Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Windows Explorer

Above, a partial screenshot from the Microsoft blog Building Windows 8, showing purported improvements to Windows Explorer. Some computer users might find the above display appealing, in the manner of a well-stocked kitchen. I’m reminded though of my first reaction to Microsoft Office 2007: looking at screenshots made me decide that I wanted nothing to do with the new Word, and I soon switched to Macs at work and at home. Right now I can imagine a Windows user looking at the future of Windows Explorer and thinking about making the same switch.

The Office-style ribbon of the new Explorer seems a spectacularly counter-intuitive design choice: Microsoft’s data shows that users access 86.7% of commands in Explorer by means of context menus and keyboard shortcuts. In other words, users do almost everything with right-clicks and the keyboard. So why fill screen space with a ribbon? Here is the Building Windows 8 explanation:
With greater than 85% of command usage being invoked using a method other than the primary UI, there was clearly an opportunity to improve the Explorer user experience to make it more effective — more visible and uniformly accessible.
The reasoning here isn’t persuasive. If you can make dinner with most of your kitchen tools in cabinets and drawers, there’s no need to set those tools out on the table before you begin making dinner.

A related post
Word 2007 (Word-processing and its discontents)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Beach Boys in the NYT crossword

Tomorrow’s New York Times crossword by Peter A. Collins is Beach Boys-centric, with five song titles divided among nine clues. Why tomorrow’s puzzle? My guess is that it’s because the first incarnation of the group, the Pendletones, began playing together fifty years ago this month: Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, and Mike Love. If August 31, 1961 has any specific Beach Boys significance, I’m unaware of it.

If you do the Times puzzle in syndication, look for tomorrow’s puzzle on October 12.

Infinity jest

From a reader’s comment at the Daily Dish:

I’ve never really had any problem with infinity. Why? Because if the universe is infinite, then I am by definition the center of the universe. Any direction I point, you can travel an infinite distance. I might be small and insignificant compared to the rest of the universe, but knowing I’m the center makes everything OK.

P.S. This also means you are also the center of the universe ;)

Three suggestions

If you’re driving on a highway and the traffic suddenly slows or stops, and the vehicles behind you are at some distance:

1. Turn on your hazard lights.

2. Leave significant space between you and the vehicle in front of you.

3. Keep checking your rear-view mirror.
If someone coming up behind you is not paying full attention, your hazard lights might catch their eye and prompt them to slow down or stop in time. If not, the free space in front of your vehicle might lessen the severity of a collision.

I called the Illinois State Police to ask what they thought about using hazard lights in this way. A desk sergeant said it was the right thing to do and added the second and third suggestions. Please, pass them on.

[What prompted me to think about these things? Driving on interstates through rain and fog and using hazard lights when traffic suddenly slowed and I was the last in line. I also left significant space and checked my mirror, but I do those things without thinking and would not have thought to recommend them.]

David “Honeyboy” Edwards

The last of the last:

David Honeyboy Edwards, believed to have been the oldest surviving member of the first generation of Delta blues singers, died on Monday at his home in Chicago. He was 96. . . .

Over eight decades Mr. Edwards knew or played with virtually every major figure who worked in the idiom, including Charley Patton, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He was probably best known, though, as the last living link to Robert Johnson, widely hailed as the King of the Delta Blues.

David Honeyboy Edwards, Delta Bluesman, Dies at 96 (New York Times)
David “Honeyboy” Edwards on YouTube
Interview, WBEZ, Chicago (2008)
“Traveling Riverside Blues” (2001)
“Crossroads” (1997)
“Who May Your Regular Be” (1951)
“The Army Blues” (1942)
“Spread My Raincoat Down” (1942)

The word of the day: quaquaversal

From the Oxford English Dictionary, the word of the day is quaquaversal: “Chiefly Geol. Dipping, pointing, or occurring in every direction.” Does this word make you too think of Lucky’s monologue?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Reasons for Apple’s success

Adrian Slywotzky on the reasons for Apple’s success:

With each launch of another device or application, Apple seems to pull exquisite new products, fully formed, from the minds of a few geniuses in turtlenecks. From the outside, Apple’s secret sauce would seem to be inspired design (read, “think different”); and inspired marketing of that design. In other words, 90% inspiration and 10% perspiration (mostly experienced by eager customers scrambling to get the latest iPod or iPad). iPhone 5? “Eureka!”

The truth is really a lot different.

Steve Jobs and the Eureka Myth (HBR Blogs)
[I’d make an analogy to what many students think about good writing: that it just happens (to good writers), not that it’s the result of considerable planning and revision.]


Elaine and I went to the Asian market and bought some freekeh, some falafel mix, and a multi-color pun. It’s a surprisingly good pun, made in Korea by Morning Glory, with six choices: 0.5, 0.7, 1.0 black; 0.7 blue, green, red.

This post is for my son Ben, who loves puns. He’s on the ball, knows how to make a point, and is seldom irascible. And Ziyad products don’t make him falafel. Never!

[The box does say Ziyad Falafil, but falafel is the usual spelling. Freekeh is a grain, très Chic, I think.]

Letter art

“From idiosyncratic letterheads to sketches, stamps, cartoons and multiple choice form letters, what do a letter’s illustrations reveal?” They reveal many things. Look:

Elana Estrin, The art of the letter (University of Texas at Austin)

[Featuring Muhammad Ali, Al Hirschfeld, Irving Hoffman, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and John Steinbeck.]

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Stalwart workers

They are intelligent, protective of their time away from work, and not especially interested in power, money, or becoming the boss. Thomas J. DeLong calls them “stalwart workers”:

Stop Ignoring the Stalwart Worker (Harvard Business Review Blogs, via Boing Boing)

[What I can’t figure out: how long have deLong’s people been spying on me? And you — are you a stalwart worker too?]

Young-adult letters

From a Boston Globe article on letter-writing among young adults:

Samuel Pearce, 20, a Brown University student from Milton, began writing letters to an African pen pal as a child and to a friend at summer camp when he was a teenager, and when his best friend went away to college he chose to stay in touch via snail mail. This experience inspired him to write letters with other friends as well.

“It’s cool,” Pearce said. “If there’s someone I’ve been friends with but haven’t written letters to, often times, beginning writing letters with them reveals dimensions of them that I just hadn’t thought of before.”
It is cool, and Pearce’s comments remind me that one of the great friendships of my life began by correspondence. You can read some excerpts from the letters of my friend Aldo Carrasco in this post. Believe me, it’s worth the time.

When did you last write a letter? My last was in April, to my fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Schorr.

[Thanks to Music Clip of the Day for pointing me to the Globe article.]

Friday, August 26, 2011

As Irene approaches

[“Palm trees blowing in the wind during hurricane in Florida.” Photograph by Ed Clark. September 1947. From the Life Photo Archive.]

Hurricane Irene is badly misnamed, as Irene comes from the Greek εἰρήνη (eiréné), “peace.” Wherever you are, reader, I hope that you and yours stay safe and sound as unpeaceful Irene approaches the East Coast.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Recently updated

Testing teachers for drug use: In 2009, a West Virginia school board abandoned a similar effort. Background on that case and on a Supreme Court ruling concerning random drug tests and public employees.

Testing teachers for drug use

In the tiny central-Illinois town of Glasford, teachers are on strike over their school district’s insistence that they submit to random drug tests. That’s random testing, without cause. No school district in the state has such a policy. A statement from the Illini Bluffs Federation of Teachers suggests that the drug-test proposal is a ploy to force union concessions on other matters. (We’ll drop the outrageous insistence on X, if you’ll give up Y.)

The Belleville News-Democrat, which the Illinois Federation of Teachers characterizes as a strongly anti-union newspaper, is taking a poll on the matter. If you, like me, think that teachers should not be subject to random drug testing (testing without cause), you might want to put your 2¢ in by voting. Click on the link, and you’ll find the poll to the left, under a photograph of a room full of empty desks.

8:08 p.m.: In 2009, a West Virginia school board abandoned a similar effort. The ACLU has the details and adds context:

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government may only conduct suspicionless drug tests of employees in “safety-sensitive” job roles, such as air traffic controllers or nuclear power plant operators, whose job functions, if done improperly, would cause specific and potentially catastrophic threats to the public safety.

The court firmly rejected the contention that public school employees meet the criteria for random drug testing: “A train, nuclear reactor, or firearm in the hands of someone on drugs presents an actual concrete risk to numerous people — the same cannot be said for a teacher wielding a history textbook.”

In addition to violating public employees’ constitutional right to privacy, random drug testing programs have been found demonstrably ineffective by the National Academy of Sciences, among others, producing a false sense of security that distracts from true safety threats.

Random drug testing may also reveal extremely sensitive personal information, such as medical conditions, prescription drug use or pregnancy, and can produce an unacceptably high rate of false-positives.
Update, September 1, 2011: The strike has been settled. It sounds as though random testing is not part of the contract:
Neither side has disclosed details of the tentative agreement. Board attorney Karl Meurlot said drug testing remains in the agreement that the teachers ratified on Monday, but that it is “substantially different than [from] the random drug testing policy the board initially proposed.” He did not elaborate.

Illini Bluffs students get back to school after strike ends (Peoria Journal Star)
Update, September 2, 2011: For current teachers, the contract allows voluntary participation in random drug testing and requires drug testing when there is probable cause. But for teachers hired after August 15, 2011, random drug tests will be required. Read more:

Illini Bluffs teachers contract includes voluntary drug testing (Peoria Journal Star)

Words from Steve Jobs

Not from his letter of resignation but from his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Beloit Mindset List, 2011 edition

The 2011 edition of the Beloit Mindset List is out, and it manages to outdo the 2010 list in faulty perspective and tackiness. A few choice examples to characterize the “mindset” of the class of 2015 (“most of them born in 1993,” we’re told):

They “swipe” cards, not merchandise. [Have the listmakers never scanned groceries at a self-checkout?]

O.J. Simpson has always been looking for the killers of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. [Simpson has been imprisoned since 2008.]

Arnold Palmer has always been a drink. [Huh? Here’s an explanation.]
Perhaps the most ill-advised entry:
We have never asked, and they have never had to tell.
“We”? “They”? This odd sentence also obscures the fact that DADT [Don’t ask, don’t tell] prohibited gay and bisexual servicemen and -women from speaking about sexual orientation and same-sex relationships.

I prefer Angus Johnston’s Beloit Mindset List for the Real World. A sample:
Returning students have always been a growing campus demographic.

And have always been ignored in lists like this.
Related posts
Re: the Beloit Mindset List (“What bothers me about the Beloit list involves some unspoken assumptions about reality and young adults.”)
The Beloit Mindset List, again (the 2012 list)

[Thanks to Matt Thomas, whose tweet about my 2010 post brought the 2011 list to my attention.]

Plagiarism in the news

Dora D. Clarke-Pine examined 120 psychology dissertations in search of plagiarism. Checking for word-for-word sequences of ten or more words without proper attribution, she found plagiarism in four of every five dissertations. Checking for word-for-word sequences of five or more words, she found plagiarism in all 120. Read more:

The Seemingly Persistent Rise of Plagiarism (New York Times)

My intuition is that plagiarism is not generally the result of ignorance about what constitutes plagiarism. Think of the widespread habit of rolling through stop signs: everyone knows you’re supposed to stop, but doing otherwise is easy and almost always without consequences.

Related reading
All plagiarism posts (via Pinboard)

Tyne Daly, miner

Tyne Daly, interviewed by Charlie Rose last night on PBS, responded to a question about working in television, film, and theater, and whether she considers one more important than the others. She said that she doesn’t make such distinctions: “Everything has a different adventure.” And then:

“Except — theory: I’m a miner. And if you put me in the diamond mines, I will mine diamonds for you. If you put me in the gold mines, I can mine gold. Put me in the coal mines, I will mine coal, a good grade of coal. But I cannot mine diamonds in a coal mine. I’m just a miner.” [Makes shoveling gesture and laughs.]
Daly is now starring as Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class. You can watch Daly, McNally, and Rose in conversation online.

Ross Barbour (1928–2011)

From the Los Angeles Times:

Ross Barbour, the last surviving original member of the Four Freshmen, the influential close-harmony vocal quartet that came to fame in the 1950s with hits such as “Graduation Day,” has died. He was 82.
Still up at YouTube: a great introduction to the Four Freshmen, in the form of a 1964 special for Japanese television: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. In the first clip, from left ro right: Ross Barbour, Bob Flanigan, Ken Albers, Bill Comstock.

A related post
Bob Flanigan (1926–2011)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

“Hope is better than fear”

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.
The closing words of Jack Layton’s farewell letter to his fellow Canadians remind me of the words (in translation) from Marcel Proust in the OCA sidebar:
[O]ur worst fears, like our greatest hopes, are not outside our powers, and we can come in the end to triumph over the former and to achieve the latter.
There are any number of American politicians who could learn something from Jack Layton.

Ashford and Leiber

From the New York Times:

Nick Ashford, who with Valerie Simpson, his songwriting partner and later wife, wrote some of Motown’s biggest hits, like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough“ and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and later recorded their own hits and toured as a duo, died Monday at a hospital in New York City. He was 70 and lived in Manhattan.

Nick Ashford, of Motown Writing Duo, Dies at 70 (New York Times)
And from the Los Angeles Times:
Jerry Leiber, who with his songwriting partner Mike Stoller, created a songbook that infused the rock ’n’ roll scene of the 1950s and early ’60s with energy and mischievous humor, has died. He was 78.

Jerry Leiber dies at 78; lyricist in songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller (Los Angeles Times)
Just a dozen Leiber-Stoller songs: “Charlie Brown,” “Hound Dog,” “Is That All There Is?,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Potion Number Nine,” “Kansas City,” “On Broadway” (with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil), “Poison Ivy,” “Riot in Cell Block Number Nine,” “Searchin’,” “Stand By Me” (with Ben E. King), and “Yakety Yak.”

Monday, August 22, 2011

Recently updated

A just-updated post: Eschaton-inspired video. The New York Times reports that Michael Schur, who directed the Decemberists video, has acquired the film rights to Infinite Jest.

“Twenty years is a long time”

Heard while flipping channels this afternoon: Whoopi Goldberg on Oprah, speaking of the show’s longevity:

“Twenty years is a long time. It’s like a quarter of a century.”
But it’s exactly like . . .

Digital naïfs in the news

The five-campus ERIAL Project (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) has found that college students largely lack the skills to find and evaluate sources:

The most alarming finding in the ERIAL studies was perhaps the most predictable: when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy. . . .

Throughout the interviews, students mentioned Google 115 times — more than twice as many times as any other database. The prevalence of Google in student research is well-documented, but the Illinois researchers found something they did not expect: students were not very good at using Google. They were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results. Consequently, the students did not know how to build a search that would return good sources.
Says anthropology professor and study leader Andrew Asher, “I think it really exploded this myth of the ‘digital native.’ Just because you’ve grown up searching things in Google doesn’t mean you know how to use Google as a good research tool.”

Worse still: students lack the search skills to navigate scholarly databases. And not one of the students observed in the two-year study asked a librarian for help. Read more:

What Students Don't Know (Inside Higher Ed, via Boing Boing)

[Digital naïfs: my name for digital natives who are “in the dark, or at least in dimly-lit rooms, when it comes to digital technology.” More in this post.]

Eschaton-inspired video

The Decemberists have released an Infinite Jest-inspired video for “Calamity Song.” The specific inspiration: the novel’s Eschaton episode.

First Watch: The Decemberists, “Calamity Song” (NPR)

Update: The New York Times reports that Michael Schur, who directed this video, has the film rights to Infinite Jest.

[I’ll admit it: the Eschaton episode is my least-favorite part of Infinite Jest.]

Pocket notebook:
The Lady in the Lake

[Lieutenant DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan) takes notes. Note the bit of business in the background: two cops eating bananas.]

The Lady in the Lake (dir. Robert Montgomery, 1947) is an experiment in point of view, filmed from the perspective of its main character, Philip Marlowe (Montgomery), who is seen onscreen only in a mirror here and there. And that’s why Mildred Haveland (Jayne Meadows) appears to be aiming a gun at you. Yes, you. Look out!

I’m convinced that Meadows’s over-the-top performance in this film is a secret influence on Kristen Wiig.

Lloyd Nolan also appears in what be the most pencil-and-paper-centric film ever made, The House on 92nd Street (dir. Henry Hathaway, 1945).

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

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mitt Romney: the soul of a poet

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that Mitt Romney is seeking to bulldoze his 3,009-square-foot “oceanfront manse” in La Jolla, California, and replace it with an 11,062-square-foot manse.

Some might find this plan unseemly. They seem not to recognize that Mitt Romney has something of a poet’s soul. Consider his reason for living in La Jolla, at least when he’s not living in Massachusetts or New Hampshire at one of his other manses:

“I wanted to be where I could hear the waves,” Romney told a gaggle of media last year at a book signing in University City. “As a boy we spent summers on Lake Huron and I could hear the crashing waves at night. It was one of my favorite things in the world; being near the water and the waves was something I very badly wanted to experience again.”
Is it William Butler Yeats I hear in these words of longing? I believe it is.
I will arise now, and go to La Jolla,
And a large house build there, of brick and
    stucco made:
Nine bathrooms will I have there . . . .
Of course, the resemblance is not exact. Yeats didn’t build a small cabin in Innisfree and tear it down to build a larger cabin. He never even went to Innisfree. Romney went to La Jolla: he is more a man of action. Also, Romney didn’t build the first house. It was waiting for him when he got to La Jolla. Also, La Jolla is not a lake isle. As I said, not exact.

But get this: Romney’s $10-million New Hampshire manse stands by the edge of Lake Winnipesaukee. Yes, by the shores of Winnipesaukee, by the shining Big-Bucks-Water. A poet’s soul.

Related reading
The Bain of My Existence (Elaine’s adventures at Bain & Company)

[Details found via the Huffington Post. With apologies to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Butler Yeats.]

Kurt Andersen on American politics

In the New York Times, Kurt Andersen writes about what’s wrong with American politics:

Sincere, passionate, hysterical belief that the country is full of (make-believe) anti-American enemies and (fictional) foreign horrors is the besetting national disease. And I’ve diagnosed the systemic problem: the American body politic suffers from autoimmune disorders.
It’s a compelling metaphor, but it’s really nothing new. Richard Hofstadter made the same diagnosis in psychological terms in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (Harper’s, November 1964). Here’s a sample:
The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism. . . .

The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.

Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.
It makes sense then that Michele Bachmann just warned against “the rise of the Soviet Union”: she’s operating from the mindset that Hofstadter described in 1964. As Andersen points out, autoimmune disorders are incurable.

William Deresiewicz on heroes

William Deresiewicz on the word heroes and what he calls “the cult of the uniform”:

Perhaps no word in public life of late has been more thoroughly debased by overuse. Soldiers are “heroes”; firefighters are “heroes”; police officers are “heroes” — all of them, not the special few who undoubtedly deserve the term. . . .

The irony is that our soldiers are the last people who are likely to call themselves heroes and are apparently very uncomfortable with this kind of talk.

An Empty Regard (New York Times)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Brian Wilson’s Disney album

From The Playlist, some details of Brian Wilson’s forthcoming In the Key of Disney. The song choices are sometimes spot on (“You’ve Got a Friend in Me”), sometimes cringe-inducing (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight”). The cover art looks to my eyes less like a sunset and more like a Disneyfied nuclear event. Yikes.

A true fact: Disney music has a prominent place in the Brian Wilson story: “When You Wish Upon a Star” inspired “Surfer Girl.” Another true fact: Wilson’s collaborator Van Dyke Parks arranged “The Bare Necessities” for Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967). That song is to appear on the forthcoming album: I wonder if VDP will be lending a hand.

Alphabetizing Safari bookmarks

I’ve been using Safari more often and am surprised to find no option for alphabetizing bookmarks. But James Howard’s free utility Sortosaurus does the trick. Sortosaurus works with various versions of Safari and OS X. Thank you, James!

(Found via MacRumors)

The F word (Find)

According to Dan Russell, a “search anthropologist” at Google, ninety percent of people don’t know how to use Control+F or Command+F to find text in a document or on a webpage. Read all about it:

Alexis Madrigal, Crazy: 90 Percent of People Don’t Know How to Use CTRL+F (Atlantic, via Boing Boing)

I’ve observed that many digital naïfs don’t know that Find makes it much easier to make one’s way through a piece of writing. Digital naïfs: my name for digital natives who are “in the dark, or at least in dimly-lit rooms, when it comes to digital technology.” More in this post.

[In a document, on a webpage: that’s an interesting distinction, no? The document being a repository, and the page being a visual field, even when it’s scrolling out of view.]

Friday, August 19, 2011

[Parking lot with hairband. Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

Dangling appostives of the Times

In today’s New York Times:

A critic of conventional wisdom and an amateur musician, Dr. Schipper’s work focused on improving efficiency in energy use and transportation.
Do you see what’s wrong? Claire Cook’s Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing (1985) has a good explanation.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Photographer David Plowden

Photographer David Plowden, on riding the last regular-service steam engine in New England:

“When I watched the gauge drop to zero, I realized that the era was over, and I realized very quickly that I had not only been photographing the end of the locomotive but I’d been photographing the profound change that was occurring in America. And I thought to myself, Plowden, you better get out there and photograph the other things that you remember so well as a young person, because they’re not gonna be here. And that’s what I’ve spent my life doing.”
Plowden and his photographs are the focus of an episode of The Story, Disappearing America (American Public Media). There’s a website devoted to his work.


October 16, 2013: I just discovered that this episode of The Story is no longer available.

[Thanks, Elaine, for pointing me to this podcast.]

The Grapes of Wrath, 2011

BBC economics editor Paul Mason rented a car and retraced the Joad family’s journey. He tells the story in words and a short film.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pi Recordings

Nate Chinen on the story of Pi Recordings:

Avant-garde jazz is notoriously marginalized music, and the afflictions now plaguing the recording industry are well known. But through a selective release schedule, a careful eye on the budget, a thoughtful approach to promotion and, crucially, a sense of cultivation and commitment to its artists, Pi has not only survived but has also managed to thrive.

Despite the Odds, a Jazz Label Finds a Way to Thrive (New York Times)
I have a half-dozen Pi albums, every one terrific. Small labels are the only future for almost all the music I care about.

A related post
Abrams, Lewis, Mitchell: The Trio (Pi recording artists)

Dream jobs

It’s a truism of blogging that no one cares what you had for lunch. I agree: that’s why the photograph is so small. I took the photograph as a reminder that in another lifetime, I might have been a capable short-order cook. (Just look at that small plate.) Other dream jobs: soda jerk, stationer, traffic cop. Elaine is skeptical about soda jerk, though she does concede that I’d make a good sous-jerk.

[Lunch was a tuna-salad sandwich, fries, and lettuce and tomato. Fries made in the oven, with a small amount of oil. Margaret Mason wrote No One Cares What You Had for Lunch: 100 Ideas for Your Blog (2006).]


[“BIG DEMAND! Good prices year round. Nation-wide markets waiting for all you can ship. WE BUY! Sell to us also. Breeder lays 20,000 eggs yearly. Get ready now for next spawn. Start with small pond, creek, lowland. Free book shows sketch. Men & Women starting in every state and Canada. See what others are doing with our methods. Send no money! Just your name and address on postcard brings special offer to beginners. Write. AMERICAN FROG CANNING CO. (Dept. 133–A) New Orleans, La.” Popular Mechanics, January 1938.]

“Get ready now for next spawn” somehow sounds to my ears like horrorshow, not easy work-at-home business. And if you’re wondering: yes, you’ll have to kill and dress those giant frogs before dropping what’s left of them in the mailbox. Aiiieee.

The American Frog Canning Company’s booklet on raising frogs is available in fascimile. In addition to raising, it covers catching, grading, killing, dressing, and shipping. Aiiieee.

Also from Popular Mechanics
Alkalize with Alka-Seltzer
A mystery EXchange name
“Radios, it is”

[Yes, I’ve eaten frog legs. They tasted, of course, like chicken.]

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Robert Duncan on language

Robert Duncan, speaking at a memorial for fellow poet Louis Zukofsky, December 1978:

“I in no way believe that there is such a thing as ‘just language,’ any more than there is ‘just footprints.’ I mean, it is human life that prints itself everywhere in it and that’s what we read when we’re really reading.”

Quoted in Mark Scroggins, The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky (Berkeley: Shoemaker Hoard, 2007).

Monday, August 15, 2011

How to e-mail a student

[Advice for professors.]

As the writer of How to e-mail a professor, I want to offer some suggestions to professors about how to reply to e-mails from their students. I’m prompted to do so by what I hear from reliable sources about profs whose replies to student e-mails are cryptic, rude, or non-existent. Here are three suggestions:

Make your e-mail policy clear to students. If you don’t read and respond to e-mail from students, let your students know that, and don’t share your e-mail address with them. If you have a schedule for checking e-mail, let your students know how long they should expect to wait for an answer.

Reply promptly. I am not suggesting that you check your account constantly. I am suggesting that when you check e-mail and see something from a student, you reply. David Allen’s two-minute rule is relevant here: if it takes less than two minutes to do, do it now. The point of checking e-mail should be to deal with e-mail, not to postpone that work indefinitely.

Some professors make a point of delaying so as not to encourage students to expect instant replies. A better strategy would be to note in your reply that the sender has just happened to catch you online.

Don’t be brusque. (Don’t be this guy.) I like brevity in e-mail — keeping it to two, three, four, or five sentences can be just right — but even a brief e-mail can be made more human in three simple ways:

Address the writer by name.

Reply as if you’re speaking, not as if you’re writing a telegram.

Sign off. See you in class or See you next week can help make a professor sound less like the Delphic oracle and more like an everyday human.
Compare and contrast: which replies would you rather receive?

Maggie, yes, that’s a good idea. See you in class.



I don’t think that would work, Bart. Let’s talk about it after class.


This is a question for office hours.

Lisa, it would be easier to talk about this question during office hours. Come by tomorrow.
For every clueless student e-mailer, there’s another who has thought carefully about making a decent impression in pixels. Professors should do likewise. The longer sample responses I’ve suggested would take mere seconds to type. But if you’d prefer to sound like the Delphic oracle, well, that’s your business — and Apollo’s.

See you tomorrow,


[The two-minute rule, from David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (New York: Penguin, 2002): “If the Next Action can be done in 2 minutes or less, do it when you first pick the item up. Even if that item is not a ‘high priority’ one, do it now if you’re ever going to do it at all.“]

Saturday, August 13, 2011

“Where’s that son?”

André Gregory, in My Dinner with André (dir. Louis Malle, 1981):

“You know, people hold on to these images — father, mother, husband, wife, again, for the same reason, ’cause they seem to provide some firm ground. But there’s no wife there. What does that mean — ‘a wife,’ ‘a husband,’ ‘a son’? A baby holds your hands, and then suddenly, there’s this huge man lifting you off the ground, and then he’s gone. Where’s that son?”
He’s in Boston. Do great, Ben!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Shadow of a Doubt, on location

[“Actors Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, and Henry Travers rehearsing a scene on location while director Alfred Hitchcock (seated) looks on.” Photograph by J. R. Eyerman. Santa Rosa, California, 1943. From the Life Photo Archive.]

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is one of my favorite films. I first watched it on my dad’s recommendation. (Thanks, Dad.) The film has long seemed to me Nabokovian: Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten), the stranger in a placid American town, reminds me of both Humbert Humbert (Lolita) and Charles Kinbote (Pale Fire). Uncle Charlie’s relationship with his niece Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) is hardly the stuff of Lolita (not even close), but it’s deeply disturbing on its own terms. (You’ll just have to watch the film.)

Shadow of a Doubt is widely reported to be Hitchcock’s favorite among his films. But when François Truffaut raised the question, Hitchcock demurred:
I wouldn’t say that Shadow of a Doubt is my favorite picture; if I’ve given that impression, it’s probably because I feel that here is something that our friends, the plausibles and logicians, cannot complain about.

François Truffaut, Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985).
Don’t miss the full-size view of the photograph (still, alas, a little blurred).

Related reading
Shadow of Doubt film locations (Worldwide Guide to Film Locations)

A clean, well-sharpened place

“When I have a house of my own, it's gonna be full of all sharpened pencils”: Young Ann Newton (played by Edna May Wonacott), in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

[Whatever became of Edna May Wonacott? Answers here and here.]

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bananastan and I

My imaginary liner notes for Van Dyke Parks’s new 45s 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.

Related reading
All Van Dyke Parks posts (via Pinboard)

Celebrity-handwriting crisis

In the news, or “news,” a celebrity-handwriting crisis, or a celebrity handwriting-crisis:

The handwriting of today’s teen stars “is so atrocious, it’s talked about and recognized through the industry,” says Justin King, a Toronto-based paparazzi for Flynet Pictures and independent autograph seller. “With stars ages 30 and above, they generally have a much more full, legible signature. When you deal with these new people like [teen actress] Elle Fanning, you’re lucky if you get an E and F and a heart for her signature.”

Nation of adults who will write like children? (CNN)
Justin Bieber could use some help with spelling too.

Related reading
All handwriting posts (via Pinboard)


If you were born before the year 2000: add the last two digits of the year of your birth and the age you will be on this year’s birthday. The answer will be 111. If you were born in 2000 or later, the answer will be 11. If you were born in 1899 or earlier, the answer will be 211. (If you were born in 1899 or earlier, you’re probably not reading this post. If you were born in 2000 or later, you should be out playing.)

The year 2011 is the year of 1/1/11, 1/11/11, 11/1/11, and 11/11/11. And adding age to year always ends in eleven. Pretty mysterious, eh? Not really. Snopes has an explanation. Maths Questions has a more elaborate one.

[It amuses me that I learned this trick not from an online source but from my dad, who got it from a neighbor. Neighbors: the original Internets.]

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Condiment challenge

[“Assortment of condiments to accompany lamb curry.” Photograph by John Dominis. United States, 1964. From the Life Photo Archive.]

I don’t know how I found my way to this photograph. I do know that I cannot identify all sixteen condiments. (I can identify just five.) How about you? You’re welcome to leave your best guesses in the comments. To identify condiments, think of them as forming four rows, left to right, from the top: 1, 2, 3, 4; 5, 6, 7, 8; and so on.

Here’s a larger version of the photograph that might help. Clicking on “Back to image details,” lower left, will give you the answers.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Great American
Dream Machine

The fortieth-anniversary special aired on my PBS affiliate last night, and it made me realize that 1971 is a long time ago. The editing and graphics that once made The Great American Dream Machine look so great look faux-retro now. (Not retro: faux-retro.) My son Ben wondered whether people really thought and spoke as they did in the anthology’s clips, particularly in a series of short interviews about martial fidelity. “It’s 1971,” said one fellow, meaning that the time for loyalty to a partner had passed. A married thirtyish woman explained the rules of adultery: good taste, no tell-tale signs. At the other end of the spectrum, a segment on Fascinating Womanhood, offering instruction in wifely subservience. (Yes, FW is still around.)

Missing: Kramp Heritage Loaf, a parody of the recipe commercials that used to litter television (“brought to you by Kraft”). Sorely missing: the conversations among Studs Terkel and company in a Chicago bar. (How can you have a GADM retrospective and leave out Studs Terkel?) Surprisingly present: Andy Rooney, who turns out to have been a regular, as tiresome then as now.

The best thing in last night’s show: Elaine Stritch singing Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” with piano accompaniment, a performance not to be found on YouTube.

Related viewing
Kramp Heritage Loaf (The Groove Tube version)
“The Ladies Who Lunch” (recording session footage)
“The Ladies Who Lunch” (a later performance)

Alice Notley on “non-careerist”

In the preface to Coming After: Essays on Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), the poet Alice Notley considers neglected poets (the so-called second generation of the so-called New York School) and observes that “‘non-careerist’ . . . is not the same as not professional.” That’s a useful distinction for makers and practitioners who are deadly serious about what they do but unconcerned about making the right moves or pleasing the right people.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Orange pencil art

[Click for a larger view.]

Gunther at Lexikaliker sent me an array of German and Japanese pencils, one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received. Above, three orange examples of the art of pencilmaking. From top to bottom: an A.W. Faber Faber 6 copying pencil, a Lyra Orlow steno pencil, and a Lyra Orlow-Techno.

[Click for a larger view.]

These pencils have the appeal of well-made tools: everything about them bespeaks careful attention to detail. I like the contrast between the stately A.W. Faber and the sans serif Faber 6. I like the contrast between the capitalized cursive Orlow and the modernist lower-case orlow-techno. I like the scales and lyres, especially the lyres. I like the different shades of orange. I like everything about these pencils.

Thank you again, Gunther!

[Photographs by Michael Leddy.]

David Marsh on the subjunctive

With a nod to Macbeth, David Marsh looks at the subjunctive: If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done correctly (The Guardian).

(And he quotes OCA on if I were and if I was.)

The Great American Dream Machine

Coming soon to a PBS station near you, unless it already has or isn’t ever: The Great American Dream Machine 40th Anniversary Special.

As a high-school student all those years ago, I was crazy for The Great American Dream Machine, which felt like an oasis of hipness and intelligence. Here’s one clip, Marshall Efron grading olives.

Related reading
The Great American Dream Machine (Wikipedia)

Sunday, August 7, 2011


One of the rewards of keeping a blog is spotting (via the excellent StatCounter) what I will call flurries — mysterious surges of interest that lead searchers to a post. One day several weeks ago, several dozen people across the United States were searching for Mongol 2 3/8 and found my post on that great pencil of the past. Today, several dozen people in Great Britain have searched for director of White Heat and High Sierra and found my post on those films (directed by Raoul Walsh). My guess is that an an eBay item prompted the Mongol search; a crossword clue, the Raoul Walsh search. I’m happy though to remain in the dark, with flurries.

[Mysterious, really? Okay, slightly mysterious.]

Ben Leddy on YouTube

He’s playing Balkan and French-Canadian tunes, clawhammer-style.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Lucille Ball

[“Maurice Chevalier, Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz (L-R) during rehearsal for the TV show I Love Lucy.“ Photograph by Leonard McCombe. Hollywood, California, August 1959. From the Life Photo Archive.]

Lucille Ball was born one hundred years ago today.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

What can you do when family members ask you to go? Go. I’m glad that I did: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (dir. Rupert Wyatt) is some powerfully fun stuff. The film trades on various deep fears: of disease, genetic engineering (Pandora’s box), street violence, and terrorism (apes crash into and out of buildings). James Franco and Freida Pinto play a supremely clueless couple who’d be better off forgetting about other primates and concentrating on each other. (You dolts!) John Lithgow is very good as a father with Alzheimer’s. The real stars of the film though are the apes, with faces and gestures more expressive than those of the non-animated actors.

Two opposable thumbs up.

Lysistratic nonaction

The Guardian reports that in Barbacoas, Colombia, women have sworn off sex until the government builds a paved road to their small town. Says Ruby Quinonez, one of the strike’s leaders, “‘We are being deprived of our most human rights and as women we can’t allow that to happen.’” Follow the link and you’ll understand why the need for a road is urgent.

The Guardian reporter seems not to know that the so-called “crossed legs” strategy is not new to Colombia. In 1997, a women’s sex strike led to a brief ceasefire among guerrillas, drug traffickers, and paramilitaries. In 2006, the girlfriends and wives of gang members in Pereira refused to have sex until their partners renounced violence.

An appropriate name for this sort of protest: Lysistratic nonaction. The term appears in a list of 198 methods of non-violent protest in Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation (Boston: The Albert Einstein Institution, 2002).

[In Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata (411 BCE), Lysistrata leads the women of Greece in a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War.]

Word of the day: pupil

I noticed a now-fading distinction in Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer (1965):

Those who attend elementary schools are pupils; those who attend higher institutions of learning (high schools may be included among these) are students.
Pupil seems to belong with chalkboard and filmstrip and lunchroom in some school of the past (where I was a pupil). At any rate, Google shows student enjoying wider use:
“elemetary school students”: 4,230,000
“elementary school student”: 1,190,000

“elementary school pupils”: 3,550,000
“elementary school pupil”: 390,000
But why pupil anyway? Like any unexamined word suddenly examined, it looks a bit odd. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate explains:
1 : a child or young person in school or in the charge of a tutor or instructor : STUDENT
2 : one who has been taught or influenced by a famous or distinguished person

Middle English pupille minor ward, from Anglo-French, from Latin pupillus male ward (from diminutive of pupus boy) & pupilla female ward, from diminutive of pupa girl, doll
M-W dates the word to 1536. Related words, as you might suspect: puppet (1538), puppy (1567), and pupa (1815).

But why does pupil also mean (since 1567) “the contractile aperture in the iris of the eye”? M-W explains:
Middle French pupille, from Latin pupilla, from diminutive of pupa doll; from the tiny image of oneself seen reflected in another’s eye
The explanation smacks of folk etymology, but it’s for real. The Oxford English Dictionary corroborates: “so called on account of the small reflected image seen when looking into someone’s pupil.” Thus John Donne in “The Good-Morrow”:
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appeares,
And true plaine hearts doe in the faces rest.
And thus James Bond in Goldfinger, where a reflection in Bonita’s eye saves Bond from a blackjack to the head.

[In choosing between pupil and student, consider: which word confers greater dignity on children?]

Thursday, August 4, 2011

On Louis Armstrong’s birthday

[“Closeup of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong massaging his lips w. balm to keep them strong for playing his trumpet.” Photograph by John Loengard. New York, 1965. From the Life Photo Archive.]

Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901.
The plaudits will continue for some time yet. But the sift of time is unceasing: soon we shall be looking at Louis over a gap of five years, then ten. The books will come out (how about a selection of his letters?); the wilful tide of taste will turn. Armstrong will become as distant as [King] Oliver. What will the twenty-first century say of him?

Philip Larkin, “Armstrong’s Last Goodnight,” in All What Jazz: A Record Diary, 1961–1971 (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985).
What indeed? It might say something like this:
Hello all,

This is the twenty-first century speaking. I am happy to report that Louis Armstrong’s music is alive and well in me. I shall now repair to my listening rooms, to listen.

Sincerely yours, &c.
[Armstrong used a salve made by the German trombonist Franz Schuritz. It became known as Louis Armstrong Lip Salve. The physical toll of Armstrong’s trumpet-playing is a grisly story; the index of Terry Teachout’s Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) has sixteen entries for “lip damage.” A book with letters, Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings (Oxford University Press) appeared in 2001. A book of Armstrong’s collages, Steven Brower’s Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong (Harry N. Abrams) appeared in 2009. Like Bird, Armstrong lives.]

A few Armstrong posts
Armstrong and Arlen, blues and weather
The day Louis Armstrong made noise
Invisible man: Louis Armstrong and the New York Times
Louis Armstrong’s advice
Louis Armstrong, collagist
On Louis Armstrong’s birthday (2010)
“Self-Reliance” and jazz

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

John Ashberys

At the Middlebury College Museum of Art, John Ashbery sits next to a painting he sat for, Fairfield Porter’s Untitled (Man Seated near Lamp) (c. 1953).

Related reading
All John Ashbery posts

Domestic comedy

[Watching the weather on the local news. In unison.]

“She is pregnant!”

[We watch the local news perhaps once every three weeks.]

Related reading
All domestic comedy posts

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What tastes like summer?

A lovely question from Karen Doherty at the Quo Vadis Blog: What tastes like summer?

Cherries. Good Humor Chocolate Eclair bars. Ham sandwiches and Maxwell House coffee, lots of milk and sugar (what my grandparents used to bring on trips to Coney Island). Italian ices. Plums.

[Summer = childhood.]

Staedtler pencilmaker set

I’m the lucky recipient of a Staedtler pencilmaker set, via a giveaway to readers of the always excellent pencil talk. Thanks, Staedtler, and thanks, pencil talk.

The ingredients, as you can see above and to the left: two carpenter-pencil slats, lead, glue, string, a seal, and instructions for assembly. I would prefer instructions that say “Display as is on shelf of your choice”: I think that this kit hold more interest in pieces than as a pencil. How many people have seen an unassembled pencil?

The Staedtler seal would make a great cough drop, don’t you think?

Related reading
All pencil posts (via Pinboard)

[Photographs by Michael Leddy.]

Monday, August 1, 2011


“You got a spare fin, kid?”

“No. Let’s get on back to the tent. You got the new Billboard to read. Zeena left it under the stage.”

William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley (1946)
Nightmare Alley is a thus-far terrific novel detailing the rise and fall of carny worker Stanton Carlisle. (I’m eighty-eight pages in.) The novel begins with a description of a carnival geek, the wild man whose act involves biting the heads off chickens and snakes. In an introduction to the 2010 New York Review Books reprint of Nightmare Alley, Nick Tosches notes that as late as 1960, Billboard ran geek-wanted ads in its carnival section. Yes, Billboard had a carnival section. So off I went to Google Books.

Here are three geek-related Billboard ads. The definitions that follow the ads are from Conklin Shows’ Carnival Dictionary, which distinguishes between two kinds of geek:
Geek: A snake-eating wild man. The snake is pushed into the geek’s face who bites its head off and spits it out. He doesn’t actually eat the snake.

Glooming Geek: A geek who uses his hands to glom [look at] the thing he is going to eat instead of having it pushed in his face. He appears to like it and chews it up well, not spitting it out like an ordinary geek.
(Note: it’s usually glomming geek.)

[“To join at once capable Grinder for Geek Show. Best Geek on road. Want sober Agent for new Race Track and Blanket Wheel, join immediately. Man and Woman for flashy new Two-Headed Baby Show. Doral Dashan wants Ticket Seller who can grind, also Female Impersonator. All people who can stand prosperity and sober. Use couple more Slum Agents, Man for Ball Game, Hit & Miss.” Billboard, July 6, 1946.]

Grinder: “A person who has a certain ‘set spiel’ or sequence of words that he delivers from the front of a midway attraction as long as the show is open.” Slum: “Cheap merchandise, on the smallish side, such as jewelery or gilded plaster bookends, sold at stands or given as prizes in games of chance or skill.” Agent: “The concession clerk.”

[“CONCESSIONS — Can place Hi-Striker, String, American Camp only, and another other Legitimate Concessions. SHOWS — Can place Wild Life, Arcade, Iron Lung, or any other Shows not conflicting. RIDES — Can place WHEEL for Duals, Fly-o-Plane or Spitfire. HELP — Can place Second Men on all Rides who drive. Chuck Watkins, Schoonmaker, come on. GEEK WANTED IMMEDIATELY FOR SNAKE SHOW. COME ON. GIRLS — Jack Chickerelli can place Girls for Revue and Posing Show. Can also place one Colored Girl Dancer for Harlem Revue. AGENTS, ATTENTION — Lew Bernstein can place Agents for Count Store, 1 Pin Agent, 1 Skillo, and 1 Wheel Agent. Must be sober and able to cut it.” Billboard, August 12, 1950.]

Did you notice the shout-out to Chuck Watkins and Schoonmaker? These ads often function like a message board or Twitter. Again and again, there are exhortations to come on: “Bob and Little Mac, come on.” “Lee McDaniels, come on.” “Chuck (Pop) Wilson, come on.” And at least one ad offers reassurance that a particular carny has already come on: “Filipino Jimmy is here.” Which meant what?

The Hi-Striker is what you think: the familiar ring-the-bell-and-win-a-prize attraction. String: “An open-front show with a long line of canvas banners.” The Iron Lung seems to have been just that: a man or woman in an iron lung.

[“This show has 15 proven fairs in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. Want flashy Bingo, Grab, Hanky Panks of all kinds, Bear Pitch, Novelties, Age & Weight and Long and Short Range Galleries. Will book Girl Show, with or without own equipment, white or Colored. Want Talker for newly framed Geek Show. Have first-class Geek ready to operate. Want Foremen for Roll-o-Plane, Chairplane and Merry-Go-Round and Ride Help who can drive semis.

We have capable Skillo Agents, no head. Brownie Cole, contact. Also want Man and Crew for Line-Up Store. Can place 3 good Men on Grind Store for soldiers’s pay day in Guthrie. Ray Bona, answer. Want Girls for Girl Show, salary and bonus. Need 6-Cat Gunner and Ball Boys who also up and down concessions. Following contact me: Norfolk, James Moore and Lightning. Have five good spots for you. Also want Colored Girl Show to join first week in August.” Billboard, July 21, 1956.]

Grab joint: “A centrally located snack stand.” Hanky-pank: “A game of skill that caters to young and old alike; small prizes. ” Gunner: “One who operates the device which controls the game.” Line-up: “A store or joint in the line, as opposed to one in a central position. ” A joint is “any kind of carnival stand.”

[Billboard, April 18, 1942.]

[Billboard, May 1, 1943.]

So much of the recent American past in these ads: polio, World War II (women taking over jobs), and of course Jim Crow and de facto segregation. Carnivals in many states must have been racially segregated, as these home movies appear to suggest.

William Lindsay Gresham also wrote Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny (1953), now out of print. (NYRB, how about it?)

A related post
Nightmare Alley (the film)