Friday, July 30, 2021

Information Compulsion


Everything you say should be true,
but not everything true should be said.

— Voltaire

The late writer Tom Wolfe believed that everyone suffers from "information compulsion," that everyone is "dying to tell you something you don't know."

Wolfe relied on the compulsion to draw secrets out of the hundreds of people he interviewed during his career, including Ken Kesey, Chuck Yeager, John Glenn, Junior Johnson, Phil Spector, and Leonard Bernstein.

We're taught as kids to be discreet, not to volunteer information or share "family business."

And we learn as young adults the numerous penalties attached to having loose lips, when we see peers chastised, ostracized, marginalized, demoted or fired for compulsive blabbery. 

We even take a formal oath of secrecy whenever we're forced to sign one of those sinister-sounding NDAs.

So why do we so readily cave to "information compulsion" when it comes to social media?

In the past 24 hours alone, I have learned through Facebook:
  • Despite her need to, a painter I know cannot sell any of her artwork.

  • Another painter I know has been "blocked" for more than a year.

  • A student in a group I follow is clinically depressed.

  • A publisher I know can't stop grieving over his father's death.

  • An event planner I know can't find a job—or even get an interview.
I'm no Pollyanna, but sharing on social media as if it were one big recovery meeting makes no sense.

Surrendering to information compulsion may reduce your anxiety, but it confers no honor upon you, and is sure to haunt you in the long run.

"The ideal man bears the accidents of life with grace and dignity," Aristotle said, "making the best of circumstances."

You want to be that man (or woman or neither).

Because dignity is non-negotiable.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

No Place Like Home?


Considered a social distancing pioneer, Marcel Proust wrote all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time in his bed.

Move over, Marcel. Americans may have you beat.

According to a new study by lead-gen company CraftJack45% of remote workers routinely work from a couch; 38%, in bed; and 20%, outdoors.

CraftJack asked 1,500 Americans who worked from home where in the house they did so.

While some have home offices, most Americans do not—particularly the city-dwellers.

Those unfortunate workers have been forced, since Covid-19 shut down the country in April 2021, to make do with couches, beds and chaise lounges.

Working from home under these conditions is no cakewalk, which could explain employees' poor reaction to Google's announcement yesterday (following Apple's lead) that it has postponed their return to the office to mid-October.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Keep Me Posted

Too much of nothing can make a man feel ill at ease.

— Bob Dylan

"Keep me posted."

The idiom is thought by some linguists to derive from the Old English word postis, borrowed from Latin and meaning "doorpost."

As did many ancients, the Romans believed evil spirits lurked about their doorsTo ward them off, they'd nail amulets to their postes and slather them with potions—combinations of things like salt, cumin, chewed buckthorn, and monkey urine. They'd also nail a variety of "danger" and "no trespassing" signs to their doorposts, meant to deter the devils.

In the Middle Ages, wooden posts were erected in village squares, meant for the display of public notices, and postis in Middle English came to mean "to announce," as when a couple would "post banns" before their wedding. This practice is the more likely source of the modern idiom "Keep me posted." (The later-arriving expression "posting a letter" is unrelated; it derives from the French noun poste, which means "courier.")

Today, social media is our postis, the way we all—except for a few Luddites—spread and follow news.

But when is too much posting too much? When does posting become spamming?

The social media mavens at Hootsuite have the answers:
  • On Instagram, you should post no more than once a day (either a feed-post or a story). Posting daily will double your following every week. Posting more frequently is spamming.
  • On Facebook, you should post no more than twice a day. Posting at that frequency will quadruple your following; but posting more than that will cost you followers.

  • On Twitter, you should post no more than six times a day. One-third of your posts should comprise self-promotion; one-third, stories; one-third, insights.

  • On LinkedIn, you should post no more than five times a day. However, having been banned for life from LinkedIn (for opposition to gun ownership), I urge you to boycott this nest of right-wing vipers and post zero times a day. Better yet, delete your LinkedIn account.
All Hootsuite's rules of course take a back seat to the prime directive: your content should add value. Posting crap, even once, is over-posting.

Adding value—when you consider all the clutter—is a feat. 

Adding value is something. 

Adding crap is nothing.

Too much of nothing can make a man feel ill at ease.


Monday, July 26, 2021

First, Entertain


It’s a very recent thing that there’s a premium put on
making writing so difficult that only a charmed
aristocracy is capable of understanding it.

— Tom Wolfe

Besides brevity, what improves writing?

The aim to entertain.

When I was a college student, my professors would assign a mountain of papers to write—as many as one every week.

The papers were a serious matter, their grades representing two-thirds or more of the final grade for each class.

I decided early on that if I wasn't entertained by my paper, the professor surely wouldn't be; so I sought a quirky angle for nearly every one.

While I remember few of these papers today, one from a Theology course sticks in my mind. 

The assignment was to react to some book we had to read about the divinity of Christ. 

I wrote my paper all in dialog, from the viewpoint of a subject on a psychiatrist's couch. I swiped that gimmick from Philip Roth, who used it throughout Portnoy's Complaint.

The Theology professor commented that, although I had "underestimated Christ's divine nature," the paper was "entertaining." 

I received an A+.

The effort to enchant my professors worked like a charm for the most part, enabling me to ace papers on topics like Beowulf, Blake, Tolstoy, Bismarck, Hegel, epistemology, subcultures, collectives, and Muscovite hegemony in Yugoslavia.

It didn't quite work out with a paper on protein-deficient neurotransmitters.

The most frequent comment the professors offered was "shallowly thought out, but entertaining."

Aiming to entertain also provided a stimulant (along with coffee), helping me plow quickly through otherwise tedious material. 

That gave me more time to spend on my primary interest: coeds.

There was nothing original about my effort. 

Writers, if not undergrads, have been acting as entertainers since the Bronze Age.

Shakespeare, by injecting prankish novelties into his plays, upped their quotient of "fun" measurably. That effort paid him well at the box office. 

And the late best-selling novelist Tom Wolfe codified the writer's role as entertainer, telling editor Tom Freeman in 2004 that he wanted to make all writers swear to be entertaining.

"I’ve begun working on a writers’ Hippocratic oath,” Wolfe told Freeman. 

"The first line of the doctors’ Hippocratic oath is 'First, do no harm.' And I think for the writers it would be: 'First, entertain.'

"Entertain is a very simple word. I looked it up in the dictionary. Entertainment enables people to pass the time pleasantly. And any writing—I don’t care if it’s poetry or what—should first entertain."

But how would Wolfe's dictum apply, say, in business, where the writer's oath is more like, "First, inform."

You might lean on something your audience doesn't expect.

Here, for example, is an email I just received, in its entirety:

Your business is important to us. It's our mission to keep you up-to-date on what's happening with business in the Delaware region and how it affects you. But we need your help to fulfill that mission.

Right now, you're receiving our email newsletters, but you don't have access to our best resources and Insider-only content.

I've got great news.

Now through July 29, you can become a full
Delaware Business Times Insider for only $4 per month. This is 50% off our normal rate and is our best rate of the year. As an Insider you'll get all 24 issues per year of Delaware Business Times (digitally or in print), immediate access to all of the Insider-only content on our website, priority registration for all DBT and Delaware Today virtual events and discounted registration for all DBT and Delaware Today in-person events.

Becoming a DBT Insider is a valuable investment for your own business and a strong investment in local business journalism right here in Delaware.

Here's the same email with the fun quotient upped by leaning on, of all things, a pharma commercial:

Physicians agree: there's one thing worse than FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). FOMB (Fear of Missing a Bargain).

Now you can cure both with one easy action.

Through July 29, become a full Delaware Business Times Insider for only $4 per month—half off the normal rate. By subscribing, you'll receive all 24 issues of Delaware Business Times (digitally or in print), access to Insider-only content on our website, priority registration for all DBT and Delaware Today virtual events, and discounted registration for all DBT and Delaware Today in-person events.

You'll never miss an important business story—or the year's biggest bargain—again!

Friday, July 23, 2021

The Business End of Your Pencil

One day when I was studying with Schoenberg,
he pointed out the eraser on his pencil and said,
"This end is more important than the other."

— John Cage

It's one thing to praise brevity, another to achieve it. Brevity begins and ends with "chunks."

The basic chunk is the paragraph. 

Think of the paragraph as a form of punctuation. Just as sentences would be hard to read without commas, colons, and periods, writing would be hard to read without paragraphs.

As a rule, short paragraphs (like this one) are effective.

However, while writing short paragraphs can be a virtue, paragraphs need not be short to seem brief. They simply have to follow a proven, four-part formula:

1. First, get your thoughts down, even if they take the form a single paragraph.

2. Next, "chunk" your separate thoughts into separate paragraphs.

3. Then, polish your paragraphs:
  • Make sure your topic sentence—establishing the main point of the paragraph—is up front.

  • Make sure the topic sentence transitions from the prior paragraph. That means it begins with something familiar to your reader, namely, the idea last expressed at the end of the previous paragraph. 

  • Shape the entirety of your paragraph so it progresses cohesively and coherently. Your sentences should flow one from another (that makes them cohesive) and at the same time link to a single topic—the one captured in your topic sentence (that makes them coherent). Whenever your sentences don't link readily to the main topic, introduce bullets or numbers, or simply begin a new paragraph. And don't bother writing a "summation" or "conclusion" at the end of your paragraph. Just leap to the next one.
4. Lastly, apply the business end of your pencil and revise. As you're doing so, be sure to express all your ideas with precision and to cut your words by a third, at least.

“Writing is revision,” as Tracy Kidder says.

Here's an example of a paltry paragraph—lacking a topic sentence, lacking cohesiveness, lacking coherence, lacking precision. It's short, but godawful:

London's weather had been unusual for September, so Londoners took advantage of it to linger in the parks and visit the popular department stores. Even though an occasional air-raid siren would sound, the barrage balloons that flew overhead provided them a sense of security. They also attended plays and went to "picture shows," seeing films like Rebecca, The Thin Man and Gaslight. Considering England was at war, Londoners on the whole were quite complacent.

Here's the same content in the hands of Erik Larson, a writer who knows the business end of a pencil (the passage is from his new best-seller The Splendid and the Vile):

The day was warm and still, the sky blue above a rising haze. Temperatures by afternoon were in the nineties, odd for London. People thronged Hyde Park and lounged on chairs set out beside the Serpentine. Shoppers jammed the stores of Oxford Street and Piccadilly. The giant barrage balloons overhead cast lumbering shadows on the streets below. After the August air raid when bombs first fell on London proper, the city had retreated back into a dream of invulnerability, punctuated now and then by false alerts whose once-terrifying novelty was muted by the failure of bombers to appear. The late-summer heat imparted an air of languid complacency. In the city’s West End, theaters hosted twenty-four productions, among them the play Rebecca, adapted for the stage by Daphne du Maurier from her novel of the same name. Alfred Hitchcock’s movie version, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, was also playing in London, as were the films The Thin Man and the long-running Gaslight.
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