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Saturday, May 26, 2012

How to get lucky: Making serendipity work for your career | Thor Mullerm

When I decided to retire a year ago after 30+ years of working in local government communications, I set a new professional mission of working in nonprofit communications.

Unexpectedly, I'm still in the midst of setting that mission in motion, which is one reason this article caught my attention. I was already fascinated by the concept of serendipity. Mullerm writes here:
Serendipity is the ability to take a chance occurrence -- a surprising idea, person or event -- and make creative use of it. Yet serendipity can be exceedingly difficult to pull off in the midst of our busy work lives.

Why? Because we are psychologically wired to find the things that match our expectations and discount what doesn't. For most of us, our education and work environments only reinforce this behavior. We are tunnel-visioned. Yet the benefits of having a robust peripheral vision are overwhelming. Besides being responsible for so much of our innovation, peripheral vision is how we discover new opportunities and adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Hmmmmmmmmmm. Discovering new opportunities. That's exactly what I want to do! So what does  Mullerm   have to say about it, building his advice on examples of successful entrepreneurs.
Find the people that matter ...
Get out of the cubicle, and work for a few hours in the lobby, cafe or cafeteria where visitors are coming in and out all day. You might also attend local meet ups or conferences, but rather than targeting other people based on where they work or their job title, avoid looking at name tags altogether. The people who seem least likely to be able to help you (e.g. that crazy guy in the tie-dye t-shirt) might just be the most helpful of all.

Use surprise events ...
[W]e must foster our peripheral vision to rise above our to-do lists and be ready when a surprise event occurs. Dedicating time to non work-related interests helps us distance ourselves from our primary tasks. This distance allows us to make the connections across domains that lead to insights and innovations.

Solve problems based on unexpected sources ...
By developing a strong perspective we increase the likelihood we'll run into the very things that will be most helpful to us, wherever they emerge from.
Mullerm concludes:
Put simply, we can learn to harness serendipity as a rigorous business practice. The most successful entrepreneurs and business generally do, allowing chance to intervene in their routinized work lives, recognizing the most promising opportunities, and taking action on them, even if they challenge their best laid plans. Or, perhaps, precisely because they challenge them.
So, what did I get out of that? I'm not sure at the moment -- at least as it applies to my nonprofit mission. But it did get me thinking about some things he suggests. And perhaps the serendipity of that thought, prompted by this article, will lead to something promising!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Messing With Our Minds: The Ever Finer Line Between News and Advertising | Kingsley Dennis. Truthout

The manufacturing of consent is endemic within modern societies. Throughout history, the need to "persuade and influence" has always been manipulated by those people in power as a means to maintain authority and legitimacy. In more recent years, the overall manipulation of the mass public mind has become less about making speeches and more about becoming a pervasive presence within the lives of each individual.
With that introduction, Kingsley Dennis begins his analysis of the growing, disheartening and not-surprising connections between not only news and advertising but between those inbred information institutions and government. And we recipients -- consumers -- of the information produced are the, uh, victims.

Dennis writes:
Modern programs of social influence could not exist without the mass media. Today it exists as a combination of expertise and knowledge from technology, sociology, social behaviorism, psychology, communications and other scientific techniques. Almost every nation needs a controlled mainstream media if it is to regulate and influence its citizenry. By way of the mainstream media, a controlling authority is able to exert psychological influence upon people's perception of reality.
Dennis goes deep into how that influence is concocted and regurgitated through the mass media. I was especially pleased to read his information on the international reduction in the mainstream sources of information we receive. While in grad school during the mid-'70s, I had studied that trend, and it's certainly evolved, for the worse, since then.

Dennis writes:
The display of diversity in the information coming from the mainstream media gives the illusion of independent reportage and news. Yet the mainstream media of any given nation or nations is owned by only a small handful of corporate entities with high-level state relations.
I've never been a believer in huge national or international conspiracy theories of any kind, including ones suggesting that all our major news media are, intentionally, in cahoots to limit and funnel the information we receive -- and to do it with government and corporate blessing.

Instead, I believe it's more of a sadly inevitable outgrowth of people and institutions in constant contact -- as part of their legitimate, essential work. To gather information, to be competitive in reporting information, to "win" at doing it first, the news media build functional links with the institutions with the information. And too often the watchdogs become lapdogs -- and their articles get the big headlines.

And while that's taking place, media corporations -- just like all other corporations -- find financial value in joining hands, merging -- not necessarily with a goal of controlling information but mostly to control costs and enhance profits.

As Dennis writes:
[T]he shift toward propagating banal reality lies at the heart of the ever-increasing centralized control of the media. It is somewhat worrying to learn that most Western media organizations are owned by only a handful of giant corporations: News Corp; Viacom; Time Warner; Disney; Vivendi Universal, and Bertelsmann.
Fortunately, Dennis gets into what we consumers can do to respond to that "somewhat worrying" trend; I'm surprised he describes that trend so mildly. He writes:
In terms of mainstream news reporting, it is always important to check the source when reading a news item; that is, is it from an independent source or is it, "according to a government source," etcetera. The mainstream media is largely fed via global news services, the two largest being Reuters (now Thomson Reuters) and Associated Press. This again constitutes a centralization of news information.
But then he points to a way around it that worrisome trend -- if we consumers and citizens are attentive:
What has changed the game plan over the past two decades has been the rise of distributed and decentralized global communications between individuals. The Internet in particular, as well as other forms of social media, have spurred the growth of individuals seeking information between and among themselves, a process which is often external to the consensus of various nation-states. This has had the effect of shifting people away from conditioned patterns of propaganda and belief systems.
We've seen the powerful impact of the Internet and social media in the Middle East, where the citizens of some countries have been able to communicate among themselves and to outsiders. And they've been able to stir and win at revolution from tyrants.

But, as Dennis concludes (emphasis added):
This bottom-up intervention has seriously compromised the patterning techniques of ruling authorities. There are now efforts underway to censor information sites that are critical of the state. It is therefore imperative that our independent media be protected, our social networks of free speech preserved, and our right to seek and speak the truth defended. Messing with our minds has no place in a truly democratic and egalitarian future.
And that is up to us -- the consumers, the citizens, the middle-class and poor masses -- to ensure that protection and preservation.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

How creativity powers science | Jennifer Cutraro, Science News for Kids

Some of the best ideas come not from poring over the facts but from a walk in the woods

Voices of the science instructors, teachers and professors interviewed by Cutraro:

Robert DeHaan, a retired Emory University cell biologist now studings how to teach creative thinking:
Creativity is the creation of an idea or object that is both novel and useful. Creativity is a new idea that has value in solving a problem, or an object that is new or useful.
If you’re doing an experiment on cells, and you want to find out why those cells keep dying, you have a problem. It really takes a level of creative thought to solve that problem.
Bill Wallace, a science teacher at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.:
A lot of kids think that science is a body of knowledge, a collection of facts they need to memorize.
If instead, you teach science as a process of learning, of observing and of gathering information about the way that nature works, then there’s more room for incorporating creativity.
Dave Incao, vice-president of Global Walmart Support for Elmer’s Products:
Science and math fairs — those develop a child’s sense of curiosity to dig in and figure out why things happen. Even if you don’t grow up to be an astronaut or mathematician, that sense of curiosity will help you in whatever career you pursue.
Carmen Andrews, a science specialist at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Bridgeport, Conn.:
In the best science investigations, it’s not the questions that are most creative, but rather how the experiment is measured and how the data are interpreted, given meaning and how students see the investigation as a component in understanding a scientific problem.

Science as a creative quest 

Chemist Dudley Herschbach of Harvard University and a longtime leader of the board of trustees of Society for Science & the Public, publisher of Science News for Kids:
In science, you actually aren’t concerned right off the bat about getting the right answer — nobody knows what it is. You’re exploring a question we don’t have answers to. That’s the challenge, the adventure in it.
Deborah Smith, education professor at Penn State University in State College, Penn.:
The invention from the data of a possible explanation is the height of what scientists do. The creativity is about imagining possibility and figuring out which one of these scenarios could be possible, and how would I find out?

Unfocusing the mind

The best time to come to a solution to a complex, high-level problem is to go for a hike in the woods or do something totally unrelated and let you mind wander.

Fresh perspectives, new insights

Preconceptions are the bane of creativity. They cause you to immediately jump to a solution, because you’re in a mode of thinking where you’ll only see those associations that are obvious.
Susan Singer, professor of the natural sciences at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.:
Preconceived notions or a linear approach to solving problems just puts you in this tight little box. It’s in allowing the mind to wander when you find the answer.
Everyone has the aptitude for creative thinking. A creative insight is just allowing your memory to pick up on ideas you never thought about before as being in the same context.

Creativity in the classroom

I had seven groups of students, and got seven different ways to measure inebriation. That’s what I would call creativity in a science class.
When you talk about creativity in science, it’s not about, have you done a nice drawing to explain something. It’s about, ‘What are we imagining together? What’s possible, and how could we figure that out?’ That’s what scientists do all the time. 
What we’ve been missing is that science itself is creative. It’s a creativity of ideas and representations and finding things out, which is different from making a papier-mâché globe and painting it to represent the Earth.
Too often in school, students get the impression that science is for a specially gifted subspecies of humanity. 
Scientists don’t have to be so smart. It’s all there waiting for you if you work hard at it, and then you have a good chance of contributing to this great adventure of our species and understanding more about the world we live in.

How to create the ideal playlist for writing and editing | Rob Reinalda, Ragan's PR Daily

I'm constantly listening to music, at least when I'm in control of my sound environment. I play it on the main stereo system in my house, on the computer-connected stereo system in my study, on my iPod when I traveling long distances, on my Nano when I'm working out and commuting, in my car CD player or FM radio, on my clock radio when I'm in bed, on the TV when I'm watching music videos and concerts, at live concerts in the Seattle area, and at my sons' rock shows when they're performing locally.

So the headline for Reinalda's blog caught my attention. I already create a lot of playlists, by genre, artist, year, decade, event, weather, holiday, mood and so on. So I was curious what he would suggest.

My musical interests are broad -- ranging from classical and some contemporary instrumental to folk and world music, from some jazz and pop to alternative country and bluegrass, from classic and punk rock to alternative rock  and progressive metal. But I mostly listen to contemporary folk, alternative country, alternative rock, and progressive metal -- still quite a range.

I'm also curious about Reinalda's ideas because I'm seeking writing and editing work in the nonprofit field -- preferably in a regular workplace away from home but also in my home office as a freelancer writer. I want the music I'm hearing while working at home or on earphones somewhere else to enhance my work, not distract me from it.

Some of Reinalda's advice:
Heavy metal is out; rap, ditto. They simply are too intrusive, even if you like that sort of thing. Rock and pop songs generally also have lyrics, and lyrics distract. Particular songs, especially, could be detrimental to your work.
OK, none of Dream Theater's wonderfully stirring progressive metal.  And I don't listen to rap anyway.

But no music with lyrics? That's mostly what I listen to -- though I do not often listen intently to the lyrics; my ears and brain usually hear the singer as just another instrument in the mix.

But, ahem, Reinalda continues:
So, you wisely decide to stick with instrumentals.
Fortunately, he writes that new age and classical harpsichord music (I have some) can get repetitious and other worldly (my interpretation of his comments) after 15 minutes or so. And he advises not to even consider world music, suggesting that music you don't listen to very often isn't the best music to hear when you're trying to work.

He continues winnowing:
Pure editing, especially copy editing and proofing, calls for light classical; Beethoven and Wagner would unduly influence the editing process. You’d end up slashing entire paragraphs and rewriting key phrases in all caps. ...
Darn, I have that. But I guess hearing them would be like hearing my stirring Dream Theater.
So, how about some of Chopin’s gentler offerings? ... Mozart’s piano concerti fill the bill nicely, as well. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti provide an audio cocoon that’s ideal for editing.
OK, I have all that in my collection.
When you’re writing is probably the time you want smooth jazz: Vince Guaraldi, Laura Caviani, Oscar Peterson, and David Benoit are all excellent choices if you’re in a piano mindset — if you’re putting together a straight report, for example.
Can't say I have much smooth jazz (at least by those folks), though I have some other jazz pianists I could consider.
For more creative compositions, you’d probably want the sax’ appeal: Illinois Jacquet, Dave Koz. John Coltrane might be just too … too ... well, too Coltrane for work purposes.
Dang, I have Coltrane. I might try him anyway, despite Reinalda's concern.
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond deliver both keyboard and brass, so if you’re betwixt and between, there’s your solution. “Audrey” and “La Paloma Azul” are particular favorites.
OK, I have Brubeck ...
Finally, organizing — such as filing, compiling To Do lists, rearranging stuff on your desktops (physical and computer) — might be the occasion for swing and Big Band. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller all serve well ....
Let's see, I think have some swing and big band, but not by those guys. Don't listen to it much; maybe now's the chance. 

And then he lists some music by Perez Prado, Acker Bilk and Django Reinhardt. Can't say I have anything by them. But should I get any? I gotta think about that.

I wonder how pianist Keith Jarrett fits into Reinalda's suggestions? And Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk?

Hmmmmmmmmmmmm. No Blue Rodeo, Dylan, Beatles, Dream Theater, R.E.M., Emmylou, Stones, Green Day, Tish Hinojosa, Lucinda, Steve Earle, Jayhawks, Neko, Old 97's, Wilco, Drive-by Truckers, Rosanne Cash, U2, Baez, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Brandi Carlile, Lovett, Pearl Jam, Springsteen ...

Guess I shouldn't have too much fun while working. But what about inspiration with intricately fingered acoustic guitars and melodic vocal harmonies or a pounding beat, deep bass and power chords?! What about influencing my creativity with that power?

Oh well ...

Why simplicity matters | Irene Etzkorn, Siegel+Gale

Simplicity is the essence of the golden rule. It’s an indication of consideration: I've taken the time to move the complexity of something out of the way so that the recipient of a conversation, a deed, a gesture, a letter, understands what I mean.
Etzkorn follows that introduction with questions and answers about simplicity. She explains "why it’s critical for any business seeking growth and profitability."

Here are the questions, with some excerpts from her answers:
How does simplicity benefit business?
Why is simplicity a necessity?
What is the biggest misconception that people have about simplicity?
Why is simplicity so elusive?
It is easier to add and append than to rethink. The result is often information which supersedes or duplicates previously existing content. A perfect example is an insurance policy. ...
Can we achieve simplicity in a world that is so complex?
Most of our work involves customizing content, carefully timing information delivery, structuring content so that it is intuitive and writing in plain language.
What are the advantages for those companies that adopt simplicity?
Business leaders need to realize that simplicity is mutually beneficial to customers and companies. Clarity often engenders trust and trust influences customer loyalty. ... I hope that consumers will demand to understand what they are buying and that “fine print” will eventually be an anachronism.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Making connections to create value | Martin Borrett, Marketing Blogged | Marketing Blogs

I recently came across a good example to illustrate the power of making connections in creating value, from unearthing a customer insight to generating a creative idea, ...
With that introduction, Borrett writes about Project Noah, a start-up that had figured out a way to use speakerphones to get children outside  instead of sitting indoors in front of computer monitors and TV sets (and smartphones as well).

Borrett writes:
Through understanding needs, motivations and behaviours and connecting this with technology, they’ve realised that spending time exploring nature and spending time glued to their phones don’t need to be mutually exclusive. ...
Borrett describes how the smartphone app works (though he doesn't doesn't get into how effectively it's working with children). He then writes (emphasis added):
Having developed a great idea, the Project Noah team have made one more critical connection – from idea into action, taking their idea and executing it with excellence. Project Noah is not only a tool to explore and document wildlife, but using the connections that digital enables, it is a platform “to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere.”

Creativity Boost | Lauren B. Davis

I've been reading a lot of articles about creativity -- and Jonah Lehrer's recent book on the subject (Imagine: How Creativity Works). And occasionally I'll post an item here on the subject. The articles are usually academic or business-related, trying to connect theory with practice, somewhat usefully.

But here's just a list of things to do if you need a creativity boost. And I think it works!  

Davis introduces her list this way:
Students and readers often ask me how I keep my creative fires stoked, so here’s a list I’m working on. They are primarily for writers, but would work for anyone seeking to be more creative.
For more info on the topic, check out Garbl's Creativity Resources Online. It's an annotated directory of websites that provide advice for increasing creativity and innovation in your writing, in your personal life, on the job, in school, in the arts and elsewhere. Many of the sites have links to other resources on creativity.

And as Davis concludes:
Whatever you do. Have fun. Sure, writing is hard work, but it’s not coal mining, for heaven’s sake. You should enjoy it.

The importance of plain English | Dennis Hall,

Columnist Hall reports on a stark reminder he received "that we cannot afford to take anything for granted when it comes to a client’s understanding."

I'm sure all writers, speakers and teachers on any subject need to get a "stark reminder" occasionally, llike the one Hall describes in his column. I know I do. He writes (emphasis added):
Goodness knows I have preached enough times not to talk gobbledegook when dealing with clients, and here I was falling into the same trap. Not only did I use terminology he did not fully understand, I was guilty of not engaging with him. If I had not checked his understanding, he might well have left the office, wondered what the heck all that was about, and then decided to go somewhere else.
Stark concludes his self-reminder -- his lesson for all of us:
This week’s experience has reminded me how easy it is to overestimate another person’s ability to understand what it is we are saying. That being so, we should remember to keep checking their understanding, rather than assuming a nod means yes.

In Congress, talking like a 12th-grade student makes you a brainiac | Danny Westneat, The Seattle Times

Congratulations to all members of Congress who speak and write at a 10th grade level or lower! At least in that way, they are trying to meet the needs of their constituents.

Westneat's column reports:
A study of political speeches shows the average member of Congress now speaks at about a 10th-grade level — a full grade lower than a few years back.
These politicians are not "dumbing down" their language, as some silly critics contend. And they definitely should not try to increase the grade level of their language, as those same silly critics probably contend.

Instead, they are likely using words and sentence structures that most of their constituents can understand quickly without confusion. After all, most of us have more important things to read, listen to and actually do than trying to comprehend the language of our politicians.

And one of those things, of course, is trying to figure out if our politicians are telling the truth or giving us all the information we need to know. A well-known trick of dishonest people (in politics, business and other professions) is to hide their lies, half-truths and mistakes in long, convoluted sentences filled with jargon and unfamiliar, multi-syllable words.

Having worked many years in government communications, I know it can be difficult to simplify language. The terms used to name and describe various government programs and services can be long and confusing -- not necessarily to mislead people but to be as comprehensive as possible. And, ironically, that valid goal can lead to vague, general terms that have little clear meaning.

So more power to politicians (and government communicators) who can write and talk about those programs and services at a 10th grade level or lower. If they're not substituting familiar words for the vague terminology, they're likely writing and speaking in mosty simple sentences. They're likely avoiding an excessive use of dependent clauses, parenthetical phrases, and all the commas that should be used to separate them correctly. And, I would hope, if they must use jargon or unfamiliar terms, they're defining them in some way.

The focus of the linked article and my comments so far is on the language of politicians. But people in business, law, health, education and other professions also get carried away with using language that is not easily and quickly understood by readers. 

Often, it's not because they're trying to mislead people. Instead, it's because they've been misled into thinking that they can enhance their message by using words that require use of a handy dictionary or thesaurus to comprehend. They may think that writing and speaking in many complex and compound sentences enhances their authority.

But they're wrong. Unless they're writing and speaking to a specific audience that already understands the jargon and terminology used, they're likely weakening their message and authority.

In other words, if people can't understand you, they won't respect you or what you're saying. In fact, they'll likely stop reading what you write or listening to what you say.

And speaking of time, why would you choose to waste your time writing or speaking something that people won't or can't understand?

(Of course, if you don't really want them to understand it ... but that would be dishonest.)

For help writing in clear, concise language, check out Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide. There you can learn more about these topics:

The Most Important Grammar Rules All Bloggers Need to Know | Vicky Denaxa, Moneytized

[D]o you really know what it takes to perfect your content as far as proofreading and correct grammar are concerned? ... Besides the basic grammar rules that everyone must keep in mind, there are things that just plain stand out: the most important grammar rules all bloggers need to know.
So begins blogger Denaxa. She covers the following topics, and her advice is mostly sound.  I've commented below on a couple of her topics. Denaxa also refers to other websites for additional advice. Please also see my related comments at the end of this post.

Spelling Rules/Word Differences ...

Punctuation Rules ...
Denaxa is mistaken when she writes that the "American Rule" for commas and periods is to put them inside quotation marks only when they're part of the quotation. That rule applies only to question marks and exclamation points. Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks, following the standard style in most reputable style manuals published in the United States.

Capitalization Rules ...

Tense Rules ...

Grammar Rules for Numbers ...
Denaxa calls them "Grammar Rules," but they're usually style preferences of particular publications and organizations. Her examples are mostly correct, but you should check the particular style preferences for numbers in your publication or organization. For example, Associated Press style is to use numbers (not words) in various single-digit uses, such as ages, percentages and temperatures

Plural and Possessive ...

Was were where grammar rules ...

Finally, Denaxa suggests doing Google searches when you have questions about style and grammar. I advise not doing that, except to search for an online style and grammar guide that you will try to use consistently. Taking advice from a variety of Googled websites could add to your confusion and inconsistencies in your choices. As I wrote above, different publications and organizations have differing preferences on style. You should choose the style preferences of one guide and try to use it as often as possible.

I mentioned AP already. It has both print and online versions. The Chicago Manual of Style and the Gregg Reference Manual are also very useful and comprehensive -- in both the print and online versions. The online versions for all three are by paid subscription.

For a free online style manual, consider checking out mine! It's based on AP style in most cases: Garbl's Editorial Style Manual.

Grammar Counts! | The Travel Institute

[T]oday I’m sharing ten pet peeves when it comes to grammatical mistakes. I am far from perfect and someone with an eagle eye may spot some errors in this post, but I’m pretty good at knowing the easy stuff and these are some items I want to highlight that I see far too often.
I like the blogger's 10 pet peeves. They're all worth remembering. I especially liked the memory tip for spelling Caribbean. Some of the items could have used examples to help the reader. I've included links below to provide more help for handling some of the pet peeves:

complement vs. compliment

stationary vs. stationery -- Memory tip: Both stationery and paper contain er.

fewer vs. less

For more advice on word use, punctuation, spelling and other writing issues, check out Garbl's Editorial Style Manual.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Good speech and vocabulary often lost to ideology | Tulsa World

I'm not distressed by this article, about the U.S. Congress. The article reports:
A report released Monday says the vocabulary and sentence structure of senators and representatives has declined markedly over the past seven years, and that there seems to be a correlation between vocabulary and political extremism.

Those at the ends of the political spectrum, both liberal and conservative, use simpler vocabularies and sentence structures, while moderates tend to use longer words and more complex sentences.
The article explains that a computer analysis of the Congressional Record back to 1996 showed that, on average, members of Congress use a 10th-grade vocabulary. And that's down a full grade level from 2005.

But I would say that is not a bad thing. In fact, many of the senators and representatives who use simpler vocabularies and sentence structures are likely more effective in communicating with more of their constituents and the news media. 

According to some advocates of using plain language, writers and speakers who communicate at a junior-high or middle-school level (grades 6-9) are often the easiest for people to understand.
A couple of college professors quoted in the article affirm those ideas.

The chair of the University of Tulsa's communications department:
An overly complex or long sentence could be evidence not of erudition but of confusion.
A University of Oklahoma political science professor:
The language is not a function of the education level of the politician. It's a function of the education level of the audience they're trying to reach.
For more information on plain language, check out Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide.

Spelling Survey: Auto Correct Making Britons Bad Spellers, Research Claims | UK News | Sky News

Computer auto-correct technology has left about one-third of British adults unable to spell simple words like "definitely," "necessary" and "separate," according to a survey by Mencap, a charity in the United Kingdom.

According to the chief executive of Mencap:
With over two-thirds of Britons now having to rely on spell check, we are heading towards an auto-correct generation.

This survey has highlighted that many Britons have a false impression about their spelling ability.
Today's tough economic climate means that poor spelling on a CV is fatal, as it says that an individual cannot produce work to a given standard, no matter how highly qualified they might be.
Language used by a company or person is a reflection of their attitude, capabilities and skill.
The survey questioned more than 2,000 adults. You can test yourself on five spelling questions at the end of the article.

Here's another article with more information on the results, including a reaction from the British schools minister:
Over-reliance on technology is undermining spelling skills
A generation of “auto-correct” adults are struggling to spell properly after relying on technology to check their work, according to research published today.
For help on spelling, check out the Spelling section at Garbl's Word Links. That site is an annotated directory of websites that can help you discover, understand and use (or avoid) Latin and Greek derivations, misused words, unusual words, word origins, new words and slang.

24 lazy, meaningless verbs to ban | Laura Hale Brockway,

A common problem with corporate writing is that it’s full of lazy, meaningless verbs. Utilize, implement, leverage—these words litter our writing and weaken our message. ...

The verb is the powerhouse of your sentence. Choose clear, active verbs instead of throwaway ones. I hereby call for a ban on the following verbs from corporate writing, press releases, social media, and websites. Try these alternatives instead.
Good advice there from Brockway. Her list provides strong alternatives to replace the listed weak verbs.

If you want still more suggestions to make your writing easier to read and understand, check out Garbl's Concise Writing Guide. This free guide provides alternatives to overstated, pompous words; wordy, bureaucratic phrases; and verbose, sometimes amusing redundant phrases:

In praise of gobbledygook - Information Mapping® Blog

Our recent blog entries about plain language have featured attacks on confusing, wordy and convoluted writing. In the interests of fairness, we’ve decided to give the opposing point of view equal time. Here’s the first of three reasons why our government as well as American businesses should continue to use gobbledygook in their communications with the public.
So begins this tongue-in-cheek article. It makes its ironic point well. Some excerpts:
Businesses blame the regulators for the small print and mindboggling language. ...

Well, maybe. But we’re not convinced that businesses are really upset about this situation, because it’s making them money. ... One study found that fewer than one in ten thousand consumers actually read this stuff.
The resulting costs to the average American household can be as high as three thousand dollars per year, mostly in the form of unjustified fees and charges. ... Clearly, for some businesses gobbledygook is a profit center. ...
For more information on the value of writing in plain language -- and doing it, check out Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Phrase That Makes You Sound Like A Douchebag | Zoë Triska, Huff Post Books

"It is what it is." 

Once upon a time, I dated this guy. He was a complete douchebag. ... [T]here's one thing that should have tipped me off immediately to his sliminess: When asked about commitment, he would consistently say, "It is what it is."
"What does that mean?" Triska asks. I've also wondered that when I've heard people say, "It is what it is." Her answer (emphasis added):
You're essentially saying that you're not strong enough to either be honest or offer up any kind of solution. It's an acceptance of defeat, resignation. It makes you look like a douchebag ... and a moron.
Let's be real here: "It is what it is" is simply a way to evade making any true effort in a conversation or contribute anything remotely important. People only say it to feel like they've contributed something orally to a conversation, when in fact, they have contributed absolutely nothing at all
Zoe quotes William Safire on the subject:
"It is a deliberate tautology (the Greek tauto means "the same") designed to define itself by repetition of itself. Because it needs a name, let's call it a 'tautophrase.' Often accompanied by a shrug, it is used to deflect inquiry with panache."
She notes that USA Today coined it as the most "overused phrase" in 2004 and 2005. And she notes that clients of a California company that represents marketers and advertisers picked it as one of the "most annoying, overused phrases in the industry."

I especially like what movie director Billy Frolick think when he hears people use that phrase. He directed the 2001 movie "It Is What It Is" (emphasis added):
My reaction is often that the [phrase user] can't think of anything intelligent to say. Maybe they are A) out of breath B) not getting enough oxygen to their brain, or C) there isn't much brain to get oxygen to.

Travel Photography: Focused Women Travel

Despite the headline, this article provides tips useful for both women and men. The tips are offered by Mirjam Evers, a Dutch photographer who specializes in environmental portraits, travel, documentary, and adventure photography, and Najat Naba, a co-founder with Evers of Photo Quest Adventures, "a travel company with the mission of making a difference in the world through photography."

Evers and Naba share these tips (summarized below) "for anyone trying to improve her (or his) photography while on the road":

See how other photographers captured the location you’re going to. ... It’s important to understand local customs and traditions. Otherwise, you run the risk of being rude or offensive to the locals.

Dress like a local. ... Don’t wear clothes that make you stand out and stay away from bold colors, logos and definitely anything sexy. 

Avoid looking like a rich Westerner. ... You don’t want to be a walking billboard for thieves. ...

Ask permission if you want to photograph someone. Engage and try to make a connection with someone before taking pictures. Learn how to say “hello” and “May I take a photograph” in the local language. ... Once you do take a photograph, show it to them on the back of the camera. 

Catch Light in the eyes. ...

Think outside the box. Shoot from the floor with a wide-angle or fish-eye lens. ...

Check local sunrise/sunset times. ...

Pack camera-equipment light. Take one camera body (unless you have the room for a spare), lots of memory cards, a lightweight tripod, portable storage device, a flash and a selection of lenses in a durable camera bag. 

Keep your equipment safe. ...

Shoot in RAW. Shooting all your pictures in RAW will give you greater flexibility for post processing, ...

Back up devices. ... Take twice the amount of cards/capacity than you would expect to need. 

Choose lenses carefully. ... [O]pt for a fast zoom such as an 18-200 mm or 28-300m. If you have extra room or would prefer a wider choice, consider a portrait prime lens (e.g.85 mm), a wide angle lens (e.g. 10-24mm) and a telephoto (e.g. 70-200mm). ...

Pack a power strip. This way, you can charge your computer, camera battery, phone and anything else at the same time. ...

When shooting, use a wide aperture. ... The lower the”F” stop, the wider the aperture on your camera, and the less depth-of-field you get. Letting in as much light as possible with a low F-number will blur the background and cause a subject to pop more in the photo. 

Get off the beaten track. ... Find somewhere where the locals aren’t used to seeing tourists. ...

Travel Photography: How to Get Fabulous Images and Still Have Fun | Stephanie Millner, Professional Photographer Magazine

Consider the following tips for travel photography and your next trip should be smooth sailing as far as your camera is concerned.
So begins photographer/writer Millner. Here's a summary of her suggestions:
Pack Light ...
Unless you’re traveling for a commissioned job, pack only the barest of bare essentials. Bring one camera, two batteries, a few media cards, your charger, and two lenses at most. ... Also, think twice about using a backpack; it will make you a target. ...
Three Must-Have Accessories

There are three more things you need to round out your travel kit: rain sleeves, a multi-plug adaptor, and a dry bag. ...
A good rain sleeve will keep your gear dry and sand-free, regardless of what Mother Nature dishes out. ... Most laptops, cell phones, and camera chargers have built-in transformers (or are dual-voltage), so you usually just need a plug adaptor and not a heavy travel transformer. Be sure to buy a multi-plug adaptor to accommodate different countries. ... Use a dry sack any time you’re even thinking about traveling near water (beach days, boat trips, cruises). ...
Safety ...
Store a copy of your equipment serial numbers in an Internet-accessible file, such as Google Docs, Evernote, or Dropbox. Verify that your equipment insurance covers travel overseas as well as loss due to theft.

Photography Tips
Night Photography: Photographing at night is often a better payoff for unique travel imagery. The downside is that you’ll need a tripod, which pushes the "pack-light" rule to the limit. Make sure it’s small and lightweight, less than 2 pounds. ... I tend to expose for 20-30 seconds at the highest aperture possible—a cheat method to get a star-filter look (above). By shooting in aperture priority at f/22 and f/32, I’ve made beautiful panoramic images that really wow my print buyers. ...
Exposure Lock: ... This single button is the key to great travel imagery. Keep in mind that your camera loves 18-percent gray, and train your eye to see this tone when you’re out and about. Things like stone columns, cement walls, and even the back of your hand can make easily accessible gray cards. ...
Manual Focus Lock: You may experience some problems getting your camera to focus in low-light conditions when it can't find enough reflected light to lock in on. Focus at a fixed length on some sort of incident light—such as a light bulb, candle, torch, etc.—and switch your lens to manual focus. ...
Details: ... Use a wide aperture to really zero-in on your focal point and remove background distraction. Pay attention to unique souvenirs, foods, flowers, and fabrics that make your destination special. ...
Post Processing: It’s vacation, not work. If you must, must, must post-process your photographs, limit your time behind the computer so as not to detract from your travel enjoyment. I use Nik Viveza or Topaz Adjust to post-process for texture and saturation. ... [I've never heard of those tools; I must check them out.]
Put The Camera Down ...
When you start bumping into to people because you’re walking around with one eye in the viewfinder, you need to take a break and just enjoy the place where you are and take it in. ...

Environmental Cues That Boost Creativity | Sam McNerney, Moments of Genius | Big Think

While the public still believes creativity is a "gift" to some people, McNerney emphasizes research that shows "creativity is improvable" and contingent on various circumstances and conditions. He writes:
Particularly interesting are studies of the last few years that suggest that subtle cues in our physical environment significantly influence creative output.
To strengthen that point, McNerney describes the findings of several studies. In his summary of the studies, McNerney writes:
The larger point of this research is that there are simple things we can do to boost our creativity: blue rooms and a moderate amount of ambient noise for instance.
Besides the particular environmental enhancers mentioned in the article, I'd like to see more physical descriptions of things organizations can install and do in the workplace to enhance creativity. McNerney also suggests that job hunters seek out employers that have creativity-enhancing environments. That, of course, is even more reason for developing a list of those factors!

10 steps to becoming a more effective philanthropist | Bruce DeBoskey, The Denver Post

When I read the word philanthropists, I think of wealthy people (and companies) that give a ton of money to nonprofit organizations in their communities and around the country and world. Even if the work of such people and companies in the business world bothers me for some reason, I'm grateful for their charitable contributions. That money certainly helps people, the arts, education, health research, and other worthy causes, including the environment, occasionally.

But as I was reading this article I decided I've been a philanthropist; my philanthropy has just been on a much smaller scale. Most of my giving has been through the combined charities campaign at my workplace. I've been a strong supporter and leader in such campaigns since I worked for United Way back in the late '70s.

Giving through the workplace is an "easy" to support good causes. Contributions taken from each pay check are hardly noticeable financially, yet the list on the payroll stub is a reminder about the regular gift. And building my monthly contribution on my hourly wage gave me a target to reach and eventually double and triple.

This article gives advice that I think is useful for small-scale philanthropists like me. Here's a summary of DeBoskey's suggestions:
  1. Determine why you're giving and what outcomes you want to achieve. ...
  2. Develop a strategy to achieve your goals. ...
  3. Volunteer your time. ...
  4. Involve your family. ...
  5. Research before you give. ...
  6. Give boldly in your lifetime. ...
  7. Go deep, not wide. ...
  8. Add charity to your estate plan. ...
  9. Evaluate and change. ...
  10. Start now. ...

Sunday, May 20, 2012

SPEAKING MY HEART : Some Words for the Wise | Weather Underground

I'm an advocate for using plain language -- clear, concise writing -- to help ensure that readers understand, without too much distraction or confusion, what the writer is trying to say. After all, if a reader doesn't "get it" or gives up trying to get it because the writing is too difficult or dense, the writer has not accomplished much, at least for that reader.

Plain language writing has various principles, including the use of common, familiar words that readers will quickly comprehend. Use of plain language isn't meant to insult a reader's intelligence by "talking down" the reader. Instead, it's meant to use vocabulary that the targeted readers are likely to understand in their work, hobby, special interest and so on.

Plain language advocates recognize that people do understand many words outside their particular interests even though they may not use those words often in their writing and speech. Still, it's important in achieving clear, concise writing to ensure that readers will understand most words in a particular document with as little difficulty as possible.

But, about the article at this link ...

I write all the above as a prelude to this article, which acknowledges the beauty of English -- and the wonderfully precise words that many of us don't use everyday. Many of these words have actually dropped by the wayside, become nearly archaic, because of their lack of use.

Recognizing that certain words have become outdated for good reason, I think it's wise to consider using words that have precise meanings that no other word can express. Of course, the writer has a responsibility to his or her reader to define the word in some way -- to make clear its meaning. That can be done in various ways from actually giving a definition to using the word in such a context that its meaning -- its precise meaning -- is clear.

This article concludes (emphasis added):
It’s become a commonplace to describe language as a tool. Like hammers, chainsaws and levers, word-tools certainly do help us accomplish the routine, utilitarian tasks of life. But if language helps us hammer home a point or cut through a tangled argument, it also can serve as a palette of nuance, a chisel for carving meaning from blocked understanding, a rosined bow to draw across a taut and tuned reality. We learn language, use language and love language not only because we want to “do”, but even more because we want to “be”, and it is language that calls us into being.
In a world marked by linguistic reductionism - the acronyms of Twitter and text, the determined dumbing-down of school requirements, the twisting of language by politicians and the willingness of publishers to market to the lowest common denominator – it’s worth remembering that our forebears were men and women who opened frontiers and built a country with books as well as with wagons and plows. Perhaps the time has come to reclaim that heritage: to read, write and speak freely, to revel in the richness of language and rebel against those who would diminish and distort its power in our lives.
Perhaps the time has come to free some words, in the service of our world.
If you're interested in learning more about plain language, check out these sites:
Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide
Garbl's Plain Language Resources.

And if you're interested in more articles about words, check out Garbl's Word Links.

Big Think | Blogs, Articles and Videos from the World's Top Thinkers and Leaders

I just across this site; it was the location of an article in the Google Alert I get about creativity. The article ("Is Too Much Familiarity Bad for Creativity?") was intriguing, but I was more intrigued by the website that published it.

According to the About Us at Big Think (emphasis added):
Big Think is a knowledge forum.
In our digital age, we’re drowning in information. The web offers us infinite data points—news stories, tweets, wikis, status updates, etc—but very little to connect the dots or illuminate the larger patterns linking them together. Here at Big Think, we believe that success in the future is about knowing the ideas that allow you to manage and master this universe of information. Therefore, we aim to help you move above and beyond random information, toward real knowledge, offering big ideas from fields outside your own that you can apply toward the questions and challenges in your own life.
Every idea on Big Think comes from our ever-growing network of 2,000 Big Think fellows and guest speakers, who comprise the top thinkers and doers from around the globe. Our editorial team regularly sources ideas from these experts, asking them about the most important ideas in their respective fields. Our editors then sift through the submitted ideas and determine which qualify to appear on Big Think, subjecting each to our simple, three-pronged standard geared to your interests:
a) significance — how will this idea change the world and impact your life?
b) relevance — what groups and individuals does this idea most affect?
c) application — how can this idea change the way you think or act?
Big Think apparently publishes articles on the topics listed below. It has blogs, "Ideafeeds," special series, and other features that cover them; it even has a Facebook page and Twitter account. At the moment, I've highlighted the topics that seem especially interesting to me. If I find anything in them or other topics I appreciate a lot, I'll probably share it on My Garblog:

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