Writing and all that follows

January 2, 2019

December 24, 2018

April 17, 2018

September 20, 2017

The discovery and loss of the cure to scurvy

I just re-read Maciej Cegłowski’s excellent essay on the discovery and loss of the remedy to scurvy.

Incidentally, I’ve seen scurvy used as a case study of how theory colours evidence (or directs the interpretation of it) before in Lukas Vermeer’s talk Creating data: a boat filled with sauerkraut.

There are loads of quotable passages, but rather than try to condense a great read into a few snippets, I’ll share a somewhat ancillary tidbit:

[T]echnological progress in one area can lead to surprising regressions. I mentioned how the advent of steam travel made it possible to accidentally replace an effective antiscorbutic with an ineffective one. An even starker example was the rash of cases of infantile scurvy that afflicted upper class families in the late 19th century. This outbreak was the direct result of another technological development, the pasteurization of cow’s milk. The procedure made milk vastly safer for infants to drink, but also destroyed vitamin C. For poorer children, who tended to be breast-fed and quickly weaned onto adult foods, this was not an issue, but the wealthy infants fed a special diet of cooked cereals and milk were at grave risk.

The essay contained two words new to me: antiscorbutic — having the effect of preventing or curing scurvy; and austral — of or coming from the south.


January 15, 2017

March 15, 2016

British style guides

Style guides from BBC News, The Guardian and Observer and The Economist. Guardian also tweets about its style.


July 22, 2015

  • “We’re always attracted to the edges of what we are, out by the edges where it’s a little raw and nervy.”
    —EL Doctorow (source)

November 13, 2014

June 27, 2014

May 1, 2014

April 15, 2014

  • Bechdel test. “Asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.”

April 9, 2014

February 24, 2014

  • "Hemingway" on Hemingway. A funny takedown of the Hemingway app, which tries -- in a rather simplistic way -- to help you make your writing clear and understandable.

November 25, 2013

November 13, 2013

September 13, 2013

July 23, 2013

February 27, 2013

November 1, 2011

June 7, 2011

May 27, 2010

Programmatic cut-ups

Reorganizing some long-lost demos of mine, I found my programmatic nod to William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique. While I recall I was originally going to allow users to input text into the demo, I never got around to it. Here’s the demo, with the sample text as my entry on “fascist word processors”.

It’s obviously not perfect (the amount of parenthesis really messes up this sample), but it still sort of works. The script scans through the text, and at each pre-set punctuation mark, it “flips a coin” to determine whether or not to chop there or continue on. As the fragment gets longer, the probability to chop increases.


March 29, 2010

September 15, 2009

May 5, 2009

September 12, 2008

A note about Georges Perec

The first thing I learned about Georges Perec is that he’d written a novel without using the letter ‘e’. Talk about creative constraints!

Perec’s best-known work, Life: A User’s Manual, is divided into 99 chapters, which “move like a knight’s tour of a chessboard around the room plan of a Paris apartment [building], describing the rooms and stairwell and telling the stories of the inhabitants.”

He was a member of Oulipo, a literary group interested in creating constrained writing techniques.


February 20, 2008

February 19, 2008

January 29, 2008

January 17, 2007

December 14, 2005

  • Presentation Zen is a weblog about making presentations better. While I don’t really care for the mining of Zen wisdom, I very much appreciate the author’s vision; bullet-pointing captive audiences to death has got to stop.

October 26, 2005

Which vs. That

Which vs. that. The basic rule: Use “which” plus commas to set off nonrestrictive clauses; use “that” to introduce a restrictive clause.


September 18, 2005

September 14, 2005

June 17, 2005

May 15, 2005

  • Language Corner, by Evan Jenkins, explores “various rules of the language, including rules of thumb.”

April 2, 2005

February 15, 2005

A download-and-run wiki

Instiki may be easy to install, but I wonder if it’s so easy to learn to use it to its full extent.


A book in five days

From the Literary Saloon: “A ‘book’ in five days. That’s what Mara Reinstein and Joey Bartolomeo — writers at Us Weekly — have done: 40,000 words (on Brad & ‘Jen’, who have apparently broken up, which is apparently of interest to someone out there) in less than a week.”


February 1, 2005

Mining meaning from notes

Stephen Johnson writes about how his note-taking system has changed the way he writes — and thinks. Sounds familiar. I had lofty goals for my personal CMS (which I use to publish this weblog) to do basically the same thing. Only my heap-of-code doesn’t have any of the contextual search features of DevonThink, which means my CMS does nothing like it.


January 24, 2005

January 13, 2005

Neil Stephenson interview

Neil Stephenson interview at Slashdot. In his answer to the second question, Stephenson has a great explanation for why “commercial authors” aren’t respected by the literary scene.


October 12, 2004

There are at least four translations of Madame Bovary...

...and the newest one, by Margaret Mauldon, is horrible. At least according to Clive James.

... Already, though, it is hard to suppress a suspicion that in the matter of historical fidelity things are out of kilter, and the suspicion intensifies once the book is opened. Professor Malcolm Bowie, who wrote the informative introduction, makes much ado in his back-of-the-jacket blurb about Flaubert's precision, which the professor assures us is matched by Mauldon's brand-new and meticulously accurate translation of the actual work. Any reader wishing to believe this is advised to start on page one. He had better not open the book accidentally at page 178 [end of chapter 12, in part 2], on which we find Emma's lover Rodolphe justifying to himself his decision to ditch her. Rodolphe is supposed to be a creep, but surely he never spoke the French equivalent of late-twentieth-century American slang: "And anyway there's all those problems, all that expense, as well. Oh, no! No way! It would have been too stupid."

Just to be certain that Rodolphe never spoke like a Hollywood agent, we can take a look at the same line in the original: "Et, d'ailleurs, les embarras, la d�pense � Ah! non, non, mille fois non! Cela e�t �t� trop b�te!" The perfectly ordinary, time-tested English idiom "No, no, a thousand times no!" would have fitted exactly. The awful possibility arises that Mauldon has never paid much attention to English idioms like that. Instead she thinks "No way!" is perfectly ordinary. We can take it for granted that she knows the French language of Flaubert's era inside out. (She has already translated, for the same series of Oxford World's Classics, works by Zola, Stendhal, Huysmans, Constant, and Maupassant.) But she has a crucially weaker knowledge of how the English language of her own era has been corrupted. You might say that English has always advanced through corruption, but "No way!" is an idiom so closely tied to the present that it can hardly fail to weaken any attempt to summon up the past. In Alan Russell's translation of Madame Bovary, first published by Penguin in 1950, there is no "No way!" Probably the phrase did not yet exist, but almost certainly Russell would not have used it even if it had. What he wrote was "No, no, by Heaven no!" Not quite as good as "a thousand times no!" perhaps, but certainly better than "No way!": better because more neutral, in the sense of being less tied to the present time.

Looking at this online version of Madame Bovary, I can’t find see who the translator is. A little investigation, based on James’s comparisons, proved inconclusive. The last sentence of part 2, chapter 12 is interesting. It reads: “And besides, the worry, the expense! Ah! no, no, no, no! a thousand times no! That would be too stupid.” Just as James recommends.


July 5, 2004

June 30, 2004

“Fiction in a hurry”

Citypages’s story on Plain Layne, including an interview with Odin Soli, fills in some gaps in the story.

“People have asked at what point readers began to suspect that Plain Layne was make-believe, and the answer is, from the very beginning.”


October 14, 2003

Did I really just dream about fascist word processors?

This morning I woke up thinking about an aggressively auto-completing word processor. Read more


September 15, 2003

Q&A’s are bad

Interview of Douglas Coupland in The Morning News. And another one in Guardian. I just recently discovered author interviews on the Web. They’re more interesting if you’ve read the author’s works. Powell’s collection is great. I especially enjoyed Chuck Palahniuk’s interview.

It’s funny to see so many interviews conducted in Q&A format. A journalism teacher of mine once said to me that the Q&A format is garbage. That anyone can do it and that it’s pretentious. Journalists shouldn’t write themselves into their stories, she said. Not unless they’re Hunter S. Thompson.


Orwell says

Reading up on William Gibson’s blog archives—I haven’t been following any blogs and only just today heard (well, read) that he’s kicking the habit to (be able to) begin real work—I chuckled at Orwell’s rules. Very strict. I wonder what Orwell meant by “sounding outright barbarous.” Is he talking about four-letter words or everything that sounds inane? His rules remind me of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.


September 10, 2003

Reasons beside the point

I hate this cardboard colored journal. I hate how it binds me to chronological order, to affected clarity, to the truth. I hate how the words I write are permanent and immutable. I hate what this journal represents, how it pressures me, that it always leaves me unsatisfied. Read more