Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What Was Time Again?

Even after only a half hour at Steve Krug’s website, www.sensible.com, it’s clear his site would benefit from a thorough user cognition study, in which we consider the impressions his site leaves on visitors (or at least on this visitor, since, right now, this is just one man's opinion). Even though his book, “Don’t Make Me Think,” is regarded as a Web usability Bible, I left his site with a rather poor impression of the product and the man.

First of all, I understand he’s spent a long time developing a very sellable product – two actually: His book and himself. He certainly has a justifiable, vested interest in promoting himself and his products, as that’s how he earns his bread and butter (and, if his prices are indicative of anything) his caviar and Dom Perignon as well. But the soft sell/hard sell on every page of his website is wearying. Perhaps that is his intent – he is using his site as a marketing tool, as is his right. Still, for me, this site could be so much more than what it is now.

The site is very centered on Steve Krug. Examples vary from the minor (the little flourishes in crossing out “we are” and “we do” in his menu bar and replacing them with “I am” and “I do,”) to the eye-rollers (“just me and a few well-placed mirrors”) to the near-insulting (he touts his workshop, but advertises TWO on the registration form, then relegates a description of the other course, taught by someone else, to a little yellow box on the workshops page that, at first glance, I skipped over because it did not look important).

Rhetorically, I am having a hard time trying to figure out who he is talking to. Overall, I get the feeling the pages at www.sensible.com are written for middle management, who want the quick lowdown on what he offers. He gives just enough detail on the website to fill in detail a middle management person might want after he/she heard about the book and the workshops and might want to send someone to them for the company, but wants to be convinced the stuff is worthwhile enough to pry open the pocketbook (although you actually have to get to the registration form before you find out how much the workshops cost). There were a few instances when the message wandered into talking to writers, editors, designers – the people who might actually be sent to the workshop – in the FAQ, but overall, I felt the message was aimed at the “check-signers,” not the job-doers.

What's surprising to me is that, despite the title of his book “Don't Make Me Think,” part of this site, well, made me think.

Being the cost-conscious individual I am, I want to know how much the workshop costs. So I go to the workshop page. I discover there that I can’t find out on that page how much it costs, but he does tell me that if I cancel, I’ll be out a $100 processing fee. So I click on the register page. Ah. There’s the answer. But wait. Do I want to sign up for one workshop, or both workshops? Both? I thought there was only one. Back to the workshop page. I read all about his workshop again. But just one. Then, after five minutes worth of reading, I find information on the second workshop – it’s not one of his, so it doesn’t get very good play on the page – I have to click out of his page to learn more about it, then go back to his page to register. I assume. I didn’t try registering at the other site.

(Lou Rosenfeld’s page, by the way, I liked a lot better. Rhetorically it speaks to me as a web site user and tinkerer much more than Krug’s site, as Rosenfeld’s site is less about Rosenfeld and more about what I can get out of the workshop – testimonials, referring to “me” as the customer, rather than “I” as the website guru. I also enjoyed the “Bloug,” Rosenfeld’s blog, on the home page. I get to learn more about him as a person, how he thinks, writes, et cetera, than I do with Krug’s static page and clumsy personal asides. Rosenfeld invites interaction. Krug seems to want to keep us at arm’s length.)

Krug's pages seem static. He confesses: He’s slow. A new web page has been in development since 2005. It’s 93 percent done! Coming soon in 2009! I’m not holding my breath. Also, he confesses you can write to him, but he’s slow responding. He also offer a “Tip of the Month,” but confesses it has not been updated since June 1997. That’s right. His tip of the month is twelve years old. Nothing here really tells me he's interested in what a visitor to his site might want – he wants to put across his message (buy my stuff) – and nothing more

I like that the site feels hand-built. In a way, it’s less intimidating that way. However, part of me would suspect that a website promoting a web usability guru wouldn’t feel like something I put together in college in 1996. The site is stuck in the early web era. Yes, it’s simple, and simplicity is a good thing. To a point. It just feels stuck in the 1990s. Even newspapers, a product of the 17th century, redesign every few years to keep things fresh.

Basically, he’s telling me the same thing Dave Barry comes out front and says when he’s on book tour: “Buy my book [or my workshop, in Krug’s case]. Or send me some money in a box.”

And one final observation: Why does he slip into third person on the “Who I Am” page, when everything else about him is in the first person? It seems odd and boilerplated, as if it were cut and pasted from a book blurb.

My Colorful Boss

You know, it's not often you see your boss covered in dyed flour, working, and smiling about it. Alan Murray is the exception, as you can tell:

You can read more about why Alan is drippings with goo and happy about it here. Enjoy.

At Least Somebody's Got Money to Burn. Or At Least Singe

I've written here of late of the follies I've run into trying to cahs a $3.25 refund check from a local vending machine company. (Update: I called them today and left a message re: insufficient funds. Still can't figure out why the credit union thinks it's such a huge risk to cash this check for me and let the other guy's overdraft protection kick in.)

But not everybody's in this kind of situation. Today, we received a check from our insurance company for the kingly sum of four cents -- a refund they offered because my wife likes to round her checks to the nearest dollar. Alas, they don't want to caretake this four cents on their accounts, but instead will spend the money for a stamp, envelope, accompanying letter and the labor involved in assemblage of such to send the money to us. And so it goes.

Send Help

Discovery: With an iPod Touch now in my possession, this blog, my Twitter account and all things that make up The Daily Me have become an increasing timesuck. I begin to be grateful there is no wi-fi access on the bus. Just wait until I have the ability to create podcasts with this thing. My conversion to the Dark Side will be complete.

I attempt to compensate by using my newfound powers to spread nonsequiturs around the Internet. It's the least I can do.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Bus Ride

Because they could, the powers that be at Scoville monkeyed with the bus routes. Altruistically, the re-jiggering was meant to save the company money, which is a good thing, as it gives them less of an incentive to raise bus fares. For us coming out of The North, the jiggering meant little, other than an extra stop in Rigby. Those in the Falls were much more discombobulated by the changes, as it meant a move to a park and ride system, which we're already on. So things went fairly smoothly this morning with the transition, even factoring in an all-day blizzard Sunday that gave everything a nice shiny coat. That was until we got to Central. Big cluster because in the re-jiggering, they also altered where we're supposed to pick up the transfer buses -- and they also changed what buses do the transfers, so there was quite a large cluster at the depot this morning as a bunch of groggy passengers shuffled around to find the proper bus. So we loaded, once we found the right bus. The bus filled. And filled. And filled. With one spot left, the driver started turning away other passengers, without the other RWMC bus in sight. And we wait. And wait. And wait some more. I fell asleep, tucked away in the cosy rear seat with my bag clutched to my chest. Sometime during my sleep, the bus departed. We got to RWMC of course, albeit about 22 minutes after the starting whistle blew. Lots of groggy, grumpy people wandering the complex today.

I'm sure the bugs will be worked out. And riding the bus, even in a discombobulated system, beats the alternatives: driving solo or in a carpool. With my truck, it takes half a tank of gas, and only fifteen fewer minutes, to make the 178-mile round trip. So just like buying 500 tablets of generic salicylic acid rather than 250 of the brand name, riding the bus makes good financial sense. Even if it does get too warm for the Brie.

Owyhee Canyonlands Get Official Stamp

President Obama has signed the omnibus lands bill that, in part, creates wilderness for the Owyhee Canyonlands. Gotta love it.

What Would the Aliens Think?

When the Voyager spacecraft were launched to explore our solar system in the late 1970s, they bore with them a gold-coated, copper phonograph record which featured music by Bach and Peruvian pan fluters, greetings from folks from the likes of Vietnam, Poland and the United States and sounds ranging from a babbling brook to the rumble of an internal combustion engine. (Read more about the record here.) NASA scientists and, notably, Carl Sagan, hoped an alien intelligence finding Voyager and successfully decoding the data on the record would have a glimpse of what life was like on Earth when the Voyagers were launched.

It's a fair bet, though, that eefing wasn't included. Here's a sample:



I vaguely remember this from Hee-Haw, but, of course, was too young to appreciate this oddly American musical style. What would the aliens think? It's hard to say.

Ray Stevens does a little eefing in his albums. It's quite possible Spike Jones knows of it, or at least regarded it as a musical novelty akin to his own. But it's hard to see how eefing could enter the pop mainstream. Anyone interested in forming a new eefing and hamboning group, let me know.

Also, boys, I love the suits. If I could fine one like it (bargain-basement lime-green polyester) I'd wear it in a heartbeat.

Do NOT Scroll to Read This

I’ve begun to hate some of the commonly-held “wisdom” that is held in proposing what makes for good web writing. These tips, I believe, play too much to the bias that web reading ought to pander to the hyperkinetic, distracted, and lazy reader, rather than the reader who wants good information and is willing to slow down (even by a matter of minutes) to discover whether the information they regard as “good” is indeed good after all.

A discussion last week, for example, in my publications management class focused on whether it’s a good idea to “make” or “force” readers to scroll as they read. The common web wisdom is that short, concise writing with a minimum of scrolling is best, and that if a piece is longer than the confines of a standard monitor, then it ought to be cut, shortened or daisychained in a series of hyperlinks so the reader doesn’t have to do anything but stare at the screen and click a button to absorb the text.

We mostly agree this advice is hogwash.

It harks back to old media, or at least media as old as USA Today. When that paper was started in 1980, writers were urged to write short peppy stories that did not have to jump. Jumping, of course, is when readers had to go to a different page of the newspaper to continue reading the story as it “jumped” from one page to another.

Problem is the advice is only half right. I’ve written plenty of boring stories on municipal government that jumped, but should not have. Inverted pyramid style tells us that the most important stuff comes first, with the rest to follow in descending order of importance. If, at the jump, the information was already putting me to sleep, I never read the jump. Even if it was an article I wrote.

On the other hand, there are articles that jump once, jump again, and occasionally, jumped thrice, and they kept readers reading to the last paragraph. The difference? The genre, or the writing style. These longer stories that keep readers’ interest tend to be narrative. They tell a story or introduce a character, rather than provide a list of facts and quotes in decreasing levels of importance.

Same with the web. If a piece is well-written, captivating and telling a compelling story, readers will scroll. And scroll. And scroll. And scroll some more. Deciding whether or not to enforce the no-scroll rule ought to be applied on a case-by-case basis, not as a blanket policy. Readers will even scroll through page after page of comments on a story they only had to scroll through two or three pages to read, just because the comments, in the telling, tell a story, amuse, enrage or in other sundry ways engage the reader.

So why, on most writing for the web websites, do we see the old “Scroll and Die” rule bandied about like the embarrassing relative it is? And why do they embarrassingly resemble this website, which confused the hell out of me as it applied the no-scroll rule and, instead, offered hyperlinks in order to continue, as if I were reading a prepubescent Choose Your Own Adventure novel, not something actually engaging and worthwhile? (I admit, it’s more than a decade old. But check into more modern web writing forums like Kairos and you’ll find things that are eerily similar to this, but only moderately less clunky.) No one has been able to explain to me why a click on a hyperlink is more desirable than a scroll.

Good writing will carry the reader whether the reader has to click on hyperlinks or scroll to continue.I suppose we can argue the pros and cons of one method versus the other, but I, for one, would like to see the Scroll and Die rule put to death.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Church Thoughts

If having itchy feet at church isn't a sign of the apocalypse, I don't know what is.

Using the iPity app during Sacrament meeting would be inappropriate. Funny, but inappropriate. A few possibilities:

Got no time fo da jibba jabba!

Shut up, foo!

Listen to da man, foo!

I ain't dressin' up like no nun!

I wonder if my father, dead for nine years, has met and talked with Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, Abraham and Moses. I wonder what they've talked about.

Emergency preparedness: We need to practice a fire drill with the kids and figure out how to store water.

Utahns Go Wild -- and are Extremely Colorful


Working with Alan to complete our latest Uncharted.net update last night really made me jealous that I passed up the opportunity to attend the Festival of Color in Spanish Fork, Utah, yesterday. Except that a small part of me is REALLY glad I wasn't there to get all covered in dyed flour. Still, this looks like a fun event. Maybe next year . . . and thanks to Alan's Uncharted story, I'll know the inside scoop on attending.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

I STOMP on Sea Kittens

Is the same organization that brought us Sea Kittens -- a "rebranding" of fish meant to make them more appealing (as pets, not food) than furry critters like dogs and cats -- liberally killing dogs and cats in its care?

It appears so. Just read tonight that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals kills 95 percent of the animals brought to it for care, while shelters in the same area are able, on shoestring budgets, to find homes for the vast majority of the animals in their care. This is all according to PETA Kills Animals, a website dedicated to advertising PETA's affronts.

I take this with a grain of salt. Sure, PETA has its axes to grind, but in this world of no clear good guys, I'm not sure the people behind PETA Kills Animals are lily white. Part of me wants to believe the hypocrisy evident in this story if it's true, but part of me also thinks the irony factor here is a bit too high. But stranger things have happened.

Trial Balloon

Blogger's Note: This is part of a long-term project I've put off for far too long. I figure if I stare at it long enough, tinker with it, poke it, it'll eventually get finished. And so it goes.

You never know who is coming to get you, Bill Benson told the crowd.

Those gathered in the immense room quieted. In this cavern where the music blared and the lights flashed and the songs echoed off the curved walls to acoustic perfection, not a whisper above Bill Benson’s voice.

“Sebastian Kresge, that great founder of Kmart, once received, as a joke, a stock certificate in the F. W. Woolworth Company, that venerable Five and Dime that discounters drove out of business,” Benson said. “His acolytes called that moment prophetic.”

“It was,” he continued. “When the first Kmart opened in 1962, they had a problem. The store’s safe wasn’t big enough to hold the day’s earnings. They had to use waste baskets to store some of the money.”

“But more prophetic was Kresge’s visit to Yellowstone National Park, years before,” Benson said. “He wrote in his biography he was nipped on the hand by a bear, because he was standing on its foot, ‘and he wanted me off,’ the man said. The bear bit him on the hand because he was in the way. Just as Wal-Mart did to Kmart in the 1990s. And just as Bil-Stor is doing to Wal-Mart now.”

“Rule is, you never know who’s coming to get you.”

“Don’t worry that people tell you you work for an evil corporation. A chain store.” Benson said. “Tell them this: It’s old news, this complaining. And it doesn’t work.”

“When Sears and Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward, started shilling their catalogs, small-town merchants sweated bullets. Swore those catalogs were the devil. Spending no money in the community. Not caring if a community withered if its citizens bought from them, not from the local stores. They staged bonfires, where catalogs were torched and burned.”

“But the catalog merchants survived. They brought to the citizens of these small towns what they wanted: Goods at a fair value. And plentiful goods, from socks to wood stoves to houses, that the local merchants wouldn’t stock, or would reluctantly order, not caring for their customer if the product took two or three months to arrive.”

“Then came the department store. Why have a dozen, two dozen stores on Main Street, when one large store, offering everything from pots and pans to dresses, would suffice? One-stop shopping is not a new concept, ladies and gentlemen. Its modern era started in the latter half of the nineteenth century. More than a hundred and twenty-five years ago, when Americans, after the Civil War, were hungry for merchandise to buy.”

Then, in 1890, came the chain stores.

The Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, the A&P, Woolworths. No matter where you went in the United States of America, you could find an A&P. You could find a Woolworths. And not have to struggle through store after store after store to find the products they want.

Friday, March 27, 2009

How Bad Is It Out There, Part Three

Took a check in to the bank today to get it cashed. Was refused, because the teller said the account on which it was drawn didn't have enough cash to cover it.

The check was for $3.25.

(It's a refund I got from a vending machine company when one of their machines ate a $5 bill.)

England, Professor. ENGLAND!

Several years ago, my wife Michelle and I spent three weeks touring England, barely scratching the surface of this magnificent nation and finally infecting me with the travel bug that's since had me visit Europe another time or two, plus several traverses across my own home country of the United States.

I recently posted some photos of that trip at Uncharted, focusing first on Stratford-on-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare, and then on Holy Island, one of the cradles of Christendom in England.

Visit and enjoy. More importantly, go see these places for yourselves. Click on the pictures to go straight to the photosets.



Is March Almost Over?

I counted myself lucky to have survived the barrage of St. Patrick's Day-themed radio commercials in early March. But now that the 17th has passed, we're into March Madness-themed radio commercials. I may have to go out into the yard and shout pleasant things!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Technology

"Technology is a tool that may never, never, NEVER be trusted!"

Araj, father of Mighty Mouse

I've officially given up on Lifecast. Last few times I've tried to use it, it has failed. So now I'm trying some other free crapware to see if it'll be more reliable. I'm not holding my breath.

An Open Letter to Leah Dunford Parkinson Christensen, ’55

Dear LDPC’55:

First of all, I’ve got to ask: Did Utah State University’s motto (“Honoring Tradition, Securing Our Future”) come before or after the University of Idaho’s motto (“Where Tradition Meets the Future”)? Not that it matters much, as the U of I had that motto when I was a student there in the late 1990s, and they could well have replaced it by now. I can’t find it on their web site, that’s for sure. I just know there’s a lot of something Tradition somethinging the Future around here.

Back to your letter. Cartoonist Scott Adams has a rather nice analogy to university fundraising letters: Pretend a plumber does some work for you. A few years later, he calls back to check to see if the work he did for you is still bringing you benefits. You take the phone into the bathroom and flush the toilet, demonstrating to him that, yes, you’re still enjoying the fruits of his labors. Then he asks you since you are still seeing a benefit if you’d like to pay for a portion of that work again as a token of your appreciation and to subsidize plumbing work he has going at the moment.

My question (and his, too) is: Would you pay the plumber again?

No?

All righty, then. So you know where this is going. Yes, my wife and I are Aggies. In fact, I’m a current Aggie, meaning that I am shoveling about $750 per class in Utah State University’s direction right now. Gratefully, one more payment to go and I will have the right to add the initials M.S. behind my name on resumes and pompous letterheads. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for the right and privilege. I hope that these extra initials will bring me honors and benefits long after I have ponied up the remaining 750 beans for my last course this summer. But you’ve got to understand that, over the past two years, I have shoveled about 33 credits worth of beans to the university, brining the bean total to about 8,250 by the time it’s all said and done.

Where I work I get newsletters. Occasionally in these newsletters the company brags up the fact that one of its employees has earned an advanced degree, thanks in part to a company program that paid for their education. But as a subcontractor to the company, I’m not eligible to participate in that program. So over the past two years my wife and I have made the sacrifice to pay that $8,250 (excluding books and the price of some computer software) for my education. I get some tax credits for the tuition payments, yes, so I suppose in this way my education is subsidized.

When I earn my degree, I plan on submitting a news item to the company newsletter, bragging up the fact that I earned this degree without a company subsidy. I don’t expect it’ll appear in the newsletter, but it’ll make me happy.

Should I expect a quid pro quo? Not really. If I want an education, I ought to be willing to pay for it. And I have. When I say I earned by bachelors degree from the University of Idaho, I mean I earned it. Every penny. I did get some financial aid to start with, got one tiny $250 scholarship and, for the last year, had to take out a student loan of $1,500. But the rest I earned myself, working as a hod carrier, windshield replacement technician, cafeteria worker and English Department office assistant.

I paid for my own education. I expect others should be able to do the same.

Is that stingy? Perhaps. I have three children now. They’ll need educations. So we’re saving up, in part, for that. Maybe when they’re ready some of that money will come Utah State University’s way. At this point, however, I can’t tell. They’ll have quite a few alma maters to choose from, as we receive donation request letters not only from you, but also the University of Idaho and Brigham Young University-Idaho. They all want a slice of that pie. They may all get some – as that’s how my education worked out.

I’m sorry government funding for universities is shrinking. I wish it weren’t, and that state governments didn’t regard education as a frill when it comes time to cut the budget. I’ve also seen universities pay $3,000 for campus-owned blimps to fly over the school to advertise its presence, so forgive me if, on occasion, I roll my eyes at how universities spend the money state government (and students) give them.

So I won’t be making a donation, outside of the tuition I’m already sending your way. Hope you understand.

Idaho To Get More Wilderness!

(Photo from Idahostatesman.com)
I have long wanted to visit the stark, parched beauty of the Owyhee Canyonlands in southwestern Idaho, and it now appears I’ll have the chance to visit them without worrying their beauty will be spoiled: A bill to declare 517,000 acres of Owyhee County as wilderness needs only President Barack Obama’s signature to become reality. (You can read more about the story here.)

As a native Idahoan, I love desert landscapes. Even as a boy, I found the volcanoes, lava fields and lava tubes of eastern Idaho’s Lost River Desert to be awesome sights. The Owyhee Canyonlands is a similar landscape, but with more of a happy-side-of-the-Great Basin feel than a volcanic feel, an area that offers green river bottoms that punctuate bare rock cliffs and hills twisted into knife-edged shapes by wind and rain.
The Idaho Statesman says this bill is all but assured passage, and represents seven years' worth of work by Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo, plus Rep. Mike Simpson, in coming up with compromises between wilderness enthusiasts, ranchers and local residents. Hats off to you all.

Now I gotta go. Owyhees, I’m coming this summer.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Schulz and Peanuts: Commentary

“Children,” Charles Schulz would say, as recorded in David Michaelis’ biography of the Peanuts comic strip creator, “aren’t allowed to cover up. Their faults are right out there for everyone to see. They can be criticized for them and pushed around, and tugged here and there by their parents and other kids that they are forced to be with.”

Neither is the human being, complex or simple, arrogant or humble, beloved or ignored, allowed to be covered up, or uncovered fully, as evidenced by Michaelis’ flawed portrait of one of the most beloved comic strip artists of the 20th century. Trying to capture the life of an individual as complex as Charles M. Schulz is a difficult task. Indeed, trying to capture the life of any human being in a way that is fair is problematic, as eyewitness accounts are often as flawed as they are honest and writers bring to bear their won agendas and prejudices.

I’ve read two biographies of Schulz; Schulz and Peanuts by Michaelis, and Peanuts: The Art of Charles Schulz, by Chip Kidd. While Michaelis’ is freshest in my memory, it’s Kidd’s book – which is biographical only in the sense of what we can learn about Schulz through his art – that is the better of the two. Michaelis seems too willing to push and tug Schulz’s life to fit with a flawed, melancholy, unfeeling persona that Michaelis wanted to paint, obvious evidence to the contrary. Too much of what Michaelis writes in his biography flies in the face of what Schulz expressed through his comic strip and it seems difficult to reconcile the two.

I’m a long-time Peanuts fan. I began reading Schulz’s strips as a six-year-old, discovering the comics section of the local paper and stealing Peanuts books from my older brother Jeff (who probably to this day does not recognize how much he helped shape my reading tastes and habits). Though I might be criticized for liking Kidd’s treatment of Schulz better than Michaelis’ treatment as an attempt to put blinders on my perception of Schulz as an artist and a human being, that Michaelis’ biography has been so heavily criticized by Schulz’ family tells me that his efforts, though considerable, must be taken with several grains of salt.

“Happiness is not funny,” is something Schulz often repeated. It is true that through the character of Charlie Brown, and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the Peanuts gang, Schulz more often portrayed the unhappy side of life rather than the happier side. That is quintessentially American. We always root for the underdog. We have nothing to fear “but fear itself,” as Franklin D. Roosevelt said. It’s Annie, not Daddy Warbucks, who is the focus; indeed, why else call the strip (and the radio show) “Little Orphan Annie?” But to insist that Schulz himself was unhappy and a cold parent flies in the face of evidence offered by his children (see comments here from Monte, Jill and Amy Schulz).

I know as a writer it’s easy and tempting to shape a story the way one wants it to be. I did that a few times as a journalist, and sometimes got called on the carpet for it, rightly so. It’s easy to see how someone might want a complex character like Schulz to appear as unwholesome as his work was wholesome – even if there are facets of his life that show him, truthfully and unvarnished, in an unwholesome light. It’s tempting to portray the man who brought the Gospel of Luke to the airwaves in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as the same man who never spoke to his children about religion, who decorated the house with a wooden nativity but, as Michaelis quotes Amy, “no one ever told us what it was for.” Amy insists – and she should know, she is his daughter – that Michaelis’ treatment in this vein is incorrect. But for pathos’ sake, the vision of a man spouting religion to the masses but concealing it from his family makes the better story. It’s not true, of course, but in this day and age of tearing down rather than edifying, it’s the chosen path. It makes the biographer the story, it makes the biography the heavyweight ready to tilt at perceived windmills. It makes “Happiness is a warm puppy” sound cheap and trite and as commercial as anything run by one of those big eastern syndicates.

Lucy, of course, would believe everything Michaelis writes, shrugging it all off as another example of Charlie Brown's foolishness. Chuck would react with a patent "Rats!" Linus would be uplifting. Sally would be confused and conflicted. Snoopy, of course, would ponder it all for a moment and then remember, "Oh yeah, that's the round-headed guy who draws me," and go on through another dark and stormy night, not giving it another thought.

Addendum: To give Michaelis some credit, I'm sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle of what he wrote and what the family says. I don't care who you are -- families tend to remember things with rose-colored glasses, especially when the reputation or character of a loved one (and a world-famous loved one at that) is put on the line. I'm sure Michaelis is on the mark when it comes to recording how competitive Schulz was, and, at least to a point, how much he played up his use of melancholy in Peanuts. People can present one face to some, and a completely different face to others. The story Michaelis recounts of Lynn Johnston telling Sparky of her thoughts on ending Farley's life, for example, is a story I can believe:

"To buttress her case, she laid out the story she had planned, and Sparky listened, and when she was finished explaining how Farley was going to die trying to save the Pattersons’ youngest daughter, April, from drowning in a spring-freshened river, there was a silence on the phone, and then Schulz said: “If you do this story, I am going to have Snoopy get hit by a truck and go to the hospital, and everybody will worry about Snoopy, and nobody’s going to read your stupid story.” As if to prove that Snoopy was still the biggest newsmaker, he added, “And I’ll get more publicity than you will! So there!”

But Johnston took his threat seriously and did not tell him when the story of Farley’s death was going to run. In early February 1995, only her husband and her editor knew when she submitted the series of strips to Universal Press Syndicate – eight weeks ahead of print time. Then, in the second week of April 1995, when the story of Farley’s heroic death appeared, Sparky went on the air, and in response to the interviewer’s questions, he went out of his way to mock Johnston, describing what had happened in the “Farley strips” not as heroic death but as a “killing.”

“We can say Farley ‘died,’” he deadpanned, “but he died because of the stupidity of that little girl.” Then, with stunning, vehemence, he announced that he was holding Lynn responsible for the tragedy, as if Lynn were April’s careless mother: “I’ll never forgive her for that,” he insisted, “because April never should have done it. And now the dog died.” He let his bitterness gather for a moment before he added, “Well, I hope she’s happy. I don’t think she should have done that, but, after all, Lynn is Lynn, and I am me, and we’re different, that’s all.”


Then again, I've heard that Johnston herself is one to color the truth a bit. And so it goes.

Twouble with Twitter



Being new to (and skeptical of) Twitter myself, I see the humor in this animation. "Who are they talking to," the antagonist asks. "No one. And everyone," the Twitter bird replies. That about sums it up. What am I using Twitter for? Primarily, to spread Ed Grimley quotes on the Internet. Tell me that's useful.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Zoo That Changed

Serval Cat, Tautphaus Park Zoo

I remember going to the Tautphaus Park Zoo as a kid and leaving entertained, but a bit distressed. Why did all those animals have to spend their days in concrete-and-iron cages?

No more. The zoo has cleaned up its act and is now one of my favorite places to visit in Idaho Falls. Read about it here at Uncharted.net.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Half Of America Hopes I Fail


We were listening to BBC 4's "The Now Show" Friday night. They were talking about American politics and said something rather stupid: "Half of America wants Barack Obama to fail." I have to ask: how stupid are the people on "The Now Show?" Really? Half of America wants Barack Obama to fail? Their primary reason was: payback. They said the Democrats spent the last eight years wanting Bush to fail, so it was only then logically natural that the Big O should have failure rays being shot at him from the right. Then he went on to lament on how polarized American politics has become, "much more so than here," he added. Of course, it's not as polarized as that. Perhaps it is in the world of the media, where a lot of incorrect images are created, but it is not so here. And to say it is while relying only on the media and polarized independent voices is ignorant, short-sighted, and politically naive. Aside from the pundits and bloviators on television and the Internet, I have not heard anyone say they hope Obama will fail. I have heard a lot of people express dubiousness about some of his approaches and policies, but I have yet to hear a single soul aside from Rushmo say they hope for failure. Expressing doubt is not the same as hoping for failure, else there are plenty of Democrats out there who syllogistically hope Obama will fail as well.

The sub-issue here is the lamentation over the polarization of the proletariat. To steal a phrase from Tricky Dicky, I firmly believe there is a mostly silent majority of people in this country who, to use a term of polarization, sag in the middle. It's this middle, alternatively cautiously optimistic and leery of both left and right that swing elections in this country to the right or to the left. One of the effects of the two-party system is that it masks this majority under the flimsy guides of "moderates." In other nations, with multiple parties, these moderates are not physically united with other parties, having parties of their own. (Yes, we do have Libertarians, Independents and others, but it's clear these parties represent the fringe, not the center, where the moderates lie, or they have become platforms for single-issue candidates.) That, in other countries, these parties form ruling alliances is akin to unpartied moderates voting Democratic in one election, Republican in another. We have to share power before or at the election, not afterward, when alliance-building occurs in most multiparty democracies. For the moderates, the platforms of either party do not wholeheartedly appeal, but sometimes it's just choosing one lesser evil over the other.

The polarization comes from the talking heads and the media. The Republican Party has reluctantly take on the role of the opposition party and us screwing it up royally, much as the Democrats have in the past eight years. Bloviators on both sides and the media ferret out and point to polarizing opinions and actions of a few and foolishly pass those off as the will of the people or the desire of "half the nation" to see the other side fail. This is a childish approach to politics, punditry, and journalism that does little to fix things, because lies that are widely spread are lies still.



Posted with LifeCast

Friday, March 20, 2009

Wuss Rock

You know, once and a while it's good to remember that concerts were once like this. And that music was once like this. Yes, I am deeply embedded in the Wuss Rock Movement. Long Live Wuss Rock!

It's not that the music today is bad. It's quite good, if you can get the radio off the adult contemporary station and on to something that plays a lot more variety. I suppose songs like this come to the fore because they've risen to the top of the absolute glop that was produced back then as well. At any rate, hey there, Georige Girl . . .

Our State Fair is A Great State Fair

Lexie never did appreciate Daddy's Sleeping Beauty jokes when she was learning to spin yarn from wool at the Eastern Idaho State Fair. And now you can read all about it at Uncharted here. It's not the best story I've written, but I think it's fun.

I Have Puttered

Puttering accomplished. Somewhat. The Christmas lights are down and packed away. The two (count 'em) Christmas trees are permanently stowed on a Wall of Christmastude which includes the trees, garlands, outdoor lights and a box of stuff we bought on clearance during the Stimulate the Economy Fire Sales after the New Year, and the poor, poor demented and dented deer, who were not left to themselves this season, but once again were forced into a compromising position by surly teenagers.

The shed is only partially cleaned out. But more importantly, the five-year-old is now kitted up with the next-size-up bicycle, complete with training wheels. He took it for a test drive this afternoon and reacted pretty much the same as the Yorkie I had growing up when we put his sweater on him: He didn't know he could move. In Isaac's case, he doesn't know how to steer yet, which will make for some interesting problems in the future.

I also drained the lake. We had a huge pile of snow scooped up by the city that was blocking the gutter, so Lake Davidson formed at the foot of our sidewalk. About fifteen minutes worth of work with the shovel helped drain the lake. Now all we need is Mr. Sun to do the rest of the melting, and I'll be a happy man.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mesa Falls

Ah yes, Mesa Falls. I love this place. Visit it just about every year. Here's what I learned last time I was there: Thoughts on Mesa Falls.

Dr. Lilt



B. J. Hunnicutt may have the lilt and panache necessary to rise to the top of MASH 4077's storytellers, but there are few in the realms of science who can compare with the lilt, panache and absolute joy that Carl Sagan brought into his PBS series "Cosmos," which I recently rediscovered at hulu.com.

These shows remind me of my father. We watched them religiously when they aired in the late 1970s, never missing an episode. Dad even let us put off homework while Dr. Sagan was on the air, because Dad figured what we heard Sagan say was a lot more important than repetitiously learning how to add and subtract. I credit this show with my early interest in astronomy, and my continued interest in the subject today. I still go out at night to stare up at the stars, wondering what it would be like to visit the stars in Orion's Belt, to sail past the Horsehead Nebula and to feel the bitter cols and searing heat of space and stars.

But I'm stepping in on Dr. Sagan's territory. He's the lilty one, remember:

"For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love."

"In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."

"Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works."

"Personally, I would be delighted if there were a life after death, especially if it permitted me to continue to learn about this world and others, if it gave me a chance to discover how history turns out."

"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."

Thanks, Dr. Sagan. From where you are, I hope you're discovering how history turns out.

Addendum: I'm not a fan of Ann Druyan's foreword to this episode. She drones on for about five minutes and seems to imply that no science, or at least limited science, occurred in the United States until after the Cold War ended. Moon landings, the Voyager program (in which Sagan was involved) the erradication of polio, et cetera, don't seem to matter. Anyway. Endure the prologue, then enjoy the ride.

Mr. Putter



If puttering isn't a Constitutional right, it should be.

I'm going to clean out my shed this weekend. Looking forward to it. I've been waiting now for nearly a month for enough snow to melt away in the back yard so I have enough room to haul a winter's worth of crud out of the shed, decide what to keep and what to throw away, and then put all the good stuff back in the shed while piling the refuse behind the fence in the alley to let the city deal with.

Why do I have so much crap, I wonder? Well, since at least half of the clutter in the shed is outdoor kids' toys, the big culprit here is winter. Not consumerism, because of all the bikes, trikes, wagons, sand toys and other detritus out there, only two items are not hand-me-downs. I think this is the year that we get rid of the little kid ride-in car, because none of our kids are small enough to fit inside it any more. We can pass it along to someone else, so someone else can trip over it in their shed or garage all winter long. Isaac won't like it, not one bit, but that'll get me motivation to get his bicycle fixed so he can tool around on that.

But back to puttering and the Constitutionality thereof. I am not looking forward to cleaning the shed because it needs to be cleaned (though it does in a serious way). I'm looking forward to cleaning the shed because it gives me license to putter. I can lazily sort nails. I can re-organize the Christmas lights (once I take them down off the house and trees). I can crush aluminum cans. All this while I'm day dreaming, listening to the birds, watching the kids rediscover the joys of playing in a backyard not buried under two feet of snow. It's not work. It's puttering. That things get cleaned up and organized while I putter is not the goal. The goal is the puttering. It's relaxation. It's doing something that needs to be done but at a pace that tells the world I could be at this all summer long and not despair if it didn't get done at all.

A Constitutional right? You bet. This is peaceably assembling. This is the right to bear arms, even if the arms I'm bearing are garden tools that have long fallen off their hooks. This is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, with the kids helping doing random things and the birds singing and the sun shining and the world setting itself to rights while I "work."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Heads, Get Ready for A Thumping


There hs been some cheering among cable and satellite TV providers -- as well as those, like us, who watch TV from the web -- that the move into digital media is re-shaping the viewing world as we know it.

But if the folks at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com) have their way, what viewing habits we have now might radically be changed. Their goal, according to a keynote given at the SXSW Film Festival in Texas this week, is to stream online, with the push of one button, each of the more than 1.3 million movies online that they feature on their site.

IMDB notes there will be some difficulties -- namely with getting the streaming rights. Content is still King of the Internet, and you can bet that with this kind of one-site-streaming in the offing, the folks who hold the copyrights will hold them dear until enough money is dangled in front of them.

What'll be interesting is to see how the competition will shake out on the web. Already, Netflix is in this market, along with sites like Hulu. (I could include YouTube here, but since Netflix and Hulu want about this the "old fashioned" way and actually obtained permission of the copyright owners, rather than letting any bozo post copyrighted content to the web for all the world to see, I'm not sure I want to.) While one-stop -streaming might be appealing, ther is also the issue of competition. Whoever comes out on top will be in position to thump a lot of heads.

And, how will they pay for it all? Obviously, the model they have to pursue is free, because the Internet opened that door long ago and can't do much of anything to close it. If they charge for the content, another site will pop up and offer it for free, and given that most folks don't worry about or don't recognize they're watching bootlegged content, guess which model is going to win out in the end?
This all ties in with something that happened at home this week: The Nielsen TV ratings people have asked us to be a ratings family. This, despite the fact that when they asked us preliminarily a few months ago, my wife cautioned them that while we do own three television sets, we do not have broadcast or cable TV in the home. We watch movies. We watch taped TV programs. She watches a few current cable TV programs, but always directly from the web. They don't seem bothered. They sent us three TV viewing habits diaries and want us to record what we're watching, and when. It doesn't seem to disturb them that we don't watch much at all. So if suddenly the ratings for your favorite TV shows drop precipitously, it's probably because of us. I apologize in advance.

Unhandyman



Here's some free advice: Do not let me near any DIY projects in your home.

This weekend was DIY Weekend at MisterFweem's house. During a cosmetic remodel of the utility room, I managed to:

  • Install the dryer vent backward, so the dryer could not vent at all, leading up to a load of laundry that was still soaked after three hours of tumbling.
  • Blow out the pilot light for the water heater while vacuuming up the mess left from sanding plaster.
I did, however, recognize and fix both problems. Points mine.

Monday, March 16, 2009

From the Intertubes

Just a quickie: Good reading here about how companies are using Web 2.0 tools like Facebook and Twitter to hlep build buzz and company loyalty. Tools Uncharted is already using. It's exciting to see how technology could help us out with marketing, opening up vistas unheard of even ten years ago.

Want A Good Website? Use Good Websites


As an Internet user and as a person involved behind the scenes in helping to design a new media website, I’m a strong believer in listening to what users think. Probably the most important question we should ask is “What do you remember about the website,” because what they remember, in a collective sense as we ask the same question to many users, can reveal a site’s strengths and weaknesses. Then all you have to do is get around your pointy-haired boss and get things fixed.

I’ve seen this process work firsthand. As I’ve mentioned before, Uncharted.net recently rolled out a new iteration of our website. The new iteration has been on the street now for three months, and response has been better than we expected, in that we’re actually getting people to sign up, post profiles, photos, stories, et cetera. We never had that on our old website, even though we had the same intentions and even though the site was up for a year. Why? It has to do absolutely with a confusing interface and poor perceptions of the site in general – a little from a design standpoint, but most of it from the standpoint of how they were able (or unable) to interact with the site and how the rhetorical presentation of text on the site helped or hindered their interactions.

What do I remember about Uncharted 1.0? The dreck of the user interface. Rhetorically we were telling people in person and on the site that we wanted them to visit and post their own stories and photos, but we were not providing the rhetorical means to that rhetorical end. First of all, the only method we had at the time for users to submit a story was a hyperlink that would open up an e-mail, asking people to submit story ideas to us. It felt strictly old media, setting up the idea that, well, if your story idea is good enough, we, the high-and-mighty Uncharted gurus, will contact you and let you know how to proceed, lowly peon. We had the gates up and waters on the ramparts. We did not get a single user submission, though, in face-to-face talks, we had lots of promises of submissions. Once people got to the site, they encountered a user interface so elementary and so ugly – not like other sites, where they’re able to post information themselves and see it published before their eyes.

With Uncharted 1.0, we tried to present stories and photos by category (hiking, family-friendly, high adventure, et cetera), lumping one or two story/photo packages together on the same page, or at least with connecting links. This served, however, to show that we as the gurus were the ones directing how people should read our material, and that if they liked one story in this category, by golly they were sure to like everything else. And it didn’t work, not even for us. I had a lot more fun posting stories and photos to this blog than I did posting them to Uncharted -- and I now know why. I knew what this site wanted me tod do, and it made it easy to do it.

With Uncharted 2.0, we’ve kept categorization but changed the categories. Now story/photo packages are grouped by geographic location, with the idea being if you thought this was fun, here’s a few other things in the general area the other Uncharted users thought was fun too. It’s more helpful, we think, than the previous grouping.

Then there was the back end. Once we received a story, we had to complete a Herculean twelve tasks to get just the text posted, nevermind the even more difficult task of getting photos up with the story as well. The task of posting a story was so cumbersome we looked at it as more of a headache than a bonus when one of our staff completed a story. Six months after the site went live, even WE were not using it, and it was our site, our baby, our lifelong dream.

Next time around, we got smarter. We examined the site to determine what didn’t work (nearly everything; in fact, the only things that got moved from one site to the next is the text on the “legal” page and some of the text on the “about us” page). We worked with beta testers to make sure that they, as submitters, got to the front of the line. This is your site, we told them. This is what we’ve got in mind. Tell us if it works. We poked and tweaked and prodded and now, we think we have a much better product. It’s not perfect by any means. There are still aspects of the user interface I find clunky, but it’s a gigantic leap for mankind over the previous site.

More importantly, the back-end we use to post our staff-generated content is the same as the process visitors use to post their stuff. Thus, we can see whether things work, whether things are broken and whether the process is too lengthy or needs more explanation. Having both the front and back end use the same interface not only saved on programming costs, but it keeps us aware of the same posting methods our users will use.

Now when we ask others (and ourselves) what we remember about our website, the answers are different. We remember stories and pictures and what we read and some of the comments that have been made, things of that nature. Only occasionally does a usability or cognition question come up. I take that as a sign that we’re on the road to succeeding with this site.

Going Herbal, Part Two


I mentioned a while ago that we were going to start trying some herbal remedies for the minor afflctions that ail our microscopic sector of mankind. You may also recall I promised to keep you posted. So here goes:

For the kids: Garlic pills. Really. I think they're to help boost immunity and help them ward off the vapors and/or coughs. I'm not really sure what "vapors" are, but when you're feeding your kids garlic pills, you need to add in odd words like that.

For the adults: As we're both prone to allergies, we're trying a concoction that's supposed to help detoxify the liver which, according to the local witch doctor, is the bane of allergy sufferers everywhere, since that's the organ that's supposed to be filtering out the allergens but can't because it's already sorting through the swill of other contaminants we readily take into our bodies with the air we breathe, water we drink and food we eat. Our concoction consits of a couple drams of freshly-squeezed lemon juice, a scruple of lemon oil and a dribble of peppermint. For those interested in a play-by-play of how the first one went down, read on:

I gulp the elixir (another word I get to use more often now, along with dram, scruple and dribble).

WHOOOOOOOM the lemon juice shoots straight to the basement, burning holes through my innards as it descends. Look out, toxified liver, that's all I can say. Lemon juice is on the way. The cold, burning feeling lasts for at least five minutes., as if I'd swallowed a lump of Icy Hot.

WHOOOOOOSH at the same time the peppermint screams up into the sinuses as if Amora, Goddess of Mustard, had climbed up the nose of the other gods.

Frankly, I have NO IDEA where the lemon oil went. Perhaps it serves as a lubricant to get the other ingredients to where they need to go faster.

Repeat, morning and night.

We're supposed to do this for three or four months, then see if it has any effect on our allergies. As far as side effects go, I suppose the burning and nose-climbing is at least different than the side effects I get from my OTC Claritin knockoff: occasional bouts of tingling fingers and dizziness, at least until I get used to the chemicals swimming around in my bloodstream. I have confidence, at least, that the herbal stuff knows where to go, as it arrived in the traditional problem area (the sinuses) and the alleged problem area (the liver) in five seconds or less, if my body's reactions are any indication. When I take the Claritin knockoff, I'mnot sure the stuff knows where to go immediately, which is why, I think, I get the tingling and dizziness. Of course, it also works to clear up my allergies. We'll see if the lemon/peppermint elixir can do the same.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

How Bad Is It Out There, Part Two

In nearly nine years of home ownership, we have almost always paid extra principal on our monthly mortgage payments. More importantly, we have never been late on a payment. Then came this month. The payment was due on March 1st. I didn't get paid until February 27th, so the payment was going to be late that month. That Tuesday, National City Mortgage called my wife to ask when the payment was coming. She, of course, told them the proverbial (and literal, in this case) check was in the mail.

So I have to ask: is National City that hard up for cash, or that nervous about how many time bombs they've got in their portfolio, that they're calling people with stellar records to hound them for payment? Don't know the reason, but obviously there is concern.

Still, in our case, it's exaggerated concern. I just pulled our credit report, and it remains blotch-free. We pay less for our mortgage than many around here pay for rent. We shouldn't have the power to mangle mortgage-lender nerves with one late-in-the-mail payment. Sign of the times we live in, I suppose.


Posted with LifeCast

Twitterriffic?

I've now been on Twitter for a week. Following five people now, including two I encounter on a weekly basis, so you have to wonder why. James Lileks is one. A Los Angeles-area cop is another. What's stranger is that I have two followers -- a writer in either North or South Carolina and someone else whose shaky Tqitter identity eludes me at the moment. Though I'm far from Twitter saturation, I have begun to wonder how many other Tweeters I can follow without burning out under the barrage of tweets. I guess time will tell. And I imagine dome will fall by the wayside as other, more interesting people come along.

As a side note: the only other person I know for sure is on Twitter is a former boss whom I'm not sure I want to follow. Live and let live, I know, but still.


Posted with LifeCast

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Feeling Stupid? Go With That Feeling

There's an interesting article at Salon.com by Glenn Greenwald that focuses a bit on the Jon Steward/Jim Cramer kerfuffle that makes for good reading for anyone concerned with how we get our news these days.

Reporter Cramer basically uses the "I was lied to" defense in answering why he continued to tout companies and investments that later imploded during the opening moments of our current financial crisis in 2008. Now, as a reporter, I've fallen back on that defense myself -- and it seems completely justified, until you hear comedian Jon Stewart's response:
But what is the responsibility of the people who cover Wall Street? I'm under the assumption, and maybe this is purely ridiculous, but I'm under the assumption that you don't just take their word at face value. That you actually then go around and try to figure it out.
Ouch. Yeah, Stewart was basically asking Cramer why he wasn't doing his job as a journalist. The old newsroom saw goes "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." In other words, you can't take what your sources say at face value because, more often than not, they've forgotton something, they've unmaliciously exaggerated, they're flat out wrong or, in ways that range from innocent to devious, they've lied to you. I fell into that trap several times as a newspaper reporter, and it always stung. What stung more is that there were ample opportunities to discover that what I was being told was not the truth, but I did not take those opportunities because, well, I was lazy.

Greenwald comes down pretty hard on the established media for this mindset -- and does so justifiably:
That's the heart of the (completely justifiable) attack on Cramer and CNBC by Stewart. They would continuously put scheming CEOs on their shows, conduct completely uncritical "interviews" and allow them to spout wholesale falsehoods. And now that they're being called upon to explain why they did this, their excuse is: Well, we were lied to. What could we have done? And the obvious answer, which Stewart repeatedly expressed, is that people who claim to be "reporters" are obligated not only to provide a forum for powerful people to make claims, but also to then investigate those claims and then to inform the public if the claims are true. That's about as basic as it gets.

Today, everyone -- including media stars everywhere -- is going to take Stewart's side and all join in the easy mockery of Cramer and CNBC, as though what Stewart is saying is so self-evidently true and what Cramer/CNBC did is so self-evidently wrong. But there's absolutely nothing about Cramer that is unique when it comes to our press corps. The behavior that Jon Stewart so expertly dissected last night is exactly what our press corps in general does -- and, when compelled to do so, they say so and are proud of it.
I'm not sure there are any reporters who are immune to taking this defense, and who are sheepishly proud of their efforts once they make the effort, rather than go through the motions. There are many out there who do exactly what Stewart advises Cramer to do, and the industry is duly proud of them. But more often than not, going through the motions is what meets the deadlines and is what makes the job the easiest. I'm working as hard as I can to recognize that kind of behavior in the tasks I take on now, in a different field of communications. Part of that recognition includes finding ways to erradicate that behavior. Taking that kind of defense doesnt' make you look like a victim of circumstance, it makes you look stupid. And as my brother says when I mention I'm feeling stupid: "Go with that feeling."

But it's interesting to hear a comedian like Stewart say it. Nobody, as Greenwald says, will pay attention to the advice, beyond snickering that it was Cramer who got fed that crow sandwich on national television. I'd like to think that Cramer learns a lesson from this encounter, and that others in the business take heed of it as well. I know I'll look at ways to do it in my own job as well.

On Come the Irish

I suppose I should count myself lucky that the barrage started late this year. But still, I could go without all the Irish/St. Patrick's Day-themed commercials on the radio.

We have a local spa dealership here that just goes absolutely bonkers for St. Patrick's Day. That's fine. The family that runs the business has Irish heritage. I'm just tired of every other holiday on the calendar becoming a marketing gimmick, and since the fiddle and pipe music and bad Irish accents come out only this time of year, the St. Patrick's Day folly is much more recognizable.

I grew up dreading St. Patrick's Day because I attended a school where the kids and teachers took the wearing o' the green very seriously. If you were not wearing green, you were so covered with pinch-welts by the end of the day it wasn't even funny. It didn't help that the recess/lunchroom aide and school bouncer knew my mother, so I got extra special treatment. I know it was all innocent fun now, But back then, anything that set you apart from the nameless rabble of other school kids marked you. Not that the school was gang-ridden, but a fat kid who wore a really huge pair of glasses didn't need any other reason to stand out.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Why Is the Rum Gone?

I admit the first thing that went through my mind when I saw Lisa Wheat's pictures over at Uncharted was this: Why is the rum gone.

Not knowing, of course, that one of the ships used in Disney's Pirates of the Carribean -- from whence the rum lines comes -- is docked permanently at Disney's own Castaway Cay in the Bahamas.

So now I want to go there. Sigh. Until that happens, I can just read Lisa's story here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Best Writers

I put off reading Eragon by Christopher Paolini for a long time. Though I'm a voracious reader, when it comes to fantasy, I'm kind of a snob. Under the influence of my older brother Jeff, I read Tolkein's LOTR trilogy in high school, and actually read The Hobbit as a grade-schooler. From thence, I've tried to read all sorts of other fantasy. While I was overjoyed to find there were the likes of Frank Herbert, Richard Adams, Terry Partchett, Harry Harrison and others of their fine stripe out there, too often I was dismayed to find people like Terry Brooks, who struggled to get past the fact that fantasy writing, in general, is very formulaic and not the easiest genre to pull of successfully.

Then came Eragon, borne of a 15-year-old Montanan steeped in reading the same authors I enjoy. I hear tell one of the reasons he decided to write fantasy was that he couldn't find a lot of good fantasy writing out there.

I hope that's just a legend because, frankly, his writing isn't all that good.

I know, I know. He wrote it as a teenager. We should all be duly impressed by such talent at such a young age. But I think it's too easy to peg Paolini as a genius. Charles van Doren famously quipped that you could fill Yankee Stadium with the world's mediocre novelists, and it's quite certain some novelists hailed as geniuses would be there, eating red hots and sipping beer.

Good writers go beyond understanding the formula. They go beyond plotting their stories. They go beyond characterization. All of these elements are extremely important, and the best writers who proceed without them are doomed to be snickered at and booed. But the writers who are the best writers recognize that the best story, the best characterizations, the best plotting are the skeletons and musculature to which the skin of beautiful writing is attached.

To stray from the fantasy genre -- look at the likes of Steinbeck, Bradbury, let alone Tolkein, Herbert, Adams and the others -- you find the best writers are those who have it all. They know how to turn a phrase. Herbert, for example, and Adams, to a certain extent -- you forget that most of the dialogue in their novels take place as the characters basically sit around, lounging, doing nothing but talking or walking. You get caught up in the language, which soars. Steinbeck, especially, combines beautiful language with such characterizations that you can always pick out a Steinbeck story from the pack. This is the kind of talent that wins Nobel prizes.

I'll give Paolini credit for a wonderful achievement. But as I read his next novels, I hope to see him go beyond focusing on the genre and get into the craft of writing. That'll push him out of Yankee Stadium.



Honestly, reading Paolini reminded me of this XKCD webcomic. To be truthful, other fantasy genre writers also make up plenty of words (Tolkein and Herbert come to mind) but in their craft of writing, the made-up words don't feel as forces as they do in Paolini's Eragon. It takes a lot of skill as a writer (not just as a story-dreamer-upper or plotter or maker of characters) to make fantasy sing. Eragon doesn't -- see examples in "The Best Part" on the sidebar.

Hijacking Christianity

Ya know, there are times those who profess to be Christian need to shut up and actually listen to how they sound.

Fox News blovitaor Sean Hannity had this to say about Christianity and how he believes his version of it allows for torture:

"Because my attitude is that if we capture an enemy combatant in the battlefield -- or we can use Osama bin Laden -- who may have information about a pending attack. You know what, I don't have any problem taking his head sticking it underwater and scaring the living daylights out of him and making him think we're drowning him," declared Hannity, "and I'm a Christian."

He was saying this to Meghan McCain, daughter of former presidential contender John McCain, who suffered through torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. I thank heaven she had something to say about Hannity's view:

McCain disagreed. "I think it's what separates us from the terrorists. My father could never lift me up as a child because he can't move his arm. He can't ride a bike because he can't bend his knee because he was tortured. I think he knows better," she said.

I'm tired of Hannity and his ilk hijacking the Christian religion to support their twisted political (and religious) views. When they do so, they're little better than those who have hijacked the Muslim religion and believe that killing westerners is the true path to paradise. As a Christian myself, I'd like to stand up and say that my beliefs do not condone torture, and anyone who says Christianity does has a fundamental misunderstanding of Christ's teachings. When Christ tells us to love our enemies, be kind to those who despitefully use us and abuse us and to give a man our cloak as well when he wins our coat in a legal argument, there's no wiggle room in there to allow for a little bit of friendly waterboarding between friends.

Hannity, fix your Christian attitudes, or stop calling yourself a Christian.

And for the rest of us: Don't believe that Hannity's view reflects real Christian values. They most certainly do not.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Oh This Just Hurts

I've said it before and I'll say it again: The Grammar Nazi does not profess to being perfect. I misjudge, mistyle, misspell and otherwise do my best to make myself look like a linguistic and phoneic phool. That's why I have my mantra:

gauge gauge gauge gauge gauge gauge

And that's why I practice my other bugaboos:

antenna antenna antenna antenna antenna

And that's why I always second-guess and go to the dictionary if in doubt. I learned today that forego is an acceptable variant of forgo, for example.

But things like this just hurt:


And no matter how much you chalk it up to things like the spoken word getting into speech or a bad case of homophonitis, this is the kind of thing that makes the Grammar Nazi just go crazy.

Wrap or Rap? It's your choice. And, in this case, an obvious one.

As if Writing Is Charity


One of the reasons I enjoy reading James Lileks so much is that he helps me cut through the bull that liberally veins the journalism industry. Not that it’s all bull, but even after ten years in the business I could see myself that there was a fair amount, and that the amount of bull I allowed myself to produce was increasing. He admits, too, that there are many people in the journalism business who are altruistic and do what they do because they love it. But check out the last two lines in this excerpt. I know a few people like this, and one of the reasons I left the business is that I didn’t want to become one of them. Here's what he had to say today (no link, he apparently doesn't believe in permalinks):
I interviewed a Famous Columnist once who trotted out the “comfort the
afflicted, afflict the comfortable” line - he was quite comfortable himself,
which made you wonder if he went home and pinched himself until bloody
half-moons appeared on his forearms - and he said he had a deep-seated need to
throw snowballs at the guys with top hats. So . . . you’re a 30s urchin in
Brooklyn?

At heart, probably. G’wan, ya swell! Go eat sum oysters, why
doncha?
First he writes the story about scrappy urchins who throw snowballs
at top hats; the next year the style section writes about the decline in top-hat
popularity, because of the snowball problem - which is understandable, given
income inequality, and really, they are a bit passe - and the next year the
columnist writes a story about the guys who are out of work because the top-hat
factory closed. Meanwhile, the business section has a big story on a new
straw-boater factory. But it’s the columnist grousing about the factory closing
that people remember.

You can’t avoid being tagged as habitual downers when you’re in the
news business, because the Truth Hurts, or at least Hurts Someone Else -
but sometimes I suspect many people in the news business are
temperamentally predisposed to miserabilism, because the idea of an unjust world
run by monied smileys explains why the cheerleader turned them down for a date
in high school. But I know too many who don’t fit that mold. So ignore the
above, except when it seems to explain something. Except when you read someone
who seems to think that by afflicting the comfortable, the afflicted are
automatically comforted. As if writing is charity.

I’ve got to admit that of the stories I wrote for various papers, the ones that brought me the most pleasure weren’t the ones where I was figuratively putting my finger in somebody’s eye – even if their eyes deserved to be poked for some reason. The stories I remember with the most fondness had nothing to do with comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable, but, in many ways, those that dealt with smileys (monied or not) who weren’t out to get anybody, weren’t out to be gotten or otherwise looking for some false charity from someone who got into journalism To Make the World A Better Place. There’s the couple who married, despite the fact they both have Down Syndrome. There’s the little girl who made and marketed fudge so she could afford a horse – and who had offers of three free horses once the article appeared in the paper. The article about the guy who turned a hobby of learning how to survive in the wilderness through flint–knapping and other bohemian pursuits into a full-time business that included consulting with Hollywood. Those are the ones I remember. If I’d been able to do more of them, I might have stayed in the business longer. But we were Out To Make A Difference. Which is fine. Absolutely fine. But once and a while, I think, we made a difference without branding it as such. Those are the stories I remember the most.

The Internet, of all things, is beginning to lift that veil. CNN.com, for example, has been running reader-generated stories on how the sour economy is affecting people. Generally, the media is pretty good at getting at the big picture on this kind of thing, but typically fail at getting to the little guy who is actually being afflicted, aside from getting a few quotes from a fired factory worker and such. I know. I fell into this trap all the time as a reporter. Then you have people like the New York Times, who write about people with six-figure incomes who are now struggling due to the bad economy. That just doesn’t ring true with most folks. Now, I’m not saying that everything these “little people” produce for their own story is all that compelling, or interesting, or unbiased, but at least there’s a fundamental honesty at the bottom of it all. There’s nobody filtering what they say to make sure the afflicted are comforted and the comfortable are afflicted in the official journalistic sense. The Internet is helping to break down that Fourth Wall between the news purveyors and the news readers in a way that letters to the editor and phone calls after a story is published can never accomplish. News outlets that seize upon that opportunity are the ones who will thrive.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Singing the Praises of Schwa

Sometimes, the things I see on the Web make me lose my moral. I have one – at least one I’ll admit to as the Grammar Nazi: Spell things correctly and use the right word.

In this case, the moral of the story is that a lot of people confuse moral with morale. Here’s the difference:

Moral – This word can be either an adjective or a noun. As an adjective, moral is defined as pertaining to the discernment of good and evil, or the judgment of goodness and badness of human action. As a noun, a moral is a concisely expressed precept, or the lesson or principle contained or taught by a story.

Morale – This is a noun defined as the state of the spirits of an individual or group.

Part of the confusion comes, I think, in remembering how these words are pronounced. Moral has the long O sound as in more, boat, and rose. Morale has the schwa sound (say that five times fast, it’s fun: schwa schwa schwa schwa schwa) of the U in cut, and both the first O and only A sound in photography. IF we remember to pronounce the word as we decide which one to use, I think that'll help us avoid confusing the two.

The schwa, by the way, is the most common sound in American English, according to the experts at americanaccent.com, a fascinating site for those learning the language and those who grew up mangling, I mean speaking it.

So please, folks. Keep my morale high by using moral/morale in the correct way. In return, I won’t even bring up the word morel, which would not only cloud the issue but make me hungry. Thank you.

And now, my mantra: gauge gauge gauge gauge gauge gauge.

And, in case I'm out of practice:

antenna antenna antenna antenna antenna antenna.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Brobdinangian Struggle

We will see if this works.


Posted with LifeCast


Simon's Cat 'TV Dinner'

And Michelle wonders why I like cats . . .

Fine News Reporting There, Lou

Speak (or blog) about the Devil, and there you find Garry Trudeau, already on top of it. I've long enjoyed reading of Roland Hedley's transformation from an incompetent purveyor of news in mainstream media into his current form as an incompetent purveyor of news in new media. From his heady days at Yap!.com where his sign-on and sign-off were all the story because that's all the bandwidth people had in those days to today, where Roland is still the story Roland wants to tell, it's been a wild trip. No matter that he's doing his new media drips for Fox News. I've long considered Fox News as the most Internety of the news sites, so to see these Internet memes coming out in Hedley's fictional work for Fox is hilarious.

I've been blogging for just over a year now (this is, in fact, my 500th post). I'm on Facebook. This weekend, I started up on Twitter -- though the secret there is going to be to find something to say in a way that's actually interesting and helpful to, I don't know, me, I suppose. Because that's about the only reason I can see to blog and tweet and such -- because no one is really listening. Perhaps that's why Roland cultivates his fan base and worries about being called out for his shout out so much -- what would an Internet celebrity be without his or her fan base, or at least the idiot hangers-on waiting for Roland to barrel into another train wreck of a news report.

This brings me into the bigger world of paid content versus free content (a very odd aside, but one that's pertinent to this post). Televised news has a natural edge over print news because, in general, TV news has always been free -- all you needed was that gogglebox and a set of rabbit ears, and you could suck the news right out of the air. Then came cable, and people decided it was great to pay for TV, but never thought about having to pay for the news because, hey, you could still get it for free. Then came the Internet and now all you need is a smaller gogglebox and a broadband connection and, just like the beer from Elsinore Breweries at Oktoberfest in Toronto, "all ze news is free."

Except if you're from a print news source. Oh, they put up their news for free and suddenly found out nobody wanted to subscribe any more, because why pay for something if they're offering the same thing for free elsewhere? Print media are still trying to figure this out. Specialty journals, such as those I could be reading as I pursue a masters degree in technical writing, go the subscription route both in print and online, so I forego reading any of their material, being the cheap bastard that I am. So newspapers switched to the "pay for what you read online" idea -- but just try telling folks on the Internet that they have to pay for something you used to offer free of charge and watch them whine. Now the idea is that micropayments will be the savior of online print news -- but those who say that forget that it's already been tried, in the form of a newspaper subscription, either for the dead tree edition or online. And I, for one, ain't buying. A few weeks ago, the New York Times wanted to charge me 99 cents for a one-time peek at a 140-word story published in 1929. I decided it just wasn't worth a dollar to buy one story.

So, do print publications continue to subsidize free online content? Do print sources continue to ask for payment for online content, scaring away potential customers, either with a subscription or nickel-dime approach? Or do they, like Roland, surrender and figure that their involvement in the news is their ticket to purveying the news through social networking sites? I don't know the answer. If I did, many people would be beating a path to my door. As it is, my sister, brother-in-law and one friend in England (Hi, Martin!) will read this, while the rest of the world is ignorant that I'm even giving them a shout-out.

Tulip Mania


Michael Lewis, a writer for Vanity Fair magazine, has in the magazine's April 2009 issue a rather fascinating article on the collapse of the Icelandic economy. While I profess to know next to nothing about economics, banking, metallurty, engineering and physics, what Lewis writes is a lucid tale of motivated, energetic and intelligent people getting hip deep into something and not knowing (or at least not caring) that they really don't understand what's going on.

First of all, there's this, according to Lewis (and to be fair, he says this of the global financial crisis, not necessarily just the Icelandic one):

One of the hidden causes of the current global financial crisis is that the people who saw it coming had more to gain from it by taking short positions than they did by trying to publicize the problem.
I have to ask, who doesn't behave like this -- taking short-term gains over something that might happen? There are few who can see the big picture, and even fewer in the right position who will listen to them. Don't rock the boat is the prevailing attitude. I recognize that in myself sometimes, which is why I don't go in for things like piloting planes or doing anything more complicated behind the wheels of a vehicle or a financial statement than staying between the lines and closing my eyes as I buy and hold during this meltdown. As Bill Cosby says, "Greed jumps right on your head." That seems to have happened in Iceland. He compares the country's losses -- which totalled about 850 times the nation's gross domestic product -- to the tulip mania in the Netherlands during the 16th century, when speculators bought tulip bulbs at enormously exaggerated prices until the bottom dropped out of the market, inciting a financial panic.

As I read this article, I began to see more and more of myself in it (in addition to seeing more and more how oddly people in general behave). There's this, for example:

Word spread in Icelandic economic circles that this distinguished professor at Chicago had taken a special interest in Iceland. In May 2008, [Bob] Aliber was invited by the University of Iceland’s economics department to give a speech. To an audience of students, bankers, and journalists, he explained that Iceland, far from having an innate talent for high finance, had all the markings of a giant bubble, but he spoke the technical language of academic economists. (“Monetary Turbulence and the Icelandic Economy,” he called his speech.) In the following Q&A session someone asked him to predict the future, and he lapsed into plain English. As an audience member recalls, Aliber said, “I give you nine months. Your banks are dead. Your bankers are either stupid or greedy. And I’ll bet they are on planes trying to sell their assets right now.”
Reaction to his statement was odd: A few listened, the rest tried to suppress it, including the government, which worked to push journalists not to report on the speech. The nation's economy collapsed in October, five months later. Here we learn that nobody likes to hear bad news, even if they don't quite understand it. (Lewis himself was called by a "leading current events TV show," after only three days in the country, to talk about the crisis. The audience, Lewis wrote, said, would "enjoy hearing someone try to explain it, even if that person didn’t have any idea what he was talking about—which goes to show, I suppose, that not everything in Iceland is different from other places."

Lewis aptly sums up the crisis by interviewing an Iceland fisherman who was captain of his own boat at 23 and who spent seven years learning the trade until he felt he was quite good at it, only to leave fishing to become a currency trader with little to no education in currency trading, aside from knowing the fact that people could make a lot of money at it. "For the first time, I am without a word," the fisherman-cum-trader said when Lewis asked him why he felt he could trade currency without a seven-year apprenticeship.

Simply fascinating reading. I'd like to see Lewis do similar treatment to the U.S. crisis, but I'm afraid he'd find it much more difficult. I know I do.