Archive for the ‘Writing’ category

Apropos Of Not Much

September 19, 2015

Picked up a Terry Pratchett off my paperback shelf today pretty much at random — The Nightwatch, one of the Vimes strand.  It’s one of my less-read ones, meaning maybe twice, possibly even three times, but not more.  I just idly flipped it open and looked over the first couple of pages,,,and came to this little digression:

The plain old Sam Vimes had fought back. He got rid of most of the plumes and the stupid tights, and ended up with a dress niform that at least looked as thought its owner was male.  But the helmet had gold decoration, and the bespoke armorers had made a new gleaming breastplate with useless gold ornamentation on it.

Philip_II

Sam Vimes felt like a class traitor every time he wore it.  He hated being thought of as one of those people that wore stupid ornamental armor.  It was gilt by association.

There’s my Terry! — and why I miss him so.  His brain bubbles were the best, and he had  absolutely no shame — none at all — when it came to transcribing whatever floated to the surface.  I tell my son more often than he cares to hear that words are toys.  Pratchett had more fun with the English language than anyone else I can think of.  I take him as a role model (as my students — and family — know, to their sorrow).

As I warned — apropos of not much at all.

Image:  Titian, Philip II of Spain, 1551.

Advertisements

I Hear There’s A Sporting Contest Today…

October 26, 2014

That would be, of course, the fifth game of the World Series.  So, in advance of the stirring triumph by the Sons of Willie Mays,* here’s a nice bit of baseball reporting and writing, one that captures something of the difference of the game fans watch and that which the players play.

Even a Boston-fan-in-adulthood like me knows the lore.  Ted Williams announced on September 26, 1960 that he was going to retire at the end of the season, two days later.  That would be it for  a major league career that had begun in 1939. (For those who are counting, that’s a career that spans four decades, and includes hiatuses for active duty in two wars.)  That season, aged 41, he wasn’t too bad:  a .316 batting average, an OPS of 1.096, 29 home runs in 113 games.  The numbers are a little down from his career averages (sic!), but you’d have to say that the Splendid Splinter could still play.

But he had decided he was done — and who could blame him — and according to every report I’ve ever read, when Williams set his mind, that was it.  So September 28, when the Baltimore Orioles faced the Red Sox at Fenway Park in the last home game of the 1960 season, the crowd knew it would be watching the last of the greatest ball player ever to wear the B on his cap.**

What happened that day is pure Boston sports legend.

John Updike wrote what many think is a classic of baseball writing about that game.  For me, it doesn’t re-read well; too much of what Steinbeck called hooptedoodle for my taste.  The one truly fascinating fact Updike records is the attendance. On the last occasion to see Ted Williams, all of 10,454 people showed up at a park that could seat over 30,000.  Admittedly, the 1960 Boston team sucked, but still…

But most of Updike’s piece is elegant hagiography, utterly focused on Williams…which is fine; Ted was the reason he was there, and Ted gratified the genteel and rabid fan in Updike by delivering the kind of narrative that wouldn’t have been believed had Updike snuck it into a novel.  It was a dank, cold day, a lousy one for hitting, and Williams didn’t do much for a while:  a walk and a run scored in the first, two fly ball outs in the third and the fifth (that second one had a chance, but fluttered down at the warning track).  He came up for what was obviously the last time in the eighth and…well, here’s Updike:

Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

Yup.  As every baseball fan knows, Williams went out with the stuff of dreams, a home run in his last at bat in the only home stadium he had ever known in a baseball life as long (and now as long ago) as Methuselah’s.  As Updike notes, he was even able to allow himself to skip the final series of the 1960 season, away games at Yankee Stadium.  A home run, a standing O, no curtain call, and out.  That’s the story.  Full stop.

Except…s another guy had something to do with the moment, the antagonist to Williams’ hero’s role.  That would be Jack Fisher, the pitcher who served up the fateful fastball.

Scientific_American_1886,_Cut_C

There’s Updike’s tale of heroic inevitability (it’s always necessary after the fact), the literary gloss on that routine confrontation between pitcher and batter.  And then there’s the way the guys standing 60 feet 6 inches apart see it.  Which is why I found delightful this brief report from the mouth of Mr. Fisher himself, written up by Elon Green  for Updike’s venue, The New Yorker, on May 1 of this year.  In it, we learn that Fisher didn’t see TED WILLIAMS at the plate.  He saw a guy he knew how to pitch to:

One of the sportswriters looked it up, and he said that Williams lifetime was two for thirteen off of me. So I did all right against him.

Here’s how Fisher remembers the crucial at-bat itself:

As you probably heard, it was a very cold, dank day type thing. Williams earlier had hit a ball off of me to right field—a fly ball that our right fielder, Al Pilarcik, caught back close to the warning track. So Williams had hit the ball pretty well that time, and I thought, Uh oh, but it was an out. So, it’s the seventh inning, and he comes up, and Jackie Jensen was their next hitter, right-hand hitter, and with the short left-field wall there, I thought, There’s no way I’m gonna pitch around Williams.

I think the first pitch was a ball. The next pitch—he swung and missed—was another fastball. The next pitch I just went to another fastball and he hit it out. Made the score four to three.

I mean, all I was trying to do was win the ballgame. The fact that he hit the home run wasn’t that big to me because I’d actually had pretty good success against him.

Love it.

Talk about whatever.

*I hope I may be forgiven my partisanship.  My first pro sports experience was surviving Candlestick as a nine year old, or so.  Saw Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Cepeda, Bonds the elder, even Gaylord Perry.  I switched allegiance to the A’s after a bit — East Bay kid and all that — but I earned (though never grabbed) my Croix de Candlestick, and so there you have it.  Go Giants!

**Was Babe Ruth a better ball player? Probably.  But, of course, that greatness happened mostly in a Yankees uniform.  Goddammit.

Image: Artist unknown, Diagram of the Method of Giving the Rotary Motion to the Ball, from Scientific American, The Art of Pitching in Baseball, July 31, 1886, page 71.

For A Good Time In Cambridge, Take Two: Hendrik Hertzberg-Ta-Nehisi Coates edition

October 23, 2013

Paul_Cézanne_130

Once again:  all y’all in the greater Boston area, something surpassing cool to do next Tuesday, October 29. Ta-Nehisi will be talking with New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg at 7 p.m.  The event description isn’t up on the MIT calendar yet, but it’ll read something like this:

Hendrik Hertzberg has been one of the most influential opinion writers in and around Washington for decades. Most of his career has been spent at the home of the monocle and the top hat (The New Yorker), but he’s also had two stints as editor of The New Republic, during which he led the publication to three National Magazine Awards.

Hertzberg returned to The New Yorker for good (so far) in 1992, and is now senior editor and staff writer (mostly of the Comment section  in Talk of the Town).  He’s won yet one more National Magazine Award — in 2006, for his opinion writing.  In between writing gigs, he’s also worked as a speechwriter for President Carter and has done a pair of tours as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.  He has three books to his credit, including the 2009 reissue of his 1976 prefiguring of data journalism and visualization, One Million.

The other thing to know about Hertzberg is that he is one of those writers on whose work other writers take notes.  Ta-Nehisi Coates and he will talk about how writing opinion can and/or should be informed by the practices and habits of journalism — and much more, including, no doubt, something about what to make of the current predicaments of American politics.

I don’t think I’m breaking any confidences to tell you that Ta-Nehisi basically reveres Hertzberg — for the reason hinted at above.  Hertzberg works his writing.  Don’t be fooled by the light touch of which he is capable: that comes from the kind of effort John Kenneth Galbraith had in mind when he said (I paraphrase from memory) “the treasured note of spontaneity critics find in my writing comes in between the seventh and eighth draft.”

The_writing_master_thomas_eakins

Ta-Nehisi and I talk a lot about that:  how to write with honesty, passion, and perhaps above all a love of beauty in words that isn’t just about aesthetic — it’s how you infuse your argument with power and meaning both.  I’ve never met Hertzberg, but Ta-Nehisi tells me that it’s that kind of thing that he studies in the work.  So those of us who love the craft, who want to get better at it, should have a lot to chew on Tuesday night.  And, of course, Hendrik Hertzberg has a bit to say about the bitter comedy that is contemporary American politics, so there’s that — should be good for this crowd.

A couple of housekeeping notes.  I’ll be moderating the event, so it’ll be good to put faces to names/handles of any Balloon-Juicers in the crowd.  Another thing:  last time I promoted one of these in this space we had Chris Hayes and Ta-Nehisi together in a hall waaaaay too  small for the crowd, and too many got turned away.  We’re in the biggest lecture hall in MIT’s Stata Center this time, (r00m 123) three times bigger than that first venue, so don’t be deterred.

I’ll probably be posting a reminder or two a little later, but for now, consider yourself invited.

Images:  Paul Cezanne, The Artist’s Father, Reading “L’Événement,1866

Thomas Eakins, The Writing Master, 1882

Good Reads

July 30, 2013

Consider this a shout out to some friends doing fine work that y’all might enjoy.

An aside — or not really:  the early to mid 1980s are sometimes referred (by a highly specialized group of folks, to be sure) as “the Golden Age” of American science writing.  By that we usually mean that there was, briefly, a robust and seemingly ever-expanding ecosytem of newspaper science desks and science magazines (Discover — my alma mater —Science 198x, Science News, Omni and so on) aimed a general audience that seemed to crave focused reporting on really just about anything to do with science.  The tech boom that followed a few years later, brought with it a second wave of venues, places riding the tech zeitgeist, like the much-missed Mondo 2000 and Wired, along with technically literate business rags like The Red Herring and many more.

Now look at us.  Discover is still with us, on its fourth or fifth owner since Time Inc. gave up on it.  Newspaper science sections have almost entirely disappeared, and hundreds of staff science reporting jobs are gone.  That’s what some people point to when bemoaning the state of public knowledge about climate change, for example, or vaccine denialism…and so on.

But while all that’s true —  there has been a collapse of venues (and employment) for science writers schooled, as I was, in the pre-digital journalism world — the reality is that right now is the best time I recall for readers of science writing. There is more available through more channels and conduits than anytime in my working life, and lots and lots of it is smart, literate, important. What’s more, new venues are appearing that offer spaces for both longer and more varied, more expansive kinds of writing — and some of them, at least, are trying hard to pay their writers enough to make this kind of work something that accumulates into careers.

For example — I’ve been loving the work they do at  Atavist and at Matter* too, not to mention an ebook by one of my former students published by The Atlantic (excerpt here),  or the Pulitzer Prize winning journalism by a team that included another one of the fabulous alumnae of the Graduate Program in Science Writing aat MIT [not bragging.  Not me] and I’m leaving out many others, one’s I’ll get back to as I do this kind of post again.

For now, let me  point you to a new kid on the block, Aeon Magazine, which, unlike Atavist or Matter, doesn’t charge for its pieces.  Aeon publishes a long-read every day, each somehow connected with science, and I’ve found it to be an insistent time-sink, really remarkably so for such a recently arrived party to the conversation.

For example, check out this.  Yesterday, Virginia Hughes put up one of the most impressive pieces I’ve read in a long time, a very thoughtful, emotionally rich, intellectually challenging piece on research into the effects on the kids involved of the horrific regimen they experienced and are experiencing now in Romanian orphanages.

Max_Liebermann_Waisenhaus_Amsterdam_1876

Virginia made this piece significant, as opposed to merely affecting, through her carefully framed account of the ethics of running controlled studies on subjects in such straits.  That’s interwoven with  the science involved, and a deeply felt sense of the human cost of doing this kind of research for both subject and scholar.  Really a fine piece of writing.  Here’s a brief sample:

Nelson had warned me several times about the emotional toll of meeting these children. So I was surprised, during our debrief, to hear him say that our visit had upset him. Turns out it was the first time that he had been to an orphanage with older teenagers, not all that much younger than his own son. ‘I’m used to being really distressed when I see all the little babies, or the three- and four-year-olds,’ he said. ‘But here, I almost had to leave at one point, to get myself some air. Just the thought of these kids living like this, it was really depressing.’

How does he do this? I wondered.

Go read the rest.

Then marvel at the sheer elegance of ant society and the almost classical account of hubris and potential tragedy to be read in Ed Yong’s story,  “Ant Farm.”

Big_Ant

Ed’s piece moves from a close-up look at an ant-borne plant disease and its implications for chocolate lovers to consider a globalized agricultural system that is vastly more vulnerable than most of us (certainly me) usually suspect.

Have a taste:

Indeed, scientists with Evans’s skills and mindset — the Yodas of plant pathology — are racing to extinction faster than the crops they study. Admittedly, ‘they’ve made a disastrous job of promoting themselves’, according to Hughes, but sexy modern sciences such as molecular biology have also drawn investment away from more traditional fields. In a recent audit, the British Society for Plant Pathology found that their subject is in free fall, relegated to a few lectures at a smattering of universities. Labs have halved in numbers, most scientists in the field are over 50, and new faces are rare. (The same is true across the pond.) ‘Molecular biology tells us what makes these pathogens tick, which is exciting,’ said Cooke. ‘But if we end up with a cadre of trained molecular biologists who can’t identify an oak tree, you have a problem.’

Hughes sees a deeper tragedy at play — the loss of a patient, contemplative approach to British natural history that allowed Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to envision the theory of evolution by natural selection. ‘People like Harry [Evans] have spent 40 to 50 years working on groups of organisms, and know them deeply in the same way that Darwin or Wallace did,’ Hughes said. ‘We’re not replacing them, and that’s a lamentable shame.’

As the old guard retires sans apprentices, we lose the knowledge in their heads and we cripple our intellectual immune system. WhenPhytophthora ramorum started killing oak trees in the western US in the mid-1990s, it took a long time before anyone knew what it was, giving the disease a chance to establish a foothold. When ash dieback disease hit British trees in 2012, history repeated itself. ‘There were no taxonomists to identify the fungus,’ Evans said, ‘because we fired them all.’

Last, I’d like to point you again towards a book I’ve mentioned here before, Russ Rymer’s Paris Twilight.  Russ’s is, to my eyes at least, a simply wonderful novel.  Its science hook comes in the deep dive into both the techne and the psyche of anesthesia, beautifully plumbed by Russ through his lead character, an anaesthesiologist called to Paris to take part in a heart transplant operation that does not seem quite on the up-and-up.

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_063

The book investigates the themes of loss and distance and (usually) return through a number of different paths — the medicine, of course, and history, and what one might think of as either the battlefields or the courtrooms of memory in which love’s victors or culprits get called to account.  The central character is a compelling woman, and her supporting cast…well, when I finally put the book down I felt so deeply aggrieved that I couldn’t sit with them again tomorrow to hear the conversation we might have had next.

When I first read it, in draft, I thought that this was a book to win prizes.  I still believe that, rereading the finished text, so neatly dressed in its Sunday-go-to-church hard covers.  I’d quote here, but the text is so tightly  interleaved that I can’t easily pick out just a paragraph or to. It leads you on, you see.

Sadly, it’s hit the market in the summer doldrums, and so, in case you missed it last time I wrote (and talked with Russ) about it, then take this for as strong a recommendation as I can offer for words (and people) to keep you company on August holiday.

*One more example of one of my student’s work. Yes, it does make me happy to see folks we may have helped a little on the way do good in the world.  How not?

Images:  Max Liebermann, Amsterdam Orphan Girls 1881.

Pro Hart, The Big Ant, photo 2010.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Landscape at Sacre Coeur, c.1886

For Your Reading Pleasure (TL;Ta-Nehisi edition)

September 29, 2012

[BTW:  Self-aggrandizement alert]

I believe many reading this site will have already checked out Ta-Nehisi Coates much discussed “Fear of a Black President,” the cover essay in the September issue of The Atlantic.  If not, go check it out, it is smart, rich, and a fine piece of prose style.

As some of you may know, I have the pleasure of calling Ta-Nehisi my colleague this year — he’s teaching at MIT as a Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Professor.  Better yet, his office is literally across the hall from mine, so we chat fairly often.

On the matter of “Fear of a Black President,” that exchange became more formal.  I was struck when I first read the piece by some the craft choices Ta-Nehisi and his editors had made in putting together that long and complex piece of writing.  So I asked Ta-Nehisi if he’d be willing to talk about the writing choices he had made, questions of structure and approach.  He was, and we had two sessions with a digital recorder running.  Unsurprisingly, we couldn’t confine ourselves to technical writing issues:  you make choices about how to write something based on what you’re writing about and what you intend your words to do.  So we talked about the evolution of the themes and meaning of the piece as well as questions of approach or organization.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and, as you can  now check out the edited outcome of all this over at the Nieman Storyboard site.  (The Nieman site is a great resource for both aspiring and established journalists and writers btw, if that’s where your interests lead.)

And with that, how’s the weekend shaping up?

Pieter de Hooch, Conversation, 1663-1665.

Instrumental, With Words (Self Aggrandizement Alert)

September 9, 2012

Just in case any of y’all might be interested, I’m going to be talking with the really wonderful interviewer, Desiree Schell, about my almost twenty year old book, Measure for Measure, my attempt to retell the history of science through the stories of a series of musical and scientific instruments — from the pipe organ to the digital synthesizer, with stops along the way at the microscope, the scale, chimeric mice (sic!) and the ‘cello:

The conversation will take place on Desiree’s Skeptically Speaking radio show, and can be heard live there at 8 p.m. EDT, 5 p.m. PDT.  It’ll be archived and podcast later too, of course.  (If you are a glutton for punishment, you can catch my earlier chat on the same program with Desiree’s guest host, Marie-Claire Shanahan, on my more recent book, Newton and the Counterfeiter.

In the meantime, I hope everyone is enjoying the first full day of NFL football (Patriots begin as I hope they go on…), and that’s about it.

Image:  Amedeo Modgiliani, Cello Player, before 1920.

For A Good Time On The ‘Tubes (Self Aggrandizement Alert)

August 29, 2012

Just a quick heads up for fans of smart (I hope) talk.  In just about an hour, at 5 p.m. EDT (10 GMT, 2 PDT) I’ll be trading views with science writer Jennifer Ouellete (AKA Jen-Luc Piquante), proprietor among much else of Cocktail Party Physics, which gig gives me the excuse for this pic:

The conversation will take place over at my more or less regular monthly gig on Virtually Speaking Science.  Listen live or later here. Alternatively, come join the virtually live audience in Second Life.  Podcasts of VSS, including the work of my co-host, Alan Boyle, can also be downloaded at the iTunes store.  Lots of back issues there — of particular current interest, you might check out my conversations with climate scientist Michael Mann; science studies scholar Naomi Oreskes, and science journalist and “framing” advocate Chris Mooney.

Jennifer and I will be leaping off from the impulse that led her to write her most recent book, The Calculus Diaries. That’s her account of being an admitted math-phobe coming to grips with the beauty and practical value of what is truly one of the handful of greatest human inventions ever.  As I blurbed for her — calculus allows one to think rigorously about change in time and space; it just doesn’t get bigger than that, really.

We’ll go from the book to the latest kerfluffle about what kinds of math should be taught in school (see the algebra controversy sparked by this piece. For a good reply, see this.)  More broadly we’ll use the question of how to present the actual importance of thinking mathematically in everyday circumstances to think out loud a bit about an issue that is bugging me more and more these days.  To put it in personal terms — I’ve been doing science writing/film making for public audiences for just about 30 years now.  Looking at the convention of one of our major political parties in which that party declares its denial of anthropogenic climate change, evidence based medicine, investments in science education and research and so on and on and on (without even going into the anti-evolution lunacy, nor the pseudo-science with which it justifies government regulation of ladyparts and … you get the picture) — looking at all that and more, it’s depressingly easy to conclude that my career has been a net negative.

Yes, I know, correlation is not cause, which is why some of us still believe that milk drinking does not  lead to heroin addiction. But really, for all that we live in something of a golden age of popular science writing and communication other media, it is past time, in my ever-so-humble opinion, to think about what, if anything, we should be doing to reach a mass audience we clearly have not fully attracted, much less persuaded.

Finally, Jennifer is near the end of a book that has proved much more challenging to write than she blithly thought going in.  I’m just starting a book I’m convinced I have got under control. (Thus every folly begins, in innocent confidence…) So we’re going to talk just a bit of shop:  how every book project trips you up, and what you can do about that terrible moment when you are finally, utterly, deeply certain that you computer is going to reach through the display and throttle you; just put you out of your and everyone else’s misery.

Should be fun.  Check it out when and as you have a notion.

PS:  As a DEW — Sunday, September 9, 8 p.m. EDT, 6 p.m. MT, I’ll be talking one of my old books, Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science with the incomparable Desiree Schell on Skeptically Speaking. I’ve been on the show once before as a guest of Marie-Claire Shanahan, and it was a lot of fun.  Desiree is a fabulous interviewer, so I’m looking forward to this one too. But it’s relevant to the post above, if only because the book that both nearly killed me and most taught me to write was Measure…in which I succumbed to what I have decided is the dreaded second book syndrome.  More to come…

Image: Edgar Degas, L’absinthe, 1876