Saturday, January 31, 2015


[In a coffeeshop. Two young adults talking.]

“Have you listened to the whole album?”


[Not long after.]

“I can’t wait for their second album.”

Related reading
All OCA “overheard” posts (Pinboard)

[There’s hope, at least if they’re paying for the albums.]

Yet another Sluggo

[Ludwig ”Sluggo” Wittgenstein.]

One more Sluggo, Inspired by the Sluggo variations and Gunther’s variation.

Related reading
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)

Students and technology

The developmental psychologist Susan Pinker, writing in The New York Times, wondering whether students can have too much technology:

More technology in the classroom has long been a policy-making panacea. But mounting evidence shows that showering students, especially those from struggling families, with networked devices will not shrink the class divide in education. If anything, it will widen it.
Pinker points out that it’s not device use but the “give-and-take” of conversations with parents that predicts “robust vocabularies and school success.”

Friday, January 30, 2015

Still another Sluggo

Gunther’s Sluggo made me laugh out loud, loudly, too loudly.


National Adjunct Walkout Day

Inside Higher Ed reports on National Adjunct Walkout Day. It’s February 25, 2015.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The exploitation of adjunct labor is the shame and scandal of American higher education.

[I am not now nor have I ever been an adjunct instructor, and I’m fortunate to teach at a school that treats adjuncts well. Many schools do not. I imagine that schools of all sorts will respond to NAWD by announcing that anyone not teaching on February 25 will lose wages.]

Let’s go . . . places?

In my modern American lit class we were talking about the mannered “poetry voice,” that ineptly . . . musical voice? The one that rises? And falls where you least . . . expect it?

And someone mentioned this: 2015 Toyota RAV4 Beat poetry. Thirty seconds of good fun.

Thank you, Zayne.

Another Sluggo

[Truman “Sluggo” Capote. Artist unknown.]

I wish I had realized last December that there’s a whole series of Sluggos. Follow the link and keep on scrolling.

If anyone knows who created these images, I’d like to know too.

Related reading
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A case for singular they ?

At Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum discusses a sentence from the Twitter account Shit Academics Say to bolster the case for singular they. The sentence:

We wish to thank Reviewer 2 for their critical feedback & sincerely apologize for not having written the manuscript they would have written.
Pullum’s comment:
Here’s a very nice case of modern sex-neutral pronoun-choice style, with the unusual feature that the antecedent for the two occurrences of singular they (which prescriptiv[i]sts hate so much) is not only a definite noun phrase, but a definite noun phrase denoting a unique individual. . . . The special feature here is that the people writing are not permitted to know the identity or the gender of the person denoted by the phrase. Academics submitting to a refereed journal never know who their anonymous reviewers were; all these authors know is that Reviewer 2 hated their paper and wanted them to write a different one. They have no way to know if the reviewer is a he or a she. And especially in the terse Twitter medium, saying “for his or her critical feedback” and “the manuscript he or she would have written” would be much too cumbersome.
Yes, repeating he or she, his or her would be cumbersome. But this sentence, even though it weighs in at 140 characters, twenty-two words, is itself ungainly, as sentences with singular they often are. Sometimes such sentences sound absurd: “A musician who practices will find that they improve.” And the painful repetition of singular pronouns isn’t the only alternative to they, as Pullum must know. One can arrive at a much better sentence by avoiding singular they altogether:
We are grateful for Reviewer 2’s comments and apologize for not writing the manuscript the reviewer would have written.
That’s terser still: 119 characters and nineteen words.

I’m not sure that what Pullum finds unusual — the mystery of gender — is all that unusual. It happens all the time online, where commenters and developers are sometimes anonymous, sometimes pseudonymous. When I asked my students to write about an infamous student-and-professor e-mail exchange, the student e-mailer’s gender was unknown to us. So we worked a bit on finding ways around the endless repetition of they. For instance:
Not so good: If this student wants to make a good impression, they will need to rethink their way of addressing their professors.

Not so good: If this student wants to make a good impression, he or she will need to rethink his way of addressing his or her professors.

Better: For this student, making a good impression should begin with thinking about how to address professors.
I wrote out my thoughts about singular they in this 2009 post. I haven’t changed my mind since then: I still think that they is sometimes a good choice and sometimes not. And I still think it’s wise to avoid singular they when one’s writing is subject to formal evaluation (at least without checking beforehand).

A related post
Pullum on Strunk and White

[About the original sentence: since it’s from Shit Academics Say, the ponderousness may be by design.]

How to improve writing (no. 52)

From an essay at The Atlantic. The brackets are in the original:

There’s a widespread idea that “People who make things are simply different [read: better] than those who don’t.”
There’s a widespread idea that “People who make things are simply different from [read: better than] those who don’t.”
Different from, not than. Garner’s Modern American Usage explains:
Different than is often considered inferior to different from. The problem is that than should follow a comparative adjective (larger than, sooner than, etc.), and different is not comparative — though, to be sure, it is a word of contrast. Than implies a comparison, i.e., a matter of degree, but differences are ordinarily qualitative, not quantitative, and the adjective different is not strictly comparative. Thus, writers should generally prefer from.
Garner adds that different than is “sometimes idiomatic, and even useful.” But: “When from nicely fills the slot of than, however, that is the idiom to be preferred.”

How much more helpful than Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which sums things up like so: “Though different than NP [noun phrase] is disliked by a slim majority of the AHD [American Heritage Dictionary] Usage Panel, it has long been common in carefully written prose,” followed by some Mencken snark about precisians. Garner’s Language-Change Index puts different than at Stage 3: “The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage is different from The Sense of Style. Better than, too.

Related reading
All OCA How to improve writing posts (Pinboard)
Polident, different to and than (Or, what’s up with those commercials?)

[This post is no. 52 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

Debbie Chachra on makers

At The Atlantic, Debbie Chachra explains why she is not a maker. Two excerpts:

Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against the system. While the shift might be from the corporate to the individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling a different set of things), it mostly re-inscribes familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.


I want to see us recognize the work of the educators, those that analyze and characterize and critique, everyone who fixes things, all the other people who do valuable work with and for others — above all, the caregivers — whose work isn’t about something you can put in a box and sell.

Domestic comedy

[Late last night, as the state road went through a town and the speed limit dropped to 30. Elaine spotted a car, parked, lights off.]


“. . .”

“I can’t believe I just said that.”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[The Wire has taken over our lives, or at least some of our language. I’ve been saying five-o for weeks. Elaine has only just begun.]

Fare forward, Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan explains why he has stopped blogging.

I began reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog in 2001, after happening upon his essay “The Agony of the Left.” I felt honored when he posted a link to this OCA post. (I had sent him the link, of course.) Sullivan is often described as the liberal’s favorite conservative. That I find myself more often than not in agreement with him might suggest how unhelpful such categories are.

Fare forward, Andrew. I look forward to reading whatever you’re going to write.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Some atolls

The astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti photographed some atolls:

For newcomers to Orange Crate Art: “some” is a crucial category for organizing reality. The work begins with rocks.

Thank you, Mathias.

The happiness of suspended coffee

Yesterday I had my first-ever suspended coffee. Elaine ordered a large tea, I ordered a small coffee, and the barista said that a previous customer had paid for a future customer’s small coffee. A suspended coffee! The barista too knew about the practice but she too had never before seen it in action. I took the free one and paid for the next one. As Elaine and I put caps on our cups, we saw a student ordering, yes, a small coffee. The barista told her that someone had just paid for one. The student turned, saw us, and thanked us. She thanked us at least four times. Laughter and smiles all around. It was the most fun I’ve ever had paying for a cup of coffee.

The tradition of caffè sospeso seems to have started as a way to help anyone in need. A customer without sufficient funds might come in and ask if there were any suspended coffees. In this east-central Illinois adaptation, it seems to be more a matter of kindness aimed in no particular direction. Pay it forward, random acts, and all that. I highly recommend paying for a suspended coffee and plan to do so again as soon as possible.


And now I have.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

“What I Forgot”

There is nothing wrong with description, watching people pass by, remembering how things used to be. I suppose it’s always like that. On the other hand,

        there is no

        of what
        is wrong with
        my hat


We say an expression misleads us, that we have been given “bad directions,” ending up in a tight corner of the cloakroom, a bright orange bowling ball now speeding toward us,

        Wang Wang Blues
        on the

        floormodel radio


Then the news is so matter-of-fact that there is no news, just years of patient inventory,

        bread milk and snow


        Snow what is

        y brillante

        now I
        have it

        hat hat

[I wrote “What I Forgot” sometime in the 1990s. The poem was published in a chapbook of my work, Inventories (Oasii Press, 1997). Now I know why the trio bread milk and snow has been running through my head. “Wang Wang Blues”: an early Ellington recording.]

No Koch

The New York Times reports that the Koch brothers plan to spend nearly $900 million on the 2016 elections: “The brothers’ financial goal, announced on Monday at the annual Koch winter donor retreat in Palm Springs, Calif., effectively transforms the Koch organization into a third major political party.”

If you oppose this style of radical will, don’t buy Koch products. Tell others to do the same. And give to the candidates of your choice.

[Angel Soft Toilet Paper, Brawny Towels, Quilted Northern Toilet Paper, Georgia-Pacific Paper Products, Dixie Products, Stainmaster Carpet, Sparkle Paper Napkins, Lycra Fiber, Zee Paper Napkins, Mardi Gras Products, Dacron Fiber, Vanity Fair Paper Napkins, Soft ’n Gentle Toilet Paper. Image found here. Irony of ironies: our local indie moviehouse, soon to show Citizen Koch, was using Dixie products at the snack bar. I clued the management in.]

Raise high the roof beam, Donald Meek

I may be lacking in imagination: I rarely if ever visualize characters in literature, and I’m always surprised when people report that they do. Indeed, there’s a book about it, whose title, What We See When We Read, takes it for granted that we visualize, even if I don’t.

But on occasion a visual image will present itself to me. When it does, I take it. Enter Donald Meek.

[Donald Meek, actor (1878–1946).]

I’ve seen Donald Meek in just two movies. In Little Miss Broadway (dir. Irving Cummings, 1938), a Shirley Temple vehicle (and fambly favorite), he plays Willoughby Wendling, an upper-crust fellow and member of a fuddy-duddy vocal quartet. In State Fair (dir. Walter Lang, 1945), he plays the mononymous Hippenstahl, a judge of pickles and mincemeat.

When I first read J. D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (1963), I instantly imagined the “tiny elderly man” of the story as Donald Meek. The little man is a member of an ill-fated wedding party: he is Seymour Glass’s bride Muriel’s father’s uncle. He is deaf and never says a word, communicating only with pad and pencil. He is never identified by name. Here are two descriptions of him, courtesy of the story’s narrator, Buddy Glass:

Twice, without any excuse whatever, out of sheer approval, I glanced around at the tiny elderly man. When I’d originally loaded the car and held the door open for him, I’d had a passing impulse to pick him up bodily and insert him gently through the open window. He was tininess itself, surely being not more than four nine or ten and without being either a midget or a dwarf. In the car, he sat staring very severely straight ahead of him. On my second look around at him, I noticed that he had what very much appeared to be an old gravy stain on the lapel of his cutaway. I also noticed that his silk hat cleared the roof of the car by a good four or five inches.


The bride’s father’s uncle and I brought up the rear. Whether he had intuited that I was his friend or simply because I was the owner of a pad and pencil, he had rather more scrambled then gravitated to a walking position beside me. The very top of his beautiful silk hat didn’t quite come up as high as my shoulder. I set a comparatively slow gait for us, in deference to the length of his legs. At the end of a block or so, we were quite a good distance behind the others. I don’t think it troubled either of us. Occasionally, I remember, as we walked along, my friend and I looked up and down, respectively, at each other and exchanged idiotic expressions of pleasure at sharing one another’s company.
“Rather more scrambled then gravitated,” “looked up and down, respectively,” “idiotic expressions of pleasure”: what funny, wonderful writing. But you’ll notice that aside from short stature, nothing in these descriptions suggests Donald Meek. (According to his IMDb bio, Meek was 5'4".) Why his image floated into my mind, I’ll never know.

Via YouTube you can watch Willoughby and his cronies lip-sync with Shirley Temple on “Swing Me an Old-Fashioned Song” from Little Miss Broadway. Caution: the brief bit of “In the Evening by the Moonlight” may be cause for offense.

More from Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters
“A sort of jump-seat Mona Lisa”
“Love, Irving Sappho”

Monday, January 26, 2015

White stuff

Bread, milk, and snow: Why blizzards make us go crazy for milk and bread (The Washington Post).

It’s snowing in east-central Illinois, but it’s nothing like what the northeastern states will get. Stay safe, northeastern states. Get the bread and milk.

A related post
“The white stuff”

[Please notice that the white stuff in this post is not snow alone.]

Kenneth Koch on reading poetry

Much of the difficulty of reading poetry comes from unfamiliarity, from not being able to take the suggestions the poem gives as to how to read it. It’s possible, too, to be misdirected by teachers and critics, so that poems are read in an unprofitable way. Common mistaken ideas about how to read poetry include the Hidden Meaning assumption, which directs one to more or less ignore the surface of the poem in a quest for some elusive and momentous significance that the poet has buried amid the words and music. This idea probably comes from the fact that, being moved by a poem, one assumes an important religious, philosophical, or historical cause for being moved and tries to find it hidden someplace in the poem; whereas in fact a few words rightly placed can be moving if they catch a moment of life — almost any moment; if, amidst all the blather and babble of imprecise, uncertain language in which we live, there is something better, some undeniable little beautiful bit of light. This is given to us, of course, by the music and the words, not something that they conceal. Important, and at first unseeable, meanings may be in poems as they may be in other experiences, but there is no way to find them except by having the experiences. It's not the nature of poems to be clues, or collections of clues, so to read them as if they were is not to properly experience them, thus to be lost. Many people talking about poetry are lost, and even more people have given up reading poetry because they knew they were lost and didn’t like it. A poem may turn out to be a deep and complex experience, but the experience begins by responding to the language of poetry in front of you, not by detective work that puts that response aside.

Kenneth Koch, Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998).
I wish that teachers everywhere could take Koch’s words to heart.

More Kenneth Koch (Biography, bibliography, selections)
Koch reading his work (PennSound)

Related posts
Against “deep reading”
Seventeen ideas about interpretation

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Joe Franklin (1926–2015)

“‘My show was often like a zoo,’” he said in 2002. ‘I‘d mix Margaret Mead with the man who whistled through his nose, or Richard Nixon with the tap-dancing dentist’”: Joe Franklin, Local Talk Show Pioneer, Dies at 88 (The New York Times).

The best moments on The Joe Franklin Show came when Joe asked his guests to talk about one another. Awkward, crazy, and wonderful.

[Yes, the URL says 2014. I never make the last-year mistake when writing checks — only when I’m writing online.]

Hi and Lois watch

[Hi and Lois, January 25, 2015. Click for a larger view.]

Here are the first two panels of today’s Hi and Lois, panels that will be missing from many newspapers. Not because of censorship: who can fault an infant for chortling about her neighbor’s alcoholism? Rather, because these panels form the “throwaway gag,” the unnecessary bit that can be removed to save space without damaging the logic of the Sunday storyline. No accident that it’s the risky joke in these panels.

Related reading
All OCA Hi and Lois posts (Pinboard)
The evolution of Thirsty Thurston (

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Newsday’s Saturday Stumper

Several months ago I canceled my subscription to the New York Times crossword. It wasn’t the ludicrousness of 46-Down, “Cool jazz pioneer” that finally got to me: it was the increasingly forced cleverness of the puzzles. I know that the Times is the gold standard of crosswords. But Will Shortz’s sense of what’s amusing and fun is not exactly mine.

I now do the Times crossword in syndication for free, often though not daily. My new daily crossword, also free, is Stan Newman’s Newsday crossword. The Sunday through Friday puzzles are good ones, always with a theme, always with nice touches of wit in the clueing. Saturday’s puzzle, the Saturday Stumper, is a themeless killer, usually far more difficult than the Times Saturday puzzle. I’ve been able to complete just one Saturday Newsday without having to reveal one or more words. A sample clue, from today’s puzzle by Brad Wilber: 36-Down, eight letters, “What you might do for your own sake.” The answer, which I’m happy to have figured out: HOMEBREW. There’s a nice sense of proportion between clue and answer: the out-of-the-way answer justifies the clue’s wit. You’ll have to highlight to see the answer, which I won’t give away.

[Brad Wilber, the constructor of today’s Newsday puzzle, co-constructed the puzzle that made me a little crazy. I suspect though that “Cool jazz pioneer,” which seems to derive from a Times obit, was Shortz’s clue.]

µBlock for Safari

Raymond Hill’s ad-blocking extension µBlock is now available for Safari 8.

I much prefer µBlock to AdBlock Plus in Chrome. If µBlock works as well in Safari, it’ll be terrific.

Friday, January 23, 2015

National Handwriting Day

[“Hand with Pen Held Erect Opposite Eye of Beholder.” Illustration from Ward and Lock’s Self-Instruction; or, Every Man His Own Schoolmaster (London: 1883).]

With a little more than three hours to go, I realized that today is National Handwriting Day — truly a day marked not with a bang but a whimper. I wrote by hand today without even thinking about it, making some notes with a Pelikan pen, grading some stuff with a Ticonderoga pencil. How about you?

The image above is creepy, no? It’s the fingernails that make it so. With maybe a hint of Un Chien Andalou. And yet I cannot look away.

Related reading
All OCA handwriting posts (Pinboard)

Times, a-changin’

You know the times they are a-changin’ when the PBS NewsHour has a feature on Sleater-Kinney.

“What makes you so sure?”

Some questions:

What attracts you to one person, but not to another? Why do you have “down” days when there’s nothing really wrong? What mechanism enables you to change your mind? Is morality built into your psyche from birth — knowing right from wrong — or is it something you acquire? How do your feet tell your brain that they’re tired?

Has mental telepathy any basis in science? Astrology? Clairvoyance? How does your brain distinguish chocolate from vanilla? Where do your conscious thoughts go when you sleep? How does time work to heal grief? Are the colors you see the same colors that other people see? Yes? What makes you so sure?
[From a letter pitching the magazine Psychology Today, many years old. I clipped these two paragraphs and kept them in a folder. I found and still find them funny. They sound to me like a parody of God in the Book of Job.]

Booksmith bookmark

I like pulling down a book from a shelf and finding an old bookmark. How long had this one been keeping my place? Many years. Long enough for the top to have faded. The lower-right corner looks like a printing error.

As a student in Allston-Brighton-Brookline environs in the 1980s, I was a frequent visitor to Paperback Booksmith and Musicsmith. A bookstore and record store within easy walking distance and open late (look at those hours): it feels now like something from a dream life. My most vivid buying memories (and I don’t know why): LPs by The English Beat and The Specials.

Musicsmith is long gone, but Paperback Booksmith, now Brookline Booksmith, sails on. I’ve sung its praises in a previous post. Elaine and I have sometimes wondered whether, before we met, we were ever in the store at the same time. We are still customers whenever we visit Boston. And our son Ben now buys books at Booksmith. Who’da thunkit?

Here is an account of Booksmith and its founder Marshall Smith, with links providing more Booksmith history.

Now if I could only find one of the Gotham Book Mart’s Edward Gorey-designed bookmarks. Shelves, where are you hiding them?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Eric Schmidt and Warren Buffett

Eric Schmidt, speaking today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland:

“There will be so many IP addresses . . . so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it,” he explained. “It will be part of your presence all the time. Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.”
Warren Buffett, speaking to University of Washington students in 1998:
“I’m very suspect of the person who is very good at one business — it also could be a good athlete or a good entertainer — who starts thinking they should tell the world how to behave on everything. For us to think that just because we made a lot of money, we’re going to be better at giving advice on every subject — well, that’s just crazy.”
Not a perfect match: Schmidt here is more prophet than advice-giver, telling us not how to behave but how we will behave. But again: who is he to tell us how we are to live?

That phrasing — “with your permission and all of that” — suggests a rather casual attitude toward individual privacy and whatnot. And what is “the room”? It’s certainly not my living room.

See also Eric Schmidt on the future.

On subscription prices

If you plan to renew (or, I suppose, begin) a magazine subscription, it may be smart to do business over the phone. You may come out with a price significantly lower than those found in magazine inserts and mailed reminders. I speak from experience: anecdotal experience.

That concludes my advice for the day. YAEMV.

[Your anecdotal experience may vary.]

On paper clips

In academic life, paper clips are like pennies — always there. When I need a paper clip, I just look at my desk — there are always a few clips around. (Five as I’m writing.) I find clips in my shirt pockets and at the bottom of my Lands’ End bag. When I find them holding together pages several years old, they have often left on the paper a deposit of rust that cannot be removed. When clips do not rust, they leave their imprints, ghost clips made of shadow. I remember on at least one occasion in college getting back a paper that I was sure the professor hadn’t read — the paper clip was still in place, and there was no sign that anyone had turned the pages.

Taking paper clips seriously has made me look strange to people who should know better. At Bob Slate Stationers I asked a salesperson what kind of paper clip it is that doesn’t rust. (Stainless steel? Brass?) She referred me to someone else: “He says there’s a paper clip that doesn’t rust.” But lady, it’s true.

Taking paper clips seriously has also made me look strange to people who don’t know better.

When I hear “paper clip,” I think of something made of metal, though lately I have been using plastic-coated clips. They remind me of the wire I used in science-fair projects involving batteries and tiny light bulbs. Coated clips add interesting touches of color — pink or purple looks especially zany holding together pages of a critical essay or book review. These clips have a shorter life: after holding together a thick sheaf of paper, they are bent forever. They are the paper clips of the future, to be used once and discarded.

Paper clips are in some unprovable way more mature than staples: teachers staple exams for you, but they don’t provide paper clips.

A related post
Paper clips (A prose poem)

[Found in an old looseleaf notebook, from a writing course I taught in 1990-something. The assignment was to write about a small subject. I did the assignment along with the class. The other topics, all of the students’ invention: a chip clip, colors (black, blue, red), crayons, flowers, a fork, a full moon, the number 76, a paintbrush, paper, a Q-Tip, a ring, a toothpick. Remember the Lands’ End canvas briefcase? In 2015 it comes in only two colors, and reviews are mixed. I now suspect that coated clips are the only ones that do not rust.]

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The libertine of the day

The word of the day from A.Word.A.Day is libertine . Which makes it a good time to revisit the story of I, Libertine .

Still life

[Click for a larger view.]

One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong.

This post is an example of what Elaine and I call “making our own fun.”

A related post
The Arancia Technique

Domestic comedy

“I had them when I was young, when they were in style.”

“Were they ever in style?”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[They? These.]

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mystery Pier on Off-Ramp

KPCC’s Off-Ramp has a short feature on Mystery Pier Books. Happening upon this bookstore — right next to Book Soup — was a highlight of our visit to Los Angeles last summer.

A related post
Things to do in Los Angeles

Separated at birth?

[Michael A. Monahan and William H. Macy.]

William H. Macy looks like Michael A. Monahan all grown up. Sources: an epsiode of Father Knows Best (1956) and Air Force One (1997).

Related posts
Nicholson Baker and Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Ted Berrigan and C. Everett Koop
John Davis Chandler and Steve Buscemi
Ray Collins and Mississippi John Hurt
Broderick Crawford and Vladimir Nabokov
Ted Cruz and Joe McCarthy
Jacques Derrida, Peter Falk, and William Hopper
Elaine Hansen (of Davey and Goliath) and Blanche Lincoln
Harriet Sansom Harris and Phoebe Nicholls
Ton Koopman and Oliver Sacks
Steve Lacy and Myron McCormick

Monday, January 19, 2015

Erik Spiekermann on “obsessive attention to detail”

Erik Spiekermann says that being obsessive about detail is being normal. He explains it to an interviewer:

Q. The meticulousness of typographic work seems to require an obsessive attention to detail. Would you describe your work in typography as an obsession and, if so, why does this particular discipline require this level of engagement?

A. Wrong question. Every craft requires attention to detail. Whether you’re building a bicycle, an engine, a table, a song, a typeface or a page: the details are not the details, they make the design. Concepts don’t have to be pixel-perfect, and even the fussiest project starts with a rough sketch. But building something that will be used by other people, be they drivers, riders, readers, listeners — users everywhere, it needs to be built as well as can be. Unless you are obsessed by what you’re doing, you will not be doing it well enough.
Related posts
An Erik Spiekermann poster
Erik Spierkermann explains quotation marks
Erik Spiekermann on typomania

Poetry and memory

From an interview with the poet Susan Howe:

I have an old friend who is in the advanced stages of dementia. He can barely remember his children. But he remembers music. If you play him something from his youth, songs from South Pacific or Cole Porter musicals, he knows melody and score. I brought him T. S. Eliot the other day, because he went to Harvard during the early 1950s when T. S. Eliot was a sort of god. I read him “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and from The Waste Land. He remembered whole lines, the familiar ones that used to astonish us then. “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” “Do I dare to eat a peach?” “I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. / I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.” I thought, my God, how great T. S. Eliot is. These poems are so musical they can be remembered even after the ability to string words together has dissolved.
January 20: It turns out that there’s an Alzheimer’s Poetry Project.

A related post
Alive Inside

Life of Zippy

[Zippy, January 19, 2015.]

The middle panel of today’s Zippy, Zippy speaking with himself in a tavern, spoke to me. I know that tavern. I know those glasses. I know that man, and that other man, the doppelgänger one.

[Life, May 20, 1940.]

I’ve owned a copy of the May 20, 1940 Life for many years. I have no idea how I latched onto it. The men above appear in a full-page advertisement for the United Brewers Industrial Foundation. The ad proclaims the virtues of the Moderation Hour:

Good beer and ale, in wholesome, modern taverns, offer Americans pleasant, inexpensive relaxation!
The ad mentions a plan to keep things that way by cleaning up or closing up “any anti-social retail establishments that may exist.” Notice the cuckoo clock floating in space, a welcome touch in any modern tavern. Is the Moderation Hour beginning or ending? Either way: HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.

I’ve looked at this ad closely on several occasions to appreciate the way it presents manly variety: older man, younger man; cigarette smoker, pipe smoker. Yes, that covers it. The cigarettes are Chesterfields: in the print ad, the name on the pack is more readable than it is here. And while I haven’t looked at the ad in a long time, I recently took the opportunity to visit the Google Books version of this very issue of Life to borrow a liverwurst ad. Liverwurst too would benefit from a Moderation Hour.

The title of today’s Zippy, “Totally Wolvertonian,” references Mad cartoonist Basil Wolverton. Oh, and the United Brewers Industrial Foundation has long since given way to the Beer Institute. That’s about it for today’s Zippy. Burp.

[“Moderation in the pursuit of beer is no vice.”]

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)


[Edward Biberman (1904–1986), I Had a Dream, c. 1968. Oil on Masonite. 24" x 30". Los Angeles County Museum of Art.]

I saw this painting at LACMA last summer. It is not currently on display.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Why I am skeptical about tuition-free community college

President Obama’s proposal of two years of tuition-free community college comes with greater complications than brief news reports allow. One such complication: the plan would cover only coursework that provides job-training or that transfers to four-year schools. Thus the “developmental” (read: remedial) classes that begin (and end) many a community-college student’s coursework would appear not to be included.

Greater access to higher education ought to look like an unqualified good. Yet I find myself deeply skeptical about whether tuition-free community college (hereafter TFCC) will serve any purpose but greater economic and social stratification. I see in this proposal (which probably has little chance of becoming law) the same logic that underwrites MOOCs: a four-year residential experience gets reserved for a privileged few, with something else for the rest of us. A family of modest means, faced with a choice between free and far from it, would find it difficult not to choose free. It’s already well known that capable students from disadvantaged families tend to aim low and think locally when applying to colleges. TFCC would do much to encourage diminished educational choices: community college rather than, say, a four-year state school. It seems to me a higher-ed version of tracking.

And there’s good reason to wonder whether TFCC is likely to prepare students for academic success. Great things can happen at community colleges — I have taught brilliant students who studied there. But for most students who start at community colleges, the chances of moving on to a four-year degree are small. The Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College has the dispiriting numbers, with thirteen percent of community-college students earning a bachelor’s degree in five years, fifteen percent earning the degree within six.

Another problem with TFCC involves instruction. The overwhelming majority of community-college faculty are adjunct instructors being paid a pittance for their work — according to The Adjunct Project, an average of $2100 per course at public two-year schools, or $140 a week. TFCC, which allots no additional funds for instruction, would serve to further the adjunctification of teaching. A greater influx of students into community colleges would require ever more adjuncts, each with the small courseload that institutions assign to avoid having to pay into health insurance. Call it the academic version of the twenty-nine-hour week.

A bolder proposal (which would stand even less chance of passing than the Obama proposal) would offer, in the spirit of the GI Bill, free tuition for two years of coursework wherever a student chooses to go (call it TFP: tuition-free, period). TFP could be made available to students whose families earn under, say, $100,000 a year. And the dollar amount could be capped, which might encourage institutions to lower tuition. Like TFCC, TFP would do nothing to reverse higher education’s increasing reliance on adjunct instructors. But TFP would at least encourage greater choice and greatly reduce the cost of college for students at both two-year and four-year schools.¹

Bolder yet would be a revamping of K-12 education that addresses the cruel inequities of school funding. As Jonathan Kozol has often observed, there’s something deeply wrong with a culture in which the accident of one’s birth determines the quality of one’s education.² TFCC will change none of that. Those who can afford to go from high school to a four-year college will continue to do so, and everyone else will have less reason to aspire to do so.

¹ Pipedreams ought not to require details. These details are the best I can do.

² I realized only after writing that “cruel inequities” is an unconscious variation on the title of Kozol’s Savage Inequalities.

Related posts
The Adjunct Project
“A fully-realized adult person”
The gold standard, haircuts, and everyone else

[I have voted three times for Barack Obama. I have knocked on doors for him in two cities and have made substantial contributions to his presidential campaigns. But when it comes to education, I find him an utter disappointment.]

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Domestic comedy

That’s not Aunt Bee!”

“That’s the Anti-Bee.”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[It was Dorothy Konrad as Flora, in an episode of Mayberry R.F.D., a show so unremittingly, sickeningly wholesome that it makes The Andy Griffith Show look like film noir.]

Friday, January 16, 2015

Words of the year

The Economist rounds up the words of the year: culture, exposure, vape, #blacklivesmatter.

National Send a Handwritten Letter Day (?)

January 17th — and every 17th this year — is (supposedly) National Send a Handwritten Letter Day. Having written three letters in the last six days, I will probably take the day off.

Coming just six days before National Handwriting Day, NSHLD seems oddly placed. Does it have an official sponsor? Is that sponsor trying to steal NHD’s thunder? If thunder thunders and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

In 2015 there’s something decidedly artificial about keeping in touch by letter. I don’t mind: I like writing and receiving letters. One of the great friendships of my life — with my pal Aldo Carrasco — got started in letters.

Related reading
All OCA letter posts (Pinboard)

[National Send a Handwritten Letter Day is such an ungainly name. How about Handwritten Letter Day?)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Goodbye and good riddance, Glass

BBC News reports that Google is ending sales of Google Glass:

The company insists it is still committed to launching the smart glasses as a consumer product, but will stop producing Glass in its present form.

Instead it will focus on “future versions of Glass” with work carried out by a different division to before.
Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC describes his life with the hideous eyewear:
As I found when I spent a couple of months wearing Glass, it has a number of really useful aspects — in particular the camera. There is however one huge disadvantage — it makes its users look daft, and that meant that it was never going to appeal to a wide audience.
Perhaps Google Glass, like Odysseus, will someday return. But I can’t imagine many people pining away in the interim.

[Did you notice the British “different to”? The Glass website and the Google blog carry no news of Glass’s imminent disappearance.]

The German Doctor

[Florencia Bado as Lilith. Click for a larger view.]

The German Doctor (original title: Wakolda, dir. Lucía Puenzo, 2013) is a quietly terrifying film. The premise: in 1960, Helmut Gregor (Àlex Brendemühl), a German émigré doctor, takes a room in an Argentine family’s hotel. The family’s twelve-year-old daughter Lilith (Florencia Bado) finds the doctor fascinating. Indeed, with his dark mustache and perfect hair, he looks like a young girl’s idea of a movie star. The doctor begins to devote greater and greater attention to this family. He is concerned about Lilith’s short stature. He is concerned about her mother Eva (Natalia Oreiro), who is pregnant with twins. And he arranges to mass-produce the dolls that Lilith’s father Enzo (Diego Peretti) makes by hand. They have wind-up beating hearts.

The German Doctor reminds me of Victor Erice’s El espíritu de la colmena (1973) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). A secret childhood world, an increasingly close relationship between a family and a magical benefactor who is not what he appears to be: these are the ingredients of a deeply disturbing story.

Like so many trailers, the trailer for this film is misleading: The Good Doctor is quietly terrifying. The slow pace and a preference for implication to statement make the film all the more powerful. In Spanish and German, with English subtitles.

[Wakolda: the name of Lilith’s doll. The film is adapted from Puenzo’s novel of that name.]

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


A long look at revising Webster’s Third: Stefan Fatsis, The Definition of a Dictionary (Slate).

Related reading
All OCA dictionary posts (Pinboard)

Orange batik art

Cooper Hewitt’s Object of the [yester]Day is Judith Kngwarreye’s Tharrakarre . That’s a mere smidgen of it to the left.

Other posts with orange
Crate art, orange : Orange art, no crate : Orange bookmark art : Orange car art : Orange crate art : Orange crate art (Encyclopedia Brown) : Orange dress art : Orange flag art : Orange manual art : Orange mug art : Orange newspaper art : Orange notebook art : Orange notecard art : Orange peel art : Orange pencil art : Orange soda art : Orange soda-label art : Orange stem art : Orange telephone art : Orange timer art : Orange toothbrush art : Orange train art : Orange tree art : Orange tree art : Orange tree art : Orange Tweed art

A house is not a home

I winced this morning to hear the newsreader at our NPR member-station refer to our new governor Bruce Rauner’s “nine homes.” Properties, yes: condos, houses, a penthouse, ranches, a farm. Homes, no.

Garner’s Modern American Usage makes the point nicely: its entry for home reads, in its entirety, “See house.” And that entry explains: “In the best usage, the structure is always called a house. . . . The word home connotes familial ties.”

One cannot have nine “homes” without a very complicated (messy) private life. I am not accusing the governor of that.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Alive Inside

The documentary Alive Inside (dir. Michael Rossato-Bennett, 2014) follows social worker Dan Cohen’s efforts to bring music (via iPod) to people with dementia. Again and again in this film, people quicken — come alive — as they listen to their favorite music. (Oliver Sacks, who appears briefly, cites Kant’s characterization of music as the “quickening art.”) My only complaint: like so many recent documentaries, Alive Inside suffers from a minimalist, soporific musical score. Its’s an incongruous element in a film about the power of music to enliven the listener.

Watching Alive Inside made me think of our fambly’s experiences playing music for nursing-home residents. Albert Ayler was right: music is the healing force of the universe.

I learned about this film from l’astronave.

[What Kant wrote: “Nun ist nichts die Sinne belebender, als die Musik.” In translation: “Nothing is more enlivening to the senses than music.” If I should ever be incapable of choosing music for myself, the composers and musicians listed in my Blogger profile would make an enlivening start.]

Monday, January 12, 2015

Ellsworth Kelly, drawing

In The New York Times, short interviews with “old masters a the top of their game.” From an interview with the painter Ellsworth Kelly (ninety-one):

What are your days like now?

I’m in the studio everyday. I draw a lot. . . . I chose plants because I knew I could draw plants forever. I want to work like nature works. I want to understand the growth of plants and the dead leaves falling. Oh, how I connect with that!

Our words, our selves

Barbara Wallraff:

With our words — particularly our written words, or words that we have written down before we say them — we can be our best selves, and even selves better than our actual best. Our words, outside ourselves, can be objects for us to reflect on, objects to perfect, evidence for us to study if we want to know whether we’re as kind or as clever as we like to think we are — and then they can be tools to help us be that kind or clever if we can just use them skillfully and patiently.

Word Court (New York: Harcourt, 2000).
[From 1983 to 2009, Wallraff was an editor and columnist for The Atlantic.]

Friday, January 9, 2015


[Solidarité. Illustration by Ana Juan. From The New Yorker website. Click for a larger view.]

DFW, non-Philo-ite

The cover story for the January 16 issue of Newsweek: The Turbulent Genius of David Foster Wallace. It’s the work of Alexander Nazaryan, a self-proclaimed “fanboy,“ and it reads that way. There’s nothing to see here, really, for someone who knows Wallace’s work.

Nazaryan makes the common mistake of believing that Wallace grew up in Philo, Illinois. Depsite what Wallace wrote in the essay “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” he did not grow up in Philo. Nazaryan quotes the essay’s description of the town:

a tiny collection of corn silos and war-era Levittown homes whose native residents did little but sell crop insurance and nitrogen fertilizer and herbicide and collect property taxes from the young academics at nearby Champaign-Urbana’s university.
Wallace grew up in Urbana, Illinois. His father James Wallace made the correction in 2010:
None of us, including David, ever set foot in Philo. I don’t know why David put all that feigned autobiography in the essay, but he did. Lots of people think we are from Philo. Only we and the residents of Philo know the truth.
Philo also turns up in the unfinished novel The Pale King, as the home of IRS employee David Foster Wallace.

In 2011 Elaine and I drove around Philo looking for “the blacktop courts of a small public park” that Wallace describes in his essay. There were none. There might have been, at some point. But Wallace wouldn’t have been playing there. What “Derivative Sport” doesn’t reveal is that his childhood home (in Urbana) was half a mile from Blair Park, a park with tennis courts. D. T. Max’s biography notes that Wallace took tennis lessons “at the local park.”

Related reading
All OCA DFW posts (Pinboard)

[This post is a brief step away from current events.]

A film trailer in a dream

I dreamed it last night: a trailer for a film about the poet Frank O’Hara. The title: A Controversial Thing in the Past. The trailer showed nothing but yellow taxis, shot from below. “Please not with James Franco,” I thought.

The obvious influences: the “the hum-colored / cabs” of O’Hara’s “A Step Away from Them,” the circumstances of his death, the 2010 movie Howl.

I wondered about a source for the title, but Google returns nothing for “a controversial thing in the past .”

There is a short film of Frank O’Hara independent of this dream.

Related reading
All OCA dream posts (Pinboard)

[This post is a brief step away from current events.]

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Art by Lucille Clerc

Lucille Clerc is the creator of the three-pencil tribute to Charlie Hebdo. The story is here. Clerc posted this image (no filter) to Instagram with the caption, “Break one, thousand will rise.”

Paparazzi!, an OS X app

Paparazzi!: “a small utility for Mac OS X that makes screenshots of webpages.” It’s free. Thank you, Nate Weaver.

Note: pages. Paparazzi! takes a shot of the page, not the screen. It saves one (or me) the tedious labor of stitching screenshots into a larger whole. Unlike Div Shekar’s BrowseShot (also free), Paparazzi! works with Google Books. That’s what makes the app especially useful to me.

Thanks to Zoe Rooney, who recommended Paparazzi! in a blog post.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Yesterday / today / tomorrow

Posted four hours ago to the (fake) Instagram account banksy. The caption: “RIP.”

Whoever made it, it’s a fitting tribute.


January 8: The image is by a French illustrator living in London, Lucille Clerc. Story here.

Battle for Brooklyn

A documentary worth watching: Battle for Brooklyn (dir. Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, 2011), which chronicles the eight-year fight against the Atlantic Yards project, which displaced residents and businesses to bring the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn. Can the doctrine of eminent domain be made to serve private enterprise? If you’re name is Bruce Ratner, the answer is yes. As Elaine quickly realized, the story is rather Wire-like. The fix, as they say, was in.

Battle for Brooklyn is both dispiriting and inspiring. Those who resist lose. Yet again and again, they refuse to give up. Their effort makes me remember this observation from Philip K. Dick: “Just because something bears the aspect of the inevitable one should not, therefore, go along willingly with it.”

Related reading
Battle for Brooklyn (The film’s website)
Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

An observation about writing, from Richard Marius

A good reason to read Bryan Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: each post closes with a little bonus, a quoted passage about language or writing. Here’s one sentence from yesterday’s passage:

When you write every day about yourself and your immediate world, you will develop habits that will help you observe the greater world beyond yourself.

Richard Marius, A Writer’s Companion (New York: Knopf, 1985).
Richard Marius’s book, now out of print, is a good one. It’s the kind of book that seems to be of little interest in the world of “comp” — the work of a writer (not a “specialist”) sharing what he knows.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Go fish!

In downstate Illinois, a would-be restaurant robber runs into “a knife-wielding sushi chef.”

[This story has already enjoyed significant circulation. I’m posting it because it’s news to me and it’s local. I’ve eaten at that restaurant.]

“You should give up now”

[Mark Trail, January 5, 2015.]

Cherry Trail’s faith in her husband Mark is indefatigable.¹ Mark and Cherry have been fishing on the boat Swan with Justin Holland, owner of Riverway Chemical. Mark has fallen into the water after being punched by a pony-tailed henchman of the evil Mitchum.² Mitchum is Holland’s partner in Riverway Chemical. Mitchum and two henchmen have seized the Swan, planning to “destroy” the boat, killing Holland and the Trails, whose deaths would then be blamed on an “eco-terrorist.”³ Mitchum has been courteous enough to explain everything while on board.

After falling into the water, Mark swims to shore to “get help.” But — dang it — he loses his phone in the water. Which raises two questions: 1. How could Mark’s phone work after being submerged in water? 2. If it can so work, why must Mark swim to shore before calling? Why not float and dial?

Oh, and 3. Why didn’t Mark try to climb back on board to save his wife?

Today’s strip ends with Cherry giving Mitchum a powerful slap. But I like this first panel better. It is the prelude to a slap. I think of it as a matter of Mrs. Trail breaking the fourth wall and speaking to all those who are reading her strip for the laughs.

¹ Though no one in the strip would use that word.

² It’s just “Mitchum.” [Insert anti-perspirant joke here.]

² Don’t ask.

Related reading
All OCA Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

Liverwurst: “For health, for strength — for eating fun”

[Life, May 20, 1940. Click for a larger view and the details of that recipe.]

The key word, here as elsewhere, is fun:

Kids love and need this healthful treat;
    Kids should have lots of it to eat.
Serve Liver Sausage to each one
    For health, for strength — for eating fun.
And: “It’s all food, and a smile wide.”

Furthermore: “You eat for health — and have fun too.”

In conclusion, liverwurst is fun. Get thee to the meat man.

Willa Cather, snoot

From a 1934 letter to Egbert Samuel Oliver, the twenty-ninth professor who wrote to Willa Cather on the subject of teaching creative writing in college. Cather referred to it as “‘Creative Writing,’” and she called the attempt to teach it “sheer nonsense”:

I do wish that colleges taught people to write passably clear and correct English, however. More than half of the twenty-eight professors who have written to me within the last few months were quite unable to use “which” and “that” and “would” and “should” correctly — at least, they did not honor me by using them correctly in their letters of request. They made many other errors of the same sort, which a well-trained high school student avoids.

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout (New York: Knopf, 2013).
I wonder if Cather kept a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage on her desk. That and which: sounds like a Fowlerite to me.

Related reading
Bryan Garner glosses snoot

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Lament for liverwurst

Liverwurst is no longer available from our friendly neighborhood multinational retailer. It disappeared from the deli a long time ago. And now it has disappeared from the meat aisle. I buy the stuff only two or three times a year, so I have no right to complain. But I can lament.

Liverwurst is a vanishing foodstuff. Yet once upon a time, it was the very definition of fun. “Once I lived the life of a millionaire,” &c.

Liverwurst (prepackaged) is still available from the local supermarket, for now.

[The quoted words? Listen.]

Friday, January 2, 2015

Stanley Neufeld (d. 2014)

Stanley Neufeld worked as an assistant director or second-unit director for 113 of the 138 episodes of Naked City. He also worked on several Oscar-winning films. The Hollywood Reporter has an obituary. The Directors Guild of America has an interview.

Related reading
All OCA Naked City posts (Pinboard)

Mayberry and abstraction

From The Andy Griffith Show episode “The Wedding,” March 4, 1968. Howard Sprague speaking:

“You see, Goober, abstract paintings are not representational.”
Yes, it’s the episode in which Howard creates a swinging bachelor pad. You can watch here. Joseph Bonaduce, the episode’s writer, deserves great credit for this bit of weirdness.

Related posts
Mayberry and kinship networks
Opie Taylor, Mongol user

Mayberry and kinship networks

From The Andy Griffith Show episode “A Date for Gomer,” November 25, 1963. Opie asks a question:

“Is this the first time you’ve been out with a girl, Gomer?“

“Do cousins count?”
You can watch here. Everett Greenbaum and James Fritzell wrote this episode. The censors must have been asleep at the blue pencil.

Related posts
Mayberry and abstraction
Opie Taylor, Mongol user

Recently updated

Mongol 2 3/8 Sean at Contrapuntalism tracks down the origin of Eberhard Faber’s Diamond Star emblem.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Recently updated

“Think middle school report” Eyes roll everywhere as heads roll at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Thanks, Sara.

2015 calendar

Since December 2009 I’ve been making a dowdy-looking calendar for the new year. I’ve made these calendars in what I am guessing must be a primitive way, using tables in the Mac app Pages, three months per page, in licorice (black) and cayenne (dark red). Each year I’ve gotten a bit better at bringing off a glitch-free production.

If you’d like a 2015 calendar for yourself or for a loved one, or even for a random acquaintance, it’s available as a PDF from this link. Paper not included. Staples and punched hole also not included. Supplies may be limited. Order today!

And if anyone would like a Dropbox referral code, here’s mine. More Dropbox for you, more Dropbox for me. Like the calendar — free.

Nancy New Year

[Nancy, January 1, 1951. Click for a larger view.]

The fence needed mending. Happy New Year from Nancy and Sluggo and me.

Related reading
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)