Thursday, April 22, 2010

Recommended Reading: The Canthook

If you pick your way through several blogs a day as I do, you begin to notice two universal truths of blogging: First, people blog mainly because they want the world to hear their opinions on whatever topic they happen to be writing about. I'm just as guilty of this feeling of self-importance and the belief that I am doing all of you a favor by sharing my thoughts as anyone else who has set up shop in a little corner of the Internet and started posting whatever came to mind. As I've often said to folks who have asked me for advice on their own blogs - or their own writing of any kind - you have to develop an ego, or at least play-act the part. You have to make yourself believe that what you've written is the greatest thing since sliced bread, or you're likely never to push the "post" button in the first place!

The second truth, which often wreaks havoc with the first, is that not everything that every blogger has ever written is, in fact, the greatest thing since sliced bread. The quality of blogged material out there varies wildly from blog to blog; it often varies just as greatly from to post to post within the same blog. (Again, count me among the guilty...I go back and reread some of the things I've posted and shake my head wondering what I might have been drinking that day...)

The blogs that I find myself going back to day after day, that I include on that blogroll over on the left-hand side of the screen, and that I have chosen to share with you in this series, are those where the blogger is clearly not shy about voicing opinion, but is also capable of churning out consistently high-quality posts. Most often, that's accomplished by focusing one's writing on a particular area of interest or expertise. The more difficult trick to master is to maintain that quality of writing and strength of opinion over a variety of subjects. Dr. Harl Delos is one of the few I have found who can do exactly that.

In his blog The Canthook, Delos offers us the chance to see the world through his eyes as he goes about his daily routines. His posts might be about anything that catches his eye - or his memory - for a moment or two: people-watching at a restaurant, catching a particularly good program on television, reminiscences from his childhood, a groaner of a joke he recently heard. Other posts tackle current events, be they political, technological, or theological. Often, in fact, Delos meanders down a garden pathway of topics in a single post, each connected, if only by the thinnest of tangential threads - just as our thoughts tend to meander. For that reason, his posts strike a deeper chord than those of many bloggers out there. Even if you don't necessarily agree with Delos' take on things, you understand how he got there. He's shown you his work in reaching his answer.

I go back to The Canthook again and again because Delos challenges his readers to think. Think about the world around you - not just current events or world-affecting things, but think about how waking up to the smell of a freshly-brewed pot of coffee makes you feel. Stop and smell the roses, if I may be so cliched. He is impish and mischievous in the way he challenges, but he's not just stirring up the pot. Retired after a long career that saw him spend time as a newspaper publisher, a magazine editor, an engineer, and an early computer programmer, among other pursuits, Delos has the hands-on experiences that bring substance to his opinions. He knows of what he speaks, hence the quality of the writing. That he does all of this with a healthy spoonful of humor makes The Canthook an extremely entertaining read - and also the kind of blog you go back and re-read.

One of the first questions that comes to most people's minds regarding The Canthook is, well, "What does 'The Canthook' mean?" In his responses to the Five Questions I've asked each blogger in this series, you'll find the answer. You'll also find Harl Delos' wonderfully dry sense of humor:

What or who inspired you to begin blogging?
HD: Doogie Houser inspired me. And Mark Twain.

At the time, I had a discussion list, and I was frustrated because people wanted to read the posts and participate, but they didn't want to publicize their email address. Some discussion lists had you post to a central address, and their address was stripped away by the moderator, but the delay involved in moderation prevented an active exchange of ideas; on the list, we'd sometimes have two people post back and forth 10 times in an hour, and that made it exciting and interesting.

The alternative was to put up a forum, but that meant that vandals could (and did) post ads, etc., all the time, and that was a pain to maintain.

It was the invention of RSS that made it possible to subscribe without opening yourself up to spam - and what *really* makes a blog a blog, is the RSS feed.

Is there a story or meaning behind your blog or its name?
HD: I'm what theologists call a skeptic, what investors call a contrarian. When I was in engineering schools, they taught us to *always* question assumptions - so I question not only mine, but everyone else's as well. I find that taking a look from a different angle often brings out a very interesting story.

A canthook is a tool used by linemen to twist a utility pole into the proper orientation. A peavey is a similar tool used to twist a log. was already in use by the guitar people, so I named my blog The Canthook. I write posts that consider issues from different cants than the same-old same-old.

I used to publish newspapers and a magazine, and I thought the blog should have a name that sounded like the name of a newspaper. I love The Daily Beast but including "daily" in the name commits me to more work than I want to be committed to. I'm retired, after all!

Which post would you choose from your archives if you had to provide only one that best represents what your blog is all about?

HD: It's the one I'm going to write *tomorrow* - whatever day "tomorrow" happens to be when you read this. My blog is so eclectic, it's hard to pick out a post that begins to encompass all that I write about.

Someday, I'm going to write about being raped at the age of four, and if it turns out halfway good, it'll be the post that best represents the blog, because to a large degree, this blog is occupational therapy. Server rent is a LOT cheaper than a therapist. Harlan Ellison wrote a story half a century ago entitled "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" and I almost stole the name of that story as a title for my blog, except that it doesn't sound like the title of a newspaper, does it?

I can't come up with a single post that's representative. Here are three that drew a lot of email. The email I get tends to be intensely personal, and I tend to value it more than the impersonal comments made on the blog itself.

Epiphanies: Secrets of Wealth, Sex & Orange Soda

Hair Is, Uh, Magic.
Gobstoppers, and Collateral Damage

When you first log on to your computer each day, what is the first site you go to? Why?
HD: Google Alerts. Instead of signing up for email, you can set Google Alerts as an RSS feed, which means they show up in your RSS reader immediately instead of clogging your mailbox. I have SharpReader checking a number of alerts, the combination of which would be of interest to me, and probably no other person in the entire world.

What one other blog would YOU recommend that you read regularly, and why?

HD: Of late, the blog I go to first is Bats Left/Throws Right. Doghouse Riley offers up insanely great rants, and they're even greater if you have ever lived in or around Indianapolis, but that's not essential.

Delos also offered this comment on his audience-building strategy:
It's a lot easier to *keep* a reader than to *get* a reader. Consequently, I promote SharpReader at my blog, because I don't want to have people stopping by every couple of weeks to see if I've written anything new and interesting, and eventually forgetting to stop by, I want them to see the "teaser" right away when I write a new post.

If they use SharpReader for twenty other blogs, they will keep it running all the time instead of just once in a while. If someone doesn't want to read my posts, that's one thing, but I don't want them drifting away without making a decision to do so. And I know, from the number of blogs that are still in *my* copy of Sharpreader, though they haven't posted in the last couple of months, that people need a good reason to unsubscribe.

That strategy seems to work. I'm experiencing slow, steady growth. My blog is not for everyone. In fact, I suspect it drives some people batty. But the fact that I'm experiencing any growth at all suggests that my audience is finding me.

I certainly hope that, though my recommendation, some of you find yourself part of Dr. Harl Delos' audience. Stop by The Canthook and spend some time there perusing the posts. You'll be glad you did, and I think you'll go back for more.

My great thanks to Dr. Harl Delos for participating in this series and sharing his thoughts!

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