My First SharePoint Saturday

I’m relatively new to SharePoint, compared to most. Also, I came up to the development level from the Power User end, not the IT professional end. Luckily, I found some great mentors who unlocked its mysteries and then introduced me to the greater community of experts and enthusiasts behind this stuff. SharePoint User Groups (aka “SPUGs”) meet, generally, once or twice a month in most major cities (and some towns). Somebody gives a presentation on a facet or feature of SharePoint or Office 365, with plenty of networking and camaraderie all around. If you haven’t joined up with one yet–and you’re reading this blog, so duh, you like SharePoint–you really should.

There’s also these things called “SharePoint Saturdays“, free events held annually in a lot of cities. It’s like dozens of SPUGs all rolled into one. A free conference, with plenty of speakers and hundreds of attendees. I was eager to attend one and I got my chance at July’s SharePoint Saturday New York City, the granddaddy of them all. This was the 10th annual SPSNYC, hosted at the Microsoft Technology Center in Times Square, so there was a very celebratory feel to the whole thing.

MeAtSPSNYC

The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. The concrete jungle where dreams are made.

It started around 8am, with time for meeting friends and sharing coffee and news before the opening remarks. There were plenty of sponsors in attendance, all eager to talk to SharePoint nerds like myself. Even if you’re not buying anything, go and talk to them, I guarantee that you’ll learn something new from every stop at a sponsor’s desk. Plus, there’s always prizes to be raffled off!

The day started in earnest, with eleven rooms and five session periods through the day. Needless to say, I had a hard time choosing which ones to attend, even at my junior level. There really is something for everyone, from IT developers and pros down to business/end users. Here’s how I spent my first SPS:

The first session I attended was Enterprise Social Collaboration at Guardian Life by Lonya French. She talked about how she and her team are using Yammer to improve collaboration at a company of 9000 employees, spread throughout the USA and India. She didn’t give tips and tricks on how to use that specific software–she explained the concepts and tactics for using social collaboration (and WHY) to help people get their work done. And not just employees–she described ways to get the leadership on board using social media tools as part of the business processes. Great stuff!

Next up was Gamification & SharePoint (Erika Harris, Cardiolog Analytics). This was a straight-up pitch for using her company’s Gamify and Engage tools as part of a SharePoint environment. Pitch sessions are fine, sponsors make these SharePoint Saturdays possible. However, I would’ve liked to spend more time on the theories and tactics behind gamification as a tool for user adoption and less time getting demos of apps and dashboards available at a price.

This is when we broke for lunch, provided by SPSNYC. Shout out to the people behind the scenes: sponsors, organizers, volunteers, hosts. Everything ran smoothly and was well-run…not an easy feat, when you’re providing a free lunch to 500+ people!

A Day in the Life of an Office 365 Power User (Serge Tremblay from Victrix) was a bit misnamed. It really was more about tips and tricks to use Microsoft Teams. Unfortunately for Serge, most of the people in the room were there for Office 365 and had barely worked with teams. He adjusted well though and showed off some of the really cool features of Teams and how it will enable people to work together better. If you want to know more about Teams, check out his blog; he’s already at the shortcuts-and-tricks stage for Microsoft Teams. He definitely knows his kung fu!

Serge was constantly giving credit to the people who’d taught him, pointing out their strengths and how they helped him understand SharePoint/Office 365/Teams better. All without detracting from his own copious knowledge and deep understanding of the tools. The number of people I follow on Twitter DOUBLED in that hour!

Users…remember them? Well, Stacy Deere-Strole & Sharon Weaver (Focal Point Solutions) sure haven’t. Trash or Treasure? was a session all about knowledge management and how SharePoint can help capture, maintain, and preserve an organization’s collective knowledge They’ve got a great dynamic, not just as presenters, but–I’m sure–as co-workers, two sides of the knowledge management coin. Stacy’s the SharePoint-database-computer side, Sharon’s the business-SixSigma-psychology side. It’s great to see their joint attitude and energy focused on making this wonderful tool do what it was ALWAYS supposed to do: make work easier for humans, not just IT pros.

Speaking of things forgotten in the lofty world of SharePoint development, there’s good old Office (the “365” part is optional) and just how awesome it is, with or without Teams. Scott Shearer (Haystax Technology) wowed us all with Office 365 Hidden Gems–fantastic tricks and ways to do work that are, even to us Microsoft geeks, hidden in plain sight. He showed off features of OneNote, Word, Access, and even much-maligned PowerPoint that we can use every day to make work easier. Find him on Twitter or check out his blog to learn just how much “plain” Office can do.

After the last session, there were some closing remarks (and well-deserved kudos to the organizers, who do this VOLUNTARILY, if you can believe that!) and prize raffles. Afterwards, most of the attendees headed off to a local establishment for a “SharePint”, another tradition of the SharePoint community. You know it’s an energetic and enthusiastic group with lots of esprit de corps when there are ‘traditions’ for an industry that didn’t even exist 15 years ago.

Things to do at a SPS:

  1. Plan your stay. I stayed at a hotel the night before the event close to the venue. Definitely worth it! A lot of people took the bus or train in the morning…that’s an early start to a long day. The conference is free, so you might as well spring for a hotel room.
  2. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. 8am to 6pm is a long day, even without an early travel start. So, get your rest, get your caffeine (or whatever) of choice, and be prepared to hit the ground running. You won’t stop running (metaphorically) all day.
  3. Get yourself out there. Introduce yourself around. Talk to the other attendees. They’re here for the same reason you are, learning more about SharePoint, so you’ve already got that in common.
  4. Go to the sponsors. They’ve got stuff to sell, sure, or they’re looking to market YOU. But you know what? These SPS’s are free because of THEM and THEIR money. So, deal with it, talk with them. You’ll still learn something.
  5. Plan your afterwards. SharePint is designed for networking, relaxing, and sharing ‘war stories’ from the trenches of SharePoint. Get to know these people. If you’re into SharePoint, well, so are they. Welcome to the tribe!

All in all, I’m incredibly glad I attended. It’s been almost a week and I’m still digesting everything that I learned. The passion and energy–bordering on mania, but in a good way–that every attendee, speaker, and organizer displayed only gave me more encouragement and eagerness to keep learning more and more. Can’t wait for next year and SPSNYC 11…oh wait, there’s one in Pittsburgh in September…and Baltimore in October…

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Evangelism in a Hostile Land

It may be hard to believe, but there are still organizations out there where “SharePoint” is a dirty word. Maybe they haven’t upgraded, maybe–and this is worse–they do have a SharePoint Site but it’s been badly managed, acting as little more than a badly-setup document storage bin. Users see no reason to switch from their old, bad habits of email, PowerPoints, and storing files in their personal drives (because they know they can find it there).

That was the situation I found myself in when I switched to a new team. They had a Site (because they’d been told to use it) but after years of mismanagement, its faults were far too numerous to get into here; suffice to say, it shouldn’t be deleted but rather preserved for all time in the Museum of Worst Practices as every example of how SharePoint could be misused to prevent people from doing their work. Users were, to say the least, antagonistic towards SharePoint.

All I said was, “You could use SharePoint to do that,” I swear!

Now, they’re using Pages, Lists, and Libraries interchangeably, even customizing their own solutions. SharePoint is looked on as a tool to help them automate their work, not just a filing system. Less and less, I’m asked “Can you make me something to do x” and, instead, I’m told “Look at what I made that does x, y, and z!” 

Here’s my approach to go from “SharePoint sucks!” to full adoption.

Step 1: Plan big

Step back and get the ‘lay of the land’, see how the team does their work. Observe existing processes and think about how to streamline them. Look…but do very little…because you have other work to do first.

Think about the end result for your Site and what it could accomplish, the Big Picture. Sketch out what the homepage might look like, what dashboards might be useful. Design a permissions architecture that fits the organization. Draft up some governance rules and policies for how the Site should be run; from then on, use those guidelines in everything you set up. These aren’t etched in stone, you can adapt them later, but it’s better to start with some guidelines and governance than to make them up as you go along.

Once you’ve got your vision of the Big Picture in place, move on to…

Step 2: Start small

Isolate a small sub-team or group within the team at large. Talk to them and get to know their needs, their processes, their inputs and outputs. What do they want to track? What could be automated? How can SharePoint help them?

Figure out how their work will fit into that Big Picture and now start planning. Design your SharePoint solutions for the sub-team with that in mind. What columns in their Lists might be useful to others…and make them site columns. What dashboards do they want that could, later, be trimmed to become the dashboard View at the manager level.

Also, when dealing with the small group, identify potential allies, people who ‘get’ what SharePoint does. With the right encouragement and training, these people can become your advocates later on, your points-of-contact for using and building the Site.

Once you’ve got a good design, get ready because it’s time to…

Step 3: Build small

You might think you want to ‘wow’ them, show off the full power of SharePoint, make them something so pretty and wonderful that they sing its praises far and wide. But a highly-customized solution with a lot of automation might make them wary of the big changes you create. So, when building your solutions, start simple and let them see the gears at work. Put away your javascript codebooks, close SharePoint Designer, forget you ever heard of InfoPath, set aside your content-types and workflows (for now).

You can usually start solving their big issues, the tasks that take up a lot of their time and effort, with a Page or two, a Library, and a few Lists with the right Views for the right purpose. Don’t shoot for a 100%, totally complete solution that does everything for them; aim instead for a simpler solution that they can grasp how it works. That doesn’t mean you should throw out every cool trick and elegant solution you’ve ever learned how to do. It just means that you should build small enough for them to see “behind the curtain” (The Wizard of Oz, 1939). It will be less daunting for them to use if they know what buttons to push and levers to pull to be wizards themselves.

wizard-of-oz_curtain

SharePoint Designer, circa 1930s

Your subteam is set and starting to use their initial SharePoint solutions. Things are starting off well so it’s time to…

Step 4: Move on

Leave your initial group to do their work. You’re not abandoning them, you’re letting them simmer. Go on to another subteam and repeat Steps 2 & 3. Find out what they need and build them something small. Keep on doing this until you’ve got a few groups working on the Site.

After a while (few weeks? a month? hard to define), don’t forget to…

Step 5: Check back

Circle back to your first group. By now, they should be very satisfied with your solution because they can see how it’s helped them do their work. The old ways are happily abandoned in favor of automated displays and dashboards.

They’ll have suggestions, ways to improve their Site. They’ll also have populated enough data–files, items, whatever–that you can use to better ‘see’ their processes at work. Get them to draft up their SOPs for how they work now. Work with them (don’t forget your ID’d advocates! get them to help!) to see what could be made better. Ask them flat-out, “Dream big! What do you wish you had now?”

This is when you pull out the big guns you set aside in Step 3. Customize workflows, add javascript, dust off SPD and InfoPath. Start showing them the “wow” factors…unlike before, they’ll be happy to change their work processes a little because they’ll know, deep-down, where they’ve done the work themselves, how it can be better.

Keep working your way around, moving from subteam to subteam, until you’ve done enough to…

Step 6: Put it all together

The management level at the top of your whole team comes in, basically, two flavors (with variations, it’s a spectrum). One, they want know enough about SharePoint to get it implemented properly and quickly. Or two, they don’t know it at all and are hesitant to change what they do in favor of the latest “fad” (never mind that it’s been around for more than a decade!). Either way, you can’t leave them out of the loop with all of these steps that you’re doing. Just tailor your approach to their attitude.

With the first set of managers, it’s relatively easy. Give them regular updates. Show them how their subteams are working better and faster. The only caution is not to move too quickly; just as in Step 4, the whole team needs to simmer, to adopt SharePoint gradually.

With the second, assure them that the work is still being done. There will still be antiquated processes (daily emails! PowerPoint briefs! weekly activity reports!) to do and none of your subteams should stop doing those in favor of your solutions. After all, your solutions should be aiming at those progress reports as outputs, to make the subteam’s work easier.

Once you have enough to work with, make a manager-level Page, “One Page to Rule Them All” (The Lord of the Rings, 1954). Put in Web Part dashboard Views that display information useful to the manager. Build enough ways to drill down if they feel curious about how everything is going. Show it to them and explain how it can replace some of those old ways. Once they can see it in action, they’ll probably be more amenable when you push for further adoption of SharePoint.

Because you’re not done. Oh no, *wry chuckle* now you’ve got real work to do, it’s time to…

Step 7: Level up

Everything is modular. Nothing is ever truly finished. There’s always more work to be done. However you want to look at it, now that you’ve started bringing the team into a SharePoint future, consider the following:

  1. Formalize your Site governance by writing it up as a policy. Enforce it.
  2. All those Lists and Libraries you made in Steps 3-5? How can you use site columns, content-types, and workflows to make them more efficient and effective across your Site?
  3. Turn your advocates into acolytes. Train them to use SharePoint themselves.
  4. Documentation. Are you writing it all down? As more users adopt SharePoint and the changes start multiplying, do you have a good documentation plan built into your Site governance?
  5. More users, more data. And more headaches. Keep monitoring your Site to see what might’ve worked OK when it was small but is now a problem since it’s grown.
  6. The Big Picture changes, always. That vision you came up with in Step 1? Don’t be afraid to adapt it, tweak it, change it entirely. Be flexible!
  7. We are not alone (Walter Sullivan, 1964). Unless you’re a solo small business, there are always more teams, more levels (up/down/sideways) to deal with in your organization. How does your SharePoint Site fit into what they’re doing? How does your team’s inputs and outputs match up with their inputs/outputs?

 

Create a Reference Page in Microsoft Word

Citations and references are a key component of academic writing. Keeping track of citations in a paper and then providing a reference page are basic requirements of most college- and graduate-level writing assignments. Style guides exist as useful resources for the most common formats–such as the American Psychological Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Chicago Manual. Ashford University uses the APA Style Guide (6th Ed.) as the model for its writing assignments

Microsoft Word has many features that make writing documents easier: creating headers and a Table of Contents, mail merging, footnotes, and others. Word also allows a writer to manage sources, insert citations, and create a reference list. This topic covers how to create an APA-style References Page using Microsoft Word.

Learn it!

You start in the References Ribbon using the Citations and Bibliography group.

CitBibGroup

[Image Source: Microsoft Word]

Watch this screencast (http://screencast.com/t/wEWHNfw4k) about using the buttons in the Citations group to:

  1. Insert a Citation
  2. Add/Edit Sources
  3. Create a References page

[Transcript – Managing Citations in Word]

You can also refer to the Microsoft tutorial or another screencast video (from KnowledgeWave, 2012).

Do it!

Try it out for yourself. Open a previously-created paper and replace the hand-typed citations by inserting new citations and adding your sources. Then, create a “Works Cited” bibliography in Word.

Compare this bibliography with the guidance provided by your accepted Style Guide.

  • Where does it match?
  • Where does it need editing?
  • What document type or fields should you enter for each source type?

Consider:

BibStaticText

[Image Source: Microsoft Word]

The computer is not always right! Word might not create your citations or references perfectly so you might have to edit them (e.g., changing the heading “Works Cited” to “References”). The accepted style guide–for Ashford University, that means APA 6th Ed.–is the final word on what “perfect” means.

You can edit the bibliography easily by changing it to static text. Click inside the bibliography, then the books icon on the left, and click on “Convert bibliography to static text”.

In closing…

  • Use the Citations & Bibliography group on the References Ribbon
  • Insert Citation to use an existing source or add a new one
  • Manage Sources to edit your list of sources, for a document or the Master list
  • Insert Bibliography to add a References list of works actually cited
  • Edit to match your accepted Style Guide

 

 

 

Blogging for Learning

Blogs (aka, web log) have become an integral part of the connected world of the Internet. The blogosphere has become so ubiquitous in our daily lives that it has, almost unnoticed, taken over all ‘traditional’ media, from news and sports to politics, food, and fashion. Every conceivable topic/interest/fringe/niche has blogs (plural!) with a community devoted to discussing it.

In the education field, blogs have long been adopted by teachers and trainers, to share ideas and learn from each other. Recently, they have been introduced into the classroom for students to use as a part of their learning. So, how do blogs best contribute to a student’s learning?

Blogs

The network of concepts around blogs, a concept of the internet network…is that a palindrome? I need to go lie down now…

Interpretation

A blog-writing assignment requires, just as a formal paper or essay would, students to do research and report on what they’ve learned after integrating it with their own ideas (Glogoff, 2005). They have to practice close reading for comprehension (Downes, 2004) as well as evaluate a variety of sources to judge the authority and reputability of its information (Lever-Duffy & McDonald, 2015), an important skill in the 21st Century.

Communication

Writing, whether ink-on-parchment or online, is a tool for communicating ideas to more than just another person in a conversation. In order to do this effectively, a student must develop their argument, develop their position, and write to their audience (Wheeler, 2011).  Blogging—like any writing exercise—helps students improve their writing, not just in grammar and usage but for comparison and persuasion (Lampinen, 2013).

Expression

When students have freedom to express what they’ve learned, they are more engaged in taking ownership of their own learning (Edyburn, 2013); these two principles form the core of the Universal Design for Learning approach.  The ability to think creatively and develop new ideas is a critical skill for the 21st Century (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, n.d.).

This shouldn’t be completely free expression. While students are more engaged when they have a large degree of control over what they write (Lampinen, 2013), simply blogging to complete a tightly-controlled (i.e., assessed by a teacher with a rubric) assignment is just the same as writing a paper (Downes, 2004). Educators who want to use blogs for learning should use a student-centered approach, where they act more as a facilitator, guiding students rather than just directing them.

Connection

Blogging allows students to use hypertext; the ability to link to the vast array of useful resources on the web (Downes, 2004) greatly expands the tools available when writing (for example, all the hyperlinks in this blog!). Students can use hyperlinks and multimedia as ways to back up their opinions and interpretations, giving them a deeper understanding when crystalizing their ideas (Wheeler, 2011).

Since they’re on the internet, blogs connect students to a larger community—not only to other students in their class but to the world at large (Downes, 2004). This leads to a great deal of peer learning but it also means students must understand the etiquette of internet communication when composing content that could be construed as not meaningful, constructive, or even ethical (Stewart, 2011)

Discussion

Today, blogging means more than just posting an article online. As a Web 2.0 technology, it incorporates a social media aspect that allows interaction and discussion using comments. This enables a learner-centered feedback and dialogue where students are learning more from each other than just the instructor (Glogoff, 2005). The asynchronous nature of comments and discussion threads means that students can reflect on the material, process what they’ve learned, and collaboratively build each other’s understanding (Hrastinski, 2008).

References:

Downes, S. (2004, January 1). Educational blogging. Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/educational-blogging

Edyburn, D. (2013). Inclusive technologies: Tools for helping diverse learners achieve academic success [Electronic copy]. Retrieved from https://content.ashford.edu/books/AUEDU620.13.2

Glogoff, S. (2005). Instructional blogging: Promoting interactivity, student-centered learning, and peer input. Innovate, Journal of Online Education. Retrieved from http://studentcenteredlearning.pbworks.com/f/Instructional+Blogging.pdf

Hrastinski, S. (2008). Asynchronous and synchronous e-learning. Educause Quarterly, 4, 51-55. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/eqm0848.pdf

Lampinen, M. (2013, April 8). Blogging in the 21st-Century Classroom. Retrieved from Edutopia: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/blogging-in-21st-century-classroom-michelle-lampinen

Lever-Duffy, J., & McDonald, J. (2015). Teaching and learning with technology (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (n.d.). Creativity and innovation. Retrieved from P21: http://www.p21.org/about-us/p21-framework/262

Stewart, M. (2011, June 20). Fostering student creativity and responsibility with blogging. Retrieved from Edutopia: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/blogging-in-the-classroom-meredith-stewart

Wheeler, S. (2011, July 5). Seven reasons teachers should blog. Retrieved from http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.com/2011/07/seven-reasons-teachers-should-blog.html

 

 

Ten Snow-Shoveling Tips for D.C.’ers

This is for the D.C. folks who might not understand some things about all this white stuff. Brought to you by the local chapter of “After-Southern-Snowstorm Northerners Operating Like Everyday”.

  1. Lift with your legs. Otherwise, you won’t get very far and you’ll be laid out on the couch, complaining all night.
  2. Perfect is the enemy of ‘good enough’. You don’t have to do the whole driveway. You don’t even need to get down to pavement. But make sure ‘good enough’ is actually good enough.
  3. Spread it around. It’s worth walking ten feet to toss the snow where it won’t be a problem. It’s worth making a special cutout just to walk that ten feet. And start at that far point so you’re walking less as you go. Future-you will thank you.
  4. Just do it. Remember that what you leave on Saturday becomes the “Indestructible Fortress of the Ice King” on Monday, once it all freezes up.
  5. Lift with your legs. Seriously.

    photo

    Oh, the weather outside is fri…ah, I’ve seen worse.

  6. It’s OK to shovel when it’s snowing. Shoveling in stages might mean more time…but it’s far less effort moving six inches every few hours than three feet after a day-and-a-half.
  7. Salt is for people first, not cars. Make sure you save the salting for the walkways, not the driveways. If your car can’t handle what you leave on the driveway (see #2), it shouldn’t be on the roads. Also, save your resources, because the Giant will be out of it until mid-February.
  8. Don’t just push it into the street. Really, that’s the worst, making it someone else’s problem (see #3). And karma comes quickly—the plows will just turn it into an ice hump blocking your drive. If you’re not part of the solution…
  9. Be prepared. Hoodie fleeces and running shoes (which might get you through a normal D.C. winter as you go from the Metro to your office) are no match for a waterproof ski jacket and lined boots, kid. Headphones are a good idea…as long as you can still hear the plows coming.
  10. Lift with your legs. I think you get it now.

15 Books That Have Stayed With Me

So my brother posted this on Facebook, but I wanted to respond with a little bit more room to throw in a few words about each one (and add book cover pictures…because they’re cool). Here goes, in no particular order:

1. The Holy Bible Various authors – Be excellent to each other.

Love thy neighbor.

Party on, dude…well, maybe not that.

2. The Dragonriders of Pern (original trilogy) Anne McCaffrey – Because who doesn’t want to ride a majestic dragon through the skies of an alien planet?

Whelan...FTW!

Mush, mush, you husky!

3. The Honor Harrington series David Weber – Military Sci-Fi 101

Set missiles to blow-up-a-lot!

And so, it begins…

4. The Mote in God’s Eye Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle – Military Sci-Fi 201 (+ Alien Contact lab class)

All is not as it seems...

What if WE were the ‘superior’ species?

5. Starship Troopers Robert Heinlein – Military Sci-Fi 301 (+ Social Contract thesis)

Mention the movie again...and I'll kick you right in the jimmy.

The book…not that #@$*ing movie!

6. Five Great Ideas Mortimer J. Adler – So, that’s what a bunch of those ‘-isms’ are about.

Introduction to Mind-Blowing

From my Philosophy class, Senior year, OAHS.

7. A Stranger in a Strange Land Robert Heinlein – Screw your -isms…just grok it.

Grok

Read it, learn it, grok it.

8. Ringworld Larry Niven – This is how scale is done.

The perversity of the Universe tends towards a maximum.

Build a ring 93 million miles in radius – one Earth orbit – around the sun.

9. The Stand Stephen King – This is how scope is done.

The place where you made your stand never mattered. Only that you were there...and still on your feet.

Good vs. Evil…that’s right, with the capitals, so you know it’s ON!

10. The Harry Potter series J.K. Rowling – Heroes, done right.

Anything's possible if you've got enough nerve.

It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

11. Watchmen Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons – Anti-heroes, done right.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

‘In the end’? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.

12. 1984 George Orwell – The horrific triumph of the Left.

This is double-plus good.

Seriously, the best book cover EVER for ‘1984’.

13. V for Vendetta Alan Moore & David Lloyd – The horrific triumph of the Right.

People shouldn't be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.

Again, the book…not the @$%*ing movie.

14. Night Shift Stephen King – Scary, short, and scary (yeah, I said it twice).

So many sleepless nights...

The Boogeyman. ‘Nuff said *shudder*.

15. Lucifer’s Hammer Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle – Scary, because $%!# falls out of the sky all the *@#-damned time.

All of our eggs, one basket...bad idea.

Birds aren’t just the remnants of dinosaurs…they’re a WARNING!

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A Fella Can Dream, Can’t He?

There’s a lot of outrage today about the government shutdown and Congress’ responsibility for the whole mess. Today isn’t the day for outrage, though; today, you should turn that outrage down to a simmer, let it keep, bottle it up. Save it for Tuesday, 4 November 2014…Election Day. Then let it flare up: vote out every single incumbent politician, be they Senator, Congressman, Governor, Mayor, all the way down to County Dog Catcher and Bottle-Washer. The people’s only check and balance against this kind of government incompetence is our vote…and we’ve been sorely lax in that duty for far too long now, judging by what’s happening in D.C.

This is not an easy thing to do, voting them all out. They will cajole, they will promise, they will threaten, all in an effort to prove to you that Your Elected Representative is not to blame…they are. The mythical They, those mysterious, unknowable, indeterminate others responsible for all the ills of our nation. And, of course, many will not do this, simply because they have always voted for Party X or Party Y and to give the other side a chance in their district is tantamount to propping open the very gates of Hell and shouting “Come on in, Satan!”

For some, this will mean voting for the Occupy, tree-hugging, climate-change-espousing, crazy vegetarian from the left who wants to throw away all the guns and save the spotted owl. For others, it will mean voting for the Tea Party, Bible-thumping, climate-change-denying, crazy corporate stooge from the right who wants to burn homosexuals at the stake and turn the clock back to 1950. Some will be lucky and there will be a third choice, Libertarian or Green. And most will not care and simply vote for the same old, same old, and go back to grumbling at the TV news channel-of-their-choice about how “those other guys” are all to blame.

Elephass? Donephant?

It’s really all just one breed.

But think about it: if even 10%–hell, just 5%, twice the usual standard deviation of most polls—vote the incumbent out, this will attract the politicians’ notice. And, come Election Day 2016, if this number grows (I dream of 15%, a lofty goal) and thousands more vote the incumbent out, they will have to take notice. Imagine what will happen if every two, four, six years, no matter what, a sizable fraction of the voting populace actually votes against the incumbent. Extremists on both sides might just have to reconsider their positions. They might move back towards the center. For the love of Murphy, they might just have to learn to compromise!

Or, well, the bees might all die and the resulting ecological collapse leaves our once-proud civilization in ruins.

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I Wish This Were in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Where's Waldo?

Geonosis always used its veto to spoil the efforts of the Galactic Security Council.

SCENE: A circular briefing room aboard the Mon Calamari Cruiser, commanded by Admiral Ackbar. Mon Mothma, head of the Rebel Alliance, is addressing the assembled leaders of the rebellion against the Empire.

MON MOTHMA: The Emperor’s made a critical error and the time for our attack has come. The Emperor destroyed the planet of Alderaan with the first Death Star and now has a second one. This is a crime against humanity…

ACKBAR: *Ahem*

MON MOTHMA: …a crime against all sentient beings. He has crossed a red line and must be punished for it. Therefore, we must strike against him and his new Death Star.

JAR JAR BINKS: Waity-wait. Howsa we know dat de Emp’ror is even ree-sponsi-bull for Alderaan? Maybee de Alderainee did it to demselves…

*ZORCH!!!* LEIA ORGANA calmly holsters her blaster , eyeing the small pile of ash with satisfaction. Applause breaks out spontaneously, then quickly grows quiet again.

MON MOTHMA: I assure you…this time, the intelligence is good. Many Bothans died to bring us this information.

WEDGE ANTILLES: With all due respect (nods to LEIA), Alderaan was only one planet. Two billion sentients. The Emperor has killed TRILLIONS over the last few years, with Star Destroyers, Stormtroopers, and turbolasers. What kind of red line is this?

MON MOTHMA: Since the first Death Star was created, all civilized planetary systems have agreed that it crosses a red line of decent behavior to conduct interstellar war in such a way. I didn’t set the red line–the galaxy set a red line.

LANDO CALRISSIAN: OK, so what do we do? Destroy it? It’s heavily protected, both by a significant space defense fleet and an energy shield generated from the nearby moon of Endor.

HAN SOLO: I could take a small force down there, destroy the shield generator. With Luke’s help, it shouldn’t take…

MON MOTHMA: No. We must not commit forces on the ground. It’s politically untenable at this time. After the disaster at Hoth, we cannot risk troops in such a way. There may be a civilian populace we don’t know about there. Any casualties are too much to risk.

HAN SOLO: Wait…so what’s our objective here? With that generator in place, there’s no way our ships can even get close to the Death Star and the Emperor, much less destroy it.

MON MOTHMA: We’ll just have to attack it from space. It’s our only option.

LUKE SKYWALKER: Well, that’s a silly option. I mean, if our objective is to stop the Emperor from destroying planets, we need to blow up this Death Star!

MON MOTHMA: Our objective is to punish the Emperor. He must learn that he cannot, must not, do this sort of thing without retribution. There are always consequences!

LUKE SKYWALKER: Maybe if we could topple the Empire, change the regime…

MON MOTHMA: No. We cannot be seen as trying to overthrow a legitimate government. The Empire must choose its own path. We must simply encourage them to change their own ruler.

(Stunned silence for a moment.)

ACKBAR: That’s a crap!

And so, the shield generator was never blown up by a small, ragtag band of Rebels (yes, and Ewoks, too). The Rebel Fleet was eradicated over Endor, futilely trying to get through the energy shield. Darth Vader spent the next few months punishing the Rebel-aligned planets of Corellia, Tatooine, and Bespin—by destroying them with the new Death Star. The Emperor just laughed and laughed.

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Redshirts – A Meta Classic

I just finished Redshirts, by John Scalzi…I listened to the audiobook version, as read by Wil Wheaton (a perfect choice…but I’ll get to that). Ostensibly, the science fiction plot concerns low-ranking officers aboard the Intrepid, the flagship of the ‘Universal Union’ in the 25th Century. Commensurate with their status on the totem pole, they’re often assigned to the ‘away team’ missions with the cocky and brash Captain, the coldly logical Science Officer, the emotional Chief Medical Officer, the miracle-working Engineer, or the adventurous (and often-injured) Astrogator. All too often, these missions result in the bizarre deaths of such low-ranked personnel…but never those five officers. Our Enterprise-ing young heroes start to suspect that things (like recuperation rates or technobabble solutions or the basic physical laws of the universe) are seriously skewed aboard the Intrepid…and it’s only a matter of WHEN, not IF, they’ll find themselves at the mercy of Borgovian landworms or Longranian ice sharks (Are they sharks that swim in ice? Sharks made of ice? No one knows.).  So they decide to find out what’s going on—and do something about it.

The Enter...um, INTREPID fires laser blasts

Open fire with all pha…uh, pulse rays! Full spread, pho…er, neutrino missiles! And turn off the damn lens flares!

This book is more than just an homage to the original series of Star Trek, though. It’s obviously a loving but discerning tribute to the show; while you can practically see the cheesy starship sets and the blatantly set-on-a-soundstage “planets,” the author doesn’t shy away from pointing out the horribly bad science that was a hallmark of Star Trek. The book provides an interesting look at the “redshirts”—those members of Star Trek’s away missions who always seemed to die in silly or fanciful ways, all to provide a dramatically apt moment right before a commercial break. But it turns out to be a lot more than that…it digs down deep into the essence of “meta” and flips it on its head.

For those who don’t know, “Meta” is the fancy term used nowadays to describe breaking the fourth wall, that usually-inviolable barrier between the characters in a fiction and the reader/watcher/listener. Meta involves a bit more than that; it involves the characters being more or less self-referential about themselves and their genre; they might or might not break the fourth wall but they’re definitely looking in that direction. Joss Whedon is one of the masters of meta…Cabin in the Woods is pretty meta, as well as Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Remember the guys who quote the ‘rules’ of horror movies in Scream, a horror movie in which they’re characters? That’s meta. Zack talking to the camera in Saved by the Bell? Meta.

Here’s an example: Nathan Fillion, ex-star of Firefly, a science fiction show set in the future, is now on Castle, a detective show set in present-day New York. If, say, he dresses up for Halloween as his character from Firefly on Castle and makes a joke about how it was all the rage 10 years ago, that’s meta (and they do that sort of thing at least once a season). If one of his former co-stars from Firefly does an episode of Castle, and they make a Firefly-related joke, AND then look towards the camera sheepishly, that’s even meta-ier. The fourth wall hasn’t been broken per se…but everyone knows it’s there. Note that this can be tough to do without derailing the audience’s suspension of disbelief and enjoyment of the story.

Captain Hammer strikes a pose

Also known as “Meta-Man”…able to smash fourth walls with his hammer. And, no, the hammer is NOT his [REDACTED].

Without spoiling anything, Redshirts manages to get very VERY meta…but never loses its sense of fun or adventure. The story maintains its own internal logic throughout (not a bad feat, as “internal logic” is itself a plot point). It’s as if the characters broke down the fourth wall…then built a room on the other side of it, and put in new walls, painted them a slightly off-white color, and hung some nice pictures. Then added a throw rug and brought in a tasteful sofa.

That’s one reason Wil Wheaton was a perfect choice for reading the Audible.com version of this book. Not only does he do a good job—as a fan, he manages to convey a perfect sense of Trek style with a pause in the Captain’s bluster or with the haughty tone of the Science Officer—Wil himself is an example of the book’s meta-ness, since he is a former cast member of the Trek franchise. Given the major theme of meta throughout the book, I have to believe this was a conscious choice of the author…and a good one.

If you’re a fan of Star Trek, you’ll love this book. It manages to do more than just give the ‘redshirts’ backstories (any licensed spin-off book can do that, with varying degrees of success). It also manages to make you look at all of those dead members of away teams in a whole new light. They’re people…not just characters. Joss Whedon gets a lot of crap for killing off beloved charactersCoulson Lives! Wash, nooooo!!—but at least A) they were around enough and involved in the story enough to make you care about them and B) their deaths were usually logical and central to the episode’s plot and to the surrounding characters’ development as a whole.

And if you’re not a fan, but you like a bit of philosophy and “hmmm…interesting concept” in your reading, you’ll enjoy this book too. The subject matter has been dealt with before (c.f. The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Last Action Hero) but this manages to get pretty deep, even given its superficial-on-its-face setting. Especially in the long, long epilogues (called “codas” here). This book should be required reading in ANY creative writing class as an object lesson in the need to create believable characters who seem like actual people. Because they just might be, somewhere…

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Once You Invoke Hitler, You’ve Already Lost

I read an article today that brought up something I found very interesting about Hitler and his gun control laws. I was just going to post it to my Wall, but I found it so politically charged that I knew most of my Friends would immediately dismiss it. Besides, I wanted to do a little research on it myself, in a more un-biased realm (like the Fordham Law Review).

We’ve all heard the gun-rights argument that Adolf Hitler instituted a comprehensive gun registration program in 1938…the point being that evil dictators (like Hitler and Stalin and Saddam) love to know where the guns are so they can confiscate them. Therefore, any attempt to register guns MUST be a precursor to gun confiscation and ALSO compares any government that tries it to Hitler et al. Hitler is bad; gun registration is bad. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Only it isn’t so demonstrandum‘d. It turns out that this argument is, if not patently false, pretty overexaggerated. By passing a gun registration law in 1938, Hitler was actually DE-regulating gun ownership. Registration was a step down from the rules of the Weimar Republic that preceded Hitler’s rise to power near the end of 1934. After World War I, France and the other great powers slapped down a lot of harsh rules on Germany, including severe restrictions on gun ownership (gee, I wonder why?). To comply with this, the Weimar Republic made it hard for Germans to own guns; after suffering several failed coups and revolutions (Hitler’s failed putsch among them), they clamped down even harder. Once the Nazis took over, Hitler (along with dozens of other restrictions from the Treaty of Versailles) loosened gun laws. Allowing Germans to own guns again, even if they had to get a permit along with it, was actually a downgrade of gun control in Germany.

Owowowowowowowowwww...

Actual photo of Hitler today, from the inner circles of Hell

And there’s this famous “quote”:

“This year will go down in history. For the first time, a civilized nation has full gun registration! Our streets will be safer, our police more efficient, and the world will follow our lead into the future!”
— Adolph Hitler (1889-1945), April 15, 1935

Only…he probably NEVER said that. There isn’t a single reference that academic researchers can find that says Hitler actually said it. More than likely, it was made up. Hard to believe, I know; even before the rise of the Internet, people were making up quotes by famous people (I think Mark Twain said that).

The alleged timing (1935) also makes no sense. In 1935, the first full year of Nazi rule in Germany, Hitler was busy with other things, like rebuilding the German Navy, getting the swastika put on the flags, passing the Nuremberg Laws to start persecuting the Jews, and teaching everyone where to put the umlaut in “Führer“. Hitler was consolidating his control; he probably was happy no one had guns.

1938 makes more sense for rearming the common man. That’s the year he creates the Wehrmacht, strongarms Austria, teaches Neville Chamberlain to knuckle under, annexes the Sudetenland, and puts Poland on notice. This guy had plans, things were being put in motion, and he wanted regular Germans to figure out how to use a trigger before he sent them into Paris.

So, in sum, Hitler was NOT the patron demon of gun control. It’s a common misconception (gross oversimplification of history, really) put forth by a lot of people–among them, Wayne LaPierre (executive VP of the NRA since 1991) in his book, Guns, Crime, & Freedom. I’m sure he didn’t have an agenda there, right?

Look, I can do teh memezez!

Sometimes, I feel like Robin

Anyway, I’m more middle-of-the-road when it comes to gun rights and gun control. The Second Amendment is there for a reason…but let’s not forget the “well-regulated” part, shall we? I just think that, if you’re going to argue one way or the other, you should do it correctly, using actual facts. And invoking Hitler is never the right way to argue. Let’s just leave him roasting in Hell where he belongs.

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