Thursday, February 23, 2017

How to improve writing (no. 70)

The page-ninety test was a Ford Madox Ford habit: “turning to page ninety of any edition of an author . . . and then quoting the first paragraph of reasonable length” as a way to gauge a writer’s prose. Here is the first paragraph of reasonable length from page ninety of a recent book about the history of handwriting. “James” is the novelist Henry:

By the 1890s, James began dictating all his novels to a secretary, who typed the author’s words as he said them aloud. At first James found it hard to find such an amanuensis who would understand his words. As he put it, “The young typists are mainly barbarians, and the civilized here are not typists,” he declared, noting that hiring a woman was “an economy” over his previously male secretary.
I see a number of problems:

~ The use of by with began with is an odd way to mark the onset of action. For instance: “By the 1980s, I began to use an Apple computer.” “By the 1980s, I was using” or “In the 1980s, I began using” sounds more natural.

~ “All his novels”: all is unnecessary.

~ There is no difference between saying and saying aloud, and no other way to dictate than by speaking (or using sign language).

~ “James found it hard to find”: awkward repetition.

~ Amanuensis, though a word James favored, looks like an inelegant variation on the word secretary. And there is no difference between an amanuensis and “such an amanuensis.”

~ “As he put it” and “he declared”: putting the one before the quotation and the other after suggests a need for more careful copyediting.

~ “His previously male secretary”: yikes. I’m afraid to ask what happened to the guy.

Here again is the original paragraph and a revised version (which adds another phrase from the letter in which James refers to his new secretary as “an economy”):
Original: By the 1890s, James began dictating all his novels to a secretary, who typed the author’s words as he said them aloud. At first James found it hard to find such an amanuensis who would understand his words. As he put it, “The young typists are mainly barbarians, and the civilized here are not typists,” he declared, noting that hiring a woman was “an economy” over his previously male secretary.

My revision: By the 1890s, James was dictating his novels to a secretary, who typed as James spoke. At first James had difficulty finding someone who could understand his words. “The young typists are mainly barbarians, and the civilized here are not typists,” he complained. James found that hiring a woman to replace a male secretary was both “an improvement” and “an economy.”
The page-ninety test gives a fair representation of this book, which is not especially well written. For instance: “Graphologists had a steady business counseling people before answering marriage proposals as well.” Or: “A recent stylometric analysis of Double Falsehood, a disputed play by William Shakespeare, was proved to be partially the work of the Bard after it was run through computers.” Were graphologists answering marriage proposals as a sideline? Did the analysis turn out to be partly by Shakespeare? Was the play by Shakespeare partly by Shakespeare? Was it the analysis or the play that was run through computers? Whatever.

Related reading
All OCA “How to improve writing” posts (Pinboard)
Ford Madox Ford’s page-ninety test
Handwriting, pro and con
My Salinger Year, a page-ninety test
Nature and music, a page-ninety test

[This post is no. 70 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

“An integral part of nature”

Carlo Rovelli:

Our moral values, our emotions, our loves are no less real for being part of nature, for being shared with the animal world, or for being determined by the evolution which our species has undergone over millions of years. Rather, they are more valuable as a result of this: they are real. They are the complex reality of which we are made. Our reality is tears and laughter, gratitude and altruism, loyalty and betrayal, the past which haunts us and serenity. Our reality is made up of our societies, of the emotion inspired by music, of the rich intertwined networks of the common knowledge which we have constructed together. All of this is part of the self-same “nature” which we are describing. We are an integral part of nature; we are nature, in one of its innumerable and infinitely variable expressions.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre (London: Penguin, 2016).
This passage reminds me of something Jonathan Shay writes in Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994): “Culture is as biologically real for humans as the body.”

Also from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Elementary particles : General relativity v. quantum mechanics

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fake News, an icon


[Fake News, an icon by Louis Prado. From Noun Project.]

“Ug!”


[Hi and Lois, February 22, 2017.]

“Ug!”? Your family has a dictionary, Hi. Use it. Ugh.

Related reading
All OCA Hi and Lois and misspelling posts (Pinboard)

[Hi, by the way, is short for Hiram.]

Anglophilia amok

On an NPR station, a local announcer running through the PBS schedule described a series about British royalty in which the host “gets into bed with our past monarchs.”

First: ick. Second: our monarchs? That bit of copy should have been rewritten for this side of the Atlantic.

The series, as I now know, is Tales from the Royal Bedchamber. It’s about their monarchs. And again, about the gets-into-bed-with part: ick.

[About “the Atlantic”: I refuse to say “the pond.”]

“And you’re right too”

General relativity v. quantum mechanics:

A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or have neglected to communicate with each other for at least a century. In the morning the world is curved space where everything is continuous; in the afternoon it is a flat space where quanta of energy leap.

The paradox is that both theories work remarkably well. Nature is behaving with us like that elderly rabbi to whom two men went in order to settle a dispute. Having listened to the first, the rabbi says: “You are in the right.” The second insists on being heard, the rabbi listens to him and says: “You’re also right.” Having overheard from the next room the rabbi’s wife then calls out, “But they can’t both be in the right!” The rabbi reflects and nods before concluding: “And you’re right too.”

Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre (London: Penguin, 2016).
The work of reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics has given rise to the study of quantum gravity, the subject of Rovelli’s more recent book, Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity (2017). I suspect that it’s a much scarier book than Seven Brief Lessions: 288 pages v. a mere 79.

I cannot claim to understand any of this stuff, not now, perhaps not ever. But I can try.

Also from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Elementary particles

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

“If Trump were more rational
and more competent”

George Packer, writing in the February 27 New Yorker:

An authoritarian and erratic leader, a chaotic Presidency, a supine legislature, a resistant permanent bureaucracy, street demonstrations, fear abroad: this is what illiberal regimes look like. If Trump were more rational and more competent, he might have a chance of destroying our democracy.

Blossom Dearie sings


Here is a breathtakingly beautiful performance by Blossom Dearie: “They Say It’s Spring” (Bob Haymes–Marty Clark). Blossom Dearie, piano and vocal; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Jo Jones, drums. Recorded September 1957. From the album Give Him the Ooh-La-La (Verve, 1958).

I’m still making my way through my dad’s CDs: Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Ivie Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, Mildred Bailey, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Art Blakey, Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins, Clifford Brown, Dave Brubeck, Joe Bushkin, Hoagy Carmichael, Betty Carter, Ray Charles, Charlie Christian, Rosemary Clooney, Nat “King” Cole, John Coltrane, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, and now, Blossom Dearie. One shelf down, seven to go — which might suggest that a fairly even distribution through the alphabet. But not so: Frank Sinatra, Art Tatum, and Mel Tormé take up two of the seven shelves.

I wish I could tell my dad how much I love this song. My guess is that he loved it too.

Also from my dad’s CDs
Mildred Bailey : Tony Bennett : Charlie Christian

Elementary particles

Carlo Rovelli says that “for now, this is what we know of matter”:

A handful of types of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and non-existence and swarm in space even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies, of the innumerable stars, of sunlight, of mountains, woods and fields of grain, of the smiling faces of the young at parties, and of the night sky studded with stars.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Segre (London: Penguin, 2016).
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is a wonderful book for elementary particles like me.

Monday, February 20, 2017

“Library hand”


Behold “library hand,” or a simulation thereof. It’s penmanship for librarians writing out catalogue cards. Sometimes (still) seen on the spines of older library books. Thanks to Gunther at Lexikaliker for passing on this link (by way of Boing Boing).

I made the sample above with Dewey Library Hand, a free font that emulates one variety of library hand.

Related reading
All OCA handwriting posts (Pinboard)
A catalogue-card generator (Typed, not handwritten)