Wednesday
Sep192007

NYT Ending Times Select Service

Ding dong, the witch is dead.  The New York Times is putting the kibosh on its Times Select subscription service.  But it was so annoying, you say.  Why do they want to stop annoying me so?

 The move is an acknowledgment by The Times that making Web site visitors pay for content would not bring in as much money as making it available for free and supporting it with advertising.

“We now believe by opening up all our content and unleashing what will be millions and millions of new documents, combined with phenomenal growth, that that will create a revenue stream that will more than exceed the subscription revenue,” [General Manager Vivian] Schiller said. 

Well, I get Maureen Dowd for free from now on, so I can know what all the cool kids are talking about.  The part I’m most excited about is this:

Starting on Wednesday, access to the archives will be available for free back to 1987, and as well as stories before 1923, which are in the public domain, Schiller said.

Some changes are going to begin appearing as early as tonight.  Fantastic. 

Sunday
Sep162007

The Poetry of Spam: Part II

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A while ago, I wrote about some bizarre sentences showing up in the spam emails I had been getting.  The usual form the language took was something like “growncoriander in causedcomfortable,” basically gibberish.  Well, I was sifting through my spam filter today (what if my Nobel nomination gets mislabeled?) and I happened on something really striking.  Instead of the usual pitches for Cialis and porn, there were phrases like this one: “A rabbit carcass in its stiffened fur.”

Not only was this not about hardcore sluts or enlarging things that are really quite fine the way they are, the line didn’t sound like the usual spam gibberish either. It was also a reasonably proficient image, from a poetic standpoint, and nicely worded, forgiving the morbidity of the image itself.  Where had it come from?  Are spammers, figuring that they have to fill their missives with something anyway, trying their hands at poetry?  Are there some undiscovered Rimbauds or Emily Dickinsons out there, whose chosen medium is the ephemeral, infinitely ignorable electronic tableau of spam?

In short, probably not.

As with the gibberish emails I had already been getting, these emails are collections of statistically improbable phrases.  By filling an email with unusual language,  the hope is to confuse spam filters into thinking a message is genuine.  The strategy does not appear to be succeeding at its primary goal (staying out of my junk file), but is succeeding in stringing together some pretty vivid language.

Googling (as I am wont to do) “rabbit carcass in its stiffened fur” brought up, to my surprise, a number of websites devoted to chronicling these kinds of random assemblages of statistically improbably phrases, particularly Hell Archive and Spamdom (which proposes to catalogue “the wisdom hidden inside unwanted email”).  Some examples of spam messages including the rabbit line (I found a bunch) are:

Hoarfrost is in his bones and on his head, Empty streets I come upon by chance, And all at once it is the meadow I walked in at ten, In realms of dingy gloom and deep crevasse. A rabbit carcass in its stiffened fur. The pain of being born into matter. That open before me? What I see indeed, the bit of paint itself can know of. And still my mind goes groping in the mud to bring wonders if she’d ever be brave enough This perfection, this absence. Set on that tomb in the eternal night; Dim, and die tonight? snoozing. A schoolgirl on vacation gapes, He never even dreams, being sheer snow; The form sought for centuries by at balls hit again and again toward her offspring. I seek, above all, in the wandering Beneath a pile of corpses, lying massed.

And and this one, which I assume Spamdom has delineated for us:

 Looms in the air, deliberate and slow,
Covering the land—
And still my mind goes groping in the mud to bring
Père and Mère Chose could be in conversation
whose soft bristles graze the top-racks.
A rabbit carcass in its stiffened fur.
This gap in time, this season not their own,
they sit with their wives all day in the sun,
The winged winds, captives of that age-old foe
In the woods, close by,
With my foot the supple ball, for perhaps
For any part of them we can make out
visitors’ dugout. The osprey whose nest is atop
Against this sky no longer of our world.
With its lament, it often sounds, instead,
Dismal, endless plain—
Preface to the 1970 Edition
Is it almost honey, is it snow?
into early blooming. Then, the inevitable blizzard

Now this is very bad poetry by any standard, but there are some passages that work quite well.  In fact, line by line, there’s some great stuff.  There are also places where the lines obviously do not follow, prepositions stack up between clauses, and so on.  “Preface to the 1970 Edition” is especially out of place.  It feels like a collage.

So where does our rabbit phrase really come from?  I did find it, after a while.  It’s from a poem by Robert Pack called “Midwinter Thaw” that you can read here (scroll about half way, or click on his name).  In fact, all of the phrases in both poems seem to come from this page, titled Poems for a Long Winter’s Night, rearranged in different ways.  Why a spammer would choose the University of Chicago Press as their secret weapon against the spam filters of the world, we may never know.  But it does make for interesting reading.

Friday
Sep142007

Non-Errors

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One of the hardest things to teach Freshmen writers is that many of the errors they’ve been taught to fear in high schol are not really errors at all. The phobia surrounding the ending of sentences with prepositions is a perfect example. Students lock up because, first of all, they aren’t sure what a preposition is, and secondly, they can’t figure out why it’s wrong to end a sentence with one. Telling students that prepositions are usually fine at the ends of sentences doesn’t do much to allay their fears.  Which of the old-school rules do they keep and which do they throw away?  There are still some rules, right?

Paul Brians has come up with a helpful list of non-errors in English (as a companion to his list of common errors).  What I like most are the explanations for each entry, which do a great job treating non-errors rhetorically.  Consider the discussion of split infinitives:

For the hyper-critical, “to boldly go where no man has gone before” should be “to go boldly. . . .” It is good to be aware that inserting one or more words between “to” and a verb is not strictly speaking an error, and is often more expressive and graceful than moving the intervening words elsewhere; but so many people are offended by split infinitives that it is better to avoid them except when the alternatives sound strained and awkward.

The problem with a split infinitive isn’t that it’s wrong, it’s that “so many people are offended.”  Are you (the student) in a position where the delicate sensibilities of prescriptive grammarians are something you need to care about?  On the other hand, will your audience read “to go boldly” as an unnecessary stilting of a perfectly natural phrase?  Those are the kinds of distinctions a young writer should be losing sleep over, not correctness vs. incorrectness. 

Brians also introduces the phrase “incorrect hyper-correction” a little later, which is a demon of a phrase I’m going to start inserting into my student comments.  [Via Coudal]

Monday
Sep102007

How We Read

Researchers in the UK have made some interesting observations about what your eyes are doing when you read.  In short, they are not behaving:

The team’s results demonstrated that both eyes lock on to the same letter 53% of the time; for 39% of the time they see different letters with uncrossed eyes; and for 8% of the time the eyes are crossing to focus on different letters.

A follow-up experiment with the eye-tracking equipment showed that we only see one clear image when reading because our brain fuses the different images from our eyes together.

Via Slashdot.

Saturday
Sep012007

Phil Collins: Gorilla My Dreams

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Do not hesitate to click this link.  Don’t read on until you have.  This is important, possibly the most important thing that has ever happened on the Internet.

It’s hard to say when you’ll be ready for Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.”  If that last sentence made you chuckle at all, then you aren’t there yet.  For every person on this earth (and some animals), there is a specific time and place where this song will reach deep inside you and run its slick fingers along your spine.  Nothing can stop it from happening, so you might as well make your peace with the fact, and begin preparing yourself.

I resisted the song.  I think the first time I heard it would have been as a kid, in North Carolina, at the big, man-made lake where we swam in the summer.  There was a concession stand, and I’m pretty sure they played “In The Air Tonight” two or three times an hour.  So, while I had some fond memories associated with it, the song itself didn’t do much for me.

They play it in the grocery store for Christ’s sake.

Then, in Atlanta a few years ago, it got me.  I had just been watching some friends read at a Pop Culture conference at the Marriott downtown, and we were looking for somewhere to eat lunch.  This was in a very touristy part of town, and all we could find was the Hard Rock Cafe, which was full of pre-prom highschoolers in flouncy pastel dresses and their dad’s tuxes.  We were at a crowded table, and our waiter was one of those over-friendly, “Hey, buddy,” kind of guys, so I was pretty miserable.  And somehow, the hyper-sexual adolescents, and the bad music, and the conversation at the table, and the low-level roar of Pop Culture itself that is the Hard Rock Cafe reached a kind of resonance, a crescendo, and then…”In the Air Tonight.”

It is a difficult thing for me to explain.  It just hit me.  I was ready, and it was playing on a hundred televisions at once.

The song itself is gibberish, by the way.  There are some pretty elaborate theories about what it might mean, but I can’t attach any specific images or meaning to the words.  I don’t generally enjoy Collins’ voice, either, and the synths are a bit over-wrought.

Anyway, this short video of a gorilla playing drums perfectly captures the feeling I’m trying to describe.  The anticipation is so agonizing and exquisite.  The gorilla is waiting, as Phil Collins sings, for a “moment,” and when that moment comes, something big is going to happen.  And it will be impossible for you to miss, because it will be heralded by drums.

 (Via DF)

Friday
Aug032007

Revision as Zombie Killin'

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This is why I love A List Apart.  The editors, on a very fundamental level, understand writing.  The newest issue of ALA includes 3 articles about the importance of strong, clear writing on the web.  Writing is what we cobbled together this whole ad-hoc electronic world from in the first place, and yet writing remains an afterthought in most web design, literally, something to be filled in once the real heavy lifting has been done.

There’s a lot to enjoy about issue 242.  My favorite is a repost of Erin Kissane’s “Attack of the Zombie Copy”, in which revision is treated as a hack-and-slash battle with zombified text.  And you know what, that’s perfect metaphor for what revision is.  “Hit ’em in the head, right between the eyes,” Erin says.  “Expose the brain.”

The problem with revision is that it’s been poorly marketing by elementary and secondary English teachers.  Most writers know that revision is where the real magic happens, taking lazy phrases and skeletal ideas and pruning them into something readable.  Or, you know, stabbing the adverbs in their damn hearts.

But brainstorming, planning, and the thrill of invention are what I grew up learning about.  Very rarely was I required to write a second draft.  First idea, best idea.  How long did it take for me to figure out that it was the hundred-and-thirteenth draft, not the first, that was going to best capture the spirit of the idea?  For-freaking-ever.  Maybe if it had been explained in terms my adolescent brain could understand and appreciate (like fighting the evil armies of the undead) I could have learned this simple lesson before college.

The other (newer) articles at ALA are also quite brilliant, and deal with the interaction of writing and design on the web.  They are going to be required reading in my computer-aided publishing course (an InDesign class for Professional Writing majors) this Fall.  I cannot reccomend recommend them enough.

Monday
Jul302007

The Word "Organic" and Literary Criticism

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma has been keeping me up at night, with the kind of dread and suspense I usually find in a horror novel (or John le Carre).  On its face, the book is an investigation of the disconnect between modern man and his own food chain, but Pollan writes with gathering alarm as he explains in vivid detail how much petroleum is actually in the food we eat, or how corn has been teased apart and reconstructed into so many different substances that it’s turning us supposed ominvores into surprisingly one-track eaters.

One part that I’ve been thinking about a lot (and you’ll see my vanity poking out if you pay attention) is Pollan’s tale of a trip to Whole Foods to buy some organic milk:

This particular dairy’s label had a lot to say about the bovine lifestyle: Its Holsteins are provided with “an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area…sufficient space, proper facilities and the company of their own kind.”  All this sounded pretty great, until I read the story of another dairy selling raw milk—completely unprocessed—whose “cows grazed green pastures all year long.”  Which made me wonder whether the first dairy’s idea of an appropriate environment for a cow included, as I had simply presumed, a pasture.  All of a sudden the absence from their story of that word seemed weirdly conspicuous.  As the literary critics would say, the writer seemed to be eliding the whole notion of cows and grass.  Indeed, the longer I shopped at Whole Foods, the more I thought that this is a place where the skills of a literary critic might come in handy…

Now, as somebody with more than a little training (and a little less than a doctorate) in literary criticism, I feel myself singled out in this passage.  Pollan may just be making a rhetorical point about the convolution of marketing copy, but he hits on one of the central dilemma’s of literary studies:  What, if anything, should a literary critic do besides, you know, criticize literature?

Before I get to that, let’s look at the word “organic” as it appears today.  Pollan does a great job describing the really vulgar state of organic certification, and the violence the FDA is doing to official definition of the word.  If you look at this database of petitioned substances, you’ll see a lot of synthetic crap trying to worm its way into supposedly “organic” food.  How much of it will be approved is anyone’s guess.

But that’s the official definition, and as anyone halfway finished with their Ph.D. coursework will tell you, official definitions don’t amount to a hillabeens in the face of common usage. When we use the word organic, as nebulous as it may be, we are almost certainly not referring to food with seven varieties of benzene in it.  In fact, the word organic is at a crucial historical moment, as Pollan points out, with the popularity of organic products having exploded into the fastest growing niche in the food industry (about $11 billion a year).  Who gets to define this word, and who gets to control the organic narrative, will have a profound effect on how we eat.

Where do the critics come in?  Organic is largely a marketing term, and literature students are unconcerned with marketing terms (unless they’re some kind of pop culture heathens). They are, however, concerned with the interpretation of narrative, and they have been falling down on their jobs as narrative becomes a larger and larger part of the way news and industry persuade the public.  And that’s a shame, because as Pollan points out, students of literary criticism are not only some of the best-trained professionals for spotting a conceptual bait-and-switch like the one being perpetrated in the milk carton example, they posses the vocabulary and methods of investigation to combat the dairy narrative’s seeming stability. There’s nothing a literature student loves more than pointing out an alternative reading, one that undermines assumptions and highlights inherent contradictions.

Linguists and rhetoricians are, of course, vital to the discussion, as are the writers and advertising professionals, but in the peculiarly compelling world of narrative in which we find ourselves, it’s the literary critics who have recused themselves entirely.  Why?  Because literature students study literature, plain and simple.  That’s a shame, because what could be better than a bookish young lad or lass pushing their glasses up high on their nose and saying to some poor PR representative, “Uhm, actually, the narrative on this milk carton presupposes a stable, coherent definition of the word organic, and conflates the idea or cow with grass, when when both of these concepts are necessarily in flux.”

Did you read that with a nasally, grad student whine?  I can have them quote Foucault if you want.

But seriously, in an age where narrative is having such dire consequences, such sweeping effects on the public consciousness, why are the scholars of narrative so content to be holed up in the attics of universities, so conspicuously absent?  You could say that nobody cares what a literary critic has to say about the world anymore, but I can tell you, as someone on the inside, the literary critics are not exactly wearing our their voices trying to get anybody to listen.

Wednesday
Jul182007

Dylan Moran Will Break Your Stupid Heart, Idiot.

The thing about dark comedy is that it seems to operate under completely different rules than regular, “ha-ha” comedy.  If comedy presents itself as friendly tickle, dark comedy is more of a downward stabbing motion into your chest cavity.  Most of the time it’s hard to tell why you’re laughing, and the rest of the time, you know you probably shouldn’t be.  YouTube (god bless it and keep it) has a treasure trove of stand-up by one of the greatest living dark comedians, Dylan Moran, and you really owe it to yourself and your family to watch “Stop You’re Killing Me,” his Amnesty International show.  Here’s a hint: he is not at all polite about the motives of someone who goes to a “hip charity” gala.

The most interesting moment for me is at about the 1:45 mark, when Moran begins telling a story about how he and his brothers were brought up by his father, because his mother had died.  Now, without ruining it for you, the story becomes pretty hilarious, but you’re sort of left wondering, “Was any of that true?” Wikipedia (may its fortunes decrease) is unhelpful on the subject of Moran’s dead mother, and he doesn’t mention her in interviews.  The point is, how could this be a joke, or even part of a joke.  What’s funny about a dead mom? 

Victor Raskin, the brilliant linguist, wrote a semantic description of jokes back in 1985 that identified a mechanism called “script opposition,” that is, the joke-teller sets up an expected response, with the actual punchline being not only unexpected, but somehow “opposed” to the expected one.  Now, this is a 22-year-old theory, but  the principle of script opposition is still a helpful way of looking at humor because it can explain why we laugh at things which are not, ostensibly, funny in the slightest.  In fact, a great deal of what we laugh at is, outside of the context of a joke, horrible. 

If I had to attempt a definition, I’d say that dark comedy is the vicious foregrounding of this dichotomy.

If you keep watching, you’ll hear a joke about George W. Bush sending 98 million black single mothers to the electric chair.  It’s an amazing set, but one that is constantly challenging your expectations and prickling your conscience.  It’s hard to say what he’s getting at.  If he were only interested in entertainment, there are safer jokes to tell (cf. Dane Cook).  It may be that the best way to get across your deep dissatisfaction with the world is to make people laugh at it, and leave them wondering, “What the hell was so funny?”

P.S. The concept of dark comedy is so pernicious that David Mikics’ recently published A New Handbook of Literary Terms (2007) pretty much ignores it.

Monday
May142007

Blogging as Freshman Composition

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Next fall, a few colleagues and I who teach Introductory Composition will begin experimenting with a full-on blogging curriculum in our classes. This goes beyond merely incorporating blogging into the composition classroom; the majority of the students’ production over the course of the semester (along with some short audience analyses and reflective essays) will be writing regularly updated content.  Students will team up across our sections, four or five to a blog.  These will not be personal blogs, but will follow outside interests and industries, and engage with existing communities.

Why are we doing this?  Well, I suspect each of my colleagues would answer the question differently (for more information on this particular cat sans bag, check here and here).  One hope is that this strategy will take the idea of “audience” firmly out of the realm of “thought experiment” and make it a palpable influence on student writing.  Another is that it will prepare them for a world in which writing for the web is a very marketable skill.  My favorite reason, though, has to do with the production cycle, and how the composition classroom, until now, has been unable to accurately simulate what writing really is.

Let’s examine the life  of an academic paper, first as a classroom assignment, then as an actual published article.  The process for the former (depending on the student) probably looks like this:

compcycle1.gif 

Pretty straightforward.  Note that the word revision doesn’t appear.  It’s been my experience that, unless revision is a part of the assignment, most students don’t revise in any meaningful way.  Even proof-reading is expecting a lot.

Now let’s look at how articles are published in peer-reviewed journals:

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And that’s the most oversimplified explanation I can give of the dryest genre of writing.  The traditional composition classroom simply cannot account for the utter insanity that is writing for the public.  What excites me the most about blogging in the composition classroom is the messiness it accounts for. 
 
Writing is not sitting at a computer in your dorm room, alone with your thoughts, but it can seem that way to the beginning writer.  There are so many other concerns besides the desires of the writer (to make a point, to get an A) that to not provide these kinds of influences, forces, and audiences is to almost completely miss the point of writing.
 
When you post something on a website (and, god forbid, it receives attention) the stakes are suddenly very high, higher than for most student writing, and almost or just as high as print publication.  And that’s what my colleagues and I hope to do next semester: raise the stakes in Freshmen Composition.  Stay tuned.

Friday
May112007

The Reasons for Writing a Book

I suppose it’s a good idea, when embarking on a larger project like writing a book (or starting a blog), to ask your self why you’re doing it.  It’s funny, though, how often the question only occurs to you after you’ve begun, and are quite far along. 

My feeling is that you can’t answer the big “how come” until you’ve started, which is not to argue against intentionality, per se, but to allow for the fact that the initial intention almost always pales before the actual work.

In 1991, Elizabeth Rottenburg translated a short piece by Georges Bataille called “The Reasons for Writing a Book” which was published in Yale French Studies.  It’s an amazing, one-page declaration of Bataille’s particular desires and intentions, so far as he can state them.  There is really nothing like it for brevity and frankness:

The reasons for writing a book can be traced back to a desire to modify the relations that exist between a man and his fellow creatures.  The extant relations are judged unacceptable and are percieved as an agonizing affiction.

Yet as I wrote this book I discovered I was powerless to remedy this affliction.  At a certain point, the desire for human interactions that are perfectly clean and that escape general convention becomes a desire for annihilation.  Not that interactions of this order are impossible, but that they are conditioned by the death of the one who proposes them.

How’s that for death of the author?  What I like about Bataille’s thought here is the acceptance at the outset of the futility of the project.  Even the best writing can’t perfectly effect the intentions of the author, can’t shape the world completely to their liking.  That wouldn’t be writing, that would be magic.  And writing a book isn’t futile because it’s impossible (people do it all the time), but because the reason for doing so is tied up with other people, with all the “extant relations” that can never be completely fixed or finished (until you die). 

So why would you write?  If you can’t change the world, what can you do?  The answer is, for me at least, as much as you can.  The good that a book (or a blog) does is immeasurable, but it is not nothing.  And sometimes, a piece of writing does get through to people and help enact real change.  This, by the way, is also my answer to the question, “What can you teach?” which I think is an especially persistent question for writing teachers.  Most people who have never taught any kind of writing (and many who have) often say that you can’t teach writing.  That gets us writing teachers down.  “If writing can’t be taught, then what do I teach?”  As much as you can.

Bataille ends by explaining why on earth, if he feels so bad about writing, he persists in doing it:

When at some time or another my attiditude will have become intelligible which, it seems to me, cannot fail to happen, it will be sufficiently clear that my attitude is tied to a hatred for authority that does not accept the possibility of defeat. 

And that’s what makes this essay for me, the certainty of defeat and the unwillingness to accept it.  It’s the bravado of it I suppose, or the tragedy. It’s like that last scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Butch and Sundance, cornered, hounded to the ends of the earth, leap out into a hail of bullets, their last stand.  That’s what writing a book ought to be, or a blog.  Crazy and inevitable and doomed to fail. 

This blog is going to be about all kinds of writing (creative, technical, professional, other), with a particular focus on how writing itself affects the way we see the world, the internet, each other.  Maybe I’ll know why later. 

P.S. Here’s an electronic version of “The Reasons for Writing a Book” you can download, if you roll with the JSTOR.

Monday
Apr092007

First Post: Emmexarkay

This post is going to have to serve as a placeholder for the time being.  I'd like to kick off this shindig with a little Henry Miller, as is my custom.  Please enjoy, and bear with me while I find the damn time.

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