Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Scriptos in Times Square

Killer's Kiss (1955), written and directed by Stanley Kubrick, is a great film noir. Running only 67 minutes, it feels like a longer, fuller film, as it's told largely in images: fight posters, dance-hall posters, photographs tucked into the edges of a mirror, a doll tethered to a bed railing, a tiled staircase. Boxer Davy Gordon and dance-hall girl Gloria Price (played by Jamie Smith and Irene Kane) meet, fall in love, and become the targets of jealous dance-hall owner Vincent Rapallo (played by Frank Silvera). There are great scenes of Times Square at night and a brutal fight in a mannequin warehouse.

Above, a still from a Times Square scene with Davy and Gloria. Imagine: an electric sign for Scripto mechanical pencils in Times Square. In 1955, people took their pencils seriously. But even better: the sign has moving parts and becomes, as Davy and Gloria talk, an advertisement for ballpoint pens: 29¢, same price as the pencils.

If you're wondering what the sign on the left is advertising, it's Himberama, "a sleight-of-hand musical revue" under the direction of orchestra leader and magician Richard Himber. Note the changing position of the rabbit: this sign too has moving parts. In another shot, the snappy slogans are readable: "A HARE RAISIN' SHOW," "THE 4D PRODUCTION."

In working out the mysteries of Himberama, I'm indebted to the New York Times obituary for Richard Himber (1966) and two articles from American Speech, John Lotz's "The Suffix '-Rama'" (1954) and the unattributed "Some Popular Components of Trade Names" (1958). The phrase "a sleight-of-hand musical revue" is from the Times. I still don't understand the fourth dimension.


March 9, 2021: I updated the link for Roger Russell’s Scripto pages, which are now saved at the Internet Archive.

Related post
Is there a pencil in The House ? (on pencils in The House on 92nd Street)


Cartoon aesthetics:

"I think it would look really goofy if you had made a speech balloon with multiple teats."
(Thanks, Elaine!)

All "Overheard" posts (via Pinboard)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"When narcissism is wounded"

I find a plausible explanation of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's current "tour" in Charles Crumb's observation in the documentary Crumb (1994):

"When narcissism is wounded, it wants to strike back at the person who wounded it."
An observation that helps, I think, to explain Bill Clinton's recent behavior too.

On Duke Ellington's birthday

Roaming through the jungle, the jungle of "oohs" and "ahs," searching for a more agreeable noise, I live a life of primitivity with the mind of a child and an unquenchable thirst for sharps and flats. The more consonant, the more appetizing and delectable they are. Cacophony is hard to swallow. Living in a cave, I am almost a hermit, but there is a difference, for I have a mistress. Lovers have come and gone, but only my mistress stays. She is beautiful and gentle. She waits on me hand and foot. She is a swinger. She has grace. To hear her speak, you can't believe your ears. She is ten thousand years old. She is as modern as tomorrow, a brand-new woman every day, and as endless as time mathematics. Living with her is a labyrinth of ramifications. I look forward to her every gesture.

Music is my mistress, and she plays second fiddle to no one.

Duke Ellington, Music Is My Mistress (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 447.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899. The above image is from the LP-sized booklet that came with This One's for Blanton (Pablo, 1972), the first Ellington recording I bought.

If you're looking for an introduction to Ellington's music, The Great Paris Concert is a great start.

Monday, April 28, 2008

& [ampersand]

I remember thinking about the ampersand when I worked as a legal proofreader for a summer at Rogers & Wells in Manhattan. Proofreading was a two-person job, with one person reading aloud and the other "holding copy." We sounded all punctuation in abbreviated forms: com, peer, q, sem. The firm's name was always cap rogers amp cap wells. Some law firms used and and some, the ampersand, and they were — and I'm sure still are — picky (if they still exist).

I sometimes ask my students if they know what & is called. They sometimes insist that it's the andpersand — it does, after all, stand for and. But it's the ampersand, really, and Jonathan Hoefler of the type foundry Hoefler & Frere-Jones has a wonderful post about its history: Our Middle Name (Ask H&F-J).

How to improve writing (no. 19 in a series)

A newspaper article about a falafel vendor states that falafel is served on "pizza bread." The reporter doesn't know from falafel, which is served on pita bread.

When writing about an unfamiliar subject, it's smart to check the vocabulary. Doing so helps to avoid anchor performances, pneumonic devices, and surrealist falafel.

This post is no. 19 in a very occasional series, "How to improve writing," dedicated to improving stray bits of published prose (and falafel sandwiches).

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

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ralph Stanley

[Photograph by Rachel Leddy.]

Dr. Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys, April 26, 2008.

(Thanks, Rachel!)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A dowdy finals week

"Well, he may be a 'dreamboat,' but young lady, you have studying to do. Young lady? I am talking to you! I would advise you to stop all this nonsense this instant and apply yourself. Finals begin in just two days! Two days! Are you listening to me, young lady? You haven't heard a word I've been saying! Oh — [deep sigh] — co-education!"

[Photograph from Alan H. Monroe, Principles and Types of Speech (New York: Scott, Foresman, 1955). Words from my imagination.]
All "dowdy world" posts (via Pinboard)

Jimmy Giuffre (1921-2008)

Jimmy Giuffre, the adventurous clarinetist, composer and arranger whose 50-year journey through jazz led him from writing the Woody Herman anthem “Four Brothers” through minimalist, drummerless trios to striking experimental orchestral works, died on Thursday in Pittsfield, Mass. He was 86 and lived in West Stockbridge, Mass.

Jimmy Giuffre, Imaginative Jazz Artist, Dies at 86 (New York Times)
Here are two performances of the Giuffre signature piece "The Train and the River," from the 1957 CBS television show The Sound of Jazz, with Jim Hall and Jim Atlas, and from Bert Stern's 1960 film Jazz on a Summer's Day, with Hall and Bob Brookmeyer. (The second performance is split into two clips.)

"The Train and the River" (YouTube)
"The Train and the River" 1, 2 (YouTube)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Joy Page (1924-2008)

[Joy Page and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.]

From the AP obituary:

A dark-haired beauty, Ms. Page was 17 and a high school senior when she got the role of Annina Brandel in the 1942 Warner Brothers classic Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
Page's scene with Bogart is a great moment of fear and uncertainty met with bitterness. Annina, a Bulgarian refugee, married eight weeks, hoping to get to the United States, wonders whether she should sleep with Captain Renault in exchange for exit visas for herself and her husband Jan.
Anna: Oh, Monsieur, you are a man. If someone loved you, very much, so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world, but she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?

Rick: Nobody ever loved me that much.
Actress Joy Page Is Dead at 83 (New York Times)

Writing, technology, and teenagers

Writing, Technology and Teens, a report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, is in the news today, in reports that emphasize teenagers' use of "informal elements" such as emoticons and messaging shorthand in their schoolwork. (The sky is falling.) I liked reading these student comments though, on page 16 of the report:

I like handwriting. I don't know, I feel more organized writing by hand especially with outlines and drafts and stuff.

I find it hard to think creatively when I am typing so I like to handwrite everything then I put it on the computer.

I type so much faster than I write. But if I want to make a paper much better I have to type it out first, then hand write in the changes, then type the good copy. And it makes it easier to think things through if I can handwrite it. And I think my worst work is when I just type it and don't handwrite it.
I'd want to see greater care with punctuation in these statements (gathered, it seems, in focus groups), but I'm cheered to see these young writers thinking about the ways their tools affect their work.

More: 93% of teenagers surveyed report doing writing out of school. 72% of teenagers usually do personal writing by hand.

A general Pew concern is that teenagers do not regard instant messaging and e-mailing as what the report calls "real writing":
The act of exchanging e-mails, instant messages, texts, and social network posts is communication that carries the same weight to teens as phone calls and between-class hallway greetings.
The kids seem to be thinking clearly here. "Real writing" for them would be analog: on paper, in an institutional context, writing that gets a grade or seeks access to an opportunity (a college-application essay, for instance). Texting a friend or family member is a different proposition. U shd c soma my txt messgs to my kids.

When the conventions of "real writing" and the conventions of digital informality collide, the result is a mess, as in e-mails to professors that say
hey i mnissed class cd you mail me the homework thanks
Which is why I wrote How to e-mail a professor. As this college semester nears its end, that post accounts for 20% of recent visits to Orange Crate Art. That's also cheering news, a sign that many students have come to understand that the conventions of "real writing" have analog and digital lives.

Some related posts
"[I]n my own hand, in my own notebook" (Robert Fitzgerald)
On handwriting and typing (W.H. Auden)
Writing by hand

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Colson Whitehead, "Visible Man"

I know some folks feel bitter about me, as bitter as the first dandelion greens of the season. Yet these people are not without hope, hope that is drizzled on those dandelion greens like a dash of sweet pomegranate vinegar. Do they begrudge the scorpion its sting, or the duck its quack? How can I be other than what I am, The Guy Who Got Where He Is Only Because He's Black?
From a wickedly satiric Ellison-influenced commentary on these times by novelist Colson Whitehead. Read it all: Visible Man (New York Times).

Related post
Yes, they can

Bean, an OS X word-processor

Bean, James Hoover's free word-processor for Mac, gets better and better. Version 1.1.0 became available a few days ago. Among recent additions and improvements to the program: a full-screen mode which allows for distraction-free writing.

Bean is small and fast, like this sentence. And like the last bowl of porridge in the old story, Bean is just right, at least for many word-processing tasks. The program offers more options than TextEdit, fewer than iWork's Pages. It is not a behemoth, not a Microsoft Word replacement.

Bean is released under the GNU General Public License. (It's free!) You can read more and download the program here: Bean.

[Above, the Bean icon, designed by Laurent Baumann.]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Meme (123)

My blogging friend Lee has tagged me with this meme:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.
Here's what I've found:
Products began to offer something more, something magical, something that could only be achieved at the press of a button. Indeed, of the terms used by people in the Populuxe era to describe their remarkable time — "the jet age," "the space age," "the atomic age" — "the push-button age" seems the most comprehensive and evocative, the one that embraces the miracles and the menace of the time.

There was a tremendous proliferation of push buttons on products during the 1950s and well into the 1960s.

Thomas Hine, Populuxe (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2007)
Yes, there was. My family's first car (or the first one I know about), a Plymouth, had a push-button transmission.

Ben, Elaine, Jason, Joe, Sara: you're it.

Malcolm X on prison and college

I don't think anybody ever got more out of going to prison than I did. In fact, prison enabled me to study far more intensively than I would have if my life had gone differently and I had attended some college. I imagine that one of the biggest troubles with colleges is there are too many distractions, too much panty-raiding, fraternities, and boola-boola and all of that. Where else but in a prison could I have attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensely sometimes as much as fifteen hours a day?

From The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with the assistance of Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine, 1987), 183
["Boola Boola" is the Yale fight song, words and music by Allan M. Hirsch (Yale '01).]

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bad metaphor of the day

From Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, proffering an explanation of Barack Obama's appeal among college students:

"What I find amazing, particularly because our students are brighter than ever — and it doesn't matter whether it's Penn or La Salle or any school — but the students go and sorta drink the Kool-Aid of a wonderful speech."
On this metaphor's terms, Barack Obama is Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples (sic) Temple, and those listening to his speeches are blind followers, duped by a cult leader to participate in their own destruction. (Though it was Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid, that was mixed with cyanide for the 1978 Jonestown murder-suicides.)

Of course, Governor Rendell, like J. Alfred Prufrock's lady friend, might object: "'That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all.'” Like James Carville speaking of Judas, Rendell is using a metaphor. But metaphors have meanings and implications. One can disavow a metaphor upon realizing its meanings and implications. But one cannot rely upon a metaphor to make a point while disavowing its meanings and implications.

Condescending and insulting and grotesque as it is, the Kool-Aid metaphor is also revealing: if Governor Rendell has to reach for a metaphor of cult leadership and blind followers, he plainly fails to understand the thoughtful interest and effort that the Obama campaign has inspired among many young adults. Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you Mister Rendell?

Here's the short clip of Rendell talking with college students: On drinking the Kool-Aid. Major props to the young woman in glasses, willing to argue with the gov.

["Something is happening here": à la "Ballad of a Thin Man," with apologies to Bob Dylan and Mister Jones.]

Related reading
All metaphor posts (via Pinboard)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Bad analogy of the day

An editorial on college-campus parking problems compares faculty and students to waiters and customers at a restaurant. If waiters park right in front of a restaurant, customers will not want to park at a distance and patronize the establishment. The context is different, the editorial acknowledges, but the roles of faculty and students, the editorial contends, are "close to the same."

Faculty : students :: waiters : customers?

That's the kind of analogy that develops when one begins to think of higher education as a matter of customer service. Is it worth pointing out the ways in which this analogy fails? I think so.

A campus building is not a customer destination, and a campus is by definition a pedestrian environment. One doesn't drive to class as one might drive to a restaurant. One drives to campus, and then gets around on foot (and perhaps by shuttle-bus). That a student should expect a space in front of a classroom building — a building that during any hour of the day might hold a thousand students — is silly (handicapped parking aside).

And parking aside, faculty are hardly comparable to waiters in their work. If we profs were waiters, we'd have a pretty strange restaurant, serving our specialties to diners who in many cases have no idea what's on the menu, though they've already paid for their meals.

Related post
"Customer service" in higher education

Blondie minus Blondie

I think it's an improvement, though I'm not sure it will work on a regular basis.

In this instance, with Daisy on hand, subtracting Blondie turns the strip into Garfield with Garfield's thought balloons removed: Daisy becomes Garfield (take that, Garfield), and Dagwood becomes Jon, speaking blandly to no one. Subtracting Blondie makes clear how little genuine communication there is between Bumsteads: here, as in so many strips, Blondie functions as the silent audience for Dagwood's "observational comedy." Let her go out and live her life, says I.

Subtracting Blondie also calls attention to the waste land in which Dagwood struggles. That wall: is it a wall, or is it empty space? That piece of furniture: very like a coffin. And those speech balloons: it took a lot of work to get them looking semi-right with Blondie out of the picture.

Related posts
Garfield minus Garfield
Telephone exchange names on screen ("Dagwood Rumstad")

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Boredom and attention

Wally: So I mean, is that our problem? Is that what you're saying? Are we just like bored, spoiled children who've been lying in the bathtub all day, playing with their plastic duck, and now they're thinking, What can I do?

Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, screenplay for My Dinner with André (New York: Grove, 1981), 91


Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them. Until one starts to collect them, insects and minerals are not very appealing. Nor are most people until we find out about their lives and thoughts. Running marathons or climbing mountains, the game of bridge or Racine's dramas are rather boring except to those who have invested enough attention to realize their intricate complexity. As one focuses on any segment of reality, a potentially infinite range of opportunities for action — physical, mental, or emotional — is revealed for our skills to engage with. There is never a good excuse for being bored.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 128
[The back cover of Finding Flow notes that the name Csikszentmihalyi is pronounced "chick-SENT-me-high."]

Related posts
Powders, pencils, mountains, cigars
"[T]races of ourselves"

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Calling Bandi

News from the UK:

A foul smell permeating London and parts of England over the past two days is due to farmers on the European continent spreading manure in their fields, forecasters and British farmers said Saturday.

Experts say the inescapable farmland smell permeating London will stick around for a couple of days.

Forecasters said a stiff breeze from the east is carrying the smell across the North Sea from Belgium, the Netherlands and even Germany. They said the smell is likely to hang around through the weekend as the easterly wind continues.
"The word for fertilizer": is that an innocent slogan, or a joke that Bandini's customers would have caught? (Think of another word for "fertilizer.") Either way, this smell calls for a persuasive product spokescharacter to explain it away. It's time for Bandi.

[Image from a 1959 matchbook cover, found in Warren Dotz and Masud Husain's Meet Mr. Product (San Francisco: Chronicle, 2003).]

Related post
The real Mr. T

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Entman Award

And the Entman (imaginary award of my devising) goes to Saul Levmore, Dean of the University of Chicago Law School, who has announced a block on Internet access in classrooms. From his e-mail to students:

Visitors to classes, as well as many of our students, report that the rate of distracting Internet usage during class is astounding. Remarkably, usage appears to be contagious, if not epidemic. Several observers have reported that one student will visit a gossip site or shop for shoes, and within twenty minutes an entire row is shoe shopping. Half the time a student is called on, the question needs to be repeated.
In law school! (I am low on exclamation points.)

I commend Dean Levmore for his sane and courageous position on Internet access in classrooms, and I hope that college and university administrators elsewhere follow his example.

Related posts
Brava, Professor Entman
Wireless or wireless-less


I woke early this morning to a strange sound — as if a behemoth truck were driving across the roof of my house. The rumbling (heard, not felt) lasted a few seconds, and I went back to sleep.

It turns out to have been an earthquake. There are no signs of damage. I've heard no sirens. No significant attention on the television news. A local morning show just mentioned (mentioned!) the earthquake during its weather forecast.

Update, 10:16 a.m.: We just had an aftershock, a few seconds with bookcases shaking.

5.4 earthquake rocks Illinois (Associated Press)

Parents and stars

Relative Esoterica's wonderful post about Mildred Bailey got me thinking and writing about a wonderful James Schuyler poem, which in turn made me resolve to ask my wonderful parents about their various brushes with the stars during their years working in New York City. Here are the goods:

My mom once saw Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer together. My mom also rode in Rockefeller Center elevators that carried Christine Jorgensen and Nancy Walker.

As I noted in my Schuyler post, my dad once said hello to Groucho Marx. And he once met Doro Merande, who asked "What are you building there?" My dad also said hello to Walter Abel, Hans Conried, and Abe Vigoda on the sidewalks of New York.

And he once saw Roy Eldridge and Maxine Sullivan leaving a building on Broadway. "Hi, Maxine," said my dad. "Well, how did you know?" asked Maxine Sullivan. (Because my dad was and is a jazz fan; that's how.) Roy Eldridge kept to himself, looking off somewhere behind sunglasses.

Best of all: sitting with fellow construction workers outside a jobsite, my dad was granted a fleeting vision of Katharine Hepburn, driving by in a convertible. "Hello, fellas," she said.

I've met and talked with many great people in the worlds of music (mostly jazz) and writing, but stars? Not many. I once saw James Coco in a Greenwich Village grocery store, and Gene Shalit in a midtown theater lobby. I watched Nancy Walker rehearse a commercial for Bounty paper towels at a discount department store (the Rosie's Diner of those commercials was close by). And I once talked with André Gregory (as in My Dinner with André) in the lobby of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Elaine encouraged me to introduce myself (I'd seen My Dinner with André seven times). André Gregory had seen the movie six times.

Reader, feel free to share your constellations in the comments. If you have recollections of parental brushes with the stars that would take us further back in time, those are most welcome too.

(Hi, Mom and Dad! Happy birthday, Mom!)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Apostrophes and vandalism

From Greater Manchester, England:

Despite her anger that someone had dec­ided to slash her tyres and deface her car, Rachel Ward couldn't help but smile when the vandal missed the apostrophe in "can't."

"I thought they had a cheek asking if I can't read when they clearly can't spell," said the 27-year-old. The vandalism was bad enough but then they add insult to injury by forgetting the apostrophe."
Car defaced, with bad punctuation (Metro)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

ABC's Fight Night

ABC's management of tonight's Democratic debate reminds me why I watch so little television. This debate was a travesty: billed as "Clinton vs Obama" and (at least online) "Fight Night," it was an exercise in badgering and baiting on the part of moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous. With all the urgent issues facing the country, Gibson and Stephanopolous spent close to one hour (of two) on shallow distractions and absurdities — flag lapel pins, quantitative analysis of other people's patriotism, the Weather Underground, and the question of whether each candidate would promise to choose the other as a running mate. Afghanistan? Education? Energy? Food prices? Housing? Mortgages? Torture? The unitary executive? Veterans' well-being? Not a single question. Audience members seemed to be jeering Gibson at debate's end. Good on them.

And having George Stephanopolous — from Bill Clinton's White House! — co-moderate a debate that involves the boss's wife: my mind boggles. Pass the Crown Royal.


Two hours before I begin teaching Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, I hear a young male voice in the hallway beyond my office, something about skipping a class: "You won't miss anything. It's a woman talking."

To which the appropriate reply is that of Janie herself, to her husband Joe Starks, a man who's always wanted to be a "big voice" and a "big ruler of things":

"Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business. He told me how surprised He was 'bout y'all turning out so smart after Him makin' yuh different; and how surprised y'all is goin' tuh be if you ever find out you don't know half as much 'bout us as you think you do."
All "Overheard" posts (via Pinboard)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The tenderometer

The dowdy-surreal machinery of Ruth Griswold's The Experimental Study of Foods (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962) continues to delight me. Here is a description of what might be called the penetrometer and shortometer's kooky younger brother, the one who does Jerry Lewis imitations and squirts milk out his nose:

An instrument called a recording strain-gauge denture tenderometer being developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology may prove satisfactory for a wider range of foods that some of the other instruments. This apparatus is fitted with human dentures mechanically arranged to simulate the frequency and motions of chewing. These motions are more complex than the simple operations of shearing, pressing, or puncturing performed by some of the other instruments. The strain-gauge tenderometer has been used for apples, potatoes, peas, pears, peaches, and bread.
Griswold alas provides no photograph of the strain-gauge denture tenderometer, and 1950s journal articles mentioning this item relegate it to endnotes. Below, a pocket-sized strain-gauge denture tenderometer (out of its leak-proof carrying case). Those other instruments, they're just boring.

Related posts
By Glen Baxter
The penetrometer
The shortometer

All "dowdy world" posts (via Pinboard)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Orange crate art

[Packing oranges at a co-op orange packing plant, Redlands, Calif. Santa Fe R.R. trip. March 1943. Photograph by Jack Delano (1914–1997).]

This photograph is one of the 3265 photographs that the Library of Congress has made available via Flickr. Wikipedia has an article on photographer Jack Delano.

And now it's back to work at the Continental Paper Grading Co.

Related posts
Crate art, orange
Library of Congress photographs
Orange art, no crate

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A boilermaker, sort of, in the news

I don't care if it is in stages; I don't care if there's pizza. I say it's a boilermaker, sort of. From ABC News:

Sen. Hillary Clinton stopped by Bronko's Restaurant and Lounge in Crown Point, Ind., tonight. Clinton stood by the bar and took a shot of Crown Royal whiskey. She took one sip of the shot, then another small sip, then a few seconds later threw her head back and finished off the whole thing.

Clinton later sat down at a table and enjoyed some pizza and beer, and called over Mayor Tom McDermott of Hammond, Ind., to come join the table. . . .

The senator was eager to get a slice of pepperoni.
Breathes there a voter so gullible as to be taken in by such transparent pandering?

Ad hoc

Friday's syndicated New York Times crossword has taught me a couple of things:

1. The first words of Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" are "Yo, V.I.P., let's kick it." (52 Across: "1990 #1 rap hit that starts" — you already know the rest.)

2. The Latin phrase ad hoc is more complicated than I thought. (7 Down: "Having a single purpose.")
I've known ad hoc as a matter of administrative improvisation, as with various ad hoc (i.e., not standing) committees I've served on in my academic life, committees put together as impromptu ways to address unexpected issues. The Latin words ad hoc (which I've never before bothered to think about) mean "for this." The phrase's first use as an adverb in English (1659) carries that meaning: "For this purpose, to this end; for the particular purpose in hand or in view." In the 19th century, ad hoc functions as adverb and adjective: "Devoted, appointed, etc., to or for some particular purpose."

It's in the 20th century that the phrase's emphasis on a response to the needs of the moment ("in hand or in view") becomes associated with flying by the seat of one's pants or, to change the metaphor, winging it. Thus ad hoc is now also a verb: "to use ad hoc measures or contrivances, to improvise." And the phrase gives rise to several ugly nouns: ad hoc-ery ("the use of such measures"), ad hocism / adhocism ("the use of ad hoc measures, esp. as a deliberate means of avoiding long-term policy"), and ad-hoc-ness ("the nature of, or devotion to, ad hoc principles or practice"). Thank you, Oxford English Dictionary.

By the way, I'm not merely ad hocking in writing about ad hoc. This post is in keeping with a "long-term policy" of writing about anything that prompts my thinking and seems potentially useful and/or delightful to others.

Friday, April 11, 2008


[Click for larger version.]

When I saw the subject line of this e-mail — "Slight error regarding your account," I knew that someone was going phishing. I was curious enough to open this message and see what it looked like. Look carefully:

The greeting is generic, no name or account number.

The words inability and regularly are misspelled. The word your appears as you.

The odd phrase "address changing" suggests a lack of familiarity with American idioms.

The end punctuation of the numbered items is inconsistent.

The numbered items are out of sequence! (Sheesh! Thes guys ned to proofred.)

The sentence in red is missing a pretty obvious comma. The unnecessary then in that sentence also suggests that the English of this message is a matter of labor.
If I were reading this e-mail in panic mode, I'd be likely to miss these details, just as the dim phishers themselves have. But even in panic mode, mousing over the link to read the URL before clicking is all that would be necessary to determine that this e-mail is a phony. The words in blue point to a Chilean URL that (of course) has nothing to do with Chase. I have no idea what is to be found there.

[Update: A comment on this post suggests that mousing over might not be enough. So even if the revealed URL appears legitimate, don't click. If you suspect a genuine problem with an account, use the phone or visit the appropriate website.]

A phisher who reads this blog post might learn something about creating more plausible-looking e-mails. But that remote possibility is outweighed by the more likely possibility that some reader will stop and think before clicking on a questionable link.

You can check on or report a specious URL at PhishTank. The URL in my e-mail has already been verified as belonging to a phisher. PhishTank also has a page with suggestions about what to look for in a phishing message.

[Thanks to Eustace of The Lock and Key, whose comment prompted me to update this post.]

Related post

Thursday, April 10, 2008

By Glen Baxter

I realized this afternoon that part of what I like about the surreal machinery of The Experimental Study of Foods is that it reminds me of Glen Baxter's cartoons.

This image is from The Impending Gleam (New York: Knopf, 1982).

The penetrometer

"Penetrometer with light cone as used to test the firmness of baked custards."

Figure 16-8 in Ruth Griswold's The Experimental Study of Foods (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

Related posts
By Glen Baxter
The shortometer
The tenderometer

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The shortometer

The shortometer: "a device used by commercial bakers for testing the shortening power of various fats in dough" (Webster's Third New International).

The above images come from a home economics textbook, a booksale leftover, Ruth Griswold's The Experimental Study of Foods (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962). Griswold describes the shortometer as a device to test "the breaking strength of pastry, cookies, and crackers." The device in Figure 16-5 is a commercial product. Figure 16-6 shows a do-it-yourself device made with a postal scale. Griswold explains: "In either instrument, the pastry or other wafer is put across two horizontal bars, the single upper bar is brought down by means of a motor until it breaks the wafer, and the force is recorded with a maximum registering hand." Imagine, going to work to smash graham crackers.

My brief acquaintance with shortometers has cleared up a line from The Honeymooners episode "Alice and the Blonde" (1956) that always puzzled me. Ed Norton to Bert Wedemeyer: "I do like a short cookie, Bert, and you do make 'em short." The Third New International explains it all: "easily broken, crumbling readily (as from shortening content)."

Note the name Kroger in the caption for 16-5. The Kroger Co. is still going strong, not crumbling readily.

Related reading
By Glen Baxter
The penetrometer
The tenderometer
All "dowdy world" posts (via Pinboard)

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Grad-school-ruled notebook

After decades of only offering ruled notebook paper suitable for college-level education and below, school-supply giant Mead introduced its new grad-school-ruled notebook Monday, which features lines twice as narrow as college-ruled paper.
Mead Releases New Grad-School-Ruled Notebook (The Onion)

(Thanks, Ben!)

Hillary Clinton's roots

April 2007:

At a recent gathering of donors, [Mark] Penn said, he asked the group: "Who here knows where Hillary is from?"

"Not one, really, guessed that it was in the Chicago suburbs," Penn said. "They really didn't know. They drew a blank. So, a lot of people always say to me, well, they know everything about Hillary. It's not true. There's really a lot to tell."
April 2008:
Hillary Clinton's campaign hit the airwaves in Pennsylvania with five new ads Tuesday, including spots that feature two of the state's most high-profile Democrats — Gov. Ed Rendell and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter — and one that plays up her roots in the state.

Messy desk

Thought and work are unpredictable, varying, and ambiguous. They're messy. Why shouldn't your desk be messy too?
Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder (New York: Back Bay Books, 2007), 32

Related post
In search of lost objects

Monday, April 7, 2008

Spam names

In the spam folder recently: Horace Fish, Madge Herring, Jewell Mayo, and Ham, just Ham.

Related posts
Achilles and stochastic
English professor spam
The folks who live in the mail
Great names in spam
Introducing Rickey Antipasto
The poetry of spam
Spam names

Sunday, April 6, 2008

France debates le point-virgule

Not a belated April Fool's joke:

In the red corner, desiring nothing less than the consignment of the semicolon to the dustbin of grammatical history, are a pair of treacherous French writers and (of course) those perfidious Anglo-Saxons, for whose short, punchy, uncomplicated sentences, it is widely rumoured, the rare subtlety and infinite elegance of a good semicolon are surplus to requirements. . . .

In the blue corner are an array of linguistic patriots who cite Hugo, Flaubert, De Maupassant, Proust and Voltaire as examples of illustrious French writers whose respective oeuvres would be but pale shadows of themselves without the essential point-virgule, and who argue that — in the words of one contributor to a splendidly passionate blog on the topic hosted recently by the leftwing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur — "the beauty of the semicolon, and its glory, lies in the support lent by this particular punctuation mark to the expression of a complex thought."
Read all about it: The end of the line? (Guardian)

Related posts
Paul Collins on the semicolon
A semicolon in the news

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Lucky numbers

Perhaps there's a shortage at the fortune-cookie factory. In Jewish tradition, the number 18 is lucky: the letters of חי (chai, "living") add up to 18. It's not unusual for a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah gift to be a multiple of 18 — e.g., $36: a double chai. But as Wallace Shawn says in My Dinner with André, "the cookie is in no position to know about that." Related reading Chai (Wikipedia)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Going on break

An e-mail from my friend Sara got me thinking of words from my retail past, when I would "go on break." I went on break at two discount department stores in New Jersey, Valley Fair (in Little Ferry) and Two Guys (in Hackensack), where I worked during college as a housewares stock-clerk. (To this day, I refer to an aisle of kitchen tools as "the gadget aisle.")

It was always "go on," never "take a." That's how I started smoking — on break, as there was nothing else to do, and everyone smoked, sitting in the store's snack bar with a Coke or a styrofoam cup of miserable coffee. The older ladies carried cigarette purses. The younger employees would usually have Marlboros in the box. I, going my way, had Pall Malls. I remember a co-worker demonstrating how to make a cigarette pack smoke, by pulling down the cellophane wrapper, burning a hole in the bottom, letting the open space fill with smoke, and pushing the pack in and out of the wrapper to puff smoke through the hole.

I remember just one Two Guys co-worker who spoke of "break" as her own: not "I'm going on break" but "I'm taking my break." We found her one Saturday in the garbage can aisle, hiding in a plastic garbage can, where, it seemed, she had been taking her break for several hours.

Sometimes all of Housewares would go on break together (a team-building activity, of course), and then we'd hear "Someone from Housewares to Aisle 12 for customer assistance" on the loudspeaker. And once, during the lunacy of Dollar Days (four rolls of Reynolds Wrap for a dollar!), we barricaded ourselves, along with our department manager, in our stockroom, where we ate Chinese take-out and let the customers figure things out for themselves. Our feast was interrupted by Mr. Miller, one of three store managers, who banged on the door, demanded access, and lectured us on our sorry ways. And then: "What've you got? You got anything good? Let me have an egg roll." Mr. Miller ate with us and went away mollified. He was by far the most decent of our store managers.

There are still few everyday realities sadder to me than a discount department store at closing time:

"Attention shoppers, that old clock on the wall tells us that another fine day has come to an end. We here at Valley Fair appreciate your business and hope to see you again soon. Until then, have a safe trip home, and good night."

Bad simile of the day

Bill Clinton is scheduled to visit Pembroke, North Carolina, today:

Charles Locklear dined on fried chicken and cabbage as he talked about former President Clinton's visit. He said it will be a good thing for the town.

"This will kind of put us on the map like back in the '50s when we had the Ku Klux Klan shoot out. We might be back on the front page again," he said.
Pembroke buzzes about Bill's visit (Fayetteville Observer)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

American Idol and Orange Crate Art

Though I have watched no more than a few chance minutes of American Idol (and a couple of Sanjaya Malakar clips on YouTube), I find it strangely exciting to learn that an American Idol contestant has read Orange Crate Art. He is Michael Johns, who went in search of the meaning of "in your wheelhouse," as used by American Idol judge Randy Jackson. On his Idol blog, Johns writes

I found another blogger who says that Wheelhouse is a metaphor for a "hitter's power zone, among other things."
I am that blogger, in a post on James Carville's metaphors:
As I just learned, wheelhouse is (among other things) a metaphor for "a hitter's power zone."
I'm impressed that Michael Johns is looking up idioms in his free time. Would I also be impressed by his singing?

American Idol viewers, please add your observations.

Campaign typography

"Put the word 'change' in Comic Sans and the idea feels lightweight and silly. Place it in Times Roman and it feels self-important. In Gotham, it feels just right. Inspiring, not threatening. In the end, typography makes a real difference when it delivers words and ideas that are relevant to people. And for many, that seems to be the case here."
From a New York Times interview with designer Brian Collins on typography and the Obama campaign: To the Letter Born.

Gotham is the work of Hoefler & Frere-Jones, who also have some thoughts on campaign fonts: Fontogenic . . . and Non-Fontogenic.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

In search of lost objects

Words of wisdom, sort of:

There are no missing objects. Only unsystematic searchers.
Findologist Professor Solomon has made his How to Find Lost Objects available as a free .pdf.

I've heard of Professor Solomon's 18-inch rule (objects "tend to travel no more than eighteen inches from their original location") and have found it genuinely useful when looking for things like keys, Moleskines, pens, and wallets.

How to Find Lost Objects (.pdf, 5.2 MB) (via Quo Vadis Blog)


My friend Stefan Hagemann sends news of a missing apostrophe, missing from a statue honoring Chicago Cub Ernie Banks. The exhortation on the statue's base — "LETS PLAY TWO" — comes from Banks' catchphrase: "It's a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let's play two."

Sculptor Lou Cella: "I'm the sculptor; I'm not a writer. I just read it the way I heard it in my head."

Cella's added an apostrophe, in the right place too.

(Thanks, Stefan!)

Related posts
A semicolon in the news
Spelling in the news (Eistein, Michaelangelo, and Shakespere)

Texting and exiting

There's a curious story in Inside Higher Ed today about Laurence Thomas, a philosophy professor at Syracuse University who ends class and walks out if he sees a student texting. He recently followed one such exit with an e-mail to administrators and his students, expressing his frustration with the lack of respect his students give him. And then he said something more: "he noted that the student who sent the text message is Cuban, and that last year, two Latino students had started to play tic-tac-toe during his class."

But Professor Thomas is no cranky, backwards white guy:

While Thomas noted that white students are also rude, he expressed frustration that — especially as a minority scholar himself — he would be treated in this way. "One might have thought that for all the talk about racism and the good of social equality, non-white students would be particularly committed to respecting a black professor," Thomas wrote.
In his e-mail, Thomas went on to describe himself as a believer "in principles of right and wrong that transcend every race/ethnicity and sexual identity."

There are at least two problems here. One: if Thomas believes in principles that transcend differences of color and ethnicity, the ethnicity of his texting and tic-tac-toe-playing students should be irrelevant. Two: a professorial practice that holds all students responsible for the actions of one is unreasonable. If I were a serious student in Professor Thomas' class, I'd find the texting and tic-tac-toe (tic-tac-toe!) ridiculous. But I'd also find Professor Thomas' dramatic exits insulting and alienating, and far more troubling that my classmates' cluelessness.

A simpler strategy when a someone is texting in class: ask the offending student to put away the phone. If it happens again, ask the student to leave. And if a cellphone rings in class, do what I do: groove to the music for ten seconds or so, head bobbing, fingers snapping — it's always music, never a ring — while the silliness of the situation has a chance to sink in and someone shuts off a phone. And then get back to what you were doing.

Related post
Proust and the finger-snapping bit (with Duke Elllington's advice on finger-snapping)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


What with all the overtures to the (so-called) working-class voter in Pennsylvania, the conversation on MSNBC's Hardball this afternoon turned to boilermakers. None of the four assembled talking heads seemed to know exactly what a boilermaker is.

From Merriam-Webster Online: "whiskey with a beer chaser." That's the only boilermaker I've ever heard of (or drank).

From the Oxford English Dictionary: "a shot of whisky followed immediately by (or occas. combined with) a glass of beer." Combined with? Yes.

And then there's Wikipedia, whose boilermaker entry is a headache-making catalogue of variations.

I just remembered that one of the great scenes in On the Waterfront (1954, dir. Elia Kazan) includes boilermakers. Here, courtesy of YouTube, are Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy) and Eva Marie Saint (Edie Doyle), with "two Glockenheimers and two for chasers": "Dink."

Related post
A boilermaker, sort of, in the news

Google introduces gDay™ technology

New technology from Google:

The core technology that powers gDay™ is MATE™ (Machine Automated Temporal Extrapolation).

Using MATE’s™ machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques developed in Google’s Sydney offices, we can construct elements of the future.
Read more: gDay™ with MATE™ (Google)

Is there a pencil in The House?

Whoso would be a G-Man must be a pencil user, as Emerson might have put it.¹ The pencil is the FBI's writing instrument of choice in The House on 92nd Street (1945, directed by Henry Hathaway), a movie whose interiors seem to have been furnished by a pencil fanatic. Pencils are the tools of counter-espionage in this movie: we see glassfuls in various work areas, and again and again we see the Dixon Ticonderoga, always the Dixon Ticonderoga, in government hands. (The ferrule, with its three dark bands, is the giveaway.)

I have no idea whether The House on 92nd Street is accurate in its depiction of pencil-wielding FBI agents. But the depiction is plausible. Unlike a fountain pen, a pencil is ready to write without priming. It has no cap to unscrew and keep track of. It cannot skip or clog or leak. It remains available for sporadic notetaking without drying out. Its lifespan is always visible: one will never be surprised by unexpectedly running out of ink (or, as with a mechanical pencil, out of lead). If a point breaks, it can be resharpened, or another pencil can substitute. The plainness of the wooden pencil — just doing my unglamorous job, ma'am — seems to fit the G-Man ethos.²

"Well, I guess that's all": a G-Man posing as a Civil Defense worker pockets his Ticonderoga.

Distinguished physicist Dr. Arthur C. Appleton (John McKee) uses a Dixon Ticonderoga to do some calculations concerning Process 97.

Inspector George A. Briggs (Lloyd Nolan) is Inspector Dixon Ticonderoga himself. He never uses his desk sets (yes, he has more than one, as we'll see), just pencils. Note the ferrule of the pencil in his hand.

Dixon Ticonderoga noir! Five more pencils wait on the notepad. Great phone and film projector too.

Two desk sets, two rocking blotters (!), and two pencils, one Dixon Ticonderoga and one anonymous. Inspector Briggs holds a page with some of the details of Process 97, which seems to be the secret process for making a snowman.

¹ From "Self-Reliance": "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist."

² The ballpoint pen wasn't for sale in the United States until October 1945, after the movie's release.

Related posts
The dowdy world on film
Film noir pencils
Musical-comedy pencils
Pocket notebook sighting: The House on 92nd Street
Q and A
The real Mr. T (A Dixon Ticonderoga spokespencil)
Young woman with a pencil

And at Pencil Revolution, a photo-essay on some old Castell 9000s: Serious pencils indeed.