Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry . . . Whatever . . . Again!

Although the modern reader could be forgiven for interpreting this image as some sort of cutesy multiculturalism in this age of Chrismukkah, the reality is rather different--though there is a connection.

As an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin from 2005 explained, the concept goes back over a century to a time when increasingly assimilated German Jews appropriated Christmas celebrations in their own secular manner. (The original term was Weihnukkah, of which Chrismukkah is just an anglicization.)

In recent decades, the term has become respectable--half-serious and half-humorous--and taken on a life of its own.

This image of the menorah evolving into the Christmas tree comes from a postcard sold by the Museum, and the original intent was critical rather than celebratory. The caption reads:
"Darwinian: Zionist caricature on assimilation, from the periodical, 'Schlemiel' (1904)"
That these issues still arouse strong sentiments can be seen from this rather less subtle blog entry by Jeremy Cardash and its responses at the Jerusalem Post.

In any event, greetings of the season on whichever holiday(s) you happen to be celebrating.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mail Goggles Trump Beer Goggles

Ever written and sent off a text message you later regretted, mainly because you were too drunk or just too tired to think straight? The folks at Google have now come up with a solution, which is the equivalent of the numerical keypads on some cars: an interface that requires you to perform some simple mathematical operations before it will allow you to launch your little Gmail missive into cyberspace:

Reporting on the new service in October, software engineer Jon Perlow included among examples of "sending messages you wish you hadn't": "the time I told that girl I had a crush on her over text message. Or the time I sent that late night email to my ex-girlfriend that we should get back together" and "that late night memo -- I mean mission statement -- to the entire firm."

He adds, "By default, Mail Goggles is only active late night on the weekend as that is the time you're most likely to need it."

Although the new system may reduce the number of embarrassing incidents, it does raise other questions:

• What implications does this have for journalists such as conservative "Vodkapundit" (aka Stephen Green), who "drunkblogged" the political debates this past season?

• And as a historian, I of course have to ask: Would the past have turned out differently, if our forebears had had this technology to force them to pause before dipping the quill in the inkwell or rushing off to the telegraph office? I tend to think first of the winestained eighteenth-century police informants' reports that Robert Darnton discovered in the Parisian archive. But what of the world-historical: Could Mail Goggles have prevented, say, the "Zimmermann Telegram"? The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia in 1914?

• And most important: what can you do about people who show no good judgment, day or night, drunk or sober?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Why the world and your life stink (and part of it's your own fault)

There's a great deal of debate (much of it pointless, some of it merely pretentious) about the supposed relation between the rise of new media, electronic communication, and the decline of civility and real community. Some writers, such as Sven Birkerts, have made of this sort of jeremiad a life's passion. Others, mostly journalists, make a career out of that sort of

Occasionally, the greater insight and best antidote come from the realm of humor rather than scholarship.

From the inimitable

David Wong, "7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable".

Scientists call it the Naked Photo Test, and it works like this: say a photo turns up of you nakedly doing something that would shame you and your family for generations. Bestiality, perhaps. Ask yourself how many people in your life you would trust with that photo. If you're like the rest of us, you probably have at most two.
Even more depressing, studies show that about one out of four people have no one they can confide in.
#1. We don't have enough annoying strangers in our lives.
That's not sarcasm. Annoyance is something you build up a tolerance to, like alcohol or a bad smell. The more we're able to edit the annoyance out of our lives, the less we're able to handle it.
The problem is we've built an awesome, sprawling web of technology meant purely to let us avoid annoying people.
#2. We don't have enough annoying friends, either.
#3. Texting is a shitty way to communicate.
#5. We don't get criticized enough.
Most of what sucks about not having close friends isn't the missed birthday parties or the sad, single-player games of ping pong with the wall. No, what sucks is the lack of real criticism. . . . I've been insulted lots, but I've been criticized very little. And don't ever confuse the two. An insult is just someone who hates you making a noise to indicate their hatred. A barking dog. Criticism is someone trying to help you, by telling you something about yourself that you were a little too comfortable not knowing.
#6. We're victims of the Outrage Machine.
A whole lot of the people still reading this are saying, "Of course I'm depressed! People are starving! America has turned into Nazi Germany! My parents watch retarded television shows and talk about them for hours afterward! People are dying in meaningless wars all over the world!"
But how did we wind up with a more negative view of the world than our parents? Or grandparents? Back then, people didn't live as long and babies died more often. Diseases were more common.

(Hat tip: my clever students)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What to read (and things I wish I'd said, written, or done)

Whenever one despairs of intellectual stimulus, the right thing just somehow comes along:
For the past 30 years, the Bookseller magazine has awarded a prize to the oddest book title it can find. The first ever winner was Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice
Mind-boggling as that is, it is far from the strangest. Now the top prize has been won by the 1996 magnum opus Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, . . .  More.
Damn. You couldn't make this stuff up (which is to say: I wish I could; the last time I tried was in college, with a brief [that word alone doomed it to failure] German philosophical treatise, entitled, Wissen und Pissen, which won plaudits from those who understand both topics, but remained a fragment).

Of course, for those who can (or try), there are works such as that by Tad Tuleja, late of neighboring Belchertown; a hamlet whose unappetizing name alone prevented me from seeking a domicile there (though it has since become quite the fashionable place, mainly because it had land for large building lots).  His The Catalog of Lost Books: An Annotated and Seriously Addled Collection of Great Books That Should Have Been Written, But Never Were (1989), with a preface appropriately entitled, "À la Recherche des Tomes Perdus," includes such treasures as "The Cretan Eraser: Inventories of Knossos," "Bulimius: The Art of Stuffing," "Heloise Hausenhintsen: The Helper's Helper" (that one may require a certain generational context), "William Shakespeare: Hamletta," "Pocahontas: The London Diary," "Alfred E. Neumann: What, Me Worry?" (another lost reference on the very young, now that other and better satirical entertainments abound), "Marilyn Monroe: A Prolegomena to Semiotics," and "Lumpy Gravy: The Mushroom Hunters."

He outfoxed himself, however, with James Bereford's Miseries of Human Life. As an astute reader pointed out (I guess one just has to know the 19th century and how those people thought; a few of us make it our business and pleasure to do so) it was in fact a real book from 1816 that fooled both author and reviewer. Tuleja was smart and gracious enough to acknowledge the error--but also sly and proud enough to inform the letter-writer that there was in addition a deliberate false attribution--that is, in this case, a real title--lurking in his catalogue. Are you clever enough to find it? (Hint: It's not "Guy-Martine Ratatouille: Cacophony of the Spheres.")

And for those of you who still want to make up some good titles, be aware that it is an uphill battle. Here are some past winners from the list of real titles:

1986: Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality (Brunner/Mazel)
1988: Versailles: The View From Sweden (University of Chicago Press)
1989: How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art (Ten Speed Press)
1990: Lesbian Sadomasochism Safety Manual (Lace Publications)

(Not for nothing was that one of my favorite decades, greed and Reaganism notwithstanding.  After the lean years of the nineties, which perhaps produced fewer striking titles, the new millennium is already generating a bumper crop.)

1994: Highlights in the History of Concrete (British Cement Association)
1995: Reusing Old Graves (Shaw & Son)

2002: Living With Crazy Buttocks (Kaz Cooke - Penguin)
2003: The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (Kensington Publishing)
2004: Bombproof Your Horse (J A Allen)
2005: People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It (Gary Leon Hill - Red Wheel/Weiser Books)
2006: The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification (Harry N Abrams)

Best line of the year

A friend's reference to How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read reminded me of this anecdote from another acquaintance in academe. While still a graduate student, he became deeply disillusioned (note: this is supposed to happen much later) when he heard one of his professors respond to another:

"Have I read it??!! I haven't even taught it."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dickinson Break-in Update: Finally, the Facts

Press stories at last confirm what early clues suggested: that the break-in at the Dickinson Museum early this month was a random act of antisocial behavior.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported Saturday that the man who broke into the Museum was the same one who attempted a break-in at a private residence a short time later:
A University of Massachusetts student faces criminal charges for allegedly causing $600 in damage at the Emily Dickinson Museum after attempting to force his way into the building in the early morning hours of Sept. 5. Police say he was very drunk at the time.
[ . . . . ]
The man first smashed a window and door at the museum in an unsuccessful attempt to get inside, and in the process lacerated his right hand and bled extensively. A bookcase inside the museum was tipped over when he reached inside to unlock the door. Police said the cost of cleaning up the broken glass and the blood was $600.
(Full story: Scott Merzbach, "Man to face charges for museum damage")

Friday, September 12, 2008

Dickinson Break-in Update

No news, actually.

The Amherst Police Arrest and Call Log records the initiation of a breaking-and-entering incident at the Museum as of 8:30 a.m. on Friday, 3 September (incident # 08-545-OF), and today's Amherst Bulletin notes same in its famous police blotter. However, no details are available, and no reports seem to have appeared yet in the traditional media.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Breaking News: attempted break-in at Dickinson Museum

There was an attempted break-in Friday morning at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, specifically, the 1813 Dickinson Homestead in which the poet spent most of her life.

Partial and unofficial information suggests that this was a case of disorderly and antisocial behavior (one might speculate about alcohol or drug abuse) rather than any sort of attack on the museum, as such.

The publication of Brock Clarke's provocatively titled and darkly comedic novel, Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England(2007)--which begins with the narrator's confession, "I, Sam Pulsifer, am the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts"--of course set preservationists everywhere on edge, though he was welcomed to the Valley as part of his book tour last year.

Fortunately the Dickinson Museum is adequately protected and well monitored, but the incident underscores the need for vigilance. Many other small museums and historic structures, whether due to meagre resources or for other reasons, lack proper security measures against both human mischief and natural disaster. Installation of such systems even in the best of cases poses stiff aesthetic and technical challenges. And of course, large-scale natural disasters can overwhelm even the best security measures. Preservationists breathed a sigh of relief when Hurricane Gustav failed to develop into the catastrophe that was Katrina. They are still struggling, not without controversy, to save what can be saved from the destruction of three years ago.

The near misses this past week in both New Orleans and Amherst remind us just how fragile and precious our historic resources are. That they have survived this long is due in no small measure to good luck, but we cannot rely on good luck alone to protect them in the future.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Font Fun

"Font Conference," from College Humor

Having posted this one, I of course cannot resist the temptation to add a link to Cheshire Dave's classic take on "Cooper Black."

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Coming Attractions: SHARP 2008

Coming soon: a report on the conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP) in Oxford last month.

Hiatus and Return

Due to a variety of unanticipated external factors, the blog went into a sort of hiatus shortly after it went up (among other things, the BookMarks program and blog required more attention). However, things are back on track again.

Although we of course cannot and should not attempt to cover all the pertinent news items that appeared in the interim, we will occasionally refer to some of the more important by way of brief recaps or contextual introductions to new topics. Happy reading.