September 29, 2013

Raiders of the Lost Art

A couple weeks ago my writer and blogger friend Gordon posted about a couple of wing-nuts who were making him shake his head. One particular woo-woo of interest was Starre Vartan who was writing for the Mother Nature Network and has serious issues with the decline of cursive writing. Among other thoughts on the matter she had this to say: 

"They [children] won't be able to read the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, or anything written during the Civil War.  They're missing an entire portion of our country's history."

To which Gordon had a few things of his own to say. His thoughts are best summed up by the title of his post: There's this thing called "reality." You might want to check it out.

Given that a large portion of the history of writing has religious significance I'm actually quite surprised that Ms. Vartan didn't take the "if you don't write in cursive you're the spawn of the Devil" route but then again, maybe she's not quite a full-fledged member of the Tea Party.

There was no app for that.

At any rate, we're not here to discuss how the lack of cursive is ruining the world. Or are we?

The art of writing goes back thousands of years. Longer if you consider things like hieroglyphs (which we won't). There is some debate surrounding this but let's just say that the first novel ever written was Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory and published in 1485. The thing is, by this time the printing press was well established and while the book may have been written in script it was published using typography.

The way I see it, all cursive writing did was draw a line between the classes. If you couldn't read and write then you were worthless; either dirt poor or a slave, or both. If you could read and write then there was hope for you, but you were likely just part of the working class. If you could craft a beautiful line of perfect cursive text though, well, then you were extremely well educated and most likely well off financially. After all, you could afford to practice, practice, practice. All those quills, paper, and ink weren't cheap you know.

When public education became more prominent the whole idea of writing as a discipline made sense. Everything was written and everything had to be read. There needed to be a system in place to keep it all in order. Cursive writing to the rescue! Plus, it had the added benefit of giving the children a fabulous exercise to assist with their dexterity and develop part of their brain that would not normally get this much attention. My daughter was still being taught cursive writing a couple years ago, but I'm not so sure it will be around for my son a couple years from now.

I dream of the day I never have to practice this with my kid

I say good riddance.

As far as I can tell, the tablet computer is pretty much bringing an end to all of it. It only took 500 years to get from that first printing press to having a printing press at the fingertips of anyone who knows the alphabet. In the grand scheme of things, that's a pretty impressive achievement.

We're supposed to be moving forward, not the other direction. Teach kids to print neatly and recognize printed letters and you're teaching them to interact and understand the world as it is now and as it will be tomorrow. I'm a tactile guy and ideas flow more freely when I physically write them down. Plus, I tend to absorb more if I write it (apparently there's a reason we remember what we write), but it's a personal thing. There is absolutely no need for me to be concerned about the quality if I have the means to put it into some readable format for others if I need to.

The Tenth Circle of Hell: Cursive Writing
What I find more absurd is how the battle between touchscreen and qwerty came and went so quickly. Given people's history of digging their heels in on similar issues, I was sure this debate would rage much longer and much more furiously than the whole cursive writing thing. It would appear that our friends at Blackberry appear to be the only ones still clinging to hope that the qwerty ship won't sink.

Have you ever seen a teenager on a touchscreen smartphone? We don't need to be teaching them cursive; handheld computers have taken care of that. We don't even need to be teaching them how to spell; autocorrect and overly relaxed (i.e. stupid) online dictionaries have taken care of that. Put cursive in art class where it can receive proper attention because the other classes need to teach them how to live in the modern world. Now, all we need is a class teaching them how to look someone in the eye and have an actual conversation.

September 22, 2013

Peas in a Pod

One of the things that I think makes writing such a solitary activity is the fact that more often than not it's something that's done alone. Of course there are exceptions: the occasional novel has more than one author, but to say it happens once in a blue moon would be remarkable understatement; non-fiction often has more than one contributor; research papers can be found with scores of names underneath the title; and if you're a fan of comedy, some of the funniest bits have been written by a comedy duo.

You have to go back a long way to see the beginnings of the double act, and even though it was more than 80 years ago you'll probably still recognize the names - they were that good:
  • Laurel and Hardy
  • George Burns and Gracie Allen
  • Abbott and Costello

Probably one of the funniest bits of all time. Pure comic genius.

As we move into the golden age of television some equally familiar names start to appear:
  • Bob Hope and Bing Crosby
  • The Smothers Brothers
  • Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner 

Funny men for more than half a lifetime. They're in their 80's now and still got it.

The list goes on and on:

  • Dan Aykroyd & John Belushi
  • Gene Wilder & Richard Pryor
  • Mike Myers & Dana Carvey
  • David Spade & Chris Farley
  • Cheech & Chong
  • Jay & Silent Bob 

Granted, some of the pairs listed to this point are another class of comedian altogether and never had to rely on their audience being fantastically high to get a laugh, but they all leveraged the concept of a comedic duo to fantastic success.

So what is it that makes a the double act work so well?

In my assessment it's because everyone needs a life partner, someone who provides those things that you happen to be lacking yourself. Life, in all is frailty, requires balance. Unfortunately, what this means is that at any given point in time one of you gets to be the idiot, and if any of you have seen my talk "I See Dumb People" you'll know that it's usually the dude.

Image courtesy Linda Ryan

For better or worse, I'm the idiot in my relationship with my wife. We've known each other for more than twenty years, been together for more than eighteen, married for almost fourteen, and I am unable to count the number of times I've heard her say, "It's a good thing you're cute." That's just how it goes. I married my straight man. Um... you know what I mean. Stop judging me, it's legal in Canada and some part of the U.S.

Comedic duos feed off each other and the good ones have that chemistry that just clicks. They never miss a beat and the audience in turn feeds off them and are ultimately able to relate to one or the other. In relationships it's slightly different: instead of serving up jokes, the straight man is there to keep the idiot alive just long enough for the insurance money to matter.

~ Andrew

September 15, 2013

Frame of Mind

I find it fascinating to watch people in the process of creating. I don't know why this is but I think it has something to do with the fact that I have my own special brand of "getting in the mood" and I'm looking for some sort of validation that I'm normal.  More and more lately I suspect that I am not.

I was on the phone with my wife and she was telling me to get some words done while she was out and the kids were asleep. Sage advice from a woman who knows me very well and wants me to finish this damn book. The only problem was that I was exhausted from a week of working the day job and I wasn't in the mood to write. Plus, with only 13,000 or so words left in the novel I was beginning to realize that an outline would have been a good idea. These were some of my notes for unfinished chapters:

  • Insert some stuff about the police in here doing police-type things
  • Hint a bit more about extreme nefariousness
  • Peter and Dana come across some disturbing shit

This is going to win me Kafka Prize, I can feel it.

Franz Kafka

As someone with a history of traumatic brain injuries I can attest to the fact that sometimes the best ideas are the ones that come to you when you're head is not on straight. Out in the real world they are usually called "bad ideas" and people end up losing their jobs, or their loved one, or their friends; but for creators a bad idea is still salvageable - it's just going to take a little bit of creativity.

A while back I did a post about giving birth to ideas; a process that in my opinion is significantly less interesting compared with what actually happens when someone starts to work on that idea and begins to flesh it out and bring it to life.

For most people, getting into a creative mindset is nontrivial, and for some finding the Creativity Zone is almost as elusive as finding the G-spot (only the Creativity Zone actually exists). You may be thinking, "But it looks like people do it effortlessly" Well these people are few and far between. They are amazing to watch and invaluable to interact with to be sure, but they are definitely a rare breed. For the rest of us schleps, finding the right frame of mind is a fair amount of work - just like anything else.

Frame of Mind (I know, I know...)

Even one of the most creative minds on the planet will tell you that there's a process to it, that it doesn't just appear out of thin air like a catapulting cow that's just been hurled over the wall of a castle. If you have 36 minutes you should watch the John Cleese on Creativity video. It completely changed the way I approach things. If you don't I'll sum it up for you:

If you've got a nice quiet place to work, about 90 minutes, and access to some like-minded creative people then you've got what you need to foster a good amount of creativity.

This brings us to my problem from the second paragraph of this article. Exacerbating it is the fact that there are very few moments in a day where I have all those things at the same time. The best I can do most days is have the kids asleep, a couch to sit on, the Internet on my laptop, and 120 minutes before I go to bed. The other night it turns out that this was close enough.

What I did then, was sit by myself with my manuscript open in one window and YouTube and Facebook in another. My cursor was set to the part of my story that was in need of attention. Then, I watched a good half an hour of Louis CK stand up comedy. This guy is really funny and I find that laughing out loud has a way of relaxing the mind. Then I hit up a friend on Facebook who had a few minutes to spare. We chatted for a bit and just tossed random silly ideas back and forth. The last one I came up with went something like this:

"I think I'll write a story about a window washer. A transsexual window washer who doesn't use scaffolding but instead floats down from the roofs of buildings on one of those big Cirque du Soleil velvet ropes, squeegee in hand, washing the windows and winning the hearts of big city Dallas."

All he needs is a squeegee


I had been reading something about transsexuals recently and my story takes place in Dallas. There was that Cirque person who tragically died a while back during a show, so that was probably in the back of my mind as well. As for the window washing, I can't explain it. I think I just like the word squeegee.



Once I hit that point I was off to the races and I flipped over to my MS and just started typing. I guess it worked because 24 minutes later I had more than 700 words on the page and was still going strong (anyone who has done NaNoWriMo knows that this is a pretty good clip).

So there you have it. One example of what it took to get from "I'm not in the mood to write" to real life words on a page. I hereby dub it The Squeegee Process™. Is is fascinating? Probably not to most people, but it works for me, multiple concussions and all.

If you have a creative process you'd like to share please comment below. I'd really like to know that I'm not alone.

~ Andrew

September 08, 2013

Once Upon a Hashtag


Between text messaging, social media, and dictionaries adding the most absurd "words" it is clear that the English language is changing at a torrid pace. If I'm being honest, I can say that I purposefully avoid anything to do with all this gosh darned newfangled hogwash poppycock. My text messages contain full words only interrupted by the occasional smiley face or ampersand (to convey a specific emotion or provide a more logical grouping of words) and the same goes for my social media posts.

Listen up: I'm a writer. If I can't say it using Oxford English Dictionary words from before the year 2000 then I am failing miserably at my craft and should feel embarrassment and shame.

Keep in mind that I am also human, which means I am also imperfect. A quick search of my Twitter feed for the two most common non-words that are now words (LOL and OMG) came up with the following:

(The tweet at the top links to this particularly funny cartoon, the second tweet from the top is a conversation between myself and Christine Reid - that makes absolutely no sense to me today, the second from the bottom links to this old blog post of mine with a shout out to Wren Emerson, and the bottom tweet links to an old Hockey News article I dug up in my archives)

I think that's a pretty damn good track record. Out of more than 7,600 tweets there are exactly 4 that use stupid acronyms (none in the last 18 months when, arguably, I started to get more serious about writing). If you're into percentages, that's somewhere around 0.05% I think I'm going to start creating badges to put on blogs and profile pictures:

Like anyone else I have my vices and whether it's on Twitter or on Facebook I have a habit, an addiction really, to all things hashtag. Hashtags, as they kids are saying, are all the #rage.

For those not so well versed on the nuances of social media here is the definition from our friends over at Wikipedia:

hashtag is a word or a phrase prefixed with the symbol #.[1][2] It is a form of metadata tag
Short messages on microblogging and social networking services such as Twitter, Tout, Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr, Google+ or Facebook may be tagged by putting "#" 
before important words, as in: 

#Wikipedia is an #encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

Hashtags provide a means of grouping such messages, since one can search for the hashtag
and get the set of messages that contain it.

Well that clears that up.

It's probably best to look at a few examples of what the hashtag provides in terms of added value. I took the liberty of doing a hashtag search on the most popular site for hashtags (Twitter) and one of the newest sites to start incorporating the hashtag (Facebook). Naturally the hashtag I chose to use as my search was #hashtag:

If you take even a cursory glance at the results you'll be able to see that some people are using the hashtag #hashtag in their posts for no other reason than to have a hashtag in their post. I wonder if they think they're being clever? #lame

So what's wrong with just searching for any old word? Context. Not that there is a lack of context, but plain text searches tend to give you more of it than you need. The hashtag acts as a consolidator to group similarly contextual posts together so that not every one that contains that word shows up in your results (though Twitter will often return search results from all the other text in the tweet as well. #sigh)

For a while, Facebook refused to get on board the hashtag train. In fact, some people would get downright angry if you happened to drop a hashtag into a status update or comment. When it was introduced a few months ago there was a flood of hashtag use and I have to admit, even this hashtag lover was mildly #annoyed. What's more, I did a quick check on searches for hashtags of a questionable nature on Twitter and Facebook and the latter is censoring their search results to a much higher degree (not cool, Facebook. Not cool at all.)

That aside, in my tweets and Facebook statuses, and yes even in the occasional text message (this is how you know you have a hashtag problem) I will continue to use, and advocate the use of, hashtags. Right or wrong, for better or worse, it's the path I have chosen. #YOLO

As far as this post is concerned I just can't take it any more, so I make this promise to you now: you won't see any hashtags in future posts or formal writing of mine ever again. Never mind the fact that I won't feel at all bad if someone catches me breaking my promise. That just means someone is actually reading my stuff, and I'm perfectly okay with that. Cleverness #FTW!

~ Andrew

September 01, 2013

Your Comment Is Awaiting Moderation

Pre-moderating: sensible thing to do or petty censorship?

When it comes to pre-moderating comments on blogs I have to say that I'm a little bit baffled. If you're a site for children I totally get it; and the same for a news or media outlet, but if you're just one of a boat load of blogs out there, from the big name to the small time, what's the rationale for pre-moderating comments?

News sites tend to moderate the hell out of their comments. Given that they are in the business of spreading news to hundreds of millions of people it behooves them to keep a tight reign on the content below their headers. The last thing they need is for some wingnut to fly off the handle in front of an audience the size of most nations.

For most things corporate I understand as well, though I do find it refreshing when the big players don't turn every web page like a giant legal cover-your-ass exercise. The Google Blog doesn't moderate their comments - at least it doesn't pre-moderate them (it's possible they just delete anything that doesn't meet their standards for submission after it's posted). While Google isn't exactly a small time company they're also well known for being a little more relaxed about things so I'm taking the absence of pre-moderation of comments for what it's worth.

As for my little corner of the blogosphere I just can't wrap my head around the idea that a comment would need my approval before I allowed it on my site. It smells a little bit like censorship, don't you think? Besides, who the hell am I to say what people can and cannot say about something I fully intended the entire Internet to read (or at least a few hundred people)?

Back in 2005 I had a different blog and one particular asshole starting commenting and causing a ruckus. For a time I just didn't allow comments in hopes he would find someone else to hassle but realizing that it wasn't fair to other readers who did want to comment I turned them back on. It was at this point that I tinkered with the idea of moderating the comments. In the end I chose not to, but had my finger on the "report" button just in case he got out of hand. He never did. Contrary to some beliefs, there are a lot of problems that will just go away if you ignore them.

A brief poll to a few friends who blog and a little bit of research on the web dug up the following nuggets of extrememly precise data:
  • A large number do not moderate their comments
  • Many only moderate for spam
  • Some use a form of word verification

It would seem that for those who moderate spam is the biggest concern. No one wants a slew of ads and unrelated links clogging up their comments section and this is where I think the word verification comes in. That was one thing I ended up implementing myself, and as far as a security feature goes; forcing a person to enter in a couple words just so you know they're not a robot isn't much, but it does keeps the spam down and in my case also allows anonymous comments (while I prefer people stand in front of their comments by putting their name on them, I can understand that some people may have concerns over privacy and things like that).

There's lots of comment plug-ins for the popular platforms like Blogger and Wordpress and both have at least a couple variations on moderation. Another one is Disqus, which I used for a while but abandoned for reasons I don't remember.

But to the question at hand, is it just best practice or are we making it out to be worse than it is? As far as my blog goes, I've decided that until I actually have a problem I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. I like to think of it as giving the public an opportunity to disappoint.

So far, they have not (except this person).

~ Andrew

For those interested, here's a sampling of a few news sites and their moderation policies:

NY Times
Click this sentence for just the policy text

Click this sentence for just the policy text

Huffington Post