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Posts Tagged ‘words’

Ornery Little Critters

February 1, 2016 | by

S. J. Perelman, ca. 1957.

From a letter sent by S. J. Perelman to Betsy Drake, dated May 12, 1952. Perelman, one of the most popular humorists of his time, was born on this day in 1904; he died in 1979. Donald Barthelme called him “the first true American surrealist.”I classify myself as a writer of what the French call feuilletons—that is, a writer of little leaves. They’re comic essays of a particular type,” Perelman told The Paris Review in 1963. Here he advises Drake on the miseries of screenwriting. “The mere mention of Hollywood induces a condition in me like breakbone fever. It was a hideous and untenable place when I dwelt there, populated with few exceptions by Yahoos, and now that it has become the chief citadel of television, it’s unspeakable,” he told the ReviewRead More »

The Invention of Serendipity

January 28, 2016 | by

The Three Princes of Serendip.

Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in a letter to another Horace—Mann—dated January 28, 1754. The occasion was pretty unremarkable—it was a happy accident, after all—and almost archetypally British: Walpole had used a talisman to discover a link between two families by investigating their coats of arms in an old book. At least Walpole was aware of the dullness of his eureka moment: “I have nothing better to tell you,” he writes, before launching into the fascinating etymology of his new word. It would take nearly two centuries for the adjective form, serendipitous, to come on the scene—its first recorded usage was in 1943. —D. P. Read More »

Quote Unquote

December 28, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

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Quinn Dombrowski, The Library, 2010. Image via Flickr

A sentence goes viral—why?

I recently discovered that a sentence of mine, written many years ago in a book that had enjoyed some critical praise but disappointing sales, had gone viral.

I suppose I google myself about as often as any writer does, and I hope not more often, but on the occasion of my discovery I was doing so at someone else’s behest: in preparation for a new book, my publishing house had asked me to compile a portfolio of reviews of my previous books. As I scrolled through the search results, hunting for newspaper and magazine URLs, I became aware that I was seeing the same words and sentence fragments over and over again in the highlights at the top of each hit. “Eating…” “…communion…” “ …hospitality in general…” The combination sounded vaguely familiar. I finally tracked down the full quote at Goodreads.

The book, The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down, from 2003, is an anecdotal history of hospitality in Western civilization, in reverse chronological order from Nazi Germany to Homeric Greece. The sentence, hidden deep within the body of the book and in no way positioned to draw attention to itself, reads as follows:

Eating, and hospitality in general, is a communion, and any meal worth attending by yourself is improved by the multiples of those with whom it is shared. Read More >>

Thanks, Sounds Good, I Love You

December 17, 2015 | by

How Smart Reply attempts to mimic the way we talk.

Google’s inbox logo—now with an enviable, elusive sense of satisfaction.

Last month, researchers at Google unveiled Smart Reply, a piece of artificial intelligence that scans the e-mail you’re reading on your phone and suggests three possible responses. Why bother composing an answer yourself? Now you can choose one of Smart Reply’s with a quick tap. “Do you have any vacation plans set yet?” asks the sample e-mail. “No plans yet,” you might choose; or “I just sent them to you”; or “I’m working on them.”

Smart Reply uses neural networks to calibrate its future suggestions, meaning it learns from how we use it. But Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist on the project, observed a “bizarre feature of our early prototype”: “its propensity to respond with ‘I love you’ to seemingly anything.” Analysis suggested “that the system was doing exactly what we’d trained it to do, generate likely responses—and it turns out that responses like Thanks, Sounds good, and I love you are super common.” Read More »

Lighting Up the Greed Decade, and Other News

December 10, 2015 | by

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Sandy Skoglund, Sound of Food, 2005. Image via Slate/Ryan Lee Gallery

  • Eve Sedgwick, the groundbreaking queer theorist, died in 2009. Since then, her husband, Hal, has maintained her apartment—they lived in separate ones—as an archive, amassing all her work, her belongings, and even her cat. Jane Hsu spoke with him: “ ‘The idea of having one love in your life was not an aspiration for us,’ Hal said, when I ask him what it was like to be the primary love object of a queer theorist who wrote so prolifically about the complexities of desire and relationships. Later, Hal referenced D. W. Winnicott’s concept of the ‘holding environment,’ in which the mother creates a safe space for the child that allows the child to then look out into the world, to think about something else beyond the mother’s care. Eve used this idea in her work. Hal offered it as a way of thinking about what they both did for one another.”
  • Do you know a sad professor of English? Sure you do—they’re everywhere. And their sadness is justified: “Socialization to the discipline,” Lisa Ruddick explains, “has left them with unaccountable feelings of confusion, inhibition and loss … The progressive fervor of the humanities, while it reenergized inquiry in the 1980s and has since inspired countless valid lines of inquiry, masks a second-order complex that is all about the thrill of destruction … These days nothing in English is ‘cool’ in the way that high theory was in the 1980s and 1990s. On the other hand, you could say that what is cool now is, simply, nothing. Decades of antihumanist one-upmanship have left the profession with a fascination for shaking the value out of what seems human, alive, and whole … We will find scholars using theory—or simply attitude—to burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation. Academic cool is a cast of mind that disdains interpersonal kindness, I-thou connection, and the line separating the self from the outer world and the engulfing collective.”
  • In the eighties, Sandy Skoglund was struck by a disparity she saw throughout New York, where Wall Street and crime rates were soaring side by side. She began to photograph the city, and now she’s made a series of collages, “True Fiction,” that try to capture the aura of that decade with stark contrasts and bright colors. “I never saw a particular implied narrative other than astonishment, which was a mirror really of my own experience of the contradictions of New York City and living in the 1980s … I hope they have a kind of transcendent quality that does allow a kind of open interpretation and not just an ahistorical document.”
  • Whither the black detective novel? In 1950, Hughes Allison wrote the first black detective story, in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. And there was John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night, from 1965, with its iconic Mister Tibbs, who’s more a construction of blackness than a realization of it. And after him? “It would take another two and a half decades after In the Heat of the Night for the next iconic black detective character to emerge, Easy Rawlins, from Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990). Mosley didn’t just live in the skin of Rawlins, a post-World War II private eye, he breathed his entire experience of America, contemporary and the past, into the character … For a moment in the 1990s, after Walter Mosley and Devil in a Blue Dress, crime fiction made room for more black writers. But then writers like Eleanor Taylor Bland, Penny Mickelbury, Paula Woods, Charlotte Carter, and others perhaps fell away in the relentless turnover of the publishing industry: canceled contracts, merged companies, and shifting editorial priorities. In recent years, few black crime-genre writers have reached Mosley’s level of popularity.”
  • Next year, the SAT’s verbal section will do away with a lot of treasured vocabulary: recalcitrant, accretion, grandiloquent, plenitude, diaphonous. There’s only one way to see these words off—to use them all in one short story. Ann Wroe gave it a try: “Joe’s hour had come. Impetuous, redoubtable and sanguine (though fully cognizant of looming disaster), he seized the damsel’s hand. Exit was exigent. She was not apathetic, or obdurate, or truculent, but surprisingly amenable. Together they raced down the nearest conduit to the street. Behind them, a maelstrom of flame became a conflagration. Ubiquitous gray ash poured from the sky. But as they paused, at last, to recover their breath, all that seemed quite tangential.”

What’s Your Sign? And Other News

December 9, 2015 | by

“Aztec zodiac man,” a facsimile of the original painting or codex, 1831.

  • For the cultural critic, astrology is low-hanging fruit: a gimmicky, pervasive pseudoscience that preys on our superstitions, our solipsism, our need to make sense of the unknown. It’s easy to ask people, How can you buy into that shit? But the editors of n+1 point out that “a better question might be why people like it, or whether it’s a problem to subscribe to something in which you don’t believe.” They point to astrology’s redemptive features: “We trust it because it corresponds to nothing; it doesn’t pretend to be true, or demand our belief. Unlike the pernicious pseudosciences of the past, or the scientism and pop neurology of the present, astrology poses little threat of getting serious … As a supplement to other points of view—what’s visible on first impression, say, or what you know of someone from experience—it adds another dimension, pulling some features into the foreground and pushing others to the back, reminding you of a person’s complexity … To consider that the shy person is sometimes wild, the considerate person sometimes duplicitous, is to practice something rather like empathy.”
  • At business schools, meanwhile, they’re teaching something much more treacherous than astrology: literature. At Columbia, aspiring executives can take a three-hour weekly course called Leadership Through Fiction, taught by Bruce Craven: “A four-minute promotional video posted online alongside Craven’s syllabus outlines the rationale for repurposing literature as management shibboleth … These novels, he explains, are ‘narratives about characters in many different professions’ who must find a ‘balance between their professional obligations, their personal expectations, and goals.’ Like real people, fictional characters stumble, and it is ‘through their stumbling,’ Craven promises, ‘that we will learn how to prepare ourselves for the future.’ ”
  • In her Nobel Lecture, Svetlana Alexievich—who will not, one suspects, be auditing Craven’s class—puts forth a more nuanced purpose for literature: “Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think—how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don't appreciate it, we aren't surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk ... I love the lone human voice … It always troubled me that the truth doesn’t fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There’s a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world. Dostoevsky thought that humanity knows much, much more about itself than it has recorded in literature. So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history.”
  • If you really want to steep yourself in “the everyday life of feelings,” look at 108 years of high school yearbook photos reduced to a minute-long video. Researchers at UC Berkeley compiled the images to study the changing face of the American teen: “The regular nature of yearbook photos—schools have been asking students to face forward and be recorded for posterity since the early twentieth century—made them a good candidate for this kind of machine-driven visual analysis, which can catch small variations in repetitive images … The final data set is made up of 37,921 forward-facing portraits. The population represented in the dataset is from 115 high schools, in twenty-six states … The researchers created a delightfully named ‘lip curvature metric’ to measure smile intensity, finding that while everyone smiled more as time went on, girls always smiled more than boys.”
  • As our nation’s smile intensity has changed, so has the valence of its slang. Take the word badass: in the mid-1950s, as Hermione Hoby explains, it was “used for the kind of men whose posturing invited mockery. To call someone a badass was to seek to puncture puffed-up masculine pride.” Today, though, it’s become perhaps the single most nauseating faux compliment: “the phrase ‘badass women’ peaked in 2015. This, in other words, was the year in which badass underwent such a regendering that it became understood as the foremost battlecry of feel-good feminism … If female badassery, as we understand and value it, comes down to maleness in the most basic and anatomical sense, if virtual dicks are now the yardstick for female power, then we have a problem. Because beneath the feel-good female bravura of badass is a decidedly feel-bad notion, namely that the only way a woman can exercise power is to submit herself to the drag (in both senses) of ‘behaving like a man.’ ”