Thursday, May 31, 2012

Science needs Communication, not more Science

Again in an ongoing series of Stump the Technical Writer, I offer the following from Science News: Climate Skepticism not Rooted in Science Illiteracy.

Janet Raloff writes:
People who strongly resist data indicating that human-induced climate change could spell catastrophe aren’t ignorant about science or numerical reasoning. Quite the opposite, a new study finds: High science literacy actually boosts the likelihood that certain people will challenge what constitutes credible climate science.
I can hear a lot of hard-wired technical writing minds out there exploding. “What, what, what? You mean all that time I spent explaining the science behind climate change (or nuclear power, or whatever sciencey aspect you’re trying to explain) is for naught? Not really. The ability to explain science in a clear way is still a valuable part of the technical writer’s art.

But it’s not enough. Per the study conducted by researchers at Yale, The Ohio State University, George Washington University, and Temple University concludes that receptivity to climate science “depends more on cultural factors such as attitudes towards commerce, government regulation, and individualism than on scientific literacy.”

“Simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict,” Raloff quotes the study as saying.

So what is a technical writer to do?

Stick with the science, obviously – there’s no sense in slacking in clear explanations of scientific concepts just because their weight isn’t as heavy in some minds as in others.

Stop condescending, obviously. I know technical writers are supposed to be neutral, but I’ve read plenty of scientific writing that pretty much takes the reader by the hand, pats it a few times and then shuffles the average reader out of the room when the hard science comes flying.

Here’s something to consider: Take a debate class or two. Study persuasive writing techniques and critical thinking techniques. Come into the argument armed with reasonable discussion, refutation, exploration, etc., of the cultural factors which some readers lend more credence to.

Here’s what the study’s authors suggest:
One aim of science communication, we submit, should be to dispel this tragedy of the risk-perception commons. A communication strategy that focuses only on transmission of sound scientific information, our results suggest, is unlikely to do that. As worthwhile as it would be, simply improving the clarity of scientific information will not dispel public conflict so long as the climate-change debate continues to feature cultural meanings that divide citizens of opposing world-views.

As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups. Perfecting such techniques through a new science of science communication is a public good of singular importance.
The difficulty lies not in explaining the science, the study concludes, but in demonstrating how the science should influence individuals whose perceptions of the individual impact of climate change lead them to believe nothing can be done on an individual basis to effect change or that nothing should be done because the proposed solutions impact too much on individual freedom, commerce, and other cultural factors. This is where many scientists get into trouble because it means “meddling” in other sciences (the soft kind) basically sociology and psychology. And this is where most science journalism gets into trouble because most science journalists put too much emphasis on explaining the science and too little on the sociological reasoning that is also evidently required – rather, they go to experts who repeat the false claim that it’s the science that’s not being understood (implying the average person is too stupid to understand it) and who frame the sociological aspects via derision and condescension, rather than from the perspective of understanding and attempting to shift the frame of reference.

A hard task, this.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Get the Protocol Droid

Once in a while, I’m reminded just how powerful words can be and why, as a writer, I should take more pains to make sure I’m using the right ones.

Here’s my latest reminder. To sum up, President Obama, in awarding a medal of freedom to a deceased World War II Polish resistance fighter, said “resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale, and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.”

Poland is in a tizzy over Obama’s wording. As Slate’s Abby Ohlheiser points out, Poles in the past have objected when any Nazi death camp in their country is referred to as a “Polish” death camp. I can see why they would choose to quibble over such a distinction. The death camps were not instigated by the Polish – the Polish streak of anti-Semitism aside – by the Polish government, but, rather, by the Nazi occupiers. These are rightly Nazi death camps, not Polish ones.

So let’s take a look at how this likely happened: Editing.

I’m not sure how much of President Obama’s words were scripted beforehand – his reliance on teleprompters aside. If they were scripted, I can see easily someone looking at the more correct phrase “Nazi death camps in Poland” and thinking, “Let’s tighten that up a bit. Polish death camps. Much better.” Much better, but much less correct. And if the words were not scripted – which I think is the most likely scenario here – President Obama meant no disrespect, but was just looking for the shortest way to get himself from A to B in awarding the medal. Again, choosing a phrase easier on the tongue but one, in the eyes of the Polish, that is more than incorrect, but that is slanderous.

This is an excellent exercise at looking at tailoring your speech to the audience and the advantages of considering that audience not only when writing, but also when editing. We as editors should realize that as we deal with sensitive subjects is would be wise to put on a sensitive editing hat – difficult as we don’t have a C3PO-like protocol droid at our elbow, reminding us of the offense taken at such slights in the past. We are after all, fallible and not capable of retaining – let alone discovering – such gaffes so we can avoid them.

What can we do?

We can read our words carefully.

We can read a little history and try to figure out what might happen if we phrase things in a certain way.

We can look at things like Camp Westerbork, a Nazi transient camp in The Netherlands that started out as a refugee camp for German Jews fleeing the Nazis but ending as a transient camp for “undesireables” the Nazis shipped to Germany, and throw up our hands in despair at trying to know every nuance.
Or we could find someone Polish – or, better yet, some several people of Polish nationality – and ask them, “So, how is this phrasing going to go over in your homeland?”

And then pray they’re representative of their countrymen.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Befuddled by Consumed

UPDATE: Now reading "Barbarians at the Gate, the Fall of RJR Nabisco," by Bryan Burroughs and John Helyar." It's a great companion piece to "Consumed," as it outlines capitalism's shift from civic good to a culture of consumerism through the eyes of one company that got too interested in money rather than doing good. It's a re-read, of course. I re-read most of my books. It's a fascinating tale, well-told.

Taking on consumer capitalism and finding a “solution” for its woes is, of course, a tall order.

But after reading Benjamin Barber’s captivating yet confusing “Consumed,” I feel at a loss as to what I can do to combat consumer capitalism and – worse yet – what Barber’s solutions are to begin with.

If I’m reading his conclusion properly, he advocates things like massive boycotts – doomed to failure even before they take the vows – and some kind of new-fangled, extra-national, citizen-oriented, world-wide group or consortium meant to circumvent capitalism and thus bring it to its knees.

I guess I’ve got a simpler solution: Turn off the TV and buy only what you need.

That seems rich coming from a guy who bought a trampoline and a love seat this weekend. Did we really need either item? I suppose not. Could the money have been better spent combating hunger and such? Yeah. Am I more of a “culture jammer,” one operating against the grain of consumerism by eschewing TV and most advertising? Yes, sir. Proud of it.

But to Barber, this kind of behavior is part of the problem, because it’s not civic enough. I’m not doing things to help my fellow man avoid the onslaught of advertising, especially that oriented towards children, nor am I encouraging them to cut down on their consumerist ways. Barber goes on at length about how we need a civic solution but succeeds in alienating those who adhere to any religion, painting them all as part of the anti-civic problem and turning to Big Civics – in the form of a nebulous non-national NGO to take on the role of the strict father/nurturing mother that he decries so much in politics.

So I’m confused. His solution seems to just be a retread of what he sees as part of the problem. At least by doing what I’m doing, I’m living in a world that is virtually free of the evils of McDonalds and the Nike Swoosh. And I know there are many like me out there.

I guess what it comes down to is that he’s proposing a secular version of the scriptural advice to live in the world, but not to be of the world.

And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.
(Alma 41:11)

Suspicions Confirmed. $4.99, Please.

Here’s a startling revelation from the brains over at the blog:

Not everyone who is self-publishing ebooks is making gobs of money. Or any money at all.

Here’s another startling revelation from the brains over at the blog:

Authors who seek professional services from editing to illustrations to formatting are doing better than run-of-the-mill schlubs doing everything on their own from a closet.

Of course, there’s a lot more detail in “Not A Gold Rush,” a report Taleist compiled from just over 1,000 responses to a 61-question survey they sent out to self-published authors. But you have to pay $4.99 to for that detail. Go figure that these folks want to make money laffing it up over the folks who aren’t.

Of course, that’s a cynical take on the subject from a schlub who, thusfar, has refused to pay a penny for any of the ebooks he’s read (of course, I also buy used physical books for pennies on the dollar from thrift stores, so you can see I’m not going to be a great income source for any author). But still, you’d think could throw us a freakin’ bone.

Bone thrown courtesy Self-Publishing Survey

I guess my irritation over the whole thing is that the survey, even in its mightily-condensed form or as reported through British media outlets is a simple blinding flash of the obvious for anyone who has even an inkling of what this self-publishing ebook phenomenon is like. It’s nothing that the likes of Nathan Bransford or David Gaughran have already said. Sure, it’s got the heft of a 1,000-respondent survey behind it adding a little extra weight to the anecdotes, but then again Bransford and Gaugarin go beyond the anecdotes as well.

Am I bitter that I can’t read the entirety of their report for free? A little. But likely less bitter than I would be if I’d paid the $4.99 in order to read what I anticipate is already monnaie courant in the self-publishing community.

Saying the same thing just in a a different way: The backbone of writing.

Anyone with only a rudimentary knowledge of the book publishing industry in general knows that the vast majority of published authors out there aren’t making a living on their writing alone, nor that the top earners are pulling in the vast majority of the cash. There’s no reason self-published ebooks should be any different.

There is still that democratizing, self-liberating portion of self-publishing that even if it doesn’t bring cash, at least it brings satisfaction, per the authors (telling the Guardian, certainly not us, for free):

But money isn't always the primary goal for self-published writers, they discovered, with only 5% considering themselves “unsuccessful.” The respondents were also still keen to continue self-publishing: nearly half plan to release more titles this year than they did last, and 24% have a whopping five or more works due for publication this year. This means, said Cornford and Lewis, that the 695 respondents who told them about their future publishing plans will be releasing about 48 new books between them for each week in 2012.
I’ve read some of the self-published dreck out there. I’ll likely publish some self-published dreck this summer. But what’s fun is that now, thanks to this technology, we can do it. I have no illusions that I’ll make any money publishing this way. That is not my intent. It just might be theirs.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Terrafirming at 3 AM

NOTE: This is what happens when you get a novel idea at 3 am and try to type it out on your Kindle Fire without being fully awake.

Man who talks a lot about atomic science but he's really just an expert in tax code. He is member of minority group persecuted by those in power one day he is away from home doing something, happens to find young kid from his neighborhood who is lost. They meet up with kid's mother and try to go home but their ghetto has been shut off from outside using terraforming technology. The bad guys built in one day sn enormous dirt wall around the ghetto, topped with a ring road tor easy travel that id how they git the project off the ground without suspicion. bad guys won't t let these trio go into ghetto because they think he is atomic scientist and they need atom energy to do greater terrafirming projects. They have his tax accounting book that's in his native language and are convinced hr xsn feet them the power they need so he bluffs them trying at the same tine to find out what is going on inside ghetto they are building enormous buildings for use to make atomic plants and such with slave laborious inside.

Obviously lots of parallels with Nazis and Jews but also obviously art in different planet more technologically advanced in some areas. Beginning space travel, but rudimentary computers, no mass media, no Internet.

Lots of allusions to Kafka's trial, bureaucrats just doing their job not seeing or knowing the big picture.

We're never clear on why this minority group is hated, neither by the haters or by the conjecture of the hated.

There are some from majority group also in ghetyo they needed lots of land for the projecct and they react in varying degrees to their situation. Man's friend Yim never understood "difference" in groups, he is only interested in reading and collecting butterflies. Others react with dismay at being trapped with the minority.

Make it obtuse yet blear ghat yge oppressive government is progressive yet regressive, so yge liberals out there don't have another conservative dystopia yo crow about. Like Lois lowry.

They are building enormous plant to make fissile material and rickets so they can send a bunch of stuff up to start progressine moon colony to terraform so there's a place with no pollution for the ultralibs to go live.

Sent from Yahoo! Mail on Android

Thursday, May 24, 2012

. . .Because They Love You

Yeah, they're hippies. But sometimes hippies can deliver powerful messages.

See, there's this in Benjamin Barber's Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole:
Measured by the time alloted to them, commercialism's pedagogical competitors -- education, parenting, socialization by church or civic group -- come out on the short sinde. Teachers struggle for the attention of their students for at most twenty or thirty hours a week, perhaps thirty weeks a year, in settings they do not fully control and in institutions that are often ridiculed in the popular media. (Animal House has become a more popular emblem of the modern university than the ivory tower.) Pastors, rabbis, imams, and priests get an hour or two a week with that every smaller minority of their congregations that actually attend services. Parents are embattled "gatekeepers" at best, who year by year watch their hold on their children compromised, eroded, out-flanked, and eventually wholly loosened by their rivals in the marketplace, who often target them as impediments standing in the way of access to children, or try to exploit them as conduits to children. The tru tutors of late consumer capitalize society as measured by time are those who control the media monopolies, the aggressive content purveyors, shameless lords of the omnipresent pixes, who capture sixty or seventy hours a week, fifty-two weeeks a year, of children's time and attention.
Scared the hell out of me when I read it. Then realied maybe we're doing right by our kids by limiting their computer usage and television exposure. We do have wi-fi in the house, but none of them have computers or devices -- even cell phones -- they can access whenever they want. We have movies, but no cable or satellite television. As a family, we watch less than six hours of television a week, and when we're at computers it's more often or not that we're working, not playing. This summer, the kids will spend six weeks with their mother at Island Park Scout Camp, far away from computers and TV.

So I have to consider: How are we filling the time freed up by our lack of computer and televison babysitters? We do play games occasionally with the kids. We teach them to work in the yard. The youngest two dance. The oldest is involved in Scouts. And they read a lot, an awful lot. And they draw. They play with LEGOs and other toys.

Maybe we're doing something right for a change.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Richard Armour, May 22, 2012

Shake and shake the ketchup bottle
None’ll come, and then a lot’ll

Unless of course that bottle rigid
Is coated with a structured liquid

Which helps the ketchup or the mayo
Make a freshet of an arroyo

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Let Go of My Arm, Link

One: Does congress really express itself at a tenth-grade level? Only if you believe NPR and one study’s reliance on a flawed testing method that doesn’t take into account the content of what is spoken, but, rather, only sentence length.

Two: Ye self-published beware: Get that chip off your shoulder about not being traditionally published because it ain’t doing you any good. The best takeaway:

Most readers, by and large, don’t care a white who publishes you. They haven’t heard of 90% of the imprints out there anyway. They’re not going to read you because you wear your self-publishing badge with excessive pride. They just want to know if your book is good.


This all dovetails with what David Gaughran writes in his self-published book Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish and Why You Should.

(Start at 2:00)



This is for all you web copy editors out there who have something against the present participle. Just use it, please.

How to Get in the Local News: A Primer

A friend of mine found himself in the middle of a do-gooder kerfuffle this week when the promoter of one event that dovetailed with an event he promoted felt slighted because her event didn’t receive the media adulation that his event did.

Needless to say, words were said, accusations were launched, toes were stepped on and pretty much everyone lived up to what Molly of Fibber McGee and Molly said about such kerfuffles: Don’t everybody bow at once or you’ll bump heads.

As a disgraced former local newspaper reporter* I’ve got a thing or two to say on the situation.

How do you get your do-gooder event in the newspaper (or, conversely, on local television)?

DO make it a photogenic event. In the afore-mentioned kerfuffle, the event that got the ink and video tape happened to involve a string of more than 400 motorcycle enthusiasts, complete with gobs of facial hair, black leather, do rags and other motorcyclish accoutrements, compared to a baked potato dinner fundraiser. No matter that it was the fundraiser that brought in $6,000 for the distressed family, it was the motorcycle parade featuring the seven-year-old cancer survivor grinning ear to ear that got the play.

So, DON’T get bent out of shape if your well-meaning but unphotogenic potato bar fundraiser doesn’t get as prominent play as the motorcycle parade. Cameras, reporters – and readers – like the motorcycles and the grinning kid. Not to belittle the effort of the potato bar, but nobody is interested in photos of people eating or a story about people eating, unless they’re eating bugs, Rocky Mountain oysters, or other such delicacies.

As you pick a photogenic event, DO make sure it’s unique. My experience in newspaper reporting will tell you that a principal jumping into a vat of macaroni and cheese is photogenic, a cow wandering around a field as a crowd waits nearby waiting for it to poop on the coordinates they bought in the raffle is not. Costumes are good. I’ve yet to see an event headed by someone in a gorilla suit not make the paper. Speeches, big checks, ribbon cuttings, and people standing around in suits (unless they’re in the proximity of someone in a gorilla suit) are not good.

I only know of one non-costume wearing guy who got himself into the news consistently, and that's Paul Yarrow, News Raider.

DO plan on making your own media of the event. With Facebook YouTube, blogs and the vastness of the Internet available at your fingertips, counting on some hack (I include myself in this hackitude) to get the word out as you see fit is silly. Get the word out yourself. Provide a link to your whatsit to the media and generally insist it get included somewhere. As long as it’s not overtly commercial, you’re bound to get the link – and the publicity – you want as you want it done.

DON’T, however, refer the news media to your web page as they call you or approach you for information. Be affable. Answer their questions. Be courteous, kind, and forgiving. They’re there to talk to you.

DO have an official spokesman at your event, someone the media can contact and talk to. If you’re not the official spokesman and don’t want to be quoted as such, SHUT the HELL up and get the media to the official spokesman, then wander off. Nothing, repeat, NOTHING looks worse than having a bunch of lookie-loos hanging about as the media does its thing. Don’t get in the way.

DO ensure there is cross-coordination between events meant to help the same cause. Part of the above kerfuffle arose – and I’m getting this second-hand – is because the news reporters who inevitably flocked to the motorcycle parade, assumed that organizers there knew everything there was to know about the other event. That wasn’t so, and it appears – again, this is all second-hand, but I know how this works through experience with sloppy reporting – the journalists were looking for one-stop information and when it wasn’t forthcoming (not out of malice or negligence, but because the organizers of Event A simply didn’t know enough about Event B to be helpful) they didn’t pursue it further.

So, if you want your event in the paper, DO get in the face of the reporters and editors as much as you can. Make yourself a nuisance. Don’t wait for them to call you; call them yourself and force as much information on them as you can. This way, even if your event isn’t the photogenic one, you’ll at least rate (hopefully, if the reporter is worth his or her sauce) bigger mention in the main story or at least a sidebar (a secondary story that accompanies the main one).

DO get to know your local reporters, well in advance of your event, so you know who's most likely to pick up on an event.

DO keep your expectations in check. Not everyone who waltzes into the local paper or TV news station with a tip is going to get top-billed coverage. Or coverage at all.

But DON’T be surprised if your particular event is relegated to a sideline in the story detailing another event, or sent to the purgatory of the community calendar due to its lack of overall photogenics. See the first DO, because the first DO trumps all.

Also, if your event doesn’t end up getting the coverage you felt it deserved, DON’T spread lies about the organizer of the competing event, get all whiny with the media outlet or otherwise make yourself look like a fool. Content yourself with your unsung good-deed-doing and keep your eye out for the next do-good opportunity. Otherwise, you’re going to sound like an attention whore trying to drag the name of your business (strictly for promotional reasons) into the media limelight.

If you DO organize a “competing” event that you know is going to be more photogenic, make sure you’ve got contact information for the people organizing the other event and foist it upon the media. The media are so used to being blamed for passing on stories that it doesn’t faze them, so do your best to shift the blame.

DO realize that if you spend a lot of time thanking people for participating that this information is going to be the first thing cut out of any news report. That information may be important to you and important in keeping the peace, but if it’s going to compete with a cute kid getting to ride with a motorcycle gang through town, it’s going to get cut because space is limited. Keep your thanks to a minimum, start with the big hitters AND the organizers of the less-photogenic event. Have a printed list of people you want to thank ready to hand to the news people and suggest the put it up as a sidebar to the story on their web pages. It’s not going to get into print with the initial story, in full. Then follow up with a letter to the editor of the local paper with a list of people you’d like to thank. Your thanks are much more likely to be published that way. If you’ve got a long list, buy an ad. Or approach the paper (especially the smaller ones) with articles in hand expressing the goodwill their coverage elicited in the community and suggest that they provide, free of change, some small advertising space that you can use for your thanks. Remember, you don’t get what you don’t ask for.

And if all else fails, of course, call on Chuck Norris for the defense.**

*Rightfully disgraced for screwing up on some law-and-order stories. Quit my job and went through more than a year of underemployment hell as penance, so if there’s anyone still out there who still wants blood over the incident, they’ll have to come take it out of my nose.

**Not really. DO NOT do this. Ever. Unless you want jail time.

Monday, May 21, 2012

"It's Pronounced Fron-kon-steen."

Hello. I’m here to expand a bit today on the topic of What I’d Do if I Were A Creative Writing Teacher.

In my last post, I mention how one of the assignments I’d make my creative writing students do would be to take their favorite film – or at least a portion of it – and turn it into a novelization. By doing this, the students would learn how visual and cinematic elements can make a story go from Mr. Mediocre to Outstanding. I mention as well that I’m one of those writers who could benefit from such an exercise.

Why am I harping on this at the moment, aside from my short – squirrel! – attention span?

Gilbert Pearlman.

Yes, he had a connection when he was tapped to write the novelization of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (IMDB tells us he’s Gene Wilder’s brother-in-law).

But he took the silk purse that is Brooks’ film and turned it into the sow’s ear that is the novelization.

First, the critique, then I put my money where my mouth is to see if I could do better. After a little conjecture on what I imagine the restraints might have been on the novelization portion of the project.

Here’s my favorite scene from the movie:

What I love is how Wilder projects a man trying to anchor himself in a situation in which he feels completely ill at ease – he clings to his reputation as a brilliant surgeon when he absent-mindedly points out one of the physical deformities of the man sent to the station to greet him, after being completely flustered by Igor’s stunning appearance, the odd setting, and the raffish surety Igor presents. He can only cling to normalcy trying to correct the pronunciation of his name. Feldman, in contrast, is completely at ease in his environment, so at ease he’s able to smirk and sneer at everything Wilder does. Two men from different worlds on the same platform.

Ninety-nine percent of this is all said in their eyes, not in their actions or words. That’s the visual, cinematic portion that ought to be captured. And is not. Here’s Pearlman:

It was getting dark. And he could sense that a storm was brewing. He had notified Herr Falkstein of the time of his arrival; why hadn’t someone been sent to the station to meet him? By God, if he got caught in a storm, heads would roll. When he got to the caste, he would fire the whole incompetent bunch. They would think twice before they ever left him standing at the station again.

Thunder rumbled. The sky had become an inky black as the clouds were churning ominously. There was a sudden crack of lightning. In the flash, Dr. Frankenstein saw a face. It was no more than a foot away. Startled, he drew back. But the face followed, stopping only inches from the doctor’s own face. The eyes in the face twinkled mischievously – or perhaps evilly.


“Fron-kon-steen,” the doctor informed the man.

“You’re putting me on.”

“No, that’s the way it’s pronounced. Fron-kon-steen.”

“And do you say Fro-derick?: the man asked.

“Of course not. It’s Fred-erick. Fron-kon-steen.”

“Why isn’t it Fro-derick Fron-kon-steen?”

“Because it’s not. It’s Fred-erick. Fron-kon-steen.”

“I see.” The face seemed to accept the fact.

Squinting into the darkness, the doctor managed to see the rest of the man. He was draped completely in a black, hooded cape. He looked like he was standing in the center of a tent, peeking out the top. There was also one other factor that would tend to make him stand out in a crowd. He was a hunchback.

“I am Aye-gor,” the man said.

“Isn’t that Ee-gor?”

“Not any more. Now it’s Aye-gor.”

“Are you from the castle?”

“Look at me – where else would I be from?” Igor answered.

“Were you sent by Herr Falkstein?”

“Yes. My grandfather used to work for your grandfather,” Igor told the doctor. “Herr Falkstein thought it might be ironically appropriate if I worked for you.”

“How nice.”

“Of course, the rates have gone up,” Igor said.

“Yes, yes, But I’m sure we’ll get on splendidly.” Wanting to show the man that he was willing to go at least halfway to be friendly, he gave him a comradely slap on the back – and was reminded abruptly, and to his embarrassment, that Igor was a hunchback. “Sorry,” he said.

Igor shrugged.

“I don’t mean to be personal or anything,” the doctor said, “but, you know, I’m a rather brilliant surgeon. Perhaps I can help you with that hump.”

Igor looked at him puzzledly. “What hump?”

“On your – Well, never mind.”
Four hundred and sixteen words. The dialogue from the movie is there – most of it, can’t account for some improvisation on the part of the actors – but the feeling is not there at all.

Now, constraints. I’m sure Pearlman didn’t have the advantage of sitting there, watching the film unfold on the screen. I’m sure he got handed a copy of the script (hopefully, one of the later revisions) and was told to novelize that, not benefitting from the cinematic effect of watching Feldman and Wilder interpret the characters together. That’s a significant restraint, one perhaps Pearlman couldn’t get around, due to other constrains likely involving getting the novelization done in time to go out with the movie.

Then again, the novelization is only 152 pages long. We’re not talking War and Peace length here.

And – here’s a big and – given the success of Blazing Saddles as a movie – not as a book – you’d think the schedulers and such would realize that a novelization that strayed from the movie or that did not capture the movie’s feel would not be welcomed by the audience. But then again, this is an audience that enjoyed a movie that was basically centered on fart jokes, so perhaps I’m giving the audience too much credit here.

But in my class, the writers live in a perfect world where they’re able to see the film after it’s cut and then are able to write it out.

Here’s my attempt, which, in the spirit of brevity, have kept as close to Pearlman’s 416-word count as possible.

What relief, Frederick thought. That heavy case off the train. And here I am!

He looked at here. A dingy station with signs in a language he should probably have read up on before he arrived. What’s a zug? And s staadt? And is Transylvania always so damned foggy?

The train chugged out of the station, adding its acrid coal-smoke stink to the damp-black air.

European trains. They sound so odd. Chug. Slip. Chug. Slip. It’s as if . . .

“Dr. Frankenstein?”

He jumped at the face in the darkness. Bulgy-eyed, topped with dark eyebrows. Below, cheeks white as tallow, a grin grim as the crescent moon.

“Fron-kon-steen,” he said. Staring into the eyes that stared back, not blinking. His own looked for another reference to pin that ghastly face, but the black cloth draped over the man blended with the fog, leaving only the eyes and those cheeks and that wicked, innocent grin.

“You’re putting me on,” the sneering face said.

“No, it’s pronounced Fron-kon-steen,” the doctor said to the face, waiting for something else to be said.

“Do you also say Frod-erick?”

Such an impish voice. He’s putting me on, the doctor thought. “No. Frederick.”

“Well, why isn’t it Frod-erick Fron-kon-steen?”

He shook his head. No use fearing a face. Stand your ground, man, and the face will soon fear you.

“It isn’t! It’s Frederick Fron-kon-steen.”

He tried again to find something else to look at. But the zug and the staadt of the station could not draw his eyes glancing at two things at once, that smirking mouth.

“I see.”

I’ve won, the doctor said to himself. Won what? An argument with a stumpy hunchback who could be the village idiot for all I know. “You must be Igor.”

“No, it’s pronounced Aye-gor.”

Zug this. The man smiled that crescent grin, nodded for the doctor to continue the argument.

“They told me it was Igor”

“Well, they were wrong then, weren’t they?”

He tried to look in the fog for Herr Falkstein, any other face, a policeman, a drunk, a madman. If there were hundreds on the platform, he could not see them. Only the face.

“Uuh, you were sent by Herr Falkstein, weren’t you?”

“Yes. My grandfather used to work for your grandfather,” Igor said.

“How nice,” the doctor said. I’ll run, he thought. I’ll leave the case here. Herr Falkstein can retrieve it in the morning.

“Of course, the rates have gone up,” Igor said.

The doctor laughed nervously. “Of course! I’m sure we’ll get on splendidly.” He must be from the castle. Maybe if I show him I’m friendly, he won’t, well, won’t whatever they do in Transylvania. He patted him on his hunch, which echoed like a ripe watermelon thumped.

“Oh!” He pulled his hand back as the face stared at him, lips drawn into a thin line. “Uh, you know, I don’t mean to embarrass you, but I’m a rather brilliant surgeon. Perhaps I could help you with that hump.”

Igor stared, still as an icon from a country church. “What hump?”

Finally, Frederick broke his eyes from the face and stared off into the fog. Perhaps the train hadn’t left after all. He could get back on it, abandon his case – but the tracks were empty.

“Let’s go.”
Okay, I’m cheating a little. This is over one hundred words longer than Pearlman’s scene. But I did cut it down from my original 677 words. I think I come out of this one the winner.

Unloading the Brain Pan

Just a smattering of little stuff needing to go somewhere:
  • My mother likely had a heart attack -- a mild one -- last Thrusday. She's still in the hospital undergoing some tests. Her spirits seem good, though she's fairly weak as she battles not only the heart trouble but also an infection and kidneys functioning less than normally. Not fun.
  • It may look like we're seeking buried treasure or looking for Walter, but we are in fact digging up small portions of the back yard so we can find the sprinkler system this house was supposed to come with. So far, we've discovered a stuck petcock valve that's supposed to turn the whole system on, plus one buried sprinkler head that matches the sprinkler head in the front yard that Intermountain Gas dug up, dumped, and didn't tell us about, leavint it for us to discover. Yeah, I'll grouse a little, but at least we're finding things. The sprinkler head in the back yard was buried about two inches deep, leading me to believe the system hasn't been working for some time. The stuck valve and the PVC pipe masquerading as the supply line lead me to believe we'll be doing a lot of digging before this system is completely functional. Not looking forward to that. But at least I got to buy a pick for the work, so that's something. A new tool is always a good thing. I'm also lucky to have a brother who has done this kind of work before, guiding me along.
  • I don't understand some of my students. If you don't get what you're supposed to be doing for an assignment, does it make sense to wait until the night before it's due to start asking questions? Not to me it doesn't. But I do my best to answer these questions -- on a weekend when they'd been warned the network would be undergoing some maintenance, so I answered the question the day after the assignment was due. We'll see what happens there. Teaching at BYU-Idaho is an interesting thing. They make you feel very guilty if you're not in constant, individual contact with your students. But I'm an instructor, not a baby-sitter. I know it's best -- part of the good, better, best we get pounded with -- to dig into why our students aren't on track for getting their homework done, but the truth is getting email reminders won't cut the mustard and getting a call from an instructor could be interpreted as passive aggressive or downright creepy. It's their job to keep up with their schoolwork, not mine. They are adults, after all.
  • I still think if I ever get to teach a class on creative writing, one of the things I'm going to have my students do is to write the novelization of at least a portion of their favorite movie. I think it would be a good exercise in helping them to write vividly and to translate cinematic/visual elements ot their writing to liven things up and to make them feel more real. I say this as I read the novelization to "Young Frankenstein," by an author who certainly could have benefitted from such a class. I include myself in the 'could benefit' category myself, which is why I think this is such a spaking idea.

Please Release Me

I’m old school. I remember seeing my first JibJab video after waiting for nearly 30 minutes for it to download – I was on dialup at the time. So I know what waiting is for. I know why they included “web” in World Wide Web.

Heck, I remember when they called the internet the World Wide Web.Nothat we’ve got high-speed internet, I’ve got a lot more time for stuff, including adjusting the onion I have hanging on my belt – hey, that was they style at the time.

But I hate the tether.

The idea that every little app I have on my Kindle Fire has to be constantly connected to the internetty-thingy for some reason or other.

I say nay, nay.

Some things I can understand why we need the tether, Mandrake. But childrens’ games, Mandrake? Childrens’ games. Do we really need the tether for that? We don’t, of course. But of course the developers do. Just in case during these games we get so tired of the limits placed on us that we break down and buy our way through these games.

Not me, bub. Homey don’t play that. Though Homey does come up with a lot of pop culture references to explain why he does or does not do things.

I’ve got an app, for instance, put out by Audubon to help me identify birds. It thoughtfully includes videos, sound clips, photos, etc. Unless I’m, you know, actually out in the wild, far away from the dock, ahoy, without a wi-fi connection. Then those extras aren’t available to me, so I’m left dumbfounded (I’m used to that) staring up at the bird that just shat on my Kindle because the bird-identifying app is virtually useless without a wi-fi connection.

I’ve got another app on wilderness survival that – yessir – has to be tethered to the internet for full functionality. Yes, I could pay for the ten-peso version that’s untethered. But I don’t want to; it’s in the same repo room as my floor. So I’m stuck here walking around in the pipes because I don’t want to be tethered. Though it might still prove useful in a wilderness survival situation; once the app works I know it’s on wi-fi, and if I keep wandering in a direction that shows the wi-fi signal getting stronger, that’ll likely get me to civilization.

Maybe I’ll just go back to trying to get my rocker to fit on my suburban porch. That’s more my speed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Intelligent the Connected to Peter, Or, Google Introduces the Knowledge Engine

Gotta hand it to Google, they do really want to be the be-all and end-all of everything we do on the web.

Thus the nifty “knowledge graph” they’re introducing.

As far as I can tell from this web video, the knowledge graph is going to be something like a Wikipedia article written not by a mix of experts and random internet urchins, but by the “combined wisdom” found in Google searches.

I write what I write trying not to sound facetious, but there you have it.

I’m not really sure what this knowledge engine is going to offer that, say, Wikipedia doesn’t offer – connections to other information related to the topic at hand. But listening to Google’s folks on the video, I have to wonder if they’re really sure what it’s all going to be, or if they really are listening to themselves in the first place.

First there’s Emily Moxley, Google product manager, who says “Others may have come to Google to search for the same thing. Google can jump-start your research process by combining the information that others found useful with the information in the knowledge graph.”

How will Google know what others found useful? Will there be some kind of ranking system other than some algorithm that tells Google how long people stayed at a certain website? Will we be allowed to rank sites and give them reviews, a la Amazon? What the analytics may tell us is that a given website was open a long time because, hey, maybe it was the first one that came up as the wizards of speed and time we know as internet browsers discovered.

Then there’s Johanna Wright, Google Product Management Director, who says “All of the collective human wisdom that comes through our search engine, what people are searching for tells us what are the interesting things to put into our database.”

Again, is this going to be analytics-based, rather than people-based? One of the reasons I like Amazon and GoodReads, to pull an example out of the air, is that I know behind the book reviews are real people, not some mathematical formula telling me what’s popular or what is good about a book. If Google can make their knowledge graph people-based rather than algorithm-based, I’ll be more interested in it.

But this does explain why there’s suddenly all this white space to the right side of all my Google searches . . .

What a lot of technology seems to forget about knowledge and learning is that it’s not only the connections that matter, but the people behind the connections. I want to decide for myself if something is worthwhile as I search for it, and if that takes some time to do so, I’m not bothered by that. It all goes back to what Benjamin R. Barber says in his book “Consumed”:
Where once intelligence was equated with wisdom and deliberation, with the deliberate privileging of slowness and the intentional expenditure of time’s wealth, today smart is too often about quick. To be counted as bright, you have to be a quick study, reach conclusions in the blink of an eye, short-circuit the deliberative process (bor-ing!), and cut to the quick.
Google is helping us be quick by doing the deliberation for us. I’m not ready to relinquish that. Of course they say this is only the first step on their journey to becoming a knowledge engine. First steps are kind of wobbly. We'll see.

And we’ve seen how well they’ve done in other areas. Just watch this Google video with the closed captioning on, and you’ll see where I got the title for this post.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Era of the Integrated Commercial

UPDATE: NPR reports on a New Orleans pizza joint experimenting with advertising on Facebook. Their net? Lots of new Facebook fans and one $10 order for pizza, directly linked to a Facebook ad. Their outlay? $240.

The news has been whispered about the internet for a long time now, but with GM’s announcement today, it’ll be shouted a lot louder: Advertising on the Internet – at least advertising in the form it’s had for the last century – is dead.

Not that the Internet has been around for a century – but advertising in the form of little boxes just dumped haphazardly in papers, magazines and on that new-fangled Internet-thingy – certainly has been.

Now GM, which spends about $40 million on its Facebook presence according to Reuters, is going to pull the plug on its paid advertising to the tune of about $10 million.

That leaves me to wondering – where did the other $30 million go?

Oh yeah. To ad agencies and warm bodies and such in charge of the company’s Facebook presence, which the company seems to believe for now is still a good investment of its advertising dollar. No matter that Facebook pages can be created for free. They’re a billion-dollar company; they have to spend the mazuma in order to think they’re getting good value.

Of course, to say advertising is dead based on this deal is silly. GM, per Reuters, spent $1.1 billion on advertising just in the US last year, including $271 million on online display and search advertising – excluding the $10 million it dropped on Facebook. But what does this say for advertising on social media? It doesn’t bode well – or does it?

Content may indeed become king.

Here’s what GM says about its Facebook presence:
In terms of Facebook specifically, while we currently do not plan to continue with advertising, we remain committed to an aggressive content strategy through all of our products and brands, as it continues to be a very effective tool for engaging with our customers.
Advertisers may not be interested much longer in paying for inconsequential ads on social media sites – or elsewhere on the Internet for that matter – instead opting to become part of the fabric of social media itself.

Maybe we’re headed back to the era of the integrated commercial:

As a long-time fan of old time radio, I'm used to the integrated commercial. It's odd to see Granny Clampett in such a thing, but it harks back to an era that's not all that distant.  With strictly advertising dollars doing nothing for companies -- Google itself says only 1 in 1,000 people on the net today will click on a traditional advertisement -- the integrated commerical -- as opposed to company websites and such -- will likely continue to gain importance. We may indeed see nimbler companies giving up on their own websites altogether and just concentrating their efforts on social media platforms -- whicha re not going to trend away any time soon, if you ask me.

A Writer for Writers

One of the disadvantages of building a library almost exclusively from thrift store finds and free ebooks is I don’t often find books by the authors I’m really curious to read. Yes, I could resolve that problem simply by buying new books (that would certainly make the authors and publishers happy and I certainly hope the same happens when I publish), but I’m a poor slob. So I was pretty excited when I saw a Lois Lowry hardback on sale this weekend for $2 at a thrift store. Messenger is the third in I guess what is being called the “Giver” trilogy.

I loved The Giver. I’ve got a weak spot for dystopia and to read one in which many progressive ideals (rather than conservative stasis) is skewered is a treat. (Not that I’m overly conservative or anti-progressive; I happen to sag quite happily in the middle.) Messenger hits a nice, middle-of-the-road tone that I find quite striking.

Lowry’s style impresses as always. I’m intrigued at her ability to bring in the mundane to a story to help it jump off the page. She’s there with vivid imagery and great characters and brisk plotting, but it’s the little details she adds that make her stories go so far.
“I remember all the fish, the feeling that they would never end. I felt that I could drop my line in again and again and again and there would always be fish. Now there aren’t. But, Leader . . .”
Leader looked at him and waited.

“Things seem more when you’re little. They seem bigger, and distances seem father. The first time I came here through Forest? The journey seemed forever.”

“It does take days, Matty, from where you started.”

“Yes, I know. It still takes days. But now it doesn’t seem as far or as long. Because I’m older, and bigger, and I’ve gone back and forth again and again, and I know the way, and Im’ not scared. So it seems shorter.”

Leader chuckled. “And the fish?”

"Well,” Matty acknowledged, “there don’t seem to be as many. But maybe it’s just that I was a little boy back then, when the fish seemed endless.”
This exchange has little to do with the plot or story, but it helps set character – and that’s what counts almost as much as the story itself. I try to emulate this in my own writing, with mixed results.

What I appreciate the most about Lowry is that she takes a fresh approach – or at least a fresh, spare writing style, to an old fantasy meme. This kind of getting-what-we-wish-for is a common staple of fantasy writers, and I love it when it’s handled well. Lowry handles hers subtly, leaving the reader in the dark but offering enough hints that the astute reader can generally figure things out and still be pleasantly surprised that he or she is right. And I don’t mind when authors handle this kind of device overtly; Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, with the hall of mirrors and the merry-go-round handle the meme with a blunt overtness that swiftly carries you along for the ride.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Let's Get Digital

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing, revising, revising again, getting published and then working your ass off to promote your own books, my model thusfar has been Robert Newton Peck's Secrets of Successful Fiction, a barely 100-page guide the author of A Day No Pigs Would Die and other books put together to show aspiring authors the ropes. There are better books on writing (Richard Rhodes' On Writing comes to mind) but for the budding author wanting a glimpse of the business from the point of view of a successful author, Peck's book, bar none, is the best out there.

There's now a companion to that volume, one primed and ready for the digital age -- and that's David Gaughran's Let's Get Digital: How to Self-Publish and Why You Should.

Both books are similar in content and length. Both advise the basics of writing -- getting your story and characters straight through revision after revision, seeking professional help whenever necessary and relentlessly promoting your own books no matter what your publisher may think or want to do on their own. Gaughran takes the voyage into the digital age, offering plenty of advice and ladders through the world of digital self-publishing.

There are a few interesting quirks in his book, however. One is a nit-pick, and may be due to his Irish upbringing, but throughout a book in which he preaches watching out for typos and errors that bug readers, he can't seem to find the cent symbol. I found out how to do it easily enough (Here is is: ¢. And here's how to do it). But again, that's picking nits.

The success stories -- I like hearing them as much as the next guy, but seriously, after the first ten of the 33 testimonials he has in the book my eyes were glazing. Those testimonials needed to be culled by at least half, with those presenting similar material to others cut completely. I know showing that many testimonials chimes in with his evangelical approach to demonstrating self-publishing success, but they're hard on the brain to read. They blended together a lot.

That said, this book is an excellent primer for anyone looking to get into (I won't say break into, because that breaking barrier is obviously gone) the self-publishing world. Lots of nuts and bolts features that every budding author should be interested in.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sunday Preview

NOTE: Here, a preview of the boring talk I'm going to give on Sunday. B ring your pillows, please. You'll need them.

Dad came into the church late in life, though he’d been a member for quite a while. He was born in Holland in 1928 and, as a young man, witnessed some of the horror of World War II in the little city of Santpoort, a distant suburb of Amsterdam. He, his parents, and his older brother emigrated to the United States in 1950 and made their way to Idaho where his parents farmed and he and his brother worked in construction. He met my mother at a Knights of Columbus dance.

Her story starts in the village of Pilley Green, England, where a great-great grandmother left her family, converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and emigrated to the United States following the call to the saints to gather in Zion. Her family disowned her, but she went on faithful in the gospel. She settled in Utah, married, raised a family.

Mom was always strong in the gospel, serving, as I recall, alternately as either primary president or Relief Society president as long as I can remember. Dad went to church as well, but always had questions.

They married in 1955, but it wasn’t until 1980 that they were sealed in the Idaho Falls temple. I was then eight years old and remember sitting in some room in the temple with my siblings, waiting it seemed forever for Mom and Dad to finish whatever it was they were doing – they were taking out their endowments – so we could get on with the rest of the event.

While we were waiting, the attendants has we younger three kids work on a little art project. I still have mine. For those of you who can’t see it, it’s a pair of scissors made of paper, held onto another piece of paper with a brad. On the paper is written in part the following:

“Marriage resembles a pair of shears so joined that they cannot be separated. Often moving in opposite directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes between them.”

I’m sure at the time I had no idea what any of this meant. But now, older, hopefully wiser, I see the wonderful promise that this simple inscription holds.

“Joseph Smith the seer revealed the eternity of the marriage covenant,” says President David O. McKay. Temple marriage is “a doctrine so beautiful,” he goes on to say, “so logical, so far-reaching in its significance that if it were adopted in its entirety, many of the present evils of society might be abolished.” I look back at my parents’ relationship and try to see in them this significance.

Like the pieces of a pair of scissors, Mom and Dad did often move in opposite directions. Once they were discussing a gospel topic over the fence with a neighbor. Dad said something snotty about the topic at hand. Mom and the neighbor lady took their Books of Mormon and started whapping him on the head with them until he shouted “I believe! I believe!” That’s just Dad being Dad.

Michelle will tell you I’ve inherited a bit of his odd sense of humor. But another thing I’ve inherited, as I look on their relationship and on the relationship that I have with my wife and children, is that above all else, we are family.

We sing in the church:

I have a family here on earth
They are so good to me
I want to share my life with them through all eternity
Families can be together forever
Through Heavenly Father’s plan
I always want to be with my own family
And the Lord has shown me how I can
The Lord has shown me how I can.

I remember singing this song with gusto as a child, watching my mother direct the music in Primary. I remember singing the words loudly, trying as Primary kids do to out-sing or out-shout the kid next to me.

These days I can hardly make it through the song without the Holy Ghost whispering to me, “Brian, this is more than a song, you know.”

I guess this prompting, and the prompting I felt as a child to keep this little art keepsake, are part of my journey of “coming to myself,” as we read in the scriptures.

“The Savior told his disciples about a son who left his wealthy father,” Elder Robert D. Hales told us at conference last month. This son “went to a far country, and waste his inheritance. When a famine arose, the young man took the lowly job of feeding swine.”

“Away from home, far from the place he wanted to be, and in his destitute condition, something of eternal significance happened in the life of this young man. In the Savior’s words, he ‘came to himself.’ He remembered who we was, realized what he had been missing, and began to desire the blessings freely available in his father’s house.”

We are all prodigal sons and daughters of God, gone to a far country, far away from the place we want to be.

Dad grew into this knowledge late in his life. I remember as a child some Sunday mornings being very reluctant to go to church because there were more interesting things to do. “Hey, boy,” Dad would say with his Dutch accent, “Jesus wants you to go to church.”

Of course he does, Dad, I probably thought to myself then. That’s what parents always say. You have to say that, Dad. I say it myself nearly every Sunday. I am my father’s son.

But fifteen or so years ago, Dad said something else about going to church, about going to the temple. “These are the only places where Satan can’t get you,” he said. He said this during a rather tumultuous period in our lives, with some children going astray and with health problems beginning to plague him.

We are all gone to a far country, far away from the place we want to be. We’re told in the scriptures that when we were told of the plan of salvation, we shouted for joy at the opportunity to progress, to become as our Father in Heaven is. That shout of joy should be our reminder, as prodigal sons and daughters, as to what is missing.

There is another shout of joy spoken of in the scriptures. Joseph F. Smith, writing in Section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants mentions this shout of joy:

“The eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great.

“And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality.

“And who had offered sacrifice in the similitude of the great sacrifice of the Son of God, and had suffered tribulation in their Redeemer’s name.

“All these had departed the mortal life, firm in the hope of a glorious resurrection, through the grace of God the Father and his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

“I beheld that they were filled with joy and gladness, and were rejoicing together because the day of their deliverance was at hand.

“They were assembled awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world, to declare their redemption from the bands of death.”

More prodigals, gone to a far country. Looking with joy for ways to go home. I feel peace in the temple. I feel a sampling of the joy we all felt when we learned we were to come to earth to obtain a body, to learn, to grow, and, ultimately, to return to our Father in Heaven. These are good reasons to go to the temple.

Elder Hales reminds us of others. He said: “As endowed temple recommend holders, we establish patterns of Christlike living. These include obedience, making sacrifices to keep the commandments, loving one another, being chaste in thought and action, and giving of ourselves to build the kingdom of God. Through the Savior’s atonement and by following these basic patterns of faithfulness, we receive ‘power from on high’ to face the challenges of life. It is power we receive only through temple ordinances. I testify that the sacrifices we make to receive temple ordinances are worth every effort we can make.”

I think this is what Dad was telling us when he said church and the temple are places where Satan can’t get us. A few years before he died, Dad asked his four sons to go to the temple with him. We obliged. I recall standing together in the celestial room of the Idaho Falls temple, underneath that shimmering chandelier, looking at my father and three brothers, dressed in white. I had a glimpse, momentarily, of Lehi seeking his family as he stood at the base of the tree which bore the fruit that made him happy. We’re here, Dad, I remember thinking. We’re here.

We found the way along that strait and narrow path, through the mists of darkness, through the mocking of those in the great and spacious building. We’re here.

I think the same thing when I see my beautiful wife in the temple, knowing we are there together. Soon, I will experience the joy of seeing my own boys, my own daughter, also dressed in white, also standing beneath that chandelier in the temple, and I will catch another glimpse of the eternity to come.

Obviously, we still have journeys to make. “We may deceive men but we cannot deceive the Holy Ghost,” said Elder Melvin J. Ballard, “and our blessings will not be eternal unless they are also sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise. The Holy Ghost is one who reads the thoughts and hearts of men, and gives his sealing approval to the blessings pronounced upon their heads.”

President Henry B. Eyring suggests four things we can do to seal these temple blessings as ours, and as our families’. First, he advises that we gain a testimony that the keys of the priesthood are held by the president of the church. Second, he says it is “imperative” that we love our wives. Third, he says we must “enlist the entire family to love each other.” Finally, fourth, is to lead our families in the Lord’s way.

Is that easy? Perhaps not. But it is not outside our ability. “Worthiness to hold a temple recommend gives us the strength to keep our temple covenants,” Elder Hales said. “We strive to obtain a testimony of Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the reality of the Atonement, and the truthfulness of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the restoration. We sustain our leaders, treat our families with kindness, stand as a witness of the Lord’s true Church, attend our Church meetings, honor our covenants, fulfill parental obligations, and live a virtuous life. You may say that sounds like just being a faithful Latter-day Saint! You are right. The standard for temple recommend holders is not too high for us to achieve. It is simply to faithfully live the gospel and follow the prophets.”

Growing up, I know my family had times when the love was strained and forced, when nerves frayed, when the childish thoughts of packing a few sandwiches and a few pairs of socks and underwear into a hobo bag and “running away” sure sounded tempting. And now that I have a family of my own, I see the same things, the same difficulties. But I also remember instances of selfless service and sacrifice, of prayers said behind closed doors answered in the broad daylight, of love, fun, laughter, joy, and happiness. I see such instances in my own family, and my burdens are lifted and my heart lightened because I know that Jesus Christ loves us all and wishes us to rejoin he and his father in his father’s kingdom when all is said and done. And I remember the times my family served in the temple as the crowning jewels of childhood and adulthood.

Yes, I have a family here on earth
They are so good to me
I want to share my life with them through all eternity.

I stand here as a witness that temple service strengthens families. Children may learn when they are young by the example of their parents who attend the temple that the temple is more than just a building to be pointed out while traveling. Soon our son Liam will be able to participate in baptisms for the dead and will have a glimpse of the anticipatory joy President Smith writes of in the Doctrine and Covenants. Parents may learn that despite the struggles we may go through to make regular temple attendance part of our lives – and I stand here as a witness to this struggle – that blessings will come in the form of power from on high as we serve in the temple. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Bellegarrique Solution

I suppose I’m lucky that I can look at my job as an adjunct instructor at BYU-Idaho as a supplement to my full-time job income. Certainly – and I don’t even have to pound the numbers on this – if I were dependent on my BYU-Idaho job as my sole source of income, we’d be sunk financially deeper than a sub-muh-reen.

This article, written by Stacey Patton for the Chronicle of Higher Education, spells out the financial trouble of those who rely on their adjunct professorship as their sole income as they seek better jobs and larger income in order to support themselves and their families.

I won’t jump into any argument over whether the people in this article “wasted” their time pursuing post-graduate degrees that others may sniff at as “not useful.” In this economy, usefulness doesn’t necessarily guarantee full-time employment. Where I work, I’ve seen hundreds of useful people laid off not because their education wasn’t up to some standard of usefulness, but simply because the money just isn’t there any more. Those who argue that the “uselessness” of a degree is what put a person in a precarious financial situation miss the point – which is we have less of an emphasis on paying educators well than we do paying entertainers or sports stars well.

There is a solution – however, it ain’t a popular one. And as mightily as I’ve searched for it, I’ve only seen it fully applied in a science fiction setting.

It’s the Bellegarrique Soultion.

In Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted, James Bolivar diGriz ends up on a planet where people aren’t paid in cash, but in wirr, short for work hours. Wirrs do not gain interest. Wirrs do not vary in value from occupation to occupation. Wirrs do not increase or decrease in value. It simply goes that those who work get paid in wirrs, and work that is paid is pretty much every bit of work that’s done, from the hero Stirner working in his hydropower plant to the people serving in restaurants. Hobbyists who write books are paid in wirrs. Those who have doctorates in the Bellegarrique equivalent of mideval history are paid in wirrs. Each has sufficient to live adequately well because the system is set up to ensure that work is compensated, no matter if it’s as an engineer or as a bum who only does enough work go get enough wirrs to pay for the barest necessities.

Bring this idea up in conservative circles and it’s automatically branded as socialist. Brand away. It sure as hell sounds blissful to me.

Yes, there are lazy people in Bellegarrique, as there are in our society. But in that society, emphasis is placed on doing what is necessary so that one and others may live adequately, not on doing what is lucrative so that one may live better than others. Should it really matter that the janitor gets paid an equivalent amount of wirrs for the same amount of work that an engineer gets paid, if both are contributing to the betterment of society and are doing what is their aptitude, what they enjoy, what they want to do, and what allows them the free time they desire to pursue leisure? Not in my book. But then again, I’m not in charge.

Says Patton in her article:

It's difficult to talk about being on aid, says Matthew Williams, cofounder and vice president of the New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for nontenure-track faculty.

“We regularly hear about adjuncts on food stamps,” says Mr. Williams, who received food stamps and Medicaid himself when he taught at the University of Akron from 2007 to 2009, earning less than $21,000 a year. “This is not hyperbole and it isn't theoretical.”

Some adjuncts make less money than custodians and campus support staff who may not have college degrees. An adjunct's salary can range from $600 to $10,000 per course, according to the Adjunct Project, a crowdsourced database about adjuncts' salaries and working conditions. The national average earnings of adjunct instructors are just under $2,500 per course, according to the American Association of University Professors.
Bellegarrique levels the playing field. It doesn’t matter whether one has a degree or whether one works at a job that those with degrees may sniff at as menial. Everybody who works gets paid enough to survive and thrive and to go on into other pursuits that we might define as “bliss.” And they likely get paid for that, too. It’s Thoreau’s Walden Pond, but on a planet-wide scale.

Artsy-Fartsy Books by the Foot

Photo from

I don’t deny that we are heading into a world of digital books.

This year, I have read more digital books than I ever have, and likely will continue to read more of them. Although I do like a printed book (I must, I have more than a thousand of them) what gets me coming back to certain books again and again are the words, the story, the images that form in my mind as I read what the author has written. It’s these images – not the visceral feel of the book in my hands as the images form in my brain – that I remember. So there will be little lamentation on my part as we move into the digital era – that is if they ever can come up with a legal used ebook marketplace, since most of the books (the physical ones) I buy are used and, thusfar, all of the ebooks I’ve “bought” have been free.

But reading Michael Agresta’s article on what he deems as the future of physical books leaves me a bit cold. Throughout, he writes about the physical appearance of books, how they will evolve and how the artisinal ones – the twee ones with the cutout pages, the hand-illustrated drawings, the accordion-folded ones, the ones printed on enormous maple leaves, etc. – will come to dominate the printed world. He’s likely right. So the printed world, in the future, will likely be dead to me. Here’s what he says:
As paper books become more unusual, some will continue to buy them as collectors’ items, others for the superior sensory experience they afford. There’s reason to think this is happening already: Carl Jung’s Red Book, a facsimile edition featuring hand-painted text and illustrations, sold well in America in 2010 despite its $195 price tag. When readers believe that a book is special in itself, as an object, they can be persuaded to pay more.
Bookshelves will survive in the homes of serious digital-age readers, but their contents will be much more judiciously curated. The next generation of paper books will likely rival the art hanging beside them on the walls for beauty, expense, and “aura”—for better or for worse.
I can buy off on the more heavily curated collections. And I’ll certainly buy off on the for better or worse part because nowhere in his little article does he talk about the readability of these printed wonders. Maybe some of them are wonderfully written. But it’s my sad experience that with most of these artisinal books, the focus beams in so much on the design of the book that the designers and authors, at the end, kinda forget they’re supposed to be telling a good story.

Good story physical books? They’re dinosaurs, according to Agresta:
There’s a whole class of paper books we haven’t discussed yet—the paratextually unremarkable, unimaginatively designed rows of paperbacks and late-edition hardcovers that line most of our shelves. These are headed for the same place most manufactured objects go eventually—the scrapheap.
Maybe I’m exhibiting sour grapes. The only artsy-fartsy books I’m familiar with are the ubiquitous pop-up books which, in my experience, are just more trouble than they’re worth. The writing in them may be excellent, but they’re so expensive and so fragile that you hardly dare read them lest the fall apart like a fragile Japanese kite in your hands. And I have to worry about the gimmickry he describes with bated breath for the coming digital revolution:
Hypertext, embedded video, and other undreamt-of technologies will give rise to new poetic, rhetorical, and narrative possibilities. But a literary culture that has defined itself through paper books for centuries will surely feel the loss as they pass away.
If they add to the story, that’s great. But if they take me off into endless little culdesacs that mire the story down, then they’re little more than distractions. We may yet see purely digital books take advantage of the technology, but not until we have a crop of authors who understand the pitfalls that hyperlinks and embedded video and other gimmickry present to author and reader. Again, I look to DVDs as models. The full movie is there, with extras. But the extras don’t intrude as you’re reading the full story. They supplement, they do not supplant. Books – digital or printed – aren’t meant to be commodities added to or subtracted from just for the sake of some new-fangled technological advancement, like those sold by Books by the Foot. Books ought to tell good stories. End of rant.

I Hope His Supper is Still Hot

Maurice Sendak is a genius in that he knew what his audience wanted and gave it to them.

As much as some children may quail at the thought of monsters, what little kid wouldn't want to sail away from hom and find himself king of a bevy of ferocious beasts, set to ply to his every whim and powerless to stop him from leaving when his anger was spent and his supper lay waiting.

I remember reading "Where the Wild Things Are" as a kid, and wanting to start a wild rumpus of my own. Along with Crockett Johnson's "The Purple Crayon," this was the book I most wanted to re-enact, for real, and prayed nightly that my room would transform itself into a forest with that eerie moon peering at me through the branches.

That is what vivid writing does -- it skips the brain and goes right to the soul.

I hope Mr. Sendak, wherever he is now, is on his own wild rumpus. But comforted knowing that his supper is waiting. And still hot.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

More Goals

I have two distinct goals that are linked not specifically to this class, but to the work I'm doing as an online adjunct instructor at BYU-Idaho.

The first goal has to do with educational and professional development.

Utah State University is close to offering an online doctorate in technical communication. I recently (2009) finished their masters program, and am considering furthering my education in this arena. The doctorate program requires a teaching component. Because of my family situation, however -- three young kids to raise -- moving to Logan for this venture is problematic. The program directors at Utah State have shown flexibility and forward thinking, however, so I'm going to write a proposal this semester and submit it by the end of the year (sooner if possible), to USU to see if they'd consider a hybrid program in which I take their online doctorate classes and teach not at USU but at BYU-Idaho. This would require some research on similar programs and some coordination between the two universities that I would have to explore.

The second goal has to do with more of the nuts and bolts of the courses I'm teaching. While the information provided by Online Instruction and in the individual courses is helpful, it's scattered and not easy to swim through if a new instructor (such as myself) wants a one-stop shopping spot for information on a new course to be taught. With my wife's help, my goal is by the end of the year to put together two ebooks that I and future FDENG 201 and ENG 106 instructors could use to familiarize ourselves with the course. The ebooks would consist of all course materials, rubrics, articles, syllabus and sample schedule so at a glance an instructor can tell what's going to happen in the course over the semester. The ebook could also be of benefit to the students so they too have a one-stop shop in which to find pertinent information. The nature of online courses implies that we work on the fly, and with the advent of ereaders and tablet computers, having the information in one portable format not necessarily tied to the internet would be helpful.

UPDATE: Second goal is scratched, or at least put off for a while. Radical changes coming to the course next semester. So I offer a substitute goal:

I have had students in the past express interest/beg for more visual aspects to these online courses. I've made it a habit to find TED talks, powerpoint presentations, etc., that tie in with the weekly lessons, but that has happened only sporadically. My goal for 201 this semester, then, is to find some kind of visual accompaniment for each week's lesson and to present it as part of the weekly discussion.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Purple Squirrel Doesn't Stand Out

A few caveats here: I'm a Wally personality. You know Wally, from Scott Adams' Dilbert comic strip. He believes, among other things, that God created the world because he hates people and that coffee tastes better if you stir it with your finger. He prefers inertia to action. And thought I do a hell of a lot more work than Wally does because I actually enjoy what I do and want to keep on getting paid to do it, I've got to admit that when it comes to job-seeking and career advice, I'm more likely to turn to the likes of Wally, Dr. Peter Hull, and Stanley Bing than earnest go-getters like Michael Junge.

There will be many who like this book. That's fine. I'm not one of them.

I guess I'm more of a fatalist/realist who sees more truth in the works of Barbara Ehrenreich when it comes to finding jobs in modern America. I went through a stage of underemployment starting on April Fools Day 2005 (it lasted for just over a year) so I'm not just whistling Dixie when it comes to this review. Junge is very keen on helping you find a job with a Fortune 500 company and offers some sound career advice, but I've got to admit the advice he offers isn't all that extraordinary -- I've read similarly powerful stuff in ehow articles. So I'm glad I got this book for free.

The book lacks a certain professionality, which surprised me, considering how much Junge insists we put our best foot forward. There are myriad copy editing mistakes that a geek like me notices instantly. And there's a certain lack of humanity throughout the book. Junge doesn't even explain the title -- which despite its clear meaning in the recruiting world, tells the average reader nothing because we're not able to marvel at the jargon. A Purple Squirrel, for the uninitiated, is a job description written so narrowly it's difficult to find the right candidate to fit it. Junge never explains the term and only uses it once, in the conclusion. Where he could have use the term to add some personality to the book as a whole, he leaves it as an opportunity wasted.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Package that Niche!

I’m here to say that ebooks may be the best thing to hit publishing since, well, mass publishing was invented.

And I don’t mean in the sense of opening up publishing avenues to any schlub with a story to tell – though that is certainly to our advantage as well – but I do mean in the sense that we as writers can get a feel for what exists out there, quality-wise, as we assess our own writing and compare it to what is getting published traditionally, what is being published electronically, and what is being put into the vanity press that is the ebook put out by the common man without a publisher, without quality control and, frankly, without much of a chance to succeed unless a mass following develops and forces that author into a wave of goodwill.
Yes I’m babbling a bit. But it’s good babbling.

You may recall earlier my review of Bob Brooks’ Tales from the Glades of Ballymore, an ebook I recently acquired for free. A good read all the way around – so it stuns me that it’s not been published by a traditional publishing house. Brooks may have his own reasons for going the electronic route, and for that I applaud him. He’s inspired me to do the same with Yershi the Mild this summer.

I also recently read Boyd Brent’s Diary of A Superhero Kid, and, frankly, didn’t think much of it. Boyd has published other books and, by the looks of the Superhero Kid, wants to ride on Jeff Kinney’s coattails into the kiddie lit market. Can’t say I see him succeeding.

So what makes the two authors and their books different? Both are, in my opinion, solidly written (though Brent has an odd mix of British spellings with Americanisms throughout, so he needed some better editing along the way).

First, I think the difference is a question of niche.

With the success of Harry Potter and the Wimpy Kid books, everyone is trying now to get into those niches. The good will rise while the bad will settle rather quickly to the bottom of the pool. Without illustrations – the strength of Kinney’s work – Brent doesn’t have much of a chance of standing out.

Brooks, on the other hand, hits his niche nicely and in a very quiet way succeeds in convincing his readers that his stuff is worth the time to read.

Then there’s also a difference in packaging.

Brooks teams up with a wonderful illustrator – how he managed that I don’t quite understand, but kudos to him for doing so. His writing is good enough he doesn’t need illustrations, but the illustrations augment the overall ebook package. Brent, whose book screams for illustrations, tries to get by with an acceptable cover and then abandons the reader with blocks of text and nothing else. A successful ebook, then, needs what a good print book needs: Packaging.

So that gets me to thinking: How can I get some illustrative packaging with Yershi the Mild? A back-burner thought is to have my kids read the book and to have my oldest, an aspiring cartoonist, help with the illustrations. That’s one approach. Maybe a bit twee and trite, but it’s an approach. I need something to spookify the entire spooky package in order for this book to sail.

Pants, Flying by the Seat of the

We had our first teacher group meeting tonight for English 106, and I've come away with some mixed feelings.

First of all, the course is, for the instructors, much more of a "fly by the seat of your pants" kind of thing than I anticipated. That's both good and bad. That lets us do a little customization within the curriculum, but it also means that YIKES things are still not really all that concrete there are NO rubrics yet for the essays the students have to write and YOWZA there's a lot left up to us as instructors to help fix things up with our students.

Pray for a litle curricular freedom and boy do you get it.

Our TGL said that this iteration of the course is just coming out of Beta and that it probably should have stayed in Beta a while longer. But no matter. Forge on ahead we will, yes? And talk like Yoda we will as well too, hmm hmmm hmmmmm. I wanted a challenge. And I'm getting it.

Is that why they picked me for this course? Because I'm so laid back and flexible? Or am I like Maverick, and prone to thinking that everything I say is so damn dumb that I just might as well roll with the punches and see what happens when Chief Joseph decides I've smoked too much tobacco?