A message to me to yourself…

One of my lecturers at University was actually a popular writer in the Romance genre, under another name. He was a grammar nazi of the eleventh order but such a good orator that I could have listened to him talk about paint drying without drifting off…too much.

His pet peeve, which I have been unable to let go of myself is:

the misuse of the reflexive pronouns such as “myself” and “yourself”

How often have you said or heard:

“I will send this to yourself.”

…WTF. It’s like the speaker is trying to over formalise their language just ostracise the potentially uneducated.

Just say “I will send this to you.”

What was one of the major points behind Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” in 1946 :

“It [the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” – George Orwell

My lecturer strode halfway up the stairs in the theater between where we sat in our uncomfortable plastic chairs, turned around and said,

“If you remember one thing from this course it has to be that self pronouns like yourself, myself, herself, himself…urgh,” he grimaced, “should not be used when they…do…not…refer…to the subject of the sentence.

Thanks Glen, mate…and no I haven’t forgotten! But I have held my tongue sometimes when I probably should not have!

Y is for Yourself

Why do we write?

When I was at university some fellow writers and I compared the importance of brain surgeons over writers. Although I do not deny the brilliance of brain surgery, I was quite disappointed in the majority opinion to elevate these mere mortals to a higher plane than writers. I don’t deny they may save a few lives but so do our bus drivers—wether they are aerial or terrestrial in transit.

Writers however (and some other artists) can do more than save a few lives.

  • we are the legislators of tomorrow (source unknown)
  • we provide feedback and test-run changes in society
  • and we can inspire generations into action and illicit positive change in society.

If a piece of writing does not add to our collective consciousness, or alter our behaviour—even in some minor way—it is pointless.  But this need not get too high and mighty:

Not everything we write is going to bring down a government, it could simply be a nostalgic drama that reminds us to value each moment of our life; prompting us to stop our writing, or turn the television off, and play hide-n-seek with our kids.

“W” is for Why we write

Looking through the wrong end of a Telescope and other Analogies for Time

We look at the past  through the wrong end of a telescope, he thought one day; eventually the things we can see in there become simply too small to hurt us. (Character: Peter Clayborne) – Kim Stanley Robinson, The Martians Pg. 316

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series the expected lifespan for humans is extended by a “longevity treatment” to at least several hundred years if not thousands of years. Through this he is able to explore issues and limitations of the human brain for storing and retrieving memories. In one scene, Maya Toitovna is now around 150 years old  has returned to live in a city she had previously lived in 70 or more years before.

Maya found herself trapped in a déjà vu of a déjà vu, Where was she?

It wouldn’t come back to her. It wouldn’t come. A horrible sense of tip-of-the-toungeism made her dizzy, then sick, as if she would get it out by vomiting. She sat down on the steps. On the tip of the tongue, her whole life! Her whole life! She groaned aloud, and some kids throwing pebbles at gulls stared at her.

It hadn’t really been gone; just a momentary lapse in her thinking, while her attention had wandered elsewhere. To another life.

A strong memory had its own integrity, its own dangers, just as much as a weak memory did. It was only the result of thinking that the past was more interesting than the present. Which is many ways was true. But still…

Later Maya saw her daughter Jackie, who she… lets say despised, sailboard on the open oceans of Mars:

Events would soon be washing by her, the way they did everyone else; history was a wave that moved through time slightly faster than an individual life did, so that even when people had lived only to seventy or eighty they had been behind the wave by the time they died; and how much more so now [when they lived for at least several hundred years]. No sailboard would keep you up with that wave… – Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars.

A word of caution here, Maya suffered from severe depression so don’t get drawn too deeply into her neurosis.

“T” is for Time, and for Telescope

Carl Sagan, and the Baloney Detection Kit

When asked to cite the most influential person to the way I perceive the universe I have no hesitation to say that it is Carl Sagan.

The first time I heard about Carl Sagan was in a Physics Lecture in year twelve at school. Our teacher had recorded the opening episode of Cosmos and from not too far into it my world view expanded and I’ve never looked at things the same way again. The original Cosmos television series from the 1980s is where Sagan entered most of our lives but for many it was through his academic works or the leading role he played in the American space program.

NASA gave Sagan three weeks to design a message to be engraved on two twenty three centimetre wide aluminium plaques attached to the Pioneer Deep Space Probes.

As well as his work in the scientific community Sagan also wrote fiction – I’ve found most of the best scientific minds also have a highly developed imagination.

He wrote the book Contact,  and in 1997  was made into a Hollywood movie staring Jodie Foster. At the end of this book (spoiler alert) the main character is labeled as a fraud and even begins to doubt her memory. She goes on to search for deeper meanings eventually in the last passage discovers the pattern of a perfect circle encrypted in the decimal places for the mathematical constant Pi. The gist of this revelation being that the shape of a circle, and if so, the universe was designed and did not simply spring into existence.

Initially I found this an odd inclusion for probably the world’s most famous atheist. But later reading his work The Demon Haunted World this is the sort of evidence that would pass all of the tests in his well publicised Baloney Detection Kit.

Sagan is a famous skeptic and this Baloney Detection Kit  provides a set of tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

Baloney Detection Kit

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
  • Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Quantify, wherever possible.
  • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
  • Occam’s razor – if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” — Carl E. Sagan, professor, Cosmos, 1980

Another of his books that is worth seeking out is The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. It was published on the tenth anniversary of his death and is based on his famous Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology.

The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system.

The history of our study of our solar system shows us clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong, and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources. – Carl Sagan

“S” is for Carl Sagan

1Q84 – Murakami’s cult masterpiece

Haruki Murakami’s epic novel 1Q84 was an instant success in Japan and soon its publishers were in a mad rush to get the work published for the english language market.

Oddly mirroring the plot line in the novel where one of main characters ghost rewrites a story, the publishers of 1Q84 were in such a hurry to get it to market that they enlisted the services of two different writers to translate the work; one for books I and II, and another for book III.

Set it Japan in 1984 the story revolves around two central characters:

  • Aomame (written with the same characters as the word for “green peas” and pronounced Ah-oh-mah-meh); a female fitness instructor and part-time assassin
  • and Tengo, an aspiring novelist and part time editor and maths lecturer

The point of view alternates each chapter with Aomame and Tengo and the reader slowly learns their connection. Murakami enjoys playing with the time period too and takes his time explaining iconic objects of the time.

1Q84 features an immaculate   conception, telekinesis, transmigrating souls and a talking crow. But the   more blatant oddness of Murakami’s plots tends to distract us from their   roots in emotions that are just as unaccountable. A virtue of his writing is   that, carried away, you rarely sense the strain. – Anthony Cummins The Telegraph UK


Knopf / Getty Images

The title 1Q84 has its roots in a few different places; it is set in 1984, there is of course George Orwell’s novel 1984, and in the story Aomame coins the term for the odd version of the world she finds herself in; it is 1984 but also no longer the same. The name of the letter Q is also the same sound in Japanese as the number nine “Kyu”. And the complexity of this too mirrors that of the storyline in many ways.

…Yes, this is a Haruki Murakami novel, where magical and dreamlike phenomena are deadpanned into existence with the same calm craft that his characters routinely employ in cooking themselves delicious-sounding Japanese meals. – Stephen Poole, The Guardian UK

Murakami has a knack for oddball twists (talking cats, raining fish) and in 1Q84 this continues with terrifying “little people” emerging from the mouths of goats and people and a moss coloured second moon hanging in the sky.

Having Tengo and his editor and co-conspirator discuss the writing and editing process delivers some classic writing advice:

“When you introduce things that readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction, you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen.”

and on story development:

“Once a gun appears in a story, it will be shot and someone will die”. 

1Q84 is a masterpiece but I am left a little frustrated at having to read the translated story rather than Murakami’s original Japanese work.

Q is for 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami