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August 2013 Fargo Archive Pages

August 31

  • What Cicero knew
    • He knew this:
      • Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.
    • Another way to put it: if we can’t be bothered to understand the words of others, whether they live now or lived in the past, then they are dead to us. In their words people try to name what they have seen of life. They try to pin down their fears and activate their hopes and make their lives move ahead. They offer their best insights. If we can’t be bothered with the specificity of another’s words, then down deep we can’t be bothered with anything human besides ourselves.
    • [Thanks to Tom Vander Ven, who once published a piece on the shortsightedness of translating Shakespeare into contemporary language. That piece ended with Cicero’s advice.]
  • The way we are living
    • These few lines from Seamus Heaney, the great poet whose death was just announced, deserve their own posting:
      • The way we are living,
      • timorous or bold,
      • will have been our life.
    • If you aren’t a regular reader of poetry, but wonder if there is something in poetry for you, I recommend some of the text plus audio pages where you can hear the gravity and thunder of the words in his voice as you read along. “Clearances 3” is a favorite of mine because it attends so carefully to ordinary family memories, seeing closeness and coolness and longing interwoven in just a few lines of vivid storytelling.
  • Sparked by the poet
    • An essay from the wonderful poet who died this week, Seamus Heaney, once sparked a blog entry of mine about what we can hope for from blogs that are essentially personal diaries. Heaney was talking about writing that has enough layers to engage readers deeply, and he pressed into service a quotation from another writer to make his point. Here’s how the idea played out:
    • Diary blogs. Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney quotes or paraphrases a comment by Patrick Kavanagh that may shed some light on diary blogging:
      • …as Patrick Kavanagh insisted, the self is interesting only as an example.
    • The diary writing we see on some blogs may engage us when we know the person, but when we don’t know the writer we need some other context for engaging with the words. If they are lively, that can be enough. Similarly, if we identify with the life circumstances of the writer, that too can be enough.
    • But otherwise we need the writer to put her life into a context — make herself into an example of something (the small town kid on the big university campus, for example). Or else we need to do that work ourselves. We might read as a specialist of some kind who asks, “What are young people going through these days?” or other question that creates a context. Even the act of identifying with the writer is a way of putting her words into a wider context — making her an example of something (me!).
    • Without a literary, social, or intellectual context, whether supplied by the writer or by the reader, the diary blogs remain enclosed in the personal. They may serve the writer’s purposes, but if Kavanagh is right, they don’t do the work in the wider world of readers that they might do.
    • Knowing this, teachers who use blogs would be in a position to decide, then, if diary blogs serve their pedagogical purpose or not.
    • [Passage quoted from the Forward to Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, an oddly unnumbered page that appears to be page 12.]

August 30

  • Pages (academic) never meant to be read
    • The epigraph from a book on Shakespeare by Clinton Heylin:
      • The greatest advantage of Shakespearean studies seems to be that questions may be asked over and over again, and that almost nobody pays attention to the answers — unless he borrows them for his own use in an article or a book. — Hyder E. Rollins, 1944
    • My general interest here on the blog is in the ways that people’s voices come to matter in their society, their democracy, and a quotation like this makes me think that I need to add a category to my inquiry: speech and writing that is hardly meant to matter at all. Or meant to matter so narrowly that hardly anyone should take notice. Speech and writing deeply alienated from almost all of the society’s needs or ways.

August 29

  • James on experts
    • On the subject of experts controlling the conversation, here is William James:
      • There is only one thing a philosopher can be relied upon to do, and that is to contradict other philosophers. (238)
    • How many other fields can be substituted for philosopher here, at least on bad days? We get the picture of a profession as a closed system, powerful because it controls its realm, and weak because it can’t imagine a reason to open the borders for commerce.
    • Open the borders.
    • [The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, John Gross, 1983.]

August 28

  • How you know it’s time to reopen the schools
    • On Sunday I walked the dog along a nice wide path through the woods at the edge of one of our area’s beautiful college campuses. The dog and I came upon two coeds standing still there on the path. One was trying the cell phone, and the other turned to me and said, “We’re afraid of the deer. They were looking at us.†Sure enough, just off the path in the woods, well cloaked by the leaves, were two does and a fawn. The young women calmed down, though, when they realized that they could walk beside my valiant dog until we reached a more civilized part of campus. Pedant that I am, I took a moment to teach them the word herbivore, and then we parted. Yes, I thought, it’s time to throw open the doors of all the schools. (Source)

August 27

  • First day of class
    • If you ask a good question on the first day of class, and act like you mean it, your students may very well give you some clues that they are smart, interesting people, that they’d rather care about a course than game the system the way you have to when a class is no good, that they’ve been burned before by educators but not always, and that you have a chance to do something worthwhile together if you’re careful and skillful there at the front of the room. Respect plays into it, and a light touch at times, but some backbone and commitment to ideas rather than to feel-good chatter as well. Fingers crossed, hopeful, knowing how good a good day can be, how deadly dull failure is for all concerned. Go for it.
  • Mapping race in America
    • It is called “the most comprehensive map of race in America ever created.” One dot for each person in the country; 300 million dots, all color-coded. The image I have shared here comes from the part of Saint Louis County where I grew up, in Missouri, where a newish white suburb, Crestwood, arose next door to an older black unincorporated district, Meacham Park. Among the notable episodes in Meacham Park history was neighboring Kirkwood paying tuition for Meacham Park students to attend high school in the city of St. Louis rather than in Kirkwood–it’s hard to imagine an excuse for that move except racial segregation. The bit of map I’ve shown here reveals how enduring is the segregation that was formalized a century ago. Thanks to the map’s creator, Dustin Cable, University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

August 26

  • Ham radio rises to the occasion (bloggers too)
    • Ron Chester did what good bloggers so often like to do, which is to take the questions, ideas, or experiences of others seriously. In a recent posting I was musing about the communication networks that need to be well in place for democracy to stay healthy, and I made a comparison to semaphore, as an example. Ron talked in the comments to that piece about the fact that ham radio operators have carried out the functions I was speculating about many times over the years. I asked for an example or two, and he produced a posting with seven links, a primer in ham radio crisis operations. In the stories you get the sense of a service ethic and pride in having the tools in a crisis and using them well–take a look. Thanks, Ron.

August 25

  • Wanting to be represented
    • People call for representation of two kinds. We want to be represented in government—we want our votes to count and our elected officials to speak on our behalf. But we also want our stories to be told in the wider society—we want our lives to be represented in journalism and the arts, to become a recognized and valued part of our culture. In an age of multiplying media platforms, there is a difference, too, between telling one’s story and having it be heard. In an age of big-money government, the structure may be unresponsive to voters, too. Several tensions arise from these wishes and barriers as they play out in our lives.

August 24

  • Moyers on literacy as democracy slips away
    • Bill Moyers reflects that the satisfaction we might take from our favorite political satirists hides our impotence:
      • Sometimes I long for the wit of a Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. They treat this town as burlesque, and with satire and parody show it the disrespect it deserves. We laugh, and punch each other on the arm, and tweet that the rascals got their just dessert. Still, the last laugh always seems to go to the boldface names that populate this town. To them belong the spoils of a looted city. They get the tax breaks, the loopholes, the contracts, the payoffs.
    • The public speech of these notable comics, critical though they may be, is not enough. The social media writing of their fans is not enough. Moyers implies something about the nature of public writing–that the words are not enough. Their power is achieved only when they help to animate social networks, groups of affiliated and committed and skillful people. It’s an example of the semaphore lesson I was considering the other day:
      • Messages are easy, easier than ever, but they go nowhere, they are useless, if the network has not been prepared. That network is a piece of open technology and a web of people already aligned with each other and inside each one of them the knowledge, attitude, and skills needed to pitch in.

August 23

  • What? A truly visionary English department?
    • First, a taste of the spirit of the remarks:
      • We are living in the time of the most significant change in human expression in human history. That’s a big statement but I think it is uncontestedly true…. We live now in a world where it is possible for people to communicate instantly and globally through computer technology, and English as the site that excels in human expression and in the study of human culture related to expression should be the place that is at the very cutting edge of education for students in these areas.–Richard E. Miller, video at 1:35 and 2:15.
    • Then, please view the rest of the short video for specific ideas about how the university and the English department ties into that world. Failing to address the astounding reality of literacy practice today will doom English departments to the back waters of the society, yes? A fuller version of the Writers House story here, where Richard Miller says at 4:40, “To be literate in the 21st century, you have to be able to communicate on the screen.”
    • He continues at 6:15: “With this media, the students can transcend state, national, continental boundaries, and transcend distinction in terms of race, class. We must educate our students to be fluent in the new media so that they can be a force for social change.” And the vision rises from there to the end.

August 22

  • Borrowing wise Fargo eyes
    • Hey, creative technologists of the Fargo community, my home town, South Bend, Indiana, has starting putting huge portions of the city’s data sets online for the good people of our city to use in innovating and problem-solving. This seems all to the good to me, but I wonder if there is something missing. What about the synergy of people trading ideas about these data sets, for one thing? Where will those conversations be held?
    • And I wonder if Fargo people might spot something else that would deepen the impact of this new open data policy? South Bend has many beautiful things going for it, but also is still scarred from industrial losses decades ago. [“Bail out Studebaker” was a popular bumper sticker here four or five years ago.]
    • If you feel like checking out the city’s new data site, I’d be really interested in hearing what you notice and what ideas you have for making the most of it. Thanks for maybe taking a look.
  • My rattlesnake
    • [audio] There in a patch of woods in the bottom of a Colorado canyon our encounter with rattlesnakes began with screaming. The teenage family member who was leading the hike didn’t notice the rattlers until she was right among them; as she took off screaming down the path, she saw one strike at her bare leg and miss. Some distance behind on the trail, I heard her loud voice moving very fast through the woods. Wide awake now, her brother saw four snakes, and he and his two cousins backed off. The parents and grandparents called out and were answered and now we knew that for eight of the nine of us, a cluster of rattlesnakes blocked the path out of the canyon.
    • Grandpa Tom had a walking stick and he forged ahead toward the snakes–I felt like I was seeing my father-in-law as the young Marine he was 60 years ago. One snake stood its ground directly on the path, and Tom began herding it to the side with his stick and reprimanding it as you would a naughty dog. “Get out of here, get out of here,” he said. Another rattler slid maybe four feet from the path and turned in its coil and gave me its full attention. I returned the courtesy. Its body was graceful loops of solid muscle, and the wedge of its head was keen and threatening. The front third of the creature hovered above the ground tense and springlike, ready to explode, and its tail began to shake. A stupid part of my brain said quietly, “Wow, it really is a rattle.” The dry shivering rattle blurred into a hiss that echoed off the leaves of the trees and grasses until all I could hear was its song of anger and venom. My snake was going nowhere. It had room in its sleek ugly head for only one evil thought.
    • Up ahead Tom had cleared aside the larger snake. It seemed logical that they couldn’t strike more than a yard away, so we began to move through. Still the leaves echoed with rattling and a person had to gather a little fortitude to step down that path. I didn’t realize until later that the last of our hiking group never saw the snakes. They must have thought we were out of our minds to urge them to come forward into the rattling grove. I don’t know what I would have done had I been in their shoes.
    • Back at the cars we shared what we had seen. My nephew mentioned four snakes. My father-in-law, still a Marine when he needed to be, herding rattlers with a walking stick, said that they could only strike about half their body length, so he understood with some precision the danger zone. But if Sgt. Joe Friday of the cop show Dragnet had asked for “Just the facts, Ma’m,” he would have gotten different stories out of every one of us. Most of us saw only half the snakes. One family member saw a snake by her leg and backed away, another was warned and backed away from a snake he never saw. The nine of us had all attended the same rattlesnake convention but each had a different experience. I felt as though we walk down life’s path guided by half-knowledge and foggy misperception, most of us armed only with two fingers crossed behind our back.
    • Driving back toward the city, I noticed a bear making its way across a field. It seemed completely unthreatened by the humans passing in their cars. I decided not to pull over to take a closer look.
    • Recorded for broadcast Friday, August 23 on 88.1 WVPE, the NPR affiliate for the South Bend and Elkhart, Indiana region.

August 21

  • Knowledge, attitudes, skills
    • A few years ago I heard a talk about success in college, and the speaker said a person needs a whole package of knowledge, attitudes, and skills to have a good chance there. The trio of terms has stayed with me: knowledge is not enough by itself, but we have to orient ourselves in positive ways toward the world, so attitudes as well, and we have to build up the skills that move knowledge and right attitudes productively into action in our lives. All three are essential: when thinking about change, or personal success, or group action and success–these are all easier to think clearly about if we look at all three aspects. Knowledge, attitudes, skills. Good talk, whoever you were.

August 20

  • A post-Berners-Lee major in English
    • Yesterday I wrote my way through to this point about the networks that have to be in place for a person’s public writing to matter in the world:
      • Messages are easy, easier than ever, but they go nowhere, they are useless, if the network has not been prepared. That network is a piece of open technology and a web of people already aligned with each other and inside each one of them the knowledge, attitude, and skills needed to pitch in.
    • I also posted this on Twitter:
      • Despite revolutionary new literacies the major in English is untouched by change. Profs, you have tenure, dream up something to astound us!*
    • So what would a new English major look like, if one of its main goals was to connect students skillfully and thoughtfully with literacy in an age of astonishing literacy developments? And how would yesterday’s idea about the nature of communication networks be reflected there?
    • What technology would you want students to learn? What people-connecting, people-organizing skills? What knowledge about how the world works, what attitudes toward problem-solving and citizenship, what reading and writing skills?
    • Would the study of literature enrich these questions and be enriched by them?
    • And so forth.
    • There are enough good questions out on the table, aren’t there, to start imagining a new major in English for our time?
    • *I confess: that was a little mischievous of me, to put it that way, since I am an English professor.

August 19

  • Semaphore for 2013
    • For a while now I’ve had an odd feeling that semaphore still had something to tell us. You know, before there were telegraph lines, and a coup was underway in the capital city and this bit of menacing news really needed to get out to good people in the provinces in a hurry. No problem, just use some version or another of semaphore. Lights flashed from hilltop to hilltop would do the trick nicely.
    • If the code has been prepared. If the hilltop stations were created in advance of the emergency. If they were staffed by loyalists. If the staff had good technical training. If the people in the provinces understood the importance of the message. If they saw ways to respond. And so forth.
    • Here is the post-Berners-Lee, post-Snowden takeaway:
    • Messages are easy, easier than ever, but they go nowhere, they are useless, if the network has not been prepared. That network is a piece of open technology and a web of people already aligned with each other and inside each one of them the knowledge, attitude, and skills needed to pitch in. That’s the message I’m getting from semaphore today.
  • Teaching via Twitter
    • For a writing teacher, Twitter has one or two real advantages. Young writers tend to think that whatever words that flow out of them are good enough, but Twitter’s 140 character limit invites them to revise in order to make things fit. The quickest way to make something shorter is to make it general, but a teacher can help writers see how boring that is for readers. So that alerts students to the challenges of earning a real audience of busy human beings. And that leads to the idea that judgment and specificity animate our best writing and can guide revision. And that leads to more daring sentences from writers who are now putting themselves a little further out into the world. An example:
    • I was interested in tweeting about an idea in a video game review by Chris Suellentrop from the NY Times. Here is the source paragraph:
      • What game designers lose in control, however, they gain in player attention. “Anything the player voluntarily engages with is going to make a much bigger impression than something they have no choice but to look at,†Mr. Gaynor said during his lecture.
    • What I cared about here–my own judgment, for my own purposes–was the idea that teachers could benefit from thinking about Gaynor’s insight. I wanted to write a tweet sharing his idea and including a link to the article. But I could see that his sentence was too long to quote. Time to paraphrase, then. And I wanted to alert any teachers who were reading my Twitter stream that this tweet was for them. I began this way:
      • Teachers, a clue from gaming:
    • And I reread the quotation from Gaynor in order to select the important ideas. Something about the things a player chooses to engage having a bigger impact than things the game chooses for the gamer. A teacher should see the value in that idea.
    • Notice the repeated words in my quick paraphrase–to me, this means that it can be made shorter somehow. Repeated phrases can be elegant and memorable, but they are often just wordy and lazy, so I assumed the worst about my rough paraphrase.
    • And I notice that my paraphrase is about the things chosen, not about the players who choose. That’s not the right emphasis. I’m trying to claim a small insight about how learning works here, so the focus should be on the players who engage, not on the things they engage with. I understand my point better now as I revise.
    • I build a different paraphrase into my draft tweet:
      • Teachers, a clue from gaming: Players engage more with things they have chosen for themselves.
    • That’s still paying too much attention to the things and not to the players. Trying again:
      • Teachers, a clue from gaming: Players engage more deeply when they get to choose what to engage.
    • Fine tuning now–no need to sound like a telegram even on Twitter. Make the phrases fuller, more natural:
      • For teachers, a clue from gaming: Players engage more deeply when they get to choose what to engage. [Plus the link.]
    • Because it’s writing, not math, there isn’t a single right answer, a single best version of a tweet, but this process is an example of the way Twitter can help writing students pay attention to specificity, to attracting a particular audience by offering something that might matter to them, and to brevity that doesn’t default to generality.

August 18

  • NPR’s local ties
    • I keep hearing that the bonds between NPR and the regional stations must evolve, and today I see that npr.org guesses that WVPE is my regional station–correct–and places a big WVPE logo and link on prime top-of-the-page real estate right next to the NPR logo on the network’s home page. I guess this means that a regional station is going to need to have a website worth return visits. And that has to mean more than just syndicating national shows–it must mean regional news, say, or music, or political talk, with an emphasis on regional. It means that the regional stations are probably going to be under some pressure to publish as well as broadcast. There may be new opportunities for community media production partnerships. It should be interesting.
  • Democracy depends on crisis
    • I took a surprising course in college from Professor Fordyce Mitchel. It was about the development of Athenian democracy. The thing that surprised me at the time from that course, which was probably in the fall semester of 1978, was Dr. Mitchel’s proposal that a good number of the steps forward for ancient Athenian democracy came as reactions to power grabs. Some group or leader would see an opportunity to narrow the rights of citizens or extend the power of the few at the top, and in reaction to that, after some struggle, rights would be asserted more clearly, more broadly, and institutional structures and protections would be established or extended or made more explicit. Democracy grew not because people sat in a grove theorizing about it and admiring it but because crisis by crisis people saw that it was better than slow-or-fast-encroaching tyranny and that it had to be struggled for and extended and built explicitly into the social order by people who gave a damn and had some skills. In that sense, citizens always have their work cut out for them if they care about democracy. In Professor Mitchel’s class I first began to see that admiration for voting is not a good enough understanding of democracy, important as voting is.

August 17

  • Tags and keyword search
    • This is rudimentary. [See Theron’s nicer version.] It’s a script that inserts the Font Awesome search icon plus Tag: mytagword on a new line indented just below the title of a blog post in a named Fargo outline.
    • It also makes Tag: mytagword clickable, and if you click it a Google search page opens up with mytagword already entered. Also already entered is the site: myname.smallpict.com search restriction.
    • If you click “search” there on the Google page, you get not only any blog posts that contain Tag: mytagword but also any blog posts that contain mytagword in the body of the text. If the word itself has multiple forms, like write/writer, Google will find both versions.
    • In the example script, I used write as my tag word and the URL of my named outline. Replace write with your own tag word in two places and replace my URL with yours. Here is a test post with the feature in service.
    • So this is a hybrid tag and keyword search. Maybe you set up four or five of these for your blog’s main obsessions, as an aid to readers who are into what you are into. If Google hasn’t indexed your newest posts for a few days, then of course those won’t show up in the search.

August 16

  • Just do it, democracy-style
    • In Fahrenheit 451, a number of people decide that a particular social good will not survive unless they themselves undertake to preserve it. [In this case, literature.] The society’s institutions were corrupt and books would not endure otherwise. [So people take to memorizing great books in a society that burns them.]
    • Maybe there are two principles in that episode: Something may look like a democracy and quack like a democracy but that doesn’t mean it’s much of a democracy. [After all, democracies don’t quack.] And if the institutions aren’t working, the people have to get to work. And maybe a third: Murphy’s law suggests that the people had better count on getting to work. There should be a chapter in the high school civics book that explains that democracies are always being stolen away, brick by brick, and for them to endure citizens must always be about the business of defending them.
      • Have most Americans read that chapter? I guess not. I suspect that it’s hard to find a copy of that chapter, anyway.
    • Fans of Jay Rosen’s work on Edward Snowden will have no trouble connecting these brief thoughts to his post about “Fourth Estate situations“–where it is not the social structure or the job title that qualifies a person to act as the best journalists act, bringing truth into the light. It’s the will to speak to the nation, as he argues there.

August 15

  • Turning aside from the news
    • A private club
    • After I learned
    • the secret handshake
    • of the Partners in Misery,
    • I saw it everywhere.
    • Somedays this poem seems about right. I wrote it long ago, after seeing Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the remake, especially recalling the scenes when the good guys couldn’t see what the audience was seeing, which was the passing of alien seed packages from hand to hand throughout the city.

August 14

  • Spot the space station
    • NASA has a handy SpotTheStation website for space station fans–enter your country, state, city and NASA returns with a calendar of times when you have a good chance to see it pass among the fixed stars. You’ll get the dates and times, the point of the compass where you should start looking, and the length of time the station will be passing by. All you need apart from that is a cloud-dispersing ray gun and you’re set. It reminds me of checking the newspaper for the times we could see Echo 1 pass over St. Louis when I was a kid.

August 13

  • Negativity meter
    • Gonna get rich with my new invention, a meter that monitors the chat at a meeting, counts the words that are negative or positive in attitude, and registers the spirit of the group on a big old dial. It will look like a device you’d see in a mad scientist lab in a black-and-white movie, a heavy dark Bakelite case and a dimly lit dial with just one needle swinging back and forth between the word NO on the left and the word YES on the right. Stay too long in the red zone at the left of the dial and a cheap-sounding electric buzzer rattles the room for a moment or two. The deluxe version would give a clattering teletype printout at the end of the meeting ranking the participants by their negativity and positivity. Of course some people would be proud to be at the negative end of that list, the sad bums.

August 12

  • Snowden’s victory
    • Jay Rosen has been tracking the results of Edward Snowden’s rebellion against the surveillance state for weeks now in blog posts and tweets. In a recent posting, Rosen draws up into view a quotation in which Snowden talked about his hope of winning this battle and inspiring others to stand up when circumstances require it.
    • Snowden’s remark about winning implies that we now know a modest amount about how small voices can sometimes stand a chance in the big fights. If he’s right, it’s time to start writing the user’s manual. But it’s not a manual for a person–it’s for webs of individuals and groups that find common ground in protecting and reshaping their democracy.
    • There’d need to be a chapter for educators, and another for journalists, and another for active citizens, and another about all the ways that elections, though essential, are simply not enough for healthy democracy. And so forth.
  • Valuable testaments
    • “By and large, you have to believe people’s stories,” says David Hilfiker, who blogs about the unfolding of his own Alzheimer’s disease but also draws on the insights of his service work with impoverished people. Doing this work, he saw the lack of direct experience, the layers of ignorance and myth, that prevented more fortunate people from understanding the experience of others.
    • An ethic emerges from his service: “One of the things I’ve learned is that you have to listen to them.” No wonder, then, that he chooses to blog as long as he can and that he values the “testaments” of other Alzheimer’s patients who do the same. People are not needy; they need to be heard.
    • People’s chances for a better life are bound up in their chances to speak and be heard, to write and be read, to break down the ignorance and distance of the comfortable who go about their business not having to know much about the lives of others.

August 11

  • Not having to know
    • I met a brave firefighter once who risked his life to rescue a small child who fell down a narrow well. This man, who grew up in in South Bend, was invited onto the Oprah Winfrey show after the rescue. But many public servants perform their work almost in private, and we acknowledge them only occasionally and often from a safe distance. I don’t know any of the miners who risk their lives to provide coal for our foundries and power plants. For that matter, I don’t know the name of anyone who digs foxholes or picks coffee beans or packs bunches of bananas into crates or sews leather uppers to the soles of shoes or picks up trash at the curb. Sometimes I wonder if this is the central, the most ambivalent middle class luxury – not having to know.

August 10

  • Blog-to-book interviews
    • It would be a service, I think, to gather some success stories showing the process of turning long-running blogs into books or ebooks. You’d want to ask about the process the particular writer went through, how much material went from blog to book more or less unchanged, how much was substantially revised, how much was new. You’d want to talk about how to organize a large body of content when some of it was produced piecemeal, without organization, possibly before the book was even dreamed of. Maybe there would be insights to glean about what blogs do really well and how that overlaps, or not, with what books do well. But down deep you’d want practical, practical, practical–how to carry it off. I have one writer in mind who might agree to an interview. You might be able to think of others.

August 9

  • Always
    • No person in any customer service role of any kind should ever begin a sentence with “To tell you the truth….”
    • It is always a mistake.
    • See also: “To be honest with you…”

August 8

  • Havel outline
    • It takes hours to start to wrap one’s brain around “The Power of the Powerless,” a crucial essay about democracy by Vaclav Havel written before he helped bring down the communist government in his homeland. But I wrote a summary in outline form, which I pass on now in case it is of use to others.

August 7

  • Money quote
    • “My dream is that really smart people with all kinds of ways of looking at the world find that their work is relevant to each other’s and that you have a collaborative environment where meaning is given to those intersections and they benefit from each other.” (Dave Winer, 8/7/13 podcast, starting at 11:10)

August 6

  • Democracy’s edge
    • In a book by that name, Frances Moore Lappé contrasted “thin democracy,” which is little more than a structure of government, with “living democracy,” which is a web of cultural patterns and habits of engagement that surround, support, and challenge the bare structure of government. For example, experts and elected officials run the economy and the government, but Lappé says they can’t do their best without us:
      • The market and government can only function to create strong, healthy communities if guided by the insights and engagement of citizens closest to the problems. Citizens share responsibility for public problem solving. (319)
    • And if the citizens lean toward silence and private life, then what surrounds, supports, and challenges government is special interests.
    • So the model of citizenship most of us follow today is literally fatal to democracy. Educators need to counter that model; journalists need to recover their adversary mission and challenge us; technologists need to keep inventing tools that help us publish and affiliate and demonstrate. We need to cast off the consumerist private life and recover the pleasures of working on our democracy, which is, after all, not a thing but a process.
    • Democracy can’t stand still. It’s either being worked on or it’s fading away.
  • del Taco report
    • A few weeks ago I stopped by a newish franchise in our town, del Taco. The food looked interesting, and the dining room was shiny clean. It was a little past the dinner hour so the place was kind of empty. I chose a table near the center of the room and settled down. A news show was ending on the big flat-screen TV facing the dining room, and one of those familiar, angry-toned talk shows was beginning. I felt the tension in the air, the very thing the talk show was going for, and I could see that the pleasure of trying a new food joint was evaporating. Thanks, angry American television.
    • When I got home, I checked out the corporate website. At the Contact page they invited feedback, so I sent them a note about the TV spoiling the experience. The web page indicated that I would hear back in 48 hours, but I never did. Today I visited the site again and asked about their silence. We’ll see if they reply. We’ll see if I go back. Besides, the TV is probably still blaring there.
    • On the other hand, I recently gave some feedback to a small business owner whose tech product I use nearly every day, and when I visited his website today I could see that my suggestion had been given some real thought. I felt respected even though I am not an expert in the field, and my allegiance to the product grows and grows, both because of the interesting product and because of the way users are treated. It produces a great feeling, sets a fine example, and makes life a little better.

August 5

  • Notes for a course description or an essay on literacy
    • Definitions that strip away context make us stupid. Literacy, out of context, is the ability to read and write. In more fortunate circles, the ability is unremarkable and its meaning is a matter of common sense, something agreed upon and obvious. And in this way we begin to take the world for granted, and we lose the ability to think about what we experience.
    • In context, in a particular life or segment of society, that changes. Literacy grows urgent and powerful in particular ways, and its natures are manifold and fascinating. As we move toward specific lives and experiences, literacy sheds bad definitions and muscles its way past dopey common sense and becomes itself. A poor question is this: What is literacy? A better one is this: What is literacy in this place, for these people?
    • In this course we will try to put the first question out of our minds and proceed with the second. We will look at a variety of lives and social contexts and see how far we can take our understanding of this rich subject.
  • Damage control report
    • A few hours ago I couldn’t open Fargo in Chrome or Safari any longer–it would show me the pre-login stuff but never drop my name into the upper right or add the icons on the left. My first guess was that tinkering with an old copy of TiddlyWiki on the same browser had messed things up–it too operates in the browser, I believe, but I didn’t imagine the conflict until later. Anyway, that’s my guess. When I tried to open my published pages, I started getting error codes that said something like tag opml incomplete line 2. I know, I should have written it down exactly.
    • I tried restarting the computer. I tried emptying browser caches. I picked up a new browser and then another. I logged into Fargo via another Dropbox account, finally, in one of those browsers, and it did operate. I inspected the opml files from the original Dropbox account in that handy OPML software from deep in Dave’s site and saw that the named outline was full of code and looked kind of like RSS but the other outlines were just outlines. So I guessed that the named outline was corrupted. I was able to load a backup copy of the named outline from Dropbox into the OPML editor and see that it was not wrapped in code but looked like a regular outline.
    • So I guessed that a backup copy from earlier in the day of the named outline might load, and I tried it, and it did. Fargo opened again and all the files were there, all the tabs, all the scripts, etc. Current theory: somehow the named outline became corrupt, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it had to do with tinkering with TiddlyWiki while Fargo with sitting in another tab. Something like that. Browser memory wars?
    • My impression: the Dropbox backup is strong, with so many copies on hand to use if needed. From a position of ignorance I will guess that there is a danger if two apps that play in the browser memory are in the room at once. Or maybe if the two apps both use Java? I don’t know, but in trying to be a good citizen I report the afternoon’s festivities! It’s good to be home safe.
  • Cairns
    • In the mountains, when the trail grows faint, hikers sometimes set up cairns for those who follow–stacks of rocks, small rough pyramids that mark the path, guides where a guide can make a powerful difference, generous little messages that matter. I see this same generosity and care on the web, too, even though the web’s PR often overlooks that profound part of its nature.

August 4

  • More ideas about breaking the space-time link of blogging & RSS
    • Earlier today I thought, very possibly incorrectly, that Fargo’s isFeedItem attribute already enabled or might someday enable a writer to compose new parts of an article or book chapter in a non-calendar section of outline that was instantly offered to readers for feedback in the RSS feed. It seemed like a masterpiece and for a time this morning I was sure we were already there. (Now I can’t tell.)
    • What’s the big deal, you ask? It’s mind-numbing to reshape a time-sequence of blog entries by hand into an idea-sequence of chapter paragraphs, and if isFeedItem + RSS can’t readily achieve the idea-based organization of a chapter or book draft along with the time-based organization of a blog feed, then this powerful twin act of organizing might be accomplished in other ways.
    • To summarize more plainly: you want to post once but have the new content take its place accurately among the other ideas as well as its correct place in RSS and on the calendar pages. Now you have to do hand-reorganizing to make that happen, I think.
    • Other possible approaches:
    • 1. Redirect. This would be, I think, carried out by hand by the writer, who would post a new section of the article or chapter, then copy it into the blog/rss stream where it could receive feedback. I’d love to avoid this kind of double-entry work and I imagine there is a way around it.
    • 2. A script. Perhaps a script could copy a new section of outline from its place in the article or chapter directly into the blog/rss section of the named outline, where again it could be improved by the feedback of readers. Or vice versa: compose in the calendar section, scripted over to the chapter/article section?
    • 3. Or maybe, as I imagined earlier today, isFeedItem can draw non-calendar article/chapter sections into the blog/RSS stream for feedback automatically.
    • It seems like we are on the verge of breaking the space-time link for serial web publications and making easy idea-based organization simultaneous with time-based organization.
  • Five T/F questions about our failing democracy
    • Please read this brief slide show playfully or maybe give it a pass–thanks.
  • Why I care about isFeedItem’s range
    • Earlier I asked: How does isFeedItem work outside the calendar? Or does it?
    • I wanted to understand how or if the isFeedItem attribute works on posts that are not in the chronological stream of the Fargo calendar. I posted something as a test and promised to report back. As far as I can tell, the presentation I posted, including the isFeedItem attribute, did not join my RSS feed.
    • And here is the question I was trying to answer: if non-calendar posts can appear in the main RSS feed or perhaps be in a folder-like outline area that has its own feed, then RSS would become involved in a break from chronology, potentially, and you could write a book or article that would have an RSS feed for the segments in development (I am guessing).
    • I believe this would be a huge change for web writers who know the power of serial publication (blog, Twitter, etc.) but want to write idea-structured material (articles, books). Instead of time-intensively editing a blog into a book chapter, a writer could write the chapter and also engage readers serially via RSS.
    • If isFeedItem=true works, or could work, outside the calendar structure of Fargo, then the idea-based structure could come first and the time-based serial publication could flow instantly from it, via RSS. If this is true, then Fargo would have broken the space-time continuum that leads to great blog content sliding down the screen into the archive where it almost always dies a sad, peaceful death.
    • Working on hunches here, prepared to be wrong. The code may simply not allow it. But the possibility is breath-taking and mind-bending.
  • How does isFeedItem work outside the calendar?
    • This post is updated here.
    • Suddenly I need to understand how or if the isFeedItem attribute works on posts that are not in the chronological stream of the Fargo calendar. I will post something as a test and report back.

August 3

  • Reverse graffiti
    • Political prisoners in South Africa’s apartheid-era Robben Island prison signed their names next to passages in a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare. Many years into his sentence, Nelson Mandela signed next to these lines from Julius Caesar:
      • Cowards die many times before their deaths,
      • The valiant never taste of death but once.
      • Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
      • It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
      • Seeing that death, a necessary end,
      • Will come when it will come. (II.ii.32-37)
    • It’s a kind of reverse graffiti. Instead of making your mark on the world by putting a slogan on a blank wall, these prisoners put their mark next to an eloquent, already-existing text, signing it as in some way their own. It’s an example of something that is probably always going on, sometimes subversively: revoicing, which we might say is claiming a new tone or context for an old text.
    • A fictional example of this might be in The Hunger Games, when Katniss mourns the fallen Rue and then salutes the people of Rue’s district who she knows must be watching on the public video screens. The ordinary gesture has compounded its meaning in this context, letting the spectators know that one person shares their loss even though the political order effectively silences them all. This allows the spectators to acknowledge their own emotions and express their rage by rioting. Writing, speech, even a gesture, grows richer as the inventive person recasts old signs into new messages of solidarity and resistance. Something like that, anyway.

August 2

  • News box
    • Sure, I get “It’s even worse than it appears.” But that’s not the mood I’m in when I’m using the software. I suggest dropping something like this into the news box rotation:
      • Cool and getting cooler.

August 1

  • A citizen’s toolkit
    • Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian spent a couple of hours recently answering questions on Reddit. One person asked how to get into journalism these days, and Rusbridger said:
      • Main thing is to publish. Blog, tweet, write, photograph, tweet, video, code, play around with data – or a combination of all of the above. a) it will keep your journalistic ‘muscle’ in practice. b) if you’re any good, you’ll get noticed.
      • And bear in mind you can do these things at other places than conventional news organisations. Many businesses, NGOs, arts organisations, public bodies, universities, etc are now publishers of extremely high quality stuff. Good places to practise your craft before moving on…
    • I’m guessing that he would give a similar answer–not identical, though–if someone asked how to be an effective active citizen. The basic skills or toolkit covers a good bit of the same territory, I think.
      • [Not that most young people are trained for this full toolkit and taught its role in active citizenship, as far as I can tell. It wouldn’t be a bad research question for a certain kind of college course: What is the full toolkit for contemporary active citizenship?]
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