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May 02, 2022

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The James Webb Space Telescope continues to look great. https://webb.nasa.gov/content/webbLaunch/whereIsWebb.html


The little back garden I look out on (but have no access to) still has plentiful white camellias, and pale pink cherry blossom. The white and cream roses come later. A little wren can frequently be seen hopping about on the garden wall.

I have just watched a two-part documentary on Laurel Canyon in the 60s/70s, and in the first part amazed myself by knowing all the words of almost all the songs.

I then, by a roundabout route, found myself listening to the Roches. I loved their first album, but had no idea (I never noticed this stuff when I was young) that it was produced by Robert Fripp. People who work in such different genres amaze me (like Todd Rundgren on Bat out of Hell, another documentary I've watched recently - BOOH was a great favourite of my husband's - though not mine - and in fact we played it at his funeral).

I am trying very hard, and sometimes successfully, to retain the capacity for joy.

Thank you so much for this, Janie.

Should have made clear, in the spirit of this thread, that playing BOOH at my husband's funeral did at least make us smile!

In the spirit of this thread, I can report that I spent most of April visiting friends in the redwood-blanketed hills above Mendocino, California. It was a surpassingly lovely visit.

Apropos of something that has come up in discussions (with wj, mostly) about grass, I saw hillsides covered with early green interspersed with a pale beige, and was assured that the grass would all be brown soon enough. The other kind of grass is grown around there too... But that's not as exotic as it would have been before there was a cannabis shop on every other corner in central Maine.

I'll try to post some pictures eventually.

Picture added in the OP.

Our campus wildlife preserve here in So Cal is also quite yellow with mustard blossoms and the streets are lined with blooming Jacarandas.

My sinuses hate them both, but they look pretty.

Thanks Janie!

On the hedgehog level, things are going well. I'm back in the classroom, which makes me happy. Still trying to negotiate learning student names when everyone is masked, keeping some semblence of social distancing in a speaking class, trying to incorporate all the stuff that was online into an F2F curriculum, but it's not unpleasant.

Also zoom hosted a workshop on NVC (Non Violent Communication) which was enlightening. I'm definitely intrigued by it and would like to incorporate it in classes, but still turning it over. Hope everyone else is well.

I found a quick and easy recipe for chicken pozole a few months ago, which has made me quite happy at least once a week since, especially with a nice cold beer.

Also, I had a brilliant -- brilliant! -- idea for some new stained glass pieces, which I am really looking forward to starting to make in the next week or so.

@LJ -- I've found NVC to be an amazingly effective tool. Even when I use it with people where I'm not entirely feeling comfortable with it, people whom I suspect will immediately think I"m trying to manipulate them in some kind of mushy way -- it still works. It's like friggin' magic in my experience.

the Roches

Had Mr Sellack running through my head all day yesterday, for some reason.

Fripp's solo on Hammond Song is sublime.

And the Roches sound great on everything, and are generally hilarious. The legend is that they honed their sisterly harmonizing by singing Christmas carols in the subway in NYC.

I'm hard pressed to be cheerful these days. Nothing traumatic going on, at least for me personally, just kind of a years-long parade of incidents that have been variously frustrating, angering, and profoundly sad.

Mostly, I'd be happy to go a year without any of my friends dying.

But the lilacs are getting ready to bloom, following on a truly spectacular performance by the weeping cherry. we're on about our third wave of daffodils, the bloodroot is up, the Virginia bluebells are at their peak.

Plus, the birds are all celebrating their survival through another winter by singing their heads off and making more birds. The various finches are all sporting colors that I wouldn't have thought to find in nature.

Thanks for the reminder to get out of my own head and look around.

Happy spring, everyone!

This thread has already led to my looking up pozole, and Non Violent Communication. That's a win, for starters.

I adore Hammond Song, in my personal experience, as well as sounding fantastic, it exemplifies a typical dynamic among sisters. Also, The Married Men makes me laugh a lot, if wryly.

Loved your pic, Janie, what an atmosphere it conveys. Also:

I spent most of April visiting friends in the redwood-blanketed hills above Mendocino, California. It was a surpassingly lovely visit.

how wonderful this sounds. If you took any pics of those redwood-blanketed hills, I for one would love to see them.

I've written on ObWi before about my wonderful, cool, late brother-in-law. When he was already dying, he took me to Muir Woods just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and we walked for a bit as far as he could. I had never seen redwoods before. It was like being in a cathedral, but better than any cathedral I had ever seen. I have never forgotten the feeling.

GftNC: the picture I added to the OP is from that trip. I'll post a few more when I get time.

Despite my lifelong night person habits, we started all our excursions early, because 1) my host is a morning person; 2) we were chasing good light for pictures. One of the things I loved was the mist rising in the gaps between the trees and hills, so this particular morning started with that.

One of the things I loved was the mist rising in the gaps between the trees and hills

Yes!

And Janie, your comment has also just made me listen to the McGarrigle sisters singing Talk to me of Mendocino, another wonderful takeaway from this thread.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7KsDv1K8-k

I saw hillsides covered with early green interspersed with a pale beige, and was assured that the grass would all be brown soon enough.

Wj and I have both observed before that for the US west of about 100° longitude, the natural state of affairs is that grass is brown. The season when it turns green is the abnormal (although necessary) one.

This is generally true for the world's great grasslands. The Russian steppes, African savannas, Argentine pampas: all are brown more of the year than they are green. Areas wet for longer than that tend to grow trees. None of this is surprising when you remember that fire is grass's big weapon in its war against trees. Grass only wins in areas where the climate is dry enough the grass burns off every few years.

Thanks, GftNC. I'll take your version and raise you one Linda Ronstadt, complete with an endearing bit of Canadian language rhythms in the introduction.

I had gone straight from the McGarrigles to the Linda Ronstadt solo version! I'm (right now!) listening to your link...

I love their voices together.

Also, sorry for posting a link embedded in one of YouTube's pushy bot-created mixes..... Would have used the standalone link if I had noticed.

"fire is grass's big weapon in its war against trees"

Animals are but spectators and collateral damage in the aeon-long implacable, brutal war for domination amid the Plant Kingdom.

In the spirit of the thread, and following Janie's and Muir Woods's redwoods, this from today's Guardian:

From ancient oaks to walking yews: the story of Britain’s great trees, forests and avenues

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/apr/30/from-ancient-oaks-to-walking-yews-the-story-of-britains-great-trees-forests-and-avenues-aoe

Reading which took me to Yew trees, and their incredible longevity, not to mention their association with graveyards (where some of the oldest specimens in England grow) which in turn reminds me of T S Eliot's Little Gidding, where he says:

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration.

which, when you think it through, is a rather uplifting thought (in the spirit of this thread).

I intended to quote from Little Gidding some time ago, but I don't think I did it. If I'm wrong, forgive the repetition.

Today my grandson, age 6 1/2, asked how the sun became hot. We got as far as dust and gravity, then they (he and his twin sister) had to leave for school.

We are fortunate to have our daughter's family living with us, it has been a blessing in this Covid time.

The James Webb Space Telescope continues to look great.

NASA has announced the SOFIA plane-mounted infrared telescope project will be discontinued later this year. I assume this is a combination of the Webb being so much better for IR observations, and SOFIA's annual operating budget of $85M.

I thought this, from Ian Leslie's substack, was interesting. I particularly liked the Amis quote on cliché.

How Twitter made me smarter
The website everyone loves to hate has an upside

It’s been said that the English middle-class is the only class which loathes itself, and I think Twitter occupies a similar position within the structure of social media - the only self-loathing platform. Elon Musk’s move on it has gone down badly, on Twitter. The prevailing sentiment seems to be, Twitter is terrible, we hate it, it’s ruining everything - and now Musk is going to spoil it. The few people who welcome his takeover also hate Twitter, except they believe he is going to fix it - but if he fixed it, would anyone want to be there anymore? Twitter’s very raison d’etre is to outrage people in a way that somehow makes them want to return to the scene of the offence. Clubhouse, an audio-based social app, was designed to offer discussion without the toxicity; if it’s struggling to grow that’s partly because it delivers on its promise.

Since everyone loves to rehearse the negatives of Twitter ad infinitum I am going to focus on what I like about it. (If you don’t use Twitter you’ll still find this interesting, because it’s really about writing and thinking). I have used it a lot over the last 15 years and owe much to it. It helped me get a journalism career off the ground, it’s been a vital source of information, insight, and laughter, and it’s made me new friends. It’s also been a massive waste of time. On the whole, though, I’d say it’s been a net plus.

Is it a net plus for society? Um, that’s tricky. It’s obviously been bad for our discourse and politics in ways I’ve written about, and that get written about a lot (though if you read last week’s Ruffian you’ll know that I don’t think it’s been as apocalyptically terrible for everything as some are making out). But I also believe it’s making a lot of people smarter than they were. This is counter-intuitive, since we all know Twitter usage is scientifically proven to make people stupid. OK, not literally, but as Larry Summers almost said, log on and look around: there are idiots, and what’s more not all of them were idiots before they started tweeting. But perhaps the idiocy, which is very visible, overshadows an increase, not necessarily commensurate, in its opposite. I offer myself as a data point.

I am pretty sure I’m a better writer (and therefore thinker) because of Twitter, for a few reasons. First, because I read a lot more good journalism and writing of many kinds than I did before I joined. For all that social media is meant to create filter bubbles, Twitter has created a more diverse and varied reading diet for me than the one I had before. Second, it offers rigorous training in one of the fundamental skills of good writing: economy. Maximum expression; minimum words. Fitting everything you want to say into a box that allows for 280 characters is a bracing challenge, if you take it seriously (in the good old days of 140 it was even harder; kids today etc). I like a good thread, but even in a thread, each box should contain a single thought, like a paragraph of prose except short.

Short doesn’t mean dumb. People who believe a thought can’t be interesting or complex unless it’s wordy are the kind of people who prefer Pink Floyd to Chic. Shorter can mean an increased density of meaning and affect rather than less of either; the best tweets are like a smash of flavour. In fact when I fill the box to its limit I feel that I’ve failed. If I’m in a discussion or, God forbid, a debate with someone on Twitter, I aim to make my points using fewer words and fewer tweets than my interlocutor, without sacrificing clarity or nuance. It’s a discipline that trains your mind to seek the essential points, the pith and marrow. I love working out which words to cut or how to condense an argument, and the more I practice this, the better, or less worse, I get.

That brings me to another benefit: an increased sensitivity to tone, or style. Twitter has made me think harder about, not just what I want to say, but how I want to say it. It has its own stylistic world - fast, loose, irreverent - which makes specific demands of the tweeter. I don’t think everyone needs to adopt the memes and linguistic tics that spread virally across the platform. But one of the errors I see people make on Twitter is employing the same prose style they use in their professional lives: lawyers will write in fastidiously punctuated sentences with Latinate words, academics in difficult-to-parse paragraphs that just happen to be strung through boxes. There’s too little accommodation with the form. Above all, Twitter brutally exposes and amplifies any hint of pomposity. If you’re making an argument on Twitter it’s very easy to sound sententious and ponderous. This is a trap it lays for you, and avoiding it requires creativity (or just not playing - as I’ve written, if your job depends on an aura of authority, you should stay away. Twitter is a gravitas-destroying machine).

Not all writing should be like tweeting, of course, but I think it has made all my other writing tauter, lighter and more tonally varied. Not that I succeed in avoiding pomposity, on or off the platform, but in this and other ways, failing is the point; Twitter allows you to make lots of low-stakes failures of communication, which you can then learn from.

It’s also made me a more original thinker (I stress, again, that this is a relative claim), despite or rather because of its tendency to induce imitative thought. This is the final and probably most important reason Twitter has been good for my thinking. A book I read when I was younger that made an enduring impression on me is Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché. This passage in particular:

To idealise: all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting clichés. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy and reverberation of voice.

A manifesto for thinking and writing, right there! Amis put me on high alert for cliché, not just in the sense of “time is a great healer” (clichés like that have their functions, and sometimes a lack of freshness is a virtue; a note of condolence is not the place for originality) but in the sense of unthinkingly received opinions, mindlessly adopted ideas, borrowed sentiments. Clichés of the mind. Once you are on alert for these clichés you see and hear them everywhere - in conversation, in journalism, in novels. You develop a mild allergic reaction to opinions which, regardless of whether you sympathise with them or not, have clearly been taken off the discourse shelf without so much as a once-over.

Clichés in this sense are not expressions of thought but imitations of it. They are memes, in the original, Dawkins sense: an idea or behaviour which infects your brain while tricking you into believing you authored it. I get captured by these simulacra myself - it’s very hard not to. But the battle against cliché is what makes writing, by which I mean thinking, difficult and worthwhile.

Hang on, what’s this got to do with Twitter? Well, if cliché is the enemy of good writing and good thinking, Twitter is the greatest source of information on enemy manoeuvres yet invented. It shows you what the buggers are up to and where they are, every day and every minute. Click on any hot take tweet and read the replies. Nearly all of them say the same thing. Or you might get two groups of violently opposed responses, with all the members within each group making the same points. In fact, express even a mild opinion about anything - the weather, golf, Elvis Costello - and you will get lots of similar responses, or groups of similar responses. Over time, Twitter helps you recognise the patterns that opinion falls into on any given topic.

My point here isn’t duh look at all the dumb sheeple. It’s that Twitter provides these instant maps of received opinion (among tweeters, at least) and that’s really useful for working out what you think. On any given topic you can tell where the various countries of opinion are, big and small, the straits and the islands, and that can help you work out where you want to locate yourself. I find it’s usually somewhere else than my first response suggests. Your first opinion is likely to be a cliché, since the quickest, cognitively cheapest way to get a thought is to grab it from the discount store of conventional wisdom. But you don’t know it’s a cliché until you check. I don’t mean to imply that a smart thought is one that is totally different from all the other thoughts. In fact, if nobody else is saying what you’re thinking, there might be a good reason for that.

Or there might not. Either way, Twitter raises the bar for your thinking. If someone with lots of followers tweets a take or a joke and you come up with an instant, hilarious or devastating riposte, check the replies before tweeting it. More often than not you’ll find that twenty other people have had the same brilliant idea. So now you have to think a bit harder and see if you can come up with a better one, or at least a different one.¹ Sometimes, even after reflecting, you might agree with what everyone else saying. That’s OK. Now you can find a way to express that familiar opinion differently - to make it reverberate afresh.

Twitter exposes us to cliché so that we can avoid it, or improve upon it. This principle even applies at the level of identity or persona. I try to be myself on Twitter but actually it’s very hard to do that. Even smart and thoughtful opinion-formers tend to imitate or play to their audience rather than reacting to events in a truly thoughtful way. That includes me. Often I can sense myself becoming one of those stock characters with which you become very familiar if you spend enough time on the website: the Grumpy Reactionary, the Reasonable Centrist, the Man of Rationality, the Edgy Contrarian. A walking (tweeting) cliché. I admire what Julia Galef calls “high entropy thinkers”: people of whom it’s hard to predict what their position is going to be on any one particular issue, just from knowing their positions on other issues. Coherent but unpredictable voices are rare on Twitter (I would cite Agnes Callard as a delightful example) and frankly in life. I don’t count myself as one but I’m grateful to Twitter for making me more aware of how hard it is to “think for yourself”.

Early in this century, in a forgotten age before social media, the writer Kevin Drum said something I think about a lot: that the internet is making smart people smarter and dumb people dumber. Now, quite obviously, Twitter can make smart people dumber too. But the point is that the internet and social media increase variance. Is Twitter creating more intelligence or more stupidity? Both. And which side of that graph you fall on is really up to you.

This post is free for all, so do feel free to share on social media including TWITTER.

Thanks for posting that, GftNC. That idea about being able to, er, crowd-source the topography of opinions and use that as a tool for self-analysis, that’s really interesting. A good example of how Twitter could make you smarter by enhancing the speed and skill with which you can see your own thinking and biases more clearly, simply because of the volume of tweets.

That said, unless I have occasion to go out disco dancing again some day, I’m going to continue to prefer Pink Floyd to Chic. And to continue to think that the high point of English prose style was during the Regency period.

Those of you who don't see the connection between thoughts in my second paragraph just above need to check out Persuasion (to Get on the Dance Floor), on the third side of the Saturday Night Fever album, and to recall that Donna Summer's version of _Macarthur Park_ was originally to be called Mansfield Park, of course.

So your prejudice is, in a sense, a point of sensible pride?

Indeed sir.

At the moment I am fighting off the urge to make a joke about a band called Northanger Abba. After all, the song Waterloo actually mentions an event in the Regency period.

Although, considering that Abba is Swedish, maybe Northanger Abba should actually sound like Viking Metal (with Jane Austen-themed lyrics), rather than disco.

A lot of the metal musicians I love have a thing for ABBA. It's the darkness of the lyrics beneath the sweetness of the pop. Very nordic.

Do you know The Black Sweden?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usPj_JnUGIg

Unfortunately I don't think they push it as far as they could in terms of mashing it up, but they still have some funny juxtapositions.

JakeB, thanks for the hint about Macarthur Park! I hadn't heard that version before.

On this day...

"The expression “as American as mom and apple pie” has painted a picture of nostalgic wholesomeness since its first usage during World War Two. And each May, we celebrate our mothers and their contribution to our lives. But while most of them are angels of wisdom and compassion, there have been a few notorious moms in U.S. history that never earned such wings."
10 of the Worst Moms in American History

That list neglected to mention the Virgin Mother of The True Constitutional Conservative American Lord and Savior:

https://digbysblog.net/2022/05/08/wow-4/

Seems like Mother Russia is rising on the list as well.

Our Founding Foremothers are never mentioned because our Founding Forefathers, in their originalist wisdom, didn't recognize them as created equal, except in the controversial and exclusive area of witch burning in which women were permitted to excel at high temperatures.

It was cruel, but the usual lifelong punishment.

Maybe the Supreme Court Justices whose homes are attracting peaceful protests can hide out in this guy's house:

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2022/05/new-york-covid-masks-public-policy-fight/629794/

Or maybe in the HOUSE of Representatives Ginny Thomas, tied near the top of the worst ten motherfuckers in history, attacked with intent to kill.

Subhuman sharks of a conservative feather hunt together as they swarm and mass for dinner on and offshore in pig fucking Republican Florida:

https://twitter.com/CBSNews?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1523430094538125312%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Ftalkingpointsmemo.com%2Fmorning-memo%2Fmississippi-governor-birth-control-ban

Hmmm.

Noone, I think you may have forgotten that this thread is specifically supposed to be for non-depressing topics. Hard to find these days, for sure, but not absolutely impossible.

But actually, I'm guessing you intended these last two for No Mo' Roe.....

Not that I'm in any position to be the Thread Police!

as American as apple pie

This expression gets a raised eyebrow from the English (and I dare say from the Dutch too).

The Forme of Cury, a recipe book compiled by Richard II's cooks in the 14th century, includes a recipe for apple pie ("For to make Tartys in Applis").

("Cury" here is from French "cuire", to cook (as in 'biscuit'), and nothing to do with Tamil "kari", a sauce.)

My bad. Forgot to look at the post title.

Although, a list of the worst mothers in history triggered me astray.

Feel free, whomever, to delete my two comments.

Hard to know exactly where to put this, but in its way I found it rather uplifting. It is the obituary today in The Times (by the way, whenever I refer to a paper by that name, I mean the Times of London, not the NYT) of Kathy Boudin, ex-Weatherperson, convict and academic. It may be behind a paywall, so if anybody wants to read it who can't, just say and I will copy and paste.

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/kathy-boudin-obituary-cr6537f0m

But what struck me, apart from her exemplary activities in prison for 20 years, and afterwards, was the poem she wrote in a prison workshop:

“If only there were a place where the living and the dead could meet, to tell their tales, to weep, I would reach for you — not so you could forgive me, but so you would know that I have no pride for what I’ve done, only the wisdom and regret that came too late.”

Not great poetry, but rather moving nonetheless IMO.

Not that I'm in any position to be the Thread Police!

Well, Noone was asked a long time ago to stay out of my threads. So there's that as well.

Thanks for posting that obit, GftNC. I used to work and go to church with another ex-Weather professor (who'd done far less time), and it was a nice reminder of him; I, too, find that snippet moving.

I'm glad, Tom H.

By a circuitous route (reading a review of Thom Gunn's letters, in which I absolutely loved the final quotation in this excerpt - my bold):

There are rocket-like cameos. The best belongs to the young Oliver Sacks, whose full name was Oliver Wolf Sacks. He was a fan of Gunn’s.

Here’s how he’s introduced, in a 1961 letter: “There is a queer, colossally big London Jew called Wolf, a medical student, and a friend of Jonathan Miller, who says my poetry changed his life — it caused him to get a bike and wear leather, and he tears around like a whirlwind.”

Sacks and Gunn were briefly lovers, then lifelong friends. Gunn watched with a mix of pleasure and awe as Sacks’s career as a neurologist, naturalist and writer developed.

Gunn had flinty good looks. He had no trouble, to his satisfaction, picking up men, even into his 70s. It was the drugs that did him in. He died from what a coroner called “acute polysubstance abuse.”

This was pretty much how he wanted to go out. “I can hardly imagine,” he wrote in a letter when he was in his mid-60s, “a life more to my taste than mine.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/16/books/review-letters-thom-gunn.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Books

by another circuitous route, I reread the poem by Craig Raine for which "The Martian School" of poetry is named, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home:

It's terrific, of course, and this description of telephones:

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet, they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

made me, unsurprisingly, think of Larkin's description in (as all ObWi regulars will know one of my favourites) his great poem Aubade:

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring

I'm a sucker for certain kinds of wordplay - but even so, it took me years of reading this for the obvious to strike me: that things normally crouch, getting ready to spring.

https://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/a-martian-sends-a-postcard-home/

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