You will know by your wincing how dead on this is

This is war-on-cliche week.

I’m not sure what was really behind the creation of this (don’t bother clicking on the screen capture below, it’s not an embed) by the video stock company Dissolve, but it is wickedly on point and mocks the banality and conspicuous compassion that shows up in so much marketing, including the marketing produced by most of our schools. Watch this like I did, with an eye toward how many of these cliches we commit in our videos and magazines. It will make you laugh and make you uncomfortable at the same time.

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Uninspired

Long time no blog, eh? (We are experiencing Canadian weather today in Baltimore, so I’m speaking Canadian.) I’ve been helping to create a new consumer health magazine and writing and editing and preparing for the Editors Forum and the time does get away from me, yes it does.

How have you been?

Anyway, may I take a few minutes to try to discourage you from publishing inspirational stories?

Yeah, the bitch is back.

I am not arguing against fine, skillfully wrought stories that not only engage readers but  inspire them to follow someone’s example, or go read somebody’s book, or hand over a credit card number the next time one of those perky student volunteers calls during campus pledge week. We write about a lot of people whose qualities and accomplishments have the capacity to inspire. We do it all the time, I do it all the time, there’s no reason to stop.

What I would be happy never to come across again are those alumni magazine stories that were assigned and written with the expressed purpose of being inspirational. You know the ones. The cute, smart, idealistic 19-year-old sophomore who has known since age 9 that she wanted only to grow up and make a difference. The alumnus with the 8,000-square-foot house who gave some of his precious time in order to share his insights about the power of giving. The recent graduate who is following her passion to be Matt Lauer’s third assistant intern and owes so very much to Faber College.

The problem with these stories is not the earnest intent with which they are published. The problem is they are always lousy stories. And they are lousy stories because they are invariably packed with cliches and written to a cliched template: the cliched exemplary bits of the life story stripped of all human complexity and contradiction, the statements that always seem to come from the Quote-a-Matic about overcoming adversity and following your dreams and the value of teachers, the smiling photograph, the testimonial from friend or kin or elder or teacher. You could run 30 of them by me and I wouldn’t remember one because they are so formulaic and so simple-minded in their notion of what a reader ought to find inspiring.

The root of the problem: This is not storytelling. This is marketing.

If there is a great story to write about someone who, incidentally, is an inspiring figure, then by all means write it. But write it because it’s a great story, not because you or a boss thinks it may be useful for the university’s branding or image building or impending capital campaign. You can’t inspire anyone if they don’t read your story, and I suspect few of these off-the-shelf inspirational cliches ever get read.

One additional problem with aiming to inspire is none of us can predict what will inspire another individual. We don’t even know what’s going to inspire ourselves. It’s a murky, unpredictable thing, this inspiration business. Don’t even try. Just renounce cliches and tell great stories. Because you will accomplish nothing if you don’t inspire a reader to read all the way to the end.

Cal’s Big Data

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Catherine Pierre, my boss, likes to tell the story of a conversation she and I had with an astrophysicist a few years ago. I have forgotten most of the details, but at one point he mentioned how much information one group of scientists was gathering about the universe, and I spontaneously exclaimed, “Man, talk about a data set!” Pierre takes undue delight in offering this up to appreciative listeners as an example of my nerdiness.

So there was no chance of my passing up California‘sRiding the iBomb: Life in the Age of Exploding Information.” Written by executive editor Pat Joseph, it’s an 11-page spread in the feature well plus a jump, and Joseph had me the whole way.

When you write about something with the potential for aridity of Big Data, you are well advised to pull some wit from your toolbox. Joseph has a smooth way with droll allusion:

Futurist Alvin Toffler popularized the term “information overload” in the 1970s, but the lament is as old as the Bible. I hear it echoing in my ears whenever I walk into Moe’s Books or the Doe Library: “Of making many books there is no end.” That goes more than double for blog posts and tweets and—God help us—Buzzfeed lists, the dreaded “listicles.” With apologies to Ecclesiastes, the current info glut really is something new under the Sun.

Joseph offers the most astute explanation of Moore’s Law that I have come across recently:

The engine of this acceleration is described by Moore’s Law, which is not really a law so much as an astoundingly accurate prediction. Intel cofounder and Berkeley alum Gordon Moore made the offhand observation in 1965 that the number of transistors on integrated circuits was doubling every two years and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And so it has (growing even faster, doubling every 18 months or so), with the concomitant effect that computing has become not only faster but cheaper. In that way, Moore’s Law also helps to explain why most of our electronic gadgets seem to obsolesce overnight.

I was arrested by Joseph’s use of “obsolesce.” Write “obsolesce” instead of the common “become obsolete” and you reveal yourself as a writer attentive to language, which Joseph is, and not just in his prose but in his reporting. Joseph confirms this a bit later in the piece:

The watchword around campus now, much favored over Big Data, which is looked upon as hype-fueled and faddish, is “data-driven discovery.” Faculty members also speak of bringing a “computational lens” to research problems.

There’s a lot of righteous prose here. Joseph has a knack for clarification:

In an interview before he died, Peter Lyman drove home a similar distinction, between information and meaning. Referring to the aforementioned study he conducted with I-school colleague Hal Varian, Lyman said: “All we tried to measure in figuring out how much information is produced was how much storage it would take to hold it all. What we didn’t address is what makes information valuable…. There’s a real gap between the amount of information we store and the amount of information we know how to use.… So in a sense, most of it is noise.”

Filtering the signal from the noise is the principle challenge for all Big Data enterprises, whether it’s astronomers searching for supernovae in raster scans of the night sky, or agents at the NSA listening for whispered hints of terror plots in the vastness of global communications. Big Data is just the haystack; we still have to find the needle. Scratch that. Increasingly, it’s our computers, running what are called inferential algorithms, that have to find it. Our job now is to verify that what is found is, in fact, a needle and not, say, a pin, or a nail, or a piece of hay.

Nice.

I could go on, but go read the piece yourself. You’ll be rewarded. Last thing: California makes clever use of footnotes in the story. Yeah, footnotes. Joseph scatters them throughout his piece—they are contained in boxes on the pages—and they provide one more opportunity for lively writing. For example:

I should confess here that I’ve assembled much of the information for this article in precisely this way and, that, often as not, my starting point was Wikipedia. No doubt this admission will arouse suspicions, maybe even disdain, in some readers. Perhaps that’s as it should be. As George Dyson’s father, Freeman Dyson, wrote: “Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible.”

All right, that’s enough. Go read it.

ridingtheibomb

UMag inbox, pre-Nor’easter edition

Weather forecasters—I am looking at you, Jim Cantore—are getting all excited about the possibility of a big-ass whammeroo of a storm hitting the I-95 corridor Wednesday night and Thursday. Just in time to put the whammy on our efforts to get Johns Hopkins Magazine out the door to the printer on Friday. Yo, weather gods, we’re in the middle of something here . . .

An examination of my teetering stack of alumni magazines turned up some nifty covers. UCLA was in a blue mood:

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Dickinson fully embraced white space:

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The more you look at the cover of Carolinian (out of the University of South Carolina) the more remarkable it gets. Put this one next to the recent Notre Dame cover and try to imagine the work that went into executing the portraits in the cover images:

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Finally, we’ve got this guy, on the cover of LMU out of Loyola Marymount. I love this guy.

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The Carolinian story on cover artist Kirkland Smith is nicely written and worth reading—and you have to see Smith’s Steve Jobs portrait—but unless I’m missing something you can’t access the magazine’s content online if you’re not a member of the alumni association. (Also, I would credit the writer of the piece, but the story is without a byline, which puzzles me.)

The LMU cover boy is alumnus Van Partible, who created the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Johnny Bravo. There’s a fun bit of video of the cover photo shoot, which conveys the disappointing fact that in the cover image he is wearing a wig. I so wanted that to be his real hair.

That Notre Dame cover

ndfoodcoverJohns Hopkins Magazine is published by the Johns Hopkins University Office of Communications. That office has a design director, Greg Stanley, and he cannot stop looking at the cover of the winter edition of Notre Dame Magazine. Before he realized that the image was a photograph of a sculpture by Klaus Enrique, Stanley kept turning the cover this way and that, trying to discern if the artwork was an actual food sculpture (it is) or something executed in Photoshop (nuh-uh). What had most arrested his attention, though, was the sheer excellence of the work, the extraordinary pains the artist had taken to create something so striking.

Enrique has done a series of such sculptures, inspired by the work of 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe ArcimboldoNotre Dame editor Kerry Temple devoted much of his editor’s note to explaining his choice of Enrique’s sculpture to grace the cover:

We thought Enrique’s portrait would make a playful, engaging, creatively cool image to introduce stories about the campus food culture—something fresh and different, like the subject itself.

Of course, we, too, see the incongruity in having a whimsical image pointing to the campus culinary scene as the face of an issue whose feature articles thoughtfully and thoroughly examine poverty, inequality, injustice and the future of the human race—even though this issue’s more serious stories are not laments but compelling prescriptions for hope. We’re all aware of the discrepancies between the haves and the hungry.

We went lighter on the cover for several reasons. One is that we thought those weightier topics—immigration, international development, global health, Catholicism and encounters with cancer—difficult to illustrate with fresh appeal. We also realized—although these subjects are of profound importance and the stories well worthy of your close reading—that the topics may not entice as cover attractions. And we always want readers eager to dive into our pages.

I like how clearly Temple lays out a common editorial dilemma. Should the cover alert readers to the best or most significant story in the issue? Or should it do whatever it can to get readers to pick up the magazine and check out what’s inside? It is easy to say it should do both, but as Temple points out, creating a cover that promises a fresh perspective on immigration or cancer or global health, that entices an audience to read yet another story on those well-worn topics, would not have been easy. The Enrique sculpture, on the other hand, is unlike anything I have seen on the front of any magazine in many a year, and does reflect what’s inside (there’s a 20-page section of stories on campus food culture).

As a writer who has become an editor, I have an instinctive urge to argue for putting the best story on the cover, even if the best story is a heavy examination of a grim topic. But if you don’t get readers to start thumbing through the issue, you have no chance of enticing them to read that heavy feature. We have all been there.

By the way, inside Notre Dame you will find a hilarious bit of memoir from Brian Doyle about his campaign to win the title Napper of the Year in his kindergarten.

On my second day of kindergarten, at a school named for a species of tree, I discovered that our teacher, Miss Appleby, presented a Best Napper Award every week, and that the child who earned the most weekly napping awards was then presented with the Best Napper of the Year Award in June, on the last day of school, in assembly, before the entire school, which went from kindergarten to sixth grade, and contained some two hundred students, none of whom, I determined immediately, would outnap me.

I report with admirable modesty that I won the first week’s Best Napper Award, defeating Michael A., who slept like a rock but flung his feet and fists as he slept (he had six brothers at home). I also won Week Two, in a landslide, but a small, moist boy named Brian F. beat me in Week Three, and the battle was joined.