Friday Roundup: Tidbits from Around the Web

A few bits from here and there that I’ve come upon this week.

1. FluentU and Do It Yourself Language Learning. This company does a clever thing with existing YouTube videos. They wrap them in a player that is tricked out for language learning, and then provide quizzes, exercises etc. I’ve been sort of doing the German ones and it has revived some of my rusty (and not great shakes in the first place) German. They also had a great post about “DIY” German language learning, but applicable to any language, and to other topics.
“How to DIY German: Learn Better Than Ever on Your Own”
The whole flash card thing he mentions seems pretty intriguing (good advice to write the whole sentences, by the way–you can learn a lot of German vocabulary and still not be able to read. German word order and syntax is, um, interesting.)

2. Lady Gaga Goes Normal. NY Mag has an essay about her latest in transgression, Lady G does normcore? Perhaps it started with The Sound of Music?  But even Maria really is a higher form of drag? From Lindsay Zoladz’ article:

“So what I loved most about Lady Gaga was how unapologetically fake she was, especially when she was at her most girlie. (The wigs! The affect! The Alexander McQueen shoes!) The much-needed message that she beamed to the world was that — even if you are a straight, cisgender woman, as she turned out to be — femininity is always a drag act. And so, during her reign, pop stars’ ideas of womanhood mutated into something robotic, grotesque, and unavoidably performative. This leveled the playing field somehow. In the early days of Gaga’s rule, I thought often of a quote from the theorist Mary Russo: “To put on femininity with a vengeance suggests the power of taking it off.”

3. The Onion nails “trigger-free” zones on campus.
Parents Dedicate New College Safe Space In Honor Of Daughter Who Felt Weird In Class Once. Bye-bye philosophy majors!

Words & Pictures: Sunflowers

There’s a sea of sunflowers in a park in Montgomery County, MD, visited just after their peak this weekend.

And some accompanying poetry from “Letters to Walt Whitman” by Ronald Johnson.

let us burrow in
to a susurration, the dense starlings,

of the real—
the huge
sunflowers waving back at us,

as we move

—the great grassy world

that surrounds us,

The Reading and Writing Life: Cigarette Cards

A cigarette card from the NYPL collection, offering help on that frequent query, “how do I hold my Guinea Pig?”

As a regular denizen of various libraries and library websites, I frequently am surprised about what they have and hang on to. A case in point is cigarette cards, a bit of ephemera that has its own little history as a collectible.  The York Public Library has heaps, many from the UK, and they’ve digitized the lot.

Initially just used to stiffen the packaging, cigarette cards became sort of baseball cards for adults, with an image and a little blurb. (Dare I say tumblr or pinterest-esque?).

Some are quite fetching, others a little scary, but they offer one unfiltered view of what was popular in a different age. (Would “American Editors” rate their own series of anything now? Shows what prestige the newspaper biz had 100+ years ago. Even somebody as awesomely named and mutton-chopped as Oswald Ottendorfer of the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung probably wouldn’t even merit his own Wikipedia page today.)

Oswald has lots of other sometimes wonderful and sometimes inexplicable company: pets, sports (including golf holes), movie stars, far away places, gizmos, jokes, you name it. A coil ignition system? For intent study during your cigarette and coffee break? Hmm.

One I particularly liked was “Figures of Speech,” many of which are still current, but what on earth is “All my eye and Betty Martin”? It takes on “Queer Street” and it’s not what you think, although an “uncle” is involved.

NYPL has a nice “ABC of Cigarette Cards” and here’s a slideshow of a few of the many that caught my eye.

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Classical Music Gateway Drugs: the 70s edition

Rarely, it’s true, but still from time to time I get asked by parents how to get their kids interested in classical music. Given that I am of the “let kids be kids” school, and since I don’t really recall any concerted effort on my parents’ part to influence me with respect to music or much else, I’m reluctant to provide a “program.” Certainly nobody gets coerced into a life long love of anything–or at least I hope not. But how does it unfold that some people end up loving classical music?

In my case there are a few conditions & milestones that I can pick out in retrospect. 1) My parents enjoyed classical music, without being maniacs about it, and 2) there was amateur music-making in my house throughout my childhood, as there is in mine. My mother’s German-Irish heritage came with an implicit respect for music, be it the seriousness of the European classical tradition, or the nostalgic emotion of the Irish folk one. My father’s love of Barbra Streisand is one of those strange things best passed over without comment. But music was abundant. This included playing piano and singing.

So of course there were LPs around (and anybody who came of age with LPs of any genre probably harbors emotional memories and responses to them that I wonder if downloads or streams will ever match. You could handle a record, inspect its cover, protect it from scratches, jealously hoard it or generously loan it–it was a thing in your life, again a message of value). One particular LP of my parents’ was called “Opera’s Greatest Hits,” a two-record compilation of orchestral highlights–overtures, intermezzi, and the like–from the Boston Pops with Arthur Fiedler conducting. Not one note of singing, which for some reason did not strike me as odd. It did not occur to my 4th-grade self to wonder how opera’s greatest hits could skimp on providing a single aria? Instead I reveled in these 70mm technicolor performances of big emotional pieces. Mostly it was a generous helping of once great hits of the classical “Top 40,” for instance, the William Tell Overture, in 1971 still indelibly the Lone Ranger’s tune, the Intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana,” soon to enjoy renewed fame from a star turn in “The Godfather,” and this ridiculous piece: “Dance of the Camorristi,” from a mostly forgotten opera entitled “The Jewels of the Madonna” by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari.

Listening to this now, what comes to mind first is Noel Coward’s quip “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” Second though, is the memory of how much fun I had connecting to it–and all these pieces–when I was a nerdy fourth grader: air conducting, imagining and then making up the story (I still haven’t a clue what Wolf-Ferrari’s opera is really about), and getting access to the sweep of something that felt big. Forty odd years later, naturally enough, different musical pieces feel “big” to me, but I know that music can do that. That’s a space that was made long ago. It gets filled up with different things, a natural progression.

Reflecting on this, my advice for a parent is pretty slight and obvious, I suppose: be out of the closet about your own love of music, have music around and available, and show some intention about it. Often, music is merely wallpaper in our lives now, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense for a child to hear “listen to this, it’s good for you,” as a prompt to make one pattern in that wallpaper leap out. Instead, a kid who catches a parent listening intently, or playing an instrument, might pick up the message that this is meaningful and worth attention. And finally, I wouldn’t worry about taste. I don’t know what my parents thought of that Pops record (although we did watch the Pops broadcast with pleasure many times). I’d bet that my playing it over and over in the family room was not one of my more popular moves. But never did I get a “you should be listening to …” (insert name of composer, work, band, singer, etc. meant to be improving, cool, or at least tolerable). It was my thing, and like so many things, my parents’ staying out of the way was the ticket.

For those interested: here is the track list for that LP. Looking over it, do you see any gateway pieces from your youth?

popsA1 Aida: Grand March
A2 Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo
A3 Tsar Sultan: The Flight Of The Bumblebee
A4 Faust: Waltz Scene
A5 Hansel And Gretel: Dream Pantomime
B1 Samson And Delilah: Bacchanale
B2 Love For Three Oranges: March
B3 Eugene Onegin: Polonaise
B4 The Tales Of Hoffmann: Barcarolle
B5 The Jewels Of The Madonna: Dance Of The Camorristi
B6 Mlada: Procession Of The Nobles
C1 Lohengrin: Prelude
C2 Le Cid: Aragonaise
C3 Sadko: Song Of India
C4 Die Fledermaus: Du Und Du Waltzes
C5 Prince Igor: Polovetsian Dances
D1 William Tell: Overture
D2 Goyescas: Intermezzo
D3 Carmen: March Of The Toreadors
D4 Die Walküre: Ride Of The Valkyries

Reading On Screen Part 2

Further to the vexatious topic of reading on screen versus paper (oddly enough, subject of the most popular post on this blog). Fast Company has a piece by Annie Sneed that rounds up some recent findings on the trade-off: Everything Science Knows About Reading On Screens.

She cites a speculative, but plausible, view that screens are less congenial to deep, attentive reading:

Nonlinear reading might especially hurt what researchers call “deep-reading”—our in-depth reading of text that requires intense focus to fully understand it, like the works of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. “Skimming is fine for our emails, but it’s not fine for some of the important forms of reading,” says Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf. “If you word-spot James Joyce, you’ll miss the entire experience.”

I’ll mostly pass over the mild paradox that “linear” is not a word I would apply to such paragons of literary modernism as Joyce & Woolf. One can imagine Joyce happilyflipping his wig over a hypertext Ulysses, a book which he famously said people would still be trying to decode  centuries later. If ever there were a book you go “in” rather than through it’s that one.

But I take the point; there is a quietness and materiality to reading on paper (and writing on paper) as well as a slowing down, and perhaps a bit more intentionality. When you are using a digital device, all kinds of processes & gizmos beckon, and instead of a reader, you are a bartender with a bunch of obstreperous patrons. (FB message? email, that long download that was supposed to be finished, and “oops, where is that power cable again? I’m down to 5%”). None of these particular distractions plague books. Also–and I think, though simple, this is key–a book has a self-evident way of telling you where you are, and how to find things without need of digital search. A book is a book-shaped thing and we know how it works intrinsically, because how it works is what it is. That perhaps transcends the many  comparative advantages digital offers. A minor practical example: there’s something delicious about peeking ahead to see whether there are 5 or 20 pages left in the chapter, and whether you should wait to make your tea or not. (A vision into the kinds of exciting questions that animate my daredevil lit’rery life.)

William Morris says, “put that laptop away, young man.”

Given that I work all day on screen, it’s probably not surprising that my book reading is on paper.  (Although perversely, I did read News from Nowhere on my iPad, something I can’t imagine William Morris would heap approbation on.) I have been on a Trollope tear recently and can’t imagine reading him except on paper. But he’d probably be ridiculously enjoyable in any format, he’s also drolly wise, so gets tonight’s last word:

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will last you until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.” – Anthony Trollope

Musical Words: “You’re damn good, Vickers”

The great tenor Jon Vickers has died, age 88. Gramophone has an obituary with the “damn good” quote from Sir Thomas Beecham, as well as a reflection from the much missed critic John Steane about one thing that makes a great singer:  a ‘quality around’ particular aspects of the voice: that golden core of sound that can go from soft to overpowering by seeming to glow brighter rather than merely get louder.

Vickers, with that torrent of sound and extraordinary stage persona, had this quality in spades. Here’s his performance of Otello’s death scene, which gives you a sense of the voice, the sovereign vocal skill and that  wild place–it always feels “outside” to me somehow–that his performances came from.

After that (particularly that staggering “I have a second dagger moment”) you are grateful for the applause and for the calm reasoned voice of Martin Bookspan to bring you back to earth.

Jon Vickers, who died age 88 on July 10, 2015. Pictured here in Les Troyens one of his great roles, with another treasured and much missed artist, Shirley Verrett.

Commonplace Book: Anne Enright

Forgotten WaltzAfter slogging through a few disappointing novels recently, decided to treat myself to Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz  to reset a bit. (Reading The Gathering a few years back was one of those gobsmacking moments in a reading life, up there with my first encounter of Penelope Fitzgerald.)

Here is the narrator introducing her husband to the reader in a chapter headed, “Love is like a cigarette”:

Let’s start with Conor. Conor is easy. Let’s say he has already arrived, that afternoon in Enniskerry. When I go back into the kitchen he is there, lingering and listening, having a good time. Conor is low and burly and, in the summer of 2002, he is my idea of fun.

Conor never takes his jacket off. Under the jacket is a cardigan, then a shirt, then a T-shirt and under that a tattoo. The wide strap of his bag is slung across his chest, keeping everything tamped down. he is on the mooch. This man never stops checking around him, as though for food. In fact, if he is near food he will be eating it – but neatly, in an intelligent, listening sort of way. his eyes keep traveling the floor and if he looks up it is with great charm: he is caught by something you have said, he thinks you are funny. He might seem preoccupied, but this guy is ready for a good time.

I loved Conor, so I know what I am talking about here. He comes from a line of shopkeepers and pub owners in Youghal, so he likes to watch people and smile. I used to like this about him. And I liked the bag, it was trendy, and his glasses were trendy too, thick-rimmed and sort of fifties, and he shaved his head, which usually annoyed me but it suited him because his skin was so brown and his skull so sizeable. And his neck was large, and his back bulged and sprouted hair from the shoulders down. What can I say? Sometimes it surprised me that the person I loved was so fantastically male, that the slabs of muscle were covered in slabs of solid fat and that the whole of him – all five foot nine, God help us – was fizzed up with hair, so that he became blurred at the edges, when he undressed. No one had told me you could like that sort of thing. But I did.


If this style speaks to you, you should go read it. I assure you she manages this deft tonal control–as well as providing an extraordinary vision of a very commonplace set of human predicaments–for all 259 pages.

A Future For Libraries?

I’m a library lover (sort of a librarian manqué in fact, even though my days employed in a library or using it for academic work are a ways back). I even cataloged my childhood books in 3rd grade (odd but true). In 2013, Pew which is sort of Upworthy for the egghead set, did a quiz on how engaged you are with your public library, and predictably I got good marks.

So the question of the shifts in the mission and services of libraries that comes from the digital revolution is naturally of interest. The quick assumption is that libraries are toast (like much else I care about, live music, newspapers, analogue photography, spelling analog with a “ue” at the end.) But, in fact, libraries, some of the oldest institutions on earth, have a reliable way of reinventing themselves. That they existed pre-Gutenberg gives the hope that they will be around post-web, even if their shape morphs radically and their services include more 3D printing than readers’ advisory.

I attended an interesting, if speculative, webinar on possible futures put out by the Library 2.0 people, and in addition to hearing an aside from school library guru Joyce Valenza that has stuck with me, “stop saying ‘social’ media, it’s just ‘media,’ particularly to anyone under 25,” I was impressed to learn that the American Library Association has a future of libraries project, with a handy guide to the broader trends that are shaping libraries, and for that matter much else.  Worth checking out, and notable for a minimum amount of jargon (particularly for librarians, who love their argot); pithy, to the point and intriguing.

ALA Future of Libraries: Trends
ALA’s Trend Watch

And as the saying goes, “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” I recently got to visit one example of the future of libraries, the Hunt Library at NC State.  That particular future: amazing.



Read This: “What is Code” in Bloomberg Business Week

Check out this brilliantly done article by Paul Ford the Business Week team. The videos aren’t ads, by the way, and are also great.


“This is real. A Scrum Master in ninja socks has come into your office and said, “We’ve got to budget for apps.” Should it all go pear-shaped, his career will be just fine.”

Huffington Post has a behind the scenes piece as well.