Dumb Things I Have Done Lately

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Do Any People Actually Read Their Alumni Magazines?

The latest edition of my college alumni magazine (Duke Magazine) arrived this week.

I don't know about you, but up until fairly recently, I just skimmed past everything else to get to the alumni notes (a notable exception being last month's profile of Predictably Irrational author Dan Ariely [PhD '98]).

However, lately, I've noticed a dearth of alumni notes from the Class of '93. I guess there's not that much new to report: It's been 15 years, and everybody (else) is either mired in middle management, shepherding the kids through middle school, slaving away towards partner, working through the wreckage of their starter marriages, or whatever else it is that adults are supposed to do.

So I've been paying more attention to the articles.

Not the campus life stuff -- for that, I check in on the campus newspaper fairly regularly (mainly to chuckle, condescendingly, at whatever trivial campus concerns the undergrads are worked up about, or to cluck at the misfortunes of the football team -- though I note they beat Navy last week, and JMU a few weeks prior).

I knew the magazine was "award-winning," but I'd always just assumed it was in that "everyone-gets-a-trophy" self-congratulatory way. So I was surprised how some of the articles were kind of... excellent.

In this most recent issue, there was a piece on how reference librarians are adapting to support scholarship in a world of IM, Google, and Wikipedia ("Brave New World" -- note that they still haven't figured out how to make Facebook work for them in a meaningful way).

And for those of you who aren't in the navel-gazing world of social media, there was a piece on alum Bill Werber, a 100-year-old former Major League Baseball player, who got a golden shower from Babe Ruth and played bridge against Lou Gehrig ("Oldest Living Major League Ballplayer Tells All"). It was a good read. And this is coming from a guy who thinks that baseball is only marginally less boring than golf.

Anyway, good writing is good writing, whether it's a literary journal ("Boring!"), ad copy, or a trade magazine.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

It's an RSS Feed, Not a Calendar, Dammit

I'm in the process of cleaning up my feedreader (currently NetNewsWire), which is wildly disorganized and bloated with redundancy right now.

Now, others have noted why it's a good idea for you to subscribe to your own blog's feed, primarily so you can spot technical problems. For example, in the Small Wars Journal feed some of the longer entries lose line breaks in NetNewsWire -- see "The Problems With Afghan Army Doctrine" -- it's one big mass of text.

(Actually, "full-content feeds with line breaks removed" could be a middle ground between offering full-content feeds and summary-only feeds: It lets you see all the content, but it's basically unreadable unless you click through to the main article.)

For another example, I'm going to call out my friend Susie Felber, whose RSS feed looks like this:
Feb-head, I think you need to tweak your Blogger template a little bit -- you're not populating the TITLE field of your entries. (I, of course, know to read all of your entries since you're such an interesting person. But others might not.)

The other reason to check your RSS feeds is editorial: It tells you when your entry titles are not useful.

For example, here are the recent feed item titles for My Damn Channel (home of You Suck at Photoshop):
I realize that they're announcing new video clips, but that's not an RSS feed -- that's a calendar.

Now of course, sometimes you don't need a super-descriptive title -- you just want to announce that new content is up -- for example, for the Dilbert Daily Strip, "Comic for June 18, 2008" is fine. (Especially for a comic with serial storylines. Though I think that a descriptive name never hurts - look at XKCD's feed.)

Other times, you're announcing a new content update, but one that features a lot of different components, like the DC Blogs Noted and Postsecret feeds, where you might not be able to list out everything in the title.

Where practical, I like to do at least a taste of the content -- you start out with the name of the regular feature, followed by a sample of what's included (a la Things That Are Upcoming: Blog Potomac, Puppini Sisters and More).

The Morning News's feed does a mixed model, where the generically-named feed items ("17 June 2008: Morning") are just a mass of links, but where their original stories do have descriptive titles. (I don't find the "mass of links" model particularly useful -- I might break those kinds of things out into a separate links feed, a la Waxy.org Links, so you don't drown out the original stuff.)

Anyway, this isn't an SEO-entry or anything -- just to say that good titles are good titles, whether they show up in a browser window or as a line in an RSS reader. So check out your own stuff, so you can see it as others see it.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

John Scalzi Killed Me

I'd known this was coming for some time, and I'd managed not to think about it, but I finally have to acknowledge my shocking, inescapable fate:

John Scalzi killed me.

Adding insult to homicide, he had my carcass butchered, essentially turning me into a pile of steaks.

All this (including a hinted-at love triangle) happens between pages 131 and 139 of the third book in his Colonial Union trilogy (as good a name for it as any), The Last Colony:

Me, engrossed in pages 131-139 of John Scalzi's The Last Colony

I finally got around to reading it (it came out spring of 2007) -- I'd started it over the weekend and just finished it now.

I'd known he was going to kill me (or at least a character who shared my name), and as a matter of fact, he had even asked me for permission before doing it. Which I of course granted gladly.

Why did he kill me? I guess you can say it's my own fault. I can even point to the exact date: July 11, 2006. In my capacity as AOL Journals Editor, I'd had the pleasure of working with Scalzi (one does not manage Scalzi -- one can only hope to contain him), a contract blogger for some Journals-related programming.

I'd made a joke about the opening sentence of his prior novel (second in the trilogy), The Ghost Brigades, and this was his way of responding. It's right there in the comments:
"That's it. I'm naming a character after you in the book I'm writing now. And then I'm going to have him eaten by nefarious aliens. Just you WAIT."
He also thanks me in the acknowledgments (page 319). Yay.

As to the book itself -- if I were the type of person to call something "a cracking good read," I would. Scalzi does have a tendency in his works to give his protagonists enormous influence in shaping events and outcomes, ultimately remolding the worlds (and even universes) in which they live. In the hands of a less-capable writer, it might drift into Mary Sue territory, but he makes it work.

Also, as other critics have noted, the subplot that kills me kind of vanishes after it occurs. To be fair, it's overtaken by larger plot elements, such as the looming extermination of the human race. Though, if I were less charitable and significantly more egocentric, I might think that John, spent after sating his bloodlust by killing me off, dropped it to move on to more interesting things.

(I can say this as an accomplished writer, myself. Though I tend towards essays and even shorter-form works [like captions and promo blurbs]. And I'm pretty weak in character development. And I have no experience trying to maintain a story arc or coherent plot. And I'm not so good at crafting realistic dialog. And I've never actually published anything. Nor tried to. But other than that I'm a fully qualified book critic.)

Anyway, if you want to see me get eviscerated and served up like a subprime cut of beef, go buy The Last Colony.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

I Need to Post More While Drunk

The original title of this entry was "Pho: It's what was for dinner," but it wasn't notable in any way (other than the pho was good, and certainly did hit the spot on a November evening), and I probably hate writing filler posts more than most people hate reading them.

I'm under self-imposed time pressure -- got to get my NaBloPoMo entry for today in while it's still "Sunday" (in GMT, that is).

Looking through my entries, I notice that I'm still basically on a one-post-per-day schedule, even though I should have time to do a whole lot more blogging.

I'm not lacking for things to write about -- my slushpile of content topics (that I imported from my work del.icio.us account) is still fit to burst, and I have a whole bunch of draft entries fermenting elsewhere. So what is it?

Partly laziness; part poor time management; part a lingering self-consciousness of the live feed. But mostly, I think it's a carryover from my corporate blogging, which in turn was driven a lot by my own natural introvert-tendencies. There are plenty of things that I don't talk about (dating), and I do a lot of filtering, a lot of editing.

Filtering and editing is good for corporate bloggers, and is generally good. In general. But when it gets beyond wordsmithing and craft and turns into procrastination and pre-emption -- that's when the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Anyway, that's where the drunken posting comes in. Not sloppy drunken, regret-the-next day posting -- just enough to lubricate the synapses and loosen the typing fingers. I find that it's a good way to get past myself sometimes.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

You Know You're Having a Bad Day When Your Usage Is Corrected by Digg Users

Contact Music has a Borat article, "Borat Star Scared to Visit Kazakhstan" (link via Digg).

It contains a really dumb vocabulary mistake that completely flips the story.

Since the story is so short, there's no point in excerpting it, and since the story is the story, it's a fair use, so here it is. The EXCESSIVE CAPITALIZATION is all theirs:
"SACHA BARON COHEN is keen to visit the homeland of his comic creation BORAT - but one of his co-stars is so frightened to visit Kazakhstan, he would only travel there if BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN is withdrawn from sale. Actor KEN DAVITIAN admits he is scared of visiting the country after appearing in the controversial movie as producer AZAMAT BAGATOV - despite the film release topping Kazakhstan's DVD chart on internet retailer Amazon.com. He explains, "I got a call from Sacha asking me if I had any interest in visiting Kazakhstan with him. "I said no but I've had a rethink and I've told Sacha that I'll go with him if the Kazakh authorities sanction the DVD version of Borat there. That's the only way we'd both feel safe and welcome."
The first sentence says that actor Davitian would only go if the Borat DVD "is withdrawn from sale," which is kind of an odd thing for an actor to say.

How did Contact Music come to this conclusion? Look at the quote:
"I've told Sacha that I'll go with him if the Kazakh authorities sanction the DVD version of Borat there. That's the only way we'd both feel safe and welcome." [emphasis added]
Looks like the writer isn't aware that "sanction" has two meanings (also, FYI, Heather Has Two Mommies.)

Sanction is one of those funny words that has multiple, self-contradicting definitions (the proper term is Auto-antonym, or contranym); sanctions are punishments, though if you sanction something, you're allowing or giving it your approval.

On the scale of grammar and usage mistakes, this is pretty high up, since the entire meaning of the story changes because of it, unlike a misspelling, which just makes the writer look dumb.

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