Sunday, May 29, 2005

SMiLE v. Pet Sounds

Brian Wilson, in one of the interview excerpts in the 2-dvd set Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE:

Well, Pet Sounds everybody liked of course. People love Pet Sounds. But if you want to put it on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give Pet Sounds a 4 and SMiLE a 10.
Of course, if you already think of Pet Sounds as a 10, that makes SMiLE a 25!

Friday, May 27, 2005

Duke and Ella, corrected

My dad clips and annotates and sends me error-filled articles by youthful journalists who evidently know very little about jazz (which alas doesn't stop them from writing about it). Here are two errors, from a brief profile of Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun that appeared in the Record, a New Jersey newspaper. The writer is one Elle Govea. The first error concerns Duke Ellington:

Ertegun's musical ear introduced him to legendary performers long before they became famous. He told New York magazine of seeing Duke Ellington play at the London Palladium in 1933.
Now, if Duke Ellington had crossed the Atlantic to play the London Palladium, wouldn't that strongly suggest that he was already famous? Here's an excerpt from the uncredited front-page story that appeared in Britain's Melody Maker on June 17, 1933:
Well! he's here! We have been reading about the Duke this last four or five years; he has become an almost legendary figure; it seemed impossible that we should ever see him in the flesh, or hear those amazing sounds other than via a gramophone. Yet, unbelievably, he is here. (From The Duke Ellington Reader, ed. Mark Tucker.)
Note: almost legendary.

How difficult would it have been to work this out? Not very. A Google search for duke ellington and 1933 turns up, as the fifth hit, a page with the biographical summary sections from Tucker's book. Just glancing at them would let one know that by 1933 Ellington was indeed famous.

The other error involves Ella Fitzgerald:
Ahmet recalled . . . that he was the first person to ask for an autograph from Ella Fitzgerald (then just a teenager), when she was a backup singer for Chick Webb.
My dad, with admirable restraint, has simply underlined the word backup. Ella Fitzgerald was a singer with Chick Webb. I wonder whether Govea was confusing Chick Webb with Cab Calloway. Or perhaps she assumed that a singer with someone else's "band" must be a backup singer. Good grief!

There's nothing wrong with making mistakes. But it's another thing to make mistakes in print, and in a context (the "entertainment" section) in which corrections are unlikely to appear. A proper respect for reality (and for Duke and Ella) makes me feel it appropriate to make the corrections here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

John Holt on learning and difficulty

The idea of "simplified classics" made me recall some observations from John Holt:

The bright child is patient. He can tolerate uncertainty and failure, and will keep trying until he gets an answer. When all his experiments fail, he can even admit to himself and others that for the time being he is not going to get an answer. This may annoy him, but he can wait. Very often, he does not want to be told how to do the problem or solve the puzzle he has struggled with, because he does not want to be cheated out of the chance to figure it out for himself in the future. . . .

The bright child is willing to go ahead on the basis of incomplete understanding and information. He will take risks, sail uncharted seas, explore when the landscape is dim, the landmarks few, the light poor. To give only one example, he will often read books he does not understand in the hope that after a while enough understanding will emerge to make it worth while to go on. In this spirit some of my fifth graders tried to read Moby Dick. . . .

We adults destroy most of the intellectual and creative capacity of children by the things we do to them or make them do. We destroy this capacity above all by making them afraid, afraid of not doing what other people want, of not pleasing, of making mistakes, of failing, of being wrong. Thus we make them afraid to gamble, afraid to experiment, afraid to try the difficult and the unknown.

From How Children Fail (1964)

Monday, May 23, 2005

Simplified classics?

From an article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg in today's Wall Street Journal on a new series of "simplified classics," "retold using simpler words":

The books have won praise of a number of educators. Peggy Charren, a visiting scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, an advocate for higher quality children's media, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said she has read several of the books. "I was worried because they are truncated, but they're terrific," she said. "For some kids with reading problems, picture books may be as far as they get. But when they can make sense out of symbols on the page, you want them to have to the option of reading something wonderful, like a classic."

Jeffrey Goldstein, a psychologist at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands who specializes in children and media, said he thinks the series is a useful way of making the classics accessible to kids who might otherwise not be able to read them. "It's extraordinarily important for children to feel that they have access to literature," said Mr. Goldstein. "As a teacher you want children to enjoy reading and feel connected to other people who have read these books." The substitution of contemporary shorter words for 19th-century English words is less important than the fact that kids are being exposed to classic literature that their parents might have read, he added.

But several schools that teach kids with reading disabilities say they're emphasizing classics in the original text and won't be buying copies for their classrooms.

One academic institution says kids with reading issues may do better with the originals. "Just because you have reading problems doesn't mean you can't appreciate complex thought and complex language," says Maureen Sweeney, assistant head and director of admissions of the Windward School, an independent nonprofit school in White Plains, N.Y., for children who have language-based learning disabilities. Ms. Sweeney said such students can be taught to read in a multisensory program that includes books-on-tape. "We don't want a watered-down curriculum," she said.

A key issue, says Linda Spector, director of special education at Ann Arbor Academy in Ann Arbor, Mich., is that many kids with reading issues are at a high conceptual level. Ms. Spector would welcome the new series from Sterling Publishing into the school's library as a resource for students who want to read "Tom Sawyer" but can't. However, in the classroom she is emphasizing original literature by using short stories. "We're getting away from the adaptations and want the beautiful, original language," she says.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Misspelling

From an article in today's New York Times:

Simon Curtis is tall and affable, with a shy inwardness befitting a teenagehood spent alone in the bedroom drawing comics and pouring over heavy metal and punk records.
That should be poring. To pore over something is to study it carefully. One might pore over a piece one has written to check for homonym errors.

You can read the article by clicking here. [Use mediajunkie as your name and password.]

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Zuppa time

From the package of Alessi's Lenticchie (lentil soup) that my wife is reading in the kitchen:

There is a saying about soups in Southern Italy that states, "Sette cose fa la zuppa," which translates to "Soup does seven things. It relieves your hunger, quenches your thirst, fills your stomach, cleans your teeth, makes you sleep, helps you digest and colors your cheeks."
She's also baking bread. Thanks, Elaine.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The class of 1940

From an article in the New York Times on members of the class of 1940 from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, New York, who now gather every two months for dinner:

They were also lucky with their teachers, said Dorothy Fisch Thomashower, the editor of the yearbook, The Log, who went on to become a biographer and book indexer. The Depression, she said, meant that scholars who might have chosen a professorial track ended up teaching in high school.

Every Thursday evening, Mrs. Touster, an English teacher (no one could remember her first name), invited students to her home in the neighborhood, now known as Midwood, for poetry readings or to listen to her collection of classical 78's. "We were 17-year-old kids and we assumed this above-it-all attitude," said Bernice Tansman Levine. "One would sprawl on the steps, another would lay prone in the living room, and she put on this magnificent music."

Because of her, said Mrs. Levine, who spent most of her working life as a state employment counselor, "I don't read Danielle Steel--I read Saul Bellow and Philip Roth."
You can read the article by clicking here.

[To read the Times, use mediajunkie as your name and password.]

Monday, May 16, 2005

"The Scourge of Arial"

From Mark Simonson's essay "The Scourge of Arial":

Arial is everywhere. If you don't know what it is, you don't use a modern personal computer. Arial is a font that is familiar to anyone who uses Microsoft products, whether on a PC or a Mac. It has spread like a virus through the typographic landscape and illustrates the pervasiveness of Microsoft's influence in the world.

Arial's ubiquity is not due to its beauty. It's actually rather homely. Not that homeliness is necessarily a bad thing for a typeface. With typefaces, character and history are just as important. Arial, however, has a rather dubious history and not much character. In fact, Arial is little more than a shameless impostor.
You can read the essay by clicking here.

Perhaps from the Greek

From Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day email:

cronyism \ KROH-nee-iz-um\ noun
: partiality to cronies especially as evidenced in the appointment of political hangers-on to office without regard to their qualifications

Example sentence:
The newly elected governor appointed many of his old pals to prominent positions, prompting accusations of cronyism from his opponents.

Did you know?
"Forsake not an old friend; for the new is not comparable to him" (Ecclesiasticus 9:10). Practitioners of cronyism would probably agree. The word "cronyism" evolved in the 19th century as a spin-off of "crony," meaning "friend" or "chum." "Crony" originated in England in the 17th century, perhaps as a play on the Greek word "chronios," meaning "long-lasting," from "chronos," meaning "time." Nineteenth-century cronyism was simply friendship, or the ability to make friends. The word didn't turn bad until the mid-20th century, when Americans starting using "cronyism" to refer to the act of playing political favorites.

16 candles

Happy birthday, Ben!

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Classical music for beginners

Greg Sandow on classical music for beginners:

So if you want to start listening to classical music, ask yourself what kind of music you already like. Do you like, for instance, passionate music? Then maybe you should start with one of the romantic classical composers, Schubert, Wagner, or Tchaikovsky. Do you like brainy music? Start with Bach.

Though if I had to recommend just one classical CD, or in this case a classical CD set, I'd suggest Bach's Goldberg Variations, in two performances by Glenn Gould, as reissued in a Sony package called A Sense of Wonder, which costs little more than a single CD, and gives you a bonus disc on which Gould talks about the piece.

The Goldberg Variations is an astonishing piece. It's written in short sections, each based on the same musical design; you can hear that, or at least sense it, so you can start to learn something about classical music's structure. The performances are astonishing, too, but also very different. By comparing them, you can start to answer one question beginners often ask, which is how performances of the same piece differ from each other. And since Gould tells you (on the bonus disc) which performance he thinks is better, you can develop your independence as a classical music listener, by deciding whether or not you agree with him.
You can read more by clicking here. (Via Musical Assumptions.)

My two-cents on the Goldbergs can be found here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Tools for serious readers?

I like Levenger, sort of. It's a source for beautiful furniture, reasonably-priced fountain pens, and dazzling (and, yes, unaffordable) watches. I'm sitting at a Levenger carrel as I'm typing.

The problem with Levenger though is its tendency to turn any human endeavor into a sham--a mere exercise in conspicuous consumption. Consider its new product line: Bookography™, an array of reading-journals and accessories.

The company slogan--"Tools for Serious Readers"--looks pretty ironic in light of Bookography™. "It's never too late--or too early," the catalogue encourages us, "to start keeping a journal of the books you've read and are planning to read, and the truths and pleasure you take from them. We've found [sic] a new and satisfying way to do so, which we call your Bookography."

Oh, my very own Bookography™.

The Bookography™ Journal must be seen to be appreciated (by clicking here). It's a ring-binder with removable pages ($20, Junior; $24, Letter). An optional leather jacket will cost you $78 or $94. There's also Electronic Bookography™ ($50) and a Deluxe Electronic version ($84, for books, "music," and "video"). A scanner ($14) is available to gather online information via barcodes (I'm not kidding).

Each book is allotted a single page, which travels from section to section of the Journal. The page begins in the "List of Candidates" (books you want to read). Note that a true list would gather many titles on a single page. With Bookography™, you've already devoted a page to a single book you might never read (you get only fifty pages, with "refills" available).

In an ideal narrative, the page travels to the "Library of Candidates" (books you've "acquired"), then to the books you're "Now Reading" (with a section for "Castaways," "proof of your sampling enough good titles"), then to "Après Reading" (while you review the book "a few times at lengthening intervals"), and, finally, to your "Living Library" ("most pages will live here").

The fill-in-the-blanks layout of the book page itself reminds me of the pages my children were filling out not too long ago in elementary school. To wit:

"My reason for wanting to read it": One of the imaginary people whose handwriting graces Levenger catalogue photos has written, in ladylike script, "Sounds like fascinating history."

"Notes as I go": Three lines, with an arrow to the back of the page.

"My review notes": Another three lines, another arrow.

(And here I'm really reminded of elementary school: "Use the back if you need more space!")

"I'll recommend this book to," "I'll buy this book for," "This book led me to these books," "This book led me to these experiences or interests": These prompts are each allotted a single line. (All that's missing is "I liked this book because.") There's no arrow next to "This book led me to these experiences or interests." Levenger customers must be pretty darn succinct (or else they write more about their experiences in their leather-bound journals).

Here's a different approach to keeping a reading-journal. Keep a list of books you might want to read (an index card, text file, or Palm memo will do just fine). Buy a notebook. Buy or borrow some books. Read. Write.

It surprised me at first that the Levenger catalogue gives away the whole idea of Bookography™ by showing the page format in a large, easy-to-read photograph. There's nothing to stop someone who really wants to do a Bookography™ Journal from typing out a reasonable facsimile, printing copies, punching holes, and getting started. But Levenger must know its customers well enough to know that what they're really after is the feeling that comes with possessing this, uhh, tool. A tool for a serious reader? A tool for a serious dilettante, I'm afraid.

An aside: For several years I asked students in my classes to keep reading-journals--tremendously rewarding for them to write, tremendously exhausting for me to read. The minimum entry was 400 words per class (in college classes meeting three times a week). I graded journals on length, relevance, and completeness. A finished journal typically filled one or more two-inch looseleaf binders. That's what I call a tool for a serious reader.

Saturday, May 7, 2005

I dream of Mingus

A dream with Charles Mingus in it: He and I are sitting in a dark room with floor-to-ceiling red drapes. There are bookshelves attached to metal posts on one wall. Mingus is methodically signing LPs (not mine) with a Sharpie and talking: "Remember--what I will be tomorrow, you have already been."

The words in this dream seem backwards (me ahead of him?), but my guess is that they're related to the multiples selves in the opening paragraphs of Mingus' Beneath the Underdog (1971):

"In other words, I am three. One man stands forever in the middle, unconcerned, unmoved, watching, waiting to be allowed to express what he sees to the other two. The second man is like a frightened animal that attacks for fear of being attacked. Then there's an over-loving gentle person who lets people into the uttermost sacred temple of his being and he'll take insults and be trusting and sign contracts without reading them and get talked down to working cheap or for nothing, and when he realizes what's been done to him he feels like killing and destroying everything around him including himself for being so stupid. But he can't--he goes back inside himself."

     "Which one is real?"

     "They're all real."

Friday, May 6, 2005

Moxie

From Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day service:

The Word of the Day for May 6 is:

moxie \MAHK-see\ noun
1 : energy, pep
*2 : courage, determination
3 : know-how, expertise

Example sentence:
It took a lot of moxie for Brandon to go back to school to follow his dream of becoming a lawyer.

Did you know?
"Hot roasted peanuts! Fresh popcorn! Ice-cold Moxie!" You might have heard such a vendor's cry at a baseball game--if you attended one in 1924. That was the heyday of the soft drink called "Moxie," which some claim outsold Coca-Cola at the height of its popularity. The beverage was a favorite of American writer E.B. White, who wrote, "Moxie contains gentian root, which is the path to the good life. This was known in the second century before Christ and is a boon to me today." By 1930, "moxie" had become a slang term for nerve and verve, perhaps because some people thought the drink was a tonic that could cure virtually any ill and bring vim back to even the most lethargic individual.
Here in the midwest, you can find Moxie in stores that carry "specialty sodas." Moxie must be tasted to be believed.

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Words, words, words

From a New York Times article, "SAT Essay Test Rewards Length and Ignores Errors":

In the next weeks, Dr. Perelman studied every graded sample SAT essay that the College Board made public. He looked at the 15 samples in the ScoreWrite book that the College Board distributed to high schools nationwide to prepare students for the new writing section. He reviewed the 23 graded essays on the College Board Web site meant as a guide for students and the 16 writing "anchor" samples the College Board used to train graders to properly mark essays.

He was stunned by how complete the correlation was between length and score. "I have never found a quantifiable predictor in 25 years of grading that was anywhere near as strong as this one," he said. "If you just graded them based on length without ever reading them, you'd be right over 90 percent of the time." The shortest essays, typically 100 words, got the lowest grade of one. The longest, about 400 words, got the top grade of six. In between, there was virtually a direct match between length and grade.

He was also struck by all the factual errors in even the top essays. An essay on the Civil War, given a perfect six, describes the nation being changed forever by the "firing of two shots at Fort Sumter in late 1862." (Actually, it was in early 1861, and, according to "Battle Cry of Freedom" by James M. McPherson, it was "33 hours of bombardment by 4,000 shot and shells.")

Dr. Perelman contacted the College Board and was surprised to learn that on the new SAT essay, students are not penalized for incorrect facts. The official guide for scorers explains: "Writers may make errors in facts or information that do not affect the quality of their essays. For example, a writer may state 'The American Revolution began in 1842' or '"Anna Karenina," a play by the French author Joseph Conrad, was a very upbeat literary work.'" (Actually, that's 1775; a novel by the Russian Leo Tolstoy; and poor Anna hurls herself under a train.) No matter. "You are scoring the writing, and not the correctness of facts."

How to prepare for such an essay? "I would advise writing as long as possible," said Dr. Perelman, "and include lots of facts, even if they're made up." This, of course, is not what he teaches his M.I.T. students. "It's exactly what we don't want to teach our kids," he said.
You can read the article by clicking here.

Mixed metaphors

From an article in the Orlando Sentinel on saxophonist Branford Marsalis' explorations of the classical repertoire:

So, Marsalis embraced the crucible to propel himself into a higher orbit.
Yikes!

[Thanks to my dad for sending this article my way.]

Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Multitasking makes you stupid

From "Multitasking Makes You Stupid: Studies Show Pitfalls of Doing Too Much at Once," by Sue Shellenbarger:

--People who multitask are actually less efficient than those who focus on one project at a time, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The time lost switching among tasks increases with the complexity of the tasks, according to the research by Dr. Meyer and others.

--The process of switching back immediately to a task you've just performed, as many multitaskers try to do, takes longer than switching after a bit more time has passed, say findings published last fall by researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health. The reason is that the brain has to overcome "inhibitions" it imposed on itself to stop doing the first task in the first place; it takes time, in effect, to take off the brakes. If you wait several seconds longer before switching tasks, the obstacles imposed by that shutting-off process are reduced.

--Managing two mental tasks at once reduces the brainpower available for either task, according to a study published in the journal NeuroImage. Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University asked subjects to listen to sentences while comparing two rotating objects. Even though these activities engage two different parts of the brain, the resources available for processing visual input dropped 29% if the subject was trying to listen at the same time. The brain activation for listening dropped 53% if the person was trying to process visual input at the same time.

"It doesn't mean you can't do several things at the same time," says Dr. Just, co-director of the university's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging. "But we're kidding ourselves if we think we can do so without cost."
You can read the Wall Street Journal article by clicking here.