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Archive for September, 2013

Regardless of the rights or wrongs in a case, I have always found public shaming something to avoid. People acting in a mob are rarely at their best, and they can end up harming themselves as much as their target.

My objections have nothing to do with a belief in due process. I have a lifelong cynicism about the law and its representatives. In many cases, I see nothing wrong with non-violent responses to unjust statutes. But much of the time, public shaming has nothing to do with civil disobedience or a sense of justice. Far more often, it is about imposing a small group’s interpretation of events on everyone else.

Yet, even when public shaming seems justified, I dislike what it does to the people who participate in it. They cease to be individuals, and become part of a mob. They shut down discussion because, convinced that their perspectives are correct, they see no value in discussion. For the same reason, they become disinterested in facts or nuance, and cannot wait even a day or an hour for more information.

In this mood, not even the mildest opposition is accepted. Question their rashness or the venom of their comments or suggest that they might be hasty, and the members of the mob responds as though you physically assaulted them. Almost certainly, they will conclude that you side with their target, even if you emphasize your own misgivings or suspension of judgment.

What makes this form of socially-sanctioned bullying particularly objectionable to me is that most of what I value in human beings is discarded by members of the mob in a cathartic fury of self-righteousness. From being people of reason, the members of the mob become prejudiced rednecks. In their rush to stone a supposed monster, they become another type of monster themselves.

But the consequences can be far worse. Acting rashly and on too little information, the members of the mob, just like the advocates of capital punishment, can just as easily choose an innocent target as a guilty one, or at least an unproved one – not that they are likely ever to admit the fact. Having taken an extreme position, they have an interest in maintaining it long past the point when it becomes indefensible or a half-truth at best.

In the process, they can leave an innocent target dragging a ponderous chain of innuendo and mistaken assumptions, or even a guilty one with less chance of eventual forgiveness or reform. Public shaming can destroy lives, and for me that makes it a metaphorical form of murder – a deliberate infliction of trauma.

Nor do those doing the shaming always escape the consequences. Adria Richards, for example, tried to shame a couple of men at a conference for having a private conversation laced with sexual innuendo by posting their picture without permission on Twitter. She succeeded in getting one of them fired – but she was also deluged with hate mail and lost her own job as a consequence. Historical revisionism is now in the process of making her a feminist martyr because of the hate mail, but her self-glorifying attempts at public shaming are likely to be remembered long after her targets’ names. All of which goes to show that you shouldn’t risk messing with karma.

For most of those who publicly shame, the consequences are likely to be less extreme. Probably, most former members of a mob will never receive their own public shaming, the way that Richards did. But if nothing else, I hope that some day, if only in the back of their minds, they may receive their own moment of private shaming.

Personally, I prefer the luxury of looking at myself in the mirror first thing in the morning without flinching.

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I can still pinpoint the start of my interest in classical history fairly precisely. It was in the spring I was in Grade Three, when Mrs. Charlewood, the school librarian, in a desperate effort to direct my rapid consumption of the library, suggested I try a book called Hannibal’s Elephants.

I didn’t know who Hannibal was, or why the Carthaginians might be at war with Rome, but I was enthralled. If I remember correctly, the story was narrated by a teenage boy who marched with Hannibal, and possibly had some responsibility for the elephants. At one point early in the story, someone sang a song that began:\
Across the Alps and Apennines
In battles far from home,
His elephants lunge at trembling lines
When Hannibal conquers Rome.

At least once, I had a dream in which a woman with a malicious smile started to sing the song, which for some reason I dreaded hearing.

The book ended, of course, with the defeat of Hannibal’s Italian campaign and his recall to Carthage. But I was left with a burning question: how did Rome finally fall? I knew that it must have, since I had a vague idea that the Middle Ages were between Rome and my day, but I wanted to know the details.

I went to the librarian, who didn’t know. She asked a Grade 7 girl who was helping to with restacking books, who said that she wasn’t sure, but she thought that the “Greeks rose to power and destroyed them.”

Even at eight, I could sense that the girl was improvising and knew only a little more than I did. I realized that I would have to find out for myself, so that was what I started to do, reading all the Greek and Roman history and mythology I could find in the school and civic libraries. I remember that in Grade Four, after the teacher taught us about butterflies and metamorphosis, I showed her a reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, suggesting there might be a connection, only to receive a sniff for a reply – possibly because she thought Ovid too racy for me, but more likely because she was unprepared for the subject.

Fortunately, at that age I was not very aware of nuance, and continued reading history, branching out into the Egyptians and Babylonians at one end of the Classical era and The Middle Ages at the other.

As an adult, I’ve made some half-hearted efforts to track down the book that inspired me. The only possible candidate is a book by Alfred Powers that was first published in 1946, and just might have lingered long enough in a school library for me to have read it. So far, though, I’ve resisted the effort to purchase it online. I doubt – and worry – that it wouldn’t live up to my memories. Anyway, unlike Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth or Robert Lancelyn Green’s Robin Hood, I value the book for the lifelong interest that it started more than for itself.

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I have been meaning to buy from Haida artist Carol Young for a couple of years, but, until now my spare cash and opportunities haven’t coincided. Not only was Young the first recipient of the Mature Student Award that I fund at the Freda Diesing School, but she is also one of the strongest women carvers currently at work on the coast, with an awareness of line reminiscent of her teacher Dempsey Bob, and a realism uniquely her own. In less than five years, she has gone from an adequate beginner to a carver with a style that promises to make her one of the great originals in Northwest Coast art.

“Wind-Rider” seems an appropriate place to begin buying from Young. Before Young attended the Freda Diesing, she sold Haida dolls on the Internet, and continues to give classes in doll-making. A couple of years ago, she placed a similar figure on a mask for an all-woman show at the Steinbreuck Gallery in Seattle. With its removable hat and cedar bark hair, the figure seems to embody the entire span of her career, so much so that I suggested to her that she should use it as a logo if she ever prints business cards or sets up a web site.

One of the things that makes the carving unusual is that human forms – especially naked ones – are rare in the Northwest Coast Renaissance. Classical works and oral tales sometimes show a decided earthiness, but, by the time of the local Renaissance, Christianity had changed the standards of what was appropriate. As I write, the Bill Reid Gallery is about to host a show of native erotica, featuring younger and avant-garde artists, but in general, the current artistic tradition approaches the human form cautiously, if at all.

By contrast, “Wind-Rider” depicts a semi-realistic naked female form, with a sensuous appreciation of the curves of its spine, buttocks, and thighs. Yet, at the same time, I would hesitate to describe it as erotic, and not just because the figure suggests a young girl rather than an adult woman. This is not a figure poised for the male gaze in some impossible contortion – nor for any other gaze at all, for that matter, considering its wild array of hair. The posture suggests that the rider is absorbed with the act of balancing and holding on, while the upward tilt of the head conveys a sense of wonder, with the eyes – the only part of the sculpture that is painted – fixed on something that only the rider can see. Meanwhile, the blank expression suggests concentration and determination. Sensuousness and innocence are not usually thought of as going together, yet somehow in “Wind-Rider” they seem to co-exist without any difficulty. In fact, you might say that the figure is sensuous because she is self-absorbed. But, however you parse it, the depiction is original in a way that nudes rarely manage.

Sensibly, Young has left most of the spoon unpainted, leaving the lines of the sculpture to speak for themselves. With most of the attention focused on the rider, she has also left the spoon plain. Yet the spoon, too, is well-proportioned, with a graceful curve to the handle and a ladle that is deep enough and wide enough to serve as a visual counter weight to the rider.

One viewer on Facebook immediately thought of witches riding broomsticks (to which Young immediately replied that the Haida have no concept of Witches). Personally, though, my first thought was of Whale Rider, a film whose protagonist is a Maori girl who is determined to break with tradition and become a chief. Not only does the Maori culture resemble that of the local first nations, but, like the film, Young’s sculpture seems all about following dreams and female empowerment.

From any perspective, “Wind-Rider” is a powerful and unusual work. Examining it, I wonder why I took so long to buy from Young and I’m determined not to wait too long before I do so again.

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Like writing, typography is an art everyone imagines that they are competent to judge. From Dorothy Sayers imagining her opinion was better than Jan Tschichold’s to Mark Shuttleworth altering his company’s direction so that he could play with design, otherwise intelligent people are constantly falling into the fallacy that they can judge typography despite having no experience with it. The latest high-profile example of this fallacy is Marissa Mayer’s comments on the new Yahoo! logo, the majority of which reveals her lack of design expertise.

I knew the process is doomed to mediocrity as soon as I read her first criteria: “We didn’t want to have any straight lines in the logo. Straight lines don’t exist in the human form . . . so the human touch in the logo is that all the lines and forms all have at least a slight curve.” Aside from how arbitrary the limitation is, what strikes me is the immediate escape into metaphorical explanation. Such explanations are rarely a sign of someone with any expertise; in my experience, they are the sign of someone who does not know what to observe. A trained designer is more likely to reflect that giving all the otherwise straight lines in the logo a slight curve is mostly wasted space for the simple reason that most people are going to look at the logo carelessly, and see straight lines regardless, simply because that is what they expect to see.

Mayer’s next criteria is: “We preferred letters that had thicker and thinner strokes – conveying the subjective and editorial nature of some of what we do.” Not only is there more meaningless metaphor, but the logo will be largely seen online, and even a beginning designer knows that online legibility generally requires fonts with consistent strokes.

Further down the list of criteria, Mayer adds a “mathematical consistency.” Although this requirement sounds impressive, it becomes meaningless when you consider that all typefaces are designed to have a mathematical consistency. She might as well have said that she wanted the logo to have a breadth and depth.

Mayer goes on to explain that “we felt the logo was most readable when it was all uppercase, especially on small screens.” However, against what Yahoo! employees “felt” are centuries of practice and study that shows that lower case letters are more legible because they have a more irregular shape that a solid block of upper case letters of the same size – especially at smaller sizes.

In the end, only two of Mayer’s seven criteria are reasonable starting points: wanting to keep a hint of the old design (although having something serif-like as that hint is somewhat odd), and wanting to do something “playful” with the final “oo.”

Judging from the final result, it was already clear that the logo’s designers were less than expert. However, Meyer’s blog does have the advantage of confirming the visual evidence. Predictably, her confused and poorly advised priorities are reflected in the result, and Yahoo! has labored to replace an outdated logo with a poorly conceived one.

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A few weeks ago, an editor requested that I not start an article with a quote. They said it made them feel as though they were coming into the middle of a discussion they knew nothing about. I pride myself on being nothing less than professional, and don’t imagine that I am writing immortal prose, so I used another opening strategy as requested. However, I still believe that the request was more a matter of personal preference than a general rule.

To start with, in any opening paragraph, readers are coming into the middle of a discussion, so the same objection can be raised about any chosen tactic. Perhaps the quote I used wasn’t perfectly suited to its position, but that is no reason to condemn the use of an opening quote in general.

In fact, starting in the middle is a time-honored literary technique. It was recognized more than two millenia ago by the Roman poet Horace, who called it in media res, as opposed to ab ovo, or starting from the beginning. Admittedly, it is usually thought of as a technique for epic poetry or fiction, but a journalistic article is often a form of narrative, too. Personally, I figure that what was good enough for Homer in The Odyssey or Shakespeare in Hamlet is good enough for me.

For another, part of the purpose of an opening tactic is to attract readers’ curiosity. Sometimes the topic is novel enough or important enough that the first paragraph needs no embellishment, but that is an exception. An article published online is competing with thousands of others for readers’ attention, and, so long as you don’t mislead or make exaggerated claims, anything that helps it get noticed seems worth trying.

In this case, part of the reason that I started with a quote is that it is a reasonably uncommon tactic. But, in addition, the quote made an unusual claim, which I was counting on to raise curiosity enough for them to read the next few sentences, where they would learn more clearly what the article was about.

Moreover, because a quote implies a speaker, it is automatically personal and direct. Writers of new releases know that a quote helps interest readers – so much so that many make sure that the a quote falls in the second or third paragraph to keep readers going. In a long news release, writers will often add additional quotes further down to reduce the odds of readers’ attention straying. Although articles are less mechanically structured than news releases, quotes can have similar advantages in journalism. Starting with a quote has a strong chance of attracting readers’ attention precisely because it is so personal and direct.

Anyway, even if none of what I said here were true, a part of me always regards a general rule about writing as a challenge. Tell me that something can’t be done – or worse, shouldn’t be done – and my impulse is to try to do it successfully. So, while I have made a note to avoid using an initial quote any time that I work with this particular editor (who otherwise shows a keen sense of how to improve a piece of prose), don’t be surprised if I use one elsewhere. Being told I shouldn’t only makes me all the more likely to try.

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