Posted tagged ‘Writing’

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

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.

The Uses of the Past: Science/Science Writing Talk

January 17, 2012

I’ve always found that the best way to tackle a complicated story – in science or anything else, for that matter – is to think historically.  But even if I’m right in seeing a historical approach as an essential tool for writers, that’s not obviously true, however well (or not) it may work for me.  Science news is or ought to be new; science itself, some argue, is devoted to the task of relentlessly replacing older, less complete, sometimes simply wrong results with present-tense, more comprehensive, and right (or right-er) findings.

Thinking about this, I put together a panel on the Uses of the Past that was held at last year’s World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar.  The panelists – Deborah Blum, Jo Marchant, Reto Schneider and Holly Tucker led a  discussion that was lively and very supportive of the history-is-useful position (not to mention valuable in itself).  But the conversation was far from complete.

So we’re going to do it again, this time at Science Online 2012. (You can follow all the fun by tracking what will be in a few days a tsunami on Twitter, tagged as #scio12).  This is an “unconference,” which means that I and my co-moderator, Eric Michael Johnson, will each present what amounts to a prompt – really a goad – for the audience/participants to run away with.  As Eric and I have discussed this session, one thing has stood out:  where I’ve thought of the term “uses of the past” as a challenge to writers about science for the public, an opening into approaches that will make their work better, Eric has been thinking about the importance of historical thinking to the practice of science itself – what working scientists could gain from deeper engagement not just with the anecdotes of history, but with a historian’s habits of mind.  So just to get everyone’s juices flowing, Eric and I thought we’d try to exchange some views.  Think of this as a bloggy approach to that old form, the epistolary novel, in which we try to think about the ways in which engagement with the past may matter across fields right on the leading edge of the here and now.

So.  Here goes…

____________________________________________________________

Dear Eric,

I have to confess; I’ve never needed convincing about history; I’m a historian’s son, and all my writing, just about, has had a grounding in the search for where ideas and events come from.

But all the same, it’s simply a fact that the professional scientific literature from which so many stories for the public derive seems, on first glance, to be as present-tense as it is possible to be.   As I write this, I’m looking at the table of contents of <a href=”http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6064.toc”>my latest (January 6) digital issue of <em>Science</em></a>. In the “Reports” section – where current findings are deployed — there is nothing but the now and the near future under discussion.  Just to pull up a few of pieces at whim:  we can learn of the fabrication of wires on the nano-scale that obey Ohm’s law (an accomplishment its makers claim will support advances in both classical and quantum computing to come).  We can read of a new measurement of the ratio of isotopes of tungsten (performed by some of my MIT colleagues in concert with researchers at the University of Colorado) that suggests (at least as a preliminary conclusion) that the terranes that make up the earth’s continents have remained resistant to destruction over most of the earth’s history. And then there is a report from researchers into that living genetics/evolution textbook, <em>C. elegans</em>, that adds yet one more telling detail within a broader understanding of the intertwined behavior of genetic and environmental processes.

All of these – and all the rest of what you can find in this issue of that journal, and so many others – tell you today’s news.  Each of these could form the subject of a perfectly fine popular story.  Yet none of these do or necessarily would as popular stories engage the history that lies behind the results.

That is: you could tell a story of a small step taken towards the goal of building a useful quantum computer without diving into either the nineteenth century’s investigation into the properties of electrical phenomena or the twentieth century’s discovery of the critical role of scale on the nature of physical law.  You can talk about the stability of continents without recognizing the significance of that research in the context of the discovery of the intensely dynamic behavior of the earth’s surface.  You certainly may write about mutation rates and stress without diving into that old fracas, the nature-nurture argument that goes back to Darwin’s day and before.  This is just as true for the researcher as the writer, of course.  Either may choose to ignore the past without impairing their ability to perform the immediate task at hand:  the next measurement, the next story.

You could, that is, but, at least In My Humble Opinion, you shouldn’t.  From the point of view of this science writer, history of science isn’t a luxury or an easy source of ledes; rather, it is essential for both the making of a better (competent) science writer, and in the production of science writing that communicates the fullest, most useful, and most persuasive account of our subject to the broad audiences we seek to engage.

In briefest form, I argue (and teach my students) that diving into the history of the science one cover trains the writer’s nose, her or his ability to discern when a result actually implies a story (two quite different things). It refines a crucial writer’s tool, the reporter’s bullshit detector. At the same time, explicitly embedding historical understanding in the finished text of even the most present-and-future focused story is, I think, more or less invaluable if one’s goal is not simply to inform, but to enlist one’s readers in gerunds of science:  doing it, thinking in the forms of scientific inquiry, gaining a sense of the emotional pleasures of the trade.  I’ll talk more about both of these claims when my turn comes around…but at this point, I think I should stop and let you get a word in edgewise.  Here’s a question for you:  while I can see the uses of the past for writers seeking to extract from science stories that compel a public audience – do working scientists need to care that much about their own archives.  What does someone pounding on <em>C. elegans</em> stress responses, say really need to know about the antecedents of that work?

Best,

Tom

____________________________________________________________

Dear Tom,

The British novelist, and friend of Aldous Huxley, L.P. Hartley began his 1953 novel <em>The Go-Between</em> with a line that, I suspect, many working scientists can relate to, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The process of science, much like the process of art, is to dredge through what has been achieved in the past in order to generate something altogether new. That is perhaps the only thing that the two fields of creative endeavor have in common; the past must be understood only so that you can be released from it. However, much like you, I’ve never needed convincing about history either. While I agree that the past can be a foreign country at times, I’ve always enjoyed traveling.

I came to history through my work in science, but I found that understanding the historical context for why scientists in the past came to the conclusions they did helped inform the questions I was asking. I’ve always believed that the scientific method was the best way of eliminating our own personal biases when seeking answers about the natural world, but that unexamined assumptions can still slip through the scientific filter. By examining how these flawed assumptions made it through I hoped it would help me in my own work. Perhaps the best way to explain what I mean by this is to briefly discuss how an early brush with history encouraged me into the research direction I ultimately pursued in graduate school. The book was <em><a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Natures-Body-Londa-Schiebinger/dp/080708901X”>Nature’s Body</a></em> by the Stanford historian of science Londa Schiebinger that I found in a used bookstore during my senior year as an undergraduate in anthropology and biology. In one chapter of her book she discussed the early history of primate research and how the prevailing assumptions about gender influenced the hypotheses and, as a result, the conclusions about those species most similar to ourselves. One of the earliest descriptions of great apes in the West, after <a href=”http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=415874″>Andrew Battell’s exaggerated stories about “ape monsters,”</a> was by the Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, probably the most widely recognized figure in the history of science that almost no one has ever heard of.

In 1632 Tulp commissioned the artist Rembrandt to paint his anatomy lesson, which ended up being one of the Dutch master’s most famous works (if anyone today recognizes Tulp’s name, it’s most likely from the title of this painting). Nearly a decade after he posed for this portrait Tulp published his Observationes Medicae (Medical Observations) in which he described the anatomy of a female ape he’d received on a ship bound from Angola. He was immediately struck by the similarities with humans and the drawing he published, identified as Homo sylvestris, demonstrated a striking example of cultural bias. Made to look the way he assumed this female would appear while alive, Tulp emphasized his own culture’s gender stereotypes. The female sat with her hands in her lap, framing what appeared to be a pregnant belly, and her head was glancing downwards in a distinctly demure pose.

By itself this depiction wouldn’t have been particularly revealing; it was just one individual allowing their own social biases to influence his science. What was remarkable, however, is the way Schiebinger showed how Tulp’s depiction would appear time and time again in the subsequent centuries when describing female primates, not just in appearance but also in behavior. More than two hundred years later, when Darwin described the differences between males and females in his theory of sexual selection, he had the same unmistakable gender bias that influenced his thinking. I had never taken a women’s studies course in my life, but this insight was an enormous wake up call for me. I realized there had been a common set of assumptions that endured for centuries, what the historian Arthur Lovejoy called “the spirit of the age,” and had gone unexamined until relatively recently when a new generation of primatologists–such as Jane Goodall, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and Frans de Waal–began studying the female half of the equation that had been largely ignored as an important area of study. Knowing this history pushed me to ask different questions and focus on a topic that I discovered hadn’t been addressed before: why female bonobos had such high levels of cooperation despite the fact that they had a low coefficient of genetic relatedness (violating the central premise of <a href=”http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2010/05/punishing_cheaters.php”>Hamilton’s theory of kin selection</a>). Different scientific topics have their own entrenched assumptions that otherwise critical researchers may not have considered; that is, until they see the broad patterns that a historical analysis can reveal.

Cheers,

Eric

____________________________________________________________

Dear Eric,

I love your story, partly because the original painting is so extraordinary and it’s good to have any excuse to revisit it.  But I value it more for your argument that engaging with the thought and thinking (not quite the same thing) of scientists past fosters insight into present problems.  That goes just as much for science writers – that is to say, those seeking to communicate to a broad public both knowledge derived from science and the approaches, the habits of thought that generate those results.

Rembrandt’s painting itself gives some hints along this line.  There’s a marvelous and strange discussion of the work in another novel written in English, W. G. Sebald’s <em><a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Rings-Saturn-W-G-Sebald/dp/0811214133/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326733737&sr=1-1″>The Rings of Saturn</a></em>.  There, Sebald points to the fact that none of the anatomists are actually looking at the corpse under the knife. Tulp himself stares out into the middle distance, whilst other members of his guild peer instead at an anatomical atlas open at the foot of the table. As Sebald studies the one of the often-discussed details of the painting, he argues that what appears to be simply an error in the depiction of the <a href=”http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17225789″>dissection of the left</a> hand reveals an artist seeking to see past the formal abstraction of the lesson, drawing attention instead to the actual body on the table, the physical reality of a single dead man.

Not wishing to push too hard on that (unproven, unprovable) interpretation, Sebald still points out something that rewards the attention of science writers.  Rembrandt depicts both facts — the body, the tendons of the exposed hand – and ideas, at a crucial moment of change in the way natural philosophers sought verifiable knowledge.

We see, amidst the reverence for the book, the authority of prior learning, an event actually occurring on the canvas:  the effort to extract understanding from the direct testimony of nature. Amidst all else that can be read there, Rembrandt’s painting reminds the viewer of the time – not really all that long ago – when a fundamental idea was being framed with its first answer:  yes, it is possible to understand biological forms as machines, and to investigate their workings directly.

So, to take the long road home to the question of why bother with history when covering the news of today and tomorrow, here are two thoughts (of the three with which I will hope to provoke our fellow unconferees on Thursday).  First: as you argue for scientists, understanding of the past can lead writers to stories they may not have known were there.

To give an example, I’ll have to leave anatomy behind (about whose history I sadly know very little). I recently had an occasionto look back at <a href=”http://books.google.com/books?id=KniUvcxFtOwC&pg=PA281&lpg=PA281&dq=michelson+sixth+decimal+place+ryerson+physical+laboratory&source=bl&ots=0oDZa8vpy3&sig=6_BQaDfvsUE-G_nLWBmNF8l4boM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=91oUT_3mAeXq0gHvuI22Aw&ved=0CE8Q6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=michelson%20sixth%20decimal%20place%20ryerson%20physical%20laboratory&f=false”>A. A. Michelson’s infamous remark</a> from 1894 when he asserted that physics was done except for that which could be discovered in the sixth decimal places of measurements.

There is a lot wrong in that claim, but if you look more closely at what he said, you can find something less obvious in Michelson’s claim – and that can lead to insight into what goes into the making of all kinds of very modern physics, from (possibly true) observations of faster than light neutrinos to the ways in which cosmologists are extracting knowledge from high-precision measurements of the cosmic microwave background (and much else besides, of course).

So there’s a story-engine chugging away inside history, which is there to be harnessed by any writer – facts, material, from which to craft story.  There’s also a story-telling tool, a method that derives directly from historical understanding.  A core task for science writing is the transformation of technically complicated material into a narrative available to broad audiences – which must be done without doing violence to the underlying ideas.  If the writer remembers that every modern problem has a long past, then she or he can prospect through that history when the problems and results in that sequence are intelligible to any audience.  For just one last, very quick example:  general relativity is a hard concept to explain, but framing the issue that it helped to resolve in the context of what Newton’s (seemingly) simpler account of gravity couldn’t handle – that spooky action at a distance that permits the gravitational attraction of the sun to shape the earth’s orbit – and you’re in with a chance.

Best,

Tom

____________________________________________________________

Dear Tom,

I think you touched on something very important with regard to the idea that science writing is a transformation that takes the technical language of science (primarily mathematics and statistics–that is, if it’s done correctly) and interprets it into the communication of everyday experience. Science writing is a process of translation. The history of science as a discipline is precisely the same thing, though historians typically engage in a different level of linguistic analysis by looking at language meaning and the way that science provides insight into the process of historical change. But it seems that there is no better way to think about how the history of science can be useful to science journalists than to consider what we do as essentially a process of translation. Art is involved in any translation work and there is never a one-to-one correspondence between the original and what it eventually becomes. We must be true to our source material but also evoke the same overall meaning. To put this more simply: why are the findings being reported important to scientists in a given field and how can that same importance be conveyed to a readership with a very different set of experiences? It seems to me that there are two primary ways of doing this: engaging with the history of <em>why</em> this question matters or tapping into contemporary <em>attitudes</em> that evoke connections with the findings reported (where the latter approach <a href=”http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2009/10/grand_evolutionary_dramas_abou.php”>goes wrong</a> happens to be one of my <a href=”http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/2011/09/02/male-chauvinist-chimps/”>favorite</a&gt; topics of critique, one that is <a href=”http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-michael-johnson/intelligent-design-creati_b_636200.html”>unfortunately</a&gt; an extremely rich resource to draw from).

However, there is one other reason why the history of science is important for science journalists that we haven’t quite touched on yet. A journalist who knows their history is better protected from false claims and the distraction of denialism. The scientific press release is a unique cultural invention and all too often seeks to manipulate journalists into framing a given story so as to exaggerate that study’s actual impact. The historically minded journalist is less likely to get bamboozled. In a similar way, the <em>he said-she said</em> model of reporting is a persistent and irritating rash for almost every professional journalist I’ve interacted with. But the temptation to scratch is always present, even though the false equivalency reported is rarely satisfying over the long term. The history of science can be the journalistic topical ointment. Those who know the background of anti-vaccine paranoia, or who recognize the wedge strategy of creationist rhetoric, can satisfy their need to report on a story that captures the public’s attention while also providing useful information to place that issue within it’s proper context. History matters.

Your friend,

Eric


Eric Michael Johnson
Department of History
University of British Columbia
http://www.history.ubc.ca/people/eric-michael-johnson
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/

Images:  Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing a Letterbetw. 1665 and 1666.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533.

Nicholaes Tulp,  “Homo sylvestris” Observationes Medicae, Book III, 56th Observation, 1641

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632

How Hard Are Fractions, Really: Elizabeth Warren Scares Her/Megan McArdle Is Always Wrong Chronicles, Cont’d.

July 28, 2010

Update: some edits to make the post read like someone without a grudge against English syntax wrote this post. Nothing substantive — a couple of cuts, a couple of verbs supplied to verbless “sentences.”

I guess I just can’t quit that Ms. McArdle.

I vowed to give myself a break from looking at the work of someone who seems to me to be trying to live up to fitness report number 12 on this list (or perhaps, better, number 4…oh hell, actually, a whole bunch of them).*

But then I read on, and I can’t help myself.

In my last post on this subject, I compared elements of her hatchet job on Warren to the techniques Andrew Breitbart uses in his war on progressives, Obama, and random African Americans who drift into his sights.

This time, it’s a little different:  McArdle is here simply trying to confuse the issue, apparently in the hopes that each bit of noise and nonsense that she can generate around Elizabeth Warren will damage her chances to become the first director of the he new Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  It’s an example of what I’ve called in the past McArdle’s monkey-in-the-zoo approach, in which she flings anything that comes to hand against the wall and hopes some fraction of it will stick..

To recap McArdle has promised the world a second part to that first post that attracted much uncomplimentary attention, but, as Susan of Texas notes it’s been a while.  In the meantime, she has outsourced the task, excerpting a Wall St. Journal op-ed of some years ago, which she presents under the title, “More Weird Metrics for Elizabeth Warren.”

What is so weird to McArdle?

Expressing tax liabilities as percentages of income.

No, really.

As in:  a single-earner family with an income of $38,700 facing a tax burden that claims 24% of that total.

As in: a two-earner family with earnings of $67,800 facing a tax burden of 33%.

Stating tax bills in this manner is apparently a dreadful sin, a willingness to mislead or a confusion about the underlying data.

Or so says the WSJ item’s author, Todd Zywicki, who in the passage quoted by McArdle complains that Elizabeth Warren and her co-author Amelia Warren Tyagi express certain items in raw dollar terms — $5,140 on car expenses for the single earner example, for example, vs. $8,000 in the two income family — but state tax liabilities only as percentages.

To Zywicki, this amounts to an obvious attempt to confound “an “apples to apples” comparison of all expenses.”

He corrects this, in his mind, by performing what he seems to regard as the utterly impenetrable magic act of performing two calculations:  .24*38,700 and .33*67,800, to yield dollar figures for the tax bills the two families in these examples owed.**

But beyond this en passant swipe at the eternal mystery that is the Wall St. Journal op-ed operation, our real concern here is McArdle.

She too, apparently, finds expressing a quantity as percentage of another, specified quantity, somehow suspect, a “weird metric.”

More, she regards this example as somehow dispositive of a systematic misuse of data, a demonstration of either Warren’s incompetence or her dishonesty.  McArdle writes,

Does it matter if we have a regulator who can use data consistently?  A lot of commenters seem angry that I would suggest it might.  As for me, I don’t know which is worse:  the notion that Elizabeth Warren understood what she was doing, or the notion that she didn’t.

My question would be, were I the publisher of The Atlantic, does it matter if we have an economics writer who can, apparently, neither read nor count?

Now that’s harsh, and I know it, but look at what happens if you read Warren’s and Tyagi’s examples in good faith, with a view to understanding what they are actually trying to say.

Well, long ago I wrote about the importance of such simple calculations as percentages to raw data in the context of Iraq War casualties.

The point there was that doing so allowed one to make comparisons across disparate bodies of data or historical examples.  If you want to understand the implications of  600,000 casualties among Iraqis, it helps to express that as a percentage of the population affected, which then allows you to compare it to, say, the deaths suffered by combatant nations in World War I or the American Civil War.  Thinking about the comparisons those enabled provided the frame for the moral of that post:  that the application of even veryy simple arithmetical/mathematical ideas to the raw experience of the world can prove enormously useful.

So, what might persuade Warren and Tyagi to present housing expenses or car costs as dollar numbers but  tax burdens as percentages?

Well, if I were to guess, it would be to make a point central to their larger argument:  that there are systematic increases in costs that accompany the increase in earnings in as you move from one income to two — but that different kinds of cost increases behave differently, have different scales of impact on the outcome for a two-earner family.

That is — increase in car costs like most family expenditures are basically linear:  if you go from one car to two, you pay a bit more in payments, insurance, and maintence, and that’s it.  If you take on a larger mortgage, the same applies and so on.  As Zywicki notes, apparently with some sense of being deceived, this results in such costs consuming a smaller percentage of the gross family income for two-earner households compared with single earner ones.***

Update:   note commenter Jim Bales analysis below.  Zwicki’s sins are worse than what I, in my haste to get this up, fully recognized; Jim does the due diligence.

But I think every sentient American knows that taxes don’t behave like housing or car payments.

In fact, I find it hard to believe –absurd, in fact — that McArdle, of all people, a self proclaimed libertarian, doesn’t grok the point Warren and Tyagi are trying to make as clearly as possible by using an expression for the tax burden faced by their two families in percentages.

After all, the book is about the two income trap.  And one of critical elements of that trap, as we all know, is that marginal tax rates go up at higher income levels.  This is, of course, something that McArdle has written about –notoriously quite recently, in her “calculatorgate” post.

In fact, in every context but the one in which she attacks Warren, McArdle grasps the implications of a progressive income tax, and she should, of course, given the fact, noted above, that every American who has ever looked at a tax table recognizes that the last dollar of income above minimum thresholds is taxed at a higher rate, a higher percentage than is the first.

So, quite the contrary to the charges leveled against them by Zwicki and McArdle:  Warren and Tyagi weren’t obscuring a fact that anyone — probably even McArdle’s calculator! — could obtain in seconds from the raw data they povided in full.  Rather, they were making the point that their own argument required in the best form they could — which, I meekly say, as the writer of this and that myself, is the essential core of an author’s job.

And that argument, the one that Warren and Tyagi developed across a couple of hundred pages, turned on explicating the fact that two incomes do not bring wealth proportional to the effort expended to acquire them.

Which is what would be understood, pretty clearly, I believe, by any reader unburdened by a willed desire not to get it.  How hard is to grasp that marginal tax rates in progressive taxation systems — which are generally pretty well expressed as percentages — act as a drag on the aspirations of two earner families?

This is not a raving radical position.

I believe I’ve heard some conservatives lament this very fact.

All of which is to say that there was nothing “weird’ about Warren and Tyagi’s metrics– unless asking a reader to do a quick bit of mental arithmetic (what’s one quarter of 39K vs. one third of 68) is somehow a malicious act by authors bent on deceit.

That McArdle might find that task daunting I find plausible, barely, given her recent trouble with long division.

But really, I know that she’s perfectly capable of handling fractions.  This is pretty clearly a case of willful misreading to a malicious end,  a baffle with bullsh*t moment.

So, with that,  I’m left here with is her own question, again rephrased for those in charge at The Atlantic. Does it matter if your “Business and Economics Editor” cannot consistently grasp the simplest of calculations, the most elementary of analyses?  Is it worse that McArdle understands what she is doing, or that she doesn’t?

*My personal favorite has always been number 2, but that’s just me.

**…Then, seemingly oblivious of the hilarity that thus ensues, Zywicki converts a number of the other quantities into percentages to make comparisons of the relative weight of different expenses possess in the two family’s budgets.  Seriously.  Oh well.  That was long ago, in a country far, far away, and besides, the kvetch is dead.

***He seems to think Warren and Tyagi are concealing this fact, as if it is beyond the ken for someone to notice that $8,000 is a smaller chunk of around 68K than roughly $5,200 is of $39,000. Truly, this just isn’t that hard.

Images:  Jan Massys, “At the Tax Collector,” 1539

The title pages to two arithmetic texts published in Germany in 1514

Why I Love the English Language (and writing)

April 16, 2010

From Nick Mamtas

Carver became a legend on 72 short stories. I just sold my 60th.  But thanks to the handy chart at the back of Carol Sklenicka’s mammoth biography, I know that Carver never sold stories to anthologies with names such as The Walri Project, The Naked Singularity, or Fucking Daphne. Am I doing something wrong?

(h/t Andrew Sullivan.)

I don’t quite know why this tickles me so, except that as a writer, I love reading writer’s rants.  Or perhaps its the fact that I now have some almost-certain-to-be-unreached destinations to which my own work could aspire.

I

mage: Cover of the pulp magazine Weird Tales (January 1937, vol. 29, no. 1). Covert art by Margaret Brundage.

On Memory, Memoir, and Rebecca Skloot’s journey with and to Henrietta Lacks

February 9, 2010

It’s harder than I thought it would be to weigh in with a blog-review of Rebecca Skloot’s new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

It’s not that I don’t like the book – it’s wonderful, and I highly recommend you all go read it.

It’s not that I don’t have some thoughts about the work.  It offers plenty of grist for engagement, from its compelling story to some formal considerations in the writing, to the practical lesson Rebecca is giving us all on what it takes to promote a book in this late-stage of the traditional approaches to publishing.

It’s not that there isn’t a wealth of material to talk about.  Rebecca has written a compelling story, a genuine page turner, populated with characters – people – whom you come to care about deeply, that is at the same time an important inquiry into issues of race, class, personal autonomy and the claims of authority in America.

It’s just that all of this has been said already.  I agree with the assessments of the host of reviewers and bloggers who have already weighed in on the book:  it’s a great achievement, it’s a compelling read, and it is at once emotionally moving and intellectually demanding, which is my idea of a fine, fine book.

So what to add?

Well, I’ve got one thing to say more from my perspective as a writer who also teaches writing than as a straight reviewer/critic.  At least one of Rebecca’s choices of technique in this book was hard won, complicated, and very  important to the ultimate power of the work.

That is:  a number of people have noted what they see as the use of some of the story telling tools from fiction in the tale – and that’s certainly fair.  Her telling of scenes from the story of Henrietta Lacks herself with a novel’s third person, seemingly omniscient narrator is a case in point.

But to me the dominant source-genre for the book is not fiction but that very tricky approach to non-fiction that falls under the umbrella of memoir.

I heard Rebecca tell Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air that she resisted inserting herself into the story until it became inevitable, until her odyssey with the Lacks family became so intimately intertwined with what she thought her formal narrative to be that she had to emerge as a character in her own book.

That decision shapes the entire work, much for the better I think.  We enter the tale with her 16 year old self, a not-entirely successful high school student, catching a stray remark in a biology class about an important line of cells, and their source, Henrietta Lacks, of whom the instructor said, as an aside, “she was a black woman.”

With that we’re off, and we are able to understand the entire work that follows as a journey undertaken by a maturing Rebecca to come to grips with that sudden, strange, and almost comically opaque revelation.

That journey is not undertaken by an omniscient narrator, for all that the device shows up here and there; we don’t have a Virgil on this sometimes infernal journey.

Rather, we have Rebecca herself, a changing person and voice, someone with accumulating, always incomplete knowledge.  Most important for the power of the book, Rebecca is implicated in the tale:  each discovery she makes has both an explanatory signficance and an emotional one, for her. And hence for us, once we’ve invested our concern in the teller of the tale.

By the way, in this I don’t mean that Rebecca comes to dominate the story.  Henrietta herself, and even more, Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, are the emotional centers of the story. But that’s how memoirs work.  They are not simply, or even mostly (in the best ones) about the author; rather, they provide a bridge through the author to sympathy with the people and experiences encountered on a life’s journey.  A keen memoirist uses what she or he knows to be a subjective view to create a connection between the reader and both what and the way she or he sees the world.

That’s what makes the most controversial scene in Rebecca’s book so valuable, narratively.  At one point, in the midst of Henrietta’s family, Rebecca experiences a kind of exorcism.  She’s a rationalist, a science writer, for heaven’s sake.  And yet this experience is real, felt and…as written, present for the reader.

All of which is to say, that memoir isn’t just a “what I did today” account of a life:  it is a conscious and complicated narrative stance, which, when wielded by a writer of skill and sensitivity constructs a world fo feeling out of an account of fact – or what seemed like fact as lived.  Doing it well is really hard – and having done so is one reason that Rebecca produced a book that works so well.

Image: Ary Scheffer, “Dante and Virgil encounter the ghosts of Paulo and Francesca” 1854.