The Responsibility of Free Speech

The stages of argumentIn January, 2015, Marie Snyder, on her blog, A Puff of Absurdity, raised the question of how free should speech be. I share her concerns about the apparent limitlessness of our rights: our right to free speech is not matched to any inherent responsibilities, civic or moral, to behave in a mature manner, nor does it require anyone to speak the truth. And we are not taught in our educational system either the basics of argument (in the classical sense), rhetoric or even manners and civility.

I don’t always agree with her positions (although I did like her take on Montaigne), but this one I agree wholeheartedly with:

People say some truly cruel things, and I’m not convinced we should have a right to be publicly malicious.

Many people feel they have that right. And they willingly and eagerly trespass well beyond basic civility into libel and slander – often telling outright lies (as we know from the local blogosphere) and engaging in vulgar insults and name calling.

Snyder is also concerned about the venomous nature of those attacks and the very personal nature of some of the comments, well outside the forum for civic debate. Those attacks erode the credibility of the attacker, but they also fuel an online hatefest as others pile into the virtual mosh pit to contribute their venom to the mob frenzy.

As the newspaper’s editor, I always believed that a politician’s stand, speeches, votes and ideologies are open territory for criticism. And that criticism should be fair, any claims based on documented facts, and disagreement always made respectfully and civilly. It should never descend into a personal, ad hominem attack. And to resort to vulgarity and name calling is the lowest of the low in the ladder of civic engagement. Snyder writes:

Venting and criticizing are two different things with a different purpose and, as such, deserve a different forum. Venting is what we do with a close friend listening privately; it has no place in a public debate. This distinction is all the more important when openly criticizing people in positions of power further down the line – like MPs that you’re likely to see in your grocery story, or local journalists, or even teachers who didn’t sign up to be in the public eye in the same way politicians and journalists do. With open access to an online forum seen by millions, it has become far more important to teach argumentation skills at a young age, and to offer reminders everywhere. But if we can’t teach people to stop venting in public places, to actually control their own outrage like a theoretical grown-up might do, then I think (big breath) we need to have some legislation in place to prevent or punish this action.

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Marx, Darwin and Machiavelli

The Age of IgnoranceWhat do these three men – three of the world’s greatest thinkers – have in common? Science? Economics? Politics? Their impact on culture and society? Their foresight or insight? Their importance to the development of modern thought? Their continued relevance today? The depth and breadth of their wisdom? The quality of their writing?

Yes, they are or have all those things, but the answer is simpler: they are among the least read authors that people attempt to speak knowingly about. All three of these authors are frequently demonized or misquoted by people who have never read their works, nor do they intend to do so, lest actual knowledge prove their preconceived ideas about them wrong.

Yet here we are in a world of complex, challenging politics at all levels where the sage advice of Machiavelli is most needed. A world where pseudoscience is spreading like a virus, and there is a rising tide of vocal anti-vaccination idiots and creationists; where the keen observations of Darwin can help us understand the scientific facts of biology. A world where the gap between the rich 1% and the rest of us grows obscenely wider every day and Marx’s insight into capitalism and wealth would surely give us some guidance on stemming this trend.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know, or whom I have some reasonable acquaintance, who have demonstrably read Machiavelli’s shortest work: The Prince. The number I personally know who have read The Discourses? None. Art of War? History of Florence? None. Yet many people, even those I know, confidently say that Machiavelli wrote “the end justifies the means” (he didn’t) and have called politicians “Machiavellian.”

The number of people I personally know who have read Origin of Species – arguably the single most important scientific work in the last two centuries – none. Descent of Man? Voyage of the Beagle? None. Yet some people confidently scoff at the notion of species evolving, and dismiss his ideas as “mere theory.”

Ditto with Marx’s Capital. Even my left-wing friends, with whom I hung out in the 70s and 80s, struggled to get past the first couple of chapters. Most had read The Communist Manifesto, to be sure, but I haven’t met anyone in the last three decades who can say he or she has (or can remember it beyond its opening line). Yet many people talk knowingly about Marxism and Communism.

And I’m not talking about the crazies, the conspiracy theorists, the barely literate bloggers, Fox ‘News’ or the venom-spewing wingnuts like Ann Coulter. I’m concerned about people we meet every day; friends, coworkers, family. People who should know about what’s happening in the news, understand the connections and consequences and the big ideas behind the events.

People who should be able to use their words correctly and not resort to bumper-sticker ideologies as substitutes for actual understanding. So instead of conversations and discussions about big ideas based on knowledge, we trade angry epithets, accusations and insults.

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Internet TV and Roku

Roku streaming stickI picked up a ROKU streaming stick this weekend at the local Staples store to get access to some internet TV. The box advertises 500+ channels, while the boxes for the upscale models 2 and 3 offer 450+ and 1,000+, respectively.

However, the official webpage for Roku says you can get more than 1,800 channels in the US on these devices. The Canadian site suggests it’s closer to 1,000 – Canadians get shortchanged by this and similar services, it seems. But by my count on the screen, the actual number of possible “channels” tops 1,300.

Before you shout “woo hoo” and rush out to buy one, I suggest it’s not really close to that many, at least not channels you will want to subscribe to.

It also depends on your definition of a channel: i wouldn’t count more than 100 streaming applications like Plex, games (47) or screensavers (76) as channels, but Roku does.

As you will read below, it’s not whether you get 1,800, 1,000 or even 500 channels: it’s whether the channels are top quality, commercial programming like you get on your cable. Of that category, it’s maybe a dozen.

Why, when I had dropped cable almost two years ago, would I want TV now, you ask… well, I primarily wanted to find a more convenient way to get Acorn TV (the source of many BBC programs). We already have Acorn on the iPad that hooks up through Apple TV but it’s not as comfy or convenient to use as a simple changer. Tapping at the iPad while watching is distracting and frankly, the iOS app is clumsy. It times out frequently, and drops the show, forcing you to restart then fast forward to the dropped location –  unless you keep tapping the screen now and then to wake it up.

I am thinking of subscribing to Netflix, too, and wanted the same easy and dependable access. Yes, I could always hook my laptop to the TV with an HDMI cable, but that’s not always convenient, either.

First a comment on the device and setup: simple, easy, well-made. The Roku interface is cleaner and easier to use than either Apple TV or the internet-ready apps built into our Sony Blu-ray player or TV. Setup takes a few minutes to get networked and authenticate the device online (an external computer connection is needed here). It took another minute to link it to my Acorn TV account. After that, it worked flawlessly.

The HDMI picture is, from what little we’ve seen, clear and crisp and if the original was also in hi-def. However, not everything is presented that way. Sound seems okay, but volume is inconsistent (some channels are way too loud, others are low).

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Facebook, Likes and Big Data

GizmodoI suppose you could call it ironic. There was a story from a ‘friend’ on my Facebook news feed today called “Quitting the Like” all about escaping Facebook’s data collection processes by simply not “liking” items or comments you see.

Right below this ostensibly anti-Facebook story were three related links produced by one of the Facebook data-collection bots all about the same thing: breaking free from Facebook’s data mining. I suspect the FB programmers hadn’t planned it that way. But aside from the irony, it caused me to read them all.

The first story, fully titled “I Quit Liking Things On Facebook for Two Weeks. Here’s How It Changed My View of Humanity” is by blogger Elan Morgan who explains:

I no longer wanted to be as active a participant in teaching Facebook how to advertise to me as I had been in the past, but another and much larger issue was my real curiosity: how was my Facebook experience going to change once I stopped feeding its engine with likes?

Her conclusion is that by not feeding the bots through the automatic reflex of clicking “like” below a ‘friend’s’ (real or artificial) post or comment, and instead by writing something positive in a comment, you can increase the human interaction on FB and reduce the generated noise.

Quit the Like and experiment with amplifying a better signal. What will happen to your Facebook without your likes? What will happen to your perception of not only your Facebook friends but the world at large? What will happen to us?

That’s an interesting approach, one I had considered but never taken. It encourages me to try it, but I also wonder if sharing a post also generates the same sort of algorithmic reaction. Is a ‘share’ a formulaic equivalent to a ‘like’ or are they weighted in some manner? And I am not sure the algorithms don’t also track comment density and content: is replacing ‘like’ with a comment merely a cosmetic change, or does it have a significant effect?

Gizmodo reported FB is doing some automatic liking for you, behind the curtain:

You might think clicking “Like” is the only way to stamp that public FB affirmation on something—you’re wrong. Facebook is checking your private messages and automatically liking things you talk about.

What I’d really like to know is how FB’s bots manage all the content, beyond the like button. So they weigh keywords, track what we post, how we comment, share and so on? I suspect they do, but how they parse the results is a fascinating, sometimes a bit scary mystery.

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Rights Without Responsibility

Online comments“Why do online spaces often feel so fractious?” asks Helen Lewis in a thought-provoking opinion piece in The Guardian last week. It’s something I’ve been pondering for many years. It’s not just the internet, or even social media, nor is it our increasingly uncivil and impolite society: it’s the technology that seems to be dividing us. The medium. (Would this be considered McLuhanistic? *)

Online spaces were havens for trolls, for angry denunciations, personal attacks, threats and bullying for decades. I’ve been watching it happen since I started up my own BBS in the early 1980s. I saw it when I was a sysop who managed forums on CompuServe and later Delphi, and I’ve watched it grow on the internet.

It’s in large part because the technology we use online is not designed to interface well with the biology we have evolved over millions of years to communicate with. Technology doesn’t provide the crucial emotional connection that real, human communication offers.

Sure, you can feel emotions from online content, but one-sided reaction someone sitting at home having a morning coffee in their pajamas gets from looking at cute kittens or twerking videos is not communication. But on social media with comments flying about rapidly from everyone, you can easily lose sight of the context and become engaged in comment-swapping for its own sake.

Lewis wrote:

Social scientists call this “context collapse” – the idea that everything we say on Facebook or Twitter is potentially addressed to everybody, ever. The fact that for the vast majority of the time, no one outside your mum and your friends will read it makes it all the more disorienting if your musings are wrenched out of their original context and held up for public discussion.

An opinion piece in The Star this month described the difficulties media face in trying to provide a public space for comment without having to apply heavy-handed control to keep the cyberbullies and trolls in check. It gets so confrontational at times it discourages people not just from participating, but from reading entirely:

The sad reality of online comments across the entire Internet is that they are too often abusive, inflammatory and ignorant. Where once I idealistically believed comments could be a force for good, allowing readers to connect and communicate about ideas, I have come to empathize more with those readers who would just as soon not see anonymous online comments. As one reader told me recently in expressing her dismay: “The trolls are dominating; feels too much like diving into a mud fight.”

What could be – should be – open, engaging discussion and exchange of ideas becomes merely a place for emotional, public masturbation. Being able to vent anonymously and say anything you damned well please without repercussion is the same reason internet porn is so popular among the emotionally challenged. No commitment, no emotional baggage, no messy post-sex conversations and “I’ll call you” lies. What actually happens to the people – the abuse of women in particular – in porn becomes irrelevant to the viewer because they’ve become toons in our online culture, like characters in an online game.

Same with posting angry comments on FB and Twitter: you can write them, slander or attack someone, drag them through the mud, lie, insult and castigate, then close your laptop and go to bed without having to deal with the emotional and psychological turmoil your comments leave in their wake. By the time you get up, next day, the posts will likely have vanished from your feed in the ongoing cascade of content that races by.
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Social Media, Public Opinion, and Jian Ghomeshi

Star CartoonI doubt anyone in North America is unaware of the furor surrounding CBC’s recent firing of radio show Q’s host, Jian Ghomeshi last week.*

In case you were on the moon when it happened, you can read some of the many stories on the Star and other news sites (just Google it…).

It’s a complex story; about the seesaw between workers’ and employers’ rights; about sex and consent; about abuse and violence against women; about privacy and personal rights; about social media and cyber-bullying; about justice and law; about media and declining reporting standards; about the public forum and the nature of spectacle; about victims and the various shades of truth. And it’s about double standards.

Fascinating, difficult, and troubling. It challenges us to think about our own beliefs and ideas; about how we react eagerly to scandal; how we view the glitterati as both outsiders and those we emulate; how we obsess over stardom; how we view sex and behaviour; how we view male and female sexuality; and how we treat – and judge – both others and ourselves. But little of that actually gets into the news or the commentaries. Mostly what gets into them is sensationalism (such is the level to which most media have fallen; how can modern media maintain its audience without crass sensationalism?). Plus a mixture of salacious gossip, accusations, self-righteous moralizing,and chest beating in the editorials and online.

But not always. Christie Blatchford recently wrote an excellent column (and I don’t often agree with her perspective, although I respect her as a writer) about how these things should be tried in courts, not by the public:

My concern is that the allegations in this story are criminal matters — these are claims of sexual assault and violent physical assault — and they ought not to be tried in the court of public opinion.
There are no safeguards in that court, no testing of the evidence, no rules or boundaries.
As Abe Lincoln famously said, “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.”
Sorry for the interruption, now back to the lynching.

It’s important to keep in mind that, so far, no one has filed a complaint with the police about Ghomeshi’s actions. Yes, I know a police complaint does not indicate guilt, but it does open a more intensive investigation outside of the forum Facebook and Twitter offer. An objective one, too.**
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No Data Are Better Than Bad Data

Avoid bias
The full name of an article I read today is, “The Fallacy of Online Surveys: No Data Are Better Than Bad Data.” It’s from 2010 and very good. You can find it on the Responsive Management website. It makes some key points about the invalidity of online surveys:

  • For a study to be unbiased, every member of the population under study must have an equal chance of participating.
  • When online surveys are accessible to anyone who visits a website, the researcher has no control over sample selection. These self-selected opinion polls result in a sample of people who decide to take the survey — not a sample of scientifically selected respondents who represent the larger population.
  • Non-response bias in online surveys is complicated by the most egregious form of self-selection. People who respond to a request to complete an online survey are likely to be more interested in or enthusiastic about the topic and therefore more willing to complete the survey, which biases the results.
  • Unless specific technical steps are taken with the survey to prevent it, people who have a vested interest in survey results can complete an online survey multiple times and urge others to complete the survey in order to influence the results.
  • Because of the inability to control who has access to online surveys, there is no way to verify who responds to them — who they are, their demographic background, their location, and so on.

I’ve said this all before. The article concludes:

As a result of these problems, obtaining representative, unbiased, scientifically valid results from online surveys is not possible at this time, except in the case of the closed population surveys, such as with employee surveys, described earlier. This is because, from the outset, there is no such thing as a complete and valid sample — some people are systematically excluded, which is the very definition of bias. In addition, there is no control over who completes the survey or how many times they complete the survey. These biases increase in a stepwise manner, starting out with the basic issue of excluding those without Internet access, then non-response bias, then stakeholder bias, then unverified respondents. As each of these becomes an issue, the data become farther and farther removed from being representative of the population as a whole.

There’s also a good slide show on internet surveys here that goes over the basics presented in the article above. A 2008 paper addressed just issue with online surveys: self-selection. The author, Jelke Bethlehem, wrote:

…web surveys are a fast, cheap and attractive means of collecting large amounts of data. Not surprisingly, many survey organisations have implemented such surveys. However, the question is whether a web survey is also attractive from a quality point of view, because there are methodological problems. These problems are caused by using the Internet as a selection instrument for respondents.
This paper shows that the quality of web surveys may be seriously affected by these problems, making it difficult, if not impossible to make proper inference with respect to the target population of the survey. The two main causes of problems are under-coverage and self-selection.

The author concludes:

It was shown that self-selection can cause estimates of population characteristics to be biased. This seems to be similar to the effect of nonresponse in traditional probability sampling based surveys. However, it was shown that the bias in selfselection surveys can be substantially larger. Depending on the response rate in a web survey, the bias can in a worst case situation even be more than 13 times as large.

In other words: most online surveys are bunk. You might also recall I wrote about online surveys in past posts. I won’t repeat what I said then, but here are the links to those posts:

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Pondering Responsive web design

Mashable graphicI’ve been building websites since the early 1990s, and have had my own websites continually since 1995. For a few years, I did website design and analysis for commercial clients – mostly small local businesses. I even taught web design at a local adult learning centre for a couple of years. Way back when the Net was relatively new, I even did some pages for local events. Although I do less coding today, mostly for my own use, I still have an interest in the developments in web technology and layout.

I taught myself the basics of HTML back when it was version 1.0, 20 years ago – not all that difficult if you were schooled in using the old word processors like Perfect Writer and Wordstar. The first word processors used similar markup styles. Some even required users to compile the text in transient files, in order to see the formatting results, because they couldn’t be shown onscreen at the same time as the markup. That’s because these programs were small, tight and efficient enough to fit in the limited physical computer memory – 16 to 64KB in the early days of computing – but not very feature rich. Ah, the good old days of the Z80 and 6502 processors.

HTML was fairly easy (for me), but clumsy. It was a flat, 2D system and building some elements – tables in particular – was awkward and time-consuming. HTML tried – with limited success – to mix design with structure in one all-encompassing language. It was predicated on the printed page – basically replicating it onscreen. The initial versions of HTML were a desktop-publishing-like environment for the screen.

But the old ways are not always suited for the new devices. Page designs and layouts done even five years ago may be outdated and ill-suited for mobile devices (as I have found from my own work). New design paradigms are needed to stay current with the ebb and flow of technologies.

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100,000 thank yous

100,000 hitsLast week (late Feb, 2014), I passed 100,000 unique views on this blog – in slightly over two years since it was started. Not large by any means, given that some sites easily get that in a month. But a personal milestone for me.*

Thank you, gentle readers, for coming here, for spending time with my humble scribblings**, for taking time out of your busy day to read my words. I hope I have managed in some small way to entertain, amuse, delight and inform you. At the very least, I hope I have encouraged you to think about what you’ve read, even if you disagree with it.

The internet can be a harsh place, a place of anger, vituperation and confrontation, a place where conspiracies and intolerance thrive. But it can also be a place where people find common ground, can share ideas and interests. Where communities can form and friendships built through engaged dialogue and civil debate.

Although there are a lot of angry people online eager to attack anyone with a difference of opinion or thought, there are also places where people can express themselves without being ridiculed and attacked. Sometimes, you find such a haven; sometimes you have to create a space for yourself like this blog to achieve that.

I hope you share at least some of my interests and that’s what brought you here: your love of history, language, science, writing, literature, politics, music and yes, even baking bread. Perhaps you were looking for information, for ideas, for fellow aficionados, or even for some reinforcement for your own opinions. Whatever brought you here, I thank you for staying a while.
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The Mac celebrates 30 years

MacintoshA recent article on Gizmodo shows off some previously unseen (or perhaps just forgotten) footage of a young Steve Jobs unveiling the Macintosh computer, back on January 30, 1984.

Thirty years ago, this week.

Seems like forever ago. But I remember it, and reasonably well. I remember where I was living then, what I was working on, and who I was with (I’m still with her…)

The video clip also includes the famous Orwellian “1984” TV ad Apple used to launch the Mac. That’s worth watching for itself. It was a really cheeky ad, and generated a lot of chatter about marketing at the time. The clip includes other Mac ads you should watch.

I had a Mac around then, bought, as I recall, in late 84 or early 85. I had had a Lisa – the Mac’s unsuccessful predecessor – on loan for a few months in 83 or early 84. I wasn’t impressed with the Lisa, but the Mac really captivated me.

I also had an IBM PC, from 82 or 83, and never quite understood the anti-IBM sentiments Jobs and Apple promoted among users. But then PC users fought back just as adamantly over the superiority of their platform.

As a computer geek from way back, I just loved having any – every – computer. When I started computing, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment; the second (the Iarger of the two, of necessity) bedroom became a workroom filled with computers, books, manuals, printers, modems, tools, chips, soldering irons, cables, and printers. As a technical and documentation writer, I always had extra hardware and software on loan from manufacturers and distributors. I once described my room as looking like a “NASA launch site.”

When we eventually bought our own house, I had a room for my books and computers, too, although they tended to escape and overrun the rest of the house. Same thing has happened here, although the amount of hardware is much reduced from the glory days (more ukuleles today than computers).

But ever since my first computer, I have not been a day without at least one computer in the house, usually several.

By the time the Mac was released, I had been computing for more than six years. I bought my first computer in the fall of 1977, a TRS-80, and soon had several machines (an Apple in 79, an Atari 400 in 1980 and then an 800 in 81). I belonged to user groups, subscribed to at least a dozen computer magazines, and wrote for several, including one of the earliest columns on computer gaming (in Moves magazine). I attended many computer fests and exhibitions in Canada and the USA – in fact, I helped organize a microcomputer fair in Toronto, at the International Centre, in the mid-80s.

As you read this, in 2014, I’ve been at it for almost 37 years.

So I take some umbrage when I read this condescending snippet on Gizmodo:

30 years ago the landscape of personal computing was vastly different. That is to say, it hardly existed.

Hogwash. It was alive and well – thriving in its entrepreneurial glory. Only poorly-informed journalists who have not done their research would make such a claim. Or perhaps they are too young to know of the rich history of personal computing prior to their own acquisition of a device.

By 1984, we had seen the TRS-80, Commodore Pet, Apple II, Kaypro, IBM PC, Atari 400, 800 and 1200, Sinclair, TI-99, the Acorn, Coleco Adam and many others. Apple’s own IIc would be released later in 1984.

We would soon see both the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST 16-bit computers launched. Of which I had them all, and a few others passed through my hands in that time, too.

In the 80s, CompuServe dominated the field of online services with millions of customers as it spread. I was a sysop on CompuServe for many of those years. I even operated my own BBS for a while.

CompuServe was challenged – aggressively, but not very successfully – by several competitors in that decade including The Source and Delphi (I was later a sysop on Delphi, too, before moving to Collingwood).

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Six Rules for Politicians Using Social Media

This is an updated version of the talk I presented at the the eighth annual Municipal Communication Conference in Toronto, November 2013.


I use social media regularly and frequently. As a politician, that makes me either very brave or very stupid. But I’ve been doing this for the last 30 years, long before I ever got elected. Social media isn’t new to me.*

It may be slicker than it was in 1983, but it’s essentially the same text-based, monologue, just with chrome added. In fact, the tone of the conversation seems to have gone downhill since the 80s.

Back then it was mostly computer geeks like, so we were more of a community. Geek-to- geek wasn’t so adversarial, unless of course, you were arguing the relative merits of the Z80 versus the 6502 processor.

Today people debate about such important issues as Kim Kardashian’s cat, the name of a royal baby, or the recent favourite, Millie Cyrus’s backside.**

Today’s great technological advancement seems to be the consummate ease by which you can attach pictures of kittens or puppies to your posts.

Technology has improved our ability to share those photos with thousands, even millions of people. But it hasn’t made us better communicators.

Some technology actually rewards illiteracy. Twitter. For example, encourages us to cram our language into abbreviations and codes. It turns language into hieroglyphics.

Sure it can help social change. But how much is debated. Everyone points to how the Arab Spring was abetted by Twitter and Facebook. But I suspect a lot of the Arab Spring tweets went like this: “We’re overthrowing the government today. What are you wearing?”

Anthony WeinerSo when anyone in politics or municipal government asks me how to approach social media, I tell them two words:

Anthony Weiner.

I tell them there are six lessons you can learn from Anthony Weiner about social media.

Everyone knows who he is, of course. Weiner single handedly turned sexting from a minor act done by over-heated teens, to front page headline activity.The media were full of the stories about how this US congressman tweeted pictures of his underwear-clad crotch to young women around the country.

It was monumentally stupid and puerile. Weiner had to resign from Congress over the scandal. It hurt his career. And maybe his marriage. But on the grand scheme of things, it was harmless. He wasn’t Edward Snowden or Juilan Assange after all.

It really wasn’t anything more than a lack of good judgment or common sense. We’re all guilty of that. We all screw up now and then. That’s just human nature.

But Weiner was a politician. And politicians get held to a higher standard than, say, your neighbour or your cousin. If they did it, you’d probably just shrug it off. But when a politician or a civil servant is involved, the sky is falling.

At least that’s what the media tells us.

When I was in newspapers, media were the sole gatekeepers of information. We controlled how the public received it. Everyone looked to us. We had standards about what we published, and we were respected for them.

Today, there are tens of thousands of accessible sources online. Traditional media scrambles for your attention. In order to compete with Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian, they sensationalize just about everything.

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We have heading up for your net

Spam cartoonI have to admit that I frequently read the spam comments WordPress traps for my moderation, and I often do so with a smile. The clumsy, crazy constructs, the awkward English, butchered punctuation and the twisted word use just make me laugh.

Yes, like everyone else, I detest spam, and I quickly delete the comments into whatever digital wastebin they descend to. But I often chuckle to read them first. They make me wonder: are they deliberately written poorly, are they the sincere efforts of someone struggling to learn English, words strung together in random order by a bot, or are they the result of some Google translation gone awry?

Some have question marks which suggest symbols from other languages that didn’t get through the translation process. or are they just machine constructs dropping in characters at random?

This one is a good example, taken from today’s lot waiting for the delete button:

Of training course exceptional post. We have heading up for your net. Usually publish with your very own encounter and share. Oh! really grateful.

Some read like odd poetry, if you parse them so. Take the above, for example and write it thus:

Of training course exceptional post.
We have heading up for your net.
Usually publish with
your very own encounter
and share.
really grateful.

Okay, not great poetry. Reads like computer-generated poetry, though, doesn’t it?

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Words, words, words

Elements of StyleWriting before the arrival of the internet*, Bob Blackburn commented on the nature of exchange on then-prevalent BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), words that could as easily be written today about the internet:

“…the BBS medium reveals not only a widespread inability to use English as a means of communication but also a widespread ignorance of that inability, and, in consequence, a lack of interest in doing anything about it.”

Words that were prescient. As if he could foresee Facebook. Blackburn also wrote that most people thought they spoke and wrote well…

“The majority of English-speaking people I’ve come across…think they already know it. After all, it’s their native tongue, and they’ve been to school.”

Which is, for most of us, a fallacy. Language, like any skill, needs training, practice, experience and reminders. Yes, we have an innate  sense of grammar from an early age, encoded in our genes, but it is rudimentary and needs refinement.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that children as young as 2 understand basic grammar rules when they first learn to speak and are not simply imitating adults.

Like our muscles, our ability to speak and write develops with use. But it does not develop with haphazard, unfocused usage. Just visit some of the many sites that illustrate the grammatical nightmares found on social media sites like Facebook. While these are good for a chuckle, they reflect a greater problem with education and learning.

Anyone who attempts to correct the written wrongdoings online is labelled a “grammar Nazi” (or more often, a “grammer nazi”). As if writing poorly is some protected, constitutional right. The term has been adopted by some of the practitioners themselves. I sometimes count myself among their company, although I do not belong to any of their organizations.

Still, like Lynn Truss, I bridle at the egregious mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling I find online (not everyone likes her, by the way, but her book is great fun to read). And yes, sometimes I am prone to comment thereon. That may be an automatic response, according to a recent study:

Your brain often works on autopilot when it comes to grammar. That theory has been around for years, but University of Oregon neuroscientists have captured elusive hard evidence that people indeed detect and process grammatical errors with no awareness of doing so.

This week, I began again what used to be an annual activity for me – back when I was working in the media or in publishing – rereading the classic work, The Elements of Style. I felt my metaphorical red pencil was in need of a sharpening.

It’s a small book – the fourth edition is just over 100 pages, including the afterword, glossary, and index. At a chapter a day, it can be easily read in less than a week, even by people who don’t read quickly. It encapsulates a mere 22 basic rules of style. Rule 19, for example, states: “Omit needless words.” It follows with this:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Who can argue with that? Ron Sudol, Professor of Rhetoric at Oakland University, comments on this:

Strunk’s attitude toward style is that English is more beautiful the more direct and spare it is. As White notes in the introduction, “for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” The students at Cornell in 1919 were probably more wordy and pretentious than students today, whose writing is more often underdeveloped and oversimple. Nevertheless, the lessons — and that’s exactly the right word for the direct orders issued by Strunk and White — are eternally valuable to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Put statements in positive form. Use the active voice. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

TEOS sits, almost hidden, in a bookshelf packed with many books on grammar, style, writing, punctuation and communication. They range from the whimsical works of Richard Lederer to the dense, academic Chicago Manual of Style. Most of the rest I read sporadically and randomly. Some – like Safire and Lederer – I read more for entertainment and amusement. Others I read to keep my writing sharp, like the periodic honing of the knives in my kitchen drawers.

Strunk & White alone of all my style and grammar books I read cover to cover because, for me, it is the quintessential book, the source from which all the others derive. And its short little rules are like little jabs; pointed reminders to pay attention.

Continue reading “Words, words, words”

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Poor Lao Tzu: He Gets Blamed for So Much

Not a Lao Tzu quotePoor Lao Tzu. He gets saddled with the most atrocious of the New Age codswallop. As if it wasn’t enough to be for founder of one of the most obscure  philosophies (not a religion, since it has no deity), he gets to be the poster boy for all sorts of twaddle from people who clearly have never read his actual writing.

This time it’s a mushy feel-good quote on Facebook (mercifully without kittens or angels) that reads,

If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

Well, it’s not by Lao Tzu. Or more properly, Laozi. That’s not his name, by the way: it’s an honorific, a title that roughly translates to “Old Master.” His real name was likely Li Er, Wikipedia tells us. But his name doesn’t matter: it’s the single book he left us that is relevant.

That book – the Tao Teh Ching – consists of 81 short “chapters” – although they’d be better described as poems. Or pithy epithets. It can be ready cover to cover in an hour.

For all its brevity, the Tao Teh Ching is a weighty work. It’s the underpinning of an entire school of  Chinese metaphysics and philosophy: Taoism, that dates back to the Axial Age, circa 500 BCE. That makes Lao Tzu contemporary with Confucius and in the same rough time frame as Siddhartha Gautama.

Lap Tzu was clearly a deep thinker, which makes it all the more ironic that he gets accused of spouting all sorts of saccharine New Age piffle.

One of the stories of how the book came about goes like this: Lao Tzu was the Keeper of the Royal Archives. Late in his life, he wearied of the intrigues, the corruption and the crassness of life at court. He decided to go live the remainder of his life as a hermit in the mountains. At the city gate, the sentry asked him to write down his wisdom. The result was the Tao Teh Ching.

Like with many religious, political or philosophical figures, take any story or claims with a grain of salt. Stories get embellished by both supporters and enemies over the centuries.*

Others say the work is really a collection of sayings by many people, collated into a single work. Since the earliest copy of the text is at least 100 years younger than Lao Tzu, and there are no verifiable records that identify him as the sole author, this theory strikes me as having some merit.

After all, every single religious work I can think of has been edited, added to, cut away from and interpreted by hundreds of human hands in the interim since it was first penned. Why not this one?

Continue reading “Poor Lao Tzu: He Gets Blamed for So Much”

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Chemtrails redux: the attack of the tin-foil hat brigade

Normal clouds mis-identified by wingnutsMy earlier post on the nonsensical chemtrail conspiracy has generated quite a lot of activity recently (more than 1,000 views in a few days – thanks!). So much so that I decided to look online again to see why – had this silliness abated? Were people waking up and laughing at their former craziness? Or was it spreading more among the hard-of-thinking and the anti-science crowd?

Sadly, it seems the latter is the case. And after a bit of research, I became deeply distressed that it seems to be spreading rapidly.

Or maybe the overall number of gullibles is simply growing larger. They band together into cult-like groups that reject outsiders; refuse to allow debate or questions; that turn inwardly and reinforce their own beliefs among one another. Dissonance reduction in numbers.

I found a Facebook group page with more than 11,000 chemtrail-believing members (that’s scary enough right there). Imagine 11,000 people dedicated to this silliest and most risible of all the recent conspiracy theories. But they’re hardly alone.

The conspiracy works like this: every world government, every airline, air force, every pilot, every airline and air force ground and cabin crew, millions of government employees worldwide, engineering firms, chemical manufacturers, scientists, NGOs, meteorologists, NASA, reptilians, and the darkly secretive (and entirely imaginary) “New World Order,” the Illuminati (or the Zionists, Bill Gates or President Obama, since they are implicated – not a little racism runs through these posts) have conspired and are conspiring to secretly spray toxins (or drugs or biochemicals or alien lifeforms) into the atmosphere from stratospheric heights in order to pacify/poison/control (your choice, it seems) the population and/or the weather/crops.

But no matter how you laugh at the gullibility of these folks, no matter how their photographs and wild imagining are easily debunked by science, meteorology, rational thought and common sense, they seem to persist. And grow. (I blame TV, but that’s a digression.)*

More normal sky and cloudsThe conspiracists’ approach to science, natural phenomena, logic and fact is stunningly medieval. Of course, back in the Medieval days the motivating agents were demons, ghosts, imps, sprites and other invisible figments of their imagination. Today, it’s no less superstitious; just the imagined instigators have been given a modern facelift: big government, big pharma and secret societies. They’re still the scary things that go bump in the night, though.

Superstition is still superstition even when wrapped up in technology. The Skeptics’ Dictionary describes superstition as:

…a false belief based on ignorance (e.g., if we don’t beat the drums during an eclipse, the evil demon won’t return the sun to the sky), fear of the unknown (e.g., if we don’t chop up this chicken in just the right way and burn it according to tradition while uttering just the right incantations then the rain won’t come and our crops won’t grow and we’ll starve), trust in magic (e.g., if I put spit or dirt on my beautiful child who has been praised, the effects of the evil eye will be averted), trust in chance (if I open this book randomly and let my finger fall to any word that word will guide my future actions), or some other false conception of causation (e.g.,  homeopathy, therapeutic touch, vitalism, creationism, or that I’ll have good luck if I carry a rabbit’s foot or bad luck if a black cat crosses my path).

The conspiracist view of  government and politics goes beyond superstition, beyond the bizarre and into the pathological.

Some less-than-civil folks online call the chemtrail believers “chemtards.” Others ascribe malicious intent to them:

The Chemtrail looks like a normal contrail in reality. However, there is a conspiracy on the internet that has been passed on for some time and gaining in strength about the Chemtrail. But the truth is that the chemtrails are a hoax and rumour on the internet by people who are looking to create some kind of chaos or just trying to make an impact on others by giving false importance to the chemtrails.

Certainly some chemtrail promotes have engaged in deliberate hoaxes as this news story tells:

The Penticton RCMP is investigating a fraudulent letter that began circulating in the city on Monday.
According to Sgt. Rick Dellebuur, bogus alert notices regarding hazardous chemtrails were put on vehicles at Shoppers Drug Mart.
The letter has city letterhead, but was not issued by the city.
“There is no environmental department in the city and Penticton did not issue this,” he said.
The letter signed by someone named Susan Smith, environmental department manager, states “we are suspecting that unidentified planes are deliberately spraying chemicals over the city of Penticton.”
It further covers how to identify hazardous chemtrails and who to contact if you see them.
Dellebuur said they are investigating to see who is behind this.
“We are following up on leads,” he said. “It’s just one of those things out there in this day and age.”

I have no doubt some of these promoters are the internet versions of televangelists: they prey on the gullible, the hard-of-thinking, the susceptible and the ill-educated, conning them through sales and marketing, through aggressively encouraged “donations.”

One of the most telling indicators of these conspiracy fantasies is that they seem to be held predominantly by those of the libertarian or uber-right-wing political stripe. Blaming Obama for anything spooky, inexplicable, disagreeable or simply misunderstood seems de rigeur among the conspiracists, even if it’s blatantly stupid or illogical to draw even the vaguest of connections between events and the administration. They finally got down to blaming the government for the weather.

Continue reading “Chemtrails redux: the attack of the tin-foil hat brigade”

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