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)

[To read the Times online, use mediajunkie as your name and password, or create an account of your own.]

"What Should We Call the Professor?"

From a well-researched and funny commentary on a mysterious question:

I came to teaching midcareer, without a doctorate, and didn't give much thought to what I wanted students to call me. Somehow "Ben" didn't seem right--even though, in the professional world, college-student interns always had called me that, no problem. What I wasn't prepared for was being addressed as "Dr. Yagoda." I corrected that the first couple of dozen times, then stopped when it became clear that my quip of choice--"I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV"--wasn't funny. I realized, in any case, that I had to give students a clue to my preference, so I started signing e-mails and syllabuses "Prof. Yagoda."
LINK: Ben Yagoda's essay "What Should We Call the Professor?"

Monday, October 3, 2005

JK Chocolate Truffles

My friend Jim makes truffles. That's like saying that Rolls-Royce makes cars. Jim's truffles are hors commerce (not for sale), but you can at least look by going to his website. The photo gallery alone is worth a visit, with the JK box turning up in the most surprising places.

LINK: JK Chocolate Truffles