Essay Writing Strategies

When writing essays, I’ve tried several strategies. I’ll likely continue to try many more. I’ve yet to find one that works perfectly for me all the time.

The first roadblock is always what to write about. What is the thesis of the essay? Often, the assignment will provide a general topic, but it rarely gives enough direction to even suggest topics. Sometimes it will dictate what specific scene you should write about, but not indicate any kind of stance to take.

Often, I don’t completely narrow down the thesis right away. It rarely remains the same after several pages. It’s good to get a primary direction in place, and then revise the thesis statement after part of the essay has been written. As the different arguments are made, there are multiple ways to link them together, and it is often the possible links which provide direction for the essay as a whole.

When reading the primary text, I’ve started underlining key phrases, putting boxes around other words, and making margin notes in pencil. I haven’t yet decided on any concrete scheme for my markups. I’d really like to start a more comprehensive system of notes.

Often, I find it useful to write out single words relating to my arguments on post-it notes, and then arrange them on the wall beside my desk. I can then arrange my arguments in different ways, which improve the structure of my essay, and hopefully provide insight as to the direction of my final thesis argument.

I’m thinking about getting a small corkboard, so I can use strings and pushpins to weave a web of connections which I’m missing with post-its.

Snowpocalypse

Last Wednesday was supposedly going to be a really big snowstorm, if you believed the weather reports. It was one of the top stories throughout southern Ontario. It probably hit somewhere hard, because when it finally arrived in Waterloo Region, it was a light dusting. The most annoying thing about the snowfall was the duration. A tiny dusting spread over what seemed like 18 hours eventually adds up to something worthwhile, and it also tended to cause snow removal efforts to stall, as the snowplows continued up and down the major routes. All the other roads in the region were slippery and icy.

As Shakespeare writes in Henry the Fourth, Part 1: “The better part of valor is discretion” (V.4.118-119). I followed Falstaff’s example, and counterfeited being at the office. That is, I decided it would be best to work from home. The VPN is a technological marvel.

Yesterday was a different matter. While I was aware that there might be snow, the weather reports I remember only expected around 1cm. So I was a little surprised to look out the window and see that around 10cm had already fallen, with another 5 to follow before it finished. Perhaps the difference was that this new snowfall occurred on a weekend, or maybe the forecasters didn’t want to create a panic again. Either way, there didn’t seem to be much coverage of the event until well after the snow had started. Really, it’s all just part of winter. Neither event seemed out of the ordinary. Now we seem to have about the average snowfall for this area.

This snow fell in a much shorter period of time, and was considerably thicker and heavier than that which fell earlier in the week. Today, I was out clearing the snow, just like earlier in the week. On my stretch of street, five of the neighbours were also out with snowblowers or shovels, clearing everything off. Alas, it was not a snow event day in Kitchener, so someone was parked on the street when the plow came by, leaving a mess on the road.

I’m reminded of how awesome it is to have a wide lot, as well as a snowblower. All of my excess snow can be shot twenty feet into my yard. My snowbanks are three feet high, while some neighbours with narrower lots have banks seven feet high, threatening collapse onto their driveways.

I also took some extra time to remove all the snow the plow piled on top of the fire hydrant. Not only is it a legal requirement to keep it cleared, but it’s also good sense. You really don’t want there to be any extra difficulties should the fire department ever need to use them. Sadly, from a drive through the neighbourhood early this afternoon, I’m one of the few people who have done so.

Formulas For Writing

I’m really enjoying my Media Writing course this term at the University of Waterloo. Every week, we have a different writing assignment, and so far, they’ve been quite varied.

Week one was an obituary. Morbid perhaps, but as the format is extremely well defined, it was a good introduction to writing for the media. We have since written newspaper feature articles, magazine feature articles, broadcast journalism, and the current assignment is writing some public relations material.

Part of the challenge in this course is applying writing skills to a particular format. Each week’s assignment tends to take a different approach. It’s a combination of changing audience, and purpose. The expectations of the different formats require a much more comprehensive approach to writing. It’s far different from creative or essay based writing which I’m familiar with. Its also really quite enjoyable. While I don’t see myself joining the dead beat (obituary writing), all of the other formats I’ve been writing in have opened new possibilities for writing, which I’ve never seriously considered before now.

While at the Ad Astra science fiction conference in past years, I’ve often attended the various sessions on writing groups, and breaking in to the fiction market. Many of the writers on these panels have advocated freelance writing of one sort or another. It’s something to keep the mind focused on writing, and keeps the skills finely honed.

Which is all well and good, if I wasn’t swimming in essays at the moment. The only non-coursework writing I’ve been able to manage the past few weeks has been my daily blog posts. I’m not quite ready to give up on them yet.

Federations: The Culture Archivist by Jeremiah Tolbert

Unlike Robert J. Sawyer’s story “The Shoulders of Giants” in John Joseph Adams Federations anthology, Jeremiah Tolbert’s “The Culture Archivist” has considerably more bite.

Tolbert’s story takes capitalist consumerism to the ultimate conclusion: enforced participation in consumerist society. Not only is everyone a consumer, but alien planets are conquered in order to open new markets. It’s an interesting concept to explore, and Tolbert’s story shows how resistance to such a society might happen.

When reading this story, I was reminded of the movie Idiocracy. Not that Tolbert’s world has sunk to the level of mindless media consumption (although there are indications that in other parts of his universe this is the case) but that the point of existence is consumption.

While Tolbert’s view of an authoritarian future may be bleak, the core of the story is about the resistance to this authority. It seems particularly relevant today, as we see different forms of protests across the world, such as in Egypt.

While Tolbert’s story fits in the post-humanist subgenre of science fiction, it also plays well within the bounds of post-colonial fiction in general. The story is sharp and witty, while also being quite humorous. I especially enjoyed the way he dealt with an emergent AI swarm.

It’s a smart story, and fits well with the theme of the anthology, despite its overt pessimism.

Waterloo Region Transit

After the recent municipal elections, the Region of Waterloo’s transit plans are scheduled for review. After all, Rob Ford is cancelling Light Rail in Toronto. We should do the same here. </sarcasm>

I don’t believe that anyone is really suggesting that we should stop our light rail plans because of anything Toronto is saying or doing. A large part of the controversy appears to be due to the funding from the provincial government, which was less than expected. With the remaining expenses to be carried by the Region, local residents are crying foul, especially those in Cambridge, who would be getting rapid bus transit while Kitchener and Waterloo would get to ride the shiny new rails.

The alternative now being reconsidered, is rapid bus transit for all three cities. Those backing this plan suggest that ridership levels will be insufficient to support light rail, and that increased bus transit is more flexible. While it may be true that ridership will need to grow, I remain doubtful that rapid buses would have the desired effect of building up the city core.

An important question is how either project will affect transit through the rest of the cities. Rapid light rail is obviously limited to the central core. It can not be rerouted, although in the future additional lines could be built. What we can help for is the bus lines to be rerouted to feed into the central rail spine. Ideally, a bus will also go near my home, instead of a half hour walk away. I have doubts about the ability of rapid buses to alter the bus lines. Without the increase in urban densities, will rapid buses be able to build ridership fast enough to outpace traffic densities?

The Chilling Effects of Usage Based Billing

The internet has been all atwitter with news about the recent CRTC ruling about Usage Based Billing.

While Stephen Harper has tweeted that this really unpopular decision will be reviewed, I wonder how much of his concern is with the outrage with the voters, rather than a true understanding of the impact this change will have on Canada.

There are several important issues at play here, most of which are interrelated. The most immediate factor, and likely the cause of all the uproar, is that of consumer cost. Some existing internet plans, such as the “High Speed Internet Premium” plan from TekSavvy for $31.95 a month previously received 200GB of bandwidth. According to the new rules passed down from the CRTC, the 200GB limit is being reduced to 25GB, with a hefty rate of $2/GB of data beyond those limits. The difference in bandwidth: 175GB. To make up the difference in data would cost an additional $350. See a little difference in price there?

The next point I’d like to address is that of competition, and the lack of top-tier providers. There are very few ways in which households can get internet access. ADSL service uses phone lines, and almost always uses the telephone lines provided by Bell Canada. Cable services, by the regional cable provider, such as Rogers, Shaw or Cogeco. In some very select areas, fibre internet is available when the fibre infrastructure has been installed. In other areas, people are able to get line-of-sight wireless access. All of these provide high-bandwidth broadband connections. The most basic service, sometimes the only service available in remote communities, is dialup internet. For most, the only real choice is between cable internet, and ADSL internet.

In either case, the infrastructure in place (phone lines or cable lines running to your house) is owned and operated by the big telco/cable companies. Laying down this infrastructure is usually done when a neighbourhood is being built, and there is considerable cost. Laying down a fibre connection after a community has been built is even more expensive, as streets would need to be ripped up and repaved. Already we can see that new entrants as a top-level provider are at a serious disadvantage. While it is true that there are a number of other internet providers, most of whom provide ADSL service, they are using the existing infrastructure, provided in most cases by Bell Canada.

They have up until now been paying a base rate per line, and were able to attract customers by offering cheaper prices. Some companies were able to provide considerably better customer service than Bell as well. Presumably, the profits these companies have been earning could be used to expand their businesses, possibly by buying their own infrastructure. With the changes to UBB, their available margins are trimmed down to make a small profit, but certainly not large enough to make any large capital investments. It also forces them to play on the same field as the larger telcos. They have much less to differentiate their services from the big guys. So we can certainly see how UBB has a detrimental effect on smaller ISP providers, such as TekSavvy.

The real chilling effects that I see, will be on online media services. Online movie rentals are getting popular. Netflix is advertising heavily on TV these days, and while their library of videos isn’t all that great here in Canada, the idea is certainly intriguing. We don’t have access to Hulu here in Canada, but many people are able to stream TV shows from Canadian networks, like CTV (owned by Bell’s parent company BCE). Somehow, I don’t think as many Canadians will be looking to stream video if UBB becomes reality.

There are other services which use video. Who posts videos of their kids onto sites like Facebook so grandma and grandpa can see them? Yeah, that’s not going to happen as much in Canada. Many games can be purchased on Valve’s Steam, and downloaded to your computer. For example, the Grand Theft Auto 4 bundle is 32GB. This is already 7GB over the 25GB limit. We’re already talking $14 in download costs, assuming nothing else is downloaded for the entire month. Online backup services onto the cloud, like Dropbox are terribly convenient for sharing files across networks. Canadians are going to think twice about things like that.

More to the point, businesses looking to develop streaming technologies for sale to the end consumer are going to look elsewhere in the world to roll these services out. They likely won’t even develop them in Canada, instead settling down somewhere in the United States. It can be demonstrated that when products launch in the US, it can take a long time before they’re available in Canada, assuming they ever do. This will directly impact research at Canadian universities in new experimental digital media projects.

In mandating Usage Based Billing, the CRTC is not just hitting Canadian wallets now, but is also harming small ISPs, and will have a chilling effect on the Canadian digital economy.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Ok, so very late to the party here. I was going to ask how I managed to miss this until now, but from the box office receipts, I’m not the only one who did. I tend to think I have a slightly better reason than others, what with a toddler and all. If it’s not made by Disney, I often don’t get the chance to see things in theatres.

I haven’t really been a Michael Cera fan, I’ve never seen Arrested Development. While I thought Superbad was an amusing movie, Cera’s role was eclipsed by Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, not to mention Bill Hader and Seth Rogen.

The only other Cera flick I’ve seen was Juno, where he again plays second fiddle, this time to the wonderful Ellen Page. I don’t know. I guess Michael Cera just plays that shy guy, staying out of the lime light. He’s never really been that big of a draw for my attention. If I had ever seen Arrested Development, maybe I’d think otherwise.

Back to Scott Pilgrim. Such a fun movie. Talk about rooting for the underdog. Seven evil exes? So much fun. Stylistically, this is a beautiful movie. The battle scenes are appropriately epic. I love the way they compressed and lengthened distance throughout.

The movie is touching, and mostly upbeat. I kept finding myself smiling and laughing throughout. The film is full of quirky humour. The casting is inspired. The Evil Exes include Chris Evans (Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies, as well as the upcoming Captain America), as well as Brandon Routh (Superman). Kieran Culkin being cast as Scott Pilgrim’s roomate, Wallace Wells  was the coup de grâce. Every time he was on screen, smirking at someone was just too much.

While I don’t visit Toronto often enough to recognize many of the scenes, those filmed at Casa Loma were instantly recognizable.

This movie is underrated in my books. It’s high energy, and a lot of fun. Worth watching.