New Year, New Book
Happy New Year!
First significant literary event of this new year, at least for me, is the forthcoming publication of my book, Going Home: Cycling Through The Heart of America. It should soon be available at Amazon and discriminating independent bookstores.
It’s a travel journal of sorts, about a bike trip I took with my son from New Orleans back up the map back to Canada. For me it was a brief return to the land of my birth and home for the first several decades of life. For my Canadian-born son, it was really his first glimpse into the world of my youth.
New Year, New Project
It’s not exactly a new project, for I’ve been writing bits and pieces of it for quite some time, but now it’s all coming to together, and I’m working on finishing it for publication this year.
It has gone through a number of tentative, working titles, but I’ve decided on Chicago Days: Growing Up Absurd On The South Side. I feel this describes it best.
I’m afraid it could be call a memoir, a classification that makes me uncomfortable, because it seems memoirs are written by people who have stopped doing anything memorable or of interest to anyone. It also seems egotistical to write about one’s own life—as if anyone cares. I just hope this book doesn’t match my stereotype of this genre.
It’s about growing up on the South Side of Chicago, which was then—and now is even more so—a pretty hostile environment, especially for any kid whose interests and ambitions weren’t shared by hardly anyone. Many writers and journalists have written about youth in this—and similar—rough neighbourhoods, but rarely with an insider’s experience of growing up in such a place.
But I really grew up in two worlds. One was the South Side, but I had another world. I found access to it in the pages of books and in my ‘lab’, which I had put together in what used to be a coal room in the basement. And certainly both shaped who I am now. My wife often responds to something I say or do by shaking her head and saying, “You can take Ken out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago out of Ken!”
Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Scientific Scare Words
Science frightens many people. This may partially be because of fear of the unknown, for people aren’t being educated in the fundamentals of science. Furthermore, power is inherently frightening, and demonstrations of the power of science include some horrific applications, such as nuclear weapons. And so certain misunderstood words associated with every field of science now have acquired a pejorative connotation. These words are rhetorically useful to those who wish to sway our emotions and sell us some product or recruit us to some fashionable cause.
Man Friday links here: http://kenstange.com/yourmanfriday/?p=1534
Shared Knowledge: Clichés
Writers need to have some idea of what their readers know. Alluding to something is pointless if the reader doesn’t get the allusion. In literature, the “literary canon” refers to important books with which supposedly every literate person should be familiar. Once upon a time (long, long ago, in a place far, far away) for English readers that was Shakespeare, the Bible, and certain “classics”. But now assumptions about what the average reader has previously read are risky.
However, one knowledge base writers can be confident that most of their readers do share is common clichés. Unfortunately it is problematic to allude to them, because they are by definition trite—and, besides, often blindingly stupid. Been thinking about some ‘truisms’ that so obviously are not true.
Ya Gotta Love Clichés: Excuses
My nomination for lamest excuse for bad behaviour: “Everyone does it.”
Ya Gotta Love Clichés: Procrastination
My nomination for most dangerously misleading advice: “Good things come to those who wait.”
Ya Gotta Love Clichés: Logic
My nomination for most Alice In Wonderland logic: “That’s the exception that proves the rule.”
Ya Gotta Love Clichés: Causation
My nomination for most ugly explanation for personal or public misery and tragedy: “It must be God’s will.”
Legality Of Telling Lies
Apparently in The States it is perfectly legal for news media to lie. “In February 2003, a Florida Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with an assertion by FOX News that there is no rule against distorting or falsifying the news in the United States.”
If I have one ‘political’ concern as a writer and a citizen of the world, it is human rights. And the cornerstone of human rights is freedom of expression. So one might wrongly assume it is hypocritical of me to find this court ruling objectionable.
The reason I do find it objectionable is because it is not a case of freedom expression. It is a case of malicious impersonation. If some con artist pretends to be a certified medical doctor and sells you some snake oil to treat your child’s cancer, he isn’t exercising his freedom of expression.
FOX News is passing itself off as a news source. It isn’t.
Legitimate news media are always required to make a distinction between opinion pieces (editorials) and news stories. Defending freedom of expression means you are bound to have some strange and unsavoury bedfellows. I’ll defend the rights of Holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis who want to parade, and political commentators like Rush Limbaugh to express their insane and ill-informed opinions. But they are commentators, and should not claim to be legitimate news sources of information.
I assume it’s unnecessary to add that this is just my opinion. Apparently the Florida Second District Court of Appeals has a different opinion—and unfortunately a more binding one.
Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Public Transport Innovation
In this age of traffic congestion and parking problems, ideas are needed for making public transportation more attractive.
Man Friday links here: http://kenstange.com/yourmanfriday/?p=1544
Before I had insomnia, I was very unsympathetic toward those who did. “Shit,” I’d say, “just get out of bed and enjoy the extra time awake to do something!” Then fate and age had revenge on me, and I’ve changed my tune.
So what I say about writer’s block should be taken with a grain (or pound) of salt, because it’s not a problem from which I’ve really suffered. So my opinion may not be worth this digital paper it’s written on. (I’m honing my use of clichés.)
This is not to suggest I’m a perpetual fountain of inspiration. I have very bad days where everything I scribble seems appalling bad—and too often really is, and ends up being discarded. But I always find reassurance in knowing that is better than staring, paralyzed, at a blank page. No one else need ever know how bad it was.
The problem is one’s critical faculties, which may seem paradoxical, because it is what is needed for worthwhile writing. However, you have to separate the generational act from the critical one. If you immediately try to edit every line you just wrote, and you have any critical sense, you will be constantly rewriting, and get nowhere. And eventually be afraid to write anything.
What I used to tell my students, who complained about writer’s block when they tried to write their term papers, is that they should let go of any inhibitions when they start. I suggested getting started on their paper by cursing me out for assigning it. That’s a good place to get the juices flow. “May a thousand fleas infest Ken’s stinking armpits for assigning this fucking paper about…!” I give that as an example of a good opening sentence. Eventually and inevitably they’ll start writing about the topic, but without worrying about punctuation or spelling or clear phrasing or logical structure and coherence. All those matters are something to be dealt with very critically while later editing what they’ve originally produced. (Presumably they’ll have the sense to then excise such references to my armpits or any creative personal assaults on my character they came up with.)
What feedback I’ve received from this advice seems to suggest it works.
I’m not inclined toward political polemic in my writing, but there are issues I am deeply concerned about, and so I occasionally vent in writing. I think it is extremely important to maintain one’s credibility when dealing with controversial topics. I try to make my arguments logically consistent and check that any supporting sources I cite are reputable.
If your arguments are lame and purely emotional, and your sources are dubious, it only hurts the cause you are supporting. Those in disagreement will quickly spot this and point it out. And those who share your concern and have knee-jerk agreement with anything that supports that viewpoint will share what you write and its questionable sources—giving more ammunition to those in opposition.
Anyone who uses the Internet knows how easy it is to find ‘sources’ that support any crazy idea from homeopathy through the end of the world to aliens living among us. Unfortunately too many sites in support of sound ideas also are so obviously biased, exaggerated in their reporting, and just as questionable as those sites supporting crazy ideas.
And the other sad fact is that if you question an idea that is any part of the party line for some group, you are ignored by them—and often even accused of being an enemy. (I speak from experience.) And those from another party will joyously quote you like crazy!
A good example of balanced, informed, and unbiased writing can be found on Dr. Ben Goldacre’s blog (http://www.badscience.net). (He also has a regular column aptly called “Bad Science” in The Guardian.) He has been sued for calling (with documentation) many ‘alternative' medicine practioners what they are: charlatans! (http://kenstange.com/kenstangeweb/writing-on-the-wall/blog-archive/writings-on-the-wall---4/)
Irronically those ready to condemn and even sue him (if they have the resources) are often the same people who hate “Big Pharma”, although he has been just as critical of the pharmaceutical industry, even writing a book about what is wrong with their practices.
Moral of the story: toe the party line or expect trouble. And be sure to check your supporting sources of information.
Tools Of The Trade
Probably nobody writes with a quill anymore, but many writers still use pen on paper to compose. Other writers have ‘progressed’ to using a typewriter once that technology became available—or started writing that way. But a good number have chosen to stick with it after word processing software became available. The decision to continue writing longhand or typing may be motivated by choosing to stick with what works. And in general I support the advice “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke!” I can even appreciate the advantages to those methods, portability for one.
However, being a bit of a computer nerd and ‘early adopter’, I quickly got hooked on word-processing. I began writing on a Commodore 64 (which I bought as soon as it came out) with software called “PaperClip”. I even got a printer, although it couldn’t even properly print letters with lowercase ‘descenders’: for example, ‘g’ or ‘p’.
I remain a convert and, like most converts, tend to proselytize. So many things are much easier, from rearranging and organizing text to making any kind of changes without repeatedly having to retype the whole damn thing. I used to retype manuscripts many, many times, only to find that what I’d considered to be the final draft had some glaring typo or screw-up I’d missed. (And heaven help me if I decided to change the name of a character!) Especially for writers who aren‘t accurate typists, I can’t understand why they still put up with the frustration. Now I do all my writing on a computer, except for hastily scribbled notes when I’m not at my computer. I find it too time-consuming and tedious to write without a word-processor. However, I remain more effective at final editing with a hardcopy printout.
There are some important caveats about using a word-processor. The spelling checker is great for catching a lot of typos, but it cannot be entirely relied upon. (A lot of students give me papers where their misspelling of ‘definitely’ shows up as ‘defiantly’, because their word-processors must have guessed what they were trying to spell.) The same applies to the grammar checker, which sometimes suggests making a ‘correction’ that is actually incorrect.
For final editing there is no replacement for hardcopy and an independent, critical, unbiased editor. (Hats off here to my wife!)
Further Remarks Re Proofing And Writing Tools
In my last posting, I tipped my hat to my wife for her immeasurable help as my unpaid and conscientious editor, and I have written previously that I don’t impose on her for doing it on these blog postings as well. I accept full responsibility for any egregious errors in them. I need to reserve her skills for editing my books and other stuff going out for publication.
But apparently she can’t easily step out of the role of editor. Too many years of doing it for me, and too many years correcting papers for her English composition courses at Nip, have made it hard for her to read anything at all without honing in on any typos or anything she considers poor phrasing or incorrect grammar. When she does it to what I write, I take consolation in knowing I’ve heard her do it to the writing of great writers I respect.
So when she pointed out what should have been obvious typos and problems in my last two posts, I was appreciative, but admittedly very dismayed. The embarrassing irony is that I was partially writing about careful proofreading! And I really do it several times before posting a blog. Really, I do! I swear! (I may be obsessive-compulsive, but I’m just not good at proofing my own stuff.)
I think I’ve fixed the problems, but I know that while correctly something, I often introduce a fresh error.
I shudder to think what is messed up in this one. Be forgiving. Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. (Advice I give, but sometimes fail to follow.)
Erratum: “correctly” should be “correcting”.
My Latest Book: Going Home: Cycling Through The Heart Of America
Blog Time Out: Back To Chicago Days
Enuf blogging! I’m returning to focusing all my attention on my current writing project, a memoir: Chicago Days: Growing Up Absurd On The South Side.
Chapter from the book: “My Gang”.
The Prologue to the book.
(Credit: Image from GQ website): http://www.gq.com/style/blogs/the-gq-eye/2009/11/-yesterday-we-clued-you.html
Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Utilizing Internet Crowds
What is called ‘crowdsourcing’ is an amazing idea, and an important application in a world now so incredibly connected through the Internet. There has always been power in numbers, but at no time before the Internet has there existed such an effective and extensive resource to gather together enough numbers to accomplish something of importance. (Not referenced here, but also of great importance, are other applications such as online petitions and charity donation websites.)
Man Friday links here: http://kenstange.com/yourmanfriday/?p=1551
Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Pay Attention!
It could be said that everyone has ADD (attention deficit disorder), because we all sometimes fail to focus and keep our attention on what matters or what we intend. For example, most memory problems have nothing to do with memory itself, but rather with not really attending to what we intend to remember. Our memory system is efficiently tuned to only bother storing that to which we are giving our undivided attention. But paying appropriate attention often isn’t easy, as these videos demonstrate.
Man Friday links here: http://kenstange.com/yourmanfriday/?p=1558
Writer As Junkie
Writers, despite what they often say about how painful and frustrating writing can be, also will admit it is a kind of ‘addiction’. And, like most addictions, a habit that is very hard to break.
Keats writes “I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain”. The only relief is found in reaching for, not a bottle or a needle, but a pen. You need that fix, and you’re not fooling anyone by claiming that you’re just ‘chipping’, and you have it under control.
Call it “Attention Deficit Disorder” if you want, but anyone interested in a lot of things has to deal with a “teeming brain”, and it is difficult to stay entirely focused on just one. This is all by way of an excuse for going back to scribbling this blog, when I should be concentrating all my attention on my current major writing project about growing up on the South Side of Chicago.
But write now (pun intended), I have been so distracted by the issue of censorship that I can’t shut up about it.
Call It Quasi-Censorship?
Censorship is an attack on a fundamental human right, but one should be careful in applying the term. Censorship is a term that really should only be applied to attempts to completely prevent freedom of expression by suppressing something from any public exposure.
So those silly warnings attached to music or films about “mature content” or “intended for mature audiences” aren’t censorship. (Ironically, a lot of the material so labeled is clearly intended for very immature adults.) And it is egocentric and absurd for writers and other artists to cry “censorship!” when an editor or a curator decides not to use their work. The amount of public exposure something gets is inevitably determined to a great extent by editorial decisions, and these ‘gate-keepers’ do serve a useful purpose, even it their decisions are just motivated by financial considerations. Of course, being able to bypass them is important, and that has become a lot easier than in the past. Just consider YouTube or all the blogs on the Internet. (Unfortunately, amount of exposure here is often determined by the extent of uncritical, majority opinion.)
However, there should be a term for wide spread editorial biases that have tremendous effects and are too often determined less by critical evaluation than by less noble financial or political considerations. (‘Quasi-censorship’ isn’t quite accurate, but I’ll use that term for lack of better one.)
The main stream news media is one example. What makes front-page news isn’t necessarily what is objectively most important or significant. It is largely determined by what will be of popular interest. That is why some good-looking, teen-age, pop singer who indulges in on-stage exhibitionism or behaves like an irresponsible idiot in public shares the front page with world affairs. (Of course, important new scientific discoveries or interesting arts news is relegated to the back pages or special, niche sections.)
One solution is to search out ‘alternative’ news sources, but most of these are so blatantly biased that they are totally untrustworthy. They only exist to please those sharing their biases. They consistently take advantage of what is called ‘confirmation bias’. Whether your political leanings are liberal or conservative, you can find an alternative ‘news’ source that will support that political agenda, albeit sometimes with valid news that hasn’t had enough public exposure, but too often with dubious ‘reportage’. Try to find one that includes any articles contrary to its always-obvious political agenda. It isn’t easy.
An effective way for a government to indirectly prevent access to anything contrary to their political agenda, without resorting to outright censorship, is to limit access to public sources of that information. Sadly, my chosen homeland of Canada, under the current Harper government, has become a painful example of this.
Shutting down libraries with public access is one method that works well. Because science presents unbiased, evidence-based information, it is an important target for this tactical manoeuvre. A recent example is here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/health-canada-library-changes-leave-scientists-scrambling-1.2499217?cmp=rss
But outright destruction of existing scientific research reports (effectively book-burning) is a related, more explicit method, exemplified here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/fisheries-and-oceans-library-closings-called-loss-to-science-1.2486171
Of course, cutting research support that might threaten the government’s plans also works, and that too is happening. One shocking example is this. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/scientists-angry-about-research-facility-closure-1.1212697
For fairly objective information on what is happening, here is the Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experimental_Lakes_Area
For a quite accurate and witty editorial rant about this, here is Rick Mercer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zU7dDruEWJE
Here is Rick Mercer again about the overall trend to muzzle scientists in Canada: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=advh4xb6gRQ
And then there is also the attack on more populist sources of non-partisan information: public broadcasting: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/cbc-budget-cut-by-115m-over-3-years-1.1147096
We Canadians should change the opening lyrics of our National Anthem to “O Canada! / Our home and native land! / We mourn for thee!”
But I’m not bitter.
Lies About Censorship: Crying Wolf
It is ironic how much people tend to justify censorship, and yet ridiculous claims about alleged censorship are so often used to sell snake oil—and lunatic ideas.
Think about this ad to sell you some instant cure for a gargantuan belly. Gee, I wasn’t aware that physicians were even enabled to ban videos!
The Internet is polluted with tens of thousands of ads to sell worthless books or snake oil on the basis of claims that doctors (and of course, that evil, corporate behemoth, ‘Big Pharma’) don’t want you to know about their ‘modestly priced’ panacea for all your ills.
One has to wonder why doctors wouldn’t want you to get well. Are they afraid of losing all their ‘clients’ and their livelihood if no one is ever sick? Foolish me, I thought the shortage of doctors was the problem, not the shortage of sick people.
And every conspiracy theorist out there insists that the government is suppressing information about UFOs or Lizard People from some distant galaxy living amidst us.
This isn’t to say that governments are not guilty of suppressing real and vital information from embarrassing public scrutiny. Nor is it to defend the serious ‘quasi-censorship’ by the pharmaceutical industry in not releasing research findings questioning the efficacy or even the safety of their products. These are terrible, harmful abuses that need to be addressed.
However, it is to say that crying wolf when there really aren’t any can only detract from real, justified warnings about actual censorship or its more subtle varieties that I’ve been calling ‘quasi-censorship’.
Misleading Emphasis As A Form Of ‘Quasi-Censorship’
Actual censorship always has the highest priority on the totalitarian agenda, but there is also a more subtle alternative method: to misdirect attention from real problems to a minor threat. This encourages acceptance of Draconian measures to limit human rights by making access to information more difficult on the dubious excuse of increasing protection from exaggerated threats. (For entertaining, more light-hearted video examples of the effectiveness of misdirecting attention see http://kenstange.com/yourmanfriday/?p=1558)
It is also the major tool of terrorists. It has proved very effective in the United States, especially since 9/11. Here is an excellent editorial analysis of this in The New York Times: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/fifty-states-of-fear/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0
Think about this the next time you have to put up with the useless, rude and inconvenient hassles at airport ‘security’. (But don’t say anything or you’ll be in trouble.) And then think seriously about how often your fundamental right to privacy is being heavily and pointlessly compromised (at own your taxpayer’s expense). Also think about how hard the government works to capture and imprison those people, like Assange and Snowden, who had the temerity to inform you about it.
I’m not a joiner, but I belong to three non-partisan organizations concerned with human rights and have combating censorship as part of their expressed goals. Their mission statements can be found on their websites.
Amnesty is one among several organization devoted to protecting human rights, and among those rights is freedom of expression.
CCLA (Canadian Civil
Liberties Association): http://ccla.org
This is the Canadian counterpart to the American Civil Liberties Union. They are quite willing to support freedom of expression, even when doing so is unpopular or even when it is being exercised by organizations that are clearly lunatic or are expressly devoted to suppressing human rights. An example is defending the right of the Neo-Nazis to parade. They obviously have taken to heart the dictum “I may hate what you have to say, but I will still defend your right to say it.” They have guts—and principles.
PEN Canada: http://pencanada.ca/about/
This is the Canadian branch of PEN, committed to protecting the rights of writers to publicly express themselves without persecution by governments or anyone else. Such persecution, legal or illegal, ranging from financial intimidation to imprisonment, is only too common.
Another way to combat censorship is not to self-censor when talking about it with others. However, it is a surprisingly (and dismayingly) way to make enemies—even among the well intentioned.
Your Man Friday’s Ideas: Unpleasant Truths
Social psychologists have a bad rep, which is sometimes justified. This is the field to look into if you want to find research with dubious ethics. Part of the problem is that their scientifically rigorous experiments often have to involve deceiving their human subjects. When that deception involves any even potential harm to the subjects, one enters the gray area between ethical and unethical research. Nevertheless, the findings of social psychologists often have immediate relevance to understanding why we too often behave so badly. Caveat: the Asch and Milgram studies have been justly criticized for not being truly representative of typical human behaviour.
Man Friday links here: http://kenstange.com/yourmanfriday/?p=1563