Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Spaces Between

The other day I was listening to the sound track of one of the computer-animated TV shows that my children were watching. I usually try not to do that, because I find the voice work in these show to be annoying. But I happen to be working on a play right now, and it suddenly struck me why the TV soundtrack grated on my ear.

Since I started acting six years ago, I’ve heard directors in the theater (including myself) tell the actors again and again to pick up the pace of the show. But not by saying our lines faster, which sounds unnatural and is harder to understand, but by taking out the gaps between lines unless there is a legitimate dramatic reason to pause before we speak.

And the cartoon soundtrack was in exact opposition to this principle! The dialogue was spoken so quickly that I could hardly catch more than half of what was being said. But there was always a least a beat between lines, even when it was inappropriate for the beat to be there.

Now, bear in mind that the directors, actors, and sound editors on these shows are highly-paid professionals. But the folks in community theater around my neck of the woods have a better sense of this than the pros on these cartoons.

Right now I’m writing while my wife is watching the old TV series “Angel.” Since I’m writing and not watching, I have a chance to listen without the distraction of the visuals. Guess what I hear? Dialogue that nearly, and sometimes actually, overlaps, but never sounds unnaturally rushed. The pace is brisk, it carries you along, and despite the frenetic atmosphere of the scene I was listening to, I could clearly understand what the actors were saying, and I’m not even sitting in the room with the TV.

When you are directing, editing, or acting for video, take your cue from shows like “Angel.” Keep the spaces between the lines tight. Consider getting rid of many of them altogether. But don’t rush the actual speaking of the lines. Make sure you take the time to be understood and to give every word the dramatic expression it deserves.

Don’t take your cue from the cartoons. Even if, perhaps especially if, you’re making a cartoon.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Deep Thought

I was listening to Radiolab this afternoon, and on it they had a segment about a software program called "Eureka," the task of which is to analyze very complex data and discover a formula (or set of formulae) that describe it. For example, the swinging of two interacting pendulums, or the patterns in a living cell.

And Eureka does a great job of extracting such formulae, but provides no meaning behind it. It has the answers, in other words, but not the questions. As soon as I heard this I immediately flashed back to The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Here is an excerpt from the fifth episode of the original radio series:

... [A]nd so one day a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings built themselves a gigantic supercomputer called Deep Thought to calculate once and for all the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. For seven and a half million years Deep Thought computed and calculated and eventually announced that the answer was in fact forty-two, and so an even bigger computer had to be built to find out what the actual question was.

I quote Douglas Adams a lot, not only because his material is mind-bogglingly funny, but because so much of it, even when not based in fact, is nevertheless true. Which is, of course, what makes it so funny.

I wonder, now that we have built a smaller (and faster, apparently) version of Deep Thought, will we ever manage to build that second supercomputer to find the questions behind the answers?

By the way, if you're not familiar with the series, the second computer had a very dull name. It was called "the Earth."

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Job Creators

Let me put this out on the table: a company does not create jobs because it has extra money. If you give a company more money, it will keep it unless there is a good business reason to spend it. Tax incentives are not, in general, good business reasons. There is one force that drives, more than any other, the creation of new and better jobs:


I think that supply-side economics is fundamentally, fatally flawed, in that it ignores the basis of all economics: incentive. Sure, Company X might have 100 billion dollars in cash reserves, but why should it turn around and raise wages or expand hiring? What's in it for Company X?

Nothing, unless it needs more workers, or workers who perform more work, in order in meet the increased demand for Product X or Service X.

Well (some say), if Company X doesn't hire new workers, they will still invest in new equipment and buy more supplies and build new buildings, and that will put more people to work in other companies.

Wrong. Company X won't invest one red cent in equipment, supplies, or buildings unless there is a demand, or at least a perceived demand, for the products and services that Company X makes.

Well (some say), if the owners of Company X have all of this money, and they decide to bonus it to themselves, then they will spend money, and help the economy that way.

And this is true, up to a point. But then, the owners of Company X will then be a part of the demand side of the equation, not the supply side. Demand drives the economy. Sorry, supply-siders.

So, the owners of Company X are just following the incentives. So what do we do to create jobs?

Well, here's one bit of heresy: we don't need more jobs. No, really. What we really need is more choices, and jobs that pay better. We don't need to perpetuate the necessity of two-income families (or in some case, two-income individuals) with more poorly-paid jobs that make it even harder to make enough money to get by on.

And we get that money by making sure that more money stays in the hands of the demand side of the economy. And that, overwhelmingly, means putting it in the hands of the poor and middle class.

But we can't just hand it to them, because money, being nothing more than a storage of value, has to come from something. It has to represent real goods and real services that contribute to the economy. Companies that take a long view would be smart to raise wages and give more people full-time opportunities, because that puts more money into the economy and makes everyone's long-term profits rosier.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where most very large companies, the ones that hire the most people, can't see past this quarter's bonuses. And so they do everything as cheaply as possible, and manage in the process to shoot themselves in the foot, along with everyone else. And then they wonder why their company went out of business for lack of consumer demand.

Or maybe they don't, since they have left the carcass of the dying company to go somewhere else.

Until we have companies managed for long-term health, what can we do? We can stop giving so much of our money to the least-productive but most-profitable sectors: finance and government, both of which take more and give less than any other.

Then we can start saving that money, and spend it (in cash, not debt) on real goods and productive services. If we demand things that people have to work to create, then we create more—and better—jobs.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

To My Sons

Sometimes your life colors outside the lines,
Thinks out of the box,
Scribbles, dances, weaves,
Ignores rules, patterns, limits, constraints, borders, boundaries,
And right and wrong answers.
Not walking but soaring, not sitting but leaping,
Splashing down the rocks where it wants to go, and wherever the landscape takes it.
Unleashed, uncaged, unfettered,
Broad strokes of color, clashing, blending, bleeding, dripping, spattering.

But sometimes
Have to rein your life in, grab it by the collar and make it
Color inside the lines.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Defining Affordable

A lot of political rhetoric these days seems to include the word affordable. We're trying to make health care affordable, and create affordable housing. But just what makes something affordable?

Well, in government circles, affordable just means that you can manage the payments, though cheap credit, or longer-term credit, or through government subsidies. Or, it can mean, in effect, not in the least bit affordable by anyone who isn't rich.

Let's take the notion of affordable housing. I've seen some excellent ideas on how to make housing more affordable by actually making housing less expensive: smaller houses (but still very livable), more efficient construction techniques, and even just some good old elbow grease (which is how I've managed to live in a mortgage-free house).

But the government approach to affordable housing is low-interest loans and subsidies. But a low interest loan doesn't make an overpriced house into a reasonably-priced house, and subsidies just shift the burden of the expense to taxpayers (who also have to pay the costs of administering any system that issues and monitors the subsidies).

And the interest goes to banks and the subsidies end up in the pockets of big construction contractors. So who, exactly, is this affordable for?

I remember reading a story (which I have not been able to find the link for) of an architect who specializes in very small, but very comfortable, houses, who was offered the chance to design low-income housing. He was very excited, had great ideas on how to save money on housing, and was ready for the challenge. Until he got the specs, which stated that each house had to be a minimum of 1200 square feet with three bedrooms and two baths. Obviously, no one in that program is looking for any real innovation.

If governments really wanted to make housing more affordable, they would look at the many code requirements and, in some areas, minimum square footage requirements that make a pay-as-you-go home a pipe dream for most people.

When anyone in the government (and especially someone running for office) tells you that he or she is going to make your housing, your health care, or any part of your life more affordable, hold onto your wallet. Because somewhere down the road, in the long run, when all the costs are added up, the government's version of affordable will just give someone the chance to pick your pocket.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Vexing Vocabulary

I have, for some time, been dissatisfied with the content of my fifth-grader's vocabulary lessons. But the latest list just pushed me over the edge.

Before I get into specifics, let's think for a minute about the purpose of vocabulary as an elementary school subject. We teach our children vocabulary to give them a solid foundation of words that they will use in their reading, writing, and conversation. Simple enough, right?

Well, that's why I object to the use of non-root forms as basic vocabulary words. Verbs should be taught in root form, the standard rules of the different tenses and cases learned, and the exceptions to the rules taught as part of the structure of the language. So: shield, falter, depict, flourish, hover, trigger, and consult, not shielding, faltered, depicted, flourished, hovers, triggering, and consulting.

This is an important, but relatively minor objection. Making my blood rise a bit more is the inclusion in this week's vocabulary lesson of the words obelisk and flappers. And yes, flappers is in reference to the defiant ladies who swept the scene following Word War I, not to the part of your toilet that allows the tank to refill after you flush.

It's not that there is anything wrong with these words, it's just that they do not belong in a vocabulary lesson for fifth graders. Sidebars in a history text, sure (in fact, both the history of the flappers and the etymology of the word are fascinating, and one must know the meaning of the word to understand the wonderful song, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?), but what fifth grader will be using them in any of his or her school writing, or indeed in any of the writing that may follow in later life?

But even these two words have not dragged me to the computer to vent my ire. There is just one word in this vocabulary list that represents everything that is wrong with the teaching of vocabulary in today's schools, if the lists I've seen are representative. And that word is—wait for it—


Yes, I can hear you now: "What? Charry? Never heard of it."

No, me neither, and I'm no slouch when it comes to the English language. My mother and stepfather were both newspaper editors. I grew up with word puzzles, discussions about grammar and usage, and jokes about unfortunate newspaper headlines. In my blogs and the books I'm working on, I probably write about five to seven thousand words every week, and it's not even my day job.

So why is my son wasting his time learning a word that no one has ever heard of?

The vocabulary list defines charry as "burned or scorched." I rushed to my Merriam-Webster pocket dictionary. Certainly a word that is taught to fifth graders would be in a 60,000-word dictionary for adults. Nope. How about the 1947 edition? Not there either. How about online? Yep. But don't think that lets the authors of this vocabulary list off the hook.

For one thing, there are two accepted definitions of the word charry that I have been able to find, and neither matches the one in the test. Charry means "Pertaining to charcoal, or partaking of its qualities." This is according to the unabridged 1913 edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. I've also seen some reference to its use by wine connoisseurs and wine makers to describe a burnt taste or odor.

When is any fifth grader ever going to use the word charry? In that report he or she is giving on fine wines? I think I have a problem with that. Even in the realm of the qualities of charcoal, I cannot find reference to this word in any literature within the last century.

And if this fifth grader did end up using the word charry, and started including it in some future writing, having learned it from this lesson, it would be used incorrectly!

Charry is the most egregious example of many faults I've seen in this lists over the course of this school year. It's almost funny. But not really. We owe our children much better than this. We owe them lesson materials by people who actually know the language, who know how to build a working vocabulary, who know the true definitions of the words in their list, and furthermore, how to make it as interesting as it is, indeed, capable of being.

This doesn't take extra money; no one's budget is going to suffer from the decision to provide a better vocabulary lesson. But the reward is better reading, writing, and speaking skills for all our our students. And, really, it is the least we can do.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Twisted Slinky

Child approaches with tangled mass of plastic Slinky knockoff,
Jumbled sculpture of wiry plastic,
Impossible challenge
For busy parent who can't resist entreating eyes.

Twists and turns transform jumble into coil.
But slowly. Ever so, painfully so.
Child has retreated to other interests,
But the parent cannot let the slinky stay unordered.

Finally the slinky is all coil and no jumble,
Placed quietly on the child's bookshelf.
Child is in the land of video game battles,
And does not even notice the perfectly restored slinky's return.

But the parent, today at least,
Has beaten the twisted slinky.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Politics and Race

I know I will catch a lot of flak for this, but I have to be honest. I think that race should play a very important role in politics. I'll go so far as to say that I will not vote for any candidate that does not share my race.

That's right. No candidate will get my vote if he or she is not human.

I am especially biased against snakes, sharks, and weasels.

I realize that this narrows the field considerably. But a man has to stick by his principals.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Grammar School?

I think I know why our the schools our children attend when they are young are now called elementary schools instead of grammar schools. It's because they don't know anything about grammar. Or at least the people that write the materials they use don't.

I've come to this conclusion after looking at homework from all three of my boys, the eldest now an adult, the youngest still in grade school.

What triggered this tirade is an article in none less than Time magazine, or at least an offshoot of it. Time For Kids is circulated through the schools and is actually used as part of my children's homework. And in a recent issue, the subject of the back page was eating a healthy diet.

That's right, I said a healthy diet, because that's what TFK called it.

What, you don't see the problem? That's because you grammar school lost its way when it comes to grammar. Diets are not healthy or unhealthy. If you wish to be healthy, one good way is to eat a healthful diet. People can be healthy, as can animals and even plants. But the animals we eat are not healthy; they are dead. Some of the plants may not be dead when we eat them, but they certainly are soon afterwards.

By the way, the thesaurus on my Mac computer screws this up, too. It says that the antonym for healthful is unhealthy. Wrong! The antonym for healthful is unhealthful. This kind of thing is infectious. And unhealthful.

Look, it really isn't that complicated. If something can get sick, it can also be healthy. By metaphoric extension, an economy can also be healthy, although not many are these days. But a diet can't be healthy because a diet cannot get sick.

A diet can be healthful. It can also be beneficial, nutritious, nourishing, wholesome, and sustaining.

But no matter what you do to it, your diet is never going to be healthy.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


I love bananas. Who doesn't? But would you think that there is enough to know about bananas to write an entire book? I don't mean some technical treatise aimed at botanists, I mean a popular book aimed at people like you and me. I wouldn't have thought so.

Until I read Banana: The Fate Of the Fruit That Changed the World, by Dan Koeppel. Koeppel writes not only a fascinating history of this delicious fruit, but an in-depth discussion of the dangers it faces from disease (much of it exacerbated by bad growing practices and bad politics). Bananas are not only the world's favorite sweet fruit, but a staple food in many parts of the world, where less-sweet versions are a basic starch, comparable to rice in Asia or potatoes in the US and UK.

Koeppel left me with a deep appreciation of one of my favorite foods, a craving to try a variety of banana nearly extinct, and more than a little concern that the fruit that is such an important part of my diet may not survive.

Of course, I should have known that, in the hands of a skilled and dedicated author, even so common a thing as a banana could make for fascinating reading. After all, just a couple of years ago, I read a very long, very interesting book on another common kitchen item: salt.

Salt A World History, by Mark Kurlansky, covers the topic of salt in detail that would be excruciating were it not for the fact that it so well written, and structured to carry you along in the political and practical history of something that everyone in the modern developed world takes for granted.

There are probably a lot of simple, everyday items—foods, simple tools, articles of clothing—that have fascinating back stories waiting to be uncovered by the right author. Something as simple as, say, a pencil.

Oh, wait. I think a friend of mine posted something on Facebook about a book on the history of the pencil. I think I might have to read that ....

Saturday, January 7, 2012

It's Not My Fault!

It's not my fault my weight is rising.
It's genetics, or it's advertising.
It's all those meals supersized
That make my scale's numbers rise.

High fructose corn syrup, that's the reason
My body shape's no longer pleasin'.
And dollar menus make me swell
At Mickey D's or Taco Bell.

I admit my waist is bigger,
But there must be some outside trigger.
It can't be that it's all my fault;
I take that with a grain of salt.
And yes, a pat of butter, too,
And just a spot of cream, it's true.

Alright, I know, I love to eat,
And spend too much time in my seat,
And tend to think that exercise
Is merely torture in disguise.
I wouldn't be so oversize
Were I less stubborn and more wise.

But every day I hear excuses
(Excuses have so many uses)
Absolving me of any blame
For sloth and gluttony without shame.

Pudgy people cannot stop
Chowing down until they pop.
Hidden messages and secret voices
Bombard them 'til they have no choices.

And something in their ancestral make-up
Decides just how much room they'll take up.
It's done, it's through, it's set in stone.
You can't be thin, that bird has flown.

You might as well enjoy the ride
(With hot fudge sundaes on the side):
Eat and drink! Scream and shout!
And feel free to slouch about.

Of course, there is a small contingent
Whose  ideas are much more stringent.
They believe that gaining weight
Is not to be left up to fate.

Move! they say, eat less, do more!
Get up! Get out now! This is war!
Beat that fat and beat that flab;
Chubby's horrid, thin is fab!

Voices haunt me in the night,
No excuses for my plight
I'm not in shape to mount a fight:
The fact is that they're probably right.