Victor readjusted the shovels on his shoulder and stepped gingerly over an old, half-sunken grave. His trench billowed faintly, brushing the tops of tombstones as he made his way through Merit Cemetery, humming as he went. The sounds carried like wind through the dark. It made Sydney shiver…

He stopped humming, rested his shoe lightly on a tombstone, and scanned the dark. Not with his eyes so much as with his skin, or rather with the thing that crept beneath it, tangled in his pulse.

That’s from the first page of Vicious, a novel by V. E. Schwab. Perhaps I should just let the writing speak for itself, but I’ll add a couple of things. First, while the quote suggests that Vicious falls within the horror genre, it actually draws more from the superhero genre. Second, the most horrifying (to me) revelation comes a few pages in to the novel, when we find out what Victor’s parents do.

I have so far read three of Schwab’s novels, and been impressed by each of them. I just finished Vicious. I previously read A Darker Shade of Magic, also “by V. E. Schwab”–and hence also “for adults”.

I started with The Archived, “by Victoria Schwab”, the name under which the author publishes her Young Adult (YA) fiction (and the name on her main Goodreads account). Strange though it may seem, I’d say that The Archived is the most likely of the three books I’ve read to give the reader nightmares.

I’m glad to say that each of the three is the first of a series. I am sometimes wary of prolific writers who write series, rather than standalones, but Schwab writes well and distinctively, while being able to find the right tone for each particular book/series.

Summary: I recommend the fiction of Victoria E. Schwab, whatever the book cover calls her.

How did my use of technology change during 2015? The short answer is that it increased. For example, I just deposited a check using my phone, and that’s something I never did in previous years.

That phone is a Droid Maxx, made by Motorola for Verizon. My iPhone turned in to a brick earlier this year. From among the phones available from or for Verizon Wireless, the Maxx seemed to me the best deal. This may be due to the particular wireless plan I was already in. The iPhones were by comparison overpriced.

I was happy with my new phone until, after a few months, it went into spiral of frantic uselessness, in which it would do nothing but restart until it ran out of power. Staff at the Verizon store agreed that it should be replaced, and replaced it was.

My second Maxx is behaving well so far. I like multiple things about it, especially the size of the screen. I’m not missing my iPhone. But I haven’t abandoned Apple: the two iPads in the house are in frequent use by the kids and by me. Read the rest of this entry »

Good writing is important. I tell my students that. When I find senior people in prominent organizations delivering the same message, I am pleased. I don’t need convincing or reminding about the importance of good writing, but I think that some of my students do. So I find this quote useful and pleasing.

The information [our organization] gathers, and the analysis it produces, mean little if we cannot convey them effectively… [Our organization has always] been home… to people who enjoy writing and excel at it.

As you might have guessed from the title of this post, the organization is the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Had the post title not given it away, you might have guessed that the organization was in the business of market research, or of consulting.

The quote is from the Foreword to a document that I’ll call the CIA Style Manual (follow the link for a PDF of the document, including its full title). The Foreword, written by CIA Director of Intelligence Fran Moore, is refreshingly concise, comprising just four short paragraphs.

Based on what I’ve read, or seen quoted elsewhere, the Manual provides some very good advice on informative and analytical writing. Here are a few more quotes.

  • Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.
  • Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.
  • Be aware of your reading audience; reserve technical language for technical readers.

Given that it recommends that language be “crisp” and “frugal”, the CIA Style Manual seems rather long: it runs to 190 pages. A glance at the Contents shows that many of those pages provide guidance on things that most of us never have to be concerned about, such as capitalization while writing about “Top Officials of First-Order Subnational Administrative Divisions”.

Many other pages of the Manual provide rhetorical rules. Here is just one particular persuasive tactic: regime “has a disparaging connotation and should not be used when referring to governments friendly to the United States.” Open Culture deploys opposing rhetoric, describing the CIA as “fiendishly good at manipulating language.”

The emphasis on rhetoric provides an additional reason to study the Manual. This reason may be even stronger for those who disapprove of the CIA’s activities than it is for those who approve. Whatever the argument, whatever side we are on, we should all seek to understand and anticipate the rhetorical devices used by the opposing side(s).

The students to whom I referred in the first paragraph are in a highly-rated MBA program. (Hello, students, and no you don’t get extra credit for having read this far.) They are, in my courses, students of communication (as well as of Strategic Management, or Organizational Behavior, of Business Ethics, or…). Here are my guidelines for written assignments the current semester; the assignments tend to be short (about three single-spaced pages), since I encourage conciseness.

We should all be lifelong students of communication, including writing. We can learn a lot–about clarity, about rhetoric, and about other aspects of writing–from the CIA Style Manual.

The Kickstarter campaign for Swamped was, I’m delighted to write, very successful. Now, that sentence, and the post title, will raise questions for some readers. If you’re not among those readers, you can just skip down to the paragraph with the chart.

Questions arising from this post’s title and opening sentence may well include:

  • What’s Kickstarter? Well, Kickstarter describes itself as “a new way to fund creative projects”.
  • What’s Swamped? It’s a card game (and hence a creative project) funded using Kickstarter. The players are adventurers, traveling through the swamp in a shared boat, seeking to achieve certain goals. Some of these goals, such as avoiding the hungry croc, are shared. Other goals differ between adventurers, and are private.
  • What does Tabletop mean here? It denotes a type of game that’s not a video game: this could mean a card game, like Swamped, or a board game, or…
  • What do you mean when you describe the Kickstarter as “very successful”? Well, …

The chart shows that the Kickstarter for Swamped was successful, especially over its last few days. It:

  • Raised well over twice its funding goal.
  • Attracted more than 1,000 backers: each of these backers pledged money in order to receive a specific reward; most of them pledged $12 plus shipping for one copy of the game.
  • Saw an upturn in funding over the last few days of the campaign. If you looked at the chart carefully, you might have noticed that the last 3 days of the campaign saw a pledge total of over $5,000, and of more than 25% of the total for the whole campaign.

Read the rest of this entry »

Beware Malware

May 11, 2015

“Beware malware” is a friendly reminder to all, and one I should have given to myself when I attempted to download some software for my son yesterday. I was in too much of a hurry to be careful about what I was downloading.

I was after Kodu, the game programming tool. I now know that the file kodu-game-lab.exe is malware “which may bundle additional software offers including toolbars and browser extensions”. The quote is an understatement.

After some more careful Googling and downloading, my PC now seems returned to health. Thanks to Junkware Removal Tool!

“We’re #16!” I wrote that on the board in class yesterday evening, under the heading “Good News”. I teach in Virginia Tech’s Evening MBA program, which was just ranked 16th among part-time MBAs by US News and World Report.

To put that ranking in perspective:

  • It puts the program, not only in the top 20 (obviously), but also on the first page of ranked programs, making it particularly salient to prospective students using the rankings.
  • So the program is on the same page as its counterparts at: Berkeley, Chicago, Northwestern, NYU, UCLA, Michigan, Georgetown,…
  • It is tied with Rice, U of S Carolina, and UMass Amherst (which is where I got my PhD, so it must be good).
  • It is ahead of Georgia Tech, U of Maryland (College Park), and over 200 other part-time MBA programs.

Congratulations to all concerned. I’m grateful to, and for, to the students. They belong in graduate school at a good university, and that is something I do not say lightly. They are ready for class after long days at demanding jobs. Their contributions to class discussions aid the learning of their fellow students, and of their professors.

Virginia Tech currently uses the Scholar Learning Management System (LMS). I summarize my opinion of Scholar as follows: less annoying than Blackboard.

Scholar replaced Blackboard at Virginia Tech, and will soon itself be replaced, according to Collegiate Times editor Maura Mazurowski. Scholar is based on an LMS platform called Sakai, which was developed by a consortium including Virgina Tech. Other consortium members are ceasing development and use of the platform.

The most popular post-Scholar LMS, and most likely next LMS for Virginia Tech, seems to be Canvas. I posted about Canvas around the time of its launch. The Canvas website is impressive, and includes a comparison of features between Canvas, Blackboard, and other LMSs. The Canvas mobile apps may well make a difference, both in adoption of Canvas, and in use after adoption.

Personally, I find CoursePress the most interesting LMS, but that’s because I also had the idea of building an LMS on the WordPress platform. But Virginia Tech won’t and shouldn’t adopt that young LMS simply because someone who teaches there finds it interesting.

I welcome your comments on LMSs in general, specific LMSs, LMS transition, or anything related.