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April 16, 2009

Did starting a massive forest fire inspire Thoreau?

Woods burner - The Boston Globe

But there is one curious event in the life of Henry David Thoreau that has received little attention, and which may have been a formative event, influencing not only his decision to sequester himself at Walden Pond, but also the development of his environmentalist philosophy. On April 30, 1844, Thoreau started a blaze in the Concord Woods, scorching a 300-acre swath of earth between Fair Haven Bay and Concord. The fire was an accident, but the destruction of valuable woodland, the loss of firewood and lumber, and the narrowly avoided catastrophe that almost befell Concord itself angered the local residents and nearly ruined Thoreau's reputation. For years afterward, Thoreau could hardly walk the streets of his hometown without hearing the epithet "woods burner."

That the father of American environmentalism could have been the scourge of the Concord Woods may seem too ironic to be true. Yet, not only did this unlikely event actually occur, but it seems quite possible that, given Thoreau's general lack of direction at the time, as well as his growing interest in pursuing a career as a civil engineer, America's first great naturalist might not have undertaken his Walden experiment at all, had it not been for the forest fire he sparked a year earlier. The fire happened at a time when Thoreau seemed desperately in need of some catalyst to convert his thoughts into action.

April 15, 2009

Warren Ellis is now writing for Wired UK

Wired UK Columnist Warren Ellis: 'We're living in the last days of the Roman empire'

You're welcome.

These are truly the last days. How else can you account for Britain being ruled by an unelected leader who is also Scottish? Who saw that coming when William Wallace was having his bowels hacked out and incinerated in front of him at Smithfield seven centuries ago? Bloody nobody. This is the problem with writing fiction in the early 21st century: the real world outdoes you for madness every day. You’d be overdoing it, as a fiction writer, if you had Congolese bushfighters eating their enemies’ flesh during an ebola outbreak… except that it’s happening as I write.

It’s a serious problem. A couple of years ago, I wrote a scene into an early part of a novel wherein the protagonist is faced with a group of middle-aged men who get together to have exotic sex with ostriches. That is, opposed to plain old vanilla sex with ostriches. It only took a few years before Swedish authorities found a group of middle-aged men who got together to have sex with a variety of animals. Wonderfully, when confronted, one of the zoophiles said the dog had forced him into it. Sometimes I suspect the real function of communications technology is to illustrate, frostily and nakedly, just how frightening the details of life on Earth are. There was a time when it would have been hard for a writer to discover that, in New York, 129 paramedics have been implicated in investigations of sexual assault inside ambulances, with side dishes of child porn. In fact, the easiest way for a writer to find that out in the past would have been to stand on a Manhattan street corner, fake a seizure and wait. With legs firmly crossed. Correctly tuned, the internet brings a staggering volume of detail about every moment on the planet right to my desk.

For someone who earns a living through consideration of outbreaks of The Future, it’s all useful information, but that’s all it is. For the parsing and condensation of that information into knowledge, it seems we still need the structure of print publishing, a form that insists on time to think, digest and present.

April 14, 2009

Obama reads Where The Wilds Things Are

Obama reads to you from 'Where the Wild Things Are'

FUCK YES.

April 11, 2009

50 Years of Stupid Grammat Advice with The Elements of Style

50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice - ChronicleReview.com

The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.

The authors won't be hurt by these critical remarks. They are long dead. William Strunk was a professor of English at Cornell about a hundred years ago, and E.B. White, later the much-admired author of Charlotte's Web, took English with him in 1919, purchasing as a required text the first edition, which Strunk had published privately. After Strunk's death, White published a New Yorker article reminiscing about him and was asked by Macmillan to revise and expand Elements for commercial publication. It took off like a rocket (in 1959) and has sold millions.

This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian. Despite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public, and the subject was stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century.