Thursday, February 28, 2013

Fading Blogs and Human Nature

Is there anything as desolate as the wind blowing the weeds in an empty fair ground?

“Baby saw the day the circus came to town, and she didn’t want parades just passing by her.” (Don’t Cry Out Loud, Milissa Manchester)

“New, exciting, and everybody’s getting in on it…” You can sell a lot of Florida swampland that way. When the circus bandwagon rolls through town people lose their common sense. For example: When cellular telephones first came in, you couldn’t advise people they were being silly to raise their voice so loudly in public. (But now, at long last, someone says you may give offenders the “cell phone glare”) I have stood in parking lots as gum chewers holding cell phones rolled by, headed for the roads. You couldn’t advise them that phoning and texting behind the wheel was stupid. Now you could, now there’s finally a law against it, but I remember well: You couldn’t say anything, nor hope to pass a law, when the technology first came in. Not when the loud-mouthed people somehow feel “entitled.”

“Baby saw the day they tore that big top down, and they left behind her dreams among the litter,
… There was nothing left but sawdust and some glitter.”

Now blogs are fading. For the longest time, as for any technology, you could add a buzz phrase of entitlement: “It’s the wave of the future.” Being a science fiction fan—of soaring print, not the silly screen—I am heir to a healthy “wait and see” attitude. As it happens, simply from being middle aged, I had seen this sort of thing before. That’s why, when blogs first came out, and people were eagerly posting what they had for breakfast, while others were eagerly encouraging such posts, and so many people were hyping blogs as being the wave of the future… I would remember the craze for citizen band (CB) radios.

“We’ve got a mighty convoy, trucking through the night
... We’re gonna roll this trucking convoy, across the USA” (Convoy, C.W. McCall)

For a while the CB airwaves were plumb full. It’s nice to be part of a mighty rolling bandwagon, but if you wish to engage your common sense gear then just ask: Would I still like this if it was not new? I applied this test in 2007 when all the automobile reviews were saying other people would go “wow” at your new Smart-for-two car. Today that car is not so wow, and my two-door-for-four, bought at the same time, for less money, is continuing to give good service—with more horsepower.

As for blogs, I suspect they are fading. I could do some research to find out, I suppose, but—forgive me, dear reader—I am just not motivated to do so. No, not when I am not, and never have never been, a blogger. I only do essays; I only mention my own life if it’s relevant to my post.

Recently someone came to my blog after clicking on an old comment of mine that was one of 37 comments for a post on the blog of an excellent site called Getting Unstuck by Riley Harrison. I was shocked to remember how “popular” that blog once was. Today, for comments, Riley gets zero, or one, or two, and those two are by Lori and I. Yet the blog hasn’t changed, it is still very high quality and I still highly recommend it: It is one of the very few I check every few days. I am reminded of humor expert Milton Berle writing that a comedy show or comic strip may fade in popularity not because it changes, but because the audience changes.

I remember clearly what the audience for blogs was once like. Many readers, to use a phrase from radio’s Doctor Laura (remember her?) had “the attention span of a flea in heat.” Statistics (stats) were everything—and bloggers had to post every day to keep their stats up: otherwise the fleas would surely desert them, fleas that would only skim, not read, as they kept skipping on to the next blog. Skip-skip-skip. Bloggers held conferences (maybe they still do) where the agenda always included talks on how to get more traffic. I’m sure the conferences were warm and fuzzy, but beneath it all, I think, was a certain frantic-ness.

I am reminded of how Benjamin Franklin was so amused. As he reported in his autobiography, people in Britain felt they needed a written introduction to get a job. Franklin found saw perfect strangers at the dockside writing introductions for each other. In my own life, I have felt more charitable than amused as I saw how bloggers would comment on each other’s blog site, returning the favor to each other. Truly, some folks felt they needed stats. Why? Partly for monetary reasons. A “successful” blog meant publicity for their home business or consulting firm. Other folks wanted to be paid to sell advertising on their site, if only it could be “popular enough.” I’m sure some people forgot about the “law of supply and demand” as they dreamed of getting rich for just sitting in a chair blogging. Some would adopt a “blogger lifestyle” of daily comments, research and posts, all in a hope of generating “enough” traffic.

Besides money, another reason for needing stats was all too human. Samuel Johnson, back in Franklin’s day, said that everyone feels a need to be stared at, and if you have a good reason then let people stare all they like. Some reasons are not so good: I suppose daring to post what you had for breakfast is no different from shyly announcing that an ancestor on your mother’s side was of European nobility. I won’t laugh; I try to be understanding.

We want to be noticed, we want to be heard. Hence the spectacle of people commenting on blogs they hadn’t comprehended, or had only skimmed, or hadn’t even read. Seriously. Some would say, “I haven’t read your post, but …” and would comment all the same. Remember how in elementary school we would be given a piece of prose and then tested on whether we had comprehended it? I hadn’t realized how bad the reading comprehension of other adults was until I started reading their comments on the web.

As I see it, before you comment, it’s best to apply the same principle used for speaking up in a staff meeting or classroom: Do I know how my contribution will help? If not, I’d better wait a couple seconds (To think it through) until I do know. Is my motivation solely, or mostly, to get attention? To gratify my ego? Unless it’s mostly to help others, I’d better stay silent. There will be plenty of other chances to speak.

As blogs fade I’ve noticed changes. Many of the sites I have bookmarked are no longer posting. The most serious change is a spoil-sport one, a change quite destructive of people’s fun, like a locust cloud descending on God’s country: In the last few weeks a major spam server has set up shop on our continent. This means my stats, for my US readers, have been rendered meaningless. Now, for all I know, I could be talking into an empty rain barrel. Suddenly all sorts of spam comments are being left… All sorts of “traffic” is being counted—from passing spam robots. My “sources” stat (to show who has looked in on my site) is now filled up by commercial websites, leaving no room for my friends… Truly, the petals have left the rose.

How fortunate for me that I am an essayist, not a blogger, as the circus, at first so exciting and romantic, has left town… …as a weed quivers in a cold wind...

Sean Crawford
Still posting, after all these years,
February 2013

UDATE, March 2014, I found an expert that confirms my suspicions.
~What do you think?
~Milton Berle said, “I live to laugh, and I laugh to live.”
~My sister doesn’t skim, I don’t skim, and I don’t think Yoda skims either: “Read or do not: There is no skim.”
~I thought about blog readers going too fast in my essay Surfing At Work, archived January 2011.
~A “present at the creation of the internet” perspective on Essays and Blogs is archived June 2012.

~Stats-wise, one of my most popular essays of all time is a piece where I am “a minority of one” explaining why I don’t believe in links—but maybe it’s only popular due to spam robots.—Arrgh—How can I know? See No Links is Good Links, archived July 2012. 

...UPDATE: My Macintosh tech expert at West World says that hits without spam comments are real hits. He also advised me, regarding spam, to inform the folks at google, (they host blogspot) and to install a "type number before you may comment"  feature. I have followed all his advice.

~Yes, I do know how to link to my essays, but I don’t feel any need to achieve stats from readers who lack a few seconds to go to my archives. The ones who “need” their links on a silver platter probably don’t read. (hop-hop-hop—like a frog)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Specializing is OK

Specializing is OK
A Friday morning Freefall experience

At my weekly Freefall writer’s group, to use a ‘sixties phrase, I “had my mind blown.” I’ve learned a direct hands-on lesson about “specializing” that I would not have learned any other way.

A common story of youth back in the Sixties was we didn’t want to Specialize, to Settle, or to Sell out. Rather than Select a narrowing-of-our-lives, we would rather be “finding ourselves.” And why not? Youth means ideals, and we had the best support ideals can have: an expanding economy.

Members of “the older generation” didn’t get it. My father was decidedly angry. “What does it mean,” he demanded, “when people say they ‘have to do their own thing?’ What’s a “thing?”
Others had a sense of humor. A father of a longhaired unemployed son quipped “I’ll be glad when my son learns a specialty. Then at least, when he’s out of a job, he’ll know what job he’s out of!”

Actually, I suppose that joke is still current today, although today’s youth in these harder times are more practical... perhaps “practical to a fault.” I’ve often read on the Web of fools getting not just ‘higher education,’ but “higher than higher” as in advanced postgraduate degrees, but not because they have an advanced love for extra learning. No, in panic they crave more hope of having a better chance at getting their first ever entry-level job. I can understand their panic; I suspect their fear is misplaced. But of course, how could they ever know they are mistaken, unless they try some real world reality testing?

My personal testing ground has been in the overgrazed field of writing, my avocation. On that wide common it is important to specialize in order to gain mastery of the craft, according to a writer-in-residence at my university. He is right, of course. Just as I was right when I told a published comic book writer, an English professor, how I was specializing in prose, not comic book scripts, because then with fewer man-hours I could become publishable. My listener, Richard Harrison, nodded in agreement.

For these past few years I’ve been specializing in writing essays. And yes, to many people, essays can be dry, dull and left-brain. What if all this time I have been making myself into a dullard?

Well, at least I can say that since attending When Words Collide at the end of summer I’ve been among a weekly group of artist-writers. None of them do essays, of course, not when they could be composing right-brain fiction and poetry. They write their memoirs of rainy childhood, and portraits of warm marriages, all in sensuous techni-color. And in the time between our weekly Freefall practice exercises they go home and do some more rousing stuff. This while I am plodding along assembling essays, in stable black-and-white.

At our Friday morning Freefall we seldom do nonfiction things like my essay description of Blair’s Apartment. (Archived Dec 2012) As I explained for my Blair piece, we simply have a prompt, and then write madly for ten or so minutes, without editing, and then we read aloud. To me, the main value is in the doing. As a bonus, if we’re lucky, our writing can be used “as is,” to start a new book, or expanded on for a new story.

This morning someone came in who was down from a dry camp (no alcohol) in the oil patch, and someone else came in after feeding the animals. It must be nice for them to mingle with others who write, after they have been scribbling alone in the barn or on the seat of a caterpillar (waiting for work to start). Probably at home they do pretty poetry and humour.

As for me, writing alone: Except once at Freefall, and for a little homework for a college poetry class in the early 1990’s, I have written zero poetry, while it was about two decades ago that I wrote my sole humor short story. Well. Today we all received a card from a fairy deck and I found myself spontaneously writing a poem. I know my peers thought it was a good one, as they had me read it again. Then came a prompt of “and besides that?” which seemed to cry out for a humor piece. I know my peers thought it was good, as they laughed... Light bulb: I’m surely not a dullard, even though I’ve Settled on essays.

I’m so flummoxed: As I told the others, “that poem just popped right in.” As did the humor story. Therefore I can tell any young idealist: Go ahead and specialize, for specializing can be more help than hindrance, provided you are serious about being productive.

It was my favorite web essayist, Paul Graham, in essays like How to Do what You Love, who pointed out that “non-productive pleasures,” such as reading books, eventually palls, but not a productive one such as writing books. To him, “productive” means “problem solving.” In his life he had wrestled with problems in making art and software and small businesses. For him, a “hard enough” problem, a “real” one, is one where there is suspense about failure.

To me, this explains why unemployment is so hurtful to most of us, but not to an aspiring Olympian or novelist. The majority of the unemployed are deflated balloons, the latter are full ones: They have purpose. Those full balloons remind me of a computer cliché: “Good stuff in, good stuff out.” A nerd who productively tries hard at making good computers will find that his "unrelated" efforts, such as making a hand held telephone, somehow equally good.

Referring again to Paul Graham, it's as if my working hard activated a second self for watching and learning. From his piece on how to get ideas for a software startup company:
Since what you need to do here is loosen up your own mind, it may be best not to make too much of a direct frontal attack on the problem—i.e. to sit down and try to think of ideas. The best plan may be just to keep a background process running, looking for things that seem to be missing. Work on hard problems, driven mainly by curiousity, but have a second self watching over your shoulder, taking note of gaps and anomalies. 

Here’s a theory: By trying to do “hard enough” work on “real” essays I was somehow forced to “take in” good stuff, far removed from my specialty, stuff like written humor and poetry. By “effort” I mean the opposite of being what youth call a “slacker.”

So many slackers among us! Sometimes I despair that focused effort is so rare, like the seldom-heard sound of a distant woodpecker... although focus is so effective, like the cadence of photons from a laser. I think if I had been writing with only minimal effort then the “poetry stuff” simply wouldn’t have “registered.” It was the effort that allowed “good stuff out.”

I’m so delighted: Suddenly I realize my toolbox has more stuff. Me, a poet? I’m pleased, really pleased.

Sean Crawford
Writing in freefall
Early in 2013
Footnote: No, I won’t inflict on you my freefall first draft poem and humor story. Not even for a mere footnote. But you may find both in the Freefall (first draft) website, featuring my fellow writers and me:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Drones, Culture and Citizens


“…When Canada extends a welcome to a newcomer… it is with the understanding that our embrace of this new citizen includes the expectation that our laws and our democratic way of life will be in turn respected and honoured. To do otherwise is a betrayal—and no betrayal is worse than that of a naturalized citizen turning to terrorism and besmirching Canada abroad. …—he or she does not value the precious gift of Canadian citizenship, does not love Canada and has not sought to be Canadian in mind, heart and soul.”
Calgary Herald editorial, Saturday February 9, 2013

This week our immigration minister has proposed to strip Canadian citizenship from dual nationals who commit acts of terror or war. While the details still need to be worked out, the policy is sound, a “no-brainer.” From what I’ve seen, the only folks who see the policy as being “controversial” tend to be opposition politicians and people whom Lenin would call “useful idiots”: The guys who see the “establishment” and the “government” as a resented occupying power.

This week, too, US drones are in the news, with testimony before the US senate. On CBC radio Rex Murphy held a lengthy call-in show. One “useful” idiot defined terrorism as “violence,” allowing him to slime the “establishment” state of Israel. I have no opinion on civil war terror, but as regards “global reach” terror it seems to me the definition is obvious: “lack of accountability.” After 9/11 we did not call the Saudi ambassador on the carpet to give him heck, nor ask our navy to blockade the Saudis as part of a policy of punishing sanctions. Of course not: The terrorists were not supported by, nor embedded in, the innocent Saudi people; the terrorists had no wise old board of governors, and they were not accountable to any Saudi public or senate. 


Also this week the CBC aired a lengthy radio show about drones, interviewing experts who knew the legal history of war, but I was too distracted to listen: I kept waiting for mention of US culture.

Culture matters, and cultures can change. When my father was young he was warped by the Great Depression. No wonder “jobs” have become a national sacred dream, distracting us when we discuss, say, a pipeline project. Well, better a national dream of “jobs” than a grandiose dream of glory. When I was young we made jokes about the occasional airplane hijackers. Who would have imagined that one day we’d be willing to stand in stocking feet, beltless, being fondled in front of our wives? US culture has changed to “zero hijacks.”

When my grandfather was young it was expected that US marines would, say, land on the Barbary Coast to clear out a nest of pirates. It was expected the pirates would lose, and some marines would be wounded or killed. Today, in stark contrast, US culture has changed to “zero casualties.”

To someone in Europe or Asia “zero casualties” might seem like a crazy dream, behind wavering opium smoke. But every culture is entitled to its own form of craziness, n’est pas? The American people truly do not want to see a wounded marine on the front page, not even to clear out pirates, not even to feed the starving children of Mogadishu. (Blackhawk Down) It’s crazy for us to ignore this new American culture, especially when we discuss why Americans are so determined to use their drones in place of their soldiers.

As Lord Conrad Black put it, the Americans think some things are worth killing for, but not worth dying for.

I have mentioned three generations: me, my dad and grandpa. Today our culture is changing so fast the experts will sometimes talk of “cohorts” within a generation. For example, folks who grew up playing Daniel Boone and watching black and white TV will be in a different cohort than those of ten years later who grew up on color TV. The latter will have gazed out through a cathode window during a time when an intense preference for long hair meant very few historical TV shows from any short haired era, such as the frontier or the early 1900’s. This may explain the historical unawareness of a girl in my high school. Ironically, she had an older brother in the reserves, serving in the Royal Westminster Regiment. One day the girl put up her hand to say: “Please don’t keep me in suspense—Who wins the First World War?” … I suppose different cohorts might each see drones through a different lens. Nevertheless it is practical to talk of US Americans as a single people, as I do below.

Obama Killing Americans

There’s a war going on. 

I would remind my overseas friends the Americans are not taking action against Britain’s IRA or Canada’s FLQ, not unless such terrorists cross the border south going into the republic of Ireland or the US of A. No, the Yankees have not declared war on conventional (civil war) terror but on cross-border terror, what former President Bush calls “global reach.” If the US did not overtly intervene when Pakistani terrorists crossed over and shot up the Indian financial district of Mumbai (Bombay) it is only because the US was too overstretched in that corner of the world. That can happen when you fight a war on multiple fronts. And now Yanks are killing Yanks.

My European friends, along with some US citizens, must be wondering how President Barak Obama could sign a Death Warrant, as in a “kill or capture list,” against a US citizen in Yemen. The government of the people and by the people sent a drone to strike one of the people. (September 30 2011) Granted, Anwar Awlaki was a terrorist, but he was also a civilian and a citizen. Certainly the US constitution does not cover such things. On this topic, concerned experts are surely addressing the various issues involved and making clear the various perspectives, so that, in the end, an answer may emerge. I'm no expert, still, I could offer one more perspective.

Over here, instead of a totalitarian government, like in Islamic Iran, demanding total devotion to only one thing, we allow a plurality of loyalties. My dad is a loyal lodge member, and a legionnaire, and formerly British. If you saw the Oscar winning movie Fargo, then you may recall how people in North Dakota talked like Scandinavians, “yah?” while also loyal to America. A Roman Catholic president, John Kennedy, said publicly that he would put the US constitution above (Italy and) the pope...Because he swore to God to uphold it.

The American ever expanding economy has ever depended on new immigrants who, forsaking all others, make an expensive one-way trip to a new land. (For Old Lang Syne) This new-fangled 20th century practice of dual citizenship is something that has really only ramped up after cheaper two-way travel, in the decades since my father’s youth.

I would ask you to imagine a man from, say, “Yalta,” a man named Joe. In America, as a teenager, Joe might say he will get dual citizenship when he turns 18, if Yalta allows it. (In Japan, for example,  on your birthday you are supposed to choose which nation) He might say he will be of Yalta and America. Joe might say that since he has dual citizenship, he will have loyalty to the United States, but only if the USA does not declare economic sanctions against Yalta.

As for all the other US Americans, I know them well: Part of their culture is their heritage of immigration. Call them warmly idealistic, or naive, or call them coldly practical: They expect every dual citizen to be American, with no if’s, and’s or but’s.


I saw their culture reflected in an army legend during the brief years of the Republic of South Vietnam. The G.I.’s told stories of a blond man seen fighting against the US, fighting alongside the black pajama boys. According to legend, this guy wore a US style cowboy hat, but he was not American, he was French... It's possible. There may well have been young French plantation owners who hated Yankee imperialists, who had grown up playing with Vietnamese boys, and who had been to Paris and there soaked up communism. To me the significance of this legend, which I believe is not literally true, is this: The American boys told it to each other. Consider: When Vietnam had been French Indochina, would the French soldats and Foreign Legionnaires have told that story? Would the British Tommys, fighting the communists among the jungles and rubber plantations of Malaya, have that legend? No, this story reflects something in the American culture. That cowboy hat is a powerful symbol.

The Americans, as Wiki-leaks has shown, are a naïve people who believe in fairness. And yet a mainstream US publication like Reader’s Digest saw nothing wrong with running an article back in the 1960’s called Get Yamamoto! You may recall that Yamamoto was a key Japanese leader in WWII. The allies having broken the Japanese cipher, a US squadron of uniformed pilots raced through the sky and met the uniformed Yamamoto and shot him down. Things that are both cruel and unusual during peacetime are normal in wartime. American readers saw this air strike as quite fair. So do I.

What if the squadron leader had been a farm boy from North Dakota, and what if one day he was on a combat patrol, planning to intercept a nameless routine Japanese flight? Suppose he had already heard that one of the English speaking US islands, such as Guam, had a little group of traitors in cowboy hats? Imagine if during the flight his radio crackles to tell him of hard intelligence of such a clear target, right now, out in a huge open field. “...What’s your position and fuel, alpha leader? You must be getting close to the Japanese. Would you divert to the island? It’s your call.”

“Hello H.Q. I hate the enemy, but I will turn away from them to kill renegades!” And he banks his plane and leads his squadron off course.

European friends take note: Although, like my parents, you may accidentally snarl as you say "Hitler," for many of you that name has barely the heat of a Scandinavian winter sun on the horizon: a weak pale thing. Just so are many Americans cold to the word "renegade." But mark my words: In North America, even as we strive to bring up our children on innocent tales of Hobbits and Jedi knights, for some of us the word renegade is soaked in anger and horror, a word as hot as the blood of a young blond pretty woman, freshly scalped. For us, a cowboy turned renegade is a monster, a nightmare.

I can assure you that while Americans may have dimly hated those enemy terrorists in Mumbai, they  less dimly hated Anwar the renegade as much as all those enemy Pakistanis put together.

Before you get judgemental and stern about President Obama and my US cousins, I would ask that first your vocabulary include that awful word.

Sean Crawford
on the great plains,
February 2013.14
~Regarding Canada's most famous terrorist, a 15 year old at time of capture, see my essay Khadr the kid meets the Code of the West, archived April 2013

~You may have heard the US legend, unverifiable but often told: When Abraham Lincoln, during the civil war, met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he said, "So you're the little lady whose book started this big war." I like how Americans still believe in the power of words and ideals.

~In my two-semester History of Drama classs, we actors once read aloud the play Uncle Tom's Cabin. I would guess Harriet named her villain, Simon Legree, after the renegade Simon Girty, "perhaps the most hated man on the American frontier" whose name would have still been echoing in public ears. I remember reading Girty as a scary villain in a  Zane Grey book, The Spirit of the Border, from Whitman, for young readers.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Olympics and Boards
Sad to say, as the Russians do their rehearsal for the 2014 winter Games in Sochi, this essay from during the 2010 Games remains relevant. 

Oh! To play the panpipes, and dance in some Mount Olympus glade, far above this war-torn weary world.

Do you think about the Olympics? About values?

I almost despair of fixing the Games. Almost. The  Olympic Games remind me of a comic hillbilly's roof, or of harsh warfare. The comic says, "If it's raining I can't fix the roof, and when it's sunny the roof doesn't need fixing." ... It's like how merely 13 years after rescuing Kuwait, as Anglo-American forces once again "fixed bayonets" to battle the Iraqi Forces, the people at home were already back to square one: a pre-Kuwait knowledge base of warfare. How disturbing since, as a British man said, "War is too important to leave to the generals." To me the Olympics are too important to leave to the organizing committee.

Now it's raining in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games. Do you think my dear fellow citizens are doomed to be hillbillies? Maybe. I have often read that, for an electorate, a mere four years, the interval between elections, and between the Games, is more than enough time, time enough for everyone to forget everything about any political mismanagement. I suppose it's the same for Olympic mismanagement. I remember reading about an Olympic figure skating scandal and wondering, as I read, at how the reporter, and the editor too, could possibly be so oblivious to the previous ice scandals. No wonder there is so little follow up on, say, the Olympic committee staying in five star hotels - while dedicated athletes travel to their meets while in poverty. Nor on the old, old issue of not having ex-athletes, Olympians, on the Olympic board, or committee.

It is from my knowledge of boards that I know how surprisingly easy it is to fix things. I served as chairman of the board of directors of a small for-profit company. Not too much time was needed. Remember, even a board that steers a huge non-profit, or a big corporation, will meet for only a few hours per month. Hence I am confident that with just a few hours of thought an informed citizenry could reform the Olympics. And then, who knows? They might turn their newfound expertise towards managing, or even ending, the War on Terror.

* * * * *

Naturally, a board of governors can't micro-manage a company, and won't try to do the staff's job. Rather, a board sets "constraints" (through policies) and forms a "vision." The part-time board acts through the full-time company president. For example, a U.S. board doesn't manage the hiring of the building armed security staff. For this the company president is responsible. The board doesn't scrutinize the lengthy budget, not even if somehow they could find enough precious hours to do so. Nor is the board, despairing of their lack of hours, driven to "rubber stamp" the budget. Again, this is the president's turf.

However, the board does have time to monitor their constraining policies of, say, "a prudent reserve" or maybe "a prudent deficit." The board's policies must be concise. The vision, written as concisely as possible, should guide the entire company, top to bottom, all the time. As I wrote in my (March 2013) essay 300 (the film) and Goals a vision, or goal, need not be objective, concrete or measurable, but it needs to be imposed on any management actions that are measurable.

Before discussing Olympic values and constraints, let's look at a local city hall example: