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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Primate's Lament: Notes on a Semantic Misunderstanding

My mood free-fell from enchantment to despair when I discovered that my just-purchased 2007 field guide, What Shat That? (“Your guide to matching feces with their species”) had excluded human scat from its portfolio. There were moose and goldfish, rabbits and rhinos, and 46 other species, but not a Homo sapiens in sight. Perhaps to identify a specimen in the woods, we might consider it human if none of the 50 proves a match? You know, the process of elimination.

Practicality aside, why maroon Homo sapiens from this handy guide and its occupants—even in benign, oblivious neglect? The whole unpleasantness reminded me of one of my pet lexical peeves,  abuse of the word “primate.”  Homo sapiens, of course, along with monkeys, apes, lemurs, tarsiers, etc. are card-carrying members of the primate order. But for many Homo sapiens, primates exclusively connote the hairier, quadrupedal members of the primate club. (i.e., everyone save us.)
Zoologists and others who watch their words deploy the differentiator,“nonhuman primates.” But as the Google Ngram graph below demonstrates, that neologism is way more recent than 
"primate” itself.  (No doubt, the coinage “nonhuman primates” was a rejoinder to sloppy language by human primates.)

Regrettably, the depiction of exclusively nonhuman primates on the covers of most primatology textbooks does nothing to rectify the situation. (The authors and their publishers should know better.)

There are, of course, exceptions:

And, even better, there is this book cover (and wonderful book) by the primatologist and essayist Robert Sapolsky. On the cover, Professor Sapolsky, primate, is at one with his and our heritage.  

Judging by his photo, I used to think Sapolsky was just a freaky guy. I still believe that, but I also think he is walking the primate talk—on behalf of us all. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Scenes from Cold War Dentistry

During my wonder years in Worcester, Massachusetts during the 50s and 60s, my dentist father became my “Uncle Tungsten” (homage to Oliver Sacks).  For me, his dental practice was a key supply chain node for my unventilated home chemistry experiments. While still in primary school, I got to know mercury first-hand (literally) via the “Mexican jumping beans”  that he brought home—mercury inside taped pill capsules. Their random saltations were entertaining, but no match for the tactile thrill of cutting open the caps and fondling quicksilver as the Lord intended it to be fondled.

More frustrating were my failed attempts to ignite asbestos squares filched from his office lab. In a more positive light, I secured all sorts of neat ingredients for my chemistry set, like the winning combination of iodine and magnesium powder. (see below) 

The “office” offered opportunities for physical as well as chemical changes. As an eight-year old, I gave little Stevie Rubin a ride on a dental chair in an unoccupied room. He insisted on going to the top. When he reached the summit and I flashed an extractor, he interrupted my father and legit dentistry in the next room. (The lesson here is never to climb Mount McKinley without a well-conceived plan for your descent.)

Public Policy Diversions
In Worcester, my father was a hapless proponent of fluoridation, tasting defeat in referendum after referendum. “But Leo,” my maternal grandfather queried, “hasn’t losing those contests been good for business?” Worcester remains unfluoridated in 2015. Dr. Strangelove's Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) would have approved:  No adulteration of precious bodily fluids in Worcester, a.k.a. the Heart of the Commonwealth.

Dentists in Worcester and, for that matter, all 49 states (Hawaii was still a territory), did, however, taste public acclaim in  September 1959, when the American Dental Association, including my father, gathered at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel for their 100th annual convention. According to  Peter Carlson, author of that road movie of a book,  K Blows Top, it was the largest assemblage of dentists in history, more than 30,000 strong.  

As the convention convened, the  ADA’s president received letters from New York mayor Robert Wagner and State Department chief of protocol Wiley T. Buchanan demanding that the dentists give up the Grand Ballroom on the 17th so that Wagner could host a luncheon for Khrushchev.  The ADA’s president was defiant and Wagner and Buchanan caved.
Stubborn Dentists Won’t Be Yanked, proclaimed the Chicago Sun Times.
Khrushchev's hosts moved the luncheon to the nearby Commodore Hotel and the dentists emerged as Cold War heroes.  For many who had rightly viewed 1950s dentistry with dread, it was deeply satisfying to imagine the profession’s perio probes, water picks, and hatchets trained away from them and toward Mr. Khrushchev. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Thought Experiments in Noticing

[click on photo to enlarge]

We were both gazing out the same office window, but it was my friend, a behavioral scientist, who in a blink, noticed the striking contrast in washed versus unwashed stained glass windows 50 yards away. Previously, neither of us had suspected stained glass.

The Quartet

Looking up from my morning coffee, it was me—not my three confederates—who noticed this unlikely quartet. The two guys—behemoths at around 6’5”—didn’t acknowledge each other; their unlikely juxtaposition must have been random, not due to networking via basketball or pro wrestling.

Each was framed by a significant other to his outside, adding symmetry to the intrigue. But it was a funky symmetry. The woman on the right looked like a reasonable match in altitude for her companion. But the woman on the left must have come up short by a full foot and a half, lending credence to the adage that love and a good step ladder conquers all.

The range of human height is one of many odds and ends that fit neatly into a normal distribution, with most of the data points clustering in the middle 2/3 of the curve. Typically, the distribution’s tails go only so far, dictated by unspectacular constraints of human height.  Much of my caffeinated response, then, must have been about the overall configuration—the added combination and permutation of its curious elements. I suspect I won’t be seeing anything like that again soon, especially since the principals never exchanged LinkedIn invitations.

Noticing Pays

From the Daily Hampshire Gazette October 1, Amherst Massachusetts:
A North Pleasant Street woman contacted police at 6:23 a.m. Thursday to report she could not find her husband at home, even though his keys and wallet were still there, and could not reach him by calling and texting his cell phone. She called back a short time later to let police know she had found her husband sleeping in a bed.


In her book, On Looking, Alexandra Horowitz takes separate strolls around Manhattan with an urban sociologist, a geologist, a physician, a sound designer, a dog, and six other experts. In their company, she notices a wealth of different things. The moral: seek out fellow travelers with different perspectives; different skills from your own. Inspired, I have a date this afternoon to tour local infrastructure with my urologist.

Half the Quartet returns for an encore