May 042017
 

NYU Journalism Professor has been alarmed by USA President Donald Trump – which is unlikely to surprise readers of this blog.

Professor Rosen is hardly more sanguine about the journalists who “cover” him. This is from a recent twitter thread you can find at at @jayrosen_nyu.

The most basic tool a critic has is not to complain or object, but to describe. Here is my latest attempt to describe what is going wrong in the press treatment of Donald Trump. I wrote it as a Twitter thread — a series of connected thoughts — on the occasion of his first 100 days.

The title is: “The everyday language of news distorts the reality of Trump.” For among my conclusions from watching press coverage of the first 100 days: Normal language will be used for what it is not in any way normal. Ready? Here goes…

On day 100 of Trump-in-power a thread about failed descriptors that keep the press from rendering the situation in its various extremes.

Forced to choose between inventing a language for a presidency without precedent and distorting the picture by relying on normal terms, the newswriters have frequently chosen inaccuracy by means of a received language, even though they know there’s nothing normal here.

With no details — and no evidence of planning or deliberation — calling a page of bullet points his tax “plan” misdescribes what he did.

It might seem harmlessly routine for PBS Newshour to announce a look back at Trump’s “foreign policy accomplishments and setbacks,” except there is no evidence that he HAS a foreign policy, and lots of evidence he does not.

The most you can say is: stuff happened, and he reacted.

It goes further. Even to say the president has views is a distortion. There are particles and waves but these do not amount to “positions.” Every report on his ‘flip-flopping’ suffers by the implication that he had some sort of position in the first place. Nope. He just said stuff.

Talk of “a steep learning curve” credits him with learning. Got any evidence of that? Reacting, yes… but learning?

My point is the press is running into trouble with basic description because the thing being described violates baseline expectations.

Now flip it around. Just as thoughtless use of normal terms distorts an extreme situation, using accurate terms may sound ‘too extreme.’ An example I’ve used: many things he does can only be explained via Narcissistic Personality Disorder. But that is off limits to newsrooms.

As Josh Marshall has written, “He is not only ignorant but clearly unaware of his level of ignorance.”

When extreme facts about a president cannot be rendered in news space without the speaker sounding extreme, the facts had better watch out. And it’s this dynamic that creates ‘normalization’ by news: an accurate account feels less believable because the reality is so whacked.

But all is not lost! Here, NBC’s Chuck Todd describes an extreme situation with Trump, but stays within the language of news. Watch the clip: it’s way better than you might think. pic.twitter.com/AeqaCv5kH2

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.

Mar 062016
 

sleep

This advertisement by Vanda Pharmaceuticals (shown a dozen times a day, it seems, on MSNBC) is for a drug called Hetlioz. (It’s very expensive.) Vanda says Hetlioz helps blind people who have a rare condition called Non-24. These folk have trouble sleeping through the night and staying awake during the day.

It made me wonder: Who is the audience for these ads? Blind people, who can’t actually watch TV? Their doctors, who might prescribe this drug? 

My favourite new theory is that the pharmaceutical company’s strategy is three-fold: To create awareness of an essentially unheard-of disorder; to make the millions and millions of people who are not blind but who can’t sleep at night and who fall asleep during the day believe that Hetlioz could help them out, too; and to promote this medication to these people, to their friends and family, and to their doctors – without doing so explicitly. (In the United States “Pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to promote their medications for an off-label use, which has led to several large settlements for illegal marketing.”) We all know how utterly awful sleep problems are, so imagine how enticing the hope engendered by these ads is.

Great tidbit: “How obscure is Non-24? There are only 146 citations for the disorder in the entire US National Library of Medicine. By comparison, there are 8,463 citations for the plague.”

Addendum: My NoContest co-founder Tierney and I had a good back-and-forth after she read this post.

screencap

Here’s the link to the “Sandy’s View” post Tierney mentions.

Nov 062015
 

Maxines_Alexandra_Imperial “Memory” – or memoria – is one of the five canons of classical rhetoric. Write Brett and Kate McKay in their excellent blog “The Art of Manliness”:

Anciently, almost all rhetorical communication was done orally in the public forum. Ancient orators had to memorize their speeches and be able to give them without notes or crib sheets. Note taking as a way to remember things was often looked down upon in many ancient cultures. …

Because the orations of ancient rhetoricians could last several hours, they had to develop mnemonic devices (techniques that aid memory) to help them remember all the parts of their speeches. The most famous and popular of these mnemonic devices was the “method of loci” technique.

The method of loci memory technique was first described in written form in a Roman treatise on rhetoric called ad Herennium, but it also made appearances in treatises by Cicero and Quintilian. It’s an extremely effective mnemonic device and is still used by memory champions like Joshua Foer, author of the recent book, Moonwalking With Einstein.

To use the method of loci, the speaker concentrates on the layout of a building or home that he’s familiar with. He then takes a mental walk through each room in the building and commits an engaging visual representation of a part of his speech to each room. So, for example, let’s say the first part of your speech is about the history of the Third Punic War. You can imagine Hannibal and Scipio Africanus duking it out in your living room. You could get more specific and put different parts of the battles of the Third Punic War into different rooms. The method of loci memory technique is powerful because it’s so flexible.

In his excellent blog, LawProse, Bryan Garner makes a good case for trying to memorize the prose of good writers.

What did David Foster Wallace and Robert Louis Stevenson have in common? They taught themselves to write better using the same technique: reading short passages from superb writers, trying to re-create from memory the passages they’d just read, and then assessing how their own versions compared with the originals. The assumption was always that the original was superlative—and that each departure from exact replication was a slight failure. It’s a superb technique to improve your command of syntax, punctuation, and phrasing. …

Here’s what David Foster Wallace said about the exercise: “If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate the passage that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.” Robert Louis Stevenson called the exercise “playing the sedulous ape.” He said: “I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and the coordination of parts.”

So even though the best exercise is to repeat the drill using the same passage, this technique is not an exercise in rote memorization and reproduction. It’s a technique to improve your attention to the building blocks of superb writing and to develop your feel for them. As you do that, you’ll be able to appreciate the cadences, syntax, punctuation, etc. in your own writing.

Read the whole post and try one of Garner’s nifty practice exercises.

—-

photo by Bob Basil

 

Oct 282015
 

Regarding Devoney Looser’s ‘Chronicle of Higher Education’ article “Me and My Shadow CV: What would my vita look like if it recorded not just the success of my professional life but also the many, many rejections?” my friend Jonathan Mayhew writes,

Nobody cares about your list of rejections and failures. When I first saw the title of this essay I thought it would be about something much more interesting: the parts of the scholarly formation that seem less scholarly but that somehow affect one’s writing: my study of jazz and percussion, my obsession with prosody: all the things I never wrote about but that are essential to who I am: for my friends, it could be their work as zen masters, or being in a band: the translations someone has worked on but not published.

The point the article is trying to make is that we see a cv loaded with stuff but don’t see the rejections and failures that everyone experiences. The longer the cv, the longer the shadow cv too, because someone more active will also have more opportunity not to get grants they apply for. Everyone knows this, so it’s supposed to be great for younger people to see that these successful people have also failed. I get the point, but it is a stupid article because it is not the one I would have written with this title. (Sorry.)

My shadow CV would certainly include a long section on hitchhiking, an obsession of mine for several years during which I learned how to talk with many different kinds of people. (When I graduated from SUNY/Buffalo no one – friend, family, or foe – believed me when I told them, with the exception of my then-future, now-former wife, because I seemed to have spent more time on the road than on campus – or in New York state, for that matter.)Steinway Upright

Also on my shadow CV would be my study of the piano (thank you, Mom and Dad, for the lessons and for the summer music camps). I feel my devotion to that instrument pouring into my palms as I type this. After I broke the pinky of my right hand in a stupid fight when I was in eleventh grade – it was poorly reset – my repertoire and record collection for several years thereafter focused almost exclusively on jazz. (I named my son after Miles Davis.) Now I play all kinds of things – this week it’s Arvo Pärt, some old hymns, always some Bach, and some easy & winsome pieces by a fellow named Charles Koechlin.

A third section would have to describe my study of radical politics and conspiracy theories, to which I was introduced, as most of us are, I would guess, in our young university years. It became an interest, and then a hobby, while I was on the road riding shotgun and listening to drivers talk about UFOs, the Illuminati, the CIA, JFK, Jonestown, and lizard people, and those secret and super-powerful, super-rich cabals controlled by Mormon or Catholic or Jewish magnates (or by the British Royal family!). When the drivers got tired of talking, we’d listen to the radio and learn even more. I went from hobbyist to serious amateur while putting together my book on the New Age movement. My correspondence with people in far out religious movements tended to be very vivid, to say the least, and I treasure it to this day. I never became a believer in the conspiracies, or in the religions, alas – not that I ever wanted to – though I do prefer the grand verbal edifices they produce to fictions like novels, and by a wide margin. (My favourite “researcher” is Dave Emory.)

reposted from basil.CA

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.

Feb 232013
 

iloveyousomuch

No form of online experience more quickly insinuated itself into my life than Facebook, which I joined at the insistence of a rambunctious, third-year technical writing class back in the summer of 2007. I loved how Facebook “extended” me not just across geographical space but back into time, allowing me to fully animate relationships that had until then existed only as potential, or that had lapsed into silent curiosities.

I’ve been to a wedding and reception, completely organized via Facebook, of a former student and saw photographs of her children, soon after their birth, appear so beautifully on my time-line. And I received eighty responses to this plea posted on my wall: “Help me find a good migraine remedy!”

Although I no longer update my status as prolifically as I used to, I loyally inspect my time-line several times a day still. If Facebook disappeared, the yearning for what I would lose – in terms of what I could witness and, in that way, somehow, share – would be unquenchable.

Last week I asked my Facebook friends how much would their range of friendship and/or acquaintanceship shrink should they no longer have access to Facebook or other forms of social media like Twitter. Everybody who responded was about my age – in their fifties somewhere. Most had already seemed to have considered the possibility of going back, willingly or otherwise, to old-fashioned forms of communication. Here’s what four professional communicators wrote:

Grad-school friend Akiko: I don’t think friendship is dependent on FB, but FB does allow you to keep in touch with acquaintances and, more importantly for me, to renew friendships with old friends with whom I’d lost touch (this has happened to me, with many high school and college friends). This being said, I don’t think the quality of ‘real’ friendship is either increased or diminished because of FB. I couldn’t feel that I’m maintaining a meaningful friendship with anyone strictly through FB communication, because I need more direct contact and personal connection (face-to-face, phone conversation, or even personal email) to do so. So w/o FB I would still be in touch with friends through other means, but acquaintances would be lost. The question is whether that would matter.

My Buffalo buddy Reg: I would say it is fair to say that friendship is defined by non-virtual contact. Thus acquaintanceship would shrink a great deal but be no great loss, while friendship would shrink a bit, due to a reduction on one of its many means of intercourse, especially in periods when one’s willingness to maintain contact is reduced due to depression or great time pressures, but otherwise not suffer, because by definition it is not social-media-based or even significantly social-media-maintained. He added: A (somewhat but not entirely illusory) sense of connection would be diminished, which could have significant emotional effects, or might not. Also reduced access to new music, art, writing, and news. also reduced waste of time investigating unworthy music, art, writing, and news.

Mike (a friendly adversary from university): Fewer friends. Better stronger connections with the remaining friends. More blue sky. Smells. Sounds. Better tactile connection to the world.

And Kat (writing from Thailand): I would write more emails to my close friends yet would not bother with keeping in contact with the acquaintances and others who I am not so close with. I still write postcards to good friends and letters to my father. I think I would appreciate the time I would save being off of FB actually. Currently I rarely use Twitter, so it would not be missed for me. I still like the old fashioned get together for mock coffee along with a physical hug (rather than a cyber facsimile) to catchup with good friends. In fact that is my favourite way of communicating. You will get different answers depending on age groups. Computer was not a part of my formal education. Often I wish it didn’t exist. I think people would be more friendly and communicative without it. Rather than sitting in coffee shops on their laptops, perhaps they would observe the people around them and maybe even chat with them – like the good ole days or what you do in small towns still.


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(photo by Bob Basil)