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Et tu, New Yorker?

I was reading a this story about MSG when I came across the following:

Despite MSG’s image makeover, I’ve found that plenty of people remain resistant to incorporating it into their cooking. They are willing to bring MSG into their homes as a component in other foods—more than happy to accept it as a flavoring powerhouse in Doritos, instant ramen, canned soup, and bouillon cubes, or at least happy to accept its euphemisms, like “hydrolized soy protein” and “autolyzed yeast.” But the notion of buying and using the raw ingredient is often a bridge too far.

The phrase “a bridge too far” comes from the Cornelius Ryan novel (and subsequent film) of the same name.

Published in 1974, Ryan’s book is an account of Operation Market Garden, which Wikipedia helpfully summarizes as the “failed Allied attempt to break through German lines at Arnhem by taking a series of bridges in the occupied Netherlands during World War II.”

“A bridge too far” is a metaphor for overreach; a situation in which ambition trumps capability, often leading to disastrous results. It’s unclear to me how that applies to using MSG in your cooking.

Like “begs the question,” which I’ve addressed previously, “a bridge too far” has taken on an entirely different meaning from what it was originally meant to convey. Whether that’s a natural evolution of the language or millennial ignorance—the latter nearly always a safe bet—is a discussion for another day. But when elite publications like the New Yorker don’t put the kibosh on it, that’s how these things stick.

Miscellany

Researchers estimate that 90 percent of medieval manuscripts have been lost completely.

Florence Hazrat asks the important questions:

Are prescribed grammar rules necessary…or a relic of some fussy conservatism and elitist era? Do we really need apostrophes (or any other mark of punctuation for that matter) or could we get rid of them for the sake of brevity? Is Princes Street rather than Prince’s or even the formidable Princes’ Street really a sign of our careless inattention to detail today? If punctuation can fall away and the words still make sense, why did we need it in the first place?

Ten ways to think about story endings, from George Saunders.

“I am a dilettante,” said Brian Eno. “It’s only in England that dilettantism is considered a bad thing. In other countries it’s called interdisciplinary research.”

Two-for-one bonus! The cigarette as “cinema’s most seductive prop” and Matt Labash comes to the defense of smokers.

Old Man Yells at Cloud

This xkcd comic—from 2010, mind you—remains true today:

I mean, see for yourself: exhibit A, exhibit B, exhibit C, exhibit D.

It’s not just university websites, either. It’s pretty much every website for any government entity and any organization larger than a dozen people.

Case in point: I recently had to update my credit card information for some bills I pay automatically (utilities, electricity, Internet, et al.), and MY GOD is it unnecessarily hard to do. You can’t find what you’re looking for, the naming conventions aren’t even close to intuitive, and once you get there, the Byzantine twists and turns you have to navigate in order to simply update your information and delete the old card are painful.

I’ve got a question for all you website designers and developers out there. Are you sadists? No, really. That’s the only explanation I can come up with.

Here’s some free advice: It doesn’t cost more to make information clear and easily accessible. It does cost more, however, every time someone has to call your customer service line because of bad design and abstruse language.

Quote of the Millennium

I’ve been reading through The Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Climacus, and this paragraph, from the chapter “Step 4: On Obedience,” strikes me as being profoundly true—perhaps even more so today than it was when the book was written 1,400 years ago:

He whose will and desire in conversation is to establish his own opinion, even though what he says is true, should recognize that he is sick with the devil’s disease. And if he behaves like this only in conversation with his equals, then perhaps the rebuke of his superiors may heal him. But if he acts in this way even with those who are greater and wiser than he, then his malady is humanly incurable.

There’s an awful lot of wisdom in these pages. If you’re looking to score a copy, this particular edition is beautifully bound and printed, and is a steal at $35.

Happy Birthday, Prince of Darkness

Miles Davis—arguably the most innovative jazz musician of all time—would have been 96 today.

The very first jazz record I ever listened to, Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, featured Davis as a sideman. The way he played the first four notes of the head to “Autumn Leaves” had a more profound impact on my nascent music career than almost anything else.

Here’s a 60 Minutes segment from 1989, which, despite the fact that poor Harry Reasoner is quite clearly out of his depth, is pretty good:

(That’s the year I came this close to seeing Miles play live. My flight out of Amsterdam was Sunday, July 16; he was performing at the Statenhal in The Hague the next day.)

And here’s a 1985 interview from NME‘s archives, published 10 years ago in the Guardian.

If you’re new to Davis’s music, I recommend beginning with Kind of Blue, then pretty much anything from his “Second Great Quintet” period. As for Bitches Brew, well…it’s great, but I actually prefer In a Silent Way—definitely one of my Desert Island Discs. And while his 80s stuff isn’t really my bag, his cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time,” from You’re Under Arrest, is surprising.

Wherever you choose to start, though, Miles will change your life. Of that I’m certain.

Stop! Grammar Time!

Those who spend any amount of time around me know that I don’t suffer pretentious writers gladly. Like people who use curate indiscriminately; those who write “comprised of”; corporate types who think utilize makes them sound smarter than everybody else.

One I’ve been seeing a lot of lately is the use of reticent as a synonym for reluctant. It’s not.

reticence (noun) maintenance of silence; avoidance of saying too much or of speaking freely, reserve in speech; disposition to say little, taciturnity

reluctance (noun) the action of struggling against something; resistance, opposition

That’s what my copy of the OED says, anyway. But let’s not take their word for it. Let’s look at the Latin roots of each:

reticence reticentia, from reticere, keep silent, from RE- + tacere be silent

reluctance reluctari struggle against, from RE- + luctari to struggle

So. Not synonyms.

You can be reluctant to speak your mind (Hey! That’s what reticence means!), you can be reluctant to get married, you can be reluctant to get that colonoscopy your doctor recommended. But if you’re reticent, it can only mean one thing: keeping your mouth shut.

Sounds like good advice for all of us.

The Dangers of Geek Chic

Shot: “Man is probably not a machine, but he behaves as such in a situation where the machines impose his operating rules. Indeed, the progress of technology should not be understood as necessarily being the progress of mankind: far from it, they are not accompanied by a progress of thought, reflection and responsibility, since they eliminate their intervention and even often make them impossible.”

Chaser: “It is possible to handle the difficult truths of being alive in the twenty-first century, to sublimate existential pain in the service of something higher. But first, one must be fully in the real world and not be distracted by the escapist spectacle of…geeky elites.”

Quote of the Day

“I believe that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of [man’s] puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.”

William Faulkner

The Truth Is Out There

Disappointing news from Congress’s first public hearing on unidentified flying objects since 1966: While UFOs (or, rather, UAP, for unidentified aerial phenomena) “could pose a threat to national security,” investigators “found no evidence of aliens.”

Bob Lazar would like a word.

As for the frequency of sightings lately, well…the government has an explanation for that, too. It’s nothing more than “the increased presence of commercial drones near military sites and better sensor equipment detecting debris, such as mylar balloons, in military airspace.”

Balloons, huh? Please. It’s like they’re not even trying.

Things I Wish I’d Written, Part 3,481

How’s this for an opening paragraph?

I am staring at about a dozen, stiff, eight-foot high, orange-red penises, carved from living bedrock, and semi-enclosed in an open chamber. A strange carved head (of a man, a demon, a priest, a God?), also hewn from the living rock, gazes at the phallic totems – like a primitivist gargoyle. The expression of the stone head is doleful, to the point of grimacing, as if he, or she, or it, disapproves of all this: of everything being stripped naked under the heavens, and revealed to the world for the first time in 130 centuries.

That’s Sean Thomas, and it’s from his remarkable article about “what might just be the greatest archaeological revelation in the history of humankind.”

Waxing Pedantic

So what’s the story with backstory? Though I’ve never particularly liked the word—bit on the redundant side, isn’t it?—I’m fine with its (occasional) usage as long as it’s employed correctly. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it:

backstory (noun) a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot (as of a film)

And here’s Dictionary.com:

backstory (noun) a narrative providing a history or background context, especially for a character or situation in a literary work, film, or dramatic series

Pretty clear, yeah? Dumb and unnecessary, but clear.

And yet here’s Colin Nagy writing about the recent prisoner exchange between Russia and the U.S.: “We’ll never know the true backstory behind these cases. But it is interesting to see the commonality: Russia snapping up American citizens with a convenient military background on trumped-up charges, and holding them as political chits.”

“Backstory behind”? That there’s straight from the Department of Redundancies Department. If a backstory is a narrative that provides background context, then you don’t need to add behind. It’s the very definition of the word. Not to mention that these are real-life events, not works of fiction.

This is the problem with neologisms (the first known use of backstory dates to 1982): Once they’ve wormed their way into the lexicon, it’s not long before they’re everywhere. I mean, a cliché is one thing, but a cliché where it doesn’t even belong? Maddening—especially since the fix is so easy: “the true stories behind these cases.” (Note the switch from the singular backstory to the plural stories. There are plural cases; therefore there are plural stories.)

Why does any of this matter? Because, as John Boyle O’Reilly said at the opening address of the Papyrus Club’s inaugural ladies’ night, “the right word fitly spoken is a precious rarity.”

How to Write Good

The inestimable Matt Labash has some advice for all you would-be writers out there.

“Read more than you write,” he admonishes. “It’s your duty, as a writer—any kind of writer—to always keep filling your tank. And you can’t just do that by huffing your own fumes.”

Sound familiar? Yeah, we’ve covered that already.

“All writing should feel like music,” says Labash. “It’s all about beats, and determining whether your sentences need an extra beat, or have one too many. The ear often knows what the mind doesn’t. So don’t just edit or read your pieces. Listen to them.”

Hmmm. Been there also.

“It’s better to write than to think too much about writing, or to hang out with those who talk it to death. Nothing can kill creativity faster than comparing notes with others.”

Yup, you guessed it.

So. Either Matt Labash is lazily stealing my material (I kid! I kid!) or these are universal truths that bear repeating from time to time, if only because they’re just not taught anymore—if they ever were. So do yourself a favor and read the whole piece. He’s a lot better at this than I am, so you might actually learn something.

Miscellany

Birthday-shopping for a child you hate? The Department of Homeland Security has you covered.

“Institutions like the Ivies,” writes B.D. McClay, “are not meant to make or house Kants or Wittgensteins, let alone Platos, anymore than the Iowa Writers’ Workshop aims to make Tolstoys. They are meant to make survivors—of the careerist type.”

The world keeps getting more interesting.

Speaking of interesting, if you’ve ever wondered how a mechanical watch works, well…wonder no more. (And speaking of watches, check this out.)

Jimmy Carter’s grandson is “unlocking the mysteries” of the White House’s “weirdly hip record collection.” I mean, how can you not read on?

When a Tree Falls in the Forest

Over at Smithsonian magazine, Ellen Ruppel Shell waxes eloquently about The Tree—a 500-year-old, 100-foot-tall mahogany salvaged from a remote forest in Belize some 40 years ago. Several luthiers have built guitars out of its timber, and those instruments start at around $30,000.

Is it worth it? Some people seem to think so:

Saul “Slash” Hudson, best known as lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses, owns more than 230 guitars, including priceless vintage models. Still, when he first tried a guitar made from The Tree, he was floored—the sound surpassed anything he’d heard before. “When I picked it up, I was completely humbled,” Slash told a reporter in 2016, and confirmed recently through a personal email. “It was a shock-and-awe moment. It changed everything I’d ever thought about acoustic guitars.”

I’ve got a birthday coming up next month, so y’all know what to do.

Going Down the Rabbit Hole-in-One

Apparently, hole-in-one insurance is a thing. As is insuring prizes for all manner of promotional events, like, say, guessing the exact weight of a giant pumpkin, or winning a rubber duck race. Or, um, taking first prize in “cow chip bingo.”

Turns out that hole-in-one insurance arose from the custom in which the golfer who scored the ace was expected to buy drinks for everyone in the clubhouse. Because that can get expensive – and because this is America – “an industry sprouted up to protect these golfers.” Under an insurance model that dates back to at least 1933, golfers paid a nominal annual fee to cover the bar tab in the event they got lucky.

But here’s where it gets weird – for me, anyway: “Though the concept largely faded away in the U.S., it became a big business in Japan, where golfers who landed a hole-in-one were expected to throw parties ‘comparable to a small wedding,’ including live music, food, drinks, and commemorative tree plantings.”

A commemorative tree planting? At a wedding? So that’s a thing, too?

Like usual, I’m way behind the times here. (There are even scripts!) According to brides.comwhere else? – “planting a tree to celebrate a new marriage is an ancient unity ceremony recognized in many cultures throughout the world.” But then, they also point out that it’s “an eco-conscious practice that catches the eye of modern-day partners looking for a fresh twist on more traditional wedding ceremonies,” so, grain of salt and all that.

But that brings me back to the insurance story. Apparently, if something falls within just one of three categories of risk – mathematical (like coin-flipping), skills-based (the aforementioned hole-in-one), or odds-based (sporting events) – it’s insurable. But a marriage is both skills- and odds-based; heck, if you accept the argument that everyone has a soul mate, it’s also mathematical.

So if we could come up with an algorithm based on the relative skills of the bride and groom, the chances you’ll find your one sweetie among 7.9 billion contenders, and the 1/1 odds the marriage will fail regardless, we could come up with a premium – one that would cover not only the legal fees, but also the cost to dig up the tree you foolishly planted.

Wait. I just realized that a prenup is basically just marriage insurance. Never mind.

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