Sunday, July 24, 2016

Digital Elk

It's good to be an elk. At least, it is if you happen to live and forage near the town of Sequim, in northwestern  Washington state. Or for that matter in Clam Lake, Wisconsin or in certain areas of Minnesota.

A bull elk. Image in the public domain.
Sequim (pronounced "squim") has a population of a bit fewer than 7000 people and 100 or so Olympic or Roosevelt elk. In the late 1990s, as more and more people moved into Washington's Dungeness Valley, collisions between the elk (weighing up to 1000 lbs.) and vehicles (averaging 4000 lbs.) were becoming more and more common. The contest was a lopsided one, with the elk almost always on the losing end. The herd was being decimated by the encroachment of people (many of them retirees) seeking a peaceful, quiet place to settle, but who tended to ignore the "ELK CROSSING" warning signs on the highway. As is often the case, the clash between man and nature was being decided in favor of man, but at the expense of the beauty of nature and possibly with unanticipated effects on the local ecology. Things were not going well for either Cervidae or human residents.

But in 2001, a wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife had an interesting idea. Shelly Ament came up with what amounts to an interactive elk crossing: Thanks to a project she designed and spearheaded, about 10% of the elk–mainly the herd leaders–were equipped with radio collars similar to those used to track wolves, bears, and other wildlife. But these collars were different. When the elk come within about 400 yards of the highway, the collars emit a laser signal that causes roadside warning signs to flash "ELK X-ING."

The idea worked. Many fewer animals were killed (in fact, only one elk was killed during that first year), and the herd is now healthy and reproducing well. With the help of this technology, the people and the herd have been able to get along.

Ament's idea caught on, and now several other areas of the country are also employing radio-activated warning signs to reduce the likelihood of collisions.

That's the thing about innovation: When a technology is created, no one knows where it will lead, the uses to which it will be put, or the other technologies with which it will be combined. When the first laser was built in 1960, one assumes that the inventors had absolutely no idea that their invention would be used to protect elk herds. (Or that lasers would turn up in optical disc drives, 3D printers, and scanners, none of which had themselves yet been invented.)

We simply have no way of knowing what "feedback loops" (to use a term popular with anthropologists) might result from an invention. While researching Leveling the Playing Field, I read Steven Johnson's How We Got to Now, an enthralling and entertaining book that lays out some of these loops, tracing some of the ways in which early technologies have had far-reaching effects that no one could possibly have foreseen.

Here's a brief extract from Leveling the Playing Field that discusses this phenomenon:
…Johnson lays out a fascinating series of those [feedback] loops, some of them so extended and seemingly so disconnected that one would never see the associations among them without Johnson’s expert (and enjoyable) guidance. And yet, they are very connected.
For instance, he traces the development of the printing press and explains how it caused an explosion of inventiveness not only among printers and writers and the like (which was to be expected), but also among glass and spectacle makers who now found themselves seeking optometric solutions for a seriously myopic population that had never realized its eyesight was deficient until, thanks to Gutenberg, so many people found themselves attempting to read the books, journals, and broadsheets that were suddenly available. But the loop doesn’t end there. The explosion of lens crafters and experimenters ultimately resulted in the invention of both the microscope and the telescope; the former then led to germ theory and other medical discoveries, while the latter helped Galileo and others challenge the Aristotelian notion that the heavens revolved around the Earth. In a way, the invention of the printing press may have led to antibiotics and to space travel.
So who knows where digital elk crossings will lead? Is it much of a leap to anticipate traffic signs that will respond to the presence of your phone or watch, freezing traffic if you happen to step (or fall) out onto a busy street? You could end up owing your life to a herd of elk.  (Or, more properly, to a Washington state wildlife biologist named Shelly Ament.)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

New Arrivals

It's an oddly exhilarating feeling when boxes of books sent by the publisher show up on your doorstep. I've gone through it a couple of times before, but those books were annotations of existing texts; this is the first time I've received copies of a book that I conceived, pitched, researched, and wrote from scratch. It's a heady feeling, a bit like that first time you see your byline on a newspaper or magazine article, but a lot more intense. Then again, this represents a year's work, plus another year of waiting and edits, and some more waiting, and then more edits. (And yet, as always, even after multiple edits, I still see things that I'd like to change! Perfection is so elusive—in a book or in anything else.)

At any rate, they're here! This publisher was a bit more generous than the last with "author copies," as they're called; most of these are destined for reviewers, and of course, three of them will be sent to the three winners of our "name that blog" contest. 

The receipt of the books does bring up a couple of questions I get fairly often: 1) What tools and techniques do you use when writing longer nonfiction? 2) Exactly how does one land a book contract?! Those are both incredibly interesting questions, and I plan to talk about both subjects in upcoming posts. (Short answer to the first one: Mostly Microsoft OneNote and some additional digital tools, many used mainly for interviewing. Short answer to the second: Mostly luck, and maybe a bit of skill, experience, and perseverance. But, honestly, heavy on the luck.)

If you're looking to have your copy signed, I'm happy to do that for you; just arrange shipping both waysor if you're local, drop by the house or visit me at Sandhills Publishing. (Call first.) Otherwise, there will be a book signing at the SouthPointe Barnes & Noble, most likely during the Lincoln Arts Festival on September 24th and 25th. [UPDATE: The signing is scheduled for Saturday, 9/24, at 2:00 p.m.] Hope to see you there, even if you don't need a book signed! (I'll post more info when we firm up the date.)

Thank you all for your support and for accompanying me on this journey.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

FYI: It's the end of the world as we know it

All of these new-fangled technologiestexting, emojis, email, social networking and the likeare destroying our ability to communicate. They're making it impossible for young people to concentrate, to speak and write grammatically, and to communicate effectively; in the end, they're doing serious harm to the very language itself.

 Or so say many. As one teacher complained about his students, “They use ‘cuz’ instead of ‘because,’ and IDK instead of ‘I don’t know.’ They’re shortening their lingo instead of using proper English." (I'll just point out that "lingo" is itself a shortened term derived from Portuguese via the Latin Lingua Franca.)

Jacquie Ream, a former teacher and the author of K.I.S.S.: Keep It Short and Simple, noted, “We have a whole generation being raised without communication skills.” She and others contend that texting is destroying the way young people think and write.

And yet, the destruction seems awfully . . . slow. Technology has apparently been ruining the language for quite a while now—many dozens or hundreds or even thousands of years. And yet here we (and it) still are. You would think that, by now, technology would have succeeded in destroying the language. Perhaps it needs to work harder; apparently, destroying a language—or our ability to use a language—is not as easy as it looks.

There have always been plenty of critics ready to point out the dangers that new technologies pose to our ability to communicate and to think. And they have been ready for a very long time, beginning with the most foundational technologies—ones that predate the iPhone and texting and Facebook not by years, but by centuries.

Writing itself, for instance. In his Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates recounting a story in which the inventor of writing seeks a king's praise. But instead of praising him, the king says, “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant.”

So, at least for some people, even the invention of writing horrified the older generation. It was, after all, a new technology, and one which completely altered the acquisition, storage, and dissemination of information. Talk about a game-changer—and you know how we old people hate change.

And that's always how it goes; the younger generation adopts new tools, while the older generation looks on aghast, certain that what they're witnessing presages the end of our ability to think, to work, to communicate.

These days we're fine with writing. In fact, it's the demise of writing we're worried about.

In another recent development, it turns out that the use of pictures (such as emoticons and emojis) to replace words confusesand perhaps angerssome people. British journalist and actress Maria McErlane told The New York Times that she was “deeply offended" by emoticons. "If anybody on Facebook sends me a message with a little smiley-frowny face ... I will de-friend them ... I find it lazy. Are your words not enough?” Ms. McErlane apparently has a very short temper and way too much time on her hands.

Invented in 1982 by Scott E. Fahlman, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, the first emoticon was a sideways smiley face made up of a colon, a hyphen, and a right-parenthesis. It was created explicitly to add information to plain text messages, the underlying context of which might otherwise be misunderstood. (Was that a joke? Is he serious? Should I be angry? WHAT DID HE MEAN BY THAT?! OMG!) 

And thus began the end of the world as we know it. I mean, not counting Socrates and such.

John McWhorter, with whom I traded emails while researching Leveling the Playing Field, is a linguistics professor at Columbia University. He has studied texting and writingand communication in generaland he says that we're looking at this whole texting thing all wrong. Texting, says Dr. McWhorter, isn't writing at all, and thus has little or no effect on writing. Texting, says McWhorter, is actually "fingered speech."

In McWhorter's view, rather than being a bastardized form of writing, texting is more akin toand follows fairly closely the rules ofspoken language, complete with its shortcuts, telegraphic delivery, fragmented utterances, and the use of "body language" (in this case, emoticons, emojis, and the like) to clarify and add context to an otherwise potentially ambiguous communication.

Many of us seem to think of texting as something less than writing, something that represents some sort of communicative decline, but McWhorter insists that this is not so. “We think something has gone wrong, but what is going on is a kind of emergent complexity.” (Check out Dr. McWhorter's TED address here.)

Which may be a way of saying that my granddaughter was right. During a discussion of this topic, she suggested that perhaps what we're seeing is not the death of one language, but the birth of a new one.

Of course, there are almost certainly other problems caused or exacerbated by technology and social media; there's even an argument that so-called social media has, ironically, made us less socialbut that's a topic for another post, or perhaps another book. But for now, it appears that our students' inability to communicate does not seem to have been caused by new technologies. If we're encountering young people who no longer know how to punctuate, how to write a coherent sentence, or how to craft a cohesive essay (and I see such students daily), perhaps we should look elsewhere for the cause; it may turn out to be a failure of some other system.

Sunday, July 03, 2016


Welcome to the new blog: The Geekly Weekly, located at You can also get here by entering and My ultimate goal is to take over the Internet, so that no matter what you type, you end up at this blog. Mwahahaha… (But that might have to wait; at the moment I'm still recovering from an hour-long argument with the GoDaddy technical "support" team about how to transfer and then redirect domains. I'm using the word "support" very loosely here.)

At any rate, thank you all so much for the likes and shares—and especially for the dozens of great blog title ideas, several of which were suitable for a family-oriented blog!

It's a good thing I'm giving away three prizes, because the winner of the blog name contest is actually a combination of multiple suggestions—which then had to be modified to work with available domain names. (I wanted to use the domain name as the name of the actual blog, if possible.)

The name ends up being closest to a suggestion from Tom and Lori Garris, so I'll reserve a nice fresh copy of Leveling the Playing Field for them! The other two suggestions that were in contention came from Joanna Clay and Mara Andersen, so they ALSO get free copies, once the book comes out on August 1st. Woo-hoo—book swag!

Remember to subscribe if you'd like to be notified via email whenever there's a new post, and thank you again for helping me come up with a name.