October 30, 2004

The old college try

Michiko Kakutani takes Tom Wolfe's new novel I Am Charlotte Simmons apart in this New York Times review. The novel's title character is a student at the fictional Dupont University, which Kakutani identifies as closely based on Duke University.

I read The Bonfire of the Vanities years ago, and found it moderately enjoyable, but (apparently, like many people) I have never gotten around to reading Wolfe's second novel from a few years back, A Man in Full. Guess I'll put that back on the list now that I've been reminded of it!

Anyway, if Kakutani can be believed, I Am Charlotte Simmons invokes every trite and superficial trope of college life there is, and contains precious few insights into either student life or the culture of American higher education. It sounds like Wolfe should have taken to heart the old piece of advice that says authors should write what they know. Why a 70+ year-old man -- even an acknowledged great writer like Wolfe -- would think he could successfully write about a contemporary female college student is beyond me. I'll probably read it anyway, even if just for eye-rolls and laughs.

Posted by at 12:25 PM

Pre-election Schadenfreude special

I don't blog about politics much, because I don't have anything to contribute to what the legions of dedicated political bloggers already come up with. But I am strangely compelled to link to this story, which describes House Majority Leader Tom DeLay as "embattled" in his current campaign. Although DeLay is still expected to win, because of strong challengers (not just a Democrat, but also a Libertarian and and independent), he may win with only a narrow plurality as opposed the 60-plus percent majorities to which he's become accustomed.

My favorite part of the story describes DeLay's shock and outrage at the intensive efforts of Democrats nationwide to defeat him:

DeLay said he is fighting against a vitriolic campaign by national Democrats to oust him.

"I've never had a campaign where the entire nation has tried to destroy my name," he told the Houston Chronicle. "They are going after me in the most personal and vindictive way. It's gutter politics."

Welcome to the world you helped create, Mr. DeLay. I guess there's some truth in the old adage: you really do reap what you sow.

Posted by at 11:30 AM

Wired CD now out -- and coming soon online

Today is apparently digital music day at Shades...

I mentioned the Wired CD a few weeks back. In case you don't remember, the Wired CD is a compilation of songs from artists including The Beastie Boys, David Byrne, and Paul Westerberg that is arriving in the mailboxes of Wired subscribers with the November issue of the magazine. The CD is special because the artists have licensed all of the songs for sharing, remixing, and so on, via a Creative Commons license.

When I originally posted about this, Dr. Qwert questioned the value of the CD, since, as he put it, "none of these tracks were specifically produced for this compilation. And ALL of them are already being shared. So doesn't that make the physical CD itself superfluous?" From a practical perspective, Dr. Qwert was right, but I maintain that what's important about this project is the concept and the point the artists are trying to make about intellectual property, creativity, and copyright. It's a small step -- maybe (from a more cynical viewpoint) even a mere token gesture -- but at least it's a step in the right direction.

Well, the CD is finally out -- and as it turns out, subscribing to Wired magazine is not a prerequisite for getting the content of the CD. The Wired CD website contains details on the songs on the disc, as well as the licensing terms -- and indicates that all of the songs will be available there for download as of November 9. So if there's anything you think you might like, you can go get it as of a week from Tuesday.

Posted by at 10:50 AM

"So I got me an office, gold records on the wall..."

The Recording Industry Association of America -- yes, the same RIAA that has sued twelve-year-olds and grandmothers for downloading music -- has begun awarding gold, platinum, and multiplatinum awards to songs with the requisite number of downloads (see the story here) from services such as Musicmatch, Napster, and of course, iTunes.

Of course, the honored sales numbers for downloads are much smaller than the number of physical copies of an album that must be sold to get gold or platinum status: 100,000 copies gets your song a gold award, while 200,00 gets it a platinum (as opposed to 500,000 and 1 million physical copies, respectively). Artists whose songs have been certified for gold or platinum status so far include (no surprises) Outkast, Hoobastank, The Black Eyed Peas, and Maroon 5. What I'm curious about now is how long it will be before the RIAA has to increase the numbers. Legal downloads are a small portion of total sales now, but the numbers are growing.

Of course, since they don't count or acknowledge downloaded songs that aren't purchased from one of the major services, digital gold or platinum status isn't a remotely accurate representation of a song's popularity. But you can't have everything. I'd call this a victory of sorts for supporters of legal downloading with reasonable copying and ownership terms: it's a concession by the RIAA that legally downloading music is a completely legitimate way to purchase -- and that the music won't necessarily be locked up as tightly in terms of DRM as they would like it to be. That's pretty cool.

Posted by at 10:06 AM

October 27, 2004

TV that really cares about reading

Most of my pop culture indulgences are not on television, but the WB's Gilmore Girls is an exception. Just in case you've somehow managed not to see the show or hear about it over the last four years, it's about two ridiculously attractive and intelligent women -- a young single mother and her teenage daughter -- who live in a picture-perfect Disneyesque Connecticut town. There, they tangle wittily and sometimes melodramatically with each other, quirky townspeople, and wealthy but cranky family members (who nevertheless are kind enough to give them loads of money when circumstances warrant).

The show is not, to use a phrase of the moment, reality-based. It has been lauded by critics for its lightning-fast, erudite, and clever dialogue. The scripts are peppered with enough pop culture and middlebrow references to induce a seizure, but it works, because the lines trip beautifully off the tongues of the perfectly cast actors. The show is also populated by characters that even though they aren't always original, provide enough twists on their archetypes to keep the show consistently entertaining.

Those are all perfectly good reasons to like the show, but Dana Stevens, writing in Slate, picks up on something else that explains the show's appeal: it's outrageously bookish. The characters, especially Rory (the daughter), read voraciously -- and the classics, no less. But even more unusual is the way the characters really think about what they read, and weave it into their understanding of the world. Books have a centrality in Rory's life that reminds me of my own experience throughout high school and college (though I was certainly nowhere near as well-read as she is at 19). The characters filter their life experiences through the literature they have read in a way that only people who are really obsessed with books do -- and that speaks to me in a way that most other TV shows and movies never can.

Posted by at 5:32 PM

Note and daily question(s), #10

First, a note for those of you who may be, um, hanging on my every word. Postings will probably be a little infrequent this week, since my mother is in town, and her idea of a good time is decidedly not watching me compose blog entries.

Second, a question for today. Continuing in the linen vein,

Are you picky about your bedsheets? What fiber/fabric/color, etc. do you prefer?

When I was a poor student, I clothed my bed with the cheapest sheets I could find, which were usually a cotton/poly blend. They lasted forever, but now they feel like sandpaper to me. Since I'm not quite as poor as I once was, I've experimented with other sheets. We've tried flannel, but even in the dead of winter, we find them too hot. Satin kind of freaks me out on principle as a basis for sleep, so I've never tried satin sheets.

Our current favorites are 100% cotton sheets, and the higher the thread count, the better. I think I've eliminated anything less than 250 thread count, but I also don't have anything higher than 350 -- I simply can't bring myself to spend that much money on sheets. For colors, I like cool, solid colors: blues, greens, and white. Patterns usually strike me as too busy, and the cooler colors denote tranquility and relaxation in my mind -- perfect for sleep.

Posted by at 1:16 PM

October 25, 2004

Daily Question(s), #8 and #9

How much tolerance do you have for work that involves lots of details?

I have a high tolerance for detailed work. For catalogers, it comes with the territory -- anyone who couldn't deal with a ridiculous amount of minutiae would promptly go insane in my line of work. Catalogers are well known for their ability to fixate on and endlessly debate the most trivial details. Don't believe me? Check out some of the documents I've written for work, here and here. Writing each of those required the distillation of dozens if not hundreds of pages of rules, instructions, interpretation, and opinion.

There are other aspects of my work that require more of a grasp of the big picture, but I do spend plenty of time up to my eyebrows in details.

And a bonus seasonally-themed question, since I was unable to post on Friday:

How did we come to represent ghosts with white sheets?

The more I think about this, the more I'm baffled. Anyone have any ideas?

Posted by at 11:03 PM

Adventures in Mudd

A current Oberlin student with far too much time on her hands created this nifty photo essay depicting her stuffed-toy friend Fang's adventures in Oberlin's Mudd Library. Check out these pictures, and you'll understand my bitter disappointment upon my first visit to Wilson Library here at the U of M, when I was a baby grad student just out of Oberlin. Silly me, I thought every academic library should be like Mudd, which looks like it was decorated by a color-blind person on acid -- but trust me, it grows on you.

Thanks to Zoe Trope, whoever she may be, for the heartwarming trip down memory lane.

Posted by at 1:08 PM

October 21, 2004

Daily question(s), #7

Have you seen any interesting or odd political yard signs in your area?

Observed in my neighborhood, among a large number of assorted Kerry-Edwards yard signs and a few standard issue Bush-Cheney yard signs:

  • One homemade Kerry-Edwards sign, consisting of a bumper sticker stuck to a piece of poster board on a stake in the yard
  • A Bush-Cheney sign in one yard, neighboring a yard with a sign reading, "Impeach Bush"
  • One Dennis Kucinich sign
  • A Bush-Cheney sign stuck to someone's front fence that has been altered to read, "Bash Cheney"
Posted by at 6:13 PM

Goals, choices, and other trivial issues

It does't happen often, but every great once in a while, I read a letter in an advice column that I really identify with. Today's question in Salon's "Since You Asked" column is from a woman about my age who, although she is obviously very bright, feels stupid because she didn't attain the level of academic success she expected, planned for, and worked for throughout most of her life.

Having successfully completed only one of the two graduate programs I've undertaken, I know where she's coming from. I have not had the same experiences as the writer, in that I never flunked out of anything (instead, I washed out as a result of my own lack of direction and motivation, not to mention laziness), but the feelings are much the same. Many (if not most) of my friends and acquaintances have completed terminal degrees in their fields of choice; many are now teaching, or pursuing other exciting careers. I always intended to do those things, too, and though I have been mostly successful in letting those dreams go, sometimes I can't help but feel like I just wasn't smart enough to make it happen.

I don't mean to imply that I don't like what I do, or that I have any regrets about pursuing librarianship. It's just that I've always placed such a high value on academic achievement that not having managed to get that Ph.D. is still painful sometimes, even though I'm pretty certain that when it came right down to it, that wasn't really the right path for me.

Of course, I could go back to grad school full-time. I could go back to musicology, or I could start fresh in a new field. I could go on in library and information science, where the job picture is quite a bit rosier than it is for humanities Ph.Ds. But in some inexpressible way, I feel like I've passed a point of no return in my life, beyond which certain things -- like being a grad student again -- are impossible.

At the same time, I long for the constant discovery and palpable sensation of my mind expanding that I felt during my best moments in graduate school. As this blog amply demonstrates, I don't really have the focus or discipline to concentrate on a single area. But grad school forced me to have that focus, and it made my thinking much less lazy and more efficient. I miss that.

This whole thing is also closely tied to the larger truth that non-choices in life rapidly become de facto choices: the longer one puts off a decision, the fewer the options that will be left when the decision is finally made. I more and more often experience a (paranoid?) sense of doors closing behind me, as days, weeks, and years pass and I can't decide whether to go back to school or not. In the end, I'm too content where I am to be goaded into action. But that's a choice, too.

Posted by at 2:10 PM

October 20, 2004

Daily question(s), #6

Today's question is a little bit of a piece with yesterday's question.

Do you think the media report responsibly on politics?

Two things got me thinking about this. First, Jon Stewart's appearance on Crossfire last week, where he laid into Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala for (among other things) not allowing their show to be a forum for true debate. Second, a segment of Hardball tonight, in which Chris Matthews and his panel of hacks spent, I kid you not, ten minutes discussing Teresa Heinz Kerry's flubbed speech in which she said she didn't think Laura Bush had ever worked (she has, and Heinz Kerry apologized).

I just don't see the value in this kind of "news." I refuse to believe there are really people out there who are going to suddenly change their minds about who to vote for because of something this trivial. It seems like it's always the low-hanging fruit that gets a lot of play in any news cycle, like this "story" or the whole Mary Cheney/lesbian thing. It doesn't make any sense to me, especially when things are going on that I would actually like to hear a little reporting and/or commentary on (like Condoleezza Rice being on the campaign trail when the Vice President claims that a terrorist attack is imminent).

I know this isn't a new idea. I've been cynical about news reporting -- especially political news -- for a long time. It just bothers me so much more this close to an election.

Posted by at 9:24 PM

October 19, 2004

Daily question(s), #5

Does politics depress you?

It depresses me. Deeply. Constantly. I hate October in even-numbered years, because I can't stand being constantly surrounded by political news and propaganda. I know plenty of people thrive on this stuff. It just makes me sad.

Posted by at 10:36 PM

Too much of a good thing

Although I didn't love the novel enough to re-read it, there are a few passages from Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (winner of the 2001 National Book Award) that have stuck with me. One of my favorites follows:

It had started as a family joke: Dad always orders the mixed grill in restaurants, Dad only wants to go to restaurants with mixed grill on the menu. To Gary there was indeed something endlessly delicious, something irresistibly luxurious, about a bit of lamb, a bit of pork, a bit of veal, and a lean and tender modern-style sausage or two -- a classic mixed grill, in short. It was such a treat that he began to do his own mixed grills at home. Along with pizza and Chinese takeout and one-pot pasta meals, mixed grill became a family staple. ... before long, Gary was doing mixed grill two or even three times a week, braving all but the foulest weather on the deck, and loving it. ... He loved it and loved it and loved it and then all at once he didn't. ...

On the deck, in the radiant heat, as he blackened the prawns and seared the swordfish, a weariness overtook him. The aspects of his life not related to grilling now seemed like mere blips of extraneity between the poundingly recurrent moments when he ignited the mesquite and paced the deck, avoiding smoke. Shutting his eyes, he saw twisted boogers of browning meats on a grilled of chrome and hellish coals. The eternal broiling, broiling of the damned. The parching torments of compulsive repetition. On the inner walls of the grill a deep-pile carpet of phenolic black greases had accumulated. The ground behind the garage where he dumped the ashes resembled a moonscape or the yard of a cement plant. He was very, very, very sick of mixed grill.

In the book, this passage is a not especially subtle symbol for Gary's marriage and family life, which is falling apart. But what I've always loved about the passage (aside from the hilarious phrase "broiling of the damned") is how effectively it captures the counterintutive truth that excessive indulgence in something almost always leads to loathing of that thing.

I've experienced this in my own life with food, music, books, movies, and games. It happens so mysteriously: one day, I love a certain song or piece of music more than anything else. I want to hear it constantly. I listen to it over and over again. Then, suddenly, without warning, its appeal is gone. I might listen to it again after some time has passed. I might even appreciate it. But I will never again experience that intense, almost obsessive, craving to hear it.

What causes us to reach that saturation point? I haven't noticed any pattern to how long it takes the object of my devotion -- whether it be edible, musical, or otherwise -- to lose its magic. But it always happens eventually, and without warning. Maybe it's some sort of instinctive regulation, an enforced moderation, for the purpose of self-preservation. I can't explain it. But I do know I have to mourn a little each time this happens to me.

Posted by at 8:23 PM

October 18, 2004

Daily question(s), #4

Why are there so many drivers who don't know how to deal with a four-way stop?

I don't claim to be a particularly good driver, but I do try to be careful about some things. Knowing how likely another vehicle is to smash into me before I proceed into an intersection is right at the top of that list. I never took driver's ed, but I know the whole concept of four-way stops was crystal-clear to me long before I was actually licensed to drive. Why are so many people seemingly so confused about how to handle a four-way stop? I don't even want to get into to other situations where you have to determine which driver has the right-of-way -- in those cases, there's no hope. But four-way stops? Not so tricky. Or so I'd like to think.

Posted by at 5:14 PM

October 16, 2004

Pop culture remixed

Do watching the news and surfing the Internet sometimes make you feel like you're trapped in a planet-sized echo chamber? Well, it does me. Media trips, a site devoted to creative remixes of cultural and media "content," might make you feel even more that way, but at least you'll be entertained.

Posted by at 12:32 PM

October 15, 2004

Daily question(s), #3

Are you a careful reader or a fast reader?

I try to be a careful reader, but my default reading mode seems to be hard-wired toward getting through material as quickly as possible. When I'm really enjoying a novel, I usually can't resist the temptation to rush through it to see how the plot unfolds. It's the closest I can get to instant gratification in reading -- but it means that I tend to miss a lot of subtleties my first time through a book. If I want to really savor the prose or look for subtext and deeper meanings, I almost always need a second reading.

I learned to read this way as a child, when for reasons that are lost to me now, I perceived reading as some sort of competition. During summers, I felt a compulsion to get through as many books as possible. As it happened, this was a skill that served me well as an undergraduate English major: reading fast was tremendously advantageous in courses paced at a novel per week.

Now, I'd prefer to be able to read in a more leisurely fashion, but it requires a lot of self-discipline for me to do that. This is part of why I enjoy the occasional lightweight and/or trashy novel -- I can devour it quickly without guilt or worry that I've missed anything below the surface.

Posted by at 10:23 PM

October 14, 2004

Your tax dollars at work

Recent testimony by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) before a House subcommittee reveals the encouraging news that diploma mills receive federal financial aid dollars, are easy to set up, and have happily (and profitably) provided bogus degrees to many federal employees, paid for by the federal government.

Key elements of the investigation (which must have been a lot of fun) included purchasing diplomas from a diploma mill and starting up a diploma mill. The investigators astutely identified an organization called "Degrees-R-Us" as a diploma mill. Brilliant deductive work there, eh?

Appalling as all of this is, I can't help but be amused by the investigators' purchase of a "premium package" of degrees, which included a B.S. and a related M.S. all for one low, low price. I think if I were going to run my own diploma mill, I'd want to offer a "grab bag:" bargain-basement prices, but we pick the degree. It would be like the bogus-academic version of Russian roulette: you might get a Ph.D. in Astrophysics ... but you might get a Certificate in TV and VCR Repair.

Any takers?

Posted by at 11:08 PM

Daily question(s), #2

Today's questions:

What is the deal with bumper stickers? Why do some people cover their vehicles with them? Have you or would you ever put bumper stickers on your car?

We just put a Kerry-Edwards sticker on one of our cars, my first bumper sticker ever. Seems like some people consider bumper stickers a form of self-expression -- the sticker-covered cars remind me of college students who plaster their backpacks with buttons. That image leads me directly to Office Space, and the restaurant manager who insists that each waiter/waitress select a certain number of "pieces of flair," (that is, buttons). "What's the matter, don't you want to express yourself?"

I do want to express myself, and I don't always rule out silly and/or juvenile ways of doing that, but bumper stickers have always seemed off-limits to me for some reason. So putting the Kerry-Edwards sticker on the car was a big step. I'll let others be the judge of whether it was a step in the right or wrong direction.

Posted by at 2:28 PM

October 13, 2004

Ways of listening

Before the advent of iTunes, the iPod, and our music server (6,000 songs and counting), listening to music at our house began with the rather strenuous task of selecting something to listen to. With well over a thousand CDs and almost that number of LPs to choose from, it was not an easy task (and our collection is small by the standards of true collectors). Daunted by the prospect of finding the one album that we really wanted to hear, more often than not, we would simply do something else. If it was background music we wanted, we would just work in silence instead.

In those days, I mourned the way I had listened to music in high school and college, when I had so few albums to choose from that every one was precious to me. Every CD was like a friend. Some I knew intimately, and loved more with each listening. Some I had listened to intensively during some past period of time, and although I didn't listen to them as much as I used to, becoming reacquainted with them was like chatting with an old friend and discovering that you could pick up right where you left off. And some were relatively new to me, still with suprises to reveal each time I listened. I felt affection even for the albums that I didn't love (or even, in some cases, like very much); they were like the slightly annoying acquaintances who are still a lot of fun in small doses.

In short, I was intimately connected to all of the music I listened to. I knew and loved what I had, because I couldn't afford to buy more. I always wanted more, though, and once Dr. Dregs and I combined our collections and got real jobs, we bought music, and lots of it: classical, jazz, and pop, on CDs or LPs. Anything that looked or sounded interesting, we bought. And we listened ... up to a point.

Beyond that point, we still listened, but not nearly as much, because the mere task of choosing had become so overwhelming. So once we'd made our peace with the sound quality of MP3s and gotten our hands on a computer that we could use as a dedicated music server, it was a relief to rely on the server to choose music for us. Now we would have the best of all worlds: we could still sit down and listen seriously to whatever we chose, when we wanted to do that, but for all those other times when we wanted music but couldn't stand to decide, the server would provide.

It worked brilliantly. The server plays all 6,000+ songs randomly and runs pretty much 24/7. We are frequently surprised at what we hear; often we didn't remember that we owned certain songs or albums, or we hear songs we haven't heard in ages. Sometimes we hear songs we don't even recognize. We are finally taking advantage of our painstakingly assembled collection, and that's undoubtedly a good thing.

But having the music server at home and the iPod away from home means that now most of my listening is done in one-song-at-a-time random mode. So I've lost touch with albums. Although it's easy to do on the iPod, I rarely listen to an entire album from start to finish. The temptation to switch to something else is always too great. When we buy new CDs, I always listen to them all the way through at least once -- but sadly, too often it's only once.

I latch on to a few songs from each album that click with me immediately, and more or less ignore the rest. Sometimes, that's well deserved -- but I'm certain that I'm missing some gems just because they haven't been given enough listenings to grow on me. I know more music now than I used to, but I certainly don't know it as well. I feel like I don't have the time to become as thoroughly acquainted with my music as I would like to, just because I have too much of it. It's an embarassment of riches.

The solution is simple: stop buying music. Spend time really getting to know what I already have, which is surely enough to last me easily through the next decade. But I know I won't do that. I'm an addict, always looking for the next great thing (even if it's something that's only new to me). The truth is, I don't really want to stop. But I do miss the bond I once had with the music I loved, when I felt it was part of me, body and soul.

Posted by at 9:29 PM

A new feature: daily question

There are a lot of things I wonder about, but I have even less of value to say about those things than I do about the things I usually blog about. Most of these are trivial, if not downright silly, but I'm curious, so I'm going to start asking. So in the interests of wasting even more of everybody's time, let's begin.

Today's questions:

Do strangers or acquaintances frequently screw up your name and/or its pronunciation? If so, do you correct them, or do you just let it go? Do you consider yourself "good with names?" Does that affect how you respond when others can't pronounce or spell your name?

I've never thought of my name as an especially difficult one, but I get a lot of "Tracy Stale," even from acquaintances. "Traill" also seems to throw a surprising number of people: I get "Trall," "Tr-eye-l," and even "Tra-eel."

I do think I'm pretty good with names, but I tend to just ignore it when people make a hash of my name. I only correct when it's really critical.

Anyone else?

Posted by at 1:45 PM

October 11, 2004

The change of seasons

Over the last couple of weeks we've been enjoying a gorgeous stretch of fall weather: warm, breezy days with clear sky and air, minus all the haze of summer, and perfectly cool and crisp nights. But tonight will be the last night we sleep with the windows open until probably next April. Change is coming, and soon: starting Wednesday, temperatures will plunge, with daytime highs in the upper 40s expected Thursday and Friday.

As much as I have enjoyed this extended period of sun and mild temperatures, I feel ready for the arrival of colder weather. I can sense my habitual early fall period of hyperactivity gradually subsiding, to be replaced with the lethargy and melancholy of winter. The shorter days have something to do with it, too; longer periods of darkness always reduce my energy level.

This isn't entirely a bad thing. Most of the time, it just means that what I really want to do, instead of anything active, is hole up with a nice thick blanket, a cat or two, and a good book or movie. Pleasant enough, at least until I've fallen behind with all my household chores and all of the projects I planned to do. I usually have a burst of activity around the holidays, but aside from that, the months fly by without my notice until spring.

This is pretty dull stuff, I know, but it's such a mystery and a wonder to me how connected my mental and physical states of being are to the seasons -- even though (like all of us lucky enough to have such a high standard of living) nature's extremes don't seriously impact my comfort and safety. Maybe this is why I'm so obsessed with the weather?

Posted by at 11:01 PM

October 10, 2004

I write, therefore I am ... employable?

I've almost blogged about this survey a couple of times in the last few weeks, which stresses the importance of writing skills in the professional workplace, and the lack of those skills among many employees. I haven't written about this up to now because neither conclusion is particularly surprising.

But this silly little column, which offers some tips for improving job-related writing, compels me to say something. Recommendations include relying on lists, keeping paragraphs to a maximum of two lines, and leaving out background information. The columnist does say that her tips are most relevant for e-mail and presentation writing. Still, taken as a whole, her suggestions comprise a near-perfect method for reducing complex thinking about complex issues to easily digestible, Powerpoint-friendly soundbites. This isn't always a bad thing, but taken as a way to improve writing overall, it depresses me. Obviously, work-related writing is not the appropriate venue to express your own character and style. But eliminating the writer's voice completely ends up making this stuff even more unbearable to read or sit through.

Some of her advice is actually good, such as the recommendation that any "finished" piece of writing should have its length reduced by 10% before it's ready for prime time -- there's a pointer I should take to heart and exercise more often. But why reinvent the wheel? There's nothing worthwhile here that Strunk and White didn't already say more eloquently. I think I'll stick with them.

Posted by at 1:46 PM

October 7, 2004

Music to set that election-season mood

If Ben Folds and William Shatner collaborations don't interest you, maybe this will: the Air Force Band has a large collection of free MP3s taken from their many recordings available on their website. The recordings run the gamut from patriotic music (both the great and the terrible are represented: Carmen Dragon's gorgeous arrangment of "America the Beautiful" sits alongside an arrangment of Lee Greenwood's insipid "God Bless the U.S.A.") to warhorses of the concert band repertoire to arrangements of classical masterpieces.

Not only concert band recordings are available; many of the Air Force's other ensembles are represented as well, including the Air Force Strings and the Airmen of Note (Big Band jazz). The sincerity and unabashed squareness of both the repertoire and the performances is quite refreshing. They'll allow me to seriously reduce the overall irony quotient of the contents of my iPod, which really can't be a bad thing.

Posted by at 9:30 AM

October 6, 2004

The Transformed Man, transformed

Call me a sucker, but here's a pop culture curiosity that I simply must own: Has Been, the new album by William Shatner and Ben Folds. The entire project may seem ill-advised, but Folds and Shatner have collaborated before (on "In Love" from Folds's side project Fear of Pop) with results that are hilariously disturbing or disturbingly hilarious, depending on your point of view.

Shatner can't sing of course, but I think his, um, delivery, has evolved considerably since his classically awful rendition of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." I sampled a few tracks from Has Been on iTunes, and the cover of Pulp's "Common People" sounds especially promising. Imagine what Shatner's jaded, stilted, over-enunciated vocal stylings could do for a line like, "Are you sure you want to sleep with common people -- common people like me?"

Well, I think it's funny.

Posted by at 10:39 PM

Coffee logistics

Slate today has a good analysis of Starbucks's decision to raise prices on its coffee drinks. The writer concludes that it's a savvy move: even though Starbucks coffee is already pricier than almost anyone else's, it's also higher in caffeine -- so you get more bang for your coffee buck.

Unlike many, I don't think Starbucks is completely evil. I freely admit that I often get coffee at Starbucks, for two reasons: the quality of the coffee is consistent, and Starbucks is supremely convenient in terms of both locations and hours.

Starbucks is never the best coffee in the world, but it's extremely predictable. Either they have some fabulously consistent method of training baristas, or else their system is such that it's impossible to completely screw it up. It doesn't matter whether you're in an airport, a grocery store, a mall, or on a city street corner: your Starbucks latte will always taste the same. The brewed coffee displays the same consistency: a cup of Starbucks almost never surprises me in terms of strength, freshness, bitterness, or acidity. The only other coffee chain that I have found to be as consistent is Dunn Bros., which I adore, and would frequent more if their locations were more convenient for me.

Convenience is a big coffee issue for me. In our neighborhood, we have several cute little coffeehouses that make decent coffee, and which have atmospheres far funkier, more welcoming, and friendlier than Starbucks (or any other chain). But they are never open in the evenings, which is usually when I'm looking for a place to relax with a book and an espresso (is "relax with an espresso" an oxymoron? Hmm). Starbucks outlets tend to be open late. It depends on the neighborhood, of course: Uptown doesn't lack for late-night coffee. But my sleepy South Minneapolis neighborhood, inhabited largely by retirees and couples with small children, turns in early for the most part. Coffee after dinnertime is not a popular option.

Whenever a better choice is available, I'll take it. But Starbucks is everywhere, always open, and can be trusted. Doesn't make me thrilled to pay more for their mediocre beverages, but when that's the only choice...wait, didn't I say I needed to stop drinking coffee?

Posted by at 11:42 AM

October 5, 2004

If only it were plush...

This is the best idea I've seen in PC design since the original iMac. I'm especially fond of the panda. Leave it to the Japanese...

Posted by at 1:52 PM

October 4, 2004

Pardon my French

Well, Montreal was lovely: the weather was mostly gorgeous, the conference was worthwhile, and the city itself is a great place to spend a couple of days -- especially if you want to practice your French! Since I spent most of my time in meetings, I didn't have a chance to see many of the sights, but we did have enough free time to do a few things:

  • On Friday night, we attended a conference reception at the McCord Museum of Canadian History. The museum is on the campus of McGill University in downtown Montreal. The very attractive building was constructed in 1992. The permanent exhibition, "Simply Montreal," on the history of the city was informative and amusing -- especially the portions dealing with Montreal's extreme winters, which made us Minnesotans alternately laugh and shudder in recognition.

  • Our hotel was in Montreal's Quartier Latin, just a block from Saint-Denis Street. This very hip area of the city is mostly Francophone, and is home to many wonderful restaurants, bars, shops, and coffee houses. We were frequently the only English-speaking people in a restaurant -- but servers (who are no doubt accustomed to loads of tourists) were always very friendly and willing to switch to English. A little knowledge of French was essential for understanding restaurant menus, though!

  • With no meetings scheduled for Saturday night, we decided on a lark to try and catch a concert. The concierge at our hotel helpfully located a performance by the McGill University Symphony Orchestra that was to be held at a church only six blocks from the hotel. We didn't know what the orchestra would be performing, but with tickets only $10 each, we decided to give it a try. The church turned out to be the spectacular and monumental neo-Baroque Saint Jean Baptiste Church, and the repertoire was Mahler's 2nd Symphony ("Resurrection"), performed by a massive orchestra and chorus, including the church's immense organ in the finale. The packed house enjoyed an exciting and moving performance. It was a great way to spend our free evening.

  • Finally, on Sunday, we had a couple of hours to spare before catching our late-afternoon flight home, so we wandered down Saint-Denis Street to the National Film Board of Canada's CineRobotheque. The CineRobotheque is basically a huge video-on-demand system: you pay an extremely modest fee for an hour or two of access, choose your own comfy viewing station, and select the film you wish to view using an intuitive touch-screen database. A robot then retrieves the laserdisc for your choice and places it in a player. Within a couple of minutes, you're watching your film. The NFB has produced an impressively diverse body of films over the years; I used my hour at the CineRobotheque to sample several amusing animated shorts with a musical theme.

This was my first trip to Montreal, but I hope it won't be my last. I have to take Dr. Dregs there, at the very least, so he can experience the CineRobotheque for himself.

Posted by at 7:00 PM