Monday, December 29, 2014

Writing tip: Anniversary — an annual kind of word

As the year end and new year approach, I thought it was a good time to discuss a year-related word and deal with something that has bothered me for a long time.

The word: anniversary.

What bugs me: the way too many people misuse it, as in “first-year anniversary,” or “ten-year anniversary.”

It bothers me because the word “year” in unnecessary in this usage. According to the Oxford dictionary, “anniversary” means
“the yearly return of a date on which an event took place in a previous year.”
According to some cursory and largely unnecessary research—all literate English speakers should know this—it derives from two Latin words: “Annus” meaning “year” and “versus” meaning “turned.” Thus, an anniversary is the turning of a year.

We can speak (or write) correctly of the first, second, tenth or whateverth anniversary of something. To write the “two-year anniversary” means “the two year yearly return of the date.” It’s redundant.

Worse, I hear this misuse from otherwise reputable and well-spoken sources, particularly on the CBC radio. And you know what that could lead to: more and more people picking up on that misuse. As English is a living language, common use becomes accepted and adopted as correct.

Please, join me in this effort: let’s say and write “first anniversary,” “tenth anniversary” and so on, instead of “x-year anniversary”—or worse, “six-month anniversary.”

If we don’t make this effort, this incorrect use will become correct. And I’ll be left irritated by something that used to be wrong, but is now right.

Don’t you hate that?

Have a happy, health and prosperous new year.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Happy every holiday

Happy holidays, all readers, whichever holiday you are celebrating, or not celebrating.

I would also like to extend especially positive wishes to those who get very little attention at this time of year: those who choose or, or have to work on these days so many consider special. These are not just nurses and police officers, but also those forced to work because they just cannot afford to take time off.

So take a moment to appreciate the people in the corner store, the drug store, the movie theatre, ski hill, gas station and anywhere else that might be open on your holiday.

I'm not the first to remark on how many cultures have a special celebration at this time of year. Nor am I the first to notice that many have a celebration involving light when the days are shortest (in the northern hemisphere). So there is a lot more about our various celebrations that brings us together than drives us apart. 

So please share these inclusive sentiments, readers. And have a happy, healthy and successful dark season. Unless you're in the southern hemisphere, where it's the bright season.

And share a wish for a good, safe and peaceful new year.

Happy Yule
Happy Sadeh
Happy Kwanzaa
Merry Christmas
Happy Hanukkah
Happy Saturnalia
Happy Diwali (a little late)

Happy Eid (a different time every year)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Technology weirdness: a warning and a tip

Written Words has whined about technological bugs before, but here’s a warning: don’t always believe the network when it tells you it does not recognize your password.

I have gone through this problem periodically: I come down to the computer in the morning, try to check my email, and get a message that either the password is incorrect or that the server does not recognize my outgoing (smtp) password.

This always mystifies me, because the email had been working perfectly the night before. When this has happened in the past, I have logged into the self-service site of the affected ISP and updated my password. Then I have to go to all my devices that can access email and change them, too. Then I have to update my secure, written list of all my passwords, because there are only so many words that combine letters, numbers and special characters, and don’t reference names of family, friends, pets or places I’ve lived, and are easy to remember.

It’s a process bound to create confusion. When the problem occurs again, and I have to enter the old passwords and then a new password.

And it begs the question: why did the server no longer recognize the password? I did not change it. It worked the night before, but stopped the next morning.

The latest time this happened, I tried re-entering the password, which did not solve the problem. I logged into the webmail program, and that worked fine. So I called my service provider. After waiting on hold, listening to lame music and enduring the repeated “We apologize for any inconvenience” recording, I explained the situation to the technician.

I looked at the email client, and an email had come in while I was on hold. But clicking Get Mail still gave me the error message that the server did not recognize my password.

“I don’t see any problem on my end,” the technician said. “Let me check something else.” She put me on hold for another five minutes. When she came back, she suggested I try sending a test email. “But don’t put ‘test’ into the message or subject line. We sometimes get problems with that.”

I did. And guess what? The message went through.

I did not change any settings. I did not reset the passwords.

“We are migrating our servers. Perhaps that caused a glitch,” the technician suggested.

Then, as if by magic, the email clients on all my devices connected with the email server, and messages started coming in.


So here’s my tip: when you get an error message that your email account information is wrong, and you know you didn’t change anything, don’t go through the process of changing all your email passwords on all your devices and remote connections. Call your ISP and just wait for a while. See if an hour’s wait doesn’t solve the problem. Changing all your passwords should be a last resort.

What about you techies? Do you have an explanation for this, or alternative solutions?

Monday, December 08, 2014

Narrative is important for fiction, but bad for reality

Exodus, Christmas and other mythic narratives

I’ve been reading a lot about “narrative” in news and social media lately. Not as in literature, as in a story arc, but narrative applied to public discourse about current events. The narrative of global warming, for example, is now being derided by climate change deniers.

In other words, “narrative” is a story that we use as a context to understand the world around us.

The prospect of using a narrative appeals to a writer like me. Stories are my bread and wine. And a narrative, a consistent story arc, is essential to a work of fiction. A narrative is particularly important to genre fiction, as it helps provide background information: the underpaid detective who lives on his own because his work prevents him from having a family life; the distant love interest who spurns attachment because of a past trauma; boy-meets-girl; the odd couple; revenge. There are only seven plots, said the ancient Greeks, and every story follows one, or more of these basic seven narratives.

But I’m going to put it to you today, oh my wonderful and valued readers, that narrative as a way to understand the real world around us is caustic. Destructive.

Some common narratives today

I realize that I have grown up accepting a lot of narratives. The Christmas story, for one. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born on December 25 in a manger in Bethlehem. It’s a powerful story, one that drives so much of our culture and activity. But it has its flaws. Historians who have looked at the story rationally point out that lambs are born in spring, not in the winter, for example.

Still, it’s a powerful narrative—obviously.

The Exodus narrative is the foundational story of the Hebrew people and to a large extent of the modern state of Israel. It’s another powerful narrative: God led the Hebrews out of Egypt to the Promised Land.

According to the Bible, hundreds of thousands of Jews, along with all their livestock, left Egypt somewhere around 3,000 years ago, and after 40 years settled in Canaan, the Promised Land, after being pursued by Pharoah.

Except that there is absolutely NO architectural or other corroborating evidence of such a monumental event. It’s a nice story, though.

Caustic narratives

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD—all soldiers returning from Afghanistan, or Iraq, or any conflict, are permanently psychologically damaged. For a distressingly large number, this is true, but it’s not universal.

Get tough on crime—governments in the US and in Canada like to use this one. According to the narrative, lax criminal law enforcement, luxurious prisons and short jail sentences only encourage crime, while long sentences and jails that are not desirable places to be will discourage criminals from committing crimes. Except that experience has demonstrated the opposite. If society’s goal is to reduce crime, then programs that teach poor people skills and provide jobs, food and mental health care have proven to be much more effective than being tough on crime.

Tax cuts—none of their proponents call it “trickle down economics” anymore, but the idea is the same: cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthiest people will make them spend more, and thus create jobs for the working and middle classes. Except this has never been demonstrated to happen. If you remember, in the 2008 economic crisis, the banks, those epitomes of the capitalist philosophy, demanded and got government intervention to prevent their failing. The crisis and the TARP were examples of Keynsian, interventionist economic policy at work, and the repudiation of Milton Friedman’s hands-off ideas.

Narratives are great for fiction, for novels. But they’re counterproductive as a way to look at the real world. Instead of looking for a narrative, why don't we look at the world the way it really is? Look for facts, look for actual causes and effects. 

How is narrative a problem? Let's consider one narrative that most people (not all) have abandoned: that humanity was created in one special moment and did not evolve from an earlier, different species of animal. A century and a half ago, the idea of evolution was largely rejected because it did not fit into the narrative most people had accepted because they'd been taught it as children by adults they respected. To accept the idea of evolution, the authorities and teachers said, was to disrespect those authorities.

And yet, many years later, we have (mostly) accepted the fact of evolution, and those institutions that strove against the idea, the churches and schools and authorities, are still with us. Yes, they've changed; some have weakened, others have become stronger.  

But adhering to a narrative causes us to ignore facts that don't fit into it, and encourages choices that cause harm.

Yes, narrative is important. But it's important to construct the narrative to fit reality, and when we learn new things, to change the narrative. 

Narrative is a story, and as all writers know, the story can always change.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Thank you, audience, for growing

The audience for this blog has reached another record high point: in November 2014, more than 20,000 people viewed a page. Three times during the month, daily numbers reached or exceeded 1,000, and the all-time number is approaching 400,000. In fact, I fully expect to reach that by next week. If things keep going the way they have been, even without any more growth, it will have reached half a million by June.

Here’s the graph from Blogger. You can see that I started blogging in March 2006, but I didn’t post very much at first. I published seven posts in March, mostly reused material like reviews of printers, cameras and other communications technology. But by May, the frequency had dropped to once every week or two. I didn’t publish anything in June, just once in August and nothing all that fall. I only published six posts in all of 2008 and only one in 2010.

It’s not surprising that my blog got little attention then. Why would anyone come when there’s nothing new to see?

It wasn’t until 2011 and I had finished writing my first novel, The Bones of the Earth, that I started blogging regularly. By that fall, and most of the time since (with a few lapses, sorry) I was blogging at least once a week. For a while there, I was doing three posts a week. And, not surprising, that’s when pageviews started to climb.

That’s also when I got my twitter account, and putting a link to my blog in most of my tweets. Pageviews, driven by frequent announcements about posts and attracted by new content, started to climb dramatically.

As you can see from the graph, pageviews climbed in spurts. There’s the long, flat head from 2006 to 2010, then a more or less steady rise through 2011, when pageviews averaged around 6,000 per month—that’s 200 a day. There are peaks and valleys from month to month, then another surge to another plateau around 10,000 per month for most of 2012 and 2013.

And now, a new high: from 13,734 pageviews in September 2014, to 16,548 in October to over 20,000 in November! And the pace so far in December (okay, I know we’re just two days into it, but taking that as a trend) is over 700.

Getting the best help

What accounts for that? I have to give some credit to Lisa Jey Davis, also known as Ms. Cheevious. In addition to being a kick-ass lady and always entertaining writer and blogger, she’s an awesome social media consultant. She created some Facebook pages and posts for me, and is doing some other mysterious things in social media on my behalf. And since she started doing that, my numbers have been climbing strongly. In addition, the Army of Worn Soles page she created for me on Facebook now has over 100 likes. To me, that’s a lot.

The view from the peak

I remember being so excited in 2011 and 2012 as I watched my daily, monthly and “all-time” pageview statistics climb. I remember thinking “Wow. Those statistics were really pathetic before 2011, but now, this is serious.” I compared this to my experience working on Canadian magazines (remember those things, printed with ink on paper?) in the 1980s. Thirteen thousand readers per month was a respectable, healthy readership for a “trade,” or industry magazine. With a staff. And postage expenses. And here I was, getting those kind of numbers all by myself.

A note here about Google’s graph: the numbers I see today don’t jibe with my memory. And the graph doesn’t show the odd-numbered years. You cannot see the statistics for 2007, 2009, 2011 or 2013.

Why do I do it?

Three times a week required an effort and a devotion of time that were too great to sustain. Other things, like writing novels, began to suffer. So I scaled back to twice a week for a while, and now am pretty content with once per week.

Now, if there were only a way to make money from that. Don’t tell me about Google ads. I have those, as you can see, and I haven’t gotten a penny. I’m not complaining; that’s not why I write this blog.

“So why do you spend so much time on that blog and on setting up tweets every day?” my lovely and supportive wife is fond of asking.

I’ve used the standard answers (that I am, umm, repurposing from consultants and self-described authors’ advisors): “building the platform, raising my profile.” It’s partly true, but as a method of driving book sales, well, I can’t say it’s had the impact that other writers report.

But it does show that I can get an audience. My writing is reaching important people: you.

Thank you, readers.