Friday, December 31, 2010

“[T]he city’s one big night”

One hundred years ago: “Thousands Turn Out in New Year Revels; Throngs of Merry Noisemakers Stretch from 23d Street to Columbus Circle,” New York Times, January 1, 1911.

Happy New Year to you, reader.

Van Dyke Parks on “Orange Crate Art”

The California Report interviews Van Dyke Parks about his song “Orange Crate Art.” A sample:

“It was in about 1995. I had a piano exercise in front of me; I loved it. It was in E flat. It reminded me of something I might have played as a child, like Schumann. So it was a beautiful song. I just determined to put some lyrics to it, and the first thing that came to mind was the word orange.”
Listen to it all:

Van Dyke Parks on “Orange Crate Art” (KQED)

Related reading
All Van Dyke Parks posts (via Pinboard)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Geraldine Doyle (1924–2010)

[Poster by J. Howard Miller.]

Cellist, metal presser, icon: Geraldine Doyle, Iconic Face of World War II, Dies at 86 (New York Times).

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Amy Winehouse’s to-do list

From 2001, the work of a seventeen-year-old list-maker: Amy Winehouse’s to-do list.

Other posts with lists
“Ambercroombie & Flitch” (Ways to be cool)
Blue crayon (Supplies for an imaginary camping trip)
Johnny Cash’s to-do list (“Kiss June”)
Review: Liza Kirwin, Lists (Artists’ lists)
Whose list? (A found list)

Billy Taylor (1921–2010)

Sad news:

Billy Taylor, a pianist and composer who was also an eloquent spokesman and advocate for jazz as well as a familiar presence for many years on television and radio, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 89 and lived in the Riverdale area of the Bronx. . . .

Dr. Taylor, as he preferred to be called (he earned a doctorate in music education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1975), was a living refutation of the stereotype of jazz musicians as unschooled, unsophisticated and inarticulate, an image that was prevalent when he began his career in the 1940s, and that he did as much as any other musician to erase.

Dr. Taylor probably had a higher profile on television than any other jazz musician of his generation. He had a long stint as a cultural correspondent on the CBS News program Sunday Morning and was the musical director of David Frost’s syndicated nighttime talk show from 1969 to 1972.

Billy Taylor, Jazz Pianist, Dies at 89 (New York Times)
I think that Billy Taylor must be the first jazz musician I ever saw — on television, when I was a kid. Here’s a sampler of his art, courtesy of YouTube:

An unidentified blues
“Here’s That Rainy Day” (with John Lewis)
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”
“In a Sentimental Mood”
“Three Blind Mice”

Miss E.Z. Peel

My supermarket (that is, the one where I do my “marketing”) is selling clementines for the ridiculous price of $4.11 a box (cheap!). These clementines (from Brazil) are selling under the name “Miss E.Z. Peel.” Here is the United States Patent and Trademark Office description of the Miss E.Z. Peel service mark: “The mark consists of a stylized image of a clementine peel with a silhouette of a lady holding a clementine.”

With a name like Miss E.Z. Peel, she’s no lady. And really, clementines are delightful as they are, with no need for sexualized hype. (One Chiquita Banana is already one sexualized fruit too many.) What is more disturbing about this branding gimmick though is that Miss E.Z. Peel strongly resembles a fetus-like, E.T.-like creature. What is meant to look like the seamless curve of chin, neck, and shoulder-length hair looks (at least to my eyes) like the gaping maw of the massive-headed creature, ready to devour the tender fruit now in its claw-like grasp. No joke: my wife Elaine had to explain this image to me before I could see it as its maker intended. When we first saw Miss E.Z. Peel in the store, all I could do was stare.

I’ve presented a stylized photograph of the Miss E.Z. Peel silhouette here, extra creepiness added via iPhoto’s Vignette effect.

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

A related post

“Why Is Illinois So Corrupt?”

Shane Tritsch of Chicago magazine gets some answers: “Why Is Illinois So Corrupt?”

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Adam Wheeler, prose stylist

The Boston Globe reports that Adam Wheeler’s Harvard application was filled with inconsistencies. His prose wasn’t that great either. The Globe quotes a sentence from an essay accompanying Wheeler’s application:

My belief is that the conceptual basis of the multidisciplinary and cross-cultural study of texts, traditions, and discourses must consist of a commitment to connectivity — in part for all the reasons that bombard us every day as virtual cliches.
Here is a perfect example of what Michael Harvey’s The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing calls “the pompous style.” Look past the abstractions (“conceptual basis”), the nominalizations (“My belief is that” for “I believe”), and the prepositional phrases (seven of them), and the sentence reveals itself as a laughable tautology.

E-mail and punctuation

In the news, a not-yet-published study of readers’ reactions to e-mails:

In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers [Frank McAndrew and Chelsea Rae De Jonge] have identified three commonly used e-mail elements as being highly influential in shaping how others perceive us — regardless of whether those conclusions are accurate.
The study looks at the effects of punctuation, typos, and voice on reader-response. Some of the conclusions confirm what common sense would suggest — that use of the first person adds intimacy, that typos aplenty signal a lack of care. The more provocative conclusions concern punctuation:
E-mails with no question marks or exclamation points were perceived as being sent by a superior, while those that included lots of question marks and exclamation points were interpreted as coming from a subordinate.

In general, question marks conveyed anger and confusion, while exclamation points, as you might expect, communicated happiness. The absence of both types of punctuation implied apathy, and a high frequency of such punctuation caused readers to assume the sender was female.

“I guess it's the old stereotype of women being more expressive and emotional. A text message or email that’s chock-full of question marks and exclamation points comes across as a little girlie, for lack of a better way to phrase it,” says McAndrew, adding wryly: “Real men don’t use punctuation; they use caveman-like direct, short sentences.”
Yipes. Notice that McAndrew’s final (publicity-seeking?) sentences make use of five different punctuation marks.

Related posts
E-mail etiquette
How to e-mail a professor
How to punctuate a sentence
How to punctuate more sentences

Monday, December 27, 2010

“The white stuff”

Re: journalism: I hereby call for an end to the use of that tired phrase “the white stuff” (as heard on the local news this evening). Cocaine? Dandruff? No. Snow.

And re: weather: I hereby call for an end to snow, at least for a while.

Related posts
“Ice and Snow Blues” (A blues lyric)
Inclement weather (John Milton and us)
“It’s spitting” (A weather idiom)
“It is snowing.” (A Pierre Reverdy prose-poem)
Snow, dirt, paint (A photograph)
Snowbound (A one-act play)

“25 Years of Christmas”

“Every year, our dad would tape us coming down the stairs. This is a compilation of all the videos I could find”: “25 Years of Christmas” (YouTube).

(Thanks to Rachel, who found it.)


[Marc Bennett (William Lundigan) tries to get through.]

The blinking sign caught my eye, near the end of The House on Telegraph Hill (dir. Robert Wise, 1951). Indestructo was the work of the National Veneer Products Co. of Mishawaka, Indiana. A Google search turns up several magazine advertisements for Indestructo from the early twentieth century. A sample:
With its still greater improvements for 1911, the Indestructo Trunk offers by far the greatest trunk value on the market. Made in a variety of styles, including Men’s, Women’s, Steamer Trunks, Hat Trunks, Trousseau Trunks, etc.
Among the materials then used in making Indestructo products: “Government Bronze” (“the same as specified by the U.S. Government”), red cedar, and walrus and seal skins. By 1951, Indestructo must have been a venerable — or was it dated? — name. Both Indestructo and the A. & J. Levin shop are now gone.

The House on Telegraph Hill is a good film (now misleadingly packaged as film noir), with strong performances from Richard Basehart, Fay Baker, Valentina Cortese, and William Lundigan. The story begins in a concentration camp and ends in a posh San Francisco residence. Along the way: a false identity, a love triangle, some murderous plotting, an off-the-hook phone, and an angry ancestor whose portrait looks down on it all.

A related post
Scriptos in Times Square (More signage in the background)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Two New York Santas

From the New York Times, two more New York Santa Clauses: Miracle on 22nd Street.

A related post
“Coming Up Doubled Up”

“Coming Up Doubled Up”

[“The spirit of Christmas sometimes produces disquieting moments. In New York the Volunteers of America Inc. hires more than 50 men a day to dress up as Santa Claus and go out to the street corners around town soliciting contributions for the poor. When their posts are in the same vicinity, the men often travel together. Emerging through the sidewalk exits, they give New Yorkers the shattering, if brief, illusion that Santa Claus not only comes in pairs but comes on a crowded 15¢ subway ride at that.” “Coming Up Doubled Up,” from Life, December 27, 1954. Click for a larger view.]

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, from Santa Claus¹, Santa Claus², and me.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Desperate Man Blues

[Joe Bussard in motion.]

Desperate Man Blues (dir. Edward Gillan, 2003) is a portrait of record-hunter Joe Bussard, whose collection of 78s — blues, jazz, and old-timey music — may be the largest in the world. Bussard is enthusiasm itself, a then-sixty-something man of astonishing energy and excitement. Playing a record in his basement, he is all fluttering hands and pumping legs. What he must have been like when younger? Says Elaine, “Exactly the same.”

Like any true enthusiast, Bussard has made his own deeply idiosyncratic map of the world. Among its key elements: Jimmie Rodgers (the greatest singer of all time), the year 1933 (the year jazz died), and the Barbara Fritchie Restaurant. And the map is dotted with the sites of Bussard’s finds — of records that in many cases would otherwise have remained unknown. “One of two known copies,” “the only known copy”: that’s Joe Bussard’s territory. Anyone who loves indigenous American music of the 1920s and ’30s is in his debt.

The DVD release of Desperate Man Blues is packed with extras: outtakes, photographs, a second shorter Bussard documentary, and some great footage of Son House.

[“Enthousiasmos, from enthous ‘possessed by a god, inspired’“: New Oxford American Dictionary.]

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Information and its discontents

The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have been at work on information. From an essay by managing editor Michael Proffitt:

The adverse psychological impact of the information age manifests itself linguistically, in information overload (1962) and in the entry for information fatigue (1991). Although those two last phrases are simply the latest additions to OED’s coverage, for those engaged in any form of online research they could just as well describe the arc of a working day. Perhaps this is why the OED definition of information fatigue, while entirely accurate, also sounds faintly heartfelt:
Apathy, indifference, or mental exhaustion arising from exposure to too much information, esp. (in later use) stress induced by the attempt to assimilate excessive amounts of information from the media, the Internet, or at work.
In dictionaries, as elsewhere, a statement can be at once plainly factual and profoundly human.
I cringe a little when I hear students refer to college work as a matter of — dire phrase — “retaining information.” Pick a field, any field, and think of people who are competent in it: are they “retaining information”? No: they know stuff. They understand the contexts in which “information” may be meaningful and are thus able to draw relevant conclusions and solve problems.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

E-mail, slow and boring?

In the New York Times this morning:

The problem with e-mail, young people say, is that it involves a boringly long process of signing into an account, typing out a subject line and then sending a message that might not be received or answered for hours. And sign-offs like “sincerely” — seriously?
But seriously, does anyone expect that an e-mail close with sincerely? Wouldn’t such a close mark the sender as quaintly out of touch with the conventions of the form?

The important point here though has to do with expectation and attention — the expectation that you, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, are ready to pay attention to me: a customer-service model of human relationships.

A related post
E-mail etiquette (On closings)

Decaf tea again

A few months ago, Elaine and i tasted and rated six decaf black teas, with Tetley British Blend the surprise winner. We just tried Tetley against Typhoo Decaf, a venerable British brand widely reputed to be the best decaf black tea. Typhoo is very good, robust and satisfying, almost as dark as coffee. But Tetley, we agree, is better. Its flavor is mellower, more rounded, full of bright spots — more metaphorical too. And here in the United States, Tetley is considerably cheaper — $3 or so for forty bags v. $10 or more for eighty bags of Typhoo. So it’s Tetley FTW.

Monday, December 20, 2010

“[A]rt’s about limits”

Film critic Richard Schickel, in a DVD-release commentary on Side Street (dir. Anthony Mann, 1955):

If I may just say so, I am so irritated with young people who proudly claim never to have seen a black-and-white movie. They don’t understand: art’s about limits. It’s not about limitlessness.

Google’s Life Photo Archive broken

If you’re wondering, the search function for Google’s Life Photo Archive is broken. If you have a URL, you can get to a photo, but a search finds nothing.

Update, January 16, 2011: The archive is working again.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Don’t ask, don’t tell Don’t stall

From the New York Times:

Capping a 17-year political struggle, the Senate on Saturday cleared the way for repealing the Pentagon’s ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military.

By a vote of 63 to 33, with six Republicans joining Democrats, the Senate acted to cut off debate on a measure that would let President Obama declare an end to the Clinton-era policy, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which allows gay members of the armed forces to serve only if they keep their sexual orientation a secret. The vote indicated that there was easily enough support to push the measure to final passage.
I’m happy to see that Illinois senators Dick Durbin (D) and Mark Kirk (R) voted yea.

Update, 2:30 p.m.: The Senate has voted to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” 65 to 31.

A related post
Don’t ask, don’t tell Don’t discriminate

Adam Wheeler in the news again

Remember Adam Wheeler? Seven months after pleading not guilty, he has pleaded guilty to twenty misdemeanor and felony charges.

The stories below call attention, rightly so, to the ways in which Wheeler’s deceptions harmed others: with every opportunity he was given, every award he received, some truly worthy student — who? — lost out.

Student pleads guilty (Boston Globe)
Harvard Faker Adam Wheeler Pleads Guilty (Harvard Crimson)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Google and Caps Lock

At Slate, Christopher Beam writes about the Caps Lock key, gone from the new Google laptop. Pace Beam, I don’t think the absence of Caps Lock is a step toward the disappearance of capital letters — like, say, the G in Google. Caps Lock is just in an awkward spot, too easily hit when one goes for Shift or Tab. Replacing Caps Lock with a Search key, as Google has, seems to me to introduce a worse annoyance.

[To disable Caps Lock on a Mac: go to Keyboard & Mouse in System Preferences, click on Modifier Keys, and choose No Action for the Caps Lock key.]

Goodbye, Delicious

All Things Digital reports that Yahoo will be shutting down the social-bookmarking service Delicious. I’ve used a Delicious account for several years (starting back when the service was known as to create an index of sorts to Orange Crate Art.

What now? I’ve followed John Gruber’s recommendation and signed up for Pinboard. Doing so requires a small one-time fee, which rises as the number of users rises. Yesterday: $7.01. As I write, the fee has risen from $7.99 to $8.05: that means heavy traffic. Pinboard imported my Delicious links and tags with one very slight glitch: a link to a 2008 post appears near the top of the heap. And I’m still waiting for my tag cloud to take shape. Yes, heavy traffic in the wake of the news about Delicious.

Pinboard is the work of Maciej Ceglowski and co-founder Peter Gadjokov. I wish them well.

Update, December 18: I have a cloud.

[“I’m still waiting for my tag cloud to take shape”: what, oh what, would our ancestors make of us?]

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The twelve days of Christmas

[Concept by Ben Leddy. Click for a larger view.]

My son Ben made this Wordle from the words to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” It’d make a great card, no?

For all those stuck in the twelve days of exam week (well, it feels like twelve days), the end is near.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Word of the day: quincunx

Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day is quincunx:

quincunx \KWIN-kunks\ noun
: an arrangement of five things in a square or rectangle with one at each corner and one in the middle

The tables were arranged in a quincunx, with the hosting family at the center table and guests at the four corners.

“As we walked along the geometric beds — many of them planted in an ancient Roman quincunx pattern — I made notes on the beautiful crops I had never grown.” — From an article by Anne Raver in the New York Times, June 30, 2010

Did you know?
As our second example sentence suggests, today’s word has its origins in ancient Rome. To the Romans, a “quincunx” was a coin whose name comes from the Latin roots “quinque,” meaning “five,” and “uncia,” meaning “one twelfth.” The weight of the coin equaled five twelfths of a libra, a unit of weight similar to our pound. The ancients used a pattern of five dots arranged like the spots on a die as a symbol for the coin, and English speakers applied the word to arrangements similar to that distinctive five-dot mark.
For a reader of English prose, quincunx means Sir Thomas Browne, whose 1658 work The Garden of Cyrus, Or The Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered meditates on the quincunx and the number five as organizing principles of reality. A brief passage from the ending:
But the Quincunx of Heaven runs low, and ’tis time to close the five ports of knowledge; We are unwilling to spin out our awaking thoughts into the phantasmes of sleep, which often continueth præcogitations; making Cables of Cobwebbes and Wildernesses of handsome Groves.
[Browne glosses the “Quincunx of Heaven” as the Hyades, a group of stars “near the Horizon about midnight, at that time.”]

Other words, other works of lit
Artificer : Bandbox : Ineluctable

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How to improve writing (no. 32)

In August 2008, I wrote myself a note re: bookbuying:

When you learn of new non-fiction that addresses matters of culture, education, language, or technology, wait. Read a sample online or in a bookstore. Consider whether you’re willing to take on several hundred pages of the writer’s prose. Look at Amazon reviews (which are occasionally far more discerning than those found in traditional media). And ask yourself, self, the crucial question: do you need to buy this book, or can you be happy getting it from the library?
Thus I borrowed Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It (New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2010). That ungainly subtitle suggests the quality of the prose within. Here is a sample paragraph, introducing descriptions of ten colleges that Hacker and Dreifus “like”:
Frankly, in a system this vast and varied, there are good people and good schools everywhere; the trick is to find them. What follows are a few places that caught our attention. The list isn’t comprehensive, but rather focuses on a few good colleges that strike the right balance. Some of the things the schools we liked had in common: they are student-centered, rather than driven by the whims of the faculty or by administrators’ ambitions. We liked schools led by idealists, the only kind of leaders with the courage to buck the conformity that cripples most corners of contemporary higher education. We were drawn to schools that had good core values, for want of a better term, which were genuinely adhered to. Most of all, we preferred schools that actively tried to keep fees low — or free. Confined by financial limitations, their leaders could keep their eyes on what really mattered, which is always the students. At the end of the day, any school must be about putting the “higher” back into education.
I see many problems here.

Frankly: like personally, it’s usually meaningless when prefacing a statement. And personally, I’ve disliked frankly since 1977, when I was interning at a publishing house and an editor told me, frankly, just what he was willing to pay me to do some part-time copywriting.

“[G]ood people and good schools”: the trick here though is to find the schools, not good professors scattered here and there.

“What follows are”: a clumsy juxtaposition of singular and plural. Singular and plural forms pose a strangely persistent problem in this book:
Kenyon is often the fallback choice when Jennifer or Jeremy fail to get fat envelopes from Dartmouth or Brown.

They are freed from committee chores and can keep their offices, although they may share it with a visitor during their off-semesters.
“The list isn’t comprehensive”: unneccesarily repetitious, as the preceding sentence refers to “a few places.”

“Some of the things”: the sentence goes on to state only one thing the schools have in common.

“[T]he conformity that cripples most corners”: a ghastly metaphor. What’s more, this sentence creates a deep contradiction in the paragraph: if “most corners of contemporary higher education” are crippled, how can it be that good schools are “everywhere”?

“[F]or want of a better term”: what’s wrong with “core values”?

“[V]alues . . . which were genuinely adhered to”: an awkward use of the passive voice, and another unnecessary adverb. But also: just as there is no difference between genuinely adhering to values and adhering to them, there is also no difference between having values and adhering to them. One’s values are those one adheres to.

“[W]e preferred schools that actively tried to keep fees low — or free”: actively seems meaningless here. (Can one try inactively?) And fees cannot be free. Notice too the shifts between the present and past that have begun to turn up in the paragraph. As the descriptions of colleges that will follow are meant to be current, the present tense, stating what is the case, would be appropriate.

“At the end of the day”: sigh.

“[A]ny school must be about putting the ‘higher’ back into education:” more precisely, putting the higher back into higher education.

Here’s my revised version, shrinking the paragraph from 175 to 94 words:
In a system this vast and varied, there are many good schools; the trick is to find them. Here we present a handful, all of them serving students, not faculty whims or administrative ambition. Idealists lead these schools, men and women courageous enough to resist the conformity that cripples much of contemporary higher education. We have chosen schools that adhere to good core values, and we give preference to schools that keep fees low — or eliminate them. Working with limited funds, focusing on students, these schools are putting the “higher” back into higher education.
What about the argument of the book? Hacker and Dreifus’s survey of higher ed is largely anecdotal, in the manner of an article in Newsweek or Time. There’s one story of professorial laziness (with a student using the notes that her mother took when she was a student) that’s almost certainly apocryphal. The depiction of pampered faculty working a handful of hours per week bears no relation to academic life as it’s lived in what profs sometimes call “the trenches.” And the book’s contradictions bespeak incoherence. Faculty research is a bad idea, Hacker and Dreifus say, but they make an exception for Arizona State, which they praise as a “research powerhouse.” And while Hacker and Dreifus acknowledge both the exploitation of contingent faculty and correlations between contingent instruction and student failure, they praise a community college where, as they acknowledge, 75% of faculty are part-time, without offices or even desks. Students in the know, they say, “plan their programs around full-time professors.” That’s core values for you.

For a far more perceptive and persuasive analysis of problems in American higher education, I’d recommend Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works.

[This post is no. 32 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

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

Happy birthday, Clark Terry

Trumpeter and flugelhornist Clark Terry turns ninety today. Happy birthday, sir! Many years ago, I interviewed Clark on my university’s FM station. It was an honor to talk with a great musician and Ellingtonian.

This Riverwalk Jazz hour is a good introduction to Clark Terry’s music. If you listen, you’ll hear Duke Ellington introduce Clark as “beyond category.” Which he is. At Clark’s website, his wife Gwen reports what he’d like for his birthday: “More birthdays.”

Monday, December 13, 2010

Caroline, yes

Caroline of Caroline’s Crayons is drawing again. Take a look: crayons encore.

[Post title with apologies to Tony Asher and Brian Wilson.]

A Van Dyke Parks simile

From Pasadena’s KPCC: Kevin Ferguson interviews Van Dyke Parks, in a conversation that runs from Spike Jones and “The Bare Necessities” to Song Cycle to SMiLE to VDP’s recent collaboration with Inara George. Here is VDP describing SMiLE — “a wonderful piece of work,” he calls it — via a simile:

I look at it not as a mural, as I’d hoped it would be, like muralistic. But in fact, it’s about as big as a postage stamp, I think, and about as worthy.

What do you mean by that?

Well, number one, it gets you somewhere. The work is of modest dimension. It’s a small thing. Like a stamp, it has a great deal of handiwork in it. It’s quiltwork; it is not pixelated information.
Listen: Van Dyke Parks interview (KPCC).

A holiday gift from
Clare and the Reasons

Frog Stand Records is giving away an MP3 of Clare and the Reasons playing Wham!’s “Last Christmas.”

“Last Christmas” (feat. Ella ‘The Cat’ Fitzgerald)

Don’t miss 3:56–4:11.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Richard Nixon on the Irish

From what seems to have been an ongoing series, “Richard Nixon’s Family of Man”:

“The Irish have certain — for example, the Irish can’t drink. What you always have to remember with the Irish is they get mean. Virtually every Irish I’ve known gets mean when he drinks. Particularly the real Irish.”
What’s he talking about, the Irish can’t drink? I’m only half Irish, and I’ll drink the sonofabitch under the bloody table.

Advice for procrastinators

As Fall 2010 deadlines loom, five ways to rethink habits of mind that can contribute to procrastination:

Replace “I have to” with “I choose to.”

Replace “I must finish” with “When can I start?”

Replace “This project is so big and important” with “I can take one small step.”

Replace “I must be perfect” with “I can be perfectly human.”

Replace “I don’t have time to play” with “I must take time to play.”

Neil Fiore, The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1989).
The Now Habit is an excellent book: I say that as a past master of procrastination. One caution: at the end of the Fall 2010 semester, play might mean nothing more than a walk, or a cup of coffee with a friend.

And now it’s time to make breakfast and get to work.

[A copy of The Now Habit resides in the David Foster Wallace archive at the University of Texas at Austin. Did DFW latch onto this book before Infinite Jest, or after?]

Advice for exam-takers

As Fall 2010 nears its end: How to do well on a final examination.

And for contrast: How to do horribly on a final exam, a tame version.

[Nancy panel by Ernie Bushmiller. Found while playing Five-Card Nancy.]

Friday, December 10, 2010

Emily Dickinson’s birthday

Emily Dickinson was born 180 years ago today.

You ask of my Companions Hills — Sir — and the Sundown — and a Dog — large as myself, that my Father bought me — They are better than Beings — because they know — but do not tell — and the noise in the Pool, at Noon — excels my Piano. I have a Brother and Sister — My Mother does not care for thought — and Father, too busy with his Briefs — to notice what we do — He buys me many Books — but begs me not to read them — because he fears they joggle the Mind. They are religious — except me — and address an Eclipse, every morning — whom they call their “Father.” But I fear my story fatigues you — I would like to learn — Could you tell me how to grow — or is it unconveyed — like Melody — or Witchcraft?

From a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, April 25, 1862.
(Thanks to Music Clip of the Day for the reminder.)

James Moody (1925–2010)

Alto and tenor saxophonist, flutist, singer, and architect of the solo that became “Moody’s Mood for Love.”

James Moody (Official website)
James Moody, Jazz Saxophonist, Dies at 85 (New York Times)
WBGO 2008 tribute

Thursday, December 9, 2010


My friend Rob Zseleczky reminded me that today is Milton’s birthday. As in John Milton, as in

Milton! thy name effulgent speaks to men,
As ever thus the poet truth proclaims.
I just made up those lines.

I like “Lycidas” best.

Other posts with John Milton
Inclement weather
“[S]omething carelessly solid”

At the Continental Paper Grading Co.

Fourteen down, forty-two to go. Best wishes to my fellow graders, and best wishes to to the employees of the Continental Paper Writing Co., who make our work possible.

[The Continental Paper Grading Co. was founded in 1919. Elaine and I spotted the building on a train ride to Chicago a few years ago.]

Dik Browne’s Christmas cards

The Christmas Card Art of Dik Browne: forty-eight cards from the man who drew Hi and Lois (beautifully).

March 2013: All gone, but there are still cards by Mort Walker to be seen.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

“[W]e were a couple who laughed”

Yoko Ono in the New York Times today:

They say teenagers laugh at the drop of a hat. Nowadays I see many teenagers sad and angry with each other. John and I were hardly teenagers. But my memory of us is that we were a couple who laughed.

Thought for the day

Viewer discretion is always advised.

[Infinite Jest-inspired.]

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Infinite Jest diagram

[Detail from “A diagram of nearly all the characters in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, with connections and relations shown thereamong”: a PDF and poster by graphic designer Sam Potts.]

I did something similar by hand teaching Charles Dickens’s Bleak House last spring. I’m teaching Bleak House and Infinite Jest next spring, two big novels, two big diagrams mapping the relations among characters.

Infinite Jest: A Diagram (Sam Potts)

Some Infinite Jest posts
Attention : Description : “Don’t look!” : Loveliness : “Night-noises” : Romance : Sadness : Telephony : Television

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Depression psalm

The so-called 1932nd Psalm:

Depression is my shepherd; I am in want.

He maketh me to lie down on park benches; He leadeth me beside the still factories.

He restoreth the bread lines; He leadeth me in the paths of destruction for his Party’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Unemployment, I fear every evil; for thou art with me; the Politicians and Profiteers they frighten me.

Thou preparest a reduction in mine salary before me in the presence of mine creditors; Thou anointest mine income with taxes; my expenses runneth over mine income.

Surely unemployment and poverty will follow me all the days of the Republican administration; and I shall dwell in a mortgaged home forever.

Published in the Weatherford Democrat, June 10, 1932. Collected in Donald Whisenhunt’s Depression in Texas: The Hoover Years (New York: Garland, 1983).
Politicians who are willing to lead us in the paths of destruction for their party’s sake frighten me too. Mitch McConell (R-KY): “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

This psalm seems to have begun its life during Warren Harding’s administration:
[Amalgamated Sheet Metal Workers’ Journal, March 1922.]

[Locomotive Engineers Journal, June 1922.]
The Democrat is still publishing in Weatherford, Texas.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Each: singular, or plural?

I received an e-mail this morning from a reader asking about each: does it take a singular verb, or plural? Garner’s Modern English Usage has the answers. I’ll paraphrase:

1. Each usually takes a singular verb. A sample sentence from an earlier post: “Each of these issues becomes a non-issue with handwritten work.”

2. When each is not itself the subject and the subject is plural, the verb should be plural. Another sample from an earlier post: “‘We each have an opposable thumb,’ I said.”

[Reader, my e-mails to you bounced back. I hope you see what you’re looking for here. In the sentences you asked about, the verbs should be singular.]

A related post
If I were , if I was

Friday, December 3, 2010

Mississippi John Hurt

Guitarist and singer Mississippi John Hurt (1892–1966), listening closely. From an episode of Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest television series with Hurt, Paul Cadwell, and Hedy West, first broadcast on Monday, November 20, 1967. I still remember watching episodes of Rainbow Quest on New York’s Channel 13 (educational television). Hearing and seeing Seeger and company — I remember Reverend Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, and Doc Watson — was like picking up audio and video transmissions from a distant planet, or at least a planet far from the suburbs of New Jersey. Little did I know that Rainbow Quest was taped on planet Newark.

My debt to John Hurt is great: like many other young guitarists, I learned to fingerpick by listening to his records.

There are one, two, three clips from this Rainbow Quest on YouKnowWhat. I found the broadcast date via the New York Times archives.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

“Lights-On Map”

At, an Edward Tufte-designed map and graph track moneys distributed through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Points of light, indeed.

Steve Martin at the 92nd Street Y

Steve Martin talked about art — not the funny — at the 92nd Street Y. Audience members complained. So the Y offered refunds credit for an evening did not meet the usual “standard of excellence.”

Steve Martin on the Y’s “standard of excellence”: “it can’t be that high because this is the second time I’ve appeared there.”

Comedian Conversation Falls Flat at 92nd Street Y (New York Times)

Update, December 5: In the comments, a reader points to a first-hand account of the evening.

Update, December 6: Steve Martin comments in the New York Times.

Sentence for orange

A search for a single sentence: give me sentence for the word orange. Seeing as you asked politely:

Orange was the color of her dress, then blue silk.
If you want to hear the Charles Mingus composition whose title is that sentence, here’s one version.

[Context: ever since I posted a commentary on five sentences from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Internauts searching for sentences (that is, their homework) have been ending up at Orange Crate Art. Give me sentence for the word orange is the latest such search.]

Other sentence posts
Bleak House : The cat : Clothes : The driver : Life : Life on the moon : The past (1) : The past (2) : The ship : Smoking : The telephone

Other Mingus posts
Charles Mingus at Cornell
Charles Mingus defies bomb threat
I dream of Mingus

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

“It’s spitting”

It was snowing, barely, yesterday afternoon, and twice in two hours, I heard someone say “It’s spitting.” The word spitting was apt: snow was coming down in dribs and drabs — ptooey, ptooey, ptooey.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives this definition for the verb spit: “Of rain or snow: To fall in scattered drops or flakes. (Usually with it as subject.)” Here are the illustrative sentences that follow:

1778 [W. H. MARSHALL] Minutes Agric. Observ. 129 To sprinkle (or spit), to rain slow in largish drops. 1818 S. E. FERRIER Marriage vii, “And“ —putting her hand out at the window — “I think it’s spitting already.” 1836-7 DICKENS Sk. Boz, Tales vii, It had been “spitting” with rain for the last half-hour. 1860 TYNDALL Glac. I. xxv. 189 The fine snow . . . was caught by the wind and spit bitterly against us. 1887 SERVICE Life Dr. Duguid 171 Feeling that it was spittin’ through the win’, I quickened my step.
The OED entry for the participial adjective spitting has a phrase from Thomas Drant’s 1567 translation of Horace’s Epistles: “A linnine slop in spitting snow.” Or as Christopher Smart’s 1755 prose translation puts it, “thin drawers in snowy weather.”

[Slop: “An outer garment, as a loose jacket, tunic, cassock, mantle, gown, or smock-frock.” Thanks, OED.]

Related posts
“Ice and Snow Blues” (A blues lyric)
Inclement weather (John Milton and us)
“It is snowing.” (A Pierre Reverdy prose-poem)
Snow, dirt, paint (A photograph)
Snowbound (A one-act play)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

“Order updated”

To: Alec, Alma, Bethany, Collin, Dario, Doug, Gail, Gilda, Grover, Harvey, Jake, Jeremy, Krystal, Larry, Leo, Lily, Lizzy, Mandy, Meredith, Nick, Nicol, Norberto, Ophelia, Queen, Richard, Sherlyn, Sonny, Suanne, Tod

From: A grateful customer

Thank you, all of you, for updating my recent order. Was that order crazy, or what? I just couldn’t make up my mind: color, quantity, shipping preference, style: too much to think about! But you guys came through, seriously. Every time I decided to change my order, you were right there with another e-mail: “Order updated.“ Sometimes even before I let you know! You guys! You kept things running smoothly at all times, even when dealing with a total scatter-brain. (Me!)

I have only one question: when can I expect to receive my order?

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

Monday, November 29, 2010


In correspondence amongst ourselves (okay, e-mail), my family has come to rely upon the word fambly, drawn from the speech of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Believe me, there’s nothing condescending or funny about our use of the word. Fambly reminds me of humbly. Fambly has no associations of ancestral glory. The word serves, at least in my imagination, as a reminder that a family is a small and fragile thing, making its way through life’s hazards.

Elaine and I were happy all the time to have our fambly together last week. What can one say about a daughter who knows how to use the word redux in a sentence and a son who can trade fours on “On the Sunny Side of the Street”? Simply that they’re wonderful people, in so many ways. As the Joads would say, I’m proud to know them.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Van Dyke Parks and Clare
and the Reasons, on the radio again

Van Dyke Parks and Clare and the Reasons visit the World Café (NPR). The broadcast includes socko performances of “Ooh You Hurt Me So,” “He Needs Me,” “Heroes And Villains,” and “The All Golden.”

Related posts
Van Dyke Parks and Clare and the Reasons, on the radio
Van Dyke Parks in Brooklyn
Van Dyke Parks in Chicago (1)
Van Dyke Parks in Chicago (2)

Friday, November 26, 2010

A thought for Black Friday

There is something slap-happily incongrous here: a day of thanksgiving followed by a day devoted to buying more stuff. True, the stuff is for other people, who themselves might be out buying stuff for other people — people like (let us hope) us.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

“Wishing you a happy Thanksgiving”

This card is postmarked 1917 and addressed to Miss Lena Schroeder of Lincoln, Illinois:
Dear Cousin. How are you. I am all o.k. Grandpa is about the same yet. We are going to get done shucking corn today. Your cousin Fred M.
Reader, I hope that you and yours are all o.k. today. Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How to improve writing (no. 31)

President Obama, on the television earlier this morning, pardoning turkeys Apple and Cider: “As president of the United States, you are hereby pardoned.”

I love the guy. But that sentence begins with a dangling modifier. Corrected: “As president of the United States, I hereby pardon you.”

[This post is no. 31 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Domestic comedy

[In mock-protest, laughing.] “Stop ganging up on me!”

[In unison, sincerely.] “We’re not ganging up on you!”

Related reading
All “domestic comedy” posts

Monday, November 22, 2010

Eagle Verithin display case

[Click and click again for a larger view.]

A 1953 New Yorker “Talk of the Town” item recounts a visit to Abraham H. Berwald, director of marketing for the Eagle Pencil Company, in the course of which Berwald begins to slam colored leads “all over the place,” demonstrating their flexibility and resistance to breakage. He must have been very proud. The leads must have been Verithins.

None of that went through my mind when I bought this Eagle Verithin display case, the larger and more colorful sibling of an Eagle Turquoise case also housed in the Museum of Supplies. This Verithin case, like its sibling, sat in an office-supply store that slowly gave up the ghost. I wish this case had been better cared for: the scrapes on its rainbowed corners appear to have resulted from price-stickers (for pencils, not the case) being removed and replaced. I removed seven or eight price stickers from this case — two from those corners, two from the sliding glass front, and a three- or four-layer mess from the plastic top (I added not a mark to the damage). If you’re wondering where the glass went: I removed it to eliminate reflections and make the pencil display more visible.

I left one sticker in place, a beautifully designed one at the back, from the case’s manufacturer:

The Red Circle Display Case Co. remains a mystery. The lettering seems to say “1950s.” Some of the loose pencils in this case might go back that far; others are more recent production (Berol Prismacolors, from the company that superseded Eagle).

Dig the array of colors, identified on a printed strip inside the case. This strip features a spelling error (“Tetta Cotta”), a handwritten strikeout and revision (“True Green”), an enigma (“Green” v. “True Green”?), and a reminder that pencils, like crayons, may carry traces of a culture’s unexamined assumptions (“Flesh”):
734 White
734 ½ Light Grey
735 Canary Yellow
735½ Lemon Yellow
736 Yellow Ochre
736½ Orange Ochre
737 Orange
737½ Sea Green
738 Grass Green
738½ Light Green
739 Green
739½ Olive Green
740 Ultramarine
740½ Sky Blue
741 Indigo Blue
741½ Azure Blue
742 Violet
742½ Lavender
743 Pink
743½ Rose
744 Scarlet Red
745 Carmine Red
745½ Tetta Cotta [sic]
746 Sienna Brown
746½ Tuscan Red
747 Black
747½Dark Grey
748Red & Blue
751Emerald True Green
755Golden Brown
756Dark Brown
There’s little in the case that is of practical use, unless one is looking for a lifetime supply of yellow. I’m happy to see three orange pencils in this jumbled, holey spectrum.

[This post is the tenth in an occasional series, “From the Museum of Supplies.” The museum is imaginary. The supplies are real. Supplies is my word, and has become my family’s word, for all manner of stationery items. Photographs by Michael Leddy.]

Related posts
A visit to the Eagle Pencil Company (1953)
Eagle Turquoise display case
“This is the Anatomy of an Eagle”

Also from the Museum of Supplies
Dennison’s Gummed Labels No. 27
Fineline erasers
Illinois Central Railroad Pencil
A Mad Men sort of man, sort of
Mongol No. 2 3/8
Real Thin Leads
Rite-Rite Long Leads
Stanley carpenter’s rule

Edward Tufte auction

Edward Tufte is selling nearly 200 rare books at auction. The proceeds will go into ET Modern (his museum and gallery) and into land for display of his landscape sculpture.

Beautiful Evidence: The Library of Edward Tufte (Christie’s eCatalogue)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hi and Lois watch

[Hi and Lois, August 14, 2010.]

[Hi and Lois, November 20, 2010.]

Progress, sort of: a car seat at last, even if its occupant still rides inches from the rear windshield.

Related posts
All Hi and Lois posts
Baby’s in back
Vacationing with Hi and Lois

The New York accent

“A New York accent makes you sound ignorant”: so says a speech therapist quoted in Friday’s New York Times.

“Aah, shuddup,” says I.

A link at the Times takes you to a brief guide to New Yorkese from Almanac for New Yorkers: 1938, a 1937 publication of the Federal Writers’ Project. Better still, one can download the Almanac as a PDF. Thanks, Times.

Friday, November 19, 2010

David Foster Wallace in Newsweek

From Newsweek, a story about the David Foster Wallace archive, a sampling of materials (a childhood story with an strangely Infinite Jest-like family, annotations, notebooks, drafts), and some outtakes from Infinite Jest. Don’t miss footnote 81 (on panhandling) and Hal Incandenza’s essay on pennies. A sample:

My thesis is that pennies are most interesting, however, because their primary value is that they keep you from geting more pennies. You either get rid of your pennies or you’re forced to accumulate even more pennies for your jar. Woe betide the penniless at the point of purchase. Totals tend to be, eg., $16.01 or $1.17. “Darn it all,” says the customer, “I have no pennies.” The cashier grins, happy to get rid of some pennies.
[Caution: for someone who hasn’t read Infinite Jest, there are spoilers at Newsweek.]

Related reading
All David Foster Wallace posts (via Pinboard)

My son the moral philosopher

In the aftermath of the Florida cheating scandal, my son Ben offers his thoughts in response to a suggestion that the way to deter cheating is to make it more difficult and thus impractical:

[W]ithout the threat of punishment or the charge that cheating is unethical, isn’t it far more practical for a student to give cheating a try, perhaps in combination with a bit of studying? After all, if students are caught — and many students are never caught — they would have the comfort of knowing that they’ll simply be required, like the students at UCF, to retake their test. And why not cheat on this second test as well?

If cheating is to be avoided only because it is impractical, it also seems we have no reason to say that an extremely adept cheater is doing anything wrong, since it is most practical for them to cheat. And when students graduate out the controlled classroom environment, there will be nothing to keep them from cheating their way through life when they know they will not be caught. . . .

[D]o students who only make an effort to learn when learning is less difficult than cheating really deserve to be at a university? If this is the best we can expect of students, what is that final diploma really worth?
Read more:

Students who cheat don’t deserve to be here (Daily Illini)

[You can see, I hope, that the post title is no joke.]

Johnny Cash’s to-do list

A Johnny Cash “To Do” List (Julien’s Auctions)

(via Austin Kleon via Draplin)

Posts with lists
Blue crayon (Supplies for an imaginary camping trip)
Review: Liza Kirwin, Lists (Artists’ lists)
Whose list? (A found list)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Pens, pencils, and weapons-building

Pens and pencils are in the news in Worcester (“Woosta”), Massachusetts:

A letter banning the possession of anything but a school-issued No. 2 yellow pencil in sixth-grade classes at North Brookfield Elementary School “went over the line,” the school superintendent [Gordon L. Noseworthy] said yesterday [November 16]. The letter that was sent home indicated teachers were dealing with a discipline problem and believed the ban would address the issue.

Wendy Scott, one of two sixth-grade teachers, sent a letter home to the parents of all sixth-graders announcing that she and Susan LaFlamme were instituting a new rule barring students from carrying any writing implements on their person, in a backpack or on the school bus. . . .

The teachers’ memo explained that the change was being made because of behavior problems and indicated that any student found in possession of a pen or mechanical pencil after Nov. 15 would be “assumed” to have the implement “to build weapons,” or to have “stolen” it from the classroom art supply basket. . . .

Meanwhile, Police Chief Aram Thomasian Jr. yesterday said he was approached on Friday by parents of one student who had been suspended for having a pen that had been altered to fire a rolled up piece of paper.

“The student showed me how it worked. I’d be surprised if the spitball traveled 4 feet. And at that, I’m not even sure it had any spit on it,“ he said.

Pen is mightier than the teacher (Worcester Telegram & Gazette)
A related post
Broken pencil sharpener nets suspension

Recently updated

Five sentences about clothes (More Carhartts!)

“This is college. Everyone cheats.” (Details emerge; students blame the prof.)

David Foster Wallace’s senior year

In his senior year at Amherst College, David Foster Wallace wrote theses in English (creative writing) and philosophy. The one became the novel The Broom of the System (1987). The other will be published by Columbia University Press next month as Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. From James Ryerson’s introduction:

Even just the manual labor required to produce two separate theses could be overwhelming, as suggested by an endearingly desperate request Wallace made at the end of his letter to [philosopher William E.] Kennick. “Since you’re on leave,” he wrote, “are you using your little office in Frost library? If not, does it have facilities for typing, namely an electrical outlet and a reasonably humane chair? If so, could I maybe use the office from time to time this spring? I have a truly horrifying amount of typing to do this spring — mostly for my English thesis, which has grown Blob-like and out of control — and my poor neighbors here in Moore [Hall] are already being kept up and bothered a lot.”

Despite the heavy workload, Wallace managed to produce a first draft of the philosophy thesis well ahead of schedule, before winter break of his senior year, and he finished both theses early, submitting them before spring break. He spent the last month or so of the school year reading other students’ philosophy theses and offering advice.
In a 2008 New York Times article, Ryerson presents the gist of Wallace’s philosophy thesis: Consider the Philosopher.

Related reading
All David Foster Wallace posts (via Pinboard

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

“I even use . . . chalk”

From the New York Times, in response to an article on the use of clickers in college classes:

I teach college writing at a huge state school, and the other professors all request the “technology classrooms” so they can have all the gadgets and diversions — the big screen, the audio, the clickers. This year, I experimented with having a technology-free classroom. Students write with pencil and paper, we sit in a circle and look at one another, we talk, and we have discussions using rules of civility. I even use . . . chalk. The writing and learning has been absolutely amazing. Not every college classroom will be technology experience, so don’t forget to warn students they might get a professor like me.
This professor is on to something. There’s nothing more exciting in teaching and learning than unmediated communication in the little village of the classroom.

An Eleanor Roosevelt photograph

In the New York Times this morning, a short meditation on a photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt:

“Why is she carrying her own suitcase?” I asked my wife, Mary. She gave me a look as if I should know and answered, “Because she’s Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


[“Ultramodern Piano Jazz taught by mail. Note or ear. Easy rapid lessons for adult beginners. Also Self-instruction system for advanced pianists. Learn 358 Bass Styles, 976 Jazz Breaks, hundreds of Trick Endings, Hot Rhythms, Sock, Stomp and Dirt Effects; Symphonic and Wicked Harmony in latest Radio and Record Style. Write for Free Booklet.” Popular Mechanics, June 1934.]

I like the idea of learning by ear by mail. I found this ad while collecting “Learn at home” ads to go with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (in which Connie Rivers plans to study electricity or radios through a correspondence course).

Related posts
Alkalize with Alka-Seltzer
“Radios, it is”

Monday, November 15, 2010

A voice from a term-paper mill

A writer of “custom essays” tells all:

You’ve never heard of me, but there’s a good chance that you’ve read some of my work. I’m a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can’t detect, that you can’t defend against, that you may not even know exists.

The Shadow Scholar (Chronicle of Higher Education)
One way to defend against it: occasional short in-class writing.

Related posts
Adventures in cheating
“Plagiarism free”

(Thanks, Carrie and Elaine.)

String bags FTW

The New York Times reports this morning that reusable grocery bags (the ones made from recycled plastic) may contain “potentially unsafe levels of lead”:

“Bummer! We’re still not doing the right thing,” said Shelley Kempner of Queens, who was looking over the produce at Fairway on Broadway at West 74th Street. She prefers a reusable bag, she said, because she “likes the idea of not putting more plastic into the environment.”

Told of the recent lead findings, Ms. Kempner sighed — “It’s still not good enough” — and wondered if she would have to switch to something else. “Are we going to have to start using string?” she asked.
String bags are terrific. They’re inexpensive, durable, and fit easily into a pocket or bag. And because they stretch, they hold a lot. How much is a “lot”? A lot! Elaine and I bought our bags from a natural-foods store. As you might expect, Amazon has them too.

A mystery challenge

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

Can you identify the object in the photograph above? The object is made of plastic, 2 15/16" long, 1 5/16" wide at its base. The black-and-white is meant to suggest “the past.” But not the distant past. (Yes, that depends upon how one defines distant.)

Reader, I invite you to play twenty questions or shout out the answer in the comments. I have no idea how recognizable this object is, and I’m curious to see what happens.

7:34 a.m.: The mystery is no more. Emerick Rogul identified the mystery object as a floppy-disk notcher, used to turn single-sided  5 1/4" floppy disks into double-sided disks by punching a notch into the side of the disk’s plastic housing. Congratulations, Emerick!

A Google Books search for suncom notcher turns up the following item:
[InfoWorld, January 20, 1986.]
And suddenly I’m back typing on my Apple //c.

Domestic comedy

While watching five minutes of Jeopardy:

“Who would name their kid Jove?”


Related reading
All “domestic comedy” posts
Jove Graham Wins on Jeopardy! (Swarthmore News)

Friday, November 12, 2010

The lobster, considered

Boing Boing considers the lobster, or the most humane way to kill one:

According to Jennifer Basil, associate professor of Biology at City University of New York, Brooklyn College, it’s boiling. That’s because lobsters, like most invertebrates, don’t have the same kind of brain we do. Instead of having one, big central mass of neurons — i.e., the brain — lobsters spread their thinking around their bodies in several smaller masses, called ganglia.

“Every segment has its own little brain doing its own thing,” says Basil. Which is why, she says, it’s better to boil the lobster and kill all those mini-brains at once. “Cutting it up just creates two uncomfortable lobsters.”
But consider David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster”, which begins its examination of these matters (in the pages of Gourmet) by quoting a statement of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council: “‘The nervous system of a lobster is very simple, and is in fact most similar to the nervous system of the grasshopper. It is decentralized with no brain. There is no cerebral cortex, which in humans is the area of the brain that gives the experience of pain.’” Says Wallace,
Though it sounds more sophisticated, a lot of the neurology in this latter claim is still either false or fuzzy. The human cerebral cortex is the brain-part that deals with higher faculties like reason, metaphysical self-awareness, language, etc. Pain reception is known to be part of a much older and more primitive system of nociceptors and prostaglandins that are managed by the brain stem and thalamus.[12] On the other hand, it is true that the cerebral cortex is involved in what’s variously called suffering, distress, or the emotional experience of pain — i.e., experiencing painful stimuli as unpleasant, very unpleasant, unbearable, and so on.
Endnote [12] adds:
To elaborate by way of example: The common experience of accidentally touching a hot stove and yanking your hand back before you’re even aware that anything’s going on is explained by the fact that many of the processes by which we detect and avoid painful stimuli do not involve the cortex. In the case of the hand and stove, the brain is bypassed altogether; all the important neurochemical action takes place in the spine.
I’m in no position to decide who’s right here. I only invite you to consider what Jennifer Basil has to say, what David Foster Wallace has to say, and what the lobster might have to say.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

“This is college. Everyone cheats.”

A leader of tomorrow:

“This is college. Everyone cheats. Everyone cheats in life in general. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in this testing lab who hasn’t cheated on an exam. They’re making a witch hunt out of absolutely nothing, as if it were to teach us some kind of moral lesson.”
That’s Konstantin Ravvin, a student at the University of Central Florida, commenting on a cheating scandal in professor Richard Quinn’s senior-level business-management course. Yes, the students involved — perhaps 200 of 600 — are seniors.

Konstantin Ravvin may be right about as if. The Orlando Sentinel reports that “Quinn brokered a deal with the business dean that would allow students to clear their records if they owned up to cheating before the rewritten exam started being administered this morning.” You read right: everyone gets to take the midterm again. That’ll teach ’em.

How might students get hold of an exam and its answer key? By breaking and entering? Sort of. If a comment at Inside Higher Ed is to be believed, students found the midterm and answer key online. Margaret Soltan draws the reasonable inference that the midterm was a canned exam, something supplied by a textbook publisher.

The University of Central Florida recently made the news for its efforts to stop cheating, which include surveillance cameras in “testing centers” and a ban on gum-chewing during exams.

[To readers visiting from this page:

From my perspective, one kind of cheating (if giving a pre-fab exam is cheating) doesn’t legitimize another. Two wrongs (if giving a pre-fab exam is wrong) don’t make a right. I’ve removed the final parenthetical sentence from the next-to-last paragraph — “(Everyone cheats!)” — so as to remove any confusion about whether I think cheating is ever acceptable. It is not, though cheating, like irony, abounds. I do think that Mr. Ravvin’s skepticism about moral lessons is reasonable: allowing a do-over here, because so many students cheated, seems to me to teach a very odd lesson about strength in numbers.]

Update, November 18, 2010: Details emerge in Inside Higher Ed:
What is clear is that some students gained access to a bank of tests that was maintained by the publisher of the textbook that Quinn used. They distributed the test to hundreds of their fellow students, some of whom say they thought they were receiving a study guide like any other — not a copy of the actual test. . . .

[M]any have noted that the students’ initial intent was less troubling than their conduct once they realized they had an advance copy of the test. No one raised his or her hand during the test to acknowledge having had a copy of it, and the incident came to light only after Quinn statically analyzed the scores and saw that they ran a grade-and-a-half higher than in the past.
It turns out that Professor Quinn is on tape stating at the start of the semester that he creates the midterm and final examinations for the class. Thus the defense offered above — which seems a pretty feeble one.

In my experience, academic misconduct has a simple explanation: the student doesn’t expect to be caught, an expectation stemming from cluelessness, hubris, or both.

Related reading and viewing
“This is college. Everyone cheats.” (The Cap Times)
UCF Students Busted for Cheating (ABC News)

[Thanks to Stefan Hagemann for pointing me to this story.]

November 11, 1920

[New York Times, November 12, 1920.]

It was the second anniversary of Armistice Day.

The OED covers snake dance: “A dance performed by a group of people linked together in a long line and moving about in a zig-zag fashion, as at parties, celebrations, etc. orig. and chiefly U.S.

As for bunkie:

[O.O. Ellis and E.B. Garey, The Plattsburgh Manual: A Handbook for Military Training (New York: Century, 1917.]

A related post
November 11, 1919

A Marilyn Monroe recipe

“No garlic”: thus begins Marilyn Monroe’s recipe for stuffing, now appearing in the New York Times.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Real fake news

The New York Times covers The Onion’s Joe Biden articles.

How to improve writing (no. 30)

From a New York Times obituary for percussionist Howard Van Hyning:

Mr. Van Hyning was also a collector who amassed a trove of vintage percussion instruments that he rented to orchestras worldwide. Comprising more than 1,000 items, his collection includes a snare drum built by Billy Gladstone, a highly regarded Radio City Music Hall drummer of the 1930s and ’40s. Its crown jewel is the set of “Turandot” gongs.
Note the slight bump in the road at the start of the final sentence: its of course refers to Howard Van Hyning’s collection, not Billy Gladstone’s snare. Any reader of these sentences can figure its out, but the greater the distance between a pronoun and its antecedent, the greater the chance for confusion. Consider this possibility:
Comprising more than 1,000 items, his collection includes a snare drum built by Billy Gladstone, a highly regarded Radio City Music Hall drummer of the 1930s and ’40s. Its value is estimated at a quarter of a million dollars.
Now it’s no longer obvious that its refers to the collection. So one might rewrite:
The collection’s value is estimated at a quarter of a million dollars.
In the original passage, replacing its solves the problem:
Comprising more than 1,000 items, his collection includes a snare drum built by Billy Gladstone, a highly regarded Radio City Music Hall drummer of the 1930s and ’40s. The collection’s crown jewel is the set of “Turandot” gongs.
Howard Van Hyning’s obituary describes a man who led a good life, doing something he loved and sharing his instrumental finds with others.

[This post is no. 30 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pluto redux?

As Boing Boing noted this morning, Pluto is back in the news. What better time to listen to Clare and the Reasons’ tributes to the finest of dwarf planets? In English and French:

Clare and the Reasons, “Pluto,” “Pluton” (YouTube)

“Chin up, Pluto.”

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Pluto Day
Venetia Phair (1918–2009)