What you wanted from me

While on the topic of geeky Internet details, one of the secret fascinations of having a blog is that you get to see what people were searching for when they chose to visit you. Highlights of the last few months, for this blog:

“vulcan reaction to human birthday parties”

“how to make a gay”

“is there a troll factory in Denmark”

“teletubbies opinion gender black”

“slang towing the cod”

“weird diseases choochoo”


“is it acceptable to eat human flesh”

“prostitution altars”

“what kind of animal part leaves the most distinctive fossil”

“homosexual according to Kierkegaard”

“steamboats are crap”

“how to play the prostitutes in Krakow”


I’m sorry I had to delete so many of you. But you were zombies. I held out as long as I could, but you know how it is. There’s always a moment in the movie when you can no longer postpone your response to the zombies with familiar faces.

I should explain. I don’t really understand the technicalities of how this blog works. It has a Comments function, which I can turn on or off, but that’s about the limit of my expertise. Over the past year, while the Comments function has been on, I’ve been the victim of something called “comment spam.” In the dead of night, humans (or robots) were posting dozens of comments under false names. At first their comments had to do with the usual pharmaceutical products and well-known Internet vices. I deleted them and shrugged the task off as the cost of the blog. But recently the comments took a disconcerting turn: all of them read, “Good work! Nice webpage!” This was too insidious to be borne. Also, it took about four clicks to delete each one, and it was tedious.

I decided to investigate. It turned out that although the comments were in different names, the names corresponded to just one underlying member profile. And this member profile was that of a real person, whom I knew in real life. I concluded that his membership on this blog had been hacked. Cautiously, I deleted all the phony names but left his profile intact.

It didn’t work. Overnight my friend’s profile spawned half a dozen zombie progeny, and I realized I had no choice. I deleted him. (Sorry!) As in the zombie movies, of course, this didn’t work, either. A day or two later, the zombies were back, having co-opted a different friend. So I deleted him, too. You see where this is going. Pretty soon I had deleted about half of you. And my rampage was as futile as it was drastic. In the end, I had no choice but to turn the Comments function off. Nothing else would staunch the flow of innocuous compliments. It’s unsatisfactory, and I apologize, but I can’t figure out what else to do.

True color

Usually digital cameras consider my black dog to be a patch of underexposure, and she gets processed into something the color of burnt umber, shiny as a wet seal. But I actually read the manual to one of my Xmas presents today . . .

Loss of proficiency

The National Center for Education Statistics has just released a report on its 2003 survey of adult literacy in America. I’ve been eagerly awaiting it, to see if it would confirm or deny my quasi-apocalyptic anxieties about reading in America. Like the NEA’s 2004 report Reading at Risk, the National Center for Education Statistics’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy gives hard numbers to changes that have taken place in American reading in the last decade. But whereas the NEA was concerned with the reading of literature, the NCES focuses on the skills that go into reading, broadly defined.

The good news is that everyone seems to have gotten better with numbers, or what the NCES calls “quantitative literacy.” And the average scores on “prose literacy” (aka literacy classic—the ability to read a paragraph, understand it, and take issue with it if necessary) and “document literacy” (the ability to interpret maps, prescription labels, and the sides of cereal boxes) have held steady overall. It was therefore my first impression that perhaps I could file my reading anxieties under Apocalypses That Didn’t Arrive, and turn my attention elsewhere, like, say, our Netflix queue, which really needs it.

On closer inspection, however, the statistics are not quite so encouraging. To see why, you need to go a bit further into the report, A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century. In figure 2, on page 4, take a look at the change between 1992 and 2003 in the percentage-point breakdown of proficient, intermediate, basic, and below-basic readers.

You’ll notice that the proficient readers of prose have declined from 15% in 1992 to 13% in 2003, and that this result gets an asterisk, because the difference is statistically significant. Something similar happened with document literacy. And quantitative literacy improved overall not because of any increase in the number of people proficient with numbers, but because the number of people below a basic level declined.

Everyone should be as literate as possible in every way, of course. But it’s proficiency in prose literacy that keeps me up nights. That’s the group likely to subscribe to newspapers and to buy books. It’s also the one crucial to a functioning democracy. To explain their division of literacy into three types and four levels, the NCES writers list real-world tasks for each of the twelve type-level combinations. An example of successful basic document literacy: using the TV guide. An example of successful below-basic quantitative literacy: adding up items on a deposit slip at the bank. An example of successful proficient prose literacy: “comparing viewpoints in two editorials.” The share of Americans who can do that has gone down over the past decade, from 15% to 13%. That’s not a good sign. In a mature, industrial democracy, it’s a very peculiar sign. We’re not talking about how much reading Americans do. We’re talking about how many Americans are capable of it. I don’t think you can pin the shift on immigration; whites and Hispanics lost ground, blacks held steady, but Asian and Pacific Islanders gained proficient prose readers.

OK, two more observations, and then I have to go to bed. Page 14 has a real zinger: “Average prose literacy decreased for all levels of education attainment between 1992 and 2003.” Only 40% of college graduates were proficient readers of prose in 1992; only 31% were in 2003. Happily, the number of Americans with college degrees rose by two percentage points in the same period.

And then, finally, you’re wondering why proficient readers of prose are on the decline. The answer is in figure 17, on page 16.

What this chart shows is that it’s still hard to get a job if you have basic or below-basic literacy skills. But it’s not as hard as it once was. In the two sets of columns on the left, for “below basic” and “basic,” the movement is upward, toward employment. On the right, by contrast, those with intermediate or proficient levels of prose literacy have actually slumped down slightly, into unemployment and non-employment. In 1992, a proficient reader was more than twice as likely to have a full-time job as a below-basic reader. In 2003, he was less than twice as likely. In other words, the American labor market rewards literacy less aggressively than it once did.

Jake, Heath, and the real McCoy

For those unable to wait until the Friday release of Brokeback Mountain, here’s a photo from roughly a century ago of cowboys dancing together: Erwin E. Smith, “Dancing, seemingly not hampered by lack of women, 1908-1912,” Amon Carter Museum Not quite as racy as the upcoming movie, I’m afraid, and in terms of what the photo means, your mileage may vary. (Research credit: I first came across the photo in D. Michael Quinn’s Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example [University of Illinois, 1996].)