Life imitates art

Did China take a page out of a bestselling American author’s book?

The Eyes of Darkness, a 1981 thriller by bestselling suspense author Dean Koontz, tells of a Chinese military lab that creates a virus as part of its biological weapons programme. The lab is located in Wuhan, which lends the virus its name, Wuhan-400. A chilling literary coincidence or a case of writer as unwitting prophet?

In The Eyes of Darkness, a grieving mother, Christina Evans, sets out to discover whether her son Danny died on a camping trip or if – as suspicious messages suggest – he is still alive. She eventually tracks him down to a military facility where he is being held after being accidentally contaminated with man-made microorganisms created at the research centre in Wuhan.

If that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up, read this passage from the book: “It was around that time that a Chinese scientist named Li Chen moved to the United States while carrying a floppy disk of data from China’s most important and dangerous new biological weapon of the past decade. They call it Wuhan-400 because it was developed in their RDNA laboratory just outside the city of Wuhan.”

In another strange coincidence, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses China’s only level four biosafety laboratory, the highest-level classification of labs that study the deadliest viruses, is just 32km from the epicentre of the current coronavirus outbreak
. The opening of the maximum-security lab was covered in a 2017 story in the journal Nature, which warned of safety risks in a culture where hierarchy trumps an open culture.

There’s a twist, though:

However, Wuhan wasn’t even originally mentioned in The Eyes of Darkness. The first edition of the book, written under Koontz’s pseudonym Leigh Nichols, concerns a virus called Gorki-400 that was created by the Russians and emerged from “the city of Gorki”.

The change to Wuhan came when the book was released in hardback under Koontz’s own name in 1989. The year of the book’s re-release is significant – 1989 marked the end of the Cold War. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country was no longer communist.

“The editorial equivalent of clubbing a baby seal to death”

South China Morning Post

The best part of waking up is hilariously bad writing under your cup

That is how one commenter aptly describes this brutal deconstruction of a column by Tammy Tam, editor-in-chief of Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post. Keep in mind as you read it that the SCMP is the most prestigious English-language newspaper in Asia:

It was while I was in the thick of deciphering the intended meaning of Tam words and rewriting them into coherent utterances that I gained a sense of Tam’s ineptitude as a writer: whatever Tam had applied herself to in the past, toiling at the keyboard – so necessary a part of any writer’s growth – wasn’t one of them. So, just as some people think any able-bodied person can lift her leg and “dance”, Tam probably approached column-writing assuming any literate person can string sentences together and “write.” […]

How did someone with Tam’s shoddy English got herself installed as the chief editor of an English-language paper in a cosmopolitan city? In recent years, Beijing has made many moves to curtail the freedom of expression in Hong Kong; Tam’s appointment can be understood as just one of such measures. And from Beijing’s point of view, the need to have a loyalist helm the SCMP is so pressing that the optics of Tam dancing like Dean’s sister in the paper every week is of negligible importance.

Tam’s column is really, really bad. The critique of it, on the other hand, is a delightful act of editorial cruelty.

While we’re on the topic, here’s China’s state media lecturing Canada about journalistic ethics:

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Saturday that he had “asked for and accepted John McCallum’s resignation as Canada’s Ambassador to China,” after McCallum told the Toronto Star Friday that “if (the US) drops the extradition request, that would be great for Canada.” Joanna Chiu, assistant managing editor of StarMetro Vancouver, directly triggered the resignation after making McCallum’s words public. On Twitter, Chiu described how she got the exclusive interview with McCallum and showed off her scoop. But Chiu’s behavior made her look like a paparazzo instead of a serious journalist. It’s not hard to imagine the serious consequences if such important news is reported in a “paparazzi” way. […]

Canada’s current public opinion won’t help the country resolve [Huawei CFO] Meng’s case reasonably. Some Canadian media and reporters, especially Joanna Chiu, have played an irresponsible role. They are pushing the Trudeau administration further into a dilemma, leaving Ottawa no choice but to stand against Beijing. This is not what a professional journalist would do.

The Trudeau government must properly deal with China-Canada relations, or it should be prepared for Beijing’s further retaliation.

Mediacide

The job market for wordsmiths appears to be taking a turn for the worse. From Mike Rosenberg of the Seattle Times:

Mike Rosenberg @ByRosenberg

Media cuts in last 2 weeks
*BuzzFeed: 15% of staff laid off (215 people)
*McClatchy (Miami Herald, KC Star, etc): 10% of staff offered buyouts
*Gannett newspaper chain: 400 layoffs
*Verizon (HuffPost, TechCrunch, etc): 7% laid off (800 people)
*Vice laying off 10% (250 people)

11:06 AM – 1 Feb 2019

(That’s over 1,665 people.)

Mike Rosenberg @ByRosenberg

These journalism cuts come despite record readership at a lot of places – but the digital ad money goes mostly to Google and Facebook and is so puny it can’t support news orgs. That’s why you see paywalls everywhere now – subscriptions are the only sustainable revenue source

Here’s a good overview of what’s going on that gives a more nuanced picture than the usual explanations that lay all the blame on Google and Facebook.

Short words are better than long words

 

George Orwell typing typewriter

Every writer (of any kind) really needs to read George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Therein you will find at least 40% of what you ever need to know about the principles of good writing, especially nonfiction writing.

Orwell’s rules of thumb are timeless and they include:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Winston Churchill, who also knew a thing or two about good writing, is quoted as saying:

Broadly speaking, short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.

In a similar vein, Orwell advised:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Fortunately for him, Orwell lived before the time of hideous corporate jargon and marketing buzzwords, such as “client-centric,” “leverage,” “touchpoint,” and “redundancy offer.” None of those linguistic travesties would survive the Orwellian pruning shears.

There is also the annoying phenomenon of hijacking perfectly good words and phrases for other purposes. For example, I heard the term “fire drill” a lot when working in corporate America. Apparently, it refers to a situation where you need to drop everything and work overtime to prevent a colossal f*ck-up from escalating into a DEFCON 1 emergency. I didn’t know this at first, so I thought people were talking about literal fire drills, which as you can imagine was confusing.

Americans also have a bad habit of misusing nouns as verbs, like “impact,” and misusing verbs as nouns, like “build.” Perhaps the most awful example of this is the use of the verb “ask” as a noun, as in: “That’s a big ask.” No, that’s a big request. There is no such thing as “an ask.” The English language is fluid but that doesn’t entitle you to communicate like you were raised by wolves.

“Ask,” by the way, is an exception to Orwell’s rule about using short words instead of long ones. In this case, the better and more correct word is longer. So the rules should be seen as general guidelines rather than ironclad dogma.

Likewise, there are many cases where it is justified to sprinkle longer or “fancier” synonyms throughout the text in order to create variety and avoid monotony. For example, rather than use the verb “fired” seven times in an article – as in the company fired him – I might substitute the words “dismissed” or “sacked” or “gave him the pink slip” for some of those usages. Remember, though, that readability is the key. I would tend to use the shorter word first, and move on to longer or more elaborate synonyms only later and only if I felt that repeating the original word would be too boring.

The above exceptions to the rule would be my only quibble with this article in Lifehacker, which is otherwise quite correct, IMHO:

So sometimes we write stuff that we’d never say aloud. We use a complicated or “smart-sounding” word when a simpler word would work better. New York Times editor Dan Saltzstein listed some great examples on Twitter. They pop up in news media, but also in “business speak.” If you’re trying to write effectively, watch out for these:

Dear editors:
Closed > shuttered
Restaurant > eatery
Begin > commence
Open > launch
Use > utilize
(What am I missing?)
— Dan Saltzstein (@dansaltzstein) December 23, 2018

There are many more useful examples in the article, so it’s worth checking out.

The definition of literary failure

It can’t get much worse than this:

We spoke about a scene at the end of the film, when Dovlatov has had yet another story rejected and has failed even at conformism, unable to produce a minimally suitable poem for a trade publication for Soviet oil workers.

Ouch!

Sergei Dovlatov was a Russian author who was unable to publish in the Soviet Union and only achieved recognition after emigrating to the US in 1979. Here’s a trailer for the movie that the article is talking about:

Being an unpublishable writer in the Soviet Union:

In “Dovlatov,” German, Jr., presents that feeling of trauma with a tinge of romance—the poetry readings in cramped living rooms, the accumulation and discarding of both lovers and vodka bottles with equal listlessness, the long, uneventful, repetitive days with nothing to do but debate art and literature—a black hole that sucks up one’s energy and best years.

Russia says Browder associates donated $400,000 (not $400M) to Clinton campaign

Putin said at yesterday’s press conference in Helsinki that business associates of Bill Browder “have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amount of money, $400 million as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.”

I was struck by that shocking claim, which The New York Times tried but was unable to verify.

Well, now it appears that either Putin misspoke, or his statement was mistranslated. The actual alleged figure is $400,000, according to the Russian Prosecutor General. Here’s the story in Russian. Since I cannot read Russian, below is an except of the story after being run through Google Translate. I can’t find any references to this story in English:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a news conference on Monday after talks with US President Donald Trump in Helsinki that Browder’s business partners illegally earned more than $ 1.5 billion in Russia and sent $ 400 million to Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.

“Later, the president asked us to correct his reservation, which he made yesterday, not 400 million, but 400,000, but that’s quite a huge sum,” the representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

You read it here first in English.

UPDATE: Correction, you read it here second. Looks like I missed this English-language report by TASS:

The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office is ready to send a request for the questioning of staffers of US intelligence services and public officers within the framework of a criminal case against Hermitage Capital founder William Browder, prosecutors’ spokesman Alexander Kurennoy told a briefing on Tuesday.

“Within the framework of a probe into a criminal case against William Browder and his criminal group, we are ready to send another request to the US competent agencies for a possibility to question these staffers of US special services, some other public officers of the US and a number of entrepreneurs in order to later charge them with the crimes committed by Browder,” Kurennoy said.

Browder has transferred $400,000 to accounts of the US Democratic Party, Kurennoy said.

“Browder’s criminal group funneled $1.5 billion from Russia into tax havens. Of this sum, at least $400 million was transferred to the Democratic Party’s accounts. Afterwards, our president asked us to correct the sum for $400,000 from $400 million,” Kurennoi said.

Daily routine

It’s fair to say that you should not, repeat NOT, try this at home:

I have an idea for a book about the writing habits of famous authors throughout history. Everyone seems to have had their own routines and “productivity hacks,” ranging from the banal to the totally insane.

Can confirm

…Or can I?

Journalists’ brains show a lower-than-average level of executive functioning, according to a new study, which means they have a below-average ability to regulate their emotions, suppress biases, solve complex problems, switch between tasks, and show creative and flexible thinking.

The study, led by Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and leadership coach, analysed 40 journalists from newspapers, magazines, broadcast, and online platforms over seven months. The participants took part in tests related to their lifestyle, health, and behaviour.

It was launched in association with the London Press Club, and the objective was to determine how journalists can thrive under stress. It is not yet peer reviewed, and the sample size is small, so the results should not be taken necessarily as fact.

Each subject completed a blood test, wore a heart-rate monitor for three days, kept a food and drink diary for a week, and completed a brain profile questionnaire.

The results showed that journalists’ brains were operating at a lower level than the average population, particularly because of dehydration and the tendency of journalists to self-medicate with alcohol, caffeine, and high-sugar foods.

😃😂

Compared with bankers, traders, or salespeople, journalists showed that they were more able to cope with pressure.

I found this curious, so I read the linked study for more detail. In fact, the study does not say this at all.

The results, however, showed that the journalists were on average no more physically stressed than the average person. The blood tests showed that their levels of cortisol — known as the stress hormone — were mostly normal.

“The headline conclusion reached is that journalists are undoubtedly subject to a range of pressures at work and home, but the meaning and purpose they attribute to their work contributes to helping them remain mentally resilient despite this,” the study says.

Every occupation has its pros and cons…

Also of interest from the study (emphasis mine):

Silencing the Mind.

This behaviour refers to purposeful sessions to enhance focus and/or to allow thoughts without reacting, thereby preventing worrying about the future or regretting the past (i.e. the practice of mindfulness). Mindfulness promotes a relaxed physiological state at the level of the hypothalamus and amygdala and enhances the ability to focus and sustain attention at the level of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. It promotes brain cell formation in the hippocampus and reduces the sensitivity of the amygdala, calming it down and promoting clarity of mind.

Low scores for silencing the mind indicates a lack of mindfulness practice amongst the surveyed population. This can manifest itself in reduced executive functioning, which corresponds to the result above. Studies have shown that just 12 minutes of mindfulness a day or 30 minutes of mindfulness 3 times a week thickens the folds of the pre-frontal cortex enhancing executive function.

Money talks, pageviews walk

A nice lesson about the advantages of quality vs. clickbait in journalism:

So far, Mike Rosenberg, a real estate reporter, is seeing that his in-depth and time-consuming work often drives more subscriptions than the work that took an hour but went viral, he said.

Last year, Rosenberg spent a lot of time on a story about how Amazon made Seattle the country’s biggest company town. It ran on the front page on Sunday and influenced 140 subscriptions, more than anything else he’s covered in his two years at the Times.

He also wrote a quick story last year about tiny apartments. It was the most-read story on the day it was published and got about 100,000 pageviews. It influenced about seven people to subscribe.

“The consensus is we’d rather have a story that had a smaller number of good readers who wind up subscribing than a viral story that a bunch of people in New York and Chicago read but will never come back to Seattle again.”

This isn’t really surprising when you think about it. There is, in general, a proportional relationship between the time/sweat that goes into a project, and the size of the ultimate payoff.

In the case of The Seattle Times, I would think that subscriptions are a more relevant measure of success than pageviews, as subscriptions equal money, while pageviews only indirectly generate money by luring more advertisers to the site. And clicks (like glory) are fleeting. As one Twitter user notes:

I could have said the same thing about blogging. The little viral posts that put a spike in your traffic don’t do much for long term growth. Controversy “for the hits” never pays off, & it’s annoying to be accused of that.

Virality is nice, but subscriptions pay the bills. And you can’t eat clicks for dinner.

Now having said that, I believe that viral articles are useful for branding purposes and to spice up the content of a site and provide some variety and relief to the reader. Viral articles are great, but they should be the seasoning rather than the main content.

That is, unless your business model is based on clickbait, in which case good luck.

Top 6 Scenic and Cultural Hotspots of Nanchang

The below article from 2013 is an attempt at Lonely Planet-style travel writing following a trip to the provincial city of Nanchang, which is notable for its role in spawning China’s Communist revolution (and is therefore a key destination for “red tourism”). As the capital of one of China’s poorer provinces, it’s sort of a backwater, albeit developing fast — the city has since opened its first two metro lines — and an important manufacturing center. It’s a very likeable place with a friendly, laid-back feel despite having a population the size of Chicago. Some of the information below may be outdated by now. Enjoy.

Cradle of revolution and “Hero City” of Communist legend, Nanchang – the capital of southern China’s Jiangxi Province – is gritty, dynamic, and compelling. When not wandering its charming back streets, visitors to this fast-growing but laid-back city can discover a wealth of history, culture, and even entertainment at these popular sites:

1) Tengwang Pavilion (滕王阁)

Ascend this nine-story tower to peer at the Gan River from on high, enjoy a traditional music and dance performance, take in the colorful frescoes that decorate the interior, or get photographed sporting the golden dragon robe of a Qing Dynasty emperor.

Originally built in A.D. 653 by Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty as a townhouse for his younger brother, the eponymous Prince Teng, the pavilion was destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries – the current incarnation, in Song Dynasty style, was completed in 1989 – and immortalized by a famous Preface penned by the poet Wang Bo.

In the base of the pavilion you can wander around the China Imperial Edict Museum (华夏圣旨博物馆), housing a collection of – you guessed it – imperial edicts and other government paperwork from the Qing and Ming Dynasties. History buffs may find these bureaucratic relics intriguing, though adrenaline junkies should steer clear of such items as the “Official receipt issued by the Provincial Administration Commissioner and Provincial Judicial Commissioner of Anhui Donation Head Office of the Supervising Department.” Of more interest, perhaps, are a printed silk cloth and miniature books that were used for cheating on the imperial civil service exam.

Admission to the pavilion and grounds is 50 RMB.

Tengwang Pavilion (滕王阁 Téngwáng Gé), 榕门路 Róngmén Lù, ticket office hours: 7:30 AM – 6:15 PM (May 1 – Oct 7), 8:00 AM – 4:50 PM (Oct 8 – Apr 30), +86 791 8670 2036, (http://www.cntwg.com/)

2) Musical fountain at Qiushui Square (秋水广场)

Qiushui Square fountain

One of the largest such displays in Asia, this complex, fifteen-minute extravaganza of music, laser lights and elegantly gushing water is fun to watch – even if, like other spectators, you do so with a smartphone held up between the fountain and your face. In the show’s dramatic finale, water spurts as high (allegedly) as 128 meters. The free show starts at 7:50 PM, 8:30 PM, and 9:00 PM every night.

Qiushui Square (秋水广场 Qiūshuǐ Guǎngchǎng), ask around for the fountain (喷泉 pēnquán) (you can’t miss it), +86 791 8388 3496, (http://english.nc.gov.cn/tour/scenicspots/200911/t20091120_187749.htm)

3) Jiangxi Provincial Museum (江西省博物馆)

Explore the rich history and culture of this important province. The museum is divided into wings for Natural History, History, and Revolution. The Natural History wing features minerals, dinosaurs, and wildlife dioramas.

In the History wing, you can check out artifacts from Jiangxi’s many-layered past, stretching from Neolithic pottery fragments to Song Dynasty jewelry and Ming Dynasty ivory chopsticks, and learn about the region’s traditional arts, literature, industry and government (labels in Chinese and English). This wing also houses an exhibit on the Hakka ethnic minority and a jade and precious stone collection.

The Revolution wing chronicles the Communist uprising that broke out in Nanchang through a myriad of historical photos and kitschy propaganda art. Captions are in Chinese only, except for the introductory labels which have English translations.

Admission is free.

Jiangxi Provincial Museum (江西省博物馆 Jiāngxī Shěng Bówùguǎn), 新洲路99号 Xīnzhōu Lù 99 hào, Tue-Sun 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM, +86 791 8659 5424, (http://www.jxmuseum.cn/)

4) Bayi Square (八一广场)

The first shots of the Chinese Communist uprising were fired in Nanchang on August 1, 1927, occasioning Mao Zedong’s famous remark that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Led in part by future Premiere of the PRC Zhou Enlai, the revolt marked the founding of the People’s Liberation Army and the start of the decade-long “Agrarian Revolutionary War” against the Nationalist government and hated class enemies. Although the Communists were swiftly ejected from Nanchang and then decimated by Nationalist garrisons on the way to Guangzhou, the somber monument looming over Bayi Square – named after the date of the uprising (bayi means “eight one”) – celebrates their extremely short-lived “victory.”

Bayi Square (八一广场 Bāyī Guǎngchǎng), always open

5) Youmin Temple (佑民寺)

First built during the Liang Dynasty in the sixth century A.D., Youmin Temple housed the reportedly huge-tongued Zen master Mazu. Today it’s an active temple with few tourists, and you may get scolded for taking photos in the quiet, serene interior. The sprawling temple complex, decorated in bright primary colors, contains beautiful statuary, including a giant bronze Buddha.

Admission is 2 RMB.

Youmin Temple (佑民寺 Yòu Mín Sì), 民德路和苏圃路 Míndé Lù hé Sūpǔ Lù, 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM, +86 0791 8529 2203

6) Bada Shanren Meihu Scenic Spot (八大山人梅湖景区)

Cheng Yunxian Sculpture Art Gallery Nanchang

Take a taxi about 20 minutes from downtown to spend an afternoon roaming around this expanse of parks, woods, galleries and other cultural sites on the banks of the Meihu Water System.

Follow the signs to reach the Bada Shanren Memorial Hall (八大山人纪念馆), which has a gallery of classic works by the Nanchang-born painter and calligrapher of the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties. Of particular interest are the gloomy, eccentric master’s freehand “flower-and-bird” works and his literati paintings, which fuse the arts of painting, calligraphy and poetry.

On the Scenic Spot’s grounds you can also find the Cheng Yunxian Sculpture Art Gallery (程允贤雕塑艺术馆), an austere collection of sculptures of Chinese Communist leaders and heroes – including busts of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Admission is 15 RMB.

Keep strolling and you’ll find a Painting and Calligraphy Art Showroom (书画文玩展厅), outside of which is a Bansai Garden (盆景园) – I found both places completely deserted – and the somewhat eerie Jiangxi Celebrity Sculpture Park (江西名人雕塑园), featuring statues of historical figures from the province.

Admission to the Scenic Spot is free.

Bada Shanren Meihu Scenic Spot (八大山人梅湖景区 Bādà Shānrén Méi Hú Jǐngqū), +86 0791 8529 2203