Lots of great bits in this Wells Tower interview. Like: “Something I think about a lot with writing is something Walker Percy said, that writing is something that you can only really do once you’ve given up. For me, that is more the kind of visitation or periodic useful revelation you are talking about. What it means to me is that after you’ve been sitting at a desk for a long time fretting and thinking, ‘Oh fuck, I need to write something really good, I need to write something really smart and good, and really, really good…,’ I am able to say: ‘I am not going to write anything that is going to be great. I am just going to try to capture a moment in a way that doesn’t seem cheap, or won’t be embarrassing.’ Often, that is what I default to: I am going to write something that is neither cowardly— I am not going to hide in obvious defenses— nor am I going to write something that is going to embarrass me. At that point, it is sometimes possible to write.”
Music blogs are slowly making the music review obsolete (why take a critic’s word for it when you can just hit “play” and see for yourself?), but I was thinking today about how hard it is to write about music and then remembered that this old Pitchfork review of Korn’s Follow the Leader from 1998 was wholly entertaining and captured the highbrow shame in kinda sorta enjoying that album: “Yet some primal part of you still wants to hear a grown man shout ‘It’s On!’ over tight-as-the-cuff-of-a-sphygmomanometer guitar riffing and drum pummel.”
Especially that phrase “grown man.” It always strikes me as surreal that Billy Corgan was 26 when Siamese Dream came out. I mean, sure, when I was 13, lyrics like “No more promise no more sorrow / No longer will I follow / Can anybody hear me / I just want to be me” were great for surfing those comically volatile waves of middle-school angst. And the implicit promise of the album was that 26-year-old Billy Corgan feels exactly the same teen dreariness that you feel, which means that you’ll still feel that same dreariness when you’re 26, so get used to it, kid. Except then you turn 26 and realize you’ve left puberty behind and things aren’t so desperate after all and was he really in his late twenties when he sang those songs? At least Taylor Swift tells people that being a teenager is just a phase and you’ll get over it. That’s a valuable public service!
Jorge Luis Borges: “When I began to lose my sight, the last color I saw, or the last color, rather, that stood out, because of course now I know that your coat is not the same color as this table or of the woodwork behind you—the last color to stand out was yellow because it is the most vivid of colors. That’s why you have the Yellow Cab Company in the United States. At first they thought of making the cars scarlet. Then somebody found out that at night or when there was a fog that yellow stood out in a more vivid way than scarlet. So you have yellow cabs because anybody can pick them out. Now when I began to lose my eyesight, when the world began to fade away from me, there was a time among my friends… well they made, they poked fun at me because I was always wearing yellow neckties. Then they thought I really liked yellow, although it really was too glaring. I said, ‘Yes, to you, but not to me, because it is the only color I can see, practically!’ I live in a gray world, rather like the silver-screen world. But yellow stands out.”
Martin Amis: “You should find out what words mean and what their origins are and that will deepen the word for you. For instance, what does obsess come from? Obsidere. To besiege. To lay siege to. You know that, and you know the word better. You’re more intimate with the word.”
I could spend all day puttering around the Association for Consumer Research’s website. It’s like a Rosetta Stone for decoding why we do the things we do when we see an ad or walk in a store. Here’s a study on the effects different colors have on the way customers perceive pharmaceuticals. Brown and red pills are seen as “serious” medications, while green and yellow hues are seen as trivial. Bad to mix ‘em up. People associate darker packaging with more potent drugs. Men prefer orange capsules and women prefer blue capsules.
Or how about this paper? Question is whether restaurants should have long or short waits. Turns out that restaurants catering to tourists actually get more customers when they have very long lines—tourists have zero clue which restaurants are good and which are terrible, so they tend to herd to the ones where there are lots of people. Presumably, a lot of touristy restaurants try to artificially inflate their lines (they could always hire people to stand in them).
Here’s another ditty on the psychology of waiting. People at doctor’s offices always say they prefer sitting in waiting rooms with other people. But hanging around fellow sufferers actually, subconsciously, makes people more anxious. The authors suggest ways to subtly and tastefully arrange furniture and flowers in the waiting room so that “the interaction between customers can be minimalized without their feeling totally isolated from one another.” Aw.
And this bizarre paper suggests that supermarkets should force customers to navigate stores in a clockwise direction (i.e., enter from the left and wander to the right), because people are then more likely to glance toward the store’s interior, feel more secure, remember more products, and have happier thoughts about the store in question. Something to do with dopamine in the brain. Dunno.
I mean…. obviously companies put a lot of thought into store layout and product placement and background music and color and it’s all meant to serve a purpose, but when you sit down and start flipping through these studies it’s startling the level of obsessive detail and attention that goes on here.
The list of ethical transgressions by Anderson assembled in Poisoning the Press almost runs off the page. His office manager reportedly once donned a disguise as a cleaning lady to steal incriminating documents from a dishonest senator. The same office manager, Feldstein writes, took lovers who “doubled as sources, from high-level elected officials and military officers to prominent newsmen and lobbyists.” Anderson assigned legman Les Whitten to spy on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his aide and friend—and rumored lover—Clyde Tolson to gather intelligence on their private life. In 1958, Anderson and a private investigator were caught with bugging equipment in the Washington Sheraton-Carlton Hotel while recording a businessman who had bribed the president’s chief of staff. To get out of that jam, Anderson paid a witness in the case more than $1,000, according to an FBI informant.
—Jack Shafer, “Was Jack Anderson a Reporter or a Spook?,” Slate
asterism, n. Any pattern of stars in the sky that doesn’t constitute an official constellation. The Big Dipper is an asterism. So is the Northern Cross. When Ptolemy was divvying up the sky into constellations in the 2nd century, he included Argo Navis (“the ship Argo”). But in the 1930s, Argo Navis was deemed too unwieldy by the IAU and so got split up into three separate constellations: a keel, a poop deck, and sails.
Deep thoughts from the November 2009 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology: “Prior work has found that people occasionally seek useless information, a violation of strict rationality.” Humans!
Tad Friend: “The dream of artists—which is simply the dream of friends and lovers, magnified—is to plant themselves in other people’s heads.”
So yesterday’s Dictionary.com word-of-the-day e-mail claimed that “wend” has Gothic origins—it’s related to wandjan, “to wind.” Other dictionaries disagree on this point, but I thought, huh, I wonder what other words have Gothic origins? Google wasn’t much help: Most of my search results had to do with Gothic architecture, Gothic teens, Gothic names for newborns (one poster on Nickelodeon’s “Parents Connect” forum recommended ”Arachan” and “Nyx”)…
But I did come across an 1888 edition of Notes & Queries, a journal I’d never heard of before. The premise was simple: People submitted arcane scholarly questions (JAMES D. BUTLER from Madison, Wis., asks, “A certain general is said to have saved his life by putting a nightcap on a lion’s head. Who was it that employed this stratagem?”). And in subsequent issues, readers would reply (EDWARD HOME COLEMAN writes in to inform that the Egyptian piaster, which had been phased out 50 years prior, was worth 1/100 of a pound sterling.)
In any case, the whole thing resembles a Victorian-era search engine and it’s fun to read. And, lo, Notes & Queries still exists today. I’ll send them my Gothic etymology question and see what happens.
In the nineteen-sixties, Elisabeth Mann Borgese, a daughter of Thomas Mann, trained her English setter, Arlecchino, to type with his nose on a specially constructed electric typewriter. After about a year, and many dispensations of raw hamburger, Arli could type twenty simple words. He made a lot of typos, though, and when Borgese tried to induce him to record his own thoughts, without dictation, he got discouraged and started smacking the machine with his paw. Borgese sent some sheets of Arli’s typing to a poetry critic, who wrote back that the dog had “a definite affinity with the ‘concretist’ groups in Brazil, Scotland, and Germany.”
—Joan Acocella, “The Typing Life,” The New Yorker
Great names from my junkmail folder:
I like to think of spam as this magical land where everyone has unique and colorful names, where sex is in the air, and where the kindness of strangers is never in doubt.
Inventors killed by their own inventions: “Thomas Midgley, Jr. (1889–1944) was an American engineer and chemist who contracted polio at age 51, leaving him severely disabled. He devised an elaborate system of strings and pulleys to help others lift him from bed. This system was the eventual cause of his death when he was accidentally entangled in the ropes of this device and died of strangulation at the age of 55.”
Aw. Incidentally, Midgley was more famous for inventing both Freon (which ended up munching through the ozone layer) and the idea of adding lead to gasoline to prevent engine knocking, leading one historian to remark that he “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.”
Lydia Davis, in the course of justifying her new translation of Madame Bovary, lists all the different ways Flaubert’s phrase “bouffées d’affadissement” has been rendered into English:
gusts of revulsion
a kind of rancid staleness
stale gusts of dreariness
waves of nausea
fumes of nausea
flavorless, sickening gusts
whiffs of sickliness
waves of nauseous disgust
A man was gawking at Anatole France’s large personal library and asked: “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them,” France replied. “I don’t suppose you eat off your Sèvres china every day?”
Dickens on the Marseilles sun, from Little Dorritt:
A blazing sun upon a fierce August day was no greater rarity in southern France then, than at any other time, before or since. Everything in Marseilles, and about Marseilles, had stared at the fervid sun, and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away. The only things to be seen not fixedly staring and glaring were the vines drooping under their loads of grapes. These did occasionally wink a little, as the hot air barely moved their faint leaves.
Dickens on the London fog, from Bleak House:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
From Craigslist:Take a few pictures for cash (female) Date: 2010-02-20, 3:49PM EST
Looking for a good looking girl, ages 18-25 to take a few pictures with me. In medical school. Went through a bad breakup and told my parents I had a new girlfriend so they’d leave me alone.
Pay is $80. Totally clothed. Take a few pictures. Done in 5 minutes. $80. Attach picture and I will respond. No travel required.
Love this, from Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster: “He props the door open with a rubber stop, then chops on the lights and waits as the panels hopscotch across the kitchen ceiling.” Three sly and perfect verbs.
I’ve been studying high-end sex workers (by which I mean those who earn more than $250 per “session”) in New York, Chicago and Paris for more than a decade, and one of my most startling findings is that many men pay women to not have sex. Well, they pay for sex, but end up chatting or having dinner and never get around to physical contact. Approximately 40 percent of high-end sex worker transactions end up being sex-free. Even at the lower end of the market, about 20 percent of transactions don’t ultimately involve sex.
—Sudhir Venkatesh, “Five Myths About Prostitution,” Washington Post