Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year

[Marty (Ernest Borgnine) and Clara (Betsy Blair) sit side by side in the dining room. Marty has tried to kiss Clara; she's said no.]

Marty: Well, I'm old enough to know better. Comes New Year's Eve, everybody starts arranging parties. I'm the guy they gotta dig up a date for. I'll just get a pack of cigarettes and take --

Clara: I'd like to see you again. Very much. The reason I didn't let you kiss me was because I just didn't know how to -- handle the situation. You're the kindest man I ever met. The reason I tell you this is because I want to see you again, very much. I know that when you take me home I'm just going to lie on my bed and think about you. I want very much to see you again.

Marty: What are you doing tomorrow night?

Clara: Nothing.

Marty: I'll call you up tomorrow. Maybe we'll go see a movie.

Clara: I'd like that, very much.

Marty: The reason I can't be more definite now is because my Aunt Catherine is probably coming over tomorrow. I may have to help out.

Clara: I'll wait for your call.

Marty: I better take you home now. [They stand.] It's getting late and the busses only run about one an hour.

Clara: All right.

Marty: I'll just get a pack of cigarettes. [Marty walks to the dresser, gets the cigarettes, comes back. He and Clara now stand face to face.]

Marty: What are you doing New Year's Eve?

Clara: Nothing.

[They kiss.]
From Marty (1955), directed by Delbert Mann, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

What am I doing New Year's Eve? Transcribing this dialogue, before sharing a bottle of wine with my wife.

Happy New Year.

"Serious pencils indeed"

I have a piece of writing (with photographs) at Pencil Revolution, a wonderful site. "Serious pencils indeed" is the story of some A.W. Faber Castell 9000 pencils that I found in an office-supply store, some 45 years or so after their manufacture.

It's appropriate that this piece has appeared before 2005 is over -- as Pencil Revolution points out, 2005 marks the 100th anniversary of the Castell 9000.

My son: "Points out. Ha ha. Please write no pun intended."

Me: "Okay."

No pun intended.

Link "Serious pencils indeed"

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Taste in apes


"Personally, I'm more willing to believe the puppet-apes than the computer-generated apes."

Monday, December 26, 2005

Food for thought

My local newspaper has changed its format to focus on infotainment -- a neverending series of articles on dieting, shopping, budgeting, and so on. But what about the second ad below, from today's paper? Is its presence in the "Foods" category better explained by carelessness, or by a journalist's desire to bring value-added amusement to every corner of the paper? (And while I'm asking questions: who shops for "foods" in the classifieds anyway?)

My friend Joanna Key spotted this ad. Thanks, Joanna, for sharing.

Sunday, December 25, 2005


Seen on the television screen this evening, on a PBS station, no less:

Hark The Harold Angels Sing

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Christmas truce

Well, we were in those trenches I don't know how long. Then it came, Christmas morning. So we stuck a board up -- "Merry Christmas." They also stuck one up -- "Merry Christmas." So we were saying, Well, I don't think they'll fire today. No, I don't think they will.

Then lo and behold, it was a German coming down out of the trench, run right into the River Lys, he did. And here was a German coming down the riverbank with his hands up above. One of our chaps threw his equipment off. He went out to meet him.

Well, he shook hands. Then we all got out.
In a 1954 interview, Frank Richards of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers remembers the Christmas truce of 1914.

Link: Frank Richards interview (from the BBC archives, requires the RealPlayer)

Link: The Christmas truce (from the BBC)

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Men and women?

I'm still waiting for the New York Times to acknowledge an error in a review of Bob Spitz's The Beatles (see here for the details). Checking the Corrections page today, I noticed this oddity:

Because of an editing error, a television review yesterday about "Isaac: Have a Better Day," a new talk show on the Style network starring Isaac Mizrahi, referred incorrectly to the studio audience, which he addresses as "girls." It is an audience of men and women, not college students.
College students aren't men and women?

I'm sending an e-mail to the Times about this one too.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Kid joke, overheard

Child: It smells like updog in here.

Parent: What's updog?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The gone dead train

I wanna go home and that train is done gone dead
I wanna go, that train is done gone dead

King Solomon Hill, "The Gone Dead Train" (1932)
The bus too.

I remember the New York transit strike of 1980, which kept me from even thinking of getting up to Columbia University to hear Jorge Luis Borges read.

Here's a wish that this strike is settled -- and soon. Good luck, fellow New Yorkers.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Literacy falling

Further confirmation that there's a difference between a degree and an education:

The average American college graduate's literacy in English declined significantly over the past decade, according to results of a nationwide test released yesterday.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, given in 2003 by the Department of Education, is the nation's most important test of how well adult Americans can read. . . .

When the test was last administered, in 1992, 40 percent of the nation's college graduates scored at the proficient level, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences. But on the 2003 test, only 31 percent of the graduates demonstrated those high-level skills. There were 26.4 million college graduates.

The college graduates who in 2003 failed to demonstrate proficiency included 53 percent who scored at the intermediate level and 14 percent who scored at the basic level, meaning they could read and understand short, commonplace prose texts.

Three percent of college graduates who took the test in 2003, representing some 800,000 Americans, demonstrated "below basic" literacy, meaning that they could not perform more than the simplest skills, like locating easily identifiable information in short prose.
Link: "Literacy Falls for Graduates From College, Testing Finds" (from the New York Times)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The dowdy world on film

I sometimes refer to what I call "the dowdy world" -- meaning modern American culture as it was before certain forms of technology redefined everyday life. The dowdy world is a place with dictaphones, rotary phones, afternoon newspapers, "radio programs," and telegrams. In the dowdy world, a fountain pen is an everyday tool, not a jewel-laden collector's item. And yes, there are pay phones. In the dowdy world, even a crime boss has to drop a nickel to make an important call.

I sometimes like watching a movie just for the pleasure of getting in touch with the dowdy world in all its black-and-white splendor. Few movies have given me as much of this odd pleasure as The House on 92nd Street, a 1945 film about the FBI infiltration of a Nazi spy-ring in Manhattan. It's part thriller, part police-procedural, told in documentary fashion with a solemn narrative voiceover. The movie was recently released on DVD, billed as film noir, which it's not. (But noir sells.)

The House on 92nd Street pleases even with its opening credits -- presented in the form of a typed document, the pages held at the top by a big shiny clasp. As the scenes go by, one sees file cabinets, file trays, card files, desktop blotters, rocking blotters, desk sets, ledgers, teletype machines, typing stands, pencils, fountain pens, and rubber stamps. These objects are sometimes the focal points of scenes, as when a morgue attendant reads through the pocket notebook found on a body and the camera closes in on its pages. At other times, these objects -- which may well have been virtually invisible to a 1945 audience -- take on a curious importance just by virtue of their antiquity. Look at that fountain pen, I say to myself. It's right there, so big that it's easy to identify as a Waterman.

The follow-up movie The Street with No Name (1948) has similar delights. In this film the FBI is after crooks, not Nazis. A teletype machine -- spitting out a directive signed "J. Edgar Hoover" -- is the first speaking character in the movie. An enormous wooden card file sits on the desk of a bail bondsman. Look at that card file, I say to myself. It's the bondsman's database, and he pops the hood and retrieves a card in less time than it would take to point and click. A stapler, the dowdy kind, shiny steel, with a knob to push down on, is strangely prominent in a shot of an FBI staffer. And everyone seems to have a pencil at hand -- or else is gesturing for one, as when Inspector Briggs (Lloyd Nolan), taking a phone call, needs to get down an address. He then speaks the words, telegram-style, as he writes them:

"Anderson . . . Manufacturing . . . Company. Fraser . . . Road at . . . Caron."

In 2008 I made a post with screenshots of the Dixon Ticonderogas of The House on 92nd Street: Is there a pencil in The House?

I shall now click my mouse and send these words from the dowdy world into the future.
All "dowdy world" posts (via Pinboard)

Happy birthday, Clark Terry

Trumpeter and flugelhornist Clark Terry is 85 today. Happy birthday, Clark Terry.

I was lucky to talk with Clark at length some years back, when I did an hour-long interview with him on the FM station at my university. It was a high point in my life -- the chance to ask questions of a great musician and Ellingtonian.

You can learn more about Clark Terry and see his touring schedule at his website:

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Larry David's notebook

From a New Yorker piece on Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm:

Like many comedians, Larry David carries a pocket notebook for writing down ideas. "You're in a parking garage, and Larry’s wallet is empty--he forgot to ask his assistant to go to the cash machine," [Robert] Weide, who directs several episodes a year, says. "So he says, 'Shit, I have no money for the valet--could you give me a few bucks?' So you find yourself giving money to Larry David, who has a few bucks. And then out comes the little notebook."

"What would I have done if he hadn’t been there?" David said. "That could have been funny."

The notebook is a ratty brown thing that looks as if it might have cost forty-nine cents at a stationery store. Its pages are covered with David’s illegible scrawl.
Ratty? I think not. The notebook, as seen in Curb Your Enthusiasm, seems to be a Boorum memo book, made by Esselte Pendaflex. The photograph above is of one of mine ($1.55 whenever I bought it, not all that long ago). Sad to say, I can't find one reference to this well-made item online. Has it become, like the Blackwing pencil, a part of the past?

Larry David's notebook is prominent in "The Wire" (first season, episode six of Curb Your Enthusiasm). It's so important to its owner that written inside it is an offer of a $500 reward for its return. Trouble comes when a neighbor finds the notebook and wants Larry to make good on the reward.

Link: James Kaplan, "Angry Middle-Aged Man"
(from the New Yorker, 19 January 2004)

Update: A call to Esselte Pendaflex confirms that these notebooks are still available. The person I spoke with (a fan of CYE who didn't know about the notebook connection) said that they can be ordered from Able Office Products (1.800.870.6872).

Update, July 9, 2008: Reader Steve Windham found brown Oxford pocket notebooks for sale here. Thanks, Steve!

Update, April 5, 2012: Steve Windham has found a Roaring Spring Sewn Memo Book that looks very much like the brown notebooks of yore. He also reports one online source, selling notebooks by the case. Thanks again, Steve.

Update, September 7, 2012: Steve Windham has found an online source for single Roaring Springs Sewn Memo Books. Thanks again, again, Steve.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Red Nose Beaujolais

I was surprised to find tonight that Orange Crate Art is the only page that turns up if you're searching for "red nose beaujolais" with either Google or Yahoo. I happened to mention Red Nose Beaujolais (here) in a moment of Thanksgiving reverie. This single-page result is not exactly a Googlewhack, but it is pretty surprising.

If anyone is wondering, Red Nose Beaujolais is a wonderful wine. When my wife and I sample the three or four varieties of Beaujolais nouveau available from our local "wine-merchant" (aka "the liquor store"), we always seem to agree on which one or ones we like best. This year it was Red Nose Beaujolais. You heard it here first.


Nothing moves me to procrastinate like the prospect of grading dozens of essays. But I've been making great efforts toward getting-things-done instead of putting-things-off. And having just graded 53 essays in a day-and-a-half (yes, I didn't do much else), I can recommend one strategy that's done more than any other to help me get around grading-induced procrastination. Here it is, in all its complexity:

Work for 45 minutes.
Take a break for 15 minutes.
Repeat as necessary.
My 45/15 rule is a variation on a strategy that I saw mentioned by doctoral student Zach Pousman in a MetaFilter thread a few months back on being productive in college. Zach cited PhinisheD, a website for people working on dissertations and theses, and described a 40/20 rule he found there:
Do your work in 40 minute blocks with a twenty minute rest between each. This is a set. Then, if you've got 3 hours between classes or in the afternoon, do 3 sets of work as above. Though you'll only work two hours, you'll get so much more done! Swear.
I didn't like the idea of losing a third of each hour, so I changed things a bit. My 45/15 rule has made grading much more do-able work, by removing the Sisyphean feeling that has always set in when I realize how many papers I still have to grade (20 done, and 33 still to go! O endlessness!). Now I know that in 45 minutes I can take a break.

45/15 also helps by appealing to my left-brained penchant for routine, giving a shape to the blurry hours. Of course, now that I've graded all these papers, I have no routine, and will have to wait until Wednesday, when my first finals come in, to start grading again. Four days with no routine! But I think I can manage.

[If any of my students are reading this post: the essays for the most part were really, really strong. You can get your essay back on Monday or at your final exam.]

Thursday, December 8, 2005

John Lennon

9 October 1940 – 8 December 1980

[I've scanned the photo from my 1968 copy of the Beatles' "white album," scratches and all.]

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Mozart and tenure

Dear Dean:

This is in response to your suggestion that we appoint Mr. Wolfgang Mozart to our music faculty. The music department appreciates your interest, but the faculty is sensitive about its prerogatives in the selection of new colleagues.

While the list of works and performances the candidate has submitted is very full, it reflects too much activity outside academia. Mr. Mozart does not have an earned doctorate and has very little formal education and teaching experience. There is also significant evidence of personal instability evidenced in his resume. Would he really settle down in a large state university like ours? Would he really be a team player?
This piece seems to circulate among musicans on the net. My wife Elaine received it recently in an e-mail. Its author is unknown, at least to us. You can read it in its entirety via the link.

LINK: "Why Mozart Didn't Get Tenure" (from

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

My other blog is a Moleskine

My longer posts to Orange Crate Art tend to begin in a Moleskine pocket notebook. Yes, my other blog is a Moleskine. (And no, I didn't need to draft this post in a notebook first.)

Above, a partial draft of a post about the permanence and impermanence of things.

Monday, December 5, 2005

Cabbage soup

I was seized by the urge to make soup yesterday. Not to open a can or a packet, but to make soup, cabbage soup. My wife Elaine, who makes wonderful soups, assured me that it would be easy to do. She was right.

My recipe is a "veganed" (I just made up the word) version of Julia Child's recipe for soupe aux choux, a soup which is indeed, as JC calls it, garbure. I left out the salt pork -- ditto the lard rance (a very special "slightly rancid salt pork"), bacon, ham, and confit d'oie (preserved goose), any of which could've taken its place. I added the tomatoes and a vegetable-broth base, and changed the seasoning a bit.

To make this cabbage soup, you will need

some olive oil
2 onions, chopped
2 quarts water
1 tbsp. Better Than Bouillon vegetable base
4 red potatoes, peeled and cut in chunks
1 28-oz. can petite diced tomatoes
2 large carrots, cut into discs
1 cabbage, about 2 lbs., chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed and chopped
10 peppercorns, smashed
1/4 tsp. marjoram
1/4 tsp. thyme
salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large pot, brown the onions in olive oil.

2. Add all the other ingredients, beginning with the water and potatoes. From there on, the order is pretty arbitrary. (It's just soup.)

3. Cover the pot and let everything come to a boil. Then cook on low-to-medium heat for 90 minutes or so. The timing is pretty flexible. (It's just soup.)

4. Stir and taste every so often, and add some salt and pepper if you like. (I like my soup with lots of pepper.)

5. Serve with the best bread you can muster.

It saddens me to think that many people in the United States of Generica have never tasted homemade soup, the ultimate comfort food. The preparation is simple, but you can wow your loved ones (and yourself) by making a homemade soup.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

Smoke Smoke Smoke Smoke

[Spoiler note: There are no great giveaways in what follows. But if you've not seen Smoke and would prefer to know nothing of its content, read no further.]

I just watched Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's film Smoke (1995) four times. I'm teaching it in a class, and I loathe the thought of using class meetings to show a film in 50-minute installments. So I simply scheduled four consecutive nights for students to watch the film, and I ended up watching four times. And in doing so, I noticed details I'd probably never have caught otherwise.

There's a beautifully-made pattern, for instance, in what happens when Paul Benjamin (a novelist, played by William Hurt) answers the door of his Brooklyn apartment. Recently widowed, Paul lives what appears to be a solitary life. Watch what happens when people come to his door.

1. The buzzer buzzes, three times, and Paul continues typing, or trying to type. He finally gets up from his chair--saying "Shit!"--and goes to the door. He speaks into the intercom: "Who is it?" "Rashid." "Who?" "Rashid Cole." It's the young man who saved pedestrian Paul from being hit by a truck not long before. "Come on up," Paul says.

Paul has offered Rashid a place to stay for a couple of nights, but it becomes clear that this solitary man is not happy about sharing his space. After two nights, he asks Rashid to leave. It's clear though that Paul is worried, or at least concerned. From his window, he watches Rashid (who has "seen something he wasn't supposed to see") walk away.

2. There's fervent knocking (the buzzer's broken). Without asking who's there, Paul opens the door, just an inch. The visitor is Rashid's aunt, "sick with worry." She pushes the door open and inquires about her nephew, whose real name, we now learn, is Thomas.

3. A doorbell rings and Paul opens the door--much wider this time. "Ah, it's you," he says. It's Thomas, as he was hoping.

4. Someone is pounding on the door. Paul opens the door wide only to find two hoodlums in search of Thomas, who, luckily, is not in the apartment.

These four small moments show us Paul Benjamin's increasing willingness to let people in, literally--into his apartment, into his life. He checks to see who's there; he opens the door just a bit; and he opens it wide, twice. His openness brings the chance for genuine friendship with a surrogate son (who is himself in search of his father). His openness brings great danger as well (the thugs leave him with a bandaged forehead and an arm in a sling). Nothing in the film works to call attention to these moments--there's no swelling music, no close-up on a hand momentously turning a doorknob. The moments are just there, for a viewer who's paying attention. Once you notice them, you have some new ways of thinking about what happens when Granny Ethel opens her door to "Roger Goodwin" in Auggie Wren's Christmas story.

It's appropriate that Smoke itself should highlight the practice of paying attention, of looking carefully at the same thing again and again. Auggie says when showing Paul his "life's work," "You'll never get it if you don't slow down, my friend." Auggie has been taking a photograph of his corner at 8:00 every morning for the past four thousand mornings. It's appropriate too that the one Paul Benjamin novel we see is titled The Mysterious Barricades. Repeated viewing won't help you to catch that detail, though, or the content of the newspaper page at the film's end. You'll never get those details if you don't use the pause button, my friend.

I'm not sure how many films will reward extended attention in the way that Smoke does. But try with a film that you like--you might be surprised by what you notice.


February 7, 2015: I’ve been wondering how I failed to mention François Couperin’s harpsichord piece Les Barricades Mystérieuses [The Mysterious Barricades]. Did I not know about it in 2005. Did Elaine not tell me about it? Here is a performance by Bruno Procopio. Since 2005, I’ve come to love Couperin’s music, via Angela Hewitt’s three discs of the keyboard music.

The new Sappho poem

For my 2601 students: These two links will clear up the story of the new Sappho poem.

LINK: Martin West, "A new Sappho poem" (from the Times Literary Supplement)

LINK: "What's up with the Oxyrhynchus papyri?" An interesting thread from MetaFilter. (The Internet, it has everything!) At least I'm not the only one who assumed that this poem came to us via new technology.

Friday, December 2, 2005

How to do well on a final examination

Saying the word "final" is usually enough to bring a classroom to dread-filled silence. Exams can be scary. Studying ahead of time and getting a good night's sleep are two ways to defuse stress and do well. Here are five more:

1. Overprepare. That might seem like a poor way to study. But over many years of teaching, I've found it to be sound advice. It's much wiser to take an exam too seriously and find it easier than you expected than to wish — when it's too late — that you'd studied more. Think of the baseball player who swings a weighted bat before stepping up to the plate. On-deck time is what makes the work with a regular bat stronger.

Don't confuse overpreparing with cramming. If you overprepare, do so in advance, so that you can get a good night's sleep before the exam.

2. Bring several writing instruments. If your one pen or pencil fails and you need to borrow a replacement, you'll lose time, annoy others, and look silly.

3. Use your time wisely. Three ways to do so:

Wear a watch so that you can manage time on your own terms. Many professors and proctors will mark the time on the blackboard, but glancing at a watch is better than depending upon the click of the chalk — distracting at best, stressful at worst — that lets you know that another chunk of time has vanished.

Map out your work. When your professor talks about the exam, make sure that it's clear how each part will count toward the whole. If, for instance, you have two hours and an essay that's worth half the exam, give yourself an hour to plan, write, and review your essay.

It's not unusual for students in the blur of exam week to lose track of when an exam has started and will end. So map out your work not only in minutes but with starting and ending points. Then you can't lose track of where you are. For instance,

2:15-2:45: identifies
2:45-3:15: short essay
3:15-4:15: long essay
You can work out these details beforehand and write them discreetly in the corner of an exam booklet when you begin.

Finally, don't rush. This advice is especially important if your exam falls late in exam week, when many students have already left campus. Just take your time; your vacation will be waiting for you when you're done.

4. Elaborate. If you have a choice between making a point briefly and elaborating, choose to elaborate. A professor reading a final exam is reading to "get to done" — to assign a grade and move on to the next exam in the stack. So you should show your knowledge and understanding in all appropriate ways. As I tell my students, I like reading an exam that lets me say "Okay, okay, you know the material. Enough!"

This suggestion assumes that whatever you're elaborating on is relevant to the question at hand. Irrelevancies won’t help your case. Nor will mere bull, which is altogether different from knowledge and understanding.

5. Don't panic. In the worst-case exam scenario, an exam-taker goes on automatic, misreading questions, skipping key directions (like "Choose one"), and producing verbal babble as the time zooms by. It's important to stay calm enough to focus on the work there is to do. You might visualize yourself sitting down, reading the questions, planning your responses, and doing well. Another way to avoid panicking is to remind yourself how much time you really have. A two-hour exam equals four episodes of a situation comedy — a lot of time when you look at it that way.

Best wishes to all readers (students and faculty) contending with final exams.

[Nancy panel by Ernie Bushmiller. Found while playing Five-Card Nancy.]

A related post
How to do horribly on a final exam

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Beyond category

Duke Ellington always insisted that great art is "beyond category." Here he is, refusing to be categorized by an interviewer:

You've been quoted as saying that you write the music of your people as it sounds to you.


Now, would you like to expound on that a little bit?

Let's see. My people--now which of my people? I mean--you know, I'm in several groups, you know. I'm in--let's see--I'm in the group of the piano players. I'm in the group of the listeners. I'm in the groups of people who have general appreciation of music. I'm in the group of those who aspire to be dilettantes. I'm in the group of those who attempt to produce something fit for the plateau. I'm in the group of--what now? Oh, yeah, those who appreciate Beaujolais [laughs]. And then of course I'm in the--of course, I've had such a strong influence by the music of the people. The people, that's the better word, the people rather than my people, because the people are my people.
[Transcribed from Ken Burns' Jazz. The film footage looks to be from the mid-1960s.]

Fanny Ellison (1911-2005)

From this morning's New York Times:

Fanny McConnell Ellison, who was involved in the theater, politics and civil rights before she married Ralph Ellison and helped him edit his masterpiece, "Invisible Man," died on Nov. 19 at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan. She was 93.

The cause was complications of hip surgery, said John F. Callahan, Ellison's literary executor.

The poet Langston Hughes arranged for her to meet Ellison after she said she yearned to meet a man who was interested in books. She had met Hughes while directing a production of his "Don't You Want to Be Free?" in Chicago put on by the Negro People's Theater, which she had founded.

In June 1944, Ellison, then a merchant seaman, and his future wife met at Frank's restaurant on 125th Street in Harlem; both ordered the cheapest item on the menu, and talked until the place closed. They were married from August 1946 until Ellison's death at 80 in April 1994.
LINK: "Fanny Ellison, 93, Dies; Helped Husband Edit 'Invisible Man'" (from the New York Times)

{To read the Times online without a free account of your own, visit BugMeNot.]

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

What you can't buy at Wal-Mart

I read a letter to the editor this morning stating that Wal-Mart has "basically anything you could ever imagine and need." Sigh.

The writer was encouraging his readers to buy from locally-owned businesses, a position I fully support. Still, I'm bothered by the assumption that Wal-Mart is the answer to all our material needs, that Wal-Mart somehow contains within it everything we might ever want. Isn't that exactly what Wal-Mart wants its customers to believe?

Here are five items I can't buy at Wal-Mart:

bottled ink (I write with a fountain pen)
flat (Italian) parsley
loose Twinings tea
Moleskine notebooks
Patak vindaloo curry paste
These items are a random listing of what immediately comes to mind. If I were to begin thinking about matters of culture--art, books, movies, music--there'd be no end to a list of items that I can't buy at Wal-Mart. Since I choose not to shop at Wal-Mart (save for increasingly rare, extenuating-circumstance scenarios), it's all moot. I wouldn't want to buy these things at Wal-Mart anyway. Doing so would only undercut the efforts of the businesses that are already making them available to me.

What can't you buy at Wal-Mart?


Many people give up on learning after they leave school because thirteen or twenty years of extrinsically motivated education is still a source of unpleasant memories. Their attention has been manipulated long enough from the outside by textbooks and teachers, and they have counted graduation as the first day of freedom.

But a person who forgoes the use of his symbolic skills is never really free. His thinking will be directed by the opinions of his neighbors, by the editorials in the papers, and by the appeals of television. He will be at the mercy of "experts." Ideally, the end of extrinsically applied education should be the start of an education that is motivated intrinsically. At that point the goal of studying is no longer to make the grade, earn a diploma, and find a good job. Rather, it is to understand what one's experience is all about. From that will come the profound joy of the thinker, like that experienced by the disciples of Socrates that Plato describes in Philebus: "The young man who has drunk for the first time from that spring is as happy as if he had found a treasure of wisdom; he is positively enraptured. He will pick up any discourse, draw all its ideas together to make them into one, then take them apart and pull them to pieces. He will puzzle first himself, then also others, badger whoever comes near him, young and old, sparing not even his parents, nor anyone who is willing to listen. . . ."

The quotation is about twenty-four centuries old, but a contemporary observer could not describe more vividly what happens when a person first discovers the flow of the mind.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial, 1990)

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Self-Reliance" and jazz

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"
I was obsessed with the idea that this is what you had to do--something that was your own, that had nothing to do with anybody else. But I was influenced by him, not in terms of notes but in terms of the idea of doing what you are, who you are.
Artie Shaw, on listening to Louis Armstrong at the Savoy Ballroom (from Ken Burns' Jazz)
Related posts
The day Louis Armstrong made noise
Invisible man: Louis Armstrong and the New York Times
Louis Armstrong's advice

Saturday, November 26, 2005


Last year the New York Times published an obituary of the pianist Joe Bushkin that made reference to the tape beginning to roll at an early '30s recording session. Oops. I e-mailed the Times, and almost a month later, a correction finally appeared.

In this morning's Times, Jane and Michael Stern's review of Bob Spitz's book The Beatles includes this description of the Quarry Men recording "That'll Be the Day":

for the money they were paying, they could not record on tape. And they got one take, straight to vinyl.
Oops. The Quarry Men recorded an acetate. As the booklet for volume 1 of the Beatles' Anthology says, the five musicians passed around "a very-breakable 78rpm record."

This sort of mistake--the casual rewriting of musical history--drives my dad crazy. Me too. Time for another e-mail to the Times.

Yes, that's a fake headline above.

Friday, November 25, 2005


On the signboard for a Bob Evans restaurant:


Thursday, November 24, 2005

I remember Thanksgiving

My family has kept up a Thanksgiving tradition for some years now, inspired by Joe Brainard's I Remember, a remarkable book of memory. I Remember consists of short paragraphs and single sentences, each beginning with the words "I remember." The form of course is Brainard's invention--seemingly simple, but accommodating an amazing range of experience and feeling. If this description doesn't sound very promising, try I Remember, and you may change your mind.

Every Thanksgiving, we sit down at some point to write and read "I remembers" and make our own homely memorial to the day. If we have a friend or friends over, he or she or they write some "I remembers" too. Our friend Norman still sends his by e-mail every Thanksgiving. (Thanks, Norman!)

When we read over "I remembers" from previous years, we're always struck by the way they bring back to us the smallest details of the day. Here are the six "I remembers" that I wrote this afternoon:

I remember being "buffeted" by the wind while taking a walk with Elaine.

I remember remembering Gertrude Stein's sentence, "Roast potatoes for."

I remember Red Nose Beaujolais.

I remember Ben's guitar-playing and thinking about what an accomplished guitarist he's become.

I remember how strange the rules for Mad Gab are, and how so many phrases in the game come from current media culture.

I remember thinking how nice it is to have everyone home at the same time, making the house "family-ly."

LINK:, devoted to Joe Brainard's art and writing

LINK: I Remember (Granary Books)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Twelve ways to boost your immunity

The BBC offers twelve tips to help boost your immunity--to illness, not from prosecution. It's getting more and more wintry here in the American midwest, and I find that even thinking about boosting my immunity seems to be helpful.

LINK: "Boost your immunity" (via Deeper Motive)

Monday, November 21, 2005

Warning label

LINK: Warning label generator (via

Coleman Hawkins

Sitting in the dentist's office with my daughter this morning, I heard on a "morning show" that Coleman Hawkins, "the inventor of the saxophone," was born today. Say what?

Coleman Hawkins was born on November 21, 1904. But he didn't invent the saxophone. Adolphe Sax did. My guess is that the host of this radio show was reading a list of this-day-in-history items and saw one that identified Hawkins as the father of the jazz saxophone (which of course he was). From father of to inventor of is a short distance if you don't know what you're talking about.

LINK: Coleman Hawkins (from Wikipedia)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Slate Goes to College

Slate has a week's worth of worthwhile reading about higher education. Here are just two samples. First, Gish Jen's contribution to a survey on "literary crushes," beloved books from college days:

Robert Fitzgerald's translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey changed my life--as did, I should say, Fitzgerald himself, my favorite professor. I couldn't believe how different his Homer was from Lattimore's--so much more lithe and live. Could translation really make that much difference? And did Homer really come to us through normal humans who played tennis and cracked jokes and wore berets? Suddenly literature was much less remote; suddenly it was something that involved, in one way or another, writers. What an idea!
And second, some excerpts from Astrida Orle Tantillo's essay "What Professors Don't Tell You":
The assault on liberal education from the left presumes that pedagogy must be "student-centered," with professors no longer "teaching" but "facilitating" or serving as "architects of interaction" who "enable" students to teach one another. . . .

The assault on liberal education from the Republican right (from Reagan's "A Nation at Risk" to Bush's No Child Left Behind mission) stems from its desire to prepare students for the workforce (only) and to make schools and universities run more like businesses. . . .

The ultimate problem with the left and the right is that they encourage ever-narrowing educational possibilities. The irony, of course, is that, in the end, neither side gets what it wants: A lack of elitism impairs students from eventually becoming their own teachers in the broadest sense, and teaching students testable skills discourages the kind of creative thinking that is the necessary condition for success in the world.
LINK: "Slate Goes to College"
LINK: "My First Literary Crush"
LINK: Astrida Orle Tantillo, "What Professors Don't Tell You"

Friday, November 18, 2005

How to talk to a professor

[Advice for students]

Talking to a professor — out of genuine curiosity, a genuine interest in learning, a genuine desire to improve — is one of the smartest things a college student can do. While some professors are genuinely unapproachable, many more are happy to talk to students. Here are five points to consider when you're talking to a professor.

1. Be mannerly. Before asking "What are your office hours?", check your syllabus. If hours aren't listed or won't work, ask your professor when he or she can meet with you. A reasonable professor will understand that office hours cannot accommodate every student's schedule.

When you arrive, knock on the door, even if it's open, and greet your professor by name. I'm always slightly amazed when a student walks into my office without saying a word and waits for me to say something. If my back is to the door, it's downright weird.

2. If you're coming in to talk because you're having difficulty in a course, there are a few familiar sentences to avoid:

"Will this affect my grade?" Whatever "this" is, it will play a part in your grade. How much or how little depends upon the rest of your work.

"Can I still get a B?" This question will usually lead a professor to think that your grade-point average, not learning, is your priority.

"I'm an A student." Grade inflation is widespread, and some of those As may not be the most accurate evaluations of your work. Even if they are, your professor won't grade you on the basis of your reputation.
3. If you are having difficulty in a course, let your professor know that you realize it, and ask what you can do to improve. When I talk with students, I find that it's almost always possible to offer specific suggestions that can make the work go better. These suggestions often address common-sense matters unrelated to course content: Move your alarm clock away from your bed. Use Post-it Notes to mark up the reading. Get a planner. Break a big task into smaller tasks. Hit Control-F to find each coordinating conjunction and decide whether it needs a comma.

4. If you want to talk to a professor in some other way — about a question that you didn't get to ask in class or an idea that you want to discuss — just do the best you can. Your professor will very likely meet your genuine interest with kindness and encouragement. (If not, find another professor.)

5. Ending the conversation can be tricky. Some professors will wrap things up for you, while others will be happy to just keep talking. In other words, a signal that you're dismissed may not be coming. So don't hesitate to take the initiative in bringing the conversation to an end, especially if you have other obligations.

Some of my best college memories are of talking with my professors in their offices. I was a shy kid (still am), and I treasured the chance to ask questions and try out ideas during office hours. Sitting with my coat and books piled on the floor, I found my way into the possibilities of genuine intellectual dialogue. You can do that too.

Related posts
How to answer a professor
How to e-mail a professor

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Howard Dully: "My Lobotomy"

Howard Dully was twelve years old when he was subjected to a transorbital lobotomy in 1960:

"If you saw me you'd never know I'd had a lobotomy," Dully says. "The only thing you'd notice is that I'm very tall and weigh about 350 pounds. But I've always felt different--wondered if something's missing from my soul. I have no memory of the operation, and never had the courage to ask my family about it. So two years ago I set out on a journey to learn everything I could about my lobotomy."
I heard most of "My Lobotomy" on National Public Radio last night. What Howard Dully endured--and why--beggars description.

LINK: "My Lobotomy": Howard Dully's Journey (from National Public Radio)

Update: This documentary aired on NPR but was produced by Sound Portraits. (Thanks to dalton for this information--see comment below.)

LINK: More on "My Lobotomy" (from Sound Portraits)

LINK: Sound Portraits Sound Portraits' radio documentaries are available as RealAudio files from its website.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Science and Buddhism

Science has always fascinated me. As a child in Tibet, I was keenly curious about how things worked. When I got a toy I would play with it a bit, then take it apart to see how it was put together. As I became older, I applied the same scrutiny to a movie projector and an antique automobile.

At one point I became particularly intrigued by an old telescope, with which I would study the heavens. One night while looking at the moon I realized that there were shadows on its surface. I corralled my two main tutors to show them, because this was contrary to the ancient version of cosmology I had been taught, which held that the moon was a heavenly body that emitted its own light.

But through my telescope the moon was clearly just a barren rock, pocked with craters. If the author of that fourth-century treatise were writing today, I'm sure he would write the chapter on cosmology differently.

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.
From "Our Faith in Science," by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

LINK: "Our Faith in Science" (from the New York Times)

[To read the Times online, use mediajunkie as your name and password, or visit BugMeNot.]

Monday, November 14, 2005

No candy for me

A recent newspaper photograph depicts someone showing an audience how to reward students with candy. The workshop that was the occasion for this demonstration focused on using games in the "classroom": crosswords, murder mysteries, bingo, and the like. The workshop was for college professors. Yes, the students to be rewarded with candy after playing these games are college students. I'm thinking of some of the reading I did in college--Aquinas, Borges, Chaucer, Dickinson, and so on--and I'm trying, really trying, to imagine one, just one, of my professors presiding over a bingo game and giving out candy. But I cannot.

Orange Crate Art anniversary

The album whose title-song gave my blog its name was released ten years ago today. Happy anniversary to Orange Crate Art, by Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson. Thanks to Bob from the Yahoo VDP mailing list for sharing the news of the occasion.

The song "Orange Crate Art" was my gateway to the music of VDP and BW (and the Beach Boys). Watching (out of simple curiosity) the documentary Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, I found myself listening over and over to the partial performance of "Orange Crate Art" therein. I figured out the chords on the piano. Shortly thereafter, I bought the album. Then I thought I'd give Pet Sounds a try. And so on, and so on.

Orange Crate Art is a remarkable album--popular music of the highest order, made to please the muses, not the chthonian gods of commerce. As such, it's something to seek out--soon!--before it disappears from view.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

How to improve writing (no. 11 in a series)

I noticed this example of "educationese" yesterday in a newsletter for parents:

The school district will be implementing a new call out system to assist the building in calling parents with announcements.
How many problems in this sentence?
"Implementing" is mere jargon.

"Implementing," "building," "calling": three "-ings" in one sentence.

"Call out system" is, at best, imprecise; at worst, obscure. (What is a "call out system"?) A Google search suggests that "call-out system" is the usual phrase.

The reference to "the building" is oddly dehumanizing. And what sort of building is capable of making phone calls, even with a newly implemented system to assist it?
Howzabout this revised sentence?
We'll be using an automated calling system to contact parents with announcements.
From 20 words to 12; from 31 syllables to 22.

Even better:
We'll be using an automated system to call parents with announcements.
From 12 words to 11; from 22 syllables to 19.

And better still:
We'll use automated dialing to call parents with announcements.
From 11 words to 9; from 19 syllables to 17. Final savings: over 50% off.

This post is the most recent installment in a very occasional series.

Link » Other How to improve writing posts, via Pinboard

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Brief review: Bait and Switch

Barbara Ehrenreich, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005. $24.00

Like Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, Barbara Ehrenreich's new book bears a title in which the word in parenthesis makes all the difference. Between the hope and its fulfillment falls the futility.

Bait and Switch takes us into a world of people living in parenthesis, white-collar people who are "in transition," the corporate newspeak substitute for "unemployed." As in Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich goes undercover, this time seeking a corporate position, presenting herself as a long-time freelancer (better make that consultant) looking for a position in public relations. Her job-search becomes a job in itself, a miserable one, with episode after episode in a surreal world of life-coaches, image consultants, and résumé rewriters, whose fees total several thousand dollars. Her recommended reading includes The Ultimate Secret to Getting Absolutely Everything You Want, which declares that "you alone are the source of all the conditions and situations in your life." (If you're unemployed, it's not the economy, stupid; it's you.) "Networking" events bring her into impersonal contact with other jobseekers, all trying to be upbeat in chain restaurants and windowless hotel conference rooms. I won't reveal how Ehrenreich's search turns out, except to say that the offers that finally come her way are a very far cry from what she was looking for. Bait and Switch closes by looking at white-collar people who have taken what are called "survival jobs" as "associates" in big-box stores and such: sad to say, their failed searches have ended in the world of Nickel and Dimed.

Many colleges are using Nickel and Dimed in "one book, one campus" programs. I greatly admire that book, but its campus use has, for me, always smacked of piousness--an intention to make students feel a vague compassion for poor people. A college community with reckless courage might ask its students to follow up with Bait and Switch. The two books would give business majors (and everyone else) a chance to rethink the ethics of the brave new corporate world awaiting them.

"Cómo enviarles correos electrónicos a los profesores"

David Acosta, who teaches at the Corporación Universitaria Unitec in Bogotá, Colombia, has translated "How to e-mail a professor" for his students (with my okay, natch). I'm grateful to David for disseminating these guidelines en español.

Click on the link below to download a .pdf file of the translation. Or follow the link in this post from David's blog, Estudio Hacks.

LINK: "Cómo enviarles correos electrónicos a los profesores," por Michael Leddy

Monday, November 7, 2005

Invisible Man and the yam

I took a bite, finding it as sweet and hot as any I'd ever had, and was overcome with such a surge of homesickness that I turned away to keep my control. I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of freedom--simply because I was eating while walking along the street.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

3009 students, here are some useful links to learn about yams. All are interesting; the first, third, fourth, and fifth have the most helpful background for the novel. Thanks to Danny and Lara for these links.

"Home Cooking: Sweet Potatoes or Yams" [from]

"How have yams changed medicine?" [from]

"Supercrop: the yam bean" [from Natural History via]

"What are yams?" [from]

"The world's healthiest foods: Yam" [from]


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

catachresis \kat-uh-KREE-sis\ noun
*1 : use of the wrong word for the context
2 : use of a forced and especially paradoxical figure of speech

Example sentence:
The paper printed a correction for the previous day's catachresis: dubbing a local artist-philanthropist a "socialist" when they meant "socialite."
And here's an example from an opinion column in a local newspaper:
Prohibition proved a tremendous dud; many of the same people who hailed it spent a great deal of time and effort flaunting it.
That should be flouting, not flaunting.

Sunday, November 6, 2005

Shopping with Rev Run

"Who said that a man of God is supposed to drive a Pinto?"

"I'm very Kenny G, slow music CD-101."

"I'm going to stay in my pool and eat fat-free hot dogs for the rest of my life."
From a "shopping with" profile of Rev Run (as in Run-D.M.C.). Rev Run drives a Rolls-Royce. CD-101 is a "smooth jazz" radio station in New York. And fat-free hot dogs are available at your local supermarket.

LINK: "A Rap Minister Works the Aisles" [from the New York Times]

[To read the Times online, visit BugMeNot for a name and password, or create an account of your own.]

Friday, November 4, 2005

Not a test

My wife Elaine and I had a wonderful time last night doing the "open mic" at Jackson Avenue Coffee. With her violin and my guitar, we did two songs from the 1930s--"Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "On a Little Street in Singapore." (Two's the limit.)

As a musician, I'm mostly in the closet, so to speak, and sitting down to play in public has given me great angst (though I've played in public anyway). This time was different: my angst went on all afternoon, and while playing at JAC I felt amazingly relaxed. Elaine's a professional musician, so she understands what it's taken me a long time to figure out--that playing in public is not a test.

Elaine has written about the JAC audience on her blog, and I'll second what she says there: that it's a pleasure to play for people who are really listening, whether the music is familiar or not, whether the performers are vets or novices. And it's a pleasure to play and listen in a place that's designed on a human scale. We didn't even need microphones. Thank you, Jackson Avenue Coffee.

My version of Amish computing

Paul Ford's notion of "Amish computing" appeals strongly to me, especially in its emphasis on distraction-free writing. But I can't imagine going Amish exactly as Ford has. Using WordPerfect for DOS or getting an AlphaSmart device would only bring a new set of complications into my life.

My own modest attempt at "Amish computing" is focused on a simple alternative to Microsoft Word. Most of my writing begins with a legal pad or a pocket Moleskine and a fountain pen. But I do some composing at the keyboard, and always find the bells and whistles of Word annoying. I know that I can remove toolbars and rulers, and I long ago removed smart tags, automatic capitalization, and other doodads, but I prefer to get away from Word. For me, the program is just not conducive to writing. I object even to Word's black background for selected text, which leaves small-sized text looking ugly and pixelated.

So I worked out a distraction-free writing tool for Windows. I use Notepad2, Florian Balmer's free Notepad alternative. I like Alexander Davidson's metapad too, but the Notepad2 interface looks brighter and more in keeping with Windows XP. I also prefer Notepad2 because line height is adjustable, and I can avoid the cramped look of single-spaced text. Either of these programs is superior to the Notepad included with Windows. There are many free text editors available; you might prefer another.

To turn Notepad2 into my writing tool of choice, I added a free spellchecking script from PC911. This tiny script -- spell.vbs -- sends any text copied to the clipboard to the Microsoft Word spellchecker. I found spell.vbs mentioned in the LangaList, Fred Langa's excellent computing newsletter.

The Notepad2/spell.vbs writing tool appeals to me in much the same way that writing on a Palm with a portable keyboard once did--it's simple and free of complications. If I'm writing a blog post, I can do everything with this simple tool. And if I'm writing for print, I can open what I've written in Microsoft Word and make everything look pretty. For me, separating the work of composition from the work of layout makes it possible to write with far less distraction.

"[Y]ou just need to look more hard-working"

The e-mail exchanges between FEMA's Michael Brown and associates as New Orleans lay underwater make for fascinating, appalling reading. I've seen the following bit reproduced on-line only with the spelling and punctuation cleaned up. Here's what Sharon Worthy, Brown's press secretary, wrote to him on September 4:

Please roll up the sleeves of your shirt...all shirts. Even the President rolled his sleeves to just below the elbow.

In this crises [sic] and on TV you just need to look more hard-working...ROLL UP THE SLEEVES!
Ah, the culture of images: "you just need to look more hard-working." Now that this e-mail is out, will politicians and bureaucrats have to find some new way to look hard-working?

LINK: "'Can I quit now?' FEMA chief wrote as Katrina raged" (from

LINK: Katrina e-mails (a .pdf file from

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

"The Politics of Penguins"

From Andrew Sullivan's essay on The March of the Penguins, "The Politics of Penguins":

One of the chief campaigners against gay marriage, Maggie Gallagher, also hailed the film. "It is hard not to see the theological overtones in the movie," she wrote. "Beauty, goodness, love and devotion are all part of nature, built into the DNA of the universe. Even in the harshest place on the Earth (like 21st-century America?), love will not only endure, it will triumph." Love? Maybe it's because these beautiful creatures have the shape of Middle Americans, waddle amusingly, fall over occasionally and have heads on top of their bodies that we project our own needs and anxieties onto them. But we do so at our peril. Love, it turns out, has very little to do with the mating habits of the Emperor Penguin.
Sullivan's essay is useful reading for anyone tempted to find models for human conduct in the animal world. LINK: "The Politics of Penguins: A March to Nowhere" (from

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

"This is your brain on e-mail"

A new twist on the now-familiar theme that multitasking makes you stupid:

Researchers asked two sets of subjects to take IQ tests. One group had to check e-mail and respond to instant messages while taking the test. The second group just sat down and did the test without distractions. Surprise, surprise, the distracted group didn’t do as well on the test--10 points worse than the control group. In similar testing conditions, people intoxicated by marijuana had scores 8 points lower. So researchers drew attention to their study by noting that multitasking is worse for your ability to concentrate than getting stoned.
LINK: "E-mail Making You Crazy?" from Discover (via Lifehacker)

Monday, October 31, 2005

Words in pixels

I tweaked a section of my post on how to e-mail a professor this weekend, for a reason that's interesting enough, I think, to note here. Before revision:

Avoid direct requests. They tend to sound more like orders in e-mail. For instance, "Please send me the next assignment." Even worse: "I need the next assignment." It's much better to ask a question: "Could you e-mail me with the page numbers for the next reading? Thanks."
After revision:
Ask politely. "Could you e-mail me the page numbers for the next reading? Thanks!" is a lot better than "I need the assignment."
Why the change? People who are linking to this post are often extracting the main points (in bold). Without the accompanying explanation, "Avoid direct requests" looks rather strange and counter-intuitive.

It's wonderful to contemplate the differences between words in print (amended by corrections that always stand at some distance from the original) and words in pixels.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Torture Question

The Torture Question, from the PBS series Frontline, is available for online viewing.

I was just astonished to find that many of my students had never heard of Abu Ghraib--this link is for them, and for anyone else who wants it.

LINK: The Torture Question, from PBS's Frontline

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Reality trumps the Onion

Reality trumps the Onion once again:

For years scientists at Philip Morris USA have studied how the human lung delivers a highly addictive chemical, nicotine, to the smoker's brain. Now, these same scientists are quietly laying plans to use their findings to enter, of all things, the business of treating illness.

A team of Philip Morris engineers and scientists is working on a new design for a hand-held inhaler to treat a variety of ailments, including smoking-related lung disease.
LINK: "Rx From Marlboro Man: Device That Delivers Drugs, Not Smoke" (Wall Street Journal, subscription required)

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

"Amish computing"

I'm getting so much spam. Hundreds of messages a day trying to seduce me by appealing to my darkest lusts and my greed. So I've gone back to basics. I stopped using my fancy word processor and installed WordPerfect for DOS, which was last updated about a decade ago, and which lets me type in gray letters on a blue screen without using any windows and without the need of a mouse. It never crashes. I also bought a little device called an AlphaSmart Neo, which is mostly sold to schools. The Neo is just a keyboard that stores text as you type it. It does nothing else. It doesn't tell the time or let me play games. It runs off of double-A batteries and the batteries last for hundreds of hours. Using the AlphaSmart and WordPerfect I've started to enjoy computing again. There is no Wikipedia, no email, no constantly changing the MP3s I'm listening to, no downloading going on. The spam still piles up but I'm not aware of it, because my email program is shut down until I want to send a message.
From an essay by Paul Ford, "Followup/Distraction." Having switched from Microsoft Word to Notepad2 for writing on the computer (as opposed to "wordprocessing"), I'm in strong sympathy with the idea of "Amish computing," as Ford calls it.

LINK: "My version of Amish computing" A related blog post

LINK: "Followup/Distraction" An essay by Paul Ford

LINK: "Are there 'good' distractions?" Further thoughts on distraction from Paul Ford: "I want to feel like I did something during my brief life besides check my email." [Via 43 Folders.]

Sanity and contemplation

David Levy, a University of Washington professor who studies high-tech communications and quality of life, acknowledges that the young have become adept at managing multiple sources of information at once, but he questions whether the ability to multitask has curbed their "ability to focus on a single thing, the ability to be silent and still inside, basically the ability to be unplugged and content."

"That's true for the whole culture," he said. "Most adults have a hard time doing that, too. What we're losing is the contemplative dimension of life. For our sanity, we need to cultivate that."
From a New York Times article with a slightly misleading title. David Levy's Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age is sitting in a stack of books I'm planning to read.

LINK: "Parents Fret That Dialing Up Interferes With Growing Up" (New York Times)

SEE ALSO: "Attention", "Multitasking makes you stupid"

Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

One legend had it that she was a cleaning woman with bad feet who was too tired to drag herself to the rear of the bus. Another had it that she was a "plant" by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The truth, as she later explained, was that she was tired of being humiliated, of having to adapt to the byzantine rules, some codified as law and others passed on as tradition, that reinforced the position of blacks as something less than full human beings.

"She was fed up," said Elaine Steele, a longtime friend and executive director of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. "She was in her 40's. She was not a child. There comes a point where you say, 'No, I'm a full citizen, too. This is not the way I should be treated.'"
From the New York Times obituary

LINK: "Rosa Parks, 92, Founding Symbol of Civil Rights Movement, Dies" (New York Times)

LINK: "They changed the world: The story of the Montgomery bus boycott" (Montgomery Advertiser)

[To read the Times online, use mediajunkie as your name and password, or visit]

Sunday, October 23, 2005

A lost weekend

I Wireless zero
I came to a conclusion at about 2:00 this morning: pencils are a lot more reliable than network cards. Time spent getting one of the Dixon Ticonderoga Tri-Writes that I bought on Saturday up and running: about fifteen seconds in a sharpener. Time spent attempting to get the laptop network card that I bought on Saturday up and running (before giving up): about six hours. The six hours were largely a matter of looking online--for updated drivers and info on settings--and uninstalling and reinstalling the card. I also put in the usual obligatory (and fruitless) call to technical support. While browsing online, I found many discussion group messages from other people with Vaio laptops (and all manner of laptops) who have also found themselves in wireless hell, with--of course--no solutions. Do you turn on "wireless zero configuration"? Do you turn it off? Either way, it seems you lose. Wireless zero indeed.

II TV Land
Before giving up, I discovered that All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and Good Times are all on television really, really late at night. I wonder how many people remember that Good Times was a spinoff of Maude, which was itself a spinoff of All in the Family.

III My wireless solution
I bought a 100-foot ethernet cable. Doing so was a lot easier than trying to get a network card to work in a Vaio laptop. The cable doesn't even require sharpening.

IV In conclusion
I am now happily wireless-less.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Rule 7

As a college professor, I've long been giving my students (what I hope is) useful advice. Here's one of the best pieces of advice I know for doing well in college:

Rule 7

The only rule is work. If you work, it will lead to something. It's the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.
I found Rule 7 years ago in Learning by Heart, a book by the artist Corita Kent. It appeared in an informal list of rules, some funny, some serious, made for the students and faculty of a college art department. Rule 7 seems both funny and serious: a Zen-like joke, abolishing all the rules that precede and follow it, and a statement that's absolutely true, for makers of art and for anyone engaged in learning. Note that Rule 7 doesn't say that the only thing to do is work. Rather, the only necessary thing is work. The only way to catch on to things (or to make them happen, to change metaphors) is to put in the necessary time doing the work, whether that work is sketching, practicing scales, memorizing a declension, mapping out an argument, studying a timeline, making notes on an article, or looking up words in a poem.

Whoever thought up Rule 7 caught one of the key points of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: deeply-rewarding activities require a significant investment of time and effort before they show any return. In this respect, Rule 7 differs greatly from Nike's more facile "Just do it." Rule 7 acknowledges that learning involves some struggle, that matters may not be clear at first. If you're just beginning Homer's Iliad, you are likely to feel quite lost. You can't "Just do it" when it comes to understanding an epic poem. But it's easy to catch on if you give yourself a chance by putting in the work.

It makes me happy when students recognize the truth of Rule 7 and make it their own. My students (who get Rule 7 at the start of the semester) often say that the way to do well in my classes is to "do the work." One of my wife's students just reinvented Rule 7 on his own. Seeing her on campus, he announced with delight that he had finally figured out how to do well in college: "Do the work!" Nothing could be simpler, or more profound.

A related post
Rule 7 and other rules (Who wrote it, really?)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing

Thinking about The Elements of Style prompts me to say something about a book that to my mind is far more useful, Michael Harvey's The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing. Harvey does a much better job of showing how to make prose better--clearer, more elegant, more concise. He's a great advocate of the "plain style," and offers wonderful advice (and many examples) to help a writer, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence. The Nuts and Bolts is not only the best book on improving writing that I know; it's one of the least expensive as well ($5.95 $12.00 in paperback). I assign it in all my classes.

LINK: The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing

The Elements of Style

Strunk and White's legendary "Elements of Style" was first published in 1959, and in the intervening decades, this little book on language and its proper usage has been force-fed to countless high school English students, who have read it zealously, dog-eared key pages, showered it in graphite love or else completely disregarded and forgotten it, usually at their own risk. Beyond its sage advice on matters of style, it is filled with the Solomonic rules and injunctions--"Make every word tell"; "Use the active voice"; "Be obscure clearly"--that have served as a lifeboat to both professional and amateur writers adrift on the perilous seas of split infinitives, dangling participles and weak or flabby prose.

But while "The Elements of Style" has never lacked fans or dutiful adherents, appreciation for this slim volume takes a turn toward the whimsical and even surreal this week, as the Penguin Press publishes the first illustrated edition, featuring artwork by Maira Kalman, and the young composer Nico Muhly offers a finely wrought "Elements of Style" song cycle, to be given its premiere tonight at 8 in a highly unusual, if oddly appropriate, concert setting: the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library.
Force-fed to students who have read it zealously and dog-eared its pages? Block that mixed, mixed metaphor!

LINK: "'Style' Gets New Elements"

[To read the New York Times online, use mediajunkie as your name and password, or visit]

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Happy Dictionary Day

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

lexicographer \lek-suh-KAH-gruh-fer\ noun
: an author or editor of a dictionary

Example sentence:
The great lexicographer Noah Webster, who wrote the first authoritative dictionary of American English, was born on October 16, 1758.

Did you know?
Happy Dictionary Day! We're celebrating with a look at a word that is dear to our hearts: "lexicographer." The ancient Greeks were some of the earliest makers of dictionaries; they used them mainly to catalog obsolete terms from their rich literary past. To create a word for writers of dictionaries, the Greeks sensibly attached the suffix "-graphos," meaning "writer," to "lexikon," meaning "dictionary," to form "lexikographos," the direct ancestor of the English "lexicographer." "Lexikon," which itself descends from the Greek "lexis" (meaning "word" or "speech"), also gave us "lexicon," which can mean either "dictionary" or "the vocabulary of a language, speaker, or subject."
As it's Dictionary Day, I'll mention that my most memorable dictionary experience has been looking up the word tappen in the Oxford English Dictionary. Edwin Cuffe, SJ, a funny and wonderful man, suggested that I look it up. I later learned that he pointed countless students to the joys of the OED via this word.

As I type, I realize that I work within easy reach of at least a dozen dictionaries, including the old Book-of-the-Month-Club two-volume OED.

Friday, October 14, 2005


News from the world of continuous partial attention:

Dennis Adams, a computer-systems professor at the University of Houston, was thrilled a few years ago when his school began providing laptop computers to incoming students and set up wireless Internet access in classrooms. But in the past year, his enthusiasm has turned to dismay.

A recent visit to his class--where about half the 26 students are using laptops--explains why. While Prof. Adams lectures, five students use an online chat room to post comments on his lecture, on classroom stragglers, and on the meaning of his discussion questions. Another student spends nearly two-thirds of the three-hour class playing computer chess, instant messaging and viewing photos of a fraternity party posted on the Web. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Mike Fielden buys a pair of sneakers on eBay.
From an article in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required). Reporter Gary McWilliams goes on to note that many professors hesitate to ban laptops in class for fear of retaliation in student evaluations.

LINK: "The Laptop Backlash"

Odes to autumn

October is a fine and dangerous season in America. . . . It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalogue looks wonderful. The names of the subjects all seem to lay open the way to a new world. Your arms are full of new, clean notebooks, waiting to be filled. You pass through the doors of the library, and the smell of thousands of well-kept books makes your head swim with a clean and subtle pleasure. You have a new hat, a new sweater perhaps, or a whole new suit. Even the nickels and quarters in your pocket feel new, and the buildings shine in the glorious sun.
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948
Fall, thou ambiguous season, who begin
With the red cast-off sun-scorched skin of summer
And end with winter's pallor, hear oh hear
My chant to thee, harbinger of rebirth
Of school and love and work
Kenneth Koch, "Autumn," from The Seasons (homage to the 18th-century poet James Thomson), 1998

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Jim Doyle (1944-2005)

[Photograph scanned from the 1978 Fordham College yearbook, The Maroon.]

I learned today that my favorite professor has died. Jim Doyle, James P. Doyle, was my teacher at Fordham College, Bronx, New York. He later taught at Lyndon State College in Vermont. His years at Fordham matched mine--he started in 1974 (when I started on my B.A.) and left in 1980 (the year I finished my M.A.).

Jim was the best teacher I ever had. He was the teacher who made the why of poetry clear to me, who made it clear that poetry was an urgent human enterprise. I had a class with him in my and his second semester at Fordham (drama), and it was not great, as he agreed. He was learning, I think, and he was facing a group of mostly uninterested and wary freshmen. But when I took his courses on modern and contemporary British poetry as a junior, I began to understand what literature was all about. Jim brought poetry to life, by any means necessary, often with humor, and always with absolute dedication and integrity. He was never ironic or glib about the works he was teaching. He was the real thing, and he presented tremendously difficult poetry (e.g., David Jones, Geoffrey Hill) to undergraduates in all its difficulty, without apology. I remember how several of us treasured our copies of Four Quartets, every page covered in notes from class ("the Doyle edition"). I still have my copy. I remember going to an optional review class during reading days before finals and coming in very late (after a grandparent's funeral, believe it or not), which prompted Jim to just keep going, out of kindness. What a teacher! I'm glad that I told him how much his teaching meant to me.

When I started on an M.A. at Fordham, I sat in on the modern British course I'd already taken, to get all the notes I'd missed the first time around. Here too, in that more leisurely world of reading days, there was an optional extra class, hours long, to get through Four Quartets. It was in mid-December, at night, in a more or less deserted classroom building. The room was packed, people listening intently, coats piled everywhere. There was the strangely magical feeling that sometimes comes from being in a classroom at night--brilliant fluorescent light inside and the black winter night in the windows. The class suddenly became very moving, as Jim stopped what he was doing to talk about the difficulty of the works we were reading and of how they wouldn't really become clear to us for years. It was an intensely human lesson about the whole project of living and learning.

I have so many memories of Jim. He once told us that he'd gone to church that morning (during Easter week, I think) and that he was the only person there--so it was a good thing that he went! I remember his hilarious account of trying to explain to a prim Fordham girl what a phallic symbol was. He brought one (or both, I can't recall) of his children to class--the only time in all my years as a student that I ever saw a professor open up his family life in that way (I'm proud to say that I did likewise when my two children were younger). He took me out of my graduate cubicle once with the invitation, "Come take a walk with me," and we went out to Fordham Road and had ice cream. I also remember a completely casual aside that Jim made while teaching "Prufrock." Many years later it came back to me when it was exactly what I needed to remember in my life, and I'm glad I was able to tell him so. I feel lucky to have some books that he gave me before he left Fordham, and some letters and cards from over the years.

Jim's obituary has something of his gratitude and humor in it: "Jim lived a wonderful life and was happy that it was long enough to see the Boston Red Sox win the World Series."

[December 11, 2007: A fair number of people have been finding this post by searching for jim doyle. If you've been looking for Jim online, do read the comments that follow, and please consider sharing your memories there too. Thanks.]

Other Jim Doyle posts
Department-store Shakespeare
Doyle and French
From the Doyle edition
A Jim Doyle story
Teaching, sitting, standing

Saturday, October 8, 2005

No smoking

Today marks 16 years since my last cigarette.

And you still remember it to the day?

Of course I do. Don't underestimate the power of an addiction.

So you must've smoked a lot?

Not really. I probably averaged six to eight cigarettes a day. Every one of them was crucial.

What did you smoke?

At one time or another, every brand around, including obscurities like Philip Morris Commander, and excluding Eve, Virginia Slims, and 120mm brands. I settled in finally with unfiltered Camels and Lucky Strikes, and handrolled cigarettes made with Old Holborn tobacco and Abadie papers.

You still know all the details?

(Sigh.) Of course I do. Don't underestimate the power of an addiction.

So how did you quit?

It took me four tries. Wrigley's Extra peppermint gum was a strong enough flavor to make the absence of cigarettes bearable.

Do you still chew Wrigley's Extra?

Sure, sometimes, but not because I miss smoking. I still like the peppermint, and the new sour apple is really good too.

Do you think you'll ever smoke again?


[Dialogue with self inspired by reading Thomas Merton's journals and Devra's Blue Streak.]

Thursday, October 6, 2005

Mini-review: Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall
Blue Note / Thelonious Records, 2005

Thelonious Monk, piano
John Coltrane, tenor saxophone
Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass
Shadow Wilson, drums

Recorded Friday, November 29, 1957

Early show
Monk's Mood (7:52)
Evidence (4:41)
Crepuscule with Nellie (4:28)
Nutty (5:03)
Epistrophy (Monk-K. Clarke) (4:28)

Late show
Bye-ya (6:31)
Sweet and Lovely (Arnheim-Daniels-Tobias) (9:34)
Blue Monk (6:30)
Epistrophy [incomplete] (Monk-K. Clarke) (2:24)

All compositions by Monk except as noted

Nothing in the packaging of this cd indicates just how remarkable it is that this music is now available. The package could be mistaken for a Blue Note reissue--hip lowercase sans serif lettering and beautiful line drawings of the two principals (by Felix Sockwell). What's inside though is not a reissue; it's music newly discovered by Larry Applebaum, recording lab supervisor at the Library of Congress, on a tape made for the Voice of America, from two 1957 post-Thanksgiving Carnegie Hall concerts to raise funds for a Harlem youth center. The full lineup: Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker and Zoot Sims, Monk's quartet, and Sonny Rollins. Tickets ran from $2 to $3.95, with shows starting at 8:30 p.m. and midnight.

John Coltrane played with Thelonious Monk through much of 1957, for six months or nine months, depending upon whom you read, but there's very little of the collaboration on record. So in purely historical terms, any recording of the Monk-Coltrane quartet is of interest. The music preserved in this recording though is, by any standard of performance, extraordinary. The opening tune, "Monk's Mood," is one of the most inspired Monk performances I've heard. With the addition of Abdul-Malik's bowing and Wilson's brushwork, the performance follows the contours of the April 1957 studio recording with Coltrane and bassist Wilbur Ware, but Monk's performance here has an unusual intensity and energy. He is all over the piano, almost Cecil Taylor-like in his rising and falling arpeggios (specifically, at 3:07-3:09, 4:06-4:08, 5:50-5:52, 5:58-6:03). And the piano-tenor sections of the piece form a genuine dialogue, each musician inspiring and feeding the other. The cd, I'd suggest, is worth buying for this performance alone.

The rest of the music is full of wonders and surprises too. The percussive theme of "Evidence" gets a boost from Wilson's tasteful embellishments. "Crepuscule with Nellie" becomes downright sexy, as the tune turns into a real slow drag. Wilson's cymbals help turn the first "Epistrophy" into music to accompany a kick-line of cubists, and the performance goes on to develop a Mingus-like turbulence. Other highlights: Coltrane's two choruses on "Nutty," his double-timed solo on "Sweet and Lovely," Monk's second chorus on "Bye-ya," and the rumbling figure he plays at the start of the last chorus of the first "Epistrophy." An added pleasure: The recording quality is excellent--full, clear, and vibrant.

It seems appropriate somehow that this recording should end with an incomplete performance. As with a Sappho fragment, the wonder of this art is that it has survived at all, and the abrupt fadeout is, for me, a reminder of how lucky we are to have any of it. Thank you, Mr. Applebaum; thank you, Library of Congress; and thank you, Messrs. Monk, Coltrane, Abdul-Malik, and Wilson. Is it too much to hope that this recording will be given its due in the form of a Grammy? Or that other performances from this remarkable night will be brought to light?

Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Cell tanka

For years, Ayano Iida used email on her cellphone mainly to tap out quick messages to friends like "Let's get together tomorrow."

But these days, Ms. Iida's mobile is spouting out heartfelt verse like this: "The guy who I liked / second-best, was second-rate / in the school that he / went to; and also in his / performance between the sheets."

Ms. Iida, 26 years old, is one of a growing number of young Japanese using mobile phones to write and exchange tanka, an ancient form of unrhymed poetry whose roots reach back at least 1,300 years. Scores of tanka home pages and bulletin boards are popping up on cellphone Internet sites with names like Palm-of-the-Hand Tanka and Teenage Tanka. Japan's national public broadcaster airs a weekly show called "Saturday Night Is Cellphone Tanka," which gets about 3,000 poems emailed from listeners' mobiles each week on topics like parental nagging and the boy in the next class.

The marriage of tanka and cellphones is all the more unexpected because tanka is so bound up with Japanese tradition. Tanka, literally "short song," is thought to have first emerged around the eighth century. It is composed of 31 syllables arranged in a rigid, five-line pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. It's big on archaic words and has long been associated with high culture.

Courtiers of the 10th century exchanged love letters in tanka form, and the imperial family still pens tanka at the start of each year on topics like "happiness" and "spring." Tanka are often used to commemorate pivotal moments like death: Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima wrote two tanka before he slit his belly in ritual suicide in 1970.

But young Japanese say tanka is surprisingly suited to the cellphone. It's short enough to fit on little mobile screens, and simple enough to let young poets whip out bits of verse whenever the spirit moves them.

In many ways, tanka is similar to the kind of terse, sparse messages Japanese kids have tapped out on their handsets for years--especially in the early days of the cellphone when just a small number of characters could be crammed into one email.

"The rhythm and the length of tanka make it exactly the right vessel for what I want to say," says Ms. Iida, an ebullient woman in red-framed glasses who works nights at a bookstore in the city of Tochigi, a few hours north of Tokyo.
Here is a link to
the article I'm quoting.
It's from the Wall Street
Journal though, available
only to paid subscribers.

LINK: "Tiny Screens Are Just Right for 31 Syllables in 5 Lines Dashed Off on the Run"

Nipsey Russell

Dressed in a conservative business suit and tie but wearing a raffish porkpie hat, he offered a confident, sophisticated approach to comedy. His jokes and topical observations were often delivered in the form of aphorisms and rhymes. He had begun reading Shelley, Homer, Keats and Paul Laurence Dunbar when he was 10 and sometimes quoted from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." Hip, glib and conspicuously intelligent, he attracted downtown crowds to Harlem, becoming a standout attraction at the Baby Grand, Small's Paradise and other cabarets with quips like "America is the only place in the world where you can work in an Arab home in a Scandinavian neighborhood and find a Puerto Rican baby eating matzo balls with chopsticks."
Nipsey Russell was one of the people who seemed to be living in the television when I was a teenager. He was always there. I'll miss him.

LINK: "Nipsey Russell, a Comic With a Gift for Verse, Dies at 80" (from the New York Times)

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