Original Source Research

“He who can go to the fountain
does not go to the water-jar.”

                                                           —Leonardo da Vinci

I have more respect for Leonardo than for any other curious human I’ve ever heard of. He may have been the most restless investigator of all. Kenneth Clark called him “the most relentlessly curious man in history.” He was also weird, surpassingly weird, in his interests, which were as wide and unexpected as the limits of imagination.

His notebooks were filled with observations, math equations, drawings of sawed-open skulls, of severed arteries, of water eddies, of explosions and flying machines, full also of to-do lists that chronicle his boundless curiosity. Walter Isaacson collected some samples from one day’s entry:

Measure Milan and its suburbs.
Get the master of arithmetic to show you
how to square a triangle.
Ask Giannino the Bombardier
about how the tower of Ferrara is walled.
Describe the tongue of a woodpecker.
Ask Benedetto Protinari by what means
they walk on ice in Flanders.
Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to
repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner.
Go every Saturday to the hot bath where
you will see naked men.
Observe the goose’s foot; if it were always open
or always closed the creature would not be able
to make any kind of movement.
Draw Milan.
Get the measurement of the sun promised me by
Maestro Giovanni Francese, the Frenchman.”

What I hope you’ll notice and find inspiring is that Leonardo took nothing for granted, cultivated sources that would provide him the information he sought, and prized most of all his own observations or the direct testimony of other keen observers.

Leonardo Water
from Leonardo’s notebook

He went to the fountain,
not to the water-jar.

When Google leads you to a magazine article that says, “The study concluded that the earth is not actually getting warmer,” you’re drinking from the water-jar. You can either trust Coalminer Times, or you can be like Leonardo. Follow the lead back to the fountain. Find the study that did the testing and tracked the temperatures and drew the conclusions. See for yourself what conclusions they drew.

Are they the same conclusions Coalminer Times reported them to be? Who conducted the study? Who financed it? Was it someone interested in tracking the earth’s temperature? Or was it someone interested in promoting coal?

If the study turns out to be a collection of other people’s opinions, you’ve found the tank from which the jars were filled. Keep looking. The world is full of water tanks and water jars tainted with water from suspect sources. And very few fountains.

References

Isaacson, W. (2018). Leonardo Da Vinci. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

 

Riddles About Riddles

Just one last word before I go.

I wrote these jokes to make a point.

Version 1
—Knock knock.
—Who’s there?
—Death.
—Death who?
—Seriously?

Version 2
—Knock knock.
—Who’s there?
—Death.
Death who?
—Ultimately, it makes little difference in what form death arrives or by what name we call it. We all go one way or another and while there may be more dignity in some manners of demise, more time to prepare, or less suffering, the ultimate destination couldn’t be more similar: gone and gone and gone forever.

For me, they’re both funny (for you, maybe neither), but for different reasons. Version 1 is funny because it’s quick to point out a universal absurdity. Version 2 is funny because it gets the tone of a knock-knock joke so spectacularly wrong.

In Version 1 we laugh at ourselves for caring what kind of death is knocking. In Version 2 we laugh at the form the joke takes. I think that makes Version 2 a meta-joke, a joke about jokiness.

But that wasn’t my point.

My point was there is usually a way to say what you mean that is perfectly appropriate to your intentions, sometimes more than one, but always many, many, many, many, many ways to get the tone all wrong and spoil the effect you were going for, usually by falling for ready-made language or by overwriting what could be written simply.

My point is that when the chicken crosses the road “to get to the other side,” we laugh at the well-made joke. We laugh at how badly the joke gets it wrong when the chicken crosses the road “to find itself in sudden and much-valued possession of some other-sidedness.”

Which sort of jokes are you writing (Version 1 or Version 2)?

Which sort of jokes are these?:

—How many licensed electricians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
—Just one.

—How can you tell the difference between an oral thermometer and a rectal thermometer?
—The taste.

Exercise for the Leave a Reply fields below:
Write a joke that gets the tone so wrong that it either dies on the spot or is funny precisely because it upends our expectations.

And if you can’t do that in the time available, just share a good (or amusingly bad) joke.

Stephen Hawking Was Wrong.

I shared this post with you today in class before I found this perfect expression of why we can always say with confidence that “the scientist was wrong.”

The opening joke (attributed to Albert Einstein) tells the whole story.

How to Demand Your Readers’ Attention.

This is a post in progress.

https://counterintuitivefa18.com/2018/10/23/causal-3g/comment-page-1/#comment-3276

Grade Levels 2

Recently I wrote two sentences in preparing a post I never published called  “Counterintuitive Econundrums.” Reading them back, I realize they contain roughly the content value of a paragraph each. They’re not perfect sentences, but their advantages over the paragraphs they represent make them excellent models of writing that earns better grades.

An econundrum—combining the words “ecology” and “conundrum”—is a counterintuitive example of a supposed bit of “green” technology or practice that turns out to be less ecologically friendly than it seems.

Example 1

My favorite econundrums puncture the inflated claims of greenness too often made by commercial operations determined to sell us something they pretend has big environmental advantages.

This sentence packs a lot of material and delivers it in a steady stream that needs no punctuation. Commalessness is not a requirement of good writing, but sentences that charge resolutely toward their conclusion without deviating can gain a lot of momentum and arrive like a freight train. Let’s unpack the sentence into its component claims. Here’s the paragraph the sentence replaces:

Commercial operations are in business to sell us something. Because they know a large percentage of consumers are more likely to buy something that is kind to the environment than a similar but planet-killing product, they promote their products as green. Often they exaggerate the environmental friendliness of their products to trick us into making purchases that don’t really benefit the planet. Econondrums sometimes puncture the inflated claims of the companies that exaggerate their environmental benefits. Those are my favorite econonundrums.

Example 2

Electric cars make me furious, for example, because their manufacturers pretend exhaust pipe emissions are the only measure of a car’s environmental impact, conveniently ignoring the damage done to the planet to produce the electricity in the first place, a huge percentage of which is lost to transmission before it ever starts the car.

The sentence is a little long and might be better phrased, but as it stands it’s certainly not as clumsy at the version it represents, which takes way too much space to spell out the same claims:

Electric car manufacturers claim that their cars cause less environmental damage than cars that burn gasoline. They support that claim by measuring the amount of environmentally-damaging exhaust that gasoline engines emit when they’re driven. While they are correct in saying their cars don’t emit gasses, they are wrong to claim that exhaust gasses are the only way to measure environmental impact. The electricity required to power their cars is not environmentally clean because it can’t be produced in the first place without damaging the planet in some way; what’s more, a huge percentage of the electricity generated at power plants is lost in the miles of transmission wires from the plant to the charging station before it ever gets into the car. Therefore, claims that electric cars are cleaner than gasoline engine vehicles make me furious.

I invite you to respond here if this is helpful, or if you feel the need for additional samples, better models, or even revised versions of your own paragraphs before or after you’ve posted them. If I can model better writing for you, I’ll be happy to try.

Visual Rewrite Advice

Draft Version of First Second

0:00-0:01 Ad opens on a porcelain tea-kettle in the shape of a cat’s head, mostly white but with blue on the outside of the head, brush strokes made to look like hair and small blue flowers on the spout and top of the kettle. The cat’s eyes have been given a more human look, seemingly looking up at its’s holder as if to say my contents are good. It has a small, round pink nose and thin pink lips. The cat is being held buy well manicured handsthe holder must have just left the nail salon. The background is distorted as to not distract us from the kettle cat. But you can make out a possible shelf with other small items. The overall image is bright and clean.

Revision Advice

[I’ve highlighted some grammar and punctuation problems, Username.]

That’s a beautiful description of an opening image, Username. I wonder now what you conclude from looking at it. The trick of the Visual Rhetoric is two-fold. 1) Describe the Visual; 2) Explain the Rhetoric.

That tea-kettle is SOMEBODY’S taste. Perhaps not yours or mine.

  • To admirers, it’s a find.
  • To the vast majority of viewers, it’s an object of amusement at best, scorn at worst.

We don’t want to judge the person who is lovingly handling it, but we do wonder what they could possibly find desirable about it. Does any of that cross your mind when you watch the first second?

SOMETHING crossed your mind. Whatever that SOMETHING is that presented itself to your consciousness IS THE RHETORICAL VALUE of the image.

  • Is this a thrift store item?
  • Is the admirer trying to save money on housewares?
  • Or is it an antique item that might be worth thousands of dollars (not more desirable per se, perhaps, but maybe a good investment).

Those newly-manicured nails.

  • Do they say: “I shop at thrift stores so I can afford expensive manicures”?
  • Or do they say: “I can afford both expensive manicures and costly antiques”?
  • Or do they say: “I do my own nails so I can afford to shop wherever I want”?

The odds are pretty good this is not an ad for kitty-kettles, so there’s something other than a commercial message being delivered in this first second.

The director did EVERYTHING for a reason. Why did she make these first-second choices?

Please comment below if you now understand the two components of the Visual Rhetoric Task.

  1. Visual
  2. Rhetoric

Wield Your Statistics

They’re tools.

Statistics without direction and velocity are useless. They’re a bag of balls, or a rack of bats, blunt as a hockey puck or flabby as an under-inflated football. Pick your own silly analogy, but remember this: having them is pointless if you don’t know how to use them.

We all handle them differently.

Batting Stance
NOBODY ELSE HANDLES A BAT LIKE KEVIN YOUKILIS

Among the many approaches for handling statistics, you’ll find one that makes you comfortable, but some essentials are common to all good writers: they face forward, adopt a comfortable stance, stare down the opposition, deliver with confidence, and know how to use spin.

My number is a good number.

Readers need to be told how your number compares to the range of possible numbers. The statistic by itself means nothing until you place it into context.

Half Glass

  • A full 50%
  • As high as 50%
  • Has improved to 50%
  • Proud to announce we have achieved 50%
  • At 50%, the perfect balance

My number is a bad number.

Except for experts in the field of your endeavor, your readers are at your mercy to interpret the value of the numbers you share. They count on you to guide them to an understanding of the importance of the evidence you present.

Half Glass

  • A mere 50%
  • As low as 50%
  • Has sunk to 50%
  • Regret to admit we have achieved only 50%
  • At 50%, an awful compromise

Real-life example.

Michelle Obama on her book tour is talking frankly about infertility. The news announcer putting Obama’s miscarriage and subsequent worries into context shared these facts:

  • Approximately 10% of American women between 18 and 45 who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
  • The percentage is higher for African-American women.

I have no idea whether those numbers are higher or lower than I should have expected, and the announcer was no help. She could have used the statistics in any of several ways to help me understand.

MichellePregnant

Find the useless sentence.

Though these sentences are contradictory and entirely fictional, each serves a rhetorical purpose. Find the useless sentence and pledge to purge any like it from your work.

  1. Modern medicine and Americans’ overall health have reduced the infertility rate to 10% for American women, though sadly the rate is higher for African-Americans.
  2. Shockingly, the infertility rate for African-American women between 18 and 45 is higher than for women in many of the wealthiest African countries.
  3. The infertility rate has skyrocketed to 10% for all American women 18 to 45, even higher for African-Americans.
  4. 10% of American women between 18 and 45—more for African-Americans—who attempt to conceive, experience infertility to some degree.
  5. Though African-Americans lag behind by a few points, American women who wish to become pregnant have achieved a remarkable 90% fertility rate.