Thursday, January 31, 2013

Two-word utterances
of my adolescence

In imaginary order of increasing frequency:

No way. Right on. Double dribble. Oooh, cutdown.

[Cutdown, noun, with the accent on the first syllable: an insult. This meaning has eluded both Merriam-Webster and the OED.]

“Swing for the L”

Reading Kitty Burns Florey’s Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting (Hoboken: Melville House, 2009), I realized that the perfect L in my dad’s signature is straight outta Palmer:

[From A. N. Palmer, The Palmer Method for Business Writing (Cedar Rapids: A. N. Palmer, 1915). Found at the Internet Archive.]

Handwriting is in the news again this morning, as I discovered only after deciding to make this post.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Salinger bio and documentary

From Time:

A new J. D. Salinger film and biography are being billed as an unprecedented look into the mysterious life of the author of The Catcher In the Rye.

Simon & Schuster announced Tuesday that it had acquired The Private War of J.D. Salinger, an oral biography compiled by author David Shields and filmmaker-screenwriter Shane Salerno, whose screenplay credits include the Oliver Stone film Savages.

Salerno has been working for several years on his documentary, which PBS will air next January for the 200th of its American Masters series.
No news about whether unpublished work from Salinger is forthcoming.

Related reading
All Salinger posts (Pinboard)

David Bromwich on higher education

David Bromwich:

[H]igher education is the learning of certain habits, above all a sustained attention to things outside one’s familiar circuit of interests; and it is the beginning of a work of self-knowledge that will decompose many of one’s given habits and given identities. In these respects the aims of education are deeply at odds with the aims of any coherent and socializing culture. The former is critical and ironic; the latter purposeful and supervisory.

Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
[From the back cover: ”In this eloquent book a distinguished scholar criticizes attacks on liberal education by ideologies of the right and left, arguing that both groups see education as a means to indoctrinate students in specific cultural and political dogmas. David Bromwich calls for a return to the teaching of independent thinking, self-knowledge, and tolerance of other points of view, values that he claims are the essence of a true liberal education.” I found my way to this book after reading Diana Senechal’s Republic of Noise.]

Butch Morris (1947–2013)

Sad news in the New York Times:

Butch Morris, who created a distinctive form of large-ensemble music built on collective improvisation that he single-handedly directed and shaped, died on Tuesday in Brooklyn. . . .

Mr. Morris referred to his method as “conduction,” short for “conducted improvisation.” He defined the word, which he trademarked, as “an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor.”
Here is Morris’s website, Conduction. And three examples of conduction, from 2009, 2010, and 2011. Try one, or more. As the narrator of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” says at that story’s end, “It’s really something.”

Diction levels, crisscrossing

On the PBS NewsHour last night, a New York Times reporter referred to Judy Woodruff and company as “you guys.” And on the local PBS station, a student-weatherperson referred to “tornadic activity.”

[What’s a good alternative to “you guys,” good people?]

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bobbing for apples

I have nothing against Halloween customs, but I dislike bobbing for apples. That’s my name for a habit that makes classroom discussion more difficult and less productive than it should be. A student who bobs for apples might offer the following observations in discussion:

The speaker in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is asking someone he loves to go for a walk: “Let us go then, you and I.”

The father in Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” works in an office.

The poet in Sappho’s fragment 31 sees the man she loves talking with another woman.
In each case the bobber, largely or wholly unprepared, has bent down and come up with something. Someone who had read these works (and accompanying assignment pages, full of guidance) would not — could not — make the bobber’s mistakes. The possibility that Prufrock can speak to anyone but himself (much less that he is in love) is one that the poem belies at every moment; the “overwhelming question,” whatever form it might take, is one that never gets asked. The father in Hayden’s poem has “cracked hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather”; the poem’s “offices” are the lonely rites the father performs for the members of his household: building fires, shining shoes. And in Sappho’s poem, pronouns make clear the object of the poet’s desire: the man is seated next to “you,” and it’s the sound of “your” delightful laughter and one glance at “you” that leave the poet unable to speak.

Bobbing for apples makes things difficult in several ways. It impedes the give and take of discussion by requiring a teacher to function as an arbiter of interpretive truth, one who must take up the unpleasant task of saying no — or let any old absurdity fly. There’s little point in asking about the basis for the student’s response when no reasonable evidence could be forthcoming: to ask would yield only embarrassment. (What, for instance, could be the evidence that the father works in an office, aside from the glanced-at, not-looked-up word offices?) Another problem: bobbing for apples fosters the notion, especially among students who might not recognize bobbing as such, that literary interpretation is an arbitrary, haphazard affair: to vary the metaphor, a Rorschach test. You see something (or think you do); you say something. Who’s to say whether it’s right or wrong?

One good answer to that question: literary study is typically not about right and wrong. There are many plausible things one might say about a poem, some of which will contradict others. Another answer: every reader of a work of literature — anyone who really reads it — has a say. And to read, really read, one must do much more than bob. Repeated immersions, to the limit of one’s ability to remain underwater: that’s what will let you come up with something worthwhile.

A related post
Zadie Smith on reading

[The examples in this post are from my imagination, not from life.]

“Silent film effect”

[Hello, solvers. If you’re looking for an answer to the clue “Silent film opener” (August 16, 2017), please read all the way to the end. It’s complicated.]

A baffling answer in today’s New York Times crossword, 32-Down, “Silent film effect”: IRISIN. Even after getting it, I was lost: was irisin a chemical used to treat film stock? No, the answer is iris-in. An explanation:

Iris: A technique used to show an image in only one small round area of the screen. An Iris-Out begins as a pinpoint and then moves outward to reveal the full scene, while an Iris-In moves inward from all sides to leave only a small image on the screen. An iris can be either a transitional device (using the image held as a point of transition) or a way of focusing attention on a specific part of a scene without reducing the scene in size.

Here is an iris-out, from Buster Keaton’s Neighbors (1920), found here. Please imagine that it is an iris-in.


August 16, 2017: A reader has let me know that IRISIN appears in today’s Times crossword, 47-Down: “Silent film opener.” Today’s clue is, well, problematic. I checked several reputable books about film: three define iris-in as the move inward and iris-out as the move outward; two others reverse the terms. So is an iris-in a “silent film opener”? It depends. But no matter what the Times crossword says, Mel Tormé still isn’t a “cool jazz pioneer.”

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Revisionaries, tonight

On PBS’s Independent Lens tonight, The Revisionaries, on the Texas State Board of Education’s role in shaping the content of a nation’s textbooks.

[The role has since changed, as the series’s website explains.]

Hi and Lois watch

[Hi and Lois, January 28, 2013.]

In the first panel of today’s Hi and Lois, Mom has rebuked her firstborn: “Chip! Do you have to add to the noise?” That’s cold. You should never rebuke your son for playing an acoustic guitar. (Electric? Maybe, sometimes.) I suspect that Chip, amid outcroppings of dog, sofa, and children, has escaped into his music to maintain his sanity on the family’s vast arid living-room plain.

Lois must be watching Downton Abbey. She has Edith’s eyes.

Related reading
All Hi and Lois posts (Pinboard)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Free Mr. Bates

[By KnittyGrittyTN. Found at]

And if you haven’t yet seen it: Edith with Googly Eyes.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

From a dream

“It’s as if my wiles had vanished into thin air.”

“Exceedingly thin air.”

Whence such dialogue? I must have had Downton Abbey in my sleeping head.

Other dreams, arranged by subject
John Ashbery and Fred Astaire : Baloney recovery : Beach Boys reunion : Citizen Kane : “Columbain coffee” : The Cummerbund Response : “Darn That Dream” : Jack Dempsey : Inara George and Van Dyke Parks : Infinite Jest : Charles Mingus : Skeptiphobia : “Smoked chicken water” : Ulysses : United States of America commercial

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Seymour Barab celebration

As Elaine likes to say, Seymour and Margie King Barab are our “favorite inhabitants of the Upper East Side.” I wish we could be in New York this coming Sunday.

Related reading
The After Dinner Opera
Seymour Barab (the composer’s website)
One Foot in Oz (Margie King Barab’s blog)

College completion

In the New York Times, an article on a report from the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment (now there’s a great name) on the need to increase graduation rates. The group’s chair is Ohio State University president E. Gordon Gee:

The report, “College Completion Must Be Our Priority,” which will be released on Thursday, calls on colleges and universities to find ways to give students credit for previous learning, through exams like the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program, portfolio assessments or other college equivalency evaluations. It also calls for more services and flexibility for nontraditional students, suggesting innovations like midnight classes, easier credit transfers and more efficient course delivery, including online classes.

“These are all very important things, they’re all unusual, and they’re things we’re not doing,” Dr. Gee said. “We concentrate most on the admissions side of things, getting the bodies in, and there’s no one in charge of seeing that they get through and graduate. I’m going to call this person the completion dean.”
I’m struck by two things in Gee’s remarks:

1. The frank language of business: “getting the bodies in” and moving them out (while still warm of course). Here is the language of credentialism at its worst. The life of the mind? The pursuit of knowledge? Not so much.

2. The assumption that there must be someone “in charge” to see to it that students graduate. Thus the solution to any academic problem: more administration.

Gee’s Wikipedia article makes interesting reading. You can find the report here.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ezra Klein explains the filibuster

Writing in the January 28 New Yorker, Ezra Klein explains the filibuster:

There is no perfect measure of how frequently filibusters occur. The closest thing we have to a count is the number of cloture votes the majority mounts. From 1917 to 1970, the majority sought cloture fifty-eight times. Since the start of President Obama’s first term, it has sought cloture more than two hundred and fifty times. Even that is probably in undercount, as it misses all the moments when the majority just gave up on an issue before a vote was melted. The truth, filibuster scholars say, is that almost everything in today’s Senate is effectively filibustered, since at least sixty members have to want to let anything move forward for it to do so. And, in the past thirty years, the only time the party has held or controlled sixty votes out right was in 2009, when the Democrats did for just six months.
And in the Washington Post, Klein writes about today’s Senate “deal” on filibuster reform:
A pro-reform aide I spoke to was agog. “Right now, you have to negotiate with McConnell to get on a bill,” he said. ”Tomorrow, if this passes, you still need to negotiate with McConnell to get on a bill. It changes nothing on how we move forward.”
Klein’s conclusion: “filibuster reformers have lost once again.”

[Cloture: “(in a legislative assembly) a procedure for ending a debate and taking a vote” (New Oxford American Dictionary). The New Yorker piece is for subscribers only.]

Punctuation fail

[Low-hanging fruit, before and after.]

A new Microsoft ad for Internet Explorer gets it wrong: an apostrophe, not a left quotation mark, should precede 90s. What makes the mistake interesting to me is that such mistakes often occur with word-processing, in the ’90s and today.

Related reading
All punctuation posts (Pinboard)

[I made the correction using the free Mac app Seashore.]

“In the hinterlands”

I love this sort of nonsense, from an episode of the radio program Suspense. The hinterlands in question are Connecticut:

Alice: Well, you two, I’m so glad you've come. It gets kind of dull here in the hinterlands.

Bess: Oh, I’m glad too.

Bob: Say, wait’ll you get one of our extra-special cold martinis into ya. You’ll feel shipshape.

Harry: Still know how to mix ’em, huh?

Bob: Better than ever. You get lots of practice these long country winters.


“A Friend to Alexander,” August 3, 1943. From a story by James Thurber, adapted by Fria Howard, with Robert Young as Harry and Geraldine Fitzgerald as Bess. These exchanges are by Howard.
“The country” and its close relation “the lake” were remote, even mythic destinations in radio and television, away from everything. I would like to have visited.

[“A Friend to Alexander” is easy to find online, here for instance.]


[Loud, and louder.]

“I never read!”


Related reading
Aliteracy (Wikipedia)
All “overheard” posts (Pinboard)
“Proud non-reader”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Gospel of Intolerance

“The filmmaker Roger Ross Williams reveals how money donated by American evangelicals helps to finance a violent antigay movement in Uganda”: Gospel of Intolerance (New York Times).

DFW on writing by hand

David Foster Wallace liked using pens and typewriters:

Writing by hand and typewriter not only brings out the best in me — it brings out stuff I never would have dreamed was there. . . . It is this — not improvement, but transfiguration of the contents of my head that I am addicted to. It is astonishing when it happens — magical — and it simply doesn’t happen on a computer.

From a letter to Sven Birkerts, quoted in D. T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (2012). Ellipsis in the original.
Related reading
A page from “the earliest substantial draft” of Infinite Jest (New Yorker)

National Handwriting Day

Today is John Hancock’s birthday, and thus it’s National Handwriting Day. I’ve posted samples of my handwriting, even one from fifth grade, on previous NHDs. But my favorite post marking the day is this one: Five pens, an autobiography of sorts in writing instruments.

Related reading
All handwriting posts (Pinboard)

[I think that reports of handwriting’s death are greatly exaggerated.]

Innocence and idiom

“I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night”: a widely used expression, though I heard it for the first time only last night. Now I wait for the chance to use it.

Domestic comedy

“And the dew point is -2°.”

Related reading
All domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[It’s fun pretending to understand the weather.]

Dear Downton Abby

“Of course, there’s one place where everyone behaves properly — and everyone has terrible personal problems. Perhaps they need an advice columnist.” Bill Madison steps in: Dear Downton Abby.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


[Piano to the left. Click for a larger view.]

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's documentary film Detropia (2012) is everything that Michael Moore's Roger & Me (1989) is not. There is no tidy, ironic narrative of decline here: Ewing and Grady explore the wreckage of a city that has already failed. (Moore's narrative plays fast and loose with chronology.) No one is on camera to be laughed at: the men and women we hear speaking are angry, dignified, and, often, wise. And Ewing and Grady (makers of the 2006 film Jesus Camp) are present only as unheard, unseen observers and editors. The know that the story is not about them.

Detropia juxtaposes scenes of unimaginable blight with scenes of resourceful citizenship and entrepreneurship. We see residents who refuse to resign themselves to the absence of police in their neighborhood. We see other residents who are determined to keep the Detroit Opera House alive. (One man chooses to stay in the city because he sings in the chorus.) We see the workings of a (sometimes literally) underground economy: a man who cuts hair in the basement of his house, another who fashions barbecue pits from storage drums and bedrails, a woman who plans to set up a cart selling eighty-proof snowcones. And everywhere, there are small groups scavenging metal from abandoned buildings. The cruel twist is that China is a principal market for American scrap, so the scrappers are feeding the very forces that have led to lower wages and massive unemployment in their city. Perhaps the strangest development in this surreal landscape: the presence of immigrant hipsters, attracted by the prospect of living in what one calls, without irony, a “dead city.”

In the theater of my imagination, Detropia and The Queen of Versailles (dir. Lauren Greenfield, 2012) would make a perfect double-bill.

The films’ websites
The Queen of Versailles

Monday, January 21, 2013

Inauguration Day

I thought it was an excellent inaugural address. I hoped to hear the president speak of climate change, equal marriage, gun violence, immigration reform, and poverty: he did. He even made reference to the struggling city of Detroit.

The most remarkable moment for me was the reference to Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall, joining three movements into one ongoing struggle for human rights and the widening we of “we the people” — the phrase that served as the kernel of the president’s address.

Now it’s time for Beyoncé.

[Having just seen Detropia, I wondered: would the city’s name be heard on Inauguration Day? And yes, I’ve been typing through Richard Blanco’s poem.]


CBC correspondent Eleanor Fischer interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. in 1961, 1966, and 1967. Now WNYC has made available for the first time the unedited recordings of these interviews. Here is a passage from the final interview, from February 1967. If you know King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam” (April 4, 1967), you’ll recognize some of its language here:

I think our country, which, I must say, is the richest, most powerful country in the world, has at points become enamored of its power. I think we do suffer from a kind of pride of power, an arrogance of power that can bring the curtain down on the whole of American civilization. We are arrogant in our assertion that we have everything to teach other nations and nothing to learn from them. We are arrogant in our feeling that we have some divine, messianic mission to police the whole world. And I think we are arrogant in our failure to move progressively and forthrightly toward bridging the gulf between the haves and the have-nots of the world. . . . I do feel that we are on the wrong side of a world revolution. I feel that because we have too often identified ourselves with the wealthy and secure and we have ignored the poor and the insecure.
King goes on to warn that if the United States kept to its current course, it would find itself in more Vietnams — in Latin America, Africa, and “many other Asian countries.” Forty-five years later, as we see the wreckage that neo-conservative foreign policy hath wrought, these words sound painfully prophetic.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Lance Armstrong cheats with cheat

I haven’t seen anyone else point it out, so I will: Lance Armstrong’s definition of cheat is pure nonsense. In other words, he cheated even when offering what he claimed to be a dictionary definition of cheat. Here is the relevant exchange, from the BBC transcript of his interview with Oprah Winfrey:

Did you feel in any way that you were cheating? You did not feel you were cheating taking banned drugs?

At the time, no. I kept hearing I’m a drug cheat, I’m a cheat, I’m a cheater. I went in and just looked up the definition of cheat, and the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have. I didn’t view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.
To cheat is not necessarily to gain an advantage over an opponent: one can cheat at solitaire. And one can gain an advantage over an opponent with a killer move on a gameboard, with a skillful choice of words, with a wicked backhand, none of which is a matter of cheating. What Armstrong fails to mention is the element of dishonesty that any dictionary’s entry for cheat will include. Here for instance is the New Oxford American Dictionary’s entry for cheat:

Try some Google searches with the words of Armstrong’s definition of cheat. Try searches that exclude lance and armstrong too. The only references to this pseudo-definition that you’ll find will be references to Armstrong’s interview.

Someone who cheats even when it comes to defining what it means to cheat is, well, a real cheater.

[I’ve added a comma to the interview excerpt for clarity and italicized Winfrey’s question and the word cheat (used as a word).]

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Hi and Lois watch

[Hi and Lois, January 19, 2013.]

Sigh. Today’s Hi and Lois just doesn’t make good sense. In the first panel, we see Hi and his dissolute neighbor Thirsty Thurston talking. Says Hi, “The election is over. Aren’t you going to take the bumper sticker off your car?” “No,” says Thirsty. And behold the punchline, such as it is. But Hi lives next to Thirsty. He has seen Thirsty’s car. He knows that it bears a Romney sticker. Hi must also know that the car bears stickers from forty years of presidential elections. Why then would he wonder about the newest one? And why doesn’t it occur to him to wonder why his neighbor is driving a forty-year-old car?

Thirsty’s chronic intoxication might explain his crazily veering political allegiances. Two states still restrict alcohol sales on Election Day, but there appear to be no restrictions on voting while drunk.

Related reading
All Hi and Lois posts (Pinboard)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Robert Frost mug

[Only $15.95. Good grief.]

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” has the distinction of being celebrated by large numbers of people who have no idea what it’s saying. Why does an elementary school have its students sign and sing the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” at a spring concert? Cluelessness. Why do people want Frost’s poem on a mug or poster or plaque? See answer to previous question.

Reading “The Road Not Taken” with even modest attention reveals the poem to be more complicated and compelling than any platitude about going one’s own way and never looking back:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Beginning with its title, the poem is about nothing but looking back: its speaker even begins to rehearse his story once again in the final stanza before breaking off to offer the evidence-defying declaration that he “took the one less traveled by.” Look back at what he’s told us: the two roads looked equally appealing; one looked grassier than the other; they looked equally worn; that morning they were both covered in leaves than no one had walked on. Where there is no difference, there is no basis for a meaningful choice. And the difference a choice makes cannot be gauged when one has no idea of where an alternative may have led. If “way leads on to way,” the two roads might even meet again in the future: and who would know?

What the poem shows us is a traveler who would have preferred not to have to choose, who retells his story (like the Ancient Mariner), who travels to an unknown end (“somewhere ages and ages hence”), and who is determined to impose meaning on one moment of experience. If the speaker will be retelling his story with a “sigh,” it’s far from clear that the difference he claims for his choice — if there was a choice, if there is a difference — is for the better. But in Frost’s universe, any meaning is better than none. Or as another Frost poem puts it:
Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide!
And speaking of things boughten, you can also buy the poem’s first stanza as a poster ending with a semicolon. Good grief.

[Elaine and I heard “Y.M.C.A.” sung by elementary-school kids some years ago. Not wanting to embarrass anyone, we kept our mouths shut.]

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Shine on, nvALT and Simplenote

I read what Brett Terpstra wrote:

The combination of Simplenote and nvALT has become deadly and my interest in continuing to support it is waning.

Please use Dropbox sync.
And then I read what Michael Schecter wrote:
Now that Brett Terpstra, one of the developers of nvALT, has made it clear that there are issues between Simplenote and nvALT that are unlikely to get resolved (in addition to the issues I was having with the Simplenote iOS app), I wanted to give those who need it a walkthrough for making the move from Simplenote Sync to Dropbox Sync.
Yipes, and yipes again. But then I read what Shawn Blanc wrote:
In the end, I’ve come back full circle and am sticking with Simplenote and nvALT. Though the syncing can hiccup at times, I still consider it to be the best. And, of course, now that I know more about the cause behind the syncing hiccups I no longer fear losing my data.
That sounds like sufficient reason to save myself some tedium and time. I’m sticking with nvALT and Simplenote for now.

[nvALT (OS X) and Simplenote (iOS and online) are free apps for note-taking and (better still) note-keeping. Using them together lets you sync your notes across several machines. Dropbox (iOS, OS X, Windows, and others) gives you access to your files from any computer. I recommend all three with enthusiasm. If you’d like to try Dropbox, use this referral code: it means 500 MB extra storage for each of us.]

Good advice for married people

Jane Brody writes about marriage and happiness: That Loving Feeling Takes a Lot of Work. It’s true.

[Work: not drudgery but giving.]

Aaron Draplin’s memo books

“Some guy actually lived out of this thing”: Aaron Draplin talks about old memo books.

Cigarette card of no mystery


The mystery dispelled:


The annoyance of a loose cap to your fountain pen can very easily be remedied. Hold it over a flame for a few seconds, thus softening the vulcanite, and then squeeze the cap to a slightly oval shape as shown in a somewhat exaggerated form in Section 2. The cap will now fit the pen and remain in position.
Vulcanite: “hard black vulcanized rubber.” Vulcanize: “harden (rubber or rubberlike material) by treating it with sulfur at a high temperature.” I found this cigarette card (c. 1908–1919) while browsing in the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

A related post
Invisible-ink cigarette card

[Definitions from the New Oxford American Dictionary.]

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Elaine and I listened last night to This American Life’s inquiry into the possible existence of imitation calamari. I’d like to say that I might never eat calamari again, but I’m not sure about the again.

Cigarette card of mystery

I came across this card by chance. The image baffled me; I don’t think I’d have figured it out without the explanation on the back. How about you? Click for a larger view if you think it might help. Leave a guess as a comment if you’d like. All shall be revealed tomorrow morning.

A related post
Invisible-ink cigarette card

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Separated at birth?

Mississippi John Hurt and Ray Collins (Boss Jim Gettys in Citizen Kane, Lieutenant Arthur Tragg in Perry Mason).

Related posts
Nicholson Baker and Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Ted Berrigan and C. Everett Koop
Broderick Crawford and Vladimir Nabokov
Elaine Hansen (of Davey and Goliath) and Blanche Lincoln
Ton Koopman and Oliver Sacks

John Hurt and Skip James, 1964

Here’s a rare thing: a 1964 radio broadcast with Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. The radio station, WTBS (now WMBR), belonged to MIT. The show’s host, Phil Spiro, was one of the record collectors who located Son House in Rochester. Hurt’s grandnephew Fred Bolden describes the events surrounding the broadcast in this discussion thread on his John Hurt website.

The contrasts in personality between Hurt and James come through loud and clear in the interview segments of this broadcast: the one affable and at ease, the other prickly and defensive (“I don’t play copycat after nobody. I just plays my own Skip”). Musically the two men are far apart as well: the one bright and buoyant, the other sounding like a ghost. No disrespect to James: that’s the best simile I can muster to suggest the ethereal, mournful quality of his music.

The most surprising moments in this broadcast are Hurt’s two duets with Alan Wilson (later of Canned Heat), who plays harmonica. As in his later recordings with John Lee Hooker, Wilson energizes and inspires a much older musician. These are two of the most exciting Hurt performances I’ve heard. James, as you might imagine, works alone.

The program: “Louis Collins,” “Cow Hookin’ Blues,” “Trouble, I’ve Had It All My Days,” “Cherry Ball Blues,” “Illinois Blues,” “I’m So Glad.” And a bonus: three minutes of conversation from an interview with Muddy Waters, tacked on at the end.

Related posts
Hooker ’n Heat
Mississippi John Hurt
MJH, Discovery
MJH for Chevy
MJH: Sing Out!
Alan Wilson

[Imagine a world in which one could turn on the radio and hear Hurt and James playing live.]

Monday, January 14, 2013

National’s et cetera

[A conference room at the National Pencil Company.]

“Pearl, would you see that Bill there gets an ashtray? Thank you.” [Then speaking to the group.] “And thank you all for stepping away from your desks for a little while. Boys, it looks like we have a winner here. Let me go point by point.”

[Appreciative laughter. Murmurs of “Good one, Ed.” ]

“This pencil is hexagonal — check. It sits nicely in the hand — check. It can be used by both righties and lefties — check. And most importantly, it has the colors we’ve been trying to put together now for what must be two whole years — check.”

[Dramatic pause.]

“Only problem I see is what to call the thing. Hank?”

“Well, we just finished work on the 515. How about National’s 516?”

“That’s a good suggestion, Hank, a good suggestion. But I think we need for this pencil to have something about it that is going to stick in the customer’s mind. I want something that will make a little light go on and make the customer think of National. Al?”

“How about ‘Fuse-Tex’?”

[Awkward silence.]


“No, ‘Fuse-Tex,’ with quotation marks.”

“Double or single?”

“Well, when we’re talking, single. But on the pencil, double.”

[Increasingly awkward silence.]

“Boys, guess what? I like it! It’ll set us apart from the competition. ‘Fuse-Tex.’ I can imagine a customer in a store: ‘Gimme a couple of them “Fuse-Tex” pencils.’”

“But Ed, what’s it mean?”

[A brief silence.]

“Ed, if I may make a suggestion, it needs something more. How about if we add a touch of color? How about ‘National’s “Fuse-Tex” Skytint’?”

“Nice handling of your quotation marks there, Ralph. Okay. But Skytint, well . . . that’d make me kind of think of sky. Can’t we get the red in there in some kind of way? Yes, Andy?”

“How about ‘National’s “Fuse-Tex” Skytint Red & Blue’?”


“I meant and.”

“Boys, now that’s a pencil that sounds like something! Yes, Hank?”

“Don’t forget the 516.”

[This post is the thirteenth in an occasional series, “From the Museum of Supplies.” Supplies is my word, and has become my family’s word, for all manner of stationery items. The museum is imaginary. The supplies are real. Skytint has a 1931 trademark. Fuse-Tex, first used in 1944, has a 1946 trademark. The names appear on a number of National’s pencils. If you liked this story, you should spend some time in the Museum.]

Other Museum of Supplies exhibits
Dennison’s Gummed Labels No. 27 : Eagle Turquoise display case : Eagle Verithin display case : Fineline erasers : Illinois Central Railroad Pencil : A Mad Men sort of man, sort of : Mongol No. 2 3/8 : Moore Metalhed Tacks : Pedigree Pencil : Real Thin Leads : Rite-Rite Long Leads : Stanley carpenter’s rule

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Big Lots tea finds

Big Lots continues to be the store for surprising tea finds. At my Big Lots right now, two old names in tea: Typhoo (1903, $4.00 for eighty bags) and Wissotzky (1849, $3.00 for one hundred bags). They’re fine black teas, strong and dark and winey. And, for now, cheap.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Vermont Country $tore

We received yet another catalogue from the Vermont Country Store today, less than a month and a half after receiving the last one. I chose four vaguely outré items from the first few pages of the catalogue to check against Amazon’s prices. It’s such good sport:

Joy of the Mountains Oregano Oil
VCS, .5 oz. $39.95 : Amazon list, 1 oz. $33.25 : Amazon $28.70 (twice as much for less)

VCS $29.95 : Amazon $17.95 (by the way: 1.7 of 5 stars at Amazon)

Nature’s Inventory Blood Pressure Support
VCS $29.95 : Amazon list $15.95 : Amazon $13.56

Vita Sciences Vitamin B-12 Patch
VCS $34.95 : Amazon $24.95

VCS total: $134.80 + $19.95 shipping = $154.75
Amazon total: $85.16 + $15.09 shipping (from Amazon and two other vendors) = $100.25

Amazon comes out 35% cheaper. The savings are even greater though, as ordering from Amazon gets you twice as much oregano oil. Add a second .5 oz. bottle of oregano oil to the VCS total, and the Amazon order becomes 49% cheaper.

I’m not shilling for Amazon, whose business practices are far from ideal. My point is that it’s always wise to check prices. As I wrote the last time I tried this game, “There may be some mystical (or semi-mystical) cachet that accompanies items from the Vermont Country Store, but realists are better off ordering elsewhere.” You might be even better off if you skip the oregano oil and have a little piz — er, salad.

Related posts
Pencils for sale, $3.90 each
Vermont Country $tore v. Amazon

[There are two references to The Honeymooners in this post. Why not?]

Friday, January 11, 2013

“Greater seriousness”

One more passage from Diana Senechal:

Beyond giving students a foundation, schools must teach them what commitment means. Without apology, they should teach students to read, write, and practice without any distractions from the Internet, cell phone, or TV, and to make a daily habit of this. It doesn't matter if they claim to know how to “multitask”; multitasking amounts to compromise, and they need to learn to offer more of themselves. Schools should also make use of technology but should also teach students how to do without it. Otherwise they will depend on text messages during class, musical practice, lectures, daydreams, and even rest. Over the long run, the setting aside of distractions will give students permission to take the work seriously. Many young people latch onto a casual attitude about their studies; they need to be helped out of this. Many secretly long to be pushed into greater seriousness.

Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2012).
“Many secretly longed to be pushed into greater seriousness”: yes, or at least some. I see it every semester.

I recommend Republic of Noise to any reader who believes, as Senechal does, that a life of thinking and feeling requires a measure of solitude — not hermetic isolation but the freedom of introspection. And I also recommend this book to any reader who believes that “collaborative learning environments” and “facilitated team activities” and the like represent a way forward in education. As Richard Mitchell once wrote, “It is only in a mind that the work of the mind can be done.”

Also from Republic of Noise
“A little out of date”
Buzzwords and education
Fighting distraction
Literature and reverence

[The sentence from Richard Mitchell appears in The Graves of Academe (1981).]

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Amazon customer service

From an e-mail:

I’m sorry to know that you are unable to delete a expired a library loan book from your kindle for iPad.

To resolve this issue by the earliest, I’d request you to please reach us by chat or phone as these types of error requires real time troubleshooting which is only possible on phone or chat.

Hence, I’d request you to please reach us over chat or phone as we need to gather more information to rectify the situation as it would be easier for us to resolve this issue over chat or phone as you can speak to our live customer support executives who can discuss the problem in detail and perform the real time live troubleshooting to resolve the issue to your satisfaction.
I think the customer support executives are drinking too much coffee. Or maybe not enough?

Expired library loans that refuse to go away seem to be a common problem with Kindles and the Kindle app. After reading this e-mail, I decided on a drastic DIY: I deleted the Kindle app from my iPad and Mac, reinstalled, deregistered (sic) and reregistered, and the book was gone.

And hence, the book was gone.

Spellings of the future

Here’s a misspelling so strange that it must be a spelling of the future, traveling backward in time to give us a foretaste of our language’s evolution:

[As seen in the wild, really.]

This fence must have been installed by Shakespeare and Company.

Related posts
Another spelling of the future
No job too small
Taco Bell’s Canon

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Orange Tweed art

My daughter Rachel gave me this beautiful piece of orange crate art. It’s the real thing, 10" x 11", from 1929. Feel free to contemplate the extreme care with which I scanned it. Thank you, Rachel.

Other posts with orange
Crate art, orange : Orange art, no crate : Orange crate art : Orange crate art (Encyclopedia Brown) : Orange flag art : Orange mug art : Orange notebook art : Orange notecard art : Orange peel art : Orange pencil art : Orange soda art : Orange stem art : Orange telephone art : Orange timer art : Orange toothbrush art : Orange train art : Orange tree art

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Adjunct Project

The Chronicle of Higher Education has created a website for The Adjunct Project, which collects information from instructors on adjunct salaries in American higher education. Some adjunct teaching pays well: at Harvard, the salaries reported are $9,500 to $12,575 per course. But the national average, according to the project’s data thus far, is $2,987 per course. And adjuncts at sixteen schools report salaries of less than $1,000 per course. Notice, whatever the amount of money involved, how the language of adjunct teaching echoes the language of migrant labor, where workers are paid by the bucket. Adjunct faculty who travel from campus to campus to put together a living indeed form something of a migrant community within higher education. (The Chronicle reports on one instructor who left Vermont for California in search of better pay — shades of the Joads.)

Think about the numbers: $1,000 to teach a fifteen-week course — really a sixteen-week course, if we include a final examination. That’s $62.50 a week, fifty cents more than Ralph Kramden made driving a bus in 1955. Even if one underestimates the time required to do the weekly work of a course — three hours in the classroom, perhaps one talking to students outside class, perhaps four of preparation, perhaps another four grading papers or exams — that work comes out to $5.20 an hour, far less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Subtract Social Security and taxes, and the numbers are even more dire.

The exploitation of adjunct labor is the shame and scandal of American higher education. If Frank Donoghue is right, college faculty of my generation may well be “the last professors.” I don’t mean to suggest that “college” itself will disappear. But tenured and tenure-track faculty form a smaller and smaller percentage of teaching personnel, and I suspect that the four-year residential experience will be available to fewer and fewer students. Mitt Romney’s grandchildren will “go to college,” of course. So too, for that matter, will Malia and Sasha Obama. As less fortunate students turn to so-called massive open online courses (MOOCs) — courses soon to be “monetized,” the possibilities of teaching even as an adjunct will be fewer and fewer.

Faculty sometimes joke — cruelly — that college would be a great place without the students. Now, I think, administrators are beginning to see it the other way around.

[In The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), Frank Donoghue noted that tenured and tenure-track professors then composed only 35% of college teaching personnel in the United States. The percentage continues to drop.]

Recently updated

The greatest pencil story ever told Sean has added an epilogue to the story of his journey to Stein, Germany, home of pencil manufacturer Faber-Castell.

Bernhard’s cat

When Daughter Number Three identified the typeface on an old title page as Bernhard Gothic, she suggested that I look up the designer, Lucian Bernhard (1883–1972). So I did.

My first discovery: Bernhard was a graphic designer as well as a type designer. The second: Bernhard was an important figure in the development of the modern advertising poster, particularly the Sachplakat or object poster, which depicted an object, a brand name, and little or nothing more.¹ It didn’t take long for me to realize that I’d seen Bernhard’s work before, in an early-twentieth-century Pelikan advertisement. What I didn’t know is that Bernhard’s work was to be found in the advertising of my childhood, most memorably as the logo of the Cat’s Paw Rubber Company, maker of heels and soles.² Here are two versions of Bernhard’s cat, patron cat of "master shoe repairers” and “favorite shoe rebuilders”:

[Life, April 4, 1960. Click for a larger view.]

[Life, October 4, 1963. Click for a larger view.]

The best items about Lucian Bernhard that I found: an essay and a slideshow-lecture by Steven Heller.

¹ Apple advertisements seem to me to owe something to the Sachplakat. I’m not alone.

² I found three different dates for the cat design: 1936, 1941, 1947. Choose the one you like.

[I’ve tinkered with the color in the second ad to make up for Google’s lousy scan. Cat’s Paw products are still available.]

Monday, January 7, 2013

How to be a student a professor will remember (for the right reasons)

[As the semester begins.]

Here are five suggestions. They assume a professor who is willing to engage in dialogue with students and a student who is interested in such dialogue.

1. Don’t blend in, and don’t tune out. Sit near the front of the room. Put away your phone and earbuds well before (not when) class begins. Have the relevant reading at hand. Listen and take notes.

2. Take part in the action. If a class is devoted to discussion, pitch in. Make your contributions relevant to the flow of discussion: if your professor has just posed a question for students to consider, don’t raise your hand to introduce a different topic.

4. Try to get a conversation going. Ask questions after class every now and then (good questions, not “What’s my grade?”). Talk to your professor during office hours, at least occasionally. You can do these things without being mistaken for a would-be confidant or a pest.

5. If you come across something in the larger world relevant to the work of the course, e-mail your professor about it. Everyone appreciates news about things that interest them.

These suggestions have nothing to do with sucking up and everything to do with what it means to be a participant in a community devoted to learning — which is not the same as just being in college.

[I know there are only four suggestions. But five is a magic number on the Internets. That’s Charles Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold to the left. “Everyone appreciates news about things that interest them”: yes, I think singular they is okay there.]


January 9, 2014: In a comment, Steve Woodland suggests a candidate for the missing no. 3: it’s Rule 7: “The only rule is work. If you work, it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.” Rule 7 is now no. 3. Thanks, Steve, for the perfect addition to this set of suggestions.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Word of the evening: hobbledehoy

“I have no time for training young hobbledehoys”: Mr. Carson, in tonight’s episode of Downton Abbey.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains: “A youth at the age between boyhood and manhood, a stripling; esp. a clumsy or awkward youth.” The OED traces hobbledehoy to 1540 and calls it “a colloquial word of unsettled form and uncertain origin.” Here’s a wonderful citation from the Pall Mall Gazette (1891):

There is nowadays an immense public of hobbledehoys — of all ages — and there are even men of culture and critical capacity who take a perverse pleasure in affecting hobbledehoyhood.
Still the case, I’d say.

Why am I watching Downton Abbey? It’s about as deep as a paper plate. But there’s some fine acting.

Our future selves, ourselves

The New York Times has a good article on research into self-perception. Psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert:

“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin . . . . What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

Friday, January 4, 2013

Cliffs and metaphors

John Boehner today: “With the cliff behind us, the focus turns to spending.”

Wait a minute: if the cliff is behind us, doesn’t that mean that we’ve already — oh, never mind.

Related posts
Avoiding and averting
Block that metaphor

Recently updated

Mark Trail makeover (2) Otto’s eyebrows and mustache have returned.

Phil Silvers in plaid

[“Phil Silvers wearing large glasses, plaid cap and suit in Top Banana.” Photograph by Ralph Morse. November 1951. From the Life Photo Archive. Click for a larger, plaider view.]

With what the colder weather and all, it seems like a good time to remind everyone that plaid is warmer.

Fair and balanced: Phil Are Go! is not a fan of plaid.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

You know you’re really a prisoner of television when . . .

. . . you pass an exit sign for Lebanon and the first thing you think is Levi.

[Lebanon: in St. Clair County, Illinois.]

The greatest pencil story ever told

At Contrapuntalism, Sean tells the story of his journey to Stein, Germany, the home of pencil manufacturer Faber-Castell. These posts form what must be the greatest pencil story ever told. Beautiful photographs too. “The Stein Way” is in three parts: 1, 2, and 3.


January 8: And now there’s an epilogue.

Brookline Booksmith blog

I am happy to discover that one of my favorite bookstores, Brookline Booksmith, has a blog: brookline blogsmith. As a student in Boston, I spent many hours in this bookstore, back when it was called Paperback Booksmith (est. 1961). Now I get to visit once or twice a year. Booksmith has an excellent selection, a helpful staff, late hours, and no coffee.¹ The store feels to me like a necessary part of its community, an exceptionally bright spot in the general brightness of life at the intersection of Harvard and Beacon Streets. Visiting Booksmith makes me want to live in Brookline again.

Why bother with the blog of a bookstore you might never visit? It can be a good way to learn about books you might otherwise miss. So it is that a copy of Jǐrí Gruša’s novel The Questionnaire recently came home with me from the library.

¹ All pluses, to my mind. If you want coffee, just walk down the street. And if you want a bookstore with snarky brats at the front desk, keep going, to the other side of the River Charles.

[Ben, you’re so lucky.]

Mark Trail makeover (2)

In the world of Mark Trail, all bad guys have facial hair. By their sideburns, mustaches, and beards ye shall know them. Back in December, I altered a Trail strip, removing facial hair and bad-guy intentions from kidnappers Juan (left) and Otto. Look:

[Mark Trail, November 21, 2012. Click for a larger view.]

[Mark Trail, modified by me. Click for a larger view.]

Now look again:

[“Come on, Juan, this is Otto, your friend! Don’t you recognize me?” Mark Trail, January 3, 2012, not modified by me. Click for a larger view.]

What happened? Trail saved Otto from death by shark, and Otto gave back the two-million-dollar ransom he once demanded. And now Otto is missing his mustache. He also appears to have treated his eyebrows to a threading. He is beginning to look a lot like Mark Trail. Many amenities on this island. And many chances for redemption.

The only other strip in which I’ve seen characters’ hair change without warning: yes, Hi and Lois.

[Otto still has his sideburns, for now.]

[January 4: Otto’s eyebrows and mustache have returned.]

On an unrelated note, I’m impressed by the hyphens in used-to-be friend.

Related reading
All Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

Happy birthday, Van Dyke Parks

Van Dyke Parks turns seventy today. Sail on, sailor!

Related reading
All Van Dyke Parks posts (Pinboard)
Mark Twain’s seventieth-birthday speech (PBS)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Buzzwords and education

Diana Senechal on ”the utilitarian view of education”:

[I]n recent years it has overtaken education discourse. It can be attributed to the loss of a literary culture, the introduction of business language and models into education, and the resultant streamlining of language. Schools and industries have become less concerned with the possible meanings of words, their allusions and nuances, than with buzzwords that proclaimed to funders and inspectors that the approved things are being done — goal setting, “targeted” professional development, identification of “best practices,” and so forth. Thus we lose the means to question and criticize the narrow conceptions of success that have so much power in our lives.

Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2012).
I should know better, but I am still surprised by how readily academic communities embrace buzzwords and platitudes. Everything, it seems, is subject to critical inquiry except the language that purports to define our purposes.

Also from Republic of Noise
“A little out of date”
Fighting distraction
Literature and reverence

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Local listings

On C-SPAN: The House debate on the bill to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.

On Syfy: The Twilight Zone marathon.

As a friend of mine from high school would have said, “Same difference.”

A related post
Avoiding and averting

[The bill just passed.]

From a letter to David Rakoff

From a letter by New York Times reporter Ariel Kaminer to David Rakoff:

Here is the simplest lesson you taught me: Don’t trade up.

In terms of three-word volumes, it ranks right up there with “It gets better.” Like that more famous line, it starts out as a bit of simple, practical instruction — don’t back out of a social engagement just because a snazzier offer came along — and broadens out into an entire perspective on how to live. Don’t grade friendships on a hierarchical scale. Don’t value people based on some external indicator of status. Don’t take a competitive view of your social life. There are very few rules I carry around with me every day. Don’t trade up is one of them, and I truly can’t tell you how many seemingly complicated situations it resolved into clarity and fairness. I am grateful to you for that.
Read the letter; there’s much more.

Related posts
David Rakoff (1964–2012)
For use in “seemingly intolerable situations”

Resolution Generator

Monina Velarde’s New Year’s Resolution Generator is up and running for 2013. I am happy to see that “Drink more tea” is still available.

Happy New Year

[Nancy, January 1, 1943, from Nancy Is Happy: Complete Dailies 1943–1945 (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012). Click for a larger view.]

Happy New Year, everyone.