Sebastian Kirsch: Blog

Monday, 17 April 2006

William Zinsser: On Writing Well

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 13:44

[cover]For German, one of the definitive style guides for journalists is Wolf Schneider’s Deutsch für Profis.

Zinsser’s On Writing Well is not its English-language equivalent.

Zinsser’s book is as much about writers as it is about writing. It does not address the minute details of language and composition – rather, it tries to illustrate the power of language as well as the challenges of being a writer. Zinsser makes his points mainly by quoting examples and citing his own experiences. The book is subdivided into four parts: Principles, where he briefly touches upon subjects such as style and audience; Methods, which contains a short introduction to composition; Forms, an overview about different genres of non-fiction writing; Attitudes, which is all about the writer himself and his relation to his work.

I found this last part the most salient one, even if it is one of the shorter parts of the book. There are much better guides to style and composition, but Zinsser is unique in his treatment of the writer and the relation to his work. This is also a subject that I have grappled with during my own stint as a technical journalist, and while writing scientific papers and theses: Where does the writer come in? How does he address his audience, and how does he make his own voice heard without distracting from the subject of his work?

Traditional scientific writing is dreadfully impersonal; it mostly tries to convey the notion that the author is completely inconsequential, and all that matters is the subject. But this purported objectivity is a sham – every piece of science is determined by the personal interests and the modus operandi of its researcher. The same holds true for t echnical writing: When I wrote technical articles, the first and hardest lesson was that the passive voice was banned. You were not allowed to use the passive voice. Every action has a subject and an object, and they need to be named clearly in the article. I once argued with my editor for half an hour about a single sentence in the passive voice, until he grudgingly conceded that in this single special case, it was indeed the best solution.

Zinsser also has other encouraging words for aspiring and seasoned writers – for example about the difficulties of starting from a blank page, and the inevitable writer’s block (he mentions that one will never do as many trips to the water fountain or to the loo than while having to write.) These are the points that make the book worthwhile to me. Zinsser does not tell you in detail what to write and how to write, but he does tell you that writing is hard work, and he makes you feel a little better when you have spent another day in front of a blank page, without writing a single sentence. And it feels even better when you spent a day rewriting and rewriting each sentence in order to make it even more understandable to your readers.

By the way, the English language equivalent of Deutsch für Profis would probably be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. But I will write about that one another time.

Sunday, 16 April 2006

Armistead Maupin: The Night Listener

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 23:25

[cover]No, it is not that I have not read anything in the last four months. I just could not find the time to write anything about it. So, in order to clear my backlog, I will start with the easiest book – which is also one of the most recent ones I have read.

The Night Listener is Maupin’s most mature book yet, and also the most auto-biographical one. From noticing that “his lover Terry Anderson” is omitted from the blurb in this book and reading about the elderly writer who breaks up with his much younger, HIV positive lover, it is just a small step to realizing that the main characters are actually Maupin and his lover, and that they indeed broke up recently. (As confirmed, for example, by this interview.) But we never find out how much is fiction and how much is autobiography in this book.

The Night Listener as a whole is lacking conclusions. But perhaps the message is that we do not always need proof beyond all reasonable doubt – sometimes it is better to trust one’s instincts and one’s knowledge of human nature, instead of trying to cover all possible angles. This was a very worthwhile message for me, and Maupin conveys it with a light hand.

Sunday, 09 April 2006

London, Day 1

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 23:30

I had to get up at five in the morning today to catch my plane, which was bad enough, But what worse was when I realized that due to the time difference, I had effectively gotten up at four – this day would in effect be one hour longer. Ouch.

I had realized yesterday evening that there would in fact be another group from University of Bonn presenting, from the Clausen group. And come as it may, I actually met the two of them while waiting for boarding. Bastian would be presenting the results of his thesis, about information retrieval for motion capture data, and Tido came along for emotional support. I wish I had had someone for support with me, but at least I would not be alone in representing University of Bonn now.

The flight to Stansted was uneventful if packed; Tido, Bastian and me split up at Liverpool Street station, and I proceeded to my accommodation – where of course I was told that check-in was not until two o’clock. But at least I could leave my luggage.

In search for breakfast, I went to Gloucester Rd, where I found Jakob’s cafe and deli, a very nice little cafe. It does not look like much from the outside, but the back room has a glass ceiling, so it is very light and airy. It would be perfect for reading and working, in fact, and one gentleman in the back room was doing exactly that. The ham and cheese sandwich I ordered was actually nothing like an English sandwich – it was made from flat bread, toasted, with an extra helping of tomatoes and a salad on the side, so it was more like a complete meal. The coffee was very strong, but good, and I can only recommend their organic carrot cake: a very nice blend of carrots, cinnamon and ginger, with fresh raped carrots and coconut on top. I do not think I will be allowed there again though: In my sleep-deprived stupor, I forgot to tip.

After I had replenished myself, I walked through Kensington Palace Garden to Notting Hill. I had been told to go to Notting Hill for breakfast and going out in the evening, so I wanted to scout around the area. The walk along Portobello Rd turned out to be unexpectedly long until I got to the market area, but I was surprised that so many stores were open on a Sunday – but nothing of enough interest to me to actually buy it unfortunately.

And while walking to Ladbroke Grove Station, something happened to me which is rather peculiar to me: I seem to have an unnatural propensity for having people ask me the way. It happens everywhere – be it London, Amsterdam or Zürich, people stop me all the time and ask me the way. It happened to me four times today alone. Do I look so savvy and trustworthy? Do I look like a native everywhere I go? I don’t know.

After walking around in the vicinity of Notting Hill Gate for a while, I decided that there actually are not that many restaurants or pubs in this area, so I took the tube to Leicester Square – which turned out to be where it is really at. Just behind Leicester square is London’s chinatown, where you cannot throw the proverbial brick without hitting at least half a dozen Chinese restaurants. Behind that, you get into Soho, with lots of pubs and restaurants.

By now, the hotel check-in would be open, so I walked back to Leicester Square by way of Piccadilly Circus and took the Piccadilly line back to the hotel. Which was good, because there were delays on the Circle and District line due to a “signal failure".

On a related note, I think it is great that the tube lines all have names – I can already remember them now, whereas with numbered lines, I always get confused which one to take.

Oh, and in the tube station, I was asked to help carry a pram down the stairs, lots of “Thank you, mate” and “Now run away quickly in case there are any other stairs” – I guess I do have such a helpful air about me. So after checking into the hotel, which is in Beit Quadrangle, quite literally next door from Royal Albert Hall, I had a lie down for half an hour and proceeded to Science Museum, which is also just a stone’s throw from the hotel.

Admission to the Science Museum is actually free of charge, but they had a special treat for me: An exhibition of art from the Pixar studios, makers of movies like Finding Nemo or The Incredibles. They had concept art from most of Pixar’s movies and shorts, and were also screening their shorts on monitors. (You can see most of their shorts on their web site.) When seeing the final movie, one usually does not realize how much concept art precedes the making of such a movie, and that Pixar’s animators are all artists in their own right. And I guess it is true that one has to master the traditional arts before one can become a truly great animator – because one has to have the facility to actually see the finished movie before it is made, and to transform one’s ideas into a visual, two-dimensional rendition.

Dinner was at Thai Square on Exhibition Rd, after another two hour’s sleep, and the spicy lamb was very good. They also have a special kind of Thai iced tea with coconut milk, which one should try. and since the weather had turned rather ghastly, I concluded the evening with a pint of bitter at the local pub.

And, at the danger of being stoned for this remark by my English friends: English beer still tastes like horse’s piss. Hand pump or not. Give me a stout any day, but not again this stuff.

It is now half past eleven, and I am ready to go to bed – it has been a long day. And tomorrow will be a big day: My presentation at the conference itself.

Saturday, 08 April 2006

Off to London

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 21:16

I have already talked about it at length, now it’s finally there: I’m flying to London tomorrow morning for ECIR 2006. The conference doesn’t begin until Monday, so I have Sunday off to explore London, and I’m getting back on Wednesday night.

The timeslot for my talk is in the second session, first slot, on Monday at 14:00. I’m glad to have such an early slot, because this means that I’m done with my part rather quickly and can enjoy the rest of the conference without it looming in my subconscious. And I’m hoping for an alert and attentive audience on the first day of the conference.

Friday, 07 April 2006

Bürokratisches Vakuum

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 14:52

Wie die meisten vielleicht wissen, bin ich nicht gläubig. Ich gehöre keiner Religionsgemeinschaft an, wurde nie getauft, und habe keine Konfession. Ich bin ein Gottloser, ein Ungläubiger, ein Heide. Am ehesten könnte man mich als Agnostiker mit Hang zum Atheismus bezeichnen – jedwede Form von Gnosis blieb mir bis jetzt verwehrt.

Leider sieht das Einwohnermeldeamt das anders. Das Einwohnermeldeamt ist der Meinung, ich wäre evangelisch.

Dieser Fehler ist mir in den letzten Jahren nie wirklich bewusst gewesen – die zwei Buchstaben “ev” auf der Lohnsteuerkarte habe ich geflissentlich ignoriert. Wenn ich danach gefragt wurde, habe ich wahrheitsgemäß geantwortet, dass ich konfessionslos sei. Bis zu dem Zeitpunkt, als zum ersten Mal das Wort “Kirchensteuer” auf meiner Lohnabrechnung auftauchte und ich mich gezwungen sah, etwas gegen diesen Meldefehler zu unternehmen. Und damit nahm die Sache ihren Lauf…

Ich habe mich natürlich erst im Internet informiert, wer denn für Kirchenaustritte überhaupt zuständig ist. Ein Kirchenaustritt muss in Deutschland gerichtlich bestätigt werden; in Bonn ist das das Amtsgericht. Normalerweise ist das eine Sache von ein paar Minuten und ist (bislang noch) kostenlos. Leider konnte ich der Dame auf dem Amtsgericht auf die Frage nach dem Taufort keine befriedigende Antwort geben – ich bin nie getauft worden, kann also auch keinen Taufort angeben. Folglich kann ich auch nicht aus der Kirche austreten: Wer nie in der Kirche war, kann auch nicht austreten. Sie schickte mich also auf das Einwohnermeldeamt, da das ja wohl ein Meldefehler sei.

Ein erster Termin auf dem Einwohnermeldeamt bestätigte mir, dass ich dort als evangelisch gemeldet bin. Diese Angaben wurden allerdings bei meinem Umzug nach Bonn von der alten Gemeinde übernommen, deshalb seien sie in Bonn nicht zu ändern. Ich müsste deshalb den Meldefehler bei meiner alten Gemeinde korrigieren lassen.

Dieser Schritt war erstaunlich einfach zu erledigen – ich komme aus einer sehr kleinen Gemeinde, wo eigentlich jeder jeden kennt. Deshalb genügte ein Anruf beim dortigen Einwohnermeldeamt, und ein paar Tage später hielt ich eine Meldebestätigung in der Hand, dass ich als konfessionslos gemeldet sei. (Mit Nebenwohnsitz, den ich dort immer noch habe.)

Mit diesem Dokument bin ich wieder in Bonn zum Einwohnermeldeamt. Nun wurde es interessant.

Ich hatte mich in Bonn nach bestem Wissen und Gewissen als konfessionslos angemeldet. Nun hatte das Einwohnermeldeamt Bonn bei einem Datenabgleich zwischen den Gemeinden von meiner alten Gemeinde die Mitteilung bekommen, dass ich dort als evangelisch gemeldet sei – und diese Angaben prompt (und ohne Nachricht an mich) übernommen. Jetzt sah sich das Amt in Bonn nicht in der Lage, diesen Meldefehler zu korrigieren: Die alte Gemeinde hatte mich ja einmal als evangelisch gemeldet und einmal als konfessionslos, das konnte also so nicht richtig sein.

Ich bräuchte also einen Nachweis, dass ich nicht evangelisch bin. So etwas nennt man auch einen Negativbeweis. Die Schwierigkeit von Negativbeweisen ist hinlänglich bekannt.

Diesen Nachweis müsste (zumindest nach Aussage des Einwohnermeldeamtes) die evangelische Kirche erbringen. Ein Telefonat mit dem evangelischen Kirchengemeindeverband Bonn brachte jedoch zutage, dass die evangelische Kirche sich weigert, derartige Nachweise zu erbringen: Da es anscheinend kein zentrales Taufregister gibt, sondern nur lokale Taufbücher, sieht sich er Gemeindeverband nicht in der Lage, zu bestätigen, dass ich nicht Mitglied der evangelischen Kirche bin. Schliesslich könnte ich ja irgendwo anders getauft worden sein. Die Daten wiederum bekommt die Kirchengemeinde über das Einwohnermeldeamt.

Ich befinde mich also in einer Art bürokratischem Vakuum.

Über das Amtsgericht kann ich nicht austreten, da ich nie in die Kirche eingetreten bin. Das Einwohnermeldeamt lässt mich nicht austreten, da ich nicht dort eingetreten bin. Das Einwohnermeldeamt akzeptiert allerdings auch nicht die Bestätigung meiner alten Gemeinde, dass ein Meldefehler vorlag. Und die evangelische Kirche weigert sich, zu bestätigen, dass ich nicht Mitglied der Kirche bin.

Man könnte sich jetzt auf den Standpunkt stellen, dass die evangelische Kirche den Nachweis erbringen muss, dass ich Kirchenmitglied bin. Schliesslich fordert sie Kirchensteuer von mir ein, müsste also den Nachweis erbringen, dass diese Forderungen rechtens sind. Alles andere wäre im Grunde genommen eine Beweislastumkehr. Und die ist nur in Ausnahmefällen zulässig.

Leider sind Bürokraten für derartige Argumente nicht empfänglich. Ein Bürokrat handelt nicht logisch oder verstandesgemäß, sondern nach Anweisung und Dienstvorschriften. Und nun ist ein Zustand eingetreten, in dem sich die einzelnen Dienstvorschriften in einer Art bürokratischen Deadlock ineinander verhakt haben. Keiner kann etwas tun, ohne dass vorher einer der anderen etwas getan hat.

Was also tun?

Vielleicht wäre es am Einfachsten, mich taufen zu lassen und direkt wieder auszutreten. Vorausgesetzt, man verlangt von mir dann nicht den Nachweis, dass ich nicht schon getauft bin…

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