Review: Unspotted by Justin Fox (short e-book, non-fiction)

unspottedIn summary: Worth picking up. Here’s the Amazon link and here’s the publisher page with all the other ways to get it.

One of my favourite books ever is Douglas Adams’s (yes, that Douglas Adams) Last Chance to See, a travelogue-quest to spot rare and endangered species around the world and which predisposed me to love the first-person account of chasing after animals in the wild in order to save them.

Unspotted by Justin Fox fits into that genre with an added twist (or bonus, if you are me and taking care of a 4 year old post-surgery as well as renovating 1/4 of your home for the arrival of your mother-in-law.) It’s a short e-book: 40 pages.

Fox recounts his time spent chasing after the elusive Cape Mountain Leopard at the side of zoologist Quinton Martins, founder of the Cape Leopard Trust. Seven reasons I give it a thumbs up:

  • Chasing leopards around is a pretty cool activity and Fox brings the reader inside the experience with a lot of rich detail.
  • The pacing of the book is pretty good; it does sometimes feel like it could have been a longform article but for the most part there’s not a lot of extraneous information, or a lot of gaps.
  • I got a good sense of the zoologist at the centre of the story, Quinton Martins. There are a couple of moments that made me want to go meet him, which is a gift in any story.
  • I learned a lot without ever feeling lectured to, with the possible exception of the scene that actually is a lecture.
  • There’s a strong sense of place without (mostly) being overwrought description.
  • Pictures!
  • It feels candid on the truth side of truth-telling, and controlled on the telling side…in other words, Fox (who is not a novice writer) is providing a true tale, well-told, or at least that’s the sense I’m left with as a reader.

Three ways it could improve:

  • I didn’t come away with a strong sense of Fox’s interior journey beyond details like mud in his shoes. This could be a feature for people who find The Serpent and the Rainbow-type books to be self-indulgent writing, but because the narration was quite close first-person, I expected a bit more. I felt a bit like I missed some of the journey, or like this was a smaller piece of a larger work.
  • Occasionally I felt pelted with adjectives/adjectival phrases, particularly in the opening chapters. It settled down well once the story got rolling.
  • I think Fox is a strong enough writer that he could have dropped the chronological narration and moved some of the stronger anecdotes to the start of the book or at least the start of a chapter. I mention this not just editorially but because my understanding is that as a money-making enterprise, e-books sold through Amazon are increasingly compensated for whether people actually read through them. I found some of the strongest material was buried at the end of the book.

Publishing digression: And with that last point I want to talk a bit about why I volunteered to review this book. I think the idea of small e-press publishing original works is a great compromise between “free” and “writers don’t get compensated and The World Ends.” But it doesn’t work if people can’t find them or aren’t talking about them, so I’m pleased to be a part of the conversation.

This particular book didn’t sell me on the format in the sense of wow, were it not for novella-ish-length e-publishing this completely perfect gem wouldn’t have been the ideal shape to bring me joy but given the crazy summer I am having, it absolutely was the best length for me as a reader.  And it costs less than a latte!

Here’s the handy publisher link if you want to check it out. 

Disclosure: I received a free review copy and I’m an Internet fan/supporter of Annorlunda Enterprises which is a startup enterprise publishing short e-books.

Mini-review: Ricki and the Flash

ricki-and-the-flash-reviewSo say Joanna from Kramer vs. Kramer didn’t actually come back and fight for custody of her child and win because she was the mom and instead she moved to California and became an 80s rocker chick and then came back home once she got kind of old, and smoked pot with Dustin Hoffman while spewing great Diablo Cody dialogue…but it all rang hollow because no one really bothered to flesh out any emotions other than guilt sucks, following your dreams is great, but it sucks when your kids suffer, but they’ll be all right because a strong black woman (see: nuanced discussion) will stepparent them.

Then you’d have a movie where all the parts are kind of fun and worth seeing if you don’t actually think too hard, but at the end you really actually do feel like you just spent a wedding with your narcissistic boomer mother and you’re left with that sort of fuck it, family’s family, but it’s hell feeling.

That’s pretty much what Ricki and the Flash is like. If you want to laugh a lot and contemplate whether Rick Springfield is hot and be prepared to feel just a little bit disturbed, I say it’s worth the price of popcorn. And I mean, Diablo Cody.

Byte sized #9: The judging women edition

There’s been some great conversation on the web lately about women and their work. My favourite by far is a two-for-one. Jess Zimmerman asks over at The Toast“Where’s my Cut?”: On Unpaid Emotional Labor. The article is thought-provoking but the discussion over at Metafilter about it is pretty stunning, if only for the list of emotional labour from various women.

And while you’re reading Zimmerman don’t miss her feature about her midlife crisis over at Hazlitt: “I realized that, like many women, I had made all the decisions of my life on someone else’s behalf.

Nick Levine over at Vice’s i-D encourages us (who is us? Nevermind…) to rethink Courtney Love. The point that her behaviour would basically be standard male rock star behaviour is a pretty good one, and now I need to dig out more Riot Grrrl tracks.

Maybe rock star men should start speaking more like women, or at least middle management should consider it…please? (Debbie Cameron at her blog language: a feminist guide)

Shameless plug: Melanie Nelson is running an online course on how to run better meetings.  It’s only $20! What?!

The Comic Con Batman vs Superman trailer does indeed have Wonder Woman in it. Briefly. I will scream if she does all the emotional labour.

Featured photo: from Pete via Flickr/Creative Commons

How to teach your kid to form letters, post-surgery version

My child has trouble seeing and we want to teach him how to form letters. This is kind of a life lesson for us too.

Parenting note: It’s my goal to keep the ratio of parenting posts fairly low on the blog overall. but the next few weeks may be an exception as I’m home with Noah (9) and Liam (4). 

Liam’s still recovering from cataract surgery, but try telling him that. As far as he’s concerned any attempts to keep him from injuring his eye (he had a lens implanted) are just crazy grown-up talk. It’s also been a rough road to diagnosis for my little crazy-active guy; part of us coming to terms with how poor his vision has been (and may stay, if his brain doesn’t re-adjust) has been to realize that when he says he hates writing or hates drawing, or simply gets up and runs around, he’s frustrated by real things.

I would have thought that after a lifetime of working to take my own experience seriously I would have remembered a little better that in children particularly, behaviour is often its own language. Liam of course has no idea how other people see, and wouldn’t know how to express it if he did, and so for him letters and numbers have been dancing around helter-skelter and he just thought that’s how it is.

Here’s the activity that brought it home; he asked me to write the first row and then went to continue the set. I’m pretty sure this is how he sees. I have gently tested him since and it looks like he knows how to write his numbers and letters, as long as you do not care whether they are oriented in space in any way – he reverses, flips upside down, misses big chunks or writes over prior letters:

Numbers as written by a young kid with cataracts

While we’re home I’m trying to boost his confidence a bit. I’d also like him to learn how to read and write, you know, in his life, and since I have this gift of time I figured why not haul out some of the strategies I learned way back when I was an ed assistant for the TDSB way back when.

How to teach letters using a sugar tray

By the time I was working with kids in elementary school with this kind of trouble, they were usually pretty wriggly and oppositional when it came to writing their letters, which makes me wish I’d spotted the same in my kid (although a lot of 4 year olds just are.)

IMG_3797

This exercise combines the sugar drug with removing some of the barriers to forming letters (how kids hold the pen, the drag of pencil or crayon on paper) and also allows for quick erasure of any mistakes with a shake. In my completely unscientific and untrained observation, making sure the child or student isn’t staring at his or her own mistakes for too long is important, because it reinforces the reversal in their minds. Also, it’s discouraging.

The other bonus: The more times you write a letter the more times you get to lick your finger in between. Strong incentive to keep going, at least if you have my kid.

With Liam, I get him to point his pointer finger (although he prefers using his thumb) and we do the letter from the top together, to help him develop the arm feel/muscle memory for the movements. Then he writes that letter on his own. He’s into it.

Materials:

Cake pan
Sugar

Caution: Yes, it’s awful to use sugar to teach your children. I used to be very anti-bribery too. You can totally use sand, just don’t lick.

There’s lots of parenting stuff here but I am reminded too that often we attribute success or failure to attitude rather than to actual systemic issues, especially when it comes to kids and teens. 

Work-life balance

I am on a slight hiatus while I follow a four year old around reminding him not to rub his eye and keeping him from doing headstands 5 hours after cataract surgery. It was a grand success! photo (62)

Byte sized #8: Healthy online communities edition

I’m a weird reader in that sometimes I read just the comments on things like advice columns; the actual advice is that not relevant to me but watching people duke it out over social norms is my reality TV fix.

One of the best jobs I’ve had was at the now-something-else 50Plus.com watching retirees chat and post on our forums. (Pro tip: People do not necessarily get wiser, but you can love them anyway.) But how to maintain great online communities can be tricky, even when you invest resources into it–which many sites do not.

This post over at Autostraddle about healthy online communities and the struggle to maintain them as we’ve moved from a homepage culture to a Facebook culture is pretty great, outlining top issues and their response to those issues.

There have been a lot of analyses of the big Reddit meltdown but I pick Davey Alba’s summary at Wired. I’ll also point you at Gina Bianchini’s piece for Re/code solely for the phrase “control is not an option.” Any brand manager or editor worth his or her salt knows that once you forget about the reader, you’re in hot water. But in online communities it’s your animator/moderators who are your bread and butter. When I was playing PernMUSH lo so many moons ago, I learned this one the hard way.

Josh Dzieza’s profile of The Awl at The Verge is a great read but buried in is this important quote which I would summarize as “communities of interest are currently winning, just not your community”:

The transition from media hosted on websites to media built around social platforms is more profound than people realize, Herrman says. As more content is published directly onto Facebook, users will gradually lose a sense of who’s producing what. The most consequential journalism becomes just another unit of content in a single stream of music videos, movie trailers, updates from friends and relatives, advertisements, and viral tidbits from sites adept at gaming fast-changing algorithms and behaviors. Readerships that seem large now will turn out to be as ephemeral as Snapchats.

And finally, an oldie but a goody…Internet Commenter Business Meeting

Batkid Begins: #SFBatkid’s recipe for success…besides magic

I saw Batkid Beginsthe feel-good documentary about the feel-good #SFBatkid event-gone-wild last night and it kind of blew me away.

If you don’t know the story of #SFBatkid, the trailer is the best way to bring yourself up to speed, but in summary: the Make-A-Wish Foundation had a 5 year old with a wish to be the “real Batman,” and they extended themselves to make it happen, and it went nuts on social media, and thousands people showed up to turn San Francisco into Gotham, and that went nuts on social media to a legendary level.

For me personally #SFBatkid had the same resonance that I figure it had for a lot of people: I spent a lot of time growing up wishing or pretending I was a superhero, and who doesn’t want that to come true for kids who have been through critical illnesses? And I was a huge Batman fan when the Michael Keaton film came out. (See my Instagram feed for how huge).

The documentary, besides being (and I say this without any ire at all) an 87-minute commercial for the Make-A-Wish organization (link goes to the Canadian site!) with ample plugs for the corporations that got involved, is also pitching human ingenuity. It talks a lot about the way people respond when they see possibilities instead of challenges. I found that really inspiring both personally and as I make professional choices.

So often we get trapped into what we can accomplish without risking failure. This movie is about thinking big, and having big work out in a huge way. (I mean…so you find someone to play Batman, and it turns out he has a wristheld projector he was engineering himself just hanging around his home….) It’s really about people and the magic they make for each other, and I would love to write more words about that but really, just go see the film. It does a great job.

The other lesson this film offers for anyone who wants to help things get reach on the Internet, is that some of the viral nature of this story came down, I think, to which influencers got involved. Two of the first volunteers to come on board for #SFBatkid were Eric (E.J.) Johnston and his wife Sue Graham, and they recruited Mike Jutan to play The Penguin. From my understanding of the film, Mike’s post on Facebook kind of started the viral impact going. And it was also clear, in the film, that Mike worked for Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas’s studio.

Aha. Aha!

If you were going to choose a group of people to go, ahem, batshit crazy over turning a city into Gotham for a child to play Batman for a day, wouldn’t a network of high-achieving SF&F fans and movie creators and actors and special effects people be the perfect nucleus? I mean, who is going to be better at promoting this kind of thing than someone who describes working on the next Star Wars or similar thing as: “It is, without a doubt, my childhood dream come true to work at ILM. It’s everything I could have ever hoped it would be, and more.”

(Mike, by the way, is from Hamilton and went to Waterloo. Small world! Shoutout!)

Well, that’s what happened here. The yes people not only knew the other yes people in the way that high achievers do, but they were connected to the “well…sure why not?” people through content, in this case a love for superhero and Batman narratives in particular. And not just any content: Strongly visual content. Batkid Begins shows the shot of EJ Johnston rehearsing for the Batkid day with a cape billowing out behind him that Mike Jutan shared on his Facebook.

So here’s the recipe:

1. A strong and passionate group of people creating an experience people will want to share, sure, but also a perfect day for a single person, a little boy.
2. An influencer network ready to light up.
3. A strong story with a strong visual.
4. Magic.

The magic is necessary because as those of us who work on the web know, you can have all of the first ingredients ready to mix, but if something else happens that day, or Facebook’s algorithm changes, or even if it just wasn’t the right time…it may not happen. But this is a great start. Ninja level web success does not just mean finding the right platform and content, it means reaching the right people…who may not be following you online.

There are a lot of other things to learn from this film: What happens when an event goes crazy, how to leverage help from companies eager to help (it’s not just that Twitter and Apple got involved, but it’s that the Make-A-Wish team obviously were able to respond), and some amazing examples of real-time storytelling.

And oh, yes. Give people a way to make magic for others, and they will show up in droves.

I totally recommend this movie for digital content creators, superhero lovers, and people who want to make kids happy. So, pretty much everyone, right?