Illusory Follies Andrew Flanagan's Blog

21Mar/150

The Orchard (writing fragment)

(I sometimes write little fragments of writing like this. It's not really intended for anything other than a way for me to relax and practice writing. I usually write in a single sitting and then review for obvious grammatical or content issues. My thanks to my friend Terry, whose beautiful orchard was the inspiration for this little snippet.)

It was one of those spring evenings where you could smell the crocuses and the earthworms through warm and partly sunny rain showers failing aimlessly on the newly verdant hillside. The moss had fought a valiant fight this year to claim the yard, but as the days lengthened, the sun drenched the area in an unusually bright March, and the grass was victorious, ripping through the moss until in a period of only a few days, it was hard to remember the conflict that had engulfed the turf only weeks before. The frogs were confused as the weather had been too cold, then too warm, and was just now right. Despite the early hour, some frogs through the neighborhood were croaking in their hollow, wooden sounding rattle.

It was the time of year for baseball, for running in the grass, for daffodils picked by curious children and brought in to wither on a table. It was the time when there is some hope that winter will not last forever, the rain will eventually stop, and that the warm embrace of summer was rapidly approaching. It was a time for opening windows, and shaking out blankets, and deciding to roll a new coat of paint to cover the stains and dings from damage over winter.

It was into this perfect paradise of the Pacific Northwest, this veritable garden of Eden, that Jack strode through that evening. He wore, comfortable denim with an unbuttoned flannel shirt that really looked more like fall than spring. He was out inspecting the orchard.

The orchard was not a professional venture. It was not planted or maintained for the purpose of financial benefit, but rather for the purpose of enjoyment, and leisure. An orchard can be hard work, but Jack worked the orchard because he enjoyed both the labor that he applied and the reward that he gleaned.

This lovely spring evening, it was still early. The plums had been blooming for almost 2 weeks now, but most of the other blossoms were merely peeking out from green, sticky, soft unfolding buds. Some of the apples would come much later. Some of the plants were healthier than others, and Jack stopped briefly to inspect a drooping 6 year old apple tree that was oozing sap. It might be possible to heal, but it seemed to make more sense to replace. Jack might be sentimental with his friends and family, but he was a little bit more matter-of-fact with his plants.

But despite seeming to ignore the helpless plight of the weeping young apple tree, Jack loved this orchard. It was a place of refuge. A place to till and to harvest. A place that he usually worked alone. A place that he shared with others, but only when it was ready. He was generous with his yearly crop. Certainly, he used a lot of it himself between the raw fruits themselves, and the jams, preserves, pies, wines, and ciders that he made. But there was always plenty left for others and there always seemed to be some that went to waste.

And that's what orchards provided. Solitude and fellowship, work and leisure, pruning and harvesting.

29Dec/100

George Orwell on Language

Posted many other places but I've always enjoyed this:

I am going to to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one.  [...] It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence following the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations--race, battle, bread--dissolve into the vague phrase "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing--no one capable of using phrases like "objective considerations of contemporary phenomena"--would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of its words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase ("time and chance") that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do no want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence that to the one from Ecclesiastes.

From George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language", 1946 -- emphasis is mine.

Perhaps my brain is turning to mush a bit young, but I'm often quite baffled by modern writers who seem to intentionally be making language become liquid and amorphous. Even more troubling, I find that people often will point to something like the parody sentence above and be convinced that because of its technical use of language, it's probably superior, and even more concrete. Loss of metaphor, use of highly specialized language, and tacking of rote phrases and clauses together results in a meaningless jumble of confusion.

See also: George Orwell on Writing

21Jan/091

Variable Naming

Some in computer programming have insisted on using the prefix is for all boolean data types. I've been bumping against this lately. I think it's silly. It's a form of Hungarian notation which seems unnecessary considering that the compiler/interpreter in almost all cases will help us deal with type issues. For readabilities' sake, wouldn't it make sense to name something what it represents? For example, if the boolean variable represents the state of being done, I suppose isDone may be an OK name. But if it represents the state of something that may or may not have been done 3 years ago, a better name might be wasDone. What if we want special checking to take place if a flag is set? Should that flag be called isCheck? It seems silly -- maybe shouldCheck would work. What if we're talking about ownership or class relationship. isChild works as a name to indicate class relation, but hasChildren is a perfectly logical name to define the inverse relationship. I saw a few places that advocate the use of helping verbs (have, has, had, do, does, did, shall, should, will, would, may, might, can, could, and must) or verbs of being (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been) to prefix these names. This makes sense. However, we speak English and sometimes in English we drop helping verbs (think of did for example). Is something.didSucceed better or worse than something.succeeded? There are numerous similar examples.

I think in the end, naming variables to make them readable is much more important than following some convention. Or perhaps I should rephrase that: the convention we ought to follow is the convention of written English, not some tightly defined arbitrary subset.

28Nov/081

George Orwell on Writing

Not that I follow these rules, but I've had this excerpt kicking around for a while in my notes and figured I'd post it somewhere I could reflect on it:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

"These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article"*

From George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language", 1946.

*To see the full context of what he was talking about, you can take a look at the entire essay here.

1Oct/083

Following my nose…

Heading home for the evening after another stressful day. The work isn't terrible but it can be oppresive doing the same thing too many times in a row. I sit in my car cruising at 64 mph down I-405. It's an early Fall evening about 7:02pm. The HOV lane has just opened to all traffic so I pull over. My car just hit a decade and has that not entirely pleasant old-car smell. A mixture of Lysol, dust, plastic, and ancient French fries still stuck under the seat. Lysol dominates the smells, trying to hide the others. It reminds me of the smell of hospitals; somewhat sterile but not quite masking the unpleasantness beneath. The radio is playing another boring song. I would turn on something but I haven't updated my iPod with anything recent in a while and I don't feel focused enough to listen to a lecture. It's getting cool fast as the sun is going down and I have a hard time adjusting the air to not be too cold or too warm. Finally I crack my window.

Something changes. The subtlety of the smells that assault me is arresting. "Smells" is a terrible word -- the scents, the aromas, the feel of the night that I can't see and can't touch. It's Fall; I smell the trees -- you always smell the trees here at night -- but it's richer than usual. I also pick up one of the first wood-smoke smells of the year. There's something about the mixture of the coniferous trees (a constant here) and the now, barely-turning deciduous trees. It's a faint scent of decay but a decay that's all part of the life-cycle for these trees. It doesn't smell of death, it smells of change, of transition, of eventual transformation. None of this is new -- I've experienced it before but not for a year. I've forgotten -- completely forgotten what a joy this is.

As I head by the Kirkland exits I see two colorful hot air balloons hanging low over the valley. They're catching the light as the sun is setting. I consider trying to take a picture. I stop myself -- why bother? There's something in this setting I could never recreate. It's not the look of the thing, it's the environment, it's the sensations I'm feeling as I look at this. A picture is about as inane as purchasing a Yankee Candle called "Northwest Nights". It simply cannot compare.

It's 7:16 as I come up on Bellevue. Bits and pieces of scents are still recognizable but as traffic picks up and the large diesel semi's roll by I'm confronted with too many unpleasant, harsh, mechanical smells. This is a city and the trees can't compete here with the concrete and glass and perpetual productivity. This smell of progress might mean good things for the economy but it's not welcome right now. Too much of today was spent focusing on producing, expanding, producing. I hurry past.

It's still built-up here but the trees are back. I catch fragmented aromas from restaurants -- I can't possibly recognize the detail but some of it is familiar. Little shards of memories in my brain are activated as my olfactory receptors bind with the incoming molecules. For me, my sense of smell has always produced the most distinctive memories. In our world of digital photos, streaming video, and iPods, it's easy to cloud old memories through constant re-stimulation as we dig through our old albums, watch the same movie again or up that play count on our favorite song. I have no words for the smells I'm experiencing. I'm like a mute wine connoisseur trying to express not just the relative goodness or badness, but trying to define the thing. It seems impossible. How can I be smelling wood smoke that reminds me of specific memories from when I was 6 when I have no idea what type of wood, how this smell differs from the myriad of others, or why this particular memory has become so ingrained with this smell? A segment of the odor gamut (such as the broad category of all smoke smells) doesn't map to a correlating range of memories but is instead somewhat chaotically tied to various random memories. The relationship seems one-way: I can't pull up a memory and re-imagine the odor. Only the other way around.

It's 7:27 as I sweep through the Renton "S-curves". This isn't the first night that I've escaped into this fragrant world and I know what to expect here. Somewhere in the valley just south of Lake Washington there must be a coffee production plant. The smells are heavenly. I've always liked the smell of coffee but something about the intensity that I'm experiencing is so much greater. Momentarily as I continue driving along the highway, the trees, the grass, the smells of the highway itself are all gone and replaced by this warm smell that pervades everything.

My head feels light and I realize I'm hyperventilating through my nose as I try to take it all in. With a pang of loss, the scents retreat and I switch my attention back to driving as I wrap around the Valley Highway clover-leaf ramp and head south down the valley.

Did I say that the coffee was my favorite part? The valley has its own pleasures. With limited agricultural intermixed with large warehouses in the valley I move away from the hilly, rocky, mountain smells of the massive conifers and now pick up wafts of grass, small patches of crops. I distinctly smell pumpkins as I drive past: one of the smells that I know distinctly but experience infrequently enough to still have it remain far from ordinary. A field of cows causes a burst of synapses as many memories flood through my consciousness. Not the most pleasant scent but it's not about that -- the memories -- it's the memories which are making this so extraordinary.

Puyallup is only a few miles away now. More deciduous trees here and that early-Fall, mildewy smell rolls in again. It's a bit colder now and the left side of my face feels slightly numb from the constant exposure to the turbulent wind through the window. I briefly roll the windows up and turn the heat on. I regret it instantly. The blast of burning dust and filtered engine smells wipes everything. I'm warm now but everything starts disconnecting and the memories fade out. I drop the windows again and turn the heat off. This is worth the cold.

As I dodge traffic up South Hill and hit the exit ramp, I realize that this is coming to an end. With the decrease in speed and the noisy, exhaust-laden traffic on Meridian I'll barely be able to differentiate anything. I roll the windows up again and turn on the radio. Appropriately, a sad song is playing. I commiserate with the artist as I head due south down Meridian. When I take a left on 136th I realize I have one last unpolluted mile. I enjoy the smell of horses from the one remaining farm on the road, faint but still there. Nestled so close to the homes around me, I can smell the dinners of families. Some good, some not so good, but all with that unique signature. I don't know if I've eaten any of the meals but they remind me of so many dinners growing up.

It's 7:56. Finally, I'm home. The trip is over and I have to end this now. I roll into the garage, grab my bag and head in. And then it hits me. The best scent of them all -- it's that eerily unique smell of your own house. Work was rough but tonight, God is good.

I'm home.

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