TWO FREE THESIS TOPICS.

For any student, especially of linguistics or history, in need of a thesis topic, here are two ideas that Dr. Boli had thought might make fascinating treatises, but which he has no time to address among all the other long treatises he intends to write.

  1. The fact that French has a first-person plural imperative form explains the French Revolution.
  2. The fact that Latin has third-person imperative forms explains the entire Roman theory of government.
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A VERY POETIC TELLER MACHINE AT THE VATICAN.

Photo of a Vatican City teller machine by Seth Schoen, who has released it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In one country in the world, you can use a teller machine in Latin, which makes Dr. Boli happy. The Google translation of the words on screen (click on the photo to enlarge it) makes him even happier. Dr. Boli knows that Google Translate’s Latin translations tend toward the surreal, so he had to find out what Google had to say in this case. Dr. Boli interpreted “Inserito scidulam quaeso ut faciundam cognoscas rationem” as something like “Please insert card for operating instructions.” But Google interprets it as “I beg you to do anything you know them to the character of a card inside the mouth.” That is much more poetic than Dr. Boli’s interpretation.

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THE SINGULAR ASPECT.

TWELFTH ANNIVERSARY.

Dr. Boli has traditionally celebrated the anniversary of his migration to the World-Wide Web by reprinting the first story he ever published in electrical form. Having missed a few anniversaries is all the more reason for celebrating this one.

A MAN WALKED into Abelard’s office the other day and announced that he had a singular case. Our morning had begun with tea, as usual, but I had hardly poured the first cup when the office door opened and the man with the singular case walked in.

It is well known by now that Magnus Abelard deals only with singular cases, so everyone who walks through the door announces that he has a singular case. Nevertheless, the door is, by Abelard’s explicit command, never locked; and this case really did turn out to be singular. I have taken the trouble, therefore, to record it among Abelard’s most remarkable achievements, in the hope that the record will serve as an imperishable monument to Abelard’s genius.

We began with the usual formalities. I informed our visitor that he would have ten minutes to convince Abelard of the singularity of his case. I also explained the payment schedule in the unlikely event that Abelard did pronounce his case singular. Abelard did not speak during the proceedings; he never does speak until some singular aspect of the case has caught his attention.

“Mine is a singular case,” the visitor began as I took notes. “Indeed, it is so singular that I have not spoken with anyone about it until now. I have lived for ten years in fear for my life—a fear all the worse for being secret. I have not dared reveal it to anyone, and yet it eats at me, day after day, hour after hour, like a kind of parasitic creature that gnaws but cannot consume.”

“You have nine and a half minutes,” I reminded him.

“Ten years ago, my wife, to whom I had been married only a month, announced that she had a few purchases to make, and declared her intention to walk to the drug store on Murray Avenue. She would be gone for about an hour, she said. I bid her farewell; she walked out the door; and that, Mr. Abelard, was the last time I ever saw her.

“I shall not weary you with the details of my inquiries. Over the years, I have found opportunities to interrogate our neighbors and the clerks at the drug store. From their statements, I have discovered that my wife did indeed reach the drug store; that she left and turned right on Murray Avenue; that she was last seen walking on Phillips, the very street on which we lived, in the direction of our house. But she never arrived.”

Here the visitor stopped; and, as Abelard was still silent, I knew the narration had not interested him enough for him to take the case. It was therefore incumbent upon me to disappoint our visitor.

“Disappearances such as the one you describe,” I told him, “while exceedingly regrettable, are not extraordinarily uncommon. Perhaps the city police, or a less specialized private agency, might be able to render you some assistance.”

Our visitor sat back in his chair and sighed. “I have not yet revealed to you,” he said slowly and quietly, “the singular aspect of the case.”

Abelard leaned forward. This statement had at least caught his attention.

The visitor took a deep breath, appeared to think for a moment, and then continued, picking his words with care and deliberation.

“About an hour after my wife left, a woman entered my house by the front door. She entered boldly—as if she owned the place, you might say. Now here is the singular and remarkable thing: in every particular, this woman was the exact image of my missing wife. Even her clothes were the same as the ones my wife had been wearing when she left. She proceeded to make herself quite at home; she treated me as though she were actually my wife.”

Here the visitor leaned forward and lowered his voice about a fifth. “For ten years, Mr. Abelard, that woman has inhabited my house, living in every respect as though she were my wife. For ten long years, I have lived in fear, utterly convinced that this woman in my house is somehow deeply involved in the mystery, and afraid even to sleep at night—afraid I might fall prey to the same sinister forces that took my beloved wife from me. The fear is tearing at my soul, sir, and I have at last resolved that, whatever the cost to myself, I must unravel this mystery.”

A moment of silence followed; then Abelard spoke for the first time.

“And how exactly was it that you knew this woman was not really your wife, returned from her shopping trip?”

The visitor started forward; then he sank slowly back in his chair, staring straight ahead.

“Good lord,” he whispered hoarsely.

Abelard observed him closely.

“Good lord,” the visitor said again, somewhat louder this time. “I never thought of that.”

He sat upright in his chair with a new air of confidence. “Well, sir, you certainly have earned your reputation. I never would have imagined that a mystery of such devilish complexity could be unraveled in such a short time. I shall certainly be recommending your agency. You may expect a check from me in the morning, although you must be aware that no remuneration could ever express my profound gratitude. I bid you good day, and once again I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Abelard watched him walk out of the office with a jaunty confidence that had been completely foreign to him only minutes before.

For some time after, Abelard was silent, as though lost in thought. At last he turned to address me.

“Perhaps,” he said, “we ought to reconsider the idea of locking the door.”

NoteIn an early version of this anniversary article, the story was published with an incorrect title. Dr. Boli apologizes to the three and a half readers who noticed.

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IS “STEM” EDUCATION ENOUGH?

Noah Webster, famous educator.

We have heard a great deal about STEM education in the past few years. Dr. Boli admits to having been puzzled the first time he heard the term: why was botany suddenly so important to American competitive vigor, and why not the roots, leaves, and flowers as well? But he soon discovered that we were dealing with an acronym. The power of acronyms in political thought would be a subject for another essay; for now, we may note only that, once an acronym for it has been discovered, the thing becomes true, and the necessity of implementing the acronym cannot be questioned.

But is STEM really what we need? Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics are all good things, in moderate quantities. But they are not the whole universe. The United States already leads the world in the number of computer-science graduates working at Starbucks until they can get a real job. Do we really need to create more? Is the demand for baristas really so insatiable?

It seems to Dr. Boli that what is lacking in the discussion of STEM is balance. It is good to teach our young people to think scientifically, but they should also be able to think in other ways. An architect, for example, ought to have a solid grasp of engineering, or his buildings will fall on his head, or on someone else’s head. But if he has nothing in his head but engineering, then we shall be subjected to the aesthetics of the second half of the twentieth century, and it was enough to live through the International Style once. Engineering should be made to serve an artistic vision, which is precisely what is missing from the discussion of STEM in education.

So Dr. Boli would propose diverting the discussion of STEM education into a broader field. He identifies four main components of education, and all four of them are necessary if we are to build the world Dr. Boli wants to live in.

First, we must not abandon Science. The ability to think scientifically is necessary in every discipline. Even a poet needs to recognize when her meter is defective. Science, in Dr. Boli’s mind, includes mathematics, which is the most scientific of all the sciences, as well as technology and engineering, which are the application of scientific principles to useful purposes.

But we also need the Humanities. By the Humanities, Dr. Boli means everything that appeals to the soul by other means than pure reason, but especially in written form. Poetry, religion, criticism, fiction—the great works of the human spirit are as necessary to the formation of young minds as the great principles of science.

To the list Dr. Boli will add Art. Not that art might not be included in the humanities, but Dr. Boli makes it a separate field of education because he believes that young people must be creators of art, and not just consumers of it. Every child ought to learn to draw: not just by being given paper and a box of crayons, but by being taught that there are methods of reproducing on the paper, with the crayons, what one sees in life.

For the same reason, Dr. Boli separates Music as its own special category in education. Every young person ought to be proficient in at least one musical instrument, even if it is his own voice. Again, the production of music, rather than mere passive consumption, is what is wanted.

Dr. Boli believes that any child educated in these four fields will become a well-rounded adult fitted for any station in life and welcome in the best society. Science, the Humanities, Art, and Music are the foundations of not only a balanced curriculum but a balanced life. As it happens, they also make an easily remembered acronym. Dr. Boli therefore humbly suggests that his readers write their state legislators and inform them that we, the concerned citizens of such and such state, will not rest until all our children are given the SHAM education they deserve.

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CATS.

Google photos likes to use its awe-inspiring intelligence to identify things in one’s collection and present them in a neat little bundle. For example…

Cats

Dr. Boli has been hearing quite a bit lately about how we ought to worry about the continuing advance of artificial intelligence. He has decided to put off worrying for a while.

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CAPTAIN PLEONASM AND THE GENESIS OF THE BREVITRONS.

Although no recordings of the old Captain Pleonasm radio serial have survived, a number of the original scripts were recently unearthed in the archives of the Northern Broadcasting Company.

ANNOUNCER. Malt-O-Cod, the delicious and nutritious malt food drink flavored with real cod-liver oil, presents…

(Music: Theme, up and under for…)

ANNOUNCER. The Thrilling and Exciting Adventures of Captain Pleonasm and His Faithful and Trustworthy Sidekick and Assistant, Interjection Boy! Featuring the musical stylings of James Levine and His All-Girl Orchestra.

(Music: In full, then fade.)

ANNOUNCER. As you recall, Captain Pleonasm and Interjection Boy had just foiled the serial phone prankster who bedeviled the offices of the Consolidated Electric Automation Corporation, and as a reward were being given a tour of the research department by the company’s chief scientist, Doctor Gertrude von Dribling.

CAPTAIN PLEONASM. This small machine or device seems to be a marvel of mechanical intricacy and complexity.

DR. VON DRIBLING. That’s a stapler. But over here we have a prototype of the world’s first four-dimensional printer, which not only prints objects in three dimensions but also takes time to do it.

INTERJECTION BOY. Great gabbling ganders, Doctor von Dribling! That’s amazing!

DR. VON DRIBLING. We’re very proud of it. And over here is our improved atonal player piano, which cannot be made to play a melody no matter what roll is loaded in the mechanism.

(Sound: Cacophonous jangling random piano.)

CAPATAIN PLEONASM (shouting): A remarkable and extraordinary instrument!

DR. VON DRIBLING (shouting). Very popular in conservatories!

(Sound: Piano stops.)

DR. VON DRIBLING. And here is—

CAPTAIN PLEONASM. What is in that room or chamber beyond the glass wall or partition there? And what is that curious and peculiar machine therein that resembles a six-foot thimble on wheels?

(Music: Stinger.)

INTERJECTION BOY. Jeepers, Captain Pleonasm! Did you hear that brassy dissonant chord?

DR. VON DRIBLING. Ah! That is our literary automation department, where we are developing the latest in electrical editing technology. Come through this door and I’ll show you.

(Sound: Footsteps.)

DR. VON DRIBLING. Here we are. In here we are creating the editor of the future. Never frustrated, never tired, and always completely dispassionate in its pursuit of efficiency in communication: we call it a Brevitron.

(Music: Stinger.)

INTERJECTION BOY. Wobblin’ wallabies, Captain Pleonasm! There’s that brassy dissonant chord again.

DR. VON DRIBLING. Let me demonstrate it for you.

BREVITRON (tinny monotone voice). Active.

DR. VON DRIBLING. Brevitron, explain the principles of good style in speech and writing.

BREVITRON. Speak to the point. Use short sentences. Avoid needless repetition. Choose simple words. Passive voice is not recommended.

DR. VON DRIBLING. Hmmm… It may need a little adjustment there, but you see the principle.

CAPTAIN PLEONASM. It seems to me that these recommendations and suggestions, while well suited to children and young persons, may be too simplistic or unsophisticated for such speakers as have reached a state of adulthood and maturity, and whose——

(Sound: Electrical ZAP.)

BREVITRON. Avoid needless repetition.

INTERJECTION BOY. Jigglin’ jellyfish, Doctor von Dribling! What just happened?

DR. VON DRIBLING. The Brevitron is equipped with an up-to-date interrupto ray to assist it in improving the speech patterns of our clients.

CAPTAIN PLEONASM. It is a rather unpleasant feeling or sensation.

DR. VON DRIBLING. The tingling passes in a few minutes.

CAPTAIN PLEONASM. Nevertheless, an educated interlocutor might posit that—

(ZAP)

BREVITRON. Choose simple words.

CAPTAIN PLEONASM. I mean that it might be asked wheth—

(ZAP)

BREVITRON. Passive voice is not recommended.

DR. VON DRIBLING. I think the settings may be a little too sensitive, which of course is one of the adjustments we can make when we—

(ZAP)

BREVITRON. Use short sentences.

INTERJECTION BOY. Great bouncing bobcats, Capt—

(ZAP)

BREVITRON. Speak to the point.

CAPTAIN PLEONASM. This machine or de— (ZAP) would appear to be a menace or (ZAP) to the public and (ZAP) at large.

BREVITRON. Avoid needless repetition. Choose simple words.

DR. VON DRIBLING. It’s not supposed to act like that.

CAPTAIN PLEONASM. Perhaps its algorithms or (ZAP) may be (ZAP) of a sudden (ZAP) or adjust— (ZAP)

BREVITRON (droning continuously throughout). Avoid needless repetition. Use short sentences. Choose simple words. Speak to the point. Passive voice is not recommended.

CAPTAIN PLEONASM. Flee and (ZAP), Interjection Boy! (ZAP) and retreat to the security and (ZAP) of the outer chamber or (ZAP)!

INTERJECTION BOY. Gallopin’ (ZAP), Captain Pleonasm!

(Sound: Brevitron zapping and making pronouncements, confused footsteps; then door slamming and silence.)

DR. VON DRIBLING (breathless). My apologies, Captain Pleonasm. Something about the way you talk seems to have affected the programming.

INTERJECTION BOY. Mutterin’ meerkats, Doctor von Dribling! Can that thing get out of there?

DR. VON DRIBLING. It shouldn’t be strong enough to break through the Plexiglas by itself.

INTERJECTION BOY Golly! It’s got arms! I didn’t know there were arms inside that tin can.

DR. VON DRIBLING. Naturally we gave it extensible arms, so that it could manipulate a red pencil.

CAPTAIN PLEONASM. It has removed three casters or wheels from that shelf, and it appears to be attaching them to that metal plate or panel. In your opinion, Doctor von Dribling, based on your considered judgment, what is it doing?

DR. VON DRIBLING. I don’t know. Now it appears to be bolting that large cylinder onto the wheeled panel.

INTERJECTION BOY. Holy kippered herring in mustard sauce, Captain Pleonasm! It’s building another Brevitron!

(Music: Stinger.)

ANNOUNCER. Will Captain Pleonasm be able to save the world from a plague of Brevitrons? Will the tingling sensation in his chest and larynx ever go away? Don’t miss next week’s riveting episode of the Thrilling and Exciting Adventures of Captain Pleonasm and His Faithful and Trustworthy Sidekick and Assistant, Interjection Boy!

(Music: Theme, in and under for…)

ANNOUNCER. Kids, when it comes to the rich, satisfying flavor of Malt-O-Cod, you can’t use too many words. It’s delicious, nutritious, and—never mind what you hear from those goons at the FDA—not a bit pernicious. Don’t forget to whine and fuss until your parents buy you Malt-O-Cod, the malt food drink that’s brain food.

(Music: in full, then out.)

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THE CODE OF THE GENTLEMAN.

It is no secret that it is easier in our North American society to be male than to be female, to be heterosexual rather than anything else, and to be white rather than any of the other decorative colors in which the human species is available. There is much hand-wringing by self-identified liberal white males about how unfair it is that they have this advantage, and much grumbling among self-identified conservative white males about how everybody seems to be trying to make them feel guilty for the way they were born.

Dr. Boli would suggest that the liberals and the conservatives, though they may never agree in politics, may come to an accommodation in everyday social intercourse. He proposes that men who wish to get along in modern society should adopt the old-fashioned code of the gentleman.

A gentleman always treats others with respect, even if he privately thinks their heads are full of excelsior. He may have the most bizarre opinions of his own superiority, but a gentleman is as courteous to people he considers his inferiors as he is to the ones he considers his peers.

If males of privileged classes, whatever classes those might be, could bring themselves to behave as gentlemen, at once all the inequalities of their position would begin to fade away. The questions that most provoke us simply would not come up.

Racism? A gentleman knows certain forms of courtesy that are universally applicable; he has them ready to hand, and even if he privately holds the most disgusting ideas on the subject of race, they will not affect his actions in society in the least.

Sexism? A gentleman simply would not interrupt a woman, or denigrate her opinions, or attempt to stand in the way of her ambitions—because he would not do that to anyone. It simply isn’t done.

Gay marriage? It is not a question for a gentleman. A gentleman may have his private opinions on the subject, and his private opinions may be measured or lunatic, according to the particular gentleman’s mind; but a gentleman cannot conceive of how the details of a particular couple’s intimate life would be of any concern to him. A marriage to him is a public declaration that a couple intend to share dishwashing duties according to an agreed-upon schedule.

Transgendered persons? If a gentleman meets someone who identifies herself as a woman, it simply does not occur to him to say, “I doubt that.” That would not be a gentlemanly thing to do.

Sexual harassment in the workplace? It is impossible, because it brings down on his head, quite automatically, the most horrific penalty a gentleman can imagine—the penalty of hearing others say, That man is not a gentleman.

In fact, there is no reason such a code cannot be adopted by all classes and however many sexes you like to count. One does not have to call oneself a gentleman, of course. One can be anything one likes and still follow the code.

Dr. Boli does not mean to suggest that all the problems of the world would be solved if we all adopted the code of the gentleman. He merely suggests that it would bring the solution a little closer.

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