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Love Lives of the Composers

The term groupies entered the lexicon around 1965; four years later, both Rolling Stone and Time covered the topic extensively in print. But Ted Gioia tells us that the actual practice of fans “seeking out a special intimacy with the celebrity musicians” of their day goes much farther back. Consider the case of Franz Joseph Haydn, who died more than two centuries ago:

In England the composer almost certainly had an affair with Rebecca Schroeter, almost 20 years his junior—who invited him into her home to give a “music lesson.” But even before this career-changing trip, Haydn pursued a love affair with mezzo-soprano Luigia Polzelli, almost thirty years younger than him. In 1789, he initiated a friendship with Maria Anna von Genzinger, roughly the same age as Schroeter, and their correspondence indicates a rare degree of intimacy. What happened in private between Haydn and these female admirers is hidden from our view, but we do know that in one letter, the great composer referred to his wife as an “infernal beast.” At his death in 1809, Haydn’s will enumerated many bequests to women who were neither family members nor relatives of any sort.

And Haydn “was not especially good-looking,” says Gioia. So chin up, nerds. There’s still a chance.

RIP Dusty Hill

With the news of the ZZ Top bassist’s untimely death, I reckon the appropriate way to mourn is to mix yourself a ranch water and put Tres Hombres on the stereo—then read about one of the more bizarre chapters in pop culture history.

As for me, I’ll just ponder the closing lyrics from “Jesus Just Left Chicago”:

You might not see him in person
But he’ll see you just the same
You don’t have to worry ’cause takin’ care of business is his name

A Couple of Reading Recommendations

After poking fun at our local newspaper a few days ago, I feel compelled to mention that long-form journalism, when it’s done well, is awfully hard to beat if you want to understand the current cultural landscape.

Two pieces in particular really grabbed me by the throat this past week: “Mormonism’s Sci-Fi Swan Song” by Andrew Kay over at The Point, and the heartbreaking “His Name Was Emmett Till” by Wright Thompson for The Atlantic. Thompson’s piece is a smidge over 7,500 words; Kay’s clocks in at nearly 10,000—but in neither will a single second of your time be wasted.

Read ’em both and thank me later.

Stop! Grammar Time!

Saw this in today’s paper:

Coeur d’Alene-based technology company, Rohinni, is under new leadership and is planning to relocate its headquarters to Liberty Lake in an effort to expand engineering capabilities.

The thing is, though, those commas don’t belong there—because Rohinni is not only a Coeur d’Alene-based technology company, it’s also a restrictive appositive.

Let’s review.

An appositive is a noun or pronoun placed next to another noun (in apposition) to explain or identify it. If the appositive is necessary for the reader to understand the writer’s meaning, it’s what’s called “restrictive” and doesn’t require commas; if the information it contains is supplemental, it’s “nonrestrictive” and does take commas.

For example, when I say “My friend Bill eats paste,” Bill is a restrictive appositive that identifies which friend I’m referring to. Because if I’d said “My friend eats paste,” well…that could be anybody, really. (Have you met my friends?)

But if I were to say “My wife, Kim, eats paste,” Kim is a nonrestrictive appositive because I presumably have only one wife. It’s supplemental information; “My wife eats paste” contains all you need to know. (N.B. My wife does not, in fact, eat paste.)

Back to the sentence we started with:

Coeur d’Alene-based technology company, Rohinni, is under new leadership and is planning to relocate its headquarters to Liberty Lake in an effort to expand engineering capabilities.

Since there are likely several technology companies operating in Coeur d’Alene, the inclusion of Rohinni is necessary for the reader to understand exactly which one the writer is referring to. It is therefore a restrictive appositive, and doesn’t require commas:

Coeur d’Alene-based technology company Rohinni is under new leadership and is planning to relocate its headquarters to Liberty Lake in an effort to expand engineering capabilities.

Part of the problem is that the writer is trying to communicate too much within a single sentence, and likely felt that the commas offered a necessary pause. But that’s not what commas are for. It’s why God created editors.

Language Evolves Apace

I learned a new word today: kakistocracy. My copy of the OED defines it as “the government of a State by the worst citizens.” It’s apparently derived from the Greek kakistos (“worst”) + –cracy, after aristocracy.

Isn’t that quaint? That there was once a time when we could all agree on who the worst among us actually were?

According to the dictionary, the word was first recorded in the early 19th century. These days, however, it seems to be defined in terms of whether the politician you voted for is in office. My team won: “Democracy works.” My team lost: “My God we’re living in a kakistocracy!”

Maybe that’s why we don’t hear it much anymore—because, like ironic and literally, it’s lost its original meaning.

Afternoon Diversion

Yesterday, with no explanation (or warning, for that matter), my son texted me a link to this video. So it’s only fair that I likewise refrain from divulging any background or context as I offer it to you:

Couple of things: (A) These guys shred, and (2) I’m happy to see that the art of music video is alive and well.

Odds and Ends

From this comprehensive list of helicopter prison escapes—helpfully defined as “when an inmate escapes from a prison by means of a helicopter”—we learn that France holds the record for most attempts at 11.

The Skeptoid himself, Brian Dunning, reveals how “a small group of paranormalists and believers in reincarnation have been pursuing their interests on the payroll of the American taxpayers, and finally got their biggest PR success with claims of Navy UFO videos and ever-failing promises of government disclosure.” You can listen to or read Part 1 here; Part 2 is here. Theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss also weighs in, writing that “the probability of being actually visited by other intelligent lifeforms…[is] sufficiently unlikely that we can usefully worry about other things instead.”

The Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin has a pretty sweet movie poster collection, digitized for your pleasure.

Schopenhauer’s 38 Ways to Win an Argument, though meant as sarcasm when it was written in 1831, includes several tips no doubt familiar to those on social media today, such as “use your opponent’s beliefs against him,” “confuse the issue by changing your opponent’s words,” and “become personal, insulting and rude as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand.”

Write. Edit. Repeat.

According to Wikipedia, Benjamin Franklin was “an American polymath active as a writer, scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, printer, publisher and political philosopher.” One of the leading intellectuals of his time, the article continues, Franklin is known for “the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions.” And, of course, for his important contributions to 1970s Saturday morning television:

So Ben was kind of a big deal.

But for my money, nothing in that long list of achievements comes close to topping his stint as an editor on the Declaration of Independence. Here’s how biographer Walter Isaacson put it in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life:

Franklin made only a few changes, some of which can be viewed written in his own hand on what Jefferson referred to as the “rough draft” of the Declaration. (This remarkable document is at the Library of Congress and on its Web site.) The most important of his edits was small but resounding. He crossed out, using the heavy backslashes that he often employed, the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

The idea of “self-evident” truths was one that drew less on John Locke, who was Jefferson’s favored philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and on the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. In what became known as “Hume’s fork,” the great Scottish philosopher, along with Leibniz and others, had developed a theory that distinguished between synthetic truths that describe matters of fact (such as “London is bigger than Philadelphia”) and analytic truths that are self-evident by virtue of reason and definition (“The angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees”; “All bachelors are unmarried”). By using the word “sacred,” Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.

Keeping with our patriotic theme, historian Ronald C. White, Jr. tells us how Lincoln tweaked the final sentence of his First Inaugural Address—a sentence that has since “found its place as American scripture.”

It is an address that has sometimes been overlooked alongside its more well-known cousins, the Gettysburg and the Second Inaugural. But the president, with less than one year of formal education, offered timeless words that can help us as we seek to define the meaning of America for our day.

Just goes to show that, as White reminds us, “there is no such thing as good writing; there is only good rewriting.”

Coffee Milk!

My friend Bill, in town for the summer, is directly responsible for turning me on to Domini’s and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra when I was but a callow youth.

Thirty-odd years later he’s done it again by introducing me to the official state drink of Rhode Island.* And now I pass this information on to you. That is all.

*Yes, I have in my possession a 32-oz. bottle of Autocrat coffee syrup. No, you may not have any. Get your own.

Captain Obvious, Reporting Live

“It turns out that being good-looking really does pay off,” begins the abstract for Is Beauty More than Skin Deep? Attractiveness, Power, and Nonverbal Presence in Evaluations of Hirability. “Decades of research have shown that attractive individuals are more likely to get ahead in their careers.”

You don’t say.

But wait—there’s more: “There is also evidence that these [attractive] individuals may be socialized to behave and perceive themselves differently from others in ways that contribute to their success.” How, you ask? A “greater sense of power than their less attractive counterparts.”

Decades of research? Hell, I learned all this the hard way after one week in high school. But since I read Shakespeare, I also knew the hotties would eventually get their comeuppance:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.

Small comfort, I suppose, but still.

Summer Listening, Courtesy of AB

Is it me, or has it been a while since I’ve posted anything related to music? Let’s get to it, then. Herewith some new(ish) albums I’ve been digging lately, listed alphabetically by artist:

• CAN, Live in Stuttgart 1975
• Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Carnage
• Dave Holland, Another Land
• Vijay Iyer, Uneasy
• Langham Research Centre, Tape Works, Vol. 2
• Pat Metheny, Road to the Sun
• Sedibus, The Heavens
• Sturgill Simpson, Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions)
• Sturgill Simpson, Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 (The Cowboy Arms Sessions)
• various artists, Tone Science Module No. 5 Integers and Quotients

There now. That should keep y’all busy for a while.

Hot Enough for Ya?

About the only thing I didn’t check before the missus and I left for a short road trip last week was the weather forecast. So no, I wasn’t expecting triple-digit temps at Ohanapecosh Campground. Nor did I think I’d see six feet of snow two days later at Paradise. And when the mercury dropped to the low fifties on the California coast at Fort Bragg (no relation), I figured Mother Nature was done messing with me.

But it turns out the 112° near Mount Shasta on Saturday was just preparation for the simmering hellscape that greeted us on our return to Spokane last night. Who knew this place could be so unforgiving?

All is not lost, however—provided you’re well-stocked with the necessary supplies. Just as emergency candles and wool blankets can be deployed during the cold winter months, the best defense against this stupid “heat dome” is plenty of Campari, San Pellegrino, and ice.

After all, we’re supposed to stay hydrated.

Looks Like I’m About to Be Replaced

OpenAI’s GPT-3 is an artificial neural network that uses “probability, machine learning, and a huge body of training texts to master language prediction skills and provide increasingly human-like responses to text-based prompts.”

Which means that—theoretically, anyway—it could write a novel.

Color me dubious. I mean, who would want to read AI-generated text? It sounds awful. (Though, to be fair, someone’s buying this, so anything’s possible, I reckon.) And these days, human writers are just targets for the perpetually outraged, so it’s probably safer to leave such work to the machines.

So why not? Let’s go ahead and fire up the Great Automatic Grammatizator. I’m not sure anyone would notice the difference anyway.

Writing Is Hard, part 8,493

“I am deeply resentful that others write my headlines,” says Peggy Noonan, “and deeply relieved I don’t have to.”

It’s rare for journalists to write their own headlines for at least a couple of reasons: (1) “Reporters are naturally promoters of their own work; if they could write the headlines, they would be likely to exaggerate the story’s appeal or importance,” and (2) “Bad headlines cost the paper credibility, or appeal, or clarity. The top editors have to be responsible for them.”

I’d add a third reason: Writing headlines sucks.

Give me an assignment to write 500 words on the genius of Jerry Garcia and I’ll have it on your desk in 30 minutes. Tell me to write the headline, though, and you won’t hear from me for a week.


It turns out that it takes a special kind of talent to be able to “entice, intrigue, or provoke”—and to do it in a minimum of character spaces. It also turns out that I do not possess this talent.

But hey, I’m devilishly handsome and a witty raconteur, so I’ve got that going for me at least.

Odds & Ends

“No crystal hunters are as daring as Chamonix’s cristalliers, who complete technical alpine climbs to extremely hard-to-get places so they can reach cracks and clefts where they pull out the crystals and bring them down using only human power.…In 2005, Péray watched his longtime collaborator Laurent Chatel plunge nearly 2,000 feet on Les Courtes to his death.”

“Whenever there’s an economic incentive to get people to believe something, you’re going to find organizations doing their best to get out the evidence that supports their case.”

“After his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes look abnormally large. This allows one to notice, what one might not at another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature.”

“Prison reform had long been a cause for [Johnny] Cash, who believed a man could be redeemed; all he needed was a chance. Cash was in the process of saving himself. Now, with the help of God and Nashville, he was determined to save Glen Sherley.”

“What you have quite often in these museum thefts is a high degree of planning in terms of the theft itself but very little planning, if any, as to what they will do with the object after they’ve stolen it.”

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