Night Music: America

February 28, 2019

Wise Words

February 28, 2019

Image: Blintzes

February 27, 2019

John Steinbeck

February 27, 2019

Today would have been the 117th birthday of Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck. which deserves remembering.

I was reminded of his birthday by a short piece in Literary Hub which reprinted extracts from the original reviews of his major books.   For example, 1937’s Of Mice and Men elicited the following:

“John Steinbeck is no mere virtuoso in the art of story telling; but he is one. Whether he writes about the amiable outcasts of Tortilla Flat or about the grim strikers of In Dubious Battle, he tells a story. Of Mice and Men is a thriller, a gripping tale running to novelette length that you will not set down until it is finished.”

Two years later, Malcolm Cowley reviewed Grapes of Wrath, the third in his Dustbowl Trilogy:

“The author now has a thesis—that the migrants will unite and overthrow their oppressors—and he wants to argue, as if he weren’t quite sure of it himself … Yet one soon forgets the faults of the story. What one remembers most of all is Steinbeck’s sympathy for the migrants—not pity, for that would mean he was putting himself above them; not love, for that would blind him to their faults, but rather a deep fellow feeling.”

This week I happen to be reading No Tine To Spare, a collection of short essays and blog posts by Ursula K. LeGuin. In it, she devotes one chapter to Grapes of Wrath.  The essay is about the damaged concept of The Great American Novel, which many critics claim Grapes of Wrath to be. LeGuin says it is better than that. It is, she says, “the most truly American book,” adding “A book that makes me cry the way music can or tragedy can  … must have something of greatness about it.”

For me, as a politicized teenager and already a Wobbly supporter, it was In Dubious Battle that spoke to me,  Not the most polished writing but perhaps his dramatic story of the strike is all the better for that. It was Barrack Obama’s favourite book by Steinbeck, too, apparently.

Hollywood seems to be wallowing in remakes these days. They could do worse than take another shot at “Grapes of Wrath“, “Of Mice and Men“, or “East of Eden“.

Leisure Time

February 26, 2019

A new analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Pew Research is illuminating changes in time usage by North American teenagers.

The Pew research notes:

“Teens now enjoy more than five and a half hours of leisure a day (5 hours, 44 minutes). The biggest chunk of teens’ daily leisure time is spent on screens: 3 hours and 4 minutes on average. This figure, which can include time spent gaming, surfing the web, watching videos and watching TV, has held steady over the past decade. On weekends, screen time increases to almost four hours a day (3 hours, 53 minutes), and on weekdays teens are spending 2 hours and 44 minutes on screens …

Over the past decade, the time spent socializing – including attending parties, extracurriculars, sporting or other entertainment events as well as spending time with others in person or on the phone – has dropped by 16 minutes, to 1 hour and 13 minutes a day.”

The report also illustrates differences between girls and boys:

Perhaps more important than the actual time differences are differences in attitude:

” the way boys and girls feel about their day also differs in some key ways. A new survey by Pew Research Center of teens ages 13 to 17 finds that 36% of girls say they feel tense or nervous about their day every or almost every day; 23% of boys say the same. At the same time, girls are more likely than boys to say they get excited daily or almost daily by something they study in school (33% vs. 21%). And while similar shares of boys and girls say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades, be involved in extracurricular activities or fit in socially, girls are more likely than boys to say they face a lot of pressure to look good (35% vs. 23%).”

A useful study, I think.

Night Music: Another Ode To Joy Flashmob

February 26, 2019


Image: Palm Beach Special #2

February 25, 2019

Poem: Southern Comfort

February 25, 2019


It was a slam bam thank you ma’am kind of night.

“It’s alright,” she said with a slight frisson of uncertainty perhaps

as she unwraps and taps the money-box on the dresser.

He pays to caress her, to possess her as she bumps and grinds

and too quickly finds the kind of passion paid for.

He wants more before he’ll leave: sixteen and still hard.

But she’s on guard, body barred against free love.

Push came to shove.  Above his pleas she screamed and screamed

until the apartment teemed with neighbours and passers-by

who wondered why this nigger came by and by to be in a white girl’s room.


It’s a warm, hormone-rushing, mosquito-swarming kind of night.

Fox-fire bright, passions tightly wound and sprung.

No brass bells are rung, no masses sung, but masses gather to enjoy

the black boy toy with the last of his time on a slippery slope

as the hempen rope grips and gropes for his hopeless neck.


Night Music: Stand By Me

February 24, 2019


Visualising Workforce Changes

February 24, 2019

For an historian like me who chooses to specialise in social and retail topics, visualisations such as the following are a useful tool.

Select the image for a closer view.  The image is from a marvelous short article in Visual Capitalist that provides much of the detail.

The most obvious change is the precipitous decline in agricultural employment, falling from 60% of the workforce in 1850 to just 3% today; much of that decline occurring since the end of the Second World War.  Manufacturing jobs also seem to be disappearing at a rapid rate.  Conversely, the increases in “education” and “healthcare” sectors are noticeable.

In discussing the changes to employment that Artificial Intelligence software may bring, the article provides a cheering spin:

“In the timeframe of 1850 to 2015, it’s clear that new technologies came in and disrupted the prevailing industries. Many jobs were lost in key sectors like manufacturing and farming, but they’ve been replaced (so far) with new jobs in other sectors.”

That may be so, but personally I suspect that increased leisure time (or idleness to some) and a guaranteed income are more likely futures.

Wise Words

February 24, 2019

Image: Greenspace #4

February 23, 2019

Cultural Impact

February 23, 2019

A recent study has analysed the demographics of the artists included in 18 major museums in the US, a sample that included more than 40,000 artworks.  It will probably not be an amazing surprise to learn:

“[t]hey estimate that 85 percent of artists represented in these collections are white and 87 percent are men. (This is significantly out of step with the US population at large, which is 61 percent white and 50.2 percent male, according to census data.) ” [emphasis added]

While the article makes clear there are efforts afoot in the museum world to confront this diversity gap, I have to wonder how much of this gap was caused by a general sexist/racist bias in society as a whole, and how much in turn the gap in cultural collections feed and perpetuate that same white patriarchal mythology.

Which is cause and which is feedback?


Night Music: Summertime

February 22, 2019

Right Now In East Van

February 22, 2019

At 11:30am.

Select image for a closer look

Looking For Love With The Oxford Comma

February 22, 2019

Image: from Reddit

I have always used the Oxford comma. Because of it, I have been abused by grammar “purists”, marked down in school, and “corrected” by copy editors all my life it seems, but still I am happy to cheer lead for it. The battle for and against the Oxford comma is deeply divisive but limited, or so I thought, to those who write a lot. No more, according to an article in GQ:

“Recently, the Oxford comma has found a spot on the Bingo card of online-dating profiles, alongside mainstays like “no hookups,” “no drama,” and “420 friendly.” Whether you’re mindlessly grazing on Tinder or Bumble, OkCupid or, you’re now as likely to learn someone’s thoughts on the Oxford comma as you are their job title or their penchant for tacos. On the Tinder subreddit, which has 1.8 million subscribers, one user lamented that the Oxford comma features in “like a quarter of bios ’round my parts.” Another said, “It’s everywhere.” Even a journal entry on Tinder’s own blog mentions it: “Honestly, I’m not sure how compatible I can be with someone who is anti-the Oxford comma.”

I sympathize with that final cri de coeur.  However, is it really so important that it can affect your love life?  According to GQ, it is a reliable class signifier:

“The blue-blood punctuation mark, named after the Oxford University Press, acts as a social signifier, a sieve for the bookish and studious (and, perhaps, pretentious). It suggests personality traits that extend far beyond punctuation preferences …  I think it suggests care. It suggests somebody who’s structured and disciplined and not a slob … Somebody who’s into detail, who likes precision. Somebody who has standards.”

Gosh. Who knew?

Have The Standing Stones Moved?

February 21, 2019


It has been known for quite some time that the huge stones used to build Stonehenge five thousand years ago originated in the Preseli Hills in Wales, which is a long way from where they are today.  Now, a new study claims to have found the actual quarries from which the stones were cut.

I think that is interesting. But I was even more intrigued by a possibility expressed by some of the researchers that I had never heard of before:  that the original henge was actually built in Wales near the quarries. Some time later, many generations later, perhaps, when the people migrated to southwest England, they took their important monument with them.  The researchers are now searching the Welsh hills for the remains of a dismantled bluestone circle that would help confirm their theory.

Image: Vesuvius Sunrise

February 21, 2019

A Day of Joy and Sorrow 2019

February 21, 2019


Today would have been Nina Simone’s 85th birthday.  She gave us such joy and passion and most importantly a withering and uncompromising understanding of the black condition in America. This review of a Simone biography is well worth reading. She was fierce in her joy and I love her for it.

Also, fifty-four years ago today, the revered Malcolm X was murdered by adherents of the Nation of Islam (NOI). At his funeral, Ossie Davis called him “our shining black prince”.

After years in the NOI’s leadership, Malcolm renounced the inherent racism of that organization and the alleged financial, political, and moral corruption of Elijah Mohammed. Without ever caving to white power, and maintaining his belief in the ultimate weapon of armed struggle, he sought, through Sunni Muslim beliefs, to raise the self-esteem of blacks in America.

Malcolm X’s Autobiography stands with Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and Nelson Mandela’s speech on his release from prison as the most influential statements of civil rights in the twentieth century.

Night Music: Layla

February 20, 2019