Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I'd be a better me if I hated the iPad

David Pogue's twofold review of the iPad assumes the Eloi/Morlock distinction (explained here). Pogue doesn't use those words, but he writes two separate, widely diverging reviews, one for "techies" (=Morlocks) and one for everybody else (=Eloi).

What I find hilarious about this is how much I want the first review to be relevant to me . . . but I'm seduced by the second. I don't actually fit Pogue's description of a techie, and the Eloi review awakened within me deep longing for the device.

The key to understanding this paradox (hypocrisy?) is in Pogue's summary: "It’s not nearly as good for creating stuff. On the other hand, it’s infinitely more convenient for consuming it — books, music, video, photos, Web, e-mail and so on."

There you have it, folks. I want to believe that I'm creative, but I'm just a consumer. I will now take a deep breath and remind myself: Buying things can't make you creative.

I mentioned a while back Stevenf's prediction that New World computing belongs to the Eloi. The iPad is just the beginning. In some ways, this makes sense. Computational machines were always somewhat of a strange device for mass consumption. They can do so much more than home users need them to do. Winnowing things down to what people really use seems inevitable.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Small Town Opinions

For no particular reason, I find myself vigorously disagreeing with what people say about small towns.

It began when Adam Graber sent me a link to this review. I objected to several of the reviewer's notions: that small town culture is in decline (like any living culture, it's changing, not dying), that "when you want to write an epic, you set it in a city" (not sure what we're talking about--what's an example of a contemporary epic?), and that people in the Chicago suburbs call their metropolis "downtown," not "Chicago" or "the city" (here in Carol Stream, I mostly hear "the city").

None of these notions are at the heart of Crispin's review, but I'm always one to latch on to the incidental. If I come out with my small-town epic in 15 years, I'll have her to thank for getting me going. Here are some of the elements that an epic in a contemporary small town would have:

The rivalry with the small town down the road
One major employer that dominates the economy
Everyone goes to the (single) high school's sporting events
People go off to the military
The community college
The town you go to with the stores you don't have
The yearly town festival (parade, flea market, some wacky theme)
The radio station
Chautauqua/band shell
Layers of immigrant communities--anglo-saxons, scandinavians/germans, a few greek/jewish/asian merchants, latino laborers, african/asian refugees
You always know someone in the paper's obits, wedding announcements, and/or police blotter

What would you add to my list?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Marginal Member Blends

I knew what a portmanteau was in the Lewis Carroll sense long before I ever saw a non-Carrollian portmanteau. Actually, I've never seen a non-Carrollian portmanteau in the flesh, and I'm not sure exactly what it is, other than a sort of suitcase. Here's a picture of one, anyway:

(HT: I stole the picture from a blog about portmanteaux. If that's how you pluralize it.)

My Intro to Linguistics textbook chose to use the more dignified term blend to describe a word that combines two independent words (e.g., smoke + fog = smog). I've been wondering recently about what motivates people to coin blends. Obviously, pure inspiration and the delight of wordplay are a big part of it. You say the words and suddenly feel the joint where they can be collapsed into each other.

Some blends are halfway between their two constituents (brunch), or both constituents at the same time, even paradoxically so (frenemy).

The class of blends I refer to in the title of this post are those that describe an unusual, unexpected, or marginal member of a category. These take a head noun for the category and combine it with a modifier that shows the marginality.

For example, "Nick used to be a manny" (man + nanny). "This year we're going away for real: no more staycations" (stay + vacation). Webinar, etc.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

How to Use This Book (Or Else)

More authors ought to do this. Instead of writing a boring old dedication, write a curse. In a 1518 manuscript of the Gospels, Psalms, and a work called Thekaras, a scribe named Theophilos Iviritis wrote:

I beseech all who come across this book not to dare cut it up shamelessly, in order to take it apart and remove either the Gospels or the Psalter or Thekaras or any other office or part, or even a single leaf, but let it remain intact, just as it was written and bound by me. Should the binding become worn, may it be rebound just as it is now. If anyone should act against what I say, the curse of my sinful unworthy self be upon him. And may whoever owns this take care not to leave it lying idle on the shelf but always make full use of it; for this is why the book was written, so that he might not suffer the same condemnation as he who hid the talent. And if he should neglect his own salvation, let him give the book to another who cares greatly about being saved so that he might use it to gain the riches of heaven and to pray for my wretched self, who is responsible for a thousand wicked deeds and is unworthy of either heaven or earth. May the Lord have mercy upon me and deliver me from eternal damnation; therefore, I beseech you, all the holy fathers, to pray for me.
The Apocalypse famously contains a blessing on the one who reads it (probably referring specifically to the lector, the person reading it out loud in the church meeting) and a curse on anyone who tampers with it. Probably too heavy-handed a tactic for some, but it does promote that whole author-reader interaction thing.

(HT: Evangelical Textual Criticism)

Monday, March 08, 2010

KJV and me

The King James Version has had an immense impact on literature in English. Take, for example, this exchange (from Right Ho, Jeeves, also used as the opening riff of a Mark Steyn piece):

“Is he still upset about that income-tax money?”

“Upset is right. He says that Civilisation is in the melting-pot and that all thinking men can read the writing on the wall.”

“What wall?”

“Old Testament, ass. Belshazzar’s feast.”

“Oh, that, yes. I’ve often wondered how that gag was worked. With mirrors, I expect.”

There are a few phrases that I hold in my heart, waiting for my chance to drop them into conversation. One of these phrases is, of course, "I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin on the mountainside," which sounds like the Bible but isn't. Another of these phrases is "Old Testament, ass."

Anyway, Robert Alter has written a book about the KJV's impact on American lit in particular (HT: JT). Sounds entertaining. I'm doing that whole "read the Bible in a year" thing for the first time, and I decided to read the KJV because I'm largely unfamiliar with its "cadences and diction". I know a verse here and there, mostly from hearing them quoted by people from an earlier generation. It's striking how difficult it is to understand Paul's letters. The company I work for was born out of a man's desire to make Paul's letters understandable for his children. Take a slog through Romans in the KJV and you'll understand why The Living Bible was a hit.

There are some awesome phrases in the KJV, though. My current favorite is:
All that openeth the matrix is mine.
(Actually, I should admit that I'm mostly listening to the KJV while doing the cooking and the washing up. You can go to BibleGateway to listen to Screwtape read it.)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Brisket and Banks

When I married my wife, I got a lot in the bargain. Like what, you ask? Well, for example, my father-in-law can smoke a superb corned beef brisket. I don't even want to think about how sad it would be if I'd never experienced that corned beef, sliced paper thin, piled high on homemade rye bread, with white wine sauerkraut . . .

Another example: because my father-in-law served in the Navy, his daughter is eligible for membership in USAA. And because I lucked out and married her, I'm included as well. We have a credit card with USAA, as well as our car insurance, renter's insurance, and life insurance. The last time an eager beaver insurance agent foisted a car insurance quote on me, I pitied the poor soul. He couldn't come anywhere close to USAA's rate. And I doubt that his company would turn it's profits into a credit on my account, like USAA does.

What prompts this paean is the fact that I just opened a letter explaining changes to our credit card account because of new federal regulations. The letter and the card agreement were lucid, straightforward, and to the point.

Contrast this with my bank (TCF), which silently began charging a $2.50 monthly fee this February. When I called to complain, they were willing to stop charging it. But--they warned--my online banking statements would now only go back 60 days instead of 18 months. What was once free was now a premium.

Though in fairness to TCF, I was always pleased that their name wasn't in the news over the last year and a half. So I guess they're doing something right.

Monday, March 01, 2010

What digital books should look like

From A Working Library (but I'm just copying and pasting from Text Patterns)

On the page, the rhythm of the text emerges from both the macro design—the pleasing shape of the page, the proper amount of thumb space—and the micro—the right amount of leading, the evenness of the word spacing, the correct break of a line. On the screen, the rhythm of a text encompasses all of these things and more—the placement of a link, the shift from text to video and back again, the movement from one text to another. The rhythm becomes more complex as the orchestra gets larger, but the desire for rhythm does not subside.
In order to create this rhythm, the book must be designed and composed for the screen. A beautiful digital text can no more be arrived at by “converting” from a print design than a beautiful print book can be created by converting a Word file. The digital book will never come into its own so long as it is treated as a byproduct, unworthy of attention.
Furthermore, digital books should no more adhere to identical designs than their print counterparts; different types of writing, different voices and tempos, require unique approaches to design. The current crop of ebook formats were designed for the novel, and on that they do a fine job; but countless other texts—cookbooks, technical books, graphic novels, books on art, plays, verse—are rendered unreadable by that conformity. If the form of the book is changing, it ought to lead to more variety, not less.