This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,290) on Friday, September 3, 2021.
During the past few weeks, I have devoted my considerable intellectual resources to solving one of the nation’s most intractable problems. I am, of course, talking about the nicknames given to sports teams. A solution to this vexing dilemma has eluded the finest minds and the most eloquent voices from sports desks around the country. Now, however, we have a way out—a light at the end of this long, dark tunnel, if you will.
First, I must declare my total opposition to nicknames that denigrate whole groups of people. They are hurtful and unnecessary, particularly when so many good alternatives are at hand.
The key to my solution is for us to give up the idea that nicknames should be permanent. What law or force of nature tells us that this must be so? A nickname, I contend, should be anything but permanent. In fact, the standard practice should be that teams should change their nicknames every five years or so. Think of the marketing possibilities. Think of the increase in sales of branded gear.
And as I was devoting much time-consuming research to this issue, I came upon another idea that I cannot claim as my own but one that deserves the highest level of consideration. That is that a team’s nickname should honor some deserving individual. Recently, I understand, someone has suggested changing the name of the Atlanta Braves to the Atlanta Hammers, honoring the late Hammerin’ Hank Aaron.
If we take these ideas and put them together, you can only begin to imagine the possibilities. For instance, currently we have the Tennessee Volunteers because Tennessee is also known as the Volunteer State. Tennesseans haven’t volunteered for anything in a long time. Barely 40 percent of them are vaccinated for Covid. To update itself, teams from the University of Tennessee should hereby be known as the Tennessee Dollies. Who could argue with that?
Have a great weekend.
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Ray Bradbury finds his typewriter (part 1)
“I found the best way to inspire myself,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “was to go to the library in Los Angeles and rove about, pulling books from the shelves, reading a line here, a paragraph there, snatching, devouring, moving on, and then suddenly writing on any handy piece of paper.”
Bradbury, whose status as a 20th century American writer is nothing less than monumental, found more than inspiration at the library.
In 1950, Bradbury was a 30-year-old with a family, a set of publishing credits, and very little money to show for his efforts. Born in 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois, he was surrounded by a loving family that read and encouraged him to read. He also fell in love with libraries during those early years. His father moved the family to Arizona a couple of times during his youth while seeking work and finally found permanent employment in Los Angeles—a place the young Bradbury would forever call home.
Bradbury started writing at an early age and sold his first story when he was 18 years old. He was particularly taken with what was then known as the science fiction genre. Bradbury would expand that genre to include what he loved the most: fantasy.
His poor eyesight kept him out of the service during World War II, and he began his goal of becoming a full-time writer. He wrote and sold numerous stories to magazines, and his first collection of short stories, Dark Carnival, came out as a book in 1947. That same year, he won the O. Henry Award for the best short story of the year for “The Homecoming,” a story that appeared in Mademoiselle magazine after it was picked out of a slush pile by a young editor named Truman Capote.
In 1949, with his wife expecting their first child, Bradbury rode a Greyhound bus to New York City where he got a room for 50 cents a night at the YMCA and began visiting publishers in hopes of selling another collection of short stories. The publishers he visited, however, didn’t want short stories; they wanted novels. An editor at Doubleday, coincidentally named Walter Bradbury, suggested that he string his stories together and suggested calling such a book The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury took that suggestion back to the Y, stayed up all night writing an outline for the book, and took it back to Doubleday the next morning. The editor gave him a check for $750, a princely sum to an author who was chronically short of cash.
The book was published in 1950 and achieved the rare feat of being liked by both the science fiction public and the critics. Those critics saw in Bradbury a talent and a potential rare in American letters. Christopher Isherwood called him a “great and unusual talent” and compared him to Edgar Allan Poe as a master of the grotesque.
The book established Bradbury’s reputation as a writer who could go beyond the limitations of science fiction, but its immediate sales—while healthy for a book of its type—did not make him a rich man. It did, however, allow him to support his family and gain a literary agent.
About this time, Bradbury moved his family into a small house in Los Angeles that had a garage he intended to make into his writing room. He hadn’t gotten to that just then when he found himself wandering around the Los Angeles library, picking up books and getting inspiration. He was near a stairwell when he heard the sounds of a typewriter coming from the floor below and decided to investigate.
There, he found a room of typewriters that could be rented for 10 cents per half hour. All you had to do was feed a dime into the machine next to the typewriter, and you could type to your heart’s content.
Bradbury had found his temporary writing room.
Next week: The making of Fahrenheit 451.
Elizabeth Holmes goes on trial, finally
After four years of extensions and delays, the trial of Elizabeth Holmes is finally taking place. Holmes was once touted as the star of Silicon Valley who used technology to create a new and less intrusive way to draw blood for testing. Her company, which took in hundreds of high-roller, high-profile investors, was once valued at $9 billion. More importantly, her so-called technological breakthrough did untold medical damage to many people who believed her test results.
She might still be pushing her technological snake oil but for a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who cast a skeptical eye on what she was doing.
Here’s an 11-minute video by the WSJ to bring you up to date on the case, and below is what I wrote about it in 2018:
Good journalism saves lives.
In this Age of Hyperbole, that’s no exaggeration. A couple of weeks ago in the newsletter, I mentioned John Carreyrou, investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and the book he has written titled Bad Blood.
The book tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes, the wunderkind of Silicon Valley, and her company Theranos and the way he uncovered her immoral and fraudulent behavior. Holmes said she had discovered a way to test blood using just a finger prick rather than needles that extracted blood from veins. Her company, she said, was developing the technology that would do the testing inside a small container, something patients could take home with them.
The results produced by these machines could be immediately transmitted to physicians, who could then prescribe or adjust medications based on those results.
Such a device, Holmes said often, and very persuasively, would revolutionize the delivery of medical care.
It was a journalistic narrative that is almost irresistible: A young, eager entrepreneur in Silicon Valley has a great idea, touts a world-changing idea, and manages to raise a lot of money. She/he garners a lot of attention from the media, and that attention—plus the money—is self-confirming. Holmes was a master at directing and using this narrative.
The problem was that almost none of this was true.
There was indeed a device, but there was no technology capable of analyzing blood in this way. Blood, and a substantial amount of it, had to be drawn from a vein to be analyzed properly. Just about anyone with expertise in blood analytics could have told any journalist that.
As long as Holmes was taking money out of the hands of rich investors and venture capitalists, the story was not that important. When she started testing the device on live patients and claiming that it could accurately analyze blood for more than 100 different tests and when doctors started using those test results to prescribe or adjust medications—that’s when the real trouble began. The results the Theranos machines produced often varied widely from those of more traditional testing.
Had Carreyrou not done the investigative work that he did—and had the Wall Street Journal not backed him up as it did—it is certain that people would have died.
Carreyrou’s story of how Holmes built a myth around herself and of how he uncovered the truth of her fraudulent claims is fascinating and ultimately satisfying. The book, Bad Blood, contains far more than I have been able to include in this short summary and is highly recommended.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Ian Rankin and William McIlvanney—together in one book
Scottish mystery novelist Ian Rankin had admired William McIlvanney (see below) for a long time. Rankin had read all of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw series—there were only three books in that series—and had been captured by McIlvanney’s unique writing style and his point of view. Finally, early in his writing career, Rankin got to meet McIlvanney in person at a book fair in 1985.
It was one of the highlights of Rankin’s life.
Rankin’s career writing goal was to construct a police detective like McIlvanney’s Jack Laidlaw but to put that character in Edinburgh rather than Glasgow. Rankin did just that, producing more than a score of John Rebus novels that have captured a worldwide audience.
The last of the Laidlaw novels appeared in 1991, and Laidlaw fans had hoped for another one. Alas, it never happened, and McIlvanney died in 2015. In the years since his death, Laidlaw’s widow Siobhan has been sifting through his papers and has found the notes to a fourth Laidlaw mystery. It is a novel, she believed, should be written and who better to do that than Scotland’s best mystery novelist and Laidlaw fan Ian Rankin?
When approached about the possibility, however, Rankin was hesitant. As Rankin told The Scotsman, one of Scotland’s main newspapers:
“I told Canongate (the publishers) that I thought they could get a novel out of it if they did X, Y and Z. They then came back to me and said that Siobhan wanted me to do it.
“I don’t think I would have tried it with any other writer, but because I’m such a huge fan of Willie and he was such an influence on me I thought I’d give it a go.
“But I did say to them ‘no promises, if I can’t capture his style I’m not going to do it’.
“It was very important to me that this book was a McIlvanney – his voice, his world and his characters.” The Scotsman (August 28, 2021)
None of that would be easy, Rankin knew. McIlvanney’s style would be hard to match, but with Covid locking him down, he decided to give it a try, and the result, The Dark Remains, is due out this month.
The book is set in Glasgow in 1972, and The Times of London reviewer has called it a “fine prequel to the (Laidlaw) trilogy.”
The book is currently available for order on Amazon in Kindle and hardback editions.
From the archives: ‘Tartan noir’—you can probably figure it out
Tartan noir is not a term I had heard before a couple of weeks ago—but you can probably figure it out. It refers to crime and detective fiction that is either set in Scotland or by Scottish writers.
It’s not an especially good term either. Tartan as a reference to Scotland is pretty shallow and unsatisfying. Scotland is a whole lot more than a few colorful cross-weaves, although the tourists still seem to get it.
Author Craig Robertson doesn’t like it either, as he confesses in his recent article in The Guardian, but that’s not the point of his article. The point is to select his 10 best Scottish crime novels, and though selecting the 10 best of anything is tricky business, his list contains the usual suspects: Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride, and the like.
Number one on his list—though he does not like to rank them—is William McIlvanney, about whom he says:
Forensic examination would likely reveal that all Scottish crime novels have a little Laidlaw in their DNA. Powerful, gripping and beautifully written, it uses a brutal murder to shine a light on the city’s dark injustices, both criminal and social. McIlvanney had the enviable ability to use just a handful of words to make acute observations and deliver them with the certainty of a head butt. Source: Top 10 Scottish crime novels | Books | The Guardian
I had never read any of McIlvanney’s books before, and this article prompted me to download Laidlaw, and Robertson is right. McIlvanney’s sentences are worth the price of the book.
McIlvanney was born in 1936 in Kilmarnock, Scotland, and he studied English at the University of Glasgow. He was a teacher from 1960 to 1975 when he left the profession to become a full time writer. He was a regular contributor to newspapers and was also a football commentator for BBC sports.
While he wrote a number of books of fiction and non-fiction, he is most famous for his crime trilogy Laidlaw (1977), The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), and Strange Loyalties (1991). Each novel features Inspector Jack Laidlaw, an intellectual cynic who finds himself having to deal with Glasgow’s lowlifes.
McIlvanney won numerous awards for his books but never achieved the fame or financial rewards of those Scottish authors who followed him—and who give him credit for being their inspiration.
McIlvanney died in 2015, but examples of his writing can still be found on a website that he contributed to for several years before his death: www.williammcilvanney.com.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Sidewalk cafe
Best quote of the week:
If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint. Edward Hopper, painter (1882-1967)
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: Music, courage, treachery, and the spark for modern genealogy research: newsletter, August 27, 2021
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