10/24/13

Words, words, words


Elements of StyleWriting before the arrival of the internet*, Bob Blackburn commented on the nature of exchange on then-prevalent BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), words that could as easily be written today about the internet:

“…the BBS medium reveals not only a widespread inability to use English as a means of communication but also a widespread ignorance of that inability, and, in consequence, a lack of interest in doing anything about it.”

Words that were prescient. As if he could foresee Facebook. Blackburn also wrote that most people thought they spoke and wrote well…

“The majority of English-speaking people I’ve come across…think they already know it. After all, it’s their native tongue, and they’ve been to school.”

Which is, for most of us, a fallacy. Language, like any skill, needs training, practice, experience and reminders. Yes, we have an innate  sense of grammar from an early age, encoded in our genes, but it is rudimentary and needs refinement.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that children as young as 2 understand basic grammar rules when they first learn to speak and are not simply imitating adults.

Like our muscles, our ability to speak and write develops with use. But it does not develop with haphazard, unfocused usage. Just visit some of the many sites that illustrate the grammatical nightmares found on social media sites like Facebook. While these are good for a chuckle, they reflect a greater problem with education and learning.

Anyone who attempts to correct the written wrongdoings online is labelled a “grammar Nazi” (or more often, a “grammer nazi”). As if writing poorly is some protected, constitutional right. The term has been adopted by some of the practitioners themselves. I sometimes count myself among their company, although I do not belong to any of their organizations.

Still, like Lynn Truss, I bridle at the egregious mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling I find online (not everyone likes her, by the way, but her book is great fun to read). And yes, sometimes I am prone to comment thereon. That may be an automatic response, according to a recent study:

Your brain often works on autopilot when it comes to grammar. That theory has been around for years, but University of Oregon neuroscientists have captured elusive hard evidence that people indeed detect and process grammatical errors with no awareness of doing so.

This week, I began again what used to be an annual activity for me – back when I was working in the media or in publishing – rereading the classic work, The Elements of Style. I felt my metaphorical red pencil was in need of a sharpening.

It’s a small book – the fourth edition is just over 100 pages, including the afterword, glossary, and index. At a chapter a day, it can be easily read in less than a week, even by people who don’t read quickly. It encapsulates a mere 22 basic rules of style. Rule 19, for example, states: “Omit needless words.” It follows with this:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Who can argue with that? Ron Sudol, Professor of Rhetoric at Oakland University, comments on this:

Strunk’s attitude toward style is that English is more beautiful the more direct and spare it is. As White notes in the introduction, “for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” The students at Cornell in 1919 were probably more wordy and pretentious than students today, whose writing is more often underdeveloped and oversimple. Nevertheless, the lessons — and that’s exactly the right word for the direct orders issued by Strunk and White — are eternally valuable to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Put statements in positive form. Use the active voice. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

TEOS sits, almost hidden, in a bookshelf packed with many books on grammar, style, writing, punctuation and communication. They range from the whimsical works of Richard Lederer to the dense, academic Chicago Manual of Style. Most of the rest I read sporadically and randomly. Some – like Safire and Lederer – I read more for entertainment and amusement. Others I read to keep my writing sharp, like the periodic honing of the knives in my kitchen drawers.

Strunk & White alone of all my style and grammar books I read cover to cover because, for me, it is the quintessential book, the source from which all the others derive. And its short little rules are like little jabs; pointed reminders to pay attention.

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10/15/13

We are Stardust… and Viral Genes


SupernovaIn her classic song, Woodstock, Joni Mitchell ended with the chorus:

We are stardust
Billion-year-old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Which most people assume is merely poetic licence. Well, Joni wasn’t wrong: we – and every living thing on our planet – are made of stardust. As we learn at Physics Central:

If we know how many hydrogen atoms are in our body, then we can say that the rest is stardust. Our body is composed of roughly 7×1027 atoms. That is a lot of atoms! Try writing that number out on a piece of paper: 7 with 27 zeros behind it. We say roughly because if you pluck a hair or pick your nose there might be slightly less. Now it turns out that of those billion billion billion atoms, 4.2×1027 of them are hydrogen. Remember that hydrogen is bigbang dust and not stardust. This leaves 2.8×1027 atoms of stardust. Thus the amount of stardust atoms in our body is 40%.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

Mitchell’s theme was picked up by the late cosmologist, Carl Sagan, in his hit TV show, Cosmos. Live Science tells us:

In the early 1980s, astronomer Carl Sagan hosted and narrated a 13-part television series called “Cosmos” that aired on PBS. On the show, Sagan thoroughly explained many science-related topics, including Earth’s history, evolution, the origin of life and the solar system.

Since stardust atoms are the heavier elements, the percentage of star mass in our body is much more impressive. Most of the hydrogen in our body floats around in the form of water. The human body is about 60% water and hydrogen only accounts for 11% of that water mass. Even though water consists of two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen, hydrogen has much less mass. We can conclude that 93% of the mass in our body is stardust. Just think, long ago someone may have wished upon a star that you are made of.

“We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff,” Sagan famously stated in one episode.

His statement sums up the fact that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff, said Chris Impey, professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.

“All organic matter containing carbon was produced originally in stars,” Impey told Life’s Little Mysteries. “The universe was originally hydrogen and helium, the carbon was made subsequently, over billions of years.”

So how did all this stardust get into out bodies? Supernovae, spewing heavy material into the vastness of space, scattering atoms and molecules at near lightspeed. Our “Garden of Eden” was the nuclear furnace of an exploding star.

We are made of the material created 13-plus billion years ago, We are, as Mitchell sang, stardust. Recycled and reused, but the stuff of the cosmos nonetheless. *

And we’re also built of viral genes, a product of the evolution of life, of the co-evolution of life and that strange creature, the virus. Viruses have helped shape us, and our adaptations to the environment. That’s the premise of Frank Ryan’s latest book, Virolution.**

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10/15/13

1927: Ads, Layout and Typography


As promised, here are the first 20 scans of the ads from the 1927 North American Almanac I recently mentioned. If there is interest, I’ll do another set later this week. There are probably another 40 or 50 pages of ads in the book.

I think these ads give us a wonderful window into the daily, household life of the time, into cultural views and medical thinking. As well, they show the state of advertising, layout and typography. It’s fascinating to look at the mix of typefaces and their placement.

Click on the image to load a larger version and see the ads in greater detail.

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page

1927 ad page
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09/13/13

Empire of Illusion and the End of Literacy


Empire of IllusionI don’t know whether to feel vindicated, delighted, frightened or depressed as I read through Chris Hedges’s book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Much of what he says reflects many of my own observations and opinions. I started reading this book in part as research for my upcoming conference speech on social media, but it has kept me mesmerized, like seeing a train wreck before your eyes, something you can’t quite turn away from.

I suppose we like to read books that reinforce our world view (those of us who read, that is – literacy in Canada is declining)*, but it’s sometimes uncomfortable to have those nagging doubts about the decay of society made public by someone else. Having another say it or write it seems to confirm our darkest nightmares. We all sometimes think we’re the only ones who recognize the issues, who see the fly in the ointment, but Hedges makes it clear we’re not alone.

And, yes, our wildest fears are true: the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Or at least that’s the way Hedges plays it, to my cynical and jaded eyes.

It’s hard not to agree with his argument. He thinks our culture is dying, driven from its heights to an abyss of reality TV, celebrity watching, contrived spectacle, self-exposure, self-indulgence, corporate greed, gossip, the lack of critical thinking, and crass self-interest.** He is a modern Virgil, guiding us through the Inferno of Western culture towards the inevitable Ninth Circle of moral, economic and political collapse.

Hedges writes,

The cult of self dominates our cultural landscape. This cult shares within it the classic traits of psychopaths; superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation and the inability to feel remorse or guilt. This is, of course, the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. In fact, personal style, defined by the commodities we buy or consume, has become a compensation for our loss of democratic equality. We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy, and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. Once you get there, those questions are no longer asked.

Cheery stuff. But hard to slough off as mere pessimism. Just turn on the TV. The schedule for the “Discovery Channel” – a channel ostensibly about science and technology but instead is crammed with “reality” show, anti-intellectual dreck – is a good example of the extreme dumbing-down and trivialization of TV.

Or read the comments on any national news website. Or a local blog. Our sense of entitlement makes us believe that everyone has the right to comment, that every opinion is valuable – and technology gives all opinions the same apparent value and weight, even when many are simply digital noise that confounds, rather than contributes to, the conversation. No wonder we see the rise of superstition, pseudoscience, emotion and gawking over fact, science, respect and common sense. The wheat and chaff are irrevocably mixed online.

Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. This is the bleak future. This is reality.

This doom-and-gloom is hardly new. The imminent implosion of modern culture has been described and predicted at least since Socrates, who griped, “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

My parents lamented my generation’s irrevocable slide into a moral and social morass when they heard Bill Haley and the Comets. It was confirmed when they heard the Beatles. Their parents fretted over Rudy Vallee and Ruth Etting, then over talking pictures. In part this is the natural gap between generations, the difference between youth and middle age, between the new and the old.

Civilization did not collapse, despite the dire warnings from each subsequent generation. But that was then, this is now. Things have changed, and changed so rapidly, so deeply that society has not had the time to adapt effectively. We’re on a rollercoaster now, not a walk in the cultural park.

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09/7/13

Three Archy poems by Don Marquis



pete the parrot and shakespeare

Archy & Mehitabel 1933i got acquainted with
a parrot named pete recently
who is an interesting bird
pete says he used
to belong to the fellow
that ran the mermaid tavern
in london then i said
you must have known
shakespeare know him said pete
poor mutt i knew him well
he called me pete and i called him
bill but why do you say poor mutt
well said pete bill was a
disappointed man and was always
boring his friends about what
he might have been and done
if he only had a fair break
two or three pints of sack
and sherris and the tears
would trickle down into his
beard and his beard would get
soppy and wilt his collar
i remember one night when
bill and ben jonson and
frankie beaumont
were sopping it up

here i am ben says bill
nothing but a lousy playwright
and with anything like luck
in the breaks i might have been
a fairly decent sonnet writer
i might have been a poet
if i had kept away from the theatre
yes says ben i ve often
thought of that bill
but one consolation is
you are making pretty good money
out of the theatre

money money says bill what the hell
is money what i want is to be
a poet not a business man
these damned cheap shows
i turn out to keep the
theatre running break my heart
slap stick comedies and
blood and thunder tragedies
and melodramas say i wonder
if that boy heard you order
another bottle frankie
the only compensation is that i get
a chance now and then
to stick in a little poetry
when nobody is looking
but hells bells that isn t
what i want to do
i want to write sonnets and
songs and spenserian stanzas
and i might have done it too
if i hadn t got
into this frightful show game
business business business
grind grind grind
what a life for a man
that might have been a poet

well says frankie beaumont
why don t you cut it bill
i can t says bill
i need the money i ve got
a family to support down in
the country well says frankie
anyhow you write pretty good
plays bill any mutt can write
plays for this london public
says bill if he puts enough
murder in them what they want
is kings talking like kings
never had sense enough to talk
and stabbings and stranglings
and fat men making love
and clowns basting each
other with clubs and cheap puns
and off color allusions to all
the smut of the day oh i know
what the low brows want
and i give it to them

Herrimann cartoonwell says ben jonson
don t blubber into the drink
brace up like a man
and quit the rotten business
i can t i can t says bill
i ve been at it too long i ve got to
the place now where i can t
write anything else
but this cheap stuff
i m ashamed to look an honest
young sonneteer in the face
i live a hell of a life i do
the manager hands me some mouldy old
manuscript and says
bill here s a plot for you
this is the third of the month
by the tenth i want a good
script out of this that we
can start rehearsals on
not too big a cast
and not too much of your
damned poetry either
you know your old
familiar line of hokum
they eat up that falstaff stuff
of yours ring him in again
and give them a good ghost
or two and remember we gotta
have something dick burbage can get
his teeth into and be sure
and stick in a speech
somewhere the queen will take
for a personal compliment and if
you get in a line or two somewhere
about the honest english yeoman
it s always good stuff
and it s a pretty good stunt
bill to have the heavy villain
a moor or a dago or a jew
or something like that and say
i want another
comic welshman in this
but i don t need to tell
you bill you know this game
just some of your ordinary
hokum and maybe you could
kill a little kid or two a prince
or something they like
a little pathos along with
the dirt now you better see burbage
tonight and see what he wants
in that part oh says bill
to think i am
debasing my talents with junk
like that oh god what i wanted
was to be a poet
and write sonnet serials
like a gentleman should

well says i pete
bill s plays are highly
esteemed to this day
is that so says pete
poor mutt little he would
care what poor bill wanted
was to be a poet

archy

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08/27/13

Archy and Mehitabel


Archy and MehitabelI can’t recall exactly how old I was when I first cracked open Don Marquis’s book, archy and mehitabel, sitting there among the other books in the basement, black spined, stiff, yellowing pages.  That old book smell.

Perhaps I was 11 or 12, but not much older, because we moved from that house in the summer after my 12th birthday. But I still remember it well.*

The book was one of those oddities on our basement family bookshelf. I ignored it, at first, then looked at the pictures – cartoons by George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat . Long after I’d checked out the cartoons, I started reading the text. It was wildly absurd, deeply philosophical, whimsical, silly, obscure, cynical, yet compelling. Way outside my depth. Who was this guy and what was all this nonsense about a cockroach and a typewriter?

Krazy Kat I knew from other books and publications, reprinted strips, and old, faded and brittle  cartoon strips cut out from newspapers and placed in between pages of other books, long since forgotten. Herriman’s wild style of drawing always intrigued me, even as a child.

Perhaps there’s some astrological connection: two months after Herriman’s death, the last of his completed Krazy Kat strips, a full-page Sunday comic, was printed. The date was Sunday, June 25, 1944. That day the British were assaulting Caen, in France, to begin the bloody Operation Epsom. The Allies bombed Toulon. The 8th AF bombers and fighter bombers flew missions to attack bridges and airfields in France as the Allies pushed the Nazis back towards Germany. Ships of the United States Navy and Royal Navy attacked German fortifications at Cherbourg to support American troops taking the city and the entuire Normandy peninsula.

MehitabelI was also born on a Sunday, in June, too. Okay, that’s wild and silly synchronicity and many years later. Just foolin’ with you. Astrology is claptrap. And I digress. Just wanted to put some context around Herriman and throw some misdirection your way. Ignosce mihi, dear reader.

Marquis died years before that, in 1937, after his third or fourth stroke. He was 59. No astrological connection there, I’m afraid. And also long before my time.

The book I opened, back in the early 1960s, seemed impossibly old. Published in 1927. The age of flappers, ukuleles, gin joints. When my father was a boy, not much old than I was when I discovered it. Had he read it then, and kept it ever since? Brought it with him from England after the war, a beloved volume too treasured to part from? Or had he picked up a copy here? I never knew.

Beside it on the shelf was archy’s life of mehitabel, 1933. Both sitting on the bookcase of forgotten volumes, tucked away in the basement, beside bound copies of the Boys’ Own Annual, a first edition of Tarzan, some tattered Mickey Spillane paperbacks, old hardback novels, books on time management, others on handyman skills, a few Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines, and odd volumes of an outdated encyclopedia.

All treasures to an inquisitive youngster. But this book hooked me in other ways, a sparked jumped across some subconscious wiring that connected literature, poetry, and writing. And maybe politics, too, although I was too young to realize it then.

Imagine reading these lines from the literary cockroach Archy to his feline friend, Mehitabel, when you were that age:

i suppose the human race
is doing the best it can but hell’s bells that’s only an explanation
it’s not an excuse.

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