The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Triple Play
It's been a slow June so far, but today I finished three books! (Although I reviewed News Junkie earlier today, I finished it several days ago.) Not only is my resolution going well at the moment -- nine books is my biggest margin yet -- but I am also on track for my informal goal of reading 100 books this year.

To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design by Henry Petroski - This book is getting a bit old, but then, so am I. Consequently, I remember most of the failures described in this book such as the Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway collapse and the DC-10 crash near O'Hare Airport. I've been on an engineering kick lately -- we watched a Discovery Channel DVD of Extreme Engineering last night -- perhaps because most of the money I made last year involved an engineering project whereas this year I haven't made much money, period. I never thought I'd recall 2008 as the good old days. But anyway... While I enjoyed this book, I understand why Amazon reviewers criticize Petroski's writing. He often belabors his points, but the overkill helps lay people like me to comprehend thoroughly. The book's premise is that engineers learn more from one failure than a thousand successes. This idea transcends engineering, so it isn't exactly a revelation. Regardless, it's an interesting book for anyone who wants to learn more about engineering and the stories behind some well-known disasters.

Between You and Me: A Little Book of Bad English by James Cochrane - I buy a lot of books about language. I think it's helpful to remind oneself of correct usage occasionally to resist developing bad writing or speaking habits. This book is good but short. One of the entries I never thought about was lowest common denominator -- in math, the LCD is usually a relatively high number, but that isn't how we use the term in general (Cochrane laments this as "a Lost Cause"). Between You and Me also includes George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language." At first, I dismissed this as a lame way to stretch out a too-short book. When I read the essay, however, I recognized that Orwell and Cochrane have similar perspectives, which makes the inclusion worthwhile. Believe it or not, I managed to get through high school and college without reading Animal Farm or 1984, so this is the first time I've read anything by Orwell. I enjoyed it more than I expected.

F My Life by Maxime Valette, Guillaume Passaglia, and Didier Guedj - This one is just plain fun. Anytime you feel like you're having a bad day, read this book or go to and you'll find someone whose day is worse. Of course, one might ask, "Why buy the book when you can read the Web site for free?" First, I wanted to cheer up my wife, and she's the anti-DJWriter as far as the Internet goes -- I spend many hours a day online, she spends several minutes a month. Second, I would hope that the authors filtered out the lousier Web entries. Suffice it to say*, if you like the Web site, you'll like the book. It's probably best in smaller doses (the format gets repetitive after a while), so keep it where you can read it for 5-10 minutes at a time.

Current tally: 50 books finished, 41 books acquired

* I initially left "it" out of this phrase, and then I remembered something from Cochrane's book: "If one is going to use this rather old-fashioned expression one should get it right: suffice it to say, meaning 'let it be enough to say'. Suffice to say is ignorant and lazy." Ouch.

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Friday, May 15, 2009
Keeping My Head Above Water
On Mother's Day, my aunt asked how my book challenge was going. "I'm up by five," I proudly announced. Well, on the way home I stopped at Borders and they were having a big clearance sale... and suddenly I was in the hole again. Fortunately, I was close to finishing several books, so now I'm breaking even just a few days later.

Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times by Geoff Nunberg - The title may sound like a Bush-bashing book, but it's not. Going Nucular is a collection of articles and commentaries about words and grammar, especially how meanings have evolved and certain words have gained or lost favor. I bought this at Powell's in June 2007, started reading it a few months later, and then set it aside for over a year. I rediscovered it two-thirds finished a month ago. I mention all this because it illustrates my problem with this book. While I enjoyed most of the essays, I couldn't read many in a row. Even making a concerted effort, I could only get through five or six in one sitting. Yet in small doses, it's an interesting book for anyone who is into words, linguistics, etymology, media, or writing. If you're the kind of person who plays "dictionary roulette" (I can't be the only one), you'll enjoy Nunberg's book.

History's Worst Decisions and the People Who Made Them by Stephen Weir - This book, which is titled Encyclopedia Idiotica in the U.S., is a good idea weakly executed. The book briefly examines 50 fateful decisions throughout history, ranging from Adam & Eve to the December 2004 tsunami. As a U.K. book, its choices are biased toward British history. Weir also divines the motivations of the bad deciders, classifying them among the Seven Deadly Sins or the three Cardinal Virtues, but this adds little to the book. I bought the illustrated edition ($9.99 at Barnes & Noble), which is indeed a lovely printing. Weir's writing, however, is another matter entirely. First, his tone is inconsistent. Early entries include funny, sarcastic remarks (my wife asked if this was the same author as in Who Hates Whom), but he doesn't keep them up with any regularity. Worse, his sentence structure is atrocious. Run-ons and lengthy fragments abound, which makes History's Worst Decisions annoying and difficult to read aloud. To top it off, Amazon reviewers note some obvious errors. Being poorly written, factually suspect, and only sporadically funny, this disappointing book isn't worth your time.

Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life by John Sellers - I'm a little surprised that I bought this since I'm not much for "indie rock" -- I like many bands that fit the description, but as a category, it's far too broad to have much meaning (ditto for "alternative"). What sold me is the first half of the book. Like me, Sellers was born in 1970, so we experienced many of the same fads and music growing up. His reminiscences about the early days of MTV are hilarious. The book is entertaining until he gets into "indie rock." Then he writes about bands that don't interest me (the Smiths/Morrissey, Joy Division/New Order, Pavement, Guided By Voices). I had to work to plow through those chapters, encouraged by the occasional reference to something I cared about. The appendices are amusing: A is a collection of lists, B is a goofy formula for determining how good a band is, and C is a list of "judgements" rendered on current bands. Bottom line: if you were born when I was, you'll probably like the beginning of the book, but the rest of the book might bore you if you're not into Sellers' favorite bands, especially Guided By Voices.

Current tally: 40 books finished, 40 books acquired

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Thesaurus Fun
Ever try to find the right word in a thesaurus and come across something wildly inappropriate for the tone of the piece? I imagine that's what inspired this recent Onion article:
87 Killed In Violent Kerfuffle

ISLAMABAD—Eighty-seven people were killed and 114 wounded at an open-air market in Islamabad yesterday in one of the worst ruckuses to hit the Pakistani capital in years. Witnesses said that the bloody to-do occurred shortly before noontime prayers, and that dozens were instantly killed by the doozy of a shockwave. Many more were reportedly trampled to death in the rush to escape the foofaraw.
While visiting The Onion online, I also discovered that my favorite columnist, stoner Jim Anchower, has his own homepage!

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Saturday, March 08, 2008
Where Have All The Secretaries Gone?
I never thought I would feel sentimental for good ol' Secretaries Day!

It's bad enough that secretary was deemed too limiting a word and replaced with the obfuscatory yet tolerable administrative assistant. But while I wasn't paying attention, it changed again -- this time to administrative professional. Apparently, the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) is to blame:

IAAP defines administrative professionals as "individuals who are responsible for administrative tasks and coordination of information in support of an office related environment and who are dedicated to furthering their personal and professional growth in their chosen profession."
That's bull. You can't just make a term mean whatever you want it to mean. The critical "support" element is not inherent in the term administrative professional. By any normal definition (i.e., not the one promulgated by the IAAP), the term administrative professional is so vague that it would include administrators as well. Isn't a professional who administers something an administrative professional? Of course, National Secretaries Day was established to honor assistants, not bosses. By renaming it Administrative Professionals Day/Week®*, the IAAP just confuses everyone.

The more I read on the IAAP's site, the more I dislike the organization. For example, the IAAP belittles secretaries of the past with this self-serving description of how duties have "evolved," which supposedly justifies the renamed "holiday." I have a hard time believing that secretaries never fulfilled any of the duties in the "Now" column, just as I doubt that many of today's "administrative professionals" do everything described in that column. This "evolution" is just a function of downsizing anyway -- everyone in the workplace wears more hats than before.

The IAAP provides a FAQs page about Administrative Professionals Week. Oddly enough, the questions are not all answered, so I'll provide my own answers in italics:

Before the hate mail comes in, I want to make clear that I like secretaries or whatever you want to call them, and I have no problem with giving them recognition. My criticism is directed only toward the goofiness of the IAAP.

* I also have a problem with this being a registered trademark of the IAAP (scroll to bottom of this page). Any "holiday" that is trademarked doesn't belong in the greeting card aisle (notice that the store chose not to display the "®" in blatant violation of the IAAP's trademark claim, and if you look closely, apparently administrative professionals has not yet been translated into Spanish).


Sunday, December 16, 2007
Bastard of the Day
Julie Deardorff tells how to avoid slipping on the ice, courtesy of Mark Grabiner, director of the Clinical Biomechanics and Rehabilitation Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago:

Look where you're going.

<sigh> I guess in this age of cell phones, iPods, and complete obliviousness to one's surroundings, people have to be told to just pay some freaking attention.

So why is Grabiner's name boldfaced above as today's bastard? Deardorff adds this:
Grabiner, by the way, is uniquely qualified to dispense advice: He is one of the only researchers in the country who deliberately trips senior citizens to study how they fall.*
Okay, so he's not really a bastard since he's doing it in the name of science and helping others. But if you met a guy at a cocktail party and asked him what he does for a living, and he said, "I trip old people just to watch them fall," what would you think?

* Deardorff (or her editor) gets credit for not using the tautological "fall down" (in what other direction would one fall?).

Speaking of gravity, that reminds me of a teacher I had in high school. I took a class called "Principles of Technology," which was touted as a bold, new, interdisciplinary course merging the concepts of math and physics with the practical applications of a shop class. I fondly recall it as "Physics for Burnouts." I only took it because my best friend wanted to, and he thought it would be an easy "A." He was already taking real physics and pre-calculus on his way to becoming president (at age 36) of a steel fabricator's engineering department, so the course was quite basic for him. I was just looking to pad my GPA to help get a college scholarship. Fortunately, it was an easy "A," and we had a good time interacting with the burnout subculture. We even learned about Guns N' Roses before they became phenomenally popular. Anyway... our teacher was a good guy who seemed to know what he was talking about, but he relied on the word tends a bit too much. One day, he explained to the class, "The Earth's gravity tends to pull things downward." Uh, dude, aren't the laws of physics a bit more definite than that?

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Thursday, October 11, 2007
A New Perspective on "Pro-Life"
This morning I took the car in for service at Napleton's Northwestern Ford in Rogers Park (RIP Bert Weinman Ford; I still miss you, especially your convenient location). Since I had at least 90 minutes to kill, I went out for breakfast.

There was a couple seated across the aisle from me, and although I was reading an interesting book, I couldn't help eavesdropping. The woman was upset because she had given a guy (it wasn't clear whether he was a relative or a good friend) some money to get the brakes fixed on his car. "He spent it on drugs," she said.

Later, she was talking about the same guy (I think). She said, "When I talked to him, I thought he was okay. He was talking pro-life. He wasn't talking pro-crackhead." Apparently, in some American subcultures, "pro-life" has nothing to do with abortion. It's about keeping oneself clean and staying alive.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007
A New "Blog" to "Check Out"
The Tribune's Nathan Bierma "interviews" the author of The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. I'll have to add it to my blogroll because I think unnecessary quotes are hilarious. Here's my favorite -- it was painted on the window of a nightclub (I wish I had taken a picture):
Wednesday - "Ladies" Night
I don't think it was a transgender place, but the quotes imply that cross-dressers are welcome.

Here's another fun blog that I found in the above blog's links: Literally, A Web Log. My favorite personal example, which I've shared elsewhere, is from a former co-worker. I overheard her tell a friend on the phone, "Omigod, when I heard that, I literally died!"


Tuesday, July 03, 2007
"Mess with the bull, you'll get the horns."
Man, I love that phrase.

Put this T-shirt on my Christmas list!


Friday, June 22, 2007
Rand McNally Gets It Wrong
Maps from Rand McNally (RMcN) label some of the park roads in Crater Lake National Park as "closed in winter." The National Park Service (NPS) labels the roads "open summer only." Note the difference in meaning: according to RMcN, those roads should be open during spring and fall as well as summer.

On June 14, we learned firsthand at Crater Lake that the NPS is right and RMcN is wrong. The road looping around the east side of the lake was closed, and it wasn't expected to open for at least another week (many of the hiking trails were still closed, too -- I would advise Crater Lake visitors to wait until July).

Incidentally, RMcN and the NPS both say "closed in winter" for the Going-to-the-Sun Road at Glacier National Park. Neither map makes it clear that the road is not open all the way through until sometime in June (parts open earlier).

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Saturday, May 26, 2007
Why Was Newt Gingrich Speaker of the House?
Because he sure as hell can't write!

My grammarian readers (I know there are at least two of you) will enjoy Janet Maslin's review of Pearl Harbor, the latest book by everyone's favorite "family values" hypocrite, Newt Gingrich (cowritten with William R. Forstchen). Apparently this book was so important that the rushed publisher decided to skip the copyediting phase. How else could you explain painfully redundant phrases like "to withdraw backward was impossible?" (Actually, Newt, to withdraw forward is impossible.) Maslin writes
This is not a matter of isolated typographical errors. It is a serious case for the comma police, since the book’s war on punctuation is almost as heated as the air assaults it describes.
She follows with an example. But this is my favorite passage from Pearl Harbor:
James nodded his thanks, opened the wax paper and looked a bit suspiciously at the offering, it looked to be a day or two old and suddenly he had a real longing for the faculty dining room on campus, always a good selection of Western and Asian food to choose from, darn good conversations to be found, and here he now sat with a disheveled captain who, with the added realization, due to the direction of the wind, was in serious need of a good shower.
Perhaps I was wrong about skipping the copyediting phase. It is perfectly reasonable for a copyeditor, after reading a sentence like that, to throw up his or her hands in defeat. I mean, it can be fixed but where would you start?

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Do They Mean That?
While researching lodging in Montana, I came across this description for the Nez Perce Motel in Wisdom, MT:

The Nez Perce is a very clean, eight unit motel situated at the crossroads of the scenic Big Hole Valley of Wisdom. It provides rooms for tourists, fisherman, sportsmen, and other outdoor extremists.
For clarity, I would change it to "situated at the crossroads of Wisdom in the scenic Big Hole Valley" (it's not the "Big Hole Valley of Wisdom"). But more importantly, notice the tail end of that quotation. Outdoor extremists? Yikes! Wisdom is near the Idaho border, and both states are known for separatist groups. So when I think of outdoor extremists, I'm picturing heavily armed men in camouflage living off the land with questionable allegiance to the U.S. government. Surely enthusiasts would have been a better word.

One could argue that they are trying to cash in on "extreme sports," except the context isn't quite right -- the word "other" would imply that tourists, fishermen, and sportsmen also participate in extreme sports. But I've never seen trout fishing in a Mountain Dew commercial.

Because of the location and high-speed Internet access, I might stay at the Nez Perce Motel this summer regardless of the outdoor extremists. I'll let you know what I find.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007
McDonald's Doesn't Get It
When I saw the teaser, "McDONALD'S vs. DICTIONARIES. It wants one word expunged," I knew it had to be about "McJob," a word I learned from Douglas Coupland's Generation X about 15 years ago. The fast food giant failed to convince Merriam-Webster to remove the word several years ago, and now the Oxford English Dictionary is in the corporate crosshairs:
McDonald's executives say the definition is demeaning to its workers. "Dictionaries are supposed to be paragons of accuracy. And in this case they got it completely wrong," said Walt Riker, a McDonald's spokesman. "It's a complete disservice and incredibly demeaning to a terrific workforce and a company that's been a jobs and opportunity machine for 50 years."
But McDonald's doesn't get it. The function of a dictionary is not to avoid offense or to judge the veracity of a word's meaning; it is merely to document a language. Unless you've been living in a cultural deprivation chamber for the past decade, you know what a McJob is. Regardless of whether McDonald's likes the term, Oxford's definition is indeed accurate: "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector." Surely the Oxford folks have no intention of kowtowing to this corporate whiner.


Monday, March 07, 2005
The Commonly Confused Words Test
I'm a bit of a language geek, which is probably part of why I became a writer. Maybe you've seen dictionary-like references that describe common pitfalls from A to Z. Well, I'm the sort of person who reads those books from cover to cover (it's sick, I know). Today Eric Zorn's blog alerted me to an interactive quiz called The Commonly Confused Words Test. I'll share my results, but I admit that I probably wouldn't if I didn't do so well:

You scored 100% Beginner, 100% Intermediate, 100% Advanced, and 66% Expert! You have an extremely good understanding of beginner, intermediate, and advanced level commonly confused English words, getting at least 75% of each of these three levels' questions correct. This is an exceptional score. Remember, these are commonly confused English words, which means most people don't use them properly. You got an extremely respectable score.

Compared to people of my age and gender, I scored in the 99% percentile on all four levels. Of course, I'm wondering which of the "expert" questions I missed!


Sunday, February 20, 2005
Misused Word Of The Day - Hoi Polloi
Context: "If the people are too hoi polloi to ride the train as it is, they can probably afford a cab."

I won't embarrass the author by name, but this was in an e-mail discussion of whether proposed express train service from downtown Chicago to O'Hare Airport is a worthwhile transit investment. Alas, what he said was the opposite of what he meant (we'll set aside the issue of making the noun into an adjective). Hoi polloi means "the common people," "the general populace," "the masses." That makes this misusage particularly amusing--he was implying that some people are too "of the masses" to ride mass transit!

I see this word misused so often that I occasionally look it up just to remind myself that I am using it correctly. How did this misunderstanding arise? Perhaps hoi polloi (which is Greek) sounds too exotic to refer to ordinary people. Or maybe it is incorrectly associated with the snobbish, elitist connotations of hoity-toity.


Friday, January 28, 2005
"A Medically Supervised Anecdotal Study"
There is a commercial on Air America Radio for a product to "improve your performance in the bedroom" that cites the results of "a medically supervised anecdotal study." Huh? Do people miss this verbal slight of hand and think they said "clinical study?" Or worse, do people think an anecdotal study is meaningful just because a doctor is watching? Now there's a job I wouldn't want! Actually, I picture a bunch of guys, one of whom happens to be a doctor, in a health club locker room bragging about their recent conquests.

This junk phrase reminds me of a woman I worked with in the JC Penney shoe department when I was in high school. She told customers that shoes were made of "genuine simulated leather." One of them asked sincerely, "Oh really? Is that good?"

I had a feeling that someone else must have commented on this advertisement before, so I googled it yesterday. I found several references on the web, including a great site called
The Church of Critical Thinking (CoCT). There was not only an entertaining analysis of the many lowbrow ads on Air America, but also a response from Air America co-founder Sheldon Drobny that agreed and promised that the ads will get better as the fledgling network's audience reaches critical mass.


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