Saturday, April 30, 2011

Shadow Behind

NOTE: Just a poem about a late evening walk. Have a nice day.

Proper night sounds:
Rain Bird sprinkler kicking
crickets telling the temperature
whispers of far away traffic
crunch of roadside gravel
mousy rustlings in the ditches
and vacant lots
Proper night smells:
hot dust and oil from the road
mixed with lofting lilac
purple stinkweed flower
mark skunklike the air
wet gravel
leftover smoke from charcoal briquettes
and something odd
watermelon mixed with auto exhaust
Proper night sights:
Cat's eyes
round in the flashlight
a good rock to kick
whitewashed moon and stars
Security light
obscure the heavens
warding off evil-doers from
and the Big Bear
Not even starlight
may shine through key-holes
Wet feet walk
lanky shadow behind

Thursday, April 28, 2011


NOTE: From time to time, I will post a bit from my FDENG 101 class here. Is for fun.

A good part of our discussion this week has focused on two things:

1) How do we express our ignorance without saying we’re stupid?
2) How do we counteract our own ignorance?

First, ignorance without stupidity.

These are not synonyms.
  • Ignorance, per the American Heritage Dictionary, is defined as “The condition of being ignorant; lack of knowledge.”
  • Stupidity, per the same dictionary, is defined as “The quality of fact of being stupid, or a stupid act, remark, or idea.”
So we now turn to the root words:
  • Ignorant: Without education or knowledge; exhibiting lack of education or knowledge; unaware or uninformed.
  • Stupid: Slow to apprehend, dull, obtuse; showing a lack of sense or intelligence.
To me, this implies that when we speak of ignorance, we speak of a lack of education – whether through lost or missed opportunity, laziness, distraction, or what have you. Stupidity, conversely, is a lack of the mental or spiritual means or drive to obtain knowledge. We may be at the same time both ignorant and stupid – we can lack knowledge, of, say, cosmology – the study of the universe – while at the same time lacking the mental or spiritual faculties necessary to attain that knowledge and erase our ignorance.

In contrast, we may be ignorant of cosmology but at the same time not stupid – we have at our fingertips the tools, the guidelines, the raw data, the imagination necessary to convert our ignorance into knowing.

I speak of cosmology because of this wonderful example of an ignorant, but not stupid, man turning his ignorance into a great pool of knowledge:

When the Mount Wilson Observatory was under construction at the turn of the 20th century in the hills above Los Angeles, a man by the name of Milton Humason worked there as a mule skinner, tending some of the many mules used to haul construction equipment and supplies up the mountain to where the observatory was being built.

After the observatory was finished in 1917, he got a job there as a janitor, partly to impress his father-in-law, who looked down on a potential son-in-law who had no formal education past the age of 14 and worked as a ranch hand.

Shortly thereafter, however, he changed jobs at the observatory and became a “night assistant,” or an astronomer’s helper. His patience, skill, and diligence, per Brian Vertrudo, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, brought him to the attention of George Hale, head of the observatory. Recognizing in Humason only a lack of knowledge, evidenced by his stunted education – but not stupidiy – evidenced by his dedication to his new duties – Hale appointed Humason to the scientific staff of the observatory in 1919.

Humason went on, with fellow astronomer Edwin Hubble, to describe the “red-shift” of stars and galaxies, a key component to the Big Bang theory.

There’s a bit more about Milton Humason here, from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos episode “Edge of Forever”:

I recommend you watch the full episode here, but especially the final few minutes, where Sagan, years after the show first aired in the early 1980s, updates the science he spoke of in the show. Here we see a man confessing his past ignorance without expressing a single iota of stupidity.

That brings us to another of mankind’s vices, from stupidity to pride. Do we, then, as educated, non-ignorant people, have the right to brag about our lack of ignorance? Not really. I know some very intelligent people, whose intelligence ranges from knowing how to interact with people to the intricacies of nuclear criticality safety. They have in common something Eliot Butler points out in his essay “Everybody Is Ignorant, Only On Different Subjects”:
I am sorry to say that one cannot always detect whether someone recently met has graduated from a university. But one can soon tell if one is speaking with an educated person. Mark Van Doren points out correctly that nobody who is will ever admit to being educated, but only that he or she is so conscious of many areas of gross ignorance. Will Rogers saw it clearly: “Everybody is ignorant,” he said, “only on different subjects.”
Our Father in Heaven wants us to attain knowledge and imagination and to help those around us. Elder David A. Bednar said in a Sept. 11, 2001, devotional BYU-Idaho:
Each of us must also appreciate the roles of faithfulness and diligence and obedience in the Lord’s pattern for receiving help from heaven. Please turn with me again to 2 Nephi 28:30. “For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.
He goes on to say:
[A]s we mature spiritually, we begin to develop a sound judgment, a refined and educated conscience, and a heart and mind filled with wisdom. It is not just that we have grown older, nor have we simply become smarter and had more experiences on which to draw, as important as those experiences are. Rather, the Holy Ghost has over time been expanding our intellect, forming our feelings, sharpening and elevating our perspective, such that we increasingly think and feel and act as the Lord would under similar circumstances.
Here we see the pattern for counteracting our own ignorance: Humility. We humbly seek knowledge and inspiration and sparks of imagination from our studies, from the books we read, the programs we watch, the thoughts we have individually and as we discuss things with others. Wee see the fruition of what Butler writes of:
[O]ne quickly detects when one speaks with an educated person. Matters learned last evening, and being pondered and developed, books recently read, an essay just encountered, an argument still going on, a book just purchase to be read tonight as soon as another is finished -- one hears of such from an educated person.

Over several years I have spoken with many graduating seniors in one program here: with several there was the pain of learning that not one book had been read since they entered the university except the required books. By others a few had been read. But the educated men and women in the program all had books just finished, others being read, and a growing list of books that they could hardly wait to get into.
Further, author CS Lewis had this to say about humility when he offered his sermon “Learning in War-Time,” in 1939:
As the author of the Theologia Germanicai says, we may come to love knowledge -- our knowing -- more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents but in the fact that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us. Every success in the scholar's life increases this danger. If it becomes irresistible, he must give up his scholarly work. The time for plucking out the right eye has arrived.
Acknowledging our ignorance is the first step in erasing it. And if we pursue that erasure with humility – expressing thanks to those who have gone on before us, as Albert Einstein says:
Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations. All this is put in your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it on to your children.
we will attain what President Gordon B. Hinckley said:
Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running abound shouting that he's been robbed. The fact is that most putts don't drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to be just people, most successful marriages required a high degree of mutual toleration, most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is like an old time rail journey . . . delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.

AREVA Rumors

Rumors and doomsaying about the cancellation of AREVA’s $3.2 billion uranium enrichment plant to be built west of Idaho Falls have certainly been monnaie courant on the complex lately.

Just yesterday on the bus I heard that the company had all but cancelled plans to build the plant, given the tsunami-induced disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, and that folks hired to work for the company in Idaho were being laid off because the bottom had dropped out of the future of nuclear power.

Not so, according to this story from the Idaho Statesman.

Odd that this is the first news story I’ve seen on the rumors – effectively dispelling them – and odder still that it didn’t come from a local media outlet. Oh well. Dan Yurman over at Idaho Samizdat covered this situation adequately well on April 24, having this to say:
Total U.S. demand in 2012 will be about 13 million SWU. Areva's share with a completed plant at Eagle Rock will be about 25% of that number. Both Areva and Urenco have filed with the NRC to double their production capacity by 2018.

So if anyone is running rumors up the flag pole about the firm skipping town, you really don't have to pay attention.
His subhead, of course, says it all: “Companies building multi-billion dollar facilities don’t do things on whims.”

AREVA itself is still pushing the green button on the project.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Privacy and Apple Tracking

I don’t know how much of a private life I have any more. I blog incessantly. I’m on the most popular social networking sites – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn – and have a presence or persona on any number of other sites ranging from the public – Uncharted, of course, and places like Consumerist, the New York Times, Slate – and private, including the places I work, CWI and BYU-Idaho.

There’s also that ethereal detritus of the Internet, ranging from sites I created at the University of Idaho when the Internet was in its public infancy – stored, it seems, in perpetuity thanks to the folks at the Wayback Machine – and some few evidences of my nearly decade-long career as a poor community journalist.

Oh yeah. Then there are the sites where I once was, but am no longer, due to disinterest or whatever. Those sites include Gawker, Second Life, eBay, and others – the first of which e-mailed me a while back because of a security breach at their end. I changed a few passwords and such, and hope for the best.

Thing is we don’t really know who is collecting data on us, or what they’re doing with that data, or what other people could do with their data. The iPhone/iPad “tracking” debacle ongoing right now, along with the plunge into outer darkness of the Sony PlayStation online thingie have got a lot of people worried about their “privacy.” (And what's up with playing games over the Internet? When I was a boy we played alone with our Atari 2600s and we LIKED it.)

But I wonder: Does privacy exist any more?

I don’t think so.

And we’re to blame.

My wife chides me incessantly for oversharing on the Internet. I have cut back on what I share and what I don’t share. But the Internet never forgets.

And here’s one thing about the Apple situation – if that data could be used somehow to track a stolen product, wouldn’t consumers be happy that Apple included such a feature – which they’re now calling a “bug” in its products?

And here’s another thing about the Apple situation – apparently it’s a federal law that cell phones have the ability to track a phone’s whereabouts, per Of course, nowhere in the act does it say that this data has to be recorded for months, but Apple’s most loyal fans, it seems, are grabbing at straws to defend the company in this latest of breathless Internet brouhahas.

Would I be concerned if I discovered my cell phone were tracking my movements and storing that information? Maybe. It wouldn’t reveal all that much, or certainly less than my blogs and Facebook and Uncharted sharings reveal about my movements, and they’re about as real time as any thief would need, I suppose, to go to my house and rob us blind of the possessions it took us a lifetime to shop for.

Apple, of course, denies any nefarious mischief.

The breathless Internet, as Scott Adams so wonderfully points out, doesn’t care what Steve Jobs is saying about the situation. Backpedal, backpedal, blah blah blah bling bling bling blah is all they hear. Even though what Jobs is saying sounds pretty reasonable. He tells All Things Digital:
As new technology comes into the society there is a period of adjustment and education. We haven’t–as an industry–done a very good job educating people, I think, as to some of the more subtle things going on here. As such, (people) jumped to a lot of wrong conclusions in the last week.
Poor communication and people jumping to conclusions. Breathless Internet indeed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chernobyl, 25 Years On

I am an advocate of nuclear power. But it is foolish to think that nuclear power is 100 percent safe. Nothing really in this world is, but those who advocate for nuclear power need to recognize that when nuclear power is unsafe, the consequences can be dire (warning: disturbing images).

A lot of things went wrong at Chernobyl, 25 years ago. Above all, the reactor that exploded was poorly designed and clumsily operated.

A lot of things went wrong in Japan – but what went wrong there was outside the control of humanity. Given what happened, I think the Japanese and those assisting have responded as well as could be expected.

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

Excuses and explanations, of course, don’t erase what happened at Chernobyl, nor will they erase what has happened and is happening at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan.

What is clear, however, is that comparisons between the two disasters do not make for an apples to apples comparison, as Joe Colvin explains at the ANS Nuclear Café blog, here.

Here’s what he says in part:
The Chernobyl reactors were a special design using highly enriched uranium in a graphite moderator—and as we learned from studying the event—the accident could only have happened with this type of design. The reactors were created to produce weapons grade plutonium for the Soviet military forces along with electricity for commercial use. They were difficult to operate and required constant adjustment to remain stable. The officer in charge was an electrical engineer who was not a specialist in reactor plants. The sequence of events which caused the accident occurred when operators began an engineering procedure to test the main electrical generator, which was outside of the reactor building.  Delays in starting the test, and management pressure to meet the schedule, resulted in several crucial outcomes that combined to cause the accident.

At Fukushima, from what we know at this time, it’s also plain that situation arose, not from human error in design or operation, but rather from the most extraordinary and unprecedented natural disaster in human memory—and what’s more, it was the tsunami wave, not the earthquake, which occasioned the loss of power and therefore challenged the cooling of the reactors. In fact, the reactors operated as designed and built – they shut down automatically when the earthquake occurred.
Yes, there are lessons to be learned from Fukushima, as Dr. Akira T. Tokuhiro outlines at Idaho Samizdat here.

Perhaps most significant is Dr. Tokuhiro’s call to form an international nuclear disaster strike team, ready to mobilize to tamp down a disaster as soon as possible, rather than waiting the three weeks that were required before international experts were invited and able to come to Japan’s aid. This would, of course, require further cooperation among various nuclear regulatory agencies, power companies, and other bureaucracies, but such cooperation is not impossible.

Monday, April 25, 2011

[Advertise in This Space]

How much am I advertised at?

Well, right now I know I’m wearing Wrangler jeans. They tell me so on the big leather label on the back. I like these jeans. They’re sturdy and comfortable. My Lee jeans, however, less so. So when it’s a Wrangler jeans week, I’m happier.

There’s lots of product packaging in the home. When I go to the pantry, I can see Diet Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Calidad brand tortilla chips, Life Cereal, Hy-Top soups, all sorts of things. Same in the bathroom.

And on the road. Lots of billboards and signs to read. And lots of advertising, too, on that Information Superhighway.

So that’s a lot. And I don’t even watch television or have a physical newspaper in the house – traditional avenues of advertising – though I do get plenty of advertising in the form of book blurbs and such on the printed matter I do read.

Morgan Spurlock, evidently, wants to find out how much we’re advertised at. And how much advertising we’ll tolerate (answer, way too much).

I’m not sure he’s necessarily saying advertising is good or evil – it’s just there, part of our accepted landscape. Maybe it’s getting more pernicious, and maybe you could say money is wasted on it – but I’m not convinced it’s advertising that drives us to make every purchase we make.

I bought the Wrangler jeans because they were my size, on sale at an outlet. I might go back and buy more Wranglers if I see them there again not because they’re wranglers, but because they feel good. But I’ll keep on trying other pants, on the hope I find something better.

We bought our Honda Pilot because we knew the former owner – my father-in-law – and because the financing plan – 0 percent API, again thanks to my father-in-law – couldn’t be beat.

So watch for an interesting turn at the end of this talk, when in an only slightly backhanded way, he praises the companies that agreed to sponsor his new film by agreeing to take the risk in turning over their brand to him, at least for this film. It’s one I want to see.

What Is An Educated Person?

NOTE: As I promised my English 101 students that I'd go down the same path they are taking as they take this course, here's my essay on what I believe constitutes an educated person. I'd not get full points, becasue I didn't follow the rubric -- something I've pointed out to my students.

The row of bricks was crooked. With a few taps of the trowel, my brother Albert moved them so they lined up with the string meant as a guide for me, the apprentice bricklayer, and also keep them straight with the bricks sixteen feet away on the other side of the garage. “If they don’t line up when we cross over the top of the garage door,” he said, “we’re in trouble.”

So I watched the bricks carefully as I laid them, tapping, pulling them out and laying them again when necessary, so they lined up with that stout green bit of string.

“Better,” Albert said, eyeing the bricks when I’d finished the course. “But watch that they’re not leaning. See this one,” he said, pointing to the offending brick. “It’s leaning in, toward the house.” He pulled the brick out of the wall, added a bit of mortar, then put it in place. We moved the string to the next mark and started again.

I don’t need to learn how to lay bricks, do I? I am, after all, a competent, degreed technical writer. But as I look to remodel the exterior of my house this summer or next, what I’ve learned is going to come in handy. Oh, I’ll make mistakes. I look at the other remodeling projects I’ve done on the house – the shingles, the bathroom tiles, the drywall and painting – and see where I have more to learn. But the next time I lay tile, the next time I lay brick or stone, the next time I plaster, I know what mistakes to avoid.

Those are all signs of an educated person according to Eliot A. Butler, Thomas G. Plummer, and even the ancient prophet Moroni. They all point toward my definition of an educated person: One who continues to seek out new skills and knowledge that need to be acquired or ought to be acquired to make living life more fulfilling.

Butler, writing in his essay Everybody Is Ignorant, Only on Different Subjects, says “An educated person is one who by his or her own initiative and discipline is consciously, vigorously, and continuingly learning.” In other words, an educated person doesn’t stop learning once the degree is earned or once the job offer is accepted.

Plummer, writing in his essay Diagnosing and Treating the Ophelia Syndrome, reminds us that what we don’t know eclipses what we do know: “[E]ventually every discipline enters into the unknown, the uncertain, the theoretical, the hypothetical, where teacher can no longer tell students with certainty what they should think.” I saw this in bricklaying when my brother had to figure out how to lay a border of bricks, half a brick wide, around an oval window. It took all day and a bit of concealed ironmongery and skilled cuts with the brick saw to lay those 120 pieces of brick, but he did it in the end by thinking it through and through experimentation.

And finally Moroni reminds us to learn from the mistakes of others. “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection,” Moroni writes in the ninth chapter of Mormon, “but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.” I can look back on some of the brick and stone jobs I’ve done, back on some of the things I’ve written as a technical writer or journalist or creative writer, and see the imperfections. But as I see them, I envision improvement.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

'I Call the Big One Bitey'

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

We've had our weenie dog -- officially named Dottie -- for a week now. Her personality, subdued by separation anxiety and unfamiliarity with the family fate has tossed her to, has emerged.

She's a feisty one.

Her preferred method of play is attacking my wrist and giving it a good, vigorous chew. No teeth marks yet, but I can assure you that I can feel the teeth when she's chewing on me.

We have finally gotten her some chew toys, and she seems to like them pretty well. Not as much as chewing on Dad, though.


Hearing the sound of meadowlarks in the morning is always a sign to me that spring is finally here.

Now, we hear lots of birds where we live: The red-shouldered blackbirds -- telephone birds, we call them, because of their call -- and the Yoo-Hoo Bird, also named by us for its distinctive whistle. We hear woodpeckers banging their heads all over the place, plus our fair share of mourning doves. Also plenty of nameless finches who hide in the trees and bushes and fill the air with their songs. I even love the timid, raspy songs of the sparrows, so often overlooked when the other birds arrive. Later, as the fruit grows on the trees, we see the mountain bluebirds and the wild canaries. And those kildeer, on their long legs, running through the weeds in the undeveloped business park where we walk. We know you're leading us from your nests, but we're willing to follow and fall for your ruse because you're working so well to defend your family.

But I always go back to meadowlarks in the morning. Or in the evening. Doesn't matter. There's no more beautiful sound in the world.

Then there's this, which I listen to when the world is cold and snowy and the birds have all flown south for the winter:

Friday, April 22, 2011

Theories on Property

 My brother Randy and I have a theory: Dad did many things to increase the value of property he owned, but one of the most important things he did -- at least in his eyes, we assume -- was to increase the sheer weight of said property, thus increasing its value. That, we figured, was the only way to explain why all of those landscaping rocks came home from Kilgore, all those buckets of nails and screws came to be underneath the work bench, how all those old trucks and Jeeps kept showing up, and why Dad was fascinated with building shed after outbuilding and yurt and such.

So with Mom actively giving away her stuff -- which is her right, it's her stuff'; she can do with it what she likes -- we have to wonder what Dad thinks about his property getting lighter now. Probably not worried, because his kids' properties are getting heavier with each visit. We teased her earlier this week that one of these days we'd come to visit her and see her sitting in a room bare of everything but her TV, her recliner, and, of course, the cats. That's Monkey inside, with Klinker in the windowsill outside.

(Also, folks, this is yet another example of what you're missing by not checking out My Kids Refrigerator blog. Go there. Enjoy it.)

Thanks, Rowlf

The older I get, the more I realize that just about everything I know about culture I learned from The Muppet Show. Which is not as farfetched as you might think, considering who the Muppets had as guests -- folks ranging from the Mummenschanz to Victor Borge to Peter Sellers and John Denver. A really wide variety, considering.

Now we have this simple song, sung by Rowlf. It's one of our favorites from the show.

Written by Red Kelly, apparently, who was somehow associated with Stan Kenton's jazz orchestra, highly popular in the 1950s and 60s. Here's one of his bits:

Here's a little bit more about Red Kelly. Don't trust the link in the Wikipedia article above, it goes to a NHL player by the same name. Nothing to do with jazz, unless that Red Kelly listened to it.

And here's a curiosity: David Bowie singing "You and I and George." Who knew that nonsense song got around that much?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

FDENG 101: Introductory Week

The first week of teaching FDENG101 is nearly over, and I’ve got some anxieties.

As of 11 am today, five students still haven’t checked into the course. I have e-mailed them, on the assumption that these Milennials are hard-wired to their computers and know instinctively without even having to check that they’ve got e-mail. Then again, many of these Milennials are so past e-mail as yesterday’s news. Maybe I need to text them? I may have to call them, though that seems a bit creepy and weird. “Hi. I’m an adult you’ve never met before. You’re supposed to be online with me this week. What’s going on?”

Other anxieties: Are they getting the messages I’m sending? I’ve used e-mail. I’ve used the announcement board. I’ve shown that I’m there, involved, in the classroom. Still, have they gotten the messages on what is expected of them next week?

I’ve got one student in danger of failing already because of a computer glitch on her end. I’m trying to help her through it so she can re-take the self-evaluation and get things going on the right foot again. I’m overcommunicating, trying to get things sorted out. Trying to do the opposite, kinda, of what the online education folks did with me when this course came up. (Still, no official announcement: Hey! Bro. Davidson! You’re teaching this semester. It’s all been after the fact. Good thing I’m on the ball, right?)

Very glad I’ve got only one section this semester. I thought, two weeks ago, two sections? Piece o’ cake. Not this week. Not that I’m overworked. Just a little overwhelmed. Shepherding 25 students (24, if the drop I’ve heard about goes through) will be challenge enough.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

WFMU, You're to Blame for This

Oh yeah. With those oddly repeating dissonant notes and the strong prelediction for the percussion side of the orchestra, you can tell right away this is Bernie Green.

I have WFMU’s blog and Internet-streamed radio shows to thank for my addiction to Bernie Green, and frankly, in a backdoor kinda way, to the world of Space Age Pop. It’s the kind of music that’s making somewhat of a comeback thanks to its occasional appearance on shows like “Mad Men,” and to its most famous patron saint, Henry Mancini. It’s just that cool-sounding music that you know comes from a different age. Like this:

Is anyone coming close to music like this these days?

Well, Michael Giacchino, for one.

(Maybe not true Space Age Pop, but a nice blend of its thematic elements, from the reliance on bossa nova and other “different” beats to the more European influence in the orchestration.)

This might be a better example:

The Photographic Paradigm Shifts

Stop reading this blog post right now and go here, for a fascinating article at on a former Baltimore Sun photographer who turned his talent in photography, a buyout from the newspaper industry and a free lighting seminar into a business that’s grossed $1 million in ticket sales for a 29-city photography tour.

Yeah, this is another one of those Horatio Alger Internet stories that could never happen to you in real life because, well, it just doesn’t happen.

Except it did. And it does.

Read it now.

David Hobby is bringing his photographic skills to the masses, and for cheap. In fact, according to Slate, the most popular item on his blog is a free course on photographic lighting.

He’s connecting with amateur photographers hungry to become better. He’s networking with other photography enthusiasts who are “very enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge,” passing all of that knowledge on to others.

Sound familiar?

Yeah, that’s what Uncharted wants to do.

Except he’s doing it for free.


Networking, networking, networking. Getting out, talking with people, getting them to visit his blog, getting them to contribute, getting them to help, getting them connected with people who want help. And he’s not forcing everyone under one roof, i.e., his own.

He’s thinking in a new media way: collaboratively.

Here’s what I like, and what old media – including, in some ways, Uncharted, is finding frightening. And, I hope for Uncharted, opportunistic:
How Hobby went from being a workaday newspaper photographer to an internationally recognized guru is a story tied up with seismic changes in the photography profession. By teaching a horde of novices the skills necessary to shoot photographs of a quality that was until very recently only within the grasp of an elite few, Hobby has played a significant role in the transformation of the profession. In the last few years, the market rate for many types of professional photographs has dropped by as much as 99 percent.
Amateurs becoming better and taking over. Scary Idea No. 1. At least for those used to and comfortable with the status quo.
To get a sense of just how bad things are for professional photographers right now, the story of Robert Lam is instructive. When Time needed a photo to illustrate its "New Frugality" cover story in late 2009, it purchased Lam's image of a jar of change from stock-photo agency iStockphoto. The going rate for a Time cover had typically been $3,000 to $10,000. Lam was paid $31.50. Nevertheless, Lam declared, "I am happy"—the payment was more than he'd expected the photo to generate, and he was delighted to have a Time cover in his portfolio. Veteran professional photographers were livid, calling Lam an "IDIOT," among other unkind words.
Scary Idea No. 2 here, or the idea of amateurs being pleased to exchange a portfolio addition and a token payment versus professionals who want and expect handsome pay – and are loath to welcome into their ranks those who buck the system.

And finally:
That sentiment is alien to the old guard in the professional photography world, where, Hobby says, "there's a lot of information-hoarding, and [a sense that] if I teach this person how to do this, he'll become my competition." Once the dust settles from all the change he's helped bring about, Hobby thinks there will still be legitimate careers for professional photographers. "You'll have fewer rock stars, and a much larger middle class," he says, a group of photographers who will find ways to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.
Scary Idea No. 3: The rising professional middle class, supplanting and usurping the professional class.

This all reminds me of something else that I read from a fantasy novel by Harry Harrison, of all people. Go here and search on “Mark Forer” for a description of the economic model on the planet Chojecki, where people work using the talents they have and the abilities they enjoy using for “wirrs,” or a “work hour,” the planet’s unit of exchange. Because everyone works at what they enjoy and because to live comfortably only a few wirrs a week are required for basic shelter, food, and other necessities, the people of Chojecki enjoy their lives living much as David Hobby does, working on what interests them, not having to worry about money, being happy for a “minimal” reward on a project well done because all that’s required is a minimal reward . . . but that’s getting off the subject.

(I haven't gone all radical on you; the "anarchy" the above link refers to is the libertarian ideal of direct democracy, not the Molotov-cocktail sort.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Poem Fragment

Here's a bit of nonsense poetry I'm working on. Obviously, it needs work.

Outer space is most untidy
Filled with rocks and scuffed-up moons
Asteroids and comets flighty
Planets tilted like buffoons.

Maybe someday, God be willing
Some gigantic celestial Hoover
Will come a-sucking through the tailings
Of His own creative maneuver.

Cognitive Dissonance

The Scott Adams sock puppetry flap is still making waves on the breathless side of the Internet.

Part of me wonders, however, if he doesn’t have a point or two. Especially this one (emphasis mine):
Some time ago, I learned the hard way that posting messages with my own identity turns any discussion into an orgy of name-calling. When I'm personally involved, people speculate that I'm being defensive, or back pedaling, or being a douche nozzle, or trying to weasel my way out of something. Speaking with my true identity also draws too much attention to the very rumors I'm trying to extinguish. In contrast, when my spunky alter ego weighs in, people generally focus on the facts presented, including checking the source material to see my writing in context. The masked vigilante strategy worked well until recently. And I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun.

Most of the inaccurate information about me on the Internet is harmless. And negative opinions about the quality of my work are always legitimate. The trouble starts when advocates for one cause or another use me as a whipping boy to promote their agendas. As I mentioned, the way that works is that they take out of context something I've written, paraphrase it incorrectly, and market me as a perfect example of the thought-criminal that they've been warning everyone about. I don't think any of this is an organized conspiracy. I think it's a combination of zealotry, bad reading comprehension, opportunism, and some herd behavior.
I hope, for starters, that I’m not doing exactly what Adams rightly scolds the breathless Internet of doing: Taking his writings out of context to make him a whipping boy (or a hero) for the point I’d like to make. (Read his full post here, so you may get the context.)

Of course, most people, as Adams says, don’t want the context, especially if it comes from the very person being accused of toolishness. We see that all the time, on the Internet and in the news – As soon as someone tries to defend himself or herself, there’s a good faction of listeners who react pretty much like this:

(Once again, you have to click the link for context, so I’m not guilty of doing what Adams rightly scolds the breathless Internet of doing. My apologies to

Yet there is a faction of that faction who will, as Adams points out, react in a different manner if a perceived neutral party presents evidence that something has been taken out of context, or whatever.

So Adams, being a logical person, put one and two together and thought he’d found a solution. That his solution is sock puppetry, one of the few things the breathless Internet deigns to frown upon, shows that logic, even when applied in the best circumstances and with the best intentions, often fails. (Mr. Adams, sorry again for using you as an example in all of this. Yet it’s so easy.)

I have to wonder: If most of the inaccuracies about him on the Internet were harmless, then why go to the trouble of taking on the biggies? Surely, a vast portion of his Dilbert audience (myself included) were generally unaware of or indifferent to the inaccuracies until the Metafilter flap exploded. I guess that’s just a bit of cognitive dissonance – Adams being worried too much about one audience he was not thinking clearly about his effects on other audiences. (Though he does say this in his blog entry):
The next thing to consider is that in my line of work, some types of rumors can cause economic damage to hundreds of people in the so-called value chain. The stakes are high. I know from experience that when a rumor flares up that says, for example, I'm affiliated with one particular interest group or another, the people who hate that group will stop reading Dilbert comics. And they will aggressively warn everyone who will listen to do the same. This was a small problem in the pre-Internet age. Today, a rumor will send an army of advocates to vote down your products on and defame you on every blog and web site that allows comments. It happens in hours, not days.
That Adams thought he could solve the problem in this manner is laughable to say the least. I have grown used to the fact that as far as the breathless Internet is concerned, I hold views that, in context or not, are not popular and are not going to find well-reasoned and copious support. I still may blog about a few of those views, but I’m not going to expect that they be accepted or even interpreted correctly by those who read them. And trying to reason with people whom you already know are prone to “zealotry, bad reading comprehension, opportunism and some herd behavior” is already asking for trouble even if you do it under your own name and not in a manner that the breathless Internet shuns.

The Internet makes such ill-conceived behavior (the sock puppetry as well as the zealotry, etc.) easily accomplished. We’ve lost our ability to filter what we’d say because that least porous of all filters – laziness – is gone, thanks to that glowing LCD screen and keyboard in our collective basements, connected to the world. Mark Twain famously said: “It takes your enemy and your friend, working together to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.”

The breathless Internet is both friend and enemy to us.

I could, by the way, see Mark Twain loving and hating the breathless Internet of today, given his famous battles with the Gilded Age’s version of the breathless Internet, or the news business. And I could see him falling into the same logical trap Adams fell into as well.

So what’s the solution?

I dunno. Maybe this.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Cancel the Red Alert

Well, it appears the powers that be have got the problem resolved. Sort of. Or at least it's in the process.

My poor stressed-out students, bound and determined to go to their physical classroom, can do so. I never did get a clear explanation on why there was this mix-up with my classes, but at least it's being resolved now.

Part of the mystery unfolded tonight: Got an e-mail from my teaching group leader who said there are only five of us FDENG 101 teachers left. That explains why I got a course this semester -- there was no one else to give it to.

I have to wonder, though, when they were going to communicate that fact with me. If I hadn't been on the ball with it all, they'd have assigned a classroom of students to a teacher who just wasn't there . . .


After a 2 ½ year absence, we have a dog in the house.

Nowhere near as big as Dug here, nor nowhere near as loquacious. And because she’s a puppy, she’s got that patent puppy stink about her. But she’s here and the kids couldn’t be more thrilled.

She’s a miniature dachshund, same as our previous pet Moki, who died just before Thanksgiving in 2008. Michelle, in a moment of serendipity, found her on Craigslist last week and jumped at the opportunity to get her from a couple in Roberts.

The dog is, of course, very shy right now. She did better her first night with us than I thought she would – only one episode of crying at night, and that was remedied by moving her to the bed with us, rather than in her basket. We’re hoping in the next few weeks that she’ll get to feeling more and more at home with us.

It was kind of a rough weekend, though. Our daughter especially has been pining for a dog, and she really wanted to go either to the shelter or Petco this weekend to get one. Knowing that we’d have a dog in the house before the weekend was over, we had to keep putting our daughter off the trail, so to speak, though it all fell apart Saturday morning when I foolishly pointed out a dog in the truck next to us on the road. Fortunately, all of that behavior was redeemed after church.

Here she is:

And again:

‘I’m Sorry I Peed in Your Cesspool,’ or "Shaddup Shuttin' Up!'

Soooo, here’s a conundrum:

Who is the bigger jerk in this matchup:

1) The relatively new author who, in the context of criticizing a lightly critical review of one of her books totally melts down, drops a few f-bombs, and then storms off in a huff amid an Internet-coordinated flame war of just about everything she has created and posted on the web,


2) A seasoned author and illustrator who, in the context of trying to set the record straight on his views on various subjects, sock puppets on a highly-popular weblog and then is threatened with an outing by the admins of said site because, well, the site has no privacy policy to speak of.


3) The site that threatened to out the sock puppeteer unless the sock puppeteer outed himself.

I’ve got to admit that, in the grand scheme of things, probably No. 2 is the winner here, though No. 3 comes in a close second. Although they did have some legitimate news reasons – in the sense of yellow journalism – to out the puppeteer. Who is Scott Adams of Dilbert fame. Who outed himself on his own blog.

I’m not saying sock puppeting is a good thing. I think it’s an incredibly stupid thing to do. Unethical? Yes. Boneheaded and vexing? Sure, especially when, like Scott Adams, you sign into something using another account (in his case, PayPal) that identified himself by his real name.

Listening to Metafilter (where all of this went down) and Gawker preach about the no-no that is sock puppetry is kind of entertaining, as in general the Internet is to ethics as bowling is to Windsor Castle. But the little guy – and this is one of America’s most endearing qualities that has oozed onto the Internet like a melted malted – likes nothing more than seeing the other guy in the cagal, and it’s even better if it’s one of those snobby, rich, toffee-nosed bungholes with a past (as Gawker brings out) like Scott Adams.

Gawker’s follow-up coverage is especially funny, as they pick on Adams for saying:
Adams goes on to explain that the reason he has to keep bashing his critics anonymously on message boards is that lazy internet media like "Gawker, Metafilter, and any other cesspool with an IP address" take his words out of context, and various "advocates for one cause or another use me as a whipping boy to promote their agendas."
And then they go on to do exactly what he writes about:
He throws his lot in with the racist California Republican official who forwarded a picture of Obama's face photoshopped on a chimpanzee:

If your only context is what the Internet says about this story, you assume it's a typical racist act by a Republican who is already guilty by association. But if I add the context that Googling "George Bush monkey" gives you over 3 million hits, and most of them are jokes where President Bush's face is transposed on a monkey, you see what's really going on. Democrats and advocates of civil rights are using the media to further an agenda at the expense of a woman who was probably so non-racist that the photo in question didn't set off her alarms as being a career-ending risk.

We actually agree with Adams on this. You should feel exactly as bad for making fun of Scott Adams as you should about this Republican official's situation.
(And, no, it doesn't matter that the person who sent the Obama-as-monkey email has a habit of sending racist and questionable emails, folks -- what matters is that you're doing exactly what Adams accuses you of doing, and you can't even see it.)

So Scott Adams does indeed have a point, though it’s too bad he had to stoop to this kind of stupidity to make it. And in his eyes, it’s clear he feels he’s done nothing wrong and is turning this event into yet another way to get back at his enemies – does he keep an enemies list? Signs point to yes – with backhandedness.

As always in these situations, there’s much back and forth, with one side saying one thing (like this) and the other saying something else. I’m not going to bother presenting both sides here, as I’m not quite exactly sure both sides are saying. I’m just here for the “Dance, Monkey, Dance” factor, for which both Metafilter, Gawker, Scott Adams and others are obliging nicely.

Then again, this goes back to something I, Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius, tweeted a few days ago:

Reminds me again what Nathan Bransford (this is a good day on MFB for him) said about accepting criticism:
Publicly: Ignore them completely.

Privately: Complain like hell to anyone who will listen.
What Adams learned (or not) this week is that sock puppetry isn’t complaining in private. Especially if you sign in under your own name and call yourself a genius. You end up looking like this:

When you should be doing this:

And, at a bare minimum, remember you wrote something like this (as Gawker points out):

An Extremely Fungible Commodity

Books are, have been, and always will be a fungible commodity, no matter who writes an individual book, how long it takes to make an individual copy, how much an individual copy sells for, whether a discounted book from an unfamiliar author encourages readers to pursue other books written by that author offered at higher prices, and what the reader does with it when he or she is through. (E-books are challenging that fungibility, but I think it'll be only a matter of time before the common fungibility of books in general catches up to the electronic world.)

Nathan Bransford argues at his blog today that authors who are moving into discounting their e-books at relatively fire-sale prices of $2.99 to $0.99 are reaping rewards now that future authors will not reap in the same arena.

Here’s what he says, and for what I know, I believe he’s absolutely right:
Thought experiment. Let's say that everyone sold their books at $0.99. Stephenie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, J.A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking... everyone.

What would that publishing world look like?

Well, for one, more books would probably be sold overall. But not an exponentially greater number. There's an important constraint that limits the number of books that can be sold: readers' attention.

At the end of the day, there are only so many people in the world who read books and only so much time in the day they spend reading them and so much money they're willing to spend for them. People do buy a few more books than they end up reading, but not that many more.

So basically in this hypothetical you end up with a situation where no one makes much money per copy sold and a good bulk of the readership that would probably have paid more if they had been required to. Unknown authors would no longer derive a benefit from the discounting.
I think we’re seeing such approaches in traditional publishing that mirror what e-book authors are doing with their discounted wares.

I rarely buy new books of any variety. I may purchase a few new ones for Christmas gifts, but the bulk of the books I buy I find at thrift stores. There is one exception, however: Every time I visit the local Dollar Tree, I head back to their miniature book section and check out what titles there may be. These are new books, unsold at traditional book stores, which the publisher has heavily discounted and dumped onto the market because they’re just not selling any more. While there is some obvious trashery there – the latest political book of either stripe is usually there, forlorn, on sale for a buck – I’ve found some exceptionally good reads there as well, including William Langewiesche’s “The Atomic Bazaar” and Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.”

While it’s true that authors aren’t choosing to have their novels dumped at dollar stores or re-sold at thrift stores whereas some are choosing to heavily discount their e-books, I think the analogy between what I’ve observed in my purchasing patterns and what Bransford identifies as the “tragedy of the commons” with the e-book price wars is apt.

There is limited readership attention span for books. Given that I can now purchase e-books for the same price at which I purchase used or dollar store books, these e-books are now not only competing with each other and with best-sellers but with, frankly, every book that’s ever been widely distributed. Or even narrowly distributed. They’re competing, pricewise and cachet-wise, with any of this fungible commodity I can find on the market.

When I peruse the shelves at the thrift store, I’m not concerned that a “new” author is, in fact, deceased now, or that his or her book was published thirty, forty, fifty years ago. Most of what I see on the thrift store shelves is new to me and carries with it not only the thrill of discovering a new author but also what previous readers have left in the book, from book marks to margin notes to the fact that long ago they took the trouble to get a signed copy of a book from an author and then, later, gave the book away.

I am more apt to purchase used books from an author I’ve read before, but if the book proves disappointing, I’m just as content to send the book right back to the thrift store and avoid that author completely in the future or – as has been the case with a few books – they just end up in the fireplace or some other convenient memory hole.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Where Do the Taxes Go? Or, Why Our Government is Broken.

Over at the White House's website, they've got a nifty little calculator that tells you, to the penny, where your federal income taxes, Social Security taxes, and Medicare taxes go once the government gets its hands on them.

It's kinda fun, thinking that, for example, that 1.2 percent of the federal income taxes I could have theoretically paid -- the numbers you'll see in this figure are an approximation of what I might have paid, but not actual numbers -- went to NASA and other science programs.

Except it doesn't work.

Here's what happens: As the year progresses, the federal government collects may taxes. And because the federal government is like a six-year-old with his allowance hot in his pocket while he's in the toy aisle at the dollar store, that money gets spent as soon as it hits the pan.

Then, when I file my taxes -- and you'd better believe your sweet chunk that I file them early -- I get all of my income taxes back, and then some, because of those wonderful things called dependents and deductions. We have three kids. Dependents mean instant tax savings. My wife's going to school. That means a lifetime education tax deduction. Then there's this and that and the other thing and at the end of it all, I'm getting back from the federal government more than I paid in federal income taxes.

So that leaves them with a conundrum: They're suddenly looking at a bank account where their checks to NAZA and the military and such are going to bounce. So, naturally, they look at the pots of money they took from me and didn't give back -- Social Security especially -- and say, um, we've got some rubber checks coming. Couldn't we just borrow  . . .

And they do. And they borrow from other folks, because they certainly don't want that check they just mailed to me to bounce unless they want to hear from my senator who is busy spending the money I'm sending to Washington on projects in my state and then letting the feds worry about those bouncing checks because, hey, they're the ones spreading that money around in the first place.

Now we've got politicians who are looking at this situation and saying it's unsustainable. Well, it is sustainable if they increase taxes or cut spending or do a combination of whatever. But because they're politicians and have to deal with hotheads like me who'll get all upset if the checks they're sending me aren't bigger than the ones I'm sending them, they do half-hearted little efforts that kinda almost don't solve the problem. But since they can make noise about cutting government waste or finding more ways to squeeze blood out of us turnips they score political points and the media loves them or hates them and we love or hate the media depending on what message they're sending us.

I look at it all, look at the money I send the government and the additional money they send back, and realize, as does PJ O'Rourke in "Parliament of Whores," that we are all doomed. Doomed.

According to Annie Lowrey writing at, there are a lot of geniuses out there who think this tax receipt calculator is just the bees' knees since it'll explain where all of our money goes and get us not focusing on aid to foreign countries and such, where they seem to think we all seem to think the money is going.

She writes:
According to the many proponents of tax receipts, such a breakdown should serve as a powerful corrective to our wild misconceptions about government spending. The foreign aid canard is perhaps the most outrageous and persistent, so much so that Obama actually mentioned it in his debt-reduction speech this week. Americans believe we spend about 25 percent of the budget—that's about $890 billion—on foreign assistance. They think that number should be 10 percent, so they are eager to put foreign-aid spending on the chopping block. But foreign aid makes up about 0.6 percent of spending. If you pony up six grand in federal taxes, just $33.97 goes overseas, according to Third Way's calculator.
Except there's no accounting for tax deductions that end up giving me more money than I pay in.

Snapping My Underwear

This just doesn't bode well.

When this week started, I had no classes to teach at BYU-Idaho. Midweek, I had two. Now, I'm just not sure, and I'm starting to get a small collection of emails form confused students who aren't so sure either.

Part of our "preflight checklist" in getting ready for our courses to begin includes sending an email to our students, introducing the course and letting them know what to expect. Thusfar, I've received four replies from some gently confused students who were convinced they'd signed up for a classroom version of this English course.

So confusion reigns.

I've contacted the powers that be to find out what's supposed to be going on, and, as a precaution, told these students that they should attend their physical classroom unless they hear otherwise.

This makes me nervous, because of the possibility that I'm going to wind up with a classroom full of disgruntled students who were counting on a physical classroom but have instead been shunted into an online course. Not that an online course is all that bad -- but it's not what they were expecting. Not what I'm expecting either -- I don't think it's fair to my students or me to suddenly plop them into an online course without letting them know. I hope that hasn't happened, and that we're just dealing with crossed wires in the registration system.

I've emailed the teacher they say they're supposed to have, so she can help deshambleize.

But I'm going to be doing some nail-biting over the weekend, nonetheless.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Different Angle

This photo is in the public domain.

At first glance, this photo looks pretty normal. Well, normal enough for a photograph taken of a moon orbiting within the rings of Saturn.

It’s Mimas, with its oblate sphereoid shape showing well in this photo – if you squint at it just right, you can see the moon is slightly egg-shaped.

Then look at the moon on its right side.

Looks kinda flat, right?

You’re not seeing things. It is flat. At least from that angle. What you’re actually seeing is the ridge that rings Crater Herschel, a massive impact crater on the moon’s surface.

The moon itself is only about 400 kilometers across. Herschel is 130 km across – or almost a third of the diameter of the moon.

Here’s a photo with a better view of the crater, taken by Voyager 2. (The first was taken by the Cassini space probe.)

This photo is in the public domain.

I’m currently working on a novel that takes place on one of Saturn’s other moons, Iapetus. I may have to work Mimas into it somehow. Not that Iapetus is a slacker in the weird looks department, either. Behold:

This photo is in the public domain.

It’s got a pretty massive impact crater of its own, plus that odd equatorial ridge that makes the moon look like a walnut.

Ah, the weirdness of space.

More sciencey stuff here.

And here:

This video clip is used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

Yes, More About the Teaching Gig. It's Doubled.

 This image is in the public domain.

When I got out of bed Wednesday morning, it was to the realization that I have less than a week to get ready to teach a section of English at BYU-Idaho.

When I went to bed Wednesday night, it was to the realization that I have less than a week to get ready to teach two sections of English at BYU-Idaho.

My eyes kinda popped out when I opened my virtual classroom and saw 49 students there in two sections, rather than the 25 in one section I’d seen earlier in the day. I’m not complaining – I may as well jump into this with both feet – and the money and experience are certainly welcome.

I’m just a little concerned about the schizophrenic nature of the online BYU-I community at the moment. What will I find when I go into the classroom tonight – and worse yet, what will I find when class begins on Tuesday?

Thankfully I’ve got all day Friday to sort things out, get things polished and spend some time myself exploring the classroom which, like a physical classroom in an old building, has all sorts of odd little crannies where you find unexpected things. Like the chat room. I know we had one in Blackboard when I was taking courses at Utah State, but we never used it. It’s linked directly to the option for signing up to lead a discussion – but there are no instructions there for the students, or for me for that matter, as to why they have to sign up for a discussion there. The syllabus is vague, as is the schedule. I’ll have to poke around and tear things apart and ask lots and lots and lots of questions before all of this is cleared up.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Experimentation Begins

I’m hip deep now, obviously, in getting things ready on my end for the online class I’ll begin teaching in a week.

I’ve had a few lucid moments, such as reading a fourteen-page document put together by a fellow Foundations English teacher for an idea on how I should approach putting together my own instructors’ corners for the course and thinking that, wow, do they really need that much structure?

Then again, my only experience with online courses has been in a graduate program, where student motivation can make up for the lack of structure, so I can’t base everything I do on my own experiences.

Then again, I’ve had moments like this as I prepare:

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

So here are a few of my thoughts as I go into this course:
  • I’m going to show solidarity with my students by completing the assignments as they do, in the time they’re allotted to do it. Maybe I can build some empathy that way for them, and maybe that can help me decide how to contribute to making the course better.
  • I’ve got to succeed at this. I want to do it again, scary as it is at the moment. This online teaching gig is a serious stepping-stone to other career paths in the future, if I can stick with it and actually get some good student reviews out of it so those higher up in the program continue to like me.
  • I’ve got to overcommunicate. That’s my Achilles heel – I tend to undercommunicate. At the same time, I don’t want to overwhelm – that’s why I’m looking at this fourteen-page document with some trepidation, as I’m not sure how useful it really will be to my students.
Despite my anxiety and shortcomings, I’m really anxious for this class to begin. It’ll take me out of my comfort zone for a while – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why Aggregators Work

I know it’s Blinding Flash of the Obvious Time again here at Mister Fweem’s Blog, so I’ll get it out of the way quickly:

Aggregators work because, given the diversity of the Internet, web surfers like one-stop shopping for the stuff they want to consume.

That’s why Facebook works. One-stop shopping to see what our friends and pseudofriends are doing, or at least what they say they’re doing.

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

That’s why Twitter and Flickr and other such content aggregators work: Want to look at a bunch of pictures or inane babble? Flickr and Twitter are the places to go.

That’s why Mister Fweem’s Blog works for me. I’ve turned it into a pseudo-aggregator of all things Mister Fweem, but, more importantly, all things Mister Fweem wants to keep up with every day. True, I don’t have links to many of the major sites I visit every day, but there are plenty of links here to the sites I might visit on an occasional basis if they’ve got something that piques my interest. All I have to do is a quick scan and I can see in an instant whether or not I need to go further.

Newspapers used to be aggregators of a sort, but they offer things they think readers need, not what readers think they need. That, too, might be part of Uncharted’s slow plodding out of the doldrums: We’re not quite sure who our users are, nor what, exactly, they hope to get out of Uncharted, so the efforts we’re undertaking at the moment are kind of scattershot – and still not even aggregated under our own name.

The Internet is not a mere construct of web pages. It’s a social community. And when sites like Uncharted lumber up to the popular groups and say, “Hey, here I am, can I join the conversation?” we’d better have something to contribute to the conversation. And fast. And topical and pertinent to what the speakers and listeners want to hear, else we’ll be doing that loser walk from group to group and never get invited back. Maybe we need to find a sociologist who is extremely web-savvy to be part of our team, over anyone who specializes in advertising or marketing. Anybody can market something. And nobody but the real big boys are making money on the Internet. If we could but understand what “the people” want, the rest would fall into place. Quickly.

So this is why we ought to worry about things like this.

The folks at whereivebeen are going where their readers and contributors are, rather than making their readers and contributors come to them. They’re hitting on that idea of leveraging themselves socially, rather than trying to concentrate on the brand and conglomerating everything under one roof so “we” can get the credit or the money or the whatever it is we’re after.

So what’s the solution?

Uncharted affiliate blogs. If we can partner with other writers who are already putting stuff together on their own sites in a way that keeps their primary traffic and motivation where it is already – with the advantages of tapping into their audiences for, perhaps, some spillover traffic onto our site, we’re further ahead. We’re tapping into an already travel-anxious audience. Why not, for example, team up with the Don’t Get Bored in Idaho blog, send traffic her way, while at the same time requesting that she put up four or five links on a rotating basis on her site, directing some of her Idaho audience to the Idaho content on Uncharted? That increases her page views and our views reciprocally, and we’re able to tap into different audiences and find – who knows – somebody interested in contributing to our site because they’ve got stuff for bored people in, say, Oregon.

An Uncharted Flickr photo pool. I don’t know why we’re not doing this already. If we collected staff photos and – with permission – photos from our Explorers to put into a pool on Flickr, we’re opening up our photo talent to an enormous audience of photographic talent. Maybe if the folks on Flickr see our stuff and traipse over to our site, they might be inspired to contribute a bit at Uncharted.

All of this needs to be done. And all of it needs to be advertised heavily on Uncharted itself, so that our Explorers and those who wander to our site from the magic world of Google know where they can find us. We ought to have lots of advertising on Uncharted – for Uncharted’s other little ventures into other social media platforms. We need to show that we are where the rest of the Internet is.

There are endless possibilities. The Internet is not a walled garden, where we have to keep everything under our roof in order to prosper. We just have to tap into current audiences and make them aware of our presence. Show that we’re interested in them, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll be interested in us.

But, I can hear you asking – How does that work with the one-stop shopping I talk about earlier? Like this:

Uncharted becomes the place where readers can come to find travel photos and stories, either there or on other sites more localized to their own areas of interest or geographical location. Those sites, in turn, become portals for people who like a specific activity or geographical location but occasionally branch out and find stuff to do in other areas – through Uncharted.

We still have to work hard to build the Uncharted brand, so people will want to come to our site and, more importantly, be affiliated with us and occasionally direct some of their users to us. We, in turn, seek out those who are living the Uncharted lifestyle, but who have web portals of their own. We’re an aggregator connecting people to people through the web. As Alan stated at our last retreat, “Uncharted is more than a website.” We need to leverage that, and show that we are a lifestyle, a place to go for good information whether it’s branded as ours or not.


So, you know that post I put up last night, about being frustrated that once again I had no class to teach at BYU-Idaho.


I do. Twenty-five souls.

Not that the BYU-I website makes it easy to find that out. Last time I checked, I had five students pre-registered for one of the sections I was signed up to teach. Then they disappeared. Like they had the time before, and the time before that. I figured, well, no students there, no students anywhere. Still, I kept checking. Maybe I’ll get lucky. But no.

Then I checked – on a whim – in Brainhoney today, just to see what was happening. Twenty-five students. HELP!

I found this out by e-mailing my, oh, what’s the phrase – instructor coach or adviser or something: My section of the course had indeed been cancelled, but the one that suddenly appeared in Brainhoney is one that he was going to teach. It’s now “in the process” of being transferred over to me. I have that from two sources now, so it's official. And it might not be complete until the weekend, giving me not a lot of time to get ready.

I’m thrilled, but I would have liked a little notice.

Good thing is, I’ve read the text.

Good thing is, I’ve got an introductory podcast ready to go.

Good thing is, I’ve got a week to re-read everything and poke and prod the online course from the teacher’s side until everything is ready to go.

Bad thing is, I can’t check it all from work so I’ll have to wait until I get home to do it all.

So I’m a little nervous.

Someone is watching over this wovable, bwue-eyed, adowable wittow fat man.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Aesthetically Incongruent I

Thank heaven I’m aesthetically incongruent by nature, or else I’d have something to worry about.

But as I reflect further, it’s probably true that I am at least marginally, narrowly, a sufferer of what is likely soon to be branded as Aesthetic Incongruity Resolution Syndrome, a psychological disorder brought on by the inability to suffer fools when it comes to decorating the modest hovel I and my family call a home.

If you’re unsure as to what Aesthetic Incongruity Resolution might be, read this study.

Here’s the definition for those suffering from Chronic Link Aversion Syndrome:
[Aesthetic incongruity is] the inconsistency that arises from a mismatch between an object and its environment, often accompanied by negative affect and a motivation to resolve this incongruity. Aesthetic incongruity is an unpleasant state, and research in aesthetics suggests that individuals are motivated to strive for aesthetic congruity.
Thankfully for our budget, we subscribe to the philosophy of embracing aesthetic incongruity. For example, the fanciest appliance we own doesn’t have a place in the house – it’s out in the shed, freezing our blueberries and raspberries. Our 30-plus-years-old freezer died last weekend, so we bought a new one. And put it out in the shed where cool temperatures for about six months of the year will keep it running at a minimum, saving electricity.

Thankfully for our budget, we also subscribe to the philosophy of making do. We have a lot of mismatched furniture in the house. Both couches are hand-me-downs, as is the television, both rocking chairs, beds, other major appliances, et cetera. We have a rather incongruent collection in our living room: A henna-ish couch, a blue overstuffed recliner, a wooden rocking chair, a tan-colored piano, plus a bleu padded rolling rocker, all perched on the ugliest yet sturdiest berber carpeting known to man. Our house kinda looks like the furniture showroom at Deseret Industries, but with much less floral print. And we don’t mind. We make do.

I do confess to one incongruity resolution-related affectation, but it’s functional, not aesthetic. When we got high-speed internet a few years back, it made no sense to have it without having both a wired and wireless network in the house. And when I bought a new computer direct from the manufacturer, I went out and bought a set of speakers separately, to save money. Those are hardly aesthetic reasons for shopping, are they? (I fit in well with the study, which shows that males are much more prone than females to buy more electronics if the aesthetics just don’t feel right.)

This study is an interesting one. The study shows that shoppers, when they encounter an aesthetic incongruity after making a purchase and bringing it home, are more likely to do more shopping to erase the incongruity than they are to return the incongruous object.

So come the suggestions:
[F]irms may purposefully design products to be unique or different and thus stand out in the consumption environment into which they are likely to be introduced. Perhaps a series of products may be launched that fit well with each other but not with other items in the marketplace. Thus, if consumers are persuaded to buy an initial product, for example by setting a low price for that item or by advertising it heavily, they may
subsequently end up making a number of follow-up purchases from the same firm to reestablish aesthetic congruity in their consumption environments. This seems especially likely in the case of complementary products, but the implications are not restricted to such obvious cases and would include any situation in which products may be used in the same consumption environment.
IKEA, I think, takes this to heart, as do the furniture stores I happen to be acquainted with – they always try to sell you the complete living room suite rather than one piece because – they all say this – “how is that [one piece] going to look with the rest of your furniture? Our answer: Good enough.

Then there’s this:
Marketers of various products for which aesthetic appeal is typically considered unimportant may choose to incorporate unique design elements into these items so as to make aesthetics a central factor to consider. For instance, the new range of George Foreman kitchen equipment involves aesthetically designed grills, toasters, and counter-top ovens that are likely to inform the design of the kitchen environment in which they are placed. In the current marketplace, even products like flyswatters and toilet brushes are being designed so as to appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of consumers.
So put down that designer toilet brush unless you want to spend a thousand or so reaccessorizing your bathroom.

Why We Need Uncharted

Once in a while, I look at Uncharted and get a bit discouraged.

We are, like Plankton, small. We take three steps forward, then take four back, as we do things that are pretty brilliant, and then screw things up again.

But occasionally, I see the need for Uncharted.

Here’s the most recent occasion.

I realize this is a columnist writing an opinion column, not a travel piece. But what a missed opportunity, Mr. James Carroll of the Boston Globe. You could have given us a few concrete examples of the “something[s that are] very good at work in this country today,” but you didn’t. Instead, you offered a continual string of banal generalities that made me wonder if you really visited anything in America, or just flew over it, looking at the houses as cemetery headstones, “the golf courses clawing the landscape and the vast parking lots jammed with little toy cars.”

I e-mailed a link to your story to my fellow Uncharted staffers and told them, look, here’s a professional writer. And with all the warts we have, we’re writing circles around this guy. You’re offering our readers specifics, rather than generalities. Keep it up.

Soon we’ll hear from Andrew Clark, our head of design, on the time he spent at Utah’s Spiral Jetty. I can’t wait for that story to hit the ethers, because it’s hilarious, vivid, specific, and an overall good read. There are plenty of similar good reads to be found on Uncharted’s myriad pages. Yes, we have our little cornball stunts and stories. Maybe all of them aren’t the best. But they’re evidence that there are people out there who want to go beyond the ordinary and into the specific joys that make this world a wonderful place to live in, rather than treating it all like flyover country.

. . . Et Il se Casse le Guele

Once again, I am a teacher without students. I don’t mind saying it’s frustrating (given this) that with three semesters now passed I still have yet to teach at BYU-Idaho.

So as I play some German music in the background (because it is introspective and I want to introspect) I have to wonder: Am I doing something wrong? As far as that navel-contemplation goes, I think I am only guilty of the sin of inexperience. If there were something in my background that would put the mark on my face, I would have assumed I would have not been invited through instructor training or been shown the virtual door. But I’m still in the system, studentless, adrift, and bereft of any hope that I might be invited to teach any time soon.

I had high hopes a few months ago when I got the e-mail asking teachers to sign up for additional sections because they anticipated demand would be higher this semester. Then a bunch of the instructor sin line ahead of me also signed up for additional sections and I couldn’t even catch a trickle. I begin to get the feeling I can’t even catch a cold in this fashion.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What You're Missing: My Kids' Refrigerator

NOTE: Just a hint at what you're missing -- or not, I can't account for taste -- over at My Kids' Refrigerator blog. Enjoy.

Our oldest, tired of meticulously copying maps of the states out of the atlas -- because he can; I don't ask for explanations any more -- decided to create his own country. Just like I did when I was a kid. The cartographer never falls far from the tree, obviously.

Bad Poetry: Hands

Opa, he wears wooden shoes and with the short coat
the sleeves pushed up past the elbows
he looks like a dwarf, though
in perspective he is taller than the woman.

I hear the shoes on the cobbles
for good reason the Dutch call them klompen.

I wore them, sometimes, to go down the driveway in the snow
to get the paper and have to stop halfway back
and walk barefoot.

casting her shadow on the wooden doors while
the dog at her feet pants and looks and tries not to be nervous
that he's a bit overexposed.

in the same photograph but
with the corner of the brick wall beetween them
maybe different worlds but no.

They had sons.

They came to America
he brought a few pairs of wooden shoes
and that coat with the sleeves shoved up past the elbows.

They brought their hands.

His hands are Dad's hands, long, bony, fingers curled from working.

His caress the cows' udders
drives tractors and
strokes his wife's cheek with the back of his hand.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Finally, A Good Book on Writing

I'm not a fan of books on writing.

They're either too mechanical -- Strunk and White are fine, but vastly unimaginative -- or entirely too preachy and concentrating too much on the writer than on the craft of writing.

Robert Newton Peck's "Secrets of Successful Fiction," though dated and -- at the end -- revelatory of an author who sometimes doesn't follow his own advice, is among the best books on writing that I've ever read.

Here's why:

Peck is a doer, and invites writers to jump into the practice of writing, rather than wasting time with the theory. Though he himself is a professor of writing (or was when the book was published in 1980) he's leery of those who teach writing without ever having done much successful writing of their own.

He's an advocate of daily writing, which in of itself isn't all that unusual, but he's also an advocate of novelists pursuing daily poetry writing as a way to hone their craft. He probably enjoys free verse, but he states implicitly that he admires the strict structure of formal poetry, particularly the sonnet, in helping a writer become disciplined in shaping his or her writing.

He also offers what I think is some good advice on dealing with editors, from neophyte author to seasoned professional. The best advice, in my opinion:

(page 97)
Your editor's prime function, in my opinion, is to cut. Painful though it may be to an author, when in doubt, throw it out. It makes sense to hearken to the folks who are working to make you richer. And you can always holler "pearls before swine!" at him or some other dandy little artistic epithet.

But your temper is less useful than your editor.

Editors know things that authors don't know. I never truly know what I have written. Why? Because I'm too close to it, deep inside it, where I can't see the whole of the book. My editor can.
I find this is true in my own writing. I'm too close to it. I'm never anxious to cut. But I realize as well that there are things that are going to have to go in order to make what I write better.

Ironically, Peck doesn't follow that advice with the last chapter of the book, which could easily have been trimmed to a few paragraphs and still retained its punch. (He delves into what I believe is a cardinal sin of all writers: Believing that since he or she is successful at writing that his or her opinions in other areas matter, are important, or are significant enough to deserve mention.) I know I do a lot of that on my blog, but, yuck, shoot me if I ever descend into that in my own writing.

I Feel Your Pain, Ted

A long time ago when I was near to finishing my bachelor's degree, I remember hearing -- and experiencing -- the common almost-grad lament:
All the jobs I see want me to have experience I can't get until I get a job.
That caused a lot of frustration way back when in the fuzzy, cocoon-like world of the mid- to late-1990s, when the economy was robust and companies and government were offering all kinds of opportunities for just the right person.

Years later, I'd like to go back in time to my almost-grad self to deliver the following message:
It gets worse.
I have, right now, a pretty good job. I'd like a better one. But in cracking into the current job market of the early 2000s, when the economy is in the crapper and companies and government are keeping hires to a minimum, the challenges even in getting an interview are astronomical.

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

The bar is continually raised. I'm not complaining about that. I realize that I can't expect to experience a career in stasis: I have to continue educating myself and working to make myself more marketable to employers. Still, there is some frustration. I have earned a masters degree. I have taken that degree and parleyed it into a part-time teaching gig at BYU-Idaho -- but until I actually get a class to teach and am invited back, that entry on my resume is going to bear that asterisk.

Meanwhile, employers knowing that there are a lot more people out there looking for jobs, are able to be a bit pickier. I'm not complaining about that either. Obviously, an employer wants the best-qualified person for the job.

Still, it's frustrating. With every accomplishment I find others that still need to be finished before the next career step may be taken. And I suppose that's just a lesson on life: Never stop learning, because the expectations will always increase.