Tuesday, May 31, 2011

First Day of Summer Vacation, or Can We Kill the Kids Yet?

NOTE: Thought I’d blog this email I got from Michelle this morning, in reaction to this comic which I sent to her earlier in the day. Names have been changed to protect the, well, perpetrators.

This is precisely how I feel this morning. Dottie [the dachshund puppy] had me up until nearly 5:30, then up again by 7:10. Child No. 1 came in at 7:15 to claim her -- that's good, right? Wrong. For the next 45 minutes, every five minutes the kids had to come in with a report:

Child No. 1: "Mom? I took Dottie outside. She went pee twice and poop twice."
Child No. 1: "Mom? Dottie wants you." (followed by dog scrambling around on bed and biting me on the face.)
Child No. 1: "Mom! Mom! Child No. 2 keeps putting Dottie under Child No. 3's box and she doesn't like it!"
Child No. 2: "Oooooooooooooooooh! Ooooooooooohhhhhh! My stomach hurts! Oooooooohhhhh!"
Child No. 2: "Mom, I sat on the potty, but I still feel sick. Ooooooohhhhh!"
Child No. 2: (now 'resting' on our bed) "Mom, I know how to spell sneeze. S-N-E-Z-E."
Child No. 2" "Mom? How do you spell 'Chris'?" (followed by Child No. 2 attempting to spell several versions)
Child No. 1: "Mom, Dottie wants you." (followed by dog once again scrambling around bed)
Child No. 2: "Mom? Can I hold Dottie? Pleeeeeeeeeeeaze?"
Child No. 2: "I think using the potty might have helped a little bit."

None of this dialog should be confused with Dottie scraping at the cardboard in the kitchen and yelping and whimpering, or the three doors the kids slammed, or Child No. 3 singing in the kitchen and at some point yelling "[Child No. 2]” or the kids having various squabbles about Dottie in general.

I started breakfast at 8 a.m.

Sort of makes you jealous you didn't take another day off, doesn't it?

Two Men and A Portrait

NOTE: Another little thing from my FDENG-101 class at BYU-I.

Three things stand out to me in William Zinsser’s “Two Men and A Portrait.”

First is this, coming on page two:

“A photograph doesn’t have presence [Tom] said. A person is a living, changing, evolving thing – which is much more exciting.”

The second is this, coming on page three:

“The hardest thing for a painter,” he told me, “is to create what he wants, not what he sees. He can build what he wants out of what he sees. That’s when a painter starts to become an artist – when he starts to deal with what’s in his mind, not just with what he sees. You have to bring something to the party. Students are so eager to record what they see that they don’t think about what they want. Do they want to just copy a photograph? Why would they want to do that? They’ve got the photograph.”

Third is the overall sense that the artist Tom has studied intently the work of other portrait artists as he pursues his own art.

As writers, we have that same obligation – our subjects are living, changing, evolving things that we have to capture as we write. We want to “build what [we] want out of what [we] see,” as Tom says. As I consider my son, the subject of my profile, I want to present him as a living, breathing person who has triumphs and struggles with a social coping disorder – Aspergers Syndrome – not merely as an “aspie,” shorthand for someone who has the disorder. So I think about what I want to accomplish with this profile: I know what he’s going through. What he’ll have to go through. And that he’ll have to continue going through what he’s going through now for the rest of his life.

By way of explanation, those with Aspergers Syndrome have difficulty in social situations. Where for most people it’s natural, for example, to acknowledge happy birthday wishes when Mom brings balloons and a present to school at lunch, our son simply does not understand how to react when those wishes are expressed – Mom had to remind him to say “thanks.” Those with the syndrome – and this is my own explanation – react to social interactions as a hostile threat. The part of the brain that handles “fight or flight” takes over, skipping over the part of the brain that filters a true life-or-death threat from a false one. By the time that part of the brain catches up with the message, the fight-or-flight mechanism is already triggered, so the brain reacts in the only way it can: flight. The reasoning part of the brain can only moderate the flight reaction, not the decision that led to it. To conquer how the brain reacts, we develop coping strategies that help us moderate the “flight” into a positive social reaction, rather than running away. Sometimes, however, that coping mechanism breaks down – something I deal with almost every day, and something he’ll have to deal with the rest of his life.

So that’s the portrait I’m trying to paint in my profile – going deeper than the photograph itself, and getting into the realities of life.

So, here’s your call to action: Read Rich’s post and answer his questions, thinking all the while what you’re going to do to make your portrait of your interviewee come to life in your profile.

A More Reasoned Approach

Getting rid of nuclear power sounds good on paper – at least if you’re of that opinion. But it appears that the economics of getting rid of nuclear power in Germany is going to be borne on the backs of ordinary electricity consumers as German industry lobbies for exemptions to higher electricity prices that will likely result if the country pursues its plan to shutter its 17 nuclear power plants by 2022.

Nicholas Comfort, writing for the Bloomberg news agency, says efforts are underway by German industry to get out of paying more for their electricity so they don’t have to pass those price increases on to customers – basically by making Germans shoulder the full load of predicted higher electricity prices themselves. Predictions show the electric bill for a German household of three could increase as much as $321 a year if the plants are shuttered in exchange for other electric-generating sources from solar to wind to coal power.

What’s ironic about the situation is that experts predict Germany will have to build more coal-fired plants – thus increasing the country’s carbon emissions – to meet baseload electric demand. The anti-nuclear lobby is apparently stronger than the carbon-emissions lobby in Germany, or else the environmental lobby in general is blind to the reality of nuclear’s carbon-neutral footprint.

I heartily agree that the disasters at Chernobyl and now Fukushima are dire and devastating. But taken into perspective with the long-term disaster of increased carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere, the anti-nukes are letting their fears of the nuclear boogeyman override reason.

Meanwhile across the border in Slovakia, a more moderate, more reasoned approach is being taken to nuclear power, per nuclearpowerdaily.com. There, nuclear provides about one-third of the nation’s electricity, compared to numbers in Germany which are reported by various news agencies to be between 17 and 25 percent. Instead of shuttering nuclear power plants, the Slovakian government is looking to tighten safety measures – the same reaction taking place in nuclear powerhouse France and nuclear advocate United States. I’m all in favor of looking at current safety protocols to see what can be improved upon. Leaving lessons unlearned from Chernobyl or Fukushima is as foolish as running away from the nuclear boogeyman entirely.

Nevertheless, if Germany can successfully build an energy culture on renewables that doesn’t include nuclear, more power to them if you can pardon the pun. At the same time, I’d like to see them solve the problem of paying for it all, and to answer the question: If subsidies to build nuclear plants are bad, why are subsidies to build solar or wind plants good? A subsidy is still a subsidy, whether it subsidizes an industry you favor over one you don’t. In the meantime, German electricity consumers on the residential level seem poised to pay most of those subsidies, with major German industries getting a waiver – and cheap electricity – on their backs. What’s good for the goose ought to be good enough for the gander.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Thompson Wins the Reuben

My current favorite comic strip artist, Richard Thompson, won the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben Award yesterday.

I've known the Otterloops for so long, I feel like the award is in the family. I enjoy, as in today's Sunday strip, how he turns ordinary day-to-day situations into the drama of life that we all find from time to time.

Here's what the society says about Thompson: 
Richard Thompson is the artist/writer/creator of the daily comic strip “Cul de Sac” syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate, as well as an illustrator and cartoonist on other features. He is the creator of the weekly cartoon series “Poor Richard’s Almanac” which runs in the Washington Post, and his illustrations have appeared in numerous publications including U.S. News and World Report, National Geographic and The New Yorker. He has won NCS divisional awards for Magazine and Book Illustration in 1995 and Newspaper Illustration also in 1995. He won a Gold and a Silver Funny Bone Award in 1989 from the Society of Illustrators for humorous illustration. This is Richard’s second nomination.
I've got to admit that in my book the Otterloops are the most authentic comic strip family I've ever encountered. He also comes as close as Charles Schulz in understanding what makes ordinary kids work. Bravo, Mr. Thompson.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Socialization of Books

It's funny how an old idea can suddenly make books appealing again.

But it's more than the old idea of sharing a good read -- be it a novel, some short fiction or non-fiction, or what have you -- because what we're seeing is a phenomenon (that may not come as a surprise to some people, who were doing this all along) that's incorporating an old idea with a new medium in a way that could bring the old idea of reading a good book into the social media era.

First, though, you have to get past the notion that people won't read long bits of anything on the Internet. I've always held that people will, if it's well-written enough and presented in a way that is easy on the eyes gazing into the liquid crystal of today's books rather than the pulp of yesterday's. Lois Beckett at the Nieman Journalism lab has this nice little piece on the Twitter #longreads movement, which is a growing knot of people willing to read long-form journalism, shorter fiction, et cetera, on their mobile devices, breaking the Web 1.0 norm that you have to chunk everything and boil it down to its basic bits before anyone will read it online.

Then there's this bit by Mathew Ingram at Gigaom.com, which seems as natural as picking up a paperback book to read, though I'm sure there are a lot of heads being thumped by people saying, "Yeah, that's a wonderful idea." I'm not necessarily talking about the Twitter book club, which is just the same old book club retreaded for the web (and people have been doing that kind of thing at Goodreads, and on their own, for years before the twits at Twitter stumbled into it), but this instead:
As the book industry continues to evolve, it seems almost inevitable that books and writing will become more social (whether authors like it or not). Amazon has taken some steps in this area by adding the ability to share the passages that you highlight while reading books on the Kindle. And there have been many other moves toward “socializing” the reader experience — including some involving things that are not specifically books, such as the addition of social-sharing features to #longreads, which started as a Twitter hashtag and has become a full-fledged service.
The short of it is that authors who refuse to be social are going to be pushed to the margins, while those who are out there promoting their books relentlessly are going to be the ones who keep selling books. And that, again, isn't necessarily new to the book industry. Robert Newton Peck, in his book "Secrets of Successful Fiction," says that he kept his books continually in print in the ancient, pre-Internet times of the 1970s and 80s by socializing as much as he could with groups ranging from high-falutin book readers who paid him to come to fans at the ladies' auxiliary hall who invited him and paid him with plates of cookies. In other words, socializing your books -- whether the medium is Twitter or traveling the midwest talking to your fans and selling them books -- is a major part of getting your books sold. Look at any successful book, from those published traditionally to those published independently, and while the writing quality may vary, what you're going to see in common is lots and lots and lots of energetic marketing.

So will I do.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Calamitous Thoughts

Read this in the seventh chapter of Moroni last night, and it seems appropriate to echo here, given recent events:

AP photo by Mike Gullett

Wherefore, all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil; for the devil is an enemy unto God, and fighteth against him continually, and inviteth and enticeth to sin, and to do that which is evil continually.

But behold, that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.

Wherefore, take heed, my beloved brethren, that ye do not judge that which is evil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil.

For behold, my brethren, it is given unto you to judge, that ye may know good from evil; and the way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night.

For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.

(Mornoni 7:12-16)

It’s been pretty popular as of late, to blame events such as the Japanese earthquake/tsunami and the tornadoes in Tuscaloosa and Joplin on God – even those who don’t believe in God seem bent on placing the blame there, so as to enforce their own stance that if God exists, why does he let such things happen.

Well, here’s my theory, and it goes back to the story – call it a fable if you want – of Job. God allowed the Devil to test and try Job to see if he would remain faithful. As Job went through his trials he saw his friends, even his wife, urge him to curse God and die because a loving God would not allow such terrible things to happen, if he even existed at all. Job, however, remained faithful without anticipation of reward – for he was in sackcloth and ashes, mourning the deaths of his children, speaking to God all the while, wondering why such calamity occurs.

All that is good comes from God. All that is bad comes from the Devil. That God allows bad things to happen does not mean he is evil – for a good fountain cannot bring forth bitter water, as Moroni also writes.

So what good comes out of these calamities?

The way we react to them. The way those who suffer through them react. The way they react in the face of death – which the faithful know is only a temporary separation. The Devil waits to see the pure waters of our faith turn bitter and salty and he laughs when that comes to pass. But as we maintain our faith in the face of calamity and death, we see the good that comes of it. We still mourn, we still remain, for a time, for a long time, in sackcloth and ashes, but we do not turn bitter, those who have the spirit of the Lord to comfort and lift them.

How we react is important – that is how we show our goodness, and that is how God shows his love.

Eet Ees Done. For Real This Time.

Remember way back in late December – or it might have been early January – when I bragged about having edited the first draft of my novel, “Considering How to Run?"

Well, I was a bit premature in that announcement.

Of course, back then, the novel was finished and I was working on the next installment. However, I have since decided to combine what I've got of the second installment with the first, and today I can declare, unequivocally, that the first draft of my novel is officially edited.

Now the real work begins: the rewrite. Got to put on some flesh and skin to the skeleton I've got. Good news is, the second bit of editing went a lot more smoothly than the first, probably because I had a rudimentary outline of where the second novel was going to go, whereas with the first I kind of pointed my mouse in one direction every day as I sat down to write and just kinda followed it.

Good news is after having put this second bit away for a while, I was able to come back to it, see where it needs fixing, and – most importantly – see where I'd written something that, yeah, I'd read if it were offered to me. That gives me hope that others will want to read it too. So must get on with the rewrite. By August 31, it's my goal to have the second draft ready to go under the unscrutable eye of my most feared of editors, my wife.

N'Importe Qui

I don't typically go for performance art. But this guy, I like.

If you watch a bunch of his videos -- and he has lots of them -- watch out for when he's on the golf course or getting ready to talk smack to the people giving parking tickets. The cops almost always nail him, and he gets assaulted by golfers. Of course, he's not necessarily nice to them. Especially the golfers.

He is Remi Gaillaird, by the way, a Montpelier-born humorist.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"I'm Really Full of Hooey"

It's not often I find a comic strip that so succinctly encapsulates my personality. But when I do, it's a doozy.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Are Books an Endangered Species?

You know, at some point a budding author like me should just stop reading stories like this on the Internet, because they’re both chock-full of heady goodness and slopped to the brim with fearmongering.

Nevertheless, into the abyss.

Michael Levin writes for Forbes magazine today that the major book publishing houses have only themselves to blame for the decline of the print book industry.

At first, reading the story is a relief: It’s not my fault. See, I worry about that. Because I am kind of a conundrum: I want to write and publish books, yet I can’t remember the last time I bought a book that didn’t come with a Deseret Industries price tag on it. I just don’t buy new books, printed or e-book. There are plenty of used ones out there to keep me in reading material until the day I die or until the day I’m the only survivor in a post-apocalyptic landscape and yet don’t ironically break my glasses.

 Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

Here’s the crux of Levin’s argument:
The traditional New York publishing business model — publish a ton of books, fail to market most of them, and hope that somebody buys something — worked well when publishers had a hammerlock on the distribution and marketing of books. Publishers essentially faced no competition and enjoyed complete control of what books people could publish and sell.

In today’s world, however, anyone from John Grisham to John Doe can put up a book online with Smashwords, Lulu, or Kindle Direct, and bypass publishers — and bookstores — all together. Authors can use Google AdWords or social networking strategies to market their books far more effectively than publishers ever could.  So who needs New York?*
That’s the heady goodness part. Yay! We don’t need the snobs in New York to publish and market our own books. We are free of the tyrannical chains of The Man.

But wait. That puts us, ironically, full in control of cheap bastards like me. Levin points that out, but without the fearmongering that I see in his words:
Yes, Kindle and iPad are game-changers. When you read books on a device, a few things change.  You’re moving into an environment where you typically don’t pay for content — almost everything online is free. So publishers won’t be able to charge $10 or $12 for an entire book when people only want a chapter’s worth of information. So much for ebooks as a revenue stream for the publishing houses.
I’ve seen these so-called “social networking strategies.” They work for the tiniest of majorities, function as an empty room in which to shout for the masses. And the idea of giving things away? Ay yi yi. So how do I get paid?

*Interesting side note: Either Forbes still adheres to the ancient tradition of putting two spaces after each sentence, or Mr. Levin does and Forbes’ copy editors didn’t bother to fix it. There’s another question for the ages.

A Chronicler of Boys

NOTE: I'm using Ray Bradbury as one of my anchor writers as I plot my own course into the writing wilderness. Analyzing a bit tonight, trying to get inside his head so I can get inside my own.
It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of . . .


And it was the afternoon of Halloween.
And as much as people like to say Ray Bradbury was a chronicler of science fiction and fantasy, it’s closer to the truth that he was a chronicler of youth. A chronicler of boys, because boys – whether they are Tom Skelton in “The Halloween Tree” or Jim nightshade in “Something Wicked this Way Comes” or the grown-up boys panting in the thin air in “The Martian Chronicles” – are what Bradbury knows best.

These three opening paragraphs to “The Halloween Tree” is a boy’s chronicle.

So, too, is the opening to “Something Wicked this Way Comes”:
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine; there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.

But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything’s smoky-smelling and the sky’s orange and ash grey at twilight, it seems Hallowe’en will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.
It’s more than boys and Halloween that make these boys chronicles. Therein lies the desire for what will be, the nostalgia for what was and what may never be again, but most of all, the desire to live now and make now last forever and make the pain we feel now dim because of the better now that’s likely just around the corner, flapping along with the bedsheets.

Only to boys could a boring, staid town – a small town, always a small town; boys cannot prosper in the city – be the fresh, cat-footed, whispering dump of a place where the extraordinary has to happen to shove the ordinary back into the corners.

The now about to come calls like the ravine in The Halloween Tree: “There was a long tunnel down there under the earth in which poisoned waters dripped and the echoes never ceased calling Come Come Come and if you do you’ll stay forever, forever, drip, forever, rustle, run, rush, whisper, and never go, never go go go . . .”

Boyhood. The tunnel of adulthood that whispers, that now about to come, that now about to be. Boyhood is about being above all else, being strong, being in charge, being in control, being all that right now, right now.

And fearing nothing. Not even fear itself. Because fear always stops the now that is to come from coming.

Fear did not stop the astronauts on Mars from running in the thin atmosphere to the old front porches they knew could not be theirs. But the now that was to come did not cease to call, and there, they chose to stay forever, though the town faded from their memories leaving them only in the cold grave, the now that came.

And Jim Nightshade. And Will Halloway. One born on All Hallows Eve. The other on All Hallows Day. Each chasing the other, each reaching for the now that is just around the corner, the now that is to come. And Mr. Halloway, the taciturn janitor of the town library. He fell into that ravine where the poisoned waters dripped and in the run rustle rush whisper never went, never went, went, went. Until the boys, those wonderful Bradbury boys, reminded him, racing to the railroad turnstile like kites, of the now about to come. Then his heart was light and his burdens were easy.

“When I was a child,” Paul wrote in First Corinthians chapter 13, verse 11, “I spoke as a child I understood as a child I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.” The now about to be is not childish. It is putting away the dark glass. It is seeing clearly. It is loyalty and loving and charity all wrapped into a package that wants to run in the twilight and smell the air filled with good wood-smoke and to crunch the dead leaves underfoot. Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway are not children. Because
[O]ne strange wild dark long year, Hallowe’en came early.

One year Hallowe’en came on October 24, three hours after midnight.

At that time, James Nightshade of 97 Oak Street was thirteen years, eleven months, twenty-three days old. Next door, William Halloway was thirteen years, eleven months, and twenty-four days old. Both touched toward fourteen; it almost trembled in their hands.

And that was the October week when they grew up overnight, and were never so young any more . . .
Those who see the now about to be are the ones who grew up overnight. They may be young in years, but not young in seeing the world for what it is. They do not fall into the carnival traps, the snares that life sets, those who anticipate the now about to come.

And that is what Bradbury chronicles. Boys on the cusp of the nows about to be.

*&#*$&@*# Follow-Up

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes. Wish my health care was this clear-cut.

I’m doing this, yet it feels as effective as yelling into an empty room:
Congressman Simpson,

What's a guy to do when he gets a letter from his health insurance provider saying that come the end of June he's going to have to pay more for health insurance than he's currently paying for his home mortgage?

The individual health insurance market is murder. And yet all I hear from the GOP is that we need to turn to the private market for health care solutions. The private market sucks rocks, congressman.

What's worse is that I don't feel that writing to my congressional delegation will do anything to fix the problem, or that it's even fixable by anyone outside of those guys who write those utopian novels.

Feeling slightly depressed,

Brian Davidson
Sheesh. That depressed me even more, just writing it out. I sent that to Mike Simpson, and a similarly-worded missive to Sen. Mike Crapo as well. Expecting back the traditional form letters, the glass of water and the pat on the head, because this kind of rhetoric just isn’t heard over the partisan noise in Washington except at election time, when such drivel can be used a fodder for campaign stops when all sorts of wild promises are made with 99.9 percent of those in the audience cheering them on while at least fifty percent of us know such promises won’t be kept. At all.

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Health Care, or #*&*#**@*!

Image used for commentary purposes under the fair use doctrine.

We're looking for new health insurance.


We got a letter from our health insurance company this week informing us that because of rising medical costs, our premiums are going to go up nearly $200 a month. This is after two years in which we submitted the following claims:
  • $200-some-odd for a visit to a community care facility to get an enormous sliver removed from under the fingernail of our youngest son. Claim denied because we hadn't paid any of our deductible.
I'm sorry if you were waiting for a longer list. That's it. Two years, one denied claim, and because costs are going up, up, up, we're now being asked, starting at the end of June, to pay more for health insurance than we are currently paying for our home mortgage. Am I the only one who sees something wrong with that situation?

It's malarkey, this so-called private market for health insurance. And though our letter made grandiose promises about what Obamacare regulations is doing to the health care industry, all I'm seeing is that our premiums are going up on a product we can't use because our deductibles are so high we'd only hit them in a given year if we were all involved in a horrible traffic accident. And then our rates would go up.

A few weeks ago Michelle jokingly said she'd like to see the church offer members a health insurance plan, and I joked back, "You know, I'd pay an extra 10 percent in tithing to see that happen." Now though it's still a farfetched idea, it sure sounds a lot more attractive. Maybe I'll send that on down the line to Salt Lake City . . .

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What's A Compulsive to Do?

So now that the Treasury of Laughter blog is finished, it's up to this anal-compulsive blogger to find another topical thing to blog about. I really, really should be working on my book, and I have been doing that in fits and starts, but I'm finding that editing a book doesn't come with the raw intensity and purpose of writing a book. Nevertheless, I've dragged the manuscript out of mothballs and am going to give it another go. That's a good thing, since putting it away for a while will give me the emotional distance I need to fix its many flaws.

In the meantime, however, I need another topical blog. Horology seems to have the market on it cornered at the moment -- and it's true that I don't quite have the passion for wristwatches as I do for books.

Book blogs are cliche, however. Completely overdone. Besides, that's what I've got Goodreads for. Nevertheless, you'll note I've got a book cover here. It's one of the books I'm reading now. I'm not necessarily going to write about the book, though the thought has crossed my mind to start a blog about the collectible books I find to read. This one, for example - the People's Edition -- how New Deal, Progressivist/Socialist can you get -- edition of Grace Tully's not-tell-anything story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from the point of view of one of his secretaries. I got it for $2 at the local Deseret Industries -- which runs a thriving business of recycling old books tossed out of codgers' homes when they pass on. Per eBay and Amazon, this book is technically worth $26 -- and that's for a copy of a copy that they've bound and are selling as a retread of the book. But if I start a blog that's all about bragging about the bargain books I find, well, it's going to be one smarmy, short-lived blog, because I don't collect as much as I'd like. Besides, I'm in the mode now of boxing up books and putting them in storage because there's not enough room on the shelves and I can't convince Michelle to let me build new shelves upstairs. Oh well.

Not to worry, though. I'll keep working on the novel, feeding the muse at the Targhee Writers Blog. And who knows? Maybe I'll find another book to blog about. I nearly bought another party book a few weeks ago, but it was too tatty for the price they wanted. I'll keep looking.

This Is Gonna Be, Like, the Best Cartoon Ever!

Oh yeah. This show alone might be enough to convince me to get cable TV. Or at least convince someone to tape this for me.

This I Believe -- Podcast

Yes, I am an absolute nerd. But that's okay. As long as I confess my geekness, I'm all right.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Doggie Differences

Inevitably, with a new weiner dog in the house, she's going to be compared to her predecessor. And like all parents, we tend to look back on the past with rose-colored glasses, or, at best, brains fogged by the passage of time and the basic inability (at least on my part) to remember more than just a few days from our first dog's brief puppyhood.

So here are the big differences: Dottie doesn't sleep through the night. Starting at about 3:30 am -- no matter if she's been up all day or slept all day -- she's awake and ready to play. Heaven forbid if either one of us has to leave the room to use the facilities (we're both drinking a lot of water these days; it's inevitable) she's right there, ready for her day to begin. Not Moki. We remember her as the one who emulated Carol Burnett in that old comedy sketch where she and Tim Conway have guests who refuse to take their less and less subtle hints that it's time for them to leave so they can go to bed. She eventually gets curlers in her hair and pulls out the hide-a-bed, yawning deeply as her guests continue to prattle on. Moki put in the curlers. Moki slept through the night.

Dottie puts in the curlers. But she's a young'un afraid -- like our human kids -- that she's going to miss something terribly exciting if Mom or Dad are awake and she is not. Mostly, it's food she thinks she's missing out on. As I have to get up at 4 am in order to catch the bus to work at 5, she knows once Daddy is up that breakfast is inevitable.

Another difference: Dottie doesn't sit square on her obttom, with her legs poking out like pontoons. We called Moki's stance "Pontoon legs." I really miss them. But Dottie is, of course, cute enough on her own. We just hope she'll catch on to our own rhythms so we can sleep.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Details, Details, Details

NOTE: Another bit of babbling from the English 101 class I'm teaching. I put it here because the reminders I'm giving my students are good reminders for myself as well.

As we read in Mark Bennion’s “Thinking about the Self,” “[R]eaders want to be transported out of their mundane world and into another place, into a space that differs markedly from the trivialities of their daily existence; people want to envision the Alaskan wilderness or downtown Chicago. They don’t want to guess about the location of people or objects. Carol Burke and Molly Best Tinsley encourage us to reclaim the senses, ‘Writers have to fight against the tendency of the senses to take the familiar world for granted, and teach them instead to be unnatural, to risk indulging an obsessive appetite for all the world’s details.’”

As writers, we need to develop that obsessive appetite for all the world’s details. I include myself in this, because as I read my own “This I Believe” statement, I realized that while I had opened the door to my third-grade mind, caught up in the stories I was reading, I didn’t really invite you in. And I’m still not certain I’ve done that, given the re-write I’m going to show you. But I think it’s better.

Here’s the original paragraph I’m toying with:
As I wondered at a new world alongside Jon O’Connor, as I tagged along in the background as Henry Huggins romped with Ribsy, as I sat beside Mrs. Frisby in the rats’ library, rapt at the story of the rats of NIMH, I decided I wanted to be a writer. 
Okay. So I’ve given you a list of books, and a scratch on the surface of why I liked them then (and still like them now, frankly). But I didn’t do enough. So I tried again:
I wondered at a new world alongside Jon O’Connor after he fell through that forgotten door from his planet into the wilds of the Carolinas, befriended by the Bean family, hunted by the greedy Gilby Pitts. I tagged along in the background as Henry Huggins romped with Ribsy, that ragged, sharp-eyebrowed dog beneath the bold serif font declaring his name on the cover of the book. I sat beside Mrs. Frisby in the rats’ library, rapt at the story of the how the rats of NIMH gained their intelligence and how they hoped to use it to stop stealing from man, and later soared with her on the back of Jeremy the crow in the film inspired by the book.
I read these books, and many others. I decided I wanted to be a writer. 
I hope, by offering the expanded details, I’m offering a more vivid peek into that childhood brain, and what’s motivating me now to get back to that writing career I wanted to start back then.
Now, go back to your own essays. Get to the details. I’ll post, privately, in the gradebook, some specific suggestions.
And, in general, here are a few other things I’ve noticed:
  1. Keep your punctuation inside your quotation marks. I know there’s a movement out there to get away from this “correction.” I’m not a part of that movement.
  2. Repeat for effect, not for the sake of repetition.
  3. Read your essays aloud. I’ve found a few that have some pretty funky sentence construction – and that’s okay, this is a rough draft. But read what you write aloud before you call it done – you’re going to have to for the podcast due Saturday anyway.
  4. If you want to use a word, know how to spell it. Don’t rely on phonetics. Find a dictionary. If you can’t find the word in the dictionary because you can’t spell it, find someone else to help you find the correct word.
  5. Watch out for synonyms. They’re doesn’t mean the same thing as their. Died doesn’t mean the same thing as dyed.
  6. You don’t have to tell me, in your essay, that this is how you feel or this is how or what you think. It’s your essay. It’s obvious these are your feelings and your thoughts.

This I Believe, Part II

NOTE: Hm. Most of my students are pretty good writers -- but they need to add details, details, deails, so that they convey the passion they express in their thesis statements. So I've gone back to re-write my own statement, hoping to provide an example.
I sat in the back of Mrs. Barrett’s third grade classroom, next to the bookshelf.

When I got my school work done – and sometimes even before it was finished – I’d pull a book off the shelf to read. There I found the magical worlds of Robert C. O’Brien, Beverly Cleary, Alexander Key, and so many others.

I wondered at a new world alongside Jon O’Connor after he fell through that forgotten door from his planet into the wilds of the Carolinas, befriended by the Bean family, hunted by the greedy Gilby Pitts. I tagged along in the background as Henry Huggins romped with Ribsy, that ragged, sharp-eyebrowed dog beneath the bold serif font declaring his name on the cover of the book. I sat beside Mrs. Frisby in the rats’ library, rapt at the story of the how the rats of NIMH gained their intelligence and how they hoped to use it to stop stealing from man, and later soared with her on the back of Jeremy the crow in the film inspired by the book.

Then I promptly did nothing about it.

Oh, I did little things. A poem here, a short story there. But through several fits and starts, I never did what I set out to do, there in the back corner of Mrs. Barrett’s classroom at Lincoln Elementary.

Until 2010.

By then, my wife and I had a third-grader of our own, plus two other children. I was working as a writer – but as a technical writer at a Department of Energy laboratory, after ten years as a journalist. It paid the bills, but hardly satisfied the soul.

During a lunch break in late January that year, however, I sat at my computer mulling the madelines of memory. I pecked out a few hundred words, centered on two boys, bored at living in their primitive village, longing instead to climb the cliffs that ringed them in and climb toward the stars, then over and out the green pass that led to the world beyond.

Maybe, I thought, I have something.

So the next day, at lunch, I wrote some more.

Each day, it became an obsession. Write a few more hundred words about these curious boys, now departed from the only home they’ve known into a mysterious school training them to become –

I didn’t know. I kept writing, on the bus rides home, late into the night on weekends. And at lunch. Many lunches. I posted snippets of this growing story on my blog. If anyone ever read them, I didn’t know it. I knew a third-grader who was reading them. And he kept insisting, staring at those words in the ethers, that the story continue.

It did.

By January 2011, those first few hundred words turned into 114,000 words.

I’d written a novel.

It’s unpublished. It’s unedited. It’s raw. But there, in that little folder on my desktop, in that binder at home, on the thumb drives were I’ve stored it, my first novel awaits the finishing touch that may some day lead it to sit on a bookshelf in the back corner of some dusty classroom where another kid will pull it off the shelf and fall into the world I created because that inner third-grader who still loves the rats of NIMH told me I had to do it.

I believe, with the proper tools and motivation, one person can indeed move a mountain. I’ve got other mountains to move yet, but at least I’ve finally written a story that’ll get me out of the foothills and back on that track I found in that desk next to the bookshelf in the back of Mrs. Barrett’s third-grade classroom.

"A Treasury of Laughter" Comes to an End

And another book blog is complete.

Oh, Louis Untermeyer includes a final collection of little bits -- several pages of insults -- but they're nothing I haven't read before. That's "A Treasury of Laughter," another book, like the Cokesbury Party Book (and blog) ending on a whimper, not a bang.

Nevermind. I enjoyed reading the book. I learned, I think, a bit about various writing styles and authors' voices, realizing that I like some, loathe others. Same will happen to me when I write.

C'est la guerre.

Tweet First, Verify Later

What a long way we’ve come.

Back in the halcyon days of the Internet – and even today, in some circles – the amateur’s presence on the Internet led to derisive descriptions of pajama-wearers, basement-dwellers, illegitimate fools whom the mainstream media – and professionals of any ilk – should ignore.

No longer. Those amateurs – and those professionals who exist outside officialdom – are increasingly being sought after as original sources, especially in fast-breaking new stories, according to a recent study, “Tweet First, Verify Later,” by Nicola Bruno, writing for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. His study may be read in a PDF here.

Bruno studies a handful of American and British news agencies who handle “social media content” in varying ways, and to varying effect. He quotes journalist Nik Gowing who says, “In a moment of a crisis what is the difference – if any – between the staff reporter who observes, writes, blogs then files an article for an established media organization, and the motivated amateur or quasi professional who does exactly the same for a web or blog site?” Increasingly, Bruno is discovering, there is no difference in the eyes of the media, particularly on breaking news.

Bruno studied how CNN, the BBC, The Guardian, and other outlets have used social media to mine information on breaking news stories ranging from the 2009 Iran revolution to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Interestingly, he finds that the news organizations are relying heavily on Twitter for breaking news alerts – which kind of flies in the face of a previous Pew Internet study which shows that the relationship is fairly one-sided – the media may go to Twitter for news, but Twitter users aren’t flocking to traditional media to find news.

The study shows interesting contrasts between how these various news organizations use social media and how they verify the information they find.

Here’s what Bruno says:
Contrary to other news organizations, the BBC considers as paramount the principle of verification and fact-checking of each and every online resource. Before informing the other BBC reporters at the World Desk or BBC World about an interesting online source, “We always check out each and every image, video or key contact before we broadcast them, to make sure they are genuine and to resolve any copyright issues. When it’s impossible to do that – such as with content sent from Iran or Burma – when contacting the contributors is very hard to do or might put them in danger, we interrogate the images, using BBC colleagues who know the area and the story to help identify them.”
Further, James Morgan with the BBC, Bruno writes, subjects his sources to other tests of authenticity, from considering the context of his or her tweets or Facebook posts of interest with what the user posts in general, to checking on things like IP addresses, cell phone prefixes, et cetera.

CNN, by contrast, takes a more “Web 2.0” approach, leaving its iReport unvetted and unverified as a general rule, Bruno says, but vetting and verifying anything that gets an official CNN stamp. Reactions to unverified news, however, is a problem news outlets are going to have to learn to deal with. Bruno points out an instance in 2008 when an iReporter submitted a hoax story on Apple chairman Steve Jobs suffering a heart attack. Though the story was never broadcast on CNN nor stamped with the official iReport stamp, its mere presence on the website caused Apple’s stock to plummet 10 percent in 10 minutes and triggered an SEC investigation, per Bruno.

These varying approaches, Bruno discovered, remained fairly consistent during the news response to the Haiti earthquake. CNN was less hesitant to go with unverified material, though it did offer some iReport material that was verified. The BBC was more cautious, but overall, these news outlets relied more than 50 percent on social media sources within Haiti to report on the early days of the quake.

Bruno helpfully identifies a “practical example” of a guide for journalists to verify online information from the Online Journalism Blog, which is echoed here.

Those at the OJB go on to say:
When the telephone first entered the newsroom, journalists were skeptical. ‘How can we be sure that the person at the other end is who they say they are?’ The question seems odd now, because we have become so used to phone technology that we barely think of it as technology at all – and there are a range of techniques we use, almost unconsciously, to verify what the person on the other end of the phone is saying, from their tone of voice to the number they are ringing from, and the information they are providing. Dealing with online sources is no different. How do you know the source is telling the truth? You’re a journalist, for god’s sake: it’s your job to find out.
Amen to that.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mmmmmm . . . Power Cords

Yeah, I'm livin' the dream. Or at least livin' the reality that our own little rat -- a miniature dachshund puppy named Dottie -- is emulating our dear Ratbert by chewing through our computer cables. Yes, my wife warned me that I'd better get things cleaned up. I did do some cable organization, but apparently the power cord to our router just proved too tempting. I tried to fix the cord last night with the little culprit sitting in my lap as I worked, but no. So we'll have to go out and buy a new one. Luckily I was able to wire Michelle's computer directly into the internet, bypassing the network, so she could do her homework last night. And also lucky we were that I had finished grading for the week in my English 101 class just before Dottie got the cable gnawed in half.

I still don't know how these puppies avoid electrocution -- of course, the router only pulls half an amp, but still you'd think it would make their gums tickle. Moki, our first doxie, only did this once. Maybe we'll be that lucky with Dottie. Though I'm not counting on it. Moki as a puppy wasn't a genius, and Dottie seems dumber than a bag of hammers.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Little Demigods of TV

‎"I'm concerned about the little demigods of TV who make an instant analysis of complicated events. There should be bounds on what TV men do, so much of which is delivered with flippant abandon." Douglas Cater, special assistant to President Lyndon Baines Johnson, in 1968, recorded in Victor Lasky's "It Didn't Start With Watergate."

To say Faux News did it first and still does it best skirts the issue that especially in politics, the news media of any stripe has been up to these shenanigans for years.

"You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war." William Randolph Hearst, 1898.

As entertaining as Jon Stewart and Co. are, it's shameful that we have sunk to the point that only on a non-news entertainment show does anyone say what Stewart and Colbert say and are believed. I don't believe in the bounds that Cater mentions, but I do worry about the "little demigods" of TV, whether they mix a little tiny bit of news with commentary or throw entertainment into the mix to take the curse off it.

The Marmot and Eddie Izzard

For a moment, it felt like I was in the middle of an Eddie Izzard comedy routine.

There I was at my desk, typing away. Barry Scott and I are the only ones in the trailer, everone else has taken the afternoon off or is elsewhere working away. It’s the first officially hot day of spring so we’ve got the doors propped open to catch the breeze.

I’m typing away. Out of the corner of my eye I see something in the hallway passing my cube. I look up. It’s a marmot. It nods to me, “Hello there, just passing through, don’t want to be a bother,” and it keeps on going. Down to the dead end hallway where the doors are shut and the copier lies and it can’t get out.

So Barry and I go down to the empty cubicles near the marmot and watch. Maybe we can let him into 613 and he’ll become AMWTP’s problem. He starts to come down the hallway again, then gets spooked. So we go back to our own cubicles – Barry offering the sound logic that if we ignore him, maybe he’ll work his way out.

He did. So we follow him to the vestibule. But the outside door is shut and he’s down the stairs right by the door. “How the hell are we going to get that door open,” Barry asks. Then Rick Farnsworth comes to the rescue. He opens the door from the outside, does a double take at the marmot panicking on the stairs, then holds the door open wide to let it out. End of marmot story.

Library of Congress Wants Our Nickels

Just what I need: Another Internet site to feed my seemingly insatiable need to collect and listen to old songs, old speeches, old poetry and – if what I read is true – even old sound effects.

Today it’s the venerable Library of Congress offering its National Jukebox to titillate my eager cochleae.

It’s got whistling:

It’s got yodeling:

It’s got just a minute quantity of about a quarter-century worth of recording, right down to the old-timey static we just don’t get with today’s music, even if we listen to it on the radio.

This isn’t public domain stuff, either – a lot of it is still under copyright by various holders. What the Library of Congress has done is to get a blanket license to allow audio streaming of this stuff, which makes it a boon for people like me who like to listen to the old stuff but either can’t justify buying the tracks or am just out of luck because a lot of this stuff just isn’t in demand these days (which makes me wonder about the copyright, but that’s another post for another day).

Simply put: I know what I’ll be doing this weekend. Lots of listening.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Editing in A Social Media Context

Another Uncharted-themed post tonight, but it bears on something that Michelle and I have spoken about often: Fixing mistakes on the Uncharted web site.

Obviously, we want to put our best foot forward. As a team of writers both professional and amateur hoping to attract other writers of the same various veins, we have to be careful in our presentation. Staff stuff – and certainly promoted and promotional material – ought to be meticulously copy-edited. We want our staff photos to be tone-perfect, or as near as can be, and we want all of our words to be spelled correctly.

And we’ll go to great lengths to do so. Just a month ago, I spent nearly three hours one night scouring my own stuff for errors, and found plenty to fix.

But what about stuff from our contributors – do we go in and stealthily fix typos and such, or send e-mails to the greatest offenders, asking them to fix things up? No we do not. That detracts from the experience rather than helping our Explorers feel comfortable in submitting material that’s less than perfect.

We’re already seeing that as a problem – some of the feedback we get from our readers is that we’re “too good” for the likes of them, so they feel intimidated about submitting material. If we suddenly went all Grammar Nazi on them, we’d only make the situation worse.

Enter Michael Agger’s piece on Slate.com today, “Awsum Shoes!” in which he delves into the ethicality of Internet-based businesses correcting the grammar and composition – but not altering the meaning thereof – of product reviews in order to present a sharper image and thus earn more money. Here’s what he says:
When we read a review on Amazon, we have to administer our own version of the Turing test—was this really written by an innocent, human consumer like me? With the amount of money at stake, and the amount of PR energy brought to bear, it will become increasingly difficult to sort the genuine from the fake. One can imagine a future (perhaps it's already arrived) when companies deliberately insert bad grammar or regional slang to give reviews the appearance of authenticity—sort of like the distressed khakis of reviews.

For now, the trend seems to be going in the opposite direction. By cleaning up its reviews, Zappos is hurting shoppers as it helps its bottom line. The lowercase reviews, the all-caps reviews, the Internet speak, the subject-verb-agreement manglings, the sentence fragments, the pathetic attempts to spell chic—all of these are factors to weigh when considering someone's opinion of low-top Chuck Taylors. Or, to be more earnest about it, our mistakes are what make us human. On the Internet, it's important that other people can tell if you're an idiot.
In other words, or errors make us human. And believable. Even on this blog. I may be anal about fixing what errors I see, but I don’t lie awake at nights, scouring my blog posts for things to fix. That’s also why I gave up the “Grammar Nazi” segments of this blog – they merely attracted other grammar Nazis who found mistakes aplenty on my blog, and rubbed my nose in them.

We may arrive at the day when we want “crowdsourced” or automatic grammar fixes in our content at Uncharted – and why not, we already have something very similar to that in the word processors we use, with spell check and grammar check ready with red and green squiggles to tell us where we’ve gone astray. And we’ve also toyed with the idea of automatic language translation software to help our site become more accessible to our worldwide, non-English speaking audience.

But they never feel authentic, these derivations of computer-produced writing, even if aided and abetted by humans. So we’ll be content with errors at Uncharted.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Best Part

I didn't want to lose this one, as I still maintain Peck's book is the best I've ever read on writing.

P. 97, Secrets of Successful Fiction, by Robert Newton Peck.

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 have a very good editor in my wife. She's honest, intelligent, and completely and utterly ruthless. I count myself lucky to have her, and not only for that reason.

I hope soon to develop a good relationship with a professional editor at a publishing house, willing to print my book. But I've got to get it all past my wife first. That'll be the telling test.

That Broken Record Called History

I read the following bit – the concluding paragraph of the chapter “Bargaining with an Empty Wallet” in Max Hastings’ “Winston’s War,” an in-depth look at the work, successes, and follies of Winston Churchill during the war years, and thought it has a message that modern politicians ought to examine:
But the British people had by now hardened their hearts towards their rulers, even the greatest. Many felt less gratitude to those presiding over victory in the most terrible conflict in history than implacable resentment against the politicians whom they held responsible for getting them into it in the first place. Even if Churchill had not himself been among the guilty men of the 1930s, he was now their political standard-bearer. And for all his giant stature as Britain’s war leader, millions of voters sensed that his interest in the humdrum domestic troubles of peace was perfunctory. An anonymous officer of the Second Army, fighting in Holland, wrote in the Spectator about the mood of the British soldier under his command: “[He] is fighting for the future of the world and does not believe in that future . . . He asks a lot of the future, but he doesn’t expect to get any of it.” The writer perceived his men as chronically mistrustful of all authority, institutions and politicians, but Tories most of all: “It is, perhaps, encouraging that Tommy, 1944, will not be foozled by facile talk of a land fit for heroes. He wants deeds, not words.” Few among such men perceived Winston Churchill as the national leader likely to fulfil such hopes once victory came.
Page 421, “Bargaining with an Empty Wallet,” In “Winston’s War.”

This kind of weariness is, I think, pretty common today. We saw it with Bill Clinton – the man who could do no wrong now boiled down to the man who monkeyed around with an intern, if we’re to believe everything said by the folks at JibJab. We saw it with George W. Bush, who went from the rallying hero of 9/11 to Monkey Boy, to continue the monkey theme. And we’re seeing it with Barack Obama whom we’re apparently not allowed to compare to a monkey but we can kinda make fun of the whole “hopey-changey” thing because, well, just go back and read what that anonymous officer said of Churchill in that quoted paragraph, especially the part about fighting for a future that he does not believe will arrive, or, if it does, that he will be able to “get any of it.”

Maybe this is why I like reading history after it’s all over, not the instantaneous history most journalists produce. They say journalism is the first draft of history, but given the many changing facts we’ve seen with, for instance, the bin Laden raid, that first draft is nothing but a first draft, in need of serious revision by those who can look at the situation with cool, dispassionate eyes.

Wanna Buy A Ghost (Town)?

I don't know what it is with me and ghost towns.

Back in the late 80s, a Dutch exchange student we were hosting wanted to go pan for gold. He'd gone to the local army surplus store and bought an authentic gold-panning pan -- they have everything at our surplus store, except the gold -- and wanted to try it out. I figured, why not go gold-panning where the prospectors had found gold years before?

So we headed to Stanley , Idaho.

Stanley itself is nto a ghost town, though it is almost. Nearby, however, is the ghost town of Bonanza, which sounded as a likely spot.

We camped, made a fire, monkeyed around as high school kids will do, then went panning for gold. Didn't find a single flake. But we had a ball poking through the old buildings at Bonanza, wondering who lived there, why they left, and why in the world they used such splintery wood for the seats in their outhouses.

Then on out, I was hooked.

I've been through ghost towns in extreme southern Idaho , where they built their homes out of stone because trees were scarce. I've been through several in central Idaho , where the roofs have crumbled and trees are growing up through the buildings.

And I've been to Gilmore , Idaho , time and again, hoping against hope that on the next journey, I can convince my wife to buy a lot there. They're for sale, you know. Owning part of a ghost town. How cool would that be? Read more about it here.

Gilmore, Idaho, from the surrounding hills. Photo by Michelle Davidson.

Pew Study Delves into Where and How People Get Their News

The folks over at the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism continue to put out interesting research that ought to influence how media companies on the web shape their web and social media strategies.

Their most recent study, “Navigating News Online” (full link here, or see below for a PDF of the study, which Pew, for some reason*, has spread over several web pages), comes up with some surprising – and not so surprising – conclusions, based on nine months’ worth of mining data from Nielsen research conducted in 2010. Pew focuses on the following areas, critical to anyone hoping to build monetizable traffic on the web:
  • How users get to the top news sites
  • How long they stay during each visit
  • How deep they go into a site
  • Where they go when they leave
Their findings ought to hearten media companies who have worked hard to build a Facebook presence, cause chagrin to those who have poured any amount of effort into Twitter and make them think again about who might be the bad boy – I did say bad boy, not bad girl – in the business of news aggregation.

Most telling, however, are these points, delivered in the study’s overview:
[T]he findings suggest that there is not one group of news consumers online but several, each of which behaves differently. These differences call for news organizations to develop separate strategies to serve and make money from each audience.
The findings also reveal that while search aggregators remain the most popular way users find news, the universe of referring sites is diverse. Social media is rapidly becoming a competing driver of traffic. And far from obsolete, home pages are usually the most popular page for most of the top news sites.
The home page thing, to me, is the most startling, and yet almost the most obvious thing to think of. Back when Web 1.0 was king, much was made of making the home page visible, dominant, and navigable. In the Google age, however, thought has poured into the philosophy that since traffic is coming to sites in droves through search engines that the home page is not necessarily as important as it was in the past. Not so, according to Pew, at least for the 25 major news sites they looked at:
For 21 of the 25 sites studied, the home page is the most viewed part of the site. This suggests a couple of likely behaviors. One is that some of the traffic coming from search is people typing in the name of the Website, not searching for specific topics. Second, it suggests that, for certain sites especially, going online to check the latest headlines is still an important dimension of news consumption.

This finding reinforces my belief that at Uncharted (you knew this was going to devolve into a discussion about Uncharted, right?) we need to do more to offer enticement and different places to go on the home page, including having links to our blog, our Facebook page, and perhaps a list of ten to fifteen of our most recently-updated stuff, in addition to the slide and banner updates we already do. Giving our readers a plethora of at-home places to go, tied in with Facebook, also matches nicely with what Pew concludes in its study.

First, Facebook. Here’s what Pew says:
With roughly 500 million users worldwide, Facebook’s audience is vastly larger than any single news organization. Its role has evolved from a network for friends to share personal information to a way for people to share, recommend and link together all kinds of information, including news. If searching for news was the most important development of the last decade, sharing news may be among the most important of the next.
Google ought to be a little concerned here – which is why they tried to get Google Buzz going. Sharing news, I think, is going to become increasingly significant in the future. We’re doing that already, thank heaven, with our Facebook page, and with the AddThis widget we have on the tail end of every story we’ve got. Speaking of which:

If a large portion of users are going to Facebook after leaving a site, that may indicate the site’s content is easy to share and viewed as worth distributing to friends. On the other hand, if most users are leaving for Google or some other search engine, that could indicate that users either did not find what they were looking for on the site or got what they needed but were not drawn to any other content.
The addition of social networking “share” tools to the margins of nearly every news story seems to have paid off. Facebook shows up among the top destinations for every site studied. So do sharing tool widgets like Addthis.com, which allow users to share a story across a wide range of social network pages. And the share tools rank higher among the content producers on the list than aggregators, suggesting that people share actual news stories more than search results. While these are technically clicks away from the site, they are positive clicks away, likely multiplying additional traffic to that story. The extent of their use may even be under counted here as this figure measures when people click on a link or tool to share the story. It does not record instances when users copy and paste URL’s onto a share page.
So we’re at least doing the share thing right. I’d love to search Facebook to see whether or not the stuff on our site is being shared, however, as our users tend to be an inscrutable bunch.

There’s lots more from the study, of course. I’ve only scratched the surface here. Read it. It’s a good ‘un. It's getting a lot of press. Here's what TIME Magazine's Techland blog has to say about it.

*Which they explain in their own study, obtusely yet thusly: The largest sites that operate many subdomain properties also tend to succeed at keeping much of the “departing” traffic within the family.  On ChicagoTribune.com, for instance, the top seven destination sites are pages within Chicago Tribune itself, such as the ChicagoTribune.com sports page or breaking news section. On CNN.com, 13 of top fifteen destination sites are within the CNN family, including CNN subdomains like news.blogs.cnn.com and money.conn.com as, well as other Time Warner properties promoted on the site like sportsillustrated.com. Google and Facebook are the only external sites to make it in that mix.

Friday, May 6, 2011

An Open Letter to the Library Book, “A to Z Mysteries: Something or Other about Quicksand” (We Can't Even Remember the Title) that Our Daughter Lost.

NOTE: I'm thinking of submitting this, or a more polished version, to McSweeney's Open Letter forum. Kinda fun.

I'm so terribly sorry.

She left you on the third step up from the basement, “right where that bottle is,” apparently, as if the book somehow magically transmogrified into a bottle of antibacterial soft soap.

I hope your final resting place is a pleasant one. That you're in the house somewhere I don't doubt, unless, of course, she left you at the vet's, or at ballet, or at Grandma's house, or at the university when we took everybody there a few weeks ago so we could go for a long walk out of the cold. Considering, however, that we found her brother's copy of Jeff Kinney's “Diary of A Wimpy Kid” in the middle of the rain-drenched street in front of the house because he left that one on the car bumper, and that we found my heirloom copy of D. Manus Pinkwater's “The Hoboken Chicken Emergency” amidst the dust bunnies and butt crumbs on the floor behind the boys' toilet, it's also likely you're somewhere dark and sticky.

I spent more than an hour today looking for you. I cleaned the boys' bookshelf trying to find you. Part of me is glad you weren't there, frightened at the pages spilling out of their “Captain Underpants” books and the ripped-off covers from their “Garfield” comics. Nestling among the corpsey bits of other books certainly wouldn't be comforting. Of course, either would be the alternative if you're lost somewhere in her room, squeezed into the pile of schoolwork from the first and second grades that she insists we cannot, under any circumstances, throw away, because she might, in some distant future, require examples of her ability with spelling or her felicity with fractions.

Your absence makes me think of Terry Pratchett's dwarves who chided Chalkboard Monitor Vimes for his irreverence in erasing words from existence. I'm half-dwarvish, I've decided. When a book becomes too aged, too crumbled, too pulped to be of service any more, I burn it. I can't bear to simply throw books away. They gave their lives for me to enjoy the ideas and suggestions and characters and words printed on their pages. The least I can do is offer them a reverential burial. Sometimes I sneak books out of the boys' room and put them in the fireplace, sending their words to heaven through the chimney.

My wife wents me to do that with the “Captain Underpants” books, but not because of any reverence she feels towards words. Pratchett's grags would not like my wife. Different strokes, of course.

She's willing to pay the library what it'll take to replace you. I can't however, guarantee that they'll buy a new copy of the same book. I don't know how popular you were, but as our kids tend to bring home books that were last checked out from the library in, say, 2005, your chances of being replaced with an exact replica aren't good. But maybe that's okay – some other book, containing another story to enchant the mind of a nine-year-old girl, will come to the library, for our daughter to check out and, hopefully this time, return.

And if we eventually find you, maybe she'll finish reading your words.



Even Bigger than bin Laden

The most significant thing to come out of the raid in Pakistan that led to the killing of Osama bin laden is not the man’s death, but the wealth of intelligence the Navy SEALs brought with them out of Abbottabad.

According to an article in Politico, the SEALs grabbed “personal computers, thumb, drives and electronic equipment” during the raid. The article goes on to say:
"They cleaned it out,” one official said. “Can you imagine what’s on Osama bin Laden’s hard drive?”
U.S. officials are about to find out. The material is being examined at a secret location in Afghanistan.
“Hundreds of people are going through it now,” an official said, adding that intelligence operatives back in Washington are very excited to find out what they have.
“It’s going to be great even if only 10 percent of it is actionable,” the official said.
Part of me hopes they find that bin Laden was a fan of “Angry Birds.”

Officially in at Columbia

Well, we're officially in at the CSPA. Here's what Alan says about our repeated invitation:
Here is the link to the workshop I will be teaching. The Columbia University people told me that the reasons they are having me come teach this summer are because I come well prepared and get really good reviews with class numbers increasing. The words they used to describe the sessions were things like innovative and attention-grabbing. They also like that we cross train and deal with small staffs. This invitation would not be possible if it were not for the team effort that goes into helping me prepare for these events. Each of you have played a key role in this and I appreciate it. When I go to these things and am successful it is only because of this team. You should all take credit for this. Thanks.
That makes us feel pretty good. Here's the link he mentions.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

National Cartoonists Day

It's to surprise to my readers that I like my comic strips. And while it's true that my tastes have evolved over the years, two things have remained constant: I've always liked Peanuts, and I've always disliked Alley Oop. Not that I didn't try awfully hard as a kid to like Alley Oop. It just never caught my fancy.

It's the same with Pearls Before Swine. Really trying to like it. I come close several times, but most of the time, no, it's just Alley Oop all over again. And I can't really put my finger to why I don't much care for either of those two strips, either, though Swine's awful puns and plays on words are a big turnoff for me. Never much liked puns as a kid. Except for those that appeared in Wiley's Dictionary. Something about that disembodied, authoritative voice just made the awfulness come to life for me.

Absurdity, like this, I do like:

[He tries in vain to find a comic to fit the absurdity bill here. No luck. Almost all of my comic books are in storage because there's not enough room on the shelves for them. Next house will have lots of bookshelves. And a garage.]

There are better ones than this. Just don't have the time to find one tonight.

Two things started my love affair with comic strips: First, the Forbidden Books -- BC and Wizard of Id collections -- my brother Jeff had hidden on his bookshelf, but not well enough that his younger brothers couldn't find them. Second, "Barnaby," which my sixth grade teacher Mr. Loertscher read to us using what I recognize now as the voice of W.C. Fields as Mr. O'Malley. (It doesn't matter what any of my other elementary school teachers did or any of the stuff they tried to make us learn. My most lasting memories of school will always be of "Barnaby.") My dream one of these days is to find some "Barnaby" comic books in a thrift store. I love to dream that dream. I know they've been reprinted. But to find an original . . .

So who are my favorites today?

Well, Cul de Sac, for one. And Dilbert, for another. And the Dogs of C Kennel I rather enjoy. Overboard. Baby Blues. Yes, I'm a traditional newspaper comic strip fan. None of this magna or DC Comics or anything like that. No. They all appeal to the desire I have to feed the absurdist within.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Washed-Up Journalist Heads, in Spirit, to CSPA

Back in April 2005, I washed my hands of newspaper journalism.

Sick to death of it I was. And even with the prospect of underemployement as a hod carrier (to be followed up by stints at call centers and Target) I was glad to be out of the profession.

I’ve grown up a bit since then. Well, a lot.

I now realize I frittered away opportunities in the field. Still, I’m happy I left. I’m enjoying my career as a technical writer and have turned my desire to write into a handful of blogs, a strong presence at Uncharted and, at last count, a 114,000-word fantasy novel that I’m in the midst of editing. Also during that time I earned a Masters degree and, through Uncharted, have become associated with people who want my input on all sorts of things, writing being only one of many. I’m also teaching an online English class at Brigham Young University-Idaho, hopefully shaping students’ minds to become better writers, or at least not to regard writing with fear and loathing. I’ve also grown closer to my wife, with whom I collaborate at Uncharted, and who is going through the same masters program I finished in 2009.

And thanks to Uncharted – more specifically, to Alan Murray, our illustrious CEO and Sith Lord – I’m kinda in a back-doorsy way getting back into journalism.

For the past two years, Alan has traveled to Columbia University’s Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s spring and fall workshops, to teach high school students there everything he knows about writing for the web, collaborating with people dispersed across the globe, and other such stuff. Now this summer they’ve asked him to come back for a full week to teach a workshop on newspaper writing for the web.

He wants me to help.

All I can say is yikes. Two rubes like us working together to present something at Columbia. He’s feeling overwhelmed. I’m feeling overwhelmed. Yet excited and challenged at the same time.

I’m sure some of my compatriots in my former field of employment would raise their eyebrows at my participation in this. No matter. I’m not the same person I was back then. I’ve changed for the better, and don’t mind saying that, though I know I’ve still got a long way to go.

So here’s a rough draft of what we’re thinking:

Tonight's Nonsequitur: Bunny in A Bunny Suit

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

This I Believe

NOTE: Another bit for my Foundations English class.

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

I sat in the back of Mrs. Barrett’s third grade classroom, next to the bookshelf.

When I got my school work done – and sometimes even before it was finished – I’d pull a book off the shelf to read. There I found the magical worlds of Robert C. O’Brien, Marie McSwigan, Beverly Cleary, Alexander Key.

As I wondered at a new world alongside Jon O’Connor, as I tagged along in the background as Henry Huggins romped with Ribsy, as I sat beside Mrs. Frisby in the rats’ library, rapt at the story of the rats of NIMH, I decided I wanted to be a writer.

Then I promptly did nothing about it.

Oh, I did little things. A poem here, a short story there. But through several fits and starts, I never did what I set out to do, there in the back corner of Mrs. Barrett’s classroom at Lincoln Elementary.

Until 2010.

By then, I had a third-grader of my own, plus two other children. I was writing – but as a technical writer at a Department of Energy laboratory. During a lunch break in late January, however, I sat at my computer mulling the madelines of memory. I pecked out a few hundred words: two boys, bored at living in their primitive village, longing instead to climb the cliffs that ringed them in and climb toward the stars, then over and out the green pass that led to the world beyond.

Maybe, I thought, I have something.

So the next day, at lunch, I wrote some more.

Each day, it became an obsession. Write a few more hundred words about these curious boys, now departed from the only home they’ve known into a mysterious school training them to become –

I didn’t know. I kept writing, on the bus rides home, late into the night on weekends. And at lunches. Many lunches. I posted snippets of this growing story on my blog. If anyone ever read them, I didn’t know it. I knew a third-grader who was reading them. And he kept insisting, staring at those words in the ethers, that the story continue.

It did.

By January 2011, those first few hundred words turned into 114,000 words.

I’d written a novel.

It’s unpublished. It’s unedited. It’s raw. But there, in that little folder on my desktop, in that binder at home, on the thumb drives were I’ve stored it, my first novel awaits the finishing touch that may some day lead it to sit on a bookshelf in the back corner of some dusty classroom where another kid will pull it off the shelf and fall into the world I created because that third-grader who still loves the rats of NIMH told me I had to do it.

I believe, with the proper tools and motivation, one person can indeed move a mountain. Or feed the inner muse-child, staring longingly at the shelf of books not yet written.

I'm Learnding

Used under the fair use doctrine for educational purposes.

So, I have a lot to learn.

That’s no surprise. That I knew about the Ophelia Syndrome before I signed up to teach this course doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t occasionally stumble into its pitfalls. But as Lucy said to Charlie Brown in the Peanuts Christmas special, “that I recognize I have a problem means I am not too far gone.” That’s good, right?

I’ve already confessed to Tyler that I’m having a hard time adjusting to teaching this course because, from 2006 to 2009, I was taking online courses with a group of highly-motivated grad students. Now I’m on the other side of the looking-glass and see that the students I’m dealing with don’t quite have that level of motivation. Some do – don’t get me wrong there – but there are some who don’t. And it hurts to see. Not that it’s hurting me, but I hate to see them hurting themselves perhaps without recognizing it.

So what to do? Tyler’s suggestion that we study the language we use as we interact with our students is an apt one, because I’ve seen in all sorts of interactive situations – from the online courses in which I was a student, to email exchanges I have with various SMEs at work and through the sometimes contentious exchanges I have with fellow co-workers at Uncharted, a social media group I’m involved with – that it’s communication and the words we use that sometimes inflame and sometimes calm contentious situations.

This is the part where I start to sound like Uncle Rico from “Napoleon Dynamite,” as if I’m completely legit, like I’ve got all the answers. I don’t. This is just what I’m seeing as important and what I’m seeing I need to work on.

Firstly, Elder Bednar says in his presentation “Seek Learning by Faith” (I’m trying to model good citation format for my students here; gotta keep in practice), “[A]nything you or I do as an instructor that knowingly and intentionally draws attention to self – in the messages we present, in the methods we use, or in our personal demeanor – is a form of priestcraft that inhibits the teaching effectiveness of the Holy Ghost.”

Ouch. Priestcraft. You know, that’s just like, as Steve Martin says, the word ‘hemorrhoid.’ Neither is a word you want to become associated with. But as I read that portion of the article, I recognized myself in it a little. On paper like this, I’m loquacious. Logorrheic, in fact. And I’ve probably stepped on a few toes strutting about in the cockpit of language, making myself sound bigger than I am. So then I read what Elder Bednar says and I’m humbled. I’m also reminded of what one of my writing heroes said:

The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us. Of course, it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested. That is the great difficulty. 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.

That’s what CS Lewis says in “Learning in War-Time,” a sermon he delivered in Oxford in 1939.

So between CS Lewis and Elder Bednar, I can see I’ve got some humility to learn.

So what am I doing to learn it?

Well, I’m here, virtual hat in hand, hoping to learn from the rest of you. This is my first semester teaching anything outside of Primary or Elders Quorum, so I’m green as bamboo. I’m ready to be taught.

I’m also doing a little self-exploration, thus following one of Elder Bednar’s admonitions: “Learning by faith cannot be transferred from an instructor to a student through a lecture, a demonstration, or an experiential exercise; rather, a student must exercise faith and act in order to obtain the knowledge for himself or herself.”

Here’s what I’ve found out:

Mark Canada, in “Students as Seekers in Online Courses,” offers good advice, as Tyler has already pointed out: “To help students adjust to working effectively as independent learners, professors should emphasize the pursuit of knowledge – perhaps even using words such as “seek” and “explore: -- when communicating with their online students.” I’m trying to do that – my word of the semester is “challenge.” I know each of the students I have in this section are capable of doing the work that’s being asked of them. Over the past two weeks, we’ve spent time together learning, and I’ve learned which students are the eager beavers and which ones need a bit of cajolery. Thus the challenges – dig deeper into the articles, find what you like, what you don’t agree with, and share it with the class. These challenges are calls to action – something Alan Murray, Uncharted’s president, urges us to do all the time as we try to take our creation at www.uncharted.net and turn it into a successful social media platform. We can unfurl the flags and put out the welcome mat and pay jugglers to stand at the doors, he says, but until we ask our visitors to do something – to submit a story, upload some photos, etc. – they won’t feel obliged or encouraged to do so, even if they’ve come to us of their own free will.

Note I use the word cajolery here. That’s for shorthand purposes, not meant to bear the baggage the word brings with it. One of the things I hope to emphasize with my students throughout this semester and, BYU-Idaho willing, further semesters, is that no matter their chosen major, they’ll need to be effective communicators. I plan on pointing them to a paper called “Do Scientists Understand the Public,” written by Chris Mooney for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Mooney’s thesis is that scientists in general either need to do a better job of communicating with the public in order to convey the import of their scientific research or to solicit the help of professional communicators to do so in a way that leads the public to positive calls for action, rather than leading them to preconceived notions or knee-jerk political opinions of science because the principles haven’t been clearly communicated.

Mooney, in his paper, commends the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission as an example of a scientific agency that has “undertaken new measures to strengthen public support of its activities.” Part of that includes a careful watch that cajolery or condescension doesn’t enter into the picture. Mooney writes: “According to Janet Kotra, head of the NRC’s High-Level Waste Public Outreach Team, these steps include improving the ability of government scientists to engage with citizens in well-designed, effective public meetings. As Kotra put it at the American Academy meeting: ‘I will never forget a former colleague who said, ‘You mean, I have to dumb down my presentation for Ma and Pa Kettle?’ And of course, the answer to that is, yes, if you see it that way. But if you see it that way, I don’t want you talking to them.’”

So as I issue my challenges and calls to action, I’m trying to do it in a manner that encourages my students to act, rather than to be acted upon. “Learning by faith and from experience are two of the central features of the Father’s plan of happiness,” Elder Bednar writes. “The Savior preserved moral agency through the Atonement and made it possible for us to act and to learn by faith. Lucifer’s rebellion against the plan sought to destroy the agency of man, and his intent was that we as learners would only be acted upon.” I hope my choices – and the Spirit – help me avoid such situations.