The science behind good writing

This hunger for coherence has important implications. As Pinker shows, the letter sequence M-D-P-H-D-R-S-V-P-C-E-O-I-H-O-P is difficult to remember, though not when chunked as MD-PHD-RSVP-CEO-IHOP. Each chunk contains subsets of meaning; if these unfold coherently, the reader makes sense of them; complexity is rendered into manageable bits. That helps explain how a memory expert dazzles 100 audience members by recalling their names, and it’s what makes even a detailed text with a clear hierarchical structure easy for the reader to assimilate: “At any level of granularity, from clauses to chapters, the passage can be represented in the reader’s mind as a single chunk, and the reader never has to juggle more than a few chunks at a time as he figures out how they are related.”

It’s fascinating to learn the science that underlies the stylistic techniques good writers seem to intuit—for example, a list is most easily grasped if the bulkiest item comes at the end (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ; or The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle; or Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!). “Light-before-heavy is one of the oldest principles in linguistics,” Pinker writes, “having been discovered in the fourth century BCE by the Sanskrit grammarian Pānini.” Why? Because the mind must hold the early items in suspension before incorporating the final one, and it’s easier to retain simple things than more complex elements.

From a review of Steven Pinker's upcoming book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person'’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.  I have a vast collection of usage books, and I pre-ordered this to add to my collection, to sit alongside favorites like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (of course) and one of my favorite books of all time, Garner's Modern American Usage.

“Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images,” Pinker tells us. (This explains why white Econoline van is preferable to getaway car; and a mound of flowers, balloons, and teddy bears is more effective than impromptu roadside memorial.) Or this: “It’s good for a writer to work with the ongoing newsreel in readers’ minds and describe events in chronological order.”He showered and put on his new suit before he went to dinner is easier to understand than He went to dinner after he showered and put on his new suit. Similarly, positive statements are more readily grasped than negative ones, and so negation should not be used for no good reason. (That’s a joke.) And my favourite Pinkerism of all, the undisputed first rule of worthwhile prose: “a writer has to have both something to talk about (a topic) and something to say (the point).” Are you listening, bloggers of the world?


Yet secular black culture thrives on colorful stories of punishment that are passed along as myths of ancient wisdom — a type of moral glue that holds together varying communities in black life across time and circumstance. Black comedians cut their teeth on dramatically recalling “whoopings” with belts, switches, extension cords, hairbrushes or whatever implement was at hand. Even as genial a comic as Bill Cosby offered a riff in his legendary 1983 routine that left no doubt about the deadly threat of black punishment. “My father established our relationship when I was 7 years old,” Mr. Cosby joked. “He looked at me and says, ‘You know, I brought you in this world, I’ll take you out. And it don’t make no difference to me, cause I’ll make another one look just like you.’ ”

The humor is blunted when we recall that Marvin Gaye’s life ended violently in 1984 at the hands of his father, a minister who brutalized him mercilessly as a child before shooting him to death in a chilling echo of Mr. Cosby’s words.

Perhaps comedians make us laugh to keep us from crying, but no humor can mask the suffering that studies say our children endure when they are beaten: feelings of sadness and worthlessness, difficulties sleeping, suicidal thoughts, bouts of anxiety, outbursts of aggression, diminished concentration, intense dislike of authority, frayed relations with peers, and negative high-risk behavior.

Equally tragic is that those who are beaten become beaters too. And many black folks are reluctant to seek therapy for their troubles because they may be seen as spiritually or mentally weak. The pathology of beatings festers in the psychic wounds of black people that often go untreated in silence.

Powerful op-ed by Michael Eric Dyson in the NYTimes, with an interesting dive into the etymology of the word “discipline.”

Many believers — including Mr. Peterson, a vocal Christian — have confused the correction of children’s behavior with corporal punishment. The word “discipline” comes from the Latin “discipuli,” which means student or disciple, suggesting a teacher-pupil relationship. Punishment comes from the Greek word “poine” and its Latin derivative “poena,” which mean revenge, and form the root words of pain, penalty and penitentiary.

The point of discipline is to transmit values to children. The purpose of punishment is to coerce compliance and secure control, and failing that, to inflict pain as a form of revenge, a realm the Bible says belongs to God alone.

The word discipline is a fascinating one. On the one hand, it comes loaded with dark undertones when used in the modern sense of that which enforces order. “Training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.” As in "disciplining a child."

If we speak of the child as a "disciple" then the education of that child sounds much less ominous. Discipline and disciple, both nouns, separated by just three letters, yet the difference in meaning is a chasm one needs a suspension bridge to cross.

Discipline can be just as positive a term when used to describe a type of self-control that a person possesses. A person with “discipline” is thought of as someone with persistence, a strong work ethic, mental fortitude, the ability to resist distraction and temptation.

It's in the transfer of discipline from one person to another that we wander into a twisted etymological maze.

Brittney Cooper penned a good and related piece in Salon on the differences between black and white child-rearing.

Stakes are high because parenting black children in a culture of white supremacy forces us to place too high a price on making sure our children are disciplined and well-behaved. I know that I personally place an extremely high value on children being respectful, well-behaved and submissive to authority figures. I’m fairly sure this isn’t a good thing.

If black folks are honest, many of us will admit to both internally and vocally balking at the very “free” ways that we have heard white children address their parents in public. Many a black person has seen a white child yelling at his or her parents, while the parents calmly respond, gently scold, ignore, attempt to soothe, or failing all else, look embarrassed.

I can never recount one time, ever seeing a black child yell at his or her mother in public. Never. It is almost unfathomable.


For black children, finding disciplinary methods that instill a healthy sense of fear in a world that is exceptionally violent toward them is a hard balance to find.

The thing is, though: Beating, whupping or spanking your children will not protect them from state violence.  It won’t keep them out of prison. Ruling homes and children with an iron fist will not restore the dignity and respect that the outside world fails to confer on adult black people.

What these actions might do is curtail creativity, inculcate a narrative about “acceptable” forms of violence enacted against black bodies, and breed fear and resentment between parents and children that far outlasts childhood.

Violence in any form is not love. Let us make sure first to learn that lesson. And then if we do nothing else, let us teach it to our children.

By the way, by whatever measure, the NFL is having a rough year. Beyond all the high profile domestic violence cases, I was surprised at how quickly the NFL has turned about face and admitted that its sport is causing severe brain damage to roughly a third of its participants.

The National Football League, which for years disputed evidence that its players had a high rate of severe brain damage, has stated in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that the conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.

The findings are a result of data prepared by actuaries hired by the league and provided to the United States District Court judge presiding over the settlement between the N.F.L. and 5,000 former players who sued the league, alleging that it had hidden the dangers of concussions from them.

“Thus, our assumptions result in prevalence rates by age group that are materially higher than those expected in the general population,” said the report, prepared by the Segal Group for the N.F.L. “Furthermore, the model forecasts that players will develop these diagnoses at notably younger ages than the generation population.”

We won't see the effects immediately, but perhaps we're at an inflection point for the NFL and the sport of football. We may not see immediate declines in the sport's popularity, it is a secular religion in America, a Sunday ritual deeply embedded in the lives of so many fans. But I have to imagine we'll see a decline in youth participation in football given the clear health risks.

Boltzmann brain

Imagine you're an isolated brain floating lonely through the vast expanse of the Universe with all your thoughts, memories and perceptions just figments of your imagination. That's a depressing thought, but not a new one. There'd even be a name for you: you'd be a Boltzmann brain.

Boltzmann brains are of interest to physicists, in particular to cosmologists. The idea is that, according to quantum mechanics, there is energy in empty space which can fluctuate, producing particles as it does so. "If you wait long enough then these fluctuations will form, not just a particle here and a particle there, but a whole complex collection of them. A virus, or a little bunny rabbit, or even a functioning human being," explains Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at California Institute of Technology. "The idea is that a brain is the simplest thing that can randomly fluctuate into existence and can still be counted as a conscious being." Such a brain is called a Boltzmann brain (after the 19th century physicist Ludwig Boltzmann who studied fluctuations in systems that are made up of many particles, such as gases).

I had never heard of such a thing. More within, including the mind-bending question: what if we are just Boltzmann brains?

(via The Browser)

Robot handwriting

When humans write by hand, our margins are — you guessed it — irregular. On the left-hand side of a paragraph, we try to keep a nice straight margin, beginning each line in the same location. But we usually can’t keep it very precise. We drift inwards, producing a left margin that slowly slopes towards the center of the page. Here’s an example of a human-written letter Maillift composed to send to customers:

See how the left-hand side drifts inwards? The lines beginning “choose”, “color” and “logo” all move to the right.

But the activity on the right-hand margin is even weirder.

Curliss and Jurek have noticed that their human handwriters often produce a “rounded” right margin: It bulges outwards and then tucks back inwards. In the example above, “showcase” sticks out further than the line above, “option”. But then the lines begin rounding inwards, with “size” and “own” moving further and further into the center of the page.

Why would humans do this? Probably because we aren’t terribly good at judging how many words fit on each line. If we accidentally overpack a line — trying to cram too many words into it — we immediately overcompensate by becoming too cautious, and putting too few words on the next couple of lines. You can see that dynamic at work in the example above. The composer wrote a nicely-kerned first line, but in the next line crammed in too many words, such that “showcase” comes uncomfortably close to the edge of the page. So he or she pulled back sharply, and the next three lines shrink in length.

A robot, in contrast, knows precisely how much space each word takes up, and doesn’t make these mistakes. You won’t see that rounded margin on the right.

Until, of course, robots are programmed to mimic that, too.

From a fascinating Clive Thompson post on the recent adoption of robots to generate hand-written letters to try to improve response rates on marketing offers. As Thompson notes, it's actually the exception, not the rule, to receive hand-written communications nowadays. A hand-written note actually may be the clearest sign that a letter is just marketing collateral.

I don't have kids; do they even teach handwriting in school anymore?

“F***, we’re dead.”

On the last day of May in 2009, as night enveloped the airport in Rio de Janeiro, the 216 passengers waiting to board a flight to Paris could not have suspected that they would never see daylight again, or that many would sit strapped to their seats for another two years before being found dead in the darkness, 13,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. But that is what happened. Air France Flight 447 carried a crew of nine flight attendants and three pilots—their numbers augmented because of duty-time limitations on a 5,700-mile trip that was expected to last nearly 11 hours. These were highly trained people, flying an immaculate wide-bodied Airbus A330 for one of the premier airlines of the world, an iconic company of which all of France is proud. Even today—with the flight recorders recovered from the sea floor, French technical reports in hand, and exhaustive inquests under way in French courts—it remains almost unimaginable that the airplane crashed. A small glitch took Flight 447 down, a brief loss of airspeed indications—the merest blip of an information problem during steady straight-and-level flight. It seems absurd, but the pilots were overwhelmed.

An absolutely riveting read about the crash of Air France Flight 447 in 2009. I'm simultaneously devastated and enthralled by air flight disaster stories.

Much ink is spilled about self-driving cars, but in the meantime we've shifted into a self-flying world, and that means the airplane crashes that do occur are at the intersection of an old model of flying, completely human dependent, and a newer model of flying that is heavily reliant on computer flying. Also worth reading for an example of an area where user interface design is a matter of literal life and death, unlike that of most of what those of us in technology dabble in. 

Despite all that, it's worth remembering that flying has never been safer.

The events of the past several months, punctuated by the losses of Malaysia Airlines flights 370 and 17, have given many people the idea that flying has become less safe. In fact it’s much safer than it used to be. There are twice as many planes in the air as there were 25 years ago, yet the rate of fatal accidents, per miles flown, has been steadily falling. The International Civil Aviation Organization reports that for every million flights, the chance of a crash is one-sixth what it was in 1980.

Globally, 2013 was the safest year in the history of modern commercial aviation. This year will be something of a correction, but we can’t expect every year to be the safest, and the overall trend shouldn’t be affected. If you think the past 12 months have been bad, go back to 1985, when 27 (!) serious aviation accidents killed almost 2,500 people. Two of history’s ten deadliest disasters happened that year, within two months of each other. The 60s, 70s and 80s were an era rife with horrific crashes, bombings, airport attacks and so on. Recent events notwithstanding, large-scale disasters have become a lot less frequent.

Soderbergh on Spielberg's staging

I value the ability to stage something well because when it’s done well its pleasures are huge, and most people don’t do it well, which indicates it must not be easy to master (it’s frightening how many opportunities there are to do something wrong in a sequence or a group of scenes. Minefields EVERYWHERE. Fincher said it: there’s potentially a hundred different ways to shoot something but at the end of the day there’s really only two, and one of them is wrong). Of course understanding story, character, and performance are crucial to directing well, but I operate under the theory a movie should work with the sound off, and under that theory, staging becomes paramount (the adjective, not the studio. although their logo DOES appear on the front of this…).

So I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are. See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot—whether short or long—held for that exact length of time and placed in that order? Sounds like fun, right? It actually is. To me. Oh, and I’ve removed all sound and color from the film, apart from a score designed to aid you in your quest to just study the visual staging aspect. Wait, WHAT? HOW COULD YOU DO THIS? Well, I’m not saying I’m like, ALLOWED to do this, I’m just saying this is what I do when I try to learn about staging, and this filmmaker forgot more about staging by the time he made his first feature than I know to this day (for example, no matter how fast the cuts come, you always know exactly where you are—that’s high level visual math shit).

To help us understand the virtues of staging in movies, Steven Soderbergh offers a desaturated version of Raiders of the Lost Ark with all the audio, dialogue and soundtrack, replaced by the score to The Social Network. I guess those kids who remade Raiders of the Lost Ark shot for shot chose well.

Whatever you think of Steven Spielberg's movies, it's hard to deny he is a virtuoso when it comes to blocking and staging. The camera moves and shot selection and sequencing in his movies is always lyrical, and even in a scene like the opening assault on Normandy in Saving Private Ryan, he induces the feeling of chaos while still preserving spatial clarity. Just the other weekend, I found Munich playing on cable and I stopped to watch one of the assassination scenes play out just to admire the camera in motion. A master class.

Incidentally, Soderbergh's website is as fun as his career. I first discovered it a while back when he posted a mashup of Hitchcock's Psycho with Gus Van Sant's remake, with all of the Van Sant scenes desaturated except the shower scene.