Perspectives: A tribute to Updike, history of presidential pay and more

Rabbit is at rest. John Updike died of cancer at a hospice near his home last week. He was 76. In tribute, the New York Times printed a poem from his forthcoming collection, "Endpoint and Other Poems." It was a good idea, so we're doing the same. (For a little literary foray over coffee with your friends, compare its antagon-istic echo of A. E. Housman's "To An Athlete Dying Young.")

President Obama earns $400,000 a year, a nice salary but hardly a stunning income for the most powerful person in the world. The perks, from living in the White House to flying on Air Force One, are pleasant, but still, the presidential pay has been raised only five times in history. That doesn't necessarily mean presidents are chronically underpaid. For fun, John Cranford of our sister publication, Congressional Quarterly, adjusted presidential salaries for inflation.* By that measure, William Howard Taft was our best-paid president, making the 1909 equivalent of $1.79 million modern dollars. Ulysses S. Grant was the first to earn a million dollars after adjusting for inflation, with a $50,000 salary in 1876 that would have been just over $1 million in 2008. Washington, at first reluctant to accept payment for his services, later relented. The $25,000 was at the time the largest salary for personal services in America. George W. Bush was the first to receive the current salary of $400,000.

Britannipedia? Wikitannica? A new sort of encyclopedic knowledge

The venerable Encyclopedia Britannica is going to allow an ever-so-slight amount of Wikipedia-style collaboration. Under the plan, readers and contributing experts will help expand and maintain entries online. However, Britannica said it would not follow Wikipedia in letting a wide range of people make contributions to its encyclopedia. "We are not abdicating our responsibility as publishers or burying it under the now-fashionable 'wisdom of the crowds,' " wrote Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopedia Britannica in a blog entry about the changes. "We believe that the creation and documentation of knowledge is a collaborative process but not a democratic one."

When Google shows Wikipedia first

Reacting to Britannica's news, Nicholas Carr, who is on its board of editorial advisers, posts an item on a Britannica blog (yes, it seems against nature somehow but it exists), a reaction to the growing force of Google and Wikipedia. At random, he searched for 10 things on Google: World War II, Israel, George Washington, genome, agriculture, Herman Melville, internet, Magna Carta, evolution and epilepsy. In every single case, the first thing listed in a Google search was the Wikipedia entry. He remarks: "What we seem to have here is evidence of a fundamental failure of the Web as an information-delivery service," adding "it's hard to imagine that Wikipedia articles are actually the very best source of information for all of the many thousands of topics on which they now appear as the top Google search result. What's much more likely is that the Web, through its links, and Google, through its search algorithms, have inadvertently set into motion a very strong feedback loop that amplifies popularity and, in the end, leads us all, lemminglike, down the same well-trod path — the path of least resistance. You might call this the triumph of the wisdom of the crowd. I would suggest that it would be more accurately described as the triumph of the wisdom of the mob. The former sounds benign; the latter, less so."

Adults really do this on the Web

In a bit of a surprise, it turns out that more adult Americans use social networking Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace than do teenagers, according to the Pew Research Center. But that's because adults make up a larger portion of the population than teens. Thirty-five percent of Web users aged 18 or older have a profile on a social network such as Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn, up from just 8 percent in 2005. Sixty-five percent of online Americans aged 12 to 17 years old use social networks. Seventy-five percent of online Americans aged 18 to 24 years old belong to a social network; 57 percent of those aged 25 to 34; 30 percent of those aged 35 to 44; 19 percent of those aged 45 to 54; 10 percent of those aged 55 to 64 and just 7 percent of those aged 65 and older.

The reading file: What women want

The New York Times magazine has a fascinating story on sexual research, focusing on "discovering what ignites female desire." Meredith Chivers, 36, is a scientist and a member of the editorial board of the world's leading journal of sexual research, Archives of Sexual Behavior. She was puzzled to find that women's physiological reactions to sexually explicit material did not match their conscious reactions: Their bodies said one thing; their minds, another. Here's an excerpt: "I feel like a pioneer at the edge of a giant forest," Chivers said, describing her ambition to understand the workings of women's arousal and desire. ... She sees herself, she explained, as part of an emerging "critical mass" of female sexologists starting to make their way into those woods. These researchers and clinicians are consumed by the sexual problem Sigmund Freud posed to one of his female disciples almost a century ago: "The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is, What does a woman want?" Read it at nytimes.com, search for "What do women want?"

Requiem

By John Updike

It came to me the other day:

Were I to die, no one would say,

"Oh, what a shame! So young, so full

Of promise — depths unplumbable!"

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes

Will greet my overdue demise;

The wide response will be, I know,

"I thought he died a while ago."

For life's a shabby subterfuge,

And death is real, and dark, and huge.

The shock of it will register

Nowhere but where it will occur.



* The salaries are adjusted to 2008 dollars. From 1913 until 2008, the adjustments are based on Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index. The numbers between 1800 and 1913 are based on data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

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Perspectives: A tribute to Updike, history of presidential pay and more 01/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 31, 2009 3:31am]

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