Creative Writing

5 10 2014

As part of my birthday present this year, I was bought a creative writing course at Vancouver’s UBC. It’s a 10 week evening course aimed at teaching the participants how to objectively assess their output and hopefully therefore write more better ;o). Though we get set weekly assignments, most of the focus is on providing solid objective feedback to the work of others. Our own assignment is there primarily to offer material for others to practice their feedback on. Hopefully towards the end of the course we reach a Zen state where we can disassociate from our own words and assess them as an impartial reader might – removing the element of “well, I REALLY meant…” and reacting only to what is actually on the page.

The course instructor is Paul Belserene, a “professional story-teller”. Being the detail-oriented anal-retentive I am, I checked him out via the well of occasionally accurate information available on the internet. Turns out he is an American by birth. Originally educated there, he saw the light and now lives in BC. He even occasionally puts ‘u’ into his words just to show he’s open in principle to assimilating into his adopted country. Though gently spoken and dry of wit, his knowledge and experience on the subject make his 2 hour sessions seem far too short. He also has the patience of a saint which, not myself being of a religious bent, I would equate to other mere mortals, so I suppose that’s just a truism.

As I mentioned, we’re provided a handful of assignments each week to provide some fodder for the main task of learning how to objectively evaluate the written word. Since this course has reinvigorated my writing juices, I thought I’d share one here on my much neglected – though steadfastly quite irrelevant – blog.


 

Write an email that is a follow-up from one person after their first face-to-face meeting in an internet dating situation.

Hey Greg,

I wanted to write to let you know how much I enjoyed last night. I’m sure you’ve texted me like you said you would, but my stupid kid brother dropped my phone in the bath and it’s stopped working, so I can’t get my texts until I get a new one.

Going to the cinema was such a treat. I had no idea that “Death in a Storm Drain” was still showing. Thanks for letting me buy your ticket – so many men these days insist on paying, which hurts my feminist ideals and would have ruined the romance of the movie. I still can’t believe you had your wallet stolen while we were out. Don’t worry, you can pay me back for your train ticket later.

How is your flat mate? It was sad to hear of his Haemorrhagic Fever, but maybe we can go back to your place next time instead. I think I wrote your number down wrong because when I called today there was a Chinese restaurant that answered. Please email me back soon – I bought us tickets for that batik design seminar I told you about.

Hoping to be yours – Elsie


Now, if you want to play the game, you assess the piece in three phases:

1) What do you read? Assess it AS WRITTEN. Infer what YOU will, as the reader.

2) What do you imagine? Use your own experience and knowledge to paint the mind pictures around the specific words you read. What do the words lead you to imagine?

3) How does it make you feel? What emotional response results from that?

As the reader, these are your assessment of the impact of the piece. Only the writer knows if those responses are even close to the intent – but they’re valid nonetheless. Notice that there’s no judgemental element? There’s no concept of good/bad, only a report of how one reader was “moved” or had reactions to the piece. The writer can then use that feedback to tune the piece if those responses are not aligned with the intent.

Eventually I hope the course will allow me to perform that feedback loop myself, and get at least one step closer to my intended reaction before letting my writing loose on an unsuspecting reader. I’ll let you know how things progress…





Just Eat It – A food waste story

4 10 2014

Well, it’s VIFF time of year again, and Vancouver is hosting films from around the world once more. Tonight I saw “Just Eat It!” and was stunned.

It’s a quirky Vancouver-made film with a serious message. The film-making couple use humour to bring home some uncomfortable facts. 40% of the food we grow… goes to the land fill. For 6 months they live off “waste” food… and live very well with Grant putting on 10lb! They spend only $200 in 6 months on food, and yet eat their fill of top quality chocolate, organic food and fruit and vegetables. They even end up giving food away, they have accumulated so much.

At one point we learn that in order to produce a single hamburger, enough water to have a 90 minute shower is required. Meat is one of the most energy and resource consuming foods we grow… and we throw 40% of it away!

If you can – watch this film! Now… go and eat your vegetables. You’re not leaving the table until you clean your plate…

Just Eat It – A food waste story Trailer – YouTube.





The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

4 10 2014

And Hell is where bankers are created!

I have a very good friend and work colleague who is currently in Europe on business. She was expecting a cheque, representing a considerable amount of expenses from a previous business trip to be paid her by the company, but knew she’d have already left. I was quite flattered that she asked if I’d mind depositing the cheque into her account so she could use online banking whilst abroad to handle her various domestic banking affairs. We determined that the requisite flavour of bank was indeed available in the town where I live, and we jointly made sure the various company finance people involved in the cheque cutting and distribution process knew that I was to receive the cheque rather than keep it under lock and key until her return.

So far, so good…

The cheque was due on Wednesday, and she was relying on the financial promise it represented to be safely sloshing around in her bank account by this coming Monday. For reasons unknown, the expense cheques weren’t processed until yesterday… Friday. Because of our careful preparation, there was no problem getting her particular cheque raised in priority to acquire the two necessary managerial signatures and safely placed into my possession well before I left for the weekend.

Then the fun began…

I ambled up to the appropriate bank’s local branch and briefly took my turn in the Saturday morning queue. The polite young man asked how he could help and I explained my task, handing over the company cheque and the card number previously supplied to me by by friend. “But this is a VISA Card number” I was informed. I explained that my friend – clearly identified in type on the computer printed cheque – was a customer of this august establishment and felt it was not beyond their means to identify her chequeing account based on the provided information from their own VISA number. Politely, the cashier explained he’d need to talk to his manager. After a few minutes where I felt I was being scrutinised by many unseen eyes, and frankly felt like some dodgy bank robber, he returned to explain that the cheque was not “certified” and that were it to “bounce”, my friend would be required to pay fees associated with that event. (Here in Canada, the recipient of a fraudulent cheque is charged by their bank rather than simply not having the funds made available to them!). There was a fee of $35 – payable by me  – to have the cheque certified, and I would have to travel in person to the branch of the bank used by our company, in order to have it certified.

At this point I checked my watch… no, I hadn’t slipped back in time. This was still the 21st Century. Here I was, trying to place money INTO an account, yet I was being treated like a fraudster trying to extract money illegally. I had already had to show ID to establish my own bona fides and now I was being expected to travel physically to downtown Vancouver and pay my own money so that the issuing BRANCH (not merely a random branch of the issuing bank) could verify that it was indeed from our company’s account and that they had sufficient funds to honour it. “But there’s good news” enthused the cashier – “It’s with the same bank, so we may be able to do it on the phone from here.” Oh joy! We have at least recovered time back up to the ’70s.

Having reluctantly agreed to pay the $35 to have my friend’s money deposited into her account, he went back to check the process with his manager. After a further interminable wait, and phone calls, he returned and apologetically gave me the cheque back. They had decided that since my friend had not flagged her account to tell them that she was leaving the country, and had not informed them in writing ahead of time that a third party was to deposit the cheque, they could not assume that I was in fact carrying out her wishes. What if she had really wanted the cheque depositing into some other account?

I was gobsmacked! Here in the internet age where utility companies insist on charging you money if you want a paper copy of your bill, and we encounter steady pressure to go more and more to a paperless business world, I was in a position where I couldn’t place money INTO an account on behalf of a friend. Other banks let you take photographs of a cheque and email it. This one wanted me to travel on a 100km round trip to have a business cheque physically certified AND obtain written permission from the account holder before they would accept the cheque.

Hours later, I still find myself snorting in disbelief. Their only offered alternative was for me to give them CASH (my own).

Bureaucracy… mankind’s greatest triumph!





It’s not procrastination if it’s educational

27 09 2014

At last… a posh sounding southern lass that can define “mardy” whilst insulting Wayne Rooney!





Are you sure you slept with a woman?

18 09 2014

2007?!

How on Earth did I miss this one? Those witty Aussies do it again. A practical solution for those times a lady wishes she were a man. Just for a moment.

WhizBiz — About Us.

 





On the lack of climbing starfish

13 09 2014

Today was a near perfect day, weather-wise. Not too hot, clear sky, gentle breeze. The sort of day people get married on.

I went for a walk down to the White Rock pier. Years ago, I used to walk there almost daily. Now it’s a rare visit. I didn’t see a single person I knew. Very odd, given that I’ve lived in this town for almost exactly 13 years now. Gone are the days when I used to meet many people I knew, despite being a relative newcomer. The town has grown. Its demographics have changed a lot in that period. I feel like a tourist or transient visitor to the beach area now. The pier is always a special walk though. You cross the train track, which can trap you on the pier for several minutes if a freight train should happen to pass whilst you’re on the structure. But the end of the pier ends at a breakwater, built to shelter some boat moorings. It’s a great place for the kids to fish for bullheads or crabs, and brave/stupid pier-jumpers leap off in an effort to test the adhesion of their bathing attire.

The best bit though, is looking for the starfish. Pacific north-west starfish come in many hues of orange/red/purple. They’re fascinating to watch as they spread-eagle themselves and climb the wooden supports or the rocks of the breakwater. At low tide a few are totally exposed, but most find cool sun-hides under the rocks, or in the deep shade of the pier’s wooden members.

Here’s a photo from 2008 when I was privileged to go on a yacht with a friend to the local “Gulf Islands”. You see what I mean about the hues and splendour of their graceful forms?

Bundle!

Anyway, today there were none. Not one. Not even a boring grey/green one. Nothing. Pondering this lack of starfish, I realised I’d not seen any on my recent amazing trip to Haida Gwaii either. The sea in White Rock looked a little murkier than I remembered in previous years. A little more green and weedy. The sea at Haida Gwaii though was pristine. I doubted it was pollution causing the lack of starfish.

So then I walked back up the steep Oxford Street and checked the web. The web never lies, right? OK – so it does quite a lot really, so I made sure to check a reputable site… like the CBC. It seems there’s some mystery illness decimating starfish in the PNW. All the way from Alaska to Mexico. Whatever it is, it’s simply dissolving them: they turn to goo, and float off as fish food nibbles… Ebola for starfish!

CBC: Sea star wasting away

The whole story can be found on the CBC web site here.
Seems the scientists aren’t too concerned due the rapid rate of their breeding, but even so – it’s sad to not see one starfish climbing up, in all its glory.





Marketing and what we put in our mouths

13 09 2014

I work in marketing. The Betty Crocker example at the beginning of this video was used by myself only the other day as an example of how “knowing your market” can make a huge difference to a product’s success.

“Kate Cooper” the marketing consultant is in fact an actress, but the information in the talk she gives is real, and the audience had no idea what they were in for. So their reactions and facial expressions are also real.

The third marketing tool – the “killer” secret weapon – is also very real. It’s not true for just food, but food is one product we should all make active choices about to a much higher degree than we do.

If you need more persuasion… read the novel Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. She defines the trilogy not as Science Fiction (“talking squids in outer space”) but Speculative Fiction (“a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth”).

eTalks – The Secrets of Food Marketing – YouTube.

The message isn’t that eating meat is inherently a bad thing. It is that the powerful desire for making money (a totally artificial human construct) coupled with the wilful gullibility of the general population lead to some pretty horrific results. A theme taken up and run with in Atwood’s trilogy.

I use the website goodreads.com to track the books I read and learn of books I might like to read. I have read several books relating to the history of a single narrow subject. For example Salt and Cotton. Goodreads therefore suggested I might like a similar book, related to Twinkies. It seems the author was shocked to read that several of the ingredients (at least the ones the manufacturer is forced to divulge by law on the label) begin life as various mineral rocks or even petrochemicals. I have a natural aversion to highly processed foods for just this reason, though do freely admit the lure of Salt Sugar Fat can be a powerful one.

Goodreads.com - Twinkie, Deconstructed

As a high school student in the UK, I took an elective course on “pollution”. The first case study was about Alcan (now part of Rio Tinto) and their Aluminium mines in my now adopted country of Canada. No shocking surprise there. Pollution was rife (this is ~1980), with images of huge lurid, toxic tailing ponds. And this was before the Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley disaster! If you doubt the impact of even the most “sensitive” mining operation, try a google search of images of Highland Valley Copper. And they’re one of the best managed operations – particularly with respect to reclamation. Owned by Teck, if you cared. I hadn’t seen fluids that bright since messing with Copper Sulphate in high school!

The second example was colourants and brighteners in frozen peas. Naturally “blanched” frozen peas just “don’t look right”, whereas peas soaked in chemicals look “how people expect”… like they do on the (plastic) packaging. This was an early wake-up call to me as a teenager. It also helped me look at pollution in a different light. Much of it was wilfully accepted as “normal”. The UK and the EU have had reasonably broad food labelling in place for many years now (I’ll pass over how the French managed to get frogs defined as “fish” to allow their farmers to claim fishery subsidies for their odd food tastes.). The regulation of additives is way more stringent than here in Canada (where I am still horrified to find lurid blue sweets and “energy drinks” with dubious substances being consumed by future diabetic kids). But it’s still far from perfect.

We eat 2.5kg of food additives a year, on average. And it’s totally OK, because the manufacturers are now forced to tell us… but we buy it anyway. Wilful ignorance. I was once taught that a market gets the suppliers it deserves… in the same way as a democracy gets the government it deserves. If you want cheap food… you’ll get it. Just don’t expect high quality.

I recently read about a Chipotle fast food restaurant in the US being closed down when the staff all walked out demanding a “fair wage”. The author of the piece pointed out what the food prices would need to be to support those higher wages. And in a job market where the positions could be filled for even LESS than Chipotle were currently paying, the protest seemed ill advised at best. Pointless at worst. The US (and let’s be fair – the West in general) has come to expect easy access to cheap consumer goods – including food. Few, if any, questions asked. If we cared more about working conditions and food quality… we wouldn’t complain about the price necessary to provide that. These things need to be in equilibrium.

The same teacher also took us for Organic Chemistry lessons. When learning about nickel as a catalyst for various chemical reactions, he calmly mentioned that when he was a youngster, it wasn’t uncommon to find bits of the metal in your margarine. It was, after all, a manufactured chemical product. The metals were used to allow the various hydrogenated bonds to form and allow the liquid oils to form more of the fatty consistency we choose to put on our bread. It’s not actually a petro-chemical as some would have you believe, but pretty much any animal or plant oil can be used as a starting point. Again – best not to ask too many questions…

Wikipedia: Margarine

As an adult, I now work for Océ, part of Canon, and involved in digital printing and the graphic arts. Océ though used to make food dye – as long ago as 1865 in fact. Specifically the types of yellow dye you add to the pale creamy white (think: lard) factory-manufactured chemicals formed by metal catalysts, in order to make it look more, er, natural! Like butter substitutes “should” look.

Sleep well tonight, won’t you? And when you pour your cereal in your bowl tomorrow, forget reading the newspaper. Read the box! It really will be educational.








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