Zazzlebook (notebook review)

Through a quirk of holiday sales that Zazzle may not have intended to turn out the way it did, I received a free copy of one of the notebooks I put up on my store this summer.* I picked one with a black and white image, so I can’t speak to the vibrancy of a color print; but I can complain that the black doesn’t seem quite black, in part because of the glossy cover reflecting light where black would just absorb it all. The glossy cover is also, of course, a wondrous fingerprint magnet.

The notebook advertises 60# or 90 gsm paper, which is the same weight as my Clairefontaine staple-bound notebook has. The paper is smooth, though not buttery like the CF (so it’s probably better for pencils than the CF would be). It’s white, but not blindingly so. It holds up to the pens I use – a variety of gel pens (Uniball Signo 207 0.5mm, Zebra Sarasa 0.7mm) and fineliners (Stabilo 88, 0.4mm). There’s a little shadowing on the back of the page I tested, but no bleed-through; the darker colors of the fineliners threatened to bleed if I wrote too slowly but never quite did. I even tried a silver Sakura Pentouch paint pen (0.7mm) with no bleed. Clairefontaine is better, but this is good.

The lines are dotted and a nice, narrow rule (maybe a hair over 6mm), but they are pitch black, which makes reading what you’ve written noticeably harder than if they were a nice middle gray. The margins (especially the gutter) are too wide, wasting quite a bit of writing area for the sake of white space. The pages are not perforated.

Binding closes at the first page instead of the last.

Binding closes at the first page instead of the last.

The Wire-o binding on my notebook was done the wrong way round, so it meets in front of the first page instead of after the last. I have a feeling that the early pages will get torn up by the wire, particularly from the cut-off wire ends at the top and bottom. Furthermore, the binding is uneven – nearly open in the middle and closed awkwardly at the ends (instead of a round “o” shape, it’s more of a football, as if it were done by hand and not very well).

The notebook has a soft cover, which was nowhere officially specified on the product page. It’s not just soft, either — it’s thinner than the covers on my Clairefontaine notebook, as well as a wire-bound Whitelines notebook. It doesn’t feel like the kind of cover that creases if you look at it wrong, but it does feel like the edges will be worn and beat to hell before I’ve used 1/4 of the pages.

At a minimum regular price of $13, the only reason to buy this notebook is the choice of custom cover designs. If you don’t care that much about the cover, Clairefontaine and Rhodia notebooks have somewhat better paper with much better rule lines and margins (among the ones I’ve tried, anyway). And Whitelines offers a style of rule that all but disappears as you write; their wire binding is much better done; and their pages are perforated (although the paper won’t hold up as well to inky pens). And they’re cheaper.

I really wish it were better, but on a generous day, the Zazzle notebook is worth half its minimum list price.

* Free is not quite accurate. In fact, they are paying me a dollar and change as a referral fee; yes, I referred myself.


Meaning Is in the I (fourth ModPo essay)

(The week’s topic was aleatory, or chance, poetry. Bonus points if you recognize all of the hat-tips in the title; I intended three of them.)


Here I have created a mesostic using the seed word “wandering” with Rae Armantrout’s “The Way”* as my oracle. I chose this combination because I would describe my own mind as peregrine, and “wandering” links that with the shifting “I” in Armantrout’s poem. I didn’t want to add deliberate meaning to the experiment, so this is the unedited result from the mesostomatic.

The resulting grammar is unconventional but not nonsensical. “Pew announces only bad winter” reads like the clipped syntax of news headlines – a bad winter is the only forecast we get from the pew. And “word is scenes gasp,” with a comma after “is,” acquires a conversational tone; “scenes gasp” could indicate the bad winter – a season of “scenes” where everything holds its breath, waiting for the spring. We could even read “pew” as the research group, suggesting a prediction of a chilly post-election civil/political climate.

More interesting than a particular meaning is that we can find meaning at all in a poem that came about through a pseudorandom, deterministic process where no specific meaning could have been intended. This reminds us what pattern detectors we humans are – we seek patterns and meaning everywhere, so much so that we often see them where they aren’t (both for good reason, ask any evolutionist). Finding meaning in chance poems shows that this applies to language as much as anything else, and it also invites us to ask what meaning really is.

Douglas Hofstadter wrote in Gödel, Escher, Bach that “meaning is an automatic by-product of our recognition of any isomorphism.” A heady statement, but he was discussing the way that no message comes through as uncoded, pure meaning (e.g., this essay is coded in English); an isomorphism is a relationship between two things, “mapping” one onto the other (like a translation). Meaning happens when you make the connection between them. There are all kinds of things (objects, ideas, experiences) that bear a relationship to each other without anyone intending it. The “code” of chance poems may not be organized and deliberate, but if something in it makes sense to you, then you’ve recognized a relationship – meaning has happened. In this sense, chance poems have whatever meaning their readers find in them.

But I think it’s more than that. That they have whatever meaning readers find is itself a (meta) meaning of the chance poem – the fact that meaning belongs to each person who encounters the poem. In a traditional poem, the poet tries to control what meaning the reader sees, but if the readers don’t recognize the intended meaning in it, it’s unsuccessful; that meaning isn’t there. The fact that language is such that it can so often be non-intentionally arranged into something that seems meaningful and, conversely, that we are such that we can find meaning in such arrangements of words may be another meaning.

Finally, there are the questions themselves: what does this mean? how do I find meaning in this noise? if something non-intentional can have meaning, then what is meaning?

We are all too familiar with these questions in another context: faced with the claim that the universe and life and we came about through non-intentional, deterministic processes, the religious ask, “Then what’s the point? What value or meaning can there be in life if everything exists by coincidence?” Atheists seem to have little trouble finding these things. Indeed, many exclaim that it is all the more wonderful that there is such order and complexity in the universe, and that we are here, if no one has been there deliberately making it so. And it is up to us to determine or create meaning in our lives.

Some people will find meaning in chance poems; some will not. Either way, art demands we look at its objects in new ways, and here, the object most in question is meaning itself.

* Read Armantrout’s poem here, and find a PoemTalk discussion of it here. We read this in the second week of the course, when we saw a variety of Dickinsonian and Whitmanian poets (she is Dickinsonian).

Collaborative spirit and a community of music

Confession: I love The Sing-Off. I am not a fan of the term ‘fan’ (it makes objects out of both appreciator and appreciated), but if I’m to be called a fan of anything, let it be The Sing-Off. Those who follow me on Twitter may have picked up on this over the past few days, ever since NBC announced the show’s cancellation. (…or any time I watched an episode last fall, for that matter.) Thanks, to them, for putting up with me; of course, many of my followers being space tweeps, they understand seriously nerding out about something they love. They’ll light the Twittersphere ablaze if anything beautiful and important in a space program is at risk, which is what got me to pay real attention to Twitter in the first place.

But I digress. I want you, chers lecteurs, to understand why I love The Sing-Off, because this isn’t like any other show I’ve ever loved–not like The Pretender, not like Firefly, not even like its own closest (in a way) competitor, The Voice.* Unlike every other singing competition I have seen, and in spite of its own competitive trappings, The Sing-Off seems at heart to harbor a collaborative spirit.

The judges are not producers or mere critics. They are beloved and respected musicians in their own rights, whose enthusiasm for their art and for a cappella shines and bubbles and sighs and shouts at every turn. They are–dare I say it?–nerds about music. And unabashed, incorrigible nerds they are at that. How else could Ben Folds discuss, on air, the “rubbing seconds” in a performance, along with other technical aspects that surely he knows go over the heads of a good portion of the audience? How else could Shawn Stockman let himself go on a flight of fancy like the one he took after a performance of “one of the cheesiest songs ever created”? That flight deserves quoting:

If I can be cheesy for a second, it felt like I, like, sprouted wings and I just jumped off the Grand Canyon, and just flew away, and just looked at rivers, and deer, and birds, and other birds, and I was saying “hi!” [waves]…

And the result is that the groups actually get some substantive feedback on their performances, while we the viewers get a chance to peek inside the practice room and see what it’s like in there, to learn about how full and complex music is made with nothing but the human voice, and to see raw passion on both sides of the judges’ bench.

After Delilah schools you on loyalty, Ben’ll school you on the chromatic scale.

I’ve always loved the sound of a cappella music. Take 6, Acappella, and Vocal Union got plenty of air time on my family’s 13-hour road trips to visit family in Kansas; Chanticleer and the King’s Singers were more at home on my father’s vintage stereo; and as a kid I heard Acappella and Chanticleer live in concert. So hearing groups like Committed, the Whiffenpoofs, and Groove for Thought in the second season of the show felt like coming home. As for the vocal tricks of a group like Pentatonix or the harmonies of Afro Blue, I nearly fell out of my chair more than once (and the judges jumped out of theirs a few times, themselves); I don’t do that lightly. Promise. And I still lack words to describe those moments.

But given my Mennonite background, listening alone was never enough for many of the people I’ve known. I was never at the center of it myself (too much a choir voice, mine, and too timid, me), but cousins and classmates formed a cappella groups at college, and when members moved and a group broke up, they found other singers to connect with and formed new groups, and the cycle went on. A cappella as I’ve seen it is a community all its own, where the most important thing is to keep making music–wherever you are, be it a big stage or a quiet stairwell, and whoever you are with, music runs in your blood and you can’t help but keep finding ways to let it out.

The Sing-Off gave us a glimpse of this community, as people who had barely met came together for the show and made something almost magical. We saw it in the way members of past groups, who may have been competing against each other one year, united from all parts of the country the next and returned with performances more amazing than before. We even got to see brother bring brother into the fold. This is how the a cappella world works, forming ripples and eddies in the river of vocal performance. I know of nothing else like it, and I want to keep watching from my little vantage here on the periphery.

Besides, they gave us some damn good music.

Want to save The Sing-Off? There’s a petition that has received over 14,000 signatures; there’s a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter; and you can use the hashtag #SaveTheSingOff to join the conversation.

* I should mention this: It saddens me to see how some people are showing their support of The Sing-Off by denigrating The Voice. That’s not the point here; it shouldn’t have to be one or the other. They are very different shows, with different focuses, and they are both wonderful. They share a major strength in that they both focus on promoting singers for great singing, regardless of genre, and they encourage unique styles instead of some formulaic ‘right’ way to sing. Think about the variety of genres in The Voice’s final four: a soulful R&B artist, a brilliant operatic singer (opera! I mean, opera, on popular network television!), a gravelly-voiced rocker, and a jack of all trades whose personal niche shaped and reshaped itself before our eyes. The Voice, like The Sing-Off, features experienced performers as judges (and, uniquely, as coaches). I love The Voice, too, and I want it to stick around a good long while.


This is the last one from the binder of last summer. Most of it, anyway.

Once I was a poet. Once I was a painter, an artist, a potter. Once I was a singer-soloist-soprano. An actress, once, an activist. Once religious, once atheist. Once I refused to take a picture with my brothers on a mountain, for fear of the edge and of them. Once I was a pianist, once I played flute. Once, for ever so brief a time, I studied violin. Once I was a ten-year-old programmer. Once I was a Sleuth. Twice I was Big Bird, once a dragonslayer. Once I was kissed by a kindergarten classmate. Once I thought I’d believe anything for a boy. Once I was a fool. (Maybe I still am.) Once I climbed three pitches on slick rock in West Virginia. Once I hiked seventeen miles in two days, two miles up in the middle of November. Once I was an outside defender. Once I backpacked for three days in Kentucky. Once I rode a horse in the New Zealand countryside. Once I was the smartest girl in the class. Once I invented a written code. Once I was many things.

Science Book Challenge Review: Dance for Two (Lightman)

When I was a junior undergrad, a fellow student–a physics major–recommended Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams as one of his favorite books. Having had a small taste of physics in a mechanics course that fall, I was hungry for more–especially since we stopped just short of an introduction to relativity. I picked up a copy to read over winter break, and that novel became one of my favorites, as well. Five years later, I’ve finally gotten around to reading more of Lightman’s work.

Dance for Two is a collection of essays centered on the interplay, differences, and similarities between science and art. “It seems to me,” Lightman observes, “that in both science and art we are trying desperately to connect with something–this is how we achieve universality. In art, that something is people, their experiences and sensitivities. In science, that something is nature, the physical world and physical laws.” And pure science, he believes, offers a kind of immortality akin to that of great art:

“Hundreds of years from now, when automobiles bore us, we will still treasure the discoveries of Kepler and Einstein, along with the plays of Shakespeare and the symphonies of Beethoven.”

The essays are themselves artfully written, sometimes vividly poetic, sometimes almost musical in their composition. The opening piece, “Pas de Deux,” describes the physical forces acting opposite a ballerina with no less delicacy than we imagine of the dance itself. It is as if she dances not alone on stage, but with all of nature as her partner, each move paired in exquisite synchrony.

Lightman balances fictional narratives and beautifully detailed explorations of natural processes with autobiographical essays on his own journey as a scientist. These latter range from a humorous tale about a semester-long lab project gone awry (Lightman, as he learned, was destined for theory, not the lab) to a poignant reflection on the early age at which scientists reach their peak. Above all, he brings a beauty and a human touch to science prose that I can recall seeing in no other author save Carl Sagan.

There are occasional digressions from the main science versus art theme. In one, “Progress,” Lightman expresses his concern about society’s headlong rush to assimilate every new technology we create; he cautions that “we cannot have advances in technology without an accompanying consideration of human values and quality of life.” In another he advocates the pursuit of pure science–science for science’s sake–arguing that what may seem useless entertains, changes our worldview, deals in truth (“there is no greater gift we can pass to our descendants”), and more practically, paves the way for uses we cannot predict. “If we stop paying for pure science today,” he argues, “there will be no applied science tomorrow.”

In all, Dance for Two is a pretty easy read, though the essays do sometimes show their age, as when Lightman writes that the universe is approximately 10 billion years old instead of the current estimate of about 13.7 billion years. Regardless, it is a delight to read, offering interesting comparisons to art and an engaging reminder of what drives us to do science. I would recommend it as readily as any science book I’ve read, and I plan to pick up another of his books soon, myself.


  • Scienticity: 4/5. It’s not all science, but I think there’s more tucked in here than you might notice at first glance.
  • Readability: 5/5. This seems like one of the easiest reads I’ve picked up recently, in the best way–it’s simply clear prose, never oversimplified or patronizing.
  • Hermeneutics: 4/5. Lightman clearly knows his stuff. In one or two of the vignettes, though, I struggled to find his meaning or intent (fun as they were).
  • Charisma: 5/5. If I could give 10/5, I would; his prose is spellbinding.
  • Recommendation: 5/5. Unreserved.