My Favorite Things Michigan

If you've been following this as casually as I've been updating it, you may or may not know that I'm a huge admirer of Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabbarok's economics blog Marginal Revolution. If not, I recommend you check it out--and don't be fooled by the "economics blog" description--Tyler and Alex both have the ability to boil down the many complexities of economics into general, effective, everyday language.

Among the vast and varied number of subjects discussed, one of the best is "My Favorite Things..." a tag used by the two that covers the cultural highlights of a particular city, state, or country. And since neither of the two has gotten around to covering Michigan, my beloved home state, I figured I'd offer my own.

Favorite food: Gotta go with the obvious: Farmer's Home Cheeseburger. Behind that, Mackinac Island Fudge is overrated but still very tasty (it is fudge). There's also the pasties, which get better the farther north you are. The vineyards around the 45th parallel make a big deal about their wine, and some of it is excellent. I've found that any winery that also makes cheese can be relied on for delivering a good white.

City: Saginaw is a shell of its former self, and of the Tri-City area, I prefer Midland. Grand Rapids is nice, at least to visit, the same goes for Traverse City, and, in my experience, all of the UP. Detroit and Ann Arbor are nice, too, at least the, um, nice parts of them. While everyone focuses on the Detroit area, though, I think some of the best parts are farther north--anywhere near water is a plus.

Lake: Duh.

Author: There's a lot of local mystery writers based in the upper Lower Peninsula who've garnered much acclaim, but I'm ignorant of their work; so here's the big ones: I don't think anyone reads Theodore Roethke unless at gunpoint. I don't like Mitch Albom, and Elmore Leonard was born in Louisiana. Don't know much Joyce Carol Oates but would like to. Jeffrey Eugenides is a Nobel-Prize winner, but I didin't care much for Middlesex. Edna Ferber I haven't read. I think I'm biased against my home state. Yikes! My picks are Chris van Allsburg (born in Grand Rapids) and, though she was born in Canada, I can't not mention Isabel Patterson.

Novels: Need I mention the Michigan connection to the Nick Adams stories? The Time Traveler's Wife is set in South Haven, though I haven't read it (the book, that is, not South Haven, though I don't suppose I've "read" that either), and many of Elmore Leonard's novels take place in Michigan. Anatomy of a Murder is still a fun read.

Movie, set in: My personal favorite film, Anatomy of a Murder. I really liked Gran Torino and have a very, very soft spot for Street BossNever got into Grosse Pointe Blank. Beverley Hills Cop deserves mention, but the best parts take place in California. The reverse is true of Hardcore and True Romance. Tucker: The Man and His Dream is very underrated.

Director: This is a whollop of trivia. Did you know Francis Ford Coppola, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Roger Corman were all born in Detroit? Add to the natives as Sam Raimi, McG, and, of course, Michael Moore (I don't like his politics, but Roger & Me is a fantastic look at small-town life, and Moore at least is willing to put his money where his mouth is). Also, Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, also the creator of Freaks and Geeks, and he directed a plethora of Office [U.S.] episodes, Arrested Development episodes, Weeds and Parks and Recreation) was born in Royal Oak. Paul Schrader, author of Scorsese's best films Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ and director of the film Hardcore, whose scene of George C. Scott breaking down and saying "No" has become an Internet sensation) was from Grand Rapids. But the award should go to Robert Flaherty, director of Nanook of the North -- makes sense for a Yooper born in Iron Mountain.

Television program, set in: Freak and Geeks

Actor: Bruce Campbell is not really that funny on his own. Ed McMahon I appreciate more for his inspiring Hank Kingsley. Taylor Lautner, Bob Eubanks, Casey Kasem, Dave Coulier, and Tim Allen are all rote (Grand Rapids, Detroit, Flint, St. Clair Shores, and Birmingham, respectively). Give me Selma Blair in Hellboy (Southfield), Sandra Bernhard -- Season 6 of Roseanne -- (Flint) -- but, most of all, Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars. Also have Judge Mathis and Jeff Daniels, the latter of whom is a serious contender. Escanaba in da Moonlight is pretty fun.

Musician: I'm not a huge Stevie Wonder fan, but he deserves a nod. There's also, of course, Motown, the Four Tops and The Temptations being some obvious, if not generic, choices. I love the best bits of Eminem and Madonna, as well as Iggy Pop and Sufjan Stevens. And we can't forget Bill Haley. But I think Al Green probably takes it.

Artist: Irving Couse is well known but it seems only within his own circles. He reminds me of Gerome.

Gamer: Sid Meier was born in Detroit. Civ 2 is his masterpiece.

Economist: I'm at a loss here. Though Robert Shiller was born in Detroit.

Entrepreneur: Duh. Though Herbert Doan was a wonderful and very, very intelligent man. Will Kellogg deserves mention, too.

The bottom line: When I think of cuisine I think of the UP, but the fudge and pasties don't do much for me. Michigan is a game wonderland, yet it's never embraced that fact. Pheasant, grouse, and venison should be key ingredients in the food, but they're ignored.  It seems the best people who came out of Michigan left it pretty soon, my self, my sister, my girlfriend, and one of my closest friends included. Nevertheless, if you go by the people organically grown, Michigan may be one of the greatest states, culturally speaking, out there. Charles Lindbergh (born in Detroit) belongs somewhere, too. Must be something in the waters.


Whacky Italics

I was recently scanning Tyler Cowen's book In Praise of Commercial Culture (which, if you haven't read it already, you should immediately after finishing this), particularly a section on television networks, and that got me thinking about the whole fiasco of proper citations.

The basic rule is that books, movies, television shows, albums, and so forth are generally italicized--The Political Writings of Samuel Johnson, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Arrested Development, Randy Newman's Faust, and so forth--whereas individual chapters, episodes, and songs--"Pamphilus on Condolence," "Dobbs," "Ready, Aim, Marry Me," "Bless the Children of the World," and so forth--should, of course, be in quotation marks.

Though maybe I shouldn't say "of course" because few people recognize this, and often the whole convention is disregarded and replaced with mere title-case capitalization--The Treasure of the Sierra Madre instead of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for example (and I'll ignore, for now, the questions of when to capitalize articles and prepositions).

The advantage of italics/quotation marks over title-cases is clarity; when you're referring to a sizable number of books, movies, television shows, albums, and so forth, it's easier to make a distinction between individual installments and the whole damn thing. Title-case capitalization makes it murky because you never know if the author's discussing, say a specific episode or a completely different work.

But it's not perfect, and the passage I mentioned earlier, the one dealing with networks, got me wondering whether they should be italicized, television shows should be put in quote marks, and particular episodes of that show should be indicated by some other mark of designation (anything but bold). It somewhat made sense because the italic/quotation mark convention is tiered: Subsets of something larger are distinguished differently from their parent work--"Ready, Aim, Marry Me" being a subset of the program Arrested Development--but isn't Arrested Development a subset of the FOX network's programming? And thus shouldn't FOX be italicized, Arrested Development be in quotation marks, and "Ready, Aim, Marry Me" be in some other kind of designation (assuming that italics indicate the first set, quotes the second, the other the third, and so forth [and, again, not bold])?

In the case of television, the job is kind of done for us since networks are usually referred to in capitals--FOX, NBC, CBS, ABC--but three of those are acronyms--National Broadcasting Company, Columbia Broadcasting System, American Broadcasting Company--to say nothing of cable networks such as Showtime, Cinemax, and so forth. And for that matter, what about sports organizations such as the NBA, the NFL, the NHL and so forth? If we're going to follow the accepted format, shouldn't those be italicized and thus sports teams such as The Detroit Pistons, The Detroit Lions, and The Detroit Red Wings be in quotation marks?

I have no idea and am willing to leave it as is, since people will know what is part of what with the accepted convention, but the editor daemon in me cries out for consistency, or at least demands an excuse for keeping things the way they are, one that's not simply "People will understand regardless."

So my excuse is that excessive citations are unnecessary and, indeed, confusing. If you can follow a general line of thought, a simple mention that Arrested Development was produced by FOX should be all that you need. Likewise, people have enough difficulty using the standard convention anyway, so why complicate it by adding successive tiers of citation? Lame reasons I admit, but you're more likely to distinguish specific installments of a television show or a book from the show or book itself than you are the show or book from its network or publisher, aren't you?

And, in case you're wondering, the image I originally intended to accompany this post was of a stereotypical Italian, but I think we can all agree that a saucy Italian talk-show host is far superior to that.


Criminal Word Origins

From the start, to tip meant to give somebody money, but four hundred years ago the money was given for a slightly different reason. It was part of the thieves' cant, a language used by the criminal underworld in Britain. You've probably used some of their secret code words today. The verb to "tout," which now means "praise something highly" started out meaning "to keep lookout and warn everybody if you saw the one time coming." They even gave us the idea to use "kid" to mean to joke with somebody (to them, it was treating somebody like a child).

Read more here. The first few are actually more surprising.


Pronunciations Paradox

21 Reasons Why English Sucks:

I particularly like "7. Since there was no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present."

HT: THE Ron Gilbert


The Dreaded Apluralstrophe!


The Dreaded Apluralstrophe!

In lieu of something better (such as calling my mother to wish her a happy day), I google "Apluralstrophe" and was surprised that so many examples of it came up--hopefully the term has caught on, though I have yet to see any quidly as a result of it. Among my favorites is the image that accompanies this post and introduces yet another threat: The Dreaded Apluralstro-z! (HT to Apostrophe Abuse)

Check out some horrific misuses here.



What's Wrong with It
This one isn't too hard to spot, but if you don't want to waste the time, I'll just go ahead and tell you: "Either" means "one or the other of two," so if you're using it to mean "one of three," you go to hell.

How to Fix It
Just replace "either" with "any." There are some other terms you could substitute for "any," but "any" is nice and short and conveys the sense of urgency the ad's going for.

Other Thoughts
You could take issue with using the number "3" instead of spelling it out (numbers one through nine are generally spelled out), but exceptions are typically made for headlines, ads, and some other instances for purposes of immediacy. The idea is to summarize the message in not only as few words as necessary but also in as few characters (likewise this is why you don't usually see compound adjectives, and thus hyphens, in headlines). But that's a topic for another day.



I've seen the term "grok," but I've always treated it as a curiosity, never quite aware of what it actually meant, always thinking it was something out of a D&D manual. Probably third edition.

But it turns out that "grok" is a legitimate word--really! In fact, it's a term for one of the most beautiful concepts imaginable: to understand thoroughly and intuitively.

It was coined by Robert "Starship Troopers" Heinlein in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

But such a concept deserves a better-sounding term to express it. I nominate "unithought," despite it's sounding like something from 1984. Any other suggestions?


Numbers in Quotes

I admire my old boss for many reasons--his wit, his humility (despite a mass of talent, clear thinking, and recognition within an industry that's prone to self-aggrandizement), and his way of beginning every tirade with the phrase, "You can't swing a dead cat without hitting..."--but chief among them was (well, is) his deep thinking on and succinct rationalization of grammatical points.

One of the best arguments he made was for writing out numbers in quotations.

This is something only a handful of sober-headed grammarians consider, because it's not covered in Strunk and White (well, maybe it is, I haven't read that crap in years; this is far superior).

Anyway, I favor writing out numbers in quotes, because, as my old boss used to say:

Old Boss [Going over some proofs]: Okay, there's a numeric in this quote; everyone uses numerics in quotes.

My Own Ignorant Self: Eh?

OB: You should always write out numbers in quotes; no one ever says, "I couldn't swing one zero zero dead cats without hitting a pheasant in South Dakota."

MOIS: That's a lot of dead cats?

OB: There's a lot of swinging.

That's a good point: For single digits, numerics work fine, but when you get to anything higher, that breaks down. Speech is usually taken as is, which means that everything said should be literally written. Hence, you should write, "One hundred" (or even "A hundred," but we'll get to that in a moment) instead of "100," which translates to "One zero zero."

Got it?

Okay, so it's fine to advocate writing out numbers, but what about really tough numbers, like, oh, say, "167" (and I write this because numbers in writing should use numerics when they're above nine [and we'll get to that in another moment])?

One sixty-seven should be written, officially, as I just wrote it (and the reason I did so was because, in writing, numbers should be spelled out if they begin a sentence [they appear
unsightly {and, to a larger extent, can lead to confusion}]), but it can get more confusing the higher up we go. For example, it'd be tempting to write a number complex as eighty-one billion, seven-hundred sixty-two million, four-hundred twenty-six thousand, seven-hundred eighteen as 81,762,426,718, and that's an argument I have sympathy for (seeing as how I just spent 20 minutes trying to wade through the proper terms for thousands); in fact, I'd go with numerics when it gets that high, because at that point consistency can lead to confusion, and the purpose of consistency is to alleviate confusion. It's kind of like the abortion issue of grammar: at what point is it not right?

I'd say that for now (November 2010) that'd be some place beyond the millions, because any number more complex than that would be confusing, and, in any writing, the best way to write is whatever gets your point across.

But most folks don't speak in numbers complex as 81,762,426,718, so if you have the luxury of jotting down only a few hundreds (which is why, in basic speech, recording what someone says, precisely, translates to writing, "A hundred" [because that's how everyone says it]), that' how you should write it.


Thank Your for Not Correcting My Grammar

How to deal with grammar Nazis:


If your tweet today mentions AIDS, the color of your text will be red, Kudos, Twitter, for marketing a campaign of awareness through colored fonts.


words to ponder

The writing community is full of lame-o people who want to be published in journals even though they don’t read the magazines that they want to be published in. These people deserve the rejections that they will undoubtedly receive, and no one should feel sorry for them when they cry about how they can’t get anyone to accept their stories.

The rest is here.

As the former editor of a bunch of magazines, I can attest. We'd get a lot of submissions, and about nine times out of 10 the reason we rejected them was because it was flagrantly clear that the authors had never read the magazine they were submitting to.

That's not to say we rejected them because they weren't customers (though being one helped), ... See Morerather they had no feel for the magazine or its type of content. Didn't matter how well it was written--some of the stuff we got from our regulars was only a few steps away from cocktail-napkin scrawl--it's just that they wanted to get published in Elle but wrote something for Maxim.

If you're still too lazy to read the magazine, at least do us editors a favor and check out the magazine's website--the writers' guidelines will give you an idea of what gets published.

My own tips for writing for submission are here.


the most delightful sentence I read today.

"If there's one thing that can be said, it is that yesterday's cultural pessimists were more interesting than the pessimists of today."

HT: Marginal Revolution


risky vs risque

"risky" is an adjective meaning, "attended with or involving risk; hazardous: a risky undertaking."

"risque" is also an adjective, but means, "daringly close to indelicacy or impropriety; off-color: a risqué story."

I notice a lot of people use "risque" when they mean "risky." Why, I have no idea, but based on their drawn-out enunciation of it, I figure it's because it sounds foreign and, hence, sophisticated. But to paraphrase George Orwell, never use a foreign term when there's an English equivalent--especially when said foreign term is neither foreign nor appropriate.


what's the shortest sentence in the english language?

"Go" is the shortest complete sentence in the English language.

HT to our friend, Melissa.


cease and decease

Here's one for you: If "cease" means, "to stop; discontinue," and the prefix "de" means, "removal, separation, negation, etc." then shouldn't "decease" mean the negation of cessation?


how to write nonfiction

Bryan Caplan lays out 7 guidelines here.



things to do at work when you're bored

How this editor staved off ennui.


he's not right on the money

I take on corporate giant Michael Moore in my review of Capitalism: A Love Story, read it here.