Friday, January 4, 2013

The Mighty Dot

It’s probably the smallest thing on the page. Something you pass by without even noticing. In the world of digital, it’s called the dot. In the domain of sentences and paragraphs it’s the period. In the realm of finance it’s a decimal. Such a tiny thing, and yet at the end of a sentence it says “full stop.” Without that tiny dot, your web address goes wandering, lost in space. And in finance and statistics it can be deadly.

In 1876, Melvin Dewey saw the value of that little dot when he invented the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system. He found that the dot, or period, helped make it possible to design a sophisticated classification system. That system is now used in over 200,000 libraries in 135 countries. And they take it seriously. In 1988, The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC)  of Dublin, Ohio acquired the trademark and copyrights associated with the DDC when it bought Forest Press (which owned the original copyrights). OCLC maintains the classification system and publishes new editions of the system. The editorial staff responsible for updates is based partly at the Library of Congress and partly at OCLC. Their work is reviewed by the Decimal Classification Editorial Policy Committee (EPC), which is a ten-member international board that meets twice each year. The four-volume unabridged edition is published approximately every six years, the most recent edition (DDC 23) in mid 2011. The web edition is updated on an ongoing basis, with changes announced each month. These are serious people.

Fortunately, those individuals who created the world wide web chose that little dot. Allows for all kinds of possibilities.

In the realm of finance, the dot makes a huge difference. I know. I had received my statement for my TV cable costs from Comcast. $24.85. I use a program called Billpay, so I brought up my online checking account. Got into Billpay and entered the information, pressed the last button and closed the account. The following week, I received an email from Comcast informing me that my check for $2485 had been rejected due to insufficient funds. Wow. The mighty dot!

I was mulling these ideas over in my head, making notes, while I watched a documentary about Erma Bombeck. She was a writer during the 50s and 60s, a suburban housewife who wrote about her family and her life. Her columns were in over 900 newspapers, she wrote six books, and she made people laugh. An amazing woman.

Immediately, my “comparison gene” kicked in. Oh no! I had been a suburban wife in the 60s and what had I accomplished? I crumpled up the paper I’d been making notes on for this blog piece in order to throw it away. There was no way I could ever compete with her, can’t even come close. Why do I even try? And then I remembered something Harry Belefonte once said to me. It was during the 60s and he was coming to town. Dick, my husband, had arranged a number of parties and meetings for him and so we drove to the airport to pick him up. On the way to his hotel, Harry suggested we stop and have dinner, just the three of us. Give him a few hours of quiet before all the hullabaloo started. So Dick found a nice restaurant. Harry told us what he was up to and then asked about us. When it was my turn, I told him about the few civil rights things I was doing. I was apologetic and embarrassed. It seemed like nothing compared to all that he was doing.

Harry interrupted me. He took a pen from his pocket and told me about the power of an arrowhead. He made a mark on the tablecloth and explained it was the point of the arrowhead. But it couldn’t work alone. He continued making his marks:
He pointed to one of the marks along the bottom row and said he was there and I was too. Without us, he said, the arrow is faulty and won’t accomplish its mission. Every person is important, every single one. Ah, like the might dot. If the dot decides it wants to be fancier (,) or add some flash (;) or mass (:), it can’t do the job it was intended to do. It has to be just what it is. I uncrumpled my paper and continued making my notes.


  1. All I can say is, thank heavens Ruth, because you are one mighty dot.

    I am a fan of Erma Bombeck (Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Bill Cosby, etc.) because I have learned that if you can't laugh at yourself, you are missing out on a LOT of good material.

    However, you came before Erma and have outlived her by decades. You have become the tip of a new arrowhead, with not only your own children and grandchildren backing you up, but thousands of children that have benefited from your values program, thousands that have learned from your books, and - even better - those you have personally taught, like my own, that will be better people as a result.

    ... so please keep uncrumpling those notes and sharing your insights and wisdom! (the mighty dot with real flair)

  2. Great story about Belafonte. He's one of my favorites!