American speak

This country speaks many tongues, the primary one being American English, though I would argue that Americans are also particularly well-versed in the language of hyperbole. Take, for example, Steve Schwarzman comparing taxing carried interest to “Hitler invading Poland in 1939”; or Lloyd Blankfein’s assertion that he was doing “God’s work”; or John Taft, US CEO of RBC Wealth Management, likening “his fear for the country to ‘hiding under my desk during air-raid drills because of the Cuban missile crisis’, when ‘literally the future of humanity hung in the balance’“. “If I were God,” he continued.

I once declared "I am God" in the middle of a deposition.

I once declared “I am God” in the middle of a deposition.

via the Baseline Scenario

Used to be a Pizza Hut

The American landscape is a unique one – the broken parking lots between rehabbed loft apartments; the block of pay day loan shops just steps away from rows of luxurious townhouses; the Dairy Queens lining old highways that no longer exist, and here, on this website, a blogger is kindly mapping and posting pictures of the beautiful structures that used to be a Pizza Hut.

oldPH

 

Zombie hut in Chicago.

Zombie hut in Chicago.

This one in North Versailles, Pennsylvania. The windows look like pizza slices.

This one in North Versailles, Pennsylvania. The windows look like pizza slices.

 

Silver Sun

Silver Sun

 

Arthur Dove, on how he formulated his art:

There is no such thing as abstraction. It is extraction, gravitation towards a certain direction, and minding your own business. If the extract be clear enough its value will exist.

*

For my birthday Chicago decided to give me a break on the weather. My sister-in-law sent me flowers, and it feels like I’m looking at spring with the weight of winter just behind, all the while knowing that this cannot last.

But for now – a poem by Philip Larkin:

“Coming”

On longer evenings
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,
Laurel-surrounded
In the deep bare garden,
Its fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon –
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling,
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.

312: evolution of the area code

map1947 area code

In Singapore we changed from a 7-digit telephony system to a 8-digit one by adding the number “6” in front of phone numbers. Every number started with either 6, for landlines, or 9 for mobile phones. Since Singapore is such a small country, there was never a need to assign area codes.

This is not the case in the United States, where area codes are the subject of cultural envy. I myself was concerned that I should get a 312-number when I moved to Chicago, instead of any 773 or 872 or 708. (For a while I wondered if the many real estate agents I got to know while looking for a new apartment were actually from out of town, since none of them spotted a 312 in their phone numbers.)

What difference does it make? A number is a number. But the area code is more just than a number of practical value; instead they’ve evolved to possess a level of cultural cache. Pitbull is not just “Mr. Worldwide”, but also “Mr. 305“. Area codes is also a historical view of the most important, populous cities of the past – New York’s 212, Chicago’s 312, Los Angeles 213, Detroit’s 313 – these cities needed the least number of clicks on the rotary phone, as opposed to getting in touch with someone in Anchorage, Alaska, with a 907 number.

Of course, rotary clicks don’t matter quite as much today, but area codes remain a symbol of city pride, a symbol proudly spotted by its owner like a sports team or alma mater affiliation.

“It feels to me a little bit like a screen name,” says Philip Lapsley, the author of Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell. Long ago divested of its original role, the three-digit code now functions as a kind of shared social media handle, a collective identity. It’s no longer something to be remembered—we have our phones for that—but is instead something to be talked about. I meet someone at a party. We exchange numbers. “Oh, 510!” I might say. “I was in Oakland a few weeks ago!”

via The Atlantic. As an added bonus, have a listen of the 99% Invisible podcast about the inventor of the Strowger Switch, which eliminated the need for a human operator to connect you to the person you were dialing. Its inventor (originally working as an undertaker) was motivated to invent an automatic switching system after learning that his competitor’s wife works as a telephone switchboard operator and has been diverting business calls meant for him to her husband. Success is the best revenge.

News as literature

ST-Marxistplotuncovered

I like going to bookstores wherever I go. Mostly I just like books, but bookstores also serve as a quick measure of a nation’s pulse – who speaks for the nation, what books are selling best, which ideas matter most. In that regard, Singapore, is stoutly practical in the way literature is not, or at least, perceived so.

This is why I enjoyed this piece on the New Yorker on whether the news is replacing literature. Taking the Woody Allen-Dylan Farrow scandal as a starting point, the piece makes the point for the news format leaving room for the indeterminate questions of life that we associate with the most serious pieces of fiction:

No sooner are you convinced that Farrow is telling the truth than you are persuaded by Allen, only to return to Farrow, then back to Allen and back to Farrow, and on and on. The alleged abuse is heinous—there’s nothing “artistic” about it—yet the arguments of each party are suffused with the kind of rich, if indeterminate, emotional, psychological, and intellectual twists and turns that literature seeks to delineate. No less than if you were reading Ford Madox Ford’s magnificent fugue of perspectives, “The Good Soldier,” you try to weigh the arguments of Farrow and Allen, their defenders, and the legions of commenters by applying all you know about being human to the story.

This is not just “the news.” This is a piece of reality so dense that it goes beyond art in illuminating just how nebulous reality is. (But, then, the news stopped reporting reality and started to constitute a new layer of reality years ago.)

This immediately reminded me of the Straits Times – the news being a very partial narrator of the story of a nation. But beyond that – I do find myself impatient when starting a novel these days – its tidy descriptions of a setting for a few actors to play along to a story arc that is often immediately identifiable in its accumulation. The world of the novel now seems small, quaint, and faintly ridiculous.

It may be because many authors are now encouraged to write in a certain style – the MFA pieces that have been workshopped to death; the world literature that often do more to affirm stereotypes than bust them – whence they have something to say, it often feels trite – saying something that’s already been said, in a way that’s been said before.

Egan powerpoint

Zadie Smith, Geoff Dyer, Tim Parks, and other writers, have expressed a sense of the same novel-nausea. The fault is not the novel so much as its form, which is increasingly ill-contemporaneous with the world it lives in. Applauding Jennifer Egan’s inclusion of a chapter written in PowerPoint form 20 years after its launch feels absurdly self-congratulatory.

If not the novel, then what? The collected writings of Lydia Davis? The Twitter stories by Teju Cole? The novel – if we can call it that – S by J.J. Abrams? The scribbles of graffiti artists in subway stations? Not every story should be the next Finnegan’s Wake (“Margaritomancy! Hyacinthous pervinciveness! Flowers. A cloud. But Bruto and Cassio are ware only of trifid tongues the whispered wilfulness (’tis demonal!) and shadows shadows multiplicating (il folsoletto nel falsoletto col fazzolotto dal fuzzolezzo), totients quotients, they tackle their quarrel. Sickamoor’s so woful sally. Ancient’s aerger. And eachway bothwise glory signs. What if she love Sieger less though she leave Ruhm moan? That’s how our oxyggent has gotten ahold of half their world. Moving about in the free of the air and mixing with the ruck. Enter eller, either or.”) – no, readers still crave meaning and structure from a story the way they cannot from real life – but to not aspire to shake the novel from its ways… when we fear the death of books versus the rise of radio, television, and the internet, it is not for a lack of writers and readers, but for a lack of imagination on what can be achieved on the page.

I was trying to describe you to someone

"Rural Electrification Administration co-op office. Lafayette, Louisiana. 1939" By Peter Sakaer, Rural Electrification Administration

“Rural Electrification Administration co-op office. Lafayette, Louisiana. 1939”
By Peter Sakaer, Rural Electrification Administration

Because it’s Valentine’s day; it brings to mind a story by Richard Brautigan that I was going to use in my wedding:

I was trying to describe you to someone a few days ago. You don’t look like any girl I’ve ever seen before.

I couldn’t say “Well she looks just like Jane Fonda, except that she’s got red hair, and her mouth is different and of course, she’s not a movie star…”

I couldn’t say that because you don’t look like Jane Fonda at all.

I finally ended up describing you as a movie I saw when I was a child in Tacoma Washington. I guess I saw it in 1941 or 42, somewhere in there. I think I was seven, or eight, or six. 

It was a movie about rural electrification, a perfect 1930’s New Deal morality kind of movie to show kids. The movie was about farmers living in the country without electricity. They had to use lanterns to see by night, for sewing and reading, and they didn’t have any appliances like toasters or washing machines, and they couldn’t listen to the radio. They built a dam with big electric generators and they put poles across the countryside and strung wire over fields and pastures.

There was an incredible heroic dimension that came from the simple putting up of poles for the wires to travel along. They looked ancient and modern at the same time. 

Then the movie showed electricity like a young Greek god, coming to the farmer, to take away forever the dark ways of his life. Suddenly, religiously, with the throwing of a switch, the farmer had electric lights to see by when he milked his cows in the early black winter mornings. The farmer’s family got to listen to the radio and have a toaster and lots of bright lights to sew dresses and read the newspaper by.

It was really a fantastic movie and excited me like listening to the Star Spangled Banner, or seeing photographs of President Roosevelt, or hearing him on the radio “…the President of the United States…”

I wanted electricity to go everywhere in the world. I wanted all the farmers in the world to be able to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio…

And that’s how you look to me.