Archive for September, 2011

Forget Mick Jagger and Super Heavy. If you’re interested in British folk rock — or even aging musicians who still have their creativity intact — then the team-up of the year isn’t Jagger and associates. It’s Ragged Kingdom, the first collaborative album between diva June Tabor and Oysterband since Freedom and Rain in 1990.

That 1990 album remains a cult item, one of those rare collaborations in which the result is something that none of the participants could have managed on their own. You could hear Tabor and Oysterband lead singer John Jones inspiring one another, while the rest of Oysterband transcended their usual versatile excellence to allow Tabor to do arrangements she could never have done by herself, or even with her usual arrangement of a single supporting musician.

Freedom and Rain was also responsible for one of my most memorable concert experiences ever. It was 1991 at the night club at what was then Vancouver’s Plaza of Nations. There, Trish and I listened to two memorable sets that kept cranking the excitement higher and higher. By the encore – a deliberately campy “White Rabbit” complete with dry ice and Tabor in a leather mini-skirt – the only people that weren’t blissfully sated were the waiters, who were sulky about a crowd that had come to listen instead of drink.

Since then, Tabor and Oysterband had played together informally, most notably at Oysterband’s Big Session festivals, and done several covers of rock classics on Tabor’s On Air album. But a studio album was something else altogether, and I have to admit that I first played Ragged Kingdom expecting to be disappointed. After twenty years, how could the magic possibly be repeated?

Well, it can’t be, not in exactly the same way, even though both albums are a similar mix of contemporary and traditional pieces. However, a dozen bars into the first cut, a hard driving version of “Bonny Bunch of Roses,” I knew that I was experiencing something just as extraordinary in its own way. Ragged Kingdom has a harder sound than “Freedom and Rain” – possibly, I would say after listening to his solo album, due to Ray “Chopper” Cooper’s growing involvement in Oysterband’s arrangements – but I haven’t heard a sound with such authority since I first heard Stan Rogers at sunset at the Vancouver Folk Festival or heard Steeleye Span’s “Thomas the Rhymer” coming out of my portable radio when I was in high school.

Or in case you have different touchstones, let me put it this way: right away, I knew I was listening to something original and compelling – something that I had to sit down and listen to, not just have playing in the background as I went about my day.

All the musicians sound like they are enjoying themselves on Ragged Kingdom too much to care much about billing. However, so far as selection is concerned, the album is more June Tabor’s than Oysterband’s. None of their original songs are included. Instead, as on most of Tabor’s releases, the album has an eclectic mix of traditional and new.

Among the traditional pieces, standouts include “Bonny Bunch of Roses,” and “Judas (Was A Red-Headed Man),” two songs I believe that I have heard mentioned in passing, but whose lyrics I’ve never read, and that I have never before heard performed. Both suggest how much potential remains untapped in traditional song, “Bonny Bunch of Roses” being a dialog between Napoleon’s son and his mother about the British Empire, and “Judas” slipping in pious Christianity with decidedly pagan elements and popular tradition. Another piece, “Son David,” belongs to a well-known tradition of a dialog between a fleeing murderer and his mother, but with enough of a new slant in the arrangement to make it interesting.

The contemporary selections are equally varied, ranging from Bob Dylan’s “Seven Curses” to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is especially transformed, being transmuted from Joy Divison’s quick and monotonic delivery to a slow, heart-wrenching duet between Tabor and Jones.

Ragged Kingdom has only two minor faults. First, the hard rhythm of most of the cuts could do with a little more variation. Second, “The Dark Side of the Street” seems a slightly weak ending to the album. However, I expect that these faults would disappear in live performance, and I only hope that Tabor and the Oysterband do a tour for the album in North America in the coming months. I suspect that the experience would be as memorable as the Freedom and Rain concert whose memory I still value.

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One of the unavoidable facts of online publications is that you’re going to make mistakes. Mercifully, some will be typos. Others will be factual errors or passages that need to be made clearer. But no matter how carefully I or my editors proofread, the mistakes will come – in fact, I sometimes think that, the more I try to avoid mistakes, the more likely I am to make them. At any rate, when I make them, once I get over the embarrassment, like any other writer, I am left with two choices of what to do with them: redact them, adding a correction in a footnote or parentheses, or revise them, removing them from the text altogether.

Those who favor redaction argue that revision is useless, that the uncorrected original will always be available online no matter what you do. Some go further, and argue that redaction is more honest, in that you are not trying to cover up your mistakes, but leaving them for everyone to see. Ursula K. LeGuin also suggests that redaction is a feminist technique, an alternative to the pseudo-objectivity and linear thinking of traditional Western thought.

Such arguments have some validity. However, maybe it says something about my own brand of perfectionism (or maybe early toilet training) that I prefer revision to redaction.

For one thing, I’m not a fan of redaction as a reader. In all but a few cases – such as a revision of a well-known article – I react to redaction in much the same way as I react to the extras on a DVD: it’s more than I want to know. Since I suspect that many readers feel the same way, my preference is not to inflict redaction on them.

Just as importantly, redaction always feels to me like a rough draft. Worse – it feels to me that I am not living up to readers’ expectations if I redact. To me, part of my unspoken contract with readers is that I present what I have to say in as polished a form as possible.

It’s not that I’m trying to hide my mistakes – which is impossible on the Internet anyway. Rather, I feel obliged to make each article as factually accurate and as clearly written as possible. Why, I think, would readers be interested in my mistakes? If they really want to see where I went wrong, they can probably find an earlier, uncorrected version of a revised article, but at least I can make clear what the preferred text is. At any rate, that is all that most people are likely to read any way.

However, the main reason I prefer revision is that I consider redaction to be more about the writer than the topic of discussion. Look at me, redaction says to readers. Aren’t I an upright, honest person, willing to show you my imperfections and the development of my thoughts?

In fact, redaction doesn’t necessarily show anything of the sort. In one easily-locatable case, an article begins by stating that I lied. The article has been redacted several times, with an admission that the original claim was the result of a misunderstanding, but the original statement remains, and is all that people see in an online search. To my understandable ire, this is not a form of honesty, but a way of perpetuating the original attack while pretending to be honest.

At any rate, I am not interested in being a focus of readers’ attention. While I hope they want to listen to my arguments and opinions, I have zero interest in being at the center of even a modest cult of personality. To insert a claim about my personality in the form of a redaction seems only a distraction from what I have to say – and, to my George Orwell-influenced mind, anything that interferes with clear communication of my point should be edited out of existence.

If someone who convinces me that I made a mistake expresses a preference for redaction over revision, then I’ll ignore my personal preference and redact instead. But, left to myself, I’ll take revision over redaction every time. So far as I’m concerned, revision serves the argument and the readers better than redaction.

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If I had to recommend a single work to would-be writers, then unquestionably that work would be George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” First published in 1946, the essay is dated now in its references, but no other work talks as clearly or succinctly about the purpose of writing, or gives such useful rules for accomplishing that purpose.

The larger context of “Politics” is the use of language in social situations. As Orwell had already suggested in works like Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm (and would later explore in detail in Nineteen Eighty-Four), the essay explores how language is used to manipulate people and conceal thoughts in “the defense of the indefensible.” However, Orwell’s tone throughout the essay makes clear that he thinks such use of language is corrupt and disgusting, and should be opposed by any writer worthy of the name. So far as Orwell is concerned, a writer’s job is to communicate clearly and effectively – both as a matter of self-respect and as a duty to the language and public discourse.

Aside from dishonest intent, the main reason for corrupt language according to Orwell is that most writers and speakers don’t stop to think what they mean. Instead, they riffle through an assortment of clichés, choosing ones that approximately fit their meaning. Orwell lists the general categories of these clichés – dying metaphors, verb phrases, pretentious diction, and meaningless words – and, although many of his examples are dated after sixty-five years,  no one with any interest in language should have any trouble coming up with modern equivalents.

Talking about the role of the writer and giving negative examples would be enough by themselves to make “Politics” worth reading. But then, at the end, Orwell does something extraordinary: he reduces how to write clearly to six simple rules:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

In less than a hundred words, Orwell not only tells readers everything they need to know about writing clearly, but provides an example of  the type of writing he advocates. The result is a set of guidelines from which anyone can benefit. Considering the thousands of pages that people have written trying to explain how to write, this is an astonishing accomplishment.

One of the reasons why these rules are so useful is their flexibility. You’ll notice that Orwell does not say, for example, “Never use a long word when you can use a short one.” Such a rule would only be another type of pretentiousness, of a sort you sometimes find in Hemingway when he is parodying himself.

Instead, he says, “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” For example, if you just want to convey a general impression of size, then “big” is probably good enough. However, if you want a suggestion of humor, then “humongous” would be more appropriate. Similarly, if want to imply something out of the ordinary range of bigness, then “outsized” might be a more effective choice.

The same goes for a several of his other rules. In general, Orwell suggests, you want to use the active voice – but only when you “can.” If you have a reason for using the passive voice (for instance, to suggest helplessness, you might want to write “A groan issued from his lips” rather than “he groaned”), then do so. In the same way, a foreign expression is only valid if there is no English equivalent; use a Latin or French phrase for any other reason, and you are probably trying to sound impressive when you should be thinking of what you want to say.  Then, just to emphasize the point, he ends by urging that you ignore any of these rules if they fail to aid the clarity of thought and expression that he assumes is a writer’s goal.

If practiced, what these rules do for you is to make you think exactly what you are trying to say. Unlike the rules that other writers propose, these are not suggestions that you can apply by rote. What they really are is a set of suggestions for how to keep your purpose actively engaged while you are writing.

What makes “Politics and the English Language” so unique – and such a necessity – is that, more than any other book or essay on writing I have ever seen, it cuts through the pretenses and the posturings and the assumptions about being a writer to articulate what writing is about and to offer concrete ways to achieve the purpose of writing.

Read (and re-read) “Politics,” and when its rules become a part of your normal writing and editing, and you will understand all you need to know about writing. After that, the rest will be practice.

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I haven’t written a manual for over seven years, so perhaps my opinions about technical writing don’t count for anything. All the same, I’m disappointed to see that writers are still being steered towards distractions such as writing personae I can think of little that could do more to waste a writer’s limited time or cause them to be held in lower regard.

A persona is an imaginary profile that represents one segment of your audience. The ones I’ve seen are usually 200-700 words long, and typically include not simply the segment’s subject matter expertise, but also the kind of detail more suitable for a character in a work of fiction. Age, gender, job title, hobbies, dining preferences, personal likes and dislikes – all these and more can find their way into each persona. Since the audience for technical writing can have several segments, creating personae is demanding, fun – but largely a waste of time.

Admittedly, the exercise of creating a persona can help a write fix audience segments in mind. Should they need to refresh their sense of the audience, they can simply re-read the persona. But for the most part, each of the personae that I have seen has been a nugget or two of information lost in irrelevancies.

The blunt truth is, the main facts that tech-writers need to know about their audience is their technical background and reading ability. Possibly, writers may need to know a few other facts – for instance, the audiences’ languages can affect page layout – but not much more.

And even expertise and reading ability are largely irrelevant, because, rather than trying to second-guess the audience, it’s easier to explain fully and write simply. After all, you never know who might use your manuals, or if the information you’ve received about the audience is accurate.

Under these circumstances, better to stick with the basics. After all, even experts appreciate a brief explanation of context, or may need a reminder of some aspects of your subject. Write a short, coherent explanation of the tasks at hand, and you can’t go far wrong. But spend your limited time on writing personae, and you may guess wrong or find that the context changes. In other words, writing personae just isn’t efficient time management.

My impression is that personae are favored by those who stress the writing in their job title at the expense of the technical. Desperate to have developers and managers take them seriously, they champion arcane embellishments like personae in the hopes of appearing experts and gaining the respect of those around them.

Nine times out of ten, however, such efforts fail, because they are usually made at the expense of actually learning the subject matter, and of writing and editing. The result? You’re left looking pretentious and turn in a finished manual that only reinforces everybody’s impression that you are a lightweight poseur.

If that’s your idea of being a tech-writer, fine – go ahead and fritter away your time on personae But don’t be surprised when you don’t get the respect that you think you deserve. You’ll only get that by mastering the subject matter and presenting it usefully, not by engaging in pointless intellectual exercises.

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When I’m an invalid, I want reading that is light, long, and  moderately intelligent. Last week when my left knee decided to complain about its lack of cartilage, my choice was the first half dozen books of Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire or 1632 series. Mostly, the choice fit my requirements, although I have a few reservations about the books.

The premise of the series is simple: A small town in West Virginia suddenly finds itself in Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War. With its technological edge, the town rapidly becomes a major power, allying itself with Gustav Adolphus of Sweden, and history begins to change. Originally a single book, the series has expanded as Flint has thrown open the series to other writers and encouraged fan fiction set in the same universe.

Beyond the actual pages, the series is also interesting because Flint is one of the first science fiction writers to see the possibility in ebooks and free downloads. Although he doesn’t go so far as Cory Doctorow and make all his books available for free downloads, Flint has seen the advantage of releasing his earlier works to keep them available, which means that the first two books in the series are free ebooks.

The series’ attractions are not stylistic ones. Flint and his growing list of co-authors are competent writers at best, and fall into the category of storytellers rather than artists or even strong plotters. Not that there is anything wrong with that; I respect an intelligent light read, and appreciate one in certain moods, such as coming home on public transit at the end of the day or — as recently, when I was doped on ibuprofen.

Rather, the series is interesting for two reasons. First, it deals with European history, a topic that most of his English-speaking audience is likely to know little about. Since the era includes such larger than life characters as Gustav Adolphus, Oliver Cromwell, and Cardinal Richelieu, there is plenty to entertain and inform, although obviously these characters soon start acting in non-historical ways. However, if you do know the characters who appear on its pages, then seeing where and how they depart from our history becomes intriguing – all the more so since Flint and the other writers largely resist the temptation to make antagonists outright or villains.

Second, the early books of the series focus on the West Virginian’s survival strategies. Their technological advantage is limited because they lack the infrastructure to support it, so much of their planning involves figuring how to downgrade their knowledge – for example, they decide to focus on 19th Century firearms rather than modern ones. These survival efforts are all the more interesting because the emergent leader and many of his supporters are unionists, and express a vision of the future that is more idealistic than the conscious or unconscious free market philosophy of most American science fiction.

However, as often happens when you read a series (or a chunk of it) in one sitting, The Ring of Fire series soon reveals itself as formula fiction. Each of the books I have read in the series revolves around a plot against the West Virginians by political opponents. Through devious means and native ingenuity, these opponents seek to even the technological odds against them, but, although these efforts keep the books from being a completely adolescent power fantasy, there is never much doubt that the moderns and their allies will win, amalgamating their noble enemies and forcing the rest into retreat. In other words, American imperialism is still very much a part of these books — even if it is a liberal imperialism — and the outcome is never much in doubt.

Another problem is that the scenes in each book tend to be one of two kinds: talking heads – often politicians – and loving descriptions of battles and action that I can only describe as war-porn.

I can mostly endure the talking heads, although I wouldn’t mind more variation in technique. However, the war porn soon becomes tedious.

By “war porn” I do not mean graphic, nauseating descriptions of violence – which are mostly absent in the series – but a devotion to action sequences for their own sake. For the most part, battles in the Ring of Fire series are not described to give background to individual characters’ actions or to make clear why other events are happening, the way they are in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. Instead, from the tone and the undue length of the descriptions, I get the impression that readers are assumed to be as fascinated with the descriptions as the writers are. I’m not, and often amuse myself in them by deciding which scenes could be deleted and thereby speed up the pace of the books.

Yet another problem is the depiction of women. The series is by no means overtly sexist –  although so far, no one has mentioned how family planning might fit into the priorities of the stranded moderns. Rather, the depiction of women tends to be token and limited. With no exception that I can readily recall, major female characters tend have one-note in a way that the male characters don’t: One is an old activist, another wise, another full of revolutionary fervor, and so on. Mostly, too, they tend to be introduced in a quirky love story, after which any attempt to develop them comes to an abrupt halt. I suppose that Flint and the others deserve points for trying, but I’d still like to see one of them tackle a story about a woman with her own concerns someday.

Some of this criticism is probably due to an overdose. After all, no series is supposed to be read over a few days. Still, while I will probably return to the series some time when I want intelligent light reading, for now I find myself in no great hurry to do so.

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