Briefly noted: Camino Island — John Grisham

Somewhere I read an article, now lost to me, about Grisham that convinced me to try Camino Island. Unfortunately, it’s bad from the first page and even the second sentence:

The imposter borrowed the name of Neville Manchin, an actual professor of American literature at Portland State and soon-to-be doctoral student at Stanford. In his letter, on perfectly forged stationary, “Professor Manchin” claimed to be a budding scholar of F. Scott Fitzgerald [. . .]

You don’t need the word “budding.” It’s a cliché and adds nothing to the description. Almost any “soon-to-be doctoral student” is a “budding scholar.” On the same page we learn that the letter “arrived with a few others, was duly sorted and passed along [. . .]” How does one “duly” sort things? Are some things “unduly sorted?”

A little later, a sentence begins, “His was a gang of five [. . .]” Even something simple like “His gang had four other members” is less awkward.

Some dialogue is good:

“The manuscripts, all five of them, were insured by our client, a large private company that insures art and treasures and rare assets. I doubt you’ve heard of it either.”
“I don’t follow insurance companies.”

That comeback is nice, but even the first part is repetitive. If an insurance company is willing to insure manuscripts, then it’s obviously not, say, a car insurance company—we don’t need to know that it “insures art and treasures” because we already know it ensures this company’s.

I gave up after about a quarter of the book because it’s so consistently badly written. If you see any Grisham revisionism articles, don’t believe them. Read something else. The collected works* of Elmore Leonard are a fine place to start.


* This is no longer a figure of speech: the Library of America is in fact collecting his works and publishing them, as the link shows.

Briefly noted — Do I Make Myself Clear? — Harold Evans

If you’ve read in the vast genre of how-to-write books—everything from Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style to John Trimble’s Writing With Style to Zinsser’s On Writing Well—you’ve already in effect read Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. It’s a good book, just not one that advances the art or covers material you’ve not seen covered elsewhere.

It starts with Orwell and “Politics and the English Language,” which indicts “bad English for corrupting thought and slovenly thought for corrupting language,” then goes to say that “eternal vigilance is the price of intelligent literacy.” Problem is that I don’t think we’ve been vigilant and I don’t see signs of increasing literacy—in political terms, if anything we see the opposite. The kinds of people who need to read Do I Make Myself Clear? don’t read and don’t care.

Elsewhere we find that

There is no compulsion to be concise on either the Internet or the profusion of television and radio channels; and in writing of every kind, Twitter apart, we see more words, more speed, less clarity, and less honesty, too, since with “demand media” you never know whether a review of Swan Lake will conceal a hard sell about toenail fungus.

I like a good rant as much as the next guy, but do we know we’re seeing “more words, more speed, less clarity?” How do we know? How would we even measure this? I don’t know. Does “speed” mean speed of writing, speed of reading, both, or neither? I don’t know that either. Knowing is hard.

To be sure, there’s a long history of language exhortations violating the very rules they posit (few of those who decry adverbs and passive voice fail to use both). But it can be interesting to apply the same principles being espoused to the work doing the espousing, to see if it follows its own command.

Links: Typewriters, generational conflict, yoga and Houellebecq, MacBooks, and more!

* Call it a comeback: Typewriters attracting new generation of fans.

* “The Old Are Eating the Young.” And the young don’t realize it and/or aren’t voting appropriately to it.

* “There is no ‘Thucydides Trap,’” on China and many other topics. Here is another piece on similar topics: “Are China and the United States Headed for War?” The answer is “Probably not,” but on the other hand countries have historically done stupid, counterproductive things for no good reason.

* “Nobody Will Make Us Do Yoga: A Conversation with Michel Houellebecq.” As weird and hilarious as you’d like it to be.

* “Air Force budget reveals how much SpaceX undercuts launch prices.” Wow.

* “Mini-review: The 2017 MacBook could actually be your everyday laptop.” I may switch my laptop to one, but I also have an iMac.

* “Why Fathers Leave Their Children,” yet it oddly never mentions financial incentives or child support—a bizarre oversight, even in a short piece.

* “The U.S. has forgotten how to do infrastructure.”

* When pop stars have Instagram, they no longer need record labels.

* Fundamentals in fiction and the question of obligations.

Links: Maryland comedy, car sharing, the structure of politics, sexuality, and more!

* “Battle over bare-breasted women brews at one of Maryland’s busiest beaches” Likely SFW, as it’s in the Washington Post, and one gets the sense the writer had a good time with this one. The illustrative photo included shows a seagull, alas. When we fight over this maybe things are pretty good because we have time to worry about the dangers(?) of bare-breasted women on beaches.

* “Automakers Race to Get Ahead of Silicon Valley on Car-Sharing.” Good news all around.

* “How Insurance Companies Can Force Bad Cops Off the Job.” A novel approach to a serious problem.

* “Why Sacrifices by the Rich Won’t Fix Social Welfare;” points rarely made. Notice:

If we look at the overall fiscal position of the U.S. federal government, we are spending beyond our means and the future will require some mix of spending cuts and tax increases. According to a report from the Government Accountability Office: “To close the gap solely by raising revenues would require a revenue increase of about 33 percent, and maintaining that level of revenue, on average, each year over the next 75 years.” I would submit that revenue increases of such magnitude are unlikely or perhaps even impossible, and thus any new spending will have to come out of other government spending. In other words, for better or worse, we’ve already committed to spending that tax increase on the wealthy that you were planning to use for other purposes.

* “Get Congress Back to Legislating, Not Just Budgeting: Yuval Levin, an expert on the budget process, explains how a congressional power grab in the ’70s led to paralysis today.” Again, not the sexiest or most fun piece, but it is essential for understanding what’s amiss in government today.

* “Congressman Is Hit in Multiple Shooting;” maybe something like this is what it will take to get gun control back on the agenda, since Congress may become much more interested in it if Congresspeople have a personal stake. We’ve already somehow decided as a society that routine mass shootings, including mass shootings of children, are just, you know . . . something that happens.

* Pornhub is the Kinsey Report of our time? (At New York Magazine and likely SFW.)

* “Why Ethereum is outpacing Bitcoin,” noting that I don’t understand Ethereum well.

* On “Why Women Have Sex: Understanding Sexual Motivations from Adventure to Revenge (and Everything in Between) — Cindy M. Meston David M. Buss.”

Briefly noted: Deep Thinking — Garry Kasparov

If you’ve read Average is Over you’ve gotten enough of Kasparov’s book to skip it; the abstract lessons from the second section of Average is Over are similar to Deep Thinking‘s. Still, human-computer play remain underrated and also remains a key metaphor for what human-computer interaction will look like in the near future. Computer-assisted driving is maybe the most familiar aspect right now, and that sort of dynamic will likely increase as time goes on and as the number of transistors that can inhabit a given area continues to increase.

Deep Thinking is most interesting about halfway through when Kasparov describes in detail the conditions under which he played the famous 1997 Deep Blue match. Before and after there is some interesting material but less than one would like. Maybe I’m just a sucker for narrative, and the middle section is primarily narrative. Still, the more I read of Kasparov the more I think I should read more, and his writing about Putin and Russia is consistently insightful. If you want a conventional review of Deep Thinking, Robin Hanson’s “Grandmasters vs. Gigabytes” is good.

There are few aesthetically beautiful sentences but still some useful observations. For example:

Connections between chess skill and general intelligence are weak at best. There is no more truth to the thought that all chess players are geniuses than in saying that all geniuses play chess. In fact, one of the things that makes chess so interesting is that it’s still unclear exactly what separates good chess players from great ones.

That last sentence is true of novelists and other writers too. “Good” and “great” can be felt and the critical faculty can be honed over time, but specific definitions remain elusive. Oddly, though, two pages later Kasparov returns to notions of greatness in a way that almost contradict the quote above:

When Der Spiegel asked me what I thought separated me, the world champion, from other strong chess players, I answered, ‘The willingness to take on new challenges,’ the same answer I would give today. The willingness to keep trying new things—different methods, uncomfortable tasks—when you are already an expert at something is what separates good from great. Focusing on your strengths is required for peak performance, but improving your weaknesses has the potential for the greatest gains.

So there is an answer to what separates good from great (“The willingness to try new challenges”) or there isn’t? Both sections are interesting and both might be true, but this is the sort of internal contradiction editors (or Kasparov’s ghost writer / assistant, Mig Greengard) are supposed to find.

Then there are sentences like, “It’s a privilege to be able to focus on the negative potential of world-changing breakthroughs like artificial intelligence. As real as these issues may be, we will not solve them unless we keep innovating even more ambitiously, creating solutions and new problems, and yet more solutions, as we always have.” Everyone else seems to be for innovation, making me tempted to come out as anti-innovation simply to be contrary.

But there are very useful sentences too, like the last one here:

How professional chess changed when computers and databases arrived is a useful metaphor for how new technology is adopted across industries and societies in general. It’s a well-established phenomenon, but I feel that the motivations are underanalyzed. Being young and less set in our ways definitely makes us more open to trying new things. But simply being older isn’t the only factor that works against this openness—there is also being successful. When you have success, when the status quo favors you, it becomes very hard to voluntarily change your ways.

Success is never final. Yet we, collectively, never seem to know that. Peak performance sustained over a lifetime may have to incorporate this idea.

Links: Tour de raunch, so-called online lives, the California turn, and more!

* “Tour de Raunch: A brief history of sex in American fiction.” Oddly, we seem to have found ourselves in a kind of new prudery, which is, like the old prudery, also mixed with prurience.

* “A deep dive into why Wi-Fi kind of sucks.” There is an old saying: People who know wireless, choose wired. Ethernet cables are extremely cheap and in most apartments there’s no reason not to run them.

* Silicon Valley: A reality check.

* The NIMBY challenge.

* “My So-Called (Instagram) Life.” Expect to see more of these. The gap between what people show in public (or “public”) and how they actually feel may be growing.

* “Dark Futures: What happens when literary novelists experiment with science fiction.” Has the distinction ever been neat?

* “Elon Musk’s tunnel plan is surprisingly outdated—and bad.”

* Washington State, New York, and California form climate alliance.

* “When the Left Turns on Its Own,” especially on campus; oddly, we also saw versions of this in the ’90s, with Alan Sokal being one prominent example. Alas, though, current campus disruptors would have to sit in class or read to learn about this history.

* “Higher Education Seeks Answers to Leaner Years

Links: Zafón, the extinction of the teen sex comedy, nuclear war, electric bikes, romance, and more!

* “The bestselling literary sensation you may struggle to name,” on Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Here are some of my posts on him.

* “The Internet Killed the Teen Sex Comedy: Movies about horned-up teenagers were a Hollywood staple in the ‘90s and ‘00s, but the internet has rendered them all but extinct.” I wonder if that’s true.

* “ We’re Edging Closer To Nuclear War” and almost no one is talking about it.

* An electric bike is not cheating: How it could replace cars for millions of people.

* “Romance is dead – how sex killed the love song: Pop hits are now less likely to be about love than at any time since the 1960s. But wasn’t love always a euphemism for sex, anyway?”

* “Stunning drops in solar and wind costs turn global power market upside down.” This is good news!

* “What a Conservative Sees From Inside Trump’s Washington,” more interesting than it sounds and more interesting than the usual.

* “Books are superior to TV” (better than the usual but you already probably know as much if you’re reading this).

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