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In Which I Find Plagiarism in a Portland History Book

In History, Portland, Writing on February 5, 2014 at 8:18 am

Plagiarism is one of the worst things that a writer can be accused of doing. This is not simply because it is an act of theft (though it is precisely that) but also because it reveals a certain intellectual bankruptcy on the part of the offender. A plagiarist does not interpret, analyze, or even bring new personality to what they’re purportedly writing about. They do not provide a unique voice, interpretation, or perspective. They do not, to borrow a pop business term, add value.

Earlier this week I found out that a local author copied another, earlier book. I was at the Multnomah County Library looking at secondary sources for an upcoming feature on Vanport, and I cracked open this book for obvious reasons:

photo (2)Because Vanport was in North Portland, I figured that some of the regional neighborhood publications could also be handy. Maybe there were stories or citations in those that would provide interesting details or dramatic first-person accounts, or just a different spin or viewpoint that would be worth looking at. I grabbed a few of them, including this one:


History of the Kenton Neighborhood did indeed have a chapter on Vanport. However, the text felt a tad familiar. Here’s the opening paragraph from Manly Maben’s book (click it to enlarge):
photo (3)

And here’s the Vanport section from the book on Kenton:photo (4)

History of the Kenton Neighborhood, published in the late 1990s, copied from Manly Maben’s Vanport, which preceded it by about a decade. I read the section a few times and found that pretty much all of it was just lifted from the other book. I was shocked to see something so blatant, shameless, and obvious.

I didn’t know what to do. I thought, for a ridiculous moment, that I should go up to a librarian and say “pardon me, but this book in your Portland history section contains plagiarism,” however I doubt that would yield any kind of results. It’s not like I can go to the Writing Police and report author Alta Mitchoff as a plagiarist. I can’t take away her writing license.

I can do this, though. Alta Mitchoff, if you happen to be reading this (for some reason), I want to address you directly.

You are not a writer. You are not a historian. You are not a journalist, a chronicler, an interpreter of history, or a steward of culture. You took someone else’s work and copy-pasted it into your own crappy little neighborhood history book, and put your name on the cover. You’re a thief, Alta Mitchoff, and I caught you.

A Thing I Just Wrote: Why Meat Can be Ethical

In Animals, Food, Writing on March 27, 2012 at 10:26 am

I sat down to be productive today, and got distracted by this thing from the New York Times, a short essay contest asking readers to articulate why it’s ethical to eat meat. Being an omnivore, I decided to crack out some of the old debate team skills, and lay out a semi-convincing reason as to why I like putting the dead bodies of other vertebrates in my mouth. I don’t love this little essay, but stuff like this is why, for a brief time, I thought I was going to be a lawyer.

This was my submission:

It is ethical to eat animals. It can be ethical to kill animals. It is not ethical, however, to make animals suffer. An action is unethical only if it causes others to suffer. If eating meat can be done without suffering, then eating meat may be done ethically.

If you’re eating an animal, the act of eating it is not causing it to suffer. It is, in fact, dead, and as such cannot feel any pain or other negative feelings. The act of consumption imparts no sensation whatsoever to the animal involved.

There is nothing about eating animals that necessitates animals suffering during their lifetimes. It is true that domesticated animals can be raised in appalling conditions. However, it is also true that domesticated animals can be raised in agreeable conditions. Nothing about the act of meat consumption inherently and necessarily means that said animal had a lifetime of suffering. Therefore, eating meat cannot be inherently linked to a lifetime of suffering on the animal’s part.

So, the animal feels no suffering after death (one of the perks of being dead) and is not necessarily consigned to a lifetime of suffering. The vast period of time both before the animal’s death and after it can easily be (and often are) suffering-free. That leaves us only with the moment of death.

Death can obviously be painful and entail suffering on the part of the animal. However, suffering can be disassociated from the animal’s death. Animals cannot anticipate as humans do. They do not know they are going to die, and domesticated animals are not capable of experiencing stress or anticipating their own end. Therefore, they do not experience any suffering associated with dread, fear, stress, or emotions that humans do. Because mental suffering is a nonissue, that leaves only physical suffering.

If an animal is killed quickly and cleanly enough (and we have the means to do precisely that) then it will die instantly and not linger in any kind of physical pain. What’s more, a quick, painless death can relieve an animal from physical suffering later. An animal killed instantly will never suffer because of disease, a decaying body, or violence from wild predators. It will never hobble on arthritic limbs, know the ravages of aged lungs, or be ripped apart by wolves. Living within an ethical domestic environment can allow the animal to in fact experience less total suffering over the course of its existence than it otherwise would.

So, the act of eating does not cause suffering. The act of raising animals does not inherently entail suffering. The act of killing an animal can be performed without suffering. Therefore, humans may consume animals in an ethical fashion. If those prerequisites can be met, then eating meat may be done entirely ethically.

A Post Sort of About Mad Men, In Which I Probably Sound More Bitter Than I Should

In Jobs, Television, Writing on March 25, 2012 at 9:55 am

Mad Men returns today, and it’s ostensibly a show all about how the lifestyle of white, middle-class America of the mid 20th century was a crumbling facade built upon an unsustainable groundwork of deception, consumerism, patriarchy, and racism. It’s about the sixties not from the perspective of the revolutionaries, but from the perspective of those inside the balsa-wood fortress that is slowly and inevitably collapsing in upon itself due to its own contradictions. It’s supposed to be about that.

But let’s not kid ourselves, Mad Men is also a fantasy show. As much as it’s about the moral corruption and hollowness of the part of America that voted for Nixon, it’s also about wearing great suits, drinking a lot, and having all of the sex with everyone, all of the time. The show gets to have it both ways- it’s an utter condemnation of the ruling order of the 1960s, but it also thinks that its subjects look sort of cool.

This is not a new observation by any means, but when I watch Mad Men the biggest fantasy aspect of the show doesn’t come from the cool clothes, booze, revelry, or sex. The most appealing and fantastical aspect of the show, for me, is that Don Draper and company are creative professionals who can actually pay for shit.

Don Draper is paid quite a good deal of money to think things up and be clever. For his services he is given enough of a salary to have a house, a car, several suits, go out all of the time, fly to L.A. with regularity, and generally not feel any real kind of financial pressure. Sure, Sterling Cooper have to hustle get and keep clients, but it doesn’t seem like any of them every have to crack out the Top Ramen or worry about student loans.

I do fine- I have a day job and freelance, but my lifestyle is by no means middle class. Even though Mad Men is all about how the characters live in an unsustainable system, the lifestyles of the creative professionals it portrays greatly appeals to me. I pay my bills by entertaining tourists and writing blog posts and articles- not a bad deal, certainly, but not enough to, say, buy a car or a house.  As someone who fancies himself a mildly talented creative person, I would love to do what Don Draper does. I’m sure there’s far more to advertising that what’s portrayed in the show, but the idea of being able to have a pretty okay life at a creative job is, for me, the show’s biggest and most frustrating fantasy. If I do attempt to actually live as a professional journalist or writer (which I suppose I am doing right now) I know that in all probability I’ll never do well. I’ll never be able to own a new car or buy an iPad the day it’s released. I’ll probably never own my own home or be able to fly about the country at will. I’ll most likely never be able to party in an expensive city in New York or own lots of nice suits. Actual, real creative professionals are not rich, or even middle class. They enjoy themselves, they live nice, fulfilled lives, but they are certainly not Don Draper.

Is it worth it? Maybe. Probably. American opulence is nothing to celebrate. Watching Mad Men, though, really makes me wish that decently-paying writing and creative jobs like the one Don Draper has were actually real.

2011: In Which I Freelanced More Than Ever

In Writing, Year in Review on December 31, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Earlier this year, I was at a writing workshop, and someone asked me a fairly innocuous question. They asked me “Are you a writer?”

“Sort of,” I said, “it’s not my main job. It only supplements my income.”

The questioner was kind of surprised. “Wait,” they said, “you make money?”

Well, yes. Not very much of it and not frequently enough, but yes, that does happen sometime. I do not like calling myself a “writer.” For some reason, the word seems loaded and uncomfortable, and I have this weird feeling that if I were to say to people “I’m a writer,” people would instantly think of some Hemingway wannabe staring intently at a keyboard, not actually producing anything. You know, Ewan McGregor’s character in Moulin Rouge. A guy with vague, lofty ambitions who is unable to actually translate them into anything at all, and wants to have written more than he wants to write.

There is also the tendency to think of “writer” as in the same category as “rock star,” “astronaut,” or “ballerina;” dreamy jobs that technically do exist, but that do not abound in any significant numbers.

So, I’ve been looking for lots of Plan Bs. Something else. A “real” job. However, I feel most satisfied when I can sit down, pound out an article, and actually call it real work. While I have looked into grad school, this past year I’ve been most excited by the writing jobs that I’ve gotten. This spring I wrote some news for a local publication called About Face Magazine, I ever-so-briefly worked for Portland Picks for Men before they went under, did regular work for Metromix, an arts and leisure site, blogged for the Daily Journal of Commerce, and wrote a feature and began blogging for the Portland Mercury. The day job, Portland Walking Tours, has also picked me up to work as a researcher and content provider. Not a bad collection of bylines, and I have a few other projects on deck.

I like this. I like this a great deal. If I knew I could make a living at it, I would make a living as a writer and journalist. There are real, actual people who do this, who research and report and write full time. I would like to be one of them. Given the poor economy, the state of the newspaper industry, and the general non-scarcity of information, though, I still don’t know if this is wholly and completely possible. I really, really want it to be, though. A local newspaper has now interviewed me twice about being a full-time reporter, and, despite knowing that any newspaper in the country could keel over dead and bankrupt at any moment, I’m ready to say yes if the offer me the job.

2011 has made me all the more want to discard backup plans, and just dive into trying to be a full time wordsmith. Even as I type this, there’s an uncashed freelancing check sitting on the table next to me, and that small amount of professional success only makes me fantasize more about pursuing my dream job. I want to be able to say “I’m a writer” without any kind of reservations, asterisks, or caveats, but I’ll only do that when it is, in fact, my full-time job.

It’s not impossible. Not probable, certainly, but being a professional would not violate the laws of reality. Let’s see what happens in 2012.

Thoughts on End Notes Vs Foot Notes

In Books, Rants, Writing on December 12, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Right now I’m reading a book that I quite enjoy. It has end notes. The end notes contain citations, so you can see where the author got his information. I’m fine with that. In fact, that’s something I want in pretty much any nonfiction book.

However, the end notes also contain asides and parenthetical remarks on the part of the author. This drives me utterly mad. When I see a very small number in the text, there is no way for me to tell whether or not following it to the back of the book will lead to additional thoughts from the author, or just a citation. Nine times out of ten it’s just a citation that I can ignore for the moment, but every so often it’s additional authorial remarks that I actually want to read. Looking at the main text, though, I have no idea what I’ll find at the back of the book. I just have to look.

I really, really, really, really hate this. It’s annoying, it’s lazy, and (worst of all) it’s an inconvenience to the reader that can be very easily remedied. Citations should be at the back of the book, and marked with end notes. They should be there for the reader, but shoved away into a different clump of pages on not intruding into the main body of text. Authorial asides, however, should be marked with an asterisk or dagger and on the same page as the main text. That way, the reader can easily glance down at them, and not have to futz around in the citation section for other stuff the author might have to say.

It boggles my mind that any book would intermingle authorial asides in with citations. It’s stupid, it’s aggravating, it has an easy solution, and any editor that sends the reader scampering back to the end of the book every half page is an awful human, and should be slapped in the face with a frozen tuna until they recant their various sins against reading.

A special exception can be made for Infinite Jest, though. Infinite Jest is cool.

In Which I Fail Spectacularly at NaNoWriMo

In Writing on December 6, 2011 at 1:38 pm

National Novel Writing Month has destroyed me. I set out at the beginning of November with the intent of writing a 50,000 novel. In the back of my mind, I knew I would fail. And then, giving into subconscious worries and fears, I did precisely that. When November ended, I had less than half of my novel finished.

I went into the whole thing with a certain lack of commitment. While I do have some aspirations when it comes to fiction (someone once said that “aspiring novelist” is a synonym for “human”) I’ve often thought that if I do ever write anything long-form, it will be nonfiction. (For example, the travel memoir that I’ve been trying to unsuccessfully sell/finish for the past two years.) At present, I’ve gotten some nice gigs writing about architecture and built industry in Portland, and I’ve done the odd article about things blowing up. I feel comfortable with nonfiction- after all, with nonfiction the fascinating story is already there. The only thing that a writer has to do is find a way to overlay their own fascination onto the pre-existing facts, and there you go. It comes naturally to me, especially when I’m writing about something that I really enjoy.

For NaNoWriMo, I knew that I would have to create a whole lot of written content very quickly. I chose to do a what I thought was a straightforward genre story- a murder mystery, but with vampires. I figured that I’d be able to put together a plot fairly quickly, and could have a lot of fun with the exposition how my vampires worked. Coming up with the story was pretty easy- I had a murder at the beginning, a twist at the end, and a sleuth trying to figure it all out. There was mystery at the beginning and a big fight at the end. The only problem- I didn’t have nearly enough of a middle.

Writing the story, I realized that mystery novels need red herrings. Lots of them. They need lots of little avenues down which the sleuth can look, and the readers can speculate about. While I thought the big twist at the end was pretty satisfying, I found myself struggling to construct blind alleys in the middle of the story that weren’t obviously not the solution for the puzzle. I ended up struggling far more than I thought I would, got distracted by several other projects, and ended NaNoWriMo soundly defeated. I had less than 25,000 words, and I have no idea what I’m going to do with a semi-completed vampire mystery.

For whatever reason, though, I have decided to take it on next year. Now that binge-writing had defeated me once I (for irrational reasons of pride and insanity) have decided that I need to take it up again until I’m finally successful at it. Come next November, I’m going to be, yet again, attempting to generate vast quantities of bad fiction. Next time, NaNoWriMo. Next time.

The Rest of a Letter

In Writing on August 31, 2010 at 10:59 am

A few people have said to me this week “Hey, I saw your letter in the Mercury!”  My response has usually been “Um… thanks.  Yeah.  Thanks.”  Or something akin to that.  I’m quite happy to be in the comments section of a local newspaper defending the ranks of nerd-dom, but I didn’t think they’d actually publish it.  The original letter was comically long and verbose, and I wrote it on a whim as something of a silly fan letter.

For those of you who said “Hey, I saw your letter!”, though, here is the overly long original:

I normally enjoy One Day At a Time, Ann Romano’s highly neat column.  While reading it, I usually experience a feeling that approximates joy.  It is with great regret, then, that I write this missive regarding her column of August 19th, 2010.

“Avoid nerds?”  Really, Ms. Romano?  That hurts.  That hurts deeply.  When your slings and arrows are directed at the effete elites of “Hollyweird” (as you so call it) I can do nothing but root for your trenchant and bitchy commentary.  I imagine you bringing the mighty to heel with nothing but a sneer and an insult, devastating and deflating the puffed-up and the arrogant whilst you sip a martini poolside like the magnificent she-bastard that you undoubtedly are.

But… Nerds?  Us?  You’ve used your powers bitch-smack to us?  We who have suffered so much already?  Really, Ms. Romano, that is just cruel.  While it is unfortunate that Adrianne Curry dressed as Slave Leia was groped, I can assure you that it is not generally representative of nerd behavior.  You insinuate that we are so sex-starved and perma-horny, that of course we are going to grope, fondle, caress, and otherwise boorishly handle any and all examples of the unclad female form that we happen upon.

I can assure you that, the vast majority of the time, just the opposite is true.

You see, Ms. Romano, we are a timid folk.  We generally live in awe and fear of the opposite sex (or the same sex, if that’s what we’re in to) and I can guarantee you that most nerds who like ladies are far more likely to comport themselves as gentlemen (or gentlewomen) than other segments of the population.  Jocks and douchebags will gleefully slap an ass at the slightest provocation.  Hip-hop enthusiasts will proclaim their approval of a lady’s gyrations with boisterous enthusiasm.  Your average male will exhibit all manner of sexism and gropiness after a few beers.

Not so with nerds, though.  As a nerd who has dated other nerds, I can assure that the behavior you wrote about was not at all representative.

Oftentimes, our social awkwardness acts as a sort of anti-harassment shield.  Faced with the possibility of any intimate contact, we stammer and freeze, overthinking the entire situation.  We wonder what we should do, and fret about whether we are coming on too strong.  We try to read our opposite number, and wonder if they feel the same.  We start sentences, and then don’t finish them.  For nerds, foreplay often begins with awkward hugging.  Then, if the hug goes well, we’ll wonder if we should try and kiss the other person.  This usually leads to a lot of dodging around of the faces and perhaps a chaste peck.  While other social groups would interpret this as license to, for example, kiss harder and deeper, nerds will still be fretting at this point.  We will wonder whether or not tongue would be an acceptable addition, and whether or not it would be uncouth to affectionately run our hands over our partner’s back.

At this point, male nerds will become anxious about whether they have an erection, or even half of one.  We are well aware poking a lady with an unwanted boner is quite rude, and will oftentimes strategically shift out of the way.

All of this needs to be sorted out well before any groping happens.  Even after sexy activity is achieved and a good time is had by all, nerds will often go home, wonder what it all meant, and the cycle of fretting and awkwardness will begin anew.

So, Ms. Romano, I can assure you that the incident you described was a horrendous anomaly.  On behalf of the vast majority of nerds, most of whom are entirely un-grabby when it comes to ladyparts, I apologize for what occurred.  I also promise that neither I, nor any other well-meaning nerd, will grope any of your various feminine bits.

As for the existence of juggalo nerds…  Such cross-pollination is necessarily impossible.  Nerds are defined by their intelligence and juggalos by their lack thereof.  Such a hybridization would be as absurdly freakish as, for example, a gay Republican.  That hypothetical hybrid would soon implode under the weight of their own fundamental contradictions.

Here’s hoping that in the future the awesome power of your bitch-ray will be more tightly focused on more deserving targets.

Live Long and Prosper,

-Joe Streckert

In Which I Read About Meat

In Food, Writing on November 5, 2009 at 11:19 pm

On Wednesday night, I shared the stage with a hunk of dead cow. This was somewhat unusual for me.

The event, Livestock, was billed as a “literary and literal conversation of killing our dinner,” and was hosted by the Art Institute of Portland’s International Culinary School. The highlights of the evening included a demonstration of cow butchery, readings about experiences with meat from three local authors, beef tasting, and and Q&A session with a butcher and various farmers. I was one of the authors, though I felt the term slightly outsized for me.

I saw the submission call and sent in a short essay that I wrote a while ago about seeing eels getting slaughtered in Japan. Somewhat to my surprise, I was accepted, and was to read my essay aloud, along with two other authors, while the butcher took apart a side of cow before a crowd of wine-sipping onlookers.

When I got to the event (which is in it’s first year) I was sort of nervous. I hadn’t read any of my own work aloud since college, and was trying to psych myself up for it. Seeing who the other two speakers, were, though, kind filled me with equal parts excitement and dread. One was the poetry editor of the Portland Oregonian (who also teaches at PSU) and the other was Emily Chenoweth, an actual published novelist who has written one book under her own name and a number under pseudonyms. Then there was me.

On one hand, I was completely thrilled to be on stage with them. The organizer had decided that my essay was just as nifty as the stuff from the actual, published, credential-bearing people. On the other hand, I felt like I was severely outclassed by the “real” authors, and my heart began beating in earnest, looking for an escape route from my chest. That I was reading last did not help matters, (though I was sort of also thrilled about that).

The crowd filed in, the butcher got the cow flank ready for cutting up, and various plates of hors d’oeuvres and bottles of wine were available for consumption. I was way too nervous to eat or drink anything. The first author, the Oregonian editor, took the stage, and I started listening to what I had to share the stage with.

She was great. She wrote a wonderful, touching short essay about going hunting with her father. This was NPR quality stuff- good stuff that actually jerked a few tears out of the crowd. I was nervous. The novelist was next, and absolutely killed. She was witty, funny, and had the entire audience in stitches while reading about misadventures with bacon. The butcher even had to put down his various knives and take a moment to regain composure. This woman was funny.

I thought to myself “Well, fuck. I’m not touching or funny. I’m just sort of purple-prosey, metaphor-laden and weird.” I think that was the point, though. All of our pieces were very different, and I suspect that the organizer wanted a diversity of styles at the event. When the novelist finished, I stepped up, my heart pounding and…

And calmed down. As soon as I was up there, as soon as I started reading, I was at ease. People, much to my delight, were into it. I read all about witnessing public eel slaughter, about attitudes towards meat in Japan, and about how I ate some kind of odd things while I was there. My mention of eating an entire sparrow got an audible “eww!” from the audience. I was reading my own work, and the crowd was reacting positively to it. I can see how open mic stuff gets addictive.

After I was done, I felt relieved, and the editor said that she really liked what I’d written, and gave me some advice about selling it. I thanked her, and downed a glass of wine. The rest of the evening was an informative Q&A with the butcher and a few farmers about what goes into raising and preparing beef, and different sorts of meat were presented for a tasting.

I stuck around to answer a few questions from people (“Did you really eat a sparrow?” was the most common one, “What’s raw horse meat like?” was the other) and chatted a bit with a chef who’d spent a fair amount of time in Southeast Asia eating weird stuff. I left the event and abuzz.

In Praise of Coffee Shops

In Portland, Social Conventions, Writing on October 8, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Working at home is possible, but it takes discipline. One must focus intensely while the objects of leisure are right there. I’ve been working on a manuscript for a while, but to write or edit at home, I have to ignore the Internet, video games, my roommates, and my books. I have to shut out people who may be over, or other stimuli that seems to show up at my house on a fairly frequent basis. Besides, this is my home. This is where I relax and do fun things, the place where I sleep, read novels, and watch movies. I associate it with idleness and off-time.

Fortunately, there are coffee shops.

I’m convinced that coffee is not really the primary product of most coffee shops. Coffee is something I adore, and if I don’t have either it or tea I usually am in for at least a noticeable headache later in the day. However, the primary product of coffee shops is really a place to sit. A place, outside of your house, to read, socialize, or work. I’ve found them an ideal place to focus on my manuscript about Japan. I finally printed out the material I have so far (224 pages, single spaced) and have been editing it for the past week and a half.

I sit there for an indeterminate amount of time, imbibing my favorite stimulant, and spilling red ink. Without fail, there is someone else with a laptop or a notepad or some other such portable object whom I often imagine working away on a similarly creative endeavor. I like the simple presence of others, and I like the atmosphere and smell, the piles of alternative weeklies in the corner, and the paintings on the walls with price tags like footnotes. Oftentimes, there’s some kind of music playing, usually jazz or some obscure imported genre that is simultaneously interesting and easy to ignore. I like that, too, a low-level white noise that eases attention to detail.

I’ve been staggering which ones I go to, and seeking out new coffee shops. Yesterday, I found a new one in Southeast, in the Hawthorne District, a converted house filled with paintings. The owner had dragged in an old-style school desk which I found too amusing not to sit at. When I went in, there was a guy on the porch reading a newspaper. He was there when I left, too. Across from me a guy with extremely long hair and hemispherical earphones sat at a laptop for the entire time I was there. A girl reading what looked to be a gigantic novel said “thanks” to the counter guy as she left, and he said “see you tomorrow!”

Not home, not an office, but another node or point of contact, another place on the map that can be used as “base,” a resting zone. If all coffee shops had was coffee, I wouldn’t go to them nearly as often, wouldn’t drink nearly as much of the stuff. I go there for the state of mind, the focus, go there to be outside and at rest at the same time.