About

I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 9/13/2021

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Posts - 2638
Comments - 2643
Hits - 2,415,947

Averages
Entries/day - 0.39
Comments/entry - 1.00
Hits/day - 361

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 2:03 AM Pacific


  03:22 PM

Not long ago, one of the editors at work raised a question in our editing group: do we have any guidance about bolding parts of a sentence in a paragraph? Like this:

The editor asked the author why they wanted to bold things this way. "So they'll stand out visually!" was the reply, or something close to that.

We don't have explicit guidance in our style guide that says "don't bold parts of a sentence just for visual accent," so there wasn't anything we could point the author to. Nonetheless, I've been thinking about this question, and I want to articulate why adding random bolding is not a good idea.

First, formatting "has semantics," as we say at work—when something is italicized or bolded or capitalized or monospace, it conveys information to the reader. Our style guide has guidelines for when we use different types of formatting. For example:

Use bold formatting for UI elements and at the beginning of notices.

Use italics formatting when drawing attention to a specific word or phrase, such as when defining terms or using words as words.

(UI elements means that the text references a button caption or textbox label. Beginning of notices means words like Note: at the start of a note.)

By being very consistent with these guidelines, we help the reader understand not just the words in a sentence, but what their significance is. When a reader sees "Click OK," they know that the bolded OK refers to a button.

We have the additional wrinkle in our texts that they're translated into several languages. Our formatting choices therefore have to be clear to the translators as well. If they see text in bold, they know our guidelines, so they assume that bold text is bold for one of the reasons that we've laid out, and they translate accordingly.

That aside, a fair question (imo) to ask the author is why they need to call out snippets of text in the paragraph in the first place. If the bolded bits are the important ones, then what's all the other text in the paragraph about? Sure, we know that people scan documents and that they don't read them word for word. (For example, see F-shaped Pattern of Reading on the Web: Misundertood, But Still Relevant.) But is using random bolded text the best way to accommodate this approach to scanning? We already have other ways to help readers scan the text: headings, lists, and tables. We can write sections, paragraphs, and even sentences to put the important parts at the beginning or the end.

Moreover, if we're going to use bold to make some parts of a paragraph stand out, what's the algorithm? How do we decide which are the important bits? Do we do this for some paragraphs but not others? In other words, is there some sort of consistent approach to how we're doing this, or is it based on the author's intuition about which text should be bolded?

And importantly, what kind of reading experience are we creating if the text has snippets in bold here and there?

Finally, there's a piece of writerly advice that I learned from the editor June Casagrande. In her piece "A look at the visual component of writing" in the LA Times, she points out the following:

In writing, looks count. In fact, many of the style rules followed so religiously by publishers exist exclusively to make the text easy on the eyes.

[…] some of these more superficial style conventions can give your writing a professional polish, affording your words a subtle air of authority. As a plus, writing that's easy on the eyes does a better job of getting your message across.

After reviewing a number of formatting conventions, she concludes with a strong point: "That's what the pros do." I want this observation framed and hanging above my desk. There are these conventions. Are they right? Are they wrong? It doesn't really matter. That's what the pros do.

If you want your writing to look professional, study professional writing and follow the conventions you see there. If you look at a lot of software documentation, do you see bits and pieces of paragraphs bolded? No. Should you develop your own conventions for your document? Also no. Should your document, among the thousands on our site, exhibit unique formatting conventions? Also also no.

My sense is that many editors agree, as least if "likes" on a tweet are any guide:

The next time we have a discussion about random bolding in a document, at least I'll have my thoughts in order. Whether they prove convincing to an author … well, we'll have to see.

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  10:57 AM

Suppose you're having a party at home with your friends, rocking out to hits of the 90s. There's a knock on the door. Uh-oh, it's the police. What's the issue, officers? We don’t like this music, they say. You should be listening to Classic Rock.

Who are the police to tell you what music you and your friends should listen to, right? Sure, if the music is too loud, that's one thing. If there were, weirdly, some sort of ordinance that made 90s music illegal, ok. But to have the police tell you what sort of music you and your friends "should" be listening to? No.

You might not be surprised to learn that this little parable is about editing. "You" is an author. "Your friends" is the community that the author is writing for. "The police" is an editor.

Editors do enforce rules and guidelines. What they should not do is impose their own taste on a text.

I've been thinking about this because of a Twitter thread that I saw this week. (I mean, I think about this all the time, but I was most recently reminded of it this week.) The exchange went like this:

Here's a transcript of the exchange:

Them: What's a better, less annoying jargon-y word for onboarding?
Me: Are you looking for a different term because you don't like it or because the audience isn't familiar with the term?
Them: I despise the word.
Me: But if it's a term used by your readers—?
Them: I'm trying to teach them a better way.

[To be super clear: the other person in this exchange is not an editor, so this is not a professional ding at them. I'm just using this exchange as an opportunity to discuss an issue that does concern editors.]

I asked my original question because the word onboarding is well established in some disciplines, like HR. I see the term constantly at work (software company), and as far as I know everyone in our office understands the word just fine. If you're writing something for an audience of HR professionals, or even for a bunch of corporate drones (like me), onboarding is not only fine, it's the word that those people use.

Editors are of course allowed to have aesthetic preferences about language. Certain terms might strike them as silly or icky just because. I remember a discussion in the 'aughts among editors at work about the word blog, which some people just hated; others hated the word instantiate ("create an instance of"), which is widely used in the programming world. Not long ago, an author and I tried to find a replacement for the odd term outlyingness but ultimately decided that that our workarounds were not an improvement.

But an editor's feelings about a word are not a valid reason alone for making authors change it. As one of our copyediting principles states, "Have a reason for every change." There are a variety of reasons to ask authors not to use a term: the author has not used the term accurately; the term is "bad" jargon; your style guide says not to use it; it's ableist or potentially disrespectful. It's also perfectly legitimate to confer with the author about whether the audience will understand a term like onboarding or instantiate; another copyediting principle is "Know the audience."

But the many reasons to suggest changing a term do not include "because I don't like it." The editor Jonathon Owen summed this up once in a tweet:

(In case you can't see this, it says "It’s our job to make writing clear and effective, but I don’t think it’s necessarily our job to hold the line against changing usage or to defend the language from its own users. That is, nobody hired us to be in charge of the English language.")

Editors do a lot to make text better for readers. There's plenty to do with that task without also trying to be the boss of English.

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  01:23 PM

Over the last year and some, we didn't dine out, obviously, since we couldn't. Now that we're easing back into more normal life, I've realized that a year away from the lure of going out to eat has changed my thinking about it a bit.

Of course, many restaurants survived by offering take-out food. We got take-out a few times. But I realized that I didn't like this very much. For one thing, the third-party delivery services have been accused of some shady practices. But even if you order directly from the restaurant, it's a suboptimal experience. My summation of the experience of take-out food is this: cook something; leave it sitting for 20 minutes; serve and (probably don't) enjoy. Now I get take-out only if I intend to eat it more or less immediately.

One of the first things that changed was that we cooked more at home. I'm a, dunno, utilitarian cook: I can make a certain number of things, but I don't aspire to fancy cooking. What the enforced time away from restaurants did, though, was to encourage me to work on cooking things I like. For example, I like going out for diner-type breakfast. Over the last year I actively worked on re-creating that food at home. This was a success for me: I've made waffles, hash browns, eggs over easy, French toast, and hash that to me was entirely satisfactory. (I emphasize that I can now cook these things the way that I like them, not that I should work in a diner.) There are also lunch and dinner foods that I feel that I've perfected for my individual taste. (Same caveat.)


Homemade hashbrowns and eggs

This success has made me ponder the purpose of going out to eat. Certainly I (you too?) have paid for pretty indifferent restaurant meals. At this point, I ask myself why I should go out for a breakfast that I can probably do better (same caveat) at home. Should I wait in line on a Sunday morning to eat a mediocre breakfast? Do I really want to go out for another meal of American Mexican food? I'm beginning to wonder.

Then there is the cost. Any sit-down meal is going to cost $18–20 per person and of course can cost many times that. If I go out for dinner with my wife, we can easily be looking at, what, $50 at even a two-$$-sign restaurant, especially if we get drinks. If one or more of the kids come along, multiply that number. It's not that these prices are unreasonable; it's that it adds up. How much per week should I budget to get meals that have a likelihood of being pretty forgettable?

But dining out is not just about meals that you might or might not be able to make at home. Going out is about third places—not home, not work, but a third place. For example, unlike my parents' generation, we don't "entertain" at home in the way that seemed to be a premise in many 1950s-era cookbooks. If we want to socialize with people, our custom (and I suspect that of many folks) is to meet up for coffee or lunch or a beer. Obviously, socializing over a table—socializing at all—was severely constrained over the last year and some.


Pages from "The Joy of Cooking" (1975) about entertaining

My wife and I also enjoyed taking our laptops to a coffee shop or pub and working or writing. (I wrote many blog posts at an ale house that was within walking distance of our last domicile.)

Did these protocols change over the pandemic time? I have started meeting people again to catch up, and it's the same as before—find a place convenient to both parties, and then have breakfast or a beer or whatever. But I am much more aware now that I'm paying to socialize, so to speak, and I'm maybe a little more resentful when I shell out a hunk of money for something that wasn't very good, the company itself of course excepted. (It's great to see people in person again.)

Based on my limited experience again of working or writing away from home, I know that I still enjoy that. Coffee shops are opening up again to allow people to sit and work; my wife and I spent a couple of pleasant hours at a coffee shop a few Sundays ago plugging away on our respective writing projects.


Back to writing at coffee shops

It would be easy to get back into a habit of going out 4 or 5 times a week to do this. But it's possible that pandemic-time habits have made me rethink all this. Although it will be easy again to think that I'm too tired to make dinner at home and go out, I've gotten out of the habit. I think about whether I'll enjoy it and how much it costs. The same is true for grabbing the laptop and settling at a table somewhere to work. Fortunately, our libraries are opening up again to allow people to sit and work: a third place that doesn't cost anything to use (though the hours are not always convenient).

I don't think we'll change our socializing habits, though; I anticipate that we'll still meet people out in the third place. But the pandemic reset expectations about socializing, I think. We went months without seeing anyone in person, and I'm still okay with limiting face-to-face socializing to just occasionally, maybe a couple of times a month at most. In this regard I think I differ from my wife, who is not as content as I am to have long periods between visits.

I've read a number of articles about how there's pent-up demand for things to get back to how it was in pre-pandemic times. I suspect, though, that for some of us, the forced changes over the last year have done a reset on our expectations and, possibly, on our habits.

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  09:32 PM

On Twitter recently, DeAnna Burghart reminded us that if you use Microsoft Word, it's important to back up your Normal.dotm file. If the file is overwritten or corrupted, you lose your macros, your keyboard shortcuts, and other goodies that editors rely on.

I've experienced that problem, gah. So a while back, I set up Windows so that it automatically backs up my Normal.dotm file several times a day. I thought it might be useful to show other people how I did this.

Sad note: The information in this post applies only to Windows. I'm sure there's a way to do this on the Mac, but I don't currently know how to do it.

I realize that this is a long post and therefore looks complicated. It isn't, I promise! I added some extra steps to test as you go to try to make sure that you don't Experience Disappointment.

Update: I created a video version of this tutorial!

Background

To back up your Normal.dotm file, you copy it from its default location (i.e., where Word looks for it) to some other location. AFAIK, the default location is always this:

DRIVE:\Users\YOUR-USER-NAME\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Templates

For example, my Normal.dotm file is here:

C:\Users\Mike\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Templates

You can certainly copy the file manually. But you can also automate the copy process so that Windows copies the file for you. You might sometimes forget to back up your file by hand, but if you automate the process, you never need to worry about it.

What I did—and what I'll show you here—is that I created a script. The script doesn't just copy the Normal.dotm file to another folder. During the copy process, it names the backup file by adding a date and time stamp. For example, the script creates a file that has a name like this:

Normal(2021-04-26 17_49).dotm

You can see that the filename includes the date (Apr 26, 2021) and time (5:49 pm). Timestamping the backup files has two advantages:

  • Each time you run the backup, you make a new, different backup file. This can be useful if Normal.dotm gets corrupted—you have multiple backup versions of the file, some of which (hopefully) are older than when the corruption occurred.
  • You know when the backup was made.

I use two technologies for the automated backup:

  • PowerShell. This is a programming language that lets you automate Windows tasks like copying files. PowerShell has been in Windows since Windows 7, so you don't need to install anything. I have the complete script in this post, so you don't need to know PowerShell; you can just copy and paste the script.
  • Windows Task Scheduler. This is a Windows utility that lets you run tasks—for example, a script—at specific times or at intervals.

Create the PowerShell script

  1. Create a folder named C:\backup on your computer to copy the backup files to.

    You don't have to use this folder; you can use any folder you like. Just make sure that the folder already exists. (The script won't create it.) If you don't use C:\backup, you need to make some minor changes later.

  2. Open a text editor (for example, Notepad ... don't use Word for this), create a new file, and then copy the following script into it:
    # PowerShell script to back up the Word Normal template (Normal.dotm)
    # 2020-Apr-26 Mike Pope
    
    $bu_path = "C:\backup"
    
    $bu_datetime = Get-Date -Format "yyyy-MM-dd HH_mm"
    $source_file = $env:appdata + "\Microsoft\Templates\Normal.dotm"
    $dest_filename = $bu_path + "\Normal(" + $bu_datetime + ").dotm"
    Write-Output $dest_filename
    Copy-Item -Path $source_file -Destination $dest_filename
  3. If you don't want to use the C:\backup folder, change the path in the third line (the one that starts with $bu_path =). Make sure that you don't add a trailing backslash (\) to your path.
  4. Save the file to the C:\backup folder (or your alternative) using the following name:

    back-up-normal-template.ps1

    The .ps1 extension is used for PowerShell scripts.

  5. Close the text editor.

Test the script

Before you create a scheduled task for the script, it's a good idea to make sure it's working on your computer.

  1. Open a Windows command window. (Press Windows+s, then type CMD). You see a command line:

  2. Enter the following command (better yet, copy and paste it):

  3. powershell.exe -ExecutionPolicy Bypass -File "C:\backup\back-up-normal-template.ps1"

    Again, if you're not using C:\backup, substitute your folder name.

    The command invokes PowerShell and tells it to run the script that's in the back-up-normal-template.ps1 file that you created earlier. The ExecutionPolicy argument tells PowerShell that your script is safe; if you don't include this part, PowerShell will refuse to run the script due to security concerns.

    If all goes well, the script displays the name of the backup file, like this:

    C:\backup\Normal(2021-04-26 17_59).dotm

    If you see red text, read it carefully. Carefully check the command that you entered. You might also need to fix the script itself (the .ps1 file). Some possibilities:

    • The script you used earlier assumes that the Normal.dotm file is in the default location. If the file is in a different location, it's possible the script isn't finding it.
    • If you're not using the C:\backup folder, did you fix up the script to reflect the folder that you are using?

    You must resolve any errors before you can proceed.

  4. If the script appeared to run correctly, look in the C:\backup folder (or the folder you are using instead). Do you see a .dotm file that starts with Normal followed by a date and time? If so, everything is working.

Schedule the backup

You can now configure Windows to run your script at intervals. You do this by creating a scheduled task. When you create the task, you specify what you want to run (the PowerShell command that you just tested) and when you want to run it.

  1. Open the Task Scheduler app. (Press Windows+S, then type Task Scheduler.)

  2. In the folder tree on the left, right-click Task Scheduler Library and then click New Folder. Name the new folder My Tasks. This step isn't essential, but it makes it easier for you to find your custom task later if you want to modify it.

  3. Right-click the My Tasks folder and click Create Task. This opens the Create Task dialog, which has several tabs that you'll be working in.

    Note: Don't close the Create Task dialog (that is, don't click OK), until you've done all the steps.

  4. In the General tab, do the following:

    1. In the Name box, enter the name BackupNormalTemplate.

    2. In the Description box, enter details about what this task is about.

  5. Go to the Actions tab and click New. This is where you specify what you want to run—namely, the PowerShell script.

    1. In the Program/script box, enter powershell.exe.

    2. In the Add arguments box, enter the following:

      -ExecutionPolicy Bypass -File "C:\backup\back-up-normal-template.ps1"

      These settings specify that you want to run the PowerShell script that you tested at the command line earlier.

    3. Click OK to close the New Action dialog and return to the Create Task dialog.

  6. Go to the Triggers tab and click New. This is where you specify when (how often) to run your script.

    1. Under Advanced settings, select the checkbox next to Repeat task every.

    2. Enter an interval for how often you want to run the script. For example, to run the script twice a day, enter 12 hours. (It doesn't look like it, but you can type in that box.)

    3. In the for a duration of list, choose Indefinitely. This tells Windows to keep running the script until you change the interval or delete the scheduled task.

  7. Click OK to close the New Trigger dialog.

  8. In the Create Task dialog box, click OK.

Note: Don't close the Task Scheduler window yet.

Test the scheduled task

You know that the script runs; now you want to make sure that the scheduled task works.

  1. In the Task Scheduler, in the file tree, click the MyTasks folder. The list of scripts in that folder is displayed on the right.

  2. In the right-hand pane, right-click the BackupNormalTemplate task and then click Run.

    The PowerShell scripting window appears briefly, then vanishes.

  3. Go to the C:\backup folder and check that another backup copy of the Normal.dotm file has been saved.

    If this worked, you should be all set.

  4. Close the Task Scheduler app.

You probably want to check the C:\backup folder tomorrow and the next day to make sure that the script is writing out backup files at regular intervals.

If you need to recover a Normal.dotm file, go to the C:\backup folder, rename one of the backup files to just Normal.dotm, and then copy it back to the folder where Word keeps the template.

Hopefully you'll never need to do that. But if you do, you'll have a recent backup available!

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  08:54 AM

The hazards of overclaiming

I was listening to a podcast yesterday when it was interrupted with an ad that started like this:

Do you have 30 minutes to spare? Because after just one half hour, you'll never have to worry about a break-in at home again. That's how easy it is to set up a security system from [company name].

My editor brain froze at the point. What I heard was a claim that if you installed their system, you would not be broken into—you would be protected against burglary forever ("never have to worry").

When we technical-edit documents at work, one of our priorities is to check for what we call overclaiming. For example, we stay on the lookout for instances of overclaiming about security, like this:

This product prevents bad actors from hacking your system.

A claim like this simply can't be guaranteed. In the realm of security, the apparent strength of your product might just mean that a hacker hasn't found a flaw in it yet. For example, encryption algorithms that once seemed secure enough to be used by the NSA have been cracked.

We look for overclaiming in any discussion of performance:

Using this product makes your applications three times faster.

We look for it in mentions of costs:

This product reduces your computing costs by 50 percent.

For performance claims, we warn authors that anything that states a number has to have data to back it up. If you say your product is three times faster, you better be able to produce the tests that show this. The same applies to any mention of costs: numbers, please.

And we look for it in any text that involves comparison to other products:

Our product is substantially easier to use than [competitive product].

This claim is problematic in multiple ways. First, what does "easier" even mean? Something that's easy for me might be hard for you and vice versa. And competitive products are a moving target anyway; perhaps our product is "easier" than the current version of product X, but who knows what's in their next release.

So naturally I stumbled over "you'll never have to worry about a break-in at home again." But I thought about it for a bit. First, it's advertising copy, not a technical document on how to configure cloud computing. Maybe there's more wiggle room for wild claims, as in, people aren't expected to interpret these things literally.

I also homed in on the phrase "worry about." With some work, this can be made ambiguous. One idiomatic interpretation is that it means that something won't occur:

What if we run out of Cheetos tonight?
You don't need to worry about that[, we just went to Costco].

A more literal interpretation is that, well, you don't need to worry. This is the type of messaging that insurance companies use: it's not that [thing] won't happen, it's that you can stop worrying about [thing] happening because insurance.

I have a hard time fitting this second meaning onto the ad copy for home security systems. But if I had to defend that statement in court, say, that's what I'd go with.

Speaking of consequences, all of this hypervigilance about overclaiming is of course ultimately about protecting the company. The fear is not just that we'll be shown to have been wrong. ("Sorry.") When people spend vast sums based on assurances that you've given them about security or performance or cost, and when those assurances don't prove true, they might take a litigious turn of mind. At the very least, they're not going to trust you in the future and might look elsewhere to spend their money.

I'm not personally aware of the various companies I've worked for being hauled into court to defend an assertion. ("You said we wouldn't be hacked!") But clearly the lawyercats think about this a lot, and I've certainly participated in my share of fire drills in which we dropped everything to grub through many documents, tweaking some text that was discovered to be overclaim-y.

I would not be surprised to hear an ad from the same company a year from now in which the claim "you don't need to worry about break-ins" has been hedged to something like "Get yourself some peace of mind." If I were editing their copy, that's definitely what would happen.

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  10:40 PM

These are recordings I've made of me playing solo ukulele. Unless otherwise noted, the tunes come from Graded Repertoire for Ukulele: Classical, Volume 1, a book by Jeff Peterson. The arrangements are his.


Johannes Brahms, "Berceuse" (often known as "Brahms's Lullaby")
Recorded September 6, 2021


Matteo Carcassi, "Andantino"
Recorded June 4, 2021


Grieg, "Hall of the Mountain King"
Recorded May 16, 2021


Ferndando Sor, "Study No. 3"

Recorded April 14, 2021


Ferndando Sor, "Study No. 2"

Recorded March 14, 2021


Dionisio Agudao, "Estudio No. 1"

Recorded February 1, 2021

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  04:22 PM

I've been working from the book Graded Repertoire for Classical Ukulele with arrangements by Jeff Peterson. I'm plugging away at learning to translate written music to ukulele strings and learning some basic techniques from classical guitar as applied to the ukulele.

Update I decided to make a single blog entry that tracks these recordings. (The link to this recording is repeated there.)

I could practice the same pieces forever, probably. So I thought I'd finish them as you do when you take piano lessons: perform them. In my case, I thought I'd record the pieces I really liked, and then declare myself done with those pieces. This is my first effort, "Estudio No. 1" by Dionisio Aguado (1784-1849), arranged for uke, as noted, by Jeff Peterson. This is the 4th piece in Grade 1 (of 8), and has been my favorite so far.

Estudio No. 1

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  09:56 PM

On the ukulele (as with guitar), the idea of movable chords is that the shapes you learn for open chords constitute patterns. By adding a barre, you can move the shapes up the fretboard to form new chords. For example, you can take the C shape, move it up 2 frets, and get a D:

If this is a new concept for you, may I recommend my booklet on movable shapes for ukulele (PDF).

In this post I want to talk about the patterns—the relationships—for moving these patterns around the fretboard. Bear with me while I explain this notion.

On the concert uke, there are basically 5 shapes for playing movable major chords[1]:

In addition to making it easy for you to move a C shape to a D shape (for example), this means that there are 5 ways to play any given major chord. Here are 5 ways to play a C major chord:

There's a relationship—a kind of circle—among these shapes in terms of how you can move between these different ways to play the same chord. I'll show you the diagram and then illustrate how it works.

Here's a different, more formula-like way to indicate the same thing:

C shape + 3 frets = A shape
A shape + 2 frets = G shape
G shape + 2 frets = F shape
F shape + 3 frets = D shape
D shape + 2 frets = C shape

What does all of this mean? It means that when you play a major chord using a movable shape—any major chord, any movable shape—you can easily figure out how to play the same chord using the other shapes.

I'll start by illustrating this using the C shape:

Per the diagram/formula earlier, we can make another C chord by taking the open C shape, moving up 3 frets (C shape + 3 frets), and making an A shape:

Following the formula, to make another C chord, we can move up 2 more frets and make a G shape (A shape + 2 frets = G shape):

Keep going. If you're making a C using the G shape, the next C chord is 2 frets up and using the F shape:

Move the F shape up 3 frets and make a D shape, and you've got yet another C chord:

Finally, move the D shape up 2 more frets and you've back to the original C shape:

I say that this pattern is circular because you can wrap around, so to speak. Start anywhere in the circle to make a shape. Move up or down the designated number of frets, make the next shape, and you've got the same chord. For example, here's a sequence of A chords starting on the open A shape. Notice that the intervals (number of frets) between each of the shapes follows the diagram/formula from earlier:

The pattern is also circular because you can move backward, i.e., down the fretboard the designated number of frets. For example, if you're making an A chord on the 7th fret using the D shape, you can make an A chord move down 3 frets to the 4th fret and switch to the F shape. (D shape minus 3 frets = F shape)

A couple of additional notes:

  • For purposes of this exercise, open chords are fret 0 (zero). For example, if you make an open A chord and want to make the same chord in the G shape, the formula says to move up 2 frets. Zero plus 2 is 2, so barre the second fret.
  • Fret 12 is the equivalent of fret 0—in other words, any chord that you make by barring fret 12 is the same as the open chord. If you get to the point where the numbers take you to fret 12, just go back to an open shape.
  • There are similar circular patterns for other chords—minor, 7ths, etc. I'll put those together in the fullness of time. Teaser: the patterns—the number of frets between chords—is the same for minor chords as for major chords; in other words, you already have the circular pattern for minor chords.

And finally, why is it useful to know this thing? Obviously, you don't sit around moving from shape to shape for any given chord when you're playing.

For me, this has helped a bit as I try to visualize where the chords are on the fretboard. When I initially started with movable chords, it felt a bit like they were just scattered around on the fretboard. ("I know there's a C chord in an A shape, but where is it?") I could look them up in the "dictionary" of the movable chords booklet, but as I worked with the shapes it became clear that there were patterns to how the different fingerings for the same chord were related. So I just sat down and worked it out.

I think this is probably an interim measure for learning out the locations of chords. I imagine that after many, many, many hours of practice, you just know where the several C chords are, and the A chords, and the G chords, and so on, and you don't have to calculate it. In the meantime, I keep a sticky note on my music stand with this major chord circle.

[1] As I note in the booklet, there are also 3-string chords and occasionally some open chords that it isn't practical to move because they're just too darned awkward to barre. I'm sticking here with a basic theory of movable chords.

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  10:16 PM

Every year I get out the trusty Hal Leonard Christmas Carols for Solo Ukulele book and see if I can remember the ones I learned the year before and maybe learn a new one. Then I use my primitive home recording setup to record them, just for fun.

Here are recordings of some of them that I made this year. These are all MP3 files that are about a minute long and all less than 1 MB.

PS I'm not a very good uke player.

Note: For technical reasons that I don't understand, you might have to refresh the page after listening to a track before you can listen to a different track. Sorry :(

Away in a Manger

Jingle Bells

O Tannenbaum

Silent Night

Merry Christmas!

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  10:26 PM

Covid and name-spelling

I've always had an issue in trying to tell people what my last name is. As I've written about before, people have a hard time understanding the name Pope. "Hope?" "Polk"? There's just something about that combination of consonants that's always hard to hear, especially over the phone.

Well, Covid certainly hasn't helped. I'm not a particularly clear talker under the best of circumstances. Add to that wearing a mask and talking through a plastic shield, and I feel like I practically have to yell to transact business when I'm at a store. One of the local shops posted the following sign, which might seem vaguely rude, but I think everyone understands the issue.

However, even yelling is often not enough to make my name clear to people across the counter. For some people, it can help to spell their name. But the letters P-O-P-E sound similar to other letters, like B, D, E, and spelling my name can just generate a second round of "did you mean …"? Another option is to say something like P as in Peter, and so on. When I talk on the phone with people who are accustomed to the problems of transcribing names, they'll sometimes do this.

Long ago the military solved this problem by inventing a so-called spelling or phonetic alphabet. You probably know this alphabet, which starts with Alfa (or Alpha), Bravo, Charlie, and finishes with Yankee, Zulu:

The beauty of this particular alphabet is that the names were carefully chosen to be unambiguous. Although the letters B and P sound similar, the words Bravo and Papa don't, so there's not much chance of them being confused, or Delta and Golf, or Mike and November. If you look through this alphabet, you'll see that none of the names sound like any of the other names.

So now when I am masked up and talking through a shield, I've taken to preemptively spelling out my name using this alphabet. I'll go to the pharmacy, and when they ask what name the prescription is under, I'll say "POPE, Papa-Oscar-Papa-Echo!" I sometimes get funny looks after this, but so far, no one has misunderstood what I'm spelling out.[1]

[1] Many people who were in the military know this alphabet, and a guy I used to work with who was ex-military taught me the term Charlie Foxtrot as a way in polite company to refer to a clusterfuck.

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