Polyhedra and the Media

Personal musings on new geometry and the state of journalistic integrity in the information age
by Adam Lore

adam1 icoshaedron tesselations

Newly Discovered Forms

I really like polyhedra.

Okay, that is a bit of an understatement, I am completely obsessed with polyhedra! So when I heard that a new type of these shapes had supposedly been discovered I became very excited.

(Just really quickly, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, a polyhedron is a solid three dimensional geometric shape with straight edges and planar faces.)

As it turns out, though, the media coverage of this new finding at first left me totally confused about what was discovered. In the first articles I read, there were conflicting reports and major errors. It was unclear whether these were new at all, and there was a lack of clarity as to exactly what attributes these new shapes had.

adam2 platonic solids

You see – my apologies to those of you who already know this stuff – people who study the attributes of polyhedra are usually interested in the ones that are highly symmetrical. One well known group is the group of Platonic Solids. A cube is one of these, because it is made of ‘regular’ polygons (squares), every polygon is the same, the polygons meet together at a vertex in the same way at the same angle, and none of the vertices is “caved in”. It becomes interesting to try to figure out which other shapes have all of these qualities, and to find that there are only 4 other shapes like this. (Now we have a problem. Both the 3rd group, the rhombic polyhedra, and the new, fourth group have more than one type of face, and many of the faces are not equiangular, thus not regular.)

adam3 archimedean and rhombic

Then, if we allow the criteria to include polyhedra that are made out of 2 or more regular polygons instead of just one, we get 13 new ones, called the Archimedean Solids. (A rigid version of a soccer ball, also known as the truncated icosahedron, is a prime example of one of these.) By this new criterion we can also include prisms (which are just two of the same shape in the floor and ceiling, perhaps a pentagon, connected by squares along the rim) and anti-prisms (the same thing but with triangles instead of squares along the rim.) Then, there are some other ones, too, but the point is, there is a very specific limited amount of these things. (Problem: There are infinite numbers of prisms and antiprisms.)

Just to be clear, the new forms are a modification of a previously known class of cages called Goldberg cages. (A cage can have nonplanar faces.) (Here I will be treating the modified forms as a group themselves). So, this newly discovered group of polyhedra by neuroscientists Stan Schein and James Gayed have the following attributes:

adam4 equilateral polyhedral

They are convex, which means they do not have parts that are caved in,
they do not have equal angles but they do have equilateral edges (meaning each edge is the same length), and
all of their faces are “planar”, which is very important, meaning that the faces lie flat and do not bulge in or out.

adam5 georg harts goldberg polyhedra

George Hart’s Goldberg polyhedra models

At first I thought that mathematician and polyhedron model builder George W. Hart had already worked out the math for these same shapes, but he confirmed via e-mail that the models he had made “have planar faces but generally are not equilateral. So, their result is new because of the equilateral property and (in my quick reading) appears to be correct.” (Thanks, George!) In a recent Science News article on the subject mathematician Branko Grünbaum makes the same confirmation, “It is correct, and the result is new.”

adam6 schein and gayed

Stan Schein (left) and James Gayed (right)

The Schein-Gayed Innovation

So, basically what Schein and Gayed did was they took a previously known group of ‘Goldberg cages’ with icosahedral, octahedral and tetrahedral symmetry, described back in 1937 by mathematician Michael Goldberg, and modified them. The original Goldberg cages bulged out and did not have edges of equal length. Later, George Hart made modified versions that did not bulge out before, but those did not have equal edges. Schein and Gayed worked out the necessary math and modified the Goldberg cages to be both planar and equilateral, thus convex equilateral Golderg polyhedra with polyhedral symmetry! (An object with ‘polyhedral symmetry’ has icosahedral, octahedral or tetrahedral symmetry.) Their discovery adds one new class to what were previously only 3 known classes of convex equilateral polyhedra with polyhedral symmetry. So you see, what they did was actually quite innovative and – in my view – a pretty important discovery in this particular field of study.

adam7 goldberg spherical polyhedra

Now, it took me a while to sort all of this out. The articles that showed up on Google news had conflicting reports and major errors. The best article* out there did not show up in the search results. A particularly atrocious little article on Gizmodo.com (called “These Brand New Shapes Are a Class of Their Own” by PJ Smith) mistakenly reports that the new shapes have equal sides and equal angles, “a combo that’s actually never been seen before.” This is completely false, in more ways than one. In fact, I could be wrong, but as far as I can tell, every single sentence in the first two paragraphs of the Gizmodo articles is incorrect!

(the best article: science news: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/goldberg-variations-new-shapes-molecular-cages)


Gizmodo Falsehoods

Gizmodo: “The criteria for being your own type of three dimensional solid is all about whether your edges are equal lengths, and whether your faces are regular polygons.”

This is false.

Gizmodo: “Discovered by UCLA neuroscientist Stan Schein and UCLA neuroscientist James Gayed, Goldberg polyhedra (pictured left) do have sides that are all the same length, but its polygonal faces have equal angles.”

Doubly false- Schein-Gayed versions of the Goldberg Polyhedra were on the right (not the left) and the faces do not have equal angles.

Gizmodo: “And surprisingly enough, that’s a combo that’s actually never been seen before.”

False, combinations of equal edges and equal angles have been seen before, as well as combinations of just equal edges.

Gizmodo: “The Goldberg polyhedra’s properties, specifically their equal angles, give them a rounded, spherical appearance.”

False, they don’t have equal angles so their spherical appearance could not possibly arise from having equal angles.

I am not going to go through the whole thing, but I think you get the point. How is it that this is what passes for journalism today? This guy just copied an article from another website, an article that was almost as far off from the truth, went further and misunderstood every detail of the first article, took no effort to check his facts, obviously did not consider looking at the original research paper, and turned in and published pure garbage. What is even the point of writing about something if literally every single sentence is wrong? Why is this considered acceptable? Why do we not have higher standards than this?

adam8 Various polyhedra

1) Kepler-Poinsot Solids 2) Heptagonal polyhedra 3) Johnson Solids 4) Waterman Polyhedra
“All of these classes of polyhedra are wonderful. Why compare?”

adam9 uniform polyhedra models

Uniform Polyhedra Models

Another frustrating aspect of this is the outright dismissal by some sources of Schein and Gayed’s findings. One article by the Daily Mail is entitled: “Scientists discover a new SHAPE for the first time in 400 years (but it just looks like a football)”, as if there have been no new shapes discovered since the 1600’s, completely ignoring the works of Coxeter, Penrose, John H. Conway, Gosset, Schlaffli, J. C. P. Miller, Michael Longuet-Higgins, Norman Johnson, Steve Waterman, or Nikolai Lobachevsky, to name just a few. Reducing the findings to “but it looks just like a football” is all too typical.

Correspondingly, the Comment sections are filled with smart aleck remarks of this nature:

adam10 smart ass quotes

Weeding through this kind of misinformation and utter garbage is the burden of the information edge.

adam11 goldberg-polyhedron

Beautiful Objects – an Interview with STAN SCHEIN

“We never gave any thought to applications.
We are basic scientists interested in beautiful objects”

But so on the bright side, which really is the side we should be focusing on, Schein and Gayed’s original paper on the topic was easy to find, an excellent read, and along with it was Stan Schein’s e-mail address. I sent him a quick e-mail, and he promptly responded, recommending the much better article in Science News, which I also highly recommend to anyone interested in the topic!. Stan was very polite and accommodating, responding back and forth several times, asking what my own field of study was, and clarifying my misunderstandings from poorly written articles. He even allowed me to conduct a little mini-interview with him!

James Gayed and you seem to have discovered not just a new sub-group of polyhedra, but an entirely new approach to finding new forms that seems to have been overlooked by mathematicians until now. Do you anticipate this leading to more discoveries soon by other researchers using the same method and applying it to different groups of shapes?

Schein: We use the Goldberg construction, dating to 1937, to generate the cages. Not new. We do have a new approach to transforming these to polyhedra. We ourselves hope to discover more new cages and polyhedra. How soon others do it, we cannot say.

adam12 freelance_Icosa-T25-planar

How do you feel the public and the media have responded to your new findings? Do you feel your work has been under appreciated, over exaggerated, misunderstood? Any notable clarifications you would make to articles that have been published?

Schein: We are surprised by the level of interest. We are impressed by some of the coverage, particularly the article in Science News, the PNAS blog, and a piece in Der Spiegel (in German).

Are you aware of any interesting properties of the duals of this sub-class of Goldberg polyhedra? (For example, the dual of a cube being an octahedron, replacing the faces with vertices.) It would seem that some level of symmetry would be lost, but traded for another.

We do not see much that is interesting in the duals of these Goldberg polyhedra. But, please note that the dual of a cage or polyhedron has the same symmetry as the original.

Do you feel that there is something particularly more appealing or useful, more important, about the particular combination of a polyhedron being convex, planar, and having equilateral sides and polyhedral symmetry? Do you think that other classes of polyhedra with high symmetry in other ways but that lack one of these are less important?

We began with an interest in self-assembly. The ‘parts’ that self-assemble are generally the same, so if the part is equivalent to an edge, then all the edges have the same size (length). We also suppose that in some situations it might be easier to assemble parts that result in planar surfaces than parts that have to contend with twisted surfaces that are out of plane or far out of plane. We used that logic to understand why the protein clathrin self-assembles into only certain fullerene cage structures and why the carbon atom self-assembles into only those cages that all have isolated pentagons. We are also interested in symmetry point groups that characterize cylinders, like nanotubes, as well as the icosahedral, octahedral and tetrahedral ones.

I have noticed that you have excluded most prisms and anti-prisms from your area of focus, it seems because of their lack of polyhedral symmetry. Is there anything about polyhedral symmetry specifically that you find to be important or interesting?

Good point. The Archimedean solids, like the soccer ball or truncated icosahedron, have one type of vertex and more than one type of regular face. Prisms and antiprisms do as well, but they do not have polyhedral symmetry. Polyhedral symmetry is appealing for reasons related to the prior answer. And, as Crick and Watson observed in 1956, virus shells (capsids) are likely to have helical or icosahedral symmetry because these elegant structures can be assembled from a very small number of parts, perhaps one in many cases, with a minimum of rules or genes.

A lot of media coverage of your findings have emphasized “400 years”. Where would you personally place the importance of the findings within the context of other polyhedron-related discoveries in the past 400 years? (For example,could you compare the new polyhedra with the Catalan Solids, Kepler’s Star polyhedra, Norman Johnson’s solids, Coxeter’s many findings, results in higher dimensional polytopes, etc).
All of these polyhedra are wonderful. Why compare?

adam13 First_compound_stellation_of_icosahedron

There seem to be many potentially beneficial applications of your findings. Does this drive your research, the hope that the applications of your discovery can help humanity, or are you content with pure abstract discovery just for the sake of understanding geometry better and finding something new, regardless of how it changes the practical world?

We never gave any thought to applications. We are basic scientists interested in beautiful objects. However, now that we have something new, it makes sense to think about uses. For example, in our paper we cite a wonderful article in the NY Times that described spherical computer displays and associated software that help children and adults alike to understand changes in the earth and its climate. Think what would happen to the so-called “debate” about climate change if everyone (including our political leaders) could see it for themselves on the spherical display. These displays could be much less expensive and thus more widely used if they were made from chips (like the planar faces of the Goldberg polyhedra). Also, we wonder if the Goldberg polyhedra could be used as designs for inexpensive but beautiful housing in disaster areas.

Any indication yet that you are aware of that your findings could influence string theory, particle physics or cosmology?

adam14 24-cell

Concerning future research, do you anticipate that your method of transforming cages into polyhedra by adjusting dihedral angle discrepancies to zero, or similar methods, will lead to new findings in other aspects of geometry, such as new 2-dimensional tilings, or previously unknown higher dimensional polytopes? Is this an area of interest for you? Are there any other particular classes of polyhedra you are excited to explore?
It would be wonderful to extend the work to higher dimensions, but it is hard enough to think clearly about those objects without having to worry about metrical properties like edge length, angles in faces and planarity

Thank you, Stan. I will be looking forward to any new discoveries to which this may lead.

So, there you have it, folks. I guess the moral of the story is that if you sort through all of the noise and cynical trash out there, and if you are willing to put in a little extra effort and patience, pretty much anything you ever wanted to know is at your fingertips with the click of a button. And there are still plenty of new things to be discovered. Yes, journalism has become increasingly unreliable, but at the same time our ablity to simply do it ourselves is become increasingly easier. What a frustrating yet particularly wonderful and splendid time period to be alive!

I will now leave you with this quote from the great Johannes Kepler:

“We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens. The diversity of the phenomena of nature is so great and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.”

Fourth class of convex equilateral polyhedron with polyhedral symmetry related to fullerenes and viruses
(the original paper by Stan Schein and James Maurice Gayed)

Science News -Goldberg Variations

Scientific American article with video by George Hart about Goldberg Polyhedra (2013)

Gizmodo’s atrocious article

Your Mid-Week Excuse for a Roundup

Business Secrets of the Pharaohs

So! Did you all know that I like the show Breaking Bad? Well, I like other things too! And I’ve been writing about them.

Not here of course. That would be silly.

So I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of things that I wrote for other sites. Both of which I quite like and I kind of wish they were here instead but OH WELL.

The big one is The Dangerous Allure of Self-Publishing: 5 Real Lessons from a Fictional Character. It’s a piece for the excellent Emily Suess, and though her blog goes through periods of inactivity (I’m absolutely one to judge…) it’s worth bookmarking. She posts some great stuff. Anyway, this is a piece about self-publishing…filtered through the “Business Secrets of the Pharaohs” episode of Peep Show. Why that episode? Because it reminded me so much of my own stupidity in the past with self-publishing that I couldn’t help but write this up.

Seriously. Self-publishing is garbage. Don’t do it. Read the piece. It’s pretty much as honest as I’ve ever been about what a fool I was. It’s not something I like to talk about often, but if it helps anyone understand just what a racket that business is, and consequently avoid the embarrassment that I was unable to, it’s worth it.

The other has actually been up for a while, but I think I forgot to link to it: 5 Classic Children’s Movies That Won’t Drive Parents Crazy. This was written for a blogger who at the time was taking pregnancy leave. I forgot to tell you about it. I think the kid is like 16 now. But this is a fun post about movies and I put jokes in it and you like those so go read it, too.

And as long as I’m posting external links, this arrived in my inbox today. It’s an infographic put together by a storage unit company. Yay?

Well…yeah, yay, because it’s actually pretty cool. Seriously, I wouldn’t have posted it, except it’s an extremely nerdy look at the contents of Walt’s storage locker, with an eye for lapses in continuity and some absolutely pointless consideration of the size of the unit and its location. And I mean that in a good way; this was a fun read. I’d actually like to see the prices of certain pieces of background dressing more often…and though I mean that sincerely I know it’s bound to come off as sarcastic so I’ll just stop.

Anyway! Three things to read. Quiz on Friday. Then Sunday night I’ll review the episode where Badger and Skinny Pete RESCUE JESSE IMMEDIATELY BECAUSE I CANNOT BEAR TO SEE HIM LIKE THAT AGAIN SERIOUSLY GUYS

Update: Here, There and Everywhere (PLUS SURVEY)

Alan Partridge running

As ever, a few items of business in place of a proper update. BUT READ ON ANYWAY BECAUSE I AM LINKING TO SOME THINGS WHAT I WROTE AND YOU WILL LIKE THEM MAYBE.

Please take my readers’ survey! Click here to do so. Seriously. This will help a lot, and it will give you a chance to let me know what you do and don’t like about this blog as we move into year two. It should take around 5 minutes at most to fill this out, so please, please, please do take the time. Again, that survey can be found here. And it’s as mandatory as a voluntary thing could ever be.

Spam is outta control, and it’s not unique to my site at all. In fact, I’m sure I get a relatively small amount of it by sheer virtue of the fact that nobody knows this site exists. (See? I know it would come in handy!) Anyway, the long and short of it is that I will no longer be sifting through the spam queue to find legitimate comments. I’m sorry for that to be the case, especially since I have found actual comments buried in there, but as of right now I have over three thousand comments waiting for review, and there’s no way I can get through those, followed tomorrow by another three thousand. So if your comment doesn’t post, please try again, or email me about it specifically and I’ll dig it out. In the absence of someone contacting me specifically though, it won’t be happening. I apologize.

Reviews of self-published and indie artists should be happening here more frequently now. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do with this blog, in order to give small writers a platform for review — I know how difficult it is — so expect to see more of those. If you know someone whose work could use a review, or if you have something you yourself would like me to review, please contact me. I’ll be adding a tab to the main navigation bar soon explaining my policy and linking to past reviews, but there you go.

I wrote about Bob Dylan for Ben Likes Music and you can find that post right here. It’s called Blood on the Tracks and the Emotional Paradox of Talent, and it’s my way of thanking Ben for all the great stuff he’s contributed to this blog right here, and also writing about Bob Dylan. I hope you enjoy it.

I also wrote about Terry Pratchett for Dave Wrote This, which is available for your snobby reading pleasure at this place. It’s called On Reading Pratchett as a Massive Snob, which explains why I phrased the previous sentence the way I did. So while it may look like I haven’t been writing much, that’s just an illusion. I’ve been writing SHITLOADS and just not putting it anywhere that you would see it. You idiot!

Anyway, thanks as always to Dave and Ben for their great stuff here, and I hope these pieces both repay them for their work on this site, and make up for any lack of updates. As always there’s some great stuff in the pipeline, so stay tuned!

Day 12: “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol,” Blackadder (1988)

On the twelfth day of Christmas, Ben Gallivan gave to us…

"Blackadder's Christmas Carol," Blackadder

“Humbug!…Humbug!!! Humbug, Mr Baldrick?”

Do Americans have mint humbugs? Do they sell them at confectioners in outdated imperial measures like they do here in the UK? Well, let it be known that I visited my local confectioners here in sunny Cardiff, UK earlier today and was charged a frankly extortionate £2.23 (around $3.60) for a tiny bag of them. No wonder Ebeneezer Blackadder is pissed (off).

Anyway, to business. Blackadder and his compadres are something of legend in these parts. For the last 30 years, Mr E. Blackadder, Mr S. Baldrick and the other characters whose names and titles change with every series have become somewhat of a national treasure and with good reason. “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol” was set in between the Georgian era – that of Blackadder The Third and that of The Great War which featured in the never bettered Blackadder Goes Forth, planting us well and truly in the middle of the Victorian era.

Even if you don’t know the episode, the title alone should give you some idea of what to expect. Lifting as lightly as possible from the storyline of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we are thrust into the late 1800s to find Blackadder and his faithful (although we know not why) servant Baldrick, running a ‘moustache shop’ in London. As an aside, it’s worth looking through the cast list to discover many of the great comic actors of the day taking part in this yuletide comedy-fest. Not only do we have the obvious talents of Messrs Atkinson and Robinson, but regulars such as Stephen Fry and a very pre-House Hugh Laurie also show their faces along with Miriam Margolyes, Jim Broadbent and Miranda Richardson. Hollywood would be bursting at the seams to get that bunch on board, you can be sure.

I am not particularly au fait with any Dickens tome; there may be parts of this little essay where you want to shout and scream at your little laptop screen at inaccuracies and wish to render me immobile, but the fact is, I was brought up in the 1980s and not the 1880s so most of my knowledge of history comes from the pen of Richard Curtis and Ben Elton.

Throughout the Blackadder series, the title character has always been the cunning, sarcastic one but in the first scene of the Christmas Carol episode, he is in a rather jaunty mood; something that has very rarely been seen before or since. Described as “the nicest man in England,” even the studio audience seem little at ease with this different persona. He is in fact, pretty much how we find Mr Scrooge at the end of the Dickens classic – even at the age of 10 when I first saw this, you could kind of see what was coming.

"Blackadder's Christmas Carol," Blackadder

Despite this, one actually feels sadness for him; his over-generosity to anyone means that visitors to his shop are pretty much guaranteed a favour or an extra piece of the pie rendering Blackadder himself lonely, sad and completely broke. Despite the jollity, he still does get the brutal digs in every now and again.

Mrs. Scratchit: [crying] No goose for Tiny Tom this year.
Blackadder: Mrs. Scratchit, Tiny Tom is fifteen stone and built like a brick privy. If he eats anymore heartily, he will turn into a pie shop.

Plus of course the lewd comments, undoubtedly supplied by Mr Elton, given that it was all he could write. A touch of the Carry On… series infiltrating some otherwise excellent comedy writing.

[Blackadder holds up a small pine twig which acts as their Christmas tree]
Baldrick: It’s a bit of a tiddler ain’t it?
Blackadder: Yes but size isn’t important my friend. It’s not what you’ve got, it’s where you stick it!

The most memorable scenes are of course the writers’ take on the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. They take shape as one entity – the Spirit of Christmas played by Robbie Coltrane. If the casting agent didn’t get a huge slap on the back for choosing him, then I’d happily go to his house to do that right now. His initial reason for visiting before going off for more hauntings and a “scare the bugger to death” was to congratulate Blackadder on his virtuous and philanthropic ways but instead his visit takes a turn.

Whilst showing him visions of his ancestry – all of which behave like bounders and cads – Blackadder becomes more intrigued than appalled and seemingly wants to be more like them, much to the worry of the Spirit of Christmas. Insistent on knowing how things would turn out in the future, we are transported into an unknown era (but let’s face it kids, those are some dated futuristic costumes and graphics, huh? – Space 1999 was more accurate) where Blackadder is Grand Admiral of the Universe or somesuch and Baldrick his weedy slave, dressed only in a leather posing pouch.

The only sight worse than Baldrick as a weedy slave dressed only in a leather posing pouch, is Blackadder himself dressed the same way. And this, we discover is how things turn out if he continues with his kind ways, prompting the revelation that “Bad guys have all the fun.” Problem solved, we’re back to Blackadder the Bastard in around 25 minutes – thank heavens for that.

"Blackadder's Christmas Carol," Blackadder

After punching Baldrick and generally being a swine, he insults the infuriating Mrs. Scratchit with the line of the episode:

Mrs. Scratchit: Ah, Mr. Ebenezer! I was wondering if you had perhaps a little present for me…? Or had found me a little fowl for Tiny Tom’s Christmas…?
Ebenezer Blackadder: I’ve always found you “foul,” Mrs. Scratchit – and more than a little!

If there’s one thing that us Brits do well, it’s the twist in the tale. This one of course being Blackadder faltering somewhat in his reception of the Queen (aka winner of the Round Britain Shortest Fattest Dumpiest Woman Competition) and Prince Albert (the victor of this year’s Stupidest Accent Award) who have come to reward him for his philanthropy by giving him fifty grand and a title. “Empress Oink” leaves very shortly after leaving Blackadder to rue his mistake of mistaken identity when Baldrick presents him with the Royal seal.

“Blackadder’s Christmas Carol” crams a lot into its 42 minutes and could quite easily been written as a feature length in itself. Cast members are thrust in and out of scenes a tad too quickly and a little more time and effort would have made this unbeatable.

But please…any budding set designers out there should take heed of the “future vision” scenes and whatever you do, try not to replicate them in any way. I know it’s a comedy, but sheesh!

Merry Christmas, everybody and if you have the odd bottle of Nurse McCready’s Surgical Bruise Lotion lying around, then you can join me in a toast to the super 2013 that’s just around the corner.

Nadolig Llawen.

Tomorrow: It’s Christmas! Get off the internet.

Day 11: Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

On the eleventh day of Christmas, Zach Kaplan gave to us…

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Every nerd has something they collect. Some try to track down every issue of their favorite comic book, some relish rare video games, and others are simply satisfied with collecting themselves after a brutal de-pantsing. I collected the work of Dr. Seuss.

Growing up, my bookshelves were filled with all number of works by Seuss, both under his usual monicker and pseudonyms Theo LeSieg and Rosetta Stone. I had rare books like his risqué adult novel The Seven Lady Godivas, collections of his World War II-era comics and advertisements and a copy of his terrible movie, The 500 Fingers of Dr. T. My father would back-order out-of-print works for me, and my favorite place to visit was the book store. So, needless to say, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was the only special that fully suited my youthful Christmas needs.

Like most of Seuss’s books, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! outlined an important message: Christmas doesn’t come from a store; it comes from the warm feelings of those we care about, and a sense of fun and togetherness. Christmas day is in our grasp, as long as we have hands to clasp (sorry, stump-o’s).

On its surface, it’s a sentiment that doesn’t look like much. Of course, with the wonderful rhyming patterns, made-up words like “chimbley” and winning illustrations, it wasn’t hard to make the message a more appealing one. But as a Seuss-o-phile, this resonated to me on a different level. Seuss’s stories were generally allegories for big, important things – Yertle the Turtle is Napoleon or Hitler, Horton Hears a Who is about the bombing and occupation of Japan (and dedicated to “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan”), The Butter Battle Book is about the Cold War. Why place the meaning of Christmas alongside such incisive analyses?

Religiously, I grew up in a household that none of my largely Christian schoolmates could fathom without a few questions. My mother was raised Episcopalian, but I don’t remember her ever being religious. My father is Jewish, but again, not very religious besides observing the high holy days and Hanukkah – though even the former practice began in my adolescence. Every year, we celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. I have fond memories of decorating our Christmas tree and lighting our menorah, illuminated as it was by an array of Christmas lights.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

I called myself a “reform Jew”, but I think all along I knew I was atheist. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself, I did not believe in God. Even without going to church every Sunday, God was assumed to exist by everyone around me – and, thus, that I believed as well. I sat by while friends called other friends “stupid” for not believing in Him before I was out of the atheist closet myself.

I was surrounded by Christianity in my suburban Texas town. Churches were everywhere. A girl that I liked was baffled by my disbelief in the miracles of Jesus. I uncomfortably sat through an assembly that was described as a talent show for teachers, where one instructor gave a brief but passionate Evangelical sermon. The Daily Show came to my hometown to interview members of a group who, in reaction to the building of a mosque, held pig races on Friday nights. A barbecue restaurant I drove past every day was in the news a few years ago for its refusal to take down a graphic image of an Iranian man being lynched. It wasn’t hard for me to develop some mixed feelings about religion, and subsequently about Christmas. Doctors told me that my heart was dangerously close to shrinking three sizes.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the TV special, brought the wonderful world of Dr. Seuss straight to America’s sets every year, and that was a special thing for me. Without having something like that, I may have become a much more bitter person than I did. It brought the story to life, and it didn’t need Jim Carrey’s signature jumping and screaming to get it done.

It only expanded on the kernel of goodness that was the original novel, along with the memorable voice acting of Boris Karloff and the chasm-deep tones of singer Thurl Ravenscroft, also known for his famous portrayal of Tony the Tiger. It also gave color to the world of the Whos, whose existence in the book was originally limited to Seuss’s stylistic choice of only including the color red. For the budding literary geek I was, turns of phrase like “you’ve got termites in your smile,” “your heart’s a dead tomato splotched with moldy, purple spots” and “your soul is an appalling dump-heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, mangled-up in tangled-up knots,” stuck in my memory and inspired me to create fiction of my own.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

But let’s return to my original query – why would a Christmas special be written by Dr. Seuss, whose most accomplished pre-children’s work was his co-authorship of Design for Death, a 1947 Academy Award-winning documentary about World War II and the occupation of Japan? As a child, however, my reverence for Seuss assured me that I ought to trust him on this one, to enjoy Christmas in spite of my schoolmates’ bemused bafflement at what they considered a devastating personal flaw in me.

I was reminded to not get too annoyed by the constant barrage of carols every time I went to a store, and to remember that Christmas doesn’t have to be about religion – it can be about togetherness and love. And it reminded me that not everyone who had faith was the barbecue bigot down the street.

Today I fully identify as an atheist. And yet every year, my wife and I set up our Christmas tree, deck our halls and watch Christmas special after Christmas special. The Grinch may have tried to steal Christmas, but he gave me a very important gift – an understanding that even though the world isn’t perfect and that there will always be closed-minded people, Christmas should be a celebration of what we have in common, not a magnification of our differences.

Thank goodness I have hands to clasp.

Tomorrow: Spend Christmas Eve with Ebenezer. No, not that one.

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