Technology & Culture Update 4/27/13

fairtrade_intl_logo_custom-8e5e5ca5e4c336afa79a44820f5043b52c3b4ad0-s3In honor of Arbor Day, I’m celebrating a very special bit of greenery — the coffee tree! Yes, I have a bit of a fetish for the fruit of the bean. I’ve blogged about the application of technology to my favorite beverage here and here. For no particular reason that I can discern, NPR elected to run a special series called “Coffee Week” with a couple of segments airing each day (you can view an index to all of the programs here). It’s a very well-executed profile of coffee and coffee culture — Jerry Seinfeld even dropped in. The programs cover a wide range of topics, from the historical, social, medicinal, and sociopolitical aspects of coffee to the music emanating from the coffee-growing regions. And for more great java jams, check out Putumayo’s Music from the Coffee Lands and MCL, vol II.

Even more espresso love: These amazing panoramic views of one of my favorite java joints, Atlas Coffee in Charlottesville, Virginia, offer a great mashup of coffee culture and techno-coolness. Several views taken from different vantage points; you can scroll all around the shop! Take the virtual tour then stop by if you’re in the area. Atlas is a wonderful family business that specializes in friendly.

"Atlas Coffee" by Michael Bailey Photography

“Atlas Coffee” by Michael Bailey Photography

Neo-what? There’s no denying that language is a dynamic thing, constantly evolving. New words — neologisms — are always entering the lexicon. Some slang is (mercifully) ephemeral and passes with its generation, while jargon is often limited to a discrete community (a particular occupation, etc). Portmanteau words are all the rage (adorkable means “adorable in a dorky way”) and they can certainly help to clarify concepts, provided you understand the cultural connection, the “hip factor.” Then there are the symbols endowed with a fresh linguistic role — such as the @ (“at”) symbol, now commonly associated with twitter handles. Hence, you can follow my tweets @AdenNichols.

According to Ann Curzan, an English professor at the University of Michigan, the term “slash” is a case in point. In addition to its use as a formal noun by the guitarist Saul Hudson, slash has become the common verbal expression of a punctuation mark. The interesting thing is, it is being spelled out in written discourse. Seems counterproductive to me, but who am I to say? So as Ms Curzan explains, you may see the conjunction rendered thus: “culminating in Friday’s shootout-slash-car-chase-slash-manhunt-slash-media-circus around the apprehension of the bombing suspect.” My apologies to my British friends, to whom this is a “stroke.”

And in other linguistic news: I find NPR’s new “Code Switch” program to be very thought-provoking and entertaining (see “I’m the Café and He’s the Leche,” for example), but I must say I wasn’t blown away by the piece exploring the use of the slang term “yo” (“‘Yo’ said what?”). Researchers express their fascination with the fact that the term is used as a gender-neutral noun (in contrast, apparently, to “ho'”). That’s deep. Even more profound is the observation by Christine Mallinson, a sociolinguist at the University of Maryland, that “… even if ‘yo’ is just a fad, it says something about the kids who use it.” Yes, it says that literacy is on the wane. Rather than legitimizing this form of verbal degradation (I’m having Ebonics flashbacks), I was hoping we could just ignore it and let it die a natural death.

Turn it up to 11! As neuroscientist Oliver Sacks has ably demonstrated, music affects our brains in dramatic ways. It helps us establish our sense of self and our worldview, and contributes to our overall health and well-being. A survey article in Smithsonian offers links to eight studies providing insight into the fantastic world of musical neuroscience. My favorite is a study that defies your parents’ warnings about how “that loud music is going to permanently damage your hearing!” According to a group of Australian researchers, the hearing loss only lasts about twelve hours (YMMV). So in the immortal words of Humble Pie, Rock On!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Humble_Pie_Rock_On

Technology & Culture Update 4/19/13

Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanBefore I get into the update, I would like to offer my heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims of the tragedies in Boston and West, Texas. You are all in my prayers.

The horrific incident at the Boston Marathon quite naturally put the gala opening ceremonies of the Digital Public Library of America on hold (see earlier post), as the organization is physically located in Boston. But the DPLA opened its digital doors at noon yesterday, right on schedule.

And on the other end of the spectrum, I regret to report that the US House of Representatives passed the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) yesterday. This draconian measure is aimed at increasing governmental curtailment of civil liberties in the name of “security,” a là Department of Homeland Security.

US_Department_of_Homeland_Security_Seal.svgOne politician, Mike McCaul (R-Texas), actually linked CISPA to the terrorist attack: “Recent events in Boston demonstrate that we have to come together as Republicans and Democrats to get this done. In the case of Boston there were real bombs. In this case, they are digital bombs.” Then he issued a dire warning: “These digital bombs are on their way.” Fear is a powerful motivator and fomenting paranoia is a disgusting (but time-honored) political tactic. Hitler and his cronies found it to be very useful in terrifying and pacifying the German people: Only the apparatus of the state security services can protect you. Trust us.

Fortunately for those who love freedom, the virtual genie is out of the bottle and no bureaucratic cabal can put it back. The free flow of information is on the march — knowledge is power. Here’s just a taste of the many open access initiatives that are making news this week:

Let’s start with the DPLA: This ambitious project will make voluminous assets housed in libraries, archival repositories, and museums freely available to the public-at-large. Thus far, the DPLA has partnered with half a dozen state and regional digital libraries, many university libraries, and large cultural heritage institutions, including the Smithsonian Institution and the National Archives and Records Administration.

In addition to its own homegrown search tools, the DPLA can be navigated with apps crafted by outside developers, such as Harvard Library Innovation Lab’s “Stacklife DPLA.” This tool gives users access to a variety of digital collections, including the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the HathiTrust, and Internet Archive’s Open Library. Let the research begin!

Internet Archive has also teamed with JSTOR to make 450,000 articles from the JSTOR Early Journal Content collection freely available. The wide-ranging interdisciplinary offerings cover the humanities, economics, politics, and the STEM fields dating from before 1923 in the US and 1870 elsewhere. The JSTOR Data for Research site offers full-text OCR as well as article and title-level metadata to facilitate text mining and analysis.

The Association of College Research Libraries (ACRL) announced that it has granted digital manumission to the full archive of its scholarly research journal, College & Research Libraries (C&RL). All issues from the journal’s origin in 1939 through the current issue are now available online for free!

Porträtt, karikatyr, from Skoklosters slott museum

Porträtt, karikatyr, from Skoklosters slott museum

In what is being termed the “Open Image Archive” project, LSH (a national Swedish triumvirate comprising The Royal Armoury, Skokloster Castle, and the Hallwyl Museum) is endeavoring to make its entire holdings openly available online. Of the 40,000 images, about a third have been scanned in high resolution.

So you see, we have much to be grateful for! Rather than falling prey to the fearmongers, let’s celebrate our unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — and the open exchange of ideas that makes it possible.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print & digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Web Content: Is Simpler Better?

Read with Dick and JaneWhile perusing an article about improving one’s writing for the web, I encountered the following passage:

“Simpler writing helps everyone. I was stunned to learn that 43% of people in the US read at a lower level of literacy. Meaning they read more slowly than average and have more difficulty understanding what they read.

“Simpler writing — meaning fewer words per sentence and fewer syllables per word —  benefits everyone. Reading speed and comprehension increase enormously, even for high literacy readers. When you consider the time saved, and the greater satisfaction people feel when they can understand and make decisions more easily, it’s a no-brainer to take the time to simplify your copy.”

Using the term “no-brainer” in this context rankles. The thrust of this excerpt is that literacy is on the wane, so web content creators should dumb-down their copy accordingly. The premise that lowering the language bar “benefits everyone” is patently false and more than a little alarming. It may benefit marketers, but it sure doesn’t benefit readers.

I belong to a generation that was weaned on the prescriptive style edicts of Strunk and White, so I completely understand how lean composition can increase clarity and impact. Effective as it is, the technique can be misunderstood and abused. Taken to extremes, this canon would yield grade-school drivel (“See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!”) rather than robust, punchy Hemingwayesque prose — which is what Messrs. Strunk and White had in mind. According to S&W, the concept is to “Make every word tell.” Clear, correct, and concise are very good rules of thumb; clarity always trumps cleverness. But enhanced reader experience is predicated on many factors — diction, pacing, tone, and organization, to name a few. Language that resonates with your chosen audience depends on mastering the craft of the well-turned phrase. That’s why good writing is an art.

This trend toward dull, explicit, overly simplistic writing sets a vicious circle in motion initiating, indeed encouraging, a race to the bottom. If we deliver increasingly dumbed-down content, our readers’ ability to think critically and appreciate good writing will decline in turn. How on earth does that benefit anyone, let alone everyone?

Rather than assuming your readers can only handle a monosyllabic vocabulary and flaccid, lifeless prose, why not give them the benefit of the doubt? Your mission: compose content that is appropriate for the target audience and well written. The alternative smacks of disrespect and condescension.

If we, as digital content creators and editors, are concerned about the increase in illiteracy — and we certainly should be — we must accept our responsibility to be part of the solution rather than purveyors of the problem. So by all means, trim the fat from your online content, but do it to achieve clarity and improve communication, not because you assume your readers are dullards and dimwits.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 4/12/13

This woman is wearing a bike helmet. Yes she is.

This woman is wearing a bike helmet.
Yes she is.

Bike commuters know they should wear a helmet, but hey, the dang things give you “helmet hair” for the rest of the day! That problem led two Swedish design grad students to put on their thinking caps. The result was the Invisible Bicycle Helmet. Unlike the king’s new clothes, the helmet’s really there — trust me. Think of it as an airbag for your head; it deploys when you need it. Do yourself a favor and watch this short documentary video. After graduation, the co-designers went into business to produce their innovative design commercially. They proudly proclaim: “We may be a small company, but we think big and we aim high. Delusions of grandeur are exactly what it takes!” Far be it from me to gainsay them. Diana Eng, watch out!

Growing pains… When a Canadian professor encouraged the 1,900 students in his psychology survey course to edit relevant Wikipedia articles as a voluntary assignment, they did — and all hell broke loose. The unexpected volume of edits made the open-source encyclopedia’s volunteer editors think they were the target of some sort of rogue troll. How could they possibly vet this tsunami of new data? Perhaps social media doesn’t always lend itself to educational applications. If this episode caused so much consternation, what will happen when the MOOCs attack?

PavegenWalkin’ on sunshine: After a successful initial trial during the London Olympics, the power-generating Pavegen tiles are now being installed in walkways all over the globe. Every time a foot depresses a tile, kinetic energy is harvested and converted into electrical power. Pavegen may not be the ultimate answer to our insatiable demand for more electricity, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Crowd-sourced proofreading: As you undoubtedly know, Project Gutenberg is an open-access initiative dedicated to the digitization of books for free distribution. The original tomes are scanned and converted into e-books for enhanced legibility, but OCR isn’t perfect, and all those pages need to be proofed by human eyes. As of two days ago, 100,000 volunteers from around the world have contributed to this noble effort. Project Gutenberg calls this herculean task “distributed proofreading,” and if you’d like to get involved, you can read more about it and sign up here.

Photographic archives are also making their way to the interwebs. The George Eastman House, “the world’s oldest museum dedicated to photography,” is teaming up with the Google Art Project to make hi-res sccans of its collections available online. The initial offering comprises 50 photographs from the 1840s to the late 1900s; just a taste of the digital goodness to come.

The Tribeca Film Festival opens on April 17. An evangelist of new media (check out the TFF Spotify Playlist), the festival is showcasing a six-second streaming video category this year that’s open to all comers. Yes, I said six-second. Aspiring filmmakers use the Vine app and their smart phones to plant cinematic seeds. It’s kind of like video tweets. Indeed, twitter noted the similarity as well, and snapped up the start-up posthaste. Robert De Niro, co-founder of TFF, sees the six-second film competition as an artistically challenging exercise rather than a stunt: “Six seconds of beginning, middle and end. … you can tell a whole story in six seconds.” In fact, in order to be considered for the competition, you have to tell a complete story. It took you longer to read this blurb…

Google announced that it will be doing its part to help keep Austin weird by making the progressive Texas city the second testbed for its uber-fast Google Fiber Internet service. The project debuted in Kansas City, but Austin — home to the celebrated South by Southwest technology and culture festival — seems a more obvious choice for such a high-tech venture. So just how fast is Google Fiber? The company claims the new service will be about 100 times faster than conventional broadband. Do we really need the speed? “Need” is such a subjective word, don’t you think? Yes and yes.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

On the Importance of Good Storytelling

Persuasive storytelling is an important skill to master.

Persuasive storytelling is a very important skill to master. It’s all about tone, pacing, character development, and continuity. Oh, and try to steer clear of the clichés…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 4/5/13

Image from the Book of KellsTrinity College Dublin recently posted individual hi-def images of every page (all 667 of ’em) of the justly famous illuminated manuscript known as the Book of KellsWhat a wondrous orgy of color, calligraphy and ornamental design! The circa eighth-century masterpiece recently served as the inspiration for the highly acclaimed animated film, The Secret of Kells, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2010. This is an outstanding example of what can be accomplished when technology influences culture in a good way.

Like the country itself, our language is seasoned with the polyglot contributions of an array of cultures. And that doesn’t even include the home-grown slang that is uniquely American. So how do you find the perfect word when you’re nowhere near your reference shelf or computer? Thesaurus Rex for the iOS to the rescue! More than a static e-book, T-Rex is an iPhone app that engages the power of digital technology to help you refine your searches. According to its developers’ marketing hyperbole, “Thesaurus Rex has revolutionized that ‘list of synonyms’ into a dynamic experience that sorts and filters words by their senses, relevance, complexity, and length.” I plan to give it a test drive; I welcome every tool that helps me write better.

As the academy struggles with the changing definitions of scholarly publishing in a digital world, Nature magazine offers a special issue devoted exclusively to the subject. Not surprisingly, the Open Access movement is an overarching theme: from OA’s influence on publishing costs and copyright issues to the explosion of shady operators usuing bogus journals to fleece unwitting scholars. There’s also a piece about the awesome Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) initiative — about which more below.

The DPLA is envisioned to be “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, and empower everyone in the current and future generations.” Think of it as the great Library of Alexandria rising Phoenix-like from its own ashes. You can read an excellent backgrounder on the project here.

And I’ll take this opportunity to note that my friend and colleague Dan Cohen has been tapped to take the helm as the inaugural executive director of the DPLA, so the program’s in very good hands. Dan was instrumental in the development of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University, which serves as a polestar of the digital humanities movement. There’s already lots of interesting stuff at the DPLA website (so go have a look!), but the official launch is scheduled for April 18. This is history in the making, kidz — the DPLA will be the virtual house that we built.

Hands-free books? Publishing pundit Nathan Bransford philosophizes about how Google’s “Project Glass” might affect our reading habits. However, the cutting-edge specs are already being cloned in China, and an American firm (Vergence Labs) is offering its own iteration of the technology under the moniker of “Epiphany Eyewear.” Vergence claims its geeky-looking frames are a match for Google’s “smart glasses.” And the beat goes on…

book spine poetryIn celebration of National Poetry Month — you knew it was National Poetry Month, right? — we’d like to draw your attention to a couple of unique genres of that literary medium. The first involves creating poetry by stacking up books (the physical, dead-tree kind) and reading the titles as verse. It’s all the rage on Pinterest and Tumblr. Go ahead, give it a try! In a somewhat higher-tech (though equally arbitrary) approach, techno-geeksters Sampsa Nuotio and Raisa Omaheimo harness the autocomplete feature in Google search to generate “Google Poetics.” You can see the results posted on their Tumblr page. Yes, you can join in the fun, and fear naught, the Mighty Google won’t pull the plug on this project.

The embarrassment of riches offered by the mass of information easily accessed on teh webz offers the temptation to indulge in sloppy scholarship and cut ‘n paste research methods. But beware: failure to attribute sources can ruin your weekend. Benjamin A. Neil, a legal affairs prof (truth!) at Towson University, was busted for serial plagiarism and felt obliged to resign his position as head of the local school system’s ethics panel as a result. Wise move, Ben. A master of understatement, Neil defended his cadged scholarship saying, “I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. The issue seems to be that I didn’t put things in quotes.” D’oh! Consider this a cautionary tale, boys and girls. Purloin, publish and perish.

And while we’re on the subject: Mark Liberman (contributor at Language Log) commented on a blog post by John McIntyre, who was riffing on Roy Peter Clark’s blog post, who in turn cites Richard Posner’s Little Book of Plagiarism about a particularly abstruse aspect of literary replication Posner calls “self-plagiarism.” Whew! Now you can add the Digital Warrior-Poet to that list of breadcrumbs. And if you’re not seeing tracers yet (gotta love those psychedelics), note that there is a “National Summit on Plagiarism and Fabrication” going on at the American Copy Editor’s Society conference in St. Louis as I upload this post. Is it just me, or does the blog format tend to produce things that resemble the cover of Pink Floyd’s classicUmmagumma album, “Ummagumma”?

Finally, I’d like to note that the humanities lost a staunch evangelist this week with the passing of Roger Ebert. His fearlessness and accessible style brought film criticism out of the realm of literary snootiness and into our everyday lives. He taught us how to appreciate the intricacies of the cinematic medium and he did it with grace, humor and goodwill. In a time when we could really use a few more heroes, we are all the more conscious of our profound loss. Roger has taken a “leave of presence,” as he put it, and we will miss his wit and humanity. His passing stands as a gentle reminder to us all to embrace this day, this moment.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Is English Evolving or Devolving?

Ave Maria photograph, 1905Long before Messrs. Strunk and White entered the fray, humanist, scientist and liberal political theorist Herbert Spencer set out to create a handbook on good composition (for more, see this excellent Brain Pickings blog post). And in The Philosophy of Style (1852), Spencer produced a real honey! Eager to establish the importance of the fundamental principles of crafting compelling prose, he was equally determined to encourage his readers to expose themselves to superb writing and rhetoric: “He who daily hears and reads well-framed sentences,” Spencer pronounced, “will naturally more or less tend to use similar ones.”

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever taken a creative writing course, and it would be difficult to debate the wisdom of such learned counsel. I still recall querying one of my college professors about what I could do to improve my writing. He responded, “You already have a solid grasp of the mechanics. Read.” Of course he meant read really good stuff, and lots of it. I took his advice to heart and still fall asleep every night with a good book on my chest (for which my optometrist is grateful).

About face(book)!

But what happens if we stand this precept on its head? What if we discount the necessity of learning the rules of grammar and immersing ourselves in great literature? I think we’re about to find out. We no longer “make” students diagram sentences, write essays, or even develop a legible hand. Nor are we making great strides in providing the underpinnings of critical thought — and what’s the point of grammatically correct writing if you have nothing worthwhile to say? In the world of social media, all of this is likely moot.

Language is not static, it’s constantly evolving — a moving target. Therefore there is no absolute “correct” way to express a thought. I get that. The point of the exercise is to clearly communicate an idea with your intended audience. Or as Herbert Spencer expressed it with a classic Victorian flourish, “To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort, is the desideratum towards which most of the rules [of grammar and usage] point.”

Tweeting, ca. 1852

Economy of words (and even syllables) seems to be the handmaiden of linguistic dynamics in the digital age, and we are now challenged to clearly express cogent thoughts in 140 characters or less (including punctuation, spaces, links and hashtags). This progressive simplification of communication becomes wonderfully obvious when one considers how a Victorian describes the beauty of expository economy:

“Not only in the structure of sentences, and the use of figures of speech, may economy of the recipient’s mental energy be assigned as the cause of force; but that in the choice and arrangement of the minor images, out of which some large thought is to be built up, we may trace the same condition to effect. To select from the sentiment, scene, or event described those typical elements which carry many others along with them; and so, by saying a few things but suggesting many, to abridge the description; is the secret of producing a vivid impression. … In the choice of component ideas, as in the choice of expressions, the aim must be to convey the greatest quantity of thoughts with the smallest quantity of words.”

Note the need to employ ellipsis — I think Twitter would have given Spencer fits. All I can say is OMG!

Turn, turn, turn

Writing for social media can be a good exercise, as it disciplines the digital scribe to pare away unnecessary verbiage and always consider the reader. But it can be disastrous to the creation of truly elegant, succulent prose. Further, while this practice discourages the development of a broad vocabulary and good diction, many “how-to” guides admonish writers to opt for the simplest possible word choice. I prefer to encourage the selection of the appropriate word (regardless of syllable count) for the rhythm and tone of the piece, as well as comprehension and delight of the reader. To every thing, there is a season…

Perhaps we’ve pursued this quest for minimalism to the point of diminishing return. What we haven’t done is convey the underlying principle for this intense focus on simplicity. The author’s job is not to construct prose that impresses the reader with the writer’s erudition, nor to churn out terse sentences that have been truncated to a series of “keywords” or simplified to the point of being readily understood by the lowest common denominator (unless of course that is your intended audience). The writer’s job is to convey an image; to paint a picture with words — setting the scene, establishing the tone, ensuring artful rhythm and pacing. All of these skills and more are necessary for the creation of engaging and compelling storytelling, regardless of the medium (okay, maybe not Twitter…).

Yes, language is linked to cultural trends; as our daily interactions become less formal, our written and spoken communication follows suit. I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing, only questioning what happens to our “ear” if most of the language we’re subjected to is fundamentally flawed. How can this help but lower the communication bar?

Humans have an innate communal impulse; we want to belong to a tribe. We adopt the fashions of the group we want to be associated with. We embrace its slang and jargon, its ideology and mores. Does this also apply to our writing style? I can’t help but wonder: is the lack of adequate education compounded by the deluge of bad spelling, grammar and usage constantly bombarding us on our electronic devices dumbing us down, or is it actually rendering communication more efficient? What do U think?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print & digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Photo: Ave Maria, Mrs. G.A. Barton (1905)/Pinterest