Turn the Page

It’s unlikely that you’ve ever heard of Jerry Pournelle, unless you’re into science fiction, or you’re a computerhead. Jerry used to write a column for a long defunct magazine called Byte. The column was called Chaos Manor, and I used to read it in the 1980’s. It was well-written, informative, and I thought the name reflected my own life pretty well.

Back in those days, drawing on the experience of older people I knew, I expected my life to become calmer and less chaotic with age. How wrong I was.

Thirty years ago information was a preciosity. What ten year olds now take for granted was simply unattainable. It’s difficult to read someone every week and not be curious about where they live, what they’ve done, how they look. As an example, suppose you wanted to find out where John Le Carré lived. Well, you don’t even have to know his name is David Cornwell in order to find out he has lived for forty years in the same village in Cornwall, called St. Buryan. And that he owns a mile of cliff there, near Land’s End.

And if I wrote him a letter addressed to John Le Carré, St. Buryan, Cornwall, U.K., it would be delivered. Like writing to Santa, North Pole. I’ve read every book Le Carré has written, usually finished it within a month of it coming out. But the internet let me find an essay he wrote in 2003 called The US has gone mad. I love the father and son conversation in it, vintage Le Carré. And his comments on Blair and the British involvement in the Iraq war are priceless.

Jeery Pournelle has a website, but it is somewhat unkempt. Partly that is in keeping with the notion of chaos manor, but it may well be because he was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2008, and obviously that shifts your priorities pretty radically. In the 1980s, it was almost impossible to find accurate information about people, unless they wanted to give it to you. Now it’s almost impossible not to find it.

It would have been impossible to research and write The India Road in a one year period were it not for search engines, map engines, second hand book sites, crackpot blogs, and many other resources. Tide prediction algorithms, medieval units tables, and so much else. For instance, if you type 10 leagues in fathoms into Google, it will do the conversion.

The Apple IIe, a computer from thirty years ago. Apple's products were a little less sexy then.

In the 1980’s there was no talk of sovereign debt, and although computers were becoming more common, they were standalone tools, with the exception of email, which was clunky and slow. Phones were anything but smart. And China was wrapped up in the cultural revolution, rather than world dominance. Now the U.S. is printing money like there’s no tomorrow, China aspires to a reserve currency, and Europe is upside down. If it wasn’t, how could it have a German pope and an Italian central banker?

Apparently, Pournelle describes his politics as slightly to the right of Genghis Khan,  but I never read anything political from him, and I couldn’t really care. He did come up with a couple of laws, of which my favorite is the Iron Law of Bureaucracy. Stated in its original form:

In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.

I have found this to be true in every organization I’ve been involved with. If you think about it, you have too.

In scientific research, this has become increasingly common―so much effort is forced upon scientists in order to satisfy the administrative demands of funding science, that very little science is actually done. In a truly Machiavellian twist, this increases bean counting rules and controls, since apparently the scientists are not doing much science at all. After all, this is public money we’re talking about.

Pournelle’s site includes a column that appeared in Byte in 1996, entitled How to get my job. Read it if you’re interested in writing, but at least retain this:

To be an author, you must first be a writer; and while it’s easy to be an author, being a writer is hard work. Surprisingly, it may be only hard work; that is, while some people certainly have more talent for writing than others, everyone has some. The good news is that nearly anyone who wants to badly enough can make some kind of living at writing. The bad news is that wanting to badly enough means being willing to devote the time and work necessary to learn the trade.

The secret of becoming a writer is that you have to write. You have to write a lot. You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet. If you don’t learn to finish your work, no one will ever want to see it. The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.

I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it. You may be ashamed of it later, but that’s another story.

Among other gems, there is a link to an essay on writing, penned by none other than George Orwell. Five simple recommendations are made by the great man. And then a sixth.

(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 can’t imagine a better primer for scientific writing, or for plain language. For me this all translates into a simple statement.

Writing is hard, so reading can be easy.

The internet has allowed anyone to be a published author, and one of the great obstacles to circulation, i.e. the printed book itself, with its dependent circuit of distributors, book stores, cafeterias, concert dates, and free wifi, is on its way out. You may not like it. I may not like it. But that won’t stop it happening. At home, kids are growing up without paper, except for schoolwork.

Amazon has been at the forefront of the paperless book. By converting the book into a digital product, it has completely shifted the goalposts of the business.

Think of a book that is not new, that you recall seeing in dusty library shelves at school, a classic forever (what an ephemeral word that is) associated with heavy leather binding. How about Tolstoy’s War and Peace? In some of the schools I attended it was used as a weapon by teachers, to bang you on the head if you talked. Which I did. Ah, schooldays, the best days of your life.

A weighty tome such as this Russian classic is easy to find on Amazon. I type in the title, and while I’m at it, I select in books.  That’ll narrow it down.

Here it is. Now let’s have a look. Maybe I could get a copy. Even if I have no patience to read it, I can conjure up a host of people I’d enjoy banging over the head. For pedagogical reasons, of course.

First two hits? Paperback. Now that’s not going to hurt anyone. Price? For the first one, $11.16. With the euro exchange rate, that’s less than ten euros. Great. I didn’t really mean to hit anybody anyhow. Oh look, there’s a Kindle edition. Funny, I thought I specified books.

What? It’s free? And I get it right now? A free download in under a minute? Surely you’re kidding, Mr. Bezos.

Scroll down. Next hit. The Kindle version is more expensive than the printed book. By eleven cents. But I need to pay postage if I want the old school version!

How about hit number three? A Kindle version for $3.44. And it has a bunch of extra features, too.

This edition has special Kindle enabled features, including interactive table of contents, text-to-speech capabilities which enable audiobook features, as well as words that can be looked up on the Kindle supplied built in dictionary.

Well, that’s tempting. Reading this on a smartphone is out of the question, but on a tablet? A Kindle, an IPad, a Galaxy Tab? That’s kind of paperback size. And look, it’s culture for the masses. War and Peace in Uganda. Or Burma. Instantly.

How about schools? I was educated in English schools where you put a deposit down for your books. You got it back if your books were not defaced at the end of the year. But in many countries, parents spend a fortune on schoolbooks. Every year. And every year the books keep changing. It’s not called a curriculum, it’s called a racket.

Publishers hedge their bets, because the book stores only accept books on consignment. So if a publisher prints 100,000 geography books and only half get sold, he’s left with a big pile of paper. Worthless paper, because next year it will be a different book. So he prints 10,000. They sell out. By the time the second edition comes out, your kid is half-way through term. And he still thinks geography is something to do with recreational running (sorry).

Kids might deface their books, but they won’t deface their IPad. They would in fact shed blood to defend it.

There is a small catch about these e-books. Although Adobe’s portable document format (pdf) is perfectly serviceable, these babies have a proprietary format. Amazon’s is called AZW. No guesses what the AZ bit stands for. But all the players (pun intended) have their different formats. It’s the VHS/Betamax, Windows/Android/Iphone/Symbian story. It’s dejá vu all over again, Yogi!

Oh, about that paperback thing?

I was lying. I’ll just bang ’em over the head with a Kindle.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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One Response to “Turn the Page”

  1. Frances Says:

    Perfect blog for someone in the middle of writing exam papers; trying not to think of the good book on my bedside and avoiding the trip to buy my Guardian and Irish Times! Reading is being at the restaurant table; the writers are sweating in the kitchens… Keep at it!

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