Shakespeare Was a Journalist

ds0926_b-1This past Saturday, the world celebrated the birthday of a guy named William Shakespeare. He was born in Stratford-on-Avon in England on April 23, 1564, and died on or about the same date in 1616. Pretty much every reputable Shakespeare scholar and literary historian argues—based on historical evidence—that this William Shakespeare was the author, alone or in collaboration, of the plays we know today. But since at least the mid-1800s, a few of those who love Shakespeare’s plays have insisted otherwise.

Shakespeare, these dissenters say, was just a frontman for the plays’ true author or authors, who were surely more educated, better traveled, and more distinguished than the glover’s son from Stratford. This is a minority view, to be sure, but it’s kind of like climate-change denialism—it’s sustained by a few prominent backers, some real and imagined uncertainties, and we the media’s love of controversy.

I don’t know if it really matters whether Shakespeare the man wrote Shakespeare’s plays. We have the plays, and the play, as someone or other said, is the thing. And as a purely recreational appreciator of Shakespeare, I’m in no position to argue the authorship question point by point (far more knowledgeable people have done so here and here, and the multi-generational back-and-forth is thoroughly summarized here). But as a journalist, I’ve always been annoyed by this kerfuffle.

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Shop Owner! Bring Me a Sheet of Table!

This is the second in a series of posts about learning a foreign language long past the age when it comes naturally (if you missed it, here is part 1 ).  Guest Veronique Greenwood begins at the pro level, with Chinese.

The character for "study," which appears in the words "student," "university," and many others. (Credit: Steve Webel, Flickr)
The character for “study,” which appears in the words “student,” “university,” and many others. (Credit: Steve Webel, Flickr)

A month into learning Mandarin, I notice that something has changed. When I am out riding my bike now, the sea of sound that surrounds me at all times sometimes parts, and words leap out. On my way to teach English to some kids the other day, I heard the word “now” three times. It’s staggering the clarity with which I hear things I would not have noticed a few weeks ago.

On the university campus, the azaleas and camellias are blooming. The place is full of birds whose songs I hear but whom I can never see in the thick foliage. And today it rained like there was no tomorrow, starting with a hiss and rising to a roar as it pounded against the courtyard tiles. I picked my way through leaf litter and bent ferns to reach the teaching building. In the lobby, I encountered an army of umbrellas, like the tents of a very damp invasion force. Spring is definitely here. Up in the classroom, the windows were open, and the calls of the birds distracted me while I was trying to understand a new measure word.

What I’m realizing now, having never thought about it before, is that nouns in English fall into two categories. There are things like “a sock” or “a table,” and there are things that you preface with a unit, like “a cup of water” or “a pound of flour.” You wouldn’t usually say “a flour” or “a water” (unless you were really saying “a [bottle of] water”). If you think about it, you’ll see that English nouns fall mostly into the first category.

But in Mandarin, a huge proportion of the objects in the world, from paper clips to computers, falls into the second. Each is spoken of as if it were part of a greater whole—a drop from the great well of sock or table. To say “a sock,” you must say “one unit of sock.” Continue reading

The Last Word

shutterstock_286988390April 18 – 22, 2016

Guest Veronique Greenwood starts the week with the first in a three-part series of posts about learning Chinese. (Look for the next installment on Monday.)

Erik doesn’t like parenting books, except when he does. And he really likes The Informed Parent. (But he still doesn’t know how to set up the playpen.)

Stories of people risking their lives to leave their homelands might make us think that humans in ages past had it easier. But our species has always struggled to find safe harbor, says Craig. (“Pleistocene stragglers who survived an attack from a dire wolf pack must have fled into the nearest unknown country, unsure if they would find refuge, their eyes as shocked and sharp and exhausted as those now struggling onto the shores of Greece.”)

Rose spends a few days at the Future History Festival imagining what the present will look like from the future. (“Throughout it all, the task was to step outside of your 2016 body and mind, to peer down at it. . . By the second day, the line for coffee seemed very strange to me.”)

I interview a graphic designer who makes art out of science and music. (This post includes a Prince tribute.)



Image via Shutterstock

This is what it sounds (looks) like

KM_WhenDovesCry[1]I’m a recent convert to Instagram as my main form of social media. After spending a lot of the day reading and writing, listening and talking, sometimes I just can’t take any more words. Facebook sometimes seems too complicated, Twitter too fast—but looking at images feels restful. I’ll follow most anything—photos of kids, vacation scenery, what’s for lunch, sketchbooks of working artists—and like it all. On a quick check Thursday afternoon, I saw a friend’s Tarot card, tributes to Prince, a yawning dog, the sunrise in Joshua Tree and a brand-new baby. Even writing that down feels inspiring.

I’ve been particularly inspired by the work of San Francisco-based graphic designer Katrina McHugh. As part of the 100 Day Project—a project that encourages people to make and share creative work and talents—she started a series of infographics called 100 Days of Lyrical Natural Sciences. (For those interested in the 100 Day Project, the 2016 edition started at the beginning of the month, and there’s still time to jump in.)

At first glance, McHugh’s work may seem like illustrations that you might come across in a textbook. But instead of explaining a single phenomenon, like the dew point or the phases of the moon, they’re showing something perhaps more inscrutable: song lyrics. Continue reading

Sankofa Futurism


One of my favorite futurist quotes comes from a 1956 Ford commercial called Design for Dreaming. In it, the main character sings (yes, it’s a musical) the line: “Everyone says the future is strange, but I have a feeling some things won’t change.”

I love this quote for a lot of reasons, and I use it often when I talk about the future. It reminds me that despite all the hand wringing and promises, progress is slow. And there are a lot of things that don’t change about humans. It reminds me that change takes work, it won’t just happen purely as the result of time. I also like to think about flipping the idea around. The future will be strange, but not because it will be so different from the present. But because the present is already incredibly strange.

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Damage Patterns

shutterstock_310271303The other night I was in the midst of writing about the Ice Age when I strayed to the internet. Up came the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography that went this year to New York Times photographers Mauricio Lima, Sergey Ponomarev, Tyler Hicks and Daniel Etter for their coverage of the European refugee crises.

Fresh from writing a paragraph about early boat use — people are thought to have reached the West Coast of the Americas about 17,000 years ago — I was drawn back from the Pleistocene to here and now. The boats that tip over with migrants and refugees now take the lives of thousands. Space on our continents is running out, seas seeded with the drowned of Afghanistan and Syria as survivors by the millions crowd trains and buses, concertina wire propped up as tear gas and rubber bullets fly back across the Serbian border keeping out families and lone travelers desperate for a way through.

A long way from the paleo sciences I’d been scrolling through, these Pulitzer images arrived with startling clarity, railroad tracks turned into a walkway where Syrians pass through Serbia on their way to Hungary, babies hanging from front carriers worn by moms, a man with a young boy on his shoulders, nothing in their hands, nothing to own but a purse, a satchel.

I have seen people walking from Mexico into the Camino del Diablo where the Arizona desert holds their corpses. From mountaintops, they always looked small, so far away they could have been seeds. They carried water jugs, walking north into country they’d never seen. I woke in a canyon bottom to their footsteps. Looking up from my sleeping bag, I saw a train of men passing in the moonlight, water jugs in their hands, weight on their backs. Workers sweeping these borderlands have found hundreds of undocumented bodies, papers gone, names unnamed.

It would be easier to be an archaeologist and to discover in 10,000 years a few footprints preserved in ancient mud, a cache of water bottles buried beneath what was once a tree, disarticulated bones and skulls on the underwater shelves of Lesbos. It would be easier to see all this in hindsight. Continue reading

Book Review: The Informed Parent


Being a new parent is a lot like trying to land an airplane with an engine on fire: barely controlled chaos in which all kinds of people are yelling different ideas in your ears. None of it is all that helpful but no one is volunteering to take the controls either.

How long should you breastfeed? How can I get my baby to sleep through the night? Can I drink alcohol while pregnant?

Someone should really write a book about this stuff. Oh that’s right, someone did. And not just someone, in fact everyone. I would estimate about 50 percent of everyone I have ever met has written some kind of parenting book (the other 50 have self-published social media strategy books).

How can you possibly sort it out? Do you Ferberize or do you co-sleep? Breastmilk or formula? And until when? How do you set up an easy-to-set-up playpen? What is an Apgar score? If I discipline my child can she still go to Harvard? And seriously, how the $#%*ing @%&! do you set up the &$#!ing playpen??

Sifting through the three and a half billion baby books on the market I quickly learned that most of them are less about good science and more about science that backs up whatever the author already thinks. And each one sounds completely right while you’re reading it and like complete crap when you pick up the next book.

Apparently I am not alone in this – Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham were right there next to me in their frustration and confusion over what to believe from parenting research. And so, unlike the billions of other authors out there, they wrote a book I actually wanted to read: “The Informed Parent.” Continue reading

Learning to Talk All Over Again

This is the first in a series of posts about learning a foreign language long past the age when it comes naturally.  Guest Veronique Greenwood begins at the pro level, with Chinese.

The character for "study," which appears in the words "student," "university," and many others. (Credit: Steve Webel, Flickr)
The character for “study,” which appears in the words “student,” “university,” and many others. (Credit: Steve Webel, Flickr)

I slide into a desk at the back of the dim classroom, and the Thai girl in front of me turns around. What’s your name? I ask. Zern, she chirps. My name is Zern. In the next row over, Maged from Egypt, middle-aged with a wedding ring, leans over to introduce himself, too. He asks, have you studied Chinese before?

For me it’s a bit of a trick question. Years ago I listened to six months’ worth of Mandarin learning podcasts, with my husband, a literary translator, hammering the correct pronunciations into my head. But now that we’ve moved to China, those fragments aren’t anywhere close to enough. A girl to the left of me types like mad in Chinese on her phone. I hesitate—I can’t read even a single Chinese character, just pinyin, the pronunciation guide written in roman letters. Can this really be the right class level?

If I were able to speak clearly to these people, here is how I would describe my language ability: I am like a Jewish thirteen-year-old about to have her bat mitzvah, one who doesn’t really speak Hebrew but can pronounce words on the page perfectly. Also, sometimes, thanks to those long-ago lessons, I am like a parrot. When my husband and I are quietly sitting on the couch, I turn to him and speak sounds that rise unbidden to my lips: “Siblings? What country? You’re welcome.” Then I lean in closer and ask, What did I just say?

To Zern, I mumble something about knowing a little. As other people filter in I feel a flutter of anxiety. In the placement exam I took three days ago, I stared into the middle distance while the words washed over me. At the end of a flood of sound, a voice would say quietly, What does the woman want? Another gush of words–I could pick out rice, mountain, car, hotel–and then: What does the man want? I marked nothing on the answer sheet.

The teacher walks in, and turns on the lights. Why were you sitting in the dark? she says. At least I think she says that–the tone is fairly clear, but none of those are words I currently have hanging around in my head. She walks to the front of the class, takes out her notes, and the sea of words rises, submerging me. I open my eyes wider and lean in. Continue reading