Friday, March 30, 2007

Soy milk, New York Times, and Wikipedia

The New York Times ran an article earlier this week on beverages and health. It turns out to have contained wildly inaccurate statements about soy milk, as volunteers at the Wikipedia Reference Desks have established. Did the Times acknowledge its errors? No. Instead, the article was silently amended.


"Fortified soy milk is a good alternative for individuals who prefer not to consume cow milk,” the panel said, but cautioned that soy milk cannot be legally fortified with vitamin D and provides only 75 percent of the calcium the body obtains from cow’s milk.
"Fortified soy milk is a good alternative for individuals who prefer not to consume cow milk," the panel said.
I remember reading the original sentence and thinking "That can't be right." Sure enough: the soy milk and "cow milk" in my fridge, as I just discovered, have the same amount of calcium, and the soy milk has more vitamin D. (And who, aside from "the panel," calls it "cow milk"?)

It's difficult to disagree with Wikipedia contributor Jfarber, who brought these errors to the attention of the Times (and has received no acknowledgement from the paper): "for all the bad press about Wikipedia, there are some ways in which it works very well indeed."
Soy milk + Vitamin D? (Wikipedia Reference Desk)
NYT changes, back-dates article (Boing Boing)
You Are Also What You Drink (New York Times)

Related posts

I've spotted two significant errors in the Times, both about recording technology:


Wednesday, March 28, 2007


When my wife Elaine added the URL of her latest blog post to Google, here's what she was asked to type:

Elaine doesn't think this item is appropriate for her blog (the relation to music is at best tenuous), so she gave it to me. Thanks, Elaine!

Related posts

Monday, March 26, 2007

The SAT is broken

Les Perelman, director of MIT's director of the Writing Across the Curriculum program, continues to call attention to the absurd premises that underlie the recently-added essay section of the College Board's SAT. The high scores of a student who prepared for the test with Professor Perelman's guidance suggest what the College Board values in writing: big words ("myriad" and "plethora" are said to be favorites), weighty examples (whether or not they're relevant or accurately stated), and the magical five-paragraph formula.

Which is to say: the standards for the SAT essay run counter to everything a competent college teacher tries to make clear to students: that big words are not the key to good writing, that details and examples need to carefully chosen and relevant and grounded in fact, and that the number of paragraphs in an essay must be dictated by the writer's ideas and purpose. (There is no magic number.)

Here's an excerpt from the essay that Perelman's student wrote to test the test. I'm assuming that all the errors are intentional:

American president Franklin Delenor Roosevelt advocated for civil unity despite the communist threat of success by quoting 'the only thing we need to fear is itself,' which desdained competition as an alternative to cooperation for success. In the end, the American economy pulled out of the depression and succeeded communism.
Two College Board scorers gave the essay a 5, the second highest score possible.
Fooling the College Board (Inside Higher Ed)
Essay by Perelman's student (Download, 26 KB .doc file)
Words, words, words (Previous blog post on Professor Perelman's criticism of the College Board)

Unnecessary repetition

Spotted on a package of dried mangoes:

Taste and flavor: a winning combination!

As my daughter Rachel pointed out, the nouns taste and flavor do not have complete synonymy. We say that tap water has a bad taste, not a bad flavor. And ice cream comes in different flavors, not tastes. Safe to say though that the copywriter responsible for the above wasn't making such distinctions.

[Thanks for the photo, Rachel!]

Related post
Unnecessary repetition

The bottleneck in the brain

The New York Times brings us more evidence that multitasking doesn't work well:

"Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes," said David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. "Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information."

The human brain, with its hundred billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections, is a cognitive powerhouse in many ways. "But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once," said René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University.

Mr. Marois and three other Vanderbilt researchers reported in an article last December in the journal Neuron that they used magnetic resonance imaging to pinpoint the bottleneck in the brain and to measure how much efficiency is lost when trying to handle two tasks at once.

Study participants were given two tasks and were asked to respond to sounds and images. The first was to press the correct key on a computer keyboard after hearing one of eight sounds. The other task was to speak the correct vowel after seeing one of eight images.

The researchers said that they did not see a delay if the participants were given the tasks one at a time. But the researchers found that response to the second task was delayed by up to a second when the study participants were given the two tasks at about the same time.

In many daily tasks, of course, a lost second is unimportant. But one implication of the Vanderbilt research, Mr. Marois said, is that talking on a cellphone while driving a car is dangerous. A one-second delay in response time at 60 miles an hour could be fatal, he noted.

"We are under the impression that we have this brain that can do more than it often can," observed Mr. Marois, who said he turns off his cellphone when driving.
A slideshow accompanies the article, with images of New Yorkers talking and texting while biking, skateboarding, and walking.
Slow Down, Multitaskers; Don’t Read in Traffic (New York Times)

Related posts
Multitaskers, take note
Multitasking makes you stupid
On the advantages of writing by hand
On continuous partial attention
On continuous partial attention and reading habits
On wireless connections in classrooms

Saturday, March 24, 2007

"If the gods want to drive you mad"

“If the gods want to drive you mad, first they tell you your future."
Dr. Milton Wexler, founder of the Hereditary Disease Foundation and sponsor of research on Huntington's disease, advising his daughters not to take the test that would determine if they have Huntington's. Their mother Leonore, Dr. Wexler's ex-wife, died from the disease. Research made possible by Dr. Wexler's foundation led to the test.
Milton Wexler, Groundbreaker on Huntington's, Dies at 98 (New York Times)

Friday, March 23, 2007

"But it's so deconstructive!"

Nina Conti might be described as a postmodern ventriloquist. She and her puppet Monk (a monkey) stole the show in For Your Consideration (there's also a long bit with the two on the DVD of the film). Below, a link to a clip of Conti's 2005 performance at Tickled Pink, an annual breast-cancer fundraiser at the Royal Albert Hall.

Note: There are a few rough spots in the language -- all from the monkey.

Nina Conti and Monkey (YouTube)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Six lines from Auden

I came to W.H. Auden's poetry relatively late: when I was an undergraduate, Yeats and Eliot ruled from the world of the dead, and I'm not sure that many English Department people knew what to do with Auden's plain, colloquial words.

Here's a wonderful Auden passage: the first six lines of the very late poem "A Thanksgiving" (the next-to-last poem in Edward Mendelson's edition of the Selected Poems):

    When pre-pubescent I felt
that moorlands and woodlands were sacred:
    people seemed rather profane.

    Thus, when I started to verse,
I presently sat at the feet of
    Hardy and Thomas and Frost.
What's to like? A number of things:

The poet is quietly dazzling, writing syllabic verse with 7-, 9-, and 7-syllable lines. Note too the partial rhyme of verse and Frost and the way line six echoes "Tinker to Evans to Chance."

The poet characterizes his youth in a funny, self-deprecating way. It's impossible to imagine, say, Dylan Thomas in "Fern Hill" speaking of himself as "pre-pubescent." "Rather profane" is a nice swipe at the attitudes of youth too -- people, mucking up the landscape! A pre-pubescent of course would be untroubled by his own profane presence in these sacred territories.

There's more subtle comedy too: even when the poet, as a very young man, is writing poems without other people in them, he has to learn how to do so from other people -- from Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, and Robert Frost. So the solitary wanderer is not so solitary after all, and if he's sitting at the metaphorical feet of other poets, he's not wandering either.

One more point: Auden is taking up the centuries-old poetic practice of honoring by surname, as in Ben Jonson's Cary-Morison ode: "Nothing perfect done, / But as a CARY, or a MORISON." But he's having fun with this practice, sneaking in the American Frost and later acknowledging Brecht and Kierkegaard. Contrast the insular Philip Larkin, who once responded to an interviewer's question about another writer-librarian by asking "Who's Jorge Luis Borges?"

2007 is Auden's centenary -- one more good reason to take a look at his poems.
Other Auden posts

W.H. Auden centenary
Auden on handwriting and typing
Ian McEwan on Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" and the 2005 London subway bombings

Unnecessary repetition

I liked this example of unnecessary (and unneeded!) repetition in my local newspaper:

Police officers would be able to park all their squad cars next to the station and be able to drive through a 24-foot-wide parking lot aisle, instead of the existing 12-foot-wide alley.

"It is going to double the width of the access," [the city planner] said.
12 + 12 . . . yes, it checks out.
Related post
Unnecessary repetition

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Primates and morality

Interesting reading in today's New York Times, on primatologist Frans de Waal's contention that the origins of human morality are to be found in the social behavior of monkeys and apes:

Though human morality may end in notions of rights and justice and fine ethical distinctions, it begins, Dr. de Waal says, in concern for others and the understanding of social rules as to how they should be treated. At this lower level, primatologists have shown, there is what they consider to be a sizable overlap between the behavior of people and other social primates.

Social living requires empathy, which is especially evident in chimpanzees, as well as ways of bringing internal hostilities to an end. Every species of ape and monkey has its own protocol for reconciliation after fights, Dr. de Waal has found. If two males fail to make up, female chimpanzees will often bring the rivals together, as if sensing that discord makes their community worse off and more vulnerable to attack by neighbors. Or they will head off a fight by taking stones out of the males’ hands.

Dr. de Waal believes that these actions are undertaken for the greater good of the community, as distinct from person-to-person relationships, and are a significant precursor of morality in human societies.

Macaques and chimpanzees have a sense of social order and rules of expected behavior, mostly to do with the hierarchical natures of their societies, in which each member knows its own place. Young rhesus monkeys learn quickly how to behave, and occasionally get a finger or toe bitten off as punishment. Other primates also have a sense of reciprocity and fairness. They remember who did them favors and who did them wrong. Chimps are more likely to share food with those who have groomed them. Capuchin monkeys show their displeasure if given a smaller reward than a partner receives for performing the same task, like a piece of cucumber instead of a grape.

These four kinds of behavior -- empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking -- are the basis of sociality.
Read more:
Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior (New York Times)
And now it's back to work at the Continental Paper Grading Company.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The toll of war

U.S. troop fatalities in Iraq (March 2003-February 28, 2007):

For Iraqi Security Force and civilian fatalities in Iraq, estimates range from
30,000 (March 2003-December 2005, Bush administration)
650,000 (March 2003-November 2006, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health)
An interactive timeline is available from National Public Radio:
The Toll of War

“Middle school is like Scotch”

On teaching at a middle school in Brooklyn:

JoAnn Rintel Abreu, 40, an English and social studies teacher at Seth Low, graduated with a masters' degree in English literature, the "bare minimum" teaching requirements and glorious visions of turning high school students on to Shakespeare and Chaucer. She was offered a middle school job first.

Now, after 16 years at Seth Low, Mrs. Abreu takes great satisfaction in trying to figure out how to reach adolescents. The rewards come with breakthrough moments, like when a sullen eighth grader who rarely does his homework handed in a bitterly descriptive, beautifully written memoir about his father's new girlfriend, "the witch."

"Middle school is like Scotch," she reflected in the teachers' lounge one afternoon. "At first you try to get it down. Then you get used to it. Then it's all you order."

For Teachers, Middle School Is Test of Wills (New York Times)


If I were paranoid, I would be certain that Roz Chast is drawing me. Again and again, this glasses-wearing, bearded guy appears in her work. Here he's a psychiatrist floating in an inner tube:

[Detail from "Emergency Session," New Yorker cover, August 7 and 14, 2006.]
And here he's passing as an academic:

[Detail from "How to Bail Out EuroDisney," New Yorker, December 28, 1992]
Wait a minute: she is drawing me.
By Roz Chast: Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons, 1978-2006 (Amazon)

Friday, March 16, 2007

An Irish post

A passage from "Ithaca," the catechism episode of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922):

What considerations rendered departure desirable?

The attractive character of certain localities in Ireland and abroad, as represented in general geographical maps of polychrome design or in special ordnance survey charts by employment of scale numerals and hachures.

In Ireland?

The cliffs of Moher, the windy wilds of Connemara, lough Neagh with submerged petrified city, the Giant's Causeway, Fort Camden and Fort Carlisle, the Golden Vale of Tipperary, the islands of Aran, the pastures of royal Meath, Brigid's elm in Kildare, the Queen's Island shipyard in Belfast, the Salmon Leap, the lakes of Killarney.
Happy Saint Patrick's Day.

Font haiku

To mark the release of the film Helvetica ("a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design and global visual culture"), Extensis ("professional font management") is sponsoring a font-related haiku contest. My entry:

In ink, on paper,

words, letters, echo, quarrel:

"Sans serif!" "Serif!"

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Bailey Fountain

From a way down Flatbush Avenue it suggests that cloven flame which spoke with Dante in hell but by a nearer view, it is a man and a nude woman in bronze, and their plump child, eager for the Park, and it represents the beauty and stability of Brooklyn, and of human, family life. The man and wife stand back to back, in the classical posture of domestic sleep. It is a thoroughly vulgar and sincere piece of work, and once one gets beyond the esthete's sometimes myopic scorn, is the infallibly appropriate creation of the whole heart of Brooklyn. Michelangelo would have done much less well.
A description of Bailey Fountain, which stands in Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza, near the entrance to Prospect Park, from an essay by James Agee, "Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes," rejected by Fortune magazine in 1939 and published by Esquire in 1968. In 2005 the essay was published as a slender hardcover by Fordham University Press. I noticed and bought it in a bookstore a few days ago.

The photograph is by Paul Kostro and is used by permission:
Closeup of Bailey Fountain (Flickr)
More photographs by Paul Kostro (Flickr)
According to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, the male and female figures represent Wisdom and Felicity. Not a bad way to imagine a human partnership. For more on the history of Bailey Fountain:
Bailey Fountain (NYC Department of Parks and Recreation)

The National Philharmonic of Russia

The National Philharmonic of Russia is on its first United States tour, with piano soloist Olga Kern. If you live in or near a city where the NPR and Kern are performing, try to get tickets. You won't be disappointed -- if, that is, you can get tickets.

My wife Elaine and I heard the NPR and Kern last night at the University of Illinois' Krannert Center in an all-Russian program: Shostakovich's Festive Overture, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor. I went to be a good guy and pick up some Husband Points. But I soon figured out that I was listening to one of the most exciting, thrilling performances I'd ever heard.

Elaine's review of the concert (Musical Assumptions)

National Philharmornic of Russia Begins Debut U.S. Tour (Playbill)

Olga Kern plays Rachmaninoff (not with the NPR) (YouTube)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Jacqueline R. Griffith again

Jacqueline R. Griffith's dissertation abtract itself appears to be partly plagiarized.

Helen B. Mason (1995):

The implications are that institutional investors prefer firms that approve stock splits. These investors either encourage stock split behavior or have the ability to identify firms with stock split characteristics in the pre-split period or both.
Jacqueline R. Griffith (2001):
The implications are that institutional investors prefer firms that approve stock splits. These investors either encourage stock split behavior or have the ability to identify firms with stock split characteristics in the pre-split period or both.
Helen B. Mason (1995):
Results of regression, ANOVA, ANCOVA, and correlation analyses indicate a positive relationship between split behavior and level of institutional ownership.
Jacqueline R. Griffith (2001):
Results of ANOVA, regression, and correlation analysis indicate a positive relationship between institutional ownership and stock split behavior.
(Passages taken from Dissertation Abstracts Online.)

Plagiarism: all in the family

Father-daughter plagiarism accusations, in today's New York Times:

Jacqueline R. Griffith seemed to be flourishing as a tenured assistant professor in economics and finance at Kean University in New Jersey -- that is, until another member of her department accused her of having plagiarized sizable portions of her doctoral dissertation.

Déjà vu? Flash back to 1982, when her father, Claude Jonnard, a business school professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, also in New Jersey, was accused of copying government documents in a book under his own name, without citing any of them.
My favorite sentence from this article:
Asked in a telephone interview whether she had copied her dissertation, Ms. Griffith said, "I don’t believe so," adding, "But let me call you back."
Don't overlook the article's sidebar, which compares passages from a 1995 dissertation by Helen B. Mason and Griffith's 2001 dissertation (or better, the 2001 dissertation that bears Griffith's name). The Times is careful to note that spelling and punctuation have not been changed:
The purpose of the research is to identify and explain the relationship between institutional investor ownership and firm stock splitting behavior. (Helen B. Mason, 1995)

The purpose of the research is to identify and explain the relationship between institutional investor ownership, firm stock splitting behavior and market price changes do to dividend increases. (Jacqueline R. Griffith, 2001)

In a Charge of Plagiarism, an Echo of a Father’s Case (New York Times)

Monday, March 12, 2007

If I were, if I was

[A note to the visiting reader: There's nothing idiosyncratic or unusual about making a distinction between "If I were" and "If I was." Countless speakers and writers make this distinction, and explanations of it can be found in numerous writing handbooks (the kind of book usually used in a college writing class). I've tried to make an explanation of the distinction that's engaging and memorable. Happy reading and writing.]

A reader asked in an e-mail if I could explain when to use "if I were" and "if I was." Here are some examples to make the difference clear:

"If I were" (the past subjunctive) is appropriate in stating conditions that are contrary to fact:

If I were a bell, I'd go ding dong ding dong ding. (Frank Loesser)

If I were a carpenter and you were a lady, would you marry me anyway? (Tim Hardin)

If I were a rich man, [yadda, yadda, yadda]. (Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock)
Each of the above sentences states a condition that is not the case: I'm not a bell, not a carpenter, not a rich man.

"If I was" (the past indicative) is appropriate in stating conditions that are not contrary to fact. Here you might say that the truth or falsity of the condition is not certain:
Was I rude? I'm not sure that I really was. But if I was rude, I'm sorry.

If I was to train as a carpenter, I would get to wear safety goggles.
The was/were distinction can be tricky to get right. In that last sample sentence, was somehow sounds wrong to me, and if I were doing something other than writing this post, I'd probably choose were or recast the sentence:
If I train as a carpenter, I will get to wear safety goggles.
Why did I write "if I were doing something other than writing this post"? Because the condition stated is contrary to fact: I am writing this post.

The most awful blurring of was/were probably occurs when people say "If I was you." "I," whoever I am, never was "you." Here's another song lyric, which I know from a Fats Waller recording, to help keep the was/were distinction clear:
If I were you, here's what I'd do:
I'd stick to me my whole life through,
If I were you. (Buddy Bernier and Robert D. Emmerich)
Update, July 17, 2011:

One sample sentence in this post has continued to bug me: “If I was to train as a carpenter, I would get to wear safety goggles.” Should the verb be was or were? Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage (1965) supports the indicative was in such sentences:
Difficulties do arise, however, from making the unwarranted assumption that if always introduces a condition that is contrary to fact and thus should always be followed by a subjunctive. If may introduce clauses of supposition or concession, as well as conditions that are not true or are hypothetical, and in such clauses the verb is usually in the indicative, not the subjunctive, mood.
A sample sentence from The Careful Writer: “The Egyptian declared that if there was more trouble the U.A.R. would ‘exterminate Israel.’”

More recently, the American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996) also supports was:
Remember, just because the modal verb would appears in the main clause, this doesn’t mean that the verb in the if-clause must be in the subjunctive if the content of that clause is not presupposed to be false: If I was (not were) to accept their offer — which I’m still considering — I would have to start the new job on May 2.
The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (2005) makes the same point, with a different sample sentence. Both AH volumes point out that many people dispense with any distinction between if I was and if I were. If I were you though, I wouldn’t go along with them.

Still more recently, Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) recommends the use of the subjunctive in contexts that involve supposition. Garner’s sample sentence: “if I were to go, I wouldn’t be able to finish this project.” It seems to me that the use of the subjunctive here might erase the useful distinction between supposition and what’s contrary to fact: if I were to go seems to suggest that the speaker has already decided not to do so. (Think of a politician refusing to step down: If I were to resign, I’d be betraying, &c.) Another sentence or two might be needed to clarify things: If I were to go, I wouldn’t be able to finish this project. But I can always get Fred to do that for me. So I’ll go.

When it comes to supposition and the subjunctive, there is no single answer. If one is considering whether to train as a carpenter, the wise choice, as I have suggested above, might be a sentence that avoids any appearance of error by keeping clear of was and were:
If I train as a carpenter, I will get to wear safety goggles.
Reader, the choice is yours.

Other useful stuff
How to punctuate a sentence
How to punctuate more sentences

How to unstuff a sentence

Student-writers often believe that the secret of good writing is a reliance upon bigger and "better" words. Thus the haphazard thesaurus use that I wrote about last month. Another danger for student-writers involves the assumption that good writing is a matter of stuffy, ponderous sentences. Stuffy sentences might be explained by the need to make a required word-count, but I see such sentences even in writing assignments of only modest length. Most often, I think, these sentences originate in the mistaken idea that stuffiness is the mark of serious, mature writing.

A writer can begin to unstuff a sentence by looking closely at each of its elements and asking if it is needed. Here is an extreme example:

To begin, it is important to note that the theme of regret is an important theme in "The Road Not Taken," which was written by Robert Frost, and that evidence for it can be found throughout the entire poem.
"To begin": Like "to conclude," this phrase is an unnecessary, empty transition. If a point is coming early (or late) in an essay, trust that a reader can see that. Removing "To begin" involves no loss of meaning.

"It is important to note": Focusing on a point implies that the point is worth writing about, doesn't it? Removing these words too involves no loss of meaning. (As an undergraduate, I often wrote "It is interesting to note," until a professor drew a line through the words each time they appeared in an essay.)

"The theme of regret is an important theme": It's redundant to say that the theme is a theme. And is there any difference between "the theme of regret" and regret?

"'The Road Not Taken,' which was written by Robert Frost": Sentences with "which was written by" tend toward stuffiness. Here, the writer can refer to Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a savings of four words.

"Evidence for it can be found": It's often smart to avoid the passive voice ("can be found"). But changing the verb form (to "the reader can find evidence") leaves a larger problem. If this theme is an important one in the poem, is it necessary to say that the poem contains evidence of it?

"Throughout the entire poem": There's no difference between "the entire poem" and "the poem," especially when the word "throughout" is already in play.

A writer might rethink this 39-word sentence in various ways:
Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is, above all, about regret. Evidence that the speaker second-guesses his decision is abundant. (20 words)

A careful reading of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" shows that regret runs through the poem. (17 words)

Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is a poem about regret. (11 words)

Regret colors every line of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." (11 words)
The point of unstuffing a sentence is not to simplify thought or eliminate nuances of meaning. The point is to express a thought, whatever its complexity, with clarity and concision — the real marks of good writing.

Related reading
All "How to improve writing" posts (via Pinboard)

Hello, Lifehack readers

If you've arrived via my post How to unstuff a sentence, you might be interested in reading some posts devoted to improving real-world sentences:

How to improve writing (previous posts from Orange Crate Art)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Abe's Shades

"Thanks for the picture, Dad. It's great! Do you mind if I put it on my blog?"

"Not at all."

"Should it have a title?"

"Abe's Shades."

My dad sent this portrait of a hipster Lincoln along with a letter this week.

[Pen and ink by James Leddy, 2007.]

More by James Leddy: Happy holidays, Boo!, Hardy mums

Apostrophes and corn

I sometimes like to write letters to companies whose products I use and admire. In August 2005, I wrote a letter to the Morris Reisman, president of Pro Sales Industries, manufacturer of some well-made, handy kitchen tools:

Dear Mr. Reisman:

I write as a happy user of your vegetable and corn brushes. It's a pleasure to use products such as yours, which work as advertised, are designed to last, and are made in the United States.

I have one small suggestion for improvement. The back of the corn brush package reads "That's when your corn is at it's peak of freshness." The word it's (meaning "it is") in that sentence should be its (possessive pronoun). The mistake is a small blemish on an otherwise great package. When the time comes to print a new batch, I hope that you can make this change.

In closing, I wish you continued success with your products.


Michael Leddy
Yesterday a package arrived in the mail bearing a mysterious mark: RATTLE OK. Inside I found a letter of thanks from Morris Reisman and some sample products: a Rinse-No-More Mushroom Brush, a Scrub n' Wash Fruit & Vegetable Brush, a Silk Away Corn-on-the-Cob Brush, and a Nature's Way Banana Keeper. Cool!

And the text on the back of the Silk Away package has been revised:

Its, not it's: the best gift of all. Thanks, Mr. Reisman!

Apostrophes aside, these brushes really are wonderful -- the ones that I bought in August 2005 are still good as new.

[Morris Reisman died on November 17, 2009, at the age of seventy-six.]

Thursday, March 8, 2007


In a hallway:

"The nineties? What's that?"

"That's ancient history."

Previous "Overheard" posts

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Paris and Niles Crane

In Iliad 13, the Trojan prince Hector, who has been leading an assault on the Greek ships, finds his brother Paris off to the side of battle. Hector, furious, begins berating Paris, and ends his short speech in despair:

                                             "Troy is doomed.
The whole towering city is as good as gone."
And then, for one strange and hilarious moment, Paris sounds remarkably like Niles Crane:
"I see you're in a testy mood, Hector.
I may have held back from battle before,
But not now. My mother didn't raise
A total weakling."

(Translated by Stanley Lombardo)

Related posts
Homer's Rumsfeld
Paris, pretty-boy

Patients like Philoctetes

"We have created a subclass of patients like Philoctetes with modern medicine. They are abandoned on their islands to live long, but have we risen to the challenge of taking emotional care of them?"
Pediatrician Lyuba Konopasek and classicist Bryan Doerries (his words above) find in Sophocles' Philoctetes a way to help medical students understand the needs of patients receiving long-term care.
The Difficult Patient, a Problem Old as History (or Older) (New York Times)

Somme diary

From the Telegraph:

A British soldier's pocket diary of life in the trenches during the early days of the Battle of the Somme have been made public for the first time. Pte Walter Hutchinson was a young shop manager when he enlisted in the 10th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment. His poignant record of the battle, in 1916, includes a moving account of the first day during which more than 62,000 comrades died. Pte Hutchinson's handwritten account gives a graphic story of his own survival as wave after wave of soldiers went "over the top" only to be cut down by German fire.
The battle of the Somme (July 1-November 13, 1916) stands as one of the most horrific battles in history, with more than a million casualties. (Note: The figure given in the article seems to be an estimate of first-day British casualties, not of soldiers killed.)

The diary is being offered for sale at an auction in London tomorrow.
Forgotten diary captures horror of the Somme (, via notebookism)

Excerpts: Diary from the Somme (

Battle of the Somme (Wikipedia)
The diary of a First World War soldier who fought in the Battle of the Somme has been sold for £7,000.

Written by Walter Hutchinson, the diary went for almost ten times its original guide price at an auction in London.

Somme diary sold for £7k (UKTV)
April 16, 2015: Save for the Wikipedia article, the links are gone.

Saturday, March 3, 2007


I wonder:

Does anyone out there "dine"?

I, for one, don't. I "eat."

It's lunchtime.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Navel-gazing with the Greeks

From Anu Garg's A.Word.A.Day:

omphaloskepsis (om-fuh-lo-SKEP-sis) noun

Contemplation of one's navel

From Greek omphalos (navel) + skepsis (act of looking, examination). Ultimately from the Indo-European root spek- (to observe) which is also the ancestor of suspect, spectrum, bishop (literally, overseer), despise, espionage, telescope, spectator, and spectacles.
I've liked the word omphalos -- so strange, so sonorous -- from my first acquaintance with it in James Joyce's Ulysses. In "Telemachus," Buck Mulligan calls the Martello tower where he and Stephen Dedalus live "the omphalos." The word reappears in Stephen's consciousness in "Proteus":
The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be as gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello! Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.
I later learned (yes, bass-ackwards) about the part the word plays in Homer's Odyssey. The island of Ogygia, where Calypso keeps Odysseus as her love-slave, is said to be near the sea's omphalos, suggesting a center point, as far away from any mainland as possible. Ogygia is the middle of nowhere.

The passage from Ulysses is taken from an online edition:
Ulysses A hypertextual, self-referential edition