Writing

What Does 11-11-11 Communicate?

Today is 11/11/11, a date that comes around every 100 years. When digits line up that way like little soldiers we snap to attention. All those ones seem auspicious, somehow. Did the Mayans have something to say about this (or is that next year's numbers game)? Surely this marks an occasion to launch some new venture or reflect on our lives. Or hold a sale. Read more

Words Drive Us to Distraction

Carmageddon begins today. That’s what wags are calling the traffic nightmare that’s supposed to befall Los Angeles because of the three-day surgical closure of the Westside’s main artery, the 405 freeway. It might as well be called Karmageddon; it seems fitting that L.A.’s lifeblood mobility should come back to strangle it. Since we're avoiding the roads, we're left to transport ourselves with thought, and here’s one that seems apropos: the English language is a lot of fun. We can play with it endlessly, savoring its ancient words and idiosyncratic pronunciation, while concocting new terms sharp or sweet with meaning.
Wordlovers are forever coming up with their list of favorites. (Wordlover is no more a "proper" word than carma- or karmageddon, yet. It's just more descriptive than the more correct logophile. Common usage tolerates the violation. In fact it doesn't give a damn.) Deshoda.com, cribbing from a blog called So Much to Tell You, recently presented a selection of 100 of the “most beautiful” [http://bit.ly/qJvnfs]. Many selections shimmered on the (web)page – how can one argue with epiphany, sumptuous, or woebegone? Then there were “ailurophile” (meaning cat-lover) and “chatoyant” (like a cat’s eye). Uh … no. Honestly, when are you ever going to use those terms (and still have people willing to associate with you)?
Other offerings such as "ratatouille" made no sense at all. Love the word, love the dish, love the movie. But it’s purebred French. If that qualifies, then why not put Beaujolais on the list? Phooey is a more worthy candidate. Oh, well. Everyone spouts an opinion in a democracy, which English not incidentally fosters because it's inclined to let people follow their bliss. English is a mutt with French, Germanic, Latin, Greek and other parentage, and its best words tend to be resilient old simpletons and crazy bastards. Whatever their etymologies, English boasts an astounding hoard, more than half a million gems and nuggets, and its enterprising promiscuity adds to the trove each day like a smartphone does apps. If you're a certain kind of person it can leave you feeling a little giddy. (Does nerdy rhyme with wordy for a reason?) Bang, dazzle, glee, languid, mist, perky, pesky, pipsqueak, resplendence, sigh, silly, smidgen, soft, velvet, whimsy, whisper, zephyr … Whoa, I feel dizzy. Of them all, I particularly favor the word laugh. You can’t help but smile just saying, or even looking at, that word. It gladdens the heart. “Love,” “joy,” and “grace” prompt much the same response – how can you resist them? They’ll help see us through any -mageddon life throws at us.

Father’s Day and the Value of an Education

Father’s Day is as good a time as any to reanimate the PubArts blog after its months-long slumber. It’s my offspring, after all. And where would I be without my own dad, who worked so hard to make sure I had a great education and could earn a living myself. Okay, so I chose to ply the writing trade and calling that a living is a bit of a stretch at times. But still. It was awfully good of him, and I have always been tremendously grateful to him, and my mom, for their innumerable, and strangely willing, sacrifices.
It's among the most basic parental (and societal) responsibilities: preparing the young to stand on their own.
So it’s worth looking at the value of college education today, which can confer crippling amounts of debt with dubious real skills as a crutch. Does Shakespeare pay off? The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University studied lifetime earnings of degree holders to find out. The chief finding: those who majored in engineering, computer science or business earn half again as much as those who majored in the humanities, the arts, education, and psychology. [http://wapo.st/lgVnDT ] Well, duh. The study found the median annual earnings for someone with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering is $120,000, in pharmaceutical sciences $105,000, and in math and computer sciences $98,000. Not too shabby. Holders of bachelor’s degrees in English, on the other hand, have median earnings of $48,000, while a degree in early childhood education will likely earn you $36,000. Counseling or psychology brings up the rear at $29,000. The lesson: daddies, don’t let your kids grow up to be philosophers. Yet it’s worth noting that the holder of a bachelor’s degree still makes 84 percent more than someone who topped out academically in high school. The Georgetown study didn’t cover advanced degrees. But if money is your bag, also note that an MBA can really pay off, especially if granted by a top institution, according to research done for Bloomberg Businessweek. A Harvard MBA is particularly rewarding, netting its average holder $3.6 million over 20 years, and consulting is the most lucrative field. [http://buswk.co/k8TgUp] What have we learned? Spouting synergistic babble means big-time bucks and helping kids make good choices, not so much. That’s the marketplace. But here’s something no study can quantify or slap a price tag on: Education is still the greatest gift because it is the give of love. So a big thank you to all the good, education-minded fathers out there. ... Especially mine. I love you, Dad.

Of Laughter and Never Forgetting

Time magazine is about to name its “Man of the Year,” the person who has made the greatest impression on the previous 12 months. From A to Z, Julian Assange to Mark Zuckerberg nicely bookend the short list and frame one of the great struggles of our epoch: privacy vs. transparency. The WikiLeaker from Down Under is likely to get the nod for publicizing information from U.S. classified documents. To his way of thinking, candid assessments written for a limited group of decision makers must be exposed as perfidious. Thus, WikiLeaks has informed the world that State Department functionaries think Hamid Karzai is a crook and Italy’s Berlusconi is “feckless, vain, and ineffective.” Uh, tell us something we don’t know.
At the other end of the alphabet, Zuckerberg schemed to tell Facebook’s corporate partners many things they didn’t know about users of his site. He seemed baffled why anyone would want to hold back their personal profiles from the world at large. What are these people afraid of?
For one thing, people don’t want to be commodities to be bought and sold (although that battle is probably already lost). More than that, people instinctively want to be able to control their reputations, which they can’t when information about them is (a) false or (b) once true, but no longer or out of context. People cling to the idea that they can have separate lives: one for home, one for work, one for friends, and so forth. They also want to be able to reinvent themselves at will – which requires moving on from the past, forgetting, amongst other things, indiscretions that seemed amusing at the time. Yet how can we drop this baggage when the Internet shackles us to every comment or image associated with us? “A humane society values privacy because it allows people to cultivate different aspects of their personalities in different contexts,” writes Jeffrey Rosen in his outstanding article in the New York Times Magazine in July. “At the moment, the enforced merging of identities that used to be separate is leaving many casualties in its wake.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/25/magazine/25privacy-t2.html?hp It’s not a theoretical issue. Three-quarters of U.S. companies conduct online research on job candidates, according to Microsoft, and seven of ten recruiters report that they have rejected candidates because of discovered photos, discussion-board conversations, or membership in controversial groups. There’s plenty of grist for the investigator’s mill. Facebook has nearly 500 million members, 22 percent of all Internet users, who spend more than 500 billion minutes a month on the site. Its users share more than 25 billion pieces of content each month (including news stories, blog posts and photos), and the average user creates 70 pieces of content a month. There are more than 100 million registered Twitter users, and the Library of Congress recently announced that it will be permanently house the entire archive of public Twitter posts since 2006.
Now advancing facial recognition technology promises (or threatens) to locate photos of people you’re looking for on the web, even if not identified (“tagged”) in the photo. Social-network aggregator search engines will be combining data from various sources to rank people’s public and private reputations. Then there’s the new web site Unvarnished, where people can write anonymous reviews about anyone. People are already rated on their creditworthiness. Soon they may be judged and ranked on the reputation as parents, dates, employees, neighbors.
By “erasing external memories our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior,” writes Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in his recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.” The limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. He says “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.” Here’s the irony: the internet was until recently seen as the great liberator. Hilary Clinton, now on the warpath against WikiLeaks, praised Google for empowering Chinese citizens with information about their government. Remember that New Yorker cartoon from the early 1990s: “On the Internet they don’t know if you’re a dog.” Now the leash is back. We know who and where and what you are, Rover. And we’re never going to let you forget it. The remedies range from legal maneuvers of dubious value (such as lawsuits to force removal of slanderous information or “Twittergation”) to technological innovations – such as built-in expiration dates for data, controlled by the user. Or just being prudent to the point of paranoia. Supposedly cavalier about over-sharing, the young are catching up to their elders in matters of privacy. A UC Berkeley study this year found that 88 percent of people between 18 and 22 believe websites should be legally required to delete all stored information about individuals. Facebook could implement expiration dates. If it wanted to. It doesn’t, apparently. Bad information, like bad news, has a greater impact, as any behavioral psychologist or journalist or PR rep will tell you. So a new industry has arisen to buried the bad news that can’t be actually eliminated. Companies like ReputationDefender flood the Web with positive or neutral information about their customers to rig Google search rankings, pushing the negative links to the bottom. Whether Time chooses Julian, Mark (or even Sarah) as its emblem of 2010, the bigger story is that technology is rapidly moving us through numbered versions of the world. We’ve left the user-generated content world of web 2.0, and we’re being shoved into 3.0. Welcome to it.

You Get the Writing You Deserve

Was there ever a more pernicious statement than “you get what you pay for”? How many times have you sat in a $250 plane seat and find out the guy sitting next you paid $129? How often have you discovered, too late, that you didn't have to pay that much for that steak? Or to have that website re-vamped? Or consider “crime doesn’t pay”: did the person who spun that yarn even read history? ... Hello? And how about that howler “cheaters never prosper”? Of course they do -- even if the cheaters don't recognize themselves as such because they feel entitled and may even have the power to set or change the rules that legalize their personal advantage. Oh, that's so depressing. Just ignore that. What you don’t know won’t hurt you, right? Oops, there we go again. The problem with truisms such as these is they don’t make it all the way to the truth. Good writing helps brings you to that point. Good writing is inseparable from the truth. As such, its purpose is less to communicate (anyone can spread lies) than to prompt clear thinking. You can't do that if you lazily rely on cliche and superstition. So when you find yourself in need of thoughtful professional writing, rely on PubArts instead.
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