ASK Musings

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Monthly Archive: June 2013



June 2013



Elements of Style

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elements of style

That’s right. For my 26th book (halfway there!) I decided to finally read through this classic guide to writing. The copy I picked up is a special illustrated edition, which made me feel as though I were reading something  more elaborate than small grammar and style textbook.

This book has been around for years, with multiple versions and editions dating back to the 1920s. It is a slim book containing six chapters that have been finely edited to provide the reader with just enough guidance to improve his or her writing without weighing him or her down with hundreds of individual rules.  It covers grammar, composition, form, expressions, style rules and spelling.

You may be asking yourself why someone might choose to read this book cover to cover, as opposed to perhaps purchasing it to keep as a reference. I will certainly keep it as a reference, but I found that by reading through it I received a much-needed refresher on grammar rules (although Mr. Strunk and I disagree on what is commonly known as the ‘Oxford Comma’ – he uses it and I don’t). I also appreciated the composition and style suggestions. As I have been writing more this year – both for the Cannonball Read and for my own blog – I appreciate suggestions to help improve my writing. Mr. Strunk and Mr. White appreciate brevity and the willingness to take a stance on a topic when writing and I can benefit from incorporating both suggestions more often.

The most relevant lesson for me was woven throughout the book and mentioned in different areas: the lesson of clarity. Why try to sound fancy when fewer words would be clearer to the reader? Keeping both by message and the reader in mind should help me to improve my writing over time.

I recommend that you purchase a copy to use if you write often as well as if you write rarely; in both instances it is likely that you could benefit from style refresher.



June 2013



Madame Chic

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madame chic

I really enjoy fancy etiquette and style books. Whenever I go to Anthropologie, I end up with a book instead of clothing. I like the feel of the glossy thick stock, the look of the cute pen illustrations, and the idea that perhaps at some point I’ll be able to embrace some of the suggestions in these books. Unfortunately, my most recent read in this genre, picked up at the aforementioned store, was disappointing/

I have read enough of this genre to recognize that is challenging to come up with new ways to discuss French living and how to incorporate French culture into life in the US. Still I was expecting something a little more. Yes, it is a style book, but I was hoping for more substance.

The book (based Ms. Scott’s blog) includes twenty chapters, each focused on a lesson she learned from her host family when she spent a year in Paris about a decade ago. I know. A year does not make her an expert. However, as someone who also lived abroad for a year, I do recognize that the culture shock can leave a big impression, and what is out of the norm for a short period of time can stick with one long after that time has passed. So I’m not willing to write her off based on that.

There really isn’t anything new here, but there were good reminders. The concept of the ten item wardrobe is one that I’ve seen repeatedly and am actively working towards. (Note: those ten items do not include things like underwear or outerwear, so it isn’t that big of a deal). Ms. Scott also discussed the tidbits made famous by “French Women Don’t Get Fat” (yes, I’ve read that too), like not snacking and instead of working out, incorporating more exercise into daily life. Again, not horrible advice – unless you love the gym, which she acknowledges – but not earth-shattering. Imagine similar chapters about enjoying life, seeing the arts, etc.

It’s all fine, but it’s also all through the lens of someone who was not working and who had access to apparently unlimited funds. Because the author learned these ‘lessons’ while a student, she has nothing to say about work culture. It’s great that she doesn’t decide to simply make something up, but there is something lacking for those of us who spend a very large chunk of our time at work. By not mentioning the realities of outside work when discussing the importance of making a four-course dinner for the family every night, the author chooses to ignore the challenges of managing a home in which two adults work.

This brings me to gender roles. Much of the book’s content seems to lean heavily on certain ideas of what women are like and what women do. There are some basic attempts at seeming progressive, but overall this book suggests that style is for the woman who works at MOST part time, and that women have certain duties to their family that apparently don’t apply to men. Or to the men she encountered in France, at least. It would have been nice to see that addressed. She also spends time on her version of femininity, even expressing approval of street harassment. Not exactly a feminist position.

And then there is the author’s slight attempt at addressing economic disparity. Look, clearly I don’t pick up a book like this and expect that the author is going to focus exclusively on living the good life while working two jobs for minimum wage (although I would totally read that book). But. The ‘lessons’ the author learned were clearly from people with a TON of money, and that seems to color all of her observations. Additionally, she wrote one paragraph that discussed sustainability (sort of – she mentioned organic and local foods). In all of her talk of quality goods and clothing, she didn’t mention that one should consider things like the treatment of labor or the impact of certain fabrics on the environment. Would that have put a damper on the book? No, not if done well.

If you are interested in learning about life in Paris, I recommend finding another book – Bringing up Bebe was quite enjoyable for me (and I’m not having children). If you are interested in improving your style and quality of life, I also recommend finding another book. You can find better.



June 2013



Bad Science

Written by , Posted in Politics, Reviews

Bad Science book cover

You guys. YOU GUYS. This book is amazing. I started reading it Sunday morning. Now it’s Monday night, and I’ve finished all 258 pages, and I’m sad that it’s over.

I found out about this book thanks to Cannonball Reader Mei-Lu, and picked up a copy on that same trip to Powell’s that netted me an okay and a good book (so far – more reviews to come). As a background, I do have a bout two years’ worth of graduate-level statistics training, and took a philosophy of science class that focused exclusively on evidence, objectivity, and how that all interacts with policy, and I still found things in this book that I’d not been exposed to before. Frankly, I’d love to see it be required reading for freshman in college (or seniors in high school) to help them become better informed citizens.

The book is extraordinarily well written. At times Dr. Goldacre sounds a bit arrogant, but that’s really only relevant if that’s something you find it difficult to get past, which in this case I did not. What is more relevant is that he has great information, strong examples to illustrate his points, and an overall way with words that makes this book feel more like an outstanding novel than a science non-fiction. It reminded me a bit of Mary Roach’s works, which makes sense – she even provided a supporting blurb for the back of the copy I purchased.

The biggest point I took away from this reading is frustration that the people we expect to be providing good information to us often aren’t. And that isn’t just the scientists (or I guess “scientists”) engaging in all manner of deceit to bend data their way; it’s the newspapers and members of the media who either choose not to engage in serious examination of the data and papers themselves, or frame the issue in ways not supported by the evidence. Not everyone has time to read through all the supporting evidence on an issue; that’s why we have the scientists, and the science reporters (or sadly, the general reporters tasked with reporting on science issues). When one or more of those folks aren’t providing good information, or willing to do their jobs, those of us who rely on them are taking a huge gamble.

Please check this book out. I’m so glad I purchased a hard copy of it; I can tell I’ll be re-reading it and referencing it a lot in the future.



June 2013



Green Washed

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This is another book I picked up at Powell’s knowing nothing about it because it looked interesting. Lucky for me, this one was both a quick read (even at 200 pages with many references to scientific studies) and well-organized. I feared it would make me feel a bit hopeless and pessimistic, especially given the way the author chose to approach the topic (more below), but in the end it left me feeling like I did have the tools to make a positive difference in my impact on the environment.

The basic premise of Ms. Pierre-Louis’s book is that saving and protecting our environment isn’t a matter of plastic water bottles vs. reusable water bottles; it’s about drinking from the tap in a glass. Explored through a series of “you thought that was good but here’s why it isn’t” example, the first half of the book focuses on the sort of false dichotomies that we have set up for ourselves (often with good intentions) to make ourselves feel like we’re making good choices for ourselves AND the planet.

This first half focuses on fashion, food choices (although not the choice to eat or not eat animal products, which is a glaring omission), cleaning products, cars, water, and buildings. The water chapter is especially fascinating, as she starts out telling the story of a group of people native to Brazil, which I assumed would be used to frame why plastic water bottles are bad. Instead, the purpose of their story is to point out how the process of creating those reusable aluminum water bottles is destroying their environment. Whoops.

The car chapter is especially interesting, as the author points out that the biggest problems with cars aren’t their fuel economy – the biggest problems are the energy that goes into making them and the energy that goes into laying roads for people to drive on. There isn’t enough time spent here on the realities that so many people cannot give up their cars due to being forced to live far from where they work in areas without public transportation; the author gives off the impression that the choice is either car or public transit but doesn’t spend a lot of time on the fact that public transit isn’t an option for a whole lot of people. I don’t think that was an intentional omission; I think it’s just not a topic she chose to spend much time on, and I do think the chapter suffers a bit for that.

After a (mostly) thorough discussion of the problems of these false dichotomies of green vs. not green (because the green version is often just as bad or nearly as bad, just in different ways), Ms. Pierre-Louis moves to a discussion of fuel. She properly eviscerates the absurd “clean coal” concept before taking on biofuel – questionable at best given the fact that a shift from food-producing crops to fuel-producing crops both hurts world food supplies AND is often quite inefficient – and other energy alternatives. It’s an interesting look, and while I am not an expert in environmental writing, she does provide what appears to be independent support for her observations.

Finally, she spends the last quarter of the book focusing on how she suggests we address this problem. The basic conclusion is that we shouldn’t be focusing our economy on GROWTH, because that requires us to produce more and consume more every year. Instead, she spends a lot of time on the ‘steady state economy’ concept – something I’ll definitely be researching. For her (and clearly many others), the economy should be in support of the environment – the environment should not just be another component of the economy. As the author points out “We’ve become so focused on the economic system that we’ve forgotten that it’s dependent on the planet.”

I liked this book, but it does have some issues. In the last, seemingly tacked-on chapter, she looks to a ‘happiness index’ instead of GDP as a measure of a nation. In theory this is an awesome idea, but my inital look at the current state of Gross National Happiness makes me extremely wary that it can be easily manipulated to support one view of what is a ‘good life’ over another. I realize that the author was likely forced to make a choice about what to focus on, but I think that given her strong talent for writing, she could have added another fifty pages, really focused on these proposed solutions, and still had a book that people could easily read and process. In spite of that I do recommend it, especially for the first 180 pages.



June 2013



Unscientific America

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I should know better than to ever go into Powell’s without a firm agreement with myself that I will NOT buy any books that aren’t already on my Goodreads list. I mean, I’ve got 138 waiting for me – do I REALLY need to walk up and down the aisles of this massive indie bookstore, pulling off books that catch my eye?

Yes, yes I do. Unfortunately, I wish I hadn’t picked up this one.


Subtitled “How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future,” Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s book purports to explore why the lack of interest in or understanding of science is a threat to the U.S. While I appreciate the sentiment, there were a few negative things that really stood out to me as I read this book, resulting in a pretty low rating.

First, this book was published in 2009, and spends a good part discussing how scientists need to be better versed in how to discuss their findings and research with the media. Better communications training for all scientists is one of their main solutions to the problem referenced in the title, and overall it’s a good one. They point to Carl Sagan as a great scientist who the average person trusted and was interested in learning from; they also point out that he was essentially shunned by “serious” scientists. That’s a problem and needs to be fixed. However, one of the author’s biggest concerns is that we don’t have anyone like that these days.

Say what? Has he never heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson? That man is amazing. He got The Daily Show to (for the day at least) fix their opening credits so the world spins the right way. He got James Cameron to FIX THE SKY when he released the anniversary print of Titanic. This is a man people know, a man who is trying to bridge the unnecessary gap between science and policy, and he’s not even mentioned in the book. That alone gives me pause.

Second, the book has a disturbing chapter called “The New Atheists” that seeks to vilify PZ Meyers, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Now, I don’t know much about Meyers, and I know that Sam Harris seems to be EXTREMELY islamophobic, and Richard Dawkins seems to be quite misogynistic. However, those were the issues these authors had. They attempt to make the case that atheists like them, who suggest that religion today is incompatible with reason, are making the situation worse. I actually get the argument they are trying to make, but they make it so poorly that it’s a bit challenging to get on their side.

Additionally, while I see they have a larger goal in mind, they also seem to be doing the ‘give both sides equal time” thing they eviscerate just a few chapters earlier when discussing climate change. As an atheist (of the ‘there’s no evidence for a diving being now but if you gave me some obviously I’d change my mind’ variety) I am clearly more prone to sensitivity around discussions of this nature, so it is possible that I am either misreading that section or just disagree, but either way it left me with a pretty bad taste in my mouth.

Finally, while the title was clear enough to me that this was about the specific problem of science literacy in America, the nationalist undertones were ever-present and unsettling. I’d like to see the discussion about why it’s important for people to understand science and find it interesting from a policy perspective without ending the chapter with “BECAUSE AMERICA MUST BE NUMBER ONE!!!!1!1!!” I take issue with the U.S. not fostering financial support around issues like climate change, but not because we are the best yay U.S.A.! There seem to be constant appeals to that competitive, egotistical spirit in a lot of the promotion of the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and math), often to the detriment of the humanities, which ironically these authors correctly point out are a necessary part of even science education. A focus on why this is a problem in our country without the ‘because WIN’ argument would be refreshing.

I appreciate (to a degree) what these authors were going for, but I think they missed the mark. The book was certainly an easy read (and very short, and only 130 pages of text with an additional 100 or so pages of references), and well written, but the arguments left me wanting something better.



June 2013



Macklemore Lyrics

Written by , Posted in Feminism

I didn’t enjoy Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s music when I first heard it a couple of years ago. Austin shared some of the songs and I just didn’t really get into it. We even had tickets to see them, but Austin wasn’t feeling great that night so we ended up not going. I know, that’s straight up blasphemy in Seattle, but before you click away please know that I have changed my mind. Sort of.

I heard “Thrift Shop” right around the time the video was released and was immediately hooked. It had a really great beat and wasn’t the typical topic of a popular song. After I heard it a few times I was singing along, and got excited to crank it up when it started to play in my car.

Now, depending on the websites and other outlets you frequent, you may or may not be aware that there were some detractors who point out how the song does sort of reek of economic privilege, and while I don’t want to discount that opinion, for the purposes of this post I’m more interested in looking at another sort of privilege that shows up in the song: gender privilege.

Wait, what?

Yuuup. It’s (hopefully, likely) unintentionally, but it’s there, in this lyric:

“Fifty dollars for a T-shirt – that’s just some ignorant bitch shit”

Bitch shit? Really? Perhaps you’re rolling your eyes, thinking that this ‘P.C.’ (aside – the quickest way to get my eyes to glaze over is to call something “P.C.” as negative, as though respecting people is something to frown upon) stuff is ridiculous, and that bitch is just an adjective used to describe a negative, and has nothing to do with women. Shoot, I didn’t even notice or think about this until it was briefly mentioned on Radio Dispatch – a great podcast by New York-based journalist siblings John and Molly Knefel.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis aren’t as well-known back east as they are here in Seattle, and during a May episode of the show, John mentioned that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis became better known across the country initially for “Same Love,” the song about marriage equality and civil rights for all regardless of their sexual orientation.  In it, Macklemore recites the following insightful lyrics:

“If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me
Have you read the YouTube comments lately?
“Man, that’s gay” gets dropped on the daily
We become so numb to what we’re saying
A culture founded from oppression
Yet we don’t have acceptance for ’em
Call each other f****ts behind the keys of a message board
A word rooted in hate, yet our genre still ignores it
Gay is synonymous with the lesser”

John and Molly pointed out the irony and ideological inconsistency with someone who could articulate the above observations about the treatment of gay people by using the f word regularly, yet seems to have zero problem with using a derogatory word for women a couple of times in a song.

What’s the deal?

In 2005, he wrote a song to address this (sort of): The song is called Contradiction, and includes these lines:

“I stand up for human rights, and treat others how I would wanna be treated
But every song can’t be seepin’ with freedom
‘Cuz the other side of me is sexist then people will feel that I’m preachin’
“Everything’s peace and love?” uhh, that’s somewhat misleading
Because this world is fucked-up and I’m a product to what I’m seeing
Not to justify, but just to touch on my being
I learn from these verses and my purpose gets surfaced with demons
Now I am sexist, I’m prejudice, I put that in my music
She said she heard that perspective, but before she turned around
She said “We have a flame, your fire’s ignited with sound
Are you building the empire up, or using your fire to burn it down?”

I kind of get that – he’s being honest, he’s trying to strike a balance, and he’s a work in progress. But I’m curious as to whether his position has further evolved at all. Does he continue to drop the word gay (in a negative way) or the f word in his other songs because he’s a contradiction? Or does he think that words that are hurtful to and reinforce negative images of gay people are worse than words that are hurtful to and reinforce negative images of women? And if he does – is he correct in that thought?

The Knefels (and I) are clearly not the first people to talk about the use of the word bitch in music. Some people might question why I’m choosing to pick on Macklemore. In all honestly, it’s mostly because I’m not cultured enough to listen to a wide variety of music. I tend to stick with U2, the Beatles, and the older stuff (Billie Holiday, for example). I don’t own much hip-hop or rap music, and I’ve not previously been thoughtful about the lyrics of the music I listen to. I listened to it, enjoyed it (or didn’t), and that was that. Spending more time learning about my (cis, straight, white, middle-class, able-bodied) privilege necessarily means that I’m going to end up evaluating and re-evaluating previous stances. I’m cool with that.

Now, because I’m certainly not going to end up in a conversation with Macklemore about this, I’m left with my own thoughts on the matter. Given my objection to the use of the word ‘bitch’ in a negative connotation and in such a flippant manner (a position I must admit has certainly evolved as I’ve grown up), should I stop listening to “Thrift Shop?” Can a person like a song that (even unintentionally) reinforces the status quo in terms of economic and gender hierarchy?

I want to say yes, but I’m not sure if that’s because I want to be able to keep listening to songs with great beats, or because I can really defend that position. I mean, I watch “Game of Thrones” even when there are some pretty questionable scenes about which the show runners are unapologetic. Is it enough to be aware of and discuss these scenes (or lyrics)? I’m not sure.