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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Colin Wilson: A Storied Life

Do you  or does your father ― remember when John F. Kennedy died? How about C.S. Lewis? (Hint: it was the same day.) As science fiction author Ken MacLeod observes in Aeon, Colin Wilson also had "the misfortune" of dying on the same day as more famous man  Nelson Mandela. Still for a self-taught working-class author, Wilson made some waves, beginning with his first book at age 24, The Outsider, hailed ― if only for the moment ― as Britain's answer to Sartre and Camus.

Friday, December 27, 2013

What Happens in Literature

Uniqueness is mediated by language, the Irish author Kevin Stevens reminds us in his retrospective review of Saul Bellow's Herzog.  Not simply as style, but as the medium through which ideas, images, and narrative are captured and conveyed, language is what happens in literature, as Richard Ford, an American writer, aptly puts it. It is the field of battle for literary genius and the canvas of the author's vision. "Without the brilliance of their language," Stevens observes,  it. It is the field of battle for literary genius and the canvas of the author's vision. "Without the brilliance of their language," Stevens observes, "Moby Dick's symbolism would be heavy handed, Henry V's speechmaking jingoistic, The Waste Land's imagery hollow."   

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Simple Rules for Getting Published

"The best papers are those in which complex ideas are expressed in a way that those who are less than immersed in the field can understand," Philip Bourne, editor-in-chief of PloS Computational Biology, advises in "Ten Simple Rules for Getting Published." While Bourne's guidance is intended for scientific writers, its practical relevance extends to the craft as a whole as in rule number one: "Read many papers and learn from both the good and the bad work of others." As I advise my academic writing students: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Revise, revise, revise. All this and more can be found in Prof. Bourne's informative article.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Academic Writing Sine Qua Non: Something That Works

A scholarly editor is looking for what any editor is  something that will work, Prof. William Germano, a former editor in chief at Columbia University Press, observes in a recent interview. Noting times when pre-submission editing can prove beneficial, the Cooper Union dean cites ESL academic writers who need a "professional boost." Echoing my advice to writers I've been privileged to serve, Dean Germano counsels that it helps focus one's writing to imagine writing for erudite readers in other disciplines.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Are Sinking SATs an Education Omen?

If Scholastic Aptitude Test scores are barometers of educational quality, the trends are alarming. Average SAT scores have plummeted 20 points since 2006. Changes in 2005 intended to level the playing field have failed with access to quality education a likely contributor to a racial gap that finds overall average SAT scores of nonwhite students dropping 22 points, compared to 4 points for their white counterparts and a 41-point rise for Asian Americans. Unsurprisingly, family income also correlates with test scores. The trends have disturbing implications for U.S. higher education, as many students arrive on campus ill equipped to succeed.  

Monday, November 04, 2013

Stirring Saxon Words


Every single one of the 100 most frequently used words in the English language is of Anglo-Saxon origin. So are all the following words from Prime Minister Winston Churchill´s 4 June 1940 address to the House of Commons ― save one. Care to hazard a guess which is the sole exception? We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds; we shall fight in the fields and the streets; we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. To unearth the Norman invader, see English Comes From Holland and Germany.

Monday, September 30, 2013

It's Academic

Throughout the history of American higher education, the academic library has supported the university in its academic mission, Dr Stephen E. Atkins writes in The Academic Library in the American University. Noting its evolution over three-and-a-half centuries, the former president of the American Library Association continues, The academic library has become a depository of materials that support faculty and graduate student research in an almost infinite variety of disciplines.” For my part, I shall be forever grateful to the academic libraries of Brazil for that is where I found my beloved wife, a reference librarian in the humanities.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Mass Grave of Reflection

Whether it is through the ascending drumbeats for war or the steady drone of mindless advertisements, the empty slogans that assail our senses are constant reminders that we live in a time when critical thinking was never more needed or practised less often. As Carl Jung observes in The Undiscovered SelfThe mass crushes out the insight and reflection still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to a doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.” The day America´s Constitution dies, her once noble experiment as a democratic republic dies with it. Sic transit gloria Americae.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Practically Abandoned by One’s Friends

Whence, where, and why the English major? Adam Gopnik asks in the New Yorker, noting its impending demise like the Latin prerequisite before it ― “a dying choice bound to a dead subject.” Despite his sympathies, Gopnik finds the apologias of the discipline's defenders unpersuasive, mocking “The Economic Case for Saving the Humanities” proffered by Brown University’s Christina Paxson as “the kind of Letter to a Crazy Republican Congressman that university presidents get to write.” Like most pragmatic parries, it surrenders the tradition’s essence in the vain hope its accidents might carry the day or, at least, prolong the inevitable. Hardly surprising, given the bottom line for Paxson’s fellow economists: “Is it worth it?” ― not the best way to defend the intrinsic worth of the humanities, even in an age that abhors such “useless knowledge.”

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Buzzwords Drone On

Veteran readers may recall our calling attention to the problem of word inflation. Buzzwords are a prime culprit, and when they become so pervasive they’re virtually inaudible, we should start listening, as Judith Shulevitz, science editor of  the New Republic, reminds us. Take disruptive, which permeates cliché-ridden venues like the platforms at TED talks and the pages of Forbes. "Disruptive doesn’t mean what it used to," she notes. "It’s no longer the adjective you hope not to hear in parent-teacher conferences. It’s what you want investors to say about your new social-media app"  ah, there's the rub. For additional examples of insufferable argot, read her essay.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Dead to the World Around Them

When I was as young as the lad to our left, I walked the streets of Olneyville, my nose buried in a book, oblivious to all but the occasional blare of horns waking me from my contemplation. Today, as Wayne Curtis writes in The Smart Set, the eyes of digital zombies are fixed on screens, not paper pages, but the risks of collateral damage remain the same. "From time to time, they will glance up and a brief squall of confusion will cross their faces as they try to reorient themselves. ... They wander into streets and traffic as if no cars or other hazards exist in their parallel universe." The hazards of substituting texting for reading ― or conversation, for that matter  is a subject for another time.





Monday, August 05, 2013

Building Blocks of English: Affixes

Affixes are building blocks of language. The four types are prefixes, suffixes, combining forms, and infixes. We are familiar with prefixes, which placed at the beginning of words qualify their meaning (inappropriate) and suffixes, which convert the stem into another part of speech (celebrate to celebration). Combining forms, which can be either prefixes or suffixes, add another layer of meaning to words (biochemistry; pesticide). The least common affixes are infixes, which are placed within a word (in this case, to form the plural cupsful).

Friday, August 02, 2013

A Literary Triple Play

In the fall of 1874, William Dean Howells, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, importuned Mark Twain for something to put in its columns for the coming year. Twain at first demurred; then passed on the suggestion of his closest friend, the Reverend Joseph Hopkins Twitchell, to write about Clemens' piloting career on the Mississippi river. The result, as they say, is history. As John T. Flanagan wrote for Minnesota History in 1936, "It is interesting to note that neither the conception of nor the early stimulus for one of Mark Twain's greatest books was original with the author." Mark Twain on the Upper Mississippi  Cf. The Lincoln of Literature: Mark Twain, The Atlantic, and the Making of the Middlebrow Magazine

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Laughing at our Losses

As Prof. Michael Saler observes in a recent book review, Silicon Valley is the seedbed of a 21st-century ideology that's more readily mocked than negated. In To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov, dubbed by Saler today's H.L.Mencken, punctures the cyber-sect's banal platitudes in the most hard-hitting and sardonic critique published to date.

Laughter is often the last freedom of the vanquished, but considering the stakes at hand, it is no time for defeatism for defenders of a more human and humane culture. As a college basketball coach might urge his players, read and react!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Rolling the Dice on Artificial Intelligence

In 2009, Henry Markram boldly proposed to create a computer replica of the human brain within a decade. Fellow neuroscientist Haim Sompolinsky at Hebrew University of Jerusalem calls the idea a fantasy. Will Markram succeed in replicating human consciousness, a challenge that has stymied researchers in Artificial Intelligence? At a time when austerity is being imposed at dire human cost across Europe, the European Union is betting $1.3 billion on it, while the United States contemplates it own multibillion-dollar project.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Lethal Loneliness

"The problem is not that I am single and likely to stay single," confided Charlotte Bronte, "it is that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely." Psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann is best known ― or rather unknown as the "Dr. Fried" of  an erstwhile patient's autobiographical I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Her thoughts on The Science of Loneliness merit our consideration in an age in which we increasingly occupy ourselves with trivial pursuits to escape our essential loneliness.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Celebrating a Half Century of Excellence


"If anything, it was an intellectual community. It was people we knew and admired: a community of writers we knew but who hadn't come together in that way before, except for some of the critics who wrote for the Partisan Review. It was determined by friendships, by a shared belief in uncompromising quality in writing, and by a sense that much conventional criticism was superficial and lazy, accepting the mediocre." Robert Silvers, founding editor of the New York Review of Books, discusses its history as we celebrate its 50th anniversary. See Mark Danner's interview in New York for additional insights. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Farmers Market to Mens Department?

Does the increasing use of "farmers market" lead to "mens department"? Perhaps,as grammar columnist and author June Casagrande suggests in a recent podcast, although I'm inclined to chalk it up to declining attention to, or even awareness of, proper English practice. The more salient question, of course, is this: Does the prevalence of "farmers market" justify your department store's use of "mens department," "womens shoes," and "childrens toys"? Absolutely not, as she clearly explains. It's worth a listen.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Natives Are Restless

"Because the horse is not dead, I feel I’m allowed to keep beating it," Nicholas Carr begins his report with a metaphor that will endear him neither to the ASPCA nor my daughters. When it comes to this horse, however, viz., student preference for printed textbooks, few beat it more soundly. The digital natives are restless, as evidenced here, here, and here. For Carr's analysis of the latest study, see Student to e-textbooks: no thanks. It's e-text worth perusing. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Method to the Madness

As readers of Verbum Sapienti who have been with us from the onset know, the creation of this blog was initially inspired by students in my English for Academic Studies Writing course. Our final assignment was the writing of papers suitable for publication in academic journals. Drawing on the logical chronology set forth by  Prof. Gilson Volpato, we have reviewed, in order, the pertinent sections, including methods, usefully distinguished from methodology by Prof. Pat Thomson. methodology isn't methods...or...what goes in a methods chapter

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Curtain Call for Culture?

If loss can be pregnant with meaning, the recent death of historian Jacques Barzun assuredly was. It portended, as Ben Zimmer, Boston Globe language columnist, noted, "the passing of a classically informed view of language as a barometer of human nature" and of one of the English language's most committed defenders. And that barely scratches our presentiment of loss. The departure of one who so brilliantly embodied the "richest and best in the much abused word 'culture' seemed to mark the end of an era," Wilfred McCay writes in the University Bookman, "a curtain-lowering that left us without the promise of any encore." Hope or Despair? Roger Kimball and the Future of Culture

Timeless Moments

In this world, life and time are intimately entwined. "To try to imagine disentangling them," as Michael Clune observes in the Chronicle Review, "is like trying to imagine a melody of one note." And yet we all have, at one time or another, if only for a moment ― a moment that seemed much longer. The effort to counteract time, by poets or lovers, is twofold: a sensed slowing of time accompanying an intensely vivid perception and the persistence of that intensity. To achieve what Schiller called "annulling time within time" may elude us in the end, but isn't that is true of almost every worthwhile pursuit? Clune's essay is entitled "The Quest for Permanent Novelty," but, as in the search for the Holy Grail, what we seek is not new but eternal. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Marking Facebook's Face

Websites reflect the values that inform them. “Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder, Zadie Smith wrote of FacebookPoking, because that's what shy boys do to girls they're scare to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what friendship is. Adrien Chen brings us up to date. Everything wrong Facebook, from its cavalier treatment of privacy to its narrow view of Facebook friendship stems from the fact that it models human relations on Zuckerberg's social graph,” a model of human relationships based on computer logic, he writes. Deo gratias, we aren't mere machines.  

Are Scientists Normal?

Media stereotypes of scientists run the gamut from megalomaniacs out to conquer the world ― think Dr. No to affable, if zany, absent-minded professors Flubber, Back to the FutureHoney, I Shrunk the Kids, etc. A more knowledgeable analyst, Dr. Steve Caplan, associate professor of biochemistry and biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, concludes that for the most part, scientists are quite normal and experience the same stress and anxieties that afflict the rest of us. Are Scientists Normal People? 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Science of Fabrication

The scientific community's barriers against “an epidemic of false, biased, and falisified findings are weak, Daniele Fanelli, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, concedes at the onset of his column in Nature. “Only the most egregious cases of misconduct are discovered and punished,” he continues, while “subtler forms slip through the net, and there is no protection from publication bias. Dr. Fanelli delineates the deficiencies of the present system with its overreliance on whistleblowers and proposes an alternative. One need not endorse his remedy, however, to concur with his judgment that researchers should be held accountable for what they write. Redefine Misconduct as Distorted Reporting

Throwing the Book at Them

The writer of a dictionary is an historian, not a lawgiver,” observed the renowned semanticist S.I. Hayakawa. Perhaps, that is why the citing of dictionaries by the U.S. Supreme Court was so rare prior to 1987. Over the past 25 years, however, as Profs. James Brudney and Lawrence Baum note in their Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper, as many as one of  three statutory decisions by the High Court have invoked dictionary definitions. As is frequently the case with dictionary definitions, the connotations merit our consideration. Oasis or Mirage: The Supreme Court's Thirst for Dictionaries

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Data Driven

Our ability to amass droves of data drives certain assumptions. Among them, as David Brook notes in the New York Times, are these: that everything that can be measured should be; that data is a reliable, transparent lens that filters out ideology and emotions; and that data will enable us to foretell the future. In introducing what promises to be an informative, ongoing exploration of what he dubs data-ism, Brooks extols data's capacity to disabuse us of views that fly in the face of the evidence and to shed light on emerging and overlooked patterns of behavior. The Philosophy of Data

Monday, February 11, 2013

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

The narcissistic queen's mirror of vanities hung on her castle wall. Many today indulge their fantasies via online walls. According to researchers at Berlin's Humboldt University and Darmstadt's Technical University, viewing photos of Facebook friends oft evokes envy, misery, and loneliness. The scientists, who studied users logging on the ubiquitous social network, found that one in three felt worse after visiting the site“The most common cause of Facebook frustration came from users comparing themselves socially to their peers,” Time reports. As so often, the Bard puts it best, comparisons are odorous. Why Facebook Makes You Feel Bad About Yourself

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Games People Play

Children know something adults have forgotten, philosopher Mark Rowlands reminds us, something we lost when we began to play “the great game of growing up and becoming someone. Today's world is a utilitarian one in which actions have instrumental value, worth not inherent in their essence but derived from the tokens they amass  money, for one. “Work is a classic example,” Rowlands notes. In its pure form, play has no external purpose or reward. Young children know this intuitively, reveling in the joy of the moment. If we could get lost in their spirit, we might find what we have lost. Tennis With Plato

The True Ice Age

The world's oldest portrait has arrived in Britain. Dug from the earth of Moravia, she is carved from a mammoth's tusk and 26,000 years old. Her long slender face, with its almond eyes and hint of a dimple, is straight out of Modigliani, writes Laura Cumming in a review almost too poetic for a London daily. “One of her eyes is lively, but the other droops downwards as if injured or sad, and there is rueful twist to her smile. Dolorous too is our contemplation of the draconian and Darwinian drive against the arts, which leads us to ask ourselves, “Which is the true Ice Age? 

Friday, February 08, 2013

By Jeeves, It's Wodehouse!

The quintessential English humorist P.G. Wodehouse was the oldest of old boys, as Robert Messenger aptly notes in his New Criterioreview of an anthology of Wodehouse's letters. Little wonder then that my appetite for his witty offerings were insatiable in my college days when I was the youngest of the good ol' boys. Wodehouse charmed as a writer with his self-deprecation, as Ronald Reagan would do decades later as an orator. Indeed, P.G. never lost the insouciance of his British stiff upper lip. Would that I could say the same. What I can say is that we all could use some mirth-inspiring P.G. humor today.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Racket Bawl

As arbiters of science's reputation system, journal  publishers acquire copyright to the world's leading scientific output for free. They then charge scientists, who authored and reviewed the articles, and taxpayers, who funded the research, $8 billion a year to access the findings. The exit from this  revolving door lies in creating new reputation metrics, Academia.edu's Richard Price argues

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Carnival of the Animals

As Mardi Gras nears, what better time to celebrate a carnival? Composed in 1886, While French composer Camille Saint-Saens was vacationing in Austria, Le Carnival des Animaux, a suite of 14 movements, remained unpublished until his death. From an era when cartoons were also classics. 
 

Search . . . for the Motive

In a day in which “Google” has assumed the status of a verb, the increasing role of search engines is readily apparent. Less well known is the significance of the ongoing shift from keyword to semantic search. Yet, as physicist and computer scientist W. Daniel Hillis points out, with semantic search results are determined not by data but by the proprietor's Weltanshauung. Thus, search engines have moved from indicators of what is important to arbiters of truth. “From now on, search engines will have an editorial point of view, and search results will reflect that viewpoint,” he concludes. “We can no longer ignore the assumptions behind the results.” Nor Hillis' analysis. The Opinions of Search Engines

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Pursuing Knowledge Is Never Useless

As an inveterate researcher, I have often advised those engaged in the lifelong quest for knowledge that the relevance of a specific finding may rest in doubt for years, perhaps a lifetime. In a puzzle in the order of magnitude and complexity that is life, a missing piece oft remains undetected until its adjacent counterparts have been discovered. On her aptly named site Brain Pickings, Maria Popova cogently encapsulates a seminal 1939 essay by U.S. educator Abraham Flexner on “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” As Flexner rightly observes, “The world has always been a sorry and confused sort of place.” Thanks to Popova and Flexner, however, a tad less.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Hybrid Hype

For modern theorists of technology, hybridity is ontological. They believe that to be human is to be technological. This seemingly innocent assumption has significant implications about how we think about morality, law, and politics. Perhaps this is what the Hybrid Age is all about: marketing masquerading as theory, charlatans masquerading as philosophers, a New Age cult masquerading as a university, business masquerading as redemption, and slogans masquerading as truths. The Naked and the TED

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Garbage In, Culture Out

While the musical proclivities of more affluent youth in developed countries often turn towards trash, in a rubbish dump on the south side of Asunción, underprivileged Paraguayan youngsters have found an innovative means to make music. Using instruments crafted from discarded oil tins and other refuse, their orchestra, known locally as Los Reciclados, and in English as the Landfill Harmonic, has performed in Brazil, Panama, and Colombia, and has journeyed as far as Europe to play Mozart and Beethoven. As the orchestra's founder and director, Favio Chavez, a music teacher and environmentalist, aptly notes, “The world sends us garbage. We send back music.” And the world is richer for it. Landfill Harmonic 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Revolting Academics

Eleven leading British academic associations have issued an open letter condemning government plans for open access publishing as a “rushed policy” that threatens the “international standing of British Universities and research.” Signed by the Royal Historical Society, the Political Studies Association, and the Council for the Defence of British Universities, among others, the critique calls open access a “fundamental revolution” in academic life and expresses fears about the publication of papers falling to university administrators.         Academics Revolt Over Open Access

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Wealth of Words

There’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary and the likelihood he'll graduate from college and his future income, Prof. E.D Hirsch, Jr. notes in a recent commentary. Vocabulary is a relevant  proxy for a range of educational attainments not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking, but knowledge of science, history, and the arts. “If we want to reduce economic inequality,” he concludes, “a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.” A Wealth of Words

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Secondary Thoughts

Not every adult feels the sustained melancholic presence of their high-school years. Some simply put in their time, graduate, and move on with their lives. But for many others, the adolescent years occupy a privileged place in their memories. Author and satirist Kurt Vonnegut aptly described high school as “closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” Perhaps, that's why some never fully abandon its confines even decades later. Why You Truly Never Truly Leave High School

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Idle Worship

“There is no such thing as not worshipping,” the writer David Forster Wallace once advised college graduates. “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” He then delineated a litany of false gods that will fail us in the end: money, beauty, power, and intellect. With appreciation to Brain Pickings' Maria Popova for calling his address to our attention. This Is Water 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What We Read Shapes Who We Are

Since broadband began its rapid expanse at the millennium's start, Internet use has skyrocketed. In 2012, users topped 2.4 billion, more than one in three of Earth's inhabitants. Time spent online averaged 16 hours a week globally (double that in high-use countries). “We have changed how we interact,” the New York Times confirms. “Are we also changing what we are?” The question was posed to three knowledgeable observers. Their responses raise others. Are We Becoming Cyborgs?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Parsing Punditry



“A bun is the lowest form of wheat,” my father would say to me as a lad, recalling the general opinion of the status of the pun as a purported form of wit. As an inveterate punster in my college days — I'll spare you the painful proof, I defended the art as a literary form, noting the self-evident fact that puns are crafted to solicit groans, not laughs. But how did the pun acquire such a dubious reputation? the BBC News Magazine asks and answers. It's an intriguing analysis, as one might expect from the source, but, caveat emptor,  cites several puns. The Pun Conundrum