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)