Category Archives: Uncategorized

“Library hand”

Library joined hand

A character I had to read a lot about in the previous couple years was Melvil Dewey (a spelling reformer, he reformed his own first name), the father of modern librarianship and inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. He was a crank generally, but he left his mark.

Atlas Obscura today has an article about another of Dewey’s projects — he didn’t invent it, but he promoted it heavily. “Library hand” was a form of handwriting librarians were expected to master before typewriters became ubiquitous.

Influenced by Edison and honed via experimenting on patient, hand-sore librarians, library hand focused on uniformity rather than beauty. “The handwriting of the old-fashioned writing master is quite as illegible as that of the most illiterate boor,” read a New York State Library School handbook. “Take great pains to have all writing uniform in size, blackness of lines, slant, spacing and forms of letters,” wrote Dewey in 1887. And if librarians thought they could get away with just any black ink, they could think again real fast. “Inks called black vary much in color,” scoffed the New York State Library School handwriting guide.

My MLIS training was deficient. They didn’t teach us a thing about this.

Killing Cupid

I haven’t written for The American Spectator much recently, because – frankly – I’m having trouble finding anything to say. Mere anarchy, it seems to me, has been unleashed upon the world, and it’s hard to find a side to defend.

But Robert Stacy McCain is a braver man than I, and he wrote a piece for Valentine’s Day that I wish I’d written. Instead, I linked to it on Facebook. I quoted the following passage there:

Of course, even if a young woman today did want Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet, he might be afraid to attempt it. If he admired Cinderella’s beauty, feminists would condemn Prince Charming for objectifying her with the “male gaze.” If a man talks to a woman, whatever he says is denounced by feminists as “mansplaining.” Any man who attempts to initiate a romantic relationship with a woman is guilty of “harassment,” according to feminism, and any expectation that a woman might enjoy sexual activity with a man is “rape culture.”

This excerpt may have been poorly chosen by me. A number of the people who commented on the link assumed I’d chosen it primarily to complain about the fact that I can’t get a date. I can understand the mistake – my almost magically pathetic love life is of course one of the most noticeable things about me.

Maybe I should have quoted the following paragraph, which I almost chose instead: Continue reading Killing Cupid

Exploitation in Humanities Departments

There’s an idea that college professors should be free to pursue whatever interests them, to go wherever their professional curiosity takes them without concern for the market, but that’s close to the fantasy of fan-fiction, stories written for the fun of it without an eye on their publication (even though that too is changing).

Adjunct professor Kevin Birmingham brings up this point among others in his talk on the native exploitation by college humanities and English departments. On the one hand, adjuncts aren’t paid well.

An annual report by the American Association of University Professors indicated that last year “the average part-time faculty member earned $16,718” from a single employer. Other studies have similar findings. Thirty-one percent of part-time faculty members live near or below the poverty line. Twenty-five percent receive public assistance, like Medicaid or food stamps.

These teachers are easily hired, easily dismissed. Funding for actual classroom instruction has been declining, but administrative roles are increasing. Apparently, teaching students is a declining priority for many of our universities, which makes news of another closure more tolerable.

On the other hand, graduate programs are milling out Ph.Ds at a rate that far exceeds the need. Universities, Birmingham explains, have the only job market for these graduates, but they produce roughly four times the number of candidates for the available jobs and availability is shrinking.

English departments do this because graduate students are the most important element of the academy’s polarized labor market. They confer departmental prestige. They justify the continuation of tenure lines, and they guarantee a labor surplus that provides the cheap, flexible labor that universities want.

Like a migrant worker system.

Many market principles could be learned here. One broad one would be morality cannot be based on market realities (or just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should). Colleges exist to teach, and qualified teachers should receive the honor and compensation they are due. When you have the money to pay them well, you should.

But another one may be that if some universities don’t care to teach, others should be able to pick up that slack and grow, keeping a focus on their students’ well-being in mind and not treating them like grist for the sake of the program.

In person, one night only

In case you’re in the area…

I will be speaking on The Viking Sagas on Monday, February 13, 2016 for the Vennekretsen Lodge of the Sons of Norway in Anoka, Minn. They meet at Zion Lutheran Church, 1601 4th Ave., Anoka. The time is 6:30 p.m. for the lodge meeting, 7:00 for the program. I will be selling books.

Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed in this lecture do not necessarily represent the ideas and opinions of Vennekretsen Lodge, the Sons of Norway, or of real persons, living or dead.

Where dragons walked

Siegfried and the dragon
Siegried slays the dragon, in an illustration by Arthur Rackham. This is one of the set of illustrations for Wagner’s Ring operas that fascinated C.S. Lewis as a boy.

An article at Wonders and Marvels suggests that the legends of medieval dragons in Germany, most particularly that of Siegfried the Dragonslayer, may arise from fossil tracks still visible in that country.

Notably, conspicuous fossil trackways of two types of massive dinosaurs are found in Germany. In 1941, the German paleontologist H. Kirchner speculated that observations of Triassic dinosaur tracks in sandstone near Siegfriedsburg in the Rhine Valley of western Germany might have been the inspiration for the legend about the dragon Fafnir’s footprints.

I share this, of course, purely for your amusement. All sensible people know that dragons survived in Europe well into the early medieval period, when they were slain by Christian saints.

Hat tip: Mirabilis.

New ‘Viking’ trailer

I’m weary of the world tonight. Can’t think of anything to write that I wouldn’t regret tomorrow.

So here’s the latest trailer for the new Russian Viking movie. My reenactor friends complain that the costumes aren’t accurate, but in my view they look punctilious compared to the costumes on the History Channel.

The latest news I’ve seen says international rights have been sold, but there’s been no announcement of a US release date.

Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017)

Mary Tyler Moore

Years ago, a friend of mine told me he’d met Mary Tyler Moore in connection with his business. I realized at that point that that was pretty much my personal definition of Making It In Life – getting to meet Mary Tyler Moore. I never did, of course.

I remember when the Mary Tyler Moore Show began. I was away at college, and I’d read in the paper that she was doing a situation comedy set in Minneapolis. “Well that’s bound to bomb,” I said. “Nothing set in Minnesota ever succeeds. Look at the Twins.”

Not for the first time, I was spectacularly wrong. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a monster hit, back in the days when the whole country watched just three networks. It was a new thing – a character-driven comedy, the harbinger of a series of great shows that followed, two with Bob Newhart, Cheers, Taxi, WKRP in Cincinnati, etc. I don’t think they do such shows anymore.

In the Twin Cities, we can’t help but think of her as one of our own. She put us on the map, in a new cultural way. There’s a statue of her throwing her tam in the air on the Nicollet Mall (though I believe they moved it recently, and I don’t know if it’s been returned to the spot. I don’t get to the Mall much anymore. It’s pretty Mary Tyler Moribund).

She got her big break with The Dick Van Dyke Show. According to the story, the project began as a vehicle for Carl Reiner, who played the TV writer husband living in New Rochelle, NY. But the pilot failed, and Reiner was humble enough to accept audience feedback that said they just didn’t like him in the role. So they cast a rising young comic named Dick Van Dyke in his place. As they searched for an actress to play the wife, producer Danny Thomas remembered a girl he’d auditioned as his daughter on his own show. She was great, but he thought nobody would ever believe a girl with such a tiny little nose could be his daughter (Sherry Jackson got the part). They auditioned Mary, and the rest is legend.

She had a copyright on “adorable.” In the years since her two big series, she was active in a number of causes, including campaigning for fetal stem cell research (she was a diabetic). She also did the pro-suicide play “Whose Life Is It, Anyway?” on Broadway.

But pretty girls get a break with me. And nobody was prettier than her. Few brought more joy through their work either. RIP.

He done her wrong, but not that way

Atlas Obscura is fascinating blog. Recently they examined the common belief that old silent movies used to show women put in peril by being tied to railroad tracks by villains. Turns out it never happened — except in parody.

This sort of train-based peril became a regular element of the melodramas as a cheap and easy way to create suspense. Moving into the early-20th century, and the silent film era, many films took their cues from those same 19th-century stage dramas. One of the more famous examples of this type of story was the serial The Perils of Pauline, which saw the titular heroine encounter all kinds of scoundrels and villains each week, who would put her in life-threatening danger—although it is important to note that she was never tied to the railroad tracks. This sort of overblown adventure tale became a well-known story type in its time, but that melodramatic style also inspired some comedies, which spoofed some of the more overused elements of the genre.

Read it all here.

Landmarks and visions

Landmark Center
The Landmark Center in St. Paul. Photo 2005 by Mulad.

The old US post office, custom house, and court house in St. Paul, built in 1902 and home to much graft and corruption in its time, is now called Landmark Center. They’re a little more tolerant of architectural treasures in that city than in Minneapolis, so it was saved from the wrecking ball and now exists as a cultural center. Once a month they host events for various ethnic groups. This month (yesterday) it was the Danes, and we Vikings were asked to man a table for the event. Three of us showed up. We had a pretty good time.

Lots of visitors, and lots of questions, many from children, which is always nice. I was able to explain how people got the idea that Viking helmets had horns, and how chain mail was made. Sold a couple books and several bits of leather work.

One of the best parts was that we were right next to the aebelskiver stand. Aebelskivers are Danish pancakes, formed by secret and occult methods into spheres. They’re generally served with powdered sugar and strawberry preserves. Delightful.

I also had the pleasure, over the weekend, of receiving another tip from Dave Lull. He remembered that I’m fond of the late D. Keith Mano, and he alerted me to a reprint of one of Mano’s old columns over at the National Review. They’re going to be publishing a series of them over the next few weeks. This one concerns a series of visions of the Virgin Mary in Bayside, Queens, New York back in 1975. Mano describes his “investigation” in bemused and gentle terms.

The church of St. Robert Bellarmine—now half school, half gym—stands two blocks up. There used to be a statue on the corner: large copy of those Virgins in telephone booths that wait outside Catholic houses. Veronica had her first visions here. But, as crowds grew, an unsympathetic Mother Church had the statue sledgehammered away. So much for mariolatry. You can still see the pedestal stump, cordoned off by wooden snow fencing.

It occurred to me to do a web search on Dave Lull. Turns out he’s not merely a reader of this blog, which would be enough to adorn the fame of any man. He’s a librarian (thus one of nature’s noblemen) and a facilitator of blogs. Blogless himself, he sends tips like this to a number of book bloggers.

I am honored to be among that number.

“Whom does it serve?”


Puritan church drummer

Sohrab Ahmari’s The New Philistines, which I reviewed last night, sparked a few thoughts under my follicles.

I noticed some years back that my interest in movies, once keen, was waning. Taking the trouble to make the trip to a theater just didn’t seem a good exchange. Whatever the old rewards had been, they were diminishing. And today, although I have Netflix and Amazon Plus, I don’t use their streaming services a whole lot, either. If I decide I want to view a movie, as often as not I can’t find anything I care to click on.

I used to watch television all evening, every evening. I liked some shows better than others, but I could always find something to amuse me. Then gaps started opening up, where there was nothing I wanted to watch. And now I’ve reached the point where there’s zero network programming that I watch regularly.

Ahmari’s book illustrated why those changes happened. I grew more and more aware – unconsciously at first, but consciously more and more – that everything coming out of Hollywood, big screen or small, was propaganda. In the legend of the Holy Grail, one of the questions asked of the seeker of the Grail was, “Whom does it serve?” With modern entertainment, even the most trivial, that question always applies. Each offering is in service of something. And that something is always some social or political cause.

In the days of the Puritans, it was often complained that people got religion shoved down their throats, that everything turned into a sermon.

Ahmari’s The New Philistines might have been called The New Puritans. Because in the 21st Century, the sermons never end.

Red alert

Red is my favorite color. I’ve often wondered about color preferences. When someone tells me, for instance, that they love green but don’t like red, I am moved to ponder our common humanity. I wonder, for instance, if they see the same colors I see. Maybe what they see as green is the very color that I see as red. Maybe we’re agreed, but can never know it.

I suspect one factor is food. I tend to like red or reddish foods – meat, strawberries, cherries. Because I was born with a surfeit of bitter taste receptors on my tongue, I’m inclined to dislike green vegetables (yes, I do eat them anyway, at least sometimes. Had broccoli just tonight). And I don’t like lime. So when I see green it’s associated with various foods that don’t appeal to me.

Anyway, I just rediscovered the marvelous blog, mirabilis.ca. Because I’ve never quite mastered this business of migrating bookmarks, I generally end up searching for my favorite urls all over again, every time I change browsers or get a new computer. Somehow I’d lost track of mirabilis, though I was tormented by a persistent, poignant memory of some good thing lost. But I’ve found it again now, and with it this link to an article from the Conversation on the history of red dyes.

Most animal reds are hidden within creatures – like blood – and are not on open display. The excavation of Neolithic burial sites has turned up jars filled with dull-coloured dried insects, kermes, which have a brilliant hidden red that was used as textile dye. It was also a Neolithic food colouring and the colour red is still associated with health today.

One surprise for me in Viking reenacting has been that a fairly bright red is one of the colors acceptable under most authenticity standards.

White Lights or Santa Boogie?

Do I need a building permit to turn a house into a Christmas snow globe? Asking for a friend.

You are either a colored-lights family or a white-lights family, and changing your Christmas tree light color is like changing your religion or your political affiliation—it’s something people do, at most, once in their lives. But white lights seemed classier to my teenaged self, so I petitioned the family, and we made the switch.

Jonathan V. Last talks about his changing views on Christmas decor.

After the first Christmas, when I didn’t put up any decorations outside our house, the lady next door—a sweet, Christian Secret Service agent—presented me with a shiny, four-foot-tall aluminum Snoopy, ringed by blinking lights. I tried to demur, but she insisted not only on giving it to me but helping me set it up, too. I was both touched and horrified.

River of Books in the Street

In Toronto, they throw books in the street and call it art to make a statement about congested traffic.

“We want literature to take over the streets and conquer public spaces, freely offering those passersby a traffic-free place which, for some hours, will succumb to the humble power of the written word.”

They laid down this artistic installation on one of the city’s busiest streets.

“Thus, a city area which is typically reserved for speed, pollution and noise, will become, for one night, a place for quietness, calm and coexistance illuminated by the vague, soft light coming out of the lighted pages.”

During the exhibit, people walked on the books, took pictures of themselves on the books, and took most of the books home with them. I don’t know whether Toronto’s traffic congestion has changed since receiving this smite from the humble word.

Advent duties

Advent is a season of many tasks. In the old days, I’ve read, it was a fast time, like Lent. People approached the Christmas holiday, pretty literally, with hungry anticipation. We Protestants pretty much abandoned that tradition, and I haven’t noticed that the Catholics observe it much either these days.

Still, Advent has its duties. For me, Christmas cards are one. I still send them, and I send a Christmas letter too. Yes, I am that guy. I’ve got my CC labels mail-merged off Microsoft Word (is it possible for them to make that process more complicated? Don’t answer – you’ll give them ideas), but I just discovered I printed one set on the wrong side, so I’ll have to re-do those. I traditionally start my cards right after Thanksgiving, but classes delayed that the last two years. This year, finally done with classes, I’m delayed by my bronchitis instead.

I keep telling myself I’ll bring the Christmas tree down from the attic tomorrow, and so far it hasn’t happened. I think I need servants.

I have antibiotics and an inhaler with which to battle my lung crud. I wonder if the antibiotics actually help, or whether doctors just dispense them because people expect them. I read that most bronchitis comes from a virus, and antibiotics don’t really serve any purpose. If that’s the case I’d rather not get them. I don’t like antibiotics as a form of recreation.

I finished a novel by an author I’ve had some contact with in the past. I reviewed his previous books, but I think I’ll leave this one unaddressed. I found this book kind of dully written, and the story I found fairly depressing. But if I can’t praise the book, I won’t pan it. I shall pass by on the other side of the road, pretending I didn’t see it. Don’t ask me to identify the author; I feel disloyal enough already.

And now, I must endeavor to rest. Strenuously.

Journal of the plague season

I apologize for my radio silence last night. I was just too run down to do anything but go to bed early. I’m celebrating my annual Cusp of Winter Tradition – the massive bronchial infection. It makes no sense to me that – every year about the same time – I come down with a cold which must inevitably descend into my lungs and take up residence like 1970s hippies, putting shag carpet up on all the walls. But such is the case. Every blinking year.

And every blinking year I imagine that this time my immune system will do what I pay it to do, and kick the deadbeats out. According to what I’ve read, you never get the same strain of cold twice, so it only makes sense that once in a while it would be a cold I could beat. But I never can. So at the point when I’m coughing all over my work and living spaces, infecting everyone I encounter, I finally break down and see the doctor. As I did today.

Actually it was a Physician’s Assistant today. She listened to my lungs, had a good laugh, and prescribed an antibiotic and an inhaler. Plus suggesting an over the counter nostrum.

So I guess I’m not a hypochondriac.

When you’re Norwegian, you can’t go to the doctor just because you feel sick. You need to feel you have something interesting to offer, something they can tell their colleagues about, and write up in a JAMA article.

And now I need to lie down. Titanic powers are at war within me.