Thought-Provoking Words

From a fascinating review by Gregory Radick of Piers J. Hale’s
Malthus, mutualism, and the politics of evolution in Victorian England in the TLS.

Sheds light on the ideological uses made of Darwin, and many connections across realms that were surprising to me at least.

Near the end he has a side comment about eugenics, from the “future is already here and encoding inequality” beat that is truly eye-opening.

Eugenics, another luxury bauble of late capitalism?

As a scientific-political programme, the deliberate breeding of better humans or, as it came to be known, “eugenics” – another period neologism, introduced by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1883 – never recovered from its association with the Nazi death camps. Until then, however, it had enjoyed broad appeal across the political spectrum. In Britain, members of the Malthusian Left who gathered in the Fabian Society, including Shaw, Wells, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, were among the earliest supporters. Their preferred means for bringing about a eugenic future was education. The historical lesson many have drawn is that eugenics, however well intentioned, is inevitably coercive and ultimately murderous. But that is not the only possible lesson, and maybe not the best one. In 1996, after a year spent with the Human Genome Project at the behest of the US Library of Congress, the philosopher Philip Kitcher published a remarkable book, The Lives To Come, arguing that, whether we like it or not, the genetic technologies now available make eugenics inescapable, so the choice we face is about the kind of eugenics we have. In Kitcher’s view, the Nazis showed in extremis what not to do, while the Fabians offer more positive inspiration. Better, Kitcher suggests, to teach young people how to think through the social consequences of their reproductive choices, in a society committed to realizing human potential to the full, than to collude with the present regime of “laissez-faire eugenics”, in which those with enough money can buy whatever genetic improvements they can afford, and the rest can fend for themselves.

“Those with enough money can buy whatever [ …] improvements they can afford, and the rest can fend for themselves.” A well-put statement of a widespread state of affairs.

Entire review is fascinating.

Funny Words: One Sentence, Many Meanings

From Leo Rosten’s 1968 book The Joys of Yiddish, beloved by, among others, Harlan Ellison

Notice that the meaning of the same sentence changes completely,
depending on where the speaker places the emphasis:

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–meaning:
“After what she did to me?”

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–meaning:
“What, you’re giving me a lesson in ethics?”

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–meaning:
I wouldn’t go even if she were giving out free passes!

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–meaning:
I’m having enough trouble deciding whether it’s worth one.

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–She
should be giving out free passes, or the hall will be empty.

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–Did
she buy tickets to our daughter’s recital?

I should buy two tickets for her concert?–You
mean, they call what she does a “concert”?

Nice companion piece to Twain’s priceless “The Awful German Language”

“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand. Such has been, and continues to be, my experience. Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing “cases” where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground from under me. For instance, my book inquires after a certain bird — (it is always inquiring after things which are of no sort of consequence to anybody): “Where is the bird?” Now the answer to this question — according to the book — is that the bird is waiting in the blacksmith shop on account of the rain. Of course no bird would do that, but then you must stick to the book. Very well, I begin to cipher out the German for that answer. I begin at the wrong end, necessarily, for that is the German idea. I say to myself, “Regen (rain) is masculine — or maybe it is feminine — or possibly neuter — it is too much trouble to look now. Therefore, it is either der (the) Regen, or die (the) Regen, or das (the) Regen, according to which gender it may turn out to be when I look. In the interest of science, I will cipher it out on the hypothesis that it is masculine. Very well — then the rain is der Regen, if it is simply in the quiescent state of being mentioned, without enlargement or discussion — Nominative case; but if this rain is lying around, in a kind of a general way on the ground, it is then definitely located, it is doing something — that is, resting (which is one of the German grammar’s ideas of doing something), and this throws the rain into the Dative case, and makes it dem Regen. However, this rain is not resting, but is doing something actively, — it is falling — to interfere with the bird, likely — and this indicates movement, which has the effect of sliding it into the Accusative case and changing dem Regen into den Regen.” Having completed the grammatical horoscope of this matter, I answer up confidently and state in German that the bird is staying in the blacksmith shop “wegen (on account of) den Regen.” Then the teacher lets me softly down with the remark that whenever the word “wegen” drops into a sentence, it always throws that subject into the Genitive case, regardless of consequences — and that therefore this bird stayed in the blacksmith shop “wegen des Regens.””


In German, all the Nouns begin with a capital letter. Now that is a good idea; and a good idea, in this language, is necessarily conspicuous from its lonesomeness. I consider this capitalizing of nouns a good idea, because by reason of it you are almost always able to tell a noun the minute you see it. You fall into error occasionally, because you mistake the name of a person for the name of a thing, and waste a good deal of time trying to dig a meaning out of it. German names almost always do mean something, and this helps to deceive the student. I translated a passage one day, which said that “the infuriated tigress broke loose and utterly ate up the unfortunate fir forest” (Tannenwald). When I was girding up my loins to doubt this, I found out that Tannenwald in this instance was a man’s name.

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print — I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

“Gretchen: Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
Wilhelm: She has gone to the kitchen.
Gretchen.: Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
Wilhelm: It has gone to the opera.”

Now I’m off with my Turnip to the Opera.

Commonplace Book: Uses of the Past

Nobody (except me) loves Boston City Hall, and even I don’t love the DC FBI HQ, the J. Edgar Hoover building, (slated for destruction). Brutalist architecture is at “the awkward age” too young to be historic, too old to be current. It’s even more of a problem with Soviet-era architecture from Iron Curtain countries. Ideological and aesthetically derided, a symbol of suffering in design. But is it really? Will it some day be as beloved as American Victorian, now of course prized.

In the London Review of Books Sheila Fitzpatrick assesses a book by a writer who has come to love those massive wedding cake pieces of Stalinist ideology made real.  Worth a read for the design mavens among you:

Here’s a bit of it.

Landscapes of Communism: A History through Buildings by Owen Hatherley

Hatherley didn’t go round Moscow with Sytin in his backpack, and indeed it’s hard to imagine any point of connection between his sensibility and that of the Russian intelligentsia. Žižek is a hovering presence, and there is a dash of Boris Groys as well. Hatherley would like to think the communist regimes did something right in creating living space for their people and hopes to find some elements of ‘real socialism’ in their built environments. But there’s always something like a wry grin on his face when he hints at these hopes. ‘Like many Soviet ideas,’ he writes in frustration at one point, ‘it is so obviously right and so obviously botched.’ Architecturally, his core allegiance is to modernism (the brutalist and utopian kinds, not the defanged ‘Ikea modernism’, which he disdains), but he has developed a certain affection for Stalinist monumentalism.

Could it ever just be “Dear Old Moscow State”?

Photo of Boston City Hall courtesy Wikipedia, “Plaza8” by Marguerite & AJ Marks – originally posted to Flickr as Boston city hall. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Musical Moments: John Brancy, Sarah Vaughan, and John McCormack

Some Friday night musical glories to usher out the week:

First fine young baritone, John Brancy, singing a moving version of “Danny Boy,” arranged by his accompanist Peter Dugan.


Next the incomparable Sarah Vaughan, doing “Misty,” the classic by Errol Gardner.


and finally, the great John McCormack, with “Il mio tesoro” from Don Giovanni.


Eloquent Words: FDR

A shot of the wonderful FDR Memorial in DC.

“I sometimes think that the saving grace of America lies in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans are possessed of two great qualities- a sense of humor and a sense of proportion.”

“It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

“The constant free flow of communication amount us-enabling the free interchange of ideas-forms the very bloodstream of our nation. It keeps the mind and body of our democracy eternally vital, eternally young. ”

“Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”

—Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Franklin’s illness…gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons – infinite patience and never ending persistence.”
—Eleanor Roosevelt

The Reading & Writing Life: Periodicity

Like many, I found term papers in college a grim business. Despite any amount of planning, they were always a rush at the end, and despite my characteristic glibness, and being a fast writer, they were usually a mess and busted as such by faculty.

I assumed the deficits were all on my side, and mostly moral failings at buckling down to do the work, so it was odd to discover a few years later when I was writing for a daily newspaper as a stringer that I never missed a deadline, and mostly enjoyed the experience of getting a piece written and filed. I also thrived in the culture of a daily newsroom, finding a natural place within the shared rhythm that grows out of the collective imperative of getting the paper out on time. (The wonderful term “putting the paper to bed” like muskox, a nice bit of journalistic jargon now lost, gives a sense of how it feels when the paper has finally gone to press.)

In talking with my mother about this phenomena, she reflected on her journalism career in newspapers and magazines, saying, “well, it always seemed that working on a daily was easier than working on a weekly, much less a monthly or quarterly. The deadline shaped the work and you got it done.” A daily deadline means a workflow, helps you make sense of what you have to do that day, creates a system if only by default.

By that measure, annuals, and “occasionals” would be hard, and one-time productions, like a Ph.D. dissertation or magnum opus, would be most difficult of all. In those contexts, external factors likely don’t help, except perhaps to create neurotic and corrosive pressure, “when are you going to finish?” or worse, “when are you really going to start?”

Thus it surprised me then, and still does today, that we expect college students, and to some extent, high school students, to figure out how to cope with these long timelines, pulling together materials for a coherent term paper on their own without the guidance a workflow might give. It certainly was never any fun for me–nor, as nearly as I can tell, particularly edifying. I finally wrote a satisfactory term paper in grad school (no doubt in part because I had the confidence of having written for a newspaper under my belt). Perhaps all the botched attempts earlier did add up to some kind of embedded wisdom, at least of the “here’s what not to do” variety. But it really did seem a waste of writing and reading time all around.

Now of course I write every day, and it makes me pause to wonder if I had committed to writing every day on a term paper whether that would have been the ticket. (I doubt it.) People do sort of write a newspaper every day in their collective FB, Twitter, txt, email and other constant streams of content. This seems to bring up the inverse of the problem with the long lead time for a term paper, the constant deadline of “now,” that is, of no deadline, means that while the means to writing has never been easier–simple as pressing “post”– the rhythm is just a constant beating chaos of “update me” no putting it to bed, not much shared pulling together to get something done, just sort of a “feed me” 24/7 editorial maw. I wonder how newspapers–which I am long out of–even begin to cope.

Roundup: Tidbits from Around the Web

A few things that caught my eye recently while browsing.

Not only did Scalia make fun of same-sex marriage, he (probably) ridiculed Chinese Philosophy
“However, one issue has received little attention in the U.S., while igniting a storm of discussion in China: Justice Anthony Kennedy’s citation of Confucius in his majority decision. And almost no one has remarked on Justice Antonin Scalia’s inflammatory response to Kennedy’s use of Confucius. Let’s examine what Kennedy said, how the Chinese have reacted to it, whether Kennedy got Confucius right, and what Scalia’s rebuttal to Confucius represents.”

News Fact checking Galore
Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab says there are twenty more sites keeping tabs today than there were this timelast year.

Just How Many Type Faces Do We Need?
Design Observer has an interesting take on the ever-increasing number of new type designs on the market.
“Have we reached peak typeface? Apparently not. More fonts appear daily in a seemingly endless quest for newness. And if we factor in the search for a viable, fully-responsive typographic ecosystem for the web, the results offer a near infinity of variables. Why?”

Check out the thought-provoking piece by Adrian Shaughnessy at Design Observer.

Old words: Save the Musk-Ox

A short note about an odd coinage from the newspaper business that I think has mostly faded away: the “musk ox” story. This was a “filler” evergreen story that could run at any time, and was a term that my parents, both Chicago newspaper reporters, in the mid-century, used.

A musk ox might be a slice of life feature about a perfect family afternoon at Brookfield Zoo or an explanation of the history of park league softball in Chicago, one of the few places in the world that uses a 16-inch softball. In other words, benign stories, no particular news peg and perfect for a slow news day.

Reporters did well to have a few musk oxen in their desk, stories you could pull out, spruce up quickly and file. This is a reflection of the paradoxical situation that space would seem to be at a premium in a paper, with editors and writers having to go to the mat for their stories, there is, at the end of the day, often a copy hole to fill.  This was true then, and has been true on every publication I’ve ever worked on–including, web ones.  Sometimes you just need “10 Gardening Tips From Our Canadian Neighbors” to do the job.

Having such fillers in your back pocket are a particular boon to columnists and editorial writers, who have the unenviable task of trying to get a base hit day after day. Weather, how things used to be, funny spouses, kids, pets, or even traffic abound as topics. Columnists often seem to fall back on non-news about birds, which perhaps deserves its own Pulitzer category. A friend termed these “The frost is on the pumpkin” pieces, and I will give you even money that there is at least one such column waiting in a computer file at a newspaper right now. (Not to mention, “August in Washington: Hot Sidewalks, Hot Eggs” and “X Isn’t What it Used to be” where X is…’draft beer’ , ‘Dupont Circle’, ‘DC sex scandals’, or “How I Learned to Live With My Pet Chickens!”)

No musk-oxen here…the Trib on a day that was anything but slow, 7/29/1914

The musk ox had a much-derided companion in mid-century journalism, which prided itself on reporting that took actual work. This was the  “fanny piece,” a “news” story that required no actual work, and that you could just sit at your desk and write. (This is sort of a fanny blog).  These non-news fillers were bit players in daily journalism once upon a time, and the difference between them and actual news was mostly discernable. Has the musk ox perished from journalism, or are we awash in it?

The Great Piano Scam

Discovered a web-documentary about the Joyce Hatto piano hoax from a few years back. For those who don’t remember, or missed it, in the early 2000’s, a pianist named Joyce Hatto emerged and became a critical darling. She was evoked as a neglected master from the old school, and the recordings poured out and got raves from the likes of Gramophone, to the point of cultish adoration among the piano fanciers.

It was a good story, 70-year-old unknown becomes a rediscovered keyboard genius (somehow that she was a dowdy Englishwoman helped).  And as good stories will, it went, as not a word or a note of it held up. Her husband was plagiarizing others’ recordings, passing them off as hers.

I was then–as I am now–a Gramophone subscriber, and I watched it unfold in real time, including the sad denouement, after she had died of cancer and couldn’t comment one way another on motive or on what she did or didn’t know.

Here’s the film:

And here’s the list of those who were stolen from.

The real pianists were pretty fabulous: here’s László Simon in a ferocious & exciting performance of the beginning of the Liszt B minor
And an idea of how the engineering changed the sound just enough to fool people:

Commonplace book: Jacques Bonnet channels Pessoa

From a memoir of reading, book collecting, and libraries, Phantoms of the Bookshelves, that I, appropriately enough, picked up at the Bethesda Library.

BonnetOn 1 September 1932, the Portuguese newspaper O Século carried an advertisement for the post of librarian-curator at the Condes de Castro Guimarães Museum, in Cascais a little town on the coast about thirty kilometers from Lisbon. On 16 September, the poet Fernando Pessoa sent the local authority a letter applying for the post. The six-page document was later reproduced in a book by Maria José de Lancastre, Fernando Pessoa, una fotobiografia (Fernando Pessoa: photographic documentation), published in 1981 by Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda and the Centro de Estudios Pessoanos, which I bought for 500 escudos in a bookshop in Coimbra in November 1983. It was the only copy they had. In the town’s cafés in those days there was still a ledge under the table where you could put your hat, and I remember seeing a woman go past in the street with a sewing machine balanced on her head. The Portuguese text of the letter is reproduced in Fernando Pessoa in characters far too tiny for anyone without good Portuguese to decipher.

Pessoa, who was tired of translating commercial correspondence for import-export firms in Lisbon, on a wage that scarcely allowed him to survive and get (moderately) drunk every day, felt the urge to change his way of life and leave his flat at 16, Coelho da Rocha Street for a small town near Lisbon. In my copy of the book, a few pages before the letter, there is a photograph of Pessoa drinking a glass of red wine in the shop owned by the wine merchant Abel Ferreira da Fonseca. Behind him you can see casks of Clairette, Abafado, Moscatel, Ginginha and so on. This was the snapshot which Pessoa sent in September 1929 to Ophelia Queiroz, the only romantic relationship he is known to have had. The dedication reads: “Fernando Pessoa, em flagrante delitro”, or “Fernando Pessoa in flagrante with a litre”. Sending the photograph had marked the renewal of a connection broken off nine years earlier, and which would end, permanently this time, six months later. At least, it ended materially. Ophelia never married, and she recounted that shortly before his death, Pessoa, on meeting his nephew Carlos, had asked him, “How is Ophelia?”, then, his eyes filled with tears, had grasped his hands and added: “Oh what a fine soul, a fine soul!”

The lovely opening…evocative of Pessoa himself, a lyrical mysterious spirit.

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