En Words

A place to talk about words - whether from books, stories, magazines, brochures, or matchbook covers.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Being Orwell's Big Brother

The Orwell Trust, which administers the Orwell Prize for political writing, is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the release of his diaries by posting them as a blog. It will be interested to see how such a smart writer and gifted craftsperson worked on a first draft basis.

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IOC Stands for Freedom -- in Moderation

After all those detailed negotiations to ensure freedom of information access for journalists during the games, the International Olympic Committee now admits that it cut deals with China, which is blocking web sites that it finds offensive:
China had committed to providing media with the same freedom to report on the Games as they enjoyed at previous Olympics, but journalists have this week complained of finding access to sites deemed sensitive to its communist leadership blocked.
Reporters Without Borders says it's increasingly concerned that there will be censorship during the games. How small minded. I'm sure the Chinese are just trying to help reporters be more efficient by keeping them from anything that would be a distraction.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Her Parents Called Her What?

We've all had moments, on hearing what could only kindly be called unusual names, where we've wondered about what a child's parents were thinking. Here's a name that makes other oddities pale in comparison: Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii. The New Zealand girl went before a judge, who granted her a name change. Some of the other odd children names from down under:
  • Number 16 Bus Shelter
  • Midnight Chardonnay
  • Violence
  • Benson and Hedges
  • Fish and Chips
Children in one family were all named after six-cylinder Ford cars.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Getting Quotations Right

I find it intriguing to hear stories about misattributions of quotes, particularly when the words become associated with the supposed speaker. The New York Times recently had an article by the Yale Book of Quotations. A number of the examples are surprising:
For example, we all think we know that Harry Truman originated “The buck stops here.” But we are all mistaken. Truman did receive a “gadget” displaying these four words made at the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Okla., mailed to him in 1945 and then displayed by him on his desk. A search of electronic newspaper databases, however, pulls up The Reno Evening Gazette of Oct. 1, 1942, with a photograph of a sign clearly reading “The Buck Stops Here” on the desk of Army Col. A. B. Warfield.
I never would have guessed that "all politics are local" could be attributed to a 1932 article in a Maryland newspaper rather than Tip O'Neill.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

New Words for New Communications

Today, the term blogtificate came to me: the process of unloading one's unqualified opinions, unsupported by fact, into a blog because no one else wants to hear them.

That got me thinking that there must be plenty of others:
  • imaway - (adj.) When you set your Internet messaging software to away status so people will stop bothering you as you try to get something done.

  • blackberryed - (adj.) The state of having a Blackberry filed with so many emails that you will never be able to respond to all of them.

  • iphoney - (n.) A technology poseur who purchases some trendy device but hasn't yet learned how to turn it on.
So what others can you think of? There are comments on this blog for a reason.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Television News Product Placement

It's the end of the journalistic world as we've known it: a Las Vegas television station, owned by Meredith, is taking money from McDonalds to display two cups of iced coffee, logos squarely facing the camera.
The arrangement does raise questions about potential conflicts between the intended message and news content. The ad agency that arranged the promotion said the coffee cups would most likely be whisked away if KVVU chooses to report a negative story about McDonald’s.

“If there were a story going up, let’s say, God forbid, about a McDonald’s food illness outbreak or something negative about McDonald’s, I would expect that the station would absolutely give us the opportunity to pull our product off set,” said Brent Williams, account supervisor at Karsh/Hagan, the advertising agency that arranged the deal between McDonald’s and KVVU.
The station claims that it will continue to report about McDonald's, removing the cups if there is a negative story, just as it would remove a commercial spot. But the problem here is that the advertising is no longer contained to identifiable segments. Product placement works on the theory of an implied endorsement by the people who are in the program in question. This is the line between sponsorship and ownership. I wonder if the contract with the station called for a payment of 30 pieces of silver. Probably not - the going rate for integrity is somewhat higher these days.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Reigning Snark Site Gawker Laments Reader Snark

I had to shake my head and wait for my eyes to come back to rest so I could be sure this was the same site. Yup, it was Gawker - with a comment piece on why newspapers should not allow reader comments. The view was so contempuous of letting the hoi polloi have a say that I was surprised, because Gawker is often one of the snidest and most condescending of sites when it comes to opinions of what others do, say, and write.

The line of argument, I felt, was poorly thought through, assumption filled, and lacking perception, understanding, and even a factual grasp on history. Referring to David Carr's piece in the New York Times Magazine about how bad he used to be and how he had changed brought out "Opening a deeply personal article up to the peanut gallery does these writers a great disservice—and yes, I include Emily Gould here, whose NYT Mag article was similarly pilloried in the comments section.

"The "offensive" comments listed were "If he wasn't a reporter for the New York Times, would we be reading this?" and "Monetizing your shameful past is disgusting. Haven't you harmed your loved ones enough for one lifetime?" and "Who cares. grow some guts. we all have problems. most of us don't blame drugs or alcohol... you want a medal for doing your job and being a father?" Sorry, but all three are perfectly respectible views, and far less harsh than things I've seen in Gawker. If a writer decides to open up his or her personal life, then that person should be smart enough, and thick-skinned enough, to know what will happen.

Certainly the single line of type "w-h-o-r-e" referring to another story is ridiculous. But to include that as if it is on the same level as the other comments is absurd.
You could argue that newspapers should rigorously vet and moderate their comments, or at least require them to use their full names. I'd argue that this is a silly misuse of their time; I'm not suggesting that newspapers should actively patrol their comments, like this and some other websites do. (We're a blog; comments are in our blood.) I'm suggesting they get rid of them altogether. (This doesn't include the blog sections of various papers, which the NYT and Washington Post are stuffed full of.)
The author, signed as Sheila, suggests that newspapers "have more important things to do" than to police comments or even spend time with them. Why? Are newspapers supposed to be sacrosanct when it comes to criticism? At least with comment sections, there is a way for someone to voice an opinion when the newspaper decides that it isn't important or interesting enough to publish a letter to the editor - even if the comment is informed and makes a point important for the newspaper to hear.

Ah, but I forgot, all comments in all newspapers are the same: shallow and not of the quality of real writers like Sheila. Perhaps she might look at some of the blogs at the Guardian's site; the discussion in the theatre section, for one, shows an erudition and level of experience that is laudable.

As for the postscript:
Also, nobody wants to hear the tired old "free speech" argument as a defense of comments. We've had free speech in this country for well over two hundred years, long before it was ever an option to comment on newspaper websites and blogs.
what hogwash. She means that she doesn't want to hear about free speech because, after all, that is for the intellectuals, not the common folk. Unfortunately, Sheila is apparently unfamiliar with the quality and thrust of newspapers at the time of the founding fathers, and how they would regularly attack politicians, public figures, and each other on a regular basis. There was no need for a comments section, because the entire newspapers were just that. But it's far more convenient to ignore fact when it gets in the way of opinion.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Delighting in Italo Calvino

When Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler ... came out many years ago, I remember picking it up but never reading it. Recently I noticed a copy at a used book store, so thought it was time to finally take the plunge. I'm most happy I finally did. the back cover explains that the novel actually involves ten different novels, all by "different" authors with varying styles, each story getting interrupted at a climactic point. But it's the way this happens, with an omniscient uber-narrator who addresses the stories, then becomes part of them, then addresses the character of a reader, who is and isn't you, all with a terrific and subtle sense of humor that makes If on a winter's night so enjoyable. If you've never read it before, it's worth picking up a copy.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Review: The Sociopath Next Door

The concept of the book is disturbing: four percent of all people in the United States are sociopaths, meaning people who literally have no conscience and who are capable of doing anything to anyone in pursuit of what they want without regret, remorse, or even the slightest twinge of guilt. I've known people like this, you've known people like this, and it's heartening to know that you're not crazy and that people actually do act outside all mores and morals. At least you aren't dreaming it. Given that the author is a psychiatrist who supposedly taught at the Harvard Medical School for 25 years (I'm not doubting her, just noting that I haven't independently checked.), she would have the intellectual and practical background to address the subject.

From that end, I think the book is important, but I found that some of the writing itself was disappointing. For example, there are somewhat stiff phrases of quasi-academic or medical jargon that she uses repeatedly and that stick out like a sore thumb. That may be fine in a technical paper, but is stylistically out of place in a book aimed at the popular market. Also, I noticed that the author would tend to make assumptions in her explanations that didn't necessarily have enough logical basis. For example, the lack of conscience itself would not seem to be a motive for the driving need to play oneupsmanship with others. That may be a common characteristic, but it would seem to be from some other dynamic. (This is from knowing some people who would seem to be textbook sociopaths who saved their activities for going after what they wanted at the expense of all others. Crushing someone just for the sake of doing so would have been a distraction to them.) But overall, it's worth reading to at least raise the question of exactly who lives next door - or is in the next room, office, or chair.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Joss Whedon's Three-Part-Internet-Only-Take-That-You-Villains Musical and a Review: Soon I Will Be Invincible

As a society, we must be in reaction to superheroes in comics and movies, because there is a mini-wave of takes from the super villain's viewpoint. Let's start with Joss Whedon.

No one could reasonably claim that Joss Whedon was wed to formula. I thought the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was brilliant (and the writing and execution of the rest of the series weren't too shabby, either). During the Writers Guild of America strike, Whedon started writing a three-part musical about a low-rent super-villain called Doctor Horrible - and they're all streaming for free this week only.

But what first got me thinking about super villains was the amusing Soon I Will Be Invincible, a debut novel by Austin Grossman. The novel rests on two points of view: that of super villain Doctor Impossible, who has an IQ of 300 and rookie superhero female cyborg Fatale. And there is the battle between good and evil, with people trying to take over the world in one way or another, but it's not always clear exactly who is doing what. Addressing childhood, shame, love, lust, and the weird twists of fate that make us who we are, the book shows how sometimes the difference between one path in life and another might be a chance word, a bit of kindness, and someone understanding. My daughter wasn't too fond of the writing, though for the most part I enjoyed it, with trite comic book dialog craftily placed to create a kind of character chiaroscuro, only the contrast not being between literal light and dark, but the metaphoric public and private parts of someone's psyche that help define the whole person. There were times that I thought the story got badly out of hand - for example, one character realizes the real identity of another and states it, when a hint would have done the trick and left one area of tension and suspense for resolution at the end for greater effect. But overall, worth the read and a book I can recommend. Check the link for an excerpt and pointer to where you can get a copy.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Serenity Missing in Considering Serenity Prayer

The Serenity Prayer is short and insightful, whose opening is well known:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Prostestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr claimed to have written it, but there seems to be a significant question of whether he was right:
Now, a law librarian at Yale, using new databases of archival documents, has found newspaper clippings and a book from as far back as 1936 that quote close versions of the prayer. The quotations are from civic leaders all over the United States — a Y.W.C.A. leader in Syracuse, a public school counselor in Oklahoma City — and are always, interestingly, by women.

Some refer to the prayer as if it were a proverb, while others appear to claim it as their own poetry. None attribute the prayer to a particular source. And they never mention Reinhold Niebuhr.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Kafka Must Be Laughing From the Grave

I mentioned the other day that it was the 125th anniversary of Franz Kafka's birthday and that he had a much more humorous view of his work than do most of the high school and college teachers and professors who regularly hold forth on the literary enigma.

The Guardian is running a story about the secretary of Kafka's literary executor had horded parts of the writer's literary estate that the executor, Max Brod, had smuggled out of Prague before the Nazis could grab it. But she hadn't been forthcoming and had pretty much refused to let anyone see the material, including a publisher that had given her a five-figure sum in the 1980s to publish Brod's own diaries. The Israeli government has been after the documents as an important part of Jewish heritage, but even if they are made available, there may be some disappointments:
But authorities in Tel Aviv have warned that the papers, with their high sulphuric acid content, may have stood up poorly to conditions in Hoffe's damp flat in the centre of Tel Aviv and to the hordes of cats and dogs which she kept until two years ago when health inspectors intervened after neighbours complained about the stench.
It's not a man turning into a giant bug, but it's pretty funny, if your humor turns toward the charred.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Death of a Photo Blog and Why Writers Stop

One of my favorite blogs is called A Photo Editor - smart, informed, to the point, and interesting. Owner Rob Haggart has an interview with a former photo blogger, Alec Soth, who gave up the writing for a number of reasons that are interesting:
  • It stopped being a creative outlet and became another "business."
  • So many people wanted something from him that he couldn't keep up.
  • It began to affect his real life relationships.
It's interesting to see the pressures that can come about even when you want to write something for your own enjoyment.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Getting a Book Recommendation

There are a number of sites that recommend music or videos, based on what you already like. Apparently someone has been trying the same with books. He had been pursuing a number of potential business partners for a year, but now apparently there is a real contract with a real client that will provide "a great deal of potential data to work with," rather than the 207 mostly science fiction novels that have driven the research. I wonder if everyone will be told to try Dune?

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Welcome to the Internet, Eric Blair

For those to whom the name in the headline is unfamiliar, you might recognize the associated alias: George Orwell. But whichever you use, it would be handy to remember his anti-Utopia 1984, because a recent spat on the blog Boing-Bloing is making it practically relevant. You can check the link for the quasi-sordid details (one of the involved parties is a sex columnist of notably ribald sensibilities), but after some kind of falling out, one of Boing-Boing's bloggers removed all mention of the other woman's pen name. The New York Times passed on some interesting questions from the blog's readers:
But the Boing Boing readership certainly viewed it as an act taken on behalf of the Web site. Was Boing Boing deceiving its loyal audience by silently deleting the material, even if no one noticed the absences until a year later? What does it even mean to deceive an audience when it comes to a catalog of one’s personal writings? And does popularity convey different responsibilities to the people who produce a Web site?

The twist, of course, is that for nearly everyone who lives with what the Internet says about them, being unpublished would seem a dream come true. Those photographs from the frat party can be unpublished? Who knew? The essay to the Mickey Mouse Fan Club, too?
How about a few steps further. What if there comes a time when more and more people relied on the Internet and not books, newspapers, and magazines? And what if, unlike more permanent forms of publishing, all that information could be whisked away in a moment? Such an ability would make the Ministry of Truth's job a breeze. Forbid caching sites (like the Wayback Machine) and trust that over time, people would succumb to laziness and simply look online for the most authoritative and "latest" information. Doesn't sound that much different from today, does it?

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Confessing to False Confessions: Fake Priest Hears Confessions in St. Peter's Basilica

The Vatican has taken steps to stop an impostor, donning priestly vestments, from ensconcing himself in a confessional at the famous St. Peter's Basilica and listening to people confessing their sins.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

History through the Times

Someone on a writers' site pointed this out, and so I pass on the tip. The archive of the Times of London - starting 1 January 1785 (yes, that is a 7) - is available for free online. You can choose any date, or there is a scrolling "timeline" listing historically and culturally interesting (or curious) events.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Happy Birthday, Franz Kafka - You Old Joker

Kafka would have been 125 today, and in all the years since the end of his short life, he's gotten a bum rap as dark and humorless. Yet, when I read the Metamorphosis some years ago, I found it hilarious ... in a black comic way, of course. Here's a guy who's spent his whole life trying to be and do what everyone else would not, eating the emotional refuse of the world, and he turns into a giant bug. A friend of mine at the time told me that Kafka actually saw a lot of his work as humor.

It seems that others think so as well. An entry in the Guardian's book blog goes into this very issue:
Kafka's friend, Max Brod, talked of how Kafka found humour in his dark works - especially the chilling "The Trial", which he thought a hoot, laughing so hard while reading the first chapter aloud, that he repeatedly had to stop to collect himself.

He revelled in the comic absurdity of his characters, whether the trapeze artist who never descends, the hunger artist who starves himself to death or the boy who wakes up to discover he has turned into a beetle. "It's terribly funny in a very direct way," says Hans-Gerd Koch, another Kafka specialist. "Gregor Samsa [in The Metamorphosis] turns into a beetle who crawls along the wall and tries to work out how he should pack his suitcase."
See? How could anyone take that overly seriously?

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London Bookstores Are Going Up

It seems that some independent books stores have started in London over the last few years and, contrary to "smart" opinions, are having some success, according to a blog in the Guardian by one bookstore person:
Each independent has its own survival strategy. Ours has been to stock not just those titles our core customers would expect to find, but to second-guess those customers and offer books to surprise and excite them (what Gabriel Zaid calls "a fortunate encounter"). That in itself is not enough, which is why we set out from the very beginning to establish an involved community, both through participation in events and by opening the London Review Cake Shop, which has become a favourite haunt of writers, journalists, publishers, academics (it helps being in Bloomsbury) and, of course, customers.
Of particular note are the activities of the London Review Bookstore, including events, a revamped web site (with soon to be available podcasts of talks), catalogs, and signed first editions. Some of this actually sounds like marketing techniques used in New York's old Book Row (interestingly covered in a volume I've been reading, Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade). Sometimes what went around should come back for another tour.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Theatrical Civility in English Blog

I first started to read a Guardian theatre blog entry by director Raz Shaw because the question of whether you need life "experience" to write or direct certain plays has an interest to me. And I would tend to agree with Mr. Shaw that it should not be a necessity if only because we then reduce theater to formulaic naturalism and start down a road of insisting that the the lead of A Man for All Seasons be a highly-religious and brilliant statesman, lawyer, and thinker. To insist on the literal is to turn our backs on unexpected insight from someone outside a given milieu.

And then, on a whim, I scrolled down to the comments. They were civil, informed, and well-reasoned. At least as of when I read them, there is an example of what online discourse could be, rather than the all too frequent taunts, put-downs, and even intimidation. How refreshing.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Smile, Dammit

Romania has passed legislation mandating that half of all newscasts must be upbeat news:
The measure is the idea of two senators -- one from the governing National Liberal Party, the other from the far-right Great Romania party -- who bemoan the "irreversible effect" of negative news "on the health and life of people".

Its aim, they said, is to "improve the general climate and to offer to the public the chance to have balanced perceptions on daily life, mentally and emotionally".
Clearly the change should be easy - move all actions of the legislature for the sadly real to the patently and laughably ridiculous column.

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