Wednesday, December 30, 2015

What happened to classical music in everyday life?

The role of classical music in American society has changed since 1960. In the thirties, forties, and fifties, music had been a part of everyday life for Americans, many of whom played instruments or sang together as amateurs. Today, classical music has become peripheral and irrelevant to mainstream life. It is regarded as an incomprehensible art that must be performed perfectly or not at all. Even in recent years, the number of American instrumentalists has dropped markedly. In 1992, some 7.8 million Americans played instruments, but that number shrank to 3.7 million—less than half—by 2002, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.
Blair Tindall, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music (New York: Grove Press, 2005) p. 306.

I tried digging up those NEA numbers and found:
So where did Tindall get the numbers showing such a sharp decline? Could her figures relate only to playing classical music, counting oboe in a wind quintet but not mandolin in a bluegrass band?

One other source:
In 2010, 18,078,000 American adults (7.9%) played an instrument in the last year.
2 or more times a week: 7,435,000 (3.3%)
once a week: 2,095,000 (.9%)
2 or 3 times a month: 1,959,000 (.9%)
once a month: 1,211,000 (.5%)
Statistical Abstract of the United States 2011, Table 1240, Adult Participation in Selected Leisure Activities, By Frequency: 2010 (citing GfK Mediamark Research & Intelligence, LLC, New York, NY, Top-line Reports (copyright)).

While I'm not sure about the numbers, I do find Tindall's overall point quite plausible. The piano in the parlor is not the staple it once was, and we don't find bands and choirs in every town, union, and fraternal organization. On the other hand, if I ask the people in my band, there's music going on all over: some of them are in two or three groups, or more.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Birth of the commercial lending library

At exactly the same moment as Manchester's free public library opened, the dominant commercial lending library in England was raising itself to "leviathan" status. Charles Edward Mudie had begun as a newsagent in Bloomsbury’s Southampton Row, with a small section of books on display. Students, then as now, would browse and not buy. It is a peculiarity of the retail book trade. Supermarkets such as Tesco’s and Vons do not install armchairs (as do Barnes and Noble in the United States, and Waterstone’s in the UK) where uncertain customers can open a can of beans, to see if it is to their taste, decide “no,” and leave having bought nothing.

Mudie drew the obvious conclusion and prudently put his book stock behind the counter and charged borrowing fees. With the embourgeoisement of west central London, his clientele expanded well beyond the student population. . . . Unlike the free libraries, he had not the slightest prejudice against new fiction. It was in fact his main line of goods.
John Sutherland, "Literature and the Library in the Nineteenth Century," in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), p. 133

Monday, December 28, 2015

A fine specimen of manly beauty

He was tall; but you only perceived it when he was standing by the side of others, for the great breadth of his shoulders and chest made him appear but little above the middle height. His chest was as deep as it was wide; his arm like that of Hercules; and his hand "the fist of a tar—every hair a rope-yarn." With all this he had one of the pleasantest smiles I ever saw. His cheeks were of a handsome brown; his teeth brilliantly white; and his hair, of a raven black, waved in loose curls all over his head, and fine, open forehead; and his eyes he might have sold to a duchess at the price of diamonds, for their brilliancy. As for their color, they were like the Irishman's pig, which would not stay to be counted, every change of position and light seemed to give them a new hue; but their prevailing color was black, or nearly so. Take him with his well-varnished black tarpaulin stuck upon the back of his head; his long locks coming down almost into his eyes; his white duck trowsers and shirt; blue jacket; and black kerchief, tied loosely round his neck; and he was a fine specimen of manly beauty.
Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast (1840), ch. XIII

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Education for a Highland rebel

"A man kens little till he's driven a spreagh of neat cattle (say) ten miles through a throng lowland country and the black soldiers maybe at his tail. It's there that I learned a great part of my penetration. And ye need nae tell me: it's better than war; which is the next best, however, though generally rather a bauchle of a business. Now the Gregara have had grand have had grand practice."

"No doubt that's a branch of education that was left out with me," said I.

"And I can see the marks of it upon ye constantly," said Alan. "But that's the strange thing about you folk of the college learning: ye're ignorat, and ye cannae see 't. Wae's me for my Greek and Hebrew; but, man, I ken that I dinnae ken them—there's the differ of it. Now here's you. Ye lie on your wame a bittie in the bield of this wood, and ye tell me that ye've cuist off these Frasers and Macgregors. Why? Because I couldnae see them, says you. Ye blockhead, that's their livelihood."
Robert Louis Stevenson, Catriona (1892), pt. I, ch. 11

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Heavy eyelids

My eyelids suddenly got very heavy very fast. Don’t you find it hard to keep them open when that happens? And also, why bother?
Spencer Quinn, To Fetch a Thief: A Chet and Bernie Mystery (New York: Atria Paperback, Simon & Schuster, 2011), p. 16

Radar won the war

Scientists who worked on radar often quipped that radar won the war, whereas the atomic bomb merely ended it.
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 65

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas dinner at the Marches'

There never was such a Christmas dinner as they had that day. The fat turkey ws a sight to behold, when Hannah sent him up, stuffed, browned, and decorated. So was the plum pudding, which melted in one's mouth, likewise the jellies, in which Amy reveled like a fly in the honeypot. Everything turned out well, which was a mercy, Hannah said, "for my mind was that flustered, Mum, that it's a merrycle I didn't roast the pudding, and stuff the turkey with raisins, let alone bilin' of it in a cloth."
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1869), ch. 22

Christmas before the mast

Thursday, Dec. 25th. This day was Christmas, but it brought us no holiday. The only change was that we had a "plum duff" for dinner, and the crew quarrelled with the steward because he did not give us our usual allowance of molasses to eat with it. He thought the plums would be a substitute for the molasses, but we were not to be cheated out of our rights in this way.
Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast (1840), ch. VIII

Friday, December 25th. This day was Christmas; and as it rained all day long, and there were no hides to take in, and nothing especial to do, the captain gave us a holiday, (the first we had had since leaving Boston,) and plum duff for dinner. The Russian brig, following the Old Style, had celebrated their Christmas eleven days before; when they had a grand blow-out and (as our men said) drank, int he forecastle, a barrel of gin, ate up a bag of tallow, and made a soup of the skin.
Id., ch. XXVI

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Multiplying pigs

Pigs are the most prolific large mammal in North America. In some ways, they're like a big, ugly rabbit, capable of having two litters a year. Research indicates that we need to remove about helf of the wild hogs every year to keep the population levels under control. If not, their numbers grow in a hurry. 
Kim DeLozier & Carolyn Jourdan, Bear in the Back Seat II: Adventures of a Wildlife Ranger in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (2014)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Read the parenthetical remarks or don't

This is me. All abridging remarks and other comments will be in this fancy italic type so you'll know. 
. . . My intrusion here is because of the way Morgenstern uses parentheses. . . .  
Either Morgenstern meant them seriously or he didn't Or maybe he meant some of them seriously and some others he didn't. But he never said which were the seriously ones. Or maybe it was just the author's way of telling the reader stylistically that 'this isn't real; it never happened.' That's what I think, in spite of the fact that if you read back into Florinese history, it did happen. The facts, anyway; no one can say about the actual motivations. All I can suggest to you is, if the parentheses bug you, don't read them.
William Goldman, The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2007), pp. 41-42 (first pub. 1973)

Lessons in reasoning and debate at Oxford

In the few fragments that remain of his own story, he records that he learned but three things in two years at Oxford. The first, on which he placed the greatest value, was that “Yea” might be turned into “Nay” and vice versa if a sufficient quantity of wordage was applied to the matter. The second was that in any argument, the victor is always right, and the third that though the pen is mightier than the sword, the sword speaks louder and stronger at any given moment.
Leonard Wibberley, The Mouse That Roared (Leonard Wibberly Books digital ed., 2015), p. 5 (orig. pub. 1955 as "The Wrath of Grapes"). (The passage is about Roger Fenwick, who founded the Duchy of Grand Fenwick in 1370.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Collective book buying in 18th Century

The key ancestor [of the subscription library] is what contemporaries knew as the “book club” (or occasionally “book society” or even “reading society”). Quite unlike the term’s modern use, describing either a vehicle for those who wish to discuss what they have read (as in the Richard and Judy Book Club, linked to a recently popular television program) or, in a very different context, a commercial publisher’s device for persuading people to buy books they may not really want (as in the Reader’s Digest Book Club of fond memory), the Georgian book club was, like its eventual progeny the subscription library, fundamentally proprietorial—which is to say that it was a circle of individuals who contributed their own hard-earned cash so as to be able to choose and buy certain books collectively.
David Allan, "'The Advantages of Literature': The Subscription Library in Georgian Britain," in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), pp. 86-87

People as tourist attractions

He [Nick] enjoyed moving through experiences, traveling without having to go anywhere. Other people and their lives were countries he visited. So far, Olivia's main attraction, her local color, was the way she was always subtly touching him. The other excellent thing about her, of course, was her easy access to drugs.
Carol Anshaw, Carry the One (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), p. 6

"Oh, my aunts really want it," he [Matt, the groom] said. "I couldn't say no to them." Carmen could see these women gathering, clutching their Instamatics, tears already pooling int he corners of their eyes, tourists on an emotional safari, eager to bag a bride. 
Id., p. 7

Good lawyers revise drafts

With computers it is easy to write and correct and then rewrite. . . . Be like the best lawyers who do draft after draft until the whole piece is tickety-boo.
David Ross, Legal Writing, 1 Original Law Review 85, 102 (2005)

Monday, December 21, 2015

What? Scotland isn't Scotland?

"They are all the sons of Alpin, from whom, I think, our country has its name."

"What country is that?" I asked.

"My country and yours," said she.

"This is my day for discovering I think," said I, "for I always thought the name of it was Scotland."

"Scotland is the name of what you call Ireland," she replied. "But the old ancient true name of this place that we have our footsoles on, and that our bones are made of, will be Alban. It was Alban they called it when our forefathers will be fighting for it against Rome and Alexander; and it is called so still in your own tongue that you forget."

"Troth," said I, "and that I never learned!" For I lacked heart to take her up about the Macedonian.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Catriona (1892), pt. I, ch. 10

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Bell Labs' lab notebooks

Every new member of the technical staff was given a stock of hardcover lab notebooks that were bound in cloth and leather and filled with two hundred lined pages. In most offices, recalls Walter Brown, an experimental physicist who worked under Shockley, there was a notebook table, ". . . intended to hold a notebook for recording details of experiments and their results [as well as] ideas and plans for the future. Results or ideas that one thought were potentially valuable were witnessed and signed by another engineer for documentation of the timing of the idea." The scientists were not permitted to rip out pages. Nor were they encouraged to attach loose sheets of paper into the notebook. "No erasures," says Brown. "Lines through mistakes—initialed by who drew the lines." Also, the notebooks were issued with registered numbers that were matched to each scientist and were tracked by supervisors and Labs attorneys. There was to be no confusion bout who did what. The notebooks were proof for gaining a patent.
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 57

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Why have a pump for the bathtub?

I could hear a faint 'splosh, splosh' and the water evacuated the boat via one of our many outlets. After only a minute or so the tone of the pump changed and Geoff waved at the switch again. 'That's it, the pipe's empty. Turn it off, can you?'

'Do we have to go through this every time we want to empty the bath?' I looked at the now silent pump. 'Why can't we just pull the plug and let it drain away? This rigmarole is going to take bloody ages.'

'Marie,' Geoff looked at me with a slight frown. 'The bottom of the bath is well below the water level. If you've found a way to make water run uphill please let me know, because we can negate all the laws of physics and make a great deal of money.'
I stuck my tongue out at him. 'Nobody likes a smart-arse, you know.' I went to put the shopping away.
Marie Browne, Narrow Margins (Mid-Glamorgan: Accent Press, 2009),  p. 154

The impossible might not be

Working on the bottom of the deep ocean wasn't impossible, it was only considered impossible, and that was the distinction Tommy [Thompson] had learned: Other people labeled things impossible not because they couldn't be done, but because no one was doing them.
Gary Kinder, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea (New York: Grove Publishing, 1998), Kindle loc. 3625

Friday, December 18, 2015

Solace in star gazing

He loved this--lying on top of the camper, looking through his very old Nikon binoculars, . . . He could watch the lazy way he did when he first noticed stars, before he saw them up close through a Newtonian reflector, or read them by their radio waves, before he knew their chemical composition, the weight and age of their gases, the rate at which they were burning themselves up--back when they still held a blinks mystery.
He read the heavens like a worn page  of a favorite book. He picked out constellations of the summer northern sky--Scorpius, Hercules with it's brilliant star Vega, the harder-to-find  Corona Borealis. Arcturus, a showman star, burning it's heart out. And even though he  knew better, knew that what he saw was still roiling and burning and exploding  and being born, also dying an icy death, he could still calm himself by  doing this sort of casual, Boy Scout survey, finding  everything superficially in  place.
Carol Anshaw, Carry the One (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), pp. 75-76

Why bats can't handle extreme climates

Though among the most numerous of mammals, bats are restricted to moderate conditions and habitats—remaining nocturnal to avoid the heat and migrating or hibernating en masse to avoid the cold. To thrive in colder climates, bats would need better insulation, but that in turn would require a better way to stay cool in flight.
Thor Hanson, Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle (New York: Basic Books, 2011), p. 114

Have a good lie handy

Some part we ran, some trotted, and the rest walked at a vengeance of a pace. Twice, while we were at top speed, we ran against country-folk; but though we plumped into the first from round a corner, Alan was as ready as a loaded musket.

"Has ye seen my horse?" he gasped.

"Na, man, I haenae seen nae the horse the day," replied the countryman.

And Alan spared the time to explain to him that we were travelling "ride and tie"; that our charger had escaped, and it was feared he had gone home to Linton. Not only that, but he expended some breath (of which he had not very much left) to curse his own misfortune and my stupidity which was said to be its cause.

"Them that cannae tell the truth," he observed to myself as we went on again, "Should be aye mindful to leave an honest, handy lee behind them. If folk dinnae ken what ye're doing, Davie, they're terrible taken up with it; but if they think they ken, they care nae mair for it than what I do for pease porridge."
Robert Louis Stevenson, Catriona (1892), pt. I, ch. 13

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Enlightenment views of reading

Not all philosophers rejoiced in the growing access to books. Far from advocating universal literacy, Voltaire insisted that peasants should till the soil. But the most progressive thinkers, notably Condorcet and his friend Thomas Jefferson, identified Enlightenment with the diffusion of books and understood the printed word as the most powerful force for the liberation of humanity.
Robert Darnton, "From Printing Shop to Bookshelves: How Books Began the Journey to Enlightenment Libraries," in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), p. 92

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Scruffy old dog explores the riverbank

Herbert finally took an interest in proceedings, hauling himself out of his already stinking pit and spending a good half hour pottering up and down the riverbank sniffing and exploring. Herbert, as I have stated before, is old. He smells and dribbles and when [we] introduce [him] to friends and visitors the first question they always ask when they see him is 'what exactly is that?' but however old and stinky he is, we have had him a fair while and he is part of the family . . . .

Usually, he will rouse himself for one of only two reasons. One: food in; and two: food out. With these two important things taken care of, he usually flops over in whatever comfortable place he can get away with (we don't allow him on either the sofa or the beds,you can't get the smell out for weeks) and within seconds starts to snore. It was nice to see him obviously enjoying himself.
Marie Browne, Narrow Margins (Mid-Glamorgan: Accent Press, 2009),  p. 137

Sometimes it's good not to have a sharp sense of smell

Luckily, considering my line of work, I have a poor sense of smell, so the processing was more bearable for me than for the others.
Dr. Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson, Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries, and the Revolution in Forensic Science (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p.149. (I decided not to quote the part that explains what they were working on. Just imagine what a forensic anthropologist gets called in on.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A writer's best readers

To this day [my wife] Nily is my first reader. When she finds something in a draft that is wrong she says: That just doesn't work. Cross it out. Sit down and write it again. Or: We've heard that before. You've already written it somewhere. No need to repeat yourself. But when she likes something, she looks up from the page and gives me a certain look, and the room gets bigger. And when something sad comes off, she says, that passage makes me cry. Or if it's something funny, she bursts into peals of laughter. After her, my daughters and my son read it: they all have sharp eyes and a good ear. After a while, a few friends will read what I have written, and then the readers, and after them come the literary experts, the scholars, the critics, and the firing squads. But by then I'm not there anymore.
Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Nicholas de Lange trans., 2003), pp. 519-20

Hard work on a delicate writing project

Barry spent the next two weeks working twelve- to sixteen-hour days, trying to unravel and recast the technical language of the original concept paper into a project game plan. Then together, Tommy, Barry, and Bob dissected every sentence, searching for nuance. The words had to inform but not reveal too much, be clear but not condescending, emphasize technology but not mire in the technical, express confidence but not certainty, sound adventurous but not swashbuckling, make the project seem challenging but not impossible.
Gary Kinder, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea (New York: Grove Publishing, 1998), Kindle loc. 3553

Snow days are OK

Winter is somewhat early this year. The chill is sporadic, as temperatures zoom up and down, but we’ve had snow flurries twice—well ahead of normal. The Atlanta newspaper trumpets on page one the threats of snow and ice: this southern city has little snow removal equipment, the roads are treacherously built in sinuous twists over the hills, and many of the drivers don’t know how to drive on snow. Having lived in Minnesota, I have seen life continue routinely through heavy snows, temperatures below zero, even blizzards. I am tempted to laugh at Atlanta’s panic, but in truth I think the southern approach is better: most Americans work too hard, never taking time to think about the meanings and values inherent (or missing) in their lives. If a light snow in an ill-equipped city forces us to stay at home once in a while so that we can ponder our lives, so much the better. Especially in the so-called professions, the practitioners work so obsessively that they have no time to reflect upon what they profess. What faith, what assumptions, what responsibilities, what values and deeper meanings do they see in their work?
Albert Howard Carter III, First Cut: A Season in the Anatomy Lab (New York: Picador USA, 1997), p. 295.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Not a fan of launderettes

I had forgotten everything that bugged me about launderettes when I was at college, but even as I walked through the door, the memories started to come flooding back: the smell, the decrepit decoration (or lack of it), the ripped seating and the cheap plastic patio chairs resplendent in their differing shades of nicotine white and fingerprint grey, each complete with a set of wobbly legs that threaten to tip you to the grimy floor at the least provocation.
Marie Browne, Narrow Margins (Mid-Glamorgan: Accent Press, 2009),  p. 123

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The brilliant technology of the book

Technological innovation is frequently accompanied by excitable rhetoric and totally false prophecy. So it was with printing in the fifteenth century. . . .
. . .

The book survives because it is an object of technological genius, refined through two millennia since the Romans decided that there must be a better way of storing information than on scrolls of papyrus.
Andrew Pettegree, "The Renaissance Library and the Challenge of Print," in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), pp. 86-87

Friday, December 11, 2015

Atomic age, information age

Though nuclear arms and communications were often perceived as distinct phenomena—one was military, the other was civilian; one was deadly, the other benign—it was becoming increasingly difficult to separate the atomic age from the Information Age. Indeed, at the military's request, Bell Labs and Western Electric also began designing and building a string of remote radar installations in the frozen wastes north of the Arctic circle . . . .
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 161

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Conditions for invention

We usually imagine that invention occurs in a flash, with a eureka moment that leads a lone inventor toward a startling epiphany. In truth, large leaps forward in technology rarely have a precise point of origin. At the start, forces that precede an invention merely begin to align, often imperceptibly, as a group of people and ideas converge, until over the course of months or years (or decades) they gain clarity and momentum and the help of additional ideas and actors. Luck seems to matter, and so does timing, for it tends to be the case that the right answers, the right people, the right place—perhaps all three—require a serendipitous encounter with the right problem. And then—sometimes—a leap. Only in retrospect do such leaps look obvious. 
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 51

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The weather is foul in Antarctica

"It really looks as if there must have been a large surplus of bad weather left over after all the land had been formed at the Creation, a surplus that appears to have been dumped down in this small area of Antarctica."

Belgrave Ninnis (1912), quoted in Gabrielle Walker, Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013), p. 75

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Something to count on, wherever you travel

The only certainty is that wherever I choose to plant my feet, they grow toenails.
Steven G. Kellman, "Life in the Margins: From Brooklyn to Bulgaria," The American Scholar, Summer 2002, 109, 118

Printing, hand-copying: who cares? Just deliver the texts!

the invention of printing did not immediately destroy the manuscript trade. On the contrary, the two modes of book production coexisted happily for at least two generations.

What scholars and collectors wanted was texts. It was the huge demand for texts that had helped fuel the search for a new means of mechanical reproduction. The traditional purchasers of manuscripts were among the greatest enthusiasts for the new experimental printed books. . . . [M]ost fifteenth-century purchasers were not so particular: the collected manuscripts and printed items indifferently, and often bound them together int he same volume.
Andrew Pettegree, "The Renaissance Library and the Challenge of Print," in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), p. 74

Monday, December 7, 2015

Color coding people

If treatment of Jews provides an early instance of religiously sanctioned and state-imposed racial classification, color-coded classification—the form in which we are interested—comes later, with the Atlantic slave trade and European colonization of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Prior to the slave trade and colonization there is little evidence of color prejudice in Europe.
Kenneth Prewitt, What is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013), ch. 2

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Bibliophile's nightmare, and a lesson in estate planning

Gian Vincenzo Pinelli, of Padua, in northern Italy, was one of the great book collectors of the sixteenth century. As he approached the end of his life in 1601 he made plans for his magnificent library to become a permanent monument to his taste and erudition. The ten thousand volumes he had accumulated were to be transported to his family home near Naples, where a library was to be constructed on the family estate for the public to share, and admire, his majestic books. Such aspirations were not unusual in the sixteenth-century scholarly world. But the actual fate of his collection provides a cautionary tale of the dangers facing any scholar seeking to build a legacy. First of all the Venetian government intervened to remove certain manuscripts they regarded as politically sensitive. A servant stole some of the books. The collection was eventually loaded onto three ships for transportation through the Adriatic, but one was intercepted by pirates. When they discovered the cases of freight contained nothing but books they threw several overboard. The abandoned ship was washed ashore and plundered by local fishermen. Of the thirty-three cases of books left on board the authorities could recover only twenty-two. The valuable volumes taken by the locals were dismembered and used to mend boats or provide primitive window coverings. The stiff parchment pages of the most valuable manuscripts, which included a phenomenal and world famous collection of Greek texts, proved to be excellent draught excluders. 

Barely had the remains of the collection made its way to Naples when Pinelli's nephew died. The idea of a permanent collection died with him. After prolonged litigation the collection was purchased at auction by Cardinal Borromeo for his new library in Milan (the Biblioteca Ambrosiana). Borromeo's agents now made a careful selection for the long journey back to northern Italy, discarding those damaged by water or rodents, and books of less interest to their new owner.
Andrew Pettegree, "The Renaissance Library and the Challenge of Print," in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), p. 72

Lots of workplaces could use more SWANs

Frink thought the young man fit his formula for new engineers—SWAN, he called it: Smart, Willing to work hard, Ambitious, Nice to work with. 
Gary Kinder, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea (New York, Grove Press: 1998), Kindle loc. 2209.

(Don Frink was the head of the Equipment Development Section of Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. The young man was Tommy Thompson.)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Dunkirk evacuation was horribly dangerous

Seventeen ships sunk or knocked out of action. That was the Luftwaffe's score this June 1. All day the human residue—the hollow-eyed survivors, the pale wounded on stretchers, the ragged bundles that turned out to be bodies—were landed on the quays of Dover, Ramsgate, and other southeast coast towns. The effect was predictable on the men whose ships happened to be in port.

At Folkestone the crew of the railway steamer Malines were especially shaken by the ordeal of the Prague. The two vessels belonged to the same line, and there was a close association between the crews. Some of the Malines's men were already survivors of a ship sunk at Rotterdam, and Malines herself had been heavily bombed there. After two hard trips to Dunkirk she was now at Folkestone waiting for coal, when nerves began to crack. . . .

Malines was ordered to Dunkirk again on the evening of June 1, but with the crew on the edge of revolt, her captain refused to go. He was supported by the masters of two other steamers also at Folkestone, the Islae of Man packets Ben-My-Chree and Tynwald. They too refused to go, and when the local naval commander sent a written inquiry asking whether Ben-My-Chree would sail, her skipper simply wrote back, "I beg to state that after our experience in Dunkirk yesterday, my answer is 'No.'"
Walter Lord, The Miracle of Dunkirk (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2012), pp. 222-23  (copyright 1982) 


Friday, December 4, 2015

If you can't help with the engine, just go lie down

Geoff was in (he claimed) the final stages of getting the new inverter installed so he went back to the engine room.

. . .

[After an hour] 'How's it going?' I asked the soles of his feet. The opposite end stopped swearing for long enough to tell me exactly how it was going in full and colourful detail. 'O...K," I backed off, 'I'm going to read in bed, do you want anything before I go?' I'd like to believe that what he said was, 'No thank you, darling, thanks for enquiring, you go and have a bit of a lie-down, you deserve it' but I don't think it was. I went for that 'bit of a lie-down' anyway.
Marie Browne, Narrow Margins (Mid-Glamorgan: Accent Press, 2009),  p. 61

Live long enough, you'll get creaky joints

She also lacked osteoarthritic lipping, the buildup of jagged ridges of bony material along the edges of vertebrae and other joint surfaces. As we age, we all tend to develop some degree of osteoarthritic lipping; it's sort of the skeleton's version of the mineral deposits that gradually clog a house's water lines. Osteoarthritic lipping is a major contributor to the aching joints that plague the elderly. Whenever I show slides of severe osteoarthritic lipping, someone always asks if there's any way to prevent it. "Of course there is!" I exclaim. "Die young!"
Dr. Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson, Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries, and the Revolution in Forensic Science (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Steinbeck ♥ Montana—but also the sea

If Montana had a seacoast, or if I could live away from the sea, I would instantly move there and petition for admission. Of all the states it is my favorite and my love.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 159 (orig. published 1962)

Ingenuity to get out of tough spots

It is a great source of pride to me that over the years I have come up with some bizarre and ingenious ways to get us out of 'situations'. I am also very proud of my useful ability to ignore all indications that it is usually one of my 'great' ideas that gets us into these 'situations' in the first place.
Marie Browne, Narrow Margins (Mid-Glamorgan: Accent Press, 2009),  p. 3

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What should a gentleman teach his son?

"But what was your father that he could not learn you to draw the sword! It is most ungentle; I have not heard the match of that in anyone."

"It is most misconvenient at least," said I; "and I think my father (honest man!) must have been wool-gathering to learn me Latin in the place of it."
Robert Louis Stevenson, Catriona (1892), pt. I, ch. 10

Simultaneous projects to maximize learning

He [Tommy Thompson] decided to extend the research projects Glower had assigned him during the tutorials [in college] and pursue at all times seven to fourteen projects, idea sparks that through research he could fan to see if they caught fire. Some would be long term, thirty years perhaps; others he might conclude in two weeks. Some required his attention for a day each week, while he spent no more than four hours a month on others. As he completed one project, he would take on another, always keeping the number between seen and fourteen, and he resolved that no matter what he was doing where he was working, how much time he had to spend on other things, he would keep these projects alive to broaden his understanding of science, marketing, technology, business, human behavior, all of the disciplines that come together to make an idea work.
Gary Kinder, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea (New York: Grove Press, 1998), Kindle loc. 1530.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The state draws boundaries

The state is a boundary-drawing project—creating territorial boundaries, of course, but also demographic boundaries.
Kenneth Prewitt, What is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013), ch. 2

Medieval library values today?

Collecting, preserving, and using the right texts in the right way—which often meant slowly and contemplatively—was far more valuable than just accumulating different titles . . . . That is a lesson which—in a society obsessed with making ever vaster quantities of information instantly available, yet permitting less and less time in which to digest it—we could usefully relearn today.
Richard Gameson, "The Image of the Medieval Library," in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), p. 56

Monday, November 30, 2015

Strict library rules in 14th Century

Ave Maria College was established [in Paris] by John of Hubant for six students aged between eight and sixteen (plus six beneficiarii who could be up to twenty years old). Perhaps on account of the immaturity of many of the boys, the rules for the library prescribed a particularly rigorous regime of weekly inspection. Every Saturday the officer of the week was to go through all the books, chained and unchained, with the next week's officer, pointing out any damage; the master and the chaplain were also to inspect them. If any volume was lost or damaged and the culprit identifiable, he was to be flogged; if his identity was unascertainable, then all the boys would be beaten; their parents were to be responsible for making good any loss.
Richard Gameson, "The Image of the Medieval Library," in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), p. 42

Law as a means to grace

"Thirteently, my brethren, and in parenthesis, the law itself must be regarded as a means of grace," the minister was saying, in the voice of one delighting to pursue an argument.

The sermon was in English on account of the assize. The judges were present with their armed attendants, the halberts glittered in a corner by the door, and the seats were thronged beyond custom with the array of lawyers. The text was in Romans 5th and 13th—the minister a skilled hand; and the whole of that able churchful—from Argyle, and my Lords Elchies and Kilkerran, down to the halbertmen that came in their attendance—was sunk with gathered brows in a profound critical attention.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Catriona (1892), pt. I, ch. 16

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Book blurb: my daughter fell off her chair

I was very familiar with Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I read it when I ws a youngish man as had everybody I knew on the block, because it was a huge book. I had enjoyed it enormously, laughed and appreciated it, and then subsequently—almost more satisfyingly—I bought it for my daughter, when she was about thirteen or fourteen. If you ever wanted to put something on a cover of Hitchhiker’s Guide, not that anybody should pay particular attention to me and my daughter, you could put “my daughter fell off her chair,” because she did . . . there was a bang behind me and I turned round in a slight panic thinking something terrible had happened. In fact what had happened was that she’d literally fallen off her chair laughing. The other thing which was very appealing and nice about that particular experience was that she found the book so beautiful, funny and kind of funky that she read me almost all of it in order for me to share it. And it was just such a treat to watch her face and see her reading enormous chunks.
Bill Nighy, in Robbie Stamp, "Interview with Bill Nighy—Slartibartfast," Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005), Kindle loc. 3449

Do bears sniff in the woods?

It’s very easy for the bears to find garbage because they have what many scientists believe is the most sensitive nose in the world. Their sense of smell is seven times better than a bloodhound’s and 2,100 times better than a human’s.
Kim DeLozier & Carolyn Jourdan, Bear in the Back Seat 1: Adventures of a Wildlife Ranger in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (2013) 

Library, liberty, liberalism, liberal arts

And in English-speaking lands, the visual rather than aural similarity between the words library, liberty, liberalism, and liberal arts has been one of the most ideologically potent results that can be imagined of a completely false etymology. I speak as a regular user of the online and alliteratively entitled Library of Liberty.
Edith Hall, "Adventures in Ancient Greek and Roman Libraries," in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), p. 15

[The root of "library"] is liber, the ancient term for the skin, bark, or rind of plants. It was used to designate the thin rind of the ancient Egyptian papyrus, and eventually, much as the term for tree trunk  caudex  was adopted in the word for a codex, the bark itself, the liber (with a short "i") became the book.
Id. at 13. (Another liber, with a long "i", meant free.)

Blah November, and a happy birthday to Louisia May Alcott

"November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year," said Margaret, standing at the window one dull afternoon, looking out at the frostbitten garden.

"That's the reason I was born in it," observed Jo pensively, quite unconscious of the blot on her nose.

"If something very pleasant should happen now, we should think it a delightful month," said Beth, who took a hopeful view of everything, even November.
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868), ch. 15.

Alcott was born Nov. 29, 1832. See short bios at National Women's History Museum and Orchard House (a house museum preserving the Alcott family home).

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Pre-law, 1751, Scotland

"It' my opinion to be called an advocate."

"That's but a weary trade, Davie," says Alan, "and rather a blagyard one forby. Ye would be better in a king's coat than that."

"And no doubt that would be the way to have us meet, cried I. "But as you'll be in King Lewie's coat, and I'll be in King Geordie's, we'll have a daintie meeting of it."

"There's some sense in that," he admitted.

"An advocate, then, it'll have to be," I continued, "and I think it a more suitable trade for a gentleman that was three times disarmed."
Robert Louis Stevenson, Catriona (1892), pt. I, ch. 12

Library is greater than the sum of its parts

The selection or deselection of books for inclusion in a library’s collection was already acknowledged by historians in antiquity to have been a charged political issue. . . .

The social and political role of the ancient library, however, was not just a matter of whose written versions of history, reality, and experience were made available to the grateful public. Of far more lasting significance, it seems to me, is the actual concept of the library as an institution where the whole resource constitutes something infinitely greater than the sum of the parts.
Edith Hall, "Adventures in Ancient Greek and Roman Libraries," in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), p. 10

the ancient experiment in the creation of collections of texts that could even attempt to include everything that had ever been written in the history of the world changed our mental landscape forever, and so did the idea that the entire memory of the human race was vulnerable to complete erasure.
Id. at 11. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Tidy book piles versus a chaotic mess

Whereas in the Romanesque images, reflecting the monastic culture of  slow ruminative reading, a glimpse of a few volumes in a chest or cupboard was sufficient to evoke appropriate engagement, in later centuries, with changing patterns of book use, the volumes were shown to be available on shelves or desks. Though chests and storerooms were still current, it was the "open-shelf ready-reference" aspect of the facilities that was generally stressed. We must leave for another occasion consideration of the thorny issue of whether neatly stacked closed books, or a chaos of open ones better conveyed the idea of knowledge—if the former might evoke systematic study and orderly learning, the latter could suggest an inspired frenzy of literary labor.
Richard Gameson, "The Image of the Medieval Library," in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), p. 54

Savage young people

Young folk in a company are like to savage animals: they fall upon or scorn a stranger without civility, or I may say, humanity; and I am sure, if I had been among baboons, they would have shown me quite as much of both.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Catriona (1892), pt. I, ch. 8

Meanings of "the library"

“The library,” we find, “means” many things over time and throughout these essays. It is a collection of books, a center for scholarship, a universal memory, a maze or labyrinth, a repository of hidden or occulted knowledge, a sanctum, an archive for stories, a fortress, a space of transcendence, a focus of wealth and display, a vehicle of spirituality, an emblem of wisdom and learning, a mind or brain, an ordainer of the universe, a mausoleum, a time machine, a temple, a utopia, a gathering place, an antidote to fanaticism, a silent repository of countless unread books, a place for the pursuit of truth. A concept that has inspired many metaphors, the library as an idea has appealed to the human imagination throughout the ages and continues to do so today.
Alice Crawford, "Introduction," in Alice Crawford, ed., The Meaning of the Library (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2015), p. xvi

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Turing finds American manners peculiar

These Americans have various peculiarities in conversation which catch the ear somehow. Whenever you thank them for anything, they say ‘You’re welcome’. I rather liked it at first, thinking I was welcome, but now I find it comes back like a ball thrown against a wall, and become positively apprehensive.
Alan Turing, quoted in Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma, Centenary Ed. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), p. 123

Blumenbach's racial taxonomy

Among those influenced [by Linnaeus] was the German medical scientist Johann Blumenbach, who in 1776 published the widely read and tellingly titled On the Natural Varieties of Mankind.

Although Blumenbach avoided the moralistic terms embraced by Linnaeus, he offered the first explanation for the presumed superiority of the white race. . . . Blumenbach's rank ordering is a classic instance of a scientific error leading to a moral wrong. We have yet to escape fully the habits of thought rooted in the flawed assumption that deep cultural traits can be predicted by superficial physiological traits—the shape of a nos, ehte pigmentation of the skin, the texture of hair.

Blumenbach's racial taxonomy differed from the Linnaean taxonomy in its presentation of five rather than four races, making the Pacific Islanders a race separate from Linnaeus's Asiaticus.
Kenneth Prewitt, What is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013), ch. 2

Blumenbach's arbitrary distinctions took something that is biologically real (phenotypic variation) and made something that is biologically suspect (five races). A folk taxonomy became a biological fact. In the eighteenth century in some parts of the world, the Americas included, this biological fact became a political fact.
Id.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Linnaeus's racial taxonomy

In elaborating his racial classification, Linnaeus departed from his botanical expertise and turned anthropological, even amaeurishly psychological. He told his readers that temperament and character systematically vary from one race group to the next. This essentialism—the idea that there are characteristics that any member of a given race must possess—imprinted public consciousness in ways we still struggle to overcome. Race, more or less as we know it today, entered the scientific canon as a fact of nature.

Kenneth Prewitt, What is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013), ch. 2

Snacks!

Bernie came out [of the gas station], and I didn't spot Slim Jims or bacon bits, just a big bottle of water. That meant he still wasn't hungry, what with our little session at Max's Memphis Ribs . . . and maybe I wasn't hungry, either, but snacks often happened when we were gassing up. Snacks taste better when you're hungry, but do they ever actually taste bad? I ask you.
Spencer Quinn, Dog on It: A Chet and Bernie Mystery (New York: Atria, 2009), p. 212. (Chet, the narrator, is a dog, by the way.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

High-speed forensic anthropology?

State troopers met us at the airport and drove us east to Benton, the town of about 1,000 people that serves as the county seat of Polk County. We took a two-lane blacktop south from Benton. As the highway patrol cruisers careened around the winding road at 80 miles an hour, it occurred to me that there might soon be a few more casualties before the sun set. I cleared my throat and said to the trooper at the wheel, "You know, these folks are already dead; they're not going to get any deader if we slow down a little bit." He didn't take the hint, and we continued to rocket along.
Dr. Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson, Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries, and the Revolution in Forensic Science (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 55

Monday, November 23, 2015

"Race" in censuses

The actual term race itself is not common; it is found in only thirteen censuses around the world—eleven of them former slaveholding countries.
Kenneth Prewitt, What is Your Race? The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013), ch. 2

Edinburgh lawyer, 1751

I'm a lawyer, ye see: fond of my books and my bottle, a good plea, a well-drawn deed, a crack in the Parliament House with other lawyer bodies, and perhaps a turn at the golf on a Saturday at e'en. Where do ye come in with your Hieland plaids and claymores?"
Robert Louis Stevenson, Catriona (1892), pt. I, ch. 2

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Humans can be fooled by humans; dogs are onto 'em

She said things like "I don't believe in fate." and "How could I ever let Dylan suck me back into . . ." I remembered Dylan: pretty boy, jailbird, loser. He couldn't have sucked me into anything, not on his best day. The truth was that humans didn't turn out to be the bet judges of other humans. We, meaning me and my kind, were much better. Once in a while they tricked us; some humans got up to a lot of trickery, strangely like foxes, but usually we were on to that type from sniff one.
Spencer Quinn, Dog on It: A Chet and Bernie Mystery (New York: Atria, 2009), p. 287.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Boy sees girl

It chanced the girl turned suddenly about, so that I saw her face for the first time. There is no greater wonder than the way the face of a young woman fits in a man's mind, and stays there, and he could never tell you why; it just seems it was the thing he wanted.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Catriona (1892), pt. I, ch. 1

Friday, November 20, 2015

Paper is very important to humans

"But I'm sure you keep records."
"Oh yes, records, of course." The man moved to a computer,hit some keys. "Here we go." A printer made some machine sounds, very unpleasant to my ears. The man handed Bernie a sheet of paper. Paper was very important to human beings: They spent a lot of their time messing around with it. The appeal was lost on me.
Spencer Quinn, Dog on It: A Chet and Bernie Mystery (New York: Atria, 2009), p. 215. (Chet, the narrator, is a dog, by the way.)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Not really identical identical

Although identical twins can't be distinguished from one another by their DNA, they can be told apart by their teeth.
Dr. Bill Bass & Jon Jefferson, Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries, and the Revolution in Forensic Science (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 40

Who's the S.O.B. in this work group?

"It was probably one if the greatest research teams ever pulled together on a problem," Walger Brattain would later say. When he first reviewed the list of who would be working with silicon and germanium in the new solid-state group with Shockley at Murray Hill . . . Brattain read it over twice. There isn't an S.O.B. in the group, he thought to himself, pleased with the prospect of joining in. Then after a minute he had a second thought: Maybe I'm the S.O.B. in the group.

Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 87

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Senses, human and canine

We are visual animals. There's barely a challenge for second, either: audition is part of nearly every experience we have. Olfaction and touch might duke it out for third, and taste runs a distant fifth. Not that each of these isn't important to us on any particular occasion. . . . Still, on most occasions we first direct our gaze to a new scene or object. If we notice something unusual or unexpected on the sleeve of our jacket, we turn to examine it with our eyes. Vision would have to really fail to provide any information before we decide to learn about it by inhaling it closely or taking a bold lick.
The order of operations is turned upside-down for dogs. Snout beats eyes and mouth beats ears. Given the olfactory acuity of dogs, it makes sense that vision plays and accessory role. When a dog turns his head toward you, it is not so much to look at you with his eyes; rather, it is to get his nose to look at you . . . .
. . .
One might well ask what a dog would even need eyes for. They can navigate and find food with their remarkable noses. Anything that needs closer examination goes right in the mouth. And the can identify each other through that sensory apparatus squished between their mouth and nose, the vomeronasal organ. As it turns out, they have at least two critical uses of their eyes: to complement their other senses and to see us. The natural history of the dog eye, seen in the story of their forebears, wolves, explains the context in which their vision evolved. It is a happy and transformative side effect that this has made them good watchers of human beings. 
Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (New York: Scribner: 2009), pp. 122-23.

Employees' IP at Bell Labs

During their first few days in New York, the new "members of the technical staff"—MTSs, as they were called—learned their way around West Street. They were summoned to listen to speeches . . . . But mostly they met with their supervisors . . . to try and hash out what kind of work they would be doing. At one point during the first few days the freshmen were asked to sell the rights to their future patents, whatever these might be; their research, wherever it took them, was to benefit Bell Labs and phone subscribers. None of the young men refused. And in exchange for their signatures, each was given a crisp one-dollar bill.
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p.  40

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Hearst's dual motives

Hearst was genuinely outraged by Spain's ruthless treatment of its Cuban colony, where hundreds of thousands of Cubans were herded into detention camps to starve and die. He sought justice as well as profits. There's an ongoing argument over which of those motives screws up reporting the most.
Brooke Gladstone, The Influencing Machine (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2011), p. xiv

Breeds and behavior

Breed matters: A dog that stares down invisible prey or slowly stalks other dogs may be presenting very good "eye" behavior for a herder. So too with the dog who is aggrieved when one person leaves the room or who nips at everyone's heels as they wander down the hallway. Freezing at movement in the bushes slows down your walk, but it is very good pointing behavior. . . . Give your dog a context to play out his innate tendencies—and indulge him a little staring at the bushes now and then.
Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (New York: Scribner: 2009), p. 275

Monday, November 16, 2015

First love dazzles

Once, when I raptured in a violet glow given off by the Queen of the World, my father asked me why, and I thought he was crazy not to see. Of course I know now she was a mouse-haired, freckle-nosed, scabby-kneed little girl with a voice like a bat and the loving kindness of a gila monster, but then she lighted up the landscape and me.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 158 (orig. published 1962)

Procrastination is part of the human condition

Procrastination is fundamental, like eating: when we look ahead to the future, we know we will have plenty of tasks that we won't be able to finish, just as we know we must eat. That is simply how life works. As [George] Ainslie explains, the number of things we might do is potentially infinite. "It is literally impossible not to put off most of what you actually can do." Ainslie suggests that procrastination problems are simply part of the human condition: "Why conspicuous temptations can be identified and subjected to personal rules, a preference for deferring effort, discomfort, or boredom can never be entirely controlled. It is as fundamental as the shape of time, and could well be called the basic impulse."
Frank Partnoy, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), p. 166 (citing George Ainslie, "Procrastination: The Basic Impulse," paper presented at the CUNY Workshop, New York (July 9, 2008), p. 9)

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bad news, over and over again

The common thread running through our professional world is disease, and many of our conversations inevitably converge on "bad news." They may begin with an initial diagnosis, but those diseases can become catastrophic or just sputter along in a continuous decline until death. We doctors must be there every step of the way. Bad news thus occurs not just once but over and over again.
Pauline W. Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), ch.8

The next big information industry

The wash of information has risen so near to flood stage that Jeong Kim, the most recent president of Bell Labs, has suggested that the future of communications will be defined by an industry yet to be created—not the kind of business that simply delivers or searches out information, but one that manages the tide of information so that it doesn't drown us. At least in the communications industry, the greatest innovative challenge on the horizon Kim says, is "to organize information in a way that allows you to live the way you want to live, to take time off with your kids without fear you're going to miss out on something."
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 343

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Everyone has an accent, some more than one

Shifting among accents isn’t a sign of a fragmented self, but only of a well-traveled one.
Geoffrey Nunberg, “The Real Thing,” in The Years of Talking Dangerously (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009), p. 99
 When I hear someone described as having no accent, I think of those pinkish Crayola crayons we used to have that were labeled "flesh." 
Id.  p. 100.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Publishing the false result

John Maynard Smith, a renowned evolutionary biologist, once pithily summarized this approach: "Statistics is the science that lets you do twenty experiments a year and publish one false result in Nature." 
Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch. 8

Obvious plagiarism

It always startles me anew—though I have nabbed dozens of plagiarists—to realize that the student cheater is amazed at my powers of discernment, my uncanny ability to detect a difference in quality between his or her own work and, for example, Proust's.
Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members: A Novel (New York: Doubleday, 2014), p.80

Thursday, November 12, 2015

What's the matter with Micawber?

"Among friends, sir!" repeated Mr. Micawber; and all he had reserved came breaking out of him. "Good heavens, it is principally because I AM among friends that my state of mind is what it is. What is the matter, gentlemen? What is NOT the matter? Villainy is the matter; baseness is the matter; deception, fraud, conspiracy, are the matter; and the name of the whole atrocious mass is—HEEP!"
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850), ch. 49

Steinbeck glimpses a black man's different life

One winter dusk when the sidewalks were iced I stood in my window looking out and saw a tipsy woman come out of the bar, slip on the ice, and fall flat. She tried to struggle up but slipped and fell again and lay there screaming maudlinly. At that moment the Negro who worked for me came around the corner, saw the woman, and instantly  crossed the street, keeping as far from her as possible.

When he came in I said, "I saw you duck. Why didn't you give that woman a hand?"

"Well, sir, she's drunk, and I'm Negro. If I touched her she could easily scream rape, and then it's a crowd, and who believes me?"

"It took quick thinking to duck that fast."

"Oh, no sir!" he said. "I've been practicing to be a Negro a long time."
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 267 (orig. published 1962)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Vowell: skepticism is patriotic!

The true American patriot is by definition skeptical of the government.
Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 158

The first time

The first time a man goes into battle is strangely like the first time a man makes love to a woman. The anticipation is overpowering; the ignorance is obstructive; the fear of disgrace is consuming; and survival is triumphant.
General Omar Bradley, quoted in David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 20 (Kindle location 12681)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

My, how the Monterey Peninsula has changed

In my flurry of nostalgic spite, I have done the Monterey Peninsula a disservice. It is a beautiful place, clean, well run, and progressive. The beaches are clean where once they festered with fish guts and flies. The canneries which once put up a sickening stench are gone, their places filled with restaurants, antique shops, and the like. They fish for tourists now, not pilchards, and that species they are not likely to wipe out. And Carmel, begun by starveling writers and unwanted painters, is now a community of the well-to-do and the retired. If Carmel's founders should return, they could not afford to live there, but it wouldn't go that far. They would be instantly picked up as suspicious characters and deported over the city line.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 205 (orig. published 1962)

Monday, November 9, 2015

A vision for Bell Labs

From the start, Jewett and Arnold seemed to agree that at West Street there could be an indistinctness about goals. Who could know in advance exactly what practical applications Arnold's men would devise? Moreover, which of these ideas would ultimately move from the research department into the development department and then mass production at Western Electric? At the same time, they were clear about larger goals. The Bell Labs employees would be investigating anything remotely related to human communications, whether it be conducted through wires or radio or recorded sound or visual images. . . . An industrial lab [Frank Jewett] said, "is merely an organization of intelligent men, presumably of creative capacity, specially trained in a knowledge of the things and methods of science, and provided with the facilities and wherewithal to study and develop the particular industry with which they are associated."
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 32

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Face-to-face customer service still

Almost any banking or financial service a person could want is readily available by phone or over the Internet. Highly competitive companies have put huge resources and the most sophisticated technology into marketing these efficient and convenient electronically based services. Why then are there still branch banks on every main street and in every mall in America? Because some customers, in some situations, cannot meet their needs without them. One size does not fit all, for banking customers or taxpayers. 
Charles O. Rossotti, Many Unhappy Returns: One Man's Quest to Turn Around the Most Unpopular Organization in America (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005), p. 136

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The value of a good lunch buddy

[S]ome lawyers in the patent department at Bell Labs decided to study whether there was an organizing principle that could explain why certain individuals at the Labs were more productive than others. They discerned only one common thread: Workers with the most patents often shared lunch or breakfast with a Bell Labs electrical engineer named Harry any quiet. It wasn't the case that Nyquist gave them specific ideas. Rather, as one scientist recalled, "he drew people out, got them thinking." More than anything, Nyquist asked good questions.
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 135

Friday, November 6, 2015

Vowell sees her own hypocricies

My small life in the surface world is a contradictory,  hypocritical mess in which I scowl through newspaper articles about the abuses of the timber industry while sitting in my maple chair next to my maple bookcase. Isn't that how most of us live in this country?
Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 138

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thanks, coffeehouses!

I would also like to acknowledge the many coffeehouses whose rich coffee and cute barista girls inspired my numerous hours writing stories. Note: If any of the following businesses are interested in the corporate sponsorship of a writer, give me a call. Thanks to: Starbucks on Church and Market, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Ocean Park, Le Grande Orange on 40th and Campbell, and Peet's Coffee on Market. I've bought plenty of coffee; now it's time for you to buy a book!
Tania Katan, My One-Night Stand with Cancer (2005) (acknowledgements section).

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why shouldn't academic writing show passion?

Passion and commitment are stylistic qualities that academic writers often praise in other people's writing but suppress in their own. Most academics would describe themselves as passionate, committed researchers; they love what they do and undertake their work with a strong sense of personal engagement. Many actively desire to make a difference in the world . . . . Yet these same researchers have typically been trained, either implicitly or explicitly to strip all emotion from their academic writing. What would happen if they allowed even a modicum of the passion they feel to color their prose?
Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012),  ch. 14

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

College students hunger (not just for Doritos, apparently)

There is an intense hunger among today's students, my travels in the last few years have shown me, for what college ought to be providing but is not: for a larger sense of purpose and direction; for an experience at school that speaks to them as human beings, not bundles of aptitudes; for guidance in addressing the important questions of life; for simple permission to think about these things and a vocabulary with which to do so.
William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (New York: Free Press, 2014), p. 73

Committed to snazzy military fashion

Gleaming with polished brass and leather, he scorned the new battle dressed. "I don't mind dying for my country," [Major Angus McCorquodale] declared, "but I'm not going to die dressed like a third-rate chauffer."
Walter Lord, The Miracle of Dunkirk (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2012), p. 200 (copyright 1982)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Nerdy even for nerdy Sarah Vowell

The political e-mail group might be the all-time nerdiest thing I've been involved in, and I say that as a person who had been involved in public radio and marching band.
Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), p. 88

Scent of a resident

I learned that exhaustion leaves its own olfactory imprint. The white coats of residents who had been up through the night had an acrid, stale odor—the smell of dirtied polyester, sweat-stained cotton, and human flesh trapped too long away from sunlight and normal circadian rhythms. I could recognize my exhausted colleagues with my eyes closed.
Pauline W. Chen, Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), ch. 8

Friday, October 30, 2015

Keeping an impractical scientist around the industrial lab

[Clinton J. (Davy) Davisson] decided to stay at [Bell Labs] when the war ended. He was allowed to carve out a position as a scientist who rejected any kind of management role and instead worked as a lone researcher, or sometimes a researcher teamed with one or two other experimentalists, pursuing only projects that aroused his interest. he seemed to seemed to display little concern about how (or whether) such research would assist the phone company. . . . Frank Jewett ad no illusions that his Western Electric shop was in the business of increasing human knowledge; they were in the business of increasing phone company revenues. By allowing Davisson a position on staff, though, Jewett and his deputy Harold Arnold recognized that Davy had financial value. If he was helpful to the researchers working on real-world problems, he was worth keeping around.
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Many inventions went into communications satellite

Telstar was not one invention but rather a synchronous use of sixteen inventions patented at the labs over the course of twenty-five years. "None of the inventions was made specifically for space purposes," the New York Times pointed out. On the other hand, only all of them together allowed for the deployment of an active space satellite.
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 222

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Amos Oz's early reading

I started to read almost on my own, when I was very young. What else did we have to do? The evenings were much longer then, because the earth revolved more slowly, because the galaxy was much more relaxed than it is today. The electric light was a pale yellow, and it was interrupted by the many power cuts. To this day the smell of smoky candles or a sooty paraffin lamp makes me want to read a book.
Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Orlando: Harvest, 2005) (trans. Nicholas de Lange), p. 21.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How can you spot a great scholar?

Sometimes as we walked down Ben Yehuda Street or Ben Maimon Avenue, my father would whisper to me: "Look, there is a scholar with a worldwide reputation." I did not know what he meant. I thought that having a worldwide reputation was somehow connected with having weak legs, because the person in question was often an elderly man who felt his way with a stick and stumbled as he walked along, and wore a heavy woolen suit even in summer.
Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (Orlando: Harvest, 2005) (trans. Nicholas de Lange), p. 3.

Define "entrepreneur"

An entrepreneur was basically the same thing as a capitalist, only played by Jeff Bridges instead of Lionel Barrymore.
Geoffrey Nunberg, “The Entrepreneurial Spirit,” in The Years of Talking Dangerously (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009), Kindle ed. location 2622

Monday, October 26, 2015

Claude Shannon didn't mean to be practical

With information theory, [Claude] Shannon had never had any intention of changing the world—it had just worked out that way. He had pursued the work not because he perceived it would be useful in squeezing ore information into undersea ocean cables or deep space communications. He had pursued it because it intrigued him. In fact, Shannon had never been especially interested in the everyday value of his work. He once told an interview, "I think you impute a little more practical purpose to my thinking than actually exists. My mind wanders around, and I conceive of different things day and night. Like a science-fiction writer, I'm thinking, 'What if it were like this?' or, 'Is there an interesting problem of this type?' . . . It's usually just that I like to solve a problem, and I work on these all the time." 
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin: 2012), p. 319
"I don't think I was ever motivated by the notion of winning prizes, although I have a couple of dozen of them in the other room," Claude Shannon said late in life. "I was motivated more by curiosity. I was never motivated by the desire for money, financial gian. I wasn't trying to do something big so that I could get a bigger salary."
Id., p. 350

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Reasons not to use a computer (or a tweed jacket)

I can't picture myself fiddling with wires and transistors and geeky Popular Electronics hobby stuff like somebody who belonged to Ham Radio Club in high school. I became a writer to have a cape buffalo head on my wall, not a mouse on my plastic laminated Scooby-Do pad.

And how did those old-time writers get their tweed jackets to wear out only at the elbows so they could have cool leather patches? My tweed jackets wear out because I spill ketchup on them. Also tweed jackets ride up on the back of my neck when I’m writing and itch. Which brings me to the honest confession of why I don’t use a computer. Like the tweed jacket, I can’t get it to work.

I'm too tough and sensitive to have some pubescent twerp with his mom’s earring in his tongue, who combs his hair with Redi-Whip and has an Ani DiFranco tattoo on his shin, come show me how a computer works. What does the twerp know about Wordsworth and Two Gentlemen of Verona and shooting a cape buffalo?
-- P. J. O’Rourke, “Computers Invite a Tangled Web of Complications,” in Writers on Writing Vol. II: More Collected Essays from The New York Times (introduction by Jane Smiley) (New York: Times Books, 2003), p. 184.

Tourist grows fonder of India

As I lit up the first Panama cigarette of the day, I reflected that the more I saw of India, the more I liked it. Wandering through the streets, and observing the many herds of sacred cows, for instance, I could now view them as amiable, benevolent spirits rather than unnecessary public nuisances. Previously, I had been irked to hear that there were twice as many cows in India than human beings, and that this explained a lot fo the prevailing food shortage. Now, however, I could see some of their values. Not only did their endless patience and calm stoicism impart some sense of order and tranquillity to busy Indian streets, but they also managed to keep the accumulations of waste and rubbish on the road down by eating a remarkable amount of it.

Part of my misconception of India, I was now coming to realise, lay in the fact that foreign tourists like me only saw a certain "type" of Indian—generally the type who wanted money. The vast majority of Indian people are of course neither insensitive nor grasping. 
Frank Kusy, Kevin and I in India (Grinning Bandit Books: 2013), p. 208 (first published 1986)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Children need libraries

As Al Gore described the vision in 1984, "I want a schoolchild in Carthage, Tenn., to come to school and be able to plug into the Library of Congress."
By now, though, people have begun to realize that what that Carthage schoolchild needs most is still a neighborhood public library, even if it’s a small one. When you’re ten years old, it doesn’t take a huge collection to convince you that the world holds more books than you could ever read. 
Geoffrey Nunberg, “Touched by the Turn of a Page,” in The Years of Talking Dangerously (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009), Kindle ed. location 1438

Henry David Thoreau, Laura Ingalls Wilder

In reality, Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. . . . This is the situation Thoreau summed up by saying, "For the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. it is as much Asia or Africa as New England. . . . "

. . . Only someone who had never experienced true remoteness could mistake Walden for the wilderness or compare life on the bustling pond to that on the mid-nineteenth-century prairies. Indeed, an excellent corrective to "Walden" is the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who grew up on those prairies, and in a genuine little house in the big woods. Wilder lived what Thoreau merely played at, and her books are not only more joyful and interesting than "Walden" but also, when reread, a thousand times more harrowing. 
Kathryn Schulz, "Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau's Moral Myopia," New Yorker, Oct. 19, 2015, p. 40, at 44

Friday, October 23, 2015

Colleges and their grads' careers

[C]olleges and universities do nothing to suggest that some ways of using your education are better than others. They do nothing, in other words, to challenge the values of a society that equates virtue, dignity, and happiness with material success.

Nor do they do much to help kids find their way to alternative careers. . . .

Selling your students to the highest bidder: it doesn't get more cynical than that. But though the process isn't often that direct, that's basically the way the system works. As a friend of mind, a third-generation Yalie, once remarked, the purpose of Yale College is to manufacture Yale alumni.
William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (New York: Free Press, 2014), p. 71

Thoreau's distortions

Only by elastic measures can "Walden" be regarded as nonfiction.

. . .

Begin with false premises and you risk reaching false conclusions. Begin with falsified premises and you forfeit your authority. Apologists for Thoreau often claim that he merely distorted some trivial facts in the service of a deeper truth. But how deep can a truth be—in deed, how true can it be—if it is not built from facts?
Kathryn Schulz, "Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau's Moral Myopia," New Yorker, Oct. 19, 2015, p. 40, 44

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The dog on what really matters

On the homefront my family kept me sane. I could not have written this book without the help of my wife, Christine Gleason, a doctor by profession but also one of the best natural editors I've encountered. Her confidence was a beacon. My three daughters showed me what really matters. My dog showed me that nothing matters but dinner.
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City (2003), p. 431

Andrew Jackson opened up the American South

The place for which Jackson opened the way was a world of its own. There was no denying his achievement. It was Jacksonland, the Deep South, vital then and now to American life and the American identity. It was opened for development by his armies, acts, treaties, or laws. Jacksonland is not only Florence and Jackson County, Alabama; it is the famous Muscle Shoals recording studio and the manufacturing centers of the Tennessee Valley, as well as the steel mills of Birmingham and the Sun studio in Memphis. It is the Civil War battlefields of Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. . . . The South of William Faulkner, George Wallace, Robert Johnson, and Rosa Parks could not exist until Andrew Jackson cleared the way for it. Orland, Florida, and Walt Disney World: that too is Jacksonland.
Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 340

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A 1960s glimpse of our wired world

I think that it's very important to realize that communication is a general function. The wires that will carry telephony will also carry teletypewriter, and a circuit that's capable of handling television will handle high-speed data and many other things as well. So that once you have the transmission facilities available, they can be used for everything interchangeably.
John Pierce, in interview by Walter Cronkite, Jan. 29, 1967, quoted in Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 226

Never heard of John Pierce? See this obituary.

What would you miss most from the library?

Adam saw that the revolving doors were now fanning into the hall a steady stream of booted and helmeted firemen, who trotted sheepishly along the human corridor and into the Reading Room. Hosepipes snaked across the floor behind them.

'They say there's a fire,' said the doorman, with relish.

'Not in the Library?' exclaimed Adam, aghast.

'It's like the war all over again,' said the man, rubbing his hands together. 'Of course, most of the books are irreplaceable, you know.'

It wasn't, however, (Adam had ashamedly to admit to himself later) the fate of the Museum's priceless collection which preoccupied him at that moment, but the fate of his own notes and files. Only a short while ago he had been filled with disgust for that tatty collection of paper, but now that it was in danger of extinction he realised how closely his sense of personal identity, uncertain as this was, was involved in those fragile, vulnerable sheets, cards and notebooks, which even now might be crinkling and turning brown at the edges under the hot breath of destructive flame. Almost everything he had thought and read for the past two years was recorded there. It wasn't much, but it was all he had.
David Lodge, The British Museum Is Falling Down (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1965), pp. 96-97

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Fie on coffee haters!

I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee (especially if the objection is that it erodes great civilizations; had the man not heard of the Enlightenment?), but Thoreau never met an appetite too innocuous to denounce.
Kathryn Schulz, "Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau's Moral Myopia," New Yorker, Oct. 19, 2015, p. 40, 41

Monday, October 19, 2015

Thoreau the jerk

In that [simplified and inspirational] image, Thoreau is our national conscience: the voice in the American wilderness, urging us to be true to ourselves and to live in harmony with nature.

This vision cannot survive any serious reading of "Walden." The real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world. From that inward fixation flowed a social and political vision that is deeply unsettling.
Kathryn Schulz, "Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau's Moral Myopia," New Yorker, Oct. 19, 2015, p. 40

Sunday, October 18, 2015

More than what we drink

Notwithstanding Henry Wallace’s glorious speech or Aaron Copland’s even more glorious fanfare, the common man has never been crazy about being referred to as the common man. And with the notable exception of Homer Simpson, most people aren’t comfortable having their sociopolitical identity reduced to a beverage preference, whether it’s for beer or chardonnay. 
Geoffrey Nunberg, “Just a Thing Called Joe,” in The Years of Talking Dangerously (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009), Kindle ed. location 1365

If only we had the right office supplies . . .

In Great Russell Street he lingered outside the windows of bookshops,stationers and small publishers. The stationers particularly fascinated him. He coveted the files, punches, staplers, erasers, coloured inks, and gadgets whose functions remained a teasing mystery, thinking that if only he could afford to equip himself with all this apparatus his thesis would write itself: he would be automated.
David Lodge, The British Museum Is Falling Down (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1965), p. 78

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The blogging style has long antecedents

[I]f you're of a mind to, you can trace [blogs'] print antecedents a lot further back than [Herb] Caen or Hunter S. Thompson. That informal style recalls the colloquial voice that Addison and Steele devised when they invented the periodical essay in the early eighteenth century, even if few blogs come close to them in artfulness. . . .

For that matter, my Language Log co-contributor Mark Liberman recalls that Plato always had Socrates open his philosophical disquisitions with a little diary entry, the way bloggers like to do: "I went down yesterday to see the festival at the Peiraeus with Glaucon, the son of Ariston, and I ran into my old buddy Cephalus, and we got to talking about old age. . . ."
Geoffrey Nunberg, “Touched by the Turn of a Page,” in The Years of Talking Dangerously (New York: PublicAffairs, 2009), Kindle ed. location 1401

China as seen by FDR and by Churchill

“To the President, China means four hundred million people who are going to count in the world of tomorrow," Churchill's physician noted in his diary. "But Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin; it is when he talks of India or China that you remember he is a Victorian." 
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 19 (quoting Lord Moran [Dr. Charles McMoran Wilson], Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 140)

Tossed by elephants

"Gentlemen," returned Mr. Micawber, "do with me as you will! I am a straw upon the surface of the deep, and am tossed in all directions by the elephants—I beg your pardon; I should have said the elements." 
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850), ch. 49

Friday, October 16, 2015

Stupidity explains a lot of goofs

In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2014), ch. 3. In an endnote, Pinker adds: "Named after Robert J. Hanlon, who contributed it to Arthur Bloch’s Murphy’s Law Book Two: More reasons why things go wrong! (Los Angeles: Price/Stern/Sloan, 1980)."

Jumbled facts about Egyptian history

No matter how hard I tried to arrange the dynasties and the succession of pharaohs and gods in my head, I found it impossible to keep them straight. I never knew who was historical and who was mythological. The endless facts I read in guidebooks, the recitations I heard from guides, tended to sit in a tangled muddle in my head. More than the monuments and the kings and the gods, I was interested in the history of the simple Egyptian people, how they had lived their days. I didn’t care much about Sobek and Horus, but I liked knowing that wealthy women in ancient Egypt had been obsessed with beautifying their hair and had regularly rubbed it with all manner of curious potions—hippopotamus fat, powdered donkey’s teeth mixed with honey, the juice of juniper berries—and they decorated it with fine combs and flower blossoms. Sometimes they shaved their heads completely and wore wigs. I liked knowing that the prophet Muhammad was fond of cats and that he preferred to cut off the flowing sleeves of his robe rather than wake a cat that had fallen asleep on it. I liked knowing that when an Egyptian house cat died, the entire household shaved their eyebrows in mourning; when a dog died they shaved their entire bodies; and when an important man died, his female relatives smeared their heads and faces with mud and marched around the town beating their bared breasts. I was delighted to know that in the embalming process, the ancient Egyptians pulled the dead man’s brains through his nose with an iron hook, and that at the end of a nice dinner party it was the custom for a man to wander around the room carrying a small coffin containing the image of a corpse, showing it to each guest and exhorting: "Look on this body as you drink and enjoy yourself; for you will be just like it when you are dead."
Rosemary Mahoney, Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2007), p. 132.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Regional speech disappearing

It seemed to me that regional speech is in the process of disappearing, not gone but going. Forty years of radio and twenty years of television must have this impact. Communications must destroy localness, by a slow, inevitable process. I can remember a time when I could almost pinpoint a man's place of origin by his speech. That is growing more difficult now and will in some foreseeable future become impossible. It is a rare house or building that is not rigged with spiky combers of the air. Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.

I who love words and the endless possibility of words am saddened by this inevitability. For with local accent will disappear local tempo. The idioms, the figures of speech that make language rich and full of the poetry of place and time must go. And in their place will be a national speech, wrapped and packaged, standard and tasteless. Localness is not gone but it is going. . . . What I am mourning is perhaps not worth saving, but I regret its loss nevertheless.

Even while I protest the assembly-line production of our food, our songs, our language, and eventually our souls, I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother's cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good unpasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes, and that sweet local speech I mourn was the child of illiteracy and ignorance.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 106-07 (orig. published 1962)

Sacks learns from patients

I find every patient I see, everywhere, vividly alive, interesting and rewarding; I have never seen a patient who didn't teach me something new, or stir in me new feelings and new trains of thought; and I think that those who are with me in these situations share in, and contribute to this sense of adventure. (I regard all neurology, everything, as a sort of adventure!)
Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) (letter to a medical student who had asked to study with Sacks)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Facts change: get used to it

We have to begin actually educating ourselves and our children to recognize that knowledge will always be changing and showing the regularities behind how these changes can happen. More important than simply learning facts is learning how to adapt to changing facts.
Samuel Arbesman, The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (New York: Current, Penguin USA, 2012), ch.10

Friday, October 9, 2015

Women's work in World War Two

“Nearly two million women—never more than 10 percent of female workers in wartime—did indeed labor in defense plants. . . . Few, however, drilled rivets, a relatively high-skill task for which employers were unwilling to train workers whom they considered as transient, short-term employees. . . . Rosie the Riveter might therefore have been more appropriately named Wendy the Welder, or more appropriately still Sally the Secretary, or even, as events were to prove, Molly the Mom.” 
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 21 

How to think of your reader

View your reader as a companionable friend—someone with a warm sense of humor and a love of simple directness. 
John R. Trimble, Writing with Style (2d ed. 2000), p. 73

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Texas as a symbol

[T]here is no physical or geographical unity in Texas. Its unity lies in the mind. And this is not only in Texans. The word "Texas" becomes a symbol to everyone in the world. There's no question that this Texas-of-the-mind fable is often synthetic, sometimes untruthful, and frequently romantic, but that in no way diminishes its strength as a symbol.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America  (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 233 (orig. published 1962)

Liking novels doesn't mean you'd like to live with the characters

Her mother likes to say that novels have ruined Amelia for real men. This observation insults Amelia because it implies that she only reads books with classically romantic heroes. She does not mind the occasional novel with a romantic hero but her reading tastes are far more varied than that. Furthermore, she adores Humbert Humbert as a character while accepting the fact that she wouldn't really want him for a life partner, a boyfriend, or even a casual acquaintance. She feels the same way about Holden Caulfield, and Misters Rochester and Darcy.
Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014), p. 8