Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How Do They Find the Time?

Clay Shirky, in his book “Here Comes Everybody,” makes a great deal of the amateur, volunteer effort that goes constantly into creating Wikipedia, the online Encyclopedia of Everything.

Thing is, it’s been done before. 

I’m currently reading Simon Winchester’s "The Professor and the Madman," subtitled “A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” Therein, Winchester traces the history of the OED and how it came about. 

Winchester recounts the story of Richard Chenevix Trench, Anglican archbishop, dean of Westiminster, and poet who proposed, in 1857, that a new dictionary in which every word ever spoken in English be compiled. Here’s what he has to say, by way of Winchester. See if any of it sounds familiar: 

The undertaking of the scheme, he said, was beyond the ability of any one man. To peruse all of English literature – and to comb the London and New York newspapers and the most literate of the magazines and journals – must be instead “the combined action of many.” It would be necessary to recruit a team – moreover, a huge one – probably comprising of hundreds and hundreds of unpaid amateurs, all of them working as volunteers. 

The audience murmured with surprise. Such an idea, obvious though it may sound today, had never been put forward before. But then, some members said as the meeting was breaking up, it did have some real merit. It had a rough, rather democratic appeal. It was an idea consonant with Trench’s underlying thought, that any grand new dictionary ought to be itself a democratic product, a book that demonstrated the primacy of individual freedoms, of the notion that one could use words freely, as one liked, without hard and fast rules of lexical conduct.
I’m sure I’m not the only one to connect these dots, but it certainly is fascinating to think of. The time and effort and volunteer zeal was certainly there to help the OED go from idea to finished yet evolving product, just as with Wikipedia today. And the OED has its critics in that they say it is not as democratic as many would think – but the same can be said of Wikipedia.

It’s fascinating to think of volunteers scattered all over the English-speaking world making contributions to the OED. And they kind of hit a scatter plot as Shirky describes in his book – a handful of contributors add a pile of contributions, while many, many others just add a few.

Humans are an amazingly consistent species, no matter the technology used.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why -- So Far -- I'm Sticking with Blogger

The Internet has the attention span of a caffeine-buzzed road-runner with diarrhea. 

I say that with a lot of affection, because the Internet is just what it is: Living in the moment (except for those nerds over at the Wayback machine) and always certain, absolutely certain, like some moronic, love-struck 14-year-old, that a Better Life TM is just around the corner. 

Today, I read about Quora and how it’s offering a blogging platform. Built-in audiences! Page vies of 30,000 plus for even timid, poopy-head writers! Come join our flock and you will achieve Level Seven of the current version of Internet Nirvana. 


Yes, places like Quora and WordPress and such are the big, shiny dwellings designed by Frenk Lloyd Wright, built by R. Buckminster Fuller and powered personally by some kind of massive lightning-bolt doohickey pedaled by Nikola Tesla himself. 

Blogger, by contrast, is the shabby little trailer house tucked away on the bad side of the tracks, far from the Great White Way of everything that is mod and groovy and hip and with it. 


Yes, there may be distinct advantages to moving from this platform to another. But most of them feel like a false economy to me. A platform is a platform on the Internet. Some platforms may come accompanied with the current shininess of absolutely now newness, but then again, so did Friendster and MySpace. I’ve got a partial novel hidden somewhere on my computer in which one of the characters sets up a protest site on MySpace. Every time I read that chapter, I think, Oh, how quaint. She might as well be communicating with her fellow protesters via telegraph. So tell me again, when the new patina of nowest blogginess wears thin, will I once again be forced to replace the VHS tapes of my blog with the DVDs of the future before, once again, some jerk brings on the Big Bad Blu-Ray of Even More Now-y Nowness? 

I have moved on, Internet-wise, of course. Back in my college days, I did have a hand-crafted personal website that the university tolerated on their servers (thanks, Wayback). I have not done much HTML since then (and I really should get back to it, but between working full-time, teaching part-time and writing part-time, I just don’t have the time any more) but I have been around.

Gay in the BSA?

Here’s something that’ll surprise you: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints already allows gay members of the church who do not engage in homosexual behavior to join and lead its chartered troops in the Boy Scouts of America. 

Does that bit about “do not engage in homosexual behavior” sound discriminatory? Think again. 

That bit is in line with church teachings on the law of chastity, which applies to both gay and straight members of the church. No fooling around outside of marriage. 

Think I’m lying?

Read it for yourself:
“If members feel same-gender attraction but do not engage in any homosexual behavior, leaders should support and encourage them in their resolve to live the law of chastity and to control unrighteous thoughts. These members may receive church callings. If they are worthy and qualified in every other way, they may also hold temple recommends and receive temple ordinances.”
Here’s the source: The church’s “Handbook 2: Administering the Church,” available publicly online.
Yes, there’s still that quibble about marriage (which the church does not support) and civil unions (which the church does support). Because of that quibble, many are going to gloss this policy change being pondered by the Boy Scouts of America and its impact on the church as problematic. Not so in officialdom. In practice, now, you’re going to deal with many, many bulletheads on both sides of the issue, as with every other divisive issue.
According to the Salt LakeTribune, the church isn’t offering an official statement until after the BSA announces any policy change, which could happen next week. But the signs are already on the wall as far as I’m concerned. Any policy change by the BSA will not impact official church participation in the BSA. Any problems are going to be on the local level – and will deserve correction from Salt Lake City.
Personally, I had no idea this church policy existed as written. I have no problem with gay scouts, or gay scout leaders, and object to those who think they’re somehow going to harm their fellow scouts or lead them down the path to total gayness. Unfortunately, I know enough about other addictions and prelidictions that scare me a hell of a lot more than the thought of my son having a gay scout leader.
Also, sometime in the past, I may have written a blog post along the lines of supporting the BSA’s anti-gay stance on the grounds that the national organization insists the phrase “morally straight” be included in the Scout Oath. Since then, I’ve been bugged by something: The BSA also insists on Scouts being physically strong – and I’m lacking in that department (anyone who knows me knows I have the same overall shape as a Krispy Kreme doughnut). There are many Scouts and Scout leaders who fit – tightly, with many sucking in of guts – in that same boat. The BSA has made strides to emphasize physical fitness, including banning some Scouts and leaders from some activities if they do not meet physical fitness requirements. Seeing as current LDS Church policy doesn’t forbid fatties as well as gays from serving and holding temple recommends, I don’t see why I should support such a stance either.
It’ll be interesting to see what the BSA announces, if anything, next week, and what the subsequent response will be from the LDS Church. I am, however, extremely optimistic for both bits of news.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Chapter Twelve: Where the Farmer's Almanack is Discussed

It can’t be hard to do. 

Well, have you ever done it? 

Never needed to, as you know.

Yeah. Usually we’re stealing from the farmers. Don’t have to plant your own when you can eat what someone else has planted. 

Chaos – that’s what we’d see if animals started tending their own gardens. The humans wouldn’t stand for it. Say it’s not natural. 

But they don’t want us thievin’ either. And there’s nothing more natural than that. We don’t even know we’re stealing – we’re just looking for food and happen to find it where they’ve planted it. 

Truth to that.
Warm today.

Yes indeed. Almost too warm. 

Don’t start complaining. You were whining up a storm when we had that cold snap last January. Said you couldn’t wait for it to heat up. 

Truth to that as well. I’ll button my beak. 

Anting this afternoon? I know where there’s a good hill. 

If we go anting, it’s when I pick the hill. Your last “good hill” was red ants. Bit me from beak to butthole. 

If you planted a garden, what would you grow? 

Sweet corn. And tomatoes. 

In the near distance, a whisper that grows louder: “Ah, lord, and you’d do it all wearing bright green gardening gloves! With your twee little shovel thrust into the dirt at your feet. And you’d have on a straw hat and probably drink lemonade or strawberry water when you took a break and mopped that slanted brow of yours with your red checked handkerchief! Lawks! Look at me! I’m the crow growin’ my own sweet corn! I’ll BOTTLE some for WINTER! It’ll be PRECIOUS!” 

--CIOUS! Echoes off the canyon wall. 

Chylus and Magda perched on the wire fence, beaks agape. 

I swear that badger’s got listening-holes in every part of this wood, Magda. 

“Too right!” Aloysius shouted. “Someone’s got to keep an ear on things. Someone’s got to keep the animals acting like animals!” 

Does that someone know he’s falling into the stereotype of the anthropomorphic conniving badger?


Hah. I swear I can her him stomping away underground. You shouldn’t teas him so. 

He brings it on himself, going on like that. He knows more about what humans think of animals than the humans do. As much as he fights against the stereotypes, I’m sure somewhere in that darkness he calls home he does have a book-lined library with oak shelves and a rag rug on the floor.

Where does he get the rags then? 

Well, Ma Purdy was always short of unmentionables. 

Chylus and Magda looked at each other, beaks still agape. They cackled. 

Where he got this, I wonder? 

Chylus scratched at a book with his claw. 

No reason to wonder. Purdy’s got two or three of them in the privy. 

Ew. Do you think Aloysius dug right into the – into the pit to get this book? 

Here’s to hoping not. But no. I’ve seen him go through the door, bold as brass. Once chased Yank right out of there, with his britches down around his ankles. 

What is it then? 

Almanack. Says so right on the cover. And it’s a good one, too, or so I assume. Only the best books come with extra consonants. 

Still, what is it, then? 

Instruction book. Tells the humans what to plant and when to plant it and what to plant it next to and when to harvest it when it’s ready. Should come in handy with our upcoming endeavors. 

Endeavours, you mean. 

Yeah. Right. Should have class dripping off our pinfeathers. 

Is Aloysius going to read it for us? I’ve never got past H in the alphabet.

No, it’s me who’s going to read it. I got all the way to W. And Jarrod says the rest, well, they don’t get used much – that’s why they’re at the back of the alphabet, see. So I’ll do just fine. And he says that way we won’t plant any zucchini. Help me open it. 

Chylus and Magda pulled the tattered book open. About half of its pages were missing – it had been the one on the top of the pile in the privy. Magda weighted down one side of the book with a stone as Chylus stood on the other, frowning down at the pages in concentration. 

That’s a lot of words, Chylus. 

Chylus frowned down at the pages. 

Carrots! he shouted. Mix the seed with sand for easier planting – use sand with a color that contrasts to your local soil, and you’ll never doubt where you’ve already sown seed. I see the sense in that. We can get sand down from the creek. It’s black. The soil here is a bit tannish. Should work just fine. 

Magda looked around. 

Where will we get the carrot seed? 

This and That are working on getting the seed. 

Oh, good. 

Chylus studied the book some more. 

I’d like a hot dog. One with mustard on it. The dark mustard, not the yellow. 

Do they talk about hot dogs in the book? 

No, but here’s how to plant mustard seed. Maybe we could get This or That to get us a mustard packet. We could plant that. 

And the pigs will provide the hot dogs, no doubt. 

I’m all hungry now. 

Always are, greedy one. 

Magda started to peck half-heartedly at a stink-beetle ambling by. 

Or a pretzel with cheese sauce. Dripping with cheese sauce. 

Can’t stand the salty bits, though. The bettle aimed its rear at Magda’s face and sprayed. 

Sleeping outside the nest tonight, you are, Chylus said. His eyes fell to the book. 

He read about corn and detasseling corn and keeping the earwigs out of your corn. He recalled the bitter taste of earwig – but you ate what you had to eat when the going was tough. Earwigs saw him through as a child when there was no sweet corn about, and in Chylus’ home nest, you didn’t ask for corn when momma brought you earwigs, or she’d bring you dirt the next time. 

Says here to keep the slugs off your tomatoes, you should put out shallow pans of beer. The slugs drink the beer and drown. 

I saw a squirrel drink some of the beer the Hastings put out in their garden last summer, Magda said. He like to fell out of the tree a dozen times. But he never drowned. 

Drowning works only for the slugs, I guess.

I could go for a dozen slugs right now. 

Yeah, but you also smell like a stink-beetle. You’ve never been a picky one. 

This from the bird who eats only male shrews. 

Oh, Chylus said. Now I’m really hungry.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Forget Google – the real scourge of the Internet is the ubiquitously unhelpful Internet forum. 

Anyone who has googled any kind of technical problem knows what I mean: Everyone out there has an answer to your question. Almost. Because your question, despite the commonality of things like campers and video cards, appears to be unique. And what these experts suggest in these forums almost – but not quite – solves your little problem. 

They always want more information and when you provide it, they bring up something else that’s vital – but that they forgot to mention in the first place.

They always assume you know more than you do and when you reveal you don’t, they mock you. 

In short, they’re just like you or I: Morons.

A few years ago, I sought an easier way to empty the fresh water tank of my camper rather than running it through the system into the grey water tank. I didn’t want to have to haul the camper somewhere to dump the fresh water – but it had to go before winter. 

Making an appeal to the camper manual first was futile. Oh, it mentioned a freshwater drain – but merely in passing, on the assumption that I knew where it was. Not so. That is why I turned to the manual – to find out where the drain was. 

I’ll go to the Internet. Surely, someone else must own a model of this mass-manufactured camper and can tell me where the fresh water drain plug is. 

Now, I tend to be a lurker in these forums, based on the silly assumption that since I am not the first to ask such a question, there’s no need to ask it since the answer should already be there. 

So I google. 

And enter the world of camper forums, which like all forums, might as well bear the inscription that hangs above Dante’s version of Hell: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here. 

Question posed (by someone else): I want to drain the fresh water from my [brand and model of camper exactly like mine] without running it through to the grey water tank. How can I do that? 

Answer: There’s a valve you can open up to drain the fresh water tank directly. 

Question: Great. Can you tell me where it is? 

Answer: It’s by the fresh water tank. 

Question: I’ve looked by the tank. I can’t find it. Can you tell me exactly where it is? 

Answer (by someone else): You don’t know where the valve is? How do you winterize your system without knowing? 

Question: I’ve been running the water through the system to the grey water tank. 

Answer (by another someone else): You don’t have to do that. There’s valve you can open up by the fresh water tank to drain it without running the water to the grey water tank. 

Question: I know that. But I can’t find it. 

Answer: Just open the valve and drain your tank. It’ll save you a lot of time. 

Question: I would, but I can’t find the valve. 

Answer: Well, on [brand and model of camper different from mine] it’s [specific location]. I can’t help you on [your brand of camper]. Look in your manual. But it’s usually by the fresh water tank. 

And so on. 

I may have exaggerated a bit here, but those of you familiar with any kind of forum are nodding your head. You’ve read these kinds of things before. No real helpful answers, but a lot of recrimination. 

I eventually found the drain valve after removing various panels in the camper near the fresh water tank until I spotted and opened the valve. And, in trolltastic fashion, I did not go back to the forums to offer up the exact location of the drain valve in my camper because I no longer needed to know the answer. 

Sometimes, however, people who figure things out do go back to the forum to enlighten the masses. This brings me to the world of technology forums. 

Example: Right now, I’m fighting a mini-battle with a new graphics card that is having a little problem integrating with my computer. I solved one problem on my own the other night, noting that one of the cords from the new power supply I bought to meet the specs of the sound card wasn’t plugged in correctly. Still, there are other issues that right now has the card sitting on my desk. I think I know the path forward, but I turn to the Internet for guidance. 

Problem is, no one seems to have the exact same problem I do – dual monitors blink on and off before Windows boots; I hear no beeps nor have an indication that the computer is doing anything but blinking. 

First come the spec hunters. They want to know details on every component ever attached to your computer. They want to help, of course – one item out of spec can cause big problems (but would not identify, however, a loose connection that allowed, in my case, my computer to function but the card to be starved of power). 

While the spec hunters are chewing on your numbers, in come the fearmongers: Your card might be dead out of the box. Your computer – despite being brand new – might be out of date. You’re using – shudder – Windows 8? 

They’re typically followed by the driver demons, who insist you haven’t installed the proper drivers even though you have – and even though your manufacturer offers you two different ways you can download two different versions of the same driver, identifying both as the latest and greatest. Nevermind that my problems from last night cropped up only after I tried to install the latest drivers. 

They both stir fear until the spec hunters come back and either give a thumbs up/thumbs down to your configuration, then either join the fear mongers or transform themselves into the tubby guru, insisting you try some obscure computer wonk trick to check settings, operate in “safe mode” or some other trick that you, bumbling computer user, have no idea how to tackle. And asking for help will get you a “google it” response which, of course, leads you into another forum where, like the hapless employees at call centers, the spec hunters there ask again for your numbers while the fear mongers lay in wait, hoping to pee in your electronic Cheerios. 

My problem is trust: I have no idea if these people are giving legitimate advice or if they’re purposely trolling the noobz for teh lulz. Given our current Internet culture, both – and everything that falls in between – are possible.

Then come my favorites: The gloriously victorious OPs, who solve their problem by either whacking their computer with a hammer or – and I literally read this one the other night – by pounding their heads on their computer desk until the vibrations magically made everything work just as expected. 

Hoping tonight I turn into one of those (if you’re reading this, it’s because I did eventually succeed. Or not.

Taking on Teh Google in the Wrong Way

There are plenty of people out there leery of Google, and for some good reasons. Google is terrible when it comes to preserving userprivacy. Google, like many multinational companies, uses whatever strategy it can find to pay as little tax as possible. Google has done some questionable data scraping and manhandling of recalcitrant and come of a Federal Trade Commission investigation unfined but not smelling so rosy. 

But Harper’s Magazine Publisher John MacArthur’s Google takedown ranks as about the most awkward anti-Google bomb I’ve read since Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid.”

Throughout his short rant, MacArthur offers up weird ad hominem attacks, reveals he’s about the worst googler out there and, worst of all, sneers that Google (and the Internet, terms which he also seems to confuse and use interchangeably) is “just a bigger version of your neighborhood public library,” which, of course, the Internet is. 

Of course, everyone on the Internet is just going ape over his comments. 

The Atlantic’s Rebecca Greenfield comically takes on MacArthur’s poor googling skills here, including Google’s supposed suppression of a French company’s ad-blocking software which, of course, shows up everywhere in Google search results, along with many, many other ad-blocking software programs, some free, some not. 
BuzzFeed takes on The Huffington Post’s habit of content scraping for web hits and SEO ranking as they steal wind from’s lengthy article on the history of American video arcades here, taking on “teh Google” in a much more intelligent fashion than does MacArthur. Yes, Google aids and abets content scraping. But MacArthur’s screed does little to build sympathy for Harper’s or any other dinosaur wailing about the impact of Internet culture especially when (as you’ll shortly see) he devolves his screed into playground name-calling.

(Conversely, folks at The Verge behaved oddly when they asked HuffPo to take their post down – does it really matter if visitors get to The Verge via HuffPo or some other source? Will they contact me to take down this link? Hardly. I’m a miniscule fish in a gigantic ocean. HuffPo is a big-time predator.)

Real-life Nyan Cat might agree with MacArthur -- RLNC wanted fame and comfort -- but mostly comfort. He got the fame, thanks to the Google posting his escape from animal control, but he got none of the comfort. He's probably still on the streets. Or dead. 

(Some take on his comments less effectively as does Brian Doherty at, who dismisses MacArthur’s rant with an ad hominem attack of his own that left me scratching my head.) 

That leads me to MacAurthur’s own ad hominem – he dismisses the likes of Google, Yelp, Bing, and Yahoo because their names sound childish. Unlike Harper’s Magazine, of course:

Thus proceeds the infantilization of the American public, hooked more than ever on superficial, unchecked information sometimes rewritten from more reliable, though uncredited sources. It’s no coincidence that Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Yelp sound like toddler gibberish from the Teletubbies.

Whenever I hear these silly corporate names invoked with sanctimonious awe, I imagine Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Po, and Tinky-Winky singing their hit single “Teletubbies say ‘Eh-oh’ ” as they shake the change out of some two-year-old’s pocket. Come to think of it, Eric Schmidt’s new playmate, the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, bears a more than superficial resemblance to Po.

Where will it end, as the dumbing down of America accelerates and Google becomes ever more dominant? A psychoanalyst friend tells me that listening to baby talk may be gratifying up to a point, but that constant subjection to it produces unconscious rage in adults.

Yeesh. Don’t listen to these guys! They have funny names! We published Moby-Dick! So doesn’t that make you a funny-name purveyor by association?

What MacArthur is probably most upset about is that his magazine is shrinking while Teh Google (meaning the Internet) grows. Harper’s charges for most of its content – which is its right – and thus sees less Internet traffic than they would otherwise because, yes, free is the default of the Internet – which is what he should really be ranting against, and he does to a degree:

Publishers and writers are belatedly recognizing the self-defeating nature of their own free-content platforms, as advertising is dispersed through the Internet in more and more fractionalized and lower-cost quantities. But these authentic content producers have been largely complicit in their own decline by aiding and abetting the childish belief that search engines are intended to educate (as opposed to making money for their owners) and that education via the Internet can bypass the necessary struggle of reading, analyzing, and connecting texts, in depth and over time.

I have to disagree with the final point he makes in this paragraph, however. I don’t look at the Internet as a way to “bypass the necessary struggle” of putting Thought A and Thought B and Thought C together. The Internet is a great help and aid in that struggle – because of it, I and my kids have access to, yes, the world’s biggest public library, at three desktop stations in our home, as well as a growing handful of portable stations.

I don’t deny that the Internet aids and abets piracy, and that many media companies reacted poorly in throwing what they had on the web for free – perpetuating the “Internet is free” model. I have no argument with MacArthur’s quibbles there. But many out there are proving they can adapt to the new model and succeed and actually grow into new audiences because of the reach and openness the Internet offers. (And that sounds like something Harper’s needs to do desperately.) But those who are solving the problem – and even reaping the benefits of piracy – are those who are looking at this new-fangled Internetty thing and trying to figure it out, not popping out of a hole, ranting, and then going back underground, like MacArthur.

Internet Guru Clay Shirky comically pointed out, after an acquaintance’s daughter looked behind a television “for the mouse” that, in today’s Internet age, any screen without a mouse is broken. MacArthur seems to be one of those who wants the Wizard of Oz to stay behind that curtain.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Path that Rocks

For years, my wife and I have tried – and failed – to get our children to read books. 

We’ve thrust “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” into our daughter’s hands on multiple occasions, but the book always ends up, unread, back in our study, waiting to go back up on the shelf with Alsan’s other adventures. 

Same goes for E.W. Hildick’s McGurk mystery series, this time aimed at our oldest son. Always thrust in his hands. Always found unread. 

What’s wrong with these kids today, we wonder. They don’t like to read. 

Not quite. 

They love to read. We’re constantly slapping books out of their hands, at meal times, when it’s time to head out the door to school, when it’s time to go out and play, head to the movies, go to Granpa’s house or just in general do something else besides sit and read. And most of the time, they bring books with them on all these occasions. Our son even tries to smuggle books into the movies, thwarted only by the darkness and our refusal to let him bring a flashlight. 

Our daughter loves Erin Hunter’s Warrior series, to the point we trip over Warrior books literally in nearly every room of the house. Our oldest loves Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series, but also pores over a variety of non-fiction books, ranging from books on architecture to atlases. He spews facts in the way other kids spew beets. And our youngest, well, he’s the one who’ll carry books around but not necessarily read them. But he loves to be read to.

We do reading every night – guaranteed scripture study. This is good not only for their spiritual development, but also for their reading proficiency. We read aloud, we discuss and paraphrase, we ask and answer questions. And when it comes to reading scripture – or anything else for that matter – aloud, in front of a group, none of our kids have a problem with it. I guess we can be proud of that.

We must be the exception – because there are a lot of people out there worrying about reading and the skills that go with it – analysis, critical thinking, and writing. To the point they’re put together a comically complicated website on what’s called the Common Core, in which groups of experts have banded together to propose a long laundry list of objectives in language arts and math that our schools ought to be holding kids to before they get to college. 

I’m all for the standards, though I think the description of the website as comical is apt. You can’t look at the standards all in one go, for example. Nor even view the standards grouped by subject or grade. You have to read them one by one. One. By. One. And that’s annoying, despite the good the standards aim to uphold. 

Going to my state page – Idaho, in this instance, where the standards will be adopted in the 2013-14 school year – offers a better chance to read the standards without clicking through page after page after page. That’s a step in the right direction. (And to be fair, maybe the standards are there, in one package, on the Common Core main page. But it’s not clearly evident where. That’s a flaw.)

But I’ll stop nitpicking the website. 

The standards look good. They’re not outlandish, but rather well inside the realm of what I’d consider to be good readin’ and good writin’ – I’m not looking at the math standards because, hey, math standards. 

Aside from suggesting “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” I’m pleased with the reading list for readers K-5. The inclusion of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” and John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” and “The Grapes of Wrath” is also impressive for readers in the 6-12 range. 

But I go back to my own kids. Their reading habits. The fact that “good books” thrust into their hands went unread, while other books were devoured. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be stretched when we read. We should be challenged once in a while. I’ve been challenged myself – reading, just last year, for instance, a rather substantive and technically-heavy biography of Albert Einstein, plus a treatise on the hydrogen bomb, and several books on Richard Nixon.

But I chose them. I chose to read them and accepted the challenge presented. I’m also a voracious reader raised in a family of readers raising a family of readers. Others won’t have this background.
Can’t we let them pick a book they might read, because even reading is a challenge? Can we cheer for a kid who finally manages to read a book like, say, Farley Mowat’s “Lost in the Barrens,” while others successfully read “The Grapes of Wrath,” and recognize that both books were exceptionally challenging, considering the reader who tackled them? I hope so. 

So glad I’m not a teacher in K-12. But I do teach college. And I do see a need for such standards. But I also recognize that I’ve come a long way as a writer and a reader since I left high school. Since I left college. Since I earned a masters degree in English way back in 2009. 

It’s an evolution, not a final destination. But evolution has to start somewhere. Here’s to hoping we’ve got our kids going down that path of rigtheousness. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Internet News Evolution Continues Apace . . .

Mike Fourcher, writing at his blog Vouchification on Jan. 11, posts “21 Things [He] Learned Running Hyperlocal News Sites,” with some interesting bits of wisdom for anyone in the business of trying to attract and retain eyeballs on the Web. 

Full article is here. I’ll go over a few things I found interesting, from my few years’ experience working at Uncharted (and for whom I no longer work, due to time constraints). 

(Fourcher, by the way, runs some successful hyperlocal news sites in the Chicago area, and has had his share of hyperlocal bombs, also in the Chicago area. He knows from whence he speaks.) 

This one seems the most important to me:

Building an audience is getting harder. 

Competition, direct and indirect [is responsible for difficult audience-building]. Readers in 2013 have thousands of news sites to choose from, as well as social media, electronic books, and so much more. Launching a new brand and gaining mind share is getting logarithmically more difficult to do. 

Want to support yourself at least partly with ads? Get a big audience. Fast. 

20% of your consumers consume 80% of your product. Make sure that 20% is big enough.

Ultimately, there is a limited demand for the kind of news you provide. Only so many people live and work in the neighborhood. No matter how much reader development we did, those baseline numbers would not go up. 

Then, we knew that about 30% of your readers checked our site every day. Another 50% checked at least once a week. Even though we had some really dedicated readers, the pool wasn’t big enough to generate lots of ad click-throughs. 

And one more important one, but not really a mind-bending one, for anyone familiar with Clay Shirky and his work: 

The barriers to entry are virtually non-existant in news now. 

With a  free WordPress template and a sense of what’s interesting to readers, you can create a news site that attracts thousands of readers. It may not be any good, but it will attract readers. Regardless of whether they are making money – or even selling ads – these sites are competitors for local news eyeballs. They make it necessary for other local news sites to adopt their methods, because without readers there’s no advertising. 

That’s something that wouldn’t surprise any Clay Shirky fan – he was saying that years ago. 

Most interesting thing Fourcher said, however, is that he believes evolution of the news online into something resembling viability is going to be a slow process, and that what we see now will probably be what it’s like in that distant future, as he predicts no great innovations, but many iterations of the same old thing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mormon Kitsch

Since the beginning of the new year, through various avenues on Facebook, I’ve been exposed to what I suppose I can call Mormon culture on the Internet. 
Haven’t seen any of it yet? 
Truthfully, you’re not missing much. 
I think part of it is that it’s really Utah Mormon culture, not necessarily Mormon culture in a more general sense. Utah Mormon culture is distinct in that there are a spate of minor and major Mormon celebrities, businesses, businesspeople, institutions and such that, at least in my neck of the woods (and I’m not that far off the beaten Mormon path, mind you) are at best maybe somewhat kinda familiar but at worst are damn obscure. 
Take Jessie Funk. Until I became friends with the Middle-Aged Mormon Man and started listening to The Cultural Hall, I’d never heard of Jessie Funk. At all. 
Thanks to Mormon culture on Facebook, this is what I know about her:  
  1. Her website has some funky font-related metadata that somehow is showing up right away, first paragraph.
  2. She once wore a shirt without sleeves in a photoshoot, and everyone either got uber pharisaical or uber progressive about whether or not it was appropriate for this “role model” to appear in such an outfit.
  3. She also likes to “hang out with young humans!” a motto that is going to go as far as Mitt Romney did in convincing people that Mormons are not, indeed, intelligent robots. 
That’s it. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a Jessie Funk song. Maybe I have when the born-again Mormon stuff plays on the local radio station Sunday mornings, but I couldn’t pick her out of a police lineup. I know I’ve never attended one of her motivational seminars. And I’m thrilled as punch to think that her “favorite role in life is that of adored wife and mother to three.” Reminds me that my role as chairman of the MegaHuge Corporation is second only to my calling as a home teacher. 
Note to you rabid Jessie Funk fans out there: Please note I have said nothing derogatory about Jessie Funk, her music, her personality, her looks, her lifestyle, nor that sleeveless dress thing. Okay, maybe I’ve said a little. But I have not said I hate her music or everything she stands for. So don’t go completely ape in the comments. 
I know, as Mormons, that we’re supposed to be in the world, but not of the world. Guess I’m sayin’ I’m pretty happy for the most part to stay out of the Mormon Culture world as well. 
Then there’s the Cultural Hall, a podcast series with a Facebook presence. I’ve listened to two of them. First was on some Mormon mommy-blogger whose name I don’t even remember because the podcast really didn’t have a point at all. I actually got to argue this a bit with one of the podcast’s creators because, snotty soul that I am, I posted the equivalent of Homer Simpson’s Bor-ING! on the post for the podcast. We exchanged a few suggestions, laughed, cried, and became fast friends. Or something like that. 
Then I listened to one featuring Glen Rawson, who also appears by name on our local pop-Mormon culture radio show in the Sunday am. Him, I recognize, because of the over-the-top, maudlin delivery where every little snippet of church history is filled with drama or at least the illusion of that little guy flying around the big top. He was actually much better in the podcast than in his radio series, since he dropped about 99% of the drama. Still, I don’t see going back to the Cultural Hall any time soon. Again, not because it isn’t good or worthwhile or anything, but simply because it’s not my cuppa. 
I’ve had better luck with Mormon cinema, though I confess it’s been years since I’ve seen any new films I enjoyed “The Best Two Years” for its honest portrayal of missionary life and appreciate “The RM” for its humor in looking at post-mission culture and poking fun at Mormon popular culture. And I love it when the MoTab gets all funky. Like this: 
Now I don't mind if other people like this stuff. That's fine. Just not for me.

2013: The Year of Autoplay

I’ve already been moaning about this phenomenon of websites automatically playing videos as soon as your browser hits the page – often before what you really want is even loaded. 
Here are three more sites hitting the blacklist as far as I’m concerned, because they’re doing this heinous thing:
  1. CNN*
  2. The Weather Channel
  3. Idaho State Journal
  4. (Late entry) Local News 8 
Admittedly, the latter is not a great loss as I am not often interested in Pocatello news. But still, I don’t want to hear from the ISJ publisher about some new car-selling service they’re offering. At all.
For TWC, at least their autoplay videos aren’t in-house ads (for the moment) but I still want the option to play the video only if I want it played. TWC is launching into them automatically. Bad, bad website. 
As for CNN, they don’t have autoplay everywhere, but I note it’s creeping in more and more. 
How annoying is autoplay? Go here. 
(So it’s not that bad; I just put that together for effect. But it’s that bad in my ears. I don’t want to hear it, folks, so please stop.)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Do You Want News With That?

First of all, I’m not sure which is the biggest news here:

  1. PrintSignal Corporation is offering diners the chance to read breaking news stories ON THEIR REGISTER RECEIPTS. 
  2. PrintSignal Corporation thinks their printed news bits will not only compete with smartphones at the dining table but also encourage diners to break away from their smartphones and engage in news-based tabletop conversation.
  3. A restaurant called the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington DC, which signed on to the PrintSignal Corporation deal, charges $16.50 for a dozen jumbo shrimp and $51.90 for two dozen oysters. (I’m not the only one agog at the tally on the receipt itself; Andrew Beaujon at Poynter says whoever bought the meal on this receipt “really knows how to live.”)
The competing with smartphones thing comes straight from the PrintSignal (another corporation with utter disregard for proper spacing between words) press release, viz:
The printed updates have several advantages in this venue over the smartphone, providing access to the news without people becoming absorbed in their devices and at the same time contributing to table conversation and interaction.
Even better, the quote in the release from Kathy Wholley, Director of Advertising & Communications for Domtar, the paper company that’s jumped right on the bandwagon here to become the first paid advertiser in this newsy, table-top conversationy venture:
Just like the Old Ebbit Grill has long been influential in Washington, so has paper. And just like the presidents, dignitaries and celebrities who continue to dine in the Old Ebbitt, this project will help educate and entertain customers, stimulating conversation and showing one of the reasons paper continues to be so vital.
I’ll allow yourself a moment to dig out of the public-relations crapola* to consider all of this.

Yes, I like a thing to read when I eat out. Most of the time, it’s a greasy copy of the local paper that other diners have slopped their secret sauce and French fry grease on, or one of those little trivia-based newsletter thingies that entrepreneurial saps put out at local fast-food joints. And, yes, both are filled with advertisements.

And no, this is not a screed against violating the sanctity of the cash register receipt with something as crass as advertising (or something a little less crass: news) because the only things cash register receipts are good for are checking to make sure the grocery store didn’t’ double-bill me for something (and I confess this is my wife’s job, because I don’t care) and providing handy bookmarks if a receipt and a book needing a placeholder exist in the same bit of space-time.

I just don’t need more register tape.

Kmart already gives you three receipts as long as your arm when you buy something as simple as a package of gum. Their receipts bleed with legalese, credit card offers, survey requests and other marketing mumbo-jumbo that typically gets tossed out with the bathwater. And those trivia newsletters, while entertaining, rarely leave the restaurant with me, and I can’t recall visiting a single advertiser in them, though I have to admire the chutzpah of the “Hello, Ladies” folks who advertise their permanent cosmetics in them. (Obviously, the Old Ebbitt Grill wouldn’t allow such lowbrow advertising on their register tape.)

Of course, it’s hard to imagine diners at the Old Ebbitt Grill shopping at Kmart – folks who don’t blink at $50.00 oysters aren’t going to shop at a failing big-box discounter – so maybe there is an entire network of news-hungry people who are going to want to scrutinize faded and curled register tape, harking back to the era of the old stock ticker, in the hope of catching the latest news before they rush back to their smartphones so they can get actual content. Though this is the bite-sized yippety yap age, so maybe just a sentence or two will suffice, no matter the presentation.

The press release, however, has great entertainment value. You have the company hyping a dubious product, the overeager first advertiser, The overeager content provider and the delusional first customer already inflated with his or her own self-importance.

*(And there’s more of it, from the AP’s Sue Cross, Senior Vice President for Business Development and Partherships, Americas: “It’s a creative idea and we’re always happy to see novel new ways to give consumers the most up-to-date and most accurate news.”; and from David Moran, who wins the prize of Least Interesting Title in this press release since he’s the mere Managing Director of the Old Ebbitt Grill, who says “We’ve got thousands of news-hungry Washingtonians coming to lunch, so we’re giving The Latest News a shot. If this works at the Old Ebbitt, it just might sweep across the world.”)

You'll never see people this emotional about a receipt.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A New Start to an Old Novel: Doleful Creatures

NOTE: I've started a novel called Doleful Creatures several times since high school, but never have gotten far with it. This time, I think I might have an approach and some ideas that'll work. I'm not ordinarily a fan of multiple narrators, but maybe I can make this work.

Doleful Creatures

© 2013 Brian Davidson

But 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 places: and her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged.

Isaiah 13:21-22

Chapter One: Where I Set the Rules

Know this, Jarrod. I will not sing.

I will not wear a twee waistcoat, nor allow any damn bird to fly about my head or perch on my back as I work.

I will not say things like ‘Oh my paws and whiskers.’

I will not scamper.

I will not – I absolutely refuse – to listen if she sings.

If provoked – and being approached with a hat or bonnet or shoes to wear is provocation enough – I will bite, and draw blood.

“I understand,” Jarrod said. “But we thank you for your help. It is essential.”

He left, tail flicking a moonbeam shadow across the grass as he ducked under the barbed-wire fence. Soon all I could hear were the crickets, the slight breeze ruffling the leaves.

I stared in his direction.


That, directed at me.

I have no stake in whether Purdy Farm thrives or dies, no matter what Jarrod says. That little busybody. Bossing folks around as if he weren’t a – well, as if he weren’t what he was.

Those of us who lived in field and wood tried not to think of it. Tried not to think of Jarrod and his ilk, living as they do. The more simple-minded or lazy among us might joke, staring into the dim lights that were Purdy Farm, smelling the smells, catching a whiff of the warmth on a cold winter night, that living on the farm is the life.

And maybe it was.

I was not about to find out.

For a moment, I considered running after him in the dark, stepping on that tail, stopping his march. Telling him I had changed my mind. That I would not cooperate.

But that’s how they get you. They convince you to go with them, to see the sights, and, piteous as things are, try to convince you you’re wrong. Forgetting, of course, that we in the wild live as we do in bare holes filled with what grass and straw we can find, not hand-hewn tables, cushions before the fireplace, barrels of brown ale and slabs of bacon in the cellars. We know piteous. And we like it. What do we care if the apes are in discomfort, in disarray?

I won’t say balderdash or poppycock.


That may be as close as I get to the apes’ expectation of we wild folk. Who do not call ourselves wild folk because this is just how we live, it is just who we are, not because we have no skills in carpentry or sewing or bricklaying or distilling, but because we live as we do because that’s how we live.


The lot of them.

Jarrod dares tell me it is a good life. And, when Ma Purdy and the young ‘uns were there too, a blessed life.

Tell that to the pigs. And the chickens. And the beef cattle. Tell it to the carrots and cabbages.

Blessed life indeed.

We understood that part, of course. Meals have to come from somewhere. And though we didn’t talk about this part much, we knew sometimes that somewhere was us. I am not shy to say I saw a sister of mine eaten by a fox. Nor shy to say that my father did not die of old age, smoking a pipe before a roaring fire, wearing slippers and a robe and a silk fez with a tassel on top. Two wolves shat out pieces of him someplace probably far away.

Blessed life. Fah.

Jarrod has ideas. He reads books for the same reason the apes write them – because life is rendered boring by comfort. He believes apes and beasts once had a magical understanding that allowed them to live side by side as friends. I’ve seen enough chicken carcasses in the midden – nibbled on too many of them myself – to believe such rot.


Rot. That’s a word the apes expect us to know.

One more thing. I expect you think I’m a badger. Grumpy and angry and – damnable word – curmudgeonly. Yet possessed of a heart of gold and a keen brain that, at the end, will mean the salvation of Purdy Farm and those who live there.

Well, I am a badger. You are right there. And I am grumpy and angry – because that is our nature.

But I am not a curmudgeon.

I give not a fig for the salvation of Purdy Farm. Whether the farm lives or dies, I will find food. I will find shelter. I will likely find death at the claws and teeth or beak of some other beast who, too, lives without knowing what are these apes who live in the hovel on the other side of the wood and the creek.

Fig. Another of those ape-words.

My heart – while not painted black – has little room for else but me and mine. And my brain, though keen, does not ken the ways of the apes, nor does it care to learn them.


Damn. I may as well have a waistcoat on, using words like that.

It’s Jarrod’s fault. He speaks to us that way and because there is general animosity and hidden inferiority between those who live on the farm and those who live in the wi – those who live as we do, where we choose to live, farm or not, wild or not – we pick up the affectations of speech.

I do not even know how many apes live at Purdy Farm. Nor do I care. Nor do I understand why Jarrod does, other than to think he is as soft in the head as he is soft in the beak.

He tried to eat me as a child, I think. Or at least his father did. But his beak was soft and could not penetrate the ruff of fur at my neck. I have lived to tell many tales, though you will not catch me telling them ‘round a fire, or with a candlestick held in my hand or at my elbow at some damnable three-legged table carved with leaves and wildflowers.

I leave that for the books Jarrod reads. And I squat in my burrow in the darkness. Which I choose not to curse because it is not the dark’s fault it is here.

Chapter Two: Where Someone Else Sets the Stage

I am Lark.

I am a sparrow, because you expect it. The badger told me to tell you that, though I forget why.

He also wants me to tell you that he has no name. He is a badger. That is enough, he says.

But I have a name. It is Lark.

You expect me to be flighty and stupid, because I am a small, common bird. The badger tells me this also. But, he says, can a creature that can fly through the air, find food in the dead of winter, nest in the treetops, be stupid? No, the badger says. No.

But I am flighty.

I do fly.

Because I fly Jarrod has given me a task. That is to tell you where we live. To give you the lay of the land. I will try. Though I know the lay of the air much better.

Where the warm air rises with the sun is Purdy Farm. To fly across the fields, fifteen seconds, thirty feet above the ground. To fly across the yard and house, two. Further along, where the cool breezes emerge from the canyon, the creek. And on the other side, the woods where the winds are erratic and the insects plentiful.

I live in a stand of beeches near the canyon mouth – the badger tells me to move because beeches are expected.

They are convenient, nothing more. And tall.

The badger himself lives on a mound where the creek cuts a wide U near the farm, taking a bite out of the fields, preserving a bit of forest over the flat land. Jarrod, he lives in the barn.

I like the barn. It is full of holes and deeds and striped shadows and it smells of old urine and sour milk.

Nearby is a road. On the road, trucks. I can outfly them, and they smell of burning. Purdy has a truck, nestled up under a roof near the house. He doesn’t use it much, and when he does, it takes him a while to get it going and it belches blue smoke as it rattles along.

He has three and a half cows – that is one of Jarrod’s jokes; I will let him explain it to you. There is a tired dog, a family of cats. A pig. A donkey. A clutch of chickens, and rabbits that once lived in a pen but now live wild on the edge of the garden.

There, below, Purdy himself. Asleep in a hammock – it is a kind of nest the apes use, suspended low above the grass between two trees.

You are a magnificent flier.

Chapter Three: Paws on Solid Ground

You have met the badger. And Lark, I’m afraid. I’ll catch her and eat her some day. And not regret it. I’ve eaten many sparrows.

I don’t say it to be boastful. Well, a little boastful.

Okay, very boastful.

And that’s the shame of it – the badger would have told you to expect vanity from me, the cat.

I am a pretty cat, am I not; now that we have established I am vain. And useful. But useful in a way that’s useful to cats, not to the apes. Why, they used to love it when I roamed their upstairs landing, miouing loudly in the mornings.

“Good kitty,” they said, patting my head. “Who needs a cock to crow when we have you to wake us?”

Miouing, I led them to my food bowl.

Yes, I could go out and catch a sparrow. Or mice. They are all plentiful enough at my farm. But what joy it brings them to scrape a little food into my dish, to place a saucer of clear water – or sometimes milk – nearby.

I am meant to introduce the Purdys to you. Those who are left. Those I remember. Those who still bring me food.

Pa Purdy, that one, with the old trousers and floppy hat – the badger would seethe at his expected condition if he gave a fig – ah hah – for the man in the first place. He is the one who milks the cows and he is the one who laughs when I rear up on my hind legs, wailing for a squirt of milk.

Yes, I beg. Vanity does not preclude dignity, though we like to believe it does. Watch me as I slip off the top rail of the fence on the north side of my farm. When I fall, after stalking a bird that flies away or stumbling in my old age, I sit, I wash a paw. All is right with the world. The sparrow was meant to flee and I was tired of walking on the fence, that is all.

Ma Purdy has passed. Oh the man wept when he buried her six feet deep at the top of the hill where the daisies bloom. I wailed too for he buried her in her best housecoat, the housecoat where lay the pocket wherein lay the pouch in which Ma Purdy collected the catnip. I have not had a bit of catnip since Ma Purdy died those years ago, and all the milk in the world won’t make up for it. So I crap in the house in the dusty corners where the filthy old man doesn’t sweep any more. Of course, I did that when Ma Purdy was alive as well, but she cleaned it up and called me a dear for pointing out where the dusty corners were.

I am a creature of many uses to man, you see.

The children.

One of them, a boy, is left. The younger ones, when Ma Purdy died, went to live with her sister Millicent a valley or two over, temporarily, to while away their mourning among the honeysuckle and the cousins. They never did come back. Pa Purdy and the oldest boy, Yank, remained to care for the farm and to talk to the food and to neglect the cats.

Yes, there are many cats at my farm. I am their lord and master. Though there are rebels and usurpers, I know they fear me. My right ear missing in a scrap, tail snapped off midway when the wind blew the barn door shut. I am handsome and terrifying.

And the mice. We slaughter mice by the hundreds each year. That is why Pa Purdy believes he lets us remain. But of course, we would never leave. This is our home. Our farm.