Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Writing is a complex endeavor. The author has some ideas that they want to communicate to others. However, the words are only symbols for the thoughts created in a specific point in time. A reader may have a different background than the writer and not understand things in the same way as an author. Successful writing succeeds in allowing a reader to understand what the author wanted to communicate. 

There are many literary devices that can both help and hinder communication. Using a language that the audience can easily understand is helpful. Needlessly defining words or defining too much can created problems. (A scientist may frequently use an abbreviation in their work, but a reader would not know what it meant.) Excessive use of flowery language can make a work tedious. Picking words that sound closer to their meaning can make reading more enjoyable.

The English language does not have a governing body. Proper English is the language that people understand. Many pedantic rules or just interpretations by a few vocal people. If you are writing to an audience that is concerned about these rules, follow them. If not, there is no need. Some of these rules, like prohibitions on split infinitives came about by comparing English to Latin. Other arose when the due to poor understanding of grammar itself. Many "rules" from the sticklers will make language sound unduly formal and stilted. There are other common mistakes that do interfere with understanding. Poor punctuation can confuse meaning. (Unfortunately, the rules of punctuation - especially quotes and commas - can result in confusing language.)

The Sense of Style does a good job of focussing on the proper use of style. Pedantic rules often make writing worse. Understanding the audience is key to success. Looking up a word or a rule is the best way to understand whether or not it should be used. Some "poor writing" has near universal approval. Others may be commonly used, but are are obviously malapropisms. The acceptance of stylistic rules is always evolving. A writer can use style guides to help focus a style, but must continue to focus on the current audience.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life

Prayer of Jabez is a brief Christian self-help book. Jabez is a minor character in the old testament. He did not have an easy life. However, he was able to conquer territory for Israel. The author uses this experience for people to follow. It is encouraged that people pray for their personal gain. God is willing to grant many blessings and it us up to people to ask for them. Even business people can pray to help their business grow in righteousness. There are many examples given of Christians who sought out opportunity to help others and build up God's kingdom. The Jabez prayer helped to focus the effort and lead to great achievement.  

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Impostor Syndrome: A Novel

Imposter Syndrome seems really dialed into Silicon Valley, but "the 101"? The book centers on a company (Tangerine) that feels like Facebook with a dash of Google and Yahoo. The founder/CEO is mentioned, but has a very minor role in the story. The focus is instead on the COO, a Russian immigrant woman who is the perfect strong female executive. Oh, and it just so happens she is also a spy, part of an elaborate espionage scheme. She utilizes her special access to anybody's account to pass off information to the Russians. A low-level female Chinese engineer at the company discovers suspicious activity and eventually discovers who it was. She ends up getting connected with the feds and helps implicate the COO, but loses her job in the process. In the end, she gets a job at a startup, while the COO takes a "leave" only to come back (and offer the Chinese engineer her job back if she wants it.)

As a spy novel, this story feels fairly contrived. (However, after the spying going on at the Russian consulate in San Francisco, who knows. Infiltrating big tech may actually be much more valuable than typical espionage.) Where the novel best succeeds is in detailing the culture and power dynamics in technology. The engineers are those that do the work. However, they "controlled" by the business culture that is filled with a multitude of conflicts. Security is an area where companies love to skimp on, devoting resources, yet in an incomplete manner. The culture is also filled with many ethnic subgroups, each with their own stereotypes and challenges. The spy story serves as a nice vehicle for documenting the culture.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Train Dreams: A Novella

I listened to Train Dreams. Then I read detailed summary. Then I listened to it again. I still didn't seem to recognize it from the summary. (Luckily, it was a short book.) Some of the "key events" seem to just glide through in passing. The book centers around a man who worked on the railroads a century ago. He lived up in remote parts of the northwest. They helped build bridges and dish out punishment to people that did bad things. He saw "freaks" come by in circus shows. He was married, but had the family die. He remained single. It is almost a novel in the form of poetry. Despite being short, it is fairly dense. While it seemed to be an interesting setting, the content just did not do much for me.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel

From the outset, The Ocean at the End of the Lane reads like a memoir. The author appears to be recalling events from his childhood. There seem to be some traumatic events that occur, including bad babysitters. Then things start to get weird. The babysitter starts to exhibit Roald Dahl level of meanness. She also has a knack for intuiting any attempt to escape and to top it off has an affair with the Dad. Then it turns out that she is not just a mean person, but a demonic being. Luckily, the new person down the street has good mystical abilities. They narrator is able to be saved and go on to live a normal life. 

In the afterward, the author makes it clear that while the character of the narrator is based on his own life, everyone else is made up. Though the story is told from the background of an adult recollecting the past, there is a distinct child's perspective. The adult world is very different than the child's world.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Optimistic Decade

A bunch of teenagers are at a remote summer camp that is also desired by oil companies for shale production. They do a bunch of vulgar teenage things. It is set in the Reagan/Bush years with an undercurrent of Berkeley idealism conflicting with business progress. Most of the characters come across as "brats". After the camp experience, they discover that "camp" people are different than they are in the real world. 

Friday, August 13, 2021

Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men is a short book written about itinerant farm workers. Lennie and George travel together. George is the "brains". Lenny is not quite all there mentally, but he is big and strong. He is attracted to soft things. Unfortunately, he has a bad habit of accidentally killing soft animals that he touches. This gets worse when he accidentally strangles a woman. He retreats to his known hiding place when he is chased by a mob. George  later puts him out of his misery.

It is interesting to read about California agriculture from over 80 years ago. Has it always been a primarily itinerant workforce? The workers here were replace by Okies and later Mexican farmworkers. Ironic that it went through a few loops before getting back to the workers that were some of the earlier ones. I also wonder about the backstory of George and Lennie. They both dream of their own plot of land, yet find it out of reach. George is dedicated to Lennie, yet struggles with his burden. Was he really longing for the day to get rid of him? Or was it something he was doing out of sympathy?

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy

The author is a very successful Silicon Valley businesswoman. One day while they were on a vacation, her husband died suddenly in a hotel gym. This book is the story of how she went through the process with additional content from the co-author. One key part was finding people that have experience something similar. Often friends will be reluctant to provide support in challenging times, thinking that they are interfering. These are times that people often need the most social interaction. However, everyone is different. Some people need to cope by going right back to work. Others need a long time off. Regardless of the immediate approach, there is a need to eventually move on. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera [Love in the Time of Cholera]

Usually I try to finish a book before writing about it. However, after making it halfway through El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera, I had to throw in the towel. My Spanish skills were just not up to it. I found myself grasping individual words and sentences, but not really putting it all together to comprehend the story. I think I need to start off with a shorter story that is more appealing. This story is that of two young lovers that go their separate ways, only to try to rekindle the relationship late in life. One marries a doctor, hence the pun in the title. 

I'll think about giving this one a try later after I brush up on my Spanish skills.

This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else: Joy Division: The Oral History

Joy Division had a brief life as a band before the singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide. Despite the brief life, they have achieved a cult status and were very influential to many other bands. The remaining members of the band continued on as New Order and had success of their own.

At the onset, this book reads more as interview notes than a coherent story. It is primarily an assemblage of quotes from various parties involved. Gradually, as the book progresses, the narrative becomes more coherent. This is the story of young musicians that had managed to achieve a small degree of success. They paid their dues and went through the process. Gradually they became more popular and influential. The group struggled with the new-found fame, while trying to stay true to their independent roots.  However, Ian started to experience seizures. He was diagnosed with epilepsy, and given medication (that may have caused other problems.) He was also suffering with his wife's pregnancy and an other women. The band was trying to carry on with him and was on the onset of an American tour when he committed suicide. In retrospect, the signs were there (including previous suicide attempts). However, the band had attempted to power past them.

Monday, August 09, 2021

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story

The end of The Premonition drives home the big problem with our current public health system. In the mid-1970s the US public health authorities anticipated a deadly swine flu outbreak. They chose to institute a max vaccination campaign. Unfortunately, the local health infrastructure was not up to the task and was only able to vaccinate a fraction of the population. Some of those vaccinated died. Even though many of the deaths were not related to the vaccine, the presence of deaths together with the no-show of the deadly outbreak lead to a piloring of the health officials. Today, public health policy tends to be led in a cautious manner. People are concerned more about protecting their image. Government appointments are often made with regard to "optics" rather than expertise. Altogether, this leads to slow and inadequate reactions. Actions that avoid a deadly epidemic will be judged harshly if a few people had died. Meanwhile, positive improvement after a deadly epidemic are more likely to be praised.

The book traces the experience of a few key "behind-the-scenes" people that are doing the work to protect us. One person had worked as an administrator for the veterans administration. His hospital suffered greatly in the realm of public opinion because some of the patients had died. He later helped drive planning for pandemic response. Another key player worked as a public health official in Santa Barbara County, California. There she welded great power with limited resources. Then she accepted a state position where she was stuck behind bureaucracy when the covid pandemic played out. The third prong of the story focuses on research labs that have done work to identify and trace disease. They offered free, fast covid testing - yet bureaucracy slowed the uptake. (There were a variety of reasons - some places had relations with other vendors or could not bill $0). The lab also had the ability to rapidly identify different contagions. They even used this to identify drugs that could help cure things. Alas, these skills were often used. The government would even recommend a non-working treatment rather than the one that worked.

We do have great skill for responding to public health crises. We just can't necessarily take advantage of it.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning

Minor Feelings is part memoir, part racial studies and part biography of a past figure. One thing that sticks out to me is that most works attempting to portray the life of an underappreciated minority are typically written from the viewpoint of somebody in a fairly "non-standard" position. The author grew up in a west-coast Korean family, studied art and writing in the midwest and became a published writer and poet. Her parents had a rag-to-riches story of hard-working immigrants. 

In the US, she gets lumped in with the Asian "model minority". This implies many characteristics. She sees white males get special "breaks" and be able to pass off crap as "inspirational" artwork. I find this to be more an indictment of the art establishment than of racism. Successful art is in the eye of the beholder. If something is deemed desirable, it may fetch millions and make the artist extremely wealthy. If not, they may remain starving. The "success" can be due to various whims. You may be able to say "this white cis-male artist" made it big, while these other brown females didn't until they were dead". However, you could also find plenty of white males that didn't make it. (Some of the biggest names in art today died poor.)

The lumping of Asians together is a big issue. There are billions of people from many different countries in a vast geographical area. The American immigration policy has encouraged the most educated and wealthy to come over, thus helping to contribute to the model minority myth. However, there remains a diverse population. (By the same token "white" is also a myth, representing another diverse group of people.) Asians can be stuck in an odd situation where they are not treated as a majority and not as a minority. 

One essay in the book covers the life of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a Korean-American writer who was raped and murdered.

The author also talks about being offended at the "white tears" shed by a friend that was present when the author suffered from a racially-incited attack. This all gives me a mixed feeling. There were some injustices triggered by "looks" that were beyond her control. The response that people have (on all sides) can make the matters worse. Wokeness has led to another form of "negative relations" where people have hierarchies of offensibility and pandering. Is it possible for a mixed society to truly accept the unique abilities of different people? 

Monday, August 02, 2021

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

This was one of Kurt Cobain's favorite novels. The story centers around a man with a great sense of smell living in 18th century France. He is orphaned at a young age and notices his gift for smell at a relatively young age. He smells a girl and murders her so that nobody else could have her smell. He realizes his great olfactory ability and apprentices himself to a perfumist. He also realizes that he does not have a smell. Later he decides to create a perfect smell. He kills a couple dozen girls to get what is needed. The people are distraught by the murders and eventually capture him. His execution is to be a great spectacle. He unleashes his "perfect smell" and everyone feels he is innocent as they get wrapped up in a hedonistic orgy. He finds this unfulfilling and decides to unleash his smell as he is walking among some low-life. They rip him apart, ending his life.

The book has an interesting take on the power of smell. Odor does have a power in our lives to bring back strong memories. Could it eventually be used to harness a form of mind control over a populace? Would people really go through such actions over a smell? It is also a tale of sacrifice. The all-powerful smell required the life of many people. The creator of this smell gave the people a final scent as they ripped him apart. Is this how Cobain felt about his musical abilities?