I think we’re all tired of hearing how bad Millennials are

Really

It’s probably about time we stopped with the whole “Millennials are bad at stuff” thing, and there may be a way that we Millennials could kill it. Kind of like how we’re killing off other unnecessary industries. 

Every month or so, there’s an article that says something like this: “Millennials are terrible at [thing] compared to [previous generation].” The latest one that I saw came from the New York Post and had to do with DIY skills and home repair. These articles pretty much get pretty much the same reaction every time, and it goes a little something like this: the publication points out a difference between the generations, the Millennials get angry about it, and they share it around to make fun of it, which causes it to get spread around even more. Here’s the real talk for you: that is exactly what those publications want. 

The grim truth of the matter is that traditional media is not doing well right now. The switch from print to digital media has been especially unkind to smaller, local news publications, and even larger organizations have felt some of the sting. This creates a new problem for media companies. In order to stay relevant, they need to compete in digital spaces. In order to do that, they need clicks. To get clicks, they do what everyone else does on the internet. They write the kind of garbage they know will get spread around.

To simplify it quite a lot, there’s a lot of money in advertising, but advertisers will only put ads in online places where there’s enough traffic to justify it. So clicks mean traffic is going to the website, traffic means the advertisers are happy, and when the advertisers are happy, the publication is making a profit. Again, that’s vastly oversimplified, but the basic truth is that no one cares whether you’ve shared or clicked on something in anger or in agreement. All that matters is that you clicked. 

To circle back to those “Millennials are terrible at things” articles, the reason they get written and published is that they are going to get clicks and shares and the people who write them know that. That’s the whole point. If I’m being really cynical about it, that’s the ONLY reason that kind of drivel gets published at all. 

So here’s my advice on the whole thing: if we really want the Millennials-are-terrible style of clickbait to not be written anymore, what we should really do is stop responding to it. Like a lot of the mildly obnoxious stuff that’s out there, responding to it fuels the fire, but ignoring it can make it go away. When publications start to realize that they are no longer getting clicks and shares on that kind of article, they’ll probably stop writing them.

But that’s just my two cents on the topic.

-PWC

Millennials’ skills in making stone tools are pathetic compared to previous generations

A new study from the University of Michigan discovered that compared to previous generations, Millennials are terrible at making stone tools.

“The results were disturbing,” wrote one professor who took the lead on the interdisciplinary study. “Not a single one of our participants was able to knap a knife from flint or even make a single arrowhead. This represents a significant departure from a skill that would have been necessary for previous generations.”

The study went on to theorize that if they were transported back in time to the Paleolithic Age, it would be unlikely that a single Millennial would survive. While no one can be sure why Millennials have departed from making stone tools, several conservative pundits have blamed everything from left-leaning universities to the decline of the hunter-gatherer, nomadic, nuclear family structure. 

Whatever the cause, the truth is out there now. Compared to previous generations, Millennials are just not equipped to handle making stone tools anymore. This amazing skill of previous generations just seems to be gone with the current generation, and one has to wonder whether or not the mammoth hunting industry will be the next to fall to Millennials’ wanton lack of capability.

A concurrent study tried to examine Gen Z’s abilities at making stone tools, but the researchers could not get the participants to stop dabbing and doing Fortnite dances. The study remains inconclusive.

At the time of writing, the team was doing further research to find out if blaming social media or smartphones for Millennials’ lack of stone-craft made for a better headline.

***

In case anyone doesn’t get it, this is meant to be satire. Cheers!

-PWC.

The last American folk hero: A short story

Let it never be said that I don’t try creative writing. I wrote some of this last year, but I only just now got it to a point where I felt like sharing. I hope you enjoy!

-PWC

Original illustration by Peter W. Carrillo

Seven feet tall some say he stood. With shoulders bigger than anyone had the rights to have. His real name was Hubert but we all called him Sam for short. To this day, I don’t know why. They say he walked into the lumber camp one day with his own ax. One big enough to cut down trees in a single blow and with a handle all carved into what looked like runes and sigils. He was there, supposedly to ask for work, but he didn’t really have to ask. He was almost given the job before he came in the door.

You see, there was a huge old tree there in the forest way out beyond where the lumber camps were. We’d had a hiker come out and tell us about it, and you can bet the bosses were just salivating to have it down. They sent teams of folks out there to try to cut the thing down, but try as they might, hardly anything left a dent in the bark. All our tools would break when we hit the thing, and it just refused to go down. So for years, it became a test for all of us. Each year, a strong worker would grab an ax, say he was going to fell the tree, and head out there. Of course, a whole crew of people went along to see because we all thought, maybe. Maybe this time, that old tree would go down.

And of course, the same thing happened every time. The strong man would get everyone’s attention, make a huge speech, and the crew would cheer him on. He’d take a few practice swings with an ax, and you could feel the energy crackling like a wildfire. The tree would, as always, stand dark and silent dwarfing the challenger who dared to swing his ax in defiance of the old powers. Then the moment would come. The stroke would fall. The ax would break to the sound of disappointed groans from everyone gathered there, and another challenger would walk away defeated by the old tree. Whatever that thing was made of, the bosses started to see it as a personal challenge, and they started to think that if someone could get it down, they could make a fortune.

And so, their greedy eyes turned to Sam, to his size, and to his strange ax, and they gave him the job almost before he walked in the door. Of course, they were smart enough, so instead of sending him right out to the old tree, they tested him first and put him to work with a crew. The first day, the crew that went with Sam felled more trees than we had in a week of being out there. The second day, they did the same. And it wasn’t just Sam that did the work. Those around him seemed to be so inspired, they did the work of two people when he was there.

We damn near cleared a whole forest that year (replanting, of course. Regulations and all), and the lumber company was starting to make a fortune. The bosses were getting fat, the workers were getting strong, and it seemed like we were undefeatable the whole second half of the year after Sam came along. He just had something about him. Seemed invincible. A natural born leader. And somehow he was just a worker like the rest of us.

Eventually, the time came to really test Sam’s mettle. It was late in January, and that time up in the mountains, things started to get cold. Snow fell. Enough to chill you and to get everything soggy, but never enough to really slow anything down. That January, the bosses called Sam into their office to give him a nice long talk. I don’t know what they said to him, but he walked out an hour later with his face set like iron. All of us knew something big was about to go down.

The next day, Sam was the first one in, but he wasn’t going to go out with the crew. Instead, he took his strange ax and got himself a sharpening stone. We had some standard-issue stones we all used, but like everything else with Sam, his was different. Bigger looking, and it had a strange mark on it too. He spent the day sharpening that ax on that stone. Every time he slid the stone along the blade, sparks would fly, and it looked like Sam was gonna burn down the whole camp. Fortunately, everything was so wet and sodden that nothing caught fire, and the sparks winked out as they hit the ground.

By the time Sam left that day, the ax was polished like a mirror and sharp enough to draw blood if you ran a thumb along it. Trust me, one of the men tried. He got stitches in addition to an almighty berating by Sam who started the process again the next day to make sure the blade was still as sharp as can be. When the ax was ready to go, Sam told all of us to never touch it and that he’d be back in the morning to fell that big old tree.

And so we gathered there, before the dawn, on the coldest day of that winter so far. We were expecting something big, but a feeling of apprehension ran through everyone like an electrified coil. Something was gonna happen, but to a man, none of us knew what. Then Sam walked in looking for all the world like an executioner. His face was grim, his eyes were cold, and he didn’t greet a single man there with a smile. Instead, he only said three words that were as much a warning as anything else. “I’m going alone.” With that he picked up his ax, the blade still shining in the cold morning light, and he walked out.

None of us knew what to make of that, but not a one of us was about to follow him. Whatever path he was heading down, none but he could walk it. We all just sort of stood around the camp in the cold waiting silently to see what would happen. Turns out we didn’t need to see anything. We could hear the whole thing.

The first crack was loud as a cannon. An almighty boom that echoed around the hills. The second was a thunderclap that broke over everyone and made the men shudder and wince. The third was the distinctive sound of splintering wood, but it was amplified so loud that it brought boulders rolling down the hills and caused a minor landslide. The sound echoed around for a long time after that, and eventually blew away on the wind. Everyone in the camp stood dumbfounded for a minute just looking around at the hills and at each other. Then we all started to run. Command or no, we had to see what Sam had done.

When we got to the old tree, we saw that it was down. Toppled from a broken stump in three blows. The shining head of an ax was embedded in the tree. We found pieces of a carved wooden handle around the stump. None of us ever saw Sam again.

Dear Grammarly, it’s not passive voice misuse

Passive voice misuse
But I wanted to use it that way!

Here’s something to keep in mind: there are plenty of writing tools out there, and most of them are complete garbage.

One that stands out from the rest by not falling into the garbage category is Grammarly. It really is a useful tool that helps speed the proofreading process along. It’s a lot like the built-in grammar checking tools for Microsoft Office and Google docs, but it’s in a cleaner, easier to use package. That being said, it does have one thing that just bothers me: the way it talks about passive voice.

If you’ve spent any time learning to write or reading advice about writing, you probably already know that there’s an incredible amount of hatred for passive voice out there. For anyone reading this who hasn’t seen that, give it a quick Google search and come back here.

If you need a definition, here you go: passive voice is when you switch the subject and the object of a sentence around the verb. For example, an active sentence looks like this:

Jimmy threw the ball.

Jimmy is the subject, threw is the verb, and the ball is the object. In English, the subject and the object can be switched, giving you a sentence like this:

The ball was thrown (by Jimmy).

That’s what passive voice looks like. The parentheses around by Jimmy are there because the sentence is still grammatical without that part.

Passive voice is a little more complex than that, but that’s a decent enough definition for now. So passive voice is grammatical, it’s possible to do in English, and there are a few reasons you might want to use it. If the subject isn’t known, for example, you might get a sentence like this:

The bank was robbed last night and the thieves are still at large.

I doubt even the most curmudgeonly grammarian would bat an eye at that one. Another example might be if you’re writing something like a scientific paper that focuses on the process rather than the subjects:

The test was conducted on 120 participants.

You actually have several occasions where passive voice makes more sense in writing than active voice. From what I can tell, the hatred for passive voice is more of a writerly meme than anything else. Some of the hate is because it can be used to hide responsibility. You might think of a politician’s “mistakes were made” instead of “we made mistakes,” but if you really think about it, that use of passive voice isn’t all that common.

But I started this post with Grammarly, and I should probably tell you why. Whenever you use passive voice (whenever passive voice is used?), Grammarly marks it as “passive voice misuse” regardless of context and intent. Here’s the thing: as I just showed, there are a few times where passive voice isn’t misused, and where it actually makes more sense to use it.

What really gets to me is that all this does is perpetuate a writing myth that probably should have died a while ago. Sure passive voice can be misused, but not every case of passive voice is a misuse. Ironically enough, Grammarly’s own blog talks about the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong, Grammarly is a wonderful writing tool and probably the only one I would recommend, but can we stop pretending passive voice is bad?

-PWC

Robots writing revisited

AI Writer
He’s coming for your blog

At some point last year, I wrote about writing assisted by technology, but what happens when the technology is writing everything?

I read something recently on Forbes about AI starting to write content. Apparently, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a few other online publications are using AI to write some of their content for them. Before you starting ringing the alarms bells and deciding nothing is safe from automation, take a deep breath and read on.

The trouble with the headline is it was written like this: “Artificial Intelligence Can Now Write Amazing Content.” That’s a big “yeah, right” from me. Science and tech journalism is never great, but this was one of the more overstated pieces I’ve seen in a while.

What the headline leaves out is that AI can currently write sports content, can compile financial reports, and can write local news stories. All of these follow a who, what, when kind of formula, so yeah, AI can easily write that stuff. The thing is that’s not “amazing content.” If anything, that’s the kind of content that gets churned out for no other purpose than to have content. It’s not written for thinkers, for readers, or for anyone really interested in learning anything new.

There’s nothing wrong with that kind of content, but let’s not kid ourselves. It’s a far cry from amazing. What really characterizes amazing content is not whether it can get the facts straight. That’s an important part of it, but amazing content is far more about the ideas that are presented and the effect they will have on the reader. To put it simply amazing content is content that reads like one person talking to another.

But that’s just my take on things, so let’s take a look at the actual amazing content that this kind of AI can supposedly write. AI-Writer.com lets you actually take their bot for a test drive, so I gave it the headline “how to write a good blog post” just to see what it came up with. Oh boy. Here we go.

The contours are very useful and probably your life story number 1 when you master how to write a good blog.

Here’s how to build trust and ultimately how to write a good blog.

To keep your efforts more consistent as you learn how to write a good blog, it is a great idea to create an editorial calendar.

Generally speaking, your job when creating a blog is to share information that no one else shares or information that people would like to pay for, but you give them for free.

And that’s not even the most egregious part. Nope, that goes to this one that formed the conclusion:

You can decide on your final title before writing the rest of your message ( and use your header to structure your outline ), or you can write your blog with a working title and see what fits when you’re done.

Writing headers for blog entries is an art as well as a science, and probably it justifies its own post, but for now all I would recommend is to experiment with what works for your audience.

So, you have done your research, set up a headline ( or at least a working title ), and now you are ready to write a blog.

Often, people simply don’t have the time, willingness or ability to concentrate on long blog entries without visual stimulation.

But if you need a little help to break the blank page or invent blogging topics, we have created a handy set of tools to make your creative juices flow.

Zero coherence, awkward phrasing, nothing connects. Sure, the sentences are grammatical, but there is SO much more than that to be an effective writer. Amazing? I don’t think so.

And the worst part of all of this is that the bot is really just scraping content from other sites. It’s pulling originally written content, and changing a few words here and there. I’m not sure how other AI writers work, but if that’s what all of them do, that sounds like plagiarism to me. Maybe that’s a philosophical question for another day, but it doesn’t seem right or ethical to me.

I said it the last time I wrote about robots trying (and failing) to write, and I will say it again. There will never be a tool, a hack, or an AI that will come along that will help you write better. Good content is just work, practice, and a person who’s put in the hours, and no AI is going to be better at content creation than a person.

But there’s another question waiting behind this one: why would you want the kind of content that an AI can churn out? Unfortunately, everything from major news publications to professional industries have this bad idea that content is an end in itself. It constantly needs to be there and constantly needs to be refreshed.

The result is tons and tons of mediocre content that serves the SEO bots on Google but doesn’t take into account the human being on the opposite end of the screen. That person (bless their heart) who is unfortunate to be on the receiving end of content for content’s sake is not having a good time and will probably leave with a negative impression—especially if they came across that content trying to answer a real question.

In general, I think you should put your reader’s needs above everything. Ann Hadley even calls this “relentless empathy” for a reader, and I honestly don’t know if there’s a better way to say it. The point is, AI can produce more content and it can constantly refresh a webpage, but that content will never rise above mediocrity. It can’t empathize with a reader, it can’t know what they need, and above all, it can’t care about any of that.

So no, Forbes, AI cannot write amazing content because amazing content shares complex ideas and connects to people. It can produce marginally readable content that no one wants to read. No one needs more of that around.

-PWC

Everyone can write, but that doesn’t mean everyone does

not everyone can write

…or should, for that matter.

There’s a persistent myth I’ve run across several times both when I was a teacher and now in my professional life, and it goes a little something like this: writing is a learned behavior, everyone writes because of social media, email, texting etc., therefore everyone is a writer! In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

To be fair, the first two statements are true: writing is definitely something that anyone can learn, and with how much information is passed through the internet, words and language are just in use quite a lot more than they might have been before, but that absolutely does not make everyone a writer, and the idea that it does is bad for anyone interested in writing as a trade.

So first a disclaimer, I don’t see any reason to support the idea that writing is a lofty, artistic thing that only a few privileged people can attain. That’s clearly not the case because anyone can learn to write. But the keyword there is learn. The problem I want to focus on is the claim that everyone who can or does write is a writer. It gets a little bit like saying everyone uses a computer, so everyone’s a computer scientist. Obviously, that’s just not the case.

The same thing is true of writing. Sure, everyone uses words and language, and nearly everyone can string a few sentences together, but that’s not the same thing as being a writer. The difference between someone who can put sentences together and a writer is that a writer is someone who has trained, studied, and honed the craft of writing. Not everyone has done so, not everyone has the time, and most people don’t have the inclination. I’m not even really talking about formal education or training, either. You can be a self-taught writer too, but the point remains: writers are people who study and people who practice. More importantly than definitional discussions though is that the idea that everyone is a writer actively works against anyone interested in writing professionally.

Here’s what I mean: employment prospects, job security, and pay are all directly linked to how specialized your work is and how easy your position is to fill. This is the reason an engineer who works on producing a car gets paid more than a mechanic who works on it later. Nothing against mechanics, but the engineer is a more specialized position. The same is true for writing. It is a specialized position that not everyone can fill. This idea that everyone writes or everyone can write, only makes writing professionally seem like a less specialized skill than it actually is. This hurts employment prospects, pay, and it gives a false impression of the overall value that professional writers can bring to almost any industry.  

All of this doesn’t even bring up the topic of writing as an art. That’s a muddier puddle than I really want to step in, but it’s worth considering alongside the broader topic of writing as a trade. I’m not convinced that everyone can produce literary art, either. I’m not even convinced that I can, really, but the idea that everyone is a writer might not be really helpful for the literary world. I don’t claim to know as much about that, but I do know there’s a lot of garbage literature out there. I know that’s a personal taste thing, but I wonder if we wouldn’t get better literature if we didn’t have the everyone’s a writer mindset.

Unfortunately, I hear this sentiment about everyone being a writer expressed by writers a lot, and I just don’t think it’s doing us any favors. It’s a nice idea, I suppose, but I’d rather see writers standing up for themselves and for the time, effort, and practice they’ve put into the craft. So if you’re a writer or if you’re studying to become one, claim it. You don’t have to be arrogant about it, but you’re working on a skill that is important and that not everyone has. That should be a source of joy and pride for you.

-PWC

Robots writing

 

Not a robot

Sometimes spam comments lead to some interesting thoughts.

I’m not a particularly frequent blogger on this site. I would sure like to be, but I have other things that are often a constraint on time, and since that’s the case, my blog writing tends to be a little on the slow side. I could probably update more, but I once tried to blog every day for a month. I quickly found that the quality of what I was writing was in steep decline as I tried to keep up with that pace, so since then, I’ve been a consistent writer, but a fairly slow one.

The only trouble with that stance (if you keep a blog like I do) is that you’ll eventually run into the kind of spam comment that goes something like this: “Hey, I’ve noticed you don’t update frequently. Here’s some advice/software program/educational tool/etc. that you can buy from me!” Usually, they aren’t even that clear. I got one of those recently, and it was for a tool that helps writers produce articles. The interesting part is that it’s essentially an AI writer for blog posts. As someone who is fascinated by both the English language and technology, this had me intrigued.

Essentially, the “tool” is an automatic thesaurus. I had to find a free version since I wasn’t about to pay $50 dollars to satisfy my own curiosity, but the one that I found allowed me to type into one box, submit what I typed, and change small bits of the text. For Example, I took the first paragraph of this piece as the input, and here’s what I got back after submitting it:

I’m not an especially visit blogger on this webpage. I might beyond any doubt want to be, yet I have different things that are frequently a limitation on time, and since that is the situation, my blog composing has a tendency to be a little on the moderate side. I could likely refresh all the more, yet I once endeavored to blog each day for multi month. I rapidly found that the nature of what I was composing was in soak decay as I attempted to stay aware of that pace, so from that point forward, I’ve been a predictable author, however a genuinely moderate one.

Hmm. Perhaps the paid version is better than the free one, but I sincerely doubt it. Here’s the thing: first, writing advice is always and will always be to use the words you know. If you have a limited vocabulary, reading more and reading with a dictionary can help. Second, no bot, no AI, and no writing tool is going to get results that anyone wants. Human language is incredibly complex and far too nuanced for any technology, so these kinds of “re-writing” tools are just going to make any piece of writing worse than it would already be.

The sad part is that these tools are marketed toward freelance writers a lot of the time. Sometimes writers get paid by the word, so I can imagine it would be tempting to use something like this as a way to lengthen a piece and get a slightly bigger paycheck. The thing is, someone is going to read the piece later, so even if there are a few more words, there is going to be some editor somewhere that will read it and realize it doesn’t make any sense. My piece of advice? Stay away from tools like this, write on your own, and work on finding your own voice.

-PWC