Those Who Don’t Know History are Doomed to Lose Money on “Jeopardy!”

jeopardy

The evening game show Jeopardy! is a loose tradition in our family, encompassing three generations. My wife and I watch it faithfully, our son recently tested to compete, and my 93-year-old mom shocked me one night when, out of the blue, she called to breathlessly announce she’d gotten five answers correct. (God love her.)

Unlike most TV game shows, Jeopardy! is less about luck than skill and knowledge. On a recent show, there was a category about European history. One category answer was (WHAT IS) THE MAGINOT LINE?*

Only one of the three contestants got it right. He was Canadian. The other two were Americans.

Fear not, I won’t play the liberal parlor game of bashing Americans and extolling Canadians (as much as I like maple leaf country). Rather, I want to highlight that Americans today, as the Sam Cooke song goes, “Don’t know much about history.” And I will also add literature to history.

I use Jeopardy! as my proof positive because the contestants represent a healthy cross-section of educated people across America. Over many years of watching the show, I’ve noticed they do OK with subjects like science and math, and even better with technology, current affairs, and general trivia. And, like hungry canines, they gobble up modern TV and movies.

alex trebek

If Alex Trebek says “Oh no” for the Daily Double, it’s not only a wrong guess, but probably a dumb guess.

But questions concerning historical subjects prior to, say, the year 1990—and which haven’t been dramatized in a popular Hollywood movie—often result in ringing silence. This includes questions about Americans’ own history, to the embarrassment of Yanks like me.** Beloved Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek (a Canadian-American, and who recently startled fans by revealing he has pancreatic cancer) has also noted these difficulties with historical topics.

Jeopardy! contestants tend to lean toward eggheadedness. Therefore, if they struggle with history, one can only imagine how vacant Wheel of Fortune contestants might be.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author/historian David McCullough (The Johnstown Flood, Truman, John Adams, 1776) has also expressed dismay. A few years ago, after giving a talk at a prestigious university in the U.S., he was approached by a young co-ed who said “Mr. McCullough, until your talk, I never knew where the Thirteen Colonies were located!”

Since history is joined at the hip with geography, knowledge of this subject also seems to elude many Americans. I once volunteered for a local GED tutoring program. One of the other volunteers was a full-time, accredited high school teacher. One evening, I mentioned I’d just returned from running a marathon in Vermont, and she asked me where Vermont was.

(To her credit, though, she was a whizz at algebra and geometry. She also had the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen shamrock.)

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David McCullough, dean of popular histories

Recent statistics show that the U.S. is ill-prepared to remain a global leader through the 21st century. A 2015 Pew Research Center study of 71 countries ranks America 38th in math, and 24th in science, based on worldwide scores of 15-year-old students. Americans’ reading and foreign language skills are also extremely low. Paradoxically, though, more Americans than ever are entering the workforce with a minimum bachelor’s degree.

This discrepancy between low educational scores and a plethora of university degrees tells me that, while high schools may be handing out diplomas like Tootsie Rolls, and colleges are spitting out graduates while adding decimal places to their tuition figures, there’s not much actual education going on. One-dimensional specialization, vocational training, and earning capability, perhaps. But not education. It doesn’t help that university history curriculums include fluff elective classes like “History of Rock and Roll 101.” (I speak from experience, having two kids who wasted our money on this cotton candy.)STEM-Logo

While I applaud leaders like ex-President Obama, who made science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education funding a priority, I’m concerned that other subjects are falling by the wayside. The inference, I think, is that the liberal arts—which include history as well as social and physical sciences, geography, philosophy, English, and creative arts—are “soft” subjects, and aren’t as important. In other words, they won’t insure America’s economic and military dominance. I guess the thinking is that we can accept slipping behind western Europe, and now even Taiwan, regarding education, health care, and environment, as long as we still have a powerful Wall Street and Pentagon.

I may lack certain education and research credentials, but my “man-on-the-street” observation tells me that de-emphasizing a well-rounded education is not only misguided, but also dangerous. I won’t go into the stick-figure political leaders Americans are now electing. I will say, however, that philosopher George Santayana was on the mark with his aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”map_glasses

Unless America returns to its desk from recess and determines that funding education is more crucial than funding an irresponsible notion like a “Space Force,” and schools return to emphasizing a full and healthy course diet—a diet that includes the dreaded vegetable known as History—we will continue to replicate our historical errors, and creep further into a global village version of Skid Row.

And with the handheld computer now a far more insidious distraction and time-waster than television ever was, even the most qualified and dedicated teacher faces an ominous fortification of apathy and indifference.

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* The Maginot Line was a line of French fortifications constructed after World War I and intended to thwart a possible future invasion by Germany. As we now know, it didn’t work. But at least the French tried.

** To avert charges of hypocrisy, Mister Know-it-all here had two good history teachers who probably discussed the Maginot Line many years ago. But Mister Know-it-all forgot about it, and his Jeopardy! clicker remained inactive. Sorry, Mr. Oswalt and Mr. Kozub. But, like the French, I try.

maginot line

Put Away Your Damn Fartphone

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(They) keep you doped with religion and sex and TV—John Lennon, from his song “Working Class Hero”

Last week I was sitting in a co-worker’s cubicle, discussing an art rendering for a project, and I heard a familiar jingle. Is that my phone? I thought, instinctively reaching for my pants pocket. Couldn’t be Dave’s. I’m the only one who still has a non-internet flip phone.

I’ll be darned if Dave didn’t pull out his own flip phone. Later, I told him how good it felt to know I wasn’t alone in shunning the internet phone. He nodded and smiled, then went into something about iPhone costs, and how China was having the last laugh on the U.S.

Then, this morning, I saw a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about how worldwide feelings of loneliness are becoming epidemic, that the U.K. actually has a Minister of Loneliness to deal with this problem, and that studies show a correlation between loneliness and people who regularly immerse themselves in social media. “(E)specially among millennials, the ever-present phone may in part be why.”

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And I recently read a book entitled The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, by Michael Harris. Harris discusses how social media—being able to wire in 24-7—is helping to increase social and political apathy and is reducing our capacity for quiet solitude (absence), which in turn reduces imagination, creativity, empathy, and an ability for sustained concentration (one reason, perhaps, why fewer people now read books).

I’ll add that these devices also cause marked deficiencies in vitamin N (nature), and an increase in bad manners, something I wrote about back in 2013 (click here).

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It doesn’t take a PhD in media technology to see all this. Just go to a restaurant, or walk through an airport, or visit the local park. Or glance at people driving down the road. (But if you’re driving, don’t glance too long). Our obsession with “wiring in” is, indeed, epidemic.

The problem, as I see it, is less about omnipresent digital technology than lack of self-control. Children, obviously, have yet to learn self-control, and it’s incumbent on parents and teachers to develop this ability. If you put a large bowl of M&Ms in front of a child, then leave the room, what do you think the child will do? If you give your teenager the TV remote, and let him watch whatever he wants whenever he wants, do you think he’ll view PBS Frontline for an hour and then hit the books? Hell, do many adults watch PBS??teens

(TV is one of the reasons my parents sent me to boarding school. I guess it never occurred to them to remove the TV and kick my ass outdoors.)

Unfortunately, when it comes to social media, parents and teachers are setting a terrible example for kids and teens. Not only are they unable to refrain from reaching for this digital chocolate, but many can’t even recognize how their kids and students are being doped.

Not long ago, a friend of mine expressed concern that his son was doing poorly in school. I asked him if the boy had a smartphone. “Yeah, I got him one a year ago. But all his friends have one.” The kid was only eleven.

(Then my friend interrupted our conversation because his iPhone rang.)

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One thing that really jumped out at me during the CBS Sunday Morning broadcast concerned Facebook. Boy wonder Mark Zuckerberg’s creation has to be the biggest Frankenstein monster worldwide. There are, undoubtedly, positives to Facebook. But as we’re becoming increasingly aware, there are just as many, if not more, negatives. And one of them is how Facebook, incongruously, actually contributes to loneliness.

lonely girl

“How the hell does this person get so many Facebook friends?” is something I once asked myself. Aside from the reality that most Facebook connections aren’t really “friends,” or at least true friends, and that Facebook correspondence between these “friends” is primarily superficial, there’s also this observation by Dr. Brian Primack of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health:

“People are able to take 300-400 pictures of themselves and post that one that makes them look like they are that much more thin or that much more attractive or that much more successful. The impression from the outside can easily be, on social media, ‘Wow, I can’t measure up with my very normal life.’”

Ah yes, the ever-popular selfie (or “selfish-ie”). Loneliness? How about clinical depression?

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I’ve been accused of being anti-technology, including by members of my own family—all of whom, I might add (other than my 93-year-old mother), own iPhones. However, that’s an unfair accusation. I’m all for advances in responsible medical technology, which extend life and benefit health. In fact, I’m actually looking forward to my procedure next week to remove my prolapsed internal hemorrhoid.

I’m merely opposed to technology for its own sake, to the worship of technology, particularly leisure technology, by creators as well as end-users. And like I said above, it’s usually not about the technology, anyway. It’s about self-control. Too much technology and science, in irresponsible hands, and without self-control—as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein made clear—can be dangerous.

And as author/environmentalist Edward Abbey also noted: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Or the hemorrhoid.

 

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California, Climate Change, and the Calamity of Fire

Smoke rises from a fire near Butte Mountain Road, Thursday Sept. 10, 2015, near Jackson, Calif. Lions, tigers and other cats big and small are being evacuated as California's biggest wildfire continues to spread, possibly threatening the park where they live, officials said Thursday. (Andrew Seng/The Sacramento Bee via AP) MAGS OUT; LOCAL TELEVISION OUT (KCRA3, KXTV10, KOVR13, KUVS19, KMAZ31, KTXL40); MANDATORY CREDIT

The fires have ravaged California for months now. Some are so monstrous they’ve acquired names: Valley Fire, Butte Fire, Rough Fire.

The raging flames that have scorched northern California this past summer are approaching Biblical proportion. About 700,000 acres are now barren and black. Over 20,000 people have been evacuated. Approximately 15,000 firefighters have been sent, in packs, to fight the blazes. In the month of July alone, California spent 23 million dollars fighting the wildfires.

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Charred remains of Middletown, California, after the Valley Fire

An entire town, Middletown, has been destroyed. The magnificent, ancient sequoias are now being threatened. And fire officials say the worst may yet arrive.

Why does California (and to a lesser degree the other 49 states) seem to be increasingly plagued by fire?

From April through October, California experiences a hot dry climate. The state is also graced with large areas of wilderness, national forests, and national parks, which contain large quantities of timber and brush.

But unlike similar dry, timber-laden states, California also deals with the Santa Anna and Diablo winds that gust off the Pacific Ocean. This combination of dry climate, wind, and extensive flora creates an ideal tinderbox condition.

Since 1932, scientists have been monitoring wildfires in California. Of the 20 largest fires, 14 have occurred in the last 20 years. The Valley Fire, which has so far killed five people and injured four firefighters, could possibly be the worst fire ever – once the smoke finally clears.

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Firefighters trying to protect giant sequoias

According to Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, 95 percent of California’s fires are caused by man. Power tools, campfires, cigarette butts, downed power lines, arson, and even gunfire are chief culprits, particularly in more populous southern California. As commercial and residential development pushes more people closer to fire-prone timberlands, wildfire activity will only increase.

The California fires and other U.S. blazes are now on track to make 2015 the worst year for fires in the nation’s history. According to International Business Times, “In the Western U.S., the average annual temperature has risen 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, leading soil and plant moisture to evaporate, rainfall to diminish and snowpack to rapidly melt — all factors that increase the risks of longer, stronger wildfires.” fire graphsCalifornia is now in its fourth year of drought, which has dramatically exacerbated the fire quotient.

And there’s a financial cost. According to the research firm Headwaters Economics in a 2013 report, “Federal wildfire protection and suppression efforts now average more than $3 billion a year, compared to less than $1 billion in the 1990s.”

As temperatures continue to rise, some scientists predict that wildfire activity could actually double in the next 35 years.

And as California Governor Jerry Brown said on Monday, watching helplessly as his state toasted like a giant marshmallow: “This is the future… Climate change is not going to go away.”

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Sources:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/post-apocalyptic-level-destruction-caused-california-fires/story?id=33747518

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34238228

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/16/us/the-california-wildfires-an-escalating-crisis.html?_r=0

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/05/140517-san-marcos-wildfires-california-weather/

http://www.ibtimes.com/california-wildfires-2015-how-climate-change-risky-development-are-raising-costs-us-2098496

drought map

Six Degrees of Hypothermia

blizzard

On December 23, 2010, a 7-year-old girl fell into a lake outside Orest, Sweden.  No one knows what the temperature of the lake was.  But it was very, very cold.  When pulled from the lake, the girl had a body temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Much of the United States is currently in the throes of a winter deep freeze, with wind chills reaching at least 30 degrees below zero in many highly populated  areas of the Midwest.  Hopefully there will be few if any fatalities.  But this is serious and dangerous weather.

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I am just going outside, and may be some time (Capt. Lawrence “Titus” Oates , of Robert Falcon Scott‘s South Pole expeditionary force, as he walked into a blizzard to his death on March 16, 1912)

Each person’s body insulates itself differently.  Fatty tissue, muscle, age, and internal organ health influence how soon the body’s heart and brain will shut down from what’s known as “hypothermia.”  Mental condition also plays a part.  Buddhist monks in Tibet use meditation to raise the temperature of their extremities as much as 15 degrees Fahrenheit.  But every body goes through specific stages of progression to and during hypothermia, or “subnormal body temperature,” before death occurs.

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Doomed 1912 Scott Expedition to South Pole (Oates is back left, Scott is back center)

100.8 degrees:  When one feels cold, body exertion is the logical way to heat up.  One can raise one’s core temperature to 100.8 degrees through exercise.  When I go for a run in the winter, I like to feel a little chill at the start, since I know I’ll be snug and warm after about 5 minutes of running.

98.6 degrees:  But exercise also dilates the capillaries, which transport this excess heat to the skin, then to be expelled from the body.  This is exacerbated by wet clothing.  Body temperature then drops back to the normal 98.6… then lower.

95 degrees:  At 97 degrees, neck and shoulder muscles constrict in what’s known as “pre-shivering muscle tone.”  The brain’s hypothalamus has been signaled to constrict all surface capillaries, sending warm blood to the internal organs but pulling heat away from hands and feet.  At 95 degrees, the muscles contract, causing the body to shake uncontrollably in an effort to preserve warmth.  This is considered mild hypothermia.  Many of us have experienced this state at one time or another.

93 degrees:  Now it gets serious.  Core body heat declines rapidly, with the head alone releasing 50 percent of the heat.  Amnesia sets in, because for every one-degree drop in body temperature, cerebral metabolic rate also drops by 3 to 5 percent.

90 degrees:  Severe hypothermia.  At this point a victim falls into a drug-like stupor.  Below 90, the shivering stops, because the body’s automatic heat-generation system gives up.

86 degrees:  The heart becomes arrhythmic and pumps less than two-thirds the normal concentration of blood.  Due to the brain’s continued metabolic apathy, hallucinations occur.

Below 85 degrees:  At this most extreme stage of hypothermia, people have been known to rouse from their stupor and tear off their clothes due to feelings of intense heat.  The phenomenon is known as “paradoxical undressing.”  Scientists believe this may be the result of constricted blood vessels near the skin that suddenly becoming dilated, causing a severe burning sensation.

There is no exact temperature at which the human body “dies” from cold.  Numerous people have recovered from extreme hypothermia if rescued in time.  Extreme coldness slows the brain’s metabolism, so it needs much less oxygen to survive than when warm.  In many cases, the only long-term consequence of extreme hypothermia is frostbite (the freezing and destruction of tissue), which might, at most, require amputation of fingers or toes.  But this assumes the victim receives immediate medical treatment.

The little Swedish girl miraculously survived.  She was pulled from the brink of death by a combination of slow heating and a heart-and-lung machine.  Her doctor also attributed her survival to her young and developing brain.  Her body temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit was the lowest ever recorded for a living human being.

NOTE:  Much of the information here is derived from the chapter “As Freezing Persons Recollect the Snow: Hypothermia” from the book LAST BREATH: THE LIMITS OF ADVENTURE by author and Outside Magazine correspondent Peter Stark.

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