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Making It Better

Richard Lehnert, Stereophile copyeditor for the last 34 years, is calling it quits. He wrote a short reflection at the magazine’s website, and it’s worth a read – even if you’re not that into hi-fi components or misplaced modifiers. (Though, to be honest, I can’t imagine who wouldn’t be.)

Here’s Lehnert on voice:

We like to think, or at least we like to say, that each writer’s voice is unique, but it isn’t. Too often, what a writer most fondly feels is his unique voice is actually a combination of bad habits and received language and tones shared with all too many other not-very-good writers. The inspired copyeditor’s task is to bend an ear finely tuned to hearing the least hint of unique music in a writer’s voice, strip away the accretions of junk language and tone picked up in a life drenched in TV and marketing and promotional copy and political obfuscation and bureaucratese, and then revise, even rewrite the piece in whatever authentic voice remains. The job is to produce a final edited article written in the writer’s own voice, but in language and tone more consistently and authentically the writer’s very own than that writer can produce herself or himself.

Reminds me of the complicated relationship between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish.

And while Lehnert agrees that a writer shouldn’t condescend to the least-informed reader, he also makes a quite reasonable case for not insulting the more intelligent: “No, most readers won’t notice or care about an absence of dangling modifiers, or the presence or absence of the serial comma, or a careful deployment of close punctuation—but why offend those who will? Truly excellent writing will please both types of reader. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. It never is.”

Poetry Break

Philip Larkin

The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.


“A great civilization is not conquered from without,” wrote Will and Ariel Durant in Caesar and Christ, the third of their eleven-volume The Story of Civilization, “until it has destroyed itself from within.” Just something to think about as you ponder the following:

There’s a live-action Pokémon movie in theaters – and audiences like it.

One of those Silicon Valley bros just got $1.6 in seed money to bring Liquid Death – a brand of plain water served in tallboy cans – to market. Early reports indicate that it, um, tastes like water.

We live in an era in which this is considered newsworthy. (Also, can you imagine reading that headline 15 years ago?)

But all of this pales in comparison to an act of barbarism committed just this morning by someone – I won’t say who – in our very own office:

Those are cake pops, which, according to contributor “Bakerella” at, are “bite-sized balls made of crumbled cake mixed with frosting and covered in candy coating.” That’s right: “bite-sized.” As in, “small enough to be eaten in one mouthful.” As in, “no need to cut into smaller portions on accounta it’s already the exact size it needs to be to provide the optimum flavor experience.”

Madness, folks. Sheer madness.

The Secret’s Out

When people ask me what I do for a living, and I respond with, “I’m a writer,” there’s a 99.78 percent chance that the followup question will be, “Like…for what?”

It’s not as easy to explain as you might imagine, because normal people have a hard time believing that actual money changes hands for the kind of work we do around here.

“You write books?”

“No. I…”

“So you work for the newspaper, then.”

“Um, no. It’s more like…”

“Have I ever read anything you’ve written?”

“Probably not. Look…”

“But you’re a writer.”

By this point in the conversation I’m in full-on defensive mode. No, I don’t have a degree in creative writing or journalism or English or anything like that, I explain as patiently as possible. (I actually studied music, of all things – if by “studied” you mean “drank copious amounts of cheap beer and listened to a lot of records.”) And even though I know about verb tenses – there are 12 of them in English, if memory serves – I couldn’t define what “future perfect progressive” means if my life depended on it.

“But wait,” I say. “I’ve published stuff!”

Too late, though. Because that’s when it occurs to my interlocutor that, if this guy can throw a bunch of words together on a page and call himself a writer, what’s stopping me?

Nothing, it turns out. Absolutely nothing.

Bonus Post!

I don’t normally post on Wednesdays.* But today’s special. First, there’s, um…this. Celebrate accordingly.

It’s also Keith Jarrett’s birthday. One of my all-time favorite musicians in any genre, Jarrett is a remarkable multi-instrumentalist and piano virtuoso whose playing could perhaps best be described as sort of an angular lyricism informed by a distinctly American blend of classical, jazz, blues, folk, and gospel.

A Jarrett performance is just as likely to elicit a sense of visceral joy as it is to astonish with technical brilliance – depending on whether it’s a live solo improvisation, a performance with his Standards Trio, a duet with the late Charlie Haden, or an interpretation of the compositions of Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. In a word? It’s sublime.

Not to mention influential:

“‘Long as You Know You’re Living Yours,” from Belonging (ECM, 1974). Jan Garbarek, tenor and soprano saxophones; Keith Jarrett, piano; Palle Danielsson, double-bass; Jon Christensen, drums.

Steely Dan, “Gaucho,” from Gaucho (MCA, 1980).

Notice the resemblance? Jarrett sure did. He sued, and ended up with a co-writing credit and a share of the royalties.

Anyway, if you’re new to this stuff, check out The Köln Concert (1975, ECM). That’s pretty much everyone’s gateway Keith Jarrett album. After that, you could go in any one of a number of musical directions, all of which are deeply satisfying. Do yourself a favor and check him out.

*Long ago, the suits upstairs mandated a strict four-post-a-week maximum, lest I overwhelm readers with my awesomeness.

Everything you thought you knew is a lie. Or not.

Did you know that Theodor Geisel took his pen name – Dr. Seuss – from his mother’s maiden name? Neither did I. And did you also know that pretty much everyone has been pronouncing it incorrectly? From You’re Saying It Wrong (Ten Speed Press):

The American public, unfamiliar with the German name, went the phonetic route. “Soos,” they called him, incorrectly. Alexander Lang, a college pal with whom he worked on the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern, commemorated this lapse on the part of the reading public in verse:

You’re wrong as the deuce
And you shouldn’t rejoice
If you’re calling him Seuss.
He pronounces it Soice (or Zoice).

Not so fast, says Philip Nell, author of Dr. Seuss: American Icon and The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats. “If you pronounce it ‘Doctor Zoice,'” he writes, “you’ll sound like a fool.” Turns out the good doctor was totally fine with the Americanized soos.

So. If you want to sound all fancy and pretentious, insist on “Dr. Zoice.” If you want people to know what the hell you’re talking about, just say it the way you’ve always said it.

Yes, Please!!!

“We are, all of us, office babies,” writes Madeleine Aggeler, “and exclamation points are the written equivalent of child-proof bumper guards — a soft piece of punctuational padding that protects our emotional fontanelles from the sharp edges of conversations.”

As much as I hate to admit it, she may be on to something. No one in the office would deny that exchanging emails or instant messages with our very own Courtney Sowards (who, let’s be honest, never met a punctuation mark she didn’t like) is a far more pleasant experience than it would be with, say…me.

But Aggeler’s larger point – that it doesn’t cost anything to be amiable, so why not? – goes well beyond the addition of a handful of exclamation points, I think. And it’s something we should all be working toward.


The latest edition of Collins Official Scrabble Words includes 2,862 new entries, among which is OK. But that’s “a controversial choice among players, as according to the official rules, it should not be allowed due to being both capitalised and an abbreviation.”

But honestly, it’s the least controversial thing about this article.

2016 World Scrabble Champion – yes, that’s a thing – Brett Smitheram is quoted as saying that the inclusion of OK would be “one of the most impactful changes” to the game. That’s right, folks: The man who was once the best Scrabble player on the planet, in a defense of the new and improved official list, used “impactful” in a sentence. Unironically.

Pretty sure that alone disqualifies anyone from pronouncing an opinion on what is, and isn’t, a word.

All That Jazz

AI-generated jazz? It’s apparently a thing now:

DeepJazz is a 2016 project by Princeton computer science student Ji-Sung Kim that spews out piano solo variations on Pat Metheny’s “And Then I Knew.” The model was created using the original Pat Metheny track MIDI file as the data source, the Keras and Theano machine learning APIs, and a long-term short memory (LTSM) recurrent neural network. Recurrent neural networks (RNNs) are popular in today’s AI composition because they learn from previous input by looping and thus backpropagate on the fly.

Problem is, it’s…not very good.

Maybe it’s just me, but improvisation doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that could be done by AI, mostly because it’s so personal. I mean, if all it took was an understanding of music theory and chord progressions and scales and all that, there’d be a lot more Coltranes out there.

“Crescent”: John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums (1963)

But there aren’t. Because improvisation requires reason, reflection, and a musical vocabulary established over decades of study. It’s also because a great solo is about balancing silence, repetition, and cohesiveness with conceptual and thematic development. That’s just the fundamentals: A guitar teacher I once had stressed the importance of tension and release through resolution, which necessitates an understanding not only of the material, but also of your audience. And what about the other musicians? Improvisation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Without the collective energy of the other musicians on stage, it’s just noodling – which is pretty much what we get from DeepJazz.

So color me skeptical. Sure, it’s a pretty impressive feat. But to quote Samuel Johnson, it’s rather “like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Quote of the Day

This is for all you graphic designers out there. Truman Capote, in a 1968 Playboy interview: “I’ve never known anybody altogether consistent who wasn’t either a psychopath or a cretin – or both.”


Good news for all you minions of Mephistopheles (Beelzebub believers? Lucifer lovers? Beasts of Baphomet?): The IRS has granted tax-exempt status to the Satanic Temple.

Speaking of the Devil incarnate, 1,300 glass plates from Hitler’s personal photographer have been digitized by the National Archives.

In other news, Snoop Dogg’s bong brand gets the Pentagram identity and packaging treatment.

Think modern life is distracting? John Cassian, a fifth-century monk, complained that his mind “seems driven by random incursions” and “wanders around like it were drunk.”

Wordsmiths Gone Wild: Teachers at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop “seemed to think that free booty was part of their compensation package.”

(Is it me, or is there a theme connecting all of these? Probably just me.)

Thanks, Captain Obvious

According to Valorie N. Salimpor, et al., The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal. Here’s the methodology:

Twenty-six participants listened to self-selected intensely pleasurable music and “neutral” music that was individually selected for them based on low pleasure ratings they provided on other participants’ music. The “chills” phenomenon was used to index intensely pleasurable responses to music. During music listening, continuous real-time recordings of subjective pleasure states and simultaneous recordings of sympathetic nervous system activity, an objective measure of emotional arousal, were obtained.

And their conclusion? “[S]trongly felt emotions could be rewarding in themselves in the absence of a physically tangible reward or a specific functional goal.” I mean…duh.

The article includes a downloadable sample of “Chills-Inducing Musical Excerpts,” which is notable for the absence of Arvo Pärt’s Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem (specifically at 1:10:16); “Minuet of the Songs of Job and Their Wives,” from Job: A Masque for Dancing by Ralph Vaughan Williams (3:05); and pretty much all of “Kanon Paschy” from Krzysztof Penderecki’s Utrenja.

“It’s the end of the world as we know it…”

What a stupid time to be alive – as, it turns out, the prophets foretold. First, sports teams are dropping Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” on accounta she “recorded at least two songs with racist content” nearly 80 years ago. (You know, back when pretty much everyone was a racist.) And second, selfie deaths are an epidemic now, apparently. There’s even a name for the phenomenon: “killfies.” Makes me long for the days when idiocy was relatively harmless.

Quote of the Day

If one only wished to be happy, this could be easily accomplished; but we wish to be happier than other people, and this is always difficult, for we believe others to be happier than they are.

Montesquieu (1689–1755)

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