Learning to Write at a University

Here’s a humorous quote to begin with:

Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.
– Flannery O’Connor

I don’t believe that is always true but, in my experience, English majors and profs can be very close-minded and even elitist. That is such a waste because there is so much to write about and so many different ways to express it. Closing yourself to others’ opinions, including those of ‘non-writers’, will cut you off from some great experience.
I tried a few English courses at University. The first one (at the University of Guelph with Homer Hogan) I hated so much I dropped it right away: it was far too analytical for my taste. The second was an upper year creative writing course with Susan Musgrave, then writer in residence at the University of Waterloo. I enjoyed it very much and learned a lot.
As I write more and have grown older I know that the only sure way to learn to write, as Stephen King suggests, is to sit yourself down and write, write, write. He’s right, right, right.


John Adams

Any doubt about Paul Giamatti being a serious and incredibly talented actor will be quashed if you take the time to watch this miniseries about the 2nd President of the United States. And Laura Linney as Abigail Adams was riveting on the screen. As a Canadian and as someone interested in history I have strong views about the United States. At times I feel that a great deal of American History portrayed in film is either over dramatized or just fiction but this was different. You really feel that this John Adams was a real man at a fascinating point in history with down to earth problems. I found I could appreciate and feel for this long dead and largely forgetten historical figure. This certainly left me with a strong interest in reading the original biography by David McCullough.
Very worthwhile!

The Price of Sugar

This documentary by Bill Haney was the one that shook me up the most at the Guelph Festival of Moving Media and so is what I would consider the best of those I had the privilege to watch this year. As you probably realize from reading my blog, if you read it at all, I do love to be knocked out of complacency every now and again. I’m not a masochist but I think our modern lives grow too comfortable for our own good. There’s still evil in the world and this film is a testimony to that fact as it attempts to show the true price of sugar.
The Dominican Republic has had an incredibly tumultuous and violent history especially where the western third of the island, its neighbour (Haiti) is concerned. The capital, Santo Domingo de Guzmán, is the site of the earliest permanent European settlement in the Americas. It hasn’t had a dictatorship since Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina’s death in 1961 and boasts the region’s most flourishing economy. Haiti, on the other hand, is one of the poorest countries in the region and therein lies the problem and the opportunity for the unscrupulous.
This remarkable film shows clear evidence for the exploitation of Haitian people who are regularly and illegally brought into the Dominican Republic by the bus load. They are enticed with the offer of steady work and money, stripped of their documents and imprisoned in ‘bateyes’ on sugar plantations. These are poorly constructed enclosures surrounded by barbed wire (ostensibly for their own protection but even the ceilings of their ‘homes’ are strung with it) and patrolled by armed guards. All this only kilometres from posh vacation spots for wealthy American and European tourists. You have to see the film to witness the shockingly squalid conditions these people are living and working in.
Enter Father Christopher Hartley in 1997 who, against the advice of many, begins to minister to Haitian cane workers, the poorest in his flock. The film concentrates on this courageous Catholic priest’s efforts to win basic human rights for Haitians in bateyes from the powerful Vicini family. To call this ‘family’ modern slavers would, in my opinion, be apt. Hartley won several concessions from them by convincing the cane workers to strike. And what were they striking for? Not for higher pay but to know how much and whether they would be paid. Using donations the priest set up locations where the children of the workers could get a nutritional meal (often their only one of the day). He also brought in American doctors and Bill Haney, a co-founder of Infante Sano (a nonprofit dedicated to improving maternal and child health in Latin America) to try to make a difference.
The Vicini fought back used their money and influence to try to get the priest ousted. Their efforts finally bore fruit when Hartley, after nine years, was removed by the Church in October of 2006. He is now once again working with Mother Teresa’s missionaries of Charity somewhere in Africa. Father Hartley tries to keep in touch with what he started by phone. He is a very impressive person, an outstanding ambassador for the Church and worthy of anyone’s admiration. Well, perhaps members of the Vicini family differ with me there.
Two of the Vicini men have filed a libel suit in the States against the film and Bill Haney. Obviously they don’t like all the negative publicity it has brought them especially with politicians in the United States, a country with which they have a very favourable sugar trade treaty. As for the cane workers, their lot has supposedly improved. I, for one, will be buying only Fair Trade Certified sugar and sweets made with Fair Trade sugar if I can get them.
This is a link to an interview with Bill Haney and Christopher Hartley on NPR. It is worth a listen if you want another source for this story.
Very, very highly recommended!

1000 Journals

I really enjoyed this documentary about Someguy (an artist in San Francisco who preferred to remain anonymous) distributing 1000 blank journals in random places around San Francisco and to people who requested to write in one over his website. There were few rules: only a request that the journal be returned at some point. What an interesting and hopeful idea and one with results no one could have expected. Here’s the stamp that accompanied each journal.
The Producer, Writer and Director was Andrea Kreuzhage, and director of photography was Ralph Kaechele. These two really provide an intriguing glimpse into this unique story about what can happen with an idea. Someguy wanted his brainchild to travel the world for him: and it certainly has.
Not all have returned to him but such is the nature of such an organic idea: perhaps they’ll come home to roost sometime in the future if they aren’t forever lost. It’s very exciting, really. The person who lead the discussion after this film was shown in the Alma Gallery said that Someguy has received 40 of them back to date. He’s scanned them and has made some available on the website and has even put together an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art showing some of the entries (November 01, 2008 – April 05, 2009) and a book.
Another interesting consequence is the emotional attachment to the material by people who have poured a little of themselves into one or more of the pages. For some it took a long time (years in probably more than one case) to figure out exactly what they wanted to put down and others only minutes. And it extends beyond the time they have it too. One woman who was interviewed after comments made by another person to her entry was extremely upset about what she considered a personal attack. Such investment in something that transcends ownership. And yet, at the end of the documentary, there was a cathartic moment when she was on again and indicated how important the project was to her.
In another case the documentary focuses on several pages that were defaced (often literally) by another entrant. Even when blank pages were available. That brings up questions of artistic freedom, ownership (again), loss and, perhaps, the inability for some to do their own original thing.
The project continues anew at the 1001 journals site.
Highly Recommended!

Search and Replace in SQL Server

And now a chance to wax programmatic about the replace feature in SQL Server. Opening up a table and editing thousands of cells can be a nightmare and error prone. The replace fuction can be used in an update statement to do useful searching and replacing. Quickly. I learned how to do this using BOL (Books On Line) and an article by Bill Graziano on the SQL Team site.
So say we’ve got a table called tbldata with several fields in it including an nvarchar field called ‘strdata’. I want to remove the string ‘nasty ‘ completely. I can do so like this:
update tbldata set strdata = replace(strdata, 'nasty ', '')
And if I want to fix a typo:
update tbldata set strdata = replace(strdata, 'mistaek', 'mistake')
This will, of course, change all occurences so if you want to get fancy you’ll need a where clause.
Whether this find and replace search changes all cases or not will depend on your collation which can be set at the database, table and even field level. So that is something else to bear in mind if you’re concerned about exact matching. In my case I usually set my databases to be:
COLLATE SQL_Latin1_General_CP1_CI_AS
which means that the search is case insensitive (you can tell since the second last initials say ‘CI’; case sensitive collations would be ‘CS’).

The Linguists

Two American professors, David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, are featured in this documentary. They are searching the world for vanishing languages and trying to preserve them before it’s too late. The point is made that the rate of loss is as high as that for species extinction per capita. The following quote from the people that produced this film is telling:

Roughly 40 percent of the world’s estimated 6,800 languages may disappear within the next century, linguist Stephen Anderson said this month in Seattle at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This film is a fascinating look at the life’s work of two men intent on preserving something as ephemeral and mercurial as a language. And what is a language after all but a way for humans to describe the world and themselves.  So they say that it is a whole world that is being lost here:  not just a set of vocabulary and grammar.
And my favourite finding by the Linguists is the number system for the Sora language in India. In English, we use a base 10 numbering system where the numbers cycle from 1 to 10 and then repeat. But check this out:

In India they find that the Sora language operates with a strange numbering system. The native speaker counts to 13 and says, “twelve-one.” The linguists conclude that it operates on a base-12 system.
But at the number 30, he says “twenty-ten,” which indicates a base-20 system. The linguists look at each other in amazement as they realize that Sora uses both: at 32, it’s “twenty-twelve,” 33, “twenty-twelve-one.”
“Our favorite number is 93,” Anderson said. “It’s four-twenty-twelve-one.”

That’s cool. I thought French was complicated enough with its 90 (four-twenty-ten) and 70 (sixty-ten) constructs but those are really just oddities in what is really a base 10 system too.  Dave and Greg think this is the first double base numbering system in a language they’ve come across.  Just shows you how inventive a species we are!
I recommend it.


In the documentary Unforeseen a link is made between unrestricted housing development and the growth of cancers in the human body. Though by no means subtle, I still feel that the audience was given the right to draw their own conclusions. This is an incredibly well made film that really forces the issues out into the open. You follow the course of events with a developer, Gary Bradley, whose star rises big and bright in Austin, Texas, and falls just as spectacularly. It’s a tribute to the director that you actually feel for Bradley even though he’s a crook and dangerous to the environment.
Of particular interest was how the municipal will of the people of Austin was crushed by the State legislature which was influenced by land speculating lobbyists. How the greed of a few can manipulate the lives of the many. Discussion after the film made the link between events in Guelph and the power of the Ontario Municipal Board.
Wendell Berry’s poem Santa Clara Valley is featured at the beginning and end of the film with the poet reading his own work. It very beautifully book ends the film.
Another image which sticks will you is of an elderly farmer walking through the concrete and asphalt of ultra developed parts of the city. Just walking. But such a powerful statement about man’s place in nature.
The documentary is centred on a spring-fed pool in Austin that is under the threat of development. The juxtaposition of this little bit of paradise and the rank and file, mud-surrounded suburbs that are being built brings out the values so well. Inverviews with Robert Redford (who spent time in Austin when growing up), William Greider and Gov. Ann Richards, and lobbyist Dick Brown provided balanced reporting all around.
Another image that is seared into my mind is that of growth-minded Texans marching with their signs ‘Birds don’t pay taxes’ shown marching to defend their right to despoil the Earth to the death. And that’s exactly where that attitude will take us. Good Christians all, I’m sure. Never mind taking seriously the responsibility of being custodians of the Earth: “It’s mine, God damn it!” And God may not have much to damn by the time we’re all done with it. There will be no consideration of lilies or birds either. They don’t pay taxes.
Highly recommended.