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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)

Poetry Break

Li Po

you ask my purpose
roosting in jade peaks
smiling yet without reply
heart at self ease
peach blossoms running water
sundown blazes away
having another sky & earth
not among humans

A Melodrama of Money

The headline of Matthew Shaer’s article over at Vulture says it all. “The Invention of the ‘Salvator Mundi’: Or, How to Turn a $1,000 Art-Auction Pickup Into a $450 Million Masterpiece” is an astonishing glimpse into provenance and restoration – and how to market to the “new and not very well-informed global superrich.”

What’s Another Word for Thesaurus?

“Occasionally one makes use of [Roget’s Thesaurus],” wrote Simon Winchester back in 2001. “But one never, never relies on it to help with the making of good writing. It may be used once in a while, to jog the memory, to unstall a synaptic moment. But it should never be trawled through or mined; its offerings should never be taken and transfused into a paragraph as relief for emptiness of thought.”

While B. D. McClay admits that a thesaurus can, indeed, be “a trap for the unwary,” she believes there’s a far worse problem: people unwilling to explore our glorious language for fear of appearing foolish or pretentious. “[T]hey either stay within the bounds of a safe vocabulary,” she writes, “or (if they are a certain business-managerial type) cope by inventing hideous new words. Fear of the thesaurus has unleashed horrors a Chthonic god could only dream of, like synergy and incentivize.”

I think I’m in love.

My own well-worn copy of Roget sits on a nearby shelf – just within arm’s reach – between Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable and The Chicago Manual of Style. I’m obviously not as smart as Mr. Winchester (nor as good a writer), because I honestly cannot imagine doing what I do without it.

And I’m totally fine with that.

Big Announcement

With the recent release of Helvetica® Now, some of you have been wondering what this means for helveticka.

Glad you asked.

We’re pleased to announce that the new, improved helveticka NOW! will open for business May 1. Just like the font, “every character” in our firm “has been redrawn and refit”; our aim “to be more sophisticated and graceful.”

So: CK has agreed to limit his customary cursing to fewer than two F-bombs per client meeting. Linda will actually read the articles in the New Yorker – not just the cartoons. Shirlee is removing all most of the camouflage from her wardrobe. Courtney will no longer drink before 2 p.m. And Skooch is trading his Flamin’ Hot Cheetos for the more upscale Trader Joe’s Spicy Cheese Crunchies.

As for me, well…management determined that no improvement was necessary.

“I feel the need…the need for speed!”

I don’t get particularly vexed over politics. I don’t complain about the weather. And even though millennials should all be rounded up and fired into the sun, it’s not like I get angry about it.

In other words, I’m a pretty easygoing guy.

Until I get behind the wheel and some jack-wagon is in front of me going less than five miles an hour over the speed limit. That’s when a completely irrational, white-hot rage takes over. Words that would make a sailor blush issue forth with reckless abandon as I wish ill upon the driver and his family. “Why me, God?” I scream as I shake my fist at the sky, “Why have you abandoned me to such a cruel fate?”

So, really, I’m a jerk. But it’s not my fault! Society is to blame – specifically, its relentlessly fast pace. “Things that our great-great-grandparents would have found miraculously efficient now drive us around the bend,” writes Chelsea Wald. “Patience is a virtue that’s been vanquished in the Twitter age.” Basically, she says, our internal clocks are out of whack, “stretching out the wait, summoning anger out of proportion to the delay.”

Swell. Another thing to worry about.

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