Literary Ledes

I was talking with somebody about the recent bee heist story out of Sacramento and they linked me to the great maple syrup heist of ’12, a Bloomberg article that begins thusly. 

On the morning of July 30, 2012, an accountant named Michel Gauvreau arrived at the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve, housed in a huge red brick warehouse on the side of the Trans-Canadian Highway in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, about two hours northeast of Montreal. Inside, baby-blue barrels of maple syrup were stacked six high in rows hundreds deep.

The question for me, when I’m evaluating a first paragraph, is whether it makes me want to read the second. If a novel started like this I would. 

“Getting News From Facebook”

Every so often, a number becomes part of the journalistic zeitgeist. Sometimes it’s linked to a single factoid, sometimes it’s free-floating. You see it around, and sometimes it’s right, but a lot of the time it’s misleading or just plain made-up.

Brooke Gladstone writes about one of these in her graphic manifesto The Influencing Machine (pp. 49-54). The number in question is 50,000. Specifically, 50,000 human victims. It would pop here and there about a variety of different things. Most recently, it was reported (by Attorney General Gonzalez no less) as the number of child predators online at any time. Before that, it was the number of people sacrificed by satanic cults (remember the 80’s?). Before that it was reported as the number of children abducted by strangers in a year, even though the actual number was maybe 250.

And the more she looked into it, the more she found out that “50,000 people die” every year from… everything! At least, if the media can be believed. Where does this number come from? Gladstone calls it ‘the Goldilocks number’. Not “a really small number… like 200. And [not] a ridiculously large number… like 10 million. It [is] a Goldilocks number. Not too hot, not too cold.”


Recently something similar had pinged my radar. Specifically, that 44% of adults get their news from Facebook. Or from Twitter. Or from social media in general. Or, or…

Pretty shocking, right? I mean, those aren’t reputable news sources!

This number seemed fishy to me because it couldn’t possibly be that high. First of all, it doesn’t pass the smell test – are 44% of adults even on social media? (Yes, barely.) Well, I didn’t look into it myself, but fortunately somebody did for me. It seems to be a case of semantic drift that lends itself to sensationalism. Basically, 44% of adults, as measured by a Pew survey, report that they “get news” from Facebook, either often, sometimes, or rarely. Basically everybody who didn’t answer “never”.

What’s the difference between people “getting news” and people “getting their news”? Well, kind of everything. To get news is to receive an unknown but non-zero number of news items; to get one’s news is presumably to get all or most of the news items one consumes. This dovetails nicely with people liking to report on how technology is ruining civilization, so it’s used that way. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see this number popping up increasingly in the latter context of people getting their news on Facebook, which as we know contains a large amount of ‘fake news’ (a term that with alarming speed became completely meaningless). Etc., etc.

So if you see 44% (or its cousin 68%) popping up in this context, well, now you know.

Gladstone concludes her book by saying that ‘we get the media we deserve’. I’d like to think we aren’t this bad, though.

Technology iz in ur kidz brainz, ruining ur civilization‽ 👻 🆒 🆕 🆓 🔚 🔜 #sorrynotsorry 😏 😎

There was a thing going around recently. I didn’t see the ‘original’ but I did see the response. I’ll excerpt the juicy bit here, go read the whole thing.

Technology and the death of civilisation

It is a failing of human nature to detest anything that young people do just because older people are not used to it or have trouble learning it. So I am wary of the “young people suck” school of social criticism. -Steven Pinker


Late last year this photograph of children looking at their smartphones by Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam started doing the rounds on the web. It quickly became viral. It was often accompanied by outraged, dispirited comments such as “a perfect metaphor for our age”, “the end of civilisation” or “a sad picture of our society”.

Clearly, to lots of folk, the photograph epitomised everything that is wrong with young people these days and their ‘addiction’ to technology. These children were being distracted by their technology to such an extent that they weren’t paying any attention to the beauty surrounding them in the real world.

Only they weren’t. It turns out that the Rijksmuseum has an app that, among other things, contains guided tours and further information about the works on display. As part of their visit to the museum, the children, who minutes earlier had admired the art and listened attentively to explanations by expert adults, had been instructed to complete an assignment by their school teachers, using, among other things, the museum’s excellent smartphone app.

Children listening to adult instruction at the Rijksmuseum

I wonder whether the photo would have caused so much indignation and disapproval if it had depicted students ‘ignoring’ the masterpiece while reading a paper leaflet or museum brochure instead. Though I suspect not. It would appear that, once again, reports heralding the death of civilisation at the execrable hands of technology might have been greatly exaggerated.

(The quote at the top is by Steven Pinker, who had a book out about how we’re pretty much living in the least violent era in human history a few(?) years ago that I understand is pretty good.)

Technology has always been a bugbear of… I’m not even sure who. Old people? I think Douglas Adams was right:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

These things like the top quote is talking about get old. It just isn’t true that things have really changed. The only thing that I’ve ever encountered that changes when a new information technology is introduced is you, and even then it’s in one very specific case. I don’t have a cite for this, but it’s in the beginning of The Information by James Gleick (which is a wonderful read). Basically, non-literate people have trouble with abstract reasoning. When asked a simple syllogism, it goes something like this.

“All bears from the north are white. Nanook is a bear from the north. What color is Nanook?”

“I don’t know, I’ve never met Nanook.”

Within a short time of learning how to read, they’re able to answer it correctly. (God, I really wish I had that cite.) But otherwise, all of the books about ‘Internet brain’ or whatever they call it are baseless and stupid. For a fun exercise, the next time you see a book or article or whatever about how technology is changing us–particularly information technology–try swapping out ‘the Internet’ or ‘Snapchat’ or whatever the complaint is about with something older. Like books, radio, the telegraph, newspapers, or the post office.

People said the same things about those! XKCD had a good summary of some recent ones: Continue reading

Document formatting in fiction


Formatting is fun.

Time was, when you were ready to have a book published, you sent off your typewritten manuscript to the publisher and they determined what sort of physical form this would take. Typeface, page size, font size, paper stock, often cover art, hardcover vs. trade paperback, all that stuff.

That’s still true, to a large degree, but all the advances in technology for dead-tree printing have really let us go to town with creative formatting. This can take a variety of forms. I’m going to lead, however, with a historical example.

William Faulkner wanted The Sound and The Fury to be published with more than just black ink on white paper. (Well, he didn’t have anything to say about the paper.) But I do know that he wanted multiple ink colors to indicate the various speakers and time periods and intersections thereof. My recollection from undergrad is that he wanted four colors (or perhaps five if you include black); the Times article above suggests fourteen. At any rate, the publisher said ‘no’, because that would have been super expensive in 1929. (The ultra-deluxe 14-color modern edition linked above sold for $345 at printing, though I doubt this was strictly necessary and is almost certainly a case of conspicuous consumption for lit nerds.)

There’s an interesting discussion of how the new coloration may actually make the book too non-difficult to read. I wouldn’t know, since I read the broke undergrad Penguin Classics version, but it’s an interesting thought. I have the impression that The Sound and The Fury is sort of a rite of passage, and that this makes accessibility a bad thing, to a certain type of person. That’s a topic for another time I suppose.

So that was then, and this is now. Custom formatting is cheaper and easier, yay! I’ll admit that I first started noticing it when I was reading Cell by Stephen King, which would have been, gosh, ten years ago. One of the recurring images is the main character being crushed by a piece of construction equipment. The equipment’s brand is Link-Belt. “Here comes Link-Belt!” is I believe the refrain. But it’s in sort of a font like “Here comes LINK-BELT!” And as it gets closer and closer to crushing his leg (debilitating leg injuries are something of a motif for Mr. King), it gets bigger.

“Here comes LINK-BELT!”


“Here comes LINK-BELT!”


“Here comes LINK-BELT!”

(To this day, when I pass a construction site on the highway and see a LINK-BELT piece of machinery, I think of that.)

That’s fun. And technology is letting us do more stuff like that in more things ‘cuz cheap production, which is good. It even lets us do some completely bugf— crazy things like this.


House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski) is, uh, a thing that exists. (I did not take this picture.) It’s weird. Leaving aside the question of whether or not it pulls off what it’s trying to do, let nobody say that it doesn’t try to do it. And it just wouldn’t even exist if it we didn’t have the ability to do something like this for a few (seven) hundred pages relatively cheap. It costs about as much as any other roughly-letter-sized 700-page book. We aren’t talking about asking the publisher ‘can I use Helvetica instead of Times’? We aren’t talking about something like The Sound and The Fury here, where it’s maybe better/closer to the original intent if you have a few extra colors. Cheap formatting is an existential requirement for this book.

Yay cheap formatting! I’m generally in favor of books existing! Really going out on a limb there, I know!

Obviously this is even easier in digital formats. I’m going to go out on another limb and include web sites in that calculation. Philosophically they’re just books with javascript and a database, or perhaps more like the memex, but the relevant thing is, these were all conceived of as digital text, and in this sense ‘text’ means ‘a document’ and ‘a document’ means ‘a book’. (This is a lie, but a convenient one.)

Anywho, formatting is cool, and it lets you do things with a text that you couldn’t do before, and that’s good. Here’s something from the re-draft of (new working title) The World Beyond Eels:


Thoughts on the California Primary


Pretty much.

There’s been a lot of ink and many, many pixels spilled over the Democratic presidential primary. I say this by way of introduction in case you’ve had your head stuck under a rock. It’s been reaching its end-game every couple of weeks since March. There was Super Tuesday (which gave Hillary a small structural lead, but Bernie still had a chance!),  then Superer Tuesday (which gave Hillary a huge structural lead, but Bernie still had a chance!), then the Acela Primary (which gave Hillary a nigh-insurmountable structural lead, but Bernie still… ah, fuck it, he’s saying he wants to overturn the will of the voters now), and now we’re coming up on California and New Jersey for the… next primary, which will give Hillary a mathematically insurmountable structural lead.

And, once again, it will be over! And Hillary will have reached the point where she’s unbeatable! Yay, it’s over! Maybe Bernie will concede around then, like Hillary did last time!

2008 was a pretty hot contest too, remember? Remember how we all hated each other? Remember PUMA’s, that year’s Bernie-Or-Bust’ers?

Remember Hillary saying that “having a primary contest go through June is nothing particularly unusual” and using “Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June” as an example? That was dumb.

Remember Florida and Michigan losing their delegates because they jumped the gun on the primary schedule? And they were probably very favorable territory for Hillary? That was dumb.

I’m not a professional pundit, so I can’t just make shit up, but I’m also too lazy to look up exact examples for this next one. But I definitely remember people grumbling that Obama’s 2008 victories across the South didn’t matter because those aren’t states that send electoral votes to Democrats in November, and the superdelegates should take note of this. That was stupid when Bill Clinton basically said it in 2008 and it was stupid when a Sanders surrogate said it in 2016.

So hey! Everybody’s terrible, OK? But don’t lose track of the bigger picture. The narcissism of small differences is a hell of a drug:

It is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and that are related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and are ridiculing each other because of sensitiveness to these details of differentiation.

Don’t forget who the real enemy is.

That said, I’m voting for Hillary. Take this primary out of its misery, please. Just drag it behind the shed and shoot it. Even Jerry Brown agrees, and he’s not exactly the Clintons’ biggest fan.

An Ode to Epitaph to a Dog

A decent amount of time ago, in a galaxy still just this galaxy right here, approximately as many years in the past as that poem about the cat was written in the future…

OK, a note about linguistics. Time travel and fiction lead to some very strange formations. Douglas Adams of course was an expert on the topic:

The major problem is simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be descibed differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is futher complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy skips lightly over this tangle of academic abstraction, pausing only to note that the term “Future Perfect” has been abandoned since it was discovered not to be.

Anyway, this Lord Byron guy wrote a poem about his dog. It’s on the dog’s tombstone. The dog has a tombstone.

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808.

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below:
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonour’d falls, unnotic’d all his worth,
Deny’d in heaven the Soul he held on earth:
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.
Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debas’d by slavery, or corrupt by power,
Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye! who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on, it honors none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one—and here he lies.

What is it about the last two lines of poems about pets that slays me?