Sep. 19, 2011


by Matt Cook

His grandmother, for example, was pathologically no-nonsense.
He was aware, then, that his nonsense was
Built on the backs of a lot of other people's no-nonsense.
He would have apologized to everyone for his nonsense,
But he understood how little sense it made to apologize for nonsense.

It was difficult enough for him to drive a motor vehicle.
Driving was a function where nonsense was not permitted.
When the traffic light turns green, you absolutely must go,
Whether or not it is the truly beautiful thing to do.
He was the first generation in his family to have a problem with this.

"Nonsense" by Matt Cook, from Eavesdrop Soup. Manic D Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1982, Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon, suggested on an online bulletin board that the users type a colon, a hyphen, and a closing parenthesis when their post was intended as a joke. "Read it sideways" he wrote, so readers would realize it looked like a smiley face :-).

Fahlman's wasn't the only suggested solution to the growing problem of users misreading the tone of sarcastic comments. Three days prior, one Carnegie Mellon user posted a hypothetical physics problem involving an elevator, fire, and mercury. Another responded by posting a facetious warning that the department's elevator had been burned and contaminated, intending to imply that someone had attempted the experiment. Trouble was, plenty of people didn't get the joke. The following day, after the rumor had finally been put to rest, someone wrote, "Maybe we should adopt a convention of putting a star (*) in the subject field of any notice that is to be taken as a joke." It is, of course, impossible to know whether the writer intended this post as a legitimate course of action or as a joke. Regardless, numerous people chimed in with various suggestions, the earnestness of which was, again, difficult to determine. Was the poster who recommended using the percent sign instead of the asterisk sincere? Possibly. The one who proclaimed that the ampersand looks "like a jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter"? Probably not. The one who developed a complete taxonomy and scale of joke types and values, complete with a coding schema? These were computer scientists, after all.

It was then that Fahlman proposed his smiley face, the first-ever emoticon (although that term, a portmanteau of "emotion" and "icon," wasn't regularly used until 1994). In the same post, he postulated that perhaps a colon, hyphen, and opening parenthesis — the frowny face — could be used to indicate serious posts. Other posters began using the smiley face to mark jokes, and the convention quickly spread — and mutated to all kinds of typographical pictographs. Fahlman's frowny face, however, came to express sadness rather than earnestness.

To the critics who lament that good writers needn't express themselves with pictures but with, rather, words, Fahlman responds on his university Web page. "To a large degree, I agree ...," he writes. "Perhaps the email smiley face has done more to degrade our written communication than to improve it." But, he continues, the average Internet user doesn't have the literary skills of Shakespeare or Twain, and isn't capable of rendering jokes as exquisitely as they. He further argues that the Internet is such a categorically different medium than traditional publishing  — one that encourages such call-and-response from readers — that to not have a way to clearly define a joke invites too much misunderstanding and chaos. "Besides," he writes, "Shakespeare's work is full of clichés and his spelling was atrocious." He follows this with a smiley face :-)

Fahlman was the first documented user of a modern-day emoticon, but he wasn't the first to conceive such a thing. In fact, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov himself approved of the concept in 1969. When asked in an interview for The New York Times how he would rank himself among his contemporaries, he replied, "I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question."

Today is the 55th anniversary of the 1st International Congress of Black Writers and Artists, held at the Sorbonne in Paris and which opened on this day in 1956. A gathering of noted delegates from all over the world, the first Congress hosted lectures and debates about the legacy and future of black cultural and artistic influence. Senegalese expatriate Alioune Diop, the founder of the literary journal Présence Africaine, gave the inaugural address, in which he presented a central argument of the Congress: "Here is the outrageous issue of people without culture. Although the true culprits in the tragedy of colonization intentionally created such a myth, it is still surprising that generations of cultural and spiritual authorities have considered that men may live in society without having a culture. [...] There are no people without culture."

Although American delegates included intellectual Horace Mann Bond, responsible for directing the research in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, case, and writer Richard Wright, the famed author of Native Son, one notable absence was marked in a letter mailed a few weeks prior. "I am not present at your meeting today because the United States government will not grant me a passport for travel abroad," wrote W.E.B. Du Bois.

Many letters and telegrams of support came from all over the globe, including from anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and painter Pablo Picasso. Algerian poet Jean Sénac composed a poem inspired by the event, which took place just two years into the Algerian war of independence from France. It was titled "Greetings to Black Writers and Artists."
... O my brothers! If our syntax is not
in itself an expression of our freedom,
if our books are still heavy
on the docker's shoulders,
if our voice is not a guiding star
for the railwayman or for the shepherd,
if our poems are not the weapons of Justice
in the hands of our people,
let us be still, then!
Black brothers, Algerian writers
dare to raise their voices while their brothers are falling,
This little flute, from our mountains,
through which liberty rushes,
combines with man's breath
and sings!

It was on this day in 1778, four years after the first meeting of the Continental Congress, more than a year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a year before the drafting of the United States Constitution and three years before authorizing a charter for the country's first bank, the Committee on Finance presented the first national budget.

On this day in 1796, President George Washington's farewell address was printed in the Daily American Advertiser as an open letter to American citizens. The most famous of all his "speeches," it was never actually spoken; a week after its publication in this Philadelphia newspaper, it was reprinted in papers all over the country.

The address was a collaborative effort that took Washington months to finalize, incorporating the notes that James Madison had prepared four years prior when Washington intended to retire after his first term, as well as numerous edits from Alexander Hamilton and a critique from John Jay. Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were accustomed to writing collectively; together they had published the Federalist Papers, 85 newspaper articles published throughout the 13 states to introduce and explain their proposal for a Constitution.

Now only eight years old, the Constitution was in danger, Washington feared, of falling prey to the whims of popular sentiment. In 6,086 words, his address seeks to encourage the nation to respect and maintain the Constitution, warning that a party system — not yet the governmental standard operating procedure — would reduce the nation to infighting. He urged Americans to relinquish their personal or geographical interests for the good of the national interest, warning that "designing men" would try to distract them from their larger common views by highlighting their smaller, local differences. "You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection," he wrote.

Washington also feared interference by foreign governments, and as such extolled the benefits of a stable public credit to be used sparingly, recommending avoiding debt by "cultivating peace" and "by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned." Although he conceded that "the execution of these maxims" — or, in layman's terms, balancing the budget — was the responsibility of the government, Washington wagged a finger at individual citizens too, reminding them that "it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant ..."

On this day in 1995, The Washington Post and The New York Times jointly published "Industrial Society and Its Future," the 35,000-word manifesto of the Unabomber, a serial mail bomber who'd promised to renounce terrorism if either paper published his writing in its entirety.

The publication came after 17 years of violence from the Unabomber, a campaign he waged against modern industrialization under the name "Unabomb," using the plural pronoun "we" to suggest a group effort. But the FBI knew the terrorist was a single white male with ties to Chicago, Salt Lake City, and the San Francisco Bay Area, and they hoped that distributing his writing would help catch him.

Criticized as capitulating to a criminal and decried as setting a dangerous precedent for copycats, the newspapers were vindicated when a social worker named David Kaczynski read the Manifesto and noticed similarities between it and letters his brother, Ted, had published decades earlier. Estranged from his recluse sibling for a decade, David still wished to remain anonymous when he tipped the FBI off to the Unabomber's possible identity, but the truth was leaked as Kaczynski's remote cabin was raided and the FBI discovered evidence that Ted Kaczynski was, in fact, the Unabomber. After paying off his own legal bills resulting from the case, David donated the remainder of his $1 million reward to the families of his brother's victims.

It's the birthday of writer and editor Roger Angell (books by this author), born in New York (1920). His mother and stepfather were well known in the literary world — Katharine Sergeant Angell, the longtime New Yorker fiction editor, and E.B. White, the essayist and children's author — but Angell attributes his earliest cultural education to his father, a lawyer who hired a grad student to tutor the 11-year-old Angell by reading progressive magazines and watching silent film. It was what inspired him, perhaps, to sneak out of gym class to go to the movies two or three times a week in his early teens, which he claims taught him storytelling.

Of course, he learned a thing or two about the writer's life from watching his stepfather working on deadline for The New Yorker each week, when — as Angell told New York Magazine — White would send his column off at the end of a long day with the proclamation, "It isn't good enough." The New Yorker's constant presence in Angell's childhood had another side effect: He memorized the caption for every cartoon the magazine had published in its existence, at that point about seven or eight years.

But it wasn't until his mother had retired from the magazine, after Angell had been the editor of the Air Force's weekly brief while stationed in the Pacific, and after he'd been an editor for Holiday magazine, that The New Yorker finally called him home in 1956. He's worked there ever since. Although today he's best known for writing about baseball, a career trajectory he attributes not to intention but to a fan's enthusiasm for the game, Angell has also served as a fiction editor since his first day on the job, editing writers like John Updike, Woody Allen, and many others. He's also written the magazine's annual Christmas poem, a longstanding and humorous tradition, since 1976. Angell has published a number of collections of his articles; he was 79 when he published his first full-length book, A Pitcher's Story. His most recent, Let Me Finish, collects personal essays on his childhood, service in WWII, and, of course, his storied career.

He's said, "Experienced writers know that what they've done can always be better; a book is just something you had to let go of in the end."

And, comparing books and baseball, he's said, "... each have formal chapters. There are wonderful beginnings that don't stand up and boring beginnings that are great in the end. You just don't know. They're both, baseball and reading, for people who aren't afraid of being bored."

It's the birthday of William Golding (books by this author), born in St. Columb Minor, England (1911). The author of Lord of the Flies, Golding submitted his manuscript for publication 21 times before it was finally accepted.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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