Major in English But Don’t Be a Sucker

Last summer there were a spate of articles about why one should study English and the Humanities, why we need to shore up pursuits which invigorate creative thinking and, you know, existence. One of my favorites was Adam Gopnik’s essay in the New Yorker, where he explains why a civilization needs to carve out spaces where people can pursue meaningfulness and nourish soulfulness, one such place being what we call an English Department:

So: Why should English majors exist? Well, there really are no whys to such things, anymore than there are to why we wear clothes or paint good pictures or live in more than hovels and huts or send flowers to our beloved on their birthday. No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence.

I was reminded of this while reading an article on the lawsuit one of Snapchat’s founders, Reggie Brown, brought against his former partners, who have locked him out despite the germ of the idea being, apparently, his.

Or, perhaps, the fatal flaw of a Winklevoss-type is being an English major, as Brown was — a discipline known for producing imaginative thinkers but not for producing people capable of coding Web sites.

This article detailing the process of its development details the way the partnership went down, and then out.

That summer, the three fraternity brothers worked on the project together at Spiegel’s father’s house. While Spiegel designed the user interface and Murphy did the coding, Brown — the English major — was left in a subordinate role. Among his contributions, according to his lawsuit, was “Ghostface Chillah,” the app’s ghost logo. As chief marketing officer, Brown also wrote press releases and the terms of service.

Maybe every student should learn to code.

It’s About Delicacy, And Efficiency

I cannot resist videos of craftspeople at work. My fantasy, perhaps, of being such a worker, or wishing that I’d settled upon an art whose product was more immediately tangible, useful (and maybe saleable). I like knives, and one of those fantasies involves building a forge in the garage and fashioning Damascus steel, but who can say when/if that’s going to happen, what with so many poems in need of writing. In the meantime I’ll live through others, like Murray Carter, who apprenticed in Japan and is now a master bladesmith.

If like me you are into this genre of short film, you will admire this parody featuring the American Master Plunger.

The List is the Origin of Culture

If you like making lists, read here “The Amazing History of the To-Do List”, wherein is found this nugget from Umberto Eco:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

Eco’s entire interview is worthwhile. He’s assembled an exhibition at the Louvre on list-making and list-makers, attempting to explain the acts undiminished importance. Der Spiegel asks, “Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can’t be realistically completed?” To which Eco answers:

We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.

Belle Beth Cooper’s Fast Company article explores a few essentials of list-making along with some historical anecdotes (Break projects into tasks, Prioritize ruthlessly, Plan ahead, and Be realistic in your planning), of interest but no surprise to makers of lists (are there non-list-makers?)

I am a sucker for list-making tools, and own way more than I could possibly use. My favorite by far and is The Hit List, although its development is lapsed and its longterm fate unknown. It has an iPhone counterpart (but no iPad), for which one must pay to sync. I try to quit it, but keep coming back. I’ve also begun using a new iPhone app called Begin, which rather whole life task management is designed for daily lists, but does this with simplicity and style; imminently useful. I’m not sure I can recommend purchasing The Hit List, although I find it better by some stretch than Things or Omnifocus, the two apps most mentioned in its class (which, by the way, offer free sync across devices). On the iPhone other useful apps include Ita (not strictly a todo app, but a terrific list app) and Clear.

Four in the Morning: the Medley

Who knew there was such a thing as the Museum of Four in the Morning? I am only glad to know there are a few others who find that to be among the very best hours of the day, and are willing to curate the collection. I’m always depressed if I missed it, and saddened when its over.

Here’s one clip justifiably cited as a classic, from Rugrats, that didn’t make the random supercut above:

Breaking Bad/Marty Robbins Full Felina Sync

In case, like me, you didn’t deeply consider the full allusion to the Marty Robbins song “El Paso” for which the last episode (“Felina”) of Breaking Bad is named, this video will leave no doubt as to its perfect pitch and choice.

Affordable Care Act Helps Artists and Risk-Takers

In an economy that depends, fundamentally, upon people taking risks, the ACA should help make it more plausible for individuals to take a chance on their art, or their business idea. A post at ThinkProgress explores how this is already working.

What all of these stories make clear is that the Affordable Care Act matters to artists–just as it matters to a lot of entrepreneurs–because it makes it easier to take chances and carve out the time that makes it possible to pursue an artistic career. These aren’t folks who are demanding instant success, or a lot of money for their art, or even consistent rather than seasonal or contract employment. Instead, they’re people who want to lower their overall level of risk, and are more than willing to pay to afford to do so.

Banned Books of 2012

From the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom comes the latest list of banned books (there’s also the list of banned—”challenged”—classics).

  • Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey.
    Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.
    Reasons: Offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
  • Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher.
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group
  • Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James.
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
  • And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson.
    Reasons: Homosexuality, unsuited for age group
  • The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.
    Reasons: Homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  • Looking for Alaska, by John Green.
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
  • Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
    Reasons: Unsuited for age group, violence
  • The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison
    Reasons: Sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence

Jonathan Franzen: What’s Wrong With The World

It’s hard to disagree, unless you do. This is a long very interesting digressive exploration of his reading of the German social philosopher Karl Kraus. But this, among other things I just as well could have quoted, is where he ends up, an image of a world where basic human values expressed through, if not in, literature, have no space to flourish. The future imagined is not far-fetched.

In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels? As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring. And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers, because when you’re not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification (“Overnight free shipping!”).

Messy Desks and the Creative Life

A new study demonstrating clutter is next to god-like creative breakthroughs:

“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights,” a team of researchers led by the University of Minnesota’s Kathleen Vohs writes in the journal Psychological Science. “Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.”

Vohs and her colleagues describe three experiments that provide evidence that a room’s orderliness (or lack thereof) can influence people’s mindset and behavior. One featured 48 American university students, who were instructed to come up with up to 10 unconventional uses for ping-pong balls.

Piper Chapman on Robert Frost

Orange is the New Black is, well, the new black on Netflix, although Piper Chapman needs a few more seasons, or at least a few more fiction-months behind bars, before she approaches being anywhere near as nuanced as Walter White, who has taken five seasons to travel one fiction-year. But among her many virtues, she is an astute reader of poetry, or at least took good notes in college. Slate has the lowdown on her explication of Frost’s “Road Not Taken,” where she schools some fellow prisoners on its ironic sentimentality. “Ah shit, we about to get educated and shit,” Taystee says.

The poem was first misread in Frost’s own lifetime, and Frost sometimes seemed proud of this fact. “I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell you who was hit and where he was hit in my Road Not Taken,” he told the poet and editor Louis Untermeyer. The poem, he explained, was “really about his friend Edward Thomas, who when they walked together always castigated himself for not having taken another path than the one they took.” (That’s from William Pritchard’s Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered.) In 1925, he told another reader that the poem “was my rather private jest at the expense of those who might think I would yet live to be sorry for the way I had taken in life.” Thomas, for his part, thought no one would get it: “I doubt if you can get anybody to see the fun of the thing,” he told Frost, “without showing them and advising them which kind of laugh they are to turn on.”


Coffee Coffee Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

So it seems that silence, that hard-won love so few seem to acquire, has been shown by studies (“has been shown by studies”) not to be the absolute most conducive environment for productive, creative work. What these government-grant-funded studies have given us, instead, is the knowledge that a low-decibel just-above-white-noise level of noise will do it, you know, like the background hum and noises of your local coffee shop. So a few geniuses got together and started a website, coffitivity, where you can stream just such a noise. Here’s how the NY Times sums up the research:

In a series of experiments that looked at the effects of noise on creative thinking, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had participants brainstorm ideas for new products while they were exposed to varying levels of background noise. Their results, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, found that a level of ambient noise typical of a bustling coffee shop or a television playing in a living room, about 70 decibels, enhanced performance compared with the relative quiet of 50 decibels.

A higher level of noise, however, about 85 decibels, roughly the noise level generated by a blender or a garbage disposal, was too distracting, the researchers found.

Here’s a link to the actual study at The Journal of Consumer Research. Here’s the conclusion, in the researcher’s (Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu, and Amar Cheema) own words:

While ambient noise is omnipresent, our understanding of its impact on human cognition, particularly creative cognition, remains limited. In this study, through a series of five experiments, we demonstrate how and why ambient background noise can affect creativity. Specifically, we show that a moderate (vs. low) level of ambient noise induces processing disfluency, which leads to abstract cognition and consequently enhances creativity.

In other words, the noise of a coffee shop might just counter-act the hyper-focus induced by the coffee itself? Maybe.

Well, all that to say, I have been using both the streaming service and just recently the new apps, one for the Mac, one for iOS, and while not at all conclusive as to higher productivity can attest that it’s pleasant, and conducive to good work. I’ve been doing good work lately (instead of blogging, etc.) and after years of working in silence have been running this background noise and even a low level of music atop it (the iOs App lets you control the relative volume of coffee house and music, so long as you don’t, like me, use Spotify or Pandora).

So I wanted to embed a recent episode of Seinfeld’s Comedian in Cars Getting Coffee, on where he picks up Seth Myers in a ’73 Porsche Carrera, but they’ve gone and done this most uncreative thing, by putting them up on Crackle, who doesn’t allow embeds and doesn’t even work from its own site. But here’s the link to it at the CiCGC website. Watch this episode, or all of them, liberally. Do it now, because everything good comes to ruin.

Werner Herzog: Text and Drive and Then This

This short documentary—”From One Second To The Next”—is unwatchable required watching for anyone who 1.) Texts while driving 2.) Likes anything Herzog touches (even up to and including for this reason “Jack Reacher”) 3.) Is amazed by humans’ will to survive 4.) Is impressed by the tragic fragility of life 5.) Understands how we will destroy ourselves at the intersection of desire and technology 6.) All of the above.

Herzog says about his motivation to make this for AT&T:

“There’s a completely new culture out there. I’m not a participant of texting and driving — or texting at all — but I see there’s something going on in civilization which is coming with great vehemence at us.”

Nick Offerman + Real People on the Classics

And here’s a brief review at Weekly Standard of The Art of Freedom, by Earl Shorris, about teaching the classics to underprivileged students:

Teachers of the humanities have much to learn from The Art of Freedom about the soft bigotry of low expectations—and not just for these students, but for their own. We may know that Socrates and his friends reflected on love and justice even as the Peloponnesian War was destroying Athens. But we are not always confident that the works we teach have the power to draw students away from their immediate concerns. It helps, then, to read the testimony of Ismat Mahmoud Ahmed, head of the philosophy department at the University of Khartoum, about the version of the Clemente Course he helped teach to “internally displaced persons” from Darfur. “At the beginning of the class, there was a prevailing feeling of despair,” says Ahmed, “but as the study progressed that feeling was replaced by hope. .  .  . [T]his might be one of the reasons that strengthened my trust in philosophy.”

New/Old Orson Welles Film Dis/Un/Recovered

A print of Orson Welles’ long-thought-lost first effort at filmmaking, “Too Much Johnson” was recently found in the kind of place where many of might like to end up: an Italian shipping warehouse. This New York Times story tells the whole story, including the time when Welle’s himself rediscovered a print and had ambitions to re-edit it before that plan, with the film stock, went up in flames. This was thought to be the end of it.

But things have turned out otherwise. “Too Much Johnson” has reappeared — discovered not in Spain but in the warehouse of a shipping company in the northern Italian port city of Pordenone, where the footage had apparently been abandoned sometime in the 1970s. Old films turn up with some regularity under similar circumstances — independent filmmakers aren’t always known for promptly paying their storage bills — but because nitrate becomes even more dangerously unstable as it ages, the usual practice is to junk it as quickly as possible.

This time, though, the movie gods were smiling. Pordenone happens to be home to Cinemazero, a cultural organization that regularly screens classic films, and which each fall partners with the Cineteca del Friuli to present Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, a gathering of scholars and cinephiles with a special dedication to the shadowy corners of film history.

Here is a short film about the restoration, done by George Eastman House in Rochester:

Bleed No More: Writing Heals More Than It Hurts

Even as you kill your darlings, research shows that you’re actually improving your body’s ability to heal, both physically and psychologically.

The study is the latest delving into the mind-body connection to suggest that expressing emotions about a traumatic experience in a coherent way may be important to not just mental but physical health as well. It showed that the calming effect of writing can cut physical wound healing time nearly in half.

In previous studies, this type of emotionally expressive writing, as opposed to writing on neutral topics, reduced viral load in HIV-positive patients and increased their levels of virus-fighting immune cells. The practice also increased the effectiveness of the hepatitis B vaccination by increasing antibody levels generated by the vaccine and speeding wound healing in young men.

Give the Boys What They Want: Gender Bias In Picture Books Affects Boys’ Reading Habits

So claims writer and illustrator Jonathan Emmet on his new blog exploring this systemic pattern, Cool Not Cute.

His argument, as I reflect on the boys picture books I read with great regularity, is pretty sound:

The culture surrounding picture books is predominately female. In the professions where picture books are produced and accessed, women outnumber men by a ratio of around 10:1. A similar demographic applies to picture book consumers — most picture books, including those bought for boys to read, are purchased by adult women. As a consequence, the picture book industry’s output reflects female content preferences far more than it does male content preferences. Even picture books that are specifically targeted at boys are produced to reflect the preferences of the women that, in most instances, will be selecting and purchasing them.

He’s written a manifesto of sorts, laying out his case. The outline version: there are 6 things that age-appropriate films contain but that picture book publishers tend to deem not age-appropriate. They aim, above all, he says, for cuteness and censor or edit combat and violence, technology, peril and threat, irredeemable Villainy, a male protagonist, and rude humour.