Monday, February 28, 2011

The Pale King excerpt

“Every whole person has ambitions, objectives, initiatives, goals. This one particular boy’s goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body”: so begins an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, online at the New Yorker.

The Infinite Jest sign

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is divided into twenty-eight unnumbered sections, the shortest just a little more than a page, the longest nearly two-hundred pages. This moon-like sign marks each section’s start. My Mac calls this sign “shadowed white circle,” which sounds like the beginning of a bad haiku.

Later this morning, a few bold souls and I will begin to make our way through Infinite Jest. We will be living under this moon for the next two months. Wish us way more than luck.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


[Click for a larger view.]

About the URL generated by my first attempt to add the image in the previous post: you’d think that Blogger would have an algorithm to prevent that sort of thing.

Thornton Dial in Indianapolis

Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together. 2003. 71 × 114 × 8 inches. Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Click for a larger view.

At the Indianapolis Museum of Art: “Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial.” Elaine and I went to Indianapolis yesterday just to spend an afternoon at a museum. We ended up spending an afternoon looking at Thornton Dial’s work and almost nothing else. Dial is an extraordinary self-taught artist whose drawings, paintings, and sculpture combine abstraction and allegory and all manner of found materials. This seventy-piece first retrospective of his work will travel to New Orleans, Charlotte, and Atlanta.

Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial (IMA)
Letting His Life’s Work Do the Talking (New York Times)

Friday, February 25, 2011

We Are Wisconsin

We Are Wisconsin, by Finn Ryan and David Nevala. I think we are all Wisconsinites now.

[The Firefox extension Flashblock will prevent this film from playing. Add and to your whitelist.]

Howard Armstrong on staying young

[In Daley Plaza, Chicago.]

Wisdom from mandolinist, violinist, singer, storyteller, and visual artist Howard Armstrong (aka Louie Bluie):
“I’m not ashamed to tell anybody my age: I am seventy-five years — not old, but seventy-five years young, because I have most of the attributes that young men should have. I have interest in life, and full of energy, full of pep. Most of all, I’m full of curiosity, because that is one thing that keeps you young.”
Louie Bluie (dir. Terry Zwigoff, 1985) is a portrait of a brilliant musician and remarkable man. Armstrong’s not much for modern art though. Says he about the untitled Picasso work behind him: “If you’re gonna be an artist, paint something that looks like something at least you can relate to. That — I don’t know. It’s just like something that jumped out of The Twilight Zone.”

Louie Bluie is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. A short clip with the Picasso scene is there for the watching.

[Full of pep: there’s a dowdy expression I’d like to revive.]

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Waiting at my dentist’s (Look, Mom, no cavities!), I misheard a radio pitch for fast food — a hamburger with bacon and blue cheese, “served on a plastic bun.” Oops — it was a classic bun. I think I know why I misheard: I find it difficult to imagine the inflationary classic as applying to a hamburger bun. A classic bun is a bun.

More misheard
“Buttered crap” : “Her clothes?” : “The Tao”

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The plural of Prius, continued

Thinking about Prii prompted me to look at what Garner’s Modern American Usage has to say about the plural forms of borrowed words. From a longer discussion:

Many writers who try to be sophisticated in their use of language make mistakes such as *ignorami and *octopi — unaware that neither is a Latin noun that, when inflected as a plural, becomes -i. The proper plural of the Greek word octopus is octopodes; the proper English plural is octopuses.

Those who affect this sort of sophistication may face embarrassing stumbles — e.g., “A ‘big city’ paper with an editor as eminently qualified as I’m sure you are should know that the plural of campus is *campi (not campuses). Just like the plural of virus is *viri (not viruses), and the plural of stadium is *stadia (not stadiums).” Letter to the Editor, Dallas Morning News, 22 Sept. 2002, at J3 (name withheld for obvious reasons).
Garner’s guideline: “if in doubt, use the native-English plural ending in -s.”

One complication with the Toyota Prius: unlike, say, campus, prius is a Latin adjective and adverb, not a noun. And Prius is not a Latin word; it’s the name of a car. Priuses makes better sense to the eye and ear, at least to my eye and ear. And to my other eye and ear.

My least-favorite sophisticated plural might be fora for forums. Yours?

[The Garner asterisk: “Invariably inferior words and phrases are marked with an asterisk.”]

The plural of Prius

Toyota has announced that the plural of Prius is Prii.

Fake Koch

The real Scott Walker takes a call from a fake David Koch:

“Well, I’ll tell you what, Scott: once you crush these bastards, I’ll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time.”

“All right, that would be outstanding.”
Here’s an alternate link, if the one above is overwhelmed.

A related post
Boycott Koch

Aaron Draplin on pencils

“Hex pencils, people!” Aaron Draplin talks pencils with Pencil Revolution: Part One, Part Two.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Boycott Koch

The New York Times reports that Charles and David H., the brothers Koch, play a part in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting initiative. Thus this reminder to boycott Koch Industries products: Angel Soft Toilet Paper, Brawny Towels, Dacron Fiber, Dixie Products, Georgia-Pacific Paper Products, Lycra Fiber, Mardi Gras Products, Quilted Northern Toilet Paper, Soft ’n Gentle Toilet Paper, Sparkle Paper Napkins, Stainmaster Carpet, Vanity Fair Paper Napkins, Zee Paper Napkins.

[No Dixie, no Vanity Fair, since October 2010.]

A computer “with only the basics”

Area dad Paul Moyers is in the market for a computer “with only the basics”:

In addition to doing his own research, Moyers enlisted the help of his 24-year-old son Keith, who, according to Moyers, knows a lot about computers. The younger Moyers reportedly suggested his father consider an iMac due to its ease of use and straightforward tech support. While Moyers was initially open to the idea, he swiftly ruled out a Mac due to the computer’s price and the fact that it didn’t come with Windows.

The Band’s Visit

Bikur Ha-Tizmoret (The Band’s Visit) (2007)
Written and directed by Eran Kolirin
Arabic, English, and Hebrew with English subtitles
Eighty-seven minutes

The premise is simple: the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Orchestra, a police band, travel from Egypt to Israel to perform at the opening of an Arab arts center and end up in the wrong place, a small desert town. With no hotel and no bus out, they turn to an Israeli restaurant proprietor and her friends for help. The Band’s Visit is a beautifully made film — not a feel-good film, but a feel-okay, maybe, sort-of film, with orchestra members and locals awkwardly bridging a cultural divide. It’s the best film about hospitality I’ve seen. Perhaps the finest moment: Egyptians and Israelis meeting on the common ground of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Summertime.”

[Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai) explains to Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) what it feels like to conduct an orchestra.]

[At the roller-rink, Chet Baker-loving trumpeter Haled (Saleh Bakri) shows Papi (Shlomi Avraham) how to make a pass at Yula (Rinat Matatov).]

[Yula has responded. Now what?]

How did I find out about The Band’s Visit? I don’t know. But I’m glad that I did.


April 20, 2015: Ronit Elkabetz has died. The New York Times has an obituary.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The fate of marginalia

The New York Times reports on the fate of marginalia in the digital age. My favorite writer of marginalia might be William Blake. From his annotations to Francis Bacon’s Essays Moral, Economical and Political (1798):

Bacon: A king is a mortal god on earth, unto whom the living God hath lent his own name as a great honour.

Blake: O Contemptible & Abject Slave.

Blogging on the wane?

The New York Times reports that fewer and fewer young people are blogging. A Tumblr user explains:

“It’s different from blogging because it’s easier to use,” she said. “With blogging you have to write, and this is just images. Some people write some phrases or some quotes, but that’s it.”
Is the so-called “new literacy” among young people already over?

(Thanks, Richard!)

Related reading
Clive Thompson on the New Literacy (Wired)
On “On the New Literacy” (My take on Thompson)
Words, mere words (Mark Edmundson on words)

Review: Academically Adrift

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 2011. $25.

Are you better off than you were four years ago? If that famous question from the 1980 presidential campaign were put to college seniors, the answer, for too many, would seem to be “Not really.” Tracking the academic progress of 2,322 students at twenty-four four-year institutions, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa find that for a great many students, college makes no change in their ability to think, reason, and write. The numbers are bleak: after two years of college, forty-five percent of the students surveyed showed no significant change in performance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized (and challenging) test of critical thinking, problem solving, and writing. After four years of college, thirty-six percent showed no significant change. Is our children learning? Not always.¹

The strength of Arum and Roksa’s work is its methodical presentation of data to confirm what many observers of education might know only as anecdote and hearsay. Are professors asking much of their students? Arum and Roksa find that they aren’t. What Arum and Roksa see in higher education is, as they dryly put it, a “student culture focused on social life and strategic management of work requirements.” The average student, they find, spends twelve hours a week studying. Thirty-seven percent of students spend less than five hours a week studying. The work of many courses requires little reading (not even forty pages a week) and less writing (not even twenty pages per semester). Here, as elsewhere, Academically Adrift suggests that college tends to perpetuate social inequality: the less selective the college, the less likely it is that students are doing much reading and writing. As Arum and Roksa see it, administrators and faculty have a “moral imperative” to change the shape of undergraduate education, by asking more of and giving more to students.

Of course some students don’t expect a return on their college investment in the form of learning. Their aim is to acquire a credential. When I talk about these matters with my students, I make an analogy to shopping at the supermarket. If the point is merely to get a receipt and get out, it makes perfect sense to grab something, anything, and head to the shortest line. No waiting on Register Four! But having something to show for your effort is another matter. And if everyone has a receipt, it’s what’s in your cart — or what you take away from your education — that counts.²

An unexpected benefit of this book: one can draw from Arum and Roksa’s work a handy guide to genuine learning in college. Three things to do if you want to learn: Take courses with professors who have high expectations and require significant amounts of both reading and writing. Talk to professors about the work of the class in office hours. And study alone. Despite a current emphasis on collaborative learning and group work, Arum and Roksa find, it’s students who spend more time studying alone who learn more.

¹ Ronald Reagan asked the question that begins this paragraph. George W. Bush asked the question that ends it.

² The moral: Feed Your Head.

Another Academically Adrift post
Time-management in college

A supplement to Academically Adrift
Improving Undergraduate Learning: Findings and Policy Recommendations from the SSRC-CLA Longitudinal Projects (Social Science Research Council)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Language and labor

Worker, or employee? Daughter Number Three has a good post about language and labor.

On a related note, I’d like to welcome Wisconsin legislators to Illinois. Stay as long as you need to, please.

Dog elected

In Annandale, Virginia, wheaten terrier Ms. Beatha Lee has been elected president of the Hillbrook-Tall Oaks Civic Association. She was described to members as “a relatively new resident, interested in neighborhood activities and the outdoors,” with experience “overseeing an estate of 26 acres” in Maine. Ms. Lee promises to govern “with an even paw.”

(Thanks, Ben!)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Google navigation bar

[Two versions of the new bar.]

I noticed Google’s new navigation bar in a Gmail account yesterday and spent ten minutes or so figuring out that it’s a feature, not a bug. Softpedia explains the change, which is as yet unannounced on the Official Gmail Blog and the Official Google Blog.

There are at least two problems with this bar. One is that it makes signing out of an account slightly tedious: it’s now necessary to open a drop-down menu (not shown above) to do so. A second problem — to me, the more important one — is aesthetic. While some Gmail themes show a bar that harmonizes with its surroundings, other themes and user-made color schemes now show a grey bar with blue text, looking like a page element from a crudely made website. “Hideous,” as one post to the Google Help Forum called it. And the thin blue line, which shows which Google service is in use, looks like a mistake, a little stretch of pixels gone wrong.

Softpedia says that the new bar may be a prelude to a “social networking ‘layer’” in Google. Yipes.

[Ain’t it awful?]

Time-management in college

Bob is an undergraduate (3.5 GPA) at a Midwestern public university:

I hate classes with a lot of reading that is tested on. Any class where a teacher is just gonna give us notes and a worksheet or something like that is better. Something that I can study and just learn from in five [minutes] I’ll usually do pretty good in. Whereas, if I’m expected to read, you know, a hundred-and-fifty-page book and then write a three-page essay on it, you know, on a test let’s say, I’ll probably do worse on that test because I probably wouldn’t have read the book. Maybe ask the kids, what’s in this book? And I can draw my own conclusions, but I rarely actually do reading assignments or stuff like that, which is a mistake, I’m sure, but it saves me a lot of time.

Mary Grigbsy, College Life through the Eyes of Students (State University of New York Press, 2009). Quoted in Richard Arum and Josip Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011).
Coming soon: more about Academically Adrift.

The Grammar Gang

“We believe proper grammar is sexy. We will show no mercy”: at Pepperdine University, the Grammar Gang is correcting mistakes.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Infinite Jest, novelty

Keith Freer and Ortho (“The Darkness”) Stice are students at the Enfield Tennis Academy:

Freer’s from inland Maryland, originally, his family’s riches nouveaux, a family Amway business that hit big in the B.S. ’90s with his now-deceased father’s invention of a Pet-Rockish novelty that was ubiquitous in stockings for two straight pre-millennial Xmases — the so-called Phoneless Cord. Stice dimly recalls his old man getting a Phoneless Cord in his stocking, ostentatiously packaged, on Ortho’s first recallable Xmas, back in Partridge KS, the old man cocking an eyebrow and The Bride laughing and slapping her big knee. Nobody now much even gets the remembered gag, though, so few things needing cords anymore. But Freer’s old man had invested his windfall shrewdly.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996).
“[T]he B.S. ’90s”: Before Subsidization. In post-millennial Subsidized Time, years are named for corporate sponsors: Year of the Whopper, Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, &c.

Some Infinite Jest posts
Attention : Description : Loveliness : “Night-noises” : Romance : Sadness : Telephony : Television

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Borders files for bankruptcy

The Wall Street Journal reports that Borders Group Inc. has filed for bankruptcy. Here’s the list of store closings. It’s on four pages, so seeking the fate of a particular store is a bit excruciating. My Borders, I’m surprised to see, lives, for now. But the wall seems to be covered with handwriting. From the
New York Times:

One potentially major concern is whether Borders will still receive shipments from publishers. A spokesman for the Ingram Book Group, one of the country’s biggest book distributors, said on Wednesday that the company is no longer shipping books to Borders.

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day

Re: process:

The phrase “in the process of” never adds anything to the sentence in which it appears. You can safely omit it and thereby tighten your sentence — e.g.:
“I have on my desk a little manuscript from the fourteenth century written by an unknown author, which I am in the process of [delete ‘in the process of’] editing.” Donald J. Lloyd, “Our National Mania for Correctness,” in A Linguistics Reader 57, 58 (Graham Wilson ed., 1967).

“Appropriately for a community that was in the process of [delete ‘in the process of’] acquiring the sophistication of golf and drugs, this was not a case of a mean little robbery gone wrong but a thoroughly contemporary killing.” Owen Harris, "A Long Time Between Murders," Am. Scholar, Winter 2001, at 71, 79.
The singular of “process” is pronounced /PRAH-ses/ in American English, /PROH-ses/ in British English. But what about the plural? Is it /PRAH-ses-iz/ (/PROH-/ in British English) or /PRAH-suh-seez/? The first, preferably: the second is an affectation because the word is English, not Greek.
Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2009), offers a free Usage Tip of the Day. You can sign up at Orange Crate Art is a Garner-friendly site: Modern American Usage is, to my mind, a model of clarity and good sense (though I like to type out numbers up to ninety-nine).

Hi and Lois watch

[Hi and Lois, February 16, 2010. Click for a larger view.]

They’ve sold off the furniture, but they’re keeping the art. Yes, it’s Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Any guess as to what’s on the other wall?

Related reading
All Hi and Lois posts

IBEW logo

[From Wikipedia.]

Slywy’s discovery of a pencil with an IBEW clip prompted me to write this post, which I’ve been meaning to do since December. I love the IBEW logo. It leaves me feeling like I’m in the wrong union. What makes the logo great for me is the jacket-clad arm. A bare arm would be a predictable design element here — brute strength and all that. It’s the juxtaposition of crackling electricity and proper attire that gets me. No doubt there’s a handkerchief, neatly folded, in the clencher’s breast pocket.

Related reading
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (Wikipedia)
Look for the Union Label: A Celebration of Union Logos and Emblems (Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State University)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Domestic comedy

“Now that it’s warmer, it feels colder.”

Related reading
All “domestic comedy” posts

Van Dyke Parks at Daytrotter

From Daytrotter, five performances by Van Dyke Parks with Clare and the Reasons, recorded in Asheville, North Carolina, October 2010. The performances are killer, and the download is free and legit.

From the same tour
Van Dyke Parks in Chicago (1)
Van Dyke Parks in Chicago (2)
Van Dyke Parks and Clare and the Reasons, on the radio
Van Dyke Parks and Clare and the Reasons, on the radio again

Monday, February 14, 2011

George Shearing (1919–2011)

From the New York Times obituary:

George Shearing, the British piano virtuoso who overcame blindness to become a worldwide jazz star, and whose composition “Lullaby of Birdland” became an enduring jazz standard, died on Monday in Manhattan.
A Shearing sampler, via YouTube:

“Conception” : “I Cover the Waterfront” : “It Never Entered My Mind” : “Lullaby of Birdland” : A conversation with Billy Taylor

[Shearing on “I Cover the Waterfront”: “I think this was written by Marlon Brando.”]


Lady Dedlock’s questions caught my attention:

“Is it the town-talk yet? Is it chalked upon the walls and cried on the streets?”

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)
The Oxford English Dictionary traces town-talk — “The common talk or gossip of the people of a town; the subject or matter of such talk or gossip” — to a 1654 speech by Oliver Cromwell: “If it be not folly in me to listen to town-talk, such things have been proposed.” I know the term from a local newspaper editor who has an annoying way of citing town-talk when referencing hitherto unreported news: “As many of you already know,” &c. I usually don’t, as I don’t keep my ear to the town ground.

A related post
Goodbye, local paper

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Supporting NPR

A site worth visiting, right now: 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting.

Betty Garrett (1919–2011)

From the Los Angeles Times obituary:

Betty Garrett, a comedic actress who was a fixture in such MGM musicals as On The Town and Take Me Out to the Ballgame, a regular on the television series All in the Family and Laverne & Shirley and a star on Broadway and in Los Angeles theater productions, has died. . . .

In a 2009 interview with The Times, Garrett reflected on her long career. “People say, how come you’ve lasted this long?” she said. “I say I think it’s because all of my life I have gotten to do what I love to do.”
Betty Garrett was the last living member of the cast of On the Town. Her Brunhilde Esterhazy is my family’s favorite cabdriver.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Borders and bankruptcy

The Wall Street Journal reports that Borders is headed for bankruptcy:

Borders Group Inc. is in the final stages of preparing a bankruptcy filing, clinching a long fall for a company with humble beginnings that helped change the way Americans buy books but failed to keep pace with the digital transformation rocking every corner of the media landscape.

The troubled Ann Arbor, Mich., bookseller could file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy-protection as soon as Monday or Tuesday, paving the way for hundreds of store closings and thousands of job losses, said people familiar with the matter.
My recent visits to a local Borders have left me feeling embarrassed: fewer and fewer books worth buying, more and more trinkets, T-shirts, and empty space. (I get embarrassed in stores that are obviously struggling.) In the past thirty days, Borders has sent me twenty-two e-mails, hawking chocolate, coffee, flowers, the Kobo eReader, wine — oh, and books. It’s sad: everything the company has done to bring in more money seems to give the dedicated reader less reason to feel good about going to Borders.

Related posts
Borders Books and Music in trouble (2008)
Goodbye, Pages for All Ages

Friday, February 11, 2011

Virtual Typewriter

[Click for a larger view.]

Douglas Ewart and Stephen Goldstein

East Gallery
Krannert Art Museum
Champaign, Illinois
February 10, 2011

Douglas Ewart, alto clarinet, sopranino saxophone, didgeridoo, flutes, voice, percussion
Stephen Goldstein, digital percussion, handclaps, rainstick

Sitting down to write about this performance, I realize that I have no idea how long these musicians played last night — an hour? hour and a half? two? Someone said things ran late. All I know is that I was listening to a collaboration that was a delight to the ear, one that made time both fly and stand still, with Ewart shifting from instrument to instrument and Goldstein drawing an ever-changing variety of sounds and textures from two percussion pads (played with hands, sticks, and brushes) and an iPhone.

Like other musicians who came up in the AACM (Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), Ewart is an unassuming virtuoso, with an extraordinary command of tone and dynamics. Last night, he sustained circular breathing for longer than I would have thought possible, producing overtones, squawks, and whispers along the way. The most surprising moment though was a song, “BP They Making a New Dead Sea,” a solemn and fiercely satiric parade of long e rhymes: “BP means Bad Philosophy.”

Ewart is both musician and instrument-maker. In a pre-performance talk (whose topics ranged from the importance of water to the horror of plastic bags), he explained the importance of making, which for him began when he was a child in Jamaica, raised by a grandmother who pointed out that the toys on store shelves were likely to fall apart all too quickly. So Ewart began making things of his own. Last night he showed a group of Sonic Tops, made (in adulthood, for children) from found materials. The tops spun mightily on the gallery floor.

The most exciting moment for Elaine and me was the final piece. Ewart invited our son Ben and concert organizer Jason Finkelman to add their voices — banjo and berimbau, respectively — to the proceedings. It all makes sense, really: Ewart was a guest-in-residence for the week in Ben’s residence hall, where Ben (a Resident Assistant) spent a good chunk of time with him.

[Douglas Ewart and Ben Leddy. Photograph by Elaine Fine. Click for a larger view.]

You can see some of Douglas Ewart’s instruments and other artworks at his website. Note the Lab Coat and Crepuscular Stamping Stick in the above photograph.

Thanks to Jason Finkelman, who continues to bring the musical news of the world to east-central Illinois.


In March 2013, Douglas Ewart returned to Krannert for a performance with Wadada Leo Smith.


In November 2015, Ewart returned to Krannert for a performance with Quasar.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

All Rabbits Must Die

Mr. McGregor would like this Flash game: All Rabbits Must Die. It’s fast and fun and Angry Birds-like and must not get in the way of work.

Write five sentences rabbit

“One, two, three, four, five, six leetle rabbits!” said Mr. McGregor.

“One, two, three, four, five, six leetle fat rabbits!” repeated Mr. McGregor, counting on his fingers — “one, two, three—”

“One, two, three, four! five! six leetle rabbits!” said he as he dropped them into his sack.

“One, two — only three sentences about rabbits!” said the homework-seeker, feeling slightly cheated.

“In the sack! one, two, three, four, five, six!” replied Mr. McGregor.

[Ever since I posted a commentary on five sentences from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Internauts searching for five sentences (that is, their homework) have been ending up at Orange Crate Art. Write five sentences rabbit is the latest such search. This post is rated “R” for rabbits. With apologies to Beatrix Potter and the Flopsy Bunnies.]

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

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How to improve writing (no. 33)

In the Enfield Tennis Academy dining hall:

There’s a sign in a kitchen-staffer’s crude black block caps taped to the dispenser’s façade that says MILK IS FILLING; DRINK WHAT YOU TAKE. The sign used to say MILK IS FILLING, DRINK WHAT YOU TAKE until the comma was semicolonized by the insertion of a blue dot by a fairly obvious person.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996).
The fairly obvious person is Avril Incandenza, Enfield Tennis Academy Dean of Academic Affairs and of Females, “the only female academic ever to hold the Macdonald Chair in Prescriptive Usage at the Royal Victoria College of McGill University.” She’s a co-founder of the Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts, “a bramble in the flank of advertisers, corporations, and all fast-and-loose-players with the integrity of public discourse.” Among the MGM’s targets: supermarkets with 10 ITEMS OR LESS signs. Avril Incandenza, endnote 260 tells us, “always grades everything in blue ink.” Note the pun on colonize.

[This post is no. 33 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose. This post is the first in which a fictional character has done the improving.]

Related reading
All How to improve writing posts (via Pinboard)
How to punctuate a sentence
How to punctuate more sentences

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Lines from Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 8, 1911.

A related post
Elizabeth Bishop at Vassar

Plagiarism in the academy

At Pennsylvania State University's Smeal College of Business, a “perfect storm of plagiarism,” as twenty-nine applicants to the MBA program plagiarize in their application essays. One of the required essay topics: “the connections between principled leadership and business.”

Related reading
All plagiarism posts

“Painters and Poets”

John Ashbery Jane Freilicher Larry Rivers Frank
Their names alone bring tears to my eyes

Kenneth Koch, “The Circus” (The Art of Love, 1975)
Three slideshows — from the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Tibor de Nagy — for “Tibor de Nagy Painters and Poets,” an exhibition devoted to collaborations among painters and poets in post-war New York.

Monday, February 7, 2011

AOL buys Huffington Post

Read more:  15, 300, 315, America, aol, AOL, AOL Inc., Benjamins, Best Buy, Big Bucks, Bread, Cabbage, Cash, Fifteen, Greenbacks, Hamiltons, HP, Huff, Huffington, Huffington Post, HuffPo, HuffPost, Huffy Bicycles,  Jackson 5, Jacksons, Long Green, Loot, Lorne Greene, Louisiana, Marge, Marge Simpson, Merge, Merge Left, Merge Right, Merger, Merging, Michael Jackson, Million, Millions, Moolah, Online, Post, Purchase, Sawbucks, Simoleons, Spartans, Starbucks, Three-Hundred

AOL has purchased the Huffington Post for $315 million.

[The pseudo-links are sarcastic high jinks. I’ve never been impressed by HuffPo’s style of journalism.]

Snail Mail

[Click for a larger view.]

“Without ZIP CODE the growing U.S. Mail load would move at a snail’s pace — if it moved at all!”: an advertisement from Life, November 22, 1968.

Poor Mr. ZIP: he lived to see all mail become snail mail. The Oxford English Dictionary traces snail mail — “the physical delivery of mail, as by the postal service, considered as slow in comparison to electronic mail; a letter, etc., sent by post” — back to 1982. Mr. ZIP retired in 1986. He later died of a broken heart.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Another SMiLE?

Beach Boy Al Jardine tells an interviewer that a Beach Boys version of Smile (or SMiLE, the traditional spelling) is on the way:

Are there plans for a new Beach Boys archival project?

Capitol Records plans to issue a Beach Boys version of Smile sometime this summer to begin the celebration of The Beach Boys’ anniversary. Smile is the Holy Grail for Beach Boys’ fans, so it will be good.

I don’t have many details on it, although we didn’t do any new recording. I’m happy to see it finally come out. Brian’s changed his mind about releasing the material, but it was inevitable, wasn’t it?
Beach Boys versions of songs from SMiLE have been released on various LPs (beginning in 1967 with Smiley Smile). More SMiLE material appeared in 1993 in the Capitol box-set Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys. And as you might guess, vast amounts of SMiLE and SMiLE-related material have become available on bootlegs. And Brian Wilson recorded and released SMiLE as a solo album in 2004. Mike Love even sued cousin Brian about it, which would seem to make it official.

A new release of Beach Boys SMiLE material (with, I trust, excellent remastering) would be a welcome thing, but it’s not as if the music is finally coming out.

[SMiLE, music by Brian Wilson, lyrics by Van Dyke Parks, began its legendary life in 1966. It’s a masterpiece. Surf’s up!]


From xkcd, Trochee Fixation. And, on a similar note, Iambic Pentameter.

[Yes, my name’s made of trochees, but I try not to call attention to it.]

“Ice and Snow Blues No. 3”

Light to moderate my eye. It is really, really snowing. Only after I trudged out did I realize what a dumb thing I was doing: had I slipped, our camera would likely have been ruined.

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

Related posts
“Ice and Snow Blues”
“Ice and Snow Blues No. 2”

Friday, February 4, 2011


“[Y]ou will love the wooden feeling of writing or drawing”: NoteSlate, a $99 electronic tablet. I think they need to work on the translation.

(Found via

Battling The Elements

In a review of Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence, Adam Haslett slams The Elements of Style and the “old Strunkian superego”:

The trouble with the book isn’t the rules themselves, which the authors are sage enough to recognise “the best writers sometimes disregard,” but the knock-on effect that their bias for plain statement has tended to have not only on expositional but literary prose.

The Art of Good Writing (Financial Times)
Haslett holds Strunk and White (and that guy Hemingway) responsible for the “pared-down prose“ “that has become our default ‘realism.’”

Josh Rothman responds:
[E.B. White] wasn’t an enemy of literariness. He saw, instead, that beginning writers face two struggles. On the one hand, there is lazy inattentiveness; on the other, there’s a self-conscious sense of “literary style,” which can stand in the way of a beginning writer’s progress. His suggestions about finding a middle way are as useful now as they were in 1959.

In Defense of Strunk and White (Boston Globe)
I’ll add one thought: Strunk and White’s emphasis on brevity does not preclude long sentences. The real point is concision — avoiding clutter (e.g., “the fact that,” “the question as to whether”) and combining short, choppy sentences to make longer, more fluent sentences. From the famous “Omit needless words” section of The Elements:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
A related post
Fish on Strunk and White

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Proust on French TV

Bill Madison has written a/an hilarious account of a television adaptation of À la recherche du temps perdu: Proust, the Miniseries. Go, enjoy.

Fish on Strunk and White

Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One (HarperCollins, 2011) seems to be positioned as a replacement for William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. Indeed, the second chapter is titled “Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White.” Fish quotes a newspaper’s praise of the (so-called) little book and then strikes:

“This excellent book, which should go off to college with every freshman, is recognized as the best book of its kind we have.” No doubt this praise is deserved if the person using the book already knows how to write; already knows, that is, what a sentence is. For then advice like “Do not join independent clauses with a comma” and “The number of the subject determines the number of the verb” will be genuinely helpful. But if you’re not quite sure what a sentence is (and isn’t) and you understand the words “number,” “subject,” and “verb” but couldn’t for the life of you explain how they go together or what an independent clause is, Strunk and White’s instructions will make no sense.

In short, Strunk and White’s advice assumes a level of knowledge and understanding only some of their readers will have attained; the vocabulary they confidently offer is itself in need of an analysis and explanation they do not provide.
No doubt Fish sees his book as more useful than theirs. But his claims here just aren’t accurate. Analysis and explanation do in fact accompany the rules that Fish quotes. So do examples, perhaps the best kind of explanation. This lovely sentence, for instance, is one of those illustrating problems with subject-verb agreement: “The bittersweet flavor of youth — its trials, its joys, its adventures, its challenges — are [is] not soon forgotten.” Fish, like Geoffrey Pullum, seems to forget that The Elements of Style is a book, not a list of commandments.

As for Strunk and White’s assumptions about the reader’s knowledge of grammar: things are more complicated than Fish allows. It is the case that the 1959 Elements of Style assumes a rudimentary knowledge of grammar, as do the 1972 and 1979 editions. But the fourth edition of the book (2000) adds a glossary of grammatical terms (number, subject, verb, &c.) with simple definitions and examples. One might argue about its adequacy, and Fish might be amused that sentence is missing. But it’s not the case that The Elements of Style in its present form assumes a knowledge of grammatical terms. As I wrote in a post about another recent mischaracterization of Strunk and White’s advice, “There are good reasons to find fault with The Elements of Style, but one should be sure that it’s The Elements of Style one is criticizing — the thing itself, not some rumor.”

The stunning thing in the passage from Fish that I’ve quoted is its tacit acknowledgment that many students entering college do not know what subjects and verbs and independent clauses and sentences are. But that’s a subject for another post.

[Having read excerpts from How to Write a Sentence via Amazon, I suspect that Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style (Graphics Press, 2006), which collects more than a thousand sentences from twentieth and twenty-first century writers, is a more capacious and useful guide to the art of the sentence. Fish begins with (and acknowledges) the beautiful sentence that begins Tufte’s book, from Anthony Burgess’s Enderby Outside (1968): “And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.”]


Here’s my review of How to Write a Sentence.

Related posts
Battling The Elements
The Elements of Style, one more time
Pullum on Strunk and White

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Daily v. NYTimes for iPad

Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily, “the first digital news publication with original content created every day exclusively for the iPad,” is rated “9+,” for “Infrequent/Mild Cartoon or Fantasy Violence.” I assume that such violence is to be found in The Daily’s Apps & Games section. In contrast, NYTimes for iPad is rated “12+,” for “Infrequent/Mild Mature/Suggestive Themes, Infrequent/Mild Sexual Content or Nudity, Infrequent/Mild Realistic Violence, Infrequent/Mild Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or References.”

It’d be nice to read news in which violence, whether cartoonish or “realistic,” is infrequent and mild. But that’d be the news from nowhere. Who at Apple decided that it would make sense to describe the content of the news in these terms? And why the three-year age difference between these two sources?

[The Gossip section of The Daily must be pretty tame stuff — no Suggestive Themes, none at all?]

“Ice and Snow Blues No. 2”

The ice is much thicker today.

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

A related post
“Ice and Snow Blues”

Michiko Kakutani, messy

New York Times book-reviewer Michiko Kakutani is known for her frequent (some might say too frequent) use of the verb limn. Far more frequent is her use of the adjective messy. Indeed, it was the appearance of the two words in close proximity in Kakutani’s review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom — “limning their messy inner lives” — that made me wonder whether messy appears with any frequency in her writing. It does. And how.

Messy first appears in 1979, in a description of the Gotham Book Mart: “a messy profusion of literary magazines, journals and booklets arranged in alphabetical heaps and rows.” Then, a slight drizzle:

“Ruth Gordon was apologizing for her messy apartment.” [1979]

“[T]he messy ambiguities of life.” [1980]

“[A] messy sexual tryst,” “messy lives and aimless talk.” [1982]
Then, a steady rain:
“[T]his messy affair,” “a noisy, somewhat messy interruption in their daily lives,” “the messy fortunes of four young people coming of age in a small, unnamed English town,” “declaring on the witness stand that their house is very messy.” “Whereas fictional events may be orchestrated and shaped into a pleasing pattern, real events tend to be messy and resistant to the tidy, idealized designs favored by the imagination.” [1983]

“[L]ots of messy relationships and compromising positions,” “increasingly messy,” “messy wisps of ‘maybe’s.’” [1984]

“[M]essy entanglements,” “the messy entanglements and conditional values of humdrum daily life.’ [1985]

“[M]essy coincidences,” “messy convolutions,” “messy narrative,” “messy human emotions.” [1986]

“[A] messy affair,” “messy affairs,” “messy housekeeping.” [1987]

“[A] messy seduction scene,” “messy to begin with,” “messy private life,” “small, messy lives.” “If this sounds messy, things are to get considerably more complicated as the novel proceeds.” [1988]

“[M]essy life,” “bizarre three-way relationships and messy complications.” [1989]

“Julie's messy life,” “the messy world of human emotions,” “messy dangling ends.” [1990]

“[T]he messy facts of his father’s life,” “the messy facts of Poe’s life.” [1991]
Then, a downpour:
“[A] messy hodgepodge of a book,” “incongruous and messy relationships,” “messy relationships with men,” “the messy, often incomprehensible facts of life,” “change, confusion and messy emotion.” [1992]

“[A] messy maelstrom of emotions,” “messy moral dilemmas,” “Naomi Wolf’s messy new treatise.” [1993]

“[T]his lax, messy book,” “the random, messy business of life,” “a messy hodgepodge of familiar complaints and hyperbolic assertions.” [1994]

“A Novel About a Novelist and His Messy Life,” “messy involvement,” “the messy details of real life,” “a messy series of adventures,” “a finely observed but messy novel.” [1995]

“[Howard] Stern’s messy, free-associative new tome,” “messy, entangled lives,” “this messy and prosaic book.” [1996]

“[A] messy tangle of contradictions,” “messy human emotions,” “this otherwise messy, discursive novel,” “so messy that its refusal of closure feels less like an artistic choice than simple laziness.” Time itself becomes a big hot mess: “The solar year is made up of a messy 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45.96768 seconds; the moon takes an inconvenient 29 1/2 days (or to be more precise, 29.53059 days) to circle the earth.” [1997]

“[T]he messy process of artistic creation,” “the messy, spoiled world of civilization,” “this messy, discursive book,” “a messy, shaggy-dog tale.” [1998]

“[T]his messy volume,” “the messy world,” “the messy fallout of an art forgery scam,” “messy romantic entanglements.” [1999]

“[M]essy confirmation hearings,” “messy emotions,” “the messy ingredients of life,” “a messy hybrid of a book,” “a messy adventure.” [2000]

“A messy hodgepodge of styles and ambitions,” “a messy kitchen sink of a book,” “messy and wildly ambitious epics,” “disclosures about Luke’s messy life,” “the messy web of extortion, payoffs and election fraud that afflicted Jersey City and its neighbors in Hudson County,” “a scintillating, if messy, tapestry.” [2001]

“[A] messy hodgepodge of ideas, experimental dream sequences and leaden leitmotifs,” “simultaneously schematic and messy,” “a messy, unconvincing assemblage.” [2002]

“[T]he messy 2000 election standoff in Florida,” “a messy one,” “lazy craftsmanship and a messy, improvised story.” [2003]

“[T]he messy cacophony of city life,” “a messy pastiche,” “a messy, musically structured hodgepodge of a novel,” “his own messy, even felonious inner life,” “messy and predictable at the same time.” [2004]

“[A] messy love triangle,” “a messy hodgepodge of case studies,” “the whole messy story,” “the whole messy sprawl,” “their own messy stew of emotions.” [2005]
Slowing to a drizzle:
“[A] messy, doomed affair,” “a smart, saavy [sic] but messy hodgepodge of a book.” [2006]

“[B]ig, messy, controversial issues,“ “the useful if messy new book.” [2007]

“[A] messy agglomeration,” “his messy, increasingly implausible plot.” [2008]

“This messy, longwinded [sic] volume,” “an entertaining, if messy and long-winded, commentary on the fiction-making process itself.” [2009]

“[A] messy divorce,” “limning their messy inner lives.” [2010]
And the new year is thus far tidy. You can literally eat off the floor, figuratively speaking.

Every writer has stock bits of diction and phrasing. It’s good to become conscious of them, lest they develop into writerly tics. Me, I have to watch out for wonderful, which I’ve used fourteen times in Orange Crate Art posts — it’s probably a Van Dyke Parks influence.

[All quotations from the New York Times. I’ve rearranged some material within individual years for cadence.]

A related post
Eric Schmidt, literally

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Eric Schmidt, literally

Going forward, he might have to think twice about literally.

[Yes, going forward is a joke. What do you take me for?]

A related post
Eric Schmidt on the future

Janis Joplin’s handbag

An inventory:

There are: two movie stubs, a pack of cigarettes, an antique cigarette holder, several motel and hotel room keys, a box of Kleenex, a compact and various make up cases (in addition to a bunch of eyebrow pencils held together with a rubber band), an address book, dozens of bits of paper, business cards, match box covers with phone numbers written in near-legible barroom scrawls, guitar picks, a bottle of Southern Comfort (empty), a hip flask, an opened package of complementary macadamia nuts from American Airlines, cassettes of Johnny Cash and Otis Redding, gum, sunglasses, credit cards, aspirin, assorted pens and writing pad, a corkscrew, an alarm clock, a copy of Time, and two hefty books — Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.
What Was in Janis Joplin's Handbag? (The Hairpin)

A related post
Q and A (Marianne Moore’s handbag)

“Ice and Snow Blues”

Today is a good day for Clifford Gibson’s 1929 recording “Ice and Snow Blues.” You can listen at YouTube.

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]