FOUND SUBJECTS at the Moonspeaker
Reflections on Writing and Reading (2014-02-02)
As happens to every writer from time to time, I have encountered another instance of significant discouragement from continuing to write, especially fiction. For now I am sticking with the idea that the person who purveyed the unpleasantness intended precisely the oposite effect. No doubt they sincerely believed themselves to be the most helpful of readers. Yet I came away from the encounter bewildered as to how they could possibly have read the story that I wrote, because what they described to me had nothing much to do with it. Different people do respond to the same story intensely differently – the example of Tolkien fans versus the people who couldn't see the point of slogging through even The Hobbit is a fairly well known example, especially right now with the latest Peter Jackson movie out. So bewilderment is quite possible, and probably a good thing, actually. The discouragement came from the fact that I did get one thing clear from what the person said: they wanted a totally different story, and what they had read was a failure because it didn't match what they expected. They wanted a different story.
There's a couple of big problems with that as a critique. First, I wasn't writing that person a story to order. If they had asked me for a locked room mystery and I coughed up a weird tale ala Lovecraft, that would certainly be a failure. Second, and I think this is true of all writers, I wasn't writing for them, or to please them. I write to sort out my mind and pursue ideas, however peculiar they may be. Some ideas get a good run through in a short story before being used in something much longer, and the resulting clarity in the longer work is certainly pleasing. The short story version is not always or necessarily a success in its own right of course, and isn't always intended to be either. By "success" here I don't mean "read happily by others," since people generally don't enjoy tagging along while you rummage through the mental equivalent of a lumber room or attic.
In my time as a writer I have found the most discouraging people to be people who want to "critique" without being writers themselves, and writers with something painful and rigid stuck up their noses. Both are quick to find fault because whatever they are reading is something they didn't write and/or didn't preselect from a set of known options. And what's discouraging is not their lack of interest so much as their refusal to say they aren't interested. Alas, these are just the sort of people a writer will encounter most often until they find their audience, especially if they aren't much interested in writing mainstream stories. There's obviously nothing wrong at all with not wanting to read stories that aren't mainstream, or at least not wanting to read them without some kind of motivation besides spending some time reading.
There may not be much of an audience for all of what I write, but I don't plan to start working at things that don't interest me. Perforce this will suggest to most readers that a day job is a necessity in my life. Like many writers, I do indeed have a day job – it helps me get out of the house and learn and experience new things to write about, it is a necessity in more ways than one. Plus, all the teaching and researching demands its own quota of writing, writing of a more mainstream sort. So when I head off to write my own fiction, it's a way of letting my hair down, so to speak. Based on the range of feedback to it (which includes the gamut of responses, from pleased and interested to dismissal as "a poor first draft" of over three months work), it tends to fall into the weird to surreal category. Much of the time that is just the sort of stuff people are going to find fault with due to its form and content. Setting all that aside, why write such peculiar stuff anyway?
Speaking for myself at least, quite apart from the mind sorting and lumber room rummaging sort of stuff, there are other instances where a stubborn "what if" refuses to leave me alone until it has been written out. And the truth is, most "what if" questions are inherently weird. They may seem innocuous, even tedious at first meeting. They may seem obvious, of course the answer to the "what if" is a given "then." Yet if you resist the temptation to dismiss a "what if" question as something impossible burbling up courtesy of indigestion or insomnia, or if it successfully resists you dismissing it, the results of working out are almost always surprising. Or at least, they're surprising to me. For anybody else, well, your mileage may vary. Probably you won't remember after reading something you found unexpected or not structured to your liking, but do bear in mind that variable mileage and "shitty story" are not equivalent. Check your expectations before you categorize.
I can make the recommendation from a place of honest experience. My earliest encounters with Jorge Borges were with the Aleph and the Library of Babel. Outstandingly weird and just plain cool, at least in my opinion. By no means do I claim to properly understand them, and I love having found more stories that will always repay rereading. With any luck besides bad I may manage to write a few stories like that! Then I picked up an anthology of Borges' short stories, with the idea of getting to know his work better as I was just getting acquainted with him. Therefore, I dutifully read the introduction to the volume before plunging in – and found myself baffled by a whole sequence of tedious stories focussed on knife-wielding men who needed better hobbies than killing each other. Where the hell was the weird stuff? Well, it was in the next section of course. Borges wrote in many genres of fiction and non-fiction. The stories that surprised me were by no means bad, though I found the subject matter and yes sometimes their form uncongenial. For the moment at least, they have poor mileage for me.
"Wait," you may be thinking. "This is apples and oranges! Borges is Borges, and you, well. Come on, you've already conceded you're no Borges!" And to be sure, you wouldn't be wrong. It's just that I think every writer deserves the Borges treatment, even yours truly. Without it, there would be no way to read something outside of what you know or are comfortable with. Some of the non-comfort zone stuff will be bad, some good, but you can't gauge that based on a first response that comes from disorientation. If we never take the time to work through the disorientation, we'll never find the next Borges, or Kafka, or Bradbury, or Russ. That would be a sad loss indeed. (Top)
Alice's Adventures Underground at the British Library Online (2014-01-14)
The british library has been scanning and making available images of ancient and at least old books from its collection for some time, including well-known items like several of Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks. They have put another text up recently that is arguably more down-to-earth, and not only that, they have set up an excellent alternative viewing environment from the shockwave plug-in. (I suspect you can still view it with this plug-in if you wish.) This second detail is immensely pleasing for those of us who found the shockwave viewer atrocious to use despite the benefits of its so-called "interactiveness." On my own machine, despite high-speed internet, off-peak hours viewing, and a very nicely specced computer, the experience was slow at best, and without a navigation map analogous to what is available in layered image editing programs or on a decent digital camera, utterly disorienting. This was a special problem for Da Vinci's notebooks because they combine non-linear text, diagrams, and so forth. But back to the text of this entry.
The down to earth text in question here is Lewis Carroll's original handwritten edition of Alice's Adventures Underground, written out and illustrated for the person who originally inspired it at her request, Alice Liddell. It would be easy to find fault with his illustrations as some already have, though this strikes me as rather unfair. He wasn't a professional artist, so it would hardly make sense to compare his illustrations with those later drawn for him by John Tenniel for an expanded and tweaked version of the same text when it was officially printed as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. They are quite charming, and should give hope to anyone who has struggled to avoid having their drawings of people look as if their hands attach directly to their shoulders and the like (I know I've had my moments). Being a book-binder and fountain pen user, I found what the pictures show about the penmanship and the book the manuscript was written in quite interesting.
UPDATE 2017-12-24 - This original Alice is missing several of the most well-known scenes from the published versions, including such gems as the mad tea party and the encounter with the cheshire cat. The story expanded significantly between the original famous boat trip to include satires fuelled by changes affecting the professional life of Charles Dogdson, whose skepticism and frustration with the day's new math among other things, when passed through the prism between his day to day life to that of the raconteur Lewis Carroll became famously absurd and funny. Melanie Bayley takes up the mathematical aspects in a 2009 article for New Scientist, Alices' Adventures in Algebra: Wonderland Solved. Some of the controversial mathematics of Dogdson's time remain so in at least some corners even today. An accidentally funny example is included in a target novelization of an original Doctor Who episode called "The Twin Dilemma" which pivots on the kidnapping of twin mathematical prodigies. Towards the end of the book, the omniscient narrator comments on the "obvious nonsense" of such a thing as the square root of -3.
The folks at the british library have provided the images in two sizes, and they are in full colour. Thanks to that second detail, we get to see that Carroll used three colours of ink at least for his dedication and chapter headings. The elaborate calligraphic capitals and foliage flourishes are basically what every child was expected to learn in penmanship classes in grammar school, and adding elaborations of the type even to printed books, especially if they were highly prized, was common. Ruth Richardson includes a photograph of the elaborated frontispiece of a copy of Gray's Anatomy, to give an example. Carroll's use of an italic hand for the main text did give him some challenges, such as being forced to use underlining for emphasis, which can be seen on the very first page. He may even have used a fountain pen as they had been available for around ten years by 1862 when Carroll is understood to have begun drafting the manuscript. However, it is more likely that he carried out the work with one or more dip pens, which were still more common. In fact, it looks like the dip pen hypothesis is more than likely if we consider a page a bit more closely. If you take a close look at say, page 6, you'll see that the colour of the ink fades a bit towards the bottom of the page – getting a few pages away from the fly leaf and first two or three pages is important for gauging this, as those will tend to be most worn. The slight fading is typical of a dip pen.
The little creature shown with Alice on page 9 is surreal enough to make a person wonder if Carroll wasn't adding some of his own little jokes for adults. It is standing in the pose of the eventual Mock Turtle of Tenniel's illustrations, and is a most curious amalgam of bird's feet, a rattish sort of tail, tiny ears plastered to its head, and forelimbs reminiscent of a kangaroo's. Many of these early illustrations became the templates for Tenniel's work, which is no surprise for anyone who has a read up on Carroll and Tenniel's somewhat difficult working relationship. Carroll wanted Tenniel to reproduce his vision, which can't have been an easy task to be faced with.
Another interesting detail the british library scans allow to be picked out is that this manuscript was written in a pre-purchased notebook – the original printed page numbers are still visible in the upper corner of each page. In total this appears to be a hundred-page book with potentially a simple cardboard cover in the original that had the embossed leather cover pasted over it. This would have been a quick and easy job for the bookbinders of the time, and Carroll would have had many options. Most likely he passed the job to the bookbinders at his university. In any large town and up in the victorian era, there were still many bookbinders whose trade was fuelled by the practice of buying books as unbound folios and then having them bound separately. Certainly this was mainly an upper class sort of thing if the binding was cloth or leather.
Ironically, the only complaint I have with the viewing set up is that it isn't possible to see an enlarged two-page spread. This does special violence to the poem You are Old, Father William because it separates the illustrations from the text. (Top)
Follow up to Venus Not on a Half Shell (2014-01-06)
It has been quite awhile since I posted any astronomical-object type photographs. Jupiter and Saturn are so bright and easy to see even close to downtown that I had to try photographing them and see what I would get (will be watching for opportunities to catch mars again next). Once again I did not have my tripod out, and the night I took the photograph of Saturn that turned out, the sky was clouding over so it was impossible to catch Jupiter too. There are actually two reasonable shots of Saturn – as you can see there is no evidence of rings in the photo on the left, but that is to be expected in view of the light conditions and the fact that I'm working with a point and shoot camera, no telescope. The other shot is far darker than this one due to a thin layer of cloud passing over at just the wrong time.
I had to wait a couple of days to try photographing Jupiter again, and ended up frustrated on attempt number two. Jupiter was already so high in the sky that it was impossible to keep the eavestrough of my house out of shot, which interfered with the light metre reading and rendered Jupiter a blur of buttered-popcorn coloured light. Pretty, but not what I was after. So I tried again a day or two later, this time much earlier in the evening and from across the street from my house. Amazingly, when I tried for a shot with Jupiter shining between dark power lines, the results were just about as awful as when the white-painted eavestrough was in the way. Not quite sure what to make of that, except to admit I need to learn more about how the macros work on this camera. However, for the next shot I found a spot standing in the snow with power lines and trees out of view. Thankfully the wind had dropped off, because it was -20 celsius and I had to go gloveless on my shooting hand. The end result was well worth it, though, in the photograph on the right.
UPDATE 2016-05-21 - Quick update to sort out a garbled point on digital processing of images. I don't think what I originally said was completely out to lunch, but it was not expressed well and accidentally mashed together two unrelated issues. The actual point now clarified here, is that the camera "sees" somewhat differently in that its light metre adjusted exposures can look differently than what we might expect from what we see in the view finder or the little led viewscreen.
It's an accident Saturn looks so much bigger, related mostly to better air conditions, a steadier camera, and that it was still lower in the sky at shooting time than Jupiter. The Moon looks far larger when it is nearer the horizon than when it is high in the sky, even though obviously it hasn't changed size. The Moon does move away and back towards the Earth, but not enough for the difference to be obvious to the human or in a photograph taken with a camera of the type I use. It's having other objects we know the size of more accurately to compare the Moon to in the same visual field that makes the difference. In the case of Saturn, I was photographing it in a clear portion of the sky with clouds all around it, whereas with Jupiter the sky was clear. Nonetheless, as the photographs show, Jupiter is definitely the brighter object, and that is clear to the naked eye too.
At this point it finally occurs to me that I've never tried to get a photograph at full zoom of the Moon with this camera, or at least, not recently. A quick attempt at it from right downtown of course had a piss-poor result due to all the street and building lights, so I will have to spend some time experimenting with exposure times. I suspect for such a bright object it simply won't be possible to take full advantage of the zoom and get a good image without using a tripod, lucky or not. (Top)
Book Burning/Destruction is a Bad Sign (2014-01-04)
In the course of surfing around, looking for pictures to use for this thoughtpiece, while I did find something helpful, most of what I found pissed me off, to be blunt. The repeated use of photographs of the nazis burning books to illustrate articles about the destruction of books for the purpose of state censorship is lazy, and so is the repetition of how nasty the nazis are in the discussion. The issue today is not the nazis. The issue is the fact that today, right now, people are burning and otherwise destroying books at the behest of state governments. Those state governments are not the ones we're all encouraged to expect to so such things, not the ones we're encouraged to ritually denounce for their failure to properly pretend to be democratic even as we're encouraged to praise them for having supposed "free markets" anyway. No, this kind of bullshit is being definitely pulled by officially democratic governments now (yes, this is probably not a new thing), and that this is a real fact has now been confirmed by the current government in canada.
The present canadian government is but the most recent in a long and perfidious line whose primary purpose has been facilitating the stripping of every sort of identifiable "natural resource" going right back to when the fur trade was still a major concern. This government is absolutely obsessed with making it as easy as possible for companies engaged in the acquisition and sale of hydrocarbons to do so. That means continuing literally years and by now billions of dollars of heavy duty subsidies for what are widely acknowledged to be profitable industries, and changing the rules for bringing in foreign temporary workers to help push down their labour costs. That means all but ordering those companies to do whatever it takes to complete the genocide of Indigenous communities, and oh, don't worry about Indigenous rights and title because what this government can't pretend to rewrite out of existence it will ignore. That means muzzling scientists and preventing them from carrying out their work by cutting their funding, disbanding their research projects, and if they work for the government, firing them.
And now we know this effort also includes destroying scientific records contradicting what this government wants to believe. The canadian government wants to believe that climate change is not happening and is not affected by human behaviour, especially not by the human behaviour that removes hydrocarbons from the earth, processes, and burns them. To that end, the canadian government has ordered the wholesale destruction of scientific records produced by federal departments that show otherwise. There has been no digitizing. These materials are being destroyed, and what little is left is being centralized in hard to access repositories with at best minimal staff who could never respond to requests for information in a prompt fashion.
To the gutless federal employees going along with this meekly for fear of your jobs, the facts are these: your complicity will not save your job. The prime minister, who is an ideological extremist, will not check to see if you did as you were told and give you another few weeks before he cuts your job. He will not stop with the records and books being destroyed right now. See the Tyee's article What's Driving Chaotic Dismantling of Canada's Science Libraries? for details.
After all, if he gets away with destroying these scientific records, the destruction will be expanded to others contradicting the ideological preferences of this federal government. canada's national archives are already in a poorly maintained and precarious state. No, I am not suggesting canada is on the brink of fascism – I am suggesting that a canada in which rather than face reality and respect evidence the government and government supporters try to delete and hide away whatever they don't want to see, is a country heading straight into the worst sort of social trouble. (Top)
Getting Kids – Or Anybody Really – to Read (2013-12-14)
One of my favourite ways to keep my mind busy while performing some tedious task is to queue up some TED Talks (originally I used to listen to the radio, but radio is so lousy with commercials now that's hopeless). In one of them there was a brief pseudo-discussion of the expected results of an experiment. Probably the experiment couldn't be carried out as no ethics committee would green light it, but for the purposes of the talk, it was of course, a thought experiment. The purpose of the thought experiment was to learn if students could be persuaded to read more by paying them per book read. As it happens, analogous programs have been attempted, for example reading a certain number of books within a certain period allows the reader to claim a prize of some type. Kids aren't fools, and the kids involved in such programs typically do just what you would expect, having considered the variables. They read more shorter books. Which means they were being discouraged from reading longer or more difficult books that would help build their reading comprehension and vocabulary. Not a great pedagogical result.
UPDATE 2018-05-21 - Alas, I have given up on TED Talks since this thoughtpiece. It wasn't a decision I wanted to make, but they have become almost exclusively content-free market pitches and "you should be happy because everybody is always happy in america" talks. A similar progression is afflicting the cousin series to TED, the RSA talks. The "RSA Animate" series is still very good, though not often updated with new examples anymore since the advent of the "RSA shorts."
I have read and listened to a variety of discussions about "how to get kids to read." The ideas mooted vary considerably, veering between rewards-based systems to getting kids to do more reading and writing both via books and other media. There can be a reasonable place for all those ideas and combinations of them, certainly. Yet what struck me about many of them was that they shared several very specific features. They all involved a set up stage, handing the kids some rules to play by, telling them what the consequence of not meeting their quota would be, then leaving them to their own devices except at the evaluation points. I can't see how this would be effective at convincing kids skeptical of the value of reading or struggling with reading to persevere with it, because the overarching messages are so much stronger than the value or utility of reading. The overarching messages are quite clear: we don't have time for kids who can't or won't buckle down and read; we don't care to listen or pay attention to what the thoughts of such kids on reading are either because they're kids.
Wow, I'm sure those aren't the messages anybody really wants to spread.
I have two proven techniques for getting kids to read, both kids who aren't struggling and kids who are. It's quite true that these techniques are not "set up and walk away except for check in" types. Plus, when I used them, I had no idea I was, and had no expectation they would be effective. Seriously.
Here's the first one. I had the ill-fortune to move from a large city to a miserable small town. "Miserable" is putting it nicely. The place was so small that the main leisure activities were drinking and drinking with a side of fighting. (No I didn't move there by choice.) In an effort to avoid going crazy from boredom and not being the drinking sort, I volunteered at the local public library, a painfully tiny place wedged into a basement space with poor lighting. One summer, the head librarian ran a reading program. It was pretty simple. One afternoon a week, older or stronger readers were paired up with a younger or weaker reader. The stronger reader would read a page in a book the weaker reader had chosen; then the weaker reader would read the next page with the stronger reader's help. This would go on for just an hour or so. All of the kids who took part in the program to improve their reading skills went on to finish high school and move on to other things. They didn't all become book worms or something, but that bit of extra time and patient attention went a long way.
The second one comes from rather later, when I was babysitting my youngest sibling. It was deep in winter, we had been stuck inside for days with bad colds. We were feeling better, and the weather had broken, so going outside was an option. My youngest sibling was three years old, and practically bouncing off the walls, so we really needed to get out of the house. In desperation I told him we were going to walk to the library, and even persuaded him this was actually an exciting idea. Okay, of course I didn't persuade him of that, he was just desperately happy to get out of the house, and I was happy to have come up with something that would avoid getting wet in the snow. So off we went, and it was a pretty fun walk, actually. Then at the library, I had to think fast. What now? He was three, he couldn't read yet. That was okay. I walked with him to the picture books section and told him, "These are the kid's books. They're about all sorts of cool things." He was big into dinosaurs and cars already, so I helped him find a couple of picture books on them. Then I told him, "Now you go ahead and pick the books you'd like." He did indeed become a reader after that.
I've read about other programs and things people did to help kids become readers, and I noticed the ones that really worked often demanded some caring time commitment by adults. It seems to me that what really made the difference for the kids who went on to improve as readers was this: they saw that books were sources of both information and fun, and they could learn how to manage the books, and from there learn about anything they chose on their own. In other words, reading was shifted from something that made them feel badly and disempowered to something that made them feel empowered and good about themselves. They still had to put the work in, but they couldn't reasonably be expected to put the work in without being shown that books were accessible and could contain things they'd want to know. (Top)
Ode to the Old Mac (2013-11-23)
I am an admitted macintosh geek – made deliriously happy nonetheless by the decision to take the macOS into unix-land when Steve Jobs came back to the company because I love *NIX systems best – and one of my favourite denizens of the mac classic universe was Clarus, the dogcow. Clarus' name is obviously related to that of the sadly departed word processing program ClarisWorks. I mention this because for mac users, ClarisWorks was something very special, and by that I mean more than a genuine alternative to microsoft office (seriously, I'm a writer, which means "word processor power user whether I like it or not"). ClarisWorks took up 656 kilobytes of disk space excepting dictionaries and convertors, and it never crashed. When ClarisWorks crashed, it was time to take my computer to the shop, and that happened only once, when I had the ill-fortune to get a flaky additional RAM card, back when it was a big deal to add 8 megabytes, not gigabytes, of RAM. The picture to the left comes from Macintosh Technical Note #31, currently immortalized at Clarus, the Dogcow: Moof Museum, and depicts some guy (who yes, looks like the guy from the movie Starbuck with a better shave), and of course Clarus herself. For reasons only apple executives truly know, they killed ClarisWorks when they authorized macOS 9, and since then nothing else comes close in quality and efficiency. I mean it. I hunted for old ClarisWorks disks for literally years, only to finally have somebody give me a set of them when I had a mac with no 3.5" disk drive and external 3.5" disk drives had just ceased to be available forever. (Yes, I am still bitter about that.)
I commented to someone the other day that I happen to be among those who thought Doctor Who was cool before anybody else did. To which her response was, "Yes, but you don't say that usually because it's snobby." Er, what? It could be, of course, in the english language it is possible to say almost anything and be snobby about it. As it happens, I was just stating a fact at that moment – obviously being a fan of something earlier than others can't make you better than others (if only it were so easy!). It just makes you differently geeky, and this is a necessity so that we geeks have ongoing reasons to speak to each other in person. Anyway, this comes to mind because it is also a fact that I was into Macs before they became cool, and before the strange phenomena of the "mac fanboy[sic]" and "church of mac/apple" insults developed.
True enough, every popular or semi-popular thing has haters, yet these two happen to specially puzzle me. This may not be a normal state of affairs though, because one thing I have worked hard to do is train myself out of leanings toward "mac/linux proselytization." I don't like any sort of proselytization personally, and am self-aware enough to know that being a proselytizer irritates the living hell out of everybody around you. So when my mother said, "We want to get a computer, but of course you'll just tell us to get a mac," and I answered, "Actually, no. Ideally you'd try a bunch of computers and pick the one that doesn't piss you off. Practically, since you live in a small town without easy access to apple support, I have to recommend you get a PC. But please, get your local geek to help you keep it updated." Apple stores and support are pretty much a big city phenomenon still, and that is obnoxious.
All of which is not to say I don't appreciate what the folks who throw around insults like "fanboy" and "the church of mac/apple" are responding to. I get that there is something intensely irritating about a product that can inspire such customer loyalty, especially if you are (a) a determined/restricted microsoft user or a (b) computer-engineer/science type who feels a certain contempt for anyone who won't use the command line. Being someone whose first experience was with IBM PCs running DOS, I know those folks are coming from a different headspace; they don't expect computers to bend to their will, they expect to remould themselves to work the computer more effectively. Fair enough, but not the way I'd want to work. On the other hand, there are folks who take strong exception to apple on more recent grounds, including the slobberware approach embedded in iOS and ethically bankrupt customer monitoring practices – and that's before we get into the question of nsa spying and apple's complicity with it. It's because of those things on top of it being cool to figure out how to do it that I have been working on jailbreaking my iOS devices and running linux kernels. Which is all additional shades of fun because we are officially discouraged from doing such things. (I figure it's only a matter of time before I can browse my own website locally on my 3G iPod the first iPod I ever bought, because my portable CD player still worked until they were available, and the other MP3 players I tried sucked.)
Where the "ode" part of this thoughtpiece comes from though, is my very first Mac, a Powerbook 150 that I purchased in september 1995 and was stolen in november 1999. I was a physics major in university then, and had been informed that "Macs couldn't do any real computing. They're just for media processing." Well, I was a geophysics specialist. Geophysical data often consists of sound files represented in visual form by squiggles, with time along the y-axis and distance along the x-axis. So I realized, if there was mac software to work on music files and image files, then I could hack it to work on geophysical data. And so I did, and on top of that, there were mac versions of tools like matlab, which is commonly used for signal processing to this day. At that time though, the idea of signal processing on a PC was simply unheard of. It was UNIX boxes or nothing – unless you knew about what macs could do, and realized you could download the software you needed to get them to do it for free (for instance, I had a freeware virtual floating point unit). Yes, more slowly than a mainframe UNIX box with 256 megabytes of RAM. But for a physics student like me, who didn't live in residence, that meant I could sleep in my own bed instead of the computer lab.
And that, my friends, is why I love macs. And why I consider apple with a critical eye. (Top)
The Humane Interface (2013-10-25)
Based on the publishing history information on its catalogue page at informit, this book by Jef Raskin is now over thirteen years old. Nevertheless, if you are a computer programmer of any sort or interested in what makes one computer system or program easier to use than another to different people, this book is all but timelessly relavant. I'm quite serious: this is a book I've read myself several times, and it is great news to find out it is back in print. Raskin is among the few interface designers who thought through and wrote about just what makes an interface good. Another major figure on that score is Allan Cooper of About Face and The Lunatics are Running the Asylum fame (they are well worth reading too – though I have to confess I found the edition of About Face just before 2.0 the most readable). Fundamentally both make the same key point: computers should be adjusted to be easier for people to learn how to use. If a person has to be "computer literate" to use a system or program, that system or program is poorly designed.
But to return to Raskin's book specifically, I still have my notes from the first time I read it, and there are a few nice snippets that illustrate what makes it such a joy to read very well, all from page 6 in the original addison-wesley edition:
This is brilliant stuff, and it can be argued that the newer versions of MacOSX are following much of this program courtesy of the new autosave features built into the system alongside the time machine back up software. I have no idea if it can be argued that the newer windows operating systems do, since nowadays my only exposure to them is via fabulously crippled workplace machines. Linux is a whole other argument all together because it is fundamentally an enthusiast project, so that is a challenge for usability and documentation.
Another wonderful nugget is this one, which could productively be pinned up at every place where programmers and designers or anybody else balks at making their products accessible to people who are blind, deaf, or can't use a standard mouse and keyboard:
Thinking this over in the context of websites, I have always wished for a middle way between stylesheet fundamentalism and use of tables for website layout. Using tables for the latter purpose is deprecated, precisely because that use causes screen readers to choke. However, even now, because of the continuing prevalence of IE with its non-standard stylesheet implementation and screwed up box model, stylesheets can misbehave in the worst way in that browser. And what makes things work in that browser often breaks things in other browsers or creates a terrible level of coding overhead. This is all before we get into the astonishingly random behaviour in div rendering. So I've always wished for a table attribute "type" with two attributes: data or layout.
Raskin also provided the best explanation of what a computer game is that I have ever read, "Many computer games are, essentially, undocumented interfaces in which controls, or their mapping to desired effects, are invisible." This works well if you're playing a game, not so much if you're trying to get work done. In the end, I think Raskin's definition pinpoints what's wrong with approaches to program interfaces like the despicable ribbon designed by microsoft. It renders most of the controls invisible most of the time in a literal sense, makes others invisible by moving them completely out of the places people had learned they would be over fifteen odd years or more, and trying to get the thing to behave is basically a matter of trial and error. Insane as it may sound, I actually found pre-ribbon word surprisingly usable for a microsoft product.
In other words, a major part of what makes Raskin's book so refreshing, and so able to stand the test of time, is his starting point with respect for people making use of computers, period. If there is any inkling of programmer/help desk operator/engineer contempt for those who don't share their ability to adjust to the computer in his text, I can't find it. He actually gets what people mean when they explode in frustration at some computer behaviour, "But it should just work!" That cry isn't about an expectation of magic, it's about an expectation that this vaunted tool should be as useful, helpful, and easy to learn as advertised. (Top)
Yes, A Sports Logo Can Be Racist (2013-10-13)
Discussions about the racism of sports team names and logos tends to grind to a halt fairly quickly in canada, not because there aren't any, but because non-Natives seem to find the very idea absurd and easy to blow off. So it was awesome to bump into this screen shot from the National Congress of American Indians via boing boing and political blindspot. Political blindspot's blog post is short, and leaves the brilliance of this image to speak for itself, although it doesn't give the caption text on the image which reads, "No race, creed or religion should endure the ridicule faced by Native Americans today. Please help us put an end to this mockery and racism, by visiting http://www.ncai.org/ or calling (202)466-7797." Ward Churchill has made the same point as this image more than once in his writings, but I think it's fair to say that this is one of the cases where an image blows away all other means of expressing an idea.
There is a bit more to the viciousness to the deployment of racist caricatures and names against Indigenous peoples across the americas, an aspect that suggests that the practice has more than the usual amount of bad conscience behind it. (For those of you whose immediate response is "Why would I have a bad conscience about something that happened five hundred years ago and that I didn't do?" the bad conscience is about contemporary racist behaviour: racist acts going on now.) If you're puzzled how there could possibly be any more to it than that, I sympathize, because not so long ago I had no idea about the information that is summarized here myself.
UPDATE 2018-05-21 - I have since stumbled upon Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassle's suggestion that "canada" should properly be translated from an original meaning "squatter's camp," or "they are squatters here." Besides being appealing to Indigenous readers, the fact is that it is also more than a little plausible.
Try to imagine it. Thanks to the self-aggrandizing publications of columbus, europe is humming with news of the so-called "New World." Every european country with so much as a pretence to a merchant or military navy is desperately trying to figure out how to get their hands on the booty the newly discovered lands must hold, which at first meant gold, silver, and slaves, preferably in that order. Interest was so high that pirated editions of columbus' letters make it throughout europe in record time. It doesn't take long for the peoples of the new-to-europeans lands to be designated by a convenient, overarching name: Americans. To this day, nobody is actually quite sure which came first, the name "America" or "Americans" and the evidence is actually against either being derived from the name of Amerigo Vespucci. The Indigenous peoples living further north around the st. lawrence river and the great lakes were quickly designated "Canadians" from a misheard and misunderstood Iroquoian language term for "village." At least, that's the most generally accepted story of the term's origins, which are also unclear, although everybody is clear the term has no european origin. So here we are, in the earliest days of european knowledge of the americas, where people in what is now called north america are generally called americans and canadians.
And that's just the way things stay. They stay that way a loooong time. The breakaway british colonists call themselves english, german, dutch or whatever. Not "American." The british colonists who decide not to break away further north call themselves english, or french, or whatever. Not "Canadian." Something interesting has happened in "british north america" however – "Canadian" no longer designates the older Indigenous peoples. Instead it has migrated to designate a newly developing Indigenous group descended from fur traders of european origin and the Indigenous women they intermarried with. Today those people are better known as "Métis" or "Michifs." Unfortunately this doesn't mean that the other Indigenous groups are being called by their right names. Then, almost before we can blink, "Canadians" and "Americans" don't designate any Indigenous people at all anymore. No indeed, those names now mean nobody but europeans who have relocated to north america or their descendants. Well, what the hell happened?
Just this. The people who were europeans courtesy of recent migration or lineal descent, got a "hankering for property" and enough numbers and weapons to steal it. But committing genocide feels really gross (yes, that's sarcasm). So those people had to find a way to rationalize their behaviour, to make it "right" somehow, even though that's impossible. The solution they came up with was to claim that they were the real natives, and those other people who were in the americas first, well, they were less than human. At the same time armchair scholars who would later call themselves "anthropologists" began inventing stories of how there were originally europeans in the americas, but they were wiped out by the people the second, much later wave of invading europeans found.
All of which goes to show that supposedly "innocent" sports teams names and logos based on racial caricatures and slurs against Indigenous people are anything but. (Top)
The Trials and Tribulations of – Email? (2013-10-05)
I must confess to feeling utterly baffled by the many articles I have seen on "taming your email" and top ten tricks for same. The issue of course is not that I don't get the point of these things: evidently there are many folks out there who get a lot of email and have difficulties managing it. Fair enough. It just puzzles me how this could be possible for someone who isn't in a high level position in their workplace, or internet famous in some way. Then again, it may be that I have been blessed with a certain level of dumb luck, courtesy of my reluctance to follow the ongoing social media craze and I don't see emails as a social obligation. Plus, I have learned not to give my email address to any business that I buy consumer goods from* (they seem to sell your email address along all but instantly), and to check for the little checkbox that allows me to opt out of receiving email notices and so-called "newsletters" at the bottom of registration forms. Those checkboxes do work – I believe it is actually a legal requirement that they do.
I do get a fair amount of email, but one of the things I managed to escape by the skin of my teeth as the century turned was the proliferation of my email addresses among the spammers. That's a huge help in and of itself. One of my professional email addresses has been out in the world a long time, and its availability is controlled by the web policy of my employer associated with that address rather than myself. In the case of that address, the company's email filter apparently stops somewhere in the area of two hundred or more spam emails a day. Nonetheless that address tends to still get around two hundred spam emails inside two weeks, most of which I now never see courtesy of creating some rigorous email rules. It has helped significantly that it dawned on some engineer at microsoft that you shouldn't have to go and delete junk email yourself. After all, the whole point of email programs is to help manage the email in a convenient way, not create a dumbass waste of time because maybe the junk email wasn't junk after all – after you the person using the program defined and tested the rules yourself to clean up the mess.
Knowing myself well, I also made two adjustments that seem to be somewhat unusual practice. For one thing, I pick up my RSS feeds with a completely different program than any email program I may run, simply to help curb the tendency to being distracted by a cool new article when I should be answering emails. Plus, rather than using any add on that makes a separate to do list, my habit is to use the emails as to do reminders in themselves, which is surprisingly helpful when making up folders and folder names to organize email by. Then, not being a morning person, I start my day with no more than 60 minutes of answering emails. Anything longer means I have slipped into procrastination mode, or I'm trying to write an email on an issue better resolved with (a) an in person conversation or (b) passing the email on to the person who should have gotten it. Those tweaks work well for me anyway!
There is one more thing that I'm willing to do that may fall in the "too anal retentive for most folks" category, but it does work, if you ever find yourself considering it. In the case of my professional emails, every now and again a bright shiny penny in the marketing department of a conference organizing organization or journal distributor will pull up all the emails they can get from various businesses that have online accessible people directories. Pretty soon, email and/or snail mail begins piling up as they start sending every sort of offer you can imagine and complimentary publications until the mail room is wondering what the hell they did to deserve such horror. In those cases, I get hold of the toll-free numbers of the spammer, even if they are in the same city. Then I call them and keep on them until I get a manager to remove my information from their list, adding that they have just destroyed any plans I had to give them business. It may not stop them, but at least it makes life a little better for my colleagues in the mail room, because they do a hard job.
For the more typical email spammers, which are mostly stupid bots, the best thing is to not open on them or click on any links (which are now full of malware these days). Instead, delete them straightaway. Every email program and webmail too has a way to do this, though for some reason the option is often made hard to find. It ought to be as simple as hold down "option" or "control" or "alt" (I think that covers the range of possible keyboards out there) and hit "delete" to delete a message without opening and without chucking it in your mailbox trash can. If you don't mind a bit of scripting you can probably set that up without too much pain (it's on my own to do list). It may well be there are scripts of all sorts all over the internet out there to do this already, actually, though it's a nice starter exercise for anybody figuring out how to script their machines.
* Not slamming anybody who hasn't picked up on this detail yet, it isn't self-evident and for many businesses is a fairly recent and unfortunate practice they have taken up. (Top)
Funny Things That Remind You Of Eyes (2013-09-09)
Yesterday as dusk was falling, I walked back to where my tea was steeping, and found myself intrigued by the reflection of the screen in my kitchen window in the tea. The reason for this was not any mind-altering substances (that I know of), but rather what you can see here. The way the reflection around the edges of the tea against the rim of the cup were distorted, reminding me very strongly of the little streaks we can see around the edge of our irises if we peer closely at our eyes in the mirror. I had to make sure the flash didn't fire to get the full effect. This got me to wondering if the iris itself is actually made of cells a bit reminiscent of the mesh in the window, though not necessarily square. On one hand the answer seems to obviously be yes, but on the other it isn't a given that what we see and what creates the sight are as analogous as this suggests. Now, as it happens, the real life cells are probably too small to be seen with the naked eye (no pun intended) but the larger units the cells build up are.
Wikipedia includes a nice reproduction of the diagram featuring the iris from Gray's Anatomy. This was drawn from an actual eye, and actually, there does seem to be something rather like the reflection in my tea here. It looks like blood vessels may contribute some of the apparent shape to those little streaks, except that the streaks don't correspond to the branching vessel look. Nonetheless, there's a suggestion of little reflective units, and they would be reflecting light that would have passed through the lens of the eye and then back out again, being distorted accordingly. The tea mug example is much flatter than any human eye on the macroscale, but once you focus in tightly on the iris itself, the curvature is much reduced and more like the tea in the mug. (Think of the fact that the Earth is round, yet we experience it as flat because our body size is so small relative to the greater size of the Earth.)
Well, that's interesting, but not wholly convincing. So digging deeper into the search results in duckduckgo, I stumbled over an article featuring the photography of Suren Manvelyan. In particular, samples from his galleries of close up eye photos. Putting aside how uncanny some of the photos actually are, which probably has something to do with human response to a wide eye built into us by evolution, several of Manvelyan's photos are surprisingly reminiscent of the reflections in my tea mug. Or rather, his photos of irises doing the reflecting are reminiscent. Though, having said that, his photographs are far cooler than a happenstance shot of my tea mug could ever be.
All of which is not to downgrade happenstance photographs by non-pros. This gives me a new appreciation of how excited and happy grade school kids are to run around outside taking pictures of cool things, and why teachers find it such a useful guided activity. (Top)
The Martians Have Come to the Prairies (2013-09-04)
Today's photograph shows a segment of the sculpture Ascension by the art collective Incipio Modo. According to the southern alberta institute of technology student association newspaper The Weal, the sculpture consists of two three-legged insects arranged so that they are part of the area they are set in. As you can see, the "insect" I photographed literally steps over a bench in the little park where the sculpture is sited. According to the electronic oxford english dictionary on my computer, the word ascension refers to "the act of rising to an important position or a higher level." Truth be told, I can't quite see how a creature structured in this way can be an insect – perhaps because I can't help but expect something with the the three key characteristics taught in grade school: three body segments, six legs, and two antennae. The rising part, well, maybe it's because they're so big.
Okay, obtuseness on my part aside, it is a very interesting sculpture. The legs of the "insects" are structured and attached in a way that suggests the Penrose tribar or other such impossible things. The park the sculpture is set in sits right in front of the Avatamsaka Buddhist Monastery, which is also thought provoking. Plus, how many sculptures have any of us run into where we can sit almost inside it, which also invites rather than repels touching it. (Unless you're not into Mart er, insects.) It's just that they're so damnably reminiscent of the Martians in their invasion suits in H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds that "insects" and rising are the farthest things from my mind. Instead what comes to mind is tall, hulking, three-legged nasties with poison gas and heat beams pursuing an attack on the city until they are felled by a human virus, bio-containment having slipped their minds. From the right camera angle with somebody opportunely running for one of the crosswalks to make the light (the park is on a corner), you have yourself a low-budget, close up sci-fi movie shot of the Martians on the rampage.
I suspect Incipio Modo would find this alternate interpretation of their work quite surprising, if not frustrating, because victorian-era science fiction is likely the furthest thing from their minds in relation to it. In fact, what they're trying to express is almost the polar opposite, according to the article in The Weal, titled "Massive Insects Invade the Downtown Core," Incipio Modo member Danira Miralda says that "This three-legged insect becomes alive because of the terrain that it's on... They are spiritually becoming purer and purer as they go towards the monastery." Perhaps they've never read H.G. Wells' book or seen any of the (generally awful) movie renditions of it. Or, remembered the definition of an insect that I perhaps mistakenly thought we were all taught in grade school: an insect is a small creature with a three-part body, six legs, two antennae, and two compound eyes. Those things are so not insects.
On the flip side, even if a stubborn alternate text to their own accrues to Ascension in the minds of sci-fi geeks, Incipio Modo can still be satisfied that they've put together a unique and intriguing piece of art. (Top)
Of Bog People and Early Archaeologists (2013-08-28)
Interesting archaeological materials can turn up in the strangest places, especially if you are a graduate student busy hunting for other things entirely. At left is a picture of the first page of one of the earliest archaeological papers written by a woman and acknowledged to be such. The writer was Elizabeth Rawdon, often referred to merely as the "Countess of Moira," and the paper was published in 1785 in the journal Archaeologia. Heedless of the fact that this paper is so far out of copyright, since it has not been digitized cambridge journals online will cheerfully charge you something on the order of £20-30 in order to acquire a copy. I was highly fortunate in that my local university library actually has this journal in its special collections.
Most scholars find the article of interest because it recounts Rawdon's investigation of a bog body found in northern ireland, and it stands as the first scientific account of such a body. She included an account of the soils above and below where the body was found, and the results of her search for the clothing that had originally been preserved with it. Rawdon's interest in and care to recover the textiles was prescient, as archaeologists now know that textiles – in effect old rags – are spectacular sources of information whenever they manage to survive. Alas, this was little appreciated even where textiles survive well such as egypt until roughly two hundred years after Rawdon wrote.
Rawdon is also the source of the woefully persistent idea that bog bodies are the preserved remains of human sacrifices. I say woefully persistent not because it couldn't be true but because it is often accepted and repeated on flimsy evidence. As you can see even from just the text reproduced here, Rawdon's original suggestion is that the individual was sacrificed by druids. The druids may well have done such things, the trouble is we have primarily the romans' word for it. The romans, especially the one whose works are still most familiar, Julius Caesar, were very fond of depicting nations especially resistant to their colonialism as cannibals and human sacrificers, which should sound both familiar and ironic. However, given what people knew at the time and the racist assumptions about the irish,* the interpretation must have seemed quite obvious. Today, courtesy of carbon dating, we know that most bog bodies date from the neolithic, long before the druids were a going concern. The evidence archaeologists use to argue for the human sacrifice angle remains equivocal.
* At the time when Rawdon's paper was published, northern ireland was still the "Plantation of Ulster" a colony founded by the english in an attempt to facilitate the complete removal of the irish from ireland. Needless to say, not only did this idea not work, it has had ongoing reverberations into the present. (Top)
The Language of the Land (2013-08-20)
I am a bit late to the party made up of xkcd fans, but it is definitely one of the most thoughtful web comics out there, and I have been busy catching up. In fact, it is considerably more than just a comic, as some of the amazing summary graphics and charts Randall Munroe makes go to show. It's also only fair to give him credit for real guts, because some of his very early work is early indeed, the sort of stuff that in english classes would be called "juvenalia" (alas, this term is poisoned by condescending connotations). Posting work from when you are still developing as a writer and artist is brave, not least because you can't help but have the odd wince-worthy piece, or an excessive number of "your mother" jokes.
The comic I picked out to feature here is still early work, as you can tell by comparison to later pieces where the artwork is cleaner and crisper because Munroe has become more comfortable with the lines of his characters – and of course, he has much improved his lettering. His quirky sense of humour is definitely in evidence, but the reason I love this one so much is because of its sharp commentary about "learning the language of the land." There is a bitter and obnoxious irony when people rant that newcomers should learn english because it is the mainstream language in north america. After all, when europeans started coming here, the vast majority of them couldn't care less what the languages of the land were except in so far as they got in the way of robbing folks blind or trying to force them to assimilate.
What made constructive interactions possible at all between europeans and Indigenous nations was a starting combination of the europeans being vastly outnumbered and often in terrible physical shape when they arrived, and the fact that generally members of Indigenous nations expected to need to teach their own language or learn one to communicate with somebody from elsewhere. The americas were full of diverse people speaking well over 500 languages, so knowing two or more languages was quite common, as was being able to speak more than one dialect of your mother tongue. Oddly enough, this was a pretty common situation in most of asia as well, but the english began to diverge from this after the elizabethan period. That divergence picked up speed in a hurry once english speaking communities were established in the americas, where the english opted for bilingual Indigenous interpreters as soon as possible. It wasn't long before europeans who learned to speak Indigenous languages were being referred to by racist epithets in newspapers and sundry publications on the grounds that they had supposedly degraded themselves.
Strange stuff. Returning to xkcd and this comic though, it has one more ambiguity that makes it chuckle- or wince-worthy, depending on your point of view. Is Munroe's friend the person who speaks in Cherokee, or the ranter? (Top)
I've Got A Bridge to Sell You... (2013-08-13)
Some of you may have heard about the recent flood in calgary, alberta, canada which broke all previous flood records and wreaked considerable havoc in the city's downtown core. Alas, floods as a general rule wreak havoc, especially on places built at river confluences fed by river systems from the north and snow-melt from mountains to the west. Add a strange, three week long sequence of pouring rain on top of weeks of flooding further north, and the result is a significant flood indeed. Calgary's downtown core is literally built at the confluence of two rivers, the bow and the elbow, and by sheer luck has not suffered significantly in other recent major floods. The previous big one was in 2008, and affected the elbow river more than the bow river. Friends of mine were forced out of their apartments by their sewers backing up that year.
Long before this particular flood, calgary has been in the throes of a real estate speculation boom. It is often referred to merely as a "real estate boom" in the news, however, that hardly seems to fit what is actually happening. The average price of a house was nearly half a million canadian dollars and climbing before the flood. In some parts of town that's now the average price of half of a duplex, which probably maxes out around 1 100 square feet on the main floor, plus a basement and a second floor. More condominiums are being built all the time, typically in the shoebox size range. These are not realistic prices for buildings or units, many of which are not even in what could be deemed "prime locations."
UPDATE 2013-09-23 - In my recent perambulations past the strip mall where I took this picture, this advertisement and the putative office have vanished. It seems someone pointed out the new flaw in the business model for these condos, at least for the time being.
Logically – or illogically, depending on your viewpoint – there is no reason a flood of the century would do anything to cool down a hot speculative market in real estate. Over time calgary has been structured such that it has one downtown core and numerous unwieldy and ever-expanding suburbs. So there is considerably more by way of real estate beyond the areas affected by the flood than within those areas. It may well be that the market for properties untouched by the flood is now hotter than ever. However, all of this would apply to a sort of average real estate market for the whole city. In specific areas things can be quite different, for example areas affected by recent flooding or near the airport, which is a bit like an awesomely mutated and overgrown suburb inhabited by airplanes. On top of all that, the elephant sitting quietly in the middle of the room is climate change. In light of the unusual conditions that led up to the flood, part of a wider occurrence of unusual weather phenomena world-wide observed over the past several years, can this flood truly be written off as a one-off?
Meanwhile, the bizarre, otherworldly response of one real estate developer in the teeth of the biggest flood the city of calgary has ever seen is, surreal. It is just what you see in the picture, river front condos for sale soon, starting at just under a quarter of a million canadian dollars. That is, $250 000 000, which on average would be closer to $170 000 000 american. The picture was taken on a main thoroughfare too, this isn't a somewhat obscure outfit working quietly in a suburban real estate office. It made me think about the various jokes about a bridge to sell you in san francisco or ocean front property in arizona. (Top)
Venus Not On A Half Shell (2012-08-06)
As a general rule, despite my persistent gadgetitis, I am not one to buy the newest new thing as soon as it's available. Blunt edge is far better than bleeding edge for my pocket book, and that plus an effort to make sure any new gadget will be used keeps the gadgetitis down to a sensible level. So by a quirk of circumstances it was five years before I got a new point and shoot, since my photographic ambitions aren't strong enough to get me into cameras that have exchangeable lenses and the like. Thing is, now you can get some very impressive point and shoots for the price I paid for my earlier camera, and this new one is about as close as you can get to the big leagues without actually going. While in vermont a couple of weeks ago, I unexpectedly wound up taking a pretty good stress shot, in the sense of pushing the camera as far as its optics would go to see what the result would be.
My time in vermont is spent basically camping on a heavily forested mountain with a fairly intense microclimate. Even at the minor altitude I was camping at, there could be at any time a ten degree difference in temperature minimum during the heat of the day between my location and town, quite apart from the typical rural-urban difference. On top of that, thanks to all those trees it's pretty rainy and rarely consistently clear, a trend now being added to by climate change. So photographing any sort of sky-based phenomenon is pretty challenging if you want something other than clouds.
The night, or rather early morning that I took this photo I woke up for no apparent reason at 04:25 local time. In the course of my perambulations before going back to sleep, I noticed the morning star – venus – glowing away, and it occurred to me that I had never been awake to see this before in my life. (Night owl, not early bird.) So I figured, what the hell, why not try taking a picture? My camera has a 20x zoom on it, so I used that to resolve the planet to a disc in the view finder, then remembered to shut off the flash, and went to work trying to take the picture. I had no tripod with me, and in any case because I had to hold the camera almost over my head, that wouldn't have helped much.
Unbelievably, this cropped picture here is actually from the first shot I took. The second looked like an inverted etch-a-sketch because my arms were tired, the third one was much better but still a streak, and in the fourth there just wasn't the same level of detail. Of course this means the first shot was an unbelievable lucky one in terms of timing and still hands plus the capacity of the camera itself in terms of sensitivity and zoom. Quite a remarkable result, which I suppose is not the least of the reasons for the iphone 4 being the most common source camera for online published photos these days. (Top)
Thought Piece: L'État, C'est Nous (2012-07-16)
Right now I'm in montréal, québec on a short vacation. There is an ongoing post-secondary student strike, now the longest of its kind in canadian history, and the major student organizations are prepping for the provincial election expected to be called in a few weeks. It's festival season and bad humidex season both, though the day I took this picture a sharp thunderstorm drove it down significantly and made for a pleasant evening.
Since montréal is one of my favourite cities and this isn't the first time I've been here, besides rambling about doing vaguely touristy things, I also keep a sharp eye out for interesting photographs just waiting to be taken. Photography being a newer thing in my repertoire more photos get chucked out than kept (thank you digital), and some of my keepers even appeal to other people. From what little I've seen, people don't often photograph things at their feet unless they are into flowers or bugs or something. In my case, being far from tall, I find myself playing more and more with forced perspective imagery on one hand, while on the other, having nearly blown an ankle just after arriving in montréal on this trip, my eyes have been on the ground a bit more often the past couple of days.
Which, to at last make a long story short, is how I noticed several instances of this intriguing stencil on the sidewalks of rue ste. Catherine. It reads, "L'État, C'est Nous" that is, "The state, it is us." Those of you who have a bit of french history under your belt will recognize what is being riffed on in this phrase: the infamously arrogant declaration of Louis XIV, "L'État, c'est moi." (No, it wasn't Louis XVI, even if that seems like it would be more plausible considering what happened to him.) Leaving aside whether or not his statement was true for his time and place, to me anyway the most intriguing point about this updated version is how different the changed pronoun makes the phrase.
In a democracy, we are taught that the state is indeed us, and that for us to take part in the workings of the state is the height of responsibility and citizenship. Acting as an effective and responsible citizen is not necessarily equivalent with having citizenship, however, as some time spent reading up on the struggle to abolish slavery or achieve universal adult franchise will reveal. Thinking over the protests against the undemocratic imposition of austerity programs that the objective evidence shows can't achieve their supposed purposes, and the stubborn efforts to overcome dictatorships of every type in africa and the middle east, I think this is the big message that is coming through. We, the people who live and work together in countries, the very substance of what makes those countries real entities at all, we are the state. We are the ones to whom politicians are accountable. Not corporations. Not colonialist jacaknapes. Not military megolomaniacs. Not religious extremists.
We are the state. And whether the one percenters who like to think they own the world by some kind of divine fiat like it or not, their ability to keep the rest of us politically and socially infantilized has been gone for a long time – and that knowledge has gotten loose. (Top)
Oddly Appropriate Signage (2012-03-17)
As is true of many places, where I live we are passing through a rather unseasonable spring, and have been since early february. The city I live in is also the ongoing prey of a boom in pork barrel construction projects on one hand and greed-driven condominium projects on the other. Learning which streets are open and which aren't is a neverending source of surprise here – and I'm not exaggerating either, because even I get surprised, and I commute primarily on foot or by bus. On top of the street closure lottery which is human-generated, we have a wind storm lottery that leads to additional street closures as high speed winds tear fragments off of complete buildings and construction materials off of incomplete ones. (This is not as exciting as you might expect, and has in fact been horribly tragic.) With all of this going on, it was probably only a matter of time before signage started showing up in strange places.
UPDATE 2018-05-21 - About two years after this thoughtpiece went live, the river, in fact rivers in question, the bow and the elbow, swelled by unseasonable rain, warm temperatures, and a high snow pack flooded catastrophically. Downtown calgary shut down and mass evacuations ensued as the water cheerfully filled up underground parking lots, shorted out electrical boxes, and overwhelmed water treatment facilities.
The construction sign in this picture is laying in the middle of a snow and ice covered sand bar on the river near the centre of town. I have to admit when I first noticed it my thoughts an briefly along the usual (I think) lines: more construction debris, gross; or wow, that kegger got seriously out of hand. Except that when push came to shove, the image actually isn't that boring, and not just because you don't often see a bright orange construction sign beyond where any person can conveniently reach it as demonstrated by the fact that it's still there over two weeks later.
So what's a not so boring view of this stranded sign? Well, after a few minutes, it occurred to me that the sign was quite correct in its new circumstances. Rivers are not often thought of as bodies that build things. They only tend to make it into the news if they flood catastrophically (the mississippi river system which is only catastrophic because humans live too close to it), fail to reach the ocean because of excessive water withdrawals (the rio grande, the nile, the colorado...), or are being subjected to massive dambuilding projects of terrible impact and scale (three gorges). The fact that most of us depend on rivers for all the water we use is almost invisible, and so is the way rivers remodel and build up their banks and shallower stretches. In the case of the river this sign is in, this section of the river is crossed by three bridges within two to five minutes walk of each other, and they would never have been built there if the area hadn't already been a fording place.
So here we have a river that is busy remodelling a fording place that is at least several centuries old, albeit with some unasked for additions by people. People who couldn't get by without the river, which flows through an otherwise semi-arid region that is always under construction – by the river. (Top)
An Excursion To Salted Beef (2012-02-12)
On a recent grocery shop, I stumbled on a product I had no idea was still made and consumed nowadays (which for those in the know tells you that this author is not from newfoundland or anywhere else in the canadian maritimes). As you can see in the photo, the product I mean is salted beef, also known as naval or navel beef. The buckets shown here are not much smaller than a four litre ice cream pail. This stuff was originally a staple for navies, the british navy being among the best known for it, although this may not have much to do with the product name as such. It seems that "navel beef" may actually be a term used for a cut of meat coming from near the navel of the cow providing the meat. If it had been up to the sailors and soldiers most often subjected to long periods of salt beef as a staple of their meals, it would be labelled "junk" or "salt horse." Evidently such names weren't going to survive the marketing department.
Salting is an ancient means of preserving food, especially where the weather was too hot for raw meat to keep, or for ensuring nobody went hungry during lean winters. Newfoundland, one of the places where salt beef is still a staple of local cuisine, was itself an important salting station for herring fleets long before europeans officially deemed themselves to have "discovered" it. A significant part of the catch was smoked originally, but as demand for the fish rose, salting became the preferred preservation method because it was faster. Fish preserved this way would survive the long voyage home, which could take up to two months. So in a way, food preservation is a way to extend how long in time or far in space food supplies can reach.
As a method of extending supply lines, especially when supplies were limited, salted beef was both a bane and a benefit. Salted beef like that in the tubs I photographed must be soaked overnight and drained thoroughly before it can be eaten or made into anything. This could be a pretty tall order for an army on the move, and once tin cans became more available and safer to use (lead amalgam was frequently used to solder them in the early days), it didn't take long for someone to invent "corned beef." Corned beef is preserved in salt plus some other spices typically, and before it is canned it is desalted enough to allow it to be eaten practically from the can. I like corned beef, but can't recommend such a thing, not least because it is still pretty salty and tastes best right after it has been heated up. British soldiers in the first world war called it "bully beef" and all too rarely had any means to heat it when they were posted to the trenches, hence their dubiously affectionate terms for it.
UPDATE 2018-05-21 - For those who may be wondering, there is an informal protocol for taling photos in the grocery store, if you need or want to. The main thing is not to include the price, or else dissociate the price from either the product or the store. I had another photo that would have required the latter treatment, of a rare full round of parmesan cheese priced at just under $1 500, but it never did fit any of my writing projects.
All this said, I have left out another important reason for salting beef, at least from the perspective of those packaging and selling it. From at least the 1700s, salting was not something you did to good cuts of beef. This was not what you did to a T-bone steak, and if you were a person of means it was beneath you to eat such stuff. So poorer cuts, the stuff with gristle and large blood vessels in it would be relegated down to the poor in general. It was cheaper, kept under adverse conditions, and could be made to go far. In my own experience, a very old trick my mother used to use was to mix a "salad" (add mayonnaise/salad dressing and onions, then mix) for sandwiches using corned beef for example – back when corned beef didn't cost an average of $5 to $7 a (small) can as it does now. Don't let any of this put you off though, if you want to try it. For one thing, salting meat to preserve it also tenderizes it, and today what you get in a bucket like those shown here is a decent cut with minimal gristle. In fact to an unguarded eye based on the foodie photographs I have seen of it, modern day salted beef looks much like montréal smoked meat. (Top)
Who Said Bookstores Were Boring? (2012-02-05)
Given the previous thoughtpiece, and the fact that I'm a writer, it is probably overdetermined that I would have an irrational fondness for books and bookstores. I am certainly far from alone in this, but must confess that it has never occurred to me to do something remotely as cool as what Adam Adman and Sean Ohlenkamp did to make this movie that they posted to youtube. It's a stop motion tour de force, with practically the entire contents of a toronto bookstore having a grand party while the staff and owners are away for the night. Go ahead and watch it full screen, the video is crisp and clear, and you will be even more impressed at some of the things the film makers came up with to synch with the music.
The past ten to twenty years have been far from easy times for bookstores. The usual explanations for this I have heard are: amazon or any other on-line book retailer, "big box stores" which should be called the unpleasant warehouses they are, or various electronic alternatives. It is undeniable that all of these things have increased competition with brick and mortar stores, and encouraged the consolidation of book franchise chains into book warehouses sited in the strange wastelands where big box stores are built on the edges of suburbs. However, I think this view underestimates the role of encouragement to misunderstand what bookstores can become in a community.
UPDATE 2018-05-20 - In the end, perhaps ironically, the true victims of online book retailing are in fact – the book warehouses. The chapters conglomerate has been dropping its larger outlets as fast as it can since this thoughtpiece was originally written, and this does not appear to be another asset stripping bait and switch like that which has destroyed several major retailers, most recently sears and toys'r us. Bookstores are doing much better after a significant period of difficulty and panic which I now think had more to do with an overextension of franchise outlets that had no time to build a stable clientele before the far from stable economy sank them.
Book warehouses certainly have their place. If you already know what you want and are quite certain it is reasonably mainstream or that it is part of the stock of current nine-day wonders that often get abandoned in train stations, then you can be assured they'll have what you want. In fact, they're probably your go to place if you happen to be a person who needs to make a bulk book order for some reason. Well, except, bulk book orders are better placed direct with the publishers. If you have no expectations that the staff will know where anything is or be able to discuss books with you, then you won't be disappointed in that score either. Unfortunately such places exact a time penalty, since you're expected to do for yourself what a more traditional bookstore hires staff to help you with, and of course you have to get out to these giant stores somehow. Worst of all, by nature book warehouses are places where management would prefer you not hang around browsing, because they need people to circulate, buy, and leave.
If you would like the opportunity to chat with knowledgable staff about potential purchases, let alone avoid giving the book warehouse chains free labour, then it's a book store you'll want. These are also the places you can listen to readings by local authors, college and university students, or authors that aren't the latest Franzen or Meyers. Depending on the store, there may or may not be an attached coffee shop (an excellent innovation accidentally driven by the book warehouses, it should be admitted), or classes or reading groups of various types a few days a week. Then there's the fact that barring something egregious, the staff aren't under orders to move you along if you seem to be taking your time to purchase something, or *gasp* are having a long chat with another customer. These sorts of happy features are more likely in independent bookstores than chain stores, although no doubt a determined store manager can achieve remarkable things even when faced with franchise regulations. (Top)
Some Thoughts On Editing (2012-01-31)
To be a writer is to be a person who attempts to convince somebody else to publish your writing, at least some of the time. This remains the case despite the advent of spell-checkers, e-books, and self-publishing options that don't make your work look as if it belongs on the news stands of half-deserted bus stations. If someone else is going to publish a piece of your writing, then inevitably you will need to work with an editor, maybe even two editors at least, if there is 'editing' and then 'copyediting.' These days I have my doubts about there being two stages of editing, especially considering the state of some of the books I have seen lately, let alone the advertisement pictured here. This billboard is a few blocks from my apartment building, and logically you would expect advertising copy to be checked as thoroughly as the text of a book for similar reasons: many, many eyes will potentially be reading this thing, and what they see reflects on the publisher as much as the writer. Working with an editor can be of significant benefit to a writer and the piece of work being edited. The "working with" part is not optional, however.
UPDATE 2018-05-20 - As I run through these older thoughtpieces to complete the index page, I now see that despite what a wonderful illustration this bulletin board is of the unfortunate howlers cropping up in books despite north american "we'll rewrite it for you" editing, I may have accidentally left the impression that there is no way that this board could have been a result of an installation error. Of course that is most likely what it was, rather than a problem with the original composition. This just happened to be an instance where I caught sight of an example of a harried installer accidentally mixing up two sections.
UPDATE 2012-05-23 - As of 5 March 2012 or so, this sign has been corrected. It is part of a broader ad campaign (as you would expect), including a sign that declares that the business in question is neither right brained nor left brained. This made me wonder with a wince, "okay, so are you guys any brained?"
In the course of reading Alberto Manguel's essay "The Secret Sharer" in his book A Reader On Reading, I learned that editorial approaches vary in a broad way between countries. Perhaps this shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. Manguel discusses the dangers of what I would call the intrusive north american approach to editing, with the editor trying to bring out "the author's intention." "Intrusive," because this means far more than seeking out typos and highlighting areas where meaning is unclear or things have gotten out of order. It can mean extensive rewrites, additions, or restructuring that alter the manuscript significantly. Other writers may want this sort of attention, I certainly don't. I am not the sort of writer who is comfortable with submitting an early draft that has not been knocked around and polished by beta reading at minimum, and to me such invasive treatment is only warranted for extremely raw drafts. The editor is welcome to write their own book, and they are welcome to reject the proposed book because it isn't what the publisher wants to publish.
It can happen that a manuscript slips in that actually has no fit with the publisher's current catalogue, and no fit with where they want their catalogue to go. I found myself involved in an unwanted publishing debacle of just this kind, with the added problem that the publisher did not consider it necessary for author and editor to work together. It gradually became clear that no one had actually read the original sample chapters I had provided as per their submission guidelines, and that they were looking for simple romance novels that could be lengthy but not challenging reads, although that was not well expressed in their call out for samples. Still, that is the point of calling for samples in the first place. Evidently the selection process went awry in this case, but I think my experience shows that editors may not always be "searching for the author's intention." Well, that, and do check into how long the publisher in question has been around and how much experience the editing team has before sending samples. Lack of experience is as dangerous in publishers as in editors and writers.
At least for now, it seems that north american publishers have become deeply risk averse. This goes beyond taking only as much risk as you can afford, to demanding books that will be guaranteed to make money. Any books different from what already sells well are going to have a tough time getting published at all in that case, and I think it's fair to say that the struggles of smaller bookstores and the contents of "big box" bookstores bear this out. An editor working for such a publisher will be under pressure to smooth out anything in a manuscript that is too far from the features of what already sells well. That can lead to quite significant editing, let alone rewriting, for a purpose that bears no relationship to finding the writer's intention, unless of course, the writer had writing for whatever "the market" in question is in the first place. How effective this sort of directed writing can be when the niche the bestseller is in is already being filled by the bestseller, well – your guess is as good as mine.
The north american focus on "the market" may also be encouraging a thinning of the editorial ranks, especially the under-appreciated copyeditors. Which leads to gaffs like the one on that bulletin board, or the numerous typos in at least the first edition of the Elemental Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures to pick a recent example I've seen. (It was also riddled with surprising misquotes and garbled segments uncomfortably reminiscent of early version wikipedia articles.) (Top)