turned this scaffolding into an off-the-grid, favela-style community with apartments and shops and other nooks. One of the main characters is a bike messenger with an ultra-light cycle frame made from paper. The first cardboard bicycle was manufactured in 2012, merely a few years from Gibson’s prediction (Wilson, 2012). This is another element to one of his stories that has come true, further proving that he somehow knows the future. We should be reading and listening to this man.
    Colin Laney is one of the main protagonists of Idoru, the second title in the Bridge Trilogy. He has the ability to ingest massive amounts of raw data and filter out what he calls “nodal points”, that is, the pieces of information that foreshadow forthcoming events. He says, regarding his talent that “It’s not crazy. It’s something to do with how I process low-level, broad-spectrum input. Something to do with pattern-recognition (Idoru, 1996).” Gibson said a similar thing in an interview regarding his own process for prediction: “Laney’s node-spotter function [from Idoru] is some sort of metaphor for whatever it is that I actually do. There are bits of the literal future right here, right now, if you know how to look for them. Although I can’t tell you how; it’s a non-rational process (Johnson, 1999).” Here, Gibson sheds a little light on how he does what he does, how he is able to show a possible future with startling accuracy.
    Another plot point to the trilogy is mega-stardom. Supporting character Rez of the Japanese Pop-Punk band Lo/Rez is globally famous on the order of Michael Jackson’s American stardom during the eighties. In an effort to incline his trajectory, so to speak, and become something beyond famous, he looks to marry a digitally-created woman. Her name is Rei Toei, and she is known as the Idoru (a Japanese transliteration of the English “idol”). While the nanotechnology in the book would allow for her to be realized in a manufactured body, she doesn’t actually end up marrying Rez—virtually or otherwise. Interestingly enough, in 2009, a Japanese man (in the real world) did marry a character from a video game (Lah, 2009). The man was not a celebrity and the situation was somewhat different than depicted in the book. It does go to show, however, that Gibson’s perception was keyed into what would happen in the future. This is yet another reason to read and listen to what he has to say.
    Author Martine Rothblatt published Virtually Human in 2014. In this book she talks about how she created a “mindfile” of her late wife. Rothblatt explains in detail what it takes to “make a mind”, garnering every piece of digital information collected and collated and that is digitally augmented to produce a semblance or likeness of Bina, her late spouse. Rothblatt is an adherent to the Terasem Movement, which is at the forefront of studying what it takes to upload the mind into a virtual space. The thrust of the Terasem Movement is a desire to escape the limitations of the human body. In the case of Rei Toei, “she” is projected into the room through a cylindrical device (much like the character Cortana from the Halo series). As the third book begins, the reader learns that Rei, the Idoru, has been apprehending more and more what it’s like to be human, specifically a human in the early 21st century. She is no less interactive nor intelligent than her human counterparts, however. Siri and Cortana—the digital assistants found in our smartphones today—don’t quite match the intelligence and realism as did Rei. However, they are on the way to becoming more and more human-like. Martine Rothblatt and others are actively looking to do what Gibson was talking about in the character of Rei Toei from the Bridge Trilogy.
    Another plot point in the trilogy is the fictional Lucky Dragon convenience store chain. In a small, inconspicuous chapter buried in the body of the book, a white van pulls up to each one of the international Lucky Dragon stores. The front of each store boasts a wall of screens showing video feed from random Lucky Dragons around the world. A technician steps out of the van and then installs a 3D printer in each of the stores. Toward the end of the book, Rei (a main character in her own right at this point in the trilogy) replicates herself, using the newly-installed 3D printer at each one of the Lucky Dragon stores. In one of the final chapters of the book, she steps out of the printer at the Lucky Dragon nearest the Bay Bridge. The latter part of the chapter also depicts each of her copies simultaneously stepping out of each of the Lucky Dragon stores internationally. If Rothblatt succeeds in digitally recreating the mind of her late wife, going forward and actually re-humanizing her would happen in a similar manner to Rei Toei’s emergence into the world.
    Visionary author and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, in his 2012 book entitled How to Create a Mind, puts forth his “Pattern Recognition Theory of Mind”. In the early chapters of the book, he begins at Einstein with physics and works up from there to chemistry and biology (citing Darwin). The apex of this evolutionary process, he says, is the human brain. The brain, he goes on to describe throughout the book, may be near-infinitely complex, but it runs on a simple pattern-recognition algorithm. Kurzweil further elaborates on his theory in his book. In another example of seemingly-effortless prescience, Gibson titled his first-ever contemporary novel (released in 2003) Pattern Recognition. Furthermore, Kurzweil is responsible for popularizing the term “The Singularity” which simply means that biology and technology will become one.
    While there is no futurism to be found in Gibson’s third trilogy, it is probably his most important series of books. The reason this is true is because they help lay a thoughtful, incisive groundwork for looking at things society encounters today. Things like branding and logos and design (as in Pattern Recognition), to war profiteering and the religiously-fanatical mindset (Spook Country) to fashion and paranoia (Zero History). Furthermore, Gibson’s writing is supremely polished and terse-yet-descriptive by this point. Another reason to read the Blue Ant Trilogy (the official name for this one) is for pure pleasure.
    The well-known phrase “Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them” is true. However, in reading Gibson, if one hasn’t learned the lessons of the future, they are bound to. Just reading his stories and processing all the information the he funnels into his plots will make someone smarter. Kurzweil says that humans have upwards of 300 million pattern recognizers in their neocortex (Kurzweil, 2012). He says that’s all the human neocortex is: a bunch of pattern recognizers doing their thing. Very simply put, we are looking at things and discerning to the best of our ability how to respond to what is coming. Kurzweil says “Envisaging the future is one of the primary reasons we have a neocortex” (How to Create a Mind, 52).
    Published in 2014, Gibson’s latest book is called The Peripheral. It deals in two timelines, both futuristic. The main character’s brother is a Marine and has enhancements in his skin that enable him to be a better soldier. Many times throughout the book, the main character transfers her consciousness from the earlier timeline (around 2020) to the further timeline (early 22nd century). Those two things—bodily enhancements and consciousness-transfer—seem like the stuff of fantasy right now. However, if Rothblatt and Kurzweil turn out to be accurate in the things they discuss in their respective books, Gibson will have already been writing about it. If one doesn’t understand the lessons of the future, they are bound to—by reading William Gibson.

 

 

 

 


References
About Youtube (2005, May). In YouTube. Retrieved March 6, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/yt/about/
Durant, W., & Durant, A. (1957). The story of civilization VI the Reformation (p. 851). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Gibson, W. (1999). All tomorrow's parties. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
On page 53, Gibson offhandedly refers to Detroit as a haven for wild animals (“They made a lot of nature shows there.”). That Detroit became essentially a farming community after the collapse of the auto industry further shows his prescience. For more on the fall of Detroit, see Detroit, An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.
Gibson, W. (1987). Burning chrome (pp. 168-191). New York, NY: Ace Books.
Gibson, W. (1986). Count zero. New York, NY: Ace Books.
Several times throughout the book, reference is made to “print books” as a relic from the near past. While paper books have taken a serious back seat to e-books and e-readers, the January 25 issue of Publisher’s Weekly shows sales of hardcovers up 11% year to date.
Gibson, W. (2012). Distrust that particular flavor (pp. 22-45). N.p.: Berkley.
Gibson, W. (1996). Idoru. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
Gibson, W. (1988). Mona Lisa overdrive. N.p.: Voyager.
Gibson, W. (1984). Neuromancer. New York, NY: Ace Books.
Gibson, W. (2003). Pattern recognition. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
In the 12th chapter, protagonist Cayce Pollard recalls her father’s mention of aphophenia, “the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things.” (p. 115) This is a sort-of inverse to pattern recognition, where the things that an individual notices mean nothing.
Gibson, W. (2014). The peripheral. N.p.: Penguin Books.
Gibson, W. (2007). Spook country. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
Gibson, W. (1993). Virtual light. N.p.: Bantam Books.
Gibson, W. (2010). Zero history. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
Johnson, A. (1999, August 1). William Gibson : all tomorrow's parties : waiting for the man. In Spike Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.spikemagazine.com/0899williamgibson.php
Kurzweil, R. (2012). How to create a mind. N.p.: Viking Penguin.
Kurzweil says on page 87 that “Being able to detect pattern in the world is absolutely crucial for survival. Pattern detection is required for classification, for understanding causal effects, for learning how to act in particular situations.” This, as well as trusting our intuitions and anything our religions (peacefully, of course) instruct us in is pretty much all we can do when looking to the future.
Lah, K. (2009, December 17). Tokyo man marries video game character. In CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/12/16/japan.virtual.wedding/
Moore, N. C. (2014, October 10). U-M's $46M nanomechanical engineering labs open. In Michigan Engineering. Retrieved from http://www.engin.umich.edu/college/about/news/stories/2014/october/u-michigan2019s-46m-nanomechanical-engineering-labs-open
Neale, M. (Director). Gibson, W. (Actor). (2000). No maps for these territories [Online video]. Retrieved March 14, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSnPa1mWgK0
Rothblatt, M. (2014). Virtually human. New York, NY: St. Martin’s.
Wilson, M. (2012, September 11). This $9 cardboard bike can support riders up to 485 lbs. In Fast Company Design. Retrieved from http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670753/this-9-cardboard-bike-can-support-riders-up-to-485lbs

 

 

 

Comment

Josh Ingram

I started writing a blog in the Summer of 2011 and I find myself many years later, doing the same thing. Really, I found myself somewhere in the aforementioned process and so now it’s just polish and refinement. I write whenever the Spirit moves me. In other words, uh, hebdomadally. Okay, word. Word.

Wait For It

 

 

 

 


Wait for It
Josh Ingram
WR122
Ginger Gough
2/10/16

 

 

 

 

Abstract
This paper provides a wide overview of humor and what makes something funny. It breaks down humor into three distinct parts: the etymology of the word, different ways of looking at humor in a linguistic and semantic sense, and finally what laughter is physiologically. Two different dictionaries provide the etymological background to the word “humor”. A movie and several other examples of humor in popular culture and wordplay provide a broad understanding of the mechanisms that produce humor and laughter. Lastly, different physiological reasons for laughter are presented. The conclusion is that humor cannot be apprehended except through these surrounding constructs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wait for It
        Humor and laughter have been around for thousands upon thousands of years (Trivers, 2011). The “why” of humor has been dissected since Aristotle, with major philosophers helping to refine just what it is that makes people laugh (Morreall, 2014). The broadly accepted theory of humor is called Incongruity Theory (Davies, 2014). It explains the scaffolding around a humorous exchange as what this writer might term “bait and switch”. Simplistically explained, a humorous setup includes a common situation and then introduces an element of absurdity or incongruity¹ to the implicit or explicit setup. The result is humor which in turn begets laughter.
    The broad concept of “humor” can be broken down into three main components. First there is the word itself. Secondly, there are the various types of humor in conversation and entertainment. Thirdly, there is the physiological response to humor, called “laughing”, that completes the study of the topic. The purpose of this paper is to research the different components to humor and explore some of the mechanisms that comprise a humorous exchange between an individual or individuals and an audience.
    Regarding the word “humor” the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “A particular disposition, inclination, or liking, esp. one having no apparent ground or reason; mere fancy, whim, caprice, freak, vagary (Humor, 1989).” This definition implies that humor is inconsistent with a concrete look at the world and reality.
    Regarding “reason” as the opposite of humor, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “reason” as “A statement of some fact (real or alleged) employed as an argument to justify or condemn some act, prove or disprove some assertion, idea, or belief (Reason, 1989).” In other words, “reason” is what is implied, either in an act of conversation or within defined parameters to wherever an individual may find themselves. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) then says that “humor [is a disposition that has] no apparent…reason”. Following these defining statements, humor can be seen—in a semantic sense—as that which runs counter to a statement of fact².
    Going back further etymologically, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo European Roots says that “humor” comes from the root word “wegh”. The root “wegh” means “wet” (Wegʰ, 2000). The root itself also gives rise to the word “wake”. This implies that the idea behind the English word “humor” is the same as “that which follows after” (i.e. the wake of a boat in the water). The inherent humor of a thing, be it a situation, a joke, or a disposition, is apprehended after the fact. This is true to life in that it takes time to “get” a joke and its punchline.
    The best example this writer can give of humor is that of having personally watched the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski and not understanding the humor throughout the movie. It took many months to “get” the humor in the movie as it is subtle and nothing is done to draw attention to it. The movie is about a man named Jeffrey Lebowski whose purpose in life consists of bowling and of drinking white russians (an alcoholic beverage consisting of one part coffee liqueur to two parts vodka, and cream, Sennet, 2009). Through a series of comedic mishaps involving a threadbare rug, mistaken identity, uxorial absence, and inept companionship, humor ensues. The humor in the movie is consistent with the definition in the OED insofar as much of what Lebowski (also known as “The Dude”) goes through has “no apparent ground or reason” (Coen, 1997). For this writer, it is also congruous with the Indo-European definition of the word “humor” in that the inherent humor was not immediately apprehended. The humor found in this film is consistent with the definition of “humor” from the Indo-European Dictionary.
    There is a scene in the film where The Dude has just been dropped off by a chauffeur when he is accosted by a second chauffeur prior to walking across the street to his apartment. The second chauffeur proceeds to strong-arm him into a second limousine in which a different man, also named Jeffrey Lebowski, awaits. This other Lebowski (known as “The Big Lebowski”) is sitting in his limousine expecting an explanation as to what happened with the other Lebowski the night before. The exchange that follows between the two Lebowskis brilliantly marks the interplay between reason and humor as incongruous with one another, as defined in the OED.
    There are many types of humorous exchange. A rudimentary humorous exchange need not be any more complicated than a double-entendre (Crystal, 1995). Consider the base example of the internet meme (Fitness, n.d.). For instance, the word “fitness” gives rise to an array of mental imagery consistent with the maintenance of good health. From impressions of the gym with its gleaming barbells and mirrors, to scantily clad male and female models whose body-type is suggestive of nutrition, activity, and exercise. Say the word “fitness” and the listener will probably think of these things. But if one says the word “fitness” pronounced with epenthesis (Akmajian, 1995) followed with “whole pizza in your mouth”, the result is humorous. The pronunciation of the word “fitness” must acquire a third syllable to where it sounds like “fitting this”, turning the word into a double-entendre. Furthermore, the toned and possibly sweating individuals that represent an internal imagery surrounding the word “fitness” coupled with the idea of eating a whole pizza in one sitting “has no apparent ground or reason”. The two imageries are inconsistent with one another and therefore humorous.
    The knock-knock joke is another type of simple wordplay as an example of humorous exchange (Crystal, 1995). The writer will at times introduce his favorite into polite conversation: “Knock knock?”; “Who’s there?”; “Arfur.”; “Arfur who?”; “Arfur Gott!”  (I forgot). This is an example of oronymy, which is polysemy (homophony), and therefore a double-entendre applied to a phrase. This writer is well aware of the outmoded nature of the knock-knock joke in adult and mature humorous exchange and finds the humor not so much in the joke itself but in the act of telling this type of joke at this point in his adult life.
    Sigmund Freud said that “it is quite impractical to deal with jokes otherwise than in connection with the comic.” (Freud, 1905, 1963) This implies that the impulse to humor is found within the psychological makeup of the individual telling the joke, therefore making the definition of humor something unique to an individual. It implies that a joke or humorous utterance is expressed by the comic with the desire to draw laughter out of the listener or audience.     
    Consider Reggie Watts’ TED talk as an example of using one’s personality and character to draw humor out of a listening audience. Upon watching the video titled “Beats that Defy Boxes”, it is not readily apparent what he will be discussing. As the acronym “TED” stands for “Technology, Education, Design” the implication is that Watts is there to give a talk around one of those three things. Certain venues require a certain mindset or participation on the part of the audience (Nesteroff, 2015). In contrast to the atmosphere of the TED venue, Watts proceeds to speak in a British accent about intelligent-sounding topics without actually saying anything. He touches on existence and life and yet somehow manages to say nothing of any import or profundity. A minute-and-a-half into his talk he says this (commas added for intonation effect):
    “The future state, that there is no time, other than the collapsation, of that sensation, of the mirror of the memories in which we are living.”
The audience roars in laughter in response to Watts’ sentence. This type of humor is even subtler than The Big Lebowski. Watts’ stage presence, personality, and delivery as balanced against the serious implications of the venue are what cause this exchange to be humorous. The incongruity lies in the assumptions that the audience brings to the venue only to have those assumptions supplanted with gibberish and nonsense. The result is humor.
    After saying that, he declaims: “Common knowledge, but important nonetheless.” This statement draws laughter out of the audience as well. To say that something is “common knowledge” and then to reify the same idea by saying that it is “important” is a very subtle insult. If something is “common knowledge”, it may or may not be “important”. His qualifying caveat of “nonetheless” implies that it is both “common” and “important” and therefore should be ubiquitously known. However, the sentence to which the “common knowledge” statement refers is nonsense. It should therefore not be common nor important. These qualifiers regarding his syntagmatically incongruous statement produce humor and therefore laughter at a very subtle, deep level.
    However, in relation to Watts’ TED talk, a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip utilizes the same ingredients in humorous exchange but changes them up. In an effort to stop Calvin from playing copycat and repeating everything he says, Hobbes utters a line from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. While what Watts said during his talk sounded smart but held no logic, Kant’s line (as quoted by Hobbes) is the picture of mental reason and deep thought process. Hobbes says (quoting Kant):
“We can a priori and prior to all given objects have a knowledge of those conditions on which alone experience of them is possible, but never of the laws to which things may in themselves be subject without reference to possible experience.”
Calvin cannot repeat that from memory and so quits his attempt at annoying Hobbes. In analyzing both Watts and Hobbes, both say something that sounds intelligent. The result is laughter. However, what Hobbes said was actually intelligent, both linguistically and semantically. Watts’ expression was merely a bunch of intelligent-sounding words strung together. This serves to indicate that “humor” is something independent of jokes, setups, venues, and even personality.
    With reference to laughter, the physiological response to humor, Roxanda Radomsky, a registered nurse, says that “There is a wonderful relationship between humor and pathology.” An “all body response”, she says (Radomsky, 2016). This is further corroborated by Herbert Spencer in his 1861 essay On the Physiology of Laughter. Spencer details many of the ways that science and medicine understood the humorous response during the late 19th century (Spencer, 1861). Much of what he wrote doesn’t hold up to what science has since discovered regarding the physiological response to humor, however. What he says is consistent with an outmoded theory of humor called Relief Theory. Relief Theory was made popular by Freud but has since been debunked by neuroscience (Morreall, 2014).
    The study of laughter is called gelotology. However, with reference to humor, correlation does not necessarily equal causation: there are many reasons why people laugh. These reasons can range from a brain tumor (Famularo, 2007) to the temporary relief of spasmodic dysphonia (Spasmodic Dysphonia, n.d.), to any of several other serious, pathological causes (McGraw, 2014). These examples show that laughter can happen without humor; they are no laughing matter. It is simply the body reacting to neurological stimuli that is not related to humor.
    Laughing causes an involuntary release of dopamine in the brain and the reduction of stress-hormones (Provine, 2000). Humor-induced laughter can also cause a voluntary slapping of the knee. Furthermore, our sides end up aching if we laugh too much or are tickled in just the right spot, as well (Martin, 1996). The circular statement of “Why do we laugh? We just do.” doesn’t fully explain the reaction our bodies have to what our minds find humorous. However, the fact that dopamine causes smiling which in turn releases more dopamine (McLean, 2011) proves that humor-induced laughter is cyclical (Provine, 2000).
    The conclusion is that humor is ancient, intricate and essential for the human race. It’s also something that is hard to define except through the channels by which it emerges into human interaction. What each person finds funny varies widely but there is a reason for laughter and humor. Often, that reason runs counter to “reason” as defined in the OED. There is great intelligence behind the understanding of humor and in conveying it. There is also something very mysterious about it. If the common joke is similar to an “if/then” statement (syllogism), or question and answer session, then how come we don’t laugh when doing arithmetic or in answering simple questions? Incongruity Theory helps to explain this but some mystery still remains. Paul Cezanne said that “Light cannot be reproduced, but must be represented by something else—by color.” Humor must be “reproduced” or, produced by words and mechanisms in much the same way that light is “represented” by color and cannot be seen except through chroma, aura or hue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


References
Akmajian, A., Demers, R. A., Farmer, A. K., & Harnish, R. M. (1995). Linguistics an introduction to language and communication (4th ed., pp. 111-112). N.p.: The MIT Press.
Coen, J., & Coen, E. (Director). (1997). The big lebowski [Motion picture].
Crystal, D. (1995). The cambridge encyclopedia of the english language (pp. 405-411). N.p.: Cambridge University Press.
The six-page section gives a broad understanding of the types of humorous exchange to be found in the English language.
Davies, Jim. Riveted the science of why jokes make us laugh, movies make us cry, and religion makes us feel one with the universe. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014. 109-44. Print.
Chapter 4 entitled “Incongruity, Mystery, and Puzzle” talks from the bottom up about incongruity in everything from art to religion to music up to and including humor. He says “When people see incongruity, they try to figure things out.” (p. 123) He ends the chapter with “there are still things in the world that are misunderstood.”
Famularo, G., Corsi, F. M., Minisola, G., De Simone, C., & Nicotra, G. C. (2007). Cerebellar tumour presenting with pathological laughter and gelastic syncope. European Journal of Neurology, 14, 940-943. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Fitness Meme. hahafunnyjokes.com. Web. 9 Feb. 2016. <http://www.hahafunnyjokes.com/meme/fitness-whole-pizza-in-my-mouth>.
    The dog looks utmost confident he can eat a the entire pepperoni pizza right now.
Freud, S., & Strachey, J. (1960). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious (p. 5). N.p.: W. W. Norton and Company. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
"Humor." Def. 2.6. The oxford english dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. 485-86. Print.
McGraw, Peter, and Joel Warner. The humor code. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. 67-92. Print.

McLean, K. (2011, May 12). Can laughter be therapeutic?. In Yale Scientific. Retrieved from http://www.yalescientific.org/2011/05/can-laughter-be-therapeutic/
Martin, T. (1996). Why do we laugh? questions children ask about the human body (pp. 1-2). London: Dorling Kindersley.
    It really isn’t any more complicated then this, when one thinks about it, or, stops thinking about it.
Nesteroff, K. (2015). The comedians. New York, NY: Grove Press.
    Nesteroff talks about “Club 18” (57), a comedy establishment that catered only to insults. If one found themselves in the audience, it was because they were there knowing they’d likely be insulted by whomever was on stage. This correlates to Watts’ usage of the TED venue in order to build the humor of his talk by letting the intelligence-precedent of TED be the “bait” for his “switch” of not saying anything smart at all. His comedy was all in the telling (or singing).
Radomsky, Roxanna. Personal interview. 6 Feb. 2016.
"Reason." 1.1. The oxford english dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. 288. Print.
Spasmodic Dysphonia. (n.d.). In American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Retrieved from http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/SpasmodicDysphonia/
Trivers, R. (2011). The folly of fools (pp. 172-173). New York, NY: Basic Books.
The two pages referenced are the subsection “Humor, Laughter, and Self-Deception” from chapter 8. It mentions how chimps and rats both laugh and that “Laughter is an ancient mammalian trait.”
Watterson, B. (1995, 2012). The complete Calvin and Hobbes (p. 185). Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel.
Watts, R. (2012). Beats that defy boxes. In TED. Retrieved 2012, from http://www.ted.com/talks/reggie_watts_disorients_you_in_the_most_entertaining_way
"Wegʰ." The american heritage dictionary of indo-european roots. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 96. Print.

 

 

 

 


Footnotes
¹     Consider the example of incongruity from The Police’s 1979 song “Message in a Bottle” where the protagonist has sent off “a note” as a castaway on a desert island. A year passes and he walks out to the shoreline where “a hundred billion bottles” have washed ashore in response to his message. This is incongruous in that never at any point in the history of humanity have there been 100,000,000,000 people on earth at one time. Not even McDonald’s can lay claim to serving that many individuals. But is Sting’s statement of incongruity humorous? Not necessarily.

²     Groucho Marx said “Humor is reason gone mad.” Blaise Pascal is quoted as saying “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

 

Comment

Josh Ingram

I started writing a blog in the Summer of 2011 and I find myself many years later, doing the same thing. Really, I found myself somewhere in the aforementioned process and so now it’s just polish and refinement. I write whenever the Spirit moves me. In other words, uh, hebdomadally. Okay, word. Word.

The Mean Grades

Josh Ingram
Writing 121
Ginger Gough
December 9, 2015

The Mean Grades
    I remember one morning finding a heart-shaped stone. It was sunny outside and I was playing near the structure in the gravel at my school. After absorbing the uniqueness of the event and then the hard, dusty, tactile sense of the rock, I took to showing it off to a few of my friends; it was rose-colored and about the size of a dime. I got to enjoy it for a few minutes but then dropped it. It happened so fast. What I couldn’t understand was how something could fall a mere foot-and-a-half down to my feet and be lost so quickly. I pawed around in the pebbles but couldn’t find it. I was heartbroken.
    I remember other things too, like how the pebbles in which I played near the structure spilled out onto the blacktop. That same blacktop turned into a path that made its way out to a side field the school used for large events. In this field stood a half-dozen large redwoods whose canopies obscured the sky. The school I attended was a Montessori school in a little suburb of Los Angeles called Montrose. It’s still there today, 30 years after its founding.
    Maria Montessori began her original school (called the Casa dei Bambini—Italian for “The Children’s House”) in 1907 at the behest of bankers and benefactors. They were looking to get the untended children of Rome’s San Lorenzo neighborhood off the street and cared for. Montessori was Italy’s first-ever female medical doctor and so she took to this task—of caring for the children in her charge—from an observing, scientific standpoint. She believed in educating the whole child. Her term “education of the senses” applied to the full engagement of the student in his or her environment. The environment at Montrose Christian Montessori was keyed to the accommodation of each child’s unique interests and proclivities as they pertained to the subjects at hand. The method she developed during the years teaching at the Casa dei Bambini provided a means of education for each child, both physically and mentally, and also spiritually, if so desired.
    My school was doing well. The proprietors, Chris MacReynolds and his wife, were soon to expand, adding another blacktop and a number of other buildings and classrooms. It was an exciting time but it wouldn’t last. My mom had taken another nursing job in Glendale and so we moved. There, I began attending large, impersonal Glenoaks Elementary school and would sit in the back of the class, weeping throughout. Six months passed and my parents had grown tired of the greater LA area. At this time, my mom applied for and got accepted for a nursing-educator position at a hospital in Medford, Oregon. My dad was ready to leave, purely by virtue of having realized that there were 20 million people living around us. So we moved again.
    I had attended Montrose Christian Montessori School from preschool (there was an earthquake on the first day) through about half of second grade, during which time I came to love learning. I was reading at eight months old and the Montessori method only complemented my quest for more literature. I had grasped long division by first grade—not because I am a math prodigy—but because my interests were able to grow unfettered within the structure of the Montessori method. I was creative, too, with Legos and visual art. We also gardened and made orange juice and had a pet rabbit whose name I forget. The time spent at Montessori was an educational idyll so when I first began attending Wilson School on Johnson Street in Medford, a public school, about halfway through third grade (January, 1992), I only receded further from the educational environment I had grown accustomed to and that had already sustained a blow due to my time at Glenoaks.
    Educators Gökhan Kayili and Ramazan Ari found that “In the Montessori Method the child acquires the language and arithmetic skills in lie [sic] their desires and exploration, which makes learning more permanent” (Kayili & Ari, ). This was true for me in that reading and writing and creativity were firmly established in my mind and brain. However, I began to struggle with my schoolwork while at Wilson due to the fact that the lessons weren’t taught in the way I was used to. In addition to this transplant-shock, my sensitivity was mislabeled as homosexuality during a particularly traumatic experience one morning on the playground. After that incident, I didn’t just have a new learning style to cope with, I also encountered schoolyard bullying. I spent two-and-a-half years at Wilson getting progressively worse in my test scores and study habits when my dad (unaware of the social struggles I faced trying to fit in) pulled me out of school to homeschool me. This started about halfway into my sixth-grade year and lasted through high school.
    In light of my personal experiences with the public education system, it is this writer’s belief that the traditional school system in America needs to change. Furthermore, it is this writer’s opinion that individual elements of the Montessori method, if introduced into the traditional way of education, would go a long way to bettering students’ overall experience in American public schools.
    If a researcher searches the topic “How would one integrate Montessori elements into public school?”, the first match they’ll see is the North American Montessori Educators’ Association homepage. Director David Kahn lines out ten steps, one of which is to staff the school board with a Montessori specialist—like a liaison. It’s simpler than that, it has to be. I interviewed Montessori educator Amy Maukonen, who runs The Valley School on Riverside Avenue in Medford. We sat down in the library of the retrofitted Mexican restaurant in which she runs her school and asked her how she would do it. She first answered that The Valley School is a free public charter school under the auspices of the Medford School District. So she’s already doing, in some form, what Kahn suggested in his list. She answered my question with one word: “relevance”, she continued then, to describe a term Montessori educators use: “valorization”. Valorization—defined in a Montessori way—refers to the training a child needs in order to take their place in the world and to use their inherent talents and abilities to make a difference. She says “Students aren’t vessels to be filled by teachers. We’re not preparing them for the real world when we teach them that way, the traditional way.” This would be one of the reasons why I felt a disconnect when I was studying at Wilson: the lesson plans and textbooks were presented in a way that I didn’t care about. I couldn’t see how it applied to what I was inherently interested in nor how it played into the rest of my life in a holistic way. “Students need to love learning.” says Maukonen, “You can inspire students in a number of different ways, that’s not necessarily Montessori specific. I think any good teacher instills love for learning; it’s essential in a Montessori school, I think.” She summarized. While the Montessori method holds many of these elements in their charter, these components—love of learning, valorization, education of the senses, etc.—don’t have to be exclusive to Montessori schools. They can filter into other schools and educational environments.
    Ms. Maukonen also spoke at length about preparing the educational environment: “In order for students to be able to learn without being expected to sit in rows and be quiet, you have to have an environment rich with learning opportunities.” The classrooms at Wilson, from third through sixth were all variations of the same arrangement: rows of old, wooden desks with little-to-no breathing room or open space to explore or lay about with a book or with learning materials. “Preparing the environment to run a Montessori program is a bigger deal than anyone knows.” She said.
    The student, she asserted, needs to feel important, they need to feel that they “have something to bring to this world, to my community.” Teaching to the individual and preparing the classroom environment to cater to the curiosity of that child are two ways that we as a country can retrofit our educational system to better the children that we serve.
    I also interviewed Rogue Community College Psychology and Social Science instructor Brandon Atkins. The tenor of the interview wasn’t with reference to the Montessori method, just more in line with basic education reform. However, the things he brought up ran parallel to Maukonen’s ideas for Montessori implementation. Mr. Atkins suggested that we make the lessons contextualized. He spoke of his twelve-year-old nephew who, he said, has little interest in science or mathematics. “But apply the mathematics and physics to a robot (something he’s very much interested in) and he’s gonna listen.” Atkins also suggested more training in classroom management. “Classroom management is front-end work.” He says. “Otherwise you’re just dealing with the behavior [of the child] afterwards, which is a problem because the culture’s been created.” With reference to the opening up of a classroom in order to better serve the students, Maukonen had this to say: “The basis of Montessori is that students are moving about their environment in a natural way with the least number of barriers and restrictions and interventions.” Give teachers more training in preparing the classroom environment and have them implement an open floor with tables and chairs more in line with a dining-type atmosphere, for instance, and students won’t feel restricted, having been bound to one seat for the entire school year.
    The last suggestion this writer would put on the table for the betterment of traditional American educational is that of reforming the grading system. The Montessori method uses an individualized sheet to monitor each particular child instead of a standardized letter-grading system. Doing away with the top-down, letter-based grading system would also dissolve a culture based on classification and achievement. Atkins had something to say on this topic: “This is what I call a “power with” versus a “power over” approach. “Power over” is part of the competition of win/lose and if a student is win/lose, that means that they wanna win and that means that other students lose. It doesn’t create the best learning environment.”
    I can’t say for certain that the standoffishness I felt at Wilson was based on the fact that the students cared about getting “A’s”, something that would have fostered a culture of competition. Progressive educator and writer Alfie Kohn says in his essay “Degrading to De-Grading” that “when students are told they’ll need to know something for a test—or, more generally, that something they’re about to do will count for a grade—they are likely to come to view that task (or book or idea) as a chore” (75). If students aren’t enjoying school for learning’s sake—one of the main reasons they’re there—other things such as humanity, kindness and compassion won’t be there either. After I started getting bullied, I stopped caring about my schoolwork and became concerned about fitting in; as such, my schoolwork suffered. It started with the heart. If the student doesn’t receive these abstract elements of the heart at home, where else will they get them if not at school?
    At this point in my life, it is this writer’s opinion that the best method for the education of the child is homeschooling. An involved, authoritative and loving parent who knows the child will be the best teacher and guide the child could ask for. The next-best method for the education of the whole child is the one pioneered by Maria Montessori. In closing, the three things this writer feels would better the American public, or traditional, education system are as follows: teachers should speak to the heart of, and teach towards, the individual child. Secondly, they need to open up the classroom to let creativity and imagination grow alongside the students’ study of the subjects specific to their grade. Thirdly, a better grading and observation system needs to be implemented so that students aren’t seen as failures if they don’t learn the same way everyone else does. These three things would work wonders in our nation’s schools.
    While I never found the heart-rock that I dropped on the playground in kindergarten, I have found several heart-shaped rocks throughout my life. Each one reminds me of the original. This little story presaged my schooling experience—at least that’s how I’ve come to see it (Cosgrove & Ballou, 2006). Had I stayed in Montessori, or, more precisely, had the heart of the schooling I’d cut my teeth on continued into my elementary years, I may not have needed to be homeschooled. The American educational system could learn a thing or two (or three) from the Montessori method.
    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Works Cited
Atkins, Brandon. Personal interview. 18 Nov. 2015
Cosgrove, Sara Anne, and Roger A. Ballou. "A Complement To Lifestyle Assessment:         Using Montessori Sensorial Experiences To Enhance And Intensify Early             Recollections." Journal Of Individual Psychology 62.1 (2006): 47-58. Academic         Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
    This paper is clear and to the point. Researchers will find as much                 material on the Montessori method to augment research particular to the field of         education as they will on psychology. This paper deals with both topics and         reaches valid conclusions as to the effectiveness of Montessori and the             effectiveness of Adlerian psychology (a holistic approach to clinical psychology;         see alfredadler.org for more information on this method). The authors’ statement         of “Early recollections are treated as metaphorical statements” (53) precisely         identifies my story of finding and losing a heart-shaped rock and then             allegorically relating that to the hardship I’d encountered in public school.
Kahn, David. "Ten Steps to Montessori Implementation in Public Schools." Ten Steps         to Montessori Implementation in Public Schools. North American Montessori         Teachers’ Association, n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.
Kayili, Gökhan, and Ramazan Ari. "Examination Of The Effects Of The Montessori         Method On Preschool Children's Readiness To Primary Education." Educational         Sciences: Theory & Practice 11.4 (2011): 2104-2109. Academic Search Premier.         Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
    I appreciated what the authors did with this study. They distilled a lot of research         and finding into their statement. However, toward the end of the paper, they         began to refer to Montessori using a male pronoun. Either they were entirely out         of touch with the source of the educational method with which they sought to         substantiate their findings or else they diverted back to a default (male) pronoun.         Part of the wonder of what Maria Montessori did was due to the fact that             she made it through an all-male medical school without being expelled because         of her gender.
Kohn, Alfie. What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated? Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. 75.     Print.
Maukonen, Amy. Personal interview. 6 Nov. 2015
Montessori, Maria. The Montessori Method. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003. Print.
    This book, written in 1912, holds so much promise for en masse educational         reform in spite of the occasional scientific anachronism. It truly is the             place to start when thinking and talking about Montessori.
 "Welcome." Montrose Christian Montessori School. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.

Comment

Josh Ingram

I started writing a blog in the Summer of 2011 and I find myself many years later, doing the same thing. Really, I found myself somewhere in the aforementioned process and so now it’s just polish and refinement. I write whenever the Spirit moves me. In other words, uh, hebdomadally. Okay, word. Word.

Healthcare System, Heal Thyself

Josh Ingram
Writing 121
Ginger Gough
November 4, 2015

Healthcare System, Heal Thyself
    
    Dr. Lewis Thomas offers a write-up on the current state of the healthcare, or medical, profession. His blandly-titled article “The Health-Care System” has a strong implied thesis. Paraphrased by this reader, it would say something like: “We are throwing billions of dollars at, and paying more attention to, a system than actually bettering the health of the American people.” Though if it is facts the reader wants in order to check up on some of the things Dr. Thomas puts in his article, they will be hard-pressed to find anything more than his opinions and observations. Throughout the article he makes more than a dozen of these observations, many of which the reader of that time need only open their eyes and ears in order to realize for themselves. In other words, he’s not wrong. In the entire article, however, he only cites one source (the U.S. Vital Statistics Reports) with reference to his comment about “the illnesses that plague us the most”. Which at the time, were respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. A quick Google search led this reader to the online version of The New England Journal of Medicine in order to find out when this article was first published. It came out on December 11, 1975. While he may be referring to morbidity over mortality (it’s unclear) with his statement regarding the two particular illnesses, a second search yielded a Portable Data File (PDF) of vital statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. Scrolling down and scanning for keywords, however, a table listing “Death Rates for 69 Selected Causes: United States, 1968-75” was located. The numbers for such causes as “Major cardiovascular diseases” (one line in the table) were much higher—ten times—than even the aggregate of any and all the lines citing respiratory-ailments-as-cause-of-death during that time period. This fact shows that cardiovascular issues were by-and-large a greater cause for concern than the gastrointestinal and respiratory issues that Dr. Thomas cited as the biggest problem. This reader has been unable to locate a searchable PDF—one that directly applies to the information—in order to fully sound out the statistics Dr. Thomas cites. And while he held an impressive pedigree, which included a career as a doctor and university professor (he also held degrees from Princeton and Harvard), none of this made him the sole authority on health.
    Dr. Thomas’ tone is one of utmost gentility. He aims to put to rest the nervous temperaments of his readers by exposing the folly of being overly preoccupied with such a broad abstract as their own good health. But this reader finds that he comes across as merely a non-serious observer. He says facetiously, “Chewing gum is sold as tooth cleanser. Vitamins have taken the place of prayer.” And elsewhere that “the transformation of our environment [costs] rather more than the moon” (not really, the moon is worth upwards of 500 quadrillion dollars). Again, one can see his irreverent tone in relation to what might be a very real problem: that of the effect of pollutants on the air we breathe. Though instead of proffering any salient solutions at fixing (or else slaying) this multi-appendaged beast that is the healthcare system—one with no discernible head nor tail—his observations come across more as a barely-interested deity, looking down on the masses for whom he feels little in common.
    Granted, one person may not be able to do much in the face of what Dr. Thomas might consider to be a lumbering, “staggering” (the opening descriptive adjective in his article) giant that takes more propping up than any middle-aged and half-healthy human, but the reader must accept the brief explanatory paragraph as to who he is and where he’s come from as proof of his being qualified to opine on this subject. It is not this reader’s intention to come across as harsh with Dr. Thomas. After all, there is a prize awarded annually to the most outstanding writer in a scientific field, one who bridges the sciences and the humanities by writing about how the two topics intersect in a digestible way for the common reader. It’s called the “The Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science”, which Dr. Thomas does in this article in a pragmatic, country-doctor sort of way. His legacy for writing and opining and otherwise drawing the two worlds of Medicine and layperson reader together, survives.
    The turning point of his article, however, is when he says “There is something fundamentally, radically unhealthy about all of this.” He is referring to capital expenditure balanced against the media’s ever-present push for more health care. He says that the dollar amount spent on healthcare in 1975 was $115 billion. He also says “The official guess is that we are now investing around 8 percent of the GNP in Health.” Assuming that was accurate (again, he doesn’t cite a source for either of these two pieces of information), that is an exorbitantly high number. The implication is that the reader would need only use a little common sense in order to see that such high spending is supreme folly. And if they thought $115 billion was high, they would be shocked to find that today, 40 years later, the expenditure is around $3 trillion.
    Dr. Thomas’ article was not written as an answer or a counter to any of the problematic observations he makes. None of the mild references he cites—from television commercials to the number of diet books clogging the bookstores or the fact that people are now jogging in greater numbers than ever before—need any corroboration. And he offers no alternative perspective to the field laid out before the reader, only his two cents. Nearly all the assertions he makes come from having spent a long, storied career at the top of this food chain and he’s only now looking back over his shoulder to see what it has become.
    Nevertheless, the second part to his turning-point statement holds true: “We do not seem to be seeking more exuberance in living.” If any of the points he looks to make are true, the corollary is that striving for good health for its own sake is not the best thing to do with one’s (relatively short) life. This reader feels that Dr. Thomas understood this. He understood that immortality was not a worthy goal unless one had something enjoyable to do with their (infinite) time. Something more, he says, than jogging “each day in underpants, moving in a stolid sort of rapid trudge.”
    The writer William Gibson has called the human body “the product, for the most part, of unskilled labor” (Gibson 215). Meaning successive and small changes over millions of years have led to what we have and live and walk around in today. Human beings as a race make it through all sorts of drastic and not-so-drastic health-related issues. Dr. Thomas alludes to this fact when he says in his article that “we are amazingly tough, durable organisms, full of health, ready for most contingencies.” So with reference to all the stuff that could be out there and harming us, the only real danger is thinking like a casualty (i.e. worrying ourselves sick) and then developing the very diseases through some sort of psychosomatic process. But again, this assertion can neither be confirmed nor denied.
    My opinion is that exercising, eating right, and a minimizing of chronic stress (if at all possible) are the antidotes to too much healthcare. When a patient has to take a certain type of medication for the main problem but then has to get another prescription in order to counter the side-effects of the first drug, something is wrong. This is what is costing the American people that $3 trillion dollar bill. And it doesn’t take advanced degrees from Ivy League universities in order to see this. I agree with Dr. Thomas’ implication that all this worry over good health is itself detrimental to the health of the American people. According to David Orenstein-Brown, author of an article on dialysis cost, the $3.9 billion spent by Medicare on anemia drugs is the largest expenditure for Medicare. The main causes of kidney failure are Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. In other words, poor dietary choices (i.e. too much sugar and processed food) and too much stress lead to the exact opposite of a life lived in full health and confidence.
    In closing, what Dr. Thomas wrote 40 years ago is simply a broad elucidation of today’s watchword against Googling one’s own symptoms.  His article works, but only on one level. It’s as if he’s saying “Here is what’s wrong.” and that’s all. The readers would need to get Thomas’ take and then investigate it for themselves while munching on an apple.

 

 

 

 


Works Cited

Gibson, William. Distrust That Particular Flavor. New York: Berkley, 2012. Print.
Mann, Jake. “What’s the Moon Worth?” The Motley Fool. 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
<http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2014/03/10/whats-the-moon-worth.aspx>
Orenstein-Brown, David. “Medicare kidney spending at crucial moment” News From Brown. 4 Sept. 2012. Web. 28 Oct. 2015
<https://news.brown.edu/articles/2012/09/renal>
Thomas, Lewis. “The Health-Care System.” The New England Journal of Medicine. 11 Dec. 1975. Web. 28 Oct. 2015
< http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM197512112932409>

 

 

Comment

Josh Ingram

I started writing a blog in the Summer of 2011 and I find myself many years later, doing the same thing. Really, I found myself somewhere in the aforementioned process and so now it’s just polish and refinement. I write whenever the Spirit moves me. In other words, uh, hebdomadally. Okay, word. Word.

Breathing Room

Josh Ingram

Instructor Ginger Gough    

WR121-R1

October 21, 2015

Breathing Room

    While “freedom” may be all around us, the idea is a difficult one to define. If someone lives in the United States of America, the idea of freedom has surely been introduced to them. Perhaps this person may not live in America but they desire to, purely for the opportunity to experience something that isn’t available to them in their home country. If one were to look up the word “freedom” in Webster’s dictionary, they’ll find many different definitions—everything from “the quality or state of being free” to “liberation” to such things as “imprisonment” or “servitude.” Another definition of “freedom” is “exempt” from what most others would be bound and confined by, such as taxes or control.

 The Oxford English Dictionary goes a little further when it says that freedom is, “…the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” But freedom is liberty, plain and simple: the expansive horizon of possibility laid out before an individual. Freedom is boundless possibility and freedom is also the ability to direct one’s way within that atmosphere of possibility.

I pull the title for this paper from the Matchbox Twenty song “If You’re Gone.” The man singing has been left by his significant other, so he’s experiencing a kind of freedom. Someone listening to this song, though, will know that this man is totally miserable. He follows the title phrase (If you’re gone) with “…baby it’s time to come home.”

The words engraved on the on the Statue of Liberty, (written by the poet Emma Lazarus) beckon to the rest of the world: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (see howtallisthestatueofliberty.org for more information on the Statue of Liberty). A person will find in this country room to breathe. Then, what one does with said freedom or “breathing room,” is purely up to them. America is considered a “land of opportunity” where one can determine what it is they’d like to become in this world and then take steps to see that desire become a reality.

In America, a person hopes they will find in this country the atmosphere necessary to see their dreams become real, solid, concrete. Freedom is a place —whether figuratively or literally—where there isn’t anyone forbidding or otherwise telling the person in question that they can’t do what they want. Of course, the parameters are set on either side of the individual, like guardrails lining the highways and byways, at ensuring what the person wants is legal and that they are physically and mentally capable of doing this act of will, whatever it may be. Freedom, then, comes with some fine print. Freedom as I’ve been explaining it specifically applies in this way: say someone wants to relocate to America in order to open a deli or restaurant showcasing their homeland cuisine. And, if for whatever reason, the business then fails, the responsibility still lay with the individual. America provides the laws ensuring personal ambition is met with the resources necessary to realize that ambition. This, then, brings the onus back on the individual and their free will. If a person chooses an ambition that is beyond their personal means or they choose to do something that will affect the balance of the other law abiding citizens in proximity (surely looking to do the same for themselves), they most-likely will be shut down in some way, shape or form. This being said, if the first thing a person thinks about upon hearing the word “freedom” is the American flag, or The Statue of Liberty, then they may want to dig a little deeper. Freedom starts within the individual; freedom of mind. Specifically, freedom from thoughts that keep an individual from keeping their own self hemmed in by the past or by fear of the future. For instance, the man in the song referenced above has all the time in the world but until he gets over his lost love (or she comes back to him), he’s not going to be free from the darkness in his heart and mind. Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founders, said “We hold these truths to be self-evident…that all men (people) are endowed… with liberty.” Taking this quote as the basis for an understanding of what it means to be free, I think we can move forward in understanding what true freedom is.

For me, freedom, or liberty, is the clarity of mind to understand where I’ve come from and where I’m going. It’s the mental acuity that enables me to not worry about my wellbeing or any of my baser needs such as clothing or housing. Working at my job allows me the freedom to pay for clothes and my rent and my car. But freedom is also the putting into motion the plans in my heart and mind that will keep these things (such as food, clothing or my living situation) stable and sustainable. This is what freedom means to me.

Freedom, to me, is also possibility. Washington Irving’s short story Rip Van Winkle is about a middle-aged man whose only freedom is to shrug off his responsibilities and wonder around the nameless village situated at the base of the Catskill mountain range in upstate New York. He would do anything to stay away from his home wherein dwelt his wife, his sole source of misery and mental imprisonment. This might include spending all day fishing or hunting in the mountains with his faithful canine companion Wolf. On one of the latter excursions, he finds himself at sunset in an open glen and upon hearing his name, turns to meet and then follow a man bearing a large cask up the hill. Into the side of a mountain do Rip and this man venture and we meet several other members of the nameless man’s party. They turn out to be ghosts of Hendrick Hudson, the explorer, and his company. Rip gets three-sheets-to-the-wind drunk on the alcohol from the cask and falls asleep. And in one of the cleanest breaks in any story, awakes out in the glen—twenty years later. While the story is a fantastic one, twice removed from reality (Irving in his story is referencing and quoting another fictional character, the chronologer Diedrich Knickerbocker, who “knew” of Van Winkle), a kernel of pure freedom lay within. And on either side of Van Winkle’s nap, the American Revolution has come and gone (and stays). The former picture of King George that adorned the inn outside which Van Winkle had sat in on many an unofficial town meeting has been replaced with a portrait of George Washington, sword held high. Rip now finds himself in town and hears the news that his overbearing wife had died of an aneurism. More freedom. But again, while the internal and now external possibility granted (the now aged) Rip Van Winkle has been brought to bear on him, without a drive to go and to do (something he never had), said freedom will surely become in itself a form of imprisonment. He had no home to go to as his former house had become vacant, the windows broken and the doors rotted off the hinges. He even sees a dog that resembles Wolf but that doesn’t recognize him and growls back at Rip’s call. While Van Winkle’s past is gone, he still has freedom to move around in a new life and a new world, the world of new American freedom.

The world continues to get smaller due in large part to technology’s interconnectivity. This means that ideas are free to roam across the wires and airwaves unlike they ever have in the history of humankind. With many American (and otherwise) individuals and groups looking to spread technology to the rest of the world, i.e. third world countries, this means libertarian (not political) ideas and viewpoints will spread alongside. With all this information in the ether, the act of freeing one’s mind to become open to possibility and liberty is easier than ever. Taking in more information; this is how freedom of mind is achieved and a better life is realized. We all have a new dawn everyday to awake and realize the full potential of the good of what has come before and paved the way for us going forward. When you think about it, Rip Van Winkle did nothing but drink himself to sleep in order to taste this new freedom, freedom as I have defined it. He didn’t work and he didn’t face any of his responsibilities in what most might consider “the right way”. The concept of freedom is at least a dual one. Because if all you have is freedom, then without direction, there is entropy. Freedom balanced against hardship, struggle and suffering (in a word: work) is true to life. We have the freedom to see to it that we ourselves remain free and that those around us in this world realize their personal freedom, should they so desire it. Freedom, as I define it, is freedom of mind. Liberty of mind. This is something that can be found anywhere and in any country, regardless of governmental auspices.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

  • Webster’s Dictionary
  • Oxford English Dictionary
  • Matchbox Twenty. “If You’re Gone”. Mad Season. Atlantic, 2000. CD.
  • Lazarus, Emma. New Colossus. “What is the inscription on the Statue of Liberty?” How tall is the Statue of Liberty? n.p. n.d. Web
  • Irving, Washington. Rip Van Winkle. Birmingham: 1819. Print.

 

Comment

Josh Ingram

I started writing a blog in the Summer of 2011 and I find myself many years later, doing the same thing. Really, I found myself somewhere in the aforementioned process and so now it’s just polish and refinement. I write whenever the Spirit moves me. In other words, uh, hebdomadally. Okay, word. Word.