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Monday, December 07, 2009

The filter of memory

  I gush often about The Nation (Unconventional Wisdom Since 1865) (, my favorite newsweekly. It has a depth that corporate newspapers lack, includes opinions from people who aren't American (*gasp*!), and has had amazing cultural commentary, especially in the art and film criticism area.

The feature "Back Talk" includes short interviews with people working on a wide range of cultural products. Back Talk: Jarvis Cocker (, 9/14/09 edition) is a good example of a great, brief interview with the front man of the band Pulp. He is a musician, a curator, and dad with some interesting thoughts about things like the meaning of music, and whether some songs are too important to be randomly encountered on your mp3 player, whether music sampling can provide for the happy accidents and interpretations that would come from sampling from your memory instead of a digital source file, and involvement in creative culture. Excerpt:
Meltdown [a show Cocker curated] was about the fact that culture isn't something you consume. You can create it yourself; you can participate in it.... People have become spectators in their own life. The consumer ethos has infiltrated not just the way people live their lives but also the way they consume culture. I'm an old person, so I was brought up when punk rock happened, and the message was that you can do it yourself.
Making culture yourself is one of *the* major goals of life for me, so these short thoughts were inspiring.


Jarvis' commentary on the lack of bass in music now, due to the compressed mp3 file format and earbuds, led to a conversation about the digital age with my pals that was all that I love my friends for: with great faux-fortitude, we mocked the less-is-more of audio data compression, the lack of heat in digital fire, and my contention that it is much more difficult to steal souls in digital photography, since the file is too small and lossy to contain a soul.

I have GREAT friends.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A rose, by any other name, might be mistaken for something else entirely

  I spent part of this morning searching for a recipe that would modify the color of some of my wet collodion (1850s photographic process) images. I'm doing some work to show in a gallery (more on that when the event is scheduled), and since the gallerist likes a certain, old-school look, I am testing different recipes to better accommodate him. I was advised to seek out developer recipes using potassium nitrate.

Back in the day, potassium nitrate was called other things. I knew the names saltpeter, saltpetre, nitrate of potash, and nitrate of potassium, and I searched using all of those, but I couldn't find what I needed. It turned out that I already had reviewed part of the book containing the recipe, but I hadn't looked in the right place: I should have been searching for "nitrate of potassa."

Remind me to take up more sensible hobbies.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:35 PM

Monday, August 10, 2009

Turns of phrase

  Issue 29 of McSweeney's (, in addition to being a beautifully produced book, as always, contains a brief and very compelling horror story, perhaps most compelling brief horror story I've read in years. It is called A Record of Our Debts, by Laura Hendrix. It is about a plague, madness, and hysteria. In just 10 pages, it manages to convey dread in a way that many books take hundreds of pages to achieve.

I recommend it zealously.

Issue 29 has many strange and interesting stories, on an unexpected (well, unexpected if this weren't an issue of McSweeney's) range of topics and in different styles. There is a strange story called History Lesson by Nelly Reifler, which has some language I enjoyed turning over in my mind. You'll think the line that begins
But he held, in his heart's black capsule...
is the one I'm going to quote for you, but my first choice is actually
As if life were endless, which in this story it is not.
Such a line to deliver early in a short story!

Issues 30 and 31 are still waiting for my attention...

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:03 PM

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I heart Fake Steve

  I have always adored the REAL Steve Jobs. As a young geek back in... the day, let's just say, he was a vaguely religious figure to me: someone who connected the geek world to the rest of the universe by sheer force of will. The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs ( is not written by the Steve Jobs I have admired: it is written by a witty, brutal impersonator. An impersonator with a micro-engineered sharp wit.

Fake Steve has posts with titles like, Ballmer: In future, when you scream at your miserable frozen piece of shit Windows PC, it will be smart enough to understand why you're angry. After reporters from Forbes started loitering at Apple hangouts, looking for dirt on Steve, he provided instructions on how to stalk people at Forbes, complete with tips on overwhelming the unarmed, sleepy guard. And oh, the post-liver-transplant commentary! Especially the comments mocking Palm, like these:
Palm, which has reinvented itself with a business model that basically involves doing whatever Apple does, only two years later, announced today that its CEO, Jon Rubinstein, is planning to receive a liver transplant.... Palm says Rubinstein's liver will have features that my liver lacks, though they won't say what those features are. Meanwhile Roger McNamee has been posting Facebook updates saying he has seen a working prototype of Ruby's liver and it totally blows my liver away. Just like the Pre blows away the iPhone, right?
The action hero photo of Fake Steve that serves as a profile image goes well with NY Times mocking commentary such as this:
I will tell you this about iLiver 2.0: It's nanoengineered, and it kicks ass. I wake up every morning feeling like Shaft, Superfly, James Bond and Kung Fu all put together. I'm bench-pressing twice my body weight, and I am so friggin ready to kick some low-rent tabloid hack wannabe ass that's it not even funny. So bring it, Brad Stone and you other jealous, sanctimonious gits at the New York Times. Seriously. Bring your A game, you clueless, classless...
well, I can stop there.

Real Steve Jobs doesn't have the time to share harsh commentary, notes about hanging out with Bono, his plans for putting LSD into the Palo Alto water supply, or any of the other valuable insights that Fake Steve does. So it is great that Fake Steve is providing this fabulous service.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)9:58 PM

Monday, May 18, 2009

All wrong

  He refused to leave.
I slept fully clothed
(if I slept at all)...
He entered my bed
so I ran away
and slept on a couch
in another town.
But now I am home
(in my home of years,
a home we once shared)
and nothing feels safe.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:43 PM

Saturday, February 28, 2009

One word for hippo fat

  I didn't pay attention when he my fellow vegetarian ordered dinner at Il Fornaio, but his dish arrived with ham pieces in it.

Yes, ham pieces. The long-time stuff of jokes told by my family about their faux-efforts to contaminate my meals. (As a housewarming gift, my mother planned to bring over a small, ceramic jar labeled "ham pieces.")

He didn't see ham pieces listed in the description on the menu. That's because the menu didn't admit that there was any form of pork in the dish... instead, it said that the dish contained "speck."

As a WordScraper player and long-time lover of, I actually knew that, according to the speck definition at speck could mean whale (or other marine mammal) fat... or hippo fat.

Which means that, in parts of the world, it is efficient to have a single word that means that. Which means... people eat or otherwise use hippo fat routinely enough to want to describe it in one syllable.

Here is one syllable: Euuuwwww.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Monday, January 12, 2009


  I love San Franciscans.

I *loved* it when the City was refurbishing some of the piers along the Embarcadero, and had a huge sign that said "an historic renovation," and someone, some wonderful person, found an enormous black marker and crossed out the n in an, since it violates American usage rules.

I loved riding on the streetcar recently, and hearing a girl explain to her girlfriend that she couldn't go out with some guy, because he didn't know the difference between a metaphor and a simile.

(Her own clarification to her girlfriend as to what the difference is, and why this is important in dating, I missed, but it couldn't have topped her original statement.)

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


  After the show, I flagged down a cab, explained that I live off Ocean, out near City College, and that it was fine with me if he wanted to take the freeway. We zoomed off.

The southeast Asian cabbie looked at me speculatively in the rear view mirror for a moment.

"Maybe you speak an Asian language? Vietnamese?" [pause] "Or Thai?"

It had been at least a month since anyone had told me that I sounded foreign, or as if my accent is influenced by a language other than English. I can sometimes go for up to four months at a time before this happens.

It is always people from abroad, but not always people who took up English as a second or later language. One of my (many?) ex's Northern Irish relatives was most direct: "You don't sound like an American." (That was pre Bush-II, I should mention, and perhaps less perjorative then.)

I've been asked by Germans if I used to speak German; Africans if I originally spoke French or an African language; Thais if I (secretly?) used to speak Thai... My denials are often met with disbelief.

I liked the east African security guard's explanation best. He said that everyone who learns English where it isn't commonly spoken has a certain approach to it, which is common across other non-native speakers, and is something that other non-native speakers can recognize. He said I have that approach, and that it is instantly noticeable.

My cabbie didn't buy my explanation that I had recently visited Japan, and he might be detecting that. He looked at me like I was hiding something. So I saved my breath about how I was born and raised in the City, and that my parents are both American-born. I don't think he would have believed me.


posted by Arlene (Beth)7:52 PM

Saturday, December 20, 2008

When wildlife pisses you off

  One of the MANY nice things about reading the BART Twitter feeds I had described earlier, is that the people who say witty things about BART often say witty things generally, or find amusement in the sort of humor I do.

So, the tweet about the frog I posted earlier led to a Twitter feed with a reference to Fuck You, Penguin (, which... Okay, how could I NOT go to a blog so named?

Sample entry titles: "Moose are the biggest dorks ever" and "Camels are played out."

The quality of the ranting is high. I recommend this.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)12:38 PM

Saturday, August 23, 2008



Law firms in San Francisco have many charms: aside from the many gilded-cage elements (how I used to sing!), nearly every firm has an abundance of quick-witted, lightning-tongued colleagues who immediately 'get' the most obscure play on words. The slightest polite dish can start a long, stimulating exchange of terse, cutting humor.

It's been a while since I was immersed in such an environment for most of my waking life, and it is showing in the worst ways. I'm not saying I regret ensconcing myself among sweet young people at a fruit beverage company; I'm just saying my wit is now dull enough to be safe for small, clumsy, unsupervised children to run down rickety stairs with, point up.

I have conversations with my colleagues that go something like this:
Me: He's such a surfer.
Her: Dude!
Me: [blank look]
My brain: Error 404, File Not Found.
Her: [Looks at me with concern, pulls thermometer out of her pocket and sticks it in my ear, writes prescription for a clue.]
I can't just blame my young colleagues for taking me so literally that I have learned to speak that way (!), and who instead reward my completely inappropriate honesty with peals of laughter. There are other influences. My home life, for example, provides a tough schedule (being woken up at 5:20 a.m. on weekdays is not conducive to sophisticated thought) and various discouragements from reading, writing, or other solitary pasttimes which make my brain go... I've been adapting to my circumstances, but not well.

I'm (somewhat) aware of the problem, and am trying to find new ways to remind my brain of the oddball directions it used to use to avoid banal thoughts. I might be able to get there again.


posted by Arlene (Beth)5:04 PM

Sunday, July 27, 2008

  Random dinners and how pasta names can be spelled.

Spinach linguini (which blogger spells linguine, which is also allowed) with pesto sauce, and a salad of heirloom tomatoes with marinated artichoke hearts, fresh avocado, extra virgin olive oil, and freshly ground pepper.

Fettuccini (which blogger spells fettuccine, same) with spicy tomato sauce, plus a spinach salad with poppy seed dressing, black olives, and Semifreddi's garlic croutons.

I mostly bring these up because I am fascinated with the alternative spellings of pasta names. Italian uses the same letters, so I am surprised there isn't a RULE. A rule that favors an i at the end, like I like it. I mean, e is usually silent after a consonant in English. You remember the Sesame Street song about silent e, right? ("Who can turn a man into a mane? Who can turn a can into a cane?...") You were singing right along with me there, weren't you? Don't worry, I won't tell anyone.


posted by Arlene (Beth)2:51 PM

Saturday, July 19, 2008



Thanks to my beloved Wikipedia's entry on "Snowclones," I now have a single word to describe comments like ďX is the new Y.Ē

This is useful! It means I can be more concise when I tell you that Iím not sure which is sillier: my colleague T's snowclone that "staying in is the new going out" or an explanation from colleague M that the new word for THAT is ďstaycation


posted by Arlene (Beth)12:20 AM

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Censorship should not be automated. Or perhaps it should, to make itself look more ridiculous.

Totally Gay Happy Meals / It is the end of the nutball Christian right. Here is your proof. To go, by Mark Morford (, 7/11/08):
It is this: The [American Family Association]'s Web site apparently has (or rather, had, until just recently) an auto-filter installed. So utterly terrified of anything remotely gay are these kindly folk that whenever the word 'gay' appeared in any news story on their site, their autobot automatically changed it to 'homosexual.' True.

Thus did it come to pass that many fine stories about American Olympic track and fieldster Tyson Gay become a whole lotta wacky stories about the epic struggles of some unlucky runner named 'Tyson Homosexual' to post some good numbers in the 100-meter dash. Poor guy.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Saturday, July 12, 2008



Eating small black plums

The transience of summer

Drips down from my chin.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:09 PM

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Evolve: Be Sarcastic.

A friend who knows me well sent me the article Sarcasm Seen as Evolutionary Survival Skill, by Meredith F. Small (, a light-hearted article about how not understanding sarcasm is a sort of pathology. The parahippocampal gyrus (, which helps people recognize certain visual contexts, may also play a role in recognizing social contexts, which is necessary to recognize sarcasm (which is context-based). People with injuries to this part of the brain often can no longer respond appropriately to sarcasm.

I already think that people who don't get sarcasm have something wrong with them: it is always nice when research backs this up.


Iíve recently ranted to friends about how some of my colleagues fail to Ďgetí and respond to either sarcasm or any complex humor. It's not just my humor, and it's not the contexts. Itís not just the youth of my colleagues: it isÖ some major lack of awareness on their part.

Example: I tried to persuade a male colleague to install SuperPoke in Facebook. To paraphrase our conversation:
Him: Iím not going to install SuperPoke. It doesnít sound right. Iím a poke giver, not a receiver, if you know what I mean.

Me: Thatís not what your best guy friend said about you last night.

Him: Yipes!
I told this story to several male friends, and they all IMMEDIATELY came up with better responses than ďyipesĒ that followed the same tone I had set. They gave comments like: my best guy friend was supposed to keep that secret between us; Iím only a receiver when thereís money involved; etc., all delivered wittily. They recognized that my comment was silly, and replied in kind.

I couldnít believe this colleague failed so miserably. So I wrote again, and gave him another chance, explaining that my preposterous slander against his reputation (in the e-mail chain that was still attached) was supposed to be responded to with an equally preposterous defense.

He replied that he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.

Meanwhile, within his same social network, another guy got commentary from a female friend. She wrote on his "wall" that she was bitterly offended that his girlfriend was not abundantly represented on his page, and demanded that the situation be remedied, all in an obviously over-the-top, humorous tone. Her next message was a response to an unseen reply, explaining the nature of hyperbole to him, explicitly stating that exaggeration is often used in humor. This indicates that he completely failed to get what she was doing.

Neither of these English-speaking boys is from the Bay Area, and text is a complex communications medium in which nuance requires more effort to interpret, but... But...

In contrast, my long-term friends SPOIL me with lightning fast, witty repartee. Thank you, sarcastic friends! No, really, I mean that sincerely. Really! Oh, come on...


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:29 PM

Sunday, May 04, 2008

  More soon. Really. I'm trying to clean my house. Like, REALLY clean my house. That sort of cleaning that involves taking all the rugs outside, washing the inside of the refrigerator after taking everything out of it, and other things that I would ordinarily do every so often, which I am now doing ALL AT ONCE, room by room, which shows that I'm in a once-a-year, full-on, full house cleaning fit. I'm making things better overall, but much, much worse in one particular room in this phase of the process.

And I'm also experiencing something a lot like 'cat-newspaper syndrome,' a syndrome I just made up based upon my past experiences. In this syndrome, your cat doesn't want to sit on your lap when you're reading or cold or calling to it, but if you try to read a newspaper, it will not only want to sit on your lap, but will actually want to sit on the newspaper so it is impossible for you to read it. It will then spend all day with you, especially if there was something in the paper you really want to read. But it's such a nice cat, and it's pleasant to have it sleeping on your lap. It's just... what remarkable timing.

I don't have a cat. And I read the news on-line. But otherwise this is very close to my domestic life when I try to write.

Anyway, more when I can post more.


posted by Arlene (Beth)9:20 PM

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Love is the answer.

There has been a conceptual battle among vandals in my neighborhood, with each volley writ large on the canvas of our neighborhood. Literally written large: the war of words involves three dimensional, ten foot wooden letters.

The Don Chee Loop bus transfer point on Ocean Avenue, near City College, is backed by the grassy slope of one of the two old reservoirs that now serve as City's main parking lot. As part of the plaza improvements made several years back, a sign was erected in what look like old, whitewashed railroad ties. For many years, the sign peacefully kept its original message: 'LOVE IS THE ANSWER.' It is a pleasant message. There were a few rare instances of vandalism - during the 2004 elections, some joker changed it to "Bush is the answer" for a day or two, making many of us wonder what the (undoubtedly unpleasant) question was - but the sign was quickly restored.

Lately, the volunteers or other community members who watch over the sign have been off duty. A free-for-all has ensued in recent weeks. The pieces of wood are limited, but they are also not fastened to anything. The sign has taken on Christian slogans, announcements about local kids, and a wide range of very brief declarations of presence (X was here) and of love.

While I prefer the original sign, I did like last week's short-lived "squid loves you," mostly because of its charming, near non-sequiter character. (The next morning, I was disappointed that squid had been replaced by Jesus. I mean, I already know that Jesus loves me. But Squid's love was a revelation.)

The constant revisions, done stealthily at odd hours, suggest a pent up demand for a public space to shout in within our neighborhood.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:09 PM

Sunday, December 30, 2007

  Passing and Last Words. My maternal grandfather passed away on Saturday, December 29th at the age of 89. He had cancer, and had been suffering from a variety of systemic health failures for the past year or so. The past few months had been especially difficult for him, and included several strokes.

His last words were an inquiry about the state of the bathroom plumbing in the house.

He surely wasn't aware that those would be his last words. He was relying on morphine to speak over the pain he was in. Even if he hadn't had the strokes over the days prior, it's not certain he had much control over what he was saying. If he was aware, it's hard to say if he would have chosen to speak at all, - he'd said his goodbyes to most of his children already - or to say something else. Who among us who plans to die of natural causes really knows for sure when we speak our last sentence?

I've always had this abstract idea of giving a speech before I die, which I blame on Shakespeare ("O, I die. [Three page monologue.]"). But that's not a very sensible plan, and there's no guarantee that any of us will die of natural causes. This odd end of my grandfather's sentences has gotten me thinking about the end differently. While I don't know the circumstances of my hopefully distant death, and frankly do not care to know in too much detail, I hope to live with the zeal that comes from not knowing how much time you have (and wanting to make the most of all of it), and to always choose my words thoughtfully.

I'm not being morbid: it is always good to choose words, rather than just have them thoughtlessly erupt from you. It's always good to be mindful of the feelings of others. You never know when a conversation with someone will be your last conversation with them (for any reason), and you'd might as well have that conversation, and all others you choose to have, be discussions of quality.

This is a challenge, but having your words mean something is a worthy goal. On that note, the comments you are about to make about how I blog too much should be carefully considered and reconsidered before you e-mail them to me, my beloved smart*sses.


posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

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