Tuesday, March 27

UPS is Bad For Postage

Quick announcement: Do not use UPS for international postcards.

U.S. postage rates went up not too long ago, so an oversized postcard needs $1.05 to go overseas.

I thought I'd save myself a bus trip and walk down to the local UPS outlet for stamps, much closer than any of the three post offices in my area. They carry first class Forever stamps, but they don't have them for international rate. However, the clerk offered to run them through their postage processor and I didn't know what the difference was.

The difference is, UPS marks this service up 86¢! What should have been $13.65 for 13 postcards came out eleven dollars more! I'm embarrassed by my poor judgment, but I went through with the transaction to teach myself a lesson. My wife may be upset with me for this needless expenditure, but I'll deserve her resentment, and hopefully this negative association will keep me away from UPS in the future.

I hope you'll learn from my lesson: you can buy Forever stamps at UPS, but for any other mail they are a terrible idea.

Ocean ≠ Tomato Sauce, Eh?

Seriously? Right off the bat?

Hell of a way to start an auspicious infographic: the National Post covered James Cameron's voyage to the bottom of the sea in the "Deepsea Challenger." Please note the first paragraph in the infographic, in which the brave crew plumbs the "Marinara" Trench.

Unfortunately, a quick Google search indicates this is not the first time the "deepest, most brutal part of the ocean" (Dethklok) has been confused with an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet.

Saturday, March 24

Gifts From the Business Class

Do you ever run a search on a topic and uncover some really relevant information on a blog or commentary page? And then you look at the date and it's the same day as your search? That, I confess, makes me suspicious. Other, more mystically minded people might say the Universe was pulling them toward that topic, or the author sent up a psychic beacon that you keyed into. I'm not averse to metaphysics, but I'm also keenly sensitive to online manipulation, so I wonder if there's some kind of program that spoofs the date or something... not that it's better to be paranoid than New Agey...

Photo: The Guardian
Anyway. Last night I was searching for topics on postcards in general and I found this really sweet little instructional guide, A Postcard A Day, written  (the same day I was searching, mind) for business travelers with families. It is touching for two reasons: it's touted as a more emotional connection with the people you leave behind. You can call, you can Skype, but it's something entirely different for a child to receive a colorful postcard of another city or some beautiful landscape, on the back of which the traveling parent has written a personal note or drawn a couple silly doodles. And to get one of these every day becomes an exciting ritual, itself a palliative to missing one's parent on a trip.

The other reason is that the author really believes in this. In this Business Insider column, Brad Feld mentions he has written about this three other times. You know what it's like, how it feels when you find a personal solution to something in your life. Through trial-and-error you discover an elegant pattern that amply satisfies a number of needs or conditions, and its not enough to implement it yourself but you have to share it with everyone. Because this is the fourth article Feld has written about this, I get the sense his heart is bursting with this simple technique of happy-making and, on some level, he feels a drive to hammer away at crustier, stodgier hearts with it. "You've got to trust me and just try this simple, effortless little thing," he's saying, "it really will make things better."

I can totally relate to that. And as a deltiologist and a postalater, I value that he is boosting for postcards.

Wednesday, March 21

English Girls Win Letter-Writing Competition

Photo: Hemel Today
ITEM: Girls show off writing skills in letter competition

How delightful! The more cynical part of me wants to gripe, yes, of course this would only happen in the U.K. and project a worst-case scenario for an American letter-writing competition: "Winners of the best-looking H have been announced. NY, CT, and NH vie to dominate the alphabet; AL and TN have been eliminated from future rounds."

Where does my bitterness come from? It's not that I believe it's inherently better to cleave to the past. Of course I believe penmanship and grammar should be celebrated throughout the elementary track, but I acknowledge those are my personal convictions. But that sets up a false argument: claiming we reject the past sets up the false dichotomy that we necessarily embrace the future, and this isn't so. Texting friends during class, during family meals, and while driving is only indulging in the fruits of advanced tech, not using these tools to build a better world.

Because I believe that's what penmanship and correspondence do: they instill a personal discipline and nurture a clarity of thought that serves one across many areas of one's life. It's one thing to have neat handwriting, but along with this comes the ability to focus on a goal and steadily work toward it regardless of the arduous passage of time.

Anyway. What were the standards for this contest? These 11y.o. English girls demonstrated an ability to address a topic (the Olympics) and expound upon what they would say to an Olympian athlete. A fun and relevant little creative exercise. Why couldn't the same exercise be implemented Stateside, where students write to and about their favorite celebrities? (Then again, who says it isn't?)

Tuesday, March 6

Look Up the Word You're Not Sure Of

You know what really bugs me? This situation: you're really good at something and no one recognizes you for it. Someone else is worse at it, and you can see how bad they are at it, but everyone loves them and they get money for it.

Photo: ThinkGeek.com
What could I be talking about? Oh, what could the unemployed copy editor be frothing about...

Still, Zombies have a certain caché to them.

Do they? Do they, really. Let me try the one thing this copywriter never did and look up that word, caché.

...Huh! It doesn't exist! I mean, it does if you count the proper noun, the brand name of dresses and sportswear for women aged 25-45. Yes, in that case, there is a prominently positioned Caché at the fore.

But that's not what this copywriter was aiming for. S/he meant "cache," without the acute accent, which would still be wrong as it means (noun) a collection of hidden items or (verb) to store away in hiding. What s/he meant was "cachet," no accent, plus a T. That's the word that means "prestige" or "the state of being respected or admired." (Also, "zombies" does not get capitalized in this usage.)

Ordinarily, this would rankle me. Under optimal circumstances, I'd read this and wince. But being unemployed as I am, seeking work as a copy editor and seeing someone paying good money for copy like that, that really bugs me. Insult to injury: I've applied at ThinkGeek for a copywriting position, too, but I live too far for their liking.

And yet, despite living half the U.S. nation away, I was able to pick out that error. I must be cheating somehow.

UPDATE: I felt bad about making such a big deal about at the time. ThinkGeek's a good organization and they pay attention—in fact, when I tweeted about this they responded that afternoon and said they would fix the error because they take their copywriting seriously. However, three weeks later, the error is still in place.

Monday, March 5

How to Cite a Tweet—Seriously

The Modern Language Association (MLA) has recently formalized how to cite a tweet (a post in Twitter), should one need to do so.

In many cases, no. No one needs to quote and provide citation for some illiterate youth ranting about whatever pop singer or whatever's awesome or lame on Saturday Night Live. Yet there are thousands and thousands of scientists, journalists, politicians, celebrities, and figures of authority on Twitter and many of them do deliver a quote-worthy payload. If you're writing a formal paper of any stripe and need to cite your source when quoting them, it should look like this:

  •  Christian Fredrickson (sxoidmal). "This is how to cite a tweet." 5 Mar 2012, 1:32 PM. Tweet.
The MLA article states that the time cited should be the reader's and not the time the tweet was posted. That would have been more difficult for older tweets. It took a few minutes of research to discover when exactly the below example had been posted, since Twitter didn't provide such detailed information two years ago. Recently, however, Twitter has implemented more detailed posting options so I imagine the MLA would not object to more accurate information being used in the citation, as long as it's available.

An example of an older tweet, from a twit:

  • Sierra Kusterbeck (SierraVE). "Advice from Sierra- always skip the first 3 days of school. Scheduling is definetly [sic] a mess & they'll never even notice." 24 Aug 2010. Tweet.
Note the date is not indicated in this post, no date more specific than year, anyway. I had to go through my own photo archives to find this image file's date from my screen capture, and I had to trust I'd taken it on the same day this post went out. In cases like this, the MLA suggests Twitter citations are not meant to be an accurate register of when things went live online but "approximate guides".

Saturday, March 3

The Dieresis: Not an Umlaut

Updates to the language may come slowly and without fanfare, but... I try to keep my eyes open.

Let me share something I've learned recently. When I was very young, a board game came out that was themed on the Star Wars burgeoning movie franchise. It was a simple game in which you moved from one end of the board to the other, collecting objects and overcoming obstacles. My love for the game came not from the complicated game engine, of course, but that it kept me in the spirit of the film. Playing this jejune pass-time, which had no more to do with Star Wars than the images printed upon it, gave my impressionable imagination the sensation of prolonging my existence within the Star Wars universe for that much longer, in intervals of ten minutes as I played with my cousins.

But the world of language intruded here, ever so slightly. One of the instruction cards a player could draw ordered them to dedicate all moves to arriving at Yavin-4 starbase, with the imperative "coördinate." We debated briefly as to what that meant, that single word that seemed redundant among the instructions: of course we were going to coördinate with the order just passed to us. Why that iteration?

I was bugged by something further: those two dots over the second "o". I had only seen anything like that in the word "naïve," but I didn't know what those dots were doing there, either. This was a rare application that never turned up in any other form of printed literature I had access to, as a child, and when I described it to my elementary school teachers they had no idea what it meant either. Instead, they simply assumed I was mistaken.

Years later, when I began studying German, I was made familiar with the umlaut. I thought it was cool, this extra adornment added to vowels to make an additional sound. And if you didn't have an umlaut on your typewriter, it was acceptable to tack an "e" on after the vowel that would've worn it. Our German exchange student came from Bühl, which I could've written as Buehl, and someone else had for the title Ferris Buehler's Day Off. One from Bühl would be a Bühler, just as those little sausages from Wien (Vienna) are called wieners. Oh German, is there anything you haven't thought of?

But in "coördinate," that is not an umlaut. It's called a dieresis (diaeresis in UK), and it is used to indicate that the second in a pair of vowels will take on a markedly different sound. According to Random House's The Mavens' Word of the Day, The New Yorker Magazine adheres to the strictest implementation of this convention, making it unique among all other U.S. print publications. Why they opt to retain this antiquated stylistic function is unknown to me, but I can't say I disapprove at all. Once in a while, I'll even implement it in a letter or postcard I'm writing, just to shake things up.