Episode 3Traversing Thresholds & Expert Opinions
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Details and Transcript

References

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Transcript

To my fantastic family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the third episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

 

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Okay. Today’s episode is about yet another quintessential expression that you have heard many times, and perhaps even used today. Though, if you are listening to this in the morning, I hope you haven’t had to use it yet (haha!).

 

Let’s set the scene. Let’s BUILD some tension for this one. Your best friend from childhood is coming to stay over for the weekend. You’re excited. You’re pumped. You planned to go out tonight and dance the night away at the local discotheque. Next day you have brunch, followed by a nice ski trip at the nearby mountain. You have expectations for how great this weekend is going to be.

 

They come over and they’re completely not interested in your plans. They just wanted to chill for the weekend, stay inside, order a PIZZA, and watch some Netflix. Okay fine. That’s cool. A little disappointed, since your friend usually loves to do all those things. But you like pizza, you like Netflix. The weekend could still be great.

 

While eating their slice, your friend sloppily drops it on the floor. Now you have this brownish-red tomato stain on your newly bought carpet. Okay fine. That’s cool. A little disappointed, since your friend is a functioning human being who should know how to eat properly. But you have some stain remover, you have a sponge. The weekend could still be great.

 

While the two of you peruse through the seemingly endless selection of movies on Netflix, you ask what sort of genre they would like. Not a specific movie, just a genre. Shall it be Action & Adventure tonight? How about a comedy? Ohhhh, what about a horror movie? “Ehhhh, doesn’t matter to me,” your friend says, “Whichever you want.” Okay fine. That’s cool. A little disappointed, since your friend must have opinions in that little head of theirs. But you have some preferences, you have some go-to movies. The weekend could still be, great.

 

About half way through the Matrix, you know, just after the part where Neo saves Trinity from crashing a helicopter into an office building, but before the part where he dodges bullets in that limbo position, your friend decides to light up a joint. Okay, FINE. That’s, COOOOL. A little disappointed, since you know your friend also doesn’t like the smell of marijuana inside the house. But you have some air freshener, you have some windows you can open. The weekend, could still, be great.

 

The movie ends. But at this point, you’re pretty ruffled by the series of events that have occurred and get up to go to the kitchen. Your friend follows, as they notice your change in mood but seemingly unaware of the source. They offer to make some margaritas. Finally, some positivity to this night.

 

They blend the ingredients together, pour the drinks into two glasses and hand you one. They ask where your straws are and you gladly point to the cabinet behind them enthusiastically, excited to finally get the night rolling. They take out the container, take a straw for themselves, and chuck the container in the garbage.

 

“Where’s my straw?” You ask.

 

“That was the last straw.” They said, as they take a large slurp of their margarita.

 

“OKAY, THAT’S THE LAST STRAW.” You scream.

 

“I know, that’s the last straw.” Your friend says.

 

“NO, THE FACT THAT YOU TOOK THE LAST STRAW, IS THE LAST STRAW.”

 

And then in a fit of rage, you chuck your margarita glass at them and throw a huge hissy fit. Weekend ruined. The end.

 

That was just an example, hopefully you have more considerate friends. But the expression is such a ubiquitous one. Its timing is also important, as it needs to follow a particular series of events usually leading to a dramatic conclusion of cathartic fury. But why equate straws with hopelessness?

 

What is the origin of the expression “The last straw”?

 

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Most of this information was obtained from repositories of various old literature from english philosophers and authors. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

This expression is yet another one of those idioms that has little information on its origin story. In fact, it’s been used so often that there are many variations to “the last straw”. Working from what we use now, to the original saying, to previous versions, and finally its first recorded use, took a lot of searching. But I did it all, just for you guys.

 

Like I said, we’re going to work backwards. The last straw, or the final straw, is the last of a succession of events, whether that be physical occurrences or remarks, that lead to the loss of hope or patience, or culminating in a negative climax. What does that mean exactly? There’s actually a lot to take in from just that definition alone.

 

Take “succession of events”. The expression must follow a series of happenings that end in the loss of something or a negative climax. For instance, you may have heard people use the expression as a warning. I would often hear parents state in an assertive tone, “Oh Little Timmy, that’s the last straw. Any more misbehaving and it’s off to your room!” This is incorrect. The proper use of this expression would have been after Little Timmy’s next act of delinquency, thereby it would be this final act, or final straw, that pushed the parent to order Little Timmy to their room. As a side note, I would not advise to mention this to the parent at such a time.

 

These “succession of events” don’t need to be physical manifestations. They could be remarks as well. Take bullying or just general insulting. For example, let’s pretend there’s some a-hole who makes 3 completely offensive remarks to you about your race, your gender and your mother. This series of happenings ended with you punching this a-hole in the face. So the last straw was that offensive comment they made about your mother. I mean, who wouldn’t punch the face of the person who disrespected their mother?

 

Also, the conclusion following “the last straw” doesn’t have to be a display of words, like a heart-breaking monologue, or showmanship, like a punch in the face. It could also be a loss of a particular feeling you were clinging to. Typically the feeling would be hope, like if you were trying to win a basketball game but kept missing your shots, or patience, like Little Timmy bringing his MUDDY SHOES IN THE HOUSE! DAMMIT LITTLE TIMMY!

 

Anyway, that’s how to properly use the phrase. But where did it come from?

 

The full expression is “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, which comes from the proverb “it is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back”. And here there are some more things to unpack. So, back in the day, well actually still to this day, people would transport large bundles of straw on the backs of camels. What is straw? It consists of the dry stalks of cereal plants after the all important grain and chaff have been removed. Think about that next time you buy a hipster picnic basket.

 

A strand of straw, being quite a light agricultural byproduct, carries little-to-no strain on the camel. But large groupings of straw can certainly pile up the weight. Therefore, a camel’s back certainly has a limit it can withstand regarding the number of strands of straw it can carry, and one additional strand of straw passed this limit would cause the “back to break”.

 

Think of each strand of straw being minor occurrences that normally could be handled in a calm manner. The final straw, on the other hand, is still a minor occurrence, however it causes this sudden change in mood or elicits a negative reaction from you due to all the negative occurrences that happened before it.

 

How it settled on straws and camels is not known. Mark Twain used a variant of the expression in his 1876 novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He wrote, “This final feather broke the camel’s back”. Feather, here, likely emphasizes the idea of minor occurrences, as opposed to literal use of straw transportation via camels.

 

An old Scottish magazine used a close variant of the expression in 1799, alluding to an Oriental Proverb. In it, it says, “It is the last straw that overloads the camel”. Okay, so we’re getting close.

 

In 1724, an english author by the name of John Trenchard used yet another variant of the expression in an essay titled “Cato’s Letters”. He writes, and I will say the whole quote mentioned in Wikipedia as it is quite a nice sentence, “Every thing must be at rest which has no Force to impell it; but as the least Straw breaks the Horse's Back, or a single Sand will turn the Beam of Scales which holds Weights as heavy as the World; so, without doubt, as minute Causes may determine the Actions of Men…” Here, Trenchard changes camel to horse, though one can assume that horses were, and still are, used to transport straw.

 

A game changer in 1677 was found. Archbishop John Bramhall, an Anglican theologian and apologist (apologist being someone who offers arguments in defence of something controversial, ie. religion), was quoted saying, “It is the last feather that break’s the horse’s back”. Both were switched!

 

Though, the earliest recording of the expression I was able to find was of philosopher Thomas Hobbs’ writing between 1588-1679, in his work Tripos. He writes on causality, and I will say the whole quote again as mentioned in Wikipedia, “The last Dictate of the Judgement, concerning the Good or Bad, that may follow on any Action, is not properly the whole Cause, but the last Part of it, and yet may be said to produce the Effect necessarily, in such Manner as the last Feather may be said to break a Horses Back, when there were so many laid on before as there want but that one to do it.” Though feather and horse are used, it certainly summarizes all that I spoke about regarding a succession of minor events to which lead to an action.

 

And that will do it. Unfortunately there seems to be no recorded consensus on when straws and camels were settled on as the expression of choice. But the work of materialist Thomas Hobbes has the most credible origin story to “the last straw or the final straw”.

 

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As I’ve mentioned previously, I think I’ll end each podcast with a brief note about something scientific. I will for sure have whole episodes dedicated to specific topics of science and science communication. But for today, I would like to speak about what everyone and every media outlet is talking about these days, CoVid-19, standing for CoronaVIrus Disease 2019. I won’t go into the science behind viral life cycles (though they aren’t even considered alive), viral transmission, calculating mortality rates, or whether you should stockpile toilet paper. Rather, I’d like to speak about media interviews, particularly of medical professionals, and those of “scientific personalities”. Specifically, I’d like to speak about the Global news Interview with Dr. Bruce Aylward, the Canadian head of the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 mission to China; and the Late Show interview with Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History. The links to the videos will be in the description.

 

What this will be is my assessment of the two interviews, their similarities, their differences, what worked regarding their way of communicating about the global outbreak, and etc. Again, this is my assessment, and I chose these two interviews specifically because of who is being interviewed, who is doing the interviewing, and what that means in the cultural/societal ladder, if you will. Things I think about, I tell ya!

 

Let’s start with the Global News interview with Dr. Bruce Aylward. As mentioned, he is the Canadian lead on the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 mission to China, recently returning to Geneva from the Wuhan province where the outbreak is said to have started. Brief mention and shoutout to Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who started warning Chinese Health Officials of the threat before it spread. Your name will not be forgotten once the dust settles.

 

Back to Dr. Aylward. Okay, a medical professional working at the World Health Organization who actually went to Wuhan province to gain insight on how the virus spread and what China has done to effectively mitigate risk to surrounding areas. What else can build his credibility? Well, Dr. Aylward has been trained as a Canadian physician and epidemiologist and has authored over 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles, most recent of which regarded other viral emergencies like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He’s been at the World Health Organization since 1992, working in the areas of immunization, communicable disease control and polio eradication in various regions around the world. Since then, he’s guided the organization’s policy on managing emergency response operations, and led the effort to restructure the organization’s Health Emergency Programme, the most substantive reform in the history of the organization. These qualifications could not all be mentioned in the quick time-limiting format of 24-hour news.

 

Regarding the interview, Dr. Aylward was poised and calm, delivering direct and informative answers to all questions he was given, which was at least 11 questions. He was straight to the point, his answers were not only his own opinion but a summary of what professionals working on COVID-19 have found. He informs viewers of symptoms, and specifies the differences with the flu. He advises what the public and government officials could be doing to block transmission chains and why contacts in a 24-48 hour period prior to symptoms or a positive test result must be known to reduce the spread. He even explains what is not known about the virus, why certain young people between 20-40 years of age have been killed by the virus, and why children seem to have milder forms of COVID-19. There’s no sugar coating, no jokes, no pretentious overtones. Just experience and facts.

 

The interviewer, anchorwoman Dawna Friesen, is also calm and direct. Her questions were short and clear, requiring an apolitical response. There was no cutting off, allowing the interviewee to have the majority of the air time to disseminate as much information as he could. All in all, a very good interview, lasting about 10 minutes, with currently around 450,000 views on youtube plus the viewers of the actual broadcast.

 

Now moving onto the Late Show Interview with Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson. As mentioned, he is the Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, the host of the TV show Cosmos on National Geographic, and a science communicator. What are his qualifications? He was trained in astrophysics at Harvard, University of Texas and Columbia University, while also doing postdoctoral research at Princeton. He has written many best-selling books in his field, and appeared in many talk shows as a science communicator personality.

 

I love Dr. Tyson. I think he is passionate about his work and thoroughly enjoys sharing his love of the universe and space with any audience he sees himself in front. What I think is bad for science is how easy we are to ask science personalities like Dr. Tyson about something like the COVID-19 outbreak.

 

Stephen Colbert, who I also like (despite how his jokes about Trump are incredibly tiresome, but that’s a separate point), asks him about his thoughts about the coronavirus despite how he’s not, as he says before hearing Dr. Tyson’s response, he’s not a virologist, an immunologist, or an epidemiologist. Then why do we need to know his opinion? Think about it like this, if you invited a basketball player on the show and asked “So what’s your opinion of Roger Federer’s performance at the last tennis tournament?”. It would just be weird, right?

 

Well we don’t feel that way about science or scientists. We often think that their training allows them to inform the public about all issues, but it’s not the case. Medical professionals, or scientists working in infectious disease, are the ones we need to be seeking for their “take”. Man, does the field of microbiology/immunology or epidemiology need a Neil deGrasse Tyson personality nowadays.

 

And his response, my god, we are an experiment to see whether the public will listen to scientists? People are dying, man. I get that the question is general and lacking, so where do you even start answering that question. But perhaps, we can say something that doesn’t make half the population feel like morons? Yes listen to scientists, wash your hands. What I would have expected is an informative answer that could relate to the public, a general state of the world based on what medical professionals are saying, as I’m sure he’s keeping up to date on. What he provided was a pretentious response, correctly followed up with Colbert “dropping the mic”. I get that was just a portion of the interview, but it is promoted as a COVID-19 opinion video of a very famous scientist. A missed opportunity to the almost 3 million viewers of the video, along with the many viewers who watched the broadcast on television.

 

To me, it’s unfortunate that the first interview I mentioned has 6 times less viewers than the second interview. My question in general is, how can we make something informative and appealing? Science, in all its wonder, is hindered by the language we use to describe it, but what doesn’t hinder it is the passion of the people that drive the work forward.

 

Just think about it.

 

Anyway, both interviews will be linked in the description.

 

And thanks for listening to this episode of… Metaphorigins. Remember to subscribe for more episodes and to follow the podcast on Instagram to be entered into the draw for that beautiful custom made mug. I think I will announce the winner in my 5th episode, halfway through the season. But until next time, stay skeptical but curious.

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