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.

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

Technology & Culture Update 3/29/13

Extraterrestrials trying to contact the Mayans?

It’s Good Friday, peeps, so here’s some good reading for y’all!

Capitalizing on the astounding sales of the erotic smash hit, Fifty Shades of Grey, Vintage Books announced the forthcoming release of E. L. James’s The Fifty Shades of Grey: Inner Goddess (A Journal), which will no doubt bury the author and her publisher in fifty shades of green. In addition to titillating excerpts from the trilogy, the journal will include tips for aspiring writers. Seriously. I can think of several writers who are rolling over in their graves…

Publishers at the Digiday Publishing Summit muse about their biggest worries. No surprise: encroaching digital technologies and the shift toward mobile devices dominated the conversation.

In a particularly trenchant post, Seth Godin articulates the distinctive features that characterized the industrial age (obsession with scarcity) juxtaposing them with those that are organic to the “connection economy” (which prizes abundance). Go ahead, pick yourself!

The Scholarly Kitchen serves up a tasty review of Academic and Professional Publishing (Robert Campbell, Ed Pentz, and Ian Borthwick, eds.). This comprehensive tome offers essays touching on every aspect of the current academic publishing landscape — from the nuts and bolts of the biz to philosophical soul-searching about what the future holds (can you say “disruptive innovation”?). The reviewer offers a sobering bullet-point summary of the book’s highlights, the last of which is: “Digital skills (media, analytics, marketing) and leadership/management skills are needed to guide publishing through its next phase.” How ’bout “editorial skills”?

Google is fightin’ mad! The techno-leviathan insists that its trademarked moniker is not a verb! The company is determined to protect its brand and get the entire world to quit talking about “googling” something. Yeah, good luck wi’ dat. So listen up, y’all: cease and desist! Google knows where you live (and what your house looks like).

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog reports that MIT plans to release documents relating to its role in the Aaron Swartz case. “At MIT we believe in openness, and we are not afraid to examine our own actions,” university prez L. Rafael Reif solemnly pronounced (with a straight face). It should be noted that the documents in question will be redacted, you know, to protect the privacy of the guilty. Redacted? MIT, what don’t you understand about “open access”?

And here’s another timely read from the Scholarly Kitchen: “Open Access — Idealism and Realism Remain Difficult to Reconcile, Survey Says.” Surveys can be problematic, but the article does discuss some interesting aspects of the OA tug o’ war (like the many flavors of Creative Commons licenses).

Lord, how I wish I could convince aspiring authors that the skills involved in penning a provocative blog post, engaging long-form article, or masterful dissertation are not the same as those marshaled in the production of a book. Helen Hazen plumbs the depths of this innocent self-delusion in her essay, “Endless Rewriting,” in the current online issue of The American Scholar. The most important point in the article is her recollection of her editor’s declaration that “without clear and accurate language we cannot communicate effectively.” This is, of course, the crux of the matter — and the editor’s credo. So while I am thrilled by the prospect of the literary liberation offered by the self-publishing craze, I am also afraid of writers who don’t think they need an editor. Very afraid…

Has civility gone completely out of fashion? What are the new rules of (digital) etiquette? Do we just take ourselves too damn seriously? PLEASE DON’T TEXT WHILE I’M TALKING TO YOU! The Smithsonian considers how technology is affecting — and altering — how we relate to and interact with one another. Beware, one researcher suggests that “if you don’t practice connecting face to face [or is that f2f?] with others, you can start to lose your biological capacity to do so.”

And finally, for the ultimate in a techno-cultural mashup, check out the QR codes embedded in the pavers in Rio de Janeiro (photo above). When I first saw this, I thought it was proof that the ancient Romans invented smart phones. Turns out this is a clever (and subtle) way to provide touristas with scads of information about historical/cultural attractions (uh-huh), restaurants, lodgings, etc. You just take a photo with your smart phone and it zooms you straight to a helpful website. What’ll they think of next?

Have a fantastic weekend!

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.

Lawyers, Guns & Money…

lawyers, guns & moneyI have a confession to make: I like guns. I do. As a Special Forces veteran and someone who has paid the rent by repossessing cars in Watts-Willowbrook-Compton-Inglewood (the ’hood affectionately known within the craft as “Inglewatts”), as a former editor of and freelance contributor to various and sundry military hardware journals (both consumer and defense industry), as a historical interpreter of many periods, and as a qualified historian, I am no stranger to firearms (from matchlocks to submachine guns) or the concept of a “well-regulated militia.”

I have always been a responsible firearms owner (though I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the NRA), and while I have been trained to kill with a variety of “weapons” (any object—including your hands—becomes a “weapon” only when employed with intent to do bodily harm), I have deep misgivings about the escalating gun-related violence in our society. I say again: I am not “anti-gun”—far from it; however, I am “anti-violence,” and I have a real problem with sociopaths being armed to the teeth.

I’m really tired of hearing the old saw, “assault weapons only have one purpose—to kill people.” As a civilian, I’ve owned a good many of these semiautomatic firearms, and all I’ve ever “killed” with ’em was paper targets and the odd tin can. Target shooting and plinking are perfectly legitimate hobbies, so get over it. I have no desire to hunt; it just doesn’t seem sporting to shoot at living things that can’t shoot back.

Please understand that assault rifles (note that I did not say “weapons”) are not the source of our current national hand-wringing malaise. They’re just semiautomatic rifles that have unique cosmetic features (like pistol grips and synthetic stocks).

Remington Nylon 66

My first rifle was a Remington Nylon 66—it was a .22 caliber rimfire semiautomatic; it had a synthetic stock, and it was most definitely not an assault rifle!

Testosterone patch

However, the shift to the modern suburban lifestyle with its attendant decrease in physical activity and increase in desk-bound professionals with Buddha-bellies and glazed eyes has offered manufacturers a golden marketing opportunity, and in fine capitalistic style they’ve seized on it with a vengeance.

Bushmaster, the makers of the weapon used in the Newtown massacre, manufacture and sell modified AR-15 rifles under evocative pseudo-martial nomenclature like “Adaptive Combat Rifle (ACR)” and “Magpul Original Equipment (MOE)” and the “M4-A2 Trpe Patrolman’s Carbine.” And if that’s not enough to get the ol’ testosterone a-pumpin’, the flacks at Bushmaster confidently assert that after your purchase of one of these Special Ops wannabe firearms, you can “consider your Man Card reissued.”

I don’t know about you, but that really puts my mind at ease. I’ve been meaning to get my Man Card renewed…

Prove it!Now, this isn’t some metaphorical reference to your male plumbing; rather, Bushmaster will issue you a real live Man Card that “confirms that you are a man’s man”—you know, just in case you weren’t quite sure…

Not sophomoric enough for you? Then try this one on for size: You can actually snitch on weenies who have committed acts that warrant rescinding their Man Card. So nanner-Man Card revoked!nanner. (You can view this stupid ad campaign here.) You just fill out a form identifying the infraction and the wimp in question, labeling the perp as a “Cry Baby,” “Cupcake,” “Short Leash,” “Coward,” or the ever-popular catchall “Unmanly” and shazzam! Man Card revoked! Fortunately, reclaiming your dick—er, Man Card—only requires that you go out and buy yourself a heapin’ hunk o’ throbbin’ camo-clad Bushmaster.

Apparently even Bushmaster was ashamed of this silly Freudian stunt in light of its association with the ill-timed Newtown slaughter of schoolchildren, so it pulled down the Man Card website pronto. Guess I’m gonna have to find some other way to call them out as a “Coward” and have their Man Card revoked.

‘Little Alex’ would be proud

In truth, the (most recent) mass shooting is only a symptom of a much more deeply rooted problem in our society: America is suffering from an addiction. We deny all the evidence, we dance around it, and all the while it is literally killing us. We are addicted to violence.

commando wannabe

‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’ game

We ritualize it, we celebrate it, we worship it. Our entire culture—our favorite sports, music, TV programs and movies, video games, politics, foreign policy, even our religion—encourages and condones violence. We make war on oppressive regimes, we make war on poverty, we make war on drugs, we make war on cancer, we make war on terror (not terrorism, mind you). We just plain like to make war.

So how’s that workin’ out for us? How many of these righteous wars have we won? Never mind; it’s a rhetorical question…

We can’t fix this insidious epidemic of violence by banning assault rifles (as President Obama would have us do) any more than we can by placing armed law enforcement personnel and military guards in every school and public venue across the land (as Wayne LaPierre, vice-president of the NRA suggests). Prohibition—as we certainly should have learned—doesn’t work; it only creates a black market for the naughty stuff while driving it underground. And turning the country into a police state would be a less than desirable outcome (though it would create jobs, which should make the conservative legislators happy).

We’ll never entirely rid ourselves of guns, nor have enough psychiatrists or psychologists to identify and intervene with all of the mentally disturbed students (or returning combat veterans, for that matter). We haven’t got the will and the Teapublicans (or their patron saint, Grover “Who elected that asshole?” Norquist) wouldn’t allow us to spend the money.

These are knee-jerk extremist positions, and as Jim Wright points out in his Stonekettle Station blog, “Extremism by definition is a position adopted by people who know they are wrong, but refuse to concede, refuse to compromise, refuse to reason, refuse to admit that they have a problem.”

“Refuse to admit that they have a problem.” That’s the whole thing in a nutshell. We can point fingers back and forth ’til we’re blue in the face, but nothing will change until we admit we have a problem. That’s the first step in treating any addiction.

Also, when we wanted to curtail smoking, we took action to alter the public perception that smoking is “cool” or “sexy.” And that’s been a huge success. Yes, there are still some boneheads who are dumb enough to voluntarily commit incremental suicide, but they are a dying breed (pun intended).

Suggestion for next ad campaign.

Suggestion for next ad campaign.

Now we need to replace the cultural imperative to compensate for our sedentary lifestyles by embracing some macho fantasy with a new message: It is lame to be a closet commando.

On the societal level, addressing our national fixation on employing violence to make our point will take a good deal more effort (and that’s above my pay grade).

Let’s get real

And then there’s that pesky Second Amendment thang. It was included in the Constitution to ensure that Americans could defend themselves against a tyrannical or despotic government (not foreign invaders—that’s the army’s job). The framers had the benefit of a little Real World experience in their rear-view mirror.

It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem: even as I write this, Congress is considering legislation that would suspend the writ of habeas corpus, thus denying US citizens their right to due process and enabling the government to indiscriminately imprison citizens without charging them with a crime. We have good reason to be circumspect.

We can debate the semantics of prose penned in the 18th century (when “militia” meant every able-bodied adult male and a musket was an “assault rifle”), but the intent is clear—as my friend John Wickett opined, the Second Amendment was not drafted “with tweed-clad quail hunters (shotgun broken over a dapper forearm) in mind.” In the 21st century this poses a conundrum, I’ll grant you.

There are perfectly logical and rational arguments to be made on both sides of this debate. Perhaps we need tighter restrictions on certain types of firearms (and their attendant accessories—like high-capacity magazines and grenade launchers); surely we should give some consideration to beefing up our mental health programs; surely we can agree to tone down the ultra-violence that has become nigh-ubiquitous in the media (commercial and social) and the entertainment industry. I’m thinkin’ the answer is ‘E – all of the above.’

As President Obama indicated, it is a complex issue, but I firmly believe there are enough intelligent, reasonable people in the country to have an open and honest dialog about how we should proceed. It’s not unlike the debt crisis negotiation; which is to say, once you get past the emotion-charged rhetoric, all sides have to give a little to achieve a workable compromise.

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail.

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.

The Science of Coffee, Part Two

London coffeehouse, ca 1660 – idea incubator

A major cultural shift took root in the city of Oxford, England in 1650. It manifested itself in a shop called The Angel. This establishment was a coffeehouse, and Oxford was a hotbed of intellectual activity. It was a match made in heaven. The fruit of the bean was a vestige of eight centuries of Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsula (the last Moslem stronghold, Granada, fell to the Christians in 1492—a very good year for Ferdi and Bella).

You see, up to that time, Britons—who, unlike the Mohammedans, did not suffer from a religious ban on alcohol—guzzled booze like it was water. It wasn’t so much that they were lushes; rather, it was because the water wasn’t fit to drink. This did not prove conducive to creative thought and civil social intercourse. Fortunately, The Angel intervened and coffeehouse culture soon flourished in raucous London as well. And when caffeinated beverages (tea and cocoa were also popular) began to replace alcohol as the social lubricant of choice, a strange thing happened: innovation flowered exponentially.

Coffeehouses became the locus of philosophical banter, political discourse, and gossip. Some historians posit that supplanting a depressant with a stimulant and serving it up in a congenial atmosphere was a prime mover in the rise of the intellectually fertile period known as The Age of Enlightenment.

My point being that coffee is a good thing.

Gaggia Classic

If your taste buds yearn for that concentrated essence of liquid bliss known as espresso (and as your editor, I urge you to note that there is no ‘x’ in espresso), you should consider investing in a midrange semiautomatic machine with a proven track record, such as the Gaggia Classic. It lists for $599, but it’s currently available for under $400 shipped (you can snag a refurb for $299 shipped). Of course at this time of year, you may find an even better deal by doing due diligence.

As the moniker implies, the Classic has been around for a good many years; it’s built like a tank and highly reliable. Spare parts are readily available, and minor repairs or upgrades are well within the purview of anyone with a modicum of mechanical skill. And this is important: there is a ton of helpful data online about the care and feeding of the Classic, and a vibrant community of users who are more than willing to help if you have a problem (the Yahoo! Gaggia Users Group is my favorite).

A stock Classic can pull a very respectable shot if properly adjusted (assuming fresh beans of an appropriate grind and proper barista technique). You can improve its performance considerably by adding a proportional integral derivative feedback device (PID). Fear not, this is just a diminutive (about the size of a computer mouse) electronic unit that insures a constant, proper temperature throughout the shot cycle. And if you’re going to make drinks requiring steamed milk (like cappuccino), you should also replace the stock steam wand with this one. You can perform both of these mods for under $200. There are also folks who upgrade Classics with all these features for resale in the $500-550 range (hint: it’s a good idea to join the Users Group, as they often pop up there…).

Cunill Tranquilo

Actually, it’s the grinder that is of paramount importance. Or as the Yahoo! Gaggia Users Group moderator Tex Harmon quips, “The espresso machine is an accessory to the grinder, not the other way around.”

I don’t care how nice your espresso machine is, if you’re not feeding it uniformly ground beans of the correct granulation (and this requires a bit of fine-tuning), it will not be capable of producing exquisite shots. So plan on buying a quality consumer-level burr grinder or picking up a clean used commercial behemoth on the ’bay or Craigslist. In any case, you can count on laying out somewhere around $300-$500 for an espresso-worthy grinder. If you paid less than that for a new grinder, don’t expect good results. Trust me on this.

Now, if you really want to go all-out, you can step up to a prosumer-class machine, such as the Expobar Office Pulser (+/- $1,100) or the Quick Mill Andreja Premium (+/- $1,700). Any machine in this class, including the Gaggia Classic, is capable of producing espresso that surpasses the best you’ll ever get from an untrained barista using automated equipment of dubious cleanliness in a chain espresso bar.

To summarize: If you land a good deal on a new Gaggia Classic, tweak it a bit, and pair it with an espresso-worthy grinder, you can be in business for around a grand. If you go hawg-wild and pick up a nice prosumer setup, you’ll probably up the ante by another grand or so. The long and short of it is that you can score a truly kick-ass espresso setup for under $1,000. Now that may sound like a lot, but when you begin to add up what you’re paying for sub-par shots down at the local, you’ll find that you’ll recoup this investment in short order.

This covers (albeit briefly) the semiautomatic class of espresso machines. Don’t worry, there will not be a quiz.

The Not-So-Superautomatics

If you really don’t have a very sophisticated palate—which is to say, you are perfectly satisfied with the frou-frou concoctions they serve up at *$—and you covet trendy labor-saving kitchen appliances, you are the ideal candidate for a superautomatic espresso machine. Wired magazine calls this class of whiz-bang gadgets “amazing pieces of engineering” because they do everything for you at the touch of a button—from bean to cup. Kinda Jetsonesque. They also produce mediocre to awful espresso (if you are concerned about such things).

Saeco Xelsis Digital ID

The Saeco Xelsis Digital ID is the latest entry in this crowded field of hip department store bling. But it may qualify for a new category all its own: the hyper-superautomatic—in fact, the promo lit calls it a “cutting edge technological marvel.” That’s because the $4,000 Xelsis D-ID trumps its space-age brethren by mating its built-in grinder with a detachable milk reservoir and a self-cleaning cycle; further, it sports a dazzling touchscreen digital interface (ooh!) that stores pre-set profiles for up to six unique users, and initiates its operation by being prompted with the latest in biometric technology. Yes, you heard right—it has an integrated device that reads your fingerprint so the machine will dispense exactly the right beverage, pre-approved and personalized for your discriminating taste.

Of course, you’ll also need the optional decoder ring (I made that up). Word on the street has it that the next-gen model will require the user to be microchipped (I made that up, too). As the scribe who produced the amazingly shallow Wired fluff piece admitted, “There are a lot more features that I don’t have the technical ability to explain well.” That one I didn’t make up. But in all fairness, the dude’s blog (Geekdad) is tabbed under “toys and technology.” You do the math.

So just how good is the espresso produced by this Rube Goldberg contraption? I’m glad you asked. I tried to find a legitimate review of this machine by a respectable coffee forum or blog, but failed. Hmmmm… All Google coughed up was a list of tech-toy blogs and news aggregators that obligingly regurgitated the press release verbatim (or a slight paraphrase thereof).

A few early adopters posted their initial experiences on amazon.com noting difficulties in programming the thing, a problem with the beverages being too cold, and opining that the reservoirs for water, milk, and used coffee grounds are too small, thereby requiring more fiddling than they expected to have to do with a high-zoot set-and-forget device.

One online purveyor of espresso equipage posted an amateurish youtube video that painfully exposes the limitations of the machine. I assume this was not their intent. In a real face-palm moment, the demo hostess couldn’t even get the machine to recognize her fingerprint. A well-respected Saeco distributor and fan of superautomics actually counsels against buying this product, stating unequivocally: “Expensive model. Not worth its looks or the Bells & whistles used to promote it.”

Why do you s’pose the rest of the world thinks Americans have too much stuff? Just talking about this makes me feel a little embarrassed. Now if the Xelsis (don’t you just hate the cutesy neologisms that marketeers dream up for product names?) doubled as a Transmogrifier, I’d be sold. But of course with a little imagination you can whip up a Transmogrifier out of any old cardboard box (which is sort of the point).

My advice? Espresso machines don’t multitask any better than humans; beware of any product that attempts to be all things to all men (or women, as the case may be), as they often wind up being nothing at all…

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.

The Science of Coffee, Part One

I like coffee. No, that’s far too tame. I love coffee. That is, I love good coffee. There’s a fair amount of science (and a pinch of alchemy) involved in creating the perfect mug o’ mud—or if you’re an espresso aficionado like me, the proverbial “God shot.” And with the current flowering of technological gadgetry, it’s no surprise the engineers and geeks have turned their collective genius to the humble coffeemaker—and trotted out their pricey offerings just in time for Christmas.

Before I go any further, I would like to categorically state that you can produce very respectable joe with a simple press pot (aka: French press, cafetière) or AeroPress, or if you like your coffee on the stronger side, a moka pot. Any of these can be acquired for a modest investment of around thirty-five simoleons. You will also need to score some high-quality fresh beans and an adequate burr grinder (manual mills can be had for under $100). Yes, there is a bit of technique involved (that’s where the alchemy comes in), but that’s half the fun! When all’s said and done, it’s “good” coffee if you like it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Taste is a subjective thing; making good coffee is as much art as science.


Blossom One Limited

Perhaps you find the above-mentioned appliances to be a bit pedestrian for your artistic sensibilities. You’re after something a smidge more precise, a bit sexier, a little more outré—what’s the word I’m looking for… oh yes, snobby. The Blossom One Limited is just the ticket; it’s got snob appeal by the bucket-load! A minimalist, utilitarian aesthetic belies its technological underpinnings, and this handcrafted work of functional art will lighten your wallet by—are you sitting down?—$11,111 (one has to wonder why they bothered with those last three digits—must have something to do with “artful design”).

Based on the press kit, we should be suitably awed by the bios of the techno-triumvirate that cooked up this percolator-on-steroids: Jeremy Kuempel (Head Honcho) is a mechanical engineering type from MIT who worked on the Apple iPad team, and at Tesla, where he designed the 17-inch touchscreen for the Model S; Matt Walliser has the NASA Ames Research Center on his CV as a former employer; and Joey Roth is the owner of the Joey Roth Design Studio (snappy title, eh?)—he apparently conceived a really cool teapot. Not seein’ any barista background here…

Gaggia Gilda
(orphanesspresso.com)

Rather than being satisfied to improve on the current “Best of Show” in coffeemaker technology, the boys claim to have been inspired by “sports cars, premium furniture, and the Bauhaus movement.”

Though it’s not an espresso machine, the Blossom One Ltd. does incorporate technologies that are commonplace in the high-end “prosumer” espresso market, and that makes perfect sense—plain ol’ coffeemakers have lagged far behind the state of the art in espressoland, so why not marry the two? In fact, Blossom’s basic approach to the process seems to be a variation on the lever-actuated espresso machine originally patented by Achille Gaggia in 1938 (which later appeared in a more compact iteration called the “Gilda,” the first espresso machine designed for consumers—you can read a fantastic profile here).

Hark! Mr. Kuempel declared, “The world is ready for truly great-tasting coffee.” The Blossom marketing team extrapolates on this profundity: “Designed to combine the best parts of immersion brewing with the ease of a standard coffeemaker, the revolutionary Blossom One Limited makes the perfect cup of coffee every time by allowing precise control of every aspect of the brewing process.” The exalted testimonial continues unabashedly, “To achieve this, our Blossom One Limited machine employs a novel brewing process that perfectly controls important brewing variables independently of environmental influences, empowering baristas with the right tools to make truly great-tasting coffee.”

Perhaps it’s the editor in me, but I’m really leery of products pitched with such hyperbolic prose as “revolutionary,” “perfect,” “every time,” “precise,” “every aspect,” “novel,” “perfectly,” and “empowering”—all in the same breath.

In addition to computer-controlled operational variables via a proportional integral derivative feedback control loop (PID)—which is to say, maintaining the ideal constant temperature—Blossom One also boasts an onboard WiFi camera(!) that can scan QR codes allowing “users to connect directly to a roaster’s preparation recommendations making it easy to share complex coffee brewing recipes direct from the coffee roaster to the final customer.”

As we went to press, no roasters were known to be providing such key data about their beans via QR codes, but maybe the appearance of 10 Blossom One machines (the entire inaugural production run) will provide the impetus to initiate the revolution. In the meantime, at least you can take pictures of yourself making some awesome coffee and post them on Pinterest. (Update: Apparently, the camera is a dedicated unit, it only feeds data to the Blossom—there is no USB port or other means of uploading images to another device, so strike that comment about taking pictures of yourself making really expensive coffee.)

Your $11,111 coffeemaker can be clad in the exotic wood trim of your choice (premium furniture, remember?), but perhaps most importantly—and folks, this is truly the pièce de résistance—every unit comes with an official signed build placard, and will be hand-delivered by “the Blossom team” (I trust they’re really attractive and very appreciative).

Currently in its second prototype incarnation, the Blossom One Ltd. is slated for initial delivery in a few months, so you’d better get your order in quick.

Aside from bragging rights, stupid-expensive digital coffeemakers have one thing in common: the dumbing down of the process. They appeal to the convenience factor that is so prized by the self-important. Hey man, time is money! Hence, “the premium Blossom One Limited machine requires little instruction to operate, enabling brewers of all experience levels to create the absolute best cup of coffee for the most discerning coffee aficionados.” Even a minimum-wage, teenaged Starbucks barista can do it!

So is it just me, or is it patently absurd to demo this highest of the high-end coffeemakers to someone who admits he is “not as much of a ‘coffee person’ as many of my caffeine-addled colleagues and friends”? I guess he drew the short straw. Well, in an attempt to garner some good press, the fellas who are trying to gin-up enthusiasm (and seed money) for this handcrafted, limited edition product humped it over to the Huffington Post offices and did just that.

You don’t have to be able to identify the fruity notes to appreciate a really outstanding brew, but having such a philistine review this chunk of high-tech wizardry would be like having—well him—review a fine wine (“I’m the kind of guy who will gladly drink wine out of a cardboard box.” Yes, this is a quote from the same review.).

What’s the point? Why should a reader care what this rube thinks of this $11,111 wunderkind? After all, the reviewer (who I suspect would prefer to remain nameless) concludes, “I will not be one of the initial buyers.” Still, I’m sure the mission was accomplished: generate enough buzz to actually convince someone who “can afford elevators for your cars” (again, same reviewer) to lay down some serious jack to bankroll this harebrained scheme. Of course, the only person who comes to mind who meets that particular qualification is morally averse to drinking coffee. Quite the conundrum. Then again, he’s an ace vulture capitalist, so who knows?

One has to wonder why they’re showing this thing to people who are totally unfamiliar with the boutique home or professional barista scene. No matter. I’m sure it’ll be a hit in the Hammacher Schlemmer holiday catalog—right alongside that nifty $190,000 flying hovercraft…

Good thing you get to choose the exotic wood trim, for as the Blossom One website sagely concludes, “Simply having great technology isn’t enough.” I couldn’t agree more.

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.