Little Black Notebooks

October 15th, 2008

Ever since I started keeping a journal, little black notebooks have slowly crept up on me with the stealth and pertinacity of a bad habit. Only, in this case they are a good habit. I’ve discussed the benefits of writing on paper before, and after noting some of my favorite pens, it is only natural to have a little talk about notebooks.

My habit began with a wonderful black clothbound journal from Borders. I used it for all my notes on sermons, Bible studies, and lectures. When it ran out I wasn’t able to find another, but fortunately I had received a gift from my dad right around that time of a Moleskine journal. If you don’t know about them, Moleskines are Italian-made black journals with creamy paper, sewn binding, and a whopping price tag of around $20 for the 5″x8″ versions. They have a fanatical following, but despite liking them enough to fill up a couple, I never quite understood the followers. My own opinion is that Moleskines’ pages are way too thin (I searched far and wide for gel pens that wouldn’t bleed through), and their price is too high for a notebook that I intend to use regularly. So I started searching for a little brown or black notebook with a good cover and creamy, thick paper at a reasonable price.

After several months, I made three discoveries. First, it is extremely hard to find a great notebook unless you pay tons of money (we’re talking $50 plus). Second, there are in fact a few out there worth noting (pun intended). By far the best website I’ve found about them is Black Cover, a site that describes itself as “dedicated to finding Moleskine Alternatives.” (I put it on my blogroll recently as part of a contest it’s having, but I did not break my unwritten blogroll policy of never linking to a site unless I read and enjoy most of its posts. It’s a great blog!) Finally, I discovered the Pentalic A La Modeskin Traveler’s Pocket Sketch Book. It has thick, creamy paper that none of my pens bleed through, it’s about $5, and so far it has proven durable and an excellent notebook. It has its drawbacks, notably a cheap cover, but I use it right now for most of my notes, from the trivial to the permanent.

How to Generate MLA, APA, Chicago, or Any Other Style Bibliography from BibTex/BibDesk Files

August 26th, 2008

If you know all too well what the title is talking about, just skip to the last section of this article for the main point. If you don’t know but you’re interested in a really efficient research and bibliography management system, read on for a little background.

BibDesk: iTunes for Researchers

When I started writing my senior thesis a few weeks ago, I needed to find dozens of articles and books, review and annotate them, and keep track of which ones I had read. In the past, for term papers, etc, I would usually just cite articles and books stacked up on my desk, and then when I was finished I’d make a list of which ones I’d cited and type out their bibliographical info in a “Works Cited” page. But for my thesis, I was planning to have a full bibliography of more than a hundred documents, so this was not something I could do in my head.

So I went online and found what seemed like the perfect solution: BibDesk. Bibdesk lets you automatically import bibliographic info from most online databases or enter it manually. You can sort your bibliography by any field, insert your own annotations or comments on an item, link items to pdf or other files on your computer, and search the whole bibliography in a flash. Unlike Zotero, it is not a Firefox plugin and so you can use it independently of your browser (a plus for me, since I don’t do all my research on the web and I don’t like Zotero’s restricted window space), and unlike programs such as Evernote or Google Docs (programs I’ve used in the past), it is focused on the sources themselves rather than your notes on them.

Moreover, BibDesk’s database files are in the standard BibTex (.bib) format, which makes exporting and importing bibliographies easy with most programs.

The Export Problem

Unfortunately, a few days of research had passed by before I discovered that BibDesk cannot conveniently export an MLA “Works Cited” page. The BibTex format generated by BibDesk is part of the Tex typesetting system and designed to supplement LaTex format papers. If you are writing a paper in LaTex format, you can easily use BibDesk to insert a bibliography at the end, automatically including only the works you’ve cited in your paper.

When I first found this out, I went ahead and downloaded Lyx, a word processor that does a great job creating LaTex format documents. As LaTex users are eager to point out, Latex is a WYSIWYM (What You See Is What You Mean) word processor, unlike the common WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) word processors like MS Word or Open Office. Translated, that means that you can’t edit the formatting of LaTex documents; you just select a template called a “class” that arranges your headings, citations, footnotes, and paragraphs into a beautiful document. That works great unless you need to use a format that no one has made a class for—it is brain-crushingly difficult to create your own class.

You’ve probably guessed my problem: There is no good class available for MLA documents. The citations don’t work well, the headings don’t look right, and the bibliography just doesn’t work. Writing my thesis in LaTex format would be a nightmare.

So I tried to export a nice-looking bibliography file in HTML or RTF format directly from BibDesk. Once again, there was trouble. To generate a good “Works Cited” page from BibDesk you need a special template for MLA, APA or some other format. And once again, there is no good template of the sort online. Believe me, I’ve looked!

The Solution: Zotero As a Middleman

After hours and hours of searching for a way to get an MLA format bibliography from BibDesk or Lyx, I remembered Zotero. As I mentioned earlier, Zotero is an out-of-this world research tool a lot like BibDesk that I don’t use only because it’s a Firefox plugin rather than an independent program.

I don’t know why I didn’t think of the solution earlier, it’s so simple. I just

  1. downloaded Zotero and installed it with Firefox 3;
  2. imported my BibTex bibliography (a .bib file) into Zotero; and
  3. exported the bibliography from Zotero into an MLA-style “Works Cited” page, as an RTF document.

The output was perfectly styled and ready to paste into my thesis whenever I was ready for it.

The Ups And Downs

Of course, the downside of this approach is that the citations are not automatic. that is, you have to go through your paper and manually find what sources you’ve cited so you know which ones to included in your “Works Cited” page. Using LaTex all the way would solve this problem because citations are special fields rather than just text, and the bibliography is generated based on which ones you’ve used.

However, if all you’re looking for is bibliography management and want to do the citing and writing yourself, I can’t think of a better solution. The BibDesk/Zotero combination makes it easy to keep track of what sources you’ve used, read, and found and what you think of them, as well as to search, sort, and add them to your document as a flawlessly-styled bibliography.

On Morally Sound Children’s Literature

June 17th, 2008

A while back I was in the children’s section of our local public library with some of my siblings, and a certain book caught my eye. It was Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, written by Michael rose and illustrated by Quentin Blake (Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2004). Michael Rosen is a popular children’s writer, the author of classics such as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. The Sad Book is apparently one of his more acclaimed works, having recieved the Parents’ Choice Gold Award for 2005. And that award is certainly appropriate. If this book is appropriate for anyone, it is parents rather than children.

The Sad Book

But I personally wouldn’t recommend it even to an adult. The problem with the Sad Book is how it deals with sadness. The pictures are grim and stark, with gloomy tones, and the narrator details the overwhelming pain he feels over the loss of his son. “I loved him very, very much, but he died anyway.” As many reviewers have pointed out, the theme of loss is of course appropriate for children, because it is part of the human condition. But this book doesn’t just deal with loss; it deals with one person’s efforts to cope. And those efforts help paint a despondent world of isolation, confusion, and hopelessness. As for isolation, he says: “Sometimes I want to talk about all this to someone. Like my mum. But she’s not here anymore, either. So I can’t.” There is no one else for him to talk to either. Although he mentions later that lots of family and friends make him happy, all his efforts to deal with grief take place inside him, and there is no real connection or relationship with others. He fights moral confusion: “Sometimes because I’m sad I do bad things. I can’t tell you what they are. They’re too bad.… I tell myself that being sad isn’t the same as being horrible. I’m sad, not bad.” And although some reviewers have argued that the ending (which pictures a bright candle) features a spark of hope, it is clear that the book’s overwhelming message is that there is absolutely no way to get real comfort from grief. Sadness rules the day.

Children’s Literature: Common Problems

The reason I bring up Rosen’s book is that it exemplifies one of two common failings that I think are shared by most children’s fiction today, namely, dealing with adult topics or themes. Children need to face issues in the real world, like grief, and fiction is a way for them to do so. But they also should be protected from some of the darker parts of reality, like despair, until they mature enough to understand and handle it.

But if many children’s books treat children too much like adults, even more of them treat children too to childishly, by offering not an overdose of reality but an escape from it. My siblings are part of the summer reading program at our local library, and I was too not very long ago. When they are rewarded with their choice of a popular children’s book, the offered books, usually popular ones, are almost always pieces of fiction that encourage children to indulge their fantasies and live in imaginary and self-serving worlds of their own, the way a lot of adults do.

The Purpose of Fiction

Good children’s literature should should inform and enhance the world children actually live in, or at least the one that they ought to live in—a world more innocent than the one adults have to know, but also a real world that they must learn to encounter before they can face the darker side of it. The purpose of children’s fiction is the same as the purpose of fiction in general: to experience reality and to offer perspectives on it. A good writer of fiction uses his work as a way to present the experiences and perspectives that combine to create his own world. The reader of good fiction will gain depth and understanding by experiencing that world, and it will inform his own. Both the ideal writer and the ideal reader share the common goal of coming to know and connect with what is outside themselves.

Bad fiction does the opposite. It is often escapist, and rather than discussing and evaluating reality, it attempts to escape or manipulate it. It creates a world, just as good fiction does, but the goal of its world is not to encounter outside reality, but to conform outside reality to the writer and reader’s wishes. It is a way of virtually acting out a selfish position of domination that usually can’t be had for real. But a person who is accustomed to imagining and enjoying selfish, artificial worlds will have a hard time learning to enjoy and contribute to the actual people around him. That is how escapist literature erodes character, while good literature builds character. Neither kind of literature needs to present an explicit moral message in order to be a moral being.

Children’s Literature: Choosing Wisely

It is even more essential that children’s literature be good and moral than it is for literature in general, because childhood is largely when a person’s perspective on the world is formed. A child who grows up thinking of the world as a dark, hopeless, lonely place will see and react to real events in a negative, unambitious, and self-centered way. A child who grows up thinking of the word as a bright, beautiful, connected place, on the other hand, will see and react to events in a positive, undiscouraged, and loving way. That is not to say that a single book like Rosen’s, or even a whole slew of them, will shape the way a child views the world. But a child does usually grow up to be like the people and literature that surround him.

So what is the best way, on a practical level, to make sure that children spend their time in good literature? I think that the goal of any parent, baby-sitter, etc. should be to help the children discern and decide for themselves. I read a book to my brother lately in which a quarrel between two characters was resolved when one of them finally got fed up with the other and refused to be his friend. The story didn’t have an explicit message, but in its world, the person who cared least about the relationship won. So I talked to him about whether that is the right way to handle a relationship, until he could tell me what the problem was.

Another solution is to find and provide engaging children’s books that present a morally ordered world. We have a lot of books from BJU Press. It is a great source for Christian readers, but even if you don’t want books with specifically Christian themes, it carries a good many fairly unreligious ordinary novels for youth that take place in a morally ordered world. Old classics—like Jules Verne, R.L. Stevenson, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, and a host of others—are also usually good, although some of them are outdated or difficult to read. And there are retellings of mythology (like Bulfinch’s), Shakespeare (like Charles Lamb’s), and fairy tales (e.g. Andersen’s, Grimm’s,). These old tales, when retold well, have appeal to people of all ages.

[Edit: As Michael Rosen points out in his comment, fairy tales can deal with some pretty mature themes as well, and not always in an innocent and uplifting way.]

The Origin of “Can”

April 16th, 2008

In my Chaucer class today I learned something amazing—where the word “can” comes from. In the Canterbury Tales you often see phrases like this one:

What ladyes fairest been or best daunsynge,
Or which of hem kan dauncen best and synge

where “kan” means “know how.” (The word “dauncen” is in the infinitive form, so we would write it today as “to dance,” not just “dance,” and the phrase would go “or which of them knows how to dance best and sing.”) Often, Chaucer uses the word in the past tense, thus:

In al this world, to seken up and doun,
There nys no man so wys that koude thenche
So gay a popelote or swich a wenche.

Here, “koude thenche” means something in between “knew how to think” and “was able to think.”

So our word “can” comes from the Middle English “kan.” “Kan” comes from the same root as our modern “know” (see the k and the n in there?), which dates back a long way—you can see it in the Greek word “ginosko,” which is familiar to many students of the New Testament.

Word Miner Is Retiring

March 18th, 2008

You probably have noticed how few posts I’ve published on Word Miner lately. To tell the truth, I just ran out of motivation to keep writing here. So Word Miner is going to retire.

Retiring, of course, is not the same as dying or even hibernating. I will post occasionally (probably once every month or two). The retirement just means that there will be no commitment to posting on a regular basis.

So farewell, readers. It’s been fun.

Adverbial Subject?

February 29th, 2008

I was just reading an article in Time about George Clooney, which quotes him as saying “I know what pisses people off about fame. It’s when famous people whine about it.” The phrase “when famous people whine about it” can be interpreted either as adverbial or substantive. That is, it can be telling us that something (namely “it”) is (exists) at a certain time (when famous people whine), or it can be telling us that a certain event (famous people whining) is something else (i.e. “what pisses people off”). In this case, the word “it” in the second sentence stands for the phrase “what pisses people off,” so we know we should interpret the clause substantively, and the second sentence means “what pisses people off is when famous people whine.”

The sentence sounds a little strange to me. Why? At first I thought it was because “when” is not being used adverbially, but I don’t think that’s it. What jars my mental grammar is how the “when” clause interacts with the “what” clause.

The word “what” is like “x” in algebra—a sort of wildcard that can stand for anything the context requires. In “I told him what she likes,” we don’t specify what “what” stands for. But in “I told him what she likes: roses” the word “what” means “roses.” We know that because we can substitute them, like this: “I told him she likes roses.” (It’s just like writing 2+2=4 instead of the more roundabout x+2=4.)

The problem with Clooney’s statement is that it uses “what” to stand for a “when” clause. This doesn’t work because he uses “what” as  a subject. The “when” clause cannot substitute for it because a “when” clause cannot be used as a subject. We would never say something like “When I sleep is wonderful.” We say “Sleeping is wonderful to me,” or “It is wonderful when I sleep.” This is because whenever we see a “when” clause at the beginning of a sentence, we interpret it as an adverb. I don’t know why we do, but I’m guessing it has to do with how “when” clauses evolved from adverbials to possible substantives.

The consequence is that for Clooney’s “what” clause, substitution fails. He said “I know what pisses people off about fame. It’s when famous people whine about it.” If we remove the extraneous “it’s,” we get “I know what pisses people off about fame: when famous people whine about it.” Now try the substitution: “I know when famous people whine about it pisses people off about fame.” It just doesn’t work. To make sense, the sentence should read “I know that famous people whining about it pisses people off about fame,” or “I know that when famous people whine about it, it pisses people off about fame.” Of course, such sentences are clumsy, but at least they’re correct.

And the moral? Trust your mental grammar. I didn’t know what Clooney had done wrong when I read that quote; I just knew it sounded wrong. Your brain does a lot more thinking than you’d think!


February 7th, 2008

Let me assure you that conversationalism is quite different from Republicanism, Libertarianism, Democratism, or Obama-ism. It’s the one thing you can’t vote for this November. Although, if you’re politically minded, the art of conversation can help you in your local caucus.

I remember the day I discovered that conversation actually is an art. I was reading an article from the Economist (if you don’t read the Economist, Geoffry Pullum’s favorite magazine, you are a poor deprived wight), and the first sentence stood out like a healthy thumb:

Sir Isaiah Berlin, a Latvian-born Oxford philosopher who died in 1997, may well have ranked among the greatest conversationalists who ever lived.

The remainder of the article discussed conversation in detail, touching on the proper technique, history, famous movements, and eminent masters of conversation.

I was hooked. Not because conversation is my hobby, but because I am so bad at it. A certain Ezine article describes me quite well:

You can actually feel your heart pounding in your chest, and there is no way you’re going to be able to compete with a gifted chatterer that was lucky enough to be born with social interaction skills and instinctively knows how to be an interesting conversationalist. So unlike you!

So, after soaking in the Economist piece, I went hunting for tips and tricks. Typing “conversationalist into Google turned up a lot of hits. Matilija Press has a ten-step manual, which says, among other things, to “know when to speak and when to listen.” Easier said than done. says to moderate group conversations by stepping in when someone starts to monopolize. Psychology Today summarizes witty sketches of common conversationalist types from a book by Deborah Fine. One, for example, is the Interrogator (that would be me), who likes to bombard someone with little yes-or-no questions and doesn’t offer details about himself.

There’s a good store of lore outside cyberspace as well. Look up something like The Fine Art of Small Talk or The Art of Mingling on, and you’ll find a flood of related titles.

And if worse comes to worst, there is always the excellent advice of AMRunner, who recently commented on one of my posts (and whose blog I read regularly):

The language people choose when the first meet should be, in my opinion, lengthy enough to support the conversation until common ground can be found on which to base further interaction. “I am doing well” is five more syllables than “good” and four more than “I’m good,” making it a preferable greeting.

And, I might add, “Who’s going to win the Democratic nomination in this heck of a primary season?” has more syllables than all of those.


February 7th, 2008

Do you do the Library Thing?

My uncle told me once, after giving me a generous birthday gift in cash, “Don’t spend it on books. You can get those from the library.” A good impulse, but I am more prone to follow the example of Chaucer’s clerk:

But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,
On bookes and on lernynge he it spente.

Anyway, if you’re a bibliophile, bibliomaniac, or even just a bookish pack-rat, you may enjoy, a website I discovered last week. At LibraryThing you can catalog all your books by typing in a few simple keywords. Then you can use the catalog for personal records, social networking (with others who have the same books), or quickly citing your works in MLA and other formats. I put my library online, and I’d love to see yours.

“I’m Doin’ Good”

January 1st, 2008

Every time I talk with my boss, there’s an exchange something like this:

“Hi Matthew, how are you doing?”

“Good, how are you?”

“I’m doing well!”

There was a time when someone would ask me how I was doing and I would answer simply “well.” That was a few years ago, and I was trying to make my English completely standard. I also tried saying things like “John is taller than he” and “It is I.” Of course, such efforts didn’t last for long. Stilted English made me sound so stuck-up that I dropped it and reverted to most of the patterns I had grown up with.

My problem was that I didn’t know the difference between standard English and prescribed English. To answer “How are you doing” with “good” is standard, whatever prescriptivists may say. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage recognizes that, while “good” is almost always an adjective in writing, it is commonly used as an adverb in speech. There’s no reason to reject a pattern which is ubiquitous in everyday conversation.

That is not to say that Ken is wrong to use the word “well.” We both choose what seems most natural to us at the moment. Saying “good” would probably make Ken more uncomfortable than eating peas with his fingers. Personally, I say “well” when my verb is explicit (e.g. “I’m doing well.”) but “good” when the verb is understood (e.g. “How are you?”—”Good.”). I am pretty sure that my usage strikes a balance between formal and colloquial standard English. Do you agree?

The Letter E Embellished

December 11th, 2007
Whence did the wondrous mystic art arise
Of painting speech and speaking to the eyes?
~William Massey

I was trying to write a letter calligraphically today, and for some reason I used little embellishments on my Es, like this:

Embellished Es

After showing the sample to my mom, who wasn’t to sure about the Es, I wondered where I had picked the technique up. A good amount of time searching the internet yielded no explanation, although I did notice some examples of Es like mine - you can see them in the top right quote on this picture and the second letter of this one. If anyone knows where it came from, I’d love to hear about it.