What great writing looks like: “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”

In Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, Rhodes quotes nuclear physicist Rudolf Peierls as saying that “[Traitor and spy Klaus Fuchs] was courteous and even-tempered. He was rather silent, unless one asked him a question, when he would give a full and articulate answer; for this Genia called ‘Penny-in-the-slot.'” That’s on page 57.

On page 175, Rhodes describes the famous Trinity atomic bomb test at Alamagordo, New Mexico, and quotes I. I. Rabi, another physicist, at length. Then Rhodes writes, “Fuchs was there to see the new thing he had caused to proliferate, the new control, but no one put a penny in his slot, so he left no record of how the unique experience affected him.” “No one put a penny in his slot:” the phrase does a lot of deft work in that sentence, pointing to the seeming incuriosity of everyone around Fuchs; to Fuchs’s character itself; to the way he responds rather than initiating (despite him working on atomic weapon initiator design). Rhodes takes what could have been an evocative-but-throwaway line and reconfigures it, connecting the two sections of the book through unusual but suddenly gorgeous language.

Another point about this pairing: it can’t really be generalized to a rule. Few if any writing books advise good writers to call back to an evocative description a hundred pages later, and to do so with an unexpected twist. Rhodes does it. He hits the high note here.

The book itself is about history, technology, politics, human motivation, human character, institutions, industrial organization, and many other topics. He writes, for example, about what made communism attractive to western communists, despite the fact that it doesn’t work. He writes, “Communism in any case was intensely fashionable at English universities between the World Wars.” It seems strange that anyone could have been attracted to Communism; as Stalin’s Great Terror unfolds through the 1930s, it becomes even stranger. Then again, socialism is having a strange vogue today, among people who seem not to quite understand what it entails (one definition, from Apple’s included Oxford American Diction: “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”) It’s possible of course for a “community” to own a company today, as with coops, or for individuals to own companies; they just tend to be outcompeted by publicly-owned companies, which ought to tell us something useful.

Still, Communism as a topic remains of interest not so much because of the fact that it fails, but because it could inspire people to betray their own, functional countries in favor of a dystopian hellscape like Soviet Russia. What makes a person do that? What does the motivation of a person doing that tell us about people as a whole, personality as a whole? What makes people choose and advocate for the clearly inferior choice? These are questions without final answers, which makes them interesting.

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.

Is most narrative art just a series of status games?

In The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt writes:

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our own social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

And those post hoc constructions are often “crafted” subconsciously, without the speaker or listener even aware of what they’re doing. It occurs to me in light of this that most narrative art and the moral reasoning implied in it is just a set of moral status games: someone, usually the narrator, is trying to raise their own status and perhaps that of their group too. Seen in this way a lot of novels, TV shows, and movies get stripped of their explicit content and become vehicles for intuitive status games. Police shows are perhaps the worst offenders but are by no means the only ones. Most romance novels are about raising the heroine’s status through the acquisition of a high-status man.

One could apply similar logic to other genres. While realizing this may make most narrative art more boring, it may also open the possibility of writing narrative art that is explicitly not about status games, or that tries to avoid them to the extent possible. Science fiction may be the genre least prone to relentless status gaming, though “least prone” may also be faint praise.

Where does personality come from?

In “Sentences to ponder, The Strong Situation Hypothesis,” Tyler Cowen quotes from a study:

This hypothesis, based on the work of Mischel (1977), proposes that personality differences are especially like to be outwardly expressed in “weak” situations offering no clear situational clues and a wide range of possibilities as to how to behave. Conversely, individual differences are expected to have less room for expression in “strong” situations where the choice of behavioral outcomes is severely limited and where everyone is bound to behave in a similar way.

That’s especially interesting to me because I’ve long said that many literary novels are concerned with family, love, politics, and the like because those are open-ended domains that tend to be places where personalities can be expressed. In many “flat” thrillers, by contrast, there is one obvious right thing to do (stop the bad guys, don’t let the nuclear device go off, etc.) and the only important question is whether the thing can be accomplished and how it can be accomplished. In that respect personality becomes backgrounded to the task at hand. The interior mental state of the characters become binary: They succeed or they fail. Their sense of interiority isn’t that important.

In a genre like science fiction one can see the thriller model at work in a novel like The Martian, in which survival is the only important question, and the broader model at work in a novel like Stranger in a Strange Land, or in many others. In real life, the kind of music a person who is starving to death likes is not very important, but the kind of music a person who is on a date likes may be very important.

Alternately, one could say that personality is a relatively high point on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (whatever the other deficiencies of the hierarchy model).

(In another world, this point could be part of the “Character” chapter in How Fiction Works.)


I wrote a little more about this here, previously, in 2011.

Two visions for the future, inadvertently juxtaposed: Nell Zink and Marc Andreessen

Last week’s New Yorker inadvertently offers two visions for the future: one in a profile of the writer Nell Zink and the other in a profile of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. Both profiles are excellent. One of their subjects, however, is mired in a fixed, contemporary mindset, while the other subject looks to a better future.

This is Schultz’s description of Zink: “Zink writes about the big stuff: the travesty of American apartheid; the sexual, economic, and intellectual status of women; the ephemerality of desire and its enduring consequences.” Is any of that stuff really big? Does it matter? Or is it just a list of somewhat transitory issues that obsess modern intellectuals who are talking to each other through magazines like The New Yorker? The material well-being of virtually any American is so much higher than it was in, say, 1900, as to diminish the relative importance of many of the ideas Zink or Schultz considers “big.” At one point Zink “delivered a short lecture on income stagnation: a bird ridiculing its fellow-bird for stupidity.” But global inequality is falling and, moreover, the more interesting question may be absolute material conditions, rather than relative ones. One gets the sense that Zink is a more parochial thinker than she thinks. I sense from The Wallcreeper that she writes about the motiveless and pathless.

Here, by contrast, is Andreessen as described by Tad Friend:

Andreessen is tomorrow’s advance man, routinely laying out “what will happen in the next ten, twenty, thirty years,” as if he were glancing at his Google calendar. He views his acuity as a matter of careful observation and extrapolation, and often invokes William Gibson’s observation “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Jet packs have been around for half a century, but you still can’t buy them at Target.

and:

The game in Silicon Valley, while it remains part of California, is not ferocious intelligence or a contrarian investment thesis: everyone has that. It’s not even wealth [. . . .] It’s prescience. And then it’s removing every obstacle to the ferocious clarity of your vision: incumbents, regulations, folkways, people. Can you not just see the future but summon it?

Having a real vision counts, and it seems that too few people have a vision for the future. Andreessen is thinking not of today but of what can be made better tomorrow. I would not deny the impact of slavery on contemporary culture or the importance of desire on life, but I would ask Zink: if the U.S. is doing things poorly, who is doing them better? And if the U.S. is doing things poorly why then is Silicon Valley the center of the future?

One of these people reads as an optimist, the other as a pessimist. One reads as someone who makes things happen and the other as someone who complains about things that other people do. One reads as a person with a path. The other doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked The Wallcreeper when I read it a couple months ago. I didn’t have much to say about it on this blog because it seems kind of interesting but left me without much feeling. But I can’t help thinking that Andreessen’s vision for the future is big, while Zink’s vision of the present is small.

As a bonus, check out “All Hail the Grumbler! Abiding Karl Kraus,” which is poorly titled but describes Jonathan Franzen’s relationship to art, technology, and other matters. He’s in the Zink school; perhaps something about studying German inculcates an anti-technology backlash among writers, since Germany and the U.S. are both among the most technophilic societies in the world (for good reasons, I would argue). From the article:

Kraus’s savage criticism of popular newspapers, suspicion of technology, and defense of art all appeal to Franzen, whose nonfiction essays strike similar notes. For instance, in the spirit of Kraus, Franzen has attacked the intrusiveness of cellphones and the loss of private space as people bark out the dreck of their lives.

But even “privacy” is a relatively new idea: being alone to read books only really got going in the 18th Century, when books got cheap enough for normal people to borrow them from libraries. The luddites of the day lamented the withdrawal from the private sphere into onanistic privacy. They asked: Why wrap yourself in some imaginary world when the big real world is out there?

As you may imagine I’m more neutral towards these developments. Like many literary types I think the world would be a better place with more reading and less reality TV, but I’ll also observe that the kind of people who share that view are likely to read this blog and the kind of people who don’t aren’t likely to give a shit about what I or anyone like me says.

Much later in the essay its author, Russell Jacoby, writes: “Denouncing capitalist technology has rarely flourished on the left, which, in general, believes in progress.” I get what he’s saying, But denouncing technology in general has always been a fool’s game because a) pretty much everyone uses it and b) to the extent one generation (or a member of a generation) refuses a given technology, the next generation takes it up entirely. Franzen may not like technology circa 2015 but he is very fond of the technology of the printing press. At what point does Franzen think “good” technology stopped?

I’m reminded, unfairly perhaps, of the many noisy environmentalists I’ve known who do things like bring reusable bags to grocery but then fly on planes at least a couple times a year. Buy flying pollutes more than pretty much anything anyone else does. A lot of SUV-drivers living in exurbs actually create less pollution than urban cosmopolitans who fly every two months. By the same token, the same people who denounce one set of technical innovations are often dependent on or love some other set of technical innovations.

Almost no one wants to really, really go backwards, technologically speaking, in time. Look at behaviors rather than words. I do believe that Franzen doesn’t use Facebook or write a blog or whatever, but he probably uses other stuff, and, if he has kids, they probably want smart phones and video games because all their friends have smart phones and video games.

I’m not saying smart phones and video games are good—quite the opposite, really—and I’m sympathetic to Zimbardo’s claim that “video games and porn are destroying men.” But I am saying that the claims about modern technology doing terrible things to people or culture goes back centuries and has rarely if ever proven true, and the people making such claims are usually, when viewed in the correct light, hypocrites on some level. Jacoby does hit a related point: “Presumably, if enough people like SUVs, reality TV, and over-priced athletic footwear, little more may be said. The majority has spoken.” But I want to emphasize the point and say more about not the banal cultural stuff like bad TV (and obviously there is interesting TV) but the deeper stuff, like technology.

The Andreessens of the world are right. There is no way back. The only way is forward, whether we want to admit it or not. The real problem with our cultural relationship to technology—and this is a Peter Thielian point—is that we’re in denial about dependence, need, and the need to build the future.

Novelty, art, business

“[T]he most important task in business—the creation of new value—cannot be reduced to a formula and applied by professionals,” as Thiel says in Zero to One, which, if you haven’t read it, you should stop reading this post and go read it instead. Read properly it’s about art as much as business. The most important task in art may also explain why art schools bother us (sample: “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.?“): they take what might be successful master-apprentice relationships and make them professional—that is, more like consultants than like artists. Maybe the best consultants are artists.

There’s more evidence for this: Genre writers often bother literary writers, perhaps because genre writers tend to execute a formula rather than innovate (the word “tend” is key here). If genre writers do come up with a new formula, they tend to iterate on that formula rather than seeking to discover a whole new one; while this might be admired in science and to some extent business it rarely is by artists, who often value noble, large-scale failure over commercial success. It’s easier to scorn what people want than it is to give them what they want, or make what they want.

Many writers of literary fiction are attempting to be novel, though I would argue that most attempts, even those that are highly praised, are actually bad. They may be bad in a way likely to provide tenure for future English professors, but the badness remains, and it isn’t clear that MFA and related programs help inculcate the idea that the most important task is the creation of new value, which by definition can’t be foreseen ahead of time. If someone foresaw it, they would execute, and the value would be there. Unpredictability may also be why so many artistic careers are difficult: you don’t know if you’re really creating value until it’s too late. Efforts at standardization are futile. Value may not even be recognized in your lifetime. You really are Sisyphus. When I first read the core part of The Myth of Sisphyus, in high school, I thought it stupid, yet it remains with me because it touches something at the core of not just art but life.

As Jonah Lehrer wrote, “although we are always surrounded by our creations, there is something profoundly mysterious about the creative process.” That mystery exists across fields.

Subjectivity in writing and evaluating writing

This essay started its life as an e-mail to a student who wanted to know if all writing was, on some level, “just subjective,” which would imply that grading is bogus and so is much of what we do in English classes. I didn’t have time to offer a nuanced explanation of what makes good writing good, so I wrote to him later that night. He didn’t reply to this e-mail.

I was thinking about our conversation and realized that I have more to say about the issues of subjectivity and skill in writing. As you observed, there is an element of subjectivity in judging what’s good writing and what isn’t. But it’s also worth noting that dominant opinions change over time—a lot of the writing from the 18th and 19th Century, for example, was considered “good” if it contained long sentences with balanced, nested clauses. Such stylistic preferences are one reason why a lot of contemporary students have trouble reading such material today, because most of us value variety in sentence structure and value less complexity, overall, in sentence structure. This is normally the place where I could go off on a rant about Facebook and cell phones and texting speak and how the kids these days are going to hell, but I’ll avoid that because it doesn’t appear true overall and certainly isn’t true regarding writing. The trend, including among professional writers writing for other expert writers, has been towards simpler structures and informality (which may speak about the culture as a whole).

IMG_3049That being said, if you want to write a paper full of long, windy clauses and abstruse classical allusions, I’m not going to stop or penalize you and may even reward you, since few if any students write in such a fashion, and I (like most contemporary people) value novelty. As long as the content is strong, I’m willing to roll with somewhat unusual stylistic quirks, and I’m fairly pluralistic in my view of language use.

So how do you, the seeker, figure out what good writing is? You practice, you read, you think about it, you practice some more, like you would if you were learning to play a guitar. I’ve never heard guitar instructors say that their students say all music is subjective; playing the guitar appears to be transparently hard, in the sense that you know you’re bad at it, in a way that writing isn’t. Still, if you’d like to know a lot more about good writing, take a look at Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s ıHow Fiction Works, and Jan Venolia’s Write Right!

When you’re done with those, move on to B. R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto. When you’re done with that, move on to the New York Times’ series Writers on Writing. Collectively, these books will teach you that every word counts and every word choice says something about the writer and the thing the writer is conveying, or trying to convey. Not only that, but every word changes, slightly, the meaning of every word around it. Good writers learn to automatically, subconsciously ask themselves, “Does this word work? Why? Why not? How should I change it? What am I trying to convey here?”

Eventually, over time, skilled writers and thinkers internalize these and other ideas, and their conscious mind moves to other issues, much like a basketball player’s shot happens via muscle memory after it’s been practiced and tweaked over 100,000 repetitions.

In addition, skilled writers are almost always skilled readers, so they have a fairly large, subconscious stock of built-in phrases, ideas, and concepts. Somewhere along the line I’ve read a fair amount about how athletes practice and how athletes become good (perhaps some of that material came from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience). I know how important practice and repetition are to any skill-based human endeavor. So I combined the idea of skill with writing and skill in basketball, since many students are more familiar with sports than with writing. Where did that analogy come from? I don’t know, exactly, but it’s there now, along with the idea that analogies are good, and explaining what I’m doing is good, and so are many other things.

To return to the athletic analogy, skill in sports also has a subjective element. Is Lebron James now better than Michael Jordan was when Jordan ruled? You can have this argument with morons in bars all day long. I’ve heard it and find it particularly tedious because the outcome is so unimportant. But both players are very clearly good, and at the top of their peers in their respective eras. The comparison at least makes sense.

One could also argue about whether Elmore Leonard or Alain de Botton is the better writer, although I would argue that they’re too different to make that a fruitful comparison; Elmore Leonard would be better matched against someone like Raymond Chandler or Patricia Highsmith. But Leonard and de Botton are both fantastically better writers than most freshmen; for one thing, most freshmen haven’t yet mastered the mechanical parts of writing, like how to use commas consistently and correctly (if they wish to), let alone higher questions about vocabulary, metaphor, and so on.

If you really want to get better, spend a lot of time reading, writing, and thinking about those activities. Then look back at your earlier work and judge its quality for yourself. Few students think the first draft of their first paper is as good as the final draft, and I tend to agree. Few people who consciously work throughout their lives think their work as, say, 20-year-old students is as good as their work at age 30.

With regard to thesis statements, good ones tend to have some aspect of how a text (I hate the term “text,” but it fits here) shows something (“Free-indirect speech in ‘She Wasn’t Soft. . .'”), what a text shows, usually symbolically (“is used to demonstrate how Paula and Jason, despite being a couple, really disdain each other”) and have some larger point to make (“which shows that what people think and how people behave don’t always match”).

That’s not a great thesis statement because I’m doing it quickly and freeform, but a better one might say something like, “The use of free-indirect speech in ‘She Wasn’t Soft’ demonstrates that Paula is actually soft, despite her repeated claims to the contrary, and that Jason and Paula’s mutual loathing sustains their relationship, despite what they say.” That’s still not the sort of thesis statement I’d use to write a publishable academic paper, but it’s closer. Many if not most student papers are missing one of those elements. Not every thesis needs all three, but they’re not bad ideas to check for.

Over time and with experience, I’ve developed, and you’ll develop, a fairly good eye for thesis statements. Eventually, when you’re sufficiently practiced, you won’t necessarily use explicit thesis statements—your thesis will be implied in your writing. Neal Stephenson doesn’t really have an explicit thesis statement in “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,” although his last line may function as one, and Roland Barthes definitely doesn’t have an explicit one in “The Brain of Einstein.” Thesis statements aren’t necessarily appropriate to all genres, all the time.

When I started teaching, I thought I was going to be a revolutionary and not teach thesis statements at all. I wrote about that experience here. The experiment didn’t work. Most undergrads need thesis statements. So I started teaching them, and student papers got better and more focused, and I’ve been doing so ever since.

Your question or questions are about the inherent challenges of writing, and those don’t have easily summarized answers. The problem also comes from language. Language itself is imprecise, or, alternately, layered with meaning; that’s where so much humor and misunderstanding comes from (and humor could be considered a kind of deliberate misunderstanding). I’ve read about how, when computer scientists tried to start making translation systems and natural-language processing systems, they ran into the ambiguity problem—and that problem still hasn’t been fully solved, as anyone who’s tried to use text-to-speech software, or Google translate, can easily find (I wish I could find any citations or discussions regarding this issue; if you happen to run across any, send them over).

This line of questioning also leads into issues of semiotics—how signs, signaling, and reception function—and the degree of specificity necessary to be good. Trying to specify every part of good writing is like trying to specify every aspect of good writing: you get something like McDonald’s. While McDonald’s does a lot of business, I wouldn’t want to eat there, and it’s pretty obvious that something is lost is the process (Joel Spolsky’s article “Big Macs vs. the Naked Chef” (sfw) also uses McDonald’s as a cautionary tale, this time for software developers; you should definitely read it).

I’m going to interrupt this essay to quote from Joel:

The secret of Big Macs is that they’re not very good, but every one is not very good in exactly the same way. If you’re willing to live with not-very-goodness, you can have a Big Mac with absolutely no chance of being surprised in the slightest.

Bad high school teachers often try to get students to write essays that are not very good in exactly the same way. I’m trying to get students, and myself, to write essays that are good and that a human might want to read. This guarantees that different students will approach the problem space in different ways, some more successfully than others, and different essays are going to be good in different ways. I’m trying to get students to think about the process and, more broadly, to think not just about the solutions, but about the domain; how you conceptualize the problem domain will change what you perceive as the solution. Learning to conceptualize the problem domain is an essential part of the writing process that’s often left out of high school and even college. That being said, if you ever find yourself in front of 20 or 30 novice writers, you’ll quickly see that some are much better than others, even if there’s much wiggle room between a C and C+.

I don’t get the sense that students who are unhappy with their grades are unhappy out of a deeply felt and considered sense of aesthetic disagreement about fundamental literary or philosophical principles. I suspect I feel this way partially because I have a fairly wide or broad sense of “good” writing—or at least writing good enough to get through undergrad English classes, and someone with sufficient sophistication and knowledge to make a good argument about aesthetics or the philosophy of writing would be very unlikely to get a sufficiently low mark to want to argue about it. Rather, I think most students who are unhappy about their grades just want better grades, without doing the thinking and writing necessary to get them.

These issues are compounded by the a meta-issue: many if not most K – 12 English (and other humanities) teachers are bad. And many of them aren’t that smart or knowledgeable (which tends to overlap with “bad”). So a lot of students—especially those on the brighter side—inchoately know that their teachers are bad, and that something stinks, and therefore they conclude that English is bogus anyway, as are related fields. This has a lot of unfortunate consequences on both the individual and societal level; books like C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures are one manifestation of this larger problem.

In general, I’d like for people to try and get along, see each other’s points of view, and be tolerant—not only in fields like religion and politics, but also things like the humanities / sciences, or reason / emotion, or any number of the other possibly false binaries that people love to draw for reasons of convenience.

Finally (at least on this topic), if you think I’m completely wrong about what makes good writing (and what makes writing good), you have a huge world out there and can judge the reaction to your writing. Twilight and The Da Vinci Code are poorly written novels, yet millions of people have read and enjoyed them—many fewer than have read Straight Man, one of my favorite novels and one that’s vastly better written. Who’s right: the millions of teenage girls who think they’re in love with the stilted, wooden prose that makes up Edward, or me, who sees the humor in a petulant English department? It depends on what you mean by “right.” If I were a literary agent or editor, I would’ve passed on both Twilight and The Da Vinci Code. Definitions of “good” are uncertain, and the ones I embrace and impose on students are worth questioning. If you can at least understand where I’m coming from and why I hold the views I do, however, I’ll consider my work a relative success.

Most people’s conception of “good” differs at different points in their lives; I’m in my 20s and view writing very differently than I did in my teens. I would be surprised if I view writing the same way in my 40s. One major change is that I’ve done so much reading, and probably will do so much reading. Someone who doesn’t read very much, or doesn’t challenge themselves when they do read, may find that their standards don’t change as much either. I could write much more on this point alone, but for the most part you’ll have to trust me: your tastes will probably change.

This email is a long way of saying, “I’m not trying to bullshit you, but the problem domain itself is hard, and that domain is not easy to explain, without even getting into its solution.”

The short version of this email is “trust me,” or, alternatively, spend the next ten years of your life pondering and contemplating these issues while reading about them, and then you’ll have a pretty good grasp of what good writing means. Writing is one of these 10,000 hour skills in that it probably takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to get good. Start now and you’ll be better in a couple years.

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