Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry . . . Whatever . . . Again!

Although the modern reader could be forgiven for interpreting this image as some sort of cutesy multiculturalism in this age of Chrismukkah, the reality is rather different--though there is a connection.

As an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin from 2005 explained, the concept goes back over a century to a time when increasingly assimilated German Jews appropriated Christmas celebrations in their own secular manner. (The original term was Weihnukkah, of which Chrismukkah is just an anglicization.)

In recent decades, the term has become respectable--half-serious and half-humorous--and taken on a life of its own.

This image of the menorah evolving into the Christmas tree comes from a postcard sold by the Museum, and the original intent was critical rather than celebratory. The caption reads:
"Darwinian: Zionist caricature on assimilation, from the periodical, 'Schlemiel' (1904)"
That these issues still arouse strong sentiments can be seen from this rather less subtle blog entry by Jeremy Cardash and its responses at the Jerusalem Post.

In any event, greetings of the season on whichever holiday(s) you happen to be celebrating.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mail Goggles Trump Beer Goggles

Ever written and sent off a text message you later regretted, mainly because you were too drunk or just too tired to think straight? The folks at Google have now come up with a solution, which is the equivalent of the numerical keypads on some cars: an interface that requires you to perform some simple mathematical operations before it will allow you to launch your little Gmail missive into cyberspace:

Reporting on the new service in October, software engineer Jon Perlow included among examples of "sending messages you wish you hadn't": "the time I told that girl I had a crush on her over text message. Or the time I sent that late night email to my ex-girlfriend that we should get back together" and "that late night memo -- I mean mission statement -- to the entire firm."

He adds, "By default, Mail Goggles is only active late night on the weekend as that is the time you're most likely to need it."

Although the new system may reduce the number of embarrassing incidents, it does raise other questions:

• What implications does this have for journalists such as conservative "Vodkapundit" (aka Stephen Green), who "drunkblogged" the political debates this past season?

• And as a historian, I of course have to ask: Would the past have turned out differently, if our forebears had had this technology to force them to pause before dipping the quill in the inkwell or rushing off to the telegraph office? I tend to think first of the winestained eighteenth-century police informants' reports that Robert Darnton discovered in the Parisian archive. But what of the world-historical: Could Mail Goggles have prevented, say, the "Zimmermann Telegram"? The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia in 1914?

• And most important: what can you do about people who show no good judgment, day or night, drunk or sober?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Why the world and your life stink (and part of it's your own fault)

There's a great deal of debate (much of it pointless, some of it merely pretentious) about the supposed relation between the rise of new media, electronic communication, and the decline of civility and real community. Some writers, such as Sven Birkerts, have made of this sort of jeremiad a life's passion. Others, mostly journalists, make a career out of that sort of

Occasionally, the greater insight and best antidote come from the realm of humor rather than scholarship.

From the inimitable

David Wong, "7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable".

Scientists call it the Naked Photo Test, and it works like this: say a photo turns up of you nakedly doing something that would shame you and your family for generations. Bestiality, perhaps. Ask yourself how many people in your life you would trust with that photo. If you're like the rest of us, you probably have at most two.
Even more depressing, studies show that about one out of four people have no one they can confide in.
#1. We don't have enough annoying strangers in our lives.
That's not sarcasm. Annoyance is something you build up a tolerance to, like alcohol or a bad smell. The more we're able to edit the annoyance out of our lives, the less we're able to handle it.
The problem is we've built an awesome, sprawling web of technology meant purely to let us avoid annoying people.
#2. We don't have enough annoying friends, either.
#3. Texting is a shitty way to communicate.
#5. We don't get criticized enough.
Most of what sucks about not having close friends isn't the missed birthday parties or the sad, single-player games of ping pong with the wall. No, what sucks is the lack of real criticism. . . . I've been insulted lots, but I've been criticized very little. And don't ever confuse the two. An insult is just someone who hates you making a noise to indicate their hatred. A barking dog. Criticism is someone trying to help you, by telling you something about yourself that you were a little too comfortable not knowing.
#6. We're victims of the Outrage Machine.
A whole lot of the people still reading this are saying, "Of course I'm depressed! People are starving! America has turned into Nazi Germany! My parents watch retarded television shows and talk about them for hours afterward! People are dying in meaningless wars all over the world!"
But how did we wind up with a more negative view of the world than our parents? Or grandparents? Back then, people didn't live as long and babies died more often. Diseases were more common.

(Hat tip: my clever students)