Lossless Compression

In my review, I complained a bit about Zimmer being prolix. Here is an example.  In Chapter 4, “Atta Girl” , if you strip out the human-interest anecdotes, he’s saying

“Mendelian diseases exist and can be serious. They’re usually recessive.  Sometimes we can do something for the kids, but generally not. PKU is bad. ”   24 words:   Zimmer takes about 11,000.

 

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44 Responses to Lossless Compression

  1. dearieme says:

    We used to do that at school. First paraphrase then epitomise. Did Zimmer’s generation miss that?

    • syonredux says:

      “We used to do that at school. First paraphrase then epitomise. Did Zimmer’s generation miss that?”

      Always enjoyed Mark Twain’s re-write of the highly verbose James Fenimore Cooper:

      “Without any aid from the science of cookery, he was immediately employed, in common with his fellows, in gorging himself with this digestible sustenance.”

      ” Cooper spent twenty-four words here on a thing not really worth more than eight. We will reduce the statistic to its proper proportions and state it in this way:

      “He and the others ate the meat raw.””

  2. Frau Katze says:

    Did he go into lengthy descriptions of the diseases, that might interest some people but isn’t the topic? What did he talk about in those 11,000 words.

  3. ohwilleke says:

    Part of the purpose of an account of a scientific idea is to provide enough detail that someone believes that your account is correct.

    Fermat’s Theorem takes only a line or two of text to state and a novel length account to prove. The indifference of gravitational acceleration to an object’s mass is obvious from F=MmG/r^2 which can be stated in eight characters, but every intro physics student take a lab for a couple of hours in their intro physics class to demonstrate that this formula’s implications reliably state a true fact.

    The “human interest” portion is there for persuasion purposes, because a lot of doubt about scientific ideas is emotional rather than logical, and someone who might be skeptical that the 24 word assertion is true may be persuaded when the real life implications of this to actual human beings is fleshed out. It seems excessive to you because you already believe that Mendelian diseases are a real correct and accurate account of reality and don’t need to be persuaded, but you aren’t really the target audience for this account.

    • Patrick L. Boyle says:

      You seem needlessly kind. Don’t some authors get paid by the word? Is this Zimmer book a compilation of his columns? When the deadline looms (I’m told) the columnist starts to pad his weekly offering.

  4. Philip Neal says:

    Oren Harman, The Price of Altruism, p. 59

    Katie was on her back, legs spread in the air, sweating and panting. Her husband, George, the second half of the successful art-auctioning house Robinson & Fisher, was at her side in the spacious Hampstead bedroom. It was February 19, 1890, and the baby was on its way.

    A silence fell over the room. She was deeply religious, which made comprehension of what had happened more difficult. Minutes passed, accompanied by anguished moans. George looked to the side. Katie closed her eyes. The baby had been stillborn.

    Just as the midwife was getting ready to clean her up there was a quiver. And a kick. And another. Katie kindled. Something was still alive inside her! Moments later a second baby was pulled out into the world, as tiny as a pink grain of rice, and entirely unexpected. His mother named him Ronald Aylmer Fisher, his friends called him “Piggie,” and he would grow to become the man who built the mathematical foundations of evolution.

    Oren Harman, The Price of Altruism, Index

    Fisher, Ronald Aylmer “Piggie”

    birth of 59

    • Frau Katze says:

      This wasn’t a biography of the man. But the man presumably did work relevent to the book’s topic. I don’t find the human interest part all that irritating.

      But if it was a mini-bio, maybe more detail on his background as a whole rather than the description of his birth would have been more informative. Births harrowing like this would been quite common in 1890.

    • Frau Katze says:

      If the book didn’t have a politically correct agenda I’d put up with the human interest stories with no problem.

      Perhaps authors who like human interest stories trend politically correct.

      Maybe only curmudgeons can write about unpleasant truths.

  5. NobodyExpectsThe... says:

    Way offtopic, but I have been thinking of it for a while already, and there are new developments just today.

    Any chance we could see a post about your thoughts on the Skripal/Novichok scandal in the UK in the near future?

    • Hugh Mann says:

      You can have mine FWIW

      Either
      a) this novichok is miraculous stuff that can not quite kill when fresh, but is still dangerous after 4 months in all weathers

      b) the poorly people, reported to be drug users, found the delivery container, which makes you wonder why leave it lying around

      c) someone at Porton Down has gone rogue or dirty work in the intelligence agencies?
      Probably unconnected but why did the head of GCHQ resign unexpectedly a few days after Trump’s inauguration?

      None of these make much sense but neither does the idea the Russians would suddenly decide to kill Skripal

      • NobodyExpectThe... says:

        I dont have a very high opinion of the western int. agencies/deep state myself. Most of the brass are despicable individuals, but even worse yet, they are mainly incompentent arrivists. But is really easy to get lost on all the conspiracy, spy on spy stuff.

        I was asking more along the lines of your first point.

        Nerve agents are nasty stuff, even a watered down version of sarin, will kill two dozen persons in Japan, even when they get fast medical attention. Yet something the msm claims to be many times worse than the known stuff, fails to kill anyone.

  6. Coagulopath says:

    Many books should be articles, or blog posts. Many blog posts should be tweets. Many tweets should be 0 letters long.

  7. Jokah Macpherson says:

    In fairness, you could say the same thing about Darwin. Not sure you need 100 pages to build a case for sexual selection in birds.

  8. David Chamberlin says:

    Yep, read a sentence or two of George Washington”s Inaugural Address, if you dare https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals/inaugtxt.html

    I think it boils down to “I’ll be honored to serve,” but I dunno.

  9. Jaim Klein says:

    Did not occur to you that Zimmer was paid by word count?

    • Zimriel says:

      Was he though? “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh” didn’t cost me much ($18 I think, after discounts) and I bought it new at a chain bookstore. Zimmer and his publisher can’t have made much from me. They would have made more if they’d saved the paper, the ink, and the time and delivered a shorter book at that price.

  10. tim hadselon says:

    I see tons of human interest crap in a lot of non-fiction books these days. At least it seems worse to me. It makes reading hard because I have to skim over that part, and I may miss something important.

    In our this age of free, high quality reading material, why would someone pay to be bored?

    • David Chamberlin says:

      Non fiction E books could be really short with a ton of links so that the reader chooses to explore those areas he doesn’t completely understand or has further interested in. Makes perfect sense for the reader but it makes little sense for the author or book publisher because they can’t make a buck. I can see authors whining “but you are interrupting the flow of my carefully crafted work!” Screw em. If I want entertainment I choose another medium besides a non fiction book. Apparently Zimmer has written a kinda sorta non fiction book.

  11. Octavian says:

    To be fair, I find some of your blog posts these days terse to the point of incomprehensibility. And yet always intriguing.

  12. Most news sources operate by anecdote these days. NPR is the worst: “We spoke with Sang Pattama, who runs a bicycle repair shop in Bangkok. He wonders if his sons will be able to continue in the business.”

    • Jaim Klein says:

      Fake anecdotes, if I may intrude.

    • Coagulopath says:

      NYT columnist Thomas Friedman is a master of a related technique: I call it the “Friedman False Beginning”.

      What is it? Read Matt Taibbi:

      Friedman frequently uses a rhetorical technique that goes something like this: “I was in Dubai with the general counsel of BP last year, watching 500 Balinese textile workers get on a train, when suddenly I said to myself, ‘We need better headlights for our tri-plane.’” And off he goes.You the reader end up spending so much time wondering what Dubai, BP and all those Balinese workers have to do with the rest of the story that you don’t notice that tri-planes don’t have headlights. And by the time you get all that sorted out, your well-lit tri-plane is flying from chapter to chapter delivering a million geo-green pizzas to a million Noahs on a million Arks. And you give up. There’s so much shit flying around the book’s atmosphere that you don’t notice the only action is Friedman talking to himself.

      He takes a column and grafts on a pointless framing story about watching children pick up pebbles on the beach, or something. A piece of writing’s beginning sets up expectations as to how it will end (Chekov’s gun, and all), and it’s jarring when these expectations aren’t met. A FFB is the equivalent of a smooth jazz album that starts with a track of death metal.

    • Coagulopath says:

      NYT columnist Thomas Friedman is a master of a related technique: I call it the “Friedman False Beginning”.

      What is it? See Matt Taibbi:

      Friedman frequently uses a rhetorical technique that goes something like this: “I was in Dubai with the general counsel of BP last year, watching 500 Balinese textile workers get on a train, when suddenly I said to myself, ‘We need better headlights for our tri-plane.’” And off he goes.You the reader end up spending so much time wondering what Dubai, BP and all those Balinese workers have to do with the rest of the story that you don’t notice that tri-planes don’t have headlights. And by the time you get all that sorted out, your well-lit tri-plane is flying from chapter to chapter delivering a million geo-green pizzas to a million Noahs on a million Arks. And you give up. There’s so much shit flying around the book’s atmosphere that you don’t notice the only action is Friedman talking to himself.

      He takes a column and grafts on a pointless framing story about watching children pick up pebbles on the beach, or something. It has nothing to do with the rest, and sticks out like a tumor.

      Understand that a piece of writing’s beginning sets up expectations as to how it will end (Chekov’s gun, and all), and it’s jarring when these expectations aren’t met. A FFB is the equivalent of a smooth jazz album that starts with a track of death metal.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Very true, although if you were going to pick a writer who can match Friedman for obnoxiousness, Matt Taibbi (in his own, very different way) would be a good candidate.

  13. RCB says:

    Is that Huffman?

  14. crew says:

    I am pretty sure very few would pay $21.75 (or $30) for the book if it contained a factor of 458 fewer words.

    • tim hadselon says:

      Indeed, that’s probably why most non-fiction books are twice as long as they need be. And maybe it makes some customers feel important to be seen with a big book.

      • Coagulopath says:

        Marketing decisions also play a part. For example, publishers prefer books above 150 pages because then it’s thick enough to print the title on the spine.

        • The Monster from Polaris says:

          The print version (“Expanded Edition”) of my short story collection “Mixed Nuggets” has 102 pages and the title is printed on the spine — admittedly in rather a small font.

        • Greying Wanderer says:

          learning little snippets like that gives me a dopamine hit

  15. The Z Blog says:

    An economy of language often comes from a writer’s confidence in his mastery of the material. Reading your review, my first thought was that Zimmer lacks confidence, so he over explains basic points.

  16. crew says:

    Totally off topic, but is it really true about 1 in four people has latent TB in the world or are the WHO just full of shit?

    http://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/tuberculosis

    • gcochran9 says:

      I don’t know the exact number but it sounds reasonable. Many people (~1/3), exposed to TB, get infected but fight the infection by walling it off – it still shows up on X-ray and there is a certain chance that it will eventually turn active, for example if you develop some kind of immune deficiency later in life. .

      • crew says:

        Hmmm, I guess, since the US is less than ~ 5% of the world population, we cannot judge by numbers in the US.

        • gcochran9 says:

          Go back a bit and a lot of people showed a tubercular scar on their chest X-ray.

          Today, frequency of latent TB in he US is 4-5%, mostly old people and recent immigrants

  17. Zimriel says:

    I would rate ~75% of those particular 11,000 words to be a worthwhile exploration in what PKU is, what it does to afflicted brains, and where to find it in the genome. I don’t feel I wasted time on that chapter.

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