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Editorial

The Age of the Essay 286

Posted by michael
from the 500-words-or-more dept.
bluFox writes "Paul Graham, has just published a new article on the English literature and role of Essays. It is not connected to lisp or languages or hackers for a change, but still feels like a continuation of his earlier articles."
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The Age of the Essay

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  • by tcopeland (32225) * <tom&thomasleecopeland,com> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:22PM (#10181482) Homepage
    ...can't beat that LISP humor!
  • Impact of Blogs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kombat (93720) <kombat@kombat.org> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:28PM (#10181565) Homepage
    This is another area where the Internet has had a clear impact on a topic. Whereas it used to be like pulling teeth to get kids to write and submit essays, now you can't turn a corner on the web without running into one blog or another, loaded with essays on a wide range of controversial topics. While the Internet has had a clearly detrimental effect on our spelling abilities, I think it has had a correspondingly positive impact on our willingness and enthusiasm to express opinions of all kinds. Even sites like Slashdot are loaded with rants on all sorts of topics. Heck, I have a positive-karma modifier on trolls and flamebait posts, just because those threads are often the ones with the most spirited, passionate discussions. :)
    • by Dark Lord Seth (584963) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:31PM (#10181605) Journal

      Blogs? Essays?

      Oh, wait... You're referring to the 3% minority of blogs that are NOT about the cat, the latest Linkin Park song* or that cute "boi" at high school? Okay, carry on.

      * -- I use that term lightly in this case...

      • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:2, Insightful)

        by dasmegabyte (267018)
        Some of us 'bloggers write EXCLUSIVELY essays. I have never written a post about my dog or music that was not speculative and insightful, or at the very least long winded and pretentious.

        Then again, I majored in essays...and I can't give them up. Shit, that's why I've got over 3000 longwinded Slashdot comments, as well.

        In fact, that's something the Internet has that talk radio and TV panels do not: you can take as much time and as much space as you need to to be an effective disputant. Can you sum up y
        • In fact, that's something the Internet has that talk radio and TV panels do not: you can take as much time and as much space as you need to to be an effective disputant.
          True, but things are just as transient in blogs, especially Slashdot. If you write your comment more than an hour after the thread was created, noone will read you. Everybody's moved on to the next topic.
    • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:5, Insightful)

      by smclean (521851) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:32PM (#10181630) Homepage
      On what do you base your assertion that "the Internet has had a clearly detrimental effect on our spelling abilities". I don't see how having to use text as a communications medium could do anything but help spelling abilities.

      I think we just notice that more people can't spell worth a damn now that they are forced to attempt to spell in order to function in their job, social life, whatever they use the internet for.

      • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:5, Insightful)

        by JPelorat (5320) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:54PM (#10181914)
        Because they take shortcuts, use stupid abbreviations that take just as much time to type as the real word, and generally type in a 'stream of consciousness' style that apparently gives more credibility for each new typo or misspelling.

        And they get pissed off at anyone who tries to correct their spelling. "it dosent mater eveywun can stil understnad me bitch fuck off cocksucking whore", I believe is the standard response. Funny how they always seem to get the swear words perfect though.

        You're right, we do notice it more. But the primary problem is that hardly anyone takes pride or care in what they do anymore.

        "yeah whatevah it's just the internet who cares"
        • When people take shortcuts and use stupid abbreviations, that signifies that the written language is evolving.

          As pedants, it's our role to resist this change at all costs!

          BTM
          • When people take shortcuts and use stupid abbreviations, that signifies that the written language is evolving.

            OMFG kthxbye LOL >_< kekekeke
          • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:4, Insightful)

            by Concerned Onlooker (473481) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @06:42PM (#10183904) Homepage Journal
            When people take shortcuts and use stupid abbreviations, that signifies that the written language is evolving.

            This is the usual response people give to defend bad grammar and spelling. It's funny that a bunch of geeks who keep railing about standards in coding suddenly become anarchists when it comes to language. We have standardized our language for a reason, and that reason is effective communication. It's harder to communicate if people start redefining the rules whenever they feel like it.

            Of course the language is evolving, but that is not an excuse for a free-for-all.

        • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:5, Insightful)

          by kafka93 (243640) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:12PM (#10182127)
          Your use of "anymore" -- a compound word whose use is unorthodox but generally accepted -- is a good example of the way in which the English language is a fluid, changing thing. And the Internet has played its part in this. And since written language in particular has generally followed attempts to codify spoken language, it shouldn't be too surprising - or too disturbing - when its use by greater numbers of people leads to changes in linguistic trends. And, after all, the average reader would probably have a harder time reading Chaucer than he or she would reading a blog or an IRC channel.

          That's not to say that careless language is a good thing, of course; but we should be careful when it comes to railing too much against different usage of language on the basis that it's "incorrect".
          • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:3, Interesting)

            by iabervon (1971)
            It would be very interesting to see whether someone accustomed to reading blogs and IRC did better or worse than someone who only read published texts at understanding Chaucer. I would contend that the problem a lot of people have with Chaucer is that they have come to expect standardization in spelling which happened later. If that's true, then it shouldn't bother a blog reader nearly so much when Chaucer spells "scole", "ther", and "veray". Of "stil", "ful", and "wel", which are Chauser, and which are blo
        • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:5, Insightful)

          by dasmegabyte (267018) <das@OHNOWHATSTHISdasmegabyte.org> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:23PM (#10182281) Homepage Journal
          The thing is, the people who are poor spellers, have poor grammar and who use poor organizational skills don't matter so much on the internet. Just like in the real world, people on the Internet detect the difference between a well thought out point and a bunch of mindless rambling based on the coherence of the argument. If your argument is well spelled out, understandable and flows organically from point to point, you'll get more links, more mod points, etc.

          What the internet allows that the real world does not is a chance for people who aren't naturally good at organizing ideas to make themselves heard regardless. Many people who visit open forums like Slashdot et. al. are much better at explaining opinions than they are at making them...which is why so many highly moderated posts begin with "What I think you mean is," and so on. This means that poorly written posts that have valid points are not necessarily ignored...they are quite often embellished so that the validity of points raised by good thinker is strengthened by those who are good writers.

          Incidentally, this bolstering of good ideas with good language is in my opinion the first step towards making an important viewpoint into a political lynchpin: finding a way to explain the viewpoint and the urgency of it in an understandable (if not completely accurate) way. Bush Jr has (some would say unfortunately) had great success in his political career due to the bolstering he receives from his speech writers -- lord knows he couldn't survive in an oratorical vacuum. Bush's camp almost seems to have take cues from the internet -- they've realized that not speaking perfect English is an easy way to get the common man to associate himself with you, even if you're a multi-millionaire oil baron and career politician who's a former coke fiend.

          The point is: people who can't spell and can't write aren't a problem on the internet, because it's the internet and it offers a system of checks and balances that will quite often bury their points. You want to promote better English? Use it yourself and don't make it a point of elitism -- all that does is create a feeling of separatism that's not getting us a less abbreviated internet.
          • Grammar nazi post (Score:3, Interesting)

            by slamb (119285) *

            Hey, since we're discussing grammar, I'd thought I'd point out this minor flaw:

            The thing is, the people who are poor spellers, have poor grammar and who use poor organizational skills don't matter so much on the internet.

            Your list has what I've heard called "improper parallelism". There may be another name for it (anyone? what's it called?), but here's the idea: divide your list up into the words that are common between all the elements and the ones that are different. You should be able to follow the

        • "But the primary problem is that hardly anyone takes pride or care in what they do anymore."

          Like understanding people's short-hand?
      • I think the spelling "problems" have more to do with the use of 'net slang and abreviations than any actual inability to spell. People use the same kinds of shortcuts in casual speech all the time, so it isn't like it is something new. People are just learning to adapt casual speaking styles to written communications.

        -matthew
        • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:3, Insightful)

          by JPelorat (5320)
          Shortcuts like ppl, thx, plz? And i herd their wuz sum diferenses beetween surten werds to. Oral colloquialisms in a visual medium just don't work. It's a one-way transfer only.

          The Internet may not be hurting anyone's learning ability, but it is certainly not *helping* anyone to learn how to spell. Not when so many just don't care what their words look like or how they use them.
      • teh
        • Re:One word (Score:3, Insightful)

          by networkBoy (774728)
          Oh so true. That seems to be my number one typo when I don't preview. :-)

          Common inversions aside, I tend to quit reading mangled text much faster than I quit reading well written text. In IMs brb is fine as I more "hear" than see the text. In forums like this, however, I tend to appriciate (and reward with more "eye-time") well written text.
          -nB
      • on't see how having to use text as a communications medium could do anything but help spelling abilities.

        HA! I've thought long and hard about this issue, and I disagree heartily. With regard to blogs, I think they do have a detrimental effect on spelling.

        Here's things were:
        1. Kid reads books and sees correctly spelled words. Correct spelling reinforced.
        2. Teacher reads everything kid writes. Teacher corrects misspellings. Correct spelling reinforced.

        Here's how things are:
        1. Kid reads internet and sees m
        • the purpose of written communication is to COMMUNICATE. If you spell a word differently from a dictionary, but you get your meaning across, where is the harm?

          Exactly so! And I might add that in the case of inane misspellings and abbreviations, when they do NOT communicate, will be misunderstood, or worse, cause the reader to give up on the entire posting. Such usage will attrophy and whither. Literal apoptosis.

          BTM
    • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:3, Insightful)

      by AKAImBatman (238306) *
      While Blogs in general are questionable, I do think that the internet is having a positive effect on literacy and writing ability. At the very least, putting communication in written form forces people to learn to communicate clearly and concisely.

      As for spelling, I think you'll find that it has always been an issue. The only reason why it has become more apparent, is that internet users fail to take the time for a proper proofread. Not that I'm about to start proofreading every message I write. It simply
      • And yet you managed to avoid grammar and spelling errors despite not proofreading. Why can't the 'LOLOMGBBQ!!' crowd can't do the same?
        • Why can't the 'LOLOMGBBQ!!' crowd can't do the same?
          You know, I often find myself laughing out loud wile screaming "Oh my God! Barbeque!"

          Seriously, acronyms are the crutch of improper spelling. Instead of having to write the word "barbeque", most Americans will write "BBQ". This was happening long before blogging.

          • Well, for 'barbeque' that's true, but I seriously doubt anybody wrote "c u l8r" before the Internet.
            • Well, for 'barbeque' that's true, but I seriously doubt anybody wrote "c u l8r" before the Internet.

              In pop culture, it's almost a tradition. How about Prince? Early Rap acts did the acronym/sounds-like tricks too... "Ice-T"? "2 Live Crew"? There were other acts in other genres as well... "U2"? "KMFDM"? "SOD"? "OPIV"? All pre-internet. Cleverly spelling things so that they sound the same has been with us in pop culture for a while. Pop culture drives standard culture (albeit with some lag) With the intern

      • At the very least, putting communication in written form forces people to learn to communicate clearly and concisely.

        It may encourage that, but it clearly doesn't force it. There's still plenty of unclear, rambling net.poetry that people are presenting as if it were prose.

    • I frequently make use of dictionary.com when I write on my blog. Almost every one of my spelling mistakes comes from typing faster than my brain can translate abstract concepts into English, which is why we have proofreading.

      I will agree with you that the ones modded down can be the most interesting. I personally find moderation systems to be nothing more than "democratic censorship." It is amusing how we howl at the government for deciding what opinions should be heard, but so few really care that many d
      • I frequently make use of dictionary.com when I write on my blog. Almost every one of my spelling mistakes comes from typing faster than my brain can translate abstract concepts into English, which is why we have proofreading.

        There is a significant difference between typos made because you are typing too fast (or thinking faster than you can type) and the typical blog/WWW errors like using 'your' instead of 'you're', 'it's' instead of 'its', their/there/they're, etc. A dictionary won't help with those beca

    • ... essays on a wide range of controversial topics. While the Internet has had a clearly detrimental effect on our spelling abilities, I think it has had a correspondingly positive impact on our willingness and enthusiasm to express opinions of all kinds.

      And I think Slashdot has the positive effect of getting people to express whatever they want, but the detrimental effect of making them do so before they RTFA. Because, as TFA says:

      An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real ess

  • Hmm... the term (Score:3, Insightful)

    by winkydink (650484) * <sv.dude@gmail.com> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:28PM (#10181573) Homepage Journal
    "apropos of nothing" comes to mind
  • by Weaselmancer (533834) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:29PM (#10181579)

    ...'cause I just published an essay on English literature and the role of articles.

  • by Nos. (179609)
    And I agree with most of it, especially the point about taking a position and dending that. I did that a few times in both high school and university. Did well on some and failed on others. I tried to take positions that I did not agree with as it was more interesting to try and combat my own beliefs on an issue than to rehash a position so many others had done before. Now like I said, I didn't agree with the stance I took, I did it as a learning excercise, for example, I did one on heros and chose hitl
  • by rokzy (687636) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:31PM (#10181602)
    ...is that they usually seem to be about filling out a point to meet a word limit and not about getting to the point.

    I think this arises because "the point" is usually nothing profound in itself so the only thing you can do to stand out is blabber on in a particularly well way.

    Being a scientist I'm necessarily biased about anything that can be called an "essay". The closest thing in science is probably a review paper but that also should be as concise as possible.

    I blame schools.
    • "...the only thing you can do to stand out is blabber on in a particularly well way."

      I see you've got a great start!
    • You're partially right. A bad essay is a point padded to fill a word limit.

      A good essay is a point illustrated through insights, pruned to fill a word limit.

      If you ever take a journalism or discourse class (and, if you ever plan to do any writing in any respect, you should), you will learn that a piece of writing is not done until you can take nothing else away without losing meaning.

      Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what we learn in school up to this point -- assignments like "write an X page paper on beekeeping" train young writers that what matters is not the content but the length that's important. This perception tends to stick with people -- my wife, who writes reports as part of her work, starts writing by setting up her page limit, and then tries to fill that. Doesn't matter what form her language takes or how many leading sentences she uses, she has to fill her limit or she doesn't feel like she's done. And when she goes over the limit, she stresses out as well.

      In a good discourse class, you learn to overwrite first. Plan for two or more pages to fill one page. Take out flimsy arguments, avoid needless soft language and remove obvious conclusions that don't prove your hypothesis. Of course, none of these would help you in a high school where the state board is looking for students to write a minimum of 40 pages per class per year -- only the most prolific fledgling authors could manage 80 pages and intense editing along with a normal courseload. I sure couldn't.

      Academia aside, good language isn't about length. It's about coherence. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was only 3 paragraphs long. It also doesn't address any single problem by name nor does it offer any solutions. If he had added those in there...he might have wound up with something like Castro's infamous marathon speeches...and still never left the point at hand.
    • I blame schools.

      I hear you. I blame schools for a great deal.

      Up here in Canada, there is a great amount of fussing about how to make the school system better. The problem with schools is that at least 95% of what the students learn is crap. Rule-based, length-controlled essay writing is only a minor example.

      Kids come out of school knowing next to nothing about how the things in the world actually work. Instead the learn classification systems and definitions.

      As another example, take chemistry. Kid

  • by grunt107 (739510) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:31PM (#10181613)
    To start, essays are an ill fit in my life.

    The proof is that I am ignorant and apathetic: I don't know how to write and essay, and I don't care.

    In conclusion, essays are not a favorite of mine.
  • by e9th (652576)
    "...that writing is made to seem boring and senseless."

    Writing complete sentences will improve your essay.

  • And the difference in the way fathers and mothers bought ice cream for their kids: the fathers like benevolent kings bestowing largesse, the mothers harried, giving in to pressure. So, yes, there does seem to be some material even in fast food.

    Sort of a "let down your bucket where you are" philosphy - try to find something interesting in whatever you're doing. Just because your job title is "CVS administrator" doesn't mean you can't put together an hourly build [ultralog.net]. Good times.

  • Fact (Score:5, Insightful)

    by scottennis (225462) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:35PM (#10181677) Homepage
    The better you become at reading, the better you become at writing. It only made sense to combine the two disciplines by requiring writing to be about things you read.

    Now, having said that, I believe that once a student has achieved proficiency at writing about what they read, they should be encouraged to write about other things as well.

    To quote Thoreau, "How vain it is to sit down to write when one has never stood up to live."

    As to the question "Why is this on Slashdot?" I have a degree in English Literature. When I took my first job in IT, my boss told me that most IT people were an inch wide and a mile deep. Perhaps the person who posted this is trying to help some of us nerds broaden our horizons!

    To quote one of the nerds from the movie "War Games" "Remember when you told me to tell you when you were acting rudely and insensitively? Well you're doing it now!"

    • Good for you! ;-) (Score:4, Interesting)

      by PaulBu (473180) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:02PM (#10181997) Homepage
      I have a degree in English Literature. When I took my first job in IT, my boss told me that most IT people were an inch wide and a mile deep.

      In this case you surely have read this essay, but if not -- you'll enjoy it! ;-) [ucar.edu]

      To quite its epigraph: If there's nothing different about UNIX people, how come so many were liberal-arts majors?
      It's the love of words that makes UNIX stand out.


      Paul B.
    • The better you become at reading, the better you become at writing.

      More specifically, the better you become at reading non-fiction, the better you become at writing non-fiction. Fiction doesn't have much in common with non-fiction (except, perhaps, history) beyond grammar.
  • Now I know... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by RAMMS+EIN (578166) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:37PM (#10181696) Homepage Journal
    Now I know why I like Paul Graham's essays so much. You read the essay, and you follow along with the thoughts. You never feel forced in a certain direction, or at least not for a long time. Eventually, the essay often manages to convince you of something, but it's not by force. It's because you draw your own conclusions, that may or may not agree with the author's.
  • by pyrrhonist (701154) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:37PM (#10181698)
    In a follow-up article, he will claim [paulgraham.com] that, "Python programmers write better essays than Java programmers".
    • I don't know about "better":
      but I will bet they are better indented.
      (BTW, python lover [google.com], so I get to say this. :-) )

      python -c "import this"

      seems appropriate, though it is not well indented.
    • There's probably something surprising and interesting in that theory.

      It could be said that Python programmers are more likely to think outside the norm (which could be why they're Python programmers instead of Java programmers).

      If that's true, then it's probably also true that Python-programmer-written essays might introduce more useful and interesting topics than Java-programmer-written essays.

      Whether you prove it true or not isn't so important, as long as you develop the idea and follow the path. That
  • I care! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ImaLamer (260199) <john.lamar@gma i l . com> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:38PM (#10181713) Homepage Journal
    Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball.

    Mind you I've haven't read Dickens since middle/high-school but I care.

    It's not just the symbolism, it's the experience. I was watching some show on PBS and the host said something that I wish English teachers would have said to me. To paraphase; 'Reading a narrative is an exercise in building life experience. No one has written about that particular character at that place and time. Reading allows us to see the world through different eyes'

    It makes perfect sense too. Whether it's Dickens or Dick (Philip K.) you are getting a point of view out of the book. Looking at it that way is much more rewarding. The host went on to say that reading lets you know that other people have had similar experiences and no experience is completely new.

    Man, that would have helped in life. Not being a fan of fiction, I shunned most books that I was forced to read and never absorbed those experiences. Later in life I often wondered "why is this happening to me" or simply "I can't take this". I wish I would have read more as I was growing up and coming to maturity (Daniel Goleman [eiconsortium.org] says maturity ~ 15)

    I think the reason that we were supposed to write those essays on Dickens and company were to share our view of the books, and to have us look deeper than the plot. Maybe I'm wrong, I usually am, and maybe I'm crazy... that has been proven.


    • Well said, but there is one point that I do not agree on -

      The host went on to say that reading lets you know that other people have had similar experiences and no experience is completely new.

      Maybe true, since it is quite likely that no matter what you experience, it has been experienced by scores of people before you. However, the thing about books is the fact that each experience is personal.

      The way I interpret and read a book, would be quite different from someone else. I would read it the way I've
  • by ahfoo (223186) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:47PM (#10181833) Journal
    But I'm pleased in a way. I have an MA in Composition and Rhetoric and one of my many jobs is grading GRE practice essays. I did about fifty this afternoon in fact. See, that's why I'm a /. junky. Essays and arguments are my life's blood.
    However, I'd like to point something out to the author and it's something I see a lot of which is a misperception regarding what students are writing about in school.
    Especially when people think about testing they assume that essay topics are completely inane. Well perhaps this has been true in the past, but these days I see many essay topics that do focus on very broad personal issues and encourage the students to explore things using any creativity they can come up with. So the problem that he's discussing in his essay is somewhat contrived. In fact, students are encouraged to write about unusal, quirky and personal issues even in test settings. Not only that, but some of them come up with some really beautiful work even in the constrained environment of a test session. There are limits, but it's really not that bad.
    I'm trying to think of an example. Here, today I had some that were on the topic of living through a difficult experience. That's a very general topic that refers you specifically into your own personal life. I read some real beauties. Actually that wasn't GRE though. That was another class. I had a bunch of GMAT today, but that's another story as well. Those are fun in a different way.
    Anyhow, it's really not so bad and I always teach the students that if you get a lousy topic you can usually write your way around it.
    My MA was in Comp, but as an undergrad I did Creative Writing. Any MFAs in the house? Losers!
    There's no way you can tell me that these kinds of writing courses make writing boring. If anything they can get too edgey. We used to have all kinds of hardcore sexual stuff written about other people in the class and it was like who's going to say when? I guess it depends where you go to school.
    Well, I'm rambling at 4:50Am so let me just close up with this bit of writing advice. If you want to have good time as a writing major try San Diego State. They've got a sweet writing department. You won't get rich, but you probably won't regret it either.
    • There's no way you can tell me that these kinds of writing courses make writing boring.

      Writing is not a boring endeavor. Nor are classes about writing necessarily boring. As with most things, what turns the student off is the teacher(s). What prevents students from pursuing writing more often is not subject, but the people who stand in the way that discourage its exploration.

      Writing, at least in high-school, is artistic and subjective. Artistic in the sense that you can spend hours trying to improve

  • by twifosp (532320) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:48PM (#10181836)
    I think that the essay rules ruined the essay.

    In school we focus on the rules, in terms of how an essay should be structured, and what it should contain.

    Rules like spelling and grammar ARE important, but not as important as the content. I'd rather read an easy by a brilliant person with English as a second langauge, who doesn't write very well, opposed to an essay written perfectly by a random bloke.

    This is where the English class ruined the essay. It was graded on those rules, and seldom on content.

    They should focus on free thinking, creative writing, as much, if not more than the structure.
    • That's largely because the essay in English class was to exercise grammar and vocabulary (which includes spelling btw). It is nice to read essays with good content, but if the grammar, use of terms and spelling are horribly incorrect then it's completely useless to most readers.
    • Except form and content are intimately entwined. A truly perfect piece of writing will not only be formally precise but intellectually stimulating. You can have all the brilliant ideas you want, but if you can't express them in a clear, engaging manner, you've got a handful of roubles in a world of American vending machines: your currency ain't gonna get you a Mountain Dew. And yes, sure, clear writing without interesting thought contained within it is pretty worthless, but. I guess the point is: you can't
    • Well, there are two problems addressed by an English class. The first is "How do I write?" The second is "What do I write about?"

      Your assertion that merely teaching the first is a disservice is completely valid. However, it is far better to have students writing boring, but cogent works rather than an exciting mess. For one thing, many students are already good at writing interesting crud. For another, it's extremely difficult to teach creativity. Creativity is learned almost through osmosis...it is
  • Where's Arc, Paul? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by GCP (122438) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:49PM (#10181845)
    I enjoy reading Paul's various works, but I'd sure rather have Arc.

    After generating considerable excitement about Arc, a lot of discussion, and frequent updates to his Arc website, Paul simply went silent regarding Arc.

    Yes, it's true that he'll attend conferences to give keynotes. He'll be billed as the guy behind Arc, but then his talk won't so much as give a status report.

    Some have lamented that he has appparently chosen to take the cathedral approach instead of the bazaar with Arc, but I don't see any signs of a cathedral, either. For a language to stand some chance of success these days, it needs a lively developer community. I see no signs that Paul is even interested in hearing from anyone else, much less soliciting help. For the guy who built Yahoo Stores, putting up a discussion board for Arc discussion wouldn't be much of a challenge, but he's never done so.

    His site claims to solicit ideas, but that site has been a "cobweb site" for years now. The page on which he was collecting ideas stopped being updated a few weeks after it opened and hasn't been updated for years.

    I'd love to have something like Arc. So would a lot of people. It looks as though Paul has lost interest but doesn't want to say so.

    Instead, we get interesting essays, which is admittedly more that I deserve, but still less that a lot of us were hoping for.

    • Half the design is up there. Why doesn't somebody finish that and write the language?

      • by GCP (122438) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @08:00PM (#10184693)
        That's part of the problem. Paul has a great reputation as an expert in Lisp. He has stated that he is in the middle of building Arc, with all sorts of improvements that many of us want.

        --His stated goals for Arc closely match what many of us want, including those that overcome both the shortcomings in non-Lisp languages and in all current Lisps

        --He has the technical knowledge of Lisp, including what has and hasn't worked out in practice

        --He has the practical experience of creating a large, successful software project using Lisp

        --He has the financial resources to do it without need to find corporate sponsors

        --He would appear to have the time

        --He has the reputation around which to form both a solid team of technical contributors and a passionate community of users

        --And he appeared, at least, to have the passion and committment to doing it

        With that to contend with, who is going to risk making a big committment of time and resources to starting another Arc with the knowledge that the real Arc could be released at any time?

        The only parties I can think of would be large corporations who could put a lot more resources into it than Graham and could own and control the results, but I don't see any that would be interested.

        If Graham would give us an update on his plans, it might break the stalemate. If he's not interested, he could say so, making it less risky for others to attempt. He could even post his design notes to help.

        If he's still interested, I can't help thinking that Arc would end up better if its design decisions were discussed publicly for a while before it's "too late to change it now". No matter how much of an expert he is, there are those with even more expertise in each of the thousands of little specialty areas that a good, modern, general-purpose language ought to handle well.

        No experienced developer is going to blame another one for eventually deciding to drop an exciting project that ended up being too time-consuming. But since we don't know what the story is with Arc, and he has posted "don't even ask for a status report", he has blocked both attempts to help him and attempts to compete with him. Ironically, this approach has ended up "FUDding" the New Lisp market with a vaporware campaign that Microsoft would be proud of.

        • by bugbear (448726)
          A language doesn't have to be Arc to be the new Lisp. There are a bunch of new Lisp dialects being developed at the moment, most notably Goo.
    • by bugbear (448726) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @10:02PM (#10185619) Homepage
      I did talk about what I was up to with Arc at the Lisp conference last summer. I just didn't put that talk online. What I've been doing most recently is working on growing the language from the smallest set of axioms I can, and continuing all the way through stuff like data types and I/O instead of stopping where McCarthy did.

      The main reason I don't talk much about Arc's status is because I don't want to feel like I have some kind of deadline I have to meet. The world has waited 45 years for a really good Lisp implementation. It's not going to make any difference if we have to wait 2 or even 10 more.
      • by GCP (122438) on Wednesday September 08, 2004 @02:42AM (#10186955)
        I can't help thinking that it would end up a better language if you employed your "thinking out loud" essay technique in which people could respond to you and then to one another with ideas that you would study before making the final decisions.

        It seems to me that a multipartite (written) discussion forum is the natural extension of an essay by an individual writer when it comes to "searching for truth".

        But with Arc you seem to be talking to yourself, which you decry in your essay on essays as likely to lead to the petering out of a project. That or talking to a select handful of colleagues whose opinions you probably trust because they're so similar to your own, which is not so different from talking to yourself.

        If you want interesting surprises, why not open the discussion to people who care about things that you and your friends might not have put much thought into?

        What are the security implications of your design ideas? Some people don't care about dynamic vs. static typing per se but care a lot about the security issues, some of which might be impacted by this decision. Is there some relatively minor issue that might hamstring automatic decomposition into massive parallelism that you could change now but not later? Are there text models that would dramatically improve your chances of ending up with powerful text processing libraries? And what text model would be most likely to survive the radical changes in computer architectures that we will see over the next century?

        You say the world has waited for 45 years for a good Lisp, and you're correct in the sense you intended, but in another sense, of course, the world hasn't waited for Lisp at all. It has left it behind and built up massive ecosystems around its competitors. Those ecosystems are relentlessly growing and create a moving target for what a language is expected to have if it is to be a contender.

        Any really successful Lisp will need a lot of time after release to build up such an ecosystem, and the longer it takes to release it, the longer it will take *after* release to become a contender. I think it *will* make a difference whether it is released in 2 years or 10, though even if I'm right, you aren't obligated to do anything about it, of course.

        It just seems to me that you'd have a better chance of creating a better overall language if you had an open discussion of the design while change is still easy. You might even get things done sooner by delegating more of the implementation of everything from design comparison prototypes to docs.

  • by gurps_npc (621217) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:53PM (#10181894) Homepage
    In the essay he asked why we find misfortune funny.

    I like Heinlein's answer to that question: "We laugh because it hurts to much to cry.".

    Basically Heinlein was of the opinion (and I agree) that it is ONLY misfortune that we find funny. That the laugh, the joke etc. are coping mechanisms we have developed to let us deal with bad things.

    • Where is the "misfortune" in, say, a good bad pun? In any number of Monty Python jokes, for those so inclined -- or, better yet, in half the League of Gentlemen sketches (which certainly do eke humour from other emotions, but rarely from a sense of misfortune)?

      Q: What's brown and sticky?
      A: A stick.

      Not everything is a "coping mechanism for dealing with bad things". Cheer up.
      • Not sure how effectively I can answer that question, but I will try.

        That is an example of an "Ha Ha, you overthought the question." joke. The reason it is funny is that the person trying to answer the question supposedly can not answer the question.

        It is making fun of the supposed person for their inability (misfortune) to come up with such a simple answer.

    • "Basically Heinlein was of the opinion (and I agree) that it is ONLY misfortune that we find funny."

      I disagree about the only. I think there are two parts to humor, misfortune and puns. As I paraphrase from the 2000-year-old man, "A hangnail for me is a tragedy. If you fall down a manhole, now that's comedy!" But there are also linguistic jokes that don't necessarily involve tragedy, yet people still find them funny.

  • by dirvish (574948) <dirvish&foundnews,com> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @03:53PM (#10181896) Homepage Journal
    Makes me wonder if people will look back hundreds of years from now and wonder... 'What the hell were they thinking writing in that horrible format?' Kinda like I do now with some of the weird medieval writing styles. I wonder if English teachers ever reflect on sort of things before they make their students write yet another essay.
  • by techsoldaten (309296) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:04PM (#10182023) Journal
    Having a degree in English literature, it is always strange to see the odd relationship technology people have with the written word.

    This essay reads like one of a hundred handouts I received in Intro to Lit classes. It makes the argument that you must make an argument, that there is structure to any argument, and that there is a historical tradition behind how an essay is constructed.

    There is an analagous relationship between the art of writing an essay and the discipline of an engineering discipline (in my case, constructing software). In both cases, there is a desire for internal consistency, overall clarity and optimal design. Structure tends to consist of a series of discreet statements put together so that the order has an affect on the overall outcome of the project.

    Many of the engineers and programmers I work with would be baffled to know this. For them, writing is a series of consise, actionable statements scribbled on sticky pads or in the margin of documents. They tend to think in terms of how something that is said contributes towards a goal rather than what it means or how it was stated. The idea that there is structure to how arguments are presented, that there are logical and rhetorical devices used in the same way as control structures in programming languages is lost on them. Which is a shame, because soem of the best engineers I know would be excellent essayists were they to write down their thoughts.

    M

    • I don't understand the distinction you make between "how [the way in which] something is said contributes towards a goal" and "what it means or how it was stated".. surely these are usually one and the same thing, for the novellist as for the technical writer?

      That the mechanisms good writers use in creating prose may be subconscious and automatic doesn't mean that those mechanisms don't exist.. I'd say that the best writers are often those with the firmest grasp of their medium, and I don't hold much stock
      • "They tend to think in terms of how something that is said contributes towards a goal rather than what it means or how it was stated." What I mean here is that there are nuances and subtleties to language that are meant to communicate more about the subject than a precise interpretation would reveal. Engineers tend to have problems with this, and even with the idea such subtleties exist.

        I would actually disagree that literature is closely related to actionable statements, personally I believe great litera
  • by Timesprout (579035) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:14PM (#10182165)
    Every great essayist I know, given a choice only writes essays in Python. English is for the common peasant, yes you can write an essay in it but it will be crap. Great essayists are far more productive when they use Python and if you advertise the fact you are writing in Python the standard of essayists you get will be much higher.
  • The Essay format (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Mateito (746185) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:27PM (#10182340) Homepage
    My fiancee is currently writing in the essay format, but she's a non-native english speaker who is preparing to take a TOEFL test.

    Basic essay format is 5 paragraphs: Introduction, 3 paragraphs with supporting points, conclusion. Each paragraph has rules, so essentially you don't need to think about structure when writing an essay.

    As a result, its stilted and hard to read.

    Essays are a very very basic overly structured way to introduce writing skills. They are probably appropriate for people new to stringing more a few sentences together... such as non-native speakers and 10 year olds.

    However, I've come across university professors who want assignments submitted in "strict essay format". I think this is more a sign of laziness on their behalf (read the introduction and the conclusion and briefly check that the intervening points see vaguely reasonable) than something that promotes good writing. At University level, taking one point of view and defending it blindly should be the exception, rather than the rule. At this stage one should be able to see that there are very few "black and whites", and appreciate the shades of grey and spectrums of colour.

    Np, I'm not writing a fucking conclusion.
  • by NerveGas (168686) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:50PM (#10182581)
    Either he went to a pretty odd school, or he just never managed to walk outside of the English department.

    Essays that I wrote in school weren't just about things like symbolism in Dickins, they were intended to give the student the choice about where he wanted to go with his paper. They were on a wide range of topics, anything from the career of your choice to what economic methods you favored. I only recall one teacher that gave out essays on virtually pre-decided topics, and I recall hearing about one or two others.

    I even wrote a paper once on why monkeys should rule the world - and gave enough convincing arguments that I ended up getting a few bonus points, putting me at something like 104 of 100.

    Even in English class, we were sometimes given room to really explore what we wanted. One year in high school, while our textbook served for the grammer and rhetoric assignments, the great bulk of our actual literature reading was up to us: We could read just about whatever we wanted, but we had to read at least something like 1,000 or 2,000 pages per quarter, and we had to talk to the class about what we read, and what we saw in it. Some of the romance novels that the girls were reading were enough to make the teacher pretty uncomfortable in discussing in front of a high-school class, but he still allowed it.

    Even in grade school, you were assigned days on which you had to bring in a couple of newspaper stories on current events, and had to talk about them. Because nobody wanted to have a "repeat" of the news story before them, everybody tried to stay away from just the easy, front-page stories.

    The part that astounds me is that I didn't go to any great school - it was just a small school in a small hick-town. While I haven't exactly tried to turn this into a well-written essay, even what I thought was a very poor essay on my part on with my college admissions got me into the class where you pass it, and your English and writing requirements are completely satisfied.
  • English (Score:2, Interesting)

    by what!!!smd (756407)
    As an English major I find this quite strange, I don't argue things that have little relevance to me. In some cases if I procrastinate I might end up writing something quite lame, though that will usually not recieve a very good grade, because it isn't any good. Usually though I try to find something in the text that I can connect to my life experiences or something of social importance. The mind is a muscle that improves as you challenge it, writing essays requires you to analyze the text more thoroughly.
  • I lived some of my life before there were personal computers and the InterNet. I didnt write much then outside of school because the process was tedious. Unless you were "Miss Perfect" you usually had to do two or three handwritten or typed drafts. Word processors changed all that.

    Second, the internet has put writers and readers into closer contact through mail, chat rooms, newsgroups and blogs. When you communicate more often electronically, you get more practice getting your point out, whether it is
  • Wrong Era (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Trailwalker (648636) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @06:44PM (#10183931)
    The essayist requires a literate, leisured audience. Carlyle, et. al., had this. You can read one of Carlyle's essays and have a pleasant time digesting the content and enjoying the style.

    The modern equivalent is the columnist. He requires neither leisure or nor much in the way of literacy. Content and style have suffered accordingly.
  • Don't like it (Score:3, Interesting)

    by awol (98751) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @07:28PM (#10184392) Journal
    I cannot agree with the author. As with any comparison with history, he is reviewing the current state of the world with the distilled excellence of the historical essayists. His criticism of the essay form as it is used in education must be an American thing becuse it ain't my experience, Aus high school education and Economics and Law degrees at university with all the above requiring essays none of which really match the form described by the author. Several even presented diverse opportunity to offer interesting points of view. The best ones I ever wrote (in terms of the pleasure to write and the grade the mostly received) were the ones where original thought was possible.

    The death of the essayist is caused by the purpose of the esay being supplanted by several alternative media channels. In particular "non news" current affairs broadcasting (radio and TV) that provide the forum for the public discourse that was at the root of many of the essayists for the style of which the author appears to pine.

    $0.02
  • by GrodinTierce (571882) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @11:27PM (#10186144) Journal
    I
    wish
    that
    they
    were
    formatted
    better.

    :)

  • My feelings... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by slamb (119285) * on Wednesday September 08, 2004 @12:33AM (#10186453) Homepage
    Seems like there are (at least) four major points in this article:
    1. Rhetorical skills should be taught independently of literature analysis.

      I agree. I've always felt this way, but one experience cemented this for me. In my first semester of college, I took Principles of Chemistry I and Accelerated Rhetoric simultaneously. In the rhetoric class, we wrote the mostly usual pointless essays about things no one cares about. I was struck with how little effect any of these essays had, as though they were called persuasive essays, they never advocated any real action, much less succeeded in persuading someone to undertake it. And even when we did write about a decent topic (one area was politics; I ripped apart some stupid Republican's campaign speech), we did it badly. Looking back on the revisions my rhetoric teacher forced me to do, my essay continued to get worse. Her obsession with the standardized format destroyed the terseness of my work.

      In contrast, I wrote a persuasive essay to the professors of the chemistry class. My thesis was that he software we used for homework assignments was no good and should be scrapped. It was one of the proudest moments of my college career, because I succeeded completely. They not only made these homework assignments optional mid-semester, but also forwarded my complaints to the designers of the software. (Who were surprisingly receptive.)

      I realized I had learned much more about persuasive writing from convincing the chemistry professors than I had from the rhetoric class.

    2. The format of a standard essay is overly constrictive.

      In general terms, I agree. He's right that the conclusion doesn't add much, except in a persuasive argument: stating the argument to a "jury" who may have half-forgotten what you were saying at that point. Another thing that specifically bothers me is that rhetoric teachers are violently opposed to non-prose elements. I like to intersperse lists of items into my work. Most people skim, not read. If you don't help them skim well, they just won't understand what you're saying.

    3. Essays should share a search for truth, rather than defending a pre-established position. (A refinement of #2.)

      I do not agree. A search for truth is an extremely valuable and underrepresented format, yes. But persuasive essays are valuable, too. Often in life, we write for someone who generally trusts us to make decisions but may have some additional input or at least know what's going on. I might write to my boss why I chose a particular software package. He's primarily interested in what I chose. The reasons are secondary. If he sees a priority of mine that's completely different than his, he'll mention it. That might lead him to contest the final choice. But generally, he'll go along with what I'd said. If he'd had time to follow all the permutations of my research, he would have done it himself. Thus, I often write in a sort of inverse pyramid structure. (As I learned in a journalism class long, long ago.)

    4. Write things which are surprising to you.

      I agree; these surprising insights lead to great writing. But I don't think you should exclusively do this. Many things which you do not find surprising still need to be said. If I'm writing for exposition (how to use a piece of software), I'll point out the normal as well as the weird. I might even give short treatment to the weird because I want people to know the basics before confusing them.

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