Do You Have Mixed Feelings About ‘Expelled’?


Ben Stein’s movie Expelled opened last weekend. I’ve got a question for those who have seen it and liked some things about it, but are reluctant to give it an unqualified endorsement:

What are its major strengths and its major weaknesses?

Reading Groups: Bring the Kids


How do you encourage your kids to read? How do you find friends for your kids who read? What can you learn from your kids who read? How do you train your kids to think and talk about what they read?

There are many answers to these questions. But there’s one answer that covers them all: If you’re part of a reading group, schedule one meeting each year or every six months to include the kids.

I got this idea from a blog post by Kyle Design, who writes about how to start a reading group. Kyle says, “Include the Kids: Once a year we select a book that we will read to our kids, then bring our kids to our book group to discuss it. We all really want to instill our own love of reading to our children.”

I like this concept. This may even be a reason for parents of young children to get involved in a reading club. By participating in a reading group event with their parents, kids will learn new ways to think about reading. Parents will get insights from their children about the reading they do. And because other kids of about the same age will be at the meeting to talk about the same book, the kids will have the opportunity to make friends with peers who read. This is one way for parents to put the power of peer pressure to work for a good cause—on the principle that friends who read don’t let friends who read lose interest in reading.

Film and Parental Discretion


“How do you help your children to be discerning and pick up themes and messages inherent in the movies, books, and visual arts?” Thank you, Cindy Gould, for another great question.

Just today I was talking with a screenwriter friend of mine about the kinds of movies producers like to make. For the fast buck, they favor films for teens. And let’s face it, most films targeting the teen market aren’t all that “intellectually meaty.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that teen films are ideologically vacuous. And some teens actually like sophisticated movies intended for a more specialized audience. Is it possible to equip them to be reflective about their film experiences without ruining their enjoyment of film? Absolutely.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Start young. Be selective about the films your children see early on. Watch them together. Afterward, probe with questions about what they thought or felt. To get specific answers ask specific questions. Remember that one scene in Shrek when the princess is singing and, just when she hits a really high note, the bird that was singing with her literally explodes? Here are some questions to ask: “Was it funny when this happened? Was it tragic? Was it both? How could it be both?” In The Lion King, the treacherous uncle looks the part. You could get some good discussion about that. “Do the bad guys always look like bad guys? How can you tell when someone might be trying to trick you into doing something you shouldn’t do? How do you know when to trust someone?”
  2. Let children express themselves fully. Ask questions about what they say. Show sincere interest in their answers. But be careful not to “cross-examine.”
  3. Affirm them for the good ideas they have and the reasonable ways they come up with those ideas. If you love the way they think, tell them, “I love the way you think!” If we’re going to raise a generation of thinkers, they have to know we value thinking. This brings us to a final point.
  4. Share your own ideas with your children. If you’ve asked for their point of view, you’ve earned the privilege of sharing your point of view and there’s a real chance they’ll listen because you’ve listened. Be careful about the tone of your contribution, though. Try not to sound too dogmatic and authoritative. Be a model of intellectual curiosity. Encourage your children to respond to your ideas with their own evaluation.

This is pretty general advice. Much depends on a child’s age and the relationship you have with your child. I hope readers will share their thoughts and experiences in the comments box below.

Faith, Film and Philosophy—The Evolution of an Idea


A book I did with James Spiegel, Faith, Film and Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen, was released late last fall by InterVarsity Press. Today I heard from Cindy Gould, leader of a reading group called “Verbivores” (suggesting an appetite for words). Cindy asked about the origin of the book, how we decided on films to write about and how we selected contributors. Here’s the answer to that question.

Jim and I are college professors who teach philosophy and enjoy film. We decided we wanted to bring these interests together into a book. When big ideas are packaged in a compelling film, they have great potential to influence culture. We wanted to test this thesis by inviting other philosophers who like film to share their perspectives. We wanted this to be fun, so we thought about friends of ours who share this interest and asked them to participate.

We had an idea how long we wanted the book to be and decided we could manage about a dozen chapters. We ended up with fourteen. We didn’t start with a detailed structure for the book and then recruit authors to fit into that structure. Instead, we began with a list of people we knew we would enjoy working with. They also had to be people with talent for thinking about cultural trends and a gift for writing with wisdom and an engaging style. With list in hand, we approached each one with the basic idea and asked this question, “If you were to write a chapter for this book, what film or films would you want to write about, and what ideas would you like to discuss?” We picked the authors; they picked the films.

Now I have to qualify. We knew that if we were going to do a book of this kind, we had to include a chapter on The Matrix. Some people think of this film and its sequels as the most philosophical of relatively recent films. A potential reader couldn’t pick the book up expecting to find a discussion of The Matrix and be disappointed. Instantly we knew who we needed to get for this chapter. We just hoped he would agree. He did.

When we had chapter proposals from everyone, we recognized there was this remarkable range of film coverage that included the classic and the contemporary, the familiar and the intriguing, the safe and the edgy. On top of that, our hoped-for contributors had all settled on different topics and issues, resulting in a surprising balance of treatment of themes in philosophy. With chapter ideas set side-by-side, a natural structure for the book emerged. People who liked film could read this book and learn more than a smattering of philosophy—philosophy made (almost) painless.

I’m anxious to hear how the Verbivores respond to the book during their discussion on Wednesday. Maybe some of them will post their comments here.

The Truman Show: A Discussion Guide


The Truman Show (USA, 1998); directed by Peter Weir

Chapter 4 of my book, Faith, Film and Philosophy, is titled “Escaping Into Reality: What We Can Learn from The Truman Show about the Knowledge Enterprise.” Here are discussion questions for the film The Truman Show that I’ve used in conjunction with this chapter.

  1. What is Christof’s purpose in “designing” a life for Truman? What kind of life does he want for Truman? And what is Christof’s purpose in televising Truman’s life?
  2. There’s The Truman Show that is the TV show the movie is about, and there’s the movie called The Truman Show that we see in the theatre or on DVD. We’ll call the TV show TS-1 and the movie TS-2. In TS-2, viewers of TS-1 are depicted in various ways. Presumably, they enjoy watching TS-1. What is it about TS-1 that keeps them watching? Why do they like watching? What does this say about them?
  3. Those watching TS-1 seem to have opinions about the quality of life Truman has on “Seahaven.” What are they supposed to think about Truman and his quality of life? How does this compare with Christof’s attitude about Truman’s quality of life? Now think about how we are supposed to regard Truman’s life as we view the film, TS-2. Is there a difference between what we’re supposed to think or feel as we watch the movie and what the TV viewers are supposed to think and feel as they watch the TV show? Describe whatever differences you think of.
  4. Truman falls in love with Sylvia, who is kicked off the show (TS-1). Later she calls in to speak with Christof during a rare interview on television. What is her thesis about what Christof is doing? Do you agree with her? Are we supposed to agree with her? Does she make a good argument? Can you think of ways to strengthen her argument?
  5. What is this movie about? Do you think the filmmakers are making an argument? If so, what is that argument? What is the thesis and what evidence is presented in support of that thesis?
  6. What kinds of freedom does Truman exercise while living in Seahaven? What kinds of freedom is he lacking? How is he presented from exercising these freedoms?
  7. Are you more free than Truman? In what ways? Are you sure about this? Can you be sure? [This question was suggested to me by David Hunt, a contributor to Faith, Film and Philosophy.]
  8. Some critics see Christof as a god-figure in this film and suggest that the film is actually a critique of the Christian worldview. If that’s true, what do the filmmakers assume about the Christian worldview, and especially about the Christian or biblical conception of divine sovereignty and human freedom? Based on your understanding of what the Bible teaches about such things, how is Truman’s life in Seahaven like, and how is it unlike, human existence in the actual world? Support your answer from the Bible and from evidence in the film.
  9. In his chapter in Faith, Film and Philosophy, Geivett claims that this film illustrates how a person may be able to acquire knowledge that is important, even when much of his community is determined to deceive him or her. Is this a plausible claim about the film? How could this claim be challenged?
  10. What does this film “say” about the responsibilities people have toward each other when it comes to seeking the truth and tracking the evidence? Can you describe some contemporary attitudes about truth, the objectivity of truth, and the possibility of knowing truth? How are these attitudes reinforced socially?

Run Lola Run: A Discussion Guide


Run Lola Run (Germany, 1998); directed by Tom Tykwer

Chapter 7 of my book, Faith, Film and Philosophy, is titled “What Would Have Been and What Could Be: Counterfactuals in It’s a Wonderful Life and Run Lola Run. The author is Jim Spiegel. Here are discussion questions for the film Run Lola Run that I’ve used in conjunction with his chapter.

  1. Are there any elements in the film that you didn’t understand or can’t explain? Write down what comes to mind?
  2. How would you explain the following: (a) the red hair, (b) the use of black and white, (c) the use of animation, (d) the rapid-fire photo shoots of people Lola encounters, (c) the breaking glass when she screams at different times
  3. The film depicts three possible scenarios. Between the first scenario and the second is a scene when Lola asks Manni a series of questions. She begins with the question, “Do you love me?” What is funny about this scene? What is the logic of her questioning? How does Manni respond? Do you think he should have answered her differently?
  4. Who are the people that Lola encounters during her race to catch up with Manni? What technique is used to portray their respective futures? Why are they portrayed in different ways from one scenario to another? What bearing does this have on the message of the film?
  5. Is there humor in this film? If so, what is its significance, if any, for the message of the film? Is this a comedy? If not, is the humor accidental (not intended by the producers or director) or incidental (not salient to the main message of the film)? Explain your answer.
  6. Between the second scenario and the third, Manni asks Lola, “What would you do if I died?” She thinks his question is stupid. Do you agree with Lola? Why would Manni ask such a thing? How is this bit of dialogue appropriate to the film? Is there anything significant about placing this scene here, rather than between the first and second scenarios?
  7. Does the fact that this movie is in German make the movie more enjoyable, or less? Explain your answer. What would be lost, if anything, if it was in English? Do you think you would enjoy it more, or understand it better, if you understood German?
  8. In the last scenario, while Lola is running with her eyes closed, and she doesn’t have the money, what is she saying? Whom is she addressing? Think about what happens next. Is this supposed to be related to her plea while running? If so, how?
  9. At the Casino, Lola gets incredibly lucky. At this point in the film, is that a surprise? Why or why not?
  10. There are places in the film where a group audience tends to respond with laughter. It’s as if there are cues in the film to laugh at these moments, and most people respond on cue. How does experience of a film in a group situation help in the process of understanding what a film is about, or what a viewer is supposed to believe or feel in response to a scene?

Legends of the Fall: A Discussion Guide


Legends of the Fall (USA, 1994); directed by Edward Zwick

Chapter 4 of my book, Faith, Film and Philosophy, is titled “Defining Love through the Eye of the Lens: Romance, Sex, and the Human Condition in Pretty Woman, Legends of the Fall, and The Bridges of Madison County.” The author is Greg Jesson. Here are discussion questions for the film Legends of the Fall that I’ve used in conjunction with his chapter.

  1. A native American named Stab, an elder of the Cree Nation, narrates the beginning of the film. How would you explain the director’s choice in beginning the film this way?
  2. In a letter to his mother, Alfred writes, “I pray every night for the grace to forgive Tristan.” Do you agree that Tristan has sinned against his brother, Alfred? Explain your answer. Does Alfred ever forgive Tristan? Why or why not? If you believe he doesn’t, what would it have taken for him to forgive Tristan?
  3. When visited by a committee of citizens who want Alfred to be elected to Congress, he shouts at them, “What do you want for yourselves if you get my son elected?” What does this say about his view of politics? What does it say about his view of people, in general?
  4. Alfred says, in response to his father’s accusation that the U.S. government has yet to regain its wisdom, common sense, and humanity: “I will consider it my absolute duty to bring both wisdom and humanity to the United States Congress.” This may ring a bell. Compare Alfred’s vow with the similar promise made by Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. How are they alike? Different?
  5. Following his argument with the Colonel, Alfred says, tenderly, “Susanna, you deserve to be happy.” Is this true? What is Alfred’s conception of happiness? How does this compare with your conception of happiness?
  6. Does the Colonel have a favorite son? If so, who is it? What accounts for this? How are the others affected?
  7. What happens when Susanna’s name comes up, after Tristan returns home? Is Susanna over Tristan? Is Tristan over Susanna? What is your evidence?
  8. What do you think of Anthony Hopkins’s performance as a stroke victim? Is his stroke supposed to mean anything that ties into the story line of the film? (Is it symbolic?)
  9. One Stab repeatedly speaks of “the bear inside” of Tristan. What is the point of this metaphor? What does it say about Tristan and One Stab’s evaluation of him as a person?
  10. At a public meeting, Alfred and Tristan meet. Alfred asks, “How’s father? Is he well?” Tristan answers, “As well as can be expected.” What does this mean? What can be expected? Why?
  11. In explanation of the accidental death of Isabel, Alfred says to Tristan, “It was a terrible, tragic, accident.” What does this say about Alfred? Has he changed as a person?
  12. Whose faults are greater? Tristan’s, or Susanna’s? Support your answer.
  13. At Susanna’s grave, Alfred says to Tristan, “I followed all the rules . . . . And you, you followed none of them. And they all loved you more.” What does this say about Alfred’s view of love? What does it say about his view of doing the right thing? Is there a sense in which he isn’t any different than Tristan?
  14. Tristan’s father says to him, “You are not damned, Tristan. I won’t allow that.” Any comments?
  15. How are things resolved in the end? Does this change anything?

Hacking the ABD Life: Part 2 — The Intellectual Virtues


The academic life has an intellectual component. Duh. But what does that mean?

It means, in part, that an exemplar of the academic life manages his or her life with intellectual virtue. An intellectual virtue is a character trait that improves the chances of believing well—of conducting inquiry in a responsible way and living responsibly on the basis of what is learned through inquiry.

I believe that all members of the human community are called to intellectual virtue, insofar as they are able. Intellectuals should be models of acting from intellectual virtue. I question whether a perceived intellectual is a genuine instance of such a person if he or she is severely lacking in intellectual virtue. The true intellectual must have a suitable measure of intellectual virtue. Diplomas are no assurance of that.

The Ph.D. candidate has already been initiated into academic life—the life of the guild, as it were. One can only hope that this also has included initiation into the intellectual life. The ABD life is a test of intellectual virtue, and an opportunity to grow in intellectual virtue. Certain particular virtues are especially salient to commendable intellectual practice at the ABD stage in one’s career. Here are three of them:

  • Curiosity
  • Courage
  • Moderation

Intellectual curiosity is a natural goad to dissertation research. Intellectual courage is needed to sustain research and overcome obstacles. The virtue of moderation curbs excesses of various kinds. Dissertation research tests the expression of these virtues.

Curiosity stimulates creativity and supplies the initial energy to launch a dissertation project. It’s often difficult to sustain that level of curiosity throughout the research and writing process. The Ph.D. candidate needs to have ways of staying engaged with the chosen topic. As long as new questions emerge with the progress of research, there is evidence of curiosity.

Courage helps the researcher stay at it. The intellectually courageous person believes in the good to be achieved by the research that has been undertaken. Courage fills the void when curiosity dries up, and finds fresh sources of curiosity in the act of persevering. This virtue is threatened in numerous ways. Among the most sinister are the negative judgments of others.

Moderation is probably the least appreciated of the three. Moderation protects the researcher from excesses that would lure him or her away from efficient realization of the primary objective. One can research to excess. The sociology of the ABD experience reinforces the sense that it isn’t possible to “over-research” a topic. Turning over every rock, however promising it may seem in advance, feels responsible; but it is really counter-productive, and hence irresponsible.

Future installments on “Hacking the ABD Life” will focus on specific intellectual virtues. Please chime in with thoughts you have about the connection between the intellectual life and doing scholarship from virtue. Let me know what virtues you think are most salient to realizing that dream of passing from ABD to Ph.D.

Hacking the ABD Life: Part 1 — “Good” Means “Good Enough”


ABD—”All But Dissertation.” This label has a distinctly demoralizing drum to it, especially as a designation for someone—the Ph.D. candidate—who has accomplished so much, usually comparatively early in life.

Of course, writing a doctoral dissertation is a huge undertaking in its own right. And it can make or break a Ph.D. candidate’s academic career. There are two main challenges. The first is as much psychological as it is anything else. You have to have “internal fortitude,” the ability to take small steps toward the completion of a big project, to manage hurdles and set-backs, and to survive the comparative loneliness of the process.

Second, you have to impress your dissertation committee with the quality of the finished product and with your prospects as a scholar. So the work has to be good. This, obviously, relates closely to the first main challenge.

Let me repeat the best advice I received while writing my Ph.D. dissertation: “Think of your dissertation as the last paper you write during your formal education, and keep in mind that it really doesn’t have to be longer than a hundred pages.” It didn’t hurt that this counsel came from a member of my dissertation committee.

The suggestion about length is probably situation-specific. It would be wise to consult with your committee about appropriate length. And “consultation” is the key word here. You should be able to share your own ideas about appropriate length, given your topic and the way you plan to organize your material. It is generally believed that the best dissertation topic is a narrowly focused topic. It would stand to reason that in many cases narrower focus translates into fewer total pages. There’s a saying, “Don’t beat a dead horse.” There’s another saying, “If the horse is dead, dismount.” The goal shouldn’t be to come up with a topic that will require X number of pages, but to come up with a topic that makes a worthy contribution to the field and establishes the author as a capable scholar, regardless of word count.

The more general principle in my advisor’s comment is that the dissertation isn’t a book. It’s not even a published paper. I caution against approaching your dissertation as if you were writing a book manuscript that will be ready to submit to one of the top academic presses. Your dissertation committee is large enough with the three to five people that play that official role. No point trying to write for the vague target audience for a book on the same topic. Save that for later.

Let me put it this way. You’ve got three people on your committee. Maybe one of them knows quite a lot about your topic. The other two are conversant. Are there others in the discipline who have go-to expertise on your topic? Probably so. Will they be in the room during your dissertation defense? Probably not. So you can forget about them.

Your work has to be good. I said that before. But how good does it have to be? Answer: good enough (lower-case “g”). So estimate how good that is and make that your goal. And I do mean estimate. Don’t calculate. Members of your committee have responsibilities. They should be able to advise you about what their expectations are. No one else’s opinion really counts, especially if they don’t see the work before the defense. (That includes the expert on another continent, and it includes your doting grandmother and admiring spouse—if you happen to be married.)

If you’re ABD, let me know your thoughts. If you’re on a dissertation committee for someone who is ABD, your comments would be especially valuable.

LibriVox: Never Pay for an Audiobook Again


Audiobooks are great for life hackers who want their time to be productive while driving, jogging, or weeding the garden. It used to be you had to buy or rent CDs to listen to audiobooks. Now you can download them to your laptop or MP3 player from iTunes. Audible.com currently has over 40,000 titles. If you subscribe to their email updates, you’ll get notices of special pricing on items that may interest you.

Audio.com is the place to turn for books that are still protected by copyright. But now you can listen to works that are in the public domain . . . for free. LibriVox has an ambitious goal—”to make all public domain books available as free audio books.”

Copyrights last for a limited period of time. Original copyrights for books published in the U.S. prior to 1923 have all expired. Unless those copyrights are renewed, the titles are in “the public domain.” That means they can be copied by any means, without permission, and pretty much for any purpose. Project Gutenberg makes titles that are in the public domain available as e-books. Now we can get many of the same titles in audio format from LibriVox.

Volume IV of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire went online today. G. K. Chesterton’s book of detective stories, The Club of Queer Trades, has been available since Sunday. If you’re into Chesterton, you’ll be glad to know that his justly famous book Orthodoxy is there waiting for you.

The LibriVox website is neatly organized and user-friendly. Searching the catalog is a snap. Pages for specific audiobooks feature a number of useful resources: including written summaries of the book, links to pertinent pages in Wikipedia (for background) and Gutenberg.org (for the e-book version, if available), RSS feeds, and iTunes subscriptions. The total running time and reader’s name are indicated. Books can be downloaded as a whole or in sections.

Voice actors who aspire to voice-over or audiobook narration may want to get some practice and work on their portfolios. You can volunteer to be a reader for this service.

If You Can’t Hack It, Try This . . .


How are you hacking it? Is some aspect of life too much for you?

A new section of my blog will be devoted to life-hacking skills. It’s called “If You Can’t Hack It, Try This.” I made the first entry yesterday, on why it’s a good idea to leave your email alone first thing in the morning. More posts are on their way. There will be items on information management (now called “information farming” by some), efficient use of the internet for personal productivity, planning and completing projects, productivity tools, recommended websites, book reviews, writing strategies, study tips, and more.

As a university teacher, author, and speaker, my challenges may be different than yours. Let me know through the comments link below if there are topics you’d like to see considered. And if you have suggestions for things to try in some area where it’s hard to hack it, why not post them using the comments link?

Never Check Your Email First Thing in the Morning (Regardless of Your Time Zone)


This advice comes from Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. The bit about the time zone is my little contribution.

This is great advice, but Ferriss doesn’t explain why. You can figure it out in context, but you might not have the book. And some things aren’t there. So here’s my explanation.

1. For many of us, email is a black hole. Once you get in, it’s hard to get out. We know this happens. So we might be starting our day with email just to avoid the really important and productive stuff. Don’t let this happen.

2. If you check your email first thing in the morning, you’re liable to spend more time messaging than you would later in the day, since it may feel like you have more time for email before the day really gets cranking.

3. The impulse to check email first thing every morning is a good indicator of an unhealthy addiction. If you feel like you simply must check your mail, then you have less discipline in your life than you need if you want to be productive.

4. Checking your email early clutters your mind with other people’s business when you want to devote your best hours to your own business. Before you open your mail, you don’t know what’s in there waiting for you. Why take the chance that it will bear tidings of new responsibilities?

5. By deliberately waiting to check your email, you train yourself to estimate more accurately the importance and urgency of email in your life. The bane of email is that it is too convenient and it creates an artificial sense of urgency. Postponing your email fix helps you experience the freedom from email that comes when you realize that very little of it is urgent. If you think it’s urgent, you may feel its bidding during all hours of the day, regardless of how often you check. And checking first thing in the morning feeds that sense of urgency.

6. Checking email first thing may encourage poor email management. Suppose you adopt the policy that you will never leave a message you’ve read in your inbox. Great idea. But to follow through on that policy, you have to have a message management system. The simplest of systems has three bins or folders, one for the archives, one for follow-up tasks, and one for holding items while you wait on someone else to complete a task. The rest can be deleted. So every message that’s opened is immediately handled in one of five ways: (1) it’s trashed, (2) it’s answered, (3) it’s archived, (4) it’s tucked into a follow-up folder, or (5) it’s moved to a folder awaiting someone else’s action. The FOLLOW-UP and WAIT bins will have to be monitored. So you’ll probably want to keep track of them in your task management system. Staying organized this way takes a little extra effort. If you don’t want to tie up your morning with these kinds of activities, and you just want to open your mail to see what’s in there, you will end up doing one of two things, practicing your management protocol when you should be doing something more productive, or leaving read messages in the inbox to be tended to later.

7. It may turn out that simply waiting a few hours to check mail allows just enough time for many messages to become stale. If a message has gone stale, because the urgency of the moment when it was sent has evaporated, then you have one less message to deal with.

And now a word about time zones. I live in California, where it’s three hours later than in the east. So by the time my day starts, other people in my communication loop have already had three hours to post messages. So I might think I owe it to them to jump into my mailbox right away to see if that’s the case. But I owe it to myself not to do this.

I’d like to know about your email headaches, and strategies for getting relief. So please post your comments. Just don’t expect me to reply first thing in the morning.

Acronym Crazy


There’s an acronym for everything. Well, almost everything. Acronym Finder has a database of over 200,000 acronyms, many of which serve multiple purposes. And the list is growing—TLIG. (Yes, I made that up . . . IMTU.)

The funny thing about acronyms is that they attract logophobes (people who dread words) and logophiles (people who love words). GF. (That’s “go figure.”) And since logophobes and logophiles are very different creatures, it would be unwise to adopt the acronym “LP” for both. Besides, LP is already taken.

Acronyms do come in handy. Often they are easier to say or remember than the phrases they abbreviate. Those that have a standard use are considered words in their own right, with their own entries in the main catalog of any good dictionary. The ideal acronym is pronounceable: NATO, AIDS, UNESCO. But a host of second-class acronyms aren’t pronounceable, even though we forget that they aren’t—for example, BBC, KGB, and DVD. An unpronounceable acronym achieves a kind of elite status when its written form is no longer accompanied by periods after each letter. So U.S.A. has by now been elevated to USA. Acronyms that are both pronounceable and normally written in lower case letters are truly special; they look like they’ve always been words: laser, radar, and snafu come readily to mind (if you happen to be consulting the New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd ed., for its entry on “acronym”).

Some of the most familiar acronyms stand for phrases that many people can’t recollect, or never even knew, as suggested by the following hypothetical, but easily imagined, conversation.

Ed: I work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Fred: Never heard of it.

Ed: Have you heard of NASA?

Fred: Of course. Why do you ask?

By now you’re probably wondering, “Is the word ‘acronym’ an acronym for anything?” The answer is yes, sort of. There are two reasons for the qualification. First, “acronym” is a word in its own right, and was before it was “acronymized” (which, I stipulate, is pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable). This is a case of reverse acronymization, you might say. Second, there isn’t much demand for the acronym “acronym.” But there are some smarty-pants uses of “acronym” as an acronym. For these, check out Acronym Finder.

Acronym Finder isn’t just fun and games. If you ever forget what “ATM” stands for, and you have an urge to close that memory loop, AF is the tool to turn to. Be careful what you ask for, though. I blithely entered my name: D-O-U-G. Turns out this is an acronym with a single definition: “Dumb Old Utility Guy.” Maybe this blog post proves the point.

[Footnote: “Acronym” is not to be confused with “anacronym.” “Anacronym” isn’t a word, but it should be. In my own private lexicon it means “a word or phrase that has become obsolete.” Some acronyms are so popular that the words or phrases they represent are, in precisely this sense, anacronyms.]

Disillusioned Professor Comes to Grips with ‘The Visitor’


He has the perfect name and the ideal job for portraying upper-middle-class disillusionment. Walter Vale is a literature professor at a reputable university in the Northeast. He’s no longer capable of enduring day-to-day encounters with students, and he’s embarked on a sabbatical during which he only pretends to be writing his next book. Will those who see the film The Visitor be able to relate to Walter’s dysphoric existence? Yes, because the role is performed by Richard Jenkins.

“Richard who?” The folks at Back Stage West must have been thinking the same thing. In this week’s issue, Jenelle Riley describes how a “blue-collar actor” like Jenkins (who’s never played a lead role in television or film) can lead in every scene of a low-budget indie film and launch it to nationwide screening. When BSW arrived in today’s mail, I was pleased to see a cover story about this actor, and about this film.

I saw The Visitor when it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January. I recognized Jenkins, but couldn’t place him. The Riley essay explains why. But I liked him, and I liked this film because of him. He was funny, in that way that only the wearing malaise of life experience can make a thoughtful person funny. When the film ended, writer-director Tom McCarthy fielded questions from the audience. He was good. But Richard Jenkins stole the show.

This film is supposed to be about how injustices can accrue in the treatment of illegal immigrants. It could even be said that The Visitor is making an argument that at least some illegal immigrants should be granted amnesty. Many viewers will find themselves reflecting on this possibility. But the movie is just as much about how a man like Walter can get a new lease of life through his encounter with the unexpected, even if things still don’t turn out the way he would like.

The film begins and ends brilliantly. Walter is a serious man in a serious funk, who teaches us to lighten up a little. The Visitor opens April 11 in a platform release (that is, in a handful of theaters to generate buzz). This is one I’ll be seeing again.

Footnote: You’ll enjoy this film more if you don’t see the trailer first.

Music Mania and Doing Good: Big Things Come in Small Packages


The iPod. The iPhone. Nifty little devices for packing huge inventories of favorite music. In the world of technology, small is BIG—at least some of the time. But today we find out just how BIG small can be. Apple, the people who invented the iPod and the iPhone, announced today that they are #1 in music retail in America. Wal-Mart has left the building; Apple is the new elephant in the room.

How big an elephant are we talking about? Apple has sold 4 billion songs (give or take) to more than 50 million people in this country over the past five years. Let’s do some math. Four billion divided by fifty million equals eighty. So, on average, American customers have purchased 80 songs from Apple. Since tunes go for 99 cents in most cases, that’s roughly $80 per customer, over five years. So $16 per year. Doesn’t sound like much, right? But fifty million customers cranks that figure up to nearly four billion dollars since Apple opened the iTunes music store. A nominal expenditure of financial energy on the part of a sufficient number of people yields an enviable cache of, well . . . cash.

Only 16% of all Americans achieved this result. Sixteen people for every 100 hundred Americans spent $16 on tunes each year for five years, and Apple garnished $4 billion.

Big things come in small packages, if you have enough small packages. But “enough” small packages can be a relatively small percentage of the total pool of possible contributors. In this case, Apple can generate an influx of $4 billion dollars from a relatively small percentage of Americans who love their music to the tune of about $80 each.

One lesson in this is that when enough people care just a little bit about something, and they show that they care with a modicum of energy, big things can happen. Apple has literally been banking on that.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that most Americans, when they click for a new iTunes purchase, are not thinking, “I sure hope there are a bunch of other Americans out there doing the same thing; otherwise, this just wouldn’t be worth my trouble.” They act for a limited good over which they have considerable control. But because lots of other people do the same thing, Apple is a big winner.

How often do we consider performing some action that would produce only a limited good (something we value), but we refrain simply because the good we can produce by ourselves seems too puny to bother? What if we interpreted our action differently? What if we decided to act for the limited good over which we have some significant control? What if we forgot about whether anyone else cares as much as we do about realizing that good? If we all did that, maybe big things—good big things—would happen.

Having a new three-minute tune to tickle my tympanic membrane is a limited good. I’ll shell out 99 cents for that, now and then. Budgeting $16 a year for this is within reason for most Americans. We manage our music mania pretty well. But it’s only music, after all, piped in through our iBooks, iPods, or iPhones. Surely there are greater goods we could each achieve with the same modicum of expenditure. So what are we waiting for? What good thing would you do, if only enough other people would do it, too?

Tell you what. I won’t wait for you, if you won’t wait for me.

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