Category Archives: This Blog

glas2Hello to all the readers of The 100 Billionth Person.  This is Ira Glass, host of the NPR radio show This American Life.  I know I look a little different in this picture than you may remember, but I have had some work done.  A lot of work.  I think I’m going to sue.

The reason for this message is to ask you, listeners and readers, to subscribe to this blog.  As you know, I am a very well-connected guy, and I have a lot of cool and nerdy friends.  Craig H. Collins, the writer of this blog, would like to be one of them.  Maybe he can be, someday.  But first, I told him, you have to be better known than you are.  I may be cool, but it doesn’t mean I hang with just anyone.

It takes work to put together a cool, laid-back, quirky radio show like This American Life.  Yes, this blog can be quirky too, I see that.  But I told Craig, if you want more subscribers, you have to stop doing things like denigrating cats and praising atheists.  It just alienates ninety percent of your readers, and the other ten percent don’t want to be reminded.

Another tip I gave Craig, based on my twenty years of success as a public radio show host, was to find some corporate sponsors.  I get paid by the people and corporations who I guilt into donating to public radio.  I don’t make anything from subscribers.  I don’t know why Craig wants subscribers and not sponsors, but I told him I will do what I can here.

Finally, Act Four.  I told Craig that he has to tell more stories on his blog.  And they should have something to do with cats, or his neurotic mother.  In fact, I think he should just ask David Sedaris to be a guest-writer on the blog.  Not that David would be interested.

Well, this is all the time I have.  I have other cool, nerdy and important things to do today.  So please subscribe to this blog.  I told Craig to get back in touch with me when he gets a thousand subscribers, and we can talk about being friends.

Cheers, Ira

P.S. to Craig — why not post a few cat photos, it can’t hurt.

Cat by Craig H Collins

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No. 400

This is the 400th post on The 100 Billionth Person.  I thought I would have arrived at this milestone a little sooner, but it’s been a busy year.  I also decided this year to write fewer my-reaction-to-events pieces and more long-form walks through my garden of earthly interests.  Both factors have reduced my post count — with mixed results, I think, but you be the judge of it.

400bpI did not compile a video retrospective to mark my 400th post as I did for my 300th (watch it here).  First, there is the BTDT factor.  But more than that, it would be too minor of a celebration for someone like Christopher Hitchens.

It is his familiar and inviting yellow book-binding that I see once again on my side-table — this time, the work is Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens (2011).  This volume is his penultimate collection, comprising well over one hundred of his reviews, essays and editorials.  Each bit of Hitchens I have read is arguably more substantial than any twenty of mine considered together.  I enjoy and envy his expansive knowledge and fearless choice of interesting words.

So some humility on my part is fitting and proper for my comparatively lesser level of talent.  That said, with this post, I have published a (humble) total of 161,500 words on The 100 Billionth Person.  This is the equivalent of one War and Peace by L. Tolstoy plus one Les Misérables by V. Hugo plus one The Brothers Karamazov by F. Dostoyevsky.  Impressive company, wouldn’t you say.  In fact, I was just talking to the Freethinking Monsieur Hugo the other day, and we agreed to ask Hitchens to meet us in the afterlife somewhere near the Pantheon in Paris — being that Hugo is not getting around so well these days — for un café or, in Hitchens’ case, trois Johnnie Walker.

I still like to write – it is fun to put ideas together in the same room and see what happens when they wander out to the back porch together to drink a beer.  I especially enjoy doing research for my posts, as it invariably leads to my reading more interesting things than whatever it is I am writing.  For me, those secondary gains far outweigh the usual reason that a writer writes — to be read by an involved audience.  Good thing too, considering the size of my audience.  My wife laments how little I do to increase readership.  So it goes.

Four hundred: a number insignificant in all ways except for some obscure rules about leap years.  These so-called milestone numbers are like birthdays for old people – something to make note of and be thankful for, then get up and move on.

__________

* Four hundred is also the number of legs on a four-centipede bobsled team.
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On Sydney J. Harris

I’ve mentioned Sydney J. Harris in a number of previous posts here (feel free to search).  In my early teens, I was enamored with his nationally syndicated column Strictly Personal and the idea of writing one like it myself someday.  In fact, my Thoughts at Large posts were named after his similarly-titled columns (where the resemblance more or less ends).

Sydney J HarrisSince I kept citing Harris as one of my inspirations, I thought it might be prudent to re-read his writing as an adult, to see if my recollections were valid.  So I ventured into his book of Strictly Personal columns from 1975 to 1981, titled Pieces of Eight for no obvious reason.  It is a compilation of short essays with pertinent thoughts-at-large inserted here and there as punctuation marks.  My thoughts (along with excerpts) follow.

• One can hardly argue with the clarity and readability of his essays.  They were just the right length for Harris to introduce an idea, make his point or observation, and then leave the stage before the endeavor grew stale.  While many bloggers — myself included — often allow opinions to turn into rants, Harris was a craftsperson with admirable discipline, as newspapers of the time demanded.

The pessimist sees only the tunnel;  the optimist sees the light at the end of the tunnel; the realist sees the tunnel and the light — and the next tunnel.
Our opinion of others depends far more than we like to think on what we believe their opinion of us is.
Most of us are incapable of arguing aboout principles without soon involving personalities.
Asked why he wrote his recent autobiography, the behaviorist [B. F. Skinner] explained simply, “In order to make people love me.”  This laudably candid reply recalls Stephen Leacock’s remark that the true title of every lecture is “How to Be More Like Me.”

• Some of the topics he covered seem dated now, as you might imagine.  The collection is in many ways a time capsule: opinions that may have been considered forward-thinking or controversial at the time now come across as conventional, even pedestrian.

Psychologically, one of the most important reasons for seeking more female leadership in national and world affairs is that a woman would not feel her womanhood was at stake if she dealt with crises in a sympathetic and conciliatory fashion.  This is not to say she always will; but it is to suggest that the man’s fear of appearing weak is not a built-in component of her nature.
Terrorists are made, not born, and are heroes to themselves, willing to die to vindicate their cause.  They can be killed, but there is no way to extinguish the past.  All of us, innocent though we may feel, must suffer for the sins of our fathers…

• What bothered me as I read Pieces of Eight is how often Harris adopted the fatherly, authoritative tone of the 1950s and 1960s and made pronouncements on what is good, what is bad, what is important and what can be dismissed — perhaps a carryover from his other role as a drama critic.  Here are some disappointing examples from the book:

Offstage, most actors and actresses are not at all the vivid and colorful figures they seem to be. Only a few are distinct individuals; the others are bland and neutral personalities with little to say, and that little is generally dull.
The contractor sent around two sullen, slack-jawed young assistants to do some repair work on the tennis court across the road.  They brought with them, inevitably, as standard equipment for the job, a powerful portable radio which kept blasting away for a full afternoon.  Call me any ugly word you will, such as snobbish or elitist, it remains my firm and unshakeable opinion that such people are as close to the moronic line as it is possible to get and still function in a social order.

This is a stance I would never emulate — I do not sit in a superior place.  I have opinions but they carry no authority of their own unless others consider them and agree.

• Looking back, Harris could be remarkably pompous at times:

If some people seem to have more good luck than others, it is mostly because a lot of what we call bad luck is determined by the contour of the personality rather than a mere accident or chance.
No other nation I know of is so thoroughly capable of laughing at itself as the English, which is one of the truest tests of a genuine civilization. While the Germans, who are so publicly radiant with gemütlichkeit, have virtually no sense of humor about themselves, as their dark history testifies.

• Like most people, the parts I liked best were the ones that said things I already thought, thereby validating them, and me:

When we are young — say, eight years old — a year represents a full one eighth of our total experience, and even more than that,  for few of us remember back to our infancies.  It is an enormous amount of time in proportion to the little we have known.  By the time we hit forty, a year is only one fortieth of our total experience.  Objectively, it is the same twelve-month segment, but subjectively it is only a small fraction of our remembrance of things past. …  And each year, of course, the amount of experience we add is decreasingly smaller in proportion to the grand total.  So it is not entirely an illusion, or the faulty mechanism of a failing mind, that year by year time seems to increase its pace.

Aphorisms may be out-of-fashion now, but that is what Sydney J. Harris was known for, and that is what he got paid for.  He still has many fans.  That said, life is not nearly so black-and-white to me as it seemed to Harris.  There are few statements about our world and its inhabitants that I would dare make as definitively as he did, day after day, in his Strictly Personal column.

What I learned from reading Pieces of Eight is that I have learned what I needed to learn from Mr. Harris, and our styles differ more than I had imagined, and it is now time for me to thank him and move on.

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