A longer version of an article published in Adbusters, October 2021, which was an adaption/excerpt from an article published in ISLE in 2016.
Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong (Trans. Howard Goldblatt)
a book review by Dana (the photo is of coyotes, not wolves)
A beautiful, fascinating, exhilarating, tragic story of the way the Olonbulag grasslands of inner Mongolia were quickly ruined by the short-sighted and hubristic agents of “progress.” As one official says impatiently, we don’t need wolves to control gazelles and marmots and mice when humans have guns and trucks to eradicate all of them.
During the 1960s Cultural Revolution, “Old Man Bilgee” teaches the visiting Han Chinese student Chen that “wolves are the divine protectors of the grassland” (20, 123). The real source of wealth, what’s at the bottom of everyone’s livelihood, is the grass, which is put at risk from rabbits and marmots and also (especially) gazelle and horses and the fact that Han (outsider) farmers are quickly replacing Mongolian (native) herders. The grass is “the big life” and all the others lives, including wolves and humans, are “little lives,” dependent on that big life. The grass is “fragile,” “miserable,” has “shallow” roots in “thin” soil, and “cannot run away” (45). And “when you kill of the big life of the grassland,” says the wise Bilgee, who the visiting students call “Papa,” “all the little lives are doomed.”
But the inexorable pride, ambition, and blindness of people working in a punishing bureaucracy mean that the expected tragedy unfolds. This “semi-autobiographical novel” is a detailed, almost anthropological study of the problem with messing with balanced ecosystems. It’s a warning tale about thinking humans can easily re-engineer nature, changing the rules so we get all the advantages with no downsides and as little effort as possible. I think it’s a tale of optimization using models that fail to take everything into account. It’s also a tale of what happens to people in this situation: they don’t need dogs anymore so they no longer have big, enthusiastic families of dogs around them; they get satellite dishes; they have less community and less purpose. As Rong writes, “After the disappearance of the wolves, the sale of liquor on Olonbulag nearly doubled” (494).
It turns out, of course, and again, that nature has already solved complex problems, and that human short cuts to prosperity (because we don’t want to put up with the trade-offs nature demands) fail because we barge into new situations, ignore the wisdom of the knowledgeable people who already live there, and ignore most of the variables in our eager, optimistic simulative imaginings. One resource that helps engineers become more aware of the variety of ways nature might have already solved a problem that they are contending with is AskNature.com (https://asknature.org/), which describes “biological strategies” for problem-solving that are already in action.
For one, then, this book is about geo-engineering, a kind of terraforming that has happened all over our earth, a simplication that seems nice and straightforward until we see all the value we’ve lost. That’s a warning.
On the other hand, this is a story about grass. One might hear similar, more local, estimations about the value of grass from Virginia farmer Joel Salatin (who figures prominently in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma). They both make me want to change my “Food not lawns” bumper sticker to another that says “grasslands not gardens” (and I love nothing more than a garden!).
I will add that this is a beautiful book and that it let me spend days on the grasslands with the wolves and swans, with thoughtful, morally conflicted people, and with their exciting adventures in that stunning landscape. The book has some strong views on ethnic character, which I translated into ideas about the way landscape fashions cultures and people. It shares a deep respect for the wolf totem and for Tengger, the sustaining sky that gives them all things and to which they hope to return at death. And finally, it let me spend some time not just in China and Mongolia, but in the minds and hearts of people there.
I have a lot of what I consider great ideas for my engineering communication class, but I just don’t have the time to use them all. When I try, the course becomes a crazy quilt (and I mean “crazy”) of activities and assignments. It becomes way to complicated for students to keep track of. If you’re not living it now, remember or imagine the life of a graduate student in engineering at UCLA. You are pulled in many directions, at the beck and call of your advisor, feeling squeezed between a set of challenging expectations, and trying to meet multiple deadlines. And then I show up to teach your required writing course, all “la-di-da, this is going to be so fun,” BUT you have to check the course website every few minutes to keep up with a large set of mostly-not-very-time-consuming but surprisingly many assignments. That’s just too high a cognitive load to add to the ones these students already have. So, on the course front: simplify, simplify, simplify. And here, at Writineering: get all those other ideas off my chest. If you have the time to try some, alone or with others in your labs, you’ll get multiple positive outcomes. And you’ll be saving some stressed graduate students from my inflicting them with these ideas now! So, just to get you started, here’s big, huge suggestion number one: Read Alan Alda’s book If I Understood You, Would I Have this Look on My Face: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating (2017). And then try out some of his suggestions. While you wait for the book to arrive**, you can start trying to identify the emotions of the people you meet throughout the day. Nothing else, just spend a moment pondering their expressions and behaviors, and then think “grumpy” or “tired” or “cheerful” (or whatever else seems appropriate). Why? For one, you’ll start to notice how often you just barge into a conversation without paying any attention to the other person’s receptivity or mood. Second, you’ll be developing a habit of attention. Third, you’ll probably get better at identifying moods, since your subsequent interaction will give you feedback about how accurate you were. And fourth, you’ll be able to choose your words more appropriately, and have a more productive conversation, with this information at hand. Let me know if you find other benefits, too! ** A note about getting books. I have a lot of ways of accessing books, so I’m going to describe them here. You can probably find similar resources where you live, although the collections might not be as huge. First, I can order it new or used online. This is great: you own the book! But you also have to find shelf space for it, and you have to wait a couple of days. (Of course, you could read it, and then start passing it around to your friends and colleagues—this leads to fun conversations.) Second, I can go to Hoopla and connect to the Los Angeles Public Library, and they usually have the e-book or an audiobook that I can download. I can also go directly to the LAPL website, find the book, and it’s often available by download through Amazon or I can ask them to deliver the physical copy to my local branch library. If they don’t have it, I can check the e-resources of other local library systems (in my wallet are cards for the Beverly Hills Library, the Pasadena/Glendale Library, the Santa Monica Library, and the Culver City Library, but between LA and Beverly Hills, I can pretty much access what I need). You, too, can probably join more than one library system near you. Third, I can use the UCLA Library and even interlibrary loans to get almost any book for free. Sometimes interlibrary loans are a long wait, however.
While I’m trying to get us all to write as clearly as we can, some texts are just difficult to read. Those texts are still worthwhile; they may even be more important.
The difficulty may come out of not having enough experience with the genre or the content. It might be that the author is making a very tight distinction, one that’s hard to pick up. It might be that the content is deeply philosophical, or that the ideas are so surprising that the reader keeps trying to get the words to mean something more familiar.
But the difficulties do not mean that the text should be ignored. Yes, I want writers to be as clear as they can. I want them to be as easy to read as possible. But not all things are easy. And sometimes simplicity involves cutting too much out. Lots of material is complex. You know this in engineering, and you probably also have a pretty good idea that other areas—economics, ethics, cultures, psychology, even just describing a moment in the world the way that it happened—are complex, too.
Sometimes when you say “fine” in response to “how are you?” you mean it. But usually there’s a lot more that could be said. Keeping it simple is not always accurate!
I recommend this article by Tegan Bennet Daylight in The Guardian (12/25/17): “’The difficulty is the point’: teaching spoon-fed students how to really read.” Daylight is a college teacher in Australia, but the description of her experiences seems relevant to the ways that many students approach reading: if it’s not easy, completely “relatable,” then it’s not going to get read.
I’d love for you to go read this whole article, but I’ll still share my favorite paragraph with you. After citing a single first sentence of a novel, she writes,
If you are reading this essay, you’re a reader. You probably know this sentence, and if you don’t, you are comfortable with interpreting it. You can hear a character beginning to form: its romantic, optimistic, nostalgic voice; a voice yearning for simplicity; probably, in its deliberate imitation of a child’s singsong, the voice of a woman, a mother. You know it might take a few pages to learn just who this woman is. You’re skilled in this sort of patience.
That’s completely true. Familiarity with the process of reading a novel means that a person has the patience and anticipation to wonder what might be coming next. This works for novels, and it also works for science writing.
For example, I had always enjoyed reading as a kid, but when I moved to another country I did not have much access to books in English. There weren’t any English-language children’s books, so I started reading classics (Robert Louis Stephenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc.). They were hard. It was frustrating at first. I’d start a book and give up. Gradually, out of desperation, I pushed through a few. And I came to realize that it just took a few chapters to get used to the types of sentences characteristic of each author. I got “skilled in this sort of patience.”
And the same is true for academic writing in science and engineering. If a reader just starts at the beginning, they are likely to be overwhelmed by the jargon in the abstract. But knowing where to find help—which sections might be more elementary, where terms might be defined, etc—gives someone a leg up. And then patience, confidence that this CAN be figured out (but not read linearly, until much later) will lead to success.
Finally, read. Read books. Read the New York Times. Read the New York Review of Books. (And let me know what your reading, so I can read it, too! What DO working engineers read, that they talk about together?) Daylight concludes that she wants her students to “to discover that if they learn to handle language they’ll no longer be helpless, drowning in sugary gratification.” And she wants “them to see that reading breeds thinking, and thinking breeds resistance.” That’s what I want for my students, too. Read and be provoked to think and act. I want you to express yourselves–after taking some time to read and to think what that really means.
I am newly committed to this website, now that the Non-Senate Faculty Grant that was to pay for it has finally been paid! Please do let me know what types of topics you’d like to see covered on here. I can just go ahead and write short entries about topics such as agency and verbs and word order and paragraphing (etc) but I’d also like to bring up broader issues that confront you now as a publishing engineer. And perhaps begin a conversation about these.
On another topic, I hope that this link to an article that I just got published will both (1) pleasantly surprise you by being on a completely different topic from usual, and (2) let you see how even a journal article in an interdisciplinary journal in the humanities and social sciences follows some similar structural rules as you engineering articles.
Here’s my publication: “New Terms of Worth”: The Inclusive Economics of Robert Frost’s Poetry.
Even Oxford University Press has trouble with formatting. I’m hoping that this problem (the small print after the indented quotations of poetry) will be fixed soon!
These are not books you read in the normal way. They don’t offer lists of rules for visually displaying evidence. Instead, these books beautifully reproduce and evaluate examples of graphs, tables, charts, diagrams, maps, “sparklines” (You’ll have to go find out what that means!), and more. They show examples from centuries of people–such as Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Henri Matisse, Richard Feynman, etc– trying to communicate their ideas clearly and beautifully.
Tufte also argues that producing visual representations of our ideas makes those ideas clearer to us, too. In other words–just as writing is thinking–sketching and drafting and moving visual elements around on the page are analytical tools. I can vouch for this myself. I went to Tufte’s day-long seminar last Friday, and I’ve been able to reconceive and clarify for myself the ideas in an article I finished writing two years ago but about which I am just now creating a poster. I thought I was pretty familiar with the ideas in my own completed article, and yet the sketches (and even watercolors!) have made me see the ideas more clearly and in ways that will make them much easier to talk about.
(The image shows Galileo’s sketch of the changing positions of Jupiter’s moons from one night to the next.)
The subtitle of this book is “A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery that Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler.” But if that’s not a broad enough net to grab you, let me tell you a bit more. This book describes a scientific and engineering feat on the scale of the Manhattan Project (p. 122). In achieving nitrogen fixation on a grand scale, engineer Carl Bosch turns chemist Fritz Haber’s table-top process into a huge city-size factory, and then a bigger one. In doing so, he and his many colleagues invent a whole new type of business model, solve a global crisis (starvation, by creating fertilizer to counteract inevitable soil depletion and thus a decrease in worldwide crop production), and address a national crisis (Germany’s lack of explosives with which to fight WWI).
The book is not only fascinating on the history of chemistry, especially the history of dyes, nitrogen fixation, and the development of synthetic fuels, but also incredibly moving on the human side. The two main scientists are fascinatingly contradictory characters, revealing just how inconsistent and flawed even very brilliant and hard-working humans are. The story of these two men is moving and thought-provoking. Shakespeare could have based a tragedy on these linked stories. The book reiterates the power of science to work for good and evil, but it does so in detailed and original ways, so that the lessons seem newly learned and spelled out more completely. For one, science is not just a double-edged sword: even the good edge has two edges.
These men’s ambitions, ideals, personal strengths and weaknesses, affinities, competition on a corporate or personal scale–and just their intense interests and special abilities–all combine as in a complex chemical reaction with the historical moment’s needs and the political atmosphere to create a unique result. We see how and when they control and lose control of what they create, and how they very differently react to their somewhat self-determined and somewhat uncontrollable fates.
I think an engineer would not only enjoy the book but also benefit from reading it. The story itself is interesting—the important scientific and industrial history—and it’s also very well written. Hager demonstrates how to define terms in simple, subtle way; how to use a single sentence to clarify and re-emphasize a point that he’s discussed for pages; how to describe methods by describing the materials used; how to give scientific information in detail when needed and just sketchily when not so important; and how to link one boring-sounding topic (“nitrogen fixation” has to be one of the most off-putting nouns I can think of) to far-reaching consequences, important historical moments, philosophical questions, and global influence. The power to link your topic, whatever it is, to many other fascinating ones is worth learning!
My students give me at least as much homework as I give them.
In yesterday’s class, the elements of storytelling were doubted to be of importance in technical writing, or even academic engineering writing. So I’m looking for examples.
Here’s one, in the first article I brought up on my screen, an award-winning June 2000 article by Vítor H. Nascimento and Ali H. Sayed, “On the Learning Mechanisms of Adaptive Filters.”
Notice the way that adaptive filters are personified in their introduction. They “adjust themselves to an ever-changing environment,” they have a “learning curve,” a “learning process,” and “learning capabilities.” An adaptive filter “reacts.” They are like humans or other species adapting to a habitat.
After seeming to personify adaptive filters, Nascimento and Sayed develop a nurturing relationship with them. The next paragraph of the introduction reads:
Nurturing in their readers a warm feeling for adaptive filters, the authors say that “special care” must be taken with them (as with human children). “Interpreting learning curves” might be much more mathematical when it comes to adaptive filters, but these authors “care” for the slow and fast learners both, and, like a supportive and patient kindergarten teacher, they believe that slow learners end up “’smarter’” than they appear at first.
The EE department set up a class called “technical writing,” but discussions with some EE faculty suggest that another main goal is related to your getting a more liberal education. The assumption seems to be that inputs from other fields can inspire and fertilize the minds of engineers. The class changes from quarter to quarter, but this goal explains why I assign a nonfiction public science book during some quarters; it explains two quarters that included Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man; it explains our improvisational games, too.
One of my experiences this summer has only increased my interest in and valuation of cross-disciplinary thinking. I worked at a summer camp for a week, a summer camp that draws in children and teens who love certain books about alternative worlds and then builds on their interests in reading, fantasy, science fiction, technology, role-playing, writing, and art and encourages them to combine all those interests, along with “design thinking,” to imagine the future. When I was there, I happened to be reading Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Seveneves, in which he spends most of the book describing a surprising future—and particularly all the technology that lets humankind survive the destruction of the earth.
This type of imagining, whether in the service of entrepreneurial opportunity or science fiction, seems worth devoting some of your attention to. Whether or not you espouse the singularity—I don’t, quite, but the Camp Director thinks it’s arriving in the next 15-35 years, which I hope will be within all our lifetimes—technological change is happening faster and faster. And with that, in spite of the ways cultures and traditions try to pump the brakes on drastic behavioral change, contemporary societies are changing surprisingly quickly, too. How to prepare?
Well, there may be no specific way to prepare for unknown changes, but all you creative electrical engineers can probably succeed in this situation. At camp, I asked my writing students to imagine a future, and one told the story of a boy using his iPhone as a hovercraft and matter generator (not just a 3D printer!). I assume this is impossible, but I am also sure it’s limited thinking. Why just try to improve an iPhone? Why not imagine a society beyond that, where iPhones seem as obsolete as my flip phone does now? What will replace them? What do people—you!—fantasize about being able to do now, but you can’t? And what will enable that?
Since we were sitting on a beautiful beach while writing, two students wrote short poems about the sea, the birds, the rocks, and the boats. And then they moved from there, imagining a future in which readers would not be able to interpret their poems, since humans no longer had access to this natural setting. That got them going, and the next step (if they’d had more time) would have been to imagine ways to prevent this from happening. Are there technological means to enable more rather than less human interaction with the complexity and beauty of nature? How can technology reduce mediation, or environmental degradation, rather than increase it?
In short, start jotting down some fantasy fiction, and see where it takes you as an engineer.
Some further reading:
The books and “fandoms” these kids love: Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, Doctor Who and Sherlock (from BBC television), Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan trilogy, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra (related tv series), and others (including, of course, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books). You might enjoy reading some of these yourself!
One article on Neal Stephenson’s contributions to scientific vocabulary and research is Gray Scott’s “Interdisciplinary Sage” in Tomorrow Through the Past: Neal Stephenson and the Project of Global Modernization (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006):
This is feminist science fiction, among many other things, and I highly recommend it. Before the iPad, Neal Stephenson imagined the interactive book-like thing he calls A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. Apple sells the “Raise an Excellent Child Bundle” of apps , and so perhaps Stephenson’s not far off the mark. But instead of giving dietary advice to parents and suggesting mathematical video games for small children, Stephenson’s nanny-book is both artificially intelligent (adapting to the temperaments and experiences of its reader) and taps into real-time human actors’ voices and judgments. Made for one spoiled grand-daughter of a successful entrepreneur, and purloined for one rash daughter of a creative engineer, the books end up raising an abused and low-income girl and another million orphan girls—who together try to save the world from artificial intelligence that does not require human interface and being led by conscious human desire. At least I think that’s what happens! I’m reading it again soon, because it’s so interesting and also complex.