Bernard Paul Sypniewski is a linguist, classics scholar and translator of
Latin and Greek, attorney, naturalist, and assistant professor of computer sciences at
Rowan University. He teaches computer programming and web design for
Project Hope in Camden. Also a bit of a cook, Bernard and his wife Maryjaye are
quite familiar with the grocery markets and restaurants in Philadelphia's Chinatown.
This interview was conducted partly by email and partly on a dock in
Jerseyworks: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where do you live and work, and what do you like to do? What degrees do you have?
Sypniewski: Woodbine, Rowan University. Bacc from St. Peter's College, Joisey Siddy, JD from Seton Hall University in Newark (pronounced Nerk by conductors on the PATH line). Also 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, of which I am particularly proud. I find the latter degree the most useful.
Jerseyworks: Tell us a little more about Woodbine.
BPS: Woodbine is an oasis in the middle of the shore economy. No beach, few tourists,
just good food and good people. Needless to say, we are a poor (economically)
community. Many trees and animals too.
JW: What do some of the other members of your family do?
BPS: Eat, sleep, and listen to the radio, the usual stuff. I am particularly good
at falling asleep on the couch.
JW: One of today's frequently asked questions is, How does a person find the
time to do the things they really want to do? Yet you have
found the time to pursue many things, and you seem to be living pretty
close to the "real you"? How does a person go about attaining this?
BPS: Probably by ignoring many things that you "should" do. Somewhere, way back when,
someone said that people should prioritize things in their lives. I took this
seriously. Family, friends, things I like to do, everything else.
JW: What were you like in high school?
BPS: Not a great student. I ran the intramural sports program
(students were encouraged to do that) in a somewhat Bilko-esque way.
Didn't date at all. I didn't ask questions like "Who am I?" I knew-- not
that I liked the answer all that much. I was more concerned at finding out
how things worked.
JW: What are the pressing issues in the world today, and how can we get at them?
BPS: Seriously: how to find a good cup of coffee, the price of decent bread,
how to get along with family and friends, how to find things out.
Everything else is just a variant on one of those themes
(the previous list is non-exhaustive). "Men in Black" (one of my favorite movies)
has a great line in it: "A person is smart; people are noisy,
dangerous animals." Or words to that effect. I couldn't agree more.
I really see a tyranny in what we "should" do. Many of the greatest
problems in the world are directly attributable to doing things that we
"should" do. We've got to stop this, sit down, put our feet up, have some
lemonade. The feeling of "should" will go away. Somebody who sits on his
butt under a tree, drinking lemonade does not throw a bomb. I am very serious
JW. Describe your device for tracking bats and how you got interested in this.
BPS: Bats make noise in a frequency range above our ability to hear.
The bat detector that I have plugs into my ear via an earphone, detects bat
signals (or anything else within a certain frequency range), and through the
miracle of modern electronics, a 9 volt battery and $50 for the price of
admission, reduces the frequency of the bat signal to a frequency I can hear.
I got interested in this by noticing (actually MJ noticed this first)
that there were bats in the air above our yard at a certain time of night.
I wanted to know more about them. A friend told me about bat detectors. The rest
JW. Tell us about your involvement with horseshoe crabs.
BPS: Pretty much the same sort of thing except without a bat detector. Actually, you detect wave action with a bat detector but that's another unwritten story... Delaware Bay, which is near my house, has the world's largest population of horseshoe crabs. A study called for volunteers to count horseshoe crabs. Essentially, there were two requirements: the ability to count and the ability to identify male and female horseshoe crabs. So I figured "What the hell..." This activity appeals to people who see nothing unusual in standing in the surf up to your knees at midnight on a moonless night trying to figure out how many horseshoe crabs can fit within a five meter quadrant while wondering whether that was really thunder.
I also like East Point, which is where I count and where I almost sank
into the marsh...
JW: How do your encounters with the arts affect you? How do they become part
of your thoughts and reality?
BPS: Two somewhat contradictory ways. In college, I thought that I would
become a modern artist. No need to know how to draw... I did some painting and
some stone sculpture (which I really like doing) and even exhibited a few pieces.
The art world was at once pretentious and exciting. I've always liked
literature, especially poetry and drama. I taught myself how to play
(and build) a few instruments and played music with a
medieval-renaissance-baroque group and also with a bagpipe
band (because a bagpipe is easier to play while marching than
a piano, that's why). I don't see any separation between
"art" and "real life." "Art" is another way of saying something,
whatever that something is. Not everything can be said through words.
JW: Do you consider yourself a rationalist? How would you describe
a rational approach to the world?
BPS: Do I consider myself rational? I can tell you some people's answer
to that question. I don't know. I'm not sure that I know what
"rational" means. Seriously...
JW: In what areas do you allow or fall into a less rational mode?
BPS: I don't "allow" anything. Who am I to allow something? It's hard for me
to answer the "fall into" part of the question because since I'm not sure
what rational is, I'm not sure what irrational is. I guess that I don't think
about it that much.
JW: Were your parents a great influence on you? Were they role models? Did
they help you set goals and attain them?
BPS: Yes, sort of, no.
JW: What kind of music and what musicians do you like most?
BPS: Depends on my mood. If I'm being contemplative: chant, Gregorian or otherwise.
If I want to get "up": ACID rock, bluegrass, Afropop, Reggae, stuff from the
Middle East. If I want to relax: Medieval European, American folk songs,
Chinese and other eastern music. If I want to put a little metal in my
spine: bagpipe music.
JW: Who are your favorite writers and painters?
BPS: I like contemporary poets from SJ, Yevtushenko, many anonymous writers,
Snorri Sturlason (Iceland saga writer), Su Shi, Tu Fu, Li Ba (Chinese poets),
Farley Mowat, many many others. I also like detective stories.
Painters: anonymous did some good things.
JW: Who are the three wisest people who ever lived? And tell us just a little
bit about why you think so.
BPS: Wise. Hmmm... not smart, wise... Well, there was Lao Zi, assuming
that he was a real person. If he wasn't, he should have been. He wrote the
Dao De Jing, assuming that he was a real person and actually wrote it, which
no one is actually sure about. A great book-- nobody understands it but there
is good stuff in it. He also, assuming that he and the water buffalo that he
supposedly rode on were real, left his society when things got really bad. I
admire that. If he wasn't real then I would put Zhuang Zi in his place for
pretty much the same reason except for the water buffalo part. Most
people think he was real. I do too. Maybe Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce or
Black Elk (of speaking fame)... I'm just not sure. I know that I wouldn't
place any world leader in this group. I can't think of any contemporary
who would fit in this category. I'll have to get back to you...
JW: Is there such a thing as a good attitude about money?
BPS: Yes. Nothing too much...
JW: How much of it should a person try to have?
BPS: A few dollars more than you need. Just in case. Nobody can foresee
everything. Money should not be accumulated.
JW: In what sense is there such a thing as the human race?
BPS: Genetics, obviously.
JW: Have you seen any good movies lately?
JW: Can anything be done about anything?
BPS: Well, "anything" is quite a broad field of endeavor. A large part of my
answer depends on whether you can kick the particular part of anything to which
you refer. You could also press the DELETE key.
JW; We know you're a bit of an international scholar in the field of linguistics
and that this summer you are presenting papers in both Montreal and Brussels.
For those in the dark, exactly what is linguistics and what relevance does it
JW: Not Brussels, Leuven. They get very touchy about that over there and even
insist on having their own mayor. Linguistics is the study of language, or at
least I think it is. From some of the papers that I heard and books
that I've read, sometimes I'm not so sure. What relevance does it have?
Let's see. Normally, I would say none, which completely justifies it for me.
For the more sensible amongst us (I've got my eye on you), we all communicate
in some way. I think that it's a good idea if we know how and even why
(even though Igor Mel'chuk says that you can't ask "why." I asked him why he
thinks so and he told me. Go figure.) we communicate. Besides, it keeps me
off the streets. It interests me; for me, that's all I need to know about
JW: As a lawyer and as city solicitor for Woodbine, say a few words about
your views of the legal system and the uses of law.
BPS: I resent your tone, young man. I am NOT city solicitor. It is true
that I am a lawyer, which is sometimes like being a leper, but I am
PUBLIC DEFENDER, a much more honorable (if less well paid) branch of law than
"city solicitor." (He shudders with dread.)* Unfortunately, we need law and a
system to enforce it. I think we have too much law. It seems like every Tom,
Dick, and Harry can get a law banning something passed. One problem that
I see is that our system of laws isn't really a system; it's a hodge podge
of systems and partial systems, and things that were left under the rug or
behind the couch. We need to think about law as one big unit. Unfortunately,
we have the guys in the legislature to do that for us. Some of them are quite
capable, some not, but all of them are always running for election. Therefore,
the only thing on the top of the agenda is being re-elected. There is very
little time in one term to get anything solid accomplished. I sometimes think
that it would be better to have term limits with longer terms
(1 term is the limit); other times, I think that all terms should last
no more than a few weeks. That way, no one will be able to do things that
are truly stupid. The other thing that I would do is severely limit the
amount of paper that each legislator can have. Maybe 2 pages a day. It'll
make them think. Worked for Virgil. (*parenthetical comment
JW: How did you learn computer programming languages, and how did you
get to be an assistant professor at Rowan University?
BPS: Learning computer languages is a matter of persistence. Get the right
materials (a version of the language and a few elementary books) and bang away at
it. Soon you too will be writing bad programs. Good programs take effort,
like writing anything well.
As best as I can tell, I got the job at Rowan because I was willing to
teach in Camden, something that most other professors dread. I don't know why.
The pushcart has good hotdogs.