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

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Pause in a lecture—but not too long!

As a professor, I have learned to use longer pauses when I teach a large class than I do in a small seminar. Depending on the feel of the room, I sometimes can get away with a pause of ten seconds or so after an especially dramatic point. But in this era of instant gratification, I have to be careful. If I wait too long, my students will get up and leave.
Frank Partnoy, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), Introduction

The best customer service

We were making progress on service over the telephones and in local offices. But I also knew that unquestionably the best way to provide customer service, in any business, is to make it unnecessary. No one wants to spend time talking about his or her phone bill or tax return.
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. 139

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Don't expect an answer from founder of information science

"By the early 1950s, [Claude] Shannon's admirers from around the  world began to seek  him out. They wrote to the oracle at Bell Labs to ask about computers or chess or information theory . . . . Requests also came in through official channels . . . .

Still, most of the letters to Shannon came from academics or chess enthusiastic or weekend tinkerers, schoolchildren or  hobbyists wanting to know more about Theseus [an automated maze-navigating mouse]. On occasion Shannon would answer the letters; more often than not, he would let them languish in piles and folders in his office. . . . the letters would eventually get herded into a folder he  had labeled "Letters I've procrastinated in answering too long." . . . It seemed lost on Shannon that the scientist who had declared that any message could be sent through any noisy channel with almost perfect fidelity was now himself a proven exception. Transmissions could reach Claude Shannon, but then they would fail to go any farther.
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), pp. 140-41

U.S. News panic

In the spirit of the SATs, in fact, we might propose the following analogy. U.S. News rank : schools : : SAT score : students. Each is dubious as a measure of academic excellence and meaningless as a standard of self-worth, but both have consequences serious enough to send their subjects into a state of panic.
William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (New York: Free Press, 2014), p. 68

Monday, October 5, 2015

Dashes endangered by the hyphen-minus

These subtle but prized typographic conventions [about the use of the en dash, em dash, quotation dash, and figure dash] find themselves under threat from the wretched "hyphen-minus," an interloper introduced to the dash's delicate habitat in the late nineteenth century. Too crowded to accommodate a full complement of dashes, the typewriter keyboard required a compromise; the jack-of-all-trades hyphen-minus was the result, and its privileged position at the fingertips of typists everywhere has led it to impersonating dashes and hyphens alike with alarming frequency. In print and online, the well-set dash is an endangered species.
Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2013), p. 146

Supreme Court's big windows

In the first week of 1936 the Court took up residence in its new classic-revival temple on Capitol Hill. "It is a magnificent structure," said a New Yorker writer, "with fine big windows to throw the New Deal out of."
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. 11  (Kennedy’s endnote says: "New Yorker quoted in Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), p. 639.")

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Facing turbulence

The rest of the people on the plane were also not my idea of a fun group to die with. When things really got messy and we were being buffeted around like aphids clinging to a paper glider, some drunken idiot started yelling "Ooopsy-Daisy" every time we took a dive, and a few other fools kept laughing hysterically. The thought of dying with all these comical ass-holes and then arriving in the underworld with a visa marked "Unitarian" kept me praying avidly throughout the flight. There are no atheists on turbulent airplanes."
Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (New York: Signet, 1974), p. 232

These Bell engineers had vision

Pierce and David's 1961 memo recommended a number of exhibits [for the New York World's Fair]: "personal hand-carried telephones," "business letters in machine-readable form, transmitted by wire," "information retrieval from a distant computer-automated library," and "satellite and space communications."  By the time the fair opened in April 1964, though, the Bell System exhibits . . . described a more conservative future than the one Pierce and David had envisioned.
Jon Gertner, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 229

Saturday, October 3, 2015

How to avoid thinking about death? Denial!

When the chips are down, almost no one wants his life to end, and one good way for the conscious mind to avoid it is for the unconscious mind to deny that it is about to happen. 
Sherwin Nuland, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 229.

"She laughed at my jokes."

Alan Milne married Dorothy de Selincourt in 1913. This, of course, was before my time, and since they didn't talk to me about those early days (why should they?), I have to rely now on my father's autobiography for information. Not that he gives much. However, two sentences are all I need for the present. The first is: "She laughed at my jokes."

Surely this is the one absolutely vital qualification for a professional humorist's wife: that she should laugh at his jokes. Jokes are delicate things and my father's were especially delicate. Was it funny? Only someone's laughter would tell you. Only someone's laughter would encourage you to go on trying to be funny. It is true that a writer writes first to please himself and that his own satisfaction with what he has done is perhaps his greatest satisfaction. But writing is a means of communication. It is not enough to speak; you must also be heard. The message must be received and understood. Also a writer needs praise. At least my father did. He needed someone to say: "I love it, darling. It was awfully good." Of course, anyone who is well trained can say that without really meaning it, and I know that on one or two rare occasions my mother did. You can pretend to admire, but, unless you are a superb actress, you can't pretend to laugh. Laughter is genuine or else it is just a noise.
Christopher Milne, The Enchanted Places (1975), p. 105 (published in UK in 1974).

Friday, October 2, 2015

Abstracts with life!?!

The purpose of a scholarly abstract is not merely to summarize an article's content but to persuade one's discipline-based peers that the research is important and the article is therefore worth reading. . . . Authors who adopt an impersonal, "academic" tone are neglecting one of the most powerfully persuasive tools at the stylish writer's disposal: the human touch.
Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012),  ch. 13

Why did Georgians want Cherokee land?

In later years the impression would arise that the greed for gold drove the Georgians to take Cherokee land. This was not quite accurate. Georgia's elites wanted the land even before the gold rush, and even afterward they wanted the land mainly because it was land.
Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 211

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Seattle accent

On this journey I had two companions from Seattle, USA. Both of them sounded exactly like Henry Fonda.
Frank Kusy, Kevin and I in India (Grinning Bandit Books: 2013), p. 168 (first published 1986)

(According to IMDB, Fonda grew up in Nebraska. I suppose bland American accents all sound the same to a Brit.)

Students as customers

[T]he worst effect of the commercialization of higher education is the way that it has changed how institutions see their students. Now they think of them as "customers," people to be pandered to instead of challenged.
William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (New York: Free Press, 2014), p. 69