About Ponderer

Ponderer also writes science fiction and science-inspired rhyming poetry. Check her out at katerauner.wordpress.com/ She worked at Rocky Flats for 22 years - you may know her as Kathy London.

Preaching to the Choir – a much safer audience

This phrase refers to attempts to convert someone who is already a believer – that is, a waste of time. According to Phrase Finder, this is a fairly recent phrasing, originating in the United States, based on an older version.

The first reference is from The Lima News, Ohio, January 1973:
“He said he felt like the minister who was preaching to the choir. That is, to the people who always come to church, but not the ones who need it most.”

An earlier English version dates back around a century further and is first cited in a letter to The Times in November 1857:
It is an old saying that to preach to the converted is a useless office, and I may add that to preach to the unconvertible is a thankless office.

It was subsequently made popular by John Stuart Mill.

Something Very Few of Us Literally Do

When recommending someone avoid rushing into an activity, we still say “Hold your horses.” This is a modern spelling of the idiom. As Wikipedia says

“Hold your hosses” (‘hoss’ being a US slang term for horse) appears in print that way many times from 1843 onwards… The first attested usage in the idiomatic meaning [came] from Picayune (New Orleans) in September 1844, “Oh, hold your hosses, Squire.”

The literal meaning is older:

In Book 23 of the Iliad, Homer writes “Hold your horses!” when referring to Antilochus driving like a maniac in a chariot race.

It seems strange that the idiom has survived the arrival of motorized vehicles, but there is a modern variation: cool your jets, which Stackexchange says originated in the US and was first quoted in a newspaper:

1973 Daily Tribune (Wisconsin Rapids) 29 Jan. 1/1 If you want to cool your jets, just step outside, where it will be about 10 degrees under cloudy skies.

Frugal Future Happy or Horrifying?

Our economy is built on consumerism – an expanding population buying more stuff every year. If that changes, what would the future look like? If consumer demand declines production would decline with it, and as jobs dry up wages and consumer demand would fall further. There’d be no place to invest capital since businesses would not need to expand. Low wages, bubbles wiping out savings from time to time. We’d see empty housing and shrinking bankrupt towns as people consolidate into major cities.

This isn’t as crazy a concern as you might think. The recent Great Recession offered a taste of life in a failing economy. It made people angry and fearful as well as poorer. And population decline is happening today with the aging of Japan. Fertility rates are dropping while the percentage of old and elderly increase.

A range of economic and cultural factors contribute to Japan’s decline in childbirth: later and fewer marriages, poor work–life balance, increased participation of women in the workforce, a decline in wages and secure employment, small living spaces, and the high cost of raising a child.

Although most married couples have two or more children, a growing number of young people postpone or entirely reject marriage and parenthood. [wikipedia]

Wags have even calculated when the last Japanese baby will be born: the year 3011 (which allows a lot of time to ponder the issue) and offer more causes: men called “herbivores” who are not interested in sex, young women who prefer being single and child-free, and a preference for “virtual” friends among younger people.

Japan leads the way, but other countries are on the same path – including America (where immigration hides the trend.)

I think of America’s shrinking rural towns (like my own) and the Rust Belt. Those areas are responding to a loss of jobs, but what will happen when there’s a nationwide loss of people who need to buy stuff and services?

If automation and robotics keeps production high, maybe stuff will get cheaper and those people who are left will live like kings. But Japan’s economy has been stagnate for decades and the cost of living remains high.

Of course, human beings are complex. Germany has one of Europe’s lowest fertility rates and seems to have a robust economy. Both low fertility rates and emigration affects Eastern Europe, so they may look more like America’s Rust Belt than like Japan.

Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, in contrast, have population booms. As their people spread across the world – as they no doubt will – cultures will change everywhere. It’s historically appropriate to expect the next great tide of human migration to come Out Of Africa.

I’m sure the Great Depression, which forced so many families off their subsistence farms, was a disaster for those who lived through it – but how many of us would go back? From the other side of whatever shift is coming, I optimistically assume that you and I will be an unlamented barbaric past.

I recently heard a TV interview with Emrys Westacott, author of The Wisdom of Frugality-Why Less is More.

For more than two millennia, so many philosophers and people with a reputation for wisdom have been advocating frugality and simple living as the key to the good life… [but] most people have ignored them.

Perhaps people in the future will take those philosophers up on their advice. But it’s scary. As Scott Adams’ cartoon character Dilbert once said, “Change is good. You go first.”

Disease and Rumors Spread Like Wildfire for Centuries

Sources agree on the definition: something that quickly affects or becomes known by more and more people. Rumors, diseases, and memes can spread like wildfire. But only dictionary.com offered anything on the origin.

In the twelfth century the term “wildfire” referred to a skin disease (if it was highly contagious,  the modern usage for disease sounds like it has a very old origin) and the “figurative sense is recorded from c.1300.” includes several historical examples, but all modern – for example, from The Messenger by Elizabeth Robins, 1920. News can fly and flee, as well as spread, like wildfire.

21st Century’s Biggest Challenge Found in a Casserole

Ah, the holiday season! We gather with friends and family, and wonder if the pot-luck meals are going to kill us – if not by design, then by carelessness or ignorance. Does Aunt Alpha dismiss your worries over chemicals? Does Uncle Beta laugh as he shovels in another helping of some comfort-casserole first baked during the Great Depression?

I ran across an interesting article at slate.com about BPA, a chemical commonly added to plastics in contact with food to prevent corrosion or suppress bacteria. In high enough doses it can “cause adverse health effects by interfering with how our normal hormone systems work.” The author, Michael Holsapple, is a professor at Michigan State who studies food safety. He’s written an interesting article and I hope you’ll read it for yourself.

Holsapple reminds us of an important detail:

When considering the safety of any substance, it is important to understand what is known as a ‘dose-response relationship.’

As the dose of a potentially harmful chemical we are exposed to increases, so, too, does the severity of the harmful response. This means the relative safety of almost every substance—even water or oxygen—is a function of the dose to which we are exposed. Importantly, this also means that the mere presence of a chemical does not mean it will be harmful.

Consumer fears about BPA have led some food companies to replace it with other chemicals that are not well understood, just so they can boast “BPA-free” on their products. Their replacements could turn out to be more dangerous than BPA since

A 70 kg person, or about 154 pounds, would have to consume over 14 cans of cream of mushroom soup, or over 64 cans of green beans per day to be vulnerable to adverse health effects associated with exposure to BPA.

We live in a world flooded with misinformation, but it’s impossible for any individual to research everything that pops up on their favorite news site or – even more questionable – blog. There was a time when we looked to experts in academia or government to sort through it all for us, but public faith in such sources is low. RF_Alum has grappled with this issue at Rocky Flats, and his first-hand, personal knowledge doesn’t seem to comfort people once their fears are aroused – just check out the book reviews he mentioned here.

“You’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts.” A statement we can all endorse. But finding those facts and getting us all to share them may be the biggest challenge of the 21st Century.

BTW – it’s pretty well established that daily overeating and a couch-potato lifestyle will hurt you, so keep that green bean and mushroom soup casserole as only an annual treat.

Can Perception Become Reality?

There’s a lot of discussion these days about how the media influences people – whether the stories are real or fake. I ran across an interesting example that predates our current political mess by decades: Mad Gasser of Mattoon in 1944

ANESTHETIC PROWLER ON LOOSE
Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims
Both Recover; Robber Fails to Get Into Home

Even for a newspaper, that’s a lot of assumptions: first, that these were only the “first” victims; second, that the prowler was using some sort of anesthetic; and third, that he was a robber. But it was enough. Within days, several more people called police saying that they too had been attacked by the prowler they read about in the newspaper. Their stories were published in the paper on September 5, owing to no publications on Sunday and the Labor Day holiday.

And that’s when the real melee began.

MAD ANESTHETIST STRIKES AGAIN

STATE HUNTS GAS MADMAN

[Then] the character of the newspaper reports changed dramatically. The headlines became: THE MANHUNT FOR MR. NOBODY

And as soon as that became the tone, suddenly there were zero more police reports. skeptoid.com

No residue of gas or lasting symptoms were observed, no gas is known to cause all the symptoms reported, and no prowler was ever caught – though there is an anecdotal suggestion that the initial attack could have been real.

In 1945 the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology published one research article on the Mad Gasser. Graphs of newspaper space in square inches compared to the number of reports showed a very apparent effect. If the morning newspapers dedicated more space to the Gasser, more reports came in that day. And during that initial 2-day Labor Day publishing break, no gassing was reported.

It’s depressing to think people can be manipulated so easily.

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon became one of the most famous case studies in mass hysteria. skeptoid.com

This was a small event in a small town during wartime, and it was over in a couple weeks when the local newspaper moved on. Consider Americans today, reading and viewing stories aimed at an agenda, whether pushed for ideological or financial reasons. Over and over, day after day. Maybe a single story gets repeated a dozen times – it feels as if it happened a dozen times.

As individuals zero in on fewer outlets, they get caught in the “echo chamber” of their own fears, hopes, and biases. Depending on which rabbit hole each of us chooses to fall down, we end up in “living” in different worlds.

No one can save us from ourselves – the answer must come from us.

Down the Rabbit Hole

I was fairly sure I knew where the expression “down the rabbit hole” comes from – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carol, and her entry into Wonderland by following a white rabbit and tumbling down his hole. But I was curious how it became a metaphor for any entry into the unknown, the disorienting or the crazy-making.

The slang expression arose in the drug culture for a psychedelic experience. Although I didn’t find a citation for its first use, the phrase has spread.

We mean that we got interested in something to Juliasetsdkpictfield3 (400x300)the point of distraction—usually by accident, and usually to a degree that the subject in question might not seem to merit. newyorker.com

The New Yorker’s writer goes on to attribute the current popularity of the phrase to the internet, and explains why it perfectly captures what happens to us as we surf. Fun article.

Stackexchange.com warns against the mistake of diving for a rat hole when you meant a rabbit hole. A rat hole is a North American phrase for a waste of money or resources, which are commonly “poured” down the rat hole in a short-sighted move. That’s a bad trip.