Electronic writing tools – a memoir

When I moved from more than a decade as a journalist and public affairs guy for a governor to freelance writing in 1980, I needed an automated writing tool for my work. The typewriter was no longer cutting it. Even the famed IBM Selectric would not meet my requirements.

I bussed it to the downtown Denver Xerox Store and bought a massive mag-card machine for $3,000 – a lot of dough for a start-up freelancer with four kids. It consisted of an electric daisywheel typewriter/printer on steroids connected via an inch-thick cable to a 140-pound console that sat on the floor. Two magnetic  tape cartridge drives recorded every keystroke, correction, and changes I made on used fan-fold computer paper that I fed through the typewriter; copy was hand edited on successive printouts; when the piece was done the machine printed out a final copy.

I have since owned and used many electronic writing tools, including a Kaypro II “portable” (like lugging around a sewing machine), many IBM PCs, a number of laptops, mostly PCs but one Mac, the wonder of the ages-Tandy/Radio Shack’s innovative TRS-80 Model 100 portable computer, a tiny HP Palmtop, a few netbooks (which I liked because of their small size), and, now, a $200 Winbook tablet computer with a wireless mouse and a case with a built in keyboard. I send articles, book drafts, news releases, short stories, scripts, and other stuff to my printer wirelessly or directly to clients or publishers via the internet – about two pounds of gear now in my writer’s toolbag – roughly one per cent the weight of my first electronic writing tool.

Bad writing by George F. Will

cropped-Olivetti-Underwood-studio-441.jpg“Michael Froman received from a Harvard Law School classmate, Barack Obama, a job that validates the axiom that the unlikelihood of any negotiation reaching agreement grows by the square of the number of parties involved. In trade negotiations, even one’s own country is troublesome, as the catfish conundrum illustrates. And the degree of difficulty in achieving a free-trade pact is proportional to the number of Democrats in Congress.”

From the opening paragraph to a column on the Asia-Pacific trade deal in the Washington Post. Will, whose writing is not as bad as it often seems, has won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.

Get on your bicycle!

Eyeing that dusty and spider web-covered two-wheeler stacked over there in the corner of the garage with the camping gear, old paint cans and whatnot?

I am lucky enough to live in the Denver area, which is one of the most bicycle friendly metro areas in the country, but these tips apply just about anywhere.

While government entities are becoming more bike-friendly, after listening to the bicycling advocates, the drivers have yet to figure this out – so BE CAREFUL OUT THERE. A free two-pound bag of birdseed for anyone who knows where that phrase, Be Careful Out There, came from. Just kidding. I will not send you any birdseed. Those of you who like classic television know from where the line came.

I am going to assume you know how to ride a bike, so this little missive is on safety only, since if you get creamed by a speeding SUV, your equipment, food, water, apparel, and training routines will mean very little if you are dead.

Safety. Bare minimum.

Helmet. Make sure it fits you well. Go to a bike shop if you need advice. If you do not worry about head lice, get your helmet at the local thrift store, but make sure it has no signs of an impact. If it does, it will not adequately protect your noggin.

Eye Protection. A good pair of sunglasses work fine during the day, but not at night. Try the bike shop again and get a good pair of cycling glasses.

Reflectors. Your bike should have a white reflector on the front, a red one on the back and yellow or white ones in the spokes of each wheel. Do not ride without these. Go to your bike shop to get them.

Lights. Even if you do not plan it, you might get caught having to ride after dark. A good white electric light for the front and a flashing red light for the back are the minimums. Your bike shop can help you out there.

Shoes. You do not need specialized cycling shoes at the starting level, but you do need shoes. Harder soles work a little better, but matter little. If you ride a bike in flip-flops or sandals you are just asking for trouble. Your pedal can get tangled between what they call the sole on a flip-flop and your foot. Worst case, you can seriously injure your foot or even lose a toe if you have an accident or hit a curb.

Route. Avoid roads at all cost. Bike paths make this easy. Use the off-road bike paths or sidewalks. Yes, in most places you can ride on sidewalks as long as you do not mow down pedestrians. If there are no decent sidewalks or pathways available, use some of the streets that have brightly marked bike lanes, but DO NOT TRUST DRIVERS, even if they are legally required to give you a few feet of space. Your last resort is using a regular street, but only as a last resort. I do not recommend it. Way too many bad drivers. Or drunk ones.

Crosswalks. Use them. A lot of your tax dollars went into designing and building these handy facilities. Cross busy streets IN THE CROSSWALK. You can ride or walk your bike. Hit the button for the traffic light if there is one, wait for and then use the pedestrian signal.

Stop Signs/Stop Lights. Obey them. If you do not, you are nuts.

Cars and Trucks. They kill you or maim you for life. Do not assume anything. Even the best drivers do not see you right away because their brains are programmed to look for a big car, not a little ole you. That half a second can mean your life. I watch the eyes of the driver and if the driver does not see me, I slow down and prepare to stop until the driver and I lock glances, even if I have the right of way. I also watch the wheels of the car, which is a much easier and quicker way to see if the car is moving or not. Those backward spinning wheel decorations are a bit frustrating, fairly stupid looking, and are a passing fad.

Control. Make sure you are always under control. There is no need to hurry or ride like you are in la Tour De France. Speed kills, and at least one cyclist in this country has been arrested for manslaughter after he mowed down an oldster in a crosswalk.

Water. Take some with you and drink it. Go to the bike shop and get a water bottle and bottle cage for your machine.

Food. Do not go cycling hungry. Take a protein bar or something with you so your blood sugar does not drop. Dizziness and cycling do not go hand in hand.

First Ride? If you have not ridden in a long while, take it easy. Just ride a mile or two, very slowly, the first time out. Gradually extend your rides. Starting off with a ten mile ride if you have not ridden in six months or a year, or longer, is sheer stupidity.

That is enough finger-wagging for now. Go out and ride.

Coincidentally, a good friend of mine, Vic Bengston, lives in Denver as well. Vic, like me, is a baby boomer, only he is a figment of my imagination. After spending the bulk of his prime working years in the corporate world, Vic has returned to his first love, investigative journalism. He gets into all sorts of predicaments as he chases down killers in his fictional world. He has a dusty bike back in the dark recesses of his garage like you and me. You can read about him in his latest adventure, WATER: A Vic Bengston Investigation. You’ll find Kindle. Nook, and other eBooks at the usual places, paperbacks at Amazon and Colorado bookstores, or my website, richardjschneider.com.

Good riding. And good reading.

Don’t stretch your facts too far

Fabricate-CV-300x200When writing non-fiction, it serves the writer well to stick to facts, and even to a reasonable interpretation of facts. Otherwise, your cred as the author of a piece can—and should—fall under suspicion.

A ran across a piece the other day by a nutrition expert that exemplifies this in spades. I stopped reading after the first paragraph because of its absurd assumption about foods that had been in widespread use for millennia.

Here is the opening paragraph of the article titled, “What Are Sprouted Grains?”

“There are a number of healthy foods that were once considered fringe fare, relegated to the realm of health-food stores and to the diets of people who preferred tie-dye to neckties. Yogurt, granola, hummus, and goji berries are all examples of ‘alternative’ foods that debuted on the margins but have since gone mainstream. And to this list, it appears we may soon add sprouted grains.”

The author block identified the writer as “a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances” and with a bunch of letters after her name –. MS, RD, CDN. I have no reason to question the writer’s credentials, only the shaping of the lead paragraph.

It was the lead that set off the alarm bells, because it was wrong from the get-go. Take the first sentence, and the use of the term, “fringe fare” only found in health food stores frequented by people wearing “tie-dye” clothing. Anyone been in a Whole Foods lately? Mostly Brooke Brothers, Polo inside and BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, and Prius outside. From the start, the reader gets a biased and incorrect impression about the subject of the piece.

Now look at the second sentence, and the assertion that “Yogurt, granola, hummus, and goji berries are all examples of “alternative” foods that debuted on the margins but have since gone mainstream.”

There is a hint of truth here, but so feint that it continues to mislead the reader into thinking that these foods fell off the turnip truck last week. Maybe the writer (or her editor, who I suspect is the real culprit) is implying that these foods just recently became popular. That is still a bit of a stretch.

Three of the foods – yogurt, hummus, and goji berries (wolfberry) – are ancient, dating back thousands of years. Yogurt and hummus, for example, are documented to have been in use 8,000 and 7,000 years ago, respectively. Wolfberries? Only a few thousand years back in China.

1024px-Granola_advertisement,_1893The babies of the group, Granula and Granola, are – or were – registered trademarks dating back into the late 1800s in the U.S. The food, based on whole grains that have been baked until crisp, was developed at a New York health clinic just before the tune of the century – the 20th that is – in 1893. Cereal giant Kellogg even took a crack at it. Its unbaked cousin, muesli, turned up a only few decades later.

Yogurt, – a food that dates back 8,000 years. In the last 2 centuries has been a staple for many cultures – hardly fringe or yuppie. And that Dannon yogurt with the fruit on the bottom – the stuff popular with the latte crowd? Recent? Trendy? Introduced in 1947 – the year I was borne

Hummus, ground up chickpeas as the base with added ingredients, dates back to ancient Egypt. Recipes were published about the time movable type printing was invented. No doubt there were hand-written versions circulated before that. And maybe a few chiseled into stone somewhere.

The goji berry is a relatively new name for the ancient wolfberry, the consumption of which dates back thousands of years in China. No doubt, the new name was a marketing gimmick to push recent health claims. Who would eat a “wolf” berry? This one food of the four cited in the article’s lead that might be classified as a recent health food fad, but it is hardly “fringe.” And people with neckties buy this stuff.

It took me about 10 minutes to pull quick research on these foods to confirm what my nose told me when I read the article’s first paragraph. I stopped there since the author, in my mind, lost credibility.

If it was an editor who wrote the lead, I can understand the problem. It was like the headlines written by the copy desk back when I was committing daily journalism. Sometimes they said the exact opposite of what the story said.

The point is this: in your non-fiction writing it is fair to stretch the lead paragraph as far as possible. But it should not snap away from the truth. This story’s lead, left the clear impression that these foods were “fringe” and “alternative.” Reality tells us they have been consumed by million of people for thousands of years.

No, I did not read the rest of the story. And, yes, I like mixed metaphors and cliches. They are fun.

Good writing.

Novelist Richard J. Schneider is an award-winning former reporter, video scriptwriter and producer, and communications consult. He is the creator of the Vic Bengston Investigation mystery series.