E-mail From a Deceased Attorney

zombie-1.jpg

image credit: Sabrina of Introverted Wife

Usually, I simply delete “scam” e-mails without a second thought. This one, however, got me reading. I wonder if Mr. DeSilva’s legal fee would be “your brain!”

Ah, what magic a simple apostrophe + s can work on a piece of writing.  It can even bring back the dead.

Attn: Dear

My name is Barrister Martinez De Silva , My aim of writing to you is to seek your consent and present your humble self as trustee of my deceased client estate and the bank had issued me several notifications on my capacity as the deceased Attorney to provide a legal representative thereof.

Moreover, the fact that there is no surviving relative or trustee to inherit the estate of my deceased client  which may spur the bank to classify the estate as unserviceable and legally uncollectible after statutory time limit imposed by the law.

If you are interested in my project please contact me immediately so that I can provide you with more details and procedures.

Regards

Barrister Martinez De Silva.

Postscript: The comments are flooding in to this site. All of them are spam linked to products (often pornographic or financial). The best so far, however, is quite innocent in its surrealism:

“I found your article, Richmond Writing » Blog Archive » blather and beyond, is one of the most interesting articles about face cream.”

Keep that spam coming! We get great laughs from you spammers!

This is Your Brain, Hooked on Gadgets

Location: Doing ONE Thing at a Time
image courtesy of UCLA Magazine

I was pleased to see “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price” in The New York Times, and it’s a decent follow up to my recent post about why I resist getting an iPad right away.

My own students love to multitask, and, frankly, often their work lacks depth because it has been done haphazardly and with partial attention. Too many students get Cs or lower because of this. Even though I encourage multimodal work that includes more than text, the core of the idea under discussion must be sound, and the execution must be excellent to earn an A.

A few of us in academe, notably Michael Joyce in his book Othermindedness and elsewhere, have celebrated the ways in which we think laterally and associatively, under the influence of networked technology. Joyce once praised “successive attendings” as more important to our future than a sustained attention span.

I won’t deny that appeal and the power of lateral and associative thinking, because brains like Thomas Jefferson’s thrived on it. But sadly, for most of us multitasking seems an either/or proposition. Michael Joyce has always impressed me with his expansive mind, like his fellow poet Walt Whitman’s, able to contain multitudes.

Most of my students, as well as this writer, can contain only a few things at a time. The result of trying to overload the brain often comes with a price, and for students, it’s likely the one paid by Connor, the son of one of the people interviewed for the Times story:

Connor's troubles started late last year. He could not focus on homework. No wonder, perhaps. On his bedroom desk sit two monitors, one with his music collection, one with Facebook and Reddit, a social site with news links that he and his father love. His iPhone availed him to relentless texting with his girlfriend.

Connor began getting Cs in school, largely, his parents claim, because of his multitasking. And that is what happens too often to my students. Parents can–and too often do not–encourage better habits by example and, old schooler that I am, punishment. But Connor’s parents are both heavy multitaskers, so dad interrupts vacation time to check mail and make calls. That’s a different world from that of my med-school-bound friend John, when he was in high school. After one B on the report card, John got pulled from our gaming group until he again got straight As.

John got the scholarship to UVA. I limped in and out of Virginia with a C+ GPA. I will admit that I had a lot more fun.

Some diversions were different then: paper-and-dice games, dorm bull sessions, movies in an auditorium and not on a computer. Others, notably women and beer, remain the same. But the effects of dividing my personal time were pernicious. Luckily, I had no cell phone or laptop when I burrowed into the depths of the Alderman Library to read and prepare drafts in writing.

Now, every square centimeter of our campus library has wireless access, and the students don’t look up as they cross our beautiful grounds. Their thumbs are busy, texting. With that goes a chance at introspection. As this shift has happened, I’ve grown less afraid that my students won’t know the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree than I am that no one but me and a few other old folks will notice the cherry trees blooming in front of Ryland Hall. This is the emblematic price we pay for multitasking. Cherry trees are the unnoticed wallpaper for student walks, not a vital part of their college experiences to remind them that beauty and youth fade quickly.

One of Sven Birkerts’ great fears in The Gutenberg Elegies, the waning of the private self, is coming to pass. There’s no quiet time alone for those I teach. You can get a 2010 sense of his thinking in “Reading in the Digital Age,” from The American Scholar. The waning process is well underway. How do we fight it?

I’ve learned, the hard way, to tell those who IM me at Gmail, despite the busy status, that “I’m busy.” In Second Life I’m relentless about not answering IMs when building. I check mail three times daily at work, and that’s it. I do not answer the phone, ever.

I’ve recaptured acres of time, as a result. But I have a strong will, strong to the point that I’ll hurt others’ feelings if they interrupt my work. My students, for whatever reasons related to peer pressure and a lack of counterexamples, live in a hive.

As a beekeeper, that’s a metaphor I normally enjoy. But humans are not honeybees.

As a student put in in the UCLA story where I found the image for this post:

“If I’m reading for one of my classes, and doing other things as well, then I am not paying my full attention to the reading, and therefore learning less.”

Other than “focus on one, maybe two, tasks until you are done,” I see no other way around this dilemma. The task is hard, but the reward, as Birkerts notes, is no less than living what Socrates would have called an examined life:

Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won. To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one's essential position.

e.g. i.e. etc. What to do?

Defending the Empire

A reader who uses our Writer’s Web online handbook contacted me concerning my use of “ex.” before an example of correct usage:

 I was of the belief that the correct way to abbreviate "example" was, in fact, e.g., (preceded and followed by a comma), then the example itself.

I realize that the English language is ever-evolving and Latin is considered by many a dead language, but there are a number of other credible sources that still show exempli gratia in its abbreviated form as being the correct expression to use when providing an example.

Thank you for an otherwise valuable resource for the finer points of written English.

Dear Reader:

Language is indeed changing; what is “correct” today will be forgotten tomorrow. No cohort of academics can stem the tide.  Language policies are, at best, like Hadrian’s Wall: it cut off intruders who managed to slip over, so their small bands could be easily wiped out.  On the safe side of the Wall lay the Roman civitates, unarmed and peacefully doing the business of Empire.

Yet no Wall–Hadrian’s included–could withstand a mass onslaught. That is, indeed, what new media, and before it, television and radio have done to formal English.

To your questions: for the sake of modernity, I’m going to retain “ex.” in my examples. For the sake of clarity, however, I won’t abbreviate it. All “ex.” instances will become “example” since the abbreviation might be misconstrued as “former.”

Let us be Stoic about this, as Marcus Aurelius did in the face of change. As he so wisely put it, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

With this in mind, I teach writers to appeal to their readers. While a few well educated readers like yourself will be offended by my modern usage, in a few years no student I teach–at a selective liberal-arts university–will ever use “i.e.” or “e.g.” or “op cit.” or “idib.” except when writing a paper using the Chicago Manual of Style. Even that will be fleeting as fame and earthly treasures were in Aurelius’ estimation. I do not believe that the “paper” as we know it will even exist in a generation. Multimedia projects will replace it.

Ars Rhetorica will survive this change, as it did when Socrates lamented that his follower Phaedrus would recall nothing important during the arrival of that pesky new technology called writing. Had Socrates’ idea prevailed, would the Romans have plundered–I mean, appropriated–what they did from Athens’ rich heritage?

Take heart! Even as our old Roman stalwarts vanish into the linguistic sunset, the dogged centurion “Etc.” will, however, limp along, often misspelled “Ect.” Its original will remain as meaningful to modern readers (we bloggers do still read) as, exempli gratia, a Roman gladius would against a British Centurion tank.

Once I saw the need to hold some sort of line against language change. No longer, except when students veer into contemporary slang (much of it on the way to becoming formal English). Seeing the following changes in formal academic prose, for instance, I no longer penalize students for contractions or the use of “center around.” These both pained me at various times in my academic career. Now I’ve just moved along since, as Aurelius reminds us, “Every man’s life lies within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain.”

19th Century Clues Explored with 21st Century Writing Tools

Usher, Beeble & Swedenborg

Here, avatar Beeble Baxter muses upon the image of Immanuel Swedenborg in Richmond’s virtual House of Usher.

During our pedagogical collaborations in virtual reality, there have been surprising parallels with traditional composition, but finding these parallels is not difficult. More challenging is the invention of an engaging and useful composition in virtual reality for use in our courses to help us to create that balance of challenge and learning that Lev Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development, or ZPD.

Poe’s horror story “The Fall of the House of Usher” has always fascinated me in terms of its psychological prescience and its manifold intriguing but arcane details. Like many Poe characters, Roderick Usher is melancholic and has surrendered to “the grim phantasm, FEAR” that seems to  paralyze him. Sometimes a cursory reading of Poe moves us to dismiss his tales as merely formulaic, but his details are often doors to the dank dungeons of the human psyche. The narrator of this tale, responding to Roderick’s desperate letter, attempts to distract his friend’s obsessive and fevered mind as they “pored together over” the titles in Usher’s library. In so doing, the narrator gains some understanding of Usher’s disintegrating psyche, but we do not.

However, it only takes a look behind the mention of Immanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell (1758) to get a more detailed insight into Roderick’s madness. The full title of the text the narrator finds in Usher’s Library is Heaven and its Wonders and Hell from things Heard and Seen.  Swedenborg begins with an exegesis of Matthew 24:29–31 in which he makes the following claim after dismissing the literal reading of the passage:

 “However, people who believe such things are not aware of the hidden depths that
lie within the details of the Word. There is in fact spiritual meaning in these
details, for they intend not only the outward and earthly events that we find
on the literal level but spiritual and heavenly events as well.
This holds true not just for the meaning of phrases but even for each word.”

This passage almost seems to apply to Poe’s tale as well, and so in traditional text we have mirrors of meaning. Roderick’s belief in the consciousness or “sentience” (1st coined in this story) of his house and the influence of the masonry, most specifically the “collocation of the stones”or their particular arrangement, seems to suggest a tendency to find hidden meanings not unlike Swedenborg. The “House” of Usher certainly exhibits the layered meanings that Swedenborg sees in the Scriptures. In his mystified mental misery, it may be that Roderick overlooked or dismissed Swedenborg’s insight in entry 311 where he reminds us that “heaven and hell come from the human race” a concept that might have encouraged Usher to clean up his own haunted palace to end the personal hell he had endured for so long.

It is such detail that suggests virtual reality as a potentially powerful tool for motivating students to dig more deeply into the details of the text and reflect upon their narrative function. Why does Poe bother to list these specific titles? The image of Swedenborg on one of the walls of the Usher library can be “scripted” to provide clues for student research prompting them to ask: how can Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell can help us understand the intricacies of Roderick’s madness?

 And this is but one of the books named by the narrator of Poe’s story, each of which provides its own web of connections and opportunities for research. In “Fall of the House of Usher” the line of exploration can run from Poe to Swedenborg to William Blake whose astonishing hybrids of poetry and image composed via etching and engraving, continue to provide fertile intellectual and aesthetic delight even in the digital age.
The William Blake Archive is one of the first collaborative hypermedia texts to receive academic acclaim and its design provides unprecedented access to the vast collection of Blake’s genius scattered across the globe. Here students can follow the thread from Swedenborg to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell which includes images and text critical of Swedenborg’s views.

When the 19th Century meets the 21st Century in the dark digital hallways of our virtual House of Usher, the possibilities begin to unfold for the bold who playfully pioneer.

Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Greetings From “The Old Man Store”

Old Time Office Supplies

Today I placed an order with Staples for some supplies badly needed at the Center:

  •  “Reinforcement, hole”
  • “Pressboard Report Cover, side tab”

My reader may well wonder, “why badly needed?”  No one died because pages fell out of a three-ring binder.

We forget at times how much the work of writing still depends on paper. As much as I’ve tried, mightily in fact, to be rid of paper in my office, I find that about once per year, I will need an ancient text I photocopied in grad school in the late 1980s, an article I saved and hole-punched from a moldy issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education in the mid 90s, or  a news item printed from the New York Times‘ Web site in 2005.

These sorts of materials are not alien to my students, but I suspect that keeping and organizing them are as alien as, say, using a slide rule would be to their peers in the sciences.  And yet a Writing Center could  not exist without its crumbling archives of printed matter.

One day in the not-too-distant future, such paper-based storage supplies will be as hard to locate as typewriter ribbons (Google that, you young rascals! We can still order them!). When that dolorous day arrives, I’ll do one of two things.

Option One: horde the remaining stocks of Dymo labels from the 1970s, hole-punch machines, and White-Out for personal use.

Option Two: Open “The Old Man Store,” with lines of clothing (suspenders, by gum!) and food (Where in the Sam Hill can I get me any Ovaltine?).

For a long while, The Vermont Country Store served this purpose, even including jabs at “the young word-processing crowd” in their praise for a manual typewriter (no longer available, it seems).

As if my students get sweaty palms thinking about opening MS Word.

I just wonder if, in a few  years, their younger siblings will be saying things like “OMG you still have an external computer!” as they chat on their brain-implants.

What that will mean for writing remains unseen, but I worry about the longevity of the technologies for paper storage. These everyday items have so long been a part of a writer’s fortifications against forgetfulness and stupidity.

1970s Dymo Label Maker

Shifting Realities

facebook                                           text message                                                shortwave radio

The shifting of the Caribbean tectonic plate that caused Haiti’s tragic double-earthquake provides an opportunity for insight into the shifting realities of communications technology, authority and power.

When major news corporations like CNN lost contact with Haiti and were unable to provide any information, images posted on Facebook by ordinary “nonprofessionals” were the first to be broadcast. The social networking platform has also been used  by Zynga games to raise $1.5 million for relief. Some of the earthquake victims have been able to contact rescuers via text messages and texting has also been used as a powerful fund raising instrument, raising $22 million.

These positive and potent applications of the latest digital technology are challenging old hierarchies, empowering new voices and inspiring fresh approaches. However, in our excitement over the potential of these new tools, we would be wise to remember their vulnerability and ongoing relevance and utility of elder technologies. It may be that our most intelligent and advanced approach to technology would be a thoughtful, selective hybrid of the new and the old.

While technologies like texting and Facebook rely on complicated and relatively vulnerable systems, a radio can be run by battery. Shortwave radio in particular has historically been effective for broadcasting in emergency situations, especially since its signal can reach any point on earth by using the ionosphere as a reflector. Because of this reliability and relative stability, shortwave radio is also a part of our technological response to the tragedy in Haiti. A group called Ears to Our World (ETOW) is providing shortwave radios for isolated Haitian survivors.

These are some of the shifting realities of human communication….and it all started with writing.

The Silence of the Floppy Disks

Location: Rummaging Through Desk Drawer

The annual office-cleaning before the semester turns up some interesting artifacts. This year, it was a 3.5″ floppy disk of an external reviewer’s 1998 report on our writing program.

I mused on this homely item and the fate of our media-storage technologies.

The report is on one of four or five disks I have left, after a massive dumpster-dump of the rest (I broke cartridges, one by one, to make data-retreival harder). They now reside in a strata above the cassette tapes, and those lie above the Eight-Tracks in our landfill, one day to be an archeological dig when Richmond lies in quaint ruins.

The report in question had become important again. We are in the midst of curricular change again, so instead of slapping more prims (and removing some redundant ones) in our Second Life simulation of Poe’s House of Usher, I decided to make sure I had a backup copy of the report.

I have it on paper, but puh-leeze.

For a technology only a few years out of date, the floppy sounded positively Victorian once I hooked up the small USB drive I keep around just for such antiquities (I’ve a USB Zip Drive here too–for 100MB or 250MB cartridges).

I soon found that I did not have an electronic copy of the report on my laptop or backup hard disk. The floppy, creaks, clunks, and groans, saved the day.

Now to make MORE backups. I wonder, as I go back to adding features to the House of Usher, how transferable the skills from SL will prove, when I move on to other virtual worlds. Let’s hope those skills have more longevity than, say, an Eight Track of Barry Manilow.