Sunday, July 31, 2011

“[T]he Sinatra of food”

Disc jockey and writer Jonathan Schwartz, in the New York Times:

I don’t think I’ve ever gone a day of my life without eating a whole avocado. It’s one of the most nourishing things. There’s no taste better. They’re the Sinatra of food.
Related posts
Jonathan Schwartz and Frank Sinatra
Jonathan Schwartz and WKCS

Saturday, July 30, 2011

“[F]urther out of the solar system”

Andrew Sullivan wonders whether Republicans are seeking to force President Obama to invoke the Fourteenth Amendment so that they can impeach him:

Far-fetched? I hope so. But every time you think you have reached the end of Republican extremism, they manage to move further out of the solar system.

Are They Aiming for Impeachment? (The Dish)
Sullivan observes that current events are “dictated by a single faction in one party in one chamber whose fanaticism is only matched by their irresponsibility.”

Orange peel art

[“British Orange Peeler.” Photograph by Wallace Kirkland. August 8, 1950. From the Life Photo Archive.]

It’s a photograph that seems to say, “It’s called surréalisme, you lousy Philistines!”

This photograph did not appear in Life, but another (by the same photographer) appeared beneath a letter responding to a Life item about a French waiter’s orange-peeling skills:

[Life, August 28, 1950.]

A quick trip through the Life Photo Archive confirms that the monocled fellow is indeed David Leven, using the peeler he invented. I’m guessing that Dale = Da[vid] + Le[ven]. I can find online nothing about the inventor or his work.

[Does “Orange peeler in action” mean the device, or the man?]

Friday, July 29, 2011

Yahoo[!] Mail Classic

If you happen to have a Yahoo Mail account and if you happen to find the redesign ugly, there’s a sneaky way to get back the less ugly (though still ugly) look of Yahoo Mail Classic. Long story short: disable JavaScript in your browser, open up Yahoo Mail, choose “Return to a previous version of Yahoo! Mail,” and enable JavaScript. There’s a more detailed explanation from user Rudjake here.

Too bad Yahoo doesn’t offer something like Gmail’s new Preview theme, which to my eyes is a model of clarity and good taste.

[Yes, I use a Yahoo Mail account for blog-related stuff. Yes, I would feel like a jerk typing the exclamation point again and again.]

Man in inflatable chair

[Click for a larger view.]

Above, Bob Dishy as Jerry in Lovers and Other Strangers (dir. Cy Howard, 1970). Along with the extravagant markers of with-it — the lava lamp, the door beads, the YIELD sign, there’s a Barbra Streisand record (My Name Is Barbra) on the shelf. In other words, Jerry’s trying too hard. You should hear the conversation.

Lovers and Other Strangers is a funny film with a terrific ensemble cast. And it offers the only chance you’ll ever have to see Bea Arthur and Richard Castellano play a married couple.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Anthony Lane on tabloid journalism

Two choice sentences on Murdoch’s tabloids:

If your attitude toward the lives of others is that of a house burglar confronted by an open window; if you consider it part of your business to fabricate conversations where none exist; and if your boss treats his employees with a derision that they, following suit, extend to the subjects of their inquiries — if those elements are already in place, then the decision to, say, hack into someone’s cell phone is almost no decision at all. It is merely the next step.

Anthony Lane, Hack Work (New Yorker)

Tone balls

Elaine and Ben and I spent the afternoon yesterday at Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan. Housed in a former Odd Fellows building, Elderly is quite a store.

Downstairs, next to the repair desk, there is a curious exhibit titled “Tone Balls,” a collection of the little bundles of dust, hair, lint, and whatever that form inside guitars. The term tone ball is the work of an unidentified Elderly employee. Here, from The Fretboard Journal, is a 2006 article about tone balls, with scary-big photographs.

Elaine has already written about these things, and I see that she too found the Fretboard Journal piece. The photograph above is hers.

[Gasoline to Lansing and back: about $30. Getting your son an instrument: priceless.]

Word of the day: skeuomorph

Skeuomorph is a word that I wish I had known a few months ago, when writing a post about the Moleskine app for iOS. Skeoumorph comes from the Greek σκεῦος [vessel, implement] and μορϕή [form]. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word in two ways:

An ornament or ornamental design on an artefact resulting from the nature of the material used or the method of working it.

An object or feature copying the design of a similar artefact in another material.
It’s the second definition that’s relevant: the Moleskine app attempts to emulate paper by offering the user the non-functional choice of a plain, ruled, or squared page. To my mind, that’s an analog-to-digital mistake.

I learned skeuomorph while browsing John Siracusa’s review of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion. The leather stitching and torn paper of Lion’s iCal and the sewn signatures of Lion’s Address Book are examples of skeuomorphic design. Siracusa calls them “egregious.” I’d say “ghastly.”

Wikipedia has a handy collection of examples of skeuomorphic design. Perhaps the most obvious examples: fake stitching, fake woodgrain, and the shutter click of a non-SLR digital camera.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

“Mitt lille land”

My friend Norman sent links to two recordings of “Mit lille land” [My little land], a song by Norwegian musician and poet Ole Paus. The first is by Paus. The second, just days old, is by Maria Mena, and is accompanied by news footage from last Friday. Norman included a translation (not, he points out, his own):
My little country
A little place, a handful of peace
thrown out among mountain plateau and fjords

My little country
Where high mountains are planted
among houses, people and words
Where silence and dreams grow
Like an echo in barren earth

My little country
Where the sea pats mild and soft
like it’s caressing from coast to coast

My little country
Where stars glide by
and becomes landscapes when it gets lighter
while the night stands there — bleak and silent

My little country
A little place, a handful of peace
thrown out among mountain plateau and fjords

My little country
Where high mountains are planted
among houses, people and words
Where silence and dreams grow
Like an echo in barren earth
[Image from the Maria Mena video.]

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

In favor of penmanship

Joanna Key favors penmanship.

Garner, Menand, and Truss

Good reading: two devastating appraisals of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003), by Bryan A. Garner and Louis Menand.

Idle and curious, I looked at Truss’s book in the library a few weeks ago and found myself stopping short at the subtitle, which should read The Zero-Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. It was downhill from there.

[Sheer, strange coincidence: Garner’s Usage Tip of The Day (taken from Garner’s Modern American Usage) has just hit punctuation. Today’s tip concerns the apostrophe. You can subscribe here (bottom right). The Garner link above is now dead.]

Word of the day: earthling

The Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day is earthling. I was surprised to learn that the word is much older than I’d thought. The meaning that I think of — “A person who lives on or comes from the earth as opposed to another planet” — first appeared in 1858, in a newspaper item about a comet. As the OED notes, this meaning later turns up mainly in science fiction. (As in, say, “Attention, earthlings!”)

But earthling has earlier meanings. In 1600, Sir William Cornwallis used the word to denote “A worldly or materialistic person.” In 1593, earthling appeared in Thomas Nashe’s Christs Teares Over Iervsalem, meaning “An inhabitant of the earth as opposed to heaven”: “Wee (of all earthlings) are Gods vtmost subiects.”

Earlier still (beyond today’s Word of the Day), earthling (that is, yrðling, yrþling, or urþling) meant “A ploughman, a cultivator of the soil.” And as yrðling, ærðling, and irdling, earthling also meant “A kind of bird (not identified).” Perhaps a bird that couldn’t fly? I wonder.

[You can subscribe the the OED Word of the Day at the dictionary’s homepage.]

Monday, July 25, 2011

Brian Wilson’s former house for sale

For sale, in St. Charles, Illinois: Brian Wilson’s former house, with nine fireplaces, six full bathrooms, five bedrooms, two half-bathrooms, and one underground recording studio. A newspaper reports that the studio is not in use: “‘It’s just space,’ said the resident who answered the door there last week.“

Wilson lived in St. Charles briefly, where he worked on the Imagination album (1998) with producer Joe Thomas. In Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys: The Complete Guide to Their Music (2004), Andrew G. Doe and John Tobler write that Wilson spent “maybe a total of three months in the house” and later sold it.

Beach Boy's former St. Charles house for sale (Daily Herald)
5N129 Dover Hill Road, St. Charles, Illinois (Caldwell Banker)

BBC on podcasts

From the BBC: Podcasts: Who still listens to them?

The answer would seem to be “Lots of people.” The point of the article is that interest in podcasts continues to grow, though Facebook and Twitter get more attention.

Me, I barely keep up with three podcasts: Joe Bussard’s Country Classics, This American Life, and To the Best of Our Knowledge. How about you?

[“Facebook and Twitter”: I find it difficult to use the term social media without wincing.]

Night Train to Munich

[Rex Harrison, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, in close quarters.]

How is it that Night Train to Munich (dir. Carol Reed, 1940) is so little known? It’s brilliant, in the colloquial British sense of that word — amazing, fantastic. The film moves at the speed of early Hitchcock and has a little of everything: betrayal, comedy, espionage, friendship, unconvincing model landscapes, pursuit, romance, secret messages, song, suspense, and train travel.

Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) is the clear inspiration — easy to understand, as Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder wrote both screenplays. Margaret Lockwood returns, here as a young Czech who follows her scientist-father in fleeing the Nazis to England; Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, traveling home from a visit to Berlin, reprise their roles as Charters and Caldicott. Best of all is a plot element that owes nothing to the earlier film: a tricky triangle with Lockwood, Rex Harrison, and Paul Henreid. In the train-lavatory scene above, Harrison, impersonating a Nazi officer, gets the warning that the real Nazis are onto him.

Night Train to Munich is available, beautifully restored, from the Criterion Collection.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Six stars

The Flag of Equal Marriage gets a sixth star, as the Marriage Equality Act goes into effect in New York. New York joins Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the District of Columbia in granting equal marriage-rights to same-sex partners.

After Long Wait, Same-Sex Couples Marry in New York (New York Times)

Mississippi John Hurt for Chevy

Flipping through channels, I was surprised to hear the guitar and voice of Mississippi John Hurt in a Chevrolet commercial. Hurt’s fingerpicking style has turned up in commercials before: with products like coffee and lemonade, the sound signifies “old-time goodness” (and rightly so, no matter the quality of the product advertised). To my knowledge, the Chevy commercial marks the first time Hurt himself has been heard in a commercial, in a 1963 Library of Congress recording of “You Are My Sunshine,” played in C position, with the guitar tuned two whole-steps down.

I suspect that someone at the ad agency really, really loves Hurt’s music: note that the African-American dad in the commercial (ten seconds in) is wearing a hat that resembles Hurt’s signature fedora, dark brown with a tan band. Hardly coincidental, I’d say.

Why Maxwell House has never used Hurt’s “Coffee Blues” in a commercial is beyond me: “Ain’t Maxwell House all right!”

A related post
Mississippi John Hurt (From Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest)

Related reading
Mississippi John Hurt Museum

[Yes, The Lovin’ Spoonful took their name from “Coffee Blues.”]

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Garner on writing in law school

Bryan A. Garner, in a New York Times forum on law school:

Most legal scholarship is poorly written and is mired in nonpractical abstraction that few can understand and fewer still can benefit from. Most law professors don’t know how to write well, so they could hardly teach the subject if they wanted to. On top of that, lawyers of all kinds — both academic lawyers and practicing ones — rationalize their linguistic ineptitude by claiming that legal jargon is necessary (most of it isn’t); that writing instruction is elementary, remedial stuff (it should progress to advanced techniques); and that writing style doesn’t matter anyway. But it does matter: clear writing equates with clear thinking, and judges and employers cry out for both. Put all these things together, and you have serious educational pathologies.
Garner’s suggested start toward a cure: “much more research, writing and editing,” with frequent short papers (revision required) in all second- and third-year classes.

Note, by the way, how well Garner writes.

[Garner recommends the Oxford comma. The Times must be responsible for "research, writing[,] and editing.”]

Friday, July 22, 2011


The news from Norway grows grimmer as we learn more:

Blasts and Gun Attack in Norway; 7 Dead (New York Times)

I have friends in Oslo and would really like to know that they’re okay.

(They are.)

Counterfeit-coin puzzle

From Futility Closet: “You have nine coins and a balance scale. One of the coins is lighter than the others. Is it possible to identify it in only two weighings?”

(via Boing Boing)

Ladies and gentlemen, Ethel Waters

It’s so hot,
A chicken laid an
Egg on the street — and it fried!
From 1933, Ethel Waters sings Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave.”

Pale King review

The July-August 2011 issue of World Literature Today has my review of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King. It’s a short review, but it makes several points I’ve seen nowhere else. (And they’re good ones.) The link is to the journal’s website; the review is in print (pages 70–71), and online via subscribing libraries.

Waiting on a copy of The Pale King and ignoring all discussion of the book until after I’d written a review made for a strange adventure in not-reading. No spoilers!

Related reading
All David Foster Wallace posts (via Pinboard)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

DFW as a character in a novel

Willa Paskin at New York reports on a character in a new Jeffrey Eugenides novel who strongly resembles David Foster Wallace. The character in question, Leonard Baskin, is a double major (biology and philosophy) who chews tobacco and wears a bandanna. There are several more points of resemblance. Paskin notes that

the similarities are so iconically David Foster Wallace (a bandanna and chew are not common accoutrements) that Eugenides, who did not have a well-known or documented friendship with Foster Wallace, must intentionally be calling him to mind.
DFW in someone else’s fiction: I guess it was bound to happen.

Here in east-central Illinois, bandannas and chew are indeed common accouchamacallems, though they might not always be acknowledged as such.

Related reading
All David Foster Wallace posts (via Pinboard)

[Like Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest, Wallace (not Foster Wallace) dipped (not chewed) Kodiak.]


A woman looking at a poster for a baby-product expo:

“I’m in heaven right now looking at this. All right, where’s my cigarettes?”
Related reading
All “overheard” posts (via Pinboard)

Fred Astaire on What’s My Line?

From 1955 and 1959. What grace. What modesty.

A related post
John Ashbery and Fred Astaire on The Mike Douglas Show

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten

[Click for a larger view.]

Here’s a film I immediately know that I want to see, Vadim Jendreyko’s Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten [The woman with the five elephants], a documentary about Svetlana Geier, who spent much of her life translating Dostoyevsky into German. You see the results of her work above.

Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten (Film website, in English, French, and German)
Surviving To Conquer Dostoevsky’s “5 Elephants” (NPR)

[Photograph from the film website.]


Elaine and I went to the store by bicycle, and we took the mysterious route home, avoiding the major streets, such as they are. And so we saw three children in their front yard, two boys and a girl, sitting at a little table under a patio umbrella. Their combined age might have been twenty-seven or twenty-eight. They were in business, and they had a sign: LEMONADE FIFTY ¢ ICE COLD. We stopped to buy and drink. For a moment, it might have been 1965. And then the younger boy’s phone beeped.

[Yes, fifty cents would have been steep for 1965. Suspend disbelief, at least until the phone beeps.]

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

There’s something about Rupert

There’s something about Rupert. He reminds me of someone. Who could it be? I just can’t imagine. I’ll just have to knock on Mister Noggin. Could it be . . . could it be . . . Satan?

Elaine noticed it, but she didn’t want Satan Murdoch on her blog, so I’m posting here. The devil made me do it.

6:53 p.m.: Oh gosh, people everywhere have noticed it. There is nothing new under the sun. Or there was something new under the sun, and people everywhere noticed it, and once again there is nothing new under the sun.

A related post
Murdoch’s issues

[With apologies to Dana Carvey, the Church Lady, Geraldine, and Flip Wilson.]

Henry mystery

[Henry, July 19, 2011.]

What Henry is doing is no mystery: he’s painting on a black eye to match the one a bully just gave him. (Ta-da: sunglasses.) But what is he using as a mirror?

My guess is that it’s a gum machine, the kind that once could be found attached to posts in New York City subway stations. Here are three (machines, not stations). I suppose that in the right light the glass could serve as a mirror (especially if it were, say, 1947 or so).

Sometimes I wonder who in their right mind reads Henry.

Related posts
Betty Boop with Henry
Henry’s repeated gesture

[Here’s a photograph of a gum machine in its native habitat. There’s a better suggestion from Pete in the comments: a comb dispenser.]

“I changed the Will to Shall”

Pete Seeger, on the development of “We Shall Overcome”:

“Long-meter style is the way Zilphia Horton learned it — why didn’t her parents just call her Sylvia, I wonder — and she taught it to me, but I didn’t know how to play it right. I just gave it a banjo accompaniment, and I didn’t even sing it very much. Eventually I changed the Will to Shall. Toshi jokes that it’s my college education, but I’ve always used shall in the first person. Are you going to town tomorrow? Yes, I shall. Anyway, shall opens up the mouth better; the short ‘I’ is not as dramatic a sound as the ‘aah.’ I taught the song to Frank Hamilton, who taught it to a young boy named Guy Carawan, and they put it in this twelve-eight meter, but slow, and that gave it that great, pulsating rhythm. I am not sure where Dr. King heard it, but there was a woman, what was her name, she died only last year, and she remembered driving Dr. King to a speech in Kentucky and him in the backseat saying, ‘“We Shall Overcome,” that song really sticks with you, doesn’t it.’”

Alec Wilkinson, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).
[Toshi: Pete’s wife Toshi Seeger.]

Related reading
“We Shall Overcome” (Wikipedia)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Borders to close

From the New York Times:

The Borders Group, the bankrupt 40-year-old bookseller, said on Monday that it will move to liquidate after no last-minute savior emerged for the company. . . . Borders will begin closing its remaining stores as soon as Friday, and the liquidation is expected to run through September.
For months now, the online welcome message from my nearby Borders has seemed tinged with pathos:
Learning your way around our store, or having trouble finding that title? Our knowledgeable booksellers can be found near the Area-E desk, and throughout the store, to answer questions, locate titles, and help you order something if it’s not on the shelf. If you’re in need of a pastry or a pick-me-up, visit our Seattle’s Best Coffee cafe, where our excellent team members will help you find what’s just right for you. We look forward to your visit.
I wish you well, Borders employees. I will miss what was for many years an excellent bookstore.

A related post
Goodbye, Pages for All Ages (The end of an independent bookstore)

Domestic comedy

[Grimacing.] “This tastes too much like root beer.”

“What is it?”

“Root beer.”

Related reading
All “domestic comedy” posts (via Pinboard)

Were and was

From my blog stats:

This sort of thing amuses me, unduly so.

If I were, if I was has become one of the most popular posts on Orange Crate Art. I just made a substantial addition to the post, with some further commentary on the trickiest sample sentence therein. So pretend you’re a congressional staffer — or even a member of Congress, if you dare — and read all about it. I would, if I were you.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A secret location on the Upper East Side

A three-minute film by Andrew David Watson about a used-book store in a Manhattan apartment: There’s No Place Like Here: Brazenhead Books (via Andrew Sullivan).

Pencil fans, note the Mongol at 2:45.

Elaine, we gotta get there.

[[The Firefox extension Flashblock will prevent this film from playing. Add and to your whitelist. Post title inspired by a library exhibit and book.]

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The news from Boro Park

I saw the first grim news — a child missing — on Tuesday night, via a Google Alert for boro park. The story began at Twelfth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street, at the school where Leiby Kletzky was attending summer camp. I passed that building hundreds of times as a kid, back when it was an apartment house. I lived on Forty-fourth Street, less than a block away.

The story began with what many parents have experienced, at least briefly — the terrifying feeling of not knowing where a child is. What followed was a horror beyond imagining, born of psychopathy and the haphazard cruelty of circumstance. My heart breaks for the Kletzky family.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Murdoch’s issues

Did you notice this sentence in Rupert Murdoch’s letter of contrition?

In the coming days, as we take further concrete steps to resolve these issues and make amends for the damage they have caused, you will hear more from us.
The passive voice would be the more usual way to skirt responsibility in such a context:
In the coming days, as we take further concrete steps to resolve these issues and make amends for the damage that has been done, you will hear more from us.
Murdoch’s phrasing — “resolve these issues,” “make amends for the damage they have caused” — is a more subtle (though still transparent) way to avoid acknowledging responsibility. Murdoch’s phrasing places blame not on individual agents but on difficulties and problems that were somehow in the air. It’s like a driver blaming issues with alcohol for the damage to his car. But it’s not issues that drive drunk — or hack phones. A more forthright version of Murdoch’s sentence might read as follows:
In the coming days, as we take further concrete steps to set things right and make amends for the damage we have done, you will hear more from us.
I still wouldn’t believe him though.

James Brown sells miso

From music clip of the day: James Brown’s miso soup commercials. They’re awesome.

Glover’s Mange Medicine

[Life, March 3, 1941.]

It’s a bit startling to see the word mange in a human context. Yes, a “serious-purpose” treatment was in order: no Dapper Dan for this guy.

Speaking of this guy: does he bear a more than slight resemblance to Liberace, or what?

Mange has made one previous appearance on Orange Crate Art, as one of the best typos I’ve seen.

[Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives a definition: “any of various persistent contagious skin diseases marked especially by eczematous inflammation and loss of hair, affecting domestic animals or sometimes humans, and caused by a minute parasitic mite.” Dapper Dan: the pomade of choice for Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (dir. Joel Coen, 2000). The ad’s exclamation point is alas chopped off in the source, Google Books. Glover products (not this one though) are still available from J. Strickland & Co. of Memphis, Tennessee. I love adding details in brackets.]

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Clothes, information, suds, pants

A plurale tantum: “a noun that in a particular sense is invariably plural in form.” For instance, clothes. A singulare tantum is invariably singular. For instance, information.

Years ago, I explained this difference (minus the Latin) while doing literacy tutoring. My off-the-top-of-my-head example of a plurale tantum was suds. I’m surprised now to see that the Oxford English Dictionary includes the singular sud, but that word means “a soap solution,” not “the frothy mass which collects on the top of soapy water in which things are washed.” The frothy mass is plural.

Pants looks like a plurale tantum, but there is a singular form, “chiefly used in the retail clothing industry,” as the OED notes. You might know pant from the L.L. Bean catalogue. The use of the singular form was a nice detail in Alfred Gingold’s 1982 Bean spoof Items from Our Catalog.

[Definition of plurale tantum from Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage ((Oxford University Press, 2009). Says Garner, “catalogue is still the better form.”]

Red light, green light

Walking around in a nearby city yesterday, Elaine and Ben and I came to a corner where two one-way streets intersected. Already waiting to cross: a mother and daughter, the latter perhaps three years old. There wasn’t a car in sight, and there they stood. Who were we to set a bad example? It took a long time for the light to change. And then we crossed safely and went on our way.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hi and Lois watch

[Hi and Lois, July 13, 2011.]

I think of the great lines from Out of the Past (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1947): “All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.” But there is no picture: how noir can you get?

I’m not sure how to account for today’s Hi and Lois. The not-so-still-life bowl and its contents may have jumped from canvas to table. Or the Flagstons may have traded their Twombly for a Rauschenberg. Or someone may have been careless. I just don’t know.

Related reading
All Hi and Lois posts (via Pinboard)

Snow, snow, snow

Earlier this morning, I dreamed that it was snowing. These were giant flakes, perhaps a foot across. I saw them through our living-room window, which looked onto a city sidewalk that had already been shoveled. The crews are out early, I thought. Analyst, do your worst.

[Illustration by Harry McNaught, from Weather: A Guide to Phenomena and Forecasts, a Golden Science Book (1965).]

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bryan Garner and David Foster Wallace

From Boston’s WBUR, March 2001, Judy Swallow talks with Bryan Garner and David Foster Wallace about modern American usage. My favorite exchange, Swallow and Wallace:

“Do you want your students to be SNOOTs?”

“That’s a really good question. No, to be a SNOOT is a lonely, stressful way to be. [Garner laughs.] It’s, you know, having a big red button which is pushed all the time. And to be honest, I would prefer to be less SNOOTy than I am.”
But as Wallace goes on to say, he wants his students to be able to speak and write in ways that convey their credibility and learning.

Related viewing
Garner asks Wallace about genteelisms (

[In the essay “Authority and American Usage,” Wallace glosses SNOOT as his “nuclear family’s nickname for a really extreme usage fanatic.” The acronym stands for “Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance” or “Syntax Nudniks Of Our Time.” “Authority and American Usage” appears in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (New York: Little, Brown, 2005). The essay first appeared in Harper’s as “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage.”]

Ebert on Murdoch

Roger Ebert on Rupert Murdoch: “This man has done more to harm journalism in America and Britain than any other person. I cannot speak for Australia.”

The Dirty Digger (Roger Ebert’s Journal)

Lieutenant Columbo’s notebook

[Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo. From the Columbo episode “Murder in Malibu,” first aired May 14, 1990.]

For once he has his own pencil. More often he borrows.

Another shot from this episode reveals the notebook to be an Ampad Citadel (no longer manufactured). Appropriately rumpled, no?

More 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 Lodger : The Mystery of the Wax Museum : The Palm Beach Story : Pickpocket : Pickup on South Street : Quai des Orfèvres : Red-Headed Woman : Rififi : The Sopranos : Spellbound : Union Station

[The closeup is upside-down for readability.]

Monday, July 11, 2011

E.B. White was born.

From the “Book Bench” at the New Yorker:

E. B. White was born on this day in 1899. He’d not approve of that construction, I fear. Nor would Strunk. So how about, for colloquial clarity, if not quite temporal precision: today is E. B. White’s birthday.

Ian Crouch, E.B. White, on His Eighteenth Birthday
Was born: aha. The passive voice. Here is some of what The Elements of Style in fact says about it, under the the (in)famous heading “Use the active voice”:
The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. . . . This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.
Completely unobjectionable advice (accompanied, I should note, by several illustrative sentences). A writer who disapproves of was born is a writer whose ideas about language no one need take seriously. But neither Strunk nor White is that writer. Which is not to say that The Elements of Style is beyond criticism.

Related posts
All Strunk and White posts (via Pinboard)
The Elements of Style, one more time (Lots of criticism)
Zimmer on Strunk and White (on the “blanket rule” against the passive)

[The quoted passage appears in all editions of The Elements of Style.]

Duke Ellington, pothead? No.

From Edward McClelland at NBC Chicago:

[A]nyone who knows Duke Ellington knows he was one of the music world’s pioneering potheads. Ellington got high on a regular basis, and once said “jazz was born on whiskey, raised on marijuana, and will die on heroin.” (He was probably referring to Charlie Parker, who preferred stronger drugs.) Ellington also composed the song “Chant of the Weed,” which may have been about his favorite pastime. We don’t know for sure, since the song has no lyrics (a la “Eight Miles High”), but the dragging beat is a strong hint.
Say what?

If Ellington was a “pothead,” his use was a very well-kept secret. In everything I’ve read on Ellington, I cannot recall a single reference to his using marijuana. Ellington drank (and joked that he retired as an undefeated champion), and he smoked cigarettes (Pall Malls), and he once quipped, “I never in my whole life smoked anything which hadn’t got printing on it.”

I can find no source for the alleged quotation concerning alcohol, marijuana, and heroin. Drugs aside, it’s a curious quotation, given Ellington’s distaste for the term jazz and for all musical categories other than good and bad.

And it was Don Redman who wrote “Chant of the Weed.”

Could McClelland be mistaking Ellington for Louis Armstrong?

Update, August 8, 2011: My July 11 e-mails to Edward McClelland and NBC Chicago have received no replies. Nothing in McClelland’s piece, not even the plain errors of fact about “Chant of the Weed” and “Eight Miles High,” has been corrected.

[“I never in my whole life”: quoted in Derek Jewell, Duke: A Portrait of Duke Ellington (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977).]

Telephone exchange
names on screen

[Click for a larger view.]

Dawn breaks on Manhattan, in Sweet Smell of Success (dir.
Alexander Mackendrick, 1957). The view is purportedly from an apartment at 1619 Broadway, the Brill Building, between 49th and 50th, where powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) lives with his sister Susan (Susan Harrison). Hart’s Guide to New York City (1964) locates the Warner Theatre (just right of center, bottom) at 1585 Broadway, now the address of the Morgan Stanley Building. This shot might not be from the Brill Building, but we’re at least in the neighborhood.

I can make nothing of that Howard on the left: the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge stood at 851 Eighth Avenue (now the address of an Hampton Inn) and bore no resemblance to the building in this shot.

Sweet Smell of Success is a lurid and compelling story of ego and subservience, with an over-the-top screenplay by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets and great cinematography from James Wong Howe. Lancaster, Harrison, and Tony Curtis are superb. And Martin Milner does a fine job as a West Coast jazz musician.

Oh, the exchange name. Did you spot it?

A 1955 list of recommended exchange names gives only one possibility for PE: PErshing. PErshing it is.

Sweet Smell of Success is available, beautifully restored, from the Criterion Collection.

More exchange names on screen
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse : Baby Face : Born Yesterday : The Dark Corner : Deception : Dream House : The Little Giant : The Man Who Cheated Himself : Murder, My Sweet : Nightmare Alley : The Public Enemy : Side Street : This Gun for Hire

Pogue, Hunsecker

At the New York Times, David Pogue is in hot (but not boiling) water after a recent presentation to public-relations professionals, titled “Pitch Me, Baby.” One detail:

On a later slide, he displays eight recent New York Times columns and identifies five as having come from public relations people. Pogue explains that, as a reviewer of new gadgets, there is no comprehensive database he can rely on to learn about new stuff. Hence he relies on companies and their hired pitchmen to tell him about new products.
Thus I had to laugh when watching Sweet Smell of Success (dir. Alexander Mackendrick, 1957) last night. Here is famed columnist J.J. Hunsecker, “The Eyes of Broadway” (played by Burt Lancaster):
“The day I can’t get along without a press agent’s handouts, I’ll close up shop and move to Alaska, lock, stock, and barrel.”

xkcd: “Strunk and White”

Today’s xkcd: “Strunk and White.”

[E.B. White was born on July 11, 1899. Here’s a Wikipedia article that helps to explain the joke in the comic.]

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Salt war

An article at Scientific American suggests that excess salt is not particularly dangerous to human health:

This week a meta-analysis of seven studies involving a total of 6,250 subjects in the American Journal of Hypertension found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or death in people with normal or high blood pressure. In May European researchers publishing in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the less sodium that study subjects excreted in their urine — an excellent measure of prior consumption — the greater their risk was of dying from heart disease. These findings call into question the common wisdom that excess salt is bad for you, but the evidence linking salt to heart disease has always been tenuous.

Melinda Wenner Moyer, It’s Time to End the War on Salt
Reading such articles makes me think there’s no point in reading such articles: it seems that everything one knows turns out to be, at some point, wrong. (Smoke: good!) But what I know is that once one gets some distance from processed foods, they taste too dang salty.

[With apologies to The Bride of Frankenstein.]

Joyeux anniversaire, M. Proust

Marcel Proust was born on July 10, 1871.

Style is in no way an embellishment, as certain people think, it is not even a question of technique; it is, like color with certain painters, a quality of vision, a revelation of a private universe which each one of use sees and which is not seen by others. The pleasure an artist gives us is to make us know an additional universe.

Marcel Proust, in a letter to Antoine Bibesco, November (?) 1912. From Letters of Marcel Proust, translated by Mina Curtiss (New York: Helen Marx Books / Books & Co., 2006).
Related reading
All Proust posts (via Pinboard)

Hi and Bell

[Hi and Lois, July 10, 2011.]

Today’s Hi and Lois is a grand tour through the brave new world of self-service: Hi Flagston takes his bottles and cans to a recycling center, buys a newspaper from a machine, pumps his own gas (from a rather retro pump), scans his own groceries, stops at an ATM (helpfully marked “ATM”), rents a DVD from a Redbox-like machine, and dials an automated help-line. Meanwhile, son Chip wonders where the summer jobs are.

I found myself paying too much attention to the panel above. Do you see why?

I remember the last time I saw a Bell System Public Telephone sign: last September, at Schubas Tavern in Chicago. It was too dark to take a decent photograph. The above photograph, “Bell Telephone Sign,” is by mdf3530 and is licensed under a Creative Commons 2.0 License. Thanks, mdf3530, for sharing your work.

Related reading
All Hi and Lois posts (via Pinboard)
Van Dyke Parks in Chicago (At Schubas Tavern)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Betty Ford (1918–2011)

From the New York Times:

Betty Ford, the outspoken and much-admired wife of President Gerald R. Ford who overcame alcoholism and an addiction to pills and helped found one of the best-known rehabilitation centers in the nation, died Friday in Palm Springs, Calif. She was 93.
The Times quotes Betty Ford’s 1987 book Betty: A Glad Awakening: “I am an ordinary woman who was called onstage at an extraordinary time.” Ordinary? Read the obituary and see if you agree.

Theodore Dalrymple on handwriting

Theodore Dalrymple draws an extreme conclusion:

Those who learn to write only on a screen will have more difficulty in distinguishing themselves from each other, and since the need to do so will remain, they will adopt more extreme ways of doing so. Less handwriting, then, more social pathology.

The Handwriting Is on the Wall (Wall Street Journal)
Two observations:

It seems doubtful that young people as a rule now distinguish themselves from one another by means of handwriting.

Dalrymple’s claim here would seem to argue against everything from one-inch margins to school uniforms.

A related post
Cursive writing in Indiana

[Editors, please, no more headlines with handwriting and wall.]

Friday, July 8, 2011

P.S. 131 for the win

Michal (Mike) Khafizou, a fifth-grader at Public School 131 in Brooklyn, recently won first prize in an essay contest sponsored by Hamilton Parkway Collision. From the New York Daily News:

Borough Park auto body shop owner Brian Nacht has come up with an interesting assignment for students that combines a love of cars with good essay writing.

For the past 15 years, Nacht, owner of Hamilton Parkway Collision on Fort Hamilton Parkway, has asked public school fifth-graders to write an essay: “If you were a part of a car, what [part] would it be?”
Brian Nacht sounds like a good guy. And Michal Khafizou sounds like a creative student with a great attitude toward learning. Excerpts from Michal’s winning essay:
When I first came to [my teacher’s] class, I felt disappointed in myself . . . so if I was a part of a car I would be the GPS. . . . The GPS is a part of a car that guides you if you are lost. . . . The work is not too hard; you just have to see what is in front of you.
Congratulations, Michal, from a former P.S. 131 student.

P.S. 131 class pictures
1962–1963 1963–1964 1964–1965 1965–1966 1966–1967

More P.S. 131
P.S. 131 on television
P.S. 131 in 1935 and 1979
The P.S. 131 fence (A photograph)

[Fort Hamilton Parkway is a Boro Park thoroughfare. Boro Park is a section of Brooklyn. For residents, it’s usually Boro, not Borough. I’d be a rear-view mirror, looking into the past. How about you?]

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The benefits of handwriting

From a Chicago Tribune article about the benefits of handwriting:

“For children, handwriting is extremely important. Not how well they do it, but that they do it and practice it,” said Karin Harman James, an assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University. “Typing does not do the same thing.”
James’s research suggests that writing by hand helps preliterate children to recognize letters. Other research mentioned in this article suggests that writing by hand aids memory and leads to greater fluidity in composition. These claims seem intuitive and obvious to me, but it’s nice that there’s data to lend support.

A related post
Cursive writing in Indiana (Planned obsolescence)

[I’m reminded of the Field Notes slogan: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.”]


CopyPasteCharacter is a helpful webpage if you need accented characters, currency symbols, manicules, snowmen, &c. (via One Thing Well). Also useful:

[In some fonts the snowman sports a top hat; in others, a fez.]

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cursive writing in Indiana

Handwriting is in the news in (or out of?) Indiana. As of fall 2011, the state will no longer require public schools to teach cursive writing:

State officials sent school leaders a memo April 25 telling them that instead of cursive writing, students will be expected to become proficient in keyboard use.

The memo says schools may continue to teach cursive as a local standard, or they may decide to stop teaching cursive altogether.
“Keyboard use”: that’s the skill formerly known as typing.

The news from Indiana doesn’t help matters, but I continue to think that reports of the death of handwriting have been greatly exaggerated. The 2008 Pew report Writing, Technology and Teens includes this observation:
Most teens mix and match longhand and computers based on tool availability, assignment requirements and personal preference. When teens write they report that they most often write by hand, though they also often write using computers as well. Out-of-school personal writing is more likely than school writing to be done by hand, but longhand is the more common mode for both purposes. [My emphasis.]
One thoughtful student, quoted in the report:
I type so much faster than I write. But if I want to make a paper much better I have to type it out first, then hand write in the changes, then type the good copy. And it makes it easier to think things through if I can handwrite it. And I think my worst work is when I just type it and don’t handwrite it.
Between handwriting and typing, there’s no necessary either/or. It’s smart to be able to do both well.

[Thanks to Sean at Blackwing Pages for pointing me to the Indiana news.]

Related reading
Archaic Method? Cursive writing no longer has to be taught (Tribune-Star)
Typing Beats Scribbling: Indiana Schools Can Stop Teaching Cursive (Time)

Two related posts
Writing by hand
Writing, technology, and teenagers

Cy Twombly (1928–2011)

My responses to modern art are typically as immediate and unreflective as my responses to food: I really like, or I don’t. Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell: I really like. Hans Hoffman, Jackson Pollock: I don’t. The lists could go on.

I really like Cy Twombly, who died yesterday at the age of eighty-three.

American Artist Who Scribbled a Unique Path (New York Times obituary)
Cy Twombly (Gallery of images)

“Act V”

This week’s This American Life (first aired in 2002) is a must-listen: the story of inmates in a Missouri prison rehearsing and performing the final act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Act V.”

Carbon cruising

In the mail, an envelope holding a seemingly exciting offer — a free Caribbean cruise. But I’ve read David Foster Wallace; I don’t need no stinking cruises. Besides, there’s a small catch involving the purchase of a time-share in Florida.

There are at least six details to enjoy in the scan above: the fake stamps, the fake handwriting, the fake highlighting, the fake smears on the first and third sheets (note that the smears are identical), the fake check (Ceci n’est pas un chèque), and best of all, the fake carbon paper. Yes, that’s fake carbon paper, just a piece of purple-black paper between the “original” and “duplicate” forms. Only the perforations allowing these forms to be separated are real.

This offer evokes the world of the imprinter (aka “the knuckle-buster”), the hand-operated machine once widely used to process credit-card charges by means of a bar pulled across a carbon-paper form. O nostalgia! I’m baffled and inspired that someone would go to such trouble to conjure up the past. But I’m still not signing up.

Also in the mail
The National Dean’s List (Sketchy invitations)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

From the National Jukebox

Streaming music, from the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox:

Belle Baker, “I’ve Got the Yes! We Have No Banana Blues.” A novelty song about a novelty song: very meta. Here’s the original, from the Internet Archive.

Benson Orchestra of Chicago, “Ain’t We Got Fun.” Great for dancing.

Zez Confrey Orchestra, “Kitten on the Keys.” Piano wizardry.

Frank Crumit, “Cross-Word Mamma, You Puzzle Me (But Papa’s Gonna Figure You Out).” Yes, the cross-word craze.

The Duncan Sisters, “Cross-Word Puzzle Blues.” “Some demented nut invented / This way to stay discontented.”

International Novelty Orchestra, “Hey! Hey! and Hee! Hee! (I’m Charleston Crazy).” Another craze. With a great harmonica solo.

George Washington Johnson, “The Laughing Song.” It would appear that there was much to laugh about in 1903.

James P. Johnson, “Bleeding Hearted Blues.” Stride piano.

Harry Lauder, “Stop Your Tickling, Jock!” A “Scotch laughing specialty.”

Paul Whiteman, “Somebody Loves Me.” Said George Gershwin, “Paul made my song live with a vigor that almost floored me.” With doo wacka doo effect.

And here are ten more from the National Jukebox.

[The Gershwin quotation is from Edward Jablonski’s Gershwin (New York: Da Capo, 1998.) Thanks for Stefan Hagemann for pointing me to the cross-word songs. The National Jukebox uses Flash, alas.]

Monday, July 4, 2011

Romney Wordsworth, obsolete

The state has declared Romney Wordsworth obsolete. The Chancellor speaks:

“You’re a librarian, Mister Wordsworth. You’re a dealer in books and two-cent fines and pamphlets and closed stacks and the musty insides of a language factory that spews out meaningless words on an assembly line. Words, Mister Wordsworth, that have no substance and no dimension, like air, like the wind, like a vacuum that you make-believe has an existence by scribbling index numbers on little cards.”

From “The Obsolete Man,” a Twilight Zone episode first broadcast June 2, 1961. With Burgess Meredith (Romney Wordsworth) and Fritz Weaver (The Chancellor).
Fifty years ago, a world without librarians and libraries was the stuff of a totalitarian nightmare. Now it seems that we’re closer to living in The Twilight Zone. One recent New York Times headline: Schools Eliminating Librarians as Budgets Shrink.

You can watch the episode, in three parts, at YouTube.

A related post
Cutting libraries in a recession is like …

[I caught, by chance, a single episode of a Twilight Zone holiday marathon on the SyFy Channel. Yes, Rod Serling imagined a future sans Internet. And yes, I recognize the irony of relying on the IMDb and YouTube and not the library.]

The Fourth of July

[“American flag and tiny parachute after being released from a kite.” Photograph by Bernard Hoffman, March 1949. From the Life Photo Archive.]

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Typing in India

“This is the only job I can do, and I have stuck to it”: Zaheer Ahmed, typist. From a report on commercial typists in India:

Leaving Their Imprint (Bangalore Mirror)

A related post
Namaste, typewriter
Old Typewriter

Punctuation in the news

Last week, Jason Kottke tracked the fate of the Oxford comma at Oxford. Oxford University Press is for the comma. But the university’s “Branding toolkit” recommends the comma’s use only when such use clarifies a sentence’s meaning. My take: using the Oxford comma makes sense. If you always include it, you simplify in a small way the work of writing, and you never run the risk of unintended ambiguity.

Also in the news: the exclamation point, in a New York Times survey of e-mail habits. I think that sparing use of the exclamation point in work-related e-mail can be a good thing. “Thanks!” seems to suggest more-deeply-felt gratitude than “Thanks.” (The sample student-to-professor e-mail in my post on how to e-mail a professor has such a “Thanks!”) Much depends upon the conventions of a workplace: in the land of the low-key and terse, “Thanks!” will likely sound bubbly and overcaffeinated; in a more spirited environment, “Thanks” might sound begrudging. And In the right (or wrong) context, any expression of gratitude is likely to sound passive-aggressive:



Thanks a lot!
Related posts
E-mail and punctuation
How to punctuate a sentence
How to punctuate more sentences

[Should you ever need to enliven a discussion of punctuation, you might turn to this Oxford-comma conversation. It can bring a classroom to life and keep it there.]

Saturday, July 2, 2011


In the supermarket, one shopper to another: “This is Jell-O weather. Do you have any Jell-O?”

[It’s 90.1°F. Feels like 100°.]

Related reading
All “Overheard” posts

Friday, July 1, 2011

John Gruber, “Credit and Attribution”

A long and thoughtful post at Daring Fireball on giving credit where credit is due. The context: All Things Digital’s use of a story from Federico Viticci’s MacStories. The moral: be generous and respectful in crediting your sources. As Gruber asks, “If he’s not worth crediting by name or publication, why is his story worth re-reporting?”

Gmail, updated

The Official Gmail Blog calls it “a much cleaner, modern look.” I agree. The Preview (Dense) theme looks especially nice, and the grey navigation bar is far better than the black bar (still present in other Google services).

Van Dyke Parks, two singles

[Imaginary liner notes for Van Dyke Parks’s new recordings.]

“Dreaming of Paris” (Parks) b/w “Wedding in Madagascar (Faranaina).” Produced by Van Dyke Parks and Matthew Cartsonis. Sleeve art by Ed Ruscha. Bananastan B4501. 2011.

“Wall Street” (Parks) b/w “Money Is King” (The Growling Tiger). Produced by Van Dyke Parks and Matthew Cartsonis. Sleeve art by Art Spiegelman. Bananastan B4500. 2011.

These releases — the first two of six 45s, with sleeve art by eminent American artists — are Van Dyke Parks’s first commercial solo recordings since the 1998 Warner album Moonlighting: Live at the Ash Grove (an excellent introduction, by the way, to The Man and His Music). Note: the first solo recordings. Since 1998, Parks has been heard on record countless times as an arranger, co-writer, and collaborating musician (with Inara George, Joanna Newsom, Ringo Starr, Rufus Wainwright, and Brian Wilson, among others). In 2010 Parks toured for the first time in Europe and North America; in 2011 he has played in Europe and Australia. He may be, as he puts it, “redundant” in the record business, but he does get around. And now he’s recording on his own terms, with vinyl available by subscription, in a project he describes as “Nouveau Niche.”

Fans of the 1995 Parks–Wilson collaboration Orange Crate Art might associate “Dreaming of Paris” with that album’s “Sail Away.” Here the escape is by plane, a first-class flight with Cabernet and crème brûlée. But things grow dark, the delights of travel interrupted by memories (or news) of assassinations and war. The song closes on an eerie note: a ghostly chorus, strings and ukuleles, a solemn bass. A strange, beautiful trip indeed.

“Wedding in Madagascar” might serve as a reminder that Parks was one of the first pop musicians to explore what has become known as “world music”: his 1972 album Discover America celebrated the music of Trinidad and Tobago (an abiding Parks interest). “Wedding in Madagascar” is a lovely arrangement of what seems to be a traditional Malagasy melody, with horns, strings, and bright electric guitars.

In 2003, an earlier version of “Wall Street” was briefly available as a free download from Parks’s website. Comparing the two recordings is instructive: the new “Wall Street” has more varied instrumentation and a far stronger sense of theater, pausing and slowing down now and then for maximal dramatic effect. “Wall Street” is a 9/11 song, beginning with the biz-talk and chatter of a workday (“Drop me off at Walk Don’t Walk”) before turning to ash, blood, and confetti, and the indelible image of a man and woman holding hands as they fall to the pavement. Yes, that happened, and this song remembers.

“Money Is King” picks up where “Wall Street” ends, with an A major chord. Adding a dense and varied string arrangement to a melody by the Growling Tiger (Trinidadian calypsonian Neville Marcano), Parks tells some transcultural truths about the lives of the rich and the poor. The rich man?

He can commit murder and get off free,
And live in the governor’s company.
What about the poor?
But if you are poor, the people tell you “Shoo!”
And a dog is better than you.
These singles return the listener to a last-century experience: listening to a song, studying the sleeve art, and getting up to flip the record. Here is true high-fidelity: the superior sound of music on vinyl, and the work of a musician following his own idiosyncratic path.

[The recordings are available from Bananastan and iTunes. Vinyl, to my ears, offers far better listening. Idiosyncratic Path is the title of a 1995 VDP compilation album. These imaginary liner notes now appear on the Bananastan Records website, on the front page and on a page about the first two releases. I’m honored to have my writing be part of the project.]