Startups Need Writers

I liked some of the insights in this article on Sharp writing is an under-rated requirement for any new business. Tech startups in particular are founded on new ideas, which are by definition not obvious. Often you have to convey a subtle or complex idea, to an audience so jaded by industry hype they’ll give you no more than two or three sentences to grab their attention. Worse, you have to document complex products, while they’re being redesigned daily, and keep track of a web of dependencies and consistencies. It’s hard, and a good tech writer is essential.

What I think the article understates is the value of the writer-as-resource. It’s hard enough to find technically-skilled workers for your team, without also having to make sure that every one of them is also a good writer and editor. The more skills you demand of each hire, the harder it is to find the right person, and the more they cost. It’s much cheaper and more effective to hire one really  good writer, and let the rest of your staff rely on them to polish the language and fix the grammar.

The same goes for engineers struggling to pick the right font for their PowerPoint presentations, and business analysts fighting with Word to get correct page numbering. It’s just not a good use of their time, but I’ve seen it over and over. For me, getting the words and the layout exactly right is satisfying and rewarding. There’s nothing quite so sweet as copy-fitting to the exact space, nice and kentucky, with every point covered and every eye-movement planned.

Ultimately, it’s a division-of-labour matter, isn’t it? Basic economics—let the subject-matter experts focus on their areas of expertise, and pass the writing and layout to someone who specializes in it. That would be me.


Rational Argument is Hard

Rational argument is hard; prejudice is easy. Nuanced analysis is hard; absolutes are easy. To gauge how much respect to accord a disputant’s intellectual integrity and discipline, compare their arguments to this schema. Warning: reading this may provoke a frisson of recognition, followed by guilt and a diminishment of self-satisfaction. (much respect to Steve Brust for this insight)



I’m not quite sure how I feel about this item about exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness. On the one hand, it conveys quite a lot about DOMS, mostly well-written. I enjoyed reading it, and I learned something.

Why Does Exercise Start Hurting Two Days After a Workout?

On the other hand, it’s not really an article in the usual sense—the author, Daniel Kolitz,  asked some experts about the subject, and posted their responses on the web site, where they’ll earn money for Gizmodo. I suppose Mr Kolitz edited those responses a bit, individually, but hasn’t pulled out the main ideas, arranged them in a meaningful sequence, and then supported each point by quoting from his sources. Instead, all their contributions are presented separately, with a lot of overlap and redundancy, and implicit disagreements left unexamined. It’s informative, but unformed.

The repetition not necessarily a terrible feature, because it lets you see where there’s a lot of agreement and where experts differ a bit. But surely it’s the job of a writer to do that thinking and editing on the reader’s behalf? This looks like my notes for an article, not a finished article itself. To be clear, I’m not accusing Mr Kolitz of wrong-doing. The Giz Asks format is quite explicit about what’s going on. This isn’t a half-complete article, it’s a different form.

Now, if the alternative were a hasty, semi-competent compilation of the sources’ remarks, full of terminological errors and misunderstandings, topped off with a contrived Positive Take-Away, I should prefer this format any day. At least it’s possible to learn what experts really think, rather than what some scientific ignoramus thought they meant after skimming their responses and looking up some terms on Wikipedia.

But that’s only the alternative in a world of lazy, cheap, irresponsible journalism. In a better world, expert sources would not be expected to contribute their own writing, for free, to a for-profit publication, without so much as a by-line. (Half of those contributors wrote better English, better structured, than the fellow whose name appears under the title, and the remainder wrote just as well as he.) In a publication with decent standards of journalism, the author would have re-worked those responses, taken time to learn about the subject, and asked follow-up questions to address the very obvious questions raised by the experts’ agreements and disagreements. (In a better publication, I might add, someone would have read the title, and pointed out that it’s the specific muscles you worked hard that start hurting after two days, not exercise. But that would have taken ten seconds.)

This quasi-article speaks to our acceptance of low standards, behind which lies the broken state of web economics. In simple justice, either the subject-matter experts should receive the credit and the pay for their contributions, and Gizmodo staff a with by-line only, or the staffer should do the work of turning their contributions into a real article. This quick-and-dirty hybrid? Not acceptable—even if the experts did receive payment (which I doubt) they deserve better than this shabby treatment.



Just finished my first novel of the new year, Fer-de-Lance, by Rex Stout, the first of his many Nero Wolfe stories. Oddly enough, I came to this mystery series from its adaptations in other media, notably the NBC radio shows of the early 1950s. Generally I go the other way, but old-time radio is a lot of fun, and has turned me on to some good writers.

The actual mystery is somewhat clever, though I found the structure a bit awkward—the big twist comes early, and much of the story thereafter focuses on cunning efforts to find evidence and to help the murderer incriminate himself. In a way, that’s intellectually more interesting than, say, car-chases or midnight evidence-raids. Certainly it gives Stout plenty of opportunity to write witty dialogue for his characters and round out their relationships. It does diminish the narrative drive of the story, though—so much that the ending wasn’t terribly satisfying for me. That may be partly a matter of the story’s age—aviation was exotic high-tech stuff in 1934, and just a little passé, today.

Mostly the novel holds up well after 80-odd years, with only a few casual ethnic slurs, and some rather high-handed treatment of one naïve woman of limited intellect. Compared to other popular fiction of the era (say, Sax Rohmer’s) this is downright high-minded. That’s not to say it’d go over entirely well with a modern publisher, but making due allowance, I’d say it bodes well for my reading of the other novels in the (long) series.

Finally, the subtlest virtue I noticed in Stout’s writing, here, is the vocabulary and speaking style of Nero Wolfe himself. Both are idiosyncratic, both are impressive, but what struck me most was the occasional infelicitous, even mildly erroneous turn of phrase, in the discourse of an acknowledged genius. Though it’s not mentioned in this novel, Wolfe is a Montenegrin by birth, and learned his English well into adulthood. A scholarly man, widely read, he speaks English fluently, not to say eloquently, but his idiolect is nonetheless not that of an American, not even that of an eccentric New Yorker. It’s just that little bit odd, without the slightest hint of caricature or condescension. That must have been a very delicate bit of lapidary editing on Stout’s part, and I admire it greatly.


Esoteric and Exoteric Languages

I spend much of my working hours making clients’ language less esoteric and more accessible—often explicitly making it more like speech and less like academic or technical writing. According to this insightful article by Julie Sedivy of the University of Calgary, speech itself tends toward the esoteric—that is, telegraphic shorthand and arbitrary meanings—while written language tends toward logical structure and systematic meanings.

I’ll have to think about this one further. It’s possible I’ve been turning one rather Hermetic style of communication—academese—into another, accessible to native English speakers but equally opaque to everyone else. That’s a non-trivial consideration in Canada, a multicultural country home to many immigrants.

My natural style is relatively formal and clearly structured; I often make a conscious effort to write more colloquially—it’s possible that I’d strike a better balance writing as I do naturally.  Linguists—always full of fascinating surprises for the working writer.


On Polemics

It is, indeed, no easy task to give novelty to what is old, and authority to what is new; brightness to what is become tarnished, and light to what is obscure; to render what is slighted acceptable, and what is doubtful worthy of our confidence; to give to all a natural manner, and to each its peculiar nature. It is sufficiently honourable and glorious to have been willing even to make the attempt, though it should prove unsuccessful.

—Pliny the Elder

The world is full of worthy ideas, noble customs, and useful inventions, overlooked because they proved unworkable a hundred years ago, or because some now-unpopular people favoured them. Universal basic income is perhaps the best example, especially because it’s finally enjoying a small revival.

As Pliny said, there is great satisfaction in finding the right argument to back an unpopular but sound idea. Now if I could just convince everyone that the right generic, genderless word for fellow citizens, instead of Mr, Mrs, Ms, and so on, is obviously comrade, a  friendly word implying friendship and cooperation. But, well, that’s going to take some convincing.

Books Read Speculative Fiction

The Revolutions

I’ve just finished Felix Gilman’s The Revolutions, with both delight and sadness. Delight in a grand story, beautifully told; sadness, because it ends with some of the elegiac tenderness of Crowley’s Little, Big. It’s not so much science fiction, as a ‘scientific romance’ of the kind popular a hundred years ago. At first I thought it a steampunk fantasy with a few oddments of Kabbalah thrown in, but it’s not at all that sort of cynically contrived pastiche. No, this is Burroughs with believable characters, Lovecraft with warmth and hope. In fact I’d say much of the story reminds me of Tim Powers’ work, in the best way. I’ll have to run off and read everything else from Gilman. Recommended.


Diagramming Journalism

This bubble diagram is fun:


Its designer categorizes it as ‘whimsy’, so it’s not fair to demand a lot from the diagram. I love this sort of thing, though, so I can’t help wishing it were a bit more rigorous.

The degree of left-right skew (on the x-axis) is described in terms similar to the degree of rigour or integrity (on the y-axis). Utter garbage and conspiracy theories correlate tightly with sensational or clickbait. If it really compared publications on two dimensions, there should be some in the upper corners, combining a complex or analytical approach with content that’s utter garbage. What would those be, exactly? Maybe some specialty sites detailing astrology calculations or UFO-sighting timelines? Not really—how would one assign such a subject to the left or right in the first place?

No, the two scales need to be better differentiated. Because they aren’t, the chart (inadvertently, I’m sure) implies that careful, responsible journalism is found only in the centre of the political spectrum, which isn’t true. You can be a serious journalist and also believe in a centrally-planned, state-owned economy enforcing strict individual equality of income. You can be a serious journalist and believe that your country should be run by religious elders concerned primarily with enforcing moral laws and maintaining a traditional way of life. I’d consider both badly mistaken, but I wouldn’t claim that they couldn’t offer a complex, analytical discussion of the issues.

For instance, the WSJ and the Economist are, indeed, careful and analytical, and take responsibility for what they publish. They skew further right than shown, though. They’ll debate the costs and benefits of nuclear aircraft carriers, for instance, but never ask whether it’s right to build a weapon system exclusively to carry out mass murder on the other side of the world from the citizens you’re supposedly defending. It’s not a lack of journalistic rigour—it’s a matter of values and cultural assumptions. They assume the goal of military dominance, and analyze only the means toward that end.

There are similar problems with publications on the left. Some publish excellent long-form analyses of, say, the impact of technology on the environment, with great journalistic integrity. What they won’t question is the assumption that any low-tech or traditional practice is automatically wonderful, while wilfully ignoring, say, the infant mortality rate in pre-industrial societies. Preserving food with sodium chloride or potassium nitrate is traditional and hence fine; preserving food with sodium nitrite is modern and hence poisonous.

So I’d structure that diagram a little differently. If the x-axis was all about political position, and the y-axis all about integrity, we could spread out that top-centre cluster more meaningfully. Then there’d be the question of depicting the narrowness or broadness of a publication—you can publish only centrist opinions, or publish views from both the left and the right, and average out to the same ‘skew’, but with very different effect on your readers’ understanding.

Depicting this is an interesting problem, not least because the left-right distinction is pretty sketchy—the world is full of Greens who favour nuclear power, small-government individualists who think all recreational drugs should be legal, and people who detest both corporations and labour unions on the grounds that they undervalue happy idleness and value waged work for its own sake. Where do any of those fit on a left-right axis? Nowhere obvious. Walk into an off-grid traditional farming commune. Are the people sexually restrictive Amish or sexually libertine Hippies? No way to know—which tells us something about the supposed connection between religious views, economic priorities, and so on: there really isn’t one.

Again, the diagram was only supposed to be a bagatelle. The author isn’t proposing it as a serious tool for categorizing publications, and I don’t mean to imply otherwise by criticizing it. It’s just good enough, though, that I wish it were better—and as I’ve just shown, I really don’t know how to do any better myself.

Thanks to Price Tags for this…always a thought-provoking read, over there.


How to lie about a science paper

Gregg Braden thinks he knows how the heart knows—and boy, is he mistaken.

How to lie about a science paper

Sadly, the nonsensical misinterpretation of scientific results, critiqued so cogently in the linked article, is rife elsewhere as well. In fact, I’m troubled by the way people systematically underestimate the complexity and difficulty of scientific investigation. I keep hearing things like ‘the second law of thermodynamics says that every transformation of energy is slightly inefficient’ when in fact the second law is a mathematical expression, with tightly defined terms, and in its simplest form is true only under rigorously specified conditions that do not ordinarily obtain in daily life. It took lifetimes of work to discover the general laws that underlie the much messier and more variable observations that scientists actually had to work with.

We both insult scientists, and mislead ourselves, when we mistake impressionistic, verbal interpretations of scientific ideas for the ideas themselves. Einstein, for instance, had to tell people thousands of times over that his work had nothing to do with cultural relativism, or relationships, or the inevitable relativity of opinions and comparisons generally. ‘Everything is relative’ people said, and imagined that physicists had proven it—when in fact, general relativity is strictly deterministic and permits measurements and judgements far more absolute than anything in the sphere of human opinion.

That, I think, is what’s going on with Braden’s nonsense about a separate brain that exists in your heart, allows precognition, and so on. The foolish author failed to read the work closely—if he had, he’d have realized he wasn’t understanding it. He picked up a couple of points that were couched in language he found familiar, rather than in the precise but daunting jargon of cardiology. He then hilariously over-interpreted those sentences, invented a whole book’s worth of nonsense, and peddled it to people who, understandably, find science impenetrable, and who quite like the idea that you can ‘know something in your heart’.

It’s a little too pat, I think, simply to call for more science education or better public understanding of science. Both are worthy aims, but realistically, an awful lot of science is going to remain incomprehensible to the general public. For that matter, an awful lot of science is incomprehensible to other scientists, and accessible only to specialists. So I think we need, as much as anything else, a better public understanding of how hard it is to do science, how many of its results are counterintuitive, and just how tricky it is to tease general laws from particular data. I’ve written and edited public-facing science communications, in a small way, and I support efforts to bring scientific understanding to the masses. I also think, though, that we could stand to be more realistic about the amount that ordinary people can be expected to understand.



What if jobs are not the solution but the problem? | Aeon Essays

There’s some pretty sound thinking, here. The very American perspective, though, obscures the obvious equivocation on ‘work’. Not all meaningful work has to be work in the labour market for pay, and work undertaken without pay (notably child care and home-making) has every bit as much right to be regarded as character-building, status-affirming, and demonstrative of personal value and significance, as that undertaken for money.

The author does not raise a question that strikes me as crucial: even if we assume that each human is valuable and respectable in proportion to how much their work contributes to their community (an assumption open to debate, at the very least), why assume that the only way to evaluation that contribution is by looking at what some affluent person is willing to pay them for the service of making that employer even more affluent?

Economists believe in full employment. Americans think that work builds character. But what if jobs aren’t working anymore?

What if jobs are not the solution but the problem? | Aeon Essays