Commonplaces: Exley on football.

September 22nd, 2014

Why did football bring me so to life? I can’t say precisely. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it; I chose to believe that it was not unlike the jobs which all men, in some sunnier past, had been called upon to do. It smacked of something old, something traditional, something unclouded by legerdemain and subterfuge. It had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity — perhaps it was no more than the force of a forgotten childhood. Whatever it was, I gave myself up to the Giants utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive.

~ ~ ~

I had wanted to make the pilgrimage [to former Giants head coach Steve Owen’s funeral] because it was Owen, as much as any other, who had brought me round to the Giants and made me a fan. Unable to conceive what my life would have been without football to cushion the knocks, I was sure I owed him sorrow. It occurs to me now that my enthusiasms might better have been placed with God or Literature or Humanity; but in the penumbra of such upper-case pieties I have always experienced an excessive timidity rendering me tongue-tied or forcing me to emit the brutal cynicisms with which the illiterate confront things they do not understand.

–Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes






Academic books potentially coming your way.

September 20th, 2014

book boxes

To my academic friends: I just cleared out the storage container you see on the left of the image above, which led to the the many boxes of books stacked in my living room that you see on the right of the image.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be going through all of these boxes.

  • Some of the books will go onto the family bookshelves.
  • Some of them will go onto the shelves in my office.
  • Others will go straight to Recycled Reads.

And then there will be the leftover academic books that fit into none of the three categories above. Most of these will be history, but there will be a fair amount of religion and international relations as well. As I come across these, I’ll post about them here (and share those posts via Facebook and Twitter). If you see books you want, you can inform me via Facebook, Twitter, comments here, e-mail, smoke signals, or whatever. I’ll send you the books you want, with the understanding that you’ll PayPal me the cost of shipping.

Cool?






Cortege

September 15th, 2014

Written 11 September 2014

The mourners stand silent
The cortege passes slowly
No longer a row of coffins
Now long in the ground
Nor ever merely a list of names
Rather, a procession of lives
A profusion of stories
Now never to be told
Of birthdays uncelebrated
Of triumphs and petty jealousies
Utility bills and hospice care
Basketball games and divorces
Ice cream and beer on the 4th of July
Seder feasts and christenings
Children never to be conceived
Grown children without parents
Spouses, friends, cousins — mourners
They take the first rank along the route
They have no choice
While the rest of us stand behind
All of us numb — still, somehow —
To contemplate what was lost
At the hands of violent men
Perverse in their grasp
Of what it means to be human
And what it means to submit
We have been made to submit
To reality in the form of loss
— hopes, comforts, illusions —
We no longer cry every day
Nor shake our fists at the heavens
Now we proceed
Changed






Weird formatting from Poster.

June 22nd, 2014

In a fit of mobile creativity, I wrote the previous post, “Favorite firestarter books,” using the Poster app on my iPhone.

Clearly, the markup from the app didn’t really work — it didn’t create italics or make bullet points the way I thought it would once the post was published.

Any thoughts from the audience here? Does the problem lie with Poster, or WordPress? And how would I fix it — besides, obviously, going back into WordPress from the desktop browser and changing all the formatting by hand?

Thanks in advance for any tips.






Favorite firestarter books

June 21st, 2014

I’ve been thinking about the books that start a fire (or open a door — pick your metaphor) for a whole subject.

Example: Joseph Campbell’s *The Power of Myth* might set you on a course to read more from Campbell, Carl Jung, myths from around the world, comparative religions, and so on.

Example: *The Diary of Anne Frank* might get you started reading the history of the Holocaust, *Man’s Search for Meaning*, and novels like *Night*, *The Painted Bird*, *Sophie’s Choice*, *The Periodic Table*, and *The Book Thief.*

Other possibilities that come to mind:
+ The Black Swan
+ Pepys’ Diary
+ the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian
+ The Once and Future King
+ The French Lieutenant’s Woman
+ The Second Sex

What books have done this for you — started a fire that led you to other books on related topics?






Please do me this one little favor and stop misusing “I.”

May 19th, 2014

spell3

I see it all the time, and I hope I afflict you with the same Curse of Seeing:

“They gave the book to John and I.”

No no no no NO. Correctly, that sentence reads:

“They gave the book to John and me.”

Why? Because the singular first-person pronoun that you use as the object of a preposition is always “me.” Let’s make up a bunch of examples:

The clerk was very helpful: he loaded the truck for me.

Mom gave the heirloom to me.

My son went to the store with me.

The TSA agent took my passport from me.

The burst of radiation went right through me.

The Persian carpet was spread out on the floor beneath me.

Now let’s try them with compound objects:

The clerk was very helpful: he loaded the truck for Angela and me.

Mom gave the heirloom to my sister and me.

My son went to the store with my wife and me.

The TSA agent took our passports from Dad and me.

The burst of radiation went right through Bruce and me. (HULK SMASH)

The Persian carpet was spread out on the floor beneath us.

You get the idea. I threw in that last one to make a point: we have a set of personal pronouns (I, we, he, she, etc.) that are used as the SUBJECT of a phrase. That’s why we say “We went to the store” instead of “Us went to the store.” Conversely, you’d say “He gave the book to us,” not “He gave the book to we.”

But when you say “He gave the book to John and I,” you’re saying “He gave the book to we.”

So don’t do that, please.

Learnable and Unlearnable Writing Skills

There’s a bigger thought underlying this specific issue of grammar, so please bear with me while I stay up here on my soapbox for a minute.

I tend to believe that some things in writing, maybe in any art, cannot be learned, or at least they cannot be taught. No guitarist, for example, can achieve the tone of Jimmy Page by simple force of will without some sort of talent lurking inside. It’s probably less talent than we suspect is needed — you don’t have to be born with perfect pitch — but there must be at least a modicum of it. In writing, similarly, most people apparently don’t hear the music like Neruda or Woolf did.

If you’re committed to your art, you should definitely plow ahead even if you’re lacking that talent. Some diligent grinders surely achieve great heights of creation by dogged application. Mastery is its own reward. So do try to learn even the part that can’t be explained.

But as for the parts that can be explained? This gets us back to “I” and “me” — and these you MUST learn, if you wish to be regarded as competent in your chosen field. Not to learn them is to brand yourself as inferior, or an ignoramus.

Fundamentals, Not Quibbles

I’m not bitching here about matters of opinion (the Oxford comma) or of outmoded usage (insisting on the distinction between “masterful” and “masterly”) or of patois (in which “ain’t” might be perfectly acceptable). I’m talking about standard English grammar, and the persistent misuse of it that I see even among friends who earn their bread by writing.

Spelling, by contrast, is not connected to intelligence: there are brilliant people with dyslexia or dysgraphia who cannot spell at all, and there are badly brain-damaged people who essentially cannot misspell. But that is why a bad speller who is a good writer will call on the services of a friend or a professional to proofread their work. Not for every Facebook post, surely, but for anything important enough.

Yet in the matter of grammar . . . we encounter a different story. Your use of grammar reflects your understanding of how our language fits together. To write “They gave the book to John and I” is to betray that you do not understand how English personal pronouns work — which means, if you’re a writer, that you don’t know how to use your basic tools. It would be like a carpenter who doesn’t know how to use a saw.

The moral of the story is this: LEARN the parts that you can learn.






Twitter usage note: “at” and @.

March 22nd, 2014

So here’s a little Twitter usage peeve of mine. It has to do with the way some people mistakenly drop the word “at” in tweets when it would precede the @ sign.

If you don’t use Twitter, feel free to skip this one; if you do use Twitter, take a look and tell me what you think. I run into this issue all the time, and it consistently wrong-foots me as a reader.

Setup

Twitter uses the @ sign to prefix a username (also called a “handle”); for example, my username is @Twalk. You can start a tweet with a username, which means that you’re directing a public tweet at a specific user, like this:

@johndoe Great running into you & your family last night at the park. We should get a cup of coffee soon!

Because of a quirk in the way Twitter treats public replies, the only people who will see that tweet in their Twitter streams are Twitter users who follow me AND follow @johndoe.

But let’s say I want to publicize something my friend is doing. If I want to get around that quirk in Twitter, I can reference him somewhere else in the tweet, like this:

Everybody check out the new site @johndoe just launched — really cool! [link to site]

Experienced Twitter users drop in handles all the time when they want to call attention to another Twitter account, whether that’s a person, a business, an event, or whatever. So you might see this:

Great to run into @johndoe and @janedoe at the dog park last night. Their kids have grown up *fast*.

The problem arises when the tweeter mistakenly thinks that the @ at the beginning of a Twitter handle can do double duty as the word “at” in the syntax of the sentence:

Great to have dinner @johndoe and @janedoe’s place last night. It had been too long!

How do you read that message? I mean, read it out loud — what’s your voiceover?

Argument

Maybe you differ from me, which is fine. But for me the voiceover is this:

“Great to have dinner John Doe and Jane Doe’s place last night. It had been too long!”

Here’s why: in MANY, MANY cases, the “@” connected to a handle goes entirely un-noted. When I run into Twitter friends, for example at South by Southwest, they DON’T say, “Hey, it’s at-T-walk!” They just don’t. They say, “Hey, it’s T-walk!” When I read a tweet like the second example above, I don’t read it as “Everybody check out the new site at-John-Doe just launched…” but as “Everybody check out the new site John Doe just launched…”

Short version: the @ becomes a visual marker that indicates you’re referencing a Twitter entity — not a part of the English syntax of the sentence.

More good examples:

  • I’m glad @WholeFoods labels GMOs in food — but I think they shouldn’t even carry those products.
  • If you need serious UX help, @AnnettePriest is the best. That’s just a fact.
  • Can’t wait for @SXSW this year.

In each of these cases, the @ makes perfect sense from the standpoint of Twitter functionality: Whole Foods, my friend Annette, and anyone looking for South by Southwest-oriented tweets will see these tweets. And in each of these cases, you DON’T pronounce the @. It has no function in the sentence in terms of English syntax. Which is why it wrong-foots me when I come across bad examples like these:

  • I could happily spend my entire Saturday morning @WholeFoods.
  • Joining a few friends @AnnettePriest’s place for dinner. Related: Annette is an amazing cook.
  • I saw so many old friends @SXSW this year — like a family reunion!

In these tweets, the @ is trying to do double duty . . . and it fails. I have to reread it, even if only for half a second, to make sense of it.

The Moral of the Story

Putting “at” in front of “@” in a tweet is not redundant when English syntax calls for it. On the contrary, it keeps your reader from stumbling across your words.

Yes, Twitter is a conversational medium, and there’s no need to be a great stickler for the Queen’s English or MLA style there. But you DO want to be understood . . . and omitting that crucial “at” when it’s needed makes you a little harder to understand.

So please don’t drop it.

~

[Addendum a couple of hours later: the landscape may change if Twitter does away with @ replies altogether — which, in my view, would be a mistake.\]






The Social Media Are Not So New.

March 21st, 2014

[This is a reprint of a post I initially wrote in December of 2008. I haven’t done a thing to it yet, thus the broken image links, etc.]

Students walking the pier at St. Andrews,
where I studied the Reformation in a former life.

[Note: This is a lightly edited version of the talk I gave at the Austin Social Media Breakfast held on 2 December 2008.]

~ ~ ~

Because it seemed like a good idea at the time, in the mid-90s I took a master’s degree in European history, and because I was going for the glamor, I focused on the Reformation — Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henry VIII, all that.

Little did I know that my study of the social upheaval of the 16th century would come in handy today for understanding the social media of the 21st century. And little did you know that I would be here to explain the connection to you.

Lucky us!

So, in the next 15 minutes I hope my painless little history lesson will I’ll convince you that our oh-so-new social media are very much like the media that have gone before, not because the 16th century enjoyed good WiFi connections, but because people tend to use the media available to them for much the same human purposes. Read the rest of this entry »






Commonplace: Lessing

March 16th, 2014

fleuron

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now.
The conditions are always impossible.”


–Doris Lessing






How It Began

March 9th, 2014

formula

They had a long discussion about it. Dana was adamant about the prohibitive level of physical costs — the energy required to convert matter for transmission. Carver fell silent and sat that way for a long time, looking out the window. Dana knew better than to interrupt.

Finally Carver spoke: “What if it’s not about conversion into energy?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if it’s just conversion into information?”

Dana paused and looked at the floor. “Encoding.”

“Right.”

Dana’s head shook from side to side in small movements. “The chance of encoding errors…And you’d only be making a copy, not transmitting the original…”

“Fair points. But let’s think it through before we say No. What if we could solve for those things? What would the big steps in the problem be?”

A thousand years before, engineers had thought the same way when they planned the first human missions to Luna (Earth orbit, Earth escape, transit to Luna, Luna orbit,…). Dana and Carver had had those lessons ground into them when they sat under Magister Ludovicus in school: suspending technical disbelief, what would be required to achieve an engineering outcome?

In that spirit, they laid out the main problems:
1. Molecular mapping, with many safeguards for error correction et cetera
2. Replication, ditto
3. Vivacity — how does the replicated version live?
4. Cognition — no good to have a living replication that cannot think
5. Memory — a thinking but amnesiac replication would be worse than worthless…

They both resisted saying what they were thinking — that this was mad, and that if it worked it would be one of the greatest advances in the history of the species.

They were right. Even a thousand years later, even after faster-than-light travel had been pioneered, their example would be studied minutely and heralded by generations of magisters and their students. While being taken for granted by billions of travelers.

But for today, Dana and Carver knew none of that. They simply set to work.

Image by Ivan T.