The problem with Popular Science

At least he didn't use a red and white color scheme. That's even worse than academic dishonesty.

At least he didn’t use a red and white color scheme. That’s even worse than academic dishonesty.

Malcolm Gladwell, popular author of collections of counter-intuitive factoids, recently published a new book, and it’s catching a lot of flack. As the AV Club puts it:

Malcolm Gladwell has made a mint taking true-life stories and statistics, then wrapping them up together into an easily digestible whole. Like the writers of Freakonomics, he trades in counter-intuitive arguments, showing how conventional wisdom is, more often than not, wrong. It’s a good hook, and he’s been successful with it over and over again. But every hook can become overused, and Gladwell’s latest, David And Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art Of Battling Giants, fails to recognize that rather obvious lesson.

Wall Street Journal reviewer Christopher Chabris has even harsher words:

To make his point about the general benefits of difficulty, Mr. Gladwell refers to a 2007 experiment in which people were given three mathematical reasoning problems to solve. One group was randomly assigned to read the problems in a clear typeface like the one you are reading now; the other had to read them in a more difficult light-gray italic print. The latter group scored 29% higher, suggesting that making things harder improves cognitive performance. It’s an impressive result on the surface, but less so if you dig a bit deeper.

First, the study involved just 40 people, or 20 per typeface—a fact Mr. Gladwell fails to mention. That’s a very small sample on which to hang a big argument. Second, they were all Princeton University students, an elite group of problem-solvers. Such matters wouldn’t matter if the experiment had been repeated with larger samples that are more representative of the general public and had yielded the same results. But Mr. Gladwell doesn’t tell readers that when other researchers tried just that, testing nearly 300 people at a Canadian public university, they could not replicate the original effect. Perhaps he didn’t know about this, but anyone who has followed recent developments in social science should know that small studies with startling effects must be viewed skeptically until their results are verified on a broader scale. They might hold up, but there is a good chance they will turn out to be spurious.

This flaw permeates Mr. Gladwell’s writings: He excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them.

Gladwell is probably figuring out the same thing Jonah Lehrer did: it’s tough to come up with entertaining articles, and counter-intuitive facts can quickly run out. There isn’t a good solution.

Popular science articles need plenty of elements to truly become popular — catchy titles; punchy analogies; a fast pace; evocative descriptors; a high concept topic; a fetish-level focus on facts or otherwise seemingly quantifiable accomplishments; and, most importantly, the subversive topic, which must confront the audience with a conclusion that seems to contradict commonly-accepted sense but it shown, through fact and analogy, not to.

Not that that isn't a good name, too.

They’re called test tubes, not crazy theory tubes.

The act of subversion is subversive. No, that’s not a tautological statement; rather, it should be obvious. If expectations are around to be subverted, than there must be a reason behind their existence. This reason, as decreed by Occam’s Razor, is typically because the expectation is a decent reflection of reality. As a result, academic articles live an arcadian existence, eking out the occasional 2000 words of fodder from among the cracks between reality and an audience’s expectations of reality. The struggle for an innovative topic, understandably, drives authors to ever more tenuous tricks.

One of the questionable methods of capitalizing on a breakthrough is to jump on one before it’s been properly confirmed. Academia skillfully sidesteps this problem, allowing less refined news services to spew click-bait about the latest particle to exceed the speed of light. Still, articles try to have their cake and consume it too, reporting on speculation while reminding the audience that speculation is all it is. Scientific studies are a grey area sensational enough to be acceptable: the implications of a study proving ______ is proportional to _____ are free to run wild as long as the requisite chestnut that “correlation isn’t causation” gets tossed in there somewhere. Accuracy might not be upheld with both hands, but darned if the topic isn’t entertaining.

Personally, I’ve found a different solution to the problem: I write fiction.

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List of pulpy compilation titles

Ray gun

Ray gun

There’s a soft spot in my heart for pulp, and especially certain very specific types, like rip-offs of Sherlock Holmes or mad scientists. There’s also a fairly specific type of title that many books have in a series that has continued for so long that the titles must only accomplish two things: evoke as much adventure as possible, and remain as non-descript as possible. This list of pulp titles is no “Devil’s Claw,” “Dutchman’s Ghost,” or “Giant Sumerian Rat.” It’s designed to alert you to titles that can reused as often as you’d like.

1. The Adventures of

2. The Return of

3. The Memoirs of

4. The Casebook of

5. The Reminiscences of

6. The Journey of

7. The Chronicles of

8. The Dossier of

9. The Secret Files of

10. The Exploits of

11. The Recollections of

12. The Threat of

13. The Escape of

14. The Sign of

And, not least and  (very often) not even last:

15. The Final Adventures of

How To Pick Your Pseudonym

Pictured: a pseudonym

JK! It’s Rowling.

One of my projects this summer was to self-publish three old novels I have lying around. They’re the sort that I consider good enough to enjoy, but not good enough that my hopefully ever-improving writing style should be associated with them. On top of that, they’re all more or less in the high fantasy genre, one that I hope to avoid in the future. The solution, naturally, is to put them up as ebooks under a pseudonym. However, that choice involves the difficult task of picking a fake name for myself.

Here’s a list of the considerations that I took into account when deciding on my very own pseudonym. Continue reading

Short story: Robin

My college’s literary magazine held a contest: the prompt was to write about a window washer named Robin. At the same time, my professor in the advanced composition class assigned us to write a story in which we adhered to strict sentence lengths: nothing longer than 16 words, the words must never be longer than two syllables, and every sentence must be at least 4 words longer or shorter than the last.

Naturally, I wrote one story that fit both criteria. Here it is.

(In the end, I revised it a bit, adding a few three-syllable words for clarity.)

 

Gray.

 

Robin

 

I lean against the thick metal rail, still angled forward to balance my rig. The chill September day funnels into my rear through the railing. But I don’t mind. My pails are dry; it’s break time. I hit a lever, and start moving up the sixty story building.

I like window washing. There’s no better excuse to peer into the lives of hundreds of strangers. Except maybe holding an audit.

The first forty floors are gray. Gray cubes grip gray men with great piles of grey papers. I can smell the inbound rain and my oily jeans, neither of which are gray. The windows filter; the seat of my pants conducts.

One worker looks up. He blinks like a lizard exposed to sun. His shirt is white and his shoes are black, but his hair is red. He stares ‘til I pull above him, maybe glad for the change of scene or maybe just tired. I’m already gone.

I knock gently against the glass every few feet. Strong wind. Inside, office drones huddle in clumps, breaking off only to scuttle into another group. Moving up. They get more frantic the higher up they are, it seems. Man. I don’t even have to look for the metaphors at this point.

There’s a swift switch at floor fifty, where the senior partners reside among dark leather and crimson carpets. My bay window view is of one man eyeing me from a floor-length painting. He’s got color – trophies, wine, and rows of antique books. Gray’s just in one spot. His head.

With the CEO below, I reach the next level of power. The building sentries. They scan screens and tap keys to survey and secure. Right now, they’re the most frantic. A big red light sputters. Panic.

I have only one story left. Almost safe. One man, a leader, sees me. He pauses. He throws a finger at me. He yells. Work, work, work: It’s clear to me that no one here takes the time to fully enjoy life. That’s why I like the window washer getup: normal art theft can get boring.

Style Imitations

From morguefile.com

One of my  advanced composition homework problems from the past involved imitating the style of other authors, even to the sentence level. It was an eye-opening experience, because I was able to think about every single choice that the author had made in order to construct a single sentence. My task was to recreate the same tone, mood, construction, and all that good stuff, while still giving different information. Here’s what I tried.

Model:

Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man.

Imitation:

Soon there was found a meal of well-seasoned steak, and it through its seasoning redeemed the company picnic; but no one at the event cared about the steak.

Model:

Having been charged with the “Americanization” of the newcomers, they naturally had to take on the task of defining what “an American” was and was not.

Imitation:

Having agreed to reorganize the sock closet, he patiently began by starting the challenge of learning what “a sock” was and was not.

Anyone think they know the sources for the model sentences?

Book review: The Leviathan Trilogy

manual papers

I love Scott Westerfeld’s past work: the Midnighters trilogy is a favorite, and So Yesterday and Peeps are both fun, imaginative stand-along novels. As a result, I was thrilled when I heard about his steampunk trilogy. The steampunk genre has always been centered on aesthetics, with visual art and clothes being it’s most exemplary mediums. The only really great work of steampunk fiction, in my opinion, is the Girl Genius webcomic series, and it’s not even straight steampunk. However, Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy is sadly lackluster, particularly given the fun setting. Like most steampunk novels, the ideas are fun but the execution has problems. To be precise, I’ve boiled it down to two. Continue reading

The Rhetorical Emmett

As one of my final exercises for my Advanced Composition college course, I need to type out examples of various rhetorical devices. True to form, I didn’t budget much time to do this one, but I ended up happy with the results. I picked a theme to make the job easier: Emmett, the character in a series of short stories I’ve written and am publishing as a series of dramatized podcasts in December. For now, you can have a snapshot of Emmett’s personality, in the form of a series of rhetorical examples. Enjoy.

It's a rough sketch, done by my DeviantArt pal Nimphaiwe.

It’s a rough sketch, done by my DeviantArt pal Nimphaiwe.

Parallelism: Emmett was unconventional. His geometry was non-Euclidian, his liquids non-Newtonian, and his attitude about the whole thing disturbingly nonchalant.

Antithesis: Emmett was scientifically smart but social stupid.

Anastrophe: Finesse. Finesse was what Emmett lacked.

Parenthesis: Emmett jogged – his memory, as well as his body – but could never bring himself to work out with weights.

Apposition: Emmett Barclay, the college’s resident mad scientist, surveyed his domain.

Ellipsis: His geometry was non-Euclidian, his liquids non-Newtonian.

Asyndeton: Emmett keeps long hours in the science lab, he creates the eighth wonder of the world, he uses me as a guinea pig, something goes wrong, it all works out fine. That was the way of the world.

Alliteration: The momentous Coke-and-Mentos explosion of ’09 had many morbid moments.

Assonance: Emmett’s Ill-gotten gall and additional attributes couldn’t stop lime liniment.

Anaphora: Never let Emmett invent things. Never let Emmett control small children. And never let Emmett invent a giant catapult specifically for small children.

Epistrophe: I was hard-hearted. He was soft-hearted. Together, we were half-hearted.

Epanalepsis: Relationships only work out with smart girls, and if you were smart, you’d know we wouldn’t work out.

Anadiplosis: Invention led to triumph, triumph led to quirky mishaps, mishaps led to failure, failure led to the status quo, and the status quo, for Emmett, was invention.

Climax: Emmett ignored state, federal, and scientific laws whenever possible.

Antimetabole: For someone with a mind that makes up everything, you can’t seem to make up your mind.

Chiasmus: I enjoyed Emmett; Emmett was hated by many.

Polyptoton: Innovating inventions innovates everything.

Metaphor: Emmett was a bulldog. He latched on to every idea that came his way, hanging on until he’d reduced it to a conclusion.

Simile: Emmett’s hair was like crab-grass. Especially after he accidentally dyed it green during a chemical experiment.

Metonymy: We all offered services: I lent a hand and Emmett lent a potato cannon.

Puns: The only table manners Emmett honored were the periodical ones.

Paronomasia: Emmett gave a peony to his pony peon.

Syllepsis: Emmett pulled a muscle trying to pull my foot.

Anathimera: Emmett Googled the solution.

Periphrasis: He was no Stephan Hawking, but he knew his way around a psychosomatic schematic.

Personification: The tumor glared balefully at me.

Hyperbole: Chemical explosions imprinted on Emmett, and constantly followed him around.

Litotes: I wasn’t very pleased when my left hand tried to kill me.

Irony: Irony is sooo very different from sarcasm.

Onomatopeia: Emmett squeaked, scrabbling for the sky scraper model’s remote.

Oxymoron: Emmett owned one dull sharpie.

Paradox: Only those willing to sound stupid can become smart.