On vocabulary

This week, I had a gentleman named Kevin Kawa in the office to show him around the administrative tool for his new blog about television. He had sent in several suggestions for a title, and we kicked them around the office and settled on Primetime Rewind.

Pilfered from PostSecret, 15.02.2009

Not two days later, I saw a note from Jeff Pulver that the company had added Facebook Connect to their TV startup. It's name? Prime Time Rewind.

It got me ruminating on language. Given barely similar circumstances – basically, evening television as a topic and a need for an Internet-friendly title – people who have never met will select precisely the same language, despite the many combinations of words possible.

Upon my mentioning that to Kevin, he sent me a disheartening e-mail that I didn't bother to fact-check, because I don't really want the verification: the average adult English speaker uses a vocabulary of about a thousand words.

If that's true, the paragraph above this one – which isn't very long – includes over three percent of the vocabulary the typical person uses.

And in the midst of this thinking, I came across the note you see on this week's PostSecret. If you don't read PostSecret, spend some time with it. It's a nice project, and it's helping lots of people.

The note about all the postcards sounding like they're written by the same person recalled for me my thoughts this week about our limited shared vocabulary.

Perhaps the limited part of that is related to the third-person effect.

The third-person effect relates to the persuasiveness of mass media. The typical person will say, "I'm not very affected by mass media messages [like advertising], but other people are very affected."

Maybe we're looking for a lowest common denominator in our word use, particularly if we're trying to reach a very large audience.

But sometimes situations call for uncommon words, so why shouldn't we use them? I really couldn't agree more with Michael M. Spear.

Spear's research does appear to support Kevin's e-mail, and really puts it in perspective when it comes to the number of words available to us that we're not using:

Richard Lederer, a lion among linguistics, tells us that English is the most cheerfully democratic language in the history of mankind. It has 616,500 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. This compares with a vocabulary of about 185,000 words for German, 130,000 for Russian, and 100,000 for French. Yet the average English speaker possesses a vocabulary of 10,000 to 20,000 words, Lederer observes, but actually uses only a fraction of that, the rest being recognition or recall vocabulary.

Yes, I was the dork who knew what omphaloskepsis (which, by the way, spell-check doesn't recognize) meant when it came up as a word in a Says You bluffing round.

What words can you teach me today?

Everyone loves a diner

I noted in my post about my new village the other night that I'm within a few blocks of two diners, among other businesses.

One of those diners is the Redwood. I could actually throw a baseball through its windows (well, if we both had our windows open), it's that close.

This is a situation that bodes well for weekend breakfast.

I love me a diner breakfast. And I'm willing to wait for a seat to get one. Actually, I wake up early enough that unless I'm meeting someone for a later breakfast, I never have to.

My favorite thing about the Redwood (other than the fact that they're pouring coffee for you before you can get your jacket off) is that if you sit at the counter, you're looking at the grill.

Jimmy runs the place, and it's a family thing: his wife Patty is one of the servers, and there are children and nieces and nephews and everything helping out.

Jimmy knows many of the long time customers, and chats with them, but more than that, he's a joy to watch at the grill. He's got the vats of pancake and french toast batter, along with the containers of diced potatoes on the counter on the left, then as you move to the right he has the grill, two gas burners, a work space, four toasters, and a side-by-side refrigerator.

He never looks like he's in a rush, he doesn't sweat, he knows where everything is and where it's going, when it has to go in, and when it's going to come out.

It's all art to me.

Share your favorite diner experiences in comments below.

How does that go, about it taking a village?

I've been a big proponent of living in the city of Syracuse, and often looked somewhat cross-eyed at people who did a lot of work in the city but lived in the suburbs.

And then, after five years and some change within the city limits, I moved into the Village of East Syracuse.

The move, actually, fulfilled a lot of the goals I used to write about in terms of living in the city – being able to walk to everything I need, being close to work.

And, in fact, when I asked about six weeks ago over Twitter and Facebook what a village is, pretty much everybody said a place that has everything one needs within its borders.

For those of you who loved my last place, you'll be a combination of disappointed and charmed by the new place. It's much smaller, which I think scores on both sides of that coin (much less room for gatherings, but it's not a five-minute walk to change conversations). There are no mysterious hallways, no surprise steps. There's a door on the bedroom (score!).

Within an eight-block walk, I have:

- Two diners
- A restaurant
- A sports pub
- Two pizza places
- Chinese take-out
- A market
- Two convenience stores
- A donut shop
- A bakery
- A park with tennis and basketball courts
- A library
- A thrift store
- Doggy day care
- Barber shops and salons
- Shoe repair
- A jewelry store
- Auto repair

And that's not counting the commercial strip just over the railroad tracks, which I pretty much never visit. It has a Subway, a Dunkin Donuts (that's right, the donut shop mentioned above is a local one), a Wal-Mart, a BJ's, a Staples (OK, sometimes I need a Staples run).

I've been to a couple of the businesses two or three times, and the proprietors have recognized me.

I'm looking forward to riding my bike the 1.3 miles to work on a daily basis, not like the twice-a-summer I was able to pull in my last place, since it was seven miles each way.

The piano in the photo, by the way, is well-traveled. It will be tuned this weekend, and I'll finally get to sit down and play it for the first time in a long (long) time.

I'm happy to be settling in here.

Catharsis: Shattered

Photo by ziggy fresh, used under a Creative Commons license

For the past three years, I've played tennis with a bunch of guys older than me – most in their 50s and 60s, some into their 70s and 80s.

There are 21 of us, with 16 playing each week. It's what's called a ladder league; we are spread across four courts by winning percentage, with the top four playing on court one, the next four playing on court two, etc. We start with the top and bottom player on each court paired up against the numbers two and three, play one set, and spin for the next partner.

Most weeks, we get three sets in, so we all get to play with each other. Some weeks, when the sets are close (and therefore, frequently longer), we only get two in [the club gives us 90 minutes; after that, other leagues are on].

With anywhere between 20 and 50 years fewer on my body than the other players, I'm the fastest, and I'm among the strongest. But I'm also the least experienced, and I wind up learning a lot – about strategy, positioning, and, what I find important, the gentlemanly aspects of the game.

Tennis is a sport in which, in organized play, players are penalized points for ball, racket, or verbal abuse. In the pros, they can be fined. Player clothing is generally conservative, although Andre Agassi changed that in the 1980s – but still, most people wear collars, and the Wimbledon Club still requires all white.

There are occasional arguments over calls. We're all male, the testosterone flows, it gets competitive, and you have to take into account what could be going on in people's lives, especially when you're talking people who either are retired or are nearing retirement in a market like this.

But tonight we actually called it a night early, when players on either side of the net got downright nasty. Expletives were flying, someone got hit with a ball intentionally, and the two of us who were getting along had to separate them, twice.

I'm not alone in being one of the people who plays tennis to relax. And I'm lucky in that I get my gym membership on trade; I wouldn't be able to afford to play there otherwise. I can't imagine why you'd drop all that money and be prepared to throw down.

And we're talking guys who are 50ish. They're no longer young and stupid.

We decided it was better for everyone if we went home early.

I got home a bit wound up (it's a four-minute drive, not exactly enough to cool down), and started to put away some of the clean dishes.

I've been moving from place to place with a set of decent glasses, and while I've dropped some of them from low heights, I've never so much as nicked one.

And one of them fell out of the dish drain, and positively shattered.

Some glasses break into a couple of biggish pieces and a few small splinters. Not this one. There was nothing left that was recognizable as having once been a glass.

One piece looked like a small bit of rock candy, but the rest was just decimated. It took almost 20 minutes to clean it up, about long enough to listen to WAER's pre-game show, ahead of the Syracuse-Connecticut basketball game.

And about long enough to wind all the way down.

I'm hoping for a more peaceful night of tennis next Wednesday.

Newspapers or newsprint, which is in deeper doodoo?

The video that used to be above but was taken down by the user was essentially this piece from TJ Sullivan offering a really bad idea on how to save newspapers.

Sullivan says that from July 4 to July 10 this year, papers should stop offering free content online by blacking out their Web sites.

Let me include the disclaimer here that I work for the online component of a newspaper – its Web site, where they offer news free – before I tell you this will help further damage newspapers.

Before you read the rest of this post, be sure to catch up (if you haven't already) on my thoughts for a paid online newspaper I'd subscribe to. Go on, I'll wait.

Back? Good.

Now, why do I think this is such a bad idea (apart from the timing, which requires newspapers to make do with what they've got for another five months)? Let me count the ways.

Web sites do not replace the printed edition. Many people who are in-market who read a newspaper's Web site also subscribe to the printed edition. The majority of people who read newspapers' Web sites without subscribing to the newspaper are local ex-pats, now living out of town, for whom subscribing to the print edition would be both cost-prohibitive (who can swing $7 or $8 a day and $12 on Sunday to have the paper mailed to them?) and time-insensitive (it's not breaking news if I get the paper a week later – heck, you're not even reporting on the latest football game anymore).

Web sites increase news hole. By offering only the printed edition, do you (a) simply cut out a lot of what your reporters write, or (b) go ahead and print everything that they'd write for their blogs, because it's still content people want?

Newspaper Web sites have their own writers, too. Yes, newspapers provide the vast majority of content for their Web sites. But almost every (at least mid-size market) daily newspaper Web site in the country has other bloggers or beat writers. Will you spend that week printing their work, too?

Newspaper Web sites provide a space for people to interact with reporters and with each other. Are you suddenly going to expect your reporters to exchange lots of phone calls with readers? If 200 people send the same e-mail to your local college hoops beat writer, the writer typically can just post a response in a blog. You either risk cutting out that interactivity, or you risk losing your reporter. You also lose the ability for people to interact with each other – and a week may be just long enough for people to find a different forum and never come back.

Newspaper Web sites have different advertisers. Because they attract more of a national audience, affiliated Web sites attract different advertisers than the printed paper. If you lose the ads for a week, you lose some advertisers forever, and others you lose until you can bring traffic back up to what it was.

A Web site is a great marketing tool for the newspaper. Every business needs to be on the Web today. Every. Business. If you sell nothing but toothpicks, it will cost you next to nothing to have a permanent billboard with a potential audience of billions of people. If anyone was thinking about signing up a subscription, or thinking about advertising, that week, and can't find your contact info on a Web site? You're out of luck, sorry.

The answer is not shutting down the Web sites, it's charging for them, plain and simple. Sullivan's driving thesis is that America needs newspapers. Not true. America needs good reporters doing good journalism. When it comes down to it, the main differences right now between newspapers and their Web sites are:

  • People pay for newspapers.
  • Newspapers cost (a lot) more to distribute.
  • Web sites provide (near) infinite news hole, easier and less time consuming interaction, and the ability to include video, interactive graphics and sharper photographs.
  • Newspapers have a bigger environmental impact and get your hands dirty.
  • Newspapers travel better.

OK, great, so what we've found out is that newspapers travel better, and people are paying for them.

But people don't seem to care about the portability issue these days (maybe we appreciate that more in northern climes, where we're more likely to bring one down to the lake to read, rather than stay inside for the short outdoor season).

Sullivan, by the way, has set up an online petition, and almost exactly three days after he posted it, he has all of 103 signatures, including himself, "Close down these propaganda outlets," and "I. DisagreeButThereAreNoComments."

So what it comes down to is, we need to find a working model for paid newspaper Web sites. I'm totally OK with that, given the right model.

Journalism is not broken. The printed newspaper as a delivery vehicle might be, but there's a great call for journalism, particularly online. And if you tell people to pay for it or they won't get it, they'll pay for it.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote that he'd rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers, he was really talking about journalism. He didn't have radio, television or the Internet as a delivery vehicle.

What are your thoughts?

It’s not all enterprise reporting (or, why I’m not ready to pay for newspapers online, yet)

Most people who write about the industry aren't declaring newspapers dead yet, but some are starting to give them one last crack on the noggin toward that end.

The latest bigger-city bad news is that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer will stop printing in five weeks if no one buys it, and may consider an online-only publication, but only outside of its joint operating agreement with the Seattle Times.

David Swenson and Michael Schmidt proposed a preposterous idea in the New York Times last month: set up endowments to save newspapers, turning them non-profit and sustainable.

I don't know exactly what it costs to run a newspaper, but the story says that the Times, for instance, would need a $5 billion endowment to get going.

I'm sure this is plausible for a few papers. Figuring that no self-respecting newspaper would accept a government-funded grant, high rollers would probably put up the cash to sustain papers like the Times, the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and LA Times.

But what about newspapers in smaller communities? Sure, they require less of a start, but could newspapers in mid-sized markets like my hometown of Springfield, Mass., my adopted hometwon of Syracuse, N.Y., and other cities like Hartford, Austin, Oklahoma City, etc., put together $800 million endowments quickly? [Yes, I'm pulling that number out of thin air, based on the suggestion the Times would need $5 billion.]

I'm betting that under that model, we have maybe a half-dozen nationally distributed, well-funded papers, and hundreds, if not thousands, of newsletters and blogs that recall the early days of yellow journalism in America.

I'm not ready for that model.

Those people who point out the benefits of maintaining newspapers in communities look to papers' large newsrooms and ability to do meaningful enterprise journalism.

I'm not going to argue with that. At all. That enterprise journalism is my favorite stuff to read. I'll read books of it. And I prefer it in print, even over on a computer screen, but especially over radio or television.

But those who are calling for newspapers to stop offering free online content are pointing to enterprise journalism – which is expensive – as the reason readers should pay for online content.

But it's clear to me that Stu Bykofsky and like-minded pundits aren't reading their whole newspapers, or taking in their newspapers' Web sites as a whole.

At any given time, a newspaper Web site might have a link or two to a current enterprise piece from its home page, but the rest of the offerings are wire or locally written national stories, along with the same crime, fire and man-on-the-street stories I can get on TV or radio with just my antenna – without paying for it (outside of having the equipment and signal, something I also need if I'm going to read a newspaper online).

Tim Rutten points out that the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times charge for online content, but he neglects to mention that they're not general interest publications.

A lot of academic journals also charge for online content, but again, most of us aren't interested.

Rutten does offer a good pricing model: give media sites an antitrust exemption and set tiered pricing (as long as it's affordable). But other than that, he still relies on the notion that newspapers primarily do enterprise reporting, which simply isn't true.

The fact that people are visiting newspaper Web sites (even if they're not spending very long on those sites) clearly isn't lost on people; what is lost on people is the same thing that has been lost on Chrysler and GM for the past several years: the reason we're not willing to spend good money on the product is that the product doesn't necessarily meet our desires.

Bykofsky calls for a $5/month charge for newspaper Web sites; ostensibly that would be in addition to a subscription charge for the paper version, and he doesn't mention what sort of mobile offering would accompany that.

I'm going to offer a model that I'd be willing to pay $10, maybe $15 a month for, that covers all three.

Printed Edition: Once a week, delivered with my Friday mail, a 30- to 40-page paper, 90 percent of which is two or three long-form enterprise stories with a couple of good photos and a description of associated online multimedia content, with the ability to comment on the story and multimedia.

The rest of the paper contains digest items listing the miscellaneous crime, courts, safety, etc., news, alerting me where online (in a mobile-friendly format – more on that in a minute) I can find more info.

Delivery by mail means newspapers don't have to pay as much for distribution – no sending laden trucks far and wide, paying for gas, drivers and vehicle maintenance. Friday delivery means I can spend the weekend with it, when I have time and the desire to sit down with a couple of cups of coffee, and read slowly, turning pages.

Mobile News: You know when I most want crime and safety news? When I see fire trucks returning to the station, or when I happen by several police cruisers on the street. It would be great if I knew exactly where to go for that news.

On my mobile device is also where I want my sports news – and by sports news, I primarily mean game updates. I want scores, injury reports, and other game notes as games are happening; a game analysis could come later, still maintaining a mobile-friendly layout.

Online Content: Everything should be online. The news hole is bottomless, the multimedia options are limitless, and opportunities abound for interaction between readers, between journalists, and between journalists and readers. Lead with your enterprise stuff, and make it obvious where I can find the other stuff. The enterprise stuff is where newspapers beat other media types, and heck, if you want to team up with local TV news teams to have them provide the day-to-day crime and fire news, great. I don't really care where it comes from; if you've got four teams (three TV stations and a newspaper) covering a break-in, you're going to have four nearly identical stories.

And that leads me to one other thing that journalists have been hearing about, but for the most part have been doing poorly: interaction. Gina Chen (a colleague of mine) offers some great tips for journalists. It's not enough to be using social networking sites: you have to be social with them. I wrote more about this in my wishes for newspapers in 2009.

Let's not put newspapers on the cart yet. Let's get rolling to make sure their best work continues to shine.

Customer service review: When is “sorry” good enough? See also: Obama cabinet

My couch didn't make the trip from the North Side to the East Side. It was exactly the same size as the bottom landing, including the height to the overhang.

We probably shouldn't have successfully got it up those stairs in the first place.

It kind of needed to be replaced anyway; the wood was crumbling and it needed to be re-upholstered.

After looking around for a while, on Saturday I bought a nice, comfy sueded love seat from American Freight. The salesman was polite and helpful, but when he found out I needed delivery, he apologized profusely that they probably wouldn't be able to deliver it that day (which is what I get for going in 3 hours before closing on a weekend).

So we scheduled delivery for Tuesday after 5. The salesman said Tuesday was his birthday and he was taking it off, but he'd mark it on the invoice and put someone in charge of it.

I figured that after 5 is probably a popular time, so I was prepared to wait until 8-8:30, but since the store closed at 8, I decided to call around 7:30 to check in.

The guy who picked up the phone said, "I don't think [salesman] set it up for today," and as I started to say, "it's right on my invoice," he cut me off with, "Crap! It's right there. That's my fault, I'm really sorry. How early can I get it to you tomorrow? I'll put it on the first shipment."

Those of you who know me know that standing me up without notice is one of the worst things you can do. I have a pretty tight schedule, and if I had known there wouldn't be a delivery, I sure as heck would have put something on my calendar and been elsewhere.

I was really – really – unhappy.

So Wednesday morning, I got to work a little early, so that I could be sure the work that needed to be done was done in case they were early, and waited for them to call. I live about a mile and a quarter from work, so we're talking maybe five minutes each way, with 10 minutes for the delivery.

They called me at 11:30, and said it would be between 1 and 3, and that they'd call when they were loading up – which was especially good, since it meant I could take a late lunch and not have to skip out of work.

They called at 2:15, said they'd try to be there around 3; they showed up about 3:20 (not too bad). And rather than the love seat I had bought, they had brought a sofa, so definitely worth the extra 20-minute wait.

Bottom line, though, is that I have a place to sit and stretch out; I'm happy with the quality of the furniture, and I'm happy with the price I paid. I'm not entirely happy with the transfer from warehouse to delivery, but in the end, it didn't put me out that long.

That's not great customer service, but it's not bad. I wouldn't be doing business with them if they weren't human beings, and unfortunately, humans make mistakes sometimes. It's the willingness to own up to those mistakes and correct them that makes the better humans stand out.

As long as you don't let the mistakes snowball, it's all good. You can always correct mistakes, but if you have to do it often, you're not doing your customers right.

We're seeing that with President Barack Obama's cabinet choices. Eric Holder was confirmed, despite questionable decisions during the Clinton administration. Tim Geithner was also confirmed, despite a $34,000 tax mistake. He admitted the error and worked to correct it.

But Tom Daschle – who had a bigger tax mistake, though he is working to correct it – withdrew his name from consideration. And the mistakes snowballed enough that Nancy Killefer, withdrew her name from cabinet consideration for a $950 error.

So, American Freight doesn't get a recommendation with flying colors. I liked the product and the price, and the service wasn't entirely lacking. But I'd give them another shot. But the next time, a minor service problem looks a whole lot bigger.

The day the music died

I know a poet named Rob. He's likely in his 40s, wears Chuck Taylors, baggie pants and a wallet chain. He reads from tiny composition notebooks full of tiny print, cover to cover, about drugs, prostitutes and homelessness.

I don't know if he's as tall as his words. It doesn't matter to me.

One night he read about accidentally – and drunkenly – urinating on the man next to him in the men's room of a tavern. When he looked up, he discovered the man was Don McLean.

Don McLean, you may know, if you've spent more than 10 minutes in your life with someone who owns an acoustic guitar, has written two songs in his life: "American Pie" and the other 20-odd albums full of music he's penned.

"American Pie" is a mourning of the plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959, that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. There was so much young musical talent that ceased to be that day, it's been called The Day The Music Died.

You'll have the opportunity to read dozens, if not hundreds of tributes today. I won't bore you with a retrospective, since I wasn't there for the plane crash, the '60s, or the appearance of "American Pie," which I remember hearing on vinyl for the first time (in fact, it was a 45-rpm, and the song was split onto both sides). Instead, here's Mr. Mclean:

Simply Cooking: Dinner, with recipe

You may not know this about me: I'm a good cook. Also: I like personal twists on simple dishes. And so, here was dinner tonight.

I'm not going to give you measurements, since you'll do this to suit your quantity needs and taste preferences, but it's really easy.

(a) Steam some white rice
(b) Bring to a simmer: red beans, corn, salsa, cayenne pepper, black pepper, crushed red pepper (I like it spicy, can you tell?)
(c) spoon some rice into a bowl, put some of your beans and corn over it, and top with shredded cheese
(d) eat

Any questions?