Wednesday, February 28, 2018


It’s not just that Netflix has come to resemble TLC. I fear that Netflix has become TLC. In today’s e-mail, an advertisement for another Netflix “docuseries,” The Big Ward :

This reality series follows six New Zealanders on a quest to overcome obesity and qualify for life-saving stomach stapling surgery.
We gave up Netflix for Hulu earlier this week, and I doubt that we’ll regret doing so.

Arf, arf, arf

The New York Times reports that two of Barbra Streisand’s three dogs are clones of a fourth now-dead Streisand dog. For those keeping score, Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett are clones of the late Samantha.

[The threat level to reality is high. Reality is turning into a David Foster Wallace novel.]

“Welcome to the Internet”

[“EarthLink will connect you at up to 56Kbps.” Click for a larger disc.]

I moved a printer and made a discovery. Look at the RAM requirement for Earthlink’s dial-up app: 32, 64, or 128MB. (The Mac I’m typing on has 8GB RAM.) And the operating systems: remember Windows ME, the Millennium Edition? Worst Windows ever. (Shudder.)

This disc has a 2002 copyright date. EarthLink is still in business in 2018, and still offering dial-up service. But it’s time to let this disc go, no?

Link Maker, a Safari extension

I have long searched for a Safari extension that can create a link with a title or selected text from a webpage — something like the now-antique Firefox extensions CopyURL+ and QuoteURLText. The Mac App Store has nothing. But I finally found a useful extension: Link Maker by Chee@CMONOS.

Link Maker offers a vast array of choices for creating links. I configured the extension to create links in just two ways: with a page title or with selected text. If, for instance, I’m writing a blog post and want to link to Lindy West’s New York Times piece “What the White House Knew About Rob Porter,” I can point to the link, right-click, and choose HTML. If I’m reading the essay, I can right-click anywhere, choose HTML, and create a link. If I want to link to text from West’s essay, say, to the phrase “a promised return to some midcentury mirage of American ‘greatness,’” I can highlight that text, right-click, and choose HTML + text. I have added the quotation marks in these links by hand, but it would be just as easy to have Link Maker create links with quotation marks already in place. The menu choices HTML and HTML + text are mine: one could change those names to Link and Link with text, or to anything else.

Link Maker isn’t as efficient as I’d like: it’s still necessary to copy the link it creates to the clipboard before pasting elsewhere. (The old Firefox extensions sent stuff to the clipboard automatically. I’m not sure Safari allows that.) Still, Link Maker makes the work of creating links much less tedious. I’ll probably use my old standby aText. But I like knowing that there’s an extension that can more or less do what I was looking for. Thank you, Chee@CMONOS, for sharing your good work.

[After writing this post, I decided not to multiply entities without necessity. In other words, I’m still using aText to make links. But a link-making Safari extension is so difficult to find that I still wanted to give Link Maker some attention here.]

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Pencils in the news

The Guardian reports that increasing number of English schoolchildren are unable to hold a pencil properly. The reason: too much technology. Sally Payne, pediatric occupational therapist:

“It’s easier to give a child an iPad than encouraging them to do muscle-building play such as building blocks, cutting and sticking, or pulling toys and ropes. Because of this, they’re not developing the underlying foundation skills they need to grip and hold a pencil.”
Related reading
All OCA pencil posts (Pinboard)

From Beware of Pity

Anton Hofmiller has realized something, or thinks so:

Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity, trans. Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt (New York: New York Review Books, 2006).

Elaine and I are beginning Zweig’s only finished novel, the last of his fiction left to us to read.

Related reading
All OCA Stefan Zweig posts (Pinboard)

Flagston floor plan

[No doubt by Dik Browne. Click for a larger floor plan.]

Behold an undated floor plan for Hi and Lois Flagston’s house. I love the thoroughness with which the artist has imagined his characters’ world: the stairs between the dining room and kitchen must lead to the basement. And notice how small the television set is, next to what must be the fireplace.

The plan appears in Brian Walker’sThe Best of “Hi and Lois” by Mort Walker and Dik Browne (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2005).

Related reading
All OCA Hi and Lois posts (Pinboard)

Monday, February 26, 2018

Flowers knows best

In the Father Knows Best episode “Kathy’s Big Chance” (November 13, 1957), Jim Anderson (Robert Young) tells daughter Kathy (Lauren Chapin) what she needs to do to write a better essay:

“You should do more reading. Make a lot of notes. Organize your material. And then start writing.”
Jim and Kathy seem well on their way to working out Betty Sue Flowers’s four-part model for a writer’s work: madman, architect, carpenter, judge.

Another struggling writer who could benefit from this model: Sally Brown. In today’s Peanuts, she begins writing a report on “The Ocean”:
The ocean is full of water. “Ha!” You may say. “What else?” That’s a good question.
Then a pause. And then: “Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down on these reports.”

Real-world writers of all ages can also benefit from the Flowers model, whose memorable metaphors make clear that writing well requires many different kinds of work. Granularity and all that. You can’t just sit down with an ocean full of water.

Once I discovered the Flowers model (via Bryan Garner), I shared it with all my classes in my final five years of teaching. I liked to extend the metaphors: start building a house without a blueprint and you’ll be left trying to figure out what to do about bathrooms; start thinking about knobs for the kitchen cabinets when you’re looking at a vacant lot and you’ll never get anywhere.

Betty Sue Flowers knows best.

Other posts about this surprisingly good television series
“Betty’s Graduation” : “Margaret Disowns Her Family” : “A Woman in the House”

[Hulu has all six seasons of Father Knows Best.]

The OED, a “moving document”

In The Guardian, Andrew Dickson reports on the Oxford English Dictionary in the Internet age, as the dictionary attempts “to be ever so slightly more complete today than it was yesterday or the day before.” Will a third edition ever appear?

The dictionary team now prefer to refer to [the OED] as a “moving document.” Words are only added; they are never deleted. When I suggested to [chief editor] Michael Proffitt that it resembled a proud but leaky Victorian warship whose crew were trying to keep out the leaks and simultaneously keep it on course, he looked phlegmatic. “I used to say it was like painting the Forth Bridge, never-ending. But then they stopped — a new kind of paint, I think.” He paused. “Now it’s just us.”
[Painting the Forth Bridge: a colloquial expression.]

Sunday, February 25, 2018

At the poetry tournament

Indeed, it was a tournament, not a slam. The contestants were seated at tables. Someone was interviewing Martha Raye. Frank O’Hara walked around taking photographs. “It’s America,” he said. “There are prizes.”

Related reading
All OCA dream posts (Pinboard)

[A source, as Elaine figured out: an episode of Father Knows Best in which Kathy enters an essay contest and gets to meet Greer Garson. Another: a reference to Frank O’Hara in an article about Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.]

NPR, sheesh

The “Democratic memo” didn’t drop. The House Intelligence Committee released it.

Movies and records drop. But as Elaine said at breakfast, “This isn’t show business.”

Things that should drop: hints, balloons, a line, the other shoe. Pins, as long as you can hear them. The mic, though I hate that spelling. I’m out.

Related reading
All OCA sheesh posts (Pinboard)
Ambiguous drop (Dropping a threat)

Saturday, February 24, 2018

From the Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper, by Matthew Sewell, took me about twice as long as usual to solve. But solve it I did. A particularly clever clue, 58-Across, seven letters: “They’re handled with salsa.” No spoilers; the answer is in the comments.

Surprising to see the clue for 39-Down, seven letters: “John Waters film gimmick inspired by Smell-O-Vision.” But that one’s a giveaway.

Gregor Z.

[Zippy, February 24, 2018.]

I know what he means.

Venn reading
Kafka posts : Kafka and Zippy posts : Zippy posts (Pinboard)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Zippy, Spivey, and Tormé

[Zippy, February 23, 2018.]

Griffy has accused Zippy of conjuring up “this seventies guy.” The seventies guy has asked Zippy to pray with him and “wash th’ 1980s away.” Zippy suspects that the guy may be a televangelist.

Zippy is on the right track: the seventies guy looks like a brown-haired incarnation of Gary Spivey, a self-described psychic, medium, and spiritual healer. Spivey appeared in three 2004 Zippy strips: this one, this one, and this one, each time sporting his signature helmet-like white wig.

Mel Tormé too has played a small role in the Zippy world. A 2016 strip namechecks Tormé. Two 1995 strips — this one and this one — have something to do with him. Alas, both strips are offline. It’s the second 1995 strip that might explain why Griffy considers Mel Tormé Spivey’s “diametric opposite.” The strip’s title: “Mel Is Good.” Mel Tormé was a genuine showman, with genuine talent. Bill Griffith must like his work.

As did my dad. We played this recording at his memorial.

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard) : Mel Tormé and the NYT crossword : Mel Tormé on the vagaries of performance

[You can read Zippy daily at Comics Kingdom. “The Velvet Fog”: Tormé’s Homeric epithet.]

Comic books and Post headlines

In case you missed it: Dunning K. Trump’s picture of a safe school includes his chief of staff John Kelly as a gun-toting history teacher. “He’s a four-star Marine. He’s a tough cookie,” says Trump:

“So if he’s a teacher and if other friends of his from the Marines, if they’re teaching, or other people like that, I want them to have a gun. But more importantly, almost more importantly, nobody is going to attack that school, because they know General Kelly is the history teacher. He’s teaching about how we win wars, okay? And he’s got a concealed weapon. But they’re gonna know he’s got a concealed weapon, because we tell them that the bullets are going to be flying in the other direction.”
Trump’s masculinist dream is partly the stuff of a comic book (everyday fellow with secret powers, including perfect aim), partly the stuff of a New York Post headline (Retired General Takes Down Sicko).

If you don’t believe my transcription, watch here.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Bela sardines

[Click for a bigger catch.]

I bought them for the beautiful can and didn’t realize how good they would be. Bela sardines are meaty, so to speak, and intensely flavorful. They are probably the best sardines I’ve ever had. Too bad Bela doesn’t offer a skinless and boneless variety. Until it does, I will have to be a tough guy and have more of these, skin and bones and all.

Related reading
All OCA sardine posts (Pinboard)

[It is never the wrong time of day to think about sardines.]

Calling BS

Last night, at CNN’s Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said that eighteen-year-olds should not have rifles, and that bump stocks and automatic rifles “should be outlawed forever.” And then:

“And anybody who says different, I don’t know about other people, but Emma and I, we’re calling BS on that.”
Sheriff Israel was invoking Emma González’s refrain “We call BS.” I expect to hear those words with increasing frequency in the fight for gun control.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


No 5. reads “I hear you.” Pathetic. One of the president’s suggestions: bring back mental institutions. Another: more guns, concealed on teachers, janitors, and administrators.

But kudos to Samuel Zeif, who spoke about the madness of selling “a weapon of war” as a retail product. And to Mark Barden, who spoke about the madness of arming teachers. “Madness” is my word, not theirs. But it’s madness.

I noticed that the only D.C. people present were from charter schools. Score one for Ms. DeVos. And why so much praising of the president for the direction in which he’s taking the country? (Taking is right.) Someone needs to find out how the participants for this listening session were selected.

Zippy and Kafka

[Zippy, February 21, 2018.]


You can withdraw from the sufferings of the world — that possibility is open to you and accords with your nature — but perhaps that withdrawal is the only suffering you might be able to avoid.

Franz Kafka, Aphorisms, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Schocken, 2015).
Venn reading
All OCA Kafka posts : Kafka and Zippy posts : Zippy posts

[You can read Zippy daily at Comics Kingdom.]

“Swept strangely clean”

On the boulevard, the wind is blowing:

Guy de Maupassant, Like Death, trans. Richard Howard (New York: New York Review Books, 2017).

Economy: like an Imagist poem in prose.

Also from this novel
“La belle nature” : “What was it around him” : “All that has been, is now, and ever will be done by painters until the day of doom”

[Ezra Pound in a letter to Harriet Monroe, January 1915: “Poetry must be as well written as prose. . . . It must be as simple as De Maupassant’s best prose, and as hard as Stendahl’s.”]

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Needed: a word other than meddle

To meddle in an election? There must be a word that better captures the enormity.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of meddle: “to interest oneself in what is not one’s concern : interfere without right or propriety.” M-W gives a sample sentence from George Bernard Shaw: “I never meddle in other people’s private affairs.”

From Webster’s Second, a more eloquent definition: “to interest, engage, or concern oneself unnecessarily or impertinently; to interfere improperly.” And from a W2 note on meddle and related words: “To meddle (with or in) is to concern oneself officiously or impertinently with another’s affairs.”

Notice: to interest oneself in what is not one’s concern; to concern oneself officiously or impertinently with another’s affairs. Meddle suggests individual interference in another person’s life. To meddle is to be a buttinsky or a Nosey Parker, to plant doubts, to offer unsolicited advice, to ask questions to which the only proper response is None of your B.I. bizness! To engage in a well-funded operation to sow national discord and sway an election: that goes well beyond meddling.

More appropriate words: to interfere in an election, to subvert democracy. “Russian meddling” is too trivial a description of what’s gone on. I’m going to avoid using it.

I don’t know what B.I. stands for either. But that’s what we said in Brooklyn.

Netflix as TLC

From an e-mail with the subject line “Michael, we just added a docuseries you might like.” It’s called Strippers :

Explore the personal and professional lives of the dancers who take it all off for cold, hard cash in Scotland’s three biggest cities.
I’m not sure what in my viewing history would prompt Netflix’s algorithms to push this “docuseries” at me. My best guess: the documentary Voyeur (dir. Myles Kane and Josh Koury, 2017) about Gay Talese and a peeping-Tom motel owner. If so, bad algorithm.

Earlier this month I had the thought that Netflix resembles a crummy video store. Now it seems to be turning into TLC.

[And the writing: “personal and professional lives,” “take it all off,” “cold, hard cash.” What really gets me though is “Scotland’s three biggest cities”: Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Glasgow?]

Boolean days

Just wondering how many families have reinvented Boolean operators when playing the children’s game Guess Who?

“Does your person have facial hair OR glasses?”

Monday, February 19, 2018

Naomi, teacher

A short film from the BBC, “What Babies Can Teach Us.” Naomi is a teacher with Roots of Empathy/Racines de l’empathie, a Canadian project that teaches students to care about others.

Thanks to Rachel for noticing this film.

Emma González for Congress

Emma González is a high-school senior. But I hope that when she turns twenty-five she runs for Congress. Here is her address Saturday to a rally for gun control. And here is a transcript.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Fred Rogers stamp

Coming in March, from the USPS, a Fred Rogers stamp. The New York Times has the story. NPR has a story this morning about Fred Rogers’s legacy. But they forgot the stamp. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired nationally fifty years ago tomorrow.

Related posts
Blaming Mister Rogers : Lady Elaine’s can : Off, or back, to school

[King Friday must be wondering why his stamp has some guy in a sweater on it.]

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Recently updated

Shame on John Shimkus A previous biblical tweet is causing him some difficulty.

Shame on John Shimkus

My representative in Congress, John Shimkus (R, Illinois-15), likes to post Bible passages on Twitter. Here’s what he posted today:

It’s possible that this tweet is the work of some automated verse-a-day service. But in that case, there would likely be contemporaneous tweets from other users showing the same passage. I find none. And hours after this tweet appeared, it’s still there.

I called John Shimkus’s Washington office to explain why I think that tweets about hanging people from trees are not appropriate: 202-225-5271. I left my number and await a reply.


2:50 p.m.: Shimkus is attempting an explanation of an earlier tweet that, in light of events in Parkland, Florida, struck some readers as utterly grotesque: “The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days” (Numbers 19:11).

Shimkus’s explanation (that the tweet has nothing to do with Parkland) notes that the passages in his tweets come from his “daily Bible study” — in other words, he chooses them himself. He has finally commented on events in Parkland, offering “prayers” for “those victims, their families, and all who have suffered because of the evil in this world.” Nothing thus far about those who have suffered because of firearms in this country. Again: “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.”

Shimkus has also said nothing thus far about his choice of a passage about hanging people from trees.

Related reading
All OCA John Shimkus posts

From the Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper is by Lars G. Doubleday, aka Doug Peterson and Brad Wilber. I didn’t think I would finish, but I did. One clue that I especially liked: 14-Down, nine letters, “Company function.” No spoilers; the answer is in the comments.

[“Lars G. Doubleday” is an anagram, not of “edgy sour ballad” but of the names Bradley and Douglas. See these comments on a 2013 puzzle.]

Friday, February 16, 2018

It’s Mueller Time

Robert S. Mueller III, that is. From today’s indictment:

The conspiracy had as its object impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful governmental functions of the United States by dishonest means in order to enable the Defendants to interfere with US. political and electoral processes, including the 2016 US. presidential
More: “Thirteen Russians Indicted by Special Counsel in First Charges on 2016 Election Interference” (The New York Times).

[The indictment shows Mueller’s name with a comma before the Roman numeral. I follow many authorities in not adding a comma.]

“Redemption Song”

Another great episode of Soul Music (BBC Radio 4): about Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” I listened last night. It didn’t make me feel better, but it did make me feel.

Here’s the Marley recording that runs through the episode.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

“Prayers and condolences,” again

“Fuck you. We don’t need your fucking prayers. GET BETTER GUN CONTROL”: a tweet from a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Florida, responding to a presidential tweet offering “prayers and condolences.”

More here: “Students who survived Florida school shooting don't want President Trump’s ‘prayers and condolences’” (Daily News).

[My representative in Congress, John Shimkus (R, Illinois-15), has yet to offer a tweet of “prayers and condolences” or “thoughts and prayers.” Shimkus leads Illinois congressional Republicans in total contributions from the NRA.]

“The only variable”

“The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns”: “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings?” (The New York Times).

See also: Call My Congress.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Editing his balloons

One more bit about Ernie Bushmiller’s care with words:

According to his associate James Carlsson, Bushmiller would line up each week’s worth of unfinished Nancy strips on his studio wall and scrutinize every line of dialogue. Harry Haenigsen noted that “Ernie said when he wrote his captions, he wrote them as if he were writing telegrams,” which are charged by the word. “He eliminated anything — any word that, to him, was not necessary to express his ideas. He was very careful about how he edited his balloons.”

Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden, How to Read “Nancy”: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2017).
Related reading
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)
Bushmiller, Strunk, and Wilde

Valentine’s Day

[“Heart (ib) from string of amulets.” From an Egyptian tomb, c. 1070–945 BCE. Carnelian. 1/2″ × 5/16″. Metropolitan Museum of Art. From the online collection.]

Happy Valentine’s Day to all.

[More about the heart, or ib, and amulets here.]

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Foot Clinic sign

Los Angeles’s Foot Clinic sign (happy foot/sad foot) comes to life in a music video by YACHT: “Hard World.”

In 2011 I had the chance to see and photograph the Foot Clinic sign, which I first met in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.


Alas, this essay is behind the paywall: “How Academe Breeds Resentment” (The Chronicle of Higher Education). Change a few words, and what Douglas Dowland says could apply to any workplace:

Resentment is essentially the feeling of being wronged by someone with more power than you. In academe, such feelings come with the job: associate professors can feel resentful toward full professors; small departments toward larger; a newcomer to a discipline at a teaching-intensive institution toward a well-regarded scholar at a research-intensive institution. Every striation of academe spurs resentment: the hierarchies of administration, the nebulous work of committees, the new hire whose salary may be higher than yours. Surrounding each step in academic life — graduation, employment, publication, promotion — is a labyrinth that draws out our vulnerability and makes us feel powerless. And with this powerlessness comes the idea that power is something others have — perhaps the tenured, or those in administration. Someone benefits from your hard work — and that person is not you. Thus academe plants the seeds of our resentment. . . .

It may resemble thinking, but resentment ultimately has little intelligence. And it never comes with a solution. It just keeps going and going, broadening the scope of its toxicity and finding new circumstances to blame for some perceived wrong.
Yep. I learned long ago not to live by making comparisons. It’s better to laugh.

See also this advice: “Grin broadly at the water cooler, and go home to where you live.”

[A clarification: Sexual harassment or racial discrimination or inequities of all sorts aren’t matters to laugh off. Not at all. But the constant comparison-making that academic life seems to encourage (who got what) guarantees unhappiness. There will always be someone with a better job offer or a more prestigious place of publication. And there will always be far smaller occasions for resentment: how someone voted on a proposal, who got what course, and so on. There’s no end to making comparisons.]

Bastard file

I just used such a file to make a door accommodate a new knob. But why is it called a bastard file?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines bastard file as “a file intermediate between the coarse and fine ‘cuts.’” The dictionary notes that as early as 1418 the word bastard was applied to things “of abnormal shape or irregular (esp. unusually large) size”: swords and guns at first, followed by ships, files, type and printed titles, and script. The dictionary’s first citation for bastard file, from Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises; or, The doctrine of Handy-Works (1678):

The Bastard-Tooth’d File is to take out of your work the deep cuts … the Rough File made: the Fine Tooth’d file is to take out the cuts . . . the Bastard file made.
The bastard file appears then to be that other file, not this one, not that one, neither rough nor fine.

A more fanciful explanation of bastard file appears on a British tool company’s website:
In heraldry, coats of arms belonging to people born outside of wedlock (also known as bastards) bore a device known as the “barre sinister,” a diagonal stripe that ran from the top right of the crest to the bottom left.

This is the same direction that the teeth of a single cut file run in.
That bastard was first applied to things with no resemblance to the barre sinister makes this explanation, to my mind, unlikely. Another fanciful explanation, which brings in a fellow with an unfortunate surname:
The name is a misnomer in that the file was invented by an Englishman named Barsted. When English workers came to the United States and requested a Barsted file, Americans thought this was the English pronunciation for “bastard.”

Richard Pohanish, Glossary of Metalworking Terms (New York: Industrial Press, 2003).
That’s a good story. But it seems impossible to find any trace of Mr. Barsted outside the story of the bastard file. And if bastard was applied to irregular things as early as 1418, this explanation won’t work.

But the bastard file worked, and we now have a door that accommodates its knob.

Monday, February 12, 2018

“Impostor Syndrome”

[“Impostor Syndrome,” xkcd, February 12, 2018.]

The mouseover text: “It’s actually worst in people who study the Dunning–Kruger effect. We tried to organize a conference on it, but the only people who would agree to give the keynote were random undergrads.”

Sunday, February 11, 2018


From the Department of Wait, What: Do you remember the 2017 court case in which the absence of an Oxford comma (or serial comma) was crucial? The section of the Maine law at issue in that case has been amended in an unusually ungainly way: by the addition not of one comma but of eight semicolons.


The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:

(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
What I would consider a real improvement:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment, or distributing of:

(1) agricultural produce,
(2) meat or fish products, or
(3) perishable foods.
Replacing the semicolons is common (or comma) sense. Replacing and with or forestalls the persnickety argument that the provision (which governs overtime pay) applies to work with meat and fish products or to work with all three categories of foodstuffs. The legislature did get something right in changing distribution to distributing: the new word lines up with the other gerunds.

Paper jams

Vicki Warner, an engineer at Xerox: “Printers are essentially paper torture chambers.” In the latest The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman learns “Why Paper Jams Persist.”

Saturday, February 10, 2018

From the Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper, by Frank Longo, is a tough one. Much trickery along the way, and some sheer difficulty. What was the name of J. Edgar Hoover’s fourth successor? Not a name that one can easily derive from crosses, not without already knowing the name.

I especially like the clues for 18-Across and 59-Across, each ten letters: “It won’t click beyond a circle” and “Tall twin, say.” No spoilers; the answers are in the comments.

Finishing the Saturday Stumper once again feels like cause for minor self-congratulation.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Australia is a country

From The Chronicle of Higher Education, not The Onion: “Southern New Hampshire University has apologized to a student who failed an assignment because her professor insisted Australia was a continent, not a country.”

I especially like the professor’s reply to an e-mail from the student, who provided a link to the website of the Australian government: “Thank you for this web address. After I do some independent research on the continent/country issue I will review your paper.” And when the professor acknowledged her error, she warned the student to “make sure the date, the facts, and the information you provide in your report is about Australia the country and not Australia the continent.”

The date? The facts and the information? The date, facts, and information is? A “report”? This is college?

Academic futures

Behind the Chronicle of Higher Education paywall, Sharon O’Dair writes about “Shamelessness and Hypocrisy at the MLA.” What she found at the Modern Language Association’s 2018 convention: a profession that produces too many Ph.D.s, and then encourages those degree recipients to seek a future outside academia:

If the way to a career with a Ph.D. in English is to take one-third of an M.B.A. program, why not take the M.B.A., a mere two years, rather than the six or eight years for a Ph.D. in English? Why spend all those years studying slave narratives, if your digital-humanities work is going to get you a career in an IT department? #Opportunity-Cost, if you want to get businesslike about it.

Who benefits from the overproduction of Ph.D.s? Colleges, whose budgets depend on inexpensive teaching labor. This overproduction also serves the interests of tenured faculty members, whose lives are cushioned by reduced teaching loads and research help. John Guillory’s dour judgment in 1996 that "graduate education appears now to be a kind of pyramid scheme" still strikes at the heart of the question.
I’ll quote from a post I wrote about academic futures: “the very telos of doctoral study in the humanities is a life of teaching and scholarship on the tenure-track. That’s what grad school is supposed to be for.” But a tenure-track position in the humanities is an ever-diminishing possibility. And it’s doubtful that the years of work required for a doctorate in the humanities are sensible preparation for any other career.

I’ll quote myself again: “Imagine going to medical school when the odds are slim that you’ll ever practice.”


Jennie Willoughby, talking to Anderson Cooper last night:

“That’s a question that I am asked a lot: Why did you stay if he was a quote-unquote monster? And the reality is that he’s not a monster. He is an intelligent, kind, chivalrous, caring, professional man — and he is deeply troubled, and angry, and violent.”
One could argue that “intelligent, kind, chivalrous, caring, professional” just makes for a monster who is less likely to be recognized as such.

That and which

Bruce Ross-Larson’s Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works with Words (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982) has impressed me again. Twenty-six pages in, I have found useful advice for solving the problem of a relative clause that doesn’t follow the noun it modifies.

Ross-Larson’s example: “The meaning of the sentence, which is usually obvious from. . . .” What can make it clear that the relative clause beginning with which modifies meaning and not sentence ? Ross-Larson suggests four workarounds:

~ “Make the object of the prepositional phrase plural and rely on verb number.” Thus: “The meaning of sentences, which usually is obvious from. . . .”

~ “Repeat the noun before a relative clause.” Thus: “The meaning of the sentence, meaning which usually is obvious from. . . .”

~ “Delete the intervening prepositional phrase.” Thus: “The meaning, which usually is obvious from. . . .”

~ ”Rewrite the sentence.” Thus: “The meaning of sentences usually is obvious from. . . .”

This small (half a page) section of Edit Yourself interests me because it offers alternatives to the rather loopy New Yorker strategy of “the irregular restrictive which,” a which that replaces that when a relative clause is separated from the noun it modifies. Notice that in Ross-Larson’s example, which could be the work of a writer who intends an irregular restrictive which. But that intent does nothing to remove the ambiguity.

And consider this New Yorker sentence, by John McPhee, which accompanies his explanation of the irregular restrictive which :

In 1822, the Belgian stratigrapher J. J. d’Omalius d’Halloy, working for the French government, put a name on the chalk of Europe which would come to represent an ungainly share of geologic time.
If you want to avoid that because a reader might mistakenly read “that would come to represent . . .” as referring to chalk and not to name, you can avoid the irregular restrictive which by rewriting the sentence:
In 1822, the Belgian stratigrapher J. J. d’Omalius d’Halloy, working for the French government, gave the chalk of Europe a name that would come to represent an ungainly share of geologic time.
Problem solved. At $13.95, Edit Yourself is a bargain.

[I’d prefer a slightly different rewriting: “The meaning of a sentence is usually obvious from. . . .” No need for the plural, and usually, to my ear, falls more naturally after the verb.]

An art catalogue

It’s varnishing day at the Salon Carré:

Guy de Maupassant, Like Death, trans. Richard Howard (New York: New York Review Books, 2017).

Also from this novel
“La belle nature” : “What was it around him”

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Alex Katz’s piano

In 2013, the painter Alex Katz told an interviewer that he ate instant oatmeal for breakfast and sardines for lunch. And now an article in Women’s Wear Daily notes that Katz “eats the same thing most days, taking cereal for breakfast and a can of sardines for lunch.”

Art, check. Sardines, check. But if I ever happen to meet Alex Katz, I will have a third topic of conversation up my sleeve: we have the same model Beckwith piano at home. Look: that’s our Beckwith too.

Other Alex Katz posts
Painter, eater : Focusing : Meeting Lionel Hampton

Misspelling history

It’s Black History Month, yes, and the office of the White House press secretary has misspelled Frederick Douglass’s last name.

Reality TV and the White House

Raj Shah, White House principal deputy press secretary, a few minutes ago: “Omarosa was fired three times on The Apprentice, and this is the fourth time we let her go.”


The blurred line between reality TV and the White House could not be clearer.

[Omarosa Manigault Newman has been in the news today, warning that life under Dunning K. Trump is “not going to be okay.”]

Renoir sardines

[Julien Carette and Jean Gabin in La Bête humaine (dir. Jean Renoir, 1938).]

This railroad engineer (Gabin, right) is generous. But his fireman is no fan of the noble sardine. His loss.

Related reading
All OCA sardine posts (Pinboard)

Separated at birth

[Jean Renoir and Steve Wozniak.]

We were watching Jean Renoir’s La Bête humaine (1938), and there was Renoir himself as Cabuche — or Steve Wozniak.

Also separated at birth
Nicholson Baker and Lawrence Ferlinghetti : Bérénice Bejo and Paula Beer : Ted Berrigan and C. Everett Koop : David Bowie and Karl Held : Victor Buono and Dan Seymour : John Davis Chandler and Steve Buscemi : Ray Collins and Mississippi John Hurt : Broderick Crawford and Vladimir Nabokov : Ted Cruz and Joe McCarthy : Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Gough : Henry Daniell and Anthony Wiener : Jacques Derrida, Peter Falk, and William Hopper : Elaine Hansen (of Davey and Goliath) and Blanche Lincoln : Barbara Hale and Vivien Leigh : Harriet Sansom Harris and Phoebe Nicholls : Ton Koopman and Oliver Sacks : Steve Lacy and Myron McCormick : Don Lake and Andrew Tombes : William H. Macy and Michael A. Monahan : Fredric March and Tobey Maguire : Molly Ringwald and Victoria Zinny

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Bushmiller, Strunk, and Wilde

A detail from Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden’s How to Read “Nancy”: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2017): at a meeting of the National Cartoonists Society, Ernie Bushmiller asked for the floor and delivered what a fellow cartoonist described as “an impassioned speech” in favor of fewer words in comic strips.

Bushmiller would have liked William Strunk Jr.’s exhortation in The Elements of Style to “omit needless words”:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
The Elements of Style, revised and expanded by E.B. White, became an American best-seller in 1959. Might Bushmiller have read that new edition? Might it have prompted his speech? There’s no date given for the cartoonists’ meeting, but Karasik and Newgarden reproduce a 1962 Peanuts strip that seems to be a comment on Bushmiller’s criticism. If Bushmiller read The Elements of Style, he would have found in Rule 17 (“Omit needless words”) a confirmation of his long-established habits of work. “No unnecessary words,” “no unnecessary lines”: that sounds like a description of Nancy.

Karasik and Newgarden describe Bushmiller as ever exacting about words:
Toward the end of his life, stricken with Parkinson’s disease, Nancy’s creator required additional help to keep his strip on schedule. Al Plastino, one of the most capable chameleons of the comics, who was hired to execute the Sunday strip, recalls, “Bushmiller would call me up and tell me to take out a word didn’t like. Then he’d call up five minutes later to tell me to put it back in. That he’d call up again and tell me to replace it with another word. He’d call me ten to twenty times a day!"
This story puts me in mind of Oscar Wilde, not Gustave Flaubert, removing a comma in the morning, reinstating it in the afternoon. But Bushmiller worked faster.

Related reading
All OCA Nancy and Strunk and White posts

[Elsewhere in How to Read “Nancy” , Karasik and Newgarden cite Rule 17 as a model for the cartoonist: “Faulkner’s prose is usually full of vigor but not necessarily concise. Rembrandt’s most vigorous drawings often contain numerous ‘unnecessary’ lines. But when it comes to comics, Strunk and White were right on the money.” Speculation about Bushmiller and The Elements of Style is all mine.]

Colorizing old strips

[Peanuts, February 10, 1971.]

One problem with colorizing old strips: art may lose the power of suggestion. Look at what’s happened to the telephone table. Aaugh.

Related reading
All OCA Peanuts posts (Pinboard)

[Yesterday’s Peanuts is today’s Peanuts.]

Tuesday, February 6, 2018


I didn’t clap during the State of the Union address. Then again, I didn’t watch. On purpose. I would rather have watched LA to Vegas, preempted last Tuesday, on again tonight. If that be treason, make the most of it. It’s a good show.

Grammar in the writing center

Lori Salem, a college writing-center director, points to one more way in which higher education reproduces economic and social inequality: “the very students who are most likely to visit the writing center are the ones who are least likely to be served by our traditional pedagogical practices.” One problem with those practices: writing centers typically treat matters of grammar and usage as “lower order” concerns.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has placed its interview with Salem behind the paywall. But here is an excerpt from Salem’s 2016 paper “Decisions . . . Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center?”:

Treating grammar/correctness as a “lower order” or “later order” concern means that frequently we do not address grammar much (or at all) in our tutoring sessions. For privileged students who grew up in homes where a white, middle-class version of English was spoken, this approach might be okay. But affecting a genteel disregard for grammar concerns makes no sense if we are working with English language learners, with students who spoke a less-privileged version of English at home, or with any student who feels anxious about grammar. If we regularly dismiss or defer (“later”) students’ questions about grammar, this doesn’t make those questions go away, nor does it fundamentally alter the terms on which grammar is understood in the university or in society. It simply leaves students up to their own devices to deal with those questions.
I’m reminded once again of Bryan Garner’s observation: “Standard English: without it, you won't be taken seriously.” To dismiss or defer a student’s questions about grammar is to do that student a disservice.

A related post
W(h)ither grammar

[The quotation in this post’s first sentence is from the 2016 paper. The distinction between “higher order” and “lower order” concerns appears to originate in Thomas J. Reigstad and Donald A. McAndrew’s Training Tutors for Writing Conferences (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1984): “After tutors have addressed the higher order concerns [thesis, tone, organization, development], they turn to LOCs [lower order concerns], concerns that deal with units of sentence length or smaller. The emphasis shifts from the draft as a whole to sentence structure, punctuation, usage, and spelling.”]

John Mahoney (1940–2018)

The actor John Mahoney has died at the age of seventy-seven. He is best known for playing Martin Crane in the television series Frasier. Mahoney is less known for having taught English at Western Illinois University. Here is an obituary that notes both endeavors.

Our household has an abiding affection for Frasier and its people.

Monday, February 5, 2018

For complete works

Against “selected passages”:

An anthology will never have the power to stimulate reactions that can be brought about solely by reading the complete work.

Nuccio Ordine, The Usefulness of the Useless, trans. Alastair McEwen (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2017).
Complete works: yes. An anthology may solve the problem of making work from a variety of writers available to students. An anthology may offer a curious browser unexpected discoveries. But an anthology is, almost always, a textbook. And it is much easier to fall in love with a (whole) work of literature or philosophy than to fall in love with a textbook. I always liked seeing course evaluations from students who appreciated the opportunity to read what they called “real books” — in other words, something other than a textbook.

I recently received an e-mail from a publisher pitching not just an anthology but an accompanying website, with discussion questions, “hundreds of images,” videos by the editors, PowerPoint slides ”featuring images and text,” and an “audio glossary” for unfamiliar words. All of which move a student away from an engagement with the thing itself, the text. An audio glossary: because notes in the text aren’t already enough?

A related post
Norton on my mind (about an anthology)

[“Discussion questions,” &c.: a series arranged from the shorter to the longer. Much more readable.]

Long and short

I borrowed Bruce Ross-Larson’s Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works with Words (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982) from the library after seeing the writer’s name in a tweet from Bryan Garner. Seventeen pages in, I have already found a useful bit of advice:

The elements of pairs, series, and compound subjects and predicates usually appear they come out of the writer’s mind — haphazardly or alphabetically. Rearranging those elements from short to long, from simple to compound, increases the ability of the reader to understand them.
Ross-Larson’s specifics:

~ Count syllables. If words have the same number of syllables, count letters.

~ Count words.

~ Place compound elements last.

~ Ignore the first three principles to honor sequence or familiar phrasing or to avoid unintended modifiers. Not “lunch, dinner, and breakfast” but “breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Not “cream and peaches” but “peaches and cream.” Not “trade and money-market rates” but “money-market rates and trade.”

I had Ross-Larson in mind when I wrote and revised a sentence in a post yesterday. My first impulse was to proceed alphabetically:
No-name documentaries, television shows, more television shows, years-old movies announced as “new”: Netflix (streaming) resembles a crummy video store.
And then it occurred to me to see the sentence as Ross-Larson might:
Television shows, more television shows, no-name documentaries, years-old movies announced as “new”: Netflix (streaming) resembles a crummy video store.
Better his way, no?

[The three pairs of phrases are among the examples in Edit Yourself. One more, avoiding an unintended modifier: not “the remarkable Divine and Tab Hunter” but “Tab Hunter and the remarkable Divine,” a nod to John Waters’s film Polyester.]

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Netflix thought

Television shows, more television shows, no-name documentaries, years-old movies announced as “new”: Netflix (streaming) resembles a crummy video store. A few good finds, and a ton of stuff of no interest to me. If I had to walk or drive to get there, I’m not sure that I would.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

From the Saturday Stumper

A bit of popular culture, from today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper, 21-Across, seven letters: “’50s game craze.” I will spoil: CANASTA.

I know I’ve heard of Canasta, which turns up in at least a couple of episodes of I Love Lucy. The game was indeed a craze. The December 19, 1949 issue of Life made the call, with a report on “The Canasta Craze,” “reminiscent of the great mah-jongg rage of the ’20s.”

[Click either page for a larger view of the bewildering rules.]

Today’s Stumper, by Lester Ruff, seems not especially difficult. I have begun to doubt that finishing a Saturday Stumper is cause for minor self-congratulation. Canasta, anyone?


[Nancy, May 3, 1955.]

Nancy, looking like someone in an Edward Hopper painting.

Related reading
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)

[Yesterday’s Nancy is today’s Nancy Classic.]

Friday, February 2, 2018


B.P.: Before Proust.

Guy de Maupassant, Like Death, trans. Richard Howard (New York: New York Review Books, 2017).

Like Death is a terrific novel.

Related posts
La belle nature (from this novel)
Madeleine (from Swann’s Way)

Lindy West on leaving Twitter

The writer Lindy West on why she left Twitter: “Being on Twitter felt like being in a nonconsensual BDSM relationship with the apocalypse.”

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Democracy Index

The Economist ’s 2017 Democracy Index has determined that

less than 5% of the world’s population currently lives in a “full democracy.” Nearly a third live under authoritarian rule, with a large share of those in China. Overall, 89 of the 167 countries assessed in 2017 received lower scores than they had the year before.
The United States America is in twenty-first place as a “flawed democracy.” The country dropped from “full democracy” in 2016. The top democracy, since 2010: Norway.

Pocket notebook sighting

[Fury (dir. Fritz Lang, 1936). Click for larger views.]

Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) relies on a pocket notebook. It appears to have a calender printed on its inside front cover.

More notebook sightings
Angels with Dirty Faces : Ball of Fire : Cat People : City Girl : Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne : Dragnet : Extras : Foreign Correspondent : Homicide : The Honeymooners : The House on 92nd Street : Journal d’un curé de campagne : The Last Laugh : Le Million : The Lodger : Ministry of Fear : Mr. Holmes : Murder at the Vanities : Murder by Contract : Murder, Inc. : The Mystery of the Wax Museum : Naked City : The Naked Edge : The Palm Beach Story : Perry Mason : Pickpocket : Pickup on South Street : Pushover : Quai des Orfèvres : Railroaded! : Red-Headed Woman : Rififi : Route 66 : The Sopranos : Spellbound : State Fair : A Stranger in Town : Time Table : T-Men : 20th Century Women : Union Station : Where the Sidewalk Ends : The Woman in the Window

Twelve movies

[No spoilers. The details of Three Billboards won’t signify for someone who hasn’t seen the film.]

Time Table (dir. Mark Stevens, 1956). The lead from The Street with No Name directs and stars as an insurance investigator paired with a railroad detective to crack an ultra-crafty train robbery. Strong echoes of Double Indemnity make for a compelling if derivative movie. At YouTube.


The Great Flamarion (dir. Anthony Mann, 1945). Erich von Stroheim as Flamarion, a carnival marksman in love with his assistant Connie (Mary Beth Hughes). With the always sinister Dan Duryea as a second assistant — and Connie’s husband. An excellent story of obsession and betrayal that would pair well with Gun Crazy. At YouTube.


Suspicion (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1941). Is he or isn’t he? Cary Grant seems improbable as a husband who may be plotting to kill his wife (Joan Fontaine). This film feels like a rehearsal for the brilliant Shadow of a Doubt : just imagine Joseph Cotten taking Grant’s role. Suspicion might be my least favorite Hitchcock film.


Forbidden Games (dir. René Clément, 1952). The lives of children in wartime: Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), an orphaned Parisian girl, and Michel (Georges Poujouly), the youngest son of the country family with whom Paulette finds a home. As the children create a hidden cemetery, Michel, a knight-errant of sorts, attempts greater and greater feats to please the severe Paulette. A magical, mysterious depiction of a secret world of childhood, set against the unspeakable sadness and cruelty of the larger world.


Umberto D. (dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1952). The loneliness of Umberto D. Ferrari, an impoverished pensioner whose dignity is challenged at every turn. His best friend is his dog Flike, who adds Chaplinesque comedy and pathos to the story. Most telling moment: the hole in the wall. This film would pair well with Make Way for Tomorrow — maybe too (painfully) well. Carlo Battisti, the courtly looking professor of linguistics who plays Umberto D., is a quintessential De Sica star, having never before acted.


Fury (dir. Fritz Lang, 1936). Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney in a story of a lynching and its aftermath, from a director who had fled Nazi Germany not long before. With a pointed commentary from a district attorney (Walter Abel) on the history of lynching in the United States. Eerie overtones for our times, with a frenzied, torch-bearing mob and journalists whose work counters what might be called alternative facts.


Simon of the Desert (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1965). Yes, Simeon Stylites, or a version of him. Asceticism here seems a form of self-aggrandizing theater, with a pillar for a stage. And then a taller pillar: a promotion! And then Satan, in a variety of guises. My favorite line: “I’m beginning to realize I don’t realize what I’m saying.”


Living without Money (dir. Line Halvorsen, 2010). A documentary about Heidemarie Schwermer, who for years, we’re told, has lived without money. We see Schwermer taking trains, giving talks, signing books, fully participating in what might be called a European Union information economy. All of which makes me want to say, no, you are not living without money. You can watch for this film for free at Vimeo, as long as someone is paying for an Internet connection.


The Negro Soldier (dir. Frank Capra, 1944). A preacher (Carlton Moss) dispenses with his prepared sermon to talk to his congregation about the integral, often decisive African-American role in American history. This film exudes noble purpose. But its whitewashed history omits all mention of slavery and Jim Crow. On TMC, Ben Mankiewicz noted that the film was shown first to black servicemen. For white audiences, scenes with black officers and with white nurses treating black servicemen were removed. At YouTube.


Wild Tales (dir. Damián Szifron, 2014). Six stories about violent emotional abandon, comic, delirious, frightening, satisfying. You’ll known from the first few minutes that this film will be a delight. But Szifron saves the best — a wedding party to end all wedding parties — for last. My favorite line: “If rat poison is expired, is it more or less harmful?”


Bottom of the Sea (dir. Damián Szifron, 2003). Another wild tale: a quickly paced story of jealousy and revenge, as an architecture student stalks his girlfriend’s lover through the night. Like so many Hitchcock characters, the student, Toledo, finds himself in over his head. And rises accordingly.


Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017). Still more emotional abandon, with Frances McDormand as a mother whose grief and anger over the rape and murder of her daughter moves her to confront her town’s police chief (Woody Harrelson). As with Lady Bird, I’m baffled by the nearly universal acclaim this film has received. I found the humor (polo, or polio ?) forced and inane. The fleeting references to police brutality against black residents — a matter the film leaves unexplored — feel like a cheap bid for relevance. As for plot, illogicalities abound. What is the stranger in the store even doing there? Why don’t the police question Mildred and James separately? I won’t go on. At the heart of the film is rage, of various kinds, from various characters, and improbable suggestions of redemption. Whether that’s enough is for the viewer to decide.

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)