Thursday, January 28, 2016

Prairie Free Fall

I didn’t “go home” for Christmas, no, because now the western plains are my “home.” On my wall art at home the scenes are prairie scenes. No wonder in my weekly Friday Free Fall writing group, over the new year, I did prairie pieces. Here are three. As I’ve posted before, Free Fall writing is where the group has a prompt, and then we write swiftly without much thinking or editing. Then we read aloud to each other. Such fun.

When I was a boy, and even now, people use “pretty” as an intensifier, meaning “very.”

Prompt- the thinker

Dear Mom and Dad,
Hi! I’m here in marvelous Moose Jaw, on the pretty great plains. Bit of a joke there, eh? The plains are great, and they’re pretty.

I woke up this morning and lingered in my carpeted hotel room, because I just had to catch the end of the movie. James Bond, in a tuxedo, was in a casino watching a bad guy. And out in the casino lobby were guys in suits like gangsters. Well they were gangsters, they were the henchmen of the bad guy. His minions.

After I put on my Hudson’s Bay Company parka I left the room and exited through the hotel lobby. Nobody had a suit on, just dull blue windbreakers or dull jackets.

I walked down the street going, “Wow, I’m really in Moose Jaw!” The streets are paved with salt, that’s what someone told me. He said this far from the sea, salt is as expensive as gold. The sides of the street have these quaint little berms—no, not salt or gold, but snow. And not a boring pure white, but lots of shades of grey and brown and black. I walked along wondering: If I were a secret agent, where would I go? If I were a glamorous millionaire, what would I do? I walked along and I was stumped. Grey walls of old buildings. Oh, a casino.

There I met the thinker who told me about salt. So that’s what people do for fun here: They think.

Prompt- ice sculptures

If you go to the town of Edmonton, in the middle of January, there they are: ice sculptures. In Churchill square, overlooked by a statue of Sir Winnie, is a number of statues, set in beautiful randomness, glistening and glittering, elves and gnomes, wolves and foxes, and what ever else the local artisans can come up with.

There are lots of artists in this town on the Yellowhead highway, atop the Queen Elizabeth the Second Highway, straddling the Canadian Pacific Railway, surrounded in summer by gorgeous yellow canola fields, where the land dips and sways to wheat fields and cattle grass far away. But here in town the sons of the soil have a talent for art. Some are born left handed, and some are born artistic, here under the northern lights.

Artists can be seen cheerfully crafting their ice blocks with chisels and chain saws, sandpaper and squirts of coloured dye. Artists can be very creative. Not purists but artists.
The artists are watched by passers by, by grad students with beards, children with light sabers in their mittens, and strolling parents. The weather is sub-zero, but no one notices.

At one corner is the ticket center and gift shop. Enter here for an idea of how folks endure the cold: a set of stairs leads the ground hogs down and under the street to a mall, or, the other way, to a subway that will soon emerge to run along tracks to the fair grounds and beyond. Enjoy winter, enjoy sculpture, and art your heart away.

Prompt- wild is the wind
On the prairie, that great inland sea of grass, where the plains stretch out for miles, and the farmers squint, and their colorful children see into infinity, oh, how wild is the wind.
Nature is not a lap dog, not here. Children walk to school bent over wrapping their mufflers or holding their scarves in one hand and watching them ripple in the wind. Childish shouts of glee are grabbed and carried for miles by the rippling wind.

On the Great Plains, where farmers work in sun and hail, where cowboys ride in rain and sleet, nature is a big galumping black dog. Either play with intensity, or have the dog leave you behind. The children who grow up on this land, bracing against the wind, are never left behind. They all wear a toque, a knit cap, a ski mask, or a watch cap—where they watch the wind come rushing over the grass like a mariner on the bridge watches the wind tearing at the waves. Soft eastern dudes once said, “This land is hell on women and horses.” Not if you grow up out here. Children grow to roam like tumbleweed, to be as flexible as willow, as strong as cottonwood. The land abides, under a wild wind.

And when the school is surrounded by cold snow at night, and the gymnasium is an oasis of light and warmth, and the parents are home bundled up, the kids are off to the gym. No one wants to miss the dance! Under the wind.

Sean Crawford
Between the TransCanada Highway and the 1A,
Between International Avenue and the Stoney Trail,
West of Lake Chestermere

~At the Tim Hortons cafe in Chestermere some young men asked me the way to the Stoney Trail. They were from the lower mainland of British Columbia, where the Fraser Valley is cramped by mountains, and the roads are cramped too. How cramped? The TransCanada is so crowded they have to have a special lane, marked HOV, for hovercraft and High Occupancy Vehicles.  And so the boys were really looking forward to being allowed to roar at high speed along a broad clear trail.

~According to a blog analytics, my site has a "strong global presence" so while local readers may take the plains for granted, I hope my far away readers enjoy today's blog post.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Read Before You Comment

You see, I was once a Boy Scout— So there I am, trying to think of things outside of myself, ready to do a good turn for somebody every day, going onto the Internet, and then… I find myself feeling not-so-noble. This happens when I am reading a non-chivalrous comment. Yuck.

They say a Scout is observant. What I have observed, all too often, is people posting replies, comments, when it is excruciatingly obvious they haven’t been alert to what the other person wrote. How could they be so mistaken about words that are resting motionless, right there on the screen, in black and white? Clearly, they have read without seeing.

Call it the human factor. One of my favorite Internet blogger and essayists, Scott Berkun, once wrote with a smiley face, after enduring a long series of irresponsible replies on his blog post, “It is hard to defend myself against something I didn’t quite say.”

As for me, whether it’s commenting on what I saw on the World Wide Web, or reporting on what I heard at a community center meeting last night, I try to be responsible and in control of myself. I like to think that, as a housewife once said of me, I can be trusted to “give an even handed report.” Others, at least on the web, seemingly give in to their human factor. My poor auntie, for instance, although too proud to prevaricate, was pathetically blind to her propensity to exaggerate past the point of dishonesty. Poor Auntie Pam. Some people just won’t try for self-control. Some don’t try to be ladies or gentlemen.

Of course some people genuinely don’t want to be gentlefolk, or wholesome clean-cut Boy Scouts. In fact, I can imagine happily going over on a Saturday afternoon to hang out with a man who is happily uncombed, unshaven and wearing a rumpled shirt. He’s comfortable. But if we decide to go out to the mall? He shaves. Similarly, if he and I are sitting at our tables in a community of on-line computer users, or on chairs in a church basement, or perched on logs around a communal campfire, then we have a responsibility to be pro-social, to reach for the stars of our better nature.

By now, in modern times, here in the western world, everyone knows the classic sin of the censor: to attempt to censor others from something you yourself haven’t bothered to read, or can’t bring yourself to read—allowing your self-righteousness to overshadow your self-responsibility. What may not be a sin, but is still harmful, is: when you reply to something on the Web without first reading it with due diligence. That’s when a shadow falls onto all the screens of all the other people in that temporary community of readers, a shadow that does not nourish those people. If you won’t read, then don’t type.

On second thought, I suppose a few people, not like you and me, aren’t merely lazy or uninformed about their social responsibility, but truly enjoy being shady people. So it’s no wonder Alain de Botton, from last week’s post, won't allow comments on his news site. No chilly shadows allowed.

Naturally the “human factor,” so prevalent yet so wrong, has been addressed by others before now. I myself, mindful of the Boy Scout motto, once attempted to “be prepared” by coming up in advance with some feedback we citizens on the Internet could use to help keep our public square civilized. That was in an essay archived back in August 2010 called Polite Blogs. Two years earlier computer expert Paul Graham, one of my favorite writers of original web essays, in March of 2008 noted, “The web is turning into a conversation.”

Graham tried to raise awareness on How to Disagree by categorizing levels of reply. The second-lowest, second-most despicable level, (after name-calling) is the ad hominem reply (Latin, from ad “to the,” and hom “man”) where a person avoids honestly and logically facing an issue by instead attacking the man. Although this wimpy avoidance defies common sense, it would seem many people wanting to join the cyber forum are, sad to say, without good sense.

As a Boy Scout I cared about my community, and I still care today. Call it a lifestyle choice: I will gladly pick up old litter that has blown into the forum. And every summer Boy Scouts and Girl Guides revisit the issue of how to avoid starting forest fires, because we know that some people, long after Smokey the bear cub has died of old age, still haven’t learned. Today I am feeling a need to revisit the issue of how to democratically disagree in the cyber forum.

This week my brain is jolted, like taking a cold-water camp shower in June, at seeing the aforementioned Paul Graham being “replied to.” He’s now being attacked through articles on the Web after posting an essay called Economic Inequality. His essay has sure started a fire. I see Graham being attacked by a writer (link) as being a “self-described essayist” (He is an essayist) and as a “robber baron” (Some of his essays are explicitly against “robber barons”)

Over the weekend I’ve read three flaring attacks on Graham, and I suppose there will be more out there. Twice he has replied with an essay to defend himself, that I know of, without feeling a need to file his essay-replies onto his essay site, no doubt because he feels a tad undignified at stooping to reply. Life, he says, is too short. (“No filing” means if you are reading this a year from now, then you might not find his replies without extra searching, so here’s a link)

Graham’s explanation for the ignoble responses is interesting. He hypothesizes that writers have read his essay title, expanded the title out to what they imagined such an essay would be about, and then replied to what they imagined. At first I lean back—that sounds too laughable, too original—but then I curl down sadly to admit, “Yes, that sounds true.”

For one of the pieces refuting Graham, Graham writes, “I agree with almost all of it.” I’m sure the writer, whom I think was writing against an imaginary bad guy, would be surprised to hear that.

As Graham explains, the hypothesis implies the remedy: Don’t attack the man, but do quote the parts of an essay you disagree with, and refute those quoted parts. I guess doing so helps you focus, helps you read word for word, helps you make any of your stupidity plain, even to yourself.

Is such “imagining” a shadow cousin to skimming? Well, something surprising I’ve learned from the Internet, very surprising, is that so many people go through life skimming their screens. Perhaps they skim their pages too. It could be they have never read carefully any pages that could develop their careful thinking. Maybe these folks genuinely prefer TV to reading, being folks who only “read” the screen because they “have to.” Think so? Well, live and let live, says I. It’s OK to skim if you want to, I guess. Maybe. Yuck. But I am sure of one thing: If skimming the screen is your habit, and if you choose to be negative to someone in public on the Web, then you have a responsibility to STOP—and scroll back up to the top, read down word for word, and only then compose your reply.  

As for me, I guess the most lasting part of my Boy Scout years was the encouragement to be “observant” and “alert.” Not blindly skimming through my precious time on earth. As a young teenage Boy Scout I was encouraged to be kind to animals, gentle with the weak, and patient with the stupid. It was a lonely thirteen-year old girl in Japan, Lain Iwakura, who said, “We are all connected.” Yes. Let’s all read, and let’s all think, before we type.

Sean Crawford

~Today I made some deliberate links, not like last week. Given the topic, I thought some people might be too stressed to wait until they got to the footnotes, or type in their own search term.

~Since I've written about poverty before, I thought I would include this slightly related link.

~After an essay a couple summers back, a reader laughed and suggested I print up a T-shirt with my phrase,
“If you skim
you’re dim.”

~Poor Lain. Thirteen years old. Even though children normally like to read (or view) about a kid a year or two older that they are, the anime (Japanese animation) series about Lain is labeled “for ages sixteen and up.” For good reason.

If you are a North American parent, raised on Saturday morning cartoons, and if you hear from people that Japanese animation is excellent, far above the level of ordinary Hollywood cartoons about superheroes, students in the shopping mall and Daffy Duck, and if you are wondering how the heck such excellence could possibly be true, then a good place to start exploring anime is a show with only thirteen TV episodes and a final ending: Serial Experiments Lain. I found it very moving. Here’s the opening theme song. (link) 

The series was made back in the 20th century, back before there were handheld tablets and devices. So the creators had to imagine a futuristic world.

~I wrote about Lain and two other nerdy main characters in my essay Silence and Three Nerd Heroes, archived May 2013.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

New Improved News

I keep six honest serving-men,
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When,
And How and Where and Who.
Rudyard Kipling

I found a book I’m excited about; maybe, if I can avoid important spoilers, I could entice you to try it.

I’ve always respected Alain de Botton ever since I read his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. De Botton, who lives in London, has written eleven books, according to the listing inside his latest, but I suspect his latest book is the first one he’s ever dedicated to his mother: The News subtitled A User’s Manual. In this, perhaps his most important book, De Botton has produced original concepts for how we can improve our news media.

While I am reading his work, De Botton reminds me of the university student newspaper volunteers I knew back in the day: We were not afraid to think in big radical ways. Relaxing in the newspaper lounge, gazing dreamily at the ceiling, and then excitedly challenging each other, we were tackling root questions about “the meaning of life” as freely as poets do. Earlier in the day, over at our staff desks, we would be head down and focused, “just the facts, Ma’am.” (Quoting Detective Friday from Dragnet) There we wrote as plainly as a policeman penning an arrest report. The News, I am pleased to note, is written by a man who understands traditional media. Clearly De Botton has thought long and deep about media, enough to come up with some poetical phrases.  

The news has been around a long time. That’s old news. What’s new these days is people saying we live in a media age. We live, they would say, in a new improved technological age, with more media than ever before. With a Cable News Network, and plenty of new “social news” streams including Facebook, Twitter and Flicker. (For photographs) Such a changing world. But perhaps, at root, there’s been no change in our thinking. In De Botton’s new book, where “The definition of the news has deliberately been left vague,” De Botton professes to believe we could vastly improve our news. I’m glad I found his book, but—

—At one level, I find De Botton offensive. I like my news “the way it is,” and since I’m a former newspaper reporter, to me the daily newspapers are “the way,” setting the standard for other media. And it’s a dismal standard. In my days as a student reporter we didn’t talk about the people’s “diminishing attention span,” not back then, but we did say people were “busy.” And so it was expected the news would be gray. We would put the five W’s up in the first paragraph or so, throw in a plain quote, and write on. Our fellow students, in the food court or on the bus, could be seen skipping from one article’s lead paragraph to the next, skip skip skip, flipping the page every half minute.  That was OK. These students were adults, and as serious journalists we made the news boring for their own good. De Botton would understand.

De Botton looks deeply and says that “boring” has many causes, such as: Boring is when we read “news” but we have no place in our heads to hang it. As I would put it: nobody plows through an entire book of “really fun” factoids in one sitting: where would you hang them? Another cause: Boring is when the news being presented is plucked out of context, and so we don’t care—we don’t know these people. In fact, De Botton notes, we are far more interested in the speakers in the Roman forum in a Shakespeare play than watching a (translated) televised “up to minute, live!” session of the legislature in Rome. I have to chuckle as De Botton presents two photographs, of stage and parliament, to illustrate his point.

“Getting to know” ordinary people overseas, in their ordinary context, is being overlooked. De Botton points out that as long as journalists present little of the ordinary days of “foreigners” we will have little regard for foreign news. Even the newsy events overseas will have no context, no place to “hang.” As he was publicizing his book, being interviewed on CBC radio, I heard De Botton say the Ukraine situation was going on the front page in Britain, but it was going unread, while much further away, here in Canada, we read the articles and we cared: We have a large Ukrainian population.

Boring is because—let me stop here, that’s enough. My point is that De Botton has thought about “boring” and “media.” If he were a fish he would know we are in water, just as he sees keenly the media surrounding us. Not me, I take how “it’s supposed to be” for granted, or rather, thanks to De Botton, as I did until “yesterday.” He analyses—who else would look to the historical roots of news? It seems that in the 1870’s Faubert was noting media idiocies  that sound curiously modern. De Botton ponders.

Unlike Alain de Botton, if I was to ponder, say, the effect of individuals getting “only the news they want” through a tablet screen, and setting their computer to personalize their news feeds, like how recent Internet advertising is being “personalized,” targeted at individuals, then I would at most come up with a lame thought like, “Sure, they’re getting the news they want, but they’re missing the surprise article in the left hand corner.” Alain De Botton thinks further ahead: What are the effects over time? De Botton, of course, expresses things better than I can in a mere sound-bite summary paragraph, as he points out that Marie would have set her devices for news about who wore what fashionable dress at the ball, and then she would have missed out for years the news about regions where people were starving, right up until Queen Antoinette saw the guillotine. Another man, who would never say folks below the equator should just eat cake, might use his noble preoccupation with starvation and butchery in the south to avoid thinking about desperate people at home.

Thinking, simple thinking, is something that De Botton does not believe folks should avoid, not long term, although he knows how hard it is:

(Page 253) “It is never easy to be introspective. There are countless difficult truths lurking within us that investigation threatens to dislodge. It is when we are incubating particularly awkward but potentially vital ideas that we tend to feel most desperate to avoid looking inside. And that is when the news grabs us.”

If it’s true that our attention span is shortening, if, with all our devices, we are swimming into an age of distraction, has anybody noticed the water? Does anybody care? De Botton cares:

(Page 254) “We need long train journeys…We need plane journeys when we have a window seat and nothing else to focus on for two or three hours but the tops of clouds and the constant presence, only meters away in the inconceivable cold, of a Rolls-Royce engine, slung under the broad ash-grey wing, its discipline and bravery helping to propel our own vagabond thoughts.”

De Botton holds up a vision of what the news could be, and yet he’s practical too. He starts each chapter with a list of typical media “headlines.” (Or tweets) that he can refer to. What keeps his vision from being too offensive to me is he grounds his book in everyday common reality. He doesn’t come off as a crazy crank, as he knows full well how we all consume our news, because he too consumes it just as we do, as he makes plain:

(page 122) “It would seem bizarre to interrupt the reading of an article in order to contemplate an accompanying image for as long as we might study a painting in a museum — say, thirty second or more — and with an expectation of … We have lost any sense of photography’s potential as an information-bearing medium… properly introducing us to a planet that we keep conceitedly and recklessly assuming that we know rather well already.”

De Botton thinks things through, reasons things out, and comes up with media goals I wouldn’t have thought of. Consider your latest (insert your incident here) “—gate” scandal. Someone’s been caught. De Botton sees that journalists, and the public too, like to gleefully say, “Gotcha!” but then he looks further: Is the goal to remove a person from public life, or to make society better? These are not, he points out, identical goals.

In my local city newspaper, culture is presented behind the sports section, in the women’s section—now called the lifestyle section. Culture, then, is seemingly “not very important” to my neighbors. Thinking of daily newspapers, I eagerly expected De Botton to come out with some original theories as to how the media could present Politics, World News and Economics. And he does, but then I was surprised to read he even has intriguing things to say about Culture. Rather than blab De Botton’s speculations on “important things,” before other readers have a chance to see his book, let me merely note his chapter on Cultures. There I find subchapters with some intriguing lines. For example:

A second-to-last-section in Envy ends with the line, “They would present the stories of successful people principally as case studies that we could understand and practically emulate rather than simply, as at present, either admire blankly or resent.”

Admiration, complete with photos of celebrities, has a second-to-last section that ends with, “In the ideal news service of the future, every celebrity story would at heart be a piece of education: an invitation to learn from an admirable person about how to became a slightly better version of oneself.”

In Fame, complete with photos of Greek heroes, Catholic saints, and a photograph captioned “Emma Watson buys strawberries” the second-to-last section ends with, “This analysis has a side benefit of providing us with a litmus test for how good a job we may be doing parenting our own children: we have only to ask whether they have any wish whatsoever to become famous.”

If De Botton thinks news could change, then at least in our culture there’s precedent. Sometimes old stale media, such as novels, can be shaken up, if we are willing to ignore tradition and think about the users. As a boy, long before audio books were offending purists, I chuckled at how the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books must have offended English teachers. Not only did they condense fine novels, but they added colorful pictures! I suspect RD simply followed their market research.

I like how Be Botton’s book is more small than big—I like small. If others working in the media read his book and share his vision then they can try out their own ways to improve the news. And we consumers can try to train our palate for something more satisfying than a bubbling rush of facts that won’t linger on the tongue.

De Botton has not tried to micro-manage, he has not written a pompous manual of how-to. Not at all.

As managers know, before tidy clear objectives there must be untidy goals. As engineers know, there’s nothing so practical as a good theory. Alain de Botton has proposed many theories for improving the news, derived from digging down to expose the roots of human motivations. I hope people will read it. It remains for all users, media consumers and makers alike, to be up to the challenge of exciting, new improved news.

Sean Crawford

~I must confess, I still have a compulsion to be too concise, by compacting too much information in sentences that are too long. It’s the old journalist in me. Better to screw up my nerve to waste words for a worthy cause, for readers who aren’t in a hurry to skip skip skip. Readers who, come to think of it, don’t crave links to skip off to.

~Happily, my next post has a way more fun writing style than this one.

~I disparage linking in my essay No Links is Good Links, archived July 2012. It’s the post where I explain I will state my archive location, but I won’t link to it. I’m not saying my older essays are pearls, I’m just saying I won’t make links to grease the way for swine.
By the way, that essay is one of my “best,” one of my “top ten” of all time, according to my (visitor) hit count.

~Update—I just found a glimpse at how what users want, "where they are at," is not the traditional objective serious news: Here's a link to how a new innocent TV news program was doomed to fail.

~Update—Here's an example of a news story, about Nevada pulling away from solar energy, that would be infuriating to anyone (like me) who believes in formal objective reporting. Yet I think the story works, and I think De Botton would approve.