Posts Tagged ‘composition’

My long-awaited Arts and Crafts keyboard arrived yesterday from Datamancer Enterprises. Its copper and white leather, plus the Celtic knot-work design on the space bar is exactly what I envisioned. But what surprises me is the way the sound and feel of the mechanical action of its keys affects my writing.

It’s been years since I thought I needed special tools for writing. A professional writer, I maintain, ought to be able to work with whatever is at hand. So, while I have my preferences, over the years I have written on everything from a Palm pilot in its graffiti alphabet to the keyboard of a smart phone to a notebook. The point has never seemed the hardware, but preserving the content as quickly as it comes to me. Everything else has seemed pretension to me, like the various software tools that are supposed to help wannabes (Vim or a basic text editor is usually enough for me).

Still, I didn’t always feel that way. As a young adult with poetic aspirations, I was convinced that my writing was somehow tied to the muscular movements of a pen. The words I wrote by hand seemed to have a deeper, more thoughtful tone than things I attempted to write on a keyboard, and possibly a richer vocabulary as well. But somewhere in the first years of the millennium, I learned to do all my writing in front of a computer, and if my style suffered as a result, the damage was not enough to stop me from publishing regularly.

However, as soon as my fingertips connected with the new keyboard, I was aware of a change in how I was writing. It wasn’t that I had to press the keys slightly harder than I do on a cheap keyboard. Rather, I seemed to be paying more attention to what I was doing. What came next seemed to be blossoming in my mind earlier and quicker than with a cheap keyboard, and I was more likely to go back as I was writing and make changes in wording and structure, rather than leaving such changes for my revisions. The right word seemed to come morre easily. On the whole, I seemed to have a greater understanding about what the item I was composing needed.

At first, I thought the change was the result of the louder click alone. That surprised me, at first, because previously I would have imagined that I preferred a silent keyboard. But the sound of my new keyboard is the sound of progress being made – a sort of mechanical cheering to encourage me to keep going.

But that doesn’t seem to be whole of it. The action of the keys seems to be involved, too. The slight extra pressure on the keys seems to make a difference, and not just because at the end of yesterday my fingers felt like they had had an extra workout. Instead, it’s more like the connection between me and the words that I used to feel with a pen has been re-established.

After some thinking, I now wonder if the low-end keyboards I’ve used until now make typing too easy. Their keys are so sensitive that they require little effort on my part. That may sound like a desirable trait, but the lack of effort seems to severe my sense of connection. Now, entirely by accident, that connection has been restored in a way that I never thought possible (let alone necessary) with a keyboard.

Or, to put it another way, my new keyboard is like a bicycle: It extends my capabilities, but by supplementing the movement of my fingers instead of replacing them. By contrast, standard keyboards are a like a car, reducing my muscular actions to no more than a signal, and replacing them with its own actions. The slightly greater effort required by new keyboard is just enough to make me aware of what I was doing.

I’ll have to see how I feel as I’m settling down with the new keyboard. But, for now, I’m convinced that it is bring me closer to what I am doing, engaging me in a way that other keyboards do not.

It seems to me that this is what the best technology should do. Instead, many machines seem to reduce the need for human action. The result is that we are subtly alienated from our production, even when doing something like writing that is supposed to be creative.

All I know for sure is that I already I seem to detect a different cadence in my writing, and a tone that is closer to my speaking voice than most of what I create on the computer. I look forward to using the new keyboard, because it seems to be one the rare tools that really will help me to write more effectively.


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(Note: The following is a handout I used to give in composition courses to first year university students. You are welcome to reformat and distribute it under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Basically, that means you it any way you like so long as you give me credit and let others use it under the same conditions)

A. “Chunk” (Paragraphs arranged by subject):

In the co-op, Judy is the practical one. Of the four people who share the house, she is the only one who is not visibly eccentric. She keeps regular hours, and sees that the bills are paid. If food is bought, or laundry is done, either she has done the work or bullied someone else into doing it. Periodically, she musters everyone else for a massive cleaning of the house. It is only her profession–writer–and her New Age interests that suggest how unusual she is.

By contrast, Saul, the household’s other original resident, is so eccentric that his friends think that he looks abnormal in ordinary clothes. His usual wear is either a faded red caftan or Scottish formal wear, complete with a sporran and skean dhu. Because of his light-sensitive eyes, he is usually awake while other people are asleep. He rarely leaves the house, and the ordinary business of living holds little interest for him. He never considers bills, and, although he will eat if food is available, will lives for several days at a time on nothing more than nerves and coffee. Only the area around his computer is clean; the rest of his living space has mounds that archaeologists would love to excavate. Even his hobbies are unusual: sword meditation and writing poetry in obscure languages like Gaelic and Iroquois. Unlike Judy, Saul seems incapable of functioning normally; he does not meet visitors in their world so much as invite them into his.

B. “Slice” (Paragraph arranged by Points of Comparison):

Although both Judy and Saul are old friends, they have little else in common. Saul is visibly eccentric; Judy is so ordinary that she is no more noticeable on the street than a lamp post. She is awake and starts work when their neighbors do, and she can handle such things as bills, laundry, shopping and cleaning–matters that are mysteries to Saul. She even knows how to organize the other household members. Saul, on the other hand, can barely organize himself. Except for his work station, he is surrounded by clutter. If his routine is more organized than Judy’s, the reason is only that he organizes only himself–and then only so that he can work, which is the most important thing in his life. His life is arranged to give him as much time to work as possible, so he pays no attention to ordinary matters like food. A night person, he may go for days at a time seeing nobody, never leaving the house, and surviving on coffee with the odd bit of leftovers. Even his hobbies, sword meditation and writing poetry in obscure languages like Gaelic and Iroquois, are private. He is so different from Judy that many people are surprised to learn that they have shared a house for over twenty years.

C. Analogy:

If the difference between eccentrics and ordinary people is the difference between night and day, then Judy is twilight and Saul is midnight.

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(The following is a handout from my days of teaching first year composition at university. It consists of some informal examples of closing paragraph strategies, but should be equally useful for formal essays. Anyone who finds it useful can reproduce it, so long as they give me credit for it)

Will North Americans continue to take their high standard of living for granted? Probably not. As we have seen, North Americans use more energy, buy more goods, and create more garbage than even the Europeans. Yet this state of affairs is barely fifty years old, and already it is changing. The North American standard of living has been declining for over a decade, and, as Europe and Japan retool for modern technology faster than we are able or willing to, there is every sign that this decline will continue. Indeed, many people believe that we are overdue to return to a more equitable rate of consumption. Perhaps in another century, historians will look back at Twenty-First Century North America in astonishment, and shake their heads with both envy and disgust.

Final Generalization:
As these examples demonstrate, social networking is transforming the way people work as well as how they play. Clearly, our lives are in the middle of a transformation whose end we cannot yet perceive..

Final Example:
One final example will illustrate the need to quarantine exotic birds. In 1934, a small shipment of cockatiels with Newcastle’s disease arrived in Holland without going through quarantine. Before the birds could be traced and destroyed, thousands of domestic poultry had to be destroyed to stop the spread of the disease, and dozens of farmers lost their livelihood. To make matters worse, 39 people caught Newcastles’ and died from the disease. Ever since, Dutch officials have insisted on a three month quarantine for imported hookbills. Without such precautions, the risk of financial health and illness are simply too high.

Final Analogy:
The disappearance of homo neanderthalis and the prevalence of homo sapiens can be compared to the Norman conquest of England. Contrary to popular belief, there was no widespread slaughter of the Anglo-Saxon population of England by the Normans. Many Anglo-Saxon leaders had died in battle, and many of those who were left chose to swear allegiance to the Normans rather than face execu­tion. Few of the middle-class or laborers were killed, for the simple reason that they were needed to run the country. Anglo-Saxon language, customs and culture were modified, but not destroyed by the Normans. Four centuries later, neither Norman nor Saxon existed–they had all become English. If such assimilation has happened so quickly in historical times, it could just as easily happen in prehistoric times as well, especially since we cannot pinpoint the disappearance of the Neanderthals to within more than five or seven thousand years. It seems likely that, instead of being slaughtered, the Neanderthals inter-married with homo sapiens, disappearing as a distinct species, but contributing their genes to present-day humanity.

Call for Action:
Such evidence indicates that the attempt to do without government automobile testing is a failure. Over half of the vehicles on B. C. roads are mechanically faulty, and over two-thirds do not meet federal emission standards. Clearly, the provincial government must act at once to put an end to this dangerous situation.

Mention of Related Issues:
Obviously, this paper cannot cover all aspects of the question. Given that some dinosaurs were warm-blooded and evolved into birds, what happened to the rest of them? Was giganticism an evolutionary experiment that failed spectacularly? Or did the dinosaurs have some help–perhaps the meteor strike that some theorists have speculated on recently. Or are modern reptiles the direct descendants of the dinosaurs? These are large questions, but they need to answered before our understanding of what happened to the dinosaurs is complete.

There is little left to say. Defeated in his attempts to bring responsible government to the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island, Richard Blanshard returned home to England. He married well, and became known in his home town for his charities. He never held public office again. James Douglas, his successor as governor, continued to represent the interests of the Hudson Bay Company in the area for another twenty years, doing all he could to prevent the rise of responsible government. Douglas became rich, and the center of high society in Victoria. Today, he is known as “the Father of British Columbia” by people too ignorant of the past to know how hard he fought to prevent its existence.

Rhetorical Question:
The issue, then, is clear: do we have the right to imprison and mistreat animals so that we can view them at our ease? Or does anyone dare to suggest that we have no responsibility to our less intelligent neighbors?

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(The following is a handout from my days of teaching first year composition at university. It consists of some informal examples of opening paragraph strategies, but should be equally useful for formal essays. Anyone who finds it useful can reproduce it, so long as they give me credit for it)

Explanation of Topic’s Importance (Anticipatory Summary):
Computers abound in our houses and offices, exchanging information via modems. Programmers are constantly finding new applications for existing software, and computer technicians are refining the hardware so fast that a new computer is no longer state of the art six months after it is sold. We live in a computer-dominated age, and every citizen should have some knowledge of computers. They make routine decisions in business, education and government, and monitor our defense systems. They help individuals to manage their private affairs, to organize their personal records, and to access goods and services, and municipali­ties and legislatures depend on them for planning future develop­ment. Since a knowledge of computers is so necessary for all of us, computer education–“computer literacy,” as the jargon has it–plays a significant role in our society. To understand this role, we must first consider the importance of computer education to the individual citizen and to the country as a whole; next, we must assess the present quality of computer education at all levels; and, finally, we must examine the ways in which computer education can be improved.

For many years, automatic vending machines have dispensed such products as salted peanuts, chewing gum, cigarettes, soft drinks and candy bars. Now these robot sellers are becoming more ver­satile. At one eastern airport, the simple act of inserting a coin in a slot will get you a magazine, a pen, a toothbrush, a pocket comb, a handkerchief, a necktie, a suit of underwear, a cup of hot coffee or chicken soup, a set of puzzle toys, a spray of perfume, an insurance policy or a shoe-shine. There are other machines that will take your blood pressure or give you a thirty-second dose of pure oxygen. One corporation has designed an automatic snack bar–a cluster of automatic vending machines that offer toasted sandwiches, hot soup, chili, baked beans and hot pastries and pies. Another firm has produced an automatic cafeteria with a menu of over fifty dishes, including a roast-turkey dinner; the machines even say “thank-you” in a computer-generated voice. These are only a few examples of the many types of vending machines. How are these mechanical conveniences constructed? What effect do they have on buying habits? As we shall see, the vending machine plays a major role in modern commerce.

Although manufacturers are reluctant to discuss it except in general terms, copyright violation is becoming increasingly common in our society. Briefly, copyright violation may be defined as the unauthorized use of an artistic product such as a book or a software program by anyone other than the creators or their representatives. It may involve the use of material in slightly altered form, or the copying and distribution of the work, with or without profit. Some people, especially artists, are violently opposed to copyright violation; others, especially software users, consider it their right and something which is inevitable. However it is viewed, it raises ethical issues of great importance.

Cause and Effect:
For the past two years, I have run an average of four to six miles every morning. The results have been amazing. The daily exercise keeps me calm and alert for the rest of the day. It allows me to eat what I want without worrying about calories, and to sleep well every night. It gives me more energy, and, most of all, it gives me a self-confidence that carries over into everything I do. My experience has convinced me that everyone should have some form of daily exercise.

Comparison and Contrast:
For many years, we have thought of the Vikings as bloodthirsty savages who did their best to destroy European civilization. Now, we are starting to understand that this view is too limited. The Vikings were certainly no more bloodthirsty than those they attacked (who generally defeated them, after all), and in many ways they were more advanced. At a time when merchant ships hugged the coast both for safety and for ease of navigation, the Vikings were building sturdy yet light boats that were capable of surviving all but the roughest storms, and boldly sailing across the open ocean using their navigation skills. At a time when most people lived and died within ten miles of where they were born, the Vikings ranged from North American to Russia, and from Greenland to central Africa. Most European art during the Dark Ages was a crude attempt at representational art; the Viking had an intricate abstract art style that we are only now starting to appreciate. Similarly, while most European literature was oral and poetic, the Vikings had complex poetry and detailed prose stories about the deeds of their ancestors. Until early in the twentieth century, a woman in France or Italy had little say in who she would marry, and almost no right to property or divorce; a thousand years ago in Iceland, women had all these rights under written law. As archaeologists have started to reevaluate Viking culture, we have learnt that, far from the horn-helmeted savages of popular imagination, the Vikings were a literate and sophisticated people who were probably closer to us in their assumptions than the southern Europeans of the Dark Ages.

Rhetorical Question:
Can chimpanzees talk in sign language, or do they simply learn what to do to get what they want? Are dolphins and whales possessed of an intelligence equal to ours, but subtly different in nature? Can parrots really have the intelligence of a five year old child? Biologists are divided about the answers to such questions, but the fact that these questions can be asked at all challenge our assumption of our uniqueness. How the question is eventually answered will have a sweeping effect upon our religions, science and ethics.

Illustrative Anecdote:
Once, I made the mistake of telling the woman who was cutting my hair that I wrote poetry. “Must be nice,” she said. “Just light up a joint, sit back and wait for inspiration, then write whatever comes into your head.” At the time, I could have told her that I didn’t smoke tobacco, let alone anything stronger, but, when I think of all that I have learned in the intervening years, I realize that I could have said a good deal more. Like most people, she had a romantic view of writing that is almost totally unrelated to the reality. The truth is not only that few writers use any stimulants stronger than coffee (at least, while they are writing), but also that they hardheadedly plug away at lonely and time-consuming work that, far from being easy, can ruin your nerves in a week if you take it too seriously.

Opposing View to Be Refuted:
Many people think that keeping parrots is like keeping fish. Just as you keep fish in a bowl, feed them, and sit back and watch them, so you keep parrots in a cage, feed them, and sit back and watch their antics. Pet-store owners tell me that this assumption is so strong that some people buy parrots to match the decor of their living rooms. I don’t know how many people act so careless­ly, but I do know that they are in for a surprise. Far from being passive animals, parrots are curious, intelligent birds, that have to be watched constantly and demand hours of attention each day.

Relevant Quote:
“Violence,” Isaac Asimov writes in his Foundation series, “is the last refuge of the incompetent.” Salvor Hardin, the character who adopts this aphorism as his motto, goes to great lengths to prove it, inevitably outwitting his enemies when he applies it. Cynics may doubt that avoiding violence in real life is as easy as it is for Hardin, but, if my personal experience is any indication, Asimov may have a point. Admittedly, avoiding violence is harder than giving into your impulses, and requires more patience. Yet the simple fact of making the effort is worthwhile for at least two reasons: it leads to creative thinking about problems, and, if successful, to more permanent solutions.

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(The following is a handout from my days of teaching first year composition at university. It is meant to be a very basic introduction to the complicated study of logical fallacies. Anyone who finds it useful can reproduce it, so long as they give me credit for it)

For thousands of years, people have been cataloging invalid arguments. These are arguments are invalid largely because they are illogical. That does not mean that they cannot be extremely effective; the associational fallacy, for example, is the basis of a good deal of advertising. But the illogic does mean that they should not be accepted in an essay, which is meant to be the construction of a logical structure of ideas.

Too large a conclusion is drawn from too specific evidence.
Example: Three regional airlines have just gone bankrupt, and many of the larger lines have discontinued flights on certain routes. The North American commercial transporta­tion system is in chaos.
Airlines are not the only form of commercial transportation, and bankruptcies and discontinued routes might not be enough to justify calling the result “chaos.”

Too many considerations are left out for the conclusion to be valid.
Example: Getting a good grade in English is easy. All you have to do is write essays of the required length and repeat the teacher’s opinion.
Grammar and punctuation, structure, and even original thought are also factors in getting a good grade.

Only two extreme positions are acknowledged, and no alternatives or mixed positions. Sometimes called “the excluded middle.”
a.) America: love it or leave it (a statement made by political conservatives in the 1960s)
b.)What do you want: good grammar or good taste? (a slogan once used by Winston cigarettes)

You can criticize your country and still want to live there, and good grammar has no relation to good taste, so it can hardly be its opposite.

Post hoc ergo procter hoc (Latin, “after this, therefore that”)
Because one event occurs after another, it must be caused by the second event.
Example: I carry a gun so I won’t be robbed. It must work. After I was robbed a year ago, I started carrying a gun, and I haven’t been robbed since.
From this statement alone, you can’t be sure of any cause or effect. The speaker may not be going to the same parts of town as before, or maybe they have just been lucky.

Non sequitur (Latin, “it does not follow”)
No logic exists between two parts of an argument
a.) “I made the decision myself, because if we listened to experts, we’d have a tyranny of expertise, and then where would we be?” (John Fraser, former Minister of Fisheries)
b.) “I couldn’t have kicked that girl to death. I wear soft shoes” (a murder’s explanation of why he was innocent)

Why should Fraser insist on making the decision when the whole point of experts is to have someone with advice worth listening to? Similarly, you can still kick with soft shoes – or even when you’re barefoot.

False Analogy
A poor choice of metaphors or of similar situations.
a.) Some people cannot be educated. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
b.) A well-run office is like a machine. You should be able to replace people without disturbing the office’s efficiency, just as you can replace a bolt or a gear in a machine.

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, because silk isn’t made of pigskin, but it’s not clear that people are that inflexible.
As for an office being like a machine, every organization has an informal organization that compensates for problems with the official organization. For instance, a receptionist may compensate for a company officer’s inability to keep to deadlines. Replace that receptionist, and the office may become disorganized.

Ad Hominem (Latin, “to the person”)
Attacking the person who holds the argument, not the argument itself.
a.) People who complain about the conduct of Cabinet Ministers have a vested interest in attacking the government.
b.) Ignore what teachers tell you about writing. They’re all frustrated journalists and novelists who aren’t good enough to compete in the commercial market.

Both these statements may be true or false. But, either way, they do no mean that the attack isn’t valid or that their advice isn’t worth following.

Ad Populum (Latin, “to the population”)
An argument that appeals to popular prejudice or belief.
a.) Canadians have worked too hard to see their jobs stolen by recent immigrants, or, even worse, to support them when they go on welfare or unemployment.
b.) Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

The first example tries to appeal to anti-immigration prejudice, the second to the popular wisdom of a cliché. Neither replaces a reasoned argument.

Associational Fallacy
A position is made attractive by who holds it – either a famous person, or people with desirable qualities.
Example: I have no crystal ball. But based on our previous mailings, I’m willing to go out on a limb and make a prediction –
Of all the people who receive this invitation, only a very special group will select accept.
You can easily spot them in any crowd. The young in mind, no matter what their age. Eternally curious. Open to new ideas. Alert to future possibilities. Those fortunate few who didn’t stop growing – intellectually – the day they left school. (a magazine subscription offer in the mail)

The implication is that, if you subscribe, you will prove yourself open-minded and curious, too.

Appeal to Authority
A position must be correct because of who holds it. Alternatively, some greater force such as God or a natural order may be mentioned. Note that this has nothing to do with citing who you got an idea from.
a.) Biology is destiny. Women must be dependent on men.
b.) It is historically inevitable that capitalism give way to socialism.

Here, “biology” and “historical inevitability” are represented as greater than human forces with which no one can argue.

Circular Argument
An argument in which the first statement depends on the second, and the second on the first.
Example: There are no drafts of the last half of the poem because Shelley never finished it. If he had finished it, we would have had the drafts.
Besides being faulty reasoning in other ways (the drafts could have been lost), this argument simply goes round and round.

Dormitive Explanation
Similar to a circular argument, the second statement simply repeats the first one – bu tthe repetition is disguised because of a change in wording.
a.) Opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle.
b.) Ted Bundy killed young girls without remorse because he was a sociopath with a disturbed libido.

“Dormitive” is an adjective that refers to sleep, and a sociopath does things without remorse.

Value Judgment
A position is attacked or defended because of its moral or ethical qualities.
a.) That is an evil position to hold.
b.) My plan is simply common sense.

Arguments are supposed to be about logic. The morality or ethics of them are irrelevant.

A word or phrase is repeated, but with a different meaning each time.
a.) The law is clear on this point. You can’t argue against it any more than you can argue against the law of gravity.
b.) Since evolution is just a theory, my theory about the origins of life are just as good as any biologist’s.

You can’t argue against gravity because it is a description of how the universe works, but the laws of a country are made by humans and regularly argued. Similarly, a theory is just below a law in science – a position that best explains the evidence – while a “theory” in ordinary conversation is just an opinion.

Confusion of Logical Types
A logical type is a level of organization. For example, a body is of a higher logical type than an organ like the liver, and an organ is of a higher logical type than a cell. You cannot compare or contrast different logical types because they create the absurdity of the parts of something being discussed as equal to the thing itself.
a.) The needs of the individual are more important than the needs of society.
b.) Ignore the details and concentrate on the larger picture.

Give too much priority to either the individual’s or society’s needs, and you are likely to have trouble. In much the same way, the larger picture is composed of details, so you cannot ignore them.

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