Building a Successful Product

Rachel Andrew
Rachel Andrew

Start Small and Listen is web developer, speaker, and writer Rachel Andrew‘s advice in Smashing Magazine. No matter how many articles I have read on business, I find one more that protects me from another bad idea. This one is on building successful products. She means moneymaking products, and that I haven’t mastered but I still want people to read what I write. A nice article.

Building a Successful Product: Start Small and Listen

John Radoff
John Radoff

“The goal of a startup is to find the sweet-spot where minimum product and viable product meet — get people to fall in love with you. Over time, you listen to your customers, make improvements and raise the bar on what viable means — making it more expensive for competitors to jump in.”

– John Radoff, Entrepreneur, author, and game designer

If You Don’t Have a Million Dollars

Paul Hawkin
Paul Hawkin

Environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and author, Paul Hawkin author of Growing a Business has similar advice: “If  you don’t have a million dollars, you can lose a million dollars.”


Just Delete Me

A very useful site for everyone who has tried to close an account and can’t find the link or tires of the 15 questions and clicks required to do it. There are, as of today, 280 links to get out of the soup easily: Just Delete Me.

The ability to get off each site is categorized from easy ( Artsy, Blue Apron, Dropbox) to impossible (Evernote, Gawker, GoDaddy).

Also includes a Chrome extension so you can use Chrome directly.

Confirms that some sites are just impossible to delete your account. Some hard. Some easy. Gives directions.

Cake Normalizes Things: The Death Cafe Movement

Death Cafe Meeting in New York
Death Cafe Meeting in New York

Well, not blood sugar but it does help with death.

In 2011 John Underwood, a web designer in London, held an informal meeting in his basement to discuss death. His idea was in the European tradition of informal discussion of ideas and based on that of Swiss sociologist, Bernard Crettaz, who organized “café mortels” to encourage more open discussions of death.

Underwood says, “There’s a growing recognition that the way we’ve outsourced death to the medical profession and to funeral directors hasn’t done us any favors,” The Death Cafe is a place where people can discuss death, find meaning, ask profound questions, and reflect on what is important in life.

The basement idea, with its Halloween overtones, one hopes was about convenience. In any event, one thing led to another and death moved upstairs to become the Death Cafe with tea and cake. Why?

“The consumption of food is a life-sustaining process. Cake normalizes things.”

Underwood put up a website. The Death Cafe became a movement, not necessarily in that order. Small groups led by a volunteer professional are now meeting for discussions of death in cafes around the world. In July of 2013 there were 170 around the world. Since an article appeared in the New York Times this morning, there will probably be 17,000 by tomorrow morning.

The website has announcements of meetings and pictures of members with their tea and cake.



Bank Street Bookstore for Children’s Books

Logo for Bank Street BookstoreThe Bank Street Bookstore for Children’s Books at the Bank Street College of Education has an extensive collection of hand-selected quality books and games for sale. When you are looking for research material, just want to read a good book, or need a gift for a child or an adult, this is the place. Many cities do not have independent children’s bookstores and the selections at other bookstores or large retail stores tend to be quick sale books or those that are related to TV programs or movies.

What makes the Bank Street Bookstore website really special is the wonderful list of 125+ subjects in the left side menu. Unless you have a book in  mind, browsing a website can be a daunting experience. If you are looking for examples in a subject area on which you are writing, this is a fast and easy way to find examples.

With no ideas or looking for ideas, you can quickly find a range of topics such as:

  • Autographed Books, New and Notable, Gifts for Grownups, Gift Cards
  • By age group, Board Books, Toddlers & Threes, Picture Books, Novels for ages 8-10, 10-12, etc.
  • Activity Books
  • Adoption
  • African American Characters
  • The Arctic
  • Armchair Detective
  • Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Biographies
  • Birds
  • Bread
  • Butterflies
  • Chapter Book Series
  • Clouds
  • Gardening
  • Holidays
  • Math Stories
  • New Sibling
  • Ocean
  • Peace and Tolerance
  • Teasing and Bullying
  • Travel Games and Adventures
  • Writing


Broadway and 112th Street (southwest corner)
New York, New York 10025

Online: Bank Street Bookstore Website

Other Resources Include:

About Bank Street College of Education

Bank Street is a private graduate school offering master’s degree programs in education. It was founded in 1916 on Bank Street in Greenwich Village by Lucy Sprague Mitchell as the Bureau of Educational Experiments. The initial focus was on the study of child development and education. In 1918 it opened a nursery school which is now the School for Children. Bank Street began to train teachers, eventually becoming the Bank Street College of Education. In the 1960s, the Bank Street faculty played an important role in creating the federal Head Start program.

By the 1970s the college had outgrown its location and moved uptown to Broadway and 112th Street.

Is Technology Replacing Human Interaction?

Group of Teenagers TextingWhat this photo doesn’t show is that many of these kids would probably be sitting there looking bored and not relating to each other at all. Rather than asking “Is technology replacing human interaction” I would ask what it reveals about being human. For me it makes human interaction more probable and more intimate.

What Makes Us Human?

I think what makes us human is what happens inside each of us, not what others can see happening from the outside. Human interaction is sharing that with others. As every marriage counselor will tell you, there can be extraordinarily intimate human contacts between two people  for years with no emotional contact at all.

My experience is that both I and others have far more human contact with technology than without. I share thoughts and feelings with at least a dozen people every day personally. Then there are the literally thousands on email lists. Before technology it would literally have been none many days of the week.

My daughter is in touch with 2-3 friends moment to moment all day long with text messaging. Literally moment to moment if they are unhappy.

My Facebook page is connecting me with family members I have hardly thought of for years and years, and many more I never knew existed. And I know more about them than if I were still living in the same town with them.

Last Christmas one of my gathered family members asked if anyone else had been able to get beyond level 13 in a bubble burst game. One thing led to another and suddenly there were 6 of 9 people in the house sitting on a corner sectional with iPads and iPhones. The exceptions were a two-year old, the cook in the kitchen, and an 11-year-old on the phone with a peer whose parents were divorcing

That moment was probably the most intimate of the holiday. We were sharing a common interest and helping each other and laughing. It was a modern extended family grouping in which some had not spoken or texted or emailed each other for  20 years, in-laws one had only just met, and people one’s not-present mother had hated for 25 years. The age range was 25 to 75.

Technology Facilitates Human Interaction Like Nothing Else

I know many people share the view that communication via technology is inhuman but I see technology bringing people closer together, integrating the introverts and the extroverts, and un-isolating the isolated. It has been a god-send for many autistic people who cannot read emotional expression in others and often cannot display emotions or do it oddly. Nothing else can do this so well, or even at all.

This quote is often used as justification for criticizing people who email and text instead of making a phone call, which we forget is also technology, or dropping by:

I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.” Albert Einstein.

I don’t think Einstein ever met Steve Jobs.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

I found Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling today on Aerogramme Writer’s Studio, a blog on books and writing by who knows who because the About page is broken. it must be by a writer (or writers) because the 404 page says “Whoa…You broke the Internet!”

These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coats, then a story artist at Pixar. (She tweets a lot.)

    1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

    2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.

    3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

    4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

    5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

    6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

    7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

    8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

    9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

    10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

    11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

    12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

    13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

    14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

    15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

    16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

    17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

    18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

    19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

    20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

    21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

    22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

    There are follow-up posts so go there, scroll to the end and look around.

Cohousing Challenges: Communes and Survivalists

The ongoing challenge of cohousing is convincing town planning boards and neighborhood associations that a cohousing community is not a commune. It is more a cooperatively managed condominium than naked dancers in the woods living on rice and fruit.

But in Utah the challenge is even greater. The disclaimer on the Utah Valley Commons Cohousing home page is: We are not survivalists.

The full statement is:

The Utah Valley Commons has no political or religious affiliation.We are not “survivalists,” nor do we attempt to
impose lifestyle restrictions (e.g., what kind of food you can eat) on our members.  We respect each other’s privacy.  The
UVCC is committed to providing a safe, healthy, and sustainable community for individuals and families.

View of site under consideration for Utah Valley Commons Cohousing
Possible site of Utah Valley Commons Cohousing

Since they were able to get approval from the town planning board for straw bale construction and to cluster the houses instead of spacing each house in the center of several acres, I think they will be able to meet the survivalist challenge. The survivalists are probably not comfortable with the temporal image of straw bale. While it is a very strong and environmentally sound building material, it does have the image of something not quite up to guns and combat.

Spam Watch: Average Spam Messages Per Day

SpamSieve LogoIf you are a writer who is out there on the web, you are a target for spam. Even if you are not out there, you are a target for spam. But as a writer who also communicates frequently by email, shops online, and posts in dozens of places, I’m out there. And spam is the result. You need SpamSieve.

In spite of my best efforts, I receive hundreds and even thousands of spam messages every month. Sometimes 16 identical messages to the same email address. I don’t know who pays for all these messages but it is a humongous waste of money — and cyberspace. I never read any of them.

I download email to my computer using Apple Mail and run it through SpamSieve to automatically divert spam messages to a designated folder. From time to time I browse through the folder to be sure nothing has  gotten there in error. If I find something I do want to see, I tell SpamSieve to train it as good but this rarely happens. Errors happen because a friend has used a trigger word, or several. Or are themselves forwarding a particularly funny spam message.

I used to actually click-through to unsubscribe from any emails that contained an unsubscribe option. Sometimes it worked, but most often only until the next month. Unsubscribe links often go nowhere or just tie up my browser with pages that eventually load but are “Busy now. Please try later.” Or don’t even exist. Once an address is in the system, marketers must add it to all their client lists—past, present, future, and potential — and 2-3 days a month I receive 4-5 new ones that SpamSieve hasn’t yet identified. I would have to unsubscribe to all these messages each month to even possibly, a very big “possibly” here, eliminate spam from even “legitimate” marketers. And then there is China. I think it’s China. I don’t read ideograms.

My next best option is to log the numbers, which are easily available from my spam folder. Maybe these numbers will be more useful than the messages.

Daily Spam Average

(I rush to calculate the averages because new ones come in every 10 minutes. Totals and the averages don’t always match. Six have arrived since I started writing this sentence.)

125 — 13-16 December 2012. 4 days. Total: 499

209 — 17-18 December 2012. 2 days. Total: 418

65 — 19 December 2012 – 4 January 2013. 16 days. Total: 1049. Someone must have taken a vacation.

68 — 5 January 2013-15 February 2012. 41 days. Total: 2781.

I’m resisting the urge to stop clicking the unsubscribe links that take a lot of time to load and often don’t work.  I can save time by training SpamSieve to treat a message as spam and send off the next one before I even see it. The figures would look even more atrocious. The numbers, however, are significantly lower than in December. December was definitely Spam Month.  An average of 68 spam messages a day is only ~ 3 messages an hour.

65 — 16 February – 12 March. 24 Days. Total  1,561. Settling down to a pattern.

77 — 13 March – 29 April. 46 Days. Total 3,522.

82 — 30 April – 28 June. Total: 4611

Along time between counts — I used a date calculator so I know the number of days is accurate. I don’t make this stuff up. For two hours in August, I made a special effort to unsubscribe to as many as I could. Still there is this much spam out there and I read none of it. It just clogs the system.

58 —29 June − 13 October 2013. 115 days. Total: 6637.

This 58 spam messages every day. And those are just the ones that make it passed my ISP. As the holidays come closer the numbers will be even higher.

76 —14 October – 18 November 2013. 36 Days. Total: 2756.

Christmas is coming. Numbers are up!

Spam in a CanI wonder if Spam in a can would be less environmentally toxic? At least with ads in magazines and newspaper the ads support actual content. And ratios of ad words to content words there are very different.

Originally published 16 Dec 2012

Building Codes & Tiny Houses

Book Cover: Cracking the Code
Building codes in towns and suburbs are a major obstacle for people interested in forming cohousing communities and ecovillages composed entirely or partially of tiny houses. Ryan Mitchell who writes the Tiny Life blog and builds tiny houses has now published a book of tips on how to address code issues called Cracking the Code.

This guide is designed to help you navigate all the red tape when it comes to tiny housing. I have designed this manual to help you quickly familiarize yourself with some of the key bureaucratic road blocks, suggest possible pathways to building your home from the legal perspective, and several strategies to make it a success.

If you are hoping to build a tiny house, this is information that you will need. For those who purchase this they will also get and additional 180 pages of reference materials and free updates on future versions.

For those unfamiliar with tiny houses they can be as small as 90 square feet but are typically more like

Tumbleweed Tiny House Company for plans and prefabricated houses beautifully designed.

DesignBoom for images of tiny houses in all shapes and sizes around the world.

Tiny House Listings already built houses for sale. A super energy-efficient 400 SF modern design for $65,000. A 400 SF log sided home for $49,900.

The Tiny House Swoon for beautiful photos of tiny houses. Interior and exterior.

Animated History of Typography

Photo of Ben Barrett-Forest
Ben Barrett-Forest

This animated history of typography as succinct and clear as possible. Also an animation wonder in that it doesn’t use computer graphics, just simple paper cutouts and a camera. And time.

It took: 291 Paper Letters. 2,454 Photographs. 140 hours of work.

Five minutes. Well-worth the time. If you know little about letters or what a serif is, you will have a more appreciation of all things in print. If you know the history, you will enjoy the animation. And probably learn at least something.

On Vimeo and YouTube

YouTube also has many other videos on typography. When you view this video, look to the right for a list.

Website Design Research: What Works and What Doesn't

Nielsen Norman LogoJakob Nielsen, of the Nielsen Norman Group, has been conducting website design research since 1995, essentially since there were websites. He is the world expert on what works and what doesn’t. Instead of marketing, he focuses on the user experience. Ultimately that helps market information, services, and products, but his focus is not on how to trick the reader into believing you are saying something when you are saying nothing, you will provide services they can’t live without, or you are selling a product they don’t want or need at a price they can’t pass up. His focus is user-friendly websites.

Conclusions Based on Research

Nielsen wants to know how people use websites and what frustrates them.

  • Why do employees of companies only find what they want on their own websites 74% of the time? These are sites about a subject they know well and are highly motivated to pursue.
  • Why do teenagers, those masters of technology, have an average success rate of 72%, less than corporate users?
  • Why do e-commerce users only find what they want 64% of the time? This means e-commerce sites are designed to frustrate 35% of the customers who have already “walked into their store.”

To find out NNg does Evidence-Based User Experience Research, Training, and Consulting. The NNg website contains dozens and dozens of well-written research reports of the studies his firm has conducted. This is the kind of information that costs thousands of dollars, and all you have to do is read it.

Nielsen is not afraid of detail and he is not afraid to share what he discovers. And he does it in plain English (mostly). He is not afraid to give examples of sites that don’t work. And he doesn’t favor glitz and glamor over clean simple text and readable photographs.

Research Topics

These are just a few of the topics on which you can find reports:

My favorite individual reports —and I haven’t come close to reading all of them or even implementing everything I have learned from the ones I’ve read:

113 Design Guidelines for Homepage Usability

Top 10 Information Architecture (IA) Mistakes

A free downloadable Report: PR on Websites

Another free downloadable Report if  you like social media: Social Media User Experience.

There are dozens more. Or if you like books Nielsen has done several classics. The reason they are classics is that they are the authority and things like human-user interface don’t change very much because humans don’t change very much very fast. We still look around with the same eyes and type with the same fingers and forget which page we were on with the same brain.

Mobile Usability by Jakob Nielsen and Raluca Budiu. 2012.

Prioritizing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen. 2006

Designing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen. 1999, and still relevant. I use this one frequently.

Nielsen’s books are thick and detailed but like websites are easily browsable. You take them in one page at a time or sit down and read them cover to cover.

If you have any interest in web design, Don’t miss Nielsen’s work.Nielsen Norman Logo

WordCount: How Many Times Is a Word Used?

Wordcount LogoAnother fabulous gem from the UK. WordCount is a ranking of the 86,800 most used words in the English language by frequency of use. Presented in the same format as a timeline—a beautiful timeline. Very minimalist and elegant. The design itself is worth the effort.

From the site:

WordCount data currently comes from the British National Corpus (BNC), a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent an accurate cross-section of current English usage. WordCount includes all words that occur at least twice in the BNC. In the future, WordCount will be modified to track word usage within any desired text, website, and eventually the entire Internet.

You can scroll the horizontal line of words or search for a specific word. Very interesting results. Then you can go to QueryCount that tracks the words that people search. A screenshot of those words would be R-rated.

Warning: Doesn’t work with all browsers. Try another one.

United Kingdom’s Public Catalogue Foundation Paintings Online

Painting by SisleyAn incredible resource and just great fun is the United Kingdom’s Public Catalogue Foundation Paintings online at the BBC website. It’s the first digital archive of a whole country’s holdings—in this case a kingdom. The collections are held by museums, universities, hospitals, town halls, local libraries, and even a lighthouse. It would take years to see all of them in their varied locations. it would take months just to find out when the institutions are open.

The site is beautifully designed so it easy to use.  It allows you to create your own collections so you can return and view your own galleries with exhibitions curated by yourself. And send your friends the links.

 The Wikipedia of Paintings

What makes this online collection unique is its size, its variety, and the tagging system. It contains more than 210,000 paintings by 40,000 artists—more are being added as you read this. Because it includes the collections displayed in local municipal buildings and schools as well as museum collections, it contains a wider variety of paintings than a selection pruned by a particular museum according to their standards and interests. This is all the museums together.

Because the public will be able to tag the paintings using Your Paintings Tagger, the collection will be completely indexed from a myriad of perspectives not just art history. Public tagging, like Wikipedia entries, allows participation by all the intelligence and knowledge in the world. The paintings will be indexed with more than painter’s name, nationality, dates, media, title, subject, and style. They will be indexed by the objects shown, weather conditions, fashions, identifiable people, events, religious references, pets, etc.

For Children and the Inexperienced

This is a fabulous place to learn about paintings and teach children about paintings. Tagging is engaging and the more points of view there are the better. Children see very different things than adults. There are no age restrictions.

The tagging system helps choose accurate tags. When I typed in a word, I was given a list of standard tags to choose from. Each one defined. This is reassuring because it goes as far as possible toward standardizing the tags used.

Standardization means when I want to find an automobile, I won’t have to type “car” plus every other name that might ever had been associated with it in order to find all the paintings that include automobiles. After the paintings have been tagged by a number of people, an algorithm will be used to determine the most commonly used tags for that painting.

Why Tagging?

Picture with TagsI just tagged a 17th century painting of a woman in an elegant hat with “ribbon,” for example. In  a few years, even a few months, i will be able to find needlework examples of the use of ribbons in dozens of paintings. And they won’t include paintings with ribbons of water or ribboned fields of wheat. This can be important to painters who are trying to paint a ribbon and having difficulty managing the paint and the sheen. Art historians trying to determine which painter did a particular unsigned painting that includes a ribbon. Digitized images are not the original but it can save a trip across country when the image indicates that a painting is obviously not helpful.

Want to see how kittens have been portrayed in the last 400 years? Want to tag gloves to show that gloves are an interesting subject in 19-20th century paintings? To see when earrings started appearing on women — and men? To see when fish became a subject worth painting and why? This is your place. Don’t miss it.

About the Public Catalogue Foundation

Cover of the National Trust Handbook 2013The Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF) in the United Kingdom plans to digitize all the paintings in the National Trust and other public collections in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The organizations that own the paintings include the National Trust, English Heritage, the Government Art Collection and Arts Council England. The collections are held by museums, universities, hospitals, town halls, local libraries and even a lighthouse.

Effective Viewing Distance for Sculpture

During a discussion about placing a sculpture in the small park at Fourth Street NW and Blair Road, referred to as the triangle park, I was sent this diagram of the effective viewing distance for sculpture in relation to its size. It may be from Jan Gehl’s paper “Close Encounters with Buildings.” Apologies if posting it violates any copyrights. Our decision is approaching and this information might be helpful.

Chart of Optimum Viewing Distance for Sculputure

A meter is a bit more than 3 feet. If the sculpture in question is 10 feet tall, it would be  3+ meters. Effective viewing would be about 5 meters or 15+ feet. If it were placed against the Barack building to the south, it could be viewed comfortably from the front of the park or the street. That’s if it’s 10 feet tall and if could be placed there without affecting the one remaining tree which is close to that wall. How close can a heavy object be placed to a tree without damaging the root structure? How will be sculpture be affected by birds in that tree?

The sculpture may also be on a base when it is installed. Sculptures are often put on bases not to make them taller and more impressive but to protect them from casual vandalism. A three-foot base would mean an effective viewing distance of an additional three feet of viewing space. We could be up to 20 feet. Anyone sitting or standing in the park would not have the most effective view of the Hand.

Retaining Human Scale and Honoring the Sculpture

If the goal is to eventually have a park in which a variety of people can sit and enjoy the flowers and, hopefully, new Cherry Trees, the Hand could be a pretty overbearing presence. The Hand would also not be well served by being hidden behind Cherry Trees. An oasis of green at that corner isn’t compatible with that size sculpture. It and the neighborhood would be better served with a placement in front of the Takoma Recreation Center.

Australian Typewriter Museum

Typewriters are so personal to many writers that they still write on them, even when they have to hire someone to retype their manuscripts before submitting them to a publisher. This site is for those who remember and love typewriters. It includes many photographs of writers using typewriters in the    locations in which they wrote, whether in their study’s or a grass hut out in the field.

Typewriter Museum Banner

One of the things I love about the Internet is that it allows people to post the most arcane information and find an audience. Without the Internet, if you were to look around to find someone who loved typewriters, how long would you have to look? Forever, I would guess. Even in a big city. And where else could you find an Australian Typewriter Museum?


oz.Typewriter: The World of Typewriters 1714-2014 is a blog by Robert Messenger that is worth an evening of reading and looking — wonderful pictures and wry humor. And sentimental commentary as well. Because he has researched his topic so well, it is an international archive of information about the world of writing and attitudes toward design in the 20th century.

You will find fabulous vintage photos of typewriters (of course) but also portraits of inventors and artists, their homes and villages. That include: The first Australian Type-In. A grass home with a leaky roof in Kenya where a writer is working on a typewriter in parallel to snakes and a mole rat in her wall of bookshelves. Also in Kenya, another is working on a Remington portable amidst her laundry hung up to dry in her study on ropes draped in her hut from one pole and fixture to another.

Magazine and newspaper clips extolling the virtues of primitive machines that are all but forgotten such as Prussian Maximillian Soblik’s Pneumatic Typewriter from 1917 that looks a bit tortuous. Soblik’s Pneumatic Typewriter

Many links to other blogs about on typewriters. It must be complete—how many can there be?

About Robert Messenger

Messenger is an Australian Typewriter collector and owns the Australian Typewriter Museum in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory. He is a former newspaper columnist who worked in journalism for 47 years, in New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and England.
I could go on but its 4:00 and I’m still fact checking without having accomplished one paragraph of book writing today. Do check it out. It’s lovely.

Discussing Race in Washington, DC

This post is my response to discussing race in Washington DC, specifically to a discussion on my neighborhood email list, There are those on the list who believe that not discussing race means something but what it means varies. No matter what they think it means race is always raised in terms of discrimination and oppression.

This is my response to the current discussion. Or my response of the day. If I were to spend another two hours rewriting it, I might replace “culture of victimization” for “culture of oppression.” Tomorrow I will probably be sorry I took the time to write this but so be it. Pass the Olives.

Obama’s Speech on Race in Philadelphia, 2008

To begin, I believe Obama’s 2008 speech given in Philadelphia during his campaign for election in response to his continued relationship with his controversial minister and the place of his church in his life will become a classic on the meaning and influence of culture on who we are. I believe the issue of race for all of us is more the culture we grew up in and the one we choose than our skin color. Discussing the cultural difference that our many races give each of us, whether it was chosen or forced upon us, will produce a richer discussion than focusing on oppression.

Obama’s speech is worth rereading in this context.

Perceptions of Race and Culture

I’ve been discussing the issue of cultural discrimination and racial discrimination with an African Jamaican British Canadian American neighbor who has considered jobs in foreign countries. As a European, I pointed out that these countries were populated by people of color and this would be a good experience for her daughter — immersion in a culture that is populated at all levels by people of color than in the US. She says that is not true because there are so many distinctions in Africa and the Middle East that have nothing to do with shared skin color. The discrimination is both huge and more subtle than she thinks, as a “white” person I could even perceive. She would still be excluded as different. “People would know.”

I have an African-American son and a European American daughter. At a gut level I perceive a difference in their place society. When as a teenager my daughter went out to a party on Saturday night, I worried about her being sexually compromised in some way. Raped or made to feel her own body was not hers. When my son when out, I worried about him being killed.

But growing up in a generation very different from my own, in an educated upstate New York suburb, they are unaffected by the cultural expectations that I grew up with. Now in their early 40s they lead very different lives, one a Manhattan Yuppie and the other a police officer in the town he grew up in. They both believe these are personal choices. They still deny that there were any events in their lives that had anything to do with their skin color or facial features. They share a common culture and speak a common language.

Culture Changes and is Changeable

During Black History Month my Dutch American granddaughters, with the reddest hair and the whitest skin, were learning and singing Civil Rights songs at Shepherd Elementary School, which has a veteran Civil Rights Movement protester for a music teacher. They corrected my singing because they learned all these songs with a touch of Gospel and lots of body language. When I sing that way, I feel that I’m crossing the boundary into a culture where I would be viewed as an interloper.

In the course of these discussions about singing, I discovered they had no idea who Rosa Parks was or why they were singing about her. She was just a famous African American like all the other famous Americans they study. They had no knowledge of the history of discrimination. The lessons they were learning didn’t have that deeper significance. They were “only” about being famous. About heroes. At ages 4 and 7 they had no beliefs that needed to be corrected or negative experiences that needed countering. Are there cultural differences amongst their friends that they notice and either reject or admire? Yes, but they are cultural, even if they are sometimes described as “black” or “African American.” They are not seen as inherently defining or attached to skin color or family history.

When I explained that Rosa Parks had defied the law by sitting in the front of the bus they gave me blank looks. When I explained that there used to be laws that said where “Whites” and “Negros” could eat or sit, and which drinking fountains they could use, or movie theaters they could attend, they didn’t believe me.  “That would discrimination,” they both objected, looking at each other for confirmation. To them, this could never be.

Moving Beyond the Culture of Oppression

In two generations, the cultural changes in relation to perceptions of race have been enormous. I believe that it is too easy to dismiss them. To carry forward the culture of oppression even when we could let it go. Accept the past as a reality, and even the present as a reality, and focus on that which is culturally rich and nurturing.

It was a shock to move to Washington DC in 2000 and experience not in the Federal enclave people refer to as Washington but in the general culture of the city that the culture of oppression is so dominant. I would never encourage my son to move to DC even though there may be more and higher paying jobs for police officers here. I don’t want him or my grandchildren to absorb that culture. The same way I don’t want my European American daughter with the Jewish father to absorb the culture of oppression that many Jews live in.

In two generations, cultural oppression isn’t no longer a determining reality in the lives of my family and I don’t want it to be. Understanding and recognizing the influences of our past is not the same as keeping the culture of oppression alive.

Book Design

Joel's SignatureThe Book Designer is another wonderful resource available on the web, free to everyone. I was referred to it by Jackie Urbanovic when I asked about alternatives to Adobe’s InDesign. The new edition is only available via the “Cloud” and is very expensive for those of us who do not use it everyday. Something like $50 a month.

Her short answer on InDesign was “no,”but she referred me to The Book Designer by Joel Friedlander, a very useful website for anyone considering publishing a book or designing text. The site also has a free 24 page booklet on self-publishing, 10 Things You Need to Know About Self-Publishing.

Tons of resources here. Many links to other well-selected sites on design and publishing. Topics include writing, book design, planning a book, understanding fonts and typography, print choices, ebooks and ebook readers, and marketing.

Best Book Designer Posts Include:

Understanding Fonts & Typography with nine links to specific topics, including elements of a book page, what goes on the title page with two examples, 5 layout mistakes, and book page layout. One of the nice things about the site is that Friedlander doesn’t overwhelm you with information. He gives from 2-10 examples and moves on. But you can trust those examples.

Five Favorite Fonts for Interior Book Design takes the guessing out of which font to use to make work look professional.

The site also has great comments—don’t miss them.

And don’t miss this site if you are planning on self-publishing anything.

I used his signature as an image because his header is rather undistinguished. The design of the site doesn’t match the quality of the information or the examples given.

Domino Toppling

Gretchen's Domino Forest, September 2012
Gretchen’s Domino Forest, September 2012

Domino toppling is a wonderful community and team building exercise. I’ve collected 2,000+ dominos — a small collection by any serious standards—a box of foam blocks, a box of small wooden blocks, realistic animal figures, Disney characters, and finger puppets to build scenes. It helps to have a common house so we can build on the tables. This works very well for all ages, particularly mine. It also helps keep the dominos and assorted props from walking away. Even the smallest can pull up a chair and practice knocking things down.

Some focus on building towers, others racing ramps for cars, and others scenes of fantasy worlds like the one here by Gretchen.

This is fun but not easy. More work than you would think.

Videos and Information

At the very bottom of this LOOONG message of video addresses and ideas, there is a link to a company that does team building exercises and makes commercials. A Wonderful commercial on their site that runs all over a South American village.

Learn many tricks from the link below — an 8 minute video of one person’s 68 individual projects. You will be very surprised even if you haven’t seen domino toppling before:


Basic tips from the Circus, includes making template out of Legos:

The Circus

BIG PROJECT BY A GROUP OF TEENS IN GERMANY CALLED THE CIRCUS. They take over a school gym for two weeks and build night and day. Sleeping, eating, and showering at the school.

Watch the preparation days for how to tricks. Posted by IIIIIDominoIIIII

Preparation Day 1 — painting dominos

Preparation Day 2 — 3.21 — Sorting, diagramming. tests, weighing,

Preparation Day 3 — shopping for wood, the preparation area, making props, testing

Preparation Day 4 — 3.27 — truck deliveries, tests, building bases.

Behind the Blocks–7.00–In German. Not terribly interesting in spots but you can meet the guys behind this and see how they set up the dominos. They have some tricks.

CDT 2012, The Long Version — 57.41 — The smaller ones are really more interesting but here it is.

Includes set up, tests, screw ups, fails, footage from preparation day videos, 1 year of preparations, many diagrams. The building begins on 9 August 2012, Cologne, Day of the event, Dramatic lighting and long. 23 builders, 200,000 dominoes, Group started in 2007 with 70,000 dominoes. Videos on the last 5 years. Explanation of records set. Special Guest arrives at 27:45. Countdown at 29:50. 41:15 See the ones that didn’t fall. 177,414 fell. Took two weeks to build. Literally lived in the school gym.

Just the fall down–9:41– Includes the Clean Up.

Ideas for Designing and Building

–Planning: Draw diagrams. newsprint colored paper.
–Paint one side of black dominos so when fallen make a different pattern. Put them in a corner brace so can paint all at one time.
–ball is released and flips over to knock down the next flow.
–Dominos fall through a grid to the ground.

Toppling cards stacked in /\/\/\/\ shapes.
Cards against dominos

Up and down furniture and all through the building. Indoors and outdoors.

Something dropping off a high ledge onto a trigger.

–Small figure in the middle that is only revealed when all the dominoes fall.
–Dominos falling to turn a horizontal bar like a gate that knocks over the next row.
–Putting out the last section before the cascade gets to it.
–Ball released into a pit by one string and then anther string falls over the ball.
–A flower with purple in the middle and green rows coming out from the edges. The purple falls straight and pushes the greens our to the side forming the final picture of the flower.
–Dominos crash increasingly larger blocks until the are knocking down large blocks.

Team Building

Cooperation and Communications in Team Building:

Team Building

Domino Day 2009. 1.5 hours in Dutch? 4.800,000 dominos. 4.491,863 fallen. Many ideas.

How to Build a Major Project

Tips and Tricks

Diversity of Another Sort

One of the aims of developing cohousing communities is diversity — in age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, household composition, sexual orientation, etc. You name it, we want it. Recruitment focuses getting more but groups feel they have failed if those who come forward are not different from themselves. Both forming and built communities are proud to say, “We have 2 of these and 1 of those and 3 more of these are considering joining.” They cite their diversity statistics in order to convince city councils to approve their zoning requests.

Diversity of Another Sort in Washington, DC

World Bank Meeting 2012
World Bank Meeting 2012

A few months after move-in, all our diversity quotas met or met to the extent we could meet them, I realized we had met a diversity standard that none of us had considered that would probably be impossible to meet outside of Washington DC. Doris had called together a cookout, one of our first, by announcing fried chicken in the piazza on Sunday at 1:00. Everyone else who was around brought this and that and a bunch of us were soon settled around a big round table discussing the events of the weekend. In DC, that often means demonstrations. This one, a very big one, would be at the World Bank.

Always at the center of any protest, Herb was prepared to leave early in the morning to meet protesters from out-of-town at the end of the Metro line to escort them to the protest site. He started talking about other things he would be doing.  Anna was delighted because the demonstrations meant she had the day off since she worked at the World Bank and had been ordered for her safety not to come to work. She thanked her new neighbors for her good fortune.

Carol said, “Please. Don’t thank me. I have three proposals that I’m waiting to hear back on. I need to know if we have money to go back to Africa or not, and things in India are not so great if I can’t put more into the next phase than we put into the last one. I doubt if any of those offices took all their grant applications home with them on Friday.” Doris said that she would be off work that day too, but on duty with the Guard. Doris said, “It’s no vacation for me. I have to report for duty at 4:00 am and I have no idea when I will be home.

Everyone laughed and the conversation resumed discussing the last World Bank demonstration and the casualties that had resulted. The promise was more National Guard presence and more planning. Herb asked Doris what they had planned this time and where she would be positioned. Doris said, “I won’t know until I report for duty because that — ”

Silence. Everyone looked up.

Doris continued in a studied tone, “That would be confidential.”

Herb apologized, and we changed the subject. A perfectly innocent question on Herb’s part, serious interest in an event we were all watching but no intention of playing sleuth with his neighbor.

True Diversity

Army Officer UniformWhile the diversity points for that conversation would have been about a 10 on the basis of age, race, marital status, parental status, and a few more things I can’t remember, the ones that no one had probably even considered before that conversation were military status, activism, and opponents and beneficiaries of World Bank monies. When I told this story on the Cohousing-L email discussion list, one person contacted me privately to ask how we even live together. “Do you really eat at the same table?”

I receive similar questions when I report that we have an Army General who appears in camouflage fatigues and another resident who “works for Army Intelligence assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff” who comes home in his green beret.

In all honesty, just like our other diversity points, they are just like everyone else. The differences are in personality, not age, skin color, background, occupation, or sexual orientation.

Optimum Line Length

In addition to letter spacing and line height, optimum line length, the number of characters per line, affects readability and user experience. A long line of text produces fatigue and a short line of text can be distracting. Seventy-five characters per line, including spaces, is usually the maximum for a block of text with 50-60 being the optimum range. Unless a line is short for effect, such as emphasizing relationships between words as in poetry, readers begin to skip words as their eyes move down the page instead of moving from left to right, because quick side-to-side movements fatigue the eyes.

Responsive vs. Fixed Website Design

Since line length is so important as a fatigue factor, the traditional advice is that web pages should be set to a fixed width rather than being liquid, which means they are allowed to contract and expand.  On a desktop computer, a fixed width remains a fixed width even when the window if much wider. With liquid layouts too narrow to read comfortably, readers can become fatigued and stop reading for reasons that have nothing to do with your content.  However, since so many people are reading on so many different sized devices now, the new advice is that responsive is a plus.

Designers generally don’t like responsive page design because it prevents controlling the look of the page. It allows graphics to move around and headlines to end up on two lines with word breaks that can change comprehension. A compromise is to have two layouts, one responsive for mobile devices and tablets and one fixed for desktops. (This is almost twice the work.)

The Golden Ration Typography Calculator

A narrow text will require smaller type in order to maintain a line width that is conducive to being read. If you are designing specifically for a device with known measurements, like an iPad, you can adjust type size and line height accordingly.

For calculating the relationship between text size and line length, you can use the Golden Ratio Typography Calculator by Chris Pearson of Pearsonified (Yes, that is the right spelling.)

Golden Ratio Typography Calculator

The Golden Ratio Typography Calculator addresses one of the most difficult aspects of designing a text: to layout type in such a way that it is most readable and attractive. Most typographers and graphic designers have had years of visual experience that allows them to choose the most attractive and readable font sizes, widths, and line lengths intuitively. Even with comparable experience, however, doing this on the web can be a challenge. Chris Pearson of Pearsonified has designed a calculator that produces several optimal sizes and proportions given your preferences or the requirement of a specific project.

Calculating Sizes, Heights, and Widths

The calculator will (1) calculate the appropriate font size, line height, content width, and characters per line, and paragraph spacing; and (2) allow you to choose a font that is set to these numbers in a block of text. It will show you the optimum settings for a given content width, number of characters per line, for your chosen font and size, etc.

For 16pt type, for example, in Hoefler Text the optimum settings are:

Font Size: 16, Line Height: 25, Content Width: 600, Approx.92, Characters Per Line: 85.

In Verdana, these settings are:

Font Size: 16, Line Height: 25, Content Width: 600, Approx. CPL: 74

If you click on the font size, a box will open giving you the optimum settings for headline and primary and secondary text sizes.

You may not agree with the settings Chris finds optimal, but it is an excellent place to start.

Against Signs

This is a rant against signs. If you like signs, beware.

The origin and purpose of most signs: someone is irked so they post a sign to irk someone else. Give an irked person a wall, or any surface actually, and they will slap up a sign with sticky tape or nails, usually big, and irk everyone else. But the only people who read signs are those for whom they are not intended. Thus the irk cycle continues as the irkers piss off the needlessly irked, and the irkees continue as they always have, ignoring the irked.

Signs are the least effective and most practiced means of communication. Visually and emotionally, and in their manufacture they pollute the environment — and have no effect on the behaviors they are intended to control.

The only useful signs are those that post information that people need — the name of the street, the hours of operation, emergency numbers — or warn of hidden dangers, like “Touch This Fence and You Will Be Fried.”

Have you ever seen a park close at dark? Or no one drinking alcoholic beverages? Or no radios (or the latest equivalent). Our local park, a triangle at the intersection of three streets, very small, now has signs larger than itself. it has made no difference whatsoever. (Update, 2012: The park has been destroyed, cherry trees and daffodils uprooted. Because the vagrants who liked to drink there wouldn’t read the signs.)

In my next life I’m gong to be an invisible sign stealer. Sell them at Flea Markets for interior decor.

Steve Jobs Has Died

I turned on CNN expecting back to back coverage of Steve Jobs but there was nothing. I was shocked. That’s how much a part of my life he has been since 1982 when I purchased an Apple IIe. In 1997, it was still working. Though I had moved on to a Macintosh, one of my students who knew how to find adapters for new printers used it daily.

In 1997 when Apple was trading at $3.42, I couldn’t find anyone who would invest $10,000 for me. I had never bought stock and didn’t know how to do it. None of my friends would tell me nor would broker friends do the purchase themselves. Today one share, after having split more than once, it is trading at $387.

2,500 shares purchased for $10,000, including broker’s fees, in 1997 would be worth $967,500.

(Based on figures from CNN “In 1997 when Steve Jobs returned to Apple, 100 shares would have cost $342. Today it would be worth $37,900.”)

Today I have too much to do to think about it,

Lot Development or Build All at Once?

What are the benefits and detractors for the standard cohousing model where you plan everything out then build it all then move in vs an alternative model of only selling lots to members and then people build their own houses?

Developing a community lot by lot isn’t the standard so much as the only way some communities could get started, both because of funding and because of the real estate expectations in some areas. In the early 1980s condominiums were still highly suspect in many small cities and particularly in rural areas.

I personally prefer the attached unit model and believe it makes the most sense economically, environmentally, socially, etc. One attachment to free standing homes arises from the desire for privacy. This is a serious concern. One way to address it is with the very best soundproofing materials you can find.

Amplified music, screaming children (and adults), game playing devices (weird repetitive noises), love in the afternoon (and night), cats rolling marbles overhead all day, widely varying sleep/stomping schedules, etc., are what drive people to the “give me space” options on both sides. It’s both the fear of being spontaneous and the fear of listening to others be spontaneous. Some sounds and people you get used to and others you don’t.

While I prefer attached dwellings, I still don’t like not being able to rearrange furniture at midnight or allow little feet to run around happily chasing each other. The pre-war buildings in Manhattan that were built of cast iron are still prized because there is absolutely no sound transfer from one unit to the next. And it is because of the cast iron.

Before researching this, I thought sound dampening came from soft surfaces. It does but only for reverberations inside a room. The important sound transfer stuff is the result of the density, or lack of density, in the construction materials that transfer sounds throughout the walls and floors. That two-year old running across my wood floor becomes a thundering elephant to my downstairs neighbor.

Cast iron is now prohibitively expensive unless you are building a huge building or a parking garage but there are other methods and materials that can be used.

Take sound transfer seriously and you can build the kind of buildings that will support a close, conveniently social, multi-generational community.

Food & Diabetes Type 2

I’ve given the following information to dozens of people carefully typing it out each time. It finally occurred to me that I could post it here and both share it more widely and save myself some typing. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, baker, or Indian chief so take it for what it is worth to you.

I have been diagnosed and undiagnosed with diabetes for over 20 years in several states. The geographic location is important because doctors in one place have no faith in doctors in another place. Even if they all use the same national lab to run the same standard blood tests, the results can’t be trusted.

In 1995, the result of a five-hour sugar syrup test at Robert Atkins’ clinic in Uptown Manhattan was a blood sugar reading of 323 after two hours. I started their below-40-carbs-a-day diet. I had no blood sugar meter and didn’t know if the diet was working. After a few months I mentioned it to my internist in the West Village and asked him to check it. His two-hour-normal-food test produced an 84, perfectly normal. I didn’t have diabetes at all. A follow-up fasting blood sugar test confirmed it at 90. “You should be eating normal food. Low carb diets will kill you and don’t work anyway.”

In 1999, routine test results in Florida showed a fasting blood sugar of 175. Medication was prescribed. Because of side effects from the medication, I secretly followed the Atkins, Eades, Heller, and Bernstein diets and used a blood sugar meter. In Washington DC in 2000, ignoring all the earlier testing, my new internist said I didn’t have diabetes at all, and probably never did. My fasting blood sugar was normal and my A1c was 5.1% which some people consider below normal. “You’re not taking medication and the low carb diet doesn’t work so you can’t have diabetes.” I changed doctors again.

It is now 2011. We are still in Washington DC but a few blocks away. My current diabetes physicians assistant — I’ve had six in the same hospital clinic — says, “An A1c of 6.8% is perfect. You need medication and insulin because the low carb diet is not healthy and doesn’t work. But if you take medication and insulin, you risk a low blood sugar episode which can cause brain damage and kill you.”

An A1C reading of 6.8% translates to an average blood sugar of 149. Anything above approximately 140 is causing organ damage. So at 149, even if it is minimal damage, is that a healthy target? If 6.8 is an average, my blood sugar will be lower (good) and higher (very bad) at other times.

I still go to the office for tests but I draw my own conclusions and follow my own plan. I may still die from complications of diabetes but one thing is certain, I won’t die as fast as if I listened to these doctors.

Steak and salad is nice but when everyone else is eating carrot cake it’s hard. I’m still trying to get back to the 5.1% on my A1c.

Best Resources

Most available and comprehensive site: Blood Sugar 101 by Jenny Ruhl. Includes basic beginner information as well more detailed analysis of research studies and news reports in her blog (link in the top menu). She is especially good at examining research results and explaining how the news reports or the studies themselves are flawed or misleading. She sorts out the numbers and gobbeldy-gook language.

Front Cover: Blood Sugar 101 by Jenny Ruhl
She now has a book out that summarizes the information on her website. Concise and clear: Blood Sugar 101: What They Don’t Tell You About Diabetes
. Her bottom line is that diabetes is an impaired ability to manage carbohydrates and you need to eat as few of them as will maintain your blood sugar below 140 AT ALL TIMES. You cannot listen to the American Diabetes Association and eat 50 carbs at every meal and assume you are doing the right thing. You have to test. It’s your blood sugar levels that count, not the diet that anyone prescribes. Foods affect everyone differently.

Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution: The Complete Guide to Achieving Normal Blood Sugars is the book that provided the information I needed when I was in Florida in 1999 and the doctor said, “There is no remedy for this illness. You will die of it. Even if the diet worked, you won’t be able to stay on it. The medication only works for a while and then you will have to take insulin. Your life expectancy is greatly reduced already.” He said this as if he were doing me a favor so I wouldn’t stress about it. Just relax. There is nothing you can do. Have fun. Take these pills.

Front Cover Image of Dr. Bernstein's Diabetes Solution

Dr. Bernstein was a very sick Type 1 diabetic in his twenties when he realized he was dying and would have to help himself when his doctor thought he was doing very well despite numerous complications. Over several years he was able not only to normalize his blood sugars but reverse most of the damages. He explains precisely the connection between diet and diabetes and details the carbohydrate control methods that are rapidly being adopted by everyone. Contains more comprehensive technical information than Blood Sugar 101 and more extensive medical advice but not everyone wants this much information.

I also subscribe to a weekly newsletter, Diabetes in Control, that is a summary of the research reports in newspapers and professional journals. Jenny Ruhl analyzes research reports on her blogs so after you read her blog for a while you can begin to sense which reports are off the wall. This newsletter is also intended for professionals so the gibberish isn’t always clear.

And saving the best for last, Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It
by Gary Taubes

Cover Image for Why We Get FatThis could also be titled Why We Get Heart Disease, etc. His last book surveyed all the diet research over the last 200 years and was 500 pages and hard to read. It didn’t get wide circulation. So he wrote this one to summarize. I read a library copy and then bought it because I need regular reinforcement of the research data that say the source of weight gain, high cholesterol, etc., is carbs.

This isn’t a diet book, but Taubes includes the diet plan from the famed Duke University weight loss clinic. Basically it is animal source protein with no limit on fats. You can’t eat lean protein and feel good. The body can’t handle it. Desire for fats will adjust itself once your body adjusts to burning fat instead of carbs. At least two cups of leafy greens each day. At least one cup of cooked vegetables (measured uncooked). Limited dairy (contains carbs) and various other limits on particular foods — basically these limits allow you to eat without counting carbs. I find carb counting easier, but even Diet Coke contains carbs.

That’s as much as I know. Let me know if any of this works for  you.

Nonsexist Language More Often Lives On, Kate Swift Dies

Handbook of Nonsexist WritingKate Swift died 7 May 2011. As the alphabetically second author of the first popular guide to nonsexist language, she and her partner changed the world of writing. No more could the male pronoun be universal or taken for granted or justified.

In 1970, she and Casey Miller formed a partnership as editing consultants and were asked to edit a sex education textbook for junior high school students. The author was attempting to be bias free but the language was anything but. Unbeknownst to the author, it was perpetuating all the stereotypes the author was trying a to avoid.

The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing At Amazon

it was because of Kate Swift and Casey Miller that I realized how limiting and discriminatory the use of “Miss” and “Mrs” were. Do you have to know whether a man is married or not before you can say good morning? Before the 1970s all women had to be addressed in terms of their relationship to a man. They were not honorific titles that recognized anything other than that a man had honored you with his presence — and could easily rescind it.

Words and WomenThat was followed by Words and Women in 1976, revised in 1991. There were lots of failed new words suggested along the way to gender neutral language. Linguistic change will always be hard when not attached to a rock band, which are no longer exclusively male by the way, but gradually the awareness they championed is taking hold.

Words and Women at Amazon

Sometimes I feel that we are moving backwards because women are again changing their names when they get married — the right not to being a hard-won battle — and social organizations are continuing to call women by their husband’s names, Mrs. Alexander Washington, on lists of donors and on invitations. Does her only halo come from Alex? I had a flaming conversation with a woman who asked on a writers and editors list how she should address an envelope when the woman was a “Dr.”and the man was not. Mr. and Dr. Alexander Washington was clearly not acceptable. For her neither was Mr. Alexander Washington and Dr. Melinda Andrews, or even Dr. Melinda Andrews-Alexander. But because of woman like Swift and Miller, we at least stop and think.

My Life in a Harem

Book Cover, Some Girls: My Life in a HaremJust when you thought you knew everything, I’ve come up with my life in a harem. No, it’s another book. The title, Some Girls, is not as interesting as the subtitle, My Life in a Harem. If all I had seen was the title, I wouldn’t have picked it up and you wouldn’t be reading this either. Some Girls: My Life in a Harem is Jillian Lauren’s autobiographical story about her foray into the sex business and ultimately a real life harem in Brunei. I had never read a real life account of life in a harem and I haven’t got one friend who has ever lived in one so when I saw it mentioned in New York Magazine, I snapped this right off the shelf, or out of the library’s online catalog.

While it was promising that the library had a copy, I expected either a sensationalistic account of the wonders of a harem, a political call to action to save the world from the sex trade, or a defense of women’s rights to live in harems if they wanted to. At minimum, I expected to learn something about life in a harem. What is a harem? I actually didn’t know.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a literate and insightful account of the author’s life from her late teens when as a New York University drop-out and aspiring actress she drifted into the wonders of pole dancing and the life of an American call girl, and then to a harem in Southeast Asia on the island of Borneo — where the royal family has an unbelievable amount of money to spend. The number of sex acts described in the whole book is less than in single episode of “Desperate Housewives.” And that few are essential to understanding the people as well as the relationships between the harem girls and the royal family and their employees.

The harem is just what the pictures show it to be, parties every night with the Prince and his chosen few with a lot of beautiful women sitting around. Dancing, music, food. Attentive but contained adoration. Hours of rather sedate partying punctuated with one or two carefully arranged sexual encounters for the prince. And outside the parties, as well as during them, hours of boredom. And incredibly expensive gifts. No torture or extreme humiliation or suspicious disappearances. Living in a mansion, under constant surveillance, even in the bathroom. “A camera behind every mirror and a king around every corner.”

The picture of a different culture is well drawn. Several different cultures, actually, as she portrays her life growing up in New Jersey, her life in the art worlds of New York and Los Angeles. The lives of the people around her. Her life as an adopted child, finding her birth mother. The book reads like an epic but ends when she is still in her early twenties. In the end a coming of age story.

She chronicles her shopping trips in Singapore where two girls have to take separate limousines because all their purchases won’t fit in one car. It requires 15 suitcases to take them back on the airplane. Chanel, Versace, Dior, Armani, Gucci — as many dresses as her driver could grab — he was in a hurry. Efficient management is prized and well rewarded in all aspects of harem life.

The book is actually literary — I hadn’t believed the reviews so I was surprised. Definitely recommended. I don’t think I need to know more about harems but would certainly read another book by Jillian Lauren.

Some Girls: My Life in a Harem by Jillian Lauren. NY: Plume, 2010. At Amazon.


Multi-Tasking & Solitude

A link from my daughter to an article on multi-tasking in the American Scholar prompts this post — or rather congealed it. I’ve been struggling with a life that has become so complex I wake up thinking about taking long road trips in a small car with impersonal motel rooms, or moving to a Tumbleweed House of 200 square feet. Calculating how can I reduce the size of my apartment so life will be simpler. Each pile of things, each object reminds me of tasks unfinished. Lack of focus. Ambitions unfulfilled. Good intentions failed.

And then I get up and start the race to fix my  body, get in shape, cure my brain, think faster, walk faster, be happy, get rich — all so I can do more. Do it all. Prioritization is still a task to be mastered. Another time consuming activity that demands a decision about whether to use a spreadsheet or a database. Remember pen and pencil, I ask?

But how to find the right list under all the piles of magazines and downloaded and printed out articles to read. The un-filed bills and notes of things to look up on the web. Piles of books read, but waiting for notes to be made.

Multi-Tasking and Leadership

William Deresiewicz’s Solitude and Leadership is a reprint of a lecture delivered to the entering class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October, 2010. His subject was leadership, a connection that presents a view of multi-tasking that is apart from the usual modern angst of having too much to do, lowering stress levels, or wanting more leisure or family time. His focus is not that we try to do so many things we do none of them well, but that we can’t be leaders, of ourselves or others, unless we take time to reflect and find our own reality. This requires solitude.

Leadership & Solitude

Great books don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day, the kind you get on Facebook and Twitter. They were written in solitude and present ideas and insights that are revolutionary. “Without solitude—the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine—there would be no America.”

Solitude is necessary to maintain the deep friendship of intimate conversation. “Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others. … Instead of having one or two true friends that we can sit and talk to for three hours at a time, we have 968 ‘friends’ that we never actually talk to; instead we just bounce one-line messages off them a hundred times a day. This is not friendship, this is distraction.”

Solitude is what is necessary to think about “doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask.”

And especially for speaking to future military leaders: “How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do the first time you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?”

The Multi-Tasks & Living a Long Time

I was pleased to read Deresiewicz’s account of a research study showing that even college students, our brightest and best young peak performers, do not function well when multi-tasking. I have always considered myself to be a good multi-tasker but at 68, I’m multi-tasked out. While some of the reason may be age, I don’t feel a similar decline in ability to think. While I do take on too many projects to complete in a live time, it isn’t because I take on too many projects. I’ve always had this many projects.

What has tipped my life over the edge seems to be that living a long time makes one’s life more complex.

I used to have two simple little children but children and grandchildren keep multiplying. With no further action on my part, I now have a big family. I have to have a calendar to keep track of birthdays — and I’m still not doing it well. What made me realize this truth in children was reconnecting with my best friend in high school who had her first child at 19 and now at 69 has great grandchildren who are in college. Family history and modern medical miracles predict that she will live to be at least 90. I can’t do the math on that many generations with the addition of her children’s and grandchildren’s spouses (and ex-spouses) and variations of 2-3 children in each constellation. I’m glad I stopped at two and started late. And am less healthy.

I no longer live in a single family home or an impersonal condominium where my friends lived elsewhere and we arranged to meet on a regular basis. I live in a cohousing community, a place where we not only know each other’s names but most of our problems as well. Our pantheon of cohousing relationships continues to grow in every household with marriages, births, adoptions, and one single person moving out and 2-3 moving in. I can’t even count the people as I think about this. I actually do have a database to keep track of them. And they knock on my door and walk in. Welcome, but a very different relationship  to the world than I had 20 years ago.

Finding Solitude

All these people — family and friends — are in addition to my own writing projects, art projects, and just plain interests — film, books, history, polities. I was once warned that as one grew older life would become more narrow as I stopped teaching, children became independent, friends died, and so on. I’m finding it hard to find that solitude that I was warned against as loneliness.

Deresiewicz may have pointed his finger well for me, reminding me that enforcing some solitude on myself is what I need to sort it all out. In addition to long road trips and tiny houses, I’ve been fantasizing about becoming a hermit. An odd old lady in a black dress that never opens her door or speaks to anyone. Walks hunched over so she doesn’t have to make eye-contact and lives in a cave with her books.

William Deresiewicz was formerly an associate professor at Yale University, sat on their admissions committee, and a noted and controversial critic and essayist. This article is too long and a bit rambling but worth the effort. It would be nice if the American Scholar was better edited  but it is easier to skim the online version than it is the bound version that does not lie flat.