The Top Hits

The words "hits" "spam," "flame," "net," "upload" and "download" don't necessarily mean what they did twenty years ago.

A net can be used for badminton or tennis, but it now connects you with the good and the bad of the world.

You can have a flame in your heart, but you also might find one --- an insult --- in your e-mail box.

You can still eat Spam, but it too turns up (uncooked, loaf-like) in your in-box.

Hits were what Babe Ruth once made, out of Fenway Park, but now they also refer to the number of times a page (or a picture) receives visits from the outerspace known as WWW.

Below we have compiled a list of reviews, poems, articles, and readings from the last year or so that continue to receive most visits from the wet and woolly world of the internet.

Hard Line
Life and Death on
The U.S. - Mexico Border

Ken Ellingwood
Years ago, Mexican mothers, fathers, and children went easily back and forth through San Diego, Yuma, Ciudad Juárez, Brownsville. But since the declaration of war --- called, with a certain bitter irony, "Operation Gatekeeper" --- the travellers have been driven to take on the mountains outside of San Diego, into the deserts of eastern California and Arizona.

Here they die, not like flies, but like beasts of burden: freezing to death in the mountains at night, in the snow and the cold; sometimes drowning in the deep irrigation canals of Southeaster California. Or, literally, cooked to death in the summer Sonoran desert, temperatures raging above 120°.

What do these soldiers of poverty look like after they have succumbed? According to Hard Line,

    Their skin had been burned to a furious, stop-sign red by the sun. The extreme loss of body moisture had peeled back their lips, giving them a sickly grin, and left darkened pits where their eyes should have been. All Dave Phagan [an INS agent] could think of was documentary films about the survivors of the Holocaust. These men had the same sunken look, "like skin draped over a skeleton."

The warriors are not armed with guns or bayonets. They are usually armed with black clothes (to prevent being seen at night), a package of tortillas, and a gallon or two of water ... which is never enough.

The American soldiers, are slowly, and ironically, being turned into the saviors. As Claudia Smith of the Rural Legal Assistance Foundation stated, "The terrible irony that underlies this is first putting migrants in mortal danger and then asking for credit when you rescue them." Thus INS agents, in their Ford Broncos, tracking across the wasteland, end up as uneasy angels, saving lives of those they are supposed to be pursuing.

Go to the original

New Media

Lisa Gitelman,
Geoffrey B. Pingree,

(MIT Press)
Marshall McLuhan's great insight was that the way a medium interacts with people, rather than its content, determines that medium's impact on the individual and society. Thus writing, whether it is Homer or a grocery list, imposes a linear mindset that predisposes the literate to step-by-step reasoning and organization. Radio, in contrast, prefigured a return to an older, pre-literate form of oral and musical interaction that characterized tribal societies, but whose world-wide reach suggested global villages rather than local ones.

McLuhan further broke down media by the amount of mental processing they needed. Media that require active participation to fully perceive (such as plain old TV) are cool, while those that are high-resolution --- radio or film --- are hot. Low definition TV requires the brain to do a lot of work filling in the blanks of the interlaced picture to make it "real", which is why people's attention gets absorbed. This suggests that HDTV's film-like clarity may give it a fundamentally different impact on the children growing up with it today.

If the medium is the message, then what is the message of new media? That is what makes New Media, 1740-1915 so interesting.

Go to the original

The Grave
This is Ruth talking about her mother who, one day, left her and her sister Lucille on their grandmother's porch, then went and drove herself and her car into the depths of Lake Fingerbone.

It seemed to me that in all this there was the hush and solemnity of incipient transfiguration. Perhaps memory is the seat not only of prophecy but of miracle as well. For it seems to me that we were recalled again and again to a sense of her calm. It seems that her quiet startled us, though she was always quiet. I remember her standing with her arms folded, pushing at the dust with the toe of her pump while she waited for us to finish our sundaes. We sat at a hot green metal table, weather-dulled and sticky, and loud black flies with rainbows in their wings fed at the pools of drying ice cream and then scrubbed their maws meticulously with their forelegs, like house cats. She was so tall and quiet in her silvery gray dress, never looking 'toward us, and we were sweaty and sticky and cloyed and tired of each other. I remember her, grave with the peace of the destined, the summoned, and she seems almost an apparition.

Go to the original

In the Shadow of Fame
A Memoir by the Daughter
of Erik H. Erikson

Sue Erikson Bloland
Bloland doesn't seem too impressed by her impressive father. Indeed, she dwells inordinately on the distance, the outbursts of temper, his apparent favoritism towards her older brothers. The god of the newest 1950s theories of family dynamics was, she is telling us, a lousy family man.

Big deal. As my friend Tom Connors used to say, another person with a monkey on her back. Her gloomy style, and her passion for repeating herself does nothing to set the reader on fire. How many times do we have to hear of Erikson's fixation on the fact that his missing father might have been of the Danish nobility?

It all turns into a bummer, especially for those of us who don't give a toot about the eccentricies of artists. Do you and I care that Norman Mailer beat up on his lovers, Gauguin died of syphilis, Hart Crane liked taking on sailors (and getting beat up by them), that Edna St. Vincent Millay was named after a hospital? Sorry. The only perfect saint died 2500 years ago, and civilization isn't in any hurry to reproduce another.

Go to the original

either is a word that causes endless problems not only for writers but also sometimes for those who wish to guide them. The style manual for the London Times, for instance, states flatly that "neither takes a singular verb, e.g., 'Neither Bert nor Fred has any idea.'" That is true enough, to be sure, for examples involving Bert and Fred or any other two singular items, but what if the items are plural?

According to the Times guide, we would have to write, "Neither the men nor the women is dressed yet," which would be irregular, to say the very least. And what if there is a mixture of singular and plural? Again, according to the strictures of the Times Guide to English Style and Usage, as it is formally known, we would have to write, "Neither the farmer nor his fifty cows was in the field," and again we would be grammatically eccentric.

The rule, as you will gather, is slightly more complicated than is sometimes taught --- but not so complicated that it should cause such persistent problems. Briefly put, in neither ... nor constructions, the verb should always agree with the noun nearest it. Thus, "Neither De Niro nor his agent were available for comment" should be "was available for comment." Since the noun nearest the verb (agent) is singular, so the verb should be singular. However, when the noun nearest the verb is plural, the verb should also be plural: "Neither the President nor his advisers were available for comment."

--- From Bryson's Dictionary of
Troublesome Words

Bill Bryson
©2002, Broadway Books

Go to the original

The Devil's Blind Spot
Alexander Kluge
(New Directions)
Kluge offers some 173 "stories" but they are really aperçus, like his vision of Chernobyl --- complete with an appalling picture of a cur caught in the original burst of radioactivity. Or the story about the much-admired Admiral Bull Halsey, at the end of WWII, who demanded that the entire U. S. Navy set sail across the Pacific from Japan. There were three typhoons "that destroyed more U. S. ships than the entire war" said a critic. It was hushed up.

Or there is the tale of a high-ranking officer at the Pentagon who seriously contemplated the idea of the United States dyeing the Arctic and the Antarctic bright red so that the climate in the world would change ... perhaps to the disadvantage of the Russians (it had to do with the reflective value of red snow over white snow). No one was quite sure what it would have done to you and me and the rest of the world.

There is also the story of astronomer Fred Zwicky who said if he stopped looking at "the central red light of a spiral galaxy [to] where he could see the speckled distribution of pale blue stars and of nebulæ shimmering in the winds, he could hear a kind of VIOLIN MUSIC."

Go to the original

Once Upon a More
Enlightened Time:

More Politically Correct
Bedtime Stories

(Hansel and Gretel)
(James Finn Garner)
At a clearing deep in the woods, the forester finally stopped and said to Hansel and Gretel, "You pre-adults wait here. I'm going to look for some trees to harvest, and maybe I'll explore my primitive masculine psyche against the backdrop of nature, if I have time. I'll be back before too long." He handed the children their lunches and walked off.

After morning had turned into afternoon and afternoon into evening, Hansel told his sister about their father's plan to abandon them. Gretel, always level-headed and practical in such situations, suggest they collect material for a lean-to-shelter, as they had learned in their Outward Bound Aboriginal Survival Techniques class.

"No need," said Hansel. "I've left us a trail of granola to follow back, without even littering or defacing a single tree." But when they went to find the trail, they discovered a cadre of survivalists busily eating up the granola.

The survivalists screamed at the children to get away from their newfound rations and, after firing a few warning shots in the air, disappeared into the woods.

Hansel and Gretel wandered along different trails, but after some time they became hopelessly lost and very hungry. Then, around a sharp bend in their path, they came upon a wondrous cottage made of carob brownies, sugarless gingerbread, and carrot cake. Even without a reassuring FDA label, the cottage looked so good that the children dived at it and began to devour it.

Go to the original

Journeys in
The Art of
The Scanning
Electron Microscope

Dee Breger
My god, it's beautiful --- and Dee Breger writes in such a way that we can understand where these glorious patterns are coming from. The black and whites seem to be the most interesting, possibly because they share the feel of early photographs --- direct, yet filled with complex patterns that beggar description: pure form, pure design, pure aesthetics. Look at the shelled amoeba (x1,000) --- at the beginning of this review --- and you are looking down on the bubbly globe of earth from 1,000 miles away. An arterial blood clot shows itself as a mess of filaments entangling doughnut-shaped red blood cells (x4,200). That space-ship from Mars is a "radiolarian" from the Caribbean (x450). Those Indian-weave blanket patterns come from a "worm tube" (x50) and the Pueblo caves in the side of the mountain are cells of petrified wood (x800). (Too bad that the SEM wasn't around when Hermann Rorschach was out looking for patterns that he could use to capture people's' fantasies. These outdo the Rorschach Test in spades)

Remember when the first computer frizzled out because a moth had wandered in where it shouldn't have: it got fried, and we got our first electronic "bug." Breger gives us a similar one here on Plate 2.9, "Surface detail on an anonymous bug that wandered into the home of the microscopist and was prevailed upon to donate itself to Science (x1,100)."

If the captions aren't enough, the "Sources and Stories" has additional, and fascinating, information. For example, this, with lovely shots of those guys who kept you up all night:

    The wings of a mosquito are its primary steering mechanism and the "hairs" and "feathers" are probably used for better control over its flight.

Go to the original

There must be a reason why I want out of here.
Is it my reading the details of the Siege of Stalingrad
(They ate the dogs, some say each other);
Or is it the bodies piled up at Gettysburg
(Amidst the flowers they called "ladies eardrops");
Perhaps it is the ovens at Birkenau,
Those dry ovens at Birkenau;
The snow outside; the stink of them...
I must stop thinking on these things
Before I go dotty, no?

"Why is there something rather than nothing?" asked Leibniz.
Why indeed?
Why am I here next to you my sweet Lila?
Even though you have decided, sweet Lila,
For reasons of your own
That I must lay off, Lila
For tonight you say, "Lay off, will you?"
Ah, mine shiksa Lila.
What planet are you from, Lila?

Go to the original

Any Boys Want

Discipline in
The Schools

James Joyce
— You, boy, who are you?

Stephen's heart jumped suddenly.

— Dedalus, sir.

— Why are you not writing like the others?

— I ... my ...

He could not speak with fright.

— Why is he not writing. Father Arnall?

— He broke his glasses, said Father Arnall, and I exempted him from work.

— Broke? What is this I hear? What is this your name is? said the prefect of studies.

— Dedalus, sir.

— Out here, Dedalus. Lazy little schemer. I see schemer in your face. Where did you break your glasses?

Stephen stumbled into the middle of the class, blinded by fear and haste.

— Where did you break your glasses? repeated the prefect of studies.

— The cinderpath, sir.

— Hoho! The cinderpath! cried the prefect of studies. I know that trick.

Stephen lifted his eyes in wonder and saw for a moment Father Dolan's whitegrey not young face, his baldy whitegrey head with fluff at the sides of it, the steel rims of his spectacles and his nocoloured eyes looking through the glasses. Why did he say that he knew that trick?

— Lazy idle little loafer! cried the prefect of studies. Broke my glasses! An old schoolboy trick! Out with your hand this moment!

Stephen closed his eyes and held out in the air his trembling hand with the palm upwards. He felt the prefect of studies touch it for a moment at the fingers to straighten it and then the swish of the sleeve of the soutane as the pandybat was lifted to strike. A hot burning stinging tingling blow like the loud crack of a broken stick made his trembling hand crumple together like a leaf in the fire: and at the sound and the pain scalding tears were driven into his eyes. His whole body was shaking with fright, his arm was shaking and his crumpled burning livid hand shook like a loose leaf in the air. A cry sprang to his lips, a prayer to be let off. But though the tears scalded his eyes and his limbs quivered with pain and fright he held back the hot tears and the cry that scalded his throat.

— Other hand! shouted the prefect of studies.

Stephen drew back his maimed and quivering right arm and held out his left hand. The soutane sleeve swished again as the pandybat was lifted and a loud crashing sound and a fierce maddening tingling burning pain made his hand shrink together with the palms and fingers in a livid quivering mass. The scalding water burst forth from his eyes and, burning with shame and agony and fear, he drew back his shaking arm in terror and burst out into a whine of pain. His body shook with a palsy of flight and in shame and rage he felt the scalding cry come from his throat and the scalding tears falling out of his eyes and down his flaming cheeks.

Go to the original

Sailing Alone
Around the World

Joshua Slocum
Alan Sklar, Reader

(Tantor Media)
It was a marvel of wisdom from an old salt who said that he was more comfortable with a tiller in hand rather than a pen. What remains with us over a hundred years later is his stalwart good cheer, the grand visions he had, his good sense, and his startling humility.

Slocum's journey took him more than three years to navigate some 50,000 miles in a small bark. Always, he showed surprise that people would honor him for his lonely heroics, invite him into their homes, ask him to stay and visit. He was obviously a larger-than-life character, one whom you and I might well have enjoyed meeting (and, presumably, sailing about with).

One question not answered in his autobiography is why he did it. One can enjoy one's own company, but there does seem to be an edge of madness to one who took self-sufficiency to such extremes. Certainly this is true of his final voyage: he disappeared somewhere between his home port and the Amazon River. The New England strain of stubborn independence might well have been overdone in his desire to venture where none have gone before.

Go to the original

Waiting for the
End of the World

Richard Ross
(Princeton Architectural Press)
Richard Ross has a fascination with what were once called "fall-out shelters," and here he has sought out thirty-two of them, including those from strange far-off worlds like China, Russia, Switzerland, Montana, and, the weirdest of them all, Utah.

Some of them weren't even built in this century, so they weren't necessarily fall-out shelters, unless you call Christian invasion an undesirable fall-out. The Muslims of Acca in what is now Israel built one in 1100 A.D. just to protect themselves from the depredations of those bloody Crusades sent down by the religious fundamentalists of the day. Even further back, in 2,000 B. C. the Hittites of Cappodocia carved a shelter in the hills. The stone was such that it could dissipate the smoke of their cooking fires to help them avoid discovery.

There's a lovely one in St. Petersburg Russia that has been turned into "The Trendy Griboyedov" nightclub. There's a drain-pipe shelter a-building (at $1,000 per linear foot) in Salt Lake City, although the author tells us that since it is not very deep, it will have "limited effectiveness."

Thirty-five years ago, the Chinese built an entire "underground city" in Beijing which, we are told, could accommodate 350,000 people. On the other hand, the subway stations of Moscow, which look considerably more beautiful than the Lexington Avenue Line, were used as shelters during WWII. The author even found in one veterans of the Russian Chechyna War, singing "historical patriotic songs" and asking for donations.

The most lurid of them all is to be found hidden behind the wallpaper of the Greenbriar Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. It was built in the early 1960s and was set aside so the president and his staff and all members of the U. S. Congress could fly in during nuclear attack on the Capitol. It could hold up to 1,800 people. Mr. Ross claims it was a big secret until an exposé that appeared several years ago in the Washington Post, but this is nonsense. Most of us knew about it, knew that in case our government blew it, they --- those who blew it --- would survive, even though the rest of us would be little heaps of dust.

Go to the original

Ms. Moffett's
First Year

Becoming a Teacher
In America

Abby Goodnough
(Public Affairs/Perseus)
Ms. Moffett's First Year is a wonky report on a silly experiment to rescue the New York's public schools from the state legislature, the teacher's union, and the school bureaucracy. All agree that changes --- deep changes --- are necessary. Students may already be starting the process of burning down the school buildings (excellent sentiment), but, unfortunately, many of the old ones --- both buildings and administrators --- are still around.

The state and local authorities are busy dumping even more money --- your money, my money --- into that proven blowhole of a decaying institution instead of passing a few laws that would allow the teachers to beat the shit out of recalcitrant, noisy, and out-of-control students.

Perhaps the school system could invest in a few dozen new rulers: When I was a student in the Bronx, fifty years ago, a swift swat across the knuckles was all that was needed to keep us interested in the proceedings. Our Ms. Daugherty was not at all interested in back talk, and she certainly wasn't stupid enough to try to plead with us to behave. She also didn't have to put up with the likes of a prison-guard clone vice-principal looking over her shoulder because she didn't need one.

She could handle us just fine: A whack or two was all that was required to keep us on course. In the principal's office downstairs, the back up, a wooden paddle called a "fanny-warmer" was always available in times of dire emergency.

Too bad that Goodnough isn't a enough of a visionary to suggest this most appropriate solution. It's so simple, and being simple, everyone overlooks it. My advice: stop bringing in martyrs like Ms. Moffett to plug the failings of the Teacher's Union and the dead weight of bureaucracy. Get the state legislature to establish ten schools, ten model schools based on the standards that were in use fifty years ago. Give several hundred worthy teachers the power to kick ass and run the classrooms as they should be run. Accept students only if the parents sign agreements to allow the teachers to be in charge. Do not permit anyone from the teacher's union or any school board members or bureaucrats to get in the front door. Ditto reporters from the tendentious Times.

Just let the teachers teach, and at the end of the year, compare the accomplishments of the students in our Retrograde Model School with those of the remainder of the school system --- private and public. Let the best one win.

Outside of this, if you want the real skinny on teaching in New York --- one that's wise and has some life to it --- read Elizabeth Gold's Brilliant Intervals of Horrible Sanity.

Go to the original

Reginald A. Fessenden
The Deluged Civilization
Of the Caucasus Isthmus
I am currently doing some research on Reginald Aubrey Fessenden's work.

Do you know where I can get a copy of his rare book, The Deluged Civilization of the Caucasus Isthmus, which includes various maps?

--- Dimitri Atkins

Go to the original

Talking Big
John Bricuth
We are sitting here at dinner talking big.
I am between the two dullest men in the world
Across from the fattest woman I ever met.
We are talking big. Someone has just remarked
That energy equals the speed of light squared.
We nod, feeling that that is "pretty nearly correct."
I remark that the square on the hypotenuse can more
Than equal the squares on the two sides. The squares
On the two sides object. The hypotenuse over the way
Is gobbling the grits. We are talking big. The door
Opens suddenly revealing a vista that stretches
To infinity. Parenthetically, someone remarks
That a body always displaces its own weight.
I note at the end of the gallery stands a man
In a bowler and a black coat with an apple where
His head should be, with his back to me, and it is me.
I clear my throat and re (parenthetically) mark
That a body always falls of its own weight.
"whoosh-WHOOM!" Sighs the hypotenuse across,
And (godknows) she means it with all her heart.

--- From Words Burnished by Music
©2004, Johns Hopkins
University Press

Go to the
in question.

Send us e-mail


Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH