Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review: Brian Wilson
Reimagines Gershwin

Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (Disney Pearl Series, 2010)

Rhapsody In Blue / Intro : The Like In I Love You : Medley: Summertime / I Loves You Porgy / I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ / It Ain’t Necessarily So : ’S Wonderful : They Can’t Take That Away From Me : Love Is Here To Stay : I’ve Got A Crush On You : I Got Rhythm : Someone To Watch Over Me : Nothing But Love : Rhapsody In Blue / Reprise

Playing time 39:11

The Great American Songbook is in need of all the reinterpretation it can get: one tires of the earnest, closely-miked voices and soft — no, softer — no, even softer — accompanists of the cabaret world. Brian Wilson has reinterpreted the music of George Gershwin with energy, wit, and moments of considerable beauty. He is in fine voice on this recording and, it would seem, fine spirits.

The most-hyped performances here seem to me the weakest. The two fragments of Rhapsody in Blue, for Wilson’s stacked vocals and strings, feel oddly truncated — not even all of the Rhapsody’s most familiar theme is here. On Orange Crate Art, stacked Wilsons sounded loopily beautiful. Here, they sound like someone singing in a hall of mirrors. The effect is unnerving.

The two Gershwin–Wilson collaborations (written with Scott Bennett) are a mixed bag. “The Like in I Love You” has a good melody, but its lyrics (by Wilson and Bennett) disappoint. A sample (my transcription):

Gliding in a starless sky,
’Til we found the inner light,
Now we can duplicate the universe.
On “Nothing But Love,” which seems to me a slighter song, Wilson’s voice is swamped by an overly busy arrangement.

Overly busy arrangements seem to have been the order of the day in making this album. “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” are particularly heavy-handed, though they’re partly redeemed by the bits of incidental music that join them to the middle sections of a Porgy and Bess medley. Much more successful: “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’,” transformed into a Pet Sounds-era instrumental, with bass harmonica and timpani, and “’S Wonderful,” which evokes Frank Sinatra’s bossa nova recordings with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Wilson’s own “Busy Doin’ Nothin’.” Two more highlights: “I Got Rhythm,” reimagined in the spirit of “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which becomes a second Pet Sounds outtake, with harpischord, percussion, and electric bass suggesting the textures of “Caroline, No.”

The best performance on this album is, for me, wholly unexpected: “I Loves You Porgy.” The arrangement is appropriately understated, and Wilson’s singing is engaged and genuinely affecting, with no trace of self-consciousness. When I think of the grief that, say, Mike Love might have given “cousin Brian” over this song (“Hey, guys, Brian’s ‘got his man’”), I hear in this performance a quiet triumph of grown-upness.

A note on the CD package: as with That Lucky Old Sun, Brian Wilson’s musical collaborators are rendered almost anonymous, unphotographed and identified in the tiniest of credits. (There are no photographs of George or Ira Gershwin either, only of Brian Wilson.) David Wild’s liner notes are a string of inanities and platitudes. For instance: “all of the most inspiring music is timeless.” Maybe Wild really is in a position to know that. But it’s difficult to take seriously a writer whose notes refer to the “the Gershwin cannon.”

And speaking of cannons, or canons, there is no explanation here of what Gershwin material Wilson and Bennett have worked with. More helpful, but not much more so: a press release at Brian Wilson’s website describes “The Like in I Love You” as “drawn from” “Will You Remember Me?,” an unused song written for Lady, Be Good! (1924). (What the website doesn’t say is that the song has been recorded at least twice, by Michael Feinstein and Susannah McCorkle. McCorkle’s version, a verse and one chorus, is beautiful.) The press release describes “Nothing But Love” as “based on” “Say My Say,” an unfinished song from 1929. If there were a margin, therein I would write, “Explain?”

A related post
Review: That Lucky Old Sun

Monday, August 30, 2010

The OED, in and out of print

The OED may become an online-only resouce:

Publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary have confirmed that the third edition may never appear in print. . . . In comments to a Sunday newspaper, Nigel Portwood, chief executive of Oxford University Press, which owns the dictionary, said: “The print dictionary market is just disappearing. It is falling away by tens of percent a year.” Asked if he thought the third edition would appear in printed format, he said: “I don't think so.”

Third edition of OED unlikely to appear in print format (Guardian)

Designing Obama

Scott Thomas, Design Director of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, has put together a book, Designing Obama. It’s also available as a free (free!) PDF.

A funny excerpt from Michael Bierut’s essay “The Rest Is Easy”:

Like every other graphic designer I know, I watched the live images of campaign rallies from Toledo to Topeka with a growing feeling of awe. Obama’s oratorical skills were one thing. But the awe-inspiring part was the way all the signs were faithfully, and beautifully, set in Hoefler & Frere-Jones’s typeface Gotham.
A related post
Campaign typography

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The new Blackwing pencil

[Blackwings: a new Palomino and an old Eberhard Faber. Click for a much larger view.]

[Note: The “pre-production” Blackwing, it turns out, is the new Blackwing. See below for an explanation.]

While waiting for two pre-production Blackwing pencils to arrive in the mail, I began thinking about an old song: “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.” Sentimental reasons are reason enough to like the Blackwing: the sheer dowdiness of the design, the roster of distinguished users — Archibald MacLeish, Nelson Riddle, Stephen Sondheim, and John Steinbeck among them. Somewhere — where? — I’ve seen a photograph of Duke Ellington with Blackwing in hand. The Blackwing even boasts a slogan — “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed” — as if this pencil were a personal brand, like a cigarette. Sentiment aside, the Blackwing is a pencil whose smooth lead makes writing a simple pleasure. I’d walk a mile for a Blackwing.

California Cedar Products’ choice to revive the Blackwing cannot be explained by profit motive alone. It’s a labor of love, evident most obviously in the recreation of the Blackwing’s distinctive ferrule. (The breakage of expensive-to-repair ferrule-making machinery helped bring production of the original Blackwing to an end.) The care that has gone into the new Blackwing’s manufacture is considerable: I immediately noticed that each pencil’s ferrule and imprint are in alignment, so that the Blackwing name is visible when the pencil lies flat (that’s not the case with every old Blackwing). My new sample Blackwings are not perfect: one has minute specks of gold paint on the barrel; the other has thin black streaks across the imprint. (The streaks are visible in the photograph above.) As Henry Petroski notes in The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (1992), few pencils, if any, turn out to be perfect when subject to close inspection.

[The new Blackwing makes a noticeably darker line, no?]

Writing with the new Blackwing is a pleasure. The lead is soft and smooth and doesn’t smear, though now and then a tiny crumb breaks off. The new Blackwing’s point wears more quickly than that of the old Blackwing, and the new pencil’s line is noticeably darker. (An older California Cedar HB Palomino pencil in my possession is, to my surprise, darker and softer still.) The new Blackwing’s eraser works well but not perfectly, leaving a slight trace of lead on a yellow legal pad and a slight sheen on a Moleskine calendar page. But this eraser doesn’t destroy paper, as the erasers on my old Blackwings do, and did, even when new.

[Old imprint.]

[New imprint.]

The differences in appearance between the old and new Blackwings are many, and likely — for sentimental reasons — to be significant to the dedicated user. The brand name appears in larger and more eccentric lettering on the old Blackwing (note especially the C, K and G). The imprint on the new Blackwing is not nearly as crisp, though the lettering does have the advantage of being readable in any light. The Blackwing slogan is missing from the new pencil: perhaps the cost of printing on two sides of the barrel is prohibitive. Most important though, I think, is the change in color. The old Blackwing has been described as charcoal-grey or smoke-grey, but I prefer to think of it as graphite-grey: the Blackwing has the shiny grey look of pencil lead itself. The black, gold, and white design of the new Blackwing is not nearly as attractive. To my eyes, it suggests a now-dated idea of luxury, reminiscent of hair-tonic bottles and whitewall tires. Yipes.

My suggestion to California Cedar: the visual appeal of this pencil is likely to be as important to potential customers as the quality of the lead. Witness the speculation that just brewed about whether the Blackwing slogan would appear on the barrel. Change the color of the barrel to graphite-grey, drop the gold band, and enlarge the Blackwing imprint. Stamp the Blackwing slogan on each pencil if that can be done at a reasonable cost. A pink — or grey? or black? — eraser would be a significant improvement. Appearances aside though, the new Blackwing offers a writing experience that will be a pleasure in any color scheme.

[I refer in this post to “the old” and “the new” Blackwing, but I am, of course, evaluating tokens, not types.]

[All photographs by Michael Leddy.]

September 13, 2010: Production Blackwings are now en route to the States from Japan. It’s not clear whether they differ in any respect from the pre-production samples.

September 15, 2010: California Cedar has been, I think, misleading — at best — in describing these pencils as “pre-production” samples. I evaluated the new Blackwing with the understanding that my comments (and those of other Blackwing fanciers) would help to shape the finished pencil. The very short turnaround time between the distribution of samples and the shipping of finished pencils to the States now makes clear that changes in design based on users’ evaluations were never in the offing. The “pre-production” Blackwing, it turns out, is the new Blackwing. So why send out “pre-production” pencils? You can read Cal Cedar’s explanation here. There’s more discussion (and a bit of subterfuge) in the comments on this post.

I for one won’t be buying — not because of the new Blackwing’s design but because of what I consider to have been a misleading marketing effort.

Other Blackwing posts
All Blackwing posts (Pinboard)
Duke Ellington, Blackwing pencils, and aspirational branding
The Palomino Blackwing pencil and truth in advertising
Palomino Blackwing non-users
Nelson Riddle on the Blackwing pencil
Stephen Sondheim on pencils, paper
John Steinbeck on the Blackwing pencil

Other reviews
Blackwing, Reborn. (The Blackwing Pages)
Mark Frauenfelder, First impression of the new Blackwing pencil (Boing Boing)
Palomino Blackwing pencil (Pencil Talk)
Wiedergeburt eines Klassikers [Rebirth of a Classic] (Lexikaliker)

August 28, 1963

[“Leaders of March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom marching w. signs (R-L): Matthew Ahmann, Floyd McKissick, Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Eugene Carson Blake and unident.” August 28, 1963. Photograph by Robert W. Kelley. Via the Life photo archive. Click for a larger view.]

Audio, text, and video of King’s “I Have a Dream,” speech (American Rhetoric)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Timothy Egan and Leonard Pitts, Jr.
on American ignorance

Timothy Egan on twenty-first-century know-nothingism:

A growing segment of the party poised to take control of Congress has bought into denial of the basic truths of Barack Obama’s life. What’s more, this astonishing level of willful ignorance has come about largely by design, and has been aided by a press afraid to call out the primary architects of the lies.

Building a Nation of Know-Nothings (New York Times)
Leonard Pitts, Jr. on Glenn Beck’s march on Washington:
The fatuous and dishonorable attempt to posit conservatives as the prime engine of civil rights depends for success on the ignorance of the American people.

This is who “we” really is, Glenn (Miami Herald)
(Thanks, Daughter Number Three, for pointing your readers to Pitts’s column.)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Word of the day: namby-pamby

You probably know what namby-pamby means. As an adjective: “Of literary or artistic style, a composition, etc.: weakly sentimental, insipidly pretty, affectedly or childishly ”; “Of a person or group of people: inclined to weak sentimentality, affectedly dainty; lacking vigour or drive; effeminate in expression or behaviour.” As a noun: “Weakly sentimental insipid style or writing; an example of this”; “A weak, fussy, or affected person.” But did you know where the word comes from? The Oxford English Dictionary, source of these definitions, explains:

Namby Pamby, a disparaging alteration (a reduplication with variation of initial consonant and suffixation … in imitation of childish speech) of the name of Ambrose Philips (1675-1749), author of sentimental poems (especially concerning children).

Philips’s poems were ridiculed in print by Henry Carey, John Gay, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift; the nickname Namby Pamby was used by Carey as the title of his parody of Philips’s verse, and subsequently by Pope in the Dunciad.
I have Ambrose Philips on my mind this week, having used his namby-pamby translation of a Sappho fragment alongside other (better) translations as a way into thinking about reading ancient poets. (’m teaching Backgrounds of Western Literature, or Backwards in Western Lit.) Here is Philips (1711):
In sharp contrast, Mary Barnard (1958):
From galloping couplets to William Carlos Williams-like enjambment (“he // who,” “of / your”), from a glowing bosom and “dewy Damps” to flame and dripping sweat. Note too that Philips’s translation is far from clear on the direction of the speaker’s desire, which is not for the youth/godlike man but for the woman speaking to that man. That Sappho was a woman who wrote of love between women always surprises some students, who assume that the poem presents a heterosexual love triangle. (Not that there’d be anything wrong with that!) Such a triangle is the scenario in Catullus’s Latin adaptation of this poem, which “straightens” Sappho’s lyric into an expression of male heterosexual desire.

There’s nothing namby-pamby about Sappho, or Catullus, or Mary Barnard.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Old and unimproved

In late August and early September, my January 2005 post How to e-mail a professor begins to account for many, many visits to Orange Crate Art — right now, about half of all visits. HackCollege recently called this post “the golden standard” for advice about “asking things of professors.” (Thanks!)

At one time this post had little competition. Now there are several pages online offering similar guidelines. At least three are remarkably similar to my post in their content and sequencing. (Remarkably, remarkably, remarkably similar.) Two appear at eHow as the work of unnamed contributors. One appears at StudentStuff as the work of an ex-English major. She should know better.

I have no idea what kind of traffic these other pages get. But I’m happy to see that a Google search for how to e-mail a professor still finds my post at the top of the heap — old and unimproved, and using only original parts.

Update, September 2, 2010: I’ve received no reply to my e-mail, but eHow, to its credit, has removed the two anonymous items from its website. The piece at StudentStuff still stands. I’ve e-mailed again, requesting that it be removed.

Update, September 2, 2010: The writer at StudentStuff has removed the borrowings from her post. Case closed.

Blackwing 2: The Return

I can’t help thinking of it as heroic narrative: the late, great Blackwing pencil has returned, thanks to California Cedar Products.

I’m one of the fortunate people chosen to receive pre-production pencils. I’ll have a review in the near future. For now, The Blackwing Pages has photographs and a short review of the new Blackwing.

[Here’s the review: The new Blackwing pencil.]

Other Blackwing posts
Nelson Riddle on the Blackwing pencil
Stephen Sondheim on pencils, paper
John Steinbeck on the Blackwing pencil

Odysseus’s palace discovered (?)

Archaeologists claim to have discovered the remains of Odysseus’s palace on Ithaca. Five years ago, an archaeologist claimed Cephalonia, not Ithaca, as Odysseus’s home. Perhaps Odysseus, like Rod Blagojevich, commuted to work?

Related posts
Blagojevich and “Ulysses”
Recreating Aeneas’s journey

Edward Kean (1924–2010)

Edward Kean, “chief writer, philosopher, and theoretician” of The Howdy Doody Show, has died. He gave our language cowabunga.

Rap taxonomy

It’s a poster: Grand Taxonomy of Rap Names.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Seeing professors clearly

[Advice for students]

As a college freshman in 1975, I took up the now-vanished practice of turning in postcards with final exams so that my professors could send me my course grades before university grade-reports were compiled and mailed. One postcard came back with a semester grade (A) and the words “With a little help from my inability to do higher mathematics!”

That postcard confirmed my sense that my professor was a nasty, sarcastic man. He was after all the same professor who had criticized my writing all semester, pointing out my dangling participles, my pointless rhetorical questions, and my constant use of the word this to begin sentences. And now he was intent on somehow souring my A for the semester.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong in my thinking. As a junior, I took two more courses with Jim Doyle, James P. Doyle, and began to realize that he was the most generous, most inspiring teacher I would ever know. When I was a freshman though, hugely insecure about my ability to negotiate academic life — and hugely insecure about everything else — I couldn’t see what now seems plain: my professor was making a joke when he wrote that postcard. He was an English teacher, joking about his own inadequacies, and trusting that I was smart enough to get the joke. I wasn’t.

Now that I get to think about these matters from the front of the classroom, I count five misconceptions that often make it difficult, even impossible, for college students to see their professors clearly:

1. “Professors have you figured out from your first grade.”

Most professors are happy to recognize improvement in a student’s work. I sometimes see students go from Fs and Ds to Bs and As in the work of a semester. Seeing a student begin to take interest in a class and improve her or his work makes almost any professor feel a bit happier and a bit more successful. The student who feels categorized by a first grade might be the victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you feel that you’re never going to do better than, say, a C+, there might be little reason to try to do better.

2. “Professors give grades based on whether they agree with you.”

Most professors are more than willing to acknowledge that multiple interpretations or points of view are possible and plausible. Professors are much more interested in your ability to develop and support an argument than in agreeing with that argument. They are likely to admire an effort to develop a position that gives them something to think about and, perhaps, argue with. And by the way, professors don’t “give” grades. Your work is what earns them.

3. “Every professor wants something different.”

Most professors value clear, cogent, well-informed reasoning and writing. Different expectations are often a matter of different disciplines, not different professors. The wordplay that wins respect in Creative Non-Fiction might not go over well in Business Communication. The single-sentence paragraphs appropriate in Intro to Journalism won’t work in Intro to Literary Criticism. But that’s because different standards apply in each field, not because professors are insisting on their own idiosyncratic recipes for good writing. And while different professors might place more or less emphasis on various writing errors, that doesn’t mean that comma splices are sometimes okay and sometimes not, only that some professors might be paying more attention to your writing than others.

When professors do want things their way, it’s likely to be about relatively modest matters — paper clips rather than staples, serif rather than sans serif fonts. If you were reading hundreds of essays, you’d probably get a little particular too.

4. “Professors don’t care whether you come to class.”

Some don’t. Most do. But professors recognize that it’s a student’s choice to show up or not, to take notes or not, to follow a discussion or lecture or drift away in inner space. It’s unlikely that a professor will extend a favor to a student who has frequent unexplained absences or whose presence in class does nothing to help the cause of learning.

5. “Professors are obstacles on the way to a diploma.”

This misconception, unlike the first four, is rarely articulated. It’s pervasive nonetheless among students who practice various forms of educational gamesmanship — reading plot summaries instead of novels, plagiarizing essays, cheating on exams, concocting phony excuses for late work and absences. Students who see their professors as obstacles would do well to consider that their own attitudes are the real obstacles to graduation, impeding any possibility of genuine learning.

You may encounter a professor who will confirm every misconception I’ve described: someone who does decide semester grades early on, who allows no disagreement, who is arbitrary and idiosyncratic and oblivious, and who really does make life miserable. When you encounter such a professor, run — if that’s possible. Such professors betray not only their students but the very idea of learning. Most professors are better than that though — if your eyes are open enough to see them.

[I wrote “Seeing professors clearly” in January 2008 for Tim Milburn’s College Students Rule. The site appears to have folded, so I’ve made a home for this piece here.]


A strategy for managing stacks and stacks of e-mail:

three.sentenc.es is a personal policy that all e-mail responses regardless of recipient or subject will be three sentences or less. It’s that simple.
The policy is also available in sizes two, four, and five.

(Via One Thing Well.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bravo, Dick Cavett

Dick Cavett on opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque”:

Our goal in at least one of our Middle East wars is to rebuild a government in our own image — with democracy for all. Instead, we are rebuilding ourselves in the image of those who detest us. I hate to see my country — and it’s a hell of a good one — endorse what we purport to hate, besmirching what distinguishes us from countries where persecution rules.

Real Americans, Please Stand Up (New York Times)

Off, or back, to school

[King Friday XIII and Queen Sarah Saturday watch anxiously as Ana Platypus and Prince Tuesday head off to Someplace Else for their first day of school. Lady Aberlin (Betty Aberlin) is carrying the children’s pencil boxes: Ana’s has a parrot; Tuesday’s, a pirate. Daniel Stripèd Tiger will follow, walking with Lady Aberlin. Daniel’s pencil box will have a tiger. From an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that first aired on August 23, 1979, thirty-one years ago today.]

YouTube has bits and pieces of four of the five August 1979 Mister Rogers’ episodes about going to school. These episodes are sentimental favorites in my neighborhood (by which I mean “family”). The fifth, missing episode is the one in which the children sit at desks in the newly-finished school as Lady Aberlin, François Clemmons, and Joe Negri sing:

Ana, Prince, and Daniel,
Ana, Prince, and Daniel,
Ana, Prince, and Daniel are near.

Daniel, Prince, and Ana,
Daniel, Prince, and Ana,
Daniel, Prince, and Ana are here.

Schooldays, schooldays, schooldays.
Happy schooldays, schooldays, schooldays to all.

Other Neighborhood posts
Blaming Mister Rogers
Fred Rogers and Pittsburgh
Joe Negri on All Things Considered
“Lady Aberlin’s Muumuu”
Lady Elaine’s can

Friday, August 20, 2010

Re: the Beloit Mindset List

Beloit College this week released the 2010 edition of its Mindset List, a project that attempts to map, year by year, the changing cultural landscape of incoming college freshmen. Several choice bits from this year’s list have turned up again and again in news reports: incoming freshmen have never written in cursive; Clint Eastwood is known as a director, not actor; Nirvana is heard on “the classic oldies station” (whatever that is), and so on. At least some of these bits are debatable: I meet students every semester who have beautiful handwriting, and I doubt that Nirvana can be found on very many “classic rock” or oldies stations. What bothers me about the Beloit list though is not the truthiness of individual items. Nor is it a feeling that the world as I know it is slipping away. Nor is it my persistent error in typing Beliot for Beloit. (Tricky keyboard!)

What bothers me about the Beloit list involves some unspoken assumptions about reality and young adults. The list reads like a nightmare-version of the proposition that begins Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921): “Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.” “The world is all that is the case” — all that is the case, that is, in the life-experience of a hypothetical eighteen-year-old American student. The list seems to accept as a given the kind of thinking that David Foster Wallace warns young adults against in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. . . . Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV or your monitor. And so on.
The Beloit list seems to suggest that if it hasn’t happened during your lifetime, well, it can’t really be real (witness the weirdly Orwellian statement that “Czechoslovakia has never existed”), or, at best, that you cannot be expected to know or care about it. Even the ugly word mindset reinforces that implication: “the established set of attitudes held by someone,” says the Oxford American Dictionary. The OAD illustrates that meaning with a sentence about being stuck.

The tendency to get stuck, to mistake one’s own reality for reality can be a stubborn thing: I’m still surprised when not a single student in a class has even heard of, say, Charlie Chaplin or Woody Guthrie, just as students are sometimes surprised by the bits of film and music I bring in for classroom use. (“Where do you find this stuff?” a student once asked. “Amazon,” said I.) The tendency to dismiss whatever is not of one’s own small moment can be powerfully saddening, even frightening: witness the destruction of Josh Edwards’s 78s by bop-hungry delinquents in The Blackboard Jungle (dir. Richard Brooks, 1955), or, more mildly, the snickers prompted by any display of high emotion in a black-and-white film. Or, again more mildly, the characterization of a two- or three-year-old film as “old.”

My own “mindset” in college probably has something to do with my antipathy toward the Beloit project. I listened almost exclusively to blues and jazz in college, some of it made by musicians who lived and died before I was born. I liked old black-and-white films. And studying literature and philosophy, I spent most of my time reading the work of people who were long, long gone. Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton were way before my time. Which was of course the point, “my” time being, like anyone’s, so limited.

An interviewer once asked the poet David Shapiro to name his favorite living poet. Wallace Stevens, he said. “But Stevens is dead,” the interviewer objected. “But not for me!” Shapiro replied. (Having talked with David Shapiro, I can imagine the insistent energy with which he must have made that declaration.) I suspect that among this year’s incoming freshmen are some for whom Wallace Stevens (or Emily Dickinson, or E.E. Cummings, or Langston Hughes) is still living, for whom a pocket notebook and pen or pencil are tools of thought and introspection, and for whom Czechoslovakia is as real as it gets.

Related posts
The Beloit Mindset List, 2011 edition
The Beloit Mindset List, again (2012 edition)

[Thanks to Matt Thomas for tweeting about this post.]

Well said, Daughter Number Three

Daughter Number Three says it perfectly: Eighteen Percent of Americans Make Me Tired.

Recreating Aeneas’s journey

From Turkey, news of an effort to recreate Aeneas’s “historic [sic] journey” from Troy to Italy.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Penguin Great Ideas, fifth series

An advance look at the covers for the twenty volumes in the final installment of Penguin’s Great ideas series. I especially like the Winston Churchill, George Eliot, and Epictetus covers.

Frank Kermode (1919–2010)

The literary critic Frank Kermode has died.

Men, like poets, rush “into the middest,” in medias res, where they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems. The End they imagine will reflect their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations.

Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (1967).
[“Into the middest”: From Edmund Spenser’s 1589 letter to Sir Walter Ralegh regarding The Faerie Queene:
For an historiographer discourseth of affayres orderly as they were donne, accounting as well the times as the actions; but a poet thrusteth into the middest, even where it most concerneth him, and there recoursing to the things forepaste, and divining of thinges to come, maketh a pleasing analysis of all.
In medias res: into the midst of things. In mediis rebus: in the midst of things.]

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Consider Frank Ryan

I’m out of step: unlike many people commenting on this story, I see nothing funny in it. It’s only grotesquely sad. Note to self and others: the next time you’re tempted to do anything on a phone while driving, consider Frank Ryan.

[Image from drfrankryan (Twitter).]

Domestic comedy

“He reminds me of Floyd.”


“The barber.”

Related reading
All “domestic comedy” posts
Floyd Lawson (Wikipedia)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

J.D. Salinger’s toilet at eBay

Holy crap. J.D. Salinger’s “PERSONALLY OWNED & USED Toilet Commode” is at eBay. Asking price: a million dollars. This article explains.

The inkless pen

From Vat19 comes the anti-self of Sharpie’s Liquid Pencil, the Inkless Metal Pen:

The Inkless Metal Pen features a special metal alloy tip. As you write, tiny amounts of this metal are deposited onto the page. The silvery markings may resemble pencil, but they are permanent and completely smudge-proof.

Because it doesn’t require sharpening or refills, the Inkless Metal Pen is an amazing gift for artists or doodlers. Its “ink” is solid, so it will never leak, and it can be used upside down or under extreme conditions.
Amazing indeed. But for me it’s difficult to imagine a plain metal cylinder as a writing (or drawing) instrument of choice. I like ink, lead, “supplies.”

Michael P. Smith, photographer

New Orleans culture and music in black-and-white photographs:

In the Spirit: The Photography of Michael P. Smith

(Thanks, Linda!)

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Savory Collection

Lost and found: audio engineer and jazz fan William Savory’s recordings of late-1930s radio broadcasts have a new home at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. The New York Times has a story, a video feature, and seven audio samples. The highlight among them: Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, and Fats Waller putting together a blues. Says the announcer, “This oughta be good.” It’s great.

Of time and The Honeymooners

I looked up at the clock the other night and heard the voice of Alice Kramden in my head: “Ralph, it’s a quarter to eight. You’re gonna be late for bowling.” (Thank you, involuntary memory.) As you may already have suspected, the big hand was (roughly) on the 9. Had I been looking at a digital clock, I would not have heard Alice’s voice. For the time would have been 7:45, or :44 or :46.

In the early 1980s I heard Susan Sontag give a talk that touched briefly on analog and digital timekeeping. The difference between them, Sontag said, was the difference between cyclical and linear conceptions of time. I was quite excited, as I had already come to the same conclusion in my grad-student head. Nowadays, I don’t find the cyclical/linear fascinating or even persuasive: a digital flip-board moves through time on wheels, and even an LCD or LED display cycles through a routine. The real differences between analog and digital timekeeping lie elsewhere. An analog clock admits of interpretation: it lets us look at time from different directions. If you’re waiting for someone who was due to arrive at 7:00 and is now forty-five minutes late, it’s 7:45. They’re forty-five minutes late. But if that someone is supposed to arrive at 8:00, it’s a quarter to. They’ll be here in fifteen minutes! Analog also encourages genial imprecision: a few minutes after eight, almost nine. Who’s counting? I like too the quaint grade-school-like fractions of analog time — halves and quarters. And metaphorical faces and hands add a human element unmatched by a digital “display.”

I have never owned a digital watch, and the clocks in our house are old-school. But I do prefer using a digital alarm clock. I like to wake up exactly, so as not to be late for bowling.

[Alice warns Ralph about the time in the “Pardon My Glove” episode of The Honeymooners, March 17, 1956. About that flip-board: in the 1980s, flip-board clocks were mechanical, with placards moving on wheels. Now flip-board clocks are virtual, showing up in screensavers and phone apps.]

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Herman Leonard (1923–2010)

Herman Leonard, one of the great photographers of jazz, has died. From a recent exhibition: twenty-five photographs.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Abbey Lincoln (1930–2010)

The singer Abbey Lincoln has died. From the New York Times obituary:

In 1956, she made her first album, Affair ... a Story of a Girl in Love (Liberty), and appeared in her first film, the Jayne Mansfield vehicle The Girl Can’t Help It. Her image in both cases was decidedly glamorous: On the album cover she was depicted in a décolleté gown, and in the movie she sported a dress once worn by Marilyn Monroe.

For her second album, That’s Him, released on the Riverside label in 1957, Ms. Lincoln kept the seductive pose but worked convincingly with a modern jazz ensemble that included the tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and the drummer Max Roach. In short order she came under the influence of Mr. Roach, a bebop pioneer with an ardent interest in progressive causes. As she later recalled, she put the Monroe dress in an incinerator and followed his lead.
Here’s a sampler, via YouTube:

“Afro Blue” : “Driva Man” : “Freedom Day” : “Sophisticated Lady” : “Throw It Away” : “When Malindy Sings”

Baby’s in back

[Hi and Lois, August 14, 2010.]

Two years ago, the sight of the Flagston family heading off on vacation with baby Trixie in the front seat of the car turned me into a close reader of Hi and Lois. (Way too close.)

This year Trixie’s been stashed with the tennis racket and football. And the door handles. And the apostrophe. I think Hi means “Lois’ family’s cottage.”

Related reading
All Hi and Lois posts

[Post title with apologies to John Lennon and Paul McCartney.]

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mystery photograph

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

If you think you know the location, comment away.

Update, 2:28 PM: Mystery now solved, in the comments.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Chris Dedrick (1947–2010)

Composer, singer, instrumentalist Chris Dedrick of The Free Design has died. Here’s a Free Design sampler, via YouTube:

“Bubbles” : “I Found Love” : “Kites Are Fun” : “Love You” : “My Brother Woody” : “Peekaboo”

I came to the music of The Free Design very late, via their recording of Bruce Johnston’s “Endless Harmony” on the 2000 compilation Caroline Now! (Marina Records). That was all it took.

Corrections of the Times

From the Corrections page in today’s New York Times:

An article on Wednesday about Tiger Woods’s golfing struggles heading into the P.G.A. Championship described incorrectly his change of heart about playing on the United States Ryder Cup team. His new willingness to be a captain’s pick for the team represents a 180-degree turn, not a 360-degree turn.
Or better: a reversal. (Avoid clichés.)

Related reading
All Times corrections posts

New England Mobile Book Fair

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

The squat, featureless warehouse — originally a tennis-racket factory — is surrounded by retail clothing stores and restaurants serving the affluent western suburbs of Boston. With only modest indication of what wares are inside, the independent bookstore still outsells each of the four superstores in the area. Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder (New York: Back Bay Books, 2007).
The New England Mobile Book Fair, in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts (hereafter, the NEMBF) is not mobile, nor is it a fair. Its distinctive feature is that it organizes almost all new books into hardcover and paperback sections by publisher. That scheme allows for all sorts of chance discovery. I found William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley by browsing New York Review Books. And from the same publisher, Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece for Elaine. The photograph above shows a relatively small part of the whole: the floor stretches at least as far in the other direction. More photos can be found at the store’s website.


The New England Mobile Book Fair closed, apparently for keeps, in 2020.

Related posts
Harvey’s Hardware Telephone exchange names on screen (On Nightmare Alley)

(Yes, “hereafter” is a joke.)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Artisanal pencil sharpening

Cartoonist David Rees offers artisanal pencil sharpening: $15 per pencil, $60 with a signed print. Pencils are shipped with shavings and a “certificate of sharpening.”

Liquid graphite pencils

The Sharpie Liquid Pencil, due to arrive this fall, looks like an interesting toy. If it performs like the Sharpies I’ve used, it will be the first pencil to bleed through the page. [Cue rimshot.]

Despite the claim to innovation (here, for instance), there is nothing new about liquid graphite pencils, which Scripto and Parker first offered in 1955. That the Sharpie Liquid Pencil’s line becomes permanent after three days — that is something new.

[Popular Mechanics, June 1955.]

A related post
The Sharpie Liquid Pencil (It’s a dud)

The story of QWERTY

On BBC Radio 4, Stephen Fry considers the QWERTY keyboard. There are seven days left to listen. The program’s written description should be around longer, like QWERTY itself.

(Thanks, Timothy!)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Harvey’s Hardware

[Photograph by Elaine Fine.]

Welcome to Harvey Katz’s hardware store, in Needham, Massachusetts:

Every square inch of shelf and wall space and the vast majority of floor space — even the ceiling — is crammed with a riotous mélange of wares, all of it jammed together, some of it so old the packaging is discolored. The aisles are narrow and asymmetrical and indistinguishably lined with tall, dense, unbroken shelving. What little space there is to walk through is made into an obstacle course by various wares stacked in unlabeled piles. . . .

According to Harvey, the jammed-up feeling communicates the scope of the inventory and creates an ambience compatible with a hardware-buying frenzy. It must: Harvey’s packs in $113 worth of inventory per square foot, more than three times the average for hardware stores. Sales per square foot are $503, close to four times the average.

Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder (New York: Back Bay Books, 2007).
Frenzy indeed: how else did we end up buying WD-40 and floor wax — among other things — while on vacation?

A related post
Things I learned on my summer vacation (2010)

Monday, August 9, 2010

At work in the Intermezzo

[Photograph by Michael Leddy. Click for a larger view.]

Mark Frauenfelder has asked Boing Boing readers to post photographs of their workspaces and “tips for keeping things organized.” Thus the above photograph, which I took with a cellphone in January 2010 to let my children know what I was up to. I was working in the Intermezzo, a café in the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois in Urbana. While my wife Elaine rehearsed with an orchestra, I sat at a little table and got things done.

In addition to a napkin, a spoon, an empty sugar packet, and a cup of Tazo tea, this table holds George Chapman’s and Stanley Lombardo’s translations of the Iliad, George Steiner’s anthology Homer in English, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, pages of notes, and a handout with the first lines of the Iliad in Greek. And three writing instruments (because there can never be too many writing instruments): a Staedtler mechanical pencil, a Uni-ball Signo gel pen, and a Lamy Safari fountain pen.

As for keeping things organized: my desk at home is in perpetual disorganization: a MacBook surrounded by slopes and planes of paper.¹ That’s one reason why I like working at a tiny table in the Intermezzo: it’s empty when I arrive. There is no there there, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, California, not until I open my backpack.

Related posts
Five desks
Five pens
Messy desk

¹ To clarify: I am organized; it’s my desk that’s not.

Joe Negri on All Things Considered

Guitarist Joe Negri, Handyman Negri from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, admitted today on NPR’s All Things Considered that he is not very handy:

“I’ll never forget, we had a big joke about that. Cause I said to him, ‘Handyman? You’ve gotta be kidding.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s pretend.’ So I pretended my way to being a handyman.”
Joe Negri is eighty-four and has a new recording, Dream Dancing. YouTube has him playing the title tune (by Cole Porter) and much more.

Related posts
Blaming Mister Rogers
Fred Rogers and Pittsburgh
“Lady Aberlin’s Muumuu”
Lady Elaine’s can

Things I learned
on my summer vacation (2010)

The lower level of the George Washington Bridge was once informally known as the Martha Washington. Martha was on the bottom; George was on top. Really.


Spartan Tool (“Since 1943”) has a beautiful logo.


“The people living behind fence have seen 4 recently.” Four what? Rattlesnakes, at a rest stop in Pennsylvania.


It is possible to drive two-thousand miles and avoid all highway-food if a thoughtful partner packs picnic lunches and dinners in an insulated bag. A tablecloth is a nice touch too. Civilization! Thank you, Elaine.


Gobo is a terrific restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village.


Manhattan’s S. Feldman Housewares has been doing business at the same location (1304 Madison Avenue) since 1929. S. Feldman’s store offers far greater browsing pleasure than S.R. Guggenheim’s museum.


The bathrooms in the Guggenheim Museum are almost laughable in their near-unusability. Almost: because it’s not funny. The guy before me came out with his camera in hand. This photograph though is someone else’s. What was Frank Lloyd Wright thinking? Did he not understand nos. one and two?


Our friend Jim can recite Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” And he did so at the White Horse Tavern, for our table.


And — Jim made 400 chocolate truffles for a White House dinner last fall. He made 400 chocolate truffles in the White House. I’m leaving the rest for him to tell at some point, if he so chooses.


It is possible to walk into The Hat Shop just to say hello to proprietor Linda Pagan (a college friend of our friend Luanne) and leave having ordered a great-looking hat. A men’s hat. “It’s a really good hat”: that’s what I kept saying, slightly dazed.


Harvey’s Hardware in Needham, Massachusetts, may be the greatest hardware store in the world. Density! More density! Like S. Feldman Housewares, Harvey’s offers far greater browsing pleasure than the Guggenheim Museum.


The Tibet Almond Stick makes a great gift. It removes furniture scratches, and your eagerness to use it will help you find scratches that you didn’t know were there.


AfterBite stops mosquito bites from itching.


The New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, may not be the greatest bookstore in the world, but its inventory makes it a very strong contender. (The greatest, for me: Chicago’s Seminary Co-op Bookstore.) Like S. Feldman Housewares and Harvey’s Hardware, the Book Fair offers far greater browsing pleasure than the you-know-what.


The slang use of pad for an apartment or flat may be related to the term pied-à-terre. Then again it may not. Both possibilities were in play from early on in the vacation.


It is possible to spend two days in Manhattan — on buses, trains, and feet — without seeing an iPad (aside from those in the Apple Store) or a Kindle. Many books though, and a few magazines. Newspapers, almost none.


It is possible to go as long as eight days without watching even a minute of television.


It is difficult to exaggerate the fellow-feeling of New Yorkers, evident in many small moments of care and tact. A woman on the subway lets go of her stroller for just a moment so that she can adjust her bag. Two people reach out to the stroller to steady it when the train begins to move. A man on the street asks a hot-dog vendor if it’s okay to put an empty soda can in his trash. Sure, go ahead.


“Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times”: Isaiah 33:6, as stated above the entrance to 30 Rockefeller Plaza.


As recited by our friend Rob:

The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.

Robert Frost, “The Span of Life”

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

More things I learned on my summer vacation
2009 : 2008 : 2007 : 2006

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Thomas’ code

The secret of Thomas’ English Muffins’ nooks and crannies is at risk.

[“Thomas’”: that’s how they spell it, no final s.]

Friday, August 6, 2010

Telephone exchange names on screen

[From The Little Giant, dir. Roy Del Ruth, 1933.]

I hit Pause to try to see the inedible item Bugs Ahean (Edward G. Robinson) has placed in the ashtray: it’s a bacon-wrapped olive. (He kept the toothpick.) And then I noticed the matchbook, with an authentic Los Angeles exchange name: GLadstone. Lorne Greene’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame sits near 1559 Vine (“just Vine”) today.

Note the six-digit telephone number. Says Wikipedia,

Before World War II, a few localities used three letters and four numbers; in most cities with customer dialing, phone numbers had only six digits — two letters followed by four numbers.
As I was about to say, The Little Giant is a fine comedy. It even has a pocket notebook.

More exchange names on screen
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse : Baby Face : Born Yesterday : The Dark Corner : Deception : Dream House : The Man Who Cheated Himself : Nightmare Alley : The Public Enemy

Pocket notebook sighting:
The Little Giant

[Ruth Wayburn (Mary Astor), Bugs Ahearn (Edward G. Robinson), and a notebook.]

The Little Giant (dir. Roy Del Ruth, 1933) is a comedy about a Chicago gangster’s climb into California society circles. The best lines come as Ahearn and a Chicago crony contemplate an abstract painting:

“You ever seen anything like that before?”

“Not since I been off cocaine.”
Yep, pre-Code. The Little Giant also features a telephone exchange name.

Other notebook sightings
Angels with Dirty Faces : Cat People : Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne : Extras : Journal d’un curé de campagne : The House on 92nd Street : The Palm Beach Story : Pickpocket : Pickup on South Street : Red-Headed Woman : Rififi : The Sopranos : Spellbound

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Pete Seeger sings of the BP oil spill

Pete Seeger sings a song that he wrote with Lorre Wyatt: “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You.” It may not be a great song, but it’s a good one for these times. The message — tikkun olam — makes sense in any language.

Lorre Wyatts don’t grow on trees, and it seems a reasonable assumption that Seeger’s co-composer is the man known in urban legend as the composer of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Thanks, Luanne and Jim, for news of this song.

A few Seeger posts
Happy birthday, Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger synchronicity
“Pete’s banjo head”
“Take It from Dr. King”

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Proposition 8


A related post
The flag of equal marriage

On Louis Armstrong’s birthday

[“Rear view of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong waving to a crowd of adoring fans as their applause rolls over him.” Photograph by John Loengard, 1965. Via the Life photo archive.]

Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901.

A few Armstrong posts
Armstrong and Arlen, blues and weather
The day Louis Armstrong made noise
Invisible man: Louis Armstrong and the New York Times
“Self-Reliance” and jazz
Louis Armstrong, collagist
Louis Armstrong’s advice

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


In a restaurant, one young woman talking very loudly to another:

“My turkey chili disincluded her. She said that I was telling her to make alternative plans.”

Related reading
All “Overheard” posts

Ernie Pyle in the Library of America

For Elaine in Arkansas (“the other Elaine”): Ernie Pyle is one of the writers whose work appears in the Library of America’s Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1944. Pyle was born 110 years ago today.

(Via Pete Lit.)

“Creative Personality Checklist”

“Creative Personality Checklist,” by Olly Moss. Which pencil are you?

Monday, August 2, 2010

How to improve writing (no. 28)

Joe Manley passed along these sentences, lifted from a bottle of E&J Brandy. He finds them “pretentious” and “vacuous” and amusing:

One of the most distinctive qualities of E&J Brandy is its remarkable character. This is accomplished by a vertical blending of brandies of different ages from the finest white oak barrels which we personally have selected. This expensive and time consuming aging process also develops the full and natural brandy flavor of E&J Brandy.
What’s wrong here?

Character would be the sum total of a thing’s qualities, not one of them.

“This is accomplished”: There’s no clear referent for this. Character cannot be accomplished.

“Vertical blending”: Meaning that the brandies are poured in from above? I can find no evidence that “vertical blending” is a term generally used in brandy-making. It seems to be used only by E&J.

“Which we personally have selected”: Silly: the brandies cannot be blended without being selected. (Here are some fries. They are made from potatoes which I personally have selected.) But it may be the barrels that have been selected. Before they were filled? Afterwards?

“This expensive and time consuming aging process”: This second this is ungainly. (A good way to improve almost any piece of writing: reconsider every sentence beginning with this.) “Time consuming aging process”: redundant and repetitious [sic], and missing a hyphen.

“Also”: Also?

“The full and natural brandy flavor of E&J Brandy”: Yes, brandy should taste like brandy. The phrasing here reminds me of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

With the pretension and awkwardness removed, the E&J label might read like so:
Blended from brandies aged in white oak barrels, E&J is a brandy of distinction. Careful selection and aging develops E&J’s full, natural flavor.
I find plainness and understatement much more convincing. But I’m not about to buy a bottle of E&J and test the truth of my sentences. I like red wine (and sometimes beer, and sometimes bourbon).

Thanks, Joe, for this label.

[This post is no. 28 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)
Lemonade and lies