Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I’m busy gearing up for another semester teaching at BYU-Idaho. Classes start in about a week and a half, so I’ve got to spend some time this week and next getting things ready to go.

Why the Cliffs of Insanity introduction, you may ask, considering this is my second semester teaching and I ought to know all the ropes by now?

Well, first of all, I don’t know all the ropes. And yesterday the mysterious disembodied voice I know as Rob from online learning called and asked if I’d be willing to take on a second section of the course, as they’ve had a sudden spike in enrollment and not enough teachers to take on one section at a time.

So yeah, Cliffs of Insanity time. I said yes. I don’t look at it as doubling the workload. Maybe adding two-thirds of the workload, not doubling. I do have double the students to track and grade, but I’m figuring both classes will just kind of blend together and I won’t feel that much more burdened. Well, burdens will come when I meet with them mid-semester, and grading some of the papers might get tedious, but I do have all that downtime on the bus that I can fill with this kind of thing. So I think it’ll be okay.

Additionally, doubling up the money I can earn from BYU-I this semester, leading into Christmas, certainly is a perk. Might well pay for Christmas this year. That would be a good thing, and that’s no lie.

Bad Decision 4

Sometimes, comics take a bit of commentary a bit too far.

This week, Scott Adams of Dilbert fame didn’t take his bit of commentary far enough. And rather than making a wry commentary on the perceptions we have of ourselves, our own ideas, and how those ideas impact others, by not taking this one far enough, he just ends up being smug – which contradicts, I think, the better premise he could have used in this setup: humility.

Anyway, that’s enough of the preamble. On to the comics:

The key here is that once Dilbert types his great idea into an email, he, too, realizes it sounds kinda dumb. But rather than try to sort out why it sounds stupid even to the originator of the idea, he decides to sort it out later – and then never does it. At least not up through Bad Decision 2 and 3, then on to today’s comic.

The only one who acts sensibly throughout this episode is Wally, who:

1) Likely has no idea what the idea is and is thus keeping his mouth shut, or,
2) Knows what the idea is but is going to articulate his criticisms/concerns in a better way than transferring the idiocy of the idea to the messenger rather than the message.

The person who calls the email ignorant and arrogant errs in attacking the person/perception, rather than articulating why the idea doesn’t work – something Dilbert already kinda knows, since he knows the idea sounded dumb in the email in the first place.

Dilbert, too, however, acts foolishly, turning the situation into an I’m right/you’re wrong debate, rather than turning the conversation to the idea and saying, you know, I kinda felt it was dumb in the email. Maybe the two of us can sort it out by talking about the idea, its merits and its faults, rather than turning this into a personal attack or a pissing match.

Of course, this kind of logic doesn’t make for a good comic, since it’s rational, rather than the “dance, monkey, dance” fodder Adams prefers, because it’s so much easier to use DMD material to condescend rather than to exude humility.

I know. I’m overanalyzing the comics again. Still, I was hopeful Adams was straying out of DMD territory for once. Guess I was wrong. But I’ll wait to see what tomorrow holds, hoping that the smug is only a setup for something better.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Smug/Stupid Ratio, per TIME

So TIME magazine has come out with another one of those book lists, challenging readers to estimate just how dumb (or how smug) they may feel by reading the list and judging each other by how few (or how many) of the books on said list they’ve read in their lifetimes.

I admit I fell into the trap.

I’ve read just under one-tenth of the books on their list of the 100 most influential non-fiction books ever written:

7 Maus, by Art Spiegelman
48 The Closing of the American Mind, by Saul Bloom
61 In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
63 All the Presidents Men, by Woodward and Bernstein
72 A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking
83 Elements of Style, by Strunk and White
90 Nickeled and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich
93 Working, by Studs Terkel
99 Hiroshima, by John Hersey

I don’t feel stupid or smug, having read these books, or not having read the other 91 books on the list. Lists like these, I remind myself constantly, are subjective. More aggressive reader and pseudointellectual types are likely raising a firestorm about what books are on the list and what books aren’t on the list. I’m just feeling this way:

And a little bit this way:

I Miss This Show So Much

I’ll be in my office. Under my rug.

Boy. Talk about your gloomy Guses.


What makes for good journalism?

What makes for good writing, to broaden that question – because I’m no longer a journalist in the strict sense of the word and there are those who might bristle if they were to discover I’m writing on the subject.

Truman Capote, when he wrote “In Cold Blood,” certainly did not go into the project thinking “I’m going to maintain my independence as I go about this.” Instead, he concentrated on the story. On getting to know the people involved, from the criminals to the investigators to the victims.

Theodore White, in writing his excellent series of “The Making of A President” books concentrated more on the story and on telling the truth and did not shy away from making commentary that made both Democrats and Republicans look both good and bad, because that’s what we all are – a little bit good, a little bit bad.

And Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the books “Nickeled and Dimed” and “Bat and Switch,” two of the most honest books I’ve ever read on working in the United States, has this to say: “I can’t imagine getting involved in a problem as a journalist and not wanting to do something about it.”

So it makes sense to me to read what BYU-Idaho journalism instructor Lane Williams writes in the Deseret News about the state of journalism today.

He basically writes that modern journalistic independence too often reveals a bias towards getting a story and covering conflict, rather than a more informative bias towards helping readers understand the complex issues behind the conflict. He writes:
Perhaps journalists, in their desire to be neutral, sometimes avoid detailed and complex policy issues because such issues might require them to make conclusions that might benefit one party or another, undercutting their neutrality.
He also links to an excellent essay by scholar Jay Rosen, who writes along similar lines:
The quest for innocence in political journalism means the desire to be manifestly agenda-less and thus “prove” in the way you describe things that journalism is not an ideological trade. But this can get in the way of describing things! He said, she said journalism doesn’t tell us who’s distorting the picture more. It is neutral on where the reality is, but reality is not something journalists can afford to be neutral about!
I don’t pretend to be a journalist. I don’t pretend to be a fast learner. I know far more now – I hope – about good writing than I did five and a half years ago when I left journalism ass-first. I don’t miss it, because I’ve found other outlets for my writing that are much more enjoyable. As I look back on my life I see a lot of things that I would do differently if only I’d had the experience and hindsight then that I have now. Perhaps that’s why we get second chances to do so many things in our lives, to reinvent ourselves.

I’m much less neutral, much less innocent now. And, for the most part, it’s for the better. I’m a lot more aware of bias now, and at ferreting out the biases in what I read – something Williams advocates:
At Heritage or [Center for American Progress], on the other hand, I learn about issues with a depth and clarity that I can’t find in traditional journalism — all with no more mouse clicks than I need to read ABC. They are trying to persuade me.

Does it change the value of the information just because these organizations are not independent? No. As a consumer, I am smart enough to understand bias and to sort through it. I certainly don't agree with everything on these blogs.

Heritage Foundation, however, has my trust because of its commitment to accuracy and because I learn something by reading their information.
So maybe that’s good writing: Writing that helps someone learn something. Though that something has to be more than what Krusty the Klown said kids learned from watching “Itchy and Scratchy”:

“Oh please! What don’t they learn? Don’t trust mice . . . cats are made of glass . . . “

So comes the arrogant question: Is the average person intellectually capable enough of sorting out the biases, avoiding the Daily Me/Echo Chamber kind of situation that sets us up to always be at war with Eastasia?

Yes. If they want to put in the effort.

And many are. People aren’t as dumb as the pundits or their peers want to believe. What’s worse in writing than arrogance on assuming neutrality is the arrogance of assuming that the readers are dumber than a box of rocks.

I have to consider the kind of stuff I enjoy reading. That includes good narrative, persuasive writing and – most importantly – the chance to look at the data or the report myself so I can read things in context and continue my education OUTSIDE of the news being reported. This is where the Internet will win hands down over any other kind of media, because it puts the information readers want to help them contextualize the news at their fingertips.

Yes, there are readers that will be lazy and not do the further reading and research. But writers shouldn’t shrug their shoulders and assume the lowest common denominator. But of course, sometimes they do, and sometimes their bias is not to provide information, but to smear the other guy, brazenly, unapologetically.

Here's what Dilbert creator Scott Adams says on the subject (coincidentally). He posits that the "liberal" media has ratcheted up its "gotcha" attacks on conservative candidates for president by distorting what they say to fit them into a "liberal" point of view.
Writers also shouldn’t assume a bias towards any political party. What should be sought after is a bias towards the accuracy that Williams sees and the accuracy reporters like White and Ehrenreich espouse.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Godwinning, Well, Anything

Because I have a love of World War II history that intersects with my love of scouring local thrift stores for unusual books, I’m currently reading “Hitler’s Social Revolution,” a published doctoral thesis by David Schoenbaum. I won’t go into the particulars of Schoenbaum’s thesis, as I’m still reading the book, but would like to point out to supercilious politicians and social scientists that this book and its treatment of National Socialism could well be used to Godwin quite a number of current political movements in the United States. Just so you know.

And what’s interesting, it could be used to inject Nazi political thought into movements ranging from the “Yes We Can” presidency and apologetics of those who follow President Barack Obama to those tri-fold hatters besotted with the Tea Party. There’s enough Godwin to go around.

For those unfamiliar with Godwin’s Law, I’ll do a cut-and-paste summation from the phenomenon’s Wikipedia page:
Godwin's law (also known as Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies or Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies) is a humorous observation made by Mike Godwin in 1990 that has become an Internet adage. It states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches (100%)." In other words, Godwin put forth the hyperbolic observation that, given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope—someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis.
Yessir, it would be pretty easy to pick through Schoenbaum’s work to Godwin Obama or the Tea Party or, really, anyone you wanted to Godwin. It’s a gold mine for Godwinners. I provide no examples, of course, because the comparisons and analogies are at best superficial and at worst historically incorrect because to imply a 1:1 ratio of Nazis to either the Tea Party or Change We Can Believe In neglects critical historical, societal, and political context that would make the comparisons silly if held in context.

So why read the book and, above all, why write this post? Well, just trying to understand the world and how it works. Adding to my canon of obscure World War II reading material. And trying to understand what’s going on today by considering how it compares – and doesn’t – to how things went in the past. History repeating itself and such.

Linguistically this is fascinating stuff, considering how Hitler and the Nazis tried – and succeeded well – to play with the language to make words like “worker” and “soldier” take on new meanings as they worked on paper to erase class divides. It’s kinda Orwellian – to bring up another common Internet thread-killer – to see how language is often a premier tool as political and societal changes occur.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Skinnydippers of Madison County

Attention: Skinnydippers who were swimming in the Henry's Fork of the Snake River at Beaver Dick Park (no jokes; it's just the name of the park) at about 1 am Saturday morning.

You'd think, first of all, if you were going to go skinnydipping, you'd be a lot more quiet about it. As it is, all your hooting, hollering, and splashing woke us up -- even me, who happens to be a very sound sleeper. You were fortunate we -- a group of fathers and their 11-year-old and younger sons, on an outing with the Boy Scouts of America -- weren't a more curious lot, or you would have had a lot more people standing on the shore watching you as you frolicked. As it is, you did arouse (not that, way, clean up your mind again) our lightest sleeper, a very even-tempered, amenable man who also doesn't do much by way of suffering fools.

You really had the coyotes riled up, too. They were yipping and barking on both sides of the river, though it was hard to hear them over all of your noise and general nonsense.

When he was walking to the docks where you were splashing, he figured he had a bunch of skinnydippers on his hands, and that you were probably drunk to boot, considering the level of noise you were making.

What makes the whole situation funny is your indignant "You can turn around now, sir," as he approached. You know, had you not been so damned loud and annoying, you probably wouldn't have woken up anyone in the campground -- there were more than 50 of us there that night, not all of us scouts but plenty of us there to watch and ogle if you were determined enough to wake everyone up. But you were loud, so it prompted a response. I thought is "I'll turn around if you all leave right now" was a good response.

He didn't call the cops, as you were worried (your whispering and whatnot wasn't all that quiet, drunken people rarely are all that quiet when they're whispering) he would do. He should have. I would have, but I'm a heavy enough sleeper I just went back to sleep.

He was impressed with your speed. Not twenty seconds after he said he'd leave if you did, he heard all four of your car door slam and you were gone. You left a bit too fast, though. Somebody left a brazier on the dock railing. It's probably still there if you want to go back and get it.

I don't mind if you want to skinnydip; that is your right. Just be more quiet about it next time. And don't scream like a little girl. Or play at King of the Rock.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Story Time: Dog

Dog has Hi, or Hi has dog. Neither cared for a more concrete definition.

Dog's name is Dog. Sometimes Pooch. Sometimes Stinky. When it was raining and Dog was running around out in the year, or it was time to go to the vet, or there was a puddle on the floor next to the grandfather clock in the living room, Dog's name was Petey Pate, and Hi barked it out in the rudest of manners which caused Dog to slink every time under the bed and hope the dust wouldn't tickle his nose into a sneeze.

Dog preferred Dog, and frankly, so did Hi.

Hi is a man, stated so as to not confuse the easily befuddled reader. He has more than one name as well. Sometimes Hello and other times Howdy, which depended on what other type of creature he was addressing. Once and a while his name was Jerk or Moron, but those were only special pet names reserved for Hi by ticket-takers and enormous women who stepped on his feet at the shopping plaza.

Hi has even more names than that, humans apparently being more fickle and temperamental creatures than dogs. The mother-creature called him Harold when she called long distance from Hoboken. The old fat man who smelled of liverwurst sandwiches, the same old man who always lurked in the building's elevator, and thus startled Hi nearly every time the doors popped open to reveal his corpulent form, called Hi Sir, especially on the rare occasions where Hi slipped a shiny treat into the gloved palm of his hand.

But the creature Hi called Gloria, who tiptoed and whispered in the apartment across the hall, calls him Hi. Whispers it, almost prayerfully it seemed to Dog, as she shuffled past, fumbling with keys and struggling with dingy canvas grocery bags.

Man preferred Hi, and frankly, so did Dog.

And so, it seemed, did Gloria. But more from her later.

Dog and Hi got along quite well together, considering the inequalities in their relationship. Dog regarded Hi with the patient incomprehension and pity that most creatures hold for the struggling gangly members of the human race. For instance, humans, to Dog in particular, never seemed content with their colors. Hi changed his coat every day, sometimes more than once if Hi was chancing meeting Gloria in the park a few blocks down the street. He would begin the day with a nice brown, lacking only the blacking that would transform him into a Dog-like German Shepherd. Sometimes his bottom legs were that nice brown, sometimes a startling shade of blue. But then the top would be all wrong and white. Hi, for reasons Dog never quite understood, nearly always put on his leash every morning and wore it all day long, not thinking for an instant how much more comfortable it is to run without a rope dangling from one's neck. Hi didn't need the leash, Dog knew. He knew dogs needed one, since the humans with the spatula-shaped heads and perfect sticks for chasing strapped to their hips most emphatically informed Hi one day in the park that if Dog didn't want to be pounded, Hi had better put it (whatever this 'it' was) on a leash. That funny creature had called Hi Buster, and Dog growled his dissatisfaction with the new name as the odd human walked away, useless legs clasped behind its back.

Those extra legs, of the odd creature, of Gloria and of Hi, confused Dog. His confusion soon melted into a simple pity for these less-than fortunate creatures. When Dog ran in the park, bouncing and racing on his four perfect legs, Hi could only ape-lope behind him, rarely beating him to the stick they both chased. Small versions of humankind were sometimes quite capable of using all four of their ill-proportioned legs for locomotion, but Dog soon realized as four-legged creatures go, Hi's kind were woefully slow, and looked ridiculous to boot.

Besides, Dog reasoned, those extra legs had better uses. Pity though he felt for his friends, Dog was a bit jealous of the things Hi called fingers. When Dog wanted to retrieve a stick from the ground, he had to do so with his teeth, and more often than not he came up with a tongueful of dirt along with the stick. All Hi had to do was bend over and let those magic fingers do the work. hi rarely had to swallow a tongueful of dirt. Smart, those humans are.

Hi also used those fingers to scratch Dog's ears and pat his head, something Dog enjoyed a great deal. Fingers are apparently at their best when dry, for Dog discovered he could receive more pats by wetting the fingers with tongue or nose until Hi wiped the moisture off by giving Hi a few more pats and scratches.

Hi could throw. Dog could toss, by picking up a stick, a ball, a pine cone, in his teeth and whipping his head about and releasing the object at just the right moment, but Hi could throw.

But Dog could run.

So Hi could throw. Dog could run. Hi could pat and scratch. Dog could wet the fingers. Both were perfectly happy with the arrangements.

Hi sometimes read the Bible and talked to Gloria, as they shared a Coke on the living room sofa and Dog slept in the blissful heat of the dusty heat register. Most would think the Bible as incomprehensible to a Dog, but then most of us who think like that aren't dogs, and so have little experience in deciding what is or is not common canine knowledge.

Dog slept when Hi and Gloria discussed Job and the Pharisees and the Moabites, but he always listened, eyes closed but ears pricked up, when Hi spoke of Adam and Eve. For Dog knew that a long time ago, Dog and Man, along with other creatures, had lived together in some odd, magical garden full of sticks to gnaw and bushes to hide in and trees to sniff. Creatures shared everything but fear and hunger, for no one yet knew fear, and there was always water that flowed and fruit for eating.

But somehow the humans messed up in some odd problem that involved God and some special fruit, so Adam and Eve had to leave. Something else left, too, or rather many impish and bothersome things entered. Creatures learned to trust often lead to pain and death, even at the hands of the human creatures who had played with them and named them in the happy times that were before that fruit.

Sometimes that trust was buried deep within their minds and could be ferreted out, as was soon the case with the ancestors of Dog, Horse, Cat, and others. Man had to ferret out this trust as well, but as Man harbored more of the new impishness than did any other creature, most creatures who didn't know Man didn't know enough to recognize when the trust was bent.

Other creatures could hurt, and most all could now kill, but not many hurt or killed with the audacity of Man, and this Dog knew, even in these far-off times. Though he had been with Hi for most of his life, messages about twisted trust had been passed from father, and mother, and sibling, and the giver of instinct. He also knew from experience that some of Man had the ability to mask deeper cruelties each carried within with a smattering of the original trust.

Still, Dog had Faith in Man. Hi had almost always been kind, and nearly always understood what Dog wanted. Dog reciprocated the trust, learning to understand when to tease, when to comfort, and precisely when to cower underneath the dusty bed. Others were also accorded this trust, including several smaller versions of Man who lived in the building with Dog and Hi, the female creature who operated the butcher shop, and the elevator man who always smelled of liverwurst sandwiches of which he always offered bits to Dog. And even sometimes to Hi.

Dog was content with Hi, and Hi was content with Dog, but it was quickly becoming apparent that Gloria was deftly occupying the spot of Most Favored Creature in Hi's life.

It started slyly, if not subtly, that evening when Gloria dropped the box of chicken-flavored crackers out of her grocery bag and it burst open, spilling its wafery contents throughout the hallway. Dog picked up as many as he could, but under the delicate circumstances and steely glare from Hi, decided to suspend his chicken cracker spill cleanup efforts for a later date. Gloria didn't seem to mind, and absently swept into the box even the crackers Dog had taken a liking to. Dog noticed, with a bit of jealousy, that Hi's eyes had that glow in them, usually reserved for the fleeting moments when Dog managed to tree Mrs. Gruber's cat in the nest of hats and scarves hanging on the old woman's door. The cat was no where to be seen, and Dog knew full well after the cracker glare, this glow probably wasn't for him.

Dog saw the glow once again the next night, as Hi helped Gloria retrieve her room key from the heat register on the hallway floor. And the night after that when Gloria and Hi spent a few hours talking on the couch, Dog's couch, while the landlord looked for the spider Gloria had seen in her bathroom. Soon Hi did not need even the auspices of another Gloria-oriented crisis to have an excuse to spend time with the new creature.

At first, Dog had tried to play along with the new threesome. As Hi and Gloria walked through the park, Dog would break free of the leash, splash through the creek to find a stick in the woods, and crash back over, spraying water hither and yon as he shook his head in anticipation of a lovely game of chase. He noticed Gloria smile the first time he did thus, but doubted her sincerity, as he had seen the same crazy look in the eyes of Mrs. Gruber's treed cat. Hi had been strict but diplomatic. He chastised Dog, offered Gloria his handkerchief, and tossed the stick halfheartedly a few times as they waited for Gloria to come out of the public restroom. She came out looking less like Gloria and more like a lovesick raccoon, and pouted the rest of the evening.

Hi had a talk with Dog at night, as Hi ate his Ramen and Dog snuggled over the heat register.

"I like Gloria a lot," Hi said, slurping his noodles.

Dog sighed, raised an eyebrow.

"She's a pretty creature," Hi said, still slurping.

The heat came on again. Dog lowered his ears and closed his eyes.

"I'm not getting any younger, you know. Even Mrs. Gruber says that." Ate a small onion floating in the broth.

Dog smelled the onion. Decided the heat was more valuable.

"This place is big enough for two, eh Dog?"

Dog opened his eyes at the mention of his name. Hi rubbed Dog's back with a socked foot. Dog knew Gloria's place was the same size. And why not for three?

"Why not for three?" Hi asked, putting his bowl (half-filled with fatty broth) down on the floor. "I mean, my parents had a kid, and he didn't turn out all that bad." And chuckled.

Dog poked Hi's foot, and got another back rub. The heat blew through his fur and through Hi's sock, polluting the fragrancy of the broth in the bowl. Sighed.

"I bought a ring this afternoon, Dog. And Gloria's coming over in an hour. We'll get pizza, I think. Is that elegant enough?"

The heat shut off. Dog sighed once again, pricked up his ears at the word pizza and raised his head.

Hi scooted the bowl of broth over with his smelly foot, then fidgeted with a small velvet box he held in his hands.

Dog slurped at the broth, more quietly than Hi had done. Hi fidgeted with the box. Opened it. Closed it. Opened it again, and caught his finger as the strong metal hinge snapped shut. Hi had left Dog an onion and two bits of beef. More than usual, but then Hi was a bit distracted as he sat, now flipping through channels, watching the clock, more channels, the clock, a ball game, the clock. Hi put his foot down in the empty bowl, sending the spoon clattering across the hardwood floor. Another onion rolled out of the bowl and came to rest next to the evening paper. Dog left the register to slurp it up before Hi stepped on it, as he was now pacing the floor, facing the grandfather clock to the right, then the digital on the microwave to the left.

A while later, the doorbell rang. The heat was on again, so Dog dozed. Pricked up his ears and opened his eyes, but lay magnetized to the friendly heat billowing up from below. Gloria. At the door. Hi. On his knees. Handing Gloria the keychain she'd dropped. Gloria walking in the apartment. Hi following, still on his knees. Gloria laughs. Hi crawls to the couch, where he's left the small velvet box. Back to Gloria, who's sitting in the rocking chair.

A gasp of air, then: "Oh Harold! Oh Harold!" Hi's funny grin, tears on his cheeks. Gloria jumping across the room. Hi still on his knees. "Yes, Harold, oh yes! I will! I will!" Slurping. Quieter than with the broth.

Gloria's things moving in, and still grains of rice blowing out of the heat register where Dog sleeps. What did Gloria see in the fussy coatrack that replaced the green faded easy chair? Dog eyed the bunny slippers. Pots and pans. Things cooking. On the stove. A new television. Crock pot. Fondue set. Huge hunks of wedding cake in the freezer. A bit in his dish. Next to the empty one reserved for water.
More names. Sweetie for Hi. Milkshake for Gloria. Mutt for Dog. When 'Sweetie' wasn't around. Two days, and still no water. A blue tongue from the bathroom water that had changed color when Gloria moved in. Fuzzy towels. A bath mat. One on the toilet as well.

Three days since Gloria came, and still no water. Chased out of the bathroom as Gloria screeched in the shower. One morning, Hi gone to work, Gloria preparing to catch her bus. A few milk bones in the dish. Toilet seat left up.

Door slams. Gloria gone.

But forgiven, because she fixed him water. Not in the dish, but in a small protected bowl on the octagon end table. Tasted a bit murky, but after three days of blue water, Dog was not about to be picky. Lapped and lapped. Murkier at the bottom, but still going. Small bowl. Big Dog.

Satisfied Dog licked his chops, ambled over to the heat register that had just begun to sing. Closed his eyes and said a prayer of thanks for Gloria. Did not notice the flopping goldfish in the bottom of the murky water-bowl.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Back to School

Given that it's back to school time for our kids, I thought I'd offer an unhinged diptych of our oldest's impressions of school. Fortunately positive ones. For now.

This is actually my favorite. I like the idea of kids parachuting into school.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Digital Natives May Not Know the Language

In the ongoing debate over whether taking the Internet mobile is the greatest technological arfhebung since the breakup of Pangaea, I still find myself in the skeptic’s camp.

Yes, I have caves in some areas. I now confess to seeing the utility of tablet computers, for example, and bow to Stanly Kubrick’s wisdom of planting them on the Discovery in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

(Samsung, by the way, is using this clip as evidence that Apple cannot patent the tablet computer form as it is trying to do in a strong-armed way in Europe by barring the sale of any more Samsung products that resemble the iPad in form. I tend to agree with Samsung.)

But when it comes to insisting that this ubiquitous mobility and ease of having “all this information” at our fingertips is making for better human beings who need new learning styles to conform to the arfhebung of the digital age, I have to say no, no, and no.

Annie Murphy Hall, writing at, says the following in an article entitle “Who’s Afraid of Digital Natives?” quoting arfhebung-touter Cathy Davidson’s view of digital natives:
As a result of their lifelong immersion in electronic media, young people's brains are "wired differently," and they require different schools, different workplaces, and different social arrangements from the ones we have. They are described, with more than a little envy, as "digital natives," effortlessly at home in an electronic universe, while we adults are "digital immigrants," benighted arrivals from the Old World doomed to stutter in a foreign tongue.
It seems, however, that digital natives are also doing some stuttering of their own. A recent Illinois study says while digital natives turn exclusively to the Internet for research and homework help, they’re not as adept at using the technology in which they’re immersed as those who love technology as much as Kip Dynamite says they do:
Duke and Asher said they were surprised by “the extent to which students appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school.” Even students who were high achievers in high school suffered from these deficiencies, Asher told Inside Higher Ed in an interview.

In other words: Today’s college students might have grown up with the language of the information age, but they do not necessarily know the grammar.

“I think it really exploded this myth of the ‘digital native,’ ” Asher said. “Just because you’ve grown up searching things in Google doesn’t mean you know how to use Google as a good research tool.”
I’ve seen this phenomenon among the students I teach at BYU-Idaho. That’s going to inspire me to work harder to introduce them to better research techniques and to become a better researcher myself as I work on my own pursuits. (That’s a criticism brought up in the study as well; teachers themselves, the study says, aren’t much better at online searches than their students.)

One of the commenters on the Slate article says this:
I would argue that the internet stands alone as far as technological innovations. While the telegraph certainly gave humanity the sense of instant communication (and all that entails) and television began the thinking of a world community amongst the populace at large, the internet, unlike the telegraph or television, carries the seeds of its own growth. The internet is constantly changing and evolving, be it through ISP's, browsers, websites, social networks, email clients, smart phone apps, or whatever else may come. In just ten years, we've moved from news online being a novelty to the internet crushing newspapers. We've gone from most people being confused by "SMS messaging" to Skype. The internet has left the bedroom and the library and is moving, constantly with us. How long did it take for WiFi to emerge in nearly every office building? How many places in America can you wander around and not see at least some WiFi networks? Why can I check Facebook while driving a Chevy Cruze? These changes seem small, but the speed at which they're being adopted and then instantly made obsolete makes the internet special apart from other, similar technological waves.
He and many others just don’t know their history. Radio and television, in their own ways, also carried the seed of their own growth, as did newspapers, the telegraph, and books before them. Mass printing of books brought both the written word to more people than ever before, but also opened up the world of publishing to more people who never before had much of a chance of seeing their thoughts in print and distributed in bulk form. Radio followed us from the massive hunks of vacuum tubes and wood in our living rooms to the far more compact models that were at first novelties in our cars and then became ubiquitous standard equipment. The popular phenomenon that was the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show brought movie theaters to make their screens go blank and pump the show in via the radio so their customers wouldn’t leave when the show came on. Before we praise the ubiquity of wi-fi networks, we ought to remember the ubiquity of the newsstand, the jukebox, the radio and television signal. Television inspired the TV dinner, for heaven’s sake. Each of those technologies were heralded as world-changers in their day and they were world changers in a way, but the world has this crazy method of subsuming change and making it change the way it wants until the next arfhebung comes along and the novelty of Internet mobility is as expected and as standardized as television.

Plus ca change, says another commenter on the article, plus c’est la meme chose. I have to agree with that: The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Earthquake Prompts Unclear Antecedents in Baltimore

From TIME magazine online, reporting an AP story on the earthquake that hit the East Coast Tuesday morning:
In downtown Baltimore, the quake sent office workers into the streets, where lamp posts swayed slightly as they called family and friends to check in.
I hope those lampposts and their families are A-OK.

Mine Mine Mine!

Richard Rhodes, in his “How to Write” challenges would-be writers.

He challenges us to put the ass to the chair, as one of his acquaintances advised, to sit in the cobbler’s wax, as Anthony Trollope said, and to find our “bottom” and stay with it.

He challenges us to write, not to dream about being a writer.

So all told, stuff I’m coming to know on my own. It’s good to hear it reconfirmed by someone with the writing caliber as Rhodes, however. Blessed be those who read and find they are already walking down that familiar road, perhaps not at the pace they’d prefer but walking forward still.

Rhodes’ book is a succotash. There is much for the beginning writer – he discusses scheduling, levels of edit, offers many examples of the tricks he preaches, from writing profiles of individual characters to collecting and surrounding oneself with cues to burnish the senses as one writes (this is something I do already and regard it as a critical trick in getting writing that is more vivid; I imagine Edgar Allan Poe with some kind of skull-embossed bug in his possession inspiring him to write “The Gold-Bug”). But there is much as well for the more advanced writer who struggles with taking one’s writing from good to better to best. My favorite tidbit:
[I]f you don’t say what you mean, your reader will say it for you, willy-nilly. When I see an incoherent film I usually complain about its incoherence. That surprises my friends, who proceed to explain to me what isn’t in the script. They write their own stories to fill in what’s missing. Hollywood, with its contempt for the people who make it rich, expects no less of us: ya got spectacle, ya got stars, ya want coherence? Filling in gaps is the way our facile brains work. There’s a blind spot in the eye, but you’ll never see it unless you make special arrangements to look – the brain fills it in. Give people random sequences of numbers or other symbols and they’ll usually find a pattern that isn’t there. But you don’t want people to write their stories into your work, to find patterns that aren’t there. You want people to find your stories, to find the patterns you designed.
These are my stories I’m writing. Mine. Mine. Mine. Writers are egomaniacs, Rhodes insists, and I tend to believe him. We want to tell our stories and have people enjoy them, but we want them to be our stories. Our own. To do that, he says, and to get away with it through editors and other makers of filters and tinkerers of words, we have to concentrate on filling in those gaps so that at every turn, the story is ours, not the readers. Paul Theroux and JRR Tolkien, I believe, embody this writing religion – they leave no gaps in their stories. Reading Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast” leaves the reader with no room for wiggling – as does Peter Weir’s film treatment of the book. Watch Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films and you see how Jackson and company leave things too open. Tolkien does not. The stories are his, and his alone. He maintained they were undramatizable to his death, for that very reason.

That’s not to say the films Weir and Jackson made of these stories aren’t enjoyable. I enjoy them very much. They encapsulate the kernel of the stories they tell. But that’s it. There’s no time in the medium of film to tell every little bit, so they will always be a pale imitation of the original material.

But I digress from Rhodes’ book. An excellent read for writers at all levels of engagement, one that launches challenges I’m loath to take on because they’re hard. (Perhaps a sign I’ll never be a writer). Those challenges? Thinking and re-thinking a story before it’s written down so you come out with a first draft that doesn’t need as much editing as a raw draft would; throwing caution – and finances – to the wind in order to pursue research to make your writing more vivid. Challenging yourself to ensure you have picked the perfect word to convey your thought, and not settling for the first word your dog of memory brings back to you. And many others.

But I can see reading this book as reading a palimpsest, a metaphor he uses quite often in the book. I can pick up stuff now and, through painful practice and apprenticeship, learn to recognize the wisdom he speaks in the things I am loath to try once I am further along and have a few published novels under my belt.

This book’s a keeper, so to say.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Google Nonplussed, or, I'm Feeling Like A French Fry

So I'm on Google+.

And I'm thinking: Do I really have to be? Do I really have to start the whole Facebook thing over again? Because that's exactly what it is. Facebook, but from Google!

But I'm there. It's hip. It's groovy. I expect I'll be wasting enough time there soon enough. But I have to wonder: Is this going to be the battle of the Titans, because do I really need to go to three places now (Facbeook, Google+ and Twitter) to hang out with friends whom mostly I don't have? Need to, well, maybe. I kinda feel like this:

Funny thing is, I did join MySpace back in the day. Well, at least I signed up for it, in the context of a book I was writing. Neither MySpace nor the book have ever come to fruition for me. Not that I or the world am missing anything.

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Friday, August 19, 2011

Oh, Lovely Lady . . .

Thanks to Martin Short, I have a song I sing to Michelle once and a while when I want her to feel extra-special.

John Kerry Starred on Star Trek TAS

Last year, I noted that a character on an episode of the "Star Trek" animated series resembled President Barack Obama.

Today, I noticed in watching the episode "Yesteryear" that another minor character resembles Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

Uncanny, no?

The episode no longer appears on YouTube, so you'll have to trust me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Atlas Stopped Lobbying

This isn’t quite an Ayn Rand moment, but it might be the closest we’ve come to what she wrote about in “Atlas Shrugged:” Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz stopping political contributions until, as he told the New York Stock Exchange, “Congress and the President return to Washington and deliver a fiscally disciplined long term debt and deficit plan to the American people.”

A number of things could happen here, going from most likely to least likely:

1)      Absofarkly nothing. Shultz’s stand will be a flash in the pan and nobody else will follow it, including Starbucks.
2)      A few will forestall contributions while people like me, who have never pried our wallets open far enough to make a political contribution, will just go on typing.
3)      A small group of companies will forego making contributions with the political machine not noticing one whit because of contributions coming in from other sources.
4)      Atlas will stop lobbying and politicians will have to take evening and weekend jobs as burger-flippers to fill in the gaps in their income stream left by the absence of lobbying cash.

For this kind of thing to work, it would have to be all or nothing. Or at least a significant portion. And those who abstained would have to put up with the fact that the non-abstainers would suddenly see an increase in their influence in Washington. It’s also unclear here if Schultz is calling for an end to all political contributions, including lobbying, or if it’s just contributions to political campaigns made to politicians directly, rather than say through PACs. Again, it’s got to be all or nothing.

Remember: Good Writing is Learned, not Innate

In just a few weeks, I’ll be working with a new batch of FDENG 101 students at BYU-Idaho, trying to show them that writing can be a fun thing to learn. At the same time, I’ll pick up that internal battle that says writing is innate, that it cannot be learned. I know I’m wrong, because writing certainly can be learned, and has to be learned, because I’m learning all the time how to be a better writer.

I don’t read lots of “how to write” books because, in general, I find them lacking. Not because I’m such a genius writer, but because these books are typically patronizing or stray too far into the “writing is innate, but I will share a bit of my genius with the unwashed masses” territory.

This year, however, I’ve been lucky to read two books on writing that I consider excellent. The first is Robert Newton Peck’s “Secrets of Successful Fiction,” and the other is Richard Rhodes’ blandly-titled “How to Write.”

Rhodes’ approach is especially appealing, as he mixes in the nuts and bolts necessity of a Strunk and White with the lyrical quality that many of us hope to achieve in our writing. It all reminds me of this little bit of Buddy Greene, playing classical music on a harmonica at Carnegie Hall. We each have our own instrument to play, he says, but how well we play it depends on how much we practice and how much we decide we want to be good at our own voice, critics and snobbery be damned.

Says Rhodes:
Understanding writing as the production of virtual realities clarifies why teaking care with craft is so important. There are at least as many elements to manipulate in writing, to get the reality right, as a movie crew has to deal with in shooting a film (in fact, there are many more): dialogue, plot, character development, makeup, lighting, sets, props, camera angles, and montage just for starters (D.W. Griffith, the pioneering filmmaker, said he learned montage by reading Charles Dickens.) Behind those theatrical and cinematographic elements you have to organize words in all their palimpsestal complexity, sentence, rhythm, and structure at every scale from phrase to sentence to paragraph to chapter to book. (Words and sentences are the machine language of writing, if you will; the elements that writing shares with theater and film are already part of the shell program you create.) And you’re only one person, not a whole crew. That sounds like a discouraging burden to bear. It can be when you’re not getting the results you want, but fortunately you don’t have to create and control everything at once: writers develop multiple drafts of a text because they organize the elements of writing successively rather than simultaneously. Fortunately also, the inherent richness and complexity of the writing process makes it continually interesting, far more challenging to attempt and satisfying to achieve than chess or any other game.
So there’s the practice Buddy Green implies, spelled out for the writer. There’s the care for the craft. There’s the order, explicit, to write (Rhodes discusses earlier applying “ass to chair” and just writing, not fretting about the elements of style and structure) and then to rewrite.

Okay, I’m on the right track. And hopefully, I can pass this on to those eager students.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Smile Police

I encountered another one of them today.

“My name is [redacted], and my job is to make sure everybody around here smiles. I’ve never seen a smile on your face. I want to see you smiling from now on.” Followed by the inevitable handshake.

I was using the bathroom, for heaven’s sake. Just left the room, plowing on through the hallway back to my cubicle. I heard someone call “Hey, you,” but it’s not uncommon in these halls to wander through conversations, so I kept on going. But no. She emerged from her office insisting on shaking my hand and wanting to see that smile.

Pardon the suspected Asberger’s sufferer who just left the restroom where he sat for a few moments peace while reading a little of Rumpole of the Bailey for not wearing a smile on his face as he walked.

I’ll smile when I want to, thank you very much.

I know it’s not meant as an affront, or a challenge, or as a put-down. She’s spreading cheer. I appreciate that. But am I really required, now, to wear a smile each and every time I see her. Or each and every time I’m awake? Maybe the former, but certainly not the latter. I’m no Skippy.

I do smile. A lot. And sometimes if – pardon my French here – I’ve just sent a really good poop to the sewers, I will smile after leaving the bathroom. Just not today when I got caught by the Smile Police.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cause, Hey, Free Fembots

NOTE: A blog/shout site I occasionally visit has been taken over by bot commenters, and the sysadmins there don't seem to want to do anything about it. That's fine for me, because, in reading the comments today, I was inspired to pull some of the comments and make free verse poetry out of them.

So understand these poems are all verbatim. I've added no words. Also understand the titles are the names the bots give themselves when they post. Also note the bots want you to go to this site where they sell, above all else, mannequin heads. Like this:

My advice: Don't stare at her face too long. She's very creepy. But on to the poetry:


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Monday, August 15, 2011

I'd Rather Be Dead than Special

I know the military attracts that different kind of person that is brash, strong-willed, stubborn. At the same time, it attracts – for both good and ill – those who believe the rules, in a general sense, don’t apply to them, that power begets power, and that, somehow, the federal government has a bottomless supply of money that will always be thrown their way.

And, occasionally, get sidetracked into idiotic things such as appearing on “What’s My Line,” with intellectual heavyweights like Steve Lawrence and Dorothy Killgallen.

Gen. Chuck Yeager is one of those guys. Exuding self-confidence and rightly so, because he is as good as he believes he is.

Still, after reading “Yeager,” his autobiography written with Leo Janos, I can understand why some of that self-confidence brought out enmity among those with whom he had to work. A lot of the rules didn’t apply to him – sneaking into Vietnam from Korea to visit his son while his son was fighting in that war, flouting rules that said he had to check in with the commanding general who disliked him (and Lady Morley) immensely. And they find friends who do the same thing – such as the fellow general who got a taste for golden trout in California and decided on his own (with complicit help from those who should have known better) to import the fish to New Mexico, where the general was to be reassigned. From the book:
If I say General Branch might have gone too far, you can imagine. He decided to transplant the Sierra golden trout into the mountain streams of New Mexico. And he had cooked up his scheme with pals in the New Mexico Fish and Game Department. He authorized Andy to fly up to New Mexico in a four-engine C-130 cargo airplane used to transport troops and vehicles to pick up his pals in their four-wheel drive that carried special oxygenated containers to hold the golden trout. The trip probably violated half a dozen Air Force, federal, and state regulations; but a general is a general, and we were ordered into action.
Yah. Our tax dollars at work here, folks. High military brass flouting the law. Whee.

And it gots for the small stuff, too:
His new assignment was safety director of the Air Force, which made him, in effect, the only general officer who was allowed to pilot an airplane. Of course, like all generals, he had to have a pilot along with him, but Yeager never in his life sat in the second seat. He argued with the Pentagon,” Look, how in the hell can I be in charge of Air Force safety if I can’t fly airplanes myself to see if they are safe?” So, he was the exception to the rule and loved every minute of it.
I put up with asinine rules where I work. But that’s the difference: I put up with them. I don’t look for ways to get around them.

Yes, Chuck Yeager is a hero, if flying around and breaking sound barriers and such makes one a hero. He did much service for the military apparatus of the United States. Still, there’s something that rubs me wrong with the “rules are for other people” mentality that is displayed throughout the book. And it’s likely it’s just me reading too much into this; perhaps with a second reading (and I do keep my books around for second readings) I might feel differently.

High Hopes, But Low Expectations

So I was disappointed when I discovered I was not a finalist in the funny writing contest I entered last week. High hopes but low expectations is how I typically go into these kinds of things, but once and a while I’d like to see my optimistic pessimism disappointed.

Still, in trying to make lemonade out of the lemons here, I realize this: Lots of other opportunity out there. Yeah, lots of other opportunity for me to fail or be passed over out there, but you know, it only takes one success to make it all worthwhile. Well, most of it worthwhile.

Here’s the thing: I’m not dim enough to believe that my writing style is so unique and special that there isn’t anyone out there worthy of understanding what I write and why I write it the way I do. But I’m also not dim enough to believe that the one opportunity I find to thrust my writing in front of a professional’s face and failing means that my writing isn’t worth reading. It just didn’t work for that particular professional.

So, to quote Alan Murray in this whole mess, “It’s time for me to find another giant.” Not that I’ll stop visiting this particular professional’s blog. It’s still a great place for writers to go. I’ll just broaden my horizons a bit and find someone who is more interested in the kinds of things I’m interested in writing. That’s part of the game in the publishing business, that I know for sure.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"I Am Zarahemna"

Here's an artful triptych that's going to take some explanation.

Many moons ago, when our youngest was just a kid, maybe five or six years old, we encouraged him to read along in his Book of Mormon scripture reader when we read our scriptures as a couple. Sometimes, to maintain his interest, I'd read along with him. That, of course, led to some running commentary that was, on occasion, not very helpful in helping our son understand the scriptures.

For example, when we got to the story of Jacob and Sherem, I commented in nearly every photo that Sharem had a basket on his head. Well, because, he has a basket on his head:

Later on in the book, we encounter Zarahemna, one of the bad guys who gets scalped when the good guys get fed up dealing with him. Our son really, really liked that story. I had to read it to him over and over again. Once he asked what Zarahemna did when he got scalped. I said, "Well, he does like everyone else in the Book of Mormon: He put a basket on his head," harking back to Sherem.

Soon after, our son found a wicker flower basket and, when he thought no one was looking, put it on his head while saying "I am Zarahemna." He was, of course, observed, and has been dogged with that bit of humor ever since. So today, I drew this picture for him.

He did a counterpoint drawing, showing, perhaps, he'd like to move on from Zarahemna. No way am I going to let that happen.

He's such a better artist than I am. I'm glad.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Columbo Roasts Frank Sinatra

For some reason, this really tickled me tonight.

Lieutenant Columbo -- high prole, and not ashamed of it, if you're familiar with Paul Fussell's "Class." A wonderful book, by the way.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Feeble Attempt at A Multimedia Project

"I’ve been miserable so long. Years of my life wasted. Been a long time coming here to meet you. A long time on a crooked road."

"My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know, everybody you see, everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and live in a state of constant total amazement."

The sun does not set when you are a child
Oh, the sky goes dark and the sun descends
But that glow on the horizon,
Sun shining after the orb of it dips below the horizon
Never fades

The sun does not set
It shines on in the birthday candle
You lit in the house you made of bricks
For the teddy bears
Who live under the lilacs next to the chicken coop
That little candle you leave lit,
Glowing through the open window
Through the branches of the lilac
to the horizon to touch the light of the sun
that does not disappear.

The life of a child is a year of summer solstices
And Popsicles and eighty-degree weather
And dogs who don’t want to go in either when they hear
The mother calling
And cats who crap in the sandbox but you still play there
And with the cats
Who follow you to the ditches across the street as you look for pretty flowers
To dig up and plant in the bears’ garden
To grow in the garden
Where the sun never sets

The sun never sets
It shines on in the stars you see
As you lie on the blanket on the trampoline
After they let you sleep outside
In the sweet twilight where the spectacle of a thousand suns
That continue to shine on other houses made for other teddy bears
Under other lilac bushes
On planets you don’t see but you know they’re there
Because yours is there
With the sunlight clinging to the horizon
Like burrs stuck to your socks
And never lets go.

Maybe you see bats flying in the stars above
And you pray to God you’ll see a meteor
Or a satellite
And you see them both
One a tiny dot moving among the other dots
Moving toward the sun to reignite the splendor of the day
The other a streak a scratch on the record of the sky
Falling away from the setting sun to the opposite horizon
Pointing the way
For the sun to rise.

"I forgot how big . . ."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Possibly A Major Award

Submitted the following to a funny writing contest. Grand prize is, among other things, a free critique by a current author and former literary agent. And if my writing isn't funny (in the slightly bit off and rancid sense, not necessarily the funny ha-ha sense) well, I don't know what is.

So to quote Fezzik: "I hope we win."

Wild beasts of the desert shall lie there;
and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures;
and owls shall dwell there,
and satyrs shall dance there.
And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their
desolate houses,
and dragons in their pleasant palaces:
and her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged.
Isaiah 13: 19-22

I don’t like the sound of that one bit, Chylus.


The bit with the dragons and all.

Why do there have to be owls, Chylus? We shrews don’t like owls, much.

I wish you’d all stop whining. There’s a human in this after all and he’s the one who ends up-

Chylus, stop! You can’t tell them everything, not on the first page. The story hasn’t even started yet!

Well, they’re going to figure it out anyway. . .

I just don’t understand. What’s Isaiah doing in a children’s book?

Is that the name of the dragon?

No, the owl. You know they eat shrews.

They’re not the only ones who do.

There goes Chylus showing off again. He’ll ruin the book for everyone.

Shut up!

Is it true fire comes out of dragons’ noses?


I once told a joke to an owl and when he laughed a shrew came out of his nose.

I think I’m going to be sick.

You all can make jokes about owls! Filthy Holstein pheasants!

Shaddup, Pops, or Chylus here. . .

I told you to knock it off or you’re going to spoil the story!

I don’t take advice from earth-diggers like you, Runt!

If I were you I’d take less advice and more frequent baths!

That was nice.


Who was that?

Probably Chylus. Better make a headcount.

Isn’t anyone going to explain what’s going on?

Well, somebody burped and we’re short two shrews here.

Quick! Tell Chylus a joke!

What are you talking about? His nose isn’t big enough.

Not that. I mean about this Isaiah thing. . .

That was a crisis ago, Mabel. Mabel? Mabel!

Anyone seen Mabel?


Whew. Wet shrew.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Brown Redish

As long as Janice Redish is writing books teaching us about writing for the web, I’ll toss in a little tidbit for a person writing books to be printed: Make sure you don’t print a stinky book.

Redish’s book is stinky. I’m not talking content; I’m talking stink: It’s that same aluminum stink you get from the clay your kids play with (ordinary clay, not Play-Doh). It’s akin to the odor that accompanied the book on sharks I used to check out from the Idaho Falls Public Library incessantly as a kid, just so I could sniff the pages and imagine it was the stink of sharks. Or worse.

I truly enjoyed Redish’s book. It’s a handy, essential (to use the overused adjectives) book for anyone who finds himself writing for the web. But as I read it, I kept thinking of good ol’ Professor David Hailey of Utah State University fame, lamenting that while there are many good books out there by authors crying to tell us how to write for the web, there aren’t any that really get to the meat of the problem, which is getting past the cut-and-paste mentality most of us have in our web writing and ensuring that what we write for the web is appropriate for our audience’s varied needs.

Redish only lightly touches on this issue:

Page 260: “I urge you to review the entire document, rethink it for the web, probably break it up even more than it is, and so on; but in any case, make sure that each section you make into a web page has useful headings and turn them into same-page links.”

Page 238: “Whether you are writing new content or revising old content, if you find it difficult to write a heading for a section of text, is probably means the section is not clear or covers too many points all jumbled together. Clarify the content. Break it up into smaller sections. If you find yourself writing the same heading over different sections of text, it probably means that the material is not well organized. Reorganize it to be logical for your site visitors.”

How, I keep asking myself, how?

This is where part of me screams that good writing is instinctual, that it cannot be taught. Then the more rational part of me screams right back, “Well then, Mr. Smarty-Pants, why is your own writing getting better over time? It’s not because your genius is increasing, but because you’re learning how to become a better writer. Somebody’s teaching you, bonehead, so writing is teachable.”

Redish’s book is great. It just doesn’t go deep enough. It helps me know how to be better at helping my site users and guiding them through my website and keeping them there by offering good information and pare excellence wayfinding, but doesn’t tell me the critical stuff – how to revise the stuff I want to put on my site.

And also, some of what Redish writes is simply becoming outdated.

The PDF thing, for example. She urges us to shun long documents, as people don’t want to read them online or don’t want the hassle of printing them out. With the advent of tablet computing and more on-the-go computing, I find myself reading a lot more PDFs than I have in the past. It’s just easier. And it bugs me nuts when I encounter a long bit of writing I want to read at leisure but have to print out because the idiot web designers split it up over multiple pages or pepper it with headings and wayfinding so much I have lot of stuff to bleep over to get to what I want to read. The pendulum has swung back the other way, if you ask me.

Brown Redish hits somewhere in the middle-ish here.

Healthcare Update III

So we’re back in the world of people only moderately pissed off at their health insurance provider.

That’s significant. And I think it gives Regence BlueSheild credit that, with only one premium paid, we’re only in the “moderately pissed off” category. At least we can go do a certain, fixed (small) number of wellness checks a year now and only have to pay $35 a pop for them. That’s solidly got us in the moderately category. For now. Until we decide that their definition of a wellness check doesn’t match reality’s. But, na├»ve folk that we are, we’re willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

You’ll recall in past posts I’ve lamented about the state of healthcare in our nation. I’ll not weary you with a recap, but provide a link here.

In case you’re curious, I never did hear back from our congressmen on the questions I wrote them concerning health care, aside from the boilerplate messages I received from them. They’ve moved on, protecting us from the dragon that is the national debt, which, obviously, wasn’t nearly as scary as when there was a Republican president in office shoveling money into the rathole. Didn’t expect to hear back from them, but you know, me voting them into office and all, it would have been nice. (Yeah, I know they’re busy. But this is exactly why I don’t make political contributions, hang up on pollsters, and otherwise do what I can to avoid shaking hands with politicians, because they only want to talk with me when it’s time to vote again. Other than that, they’re too busy.)

So we’ll see how Regence BlueShield works for us. First wellness visit comes Tuesday.

It's My Fault

The debt crisis and Standard and Poor’s downgrading of the United States’ credit rating is all my fault. Forget blaming anyone else.

And I’ll tell you why: I get back more money in federal tax credits than I pay in federal income taxes. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up my addiction to other peoples’ money.

Well, actually, I would. Give it back, or forego the extra bulk in that annual tax refund. But nobody wants to listen to me. Because a little part of me has always been bothered that the incoming is bigger than the outgoing, if you know what I mean. I’m taking candy from a baby. Somebody else’s baby, yes.

But I’d be a fool not to take these credits, right?

Child tax credit, for example. A great deal for anyone who has kids. Sure, kids cost you a lot more in the long run than you might ever get back from this tax credit, but I’m going to take it as long as I’m eligible to do it. Maybe it should cap off after two children – we have three – with that extra money going towards, I don’t know, deficit reduction.

Is there a line item on the tax form that allows us to donate all or a portion of our tax refund strictly to deficit reduction? Probably not. Would I check it? Maybe.

Then there’s that Lifetime Learning credit. I used it for two years as I worked on my masters degree. Michelle is now working on her degree, so we still get the credit. At least this one works in that we get less back on the credit than we pay for tuition. And we’re stimulating the economy! Keeping university professors employed! We are a one-family economic stimulus package!

And I’ll keep taking that credit until we’re not eligible any more, mister.

Where does that put us? The rock and a hard place, as PJ O’Rourke suggests?


Here’s what I’m willing to do:

I don’t want to pay any more in taxes. But I’ll let the federal government keep what money they’re already taking from me. End these tax credits now. But only if you’ll use that money for deficit reduction.

All we’re likely to get, however, is more Trick or Treat.

"That Sounds Commie"

Thanks Odd Todd. That last line killed me.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Extreme Watchfulness

As I read the concluding chapters to Richard Rhodes' "Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb," the discussion of the internal and external struggles between atomic weapons researchers, the Atomic Energy Commission, and Strategic Air Command started sounding vaguely familiar. I thought for a while it was merely because I work in the nuclear industry (on the cleanup side) and have just heard this kind of discussion and language over and over again. That didn't seem quite right. Then I figured it was because of the other books I've read on the subject, and my interest in general in this time period between the end of World War II and the 1980s.

Then I realized that, too, was wrong. It all sounded familiar because of this:

Rhodes quotes Gen. Thomas Power, second head of SAC, as saying the following over open communication lines as SAC ratcheted itself up from DefCon 3 to DefCon 2 as the Cuban Missie Crisis unfolded:
This is General Power speaking. I am addressing you for the purpose of reemphasizing the seriousness for the situation the nation faces. We are in an advanced state of readiness to meet any emergencies and I feel that we are well prepared. I expect each of you to maintain strict security and use calm judgment during this tense period. Our plans are well prepared and are being executed smoothly . . .  Review your plans for further action to insure that there will be no mistakes or confusion . . .
Yeah, that's Gen. Jack D. Ripper speaking.

Reading this book -- particularly its concluding chapters -- helped me to understand better the paranoia of the 1950s and on into the 60s, as the United States and Russia faced off in the tensest period of the Cold War. Any student of Dr. Strangelove, then, would be well-served to read this book in order to gain that understanding as well. Hearing all of this firsthand, knowing it's not Hollywood embellishment or from the mind of the likes of Terry Southern or Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler help to bring the gravity of the situation home.

It amazed me to think how pell-mell humanity rushes into things as complicated as nuclear weaponry without really thinking things through. There for a whole, for example, the AEC had control of nuclear weapons and would only release them to the military when the president ordered. Military minds eventually wore down on that logic to the point the military had the weapons but could not fire them without direct order from the president or without special codes to release the weapons. Soon it evolved past that, where only the trust of the officers in charge kept missiles from being launched on accident or against orders. An instance at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana showed, as the installers worked to get the first weaponized thermonuclear bombs prepped for readiness, that corners were cut past safety systems so that anyone with just one of the four required keys could launch the missiles.

All that puts Gen. Ripper and Attack Wing Plan R in perspective, and not in a funny way that ends with a deleted pie fight, either.

Friday, August 5, 2011


George came back in with the beer, paused while a handicap signal shook him up. And then he sat down again. “You been crying?” he said to Hazel, watching her wipe her tears.

“Yup,” she said.

“What about?” he said.

“I forgot,” she said. “Something real sad on television.”

“What was it?” he said.

“It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind,” said Hazel.

“Forget sad things,” said George.

“I always do,” said Hazel.

“That’s my girl,” said George. He winced. There was the sound of a riveting gun in his head.

“Gee — I could tell that one was a doozy,” said Hazel.

“You can say that again,” said George.

“Gee —” said Hazel — “I could tell that one was a doozy.”
There's the conclusion to Kurt Vonnegut's stellar short story "Harrison Bergeron," which I first read as a kid because some highly intelligent person included it in the reader we used in fifth grade. I think it was fifth grade. It might have been third. I had the first, third and fifth grades in the same classroom at Lincoln Elementary. Of course back then I didn't recognize the name of the author, but in stumbling across the story again and realizing who the author is now makes it significant. If you've never read the story, I highly recommend it. It's a good 'un.

The short film -- 2081 -- takes too many liberties with the story if you ask me. Too complicated, too silly. And they botched the ending. IN the film -- I'm going to spoil it for you -- they reverse the roles, letting George, not Hazel, see the death of Harrison on the TV. It doesn't work, because you expect George to react intelligently, despite the noises blasting away in his head. Instead it should be Hazel, too dim to react (then again, the story drives me nuts because if Hazel is of average intelligence, I weep for the species).

That Home Page Thing . . .

I’ve been doing a little thinking about Uncharted, trying to figure out how we can streamline things and get our mojo working a little better than it has over the past few months. Site problems, including a continual string of error messages when we try to upload photos and stories aren’t helping matters much, so here goes.

Does Uncharted need a home page any more?

I know that’s breaking serious Web 1.0 rules, and probably a few Web 2.0 rules, but we’re onto at least Web 4.0 now, and the rules are changing.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

We can’t guarantee any more that many people are coming into our site through the home page. I haven’t seen statistics, but I’d bet we get more hits from Google searches, Facebook links, and direct links that we or our Explorers may establish. I’d have to look at our stats to be sure, but I’m fairly confident this is right.

We’re spending a lot of money on web hosting, and, if we’re reading the error messages correctly, we need to be spending more. John tried to get the site to accept some photo uploads but couldn’t get anything to work until he deleted some photos from the site. That seems counterproductive to me.

We can embed YouTube videos on our site, but as far as I can tell it only works if that’s the only bit of text or code we have in the story we’re uploading. Try to combine a story and an embedded video and the world blows up around you. That seems counterproductive.

Back to that homepage thing. We’ve run into a few problems:

1) Updating the homepage is a bit labor-intensive, from working to get the story uploaded and edited, the photoset toned and fixed and tweaked and then the entire package built on the site. That’s fine – we want our stuff to look good. But then we run into the difficulty of our staff not having those stories or photosets appearing on their individual profiles, so if a user wants to look up a staff member and browse his or her stories, those stories don’t appear under their name.

2) The process isn’t as organic as I’d like it – we’re going through too many filters (myself included) to get Explorer content from obscurity on their home page to notoriety for everyone else to see. So we need fewer human filters, and more of a rating system to get people’s stories noticed.

I don’t see that we have to spend any money doing this – we can just use Facebook for that, right? Yeah, I know we end up making money for them by using their site for our stuff, but at the same time, we end up using their servers and such for free – for storing photos, linking to videos and such. And if we don’t want to do that, well then we spend money to revamp how we do things on the site so it’s a lot easier to get content noticed. I’ve talked about this before, and the more I think about it, the more I think we need to go this way.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Into the Briny Blue -- On Mars

There may not be canals on Mars, but it appears there is free-flowing salty water on the planet’s surface after all. Or just underneath the surface. Or not.

It’s kinda hard to tell, because in typical NASA-ese, the announcement hedges every bet:
The images show flows lengthen and darken on rocky equator-facing slopes from late spring to early fall. The seasonality, latitude distribution and brightness changes suggest a volatile material is involved, but there is no direct detection of one. The settings are too warm for carbon-dioxide frost and, at some sites, too cold for pure water. This suggests the action of brines, which have lower freezing points. Salt deposits over much of Mars indicate brines were abundant in Mars' past. These recent observations suggest brines still may form near the surface today in limited times and places.

When researchers checked flow-marked slopes with the orbiter's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), no sign of water appeared. The features may quickly dry on the surface or could be shallow subsurface flows.

"The flows are not dark because of being wet," McEwen said. "They are dark for some other reason."

A flow initiated by briny water could rearrange grains or change surface roughness in a way that darkens the appearance. How the features brighten again when temperatures drop is harder to explain.
Water in the form of ice is known to exist on Mars already (as well as on the Moon), but to see free-flowing water, briny or not, on the surface or just below it, is pretty exciting stuff. There may indeed be physical forces other than wind shifting the surface of the planet and offering yet another spot where future expeditions could search for microbial life forms.

No word if NASA has named the newly-discovered features. Too bad. Giovanni Schiaprelli, the Italian astronomer noted for naming the features he could identify on the Martian surface as “canali” would have loved to help. He named dozens of canals on Mars.

And maybe one of these two guys would want to help as well.

All that matters is you see your world and I see mine. Is that not enough no matter what we each believe?