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Words of Wisdom

Issue #94 of Nick Cave’s indispensable Red Hand Files tackles the thorny issue of plagiarism—and manages to draw an important distinction based not on action but on intent:

Theft is the engine of progress, and should be encouraged, even celebrated, provided the stolen idea has been advanced in some way. To advance an idea is to steal something from someone and make it so cool and covetable that someone then steals it from you. In this way, modern music progresses, collecting ideas, and mutating and transforming as it goes.

But if your intent is to somehow diminish the idea you’ve appropriated, well, look out for karma. Theft, Cave explains, necessitates that “you must honour the action, further the idea, or be damned.”

The inability of so many of us to recognize this distinction is in part, I think, because we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re the creators—when, in fact, nothing we do is original. “What has been is what will be,” writes the Preacher in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, “and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Honest Question

Of all my language-related pet peeves—and there are a lot of them, including the term pet peeve—it’s the verbs-as-nouns shift that really rubs my rhubarb. You know, when someone says something like “Here are my selects from the photo shoot” or “Did you get the invite to the party?” or “That’s a pretty big ask.”

Since there already exist noun forms of these verbs—selection, invitation, and request, respectively—my honest question is…Why? Why create a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist?

The way I see it, there are four possibilities.

A. ignorance
B. laziness
C. a propensity for following the herd
D. an assumption that treating English like your bitch makes you hip

I think most adults know better, which rules out ignorance. Laziness doesn’t track either, since you’re not going to save any effort by deleting a single syllable. I think it’s probably a combination of (D) followed by (C): Someone, somewhere, thinks it’ll be cool to shake things up, and before you know it, everyone’s doing it.

Which raises another—and far more interesting—question: What words in current usage have, over the last three or four hundred years, gone through a similar evolution?

You’re Welcome, Everyone

For today’s post, I thought about drawing your attention to the Whitman County Historical Society Lost Apple Project. Then I got distracted by this essay on my favorite philosopher. Then I saw that Rebeller just published an interview with the great John Milius.

I’ll admit it: I was in a bit of a pickle. What to do? I mean, on the one hand you’ve got heirloom apples once thought extinct. On the other, you’ve got “by far the most profound thinker of the [nineteenth] century.” And on the other other hand, it’s John Freaking Milius, the guy who wrote and directed Red Dawn.

That’s when I discovered this Mike Tyson footage combined with Street Fighter sound effects. And I realized that my work here is done.


The Gift of Music

“When one of the greatest guitarists, musicians and composers of our times offers you a free new album during a time of distress,” writes Mark Smotroff, “it’s a good idea to listen.”

He’s speaking of the legendary John McLaughlin, and he’s right.

I’ve been listening to Is That So?—McLaughlin’s collaboration with composer and vocalist Shankar Mahadevan and Ustad Zakir Hussain on tabla—all morning, and while I can’t speak to its “healing sounds,” I can certainly attest to its beauty.

Aldous Huxley famously said that “after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” McLaughlin, Mahadevan, and Hussain have given us something that transcends the fear and sorrow of our current moment. And let me repeat: It’s a free download. If you like what you hear (and you will), and think someone else might appreciate it, spread the word.

At the Frontiers of Science

Daniel T. Baldassarre, assistant professor of zoology at SUNY Oswego, is asking a very important question in the latest issue of the Scientific Journal of Research & Reviews: “What’s the Deal with Birds?”

Birds are very strange. Some people are like “whoa they’re flying around and stuff, what’s the deal with that?” This sentiment is shared by people across socioeconomic backgrounds. Figuring out what the deal is with birds is of the utmost scientific importance. It is now widely appreciated that the majority of socially monogamous passerine species are weird [1]. In species with moderately high extra-pair mating and paternal care, we need to understand what is going on with them [2]. In territorial species, what are they even doing [3] and they do all sorts of weird stuff [4] (but see [5]). In addition, there is a rich body of literature on how birds – which are very strange feathered creatures [6] – can strengthen the pair bond and signal commitment, or directly guard against extrapair copulations (EPCs) [7-9]. Despite these insights, the relative weirdness of birds as opposed to other animals is yet untested.

So, naturally, he studied them.

I looked at three different birds: a woodpecker, a parrot, and a penguin. I looked really close at them, squinting and everything, to try and figure out what was up with them.…Briefly, I watched them really close for quite a while [13-15]. To eliminate potential confounds, I thus conducted my experiments only on animals that I knew for sure were birds, and no other things like bugs and bats.

His conclusion? Though it’s the first study Baldassarre is aware of to “attempt to quantify the deal with birds,” the results were, sadly, “ambiguous.”

Not that I want to argue with a guy who holds a PhD from Cornell University’s vaunted Lab of Ornithology, but, as it happens, I know exactly what the deal with birds is: They’re not real.

Art in the Time of Coronavirus

I’m pretty late to the party, but may I recommend a film to y’all? The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) is an exquisitely shot, brilliantly acted, sweeping epic whose denouement doesn’t so much resolve as it does unravel over 159 languorous minutes.

At this point, I suppose, I shouldn’t be surprised by Brad Pitt’s acting chops, but Casey Affleck is a revelation. With music by Nick Cave and cinematography by Roger Deakins—not to mention gobs of time in the midst of this stupid pandemic—what are you waiting for? It’s available to rent on Amazon Prime Video for a mere 99¢.

And Down the Rabbit Hole We Go…

So I get a regular email from Huckberry, which normally I trash without reading because it’s usually little more than an attempt to get me to buy overpriced togs and faux survival gear for blue-collar poseurs and cubicle dwellers—and I say this as someone who generally likes what they have to offer. It’s just…I can’t bring myself to spend $200 on a “Norwegian Kindling Splitter.”


Today I scrolled through their latest missive to see what was on sale, and my eye landed on an article entitled “How to Fall Asleep in 2 Minutes or Less.” Naturally, I clicked. And beheld the following:

A couple years into WWII, the U.S. military realized it had a problem on its hands. Due to the enormous pressures of aerial combat, many of its pilots were accumulating levels of stress so debilitating that they were cracking under it. The tension caused them to lock up in flight and make fatal mistakes — accidentally shooting down friendly planes, or becoming an avoidable casualty themselves.

In an effort to stem the loss of pilots and planes, the military brought in Naval Ensign Bud Winter to research, develop, and test a scientific method for teaching relaxation. Before the war, Winter had been a successful college football and track coach, who had also worked with a professor of psychology on techniques to help athletes relax and perform better under the stress of competition. Stationed at the Del Monte Naval Pre-Flight School in California, his mission now was to coordinate with other coaches and professors to create a course that would similarly instruct cadets on how to stay calm and loose under the pressures of combat.

Which led me down the aforementioned rabbit hole, from which I’m still trying to extricate myself.

First, Lloyd C. “Bud” Winter coached my grandfather, Hal Davis, at Hartnell College before Davis went on to become a standout at Cal. And second, the Del Monte Naval Pre-Flight School, now known as the Naval Postgraduate School, is about a 20-minute drive from where I grew up. In fact, my fifth-grade class took several field trips there (and to the nearby U.S. Naval Research Laboratory) to launch weather balloons, hang out in the anechoic chamber, that sort of thing.

Now, I obviously knew about Winter’s career as a USATF Hall of Fame coach, but I had no idea of his work in the area of relaxation techniques—never mind his involvement in training naval pilots during World War II.

But wait. There’s more.

While at San Jose State, Winter coached Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were in turn coached by Payton Jordan at the 1968 Olympics. Jordan himself competed against my grandfather—handing him only his third (and final) loss in 1943—and the two became lifelong friends. In fact, I have in my possession a letter Jordan wrote to my grandfather on December 6, 1998 in which Jordan says about Davis that “there was none better.”

I could go on. But there’s work to be done, and I’m not doing it. I blame Huckberry.

I, For One, Welcome Our New Fish Overlords

The description “a deep-sea fish with a transparent head and tubular eyes” doesn’t even begin to prepare you for the horror that is Macropinna microstoma:

And by the way? The eyes aren’t where you think they are. Those are nostrils. No, the eyes are the green dome-shaped thingies pointing straight up. Through its transparent head.

Just a reminder that the world is a lot weirder than you think.

Tuesday Levity

I’ve learned a lot in this business—about people (we’re credulous), writing (it’s hard), and client expectations (they’re wildly optimistic).

I’ve also learned that everything we do takes far more time than people outside the industry could ever imagine. Especially photo shoots. Which is something to ponder as you scroll through the 50 Weirdest Stock Photos You Won’t Be Able to Unsee.

What’s really astonishing to me is that somebody thought that every one of these images was not only a good idea, but also a money-making proposition. I mean, that’s the whole reason behind stock photography: You come up with a concept, you shoot it, you sell it—then just sit back and watch the sweet, sweet royalties roll in. But a woman tossing spaghetti in a forest? A snake with a cat’s head cooking soup in a hollowed-out pumpkin? A couple of bros at urinals, um…helping each other out?

The mind boggles.

Strange Days

Last week I was listening to a podcast on which one of the hosts, after watching the Netflix documentary series Tiger King, said that he was now rooting for the coronavirus to wipe out the entire human race. He was joking, of course—at least I hope he was—but still, I thought it was a bit much.

I mean, the show’s got everything: gay polygamy, toothless rednecks, a sex cult, con artists, murder for hire, a strip club owner-turned-FBI informant, and a missing millionaire. And tigers. Or, as our very own Carl Heidle described it, Tiger King is “some of the best trash TV money can buy.” What’s not to like?

No, what really has me rooting for COVID-19 (I kid! I kid!) is this. And yes, it’s real: a cooperative board game, for two to five players, the object of which is to “help Kenny G stay in the groove with the power of jazz!” Which—let’s be honest—is making at least a couple of assumptions, not the least of which is that Kenny G was ever “in the groove” in the first place.

Thankfully, the game appears to have been made as a joke. Otherwise, the despair would be too much for me to handle.

Time to Recalibrate

Tired of all the coronavirus talk? The media’s pendulum-like swinging from despair to hope and back again; the constant barrage of conspiracy mongering on social media; the numbers that keep going up…and up…and up?

Yeah. Me too.

Do yourself a favor this weekend: Forget about social distancing, self-quarantining, and the cratering economy and read this amazing story. That’s all I’ve got for you. But it’s enough.

Just Trying to Be Helpful

Sure, things are bad. But they could always be worse, right? Like, say, the Black Death of 1347–50:

Everyone ran in panic from the sick. Neighbors shunned neighbors, relatives relatives. Children abandoned elderly parents and priests their flocks. Incredibly, “even fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children, as though they did not belong to them.” Some reacted by locking themselves up with a few friends in some comfortable place stocked with food and fine wines. They would entertain themselves with music and refuse to receive any news of the dead. Others, often those without the means to escape, became fatalistic and began looting the houses of the dead, stuffing themselves with food and drink, heedless of the risks of infection.

We’re not there. Yet. Plus, adorable goats! And Patrick Stewart reading Shakespeare sonnets! So yeah. It could be a lot worse.

The Creative Life

Here’s more evidence for the theory that messiness and creativity are somehow connected: W. H. Auden was apparently a disgusting pig. “The speed with which he could wreck a room,” said his friend James Stern, “was barely credible, certainly dangerous.” Another friend, Charles Miller, reported on Auden’s New York apartment after a visit (“Wystan” was Auden’s first name):

The coffee table bore its household harvest of books, periodicals, half-emptied coffee cups scummed over with cream, a dash of cigarette ashes for good measure, and a heel of French bread (too tough for Wystan’s new dentures?). An oval platter served as ashtray, heaped with a homey Vesuvius of cigarette butts, ashes, bits of cellophane from discarded packs, a few martini-soaked olive pits, and a final cigarette stub issuing a frail plume of smoke from the top of the heap, signature of a dying volcano. This Auden-scape reeked of stale coffee grounds, tarry nicotine, and toe jam mixed with metro pollution and catshit, Wystanified tenement tang.

Counterpoint: While my workspace at helveticka world headquarters is—compared to everyone else’s anyway—practically antiseptic, if it weren’t for my long-suffering wife, I would, in fact, be quite content to live in a steaming pile of my own filth. The first is a function of my need to work without distraction; the second is simple laziness.

So perhaps the purported link between creativity and clutter is more tenuous than we’d like to admit.


A few articles to take your mind off the insanity:

Allison Meier traces “the American cemetery from the colonial age to the Gilded Age.”

On Saint Seraphim, patron saint of Russian nukes.

“As innocent as good people may appear to be,” writes Paul A. Cantor, “if they were not somehow open to the influence of evil, they could not be possessed by it.”

How’s this for an opening?

On a freezing December day in 1386, at an old priory in Paris that today is a museum of science and technology—a temple of human reason—an eager crowd of thousands gathered to watch two knights fight a duel to the death with lance and sword and dagger. A beautiful young noblewoman, dressed all in black and exposed to the crowd’s stares, anxiously awaited the outcome. The trial by combat would decide whether she had told the truth—and thus whether she would live or die.

Or this:

We were called hip-pocketers, because we lived from one deal to the next: Your business could fit in the wallet in your pocket. You bought a used Rolex at a pawnshop for a thousand bucks from the kid who’s just paid five hundred for it, hurried it over to your watch guy to hit it on the wheel and make it look new, replaced the old worn buckle with a South American counterfeit for fifty bucks, and resold it to your friend who owned the jewelry store a few blocks over for twenty-two hundred, twenty-two seventy-five if she wanted a counterfeit leather box. She could retail it the same day for thirty-five hundred. We “worked the float” back then, in the ’80s and ’90s—that meant the few days you had between when you paid for something with a check and the check actually hit your bank account. If you flipped the gold you’d bought with a check the same day, you had a few days of free money. Of course, you tried to make money on every deal, but often you were moving so fast that you had to lose money here and there, waiting for the bigger score that ought to come if you just kept hustling fast enough.

Not to add to the general level of misery, but did you know that “in a nation where nearly 113,000 people are waiting for transplants, scores of organs—mostly kidneys—are discarded after they don’t reach their destination in time”?

There. That ought to keep you busy for a while.

Might as Well Enjoy Yourselves

Not to make light of a serious situation, but I’m noticing that most people don’t seem to know what to do with themselves during a pandemic. Now, all things being equal, I actual prefer social distancing—Washington’s stay-at-home order is basically my default mode—so may I offer a couple of suggestions to see you through the next few weeks?

Dig in to a good, long, classic book. Something like Moby-Dick or Middlemarch or War and Peace. You can’t say you don’t have the time. Heck, you might even like it.

Binge-watch something that makes our current situation look downright festive and gay. Like, say, Mr. Robot. TV not your bag? Try a film or two from George Romero’s oeuvre. 1978’s Dawn of the Dead is my personal fave. Or, for a more modern take on the zombie genre, it’s tough to beat 28 Days Later.

Whatever you do, moderate your news consumption and, for the love of God, lay off the social media. (Now that I think about it, that’s just good, solid advice regardless.)

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