Saturday, May 31, 2008

Illinois roadkill

Our state is in more trouble than I thought. From the Associated Press:

The view along Illinois highways this summer should be beautiful — for the turkey vultures.

The state's transportation department says it won't be picking up as much roadkill left along roads because it spent too much of its budget during the winter. IDOT says it spent more than twice the allotted $40 million on clearing ice and snow removal because of rising fuel costs and harsh weather last winter. Dead animals in driving lanes and any deemed hazardous to motorists will be removed. But much of the rest will be left for scavengers.

Kevin Gillespie of the Jackson County Health Department says the roadkill might be smelly and gruesome, but it shouldn't lead to any health risks.


The winning word from the Scripps National Spelling Bee is guerdon. From Merriam-Webster:

guerdon \ˈgər-dən\ noun
Middle English, from Anglo-French guerdun, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German widarlōn, reward
14th century
: reward, recompense
When I read the news today, I immediately thought of guerdon as accompanied by thy. But where? Not in William Shakespeare. Not in Ezra Pound. In Hart Crane's poem of the Brooklyn Bridge, The Bridge (1930):
Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn…
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon… Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

[Ellipses in the original.]

Friday, May 30, 2008

Mac year

I realized a few days ago that it's been one year since I began using a MacBook at home, having switched over at work several months earlier when I was up for a new computer. And now that I'm writing this post, I realize that my OS X experience has been in many ways a matter of what's missing. No long wait for the computer to start up and shut down. No registry to tinker with. No defragmenting of the hard drive. No Internet Explorer, an unwelcome browser that cannot be uninstalled. No Microsoft Office (I like iWork, thank you). No hours lost trying to get a wireless card to work. And no Vista, which I resolved long ago not to buy.

My XP computer was a pretty spiffy machine: with unnecessary services turned off and all sorts of registry tweaks, it was reliable and responsive (once it started up). But it cannot compare to my MacBook. If I'm writing in a text-editor and want to check a document's spelling, I just hit Shift-⌘-;. If I want to delete a file, ⌘-Delete. If I want to save an image from a DVD, I open VLC and use the snapshot feature. If I want to do almost anything, from opening applications (on the Mac, they're applications, not programs) to moving files to resizing images, Quicksilver makes tasks amazingly simple. Working on a Mac is sometimes so simple that it can at first be baffling. I remember how long it took me to realize how little is involved in installing most applications: dragging the application's icon to the Applications folder. That's it.

I started out on an Apple //c in 1985, and in retrospect, I regret ever moving away from Apple hardware. I could have been one of those people with a closet full of old Macs by now! Instead I bought into the false mythology that Macs were for people in design and that one had to use a PC to do serious writing. And now, when I talk about how great it is to be working on a Mac, I'm surprised by how many people assume that files created on a Windows machine — any files — cannot be opened on a Mac.

My year has not been entirely Windows-free: the classrooms I teach in are equipped with machines running XP. Every time I turn one on and wait for it to warm up (yes, like an old television), I'm reminded how happy I am working on a Mac. Every time I connect my USB memory stick to a classroom computer and wait for "new hardware" to be "installed" (say what?), I'm reminded how happy I am working on a Mac. Every time I put a disc in the tray and wait for the machine to grind away, I'm reminded how happy I am working on a Mac.

And yesterday morning I realized for the first time that I'm finally, really, out of it, Windows-wise: when I started up the Windows version of VLC to play a DVD, I clicked on the wrong dialog button. In OS X dialog boxes, Play, Save, and so on appear to the right; Cancel, to the left. In Windows, it's the other way around. I clicked Cancel, saw that nothing was happening, realized my mistake, and started over. I'm glad that I clicked Cancel on Windows last year.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Online comics

My local newspaper is dropping its daily Doonesbury and Peanuts. The editor assures us though that we will still be able to read Peanuts on Sundays.

What the editor of course cannot mention is that one can read just about any strip online. The Washington Post, for instance, offers a great selection, including Mark Trail and Zippy the Pinhead. Something for everyone!

[Above, a recent scene from Mark Trail. Note the misplaced speech balloon: it appears that Bill is replying.]

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Another quality adding-a-URL-to-Google experience:

Despite the lack of the second n, I've decided that oveness should be a word, with the pronunciation duly adjusted:
oveness \ UHV-niss \ noun
: a quality or state pertaining to an oven; specifically, an ashen, dry, hard, metallic quality or state, as of food left too long in an oven

Sample sentence: The baked potatoes had too much oveness to them.

Related posts

Movie recommendation: The King of Kong

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
directed by Seth Gordon
79 minutes

The King of Kong is so funny and heartbreaking, its characters so unwittingly self-revealing, that it's easy to mistake the film for a mockumentary. But it's for real, and it focuses on the rivalry between arcade-gamers Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, as they engage in asynchronous combat to achieve the world-record score in Donkey Kong.

In competitive arcade-gaming, as in professional wrestling, there are good guys and bad guys, very broadly drawn. Wiebe, an endearing nebbish, practices on a machine in his garage and travels with his wife and children to an official site in an attempt to set a new world record. Mitchell, the reigning champion, is a well-groomed hot-sauce entrepreneur whom we see moving competitors' products to the back of a supermarket shelf. And as in professional wrestling, an official organization — Twin Galaxies (!) — seems intent upon elevating some competitors and impeding others.

My arcade life is pretty much limited to a Ms. Pac-Man machine in a Boston pizza parlor, circa 1981–1983. But the play's not the thing: you don't have to be (or have been) an arcade-game fan to enjoy The King of Kong.

Thanks to Rachel for introducing the rest of our family to this fine film, available on DVD.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Proust's LiveJournal

Today's Amazon recommendations include someone named Joyce. I should look into that.

Location: My room
Mood: Thoughtful
Music: The heartbreaking sound of nightingales outside the shuttered window of my distant boyhood bedroom
Tags: memory, Mother, fevers, weeping
Read the rest: Proust Discovers LiveJournal (McSweeney's)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Boston English

Jimmies. Regular coffee. Elastic. Bubbler. Tonic. Dungarees. Carriages. Gonzo. Packie. Parlor. Rotary. Bang a U-ey. Hosey. Wicked.
Read all about it:
Wicked Good Bostonisms Come and Go (Boston Globe)
The Wicked Good Guide to Boston English

Memorial Day

From the New York Times, June 7, 1868. This item is Memorial Day's first appearance in the Times.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Vacation Reading Club

[Poster from the WPA Federal Art Project, artist unknown. Stamped on the back: May 25, 1939. Via the Library of Congress online exhibit By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943.]

I'm currently reading Allen Shawn's memoir Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life and Colson Whitehead's novel The Intutionist. What are you reading this May 25th?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Involuntary bicycle

"I rode my bike": I said that in class yesterday morning, when some thunder spoke up to contradict the day's forecast. And I felt for a moment thirteen years old, as if I had been riding my Schwinn Sting-Ray — high-rise handlebars, banana seat, Slik rear tire (no tread), and a basketball under one arm.

Related posts
In a memory kitchen
Proust: involuntary memory, foolish things

Friday, May 23, 2008

Creative timekeeping

In the news:

Hillary Clinton today brought up the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy while defending her decision to stay in the race against Barack Obama.

"My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California. I don't understand it," she said, dismissing calls to drop out.
It depends on what the meaning of the word "June" is.

In 1968, the New Hampshire primary took place on March 12. RFK was assassinated less than three months later, on June 5. (He died on June 6.)

In 1992, the Iowa caucuses took place on February 10. Bill Clinton won the California primary less than four months later, on June 3. Writing in the New York Times on June 14, 1992, Tom Wicker noted that "By the time the California primary rolled around two weeks ago, Clinton had the nomination all but in the bag" [my emphasis].

This year's Iowa caucuses took place on January 3, so the 2008 equivalents of June 1968 and June 1992 would be late March and early May. The Clinton campaign's use of "June" as a fixed reference point by which to judge the appropriate length of a campaign is transparently dishonest. And to invoke a political assassination while explaining why one is continuing a campaign: my mind reels.

I now realize that any attempt to think about the Clinton campaign in relation to kleos may be misguided. Kleos functions in a culture of shame, where the abiding concern is what others will think of you. The Clinton campaign at this point is beyond shameless.

Related post
Creative counting
Hillary Clinton and kleos

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hillary Clinton and kleos

I'm teaching the Iliad and the Odyssey in a four-week summer session for undergraduates: two hours of teaching in the morning, five days a week, and preparing for the next class at night. So I have Homer on the brain, and I find myself thinking about the Democratic presidential race in terms of κλέος. Kleos, "what is heard," or, less literally, "fame," "glory," is one of the great moving forces in Homer's Iliad. When, for instance, the Trojan warrior Hector challenges any Achaean to fight him, he promises if victorious to return his opponent's corpse for funeral rites,

"So someone in generations yet to come
Will say as he sails by on the darkening sea,
'That is the tomb of a man long dead,
Killed in his prime by glorious Hector.'
Someone will say that, and my fame [kleos] will not die."

[Iliad 7, translated by Stanley Lombardo.]
To seek kleos is to seek a cultural afterlife in memory and speech.

Kleos in Homer is always a good thing, but as the Greek-English Lexicon points out, kleos can also refer to any reputation, good or bad. So what kleos might Hillary Clinton's actions in the Democratic race attain for her? What will the future say? That she gave her all in an effort to push back the barriers against women's full participation in political life? That when she saw the math against her, she worked to support her party's inevitable nominee and further the cause of racial reconciliation? Or that she damaged her party's chances by taking every chance to characterize her opponent's success as illegitimate? The future is listening, now.
Related posts
All Homer posts (Pinboard)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Louis Armstrong, collagist

Well, you know, my hobbie (one of them anyway) is using a lot of scotch tape.

Louis Armstrong, in a 1953 letter
The Spring 2008 Paris Review has a feature on Armstrong's collages, which cover the fronts and backs of reel-to-reel tape boxes.

The label in the center of the above collage most likely refers to the 1960 Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn adaptation of The Nutcracker Suite and the 1956 Ellington-Rosemary Clooney LP Blue Rose.

[The contributor info in the PR notes that Steven Brower's Satchmo: The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, on Armstrong's visual art, will published by Harry N. Abrams in spring 2009.]
Related posts
The day Louis Armstrong made noise
Invisible man: Louis Armstrong and the New York Times
Louis Armstrong's advice

A new album from Brian Wilson

In the news:

Brian Wilson will release his first album in more than three years in September, a project that marks his return to Capitol Records, the label where he gained fame with the Beach Boys during the 1960s.

That Lucky Old Sun will come out in the United States on September 2, and a day earlier internationally, Wilson and Capitol announced on Monday during a news conference at the label's historic tower in Hollywood.

"It's a great honor to be here and a very sentimental time in my life," said Wilson, 65, looking relatively healthy in a striped polo shirt, faded jeans and slip-on tennis shoes. "I haven't recorded here in 46 years, almost half a century that I haven't recorded here. Ha!"
That Lucky Old Sun is a collaboration with Scott Bennett (of Wilson's band) and Van Dyke Parks.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Five radios

I remember my first transistor radio, a Zenith with a leather case and an earphone that looked like a hearing aid. I think that I received this radio as a present for First Communion (halfhearted Catholic childhood). My most vivid memory of this radio involves summer and a "beach chair" (lawn chair) on which I sat in front of my grandparents' house, one leg elevated, listening to WABC and WMCA (the Beatles, the Four Seasons' "Rag Doll"). I had bruised my leg very badly trying to jump up the steep steps of my stoop, two steps at a time.

I remember my parents' FM radio, which sat on their bedroom dresser. This radio took several minutes to warm up, and I liked seeing the red-orange warmth as the tubes came to life. In early adolescence, I listened to hours of blues from the twenties and thirties on this radio, via Columbia University's WKCR. Yes, those were my Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

[ ]
I don't remember a second transistor radio, but I must have had one, because I do remember listening to Jean Shepherd on WOR when I was in high school. I listened in bed with an earphone and never fell asleep.

I remember the kitchen radio, AM-FM, always tuned to WOR in the morning ("Rambling with Gambling") or to news station WINS ("You give us 22 minutes; we'll give you the world").

4, 5
I remember the AM radios in the family station wagon (a Ford Torino) and my first car (a Honda Civic 1200). As a college commuter in those cars, I listened to Gambling in the morning (with helicopter reports on traffic) and Bob and Ray in the afternoon. Being stuck in traffic on the approach to the George Washington Bridge was a lot more bearable with Bob and Ray, Mary and Harry Backstayge, and Wally Ballou ("-ly Ballou here").

[Reading about WKCR in the New Yorker prompted me to write this post. My model is Joe Brainard's I Remember, a book with a simple and brilliant premise.]

[Update, May 29, 2008: I just found a photograph of the Zenith on Flickr: Zenith Royal 12.]

Monday, May 19, 2008

Yahoo! Mail memorial tagline

Goodbye, taglines. I will have to be a better friend, newshound, and know-it-all without you.

"Your world is doomed!"

From a New Yorker profile of WKCR-FM's Phil Schaap:

The precocious obsessive is a familiar high-school type, particularly among boys, but the object of Schaap's obsession was a peculiar one among his classmates. "The lonely days were adolescence," he admitted. "My peer group thought I was out of my mind. But, even then, kids knew basic things about jazz. Teddy Goldstein knew 'Take the A Train.' But he kept telling me, 'Don't you know what the Beatles are doing? Your world is doomed!'"

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Creative counting

From CNN:

Clinton has recently been claiming a lead over Obama in the popular vote, a debatable claim, especially because the Democratic National Committee doesn't count the votes of Florida and Michigan, which Clinton does. . . . Clinton's campaign also excludes the caucus states in their popular vote count.
Too bad the Clinton approach wasn't available when I was an undergrad. I could've used it to improve my GPA:
1. Exclude any history course from the spring semester of freshman year.

2. Exclude all courses in biology, mathematics, and physics.

3. 4.0!

Looking at Lincoln

Visiting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum yesterday, I wasn't wowed by the lifelike figures standing about (John Wilkes Booth outside the White House!). I wasn't wowed by the sound effects (e.g., snoring in the Lincoln cabin) or the Ivesian blur of choral music, orchestral music, and (live) guitar and dulcimer. The Scholarship meets Showmanship™ philosophy of the so-called "Experience Museum" leaves me cold. The experience I want in a museum is that of being able to look at things without distraction. Dowdy me.

What I best liked in the museum: Looking at the back inside cover of one of Lincoln's law books, filled with pencil jottings. Looking at a sequence of photographs that show how Lincoln aged through the Civil War. And in a temporary exhibit about presidential campaigns, looking at a television camera used in a 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate. It was a CBS camera, surprisingly small, with a broken plastic 2 on its front. I wonder if it might be the camera on the right in this photograph (no. 1 is on the left).

And check your spelling

Seen on a daytrip yesterday, the two faces of a church signboard:



Saturday, May 17, 2008

Classic Arts Showcase

From the website:

Launched in 1994, Classic Arts Showcase is a free cable television program designed to bring the classic arts experience to the largest audience possible by providing video clips of the arts in hopes that we may tempt you, the viewer, to go out and feast from the buffet of arts available in your community. The spectrum of classic arts disciplines aired on Classic Arts Showcase includes video samplings of animation, architectural art, ballet, chamber and choral music, dance, folk art, museum art, musical theater, opera, orchestral, recital, solo instrumental. solo vocal, and theatrical performances, as well as classic film and archival documentaries.
Classic Arts Showcase is available at no cost to any cable provider willing to provide a channel. If you're lucky to live in a community in which CAS is available, you know what a wonderful service it is. If it's not available, a small number of people might be able to persuade a local provider. Here in "downstate Illinois," Elaine and I switched cable providers when one company dropped the service and another picked it up. (Take that, Mediacom.)

What I like best about Classic Arts Showcase is the chance to see and hear performers who are new to me. YouTube is great, but Classic Arts Showcase introduces me to people I wouldn't know to look for — Ruth Etting and Josef Schmidt, for instance.

Classic Arts Showcase is the work of businessman and philanthropist Lloyd Rigler (1915–2003), who with his business partner Lawrence Deutsch (1920–1977) did all sorts of good for the cause of culture.

[If you're looking for the names of the pieces played during CAS station breaks, they're here: Classic Arts Showcase background music.]

Friday, May 16, 2008


[Click for larger version.]

Yahoo's spam filters are letting just a few of these e-mails through. I hope that human readers are not as easily fooled. This pitch strongly resembles one that I received last month. Two new details that amuse me here: "either one" (of three!) and "We demand." And "Internet Banking Holder," whatever it might mean, is a phrase that it seems only phishers use.

I'm not easily fooled, but I'm easily entertained.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"In the Basement of the Ivory Tower"

From the June 2008 issue of The Atlantic, an essay by Professor X:

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it — try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

I am the man who has to lower the hammer.
This essay is required reading for anyone thinking about American education. And it's available online:
"In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" (The Atlantic)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Psychedelic textbook

Yes, it's a textbook, John Martin Rich's Education and Human Values (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1968), complete with what I've decided to call a booksale bindi (that yellow dot). The designer is uncredited.

From the back cover:

Through this text, students of education are encouraged to think seriously and reflectively about the critical value conflicts confronting American education today. The underlying theme of the book is the development of fully functioning self-actualizing characteristics among prospective educators. The author's aim is to stimulate the reader to become more morally autonomous.
As you might guess from the description, Abraham Maslow looms large in this book, with eleven page references in the index — more than Aristotle, Dostoyevsky, Freud, Plato, and Thoreau combined.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Old phone ringtone

Prompted by George's comment on a post about the iDial, I went looking for a ringtone that sounds like a phone (i.e., an old phone).

Here's the best I found, an MP3 file that can be uploaded and saved as a ringtone: Old Telephone (54.6 KB). Now my cellphone sounds like a phone.

How to improve writing (no. 20 in a series)

From a pen catalogue:

As is true for all fine Faber-Castell chirographic instruments…
The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for chirographic. The OED does include chirography, with the most recent example of the word's use dating from 1882. If chirographic isn't obsolete, it's certainly been a long time on the shelf.

Looking at chirographic for a bit helps to bring its parts into focus: the word is made from the Greek χειρo-, from χείρ, hand (also found in chiropractor) and -γραφικός, "written or transmitted in a (specified) way." A chirographic instrument is, simply, a writing instrument.

I'm not sure how to account for chirographic. Is the word meant to appear learned, so as to impress? Or whimsical, so as to charm? Or has the writer just gone hunting in a thesaurus? Given the context — ad copy in a catalogue for pen fans, the simpler word writing is enough. It would make the writer's meaning clear and keep the focus on those fine Faber-Castell products.

This post is no. 20 in a very occasional series, "How to improve writing," dedicated to improving stray bits of published prose.

[Definition of -graphic from Merriam-Webster Online.]

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

iDial for iPhone

I don't own an iPhone. I have no plans to buy one. But if I ever do buy one, I will immediately add iDial.

Related post
Old phone ringtone


Slate has a feature today on procrastination: Just Don't Do It. I like what Emily Yoffe's twelve-year-old daughter tells her mom about procrastination:

"Mom, you sit down to go to work, then you go to the bathroom, then you walk Sasha, then you say you're checking one last e-mail. You take a lot of breaks, Mom. You say you don't get any work done after I get home from school, but I'm 12, and I don't bother you anymore. Then you'll have so much work, you work 15 hours a day and you don't even come down to dinner. You've got to balance it out."
Kid's smart.

In my battle with procrastination, I've found two strategies especially helpful: working with breaks and reminding myself of how grateful my future self will be when x (whatever x might equal) is done.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A telex from Aldo

In 1984 and 1985, my friend Aldo Carrasco worked for a textile importer in New York. He was responsible for telex communication with European companies. He also used the telex machine to send messages to Elaine at work in Boston (she was friends with the telex operator) and to the two of us at home (by mail) in Brookline, Massachusetts. Above, one such message. If you look closely, you'll see that Frankie was fumbling a bit with the lyric.

A cousin of Aldo's recently asked me if I could post something from Aldo's correspondence. This telex — spontaneous, over the top, meant to delight — reminds me of how dedicated Aldo was to making the countless kind and funny gestures that sustain friendships. I can't imagine that he ever thought twice about whether to send a letter or make a call. (His phone bills were enormous.) That's what I would call the Aldine approach to friendship: do it, say it, write it. Your friends will thank you for it.

Related post
Letters from Aldo

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day

The Cartoon Bank would like to charge me $450 to reproduce this New Yorker cartoon. So please click instead.

[I've had mixed luck with Cartoon Bank URLs. If you find a cartoon unrelated to mother, you'll know that the link has expired.]

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Mona Hinton (1919–2008)

My dad gave me the news on the telephone. From the Milt Hinton website:

Edmonia — Mona — Clayton Hinton, the widow of noted jazz musician and documentarian Milt Hinton (1910-2000), died on May 3, 2008, at North Shore Hospital after a long illness. She was living at the Hinton family residence on Milt Hinton Place in the Queens section of New York City.

The Hintons first met at Milt's grandmother's funeral in 1939 and were inseparable for the next 61 years. Mona traveled extensively with Milt throughout his career. She was the only spouse on the road with the Cab Calloway Orchestra in the 1940s, where, according to Milt, she was extremely helpful in finding rooms and meals for band members especially when the band worked in small towns during the Jim Crow era. During the '50s and '60s when Milt was working day and night in the New York studios, Mona kept the books and made often complicated transportation arrangements. And during the last two decades of his life, Milt and Mona got to travel to jazz festivals and clinics around the world — first class.
Elaine and I (and our very young daughter Rachel) met Milt and Mona in 1988 and 1989 at a then-yearly jazz festival in Decatur, Illinois. Mona sent Rachel (and later, Ben) a number of postcards from the road. She was, to our kids, Mrs. Hinton. We are lucky to have known her.

Mona Hinton, 1919–2008 (

Hillary Clinton as Norma Desmond

[AP photo.]

She's still big (it's the primaries that got small) and, it seems, incapable of acknowledging reality.

Joe Gillis on Norma Desmond's final scene: "The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her." And Norma Desmond in her final scene: "You see, this is my life. It always will be. There's nothing else."

Dialogue from Sunset Boulevard (1950, dir. Billy Wilder), screenplay by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and D.M. Marshman, Jr.

Friday, May 9, 2008

A visit to the Eagle Pencil Company (1953)

After receiving a letter signed in pencil from Abraham H. Berwald, the Eagle Pencil Company's director of marketing, someone at the New Yorker wondered whether Eagle's people did all their writing in pencil. A visit to Eagle and an audience with Mr. Berwald followed. From "Flexibility," an unsigned New Yorker item (June 27, 1953):

"Do you know about the difficulties inherent in the manufacture of colored pencils?" he asked challengingly. We confessed ignorance. "Well, sir, the old-fashioned colored leads are terribly brittle," he said. "The thick ones broke right and left. The thin ones were even worse. But look at what we have now!" He seized a handful of carmine leads, unencased in protective wood, from his desk. "In bygone years, if I had dropped one of these on the floor, it would have smashed into six or seven pieces," he said. He dropped one on the floor, and it remained intact. "If I'd slammed it on the floor, it would have smashed into I don't know how many pieces," he continued. He wound up and slammed one on the floor, and it remained intact. Flushed with victory, he called to his secretary for a bunch of old-fashioned leads. She fetched them at once, and he began dropping and slamming them all over the room. We ducked as lead flew about us. "There!" cried Mr. Berwald. "What's happened is that we have made colored leads flexible. Why, look how far I can bend this one without break — Oops! Well, after all, there are limits."
"We ducked as lead flew about us": what a great sentence. Could it be the work of William Shawn? Ved Mehta's memoir of Shawn recounts jars of pencils on his desk and a mechanical pencil always on his person. Shawn wrote many unsigned "Talk of the Town" pieces, and I can imagine him braving an elevator ride to meet Mr. Berwald (in a tenth-floor office, as this piece notes).

The visit ended with a demonstration of the needle point of the Eagle Turquoise, so sharp that Mr. Berwald used it to play a 78 rpm record. The answer to the question that prompted the visit to Eagle: no, only a few old-timers kept to pencils. The Eagle Pencil Company was perhaps best known for Mikado (later Mirado), Turquoise, and Verithin pencils.

[Update, May 12, 2008: As Emily Gordon at Emdashes notes, "Flexibility" is by E.J. Kahn, Jr. Had I thought to look, I could have found that info online.]

[An Eagle Turquoise of my acquaintance, dating from the 1940s perhaps.]

Political metaphor of the day

From a Washington Post report on a Hillary Clinton appearance in Shepherdstown, West Virginia:

In the back of the crowd, a camera riser collapsed with a huge crash, sending bodies, coffee and cameras flying. "Metaphor?" a reporter asked as he picked himself off the ground? "Metaphor," confirmed another.
All Orange Crate Art metaphor posts (via Pinboard)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Art Tatum, God Is in the House

Art Tatum, God Is in the House (HighNote Records, 1998)

Georgia On My Mind (Carmichael - Gorrell) 2:17
Beautiful Love (Van Alstyne - Gillespie - King - Young) 1:42
Laughing at Life (C. Kenny - C. Todd - B. Todd - N. Kenny) 1:03
Sweet Lorraine (Burwell - Parish) 3:03
Fine and Dandy (Swift - James) 4:07
Begin the Beguine (Porter) 3:53
Mighty Lak a Rose (Nevin) 3:35
Knockin' Myself Out (Green) 4:03
Toledo Blues (Tatum) 3:33
Body and Soul (Heyman - Green - Sour) 3:31
There'll Be Some Changes Made (Blackstone - Overstreet) 3:28
Lady Be Good (G. Gershwin - I. Gershwin) 4:30
Sweet Georgia Brown (Pinkard - Casey - Bernie) 7:18

Art Tatum (piano and vocal), with occasional support from Reuben Harris (whiskbrooms), Frankie Newton (trumpet), Ebenezer Paul (bass), Ollie Potter (vocal), and Chocolate Williams (bass and vocal)
Fats Waller, upon seeing Art Tatum enter the joint: "Ladies and gentlemen, I play piano, but God is in the house tonight."

I've been listening to this music for years — as an LP borrowed from the Hackensack Public Library, as a cassette made from that LP, as a CD — and it continues to delight me. God Is in the House is a gathering of 1940–1941 performances recorded by Jerry Newman, a Columbia University student whose portable recording equipment has given us a priceless supplement to Tatum's studio recordings. Cutting discs in his apartment and in Harlem after-hours clubs, Newman caught Tatum in congenial circumstances, in performances that are endlessly inventive and remarkably relaxed, with appreciative laughter in the background now and then.

Tatum is for me an enigma. The one biography that I've read let me understand that he liked beer and cards. The few minutes of filmed performances show a musician who seems to execute the impossible without strain or even evidence of engagement. Tatum's version of Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," for instance, became a set piece whose details might vary only slightly, if at all, from one performance to another.

But in the informal performances collected in God Is in the House, Tatum is inspired. On "Beautiful Love," for instance, a rubato statement of the melody is followed by a chorus that begins with an exhilarating lift, as if Tatum has decided to pick up this tune and make it swing. Here and elsewhere, the idiosyncratic resonance of an out-of-tune piano adds a strange beauty to the sound (and somehow makes it easier to recognize Tatum's influence on Thelonious Monk).

The most unexpected performances here are two vocals, "Knockin' Myself Out," with Tatum and bassist Chocolate Williams singing, and "Toledo Blues," with Tatum accompanying himself. "Knockin' Myself Out" is a tribute to reefer and its local supplier:
If you want to get high, get high kind of quick,
just fall on up to the Gee-Haw [nightspot]
and pick up on old Frank Martin's sticks
Williams sounds as if he is indeed "knockin' hisself out, gradually by degrees." On "Toledo Blues," Tatum acquits himself as a plausible blues singer, sounding like an older, tired version of Leroy Carr.

The most exciting music here comes in two performances by Tatum, trumpeter Frankie Newton, and bassist Ebenezer Paul: "Lady Be Good" and "Sweet Georgia Brown." Tatum's ability to play well with others often seems suspect: on the small group recordings he made for Verve in the 1950s, for instance, his accompaniments for soloists sound like Tatum solos with the recording level turned down. Here though he's fully engaged with his fellow musicians. On "Lady Be Good" he sounds like the Benny Goodman quartet riffing behind Newton. And on "Sweet Georgia Brown," he and Newton inspire and imitate one another in one of the most exciting musical performances ever recorded — by Newton, by Tatum, by anyone.

Operators are standing by: God Is in the House (Amazon)

All Orange Crate Art jazz posts (via Pinboard)

"Working, hard-working Americans"

Last night on PBS, a discussion of the media, the primaries, and the words used to describe black and white voters. And this morning, Hillary Clinton speaks of her broad appeal to "working, hard-working Americans, white Americans."

Can she go any lower? Yes, she can.

Related post
Yes, they can

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Keith Woods on media and race

Keith Woods, Dean of Faculty at The Poynter Institute, in a PBS NewsHour discussion of how race has figured in media coverage of the current primaries:

You know, when you look at a lot of the reporting coming out of the primaries in the Democratic race, and you see the number of times that we break things down by racial categories in determining how people voted, we are in some ways abetting what I would regard as a fairly narrow and superficial discussion about race. And I think particularly when you look at the way that we have talked about the demographic groups, the degrees to which we have divided up particularly black and white America in the conversation, we reveal, I think, in some ways both the media's limitations in how it talks about it and the country's.

So you see a full vocabulary for talking about white Americans in this debate, from "bluecollar" — a euphemism for white bluecollar workers. We talk about "lunchbucket Democrats"; we talk about "the soccer mom" and "the NASCAR dad," all of which are euphemisms in the national discourse for white Americans. And then we talk about "black people," as though they are all the same, with pretty much all the same views. And Latinos and Asians haven't fared much better. And we don't talk at all about Native Americans.
Listen to the rest as an MP3:

Media and Race (Online NewsHour, 5.2 MB download)

Technorati is broken

Notice the line of words and/or phrases at the bottom of each Orange Crate Art post? Those words and/or phrases are Technorati tags, meant to help readers interested in a subject find relevant content online. Technorati, a free web service, is also meant to help bloggers keep track of links to their blogs. In some circles, link count— one's Technorati number or (ahem) "authority" — is a matter of great anxiety.

I've sometimes used tags for comic effect — here, for instance, and here. I've tagged mostly in earnest. But after two-and-a-half years, I've come to the conclusion that tagging is not worth the effort and that Technorati is broken. My posts sometimes register, sometimes fail to. My tags sometimes bring up my posts, sometimes fail to. Links to Orange Crate Art often go uncounted. Technical support is spotty. And Technorati tags bring in few if any visitors. (How do I know that? Through the free and hugely reliable web service StatCounter.)

So Technorati itself will be the subject of my last tag.

[Update: "Notice the line of words and/or phrases at the bottom of each Orange Crate Art post?" No, you don't, as I've been removing them.]

Related post
Two tales of tech support

Professor threatens to sue students

"My students were very bully-ish, very aggressive, and very disrespectful. They'd argue with your ideas."
Priya Venkatesan, who taught English at Dartmouth College, is "threatening to sue her students because, because, she claims, their 'anti-intellectualism' violated her civil rights." She has also accused her students of "'fascist demagoguery.'" Read all about it:

Darmouth's "Hostile" Environment (Wall Street Journal)

Children and the animal kingdom

If you want to tell a small child a story with a moral, it is likely to communicate all the more readily if the tale concerns a frog or a pig. Apparently children are instinctively aware that they are members of the animal kingdom, while adults instinctively distance themselves from it.

Allen Shawn, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life (New York: Penguin, 2007), 58

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Quelle nuit!

[For people of the future (as the poet Ted Berrigan called them) wondering what this post is about: it's from the night of the Indiana and North Carolina presidential primaries.]

Mildred Loving (1939-2008)

From this morning's New York Times:

Mildred Loving, a black woman whose anger over being banished from Virginia for marrying a white man led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling overturning state miscegenation laws, died on May 2 at her home in Central Point, Va. She was 68. . . .

The Supreme Court ruling, in 1967, struck down the last group of segregation laws to remain on the books — those requiring separation of the races in marriage. The ruling was unanimous, its opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who in 1954 wrote the court's opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring segregated public schools unconstitutional.
On June 12, 2007, the fortieth anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia, Mildred Loving issued a public statement, "Loving for All." The final paragraphs:
Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the “wrong kind of person” for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people's religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people's civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about.
Read more:

Mildred Loving Dies at 68 (New York Times)
Loving for All, Mildred Loving's 2007 statement (Positive Liberty)

A Mother's Day card with damn on it

When Elaine brought this item to my attention in the card aisle last night, I wondered, "Who would buy a Mother's Day card with damn on it?" And I realized: I would.

There's more to this Mother's Day card than meets the eye — literally. Open it, and you'll hear a "violin" playing "Home, Sweet Home." The music comes from a chip in the card, not from the deep emotion the card stirs in the reader. The card's inner message pays tribute to the kindness and thoughtfulness of the maternal addressee, affirming that she is "special as all hell." And then: "Happy Mother's Day!"

I'm fairly certain that in getting a card with damn on it, I'm getting my mom something that she doesn't already have. My mom does have a fine sense of humor, so I'm also fairly certain that she'll enjoy this card. Hell, I'm sure of it.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Red Leather Diary

Lily Koppel. The Red Leather Diary. New York. Harper. 2008. $23.95.

As a teenager, Florence Wolfson (now Howitt) kept a Mile Stones Five Year Diary from 1929 to 1934. She began on her birthday, four lines a day: "This is my first entry in this beautiful diary 'cause today I'm fourteen years old!"

The Red Leather Diary is a book of three stories: of Florence Wolfson's early life, of the unlikely events that reunited writer and diary in 2006, and of the poignant encounter between the diarist (who turns 93 later this year) and her younger self. Wolfson grew up in Manhattan, the child of a doctor and dress designer. She skipped three grades, was rejected by Barnard ("Too brilliant and individual"), studied at Hunter, and did an M.A. in English at Columbia. She appears in her diary entries as a young woman of tremendous energy and imagination, intellectually and sexually precocious, devoted to art, literature, and music, loving both men and women:

The museum all day — then Molière and again those damned études — it irritates me to practice them, but I cannot stop — what provoking technique — so tricky.

I went to see "Hedda Gabler" straight from school. It was marvelous.

Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven — I feel like a ripe apricot — I'm dizzy with the exotic.

Nat finally kissed me! It was pretty bad, but he was so utterly delightful about it that I didn't care. He's sweet.

She is so sympathetically identical — Why are not men like her?
Koppel, a New York Times reporter whose doorman retrieved the diary from a dumpster and gave it to her, provides choice bits of detail to put us in touch with the lost New York of Wolfson's youth. Koppel's account of finding Florence Howitt is pure serendipity, involving a typewriter repair shop and an investigative attorney with a collection of vintage phonebooks. And Florence Howitt's encounter with Florence Wolfson involves the reckoning we all must make as our dreams run up against circumstance: "I don't feel like a heroine in my own life," Howitt tells Koppel, "but I have to tell you, I've come to terms with myself."

One reservation: I've quoted the diary entries above as they appear in the book. But here is the third, as seen in the New York Times slideshow about the diary:

Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven & music & Huysmans — I feel like a ripe apricot — I'm dizzy with the exotic
Yes, music is redundant, and Huysmans not a household name, but diary entries don't seem fair game for this kind of editing. Does it run throughout the book?

And if you're wondering — yes, there's already talk of a movie.

The Red Leather Diary (HarperCollins)
Speak, Memory (New York Times article)
Speak, Memory (New York Times slideshow)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Saratoga Bar and Cafe

                   Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would

Frank O'Hara (1926–1966), "A Step Away from Them"
The Saratoga Bar and Cafe is a landmark in downtown Terre Haute, Indiana.

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

Saturday, May 3, 2008

I dream of Dempsey

Jack Dempsey dropped by for lunch last night. His visit wasn't and was a surprise: he had awarded scholarships to our children (way to go, children!), so we knew that he was coming to our house, but we didn't know when. I answered the door wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Dempsey wore a white shirt and black suit. We shook hands, and I had one thought: how to turn off the washing machine downstairs without calling attention to the fact that it was running.

And now it's time for breakfast.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Meet Ben Whitehouse

I just discovered that much of the content of my Lifehack post N'allez pas trop vite has been borrowed without attribution by a blogger named Ben Whitehouse, in a post that he too calls N'allez pas trop vite.

ML: I like Marcel Proust’s words: N’allez pas trop vite. Don’t go too fast.

BW: I like Marcel Proust’s words: N’allez pas trop vite. Don’t go too fast.


ML: : . . . phone conversations, text-messaging, and iPod management . . .

BW: Phone conversations, iPod management and text messaging . . .


ML: It might not be practical to slow down when one has ten minutes to get from one end of a campus to the other. But a college student might benefit in numerous ways from slowing down and looking at and learning about her or his surroundings.

BW: It might not be practical to slow down when one has ten minutes to get from one end of a campus to the other. But a student (and me for that matter) might benefit in numerous ways from slowing down and looking at and learning about our surroundings.
My post went on to describe five ways in which a student might slow down and pay greater attention to the details of a campus. Whitehouse borrows the first three:
ML: 1. Learn about a building, your residence hall perhaps, or a classroom building. How old is it? Who designed it? What style of architecture does it represent? For whom was it named? Did it serve another purpose in the past? What if anything once stood where it was built? A neighborhood? A cornfield?

BW: 1. Learn about a building. For whom was it named? Did it serve another purpose in the past? What if anything once stood where it was built? A neighborhood? A cornfield?


ML: 2. Give some attention to the monuments and portraits that most students (and faculty) walk past. Commemorative plaques, presidential portraits, class gifts (sometimes in the form of a fountain or gate), memorials to alumni in military service: all these can help you to recognize that as a college student, you’re a member of a community that spans generations of endeavor.

BW: 2. Give some attention to the monuments and portraits that most students (and faculty) walk past. Commemorative plaques, presidential portraits (this is a tradition that's only just started here) all help connest [sic] you to a community that spans generations of endeavor.


ML: 3. Learn some legends. Stories, natural and supernatural, abound on college campuses. Learning some local lore (perhaps through clippings or microfilm in the library) might brighten (or darken!) your experience of campus life.

BW: 3. Learn some legends. Stories, natural and supernatural, abound on college campuses. Learning some local lore might brighten (or darken!) your experience of campus life.
What kind of person borrows someone else's words without attribution to make a blog post? I found a book review by Ben Whitehouse with a brief bio:
Ben Whitehouse works at the Guild of Students at the University of Birmingham in the UK. He has a blog [here]. In his spare time he runs a book group, film club, and finds time to campaign on issues around LGBT rights, local residents rights and he also helps entertaining his three nephews who he loves very much.
Which of course doesn't really answer my question.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


The language of the slot-machine industry:

There's a term bandied about at the trade shows: "extinction." We need to design for extinction, we need to reduce time-to-extinction, and so on.

What's extinction? That's the moment that the customer — the gambler sitting at the slot machine — runs out of money. The wallet, or credit card, is now "extinct." Mission accomplished.
Read more: The flip side of customer experience (Good Experience).

Cigarettes and similes

David Sedaris, from an account of life with cigarettes:

A light cigarette is like a regular one with a pinhole in it. With Kools, it's the difference between being kicked by a donkey and being kicked by a donkey that has socks on.
Related post
Cigarettes and similes ("Love Is Like a Cigarette")