Archive for January, 2013

Silvers on editing

26 January 2013

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The New York Review of Books is about to turn 50, and its editor, Robert Silvers, now in his eighties, is the subject of this week’s ‘Lunch with the FT‘ profile.

One of the paragraphs is unmissable, at least if you’re interested in words and writing:

Editing, Silvers advises me, is an instinct. … “You see something in a piece that you can’t understand, and you have to say, ‘Can it be clearer?’ Issues that are left out, you have to raise them. You see dead or tired metaphors, you have to get rid of them.” He pokes at the sprouts in his little bowl, explaining how various phrases are tired or misused – “compelling”, “key”, “massive”, “context” – before looking down. “On the table!” he cries. The metaphorical table, he says, is now terribly overburdened, “with ‘issues’, ‘phrases’, ‘treaties’, ‘wars’ … ”

For the rest of it, you’ll have to buy the FT. But I can reveal that he thinks that long-form journalism will survive, and seems distraught that there’s so many words out here in the blogosphere that he and other critics can’t get a handle on. The interviewer was Emily Stokes.

The picture of the rather ascetic cover of the first issue of the NYRB is from its website, and is used with thanks.

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Orwell on writing

21 January 2013

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It’s 63 years today since the writer George Orwell died, and 110 years since he was born. And to mark the occasion, Penguin Books, the Orwell Estate and the Orwell Prize have joined forces to launch an annual Orwell Day. (I discovered this through reading a short and entertaining column about 1984 and Animal Farm, repurposed by Margaret Atwood in The Guardian.) Penguin have marked the first one by reissuing his books with new covers.

Leaving to one side for the moment the thought that Orwell might have found the idea of such a day a little, well, Orwellian, my modest contribution was to go back to his fine essay “Politics and the English Language” and extract from it his six rules for writing clear English:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I think these have held up pretty well since Orwell wrote them in 1946. I do quite a lot of editing, and sometimes have to help colleagues with their writing style. Sometimes, 60 years on, I send them back to read Orwell’s essay. Of course, rule (vi) gives the writer enough rope, if they need it, and not always to hang themselves. While doing the research for this post, I found a couple of others which teased out some subtleties. They are here, and here.

this picture of George Orwell at the top of this post is from the Unleaded blog, and is used with thanks.

Lance and the return of the repressed

20 January 2013

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Lance’s limited but significant confession on the Oprah Winfrey Show sent me back to USADA’s “Reasoned Decision” – their report on the organised doping conspiracy (their words, not mine) that was represented by Armstrong’s various teams, before and after his comeback.
One of the reasons was to check the odds that Armstrong was telling the truth when he claimed not to have used drugs on his comeback, in an age when biological passports make such things easier to check. The answer: at least a million to one against. USADA asked Professor Christopher Gore of the Australian Institute of Sport to examine Armstrong blood samples taken between 2008 and 2011, looking in particular at reticulocytes (the immature red blood cells that are a clue to the possibility of blood doping):

When Prof. Gore compared the suppressed reticulocyte percentage in Armstrong’s 2009 and 2010 Tour de France samples to the reticulocyte percentage in his other samples, Prof. Gore concluded that the approximate likelihood of Armstrong’s seven suppressed reticulocyte values during the 2009 and 2010 Tours de France occurring naturally was less than one in a million. Prof. Gore [p 140]

But there’s also a striking moment in one of the footnotes of the Reasoned Decision. Go back to the moment in 1999, right at the start of the Tour, when Armstrong was informed at he had tested positive for corticosteroids. [pp 31-32] The team doctor was prevailed on to backdate a prescription saying that Armstrong had taken a cortisone cream for a saddle sore. (According to the evidence given to USADA, Armstrong said to the masseur, Emma O’Reilly, who knew the story to be untrue,
“Now, Emma, you know enough to bring me down”.) But the striking part of the story is in the news conference that Armstrong gave, where he told journalists:

”I made a mistake in taking something I didn’t consider to be a drug,” he said, referring to what he called ”a topical cream” for a skin rash. ”When I think of taking something, I think of pills, inhalers, injections,” he said. ”I didn’t consider skin cream ‘taking something.’ ”

Now, one of Sigmund Freud’s more famous concepts is the notion of “the return of the repressed”, in which a forbidden idea surfaces despite our best attempts to police it. The shrinkwrapped blog explains it like this:

He theorized that an unconscious thought/feeling (Id derived) would constantly press for access to the executive fictions of the mind in order to be discharged. The Ego would be on constant alert to prevent the direct expression of the forbidden idea but the idea would find a disguise and surface as a symptom.

And what’s striking about Armstrong’s language, even in this brief quote, is how much he says about the technology of doping (“pills, inhalers, injections”). A clean rider wouldn’t even have mentioned this. With hindsight, the forbidden idea is escaping its repression.
Armstrong told Oprah that he didn’t think it was possible at that time to win the Tour without doping, and he may be right about this. In Matt Rendell’s book A Significant Other, about Armstrong’s team-mate Victor Hugo Pena in the centenary tour in 2003, Pena maybe gives another clue. He tells Rendell (this is from memory) “We all live this life” – meaning the ascetic life of no alcohol, no chocolate, no parties. “Only Lance leads it more than anyone else.”

The picture at the top of this post is from oprah.com and is used with thanks.

The Fear Index

6 January 2013

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Others have queued up to praise The Fear Index, which has been published about eighteen months now, and I’m not going to dissent from that view here. It weaves an engrossing dark thriller around (slight spoiler alert) a real event in 2010 – the flash crash – which wiped out 9% of the value of the Dow Jones Index in a few minutes, mostly through algorithm-based high frequency trading. (The chart below from Forbes shows the value of the index and the volume of trades during the crash). There is a long official US report, and a less compelling piece of futures work on high-frequency trading by the UK Government’s Foresight department. (The best account I have read is by Donald MacKenzie in the London Review of Books).

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Robert Harris started his career as a journalist and a non-fiction author, and these skills don’t desert him. I started mine as a financial journalist, and still follow the area, but didn’t spot a clanging note. I had managed to guess the villain ahead of the reveal (small spoiler alert) but then you need only to read a small part of the singularity literature to realise that advanced machine intelligence aspires to a condition of godliness. All the same, the twist at the end was still a surprise.

If I have a criticism, there were places where it was overwritten, especially in the first half. The entire retelling of the Hardy/Ramanujan taxi story, for example, was ponderous, but perhaps when you have been as successful as Robert Harris editors are less attentive, or perhaps they were publishing at speed because of the topicality of the flash crash. I also was unpersuaded by Hoffman’s decision to plunge alone into the low-rent hotel in pursuit of his tormentor. Shades of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter’s house: good for driving the story along, less good for its credibility.

On the other hand, there are moments when you hear an author’s voice coming through his characters. I enjoyed the moment particularly when the hedge fund investors, taken for their expensive lunch after the presentation of the new investment fund, are bitching about high marginal tax rates. Hoffman, the other-worldly genius who has written the software, and cares little for money, comments to himself,

“I was remembering now why I didn’t like the rich: their self-pity. Persecution was the common ground of their conversation, like sport or the weather was for anyone else.”