we are all pro-technology

Every year, Lake Superior University provides a list of "banished words" — words or short phrases which have been overused, overexposed, or are just plain annoying. Utterances by businesspeople, politicians, and economists are especially prone to winding up on the list.

There's one word whose meaning has narrowed since the nineteenth century that I'd like to reposition, if not ban, and another related word whose scope has expanded at the same time. If I got total control over the English language for one day, as soon as I made sure everyone knew the difference between "it's" and "its", I'd make sure that "technology" and "luddite" went back to more accurate usage.

Let's start with "luddite". Originally it meant someone who disagreed with technology being advanced at the expense of people's jobs. Nowadays it just means anyone who doesn't consider themselves "technical".

Put it this way: if you remark on Twitter or a blog that you're a "luddite", you're in danger of being a hypocrite.

You're also not as eligible for sympathy as you might think. For every creative person who thinks that being a "luddite" is an excuse for a poorly-designed web page or a badly-formatted manuscript, there's at least one other creative who rolls up their sleeves and makes sure things come out properly.

Claiming to be a "luddite" in these matters is like a visual artist not bothering to learn what happens to canvas when you apply paint to it, or a quilter who doesn't bother learning about sewing machines (but uses them anyhow). If you're using the tools and materials, you should know about them. I'm not saying you have to learn to solder together your own motherboards; just that if you choose a computer as a means of expression, you should know how to do writing-related tasks with it, and know what best user practices are.

Now, on to "technology." When I was in high school, I saw a documentary that really opened my eyes about technology. The narrator explained that the purpose of the documentary was to explain how machines work. To this end, first the documentary was going to start with simple machines.

The first simple machine to be explained was a teeter totter (lever).

The second was a spring.

The third was a combination of those two simple machines: a doorknob.

A doorknob is a technological innovation. In comparison with the whole of human history, spring-controlled doorknobs aren't even that old.

"Technology" doesn't just mean computers, or cars, or radios. It doesn't only count if it's something you're not interested in.

And really: the average typewriter user in the 1970s knew how to change the ribbon, make basic screwdriver adjustments, and clean the machine's innards as necessary. They also knew how to change from Courier to Elite, black to red ink, memo paper to letter paper. They knew how to centre a title and right-align an address.

The average laptop/tablet/smartphone user should be able to do the equivalent. Nothing "technical" about it.

clarity vs. dumbing down

Last week I took a course for work on requirements gathering. We took all about how to elicit, verify, validate, and record requirements. One of the things emphasised (not surprisingly) was language usage. We were told to be clear, concise, consistent, concrete, and a whole lot of other adjectives that mostly started with the letter "c".

And for writing requirements documents, that makes perfect sense. But my brain working the way it does, I remembered something on a completely different topic while we were doing the pre-exam review on the last day.

You see, there's this documentary I like a lot, called In the Shadow of the Moon. They interview many (not all) of the Apollo astronauts, and show their responses intercut with footage from the various moon shots. I've never been able to catch it since, but the very first time I saw it, Michael Collins used a word which surprised me. It's not an unusual or rare word, but it is a polysyllabic one, and it's one that someone used to giving interviews would generally avoid. It's one of those words that falls into this weird hinterland of being only for "educated" people, even though pretty much anyone who finishes elementary school knows it.

That first time I saw the film and heard him say it, I wondered if he'd slipped up and forgotten the interview was for general public consumption. But then I realised something else was going on: he expected the audience to rise to the occasion. I'm convinced every phrase and sentence was being used to get the audience to turn their brains on, not just drift along. It was the opposite of the "dumbing down" we've become so used to in the last thirty years.

Just before the pre-exam shifted topics, I thought about the Lee Child novel I was reading. It was Killing Floor, the first in the Jack Reacher series, and it's remarkable for how Child uses vocabulary and sentence length. Here's the first paragraph as an example:
I was arrested in Eno's diner. At twelve o'clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.
The whole book is like that, a sort of See Spot Run with more plot and violence but no pictures. The writing makes Samuel Beckett's prose look purple.

I enjoyed the novel — after spending all day discussing the uses of UML diagrams in requirement verification, it was nice to treat myself to a little brain candy in the evening. But of course it got me to thinking some more about language.

Anyone with an opinion at all about writing will always tell you to choose simple, clear, and direct over complex, obscure, and tangential. I've always been a big supporter of this in writing: Hemingway over Foster Wallace. Beckett over Joyce. Camus over de Maupassant.

Simplicity can only go so far, though, and no farther. If it devolves too much, the writer has to make up for the lack of vocabulary with more words than necessary. I deliberately wrote "make up for" instead of "compensate" in that last sentence to illustrate.

I'm with the astronauts on this one: entice the reader to put their smartest selves forward, but do it in an accessible way. Who knows? It might give us all a chance to smarten up instead of dumbing down.

worlds beyond these: some final thoughts

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

This post is the fourth and final in a series. If you haven't read any of the other posts, at least have a quick read of Part 1. You may want to also read Part 2 and Part 3.

To sum up the previous three posts:
  • The five stages of grief are, in no particular order, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, and Anger.
  • Not all grieving people go through all five stages.
  • Some non-grieving people will go through one or more of the five stages when they discover someone else is a survivor.
Now, here's the fun part. Once I actually started this blog series and mentioned what I was writing about, I found out from someone I know who does grief counselling that the five stages.... are bogus. They're not the five stages of grief at all. There is no such thing as the five stages of grief.

What happened was someone defined them as the five stages of a patient dealing with a traumatic health event: a major stroke, say, or an amputation. Someone else stole the idea and applied it to grief. Except, while there is some overlap, they're not really about grief.

So when the grieving family gets back from the funeral home and the casserole the neighbour brought over is warming up in the oven, please do me and all the other survivors in this world a favour and don't make noises about the five stages. They are a fairy tale, and my own subjective experience tells me they do more harm than good. They make people who are already going through grief feel like they have to respond in certain ways that aren't even necessarily applicable.

The stages of grief that Western society has internalised since at least the 1980s are fiction. They have nothing to do with actual grief.

What if you are trying to write actual fiction? How does death and survival and grief fit in?

What bothers me the most about survivors in fiction is that grief tends to be a Chekhov's gun sort of thing. That is, it's only mentioned when it's going to become a plot point or the cause for a character trait. There are precious few major examples in fiction where someone has a dead relative just by-the-bye. At best, they're orphans to deny them a safety net of support.

When death and grieving do get mentioned, they tend to be what's called "complicated grief", which is another thing I learnt about while writing this series. Complicated grief is when someone is so overwhelmed by their grief that they can't function. People with complicated grief wind up taking time off work for months at a time. Grieving is an unusually long and difficult process for them.

Real-life people going through real-life complicated grief deserve support and empathy, but unfortunately for the majority of us who have "regular" grief (whatever that really is), complicated grief tends to show up in fiction more prominently. Think  of Hamlet's behaviour after his father's death, or Lear screaming on stage with Cordelia in his arms. Everyone I know who has gone through, um, "uncomplicated" grief has stories about being told they're "heartless" or "didn't really love" their deceased relative because they haven't been seen in public wailing and tearing their hair out.

And you know what? It's not fair, and it makes a difficult situation worse for those dealing with death and loss. It's a great example of a situation where fictional conventions overwhelm psychological reality.

One of the few examples of regular grief done well I can think of is in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, where Laura decides to reconcile with Rob in part because she just wants a break from feeling awful. Grieving is often like that. You can go out, watch a funny film, enjoy it, then go home and spot the dead person's favourite coffee mug on the draining board and just fall apart. A lot of people are perfectly fine getting through their day-to-day lives at school or work, and then they go home and cry. They're not "hiding how they feel", or "putting on a brave face for the world". They're just doing what comes naturally.

On the other hand, there's also this weird pressure to "get over it". Grief counsellors I'm in contact with have told me stories about clients getting told to "snap out of it" one week after the unexpected death of a close relative. This too gets depicted in fiction a lot. A character will grieve just long enough to make the reader feel sorry for them, and then they shift gears and move onto whatever the next emotional prompt is. Maybe there will be some mentions of the death sprinkled later on in the book for continuity.

The consensus is that there is no "getting over it" per se. Most people say they have adjusted to a new version of reality. There is no going back.

Running in a weird parallel with the "get over it" attitude is the threat that if you don't "get over it", you'll somehow be forever messed up and wind up with "issues".

Personally I'm uncomfortable with the idea of "changed" being equated to "messed up" once death enters the mix. Yes, there's some things I'm not into because my dad died when I was thirteen. I will never, ever watch Mamma Mia or anything else with a  "search for my real dad so I can be walked down the aisle by him at my wedding" plot. My father died exactly one week before Father's Day, so I tend to arrange my errands so I don't have to go out a lot when the Father's Day sales are in full swing.

But there's crippling personality traits based on past trauma, and then there's quirks. The fictional Indiana Jones certainly seemed to be a well-functioning character despite a strong phobia for snakes.

So I'm going to wrap this series up by challenging writers to step up their efforts to depict grief more accurately. If you want a resource, I strongly recommend reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. It's a doorstop — the copy I read was over 1,000 pages — but it's worth it, it's a great read, and you can always skim the parts that don't touch you. There are more than enough wonderful passages in it to make up for the skimmed parts.

worlds beyond these: part 3 (penultimate posting)

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

If you haven't read Part 1 of this series, you might want to go back and at least read the introduction before continuing here. There's also a Part 2.

Parts 1 and 2 got the crazy, ugly, incredulous reactions out of the way. This post covers reactions which are a lot more understandable, and which are a lot easier to generate empathy for.

Depression

It happens. A survivor could be having a perfectly nice conversation with someone, and they'll say something like, "How long have your parents been married now?"

And so you explain, as briefly and with as little drama as possible, and the person you're having the conversation with falls apart.

I have made people cry by merely saying, "My dad died when I was thirteen." I was just giving information; it was not my intention to make them cry, and they weren't looking for an excuse to.

All that's happening is that the person is so able to imagine the same thing happening to them they have a grief reaction. All you can do is reassure them and, if necessary, change the subject.

Anger

I mentioned in Part 1 my dad died of a heart attack. While the exact cause was never determined, he smoked. He had a lot of work stress. Even though he was strongly against any and all junk food (including a lot of food which isn't even thought of as "junk food" in North America), he had trouble keeping his weight at healthy levels.

Starting about ten years after he passed away (so around 1993), I began to encounter people who would quiz me for health details. Once the ones I enumerated in the previous paragraph came to light, they would declare he was a bad father who should have taken better care of himself. They would say he was no better than a father who willfully abandons his children.

I will not provide my entire counter-argument here, but I will say it is not for them to decide how fit a parent he was.

I always wonder what has happened to these people that they feel so strongly about passing judgement on someone they never met.

Bargaining

Sometimes when people learn what happened, they don't become sad or angry. They become fascinated with hypotheticals.

"What do you think your life would be like it that hadn't happened?"

"Do you think it was harder on you or on your brothers?"

"How much do you think that affects you today?"

The answer to all of the above is that I don't know, and that I'm not sure they're even answerable.

Onwards

Those who have been keeping track of the phases will know I left out "acceptance". I can't think of anything to discuss there — people just say something along the lines of "I'm sorry" and then things move on.

The series wraps up next week with some reflections — including some things I learned as I wrote these posts.

I'm also going to tie this back to fiction writing, both to plotting and to characterisation. But more on that next week.

worlds beyond these: part 2 & some reflections

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

If you haven't read Part 1 of this series, you might want to go back and at least read the introduction before continuing here.

Li and John both commented that it would be a good idea to mark these as non-fiction. I've added it as a label, and put a note up top here and in Part 1 as well.

Part 2 is the second and last example dealing with denial. It's a little harder to explain, because unlike Part 1's example, I'm pretty sure I never got to witness the worst of it. It's sort of like reading a novel where the protagonist keeps on noticing people playing cards, but it doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything until two weeks later when you're trying to describe the book to a friend. I didn't put everything together until years after all these little snapshots of interactions occurred.

Part 2: More Denial

Snapshot A: church
I'm thirteen, my one brother is ten, and my youngest brother is four. So after my dad passes away, when it's communion-time at church, my mum goes up first, and then when she returns to the pew I go up with my ten-year-old brother. That way there's always someone old enough to be responsible with the four-year-old. Nothing more to it than that.

Except...

The whole time my mum is standing in line at the front of the church, the people behind us are whispering things like: "That's not allowed. A divorced woman taking communion... that's not allowed. Why doesn't the priest do something about it? Why doesn't he talk to her? Who does she think she is? I suppose it's the modern way... but it's not allowed. Well, if the priest wants to help her pretend..."

It was an open casket visitation. The obit was in the local paper. There was a church funeral. There was a condolences notice in the church newsletter. There were In Memoriam masses which were also announced in the church newsletter.
Even if they missed all that — Catholic congregations are big around here and you don't get to know everyone — there's no excuse.

I could have had a dad who was disabled and found it too difficult to physically make it to church.

I could have had a dad who wasn't Catholic but who agreed that the kids would be raised Catholic.

But no. They had to go there.

Snapshot B: music class interrogations
There's a girl, let's call her Vera, in music class. I only met her when I started high school. But she knows about me and my family a little bit, because her family is friends with my mum's hairdresser.

A couple of times a week, when we're getting our musical instruments out of their cubbyholes or putting them back, she asks me questions.

"Does your mum wear makeup?" she says.

"Lipstick."

"So, would you say your mum wears a lot of makeup?"

"Just lipstick."

"Do you think your mum is pretty?"

"She was a model in high school."

"You're lying."

"She wasn't a famous model. She modelled clothes from home sewing patterns."

"Did your dad know how to cook?"

"Yeah. He was good at it."

She laughs at me. "Oh yeah, sure. Hamburgers and hot dogs."

"His first job in Canada was working as a cook."

And on. Sometimes I'll interrupt her and ask what the point of all these questions is. She shrugs and acts like they're no big deal. They aren't presented like I've written them here — just one or two a day, a few times a week — but if the same question was asked more than once and I varied in my answer at all, I'd get grilled on it.

She says her hairdresser contact gave a different answer than mine. I ask her what the hell business it is of any of them and tell her I'm tired of being mined for gossip.

She says she just wants to know and that she doesn't mean anything by it.

The thing is, the incidents I described in Part 1 only started after the questions started. And Natasha and Vera knew each other.

I understand that there was a time (in some places that time is now) where a family that's been abandoned by one or the other parent will pretend the absent parent is dead. I get that. But I doubt very much that these pretending families will go through such an elaborate charade that they'll find a body to display at a funeral home for a couple of days, hold a church funeral for it, and convince the priests in two parishes to go along with the story.

Reading this post over again, it sounds like these things happened in a much smaller community than they did. We lived just outside of a small town until I was ten, but before my father passed away we moved to a suburb of 300,000 people. There were 1,800 people attending my high school the year I graduated, and the students who went there lived in two different municipal counties. The church where my dad's funeral was held had over 2,000 people in the parish.

There is a line where assumptions turn to malice. And I think these examples show two points that line intersects.

worlds beyond these: introduction & part 1

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

I've been wanting to write this for ten years. Just be forewarned that it's not about what you're going to think it's about from the next couple of paragraphs.

What it's not about is: death, grieving, my dad. Really.

Note, though, that the five stages of grief as outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler are, in no particular order, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, and Anger.

Note also these bare personal facts: my father passed away thirty years ago this past 12 June. He had two heart attacks in one day, it was sudden, and there was no prior medical history to lead us to expect this might happen.

He had just turned forty-eight on 27 May.

I was thirteen years old, and my brothers were ten and four.

But that is not what this series of articles is about.

At the funeral home, at the funeral itself, in the months that followed, we got to hear a lot about those five stages of grief, got to have our every mood and emotional reaction pegged as one of the five.

No-one mentioned one very remarkable thing, though: that those five stages are not just about what you and the other loved ones of the deceased go through. Other people who have never met the person who passed away react the same way. And that's when things can get very, very weird.

This series isn't about me. It's about everyone else.

Because it's about everyone else, I've changed names for the usual reasons. The point isn't to embarrass anyone, although in the case I'm covering in Part 2, I'd like to. The point is to consider other viewpoints.

Some of these examples are understandable. The trick for the survivor is just to ensure they're ready for it when it happens.

Some of these examples are as inexcusable as they are unbelievable. Those are the ones I'm putting first.

Part 1: Denial

It is two years after the funeral. I'm in the second year of high school, as is a classmate I've known since before. One day we're in the corridor at lunchtime, talking to a mutual friend whose parents are divorced. The mutual friend mentions she's going to see her dad on the weekend. He lives in another city now, so she only sees him a few times a year.

Natasha, my classmate, turns to me and says, "How often do you see your dad?"

"Pardon?" I say. The question doesn't make any sense.

"Doesn't he have visitation rights?" she presses.

"Visitation rights?"

She rolls her eyes. "Well, I don't think that's right. He's still your dad, and you should be able to see him when you want to."

I finally catch up. "Natasha," I say, "He's dead."

"Whatever," she says, and flounces off with the mutual friend.

There's more to it than that. Not only was Natasha at the recreation centre where my dad had his initial heart attack, not only did she see him borne on a stretcher into an ambulance, but she represented my class at the funeral. She was front-and-centre for the entire event, but here we are two years later, and she's asking about visitation rights. When I confront her later and remind her about the funeral, she just keeps repeating "I don't remember that", as if it makes it true.

Two years later again we're both in senior year and she tells me that once I turn eighteen, any visitation restrictions are null and void. I remind her again of the truth, again she claims not to have lived through her part, and we're back in our starting positions.

Part 2 and a reflection on Parts 1 & 2 will be posted next week.

keep pushing and the momentum will come

This week gave me a lot of reason to pause and reflect on what crosses in and out of The Eyrea, both in the physical and the on-line world. Something that's always present got significantly stronger: the amount of ideas and content that is part of resistance culture, as opposed to sanctioned culture.

Now, I'm no French cultural studies professor, so for the purposes of this blog entry I'm going to define those two terms, in the Humpty-Dumpty-it-means-that-because-I-said-so way.

Sanctioned culture is composed of cultural interactions and artifacts which get produced and/or explicitly distributed by a large, powerful entity. Usually that's either a government or a big corporation.

Resistance culture is also composed of cultural interactions and artifacts, but gets little to no explicit support by large, powerful entities. Governments, big corporations, or the like may be tangentially involved — an artifact is created with a mass-produced camera, say, or distributed via an e-mail account Google or Microsoft host — but they don't sanction it. Beyond a cursory, automated check to ensure it doesn't break any of their usage rules, they may not be aware it exists at all.

This is an interesting era, because for a very long time (how long? I date it back to the advent of the photocopier, but other people choose their own milestones), resistance culture has been becoming easier and easier to produce and distribute. It's got to the point where sanctioned culture will use resistance culture's methods in an attempt to give itself back some street cred; at the same time, some resistance cultural artifacts are looking awfully polished — like something we're used to seeing from sanctioned culture. One example of the former are the various flash mobs for the sake of advertising. One example of the latter is Nina Paley's wonderful animated feature film, Sita Sings the Blues.

So what's special about this week? This week alone:
  • Larry Kollar released Pickups and Pestilence, the sequel to his novel White Pickups
  • Marc Nash posted an hour-long video for his Friday Flash — basically a poetry reading you could enjoy in the comfort of your own home, without having to head out to that café that doesn't have any signage.
  • It was Mother's Day here in Canada and elsewhere, and my mum asked me to design and make her a necklace or bracelet instead of just buying something. At brunch today, we talked about stuff we were making and about the upcoming performance of my stepfather's first play.
All right, community theatre is as old as theatre itself, and Larry's not the first person to self-publish a novel, and Marc isn't the first person to upload a video to YouTube. I'm certainly not the first person to grab some pliers and head pins and stone beads and make a necklace.

All the same, think about it: for most if not all of the people on that list (including me), if marketers were to look at our demographic profile, they would come to the conclusion that we should be consumers, not makers. Certainly we shouldn't be publishing novels or plays. Our family just successfully celebrated that most Hallmark of holidays without directly buying a damn thing for it — even the card I gave my mum was an art card I picked up a couple of years ago... somewhere, and while it is mass produced it's not widely available either.

I don't have a very bohemian family — we tend to have jobs in IT or accounting. I grew up in the 'burbs, and most of my close relatives still live there. According to those who sanction sanctioned culture, there shouldn't be a single thing I own that can't be found in a shopping mall, bar maybe some tchotchkes picked up during an overseas holiday.

Resistance culture is supposed to require resistance. It's not supposed to be this easy to find and do. And certainly before the web took off, it wasn't.

The web's going to be twenty years old in 2015, so again, maybe this shouldn't be this big a deal still. But consider:
  • Marc's in the UK, and I could watch his video. I cannot watch all  videos uploaded in the UK by sanctioned-culture entities like the BBC. If they deem it for international consumption, I can view it, but not if it's domestic-only. In practice this means I can watch a lot of news clips, but next to no drama or comedy. See that? A one-man production has less publicity, but greater reach than content that took dozens of cast and crew members to produce. We all know by now that when a resistance-culture video goes viral it gets more publicity than the sanctioned content.
So the next time someone complains to you that the world watches cat videos instead of supporting the latest Shakespeare adaptation, remind them the cat videos are easier to obtain. Also remind them there are hour-long poetry readings available.

Now, don't get me wrong, there's still a lot of sanctioned culture I quite like. I just finished re-watching my DVD of The Avengers before starting to write this post. But it just seems, year over year, there's less and less to entice me back anymore, and even the stuff that was enticing is getting harder and harder to find. I'd love to see that film Hysteria that Maggie Gyllenhaal starred in, but it only played at two cinemas in my city (and Toronto loves movies — there's a reason they have a film festival here). That's a sanctioned-culture film that got great reviews, but good luck getting to experience it.

There's so many more examples to discuss, but this is an overly long post already. Long story short: resistance culture is blooming in landscapes those heavily involved in sanctioned culture never thought it could even sprout in. Traditionally that means an upset is coming. This time... I think this time is going to play out differently. But maybe more on that in a future post.

Postscript: if you are into any facet of resistance culture and have not yet read Lipstick Traces, you really, really should. The historical dot-connecting makes it a very provocative read.

liebster award

Steve Green at The Twisted Quill won the Liebster Award recently, and very well-deserved too! Steve is a brilliant writer who always seems to package big vistas of meaning into small packages of flash fiction.

The Liebster is an award that's meant to be passed on, and Steve was kind enough to include me in his list. So now it's my turn.

I know some of the people in my list have already received it recently, but if that's the case for you, please consider yourself re-awarded — and please use the comments here to link to your award post if you feel so inclined (don't blame you if you don't want to re-do the lists — there's a certain amount of writing with these things!).

There are rules to accepting the award:
1. You post 11 random facts about yourself.
2. You need to answer the 11 questions your presenter gave you.
3. You pass the award on to 11 other bloggers.
4. You compose 11 new questions for your recipients.

Here goes:

Eleven Random Facts About Me


TV
I have never paid a cable TV bill in my life, mostly because I've never had cable TV. My parents had it, but by the time they got more than just basic service, I wasn't really watching TV anymore except for the odd film or music video show. I didn't have a TV set at all between the ages of 18 and 30. Although I somehow wound up owning a VCR, DVD player, and TV set, they are all gifts and/or hand-me-downs from various family members. I do like some shows, but I tend to watch them in either short (YouTube clips) or long (DVD) sessions. Now that I've not been a regular watcher for enough years, I can see and hear the "invisible conventions" very distinctly. TV seems to assume you're already a TV watcher, which I guess makes sense, but also makes it a very strange experience to watch if you're not.

Knitting
Okay, I have a DIY blog, so it's not terribly random that I knit. The random part is that I'm a past member of the organisation team for the TTC Knit-A-Long, a car-free event that promotes DIY attitude and encourages people to think outside the (big) box (store). We go from yarn shop to yarn shop throughout Toronto, all on public transit and all very publicly knitting. One person knitting on a streetcar is one thing. Forty people sitting together and knitting on a streetcar is something else again.

Cake
I really, really, really hate chocolate cake. This has gotten awkward more than once when someone buys me some for my birthday and is all proud of themselves for giving me a treat.

Coffee
Now that I'm writing random facts about food... I'm allergic to coffee. Not caffeine, but coffee. Even if I buy one for a friend and get some drips on my hand while I'm carrying it to them, I can have a reaction -- the skin the coffee touches will get tingly and will stay that way long after I soap it off. This only started in my early 30s, and has led me to have a lot of sympathy for people with more deadly food reactions. People will say things like, "Oh no worries, we have decaf" or "Just have some to be polite, will you?". Sigh. Okay, no more about food.

The colour black
I almost always wear black clothing, but my apartment is decorated in bright colours. I even buy deliberately mismatched bath towels so that all the towels set out at any given time are all different hues. Sometimes when people see my apartment for the first time I get told I should dress like I decorate, but I don't think I'll be wearing bull's-eye polka dots in primaries any time soon.

The circus
When I was a kid we lived in the country, and our neighbours "two doors" up ("two doors" being something like a kilometre because all the properties were larger than in town) owned a circus. I waited for the school bus with their youngest son. He didn't talk about the family business very much -- everyone in the area knew about it, so it wasn't that big a deal -- but one morning he mentioned his father was tending a sick lion at the house. He explained they had locked pens for keeping ill animals in, because his father insisted on caring for them himself -- he was proud of the circus's standards for the welfare of their animals. We listened, and sure enough we could hear the lion roaring. He said it always roared in the morning before his father fed it.

Museums and art galleries
Museums and art galleries are my favourite places to hang out on vacations and on weekends. Most of the photos from my recent trip to New York City were taken inside MoMA and the Met. When I went to Amsterdam by myself a few years ago, I picked my hotel according to how close to Museumplein it was.

Ciphers and alphabets
I like learning about secret codes and different alphabets. I write my grocery lists out in the Elder Futhark to keep in practice.

Photography
Everyone in my family likes taking photographs; my favourites to take are still lifes and landscapes. Some of my father's photos are in the Canadian National Exhibition archive.

Cheshin!
Photography, right! I've known my friend Cathy Cheshin since we took drama class together in university. She's an art photographer, musician, Hallowe'en enthusiast, and maker of things both wonderful and strange -- like miniature, poisonous cakes. She doesn't have a blog, which is why I'm mentioning her on this list instead of the blog roll, but she is on Twitter. I blogged about her debut photo exhibit.

Music
As I'm writing this last entry, I'm listening to Tom Waits' Mule Variations. Probably I will listen to The Pale Fountains' Pacific Street after that, or maybe Ghost Sonata by Tuxedomoon. So now you know.

Answers to Steve's Eleven Questions

If you could come back in another life as an animal, which one would you choose to be?
One of my friends' cats.

Have you ever owned one of those cars that whatever “Could” go wrong with it, “Did” go wrong?
I only got my first car when I was 32, but that first one would fit that description. My "favourite" breakdown was when it quit in the middle of a very rainy morning rush hour while I was taking it to the garage for service. The tow truck drive was less than two kilometres.

Do you believe in other world life forms?
Absolutely. The universe is too big for this particular kind of chemical process to happen just once.

If you had to spend a year on a desert island with just one celebrity for company, who would you choose?
Um, one that knew about surviving on desert islands, which narrows it down quite a bit. How much research did Tom Hanks do for Castaway? Let's say Dieter Dengler, the man who survived a POW camp in Kampuchea. Werner Herzog made two films about him: the documentary Little Dieter Wants to Fly, and the fictional retelling Rescue Dawn, which stars Christian Bale. I believe Dengler's passed away since the films came out, but hey, it's a hypothetical.

Which band or entertainer would you most like to see in a live performance?
Either Laurie Anderson or Sigur Rós.

If you could alter just one physical aspect of yourself, what would it be?
I'd like to be the weight I was before I started dieting. That may sound backwards, but I'm living proof diets make you gain weight.

I have been told I am a Jack Russell, which breed of dog would you say you share characteristics with?
Definitely a German Shepherd.

If you could choose any make or model of car to own for free, which model would you have?
Lit Motors' C-1, which is sort of in between a car and a motorcycle -- it has two wheels, but the driver sits in an enclosed space with car-like doors. It's a gyro-stabilised, electrically-powered vehicle that has stayed upright even in crash tests where pickup trucks have hit it sideways.

Which do you prefer, the quiet of the countryside, or the hustle-bustle of the city?
I prefer a quiet corner of a city. I live in a neighbourhood that is less than ten kilometres from downtown, but has its own high street and has a small-town feel. We also have several big parks and a bird sanctuary, so one doesn't have to go far to experience some "countryside".

Do you have a favourite colour and number? And do you know why?
My favourite colour is purple, which is good because it suits me. I love orange too, but have a hard time finding shades I can wear. My favourite number is probably 12, because it's a very convenient number for knitter's math. It has a lot of factors, which makes it easy to form patterns with, and it just happens to often be the difference between one size and the next when making socks and sweaters.

What is your favourite film and book?
Eeesh... that changes by the day. There is so much good stuff out there! Today probably Local Hero or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are my favourite films. The Night Circus is probably my favourite book du jour.

The nominees!

These are in no particular order. Thanks to everyone in the list for the chance to read what you write.

The questions

I tried to aim for "random." Unfortunately, I think I may have succeeded.
  1. Chocolate or vanilla?
  2. Tea or coffee?
  3. What colour is Thursday (and why)?
  4. What's the first thing you remember?
  5. If a stranger were to open your fridge door and look in right now, what would be the first thing they noticed?
  6. What made you decide to start writing a blog? 
  7. If your home got featured in a house & home sort of magazine, how would you describe your decorating style?
  8. What was the last book you read that you recommended to other people, and why?
  9. What's your idea of the perfect Sunday?
  10. Socks or barefoot?
  11. What's next?

GIGO

This blog post is going to seem like it's all about math, but really it's about writing and editing. More to the point, it's about some of the stupid mind tricks we can pull on ourselves when we're planning things like writing and editing, and trying to get a schedule together.

Last Friday I wrote a story about a near-future corporation who replaces their office workers with robots. They then discover that they didn't do a very good job of projecting some of the consequences. True to Friday Flash, the comments were the best part, including a chilling real-life example which Sonya Clark provided.

The effects of outsourcing and automation were certainly a big part of the story, but today I wanted to delve more into the math behind a line I gave to one of the executives:

"We bought these robots expecting 24/7 productivity out of them, or one robot for every 3 FTEs, but we're only seeing about 23 hours of work for every 24-hour cycle. That's a 4-hour lag 3 weeks into the launch."

The executive is claiming that a human worker puts in 8 hours a day, that each robot does the work of 3 humans, and, therefore, unless a robot is working 24/7 like she assumed it would (because she forgot to calculate in maintenance time), the company will be less productive and losing money.

Here's a quick spreadsheet I made to show how that assumption works out versus the actuals:


Even leaving out human-worker variables like overtime, vacation, and sick days, the executive's math is off. She assumes humans work 7 days a week, for one thing. Okay, a lot of us do, but it's not assumed to be the norm when figuring out FTEs. Nor did she include vacations, which should have been a no-brainer. Probably if she'd worked out the numbers on a per annum basis instead of per week she would have noticed something was off.

Instead of getting 3 FTEs from a robot, the company is actually getting 4.29 FTEs. They are ahead in terms of productivity, not behind, even with that one hour of maintenance mode per day. Even if you factor in vacation time for 3 FTEs, you still don't lose a whole FTE's worth of hours over the year. There are still too many robots to replace the humans, too much productivity for which there is as yet no measurable demand. Yet perception is reality, and the executives believe productivity goals won't be reached because of the maintenance hour.

But that's the thing about spreadsheets, or any other "what if?" math. Humans tend to simplify the variables as much as they can to eliminate the fuzzy, unmeasured parts of a problem, and in turn come up with off-base predictions.

While I was writing this blog, I Googled the term "how efficient are office workers?". I was trying to find some quick and dirty numbers on how much time the typical office worker gets to, you know, do work, instead of handling interruptions or creating their own. (Yeah, I know, "quick and dirty" numbers. I've been trying to write this post for four days and instead been spending it on overtime. Please understand.)

Check out the results. Loads of tips on how to become "more" efficient, sure. How to measure how efficient you are right now, or how much more efficient you've become after following those fabulous tips? Not so much.

So: writing. Next time you tell yourself you're going to get more done by getting up half an hour earlier, or staying up later, or writing with a fountain pen on paper, or whatever the heck scheme you come up with.... get some numbers. Find out how much different practices improve your game. Okay, don't get to the point where you're spending all your time measuring yourself and no time writing, but get something together.

You may well be surprised what you find out.

YOU MUST LEARN

The cliché is that those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it. There's another cliché, though, the one about history being written by the victors. In this case it's not so much the victors as the advertisers, though, and historical accuracy is not in their selfish best interests.

I've seen lists like these in some of the computing magazines etc., and they always have one or two things wrong with them. First of all, they're often inaccurate, and rush too quickly to get to the star names. It's like they're worried their readers will stop reading if they learn something new.

Second of all, they're often confused. They'll start way early in the timeline, or way late, like a student who didn't exactly understand what their own thesis statement was.

This is my timeline for the development of personal computing. Don't let your eyes glaze over, 'cos unless you're a computer science major (or act like one), you may learn some surprising things. Besides, if you're reading this blog, it means you're taking a break from on-line games or porn or your friends' status updates or whatever else you usually look at.
  • The rough sketch for what we now call the personal computer (or tablet, or smartphone, or whatever) was published in July 1945 by someone called Vannevar Bush. He wrote about it in an essay called "As We May Think" in The Atlantic Monthly, and it's still available on-line today. It's as good and accessible a read as anything that magazine publishes now. Bush gives a series of small examples, which, while interesting, leave you thinking, "okay, so....?" until he puts them all together and delivers the knockout punch at the end.
  • That July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly was read by, amongst other people, a man named Douglas Engelbart. Once he finished serving in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, he went home to the US and started working on creating some of the things Bush presented in his essay.
  • Engelbart invented the mouse in 1963. Bill English carved the first prototype out of a block of wood. Engelbart patented the mouse in 1970, but the patent papers were filed in 1967.
  • 1968: The Mother of All Demos. Engelbart demonstrates using the mouse, display editing, copying & pasting text, hypertext (links), and multiple windows. The whole thing is video conferenced, so that those who want to see the demo but can't attend in person can watch on closed-circuit TV.
Please pause and re-read that last entry. All of that stuff was working well enough to demonstrate live in 1968.

Oh yeah: in 1969 Engelbart (again!) helped start ARPAnet, which eventually became what we now call the Internet. I don't think it's a big exaggeration to say that he's shaped to a very large extent everything the world thinks of as "normal" in a human-computer experience, and yet most people haven't heard of him. Luckily he seems to be a force for good.

And that is where I'm going to end my timeline, because from where I'm sitting, everything that comes afterwards is a long, slow, painful crawl to commercial acceptance from that 1968 demo. If you look around Doug Engelbart's site thoroughly, you'll see that his overarching aim has been to augment human intelligence. That we were stuck with the 1968 paradigm for so long (albeit with prettier video interfaces) is a tad worrying.

Where is computing going now? On the one hand I'm glad that innovations like the gesture-based commands in the Wii and Kinect systems made it to market, because I think a thinking environment that encourages us to use all of our bodies instead of being hunched over a desktop is a good thing. On the other hand, it's a tad worrying that these are coming out of the gaming world, which means they might be a hard sell in the business realm. After all, back in the 80s PCs themselves sometimes had to be purchased at large corporations as "word processors" or "adding machines" to avoid refusals from the accounting department.

Notice I made it this far without mentioning Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (or even Steve Wozniak). Notice how young Gates and Jobs were when all this was happening. Bush's essay was published ten years before either of them were born. I don't mean that Gates and Jobs haven't contributed; I just mean that there was already a lot in place by the time they started working on things.

The advertisers tell us that computing is changing very quickly, and that we have to run to keep up. Given that the idea came in 1945, was realised by 1968, and then didn't catch on until the 1980s, I'm not so sure.

there are things you should know

I remember the first subway posters I saw for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I can't remember exactly what they said, but somehow I got the impression that it was a horror novel. Since I don't generally read horror, I just decided to be pleased that a book was getting so much advertising space, and sort of ignored it after that. Every once in a while the poster would catch my eye again, and I'd wonder what all the fuss was about, but was never really tempted to read it.

Then I read an article... somewhere. I think it was this Quill & Quire article. That led me to some Googling, and let me find out a bit more about who Stieg Larsson was, and who Eva Gabrielsson is. I also learned that those subway posters had misled me — the Millennium trilogy are a series of crime novels, and strongly feminist ones to boot.

And all of a sudden I had to read these novels. Once I finished the first one (in a day and a half of drop-everything reading one weekend), I started evangelising about them and telling everyone I knew that they had to read them too. Even I thought I was being obnoxious about it.

Every time I did a recommendation, though, I mentioned about what I had learned from my on-line news-reading: how Larsson and Gabrielsson had been a couple for decades, how they had never married so that Larsson's place of residence could be obscured, how the Swedish government doesn't recognise common-law marriages for what they are, which means Gabrielsson got nothing of Larsson's estate. She still receives nothing of the profits from the sales of the Millennium trilogy or its spin-offs.

I was thrilled to learn that Gabrielsson has written her own book: "There are Things I Want You to Know" About Stieg Larsson and Me. The ever-wonderful Carla and J-A went with me to the Swedish Consulate-hosted event to launch the book in Toronto. Gabrielsson spoke and answered questions for an hour, then signed books. It was a thought-provoking and positive way to spend Midsummer.

Gabrielsson was very thoughtful and articulate during the presentation, and already J-A and I have had some spin-off discussions based on some of the things she said that night.

I finished the book in the two days after I bought it that night. It's written in a very concise and clear style (it's not surprising to learn she's an architect by profession). Most of the book is about Gabrielsson's and Larsson's life together, rather than the aftermath of his death. There's a lot of warmth here, and a reassuring amount of humour. There were also a lot of surprises, although mostly those were in the final chapters (my head is still reeling from the "contractual" marriage proposal, if that's not too much of a spoiler).

It seems to me there are a lot of people taking the attitude of, "all the inheritance was done legally, they weren't married, suck it up." At best, this is a blatant failure to recognise the difference between what is morally right from the letter of the law.

"There are Thing I Want You to Know"... explains what is morally right, and why, and manages to be a damn good read at the same time.

Which is why everyone who has read the Millennium trilogy — and everyone who wants to fight the good fight — should read it.

there's worse things than dead air

I heard the news this morning that CKLN is off the air — again. As I write this, the radio station's web site says that there will be a statement Monday, and that the fight with the CRTC (and within CKLN itself, really) isn't over yet.

I'm glad there are people out there fighting the good fight, but I'm worried that there are not enough people seeing the big picture. This is not the first time this sort of conflict has happened, and not just at Ryerson University, CKLN's physical home and the sponsor that makes them "campus/community radio".

In 1992-93, I finished up two degrees at the University of Western Ontario while working as a volunteer at CHRW, their campus/community radio station*. Western was always a weird fit with the campus/community radio paradigm. The university is notoriously conservative and known for not interacting with the city it is situated in. It sits on the top of its hill, supposedly once a golf course, with a big black metal fence around most of the main campus. The fence is supposed to keep would-be rapists out, but as a day-to-day architectural feature, it felt more like it was keeping the public out when they wanted in and the students in when they wanted to explore the larger community.

It was almost twenty years ago and would take a long time to explain, so I'm not going to go into all the details here, but it happened like this at CHRW: a group of station volunteers felt that the then-new station management was barely following the letter of the station's Promise of Performance (the "contract" of content the station must fulfill to remain on air), and certainly not the spirit of it. Management said that as volunteers, we had no say in the matter and should shut up and follow orders. Volunteers spoke out against changes at meetings. Management retaliated by summarily removing volunteers from shows, and by threatening volunteers with suspensions or expulsions if they continued to speak up. There were several incidents of a volunteer showing up to work their shift, only to discover that the timeslot had been given to a completely different show without their prior knowledge. Typically the new announcer didn't even know the shift hadn't been designated vacant.

Then management told the concerned volunteers that they wouldn't speak to us unless we had a group name, so some people made one up for the purposes of communicating. But when we went to the university ombudsperson and the CRTC to follow due process, they said they couldn't help us because the channels we were using were for individual students and citizens, respectively, and since we were now an "official" group we didn't have the right to follow those processes.

It ended with the station finally banning everyone they could name from the station for life, including me. It was supposed to be in retaliation for a peaceful demonstration that had been held to protest the management changes. I never attended or took part in planning the demonstration. I wasn't even in the city of London, Ontario when it happened — I was working a five-week teaching contract in Toronto.

The part that still hurts, besides the "guilt by association" summary dismissal, is that there was at least one time where station management argued that I shouldn't be allowed to attend the volunteer meetings and ask questions because I wasn't a volunteer. This despite the fact that I had paid my dues, filled out the paperwork,  was listed on the volunteer roster, and had my station ID badge photo taken by the station manager himself. But I was the (then) girlfriend of an announcer with a long-running show, and somehow that meant that I wasn't a person in my own right in the sphere of station politics. That attitude was present and obvious long before the dispute started, even amongst people who prided themselves on being left-wing and feminist. Maybe that explains why I decided to fight management.

Afterwards, a lot of the people who had been fired from their volunteer positions over the dispute discussed alternative ways they could reach their audiences, often joking wryly about the need for an alternative to a supposedly alternative radio station. Using very low-wattage transmitters, the kind that real estate agents use to broadcast information about houses as you drive or walk by them, was considered, but ultimately not tried because of practical considerations. Internet radio was experimented with a bit (yes Virginia, even in the mid-90s there was internet radio — it was just a much bigger pain to create, transmit, and listen to). Ultimately most of the "concerned volunteers" went on to other community-based projects where their skills could be put to good use. For the first few years after the firings, there were several ironic incidents where a new volunteer from CHRW would call a former volunteer about a project they were working on and request an interview, only to be told that the former volunteer could not accept in good conscience because of the lifetime ban.

We also discussed going back on air after enough time had elapsed for forgetting (we didn't expect forgiveness), but there didn't seem to be any point.

The dispute was given some coverage on CBC radio. At the time we were disappointed that coverage of the CHRW situation was being truncated, but the sad thing was we lost coverage because there were other, similar disputes happening at other campus/community stations throughout Canada. From where I'm sitting, CKLN's latest news is another episode in an ongoing saga.

There are two things about it I find particularly troublesome:

  1. Many of the people with power at campus/community stations — the power to take on and fire volunteers, the power to set content policy — don't know the CRTC regulations about such stations, or don't understand why those regulations are in place. There seems to be this idea that campus/community stations should be just like commercial radio, except "belonging to the students", who are encouraged to think of them as a public-broadcast version of last.fm (Don't get me wrong — I love last.fm. But it ain't campus/community radio, and it's not supposed to be.)
  2. This has been going on for over twenty years (CHRW was hardly the first), but it only seems to make the news when a station is threatened with being reprimanded for CRTC infractions. I've been told that's because the mainstream media sees campus/community stations as competition. If so, they're being beyond ridiculous. Campus/community radio stations don't have the broadcasting wattage, the resources, or the advertising enticements of commercial radio by design.
There's more to consider, like accessibility, community representation, and other considerations, but this post is going long. I'll finish by noting one thing: see that black-and-white logo on CHRW's web site, up at the top of the home page? I was surprised to see that they were still using it — it came in around 1991. The original, which used a sans serif font, was created by a volunteer who did graphics for television. But he became one of the concerned volunteers, so the Times New Roman version you can still see on the station web site was created. That way management could claim that they had made the logo themselves, and not accepted it from a volunteer they then summarily dismissed.

* And no, I never had my own show, although I did guest sometimes when an announcer couldn't make their shift because of vacation or illness. I actually volunteered to learn how to work a mixing board and other radio engineering tasks — but what happened with that is a blog post for another day.