Sunday, May 31, 2009

Real housewives fifth-graders

From The Real Housewives of New York City, Kelly Killoren Bensimon speaking:

"Maybe he's an imaginary boyfriend to you, but he's not an imaginary boyfriend to me!"
This show makes better sense if you think of the cast as fifth-graders. "You think you're better than me!" Et cetera.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Benny Goodman's 100th

"Hollywood Hotel, good morning. Benny Goodman? I'm sorry, but he's rehearsing in the Orchid Room and can't be disturbed."

Benjamin David Goodman was born 100 years ago today.

John McDonough, How Benny Goodman Won Over America (NPR)
Robert McHenry, Benny Goodman @ 100 (Britannica Blog)
Tom Vitale, Benny Goodman: Forever The King Of Swing (NPR)

The Benny Goodman Orchestra and Quartet: clips from Hollywood Hotel (dir. Busby Berkeley, 1937): "Sing, Sing, Sing" (Louis Prima) and "I've Got a Heartful of Music" (Richard A. Whiting–Johnny Mercer). With Harry James (trumpet), Teddy Wilson (piano), Lionel Hampton (vibraphone), Gene Krupa (drums) (via Dailymotion).

[Photograph from New York World's Fair records, 1939-1940, via the NYPL Digital Gallery.]

Friday, May 29, 2009

"So cheap, so accessible"

Charles McGrath tries the Kindle:

Books for the Kindle are so cheap and so accessible, turning up on your device within seconds, that you wind up buying them impulsively and almost indiscriminately.

One evening my wife wanted to check a passage from Dombey and Son, which she had been listening to in the car. Ninety-nine cents, a typed-in phrase and, bingo, there it was.

By-the-Book Reader Meets the Kindle (New York Times)
That's great for Amazon. And for Mrs. McGrath, of course. I've used Google Book Search many times to check a sentence or passage. But when a novel becomes almost disposable, something one can buy for one-off use (like a cheap hat or umbrella), I worry that what's happened to music is now happening to books.

The comments on this article are worth reading too.

A related post
No Kindle for me

David Barringer on books

Graphic designer and writer David Barringer, interviewed by Ellen Lupton:

Some people argue that books are becoming more like art objects, released from the pressure to convey a narrative and liberated into the world of wacky dimensionality. Sure, it would be fun to attach half a beach ball on the front cover, the other half on the back cover, and inflate them both for the ultimate beach book. But I've seen many friends who are avid readers turn toward their shelves of books and regard them as they would a photo album of their own lives. We take the contents of books into our imaginations, and our personalities are influenced by them. Looking at the books on my shelves, I feel memories bloom, my own life come back to me. Books are triggers for remembering where we have been, and who we are. A book is like a body part, and when you die and your connection to the book is broken, the book dies a little, too.

A Conversation With David Barringer (Design Observer)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Dinner with André: Criterion DVD

"I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out."
At last: My Dinner with André (dir. Louis Malle, 1981) will be released on June 23 in a Criterion Collection edition. I've been waiting for this one for years.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"Proud non-reader"

Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed. I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book's autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books.
Kanye West, on the occasion of his first book, Thank You and You're Welcome. Further ironies via the link:

"Proud non-reader" Kanye West turns author (Reuters)

And if there's any doubt: Snopes confirms the authenticity of the quotation.

(Thanks, Rachel!)

When comics collide

[Mark Trail and one panel of Hi and Lois, May 27, 2009.]

I read Mark Trail only occasionally. I'm glad that I read Mark Trail today. Click the image for a larger view and see why.

Related reading
All Hi and Lois posts
Online comics

Erin McKean talks

"Why isn't asshat in the dictionary?"
Lexicographer Erin McKean talks about how dictionaries are made:

Erin McKean at Gel 2006 (19:30)

(via Good Experience)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blogging and introversion

Jonathan Rauch:

I suspect a lot of bloggers may be introverts, because blogging is great if you like to sit in front of the internet all day.

Eight questions for Jonathan Rauch (Economist)

Jonathan Rauch is the author of the celebrated Atlantic article Caring for Your Introvert.

Review: Squeezed,
the orange juice book

Alissa Hamilton, Squeezed: What You Don't Know About Orange Juice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. $30.

                              A gown made of the finest wool,
                              Which from our pretty lambs we pull

Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" presents a pastoral dream, a world in which labor is non-existent or non-laborious, in which the line between nature and material culture has been dissolved. In the lines above, lambs turn into wool turns into gown as by magic. To adapt the lingo of the orange juice industry, the gown is "fresh-pulled."

Orange juice too is a pastoral dream. As Alissa Hamilton notes, the American imagination regards orange juice as purity and simplicity. Think of the Tropicana carton, with drinking straw stuck in fruit. Or Simply Orange, as one brand name proclaims. Hamilton's purpose in writing Squeezed is to make us see orange juice anew: "to make you look at [it] differently and begin to see through the opaque packages of food that surround you."

Florida orange juice began in the early twentieth century, with an effort to increase citrus sales via the promotion of household juice extractors. Canned orange juice, developed in the 1930s, disappointed: the heat of pasteurization damaged flavor. The breakthrough in processed juice came in 1948, with Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice (FCOJ), the "Cinderella Product," as it was called, which brought far greater returns to growers than fresh fruit or canned juice. And then came flash pasteurization, which led to the rise of Not From Concentrate juice (NFC).

Processed juice, as Hamilton tells the story, is hardly pure and simple. The story has at its core six months of Food and Drug Administration hearings (1961) that sought to establish standards of identity for orange-juice products. The hearings turned on strange, almost philosophical questions. Does freezing alter the identity of juice? Is "chilled" an appropriate description of pasteurized juice? Is orange juice defined by chemical composition or by the process of its making? The standards of identity that emerged from the hearings resulted in ingredient lists that imparted minimal information to the consumer, conceived as an archetypal homemaker who did not care about and would only be confused by the complexities of food processing.

NFC, which dominates juice sales and is most associated with all that's pure and simple, is indeed a processed product. Its story involves chemistry, globalization, and questions of land use. Oranges undergo what the industry calls "hard extraction" (not a gentle squeeze). Extracted juice is vacuum-stripped of oxygen, de-oiled, and held in massive tanks (holding as much as 1.5 million gallons), sometimes for more than a year, before being made palatable via a "flavor pack," a proprietary blend of orange essence and orange oil, themselves composed of hundreds of chemicals. (Ethyl butyrate is the one that most pleases North American palates.) The flavor pack is water-soluble, which means that some water goes in with it. But it's still Florida orange juice, right? Not really: as Florida growers lose land to real-estate developers, more and more oranges and essence and oil come from Brazil, where land and labor are cheaper and environmental regulation minimal.

Hamilton points out that not even people in the juice business can distinguish NFC from FCOJ. The alleged simplicity and superiority of NFC are in essence (and oil) fictions of advertising. Still, NFC is not cigarettes, and Hamilton is not suggesting that NFC is hazardous to health. Her argument rather is that a consumer's right to know how foods are produced must extend beyond matters of health risks (as with halal, kosher, and organic foods):

Unless we as consumers are provided with factual information, we cannot accurately assess what and what not to worry about. We cannot properly rank our priorities. We cannot make meaningful choices regarding the massive number of industrial products on the market.
Squeezed could use more careful editing ("There ends the parallels," remonstrate confused with rebuke), and the book could be enlivened with more visual materials. Its photographs of orange-juice people and places seem oddly remote, like items in a decades-old textbook. It'd be nice to see photographs of NFC cartons, with their minimal ingredient lists and their attempts to make the word pasteurized nearly invisible. Perhaps Hamilton prefers that the reader look at these cartons on supermarket shelves, and then start looking at other packaging with the same attention.

Pre-Squeezed, my knowledge of orange juice would have fit nicely in a five-ounce glass, one already filled with juice and set beside my morning tea. In other words, I knew next to nothing. Reading Squeezed has opened my eyes. I've been kicked out of the garden — of the Florida Sunshine Tree, that is — and into a state of knowledge.

[Thanks to Yale University Press for a review copy of this book.]

Monday, May 25, 2009

Jay Bennett (1963-2009)

Jay Bennett, ex-Wilco, died on Sunday in Urbana, Illinois. At the time of his death, he was in need of hip-replacement surgery and without health insurance. Unspeakably sad.

Jay Bennett, dead at age 45 (Chicago Sun-Times)
Jay Bennett dies at age 45 (Chicago Tribune)

Ah, dialogue

The television is on in the background, "for warmth" — it's a wet, grey day. And thus I just heard a visitor to the Ponderosa raise his voice to insult Ben Cartwright:

"You, sir, you sired a litter of lazy, shiftless whelps! Like father, like son!"
Not really a litter; Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe are the children of different mothers, as any child of television knows. But still a wonderfully loopy bit of dialogue.

A related post
Television in the background

Memorial Day

One hundred years ago. From "Memorial Day Fete to Last Three Days," New York Times, May 29, 1909.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Brushing without looking

It occurred to me this morning how odd it is that one stands and watches in the mirror while brushing one's teeth. Yes, the mirror is just there. But there's no need for visual feedback when aiming a brush at the mouth. So I did something odder than watching myself: I turned away from the mirror to brush, and found myself hearing, for the first time really, the sounds of toothbrushing in my head. I discovered that brushing my lower molars makes a different sound from brushing all other teeth.

Then I did something odder still: I decided to write this post.

It makes sense that shutting off one sort of sensory data would make another sort more noticeable, as when people close their eyes to play or listen to music. Music is much more interesting than toothbrushing, and saves this post from being only about brushing my teeth without looking.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Agatha Christie, thickest spine

A limited edition of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple fiction is said to have the thickest spine in bookdom, "measuring over a foot long, with 4,032 pages." Long? Wide? Deep? Whatever. Only 500 copies.

From today's Hi and Lois

Yes, today's.

Related browsing
All Hi and Lois posts
The Boombox Museum

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Tom Lehrer, "Lobachevsky"

In light of recent events, my friend Norman points me, as I now point you, to a great Tom Lehrer song, "Lobachevsky." Enjoy.

(Thanks, Norman!)

Maureen Dowd, weaving, not linking

More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Josh Marshall, May 14, 2009


More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when the Bush crowd was looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Maureen Dowd, May 17, 2009
Three thoughts about the Josh Marshall-Maureen Dowd affair:

1. Dowd's explanation of how a paragraph from Talking Points Memo ended up in her New York Times column —
i was talking to a friend of mine Friday about what I was writing who suggested I make this point, expressing it in a cogent — and I assumed spontaneous — way and I wanted to weave the idea into my column.

but, clearly, my friend must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me.
— seems absurd. It credits friend and columnist alike with uncanny, savant-like powers of recall. It also fails to explain why Dowd didn't credit her alleged source for this observation. How'd you like to see your cogent sentence turn up without attribution in your friend's Times column? Some friend!

2. Weaving is an odd metaphor for what Dowd appears to have done — i.e., copied and pasted a useful bit that she then forgot to credit.

3. The corrected version of Dowd's column credits Marshall in a way that seems, well, demeaning:
Josh Marshall said in his blog: "More and more the timeline is raising the question of why, if the torture was to prevent terrorist attacks, it seemed to happen mainly during the period when we were looking for what was essentially political information to justify the invasion of Iraq."
If you don't recognize Marshall's name, you wouldn't know that "his blog," unnamed, is a widely-read site for political news and commentary. The tone here reminds me of the ways in which traditional media will often credit "a blogger," unidentified. Worse still, Dowd doesn't even provide a link.


Exhibits A and B
Josh Marshall's post (Talking Points Memo)
The corrected Maureen Dowd column (New York Times)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

No mercy

The forms of physical abuse reported by witnesses to the Committee included punching, flogging, assault and bodily attacks, hitting with the hand, kicking, ear pulling, hair pulling, head shaving, beating on the soles of the feet, burning, scalding, stabbing, severe beatings with or without clothes, being made to kneel and stand in fixed positions for lengthy periods, made to sleep outside overnight, being forced into cold or excessively hot baths and showers, hosed down with cold water before being beaten, beaten while hanging from hooks on the wall, being set upon by dogs, being restrained in order to be beaten, physical assaults by more than one person, and having objects thrown at them.
Abu Ghraib? Guantánamo? No, Irish orphanages, reformatories, and schools, run by Roman Catholic religious orders, principally the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy. The passage above is part of a just-released 2,600-page report, nine years in the making, by Ireland's Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

Report Details Abuses in Irish Church-Run Reformatories (New York Times)
The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse
Executive Summary
Commission Report


I remember my firsts. (Cassettes, MP3s — I have no idea.)

The Beatles, Something New (Capitol)

It must have been 1964. This LP must have been a present for my birthday (eighth). Help!, still among my records, still playable, was my second LP.

Son House, The Complete Library of Congress Sessions, 1941-1942 (Travelin' Man)
Mississippi John Hurt, 1928 Sessions (Yazoo)
David Murray, McCoy Tyner, Fred Hopkins, Elvin Jones, Special Quartet (Sony)
World Saxophone Quartet, Metamorphosis (Nonesuch)

Yes, blues and jazz. I bought these CDs in 1991 in Bloomington, Indiana, at a record store specializing in blues, jazz, and classical music. Yes, the store is now defunct.

Carnival of Souls (Criterion Collection)

Herk Harvey's great 1962 horror film. I'm not sure when I bought this DVD (2000? 2001?), but I remember wondering whether a DVD purchased in New Jersey would play on a computer in Illinois. One reason among many that I think of my name is a synonym for naïf. I had heard something about "region codes."

Do you remember your first analog and digital artifacts? Please, share them in a comment. (Why not?)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

No gadgets

Three tech execs:

Alain Dutheil, COO, ST-Ericsson: "I am not a gadget man. I prefer paintings."

Warren East, CEO, ARM: "I am a pen and paper kind of man. I can't live without my fountain pen, it goes everywhere."

Stan Miller, CEO, KPN Mobile International: "I don’t do gadgets."

No gadgets please (Reuters)

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Elements of Style,
one more time

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2000. $9.95.

Recent debate about the value of The Elements of Style prompted me to do what I had not done in perhaps twenty years: read the book straight through. Here's what I found:

The most appealing aspect of The Elements is its case for a style of writing that exhibits, in E.B. White's words, "cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity," "plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity." Such a style requires, William Strunk says, "not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell." Or as Ezra Pound advises poets in his essay "A Few Don'ts" (1913), "Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something." Given the available evidence of Strunk's literary interests, I sense not Poundian influence but coincidence: a shared preoccupation with condensation and clarity, a shared disdain for 19th-century floridity and pomp, what Pound elsewhere calls "mush."

The Elements makes its case for a plain style with generosity and flexibility. Choices in writing are "somewhat a matter of individual preference," we're told. With questions of usage, "we have no lawgiver whose word is final." So much depends upon a good ear: "The question of ear is vital." The book's final chapter, "An Approach to Style" (by E.B. White), meditates upon the difficulty and mystery of good writing, offering tips, "gentle reminders," for those making their way in the dark: "Do not construct awkward adverbs"; "Use figures of speech sparingly."

There is little that's gentle in the preceding chapter, "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused," which covers what so-called sticklers seem to have in mind when they speak of Strunk and White: the misuse of such words as fewer and less, imply and infer, lie and lay. Recommendations here seem at times arbitrary: by what reasoning is insightful bad and perceptive good? And the tone is sometimes haughty. Re: flammable and gasoline trucks: "Unless you are operating such a truck and hence are concerned with the safety of children and illiterates, use inflammable." Re: prestigious: "It's in the dictionary, but that doesn't mean you have to use it."

The sniffiness in such remarks is evidence of what seems to me the strongest case against the continued pedagogical usefulness of The Elements of Style: the world of the book's sample sentences is dowdy, a bit snobbish, and very white. For example:

For two dollars you can call your mother in London and tell her all about George's taking you out to dinner.

Her father and mother arrived by the afternoon train.

Once a year he visited the old mansion.

She entered her boat in the round-the-island race.

The contents of a jar may be either singular or plural, depending on what's in the jar — jam or marbles.
My favorite sentence of this sort:
Mr. Oglethorp was chair of the meeting.
I suspect that the meeting was of the Downtown Merchants Association, about the children riding their bicycles on the sidewalks after school. Why, just last week Mrs. Oglethorp's sister was visiting, and she had gone downtown to buy some thread, and as she was leaving the store —

That's enough.

My point has nothing to do with so-called political correctness. It's more a matter of temporal correctness: afternoon trains and jars of marbles fit some versions of mid-20th-century life, but not an early-21st-century book of writing instruction. Yet these sentences are the stuff of The Elements of Style; some have become the stuff of art and music in Maira Kalman's illustrated version of the book (2005) and Nico Muhly's Elements song cycle (2005). I cannot imagine changing these sentences, any more than I can imagine equipping the denizens of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks with iPhones. Mr. Oglethorp must remain chair, even if the downtown stores are gone. It's perhaps relevant that The Elements of Style as we know it — Strunk and White — began with nostalgia: the unexpected gift to White in 1957 of a memory-triggering copy of Strunk's original Elements, a book White had last seen in 1919.

Datedness is evident too in the advice The Elements offers about manuscript preparation. "Keep righthand and lefthand margins roughly the same width"; "When a word must be divided at the end of a line, consult a dictionary to learn the syllables between which division should be made": these bits of advice, still in the fourth edition, date from 1959, the world of the typewriter. The following advice about documenting sources, first appearing in Strunk's 1918 Elements, is unchanged in the 2000 edition:
In scholarly work requiring exact references, abbreviate titles that occur frequently, giving the full forms in an alphabetical list at the end. As a general practice, give the references in parentheses or in footnotes, not in the body of the sentence.
Yes, it's as if MLA and APA guidelines did not exist, and in 1918, of course, they didn't, though the Chicago Manual of Style predates The Elements. But woe unto a student in 2009 who thinks The Elements is all one needs to know about managing sources.

Or all one needs to know about any number of writing matters — how to develop paragraphs, for instance, about which the book says little. The Elements of Style is useful though not as an all-purpose reference but as a source of inspiration. Chapters Two and Five ("Elementary Principles of Composition," "An Approach to Style") in particular can serve to keep the writer at the task of caring for words and sentences, cutting here, rearranging there, refusing, at all points, to settle. The Elements of Style may work best as a writer's talisman. That's the best explanation I can offer of the book's long-lived pseudo-sacred status.

[I consulted all editions of The Elements of Style: 1918, 1959, 1979, 2000, 2005, 2009. The 2009 fiftieth-anniversary hardcover reprints the text of the fourth edition, adding a very brief account of the book's history and four pages of tributes from writers and public figures.]

All posts on the great Strunk and White debate
Pullum on Strunk and White
Hardly (adverb) convincing (adjective)
Strunk and White and wit
More on Pullum, Strunk, White

On Maira Kalman, Nico Muhly, William Strunk Jr., and E.B. White
Elements of Style Goes Beyond Words (NPR)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"The kids"

My daughter Rachel and my son Ben made an appearance in the first post I wrote for Orange Crate Art, wherein I thanked them for getting me started writing online. They were "the kids" then, teenagers.

Today Rachel graduates from college, wearing a "cabin gown" — many years ago, she thought that's what they were called. (Congradulations, Rachel!) And Ben turns twenty. (Happy birthday, Ben!) "The kids" are now my daughter the linguist and my son the philosopher, having grown up into grown-ups, not quite out of the family orbit yet, but moving off into orbits of their own. Does that make them rogue planets? My astronomy metaphors are clumsy at best.

When I began writing Orange Crate Art in 2004 (as a place to collect items relevant to my teaching), I never thought I'd be writing about my children, except to thank them for getting me started. I have of course written about them many times since then. This post is to salute them for their generosity, humor, imagination, kindness, and wisdom — and whatever else I've left out.

[Photograph by Elaine Fine, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, May 15, 2009.]

Related posts
Big Day, Huge Feelings (Elaine's post today)
Happy Father's Day (with a c. 1990 photo)
Things my children no longer say (e.g., "cabin gown")

Hi and Lois in search of lost time


[Mort Walker and Dik Browne, two panels from Hi and Lois, October 7, 1963, in The Best of “Hi and Lois” (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2005), n.p.]

Friday, May 15, 2009


Matching father-daughter copies of Phi Beta Kappa's Key Reporter. My daughter Rachel was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa tonight. Κῦδος, kiddo.

I know that Rachel finds the idea of matching father-daughter magazines as amusing as I do. That is, mildly amusing. A bit arch, a tad droll. Sherry? Yes, I would, thank you.

The pre-event background music: Handel's Water Music, followed by rain followed by hail followed by rain.

Positive emotions and risk

The June 2009 Atlantic has a long piece by Joshua Wolf Shenk, "What Makes Us Happy?" Shenk looks at the Grant Study, a longitudinal study (begun in 1937) of 268 Harvard men, and talks with George Vaillant, professor at Harvard Medical School and psychiatrist. Vaillant is the longtime director of the study, associated with it for more than forty years.

I find the following passage especially resonant. Shenk is recounting Vaillant's explanation to a group of graduate students of why "positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones":

One reason is that they're future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs — protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections — but in the short term actually put us at risk. That's because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his "prize" Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. "On his 70th birthday," Vaillant said, "when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, 'Would you write a letter of appreciation?' And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters — often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him." Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. "George, I don't know what you're going to make of this," the man said, as he began to cry, "but I've never read it." "It's very hard," Vaillant said, "for most of us to tolerate being loved."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Voluptuous Full-figured

Before: "Ancient Figurine of Voluptuous Woman Is Found."

After: "Full-Figured Statuette, 35,000 Years Old, Provides New Clues to How Art Evolved."

The New York Times has changed its voluptuous headline.

Deer on a wet red roof

[Fake deer atop a pawnshop, somewhere in East-Central Illinois, May 13, 2009. Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

Stormy weather

David Foster Wallace, writing of life in East-Central Illinois:

Most days from late March to June there are Tornado Watches somewhere in our TV stations' viewing area (the stations put a little graphic at the screen's upper right, like a pair of binoculars for a Watch and the Tarot deck's Tower card for a Warning, or something). Watches mean conditions are right and so on and so forth, which, big deal. It's only the rarer Tornado Warnings, which require a confirmed sighting by somebody with reliable sobriety, that make the Civil Defense sirens go.

David Foster Wallace, "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley," in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (New York: Back Bay Books, 1997), 15.
Our siren — I mean my town's siren — went this morning, at around 1:00. Elaine and I went downstairs, turned on the television, and watched the one station with a weatherman (not a crawl) until the storm passed about a half-hour later. No signs of damage in the daylight, only water, water everywhere, and more rain expected today or tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wilco streams Wilco (The Album)

Wilco is now streaming Wilco (The Album), scheduled for June 30 release. My knowledge of Wilco is not great, but I know enough to say that I like them. A first impression: this album seems to grow more Beatlesque as it goes on.

Voluptuous headline

An arresting headline: "Ancient Figurine of Voluptuous Woman Is Found." Voluptuous: from the Latin voluptas, pleasure. See what you think:

Ancient Figurine of Voluptuous Woman Is Found (New York Times)

Bonus songs

In the news:

As the music industry adapts to a changed marketplace, the album is no longer simply a discrete collection of songs but a package that changes size, shape and price depending on how it is sold. And promotion, once the relatively straightforward process of making a video and visiting radio stations, has also been transformed, as labyrinthine exclusive deals are struck with an array of retail and media companies — from and iTunes to Rhapsody, Wal-Mart and Verizon Wireless — eager to make an association with top talent.

For Bands, Bonus Songs Become New Norm (New York Times)
I find it odd that this article makes no mention of how such marketing undercuts independent record stores (they're not dead yet). Nor does the article consider that such marketing might encourage illegal downloading as an alternative to buying one album two or three times.

I first became aware of the absurdity of bonuses with Brian Wilson's That Lucky Old Sun, which appeared in at least five versions: Best Buy, Borders, extra mayo, iTunes, and plain. The Best Buy and iTunes versions had extra songs; the Borders version, stamps.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The cost of college

How much work might be needed to work your way through college?

According to one observer, in 1964, all of the expenses associated with a public university education, including food, clothing, and housing could be had by working a minimum-wage job an average of twenty-two hours a week throughout the year. (This might mean working fifteen hours a week while studying and forty hours a week during summers.) Today, the same expenses from a low-wage job require fifty-five hours a week fifty-two weeks a year.

At a private university, those figures in 1964 were thirty-six minimum-wage hours a week, which was relatively manageable for a married couple or a family of modest means and would have been possible even for a single person working the lowest possible wage for twenty hours a week during the school year and some overtime on vacations. Today, it would cost 136 hours per week for fifty-two weeks a year to "work your way through" at a private university. In 2006, each year of private education amounted to the annual after-tax earnings of nearly four lowest-wage workers working overtime.

Marc Bousquet, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York University Press, 2008), 152.
Bousquet goes on to note that faculty salaries are not the cause of rising tuition:
The plain fact is that many college administrations are on fixed-capital spending sprees with dollars squeezed from cheap faculty and student labor: over the past thirty years, the price of student and faculty labor has been driven downward massively at exactly the same time that costs have soared.
[Bousquet is relying on a spreadsheet by Tom Mortenson, "I Worked My Way through College. You Should, Too. 1964–65 to 2002–03," available to subscribers only at Postsecondary Education Opportunity.]

Monday, May 11, 2009

Jinx (children's game)

An e-mail from my friend Stefan Hagemann got me looking up the rules of the jinx. They are complicated and hilarious. Look and see:

Jinx (children's game) (Wikipedia)

(Stefan, do I owe you a Coke?)

Venetia Phair (1918-2009)

A 1930 telegram:

Naming new planet, please consider PLUTO, suggested by small girl Venetia Burney for dark and gloomy planet.
Venetia Phair (née Burney), namer of Pluto, has died. Read more:

Venetia Phair Dies at 90 (New York Times)
Venetia Phair (Wikipedia)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day

It's the busiest telephone holiday of the year.

[From the comedy short Just Mother (1914). Photograph from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection. Via the NYPL Digital Gallery.]

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Boening, Meehan, plagiarism

Plagiarism in the news: the Tuscaloosa News has available for download the University of Alabama dissertations of Carl Boening and William Meehan. Meehan's abstract includes this acknowledgement:

Using a case study and content analysis design, this study replicated at a regional comprehensive institution a study of sabbatical leave patterns that had first been conducted at The University of Alabama in 1996 by Carl Boening.
The phrasing — "a study . . . that had first been conducted" — is odd. It suggests not that Meehan is doing the same kind of thing but that he and Boening are doing the same thing, with Boening having gone first.

A glance at the almost identical tables of contents of the two dissertations makes clear that Meehan is indeed replicating. A couple of samples from Chapters Five:

The current chapter was designed to provide a summary of the study and to explore the conclusions and recommendations for further study and practice that may be drawn from the analysis of the data. The chapter is divided into five sections: Summary of the Study, Conclusions, Recommendations for Further Study, Recommendations for Practice, and Chapter Summary.
The current chapter was designed to provide a summary of the study and to offer conclusions and recommendations for further study. The chapter is divided into five sections: Summary of the Study, Conclusions, Discussion, Recommendations, and Chapter Summary.
Six research questions were presented in the study for analysis:

Research Question 1:

What were the sabbatical approval patterns, by discipline, at the University of Alabama . . . ?

Research Question 2:

What was the typical requested length of sabbatical period?
Seven research questions were presented in the study for analysis:

Research Question 1: What were the sabbatical leave patterns, by discipline, at Jacksonville State University . . . ?

Research Question 2: What was the typical requested length of sabbatical period?
And so on.

And so on.

These samples make clear that Meehan is not doing the same kind of thing; he is borrowing without attribution the content of Boening's dissertation, with Jacksonville State's sabbatical data replacing data from the University of Alabama.

Is it possible to plagiarize even after acknowledging a source? Yes. Is it possible to plagiarize bland, everyday prose? Yes. Is it possible that a committee saw nothing wrong with replicating a dissertation, even down to its sentences? Yes, in which case Meehan's dissertation, like that of Southern Illinois president Glenn Poshard, raises questions about the standards of scholarship in education programs. But by any standard of academic integrity, William Meehan's dissertation involves plagiarism.


Yes, its [sic] plagiarism (Tuscaloosa News)
Carl Boening dissertation (PDF download, 3.8 MB)
William Meehan dissertation (PDF download, 3.5 MB)

Today's Hi and Lois

Today's Hi and Lois features the ol' switcheroo, as the whiteboard jumps from wall to wall when the mirror returns from break. Or perhaps all the wall items are shifting places (think volleyball rotation). Go ahead and click — seeing is believing.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Going backward

Watching The Graduate (dir. Mike Nichols, 1967) with some of my students recently, I had a thought about the film's opening credits, which play as Benjamin Braddock stands on an automated walkway at LAX, moving without moving. A simple choice: should Ben be facing right, or left?

Yes, left. Forward movement typically goes from left to right, as when reading text in English. Ben's going backward, going home.

Between watching The Graduate and writing this post, I happened to read Bill Madison's recent interview with Betty Aberlin of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Talking about Fred Rogers' care with every detail of production, Lady Aberlin notes that

Things happened left to right on the screen, because a child learns to read with his eyes being trained left to right.
This post has moved from right to left, from a movie about a college graduate to a television show for pre-schoolers. Now it's time for my snack.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The flag of equal marriage

Behold the flag of equal marriage. Inspired by the flag of women's suffrage, this flag presents equal marriage as an American idea — flag-ready, so to speak. And it depicts in an instantly recognizable way the gradual but decisive work of cultural change, as the field begins to fill with stars.

I can mark the moment when I changed my thinking on the subject of equal marriage, several years ago, after long supporting the idea of civil unions for all. Elaine and I were driving back from a restaurant with friends, same-sex partners who've been together about as long as we have. It occurred to me to wonder: why should we two have all the benefits afforded married couples while our friends did not? "Because we're heterosexual" hardly seemed a reasonable answer. Indeed, that answer seemed too similar to other claims of supposedly self-evident privilege, whatever elements of identity — color, gender, religion — those claims might involve.

Andrew Sullivan's 2004 essay "Why The M Word Matters To Me" speaks eloquently of marriage's necessity:

When people talk about gay marriage, they miss the point. This isn't about gay marriage. It's about marriage. It's about family. It's about love. It isn't about religion. It's about civil marriage licenses. Churches can and should have the right to say no to marriage for gays in their congregations, just as Catholics say no to divorce, but divorce is still a civil option. These family values are not options for a happy and stable life. They are necessities. Putting gay relationships in some other category — civil unions, domestic partnerships, whatever — may alleviate real human needs, but by their very euphemism, by their very separateness, they actually build a wall between gay people and their families. They put back the barrier many of us have spent a lifetime trying to erase.
One day the flag of marriage equality will have fifty stars. It will look exactly like the American flag. I hope to be around when it becomes impossible to tell the one flag from the other.

[Flag of equal marriage by Carl Tashian, licensed under a Creative Commons License.]

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I dream of Strunk and White

I dozed for a moment reading The Elements of Style yesterday afternoon and dreamed the following pair of sentences, in two columns, like the sample sentences in the book:

When I woke, I wrote down my dream sentences but soon grew unsure as to which was the original and which the revision. My daughter Rachel pointed out that they must go in the above order, since the second sentence is so much better than the first. Yes, she was kidding.

How important is a college education?

Various people answer the question. My contribution:

Tremendously important! (I'm an English professor, so you know I'm going to say that.) I will add though that there's a tremendous difference between getting an education and getting a degree.

The real point of college is the practice it offers in developing the ability to think and feel deeply and learn about the world and one's possible place in it. Not to learn how to make a living, but to learn how to make a life, as I remember an old professor saying at my freshman orientation, back in the 20th century.
Read all the responses at Productivity 501.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Toxic postscript

My post SOME PEOPLE ARE TOXIC AVOID THEM. made it to Boing Boing yesterday, which means thousands of first-time — and last-time — readers. I posted Milton Glaser's advice partly because I'm interested (always) in what older people have to say, partly because I like the then 72-year-old Glaser's bluntness. (Older people often specialize in bluntness.) I also like the urgent, ominous, all-caps run-on — "SOME PEOPLE ARE TOXIC AVOID THEM." — which looks to my eyes like the work of an outsider artist. That's the way the sentence appears on Glaser's website, sans internal punctuation, so it has someone's okay.

I didn't call Glaser's advice good (David Pescovitz called it "terrific"). But I do think it's good advice, which is to say, useful. And I've been surprised by the many angry responses this post has elicited. I don't think Glaser is suggesting that friends are for one's use, nor do I think he's suggesting that we walk away from situations that are difficult or exhausting (a friend in distress, a relative in the hospital). A more generous reading would take this advice as relevant to everyday encounters: with the colleague who makes every run-in in the hallway an occasion of hostility, with the supervisor who makes the workplace a theater of cruelty, with the acquaintance whose conversation is a stream of belittlement and mockery.

An anonymous commenter at Boing Boing offered the example of leaving a social situation and asking "Why the hell do I do this to myself?" That question seems to me to capture the scenarios in which Glaser's idea of toxicity applies. No one (except perhaps George Costanza) would ask that question after visiting a friend or relative in need. But in everyday social settings, it's exactly the question that suggests the need to walk away.

Monday, May 4, 2009


From "Ten Things I Have Learned," a 2001 talk by graphic designer Milton Glaser:

the important thing that I can tell you is that there is a test to determine whether someone is toxic or nourishing in your relationship with them. Here is the test: You have spent some time with this person, either you have a drink or go for dinner or you go to a ball game. It doesn’t matter very much but at the end of that time you observe whether you are more energised or less energised. Whether you are tired or whether you are exhilarated. If you are more tired then you have been poisoned. If you have more energy you have been nourished. The test is almost infallible and I suggest that you use it for the rest of your life.
This passage is from no. 3, "SOME PEOPLE ARE TOXIC AVOID THEM" (via

If you're visiting from Boing Boing or elsewhere:

I posted Milton Glaser's advice partly because I'm interested (always) in what older people have to say, partly because I like the then 72-year-old Glaser's bluntness. (Older people often specialize in bluntness.) I also like the urgent, ominous, all-caps run-on — "SOME PEOPLE ARE TOXIC AVOID THEM." — which looks to my eyes like the work of an outsider artist. That's the way the sentence appears on Glaser's website, sans internal punctuation, so it has someone's okay.

I didn't call Glaser's advice good (David Pescovitz called it "terrific"). But I do think it's good advice, which is to say, useful. And I've been surprised by the many angry responses this post has elicited. I don't think Glaser is suggesting that friends are for one's use, nor do I think he's suggesting that we walk away from situations that are difficult or exhausting (a friend in distress, a relative in the hospital). A more generous reading would take this advice as relevant to everyday encounters: with the colleague who makes every run-in in the hallway an occasion of hostility, with the supervisor who makes the workplace a theater of cruelty, with the acquaintance whose conversation is a stream of belittlement and mockery.

An anonymous commenter at Boing Boing offered the example of leaving a social situation and asking "Why the hell do I do this to myself?" That question seems to me to capture the scenarios in which Glaser's idea of toxicity applies. No one (except perhaps George Costanza) would ask that question after visiting a friend or relative in need. But in everyday social settings, it's exactly the question that suggests the need to walk away.

More on Pullum, Strunk, White

Below, a sampling of recent commentary on Geoffrey Pullum's "Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice" and William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White's The Elements of Style. Most of what follows is at least mildly pro-Elements. I haven't been able to find pro-Pullum pieces that do much more than restate his claims as true.

Chad Orzel is pragmatic:

While a slavish adherence to the rules presented in The Elements of Style would have unfortunate results for people who already write well, it would be a clear improvement for most college students. Just an attempt to follow the guidelines in Strunk and White would make most of the lab reports I have to grade dramatically better.

Strunk and White Is Not for You (Uncertain Principles)
Tim Carmody too is pragmatic:
I still think Chapter 5 of Elements, "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused," is pretty solid, and a good starting point for teaching young writers. Here the idea is that a few don'ts (as Ezra Pound would say) often can stop particularly dire barbarisms in their tracks.

Anti-Strunkites (Snarkmarket)
David G. Shrock is skeptical about the damage wrought by Strunk and White:
I agree with Pullum that The Elements of Style should not be the sole resource for learning grammar, but grammar instruction is not the intent of the book. Is it responsible for degrading grammar in America? Pullum does not offer any evidence.

Linguist and Reading Comprehension (Writing for Torre)
John Schwenkler too is skeptical:
"The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style,“ Pullum calls us. If only.

Strunk'd (The American Scene)
Charlie Loyd contrasts Strunk-and-White and Pullum by means of fine analogies:
Strunk and White are like expert gardeners. They wrote a very short introduction to gardening and sold it as a gardening book. Gardeners used it to learn about gardening, or, considering just how short it is, as inspiration to think consciously about gardening, and so it started or helped many careers in gardening.

Pullum is like an expert botanist. He reads the gardening book and says "This is absurd! They plant things next to each other that come from different continents. Why prune an apple tree when it grows fine on its own? Their suggestions for crop rotation are a ludicrous simplification of natural interspersal," and so on.

Pullum v. Strunk and White (Env)
And the New York Times is hosting a party, Happy Birthday, Strunk and White! Some party: it's Geoffrey Pullum and four other guests mostly hatin' on The Elements of Style. Pullum leads, repeating the hardly convincing claim that Strunk and White advocate writing without adjectives and adverbs:
Some of the commands would be all but impossible to follow: "Write with nouns and verbs," for example. No one avoids all use of adjectives and adverbs.
Gee, no kidding?

Stephen Dodson: "If people would stop touting it as the Indispensable Book and using it as a weapon, we wouldn’t have to annoy them with our attacks."

Mignon Fogarty ("Grammar Girl"): "Wishing there were hard-and-fast rules doesn’t make it so." (Reading The Elements of Style makes clear that many of its rules are far from firm.)

Patricia T. O’Conner: "much of the grammar and usage advice in the rest of the book is baloney."

Ben Yagoda: "a strange little book."

Mark Garvey, author of Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style (forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in October), has written a response to the Times piece. One good bit re: Pullum:
Professor Pullum writes: "The simplistic don't-do-this, don't-write-that instructions offered in the book would not guarantee good writing if they were obeyed." Guarantee it? Of course not — no more than a knowledge of musical scales can guarantee I will play piano like Horowitz. But scales are the way.

Strunk and White, The Elements of Style (Text Arts)
And finally, the comments on my post Pullum on Strunk and White should be of interest to anyone interested in this debate. This thread seems to get better as it goes on, with a number of readers offering long and thoughtful responses.

The final paragraph of my most recent comment on that post:
I think The Elements is a much more helpful book than Pullum allows. But is it, to paraphrase Tom Waits, a friend, a companion, the only product you will ever need? No.
Related posts
Strunk and White and wit
The Elements of Style, one more time

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y txt msgs r ltd 2 160 chars (la tms)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

"Pete's banjo head"

["Pete's banjo head." Photograph of Pete Seeger's banjo by Tom Davis (tcd123usa), via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons License. Thanks, Tom, for sharing your work.]

Happy birthday, Pete Seeger

I remember watching Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest on Channel 13 — table, benches, chairs, coffeepot, musicians. Folk music! I was eleven or ten.

I remember going to see Pete Seeger and the Hudson River Sloop Singers in Gaelic Park, the Bronx, August 4, 1969. I was twelve, and it was my first concert. My dad went with me (thanks, Dad). We parked under the elevated train tracks. It was quite an adventure to sing "Bring 'Em Home" and realize that everyone there was against the war in Vietnam.

I remember reading Pete Seeger's "Johnny Appleseed, Jr." column in Sing Out!: The Folk Song Magazine.

I remember Pete Seeger having a beard and always wearing a flowered shirt.

I remember "Living in the Country," "Old Devil Time," and "Sailing Up My Dirty Stream."

I remember "THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS HATE AND FORCES IT TO SURRENDER," written on the head of Pete Seeger's banjo.

I remember the heart-shaped sound-hole of Pete Seeger's twelve-string guitar.

I remember seeing Pete Seeger perform on the porch of a house in Little Compton, Rhode Island. He was visiting an old friend and did a short performance for the local people and "summer people," all there by word of mouth. I happened to be in Little Compton with a friend whose parents had a summer house. I remember "Guantanamera" as the last song.

I remember Pete Seeger's songs and records in the house after our children came on the scene.

I remember listening to our Pete Seeger tapes on many family drives from Illinois to the East Coast. From a previous blog post: "Pete Seeger is the best driving music, at least for my family."

I remember our family singing variation after variation on "Sailing Up, Sailing Down" (to the tune of Jimmy Reed's "Baby, What You Want Me to Do"):

Some are young (some are young)
Some are old (some are old)
Young, old, old, young, up and down the river
Sailin' on, stoppin' all along the way
The river may be dirty now
But it's gettin' cleaner every day
I remember remembering to write this post to mark the day that Pete Seeger turns ninety.

[The New York Times, August 4, 1969.]

[My model for this post is Joe Brainard's I Remember.]

Saturday, May 2, 2009

David Souter and Proust

"Have you read Proust?" he asked me during an unsuccessful clerkship interview years ago, and then wistfully said he wished he could take a year off to teach a college seminar on Proust and Henry Adams.
Law professor Jeffrey Rosen, in a New York Times op-ed piece on David Souter.

Related reading
All Proust posts (Pinboard)

Friday, May 1, 2009

It's Buy Indie Day

Today is Buy Indie Day, a day to buy books from independent bookstores. If you'd like to share news of the spoils of your shopping, leave a comment.

My spoils, from Chicago's Seminary Co-op Bookstore: Kakuzo Okakura's The Book of Tea and Sara Suleri's Meatless Days.

Separated at birth?

Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and poet Ted Berrigan.

Related posts
Elaine Hansen and Blanche Lincoln
Ton Koopman and Oliver Sacks
Ted Berrigan, "A Final Sonnet"