Over NYC

NY Mag has a sweet end of year feature called “Reasons to Love New York,” fun to browse and among their bites. And my fave: striking drone photos from above the city.

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/12/drone-photos-of-new-york-city.html

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“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun”

After an excess of “dang muggy” days, as a friend puts it, autumn has begun to insinuate herself, the leaves beginning their fading blaze, cool mornings, and if not Keats’ poetic mist, a certain amount of companionable rain after a long summer.

Some seasonal lines and images.

 

 

 

 

NIGHT-TIME IN MID-FALL
It is a storm-strid night, winds footing swift
Through the blind profound;
I know the happenings from their sound;
Leaves totter down still green, and spin and drift;
The tree-trunks rock to their roots, which wrench and lift
The loam where they run onward underground.

The streams are muddy and swollen; eels migrate
To a new abode;
Even cross, ’tis said, the turnpike-road;
(Men’s feet have felt their crawl, home-coming late):
The westward fronts of towers are saturate,
Church-timbers crack, and witches ride abroad.

—Thomas Hardy, c 1925

 

 

 

 

 

It was early in October when the sky was terribly uncertain that I decided to set out on a journey. I could not help feeling vague misgivings about the future of my journey, as I watched the fallen leaves of autumn being carried away by the wind.

From this day forth
I shall be called a wanderer,
Leaving on a journey
Thus among the early showers.

You will again sleep night after night
Nestled among the flowers of sasanqua.

Basho, from “The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel”

 

 

 

 

 

The last leaf that is going to fall has fallen.
The robins are là-bas, the squirrels, in tree-caves,
Huddle together in the knowledge of squirrels.

–Wallace Stevens, from “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”

 

Commonplace Book: NYTimes Book Review Tidbits

Actually had time & inclination to read most of the NYTimes Sunday Book Review today. (Editing standards have gotten a tad rickety there of late, but this issue was enjoyable.)

Three quotes to share:
From a review of a new bio of socialite and Bunny Mellon by Meryl Gordon comes this tidbit,

“I don’t really come here to pray,” Mellon once told the rector of an Episcopal church in the Norman medieval style that she financed and help designed. “I come in to talk with God because he’s a dear, dear friend of mine.”

Second, a Q&A wherein it is revealed that the real Roz Chast is just like the characters she draws. Q: “What kinds of books bring you the most reading pleasure these days?  A: …Right now I’m listening to “The Old Curiosity Shop.” Listening to a book while working on a craft project, like hooking a rug or embroidering, is my idea of a really good time.”

That it sounds good to me too (minus the crafty part) is perhaps TMI.

Finally from John Williams’ column, pegged to podcasts and a book by Marc Maron of WTF fame:

“Talking about his own tumultuous relationship with his dad, Bruce Springsteen told Maron: ‘People don’t end up in my circumstance who generally had these very placid, loving, very happy fulfilled lives. It’s not how you become a rock-and-roll star.”

Vinyl Rarities

Trying to do some research on liquidating a large collection of classical LPs (“good luck with that” is what I keep hearing), I happened on this fascinating list of valuable vinyl. No idea how up-to-date or authoritative it is, but fun to browse.

http://rateyourmusic.com/list/yerblues/vinyl_fetish__a_list_of_some_of_the_most_valuable_vinyl_records/

Not surprisingly, unusual pressings of The Beatles figure prominently, but there is something even rarer, a single pressing of a 1927 blues recording that will set you back a cool 60K, if you can find it. But like the famous “Inverted Jenny” or  Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” likely to be rare on the ground..

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 1.15.42 PMInverted_Jenny.tamerlane

 

Nerd Words: Fallacies of Data Science

Good piece  by Shane Brennan on Medium about the realities of data science in day-to-day working life (in contrast with how it’s taught).

His ten fallacies:

1. The data exists.
2. The data is accessible.
3. The data is consistent.
4. The data is relevant.
5. The data is intuitively understandable.
6. The data can be processed.
7. Analyses can be easily re-executed.
8. Where we’re going we don’t need encryption.
9. Analytics outputs are easily shared and understood.
10. The answer you’re looking for is there in the first place.

I have always considered Excel primarily a medium for creative expression!

He is writing about a business context–for instance where Google Analytics, and its attendant woes, are likely to play a big role in answering a client’s marketing strategy question. But what struck me about his fallacies is their aptness in worlds I hang in–journalism and education. Data journalism is, of course, the flavor of the week, month, and year, and no doubt it is of value–but it is sometimes seen like a magic toolbox that can be used without an hypothesis, without a real data set, and, most importantly, no clear idea of what would actually constitute a newsworthy answer to the query.

I know there are data journalism efforts that don’t fall pray to Brennan’s list,  but I wonder how many. In particular, overcoming that last point in the affirmative is a high bar. Is the information really there for the finding? Reminds me of a quote from Confucius.

“The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat.”–Confucius

(As for education, I’ll save my gripes about use and misuse of data for another day.)

Lists All Around Us

Are we in a list moment? They seem to be all around us, even gaining their own silly term, listicle. But humans and lists go way back (one of the earliest cuneiform relics is of course a list of kings). List making is perhaps definitional of humans (my list of potential blog entries, most never written, could be my own exhibit A).

This all occurred to me perusing the plethora of lists on Gramophone’s web site. (Gramophone is a classical music magazine published in the UK, and mostly concerned with reviews of recordings. It’s been around a long time and this, plus its focus on classics, is basis for dismissing it out of hand, or treasuring it. I alternate positions.)

Like most digital publications, Gramophone has gotten in line with lists in a big way. Playlists on many topics (Hall of Fame Sopranos, Great Violinists, Inspirational Castratos (that is modern performances of work original written for castratos, not modern inspirational castratos, I hasten to say). This push you to a streaming service after you have read a pithy paragraph or two. I was pleased that the violin list  reminded me of how wonderful the fiddling of Arthur Grumiaux was.

They also have numerous compilation lists, “50 Greatest Chopin Recordings” “50 Greatest Schubert Recordings” and so forth. Since they are aiming at record collectors, and we are nerds by definition, they also have “The 50 Greatest Classical Recordings You’ve (Probably) Never Heard.” (If you want a count, I own or have owned three of the 50  (am a streamer now), heard some others, but more than a few are tantalizing unknowns to me: to wit, soprano Gertrud Grob-Prandl,  & composer, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer; I also didn’t know Stokowski did one of his technicolor arrangements of Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music” with the Houston Symphony–(a whole LP of magic fire for reals?)

Although music is ideal fodder for listomania, it’s hardly limited to that. Every bookstore I go in seems to have at least some entries in book series titled “1000 [insert noun here] before you die” with varied nouns:
Places to see
Books to Read
Songs to Listen To
etc.

The spoof writes itself, just slot in a different noun:

1000 Episodes of Law and Order to See Before You Die
1000 Starbucks Latte Varieties to Drink Before You Die
1000 Arguments to Have With Your Spouse, Children, Roommate, Dog About Where They Leave Their Stuff

Granted mine don’t have the ‘bucket list’ frisson of visiting Corfu or reading Ulysses, but they do have the virtue of being easily achieved.
Oddly, there is, at least as far as I know, no parallel “1000” series about things to avoid (call it the anti-bucket list). The 1000 Books Not To Read Before You Die (so many choices!) would be a hit I bet. I can contribute a few entries.

In addition to being easy, lists do emit at least a weak signal as a bit of rhetoric. Little doubt that most composition teachers and editors would discourage lists in prose. Writing-wise their challenges (parallel or not? what order? list within lists?) aren’t very taxing (certainly not the furniture moving-level effort required in the typical essay).

Yet they are writing, and sometimes can shine. That list of guests at Gatsby’s party is a miracle. And lists spin through Stephen Millhauser’s magical novels. Just now, I’m deep into Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, inspired by the life of naturalist and poet Edward Thomas, whose guides to rambling through the British Isles are quiet classics, and whose bleak-beautiful poetry is newly appealing to me. Macfarlane has this delectable bit for the list-o-mane.

pilgrim paths
green roads
drove roads
corpse roads
trods
leys
dykes
drongs
sarns
snickets

he goes on “—say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite–holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.”

Macfarlane’s book is beautifully written, and carries its literary and geographic learning with a light touch.

There is, of course, course another famous list, Ko-Ko’s from The Mikado of potential victims for the Lord High Executioner. Frequently updated, but at its most swell, perhaps, in Martyn Green’s classic recording.

So that ends today’s list!

Igor Levit and Copy Editors

A couple of things tipped by the NYTimes:

First, pianist Igor Levit’s encore from the first night of the BBC Proms a few days ago:

This is the Ode to Joy, aka the Official Anthem of the European Union, in an arrangement by Franz Liszt. A Russian-German pianist, playing an iconic piece of music by greatest composer in the classical canon, as arranged by perhaps the most cosmopolitan pan-European of composers. Not only a beautiful performance (capping a dazzling take on  Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in C minor) but in London, in July 2017, for a worldwide audience: making an eloquent vote for unity rather than division during fractious times.

 

On a different note, the Times also has a poignant take on the layoff (and restructuring) of copy editing at “The Grey Lady.”  (This may be behind a paywall–sorry.)

 

 

If you don’t work in the scribbling trade or hang with people who do, you may not be aware of copyediting, its storied past, and uncertain future. As the Times piece points out, it is the immune system of any serious publication. Copy readers correct spelling, grammar, and usage errors, and vastly improve writing, often one tiny fix at a time: changes that tighten, clarify, and smooth out prose. They also impose ‘house style’ on a publication, which though derided and often annoying to writers (the diaereses in “reëlect” and “coöperate” that The New Yorker insists on must vex to all concerned), still matters. Style guides save time, e.g,, no ad hoc decision on the serial comma necessary. And they regularize content, be it in print or online and this helps readers, humans or algorithms, parse sentences.

Copyediting is an odd skill (and I certainly can’t do it). You have to read both for content understanding, which provides the context for the piece of writing, but also attend assiduously to the surface level in order to catch those mechanical issues. For a general interest newspaper, you also have to have a sixth sense about working with up wildly varying content. (When my mother was in journalism school in the 1940s, the professors handed out the copy-editing test then in use at the Times. It was a complicated story about auto-racing, and nobody, including my mother who had a sharp pencil, did very well.)

Copyreaders also write headlines and captions for photos (cutlines), an art in itself, and a task that is complicated now that print, web, and social media headlines have to be created. It would seem an odd moment to reduce this workforce, but the challenges papers are up against are mighty.

One unremarked benefit of copy editing, at least in my case, is the education in writing that a really good line editor/copy editor can provide. Although I have had lots of experience in writing and editing in most of my jobs, it was when I worked on book-length manuscripts for websites (ironically for a TV station) and had professional editors from the publishing world scrub my own and other writers’ copy–in those far off days with red ink on manuscript–that I really figured out how to clean up prose. (I was in my late 30s!)  An editorial assistant and I worked through this mark up, discussing each change as we finished the website. These editors fixed the mechanical errors, but more importantly pressed hard on the writing itself, flagging and fixing anything fusty, flabby, or unfocused, and pointing out where the rhythm, sense, or precision was lacking. Their reworks of things were eye-opening, even when I took issue with them.

There is nothing like this for improving your own prose (and your ability to edit others’ work). It wasn’t part of my writing education, now some years back, and I wonder if it is any more frequent today.  (The revered writing teacher Don Murray, a former Boston Globe writer and UHN prof, recommended something very similar in his writing workshops and it’s possible that it is more common.)  As Murray points out, writing is a process, editing and revising being key. And also is much more of a team sport than would seem apparent from high school and college assignments. The grim private penance of slogging through a 500 word theme or term paper, is, for me at least, completely different from writing for a sharp-eyed editor who is out to improve your writing; things go so much better when you are engaged in a process together, and working towards an effective draft.

I’m sure the Times of all places is not turning its back on editing, but still, there is something less than reassuring about the prestige press going public about not needing so many of those squirrelly, superb, and effective people who read copy.

Being a Better Helper

Have you ever asked somebody for computer help? Been asked? Offered advice unasked?  Received said unsolicited advice?

I’ve been in all four categories, and I suspect anybody reading this blog has as well. It can be a grim business the ‘computer helping’ game. (If I did reality shows instead of educational media, I’d pitch ‘Family Tech Support’ intense relationship drama. Probably too full of bad language for cable even. “But I don’t even see the enter key any where? Why the #$#!~*& is it called enter if it means ‘return?” A question for the ages.)

But there’s hope: earlier today, I encountered the best advice for helping somebody use a computer I’ve seen–and it’s 21 years old. Comes from a post by the Phil Agre, who was then at UCLA. The entire thing is at http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/ but here is the first bit…

Computer people are fine human beings, but they do a lot of harm in the ways they “help” other people with their computer problems. Now that we’re trying to get everyone online, I thought it might be helpful to write down everything I’ve been taught about helping people use computers.

First you have to tell yourself some things:

Nobody is born knowing this stuff.

You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.

 

Good advice for teaching in general…Speaks to keeping the experience and the goals of the learner in mind, rather than a primary focus on what the teacher is doing. Simple, but hard to do…

Tip of the hat to www.librarian.net/stax/4749/ask-a-librarian-when-do-you-touch-a-patrons-computer/ for the link.

Commonplace Book: William Trevor

Reading William Trevor’s After Rain, had avoided the late Irish short story writer and novelist, as he was often paired with Chekhov, something which seemed overblown to me. (When any writer gets heaps of adulation, and friends clutch your elbow and say “you must read this” my default reaction is resistance. )

But the Chekhov comparison is not overblown. Trevor explores similar themes, subtle but devastating moments of personal choice, and the cadence of the his prose, (also like Chekhov’s or at least Constant Garnett’s translation thereof) is quiet, but musical in its restraint. No detail is extra. Here’s family dinner at the Leesons in “Lost Ground,”

after_rainHaving paused while the others were served– that, too, being a tradition in the family– Milton began to eat again. He liked the champ best when it was fried. You could warm it in the oven or in a saucepan, but it wasn’t the same. He liked crispness in his food– fingers of a soda farl fried,  the spicy skin of a milk pudding,  fried champ. His mother always remembered that. Milton sometimes thought that his mother knew everything about him and he didn’t mind: it made him fond of her that she bothered. He felt affection for her when she sat by the Esse on winter’s evenings or by the open back door in the summer, sewing and darning. She never read the paper and only glanced up at the television occasionally. His father read the paper from cover to cover and never missed the television News. When Milton was younger he’d been afraid of his father, although he’d since realized that you knew where you were with him, which came from the experience of working with him in the fields and the orchards. ‘He’s fair,’ Mrs. Leeson used to repeat when Milton was younger, “Always remember that.” 


Trevor was also a master of crafting a  deft, quietly devastating last move in a short story. Novels mostly need ‘finales’; short stories can end with a stab to the heart. (Nothing better in this line than the end of “The Lottery.” Annie Proulx is no slouch either, “There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.”)

Part of what makes these endings possible is that stories are quick glances, not synoptic panoramas. From the obit for him in the Guardian.

“…In a 1989 interview, Trevor compared writing short stories to impressionist art. “I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art,”

Creative Commons New Image Search

Creative Commons (the effort to provide a platform and legal framework for individuals to share their work legally through a simple licensing scheme) has released a prototype multi-source image search. For anybody who has looked for images to use by going to individual websites and repeating the same search laboriously (bloggers, media producers, and the like) this is potentially a real time saver.

One search result:

A nice shot of the Peabody Library in Baltimore. Courtesy of Kimberly Vaderman.