Sunday, March 09, 2014

Book Club: Arguably

Arguably
Essays by Christopher Hitchens
12, 2011


I picked up this book because it was in one of the bargain bins at McNally Robinson - not the end-of-the-line cart, but one of the shelves in their reduced-cost area. Anyway, I'd been meaning to read some Hitchens for a while, and I bought this not long after his death; I think it is the last book he wrote, though perhaps there's a technicality there because very little of this book is new material written in 2010/2011, it's nearly entirely essays, reviews, and similar short pieces previously published in such places as The Atlantic, Salon, Slate, or Vanity Fair.

Hitchens was an excellent writer. Even if one disagrees with every last one of his opinions, it is impossible to avoid the realization that he knew, very well, his way around a keyboard. He was also a monumental reader, and equiped with the kind of memory that can keep the important details of an entire library of books, fiction and nonfiction, ready at hand to build unexpected connections between disparate concepts. Many of these essays begin with a few paragraphs that seem utterly disjointed from the main topic of the essay, until he provides a bridge from, say, contemporary Iranian literature to a controversial piece of Russian literature. That bridge from Reading Lolita in Iran to a review of a new-at-the-time discussion on the works of Nabokov (author of the original Lolita) is merely the first of many that stood out to me as a kind of signature of Hitchens' writing style.

Another style point of Hitchens' was his attention to authors of the mid-twentieth century. I admit I know next to nothing about P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, or Graham Greene, but Hitchens spends about 1/4 of this book on essays describing such people, their effects on later writers, their opinions and troubles when such opinions clashed with those of others, and occassionally reviewing a book that presents new or rehashed information about these people. The section "Eclectic Affinities", running from page 139 to 387 of this 750+ page tome was thus barely comprehensible to me. The fault there is entirely the result of my own interests not overlapping with Hitchens in those cases. It was a bit of a slog to get through that part, is what I'm saying. But your mileage may vary.

Much like "The Moth", among this large collection there were only a few pieces I didn't like. There are the I-don't-know-enough-about-this-to-have-an-opinion parts, as mentioned above, a great many very, very good essays, and (skimming the table of contents) only one essay I positively disliked: Why Women Aren't Funny, starting on page 389 (and wedged between quite good essays about the Harry Potter series and Steig Larsson).

Why Women Aren't Funny originally appeared in Vanity Fair in January of 2007; at the time I was aware of Hitchens as a writer mainly because of his prominence as an atheist. That essay sparked considerable discussion, aluded to in the introduction of Arguably with:
"... not quite saving me from the most instantly misinterpreted of all my articles, concerning the humor deficit as registered by gender."

I admit that despite keeping that point in mind - that much of what was said and written about that essay in early 2007 constituted a collection of mistakes - I was unconvinced that some deeper and interesting and important point was lurking under the essay as it appears. The main point is a fairly hamfisted interpretation of evolutionary psychology, itself a dreary and adled discipline, in the narrow field of funny people. The glaring assumption, never addressed in the essay, is that there are far more highly successful male comedians than female, and that one is much more likely to laugh at a story told by a man at a social gathering than one told by a woman, and other such signs of greater funniness among men, is that current patterns in American society are representative of 100 000 years of global human evolution. Bullshit. No other cause for such patterns is seriously explored, and the result is an essay with a huge WTF? metaphorically hanging over the page as I read it. Blergh.

But, one dud out of more than 100 essays is pretty good ratio. And it's useful to be able to point at the exception that proves the rule, here using the correct definition of "prove" in this context, that of a test, and the rule being "Hitchens is a damn good writer".

Other essays made me laugh out loud, including the insults leveled at Gore Vidal, the elaborate punishments for rude waiters who interrupt stimulating dinner conversation, and the strange things sometimes said to Hitchens at various functions. Other essays brought a chill to my spine, especially Imagining Hitler, in which the image is painted in my mind of a fed-up Austrian construction worker booting the young Adolf off of a high scaffold and thus usefully diverting history.

Steven J. Gould was another great essayist. Christopher Hitchens acheives, in my view, the same high level as a writer of the short non-fiction piece. There are tremendous differences in how each wrote, in the topics they chose to cover (to simplify, Gould on baseball, Hitchens on Kingsley Amis' circle of friends circa 1950), and in public response to their writings, but the overall sense of utter mastery of the form comes through.

I've read a fair bit of Gould, and now a little Hitchens. I understand that there are considerable differences in skill required for a full-length book compared to a 5-page essay, and I think I need to evaluate both writers on their longer works as well.

One final cautionary note from Hitchens, though: the ultimate essay in this book is Prisoner of Shelves, a lament on the troubles associated with owning books, books, so many books! I own several hundred books, and I can relate.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Book Club: The Moth



The Moth

50 True Stories

Edited by Catherine Burns




I first encountered The Moth, a kind of storytelling stand-up travelling event, when I clicked on a link to a youtube video (this one, if I remember correctly) from a forum thread about interesting videos. The story was well told, and the format had some polish to it that suggested production by skilled people. A little while later I saw another Moth video, and it’s stuck in my mind for a long time without me doing much with that knowledge there’s this interesting thing out there on-line.

While shopping for christmas presents together, Charlie picked up this book and told me she was going to give it to somebody in my family. I was mildly annoyed (in an amused kind of way), because I’d seen the book and wanted it for myself, but I was adamant that I was not to buy any books for myself at the bookstore, especially not from the ever-too-easy-to-rationalize bargain bin. At McNally Robinson, there are layers of bargain bins, different categories of price-reduced books that end with a cart near the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section filled with out-of-print, discontinued, and otherwise not-going-to-be-sold-no-more books. The Moth was on this cart, for some ridiculously low fraction of its cover price.

UPDATE: I failed to accurately describe the outcome of that shopping trip: Charlie was being sneaky and tricksy and lovely and wonderful, and gave The Moth to me! 



Book Club has never been for book reviews, but for discussions spawned by the book in question. It’s hard not to start a larger discussion when talking about The Moth so I’ll break with tradition around here and tell you what I thought of this book: it’s pretty good! Out of 50 stories, told by 50 different people, I was unhappy with only two. Both stories I didn’t like were told by religious people about experiences that were directly tied to their religions.

The first was by a preacher who told a story I found rather unbelievable, involving a group of possibly-criminal bikers at a roadhouse in Texas who had no inkling of the easter story – I simply do not find it at all plausible that any English- or Spanish-speaking person in Texas in the 1960s would have been utterly unaware that a central tenet of Christianity is that Jesus was crucified, buried in a cave, and resurrected three days later. It’s basically the most important part of the overwhelmingly dominant religion in that part of the world, in that time and place. The story reeks of Tall-Tale, a cultural tradition of lying by exaggeration I find highly irritating.

The second was by a young Mormon woman describing her experiences living in New York city, and dating an Atheist. Her blinkered ignorance to anybody else’s beliefs or opinions combined with her complete refusal to confront any part of  her own belief system just pissed me off and made me very much not able to empathise nor sympathise with her played-for-laughs story. She just came across to me as an airhead religious fanatic that suckered attention and money out of fools fooled by her “Can you believe it!?!?” act.

OK, now I’ve devoted two paragraphs to bad stories. The other 48 ranged from “good” to “goddam amazing”. Some people are very talented storytellers. Some people have very interesting experiences to tell about. And some people, some of whom did not tell any of the stories here, are very, very good at putting those two things together in one person, and editing and producing their stories to a very high shine.

The Moth is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it for not only a good read but also as an entry-point to broader discussions about story-telling, the role of story-telling in modern entertainment, and how to tell a good story.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Switching Email

In the past year or so, my Microsoft Network email account (@msn.com; Hotmail with a different suffix - I access it through hotmail.com) has been hacked three times. Each time, I become aware of the problem when my inbox starts filling up with two types of messages:
1. "undeliverable mail, returned", often with an identifier for a person I rarely, if ever, communicate with or to a clearly secondary email address for somebody. Obviously, there's a problem in the email address (it no longer exists, there's a typo, etc.) and the system returns the message to me.
2. "What is going on?" from people I actually do know. If that person has quoted "my" email in full, then I can see what was purportedly sent from my account. Embarrassingly, sometimes these messages are along the lines of "I haven't heard from you in ages! How are you doing? Why haven't you sent anything non-spam to me in so long?"

My sent mail box doesn't contain these outgoing messages. There is apparently some vulnerability in Hotmail that allows a malicious bit of software to read my list of contacts (even if they're not email addresses I've taken the trouble to actually add to "My Contacts") and send out a spam message to that list, all without going through the parts of Hotmail I can actually see. 

Hotmail switched from its own long-running unique email program to the online version of Outlook about a year ago, a move I lamented at the time because I knew Outlook's structure is well-known to those people who create such malware. Some large fraction of all viruses I have encountered are built specifically to exploit Outlook, and prior to Hotmail's switch I was effectively immune to all such nastiness. This is one major reason why I have never been particularly exercised about computer viruses - the vast majority of them have no effect on my computer beyond a bit of diverted processor resources when they accumulate, uselessly scanning my computer for their own triggers, based on Outlook or a number of prominent, mostly American, financial websites.

This repeated failure to address a clear security issue in Outlook, combined with Microsoft's terrible, terrible interface issues (the other reason I hate to use Outlook is just how goddam clunky it is - it's like they went out of their way to put tiny little barriers in the way of everything I want to do) and the byzantine weirdness that is the simple (and recommended-to-be-frequent) task of changing one's password (this slows down the hackspam, for a little while) has prompted me to switch my primary email to Google's we're-probably-not-evil system. The move to Gmail was suggested by a family friend on Facebook - thanks Don!

Given the way Google's tentacles extend so far across the internet, this is proving fairly straightforward so far - between Google and Facebook I've already switched over at least 80% of the non-individual email I expect to receive (that is, emails from computers rather than from actual people). The next part, in which I ask people who know me to switch their contacts list to the new address, begins now. This will probably take some time, but eventually I will be able to delete my @msn account and end this stupidity for good.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Books of 2013

Happy New Year! OK, spurred by Charlie, I will list the books I read, have ongoing, or abandoned in / since 2013.*

Read
Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins
In the Middle of Nowhere - Terry Underwood
Your Inner Fish - Neil Shubin
Jam - Yahtzee Croshaw
Far Arden - Kevin Cannon
Survivor - Chuck Palahniuk
Hunter's Run - George R.R. Martin, Gardiner Dozois, Daniel Abraham 
Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future - Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron, Meera Balajaran

Ongoing
Arguably - Christopher Hichens
How to Tell If Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You - The Oatmeal
Drowned Cities - Paolo Bacigalupi 
Getting Started With R - Andrew P. Beckerman, Owen L. Petchey

Abandoned
Driven to Kill - J. Peter Rothe

* I reserve the right to update / modify this list as I remember or misremember other books.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Vanquishing Evil

This summer, during fieldwork at Alexandra Fjord on Ellesmere Island, I made a disturbing discovery. I found a collection of old leg-hold traps in the toolshed while searching for some other thing. This discovery of hateful, cruel, stupid objects weighed on my mind for several weeks until I was able to deal with it, through the careful application of violence.

Destroying a bit of evil 1
Destroying a bit of evil 4
Seven leg-hold traps, of the approximate size to capture Arctic Foxes, Arctic Hares, and similar-sized animals.

I hate the idea of some person eventually re-using these awful objects for their original foul purpose, and images of desperately trapped foxes, hares, falcons, and other animals haunted my mind. I puzzled over the best way to ensure their complete destruction; they are constructed in a simple and robust fashion, without any obvious weak points that might be susceptible to say, a bit of work with a hacksaw.

Destroying a bit of evil 3
Destroying a bit of evil 5
The spring mechanism is based around a curved piece of steel held in tension by a plate/latch. No part is obviously fragile enough to be easily broken by simple techniques.

Destroying a bit of evil 6
I determined these traps were still functional - for their cruel function - by carefully setting one and releasing it with a broom-handle I found.

Fortunately, brute force was quite up to the task of annihilating these traps. I found a large pick-axe in the same toolshed where the traps had been hanging, and when placed upon the soft gravel of the ground outside that toolshed, the traps were easily broken apart with a few swings. I don't think I broke any individual parts, but I did separate each piece from nearly every other piece.

Destroying a bit of evil 7
Destroying a bit of evil 8
The end result: 7 ruined traps.

When I told my companions of what I had found and what I planned to do, there was some discussion of the ethics of the situation. For example, somebody suggested these traps would be best left alone as representative of the history of the Arctic and of Alexandra Fjord. While there is merit in this argument, and in the related argument that they should be turned over to a museum, I felt the risk of their eventual re-use by some person at some point in the future (things decay slowly in the High Arctic) was too high, and I couldn't rely on a complete cultural change preventing any future return to the stupid cruelty and idiot economics that drove (and still drives, to some extent) the fur trade.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Starting Again in R


I have twice tried to get comfortable and competent at using the open-source statistical software package R. I have twice been unsuccessful in this goal. It is not from lack of recognition of the many advantages of R over other statistical-analytical approaches – at this point, I can think of several people who would immediately start telling me about how great R is, I am trying to forestall that – it is a combination of the interrelated factors: lack of success in early stages, total unfamiliarity with the structure of R’s input/output language (and help files), and instructions and tutorials that seem targeted at users with completely different priorities than I have.

Priorities: I need to learn to use R for its two primary purposes – statistical analyses of my data and graphical representation of my data and my results. Obviously, this overall priority is the same as for most R users. What I don’t need to prioritize, in my opinion, is what the textbooks, help files, and most R-related websites put first: a list of commands and functions in R that are of broad general use. The problem for me there is that I cannot easily think of a situation in which I would be (for example) using a set of columns in my dataset, indicated by number. Yet such functions are commonly presented in the opening chapters of any discussion of R. The first thing I want to do is put my dataset, up to this point in the form of an Excel worksheet, into R, and then have a look at it to confirm it loaded correctly. Picking out values in specific places – e.g. the third value in the fifth variable – is indeed a useful way to do some of that. But not before I’ve loaded my dataset!

This is why I am happily reading Getting Started With R, AnIntroduction for Biologists, by Andrew P. Beckerman and Owen L. Petchey (Amazon link to the Kindle edition; I don't know why it's not finding the paperback I bought). This book, unlike all others I have met, starts with organizing your data and getting R up and running. I’ve read the first two chapters (of 6, it’s a small book) and my confidence is already improved. Getting demoralized by apparently deeply mysterious errors that just lead to more errors and confusion is a big part of why I’ve abandoned R in the past.


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Musings on my Career


Yesterday I submitted a manuscript to a journal. The manuscript describes the work I did in the summer of 2010, and has been rejected from another journal and undergone massive revision, repeatedly, in the nearly three years since the raw data was collected. The journal is, in the minds of myself and my advisory committee (i.e. my co-authors) entirely the right fit for our manuscript, even though the publisher is one of the big, evil, for-profit companies that followers of a certain subset of the sciencey blogs will be familiar with (perhaps as an insulting word, spit out rather than merely spoken). My paper will not be open access – I couldn’t find my advisor to ask when that question came up during the submission process.

Oh, the submission process. I’m not going to rant about it now, I feel like yesterday was taken with that episode, with consequences – sometimes I feel the need (i.e. the complete lack of useful motivation) to take an evening and crumple it up into a ball and toss it into the corner (I played Civilization V, while drinking beer). The only noteworthy part for today, I think, was the weird cognitive convolutions I underwent when choosing from the list of topic areas (“Field plots; Greenhouse gases; Methane; Exchange with Atmosphere; etc.), due to the next paper that’s already in my mind – I had to stop myself from selecting all the keywords relating to the molecular biology that forms the core of my next paper.

The reason I went to Tasmania for four months (besides simply it being an awesome, excellent place to go) was to learn some laboratory techniques while applying them to my samples (my soil samples, and microbial DNA extracted from them) with the clear, explicit intention of creating a major manuscript for my PhD thesis – I think of it as “Chapter 3”, where my already-published paper (Brummell et al., 2012) is Chapter 1 and the manuscript I just sent in is Chapter 2. Those numbers might get pushed around a little, for example if I write “bookend” introductory and summary chapters in the actual thesis, but nobody reads an entire thesis anyway so it doesn’t really matter.

Besides “Evil Scientific Journal Publishers” posts, I’ve been reading many blog posts about academic careers, particularly of scientists (especially of biologists). Thus today’s musings. It’s kind of an odd time for me to be devoting time to this, given my departure for a 2-month field expedition in about 5 weeks and my need to scoop my Tasmanian data into a pile resembling something manuscript-like, but there’s a point that the blog posts I’ve read have not addressed but that I have discussed several times with my advisor; I think it’s also notable that he and I have never discussed Open Access publishing or opened the “Evil Publishers” can of worms (we’ve tossed that can back and forth a few times, and placed it on the counter and talked at it, to stretch the metaphor).

The point: Publish or Perish. It’s a cliché, and all most clichés are at least partly true. Rather than take it in the sense of a dire warning (“Thou Shalt Crank Out Pubs at Thine Fastest Rate!”), my advisor and I have several times discussed this point as a focus aid: Publishing is Always Useful. When considering career options, within, beside, or outside of academic science, no option includes “publishing papers is a waste of time if you go down this path.” Even completely non-science career paths will (theoretically) benefit from a CV with a list of publications on it; even to a non-scientist, there’s a certain prestige and value associated with demonstrably undertaking a complex project all the way from genesis to completion; it’s evidence of getting things done.

So, I am spending essentially all of this week working on my data from Tasmania, trying to turn it from an amorphous blob of numbers into a narrative describing my newly-acquired knowledge.

Instead of, you know, choosing which Rival Empire to antagonize based on the label I’m pulling off of the bottle of beer.

Japan is not actually one of the Rivals in the game of Civ V I started playing last night, but I was drinkin Sapporo beer and in the course of building this image I discovered the wonderful thing that is their website




Literature Cited
Brummell, M.E., R.E. Farrell, and S.D. Siciliano, Greenhouse gas soil production and surface fluxes at a high arctic polar oasis. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 2012. 52: p. 1-12.