Books in General

Open Access

19 April 2019

The Passive Voice is a blog about books, authors, writing, publishing, etc., but PG is pleased to learn of open access policies by a couple of large art museums whereby the museum offers high-quality digital files of art for which copyrights have expired.

This first item is from The Cleveland Museum of Art, titled “Twilight in the Wilderness” and painted by Frank Church. Click on the image for a larger version

From the description of the painting by the Museum:

In his New York studio, Church painted this spectacular view of a blazing sunset over wilderness near Mount Katahdin in Maine, which he had sketched during a visit nearly two years earlier. Although Church often extolled the grandeur of pristine American landscape in his work, this painting appears to have additional overtones. Created on the eve of the Civil War, the painting’s subject can be interpreted as symbolically evoking the coming conflagration.

Link to the rest at The Cleveland Museum of Art

Email Settings

19 April 2019

Notre Dame

16 April 2019

Via Pexels

PG was so sad to see video of this lovely building burning last night.

Construction on the cathedral was begun over 800 years ago on the site of even more ancient churches. Notre Dame survived the French Revolution and two World Wars.

PG was heartened read this morning that over $300 million in private funds have already been pledged towards rebuilding and restoration.

The Robots That Manage the Managers

15 April 2019

Not exactly about the writing business, but perhaps a sci-fi writing prompt.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Raquel Collings often has morning coffee with her management coach. She reviews her goals in her new job as a corporate manager and ponders whether she’s spending her time wisely.

The coaching topics are the only part of the sessions that is conventional.

Ms. Collings’ coach is a bot—a manager-training app powered by the artificial intelligence of IBM ’s Watson. The app, Coach Amanda, serves up tips on her phone in five- to 10-minute videos and texts that Ms. Collings consumes during spare moments in her workday.

When she recently texted the bot that she doubted her ability to review a colleague’s performance, it chided her for being too hard on herself, based on a personality test in the app showing she was highly conscientious. “I thought, ‘Wow, she called me out on this,’ ” says Ms. Collings, a marketing manager for First United Bank, a Durant, Okla., financial-services company.

As more millennials move into management jobs, many are finding they lack basic training in such supervisory skills as delivering feedback and delegating work. A new crop of AI-driven coaching apps and platforms are aiming to fill the gap, including Butterfly, Qstream and LEADx, the Philadelphia-based maker of Coach Amanda.

. . . .

Ken Ryzner says Coach Amanda helped him run richer brainstorming sessions with colleagues by suggesting he ask more questions. He cringed, however, at the app’s response when he reported he had finished one of its assigned tasks.

“She came back with, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ It’s weird to me when a chatbot has kind of fake emotions. I was like, ‘That’s creepy. That’s weird.’ ” says Mr. Ryzner, a 49-year-old instructional designer at Red Nucleus, a Yardley, Pa., provider of custom learning applications.

Coach Amanda isn’t as good as a human coach, says Kevin Kruse, LEADx’s founder. “If you can afford $250 to $500 an hour, go get a human,” he says. “But AI is democratizing leadership training.” The cost is far less—$30 a month for individual buyers, and $20 a month for employees (or less for larger employers).

. . . .

If Humu identifies a morale problem, such as a feeling among employees that their boss is making questionable decisions or being too secretive, the platform might nudge the manager to explain his decisions more clearly, Mr. Bock says. Employees might get nudges at the same time aimed at restoring trust in the manager, by suggesting he or she has good intentions and is just really busy, or wants to avoid distracting them.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG wondered how a lawyer-coaching system might work.

“Studies have shown that the average attorney includes 53 semicolons in a 15-page contract. You have only used 19. Would you like me to suggest locations where you could insert additional semicolons to match the expected frequency of use? If you prefer, I could insert them automatically.”


April Is Napowrimo (For the Poets Who Didn’t Know It and Those Who Did)

14 April 2019

From Indies Unlimited:

Let’s be real: poetry is often treated like the wayward stepchild of the writing world. It doesn’t sell as well as other genres, so it’s not produced in the same quantities. But sales don’t equal love, and in April, poetry takes center stage in NaPoWriMo (aka National Poetry Writing Month).

Much like its better-known cousin, NaNoWriMo, NaPoWriMo is a month devoted to poetry. While the goal of National Novel Writing Month is to have a completed 50,000-word novel at the end of 30 days, NaPoWriMo wants authors to have 30 poems by month’s end.

Poetry is a medium that can be extremely useful to fiction writers. It requires the author to express a great depth of thought and emotion in a very short turn of phrase. Rather than pages to set a scene, poetry requires simple, vivid imagery and descriptions that can tell a tale in shorter measure.

Famed horror author Stephen King loves poetry, saying, “it takes ordinary life, it takes things that we all see, and concentrates them in this beautiful gem.” Author Alice Walker called poetry “the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness.”

Link to the rest at Indies Unlimited

When PG read the OP, the name Casabianca floated into his head. (Spring floodwaters are particularly high at Casa PG this year.)

Casabianca is a poem by the English poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans, first published in 1826.

During the Victorian era in Britain and the same period in the United States, a staple of the education of young men (and maybe young women as well, although PG honestly doesn’t know for certain) was the memorization and performance of poetry. Those who lived through that experience were often able to recite poems learned in their youth well into old age.

One of the staples during the age of memorization was Casabianca. The poem combined the sort of bloodthirsty heroism and loyalty that appeals to many boys at a certain stage of their lives with regular ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba BUM meter and unfailing rhymes at the end of each line.

Parents must have liked the idea of a boy who is loyal, reliable and remembers his responsibilities under difficult circumstances (rare though that may be in the real life of an 11-year old).

The poem is short enough to quote in its entirety:

The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck,
Shone round him o’er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though childlike form.

The flames rolled on – he would not go,
Without his father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

He called aloud – ‘Say, father, say
If yet my task is done?’
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.

‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,
‘If I may yet be gone!’
– And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.

Upon his brow he felt their breath
And in his waving hair;
And look’d from that lone post of death,
In still yet brave despair.

And shouted but once more aloud,
‘My father! must I stay?’
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.

They wrapped the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.

There came a burst of thunder sound –
The boy – oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part,
But the noblest thing which perished there,
Was that young faithful heart.

What’s not to like for a boy? Flames, explosions, fear overcome and valiant death – it just doesn’t get any better than that (unless ice cream is involved).

In addition to Ms. Hemans’ best known work, other examples of similar poetry include, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Charles Wolfe’s “Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna,” W. E. Henley’s “Invictus” and Rudyard Kipling’s “If–.”


While doing a bit of research for this post, PG learned that, unfortunately, the poem has some connection to actual history.

From Find a Grave:

[Giocante Casabianca is a] folk figure.

. . . .

[The poem] was based on an actual incident during the Battle of the Nile (also known as the Battle of Abu Qir Bay), August 1, 1798. Twelve year-old Giocante was serving with his father, Captain Luc-Julien-Joseph Casabianca, aboard the French flagship L’Orient when it came under attack from Horatio Nelson’s British fleet; the ship caught fire and exploded, killing father, son, and 900 of the crew. This is all that is known of the young sailor’s life.

Link to the rest at Find a Grave

A Reader’s Guide to Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

11 April 2019

From The New York Review of Books:

It’s well known that the invention of the railways increased the sales of books. Aside from talking and staring out of the window, what could one do on a long journey but read? Anna Karenina was reading on a train when she realized how powerfully attracted she was to the young Count Vronsky, how ready to change her life.

But could it be that trains and buses and ships and planes have actually increased the amount of writing that gets done? Certainly, they quickly invaded the writer’s world. Virginia Woolf’s first memory was of her mother’s dress on an omnibus. Dickens was almost killed in a train crash and subsequently wrote “The Signal-Man,” generally reckoned to be one of the best ghost stories ever. Dostoevsky’s The Idiot opens with a long scene on a train. Likewise, Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. And, of course, Tolstoy died at a railway station while escaping from his wife after forty-eight years of one of literature’s most fruitful dysfunctional relationships.

D.H. Lawrence had a particular affection for the green trams that took Nottinghamshire miners into town for a Saturday night out. They “plunge off into the black industrial countryside, up hill and down dale… perky, jaunty, somewhat dare-devil, green as a jaunty sprig of parsley out of a black colliery garden.” Later in life, he fell in love with steamers, too. “And swish! went the sea as we took the waves,” he tells us in Sea and Sardinia. “This curious rhythmic swishing and hollow drumming of a steamer at sea has a narcotic, almost maddening effect on the spirit.”

. . . .

But of lists and anecdotes there would be no end. I want to go further and suggest that there is actually a deep affinity between a book and a means of transport, just as there is an evident analogy between a story and a journey. Both go somewhere. Both offer us a way out of our routine and a chance to make unexpected encounters, see new places, experience new states of mind. But without too much risk. You fly over the desert, or race across it, but you don’t actually have to experience it. It’s a circumscribed adventure. So it is with a book. A novel may well be shocking or enigmatic or dull or compulsive, but it is unlikely to do you too much damage.

Then, by mixing with strangers of every class and clime, the traveler is bound to become more aware of himself and of the fragility of identity. How different we are when we speak to different people! How different our lives would be if we opened up to them. “What am I myself?” asks Anna Karenina, looking at her fellow passengers on the train to St. Petersburg, “Myself or some other woman?” This was exactly the kind of instability that Pope Gregory XVI foresaw when in the 1840s he banned railways from the papal states; “chemins d’enfer” he called them, fearing people would be able to escape the benevolent surveillance of their loved ones, their priests, simply by buying a ticket. The good pope feared books, too, and banned quite a few. For the secret agenda of the writer is always to shake up the reader’s identity through the vicissitudes of his characters, who so often find themselves traveling.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

Cats Recognize Their Own Names—Even if They Choose to Ignore Them

9 April 2019

For all the lovers of cats and of books about cats from Scientific American:

Cats are notorious for their indifference to humans: Almost any owner will testify to how readily these animals ignore us when we call them. But according to a study published Thursday in Scientific Reports, domestic cats do recognize their own names—even if they walk away when they hear them.

Atsuko Saito, a behavioral scientist at the University of Tokyo, previously showed that cats can recognize their owners’ voices. In her latest study she narrowed this down, investigating whether they respond to hearing their names. The study included 78 cats from Japanese households and a “cat café.” (Such cafés, where patrons can interact with felines, are popular in Tokyo and have started to catch on in London and New York.)

During their experiments Saito and her colleagues used what behavioral psychologists call the habituation-dishabituation method. This involves repeatedly exposing a subject to a stimulus (in this case a spoken word) until the subject no longer displays any reaction. Then the subject is presented with a test stimulus (in this case, its name), and researchers observe whether it reacts. This step helps rule out responses to random stimuli.

For the new study, the scientists first had cat owners repeatedly say four words that were similar to their cats’ names, until the cats habituated to those words. Next the owners said the actual names, and the researchers looked at whether individual cats (when living among other cats) appeared able to distinguish their monikers. The cats had more pronounced responses to their own names—moving their ears, heads or tails, or meowing—than to similar words or other cats’ names.

Then the researchers had people unfamiliar to the cats speak the names, to test whether the cats still recognized them. Although their responses were less prominent than when their owners called them, they still appeared to recognize their names after being habituated to other words.

. . . .

Saito says she thinks feline pets learn to recognize their names because of what is in it for them. “I think cats associated their names with some rewards or punishments,” she says—adding that she thinks it is unlikely the cats understand their names are attached to them.

. . . .

“Cats are just as good as dogs at learning,” Bradshaw says. “They’re just not as keen to show their owners what they’ve learned.”

Link to the rest at Scientific American

Senators Just Unveiled a Bill to Stop Deceptive Design and Dark Patterns

9 April 2019

From Fast Company:

Dark patterns are user interface elements that are intentionally designed to trick or confuse users. They can do anything from nudge users to hand over their data to encourage them to spend another $5 to play more Candy Crush. Dark patterns serve companies, rather than their users, for an array of opaque reasons the average person will never recognize. But thus far, there’s been nothing to incentivize companies to cut back on dark patterns aside from consumer outrage.

Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Deb Fischer (R-NE) presented a bill this morning, according to CNBC, that would tighten the reins on big web platform holders with “over 100 million active users,” like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Such modern monopolies are each guilty of leveraging dark patterns at one time or another. Dubbed, “The Deceptive Experiences to Online Users Reduction Act,” Axios says that the bill would make it illegal for companies to “design, modify, or manipulate a user interface with the purpose or substantial effect of obscuring, subverting, or impairing user autonomy, decision making, or choice to obtain consent or user data.” On top of that, it would ban UI design that creates “compulsive usage” in users under 13, and bans various forms of data analysis on young users (for instance, Facebook has been criticized for being able to ad-target teens when they felt “insecure”). Furthermore, companies would have to share data experiments publicly.

Link to the rest at Fast Company

PG did a bit of research and found the following:

UI design gets dark sometimes. Particularly when companies exploit their user interface to trick users into doing something they wouldn’t consciously do, usually for profit. Sounds improbable? If only! Companies often use so-called ‘dark patterns’ to baffle users.

. . . .

Basically, dark patterns are UI tactics that encourage the user to take a path they didn’t mean to take. These patterns take the principles of good UX and UI design, and turn them on their head. In dark UX, color theory is manipulated to misdirect, language is used to confuse rather than clarify, and the user is exploited to boost company reach or profits.

. . . .

See that bit above where we talk about company profits? That’s why dark patterns are so ubiquitous. Companies are often looking for short-term results, and increases in numbers rather than qualitative stats like ‘user happiness’. And dark patterns work, in that sense; they successfully trick people, so companies keep using them.

But consistent use of tricksy UI patterns and dark UX is in fact damaging to the company in the long-term. Users don’t like being hoodwinked, and will call dark patterns out on social media (witness the #darkpattern hashtag on Twitter).

Plus dark patterns stop working after a while and companies have to think of something else. Why not design good user experiences that keep users coming back for more, instead of UI patterns designed to trick?

“Any short-term gains a company gets from a dark pattern are lost in the long term,” Hoa Loranger, NN Group

So, here are 5 common UX dark patterns and some user-friendly alternatives.

1. Deliberate Misdirection

Anyone who’s ever booked a budget flight online will be familiar with this dark pattern classic. Take the example of airline Ryanair. Users are directed to buy travel insurance, but on clicking the dropdown menu they see a list of Countries of Residence. The opt-out for purchasing travel insurance is way down the list, under the unintuitive listing ‘No travel insurance required’.

. . . .

The darkness lies in the fact that the pattern is misdirecting you — you think you’re picking travel insurance, but then suddenly you’re telling them your country of residence, and it doesn’t look like deselecting travel insurance is an option. Unless you skim down the list and spot it there, formatted to look identical to the countries of residence.

. . . .

2. Invisible Unsubscribe

A user’s inbox is their personal space. Users guard access to that space pretty vigilantly, and the ability to unsubscribe from a mailing list is a key part of that. Most companies and email service providers make unsubscribing simple. But some prefer dark patterns instead.

Check out this example, where the unsubscribe button is formatted to be… invisible

. . . .

3. Growth Hacking Through Spamming

No one likes email spam. But even worse than getting spam is finding out that you yourself are the unwitting spammer. This can happen when apps or services you join ask for access to your email contacts — they make out like they just want to help you find friends already using the same service, but in reality they want to spam all your contacts with invitations to join up. Classic dark pattern.

Take the well-documented example of LinkedIn, which was exposed by blogger Dan Schlosser in a much-read Medium post. The professional networking platform asked Dan to strengthen his network; that actually meant ‘send 1000s of emails to contacts not on LinkedIn with one click’. Worst part? The emails purported to be from Dan himself, not LinkedIn. In 2015, LinkedIn lost a lawsuit about the pattern to the tune of $13 million USD.

Link to the rest at UX Planet

PG’s first response to the above was that it was definitely a first-world problem and he suspects it will be ridiculously simple for the dark forces behind dark patterns to avoid punishment under any law passed by the United States Senate.

PG’s operative practice online is to never trust any online organization with anything important until the organization demonstrates its honesty and reliability. He doesn’t order goods or services from anyone who appeared online yesterday. He doesn’t give information until he’s satisfied the organization is not run by crooks or crazy people and he provides information limited to what he thinks is reasonable even after he’s satisfied.

If he’s asked for more than he believes is reasonable, PG has no hesitation about providing fictitious information. He can live in Texas and Florida and Bermuda at the same time if he doesn’t think the organization asking really needs that sort of information to provide whatever PG wants from the website.

A couple of specific tips:

Many credit card issuers are happy to issue a virtual credit card number to an individual who has one of their cards. Virtual card numbers can only be used online and for phone purchases. You can cancel the virtual number without adversely impacting your ability to use the real number or to obtain a new virtual number. Some people PG knows who spend a lot of money online simply cancel their virtual credit card numbers every 30-60 days as free insurance from the hassles of disputing charges that appear on their card statements.

See Credit Card Insider for more information.

Email addresses are free. You can have as many as you want and stop using any address that starts getting spammed or is otherwise used by someone who annoys you. It is pretty easy for PG to select people who he wants to stay in touch with. If PG has given an organization a temporary email address, but later decides he wants to stay connected with the company, he can always give them his permanent email address.

One way of managing temporary email addresses is to use the date when you created the address or the date you want it to expire – could work. (Actually not for you – PG just signed up for that address because he didn’t want to inadvertently include someone else’s working GMail account in this post.)

PG prefers a separate email program to web-based email. In past lives, he has used Outlook, but in recent years, he has moved everything to Thunderbird – a free open-source email program from Mozilla.

With the practice PG has had, it’s ridiculously simple for him to set up a new email box on Thunderbird. If he receives an annoying email, he right-clicks on the address and can send future emails from that address directly to Trash. With about the same effort, he can mark it as Junk with similar results. If he’s finished with a temporary email address, he just deletes that mailbox on Thunderbird and is not exactly certain what happens to the emails sent to that address thereafter. He doesn’t really care so long as they don’t consume a single cycle of a single brain cell.

Since TPV has always included a large proportion of highly-intelligent and well-informed visitors, PG is certain some of the comments will include far better ideas than he has discussed.

Next Page »