Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Stephen Pinker talk on writing

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I found this talk interesting. It was given in 2015 in the UK (and, among other things, Pinker explains well why my use of the passive in this sentence is good). Worth watching.

Toward the end of the talk, Pinker mentions how a good writer should try to become the reader over his (or her) shoulder — that is, to read the writing as someone else would read it, someone who doesn’t have already in mind that the writer is trying to say. Pinker points out that this is difficult and offers one solution: give the writing to other people and see what they make of it, picking people who are representative of the targeted readership.

That’s good, and certainly it can work well if those representative readers get a bit of training and direction in how best to provide feedback. There is in addition a way for you to become the reader over your shoulder, and that is the subject of the wonderful book by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, The Reader Over Your Shoulder. See this post for a discussion of the book and how best to use it.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 July 2020 at 11:02 am

Posted in Video, Writing

Three poets to help you understand ancient Chinese poetry.

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Lee Moore writes in SupChina:

This month, in which we are all locked indoors, happens to be National Poetry Month. Several people, getting tired of the same plot lines in pulpy fiction, have asked me, What should I be reading? My answer is always the same: Tang Dynasty poetry.

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) is the golden age of both China and its poetry. And not just that — there is probably no time and place in world history when poetry was more important. The imperial exam, a ticket into the social elite, required test-takers to be thoroughly familiar with poetry. Social life for elites was dominated by parties where people sat around drinking and writing poetry. To move up the social ladder, you had to be able to write poetry. And so, not surprisingly, the Tang produced an abundance of poets.

Because of the sheer number and diversity of works, Tang poetry can be intimidating if you do not know where to start. The Complete Tang Poems (全唐诗 quán tángshī), an 1705 anthology that attempted to gather all Tang poetry into a single collection, has 49,000 poems and 2,200 poets. Even that is really just a “Best Of” collection. How does one begin to break into them?

Luckily, during the Tang era and subsequent ones — the Chinese have never stopped reading Tang poetry — cream rose to the top. Three poets from that time distinguished themselves and remain celebrated to this day. They make for a fine entry point into Tang poetry — let’s take a look at who they are and a representative poem from each (all three poems translated by yours truly).

Dù Fǔ 杜甫

he first poet in the Tang Trinity is Du Fu. Textbooks and other official channels largely agree that he was the greatest of the Tang’s poets. Although it is a simplification, Du Fu represents the Confucian tradition, to the point where, during the Song Dynasty, he was sometimes called the “poet-historian.”

Like the two other poets you’ll be introduced to shortly, Du Fu lived during the Tang Dynasty’s most tragic period, and his poetry is redolent of the sadness at the breakdown in government institutions and the violence that that breakdown inflicted on the lives of the people. The Tang state was at the height of its power when a non-Han Chinese, Central Asian general named Ān Lùshān 安禄山 tried to overthrow the Tang emperor. Du Fu, along with the emperor, fled the capital and did not return until after An Lushan had sacked it.

Much of Du Fu’s best poetry focuses on  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2020 at 2:09 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Writing

20 Journaling Prompts to Get You out of Your Head

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Kate Arends blogs:

here is no better way to understand the way you think and what’s going through your head than to journal. The problem I’ve found is that the act of journaling is so open-ended that when it is most beneficial for me to do it, I avoid it.

Sound familiar? If this is one of the roadblocks you face when it comes to journaling, this post is here to help. I want to take the guesswork out of how you can journal effectively, without the impending paralysis that sometimes results from an open-ended prompt.

My first tip? Start by writing “morning pages.”

Whether you are new to journaling or are just here to get some new prompts to try, consider doing a “mental download” first using the “morning pages” method (contributor Ellen Koneck wrote a helpful post about this here!). It’s a great way to get your mental gears greased and clean out any fragments of unfinished tasks, things to remember, or notes to self. It’s also really effective in priming the pump per se when it comes to getting the most out of more targeted journaling sessions.

[The prime source for morning pages is Julia Cameron’s excellent book The Artist’s Way. I have used that a few times, and it’s a good exercise. Link is to inexpensive secondhand copies. – LG]

Next, dive into journaling prompts.

Once you’ve done around ten minutes of subconscious, nonlinear writing, I suggest moving on to journaling prompts. I keep a list handy that I can refer to and take inventory of what I’m up against that day or in that moment. If I’m feeling anxious, I know which list to focus on.

Sometimes we journal to connect with ourselves; other times we journal to find perspective in moments that feel out of control. Given the bizarre times we’re living in and the spread of COVID-19, journaling is becoming an incredibly handy tool for this worrier.

When done correctly, journaling can be calming and clearing for your mind. It can help in releasing pent-up feelings and everyday stress. It can help you let go of negative thoughts while exploring your experiences with anxiety in a safe way.

The truth is, writing your thoughts down in a journal can positively impact your anxiety on a holistic level. When done correctly, journaling can be calming and clearing for your mind. It can help in releasing pent-up feelings and everyday stress. It can help you let go of negative thoughts while exploring your experiences with anxiety in a safe way.

When we get in the habit of writing about our struggles AND our successes, we begin to see enhanced self-awareness while also teaching ourselves about our triggers. Below you’ll find some of my favorite journaling prompts that have worked wonders for me.

Journaling Prompts for Self-Discovery:

  1. What do I know to be true that I didn’t know a year ago?
  2. What distractions get in the way of being my most productive?
  3. When do I feel most in tune with myself?
  4. If someone described me, what would they say?
  5. What can wait until next week?
  6. How does every part of my body feel in this moment?

Journaling Prompts for Managing Emotions:

  1. What emotions am I holding on to?
  2. How can I . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 March 2020 at 6:37 pm

Posted in Daily life, Writing

A Kickstarter project for italic handwriting

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Kate Gladstone emails:

For decades, I’ve been familiar with (and have recommended) the Getty-Dubay handwriting program from … and now, they’re Kickstarter-funding an app!


Based on the Getty-Dubay adult handwriting classic teach-yourself book (“Write Now”), the app — called GETTY-DUBAY HANDWRITING SUCCESS — is a complete handwriting program designed for adults (of every age: high school and up) who use an electronic stylus and tablet. It’s a personal handwriting trainer that can “meet” with you anywhere, any time.

This is handwriting for grownups.

For three weeks — January 23, 2020 through February 13, 2020 — is introducing this app by providing the opportunity to support (and benefit from) the cause of good handwriting.

For details, see the app’s introduction/funding page at

Even though I already own a copy of the book “Write Now,” I’m intrigued because having it available on my tablet will allow my students and me to erase, correct and reuse every page, any time.

Electronics are great — and now, they just might become the greatest friends that our handwriting has ever had.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 January 2020 at 5:15 pm

Posted in Daily life, Education, Writing

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My new post at Medium: Fleshing out the Moral-Mirror Journal

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I wrote briefly about the Moral-Mirror Journal in the blog, and I fleshed out the idea for a short piece on Medium. In looking at the Useful Posts page on the blog, I see that this idea has been in the back of my mind for some time (e.g., cf. Groupthink of One).

Written by LeisureGuy

2 January 2020 at 6:26 pm

Posted in Daily life, Writing

Why learning a new language is like an illicit love affair

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Marianna Pogosyan, a lecturer in cultural psychology at the IES Abroad in Amsterdam and at the University of Amsterdam’s Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics (PPLE) college in The Netherlands, writes in Aeon:

Learning a new language is a lot like entering a new relationship. Some will become fast friends. Others will hook their arms with calculus formulas and final-exam-worthy historical dates, and march right out of your memory on the last day of school. And then sometimes, whether by mere chance or as a consequence of a lifelong odyssey, some languages will lead you to the brink of love.

Those are the languages that will consume you – all of you – as you do everything to make them yours. You dissect syntax structures. You recite conjugations. You fill notebooks with rivers of new letters. You run your pen over their curves and cusps again and again, like you would trace your fingers over a lover’s face. The words bloom on paper. The phonemes interlace into melodies. The sentences taste fragrant, even as they tumble awkwardly from your mouth like bricks built of foreign symbols. You memorise prose and lyrics and newspaper headlines, just to have them at your lips after the sun dips and when it dawns again.

Verbs after adverbs, nouns after pronouns, your relations deepen. Yet, the closer you get, the more aware you become of the mirage-like void between you. It’s vast, this void of knowledge, and you need a lifetime to traverse it. But you have no fear, since the path to your beloved gleams with curiosity and wonder that is almost urgent. What truths will you uncover amid the new letters and the new sounds? About the world? About yourself?

As with all relationships, the euphoria wears off eventually. With your wits regained, you keep dissecting and memorising, listening and speaking. Your accent is incorrigible. Your mistakes are inescapable. The rules are endless, as are the exceptions. The words – gracebless youonce upon a time – have lost their magic. But your devotion to them, your need for them is more earnest than ever. You have wandered too far from home to turn back now. You feel committed and vulnerable, trusting of their benevolence. On the occasion of your renewed vows, the language comes bearing gifts of inspiration and connection – not only to new others, but to a new you.

Many renowned writers have revelled in the gifts of their non-native tongues. Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, had been living in the United States for only a few years before he wrote Lolita (1955): a work that has been hailed as ‘a polyglot’s love letter to language’ and had him called a ‘master of English prose’. The Irishman Samuel Beckett wrote in French to escape the clutter of English. The Canadian Yann Martel found success writing not in his native French, but in English – a language that he says provides him with ‘a sufficient distance to write’. This distance, observes the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak of writing in her non-native English, leads her closer to home.

When Haruki Murakami sat at his kitchen table to write his first novel, he felt like his native Japanese was getting in the way. His thoughts would rush out of him like out of a ‘barn crammed with livestock’, as he put it in 2015. Then he tried writing in English, with limited vocabulary and simple syntax at his hands. As he translated (‘transplanted’, he calls it) his compact English sentences ‘stripped of all extraneous fat’ into Japanese, a distinctly unadorned style was born that decades later became synonymous with his worldwide success. When the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri started writing in Italian – a language she had been loving and learning for years – she felt like she was writing with her weaker hand. She was ‘exposed’, ‘uncertain’ and ‘poorly equipped’. Yet, she writes in 2015, she felt light and free, protected and reborn. Italian made her rediscover why she writes – ‘the joy as well as the need’.

But affairs of the heart rarely leave any witnesses untouched. Including our mother tongues. My grandmother has a collection of letters that I wrote to her after I left Armenia for Japan. Once in a while, she takes out the stack of envelopes with Japanese stamps that she keeps next to her passport, and reads through them. She knows all the words by heart, she insists with pride. One day, as we sit across each other with a screen and a continent between us, grandma shakes her head.

Something changed, she tells me ominously, skimming my sentences through her oversized glasses. With each letter, something kept changing, she says.

Of course something changed, grandma, I tell her. I moved to Japan. I hit puberty. I…

No, she laments with teacher’s remorse, your writing changed. First, it was the odd spelling mistake here and there. Then, the verbs and the nouns would pop up in wrong places.

Silence settles between us. I keep my eyes on the procession of English letters on my keyboard.

It’s nothing dramatic, she tells me, mostly to console herself, but enough for me to hold my breath every time I stumbled on errors that weren’t there before.

She opens another envelope.

Oh, and then, she exclaims, the punctuation! All of a sudden, there were too many commas. Then a single dot at the end of your sentences.

She lifts her glasses on top of her puff of white hair and begins to wrap her treasures back into my late grandfather’s handkerchief.

The last one that you sent me, she says with a defeated simper, that’s when everything changed. You wrote in our letters, you used our words, but it no longer sounded Armenian.

The truth is that entering an intimate relationship with a new language often colours everything. Our eyes expect the new words. Our ears habituate to the new sounds. Our pens memorise the new letters. While the infatuation takes over our senses, the language’s anatomy etches into our brains. Neural pathways are laid, connections are formed. Brain networks integrate. Grey matter becomes denser, white matter gets strengthened. Then, splatters of the new hues begin to show up in letters to grandma.

Linguists call this ‘second language interference’, when the new language interferes with the old language, like a new lover rearranging the furniture of your bedroom, as if to say – this is how things will be done around here from now on. Somehow, writing exposes this interference (this betrayal, as grandma saw it) more than . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 December 2019 at 8:21 pm

AI responds to custom text prompts

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Talk to Transformer was built by Adam King and responds to a text prompt with a (machine-based) free association. Example just now (prompt in bold):

A white piano in an empty room with an open window. That was how I felt once I heard the second song I heard, and again later on as I heard part of the third and fourth songs.

I’d never heard more beautiful music, by an artist whose talents I knew and respected. I learned to hate about every word she spoke — “breath”, “wall”. I would be in awe if I still had my face, eyes, lips and nose, and had walked into a room with the very same number of songs on repeat in the same order.

The first time I used that same prompt the result was a poetic and evocative paragraph, this time less so. And when I used “He had a sled named ‘Rosebud.'” the generated text was earthbound and uninteresting — so it becomes a way of tryng to find a prompt that gives a good result.

Another example:

I love to shave with a slant razor. In fact, I just finished shaving my mom with a razor that is specifically made for her, using the most sophisticated and cutting edge synthetic blade I have ever seen.

I can’t remember exactly where we began, but there was probably a conversation about why we both had goatees. The legend goes that I started shaving, and never looked back.

Narrow razor controls or can you change the width? When I use the FineMen Avanti shaving package, I can adjust the width and draw up the front, but

Written by LeisureGuy

8 December 2019 at 7:10 am

Writing tips infographic

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Written by LeisureGuy

14 July 2019 at 5:43 am

Posted in Writing

Code hidden in Stone Age art may be the root of human writing

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Allison George writes in New Scientist:

When she first saw the necklace, Genevieve von Petzinger feared the trip halfway around the globe to the French village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac had been in vain. The dozens of ancient deer teeth laid out before her, each one pierced like a bead, looked roughly the same. It was only when she flipped one over that the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. On the reverse were three etched symbols: a line, an X and another line.

Von Petzinger, a palaeoanthropologist from the University of Victoria in Canada, is spearheading an unusual study of cave art. Her interest lies not in the breathtaking paintings of bulls, horses and bison that usually spring to mind, but in the smaller, geometric symbols frequently found alongside them. Her work has convinced her that far from being random doodles, the simple shapes represent a fundamental shift in our ancestors’ mental skills.

The first formal writing system that we know of is the 5000-year-old cuneiform script of the ancient city of Uruk in what is now Iraq. But it and other systems like it – such as Egyptian hieroglyphs – are complex and didn’t emerge from a vacuum. There must have been an earlier time when people first started playing with simple abstract signs. For years, von Petzinger has wondered if the circles, triangles and squiggles that humans began leaving on cave walls 40,000 years ago represent that special time in our history – the creation of the first human code.

If so, the marks are not to be sniffed at. Our ability to represent a concept with an abstract sign is something no other animal, not even our closest cousins the chimpanzees, can do. It is arguably also the foundation for our advanced, global culture.

The first step to check her theory was to fastidiously document the signs, their location, age and style, and see if any patterns emerged. For this, von Petzinger would have to visit as many caves as she could: archaeology’s focus on paintings of animals meant the signs were often overlooked in existing records.

It wasn’t easy or glamorous work. Gaining access to caves in France, where a lot of Stone Age art is located, can be devilishly complicated. Many are privately owned and sometimes jealously guarded by archaeologists. For the full set of symbols, von Petzinger also had to visit many obscure caves, the ones without big, flashy paintings. At El Portillo in northern Spain, all she had to go on was a note an archaeologist made in 1979 of some “red signs”; no one had been back since. At first, von Petzinger couldn’t even find the entrance. Eventually, she noticed a tiny opening at knee level, trickling with water. “Thank God I’m not claustrophobic,” she says. After 2 hours sliding through mud inside the mountain, she found two dots painted in pinkish ochre.

Between 2013 and 2014, von Petzinger visited 52 caves in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. The symbols she found ranged from dots, lines, triangles, squares and zigzags to more complex forms like ladder shapes, hand stencils, something called a tectiform that looks a bit like a post with a roof, and feather shapes called penniforms. In some places, the signs were part of bigger paintings. Elsewhere, they were on their own, like the row of bell shapes found in El Castillo in northern Spain (see picture below), or the panel of 15 penniforms in Santian, also in Spain.

Perhaps the most startling finding was how few signs there were – just 32 in all of Europe. For tens of thousands of years, our ancestors seem to have been curiously consistent with the symbols they used. This, if nothing else, suggests that the markings had some sort of significance. “Of course they mean something,” says French prehistorian Jean Clottes. “They didn’t do it for fun.” The multiple repetitions of the P-shaped claviform sign in France’s Niaux cave “can’t be a coincidence”, he argues.

Thanks to von Petzinger’s meticulous logging, it’s now possible to see trends – new signs appearing in one region, sticking around for a while before falling out of fashion. Hand stencils, for example, were fairly common in the earliest parts of the Upper Palaeolithic era, starting 40,000 years ago, then fall out of fashion 20,000 years later. “You see a cultural change take place,” says von Petzinger. The earliest known penniform is from about 28,000 years ago in the Grande Grotte d’Arcy-sur-Cure in northern France, and later appears a little to the west of there before spreading south. Eventually, it reaches northern Spain and even Portugal. Von Petzinger believes it was first disseminated as people migrated, but its later spread suggests it then followed trade routes.

The research also reveals that modern humans were using two-thirds of these signs when they first settled in Europe, which creates another intriguing possibility. “This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,” von Petzinger writes in her recently published book, The First SignsUnlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest symbols (Simon and Schuster). In other words, when modern humans first started moving into Europe from Africa, they must have brought a mental dictionary of symbols with them.

That fits well with the discovery of a 70,000-year-old block of ochre etched with cross-hatching in Blombos cave in South Africa. And when von Petzinger looked through archaeology papers for mentions or illustrations of symbols in cave art outside Europe, she found that many of her 32 signs were used around the world (see “Consistent doodles”). There is even tantalising evidence that an earlier human, Homo erectus, deliberately etched a zigzag on a shell on Java some 500,000 years ago. “The ability of humans to produce a system of signs is clearly not something that starts 40,000 years ago. This capacity goes back at least 100,000 years,” says Francesco d’Errico from the University of Bordeaux, France.

Nonetheless, something quite special seems to have happened in ice age Europe. In various caves, von Petzinger frequently found certain symbols used together. For instance, starting 40,000 years ago, hand stencils are often found alongside dots. Later, between 28,000 and 22,000 years ago, they are joined by thumb stencils and finger fluting – parallel lines created by dragging fingers through soft cave deposits.

Etched teeth

These kinds of combinations are particularly interesting if you’re looking for the deep origins of writing systems. Nowadays, we effortlessly combine letters to make words and words to make sentences, but this is a sophisticated skill. Von Petzinger wonders whether the people of the Upper Palaeolithic started experimenting with more complex ways of encoding information using deliberate, repeated sequences of symbols. Unfortunately, that’s hard to say from signs painted on cave walls, where arrangements could be deliberate or completely random. “Demonstrating that a sign was conceived as a combination of two or more different signs is difficult,” says d’Errico. . .

Continue reading.

I find it fascinating to actually see memes in a very early stage of their evolutionary development—and, as pointed out, these are evolved from earlier memes.

Update. I bet the very first mark was some simple shape (box or X or two parallel or zigzag lines) that conveyed a simple message: “I was here.” Cf. bear marks on a tree, dog pee on posts, and this from WWII:

Written by LeisureGuy

8 March 2019 at 2:36 pm

The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson’s Archives

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Robert Caro is a great biographer. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York is a fascinating book that makes clear what Robert Moses did to New York, and also shows how it happened. Well worth reading. (That book, along with The Path to Power, the first volume of Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, would be required reading for all US citizens if I had my way. Both of those are in my list “Books I find myself repeatedly recommending.”

In the current issue of the New Yorker, Caro describes how he discovered his gift:

I. Mr. Hathway

In 1959, when I went to work for Newsday, on Long Island, the paper had a managing editor named Alan Hathway, who was an old-time newspaperman from the nineteen-twenties. He was a character right out of “The Front Page,” a broad-shouldered man with a big stomach that looked soft but wasn’t. His head was shiny bald except for a monklike tonsure, and rather red—very red after he had started drinking for the day, which was at lunch. He wore brown shirts with white ties, and black shirts with yellow ties. We were never sure if he had actually graduated from, or even attended, college, but he had a deep prejudice against graduates of prestigious universities, and during his years at Newsday had never hired one, let alone one from Princeton, as I was. I was hired as a joke on him while he was on vacation. He was so angry to find me there that during my first weeks on the job he would refuse to acknowledge my presence in his city room. I kept saying, “Hello, Mr. Hathway,” or “Hi, Mr. Hathway,” when he passed my desk. He’d never even nod. Ignoring me was easy for Mr. Hathway to do, because as the low man on the paper’s reportorial totem pole I never worked on a story significant enough to require his involvement.

At the time, Newsday did not publish on Sundays, so as low man on the totem pole I worked Saturday afternoons and nights, because if a story came in then I could put the information in a memo and leave the actual writing to the real reporters who came in on Sunday.

Late one Saturday afternoon, a telephone on the city desk rang, and when I picked it up it was an official from the Federal Aviation Agency, calling from his office at what was then (because John F. Kennedy hadn’t yet been assassinated) Idlewild Airport. Newsday had been doing a series of articles on Mitchel Field, a big Air Force base in the middle of Long Island’s Nassau County that the military was giving up. Its twelve hundred acres were the last large open space in the county, so what happened to it was important. The F.A.A. was seeking to make it a civilian airport. Newsday, however, felt that it should be used instead for public purposes—in particular, for education, to allow Hofstra University to expand, and to create a campus for Nassau Community College, the only general-education public college on Long Island, which was then being housed in temporary quarters in the county courthouse in Mineola. The rooms there were already too crowded to accommodate the students, many of them from the large low-income community in nearby Hempstead. Public education for the poor: that was something worth fighting for.

I hadn’t been working on any of the Mitchel Field stories. But on this Saturday suddenly this guy from the F.A.A. was on the phone, and he says something along the lines of “I really like what you guys are doing on Mitchel Field, and I’m here alone in the F.A.A. offices, and if you send someone down here I know what files you should be looking at.”

I was alone, the only person in the city room. This happened to be the day of the big Newsday annual summer picnic on the beach on Fire Island. Just about everyone else had gone, except me. None of them had a cell phone, of course, since there were no cell phones then. I called the editor who was my immediate superior, and then his superior, but wasn’t able to reach them. When, after many calls, I finally did reach an editor, he told me to call the paper’s great investigative reporter Bob Greene, but Greene wasn’t reachable, either, and neither were the other reporters I was told to call. Eventually, the editor told me that I would have to go myself.

I will never forget that night. It was the first time I had ever gone through files. The official met me at the front door and led me to a room with a conference table in the middle, and, on the table, high stacks of file folders. And somehow, in a strange way, sitting there going through them, I felt at home. As I went through the memos and the letters and the minutes of meetings, I could see a pattern emerging, revealing the real reason that the agency wanted the field to become a civilian airport: executives of corporations with offices on Long Island, who seemed to be quite friendly with the F.A.A. officials, wanted to be able to fly in and out of Long Island on their company planes without the inconvenience of having to drive to Idlewild or LaGuardia. I kept looking for a piece of paper on which someone came right out and said that, but I didn’t find one; everything I could find talked around that point. But between all the pieces of paper I found sentences and paragraphs that, taken together, made the point clear.

There are certain moments in your life when you suddenly understand something about yourself. I loved going through those files, making them yield their secrets to me. And here was a particular and fascinating secret: that corporate executives were persuading a government agency to save them some driving time at the expense of a poor kid getting an education and a better chance in life. Each discovery I made that helped to prove that was a thrill. I don’t know why raw files affect me that way. In part, perhaps, it’s because they are closer to reality, to genuineness—not filtered, cleaned up, through press releases or, years later, in books. I worked all night, but I didn’t notice the passing of time. When I finished and left the building on Sunday, the sun was coming up, and that was a surprise. I went back to the office, and before driving home I wrote a memo on what I had found.

I had previously worked at a newspaper in New Jersey, and my wife, Ina, and I hadn’t yet moved to Long Island. Early on Monday morning, my day off, the phone rang, and it was Mr. Hathway’s secretary, June Blom. Alan wanted to see me right away, she said. I said, “I’m in New Jersey.”

“Well, he wants to see you just as soon as you can get here,” June replied. I drove to Newsday that morning, sure every mile of the way that I was about to be fired.

I ran into June just as I entered the city room; motioning to Alan’s office, she told me to go right in. Walking across the room, I saw, through the glass window, the big red head bent over something he was reading, and as I entered his office I saw that it was my memo.

He didn’t look up. After a while, I said tentatively, “Mr. Hathway.” I couldn’t get the “Alan” out. He motioned for me to sit down, and went on reading. Finally, he raised his head. “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this,” he said. “From now on, you do investigative work.”

I responded with my usual savoir faire: “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.”

Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.

II. The Library

In 1976, I flew to Austin, Texas, to begin research for a biography of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Walking into the Johnson Library and Museum for the first time, I saw Johnson’s long black Presidential limousine. I asked the receptionist at the front desk where the Lyndon Johnson Papers were, and she said I would see them if I walked down to the end of the first row of exhibits and turned the corner.

So I did.

In front of me was a broad, tall marble staircase. At its top was a glass wall four stories high. Behind the glass, on each of the four stories, were rows of tall, red boxes—a hundred and seventy-five rows across, each row six boxes high—with, on the front of each box, a gold circle that was a replica, I was to learn, of the Presidential seal. As I climbed the stairs, there came into view more boxes, long lines of them stretching back into the gloom as far as I could see.

I took an elevator up to the library’s tenth floor, to be interviewed by an archivist and given a card admitting me to the library’s Reading Room, where researchers had their desks; the card was good for a year, and would have to be renewed at the end of that time. The archivist asked me if I thought I would need a renewal. I said probably.

I asked if I could be given a look at one of the floors of boxes, and, unfortunately for my peace of mind, my request was granted. It was like asking a doctor to be honest and give you all the bad news, and having him do just that. I started walking down an aisle between walls of boxes taller than me. It seemed like a long way to the end of the aisle.

There were about forty thousand boxes, the archivist told me; each had a capacity of eight hundred pages, but, she said, not all of them were completely filled, and some were overfilled. There were thirty-two million pages in all. I had known that doing research on a President would be a lot different from doing it on Robert Moses, the subject of my previous book, “The Power Broker,” but I hadn’t expected anything like this. I had a bad feeling: during all the years since Alan Hathway had given me that first piece of advice—“Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page”—I had never forgotten it; it was engraved in my mind. There would be no turning every page here.

But what pages to turn?

I get a sick feeling in my stomach even now as I remember how long it took to answer that question. I started by looking through the library’s “Finding Aids,” a version of a catalogue, in black looseleaf notebooks, which listed the titles of the file folders in each box. Just for Johnson’s “House of Representatives Papers,” the general files from his eleven years in that body, the time before he became a senator and then President, there were three hundred and forty-nine boxes. And those weren’t the only boxes that contained letters, memoranda, reports, speech drafts, etc., that dealt with this period. There were, for example, the LBJA files, which included documents that Johnson’s staff had, at various times, shifted from the general “House Papers” and put into other groupings—the library calls them “collections”—such as the “Selected Names” files, which contained correspondence and other material with “close associates.” At least it wouldn’t be me alone turning the pages. Working in the Reading Room with me would be Ina, whose thoroughness and perceptivity in doing research I had learned to trust.

The way things worked, you’d fill out a slip for the boxes you wanted, and in an hour or so an archivist would arrive in the Reading Room wheeling a cart with the boxes on it, and put them on a cart next to your desk, each one landing with an impressively, and depressingly, heavy thud. There was room on the cart for only fifteen boxes, and I always requested more than fifteen, so that when I returned a box and a gap appeared on my cart it would be quickly filled.

We requested a lot of boxes, looking through a lot of file folders that, from their description in the “Finding Aids,” one would assume contained nothing of use to me—and the wisdom of Alan’s advice was proved to me again and again. Someday, I hope to be able to leave behind me a record of at least a few of the scores and scores of times that that happened, some of which may be of interest, at any rate to fellow-historians; for now, I’ll give just one example. I had decided that among the boxes in which I would at least glance at every piece of paper would be the ones in Johnson’s general “House Papers” that contained the files from his first years in Congress, since I wanted to be able to paint a picture of what he had been like as a young legislator. And as I was doing this—reading or at least glancing at every letter and memo, turning every page—I began to get a feeling: something in those early years had changed.

For some time after Johnson’s arrival in Congress, in May, 1937, his letters to committee chairmen and other senior congressmen had been in a tone befitting a new congressman with no power—the tone of a junior beseeching a favor from a senior, or asking, perhaps, for a few minutes of his time. But there were also letters and memos in the same boxes from senior congressmen in which they were doing the beseeching, asking for a few minutes of his time. What was the reason for the change? Was there a particular time at which it had occurred?

Going back over my notes, I put them in chronological order, and when I did it was easy to see that there had indeed been such a time: a single month, October, 1940. Before that month, Lyndon Johnson had been invariably, in his correspondence, the junior to the senior. After that month—and, it became clearer and clearer as I put more and more documents into order, after a single date, November 5, 1940, Election Day—the tone was frequently the opposite. And it wasn’t just with powerful congressmen. After that date, Johnson’s files also contained letters written to him by mid-level congressmen, and by other congressmen as junior as he, in a supplicating tone, whereas there had been no such letters—not a single one that I could find—before that date. Obviously, the change had had something to do with the election. But what?

At that time, I was constantly flying back and forth between Austin and Washington. Papers don’t die; people do, and I was giving first priority to interviewing the men and women who, during the nineteen-thirties, had been members of a circle of New Deal insiders to which the young congressman from Texas had been admitted. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

And read The Path to Power. You’ll be glad you did.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2019 at 8:28 pm

Posted in Books, Politics, Writing

True crime and dysfunctional personalities

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This is the beginning of the introduction to The Best American Crime Reporting 2008. See if it reminds you of anyone.

A SMALL PROPORTION of human beings—perhaps 1 percent of any given population—is different from the rest of us in ways that wreak havoc on the rest of us.

The cardinal traits of this bunch include superficiality; impulsiveness; self-aggrandizement to the point of delusion; callousness; and, when it suits, outright cruelty. Truth and principle don’t intrude upon the world of the disruptors. When they don’t lapse into tell-tale glibness, the more socially adroit among them come across as charming, sometimes overwhelmingly charismatic.

They project a preternatural calm that isn’t an act. Their resting pulse rate tends to be low, they don’t sweat readily—literally and figuratively—nor do they react strongly to pain and fear.

Because of their eerily quiet nervous system, they don’t learn readily from experience.

If anyone can fool the polygraph, they can.

Intellectually, they understand the necessity for rules and regulations, but only for others. They are exempt from all that nonsense because they are special.

The smarter ones among them eschew violence. Not because they abhor bloodletting, but because they realize violence is usually a counterproductive strategy. Some of the cleverest among them run successful Ponzi schemes or engage in hugely profitable insider securities trading. Others rise to the boards of corporations where they coordinate felonies of a subtler nature.

The most ambitious and, arguably, the most dangerous among them fix their eyes on the Oscar of amorality known as political power. Chameleons adroit at tailoring their behavior to the needs of others, they often win elections. Sometimes they simply take by force. In either event, when one of them runs a country, things really get ugly.

The stupid ones, on the other hand, opt for offenses that range from petty to horrific and rarely pan out. They’re more likely to end up behind bars.

The disruptors don’t comprise the majority of incarcerated criminals. That distinction belongs mostly to people who make poor choices due to bad habits.

When the nasty 1 percent do commit crimes, the offenses are frequently stunningly audacious, cold-blooded, vicious, and terrifying to the rest of us. Because their actions are beyond our ken, we are sometimes seduced into believing the circular logic of their defense attorneys:

Anyone who could chop up six women has to be insane. Anyone who could poison her own children for insurance money must be crazy.


Insanity—a legal, not a medical concept—simply refers to the inability to understand the essential wrongness of one’s acts. The disruptors understand damn well.

They just don’t care. People who get paid to produce jargon have termed the disruptors psychopaths, sociopaths, possessors of antisocial personalities. For the most part, the labels are interchangeable and emanate from political points of view.

Psychopath implies an internal mental state. Jargonmeisters who favor an emphasis upon individual responsibility go for that one.

Those who prefer to blame an external force, typically that nebulous bogeyman known as “society,” prefer sociopath.

Antisocial personality is a stab at sounding medically diagnostic without giving away one’s bias.

“Bad Guy” would be just as good of a label.

Foolish bad guys commit the crimes that bore us.

High-level bad guys—who view crime as a job—begin their iniquitous careers with misdemeanors, but they learn quickly, zipping up the criminal ladder, because they’re smart but lack an effective stop mechanism.

The most evil among us commit outrages that enthrall, capturing our attention precisely because the internal world that motivates them is so chillingly barren that they might as well have been reared on Pluto.

The most evil among us do the stuff covered by the media genre known as “true crime.”

Back in the good old days, “true crime” meant delightfully lurid and judgmental pulp magazines, frequently marketed with covers depicting scantily-clad women in the grips of slavering brutes. Think Thrilling Detective. A secondary outlet was true-crime books, generally paperback originals, with authorial and editorial emphasis on the bloody and ghastly.

The occasional masterpiece of reporting that ventured beyond ghoulish explication of body fluids and viscera to skillfully explore the events, persona, and sometimes the sick-joke happenstance leading to “senseless” crime, did occasionally elbow its way above the slush pile. (Think the books of the late Jack Olsen.) But that was the exception; this was low-rent territory.

That hasn’t changed, but the vehicle of delivery has. Nowadays, “true crime” most frequently refers to that ironically cruel Grand Guignol mislabeled “reality TV.” And since television is a cheap, quick high for those simply interested in a violence fix, it has achieved rapid dominance. (A fact that might also be explained by the prevalence of amoral, even psychopathic, individuals in what’s known in my hometown, L.A., as “The Industry.” What better way to capture psychopaths than to have their portraits painted by other psychopaths?)

The pulps and softcover originals may not have been refined, but they did possess a certain shameless charm. Sadly, they’ve been wounded grievously, perhaps incurably, by trash TV. But the occasional full-length true-crime print masterpiece continues to surface and thrive for the same reason that high quality crime novels seem impervious to the video onslaught and remain staples of any bestseller list: a great book is able to plumb the depths of human motivation in a way that TV and movies—essentially impressionistic vehicles—cannot.

For the most part, though, the best true-crime writing of today appears on the pages of magazines.

This book showcases the best of the best.

While the ultimate goal of crime-beat reportage—understanding what drives people toward evil—is eons away from being achieved and may in fact never be achieved, the stories in this book will satisfy you intellectually and emotionally because you will be moved to think, feel, puzzle, and sometimes to self-examine.

Every one of these gems is penned by an individual with a strong, distinctive voice, leading to a varied and fascinating lot, stylistically and contextually. And the topics are a deliciously eclectic mix. Sure, there are a few serial lust killer tales. How could there not be? But each has something especially provocative to say about that most terrible of patterns.

At times, the accounts in this book explore crime in the highest of places, reminding us that a geopolitical focus should not obscure the fact that evil deeds emanate from evil people. Particularly fascinating is an account of the strategic planning leading to the capture of Islamo-fascist kingpin Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—a tale that is unquestionably one of the finest police procedurals ever written.

The always provocative essayist Malcolm Gladwell has produced a compelling examination of a topic near and dear to my heart: exposure of the confidence game that is criminal profiling. But even if I didn’t agree with him completely, I’d love the piece because it’s witty, incisive, and beautifully written.

The eminent humorist Calvin Trillin abandons any pretense of levity in his fascinating look at the genesis of violence on an isolated Canadian island—one of those obscure locales, struggling for its very existence in the face of a rapidly changing world, that few of us are likely to visit. And even if we did ferry over, we couldn’t capture the place, or the people, the way Trillin does.

Two of the stories deal with life in prison. One ….

Well, it goes on. And the stories in the volume are really first-rate.

It’s just that the first part of the introduction reminded me of someone.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 November 2018 at 5:49 pm

25 Biohacks to Improve Writer Productivity

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Some time back (a decade, in fact) I blogged a post on improving writer productivity. This morning I received an email suggesting that I include this infographic (from here):

Written by LeisureGuy

29 October 2018 at 9:05 am

Posted in Daily life, Health, Writing

Also-rans in the alphabet

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Written by LeisureGuy

12 September 2018 at 2:30 pm

Posted in Evolution, Memes, Writing

Kurt Vonnegut describes the shape of stories

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An interesting little 5-minute extract from a Kurt Vonnegut talk:

Written by LeisureGuy

5 September 2018 at 8:54 am

Posted in Books, Video, Writing

Simplicity or style: what makes a sentence a masterpiece?

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Jenny Davidson, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where she specialises in 18th-century literature and culture, intellectual history and the contemporary novel in English, writes in Aeon:

great sentence makes you want to chew it over slowly in your mouth the first time you read it. A great sentence compels you to rehearse it again in your mind’s ear, and then again later on. A sentence must have a certain distinction of style – the words come in an order that couldn’t have been assembled by any other writer. Here’s an elaborate, Latinate favourite, from Samuel Johnson’s preface to his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). We have to train ourselves to read complex sentences like this one, but if it’s read properly out loud by an actor or someone else who understands the way the subordination of clauses works, it may well be taken in more easily through the ear:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, and clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

The sentence is elevated in its diction, but it is also motivated by an ironic sense of the vanity of human wishes. It is propelled forward by the momentum of clauses piling on top of one another.

Edward Gibbon is one of 18th century Britain’s other great prose stylists. The sentences of Gibbon that I love most come from his memoirs, which exist in a host of drafts braided together for publication after his death. As a young man, Gibbon fell in love and asked permission of his father to marry. But his spendthrift father had depleted the family’s resources so much that he told Gibbon not to. ‘I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son,’ Gibbon wrote. The aphoristic parallelism in that lovely sentence does some work of emotional self-protection. Also from Gibbon’s memoirs: ‘It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.’ The precision of the place and time setting, the startling contrast effected by the juxtaposition of barefooted friars and the pagan temple, the fact that there is an exterior soundscape as well as an internal thoughtscape, the way the sentence builds to the magnitude of the project to come – all work to make the sentence great.

The first sentence of any novel works as an invitation into a new world. Sometimes that invitation is so powerful that the sentence itself takes on a life of its own. One example: the opening sentence of Orwell’s 1984: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ The sentence is initially unassuming, simply descriptive, but in the startling final detail Orwell achieves estrangement, establishing the alternate nature of the novel’s historical reality with economy and force. Another opening line from near-future speculative fiction is that of William Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer: ‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.’ The startling metaphor seemed to speak with remarkable directness to a world in which new forms of media and mediation had come to define human consciousness. The passage of time has raised questions, however. Today, to a generation of readers who barely watch TV on ‘channels’ and don’t really know what a ‘dead’ one would look like, the metaphor will be nearly inscrutable.

Hasn’t the sentence become dated? Gibson himself commented on Twitter recently, about his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, that it ‘was written with the assumption that the reader could and *would* Google unfamiliar terms and references’. It matters to Gibson that his fiction should be highly topical in ways that can also be inscrutable or dated, and that will provoke in the reader not simple incomprehension but rather an awareness of the layering of past and present in palimpsests of language and literature.

Some literary stylists bestow greatness on every sentence without tiring their readers. Many readers feel this way about Joyce, but I have always preferred the subtler beauty of the sentences in Dubliners to the obtrusive, slightly show-offy ingenuity that afflicts every sentence in Ulysses: individually each of those sentences may be small masterpieces, but an unrelenting sequence of such sentences is wearisome. Great minimalist sentences – those of the short-story writer Lydia Davis, for instance – may have a longer shelf life.

Over a lifetime of reading, people form their own individual canon of great sentences. My canon is full of Jane Austen, whose balance of aphoristic wit, psychological insight and narrative pacing is unique. The first sentence of Pride and Prejudice (1813) is probably her best-known line: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ However, I have always preferred the opening line of Emma written two years later: ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’ It has the cadence almost of a fairytale, only the verb ‘seemed’ and the ostentatiously positive sequence of traits (‘handsome, clever, and rich’) hint that the novel will go on to undermine its opening assertion.

If we think of a library as a city and a book as an individual house in that city, each sentence becomes  . . .

Continue reading.

I’ve always been struck by the style of Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Consider his opening paragraph:

IN the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire j and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remem­bered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.

I can see the opening scenes of a Cinemascope movie with this as the voiceover.

And, of course, I just purchased a novel based on its opening paragraph.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 August 2018 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Books, Writing

Great way to start a novel

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Good novels are good all the way through, including the opening paragraph:

The Whistling Season (Doig, Ivan)

When I visit the back corners of my life again after so long a time, littlest things jump out first. The oilcloth, tiny blue windmills on white squares, worn to colorless smears at our four places at the kitchen table. Our father’s pungent coffee, so strong it was almost ambulatory, which he gulped down from suppertime until bedtime and then slept serenely as a sphinx. The pesky wind, the one element we could count on at Marias Coulee, whistling into some weather-cracked cranny of this house as if invited in. . .

The Kindle format is designed to support/encourage impulse purchases. (“If you want a horse to jump a fence, make the fence as low as possible” — from Getting to Yes — and I’ll add “and it helps even more if you make jumping the fence look inviting in prospect and enjoyable in the experience.”) Read a review, bought the book: elapsed time < 1 minute. But still, I think it’s going to be good. Do you get that from the opening paragraph? (I’m sure that statistically it is the most-labored-upon paragraph in the book, with second place going to the last paragraph (for those who read the ending in deciding whether to buy the book—I know you’re out there. So the residue of all that work is revealing, but I never read the ending at any place than that which the author (strongly) indicated: at the end )

Written by LeisureGuy

29 August 2018 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Books, Memes, Writing

A way to catch typos: Have your computer read the passage aloud

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Jimi Smoot blogs a good tip (and there’s a screenshot at the link):

Email is such a wonderful medium for communicating with people but if you’re like me it can be a bit of an issue.

Sometimes I’ll draft an email that I think looks great. Before I send I read it, re-read it, and even read it out loud only the come back later and find that the email is missing words or had things misspelled.

Usually, for something important, I have my wife read it back to me out loud. But sometimes she isn’t around so I use the computer.

Heres how you can use this hack if you are using macOS and Chrome.

In Chrome, highlight all the text you want the computer to read back to you, right click, go to the “speech” section and click “start speaking”. At this point the computer will read out loud exactly what you’ve written. This also works for blog posts or articles that you want the computer to read while you are doing something else.

Using macOS to read you anything

For bonus points, if you want the computer to read something that is not in the browser, you can use macOS’s built in TextEdit application. To find TextEdit go to the “Applications” folder and click on the TextEdit application.

Next just paste in the text you want the computer to read, then select the text, right click, and look for the same “speech” menu as in Chrome. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 July 2018 at 8:59 am

The deep roots of writing

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Michael Erard, writer in residence at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, writes in Aeon:

Recent scholars of the history of writing describe what was first and foremost an administrative tool. According to their ‘administrative hypothesis’, writing was invented so that early states could track people, land and economic production, and elites could sustain their power. Along the way (their argument goes) writing became flexible enough, in how it captured spoken language, to be used for poetry and letters and, eventually, word games such as Mad Libs and fortune cookies.

The writing/state connection sailed out most recently in Against the Grain(2017) by James Scott, a political scientist at Yale whose goal is to overturn the usual story about how civilisation came to be. In his book, he draws from accumulated archaeological findings to show that large sedentary populations and grain agriculture existed long before the first states in both Mesopotamia and China. These operations came to be coopted by rulers, ruling classes and elite interests. The elite didn’t invent agriculture or urban living but fashioned the oft-told narrative giving them credit for these achievements. In his book, Scott assembles a political counter-narrative to up-end their story of progress and show how people were better off when they weren’t subjects.

This counter-narrative needs villains, and writing serves this purpose brilliantly, because it’s the tool of power that makes subjects subjects. ‘The state is a recording, registering, and measuring machine,’ writes Scott – and a coercive machine that makes lists of names, levies taxes, rations food, raises armies, and writes rules. ‘The coincidence of the pristine state and pristine writing,’ he writes, ‘tempts one to the crude functionalist conclusion that would-be state makers invented the forms of notation that were essential to statecraft.’ Without writing, Scott argues, there could be no state – and without the state, there could be no writing. He seems to be saying that everything that humans would come to write – myths, epic poems, love letters, essays, re-assessments of the history of civilisation – was an epiphenomenon of bureaucratic paperwork.

As far as I am concerned, however, the evidence suggests otherwise. I come to this defence of writing as an unabashed partisan of text, a diehard literate in an age pivoting to video – I barely watch television, which marks me as a philistine these days. Every week seems to bring fresh news of a dimmer future for writing, whether it’s thanks to AI-curated, voice-operated information interfaces or in the hopes pinned on emojis as a universal writing system. So after reading Scott’s book I was moved to throw some gravel at the thinking that rolls along this track: if writing is the offspring of accounting and keeps the powerful in power, then let’s unshackle ourselves and return to purity.

Who needs writing, anyway? Seen through the filter of a military analogy, writing might be like nuclear weapons (which were developed specifically by the military), or it might be like gunpowder, which was discovered by alchemists searching for life-prolonging substances hundreds of years before its use in weapons. The question is this: is writing the product of the state in every single stage of its evolution, invented de novo by administrative elites? Or is it composed of pre-existing representational practices that expanded to fill the needs of the state and complex society?

The evidence suggests that writing is actually more like gunpowder than like nuclear weapons. For one thing, in the four wellsprings of writing, it never (as far as we know) sprang forth as fully phonographic but evolved to become that – there’s usually some kind of proto-writing, and some kind of proto-proto-writing. I like to think of writing as a layered invention. First there’s the graphic invention: the notion of making a durable mark on a surface. Humans have been doing this for at least 100,000 years – the bureaucracy didn’t give humans that power. Then the symbolic invention: let’s make this mark different from all other marks and assign it a meaning that we can all agree on. Humans have been doing this for a long time, too. Then there’s the linguistic one: let’s realise that a sound, a syllable and a word are all things in the world that can be assigned a graphic symbol. This invention depends on the previous ones, and itself is made of innovations, realisations, solutions and hacks. Then comes the functional invention: let’s use this set of symbols to write a list of captives’ names, or a contract about feeding workers, or a letter to a distant garrison commander. All these moves belong to an alchemy of life that makes things go boom.

When you consider these layers of invention, you discover that early writing in Mesopotamia, for instance, had no overtly political function, as the archaeologist David Wengrow at University College London argues in What Makes Civilization? (2010). Instead, for the first 300-400 years of early cuneiform texts in the region (from about 3300-2900 BCE), Wengrow sees a bookkeeping function for managing temple-factories of the day. ‘There is hardly any use of writing for what I would view as state-like functions (eg, dynastic monuments, taxation, tribute, narratives of political events) until the Early Dynastic period,’ he told me.

This is an even stronger strike against the administrative hypothesis than it looks, because the counting that was the precursor to writing in Mesopotamia didn’t need the state to develop. In the 1960s, the archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat began studying clay tokens – cylinders, pyramids, discs, balls – thousands of which had been found all over Middle Eastern archaeological sites, though no one had explained what they were. These tokens showed up in Neolithic archaeological sites from 8000 BCE, well before the earliest states emerge in Mesopotamia. Schmandt-Besserat, whom I studied with at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1990s, argued that the tokens went back 10,000 years. She realised that they were markers for objects: one cone per unit of grain, one diamond per unit of honey, and so forth. At first, tokens that denoted goods and objects were stored in groups; one storage method was sealing them into hollow clay balls. To overcome the obvious drawback that the contents of a sealed envelope can’t be checked, early accountants pressed the tokens into the soft, wet surface of the envelope. By the fourth millennium, scribes realised that the impressed signs made the envelopes redundant – just press the tokens into the clay, or better yet, create written signs that mimicked tokens. Then one more step of abstraction completed the journey: create written signs that capture speech-sounds and word-meanings.

The implications are clear, at least for Mesopotamia. Early states functioned without writing for nearly 3,000 years before the invention of cuneiform because they had the token system for counting. And tokens didn’t need the conditions of the state to develop – they preceded the state by 2,000 years. What we have is counting that precedes complex economic organisation as well as phonetic writing that precedes political functions. Both trajectories undermine the writing/state argument.

The administrative hypothesis lacks evidence in other regions where writing developed, as well. In China, for example, the earliest writing samples, which were divination texts carved into bone and turtle shell, date to approximately 1320 BCE, but archaeologists don’t know whether there was also administrative, propagandistic or literary writing happening at the same time. And they don’t know what preceded the carved word signs, which included names, dates and items of sacrifice, though the confident shape and execution of the characters suggests a well-developed scribal class. That, in turn, points to a complex society. But was this society administered by forms of writing? There’s no evidence that it was.

Further mysteries are posed by writing in Mesoamerica. The most prominent examples are Mayan and Zapotec writing, which date to 300 BCE and 600 BCE respectively. All the existing examples of Mesoamerican writing are engravings on rock or murals; writing on other materials, such as palm leaf, were either lost to decay or destroyed by the Spanish conquerors. Before phonetic writing there was iconography, and early writing itself featured leaders, rulers, prisoner-taking, and conquests. Nothing economic or administrative exists.

Over and over, what we see is that writing is more like gunpowder than like a nuclear bomb. In each of the four sites of the independent invention of writing, there’s either no evidence one way or the other, or there’s evidence that a proto-writing pre-dated the administrative needs of the state. Even in Mesopotamia, a phonetic cuneiform script was used for a few hundred years for accounting before writing was used for overtly political purposes. As far as the reductive argument that accountants invented writing in Mesopotamia, it’s true that writing came from counting, but temple priests get the credit more than accountants do. ‘Priests invented writing’ is a reduction I can live with – it posits writing as a tool for contacting the supernatural realm, recording the movement of spirits, inspecting the inscrutable wishes of divinities.

As it turns out, the popular ‘administrative hypothesis’ has run into headwinds among other scholars too. In the afterword to the essay collection The First Writing (2004), Stephen Houston, an anthropologist at Brown University in Rhode Island, concluded that the administrative hypothesis, though tempting, ‘remains hypothetical’. Fourteen years later, things are unchanged, especially for Mesoamerica, Houston told me in a recent email. ‘The earliest writing we have appears, where we can read it, to be resolutely about kings, gods, ritual activities, fetish objects. There are plausible grounds to think they had cadastrals [listings of land parcels and who owned them] and the like, which appear in early Colonial Mexico. But we just don’t have the direct evidence.’

Other anthropologists, meanwhile, have been looking more closely at historical instances where writing emerges outside of the state – and where states emerge without writing. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 July 2018 at 8:16 am

Posted in Daily life, Writing

Tagged with

A change in formatting. And it’s based on research.

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I was taught decades ago in typing class that a period is followed by two spaces.  But that was using a monospaced font, in which each letter had the same width, and when proportional spacing came in, I learned to use one space following the period, since the period constitutes a visual space—thus the lack of spaces in initials such as D.R. Harris and J.R.R. Tolkien.

But now research has convinced me to return to two spaces following a period.  Avi Selk has an entertaining article in the Washington Post on the issue.  From the article:

. . . So the researchers,  Rebecca L. Johnson,  Becky Bui  and Lindsay L. Schmitt,  rounded up 60 students and some eye tracking equipment,  and set out to heal the divide.

First, they put the students in front of computers and dictated a short paragraph, to see how many spaces they naturally used. Turns out, 21 of the 60 were “two-spacers,” and the rest typed with close-spaced sentences that would have horrified the Founding Fathers.
The researchers then clamped each student’s head into place, and used an Eyelink 1000 to record where they looked as they silently read 20 paragraphs. The paragraphs were written in various styles: one-spaced, two-spaced,  and strange combinations like two spaces after commas,  but only one after periods.  And vice versa, too.
And the verdict was: two spaces after the period is better.  It makes reading slightly easier.  Congratulations, Yale University professor Nicholas A. Christakis.  Sorry, Lifehacker. . .

But read the entire article.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 May 2018 at 10:56 am

Posted in Daily life, Science, Writing

In defence of proper usage

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Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2018 at 11:29 am

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