Pronoun Perplexity

It’s necessary for authors to be careful and explicit regarding the use of pronouns when more than one person is present in the context of a discussion. The antecedents of pronouns may be perfectly clear in the writer’s mind, but to a reader it may be anything but.

Consider the following sentence, which seems to make perfect sense:

He told him that he would pick up his kids and take them to his house.

But there is a big problem if the author is thinking:

John told Jake that Jack would pick up Jim’s kids and take them to Joe’s house.

There is nothing wrong with using proper nouns when pronouns would result in confusion.

Nosing Around

a nose
A Nose

This article is from the series Meditations from the Track Changes Column

In the course of copyediting, I often find it useful to nose around in (aka research) what great authors of the past did. The sorts of points I seek insights into include examples of word usage, what preposition a verb most often takes, whether to use a comma in “Yes, sir”, and other subtleties of punctuation.[1]

To aid myself, I’ve accumulated a small library of fine literature in plain text format, currently numbering twenty-seven books, and including works by Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, H.L. Mencken, Edith Wharton, P.G. Wodehouse, and a translation of the Bible in modern English. These are in the public domain, acquired from Project Gutenberg.

I’ve hoped to add more volumes and more authors to this collection, except that, masterpieces though they may be, these books are venerably old from the standpoint of contemporary publishing practice, and many styles that were current in Dickens’s day, or even Wodehouse’s more recent era, are not those of today. Newer books are more difficult to come by, at least legally. The truth is, I don’t know where to get them illegally, either. I’d love to have plain text versions of Updike, Wallace, Delillo, and even the likes of Hemingway and Steinbeck, plus a number of non-fiction texts, but I’m unlikely to ever get them, short of scanning them with an optical character reader myself (which I ain’t gonna do), because they are carefully guarded. (And I don’t mean to suggest that I would want them illegally, for I am a respecter of copyrights.)

Much of the same information, and of books published up to the year 2000, is available from Google Books, particularly using Ngrams, but specific examples require more digging and clicking. Sometimes the effort yields useful examples, but it can also be a pain and more trouble than it’s worth.

Plain text files are searchable using standard Unix type commands or programs written in a programming language such as Perl (my personal favorite), which allow me to filter and format the results any way I wish. Therefore, using skills as a former software engineer, I’ve devised a number of tools to get at information.

To use one of the examples above, I find that in this collection “Yes, sir” (with a comma) occurs 224 times (spoken most frequently by Jeeves to Bertie Wooster in P.G. Wodehouse’s books), and only once without the comma, likewise in a conversation between Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in the midst of many others that do have the comma — so doubtless a copyediting oversight! I conclude from the data thus obtained that it’s best to use the comma in dialogue that contains words that follow the model “Yes, sir”. (Many patterns fit the model.)

Recently I recently wondered about the average word length (in letters per word) within a book. This information is easily obtained by counting the characters and dividing by the number of words. There’s a Unix tool, wc(1),[2] to get the numbers, and a script can gather them and do the dividing. The result is not precisely accurate, because the Unix tool counts as words every group of characters separated by spaces, so punctuation and numbers and various oddities skew the number correspondingly. But as averages across a library of books with the same constraints, they’re good enough for comparison, which I imagine is why the tool was written near the dawn of the Unix era.[3]

The range from author to author and book to book is not as broad as you might think. A calculation to several decimal places is in order. My script calculates to fifteen decimal places, but about three places seems to be adequate for discussion purposes.

So take a guess — what you think the range would be among these highly literate authors? The shortest average among all of them is the Bible at 5.377 letters per word (lpw). The modern book with the shortest words is (believe it or not) Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, with an average of 5.514 lpw, and the longest is 6.121 lpw by H.L. Mencken, who may have had the largest vocabulary of any English-speaking person who ever lived. Amusingly, the book with that count is titled: Damn! A Book of Calumny. Apparently the man even knew how to cuss in words of more than four letters.

From that analysis we see that the range from shortest to longest average word length is well less than a letter per word. Sounds about right to me.

Recently I edited one of the most horrendously bloated books I’ve ever laid eyes on. The author was a thesaurus diver, determined to seek out the longest and least common word in every possible case. It’s no exaggeration to say that in one out of three instances he used the more obscure words incorrectly. My task became an arduous one of consulting the dictionary, mind-reading, and replacing incorrect and rare words with ones his readers (as few as they will be, mostly his relatives) would be likely to recognize. In time it dawned on me that this guy may have used longer words on average than any author I’ve ever encountered — which made me wonder: How much longer? So I saved the document’s body text to a plain text file and made calculations as described above. (It was a very long book, too, over 500 manuscript pages.) The number I came out with was 6.821 lpw, vastly longer than H.L. Mencken’s erudite habit. (Most importantly, Mencken used and spelled all the words right, as his monumental three-volume work The American Language demonstrates conclusively.)

My favorite sentence from this editing job, said in regard to one of the author’s primary subjects of discussion, says:

He was not wont to bloviate.

Wont means inclined, and to bloviate means to speak verbosely and windily. How ironic that such was not the author’s own inclination, and that at six words in a book where sentences of thirty to sixty words are legion, it was also likely the shortest sentence in the book.

If the author was trying to impress readers that he’s smart, then bzzzt! Big mistake! No person, no matter now intellectual, actually talks like that. What he left instead was quite the opposite impression.

In contrast, the very next project I worked on was written by an author who describes himself as dyslexic and unable to read until after he left school. He has the vocabulary of a fourth-grader (though no fault of his own), and the average word length on his project came out to 4.401 lpw. It was the longest work of fiction I’ve ever edited — by about 20 percent. But it took me far less time to edit it than the previous book.

[1] Speaking of subtle things, did you notice that the previous sentence contains a subtlety of punctuation? And have you ever noticed that the spelling of subtle is subtle?

[2] The form wc(1) is standard Unix man (manual) page syntax.

[3] Aka Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which began at midnight on Thursday, January 1, 1970, and is calculated within many computer programs in seconds. I don’t know when wc(1) was created, but I’m rather certain that given the nature of it and its typical use, it had to be among the first that Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie provided when they first created Unix.

Meditations from the Track Changes Column

Page with track changes on
Page with track changes on

In the course of editing the writing of clients, I encounter much in the way of ticks and bad habits, not to mention sheer ignorance, particularly in the writing of beginners and illiterati — of which I edit more than I’d like — in addition to the usual complement of routine mechanical errors.

Some booboos are laugh-out-loud hilarious. (If I didn’t allow myself to fulminate at and even ridicule (privately) some of the manuscripts I work on, I wouldn’t be able to do this work at all.) Other clinkers are illuminating in that they reveal modes of thinking on the part of authors that can be picked apart and learned from.

One of the most powerful features of the ubiquitous Microsoft Word text-whacker, one that is underutilized or even unknown by authors who work alone, is its ability to track changes from version to version. This function works well. A heavily edited manuscript ends up having a forest of marks on it that leave it looking like the image at the beginning of this article.[1]

When an editor is done with a manuscript, the author can go through and accept or reject changes, or having had a matter brought to light, might make a different change. For instance, if I delete the word very before large (because very is such a wimpy word that I routinely uproot occurrences like dandelions), the author might still wish to intensify the idea of largeness, so will delete large and substitute huge.

Not every change is routine. Sometimes an editor offers an explanation in a comment — such as you also see in the example image — in part to assure the author that the editor has a sounder reason than whimsy for making the change. (Sometimes I write them to convince myself as well.)

But comments take time to write, which has an economic impact on productivity. More importantly, marginal comments are not the place to go into detail or to give English lessons. Most of the time the editor is obliged to move on in order to get a job done. But certain problems stick in your craw.

At least they do for me, with the result that I may scribble out a few relevant lines in one of my many electronic notebooks.

And So …

I’m planning to write an ongoing series of short articles about craw-stuck problems I’ve encountered in the wild, that is, within manuscripts I’ve worked on, and to illustrate points with sentences taken from client work, suitably anonymized so as to avoid copyright infringement, letter bombs, and other negative fallout.

About the Name

These articles will be categorized under the Track Changes Meditations category in my blog. What I really call them is Meditations from the Track Changes Column, but that’s too long a label for a menu, so I saved that name for this cover article. That title is a tribute to a book that is legendary among ultrarunners, Meditations from the Breakdown Lane: Running Across America, by James E. Shapiro, regrettably long out of print and no longer available except on Amazon at a price I don’t want to pay. It’s about things the author thought about on his transcontinental run on the highways and byways of the United States. (He was one of the first to do this.)

[1] The text in the image is from an article by Dan Horvath in Marathon & Beyond magazine article that I edited a few years ago, used with the permission of the author. The actual content is irrelevant to this discussion.

Above and Below

Don’t you hate it when you see above and below used as nouns?

This lumpy construction usually occurs when the author wants to refer to material within text in a position relative to where the monstrosity occurs. (More precisely before and after, if you want to get literal about it.)

The above is what I believed at the time.

The below is what I believe now.

How about:

I’ve got a leak in the above.

Now I’m going to mop the below.

People, people! Please don’t do it!

Footnotes Versus Endnotes

My favorite magazine, The Watchtower, has a series of study articles in the July issue that uses endnotes rather than the footnotes it has used almost if not entirely exclusively in my forty-three years of reading the journal. A friend, knowing I’m an editor, asked if I know what the difference is between footnotes and endnotes, and why endnotes are used for this series of articles.

To state the obvious, footnotes go at the bottom (the foot) of pages, and endnotes go at the ends of articles, chapters, or a whole book. Note, too, that to call an endnote a footnote (or vice versa) is wrong. Last Sunday, when we studied the first article from this magazine, the reader kept calling them footnotes, even though the word Endnotes appears over them, grouped together at the end of each article. Bzzzt! Wrong!

Functionally, footnotes and endnotes accomplish the same purpose. Which kind to use is a publisher’s style decision. Each has advantages over the other, and each has disadvantages.

Generally, notes are a means of moving material that is parenthetical yet worthy of inclusion out of the main discourse. Often, readers who skip them will not lose anything essential to the main arguments being presented.

Footnotes are convenient. A reader can just drop his eyes down, read, and go back — or not. But footnotes are usually in a smaller type size, which makes them harder to read. Endnotes stand a danger of being skipped because they require flipping to another page and back. The way we study these articles, there is zero danger of their being skipped, whatever style is used.

Sometimes notes contain nothing more than references to outside sources. At other times they add interesting supplementary material, information that is worth reading, but that would be awkward to integrate into the main narrative.

But footnotes add clutter to a page, and too many of them are annoying to some readers and even intimidating to others who may think that only scholarly works that are beyond their ability to comprehend use such apparatus.

Which style to use is up to the publisher. Most journals, textbooks, and scientific, medical, and legal publishers have meticulous requirements for their publications that must be followed without variation.

Rarely, a publication will use both footnotes and endnotes. I’m currently reading FDR, the biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Jean Edward Smith, which uses both. The footnotes use asterisks as markers, are few (no more than two on any page), unobtrusive, and contain only supplementary information. I’ve been reading all of them. But there are 154 pages of numbered endnotes, most of them bibliographical references, with occasional minor commentary added. I’ve been skipping those because personally I despise endnotes. (There is also a huge bibliography.) Whereas I don’t speak for the publishers of The Watchtower, I can make an educated guess why the decision was made to switch from the customary footnote style to endnotes in the July 2013 issue.

These articles seem to have a little more than the usual extra material than most others. Also, there are two-page graphical spreads within the first two articles, which might have complicated the layout if they also had to squeeze in one or more footnotes on the bottom.

So different publishers have different requirements, based largely on aesthetic considerations. Each publisher has its own style guide that trumps the various standard style guides used as starting points or fallbacks. And given that prime decision-driving considerations of Watchtower Society publications are readability and accessibility to a worldwide readership, it should come as no surprise when we see things done a little differently once in a while, and that the result is usually delightful.

Uncircling, Unfriending, and Unfollowing

English: Semiotics of Social Networking
Image via Wikipedia

Though I don’t maintain an ironclad bullet list of rules about who I follow in my social networks, certain annoyances move me to uncircle, unfriend, or unfollow persons posthaste. (All three italicized words are social networking neologisms.)

Give me full sentences in some reasonable semblance of English. Persons who write habitually in the abbreviated language used in telephone texting will be cut from my network. If Roger Ebert can write full Twitter updates in 160 characters, so can you — if you care whether I read what you have to say. And you are under no obligation to care whether I read your posts, but I’m sure there are others who feel similarly.

I make exceptions to the abbreviated language rule in an interactive chat, when speed of semi-synchronous communication is essential. I type fast, but even so, I often use abbreviations, ignore upper case, punctuation, and don’t bother to fix typos if it’s obvious what I meant, when in a direct tete-a-tete, where the object is to get as close to the speed of speech as possible. But in such cases, if it’s important enough and available on both ends, video chat is sometimes the better medium.

Persons who insist on using vulgar or obscene speech or profanity do not remain in my networks. I don’t think foul language is funny, and I don’t think it’s colorful. There’s no need for it, particularly when communicating thoughts in front of the whole world. I may give a person one break. The second time they’re gone.

Users whose typical posts or comments consists primarily of LOL, OMG, ROTFL, LMAO, ROTFLMAO, WTF, and that ilk of stupidity strike me instantly as morons. They seem to be just wanting to be seen, like the cretins who walk behind reporters being interviewed on TV and wave or perform shenanigans in front of the camera.

If all you get from a post is a good laugh, then press +1 or Like or re-Tweet it, and if you want to re-share it fine — I like something funny as much as anyone else — but do so without comment. “For as the sound of thorns under the pot, so is the laughter of the stupid one.” — Ecclesiastes 7:6

People who post links to really bad music don’t last long in my circles. I’m a lifetime musician and have precious little time to listen to good music without having to listen to bad music, too.

What’s with this fad for posting pictures of cats? Yes, I like cats and think they can be ridiculously cute, too, but c’mon, man! One a year or so should cover it, right?

These days I check in with Facebook about once a day, and have almost entirely lost my need for Twitter. I’ve moved almost all my social networking activity to Google+, which is far better for a host of reasons beyond the scope of conversation, and well-known to those who have done likewise.

On Google+ I often add large numbers of unknown plusers to a circle, especially by means of recommendations or shared circles. But I keep a watchful eye out for violators, and kick people out frequently.

Let’s keep the high quality rolling on Google+.

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Ulysses by James Joyce — a Reaction

James Joyce

To quote a famous old Alka-Seltzer commercial, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” That was a long song.

If you are searching for an intelligent review of the James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, look elsewhere. The book has been out for a few years. Plenty of literati of all sorts, including hyper-, semi-, and il-, the type who like to read their own writing, have attempted to scribe meaningful words about it. Some of it may even be good reading. I’ll never know, and I’ll avoid getting into that fray myself.

Ulysses seems to be telling a story about some poor cuckold named Leopold Bloom, and another sad sack named Steven Dedalus, but I’ll be darned if I could tell you what it is. Reading the book is like overhearing a private conversation, or maybe a guy talking in his sleep.

Whatever it is the book was about, the language was certainly impressive, even if I didn’t get the drift — as drift it indeed did. The language contains non-stop puns and references, tons of which I even got, much to my surprise. Hey, I’m no dummy. I’ve read stuff. I can’t help but be impressed by the virtuosity, if need for intelligibility is discounted as a necessary value.

What the book tells me about James Joyce himself — supposedly a lot, as we’re told the character of Steven Dedalus is autobiographical — is that he’s arrogant, and that of the top one hundred people in the arts I would love to have been able to meet, he wouldn’t have made the list. I sincerely doubt he could have been a friend of mine.

Another bucket list item checked off.

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About Legacy Posts

As of July 25, 2011, I have migrated over 130 articles from my Neologistics blog, where since August 2005 I have posted many unsorted articles, including items unrelated to editing, writing, or literature. The articles copied from the old site have all been labeled with the category LEGACY.

It has been a longstanding shortcoming of Google’s otherwise excellent blog service that authors cannot order the display in any way except chronologically, with the newest material on top. In contrast, WordPress allows assigning any number of categories to any post, allowing visitors variety in sifting and sorting.

In addition, it also makes sense to me not to have to support two blogs at once. This morning I posted my last article to the old site, announcing my intention to use this one exclusively from now on.

The job of migration is done. Each older article’s publication date has been revised to show the date of its original publication on the other site.

Readers may find some of these articles enjoyable. I invite you to explore and by all means provide feedback if you would like.

Reading in Installments

At any given time I have between one and seven books in my Recent Reading stack marked as current. These are books that I really am reading at present.

At this writing there are six on the stack:

  1. Washington: A Life (Ron Chernow)
  2. The Elements of Typographic Style (Robert Bringhurst)
  3. The Associated Press Stylebook
  4. Life (Keith Richards)
  5. Marathon & Beyond – Volume 15 Issue 1
  6. Jazz: A History of America’s Music (Goeffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns)

In addition to those, I negotiate daily reading of the Bible, and related study materials, which I don’t count because such reading been an ongoing lifetime habit of mine for the past forty years, like showering and brushing my teeth.

Usually I save concentrated, uninterrupted readthroughs for lighter works, such as John Grisham’s The Confession, which I finished in four sittings two weeks ago, while putting other projects on hold. In that case, one reason for the hurry was because it’s a currently popular book, I had a non-renewable two-week checkout limit on my Bexley Library copy, and Suzy wanted to read it, too — and did.

When the list grows to more than two items I think of myself as reading pieces of books in installments. When it’s backed up to more more than three, I almost never get to more than three on any given day.

For heavy-duty tomes of non-fiction (Washington), technical books (The Elements of Typographic Style), or reference books (The AP Stylebook), I view each time I pick them up as lessons, as though I were studying them in school.

Books I own I annotate. For those I get from the library I often collect notes in a series of commonplace notebooks, though doing so slows down my reading.

I’m not exactly slow, but I’m not an unusually fast reader either, but make no apologies for it, since I’m not competing with anyone else; and I adjust pace according to need. At times I can tear through fifty pages in an hour, but at others, in deeply technical material, an hour’s labor can move me no more than six pages ahead.

Just as Indian musicians view some ragas as appropriate only on certain occasions or times of day, I categorize my reading. When I sit down with my first cup of coffee for the day (generally between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m.) is not the time to read a legal thriller or about the insane lifestyles of the Rolling Stones. I wake up quickly and tend to reach my mental peak for the day early, so find early morning is the best time to tackle spiritual, technical, reference, and historical works, often fueling me with thoughts for what I need to accomplish in the day ahead. The evening, when my work for the day is done, is the time for work that is more purely entertaining. If I fall asleep while reading, it doesn’t matter.

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Pale Fire — Vladimir Nabokov

Cover of
Cover of Pale Fire

Vladimir Nabokov‘s 1963 novel Pale Fire appears on a number of lists purporting to identify the greatest novels of the twentieth century. I wouldn’t dare to attempt a literary analysis of Pale Fire. It’s been a staple of literature classes for over forty years, and countless reviews and scholarly studies have been created for it; also a number of study guides, replete with pseudo-analyses. These are readily found on the Internet.

Recently I wrote an article about the movie Bright Star, about the life of the romantic poet John Keats. Now here I am, writing a reminiscence of a novel titled Pale Fire, about a poem of the same name by a fictional poet John Shade. The title similarity amuses me. Of course, the coincidence has utterly no significance.

For readers unfamiliar with Nabokov’s novel, the basic story goes like this: The main character is a lunatic named Charles Kinbote, who claims to be the deposed and exiled King Charles the Beloved from Zembla, located “far to the north.” He moves in right next to John Shade and his wife Sybil. Shade is a highly respected poet who teaches at a college in Appalachia. Kinbote, a Shakespeare expert, has come there to teach at the same college, and befriends Shade. It becomes clear rather quickly that Shade has only courteously pretended interest in his neighbor, whereas Kinbote is sycophantically obsessed by Shade, who is hard at work on a new lengthy poem, which turns out to be autobiographical, but which Kinbote imagines will be about Zembla and his role there as king. While waiting anxiously for the completed poem, Kinbote makes a pest of himself to the Shades. Sybil Shade refers to Kinbote as “an elephantine tick; a king-sized botfly; a macao worm; the monstrous parasite of a genius.” He has not endeared himself to the Shade household.

In the end, on the day Shade completes his poem, another lunatic, a man known as Gradus, appears out of nowhere, and shoots John Shade dead. Kinbote is convinced that the man was a professional but inept assassin whose real target was the escaped King. The police determine he is really an escapee from an asylum for the criminally insane who has come to kill a judge who sent him up, but who stupidly kills the wrong man, both in the real part of the story, and in Kinbote’s imagined version of it. Kinbote steals the poem, goes into hiding, and writes the commentary that constitutes the bulk of the book.

I’ve obviously left out a lot, but there is far more to this novel than the story. Most unusual is its structure, which on the surface consists of a Foreword written by Dr. Charles Kinbote, followed by the 999-line poem “Pale Fire” by John Shade, and 250 pages of commentary on the poem, once again by Dr. Charles Kinbote, including an index of about ten pages. Outwardly, the book looks like a scholarly book of literary analysis. However, every word of the Foreword, poem, commentary, and index are fiction written by Vladimir Nabokov, and form a complete and engrossing novel.

Rather than write more about the story, which is obtainable elsewhere, I wish to comment on the copy I had in my possession, which came from the general circulation shelves of the Bexley Library.

After reading every single word on the jacket and in the front-matter before the novel’s text begins (there’s very little), I concluded that I held in my hands an genuine first edition, first impression of one of the great novels in English literature.

  1. The cover says “Pale Fire/ A New Novel by Vladimir Nabokov/ Author of Lolita“.
  2. At the top of the inside front cover flap are the words “First Impression”, and flush right at the same height it says PF/ $5.00. (Might PF stand for “prix fixe”?)
  3. On the copyright page it says “© 1962 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons,” etc. There’s a Library of Congress Catalog Card Number, but no ISBN number, as ISBN numbers were first instituted in 1966. And at the bottom of that few lines of text, separated by some blank space, in small caps, are once again the words “FIRST IMPRESSION“.
  4. The rest, until the back jacket cover is all Nabokov’s work. On the inside back flap is a one-paragraph biography of Nabokov, current to 1962, and on the back cover, only a photo of Nabokov, with no words whatever.

The book is in excellent condition. Of course the library has stuck its own goo on it, such as the cellophane cover over the jacket, and various stickers and stamps. The binding started to come loose from the cover, but it’s been well mended. On about six pages here are the scribblings of a child from a black ball point pen. (Regrettable.)

I’m humbled by the realization of what I’d been permitted to bring home from the library, to treat no differently than if it were a Sunset book on gardening or a collection of Garfield cartoons. (Which, as a respecter of library property, is carefully, regardless of content, but not everyone is so inclined.)

Pale Fire probably doesn’t get checked out very often. This is the sort of item that an unscrupulous person might claim was “lost” and then resell for far more than the cost of a replacement, which would likely be some later edition, not a collector’s item.

I’m no rare books collector, but for very rough comparison I found a resource on the Internet about determining the value of first edition novels that used Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse Five as an example. At the time it was written, the numbers looked like this, depending on the condition of the book:

Fine / Fine: $1,500
Fine / Near Fine: $1,250
Near Fine / Very Good+: $750
Very Good+ / Very Good: $400
Very Good / Very Good-: $250
Good / Good: $100

It pointed out that the first edition first pressing of Slaughterhouse Five was rather small, so available copies are extremely rare. I can’t say how collectors might value a copy of Pale Fire as compared with a copy of Slaughterhouse Five in the same condition.

I wondered if the library tracks these things, so when I returned it today, I asked a librarian. She said that the Bexley library has no way to take special care of rare books, that the book was probably bought new and has just been on the shelves all this time. Yes, it’s possible that someone could report it missing, pay the replacement cost, and sell it for personal profit.

No, I’m not thinking of doing it myself.

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Ultrarunning Hyperbole

Sahara Desert
Image via Wikipedia

Certain tainted words occur repeatedly in journalism about ultrarunning, all of which cause noisy alarms to go off in my head whenever I see them. The four most frequent culprits are:

  1. crazy
  2. grueling
  3. test[ing] limits
  4. extreme

Rarely have I ever read an article about ultrarunning by a non-ultrarunner that does not use the word crazy to describe the distance or the mindset of the runner.

I’ve never read an article written by someone who doesn’t do it himself that doesn’t describe the 135-mile Badwater race through Death Valley to the Mount Whitney Portal, or a 100-mile mountain trail race, or for that matter a 24-hour race as grueling. It’s as if grueling were an automatic part of the event label: “Next month I’m going to do a grueling 24-hour race, and the month after that, a grueling 100-mile race.” They’re all grueling, right? I don’t know of a single such race that anyone would consider easy.

The knee-jerk response of many runners, when put on the spot with a question about why they runs ultras, having not prepared an answer beforehand, is, “To test my limits,” or words to that effect. Sometimes it’s, “To see what I’m made of.” And guess what? The answer is always flesh, blood, and bone, just like the rest of us, and in the case of ultrarunners who like to talk about their sport, perhaps also a larger than usual intestinal bag of poo.

I can’t remember when I’ve ever run any distance to test my limits. God help me if I ever reach them. Then what? Congratulate myself and die?

And to persons who customarily view a standard marathon as the “ultimate challenge” (which, when you see several thousand persons young and old of all levels of fitness lined up to start, you realize it’s far from being), any distance longer than that must be extreme. (See my article Half Crazy.)

To me, the word extreme brings to mind the world of X Games, the domain of testoserone-fueled backward-hatted, muscle-shirted, tattooed and pierced, foolhardy risk-takers who live on the edge of life and society (and a few of their female counterparts). I’ve always maintained that ultrarunning in general, as tough as it is to do well, is not an extreme sport in that sense of the word. That category of activity, in my view, must include elements of great danger over which people have little control — like jumping out of airplanes and bungee jumping. Also, I don’t care much to watch rock climbers without ropes for the same reason. It’s just stupid to risk one’s life that way.

Which is not to say that there are not certain events in ultrarunning that could be classified as such. The Barkley, which hardly anyone ever finishes, is pretty weird, but at least no one has died doing it yet. So is the Marathon du Sables across the Sahara Desert. Some people think of the Pike’s Peak Marathon as extreme, but I would call that an unusually tough marathon with one big hill, not an extreme event. One day I ran into an old man running down the street wearing a Pike’s Peak Marathon t-shirt. We stopped and talked. He was in his mid-seventies, had run the race eight times, and was planning on continuing to do so as long as he was able. Didn’t strike me as an extremist. He did it because he could and knew how, not to tempt death, which at his age was likely not far away no matter what.

So the next time you hear about some crazy extreme runner finishing a grueling 100-mile race in order to test his limits, don’t believe it.

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Bone — Jeff Smith

Cover of
Cover of Crown of Horns (Bone, Vol. 9)

Cover of Crown of Horns (Bone, Vol. 9) Exactly one year ago today Suzy and I attended the world premiere of a documentary about comic book artist Jeff Smith, who is from Columbus area, and a graduate of The Ohio Statue University. Smith is famous in the world of comic book art as the creator of Bone, an epic graphic novel. The work has been translated into about fifteen languages, has sold over a million copies, and has been given two or three dozen different awards. I wouldn’t have guessed there are that many awards for comic books.

Though I have long loved good cartooning, as one who has had no interest whatever in comic books since my childhood days of Superman, Batman, and the Disney characters—particularly Scrooge McDuck—Smith and his work was utterly unfamiliar to me. When I saw the documentary, for which Jeff Smith was personally present, and the long line of people, including many adults, who were present to meet him and have him autograph their personal copies of Bone, I knew I had to put it on my reading list.

Bone is published in nine volumes, which I obtained recently from the Columbus Metropolitan Library. I spent about a day per volume reading the nine volumes, a total of 1375 pages, adding up the numbered pages, and finished it two or three days ago.

Anyone prejudiced against comic books might think that the term “graphic novel” to be pretentious, but Bone deserves the designation because it tells a continuous and well-crafted story.

The original comics were drawn and published in black and white, and then combined under one cover, which I have seen. Smith thought he was finished, until a friend told him that he really must republish the series with color added.

What I received from the library in three different trips was all nine volumes, but a total of eleven books. One volume they sent me both the color and the black and white versions, and another they sent me two identical color volumes. Two volumes arrived only in black and white. They are all still sitting on my desk behind me, waiting to be returned. Suzy is in the middle of the last volume herself, so I’m waiting for her to finish.

Smith’s friend was right: the added color is brilliantly done, so much so that I can’t imagine the book without it. Nonetheless, Smith had become a superstar in the world of comics well before the series was completed in black and white.

The story is readable by young readers, but includes much detail it to keep adults entertained. The main characters are the three Bone cousins: Fone Bone, the cheerful nice guy; Phoney Bone, who is driven relentlessly by sheer greed that drives him to perpetrate crazy schemes, but remains strangely likeable nonetheless; and Smiley Bone, about whom Fone Bone says, “He doesn’t have a brain,” though he proves to have a heart and many likeable qualities. Smiley Bone is definitely the Ringo of the group, as the trio would be incomplete without him.

The three are white like Casper the Ghost. Fone Bone is generally seen without clothing but carries a knapsack; Phoney Bone wears a t-shirt with a star on the chest; and Smiley Bone wears a vest and usually can materialize a cigar, which is never smoked or even commented on.

The other characters include a human girl named Thorn, drawn to appear drop dead gorgeous but not at all sexually provocative, appearing to be between sixteen and years old. Her grandmother Gran’ma Ben, who squints, wears a white apron, and has a mouth that both smiles and scowls simultaneously. Gran’ma Ben is as vigorous as Yiannis Kouros, runs many miles a day, races cows, proves to be a dynamic leader, and an invincible warrior. Thorn does not know it at the start, but Gran’ma Ben was a queen. Thorn’s parents, a king and queen, were killed in a war while fleeing from their city of Atheia, which makes Thorn a princess, and one who has special as yet undiscovered powers. At the beginning Gran’ma Ben and Thorn are living together in a tiny cabin in the woods.

There is a supporting cast of hilarious characters: a friendly dragon with floppy ears, a bug of unnamed type named Ted, drawn as a tiny green triangle with four little black legs sticking out of it, packs of rabid monsters called rat creatures who try to kill and eat whatever they can find, two in particular who remind me of Laurel and Hardy, love quiche, and are always bickering with one another, an inn and tavern full of humans men, and gigantic mountain lion named Roque Ja—the “r”should be rolled, but the Bone cousins call him Rock Jaw, evil hooded personages, and a host of others. Numerous new people are introduced in later volumes, some only briefly.

Fone Bone, the main character, the nicest guy, who becomes enamoured of Thorn, carries a backpack, with apparently nothing in it except a copy of his favorite book, Moby Dick, about which he can soliloquize at great length, causing everyone to fall into instant slumber. This becomes one of the running jokes for adults. In one episode Fone Bone and Smiley Bone are a hair’s breadth from being devoured by a pack of slavering, screeching rat creatures, when Smiley dives for Fone Bone’s back pack and begins reading: Call me Ishmael! whereupon the pack of rat monsters is rendered catatonic, frozen in sleep out of instantaneous boredom.

Later on Smiley finds a cub rat monster and cares for it, and it becomes friendly. He names it Bartleby, another nod to Herman Melville.

The story line eventually gets quite involved in intricate plot details in the manner of much fantasy fiction, a genre of which I am not generally a fan. I could care less about a tale of the struggle between mythical forces of good and evil. But story this is so well told with sufficient humorous twists that I couldn’t put it down for the humor, in addition to which it is brilliantly drawn.

Some main characters do die during the course of the story, so it’s not all a barrel of laughs.

There is a bit of pseudo Biblical allegory in the plot, though it’s obviously not intended to mimic the Bible too closely. There are great dragons (good guys) and Mim, the greatest dragon (very bad), and a Time of the End (or the End Times). Thorn is a vaguely messianic figure, who gradually learns her role in life, is abused and suffers for a while as she attempts to seek the Crown of Horns, which sounds much like a Crown of Thorns, and particularly so given her name is Thorn; thus when she accomplishes it, it becomes a sort of “Crown of Thorn’s” as it were. Except the crown is not a crown at all, but a stone wall deep under the earth, and it is not to be worn, but touched. Furthermore, Thorn is trapped in a dead bad monster’s jaws with a giant tooth through her thigh and cannot reach it, but she can touch Fone Bone, who can in turn reach the wall, upon which Good Things happen.

But more remains to be wrapped up after that, as there is an apocalyptic ending, where the floppy eared good dragon appears, calls up a horde of thousands of fellow dragons deep out of the earth who rise up, surround the giant bad dragon Mim, and carry it down into a massive pit within the earth that closes behind them, which is the end of this particular war of good versus evil.

Did you get all that? Were you taking notes? I don’t think I gave too much away that matters.

The ending, which takes a couple more chapters to spin out, is of course happy, and surprisingly mild, as the three Bone cousins get on a wagon and head back to Boneville, from which they were driven because of one of Phoney Bone’s crazy misguided plots a year before, as Phoney is foiled in his attempt to pull yet another dishonest stunt even upon their exit.

Bone is entertaining, well crafted, and very much worth reading by young and old alike; but don’t get started unless you’re okay with plowing through 1375 pages of comic book.

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A Thought on Literary Precision

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Compare the consequences of a lack of a single punctuation mark in English and in software. Imagine what would happen if high school students were not permitted to graduate for failing to insert a quotation mark in an essay.

I’ve heard the likely apocryphal story of how the lack of a semicolon in a controller program’s source code has led to rocket ships and their passengers falling from the sky to flaming, screaming death.

The lack of a closing quotation mark in a program’s source file recently caused the company I work for not to get money from clients who had signed up for things they are supposed to pay for, resulting in most of a day’s work on the part of a couple of engineers to rectify everything.

They’re not going to fire the programmer who made the mistake for the booboo. It was just one of those embarrassing little things that happen sometimes with software. But the experience illustrates that in software, precision is of the utmost importance.

While I don’t wish either flaming death or failure to advance in school on persons who make silly writing mistakes, I do wish that in this age of electronic communication people would take greater care with their written correspondence.

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again. — Oscar Wilde

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Fantastic Writing

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At this moment my wife is sitting in the living room watching Lord of the Rings. I tried watching it when it first came out, but fell asleep, and have had no further interest in watching the others. I also fell asleep watching the first Harry Potter movie, and have not wanted to see the others.

Fantasy as a genre in literature and movies has never interested me much. It seems far too easy to just make up stuff that doesn’t make sense, starting from almost any premise or situation, and just keep writing until you have enough to make a book or a movie. For instance:

The Gargon of Morillaland has absconded with the magic Feuerstalk and taken it across the river Fluss, leaving the little people of Imp Valley in mortal danger of attack by the fearsome Giganticus. According to the Scroll of Profesius, only the long-awaited Mesheah, a descendant of the legendary Gutmensch, has the power to overcome the Curse of Gewhilakers that prevents the Impantile Army from traversing the mighty Fluss to confront Gargon and recover their beloved icon, but to date there has been no sign of Mesheah making an appearance.

Lawdy! What’s they gwine to do???

I could write another 3000 pages and make millions on the movie rights. Will I? Ummm. I don’t think so.

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Icy Warts

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… or maybe the title should be Eye Sea Wards.

When I hear or speak words, I see them spelled out in my head. Similarly, when I read I tend to see the letters in individual words, so that when called upon to read out loud, I rarely mispronounce words, unless I am outright unfamiliar with them.

Until recently, I have always supposed everyone does likewise. Upon inquiring of some other literate people, I was surprised to find that no one else I asked sees words.

Yesterday I heard my favorite NPR commentator Daniel Schorr use a word I have seen written but have never used myself, nor ever heard pronounced: “colloquy”, which is a conversation or a dialogue, particularly one that is formal or written down.

I was surprised to hear him say it with the first syllable accented, for until yesterday I had heard it in my head with the accent on the second syllable, as in the word “colloquialism.” Nonetheless, I saw the spelled-out word flash up in my head as with a red flag, because I knew the word’s meaning, but its pronunciation turned out to be different from what I expected. (Many listeners probably know neither.)

A quick check of an on-line dictionary verifies the venerable Mr. Schorr’s pronunciation to be spot on.

At the same time I considered it to be a delightful coincidence that it was that particular word that would serve to demonstrate my apparently anomalous tendency, in that it gave me an opportunity to develop this blog entry on the topic, a blog itself being essentially a form of colloquy.

As I am writing this, I hear in my head Daniel Schorr’s precise and fatherly voice reading it back to me. (Dream on!) Will my quirkiness never cease?

I’m glad we had this little colloquy.

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Why Do I Write?

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Recently I posted a comment to an excellent article written by a friend on Ergo Sum. What I wrote works well as a standalone thought, so I decided to post it here as well.

Why do I write? One reason is to teach myself.

Whenever I begin to write something — as I have just now done — I rarely know what it is that I want to say, only that I have something to say, and want to let it out. By the time I am finished, I do know what it was that I wanted to say. In the process I have learned something. Because I generally write alone, without the influence of others, except by means of research, it’s not unfair to say that I have thereby taught myself something derived from my reasoning and meditation on the topic at hand.

There does not have to be an audience in order for me to write. I am my own primary audience. I will read what I have written and then reread it. If I read it again years later and have changed my mind about what I have written, or find that I could have said it better, I will change it, because I am pathologically incapable of reading a sentence under the control of an editor and not editing it. In fact, I’m engaged in that very activity right now! And in migrating this article from my older blog where it was originally posted I did it again.

Our need to teach ourselves reminds me of what the apostle Paul said at Romans 2:21: “Do you, however, the one teaching someone else, not teach yourself?” Most people desire at some level to be teachers when they speak or write, to be conveyors of information in some sense of that expression. In speech we have only the speed of thought’s opportunity to edit what we say. Perhaps that is one reason some of the best thinkers also use word whiskers and regressions when they speak — they are searching for les bon mots, and are already revising in their heads their just-made expressions.

Another Bible-related thought that comes to mind is the obligation that Christians acknowledge to be teachers of others, an activity in which I myself happily engage. Many is the time I have experienced, when called on ‘to make a defense before others who demand a reason for’ the things I know and believe, that upon articulating some matter to another person, I have in turn clarified it in my own mind, strengthening my own understanding, and in turn my faith. (1 Peter 3:15) It is not unusual in such circumstances for me to think to myself afterward: “Zounds! I didn’t know I knew that!”

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Rant on Writing

This diatribe was originally foisted upon a class of unmotivated and nearly illiterate university students. It was my job to attempt to teach them something about Unix and Linux, while also demanding, as a matter of school policy, that they upgrade their largely nonexistent writing skills.

If you write well, you will be able to do many things in life. If you cannot, you will find yourself correspondingly limited.

Therefore, writing well matters a great deal to me from both ends of the communications spectrum. I make an effort to write my best even in rapid-fire email exchanges.

Language is the primary tool of human thought. It is invariably true that a person who cannot write or speak effectively also cannot think clearly. Excuses such as “I’m a numbers guy,” or “I’m a programmer, not an English professor,” merely manifest the speaker’s desire to beg off the issue, and to mask fundamental intellectual shortcomings. In contrast, many of the most brilliant technical minds have been superlative writers. Donald Knuth, Douglas Hoffstadter, Richard M. Stallman, and Eric Raymond are just four that readily come to mind.

I refuse myself the luxury of such laziness, and wish that others who desire to communicate with me in writing would make the same effort to express themselves clearly in the full range of their writing, whatever form that might take.

Guidelines on Formatting in Plain Text

A great deal in the way of formatting can be
accomplished in plain text, even without markup. My
email messages always follow the principles I've
learned over the years.

 joe> This is a quote of a message from Joe Blow,
 joe> which is neatly indented with citation software.

 sue> Persons who insist on using braindead tools will
 sue> produce work that looks like it was written by
 sue> braindead authors. Your work can be only as good
 sue> as the tools you use will allow you to be.

Set a narrow margin width. My practice is to wrap
paragraphs at 55 characters in email, and 60, 65, or 70
characters for other things, depending on what it is.
Narrow columns of text are much easier to read than
wide ones, and easier to quote in email as well.

Here are some other tips:

o *Do* use line breaks. No one likes to read email or
 anything else where the lines extend forever.

o Put blank lines between paragraphs.

o Bullet lists can be created to look like this one,
 using an "o" character to represent the bullet.
 Notice how second and following lines indent.

 - Bullet lists can even be nested.

 - You can choose another character such as a minus
   sign for the bullet in sublists.

o Emphasis (normally indicated by *italics*), can be
 emulated by putting text between *asterisks*.

o When sending email, always turn off HTML unless it is
 needed for some special purpose. HTML email is
 *evil.* It's usually ugly, it's hard to quote, and it
 is loaded with security holes. Many recipients *hate*
 HTML email (including me), and many mail lists ban
 it.

        A Centered Main Title
        =====================

Main titles can be centered and indicated as primary
points with an equal sign underline.

Subheadings Are Underlined
--------------------------

A subheading can look like the one that precedes this
paragraph. If you have something you would like to
quote, it can be indented.

   Any Web developer who is unconcerned about browser
   compatibility should be shot. -- Dwight Newton[1]

[1] My brother. Because there is no bottom of the page
   in this type text, my custom is usually to put a
   footnote immediately after the paragraph where
   it appears.

Sometimes we have need for hanging paragraphs, as in a
glossary list:

 SHELL  The SHELL variable usually is set to the name of
    your login shell.

 TERM   The TERM variable is set to the type of
   terminal you are using. In a graphics environment
   it is often set to xterm, but on real character
   terminals is it often vt100.

 HOME   The HOME variable is set to your login
   directory. Therefore, when you execute a command
   such as:

     ls -l $HOME

   it shows the files in that directory regardless of
   what your current directory is.

Finally, tables can generally be created without too
much trouble, and in most cases look just fine.[2]

 Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
         YY  YY  NN  YY     [55.82]
 NN  YY  YY  YY  YY  YY  NN [21.83]
 YY  YY  YY  YY  YY  NN  YY [47.30] Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
 YY  20  21  22  23  24  25 {35}     10  2w   5 10k   5   2   5
 26  27  28  29  30  31     {52}      R  40  2w  3    5   2  DA

 nn:KK mm.dd h:mm:ss.dd mm:ss.dd mm.dd comments
 ----- ----- ---------- -------- ----- --------
 01:    5.02 0:52:23.00 10:26.11 37.82 22
 02:WQ  3.08 0:42:07.41 13:39.95 30.86 22; w48
 03:
 04:Q  34.96 7:06:39.00 12:12.17 55.82 22
 06:E   2.03 0:28:05.87 13:52.29 52.04 22; w15
 07:    3.08 0:31:12.00 10:07.32       22; w20
 08:W   4.05 0:54:10.89 13:22.46 47.20 22

[2] Of course, this is all much easier to do with an
   editor like Emacs!
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