Thursday, March 27, 2008

If You Are So Inclined

If you think my writing is terrible, you're probably not reading this. But if you are one of the, well, two people who read this blog, and are so inclined, visit and read two short stories I have posted there -- in the new section this week. "Sure Places" is a slightly fictionalized story in which I tell a story of an automotive breakdown and diagnosis, while "Jakob's Farm" is a telling of a dream my father had one time.

I refer you to not so you'll blindly vote my story as popular. I believe my writing should rise or fall on its own merits. But I think it's a fun outlet for people like me who are writing illiterates to showcase their stuff and test it out on a fickle, hypocritical, hyper-sensitive and back-biting audience. What fun.


Thursday, sweet Thursday.

Stumbled across a memory from the past (as opposed to those pesky memories from the future) yesterday: The Conet Project. For the uninitiated, the project is a collection of "numbers stations" recordings made in the UK by a shortwave radio enthusiast. It's basically like the recording John Travolta's character in Phenomenon decodes, getting his farmer buddy in deep, deep trouble. I heard a NPR report on the release of a four-disc set of the recordings, and was fascinated.

The individual who recorded the transmissions is obviously a paranoiac. Now, I work as a subcontractor to a contractor doing work for the federal government, so the idea that the government is up to shady shenanigans isn't a mystery to me. They shouldn't be sneaking about, planting evidence of transvestisism into the governments of other nations. But what ya gonna do? Listen to The Conet Project, get jumpy when you get caught in the beam of those traffic cams and look over your shoulder a lot. Because The Man* is going to do what he wants to do, whether or not a helpless rabble of citizens is up in arms about it or not. I may start up my own numbers station just to make everybody go completely bonkers.

So what else is going on in my life? It is Thursday, sweet Thursday. We had a late blizzard this morning that closed roads and schools, but it only happened in the valley; out here in the Lost River Desert, we've got the wind and the cold, but the moisture stayed away from us.

What I enjoy about these kinds of things (including aliens, bigfoot, the Kennedy assasination, et cetera) is how ordinary people like myself pore over the evidence -- and by that I mean we limit our research to Wikipedia, quotes from Dale from King of the Hill and videos from YouTube -- and, poof, transform ourselves into Instant Experts (TM). We've got it covered. We know what happened at Dealey Plaza, what exactly is tromping around in the Cascades, who really shot J.R. and we know, for a fact, despite we've only seen a tiny, tiny picture of the parachute those kids in Oregon dug up last week that it HAS to be the one used by D.B. Cooper because it looks exactly like the period parachute they used in that episode of the X Files. I guess what I'm saying is that 99.99999999 percent of these so-called Internet experts ought to stick to pounding sand. (I'm not comparing The Conet Project to this; as those guys have obviously worked hard to uncover what little bit they have uncovered, by which I mean they haven't uncovered enough.)

Ahh, how I wish Dick Cheney would shoot some other hunting partner, just so I could have something to chuckle about.

Speaking of chuckling: WHo does Hillary Rodham Clinton think she is? Oh yeah. She thinks she's Hillary Rodham Clinton. Since I live in one of the "unimportant" states that Barack Obama won, I'm a little leery at her attitude of wanting to win the Democratic nomination at all costs. She seems determined that it's the delegate count, rather than the voice of the people, which ought to decide elections. Those who side with her on this ought to remember that's the argument (cue lugubrious organ music) George W. Bush used in 2000 when he lost the popular vote to Al Gore but won the electoral college. (Claim apples and oranges on me if you will, but I believe there are enough parallels between the delegate/superdelegate nomination system and the Electoral College system, neither of which makes much sense to me.)

I now descend from my soapbox.

*If you don't know who/what "The Man" is, I'm truly sorry for the limits of your knowledge.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Because I wanted to do something fun today, here's an MP3 of the Spike Jones song "Der Fuhrer's Face." Interesting to note: The song was not written by Spike Jones and the City Slickers, but rather by Oliver Wallace, a British-American composer who worked primarily for Walt Disney Studios. After Jones made the song popular, Disney used his version in an animated short also called "Der Fuhrer's Face," first shown in 1942. Oliver, with Frank Churchill, won an Oscar for the music to Dumbo in 1940. Thank you, Wikipedia.

I've been a fan of Spike Jones since I was a kid -- introduced to his music by my mother, who also introduced me to Fibber McGee and Molly and a lot of those old radio shows. I often worry that with M*A*S*H, Carol Burnett and WKRP in Cincinnati, which we watch at home, we're infusing too much of the 1970s culture into our own children. Then I look at how infused 1940s culture is in me, and I figure, why worry.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Anybody got a Rolaid?

There are only a few people who are supposed to know this. Since nobody from work ever, ever comes here, I feel safe revealing it here.

My job is safe.


Did a little fishing today. Actually, fishing in conjunction with a job application -- USU IT is looking for a technical writer. I applied for the job, and used my new boss as a reference. I asked him first, of course, by saying that Im just sending out feelers, just in case. He wrote back:

"That's fine, but between you and me, your job is safe."

Ahhh. Relief. Not that I wouldn't take a better job if one were to come along. . .

There are other signs: He asked today that the company do an ergonomic assessment of my work station. They wouldn't do that if they were going to give me the heave-ho in a week or so. Carpal tunnel? Who cares? He's out on his ear.

Also, I'm getting a pager (finally) in connection with my volunteer job on the company emergency response team. They won't issue pagers to weenies like me who are going to get their butts canned like a German cheeseburger.

So relief floods the little cubicle here in the modular office building on the Lost River Desert. I may order that Spike Jones CD AND get us signed up for wireless internet, all in the same week. I can breathe again.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Disappointment Times Two

You may have read last week that I was disappointed I wasn't able to pick up a copy of Airplane! fromthe discount bin at Wal-Mart. Well. I did so. Took it home. Happily slapped it into the DVD player. Then was appalled.

Drug use. Nudity. Yikes. It's going out the window as fast as it came in the door. I just don't remember that from the times I saw it on television. Then it dawned on me: "Don't Call Me Shirley" edition, it says on the box. Uncut. Deleted scenes added. Might as well have said "Absolutely stupid, bawdy and moronic scenes (even for this film) added." Talk about garbage. So it's gone. And I'm disappointed. The movie was funny without these added, uh, gems. Absolutely unnecessary to put them in. Stupid on the part of the directors. Just stupid. I know it's no great loss to American arts and literature, but at the same time, do we have to have that kind of garbage in the same movie as lines like "It looks just like a big Tylenol?" I suppose ther are peopl eout there who'll say I shouldn't be such a prig, that I should just get used to, get inured to, such references in pop culture. Not gonna do it. I've seen what getting inured to pop culture can do, on a personal level. So I won't do it.

Spent the weekend battling the Toyota. Well, not really. That sounds overdramatic. Suffice it to say the battery went dead, despite hours spent trying to recharge it. So I got a new battery. At least the dang thing died in front of the house, and not on some far-off location.

Stress about the job is put off for another week. It's union employees who get the ax this week, or so the rumors go, with salaried employees the next. Poop is that someone in our little world is going to be on the losing end of this argument. Don't know who. But I suspect. Guess who the low guy on the totem pole is? But this is all speculation. Even our managers -- secure in their jobs -- say it's changing one week to the next, what's going to happen. But they can grin and laugh about it, then go on with their lives. Those of us on the lower echelons still shake in our boots. Because you know it's not going to be the managers getting the axe, they're the ones the higher ups are talking with on whom should go. Nobody's going to say, "Ohh! Pick me! Pick me!"

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Spring Fever . . . or is it Bean Fever?

I know. It's been a week since I posted. But since there are only two regular readers of this blog -- and I can't even count myself among them -- I'm not overy concerned.

I worry, though, that I'm not worried enough about this conversion to digital television. I stopped watching most broadcast and cable TV shows about 11 years ago. I'm in the dark most of the time on politics, because I don't get the constant feed television offers. Oh, I get news i want on the Internet, but since I can pick and choose what I want to consume, I skip most of the "politic slop," as Ralphie Parker's Dad would say. So I can't say I'm all that bothered with the thought that broadcasters are going from analog to digital. I'm not lining up for one of those converter boxes the government is pushing on everyone. Heck, I don't even watch the taped TV shows we get from my father-in-law anymore. I amy soon revert to squatting in a corner of the basement and drawing pictograms on the walls with red clay.

Next week, layoffs begin. People are looking for signs in the stars everywhere to know if they'll be axed or spared. Including me. I began fretting last night that because I hadn't heard from my employers on a new bus pass -- mine expires Tuesday -- that they knew I was on the list to get the flush and figured it would be a waste of time communicating with me. But this morning I get news on the bus pass, and they ask me to fill out a company contact form. Maybe so they know where to train the security cameras when they lay off my sorry ass next week . . . Ah, the paranoia continues.

I'm coming, slowly, to a realization: The book I'm working on isn't going to write itself. Maybe it should try, because it might turn out better if I'm not connected with it.

Spring is finally starting to show up around here. We had rain yesterday. Honest rain, helping to usher the snow away. We still have a ton of snow in the front yard, but where the snow didn't fall as thick next to the house, we have tulips starting to poke out of the ground. They look really excited to be here. Really excited. We've also cleard the driveway of snow and ice, which is nice, because the vehicles now don't have to park at an angle. Uncovering the driveway was like chiseling through a glacier, except that I'm sure glaciers don't have the Pomeranian poop content that our driveay ice has. Max is a good little dog, but he really can pound out the biscuits over the winter.

I'm crabby. I'm ready for the snow to go away. Liam was watching over my shoulder last night as I was playing Sim City 4, and it got so irritating I had to stop before I really got cranky and shooed him away. This layoff situation just has me really tense. I'm ready for next week to be over, no matter the outcome.

I need some kind of tension-breaker that doesn't involve Starbursts. Maybe I'll move on to cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and then I'll go onto that nicotine gum. A good five-year plan.

Disappointment: Saw a copy of Airplane! in the discount bin at Wal-Mart earlier this week. Went to get it last night, figuring I could sneak it into the house over Michelle's objections. All the copies had been cherry-picked out of the bin, leaving only stupid movies behind. Sigh. I shouldn't complain. She got me a copy of The Dilbert Principle and Spies Like Us, so I'm not totally bereft of token consumerist swag this week.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Doctor Lazybones. . .

Twenty-six minutes until it's time to go home.

I'm not usually a clock watcher. But this week, and particularly today, I have watched the clock. I'm ready for a weekend. I get three-day weekends. They're not enough. Call me a crybaby. But I get no evenings the four days of the week I'm at work. I get home just after 7 p.m. We eat dinner. We read our scriptures and get the kids put to bed. By that time, I've been awake for 14 hours. I know it's time to go to bed. I'd like to stay up longer, but I'm shattered.

Of course I have work. I have Uncharted. I have two classes a semester I'm taking for my masters degree. All of that takes up time. I don't know what I'll do tonight. I could stay up late. Whee. Or I could go to bed. And lest you think I'm being a wimp, I also do the dishes, gather the trash, clean up after the kids and help with the laundry when it's something simple that I can't screw up.

I'm tired. But now it's only twenty-two minutes until it's time to go home.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

It's Technical Communicator Blather Time

Usability and the Importance of Prior Experience

Brian Davidson

In this paper, I’ll take a look at the usability of two sets of instructions. First, a good set – a 20-page full color guide to building a LEGO street sweeper. Secondly, a bad set – a 20-page black-and-white guide to using a cordless Black and Decker FireStorm 14.4 Volt Cordless CutSaw. Though I call one set good and the other bad, it’s clear through use of these instructions and through observation on how these instructions are used that both have their strong points and shortcomings. To analyze these instructions, I’ll break the discussion into subtopics: size, paper quality, layout, type selection, graphics, place of use and intended audience.
Following the analyses, I’ll engage in a brief discussion of how usability and the prior knowledge of users make some instructions more valuable than others.

LEGO – Disgruntled Worker, Good Instructions

Size. As with all LEGO instructions, the size of the pamphlet is dictated by the complexity of the product to be created and the size of the box it’s packaged in. For this set of instructions, the pamphlet is 5 ¾ by 4 inches, folded in half. The size is appropriate for use and legibility, but as will be discussed later, the size and folds in the pamphlet make its durability dubious.

Paper quality. The pamphlet is printed on slick paper with a moderate clay content, like that of Time and other popular news magazines. This paper, while functional for printing in full color, has its disadvantages. At folds and staple points, this paper becomes weak. Given that these instructions are often stored in the same boxes with the LEGO bricks and that they’re typically manhandled by young children, the instructions are easily tearable and wear out quickly. Instructions included in LEGO’s smallest boxes are often folded many times, meaning more often than not, the LEGO collector is left with a collection of postage-stamp sized bits of instructions scuffling around at the bottom of the box. Obviously, LEGO could go with a sturdier paper – perhaps a plastic-laminated cardstock – for its instructions, but the cost of those instructions would have to be balanced against an increased product cost. LEGO, aware of the fragility of their instructions, offers PDF versions of them online. This, to me, seems a fair balance between wanting customers to have good sets of instructions to use without increasing production costs, though searching through their sets of instructions for the right one can be problematic unless you have the specific product number or know precisely what name LEGO gives the creation whose instructions you’re seeking to replace.

Layout. Because of the multi-national appeal of LEGO bricks, the company has taken the approach of using as few words as possible in its instructions. Layout, then, is simple, with numbered drawings showing the building sequence. IN this set in particular, the pamphlet is laid out with one column of instruction per page, with no more than two images per column per page. This layout makes the drawings large enough to be seen in detail, an important considering, given the small parts in this particular model.

Type selection. LEGO has chosen a simple, sans-serif type for the few words included in these instructions. The instructions themselves use no words whatsoever, only numerals. The only words included in this pamphlet are included in one product warning (on choking hazards) reproduced in three languages, along with other necessities such as product numbers, the LEGO logo and a small icon on the back page directing users to

Graphics. The simple, back-lit oblique-angle line drawings used in LEGO instructions are the instructions’ strongest point. At a glance, even a novice builder can tell what parts are needed next and exactly where they go. Only on one occasion in a vigorous year of LEGO building have I seen my eight-year-old son flummoxed by a set of LEGO instructions – and they required a close look myself to understand his frustration, which had to do with the use of white and transparent bricks side by side in one model, a reproduction of which was ambiguous in the instructions. Most of the time, if he is confused by a building sequence, all I have to tell him to do is look at the instructions again, first of all to see if he missed a step, then he’s able to continue or go back and make modifications without further assistance.
The front cover of the pamphlet features a photograph of the street sweeper in action, including the unshaven visage of the LEGO man staring glumly out of the cab. Now, when I was a boy, all LEGO men had dots for eyes and an even smile. But that’s beside the point of this paper. The photograph, combined with a line drawing of the completed product inside the pamphlet, however, do serve as models to show the builder what the finished product will look like, if built correctly.
The back cover of this pamphlet is set aside for promotions. As a parent, this is the most aggravating portion of the instructions, as they advertize additional products, this time with full-color photographs showing the little LEGO men in action on cranes, in front-end loaders and in dump trucks which, apparently, tear the hearts out of little boys until they have them to play with. To throw a bone to parents and children alike, the company includes a small circular logo on the back cover, featuring a LEGO man with a questioning look on his face encircled with the words “Service?” Of course that leads to more heart-ripping photographs (and games, and buy me now products) on the web page, but at least there’s some free content there to assuage the brick-building masses, allowing parents to get back to work long enough to earn money to buy more LEGOs. (Disclaimer: I did the exact same thing to my parents, without the luxury of, so I know all this is comeuppance.)

Place of use. LEGO makes it clear in its larger sets of instructions that it’s best to build with these bricks at a table, rather than on a carpet, because it’s nice to have a hard, flat surface on which to build. Given my own history with these bricks and the spread-out way in whcy my children play with them, it’s clear that this advice, on the most part, is rejected. This disconnection between LEGO’s intentions and the obvious preferences of LEGO builders – not just in my family; everyone I’ve seen playing with LEGOs always play with them on the floor, rarely at a table – makes the instructions more prone to tearing and eventual destruction and loss. We have also tended to store the instructions with the bricks themselves, and, as mentioned earlier, this practice has led to the instructions falling apart more quickly than if they were stored separately. But storing them separately means any time the users want to build a specific model, they have to leave the bricks momentarily to find the instructions. Anyone with an impatient eight-year-old can see how this diminishes the joy of play, as the instructions have to be hunted up from elsewhere.

Intended audience. I see two audiences here: The young LEGO enthusiast, hot on the trail of building his or her newest creation. Secondly, the older LEGO enthusiast or parent helping a younger one out. LEGO treats both audiences the same because of one factor that unites them – they don’t necessarily speak the same language. The only words in these instructions are warnings (in English, Spanish and French) that the bricks represent a choking hazard. The invitation to the LEGO website is ostensibly in English “Service?” but the word is the same in French and close enough in Spanish to be understandable. Nomenclature used in Web URLs is universal. Both audiences want to be able to construct these products quickly, without a lot of head scratching. The instructions work wonderfully well in this respect.
The usability of LEGO’s instructions clearly has helped in the company’s international success. It’s interesting to note that LEGO started using the oblique-angle line drawings in the mid-1960s, with only the color and printing quality changing (for the better) in the past four decades. Looking at pre-1960 instructions – which very much resemble architectural drawings and drew more heavily on Danish words in the instructions – it’s easy to see when the LEGO company saw its growth potential outside of Denmark and adjusted its instructions accordingly.

Black and Decker -- Handy Tool, Ignored Instructions

Size. Tough folded into a neat 5 ½ by 8 ½ inch package, the instructions for this cutting tool have to be unfolded into a poster measuring 27 ½ by 17 inches to be read fully. It’s possible to unfold only sections of the instructions in order to make handling them easier, but a poster size isn’t exactly the handiest when you’re looking for a bit of information on the new tool you’ve bought or on the used tool you’re trying to troubleshoot.

Paper quality. These instructions are printed on what appears to be ordinary office stock paper, albeit in poster size. The paper is durable enough for occasional use, but continued use in messier areas would quickly make these instructions fall apart. Luckily, that may not be a significant hazard (see discussion on place of use).

Layout. My first general impression of the layout is one of confusion. At the bottom of the first page, after an introduction in English, Spanish words appear just above the fold. I have assumed on more than one occasion that the placement of Spanish at the fold meant what followed was also in Spanish, so I opened the instructions further, without looking below the fold, to find English words. I found them, but found them mid-sentence. English does continue below the fold; the placement of the Spanish paragraph fooled me.
Because of the way this pamphlet is folded, the instructions are printed in columns that match with the folds. They’re wide, justified columns. Nearly everything is done in lists, either numbered, with alpha characters or with bullets. There appears to be no rhyme or reason in the use of numbers, letter and bullets for emphasis, possibly revealing that some sections of these instructions were pulled from a generic set of instructions written for a wide variety of tools, while other sections were written specifically for this tool.
Section headers are present, but only one, “Operation,” is presented in a way that helps it stand out from the otherwise gray sea of words (“Operation” is set in white on a black bar that crosses an entire column.) Other sections of the instructions appear to be started with safety warning specific to the task described (work area maintenance, battery charging, warnings specific to this tool), but there is no “at a glance” distinction between these sections. The layout includes six figures and two tables (discussed in the “Graphics” section of this analysis).

Type selection. The type in these instructions is sans-serif, likely Arial or something similar. Leading is tight and the type face is small, making the instructions hard to read in poor light conditions. The type is justified.

Graphics. As mentioned earlier, these instructions have two tables. The first, discussing symbols that “may” appear on the tool’s labels, is presented in a way that it’s meant to be read as a paragraph, rather than as something to refer to. The second table is presented in reference to discussion in the instructions on use of the tool with extension cords. The first table is more helpful, as the novice user may be unfamiliar with the symbols present on the too, but the second is of marginal use, since the average tool user isn’t going to fuss over what type of extension cord to use with the tool, but, rather, will use whatever extension cord is handy.
There are also six line drawings included in these instructions. They are lumped together and numbered, the numbers referring to places in the text. Despite a long search, I never could find a reference to Drawing 1 in the instructions. To refer to the other drawings, the reader must jump from text to drawing in order to make visual sense of what is being said. The drawings could just as easily been included in context in the instructions themselves, making such jumping – and likely some of the text – unnecessary.

Place of use. To be honest, the place these instructions are most likely to be used are in a paper on instruction usability. There may be users who will keep these instructions with the product in a workshop, garage or shed. It’s likely these users will consult the instructions on an occasional basis in messy situations, so it’s clear the paper used may have durability issues. However, I believe most users of these instructions are like me – we look at them cursorily, may consult them for the first battery charging either in the shop or in the house, but then, more likely or now, will set them aside and simply use the tool, consulting the instructions only if the use of a feature is unclear. I haven’t used these instructions in any capacity since I got the tool two years ago, until I fished them out for this paper. For those like me who look at them then store them for long periods of time, the paper type and general layout and composition of the instructions is adequate.

Intended audience. The intended audience for these instructions is limited to the novice user who is overcautious about using power tools. A jack-of-all-trades or an expert tool user might glance at the instructions, but this user is more likely than not to set the instructions aside and use the tool without consulting them. Troubleshooting is more likely to take place in consultation with other users, rather than with the instructions. These users are also more likely to consult with other users if they’re considering using this tool on materials or in ways they’re not familiar with.


Now, I’ve been hard on good ol’ Black and Decker. Truth be told, comparing Black and Decker instructions alongside LEGO instructions is patently unfair, because the necessity of instructions for one product is unclear, while it is clear for the other. Anyone marginally familiar with hand-held power tools can pick up the Black and Decker CutSaw, spend a few moments looking at the buttons, adjustments, blades and attachments on the tool and know how to use them, with only cursory references to the instructions. Building a LEGO set and having it look exactly as it does on the packaging, without having instructions to refer to, sounds to me like a much more frustrating endeavor, including the consideration that LEGO is prone to tossing in extra parts with every set.
So why should a tool capable of cutting fingers off be easier to use without instructions than a toy that, at worst, can make your foot hurt if you step on it in the dark? It has to do with the knowledge already possessed by the user. A person purchasing a hand-held power tool is likely to have used such tools before and is thus familiar with the common place warnings on battery charging, storage and use of such beasts. Using a drill presents similar challenges and hazards as using a CutSaw. Those who write instructions for such tools know their work is going to be ignored 90 percent of the time. A person purchasing a LEGO set, however, while familiar with other LEGO sets, is bound by the necessity to have what is built appear exactly as the product photographed on the box. Familiarity with other LEGO sets does not easily translate into building a new set, as the pieces and their assemblage vary from set to set. A person using a CutSaw to size a two-by-four has to know that the battery is charged, the blade is in place and that fingers are securely tucked away before proceeding. That comes from experience, not from an instruction manual. A person building a new LEGO set may know how pieces fit together generally, but without the instructions provided, the time spent building will be longer and more frustrating without referring to the instructions. The LEGO instructions are part of the product. The CutSaw instructions are not.

Friday, March 7, 2008

A Crummy Commercial?

Everyone Has A Little Thoreau Inside Them
Henry David Thoreau moved into the wilds of Massachusetts in 1845, where he built a cabin, fished, walked, wandered, and wrote about the nature he loved.
You can do that, too.

Here’s a sample:

The road twists through the woods, thick with pine and quaken aspen. Sometimes the road is only wide enough to let our little Toyota pickup pass, dragging our camper behind it. Sometimes the road isn’t even that wide, and the needles and leaves hanging from the roadside trees brush and scrape against the fenders, pop through open windows, stirring air fragrant with pine sap, road dust and yarrow. Over the low rumble of the tires on the rutted dirt road, we hear the calls of telephone birds, the warning chirps of robins. And always, below the din, the ribbit of frogs.

Through the trees, we see the first patch of blue, bright sky blue lower than the lowest branches of the trees. One more twist in the road, over boulders, we’ll descend to Horseshoe Lake.

Here’s another sample:

Colloquially enough, 17-Mile Cave is located just 400 feet to the south of U.S. Highway 20 about 17 miles west of downtown Idaho Falls, ID, at a spot marked by an Idaho historical marker “Elephant Hunters.” Park either at the marker pullout or along the dirt road that circles a dimple in the landscape to the south. In that dimple is the cave’s entrance.

The cave’s location, size and makeup make it an excellent place to pique the interest of would-be speleologists, no matter how young. Michelle and I took our three children – Liam, age 7, Lexie, 5, and Isaac, 2 ½, to the cave for their first spelunking adventure.

Each is a little different. Each reflects the writer’s voice, the way he or she tells the story. What each has in common is this: The writer loves the place he or she has visited. The writer knows the place, and wants others to visit it, too. I love Horseshoe Lake, sheltered among the trees at Yellowstone National Park’s southwestern corner. I love 17-Mile Cave, with its spooky halls and amusing graffiti. There are places you love, too. Tell us about them. All it takes to write for Uncharted is a passion for the places we love.

We like travelogues, so put your buddies in your car and take a road trip. We like to hear about hikes. Raft trips. That time you got lost. That time you got found. That time you got our of your tent at 5 a.m. to listen to the birds and watch the sun rise. Anything you do in the outdoors, we like.

Here’s what we look for in an Uncharted story:

  • Basic information: How to find the place/person/thing you’re writing about, when the best times to visit are, what you ought to bring with you to make the trip a pleasant one.
  • Insider tips on the destination. Too many Web writers just copy down what they see in guidebooks, roadside historical markers or, frankly, random assumptions about a place. We want readers to say “Wow” when they read our stories, not “Duh!”
  • Tell our readers if this place/person/thing is interesting to visit. Tell us why it was the most boring/unrewarding thing you’ve ever done in your entire life, aside from watching game shows all morning. Back up your opinion with facts and reasoned argument.
  • Entertain our readers with good information, lively characters and quotes, and your own witty observations.
  • Stimulate multiple senses. While technology hasn’t perfected e-smell, we want to make sure our stories involve as many senses as possible. We encourage submission of photos, short video and sound clips and other elements to make the places you visit more real to our readers.
  • Once you’ve got your story read, e-mail it to us at We’ll contact you quickly to let you know where to send photos, and when your story will appear.

Log on to Your public awaits.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


New Media is finding out what Old Media has known for a long time: Good news doesn’t sell.

Ben Popken and the other folks over at Consumerist know the feeling. They love the shrill stories about some buffoon outraged because (oh no!) a Wal-Mart employee asked to see his receipt before he left the store. They love to shriek about Amazon performing Stupid Shipping Tricks (forgetting to ask, in one instance, why someone absolutely had to order a cast-iron frying pan and a coffee pot from Amazon, when they could (oh no!) GO TO A FREAKING STORE).

Now Popken, apparently, is writing an article for Readers Digest. Yesterday, he was scrambling around for stories of consumers making egregious demands – on the day his article is due. (Apparently, RD had the audacity to ask for some balance in the story to contrast with the “kick-ass” stories of Corporations Gone Wild Popken is evidently writing about.) Good thing he’s scratching around for some ideas (came up with the Lost Suit Lawsuit guy in D.C., and some chick who flipped out to the tune of millions because the flowers for her wedding reception were the wrong color, same old recycled media garbage he could find in five minutes worth of googling). He’s looking for material on the day his story is due. That’ll be a well-researched, balanced piece of New Mediaocrity.

Yes, Readers Digest feasts on this kind of crapola, too. But it just irks me to hear New Media say they can do the job better, when they fall into Old Media’s tricks, the same tricks New Media claims to loathe. Plus ca change. . .

I used to be a newspaper reporter. I fell into the same trap all the time, rarely recognizing that it was the “good news” stories that people really appreciated and remembered. Oh, they remember the bad news stuff, too, but there’s a difference in their memories. For the bad news, they remember the bad news. For the good news, they almost always remember the good news in context with the person who wrote it. Good news gets writers better name recognition, at least in the smaltz department.

Speaking of Consumerist – they don’t particularly like good news about corporations. It’s always the bad news that gets top billing, and while they say they welcome good news about corporations, just try to get it on the front page. I know I have.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Negative Vibe Merchant

It's been a bit of a downer lately, visiting this blog and boo-hooing about everything in the whole world being a complete and utter drag. So I thought I'd have some fun today:
  • A few weeks ago, I found a book on constellations at the thrift store and bought it with my eight-year-old son in mind. He loves it. He drags us outside to see the stars. He's drawn his own constellations. He knows more about them than I do. And the book, by H.A. Rey (yes, of Curious George fame, that's what attracted me to the book in the first place) is well done.
  • March came in like a lion, with wind and snow. Maybe she'll leave like a lamb.
  • Martin, our friend in England, now has me addicted to "News Quiz," on BBC 4. I get a nice chuckle every week, even if I don't quite understand what's going on.
  • Spring Break is coming up next week. Though that doesn't mean much for people like me in an entirely online program, it does mean an extra week to complete the assignment started this week, which is nice.
  • Although it was 6 degrees this morning when I boarded the bus, at least it wasn't 20 below.
  • The kids -- and Moki, the weenie dog -- are still happy to see me when I come home. Michelle is, too, of course, but she doesn't come running to the stairs shouting (or barking) as the others do.
  • I still have a job.
  • Count your many blessings, one, two, now I'm done. Count your many blessings . . . wait, what was No. 1?

Not bad for a Gloomy Gus like me. Except that the space bar on my computer is suddenly sticking. Knew there was a jinx.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Horatio Alger 2.0

I have to wonder, are we all fooling ourselves? Will the Internet cream rise to the top, bringing the rest of us with it? Note I classify myself in the “rest of us” category, as I’m not willing to give in to the Internet delusion that we’re all on equal footing here. I remain a social have not and want not, firmly so, not bothered that in social circles I’m more of an irregular rhombus, or an ovoid construct at most. Many folks on the Internet, however, tend to believe they’re the next Big Thing waiting to be discovered, knowing that The Man (if they even know what The Man is; a few years ago, I went to a TMBG concert in Utah. As a prelude to one of their songs, they had to ecplain what “The Man” is, because, apparently , many of their fans don’t know. I liked their definition: “The Man is a euphemism for ‘The Man.’” In other words, go look it up, you morons. End of segue.) is holding them back. You anal retentives are now short-circuiting because you have to go back to before the segue started to match the two ends of this thought. Tough for you. I, for one, don’t believe The Man is holding me back, because, for all I know, The Man doesn’t even know I exist. So why am I on the Internet, thus? It’s not a living. It’s not a hobby, because I’m not here on weekends. I’m here because the Internet is here, and would go on merrily without me, and, indeed, is going on merrily without me, even with me here. Horatio Alger would despair at the false Internet hopes. Or he’s go out there and be one of those Internet millionaires we read about in the paper and hope they have to pay lots and lots of taxes and eventually end up living in a van down by the river because they forgot to read the prenuptial agreement their significant other made them sign.

So it is.

Randy, my brother, is out of jail. He’s glad to be out. We took him out on the town – pizza and a trip to the Army Surplus Store, just to tell you what kind of twon we live in – and it was fun to watch my kids interact with him. We’ve talked about him being in jail, we wrote letters to him there. Lexie, our five-year-old, wanted to sit next to him at lunch, then hold his hand through the surplus store. Then this weekend at Liam’s baptism, Isaac, 3, ran up to him, hugged his legs and said, “Oh Randy, I’m glad you could come.” Mom said that really made him feel good. And he needs thing to help him feel good, because he’s got a long road ahead of him.

Yes, Liam was baptized Saturday. I think he was excited. He’s like me. He doesn’t carry his heart on his sleeve. He was thrilled, however, to get his own copy of the Book of Mormon Sunday from the bishop, and thrilled with getting to sit in the choir seats behind the pulpit while waiting for the presentation. Goofy kid.

Been reading “Is Paris Burning” the last few days. Interesting story about Paris’ liberation during World War II, and how the city escaped the massive destruction Hitler had planned for it. I never knew the German general in the area, Deitrich von Cholitz, actually sent delegations to the Allied forces, asking them for help to “save” Paris before reinforcements arrived and von Cholitz was forced to go through with the demolition plans. Gives you faith in humanity. At least the humanity of humanity during World War II.