A Sense of Pinker’s Style

Sense of StyleI share one of Steven Pinker’s passions: I like to read style books, grammar books, language books. To me, they’re like literary chemistry sets. When I was young, getting a chemistry set for Christmas or a birthday opened a whole world to me. I’d explore all sorts of interactions and experiments until I had run out of chemicals to do them with. Used litmus paper littered my bedroom.

Reading a book on style or usage is similarly exciting to me. How words can be placed, can work together, how they meld or conflict, the alchemy and the choreography of language, all delight me. There’s magic in writing.

I have a wall of books about language, about style, usage, etymology and meaning. Pinker’s works are just a few among many that date back to the early 20th century. The greats are there: Bernstein, Fowler, Stunk and White, Gower, Flesch, the CMOS, as well as AP, CP media stylebooks, Blackburn, Crystal, Walsh, Pinker and many others.

I recently got Copperud’s American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1981) and have been reading it at bedtime. I never tire of them.

No, this isn’t a strange pastime for someone involved in writing . Everyone who cherishes his or her art and craft as a writer reads style and grammar books, and does so regularly and eagerly. I don’t know a reporter or editor of any merit who doesn’t read them. Only amateurs don’t.

You expect a doctor to keep up on medical trends through books and journals. You expect a builder to keep up on changing codes and materials. You expect an IT guru to keep up with technologies and trends. Why wouldn’t you expect a writer to do the same? Language and style, after all, are always in flux. Anyone who doesn’t read such books regularly doesn’t deserve the name of writer.

Since writing is a critical mode of communication, everyone should know at least the basics. And books help remind us of them. It doesn’t have to be stodgy or boring: there are plenty of humorous and entertaining books on grammar and punctuation. Lynn Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, for example. Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire series is another.

If you don’t quite get the difference between they’re, there and their, or its and it’s, or your and you’re, you really should take the time and learn. Language is a tool you can use as a chainsaw or scalpel: coarsely or effectively. But back to Steven Pinker. He’s not one of your basic book authors.

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The Last Case of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes. Iconic detective, 93 years old. Tending his bees in bucolic self-exile near the Dover coast. Mycroft gone. Watson gone. Mrs. Hudson gone. Even the band of villains and criminals who made him who he was are gone. All he has left are his memories and his bees. And his memories are failing.

It’s 1947 and the countryside still bears the visible scars of the recent war. Holmes (Ian McKellen) has just returned from a trip to Japan to see a mysterious contact who promises a rare, native plant will help him with his senility. In England, Holmes raises bees to harvest the royal jelly, then touted as a miracle cure, but so far it hasn’t worked. He travels to the far side of the planet to find another cure, but instead is confronted again with his past. A past he cannot clearly recall.

Holmes returns from Japan to tackle his final case: wresting the truth of his last case from the vault of his own brain. It’s a story made famous through Watson’s tale, itself turned into a popular movie in the 1930s (and you get a brief view of that film, with Holmes in the audience smiling wryly at his fictional self onscreen…. the fictional character watching another fictionalization).

This isn’t a film about a new case, or even about an old case with new evidence. It’s about Holmes trying to tell the truth about a case long since solved and almost forgotten. To tell the truth about a case that touched his heart, not just his brain.

Tell it to whom? To himself.

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The Mouse on Mars

No, that’s not the title of a 1960s’ sitcom or a 1950s’ movie. It’s what some conspiracy theorist thinks he found in a NASA photograph taken by the Curiosity Rover on Mars, in late 2014. The story was posted on the IFL Science website this week.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Why pay these poor, deluded wingnuts any attention when it’s such an obvious case of pareidolia?”

The answer is because they must be mocked in order to keep their silly gullibility from spreading to the scientifically-challenged. Not everyone who reads their content has your keen, critical eye, your cool common-sense approach, or your rigid scientific background (be it only from high school). Some folks out there beg to be deluded.

Some folks already believe in UFOs, ghosts, witches, homeopathic “remedies,” magic crystals, the NRA, and other codswallop. They are thus easily misled to believe in other nonsense.

You cannot argue with the conspiracists scientifically because that just drives them deeper into their holes where they retrench. Satire and ridicule, however, often prove more effective in keeping other gullible fools from joining them. Besides, you have to admit it’s hard not to laugh. A mouse on Mars? Chortle…

And this isn’t the only nutty thing this particular wingnut said he has “found” on Mars by looking at NASA’s images. Included in the list are a “chimp skull”, ziggurat, huge pyramid, buildings and building complexes, statue head, a Sphinx statue, a marina with shipwrecks, a blade in a jawbone, a rib bone, a femur, a saucer, a “gun camera”…

But wait, it gets better. He’s also “discovered” buildings and proof of alien life on the moon, Ceres, Comet 67P, Pluto – pretty much everywhere offworld we’ve sent vehicles, no matter how arid, inhospitable or simply daft it is (alien buildings on a comet? sheesh…).

YouTube is littered with videos purporting to be all sorts of alien structures on planets, asteroids and comets that some government agency is trying to conceal from you. And then there are the thousands of true believer websites that cater to the wingnuts (often in ways to retrieve money from their gullibility).

And just when you thought a mouse was the height of silliness, someone claims to have found a monkey on Mars. So that’s what happened to Justin Beiber’s pet….oh, well, it’s in The Express, and that paper has less credibility than a local blogger….

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Mao: The Unknown Dictator

Mao, the Unknown StoryAlthough I have read many biographies of the European dictators, and many histories of Europe and the Americas in the first half of the 20th century, I hadn’t read much about modern China until recently. Mao: The Unknown Story (by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday) was the first full-length biography I’ve read about Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) and it is a remarkable work about a time and place in history that remains veiled to most of us even today.

Mao’s rise to power and his leadership that won the Communist Party its iron-fisted rule in China has often been portrayed as one of courage, sacrifice, determination and brilliance. Western journalists like Edgar Snow helped make Mao a sympathetic, even heroic character in Western eyes. But it was a sham. Snow was fooled into creating an image by being fed carefully doctored material. Mao’s image in the west was whitewashed in an effective propaganda campaign (one is reminded of the story of the Potemkin villages…).

According to Chang and Halliday, Mao’s life and political career has more in common with that of Josef Stalin than any other political leaders. He was, they write, a monster, responsible for the deaths of at least 70 million Chinese,more than any other international leader (I have read claims for higher figures about Stalin, however), mostly during the catastrophic “Great Leap Forward.”

I have to admit I struggled a bit trying to keep track of a host of characters with whom I had no familiarity, especially those who appear at the start of Mao’s career and don’t last its length. Of the roster of Mao’s friends and foes who appear later, I only really knew from my previous reading about Chou En Lai,  Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao; and not really all that much about them.

I knew a little more about Jiang Qing, of course, because Madame Mao got Western media coverage when the Gang of Four fell from grace after Mao’s death. Most of my previous reading on China has been about its classical philosophers and poets. I knew more about Li Po, Tu Fu and Lao Tzi than about Mao and his minions. But I am trying to educate myself in China’s modern history.

Reading about Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in this book, I thought about several Western novels: Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Golding’s Lord of the Flies, all of which have some resonance. I also thought about Jan Wong’s excellent biography, Red China Blues, in which she found her youthful idealism for Mao’s China dissolved in the hypocrisy she discovered when she went to live there.

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The Airport Mystery

Collingwood AirportWhat’s happening at Collingwood Airport? Or better yet: what’s NOT happening? And why isn’t it?

Once touted as the role model for regional cooperation, and having the best potential for local economic development, it is now a topic for murmurings about a secret sale, and ugly rumours that this has become the worst regional relationship this town has ever had.

Every time the airport comes up on the agenda, our oh-so-open and transparent Collingwood Council scurries behind closed doors to discuss it. But while that may seal a few local lips, it hasn’t stopped people in our surrounding region from talking about it. And several are complaining loudly about our council and administration.

There’s a $150-million development (and potentially MUCH larger; it could reach $300 million, I was told… read the letter in this week’s consent agenda starting page 22) going on out there. Well, it got started, and when it turned to Collingwood, it got stuck in bureaucratic limbo because of council’s and staff’s inaction.

And, from what I’m told, our municipal partners at the airport are fed up (a sentiment overheard last night after council’s inevitable in camera meeting about it).

The once-golden regional relationship has turned toxic. Just like it did with our water utility and Collus/Powerstream. There may be a trend here… everything this council touches is turning bad.

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CRAP Design

The Non-Designer's Design BookCRAP: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity. An unfortunate acronym from the four basic principles of graphic design first expounded in Robin Williams’ delightful little book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book. It’s now in its fourth edition, adding 24 pages since the last edition, almost 50 since the 2nd and more than 100 since the first).

Of all my books on graphic design, this has been my favourite for several years, ever since I bought the first edition in the late 1990s. It condenses so much information, so many ideas, so many nuances into clear, understandable principles.

Plus, it’s well-illustrated, with many visual examples of good and bad design.

Every chapter and many sections offer some quiz, test, or challenge for readers to work on. None of which are terribly difficult and some of which are subjective, so there’s no right or wrong answer. But it’s a good exercise because sometimes the answers reveal things we missed in our initial exploration.

Since Williams came up with the CRAP list, it has been expanded and enhanced by others online. The principles have been included in courses, infographics and videos, too. They apply not only to printed publications, but digital ones as well, as this site shows.  You can find many more online, and I recommend you do so. But go back to the original to see how and where it started.

Other principles are often expounded on by subsequent authors: whitespace, balance, flow, scale, focal point, hierarchy, unity, movement, variety, emphasis, gradation, proportion and grouping for example – but you can tackle these once you’re understood the essence of CRAP.

I can recommend this book to everyone who does any sort of design, from PowerPoint slides to rack cards to brochures and even town newsletters. If you aren’t a graphic designer – and I am not – then it will give you the basics to help understand what design is all about. If you are, it’s a good reminder of the core principles.

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Our Know-It-Alls

Municipal WorldCollingwood Council obviously knows more than anyone else in municipal governance. More, in fact, than anyone else in the entire country. In fact, they may all be geniuses in local governance issues.

Otherwise, why would council cancel their individual subscriptions to Municipal World magazine at the start of their term?

Previous councils subscribed to an issue for each member of council, plus others for administration. While I can’t say everyone read them, the brightest and most dedicated politicians on council read them cover to cover.

Now the whole town gets one issue. ONE for the entire workforce;  for the dozen or so staff AND politicians. That suggests council must be brighter not only than all previous councils, but brighter than all other municipal politicians, advisers, consultants, lawyers, planners and administrators in the whole country, combined.

Since 1891, Municipal World magazine has been Canada’s foremost source of information, best practices, issues, ideas, challenges, policies and opportunities for local governance. Every issue – 12 a year – is packed with important, informative articles and columns. This is considered the “bible” of municipal governance by every other politician across the nation.

But Collingwood council doesn’t read it any more. Clearly our council are all atheists, when it comes to the municipal bible.

I guess it’s because they already know so much they have no need to learn more. Their heads are just bursting with knowledge and just can’t fit any more in. No need for the ideas of others. No need to obey their own Code of Conduct which states councillors are obliged (underlining in the original) to learn more about their roles and responsibilities:

Members have an obligation to promote, support, pursue and partake in opportunities for professional development…

This council doesn’t need more learning because clearly they all know it all, already.

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The Gauche in the Machine

Newsletter, front pageRudibus ex machina: criticizing Collingwood’s latest newsletter feels a bit like punching a puppy. Or commenting on the sloppy grammar of local bloggers. Both are far too easy, like catching fish in a barrel, and I feel guilty when I even think of doing it.

But since your tax dollars are at work, it needs to be done. Someone needs to stand up and say this is not the standard  we expect from a $55 million-a-year corporation. This might be a good runner-up in a high school contest, but it is not a professional product appropriate for municipal communications.*

This piece, I’ve been told, was not produced by the town’s communications director, but rather by the clerk’s office. It was not seen – or approved by, let alone edited – by the mayor or council before it went out. Since the clerk’s office reports to the CAO, the ultimate responsibility for this piece of dreck lies with the CAO. That’s where the buck stops; that’s where we expect accountability. But where was it?

Let’s get the basics over first: it’s not a newsletter. There is nothing in it about the town’s finances, budget preparations, parks, facilities, economic development, library – nothing about ANY department. Nothing newsworthy at all. A full third of it is about the self-described “strategic plan” (which is neither) – information that’s already months old!

It has as much in common with news as a grocery store flyer. It’s an ad sheet. It does little more than regurgitate content from the town’s atrocious advertising in the EB.*

Who does it serve? What is the target audience? Is there a theme, or a focus? Where is the news?

In terms of design, content, layout, graphics, it’s awful. Bloody awful.

Not the sort of awful that King Charles used when he called Christopher Wren’s design for St. Paul’s cathedral “amusing, awful and artificial.” By awful, he meant awe-inspiring; something that inspired reverential wonder, or even fear. Which I certainly don’t mean, and refer readers to the more current definition: shite.

Newsletter, front pageIt’s not as drab as the previous newsletter, and certainly more colourful, but in terms of artistic design, it’s equally cringe-worthy. Awful, in its modern sense, will suffice. But like the last publication. it’s not a newsletter; just an ad sheet.

As far as I am aware, the Town of Collingwood won’t spring for real page layout software like InDesign or CorelDraw, so the newsletter is likely still created in Microsoft Publisher (or worse: Word). Which is to layout and design what a crayon sidewalk scrawl is to a Shakespeare play. You get what you pay for.

But even lumbered by the inefficiencies and inanities of Publisher, a reasonably good design could still be beaten out by a competent designer who adhered to some basic design rules and style. None of which were apparently considered when this was being cobbled together. ( I cannot say it was crafted…)

What rules, you ask? Well, the first one is white space. It has none. This thing is as dense as a brick. Even the margins and spaces between columns are so small that the text runs into itself horizontally. The eye has no idea where to go, what is important, where to look. It’s like reading street pavement. Ever notice the individual bricks on the main street sidewalks? Tightly fitted together so you see a pattern, but not the individual bricks.

They’re like the words in this publication.

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