Oct 162016

There needs to be two of you: you and “you prime.” The latter is an heuristic entity brought into being by you for the purpose of protecting and orienting you.TigersAtBronxZoo

Your “you prime” makes the hard decisions – saying no to friends, curtailing vampiric commitments, enforcing skeptical habits of mind, and keeping you safe – when you are, for any reason, disinclined to do so.

This little bit of as-if – this guardian phantasm – is a nifty trick, I have found, and good mental hygiene.

Oct 162016

In the New York Times obituary section recently I came upon one for Jacob Neusner, a scholar (and polemicist) who published more than 900 books in his lifetime. I calculated – on the back of a napkin, as it were – that Professor Neusner wrote approximately 10,000 publishable words every gosh-darn day for 50 years – over and above all the other words he wrote, including professional and personal correspondence, of which there must have been a ton. And he did this while mastering numerous complex disciplines (and languages) and raising a family. 

The Times obit quotes an admiring detractor:

[Neusner] is perhaps most widely known for his irascible, sometimes quite nasty and often pugnacious personality, his famous excoriating reviews, sometimes book-length critiques, and his fallings-out with almost every institution he worked in, almost every teacher who taught him, many of his students — as well as the errors that scar his many translations and publications.

A friend notes:

It seems that it would be better to be known for writing only 450 books, without the nasty and pugnacious part.

I doubt that Professor Neusner would have taken that deal, for many reasons. Here is the main one, I think: Along with study Neusner seemed to learn about topics via contention with others, which, happily for him, also fertilized his prose. (Churchill is said to have learned about a topic primarily by writing about it.)

Decades ago I had the pleasure of working with the formidable philosopher Sidney Hook. Up until his death at 86 he was still picking fights with both luminaries and unknowns. I have thought a lot about why he took aim at the latter, when there was little clear imperative, and even less interest among his readers, for Hook to do so. I believe he wanted to stay sharp rhetorically, and, as important, he wanted to make sure he had not missed anything.

Sep 212016

One of the best pure writers I have ever seen was a psychology student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University named Emily. She could amalgamate and compress numerous, complex source articles into a hyper-lucid page or two, which on top of that was mellifluous when read aloud. Just the memory still gives me goosebumps.

Once Emily complained to me that professors in her major often dinged her for submitting assignments that did not meet the page requirement. “I wish they understood how hard it is to be so brief.”

I thought of Emily the other day when I read scholar and blogger Bryan A. Garner’s post Law Prose Lesson #260: Acronyms and Initialisms, which I quote here in full:

Legal writers are addicted to defined terms, especially shorthand forms made of initials. (An acronym is sounded as a word [UNESCO], while an initialism is pronounced letter by letter [HMO].) Although abbreviations are highly convenient, it’s a false sense of convenience: they benefit the writer but burden the reader—unless they’re already extremely well known, and most aren’t.

This burdening of the reader skews the reader-writer relationship. The whole idea instead is to make the reader’s job easier, even if this means making the writer’s job more difficult.

A certain judicial opinion defines the following terms: EFP, FCM, HC, NYME, REDCO, ROI, and TOI. Before we know it, we read that an FCM represents REDCO before NYME, expecting an improved ROI, but that the FCM also has duties to TOI, under EFP-1, to certify that TOI owned enough HCs to cover its EFP obligations. To most readers, it’s all gibberish.

Instead, use real words. Make it succinct, but use real words. Otherwise, your readers will rebel by putting your prose down and never again returning to it—or if they do return to it, they’ll detest you.

Dear Reader, Try to make the above piece of prose more clear or more concise. I tried; couldn’t. Emily could probably give it a whirl, but I don’t know what she would come up with.

Readers of this blog know how much we esteem author Garner‘s work, the scope of which is wholly humbling:

Garner is editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of many leading works on legal style, including Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, The Elements of Legal Style, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, The Winning Brief, Legal Writing in Plain English, and The Winning Oral Argument. His latest books are Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts and Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges—cowritten with Justice Antonin Scalia—and Better Business Writing, a work focused on the art of communicating in the business world, published by the Harvard Business Review.

His magnum opus is the 942-page Garner’s Modern American Usage, published by Oxford University Press. It is widely considered the preeminent authority on questions of English usage.

If you are already feeling lazy today, check out these links another time. Just a recommendation.

Aug 152016

From the very smart libertarian blog “Hit and Run,” presented without comment, except to note that all’s well that ends well (if it does end well):

Last Thursday an Ohio jury acquitted Anthony Novak, a 27-year-old man whom Parma police arrested last spring for making fun of them. After hearing one day of testimony, the jurors unanimously concluded that Novak did not “disrupt public services,” a felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison, when he created a parody of the Parma Police Department’s Facebook page.

Novak’s fake Facebook page, which changed the department’s slogan from “We know crime” to “We no crime,” included a job notice saying that anyone who passed a “15 question multiple choice definition test followed by a hearing test” would be “be accepted as an officer” but that the department “is strongly encouraging minorities to not apply.” …

When they arrested Novak in March, Parma police complained that his jokes were “derogatory” and “inflammatory.” …

Novak plans to sue the police department and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office for violating his First Amendment rights. … Elizabeth Bonham, staff attorney with the ACLU of Ohio, thinks Novak has a strong case. She told The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer Novak’s actions were “so clearly protected by the First Amendment that the criminal proceedings shouldn’t have even come this far.”

reposted from basil.CA

Jul 292016

Even when participants are not being paid by the hour, meetings are costly: Notwithstanding smart-phones, no one around the table is really doing something else, at least not with an undivided focus. A poorly planned or run meeting wastes everybody’s time, not just yours.

A meeting called for the purpose of brainstorming is a weird thing. There is an agenda, but nothing’s really on it … except be thoughtful, and be creative, and be that way *right now*.

Hootsuite’s James Mulvey writes that business-marketing teams – I would add academic departments as well – can brainstorm more effectively by applying techniques used by writers of television comedy. He quotes his Hootsuite colleague Liam MacLeod – who is also a comedy writer: “The biggest mistake most marketing brainstorms make is that people don’t listen to each other. Everyone is talking at once and trying to get their idea heard. In most marketing brainstorms there’s a lot of noise and not a lot of actual thinking.”

MacLeod a his co-writers divide their writing sessions into three stages:

  1. Silence and thinking
  2. Sharing ideas
  3. Collaboration

The thinking period in a comedy brainstorm begins with a writing prompt and two minutes of silence, explains MacLeod: “For us, when we’re writing a script, when we’re coming up with the idea for an episode or a scene, we like to start with a keyword like ‘restaurant’ or ‘first date.’ This is the writing prompt.

“We then set a timer for two minutes and all sit in silence, thinking on that prompt. The timer, we find, is really useful in giving everyone a set amount of time to think.”

When the timer rings, one person goes through their list of ideas. The majority of the ideas at this stage are mediocre. But going around the room one-by-one ensures everyone has a chance to be heard and that everyone is listening to one another.

“In your typical company brainstorm, there’s pressure to perform. Especially at ad agencies—everyone wants to be seen as someone who can come up with ideas. So often the loudest voices end up on the whiteboard,” says MacLeod.

“We find that by the time we go around the room, new ideas are starting to form. For example, you might have meant one thing—but it sparked a different direction for me. So you’re getting a new synthesis of all those initial ideas. This is where you break into more creative ideas.”

Once everyone in the room has had a chance to share their ideas, the brainstorm enters the collaborative phase. “It’s speed thinking at this point,” says MacLeod. “A lot of ideas are going to be dumb. But you need that quantity. I’d rather leave a brainstorm with 20 ideas rather than three or four.”

Sorting the good from the mediocre is simple: “Typically, if you say something and everyone in the group starts to add things and run with the idea, it’s usually original. Those are the moments you need to look for. Even if it is a stupid idea, but gets people talking and laughing together—that’s what you want to look for. This is why listening is important. You want the group to take an idea and add to it and get the group thinking together.”

The whole post is really helpful, with a step-by-step ‘recipe’ at the end. It’s a good use of your time.

Jun 232016

I’m pretty much an open book to my building manager. If I ever have to move into another rental, though, the services provided by a British data-mining company might unnerve me. Writes Stanley Q. Woodvine in Vancouver, BC’s Georgia Straight,

Tenant Assured is a web-based service first made available two weeks ago to landlords around the world. The service essentially forces people to open up their social media accounts to the prying eyes of landlords as part of the process of applying to rent an apartment. …

This is how Tenant Assured works:

A landlord who’s signed-up with Tenant Assured sends all of their rental applicants to a special link on the Tenant Assured website. They are then asked  to provide full access to up to four of their social media profiles—on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. These are then thoroughly crawled, scraped, and analyzed by Score Assured. The scrutiny includes conversation threads, private messages, and contact lists. …

Concerns that the service is a gross violation of personal privacy were brushed off by the company, which trotted out the oldest authoritarian assurance about surveillance in the book, namely, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear“. Or, as [the company’s] cofounder Steve Thornhill put it … “If you’re living a normal life then, frankly, you have nothing to worry about.”

Thornhill further pointed out that people had to give their consent to the Tenant Assured process and that it was really not much different from a background check or credit rating.

Of course it’s very different … . There are long-standing laws governing credit and background checks and there are processes in place to allow people to see their credit reports and correct inaccuracies.

Although landlords anywhere in the world can sign up for the service—including right here in Vancouver—it’s is not clear what laws in any given jurisdiction could hold such an online service to account.

As a professional communicator, I take great pains not to post anything at all controversial online: very little politics or religion … or anger. (I always ask myself, “What would my students think? My future clients? My Mom?”) The persona I therefore project is a good deal sunnier and more welcoming than the real thing. Last year a girlfriend from high school wrote me, “Bob, I like you so much better online.” Good to know.

May 102016

For almost a decade marketers, educators, and students have been using the social media “dashboard” created by Vancouver, BC’s Hootsuite to monitor their social networks, analyze the effectiveness and reach of their messages, “listen” to the many buzzes of the online world, and engage with their customers and influencers. It’s a superb platform. (Bias alert: Several former students now work at Hootsuite. I have also used Hootsuite University in my digital media marketing classes at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.)

The company also publishes a lot of content. I find Hootsuite’s blog especially useful; its writers keep me up to date on just about everything in the world of social media. With this morning’s cup of coffee I perused Emily Copp’s Social Media Acronyms All Marketers Should Know and found several I didn’t know: SaaS (“software as a service”), ELI5 (“explain like I’m five”), and … LMK (“let me know”). Copp’s annotations are clear, and the links she provides are helpful.

Other recent blog-posts I have found valuable:

Finally, the blog’s monthly round-up of Social Media News You Need to Know is a really great cheat-sheet – comprehensive and likely vital to your work.

Apr 272016


FirstDraftNews.com is a beautiful and wide-ranging resource created for journalists “who source and report stories from social media.”

What is the best way to search for eyewitness media when a story breaks? What are the most efficient and effective ways to verify what you find? How should you approach and credit social sources? What role can you play in stopping the spread of rumours and hoaxes? How can you do all this while remaining commercially competitive? …

Here on First Draft News you will find relevant features, reviews, case studies and analysis authored by members of the First Draft Coalition alongside a library of free training resources for use in the newsroom and the classroom.

First Draft is also, I have found, a godsend to non-journalists who write and teach professionally and who need to navigate and fact-check enormous amounts of information in order to do their jobs at a high level. The site has sections devoted to News Gathering (Mastering Google Search to find eyewitness media and How to find geolocated videos on YouTube, for example), Verification (How to use TinEye to find the oldest version of an image online), and Ethics and Law (What are the legal implications for accidental copyright infringement? and A simple guide to the complexities of copyright law). The site also focuses on Fakes and Hoaxes (Lessons from The New York Times Super Tuesday hoax: Five ways to spot fake news and, my favourite, The ‘giant’ rat found in London is almost definitely not 4 feet long).

University educators can create “packs” useful articles and share them with their students and/or colleagues. Even better, in my experience students eat up the kind of online platforms and tools vetted and annotated here; these lessons and resources will not go unused. And finally, First Draft provides a number of detailed and contemporary case studies that make research – and discussion of research methods – vivid and fun.

A handy-dandy starting spot for you: 5 Vital browser plugins. They include Storyful Multisearch (gives you customized and filtered searches of numerous databases at once), Google Translate (provides automatically translated posts originally written in languages you don’t know well), RevEye (performs a reverse image search “to see if the image has appeared elsewhere before”), Distill Web Monitor (“let[s] you know about changes to a web page via a pop-up on your computer, email or SMS”), and Jeffrey’s Exif Viewer (checks “whether a picture is all it claims to be” – “time, date, device used” – by examining its metadata).

Apr 072016

Starting early last year I noticed that students would take photographs of notes I’d written on the board with their smart-phones. What a great idea, I thought – at first. Then I noticed that on some assignments my own on-the-whiteboard language was being parroted back to me. Here is my friend Clarissa’s smart take on the topic:

Studies show that copying information from the blackboard by hand allows students to retain a lot more knowledge than typing this information.

Typing, however, is an outdated trend. Today, students don’t type. They photograph. Time and again, I see a student snooze through the class period only to take a photo of the blackboard at the end of class. This is, of course, a lot more useless than typing. If you haven’t heard the lecture and haven’t tried to make it meaningful to yourself through taking your own notes, the scribbles on the blackboard will have no meaning to you.

I don’t forbid photographing of the blackboard but I always wonder why such a silly method of note-taking even exists.