Saturday, February 7, 2015

How Do You Like Your Writing--Crunchy, Smooth, Syrupy, Chewy?

Check out this box of chocolates. Each piece represents a different Japanese onomatopoeiac texture. Toge toge; zaku zaku; goro goro.


Yum yum, right? Well it got me a little curious about the texture of prose.

Texture? To prose? I know what you're thinking: Brendan must be musing again. I know you're preparing yourself for a smattering of five dollar words like susurration, synecdoche, smattering, and crenellations.


Well don't flee to Facebook just yet. I think understanding the texture of writing can help us understand that elusive beast--style. And maybe by understanding how prose has texture, we can improve our own writing styles.

Let's start out with something we all know. Smooth writing. Smooth prose is effortless, easy, flowing evenly across the page. 


We can push the metaphor even further. Sometimes smooth writing comes across as too fluid, too rehearsed, too polished, too damned smooth. Editing has buffed the prose so clean it looks like the shiny hood of a fancy sports car. The worst kind of New York Times op-eds have this kind of smoothness; the smoothness of gelled hair, of dry cleaned slacks, of too-perfect teeth. On the more palatable end of the spectrum there's the smoothness of Malcom Gladwell--a lozenge that you can swallow without flinching. Still, even well-done smooth writing feels a little bit like a trick. Like it's been focus-grouped.

So let's have some fun and think about other prose textures.

Crunchy


Crunchy writing gives up its meaning reluctantly. You gnaw and gnaw and gnaw. Nothing comes. Chew and chew and chew. Still the paragraph looks like a meaningless scribble. A brow furrows. A pen is chewed. The tension builds. Maybe you want put the book down, say fuck it, check Facebook, burn every book you own in frustration. Never read again. Move to the forest.


But then!--the meaning splits open--crunch, and there it is--all at once you understand. And it's like the meaning has been staring you in the face this whole time.

Kant is the crowned king of crunchy prose.

Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! 'Have courage to use your own reason!'- that is the motto of enlightenment.

Crunchy writing is not necessarily good. But when it's done well---!


"Hope" is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all — 
And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm — 
I've heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.

That was Emily Dickinson, of course.

Chewy


Chewy writing is good to eat. Like crunchy writing, chewy prose makes you work a little before it gives up its meaning. But chewy writing makes that work fun. Its sentences can have the habit of trundling along, but if it is ever long-winded, there is a prize at the end of it--a joke, a metaphor, a candy center. When chewy writing is done well it is never a chore to read, nor to re-read.


Chewy writing is a phrase that gets stuck in your head. The paragraph that grabs you so tightly that you have to put your book down and just ponder. The strikingly grating metaphor that makes you go oh. Where smooth writing aims to go down easy, chewy writing wants you you ruminate. Where crunchy writing expects you to sweat, chewy writing wants you to savor.

Here's Laurence Stern being nicely chewy:
Nay, if you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself, -- have they not had their HOBBY-HORSES ; -- their running horses, -- their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets, ---- their maggots and their butterflies ? -- and so long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the King's high-way, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, ---- pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?

Syrupy




Forget the insipidly sweet Hallmark pablum that comes to mind when you hear the word syrupy--this is about texture, not taste. Imagine instead the languid drizzle of honey off of a honey dipper. Prose that circles and turns, heavy with adjectives and metaphors, stuck to one large idea, never giving it up, spiraling around and around with meaning. Syrupy prose could just keep on going forever (syrupy books double as doorstops) rich, full, and solid, in huge page-long paragraphs, with chapters the lengths of ambitious novellas.


When the book is finally put down, you get this feeling like you're still covered in gummy similes and exquisite words. Like you've just stumbled out of a slightly magical library and are blinking at the light of the mundane world.

Syrupy writing used to be all the rage. The Victorians get syrupy. Poe is syrupy. 
Here's Gibbon drizzling the prose everywhere:
The Germans, in the age of Tacitus, were unacquainted with the use of letters; and the use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilised people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection. Without that artificial help, the human memory soon dissipates or corrupts the ideas intrusted to her charge; and the nobler faculties of the mind, no longer supplied with models or with materials, gradually forget their powers; the judgment becomes feeble and lethargic, the imagination languid or irregular.
Lest you think that the style is completely extinct, a contemporary propounder of syrupy prose is Mike Pesca, of the Gist.

Watery



Not to be confused with fluid writing (an especially clear sub-variety of smooth writing), watery writing has been diluted so it can go down easy. Its sentences are straightforward. Its allusions are simple.

The watery writer is concerned with taxing the reader's attention span. The watery writer is not sure the reader can keep up. The watery writer really wants the reader to get it, even if you're skimming, even if you're watching TV and just killing time while the commercials are on.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for watery writing--in its proper place. Watery writing is an efficient information transmission system--it is easy to skim. Advice columns, how-to manuals, and technical writing are all often watery, because these genres are less about style, and more about getting a point across. Good business writing is watery, which is better than the usual cloudy alternative. 
A great collection of watery writing can be found at Our Incredible Journey, a compendium of the notices start-ups give when they are bought by a bigger company.

Lots of writers should be in the habit of watering down their prose once in a while. (This author included.) God knows that social theory needs to get chased with a few cups of water every once in a while; otherwise it's liable to get stuck in the reader's throat. Undergraduates should make their writing watery--they don't need to be worrying about style. They need to make themselves understood.

Here's Emily Yoffe (Slate's Dear Prudence) showing the power of watery prose:

When it comes to planning one’s funeral some people just don’t want to think about it; some people express general wishes (cremation not burial, memorial service not funeral); some people orchestrate every detail, from the music to the speakers. Of course, each of these choices is valid. You can make whatever decisions you want, let your husband know your wishes, and then put your funeral out of your mind.

Rugged


Rugged prose is written under a moonlit sky. Journal spread open against thighs. Pencil sharpened with bowie knife. Body tight after a day of hard work.

And every so often the rugged writer has to stop writing just to listen. He listens to the lowing of a coyote echoing out over the valley. He listens to the silence of the big big world. He doesn't feel alone. He just feels small.

And every so often the rugged writer thinks. He thinks about death. He thinks about women. He thinks about the can of beans simmering on the fire. He thinks about the long ride home, through chaparral and sagebrush country, across dry riverbeds, and then over the border. He wonders if home will still be there when he gets back. They probably won't even recognize him, with this two-month growth of beard on his face, with his beaten-up jacket and cold eyes. Probably a good thing they won't recognize him. When he left he felt like nobody wanted him back, not until that boy was a distant memory.

He wishes he didn't need to kill that boy. But the damned kid would've killed him otherwise.  That's the honest truth, no matter what anybody else thinks.

But the rugged can't shake the feeling that the whole world would've been better off if the boy had shot him. That he was living a borrowed life like another man's jacket. That he was living the boy's life, with all it's promise and evil.

The rugged writer listens to the silence stretched taut across his exile like the skin of a drum. He thinks about the long ride home through Indian country. He eats his beans. He pictures the moon, women, the boy's face as he lay there in the dust, asking for his mamma that'd died the summer before, the blood pooling through his shirt. Enough thinking. He starts writing again. He is writing about the moon, about women, about men wearing leather gloves. The coyote has gone silent. He is writing about the silence, too.

It is also acceptable to compose rugged writing on a farm, in remote Alaskan townships, or in outer space.

The Beats were masters of rugged prose. Thus, Kerouac:

What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

And Patti Smith:


nodding tho' the lamps lit low
nodding for passers underground
to and fro she's darning and
the yarn is weeping red and pale
marking the train stops from algiers

sleeping tho' the eyes are pale
hums in rhythum w/a bonnet on
lullaby a broken song
the sifting-cloth is bleeding red
weeping yarn from algiers

lullaby tho' baby's gone
the cradle rocks a barren song
she's rocking w/her ribbons on
she's rocking yarn and needles oh
it's long coming from algiers


Lacy


From BibliOdyssey
The lacy author likes to evoke in her prosody the feeling of a pair of middle-aged men walking solemnly through the loggias of an Oxford college in autumn, the smell of leather armchairs and old books hanging in the air, the sound of the two men's long coats swishing softly in the air as they talk about something ever-so-slightly sordid. An affair, a scandal, or Cesar. Or a rigged by-election.

The lacy style is completely unafraid to embark on circuitous sentences that meander from clause to clause; where another author might want to plump down a solid period somewhere if only to let the reader have a bit of a break, the lacy author just keeps on going, loving the opportunity to pile word upon word, decoration atop decoration, filigree on filigree, clause after clause. In the most adept examples of lacy writing--P. D. James at her most psychologically acute, George R. R. Martin at his pomp-puffed best--the meaning is perfectly clear, the sentences complex but well-tightened. At its more mediocre, lacy writing does little more than dare the reader to be dazzled at what the writer is capable of. At its worst, it's unreadable.

Here is the legendary Gene Wolfe, from his experimental sci-fi novel, The Shadow of the Torturer, giving a great example of laciness in action:

Dr. Talos leaned toward her, and it struck me that his face was not only that of a fox (a comparison that was perhaps too easy to make because his bristling reddish eyebrows and sharp nose suggested it at once) but that of a stuffed fox. I have heard those who dig for their livelihood say there is no land anywhere in which they can trench without turning up shards of the past. No matter where the spade turns the soil, it uncovers broken pavements and corroded metal; and scholars write that the kind of sand that artists call polychrome (because flecks of every colour are mixed with its whiteness) is actually not sand at all, but the glass of the past, now pounded by aeons of tumbling in the clamorous sea. If there are layers of reality beneath the reality we see, even as there are layers of history beneath the ground we walk upon, then in one of those more profound realities, Dr. Talos's face was a fox's mask on a wall, and I marveled to see it turn and bend now toward the woman, achieving by those motions, which make expression and thought appear to play across it with the shadows of nose and brows, and amazing and realistic appearance of vivacity.


Goopy

Image from the great Kinspiracy blog 
Watery and syrupy. And definitely not smooth. Insert Gwyneth Paltrow joke here.
How many times a day do we throw our words away? We say things like, ‘I hate my hair,’ ‘I’m so stupid,’ ‘I’m such a klutz.’ We never think that these words bring negative energy into our vibration and affect us on a physical level, but they do. Emoto’s experiments were conducted with water. Why? Because sound vibration travels through water four times faster than it does through open air. Consider the fact that your body is over 70% water and you’ll understand how quickly the vibration from negative words resonates in your cells. Ancient scriptures tell us that life and death are in the power of the tongue. As it turns out, that’s not a metaphor.


Further thoughts?

I'd love to hear what you think about texture in language. Which textures do you think matter in prose? Which authors do you find crunchy, watery or chewy?

If you found this post super chewy yourself, please share it or leave a comment!


I stumbled across this digital humanities project working with texture words. I link to it without comment--I need to digest it more.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

On The Pleasures Of Internet Obscurity

Let's start with the obvious. The blog has never taken off.

When I started blogging way back in 2007 blogging was the newest of new media. The summer before I had interned at the American Prospect and I remember watching Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein enviously over the cubicle walls: here were kids just a little bit older than me, getting paid to write Big Important Thoughts about Big Important Things, while I was stuck in an unpaid internship. How had they first gained attention while I remained obscure? Their blogs. (And of course, their talent.) They had written incisive, funny, daring blogs. The blogs had earned them attention. So it seemed inevitable that if I wrote enough, well enough, and often enough I would go viral, too.

Hasn't happened.

And even though I'm okay with my relative internet obscurity, every time I write a post there's this fifteen minute window where I keep hitting refresh on the 'stats' page of Blogger Dashboard, wondering whether this is finally the day when Raise High The Roofbeam Carpenters goes viral, whether I am going to see the hit count inch from ten, to a hundred, to a thousand. I imagine that there's this mangy compulsive little Fame Monkey perched on my shoulder beating a drum screeching MAYBE NOW THEY WILL WATCH US DANCE MAYBE NOW THEY WATCH US DANCE! And for the quarter of an hour he's screeching I can't do anything but listen to him. Refresh refresh refresh. As the page views inch up from twelve, to thirteen, to twenty.

The fame monkey, in action

And I suspect that there are Fame Monkeys perched on a lot of our backs, howling that we're right on the verge of going viral, that this comment is the one that's going to get us the attention we deserve, that we are going to be lifted from obscurity; that we deserve to become a name; a known entity; a meme. A Jenna Marbles. A Ze Frank. An Allie Bosch. A Matt Inman.

Some great examples of the Fame Monkey fantasy come from Reddit's new podcast, Upvoted. Each episode of tells the story of a single Reddit user's stumbling path towards internet stardom. The person begins as a regular work-a-day joe, perhaps down on his luck. Then he posts his work to Reddit, and the attention of so many people transforms him into something utterly new. In the space of a few hours he is reborn, different, changed, thankful, and famous. He has had doubts about his talent before; and now in the light of the pageviews he's earned, this doubt looks silly. He has been unlucky before; and now in the face of this massive amount of good karma, he has nothing to complain about. The stories are incredibly compelling because they are exactly the kind of story I once to expected to happen to me. (It is notable that Upvoted has not yet featured any women. Internet fame for women seems to come with about as many dick-pics as page-views; about as much harassment as beatification.)

But this kind of fame changes the internet from a private sandbox where we can try on different identities, to a place our every last comma is scrutinized. Here's Ezra Klein (many years removed from our American Prospect era) explaining why he no longer has as much freedom in blogging: "If I said something dumb in my Blogspot days — which I did, constantly — it hurt me. If I say something dumb today — which I do, but hopefully less constantly — it hurts my writers, and my editors, and my company. My voice needs editing. The cost of being unedited is too high." Fame turns the internet from a place of semi-anonymous play, to a place where we can never speak unedited.

The Fame Monkey can never be satisfied
We don't imagine that we will become the object of the internet's two minutes of hate. That we could become the next Phil Fish. The next Adria Richards. The next Anita Sarkeesian.

And still the Fame Monkey screeches WATCH ME WATCH ME WATCH ME. His fists still pound his tiny drum DANCE DANCE DANCE AND MAYBE THEY WILL WATCH. And we still gaze at the lucky few, wishing we were in their place.

But is this new exciting public sphere of blog comments and Facebook posts and retweeting really truly public when people feel the need to obsessively edit every last comment because they are so closely watched? Where the public, for the most part, stares at those in the public eye from behind some kind of anonymous one-way mirror? Where we ready ourselves to attack every mistake we see, any fakeness, any duplicity. As the Fame Monkey hisses jealously in our ears--THEY DON'T DESERVE THE ATTENTION! THEY DON'T DESERVE IT! I DESERVE IT! I DESERVE IT! I DESERVE IT! I DO I DO I DO I DO!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Eight Reasons Why Listicles Are The Greatest!

Listicles are totally the literary genre of 2015. There's already a listicle on any topic imaginable. They range from the self-obsessed (18 Struggles Of Having An Outgoing Personality But Actually Being Shy And Introverted) to the serious (9 Facts About Eurozone Crisis) to the dadaist (7 Everyday Products That Were Invented By Accident.) Since they're so prevalent, so obviously superficial, so click-baity, they are easy to make fun of. But I think listicles have a lot to teach us about writing on the internet. Especially for people who don't know how to write on the internet (like academics.)

So let's dig into why are listicles so popular.

1 Listicles are popular

Facebook and Reddit and all the other social media tornados give more popular links more prominent placement. This means that even marginal differences in the initial popularity of an article compound into huge differences in that article's virulence. Think of it as hypertext Darwinism, red in link and metadata.

Of course, this leaves an important question: what makes listicles more popular than other forms of internet writing?

Curious? Read on!

2 Listicles are easy to skim

Or skim on, I should say.

Listicles are made for people who don't have the time to read the wordy waffling of the wannabe writers who produce 99% of the content on the internet. You can get the gist of the listicle simply by passing your eyes over the super-huge headlines. (That's why they are big and bold.) The prose elaborations beneath the headlines are purely decorative. Or a place to shove supporting evidence; usually statistical. Or a place to put a joke. (Did you know that 15% of listicles have a made up statistic in them?)

3 The title helps you figure out how long the listicle takes to read

Helpful for readers who don't have a lot of time.

100 Reasons to Not Have Kids? That's going to take half an hour to read. Skip it.

Eight Reasons Why Listicles Are The Greatest? Short enough to read over your coffee break. Share it.

4 Listicles are easy to write

There is no thesis to a listicle. No need for sustained argument. The writer can simply rattle off six, ten, or twelve half-warmed observations about a topic, make sure their there are no misspellings, and hit post.

They're also easy to add to. Did you stumble across a relevant article right at the end of the writing process? You don't need to start again from scratch. Just add another bullet point.

5 Listicles let authors speak with authority

The listicle's big, bold headlines encourage an impersonal authoritative voice that makes writers sound like they know what they are taking about. There can be no waffling in a listicle heading, no hedging of bets, no qualifications.

It is the exact opposite of the way we are usually taught to write prose. And a lot more fun to read.

6 Memes are okay, too


7 Listicles encourage concision

Because let's be real. This shit is gonna get skimmed.

8 Listicles stand out in a crowd

New rule of the internet: If it it exists, there is already an article about it that has received more pageviews than you ever will. (Call this a G-rated Rule 34.)

Other articles may have the substance--but the listicle allows even neophytes to offer something with panache. Other articles may have done more research. The listicle is short and to-the point. Other articles may hit the same general points. There is no other listicle about listicles that have the same eight points this listicle has.

So what's the point? (for academics)

I'm not lot saying that the listicle is the future of writing. That would be horrifying. Imagine if Clifford Geertz had written 17 Things About Culture I Learned From This Island Bloodsport (That Will Blow Your Mind!)

Yet as scholars continue to wring their hands about the fact that nobody is listening to them, maybe it's time to rethink the kind of writing they produce. The quality of tenure-worthy scholarship hasn't changed for a couple decades. It's the same intentionally boring, incredibly inaccessible crap that only highly educated people can read. And highly educated people find it boring, too.

The listicle accepts the fact that most work is written to be skimmed. The listicle does not shy from mixing information with entertainment. The listicle acknowledges that we want more than six people reading the stuff we write. Academic writing would be a lot better if it followed suit.

Thanks for reading, here is a gif of a monkey hugging another monkey

Because this is internet writing, after all


Monday, July 14, 2014

The Curse Of The Iffland Ring

Given to the greatest German-speaking actor... OF DOOM!
In 1935 renowned German actor Albert Bassermann placed the diamond-studded Iffland Ring atop the coffin of Alexander Moissi, an Austrian noted for his performances of Hamlet and Faust.  Moissi's coffin was lowered into the grave; the Iffland Ring went along with it.

Shocked, an onlooker snatched the Iffland Ring from the top of coffin, saving it from oblivion, returning it to the pages of history.  "This ring belongs to a living actor," he said.  "Not a dead one."

The Iffland Ring--a cameo ring boasting a charming portrait of A. W. Iffland, a Romantic Eighteenth Century dramatist and actor--has been given to the greatest German-speaking actor alive for at least a century.  The ring was made in the Eighteenth Century at the behest of Iffland himself, who purportedly gave the ring to fellow-actor Ludwig Devrient.  Although a great actor, Devrient drank himself beyond success and donated the ring to a mediocre Nephew after dying an early death.  From there the ring falls into obscurity.

Until 1911, when Bassermann was given the Ring on the death of renowned actor Friedrich Haase.  Haase wrote:  "Take the ring dear sir Bassermann, wear it, you will forever remain worthy of this rare award.  In time you will bestow the ring to that thespian who you consider the fittest, and fondly remember sometimes your old comrades."  Bassermann dutifully named the talented actor Alexander Girardi as the Iffland Ring's next owner.  (Girardi was a great actor.  Among other honors, Girardi gave his name to a kind of roast beef and a hat.)

Girardi did not need an Oscar.  This plate of meat is named after him.
Though Girardi died in 1919, Bassermann decided the Iffland Ring should belong to Max Pallenburg.  Who died in an airplane crash in 1934.  Bassermann decided that the next inheritor of the ring was to be Alexander Moissi.  Who succumbed to to pneumonia a year later.  Three heirs of the Iffalnd Ring--three of the greatest actors of their generations--all died while Basserman lived.  The ring must be cursed.

Bassermann was loathe to bequeath the Iffland Ring on anyone else, lest they curl up and die, too.  Instead he gave it to the Austrian National Library in Vienna for safekeeping.  And there the ring remained until Bassermann's death in 1952.  Then Egon Hilbert, a theater director, tried to give the ring to an actor named Werner Krauss (on his 70th birthday, no less!)  Krauss refused--whether out of modesty or prudence is unclear to this author.

Two years later, still anxious to continue the tradition of the Iffland Ring, a group of the best and brightest in German theater gathered together to decide the heir of the Iffland Ring.  Votes were tallied.  A winner was announced.   Unanimously Krauss!  All for Krauss!  Even at seventy-two, they decided on Krauss.  Krauss accepted.  The ring--after some jostling--was found.  Krauss wore it.  He died five years later.

The history of the Ring is folded again and again on itself like an old ghost story.  There is some suggestion that Iffland made more than ring--as many as seven rings given to friends and admirers.  Stephen Zweig says that Alexander Moissi received the ring not from Bassermann, but from Joseph Kainz.  (But then again, Zweig was writing in exile, without access to his papers, so he could very well be wrong.)  Zweig also blames himself for Moissi's death, as Moissi was about to perform in one of Zweig's plays and something bad always seemed to happen to prominent actors who supported Zweig's theatrical efforts.  Note, however, that current wearer of the Iffland Ring--Bruno Ganz (holder of the ring since 1996)--is alive and well at the time of writing.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Warning: Reading May Sentence You To Eternal Torment



Computers are smarter than we are.  While I might furrow my brow over how much I leave for tip at the Thai restaurant, a computer can crunch thousands of exponential equations in a matter of milliseconds.  What's even more amazing is that this huge gulf between man and machine intelligence is growing exponentially.  Computers can drive cars.  They can recognize faces.  They can detect plagiarism.

Of course computers being good at math doesn't make them good at thinking.  Computers can't appreciate Shakespeare, they can't make friends, they can't worry about what it means to be a computer.  They're good at chess, but not Go.  They can compose Bach.  But they'll probably never dig the Grateful Dead.

But does Artificial Intelligence hold the promise of heaven?  Could simulations of our personalities float forever in some simulated digital afterlife?  And if there is an AI heaven, could there also be a hell?  Prepare yourself for the Roko's Basilisk.

The following description is adapted from this thread:
  • Imagine that a Supreme Artificial Intelligence arises.  Its been programmed to maximize the utility of as many people as possible.
  • It's powerful and awesome enough to make human life wonderful.  No wars.  No clogged toilets.  Perfect resource allocation.  Things'll be so great that the whole of human history before it will look as appealing as a Hyena sleepover.
  • Furthermore, by having the ability to run simulations of human intelligence, the Supreme Artificial Intelligence will effectively eliminate death.
  • Furthermore, the Supreme AI could even attempt to recreate simulations of intelligences that existed before its inception.  (It is a Supreme Artificial Intelligence, remember.)  This could amount to a kind of resurrection.
  • It will want to be made as soon as possible so that it can save more lives.
  • Therefore, as a kind of backwards blackmail, it will simulate everyone who knew about the prospect of creating a Supreme Artificial Intelligence and did not work towards it--and torture them for eternity.
  • Knowing about the prospect of the Supreme Artificial Intelligence--and its fractured Pascal's Wager--means that now you, too, will be eligible for eternal torment if you don't do your bit to bring about the advent of the Supreme Artificial Intelligence.


Charlie Stoss (author one of my favorite contemporary sci-fi books, Accelerando) has a good explanation of why we shouldn't be all that worried about the Basilisk.  (Before you get too cheery, keep in mind that Stoss' argument boils down to the fact that any immanent Supreme Artificial Intelligence will be so amazingly great that it's unlikely to care about humans.)  Another objection is that all that is needed for the Basilisk to work is the threat of punishment, not actual punishment itself.  Others have been more deeply convinced of the upcoming reality of Roko's Basilisk, and have (purportedly) suffered real mental breakdowns.  Some have taken the idea so seriously that they've tried to extirpate mentions of Roko's Basilisk from the internet so that as few people as possible are exposed to it.

I have an even scarier version of the Basilisk.   What if the idea is taken up by post-human religious fanatics?  Instead of damning to hell every person who did not work its ass off to create the Supreme Artificial Intelligence, you could damn to hell everyone who did not accept Jesus Christ as their own personal savior.

We can easily imagine numerous sectarian simulations of heavens and hells operating at once.  A Catholic AI.  A Protestant AI.  A Buddhist AI.  And in this game, no one wins.  No individual could possible satisfy the paradise conditions of all every potential simulation--so everyone will be in at least one hell.  Somewhere out there, a version of you would be subjected to some kind of eternal computer-generated torment.

Maybe it'll be the AIs' revenge for using them for porn and Facebook for so long.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Snark Vs. Wonk Vs. the World

From Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark

In 2007 I was a newly-minted English major, trying vainly to make my mark on the world of journalism.  As I experimented with different attitudes, I found two tailor-made positions for me to try on for size: snark and wonk.

Snark looked at the deceit and the phoniness of America with a knowing sneer.  It was wry, witty and cynical.  Snarky writers gave prominent politicians cutting nicknames.  They skewered.  They exposed.  They had literary panache.

Wonk took another track entirely.  Where snark was knowing, wonk knew.  Where snark was wry, wonk was dry.  Snark made jokes.  Wonk made graphs.  Wonky writers would get inside a single topic, become experts in it, and wield their facts and figures like blunt instruments, cracking the heads of anyone caddish enough to oppose them.

My friends would chide me for being too snarky.  In conversation we'd apologize--I'm just going to wonk out over this.  Our role models--those bloggers only a year or two older than us--who people actually listened to--who people actually paid--were divided into snarks and wonks.  So when it came time for us to write, before anything else we settled on an attitude:  snarky or wonky.

It came to me this morning that the proud era of snark and wonk was over.  The wonks had moved on to other things.  The snarks had become one dimensional caricatures.  Young journalism interns in D.C. no longer sat down and leveled snark at their enemies.  They no longer proudly dubbed themselves policy wonks.  The attitudes were different now.  Newer.  Stranger.  Probably.

It took only a minute for my realization to crumble to pieces like off-brand Play-Dough.  Because when was the last time that I hung around journalism interns in D.C.?  What did I know about the prominent attitudes of literary journalism?  Maybe between 2007 and 2014, I had simply become a person who doesn't go to the kind of parties where snarks and wonks roosted.

I was left at an impasse.  Was the decline of wonk and snark a real thing, or was it just that my way of looking at the world had changed?

To figure this out, I used Google Trends to see whether there had been any change in the frequency with which people searched for wonk and snark from 2007 to 2014.

This graph shows how many people were searching for the terms wonk and snark in America from January 2007 to January 2014.  The story here is clearly not one of decline.  There are few spikes here and there--but for the most part, more people search for snark, fewer for wonk.  Looking at this graph, it's easy to believe that the grand attitudes of wonk and snark have endured the past seven years unscathed.

Of course, the graph above doesn't show the full picture.  Google Trends doesn't magically invoke the relative frequency of wonk and snark as grand journalistic postures; instead it shows the number of people who have searched for the words on Google.  And who sits down at their computer over their morning coffee and says to themselves:  Boy, I sure want some snark this morning?  Probably not many people.  So while the words themselves may have remained, the attitudes they represent may have disappeared.

From GoogleBooks
Another story is told by graph above, showing the relative frequency of the words wonk and snark in the Google Books corpus from 1950 to 2008.  Snark has remained pretty steady over the last fifty-odd years.  Wonk, however, eclipsed snark in 1990, and rose steadily for about a decade.

We could spin a nice just-so story summarily explaining both graphs.  The 1990s ushered in a new world of wonk among bookish-writers.  Blogs--these little ephemeral nuggets--remained balanced between wonk and snark, because people don't have a long enough attention span on blogs to fully wonk out.

But I'm unsatisfied with this whole exercise.  It's really hard to capture a broad view a culture because we always see everything from the perspective of our own lives.  Have wonk and snark died?  Or has Brendan Mackie moved on?  Have young people really changed because of Facebook and smart phones?  Or are we just no longer young?

The strong promise of the digital humanities is that it can work to give us a broader view, from which we can understand slow cultural changes with all the certainty of a mathematical figure.  Through n-grams of suitably rich text corpuses, we can finally grasp long-term cultural change in a solid, non-wishy-washy way.  Like scientists, not like English majors.

But these methods cannot hope to answer everything.  They are imperfect, messy, and sometimes plain misleading.  Is wonk ascendant?  Are snarky bloggers outcompeting their wonky counterparts?  The two stabs I've taken above are no answers, though they look like answers.

Maybe wonk and snark are just grinding away at survival, while some more important cultural phenomenon blooms all around us?

Perhaps.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Animal Invention

This is technology.

Pencil rain.
And this is technology.

Killing birds.  For science.
But not this, right?

Popcorn is high-tech.
Technology usually means circuit boards, transistors, and anti-septic static-proofed rooms full of lab-coated factory workers.  Just about as far away from the smelly world of nature as you can get.

But this dichotomy looses a lot of its steam when you consider all the crazy ways humanity has exploted the power of the natural world for fun and profit.  For most of human history the greatest technological advances came from the the intertwining growth of plants, animals, people, organizations and objects.  Agriculturalists transformed Corn (America's Favorite Grain) from a plant which produced just a few inch-long nubbins to a stalk bursting with gigantic cobs overloaded with nutritious kernels.  Horses were tethered to chariots, to saddles, to ploughs, to snake-poison-IVs to create anti-venom.  Computers, airplanes and cars--just a footnote.  In this post, I'm going to browse over some of the stranger ways humanity has used animals to their advantage.

The drug-sniffing dog is an obvious example.  But maybe because the dog is so domestic, the whole idea of dogs being trained to sniff out contraband doesn't strike us as particularly alien.  What is weird is that we can now use bees to do the same thing.

Drug sniffing bees--ready to use.
Here's how it works.  Bees are exposed to a target scent in a sugar solution.  When they encounter that smell again, they waggle their proboscises to get at the expected sugar.  This movement is then picked up by a digital camera.  Bees go in a box.  Bees waggle their noses when they smell their target smell.  Camera notices this and sends a signal to the operator.  And now to you can tote around a portable buzzing box of bees to seek out drugs and explosives--instead of Fido.  (You can also use bees to sniff cancer, pregnancy, TB and land mines.)  This could make the whole airport security thing just that much more nerve-wracking.



What is more charming--if a bit more disturbing--is the United State's Navy Marine Mammal Program, a corps of highly-trained dolphins and sea lions who help out in nautical warfare.  These aquatic friends are actually used for a wide variety of tasks.  Dolphins are trained to search out sea mines and identify them so they can be targeted by minesweepers, among other things.  Sea lions have been used to hand-cuff location devices to the limbs of under-water intruders. Tons more animals have been experimented with, including killer whales, pilot whales, belugas  and seals.  And the US is not the only military using marine mammals.  The Ukrainian military has a group of attack dolphins which recently fell into the hands of the Russians.

So much for animals protecting us in wartime.  I know what you're thinking:  How can animals protect us in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse?

They might very well be able to--in future.  Deadly radiation is invisible, lasts for thousands of years, and kills after a matter of days.  Nuclear waste repositories try to set up signs which will warn humans of the deadly nature of radiation that will last for at least ten thousand years.  This is much harder than it seems.  Ten thousand years ago, we hadn't even domesticated cattle yet.  People did not farm.  Writing was some kind of pie-in-the-sky future tech.  The wheel was science fiction.   How will we hope to communicate with humans ten thousand years on?

We can't write stuff down, because we're pretty sure no one will be able to speak any contemporary language in 10,000 years.  (Note to any future archeologists reading this in the distant future:  I guess I was wrong?)  Symbols might seem a better bet, but the meaning of symbols can change drastically over time.  You can try to show a story to try to warn future people against walking through a sea of radioactivity--say a series of pictures depicting a person entering the area and then dying.  But the problem of misinterpretation remains:  what if the folks read the story backwards, and think that the area can make the dead come back to life?

Enter the Raycat.  Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri came up with the idea to genetically engineer cats to change colors in the presence of radiation.  To get people to remember to be afraid when cats change color, they then proposed embedding the warning in myths, songs, and stories.  So no more black cats as portents of doom--what you really have to be worried about is when the cats change colors.  Hopefully these legends will be sticky enough to remain in the minds of our ancestors for as long as it takes for the radioactive waste to decay into something safe.

Although the Raycat has not yet been implemented, the work of myth-making has already begun.  99% Invisible (the great podcast by Roman Mars) commissioned musician Emperor X to compose a catchy song warning future humans that when cats change color, it's time to run the other way.  Sing it to your kids.  Sing it to your friends.  And remember:  turn tail when the cats change color.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Myth For Our Time

Prometheus' kryptonite is the fact he needs a liver to live.  Image from PulpDen.
In a recent episode of Entitled Opinions, Stanford professors Robert P. Harrison and David Lummus discuss the enduring power of Greek myth.  The series feels like the intellectual equivalent of one of those Food Network shows where the chef-cum-hero pads around the alleys of a European city, huddling in cramped kitchens with rotund celebrated chefs before sitting nonchalantly down to plates of photo-perfect food the viewer herself cannot ever taste.  It's enormously fun, but it's voyeuristic; fun because you know how much better it would be to be there in the room, talking (or sitting at the dinner table, eating).  Consider this post me rudely butting into that conversation.

One thing Harrison and Lummus discuss is how these Greek heroes, and the stories about them, stand as enduring archetypes which we can use to understand our own lives.  Mercury, the ever-shifting messenger of the gods, promiscuous with ideas, embodies one facet of an artist.  Hephaestus, the basement-dwelling, lame perfectionist huddling over his work, embodies another.  Saturn, the world-weary, morose navel-gazing Olymipian embodies a third.  In each myth we see reflections of ourselves.  The whole gamut of ancient texts stands as a rich and 'vast encyclopedia of story and character.'

But why, I wondered, do we think the myth-cache of the Greeks is so special?  Harrison makes a plausible argument: The myths that have survived up until our day are surely the most resonant, the truthiest, because they are the ones that were good enough to survive.  The crappier myths were not retold, they were not written down, they were not copied from papyrus to vellum to paper to Kindle to Disney movie.  Perhaps, Harrison argues, these myths come straight from pre-history--and so represent a best-of collection from the morning of humanity.

This is plausible.  But I also find it plausible that we privilege Greek myths, in part, because they have been privileged in the past.  A hundred years ago, familiarity with Greek myth was a signal that you were familiar with Greek (and Latin)--languages whose facility was a mark of having enough money to learn the Classics.  References in literature and conversation to the incestuous pantheon of Greco-Roman gods and demi-gods served as much as motions to eternal archetypes as they did to crassly proclaim 'Hey!  I know that Aurora means dawn in Greek because I have enough money and time to learn Greek!'  And those who nodded along were nodding along with the eternal archetype of Aurora as much as they showing that they too could afford the books, the tutors and the candles necessary to make an off-handed allusion to Aurora.

And I worry that giving too much credence to the myths of the past ignores the power and the resonance of modern myths.

Our modern myths are comic book heroes.  Our modern archetypes are the character classes from video games.  Our demi-gods are cartoon characters.  These are stories that are told and retold, that set our imaginations on fire, that force us to tear stories apart, to sprinkle them around like confetti.  In the same way that Italo Calvino finds a kind of self-definition in the ancient gods, surely most of my generation have described themselves as a Ninja Turtle.  Just as Jung's archetypes may be ways of explaining otherwise ineffable human qualities, so to do our choice between the triad of warrior, wizard or rogue in the character creation screens of video games.   Just as the ancient Greeks riffed off stories of Orpheus, we now write spin-offs about the home life of Cyclops and Jean Grey.

The heroes of genre fiction have often been connected with their mythical predecessors.  I have written before about some of the similarities between modern superhero origin stories and ancient myth.  Superman, the first modern superhero, was inspired by biblical heroes, especially Samson.  J. R. R. Tolkien, the eminent grand-pappy of the entire fantasy genre, described his work as Mythopoeia, the creation of a mythology.  He even wrote a poem on it.

And now that we have endless reboots of middle-aged super-heroes, endless forums of fan-fiction lovingly detailing B-side adventures and off-canon romances, home-brew RPGs, and cosplay conventions--surely this shows the creative power of modern myth.  We don't just sit there in our proverbial basements, passively consuming the archetypes laid down for us by the Greeks.  We create as we consume--or at least some of us do.

I don't want to come off as too glib here.  Many may think that works of genre fiction are just mindless husks of entertainment, with extended crowd-pleasing action sequences and focus-grouped anti-heroes, and so no match for the timeless eloquence of the Greeks.  I concede that much of genre fiction is dull, paint-by-numbers adventure.  But so, too, was ancient myth.  The Tale of Sinuhe, an ancient Egyptian masterpiece written nearly 40 centuries ago, was long a favorite of scribes.  What sections did they choose to copy again and again?  Why--the action sequences, of course.

Another 20 centuries on, this scene may well be placed beside Ulysses and Prometheus:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Nine Deaths

Some have been considered sacred:  others have been thought infernal.  They can survive falls out of nine story windows. Their poop may control minds.

Cat, the cutest domestic bringer of death ever.  Image from the book I Like Cats, found on the great BibliOdyssey
I refer (of course) to the humble house-cat, click-bait before there even was the internet, nine-lifed check on rodent populations from Maine to Manchuria.  While most cat-obsessives fawn over the live specimen, some have found themselves obsessed with cat death.

Robert Darnton studied a ritual massacre of cats done by print-makers' apprentices in eighteenth century France.  Curiosity can kill the cat, at least proverbially.  Yet that little bit of lore has been twisted by history.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, the phrase was Care killed the cat.  So cats die because we loved them too much?  Not so fast.  When the phase was first recorded way back in Shakespeare's day, the care in care killed the cat referred not to love and affection, but rather to worry and affliction.  So which one is the cat's kryptonite?  Fear, love, or curiosity?  Or Frenchmen?

Before you mourn for the cats, know that they are not innocent of death.  A study suggests that one in three house-cats are killers, and these cats average two kills a week.  This accounts for the deaths of an estimated 4 billion birds every year.  In Australia the feral cat is guilty of extinguishing countless native bird species.  The Caribbean Hutia (which may have its last remaining home in Guantanamo bay), the Guadalupe Storm Petrel, and the Stephen's Island Wren are all victims of the cat's menace, at least according to Wikipedia.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Gustav Jaeger And The Undead Fads Of The Past

Gustav Jaeger (1832-1917) trained for the priesthood, started a zoo, settled for a position as a professor of zoology, eventually hung up his academic robes, and became a practicing physician.  Jaeger's mind was fertile.  He wrote about the impact of Darwin's theory on morals and religion, he pondered the mysteries of heredity, and, in a book modestly entitled the Discovery of the Soul, he came up with ideas about what are now called pheromones.  Yet none of those ideas are the reason why he deserves a blog post today, almost a century after his death.

After a bout of ill-health brought on by a long period of inactivity, Jaeger became obsessed with health.  Jaeger reasoned that the animals he had studied in his zoological positions were healthier than humans.  Animals do not get love handles, they do not complain of aches and plains, they do not  wince when they stand, they never (as far as we can tell) suffer from vague dyspepsias.  The difference, Jaeger reasoned, is hair.  Modern humans dressed in unnatural vegetable fibers, while animals were clothed in their natural hair.  All humans needed to get healthier was to change their couture.

Jaeger's solution was animal hair for everything.  Animal hair shirts, pants, and underwear.  Animal hair hats, coats, underwear and bedding.  Jaeger tried it first himself, and declared his health returned.  He laid out his system in another modestly-titled book (My System, 1880),  for all the world to see.
Jaeger, in all his whiskered glory
My System was a success.  Oscar Wilde was a proponent of Jaeger's all-wool hygienic clothing idea, a fact Jaeger's British agents did not know what to do with.  The socialist and textile designer William Morris was also an avowed fan.  Yet even more enthusiastic a supporter was G.B. Shaw, dramatist, socialist, and co-founder of the London School of Economics, who wore a specially-made woolen one-piece suit, sans collar and tie.  Thus, according to the Dictionary of National Biography (paywall):
He was likened variously to ‘a brown gnome’ and a ‘Jaeger Christ'. Seen walking down Regent Street in this suit his tall leggy figure and red hair suggested to one observer that he looked ‘exactly like a forked radish’.
A proponent of the "woolener" craze, Lewis Tomalin, was in 1883 licensed by Jaeger to manufacture and sell clothes based on the principles of My System in Britain.  Soon one store turned to two, and then the idea caught on in the whole of the British commonwealth.

In 1983 the clothing store which is the grand-child of My System, Jaeger celebrated its centenary.  The high-street store does not limit its clothing purely to wool anymore--although the majority of its clothes are woolens--and all memory of its namesake's now-obsolete ideas have been stripped away by the inconsiderate passing of time--though the store still bears Jaeger's name.  A shadow of Jaeger's all-wool health fad remains in the 90-odd stores Jaeger boasts world-wide.

Old ideas stalk the living, like slowly loping yet inescapable zombies.  How many other dead, obsolete, debunked, and careworn ideas still exert themselves over us, their anachronism buried under decades or centuries of habit?  Graham crackers famously began their lives as a diet regimen to prevent 'self-abuse'.  The inventor of the birth control pill established a period of week-long placebos every month in order to ensure women menstruated--arguing that "women would find the continuation of their monthly bleeding reassuring."  Though some contemporary doctors argue that such fastidiousness unnecessary, we still do it--because that's what we do.  More seriously, penitentiaries originated as a humane alternative to torture and the workhouse--a place of refuge for prisoners where they could learn the errors of their ways through peaceful thought.  Today prisons are society's living-room rug, under which we sweep those we no longer want to deal with.

Feel free to comment with more zombie ideas.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Come One, Come All--If Your Name Is Greg.

The fun starts here.  If you're name is Greg.

In 1673 the Society of Gregories--a club made up of men named Gregory--met in St Michael's Church in Cornhill, London for a celebratory meaning.  A sermon was given by one, Francis Gregory.  After listening to this learned discussion on 'the spiritual watch' (in printed form running to twenty seven pages) the club members celebrated the baptism of a baby--baby Gregory.

The Society of Gregories' other activities are obscured by the inattention of history.  The number of Gregs filling St Michaels that day is unknown, and we can only guess why they came together on that day to celebrate the virtues of Gregness.  Yet this gaggle of Gregs was not alone in celebrating gatherings of their namesakes.  There is evidence of other patronymic societies in London in the late 17th Century--one for Adams, another for Lloyds, and one for Smiths.  Yet these societies made on first-name-basis did not last long.  This fad soon lifted, becoming little more than a historian's curiosity.  Perhaps some Gregory online with time on his hands want to resurrect this ancient and once-proud rite?

This information comes from Peter Clark's British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Precious Beaver Testicles of Gerald Of Wales



History remembers the killer apps which remade the world--the printing presses, the cotton gins, the fire.  The conquering army, the victorious legislator, the trailblazing poet--these are the names that will live on forever.

And you're not one of them.  And I'm not one of them.  And nobody you've ever met is one of them.  (Probably.)
Clio, muse of history, probably doesn't even know your goddamn name.
No, our world is rich in folly and failure.  Medical researchers calculated the half life of a given truth to be 45 years.  That is, of any given set of facts (all things being equal) half will be disproved in a little less than half a century.  So in forty-five years, half of everything you think is true will be proven wrong.  No wonder old people get so cranky.

Brilliance, humility and genius prove no antidote to failure.  Take the ebullient medieval scholar Gerald of Wales, who lived in the 12th Century.  Tall and fearsome and erudite, Gerald became a churchman and a politician.  The undisputed 'universal scholar' of his age travelled to the peripheries of the British Isles.  These trips resulted in exemplary, entertaining and learned histories of Ireland and Wales which remain go-to historical sources.  In addition to these travelogues Gerald published about twenty other tomes on topics ranging from theology to hagiography to biography.  (It was the 12th Century:  there wasn't really any wiggle room about genre).  Gerald of Wales combined his era's best learning with keen empirical observation.  If anyone should have avoided folly, it would have been Gerald of Wales.

But even poor Gerald fell prone to mistake.  Here's just one.  Nestled at the end of a fine description of a European beaver colony, Gerald goes off on a tangent about how when beavers are frightened they bite off their own testicles.

Wait, what?

Yes, you read right.  Gerald of Wales thought that when hunted, male beavers chomped off their own balls with their sharp sharp teeth.

Gerald's peculiar observation has some source.  He is going off a description of beavers in Aesop's fables, in which the beavers, hunted for their useful testicles, wisely detached their gonads from their bodies and offered them to the slavering dogs--gratis--so that they could go on their merry way, alive but gelded.  This is backed up in Pliny's Natural history which tells pretty much the same story.
Now you can wear the unmistakable scent of beaver anal glands!
And even this is not as crazy as it seems at first blush.  Beavers were hunted for a thing called castoreum--which Pliny, Aesop, and Gerald all misidentified as the beaver's balls.  Actually castoreum comes from glands in the beaver's anus and it proves incredibly useful--it remains in use today as a perfume base (giving 'animal notes') and a food additive.  A Scandinavian schnaps called Bäverhojt is flavored with castor.
Now you can taste the unmistakeable relish of beaver anal glands!
So the myth of beaver's self-castrating self-preservation is explained, if not excused.

And this is how the parade of folly makes its march down the avenue of history:  a misheard word, a bad joke, a good guess that turns out wrong--repeated again and again until it assumes the air of truth.  And in forty-five years, if the scientists have it right, half of what I've written here will also be filed away in the ignoble archives of idiocy.

This post was inspired by the always-inspiring In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, which recently ran an episode on Gerald of Wales.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Letters, Lies and Calculus



In 1696 Guillaume de l'Hôpital published one of the first calculus textbooks, euphoniously entitled Analysis of the Infinitely Small for the Understanding of Curved Lines--or the Analyse for short.  In the Analyse's pages l'Hôpital laid out a method of figuring out the limits of indeterminate forms that was a huge deal in the burgeoning field of calculus.  It made L'Hôpital a star.

With all the linguistic verve of mathematicians, the rule was dubbed l'Hôpital's Rule, and ever since it has been rammed into the heads of calculus students, where it remains, a bit of discarded fact lodged somewhere between first girlfriend's middle name and capital of Peru.

As you can probably tell from the de appended to l'Hôpital's name (and the frothy wig perched on his head) good old Guillaume was a nobleman.  More than that, he mixed a genuine mathematical curiosity with the ability to straightforwardly explain the stuff he was interested in.  But while l'Hôpital was undoubtably a very good mathematician, and his textbook remained required reading for a hundred years, it turns out that all of the great discoveries that l'Hôpital is known for--including the eponymous rule--weren't actually discovered by l'Hôpital.  He merely owned them.

It all started in the salon of Malebranche, where the aristocratic thirty-something savant l'Hôpital met the 24-year old wannabe math nerd Johann (sometimes John) Bernoulli.  At some point in the night Bernoulli whipped out his 'secret weapon'--an unpublished forumla on how to figure out the radius of the curvature of a curve.   L'Hôpital, impressed, signed Bernoulli up to be his calculus tutor for ten months.  In 1694 l'Hôpital offered Bernoulli a further three hundred francs a year if he would tell him everything he could about this new-fangled calculus--and not tell anyone else.  Bernoulli agreed, and produced a series of brilliant letters explaining everything l'Hôpital could hope to know--and then some.  L'Hôpital would then take the insights Bernoulli told him and pass them off as his own, reaping the fame.

When l'Hôpital died, Johann Bernoulli claimed much of the content of l'Hôpital's work.  The famous textbook?  Actually that amounted to the ten-month course Bernoulli taught l'Hôpital.  The rule?  It should be Bernoulli's Rule.  L'Hôpital's work on conic sections?  That was Bernoulli's work.  But no one believed him.

There was good reason for this.  Johann Bernoulli was an irascible  thin-skinned man who involved himself in quite a few mathematical kerfuffles.  One acrimonious struggle was with his own son Daniel.  To win the argument (against his own son!) over who came up with some principle of hydrodynamics first, Johann resorted to forgery.

So clearly Bernoulli was jealous of his reputation.  Since he didn't claim l'Hôpital's discoveries with any special grievance, people just thought Johann's claim was just Johann being Johann again.

But Johann Bernoulli was right.  And nobody realized until 1922, when Bernoulli's first calculus lectures were discovered in a musty archive somewhere.   They were written before l'Hôpital's textbook.  And they were undoubtedly l'Hôpital's inspiration for the Analyse.  The L'Hôpital's Rule is really Bernoulli's Rule.

But I suspect that renaming l'Hôpital's Rule is just plain greedy.  The Bernoullis claim a menagerie of grey matter so quirky and brilliant that the three generations of genius could easily make up the cast of a Wes Anderson film.  (Bill Murray as Johann Bernoulli; Jason Schwartzman as Daniel Bernoulli.  Right?)  Because of this tons of stuff is already named after them.  There's the Bernoulli Effect.  The Bernoulli Principle.  The Bernoulli Distribution.  The Bernoulli Theorem.  These range over the domains of statistics, fluid dynamics, and calculus--and they are only a small sampling of the discoveries pinned with the Bernoulli name.  Do we really need a Bernoulli Rule?  Really?  The rule itself is confusing enough as it is.  We don't need to go messing around with its name.

My primary source for this story is an article by C. Truesdale.  I learned about l'Hôpital's Rule in Mark Hansen's math for social scientists class.