Saturday, March 29, 2014

Who Knew She Was Missing?

NOTE: Third draft of Doleful Creatures, and I found another character. Who knew she was missing?

Chapter Fifteen: Leaps from the Twigs

Don’t think we take our duty lightly, by the frivolity of our conversation.

We love Jarrod, no matter what the marmots say. Love him like a brother. Love him like a son. Love him like the weak fledgling who shouldn’t be leaving the nest but leaps from the twigs with his siblings to show them he’s no weakling.

But Jarrod is weak. Weak in body. It’s a rarity to see him eat. I know birds are renowned for their skimpy appetites, for their lithe bodies, for their skin and feather and bone. But Jarrod is thin, even for a bird. Thin as if he’d seen nothing but winter, naught of summer.

They pick at him so. Aloysius, to be sure. But it seems anyone crawling or flying to or through this part of the world knows he is weak. Not a week ago, a small flock of starlings chased him from his home in the barn, acting as if it had been their home for centuries.

He picks at himself as well. No idea that comes to his head isn’t bright enough that he can immediately see its flaws and half-convince himself not to go ahead with it. “I muck things up,” he says. “It’s these black feathers. They bring me bad luck.”

That, of course, is a laugh. May as well ask the sun to bring you luck, or the moon to bring you bad, if you believe such things. My Chylus points out all the time that we have black feathers too, and we have as much good luck as bad.

“But you don’t have a past,” he says. And usually flies off when he says it.

He lets what happened with the beavers hang over him like a dead branch creaking in the wind. I’m certain we don’t know even an eighth of the truth of what happened back then in that canyon, and maybe we never will, with Aloysius telling the story to every new bird or vole who wanders into the wood and with Jarrod not telling much of anything beyond the gloomy statements we’ve all heard a thousand times.

I don’t believe either of them, and I’ve told them so. Jarrod, told gently, while watching for bits of dandelion or cottonwood fluff of truth or lie that injure him if they hit too powerfully. Aloysius, with more venom than I probably should.

It’s painful to watch anyone in such torment. Chylus says it’s worse for the intelligent, but I don’t care if you’re wise or simple, tearing yourself up over something in your past that you may or may not have had control over is not the way to go through life and remain sane.

We hear him, nights, when he chooses to nest close by. He talks and gibbers in his sleep. He talks of the blood, “The blood on my wingtips,” he wails. And on the nights when she visits him with nightmares, he flees to the radio tower, there to perch and watch the stars or whatever else he can conjure to help him forget, or at least survive until sunrise. On those nights, Chylus and I fly with him. Giving him fair distance, of course, because the poor thing hates to think he’s putting anyone at an inconvenience. He’ll perch on his tatty nest in the tower and stare off into the black. We give him a few minutes, then we land nearby. Can’t land next to him, or he startles and falls out of the nest like a fledgling. A few times we’ve had to catch him, else he would have broken his skull on the ground. No, we land a distance away and edge towards him, one on each side, until we’re close enough we can feel him shivering. We don’t say a word. We just gaze off into the black with him. Eventually she shivers stop and he may nod off to sleep – a light doze, from which he startles as if the sun were rising. We take turns napping, the other watching.

If the morning dawns sunny, it’s as if nothing had happened. He’s chatty, ready to fly, to eat even a tiny bit, to share a joke. But if it dawns cloudy and grey, it’s as if the sun had never risen. We stay with him, through the wind and rain.

Sometimes we work to fix the nest. It was theirs, he said, long ago, before he knew of the beavers far off in the box canyon. She’s the one who showed him. She loved flying, and not just the teasing flights most magpies do. But long distances. “I’ll catch the horizon with these wings,” she said often to him. And he often believed it, and laughed as they raced to that distant line.

Once he found a bit of string, a faded bit of orange farmyard twine. He pulled at one end of it, poking out of the dirt at the edge of a field of potatoes, until its full length flew form the ground. She grabbed the other end and off they flew, one tugging at the twine one way to pull the other off course, then switching, Jarrod flying low in the trees and her above, doing their best to dodge the branches.

They laughed and the wood and all creatures in it were younger and happier to hear it.

Then one morning, Jarrod atop the barn, alone.

We flew to him, Chylus and I.

“Where is she? Where is Rebekah?”

He stared off at the sunrise.



The sun rose and reddened the low-hanging clouds.

She came,” Jarrod said. “She came to claim her, and she left. Oh,” he choked, “oh how she did not want to go. But she had no choice. The Lady came and she had to go. I don’t know why, except that the Lady said it was her time.”

Matter-of-factly. Without empathy or remorse, he said. Just her time to go.

They touched wingtips as she faded into the moonlight, he said. “Her eyes were the stars.”

Then gone.

It was she who put the schemes into Jarrod’s head. To help the family of moles find their lost child. To watch the fledglings while the widowed left to find food. She planted ideas in his head, his Rebekah, and they couldn’t go anywhere in the wood or in the canyon or in the fields and mountains beyond without being hailed as a friend by bird or beast.

Even to the beavers, their grandest idea of all.

Then gone, the beavers and his Rebekah.

And he suffers.

And is mocked for his rare failures, where he does not see that one consequence she would have seen.

He mourns, and is bitter. But still he tries.

It doesn’t matter the tally is mostly in Jarrod’s favor. He’s the one who talked that lazy farm dog into chasing away that pair of feral cats who’d moved in to an old haystack and were taking more than their fair share of young ones and old ones. He’s also the one morose enough to stay up that night of the fierce thunderstorms, when the creek rose suddenly and would have drowned anyone underground had he not sounded the alarm.

“She would have seen,” he says. “She would have seen.”

Often, at sunrise, we see him atop the barn.

We know he is waiting.

He knows she will not return.

The Psychology of Anthropomorphism. Or Not.

As regular visitors to Yellowstone National Park (we live only 2 ½ hours to the south) we see it every time we visit.

There’s a buffalo or elk on the side of the road, or in a meadow nearby. Visitors, cameras and children in hand, flock to the roadside and begin snapping pictures. The vast majority of them – children included – keep a respectful distance. But there are always one or two of those hundredth monkeys who have to get closer. And closer. And closer. It’s always the adults, sometimes with a very reluctant child in tow. I’ve never seen anyone get gored or trampled, but I have seen enough buffalo and elk look at the interlopers and stomp their hoofs, only to run off, to know there are many close calls.

And I, myself, by choice, have been within twenty feet of a Yellowstone black bear. The smartest thing I’ve done in my life?


But is anthropomorphism to blame? A study published in Psychology Today seems to intimate so. And I don’t buy it. (Of course, I'm doing what every other journalist is doing with such studies: Misinterpreting it in order to write a screed on my own agenda.)

The study looked at how children process information about animals based upon whether they’re exposed early on to fact-based information about them, or whether they’re told cute, cuddly little stories about them instead. (Big admission here: I’m currently writing a novel about anthropomorphized animals and grew up on such novels, so I have an obvious bias here.)

They’ve got some funny things to say in their study:

[T]he results of Study 1 indicate that preschoolers can learn simple biological facts about animals from books, whether the information is presented to them in a context that uses realistic or anthropomorphic language to describe animals. This ability is more robust in 4- and 5-year-olds than in 3-year-olds. This finding is consistent with the results of Ganea and colleagues regarding the learning of simple biological information (e.g., color camouflage) from picture books that varied the type of language (realistic vs. intentional) used.

The results also show that the type of language used in books affects how likely children are to attribute anthropomorphistic traits to real animals. Children were more likely to say that real animals feel human emotions or even talk after listening to stories that used anthropomorphic rather than realistic language. There are two ways to explain this effect: either that the anthropomorphic language increases children’s [sic] tendency to attribute anthropomorphic traits to animals, or that hearing realistic language suppresses their natural inclination to attribute human-like traits to other non-human animals.

So, first they say that it’s possible for children to learn “facts” about animals, whether the information is presented in realistic or anthropomorphized language. That’s fine. They also demonstrate that anthropomorphizing animals may make children more prone to attribute human characteristics to animals than if they read purely fact-based books.

Then, later in the study, they go on to say this:

When children in Study 2 were exposed to books where anthropomorphic images and language were combined they were less likely to apply the facts to photographs of the real animals compared to a book that used only anthropomorphic images. This type of book, which combines both fantastical language and anthropomorphic illustrations of animals, is typical of commercially available books. Our results suggest that this combination may create a story context that is too dissimilar from reality for preschoolers to realize that information important for the real world is being conveyed. As children get older and have more experience with fantastical stories, they may acquire knowledge that information encountered in fantastical books can’t be relevant to the real world, but the current findings indicate that this is not yet the case for preschool-aged children.

This, I suppose, would hold true if children only learned information about animals from books. Maybe that’s the case for many children, who live in situations and in cultures where real interactions with animals aren’t possible or practical. We do, after all, live in a world where many want to be or are by situation isolated from nature, where they don’t have pets, rarely frequent zoos or live in urban centers where the only animals to be seen in their natural habitat may be birds, insects, squirrels, and such.

And part of me wonders how much of the response they’re getting is just because the children are parroting what they’ve just learned, not because one set of information is more important to the real world than the other. What’s in the mind now with kids is most likely what is going to come out when you ask them questions. Thus the odd story of Jesus coming to Earth inside a meteor at a family discussion shortly after our kids saw the original Superman movie.

I grew up reading these kinds of books, and by choice. Ribsy. The Mouse and the Motorcycle. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. They are what I enjoy (though I read many reality-based books these days) and what I want to write as an author.

Am I doing harm by writing such books?

No. And I don’t think the study is saying that, contrary to what Slate might be thinking about it at the moment. But I think it’s disingenuous to think that our preschoolers have to be filled with facts “relevant to the real world” and that reading them books of this nature is harmful to their learning. (Slate gets a bit silly on this as well, linking their article to that of a 12-year-old girl who “petted” a bear attacking her, neglecting in their summation to say that she petted the animal as a last-ditch attempt to stop its attack after she’d already been bitten, run away, and caught again, not because she’d read fuzzy stories in which the bears were nice and liked to be stroked.)

There is other learning that, perhaps, these folks didn’t study. I consider attributing human characteristics to animals as the first steps to developing sympathy and empathy for animals, notwithstanding the outlandish scenario I started this essay with.

This is a scary bear, right?

Are folks being gored and trampled in Yellowstone because they believe the animals they see are of the fuzzy, cute nature they’ve read in books? Maybe a portion of them are. But I think the bigger problem is that they are in the moment, wanting to get closer and closer to nature in a world where we’re so disconnected from nature that we have lost respect for it, notwithstanding the many real-world, relevant facts we may have learned from them. I can know that bears can climb trees and that they can run both downhill and uphill equally well and that they can outrun me, but in the moment those facts may be overridden by the desire to connect to nature, despite what I know.

And my children, who grew up around books that anthropomorphize, have learned a great respect for animals because we don’t rely on books to teach our kids how they should behave if they see an elk or buffalo or bear up close. We respect nature, because we know what it can do. And when I went to see that bear up the trail? My kids, who love Narnia and Warriors and other such books, stayed behind because they knew the dangers. How much more real-world do we need to get?

Besides, I want my kids to be sillyhearts, while still respecting nature:

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


I know there’s little new in writing.

Actually, there’s a lot new. New ways of combining the old, new ways of twisting things, new ways of telling things.

I just don’t see anything new in Tom Holt’s “Blonde Bombshell.”

I know of all the genres, science fiction is troped to death. Holt seems to know that too, and so has hit them all: Technologically superior alien race disgusted by the shabby technology of humans, check. Technologically superior alien race befuddled by an otherwise unobtrusive element of human society, check. Sentient superior technology dispatched to destroy the irritating planet (originally here called Dirt) become enamored in some ways with the race they’re sent to destroy, check. Subversive faction of aliens send their own spies to Dirt to counteract the destruction, quickly discover that their human disguises have become permanent, check. Winking nods at human pop culture completely misunderstood by the aliens, check.

Yeah, it’s all there.

Tom Holt, I am disappoint. To use another trope.

I so liked “Flying Dutch,” so when I saw this book at Barnes and Noble, I had high hopes. Should have taken the hint that it was on the “severely discounted” table.

I know it’s easier to criticize than it is to write originally. I’m right now working on the third draft of a rather tropey fantasy novel of my own creation. But I’m hoping there’s enough originality there to make up for the tropes I use. Maybe there isn’t.

Thing is, there’s so much potential in what Holt has written here. But that potential is left so much to the undercurrents of the story – perhaps to avoid breaking into other sci-fi tropes – that what’s missing becomes the most notable in the story.

I've got about sixty pages to go. More later.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sounds About Right

Round Three

Suddenly, after the kids went to bed last night, Round Three happened.

Or at least started. Round Three, the third draft to Doleful Creatures.

It came on me sudden-like, as I said before. It’s time. I wrote the second draft back in November and then, with only a few cursory looks, shelved it. Oh, I did drag it out for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest, but just before the first-round winners were announced, I noticed I’d uploaded an incomplete manuscript – ten thousand words short, far below the minimum needed. I took that as a sign that the novel wasn’t ready.

Of course, I knew that before I hit submit. But that’s okay.

Round Three.

Have already noted an incontinuity with a minor character. Not a big deal, perhaps, but pronouncing her passed on on Page 8 only to resurrect her (albeit in absentia) later in the novel probably is not a good thing.
And I’ve known all along the two stories within this story – the redemption of Jarrod the magpie from murderer to reluctant hero and the salvation of Purdy Farm needed to be tied together better.

Hence Round Three.

And I have a cheering section, which helps. Thanks to Robert Schultz who is publishing his first novel, and to Stefan Bateman who is reading the second draft of Doleful Creatures and might possibly design a cover for me, if I ever get it finished. Knowing I’m not alone here is helping.

Originally, I’d planned Round Three to begin in April, but it hit me last night I need to do it now. It’ll still probably take me into that window in April to finish, but at least I can say I’ve started now.

Why? Because Plankton told me to.

Equality Means Something -- It Means the Valleys as Well as the Mountains

Julie M. Smith, writing at Times and Seasons, is right when she says, in regards to women having the priesthood (or not) that “equal does not mean the same. But it does mean something.”

She is right to propose that the young women in the LDS Church ought to have more visible responsibility, equal to that of the young men, who get to prepare the sacrament, bless the sacrament, pass the sacrament, act as ushers at the chapel door and reap the recognition that comes weekly as bishopric members everywhere regale the congregation with the immortal line “we’d like to thank the young men for administering the sacrament.”

I’m all for her proposals. Were I a bishopric member, I’d be all for what she’d like to see the young women do. I’d even aid the fight in penetrating the bureaucracy that is not LDS Church headquarters but the iron-clad tradition of ward choirsters and organists.

Why? Because I have a young woman myself who is itching at the chance to participate more in church, and since she turned twelve just a few months ago has already taught a Beehive lesson, worked on quilts for a service auction, and volunteered in the nursery during Primary inservice. And, thanks to her mother who is breaking the mold with service in the Boy Scouts of America, has been to more weeks of Scout camp than most of the Boy Scouts I know.

But I have to wonder if Julie M. Smith is looking at the young men with rose-colored glasses.

Not wonder, I know.

I know because I was once a young man in the LDS Church myself. And my current calling has me working with the young men every Sunday and every Tuesday.

So as long as we agree that equal has to mean something, let me suggest the following results in that equality:

Recognition, in the form of “Wow. We have a crop of really short deacons. Except for that tall one with the messy hair and high-water pants who we’re never really sure washes his hands before he passes the sacrament, because he sure smells funny,” and “Why did the bishop make that priest say the Sacrament prayer three times? I couldn’t hear anything wrong with the other two times. That bishop is a real micromanager,” or “That priest is a moron who can’t get anything right. Even I know how to pronounce the word ‘O’.” Not forgetting that the “we’d like to thank the young men for administering the sacrament” is just the kind of ritual Sunday ornamentation that rolls off the tongue as easily as “I’d like to bear my testimony,” “all in favor show by the raising of the right hand” and those damn doilies y’all cling to in Relief Society. Pretty, fitting, innocuous, but tell me you sincerely remember a spiritual goose the last time you heard such thanks or saw such a doily at church.

Purpose, in that the young men slag off on coming to church early (or staying late) for fast offering collection, “forget” they’ve got that duty, tell Mom and Dad they’re going to Scouts but instead run off, insist on playing basketball every freakin’ Tuesday when they do go to Scouts, slump over like department store mannequins as they “usher” at the chapel doors, and fight like devils when it’s “their turn” for the “extra blessings” that come when it’s time to pass sacrament at the old folks home, go home teaching (my memories of home teaching at the tender age of fourteen revolve around faithfully visiting two families where at Home A my partner and the man of the house would talk about hunting for two hours followed up with an additional two-hour conversation about HVAC systems with the man of the house at House B; my duties were limited to saying the closing prayer at the end of each visit, after they woke me up), or have to do anything at the Sacrament table other than be the warm body who sits in the middle and doesn’t have to do a damn thing. (I think the files all of this under the rubric of the young men “working out the logistics of passing the sacrament in their quorums.”)

Motivation, in that despite sins that beckon them and entrap them and beguile them every other day of the week, they will still risk the hellfire and damnation of their parents to officiate in the sacrament because it’s what’s expected at their given age. And nobody wants to say no to priesthood duty and have to confess something in front of the bishop, probably right there in the chapel because mom and dad insist they participate, do they? (Trust me, I have experience with this firsthand.)

Spirituality, in (see Purpose above). Oh, and one of the quorum leaders or the bishop or a counselor or one of those creepy visitors form the stake might cry during a “spiritual” portion of the lesson, but they’re just some fat old guys who joke about having to get out of the tent in the freezing cold on Scout campouts five times to go to the bathroom, so the boys know they’ve got no control over their faculties anyway. That’s if they can hear the lesson above the noise created by the ADHD kid who will chatter with whomever you sit him next to, even if that someone is one of the creepy guys from the stake. And the noise created by that one kid who always brings LEGO minifigures to church to stage epic battles during the lesson and always has more minifigures in his pockets, no matter how many you take away from him and it’s not seemly of a Melchezidek Priesthood holder to frisk and otherwise pat down his charges, but you’d certainly like to try. And if they can penetrate the tablets and smart phones the young men bring to church “because they have their scriptures on them,” even though they can’t locate books in the Book of Mormon let alone the likes of Obadiah or Habakkuk, except for the know-it-all who read the lesson at home and has to answer every. Single. Stinking. Question.

Growth, in that, we hope, they will learn something from the experience (Julie M. Smith gets this part right). And hopefully confess to a myriad of sins before they get to the MTC, unless we can pass of their untimely return as some sort of persistent yet undiagnosed illness and get them out the door, huh, look at that, a year later.

Am I exaggerating in my examples?

No. I’ve seen it all, and I’m not even a high priest yet. I’m a priesthood holder who revels at the chance to use young men/scouting obligations to skip Sunday School not because I’m like the young men and uneducated in the sheer seriousness of priesthood responsibility (we get Section 76 read to us at an alarming rate) but because I, like the young men, am a human being, prone to the frailties of living in this world despite having authority given me of God and the recognition that comes with it, whether it’s sincerely offered or offered by rote.

Since we’re talking about equality meaning something, let me tell you something about meaning. Having the priesthood doesn’t give me or our young men an instant “in” with all things spiritual. Maybe as we grow we come to realize that priesthood responsibility and the recognition that comes with it does lead to greater spiritual growth, but it’s the rare Aaronic priesthood holder who will tell you, in the moment, that very thing. We grow, bit by bit, jot by tittle, just the same as the young women and members of the Relief Society do. And can I tell you I’ve seen more spiritual growth in my young woman of twelve than I’ve seen in my young man of fourteen? I love them both. I pray nightly for the challenges they face. Yet it’s my son I worry about the most, despite his holding the Aaronic Priesthood and the honors and benefits that come with it. Both are equally challenged by the world, by inequalities inside and outside the church.

Yes, equality does mean something. Just don’t get me started on Eagle Scouts.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Permission for What?" [Head Explodes]

If I were a working journalist right now – and thank the stars I am not, for various reasons which need not be reproduced here – I’d be reading this article, and reading it real good.

Here’s the rub: Everything we put on the Internet is public. Even the stuff we think is private. But for journalists to use that information without letting us know it’s being used is wrong. Amanda Hess says it better:

The new, virtual man on the street doesn’t even need to be aware of a reporter’s existence in order to turn up on a highly trafficked news source with name, photo, and social media contact information embedded. It’s the journalist’s “right” to reproduce these public statements, sure. But our rights are expanding radically, while our responsibilities to our sources are becoming more and more optional.

Hess points out that many media companies are acting responsibly, are aware of individual social networks expectations, norms, and suchlike. But she also sees a lopsided application of that responsibility, quoting freelance writer Anna Holmes as saying “I’ve seen a lot of inconsistency in the application of some of these expectations. It often seems like the rules should only apply to the good guys, and that’s just not a serious way of thinking—you can’t just divvy up the world that way.” And we all know it’s the media or reporters deciding who the good guys are, sometimes fairly, sometimes not so fairly. The good guys get a fair shake, sometimes. The bad guys, well, they’re bad in public, so it’s shaming time.

Why am I glad I’m not a journalist in this day and age? Because the temptation to use Facebook and Twitter as public sources and public fodder for stories is intense, and the ease at which identification of the speaker can be offered to pass editorial muster is frighteningly easy without – as Hess points out – necessarily having to contact the person who spoke the words being quoted. It’s all public, after all, right?

And it does happen. I’ve seen it happen. And while it may pass traditional ethical muster, it’s an ugly way to do journalism.

What would I do?

Contact, first and foremost. Contact. Let them know what they’ve said can and will be used for or against them. Notes would have to include screen captures. Conversations would have to include caveats, on the really important stuff, that removal from the Internet or a denial of a right to use won’t necessarily be recognized or honored.

And social networks, for the most part, would have to be treated like Wikipedia: Good for general information, but not near as good as a voice conversation, email, or anything else under the sun.

Editors should be asking: So, you quoted someone from Twitter. Do they know you’re quoting them, and why?

Ethicist Kelly McBride at Poynter doesn’t get it, when she asks of this BuzzFeed post in question: “Permission for what?”

Hells bells, woman. Permission to have a social network chat used on a national news platform. Permission to be prepared for the sudden onslaught of fame that the mention is likely to bring, for both good and bad. Permission to be aware that the conversation is suddenly going to spiral big.

Yes, the Internet is public. Yes, things will go viral with and without the help of national media platforms. But national media platforms have the ethical obligation to communicate not only with their audiences, but with their sources of information for that audience. People I spoke with in person or called on the phone or emailed for information knew they were going to be quoted or featured in the newspaper – because I told them. Would it pass ethical muster to speak to someone face-to-face, to take their picture, but not really tell them what that information and their likeness was going to be used for until, oops, after it’s spread all over the Interwebs? I don’t think so.

McBride is too lost in the weeds of the ethics of reporting on sexual assault cases (as important as that is) to see that there’s a more fundamental ethical blunder she seems to be defending. Yes, the originator of the original stream of tweets is upset (rightly so) that she was not identified by BuzzFeed (or Poynter) as a victim of rape as well as those featured in the tweets, so that makes discussion of reporting on sexual assault prevalent. But again, there’s something fundamental missing here.

McBride (don’t know about BuzzFeed, but it doesn’t appear that they did) says she “reached out” to the originator of the conversation BuzzFeed is touting – but in the comments on her own column, the originator (ChristineFox in the comments) says that “reaching out” was limited to one tweet before publication:

You reached out to me? You sent me 1 tweet that I didn’t see until this morning. You never spoke with me.

She should have. And so should have BuzzFeed. Before publication. With the Internet in play, more often than not the race to be first seems also to include a race to the bottom.

Congratulations are in order to The Root, however, which did contact Christine Fox before publication. You know, they did actual reporting, rather than social media regurgitation.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Future of Futurism

I’m now more than 40 years old. Long ago I penetrated that cloud that some might call the generation gap, where things like pop sensations, the latest viral video, and other such stuff just don’t have that much meaning for me.

And to make things worse, I’ve started re-reading Ray Bradbury again (the optimistic spacey bits, not the pessimistic Martian Chronicles bits). Most notably, “The Rocket.”

I know it’s a rather pessimistically optimistic story – Fiorello Bodoni can’t afford to take his family on a  trip in a rocket – he can’t even afford to keep his junk recycling business afloat – but he spends his money on a non-functioning mock-up rocket and a bunch of other junk to take his children on a pretend voyage to Mars and back, so they won’t go through life with the disadvantage of never having been somewhere (Oh, by the way, if you’ve never read “The Rocket,” I should warn you: Spoiler alert).

I don’t want to grow too old for the future. Though, like Abe Simpson, sometimes I have to wonder if what’s it today is weird and scary, compared to what was it when I was younger.

So I read things like this (I read entirely too much).

And I have to laugh. Because for most of these “futuristic” concepts, there are clear arguments that the future is already here and has been here for a while. In fact, the future is, not to put too fine a point on it, already in the past.

Co-veillance, or the little man spying on the big guys? Already happening. Used to be it was through cranks going to the Fourth Estate. But we’ve had the Internet now for, what, twenty some-odd years, where the cranks have been able to avoid the middleman.

Technological unemployment? Man, that started with the Steam Age, the Machine Age, not the Computer Age. True, we may see more white-collar technological unemployment, but this isn’t exactly a futuristic concept, because we’ve seen white-collar unemployment blossom since, oh, the early 1990s.

Substrate autonomy? Already happening, dude. First with voice recordings, then film, now social media. It’s spread to the masses, yes, but to think transhumanism is something to fuss about in the future denies the fact that it’s already kinda happening. I’m writing this blog post because I want these thoughts to exist somewhere else besides this meatsack I’ve called home for the past 40 or so years. So we could claim transhumanism started with cuneiform and clay tablets. The Code of Hammurabi, not the digital person.
I could go on, but I won’t. Because I want this to be a positive thing.

It’s always coming back to what do we do with our time? What do we do with that cognitive surplus Clay Shirky identified so eloquently?

I’d rather we had Presentists, not Futurists. Because the future isn’t based on vocabulary or concepts or what thinkers think or writers write. It’s based on what we all do now. In the present. Does that make me a presentist? Not really, because I also have an eternal perspective on things that makes me want to do worthy, moral, and productive things now so that when the future becomes the present – which we know will happen no matter our philosophical position – that present will be better. And I will be better in it. But like St. Augustine, I do believe the present is the “knife-edge_ between the past and the future, where the lessons of the past are remembered or discarded, for the sake of a better or more lugubrious future.

That’s best captured by Phil Connors.

(And I love how the narrator says film in the old Hollywood way: “fillum.”

Once Phil figures out he can use the present and his activity in it to make for a better future, his present becomes much more livable.

That’s what the future needs: A thoughtful present.

The Liar

Bradbury, he is the liar.

Bradbury, the worst of them all.

But he does tell one truth, mind. He does warn us: Don’t become a rocket man.

“Don’t become a rocket man.”

People visited Dugout Dick. They listened to his corn pone songs and bought the little widgets he made. But none of them stayed. None of them stayed, even early on when there was no siren song of technology to keep from digging holes in the side of a mountain and shoring the cave up with timbers and doors from battered Volkswagens. They liked the myth of Dugout Dick.

But they did not want to live like him.

Because he smelled.

Because his songs were terrible, and the widgets useless.

Because he was a liar.

Like Bradbury.

Like Bradbury.

Oh, that I had not listened. That I had not traveled, become a rocket man, traveled on that rocket with Fiorello Bodoni.

But, alas, here I am.

“Leave, then,” Nixon said.

“Leave. Yes, you left. But did you actually leave?”

Nixon kicked at the waxy dirt with his Oxford.

“No, you did not leave. You’re still there. You’re in the class of the liars.”

“But not a crook.”

“No, not a crook.”

He beguiled us. Told us of collecting the loam, the dust, the fluff of comets and the sand of Mars and the gases of Jupiter and the powder of the moon. Then he took us to Venus and killed us with rain and with thunderstorm monsters, to Mars where he killed us with hags and memories. To wherever he wanted to take us, to kill us with our own madness.

He killed the rocket man. Burned him in the sun. Had his wife and child eating lunch at 3 am and sleeping with the green blinds drawn tight, going out during the day only when the clouds poured their rain upon the earth. So they would not see the sun.

The sun the men on Venus missed so much.

“That sets me to thinking,” Nixon said. “I think, perhaps, you’re seeing it wrong.”

I listened. A bead of sweat dripped off the ski-jump nose. He brushed a bit of Iapetus dust off his left shoulder.


“You are not happy here,” he said at last.

“Ah, I see why the Vulcans believe only Nixon could go to China,” I said with a sneer.

He continued, ignoring my outburst. “The men on Venus, they were not happy in the rain. They wanted the sun. The rocket man was not happy at home whenever he looked up and saw the stars. Fiorello Bodoni was not happy providing for his family, but rather wanted to provide something too far out of his reach, too far out of necessity.”

“I know what it is like” he said, swallowing hard, Adam’s apple bouncing against the Windsor knot of his necktie, “not to be happy where you are. And when you arrive, you find that happiness. And the realization that it is fleeting.”

“Bradbury does not lie,” he said, staring up at the blaze of stars in the black sky. “Bradbury tells the truth. We are rarely happy where we are, unless in our minds we are in that unattainable place where happiness always resides.”

“He would tell you you are a crook,” I spat.

“Yes,” Nixon said. “And he would be telling the truth. For he is not a liar. Like you and I.”

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Le Petit Nicolas, Computerized?

Just so you know, it’s not just Hollywood that messes with good books.

While I was on my mission in France, I was introduced to the “Petit Nicolas” books by Rene Goscinny and J.J. Sempe, and I loved them. Goscinny writes them with charm, definitely capturing the cadence and malapropisms of a young French speaker. As I read them in my own pidgin French, I could hear the voices of Nicolas and his friends, faithfully recreated as the voices of children.

And Sempe’s drawings, well, perfect. Though the Petit Nicolas books aren’t familiar to Americans, Sempe’s art has adorned enough New Yorker covers to be familiar to us in that way.

So imagine my joy when I discovered an animated version of the stories on YouTube.

And boy do they suck.

This is the first one I watched. They changed the story. Meme – Grandmother – was not involved in the story at all, as far as I remember. But more important than that – gone is the point of view of the story through the eyes of Nicolas. We’re presented instead with a glass wall between us and the characters. Perhaps that’s the simpler way to get the stories across in real-time, rather than told through recollection, but the material suffers. The humor in Goscinny’s characters come in the words and phrases the boy Nicolas uses to tell his tales, less so in the tales themselves.

Here’s a sample from the story this episode appears to be based on, “A La Bonne Franquette,” or “Living Simply.”

Mama! I cried. You forgot to set a place at the table!

Mama gave a little scream, and turned around quickly.

Nicolas! Mama said, I’ve already told you not to scream like that in the house, and not to enter the house like a little savage. You scared me, and I don’t need anything else to make me more nervous.

So I asked Mama to forgive me. It’s true she was really nervous, but then I explained again that there was a place missing at the table.

No, she told me, we’re not missing a place, Mama said. Go do your homework, and leave me in peace.

But we are missing a place, I said. There’s me, there’s Papa, there’s you, there’s Mr. Moucheboume, there’s Mrs. Moucheboume, that makes five and there’s only four plates at the table, so we when we go to eat, if you, or Papa, or Mr. Moucheboume, or Mrs. Moucheboume don’t have a plate, there’s going to be trouble!

This is, of course, my weak effort to translate the jibber-jabber from the French, but it’s clear that the childlike quality – not to mention the story as a whole – has been sacrificed a bit, which is a shame, seing as it’s that jibber-jabber that brings the stories their most endearing quality.

I understand, however, the film based on the stories is better. I’d dearly love to see it.


We all have a book like this. A little pocket-guide, crisply printed a while back, part of the back-to-nature movement, sized for a pocket because you sure as hell weren’t going to sit reading it at your kitchen table; you were going to take it into the wild outdoors and DO ALL THE THINGS therein.

I have several like this: A pocket French-English dictionary. A faux “visiting the natives” manual produced for the World War II British soldier liberating France, and this one: “Finding Your Way in the Outdoors,” by Robert L. Mooers, Jr. It’s a tidy, dainty little book meant to teach neophytes like me the odd ways of the compass, the topographical map, filled with phrases like “magnetic declination” and other such magical words.

I’m pretty sure I’ll do with it what its previous owner did with it: Read it once or twice, then put it back on the shelf where, another 42 years hence (the book is as old as I am) it’ll still be in pristine shape, ready to guide the modern traveler in the ways of technology long since outdated by the hand-held GPS.

Why did I pick this one up? Well, it was cheaper than a GPS, for one. And I’m a scoutmaster, one who should be savvy in the ways of poking about with maps and compasses.

It’s a good book. Crisp instructions quickly walk the reader through the use of compasses and maps, with the sage advice that reading the book was only one tenth of the battle, the rest has to be won by conquering the outdoors. It’s a book you could see Henry David Thoreau enjoying.

I liked it. Not only all things compass, but also a fair bit on making and updating trail maps, talking with the locals before you head out, some fieldcraft to use in crossing streams and a bit on the weather as well. Connecting us back to that whole nature thing. Which is good. May come in handy when the zombie apocalypse arrives.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

“The Freedom to Succeed Goes Hand in Hand with the Freedom to Fail.”

There is a reason I re-read books: What may be insignificant or glossed over the first, or third, or seventh time, may take on immense importance the next time the book is read.

Take, for example, this quote from Terry Pratchett’s “Going Postal”

“The freedom to succeed goes hand in hand with the freedom to fail.” That’s something said by Lord Havelock Vetinari, tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, referring to the failure and pending government takeover of the Grand Trunk, Ankh-Morpork’s metaphor of the Internet. The communication service, he points out, was started by engineers who loved code and machinery, but did not have the business sense to run it – so it was taken over by those with enough business sense to buy it with its own money and turn it into a cash cow at the expense of its employees and the business itself.

Says the message from the dead, put into the Trunk by the Smoking GNU and Moist von Lipwig, postmaster to cover the veneer of his past criminality: “There was no safety. There was no pride. All there was was money. Everything became money, and money became everything. Money treated us as if we were things, and we died.”

Employ a crook to catch a crook is the message of Going Postal. And everyone in the book is a crook, from the aforementioned Vetinari, tyrant – benevolent at times, yes, but never afraid to weild his tyranny when necessary. And von Lipwig, former criminal persuaded to use his crookedness for the good by the tyrant, for fear of death, for fear of the golem Mr. Pump. Both going after the grafter and swindler Reacher Gilt, who bought the Grand Trunk with its own money, and who aims to drive it into the ground so he can buy it again at a bargain price.

All three have something in common: All three know what they are, tyrant and criminal. But only two of them – Vetinari and von Lipwig – use their skills, by habit or by force of habit, for the common good. Vetinari wishes the city to take over the Grand Trunk; von Lipwig wants it given back to the engineers who started it, in the hopes they can fix it. And it appears that might happen. Or not.

Are businesses too big to fail? Going Postal sends mixed messages on that front – and that’s probably close to the truth. Says Lord Vetinari of the Grand Trunk: “The question of ownership will remain in abeyance for now, until we have plumbed the sordid depths of this affair. But what I truly meant was that a great many people depend on the Trunk for their living. Out of sheer humanitarian considerations, we must do something. Sort things out, Postmaster.”

And he doesn’t mean the employees of the Trunk. He means those who depend on its fast communication to get their jobs done.

And what of the banks that Gilt fleeced as he convinced them they’d become rich beyond the dreams of avarice as he bled the Trunk dry? Going Postal says this:

It wasn’t until dawn that the somber men arrived. They were older and fatter and better – but not showily, never showily – dressed, and moved with the gravity of serious money. They were financiers too, richer than kings (who are often quite poor), but hardly anyone in the city outside their circle knew them or would notice them in the street. They spoke quietly to Cheeseborough as to one who suffered a bereavement, and then talked among themselves, and used little gold propelling pencils in neat little notebooks to make figures dance and jump through hoops. Then quiet agreement was reached and hands were shaken, which in this circle carried infinitely more weight than any written contract. The first domino had been steadied. The pillars of the world ceased to tremble. The Credit Bank would open in the morning, and when it did so, bills would be honored, wages would be paid, the city would be fed.

But all is not rosy, as the fantasy continues:

They’d saved the city with gold more easily, at that point, than any hero could have managed with steel. But, in truth, it had not exactly been gold, or even the promise of gold, but more like the fantasy of gold, the fairy dream that the gold is there, at the end of the rainbow, and will continue to be there forever – provided, naturally, that you don’t go and look.

This is known as Finance.

So the illusion of money is there to support the world, rather than having the world fall on its ear. Yes, there are parallels to our most recent crises. With one exception: Nobody, as yet, has paid the price. Pratchett continues:

On the way back home to a simple breakfast, one of them dropped by the Guild of Assassins to pay his respects to his old friend Lord Downey, during which visit current affairs were only lightly touched upon. And Reacher Gilt, wherever he had gone, was now certainly the worst insurance risk in the world. The people who guard the rainbow don’t’ like those who get in the way of the sun.

Aye, there’s the rub. Who has paid the price? None of the folks standing in the way of the sun, but rather those who saw the eclipse and feared its portents.

So it pays to re-read books. You never know what you’ll find the next time round.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Newsy Conciliation

Marc Fisher, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, has a fascinating piece on what he calls a “conciliation” of old-guard journalism’s emphasis on truth first and new media’s emphasis on publish now, vet later. What he writes should pique the interest of anyone in the old guard – mainly newspapers – but also those who think the Internet is a purely self-correcting creature.

Here’s the core of his piece:

But consider a new possibility: What if conciliation is at hand? As the lines between old and new increasingly blur, are the two schools of journalism’s core values blending into a hybrid? Increasingly, in newsrooms both print-centric and all-digital, the imperative for speed in the journalism of tweets and Vines has triumphed over traditional ways: What’s news is what’s out there, whether or not it’s been checked and verified. Rare is the news organization that doesn’t occasionally jump on Twitter with half-baked facts, and rarer still is the one that refuses to gin up content about the day’s major trending topics.

As I discovered in visits to newsrooms with varying histories and roles, what’s new is what’s always worked: In the minute-by-minute struggle for audience and advertising, old-fashioned notions about credibility turn out to be as essential as speed. Despite utopian rhetoric about the Web as a self-correcting mechanism, getting things right from the start turns out to have considerable value.

“The sheer impact of doing the wrong thing has grown tremendously because of the speed and reach of the new media, and that is leading a lot of these new brands to show a lot of traditional values,” says Eric Newton, senior advisor to the president at the Knight Foundation and former managing editor of the Newseum.

No journalist ever wants to publish something that’s wrong. But it happens to every journalist without exception. I know how much it hurts from personal experience. But as has been illustrated by a friend’s Facebook post last week about a local newspaper not moving fast enough on a significant news story in the community (and the Facebooker in question is a former editor of the self-same paper, not some run-of-the-mill complainer) there’s still a serious disconnect in some organizations between being right and being current. There’s also a failure to realize that you can be fast and mostly correct at the same time, and that as long as you continue to provide your readers with updated information, they’re more likely to see along with you that news evolves and that what was once reported earlier changes as more information becomes available.
But here’s the invaluable part: Even through your errors, your readers were there for the ride. You let them participate in the news event, perhaps even contributing themselves, to get them more involved. And that seems to be working. Back to Fisher’s article:

On the snowy evening before I drove up to south central Pennsylvania to visit the York Daily Record, its editors suggested I check out the liveblog they had created to cover the first significant storm of the year. The blog featured video snippets from staff reporters showing where slick roads were snarling traffic. There were feeds from the National Weather Service and tweets from reporters and competing media outlets. The editors were proud that their blog gave equal treatment to reader-generated content—pictures and tweets with the #pawx hashtag.

Reader Dan Sokil said roads were “slow with a solid layer of slush but passable slowly.” Jhofford20 posted: “What better way to spend a snow day than by drinking a couple beers.” Erin Kissling added: “Winter Storm Advisory: The state liquor stores are closed. this is bullshit.”

No one edits the storm blog at night, says Jim McClure, the Record’s editor, but there’s nothing on the blog he’d have taken out. The beers line “captures the feelings of the community,” and the profanity is fine because “we’re looser online.”

These days at the Record—which has 19 reporters on a staff of 55 journalists, down from 80 at its peak a decade ago—everyone blogs, shoots video, and posts on social media, as well as reports and writes. Reporters and photographers post directly to the site, “so it’s incumbent more and more on the reporter to get it right,” says metro editor Susan Martin. “Editors fix things after they’re online, as soon as we can.”
That sounds like, to me, a news organization working with digital media, and its audience, to find truth together, rather than being the dispenser of truth on its own timetable. And today’s audience, certainly those in the younger bracket, want participatory anything – participatory everything – in order to remain interested. 

That may sound Brave New World-ish, with the entertainment factor of news taking over, but step back and see what’s going on here. Participating readers are readers. And if they’re participating, they’re sharing. And if they’re sharing, they’re encouraging more participation.

And the truth, the accuracy, the gestalt of instantaneous and accurate is coming closer.

So size doesn’t matter. That the media engage with its readers seems to matter.

More from Fisher:

“Everything we do is irreverent, but not glib,” says the editor in chief [of news startup NowThis News], Ed O’Keefe, 36, a veteran of ABC News. “We remove all ornamentation, anything that distances. The YouTube generation understands that stories evolve. It’s dirty and it’s not always right, but it’s instantaneous.”

There it is, the red-hot core of the difference between old school and new. I’ve never had a print editor who said anything like that out loud. But I have heard any number of editors who are struggling to figure out how to compete digitally embrace the idea that putting something up can take precedence over checking it out fully. This is no expression of tabloid amorality; O’Keefe is a serious journalist who is trying to find a standard that works in the new world. He doesn’t want to deliver inaccuracies to his audience. Rather, he wants to give them the closest version of the truth he can while still meeting them where they are, which is on their phone, right now. Wait a few minutes, and they won’t be there anymore; they’ll have moved on to the next story.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Tipping Point

The older I get, the closer I get to my tipping point. And that may be a bad thing.

By tipping point, I mean the point at which a new job, a new challenge, becomes easy. A habit. Something I’ve always done, or at least have finally grown used to doing.

Take being a Scoutmaster, for instance. That happened back in September, though not really officially until late October. It’s now early March. And it feels like I’ve been doing it for a while.

And what have I done?

Well, helped three boys through the last requirements for their Life ranks, including my own son. Helped scouts earn a ton of merit badges. Gone camping a few times. Planned calendars. And finished my Wood Badge tickets.

But I’m close to my tipping point, and it worries me.

Thankfully, Paul Fairbourn, my assistant Scoutmaster, who has been around a while and who has also been a bishop, helped me recognize my tippingpointingness Sunday as he gave a lesson to the Scouts, turned Deacons for the day at church. We do have a responsibility to help these boys prepare for “real life,” be it school or having their own families and whatnot. We’re not the sole providers of these experiences, but we are providers. And getting to the tipping point as a provider of life experience is not a good thing. I should still be on the edge where I’m a bit anxious, a bit uncomfortable, a bit more willing to stretch myself – and thus the boys – to accomplish the greater things, not just the good.

Same goes for my teaching efforts at BYU-Idaho. I passed the tipping point in that job a while back, and I need to get back to feeling uncomfortable with things so I try harder. I suppose that I recognize I have a problem is part of the cure, and I am making efforts to be more involved, more probing, more curious, more anxious to share good writing and to help my students see their own potential. My teaching group leader challenged me with a constellation of minor, but essential, tasks at which I can do better, and I’m working to follow her advice.

The good thing is I don’t yet feel I’ve reached the Peter Principle point, where I’ll no longer advance because I’ve met my level of incompetence. That’s different than a tipping point. Or maybe it’s that I have reached that level, realize it, and can learn to cope with it as advancement no longer becomes a possibility. That could be a good thing, as it means I could avoid being in a bishopric later in life.

I wonder, sometimes, if the sheer business of life causes those tipping points to approach more quickly. With everything tugging at our shirtsleeves, there’s little time for improvement. Take, for example, the past two weekends:

I did get some stuff done that first Friday, but nothing really improvement-wise. I worked a bit in our basement, insulating the new furnace ducts and starting the drywall, using every bit of drywall I had in the garage. That Saturday was taken up with Scouting, from a merit badge pow-wow to working at the scout office to help with writing on their website. Then Sunday hits, and with church in the middle of the day and Sunday being about the only day I had that weekend to catch up on some badly-needed sleep, there was no time.

Then last weekend. BYU-Idaho stuff Friday morning, and then that midmorning, preparation for the Scout camping trip. Then Friday afternoon into Saturday afternoon, gone with the Scouts. We had a great time; they earned their Fire Safety merit badges, but no real time to sit back and think, well, this is where I need to do better.

Sunday, a little better. I cleaned up a constellation of messes that were bugging me, including sorting through the Scout paperwork so I can get more organized and figure out where the improvements need to happen.

Sometimes I wonder if procrastination is my weakness. That can be it in part. But I have to hope that there is a difference between procrastination and needing a little down time, desire to improve be damned.
And maybe service is the answer. I have one Scout I know who needs service hours in order to advance in rank. And this is what is said in Isaiah (Chapter 40, verses 28-31):

Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding.

He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.

Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fail.

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary’ and they shall walk, and not faint.

Wait upon the Lord – serve him and his sons and daughters. Then the weariness will not only go away, but be replaced by strength.