Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Knife in the Back

Many moons ago I taught a class in modern drama as an adjunct at a nearby community college. After finishing our discussions of the plays of Henrik Ibsen, our first playwright, I required an essay paper from the class. Following the precedent of my own undergraduate English department, where we were allowed (or perhaps, forced) to devise a suitable topic for investigation, I had the students choose their own topics. Upon reading the submitted papers, I was dismayed to discover that two of them were dead-on plagiarisms (they were completely identical except for the first verb—one had “is,” the other “was”), while a few others had rather a smell about them.

I had recently taught at a college that had an institutional policy on plagiarism, but I didn’t know if the community college (or the English department thereof) had one, and was, therefore, at a loss at how to handle the issue. Having a friend who had been in the department for a short while, I sought his advice. No, there was no institutional or departmental policy that he knew of, and he advised me to handle the case as best I could.

Having decided that I didn’t want to get into the accusation business or a name-and-shame exposure, I announced at the beginning of the next class session that I had foolproof knowledge of plagiarism and since I could not trust the work of those students, I advised them (without naming them) to drop the class, which they do for at least one more week without academic penalty. It seemed the perfect solution. I could be rid of them without beating them over the head, and they could be thankful to escape punishment. Some hope!

At the end of the class, a very intelligent student (judging by the level of his class participation) came up to me to confess that because he had been pressed for time he had submitted a copied paper (ironically, it was one that I never suspected) and apologized and said he would drop the class. However, the blatant plagiarists went another route—to the office of the department chairman, who did not back me up, but who subsequently called me into his office and on the carpet for my allegedly draconian punishment. I tried—to no avail—to point out to him that, on the contrary, I was being quite lenient, as there was no failing or other punishment being meted out for the students’ deceitful acts. The chairman then mandated that I devise some other way of dealing with the issue.

What to do? I could give the plagiarized papers an “F” grade, but would that be fair to the dull student or two who sweated over an honestly-conceived “F” paper, one that was wrongheaded or foolish? I thought not. And so decided to give the plagiarized papers a double “F.” For some reason the guilty parties did not squeal loudly at that. I have no recollection of what grades the plagiarists ended up with at the completion of the course. But I can report that I never taught at that school again.

A decade or so later, I received a phone call from my friend in the English department to tell me of a letter found at the back of a file cabinet during a ritual clean-out of old papers. It was an unsolicited testamonial from a student (or a married couple, I don’t recall) in that modern drama class in praise of my teaching. I immediately perceived a universal truth: Complaint Goes Straight to the Top, While Praise Lies Buried at the Back of a File Cabinet!

In my last blog entry I offered three of my laws but did not include the above observation as my fourth, because someone else got there first—Marc Antony in Julius Caesar

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.  

(Act III, Scene 2)

Still, a figurative knife in the back is better than a literal stab to stomach.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Three Laws

Gotthelf’s Law Number 1 (or, The Beginning of All Wisdom):


The rationale behind the law should be self-evident. But just in case it isn’t, remember that even if you catch it, you’re sweaty. And that’s no way to start the day.

The Tonnele Avenue Law:

This was the result of an incident several years ago. I was driving north-bound on Tonnele Avenue in Jersey City, NJ. I was in the right-hand lane when a car going at speed suddenly cut in front of me from a side street. I had to brake hard to avoid a collision. The driver of the other car went speeding off but after several hundred yards suddenly, with a clear lane in front of him, hit the brakes, which I again had to do to avoid calamity. The upshot of all this was the formulation of the Tonnele Avenue Law:


I have always thought of this law as the Lifesaver Law. And if it doesn’t save your life, at least it can help guide you in business, personal relationships, and so on. Craziness doesn’t occur just once.


The third law doesn’t have a neat name. I formulated it years ago while contemplating the disastrous floods caused by the overflowing of the mighty rivers of the Middle West.


Money is going to have to be spent either building levees or dealing with the aftermath of the floods where there are no levees. The old adage has it that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Whether that ratio of expenditure is correct is irrelevant. What is relevant is that it is better to attempt to ward off disaster than to have to patch the world together again afterwards. I won’t go further with this myself, because in The New Yorker of December 3, 2012 ( James Surowiecki discusses this issue with his usual intelligence and insight (and much better than I could). Just let me quote the closing lines of his essay:
In a time of austerity, there’s bound to be opposition to expensive infrastructure projects. But if the government—and, by extension, taxpayers—is already on the hook for all the damage caused when disasters strike, we owe it to ourselves to do something about how much those disasters cost.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

For D****d T***p

Pitkin Avenue in the East New York section of Brooklyn is hardly as exotic as the road to Damascus (though considering the civil unrest in the latter area, possibly quite a bit safer), but it is where I had the great epiphany in my life. I was about fifteen or sixteen years of age, walking west towards Crescent Street on the south side of the avenue across from my old elementary school, P.S. 159, when the thought suddenly popped into my head: “Nobody has the right to tell me that I can’t read something!”—which was quickly followed by the recognition that I, in turn, could not censor anyone else’s reading. And so I became a Civil Libertarian, a defender of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

It is as a believer in freedom of speech that I look askance at recent behavior of officialdom in the United Kingdom. Last March, during a football match against Tottenham Hotspur in London, Fabrice Muamba of Bolton Wanderers collapsed on the field. Luckily, the cardiac arrest did not claim his life, as emergency medical workers aided by a Spurs fan, a cardiologist who jumped from the stands, were able to revive him and see him off to hospital. Concern for Muamba was expressed throughout Britain, except most notably by a twenty-one-year-old student in Wales, Liam Stacey, who posted on Twitter: "LOL, Fuck Muamba. He's dead."  

Other Twitter users reported Stacey to the police, who quickly arrested him. Stacey pled guilty to  a charge of incitement to racial hatred and was later sentenced to a jail term of 56 days for a “racially aggravated public order offence.” Padraig Reidy writing on “free speech blog” ( called the jail sentence “a perversion of justice”:
One can understand why public order laws exist. The police may need to be able to take people off the streets to prevent imminent violence, and be able to punish people for causing disruptions.
But was there actually any risk that Stacey was threatening public order? I don’t think there was. A row on Twitter is not the same thing as shouting abuse in the street, where there may be immediate physical consequences. 
This past Sunday, November 11, was Veterans Day in the US and Remembrance Day in the UK—a day marked by the wearing of a poppy and much more solemnity and dignity than in the US. On this past Remembrance Day police in Canterbury arrested a 19-year-old “on suspicion of posting a picture of a burning poppy on Facebook,” according to the Guardian.  
Kent police confirmed that a youth was in custody and being questioned under the Malicious Communications Act 1988. The act makes it a crime to send anything "indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat … [where] there is an intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient."
(It should be remembered that, despite the efforts of some enemies of free speech, it is not illegal in the US to burn the American flag.)

Besides the unnamed Kentish youth, another who protested against the poppy was Sunderland footballer James McClean, who was the only player in the English Premier League not to wear a poppy symbol on his jersey during this past weekend’s games. McClean, a twenty-three year-old player who is also in the Republic of Ireland national team, was rebuked by many, including his Sunderland club manager, Martin O’Neill, for his reaction this past September when he was an unused substitute during a ROI win over Kazakhstan. Resentful at being left on the bench, McClean immediately went the Twitter route: “Delighted as a fan we got the win. Personal level #fuming #fuckinjoke #embarrassing.” 

The saying has been attributed to many, including Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain:

“It is better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Perhaps as an adaptation to the present world, the saying should be amended to read:

“It is better not to tweet and seem to have nothing intelligent to say, than to tweet and be proved a schmuck.”

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Queen's Speech

Halley's Comet appears approximately every three-quarters of a century.

Periodical cicadas (commonly known as the seventeen-year locusts) return, well, after seventeen years.

A more recently discovered (by yours truly) cyclical event is QEA (for Queen's English Anxiety), which seems to occur at intervals of a half-dozen years.

The first recorded occurrence of QEA was in the year 2000, upon the publication by J. Harrington, S. Palethorpe, and C. Watson of "Does the Queen Speak the Queen's English" in Nature magazine (the article itself being a popularization of the trio's findings originally published in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association in an article entitled "Monophthongal vowel changes in received pronunciations: An acoustic analysis of the Queen's Christmas broadcasts." The following excerpt from the abstract of the Nature article explains what the trio did and what they discovered:
. . . we analyse[d] vowel sounds from the annual Christmas messages broadcast by HRH Queen Elizabeth II during the period between the 1950s and 1980s. Our analysis reveals that the Queen's pronunciation of some vowels has been influenced by the standard southern-British accent of the 1980s which is more typically associated with speakers who are younger and lower in the social hierarchy.
And that was the cue for the launching of QEA. Media from London to Los Angeles rose up to the full height of cutesy-sarkiness. Guardian (UK) editorial:
The Queen's English is modulating.
“My husband and I have had, y'know, a bituva tricky year, one way and annuvva. I mean, what with Chiles getting in all that hot wa'er about GM food and that, and then the flippin' Guardian sticking it to us with its, su'ov, anti-discrimination, Act uv Se'ulment thing. Anyway, bottom line: have a wikkid Christmas - plenty of turkey on the old plates, a few jars with your mates, you know the drill. You should all be well sorted.”. . . we suspect calculation here as well as mere social change. All today's most popular figures . . . speak mockney. The Queen is simply trying to get in on the act. They are nothing if not adaptable, these royals. Ain't that the truth, yer madge?
A story in the Los Angeles Times began:
Ho, ho, ho, Henry Higgins, the queen's [sic] English ain't wot it used to be.
And there basically the matter stood, as QEA tiptoed away to wherever cycles go to rest when they can no longer be observed by human witnesses. Until six years later, when Jonathan Harrington, one of the original trio of researchers, roused the QEA beast to wakefulness with an article entitled “An acoustic analysis of ‘happy-tensing in the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts” in the Journal of PhoneticsAs Mark Liberman reported at the time (
The papers have been buzzing with news about the Queen's English. These reports vary in tone and content, but many of them bang the drum for the decline of civilization.
Liberman went on to list a number of periodicals from across the globe that contributed to the QEA:
Roger Dobson, “Speaking the Queen’s English: Me ‘ubby and I, innit”, The Independent, 12/3/2006; 
Mark Prissell, “One’s voice ain’t that posh”, The Sun, 12/4/2006; 
Neil Tweedie, “How the Queen’s English has grown more like ours”, Telegraph, 12/5/2006; 
Catherine Jones, “One thinks one has lorst one’s posh voice”, Western Mail, 12/5/2006. 
Sajeda Momin, “How the Queen’s English has changed with the times”, Daily News & Analysis (India), 12/5/2006; 
Justin Lees, “Royal Vowels crossing Jordan”, The Daily Telegraph (Canada), 12/5/2006. 
“My word—the queen’s English is slipping”, UPI (reprinted in the Daily Indian, 12/4/2006);  
“Study: Queen Sounds More Like Subjects”, AP (reprinted in the LA Times, 12/4/2006).  
But as it became yesterday’s news, QEA slipped away to its place of hibernation.

Until 2012, when, six years having passed, it was time for its cyclical return. Not an academic this time, but a thespian aroused it—Helen Mirren. On September 21,The Daily Telegraph, the canary warning of the decline of all things not Tory in the coal mine of British civilization, headlined its report of an interview the actress conducted with the Daily Mail  (the other renowned canary which warns of the decline of all things not Tory in the coal mine of British civilization) as follows:
Queen's English no longer spoken by Queen, says Helen Mirren
The Queen's English has long been deemed the correct way to speak but, according to Dame Helen Mirren, even her majesty is slipping
Now to be fair to Dame Helen (who I admire enormously—see if you can find a copy of the BBC version of As You Like It; she positively glows as Rosalind disguised as Ganymede), she is not quoted in the Daily Mail saying the words that theTelegraph has put into her mouth. But for the Telegraph, Mirren’s actual words were enough to call forth a first rate Queen’s English Alarm:
Her voice has changed, and I can use that –she had a terribly posh voice when she was young. But now even the Queen, while she isn't quite dropping the ends of her lines –though her grandsons do! – there's a tiny bit of estuary [English] creeping in there.
It doesn’t take more than a few seconds’ thought for any intelligent being to recognize that the idea that the Queen’s (or King’s) English is the gold standard of the tongue is patently absurd. The Queen (or King) of England may be the head of state of the United Kingdom and the head of the Church of England (thanks to Henry VIII), but is not the head of the democracy of the English language. Can anyone argue that German-speaking George I was the determiner of “correct” English? Or the Dutchman William of Orange? And how about those Medieval centuries when first a Norman French clan and then a plain old French mob ruled the land? I suppose we can even toss in the Scotsman James I here. 

It is unfortunate, though, that so many people have been bamboozled by the belief that a catchphrase (the Queen’s English) is a rule of language.

Note: The Queen's English Society ceased operations earlier this year.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Smelling Salts

Miss Manners, Hints from Heloise, Dear Abby---forget them! The most helpful people in the world are the folks at the Canadian sports website (we looked in at them back on February 4, 2012, “The Life Worth Living"). 
TORONTO - The Toronto Blue Jays and Yunel Escobar will hold a news conference at Yankee Stadium live on at 3:30pm et today to discuss an alleged homophobic slur that was written on the shortstop's eye-black over the weekend.     ... 
Several pictures posted online show Escobar with the message written in Spanish in his eye-black, a type of sticker players wear under their eyes to reduce the sun's glare.
The words under the 29-year-old Cuban's eyes were "TU ERE MARICON" which can be translated as "You are a ------."
Okay, I should have posted a sarcasm alert. 

Here we are in the 21st century and an arm of the media devoted to all sorts of macho doings (ice hockey, football in all its incarnations, boxing, etc.) is so much like a Victorian maiden aunt that it can’t even give us a letter to work with. Some other newspaper and magazine websites at least let us play charades (First letter—“F”) or fill in the blanks (what comes between “F” and “T”?). But let’s give TSN some credit; they gave all the Latinos north of the border the right dope. So far as I could tell, the mighty Washington Post would only venture as far as “gay slur.”

Report things as they truly are? One would think that the self-styled paper of record, The New York Times would feel that it was its duty to do so. Unfortunately, the NYT is the prissiest of the prissy. Consider the opening lines of a 2008 book review entitled “Between Truth and Lies, An Unprintable Ubiquity” (My god! It’s everywhere—and we can’t print it!):
Harry G. Frankfurt, 76, is a moral philosopher of international reputation and a professor emeritus at Princeton. He is also the author of a book recently published by the Princeton University Press that is the first in the publishing house's distinguished history to carry a title most newspapers, including this one, would find unfit to print. The work is called "On Bull - - - - ."The opening paragraph of the 67-page essay is a model of reason and composition, repeatedly disrupted by that single obscenity:"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much [bull]. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize [bull] and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry."
The Times couldn’t even allow itself to print the title of the book under review! And in the text itself the paper had to resort to using one-half of the dreaded word as a euphemism for "that single obscenity." Basically what the Times was saying was: “Here is “bull” plus four letters—figure it out in your own dirty mind.” I imagine that other readers of the review reacted as I did when I originally read it over four years ago. They worked it out in their filthy little heads, and, when they got up off the floor, continued reading.

Why in the 21st century (I’ve just had a glance at the calendar again) can’t these people treat their readers as adults? We know all the curse words and the slanderous ones. If the media would report them, we would look them in the eye on the printed page or computer screen without getting the vapors.

But maybe I am wrong--and media giants such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph (UK), and ESPN are correct in thinking otherwise--in assuming a level of cosmopolitan sophistication on the part of their readers and online viewers.

Perhaps the place where 21st century adulthood is to be found is on the pages of papers such as the Lethbridge Herald of Alberta, Canada, whose 15,000 readers probably didn’t fall over in a swoon when they read:
Escobar had written under his eyes "TU ERE MARICON," which can be translated as "You are a faggot.


Friday, September 7, 2012

And Now . . . Homage to Welles

“Joe, the turtle boy . . . He walks and eats and sleeps just like a turtle but talks the English language as well as you and I. And shaves himself with a safety razor. And as an added attraction, folks, Joe plays the zither” 
Carnival barker’s spiel in I’m No Angel (1933)
How many American moviegoers in 1933 knew what a zither was is uncertain. But just over a decade-and-a-half later probably most people (and not just moviegoers) in the United States and Great Britain did know. For the theme from the movie The Third Man  (1949), played by Anton Karas on that instrument, became a smash hit in both countries, including a spell of eleven weeks as the number one recording in the US. Set in an ally-occupied Vienna that is still hung over from the war, the movie itself, directed by Carol Reed and adapted by Graham Greene from his novel of the same name, is one of the great noir mystery/thrillers of all time.

Title characters of films and plays come in all varieties; they can even not come at all (Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot) or be dead the whole way through (Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry). It takes about an hour before moviegoers catch a glimpse of the title character of The Third Man, and even then the first things they see are his highly-polished winged-tip shoes; the rest of him is cloaked in darkness. When a sudden circle of light penetrates the recess in which he is hidden, his face is seen in semi-profile. The cheeks are puffy, the texture soft and smooth, and there is the look of an incipient doubleness to the chin. The title character is Harry Lime; the actor, Orson Welles.

All Welles’ physical features that were so wrong for the itinerant Irish seaman in his own film The Lady From Shanghai (see my previous blog entry) are absolutely perfect for the black- marketeer Harry Lime. A black-marketeer—but not a criminal at the scuffling end of the game. He is an entrepreneur, dressed in a comfortable overcoat, a fashionable hat, and soft gloves (as well as those highly-polished wing-tips). And he has the physical complaint of successful businessman—dyspepsia (he regrets that his favorite tablets are no longer available in Europe).

Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotten), a naïf lured to Vienna by his old pal Lime, knows Harry to be something of a rogue, and he can’t understand why Major Calloway of the British Army (Trevor Howard) is so keen to nab him. After all, what’s a little hustling of stolen tires and such like? Except it’s stolen penicillin, which is then watered down to ineffectualness. The results to patients, especially the children, are disastrous.

When Holly does get to meet Harry in the Prater amusement park, they ride the famous Ferris Wheel to the top, and Harry, looking down to the ground, speaks of those Holly has called “his victims”:
Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax - the only way you can save money nowadays.”
Harry Lime is the type of role that Welles was born to play—no phony accent, no pretense of a past murder with his own hands. No, his voice displaying a jauntiness touched with an edge of menace, the soft-featured and well-tailored Harry Lime is Welles at his white-collared best--an entrepreneurial criminal whose reading of history* is the most famous set piece in the film:
Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.“ 
*Supposedly written by Welles himself.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Only 65 Years Late: A Review

The 1947 film The Lady From Shanghai, written, produced, and directed by Orson Welles is rightly celebrated for the startling inventiveness of its Hall of Mirrors dénouement, most especially striking when Everett Sloane, playing a crippled lawyer, Arthur Bannister, multiply appears supported by his two canes, stiffleggedly lurching forward like a wooden soldier. However, despite those advocates who proclaim the movie’s status as a masterpiece of film noir, the truth is that it is no better than dull gray.

Welles had his role as director left off the credits list, probably miffed because the studio excised about an hour from the original running time. But the problem with the film is not what was cut out, but what was left in. And that begins with Welles himself, who took on the hero’s role (Michael O’Hara, also known as “Black Irish”) and provided a sporadic voiceover for the Hibernian merchant sailor, delivered not in a vaudeville Oyrish, but in an aren’t-we-all-poets-at-heart-we-folks-from the-land-of-the-little-people voice, which might have been conjured up by Eugene O’Neill only in the throes of a bad spell of insomnia. And then there’s Welles’ countenance--the smoothness of his jawline, the softness of his cheeks. O’Hara is a man who has lived a life on the open seas, has killed a man in Spain, and done time in prisons in several countries, while his portrayer doesn’t look as if he spent even one hour in after-class detention in grade school.

The movie gets going with O’Hara spotting Bannister’s wife, Elsa, (Rita Hayworth) riding in a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park. “Once I’d seen her—but once I’d seen her—I was not in my right mind for quite some time.” If that was the case, he was the mildest romantic madman in history. He backs away when he very quickly learns she is married, and rather reluctantly allows himself to become a crewman on Bannister’s yacht after the lawyer hunts him down at the seaman’s hiring hall.

Hayworth, herself, is, well, not really herself in the movie. Her famous long red hair has been cropped and dyed a standard Hollywood blondish. She’s pretty, but Hollywood-standardish pretty. The movie offers a few shots of her in a bathing suit, but no sex appeal oozes from her. Supposedly,  Elsa Bannister has a past filled with hard knocks and hard living (out in the Far East; apparently that’s why she’s the Lady from Shanghai), but as with Welles, there’s no sign that grit and abrasion have had any effect on Hayworth’s features. And her voice has that dead affectlessness you hear in middling dubbing jobs. 

As the yacht makes its leisurely way from New York City to San Francisco Bay via the Panama Canal and a longish sequence in Acapulco, there’s not very much noir or tension but lots of sunlight and water. Except for Sloane, the rest of the actors read off their lines in the typical Hollywood character part manner: a fake Brooklyn accent here, a curl of the lip and a snarl there. There’s a courtroom scene late in the day, which offers second-rate Three Stooges decorum, and a few crowd scenes that Welles directs with the aplomb of a bullock organizing events at Pamplona.    

In sum, in this hash of a film there’s no real sense of danger lurking in the meeting (there’s no mating) of Elsa and O’Hara. You’d think with a good-looking wife, an inadequate husband, and a rootless stranger you’d have the makings of a great film noir—and you do: it’s called The Postman Always Rings Twice, which was made the year before.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Two Steps Back

I had a dream last night. I was at my parents’ house, went into the bathroom, reached out with my right hand for the light switch, and ended up pushing against a plastic rectangle where the switch should have been. Responding to my darns and drats, my father poked first his head, then his arm around the door, and with a finger pushed a small lever at the top of the plastic disc—and then there was light!

I mention this dream, though it had no basis in reality, because it seems to perfectly reflect my recent discovery about myself: that I am some kind of semi-Luddite. I say “semi-Luddite” because I am not against new technology, only against upgrades to existing technology.

Take the automobile, for example. I have been leasing the same make of car (and mostly the same model) for many years now. Every three years or so the dealer and/or manufacturer presents me with an offer that provides me with a more expensive car with more horsepower and more features than the one I am driving and all at a lower leasing price (how they manage that, I don’t know, but I remember the punchline of an old joke: “We juggle the books”). When I took possession of the latest incarnation (no pun intended), one of the first things I did was to carry six CDs to the car to load the audio system as I had the previous model. After placing the first disc into the slot and watching it load, I waited for the signal to load the second. No signal. I examined the dashboard carefully for a secret button that would allow me to load the other discs, only to discover that the six-disc changer was gone, its space occupied by the GPS system and an on-board computer that I have no idea how to use. OK, I’ll put my hand up for GPS responsibility. I opted for it, for a few bucks more—even though I never go anywhere. I have programmed it exactly once, and even then I knew where I was going; I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t miss my turn-off, the sign for which is a only slightly bigger than a dishrag. Mission accomplished, I hopped into the car for the return journey, and got only as far as the traffic light at the end of the street, when the GPS female told me to turn around and go back to the address I had just left. I ignored her, but since I had no idea how to throttle her throat, for the rest of the trip home she nagged and nagged, telling me at every highway exit to make a right turn and circle back in the opposite direction. (My mistake was to think that the program would be canceled once I got to my original destination and shut off the engine.)

When I finally got home, I pulled out the War and Peace tome that passes for an owner’s manual and tried to figure out how to turn the shrew off. First, I had to pass something of a Miller Analogies Test, trying to discover which of the half-dozen or so drawings of steering wheel configurations matched mine. Was it the one with the crescent-shaped buttons above the square ones? The round ones alongside the rectangles? It took me twenty minutes—the same time as my return trip—to find the right voodoo curse to banish the disembodied voice.

If the automobile is the prime example of technology offering vast amounts of dead trees to explain to new users how it’s all supposed to work, the opposite is the computer. I recently bought a new laptop, and the only two instructions on the napkin-sized accordion set-up folder depicted (a) how to put the battery in and (b) how to attach the AC cord. DUH! But if new computers do not arrive with massive instruction books, they, like new cars, bear gifts that one should beware of. For every advance, something else goes missing. Of course, one only finds out what’s not there any more once one tries to place all one’s defaults on the new computer. Where’s my favorite typeface (Byington)? Gone, even though I’ve used the same Office 2000 software installation disc as on previous computers. Why can’t I print back to front, although I’ve made that my default in three different places? And why can’t I email directly from Word or Open Office, as I could before?

Ah, but the new computer offered one goody: I received with my new purchase a certificate that will allow me, for only fifteen dollars, to upgrade from the Windows 7 operating system to Windows 8 when the latter is introduced this fall.

Like hell!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Face Up To It

I used to be a news junkie. Whenever the news came on TV, I was planted in front of the tube. That is, until the day a reporter for Eyewitness News went to Grand Central Station and started sticking his microphone under the noses of commuters rushing to their trains. He asked them their opinions about something or other that was at issue in the New York State legislature (I have no memory of what the issue was, whether it was ever resolved, or whether—probably the more likely situation— decades later the legislature is still trying to resolve it). As each succeeding opiner mouthed his foolishness into the mic, I got more and more infuriated. “You moron!” I yelled at the TV. “You idiot!” . . . But then I stopped. Who’s the bigger idiot, I suddenly thought, them or me—for sitting there listening to them? I jumped up, clicked off the TV, and have seldom watched a news broadcast since.

I now get most of my news on-line, one of my favorite sites being that of the Guardian over in the UK. I have been moved many times over the past few years to add an on-line comment to one of the paper’s blogs or articles. However, while many of the other readers had cool avatars to append to their user names, I was stuck with a generic.

 Eventually, I decided to get my own avatar and use it on the Guardian’s site. I thought of a few good ones, but I was foiled every time I tried to upload an image into my profile. So, I just shrugged and contented myself with genericism. Until I recently re-discovered a card that I had received years ago. The image on the card would be my avatar. And this time, I vowed, I would not be foiled. I fought my way through the imaging and uploading process, and finally launched my own avatar.

The caricature is of Al “Jazzbeaux” (or, earlier, “Jazzbo”) Collins (who sent me the card), a disc jockey on WNEW (New York) during the 1950s. The words on the card, which became one of Collins’ catchphrases, were his adaptation of some classic dialogue in the film “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”: “I Don’t Got To Show You No Stinkin Badges.”

Collins had a late-night spot on WNEW, claiming to be broadcasting not from a regular studio but from the “Purple Grotto” many stories below ground. He was accompanied in the purple aura by several strange denizens, including Harrison, a Tasmanian owl, and in a small lake a purple octopus, whose name, if it had one, I don’t remember. One night, when Jazzbeaux was doing the overnight show, he played a recording by a new female vocal quartet, The Chordettes. After the first spin of “Mr Sandman” ( ) he said something like, “That’s nice; I think I’ll play it again.” And he did—for a total of 55 times during the wee morning hours.

The recording became the number one hit in the country.

He was fired. 


Monday, June 4, 2012

It's a Fair Cop

A Brief Guide to British TV Detective Shows

The detective will be moody, irascible, and/or conflicted over family issues.

The detective’s boss will be a paper-pushing dolt.

At some point the paper-pushing dolt will take the moody, irascible, and/or conflicted-over-family-issues detective off the case.

All houses and flats in Britain seem to be furnished with a mail flap in the front door whose purpose is not to receive mail (the victims never get any) but (a) to allow villains to pour petrol through it and set fire to the house or flat or (b) to allow some nosy person to peer into the dwelling and discover a body in the hallway.

If the house or flat is not burned down or has no body inside but needs to be investigated, a spare key will be found (for a house) underneath a flowerpot to the left of the door or (for a flat) on the lintel above the door. Amazingly, no thief ever has figured this out.

If the detective decides that the key to the case is locked in someone’s computer, the detective will secretly access the machine and on the fifth try will successfully guess the owner’s password.

If the location of the action is either Scotland or Yorkshire, no subtitles will be available.

Note: None of the above holds true for Agatha Christie stories. Instead, substitute lots of drinking of tea (for the Miss Marples) or tisanes (for the Hercule Poirots).  


Bonus Mini-Guide to Danish TV Detective Stories:

At some point everybody will have been thrown into jail.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sum Ego

The widespread acceptance of a locution like “exact same” is surely indicative of the depths to which American English has sunk.  

J. A. F. Hopkins, Letter to the Editor, The New Yorker, issue of June 4 & 11, 2012
You see, when the world was new, the heavens young,
People lived differently . . . 

Juvenal, “Satire VI”  (Translated by A. S. Kline)

And then it all went downhill.


[E. B.] White, addressing the question of “I” versus “me,” in “The Elements of Style,” asks, “Would you write, ‘The worst tennis player around here is I’ or ‘The worst tennis player around here is me’? The first is good grammar, the second is good judgment.”

Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, issue of May 14, 2012


After which, skipping again to a different subject (in the meanwhile his voice had recovered its usual bored, mocking tone), he asked me if, a little while ago, I hadn't happened to pass by, on my bicycle, along the Mura degli Angeli. At that moment, he had been in the garden: he had gone out to see what shape the rain had left the tennis court in. But because of the distance, and also because it was almost dark, he hadn't been sure I was that person who, without getting off his bicycle, and with one hand against a tree trunk, was standing up there, motionless, looking down. Ah, so it had been I?--he continued, after I had admitted, not without hesitation, that, coming home from the station, I had indeed taken the road along the walls: and this, I explained, because of the inner revulsion I felt every time I tried to pass in front of certain ugly characters gathered opposite the Caffe della Borsa, on Corso Roma, or spread out along Corso Giovecca. Ah, it was I?--he repeated. He had been sure! But in that case, if it had been I, why hadn't I answered his shouts, his whistles? Hadn't I heard them? 

Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Translated by William Weaver)

It should be plain to any native English speaker who hasn’t a tin ear that William Weaver, in order to maintain what E. B. White and Joan Acocella believe is “good grammar,” has totally abandoned “good judgment.” But White and Acocella show no good judgment when it comes to understanding English grammar. “. . . is I” would be the correct grammatical formulation and “. . . is me” would be totally incorrect if we were all back in ancient Rome conversing at the Forum. That is, if we were speaking Latin. Unfortunately for our language, some centuries ago there came into existence in England the idea that Latin grammar was the paradigm for all grammars, and, thus, for English. After all, Rome was a Golden Age, was it not? (Of course, Juvenal knew better).

I think I can safely say, however, that most teachers and writers who (in referring to English) spew out the terms “good grammar” or “correct grammar” have no idea that they are using Latin models and that those models are not universal but unique to Latin. Consider: English is not a descendent of Latin; but French is. And what did that most splendid of all French monarchs, Louis XIV, declare? “L'état, c'est moi” (“The state, that’s me”).

So, if over time a descendent language of Latin abandons Latin grammar and develops a “correctness” that differs radically from its ancestor, how can English be tortured into a “correctness” that is not even that of an ancestor language?

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Changeling

“Has he changed? Oh my God yes,” says Michael Levine, his agent. “Conrad has come to appreciate what it means to be disadvantaged He is a far more sensitive and introspective person than he was six, seven, eight years ago.” Vanity Fair 
“You know, the judge told me she thought I was a better man now, and I took that as a sort of head-patting expression on her part, you know, that she had the wisdom to send me to prison. But I think she’s right. I probably am. It is a broadening experience.” Vanity Fair

Today, Conrad Black (aka Baron Black of Crossharbour) was released from a US federal prison, having served three years for defrauding investors in a company he controlled (before his legal problems Black was a major figure in newspaper publishing; his properties included the Daily Telegraph in England, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Jerusalem Post). He was promptly re-arrested by immigration authorities and deported to the country of his birth, Canada, where he has been granted a temporary resident permit—temporary, because in 2001 “Black renounced citizenship of his native home,” as the Guardian (UK) put it, “in exchange for the seductions of the British House of Lords.” 

The peerage fitted perfectly with the lavish spending and in-your-face flaunting of wealth by Black and his wife. (They “once had the gall to attend a party at Kensington Palace dressed as the power-crazed Cardinal Richelieu and Marie Antoinette, the most hated woman in pre-revolutionary France,”  the Observer noted.) And as a Guardian editorial stated in 2007:
Once Conrad Black expected to get what he wanted. If he wanted to refurbish his Rolls-Royce at a cost of $90,000, he did. A $42,870 birthday party for his wife? So be it. And if a jet crept on to the wish list, he is said to have told investors: "I can have a 747 if I want."
 His wife was no slouch either: 
Asked why Hollinger [Black’s company] needed two private jets, she once explained, “It is always best to have two planes, because however well one plans ahead, one always finds one is on the wrong continent.” Vanity Fair 
Black’s legal woes have taken a big chunk out of his bank account. But as Bryan Burrough  wrote in VF: 
For all the talk of his financial “ruin,” Black won’t exactly lead a pauper’s life in Toronto. A good guess of his net worth is $80 million—80 percent less than the $400 million he could once claim, but far from “ruined.” “I can live on $80 million,” he notes with an arching of his eyebrow. “At least I think I can.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Whisper of the Muse

“I want to play the way a cat jumps.”

Claudio Arrau, Chilean pianist


Fortune cookies aren’t always right (though the next-to-the-last one I got--“You are an exciting and inspiring person”—was spot-on). My most recent one read: “The important thing is to express yourself.” The idea of expressing yourself I associate with three types of people—parents of brats, artistic wannabes, and British football (i.e., soccer) commentators.


To take the last first. The football commentators, usually resorting to the third person plural and forgetting that they are talking about a team sport, bemoan any defensive strategy by a manager as not letting the players “express themselves.” It is interesting that in all the years that I have watched ice hockey (which is a parallel sport, only on a different surface), I have never heard a commentator speak of his desire for the players to express themselves. If anyone got down to the essence of team sports it was Freddie Shero, who coached Stanley Cup championship teams in Philadelphia: "If it's pretty skating they want, let 'em go to the Ice Capades."


“Lady Constance's flush deepened. Not for the first time in an association which had lasted some forty years, starting in days when she had worn pigtails and he had risked mob violence by going about in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, she was wishing that her breeding did not prohibit her from bouncing something solid on this man's bald head. There was a paper-weight at her elbow which would have fitted her needs to a nicety. Debarred from physical self-expression by a careful upbringing at the hands of a series of ladylike governesses, she fell back on hauteur.”

P. G. Wodehouse, Service With a Smile

I have most often associated “self-expression” not so much with aristocratic granddames but with bratty children. They not only throw things (as Lady Constance refrained from doing) but scream at the top of their lungs until they get what they want. Their doting parents usually dismiss those antics by explaining that the child was only “expressing him/herself.” What exactly a child’s “self” is—and why it couldn’t be expressed at a lower volume—has never been satisfactorily explained to my philosophically-probing mind.

But it’s not only bratty children and overpaid footballers with bad haircuts who have a desire to “express themselves.” A good number of years ago I was browsing through Bloomingdale’s (in New Jersey; I was never chic enough to be allowed through the doors of the New York store), finally ending up in the stationery department, when my shuffling through greeting cards was interrupted by an intense woman followed by a covey of serious young men and women. The leader of the pack moved quickly to a table and pointed. “I’m not satisfied with that display,” she said. “I wanted to make a statement.” It took all my powers of self-restraint to keep from shouting at her: “Lady, they’re just boxes of goddamn envelopes!”


For many years I have collected quotations by artists in all fields from jazz to ballet about the nature of artistic creation. And I have never once read or heard a serious artist—in any field—speak of his/her need for “self-expression.” Indeed, what those artists have said is the exact opposite—the creation of art is a selfless undertaking. Consider the words of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos: “I create music out of necessity, biological necessity. I write because I cannot help it.” Or those of the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli: “When I improvise and I’m in good form, I’m like somebody half sleeping.” Or those of the poet Elizabeth Bishop: “I really don’t know how poetry gets to be written. There is a mystery and a surprise, and after that a great deal of hard work.”


“Sally pinched him. 'Ass,' she said. 'I'm interested. Tell me why a poet doesn't have to be a man who needs a hair­cut.'

'Because,' said Cadogan, uneasily attempting to gauge the length of his own hair with his left hand, 'poetry isn't the outcome of personality. I mean by that that it exists independently of your mind, your habits, your feelings, and everything that goes to make up your personality. The poetic emotion's impersonal: the Greeks were quite right when they called it inspiration. Therefore, what you're like personally doesn't matter a twopenny damn: all that matters is whether you've a good receiving-set for the poetic waves. Poetry's a visitation, coming and going at its own sweet will.'“

Edmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop

What the fictional poet Cadogan says is what so many artists have said; the art seems to have been mysteriously introduced into the artist by some outside force. The art chose the artist.


“I didn’t make a decision to pursue astronomy. Rather, it just grabbed me, and I had no thought of escaping."

Carl Sagan

Just as with artists, so too with scientists. In ancient Greece there were not only Muses for artists like poets and musicians and dancers, there was a Muse of astronomy, Urania, and it was her twentieth-century counterpart who picked out Sagan, who could not escape doing astronomy. Any more than Marina Tsvetaeva could escape writing poetry:

“Why I write”

“Not for the millions, not for some one-and-only, not for myself. I write for the poem alone. The poem, through me, writes itself.”

And when the work is completed, perhaps every true artist utters a version of what novelist Edna O’Brien calls the writer’s prayer:

“Please, God, let me start another.”

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ill Wind

After writing a few blogs ago about the retirement of the great singer Thomas Quasthoff, I began thinking about the artistic talents that I sadly lack but wish I had. Singing is one of them. Mel Torme is who I wish I could sing like; he was a great interpreter of ballads, but could also swing the pants off anyone else. Alas, that punctured tire lying over there is less flat than my voice.
I also wish that I could draw. I would like to be able to produce caricatures. However, the best I could ever do was a stick man (and that was in the first grade). It wasn’t some childhood sexism that prevented me from producing a credible stick woman; I just could not manage the trapezoid for her dress.
And the piano. Yes, I would love to be able to play the piano. Actually, I can play the piano: with one finger I can tap out “My Coun-try Tis of Thee Sweet Land of Li-ber-ty Of Thee I Sing” (exactly like that—and please don’t ask for the next line). Although today I can’t imagine myself wanting to play any other instrument than the piano, I once did try to learn to play the recorder. I thought, "What could be an easier way to be musical than blowing into a little wooden tube?" So, outfitted with the wooden tube and a borrowed book of songs for beginners, I went to work. The first step was to try to figure out the notes. Following the little instruction booklet that accompanied the instrument, I attempted to place my fingers over the appropriate holes and blow. Sometimes a noise came out; I had no idea if it was a note or not. Finally, after running through noises that I hoped were all the notes of the scale, I decided to make music and turned to the borrowed beginner’s songbook. Fingers placed over holes; blow. Re-finger other holes; blow. After a few minutes of unconnected noises, I conceded defeat. Besides the fact that a noise followed by a silence (while finger repositioning was in progress), followed by another noise and another period of silence, and so on, was not very tuneful, I had no idea if I was actually producing the appropriate noises--since I had no idea what the tune I was attempting to play was supposed to sound like. Because all those songs for beginners had titles like “Bulgarian Tractor Dance” or “Albanian Hopscotch.”
But I did take away an important life lesson: If I wanted to call the tune, I would have to pay the piper.