May 212013

I was delighted today to find that my friend Snipey (aka Alison Gianotto), whom I met last Defcon, was newly conspiring with her friend K2 to create a blog they’ve called Gender Shenanigans, which, as they describe it,

. . . is a library of non-discouraging gender political plays. What does that mean? That means people addressing gender inequality in unique ways, using humor, snark, and other methods to educate people in a way that doesn’t make them feel like crap, but does demonstrate that their words or actions reinforced gender inequality.

We’re highlighting brilliant, positive, unique and fun ways people are pulling this off. We believe these types of actions have lasting effects, and encourage both women and men to look critically at the world around them, and the stereotypes and roles many people have come to accept as accurate – or that they never actually thought about at all.

I was pleased to find an example so soon (and superb) of the coyote communications tactics I wrote about last week. In many ways gender politics and sexism are a stagnant, stuck situation. Perfectly polite-but-assertive professional communications are proving futile, even provoking some pretty insane backlash. I love that Snipey and K2 are stepping outside of the usual prescriptions and instead inventing and honoring creative ways to turn the conflict sideways and upside down. I don’t know K2, but I know Snipey, and she’s always been courageous, outspoken, irreverent, and funny. She’s a born coyote communicator.

You can read about the inception of Gender Shenanigans on Snipey’s blog [warning: expect Snipey’s usual lovable profanity]. Or you can visit Gender Shenanigans directly.

May 132013

I’ve been thinking about coyote wisdom. Coyote is a main character in the stories of many North American aboriginal cultures; he is a trickster, a wise fool who shows up when everyone’s taking themselves a bit too seriously. He transforms through disruption and often humor and playfulness, pointing out absurdities and hypocrisies. The trickster archetype pops up in many different cultures in different guises, but I like to call him Coyote.

Communicating like a coyote is a powerful tactic, but not one that’s typically taught in schools and universities. Unlike writing a cover letter or a recommendation report, there is no set protocol. Indeed, coyote communications operate entirely outside protocol.

First, let me give you some examples.

The Oatmeal vs. Funny Junk’s lawyer

It’s no surprise that Matt Inman is a master of coyote communications, since he writes the popular comic The Oatmeal. Matt had contacted the folks who operate the website Funny Junk after discovering his comics had been repeatedly posted there without credit. He asked them to remove his comics from from their site, and when that proved ineffective, he blogged and cartooned about the dispute. Funny Junk’s lawyer responded with a letter claiming defamation and demanding money.

This is where the story gets awesome. Undeterred, Matt drew a comic of the lawyer’s mom seducing a bear, and suggested that, rather than spend money making lawyers rich, it would be better to call the whole thing off and donate the money to charity. He began a crowdfunding campaign called “Operation BearLove Good, Cancer Bad” to benefit the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation. He set the initial goal at $20,000, which had been the lawyer’s demand, but raised over 10 times that for the two charities.

After some additional comical and sometimes bizarre back and forth, Funny Junk’s lawyer dropped the complaint. He still claimed victory, but it was quite clear to everyone else who really won: Matt Inman, bears, the American Cancer Society, and The Oatmeal community.

Deescalating a domestic dispute

The first chapter of Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, begins with a coyote story.

It was the most outrageous way to bust up a fight I had ever seen. I’d been a rookie cop ten days when my partner got the call. At two a.m. we were dispatched to break up a nasty domestic dispute in a tenement on the east side of Emporia, Kansas, notorious for drug dealing and random violence.

We could hear the couple’s vicious, mouth-to-mouth combat from the street. My training sergeant and partner, Bruce Fair, and I approached and peeked through the half-open door. Then Bruce just walked in without bothering to knock. I watched as he strode right past the warring couple, took off his uniform cap, sighed, and planted himself on the couch. Ignoring the argument, he picked up a newspaper and thumbed through the classifieds!

. . . Bruce kept reading, and the couple kept arguing, occasionally glancing at the cop on their couch. They had yet to notice me. As the man cursed his wife, Bruce rattled the newspaper. “Folks. Folks! Excuse me! Over here!”

The stunned husband flashed a doubletake. “What are you doing here?”

Bruce said, “You got a phone? Look here. A 1950 Dodge! Cherry condition! Can I borrow your phone? I know it’s late, but I don’t want to miss out on this. Where’s your phone? I need to call right now!”

The husband pointed to the phone, incredulous. Bruce rose and dialed, then mumbled into the phone. He slammed it down. “Can you believe they wouldn’t talk to me just because it’s two in the morning?”

By now, the fight had evaporated, the couple standing there as dumbfounded as I was. “By the way,” Bruce said pleasantly, as if just becoming aware, “is anything the matter here? Anything my partner and I can do for you?”

The husband and wife looked at the floor and shook their heads. “Not really, no.” We chatted with them a bit, reminding them that it was late and that everyone around would appreciate a little peace and quiet. Soon we were on our way.

Dealing with Internet Trolls

A few weeks ago I came across an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) transcript [warning: language]  on the channel for the programming language Haskell. The person who tweeted the link to the transcript commented, “It’s hard to troll the haskell community.”

Here’s how it goes down.

A young man (presumably) who calls himself xQuasar shows up and begins slinging homophobic insults at the chatters and touting the superiority of Javascript.

They respond in unexpected ways:

“Wow…I suddenly see the error of my ways and feel compelled to write Node.js!”

“you might be pleased to learn that you can compile haskell to javascript now”

“I don’t blame him, I’d be this angry to [sic] if I had to write javascript all day too”

xQuasar changes tactics, but no one takes the new bait. “This is sort of like a puppy trying to be angry with you…it’s just kinda adorable to see him think he has any effect :)”

Finally, xQuasar admits his true purpose. “i just want to get kicked out of a bunch of channels for fun. . . why is no one cooperating with me”

“We are cooperating with you,” someone responds, “you’re just not aware that your goal is learning Haskell.”

In no time, xQuasar admits defeat — “alright i’ll admit i lose” — and actually begins asking intelligent questions about the language.


First, you have to recognize that societal (and personal) prescriptions and habits have got you in a stagnant, stuck situation. There’s no rational way out, because all parties involved have taken a fixed position and no one is budging. Or the rational way isn’t feasible. Of course Matt Inman had every right to pursue legal means against Funny Junk, but resolving the situation in that societally prescribed manner would have come at too high a cost.

Second, you have to be able to envision the creative possibilities that exist outside these prescriptions, habits, and rules. A less experienced cop in our domestic dispute story would have followed procedure, separating the warring couple and calming them down. Indeed, Bruce and the rookie had done just that earlier in the evening with a different couple under different circumstances. But Bruce was able to see outside procedure to the opportunity that the newspaper on the couch presented him.

Third, you must be willing and able to set personal importance aside. If the person you’re dealing with is still pushing your buttons, you’d be better off writing that angry message and never sending it, or taking a walk around the block and then writing a nicely worded, professional response. But if you want to communicate like a coyote, you must be willing to give that all up and risk appearing crazy, foolish, even clueless. You have to let insults slide, as the Haskell chatters did. And you have to be willing to see conflict as not just a zero-sum contest of winners and losers, but as an opportunity for transformation.

Mar 312013

Nick Bilton’s suggestion that e-mail thank-yous are a time waster has sparked debate on whether or not it’s appropriate to thank people in digital communications. Some have gone so far to suggest that this new social ethic of efficiency is creating a generation of sociopaths.

I was just thinking about this the other day in the context of Twitter. I follow a couple people who thank their followers for every retweet and mention. While these tweets are technically typed in manually, there’s an automatic quality about them that makes them about as meaningful and personal as an auto-DM. And I hope we all know by now how gauche those are.

A few days ago I received an auto-thanks and Follow Friday mention from a popular education blogger, mentioning about ten other Twitter handles. Then I received about eight retweets and thanks from people on that list replying-all to the original tweet. It might have been more had I not started blocking people out of frustration.

My advice in two words: stop that. The automatic “thank you” for a door held open IRL is welcome because it is fleeting. But many of us have e-mail and phone alerts turned on for retweets and mentions. If you had to delete an e-mail or tap an icon on your phone every time someone thanked you for holding a door open, the gesture would begin to lose its charm.

If you want to thank a follower, try doing what I often do: go back through their feed a few tweets and see if there is something there you can retweet, favorite, or comment on.

If you feel you must thank, thank sparingly and genuinely. Take the time to verbalize the reason you are grateful.

Mar 282013

Over the past few days, I’ve come across three great articles about mentally setting the stage for successful communications.

Heidi Grant Halvorson’s “The 2 Epiphanies That Made Me a Better Negotiator” points out that viewing negotiation as a challenge rather than a threat and focusing on potential gains rather than potential losses lead to less stress and better outcomes.

Cindy May’s advice on acing a job interview? Feel powerful. Also try this when you sit down to write your cover letter and resume or university applications.

Michael Erard’s “Escaping One’s Own Shadow” advises you to “cleanse your linguistic palate” before sitting down to write by reading authorial styles that differ a great deal from that of the piece you are writing. He also makes a good case for shutting off social media while you work.

Mar 102013

I was walking down Granville Street the other day on my way to London Drugs when I spotted two Chinese monks ahead of me speaking to passersby.

Ordinarily cautious of sidewalk solicitors, I let one of them engage me precisely because they appeared to be Buddhist monks, with their shaved heads and saffron shirts and trousers. He placed his palms together and bowed, and I did the same. He handed me a little card with red tassels, and slipped prayer beads onto my wrist.

Then he showed me a flipbook containing names and donations, which all, curiously, seemed to be 20 dollars and written in the same handwriting.

“Oh, no no no,” I chided him. “I don’t have any money.” I handed back the little card and slipped the beads off my wrist.


“No, I don’t have any,” I told him, and scurried away.

A few years ago, I would have felt guilty, but that day I didn’t. The monk had attempted to invoke one of the most powerful societal norms we have — the reciprocity rule — solely to gain my donation. Because he’d given me a gift, I was then obliged to return the favor, or so it seemed.

Fortunately, thanks to Robert Cialdini, social psychology researcher and author of Influence, I reframed and rejected the gifts for what they truly were.

As long as we perceive and define the action as a compliance device instead of a favor, the giver no longer has the reciprocation rule as an ally: The rule says that favors are to be met with favors; it does not require that tricks be met with favors.

It’s worth noting that invoking the reciprocity rule in this fashion is a short-term strategy. We don’t tend to like people who have backed us into a corner. My fuzzy feelings about monks in general completely evaporated when it came to these particular ones. Indeed, not having any evidence they were affiliated with a temple, I began to wonder if they were monks at all, and whether there was anyone I could report them to.

The long-term (and ethical) strategy? Give freely, without asking for or expecting immediate returns. Reciprocity is powerful, and people will go to great lengths to try to return your favors. What goes around really does come around.

People will be suspicious; we’ve been taught “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and had so many experiences of being tricked that we sometimes reject treats.

That’s ok. Do it anyway.

Photo used under Creative Commons license from Richard Perry’s Flickr feed.

Mar 042013

It’s fitting that I should write this post on National Grammar Day. Choosing and arranging the right words with the right endings in the right order with the right punctuation isn’t even close to the most interesting thing I could tell you about language.

I recently had the opportunity to guest “lecture” for an Interdisciplinary Expressive Arts (IDEA) class at Kwantlen. I use the term lecture loosely; what we actually did was meditate upon, collect, and play with words.

Words are how we come to know the world. Though unable to speak intelligibly, infants begin to understand what spoken words mean at around six to nine months. Before we can do much of anything besides eat, poop, sleep, roll over, and turn towards sounds, we are picking up on the complex and consensually constructed language we’ve been born into.

Language has no inherent meaning; in a process that is almost magical, we imbue it with the concepts and objects and actions it comes to represent. Apart from onomatopoetic words like coo and screech, spoken words in no way resemble the ideas they represent. It’s a quality of language called arbitrariness. Look at that word: arbitrariness. Stare at for a little while, whisper it to yourself, until it unyokes from its meaning and begins to look weird and sound foreign. Neat, huh?

The wonder of words is that our creations are viral. Words enter language because we invent them to represent a particular thing, and then enough people must use them for the word to spread. It tickles me to think that words like boustrophedon — which refers to writing that alternates left to right and right to left, like an ox (bous in Greek) plowing a field — and aglet — the cap on the end of a shoelace — filled such a need to describe an idea or a thing that they were coined, they caught on, and they still exist. And the process of adding new words never stops. Want to see it in action? Visit Wordspy.

Not only do we come to know our history and our culture through words, we come to know each other. We are the sum of the words in our vocabulary and the frequency and manner with which we use them. Our idiolects, dialects peculiar to just one person, betray our worldviews and our personal histories. If you can forget politics for a moment, President Obama’s English charts a fascinating life.

That we can string words together into near-infinite variations within the bounds of grammar, an attribute called generativity, allows us to share with another the vicarious experience of our personal histories and imagined futures.

Words make us, we make words, and our words make the world.

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Feb 172013

Love Adobe Creative Suite but can’t stomach the price? Looking for a new e-mail client with a feature that’s missing from your current one? Love Omnifocus, but it’s not available for Windows?

Enter offers, based on user recommendations, a list of apps with similar functionality. The site permits you to filter by tag, license, and platform, and rank based on a number of different criteria. Not all the suggestions are spot on, but it’s a great site for exploring.

Feb 102013


One of the biggest risks to your online security is having unpatched programs. Keeping all your software up to date is no simple task, but Secunia’s Personal Software Inspector (PSI) makes it much easier to keep your Windows PC fully patched.

Secunia scans your computer for out-of-date programs and prompts you to perform updates. The autoupdate feature doesn’t always work perfectly, but knowing which of the many programs you’ve installed are out of date is half the battle.

Best of all, Secunia PSI is free for personal use.

Feb 092013

If you spend as much time looking at a screen as I frequently do for work and play, you’ve probably experienced eyestrain. Lucky for us, Stereopsis has created a nice little free app that makes that screengazing easier on the eyes: f.lux. F.lux uses your location and lighting settings to adjust the brightness and color of your monitor throughout the day. Now that I’ve acclimated to using it — I even use it for gaming — turning it off makes my eyes burn.

Do yourself a favor: Get f.lux and go easy on your eyes. It’s available for Windows, Mac, Linux, and iPad/iPhone.

Feb 072013

One of the best sources out there for security tools, news, and good advice is Sophos, which is based out of the UK and has an office here in Vancouver. Disclaimer: I’m married to a Sophos employee, but I wouldn’t shill for just anyone who keeps the lights and Internet on at our place. Bob, who is not married to the company, is equally impressed.

What makes Sophos interesting from a communications and PR standpoint is that they’ve committed to taking the stance of a “trusted advisor.” Good will is such an unusual tactic in this hard-sell world that some are naturally suspicious of their aims, but Sophos continues to freely offer their knowledge and some of their tools to the community in order to keep us all safer. And it seems to pay off.

A few of their notable tools, free for personal use:

  • Sophos Mobile Security for Android
  • Sophos Anti-Virus for Mac Home Edition
  • Virus Removal Tool
  • Sophos Free Encryption

Be sure to check out their Naked Security blog for the latest security news, and the Sophos Security Chet Chat (also available on iTunes) if you prefer listening to your news over reading it.