Cultural differences are very real, and play an important role in education, the workplace, and in relationships.

I came across several articles this past week about these differences dealing with education and other areas.

The ones that most intrigued me look at the differences between the cultures of the East and West.

Two big concepts seem to explain many of the differences: individualism and collectivism.

Individualism is the tendency of the West and it favors the individual, self-promotion and self-worth.

People in the East are more likely to embrace collectivism where individuals are part of a group and the needs of the group come before the individual.

Of course, these are generalizations which often are both accurate and stereotypical.

American saying: The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Japanese proverb: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

Some of the differences I found listed are questionable, maybe even insulting. Do Westerners really believe that there must be one special person in the world just for them? Do. Easterners make a lasting commitment and not give up when their relationship hits a rocky patch?

However, when it comes to education, I do see differences. I taught for many years in a town that had a large Eastern population. My Western students and their families value individual achievement, natural ability and thinking for yourself. .When students fail, the school or a teacher can be blamed.

I can recall several parent conferences with Eastern parents who made it clear that they believed that every student is equal and has the same chance of academic success. Success comes from hard work. They couldn’t understand when we would say that we thought a student was not “an A student” and that if it meant having to study six hours every night, their child could be that “A” student.

I suppose our cultures have given us certain traits and beliefs, but that doesn’t mean each of us can’t be individuals when that works and part of the group when that works.

Trigger warnings are often warnings that a work (book, movie, TV program etc.) contains writing, images, or concepts that may be distressing to some people. The term and concept appeared in the 1990s. Now, you will find feminist websites discussing violence against women posting these warnings.

I really became aware of them when I was teaching at a university and heard about courses at other colleges that had started putting advisory labels on syllabi and course outlines. They were meant to alert students to material that might provoke painful memories.

Years before, when I was teaching younger students, I had parents who wanted trigger warnings (though we didn’t have that term) for novels I was going to teach. I taught a middle school novel called Where the Red Fern Grows which is about a boy and his hunting dogs. I could see a spoiler alert – the dogs die – but a parent was upset because her daughter had a pet dog and she didn’t want her to read the book because the dogs die. Reality alert: pets die.

I saw articles about such instances at colleges, including one student at my own alma mater (Rutgers) who wanted The Great Gatsby to come with this advisory: “suicide, domestic abuse and graphic violence.”


Obviously, almost any sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, feeling or sensation could be a trigger to someone. But trigger warnings are most commonly used for content about sexual abuse and mental illness (suicide, eating disorders, and self-injury are typical reasons).

Few people would question that some material will disturb some people, but critics of trigger warnings feel that they are more indications of a new form of political correctness. Some have called trigger warning creators as “the language police.”

Reporter Jenny Jarvie, writing for The New Republic, says that “What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off.” She also sees the warnings as part of a “wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense” that goes beyond classrooms.

Beyond warnings, she criticized a “safe space” for rape survivors at Brown University. That sounds like dangerous territory to be critical about in this #metoo age. But she described that space as having a childish décor consisting of “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies.”

Another article in The New Republic about the origins of the term questions not the warnings but the efficacy of them. Do they actually do anything positive?

“Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma,” Jonathan Chait rightly notes in his essay “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” published earlier this year in New York magazine. “An analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering.” Safe spaces and the larger trend toward hypersensitivity encourage students to “self-infantilize” and become more “insular,” writes Judith Shulevitz in a piece for The New York Times titled “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas.”

The authors of a new book also believe that the culture of safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses is limiting students’ intellectual development.

In “Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that by purging campuses of ideas, subjects or even people who they may not agree with and make students uncomfortable is doing them a disservice.

I listened to the authors on the CBS This Morning podcast. They feel that parents should do less sheltering of their children at a young age. They also make the case for why we need to be more intellectually humble.

I think the original intent of these warning was good, but it has gone a bit beyond. It is not unusual to hear that a speaker on a college campus has been shouted down or maybe even cancelled from speaking because of protests.

But the rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide on campuses are rising, so don’t we need these warnings?

—on campus as well as nationally. How did this happen?

Does a culture of “safetyism” stunt young people’s social, emotional, and intellectual development? Someone compared this to the overprotection of babies and kids to dirt and germs with antibiotics, anti-germ gels and wipes. A lot of research has shown that children need to be exposed to dirt and germs in order to build natural immunities.

Will children raised in this way have a harder time becoming autonomous adults who are able to self-navigate life?


Iapetus and Saturn

Iapetus, a moon of Saturn, could have its own moonmoon – Image: NASA

I write here frequently about our Moon. Stars are orbited by planets. Planets are orbited by moons. But what if a moon has something orbiting it?

Juna Kollmeier at Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California, and Sean Raymond at the University of Bordeaux, France calculated whether a moon orbiting a planet could have a moon of its own.

“We’re really just scratching the surface here with how we can use the absence of sub-moons to figure out our early history,” Kollmeier told Gizmodo. “I’m just super excited that people are interested in this and I hope more work is actually done with it.” Her research into the matter is still in its early stages, and it has still yet to be reviewed by other scientists, but it could potentially lead to some huge discoveries.

So far, the moon of a moon has no formal name. But we’ll need one when we finally spot one. Some names have been suggested: the rather boring and somewhat demeaning”submoon,” “mini-moon” (very close to Minnie Mouse) and the whimsical “moonmoon.”

Who gets to decide? The IAU, International Astronomical Union, is the body responsible for giving celestial objects their official names.

Earth certainly does not have any moonmoons.

Moonmoons could occur when the large moon is quite large, and the small moon is quite small, and both are sufficiently far away from the host planet. If a moon is close to the mother planet, the moonmoon could get sent to its destruction by the planet’s tidal forces.

If they do exist, it would be at the edges of our solar system or more likely beyond in some place we have not closely observed.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley – image from Literary Witches

It is Halloween month and so I expect to see at least a few Frankenstein decorations and costumes. I’m sure that Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) would not be amused. This is also the 200th anniversary of her novel.

She intended her novel to be more than just fodder for horror films and costumes. The book’s 1831 full title – Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus – hints at that intention.

Some of her themes are as relevant, perhaps more relevant, today. The novel asks many questions about science and social responsibility. It was truly science fiction as she used many ideas that she had heard at lectures she frequently attended.

The novel is often dismissed as something much lighter because of the subsequent adaptations of it in other forms. We usually forget that “Frankenstein” is the doctor performing the experiments, not the “monster” he creates and regrets having brought to life.

We forget that her title, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, alludes to Greek mythology.  Prometheus was a Titan, a trickster figure who defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. But Shelley’s allusion is to the credit he is given for creating man from clay. This god is then closest to the God of monotheism – and Dr. Frankenstein is being a modern-day god. (It is also no coincidence that the monster fears fire more than anything.)

In one introduction to the novel, Mary Shelley wrote:

Every thing must have a beginning… and that beginning must be linked to something that went before… Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.

I had to look up her reference to Columbus’ egg. The term is used to describe a brilliant idea or discovery that seems simple or easy after the fact. The expression refers to an apocryphal story in which Christopher Columbus, having been told that discovering the Americas was inevitable and no great accomplishment, challenges his critics to make an egg stand on its tip. After his challengers give up, Columbus does it himself by tapping the egg on the table to flatten its tip. The story is often alluded to when discussing creativity.

The novel often comes up in conversations about cloning, test tube babies, genetic engineering, end of life and even artificial intelligence. Those instances would please Mary.


add friend button

I read this post on Why Making New Friends Gets More Difficult as You Grow Older and had to stop and consider whether I felt it was true for myself.

Some of the reasons given are pretty depressing.

“As you grow more mature, your morals and standards start to change and solidify. As a young adult, you may have been more flexible and open-minded about some things, but time has worn grooves into your soul.”  Grooves in my soul sounds really bad. Am I less flexible in my views than when I was 22?

I believe my friend-making changed when I stopped being a student and started being an employee. Though I met many more people in my working years than in my student years, the vast majority (probably 90%) of them are better described as acquaintances than friends.

Another article states that “Marriage changes a lot, but kids change everything,” and I would agree with that when it comes to making new friends. Like my working life, getting married and having kids opened up many new vectors to meeting people. Some of them have remained true friends. Most have dropped down on the friend scale. Some people I socialized with a lot when our kids shared mutual activities (school and sports especially), have disappeared from my life now that my children are adults away on their own. Were they really ever friends?  Yes, they were. But friendships, like all relationships, change, evolve, devolve.

The author of that first article says that “Social media is ruining making friends.” I think social media has tried to redefine “friend” (as used on Facebook) to mean someone who we have a very thin virtual relationship with. I have “Facebook friends” that I have never met, never will meet and that I only connect with through an interest. Might we be real life friends if we met in person? Possibly.

A good example is the list of people on Facebook that are listed as my friends because of poetry. A very few of them are people know and see and talk with about poetry (and other topics) regularly. There is a larger group within that list of poets that I have met or at least heard read their poetry in person. I doubt that many of them would recognize me or know my name if we were in a social situation. And there are an even larger group of poetry people who I have never met and will likely never meet in real life. Friends? No.

I prefer when social networks use terms like “follow.” I follow some celebrities on Instagram because I like seeing their images, but we have no friendship at all – and that is fine.

The author of that article is 43, so I have a few decades on her, but I certainly hope this is not true of me.

“Maybe, as we grow older, we just get rusty at making new friends. Think about it. Many of us get married and have children, and for decades of our lives, we see our children as our best friends. No, we don’t tell them this, but we hold this feeling in our hearts, now don’t we… Well, when our children leave the nest, we are left with our mate, or we are left alone. When this happens, we have forgotten how to socialize correctly.”

I haven’t sat down to make a list of who I would consider actual friends versus acquaintances or any other label. It would probably be somewhat painful. I do know that my closest friends tend to be ones I have known for the most years and with whom I still have face-to-face contact, even if that part only happens once a year. I can’t think of any “virtual friend” that would make the Friend list. And that has less to do with me getting older than it has to do with the world getting older.

I hate lists. I particularly had “to-do” lists. I make lists all the time, and I always have a to-do list near my desk.

Lists have been around for  long time. Leonardo da Vinci made lists of things and things to do. George Washington made lists. Fictional characters like Jay Gatsby made lists.

Lists must have some appeal. The horribly-named and just plain horrible online “content” known as the “listicle” seems to get lots of views. “10 Ways to _____” or “The 7 Best _____” or “The 5 Things You Need To Do This Weekend” seem to promise a fast way to better your life. Maybe it is part of the same movement that makes slide presentations full of short bulleted lists so popular. Here are all the answers in an easy to digest package.

I consider the writer and scholar Umberto Eco to be a wise man. He said that “The list is the origin of culture,” when he gave a Der Spiegel interview. He had just curated an exhibition on the history of the list at the Louvre.

That certainly elevates my “Things To Do This Week” notepad writing to a new level.

da Vinci list

Leonardo’s to do list

Eco can explain why we make lists, and I believe him. Leonardo’s lists certainly have taken on importance over the centuries. The lists of inventors and thinkers, such as Thomas Edison’s ambitious to do list, give us another way of considering their creativity and the way their mind planned.

Edison list

One of Edison’s notebook lists

In a book, The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay. , Umberto Eco says that lists are the way we put order to chaos. I know that as I grow older I rely more on lists – shopping, projects around the house, tasks for work lists – than I did before. (Though I have been making lists since my teen years, some of which are in journals from that time.) They do help with he memory. Sometimes. I have been known to scribble on a list something like “Call Harry” and then the next day looked at it and wonder why I needed to call Harry. Was there some specific thing I wanted to tell him, or was it just that I thought it was time to chat?

Lists can be hopeful. Just this week, I made a list of garden ideas for next spring. I guess I plan to be alive in six months.

Lists can be depressing. I occasionally find lists of things I wanted to do from a year or more ago and realize I haven’t done many or any of the things on it. What have I been doing with my life?

I have a love/hate relationship with my lists. But when I finish typing this sentence and hit “publish,” I can cross something off this week’s list, and that I find quite satisfying.


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