February 11:  Gerrymander Day

On this date in 1811, Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a bill that readjusted the political map of Massachusetts.  The new map was redrawn to favor the incumbent Democratic-Republican Party and weaken the electoral prospects of the Federalist party.

Under normal circumstances Gerry’s action might have become a lost footnote in history; however, due to a brief conversation between a Boston newspaper editor and an artist, a new word was born.

After the bill was passed, Gilbert Stuart, a political cartoonist for the Boston Gazette, was looking at a map of the new Essex County voting district.  Struck by the district’s convoluted contours he took out his pencil and added a few lines, including a head, wings, and claws.  He then turned to Benjamin Russell, the paper’s editor, and said, “There, that will do for a Salamander.” Russell responded with a pun, “Salamander? Call it a Gerrymander!”  At that moment a new word and new political epithet was born.  

On March 26, 1812 the word went public when Stuart used “Gerry-mander” as the title for his cartoon drawing of the redrawn boundaries of the voting district.

Ever since Governor Gerry has been the namesake of this notorious political practice by which incumbent politicians and political parties attempt to maintain power.  It should be noted, however, that the historical record of Elbridge Gerry is not entirely tainted.  He was an original signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.  He also became the 5th Vice President of the United States in 1813, serving under President James Madison (1).

Gerrymander is just one example of the deep, layered meaning found in the language of politics.  With political words it is especially important to remember that to understand words we need to go beyond just their denotations – their dictionary definitions.  Instead, we need to consider their connotations – the feelings, associations, and emotions that words evoke.

The following collection of words is just a small A to Z sample of words that have distinctive meaning when used in political contexts:

activist, bipartisan, carpetbagger, demagogue, entitlement, fascist, grassroots, hegemony, ideology, jingoism, kingmaker, lobby, mainstream, NIMBY, oversight, progressive, quagmire, reform, spin, terrorism, unilateral, veto, whistleblower, extremist, yahoo, zinger

Today’s Challenge: The Words of Political Prose and Politics

What are some English words that you would categorize as distinctly political words – that is words that are associated with government and power?  Brainstorm a list of political words.  Take one word that you find interesting, and research that word’s etymology, its meaning, and some historical examples of how it has been used as well as how it might be used today.  Write a report including all of your findings.  Your mission is to help the reader understand the word’s denotation as well as its connotations.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. -George Orwell in Politics and the English Language

1-Safire, William.  Safire’s Political Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2008: 275-6.

February 10:  Plain English Day

On this date in 2009, Representative Bruce Bradley, an Iowa Democrat, introduced the Plain Writing Act to the United States House of Representatives.  The stated purpose of the bill was “to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use” (1).

Bradley was not the first politician to attempt to make government language more clear and jargon-free.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also an advocate of plain, clear English.   In 1942, an official wrote the following memo about wartime blackouts:

Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.

Roosevelt demanded a revision, saying, “Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows” (2).

Also during World War II, in 1944, a Texas congressman named Maury Maverick began a crusade against the unintelligible multisyllabic language of his colleagues.  He coined his own word for this fuzzy English:  gobbledygook

When Maury was asked what inspired his colorful word, he said, “It must have come in a vision. Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledygobbling and strutting with ridiculous pomposity. At the end of his gobble there was a sort of gook” (3).

Sixty-six years later and approximately one month before Thanksgiving, Bruce Bradley’s bill became law.  It was signed by President Barack Obama on October 13, 2010.  Today, therefore, we can say, “Write in plain, clear English — it’s the law!”

Of course, writing in plain, clear language is not easy.  As writer William Zinsser explains, it is hard work and requires deliberate effort:

Thinking clearly is a conscious act that the writer must force upon himself, just as if he were embarking on any other project that requires logic: adding up a laundry list or doing an algebra problem. Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people obviously think it does.

Today’s Challenge:  Leaner Bacon

How can you translate 17th century English into plain, clear 21st century English?  Read Francis Bacon’s essay ‘On Revenge,” and then write a paraphrase of the essay in which you restate Bacon’s ideas in the clearest, most concise language possible.

Of Revenge by Francis Bacon

Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong, putteth the law out of office. Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon. And Solomon, I am sure, saith, It is the glory of a man, to pass by an offence. That which is past is gone, and irrevocable; and wise men have enough to do, with things present and to come; therefore they do but trifle with themselves, that labor in past matters. There is no man doth a wrong, for the wrong’s sake; but thereby to purchase himself profit, or pleasure, or honor, or the like. Therefore why should I be angry with a man, for loving himself better than me? And if any man should do wrong, merely out of ill-nature, why, yet it is but like the thorn or briar, which prick and scratch, because they can do no other. The most tolerable sort of revenge, is for those wrongs which there is no law to remedy; but then let a man take heed, the revenge be such as there is no law to punish; else a man’s enemy is still before hand, and it is two for one. Some, when they take revenge, are desirous, the party should know, whence it cometh. This is the more generous. For the delight seemeth to be, not so much in doing the hurt, as in making the party repent. But base and crafty cowards, are like the arrow that flieth in the dark. Cosmus, duke of Florence, had a desperate saying against perfidious or neglecting friends, as if those wrongs were unpardonable; You shall read (saith he) that we are commanded to forgive our enemies; but you never read, that we are commanded to forgive our friends. But yet the spirit of Job was in a better tune: Shall we (saith he) take good at God’s hands, and not be content to take evil also? And so of friends in a proportion. This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well. Public revenges are for the most part fortunate; as that for the death of Caesar; for the death of Pertinax; for the death of Henry the Third of France; and many more. But in private revenges, it is not so. Nay rather, vindictive persons live the life of witches; who, as they are mischievous, so end they infortunate.

Quotation of the Day:  A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? –George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”

1-https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/111/hr946

2-http://cgiss.boisestate.edu/~billc/Writing/zinsser.html

3-Quinion, Michael. “GOBBLEDYGOOK OR GOBBLEDEGOOK.” World Wide Words. http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-gob1.htm

February 9: Weather Words Day

On this date in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a joint resolution of Congress establishing the U.S. Weather Bureau.  Today the official term for the agency is the National Weather Service (NWS), a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

When originally established, the NWS was a part of the United States Army, specifically the U.S. Army Signal Service’s Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce.  The advent of the telegraph in the mid-19th century was a major advancement in meteorology, allowing the rapid collection and analysis of weather data and observations (1).

Today the NWS is a civilian agency under the auspices of the Department of Commerce.  Headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, it has 122 weather forecast offices and over 5,000 employees.  The NWS collects some 76 billion observations and issues approximately 1.5 million forecasts each year. (2).

In addition to talking about the literal weather outside, we also talk a lot about figurative weather, using a flood of weather metaphors and idioms to shoot the breeze.  The following are just a few examples of these figurative weather words:

Cloud nine

Cloud of suspicion

Fair-weather friend

Head in the clouds

Rain check

Shoot the breeze

Snow job

Steal someone’s thunder

Tempest in a teapot

Under the weather

Weather the storm

Today’s Challenge:  Brainstorm of Titles

What are some titles of books, stories, poems, plays, songs, or movies that have weather words in them?  Of all the weather-titled works, which is the single best?  Brainstorm a list of titles that contain at least one weather word, such as breeze, cloud, flood, fog, frozen, gale, hazy, heat, hurricane, ice, lightning, misty, rain, shower, snow, storm, sunny, thunder, or wind.  For example, the following is a list of titles that each contain the word “snow”:

Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow

Let It Snow

Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Snowbird

Snow Day

Snow Falling on Cedars

Stopping By Wood on a Snowy Evening

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Once you have a good list, select the one work that you think is the best.  Write a paragraph arguing why this weather-titled work stands out.  Beyond just its title, what makes this work of art outstanding?  (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. -John Ruskin

1-http://www.weather.gov/timeline

2-http://www.weather.gov/about

February 8 – Best Practices Day

Today is the birthday of American writer John Grisham whose books have sold over 300 million copies and been translated into 40 languages.

John Grisham 2009.jpgBorn in Arkansas in 1955, Grisham was a small town lawyer in Mississippi before he was a writer of legal thrillers.  His first book A Time to Kill had limited success; the book’s initial printing of 5,000 copies did not sell out (1).

Luckily Grisham continued to write.  In 1973, he read an article by Brian Garfield in the magazine Writer’s Digest entitled, “10 Rules for Suspense Fiction.”  Grisham applied these best practices in his second book The Firm, and they worked.  The Firm was a phenomenal success, remaining on the New York Times bestsellers lists for 44 weeks.  Later the book was made into a feature film starring Tom Cruise.  Garfield’s rules must work for movies too — to date, eight other books by Grisham have been made into films.

That original Writer’s Digest article offers the following concise decalogue of writing advice:

The 10 Commandments of How to Write a Thriller

  1. Start with action; explain it later.
  2. Make it tough for your protagonist.
  3. Plant it early; pay it off later.
  4. Give the protagonist the initiative.
  5. Give the protagonist a personal stake.
  6. Give the protagonist a tight time limit, and then shorten it.
  7. Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his.
  8. Know your destination before you set out.
  9. Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.
  10. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read. (2)

Today’s Challenge:  Best Practices Make Perfect

What rules for success or best practices would you put down in writing for a specific area of your expertise or for life in general?  Brainstorm some specific areas where you have expertise and experience — hobbies, sports, academic disciplines, etc. Then, think about how you would state some concise rules for success based on your personal experience.   As in Brian Garfield’s list, write your rules concisely, and make them parallel, stating each one in the imperative form — beginning with a verb.  Write at least three rules, and follow each of your rules with some examples and explanation. (Common Core Writing 2 – Explostory)

Quotation of the Day:  There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.  –W. Somerset Maugham

1-https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2011/nov/25/john-grisham-life-in-writing

2-http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/the-10-commandments-of-how-to-write-a-thriller

February 7: Oxford English Dictionary Day

Today is the birthday of James A. H. Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).  Born in Denholm, Scotland in 1837, Murray was a self-educated scholar, especially interested in philology — the study of written language and the evolution of language.  After he published a book on Scottish dialects in 1868 and became an active member of the British Philological Society, he was invited to become part of a monumental project that would consume the rest of his life.

James-Murray.jpgDespite the fact that some English dictionaries existed prior to the 19th-century, no truly comprehensive dictionary of the English language had yet been published.  In an age of imperialism, England was ascending as a world power, and with this ascension English was becoming a global language.  The British wanted a dictionary that matched its new status as a world power, a dictionary that included a complete inventory of its words, along with complete definitions and a biography of every word, including the date of each word’s birth.

To accomplish this monumental task, Murray needed help.  Gathering quotations from published sources to illustrate each word would require an army of readers.  Long before the internet, Murray used crowdsourcing to get the job done.  To advertise for volunteers, he created a pamphlet called, “An Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public in Great Britain, America and the British Colonies to read books and make extracts for the Philological Society’s New English Dictionary.”  Murray distributed his pamphlet to newspapers, bookshops, and libraries.  When volunteers responded to Murray’s call, he provided them with slips of paper upon which to record their quotations along with a standard format for citing each one.  Readers sent their slips to Oxford, specifically to Murray’s office which he called the “Scriptorium.”  There Murray and his charges filed each slip alphabetically, creating an archive from which to research and document each definition.

Murray worked tirelessly as editor from 1879-1915, but unfortunately he never lived to see the complete OED.  The original plan was to produce a four-volume dictionary in ten years, but the complete project took 44 years.  When completed in 1928, the OED encompassed twelve-volumes, containing 414,825 headwords and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. (1).

Of course the expansion of the English language never ends.  Today, however, with the help of the internet the process of compiling and updating the OED has become much less labor intensive.

One reason why a comprehensive dictionary like the OED is so valuable, is that it allows writers to correctly employ the words they use. The English lexicon is larger than any other language.  This is a blessing for writers, but sometimes the sheer the volume of words leads to confusion between words that are similar.  This sometimes leads to hilarious malapropisms, the error of saying one word when you need another.  The term comes from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s character Mrs. Malaprop, who appears in his play The Rivals.  The following are a couple of examples of Mrs. Malaprop’s slips of the tongue:

Illiterate [obliterate] him, I say, quite from your memory.

He can tell you the perpendiculars [particulars].

A good dictionary allows writers to check a word’s correct spelling, but also a word’s correct definition.  There are hundreds of homophones in English –words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same, such as eight and ate or there and their.  There are also other words that, although they are not homophones, are close enough in spelling, pronunciation, or meaning that they are frequently confused.  A good dictionary is an excellent source for clearing up this confusion.

Today’s Challenge:  Clearing Up the Confusion

What are some English words that so close in meaning, spelling, or pronunciation, that they are often confused?  Select a pair of these words, and research the definitions of the two words.  Write a paragraph that clearly explains the distinction between the two words based on their meanings and on how they are used in writing:

anxious/eager

biography/autobiography

cement/concrete

disinterested/uninterested

entomology/entymology

fortuitous/fortunate

gamut/gauntlet

historic/historical

intricate/integral

languish/luxuriate

mean/median

op-ed/editorial

paramount/tantamount

quote/quotation

rationale/rationalization

sanguine/sanguinary

tragedy/travesty

we/us

Xmas/Christmas

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  A word in a dictionary is very much like a car in a mammoth motorshow — full of potential but temporarily inactive. -Anthony Burgess

1-Winchester, Simon.  The Meaning of Everything:  The History of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Oxford University Press, 2003:  234.

 

February 6:  Lipogram Day

On this date in 1995, Paul Gray wrote one of the most interesting book reviews ever written.  Writing in Time magazine, Gray was reviewing the novel A Void by the French writer Georges Perec and translated into English by Gilbert Adair.  Read the opening sentence of Gray’s review, and see if you notice what’s missing:

A Void, originally La Disparition (1969), is a lipogram, an old trick dating as far back as 500 B.C. in which authors voluntarily submit to awful handicaps, arbitrarily abjuring crucial signs or symbols and making writing, always a hard task, a virtual impossibility.

A lipogram is a word from Ancient Greek that means “leaving out a letter.”  And in case  you didn’t notice, the letter Gray leaves out of his review is the letter “e.”  Georges Perec’s complete novel A Void — all 285 a pages — is a lipogram, and he doesn’t just “avoid” any letter, he avoids the single most frequently appearing letter in the French language, the letter “e” – a letter that appears in 15% of French words.  

Following Perec’s achievement, translator Gilbert Adair took on the even more challenging task of translating A Void into English while at the same time maintaining its E-lessness.  This means Adair had to avoid the two most frequently used words in English, “the” and “be.”  As in French, the letter “e” is the most frequently used letter in English, appearing in 12.7% of words.

Gray clearly admires the achievements of both Perec and Adair.  In praising Adair’s work, for example, Gray says the following, while maintaining his e-less lipogram:

Adair’s translation is an astounding Anglicization of Francophonic mania, a daunting triumph of will pushing its way through imposing roadblocks to a magical country, an absurdist nirvana, of humor, pathos, and loss.

In 1972 Perec took on another form of constrained wordplay called the univocalic, a piece which uses only a single vowel (See September Seventeenth: Univocalic Day).  In the case of his novella, entitled Les Revenentes, Perec eschewed all vowels but “e.”

Today’s Challenge:  Lipograms — as easy as A, B, C, D, and E   

How can you write a short story in which each sentence is a lipogram?  Try your hand at writing the beginning of a short story of at least five sentences.  Eliminate one letter in each sentence, beginning with the letter “A” in the first sentence, the letter “B” in the second sentence, and so on. If you’re truly ambitious, work your way through the entire alphabet.

Here’s an example:

Mike loves his dog, Spot, but he finds it difficult to love his pet turtle, Boris. This turtle has some serious issues, including his penchant for eating Mike’s clothes.  Just last week, Mike found Boris under his bed gnawing on his brand new tennis shoes. Spot, however, is a quality canine, one that Mike can always trust.  Spot is truly man’s paramount companion, consuming only what is put in his dog bowl.

Quotation of the Day:  Sadly, a handful of critics find lipograms ridiculous, ugly or without worth (as fiction or as wordplay). To such sorry saps, I say only that constraining your thoughts and writing in a particular way aids in promoting branching paths of thought, thus amplifying vocabulary and instilling adroit linguistic skills among both young and old. By putting into praxis ways of thinking that wouldn’t occur normally, lipograms call for authors to look at writing as an activity in ways that, frankly, wouldn’t occur to such niggling adjudicators of linguistic conduct. -Steve Chrisomalis (2)

1-Gray, Paul. “A World of Humor and Loss.”  Time 6 Feb 1995.

http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,982438,00.html

2-http://phrontistery.info/lipogram.html

February 5:  Summary Day

On this date in 1922 the first edition of Reader’s Digest was published. The magazine was the brainchild of DeWitt Wallace, who was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1889.  Recovering from wounds he suffered while serving in World War I, DeWitt began working on his idea of publishing a monthly periodical featuring condensed versions of articles from other magazines.  

First issue of the Reader's Digest, February 1922.pngWith the help of his wife Lila, Wallace published the first edition of the Reader’s Digest, producing 1,500 copies and selling each for 10 cents.  By the end of the decade the circulation had reached more than 200,000, and in the 1930s, Wallace expanded his company to include condensed books. In addition to its smaller, condensed articles, the magazine itself is half the size of a typical magazine, just about small enough to put in your back pocket.  The circulation for Reader’s Digest, however, is not small; it has more paid subscribers than any other magazine in the world (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Read, Ruminate, and Digest

How can you paraphrase the main points of an article in 50 words?  In order to write a summary, or to digest an article by breaking it down to its essential points, you must read carefully.  The purpose of a summary is to capture the writer’s main point your own words.  Select an article of at least 250 words, and write a 50-word summary.  Use the following step to guide you:

Step 1:  Read and annotate the text carefully, focusing on the main ideas and main details.  Underline key ideas, and circle any unfamiliar vocabulary.  Remember, the purpose of a summary is to sum-up the writer’s idea, not your reaction to the writer’s ideas.  So, resist the temptation to inject your opinion.

Step 2:  Draft a brief summary in your own words on a separate piece of paper that captures the writer’s main point or claim.  Don’t include the author and title in your summary.  Also, don’t waste words saying things like: “this article is about” or “the author argues that.”  Instead, just state the main ideas.  Don’t worry about the number of words until you have finished your draft.  

Step 3:  Revise and edit your summary.  Count the number of words and revise as necessary to write the most clear, concise, and correct summary of exactly 50 words.  Read your revised draft aloud to make sure that it is clear, that the sentences are complete, and that there are no wasted words.

Step 4:  Write the final draft of your summary.  On the line above the final draft of your summary, write the author’s last and first name, followed by the article’s title.  Then, on the line below the author/title, legibly write your complete final draft of your 50-word summary.

Quotation of the Day:  The dead carry with them to the grave in their clutched hands only that which they have given away. -Dewitt Wallace

1-http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/nyregion/03bookwe.html?_r=0

 

February 4:  Embarrassing Misspelling Day

Today is the birthday of former Vice President of the United States Dan Quayle.  Born in 1947 in Indianapolis, Quayle was elected to both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, before he was selected by George H.W. Bush to join him on the Republican ticket in 1988.

Dan Quayle, official DoD photo.JPEGAs vice president, Quayle made official visits to 47 countries and served as the chairman of the National Space Council.  Unfortunately for Quayle his accomplishments while in office were overshadowed by a single embarrassing incident on June 15, 1992.  

While visiting a New Jersey elementary school, Quayle lent a hand by officiating a sixth-grade spelling bee.  As television news cameras rolled, a sixth-grader named William Figueroa approached the blackboard to spell the word, “potato.”  When Figueroa finished his correct spelling of the word, Quayle mistakenly asked him to add an “e” at the end of the word.  Despite the fact that he was relying on a card provided from the school for the “correct” spelling, the incident hurt Quayle’s credibility and added to the perception by some that he was not very smart.  In his memoir Standing Firm, Quayle acknowledged the enormity of his embarrassing moment:

It was more than a gaffe. It was a ‘defining moment’ of the worst imaginable kind. I can’t overstate how discouraging and exasperating the whole event was (1).

We might balance Dan Quayle’s moment of food-spelling infamy with a contrasting moment of food-spelling triumph. On June 4, 1970, at the 43rd Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., 14-year-old Libby Childress of Mount Airy, North Carolina won the title of the nation’s best speller when she correctly spelled “croissant.” (see September 12:  Croissants and Cappuccino Day)

Taking on the study of food words like “potato,” reveals the English language’s tendency to borrow words from a smorgasbord of  languages, often without altering the spelling from the original language.  Like so many words in English, these food words reveal the huge gulf that exists between English spelling and English pronunciation.  You might remember, for example, the English playwright George Bernard Shaw who gave us the word GHOTI, which he pronounced “fish.” (See July 26:  Ghoti Day).

Shaw based his pronunciation on the “logic” of following existing words in English:

-The gh in ghoti was the f sound in enough.

-The o was from the i sound in women.

-The ti was from the sh sound in nation.

Today’s Challenge:  A Buffet of Baffling Spellings

What are some examples of food words that have challenging spellings?  Brainstorm a list of at least ten food words with challenging spellings.  Here are a few examples at to get you started:

Dessert, Sherbet, Barbecue/Barbeque, Mascarpone, Tomato, Omelet/Omelette, Espresso, Fettuccine, Cappuccino, Broccoli, Zucchini, Caramel, Gyro, Pho, Sriracha, Quesadilla

Using a good dictionary, look up each of your words.  Write down the correct spelling, the definition, and the language of origin of each food item.  Once you have completed your list, challenge a friend to correctly spell the words on your menu.

Quotation of the Day:  I’ve always written high-quality sentences, prepared with the finest grammatical ingredients. In the coming year, I’m raising the bar even higher: I’ll be offering only artisanal words, locally grown, hand-picked, minimally processed, organically prepared, and sustainably packaged. -Michael Erard

1-http://mentalfloss.com/article/64689/never-forget-time-dan-quayle-misspelled-potato

 

February 3:  Open Letter Day

On this date in 1976, American business magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates published an “Open Letter to Hobbyists” in the Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter.

Head and shoulders photo of Bill GatesAt the time Microsoft, the software company that Bill Gates founded with his friend Paul Allen, was just one year old.  The company’s revenues in its first year were a little over $16,000.  Microsoft was off to a promising start, however, having developed software for the Altair 8800 microcomputer, the first commercially successful personal computer.  

The issue that sparked Gates’ open letter was one of the earliest cases of software piracy.  Gates complained in the letter that users of his Altair BASIC software, which in an era before floppy disks was distributed on paper, were making unauthorized copies.  He implored the computer hobbyists to think about the consequences of their actions — that professional developers could not continue to stay in business if people did not pay for the product.  Gates actual words in the letter were both accusatory and sarcastic:

As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid? (1).

Although Gates’ letter didn’t result in many hobbyists paying up, Gates and his company were able to recover their losses and build a profitable company. With the launch of its first version of Windows in 1985, Microsoft was on its way to becoming one of the world’s most valuable companies.

Bill Gates’ open letter is just one of many examples of this unique genre of communications.  What makes the open letter interesting as a form is its dual audience:  the addressee and the general public.  The content of an open letter is targeted at a specific individual or group, yet the letter is published in an “open” public forum.  One of the most famous open letters ever written, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” was itself written in response to another open letter.  In his letter dated April 16, 1963, King was responding to a letter published in the Birmingham Post-Herald in which eight Alabama clergyman challenge his presence in Alabama and his strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism.

Since the advent of the World Wide Web, which went public on August 6, 1991, everyone has a platform to publish their open letters.

Today’s Challenge:  Open Your Heart in an Open Letter

Who or what might you send an open letter to?  Write an open letter to a person, group, or thing expressing your concerns, your criticism, or your praise.  There are all kinds of creative possibilities.  Brainstorm some possibilities based on the ideas below:

-An open letter to your future or past self

-An open letter to an abstract idea, a concrete object, or a place

-An open letter with constructive criticism or effusive praise for a public figure or group

-A humorous or satiric open letter to a group, celebrity, trend, or other idea.

Once you have your idea, write your letter.  Remember to address the specific addressee (the person or thing you’re writing to), but also consider the general audience that will be reading your letter. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure. –Bill Gates

 

1-http://www.lettersofnote.com/2009/10/most-of-you-steal-your-software.html

 

February 2:  Prognostication Day

Today is Groundhog Day, a day when all eyes watch for the emergence of a large furry rodent from its winter den.  According to folklore, if the groundhog sees his shadow when he emerges, he’ll be frightened and retreat back into his den, signaling six more weeks of winter.  If, however, he does not see his shadow, he will end his winter hibernation, singling the arrival of an early spring.

The origin of this strange ritual dates back to ancient Europe when the survival of communities was more closely tied to the changing of the seasons.  Since February 2nd is the midpoint of winter, halfway between the solstice and the equinox, it was an important time to take stock of winter provisions to determine whether or not there was enough food to make it to spring.  It makes sense, therefore, that it is a time to prognosticate about the arrival of spring.

When looking for signs of spring, it’s logical to watch for mammals ending their winter hibernation.  In France, the traditional animal was the marmot; in England, it was the hedgehog; and in Germany, it was the badger.  The groundhog tradition in the United States began with the Pennsylvania Dutch who came to America from Germany.  Finding no badgers in the eastern U.S., they adopted the groundhog (also known as the whistle pig or the woodchuck).  

The largest Groundhog Day celebration is held each February 2nd in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where it began in 1887.  Locals gather at Gobbler’s Knob, anxiously awaiting Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostication.  Unfortunately an analysis of weather statistics reveals that a flip of a coin would be a better weather prognosticator:  Since 1887, Phil’s accuracy rate is just 39% (1).

Having knowledge about the future is one thing, but being able to impact the future is another thing entirely.  Through writing each individual has the ability to influence future change by communicating his or her ideas to an audience.  Aristotle called this type of rhetoric deliberative.  Unlike arguing about what has happened in the past (forensic rhetoric) or arguing what we value in the present (demonstrative rhetoric), deliberative rhetoric is about making a case for the future, about what decisions will be made or what choices are the best alternatives for a bright future.  Deliberative rhetoric is seen in famous speeches like Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, where King was attempting to show his audience his vision of a brighter tomorrow in a world free of racism.

Today’s Challenge:  Prognosticate For Change

If you could make one specific change in order to make the world a better place, what would it be?  Write a speech in which you argue for one specific change that would improve your town, school, state, nation, or world.  Prognosticate how specifically the change you envision, would improve things. Make the case for your change by contrasting the status quo, what is, with the possible future, what could be.  Give your audience a specific vision to show them how bright the future looks with your change.  Use facts and evidence from today to boost the likelihood of your prediction and to show your audience that your change is the best alternative.

The following are a few ideas to spark your thinking:

We should make college tuition free for all students.

We should change the voting age to 16.

We should limit the U.S. president to one term in office.

We should outlaw football.

We should discontinue the Olympics.

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring. -George Santayana

1-http://mentalfloss.com/article/29889/where-did-groundhog-day-come