THE SCENE (a.k.a. |
Comments on current ideas and events
Week of December 24, 2001
SCRATCHY LABELS: Today's Wall Street Journal brings a classic piece (online via MSNBC.com) examining why garment labels are so incredibly scratchy. I thought it was just those of us with superhypersensitive skin—my father, my nephew, and me (before Thanksgiving, I thought it was just me)—who go crazy from the tags stabbing at our necks. But apparently people everywhere are complaining. It's one of those unfortunate situations where nobody makes a purchase decision based on label scratchiness, so manufacturers just use the cheapest technology available. That process creates vicious label edges. Government label regulations are making the situation worse (though even I won't say they're causing it).
One thing I wondered about Barbara Carton's reporting: Haven't any of her sources heard of a seam ripper? You don't have to destroy your sweaters by digging into them with scissors. You just need care and a seam ripper. And a good memory for laundry instructions. [Posted 12/27.]
INDEFENSIBLE LANGUAGE: My friend Michael Lorton writes in about Alan Dershowitz's faux pas, noting that lingua franca is not Latin, as I supposed. It is, says Michael, "medieval Italian, but to defend the often indefensible Dershowitz, in Latin it would mean something like "The French Language"—which might mislead someone with a stronger grasp of Latin than of English to think that a magazine named "Lingua Franca" was about, and possibly in, French." I guess a five-second Google search, much less a trip to the newsstand, is too much to expect from a busy lawyer-professor. (Here's the dictionary definition of the term. But the magazine's website supplies the information relevant to Dershowitz's tiff.) [Posted 12/27.]
LIGHT PROGRESS: Thanks to the many readers who sent notes about trends in Christmas lighting. The answers were all useful and interesting, and several readers sent cyberclippings from their local newspapers, which I greatly appreciate.
Many people noted the post-9/11 trend, toward both more patriotic displays and more displays in general. "The whole subdivision where I live is united in a blur of shimmering light, encouraging folks to drive around just to see it all. Clearly, people want to end this dark and difficult year in a spirit of celebration and community," wrote my friend Britton Manasco in an article he sent from the technology newsletter Velocity.
Shawn Levasseur, writing from Rockland, Maine, noted that "This trend is beginning to invade other holidays as well. A few months ago I noticed a house that was fully covered with what appeared to be, at first glance, Christmas lights. The lights were actually orange, and other items arranged to show that it was a Halloween display, more appropriate for the October month."
My favorite reply, because it contained so much concrete information and hit some of my perennial themes, came from David VanderMolen, who wrote:
There is definitely a trend towards more numerous and more elaborate Christmas light displays. I believe it is a direct function of the decorating materials being MUCH cheaper and much more varied than they were even five years ago. It is easy and inexpensive to put up a tasteful display, and not much more cost of effort to try and humiliate your weak-willed neighbors.
This is the sort of price drop—and, even more important, quality improvement—that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has a hard time properly accounting for in its inflation figures. They're trying to do better, as Jolie Solomon reported in the NYT on Sunday, but it's a nearly impossible task. (For another example of this difficulty, see my NYT column on tracking the growth in product variety.) It seems likely that most Americans' standard of living has increased a lot more in the past 20 years than the official statistics indicate.
I can't really say if lighting displays have gotten any more elaborate recently since around here—northwestern Pennsylvania—they have always been pretty over-the-top. There have been a few innovations, perhaps - like the icicles about four years ago - but the total effect is about the same. This year, there have been more red, white, and blue displays around than before, which clash a bit with the traditional red and green. Nice effect though. There are several houses around here--I wish I had a digital camera, words won't do them justice--that really do it up, with armies of plywood cut outs of Christmas characters, robots, sound, etc. One house near my grandmother's home is particularly notorious and was actually featured in the newspaper last year (I saved the article for a while and then threw it out). Apparently, last year they had to have a second electrical line brought to their mobile home to support their display.
NOW WE ARE 1: Today marks the first anniversary of The Scene. You can see the first week's postings here. Having skipped the election meshugaas, except as a spectator, I thought I was in for a calm year of commentary, focusing mostly on themes from TFAIE. Thanks for your support. [Posted 12/26.]
KASS WATCH: Nicholas Wade of the NYT has an interesting report on a conference in which "biologists tried to explore how the study of genomes might develop over the next 20 years and what tools might be needed." Among the conference's discussions, Wade reports:
Dr. Richard Lifton of Yale predicted that in 20 years researchers would be "able to identify the genes and pathways predisposing to every human disease." A panel of biologists led by Dr. Michael Snyder, also of Yale, said that in two decades they would like to know the effects on the organism of the smallest possible change in the genetic programming, the switch of a single unit of DNA.
Of course, no such hopeful and serious discussions can take place without the requisite vaguely worded warnings from Leon Kass, who since he became a public official sometimes seems to have lost his ability to say what he means. Wade reports Kass's comments as part of a panel of ethicists. (The report does not mention who the other participants were or what they said):
One of the leaders of the ethicists' panel, Dr. Leon R. Kass of the University of Chicago, told the biologists, "There are other goals and goods beyond gaining knowledge and promoting health, important as they are."
What's interesting about Kass's vague platitudes is that they aren't actually as vague or platitudinous as they first appear. He is not voicing opposition merely to certain applications of scientific knowledge, say, to extend life too long or permit "unnatural" reproduction. He's certainly not merely opposing particular research techniques, like embroyonic stem cell research or therapeutic cloning, which disturb some critics on humanitarian, usually religious, grounds.
No, Leon Kass is opposing knowledge itself. Knowing the truth about human biology, he is saying, is something to be avoided. Facts that could upset the way we understand ourselves are facts that should stay unknown. Ignorance is good.
As I've said before, Kass is a pre-Enlightenment figure. His argument is not with Michael West or James Watson. It is with Vesalius and Bacon. The president could not have chosen a less appropriate adviser. [Posted 12/25.]
KASS P.S.: Kass's fear of facts demonstrates something neither his critics nor his supporters want to acknowledge: There is nothing religious about his arguments, at least not in a traditionalsense. Although they may declare certain uses off limits, religious believers do not generally fear the revelation of facts about God's creation. [Posted 12/25.]
OOPS: If not for Steve, who called it to my attention, I might have missed the best part of Sunday's NYT Book Review—the letter from Alan Dershowitz, complaining about a recent review of his book (emphasis added):
To the Editor:
Besides, "lingua franca" was Latin last time I checked. [Posted 12/25.]
BULK COPIES: Readers who would be interested in purchasing 10 or more copies of The Future and Its Enemies in hardcover, at a substantial discount, please email me by January 7. [Posted 12/24.]
I read with interest the article on the behaviour of SUV drivers. While I'm not a fan of big government, perhaps the motor vehicle wonks should take a look at how it's done for those of us who do our driving away from the ground:
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