"Things of Science"

The other day I tried to subscribe online to a new service, Bespoke Post, that sends items of potential interest to male subscribers each month for their consideration, or perhaps sends a notification with photos about the item which you can accept or decline for shipment. I’m not sure, because in order to get detailed information about the offer, you had to provide your email address. I refused to do this (and I saw others posting notices on social media about similar abstentions). As a follow up, a Google search on “sent every month” shows there are a half dozen such programs currently out there. 

One of the classic pioneers in monthly subscription items was Things of Science, an educational program started by the nonprofit news syndicate Science Service in November 1940 (discontinued in 1989). I was one of about 4,000 subscribers in the 1950s, and each month I would receive a small blue cardboard box in the mail, most often the “thin” version, which was 3 x 5 inches and 3/4 of an inch thick (the “thick” version was double the height), with a lid that lifted off. The box mailer

image

(shown here) had a nice yellow label, and inside was a a yellow booklet explaining the topic for that month, along with small items and supplies needed to conduct the suggested experiments or create or construct a demonstration. These ranged far and wide, covering such things as optical illusions, polarized light, textiles, tea, crystals, electrical circuits, seeds, specialized paper, aerodynamics, salt, types of wire, prisms and refraction, astronomy, and even butterflies. 

The booklet provided background information on the general subject as well as the specifics for interactive exploration. There was usually a half dozen or more individual projects for each unit, each of which could take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, or even a few days, if there was a slow chemical reaction or transformation involved.

In addition to the fascination of the subjects themselves, engaging with the Things of Science nurtured not only an appreciation of the scientific method but also encouraged methodical exploration, careful note-taking, meticulous record-keeping, keen observation, patience, and satisfaction in completing the assignments. In short, they were fun and educational. And they were challenging. At least one of the activities would require some mental or manipulative exercise that you had not done before, or not enough to have mastered it. These were confidence-builders along with everything else. 

Fortunately, Things of Science have been archived in the Smithsonian Institution, which contains a large collection of Science Service records (Designated Record Unit 7091). I don’t believe these are open to the public, but at least they’re safe for posterity in “the nation’s attic.” 

 

Inhabiting Synesthesia

That’s not a typo: “Inhabating,” not “inhibiting.” Synesthesida is defined in a number of ways, most often to explain how metaphors or similes work, as in “the rosy fingered dawn,” which suggests that sunlight is embodied with arms and hands, to embrace and warm the day. 

The derivation of the word is from ancient Greek for “senses [linked] together.” This points to another, equally important definition of synesthesia in the realm of human perception, where one sense triggers another automatically. For some, this can be color-based, so that the word or concept of “lassitude” or “laziness,” for instance, can wash the synesthete’s mind with the color yellow whenever it comes up in conversation or in reading.

Experts differ on what percentage of the population experience synesthesia, ranging from 1 in 3,000 to 1 in 30. From what I have gathered over years of reading about this, the 1 in 30 ratio seems about right.

Wikipedia lumps the various types of synesthesia into eight different categories. I myself (as you may have suspected) experience two of them: spatial sequence synesthesia and number form synesthesia. Numbers (both positive and negative) always appear to me to be arranged in a looping fashion, somewhat like they appear on a clock face, except that the numbers from 13 to 19 extend straight out “to the right” before starting to loop again for each sequence of 10 numbers up to 100, where the sequence starts again. 

But the centenary ranges from 100 to 1,000 seem to climb a hill to the left and recede, then from 1,000 to 10,000 loops again, and the entire sequence repeats up to 1,000,000, and so on. 

This is superficial description, and not that remarkable, But the experience of it is actually stronger and difficult to describe. It’s as if I can “walk the path” that the numbers describe, or experience them like a work or art, or that they represent physical places I can see and almost feel. 

The alphabet, too
As a child, I had an easel blackboard about three feet tall, at the top which was a panel that featured the alphabet in letters about half an inch high arranged in three rows. Based on the imprint in my mind from that exposure, I always see the alphabet in three rows, modified somewhat (I’m not sure why), with the first row going from A -F, the second from G to P, and the last from Q to Z. 

Quite a few famous people in all walks of life have synesthesia of one sort or another, which is neither here nor there (synesthesically speaking!), and a logical factoid (why wouldn’t they?). It really has no impact on ability or creativity: one can be highly creative and not be synesthetic, or one can be highly synesthetic and have no creative abilities at all. Scientific studies conclude that there is no link at all between synesthesia and virtually any behavior or attitudes. 

So it is more of an “intellectual curiosity” than anything with a practical application. Perhaps my fascination with it, other than having it myself, is that it gives a glimpse “inside another person’s mind” that is difficult to experience any other way. It’s not a huge reveal, but a pervasive one. Whether it’s calendar months (which I experience in a chain from January to June, then to the right of that chain the July - December chain) or the hours of the day (envisioned quite literally as on an analog clock), synesthesia organizes the basic elements of time for me, at all scales in which it is measured (centuries following the same pattern). 

With time comes place, and I have always been very map- and geography-oriented. I can’t identify every place on a blank globe, but a very large number of them, And I have always been fascinated by how maps are created. (See my post on Maps, Andrea Mitchell, and Me.) I wonder if there is any specific link between cartographia (love of maps) and synesthesia? I can’t believe there is not. 

P.S. Google Maps now has 3D ambient sound you can play while looking at Street View, which has been described as a “playful digital synesthesia.”

 

Common Words People Don’t Often Use

bedraggled
cavalcade
conflagration
conundrum
crucible
effervescent
ghastly
harangue
hasty
impish
listless
omnipresent
panoply
sage
transfigured
waif
yarn (as in story)
xenophobic

The Curse of Comedic Genius

The suicide of Robin Williams has brought with it a flood of commentary, interpretation, reminiscence, and regret on the part of many who knew Robin that they had not been aware of his despair.

Deservedly, Robin Wiliams is on the cover of the August 25th issue of Time magazine, in which Dick Cavett has an article on “Boxing the Black Dog [of Depression and Despair].” Cavett’s article, more than most other reactions, got me thinking about the differences between comedians and other performers. While everyone on a stage is keyed into audience reaction and cheered by the applause, stage actors, singers – even magicians – differ from comedians in their being able to rehearse very effectively without audience reaction. Indeed, rehearsal by definition, means putting together a performance and deconstructing it, a stop-reverse-start-reverse, herky-jerky process that is totally inappropriate for audience viewing. Of course, later rehearsals and dress rehearsals will run through an entire performance in proper chronological order, but except for the dress rehearsal, there is usually some interruption for comment, feedback, fine-tuning, and even addition or subtraction of lines or possibly entire scenes.

Comedians, on the other hand, while they certainly run through their routines everywhere from the pillow to the shower to idle moments in the supermarket (at least in their heads), can’t really practice effectively without a live audience, because while their instincts and experience tell them that something is funny, it may be too broad, too obscure, too inside-baseball, too ephemeral, too esoteric, or too-whatever to “work” as part of their act, and they may not always be the best judge of that. A significant other can be helpful, and professional friends can offer feedback. But there is nothing like an audience to seal the deal.

Of course, tried-and-true material that is part of the comedian’s act doesn’t require this kind of vetting. But new material does, and most comedians are constantly on the look-out for new material. They want to stay fresh, and they want their act to always be fresh.  Every famous performer has classic material that they know each audience wants to hear, but each audience also wants to hear new bits, as well. It’s a tough balancing act.

So there is certainly pressure on the comedian to keep in top form, and that can be a true grind. Most people, and performers are people, harbor self-doubts of some kind, and when you couple this with the need to be constantly pushing the envelope, you put yourself at risk of going out on one too many limbs. If you have a thick skin, you make note of what works and what doesn’t and you move on. If your skin is not so thick, it can take its toll over time.

Practice, practice, practice
We all know the old joke, How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice! Musicians are very lucky to be in a performing genre, like gymnasts (and players of all sports) where practice is not only a necessity but an integral part of their maintaining (to say nothing of advancing) their skills. If you spend any time around professional musicians, you will quickly discover that they are constantly fiddling with their instruments using “warm up’ routines, snippets of music they play over and over in between rehearsal sessions, for example, just to “stay limber” and “in the groove.” At any orchestral concert, the musicians will trickle onto the stage 15 or 20 minutes before the performance and start “rehearsing” in public to prepare for the imminent recital.

Comedians do this to a certain extent. They may have an early gig at a small bar before going to their main event later in the evening. But I don’t believe this is common (and would probably be contractually forbidden in most cases anyway). I think most of the time they “get shot from a cannon” every night they are performing, and make the best of it.

Formula for Disaster
This is truly a grind. While analysis of comedians’ dispositions has repeatedly shown an underlying tendency for them to be cursed with depressive personalities, even the most optimistic and truly bubby or upbeat comedian will almost certainly be dragged down by such a burden. Add this to inherent insecurity, and it is a formula for disaster. No wonder, indeed, that drugs and alcohol are rampant in the profession. Not only do they help “anesthetize” the anxiety, they also initially help to inspire some of the creativity. Unfortunately, one becomes “acclimated” to these substances and requires them in increasingly larger quantities to achieve the desired effect.

I can hardly think of a more disheartening calamity. 

The Birth of the Modern

When I was in graduate school in the 1970s, I majored in history, and one of the recurring themes in the monographs I read on European and American history was the emergence of modernity, or Modern Life.

Of course, this term has to be defined effectively in order to have any meaning. Without getting pedantic, let’s just say that “the modern era” is distinguished from earlier times by the disintegration of “feudal” social structures (with royalty, aristocracy, and peasantry), leading to the rise of the bourgeoisie and later to the middle class. It is also inexorably tied to increasing urbanization, and to the rise of scientific inquiry, which neutralized the power of religious institutions in social life.

There is also a financial foundation to consider, starting with the British East India Company in the 17th century, the first “joint stock” corporation in the world. A significant aspect of this corporation is that it posited “limited liability” as a major aspect of business incorporation. The reason for this innovation was to protect the consortium of investors in this risky business from financial ruin while engaged in an enterprise much larger than any one of them could have afforded independently.

Tracking Transitions
The flourishing financial innovations in the 17th century coincided with the Renaissance, and in England with the age of Shakespeare, which marked a big break from Medieval standards, mores, and politics. By the 18th century we see The Enlightenment, which began to introduce a worldview that we can all agree foreshadows today’s “modern” world. It is also the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, so by the 19th century we see the emergence of The Middle Class, major advances in medicine, and a significant increase in the influence of secular thought, often attributed to Darwin’s impact, even though Darwin had a firm belief in God (qualified by calling himself an agnostic at the end of his life).

This litany of “progress” or “historical change” can be explored in depth from many perspectives: political, social, economic, artistic, musical, scientific, and so on. If you delve into any one of these aspects, and look at it during any fifty year span (just for convenience sake), you will notice a significant transition in outlook and norms (behavioral, structural, and moral) from the beginning of the period to the end of it. The reason for this is simply that a major aspect of “modernity” is that it rejects a fixed society with rigid social classes, and depends on social mobility and being able to accumulate wealth, gain education, and engage in cultural activities that broaden the mind, and which build upon the same dynamic from previous periods (of 50 or a hundred years).

Bear in mind also that the printing press was invented in the 15th century, and literacy was beginning to have a major impact on the spread of knowledge by the Renaissance. With this came an explosion in publishing, and in turn the emergence of a plethora of magazines, newspapers, pamphlets and other publications.

A Turning Point?
So each time you look at these transitions, it is tempting to conclude that the period from 1750 to 1800, for instance, was such a major turning point – with the American and French Revolutions as a central historical focus – that this was, indeed, the emergence of the “modern” era. Accordingly, most of the histories of that period come to conclusions based on that kind of analysis.

The problem, of course, is that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. If The Modern World began in 1800, then what about those historians who write about the Revolution of 1848 in Europe and describe it as the beginning of The Modern era? Or American historians describing the Civil War as the turning point from pre-Modern to Modern? Or those who say that when Columbus discovered “The New World” or when Ferdinand Magellan first sailed around the world around 1520, this was the beginning of The Modern era? Pick any 50 year period since 1500, as I said, and you will see enough “before and after” contrasts to make a strong argument that this was, indeed, the birth of The Modern.

There are other significant turning points, as well: World War I, Nov. 22, 1963, Sept. 11, 2001, to name a few. 

This carries into contemporary culture, as well. It is easy to assume that before the Internet was invented in the 1970s, or prior to the Worldwide Web in the 1990s, or the smartphone and the iPad in the last decade, or HDTV, or cable television, or any other technology, we really hadn’t entered the “modern” world. A strong case can be made for any of those. But that just proves that the birth of the Modern is a constantly moving target. “Before” and “After” become increasingly irrelevant when seen from that perspective. As the cliché says, the only constant is change. And the pace of change is increasing with every passing year. As another cliché has it, “get used to it!”

P.S. I just ran across this in a review of “The Inner Life of Empires”it “looks at one family’s complex story” in the mid-1800s “to describe the origins of the modern political, economic, and intellectual world.” See what I mean? It’s like a sticky wad of tape you can’t shake off!

Books, Movies, Media and the Kaleidoscope of Time

Real life unfolds inexorably by the clock, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour. You may be involved in an engrossing activity and the time just seems to “fly by,” but there is no cheating the metronome of time. And if you are bored, the passage of time can seem excruciatingly slow. If you and a companion are watching a movie that one of you loves and other doesn’t, the love-it watcher will say it ended too soon, and the hate-it watcher thought it went on way too long.

One of the principal elements of any version of reality or even of fantasy that depicts life in any fashion (a novel, a motion picture, a news report) is that it is completely free of any coupling with sequential time. Some novels take place over centuries, others, like Ulysses, need many hundreds of pages to cover the events of a single day.

So What?
This is no revelation: everyone knows this. But we usually take it completely for granted. Of course that’s how it works! So what? The “so what” factor here is that anyone writing a book, making a movie, or producing a news report (written or video) must constantly come to terms with the way they choose to portray the passage of time in what they are creating. This is not necessarily something that the creator will decide completely in advance. There may be an initial concept, but this often changes many times as the writing progresses. And of course, each segment of the book or movie or news report will often cover a far different time-span than the preceding or the following time-span. In some cases, two chapters in a book cover the same time-span, each from a different point of view. And then of course there are flashbacks and flashforwards.

So writers, reporters, and film editors become their own Time Lords, orchestrating the natural play-out of real time according to the needs of their story, their plotline, their characters, and their own sense of what will best involve readers or viewers.

A suspension of disbelief may occasionally be required. In the ABC melodrama “Revenge,” the main action takes place at the far end of Long Island, but there are many cases in the story where the action is set in Manhattan. Even in the wee hours of the morning on a cold day in March, when there will be few other drivers on the road, that journey will take nearly two-and-a-half hours; on any normal weekday morning, that trip can take three hours plus-plus. Yet the characters in the show can finish breakfast at 9:30 and be in a downtown Manhattan office well before lunch time. The 2-1/2 hours doesn’t include parking, getting to the building, and riding the elevator to whatever high floor, all of which can realistically add another half hour.

Cause and Effect
This is a practical example of how time in the media is completely unlike real life. But there are other dimensions to explore here, as well. If a reporter recounts an event without a careful accounting for time, cause-and-effect can be confusing, the perspective of those involved in the event can be distorted, and even the meaning of the action can be misconstrued.

Of course, if you are interested in a sports competititon, you are frequently just interested in the “box score” version of what transpired. Some people accuse baseball of being a “slow” game because they don’t really understand it. The pace of the action is not measured in the usual parcels of elapsed time; in fact, there are often very sound strategic reasons to slow down the game while a new pitcher warms up. In games like football, the one-hour game becomes a three-hour extravaganza based on time-outs, clock-stopping, and if televised, pauses for commercial breaks.

So the next time you watch a movie, read a book, or digest a news report, pay attention to the time-frame, time-scale, and time management of whoever produced it. As the kaleidoscope of time unfolds in the medium, does it make valid sense to you? If not, is it “poetic license,” a deliberate distortion, a dramatic device, or an inadvertant slip-up?

As Thomas Wolfe wrote in Of Time and the River, “At that instant he saw, in one blaze of light, an image of unutterable conviction, the reason why the artist works and lives and has his being—the reward he seeks—the only reward he really cares about, without which there is nothing. It is to snare the spirits of mankind in nets of magic, to make his life prevail through his creation, to wreak the vision of his life, the rude and painful substance of his own experience, into the congruence of blazing and enchanted images that are themselves the core of life, the essential pattern whence all other things proceed, the kernel of eternity.”

Which means, in the long run, that the Web of Time is a tool and a weapon in the creator’s arsenal, serving first and foremost the producer’s needs and priorities, a way of “playing God.” Just be sure that in a news story, the reporter isn’t playing fast and loose with the facts as well, either by omission, time-warping, or unreasonable distortion of what you suspect is a much different truth.

It Takes A Year

I discovered rather early on that in order to truly get to know something requires spending a minimum of a full year interacting with it, to experience it in all four seasons. This is true whether this is a city, a neighborhood, a wilderness, or even something more abstract, such as a job or even something like a place of worship or an airline, flying on it in winter, spring, summer, and fall, around holidays, and at times and on days when business people typically fly or when they typically don’t. 

There are at least two essential aspects to this year-long exposure. One is the thing itself, seeing it at dawn on a long summer day, at sunset on a short winter day, experiencing a restaurant when diners come in out of the snow and when families are celebrating a holiday, at mid-day in spring or in an early evening in the fall.

The other aspect is the array of people one interacts with during the course of an entire year: the “regulars” (be they neighbors or colleagues or bosses or employees), the occasional acquaintances who cross one’s path or stop by to see you on the job, the one-shot interlopers who are in that milieu for a specific purpose, the “temps,” the trainees behind the airline counter, the doctor’s “fellows” at a teaching hospital, and so on and so on. 

Nooks and Crannies
One of the main reasons you need a year to get to know something or some place is that it takes a long time to discover all the “nooks and crannies,” the secret passages, the short cuts, that can lead to “ah ha” moments, to a richer, more realistic and in-depth understanding of what something really is, how it relates to and is interconnected with other things, what it depends on, what it ignores, or to what it is antithetical. You need time to explore, and explore some more. 

These out-of-the-way aspects of people, places, and things are essential to a full and rich appreciation of them. They give you a sense of their dimensionality, their underpinnings, their architecture. In fact, make connections, and follow up. If a building appeals to you, find out who the architect was (or the firm), when it was built, what controversies it may have encountered in its conception and creation, and so on. Pursue, pursue, pursue as if it were a Sherlock Holmes mystery. And the wonderful thing is, there may not be a single “answer” or resolution. You are peeling back layers of onions, to get as close as you can to the core, or the kernel of truth at the center of it all, if such be the case. In many instances, for many things, you will conclude there is no one core, no one center, no one right “answer.”

Been There, Done That
So the concept that one has experienced a city because they spent a week there in June, or knows a hotel because they stayed there for a couple of nights, or appreciates an orchestra because they have attended a single concert, is mistaken. They know a piece of it, they have made its acquaintance, but not enough of it to justify saying they truly understand it or can appreciate its subtle nuances. If they attend an orchestra’s spring and fall programs, hear and see it play during the summer (often in a sylvan or outdoor setting), attend special holiday concerts in the dead of winter, and see how it plays under a variety of guest conductors, they can claim a much more authentic knowledge of this organization.

Fill in the blanks for all the other types of organizations, places, or even something as prosaic as a shopping mall, and you can see how it all stacks up. 

Accounting for Change
Of course, there is one other aspect to this that needs to be factored in: the basic issue of “change.” As one gallops through the decades of aging, a year in Provence at age 25 will be experienced differently at age 45 or age 75. I mentioned airlines: they come and go. Cities evolve, styles change, and so on. So let’s say that we get a decade or so of understanding for each year we spend engaged with whatever or whomever it is we are trying to get to know. 

All in all, that’s not a bad bargain. It keeps you on your toes, defies complacency, and assures you that challenges once mastered must be re-approached over time, keeping you active and curious and, essentially, alive!

So there is no “been there, done that.” There is only “once upon a time,” the vital present, and the enticing future. As the cliche says, the only constant is change. But the key element is that it is a multi-dimensional change in the context of getting to know the evolving reality of the many things you are continuously engaged in getting to know.

Every year you get to know yourself differently and better, as well. So all in all, the “year” you take to get to truly know any thing is a year spent getting to know yourself better, those around you, and what Monty Python liked to call “the meaning of life.”

Coffee Culture as a Rite of Passage

Sometimes a cup of coffee has the same Proustian resonance as the famous madeleine from The Remembrance of Things Past. As the protagonist said, “I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object,” We may encounter them by chance, and suddently they “return to share our life.”

When he eats a madeleine as an adult, “once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine… which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden… and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine” and ultimately “the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea.”

This is essentially the power of association, at the subconscious level, where an odor, a taste, or even a texture can call forth an entire milieu from a previous time in one’s life, a time pregnant with meaning and rich with associations.

The Cup of Coffee
One of my Proustian moments of association involves a simple cup of coffee. My parents were coffee drinkers, but when I tried coffee at home as a young teenager, I found that the taste didn’t much appeal to me, either with or without cream, milk, or sugar.

That didn’t mean I would write coffee out of my life altogether. In the summer of 1964, I attended a special one-month program at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, designed to give future teachers real-world experience with the teaching discipline, in order to help them confirm that this was the profession they wished to pursue.

There were classes on teaching in the morning, followed by student teaching sessions in the afternoon. I found the program extremely useful, and although I never ended up as a full-time secondary school teacher, I left Evanston assuming that I would indeed become one.

On the last full day of the program, there was a formal conference-style luncheon for all the program participants and the teachers who ran the program. The set-up was one I would encounter scores of times in my professional life as a systems consultant, attending trade shows and marketing conferences for over 25 years. After the serving of a salad and the entree (often one of two choices), the final course would be desert and coffee. The coffee is almost always brought around in silver-style service pots by a team of servers and poured into the attendee’s china cup sitting in a china saucer. 

When coffee was offered that afternoon in Evanston, I decided to accept it. I remember with vivid recollection exactly how that coffee tasted, and it was nothing like what I had tried at home. It was much richer and fuller-bodied, a truly pleasant experience. At that very moment I felt as if something significant was happening, but I wasn’t sure what it was.

In and of itself, there was actually not much significant about it, other than I became a coffee drinker then and there. But the taste of that coffee acquired in that moment an association for me having to do with possibilities and potential and, in a strange way, with satisfaction, as well. 

In any case, even though I almost never make the conscious association, whenever I have a cup of coffee now, and especially a conference luncheon cup of coffee, at some subliminal level I re-experience that epiphanal moment.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

In another post (The Id in Kid: Building a “SuperEgo”) I discussed how my mother was the task master who monitored the progress of my “permanent record” so that it would achieve the intended purpose of not disqualifying me for whatever I needed to qualify for. She was the “bad cop” to my father’s “good cop,” in the sense that (a) my father rarely referred to my “permanent record,” and (b) he and I had a much more immediately rewarding relationship. 

This manifested itself in two significant ways. First, when I was little (pre-school through about sixth grade), my father would always spend 20 - 30 minutes apiece each evening with my sister and me (we had separate bedrooms), telling bedtime stories, reading a book aloud, or just talking about whatever was on our minds. After about the age of 12, these were discontinued, but in their place I would spend an hour or so each evening (after doing my homework) in the basement where my father had his workshop and study, talking about the day’s events, world events, or especially what he was up to at work as an electrical engineer at RCA (by then at the Sarnoff Labs in Princeton) or regarding his book-binding hobby. These were wide-ranging discussions, and sometimes became a bit of a debate (such as whether “steady state” or “big bang” was the origin of the universe). But they were always very engaging. He also taught me the rudiments of calculus when I was in high school, which was confidence-building for me, and quite a lot of fun.

A Meeting of the Minds
Where my mother and father joined forces was in their embodying the value of continuing education. By the time I was in high school, my mother had earned a B.A. from Rutgers University in Camden and had started in the School of Library Science at Drexel University in Philadelphia (she would eventually become Head Librarian of the Gloucester City, NJ, library — quite an achievement!). 

For his part, my father, who had a B.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Oregon, began work in the late 1950s at night school on a Masters Degree at the University of Pennsylvania (which he achieved in the late ’60s). In addition, with the Russians having launched sputnik in 1957, he decided it made sense to teach himself Russian, which he would practice each night after dinner as he dried the dishes, with the Russian textbook spread out on the kitchen counter.

There was one hilarious incident that brought all of this together in an odd sort of way. One evening when I was in high school, when my mother was out attending night school classes, I had fallen asleep in my bedroom after dinner and awoke around 8 PM. It must have been late spring when the light in the sky at 8 PM might not look that much different from 8 AM. I looked at the clock in a fog, thought I had overslept for going to school (had to eat breakfast and leave the house by 8 AM), and rushed downstairs. As I was about to pour my cereal, I noticed the basement light was on, so I went downstairs and was amazed to see my father at work in his study. I asked what in the world he was doing, why he hadn’t left for work already (it was a 75-minute drive to Princeton), and only when I saw him start laughing out loud did I realize the mistake I had made. We both couldn’t wait for my mother to get home later that evening to let her know the excitement she had missed!

Acronym Anxiety and the Perils of Digital Immortality

These two topics are not the same, but they do share an important link for me. 

First, to introduce Acronym Anxiety, in the summer of 2014, as I write this, Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria have taken over large portions of both countries, terrorizing the population, and rebranding their group, formerly known as “Al Queda,” as “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” or ISIS. 

Ironically, the original ISIS was an Egyptian goddess worshipped as the ideal mother and wife as well as the patroness of nature and magic. Generous, nurturing, and compassionate, she was the friend of slaves, sinners, artisans and the downtrodden, although she also listened to and responded to the prayers of the wealthy, young maidens, aristocrats and rulers. 

But I digress. In 2010, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon formed a consortium they called “ISIS” (for reasons I don’t recall, and which their Website does not explain) to sponsor and support a “digital wallet” to transact mobile payments using Near Field Communication, or NFC technology. Payments would be processed through Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express as credit processing sponsors. ISIS was reasonably well known in the mobile commerce world, but never really gained the traction the partners had hoped. They continued to support it, nevertheless, and were always included in, or at least mentioned in, overviews of mobile wallet platforms and options. 

When ISIS in the Middle East became a media sensation in the summer of 2014, ISIS the consortium recoiled in horror at the “hijacking” of their branding acronym. While this is understandable, it is a perfect example of how acronyms, even if properly registered as trademarks or otherwise protected within communications agreements, nationally or internationally, can come to be associated with nefarious organizations or gain other unsavory and damaging connotations simply by happenstance. 

On July 7, 2014, ISIS CEO Michael Abbott announced that the group would be rebranding in order to avoid association with the religious militant terrorists. As of July 26, 2014, however, the ISIS consortium Website still proudly displays the ISIS logo. 

Another Example
A similar incident occurred with Sam Edgar, a friend and colleague of mine. In the 1990s he wrote a computer program in the order processing field with the acronym of CAM, then later formed a systems development company he called “eta Designs, LLC.”  When I heard about this in an email, followed by a phone discussion, I wryly inquired if he planned to have any connection with ETA, the Basque separatist militants in Spain. After an embarrassed silence on his end, he mumbled something coy and suggested they might help promote his cause, or some such brush-off. But he wasn’t about to change the name of his Limited Liability Corporation, because it wasn’t worth the time or trouble. 

A Web search of ETA shows that it is currently in use by a design firm, a watch manufacturer, and Expert Technology Associates, an industrial design outfit. So ETA lives on in all its guises.

The lesson, of course, is that acronyms can be dangerously confusing or confusingly associated. My own “MSA” or Marketing Systems Analysis,” has quite a few totally different associations with multiple organizations and companies.

If you’re going to use an acronym in your branding, I suggest it be followed by a tagline. Let’s say you are in the real estate business. If your company is Ralston, Harrison Assoctates, or RHA, I’d always refer to it, especially in print or online, as “RHA, the Property Sales Experts,” or something like that. Qualifiers that define can also enhance, and can be a major part of your branding effort.

Of course, sometimes your branding assets can be a lucrative part of your estate. Since I got into the online world early on, I was able to secure the URL of www.schell.com. Much later, a German company, Schell GmbH & Co., KG, approached me to ask if I would be interested in selling the URL to them. Since its value to me was more than financial, I declined their modest offer (and I’m not sure how high they would have had to bid to win me over). Anyway, I have notified my wife and family that after I die, they should strategically handle the sale of www.schell.com to extract the highest possible value from it, which will surely cover funeral costs, perhaps pay for a few nice vacations, and possibly pay off someone’s mortgage.

Which leads me to….

Digital Immortality

Sam Edgar of “eta” fame sadly passed away a couple of years ago at a far-too-early age, from medical complications that he had struggled to overcome for quite some time. He finally lost the battle, and he is sadly missed by many friends and family.

But just this week I received a notification from LinkedIn that he was “celebrating his fifth work anniversary at eta Designs, LLC.”  I knew instantly that this was bogus, and an automatically generated alert that became, alas, an artifact of digital immortality. Nevertheless, it was startling and a bit upsetting. 

The subject of your “digital afterlife” is the subject of a book by that name and of many other blogs, articles, and discussions. The Website “The Digital Beyond” has a nice infographic that lays out all the relevant details, ramifications, issues, and strategies for managing what happens to your digital presence after you die. 

Evan Carroll, the author of “The Digital Beyond,” is a leading expert in this field and a frequent speaker on the subject. I don’t need to belabor it any further (partly because it’s hard to summarize all the subtopics in any meaningful fashion any better than the infographic does). So if you’d like advice, read his book, or email him at evan@thedigitalbeyond.com. And “tell ‘em Groucho sent you” (look it up). 

P.S.
One final note about Sam Edgar and death: I happened to be on the phone with him on Saturday morning, February 1, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia blew up and disintegrated in flames over Texas, killing all seven astronauts aboard. The announcement of the event was flashed on television, which I had muted but left on across the room where I was speaking on the phone with Sam. Of course I told him about it, and we reflected solemnly for a few minutes on life, fate, death, and the beyond.