On Developing Character Names

How exactly a writer names their characters and who the characters are is a process that is personal and almost unique to each writer, however there are some over-simplifications we can state: There are writers who draw from people in their lives, and there are writers who draw from what the story demands.

I know Shakespeare and you are no Shakespeare

I fall into the latter category. I’m not one of those, “you’d better be nice to me or I’ll kill you off in my next book,” types. And I have my own rules for how I name characters.

My characters are very much driven by the demands of the story and what I discover about them as I write it. This doesn’t mean that I don’t see things in my life and things, ‘hey, that’d work well in my story.’ I do, but I don’t model whole characters after whole people, and my characters are largely undefined until needed.For example, in early drafts of the Deacon Carver stories, Char Osbaldistan was a man. I recently discovered that the character works better as a woman (not for some romantic subplot, but to explore a glass-ceiling military scenario). I’m still contemplating renaming her Chard Osbaldistan. The implied “shard” and all that can evoke in the reader appeals to me. You can read about Char(d) here.

I write very slowly, and sometimes life catches up to me, forcing me to make changes to a character. I had a character named Susan in early drafts of Tau Ceti. She met a very gruesome, untimely end. I met and married a Susan (3rd anniversary last week!). Obviously I couldn’t have her name applied to a character who suffered so much. It just wouldn’t feel right. So two changes happened. The fate of Susan was applied to another character (actually making the story stronger, as this was now a loss of a leader) and the name of Susan changed to Sumin – a common Korean girl’s name.

But you can’t let the world dictate your character names. If you could never name a character after someone you’ve met, you’d be very frustrated.

As a teacher who’s taught students from almost every nation (I’m not kidding, I’ve even had students from North Korea. My one gap is central America — basically the countries between Mexico and Venezuela — and the Caribbean) I’ve known too many people with too many names to never use the name of someone I’ve known. So I have a different strategy. I won’t use a name if I’ve only known one person by that name. I’ve known many Jennifers, for example, too many, really (Sorry Jenn, Jen & Jeni*) so that name is fair game, and taught at least two Sumins.

Going through an old draft of a story I’m revamping, I realised that along the way I’ve edited out a character who could be a powerful element in the plot, both foreshadowing the fate fo the main character and giving stakes to the team. The character’s name is Hawke. Which is fine, I don’t know anyone named… shoot … I do, only one. The writer Sam Hawke, author of The City of Lies. (I don’t know her well, she’s a Twitter friend. We joke about accents and pronunciation occasionally.) I’ve rationalised not changing the name three ways: First, the character is a different gender than the author; Second they only share a family name (the character has a rank and is never referred to by first name) and third (and weakest), I don’t actually know the author that well. We’ve never been in the same room.

I also have a precedent. I have a character named Haskins in a novel that might get pulled out of the drawer and rewritten some day. When I wrote it (1990s), I didn’t know anyone by that name. Now I do. I won’t be changing it for the same reasons as above.

Where can writers find names?

Many writers consult baby name lists. That’s fine, but I don’t.

I’ll generally use placeholder names until I have a sense of the character, then I’ll look around for a name that fits. One place that I look for names is International sporting tournaments. Ice Hockey is great for Eastern European names, Cricket is great for Indian and South African names, likewise rugby for Pacific Islander names. Historical videos on YouTube are great for learning names that have fallen out of fashion.

Sometimes you have a specific need. I needed a Peruvian name (not a Spanish-origin name) that had a specific meaning. Googling and following leads beyond that, I eventually found the name. I’m not going to share it or the meaning I was searching for, as the meaning is a plot spoiler for Tau Ceti.

Some final advice on names: Never take a complete name (first and last) and avoid names of the most famous people in a setting (so no Beckham, Ronaldo, or Rooney, please).

Happy hunting!

I refer to Tau Ceti in this story. The novel should be complete and available for purchase by the end of 2021.
I refer to the Deacon Carver stories. They started with the short story ‘Dee, For The Win’ previously on Wattpad, now to be in included in my short story anthology due out in October 2021. The sequence will continue in a series of novellas shortly thereafter.
“Sorry Jenn, Jen & Jeni” I’ve known multiple women with each of these variations (also Jennie and Jenny) so even I don’t know to whom I’m apologizing.

A Beginner’s Guide to Recognizing Colonialism

Ask any person in the world what day it is, and what year it is. They’ll probably give you a response like this: It’s Saturday, it’s 2021.

Image from Pixabay.

The answer is the same whether you’re standing in Washington, Johannesburg, or Beijing.

Makes sense, right?

But does it?

Why is it Saturday (or Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday as you read this). In fact, why is the week seven days long everywhere in the world?

Short answer: Colonialism

Long answer:

Many cultures have different calendars. I think most people know that the Mayan calendar counted up to the year we called 2012. There were movies, TV shows and other ill-conceived hysteria about the end of the world because of it. Likewise the Inca and Toltec had calendars.

But there are also current calendars running along side the one you use, and they don’t agree, not at all.

When is the weekend? You’d probably answer Saturday and Sunday. In Saudi Arabia, the weekend is Thursday and Friday. In Israel, it’s Friday and Saturday. However, both of those calendars hold to the seven-day week, as they and our calendar share strong roots and traditions.

What about the Chinese calendar? One form does (usually) also have twelve months, but the year is only 354 days long, and in their leap years, the calendar has an extra month. It’s possible to be born in a month that doesn’t exist most years. Another form of the calendar had only ten months. The fun part is that in this Chinese calendar a week has 12 days.

What year is it (asking in July, 2021)?

In the Korean calendar, it’s Juche 110. In the Chinese calendar, it’s 4719. In the Arabic calendar, it’s 1442. It’s 1435 in the Persian calendar, 2558 in the Buddhist calendar, and in the Hebrew Calendar, it’s 5781.

So wait a second, it’s 2021. Everyone says so.

Yes, they do. Why is that true?

Well, it started with European colonization of most of the world, known and unknown. After World War II and the last European empires were being divested of their empires, the largest global economy was the United States, which absolutely embodied European methods and standards (except metric). Even more recently with globalization in the information age, all of the software that makes it work is based on US standards.

Realistically, for the modern economy to work, there had to be some standard, and the most obvious, most widely-accepted one was the one of the colonizers.

So if you want to understand how colonization, or its more inflammatory term, white privilege, affects the modern world, you need look no further than your phone’s calendar app to see the beginnings of it.

Hard Historical Fiction vs Soft Historical Fiction

I had a conversation on Twitter recently with a writer of historical fiction. He had a dilemma and was looking for advice. He desperately wanted to use a specific word, but it hadn’t been coined until one year after his story took place.

I suggested that he follow the lead of bestselling historical fiction writer Conn Iggulden and simply note in an appendix anywhere in which he was knowingly historically inaccurate and why he had made that decision. I’ve found Iggulden’s notes to be interesting and revealing about the writing process, as well as giving me some history.

This writer replied that he would not do such because he writes historical fiction, not historical fantasy.

And that’s fair, power to him. I’m not in any way criticizing that decision. I respect it.

For me this was the revelation that there’s “hard” and “soft” historical fiction genres much the same way there are hard and soft science fiction genres (with soft science fiction often being called science fantasy by fans of hard science fiction).

Although I’m hard-pressed to name a hard scifi story (pun, huh), other than The Martian, soft sicfi is easy to point out: Star Wars. The ‘soft’ aspects include faster-than-light travel, death stars… the actual fantasy aspects are easy to see, too: Monks with flaming swords, telekinesis, and mind controlling abilities.

Hard scifi only uses established science in its story. Most science fiction is not ‘hard’, even stories that strive to be often fail at some point. Even The Martian failed, as the inciting event, a devastating sand storm, isn’t actually possible on Mars (The movie adaptation also fails in depicting Martian gravity – hard scifi is hard to write).

Oddly, stories that are not science fiction tend to be truer to science that hard scifi simply because they generally don’t touch on it at all. YouTube keeps trying to get me to watch a video called “The most scientifically accurate movies” and of course its default image is The Martian. But I bet that When Harry Met Sally is 100% scientifically accurate. In fact any RomCom that doesn’t involve some kind of magic is probably more accurate than almost any scifi movie.

This would hold true for books, too. Your basic romance novel, that doesn’t delve into things like firefighters at work, probably has less scientific inaccuracies than The Martian. I’d bet that The Kite Runner has less scientific inaccuracies than The Expanse.

Many hard science fiction enthusiasts claim that any use of aliens breaks the code. The Expanse does this. It also uses those aliens to allow for interstellar travel by having them gift us their abandoned wormholes. But it fails much earlier anyway. The astronauts travel from planet to planet in our solar system using a high velocity engine that defies current physics and survive the gee forces by consuming magical serums.

Some science fiction writers try to hold themselves to a standard that is almost impossible to keep and still tell the story. Which is fine, that’s their choice. But you’ve got to be at peace when the needs of the story conflict with current scientific understanding, and not see it as you failing, because by that standard, you’re going to fail.

Now I know someone trying to do the same in historical fiction, to the point of obsessing about whether one single word’s origin within 12 months of the setting of the events destroys the accuracy of his story. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. I’d be worried that there’s some other word I’d used without realizing that it was modern, or that its meaning had shifted.

Not to be either too pedantic or obvious, but words shift meaning quite rapidly. An example from within my own lifetime is the word ‘gay.’ When I was young, it meant ‘joyful’. Here are two examples of it used in that context.

The second verse of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yule-tide gay
From now on
Our troubles will be miles away

The ending of the theme song to the TV cartoon The Flintstones:

When you’re with the Flintstones
Have a yabba dabba doo time, a dabba doo time
We’ll have a gay old time
We’ll have a gay old time

I guess my point is it’s almost impossible to be one hundred percent correct in either historical or scientific accuracy. If you do achieve that, you’ve truly achieved something, but if you fail, and you probably will, don’t tie too much of your identity in success that failure hurts you.

Writing Pitfall: Cool Solution Looking for a Problem

There are many ways that a writer can screw up their story. One that I am susceptible to is the “I have a cool concept, now I need a story to fit it.” or worse, “I have a cool solution. I need a problem to fit it.”

Why a ship? It’ll make sense eventually

The “cool concept” one is, I feel, far less risky and can be pulled off well. Here we’re talking about high concept stories like the classic Arthur C Clark stories Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End. In “Rama”, an extraterrestrial foreign body is tumbling through our solar system; let’s go investigate. In “End”, aliens have arrived to shepherd humanity to our next level of evolution. Both are easy to quantify and catchy pitches.

Even then, “Rama” didn’t offer a lot of satisfying conclusions, instead opting for a soft cliffhanger ending (literally, “wait, there’s more!”). I know many people were disappointed with Childhood’s End, but I’m not among them, and in some ways the disappointment seems generational.

But the “Cool Solution looking for a Problem” pitfall is one I’ve seen a few writers fall into, and it is a deadly trap. Here’s the problem with this approach. Your solution has to be either the only viable solution or the simplest. Otherwise when your readers come up with a better solution than your protagonists do, they will hurl your book against the wall.

I … speak from experience.

I’ll be vague here…

I read a book about a decade ago. It made me scream in frustration. I threw it against a wall, and later burned it in a fire pit. I’m serious.

Let’s take a non-book example, then get back to this book.

Someone has a cool idea for a movie and needs to brainstorm it:

Let’s put rough and rowdy oil field workers in space and have fun.

OK, how do we do that?

Maybe an asteroid is coming and NASA needs to blow it up? They need these guys to drill a hole for the bomb?

Couldn’t we just train astronauts?

No, no, no “it’s easier to train drillers to be astronauts than to train astronauts to be drillers” Really?

That doesn’t sound right.

Come on, it’s a movie. They’ll love it. How many viewers are going to be both experts in drilling and space? No one! We’re safe!

For the “Cool Solution looking for a Problem” to work, the experts in your story need to be smarter than your target audience, which means you need to be also.

Back to that infernal book…

Its cool solution was a huge space station orbiting Earth, with the elite of the elite surviving a disaster. The problem it wanted was all the political intrigue that would go into making it.

The problem that the author settled on was that biblical-level flooding was going to wipe out the Earth, covering it with water.

So, if you had a story where a known flood was going to happen (everywhere, so evacuation isn’t really feasible) what would be your first solution?

I’m sorry, Couldn’t hear you mumbling at the back of the class. Did you say, “boats?”

I know I did.

In fact I started imagining converting a PanaMax cargo vessel into a floating farm, with people living below decks, wind or solar as a source of power. Hell, a few thousand of these and you could save a decent sized city. (In this book, only a few hundred people would be allowed to survive on the space station).

Then think of all the smaller ships that exist and could be converted, like the tramp steamer pictured at the top of this page. With no land to go to, their engines don’t even need to be that great. You just need hulls with integrity to convert to little oasis of tenancies.

You could build a whole economy afloat, with smaller sailboats acting as fishing vessels. Scavenging the flotsam and jetsam of our society might be productive too.

In short, the technology to do this solution was much more feasible, mostly already existed, and would have allowed for an order of magnitude increase in the number of people who survived.

But in the story, NO ONE, not one of the ‘genius’ advisors gathered to ‘save humanity’, mentioned boats or ships as an option.

And that’s why that book got hurled and burned. I won’t buy another book by that author (caveat: I’m not sure I remember who the author was now). As a reader, they’ve lost me not only for that story but for all future outings.

And that’s a huge problem with a poorly executed “Cool Solution looking for a Problem”. You lose readers, not just on this one title, but on all going forward.

Should we change the meaning of astronaut?

I met an astronaut once, and it wasn’t Richard Branson.

Don’t Panic

It was Bernard Harris who flew on the space shuttle twice. He spent over 400 hours in space, performing at least one space walk. That’s an astronaut.

If you’re on Twitter, you can follow Buzz Aldrin, second man on the Moon and namesake for Buzz Lightyear. That’s an astronaut.

Hell, Chris Hadfield, Canada’s most famous astronaut (supplanting Roberta Bondar), is all over social media. You may remember a music video that he made from the ISS. That’s an astronaut.

Richard Branson went on a joy ride. He went up on a rocket plane, experienced weightlessness for a few minutes ,and saw the curvature of the Earth.

Does that make him an astronaut?

Depends who you ask.

The US FAA has an official definition of space as beginning 50 miles above the surface of the Earth.This is shared by NASA. Branson went 53 miles up.

But the rest of the world (ESA, etc) has a different definition, and it’s stricter. They say that you’re not an astronaut unless you’ve crossed the Kármán line, 62 miles up. Branson didn’t make it by the world standard, but did by the American. Branson was quick to claim his “astronaut’s wings” upon returning, Perhaps he was afraid someone would deny him them if he waited a day or two.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin flight will go higher, and they’re getting snitty about Branson being called an astronaut.

Pissed-off billionaires aside, let’s accept that the term astronaut, which until now has been reserved for people who work above the Earth’s atmosphere and not tourists, is going to get watered down to the point of meaninglessness.

We need to redefine the term Astronaut*. Perhaps there should be levels of astronaut, maybe something like this:

Two classifications, one each for those who are working for a space agency and for those who aren’t.

Government space agency:
Astronaut-Explorers – The Chuck Yeagers, Mercury Seven, early Cosmonauts
Deep Space Astronaut – Anyone who’s orbited the Moon or further
Command Astronaut – someone who’s commanded a space mission
Specialists Astronaut – Those who are taken up on a ship to perform a task related to that ship’s cargo (shuttle payload missions, if something like that returns)
Orbital Astronaut – those who’ve been to ISS as mission specialists but been passengers in the transit from Earth to ISS

Non-governmental agency:
Passenger Astronaut – for future use, for employees of a company working in outer space or couriers to such
Tourist Astronaut – For the billionaires and eventually the millionaires.

Maybe this is just something that’s going to fall by the wayside. Maybe it isn’t worth the effort to save the prestige of a word.

It used to be that being a car owner was a huge status symbol. Even today, being a private pilot still has a certain cache. Maybe someday soon we’ll have met an astronaut or be related to one, or even be one.

- - -
*I've written a story that hopefully you'll all be able to read by the end of 2022. In it, the space tourism industry has forced the governmental space agencies to change the definition of astronaut so many times that governmental astronauts are having a hard time qualifying for the wings (this is not a plot point, just a passing fact, as one of the characters needs to do a skills upgrade before being announced for a mission.)

Author Brand Identity

I recently participated in an author’s workshop where a very well-established, multiple-title-best-selling indie author offered advice to the rest of us. One point in particular struck a nerve with me, because I’m not sure that it was good advice for me (I know, you ignore advice at your own peril), but it certainly got me thinking.

Image from Pixabay

The advice was to find a very narrow niche and write to it exclusively, to basically re-write the same story again and again (different characters and situations, but the same basic plot). “Your readers will love it. They’ll know what to expect when they buy one of your books.”

And I understand that as a marketing/branding idea: You buy a James Patterson book, you get the typical James Patterson story. There’s a template.

But there are many successful authors for whom this singular expectation isn’t true.

Robert Heinlein’s most successful stories were Starship Troopers (Military Sci-fi), A Stranger in a Strange Land (a very Kurt Vonnegut-esque discourse on religion and sex), and Friday (a cyberpunk story).

Frank Herbert’s follow-up to Dune was a book called Dragon in the Sea (re-released as Under Pressure), a World War III submarine warfare story. He also wrote books about human/alien interactions (there are no aliens in the Dune universe).

John Scalzi came to prominence with a military sci-fi series, Old Man’s War. His next most famous project was Red Shirts, a spoof of Star Trek. He’s written near-future medical thrillers (Locked In and its sequels) and flat out space opera (The Collapsing Empire). His next book is about kaiju (Godzilla-like monsters).

These very successful science fiction writers didn’t limit themselves to a narrow niche, and they didn’t lose their audiences by jumping around.

So maybe ‘narrow niche’ isn’t the way to build your brand and readership, in this genre at least. Maybe we get more flexibility if you don’t stray too far outside of the rather large SF/F arena.

Or maybe there’s another element to branding – be it voice, theme, or style.

Robert Heinlein’s stories often explored the status quo, the power structure behind society. Religion is an oft-repeated motif throughout the works of Frank Herbert. John Scalzi’s draw is his voice, a tone that is flippant, sometimes sarcastic, always light.

Then there’s Michael Crichton.

His books ranged from The Great Train Robbery (historical fiction) to Rising Sun (a police thriller) and Jurassic Park (sci-fi techno thriller). He also create the TV show ER and co-wrote the film Twister (yes that one, with Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt). Other than being entertaining, what’s his brand? He’s certainly not contained by a niche genre. Perhaps his brand is about exploring human interaction with (often new) technology.

Whenever writers on Twitter ask if it’s OK to write in more than one genre, I respond with the fact that Ian Fleming didn’t just create James Bond, he also created Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

That’s all well and good, but how does this help me? I don’t write in a narrow niche. What’s my brand?

I have thoughts.

The stories that I’m developing now or taking notes on to write later, range from a parallel Earth fantasy, a space opera, a military scifi, a time-travel series, a high fantasy and a techno-thriller. It’s a very wide niche, basically covering the whole spectrum of SF/F.

My stories can be situational (plot-driven) but are usually character-driven. So I (try to) write characters that you will care about and empathise with, flaws and all. Then I put them through hell, given them conflicts and conundrums and see how their morals adapt. Sometimes, I kill them.

I’d like to think that my stories reward a second (or third) reading, that elements and conversations that seem inconsequential early in the story pay off near the end, and a reader on their second pass would see the pieces more clearly.

How an edit button would kill Twitter, maybe

I hope twitter never adds an edit button. The ramifications of it would probably kill Twitter.

Here’s a scenario explaining why:

Image from Pixabay.

Let’s start with you, a relatively unknown John/Jane Doe, that’s you.

You used to volunteer on PoliBob’s election campaign for city councillor. You are mildly acquainted and follow each other on Twitter.

Years later, PoliBob is running for congress.

About 2 years ago, you wrote tweet: “BLM is Justice! Isn’t it obvious?” And PoliBob not only liked it, he replied “100% Agree” That was 2 years ago, you’ve both long forgotten about that interchange.

Because PoliBob is running for higher office, he’s got 2 factor authentication and aides regularly check that his account hasn’t been hacked.

You, not so much…

A hacker hacks into your account. The only tweet they edit is the 2-year-old one, changing it to “BLM is a scam! Isn’t it obvious?” Then they screenshot your tweet and PoliBob agreeing with it. A quick leak to the media, and PoliBob has lost his voting base.

There is no evidence that PoliBob was hacked and very little evidence that you were. Oops, I guess PoliBob is screwed.

It’s best then to simply not use Twitter if it has an edit button.

So, how could Twitter counteract this scenario?


A) every edited tweet would have to have the ability to show you the unedited version, which is a lot more server space/cost. And if that was limited to 2 or 3 previous edits only saved, then hackers would just edit repeatedly until the original is lost.


B) every time someone edits a tweet, every respondent would need the opportunity to delete their response. How cumbersome would those notifications get? Would you catch every malicious change among the myriad typos fixed? If you missed even one would the media forgive you?

OR …

C) There’s time limit on editing, perhaps five minutes, and in that time, no one can like, retweet, or reply to your tweet. If we must implement an edit button, this is the safest answer, but it also takes the immediacy away from Twitter. You see a Tweet and you can’t interact with it for five minutes? You’ll probably have left twitter in that time. Then again, a five-minute forced timeout might actually cool down Twitter conversations*

*Donald Trump exempted of course.

Plot Threads versus Sub-Plots

Like many of my blog posts, this one comes from my Twitter feed (@stephengparks)

A question was asked about whether sub-plots were distracting, and it became obvious that we weren’t all using the same definitions of sub-plot.

Some stories, including one that I’m working on, have many threads of the same plot. This is different from sub-plots and I want to demonstrate with examples.

In my example, a team gets scattered and must work individually to re-unite. This is a multi-thread story, it’s not a sub-plot.

The Lord of the Rings includes a multi-thread story. The fellowship falls apart, gets scattered in an attack. But each member keeps doing what they can to ensure the outcome, each trusting that the others are doing the same.

For examples of sub-plots I would often picture a sitcom.

Let’s use an imaginary episode of Friends as an example. The main plot is that everyone is afraid of Ross’ pet monkey. it keeps terrorising them but only when Ross isn’t looking, so he doesn’t believe them until it turns on him too.

The sub-plot is that Phoebe’s twin sister is impersonating her and doing bad things in her name.

The two stories aren’t related (Aaron Sorkin refers to these as A Plot, B Plot and maybe even C Plot, each lower plot getting less screen time).

A well-written sub-plot can impact the main plot.

Again from TV, I’m thinking of Castle. In that show, there would often be a sub-plot involving his family. In some well-written episodes something that happens in the sub-plot triggers a realisation about the main plot, leading to the resolution (solving the crime of the week).

Often the only thing that plots and sub-plots have in common is that the resolve themselves in the same timeframe. But handled well, a sub-plot can inform the main plot, emphasising themes or revealing insights useful to the protagonist.

When reputation overstays his welcome (part 1)

In two different context recently I’ve been considering the concept of reputation and how reputation reflects the past but is slow to catch up tot the present. I’m sure that’s not groundbreaking but it’s just something that I’ve been mulling over recently.

The first context, that I’ll explore today, is that of universities. We can all name a university that has an amazing reputation but how well does that reputation reflect the quality of their most recent graduates?

I’ve dealt with enough ‘ivy leaguers’ to know that they really aren’t better educated than anyone else who’s put in time and honest effort at a post-secondary education. The main difference is that they graduate with an amazing network of contacts and from that, opportunities that others won’t even know exist.

I remember talking with a new coworker, a recent Harvard grad slumming it with the rest of us. She was distracted by her blackberry. It was a message from her friend. Her “ooh…” made me ask if everything was OK. Yes, she replied. Her friend was starting a new job, it was supposed to be in Washington, but it turned out she was en route to Beijing.

Now I was enough of a political wonk to know that Obama was en route to Beijing, so I asked, “Is your friend’s first day on the job on Air Force One?” The answer was an immediately defensive, “well, she is Joe Biden’s niece.” As if that obviously made it completely normal for a recent undergrad’s first day of work to be on Air Force One.

I met another Harvard alumnus, someone who was unemployed because she’d help cause the collapse of the world financial markets in 2008. She was adamant that she was qualified to have wielded that kind of power solely because she was a Harvard graduate. I asked her what she’d studied at Harvard. “Medieval Literature.” That teaches you how to manage the world’s economy? “I WENT TO HARVARD!” She shouted at me.

That in and of itself was justification enough for her to be given the reins of the world economy. How dare you question this. End of discussion.

I worked with a Stanford MBA who didn’t believe me that whales were mammals and not fish. When I asked him if seals were fish, or penguins or turtles, he got thoughtful. Came back later to admit he never knew that whales were mammals. But hey, he had an address book full of billionaires and politicos, so who cares if he doesn’t know anything about life on Earth?

Do I sound jealous? I’m not.

I have a great education from a mid-ranked Canadian university. It’s done me well. I may not know Barack Obama, but I know three people who have dined with him. And I have dined with a king. I know people who have spent time with Nelson Mandela. I’ve met Kofi Anon and leaders or former leaders of a number of nations. My students have stood on stage with Bono, been interviewed by Jon Stewart, and won major awards for economics and humanitarian work.

I’m not jealous. I’m angry at the arrogance, the misplaced self-confidence that comes from studying at a university with a reputation that masks the abilities and capabilities of its graduates. Some of the worst politicians in America today are graduates of these schools: Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton went to Harvard, Josh Hawley went to Yale. Trump went to Wharton.

When I was in uni, a long time ago, one of my political science profs (a cagey but-if-you-got-him-drunk-he’d-admit former spy) said that what’s taught in university tends to be about ten years ahead of what’s considered general knowledge. This was before the internet, so that time frame may have collapsed (or expanded, as conspiracy has now replaced fact in so many people’s lives).

I think a lot of universities have unfounded reputations, at least in these times, and we need to reconsider what exactly makes a university special or reputable.

T M I, Please

Some people give too much information (TMI), some businesses want too much information. Personally, I want to control who has my information.

Image from Pixabay.

I’ve got three examples to talk about, all cases where businesses I’ve interacted with demanded far too much information from me for what they were giving.

I’ll start with the generic hair cutting place in Toronto. I don’t live in Canada anymore, but I occasionally visit. On this visit, I also needed to get a hair cut. So I went to one of the chains.

They cut my hair, no problem, but when I went to pay, it became a problem. I forget how much it was, but I had exact change, so it didn’t matter.

The cashier wouldn’t take my money. She wants my phone number first. She adamantly would not take my money until I supplied a phone number.

I don’t have it now, but at the time I took a picture of the board that stated services offered and prices. Nowhere on the sign or in the shop was there any notice saying that you had to give up personal information for a simple hair cut.

So I give her the old Hollywood standard, 555-1212.

“Is that a real number?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sir, I need your phone number.”
“No, you need the money, and it’s right here. I’m trying to give it to you.”
“Sir, I can’t complete the transaction until I enter your name, phone number, and date of birth into our computer.”
So I gave her the mayor’s name, 555-1212 and January first, 1901.
“None of that’s real, sir. I need real info.”
“I’ve given you info so you can complete your form. My only legal obligation here is to pay you the price you’ve posted. Here’s the money, thank you, I don’t need a receipt. I won’t be back.”

You may argue that I’m just giving a poor working stiff a hard time. But that’s a fallacy. Her employer put her into that situation, not me. Her employer wants you to give in because you feel for the poor, underpaid worker being forced to do this grunt work. But giving in doesn’t actually help her, it helps the employer.

This past week I bought a blender as a birthday present. The store offered me different options to pay, including paywave (maybe you call it “Tap & Go” Whatever, you touch your debit card to the reader and the transaction goes through). I chose that. We’re in a pandemic and the less people who touch things the better.

The salesperson tried to take my card from me to perform the paywave transaction. I didn’t let him. It’s a pandemic, we’re minimizing touch. I touched my card to the reader. The transaction went through, he printed 2 copies of the transaction and a separate receipt. So I’ve got the receipt and the blender.

The salesperson suddenly tells me he needs to see my card again.

“I need to swipe it in the store’s computer.”
“To close the transaction.”
“I have the receipt. Have you been paid?”
“Is there a problem with the payment?”
“Then why do you need my card?”
“I need the numbers from your card for our files.”
“Store policy.”
“To … assist with your warranty.”
“My warranty is between Philips and me, not your store.” (I didn’t take the ‘extended warranty’) Again I verbally made sure that they had my money, and I had the receipt. I thanked them and left.

I saw an ad on a news site that I read. The ad was for a funky furniture shop, and it had a ‘view catalogue’ link. I like the bookshelf they showed in the ad so I clicked the link – exactly what they want potential customers to do! What do I get? A form I’m supposed to fill out before they’ll honour me with a peak at the goods they’re trying to sell me.

Looking the form over, I noticed that there was only one actual mandatory field, email address. Now I’m not going to give them even that. I don’t know yet whether I’m actually interested in their products, never mind some kind of email newsletter or God knows what else.

If they want to validate the address before I can see the catalogue, I’ll just go away and hopefully they’ll see enough stats on people being turned away by the form that they’ll rethink their strategy.

So I made up an address, one I’d never used before, joeshmoe@fuckoff.com and hit enter.

A “Welcome back!” banner loaded, and full access to the catalogue. So I’m not alone! There are others out there who are also fed up with this crap! Woo-hoo, I have a tribe!

Are we tribe mates, you and me?

Writer • Nomand • Educator