Mark Twain on typewriters

Mark Twain writes about using one of the first typewriters, disliking it, and attempting to get rid of it:

In a previous chapter of this Autobiography I have claimed that I was the first person in the world that ever had a telephone in his house for practical purposes; I will now claim — until dispossessed — that I was the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature.

That book must have been “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” I wrote the first half of it in ’72, the rest of it in ’74. My machinist type-copied a book for me in ’74, so I conclude it was that one. That early machine was full of caprices, full of defects — devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of to-day has virtues.

After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to Howells. He was reluctant, for he was suspicious of novelties, and unfriendly toward them, and he remains so to this day. But I persuaded him. He had great confidence in me, and I got him to believe things about the machine that I did not believe myself.

He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered. He kept it six months, and then returned it to me. I gave it away twice after that, but it wouldn’t stay; it came back. Then I gave it to our coachman, Patrick McAleer, who was very grateful, because he did not know the animal, and thought I was trying to make him wiser and better. As soon as he got wiser and better, he traded it to a heretic for a side-saddle which he could not use, and there my knowledge of its history ends.

Via Futility Closet.

Delinquent lemonade peddlers

A local station in East Texas reports that cops have put a child’s lemonade stand out of business. The seven-year-old delinquent is still trying to peddle her contraband:

We had kettle corn and lemonade. The lemonade was for 50 cents and the kettle corn was a dollar, but if you got both it was a dollar.

Of course, her mother is standing by the miscreant daughter:

A code enforcement officer and the chief, she called me to the side and said we needed a permit […] I think that’s ridiculous. I think they’re 7 and 8 and they’re just trying to make money for their own cause.

Chief Clyde Carter, who earned the worst score in the Milgram experiment, defends the police action:

It is a lemonade stand but they also have a permit that they are required to get. […] We have to follow by the state health guidelines. They have to have a permit if they’re going to do the lemonade stands.

As does the erudite drudge, Matt Novak, who helpfully points out that people contracted polio from a lemonade stand once eighty fucking years ago1:

I did a quick search through newspaper archives and found examples of lemonade stands getting shut down as early as the 1960s. There was even one case in the 1940s where a young girl was giving the whole neighborhood polio by the cup. Caveat emptor, amirite kids?

I’m not saying that you’re going to get polio if you buy lemonade from kids in your neighborhood, but you’re probably going to get polio if you buy lemonade from kids in your neighborhood.

True to Gawker style, he concludes that you shouldn’t really care too much because “[e]verything’s always been bad”, and anyway fashionable cynicism is more fun than thinking about stuff, a deeply profound argument that is not literally meaningless. He also manages to incorporate the illuminating Thanks Obama! doubly-ironic apology, helpfully defending someone who hasn’t killed that many people from a charge that virtually no one ever made.

  1. Linking to Gawker is about as bad as unpasteurized juice, so no.

In defense of pasteurization

I recently purchased a bottle of juice from Whole Foods, only to begin vomiting profusely several hours after drinking it. The juice, it turns out, was not pasteurized.

At first, I imagined that I had somehow found myself transported to an earlier century, where we lacked knowledge of the benefits of pasteurization, but the fact that my surroundings remained in full color disproved this hypothesis.

I then imagined that some catastrophic event had occurred and that fire itself could no longer be conjured. I ruled out this possibility once I successfully burned myself on a candle, which proved a useful distraction from the greater pain of discovering that my juice was left unpasteurized intentionally, and that this is evidently not a felony.

It turns out that there are people who prefer non-pasteurized beverages, and that I know (and even like) some of these people! I am unsure why they have such peculiar and masochistic preferences, but it appears that some people prefer non-pasteurized beverages because they supposedly taste better or because they contain certain nutrients that would otherwise be destroyed in the process of pasteurization.

Perhaps my tastes are unsophisticated, but it seems that pursuing a marginally better tasting juice at the cost of unnecessarily exposing oneself to a wealth of pathogens is ill-advised. Similarly, a minor nutritional benefit that may be obtained by drinking non-pasteurized beverages would seem somewhat outweighed by the mass presence of said pathogens.

I can only conclude, therefore, that those who prefer non-pasteurized beverages either actively enjoy pathogens, or live their lives in pursuit of taste and vitamins above all else. Perhaps more charitably, I can conclude they doubt the existence of pathogens altogether, and therefore believe pasteurization can have no beneficial effect, a position that is consistent if nothing else.

For my own part, I’ll keep to pasteurized beverages, which I generally enjoy, on the naïve assumptions that pathogens exist, that vomiting is undesirable, and that things originating from soil or teats are not always ready for consumption.

This post is dedicated to Louis Pasteur in the hope that wherever he is, he does not regret having saved lives with his superfluous process.

I can’t even

Amanda Hess writes on contemporary can’t-even-ing:

For those who grew up when teenagers didn’t “can’t,” the phrase might register as a whimper, as if millennials have spun their inability to climb the staircase out of the parental basement into a mantra. At least the Valley Girls of the 1980s and ’90s, who turned every statement into a question, and the vocal-fried pop tarts of the early 2000s, who growled almost inaudibly, had the decency to finish their sentences. Kids today, it seems, are so mindless that they can’t even complete their verb phrases.

But if you really believe that teenage girls (and boys) don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s more likely that they just don’t want you to know what they’re talking about. Teenagers may not be able to drive or vote or stay out past curfew or use the bathroom during school hours without permission, but they can talk. Their speech is the site of rebellion, and their slang provides shelter from adult scrutiny.

Hess’s history of the phrase is interesting, but her explanation of its purpose — to shield its meaning from parents — is completely inaccurate.

As obfuscation goes, can’t even ranks as a fairly transparent colloquialism. I can’t even [believe it], I can’t even [comprehend that] — these are not profoundly difficult exclamations to decipher. A parent that’s unable to do so might benefit from laying off the Strunk & White.

The notion also reveals the self-importance of many parents. I concealed fairly little from my parents, and know many who did the same. It wasn’t because we were particularly virtuous; rather it was because parents — bless them — are largely oblivious to their children’s actual lives, and so we didn’t need to.

Hess portrays the neurotic parent who faithfully spies on their children, but as everyone suspects the kids always come out ahead.

John Waters delivers a commencement speech

John Waters delivers a commencement speech1:

You’re lucky. When I went to school, my teachers discouraged every dream I ever had. I wanted to be the filthiest person alive, but no school would let me. I bet RISD would’ve. You could possibly even make a snuff movie here and get an A+. Hopefully you have been taught never to fear rejection in the workplace. Remember, a no is free. Ask for the world and pay no mind if you are initially turned down. A career in the arts is like a hitchhiking trip: All you need is one person to say “Get in” and off you go. And then the confidence begins. […]

Today may be the end of your juvenile delinquency, but it should also be the first day of your new adult disobedience. These days, everybody wants to be an outsider, politically correct to a fault. That’s good. I hope you are working to end racism, sexism, ageism, fatism. But is that enough? Isn’t being an outsider sooo 2014? I mean, maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up, and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy – the insider. Like I am. […]

Listen to your political enemies, especially the smart ones, and then figure out a way to make them laugh. Nobody likes a bore on a soapbox. Humour is always the best defence and weapon. If you can make an idiot laugh, they’ll at least pause and listen before they do something stupid – to you.

Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers. Gay is not enough anymore. It’s a good start, but I don’t want my memoirs to be in the gay section near true crime at the back of the bookstore next to the bathrooms. No! I want it up front with the best-sellers. And don’t heterosexual kids actually receive more prejudice in art schools today than the gay ones? Things are a-changing. It’s a confusing time. […]

My parents made me feel safe, and that’s why I’m up here today. That’s what you should try to do to your children too – no matter where you get your children these days.

Contemporary art’s job is to wreck what came before. Is there a better job description than that to aspire to? Here’s another trigger warning, and pardon [me] for [swearing]: Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully.

  1. Helpfully transcribed by Joe Clark.

Excuses, excuses, excuses

Alex Micek on excuses and turning thirty:

I’ve been taught to avoid excuses, first by my parents and then later in the wisdom of those I read. It was the latter that taught me an excuse for many things should never be offered when this a better explanation: “I didn’t care enough to produce the outcome you were looking for.” This is especially true when one is late. For years, if I was late, I would compose the reason in my head, what the extenuating circumstances were, why this was unusual, how I would correct it in the future.

Then, with embarrassment, I realized these thoughtfully-composed reasons skirted reality: they were simply another way to say I hadn’t cared enough to be on time. So, while I have many interesting reasons (excuses) why I haven’t written here lately, it is quite simply because I haven’t cared enough to do it. But, I can’t let my birthday weekend come and go without listing the details of it. And also, I should write here more frequently.

On the purported oppression of writers

Chris Weigl on why being a writer is dreadful:

There are times where being a writer sucks. In fact, tell me when I get to the good part. You struggle your whole life to fight for an idea that needs validation from someone in a position of authority to succeed. It’s nearly impossible for writers to earn a living and by that I mean earn a mediocre living wage so we can live in some of the most expensive cities in the world. You can’t get a job because just about every job feels unfulfilling compared to writing. In essence one cannot get a job because they would lose their will to keep on writing. That’s where society’s values are at. […]

If you believe the right-wing lie about makers vs. takers though writers would be the worst offenders as most of us can’t afford to pay our bills, can’t afford health insurance, and depend on government services to be doing things that corporations should be paying us for. The issue isn’t makers vs. takers at all. If it were writers would be sitting on the upper triage of society along with teachers, engineers, architects and construction workers. We’re the people who really make shit. Yet, most writers are at the mercy of corporate America and we get screwed every time. Our skills are de-valued for reasons passing understanding while those who prop up said corporations decry America’s moral decay. […]

Journalists are viewed as parasites, but it’s their job to keep people in power honest because passive voters sure as hell aren’t doing it.

As much as I appreciate “creative” people, and fully support a guaranteed minimum income, I’m weary of the kinds of arguments that “creatives” often make with respect to their work and its devaluation.

My uneasiness stems from two facts: The simple truth that all people are profoundly creative, and that designating a particular class of individuals as “creative”, only serves to devalue the great majority who don’t have the luxury of living a life of the mind—a luxury despite the financial difficulties of “creatives”. One who has a couple children, a mortgage, and a car or two isn’t necessarily living high on the hog, yet for them the option to join this “creative” class essentially doesn’t exist. Presumably they are to be considered deficient in some way.

The second reason resembles the first in its arrogance: Even if we accept that “creatives” are a distinct class of people, virtually every difficulty that Weigl mentions applies doubly to many people in the United States, let alone the forgotten non-people stuck in the Third World.

Indeed, one can quite literally replace “writers” with “people” in Weigl’s post, and achieve a fairly accurate picture of the world. The failure of many writers to acknowledge this or engage with ordinary people—people often ridiculed as “passive”, members of the teeming masses, the bewildered herd, and so on—can’t be discounted as a source of their financial woes. More importantly, however, such egoism is perfectly compatible with the social stratification and oppression that Weigl regrets.

One way to oppress others is to stomp them with your boot. Another is to form a kind of vanguard, anointing oneself to lead the ignorant masses to salvation. Both should be avoided.

The meaning of school

Maeve Maddox on the changing meaning of “school”:

Since Shakespeare’s time at least, children have been portrayed as being reluctant to go to school:

…the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. —As You Like It, II:vii,148-150.

That’s a sad fate for school, a word that originated in the context of enjoyable leisure time.

Our word school comes from Latin schola, “learned leisure.” Schola was free time during which educated men could sit around and talk about ideas. The talk might lead to lecturing and arguing, so from meaning “free time for talking about ideas,” schola came to mean debate, dispute, lecture, dissertation.

Bread, circuses, and the web

Tristan Harris on designing for time well spent:

[W]e live in an attention economy.

An attention economy means that no matter what you aim to make (an app or a website), you win by getting people to spend time. So what starts as an honest competition to make useful things that people spend their time on, must devolve into a ruthless competition to seduce our deepest instincts to get more of people’s time — a race to the bottom of the brain stem.

The problem is, to fix it, you can’t ask anyone who’s in that competition NOT to maximize the time their users spend. Because someone else (another app, or another website) will swoop in and siphon that time away to them instead. […]

So we’re not going to get out of this situation, or convince those apps or websites to do something else until we create a new kind of competition — until there’s a newthing apps and websites can compete for.

And what if we could make that? What if instead of competing to get us to spend time, apps and websites were competing to help us spend our time well? What if they competed to create net positive contributions to people’s lives?

I don’t want to be distracted anymore. I want a world that helps me spend my time well.

Last year, I wrote about how this fight for our attention is most obvious in the case of notifications:

Each and every notification constitutes a minor encroachment on our lives. One every so often might not be a big deal, but if you live with the defaults, you’re going to get notifications constantly. This is emotionally draining.

If a person acted the way that many notifications do, you’d think they were being psychologically abusive.

Harris and others are organizing practitioners, and developing these ideas further, with Time Well Spent.

Special thanks to Anne for sharing.

Lagniappe

Lagniappe is one of those words you don’t quite expect to exist, either in sound or meaning. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means “something given as a bonus or gratuity”, but Mark Twain is a bit more generous in his Life on the Mississippi:

We picked up one excellent word—a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word—“Lagniappe.” They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish—so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a “baker’s dozen.” It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop—or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know—he finishes the operation by saying,—

“Give me something for lagniappe.”

The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor—I don’t know what he gives the governor; support, likely.

When you are invited to drink, and this does occur now and then in New Orleans,—and you say, “What, again?—no, I’ve had enough”; the other party says, “But just this one time more—this is for lagniappe.” When the beau perceives that he is stacking his compliments a trifle too high, and sees by the young lady’s countenance that the edifice would have been better with the top compliment left off, he puts his “I beg pardon,—no harm intended,” into the briefer form of “Oh, that’s for lagniappe.” If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says “For lagniappe, sah,” and gets you another cup without extra charge.

Special thanks to Kat for inadvertently introducing this word to me.

Literally literally

Stan Carey writes about the usages and history of literally:

Last week I heard a news reporter on Irish television describe people as “literally gutted” by the news of job losses. She meant, of course, that they were devastated, not that their intestines were spilt: she used literally to intensify a figurative statement. This is typical of how the word is often informally used – many would say misused.

Like it or not, literally is used to mean more than just “literally”, and it has been for a very long time. Some people – I’m one of them – prefer to use it only in its narrower, more literal senses. A subset – I’m not one of these – insist on it. […]

Language is fundamentally metaphorical, and with literally we have walked a very long way from the Latin for letter. “[I]t’s impossible to tell where literality leaves off,” writes linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, “nor is there usually any practical reason for trying to do so.”

As an unapologetic fan of hyperbole, I make extensive use of the non-literal “literally”. I’ve never observed my usage causing confusion, so can fairly easily write off any such concern.

More generally, I’m not sure why some people insist on notions like “misuse”. I think it’s literally impossible to “misuse” a word, if the vitality of language arises from actual usage, rather than “correct” usage that some cabal imposes by fiat.

I should note that such a “cabal” is not literally a cabal, as they’re probably not politically motivated, and aren’t really very secretive about their existence or their priggishness. Similarly, this “fiat” cannot be understood as a literal fiat, because that would probably require the issuance of all sorts of very important and formal looking documents, or at least the use of one of those neat embosser things that notaries use for no discernible reason.

Rocks and stones

Andrea Badgley ponders the difference between rocks and stones:

It’s funny, the word rocks is much harsher to me than the word stones. […]

When I think of rocks I see dusty gravel, grey granite shards with glints of quartz or mica, the rocks themselves planed and angular, bumpy with unclean breaks. Triangles protrude from a pile looking jagged and dangerous. Unwelcoming. […]

Stones, though. Stones are smooth and rounded. Domes of shiny grey on a Maine beach. They are welcoming. They fit in the palm of your hand and are comforting in their age and smoothness.

I share Andrea’s intuition about the difference between rocks and stones, but Merriam-Webster apparently does not. On the other hand, geology writer David B. Williams observes commonly held distinctions between the two:

I found that some people thought that stone was more British; that rock could be hard and soft, whereas stone was always hard; that stones are smooth and rocks rough; and that stones are small and rocks are big.

He also notes that the Oxford English Dictionary defines rock as “A large rugged mass of hard mineral material or stone”, while a stone is “A piece of rock or hard mineral substance of a small or moderate size.” Here, this indicates that rocks are stones, while stones may not be rocks, while acknowledging a particular use of rock that specifies the object is rough.

Nevertheless, it seems ambiguous enough that we should specifically indicate (where relevant) whether a rock or stone is rough or smooth. But that doesn’t really satisfy my curiosity about how these peripheral meanings are formed, and why they are commonly shared.

I wonder if it has something to do with the aesthetics of these words. I observe that the words sofa and couch seem to share a similar distinction, where sofa seems more refined than the terse couch. Somehow the word sofa seems to pair better with stone and smooth than rock does. And somehow couch jibes with rock and rough.

Not a bittersweet time machine

Kevin Conboy on the power that some places have over us:

[I] store certain memories in physical locations and can recall them when I find myself revisiting. Commonly-trod ground gets overwritten often and complexly, in a tapestry of emotions’ colors overlapping like brushstrokes. […]

This beach is where I kissed my girlfriend. That one: my former wife, wedding ring tattoo notwithstanding. Fewer overlaps and clearer memories, relived and lived anew as time marches forward, the only direction it actually can. Given this much power, these places can seem a sort of bittersweet time machine but they’re not.

A dead friend’s former home always burning unseen a block away, red-tinged, geo-located in my mind as I take my daughter to school every day. Every fucking day. The Burger King where we waited for my son to escape his school alive. The heartbreakingly-named monument to the student murdered there directly across the street.

The origin and fragility of ideas

Publikwork on the origin of ideas:

No one knows. Their origins are as inscrutable as crop circles and Stonehenge.

Oh, plenty of people claim to know the secret; plenty more have a sure-fire, foolproof method for sparking brilliant new thoughts. On demand. At the snap of your fingers. Well, I’m here to tell you, ideas can’t be trained. They don’t come when they’re called; they won’t fetch or roll over, either. They’ll play dead, though. They’re doing it now. At this very moment.

I thought I had one, but when I looked closely, it wasn’t moving. No signs of life. I nudged it with my foot, I poked it with a stick, nothing, no response. Great, now what? Well, once in a while I’ll find a stray idea in the shower or under the covers, so I checked there, but nope. Not this time. The cupboards are bare.

Virginia Woolf on thoughts1:

Thought — to call it by a prouder name than it deserved — had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until — you know the little tug — the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out? Alas, laid on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating. […]

Instantly a man’s figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help, he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me. Such thoughts were the work of a moment. As I regained the path the arms of the Beadle sank, his face assumed its usual repose, and though turf is better walking than gravel, no very great harm was done. The only charge I could bring against the Fellows and Scholars of whatever the college might happen to be was that in protection of their turf, which has been rolled for 300 years in succession they had sent my little fish into hiding.

  1. From A Room of One’s Own, 1929.