- - Sunday, January 9, 2011

Shorter, sweeter

“… [A]s Congress’s 112th session begins, the shrinking sound bite stands as a rare enemy of Republicans and Democrats alike. Whether running for president of the United States or for city council, politicians can count on seeing their words broken into ever smaller and more fragmentary bits. …

“But new research suggests that the specter of the shrinking sound bite is anything but new. In fact, quotations from politicians have been getting shorter for more than a century. According to a new article in the academic journal Journalism Studies by David M. Ryfe and Markus Kemmelmeier, both professors at the University of Nevada, newspaper quotations evolved in much the same way as TV sound bites. By 1916, they found, the average political quotation in a newspaper story had fallen to about half the length of the average quotation in 1892.

“One way to interpret this, of course, is that we’ve been getting dumber since 1892 instead of since 1968. But Ryfe and Kemmelmeier also suggest that the truth is more complicated. The sound bite, they argue, stems less from a collapse in standards or seriousness than from the rise of a more sophisticated and independent style of journalism — which means the sound bite might not be such a bad thing. Letting politicians ramble doesn’t necessarily produce a better or more informative political discourse.”

Craig Fehrman, writing on “The incredible shrinking sound bite,” on Jan. 2 at the Boston Globe Ideas section

A bug’s life

“Ticks are more dangerous than bedbugs because they spread Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. This is the bedbug paradox. For most individuals, their bites have only nuisance value. Yet they arouse much more disgust than many other insects whose bites transmit potentially lethal infections.

“The bugs in the Empire State Building, Lincoln Center Theater and the Met were found in the basement employee changing room, a dressing-room, and back of house. The likelihood of being bitten in a public place without beds is remote. And if the New York subway had the London Tube’s metal seats rather than wooden ones there would be no bug refugia. Alleviation here would be easy. But it is unlikely that the public will come to terms with bugs. They will continue to turn to lawyers. …

“The bedbugs’ lifestyle makes it unlikely that they will go away soon. The contrast with the body louse is instructive. Their refugia and breeding places are the seams of human clothing. Body heat is necessary for egg hatching, so those who take their underclothes off at night and change their garments more than once a month will never be very lousy even if they consort with those who are. The natural habitat of the bedbug is the home. In Europe and North America, the only one left for the body louse is the homeless.”

Hugh Pennington, writing on “Bug-Affairs,” on Jan. 6 at the London Review of Books

Past terror

“In the late 19th century, as today, a terrorist cabal detonated bombs in the heart of the Western world. Judged by the number of successful attacks on politicians and royalty, that force was more directly threatening to the inner circles of power than today’s radical Islam.

“This episodic violence, loosely associated with the extremist wing of the anarchist movement, lasted roughly from 1880 to 1910. It claimed the lives of only about 150 private citizens but also killed a president, a police chief, a prime minister, a czar, a king, and an empress. Yet the wave of terror eventually receded. No one has lived in mortal fear of bomb-throwing, dagger-clutching anarchists for nearly a century. Will citizens in 2110 view radical Islamic terrorism as a similar historical curiosity, useful mostly for colorful storytelling?”

Brian Doherty, writing on “The First War on Terror,” in the January issue of Reason

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