Friday, December 18, 2009

World's worst book cover

Is this the world's worst book cover? The ugliest? The most geeky?

Clip art, anyone?

What slippery surface is our winsome lass sliding down? A book page? If so, it must have the consistency of wet concrete to sustain those scratches. But why don't her knees or any other body parts leave marks?

Why is her ponytail undisturbed by her fall?

What is she staring at?

How can her Simpsons-style three-finger hands leave four tracks? Why doesn't her thumb leave any?

Poor girl. Even if she breaks her fall, she won't be able to stand straight, handicapped with legs of different lengths.

But the competition for world's worst book cover is tough. Even a brave author can criticize the cover of her own book.

How much harm does a bad book cover do, anyway?

In he case of The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing, it ain't just the cover that's bad.

Page 73: "Any reviewer should be aware of these differences so if they are asked to do a pre-publication review of a book instead of a post-publication review, they will keep the use of such in mind."

Page 106: "Try to review books in the order in which you receive them. This will help in keeping up with deadlines and is only fair to the person who submitted it."

Any more rhetorical questions?

Friday, December 11, 2009

This is a Tiger Woods-free zone

Not going to mention him.

Or link to any of the many sources of information, disinformation or prattle about him.

Not even to the New York Post copies of his inane alleged text messages to Bimbo.

A writer he ain't.

Wanna read love songs?

Pick up the Song of Solomon, especially the King James Version.

Wanna hear yearning?

Check out anything Lucinda Williams has written or recorded.

Forget it, Tiger. You don't qualify to compete on this tour.

Go play with your balls.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Censorship or moderation?

Websites, blogs and other online commentary are the Wild West of modern discourse: loud, full of colourful characters, and far from the law.

This raucous intercourse is creating new communities.

That exciting prospect drives entrepreneurs such as Keith Bilous, whose company ICUC Moderation Services helps organizations encourage and manage online feedback about their products.

"I don't believe in censorship," the energetic Bilous declared to Creative Communications students at Red River College on Dec. 1, 2009. During his vigorous exchange with students, Bilous sipped on a soft drink manufactured by one of his clients that is not Pepsi.

Well, who does believe in censorship? Other than government of China, that is.

The Web has effectively ended real censorship. Anyone who wants to say something can find a way to say it to the world.

But that does mean that any particular website or blog must cary that person's comments. Every online source is responsible for its content, whether that content is created by a staff person, a customer of the company or anyone else. Controlling that content is not censorship, it's moderation.

For example, on Nov. 23, 2009 the Globe and Mail, a deadly serious Canadian newspaper, published an online story about a toddler who had died in a fall at Pearson Airport. Instantly the comments went up -- anonymously, of course -- including one accusing the child's mother of committing a criminal offence.

That's the classic definition of defamation in Canada: saying something false that lowers the reputation of a person in the minds of right-thinking members of the community.

The Globe did remove the comment from its website a few minutes after it was posted. That's moderation, not censorship.

Of course, while the comment was online, some people read it. I read it and copied it. Then I discussed it with my Journalism students.

Hurray for moderation.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A mobile black hole of information

To the dark-clad bicyclist sneaking through predawn Winnipeg at 7 a.m. today (the one who jerked toward the curb on Bannatyne Avenue when he or she finally spied the headlights on my car): You're not invincible, you're just invisible.

Dark street, dark bike, dark clothing: you're a mobile black hole of information.

How about investing in a bit of reflective clothing? A light or two? Anything to provide information for drivers and protect your sorry butt.

Information is life, my friend. If you value yours, you'd better provide some.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A privileged witness to history

Dawna Friesen (left) talks journalism
with student Emily Baron Cadloff
 (John Pura, Red River College)

Journalists are privileged observers of troubling events, an Emmy award winner told students at Red River College on Nov. 20, 2009.

Reporting from the Gaza Strip and Iraq reminded Dawna Friesen, London correspondent for NBC News, just how privileged reporters are. As she was covering stories in those violent areas, citizens would beg her to help them leave, she said.

Friesen, a graduate of the Creative Communications program, was honoured by the college as a distinguished alumna. 

Before the alumni dinner, Friesen recounted highlights of her career and dropped some nuggets of advice for current students in the program.

Double-check your work, she said -- especially when you are taking information from unverified sources such as Twitter. Postings on social media from people on the scene provided vital information during recent post-election unrest in Iran, whose government severely restricted reporting and even arrested and tortured journalists.

Friesen's bottom line on her job as an international television journalist? "It's not a glamorous life."

She told a vivid story about getting sick after eating lousy food in one unpleasant corner of the world.

But it's worth it Friesen said.

"You're witnessing history."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Horizontally bisected eyelids

Screw good writing.

Here's some bad stuff.

My nomination for the dubious title of worst-written book set in Winnipeg – in the 21st century, anyway: Langside, self-published in 2006 by prolific Vancouver punk Chris Walter.

Check out Page 22 for the comma-free musings of Walter’s lovelorn protagonist Sky:

“But of all the features that captivated him it was Cindy’s eyelids that made his heart burst with desire. Her heavy lids made her appear as if she had just woken from a long and restful sleep. Bisected horizontally with a gentle crease the lids covered her beautiful brown eyes like a curtain of the most delicate material known to man.”

Walter vomits his creations on the world through GoFuckYerself Press.

Hey, you! Got a better nomination?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A literal flood of information

This blog usually discusses a metaphorical flood of information.

Here's a literal one.

In March 2009 a helicopter carrying workers to an offshore oil rig crashed off Newfoundland. Robert Decker was seriously injured but survived. Seventeen others died.

Now Decker describes the crash to a public inquiry.

Can you imagine dealing with the flood of information created by a helicopter crash in the frigid North Atlantic Ocean?

I can't.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A flimsy raft on the information tsunami

Why would anyone not want to get vaccinated against the H1N1 flu?

This, after all, appears to be the pandemic that we have been warned about for several years. It's serious stuff. On Oct. 26, 2009 it killed a 13-year-old boy in the Toronto area.

Agencies such as the Public Health Agency of Canada are providing a flood of information about H1N1 and recommending that people use the free vaccine.

Thousands of Canadians are listening and lining up to receive it. In some cities, lineups are so long that supplies of the vaccine are running out temporarily.

I think using the vaccine is a great idea. The bottom line is: The consequences of not protecting yourself could be fatal.

This week I tried and failed to make that point with an intelligent, well educated 30-something. It was if he was indifferent to that tsunami of medical and scientific information.

I realized that this threat is not real for him. Like most of his friends and relatives, he has had the enormously good fortune of growing up in a healthy, prosperous and peaceful society with free universal health care where young people just do not die of the flu.

His personal experience tells him that he is, if not invulnerable, at least safe from the flu.

But personal experience is a flimsy raft in which to try to ride this tsunami.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Warning! F-word used here

Don't use the F-word, I tell my students. It's tacky and it's wrong. But some of them just can't quit. They've been doing it far too long.

You know the four-letter F-word: free.

Free as in the internet is free, information is free, butterflies are free ... oops. That was a movie.

Sure, the internet is free, as long as you don't count your monthly cable fee. Yes, information is free if you value the time you spend searching for it at zero. Butterflies? Who knows?

But we love the F-word, don't we? Especially in Winnipeg, the capital of cheap.

"Everyone hates paying for books," asserts Carson Jerema, a former student-newspaper editor, in a column Oct. 19, 2009 in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Apparently retailing behemoths Amazon, Wal-Mart and Target agree. They have started a price war on a handful of hardcover books by big-name authors such as John Grisham and Sarah Palin. These authors' latest tomes are selling for about $9, a discount of about 70 per cent from the usual $25 or $30.

Palin's book is still overpriced.

But hate paying for books? Not me. I probably drop a thousand dollars a year in my favourite local independent bookstore.

Love to tell you more, but I gotta go. Time to hit Wal-Mart for some almost-F*** weekend reading.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where's the remote for my book?

Should books come with a remote control that makes them beep when you are looking for them, like a cordless phone?

How about an in-book device that looks up words you don't understand or displays reviews and discussion about what you are reading?

These thoughts are provoked by the Oct. 14, 2009 edition of Room for Debate, a New York Times online feature on the topic "Does the Brain Like E-Books?"

David Gelernter suggests that these or similar tasks "would all be easily handled by electronics worked into the binding." Even if the circuitry breaks or the battery runs out, he notes, "I've still got a book."

This is not to attack e-books, Kindle, or any device yet to be invented, as the lawyers say. The more media that promote reading, the better -- even if, like the Kindle, they are not officially available in Canada, where I live. But it does highlight the adaptability of the seemingly simple but actually highly refined technology of the book.

Sandra Aamodt, another participant in the debate, says the usefulness of a computer for serious reading depends largely on "the user's strength of character." By this she means the reader's ability to avoid distractions such as checking email or a favourite blog.

I like her argument. It suggests that I am a character of great strength, sternly avoiding distractions every day as I read my books.

Not that Kindle users are bad people.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A killer hangover from corporate Kool-Aid

Still believe that corporate media convergence can work?

You're living in the past. The latest exposure of last decade's "solution" as a nostrum is the fate of CanWest Global Communications Corp. This once but not future owner of a worldwide batch of broadcasting and print media outlets has filed for bankruptcy protection and is restructuring.

This is one of corporations that preached the gospel of convergence: believe that you can cross-promote your media outlets, sell advertising hand over fist, and thou shalt be saved. 

Didn't quite work that way, especially when acquiring many of those properties at the peak of the market created so much debt that CanWest could not even make the interest payments.

Now, six years after the death of Canwest founder Izzy Asper, his son Leonard is overseeing the death of the dream. "Leonard drank deep of the convergence Kool-Aid," David Olive writes in the Toronto Star.

Check out Canadian journalist and media professor Chris Waddell's thoughtful comments in an interactive forum on Oct. 8 about what this means for audiences, employees and aspiring journalists.

Friday, October 2, 2009

TV is dead. Long live the news company?

The death of a small-market Manitoba TV station is an opportunity for a newspaper -- and a test of how serious it really is about transforming itself into a virtual medium.

CKX in Brandon (pop. 40,000) is not worth even $1, a couple of media companies have decided. So it's off the air.

Remember when TV was going to put newspapers out of business? Didn't quite work out that way.

Now the Brandon Sun, the established local daily newspaper, is free to hire a bunch of the dumped journalists and other employees and set up a killer local-news website that would make Western Manitobans forget CKX. All it takes is money, a bit of brains and a lot of will.

The Brandon Sun is owned by the Winnipeg Free Press. Disclosure: I used to make my living at the Free Press, and I still write occasional book reviews for it.

On Oct. 1 Margo Goodhand, editor of the Free Press, told first year students in the Creative Communications program at Red River College, "We aren't a newspaper. We are a news company." I am going to count her welcome statement as an entry in my campaign to rename newspapers, getting rid of the p-word.

Will this news company, whose sales of its dead-tree edition are plummeting, embrace the future and set up a great local news site for Brandon?

Because somebody will.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Body of writing, bawdy of work

An emaciated body and emancipated, lush bodies: themes of two writers featured at the Winnipeg International Writers Festival Sept. 20 to 27, 2009.

In the scary graphic novel Tyranny Lesley Fairfield gives the skinny on eating disorders, based on her 30-year struggle with anorexia and bulimia. Her sane, quiet bottom-line message to students and other book-lovers at Red River College: "I got well."

On the other hand, the raunchy (if not raucous) George Elliott Clarke covers corporeal excesses. Check out any of his books, particularly his latest, I & I.

Long poem? Verse novel? Whatever. Here's a taste from page 72:

The lovers laugh, get loose, snuggle.
Each sugars each sweetmeat sex.

(Betty's "hot," caramel-licorice wiggling
Summons Malcolm's molten satisfaction.)

All this, and funky footnotes, too.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Footprints on the waves

One important difference between the information tsunami and the watery one is what each leaves behind.

The sea wave destroys everything it touches, but the electronic flood does the opposite. It preserves everything.

Killer@Craigslist, a fascinating article in the October 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, lays out the evidence.

Last April a woman and a man met cute (actually, mercenary, not cute) in Boston. They hooked up through ads on Craigslist. The woman died and the man was charged with murdering her. Police made the case by following the cyber footprints of their communication.

Dear reader, you live a much more virtuous life than anyone Vanity Fair writes about, I am certain. So you don't need to worry about where your cyber footprints lead. Right?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Attention must be paid to these ideas

Published Sept 12, 2009 in The Globe and Mail, a reputable Canadian news organization, is this readable summary of the situation in which the information tsunami is leaving us: information-rich and attention-poor.

Lots of implications for everyone within the sound of my voice (as the radio preachers used to say). Of special interest for teachers, journalists and other ex-experts.

Interesting comments, for once, on the Globe and Mail site.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Trying to make a killing, again

A Canadian provincial government wants to seize the proceeds from the sale of a book by convicted wife-killer Colin Thatcher.

I say you should decide whether Thatcher makes any money -- not the Saskatchewan government.

You should decide whether he collects a couple of bucks from his tortured retelling of the case, and his literally incredible insistence that he didn't murder JoAnn Wilson.

If you don't think so, then don't buy Final Appeal: Anatomy of a Frame. You will be in good company as you let this flotsam wash past you in the information tsunami.

Thatcher was convicted of killing Wilson in 1983. He appealed, but the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal told him to take a hike. So did the Supreme Court of Canada.

That's guilty, guilty, guilty.

Now that he is out on parole, who cares if a couple of hundred people fork over $35 for his book? That's a couple of hundred people who will see through his delusions of innocence.

It is highly unlikely his book will hit the best-seller lists. This angry author will not get to make a second killing.

But let the readers decide whether the book should live or die.

That's a better chance than Thatcher gave JoAnn Wilson.

Friday, September 4, 2009

D-I-V-O-R-C-E, 2009 style

Check out this outrageous claim:

“In this spirit-numbing information age, we gorge on the Web and on CNN, we cannot free our hands of our BlackBerrys and laptops and cellphones, but, in the end, we know less and less of each other, of our hearts, of our souls.
But Johnny Cash singing I Walk the Line or Hank [Williams] sorrowing through I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry still gives us more insight in three minutes, tells us more about what matters most in our lives, than we get in an entire 24-hour news cycle.”
– Sing Me Back Home: Love, Death, and Country Music by Dana Jennings, Faber and Faber 2008.

Is the Web more up-to-date than Webb Pierce? Has Google supplanted George Jones? Or is Jennings (an editor with the New York Times, by the way) just a country hick?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Down with the P-word! Let's rename newspapers

Newspapers need a new name.

The news part is OK, although perhaps unnecessary. But the paper part is dragging them down.

Dead trees, yuck!

The best newspapers are learning to compete online, using their large editorial staffs to research and present interesting material in a compelling way.

Most of them still publish a dead-tree edition, too. But I don’t know many people who think ink on paper is the future.

(Except my old boss. In 1995, when I was editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, I worked with Red River College and journalism instructor Donald Benham to create a Web site that incorporated text, audio and video. We demonstrated it in the IMAX theatre and impressed lots of folks. Then, when I got back to the office, the publisher ordered me to stop wasting the newspaper’s money and time on this Internet nonsense. But I’m not bitter.)

So let’s dump the P-word. No more paper in the newspaper.

What better word can we create?

And I’m open to suggestions for prizes for the best new name.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What is an information tsunami?

An information tsunami is what we are living in: A constantly increasing blast of information from many media, including new ones that are continuously being invented. It's loud, scary and exciting. And it erodes the ground we thought we were standing on, the authority of more traditional information sources.
As a journalist and instructor in Creative Communications at Red River College in Winnipeg, Canada, I am interested in the consequences of this tsunami. How can we make sense of it? What should we believe? How can we contribute to it? Is there any way to control any of it?
In particular, I am interested in the devices that are used to make sense of the tsunami, such as the forms of fiction and non-fiction writing, headlines and other organizing devices, and the audio and visual elements of messages.
Can you hear me above the crashing? Let's talk -- and maybe have some fun. For example, why are these people laughing?