Monday, November 17, 2014

Writing tip: Break complex ideas into manageable chunks

Photo: Building Blocks by Myfear on Flickr. Creative Commons licence.
Periodically, my university student sons ask for writing advice for their assignments. Most recently, the elder asked for another word for "prelude" or "precursor."

What the Blond Raven wanted to do was describe how Algeria's experience in the 1990s, when a number of religious groups rebelled against the military government, was similar to the situation today in Syria.

"Why not just say that?" I asked.

"That's not ... fancy enough for a university paper," he said.

"All right," I said, realizing that the situation screamed for improvisation. "Preface your paper with this:
In defiance of the tacit pretentious approach to expression accepted in scholarly journals, henceforth this paper shall be written in style that all readers with an education beyond the sixth grade can understand.

Why is it that academic writing is purposely dense? Incomprehensible? Why does every sentence have to be dissected and reassembled to be taken seriously?

In other words, why can't academic papers attain the same standards of other forms of communication—why can't they be written in clear language?

Or to put it more plainly: why don't academics use clear writing?

How about this one:

As a result of these intermeshing trends, strengthening states through statebuilding programmes has come to be regarded by major donors as a central response to violent conflict and insecurity and a core element of peacebuilding programmes (and of development assistance). In the post-colonial states of the Global South, external peacebuilding operations are often faced  
[Sorry, my fingers got tired there.] 
not only with responding to the effects of vioent institutions coexising with other logics of authority, power, and order (ethnic, tribal, religious, criminal etc.). 
(Source: Tarya Vayrynen, "Gender and Peacebuilding," in Oliver P. RIchmond's Palgrave advances in peacebuilding,University of St. Andrews, UK: Macmillan Palgrave, 2010).

Before you read it again, tell me: what was the beginning of the paragraph about?

How about this winner from an article on nationalism: 
For present purposes, the two relevant cultural systems are the religious community and the dynastic realm. For both of these, in their heydays, were taken-for-granted frames of reverence, very much as nationality is today. It is therefore essential to consider what gave these cultural systems their self-evident plausibility, and at the same time to underline certain key elements in their decomposition.
These two examples could so easily be written more clearly. I have always belived that the audience should be able to understand a text after reading it the first time. But if you cannot remember the beginning of the paragraph byt the time you get to the end, the writing fails. If you get lost in the maze of loosely connected clauses, it means the writer has not followed the first rule of writing: know your audience.

Academic writing often runs into the problem of trying to cram too many ideas into one sentence. Broadely speaking, the job of the researcher is to find patterns and connections between facts and phenomenal. When they find connections and correlations, it's tempting to try to fit them all together in one sentence. The researcher gets excited: "Look how these ideas are connected! It makes so much sense, and together, they mean this!"

We've all been there.

Stop. Breathe in through your nose, and blow out through your mouth. There. Now, you're relaxed.

It's not easy, but the solution is to think through, very carefully, what you're trying to say. Break it down into single sentences and the just write the connections in order, as simply as you can. 

Sometimes, we need to express complex ideas. Sometimes, the connections among causes and effects are complicated. The solution is like project management: break the big, complicated mess up into smaller, manageable chunks. Deal with each one in turn, then move on to the next idea.

Like this: 
The two cultural systems relevant today can be called the religious community and the dynastic realm. Each of these systems dominated different societies at different times in history. Where they did, the people in the societies they dominated took them for granted, in the same way people today take nationality for granted as a basis for states today. What gave these other cultural systems their plausibility? What were the key elements that unravelled them?
The Blond Raven is right. This is far too simple, too clear, for today's scholarly journals. Why, if everyone could understand these articles, why should they bother with expensive post-secondary education?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On Remembrance Day, in honour of all who served: Chapter 1, free

Today, November 11, 2014, is Remembrance Day in Canada, Veterans' Day in the US, Armistice Day in the UK. It's a day recognized under many names in countries around the world, marking the end of the First World War, called the "defining calamity of the 20th century."

That calamity, which took millions of lives and changed the perception of war, began 100 years ago.

In honour of all who served, I offer the first chapter of Army of Worn Soles, the true story of a Canadian drafted into the Soviet Red Army just in time to face Nazi Germany's invasion in 1941.

Chapter 1: Prisoner of War

Kharkiv, October 1941

Maurice put the bottle on the ground beside him and took off his uniform shirt. He spread it on the smoothest piece of ground he could find, then laid the bottle near the officer’s insignia on the collar and pushed down. He rolled the bottle over tattered, light-brown material until the lice cracked under the glass. Back and forth, twice, three times. He felt a dull satisfaction at his first pathetic victory in more than half a year.

The effort was exhausting. His stomach ached and his throat burned with thirst.
He slumped back until he leaned against the barracks. Men in grey uniforms stood or walked across the cobbled courtyard of the ancient castle. One came toward him, a slim man with light brown hair and hazel eyes. He stopped in front of Maurice and leaned down.

“Maurice? Is it you?”

Breathing required effort. So did looking up. Maurice had not eaten in days, but he still trusted his sight. He knew the man with the light-brown hair and hazel eyes, even in a Wehrmacht uniform. 

“Maurice?" the young man said again. "What are you doing here?”

He couldn’t swallow. His mouth held no moisture. “Dying. I’m starving to death.” Maurice closed his eyes and hung his head.

Bohdan crouched beside him. “You got drafted?”

Maurice made the effort to look up at his old friend. “The Red Army made me a lieutenant. What the hell are you doing here, and in a German uniform, Bohdan?”

“The Germans kicked the Russians out, something we couldn’t do. Why shouldn’t I join the winning side? And it's ‘Daniel’ now, not Bohdan.” He looked around to make sure no one noticed him, a Wehrmacht officer, talking to a prisoner of war. “I’m glad you survived, that you were captured instead of killed. The Germans killed a lot of Red soldiers.”

“I know. I was there.”

Bohdan looked around again. "How did you get here?”

“Like you said, we were captured, the whole army, outside Kharkiv. They brought us here.”

Bohdan shook his head. “Are you all right? I’ll see if I can bring you anything, but I have to be careful.”

Maurice looked into his friend’s eyes. “Get me out of here.”

“Set a prisoner free? Are you crazy?”

“Bohdan—sorry, Daniel, you’re my best friend. Or you were. If I ever meant anything to you, get me out.”

Daniel—Bohdan, looked left and right again. “I cannot let Red soldiers go,” he whispered.

Maurice took a dry breath. His strength was almost gone. “You’re an officer in a victorious army. You have the power. You can get me out, me and my boys.
Daniel shook his head and stood. “Stalin's going to surrender within six months, and then all the prisoners will be freed. Hitler has promised freedom for all nations. We’ll all be free. Ukraine will be free.”

Maurice looked at the ground between his splayed legs. He could no longer lift his head. “I can’t wait six months. I can’t wait two days. If you wait, you’ll find a corpse. We’ll all be dead. You have to get us out now.”

Daniel hesitated. He looked around the camp again, but no one paid attention. “So the Reds made you an officer, did they? Where are your men? All dead?”
Somewhere, Maurice found the strength to stand up again. He staggered to the barracks door, went in and called his odalenye, the unit he commanded. “Step over here, boys.”

Daniel followed Maurice inside, and Maurice wondered if Daniel wasn’t breaking some regulation by entering prisoners’ quarters unaccompanied by at least one guard.

Daniel scanned the room, taking in the defeated, injured and starving men. No one threatened him. They did not even move. Maurice realized when they saw Daniel, they saw their captor.

Daniel stepped out of the barracks and waited outside the door. “I’ll see what I can do, Maurice. But you’re on the wrong fucking side.”

Maurice picked up the bottle and returned to crushing the lice out of his uniform shirt. It was the only thing he could do to reduce his misery.

He thought about the last time he had seen Bohdan, before he became Daniel.

It was in the gymnasium, the pre-university school in Peremyshl. What used to be Poland. What a long, strange, twisted path my life has followed. 


For more from Army of Worn Soles, click the cover image at the top of this blog.

Visit the Worn Soles page on Facebook.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Deadly Company - a spooky tale that reveals an author's darker side

By Rosa Storm

What does choosing your own name say about you? What about when the chosen name is a mirror of the given name?

One of my favourite indie authors is Cinta Garcia de la Rosa, who wrote The Funny Adventures of LittleNani for children. She has a distinct voice and style, and a sense of humour that bubbles through the text. She’s not afraid to break through the “fourth wall,” engaging directly and very effectively with the audience. No matter what the subject, when you read Cinta, you see that she is enjoying the art of writing.

Now she has turned to a subject very different from children’s stories, under the name Rosa Storm. Does moving her second surname to the front signify that she is bringing some suppressed characteristic to the fore?

And Storm: storms can be dark times. Rosa Storm’s newest story, Deadly Company, is dark indeed. And very bloody. As Rosa Storm, Cinta Garcia may be letting someone dangerous out to play.

Deadly Company is based on the Spanish Galician (as opposed to the Polish Galician) legend of La Santa Campaña, the Holy Company also known as “the night ones.” The legends tells of a procession of dead spirits wearing hoods and carrying candles, led by a living person dressed in a hood and carrying a cross and a cauldron of holy water. Their appearance means someone nearby is close to death.

The person leading the procession can only be freed from this duty if he or she finds some other living person to take over.

Deadly Company follows a well-worn path in reinvigorating an old legend like this, involving teenagers, graveyards and spooky woods. But what sets this story apart are Storm’s vivid descriptions, her realistic characterization and that irrepressible sense of humour. This writer understands children and young people, and I cannot help but think she must have a vivacious presence in person. Yes, even though this is a spooky and gory story, there are laughs as she describes her characters’ motivations and reactions. Little details, like an errant tuna sandwich and the way the characters interrupt a story-teller—breaking the fourth wall within the story—bring the story to life.

Deadly Company reveals two very different sides of this writer’s personality. But most important, it’s a story that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until the last word.

4* (a few minor editing errors)

DEADLY COMPANYBased on the Spanish legend of La Santa Compaña (The Holy Company), this story talks about the unknown and unexplainable things that go bump in the night. When a group of teenagers decide to spend some time in their hometown's graveyard, they didn't know they were going to learn about one of the darkest periods in the history of their town. The souls of the dead, hooded figures, and weird deaths combine in this chilling story of ancient legends and facts.
Visit Rosa Storm's 

Monday, November 03, 2014

Two exciting new books from independent authors

I am excited that two good author friends and iAi colleagues have just released new books, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar and Roger Eschbacher.

First, Roger Eschbacher has published Undrastormur, a children’s book about a young Viking named Eirik.

Here is the blurb:

 Eirik has a problem. A lot of problems, actually. While out gathering mushrooms, his small Norse village was overrun by nasty trolls with a taste for human flesh. Now Eirik, the last surviving descendant of Drengur Darkbeard, a powerful Viking galdrakarl or wizard, must undertake a perilous journey to find the missing half of Drengur's iron staff. Only then can he save his neighbors by calling down the undrastormur, a violent and powerful gift from Thor, the god of thunder.

Find it on Amazon

This is Roger’s third independently published book, following Dragonfriend (Leonard the Great, Book 1) and its sequel, Giantkiller. He has also written two other children’s books, Road Trip and Nonsense! He Yelled.

Visit his blog

Next, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar has released The Opposite of Hate.

During the 1960s and 70s, more bombs were dropped on a landlocked part of Southeast Asia than in any other war — and it wasn’t Vietnam. The turbulent history of the Land of a Thousand Elephants, the Kingdom of Laos, is the backdrop for this family saga, told as a historical novel. The Opposite Of Hate opens a window onto a forgotten corner of Southeast Asia and brings little known history to life through vivid characters and settings which explore the cultural heritage of Lao history.
The Opposite Of Hate explores the intersections of family, loyalty, and nationalism as Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is being taken over by Communists. The political instability drives Seng, a widowed engineer, to marry his best friend’s teenage daughter, Neela, so they can escape re-education or even worse, death. The unlikely husband and wife cross the Mekong River into Thailand as strangers.
Life in the refugee camp brings surprises along with the grime. As they struggle for survival, romances blossoms into an unplanned pregnancy. Seng and Neela get their wish of immigrating to the United States. Succeeding in suburbia, however, presents another unique set of challenges, ones that are not black and white.This is a tale of intermingled violence, love and ambition.Seng and Neela embody the historic cultural struggle of thousands who fled the threats of communism only to face the challenges of democracy.
Find it on Amazon.

Mohana is a member of both Independent Authors International and BestSelling Reads. Her books include The Dohmestics, Love Comes Later, An Unlikely Goddess and From Dunes to DiorIn addition to print titles, she has published five e-books including a mom-ior for first time mothers, Mommy But Still Me, a guide for aspiring writers, So You Want to Sell a Million Copies, a short story collection, Coloured and Other Stories, and a novel about women’s friendships, Saving Peace, which was a semi-finalist in the Literary category of the 2012 Kindle Review of Books.

Visit her website and blog.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Narrative and the necessity to stand up for our rights

by andrianart
I’ve been having an interesting discussion over Facebook with author Robert Bidinotto around the importance of narrative in our society. It all started with a discussion about Ayn Rand. Robert’s contention was that, no matter whether you agree with Rand or not, she changed the popular narrative of her time.

It’s an idea that struck me after the events here in Ottawa on Wednesday.

The first item on the 10:00 am. CBC news was that a soldier had just been shot at the War Memorial. I told others in the office where I work. We were all shocked—it was just a few blocks away. We all thought of the same things: about Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent being killed in a deliberate hit-and-run last Monday, and the supposed ISIS/ISIL message exhorting sympathizers to strike against Canadian civilians for our warplanes being sent to the Middle East.

The human mind is wired to see connections and patterns. It’s an evolutionary advantage. So it’s to be expected that we’d very quickly try to fit the events of last Monday and Wednesday into a pattern—and one already lives in the zeitgeist, the narrative most spectacularly exemplified on 9-11: the industrialized, democratic West is under attack by Islamic terrorists around the world. Now, we have a new idea added to that narrative because of the Islamic State formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: there are supporters embedded in Western societies around the world—even here in uber-peaceful Canada—who will strike unexpectedly, viciously and effectively.

The facts do not support that narrative, however. Just as the facts of our world do not support Rand’s narrative.

The Ottawa shooting does not fit the terrorism narrative.

When I compare these events to other terror attacks, it makes no sense. If it were a terrorist attack, it would have to be, thankfully, a remarkably ineffectual one. One fine man is dead, and that’s a tragedy.

But look at other terrorism attacks in the West since 2001: New York, Madrid, London, which killed dozens or even thousands of people. What good it do anyone to shoot an unarmed soldier standing honour guard? What hope could Bibeau have had to advance any cause by acting alone, if as violently as he did?

But when you look at this through the lens of mental illness, it makes a lot more sense.

As more facts about Michael Zehaf Bibeau emerge, it seems his mental state had a lot more to do with his motivation. He has a history of mental illness and drug abuse. He was homeless and unemployed. He tried to get incarcerated in Vancouver.

A day after the Ottawa attack there was a multiple shooting in a school Washington — not linked to terrorism, ISIS/ISIL or anything else. And none of the analysis of it linked it to terror. Instead, and rightly, in my opinion, the talk orbits the debate over gun control.

Maybe if we look at “home-grown terrorism” from the perspective of mental illness, we can begin to get a handle on how to deal with it. Why don’t we ask these questions:
  • How did Bibeau get a rifle? 
  • Where did he buy it? 
  • What if there were some kind of, I don’t know, a list or a database of long guns so we could track who’s buying and selling them, so that if one is used in a crime, we could work out how the criminal obtained the weapon and then take steps to prevent recurrence. Crazy idea, I know, but still—worth thinking about.

Maybe that’s how we can account for the appeal of an organization like IS/ISIL/ISIS to new converts to Islam in the West: they have personal histories involving isolation, loneliness, mental illness and/or substance abuse. And maybe, just maybe, if we addressed those problems before they manifested as violence, we’d have a less violent world. 

Our government is trying to use the events to advance their own agenda.

The Conservative government lost no time in fitting the attack into their own narrative and using it to advance their own agenda. At 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “Any attack on our soldiers or our institutions by definition is an attack on our country and our values.” And the next day in Parliament, he said “our laws and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention and arrest." (CBC news)

Even Opposition leader Tom Mulcair said the attack was “driven by hatred, and designed to make us hate others.”

Sorry, Tom: there was no evidence of that on Wednesday. Only on Sunday did the investigators mention the existence of a video that supposedly reveals Bibeau's political and ideological motivations. And so far, no one outside the investigation team has seen it.

What there is evidence of is this: the Conservative government wants more power to observe us, and thereby control us. To detect dissent, in other words. To find those of us who diverge from their narrative.

We do need to stand on guard. We need to protect ourselves and our rights. But what we need to guard against is not necessarily found overseas. Often, we find it much closer.

Canadians and thinkers of the world: do not fall for the false narrative. We are all we have to protect our freedom of thought and expression.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Words of the month: bubble and loop

The oil bubble is deflating, but the response among economics, business and political leaders has been to get stuck in a logical loop.

The bubble blows

It seems that everyone needs to be reminded of the definition of bubble regularly, because they seem to deceive everyone, including educated and otherwise successful people and those who really ought to know better.

Here’s the definition according to Oxford: “a situation in which investments, sales, etc. increase rapidly and then collapse.”

How is it that the economic leaders of the world forget that definition, when it happens so often?

How did they forget the 2008 crisis, which followed banking deregulation, the bubble in housing prices and the valuation of asset-backed paper? That’s the nature of a financial bubble: people keep buying at ever higher prices because they assume the price increase will go on forever—or at least, until they can sell at a profit.

And when the bubble bursts, these people are caught, scrambling to sell at plummeting prices. They’re surprised every time. Unfortunately, it was mostly working-class and middle-class people who paid the price of the 2008 crisis. Governments bailed out international banks because they were “too big to fail,” resulting in the biggest transfer of public wealth to the upper classes in history.

Now, it’s happening again with oil. Oil prices have been increasing fairly steadily since 2001, when a barrel of crude was around US$25, to a high of $110 in April 2011. Despite short-term fluctuations that can seem dramatic, they’ve eased to the current level of around US$80. And the economists these days are predicting the price is going to keep falling.
Source: Macrotrends 
So, the bubble burst. Going from the charts, it seems to have burst back in 2011. Funny, though, because I remember paying less for a litre of gasoline then than I did last month. Although I am relieved to see the prices at the pumps falling.

Stuck in the loop

But this blog is about communications, not about economics. The communications lesson to take away here is: remember what bubble means the next time you are tempted to buy into something that’s growing fast.

The smart money people got caught again. Sure, there were economists who predicted falling oil prices a year ago or more. But the bursting of the bubble seems to have knocked their logic into a logical rut and they keep repeating the same logic:

  • High oil prices drove exploration and development of higher-cost sources like the tar sands in Canada and shale oil in the US. Now that these are producing, they’re increasing the world supply of oil. 
  • At the same time, more efficient consumption and the development of alternative sources of energy like solar and wind are reducing demand. As a result, prices are falling. 
  • Falling prices makes those new sources of oil—tar and shale—uneconomical. According to the sources I’ve read, at less than US$80 per barrel, fracking is too expensive to be worth it. Tar sands oil costs between US$50 to $90 per barrel, according to a report in the FinancialPost last year. 
  • With lower prices, companies will take fracking and tar sands production off line. Presumably, that will reduce supply and thus increase price. 
  • Falling prices for oil, like any commodity, are bad for the economy—the lower prices for oil on the world market have cause the stock markets to fall in the past month.
  • Falling prices for all fossil fuels makes alternative energy sources less attractive to energy consumers. We are about to enter a deflationary period with falling prices for all commodities, which is going to hurt the economy—in short, it’s going to be bad for the owners of oil and other companies. 
  • “The world economy depends on fossil fuel extraction and consumption,” goes the logic. With falling prices for fossil fuels comes a falling US dollar, stock markets and just about everything else.

If we try to build a new system without fossil fuels, we will be really starting over, because even today’s “renewables” are part of the fossil fuel system.3 We will have to go back to things that can be made directly from wood and other natural products without large amounts of heat, to have truly renewable resources. (Gail Tverberg, Our Finite World)

What these arguments miss, and the logical element that could knock them out of this repeating loop, is the environmental cost of oil versus other forms of power generation. The environmental and public health impacts of fracking and tar sands production have not yet been fully admitted by government nor industry, and I think even their staunchest opponents don’t know the full cost. 

Time to break out of the loop 

It seems the arguments just keep getting repeated: 

  • Fossil fuels are more efficient, more energy-dense, than wind or solar, which are unreliable.
  • Alternative energy sources would be as efficient if they got as serious development support as fossil fuels do.
    back to 
  • Supplying our energy needs from non-fossil sources would cost too much.
  • Fossil fuel costs are higher than the current price indicates. 

How about moving on by looking at all the facts. A year ago, the Economist magazine called oil "yesterday’s fuel.” 

No matter how you look at it, oil is a finite resource. And wouldn’t we all be healthier without fossil fuel exhaust in the air, water and soil? Wouldn’t we all be better off if we could talk calmly and openly about fossil fuel consumption’s contribution to climate change? 

I hate hearing the same old argument being repeated. It's like listening to your parents have the same fight again. How about this? How about we really consider an alternative to fossil fuels—something that's not poisonous, at least? And then use it as the basis for not only transportation, but our markets, like oil is now. And then move toward it steadily.

At least, talk about that instead of having the same useless argument again.