As Simple as 12345

dear-santaThe United States Postal Service (USPS), that darling of Benjamin Franklin and his vision for America now gone virtually bust in the face of the digital revolution, created the ZIP code in 1963.

The Zone Improvement Plan (ZIP) was introduced in 1944 by Robert Moon, but it took nearly 20 seasons of moons for the USPS to finally got around to implementing the system.

ZIP codes were designed to speed delivery, as we all know. When the service assigned the ZIP numbers, it awarded 12345 — the simplest to remember — to General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y.

As a result, GE gets thousands of “Dear Santa” letters each year from kids who think “12345” is Santa’s personal ZIP Code.

The good news is that employees at the plant volunteer to answer the letters.

The bad news is, well, that USPS is going bust despite its Zone Improvement Plan.

But I’d better shut up. I’m beginning to sound too much like Scrooge.

The End of Reading?

Tina-BrownLetter writing has definitely gone bye-bye in favor of 140-character Tweets, misspelled and garbled emails and text messages, and shout outs in all their various forms, but now a noted editor and journalist has driven the last nail in literacy’s coffin by declaring the end of reading.

Tina Brown (pictured),  recently departed from both Newsweek and The Daily Beast, has come out against the printed word by observing that we’re “going back to oral culture where the written word will be less relevant.”

Blame it on the digital revolution, of course. And personally, Ms. Brown doesn’t even read magazines anymore.

“The habit has gone,” the one time editor of Vanity Fair, The New YorkerTalk and Newsweek told reporters in Goa, where she was speaking at the THiNK festival. “I think you can have more satisfaction from live conversations.”

Ms. Brown, coincidentally, is leaving print publishing for a new career in live conferencing, so she’ll no doubt be involved in lots of oral conversations here on out.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing. No one wants to listen to me blab anyway. Unfortunately, they probably don’t want to read my writing either, but one must always have hope in life.

‘Silly Remarks’ at Gettysburg

Gettysburg-speech-editorial-apologyI don’t know what they do today in public schools, but back in the Pleistocene when I studied Latin, trigonometry and the classics (or pretended to anyway), they made us all memorize and perform Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Not sure about classroom recitals these days, maybe students memorize Jay Z lyrics or lines from Quentin Tarantino movies. Perhaps they just Tweet and send Instagrams, and the teacher retweets.

Anyway, 150 years ago a Gettysburg newspaper (see image) characterized Lincoln’s address as a compilation of “silly remarks.”

The Patriot & Union devoted all of one paragraph to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

On the cusp of the speech’s 150th anniversary, the newspaper — now called the Patriot-News — this week issued an apology, which read in part:

“Our predecessors, perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time, called President Lincoln’s words ‘silly remarks,’ deserving ‘a veil of oblivion,’ apparently believing it an indifferent and altogether ordinary message, unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity.”

The “strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time” is one of the great reasons I became a journalist. Not sure what journalists drink today, maybe Obamaian Kool-Aid. But pardon my silly remark, please.

‘That’re’ Contraction Not Real English

Contractions are a handy feature in English grammar, allowing us to combine a couple of words into one. Contractions such as we’re and they’re are fine, but I just received an email using the would-be contraction that’re, which is completely bogus and not acceptable in standard English.

Another such unacceptable contraction would be there’re.

Though I know by ear and experience that that’re and there’re are both incorrect English, finding a rule to explain why isn’t so easy to do. I did a Google search on “rules for contractions in English” and found all kinds of sites showing examples of how to correctly use contractions, but not a single site that could cite a rule concerning when contractions shouldn’t be used.

If anyone finds the rules, please let me know.

Meanwhile, remember this: Contractions should never be used in formal writing, whether a college essay or a business proposal. In fact, contractions should generally be confined to oral communication.

Is Objectivity Even Possible in Journalism?

Rashomon-posterAs I write this, I’m in the midst of reading a back-and-forth between proponents of so-called “objective” journalism and what I call “emerging” journalism, a brand that doesn’t mind revealing its voice or point of view and relies a lot on online publication.

These two proponents are Glenn Greenwald, he of Edward Snowden NSA-leak fame, and Bill Keller, with whom I’m not familiar but who appears to be as “old school” as it gets when it comes to reporting. (To note as an aside: Greenwald has just been promised $250 million from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to spread Greenwald’s brand of “activist” journalism.)

If the company’s paywall doesn’t block you, you can read “Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News?” in today’s New York Times.

My Perspective

Fresh out of the Navy and Vietnam, I got a job as a cub reporter for the defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and I’ve been involved in journalism in its oh-so-many (some odious) forms since. Let me get to the bottom line: There is no such thing as objectivity in journalism, nor can there be. Merely by the selection of the stories they report, the media of our day reveal their bias. On top of that, the slant they give to these stories is definitely left-friendly. →

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‘Satisfries’ Yes, ‘Floasted’ Never

Burger King just came out with a lighter version of French fries that it named Satisfries. I like that. The concoction works both as a word and a concept conveying quick meaning. You can even say, “I’m satisfried,” and it works. (Plus, I’ve had Satisfries, and they’re delicious.)

Now, on the other hand, Quizno’s just came out with a TV commercial in which it touts its sandwiches as being Floasted, a combination of flavorful and roasted. Even the TV actors struggled with the word and the concept. It’s that bad — and that hard to figure out when you hear it. Fortunately, I think Q’s may already have dropped the commercial and hopefully the concept.

Hats off to Satisfries, rest in peace Floasted. ♦

‘What I Didn’t Know’

…is a nice piece of writing by Christopher Kimball in the November-December 2013 issue of Cook’s Illustrated, of which he is the editor.

Kimball, like Julia Child before him, is not only a master chef but a master at writing English as well. His columns are down to earth but ultimately meaningful, personal and life-affirming in the bargain. Even if you don’t cook, or eat, a subscription to Cook’s Illustrated is worth it just for Kimball’s column.

Christopher Kimball
Christopher Kimball

His title refers to all those things we learned growing up and then deliberately ignored, or challenged to our own detriment, and to all those things we thought we learned in life, which later turned out to be false.

As Kimball explains in his column: “I … didn’t realize that most sayings are true but that truth is learned only through experience.” And thus, “I no longer look gift horses in the mouth, or throw away small change; I keep my pennies in a large bowl by the back door for a rainy day.”

Lest you think his “didn’t knows” are all homespun, corny stuff, Kimball closes with the experience of a neighbor dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I won’t spoil it by revealing his “didn’t know” in that situation, but you should try doing an online search for his article and read it if you can. I couldn’t find it, but I must confess…

I didn’t know that Christopher Kimball was married this past June to Melissa Lee Baldino, another chef on Kimball’s TV show, “America’s Test Kitchen.”

What I also personally didn’t know, growing up so many decades ago, was that my parents were mostly right and that, looking back over those spent decades, life can be really tough but full of some sweet moments that (almost) make it all worth it.

What didn’t you know? ♦

What the Use of ‘I’ Says About You

People who avoid using the pronoun I fall into two broad categories, according to a recent book on the subject: The first group is the high and mighty, and the second is comprised of liars. (Okay, okay, if you’re cynical like I am, right now you’re thinking, “What’s the difference?”)

liar-liar-your-nose-will-growSo, to puncture popular misconceptions, using I is actually a good thing. Studies indicate that heavy I users include “women (who are typically more reflective than men), people who are more at ease with personal topics, younger people, caring people as well as anxious and depressed people,” according to an article (“A Tiny Pronoun Says a Lot About You“) in today’s Wall Street Journal.

According to James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas and author of The Secret Life of Pronouns on which the article is based, the use of the pronoun I is associated more with humility than it is with power or arrogance. Thus people in power will tend to use the pronoun you more often because they feel empowered to tell others what they need to do. Liars avoid I to distance themselves from what they’re covering up — and from responsibility.

Pennebaker advises:  “You should use ‘I’ the same way you use a speedometer on your car — as feedback on yourself. Are you being genuine [by openly referring to yourself in speech]? Are you being honest? Learn to adjust some, to know yourself.”

Now, about those liars and high-flyers, are they built of the same mold? No official word on that in the article. ♦

How Big Is Your Gorilla?

900-pound-gorilla-metaphoeYou know, the one you keep in your metaphorical locker for use when you want to refer to an immovable object, or to a huge presence that people keep ignoring for some reason.

I usually opt for 900 pounds, as in “the 900-pound gorilla in the room” (or wherever), but I’ve also seen 800-pound gorillas roaming out there in Englishdom.

Yesterday came a 500-pound version in a column by Bill Dwyer about the opening of Santa Anita Race Track, to wit: “Santa Anita is the 500-pound gorilla in Southern California racing now” due to the year-end closing of Hollywood Park.

Maybe Dwyer’s gorilla shed those 300 (or 400) pounds because Dwyer was writing about horse racing, not football (surely at least 900 pounds) or basketball (no less than 800). Even baseball must weigh in at least 650.

Anybody know how big these metaphorical gorillas are supposed to be? Or does it even matter?

But consider this: So far, no one has gone to a 1,000 pounds or more.

Except maybe doctors when referring to Obamacare. ♦

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu

These machines are still used in funeral homes, but mine is for looks only.
These machines are still used in funeral homes, but mine is for looks only.

It’s musty, looks urine-stained, smells of an old biddy’s storage attic, but it’s a connection to my past — of sorts — just like a linotype machine, which I don’t own or display in my house as I do this blast from the past.

The urine-looking stains on my SmithCorona (the machine doesn’t use a space in its spelling, so I guess I won’t either) are hopefully just atmospheric corrosion, but one never knows when one purchases a half-century-old (or more) portable typewriter for 25 bones on eBay.

The carrying case for the portable was so smelly that I tossed it immediately upon receipt, and I’ve been spraying the typewriter itself with Simple Green and anything else I can think of ever since, in hopes of eradicating the Old Biddy kept-things-too-long smell.

The typewriter sits as an ornament in my upstairs study (read: spare bedroom) between a book on the history of Mickey Mouse and a radio/CD player. Talk about three relics — four if you count me.

As for linotypes, yes, my first job was as a scab reporter for the old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and the seven-edition-a-day rag was composed on a linotype and then assembled into pages by hand.

Ah, the good old days. I made $92 a week, but it was enough to buy my first house. Today, I doubt I could even feed myself and my three dogs on that.

(Meanwhile, for the real deal on used typewriters, check out My Typewriter. Also, please note that typewriters are still used in funeral homes because many states require typed death certificates. I hope that’s not an omen emanating from my recent purchase.) ♦