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Post-1000 Lull

January 29, 2012 Leave a comment

My gosh, has it really been nine days since my last post? I can’t explain it. After all those snow days the week before last, I did get busy last week: work, Australian Open tennis (broadcast live here in the evenings), reading. But still, I should have had time for a little blogging. Maybe I was unconsciously taking a break in celebration of my last post, which was the one-thousandth of Ron’s View.

Lots to catch up on. Here goes.

Categories: Writing

Parks on Writing

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

There’s a great little piece by writer and translator Tim Parks (author of the book pictured above) at the New York Review blog site today about writing within, or without, a home culture. Of particular interest are the contrasting examples he gives of students in his creative writing class — one writing a historical thriller about a culture foreign to him in time and place, another writing about a group of family and friends in England now — and the relative merits of their work. Before introducing these examples, Parks writes that

For most of us, the set of behaviors we call personality, or self, forms initially in a family of three, four, or five individuals, then develops as it is exposed to the larger worlds of school and, in our teens perhaps, our town, our country. The richness of our individual personalities is a measure of the complexity of the relations that sustain us. A word spoken at home or school can be dense with nuance and shared knowledge in a way unlikely to occur in a casual exchange at rail station or airport, however fascinating and attractive an exotic traveling companion may be. This is not an argument for staying at home, but for having a home from which to set out.

Parks’ observation is loosely connected to a claim I have often made to Joel, that I am his working definition of a normal adult. He may, over time, revise this definition, but he’s stuck with me as his initial frame of reference.

Here I am presuming to trod on Parks’ turf. Sorry about that. Let me back off.

Parks picks up his theme again later with reference to the two students:

If there is a problem with the novel … the problem is rather a slow weakening of our sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions; this being replaced by the author who takes courses to learn how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture. That package may work for some, as I believe my student’s account of dramatic upheavals in the Mongol empire will work for many readers; it has its intellectual ideas and universal issues: but it doesn’t engage us deeply, as I believe my other student’s work might if only he could get it right. And this is not simply an issue of setting the book at home or abroad, but of having it spring from matters that genuinely concern the writer and the culture he’s working in.

Parks’ article is provocative. And short. I suggest reading it in full.

Categories: Culture, Writing

Passive Voice

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

I am a regular reader of Language Log, and have written often about posts there. Last December, I wrote my own post about a language usage issue, inspired by a WSJ article that bugged me so much I wrote to Language Log co-founder Geoff Pullum about it. To my surprise, he responded to my note by building his own post around the WSJ article.

Today, once again, I am the source of a Pullum post. An on-going Pullum theme is the never-ending warnings by supposed language authorities to avoid “passive voice.” Invariably, he points out that the warnings come in articles in which the authors (a) use the passive themselves, and (b) mis-identify its occurrences in the examples they provide. Having stumbled on such a piece at the Harper’s blog over a week ago, I brought it to Pullum’s attention, and he has now done a better job than I can at dissecting its inanity. Have a look.

My own pet peeve regarding passive voice is Microsoft’s insistence on warning me whenever I use it while writing a Word document. Word’s presumption that it can write better than I can is a continuing annoyance. But specifically, can anyone possibly believe that every use of passive voice is a stylistic error in need of editing? Really? Stick to the layout. Let me do the writing. (Mind you, I only use Word for documents to be shared with others who insist on using Word. For myself, I never use it.)

Categories: Language, Writing

Copy Editor for Hire

September 3, 2011 Leave a comment

There’s a new copy editor available for hire. Me! I’m not sure why no one has made an offer yet. But I now have proof that I can teach The New Yorker a thing or two, and I figure that has to look good on my résumé.

Reeves Wiedeman has been posting a series of notes on the New Yorker’s blog about the US Open tennis championships taking place here in New York. Two days ago, he had a short piece about Andy Roddick with a last paragraph that had the opening sentence, “It would be a stretch to say that Roddick, two days into his twenty-ninth year, has aged gracefully.”

Now, I don’t walk around with the birth years memorized for the world’s top tennis players, but I had a feeling, and the feeling was that Roddick was two days past his twenty-ninth birthday, the number twenty-nine having been planted in Wiedeman’s brain because of that. And if my feeling were correct, then Wiedeman had mis-spoken.

I googled Roddick and found that, sure enough, his birthday is August 30, 1982, which meant, sure enough, that he turned 29 two days before Wiedeman’s post.

So what’s the point? Well, here’s how I explained it in a comment responding to the post:

I don’t wish to distract from your main point, but perhaps nonetheless it’s worth pointing out that having turned 29 two days ago, Roddick is now two days into his thirtieth year, not his twenty-ninth. When we turn a certain age, we have just completed that year in our lives, as is evident when one thinks about infants on their first birthdays.

I was nervous about posting this. I didn’t want a backlash of comments about how compulsively precise I was being. I was afraid to look again to see what new comments appeared trashing me. I tried to be courteous. But, the thing is, Wiedeman was simply wrong. Someone should tell him, no?

There’s a history to this. Back in 1998, we attended an open house at the school Joel would ultimately attend for middle and high school. The headmaster gave a talk about the school’s history, emphasizing their preparation for the year-long celebration of their upcoming 75th anniversary. They began in 1924, would turn 75 in 1999, and 1999-2000 would be the celebration year. He then described what it would be like to celebrate during the school’s 75th year.

Someone had to tell him. I took on the burden and sent an email — a long one — explaining why the school, which was free to celebrate its 75th anniversary whenever it saw fit, would in fact be celebrating it during its 76th year if it chose 1999-2000 as the year. The headmaster responded in wonder, amazed, it seemed, that anyone would think about such issues, much less write to him about them.

Had I just ruined Joel’s chances of being admitted to the school? I had months to worry about that. But it worked out. He got in, the headmaster moved on to another job, and no one spoke about celebrating the 75th year of the school during its 76th year.

How did The New Yorker respond? I didn’t think they would at all. I was more concerned with flames from readers. And I wouldn’t have had the courage to look back except that I had told Joel to look at the post and he wrote back to me about it this morning. I checked and discovered that no reader had flamed me after all. No reader had even written. There was just one comment after mine, and it was from The New Yorker itself, yesterday afternoon:

When you’re right, you’re right, rsirving. We’ve amended the sentence in question. Thanks!

Posted 9/2/2011, 3:17:08pm by tnywebedit

How about that? When you’re right, you’re right. That’s what I was thinking too. Here’s the amendment: “It would be a stretch to say that Roddick, two days after turning twenty-nine, has aged gracefully.”

I might have preferred that they keep Wiedeman’s original version and simply replace “twenty-ninth” with “thirtieth.” They chose a different direction. Regardless, it’s correct now.

I won’t work for just anyone, but I’m ready, if The New Yorker wants to hire me on. Nothing like starting at the top.

Categories: Counting, Writing

On Historical Perspective

August 24, 2011 1 comment

Famed Babylonian tablet Plimpton 322*

[Christine Proust and Columbia University]

I read a marvelous passage earlier this week that I would like to share. It’s an old one, from a book published in 1952, but it’s new to me. The book: The Exact Sciences in Antiquity by Otto Neugebauer. Neugebauer is a giant of twentieth-century history, the expert on ancient Babylonian mathematics and astronomy. An Austrian, he studied engineering, mathematics, and physics in Graz, then Munich, and then Göttingen, where he began to work on the history of ancient mathematics. He left Germany for Copenhagen in 1934, then moved on to the US, where he spent the remainder of his career at Brown and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Neugebauer died in 1990. I was aware of his name and vaguely of his importance to the history of mathematics when we spent the year at the Institute in 1987-1988, but unfortunately I didn’t think to meet him or learn more about his work. Talk about missed opportunities. But now, 23 years later, I’ve been looking at some of his work.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, in a series of books, he translated and interpreted the mathematics on the Babylonian cuneiform tablets that can be found in many of the world’s great museums and that date to the time period of 1900 BCE-1600 BCE. The book on exact sciences in antiquity from which I am about to quote is more of an overview that grew out of lectures he gave at Cornell in 1949. In the Preface, he explains that the nature of the presentation led him to omit the qualifications he might ordinarily have offered in a more scholarly work, adding that he has “enjoyed the possibility of being compelled for once to abandon all learned apparatus and to pretend to know when actually I am guessing.” The paragraph concludes with the passage below, which I leave for your enjoyment without further comment.

This does not imply that I have ignored facts. Indeed I have consistently tried to keep as close as possible to the source material. Only in its selection, in its arrangement, and in its coherent interpretation have I permitted myself much greater freedom than is usual in technical publications. And in order to counteract somewhat the impression of security which easily emerges from general discussions I have often inserted methodological remarks to remind the reader of the exceedingly slim basis on which, of necessity, is built any discussion of historical developments from which we are separated by many centuries. The common belief that we gain “historical perspective” with increasing distance seems to me utterly to misrepresent the actual situation. What we gain is merely confidence in generalizations which we would never dare make if we had access to the real wealth of contemporary evidence.

*The photo at the top is taken from a NYT article by Nicholas Wade last fall on the occasion of an exhibition of cuneiform tablets at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Unfortunately, the exhibition closed last December, or else I would be making plans to see it during our upcoming trip to New York. Wade explained that the “considerable mathematical knowledge of the Babylonians was uncovered by the Austrian mathematician Otto E. Neugebauer, who died in 1990. Scholars since then have turned to the task of understanding how the knowledge was used. The items in the exhibition are drawn from the archaeological collections of Columbia, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania.” Be sure to look at the accompanying slide show, which includes more tablets, a photo of Otto Neugebauer, and his hand drawing of both sides of a tablet.

Categories: History, Math, Writing

Sentence of the Week

May 15, 2011 1 comment

Usually, my sentences of the week are bad ones. This one’s a good one.

Earlier this afternoon, one of Roger Angell’s occasional baseball posts appeared at the New Yorker blog site. In writing about New York Yankee Jorge Posada, who at 39 is having a bad season and chose not to play yesterday, Angell added a variation to his decades-long theme that baseball is just darned hard:

For this fan, one of the compelling traits about baseball at its top level is its insatiable difficulty, which shows itself most ferociously to arriving rookies and to older players, no matter how celebrated, on their way out.

Of course, occasionally a player has a stretch that fools you into thinking it’s easy. Like Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Alas, it didn’t last.

Categories: Baseball, Writing

A Change in Plans

May 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Ian Frazier reviews John Darnton’s Almost a Family: A Memoir in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. Ron’s View readers will know that I’m a big fan of Frazier. I read all his books, his short pieces in The New Yorker, and his New York Review pieces. But Joel got to this one before I did. He was thus able to pass on to me the warning contained in the review’s opening sentences:

An important thing to know about memoirs is that although there are a lot of them already, there will soon be more. Seventy-six million baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Many of us own computers, and we find ourselves fascinating.

Joel didn’t have to explain why he thought this passage was relevant. He recognized me, I knew he recognized me, and he knew I would recognize myself. At least he was reassuring. When I rued that I was too late, he urged me to hurry up and get in ahead of the tide.

As for Frazier, he saw this coming long ago. He’s my age. We were college classmates. And he had the prescience to publish his memoir in 1994.

Now what will I do when I retire?

Categories: Life, Writing

Mexican Delights

April 21, 2011 Leave a comment

This morning, I picked up the current issue of The New York Review of Books and discovered Alma Guillermoprieto’s The High Art of the Tamale, as fine a piece of food writing as one could ask for. In reviewing Diana Kennedy’s Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy , Guillermoprieto tempts the reader to book flights southward immediately, out of excitement for the described delights.

[Kennedy] was coming from the drab kitchens of postwar England, and in Mexico City just a short walk through any neighborhood market was enough to make her swoon: armfuls of blossoms the color of gold, the smoky perfume of dried chiles gusting through the corridors, the racket of a dozen vendors vying for her attention, waist-high pyramids of unheard-of vegetables, pumpkins of every description, gourds, melons, purple amaranth plants, shocking-pink cactus fruit, blood-red hibiscus flowers, and, above the general din, the metallic cries of the vendors…¡cómpreme, marchantita! Buy here! Buy here!

And then to huddle at a market stall and wait for an industrious woman in braids to chop up some barbacoa and onion and cilantro and spoon it all over a tortilla and hand the steaming morsel into her eager hands…Heaven.

And Guillermoprieto tempts the reader to book flights southward immediately, also, in fear that these delights won’t last long.

. . . the ecological and cultural devastation Mexico has been undergoing. I could go on at some length about our garbage-lined highways, the almost daily loss of native species, the forests logged by lumber black marketeers, drug traffickers, and landless settlers, the slow attrition of our beautiful markets thanks to the likes of Wal-Mart, and the takeover in local Wal-Marts of everything fresh by everything processed—for one small example, the replacement of locally grown raisins by imported dried cranberries—but I won’t.

Read it all. And book your flights.

Categories: Culture, Food, Writing

Deliberate Practice

April 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Thanks to a post two days ago Geoff Shackelford’s golf blog , I learned two days ago about Golfer in Training Dan McLaughlin and The Dan Plan. Shackelford linked to an article by Michael Kruse three weeks ago in the St. Petersburg Times. As Kruse explains:

On his 30th birthday, June 27, 2009, Dan had decided to quit his job to become a professional golfer.

He had almost no experience and even less interest in the sport.

What he really wanted to do was test the 10,000-hour theory he read about in the Malcolm Gladwell bestseller Outliers. That, Gladwell wrote, is the amount of time it takes to get really good at anything — “the magic number of greatness.”

The idea appealed to Dan. His 9-to-5 job as a commercial photographer had become unfulfilling. He didn’t want just to pay his bills. He wanted to make a change.

Could he stop being one thing and start being another? Could he, an average man, 5 feet 9 and 155 pounds, become a pro golfer, just by trying? Dan’s not doing an experiment. He is the experiment.

The Dan Plan will take six hours a day, six days a week, for six years. He is keeping diligent records of his practice and progress. People who study expertise say no one has done quite what Dan is doing right now.

Dan spent last month in St. Petersburg because winters are winters in the Pacific Northwest. “If I could become a professional golfer,” he said one afternoon, “the world is literally open to any options for anybody.”

According to Dan, “talent has little to do with success.” He elaborates at his website:

According to research conducted by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, “Elite performers engage in ‘deliberate practice’–an effortful activity designed to improve target performance.” Dr. Ericsson’s studies, made popular through Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, have found that in order to excel in a field, roughly 10,000 hours of “stretching yourself beyond what you can currently do” is required. “I think you’re the right astronaut for this mission,” Dr. Ericsson said about The Dan Plan.

I once enjoyed Gladwell’s articles in The New Yorker. He is, after all, such a talented writer. But I’ve tired more recently of his continuing quest to find explanations for assorted phenomena that are simultaneously novel and all-encompassing. I haven’t read Ericsson’s work, but I can’t imagine he intended for it to be applied, as Gladwell does, to explain Bill Gates’ success as resulting from the 10,000 hours he spent programming computers while in high school.

Nonetheless, I love the Dan Plan. Dan expects to “hit the 10,000 hour milestone by November of 2015. During this time, Dan plans to develop his skills through deliberate practice, eventually winning amateur events and obtaining his PGA Tour card through a successful appearance in the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School, or ‘Q-School’. I’ll be watching.

In the meantime, I have my own plan to attend to. This is blog post number 792. Just 9208 more before I hit my own 10,000 milestone and become a professional writer. Watch out, Malcolm. The New Yorker may not have room for both of us.

Categories: Golf, Life, Writing

Oates Remembrance

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment

[Bernard Gotfryd, in the New Yorker]

Joyce Carol Oates has a beautiful remembrance of her husband’s last week of life (and her experience of it) in the December 13 issue of The New Yorker. Unfortunately, the online version is behind a paywall, so you will need to pay or get your hands on a print issue to see it. Make the effort.

Oates’ husband, Raymond Smith, died suddenly almost three years ago while hospitalized for pneumonia. (See the brief NYT obit here.) I could quote from her article, but really, you owe it to yourself to read it in full, without preview. I’ll just say that parts of it reminded me of our experience in August during the last week of Gail’s brother Gary’s life, when he too was connected to various measuring devices and you could study his oxygen intake with each breath. Oh, and of course, we have our own memories of arriving at the emergency entrance of Princeton Medical Center, near the end of the year we lived in Princeton, first when Joel fell off a speaker he had climbed on — around the time of his first birthday — and cut his face near his eye, and second just weeks later when Gail took an elbow in her face during a summer evening volleyball game and was lucky her cheekbone wasn’t broken.

Oops. There I go again. This isn’t about me, even if it is my blog. It’s about Joyce Carol Oates. Do read her article.

Categories: Life, Writing