Back to Earth

January 28, 2009

Today is the anniversary of the Challenger disaster, which occurred in 1986.  Of the seven crew members that died just after the launch of the shuttle, one (Christa McAuliffe) was a school teacher, who was chosen amongst thousand of applicants to participate in a NASA programme to teach from space.  Because she was on board, 49% of American primary school children, including me, were watching the shuttle launch live.  I was in second grade, and I can still remember where the television screen was vis-a-vis the rest of the classroom, and where I was sitting.  I don’t remember what I thought or how I, my friends or my teacher (Mrs. Story) responded, but I know that it was one of several (and by far the most sombre) things that happened in my childhood that grounded me in the brutish side of the adult world.

Some of the other brutish things that stand out in my mind are political, or early forays into the wider world, from the confines of very un-global Pinetop-Lakeside, Arizona, where we lived from 1982 to ’88.  One: the 1984 Presidential election, when I was pulling massively for Walter Mondale and his female Vice-Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, and I watched them lose every state but one. Two:  Hands Across America, a campaign to raise money for charities working with the homeless that intended to build a human chain across the US.  On the side of a highway near aforementioned Pinetop-Lakeside, it was my family, a couple of other people and a sad little boom-box playing the Hands Across America theme song weakly.  I really thought that there would be a human chain stretching as far as the eye could see.

Three: learning that we could no longer launch balloons because popped balloon pieces could kill birds (balloons seemed so innocent).  And finally, missing Halley’s Comet.  Here’s to hoping that the world doesn’t get any more disappointing before our next chance to see it in 2061…


This weekend my husband M. and I realised that our efforts to raise our one year old son N. bilingually are paying off.  Of course we’ve always suspected that he understands both of us, but being good social scientists, this weekend we conducted some tests.  Would he clap his hands if we asked him to do it both in Italian and English?  Yes.  Does he understand other gestures in both languages as well (e.g. bye-bye / ciao is matched with waving)?  Yes.  And even more, does he understand language specific gestures (e.g. the Italian gesture for something being tasty) can also be translated into the other language?  Yes: he understands that if I ask in English whether something he is eating is good, he can respond using the same gesture.  The plethora of Italian hand gestures means that we can keep testing this last one, though it will be harder to test in reverse.

This was all intensely exciting to his two nerdy parents, and reassuring that we have chosen a good strategy in terms of language.  M. always speaks to N. in Italian, and I always speak to him in English.  For now, his exposure to the two languages is about even despite the fact that we live in London, as our nanny is Italian and he sees both sides of our families often.  This is generally the strategy that is advocated by language acquisition experts, but there is surprisingly little information in mainstream baby books / websites about bilingual children.  Most of the US based information focuses on preserving immigrants’ languages in second cultures, and a lot of the information I found in the UK was about “artificially” introducing a second language (e.g. French) to a child, when neither parent is a native speaker.   We sort of went with the one parent, one language strategy because we knew that it what was recommended by other parents, not through any detailed analysis (surprisingly for aforementioned nerds).  And also because it makes sense: who wants to speak to their child in a language that is not their own?

Given that globalisation is about the movement of people, not just the movement of goods, the number of children born to parents of two different nationalities,  who speak two different native languages, must be on the rise (though note that I could not find any hard data on this online).  Certainly it is common amongst the couples we know in London: in some families, there are at least three operational languages as the parents speak two different native languages and speak to each other in a third (usually English).  The kids are fantastic at switching between all three (amazingly to all of us).

There is evidence that children raised bilingually learn language differently.  Whereas mono-lingual babies sort between nonsense sounds and useful sounds early, which affects their babbling, bilingual babies keep their options open as nonsense sounds in one language might be important sounds in the other (this is particularly true when the languages are very different, say Chinese and English).   I’ve been amazed to hear N. make noises which are exclusive to one of his two languages, like “th” in English or “gli” in Italian.

So for globalised babies, double effort in learning to speak.  Our little guy must master not only his mother tongue, but also his father tongue.

Here’s something you don’t see every day: an op-ed in the New York Times written by the one and only Muammar Qaddafi.  In it, Qaddafi very eloquently suggests a one state solution for the Israel-Palestinian conflict, making a number of interesting points about the extent to which the two states are not only historically and culturally linked, but also linked through current politics and economics.

I am exceptionally unqualified to discuss the validity of the arguments he puts forth, but will say two things.  First, it’s brave and smart of the editorial board to have published it.  And second, it seems to be part of a larger strategy on the part of the Libyan government to change its international reputation.  Plus it’s just one more reason the Brotherly Leader ranks tops in my list of favourite autocrats.

Responsibility and Unity

January 22, 2009

Unity has been a major theme in Obama’s previous speeches and campaigning, but it was notable mostly in its absence from the President’s  inaugural speech.  The theme of collective responsibility has implicit undertones of unity, but the idea itself was missing.

Responsibility and recommittment to hard work – a move away from the get rich quick celebrity fantasy culture – were certainly appropriate themes for a country that is facing major economic and social challenges (though I have to say that they came across more strongly re-reading the speech than when I listened live – for once Obama’s delivery made the message more obscure rather than illuminating it).  But I also wonder if President Obama and his boy-wonder speech writer decided to ditch the unity theme because they realised that it will be exceptionally difficult to turn around the highly partisan culture of US politics.

I recently ran across some interesting data on the 50/50 nation phenomenon compiled by a number of political scientists.   The most intersting fact is that while the US public itself is not particularly polarised, the political system is increasingly so.  Obama himself as early as his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech seemed to acknowledge that the divisions between “red states and blue states” were created by commentators and politicians, and did not accurately reflect people’s lives.  “The pundits… like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”

The polarisation of American politics, and in particular the bitter partisanship which characterised most of the 1990s and 2000s in the US Congress, seem to be the result of one long term trend and one shorter term trend.  The long-term trend is the changes that occurred to the base of party support after the Civil Rights Movement.  The Democratic Party’s support for the Civil Rights Bill did, as LBJ predicted, cause them to lose the votes of the south for a generation.   Prior to 1964, the voting preferences of the Congress were centrist, with a set of policies in which representatives in the two parties overlapped in their voting profile.   As the Democratic Party increasingly relied on the northeast / Great Lakes region for votes, this changed, with almost no overlap in the voting records of representatives from the two parties.

The shorter term trend was the changes made to Congressional districting in the 1980s and 90s that created an increasing number of “safe seats” where constituencies were determined by party voting, not by geography.  The impact of creating a number of more strongly Republican or strongly Democratic districts is that a) the average voter represented by the Congressional member has views further from the centre and b) more radical party activists have a greater role in choosing the candidates.  This has furthered the partisanship in the Congress.

All of this implies that solving the “unity problem” does not require President Obama to appeal to Americans common sense of duty and responsibility, but on electoral reform and work within the Legislative branch.  This does not make for a sexy inaugural address.  No wonder they left it out in favour of this…

“In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”

Far more poetic.

How not to do it

January 20, 2009

A sample of some of the worst lines in previous inaugural addresses, thanks to the New Yorker.

Jimmy Carter, rambling on without sense: “It is that unique self-definition which has given us an exceptional appeal, but it also imposes on us a special obligation to take on those moral duties which, when assumed, seem invariably to be in our own best interests.”

Warren G. Harding, being boring and pedantic: ““I speak for administrative efficiency, for lightened tax burdens, for sound commercial practices, for adequate credit facilities, for sympathetic concern for all agricultural problems, for the omission of unnecessary interference of . . .”

James Buchanan, dismissing the importance of slavery as a national issue: “Most happy will it be for the country when the public mind shall be diverted from this question to others of more pressing and practical importance.”

George Bush I with a thousand metaphors, and a thousand points of light: ““Some see leadership as high drama, and the sound of trumpets calling, and sometimes it is that. But I see history as a book with many pages.”

Here’s to hoping that Obama is as transcendental as ever later…