Teaching Little Miss Opie

Always mind what you say — you never know who’s in your audience.

Back in the mid-’90s, I taught creative writing at Vassar College for the Summer Institute for the Gifted. The students were precocious middle schoolers whose parents had dropped a bundle for a couple weeks of learning. My job was to impart my love of metaphor, description and iambic pentameter — all of which, as an English major, I truly adore.

One afternoon, I launched into a soliloquy about plot, explaining that every protagonist has an obstacle to overcome. The obstacle creates tension and drives the story to its end.

Needing an illustration, I began to explain the plot of the film Apollo 13, which had just played in theaters. On the blackboard, I drew an Earth and Moon and small spaceship with flames, and I explained how the crew’s dwindling oxygen and distance from home was a major obstacle. The kids connected immediately, interjecting their ideas and answering my questions.

Later, after the class filed out, a camp assistant who’d been in the class came by to chat.

“That was great,” she said. “Did you see Bryce giggling while you were talking about Apollo 13?”

Bryce was a red-haired girl with piercing eyes, sort of a female Opie if you remember The Andy Griffith Show. That should have been a clue.

“No,” I said. “Why would she find it funny?”

“Well,” the RA said, “her dad directed that movie — you know, Ron Howard.”

Ah, yes. I connected her name in my head: Bryce Howard. If you’re a film fan, you know her today by her stage name, Bryce Dallas Howard.

Take my WordPress theme, please

Building a WordPress theme from scratch has been a blast. Not only did I pick up new skills in CSS and PHP, I developed a deeper appreciation for the open source community. Without dozens of people who liberally share their code, I wouldn’t have gotten as far as fast.

So, I’d like to return the favor. Anyone who’d like my WordPress theme can have it. I have no illusions about being a designer, but if you’re looking to craft your own theme it’s a good start.

Download Portfolio_AD here.

The danger of thinking like it’s 1985

For a devout music fan weaned on what’s now called classic rock, the ’80s were miserable. Sure, we had U2 — they alone helped ease the pain of hair metal and synthpop. But from an audiophile’s perspective, for someone who thinks sound is as important as structure, the era made for painful listening.

Why? Because most music recorded in the ’80s — for all its supposed ambition and technical innovation — sounds more dated, more processed and more fake today than the music of the ’60s and ’70s, including disco. Line up Abbey Road or Dark Side of the Moon next to anything by Duran Duran or Human League and the point is made.

What hurt ’80s music most was the rush to digital sounds. Musicians grabbed every gizmo they could find — synthesizers, drum machines, vocal effects, digital guitar processors — and abandoned their lovely analog gear. When Phil Collins’ engineer figured out how to use a noise gate to make his drums sound as big as a 747, everyone copied. Songs now revolved not around good lyrics or melodies but the sounds of these machines. It all had a big wow factor, but it lacked one important quality:

None of it was timeless.

Oh, people thought it was. That’s what it feels like in the midst of every movement. “This will last forever.” Well …


Bookshelf: Numbers in the Newsroom

Never underestimate the value of a compact guide to math, especially if you’re one of those journalists who thought  you could avoid numbers by becoming a writer. You shouldn’t — understanding numbers will help you get stories  others miss because of innumeracy.

One of the handiest resources I’ve found — and recommended just this week to a roomful of colleagues — is Sarah Cohen’s “Numbers in the Newsroom.” It’s a 108-page guide that covers the basics on percent change, rates, graphics, probability and much more. Cohen is a Pulitzer-winning former Washington Post staffer and one-time training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors. She’s now at Duke University, where she is the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy.

The book is a few years old, but its lessons are timeless. You can pick it up through IRE’s online store.

Have your own math book recommendations? List them below …

Project: NCAA football coach contracts

This morning, my colleagues and I at USA TODAY launch part one of a three-day series on NCAA football coaches contracts. The centerpiece is a database analysis by my teammate Jodi Upton, who worked with the sports staff to collect and analyze hundreds of documents. My contribution is the database programming behind our interactive graphic.

Among the key findings, straight from today’s lead story:

— At least 25 college head football coaches are making $2 million or more this season, slightly more than double the number two years ago.

— The average pay for a head coach in the NCAA’s top-level, 120-school Football Bowl Subdivision is up 28% in that time and up 46% in three years, to $1.36 million.

— Our first look at the salaries of assistant coaches finds many approaching and even exceeding presidents’ compensation and most eclipsing that of full professors.

Department of redundancy department

When I was an assistant city editor, a buddy and I kept a list of redundant phrases that we had excised from the stories we rush-edited each night. It held more than a few classics. The best, I think, was “a three-part trio,” which one hapless scribe attempted to get past us. No luck.

Redundancies range from the dumb — “the robber ran off on foot” — to the careless. “Joined together with” is more effectively rendered as “joined.” A “brief moment” is just a “moment,” right?

Economical use of words separates solid writers from wannabes. (Another is the ability to discern between “its” and “it’s,” but that’s another post.) If you want your writing to be crisp and fitting for this day of 140-character limits and brief attention spans, cut what you don’t need.

For ideas on where to trim, check this list, and this one.

Adjusting for inflation: A beginner’s guide

When Daniel Craig hit theaters last year in Quantum of Solace, the 22nd film in the James Bond spy series, his ability to dispatch bad guys (and charming good looks, no doubt) helped it earn $168.4 million. That was enough to rank Solace among the top 10 grossing films of 2008.

But how did Solace fare against the rest of the Bond canon, which stretches back to 1963’s Dr. No? The answer depends on whether you adjust for inflation.

We all know that the price of a loaf of bread isn’t what it used to be. The cost of consumer goods tends to rise each year, except during downturns or various calamities. So, taking inflation (or deflation) into account is the only way to  meaningfully compare dollar amounts over time.

There are plenty of apps just for this. The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers one basic calculator, and there’s another at this site. They’re fine for a quick check, but I’d rather do my own calculations. A web app might not have the latest data. And if you’re adjusting more than a couple of amounts, using a spreadsheet will save time. Here’s an exercise from Bond-land: