30 December 2010

Year in Review

A none-too-fond glance back at calendar year twenty-oh-ten:

  • Courses taught: 4

  • Students taught: 206

  • Number of undergraduates among them: 191

  • Number of those undergraduates older than my cat: 3

  • Amount of respect I can have for students born after 1990: 0

  • Plagiarists busted: 3

  • New books published in hardback: 2

  • Old books published in paperback: 2

  • Old books published in audiobook format: 1

  • Highest Amazon.com ranking for any of those books: 110

  • Lowest Amazon.com ranking for any of those books: 4,959,391

  • Articles published: 6

  • Book reviews published: 12

  • Journal volumes published: 1

  • Articles and reviews edited, copy edited, and proofread: 71

  • Typescripts of new books delivered to publishers: 1

  • Single-spaced pages of notes accumulated for the next trade project: 574

  • New book contracts received: 2

  • Nights in which I got an adequate amount of sleep: 0

  • Conferences attended: 6

  • Presentations delivered: 3

  • Estimated expense of travel, lodging, and registration at these conferences: $1,600

  • Conference trips paid for, in whole or in part, by Rutgers: 0

  • Amount spent on two taxi rides in a single week in April: $395

  • Expert opinions delivered in legal cases: 2

  • Radio interviews to flog The Lexicographer's Dilemma: 5

  • Letters of recommendation written: 22

  • Letters written for promotion and tenure cases: 4

  • Anonymous referee's reports on scholarly books: 7

  • Anonymous referee's reports on scholarly articles: 11

  • Hours wasted in pointless committee service: 1.3 x 1024

  • Visits to hospital emergency rooms: 3

  • Encounters with boneheaded doctors who made my condition far worse, in one case requiring an additional trip to the emergency room: 2

  • Tracks newly added to my iPod: 10,012

  • Number of days it would take to hear those songs, listening around the clock: 28.5

  • Estimated ounces of tea drunk: 4,380

  • Estimated milligrams of pure caffeine in that tea: 46,538

  • Estimated ounces of wine drunk: 2,950

  • Estimated ounces of pure alcohol in that wine: 369

  • Number of Four Lokos it would take to get the same buzz, for caffeine and alcohol respectively: 298, 128

  • Inadequately acknowledged ripoffs of Harper's Index: 1

16 November 2010

Near-Death Experience

First post in a long, long time. Shame on me. Life has been uncommonly busy the last few months.

It didn't help that I lost most of a day yesterday to a health-related much-ado-about-&c.

I've been feeling a little chest congestion for the last few days — nothing serious, but it can't hurt to be sure, right? So, as soon as I arrived at work yesterday morning, I stuck my head into the Ruckers health services to rule out bronchitis. I thought they'd slap a stethoscope on me, ask me to breathe deeply twice, and send me on my way.

Nope: they interpreted "congestion" as "difficulty breathing," then somehow added "chest pains" to the list (where did that come from?). They said they couldn't in good conscience let me leave without zipping me to the emergency room. My protestations were in vain: clearly I was in denial. I got to enjoy an ambulance ride to the hospital, all of four blocks away ("Are you able to stand on your own, sir?"), where I experienced four hours of that unique combination of stifling boredom, extreme discomfort, and nagging anxiety you find only in a hospital. I got EKGs, X-rays, blood work, all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly things, and they was inspecting, injecting every single part of me, and they was leaving no part untouched.

Finally they released me, in more or less the condition I was when I came in.

Well, less.
I nearly had to go back to another ER a few hours later.

During the day I listed for the nurse all the drugs I take. They then treated me with Albuterol to ease the congestion in the lungs. That'd be swell, except that, as I discovered when I read my discharge instructions on the train ride home, Albuterol interacts very badly with one of my meds: the warning sheet advises "extreme caution" if you take them within two weeks of one another. I made a few calls, and my pharmacist and my internist warned me that I might experience tachycardia and hypotension. Boy, they wasn't kidding: all night my heart was pounding at 120+ bpm and my blood pressure was 103/57.

I've come to accept that I'm probably not marked for great things in this world. I do hope, though, to have something slightly more impressive on my tombstone than "He died at forty-three of post-nasal drip."

01 June 2010

You Could Look It Up: Suggestions Solicited

My next trade book is under contract; it's provisionally titled You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Babylon to Wikipedia. It'll be a whirlwind tour of reference books, broadly understood — dictionaries (general and specialized), encyclopedias, atlases, concordances, medical and legal compendia, sports statistics, even telephone directories and tables of logarithms. I'll also include plenty of digressions, in the form of sidebars or interchapters, on things like the history of alphabetical order, people who've read reference books from cover to cover, ghost words and mountweazels, and so on.

Something that has come to me since I got the contract: I'm keen to get input from prominent bookish people on their experience with reference works. I'd love to know what, say, Umberto Eco or Richard Posner have to say about reference books. I'm therefore putting together a very brief questionnaire — maybe five or six questions — and sending them to a few dozen such people. I'll go through channels when possible, and resort to cold-calling when necessary. The answers will then appear throughout the book in sidebars, little boxes, to accompany the main text.

There are two things on which I'll be grateful for advice from readers. The first is whom to approach. I've got a few dozen names in mind already, including people like Sven Birkerts, Alberto Manguel, Paul Krugman, Oliver Sacks, Mary Beard, David Lodge, Pierre Bayard, Simon Schama, Doris Lessing, Atul Gawande, Amartya Sen, Seamus Heaney, A. S. Byatt, Steven Pinker, Alan Lightman, and Isabel Allende. I know how to get to some of them, and will be looking for approaches to others.

I welcome suggestions for more names to add to the list — who will have interesting things to say about dictionaries, encyclopedias, and so on? I'd like the list to be as international as possible (European publishers have expressed interest in the book); I also want diversity of interests: poets, novelists, historians, theologians, scientists, legal scholars, and so on.

The second question is what exactly to ask them. Requests for free-form essays is unlikely to get any replies; instead I need a small number of focused questions. Here's what I've got now:

  • Is there a reference work you couldn't do your job without?
  • Do you have a favorite obscure reference work that deserves to be better known?
  • Do you have a favorite entry in a reference work?
  • What was the first reference work that caught your attention when you were young and why?
  • How do you organize your own reference collection in your house, apartment, or office?
I'm not especially happy with these, but don't know where else to go. So: what to add, delete, clarify? I'm after amusing and enlightening nuggets, not profound meditations.

09 April 2010

This Is Why We Have Adverbs

A story in the New York Times comes with this wonderful lede:

Doctors at Bagram Air Base were stunned to find unexploded ordnance lodged in an Afghan soldier’s head. They removed it very carefully.