Monthly Archives: December 2006

Words be nimble, words be quick, words be open, words be shtick

Nursery rhymes such as Jack Be Nimble are among the most memorable of writings, and I think that for your writing to be memorable it needs to be nimble, by which I mean:

Words be nimble,
words be quick,
words be open,
words be shtick

words be quick

Others will just need their eyes to read nimble writing. Most often it will come in the form of a web page they will view using a browser. Nimble words will be not be found in static documents that require you run a software program such as Adobe’s Acrobat or Microsoft’s Office just to put the words in front of your eyes. Nor will nimble words be found in elaborately formatted documents or, god forbid, presentation formats such as PowerPoint.

Why should you lock up in your nimble writing in a proprietary format before offering it to others? What do you gain by doing so? It’s the writing that counts, not how is presented to the reader’s eyes. Shakespeare or Lincoln didn’t have to format their writing, so why should you?

Don’t won’t waste time in formatting. Get the words out as early as you can, as the rewards will go to those who write quickly and so engage in the marketplace of ideas sooner.

words be open

Open-ness will take many forms. Here are a few I can think of now.

Nimble words will have a URL. To know of them is to know where to find them and so be able to read them with a minimum of effort. If my writing is in a PDF document, then it is not nimble; to share it with you I have to e-mail you a copy of the document or put it up on a server and send you the URL before you can read it. If I put my words in a blog, or as a comment to another author’s blog, or in a public wiki, then the words have a unique URL from the moment of writing. I can send the URL to you knowing you can find the words, and also knowing you can share that URL with others.

Nimble words will come with a known license so that those who wish to reproduce, or otherwise make use of the words, will know how to do so. Writing with a liberal license such as that used in this blog, license, will be more likely to be found elsewhere used than that under a more restrictive license as GFDL.

Nimble words with such a liberal license will be very accessible. To use them you will just need to cut-and-paste, and give credit where credit is due. You won’t have to write a program, or master a complex format, to share nimble words with others.

Nimble words will more often be found in a public discussion than in a private exchange. It is the public-ation of them, in its literal sense “to make public,” that will give them their force.

Nimble writing comes from open writers. Nimble words will not be found in isolation, but will be much more likely to recognized as nimble once you have gone to the effort of defining your public identity. Nothing you write within a corporate firewall adds to your public identity, so unless you plan to spend the rest of your career behind the firewall that is your current lot then you should start defining your public identity as soon as you can.

Nimble writing will also be found in a shared form. You won’t be measured by just your own original essays, or the mini-essays that constitute a blog, but by the totality of your efforts. Such efforts include comments you make to the blogs of others, or comments in other public fora, or the carefully-commented tags you post on

Nimble words will be out in the open. You will be able to find them with a search engine. Words locked behind a firewall can not be found by a public search, and hence their author can’t be found by a public search. To labor inside the firewall is to guarantee obscurity to the world at large.

The more nimble your writing, the more often it will be cited, and the more ways people will come across it via search engines.

words be shtick

shtick is another way of saying reputation or identity, one that happens to rhyme with “quick” and so completes my doggerel verse.

Your collective public writings, however presented, whether as blog posts, wiki contributions, or openly available articles, will define your public identity. It is your writings, in the form of your “voice” or “persona” that will define how others interpret your words.

In a way I can’t define precisely but do sense intuitively, I believe that the concept of “social networking” is not just a passing fad but a way of expressing the more complex forms of interaction that the internet has made possible, and that what I here call “nimble words” is but another way of saying “social writing.”

We will begin to understand “social writing” only when we are able to read the first works by the authors who first master this new form of writing.

links for 2006-12-31

links for 2006-12-29

Janet Shields, humorist; Sheldon McGuire, teacher

A few posts ago I wrote of a recently-discovered letter from my father written over sixty years ago. While preparing for a visit by our children, my wife went through some of our papers and came across some of my old report cards from elementary school that go back over fifty years.

They include my mother’s comments, some of which I hadn’t read before or only now can fully appreciate.

It’s a long-standing joke in the Shields clan that no one has ever accused me of having good handwriting. Indeed, I suspect that the availability of line printers — machines that could present my work in legible form — may be the main reason I went into computing.

The report cards in those days had three categories: S for Satisfactory, I for needs Improvement, and U for Unsatisfactory. I almost always got S’s, except for the occasional U and I in handwriting, as was the case in sixth grade, when I got a “U” for “writing legibly” in the first report period. This resulted in the following exchange between my teacher, Sheldon McGuire, and my mother, Janet Shields:

Janet Shields:

David’s report card has many S’s
But his writing a sad mess is.
Let’s hope he has planned
With less scribbly left hand
Next quarter to really surprise us.

Sheldon McGuire:

David has continued doing good school work. His enthusiasm is a joy. His writing is much improved. (We appreciated and enjoyed your verse.)

Janet Shields:

A very fine report. Makes me very glad for David.

Sheldon McGuire:

David has continued doing good work. He is surely a capable person. David has been a good class president.

Janet Shields:

Maybe he should write with his right hand. But on the other hand this is a very fine report. Very glad for David.

Janet Shields. May her memory — and her sense of humor — be a blessing.

Mr McGuire. You were a blessing, too. I think that you, more than any of my other elementary school teachers, emphasized writing.

The New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show

It’s been a special time in the Shields household these past few days. All our children and grandchildren have been visiting us, and it’s the first time in several years we have all been together. Today we all attended an event I had never heard of until yesterday, when a relative recommended we go. It was so wonderful I want to tell you a bit about it.

It is the New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show. It combines a number of special treasures into a special experience.

First, it takes place in the New York Botanical Garden. This is one of New York’s — and the world’s — treasures. I can’t do it justice here, but will just remark that it is a good place to mark the start of Spring at the “hill of daffodils,” that the height of that season is best marked amidst a wondrous grove of cherry trees on the eastern edge of the park, and that to get to that grove you get to walk through one of the last known “old growth” forests in the New York area, meaning none of the trees therein have been cut down since the land was first settled almost three hundred years ago.

Second, it takes place in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, the jewel in the garden’s crown, a Victorian-structure with thousands of glass panels that let in light year-around so that tropical plants can be grown even in the winter months, as can desert plants such as cacti and agave.

Though the above two treasure are always there, the remaining two define the experience.

Third, that in the conservatory during the Holiday Train Show, beginning in the desert part, you will find model trains going to and fro, sometimes above your head on specially-mounted tracks, and more often on the ground amidst the plants within the conservatory. The trains are larger than “O” gauge; they are known as “museum gauge.” Perhaps they were built just for this event.

Fourth, amidst the trains and plants there are a number of unique structures, each made by hand and all of natural materials such as bark, fragments of woods, nuts, cones, pods, shells, seeds, and so forth. Each is based on some building or structure in the New York area, some of which were demolished decades ago. My favorites included Boscobel, the Brooklyn Bridge, the High Bridge that was a key part of the the NYC water system, and the Little Red Lighthouse (itself the subject of a children’s book).

The overall effect is special indeed, one of those only-in-New-York experiences that made the city so special when I lived in it and still make me happy that I live not too far away.

The event is especially suitable for children six and under, though it does bring out the child in all of us.

Fifth, though this is not on the official Botanical Garden map, after the Train Show we repaired to the nearby neighborhood known as “Arthur Avenue.” Those who bring knowledge of this area to this blog are already salivating at the mention of Arthur Avenue, as I trust those who read on soon will.

Arthur Avenue is an area with many well-known Italian bakeries, stores, markets, and restaurants. For example, in much of Westchester one does not ask for “Italian bread” but “Arthur Avenue bread.” Our personal favorite eateries had been Dominic’s and Rigoletto. We planned to eat at Dominic’s, but it was quite busy so we wound up at another we had recently heard about, called Roberto’s. It was also excellent. (Zagat gives it 27 for food, at $47/person, but it’s much more reasonable for lunch). Dominic’s remains our favorite, but now we have three favorite eateries.

The food at all these places is very good, most notably so due to its simplicity. One of the best meals my wife and I shared in recent memory was during a lunch at Dominic’s — a salad and the three vegetables they had that day: asparagus, broccoli rabe, and green beans.

links for 2006-12-27

Swanson Shields, soldier and educator, March 1945 letter

My uncle Lynwood turned 93 a few weeks ago. He and his wife Elaine recently came across a letter written by my father, Swanson Shields, to Lynwood in March 1945. I had known my father was an officer, and thought he was a press information office, but thanks to this letter I learned for the first time he was an educator, and in the medical field to boot. Those who know of my special interest in these areas will appreciate how much I enjoyed reading the letter.


The tenor of the letter suggests that those involved believed the war would go on for some time, It was written in March 1945, just after US troops had crossed the Rhine river, as is noted near the end of the letter, yet I doubt my father had any idea the war in Europe would end within six weeks, and only a very small number of people in the United States had any reason to think the war might end in less than a year. Some of them were working about seventy miles from my future hometown, Albuquerque, NM, in a small town called Los Alamos.

I copied out the words from the letter and also made an image so you can what it looks like. It was written on a long piece of paper, so I folded it over, so the end of the letter appears upside-down at the bottom of the image. You can see my father’s signature, “Swannee,” at the end, and part of the sentence mentioning the Rhine just before it.

Sunday, 12 March 1945

Dear King

This is my first letter to you from Camp Crowder, Mo. Along with many other medical soldiers from Camp Barkeley, I arrived here last Thursday. I have now been here a few days and am glad to report that everything is going very good so far. This camp is a vast improvement over Camp Barkeley. It is more modern and more convenient. I imagine it is a bit like Harlingen, after recalling your nice comments about that place.

If you will pardon my tooting my own horn, may I report that I have been assigned to a bigger Orientation job at Crowder. Here’s the set-up: We brought two Regiments with us, in addition to a small Center headquarters for the two Regiments. I am located in the Center Training Department, with the title of Center Information and Education Officer. I supervise the work of the Regimenal I and E officers and things like that. I was pleased to get the promotion for two reasons: (1) It is a bigger job, which means I can reach more men and (2) it shows that my work has been saisfactory to the powers that be.

I was very gratified to find on my arrival that two colonels in charge of the medical training center here were both highly in favor of Orientation. They called me into their office for a conference, asking me for recommendations for a Program. They accepted my Program, which is a very ambitious one. I was very pleased when they placed at my disposal for an officer and war information center a two-story barrack — the type that you lived in at Harlingen. I have the entire barrack, which had been converted into separate classrooms. I will be ideal for setting up a “War Room,” in which to hold classes and discussions.

Along with my assitant, I have been working on this Sunday to get the ball rolling in the “War Room.”

You may be interested to know that I have another assistant – a girl civilian worker. Yes, the T/O calls for a civilian and a girl was hired. She’s the wife of an enlisted Orientation non-com, which is very good and very liberal. Likewise, she’s progressive in her ideas – along political and economic lines, of course.


So it looks like I have a good set-up. I am anxious to get started. I am directly responsible for providing Orientation to several thousand men. Of course, I will work through my “subordinate” officers on the Regimental, Battalion and Company level but you depend on me to keep them on the ball. Fortunately, the two Regimental I and E officers are very sincere and competent and liberal.

How long I will be here I do not know, although the fact that this medical training center just opened here would indicate I should be here more than a few weeks or months. You see, we are now about the only medical training outfit left. And as long as the war runs on, they will need more medical soldiers. Anyway, I have been very lucky and I know this will be good at least for seveal months.

The only drawback so far is that I do not have Janet and the baby with me. Because Lynwood David is only three months young, we did not think it advisable to move here until I had located an adequate apartment. I went into Joplin, city of 40000 which is 20 miles from Camp, Friday looking for apartments. I found one that would have done the trick had we not had the baby. But we did not want to take any chances with his getting a cold or something. So Janet will remain with the son in Texas for this month at least and will not join me until I have found a decent apartment. In a way, it’s just as well she and the baby are not here for the first few week, because they might take me away from here some nights when I could be doing something worthwhile with Orientation. Now, isn’t that very unselfish.

This city of Joplin is as wild as they come. It’s said to be a dandy for the single boys. I can believe that, after my one visit there, when I bumped into a barfly who wanted to “shack-up.” Some other time, I might have been interested. But I love that wife of fine. The temptation was great, however.

The was news is very good these days, with the increased tempo of the Pacific war, plus the crossing of the Rhine.

Well, I must say I do feel more like a soldier since I have been living on the post. So far it has not been bad. There’s quite a bit to do on the Post here, what with the theatres, beer joints and special service — and Orientation programs.

Bye for now dear brother.


Swanee (signature)

links for 2006-12-25

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