The Writer’s Almanac for September 19, 2018

Sonnet 91 by William Shakespeare. Public domain. (buy now)

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force;
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill;
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
But these particulars are not my measure;
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost,
Of more delight than hawks or horses be;
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:
Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
All this away, and me most wretched make.


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.”


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 1995The 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.


Today is the birthday of author William Golding (books by this author), born in Newquay, Cornwall, England (1911). His first novel is also his best-known book: Lord of the Flies (1954), written while Golding was working as a schoolteacher. It was rejected 21 times before a new editor at Faber & Faber of London took a chance on it. It didn’t sell well at first, but enjoyed a revival in the 1960s, and is now one of the most frequently taught (and challenged) books in schools and colleges. Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1983.


On this date in 1940, Polish soldier Witold Pilecki allowed himself to be captured by the Nazis. He was a captain in the Polish resistance, and he wanted to find out what was going on near the town of Auschwitz. His superior officers believed it was just a German camp for prisoners of war, but Pilecki suspected that something else was happening there. He hounded his commanders until they finally gave him the go-ahead to join a crowd of Polish citizens who were being rounded up by Nazi soldiers. Pilecki, who left behind a wife and two young children, was taken to Auschwitz along with the others, just as he’d planned. He was given a number — 4859 — and soon realized the true purpose of the camp.

Pilecki remained there for nearly three years, during which time he smuggled out detailed reports of the atrocities with the camp’s dirty laundry. His reports of gas chambers and ovens to dispose of human remains were so horrific that no one in the Polish underground believed him. And even though his reports made their way to the British and the Americans, suggesting ways to liberate the camp, still nothing was done. Meanwhile, he did what he could to arrange escapes for his fellow inmates.

Finally, in 1943, frustrated with the lack of action, Pilecki faked a case of typhus and escaped from the hospital. After the war, the Polish underground recruited him to spy on the country’s new occupiers, the Soviets. But he was captured by the Polish Communist regime and executed for espionage, in 1948. His story was suppressed until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

 


Good news: The Writer's Almanac is back as a podcast and an email newsletter! Follow TWA on Facebook, sign up for the email newsletter, and check your favorite podcast app for "The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor."

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


 

Garrison's weekly columns

For full list, click here

It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

November 3, 2018

Saturday

5:00 pm and 8:00 pm

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

November 3, 2018

Garrison Keillor performs with duet partner Lynne Peterson and longtime collaborator & pianist Richard Dworsky.

5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Radio
The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Oscar Wilde (Dublin, 1854), who said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: October 20, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: October 20, 2007

From Charlotte, NC with legendary blues singer Nappy Brown, big time country artist Suzy Bogguss, prodigious ragtime pianist Ethan Uslan, and national banjo champion Charles Wood.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for October 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844), who said both “God is dead” and “[W]e should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” 

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for October 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 14, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet E.E. Cummings (1894), who spent his adulthood painting in the afternoons and writing in the evenings.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for October 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 13, 2018

It’s the birthday of singer-songwriter Paul Simon (1941), who played the last show of his farewell tour last month in his hometown of Queens, New York.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for October 12, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 12, 2018

“Life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave, and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another along the way.” ––Alice Childress, born this day in 1916

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for October 11, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 11, 2018

It’s the birthday of French novelist François Mauriac (1885), who regularly engaged in celebrity feuds with the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and others.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for October 10, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 10, 2018

Today we celebrate the birthdays of composers Thelonious Monk (1917), Vernon Duke (1903), and Giuseppe Verdi (1813).

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

It was on this day in 1635 that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “newe and dangerous opinions.” He left and founded Providence, Rhode Island.

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

From the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore, Maryland, with legendary songwriter-singer Carole King, barrelhouse blues-woman Deanna Bogart, gospel singer Jearlyn Steele, and more.

Read More
Writing

It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

Read More

Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

Read More

Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

Read More

Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

Read More

Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

Read More

Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

Read More

A man watching his own heartbeat

I lay on a couch at a clinic last week, watching my echocardiogram on a screen, and made a firm resolution, the tenth or twelfth in the past couple years, to buckle down and tend to business, fight off distraction and focus on the immediate task, walk briskly half an hour a day, eat green leafy vegetables, drink more liquids, and finish the projects I’ve been working on for years. Seeing your heartbeat is a profound moment.

Read More

Old man in the grandstand, talking

I drove through a Minnesota monsoon last week — in the midst of cornfields, sheets of rain so heavy that cars pulled off the road — in other words, a beautiful summer storm, of which we’ve had several this year, as a result of which we are not burning, as other states are. Life is unjust, we do not deserve our good fortune, and so it behooves us to be quiet about it.

Read More

My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

A string of blazing summer days in New York City and after the sun went down, perfect summer nights, diners in sidewalk cafes along Columbus Avenue, dogs walking their owners, and my wife walking me. “You need to get out and move around,” she says. “It’s not healthy to sit at a desk all day.” And she is right. I am stuck on a memoir I’m writing, pondering the wrong turns of my early years. How much do you want to know? Are you sure?

Read More

Two options for staying in touch:

  • Subscribe to the “Garrison Keillor” list to receive a weekly email including his latest column, excerpts from Garrison’s books, news about upcoming shows and projects, plus links to performances, TWA & APHC merchandise, and poetry features.
  • Subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” list to receive a DAILY email that includes the classic “on this day in history” section, a poem, and a link to listen to that day’s episode.

Prairie Home Productions News


Get In Touch
Send Message