Monday, March 27, 2017

A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood

I used to be an active person until one day I wasn't. Inertia being what it is, a bad back, a handful of concussions, and sheer laziness have seen to it that it has been like this for a number of years now. On top of that, my day job is one that has me sitting on my butt virtually all day, and on top of that, I have a minimum thirty-minute commute to get my sedentary ass to my cushy sit-down job and back again nine hours later. 

Then, about a year ago my wife started making a concerted effort to walk 10,000 steps a day. That, combined with some other dietary and lifestyle changes and she started to lose some weight. Looking down a belly that was starting to hang over my belt I decided that I would join her on her walks and for Father's Day that year she bought be a fitness tracker like the one she had (a Jawbone Up!). 

The game was now afoot. 

If you're not familiar with fitness trackers they are just step counters with an accompanying app on your phone. You set a daily target and it buzzes or flashes a light or gives you a virtual high five when you hit your goals. I have mine set for 10,000 steps a day, which is entirely arbitrary but works out to somewhere between 7.5 and 8km - which, if you're counting, is a crapload more than one, which also happens to be my previous daily average for the last several years. 

It's amazing the difference gamification of something as simple as walking can have. At any point throughout my day I can fire up the app on my phone and get a screen that looks like this: 


I pretty much ignore the calorie burn statistics, but I like the graph and stats immediately below it. That's a screenshot from Saturday and you can see there was one big walk in the middle there. Most days I will have a couple spikes because I'll get up from my desk twice a day and go for a walk at work, either on the treadmill in the gym or outside on the walking paths through the greenspace that snakes its way around my office. 

The people at Jawbone also have a trend feature in the app and you can get graphs set to daily, weekly, or monthly time periods and take a look at how you're doing. As you can see from my graph for the past seven months, once the weather started to get cold my monthly step count dropped significantly: 


I expect to have better averages once the weather warms up again (soon!) and my wife and I will reintroduce our nightly post-dinner walks around our neighbourhood. Which brings me to another wonderful benefit of getting off the couch and leaving the house. You get to discover your neighbourhood and meet the people in it.

Since we started walking together around the neighbourhood we've been down just about every side street within a three or four kilometers of our house. We have also finally made our way into some local businesses while we were at it and supported members of our community.

The one thing that has amazed me more than anything else since I started walking was the fact that only a few thousand steps from my front door were not one but two fabulous wooded areas with walking paths (one dirt and one paved multi-purpose)! If we go on a long walk (more than 6,000 steps) and the ground is dry we'll go through the woods. It is like entering a different world with beautiful, tall trees, small critters, and birds.

For the houses that border the wood, it is literally right in their backyard but for me and my wife, it's pretty darn close and we had lived in this neighbourhood for almost seven years before we discovered them.

I will call this one "Harry Potter Wood".
Image courtesy Google Earth.

The one with the paved path. It's about 1km start to finish.
Image courtesy Google Earth

If you haven't gathered by this point, I have been converted. Granted, I am not turning into a fitness freak or anything, but I feel healthier, I've lost a bit of flab and noticed a bit of muscle where there never used to be, I get to spend some quality time with my wife, support local business, and meet my neighbours. I have yet to identify a downside.

Plus, I get a congratulations notification on my phone when I reach 10,000 steps!

~ Andrew


Monday, March 20, 2017

WTF? :-P [sic]

Looking at the title of this post you might think the topic could be any number of things. This is not a post about profanity, though I have written a blog post touching on that topic that was quite successful. In fact, that post currently sits second on my all-time views list behind by sneakily-titled Size Matters post. Nor is this a post about punctuation, though with the legal vindication of the Oxford comma coming this week I could have touched on it. Nor is this (necessarily) a post about the evolution of language and how today the word "literally" literally includes a definition that means "figuratively", though that's probably the closest I can get to describing the topic.

Today I want to talk about abbreviations, acronyms, and emojis.

Now, I am generally of the opinion that a person shouldn't police another person's language. In fact, a friend of mine argued quite effectively with me once about how this is not only pedantic but also at best culturally insensitive and at worst racist.

That said, SRSLY. WTF?

Look, I can LOL and WTF with the best of them, but when I see stuff that's exclusively gibberish it makes me cringe. In my head, I'm very much a "Use your words!" type of guy. If it's a friend I'll respond with something snarky or smartass-y but most of the time my internal monologue is freaking out. For me, it's about time and place. It's about context. Sometimes a smiley face is a perfect response. Other times it is too casual or aloof. In other words, know your audience.

I've seen people completely wig out over the fact that every tweet, post, or comment isn't written with perfect spelling and impeccable grammar. I presented many of the same arguments my friend did when we spoke on this topic to one individual and was subsequently accused of contributing to the dumbing down of society and being anti-education.

I will agree that in some contexts my expectation is that text should be grammatically sound with no spelling mistakes. Take as an example a job application or resume for a job in which written and oral communication in English is essential. Alternatively, I can tell you that I've personally hired people who have submitted resumes that were sub-par in the areas of grammar and spelling. They were computer programmers and they needed a base level of English skills (oral, comprehensive, and written) to be proficient. English wasn't their first language, but holy hell could they write code.

Additionally, some abbreviations have been around for decades or even longer. Do any of these look familiar?
  • i.e. - Latin, id est, meaning "that is" and used to shorten the phrase "in other words".
  • Et al. - Latin, et alia, meaning "and others" and used to round out a list of names instead of writing them all out.
  • e.g. - Latin (surprise!), exempli gratia, meaning "for the sake of example" and used when, well, giving an example (e.g. this list).
Tangent:
This reminds me of one of my high school math teachers. He was at the chalkboard one day and writing something out and someone asked him a question and he didn't know the answer. He turned around and while juggling his chalk he said, "I don't know. I would rather tell you that than make something up or dance around it. I'll let you in on a secret, though. Most of the time when a teacher doesn't know the answer they'll say, 'It's Latin.'"
The class appreciated his honesty and on we went with the lesson. A few classes later he was at the chalkboard again and was giving an example of something and he wrote "i.e." on the board and then another phrasing of whatever it was he had just written. Almost immediately one of my classmates thrust her hand in the air. "Sir," she said. "What does the 'i.e.' stand for?"
The teacher's shoulders started to bounce as his laughter overcame him. Within a few seconds, the laughter spread to everyone in the classroom. The teacher turned around and with tears streaming down his cheeks from laughing so hard managed to blurt out, "It's Latin."
I never did find out if the girl who asked the question genuinely didn't know what "i.e." meant or if she just saw a golden opportunity for a laugh and took it.
Given that abbreviations, short forms, and other informal words and phrases are so widely used, what makes some of the common terms used today unacceptable? It seems that if they originate from Latin then they get a pass but if they originate from social media they are trash words that have no place.

I can see both sides of the argument and as mentioned earlier I break it down into context. More specifically, formal versus informal. To me, any formal correspondence (work emails, resumes, letters [do people still write letters?], schoolwork, etc) should be held to a different standard than informal correspondence (text messages, casual emails, social media posts & comments). That means in formal correspondence no emojis and no non-industry acronyms. You can GTFO with that stuff, as far as I'm concerned.

I asked my daughter and two of her friends (all in the 9th grade) if they felt the need to use texting lingo in any of their schoolwork and they looked at me like I had two heads. Granted, it's a small sample size but all of them agreed that using "LOL" on a test, paper, or as part of their homework would be unprofessional. One girl heard of someone using text message based acronyms in a paper and they received a zero (I suspect this might be an urban legend propagated by the English teachers in order to scare students into utilizing a more historically conventional vocabulary).

Here's an experiment that you can help me with. A teacher gives her class the following instructions:
Email me a short paragraph of three or four sentences explaining your thoughts on the use of profanity in society.
On a scale of 0 to 10 (ten being perfect), how would you grade the following responses?
I think that there is a time and a place for profanity. You can't just run around saying, "What the Fuck?" and "Get the fuck out!", but some sometimes, "Well, shit," sums it up perfectly. Also, in many languages and cultures different English words mean different things. I don't know how my words will be interpreted and vice versa. The best thing to do in that situation is to add a smiley face. 
Put your response and rationale in the comments below. If Blogger is being a pain and won't let you do that then you can email me at potatochipmath@gmail.com and I'll paste it into the comments (let me know if you want to be identified (and how) or if you'd rather remain anonymous).

~ Andrew

Monday, March 13, 2017

What'd I Miss?

It's been a while. Thank you for not forgetting about me. Aside from my open letter to McDonald's (which, if you're listening McD's, I am still really pissed about) I haven't posted anything in more than six months. That's a long hiatus, but... BUT I have some exciting reasons as to why the absence.

First of all, after my last post back in August 2016, I started a project which would have a significant impact on my writing career. I renovated the basement bedroom of my house and turned it into a writing room. A friend of mine down in Boston, Richard B. Wood, did this earlier in the year and dubbed his new creative space The Lair. Being a homegrown lad from The Great White North, the name for my space needed a Canadian touch and after much deliberation (entirely too much, some would say) I decided on Lair North, Eh? though around the house it commonly goes by The Writing Room.

Having a dedicated space to go and have uninterrupted time to create was of paramount importance. If I was going to make the leap from being a writer to being a published author I was going to need to take it seriously (more seriously than I had been) and give writing its own time and place. The room needed to be comforting and inspiring and filled with all the tools to help me bring my ideas to life.

I still need to put a few finishing touches on it (I need a small end table, a few pieces of art, and some blinds) but the transformation was extensive.

Before:

After:



Everything in the new room has a purpose:
  • The little half-sized guitar is there because I occasionally write lyrics (really the only form of poetry I am capable of). 
  • The is some art that's there and more to come because the presence of art pleases my muse. 
  • I have my NaNoWriMo victories on the wall hanging above a photo of my aforementioned friend, Richard, pointing his finger at me with the heading "Shouldn't You Be Writing?". These are great motivators. 
  • What was once a door to get into the circuit breaker panel is now a chalkboard (and also a door to get into the circuit breaker panel) for keeping lists and scribbling random notes. 
  • There is my wife's BA (Political Science) and my B.Sc (General Science) from the University of Waterloo. These are accomplishments that we are both very proud of. 
  • There's a chair for reading, relaxing, napping, and thinking (Winnie The Pooh has honey and I have my La-Z-Boy). 
  • A lamp because... well, we had an extra lamp and nowhere to put it. 
  • Books. There are lots and lots of books. The whole family has books on those shelves. I just wish I had more room for more books. 
  • Finally, to the left of me when I'm sitting at the keyboard there is my shelf of inspiration and usefulness. 
    • The top of this little bookcase sits books that my friends have written, music CDs they've created, and one bottle of beer that my friend Jon crafted (links to all the stuff below). 
    • Underneath that shelf are reference books, how-to books, Stephen King's On Writing, a space pen, a Rubik's Cube, an Oxford English Dictionary (because Webster can kiss my butt), and some golf balls from my brother-in-law's memorial golf tournament (Ryan passed eight years ago today - also my birthday - and I miss him every day).
The rules of the room are simple:
  1. Closed door = Do not disturb.
  2. Don't touch the laptop (it's super finicky and on its last legs).
  3. If you're done with a book, put it in a bookcase (alphabetical by author last name, or on the shelf of inspiration ordered by height).
  4. If you want to read a book, take one (just bring it back when you're done. See rule #3).
So, what has happened since the room became a usable space?

Well, as some of you may know, a couple years ago my daughter had surgery to correct a severe case of scoliosis. My wife, not finding much helpful information for parents going through something similar, started a family blog so we could share our story and hopefully help other families. The blog was a great success, with families from all over the world finding the site and learning from our experiences.

Wanting to bring our story to as many people as possible, and always with something more to say, I compiled all the blog posts and sectioned them off into various phases (waiting for a surgery date, preparing for a second opinion, pre-op, surgery, post-surgery, etc.) Before each phase, I added my own take on what was happening at that time. I also added an introduction bringing everyone up to speed on our daughter and what life was like before the diagnosis, a question and answer section, and a lessons-learned section at the end.

It was a lot of work, but it was work I was able to accomplish, uninterrupted, at Lair North, Eh? over the course of a month. Once that was done, I got right into NaNoWriMo for the sixth year in a row and every day over the course of November you could hear the sounds of me typing and talking to myself. I am happy to say that for the fourth time in those six years I managed to write more than 50,000 words and win NaNo!

Then, a break for the holidays where I fiddled here and there with a few things and tried to figure out what to do next. Come the new year, however, something was brewing. I was showing the scoliosis book to a few trusted friends to get feedback and it was suggested that I get it in the hands of one of their publishers.

I won't go into details (to protect the innocent and all that jazz), but suffice it to say that the manuscript for Bent But Not Broken: A Family's Scoliosis Journey made it into the hands of Oghma Creative Media and a few weeks later I signed a contract to have the book published!


So, what happens now?

Well, the first step was to get all the words in the manuscript looking good for the fine editors over at Oghma. The next step was to provide all the images that would be used and place an image tag in the manuscript so the formatting people would know where stuff goes. Then, I need to caption all the images (close to fifty of them) and secure permission to publish any of the images that were not either a family photo or a medical image from my daughter's personal medical record.

Once all that was done, off to the publisher it went. There, an editor will look it over and the process of fixing and re-writing begins. A lot of the book was blog posts and I'm hoping there won't be any substantive changes made to those since they were written in-the-moment. I expect the narrative parts that I wrote will tighten up and give the book a nice pace.

At some point down the road, once we are all happy with the words there will be copy edits, formatting, and cover design.

When it is all said and done, at some point in the first half of 2018, we should have the book in stores and available for download, and who knows, maybe later on next year you'll see another title from me hitting the shelves as well.

~ Andrew



Who's on my shelf of inspiration?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Would You Like Epinephrine With That?

Dear McDonald’s Canada,

I’m not sure where to start. I find your recent decision to not just introduce nut allergen-riddled products to your restaurants but to also avoid the containment of said allergens baffling. My son has a potentially deadly nut allergy so I have been thinking about this quite a bit since the news came to my attention. So far, I’m left with more questions than answers. The first of which is:

What were you thinking?

My instinct is to answer that question on your behalf with, “You weren’t,” however I know for certain that this was not the case. You had signs and posters made up, for crying out loud. This wasn’t an ad-hoc decision made at some corporate retreat. This was a deliberate, strategic decision that contained forethought and planning and no doubt myriad changes to the corporate employee handbook.

Speaking of employees, you haven’t just ruined dinner for hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of Canadians. You have now made the conscious decision to make your work environment unsafe for any employees with nut allergies. What had previously been a safe workplace is now potentially deadly. Another question that immediately came to mind was, “Did you take this into consideration when you made the decision?” If you did, I hope this was communicated well in advance and I trust you also more than adequately compensated the employees that were affected.  

McDonald’s used to be a restaurant you could count on, for families on the go, for travelers, for kids looking for their first job, and you have just pulled the rug out from under a good portion of those people. 

What were you thinking?

My family has seen first-hand all the good work you are doing with Ronald McDonald House. We take great pride in supporting a company that makes such a profound difference in the lives of families living through unspeakable circumstances. But now you’ve turned around and slammed the door in the face of not just hundreds of thousands of your customers, but throngs of supporters as well.

Is it worth it? Tell us, multi-billion dollar faceless corporation, how much more money do you think you will make with these new products? How much more is it compared with how much you think you are going to lose from angry families like mine? The difference should be in the millions of dollars. Seriously, you must genuinely think you will come out on top to the tune of millions. If not, I can’t imagine how this decision was ever made. 

What were you thinking?

How much more would it have cost to deliver new menu items in a manner that was allergy safe? You already have pre-packaged peanuts. Would providing a similar alternative in these cases really have hurt your bottom line that severely? I keep coming back to the idea that this wasn’t thought through, but your actions thus far show this was not the case. You knew what you were doing. 

What were you thinking? 

This does not seem like the action of a restaurant chain that cares about its employees and customers.  This seems like something Donald Trump would do and in my mind, his approval rating is higher than yours right now. On behalf of all the individuals and families who live with nut allergies in this country, I implore you to re-think your decision. 

Make McDonald’s great again.


Sincerely,


Andrew Butters

Monday, August 29, 2016

Peeing Into The Digital Wind

I'm beginning to think that the internet, especially the social media aspect of it, is probably the most intricate and fascinating social experiment in the history of the world. There's an old saying that goes, "Opinions are like assholes. Everybody's got one and everyone thinks everyone else's stinks." This is what the internet has become. Hundreds of millions of people with their own special opinion on EVERYTHING and a whole bunch of them chomping at the bit to point out what's wrong with everyone else's, especially yours.

I get it. I really do. It's so hard to resist. You know you're right. You are right! You must let all the people know you're right. I've been there a thousand times. Hell, I've been there as recently as this weekend. Try as I might, I would not bite my tongue and had to chime in on something that, had I left well enough alone, would have left me in a perfectly calm state. As it was, I was left frustrated and disappointed and all I accomplished was completely wasting half an hour of an otherwise wonderful day.

http://www.reactiongifs.com/

That's all fine and dandy when it's average folk arguing with each other over average things. What really makes my head turn is when there's a company + customer dust up. When I see this happen the first thing I try to do is determine which party is batshit crazy, then I typically root for the other one. If both parties involved are off their rockers then that's even better. Without a horse in the race, I can just sit back and enjoy the show.

I am left wondering what the ever loving hell is there to be gained - on either side - by engaging in these shenanigans? In many cases, it's the company that ends up looking the fool. The old adage, "The customer is always right," seems to ring true, at least in the court of public opinion (even though it's really bullshit). Occasionally, though, a company will come out on top and boy-oh-boy is that fun to watch. There is something thoroughly satisfying about watching an internet asshat get their just desserts.

For an example of this, we need to look no further than The White Moose Café in Ireland. Café owner/manager, Paul Stenson, took exception one day to some vegans who frequented his café and slagged him in a review. For the record, Paul had no problem with vegans frequenting his restaurant but expected a little heads up beforehand. Instead, their expectation was that he would be able to cater to their very specific dietary needs on a whim. What Paul did next was nothing short of genius.

He fought back and he fought back hard.

Have you ever heard of the joke "The Aristocrats"? It's a go-to amongst comedians, often told in the company of other comedians. The whole point of it is to take it as far as you can in terms of obscenity and offensiveness. Gilbert Gottfried is renowned for using this joke to turn around a crowd of comedians that were gathered for a roast of Hugh Hefner shortly after 9/11. Gilbert told an offside joke that could be easily categorized as being "too soon". He got boos. He got heads shaking. He got finger wags of shame. Then he busted into The Aristocrats. By the time he was done all was (mostly) right with the room again. More people were laughing compared to the moments before he took the mic so it's safe to say he pulled off one of the greatest comedic recoveries ever.

Well, our friend Paul, the owner/manager of The White Moose Café in Ireland, after getting his crappy review from the angry vegans, he launched into his very own rendition of The Aristocrats. He went full-blown five-alarm batshit crazy with his responses at one point [sarcastically] posting, "Any vegans attempting to enter our café will be shot dead at point blank range." Buzzfeed chronicles the whole sordid affair and it is pure gold.

The end result? The White Moose Café is now one the busiest establishments in Ireland, likely giving the Blarney Stone a run for its money. If I ever go to Ireland I'm stopping by to give Paul some business. I just hope I can get a table and don't have to step over too many dead vegans while standing in line.

Used with permission from The White Moose Café

On the other side of the coin, we have M. R. (Michael Robb) Mathias and the website Fantasy Faction. It should be a really simple relationship. The writer writes and publishes (in this case self-publishes) and the readers read, review, and discuss the writer's work (utilizing the comments section on sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble as well as the handy dandy Fantasy Faction forum).

Now, I once had the good fortune of meeting Chuck Wendig at a writer's workshop and the writer/reader relationship was briefly discussed. In a nutshell, once that book leaves the writer's hands, it's no longer about them. Reviews are for readers, not writers. At no point should a writer inject themselves into a conversation about their work - at least not in a public forum like a review site or forum and certainly not unless they were invited. Full stop.

It would appear that Michael wasn't in attendance that day because he took his own "Aristocrats" approach and it failed miserably. Michael posts some self-promoting thing to a forum. Forum moderators move it to the self-published and small press section. Michael takes exception to this and, in the public forum, unleashes an egotistic rant that will go down in infamy as "Mathias’s Meltdown".

You can read a summary of the meltdown here, or you can take a gander at the original forum discussion or peruse what twitter was saying in real time. I have read them all end-to-end and all I can say is, wow! Of course, to a certain extent "any press is good press" applies here (I'm sure he got a few sales out of the whole exchange) but when forum posters (not just the mods) are calling you out for being a twatwaffle, the right play here is not to double down on being a twatwaffle. There were at least half a dozen ways Michael could have navigated those waters and not drowned. As it is, he has the distinction of out batshit crazying Anne Rice.

Image released to the public domain by Anne Rice

All things considered, if Google search results are any indication and you have an online presence as a company (or brand or content creator etc...) you are more than likely going to end up like M.R. Mathias and not Paul Stenson from the White Moose Café.

In summary, be careful out there. Online engagements are a lot like peeing into the wind. It may provide you with some measure of relief but all you really do is end up smelling foul and having to explain to everyone why you're such an idiot.

~ Andrew