Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Small Town Is Dead! Long Live the Small Town!

I knew, going in to read Jan Karon’s At Home in Mitford, that what Karon writes and what one of my favorite authors, Sinclair Lewis, wrote was going to clash. I was right.

Karon worships the small town, painting her characters as irascible misfits, artistes, the dedicated doctor, the troubled boy, the harried farmer/veterinarian, the priest who is the community’s glue, keeping everything, including the storyline, going. Only one character – a minor one, at that – is depicted as unsavory or annoying (the editor of the local newspaper, who is only mentioned because of the flubs he prints and his overeagerness for “hard” news). The character of Dooley Barlowe’s mother is also unsavory, but since she is mentioned only in passing, her characterization hardly counts.

Lewis is weary of the small town, painting his characters as smug, self-satisfied, prying, dull and – worst of all – reluctantly conformist who keep following their small-town ways because that’s the way it’s always been done. Lewis depicts only one of his characters in a savory manner – Miles Bjornstam, the town crank and critic who never gives in to the small-town mentality. His protagonist Carol is depicted sympathetically, but ultimately with Lewis’ most-hated characteristic – the conformist. Reluctant, yes, but a conformist nonetheless.

The truth of the small town is in the middle somewhere. Small towns aren’t as oppressive as Lewis’ Gopher Prarie, nor are they as idyllic as Karon’s Mitford. Small-town characters aren’t as colorless as Lewis’s Vergil Gunch, nor as vibrant as Karon’s Father Tim.

What both authors catch is the small-town susceptibility towards being condescending to outsiders. Lewis condemns it, while Karon seems to celebrate it (most vividly in describing the reluctance of the town’s grocery store to sell local corn to visitors because they’d overcook it).

I see this on a daily basis, as I live in a small town, population of just under 1,300. The dividing line between newcomer and old-timers is 1976, when the town was flooded after a federally-built dam on the Teton River burst. In this town, you’re either pre-flood or post-flood. Even people who moved to town 30 years ago feel this divide. Not that the divide bothers us. My wife and I are hermits. I’d live happily in the middle of nowhere if we had electricity and a good Internet connection; my wife likes being close to town just for the convenience of it.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Confused

CNN.com has started doing something that I just don't understand: They're selling t-shirts with headlines on them.

Now, as an American, I can understand that people will buy any fool shirt as long as it has writing on it, especially writing that could be considered ironic or an inside joke. But do people relaly want t-shirts that bear the following headlines (pulled from today's Web site; the stories indicate t-shirts are available with this text on them):

40-lb. hunk of metal hits driver in face

Man vs. gator in 7-minute battle for life

Courtroom razor attack caught on tape

Snoozy baby bear can't stay awake

That's it and that appears to be all. No accompanying photo. No real context at all, except for the CNN.com logo. Who is going to wear these things?

Uncertainty

Today reminds me of an old Dilbert comic. I wish I had a copy, but I can reproduce the dialogue here:

E-mail to all company employees (read by Dilbert): Please disregard the rumor of our merger with a healthy company.

He peeks over the top of his cubicle, then says: "Now spooked, the herd stampedes," as his co-workers run screaming through the office, shouting "Resume!" and "Where's my interview suit!"

It's all been sparked here by the fact our text processor is leaving us for another job. Any job outside of the RWMC is considred permanent, because we're all basically working ourselves out of jobs.

So, again, I'm panicking a little. Applied for a few jobs this morning. Not holding my breath, because there are a lot of people out there looking for the same kinds of jobs. But must face reality, and get those feelers out there before the other shoe drops. I hate this. The uncertainty is the only thing I don't like about this job. Everything else is golden. I'm even OK with the long hours and such. The situation here, with layoffs around every corner, sucks. We're predicting a pretty good brain drain here within the next year or so, as we get closer to closing this contract out in 2012. But part of me really worries that I'm not brain enough to get out of here before it's Target all over again. Oh, please, don't let that be me . . .

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Just in case the next post is too boring

Oh, but you're watching TV! You're a writer! You should be out becoming one with the grass, or whatever writers do.

Bill Prisbrey, Moscow, Idaho, 13 March 1996

Merely the Sky

Looked at the sky
for the first time in twenty years
last night

Through the rooftops and over the trees
Orion has sheathed his sword ant the arm
of Betelgeuse
waves friendly
his nebula fierce in ruby brilliance
stops the comets

Bitter melancholy and anticipating joy
when Orion head and shoulders appear
at the east of the winter horizon

Recall:
Big Dipper
seven stars, one double, one galaxy
compass of the cosmos
follow the pointers to Polaris
then speed on down to Spica
without forgetting Taurus' head
and the knot of the Seven Sisters

Ghosts indeed exist
as they manifest nightly
in catblack skies
that light, infinite photos of so many lumens
poor earthly equivalent candlelight
earthward, outward
when God was young
and falls to earth while men are old

Do they still glow?

Or like fireflies, do they return to the dust from whence they came?

Gentle Fomalhault
a star of some sort, assumed
once known but now only a name

Fomalhault looks down
merely thinks the same

Once part of little life -- now merely the sky

As promised! A long, boring article about writing. Enjoy. or not.

Developing a Passion Index and a Passion Platform
to Write and Assess Writing in the Digital Domain

If you don’t love what you’re doing, don’t do it.
Ray Bradbury

My exit from the field of journalism on April Fools Day in 2005 prompted a lot of reflection on writing well and assessing the quality of writing.

I’d been a journalism geek since high school. I worked on the college papers. I earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism. I started my first newspaper job in the spring of 1997. Moved to a bigger paper in 2000. I wrote, I thought, consistently well, though, I discovered, as most writers do, that some pieces just work better than others. Some pieces – and it didn’t matter if they were columns, news stories, or features – simply wrote themselves; I was just lucky enough that my byline appeared at the top, because these stories were effortless. And well-received.

But I burned out. I dreaded going to work every day. I lived for weekends – starting that feeling at 10 a.m. every Monday. Quality began to slip, leading to what journalists fear as the Big Mistake. I committed one. Three years later, it still makes me ill to think about it. My error was not grave. I had the opportunity to stay at the paper, but I knew it was time to leave.

I know what happened. Ray Bradbury does, too: “If you don’t love what you’re doing, don’t do it.” My passion for journalism; the planning, the finding, – but not the writing –had gone. In the year I spent looking for another writing gig, I wrote a lot and thought a lot about writing. As I sorted through boxes of clippings, discarding the ordinary and keeping the extraordinary, I realized that passion – or the lack of it – in the writing shone, years after the stories were printed and then forgotten.

Nearly every successful writer has uttered a saying like Bradbury’s. Nearly every professional writer has had an epiphany like mine – learning through hard experience that passionate writing will show in the final product. As I progress as a writer and as an editor – one called upon to assess writing – the ability to gauge passion to communicate its importance to managers will be important as I seek to produce and assess writing that meets company goals, meets customer expectations, and emotionally satisfies the writer. I realized, too, that in those stories that worked so well, there was an element of passion that transcended the correctness we stive for in journalism. In those stories I read and re-read and enjoyed – and in those same stories on which I received the most positive comments – it was clear that I had made an empathetic connection to the subject matter and, by doing so, communicated that empathy to the reader.

This ability to gauge passion needs to combine with a common vocabulary and assessment tool as writers and editors interact with managers who may not understand the emotional writing influences many writers bring into corporate communication. As writing for business continues to move into the digital domain – a domain where writing has nearly always taken second shrift to design and functionality – building a passionate writing and assessment platform on trust and a shared vocabulary to explain it all will empower writers and editors to produce and assess better products and explain why they’re better along the way. Part of that explanation has to include demonstrating that empathy for the reader and subject matter are critical to writers looking to produce passionate writing.

Fundamentals

Passionate writing entails physical and emotional aspects. The physical meaning of passion includes:
  • Factuality. The writer/assessor is aware that written text must be as correct as possible.
  • Tone. The writer/assessor recognizes the words and stylistic choices are appropriate for the writing’s purpose.
  • Audience awareness. The writer/assessor recognizes that documents must anticipate readers’ questions and recognize that, given the structure of digital documents and especially the World Wide Web, readers may come into documents along unexpected paths, leaving important background material out of their search as they seek the information or affirmation they desire.
The emotional meaning of passion includes:
  • Author involvement. The writer/assessor recognizes that passionate writing transcends the mechanical writing process and enters the realm of empathy for the reader and for the subject matter and mutual trust between writers, subject matter experts and management.
Empathy for the reader implies writing/assessing documents that inform, entertain and persuade in appropriate ways. Empathy for the subject matter implies that writers/assessors realize that while author passion may vary from subject to subject, passionate writing demonstrates that writers/assessors transcend their own subject filters and write/assess from the point of view of a reader who is passionate about the subject. Passionate writers and assessors, in other words, must in some way manufacture a sincere interest in the subject in order for that passion to be evident to the reader.

The approach outlined in this essay is collaborative and brings new eyes into the process as writers and editors try their prose out on other people, people with whom they’ve built layers of trust. That trust will tell writers/assessors if their work is physically correct and indicative of the required empathy for reader and subject matter. We can discover whether we’re as passionate about writing as we’re always telling people we are.

Explaining Passion to Others

Management typically accepts the level of passionate writing the writers find acceptable. There is a caveat to this assumption: Management is not a group of dupes. They recognize poor writing: it’s full of typos, factual errors; it may not “sound right.” Management wants writing that “makes the company (and me) look good,” and a re not shy in saying writing doesn’t meet those expectations if it’s clear enough that the expectations are not met.

That management desire to have the writers make them/the company “look good” bears implicit and explicit trust in the writer to produce copy that readers can use, that is informative, that is persuasive as it needs to be and that carries the proper tone for the proper audience. That same trust is present when it comes to writers and editors assessing copy for appropriate use in the digital domain.

To maintain that trust, writers and assessors have to explain the emotional side of passion; the passion that can cause many of us to debate the relative merits of, for example, J.R.R. Tolkein’s writing versus that of Terry Brooks. To managerial eyes, one fantasy novel may resemble another in its form (a voyage of esoteric creatures on an epic quest) and function (entertainment in the realm of fantasy) without bothering overmuch to debate the emotional points (depth of character, narrative structure, et cetera) that writers find fascinating and entertaining to debate and explore.

In other words, we can do a better job communicating the physical aspects of passion with our managers on the quality (or lack of quality) in company prose, as well as explaining why empathy for the reader and the subject matter are just as important as mechanical correctness.

Passion Inhibitors

Lack of passion takes on many forms, subtle and glaring. On the subtle end, writers often do not properly consider who a text’s audience might be, forgetting that the audience can arrive at a web-based text from any number of paths, including paths that skip contextual material. On the glaring end, the lack of passion can lead to copy that lacks factual detail, readability, audience appeal, and the like.

What stops or inhibits passionate writing in the digital domain? I contend the stoppage is caused mostly by the same inhibiting filters that cause poor writing in any writing domain. There are some filters, however, that appear more prevalent to digital document and are often difficult to surmount due to perceived time constraints and the fact that text is typically an afterthought in most Web design.

Writers assume:
  • I can always re-write this. In many instances, when we know a document or a piece of copy isn’t set in stone, we satisfy ourselves with a poorer job of audience focus, of persuasiveness, of clarity, with the idea that we can go back to it later.
  • Bosses only pay attention to the bells and whistles on a web page.
  • Bosses only want to talk about writing when there’s something wrong.
  • Writers don’t have to be passionate about everything they write, or worry that readers can tell whether that passion is missing.
Management assumes:
  • Writing that appears on the Web isn’t permanent or real.
  • Any text will do, as long as the writers like it.
Both assume:
  • Content comes last, after the forms have been built.
  • Fine-tuning will be done by someone else. Often, writers assume that managers will do the fine-tuning – the final spell check, links, et cetera – while management assumes what the writers hand over is perfect.
  • It’s my way or the highway.
Enabling writing assessments that focus on passion can help writers and management overcome their inhibitors. Anyone engaged in passionate writing will become more consciously aware of these inhibitors. The knowledge that both writer and manager are assessing to the same standards of passion enables each side to realize that overcoming inhibitors will make the company’s prose better.

No system, of course, is perfect. Systems can be ignored, manipulated or overwhelmed by domineering personalities used to getting their own way – the my way or the highway inhibitor is perhaps the strongest we deal with. But a savvy team that has built itself on trust and empathy can overcome this powerful inhibitor, no matter its source. An equal-footing assessment encourages compromise when holders of opposing opinions can demonstrate the relative merits of their suggestions by referring to the common standards. Honestly qualifying an opinion on an agreed-upon standard ought to carry more weight than an opinion qualified on opinion alone.

Quantifying Passion

The Passion Index explained here will appear familiar, as it is based loosely on the scoring table used by the Educational Testing Service in its Graduate Record Exam on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the best. It is an application of a score to different levels of writing. Unlike the GRE, however, the Passion Index is built on a reader-centric bent, focusing on how well the writing appeases the readers’ interest in information and affirmation as they search for what they need.

It’s important that this index not be taken at face value. I offer it here as an example that writing teams can tweak and adjust to meet the common expectations and vocabulary of their individual workplaces. Building the index on the common trust held between writing teams can tweak and adjust to meet the common expectations and vocabulary of their individual workplaces. Building the index on the common trust held between writers and management, while at the same time assembling a “writing-neutral” assessment team (explained later) will increase the index’s utility in evading the writers’ own filters which are stronger, for the most part, than management’s filters.

A sample index is reproduced here.

Description/Score
  • Writing represents the company well and anticipates readers’ needs and questions. The tone is appropriate. Goals and audience are easily identified. Page has meaning and context for those who come in to it from different paths. Writer is passionate in persuading the reader they’ve come to the right source for the information/affirmation they’re seeking. Writing shows clear empathy for the reader and subject matter. 5
  • Writing addresses most company and reader needs, with only minimal guessing required on the part of readers for adequate context. Goals and audience are identified with only slight ambiguity. Writer passion on meeting customer information/affirmation needs is adequate. Empathy for the reader and subject matter is present. 4
  • Writing meets minimum requirements in meeting company and reader needs. Goal and audience are identified, but with some ambiguity. Writer passion in meeting customer information/affirmation needs and the level of empathy shown for the reader and subject could be improved. 3
  • Writing lacks basic awareness of company goals and audience expectations. Passion is mostly absent, as evident by the scarcity of facts, canned descriptions and other evidence that the piece was “phoned in;” empathy for reader and subject matter is evidently lacking. Goal and audience are not clearly defined. 2
  • Writing clearly demonstrates inadequacy on many levels. 1
The index will be more useful if individual companies and teams customize its vocabulary to the point everyone involved in the assessment process knows what to assess. Writers use words like tone, audience, purpose, without realizing that they have other meanings in other disciplines. This customization implies finding a trusted group of assessors from varying disciplines within the company. The team should include at least one writer or editor, but should not be limited to writers. This makeup will ensure that the team is “writer-neutral,” meaning that writer biases do not dominate. Each individual should have a considerable stake in ensuring that digital documents represent the company well. This team should be involved in customizing the index to the company’s expectations so they understand clearly the meaning of the terms used in the evaluation. A customized index with a common vocabulary will strengthen the index’s effectiveness.

You may not even opt to call this a passion index, as the word passion elicits different meanings in people.

As a further exercise, the score should be accompanied with a one-sentence summation of what the assessor believes the main purpose or goal of the prose to be, in context with other accompanying elements (such as design, art, links, on a Web page). Discord between assessors on this point should lead to increased scrutiny of the prose, no matter its score. The goal summation should also be combined with a short list of suggestions that offer concrete ways to the writer on how to improve the score.

This exercise is not a matter of the writers asking the team to do the writers’ jobs, but is an effort to ensure that what is written for the company is acceptable to those outside of the writing bullpen. Such assessments need not take a long time to accomplish. Once trained, a team could accomplish an assessment of a page of written text in no more than a half hour of dedicated work.

Emphasis should also be placed on the absolute authority the scores have. Writers – or anyone from any other discipline – should be allowed to override the scores if they fall below the company’s accepted threshold, unless extreme circumstances of time and budget don’t allow for further improvements.

Improvement Potential

As mentioned earlier, the effectiveness of the Passion Index depends on building trust between assessment team members.

For writers, the Passion Index:
  • Gets writers thinking more critically about their own work. Writers will realize that the fact-based assessments of others cannot be dismissed.
  • Offers writers an expedient “in the drawer” method for building their own objectivity.
  • Writers gain input based on real writing and real observation, rather than relying on intuitive reader models, which can be too heavily biased in the writers’ favor, or usability studies, which for day-to-day applications are impractical.
  • Offers an opportunity for writers to offer constructive feedback in a way the contributor and management understand.
  • Offers indications where their empathy for the reader and/or subject matter may be lacking.
For the company, the Passion Index:
  • Offers participants an unbiased, equally agreed-upon quantity with which to grade writing meant to represent the company.
  • Offers participants increased influence on how the company is portrayed in prose.
  • Provides the company with better prose that demonstrates empathy for the reader and the subject.
  • Offers a scoring done by a team of writers and non-writers that adds a cross-discipline credibility to the company’s interests and readers benefits.
For non-writers working on the team and whose writing may be assessed, the Passion
Index:
  • Offers a quantified score on an easily-read scale.
  • Offers lucid, constructive advice on making improvements, with easily-identified goals in mind.
  • Ensures that the technical accuracy non-writers wish were more prevalent in company writing is there, because they’re looked at as part of the company writing team, rather than a contributor of factoids.
As a team built on trust begins to reap these benefits, trust will grow. As the trust grows, the amount of passion company writers and non-writers put into prose will increase the overall levels of passion achieved. As passion increases, the prose’s usability in informing and affirming reader needs through demonstrated empathy for the reader and subject matter will increase as well.

Conclusion

Writers in any genre know intuitively and explicitly that the measure of passion they put into their work is often the biggest deciding factor in whether a piece of writing works for its intended audience through demonstrating adequate empathy for the reader and subject matter. Finding a way to quantify passion – and then sticking to the program, building on trust among the assessment team – ensures that writers and the company as a whole are thinking deeply enough about the glaring and subtle errors of passion we see as writers and as assessors. A customized Passion Index could help writers and assessors gauge passion needs combined with a common vocabulary and assessment tool as writers and editors interact with non-writing managers.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Childhood. . .

So, our oldest boy (all of eight years old) was caught stealing penny candy from the local store yesterday.

Punishment, of course, fell like rain. Since looking into kids’ motivation is often like looking into an empty room, we’re not sure why this happened. I don’t think we’ve overreacted or underreacted; he knows he’s in trouble. We’ve banned him from the store for a while, and he’ll go with me Saturday to plant trees and flowers for the city as part of the punishment.

It’s part of raising kids, I suppose. A frustrating part, especially dealing with a subtly impulsive kid like our oldest. Fortunately, he’s still at the age when he takes correction seriously, if not exactly well.

I can’t wash this away saying “every kid does this.” Because every kid doesn’t do this. I didn’t do this. At least I don’t remember doing this. I remember being short of money at the local store and the cashier pulling change out of his own pockets, but I never remember walking out with something that hadn’t been paid for in some way or another. And washing it off like that sends clear signals to a kid like ours that it’s okay what he’s done. It most certainly is not.

I suppose, in a way, that it’s a sign we’re entering another phase of child-raising. The stage where they’ll do practically any fool thing Mom and Dad tell them to do is fading, and with the youngest, it fades faster because he sees older brother and sister pushing back. I’m just not sure I’m ready to deal with an eight-year-old teenager.

Part of it, I think, is cabin fever. We’re all going buggy because the weather’s been so cold. That pent-up energy has to go somewhere. I just wish it wouldn’t go into the penny-candy jars at the local store.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Soooper Genius

We have three, no, four computers at home. Two peep and buzz on a 24-hour schedule, illuminating the darkened study with flashes of fairy green, lightning blue, sunset orange from their multiplicity of LEDs. The third is a laptop, which goes on a traveling show with me to and from work and is only occasionally used at home, either in the dark on the kitchen table after the children have gone to bed or on the desk right in front of the desktop, where I can revel, briefly, in the idea that I have two screens. The fourth lies dormant in a box under the basement stairs, a repository of spare parts, I imagine, though their utility decreases with each tick of the calendar.

These computers connect to any number of add-ons: three flash drives, a laser printer, a scanner, a device we’ve never been able to operate correctly but that, in theory, allows us to scan photographic slides into the computer. We also recently switched from dial-up to a broadband service.

This weekend, I went nuts.

Because the laptop has wireless capability, I’d been drooling for a router. But buying a router to use with dial-up is like buying new hubcaps for a 1991 Oldsmobile Cutlass, the one we sold to the lady in Rigby for $700. But when the broadband service came into the house, I did indeed buy the router. Without, at first, consulting my wife. It was an impulse buy at the local big-box, where I’d been dispatched with two of the children to buy licorice. To take the curse off the purchase, I decided I’d better buy something else to hook my wife’s computer up to the broadband system as well, so she’d see the utility of it all. Men, obviously, don’t need to see the utility; the fact that technology IS is enough justification. But being budget-minded, I skipped the wireless card for her computer and, instead, bought a bundle of Ethernet cable. A wired connection. That sounds so efficient. Even though I had to string the wire across two walls, interrupting her view of her wall calendar and a photograph of a beloved family pet. But it worked! Glory be! Even after a heart-stopping moment when the installation program working to marry my laptop to this union balked and said my equipment wasn’t compatible. I was not about to go down the slipper slope of buying even more equipment, especially since I was setting up the network as my wife jogged. But another blind stab at making the laptop worked. Then, casually, as I was washing the dishes, I explained to her my new purchases. Well, actually, she brought the subject up by saying, “What are you doing with that cable nailed to the wall?” She was, bless her, OK with the whole thing, asking only that I do something to hide the cable. That’ll entail rearranging the entire study. Not a good prospect. But since the rearrangement will include new carpeting, ridding us of the orange shag she hates, we’ll do it.

So last night I was a furious ball of updating, running from computer to computer, ensuring everything was working well. Michelle’s computer required 119 Windows updates; it had not seen the business end of a modem in more than a year. My computer required the same level of scrutiny, as I had to reset it to its factory settings because an internet security program had its tentacles wrapped and locked and would not let go as I tried to uninstall it. Even the laptop took some time to update, as at work we have a fiber optic connection but also IT Nazis who forbid outside computers from connecting to the network. I took it to the local college a few times to parasite off their wireless, but couldn’t get up there enough. So I’d just sit at the table late at night, poking neighboring wireless connections that were either too weak or too secure to get into. No more.

The miracle is that I got it all to work. Poking in numbers and attaching cords and trying to figure out why one method doesn't work and then finding a different method. I've grown to appreciate the help files Microsoft has incorporated into their products. (I'm neutral on Windows, you see. I use it because it comes with the computers we buy. I work with a Linux acolyte. He likes it. Good for him.) I just know if a noob like I can figure things out, they're not all that hard. And the week before I thought I was pretty clever when I started recycling tin cans to use in the shed to hold sorted nails and screws.

So our family has gone from technological Neanderthals to being part of the wired community. Will we be better off? Likely not. But now Michelle can print to the laser printer without having to save her documents to the flash drive then bring it over to my computer. So I’ve probably saved her at least five minutes a week. I also saved about a half hour last night because the computer could check on some obscure CD database as I imported music to put on the iPod, rather than the old method I used last time, typing all the track information in by hand. I think it’s worth it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Brouhaha Update

NASA has chimed in:

http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2008/apr/HQ_08103_student_asteroid_calculations.html

Good for them. Very diplomatic.

Apophis Brouhaha

There’s been a proliferation lately of “Young Genius Proves Adult Experts So Very Wrong” stories popping up on the Internet lately. There was something about some kid pointing out an error at the Smithsonian Institution, and now this:
http://www.physorg.com/news127499715.html, “German Scoolboy, 13, corrects NASA’s Asteroid Figures.” This website’s story is a little confusing. The story claims the schoolboy calculated the asteroid Apophis has a 1 in 450 chance of hitting the Earth. It’s not clear whether this 1 in 450 chance applies to the asteroid’s 2029 approach (when, the story claims, the asteroid will approach to within 32,500 kilometers of the Earth) or in 2036 when the story claims the asteroid will hit the Earth.

Here’s the kicker: The story claims the young boy calculated the change in the asteroid’s chances of hitting the Earth by calculating trajectory changes if the asteroid hits one of 40,000 satellites orbiting the Earth. Here’s a direct quote from the story: “If the asteroid strikes a satellite in 2029, that will change its trajectory making it hit earth on its next orbit in 2036.” I’m aware of only one satellite with enough mass to make this kind of change. You may have heard of it. The cow jumped over it, and it’s made of cheese.

A strike from a satellite – they may weight a few tons at a stretch – is going to alter a 200-billion ton asteroid’s trajectory enough to make it hit the Earth? No way.

So let’s search the original source of the story, the German paper Potsdamer Neuerster Nachrichten. A web search calls up three – THREE – hits on this paper’s name. One is the original physorg.com story. The others are reprints of this story in the Daily Telegraph of Australia’s website and cyberpresse.ca, in French. I can read French so I know this is just a reprint of the original story.

So, no Potsdamer Neuerster Nachrichten, eh?

First, what does this mean in German. I find an online translator. Potsdam I know is a city in Germany. Nachrichten seems to have several meanings, all along the lines of news, tidings, et cetera. Neuerster doesn’t seem to exist, but it’s close enough to “neuester,” or “trendily,” that I’ll accept there could be a newspaper called the Potsdam Trendy News, roughly translated. But no website? That’s suspicious.

Turns out there is a newspaper called the Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten (http://www.pnn.de/). So now we’re getting somewhere. So far, we have a very iffy story that gets the name of the source wrong. That’s okay. Still within the realm of journalistic reason, if I can use those concepts in the same sentence.

Even better. A search of the paper’s archives turns up the story: http://www.tagesspiegel.de/weltspiegel/Astronomie;art1117,2512033 (all in German, which I do not read. I used babelfish.altavista.com/babelfish/tr to get a rough translation).

The story claims NASA and the European Space Agency agree with young Nico Marquardt. But here’s something fishy: The story makes the claim, but it does not quote anyone form either agency. No perplexed astrophysicist. No stammering public relations flunky. Nobody.

Ya gotta have proof before you can say something like that. At least that was the rule when I was a journalist. But I know journalists love the story of the amateur proving the experts wrong. I wrote a few.

To continue:

The ESA is not reporting any agreement with young Marquardt.

Nor the Planetary Society, which looks to Apophis as a funding opportunity: http://www.planetary.org/programs/projects/near_earth_objects/asteroid_alert/letter.html

Nor the International Astonomical Union.

Not even the Astrophysical Institute Potsdam, http://www.aip.de/, where the story says Marquardt used telescopes to aid in his discovery, is trumpeting the news.

Neither is NASA.

Question: Should they? If they do, they get pilloried as the snotty people who lost two shuttles and that satellite that crashed into Mars because someone forgot what the metric system is and can't admit that this 13-year-old might be smarter than them because the public, as well as the media, LOVE these kinds of stories. Doesn't matter that this is just a kid making these claims. he used actual math! And these highly-trained astrophysicists are too worried about cahing their big, fat paychecks to check their estimates to the proper decimal places!

Now, I can find this information about Apophis on NASA’s website: http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/apophis/, but there’s no information about that German wunderkind.

Conspiracy, you’ll yell. Of COURSE they won’t have anything up about a 13-year-old fixing another NASA boneheaded blunder.

But there are some clues here. First, NASA calculates a 1 in 45,000 chance of the asteroid hitting Earth in 2036. At least we know what date we’re talking about now.

Aha, you’ll say, pointing to this very page. NASA itself says “For Apophis, scaling up to distribute 250 kg (550 pounds) of a reflective or absorptive material (similar to the carbon fiber mesh being considered for solar sails) across the surface could use the existing radiation forces to produce a 6-sigma trajectory change” The smoking gun against my satellite impact argument, eh? Uh-uh. They’re talking here of using a reflective or absorptive material to harness the solar wind to change the ssatellite’s trajectory. Over time. Lots of time. Read further in the same quote. This six-sigma change could be affected over 18 years, not in the second or two of a satellite impact.

NASA researchers go on to conclude: Using criteria developed in this research, new measurements possible in 2013 (if not 2011) will likely confirm that in 2036 Apophis will quietly pass more than 49 million km (30.5 million miles; 0.32 AU) from Earth on Easter Sunday of that year (April 13).

I am no math or physics wizard. But I know fishy journalism when I read it. This story has too much of a codpiece about it to ring true.

And it's not. the British technology blog The Register today has a story citing an unnamed ESA spokesman (why unnamed? but at least it's a comment) saying the boy's figures are wrong, that NASA is right and that the German paper's claim that the ESA backed his claims are wrong. Here's the link: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/04/16/esa_german_schoolboy_apophis_denial/.

Bad Astronomy.com (http://www.badastronomy.com/) has also chimed in, placing this story at about 9.9 on the Horseshit-O-Meter. They point to another blog, Cosmos4U, http://cosmos4u.blogspot.com/2008/04/apophis-risk-not-increased-science-fair.html, that has a quote from actual NASA and German scientists denying the boy's claims. Finally. But, as many have pointed out, the news agencies that picked the story up haven't done much backpedaling, nor is such backpedaling likely, given the industry norms. This was a wire story. We're sorry, we say, in a correction buried somewhere, if at all.

I feel bad for the kid. He sounds pretty eager to learn and is at least thinking about things. The news people who handled this story, however, did him a great disservice.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

John McWho?

Okay, I believe it's official. John McCain cannot be our next president. He's just another "feel good" Republican who favors symbolic acts over tough acts that could acutally help people out.

McCain proposes a "tax holiday" between Memorial Day and Labor Day this summer, in which Congress would lift the federal taxes on gasoline. Big. Fat. Hairy. Deal.

Right now at home, gas is $3.28 a gallon. A federal gas tax holiday would see prices drop . . . to $3.10 a gallon. Big deal. We spend about $40 a week keeping gas in our minivan. We don't make a lot of long trips -- one sixty-mile round-trip to Idaho Falls a week is about the extent of our long voyages, with a myriad of shorter voyages, of course. At today's gas prices, that's about 12.25 gallons. McCain's tax holiday would save us $2.19 a week or, over the course of his proposed holiday (and I'll be generous and call it four months) a whopping $35. Thanks to the big-thinking, whiskey-drinking, no-eye-blinking John McCain, we can save enough money this summer -- if this tax holiday idea goes through -- to buy an extra tank of gas. Thanks, John. Talk about symbolism without the substance.

He expressed no long-term solutions. The tax holiday ends on Labor Day, the gas tax reappears, and we're back in the same old boat we never left during the holiday because gas prices are still through the roof. I won't even comment on prices outside the United States, where taxes are much higher than what we pay here. I know we're crybabies. But bear with me.

Meanwhile, crude oil is trading at $113 a barrel today, a new record. That tax holiday isn't going to affect the oil companies one bit.

Here are some more radical ideas I'd like to see a president propose, rather than a ridiculous feel-gooder:
  • Cap crude oil prices at $50 a barrel. I think we've seen that the increased prices hasn't soured demand. So let's get prices reasonable again. As I recall, oil companies were still profitable when crude was trading at $16 a barrel in the mid-1980s, so $50 a barrel shouldn't be too big of a burden.
  • Increase fuel efficiency standards, ignoring the whining from Detroit. Those boobs making cars need to get their harbls out of the oil companies' pockets.
  • Cut consumption. This is a radical idea that freedom-loving Americans will detest. But I think it could work: Limit families to one car apiece. One car. We have two. One, I drive to and from the bus stop, seven miles distant. I still have to put gas in it. It still costs insurance money. We could get rid of one car and save money. Maybe this is as symbolic a gesture as McCain's tax holiday. But it would at least be a permanent idea, not one with an expiration date in four months.
  • We could also plan/consolidate our trips better. Last Friday we squeezed everything out of our weekly trip to the big city. We don't make multiple trips.
  • Fund alternatives. If Big Oil won't agree to price caps, maybe the government out to just take some of their profits and invest it in alternative sources of fuel. Is this stealing? Is this socialism? Communism? Perhaps. But it beats the highway robbery capitalism we have now. I've posted a video here of a guy who's developed a hybrid engine that runs on gasoline and water. Water. He gets 100 miles on four ounces of water. Why aren't investors beating a path to his door? If you don't want government involved, fine. Get Big Oil to fund privately. But that'll cut into their bonuses and golf games, so it's not gonna happen any time soon. Please step in, Big Brother. Besides, we're seeing countries like India and China sucking up more of the world's oil, which, in part, is what's driving prices up, up, up. If America wants to lead in this coming century, it's time to get off the oil addiction and find something else. And by something else, I don't mean corn ethanol. Cellulostic ethanol, perhaps. Nuclear. Hydrogen. Wind and solar power. Whatever it takes to shut off the oil spigot.

These are all easy suggestions for me to make, since I am not an expert. But I'll bet if there were a presidential andiate out there who was looking at long-term solutions instead of short-term symbolic fluff, a lot more people would be exicted about going to the polls. As it is, I may vote for Ralph Nader again, just so whatever bozo gets in the White House next doesn't get in with my help.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Fleck the Walls

You folks (all two of you) are so lucky. I was just about to bore you with a technical communicator document here, but decided at the last minute I'd bore my class with it first. Once they've commented on it, I can augment its overall boringitude and then post it here, where it will incite a tsunami of boredom on the Web that will, well, be very boring.

Instead, I will tell a brief story about Lexie, our six-year-old. She's heavily into reading, sounding out new words and making connections to familiar words (in sound) once she sounds them out in print. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. A few nights ago, she read the word "bowels" (we were reading the sciptires; bowels isn't a word often encountered in Dr. Seuss). She got an excited look on her face and said, "Like the song! 'Deck the halls with bowels of holly!'" I ruptured my duodenum trying not to laugh at my charming, sensitive daughter, while Michelle explained to Lexie the difference between bowels and boughs.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Want Some Candy?

This is what we did today:

We went to Home Depot to buy a new swing for the swingset. We left with a new swing for the swingset and a receipt for a new clothes dryer, which will be delivered in two weeks.

We accepted candy from a stranger. We were at Winco, just finishing loading up our groceries. This nice old man came up to the passenger side of the van where Michelle was and asked if he could give our kids some treats: little choo-choo trains made of a pack of guym, a pack of Lifesavers, a little box of nerds and four mint candies. He only brought two over. Saw we needed three. So he wandered back to his car (a nice one, possibly a Cadillac. I was watching. Didn't want to take candy from some guy driving an Uncle Buck car.) and brought another one to us. Don't know who he was. But I can't iamgine some old guy getting his thrills by passing out poisoned candy to toddlers at WinCo. On the way home, however, we told the kids: Don't ever take candy from strangers, unless Mom and Dad are there. What kinds of lessons are we teaching?

Also today: Took my brother Randy out to lunch. We are party animals.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Guilty Guiltiness, Part II

Frank Herbert is an interesting writer. God Emperor of Dune, like his other Dune books, is a set of conversations. Very static situations, interspersed very conservatively with action sequences that are over in the matter of a few pages. He treats action with kid gloves, while giving conversation full focus. So why am I caught up in this book? Admittedly, it's a simpler read than Dune. But might that be due to the fact I'm now familiar with Herbert's architecture, so that reading this book is easier than when I was a Dune acolyte? I found the same with Tolkein's The Silmarillion. Tried to read that as a youngster and just couln't get through it. No Bilbo whatsoever. But in the meantime, I've read LOTR over and over again. Michelle got The Silmarillion for me a few Christmases ago, and I was able to sit and read it, and actually enjoy it. The difference was I'd filled up on Tolkein before coming back to this book. Frank Smith is right in Understanding Reading that it's easier to read if you can rely on your prior knowledge.

Reminds me of Phil Connors' line from Groundhog Day: "Maybe that's how God got to be God. He's just been around for so long, he knows everything." I know that's not a direct quote; it's a paraphrase. But it's close enough to the original I'm not bothered.

On to other news: THe raids on the FLDS compound in El Dorado, Texas. Glad they did it. Utah and Arizona should have gotten more involved in breaking this mess up when the group was still in Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona. Don't know why they didn't. But then there's a lot of sentiment in that area that this is a question of religious tolerance, elthough it's hard to see why when we, tolerant of religion, wouldn't want to see our own children forced into ploygamous relationships. There's a big disconnect here. You didn't see people saying Elizabeth Smart's kidnappers, who put her into a polygamous relationship, should have been allowed to do so. But, they argue, that was a kidnapping. Not voluntary. I counter: What's gone on in El Dorado, marrying off children to grown adults, didn't sound all that voluntary either. Shame on them.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Don't Leave Me With the Germans!

I know there's no one out there reading this. That doesn't bother me. There's so much noise on the Internet these days, I don't know why I bother adding to it. I look at it as a way to avoid feeling guilty about not journaling regularly, though this hardly counts as a journal, since there are things I don't care to write down for public consumption.
There are a few things about blogs that make me laugh, though:
Young bucks doing research for school assignments or whatever seem to think anything (and I mean anything) posted on the Internet, no matter the source, is legitimate. Reminds me of the Dilbert comic for the day:

Am I saying they're dumb? Dumb is such a harsh word. Lazy is probably a better way to describe it. I ought to know, because I succumb to laziness myself most days, but the Internet has made laziness infinitely easier to accomplish. Now, I know laziness was around long before the Internet. It's just . . . easier now. Want information on WIC? Just do a Google search and stumble around until you find someone who has some semblance of knowledge on the subject! No matter that there are people who really know the subject you could speak with, the Internet makes things easier because you don't actually have to care if what you're reading is correct. Yes, I'm being harsh. And, yes, I've done this kind of slipshod research myself. But I find it ironic that in a generation that assumes the government is lying about everything in the universe, including about the universe itself, the same generation assumes that the truth really is out there, just a few clicks away. Don't consult the experts who are tools of The Man, but cite the nutjobs and pseudo-experts who pull their information out of who knows where.
Case in point: There's a video on YouTube (a fountain of pure knowledge) featuring some nutter jabbering about a "nuclear accident" in Idaho, back in March. Yes, he has an element of truth: nuclear accident. But he launches into a sweeping assumption that the accident is on a massive scale at the Idaho National Laboratory and that the government and media is covering it up, when, in fact, if he had bothered to Google anything but a public description of the INL on the web, he would have quickly discovered the accident was a broken gauge at a private facility in Idaho Falls. So, the basic truth (nuclear accident) was true. But the treatment (NUCLEAR ACCIDENT!?!?!?!?!!!!!) is patently false. And he's praised for "getting the truth out there."
Yes, it's an extreme example. But I look at it as evidence that the Internet, in many ways, is dumbing us down, much like Aldous Huxley predicted in Brave New World.
And while I'm ranting: Yesterday I read a report on the BBC that visitors of Knut the polar bear in a zoo in Germany were shocked, shocked! to see their favorite cuddly little carnivore pulling fish out of the water in his cage and eating them. They were shocked that a CARNIVORE was doing its job, and questioned why the zoo would allow such an effrontery in public. These are, of course the same Germans who come to Yellowstone and are shocked when the buffalo gore them rather than stand placidly still while they get their pictures taken. (I know. Blanket attack on the Germans. But I'm with Basil Fawlty on this one.)
Another example: This was on Digg a while back. Somebody sent in a picture of a test on which a student had given an "incorrect" answer. The test was on opposites. The word (in this case, a suffix) was "pro-". The answer given: "Noob." As in newbie. Internet newbie. An answer given by an Internet moron.
Call me a nitpicker. Please. Because that's what I am.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Guilty. . .Guiltiness

Yes, you've read right. I'm reading a Frank Herbert book. I know he has that reputation of believing he's smarter than everyone else in the universe, and for writing books that could very well be soap operas if they weren't so damn long, but there's just something compelling about reading Herbert. You can count on his characters being arrogant, God-like, weak-minded and sneaky when they need to be. Sure, you could say the characters don't change from book to book, just the names do. Go ahead. I say it. But his books are still a joy to read.

My favorite? The White Plague. I'd like to see someone make a movie of that one, but as with his other books, it would be a hard one to translate onto the screen. I like this one because there's an air of plausability about his tale of bioterrorism that you just don't get in other tales, because he has the talent to fill things out. The only thread I didn't much understand was the killing of the Pope in Philadelphia. He lost me on that.

I hear that someone's making a third attempt at filming Dune. Good luck to them. . .

Monday, April 7, 2008

Moses . . . Moses . . .

“Political correctness is tyranny with manners.” Charlton Heston

Found this quote today while reading a TIME article about Charlton Heston. You know, whether you like his conservative politics or not, you’ve got to admit he was quite the iconic actor. I just had to wonder, contemplating his death, whether any of the following things happened after he died:

1) Was he greeted in heaven by a half-buried, tumble-down replica of the State of Liberty?
2) Did the real Moses ask for his autograph?
3) Did he immediately walk onto the set of Something Odd Happened on the Way to Heaven and get top billing?
4) Was there a chorus of Egyptian slave girls there singing “Death came unto thee, death came unto thee?”


I’d like to think No. 2 happened. And maybe No. 4. No. 4 has significance in my family – many moons ago, after watching one of the televised showings of The Ten Commandments, one of the older kids got into trouble over something or other. As Mom was meting out the punishment, the offender began singing “Death come unto me, death come unto me,” as does, I believe, the wife of the pharaoh after one of the plagues in the movie. So we sing that little couplet every time we get in trouble.

I don’t object to his politics. He marched for freedom during the 1960s Civil Rights era, and he fought for gun rights in the 1990s. He really got castigated for his stance on guns, for his presidency of the National Rifle Association. I say, so what? I’m not exactly a gun nut. I don’t own any, and don’t plan on owning any. But it doesn’t bother me if other people want to own guns. The anti-gun-nuts feel like I’m a traitor because since I’m not slavering to have guns banned, I must want to have my children murdered or something. Same goes for the pro-gun-nuts, who believe since I don’t want a gun in my house that I may as well put a sign up on the house saying “Crazed maniacs, burgle this house and kill all therein, here lie no weapons.” (That the crazed maniacs will likely come in with guns, and that most crimes committed with guns in home break-ins are committed with guns the crazed maniacs find in the home are immaterial, or so it seems.) So he can wave around all the guns he wants. Doesn’t mean he didn’t make an excellent Moses.

Right now would come the time to argue that “Hollywood just doesn’t make them like that any more.” That may be partially true; I find it hard to believe anyone would authorize a Bible epic that didn’t feature some damning new theory to undermine those who have faith in the Bible. They’d find someone who’d agree to play the Moses hopped up on drugs as he ascended Mount Sinai, as believes some Biblical scholar. So I won’t go into that.



I rather liked three of his movies: The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and Planet of the Apes. He's basically the same character in all three movies, but then again, you don't watch CHarlton Heston for characterization. You watch because he's this no-nonsense, take-charge I-Wanna-Be-Like-Him tough guy persona that didn't let rebellious Israelites, slavery, (Oxford comma!) or a planet ruled by damned dirty apes get him flustered.

Speaking of dead guys. . .

Arthur C. Clarke, another icon in another way, also recently died. Imperial Earth was the first book of his that I read, and, aside from seeing snippets of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, that was my introduction to him. I still look at Imerial Earth as a fine novel. Though, as I read his other books, I wonder, why did he get so obsessed with zero-gravity sex? A mystery for the ages, I suppose.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Scunthorpe!

Just a quick message today. Trying out the laptop on a wireless network; I've got to get one working at home. It's just a lot of fun. And also helps me keep up with the security updates and such on this thing.

We're in Salt Lake today. Yesterday, we spent the entire day driving all over the valley with Michelle's friend Carol from England (Scunthorpe, to be exact. That's fun to type. Scunthorpe. Scunthorpe. Scunthorpe.). Did a lot of shopping. We even went to a Wal-Mart, which she thought was fabulous. I just thought it was weird to go to a Wal-Mart with a parking garage. Weird.

Conference starts again. Now I leave.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Is It Spring Yet?

Stumbled across this the other day, cleaning out a few files on my computer:





Still think he'd make a good site mascot. But then where would Nose Hair Man go? Nowhere. That's it.

Winter is still here. We had snow a few days ago, and the mercury's struggled to get above freezing this week. Our tulips, however, are still doggedly growing, even though some of their compatriots are still covered in snow we shoveled off the roof. Enough snow has disappeared I've finally been able to start taking down the Christmas lights. I'd like to get them off the cherry trees before they bloom, because those flowers are fragile as it is, without a bunch of lights banging against them in the wind. Of course, that's assuming we get summer this year, which we may not. Brings to mind the summer of 1816, commonly known among trivia nerds as "The Year Without Summer." Volcanic eruptions in Indonesia caused wild temperature fluctuations, June blizzards and iced-over lakes in August in the eastern U.S. and Canada, as well as northern Europe. There's more here, but, of course, I'm quoting Wikipedia, so I may be wrong:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_Without_a_Summer

Still, it's interesting. Makes you wish this whole global warming thing was a big sham. Of course, back in 1816, they were going thorugh a "mini" Ice Age, in which global temperatures plummeted. Ol' Mother Nature is a weird one.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Hellllllp

I need help. I have Burt Bacharach's "The Blob" going through my head right now. The song, not the protean mass that globbed around like Jell-o and decimated a small town of B-movie actors. There are certainly worse things I could have bubbling in me noggin' at the moment, but this is pretty close to the top of the list.

Today sucks. A fellow technical writer got laid off. That's bad, because it means he's now out on his rear, looking for a job. It also makes me the low man on the totem pole, with the big target on my back for the next time there's a layoff. I have, however, been protected. This is the second time we've lost a writer since I started working here, and the second time I've been protected in the hierarchy by having someone lower on the pole than I. So that means third time will be the charm.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Power of Pee

I've never been one for April Fools jokes, so there'll be no frivolity here. Elsewhere on the web they're having their yukks, but not here, in this quiescent corner where the cholesterol gathers. Everyone thinks they're so darned funny. I used to. But as I get older, I'm beginning to notice that the line between funny and damned annoying is razor-thin.

Am involved in a discussion now on the proper length for content on a web page. One party seems to believe that there ought to be a minimum of scrolling, or no scrolling at all. I'm not quite sure what he means by that, as there aren't many pages out there at all that don't demand a little mickey. I know I don't mind at all if I have to scroll through a page to get what I want. But then I've learned that I'm not what you'd call normal when it comes to preferences like that. It's a contant battle to remind myself that just because I like something or don't mind something, that doesn't mean there aren't people out there who get bug-eyed by the things that don't bother me. Perhaps if I were a more reactionary person, I'd be more sensitive to that kind of thing, but since I'm not, it's difficult to imagine.

Got the truck back out of hock yesterday. I guessed, last week, that there might be something wrong with the thermostat. Seems I was right, as that's what the mechanic replaced, to the tune of $84.99. I assume, by the price, that the thermostat is platinum-plated.

A sum like that, fifteen years ago, would have been staggering to have to pay. Of course, back then I was a poverty-stricken college kid. Now I'm a big professional. Of some sort, we're not quit certain of what. Of course, it helps that, last week, I dropped $50 on gas without blinking. God help us.

That reminds me. Last week, I saw a video clip about this fellow who invented a process that allows his car to run for 100 miles on four ounces of water. I'd buy one, I'll tell you that. But then you'd see the price of water go through the ceiling, and farmers in Iowa would be working on turning their corn into water, et cetera, so who knows if it would make a big difference. Now, if they invented a car that ran on pee, that would be a bigger leap in the right direction. It's just water with supplements, isn't it? Of course, you'd have your high-octane pee, which you get after working hard and getting dehydrated, and then your light sweet pee, which you get after you drink lots of water.

video


I'll put this video here to prove I'm not pulling an April Fools gaggle. Of course, since this is from Fox News, many of you won't believe it anyway. Choose as you will.

This post has derailed something terribly. I'll leave now.