Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Teller of Tales

When author Clive Cussler realized he was selling a lot of books, he decided to take some of the profits and make part of his fictional world a reality: He founded a real-life National Underwater and Marine Agency to help find and preserve shipwrecks and other pieces of nautical history. It didn't have the same role as his fictional NUMA, which was often on the cutting edge of oceanograpic research, but it did quite a bit. More than 60 wrecks have been discovered by the real-life NUMA, including the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley in 1995. The Hunley was the first submarine to sink a warship other than itself. Cussler was himself an avid explorer and traveler, and shared with his central character Dirk Pitt a love of classic autos. He passed this week at 88.

Since the turn of the century Cussler has operated with a stable of co-authors to handle the several series of novels that bear his name. The last book out under his name alone was 2007's The Wrecker, which began the early 20th century adventures of detective Isaac Bell. Only he and they know how much of the story came from Cussler and how much from the co-author, but given the relatively uncomplicated nature of most Cussler works it's likely that some of the series will continue. His son Dirk Cussler has been co-writing the main sequence of Pitt novels since 2004's Black Wind, and one might assume Cussler fils has his father's blessing to continue.

Anyone who reads a Cussler novel looking for insight into the human condition or answers to the deep questions of life has been listening to whoever told Rick Blaine to go to Casablanca for the waters. Cussler aimed to give a reader some escapist pleasure contained in a bright dust jacket and the few times he ventured to Make a Point it concerned his beloved oceans and their residents, and he succeeded far more often than he failed. He had the odd habit of inserting himself into his novels in cameo roles, and would make it a joke by having the characters almost remember the fellow they kept meeting in book after book. In a discussion with friends about the news of Cussler death, I said, "The style could be stilted, the characters thin and the clich├ęs thick in a Cussler novel, but the man could yarn."

He could, he did and when it turned out that by doing so he could make money he used what came his way to try to make the world a bit better place. That indeed is a worthy tale to tell, and to have told of oneself. Fair winds and following seas.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020


In today's reprint, Snoopy forgets something he should remember, with embarrassing results. I mean, of all the Peanuts cast, you'd think he would remember Charlie Brown's name...

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Shutterstock Stock Shudder?

The Smithsonian Institute turned 2.8 million images loose into the internet, for use as a downloader would see fit.

Good thing I hadn't just bought an image library license...

Monday, February 24, 2020

Round and Round

Over at Vulture, Molly Young writes about "garbage language," or the horrendous outpouring of nonsense phrases, acronyms, repurposed words and whatnot that afflict people who try to work in businesses and offices.

Part of Young's purpose is to try to find out why this kind of language has become the kudzu of the workplace. Even when communications consultants or advisers come in and -- often using their own special cache of garbage language -- point out how this sort of stuff makes it harder to be understood than easier, it persists. If by some miracle it's killed, it rises like an unstaked vampire and feeds until the problem is as bad or worse than before. I've always thought that some of the fuel for this kind of lexical fog was similar to that found in academia: If I hit a sufficient percentage of obscurancy in my communication you have to keep me around because you don't know what I'm talking about and you don't want to have to do my job yourself.

According to Young, one of the reasons people deploy garbage language is also part of its greatest problem: It confirms, she says, that delusion is an asset in the modern workplace. The speakers of garbage language convince themselves that their verbal deformations are actually better than the plain brown wrapper of the basic grammar textbook. They are being more precise, more descriptive, more efficient! One or another of them who might have read an avant-garde stylist like Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson might even believe they are being more creative. Lord knows Wolfe could press a word into service for which it did not seem fit, until after he did it, and they believe they might just tread that path too.

But they don't. As Young says, it's a delusion. For most everyone who tries to do a job, the best memo is not exciting or zingy or cutting edge in its vocabulary. It's the one that spells out what the job is, how it needs to be done, who should be doing it and when it should be finished. In the course of my working life I have run across a couple of supervisors who understood that. May their tribe ever increase.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Learn Something New

We're coming up on the 40th anniversary of one of sports' great moments, in which the United States Olympic hockey team beat the Soviet Union Olympic hockey team in what is called, thanks to Al Michaels' joyous question, "The Miracle on Ice." Sports writer Joe Posnanski put together a sidebar list of "10 Interesting Facts You May Not Know About the Miracle on Ice" for his Sports Illustrated article.

The one fact that anyone who remembers the game knows, of course, is that the commies lost. But then again, they've made a practice of doing that everywhere but the faculty lounge, so I suppose it's not that interesting.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Another Man

The well-known picture of four neatly-dressed African American young men sitting at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, is one of the iconic images of the Civil Rights movement. It was taken in February, 1960, on the second day that the men sat there, waiting to be served but denied because of evil of segregation and the color of their skin.

There is a fifth man in the picture, who is sometimes not noticed as much because he is working. Charles Bess was a busboy at Woolworth's and he was working behind the counter as he often did during that time in his life. In this story at Bitter Southerner, Sayaka Matsuoka reports on some of his impressions of the day and of its long term impact. She notes that when Woolworth's finally desegregated its lunch counter later that year, Bess and the other African-American employees were invited by the counter manager to be the first ones served. They changed out of their work gear into their street clothes and had a meal, right in the middle of the shift.

I'm always impressed with the people who led so many of the drives for desegregation. Their very mannered, respectful and calm demeanor made liars out of the segregationists who talked about riots and outside agitators and the like. It helped bring many people to their cause, even some who might be a little iffy about other matters concerning racial equality, because they could see these plain, ordinary working American folks being harassed, threatened, beaten and worse just because they wanted what were their rights as American citizens to travel, live, eat, drink, vote and go to school wherever they desired.

And every now and again we get to uncover the story of one of the people who wasn't on the front lines but who got to stand taller, hold a head up higher and live like a full and free citizen because of what the front line folks did. And that's pretty good too.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Color Me Impressed

Synesthsia is a condition in which a person's senses don't operate the way that they do for the majority of people. Music may affect their sense of smell, for example, or looking at a painting may produce feelings of taste. It can be tough for people to handle until they become more comfortable with their differences and perhaps establish workarounds in order to have sensible conversations with other people about what goes on in a regular day.

Bernadette Sheridan, an artist, sees letters and numbers as colors. This is called grapheme-color synesthsia, and she says it usually happens with names. Although she hears the sounds of the names, her brain is working to translate those sounds into letters and then into colors. In this article at Medium, she shows how this process can leave her not remembering a name so much as a sequence of colors, something like the old signal flags that ships used for communication before radio. If the name has a pretty common grouping of letters, she might mistake it for a similar name with many of the same colors. And once she knows how to spell a name, she says she associates it with color blocks for all of the letters, even ones that are silent or are sound differently depending on their surrounding letters.

Sheridan created a website called in order to try to illustrate how she sees the letters and colors connect. And for the specific tendency she has to assign them for names, she added a section that lets a user type in a name and see the colors that Sheridan assigns to the letters. She points out that even someone else with grapheme-color synesthesia might not see the same colors, so it's not a universal guide.

And being an American in the 21st century, Sheridan found a way to make a little bank off her different view. You can buy prints of one, two or three names from her at Etsy.