Research


Michael Chabon after a week guest-blogging at Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Novelist time is reptile time; novelists tend to be ruminant and brooding, nursers of ancient grievances, second-guessers, Tuesday afternoon quarterbacks, retrospectators, endlessly, like slumping hitters, studying the film of their old whiffs. You find novelists going over and over the same ground in their novels—TNC was talking about Gatsby last week, Fitzgerald’s a prime example—configuring and reconfiguring the same little set of preoccupations, haunted by missed opportunities. That may be because getting a novel written, or a bunch of novels, means that you are going to miss a lot of opportunities, and so missing them is something you have to be not only willing but also equipped by genes and temperament to do. Blogging, I think, is largely about seizing opportunities, about pouncing, about grabbing hold of hours, events, days and nights as they are happening, sizing them up and putting them into play with language, like a juggler catching and working into his flow whatever the audience has in its pockets.

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“I” is often unnecessary. I mean, who else would be speaking (in such a self-centered medium)? Gaining a new appreciation for Spanish. (This one has made it’s way into my email.)

Conjunctions such as “and” “because” “since”, etc, can often be replaced with a period and left unsaid, merely implied. Likely NOT a good idea for email.

Actually using my pretty decent vocabulary. Picking the precise word becomes very important; active verbs are usually the shorter way to go.

Incidentally, blogging is totally jacking up my concept of title case. Not capitalizing “about” and “from” just doesn’t look right.

The Chronicle has a provocative piece on 10 Myths About Legacy Preferences in College Admissions. It’s a nice article, worth reading—the author Richard Kahlenberg posted in the comments that additional information is available: one chapter of their book is available online, and he plans a follow up post, and I’m half posting this to remind myself to go back and read it.

(I’m lackadaisically in favor of legacy admissions as part of my general belief that universities have never been meritocracies, but always instruments of social engineering and therefore ought to have quite a lot of leeway to engineer as they see fit.)

I’m just gonna be a bit snarky about a tangent, though (all emphasis in any quotations in this post added by me):

A generation later, two new legal theories are available to challenge legacy preferences. First, Carlton Larson, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, lays out the case that legacy preferences at public universities violate a little-litigated constitutional provision that “no state shall … grant any Title of Nobility.” Examining the early history of the country, Larson makes a compelling case that this prohibition should not be interpreted narrowly as simply prohibiting the naming of individuals as dukes or earls, but more broadly, to prohibit “government-sponsored hereditary privileges”—including legacy preferences at public universities. Reviewing debates in the Revolutionary era, he concludes: “Legacy preferences at exclusive public universities were precisely the type of hereditary privilege that the Revolutionary generation sought to destroy forever.” The founders, Larson writes, would have resisted “with every fiber of their being” the idea of state-supported-university admissions based even in part on ancestry.

Oh, please. How do you even write that sentence without saying “oh, wait, slavery. Gee. Hmm.” Every fiber of their being. Really.

And:

Thomas Jefferson famously sought to promote in America a “natural aristocracy” based on “virtue and talent,” rather than an “artificial aristocracy” based on wealth. “By reserving places on campus for members of the pseudo-aristocracy of ‘wealth and birth,'” Lind writes, “legacy preferences introduce an aristocratic snake into the democratic republican Garden of Eden.”

Again, how do intelligent people manage to put together those words and take them seriously?

But, really, we don’t need to focus on slavery here. I want to see a whole pile of direct quotations before I’m convinced that leading eighteenth-century politicians even contemplated the concept that there might possibly be a difference between education and intelligence, and that they should do something about that.

I have no intention of researching this further, but it took me five minutes to come up with this old history of the University of Virginia, discussing Jefferson’s planning for the school that would open in 1819 (based on how history used to be written, I bet this is a pretty close paraphrase, but I also bet that the letter itself is available online somewhere for those who really care.):

In no form did these ponderings find a weightier expression than in his famous letter to Peter Carr in 1814. In that letter, he again laid down the various lines which a system of public instruction, in his judgment, should follow. Again he broadly declared, by way of introduction, that every citizen was entitled to an education commensurate with his condition and calling in life. How was this to be determined? By the social station to which he belonged. The whole community was capable of division into two classes: (1) the laboring class; and (2) the learned class. Members of the first would require elementary tuition to qualify them for the proper performance of their tasks; members of the second would need it as an indispensable forerunner to further study. So soon as the primary school had been left behind, the laboring class were expected to begin the pursuit of agriculture, or serve apprenticeships in different handicrafts, while, on the other hand, the learned class were expected to enter the colleges

Does anyone know at what point advanced education began to be separated from wealth, on a widespread scale?

After a day wine-tasting, we wound up in a little historic downtown for dinner. And the restaurant was really cute—trying to give a sense of what it was like to eat out around 1890, 1900, I think. Mismatched old china and silverware (I think real silver), re-using wine bottles for water carafes on the table, real cute. Vintage pots and pans hanging on the wall. They had an associated bar where the theme was even stronger—I should have taken a picture of the bar. (We shared a green gazpacho to start, which was cool-and-spicy awesomeness; the broth on my friend’s rabbit stew was superb; my fish wasn’t anything special. Prices far higher than in 1900, naturally. In fact, I bet the 1900-class-equivalent wouldn’t have looked like that, and would have had matching china, but that doesn’t bother me.)

But you know where I draw the line?

First, the menu is only on a chalkboard, because, “it changes every day.” Yeah, lots of restaurants change the menu every day, and they print out menus. That’s what a personal computer and a $100 laser printer is for. Also, I once read an O. Henry story where a woman typing the daily menus for the restaurant downstairs was a critical plot point, so I’m not buying the chalkboard on grounds of authenticity either.

I might have let it go if you could see the chalkboard from all the tables, but the restaurant was three small rooms connected, so if we hadn’t picked a table right near it, I would have spent 15 minutes standing at the door, staring.
Second, the extensive wine list and cocktail menu were on paper, but although clearly produced on a computer (see? I know y’all have one), were pretending to have been typed on an actual typewriter, in some sort of “Authentic Old Underwood Typewriter” font with things like a wonky serif on the “a”, etc, and the lines deliberately mis-aligned in the left margin, and just….come on. Really?

Jakob Neilsen did a usability study on e-book readers; kinda pointless in its design, but interesting to read the short report (hat tip Macworld).

The overall test had “avid readers” reading Hemingway short stories and concluded that reading a printed book is faster than reading on e-readers (iPad slightly faster than Kindle), but comprehension is the same. I don’t see why anyone cares, especially when the sample size was 32, reduced to 24 examples of unflawed data in the calculations. But whatever.

My attention was caught by this aside:

At the beginning of each session, we quickly assessed the study participants’ reading skills by administering the REALM literacy test. (This test asks people to read words of varying difficulty and scores them based on the number they mispronounce. In our study, most users got all the words right; 2 people failed on one word, which indicates at least a high-school literacy level.)

Mispronounce? Because I’m pretty sure I’m highly literate, and I can’t pronounce anything.

So I googled up the REALM literacy test, and it appears to be this:

The Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Medicine (REALM) screening instrument is a word recognition test commonly used in health care settings. The tool is a laminated sheet containing 22 common medical words or layman’s terms for body parts and illnesses and is arranged in three columns. The words are written in large font and arranged in order of difficulty. Patients are asked to pronounce each word aloud. If they are unable to pronounce several consecutive words, they are asked to look down the list and pronounce as many of the remaining words as possible.

Words such as:

Osteoporosis Anemia Colitis
Allergic Fatigue Constipation
Jaundice Directed

Okay. Interesting approach. And, totally irrelevant to anything that might conceivably produce useful data about who can benefit from ebooks for what type of content.

Notorious PhD has a lovely series on A Day at the Archives happening (one, two).

Here’s what my documents often look like (these are some of the nicer types available—I don’t think I have non-identifying pictures of the tricky ones). Extra credit if you comment on what the man is complaining about.

image of old document in 19th century handwriting

I have complained before about geneaology, but this NYT article on Michelle Obama’s roots strikes me as a really lovely piece showing off the best of what family history can be.

Even if the “ooh, white ancestor!” tone is really fucking annoying to anyone who knows the least bit about American history and blackness in the western hemisphere.

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