Posted tagged ‘good writing’

Tasty Blog Bits/What Good Young Journalists Can Do In The Right Kind of MSM

July 21, 2010

I’ve long been a fan of the High Country News, not least because they’ve given good work to some of the wonderful students at the best science writing program in the country (I’m supposed to say that, which doesn’t make it untrue).

But these lines from a post reminded me of what makes HCN such bright spot in my MSM reading these days

If natural gas was going to try and pick me up at a bar, the encounter would likely go like this:

Gas: “I’m low-carbon, cute, and widely available.”

Me: “You’re not that cute.”

That’s from a post by HCN Social Network Editor Stephanie Page Ogburn on the marvelously named The Goat Blog, and it is just a treat of journalistic writing in the context of old+new media.

Smart, funny, instantly engaging and all that you need to read on to get a nuanced reaction, backed up by actual real data, to the prospect of natural gas as a bridge fuel from the high to low carbon emission energy system I devoutly hope my son will see.

It can be done; journalism is not dead — and the seeds of its next incarnation can be found, often, far, far from the Bos-Wash corridor.

Image:  Filippo Palazzi, “Hay Car Attacked by Goats,” 1857

The Perfect Game (Ooops!) (Still Catching Up on the Backlog)

June 4, 2010

I was over at Balloon Juice the other day, vacationing from outrage on a baseball thread, when someone commenting on why we seem to care so much about Perfectogate offered props to Ken Burns for his baseball series.  That show, the writer said, explains why we love baseball so much, or rather, why it appears to be such a good metaphor for America.

Well, as readers of this blog know, I’m not much into sloppy metaphors. Certainly, you can look at the history of the game and at least pull out strands of the great threads of US history — Robinson, Jackie for an obvious example, and more subtly, Curt Flood.

But Burns is an easy sentimentalist, too ready, IMHO, to do that “essence of America” stuff, even as he oh-so-painfully-slowly pans or zooms on another picture of Robinson, or the Babe or whoever.  Most of all, just as a story teller, Burns lost something after The Civil War.  I’m not a huge fan of that series, though I found it riveting on first viewing.  I think it fell too deeply into the Southern sentimentalist trap, though I understand that with the extraordinary performance of Shelby Foote and the narrative power of the marvelously chosen diaries and letters, some of that, at least, was inevitable.  I’ve made enough films to know that when you have good stuff, you use it.

But that adulation that followed that series — and more pertinently, the virtual blank check Burns received from his GM contract and the leverage it gave him over PBS mean that he could now do without any kind of critical oversight.  No executive producer for him, not really.

Now, I’ve worked with EPs who no doubt made my work worse.  Bad ones are out there, no doubt. But it’s still true that no one is their own best editor.  You saw the effects in baseball, from the numerology of nine programs (innings) and eighteen hours that felt much longer, to the kind of lazy “seriousness” captured in this, from Burns:

The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has remarked that we suffer today from “too much pluribus and not enough unum.” Few things survive in these cynical days to remind us of the Union from which so many of our personal and collective blessings flow, and it is hard not to wonder, in an age when the present moment consumes and overshadows all else — our bright past and our dim unknown future — what finally does endure? What encodes and stores the genetic material of our civilization — passing down to the next generation the best of us, what we hope will mutate into betterness for our children and our posterity? Baseball provides one answer. Nothing in our daily life offers more of the comfort of continuity, the generational connection of belonging to a vast and complicated American family, the powerful sense of home, the freedom from time’s constraints, and the great gift of accumulated memory than does our National Pastime.

Oh FSM.   You see what I mean.  Who knew baseball was the DNA of American civilization.  Does that make steroids an oncogene?  Crappy metaphors, easy equivalences (baseball endures; we endure; therefore baseball explains our endurance to ourselves…or not), and always that weighty, wordy portenteousness, the wrapping of a tired old cliche of a thought in 157 words in the hope that the verbiage would mask the banality of the argument being advanced.

So no:  baseball is a metaphor for baseball.  Individual aspects of baseball are deeply instructive, often more than metaphors. See Stephen Jay Gould’s classic piece on the lessons to be learned from Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hit streak for the transformation of the mythic appreciation of baseball into something much more useful:  baseball can provide models, in the scientific sense of the term, tools to help us better understand what’s going on around us.

Ken Burns?  He managed to turn baseball into a dirge.

There, I feel better.

Last, as I added to the comment thread in which the mention of Burns goaded me into screed-dom, I do have an answer as to what to read if you want to engage in the generational significance of baseball, and its role during a certain time in the making of the country in which we now live, I can’t recommend highly enough George Higgins’ wonderful memoir, The Progress of the Seasons.

Yes, I know it’s a Red Sox centered tale, which will make it anathema for many — but at least it was the bad old Sox, which might make it go down better.

But Higgins (of Friends of Eddie Coyle fame and much else besides) is not only one of the great regional writers of the last few decades, but also a wonderfully sentimental-without-being-sloppy observer of how links transfer from fathers to sons to grandsons.

I’m in my early 50s now, roughly the age Higgins was when he published Progress….  I’ve just had to confront athe loss of a beloved uncle, the last of that generation in my immediate family, so his theme holds me strongly.  (His is a boy book, I guess, in that it centers on male relationships, but I’d argue it’s a human book more than a gendered one; we all go through these transformations, these sudden shifts in scale, dependence and responsibility.)

Back to the thorn that provoked this post.  Given that baseball, like all big time sports, has become a matter of rooting for laundry, Higgins’ account of the way baseball could construct a family story does what great story telling should do, and what Burns, for all the hours and millions he devoted to his telling, did not:  Higgins tells a singular story, a glimpse of one family of Boston Irish, a telling centered in space to the evoked memory of old Fenway Park, and in that wholly particular story enables his readers to glimpse something of why the sport used to carry such mythic weight.

Plus, he is (to repeat myself) a really fine writer and this is a great read.

All this apropos of I’m not sure quite what.  Friday, I guess.

Image:  Thomas Eakins, “Baseball Players Practicing,” 1875-

Why I Love the English Language…19th Century Prose Slinging Dept.

January 7, 2010

For reasons too uninterestingly tangled to explain, I recently found myself in the wee hours of the morning, reading Algernon Charles Swinburne’s biographical entry on Mary Queen of Scots in my copy of the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Swinburne was inordinately proud of this piece.  The 11th Edition’s compilers appended a note in which they quote from a letter Swinburne wrote in 1882.  In it, he wrote, “Mary Stuart has procured me…an application from the editor of the [9th edlition] Enclyclopedia Britannica…to me, a mere poet, proposing that I should contribute to that great repository of erudition the biography of Mary Queen f Scots.  I doubt if the like compliment was ever paid before to one of our ‘idle trade.'”

It is a marvelous example of both Victorian historiography/hagiography and of a certain kind of prose style.  Most of all, one thing that English/British writers in the nineteenth century really knew was the craft of the sentence.

I’m not sure that even I, with my blog-documented love of polyclausal sentences, could bring myself to attempt this kind of thing — and I don’t think what talent I have really runs that direction anyway.  But for anyone who loves the rhythm section in the music of English, check this out:

Elizabeth, so shamefully her inferior in personal loyalty, fidelity and gratitude, was so clearly her superior on the one all-important point of patriotism.  The saving salt of Elizabeth’s character, with all its wellnigh incredible mixture of heroism and egotism, meanness and magnificence, was simply this, that, overmuch as she  loved herself, she did yet love England better.  Her best though not her only fine qualities were national and political, the high public virtues of a good publc servant; in the private and personal qualities which attract and attach a friend to his friend and a follower to his leader, no man or woman was ever more constant and more eminent than Mary Queen of Scots.

Damn.  That’s some fine stuff.  And what’s wonderful, at least to me, is the match of content to sound and pace.  Not to mention the — I’m sure conscious — nod to the wellsprings of both Swinburne’s sentiment and at least some of his diction.  That “so shamefully her inferior in personal loyalty, fidelity and gratitude”….well think of my man Billy Shakespeare, and this, from Viola in Twelfth Night, act III scene 4:

“I hate ingratitude more in a man
than lying, vainness, babbling, drunkenness,
or any taint of vice whose strong corruption
inhabits our frail blood.”

We have a great instrument on which to play.  Writing, when it is not miserable labor, entrains such joy.

Image:  Thomas Eakins, “The Writing Master,” 1882.  I have a vague memory that I might have posted this one before — but I like it, so here it is.

Quote for the Day: Jacob Burckhardt hearts him some science writing dept.

November 25, 2008

Jacob Burckhardt is hardly a household name anymore, outside certain rather specialized houses, but it would be not too great an exaggeration to say that he “discovered” the Italian Renaissance, establishing the notion of a distinct period, a time and place in which fundamental changes took place that rung out the end of the ideas and culture of the middle ages, laying the foundations of for habits of mind and the concrete history of that time we think of as modern.

Perhaps most significantly, he was an early historian, perhaps the seminal one, who focused on the history of art in particular and “culture” more generally as essential approachs to “history,” full stop.  That attitude led him to think about the history of science in the Renaissance as something other than simply a chain of discoveries that form individual sequences within particular disciplines…which in turn led him to just about the earliest praise of science writing I’ve been able to find.

If it is a little back-handed, Burkhardt’s compliment still captures what I think of as a critical truth:  science is not self-contained;  it is an expression of culture, and its survival as a living human enterprise depends on culture at large remaining aware of its claim on the public’s understanding and emotion alike.  In his landmark work, The Civilization of the Renaissance, Burkhardt writes:

Even the simple dilletante of a science — if in the present case we should assign to Aeneas Sylvius so low a rank — can diffuse just that sort of general interest in the subject which prepares for new pioneers the indispensable groundwork of a favourable predisposition in the public mind.  True discoveres in any science know well what they owe to such mediation.

(Part Four.  The translation above comes from the Penguin Classics edition of 1990.)

I’d argue that science writing and science writers have more ambition than simply acting as cultural diffusers.  The ones I admire most think of themselves as writers whose subject is science, and not simply science writers; that is they (and I, in the privacy of my own thoughts) are trying to use language to the limits of capacity for expression, to move readers and not simply to inform them.  That said, Burkhardt is right:  a civilized culture, a civilized time manages to communicate some version of its most sophisticated thinking to every interested citizen.

Image:  Studies of Embryos by Leonardo da Vinci (Pen over red chalk 1510-1513).

What Beer Does To Writers

November 20, 2008

Courtesy of Ta-Nehisi, we have reference to Burkhard Bilger’s piece on the revival of American craft brewing and the movement’s recent excursions into  extreme beer — the 10 percent or more alcohol monsters that leave you crying in your cups if you aren’t careful.*  Ta-Nehisi loved it for the quality of Bilger’s writing, quoting the lede as an example of the (writing, not brewing) craft being practiced at the highest level.

It is fine writing — jump either of the links to check it out — but it reminded me of a much earlier piece of equally fine writing by William Least Heat Moon, published in the Atlantic more than twenty years ago, back when the phrase “good American beer” was still an oxymoron to most.

Here’s Moon’s last paragraph, in which he and his companion, “the Venerable,” make the mistake of going to the well one last time:

South of Sacramento, near Interstate 5, we stopped in a bar overhung with ferns, stained glass, old-time signs. We went in looking not for the perfect bar but only for a working phone. We knew that men who discuss the bubbles in a head of beer, who read patterns in the Irish lace – those men do not come into bars like this. Yet we had a small hope that some bottle of an untried oddity might be tucked away. The offerings, of course, were Hobson’s choice. Maybe the wish to put a touchstone to these last days of golden glasses urged us, I don’t know, but we ordered our Hobson’s, our industrial. The Venerable lifted his glass, drank, and set it down. He turned to me blankly and said, “Did I miss my mouth?”

I’ve used that last line I can’t think how many times in the years between then and now to describe all manner of experiences that somehow flat out failed.  It’s perfect.  Read the whole piece — it’s good on its own terms, and it captures a surprisingly distant recent moment in our past.  We live in a different country now — and Moon has been testifying to the change for a long time.

*Bilger writes about, among much else, Dogfish Head’s 120 minute IPA, which has an alcohol content in a double digit ABV percentage.  I have yet to encounter it, but I fear it.  I tried the 90 minute version on the recommendation of another blogospheric beer lover, Tim from Balloon Juice, with its 9% ABV, and even that seemed a bit off balance to me.  But unless it’s just too tame to borne, I can commend the 60 minute IPA, 6% ABV.  Just bitter enough — very nice.  (Though as a Bay Area boy born and bred, and blessed during high school with a bar just north of the UC Berkeley campus that (a) had Anchor Steam on tap and (b) was not exactly meticulous about checking IDs, I give that very fine old beer pride of place.)

Image:  David Teniers II, “Tavern Scene,” 1658.

Program Notes: Technology Review/Former Student Props edition

October 26, 2008

A little suggested reading, combined with some love for recent graduates of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — the little corner of the Institute which it is now my honor to direct.

First up, the cover story in the current Technology Review, “Sun + Water = Fuel” by Kevin Bullis, who completedthe grad program in 2005.  It tells the story of a discovery by MIT chemist Daniel Nocera, who has found a catalyst that may (note the conditional) make it possible to separate oxygen out of water at a cost that would make that energy source competitive or better with fossil fuels.

I had thought to blog this finding when the press release hit my inbox, but now I don’t have to.  Kevin has done an excellent bit of reporting, explains what’s going on clearly, and writes it up with, I think, the correct balance of optimism and the always needed skepticism in the face of technological predictions.  (See the comment thread on this article for an illustration of the line Kevin tried to walk.)   He’s a writer to watch — graceful and stylish, with a true love of tech.

Then there’s this story, “The Flaw at the Heart of the Internet.”  Erica Naone is another one of our stars.  She graduated from our program in 2007.  This story is chilling in its account of the near miss in which Dan Kaminsky identified a significant vulnerability in the way the web matches more or less plain  language names, the DNS monikers like “” with the numerical addresses by which the internet itself identiies for the locations thus named.  That flaw would allow attackers to hijack DNS information and replace the intended material with content of the marauder’s own.

While Black Hat 2008 awarded Kaminsky its Pwnie Award for “Most Overhyped Bug,” Erica’s piece gives you a very good argument why (a) you should have been at least retrospectively, very, very afraid; and (b) more generally, to remember the eternal truth most vividly expressed in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that the internet is not a benign playground.  There be dragons out there.*

On that note — a third article in the current Tech Review that is a true must read comes from my old friend and long-time MIT guy Simson Garfinkel. (If there were anyone with beaver-blood running in his veins, its Simson, a four (or more, I can’t keep up) Institute degree holder who is as far as I can tell, perfectly adapted to MIT’s unique intellectual island ecosystem.)

The piece, “Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth,” Simson has written what seems to me to be a very important article that emphasizes the Wikipedia’s appeal to authority as its ultimate standard of what merits inclusion in what is rapidly becoming the default web-based repository of recognized knowledge.  A must read, IMHO.

(And I have one anecdote about the pitfalls of the imputation of authority of printed sources.  I wrote an article not that long ago for a national publication not to be named here.  The fact checker called me up to confirm some detail.  I said, basically, that it had come out of my own research.  She demanded a published source.  I asked if my own book would do.  She said yes.  Sic.)

*The other pleasure of Erica’s article for me was that I finally got a semi-definitive (at least Wikipedia-worthy) pronounciation for the web-slang term “pwn” — which apparently rhymes with “own.”  I had previously suggested at least partly tongue-in-cheek that it might derive from the Welsh use of the “w” as a vowel. The Welsh “cwm” pronounced “koom” exists as a loanword in English (and has also be transcribed as Comb or Coombe). Given that earlier this year I offered the suggestion/question whether or not pwn should be pronounced “poon,” following the Welsh example, and evoking Neal Stephenson’s use of the word in Snow Crash to describe what his character Y.T. does when she uses her magnetic harpoon to attach to the vehicles that can pull her along on her Kourier rounds.  Sadly, inventive as that may have been, it appears that my attempt at etymology is not just wrong, but terribly, terribly so.

Image:  J.M.W. Turner, “Sunrise With Sea Monsters,” 1845.

Your Fourth Grade Writing Teacher’s Pet Peeve: John McCain Edition

June 11, 2008

John McCain’s campaign likes to run web ads on Atrios’s blog.

OK — seems kind of pointless, a twitting of the opposition just for fun.  But it can’t be that expensive, at least in the context of television advertising, and if he wants to use that fund raising advantage he’s amassed in this fashion…hey, it’s a (mostly, sorta, kinda) free country.

But in one area, let me tell you, Mr. Straight Talk has gone waaay too far.

Now I know that this is mostly a science blog — but I do teach (and occasionally commit) writing, so what follows may be taken as an arrow from that quiver.

In the Eschaton-posted ad, McCain asks his advertising audience a simple question. It begins

“Is it OK to unconditionally meet with….”

I can boldly go with the anyone, but leaving aside kitsch nostaligia, splitting the infinitive … that’s just not right. (Sorry for reposting this, but a few months is aeons in blog years, and besides, it’s funny.  See about 5:23 into the clip for the reference.)

Really, Senator, would it have killed you to say “Is it OK to meet unconditionally..?”  Not only is it correct, it sounds better (which is partly why it is correct; placing the modifier in the middle of the verb usually weakens the action being described — boldly going, as always, excepted).

Even better, how about getting rid of the adverb, always a tricky form (I use ’em…but I’m a professional)?  You could have said something like this:

“Is it OK to meet anti-American foreign leaders without conditions?”

That of course, loses the spin (what in pool you could call the English) — the attempt to tie Senator Obama to unconditional misdeeds of other sorts.  Sometimes clarity and simplicity get in the way of attempts to use emotion to deceive.  Which is the point, of course.  But even if  you were unwilling to sacrifice the propaganda opportunity, still there was no need to put asunder what generations of English teachers have tried to join together.

That is all.

Image:  Rebecca Solomon, “The Governess,” c. 1851.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Quote for the Day — Weekend E. B. White edition

May 31, 2008

“Proposition: The duty of a democracy is to know then what it knows now.”

— E. B. White.

White is now probably mostly known as the author of glorious children’s books — Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan for three — but in the day he was recognized for the brilliant essayist he was. To get a sample, check out the collection, One Man’s Meat, still in print more than half a century after it was first published, is both a delight and, quietly, surreptiticiously, one of the best guides to writing well I know.

The quote above comes from that collection, an essay called “Compost.” It was written, White tells us, four days into the battle for France in 1940. It is at once his meditation on what could, should, one hoped had been done to prevent matters from ever getting to that pass, and an homage to one of true laureates of American literature, Don Marquis.

It’s a tricky, complex essay, seemingly a grab bag of occasional thoughts, actually a very carefully composed whole. White could really write.

Like all writing worth reading, there is a bite inside the apparently simple prose and argument, one that leaps out now: to intervene, to preempt or not. It’s a great piece. Seek it out.

And by the way — if anyone thinks that the author of Charlotte’s Web isn’t tough enough for such stuff, consider this quote from the same essay. White was moved to write the piece, he says, when he joined a club called “Friends of the Land,” — to celebrate which event he proposes to drag his chair up to his compost heap to give him a place to go “whenever I feel sociable and friendly to the land.”

A couple of paragraphs down, he shifts focus:

So great is the importance attached to news from abroad even my club intends to have foreign correspondents. I should imagine today would be a discouraging day for the northern France correspondent of Friends of the Land. The organic matter now being added to French soil is of a most embarrassing nature. Until we quit composting our young men we shall not get far with a program of conservation.

Oh yes.

Image: Anonymous, photograph of World War I military graves in the Alsóvárosi cemetery in Pápa, Hungary. Licensed under a Gnu Free Documentation License version 1.2 or later. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Integers we have loved — in honor of National Poetry Month

April 15, 2008

This blog talks a lot about the importance of quantifying things — using numbers to abstract from the details of experience. What I rarely add in sentences like that is that there is a purpose to such abstraction: to find meaning deeper than the surface impressions with which we begin.

Well — you take insight where you can get it, and this morning, I got up early to attend my son’s Second Grade class Poetry Cafe. There each of the sixteen kids got up and recited a favorite poem from memory. One of my son’s friends, Sparky, got up and declaimed about four stanzas of Mary Cornish’s “Numbers.”

Soulless thug that I am, I had never come across it. Hearing it in that squeaky seven-year-old voice, I found it captured precisely the idea I have labored to express. Numbers are generous, in that “they are willing to count anything or anyone.” All I’m asking is that we embrace such kindness.

National Poetry Month it is…so enjoy.


I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

I like the domesticity of addition–
add two cups of milk and stir
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.

And multiplication’s school
of fish times fish,
whose silver bodies breed
beneath the shadow
of a boat.

Even subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else’s
garden now.

There’s an amplitude to long division,
as it opens Chinese take-out
box by paper box,
inside every folded cookie
a new fortune.

And I never fail to be surprised
by the gift of an odd remainder,
footloose at the end:
forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,
with three remaining.

Three boys beyond their mothers’ call,
two Italians off to the sea,
one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.

–by Mary Cornish.

Originally published in Poetry magazine, Volume CLXXVI, Number 3, June 2000.

Image Person Scott Foresman, “Abacus,” copyright donated to the Wikimedia Foundation.

Program Notes: Pulitzer Shout-Out edition.

April 7, 2008

No science here, just enormous pleasure at the deserved honors falling the way of two good folks I know.

Mark Feeney is a newspaper guy from when he and I both used chisel and slate to work up our first drafts.  He’s done most of what can be done on a paper — obituaries, features, criticism, editing, reporting, always with a feel for the subject and sweet touch with language.  He loves the vivid image, and this year his profession has honored him for the skill with which he comes up with lines like this one, from his remembrance of Barbara Stanwyck:

In “Clash by Night” (1952), a shocked Paul Douglas finds her in a bar in broad daylight and asks how often she drinks whiskey in the morning. “Only when I have a cold,” Stanwyck says, with an irony so flat it could be a pancake in Kansas.

Ladies and Gentleman:  Your 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for arts criticism.

And then there is my MIT Writing Program colleague Junot Diaz.  Junot has been in the news a lot this year, all for his astonishing novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s a great work, no hyperbole, funny, desperately sad, often horrifying, beautifully written.  Actually — beauty isn’t quite the word.  Junot’s writing is brilliant, a complicated play of different styles and levels, genuinely exciting prose.  He wins this years Pulitzer for fiction (after having taken home the National Book Critics Circle Award already) for that quality of effort in this novel, but what the awards don’t tell you is what great colleage he is.  He is a demanding, generous, inspiring — hackneyed, I know, but true this time — writing teacher.  His students come back again and again, not because he is easy on them — quite the reverse — but because he evokes from them expression they did not know they could execute.

I’ll be honest.  Like a lot of writers, I think, my first reaction to reading an awards announcement that does not include me is pure, green-eyed jealousy, (never mind whether I’ve got anything remotely in the running, of course).  But not this time.  The good guys, both in the sense of good people and good writers, scored two.  A glass will be raised slightly west of my current location to both this evening.  And go take a look at their stuff.

Image:  Edward Collier “Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board,” c. 1699.  The Tate Gallery.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.