January 4, 2016

Bill Gates has a book reviews blog.

I learned about it from this miniature interview in the NYT, in which he said:
One of the main reasons I started my blog was to share thoughts about what I’m reading. So it is nice to see people sharing their own reactions and recommendations in the comments section of the site.
That's so sublimely bland. But that's presumably his speaking voice. Let's check out a couple reviews on the blog (which is called "gatesnotes"). I picked 2 that I've read. First, "Steve Jobs":
Driven by demons, Jobs could drive those around him to fury and despair. But his personality and products were interrelated, just as Apple’s hardware and software tended to be, as if part of an integrated system. His tale is instructive and cautionary, filled with lessons about innovation, character, leadership, and values.
I'm reading this, thinking Gates writes like the publisher's press release. Then I see the line at the top: "Here’s the publisher’s description of the book." It is the publisher's press release! So far, I'm not reading any blogging by Bill Gates.

Quite a few of the books are "reviewed" this way. For example: "Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, [Holden Caulfield' leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days." Gates put that up in 2011, so it's not like it's a placeholder until he gets around to sharing his thoughts.

Okay, I found one with an actual Bill Gates write-up: "Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened":
I don’t mean to suggest that giving an outlet to our often-despicable me is a novel form of humor, but [Allie Brosh] is really good at it.... I get why Brosh has become so popular. While she self-deprecatingly depicts herself in words and art as an odd outsider, we can all relate to her struggles. Rather than laughing at her, you laugh with her. It is no hyperbole to say I love her approach—looking, listening, and describing with the observational skills of a scientist, the creativity of an artist, and the wit of a comedian.
Bill Gates isn't self-deprecating (or self-effacing), but he's self-erasing. He speaks of "we" — "We can all relate..." — and "you" — "you laugh with her." So far, my working theory is that he has no "odd outsider" or other distinctive point of view. The writing is pretty close to that of the publisher's press release he's okay with allowing to speak for him much of the time.

I'll give him one more chance. Here's one for a book I have not read, "Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words," a book by Randall Munroe (who does the comic "xkcd"). This book seems to be cranking humor out of taking the position of knowing very few words. "A dishwasher is a 'box that cleans food holders.'" You can decide for yourself if you're up for a whole book of that manner of foolery. To me, it seems like an idea for a game to play on a long car ride with children. Gates says:
[Munroe] draws blueprint-style diagrams and annotates them using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language... If I have a criticism of Thing Explainer, it’s that the clever concept sometimes gets in the way of clarity. Occasionally I found myself wishing that Munroe had allowed himself a few more terms—“Mars” instead of “red world,” or “helium” instead of “funny voice air.” Of course, that would defeat the purpose of the book....
I would have thought that the feeling of wishing that Munroe had allowed himself a few more terms is what's supposed to make you laugh, but Gates seems to treat the book as a sincere effort to explain things without annoying us with terminology.

I'm not intrigued enough by the Mind of Gates to read much more. But I am going to put Munroe's book in my Kindle and I want to remember more often to check out xkcd and the website Hyperbole and a Half.

IN THE COMMENTS: M Jordan said:
My son got me Munroe's book for Christmas. Actually, his goal isn't to amuse by using a limited vocabulary; it's to force himself to explain complicated things in hyper-simple terms.

As a former writing teacher I wish I had thought of this for a writing exercise. I may teach again (overseas, where I've taught university last) and, with a view toward that end, I cranked out a quick and dirty computer program which allows a person to test their writing against the 1000 most common English words list (I also added 2000 and 5000 most common English words filters). I've tried doing it myself ... that is, pasting something I've written into the program and then rewriting the words that failed the flyers. It's a very helpful and at times difficult endeavor. The result, like Munroe's book, is a strange, almost whimsical but not quite style that is quite arresting. A good exercise.

One last point: I think Donald Trump has a 1000- most common word filter in his brain. 
Great point about Donald Trump!

And great observation about foreign languages which force us to operate within a limited vocabulary. You never know enough nouns, but you can fairly easily get to the point where you can talk about the thing that does whatever it does.

21 comments:

Bob said...

Hyperbole and a Half is a brilliant creation. (So is xkcd.)

M Jordan said...

My son got me Munroe's book for Christmas. Actually, his goal isn't to amuse by using a limited vocabulary; it's to force himself to explain complicated things in hyper-simple terms.

As a former writing teacher I wish I had thought of this for a writing exercise. I may teach again (overseas, where I've taught university last) and, with a view toward that end, I cranked out a quick and dirty computer program which allows a person to test their writing against the 1000 most common English words list (I also added 2000 and 5000 most common English words filters). I've tried doing it myself ... that is, pasting something I've written into the program and then rewriting the words that failed the flyers. It's a very helpful and at times difficult endeavor. The result, like Munroe's book, is a strange, almost whimsical but not quite style that is quite arresting. A good exercise.

One last point: I think Donald Trump has a 1000- most common word filter in his brain.

Big Mike said...

xkcd is a great deal of fun.

tim maguire said...

He speaks of "we" — "We can all relate..." — and "you" — "you laugh with her."

One of my pet peeves--saying "you" when you mean "I". It's a cheap and cowardly rhetorical trick, universalizing personal opinion while also depersonalizing it to protect the speaker ("everyone agrees with me. No? Well, I didn't say I thought that.")

Sebastian said...

"I'm not intrigued enough by the Mind of Gates" You don't think his actual "mind" is on display in his writing, do you? He said in a tone of faux surprise.

David said...

Gates made perhaps the best business deal in world history, extracting billions from IBM because IBM did not understand the nature of its own computer business. As a result he is now in a position to have a large influence on policy through distribution of his wealth. He mostly exercises this through his foundation, where his wife has decisive influence. There is very little evidence that neither Mr. or Mrs. Gates are profound or original thinkers on the matters of social and educational policy that they influence. And once they are gone, the fortune (along with that of Warren Buffet) will be in the hands of bureaucrats of even lesser accomplishment than Mr. and Mrs. Gates. But so it is with wealth and power.

Deirdre Mundy said...

The excerpt I read from Munroe's Book (Explaining relativity using the 1,000 most common words) was actually interesting and entertaining. I was thinking it might be a good first science book for kids, because it explains things without getting bogged down in complex vocabulary.

Basically, it's easier to rely on jargon than to really explain what things do. Sure, "Dishwasher" may seem like overkill... but what if you were trying to explain one to someone who didn't even have a concept of one?

Ann Althouse said...

"You don't think his actual "mind" is on display in his writing, do you?"

If he holds himself as a blogger — a blogger of any value — then he is purporting to display his mind. He does an interview with the NYT, which is a way to say: Look at me, I am writing, and my writing is worth reading.

If you're trying to make some philosophical point about "actual" minds and what writing is and what it means to "display" a mind, then you'll need to develop that, not simply make a dismissive remark about me as if I'm not subtle or savvy enough or whatever you think you're doing.

If your suggestion is that Gates does not write his own blog, that was a hypothesis I had in reading his blog. I chose not to put that suspicion in the post. I don't know what level of participation he has in the blog, but if he were hiring people to write for him (and perhaps they'd interact with him and get some of his ideas), I would think he'd hire someone much much better. What a great job for a certain sort of brilliant person who loves to read and doesn't mind ghostwriting. (I'm thinking about Neil Strauss, who talked about ghostwriting recently on the Marc Maron podcast -- look it up.)

William said...

Steve Jobs got a leg up on the rest of the IT entrepreneurs by dying young. I suppose it's not too late for Zuckerberg, but Gates and Bezos no longer have the option of being tragic heroes.......There's not much to recommend an early death, and the pain must be especially poignant if it happens to a young billionaire, but Jobs gets to be the phantom limb, whose absence is an enduring presence......He doesn't sound like a particularly engaging or interesting man, but he's the one who got to be the mythic figure of IT.

tim in vermont said...

I think writing a blog about the books one has just read sounds kind of fun. I worry though that it could easily turn into work.

Nice job BTW of working in the "Tons of Horse Meat" line from xkcd!

Sebastian said...

"If he holds himself as a blogger — a blogger of any value — then he is purporting to display his mind. He does an interview with the NYT, which is a way to say: Look at me, I am writing, and my writing is worth reading." To imply that one's writing is worth reading is not to purport to display one's mind, at least not one's whole mind and nothing but. Gates may view "value" a little differently than you (and I) do. He's a businessman, a techie (sort of), a philanthropist, and very very rich. He also strikes me as a very calculating, strategic operator. He's different from you (and me), and not just because he has more money. So (apologies) looking at the blog from his point of view the goal may not be to create value or display a mind in a way that an intellectual like you would value -- that's all. In your place his ("his"?) writing would not make me more or less "intrigued" about his mind.

"If you're trying to make some philosophical point about "actual" minds and what writing is and what it means to "display" a mind, then you'll need to develop that, not simply make a dismissive remark about me as if I'm not subtle or savvy enough or whatever you think you're doing." Sorry, I didn't mean to be dismissive (the"faux surprise" hinted at your savvy), I didn't know we had assignments before the semester even started, and I did not have the philosophy of mind in mind. If I were to read Gates' blog, and I'm glad you saved me the trouble, I'm sure I'd agree with your actual judgment. But it might make me more curious about the actual Mind of Gates.

MadisonMan said...

Curious about the 1000 most common words, I googled:

List of words

Freeman Hunt said...

I got Munroe's book for the family for Christmas. We particularly liked "fear porches" for balconies on a high rise.

Rick67 said...

If I might respond to the 1000 words thing... For 16 years I have worked with internationals most of whom English is not their first language (most are here as students or scholars). I have learned to speak and often write in "simple English", a dialect(?) of American English. And when I teach ESL on Friday nights, I introduce English vocabulary words and try to explain them in "simple English", which sometimes can be difficult. I am not defending Trump or disagreeing with the fine comment by M Jordan, just saying there are situations in which using "simple English" (perhaps trying to stay within 1000-2000 words) is important even necessary. It can make the difference between a non-native English speaker understanding 10-30% versus 90-100% of what she hears. (Foreigners who want to study in China have to learn the 800 then 1600(? might have the numbers wrong) most common Chinese characters before they can start their programs.) I sometimes try to spread the word to fellow Americans when they interact with non-native English speakers. (1) Slow Down. (2) Use simple(r) words.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

There was a funny bit on an Archer episode (where he's become leader of a pirate horde whose language he does not speak) regarding idiomatic expressions. I tried to go a full day without using any idiom and it was harder than I expected.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

I think you might like the webcomic Hark! A Vagrant Professor. I think she did a few on Gatsby.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Example: Hark! A Vagrant: Coxcomb

John said...

Just looked at the blog and bookmarked it. I noted perhaps a dozen or so books that I have either read or have samples on my Kindle with the intention of eventually reading. GMTA, no?

So, since we seem to have similar tastes, I would consider reading some of the other books on his list. Not all but I view the list as similar to those lists I get from Amazon "Other people who enjoyed (this book) also enjoyed (that book)"

As a side note, something I almost never hear mentioned about the Kindle is the sample feature. I can download a fairly good sample of pretty much any book including TOC and much or all of the first chapter. This makes it easy to try books, even those we might not normally think of. Bill Gates likes Munroe? Cover looks interesting? Topic is interesting? I liked other books by this author? all of the above?

Bam! Download the sample. It sits there until I am looking for my next book to read and if I like it, click "Buy" and keep on reading. If not, delete it.

I probably read 10 samples for every book I buy. I probably have 50-60 samples in my carousel right now.

Probably the 2nd most valuable feature of Kindle.

Leslie Graves said...

I know someone whose job it is to write book reviews for a corporate titan, under the name of the corporate titan, in order to establish the CT as a thought leader. I wonder if that is partly what is going on here.

tim in vermont said...

On the other hand, if you don't want any non-native English speaker to understand you, you can just go to pig Latin.

Ann Althouse said...

@leslie

I expect the NYT to weed out stuff like that. If nit, it's really wasting our time.