Halloween Edition: Ghosts Who Read Succeed!

ghosts_that_still_walkAmerican Libraries has a nice round up of haunted libraries, including this tidbit:

“The local-history room of the New Hanover County Public Library (NHCPL) in Wilmington, North Carolina, harbors the ghost of a patron who frequented the library conducting Civil War research.

Former local-history librarian Beverly Tetterton insisted that some mornings she had found files spread out on a reading-room table when she is certain she had put everything away the night before. Sometimes people report the sounds on pages turning—subtle rustling noises that a “librarian would recognize as the sounds of doing research.”

abbotsfordShe often would find one book, The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, left out on the table. Tetterton said that once a 10-year-old boy came into the room to investigate the ghost. “I gave him the book to look at. Later, he walked up and said, ‘Do you think this has anything to do with it?’ Inside this book was an envelope addressed to the person that I thought might be the ghost. I have been through that book hundreds of times and never saw that envelope. I could feel my hair standing straight up.”

There is also a library that takes such pride in its paranormal activity that it’s set up webcams so you can take photos for yourself.

And for some ghostly, and wonderful sounds, check out the first part of Gloria Coates, Symphony No. 1, “Music on Open Strings”: I. Theme and Transformation, a suitably ghostly dance for a Halloween night. Happy trick or treating! We’re curling up with John Carpenter’s Classic Fright Flick, Halloween.

Commonplace Book: Wise Words, Lanchester on Bullshit vs. Nonsense

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 9.04.24 AMReading Lanchester’s How to Speak Money, a great read: droll, useful, and angry (in a flippant British way). Here’s his entry on the difference between “bullshit” and “nonsense” as a taster. The whole book well worth dipping into.

bullshit versus nonsense
In Kingsley Amis’s novel The Old Devils there is a brief but very thought-provoking speech by Peter Thomas, one of the book’s main characters. His friend has just given a talk about how the poet Brydan, based on
Dylan Thomas, didn’t speak a word of Welsh but how the presence of Welsh was nonetheless very important as a subliminal presence in his work. In the pub afterwards, Peter picks him up on what he’s said.

“I want to get this over to you while I remember and before I have too many drinks. When somebody tells you in Welsh that the cat sat on the mat you won’t be able to make out what he saying unless you know the Welsh for cat and sat and mat. Well, he can draw you a picture. Otherwise it’s just gibberish.”

The friend objects, but Peter presses on with his point:

“The point is it’s unnecessary. They’ll be just as pleased to hear how Brydan wrote English with the fire and passion and the spirit of this, that and the bloody other only possible to a true or real or whatever-you-please Welshman, which if it means anything is debatable to say the least, but whatever it is it’s only bullshit, not nonsense. Stick to bullshit and were all in the clear.

And that, for all the lightness of the context, is a very important distinction. Bullshit and nonsense are different. Bullshit is all around us; the term implies exaggeration, rhetoric, and a mild kind of untoxic falsity. It suggests something is false but not malign. Every time someone tries to sell somebody something, a degree of bullshit is usually involved. Some words are more or less guaranteed to be bullshit: “executive,” for instance, is, used as an adjective, pure bullshit– executive chef, executive apartments, executive decision. “Exclusive” is bullshit, not least because it is used mostly about places that are open to the public, like restaurants and hotels. But the damage done by bullshit is usually fairly mild, and it can even be, if not exactly benign, then so much part of the normal process of selling that it is all just part of the dance. There’s a Big Issue seller near where I live who holds out a copy with the line “last one”; when he sells it, he waits for the customer to walk away, then reaches into his bag and pulls out another “last one.” That is bullshit, and relatively harmless–I say “relatively” rather than “wholly” because once you fallen for the line, and then seen through it, it tends to diminish your trust in Big Issue sellers. The “hype cycle” around new inventions involves in a near-ritualized early period of puffing, boosterism, and bullshit: as John Perry Barlow, song writer for the Grateful Dead, once brilliantly put it, “bullshit is the grease for the skids on which we ride into the future.” (I like that line because it is both an example of bullshit and a great explanation of it.) There is an enormous amount of bullshit in the world of money.

Nonsense is different. It’s worse. It consists of things that are actively false, and at its worst of things that are not just not true but can’t possibly be true. It is rarer than bullshit but much more toxic, and it is the difference between someone exaggerating a bit because he’s trying to sell you something and someone who is consciously lying to you, or is so far out of touch with reality that he doesn’t know he’s lying. In the world of money, the most recent and glaring example of nonsense was in the run-up to the credit crunch, in which broad sectors of banks and investors convinced themselves that they had invented a new category of financial instrument that guaranteed high rates of return with no risk. Since it is a fundamental axiom of investment that risk is correlated with return–that you can’t make higher rates of return without taking on higher levels of risk–this is like claiming to have invented an antigravity device, or a perpetual motion machine. As the British investor John Templeton once said, “The four most expensive words in the English language are ‘this time it’s different.’” In everything to do with money, and in many other areas too, it’s important to keep an eye out for those moments that are not just (relatively) harmless bullshit but the much more actively dangerous nonsense.

Mobile everywhere: Local News Outfit Replaces Camera Crews with iPhones and Selfie Sticks

I knew this was on some news directors’ wish list, but I was surprised to see that it had already happened. PetaPixel has a report.

Granted it’s not a news lens, but this little number, a Canon 60x field lens, will set you back a cool $90K. You can buy a lot of iPhones and selfie sticks with that kind of dough.

iPhones may not be very good at photographing lunar eclipses, but apparently they’re just fine for television news broadcasts. A local TV news station in Switzerland has ditched standard TV cameras to go 100% iPhone.

Swiss newspaper Le Temps reports that the TV station Léman Bleu made the major switch this past summer when it outfitted each reporter on the field with an iPhone 6 kit for shooting pre-recorded stories and for shooting live shots.


Provocative Words: Are We Living Our Own Story?

Aeon has a great essay by the philosopher Galen Strawson on the dangerous idea that life is a story. At least dangerous for the non-narrative types among us.

A few choice bits,

On conceiving of ourselves in some sense as a collection of stories…

What if life is not a set a of stories?

“Perhaps. But many of us aren’t Narrative in this sense. We’re naturally – deeply – non-Narrative. We’re anti-Narrative by fundamental constitution. It’s not just that the deliverances of memory are, for us, hopelessly piecemeal and disordered, even when we’re trying to remember a temporally extended sequence of events. The point is more general. It concerns all parts of life, life’s ‘great shambles’, in the American novelist Henry James’s expression. This seems a much better characterisation of the large-scale structure of human existence as we find it. Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.”

He pulls into service a couple of other views, most elegantly Virginia Woolf, who goes for a sort of bundle of phenomena argument, at least in this passage.

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

And also Mary Midgley and Paul Klee on containing multitudes:

Midgley: [Doctor Jekyll] was partly right: we are each not only one but also many… Some of us have to hold a meeting every time we want to do something only slightly difficult, in order to find the self who is capable of undertaking it… We spend a lot of time and ingenuity on developing ways of organising the inner crowd, securing consent among it, and arranging for it to act as a whole. Literature shows that the condition is not rare.

and Klee: My self… is a dramatic ensemble. Here a prophetic ancestor makes his appearance. Here a brutal hero shouts. Here an alcoholic bon vivant argues with a learned professor. Here a lyric muse, chronically love-struck, raises her eyes to heaven. Here papa steps forward, uttering pedantic protests. Here the indulgent uncle intercedes. Here the aunt babbles gossip. Here the maid giggles lasciviously. And I look upon it all with amazement, the sharpened pen in my hand. A pregnant mother wants to join the fun. ‘Pshtt!’ I cry, ‘You don’t belong here. You are divisible.’ And she fades out.

Strawson’s piece is a good read, although I do wonder if the overheated “life is a story, life is a journey” trope, which raises my hackles too, amounts to much more than a tactic or habit, rather than something essential about our selves in a philosophical sense. Perhaps it’s just a convenience, like an algorithm that makes a complicated reality seem tractable.

End of an era: The passing of the catalog card

card_cat_drawerLibrary Link of the Day tipped me off to the news that OCLC, the technical provider of all things library catalog related, has printed their last card catalog card.

I remember these catalogs (whether just a few drawers in a school library or the mammoth city of catalogs at the Library of Congress when I worked there in the 80s).  I don’t miss them as an information tool, but they had a certain human beauty that somehow a computer search input box lacks.

Commonplace Book: October in Poetry

Some verse for a blustery start to October, as the mid-Atlantic hopes to be spared the wrath of Hurricane Joaquin.


by Don Thompson

I used to think the land
had something to say to us,
back when wildflowers
would come right up to your hand
as if they were tame.


Sooner or later, I thought,
the wind would begin to make sense
if I listened hard
and took notes religiously.
That was spring.


Now I’m not so sure:
the cloudless sky has a flat affect
and the fields plowed down after harvest
seem so expressionless,
keeping their own counsel.


This afternoon, nut tree leaves
blow across them
as if autumn had written us a long letter,
changed its mind,
and tore it into little scraps.

%d bloggers like this: