Saturday, January 31, 2009

George Schneeman (1934-2009)

[Window. Color photocopy, 2006.]

The painter George Schneeman died a few days ago:

If George Schneeman was an “unfairly obscure” painter, as The New Yorker once called him, he did not mind it very much.

For Mr. Schneeman, making art was a deeply personal act, though also a highly social one. He was known in an intimate New York circle for his long, fruitful collaborations with a flock of well-known poets, among them Peter Schjeldahl, Anne Waldman, Larry Fagin and Ted Berrigan.

George Schneeman obituary (New York Times)
George Schneeman slide show (New York Times)

Plagiarism policy plagiarized?

There's a Little Rascals short, Hook and Ladder (1932), in which the kids spot a fire in the firehouse. "Fire in the firehouse!" they shout.

If Southern Illinois University had a firehouse, it would be burning today. The committee developing a university-wide plagiarism policy appears to have plagiarized Indiana University's plagiarism policy.

Here's the relevant passage from Indiana:

Plagiarism is defined as presenting someone else's work, including the work of other students, as one's own. Any ideas or materials taken from another source for either written or oral use must be fully acknowledged, unless the information is common knowledge. What is considered "common knowledge" may differ from course to course.

a. A student must not adopt or reproduce ideas, opinions, theories, formulas, graphics, or pictures of another person without acknowledgment.

b. A student must give credit to the originality of others and acknowledge indebtedness whenever:

(1) directly quoting another person's actual words, whether oral or written;

(2) using another person's ideas, opinions, or theories;

(3) paraphrasing the words, ideas, opinions, or theories of others, whether oral or written;

(4) borrowing facts, statistics, or illustrative material; or

(5) offering materials assembled or collected by others in the form of projects or collections without acknowledgment.
And now behold the following passage from Southern's draft policy, offered without attribution:
Plagiarism is presenting another existing work, original ideas, or creative expressions as one's own without proper attribution. Any ideas or materials taken from another source, including one's own work, must be fully acknowledged unless the information is common knowledge. What is considered "common knowledge" may differ from subject to subject. To avoid plagiarizing, one must not adopt or reproduce material from existing work without acknowledging the original source. Existing work includes but is not limited to ideas, opinions, theories, formulas, graphics, and pictures. Examples of plagiarism, subject to interpretation, include but are not limited to directly quoting another's actual words, whether oral or written; using another's ideas, opinions, or theories; paraphrasing the words, ideas, opinions, or theories of others, whether oral or written; borrowing facts, statistics, or illustrative material; and offering materials assembled or collected by others in the form of projects or collections without acknowledgment.
Says Arthur M. "Lain" Adkins, chair of the SIU committee that created the draft policy, "It could be a coincidence."

Says SIU administrator David West, "We think this is a non-story. It hasn't become official yet. If there's a problem with the draft, we will correct it."

As a college prof, I'm familiar with student use of coincidence and draft defenses. They don't work. Words and phrases and sentences don't organize themselves into parallel series as a matter of coincidence. And when work is submitted for critical evaluation, it becomes something more than a draft. Saying that one hasn't yet added the necessary citation defies any measure of what's plausible. SIU's draft policy has been publicly available for download, as its creators sought comment from the university community. USA Today reports that SIU's trustees will be voting later this spring.

Read more:

SIU accused of copying plagiarism policy, with links to relevant documents as PDFs (The Daily Egyptian)
Southern Illinois' plagiarism policy appears plagiarized (USA Today)

A related post
"Local Norms" and "'organic' attribution"

Friday, January 30, 2009

A few words from Harvey Pekar

One of my favorite moments in the film American Splendor (dir. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003) comes from Harvey Pekar's story "Alice Quinn" (words by Pekar, art by Sue Cavey). Pekar has been thinking about a college classmate and "all the decades of people" he has known:

The more I thought, the more I felt like crying. Life seemed so sweet and so sad, and so hard to let go of in the end. But hey, man, every day is a brand-new deal, right? Just keep on working and something's bound to turn up.
Leave Me Alone!, a jazz opera by Pekar and Dan Plonsey, streams from Oberlin College tomorrow night, 8:00 EST.

Related reading
All Harvey Pekar posts

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Naming names

People mentioned by name in Rod Blagojevich's closing argument to the Illinois Senate:

Phil Bredesen : George W. Bush : John Cullerton : Jimmy DeLeo : Willie Delgado : Dick Durbin : David Ellis : Rahm Emanuel : John Glenn : William Holland : Ted Kennedy : John McCain : Bob Menendez : Barack Obama : Harry Reid : Bill Richardson : Elizabeth Taylor : John Warner
Yes, Elizabeth Taylor.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Homonym accident

From a Rural King circular.

Related post
No job too small

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


(A house, in the village.)

    My little house must think it queer
    To watch my woods fill up with snow.

(He looks out his window, at his woods, distant, wistful. Curtain.)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Life imitating life

"Let me make this perfectly clear. Let me make this perfectly clear: I didn't do anything wrong. I'm not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing."

Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, on The View this morning, after declining an invitation to do his (reportedly great) Nixon impersonation

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup!

In the news:

A team of Swedish and Danish researchers tracked coffee consumption in a group of 1,409 middle-age men and women for an average of 21 years. During that time, 61 participants developed dementia, 48 with Alzheimer’s disease.

After controlling for numerous socioeconomic and health factors, including high cholesterol and high blood pressure, the scientists found that the subjects who had reported drinking three to five cups of coffee daily were 65 percent less likely to have developed dementia, compared with those who drank two cups or less. People who drank more than five cups a day also were at reduced risk of dementia, the researchers said, but there were not enough people in this group to draw statistically significant conclusions.

Dr. Miia Kivipelto, an associate professor of neurology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and lead author of the study, does not as yet advocate drinking coffee as a preventive health measure.

Coffee Linked to Lower Dementia Risk (New York Times)
[Post title from the song "Jave Jive" (1940), words by Milton Drake, music by Ben Oakland.]

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hi (and Lois) tech

Last week, the Flagstons sat in their living room watching a wood-grained grey television set. On Inauguration Day, the living room held a flat-screen television. And now it's gone. Perhaps it was a rental?

In today's living room (whose curtains, by the way, have lost their spots), the television, tucked away in a corner, appears to be of a still-older design (as does Thirsty Thurston). Nothing too surprising here: the Flagstons have changed refrigerators twice in the past four months. (Thanks, Jai, for pointing out that second new fridge.)

Elsewhere in today's living room, Hi is talking on an LPhone, whose name derives not from Lois' telephone habits but from the L-shaped dock. Note that the keypad changes as you talk. Sweet.

The strangest bit of Hi (and Lois) tech in the room is that light switch, resembling no known light switch.

Related reading
All Hi and Lois posts

Friday, January 23, 2009

Five pens

A Parker T-Ball Jotter: the first pen I remember using with pleasure, probably in the fourth grade. The pen was made of stainless steel and grey plastic. The neutral tones blended nicely with the graphite-smeary interior of the pencil case at the front of my loose-leaf. At some point the grey plastic developed a crack that filled with blue ink.

Ink: the Jotter's was gummy and sweetly fragrant. I wish that it were available to the nose as well as to memory.

This pen must have come from the OK Bookshop, the source of all school supplies, a corner paperbacks and stationery store on New Utrecht Avenue, Borough Park, Brooklyn, under the El tracks. The owner of the store sat at a desk in a small alcove. He used a device on his shoulder that allowed him to talk on the telephone hands-free. My mother once checked with him — or with someone else who worked there — about whether Man from U.N.C.L.E. novels were "appropriate" for readers my age. (They were.) Ian Fleming's work no doubt put that worrisome question in her head.

As a boy, I must have liked this pen's multi-sectioned name. "Hey, Mike, what kind of a pen is that?" "It's a Parker T-Ball Jotter." Like "United States of America" or "John Fitzgerald Kennedy."

A variety-store ball-point pen, transparent red plastic with a white push-button mechanism. Push the plunger down and the point appears. Press the little button on the side of the pen and the point retracts. I cannot remember writing with this pen, but I remember using it as a walkie-talkie one night while spying in a Robert Hall clothing store in Brooklyn. (The rest of the family was shopping.) Espionage and cryptography were major factors in my childhood, which drew considerable inspiration from U.N.C.L.E. and Clifford Hicks' novel Alvin's Secret Code.

[Lost years: a long blur of Bics, Flairs, and Pilot Razor Points.]

The Faber-Castell Uni-Ball: I wrote my dissertation with it, or them. Many Uni-Balls!

The Uni-Ball was part of a work routine that I remember as strangely pleasant. I wrote in longhand on legal-sized pads with a Boston University Law School imprint. These pads had an enormous left margin, great for endnotes and revision by accretion. (I've never seen such pads since, though I know they're still around.) Every weekday, I'd write, then type (first on an Olympia manual, later on a Panasonic electronic typewriter). In the afternoon I'd walk to a photocopy shop in the Coolidge Corner Arcade (Brookline, MA) and get my typescript copied before editing. I often added a trip to Beacon Stationery to buy envelopes, folders, and another Uni-Ball or two.

The matte black plastic, the flat clip, the funny notches at the top of the cap: all features of a simple, beautiful design. For a long time, the Uni-Ball meant "writing."

"Please don't get me a fountain pen": I remember telling my wife Elaine that while disserting. Yes, she was thinking about a present to celebrate the end. I'm not sure how it is that fountain pens were in the air. Elaine wrote with one — an inexpensive Geha with an incredibly smooth nib. I'm guessing that my pleasure in trying the Geha made a fountain pen an obvious choice.

The pen that Elaine gave me was a Montblanc of Uni-Ball-like simplicity, made of stainless steel, not "precious resin." It was, of course, just what I needed. I wrote with it through my first years of teaching and turned into a serious fountain-pen fan, switching early on from cartridges to bottled ink (the hard stuff). And then the grippers inside the slip-on cap began to lose their grip, and a shirt pocket turned black, and it was time to put the pen in its case and find another.

I had no idea how complicated finding another fountain pen would prove. I started with a Sheaffer that refused to dispense ink. (I knew nothing about cleaning a pen, nor did the people at the office-supply store, who just gave me a refund.) Getting a pen turned into getting pens, all relatively modest, before I found what has become my everyday writer, a Pelikan, purchased in the summer of 1998. This pen has green stripes, a fine nib, and takes bottled ink. It has never leaked or failed to write. Its maintenance has involved nothing more than an occasional flushing with water and — just twice — a dab of silicone paste to keep the piston moving freely.

My Pelikan has taught me to think about price in relation to use: this pen has turned out to be a much less expensive proposition than, say, a ten-year supply of Uni-Balls. Since 1998, virtually everything of any length that I've written, I've written with this pen (including the draft of this post).

Thank you, Elaine, for not listening to me, all the way back in Brookline.

Happy National Handwriting Day to all.

Related posts
Five desks
Five radios
National Handwriting Day

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On "American music"

Van Dyke Parks, in an interview concerning Song Cycle:

Aaron Copland (who'd given me an A in a collegiate test) was once asked, "What is American music?" He answered, “American music is music that was written in America.” I believe that explains the penchant that some music observers have for branding Song Cycle "American."
It appears that Song Cycle will be reissued in 5.1 sound later this year.

A related post
Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Living on credit (Dickens)

For these times:

"Responsibility, my dear Miss Summerson?" he repeated, catching at the word with the pleasantest smile, "I am the last man in the world for such a thing. I never was responsible in my life — I can't be."

"I am afraid everybody is obliged to be," said I, timidly enough: he being so much older and more clever than I.

"No, really?" said Mr Skimpole, receiving this new light with a most agreeable jocularity of surprise. "But every man's not obliged to be solvent? I am not. I never was. See, my dear Miss Summerson," he took a handful of loose silver and halfpence from his pocket, "there's so much money. I have not an idea how much. I have not the power of counting. Call it four and nine pence — call it four pound nine. They tell me I owe more than that. I dare say I do. I dare say I owe as much as good-natured people will let me owe. If they don't stop, why should I? There you have Harold Skimpole in little. If that's responsibility, I am responsible."

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Three inaugural moments

Two of my three favorite moments from today's speaking are from President Obama's Inaugural Address:

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. . . .

What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
These passages speak for themselves in their insistence upon dedication and seriousness of purpose. But I hope I'm not hearing things when I detect an echo of Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern in the exhortation to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again. I like the idea of bringing the lyric of an American popular song to the most solemn of occasions. If you've never seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time (1936), go ahead: click on that link. Right now: I insist. But do come back.

Moment no. 3 is from Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction, the closing passage, which joins an 1864 Anglican hymn, "For All the Saints," to a bit of African-American folkloric observation:
Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.
I think that "yellow, mellow" and "red man, get ahead, man" are Lowery's rhymes, not traditional ones. Either way, that benediction made it difficult to remember much of anything about Rick Warren's invocation or Elizabeth Alexander's rather bland poem. If I were thirty years younger, I'd say that Rev. Lowery brought it.

If you're wondering about the beginning of Lowery's benediction, it's the final verse of the poem that became the song known as "The Negro National Anthem," James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

And if you want to see Elizabeth Alexander's poem with its proper line breaks (they seem to have eluded all news organizations), the poem is at "Praise Song for the Day."

More reading
Text of President Obama's Inaugural Address (Time)
Text of Rev. Lowery's benediction (Associated Press)

[I just realized: "there is work to be done": George and Ira Gershwin, "Strike Up the Band" (1927)!]

An inaugural poem

[Prose poem by me. Thanks to David Frauenfelder, who alerted me to the 1000 inaugural poets project, and to Elaine, who just wrote a piece to celebrate Inauguration Day. David wrote a poem too: "Blue Janus."]

Monday, January 19, 2009


One day before Inauguration Day, this passage seems especially appropriate:

Because Negroes can quite readily become a compact, conscious and vigorous force in politics, they can do more than achieve their own racial goals. American politics needs nothing so much as an injection of the idealism, self-sacrifice and sense of public service which is the hallmark of our movement. Until now, comparatively few major Negro leaders of talent and unimpeachable character have involved themselves actively in partisan politics. Such men as Judge William Hastie, Ralph Bunche, Benjamin Mays, A. Philip Randolph, to name but a few, have remained aloof from the political scene. In the coming period, they and many others must move out into political life as candidates and infuse it with their humanity, their honesty and their vision.

Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can't Wait (1964)
Wikipedia articles
Ralph Bunche
William Hastie
Benjamin Mays
A. Philip Randolph

"Take It from Dr. King"

Pete Seeger on the Late Show with David Letterman, September 29, 2008, with Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Guy Davis.

And if you missed it, Pete's appearance at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday, with Tao and Bruce Springsteen.

[Update: HBO is yanking clips from YouTube. But you can find yesterday's performance here, at least for a while.]

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Learning to write (Dickens)

Esther has been teaching Charley how to write. Esther has hope:

I had not been at home again many days, when one evening I went up-stairs into my own room to take a peep over Charley's shoulder and see how she was getting on with her copy-book. Writing was a trying business to Charley, who seemed to have no natural power over a pen, but in whose hand every pen appeared to become perversely animated, and to go wrong and crooked, and to stop, and splash, and sidle into corners, like a saddle-donkey. It was very odd, to see what old letters Charley's young hand made; they, so wrinkled, and shrivelled, and tottering; it, so plump and round. Yet Charley was uncommonly expert at other things, and had as nimble little fingers as I ever watched.

"Well, Charley," said I, looking over a copy of the letter O in which it was represented as square, triangular, pear-shaped, and collapsed in all kinds of ways, "we are improving. If we only get to make it round, we shall be perfect, Charley."

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ellen Lupton on writing

Ellen Lupton, in an essay on teaching writing to graphic-design students:

[M]any young designers are wondering if their own college English courses were tough enough to prepare them for real-world writing tasks such as bidding for jobs, justifying design solutions, delivering presentations and marketing their work. Even routine email communication requires command of the written language. (Some of my students seem to believe that just because they can't spell, their employers won't be able to, either.)

Writing 101: Visual or Verbal? (AIGA Journal of Design)
(via Design Observer)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Money and "the teaching function"

In the news:

College students are covering more of what it costs to educate them, even as most colleges are spending less on students, according to a new study.

The study, based on data that colleges and universities report to the federal government, also found that the share of higher education budgets that goes to instruction has declined, while the portion spent on administrative costs has increased. . . .

“Students are paying more, and a greater share of the costs, but are arguably getting less,” said Jane Wellman, the executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability, which drafted the study. . . .

"The institutions whose primary mission is teaching — the masters and community colleges and bachelors colleges, are slowly disinvesting in the teaching function," Ms. Wellman said.

Students Paying More and Getting Less, Study Says (New York Times)
Here's the study.

In today's Hi and Lois

[Hi and Lois, January 15, 2009.]

Behold, in today's Hi and Lois, a license plate floating in space.

(Yes, those grocery bags look like Tuesday's trash bags. Speaking of which, yecch.)

Related reading
All Hi and Lois posts

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Schulz's Beethoven

On Beethoven in Peanuts:

"If you don't read music and you can't identify the music in the strips, then you lose out on some of the meaning," said William Meredith, the director of the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, who has studied hundreds of Beethoven-themed Peanuts strips.

When Schroeder pounded on his piano, his eyes clenched in a trance, the notes floating above his head were no random ink spots dropped into the key of G. Schulz carefully chose each snatch of music he drew and transcribed the notes from the score. More than an illustration, the music was a soundtrack to the strip, introducing the characters' state of emotion, prompting one of them to ask a question or punctuating an interaction.

Listening to Schroeder: Peanuts Scholars Find Messages in Cartoon's Scores (New York Times)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Jellyby closets

A Dickens catalogue:

Poor Mr Jellyby, who very seldom spoke, and almost always sat when he was at home with his head against the wall, became interested when he saw that Caddy and I were attempting to establish some order among all this waste and ruin, and took off his coat to help. But such wonderful things came tumbling out of the closets when they were opened — bits of mouldy pie, sour bottles, Mrs Jellyby's caps, letters, tea, forks, odd boots and shoes of children, firewood, wafers, saucepan-lids, damp sugar in odds and ends of paper bags, footstools, black-lead brushes, bread, Mrs Jellyby's bonnets, books with butter sticking to the binding, guttered candle-ends put out by being turned upside down in broken candlesticks, nutshells, heads and tails of shrimps, dinner-mats, gloves, coffee-grounds, umbrellas — that he looked frightened, and left off again. But he came in regularly every evening, and sat without his coat, with his head against the wall; as though he would have helped us, if he had known how.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)
Other Bleak House posts
At Peffer and Snagsby's
"It must be a strange state"
Reading don't pay

Monday, January 12, 2009

Microsoft's Songsmith

Microsoft's Songsmith is real, and it's being marketed as a tool for "novices and experienced songwriters." But you'd never know it from this video (also real).

Note that the child in the opening scene is using a Macbook Pro. A sticker covers the Apple logo.

My favorite moment: "Microsoft, huh? So it's pretty easy to use?"

[Update: The link above is now a dud, as Microsoft has removed this video (titled "Everyone Has a Song Inside") from Songsmith's front page. You can still find the video on this Microsoft page, with other Songsmith videos and audio clips. Or watch here, on YouTube.]

Dickens on the Kindle

Christine Rosen tried Nicholas Nickleby on the Kindle:

Although mildly disorienting at first, I quickly adjusted to the Kindle’s screen and mastered the scroll and page-turn buttons. Nevertheless, my eyes were restless and jumped around as they do when I try to read for a sustained time on the computer. Distractions abounded. I looked up Dickens on Wikipedia, then jumped straight down the Internet rabbit hole following a link about a Dickens short story, “Mugby Junction.” Twenty minutes later I still hadn’t returned to my reading of Nickleby on the Kindle. . . .

We are so eager to explore what these new devices do — particularly what they do better than the printed book — that we ignore the more rudimentary but important human questions: the tactile pleasures of the printed page versus the screen; the new risks of distraction posed by a device with a wireless Internet connection; the difference between reading a book in two-page spreads and reading a story on one flashing screen-display after another. Kindle and other e-readers are marvelous technologies of convenience, but they are no replacement for the book.

People of the Screen (The New Atlantis)

Good news, bad news about reading

The good news:

After years of bemoaning the decline of a literary culture in the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts says in a report that it now believes a quarter-century of precipitous decline in fiction reading has reversed.
And the bad:
At the same time the survey found that the proportion of adults who said they had read any kind of a book, fiction or nonfiction, that was not required for work or school actually declined slightly since 2002, to 54.3 percent from 56.6 percent.

Fiction Reading Increases for Adults (New York Times)

Reading don't pay

Grandfather Smallweed sits all day. Does he do anything while? Mr George wonders:

"And don't you occupy yourself at all?"

"I watch the fire — and the boiling and the roasting —"

"When there is any," says Mr George, with great expression.

"Just so. When there is any."

"Don't you read or get read to?"

The old man shakes his head with sharp sly triumph. "No, no. We have never been readers in our family. It don't pay. Stuff. Idleness. Folly. No, no!"

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)
Other Bleak House posts
At Peffer and Snagsby's
"It must be a strange state"

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Lear cover-up

Though it will still feature the eye-gouging of Gloucester, the poisoning of Regan and other assorted tragic fates that befall its characters, the PBS broadcast of "King Lear" will avoid offense to delicate sensibilities by hiding the nudity in a scene with Ian McKellen, who plays the title role.

Every Inch a King, But No Nudity in PBS's "Lear" (New York Times)
The writer, Dave Itzkoff, means for that sentence (and the headline) to amuse the reader, no?

Friday, January 9, 2009

1984 Macintosh review

Remember that $2,495 buys you only the box, the keyboard and the mouse. You'll need a printer ($595) and software. I strongly suspect you'll also need a second disk drive ($495), because the built-in 3 1/2-inch Sony drive holds only 400K of memory, much of which is taken up by operating software. And you really ought to have a modem (yet another $495). That puts the price up to $4,000 without software. At that, though, the Macintosh is competitive with the IBM PC, and it's a lot more powerful. If you can accept the price, you'll see what performance mean[s] to the computer pros.
From Clifford Barney, "Not a Toy but the Real Thing," a 1984 review of "Apple Computer's new Macintosh," available from the archives of The Whole Earth Catalog, now online.

[$595 for a printer? I remember paying about that much for an Apple ImageWriter II in 1985.]

Blagojevich and "Ulysses"

Rod Blagojevich today:

"And so I'll leave you with this poem by Tennyson, which goes like this:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
Somehow I don't think that these lines, from Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses," are meant to suggest that Blagojevich is ceding power to Telemachus and departing Ithaca. Drat. What must appeal to the gov in these lines is not the idea of setting out, once more, with diminished powers, but that final not to yield (i.e., resign) — thus turning the political life of our beautiful state into what promises to be a long-running farce.

Odysseus/Ulysses is in some ways a good model for Blagojevich: reckless, thieving, vain. Think too of Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?: "My hair!"

[I've quoted a transcript of Blagojevich's remarks that botches Tennyson's lines. I haven't heard the governor's statement and don't know if the botches are his. I've presented the lines accurately above.]

[Update: Blagojevich's botches: "the strength," "by fate." Watch here.]

"Writing in the Age of Distraction"

Cory Doctorow has six suggestions for writing amid the distractions of our time. I especially like this one:

Researching isn't writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don't. . . . Instead, do what journalists do: type "TK" where your fact should go, as in "The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite." "TK" appears in very few English words (the one I get tripped up on is "Atkins") so a quick search through your document for "TK" will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards.
Read it all:

Writing in the Age of Distraction (Locus Online, via Boing Boing)

Involuntary memory in Mayberry

Aunt Bee is distraught. What gives?

Andy Taylor explains it to Opie: women are more emotional, see. The slightest thing can set them off. A song might remind them of a ride in a canoe with a nice fella. Or a certain smell. Or, or —

Opie: "I bet it's the liver. She looked at the liver and got reminded of when we had liver last week."

Liver, a Mayberry madeleine.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

What's a campus?

I have the word campus on my mind, as I will soon be "on campus," several days a week.

It's odd that a word so familiar can suddenly look strange. Campus is the Latin word for field. The Oxford English Dictionary traces its history in English to Princeton University, 1774, citing John Freylinghusen Hageman's History of Princeton and Its Institutions (1879). Hageman quotes a January 1774 letter by Charles C. Beatty (class of '75):

Tea parties! Effigies! The kids today!

[Image courtesy of Google Book Search.]

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Parlando italiano a Brooklyn

At a senior center in Borough Park (my old neighborhood):

Iole Mazzaro, 68, who traveled to New York from Sicily as a tourist in 1968, met her husband here and never went back, recalled how prevalent Italian used to be on the streets of southwest Brooklyn. "Just as much as you hear Spanish today," she said.

"On my first week here, my aunt asked me to go to the bakery to buy some bread. I walked there repeating to myself, 'bread, bread, bread,'" Mrs. Mazzaro said. "But then I get to the bakery and the man was Italian. We had a big laugh."

She sighed, lowered her gaze and added, "That wouldn't happen anymore."

For Italians in Brooklyn, Voices on Streets Have Changed (New York Times)

"It must be a strange state"

It must be a strange state to be like Jo! To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and at the corners of streets, and on the doors, and in the windows! To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postmen deliver letters, and not to have the least idea of all that language — to be, to every scrap of it, stone blind and dumb!

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What irony?

As legislators weigh impeaching Gov. Rod Blagojevich and federal prosecutors prepare to indict him on corruption charges, his acting chief of staff and a deputy governor will be keynote speakers Wednesday at an "Ethics in the Workplace" seminar for some 200 state employees. . . .

But is it wrong for any members of the Blagojevich administration to instruct state workers on ethics?

"That's a real tough question, but . . . I don't see the irony really," said Rev. Tim Fiala, executive director of University of Illinois at Chicago's Integritas Institute, an ethics forum.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich's staffers to speak at ethics lecture for state workers (Chicago Tribune)

At Peffer and Snagsby's

Mr Snagsby is a law-stationer:

In the shade of Cook's Court, at most times a shady place, Mr Snagsby has dealt in all sorts of blank forms of legal process; in skins and rolls of parchment; in paper — foolscap, brief, draft, brown, white, whitey-brown, and blotting; in stamps; in office-quills, pens, ink, India-rubber, pounce, pins, pencils, sealing-wax, and wafers; in red tape, and green ferret; in pocket-books, almanacks, diaries, and law lists; in string boxes, rulers, inkstands — glass and leaden, penknives, scissors, bodkins, and other small office-cutlery; in short, in articles too numerous to mention; ever since he was out of his time and went into partnership with Peffer.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)
What a wonderful sentence, a catalogue of the materials of "legal process," put together with eleven ins and one out. Some of what's in Peffer and Snagsby's is still familiar to the present-day stationery addict. The Oxford English Dictionary can help with the less familiar:

It's easy to think of parchment as crinkly, old paper, the kind of stuff kids make with tea — or with a candle, if they're daring and unsupervised. But parchment isn't paper. The OED: "A piece of animal skin, esp. from a sheep or goat, dressed and prepared as a surface for writing; a scroll or roll of this material; a manuscript or document written on this."

I somehow think of foolscap as cheap paper, the sort of stuff I was given in elementary school (the paper with huge splinters in it that Bill Cosby once joked about). But foolscap is simply "A long folio writing- or printing-paper, varying in size." The fool's cap or dunce cap was once used as a watermark.

Brief is brief-paper, used for writing you-know-whats. The OED quotes a 1923 Dictionary of Stationery: "A legal pattern of ruled or watermarked foolscap comprising 36 or 42 feint lines and a marginal line."

Brown paper: "A coarse stout kind of paper made of unbleached materials; chiefly used for wrapping." (See also Rodgers and Hammerstein, "My Favorite Things.")

The OED has no entry for whitey-brown, but it does include whity-brown: "Of a brown colour inclining to white; whitish brown; pale brown: most commonly of paper. As n. (properly two words) a whitish brown; ellipt. = whity-brown paper."

A pen, in Dickens's time, is what we would now call a nib, or a nib and its holder. Or as the OED puts it, "the complete contrivance of pen-holder and nib," also known as a dip pen (not to be mistaken for the later fountain pen).

Pounce: What a swell noun. The OED: "A fine powder, made from pulverized sandarac or cuttle shell, used to prevent ink from spreading (esp. when writing on unsized paper) or to prepare the surface of parchment to receive writing."

Wafer: "A small disk of flour mixed with gum and non-poisonous colouring matter, or of gelatine or the like similarly coloured, which when moistened is used for sealing letters, attaching papers, or receiving the impression of a seal." My guess is wafers took the place of sealing wax with less important documents.

Red tape: "Tape of a red colour such as is commonly used in securing legal and official documents." That's where the metaphor comes from.

Green ferret: "A stout tape most commonly made of cotton, but also of silk; then known as Italian ferret. green-ferret, fig. of officialism (cf. red-tape)." It's easy to understand why green ferret lost out to red tape as metaphor.

Pocket-book: As I thought, a pocket-notebook.

The OED includes law-list in a list of compound-words made with law-, without a definition. But Webster's Third New International has one: "A publication compiling the names and addresses of those engaged in the practice of law and information of interest to the legal profession often including the courts, court calendars, lawyers engaged in specialized fields (as admiralty or patent law), public officers, stenographers, handwriting experts, private investigators, or abstracts of law." Law lists (still known as such) can now be found online.

String box: As I thought, a case "containing string."

But what is a bodkin? "A short pointed weapon; a dagger, poniard, stiletto, lancet," or "A small pointed instrument, of bone, ivory, or steel, used for piercing holes in cloth, etc."? Dickens includes bodkins as examples of "office-cutlery," so I suppose the first definition applies. One would need a bodkin to cut through all that green ferret! (Or to one's quietus make.)

The rather unsatisfactory notes to the Penguin edition of Bleak House gloss "out of his time": "Had served his time as an apprentice and junior." The notes — which also touch lightly on paper, pounce, red tape, and green ferret — are prefaced by a warning: "New readers are advised that the Notes make details of the plot explicit." In other words, the notes — I mean, the Notes — give away elements of the story. Thanks a lot, Notes. I'm reading the Notes very selectively, which is to say, almost not at all.

[I stand corrected on bodkin: check the comments.]

Monday, January 5, 2009

The sidewalks of New York

Thousands of maps detail the various hundreds of thousands of imperfections in the sidewalks of New York. Whence these maps? They are the work of the the improbably-titled Big Apple Pothole and Sidewalk Protection Committee, an organization created by the New York State Trial Lawyers Association:

They were conceived by a group of trial lawyers who hired a mapping company to scour the streets and sketch every crack, chink and pothole, with the ostensible purpose of giving the city notice of potential hazards it must fix, or face the consequences. When someone fell and was injured on a city sidewalk — the most frequent ground for a personal-injury lawsuit against the city — he could present the map in court as hard evidence of the city’s liability.

City officials have long attacked the maps as nothing more than a useless collection of "700,000 squiggles," created by greedy lawyers, that has forced them to parse the intricacies of geometry — is that line horizontal or vertical? — and cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars in damage awards and settlements.

But now, a recent court ruling has dug a sizable gouge in the pothole map.

In a decision issued Dec. 18, the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, for the first time echoed the city's argument that the maps are inaccurate and unclear.

Ruling Deals a Setback to Sidewalk Injury Lawsuits in New York (New York Times)
In this recent case, the Times reports, a judge wrote that one of the squiggles in question resembled "a poorly drawn X, the Hebrew letter shin, or a pitchfork without the handle."

[Why "improbably-titled"? "Protection Committee" has a presumably unintentional — and to my mind hilarious — overtone of organized-crime rackets. And only out-of-towners still speak of the "Big Apple."]

Sunday, January 4, 2009

David Levine on enjoyment

Artist and illustrator David Levine, from an October 23, 2008 C-SPAN interview:

"Enjoying is very important. If there's nothing else but your enjoyment, you've got a lot."

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Pre-chewed pencils

"We know it's a bit daft but — hey!"

From Concentrate Design, pre-chewed pencils.

Friday, January 2, 2009

"You gotta get up in the morning"

Spike Lee averages almost a movie a year. From "Outside Man," a September 22, 2008 New Yorker profile by John Colapinto:

He is able to accomplish so much in part because he often rises at 5 A.M. "You want to get a lot done, you gotta get up in the morning," he told me. The rest, he says, is "time management."

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Economies of time (Hi and Lois)

Everyone's economizing: in Hi and Lois, months now have twenty-eight (or fewer?) days.

Related reading
All Hi and Lois posts

2008 first-sentences meme

I'm not much for memes, but I like this one, which I found at Robert Gable's aworks: go through your 2008 blog entries and and collect the first sentence from each month. It's an exercise in parataxis. Thus:

Small calendars for the new year, well designed and free. Alas, it's a parking area that's reserved. Victoria's Secret likes to ask in its marketing, "What is sexy?" Whoso would be a G-Man must be a pencil user, as Emerson might have put it. A light cigarette is like a regular one with a pinhole in it. In April, Odette at Reading Proust in Foxborough linked to a fine post from On-Screen Scientist, detailing one reader's initial inspiration for reading Proust: the words of 1950s quarterback Ronnie Knox, as quoted in the November 3, 1958 issue of Sports Illustrated. In eraserdom, black is the new pink. Our attention spans are notoriously short. September 1, 2008 is the day Hurricane Gustav made landfall. It's "Main Street." What if he loses? The Simpsons razz Apple: "Oh, such beautiful packaging!"
"Victoria's Secret" is from a Wall Street Journal article; "A light cigarette," from a New Yorker piece by David Sedaris; "Our attention spans," from Gordon Livingston's Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart. The final sentence quotes Lisa Simpson. The other sentences are mine.

JANUARY (WPA Art Project)

[Poster from the Illinois WPA Art Project, artist unknown. Stamped on the back: January 8, 1941. Via the Library of Congress online exhibit By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943.]

Happy New Year, and good reading to all.

I'm reading Dickens, Bleak House. You?