The mind of John McPhee

McPhee has built a career on such small detonations of knowledge. His mind is pure curiosity: It aspires to flow into every last corner of the world, especially the places most of us overlook. Literature has always sought transcendence in purportedly trivial subjects — “a world in a grain of sand,” as Blake put it — but few have ever pushed the impulse further than McPhee. He once wrote an entire book about oranges, called, simply, “Oranges” — the literary cousin of Duchamp’s urinal mounted in an art museum. In 1999, McPhee won a Pulitzer Prize for his 700-page geology collection, “Annals of the Former World,” which explains for the general reader how all of North America came to exist. (“At any location on earth, as the rock record goes down into time and out into earlier geographies it touches upon tens of hundreds of stories, wherein the face of the earth often changed, changed utterly, and changed again, like the face of a crackling fire.”) He has now published 30 books, all of which are still in print — a series of idiosyncratic tributes to the world that, in aggregate, form a world unto themselves.

McPhee describes himself as “shy to the point of dread.” He is allergic to publicity. Not one of his book jackets has ever carried an author photo. He got word that he won the Pulitzer while he was in the middle of teaching a class, during a break, and he returned and taught the whole second half without mentioning it to his students — they learned about it only afterward, when the hall outside was crowded with photographers, reporters and people waiting to congratulate him. For McPhee’s 80th birthday, friends, family and colleagues arranged a big tribute to his life and work. But McPhee found out about the plan shortly beforehand and squashed it by refusing to go. Bill Bradley, the former basketball star and United States senator who was the subject of McPhee’s first book, “A Sense of Where You Are,” was one of the organizers. “You can’t celebrate somebody who doesn’t want to be celebrated,” he told me.

The Mind of John McPhee – The New York Times

To my knowledge, I’ve never read anything by John McPhee, but I expect that will change soon. This is a wonderful profile of exactly my sort of person: McPhee seems obsessively curious about the fine detail of everything in addition to being very process-driven in his work.

An Ode to Reading on Public Transit

It’s easy in our fast-paced digital age to forget how expansive time can be. An hour can zip by if you’re scrolling through Twitter or drag on for days during an exam. Once I started carrying magazines, my bus rides began to feel longer; the 45 minutes to Station North felt like 45 minutes. Soon, I began carrying books again, a habit that felt as comfortable as muscle memory. My progress was slow at first. I traveled with Swing Time for three months (and wrote a review that you can read here). I carried Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland in my tote during January. I devoured Song of Solomon in a week and God Help the Child after work one night. In the past six months, I’ve finished 15 novels, a record beating last year’s two—excluding every novel I skimmed or never completed for school. My thoughts have since kaleidoscoped; my dreams have evolved; my concentration has slowly but surely fortified over time. My political convictions deepened and expanded like the Texan sky. I use social media less and less each day, all because I stopped looking out the window on the way home.

The Millions : An Ode to Reading on Public Transit

I need reminding of this sort of thing once in a while. I’ve read quite broadly and deeply this year, but I could with unfollowing a few people on Twitter and subscribing from a handful of RSS feeds.

Elephas Anthropogenus

After the fall of the Roman Empire, elephants virtually disappeared from Western Europe.

Since there was no real knowledge of how this animal actually looked, illustrators had to rely on oral and written transmissions to morphologically reconstruct the elephant, thus reinventing an actual existing creature. This tree diagram traces the evolution of the elephant depiction throughout the middle ages up to the age of enlightenment.

Some of these are great, e.g. this from around 1400:

What does “OK” stand for?

The Straight Dope, via All Things Linguistic:

Baloney. The etymology of OK was masterfully explained by the distinguished Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read in a series of articles in the journal American Speech in 1963 and 1964.

The letters, not to keep you guessing, stand for “oll korrect.” They’re the result of a fad for comical abbreviations that flourished in the late 1830s and 1840s. Read buttressed his arguments with hundreds of citations from newspapers and other documents of the period. As far as I know his work has never been successfully challenged.

The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 and spread to New York and New Orleans in 1839. The Boston newspapers began referring satirically to the local swells as OFM, “our first men,” and used expressions like NG, “no go,” GT, “gone to Texas,” and SP, “small potatoes.”

Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of OK was OW, “oll wright,” and there was also KY, “know yuse,” KG, “know go,” and NS, “nuff said.”

The amateur cloud society that (sort of) rattled the scientific community

Jon Mooallem wrote a wonderful piece last year about clouds, their identification and classification, and being part of a group of likeminded people:

He was, by then, closing in on his 10th year as head of the Cloud Appreciation Society and, as he’d done after 10 years with The Idler magazine, he was questioning his commitment to it. Somehow, being a cloud impresario had swallowed an enormous amount of time. He was lecturing about clouds around the world, sharing stages at corporate conferences and ideas festivals with Snoop Dogg and Bill Clinton and appearing monthly on the Weather Channel. Then there was the Cloud Appreciation Society’s online store, a curated collection of society-branded merchandise and cloud-themed home goods, which turned out to be surprisingly demanding, particularly in the frenzied weeks before Christmas. The Cloud Appreciation Society was basically just Pretor-Pinney and his wife, Liz, plus a friend who oversaw the shop part time and a retired steelworker he brought on to moderate the photo gallery. It was all arduous, which Pretor-Pinney seemed to find a little embarrassing. “My argument about why cloud-spotting is a worthwhile activity is that it’s an aimless activity,” he said. “And I’ve turned it into something that is very purposeful, that is work.”

At the same time, he realized that he’d conjured a genuine community of amateur cloud-­lovers from all over the world but regretted never doing anything to truly nourish it; it felt so “fluffy,” he said, “with no center to it, like a cloud.” Soon, that spectral society — that cloud of people on the Internet — would be celebrating its 10th anniversary. “I’m thinking that it might be a nice reason to get everyone together,” he said.

Yoda’s syntax in other languages

All Things Linguistic:

What does Yoda’s syntax look like in non-English versions of Star Wars? For those who aren’t familiar with Star Wars (all two of you), Yoda is an alien who, when speaking English, uses what seems to be an OSV syntax instead of the traditional SVO syntax.

So how do foreign translations of the script handle this? I am particularly interested in what it looks like in non-SVO languages. Are there any translations where Yoda’s incorrect syntax is emulated by using an English-like syntax? Or are other languages’ syntax so free that mistakes in the use of case or verb conjugations must instead be used to emulate Yoda’s “alien” speech?

Some interesting answers:

Estonian: Free word order language. Yoda retains the English OSV order. This is grammatical in Estonian, but does make it seem as though Yoda is constantly stressing the object phrase as the main point of his statements. This gives his speech an unusual quality.

Japanese: An SOV language. Yoda seems to use a more or less correct syntax, with a more archaic vocabulary.

Romanian: An SVO language. Yoda speaks in OSV. He also places adjectives before the noun instead of after the noun, and uses an archaic form of the future tense.

Turkish: An SOV language. Yoda speaks in OSV. Note: This order is also used in classical Ottoman poetry, so the syntax may have been chosen in order to emphasize Yoda’s wisdom or age.

Games that might have been

Babble Imperium:

A couple of years ago someone attempted to make a list of every video game ever made, and put it in a 6.5MB flat file. Like any sensible person, I used it to train a recurrent neural network.

Selected examples:

  • Metal Cat (2001, Sega) (Windows)
  • Spork Demo (?, ?) (VIC-20)
  • Black Mario (1983, Softsice) (Linux/Unix)
  • Soccer Dragon (1987, Ange Software) (Amstrad CPC)
  • Mutant Tycoon (2000, Konami) (GBC)
  • Dick of the King (2007, Activision) (PC-9801)
  • Spork Race (Universe) (1990, Atlus) (Arcade)

The ‘Spork’ franchise sounds like something I’d play, and ‘Black Mario’ seems sufficiently inclusive.

See also these wonderful recipes generated using a predictive text interface:

http://objectdreams.tumblr.com/post/138639267299/recipe-for-greased-casserole-with-slices-of-lemon

And Friends episodes:

How dolphins eat octopus

Joanna Klein for NYT’s Trilobites:

Try having no arms and eating a live octopus that’s crawling around on your head with its tentacles. Failure could mean it’s your last supper. But a population of bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Australia has found a way to do it.

“These ones in southwest Australia have worked out: How do we catch them? How do we bite them? And how do we kill them so we can eat them?” said Kate Sprogis, a behavioral ecologist at Murdoch University in Australia who with her colleagues described the behavior in a study published last month in Marine Mammal Science.

The recipe is as follows: Bite off the head. Shake the body. Toss until the arms are tenderized and the suction cups no longer function. Slam the body against the water repeatedly until it breaks into bite-sized pieces. Steps may be varied. Enjoy. The estimated preparation time ranges between one and six minutes.

This is how I eat everything.

Michael Stipe on creative work

Oh yes, though sometimes “expansive creative practice” is also what I would call simply having too many ideas. You have to be a great editor in that regard; you have to be an editor of ideas. For me, when some of those ideas are so abstract that they’re literally just a written down thought, you have to take a step back and make choices. You only have this one lifetime—only a certain number of human years—to make things. You have to decide, Which of these ideas am I going to allow myself to focus on? And have I made the right choices? And you hope that you do.

So much of doing creative work is just about making choices, deciding where to direct your energies. I’ve been trying to organize all of my ideas and projects on my computer desktop for the past week. Putting them into folders—folders within folders within folders. Trying to kind of bring it down to what’s valuable enough to actually work to produce into being and then looking at those ideas and saying, “Well that doesn’t work” or “That was a bad idea” or “That was a misstep” or “My God, this is actually kind of brilliant.”

You don’t want to do the same thing forever, even if maybe other people wish you would. So for me, this part of my creative life is really exciting. Deciding where I’m gonna go next is really interesting. You don’t necessarily choose to be constantly working on something, you just have to do it. And I’m very lucky that people are interested in what I have to say or in what I might be making. Still, regardless of that, you just have to follow the impulse where it leads you. You always have to be moving forward.

Michael Stipe

Fran Lebowitz on reading

There’s a great interview with Fran Lebowitz in the New York Times:

When do you read?

Pretty much all the time. Especially if I’m supposed to be doing something else. I was very frequently punished for reading as a child because I was reading when I was supposed to be doing homework. I got in trouble in school for reading, I got in trouble at home for reading. My mother would actually bang on my door and say, “I know you’re reading in there!” In my adult life, I’ve gotten in trouble for reading because I’m not writing when I’m reading. So it’s really rare that reading is unaccompanied by guilt for me. But I’ve learned to live with it. I feel guilty pretty much all the time.

The only time I read without feeling guilty is on a plane, because what else could I possibly be doing?

What moves you most in a work of literature?

I think it might be the word “move” that kind of perplexes me, because that’s a word connected with emotion. I don’t really seek out emotion when reading. The feeling that’s most important to me when reading is that I’m absorbed. I just want to be taken away. I really like being dazzled. That would be nice. The thing I care least about in reading is the story. I just don’t care that much about stories. That may have to do with being older. Tell me a story I don’t know.

But really, I read in order not to be in life. Reading is better than life. Without reading, you’re stuck with life.

I also highly recommend two other Lebowitz interviews.

First, a 1993 piece in The Paris Review (side note: always worth reminding people of this tweet):

You never enjoyed writing?

I used to love to write. As a child I used to write all the time. I loved to write up until the second I got my first professional writing job. It turns out it’s not that I hate to write. I hate, simply, to work. I just hate to work, period. I am profoundly slothful. Practically inert. I have no energy. I never have. I just have no desire to be productive. Now that I realize I don’t hate to write, that I just hate to work, it makes writing easier.

And The Awl from 2012:

I’ve read about other artists and writers who lived through the worst of the AIDS epidemic and felt like they had to take a break from their art. While reading your book, I wondered if that might have been the case with you, because the world you described was essentially obliterated.

It is exceptionally charitable that you call these 900 years “a break” but I’ll take that. And yes, it was very shocking to live through. It’s always shocking to young people when their contemporaries die. Even in a war, it’s shocking. I mean, as a soldier. It was shocking, especially because we were the only generation that thought sex was really good, like vitamins. We thought that about drugs too, okay? Sex was really good and the more sex the better. It was helpful. Like now, the way people think of bike riding, which I think is a childish activity. I know people now think the bike is a sign of virtue and I think it’s a toy, but we said sex was good for you and it turned out to it could be bad for you. Really bad. And yeah, people became terrified, of course. People were “terror-stricken” is the term I would use. And because when you look at it in retrospect, like all things you look at in retrospect, it seems very linear. The great thing about history is that it’s in the past and people have time to compile a narrative, but that’s not how it seems when you are living through it.

(NYT piece via Kottke)