Monthly Archives: August 2017

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Didn’t Know I Would Really Go

campbell

Last week Glen Campbell’s six-year descent into Alzheimer’s came to its end. His survival time after diagnosis was roughly the average for that terrible disease. Everyone who enjoys country-flavored popular music or guitar playing will mourn him. But for me the greatest loss is that he was the quintessential musical interpreter of the wonderful poetical and musical work of Jimmy Webb, surely one of the 20th century’s greatest popular songwriters. I think the quality of their collaboration has s…

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Take a Gander

Traverse CityEvery summer my wife and I head north from Illinois to the “big lake” — Lake Michigan, of course — at Pentwater and the tourist attractions of Traverse City, Mich., where her daughter lives. Along the way, we meet lots of Michiganders.

A resident of Ohio is an Ohioan. Of Wisconsin, a Wisconsinite. Of Iowa, an Iowan. Someone who lives in Michigan, however, is best known not as a Michiganian, but as a Michigander.

Is that a joke? Or a proud designation? Despite the association with geese, it seems…

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Of Cans and Cabooses

Tyler Silvest, via Flicker

On Monday, a  Colorado jury found that a Denver disc jockey had in fact committed assault and battery against Taylor Swift during a pre-concert photo session in 2013. Some dirtbags like the DJ apparently feel that celebrities can be groped — a form of sexual assault — with impunity, and the main takeaway of the trial was the good news that the dirtbag in this case could not.

The second takeaway is that mainstream journalism apparently does not possess an adequate term …

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Getting Oriented

Alan Klim, Creative Commons

The beginning of term: orientation. It’s the first exposure to life at college, an induction into campus culture, the downloading of rules and regulations, and for some a festival of celebratory distractions.

Whatever shape it takes on your campus, orientation is, to use the name we give to the very last event of a college education, a commencement.

It’s also a moment to confront our obligations.

Like a series of inoculations before a journey to a remote somewhere, or…

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Why a Ham Sandwich?

Ham_sandwich

When my brother and I were teenagers, we liked to practice non sequiturs, irrelevant statements that seemed to beggar any attempt at response. One of our favorites was “My father drives with both feet.” (This happened to be true, to the detriment of our car’s brakes.) Another was “I had a ham sandwich for lunch.” For reasons that elude me now, we found it hilarious to lob these tiny verbal grenades into conversations, particularly with elders.

The ham sandwich has made a recent appearance, than…

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When Will We Talk About the Syllabus?

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W
ith August almost halfway over, my mind has turned to the first day of class. When I first started teaching college-level classes, the first day seemed so straightforward it hardly required prep. As long as I had the syllabus finished, my lesson plan seemed to write itself: (a) introduce myself, (b) hand out and review the syllabus carefully, and (c) do some kind of icebreaker to learn students’ names. Almost 25 years and many, many first class days later, I have abandoned the low-prep, aut…

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‘Best’ and the Worst

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North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening, beyond a normal statement. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.

There is so much to say, none of it good, about the ad-libbed statement Donald Trump made Monday night at his golf club in New Jersey. (In the video of his remarks, you can see a plaque on …

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A Three-Hundred-Year-Old Dilemma

Hyphenation

Recently The Economist’s “Johnson” column (named not for its author, but for the dictionary pioneer Samuel Johnson, who lived three centuries ago) ruminated on the frustrations and obscure consistencies of hyphenation. Apparently the magazine’s style book carries on about hyphens for eight pages, which to my mind leaves plenty to be said.

As they rightly point out, the path of hyphenation runs generally toward its disappearance: good-bye becomes goodbye, to-day becomes today, e-mail has widely …

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Robots Gossiping in a Secret Language?

tworobots

I returned from Konstanz to find a whole slew of newspapers, websites, and news magazines had revived a language technology story from two months ago (Adrienne LaFrance discussed it in The Atlantic in June). Facebook, they reported, had been trying to get two chatbots (“Bob” and “Alice”) in an “adversarial network” to learn negotiation by reading a stash of transcribed negotiations between humans and imitating them. But as the chatbots purported to negotiate over the pricing of balls, hats, and…

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Lollapalooza: a Modern Sockdolager

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A
t times the English language has seemed inadequate to express the expansiveness and exuberance of the American spirit … at times, that is, when the nation felt expansive and exuberant.

Words like expansive and exuberant wouldn’t do; they can be quite accurate in denotation, but too nicely tied to classical Latin roots to express this spirit.

No, for the American experience, a different kind of sesquipedalian nomenclature was needed. And in the early 19th century it emerged, breathing fire and…