Archive for March, 2011

Free Pi!

No, Pi cannot be copyrighted, despite what one composer claims.  I had wondered why Michael John Blake’s beautiful YouTube video of “What Pi Sounds Like” had been taken down.  I’d linked to it in my “Happy π Day from Crockett Johnson” post, and then it… disappeared.  Blake explains why below:

Vi Hart has a truly excellent response to Lars Erikson, the composer who filed the claim against Michael Blake.  Check it out:

As Hart notes, Erikson has also written a melody based on Pi — but it’s a different melody.  I am not a legal expert, but I don’t think that Erikson’s claim has any standing: If this were a case of one melody sounding like another, then Mr. Erikson would have precedent.  See for instance, the case of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” in which Mr. Harrison’s piece was ruled to have borrowed from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” and Mr. Harrison was ordered to pay royalties to the song’s composer.  (I’ve complied a page of such borrowings — most of which have not resulted in lawsuits — on a blog post inspired by allegations made against Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”.)

Compare the two Pi songs.  Here is the first movement of Lars Erikson’s Pi Symphony:

NewScientist has re-posted Michael Blake’s original video for “What Pi Sounds Like”:

You can also buy Michael Blake’s “What Pi Sounds Like” on iTunes.  When I listen to these two works, side by side, I find it a bit of a stretch to claim that Blake has somehow plagiarized Erikson’s work.  Yes, they both draw inspiration from 3.1415926535…, but sharing a common influence does not allow us to conclude that one work “stole” from the other.  Honestly, the main conclusion I draw from all of this is that Lars Erikson has the heart of a lawyer, and that Michael John Blake has the heart of an artist.

What do you think?

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Meritocracy in Academia: A Useful Myth?

Sisyphus signI’ve previously blogged about enhancing production as a way to develop a more robust CV, and have suggested that publishing well and widely may (for instance) increase one’s odds on the job market.  Both imply that academia is a meritocracy.  It isn’t.  But meritocracy can be a useful myth.  Please note: that’s can be, not is.

A friend (who has asked to remain anonymous) and I have been talking about this over email. Friend argues that increased productivity does not in fact increase one’s odds on the job market. Although I disagree, I do think Friend is correct to note that many other factors (over which the job candidate may have no control or may be unable to anticipate) play an important role, too.  To name one personal example, one of my MLA interviews (in 1999) led to a campus visit, which in turn led to my coming in second place for the job. First-place candidate turned it down, and the job went to me. That’s luck! However, it’s also not entirely luck: having the publications helped me get to second place. To name another personal example, I later learned that my ability to create a website was one thing that attracted the department — this wasn’t something I anticipated, but for a department that does all its own web work, web ability turned out (in 1999-2000) to be a marketable skill. And so on.

But, as I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, publishing is the currency of academe, and we get to print our own money: If you publish more, you increase your cultural capital (within academia).  Please understand that I am not arguing that the system should work this way. I think that young scholars should have more time to develop; the rush to publication may create more scholarship, but it does not necessarily create better scholarship.  Furthermore, I’m troubled by academia’s failure to reward teaching and service in the same ways that it rewards research.  All three are equally important.  That said, though I take my three obligations equally seriously, I also know that research is valued more — and thus I tend to work overtime so that I can invest a little extra in research. If I cannot change the system, then at least I can figure out how to succeed within its terms, right?

Well, it’s not that simple.  In allowing the system to guide my professional choices, I in fact help to sustain those very features that I criticize.  By gaining from a system of which I disapprove, my actions uphold that system’s assumptions — that industry and productivity provide a path to success for all.  Friend summarizes the paradox nicely:

in another context, Lauren Berlant has argued for the necessity of sentimentalism as a means of survival, even as it reinforces the structures of oppression that make survival difficult. In the context of the job market, meritocracy is one such sentimentalism.

In other words, the belief that hard work will eventually lead to success encourages academics to undertake lots of unpaid labor … which helps keep academe running, but may not necessarily help Ph.Ds to land that elusive tenure-track gig.  As Friend points out, the excellent scholarship being done by those beyond the tenure track refutes the idea that academe is a meritocratic system (if it were, then all adjuncts and post-docs doing great work would swiftly find good jobs on the tenure track).

So.  What should an aspiring academic do?

  1. Focus on what you can control.  Having been on hiring committees, I know that publishing does set you apart from other job candidates.  Friend disagrees with me on this point, but I believe publishing more does increase your odds — and this is the sense in which meritocracy is a useful myth.
  2. You have to act as if your actions will have an effect, even though you know full well that they may not. On the one hand, you sustain some level of belief in the meritocratic fantasy, and on the other, you acknowledge that, at most, all you’re doing is improving your odds. In other words, maintain a kind pessimistic optimism (or optimistic pessimism?), in which the “optimist” portion is always 51% or greater.
  3. But Friend has the best advice here. The best reason to be productive is that you believe in your ideas, and recognize that you’re doing real work in the world. This is a much healthier approach than “productivity increases your odds.”  The satisfaction of doing good work that you believe in is a more spiritually sound way of living.  If you’re only trying to expand the CV, then the focus is too much on the production and not on the reasons you do the work in the first place.

Finally, I should say that I do not find my answers to be wholly satisfactory. So, as always, do feel free to critique them, and — better — provide stronger answers of your own.

More posts on academia from Nine Kinds of Pie (this blog):


Image source: Michelle Kerns’ “Hilarious yet Heartbreaking: The Reviewerspeak Awards for May 2010.”

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Crockett Johnson’s first comic strip

He’s famous for Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) and the comic strip Barnaby (1942-1952), but Crockett Johnson wrote an earlier strip — one that was popular enough to feature in a series of Ford advertisements in the late 1940s.  Popularly known as The Little Man with the Eyes, Johnson’s strip ran in Collier’s from March of 1940 to January of 1943.  As Eric Reynolds and I work on co-editing The Complete Barnaby for Fantagraphics (designed by Daniel Clowes!), I’ve been looking through Collier’s, selecting a few Little Man strips for inclusion in the first Barnaby volume (April 2012).  Along with the first two years of Barnaby (1942-1943), the book will include a small taste of Crockett Johnson “ephemera,” such as early work, photographs, advertisements.

Here a few Little Man strips that might end up in the Complete Barnaby, vol. 1.

Crockett Johnson, "The Little Man with the Eyes," 10 Aug. 1940

As you can see, it’s a very subtle strip, relying upon slight changes in the Little Man’s eyes and posture to register the joke.  Its subtlety confirms my impression that Johnson must have been influenced by Otto Soglow, whose The Little King made its debut in the early 1930s.  I also suspect that the strip may be a little too nuanced for the general reader.  In addition to both preceding Barnaby and running concurrently with it for eight months, the Little Man has one other reason for inclusion in The Complete Barnaby, vol. 1: the book likely represents its sole chance to reappear in print.  (I also include one Little Man strip in The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, forthcoming April 2012.)  I hope I’m wrong about that — I would love it if Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly or [insert name of publisher here] wanted to pursue a Little Man with the Eyes collection, …as perhaps you might intuit from the fact that I’ve collected vintage Collier’s magazines for the sole reason of getting copies of Johnson’s strip.

Crockett Johnson, "The Little Man with the Eyes," 4 Dec. 1941

Above, the strip that ran in Collier’s on December 6, 1941 — the day before Pearl Harbor.  Unlike Johnson’s New Masses cartoons (1934-1940) and Barnaby, the Little Man was an apolitical strip.  During the war, Johnson’s comic did occasionally register world events, as in the strip below.

Crockett Johnson, "The Little Man with the Eyes," 3 Oct. 1942

That said, even though the above strip is topical, its focus is the Little Man‘s initial mis-identification of the plane — and not, say, Hitler or Isolationist politicians.  Johnson did do some political cartoons both prior to and during Barnaby (itself a political strip), but the Little Man was a more gentle figure.  Indeed, save for his diminutive stature, the Little Man was rather like Johnson himself.

Crockett Johnson, "The Little Man with the Eyes," 3 Jan. 1942

I’m selecting these from my small (about 25 or so) collection of Collier’s magazines from 1940-1942.  If you have any old issues of Collier’s and would like to nominate other strips, I’m open to suggestions: philnel – at – gmail – dot – com

Other examples of Crockett Johnson’s work (from this blog):


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Chris Van Allsburg’s True Story

Chris Van Allsburg, The Queen of the Falls (2011)His first non-fiction work, Queen of the Falls (2011) is also one of Chris Van Allsburg’s best.  Indeed, in some ways it marks a return to form.  After writing and illustrating a picture book each year for about 15 years, Van Allsburg stopped producing picture books for a while.  Following Bad Day at Riverbend (1995), he took a break.  Seven years passed before Zathura (2002), the sequel to Jumanji (1981) and the only so-so book in his career.  Four years later came Probuditi! (2006), a much stronger story than its predecessor and his first book to star African-Americans.  His new book is even better.  With Queen of the Falls, we’re back to the classic Van Allsburg of the 1980s and 1990s — but we’re also going somewhere he’s not gone before.  He’s using his gifts for the fantastic to make history live.

The story is true, but Van Allsburg does not abandon his penchant for surrealistic juxtapositions.  Describing Niagara Falls’ height “as tall as a seventeen-story building,” he fills a full page with a late-nineteenth-century building of precisely that height, rising up in the middle of the falls, water cascading around each side.  On the page opposite, in an inset illustration, a little girl’s face seems to look in the direction of this sight, inviting us to see it as more than just a visual metaphor — even though that’s all it is, as subsequent illustrations of the falls reveal.  For that moment, we believe that it’s real, and share her awe.  Other such juxtapositions derive not from the imagination but from apparent incongruities in the real world.  Annie Edson Taylor standing next to a barrel as large as she is, and the huge barrel’s sudden smallness when atop the vast falls recall Magritte’s experiments with size, like Le Tombeau des Luteurs (1960) or Les valeurs personnelles (1952).

It is also one heck of a story.  Annie Edson Taylor (1838-1921) was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.  The first man to achieve the same feat did so a full decade later.  When she did it, she was a 63-year-old widow.  And this was in 1901.  As Van Allsburg’s narrator reports, “Americans could not have been more amazed if they’d read a horse had hit a home run, or a baby had been elected president.  How could anyone, let alone a woman, survive a trip over Niagara Falls?”  Echoing his The Widow’s Broom (1992), Queen of the Falls critiques sexism without editorializing: the phrase “let alone a woman” registers as condescending, but he trusts readers to pick up on that.

While you read the book, you forget she survived … until she does survive.  Van Allsburg deftly creates suspense, allowing us to wonder.  Just prior to the plummet, a two-page spread shows the barrel a couple of feet from edge of the falls, where the waters rush down, beyond our view, past the bottom of the page.  At bottom right, a single line of text states: “‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.”  Turn the page, and the next image is Annie, inside the barrel, her mouth open, eyes wide and looking heavenwards.  Even when you know the outcome, it’s hard not to feel her fear.

Here’s hoping that Mr. Van Allsburg creates more historical picture books. His narrative art draws us in, makes us think, makes us feel, makes us wonder. Who better to explore the mysteries of history?

Above, Van Allsburg talks about the creation of Queen of the Falls.


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Illustrious Dunderheads

William Gropper, cover for The Illustrious Dunderheads (1942)When you wonder whether there’s a higher percentage of dunderheads in our political discourse (and, these days, who doesn’t?), a little perspective may be of help. In September 1942, Alfred A. Knopf published The Illustrious Dunderheads, edited by Rex Stout and illustrated by William Gropper. As Frank Sullivan writes in his introduction, “the book is a collection of some of the silliest, stupidest, and most dangerous statements that have ever been made by men laying claim to being leaders of the American people.” Here are a couple of examples, illustrated by Gropper’s cartoons.

On November 12, 1941, Frank C. Osmers, Jr. (Republican, representative from New Jersey) proclaimed, “The American people today are little better off than the German people under the iron heel of Adolph Hitler.”
cartoon by William Gropper, from the Illustrious Dunderheads (1942)

Rufus Holman (Republican, Senator from Oregon) — who opposed fighting the Fascists — may have unwittingly been describing himself when he said, on February 6, 1941, “Our present foes are domestic foes, not foreign ones.”
cartoon by William Gropper, from the Illustrious Dunderheads (1942)

The above statement has a contemporary ring to it. Birthers, climate-change deniers, an entire “news” network devoted to misinformation…. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo famously said three decades later, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

’Twas ever thus.

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Friday. Camp?

In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.

— Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” (1964)

— Rebecca Black, “Friday” (2011)

And yet, as Sontag writes, “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful . . . Of course, one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions.”  Those conditions, she explains earlier in her essay, include an abundance of ambition: “When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish. (‘It’s too much,’ ‘It’s too fantastic,’ ‘It’s not to be believed,’ are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.)”  Does the Rebecca Black tune have that abundance of ambition?

I’m not sure.  What makes this song “so bad it’s good” is its juxtaposition of outlandishly banal lyrics with a glossy pop production.  On the one hand, the song sounds slick, professional, expensive.  On the other, its lyrics read like a first draft — or, if there were something that preceded a first draft, then that.  I mean, sure, if you’ve had trouble remembering the order of the days of the week, “Friday” might prove a helpful mnemonic:

Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday
Today is Friday, Friday (Partyin’)
We, we, we so excited
We so excited
We gonna have a ball today

Tomorrow is Saturday
And Sunday comes afterwards
I don’t want this weekend to end.

That said, it is less useful in helping one decide which seat to choose.  Front seat? Back seat? I know I gotta make my mind up… just not sure.

So.  Is the song Camp?  Alex Carpenter’s cover version renders “Friday” in a Camp spirit:

His interpretation brings to mind Sontag’s claim that

Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

On the other hand, “Friday (Groundhog Day Remix)” suggests that the song is merely bad, and not Camp:

The repeated destruction of the “Friday”-playing alarm clock conveys a visceral (and comic) dislike of the song.

My favorite version, and the one that ultimately sways me toward the “Camp” side of the argument, is the ersatz Bob Dylan version:

This performance is emphatically not Camp — which is precisely why it steers me towards the opinion that Rebecca Black’s version is Camp or, at least, can be appreciated as such.  The spare production of faux Dylan’s version brings the banality of the lyrics into focus, and the contrast between its starkness and Black’s original amplifies the Campiness in her version.  What was merely cheesy in her rendition now seems almost extravagantly so.

For the record, I, too, am “lookin’ forward to the weekend, weekend” — though I confess I anticipate no “Partyin’ partyin’ Yeah.”  This weekend leads into our March “break,” during which I hope to catch up on a variety of projects and obligations — uninterrupted by teaching or grading.  Speaking of which, I need to attend to some of the latter now.  Yeah.  Fun, fun, fun, fun.

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Happy π Day from Crockett Johnson

Nine kinds of pie (from Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon)This isn’t the only kind of “pie” that Crockett Johnson was interested in.  In addition to “all nine kinds of pie that Harold likes best,” Johnson also drew inspiration from π (3.14159265…) — the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

In early 1968, he began the project of “squaring the circle,” constructing a square with the same area as a circle — but using only a straight-edge and a compass to do so.  This is impossible, but he was either unaware of this fact or undeterred by it.  Not a trained mathematician, Johnson worked his way towards the answer visually.  He painted solutions, testing different theories on his canvas (which was actually mortarboard — canvas intimidated him).

By the middle of the year, he had arrived at a solution:

Crockett Johnson, Squared Circle (1968)

He painted two versions of this.  The other can be found at the Smithsonian’s on-line exhibit, Mathematical Paintings of Crockett Johnson.  I recommend you visit its site for a more complete explanation of the mathematics behind the painting.

Johnson next wrote up an algebraic formula, and sought the opinion of professional mathematicians.  Finally, in 1970, the Mathematical Gazette published his first mathematical theorem, “A geometrical look at √π”:

Crockett Johnson, from the Mathematical Gazette (1970)
Crockett Johnson, algebraic proof from the Mathematical Gazette (1970)

Johnson would publish his second original contribution to the field of mathematics in 1975, just prior to his death.

Learn more:

Other examples of Crockett Johnson’s work (from this blog):


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It Looks Like Snow

Remy Charlip, It Looks Like Snow (1957): coverAs winter continues its assault, let’s turn to a classic book about winter: It Looks Like Snow (Greenwillow, 1957), Remy Charlip‘s picture-book tribute to John Cage.  Like Cage’s 4’33” (1952), Charlip’s piece makes the audience’s experience the subject of its experiment.  The primary difference of course is the specific sense through which we apprehend the art — eyes for Charlip, ears for Cage.  So.  Are your eyes ready, then?  Good.  Let’s begin.

The story starts like this:

Remy Charlip, It Looks Like Snow (1957): first two-page spread

And then:

Remy Charlip, It Looks Like Snow (1957): second two-page spread

After which, of course, we meet the protagonist:

Remy Charlip, It Looks Like Snow (1957): third two-page spread

And the protagonist’s pet:

Remy Charlip, It Looks Like Snow (1957): fourth two-page spread

And on it goes … for a total of 24 pages.  Ah, the beauty of the avant-garde!

If you enjoy books that defy expectation, check out Curious Pages: Recommended Inappropriate Books for Kids, the lately dormant but still very cool blog maintained by Lane Smith and Bob Shea.

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Animated Books

Just discovered this short film by Sean Ohlenkamp and Lisa Blonder Ohlenkamp: “Organizing the Bookcase.”  Charming, brief, with a delightful sense of humor, and… lots of books!  (Make sure you stay for the credits!)

Hat tip to Bookshelf Porn, which I found via Betsy Bird’s Fuse #8.

Update, 5 Sept. 2011: YouTube video had moved & so I changed the link.

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Just Read It. Just Read It. “Weird Al” Yankovic, Children’s Author

Al Yankovic, When I Grow Up, illus. Wes Hargis (2011)Celebrity children’s books usually suck.  The good news about Al Yankovic’s When I Grow Up (2011, illustrated by Wes Hargis) is that it does not suck.  Unlike many celebrity books, it does not star a child version of the author, it does not simply add illustrations to one of his songs, and nor does it try to pack in a heavy-handed moral message.  The verse ranks up there with that of the better Seussian school of poetry.  Yankovic’s is not as strong as Toby Speed’s, but it’s OK.  After all, Yankovic is not only a parodist; he’s a songwriter, with experience writing verse.  Indeed, his original songs — the doo-wop spoof “One More Minute,” and, “Bob,” his palindrome-filled tribute to Dylan — are some of his best.

Seuss and Silverstein loom large in Yankovic’s literary imagination.  Protagonist Billy owes a debt to Seuss’s boy dreamers — Gerald McGrew of If I Ran the Zoo (1950), Morris McGurk of If I Ran the Circus (1956), Peter T. Hooper of Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953).  As they do, he has an active imagination, and sees himself achieving great, if unusual, things.  There are echoes of Silverstein’s “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout” in the verse describing Billy’s culinary aspirations: “Why, I’ll be the greatest chef you’ve ever seen. / The world will go crazy for my haute cuisine! / I’ll tantalize taste buds with my rigatoni / Sautéed with black truffles and pickled baloney.”  The book’s theme of following one’s own path, no matter how eccentric, also resonates with the works of Seuss and Silverstein.

That said, the book doesn’t sustain its predecessors’ anarchic spirit.  Yankovic might have ended after the story of Billy’s great-grandfather Bob, who “just turned a hundred and three, / And he’s still not quite sure what he wants to be.”  Billy then announces his intention to “leave his options open” because he might be able to pursue many careers, as his great-grandfather did.  This ending would have authorized dreaming.  Instead, Yankovic concludes with Billy confessing “Or maybe — just maybe now — when I grow up, / I can be a great teacher like dear Mrs. Krupp.”  A laudable aspiration, but it contains Billy’s formerly unruly imagination and, frankly, strains credulity.  The 8-year-old kid who was deciding between snail trainer, giraffe-milker, rodeo clown, pickle inspector, and “smell pit-sniffing deodorant tester” might become a teacher, but would he know that already?  After listing his many other much more unusual career options, this choice feels curiously conventional.

Wes Hargis‘s illustrations are professional, and do the job they need to do.  But they don’t have the verve or the energy that a story like this needs.  I’d like to see Mo Willems, Lane Smith, or Laurie Keller take a crack at this.  They could bring the visual oomph that this book lacks.

In sum, for a first children’s book, this is a laudable effort.  If Yankovic keeps at it, he could make a mark in literature for children.  This book isn’t quite at that level, but it shows promise.  Here’s hoping that, like Billy, he keeps dreaming.


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