Writing in Passive Voice Shall Not Be Done By Journalists

Many of us look at the head line and first few sentences of a news article to gather just enough information to decide whether we want to continue reading it. So I was a bit peeved when I was greeted this morning with ambiguous headline and an impenetrable opening sentence in this article from New York Times:

Man Being Queried on Tsarnaev Ties Is Killed by Officer

BOSTON — A man in Orlando, Fla., who was being interviewed early Wednesday morning by an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a Massachusetts state policeman about his ties to the deceased Boston Marathon bombing suspect, was fatally shot after he tried to attack them with a knife, according to a senior law enforcement official.

Maybe it was because I was trying to read this at 7:30 a.m., but I had to read that sentence three times to figure out who did what to whom. I’m not exactly the world’s best writer, but I can think of a hundred other ways to write this opening to make a clear sense the first time reading it. New York Times generally writes great articles, but this was a disappointment. I didn’t even bother reading the rest.

Compare this to another article covering the same story. From Yahoo! News of all places:

FBI agent kills man after questioning him about Boston Marathon bombing

An unidentified FBI agent shot and killed a man in Orlando, Fla., early Wednesday after questioning him about his link to the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

Both the headline and the opening sentence makes clear who shot whom when. The reader might not get as much information out from this opening compared to the NY Times version. It didn’t say that there was a Massachusetts state policeman also present at the scene, that the deceased man tried to attack the officers, or that the information was according to an unnamed senior law enforcement official. But I would much rather sacrifice learning all of that in the opening sentence if I can easily understand the important facts from the outset. And what are the important facts, might you ask? I try to think of it in the medical/nursing terminology, “oriented x4.” Orient the reader as to the person, place, time, and situation. The Yahoo! article does that in the opening sentence; the NY Times article tries to do much more than that and fails miserably.

The NY Times article’s sins are multiplied by the poor use of passive voice and is marred by multiple parenthetical clauses. In a shooting, who is the actor? The shooter. So the very first word in the headline–“Man”–is poorly chosen. An unnamed man is not an attention grabber. “FBI agent” that opens the Yahoo! headline, on the other hand, is interesting–especially if it is followed by the shocking revelation that he “kills man.” NY Times could have redeemed itself if it went on to say “Man Killed…,” but it didn’t. It said “Man Being Queried.” Query is such a quaint little word that we don’t normally use in our everyday speech. Do we get excited about an unnamed man being questioned by law enforcement officials? Or do we care more about a man being shot by an FBI agent? According to NY Times, interrogation is more important than firing bullets. Its opening sentence follows the same flawed and frustrating roadmap as the headline.

Moral of the story? Tell a good story in a the outset of your writing. And the outset can be even as early as first couple of words. Don’t waste your reader’s attention.


Brain Detox Day 1: Red Badge of Control

In law school, one of the first things they teach you is that you need to start with the conclusion. So here it is. Initial assessment: Effects of the detox are generally positive.

As I said in my last post, I decided to go on sort of a detox program for my brain. Throttling down the constant checking of my iPhone for new emails, social media updates, news alerts, etc. that keep on distracting me from focusing on the really important stuff in life. It is much like the idea of detox cleanse diet fad that we all keep hearing about (thanks, Dr. Oz) and less like the complete fasting or starvation diet. I’m cutting out the junk food and replacing it with the good stuff to allow your body to restore and reset itself. I’ve never done one of those cleanse diets so I can’t say from experience, but people who have do tell me that it’s easier to make permanent, positive changes to your eating style as you are coming out of the cleanse period. I’m hoping that proves true as much with the brain as it is with the gut.

Can’t. Stop. Must. Click. NOW.

The junk food analogy resonated with me all the more when I uninstalled the Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, FourSquare, AP News, and–this was the hardest–Tetris apps from my phone on last night. The common feature among these apps (besides Tetris… we’ll get to that animal in another post) is the notification badge. That little red circle is the devil. It is an evil concoction of crack cocaine and meth. It beckons me to click immediately. I want to see what new and exciting thing lies behind that button. I’ve seen some people who let their notification badge number go up ridiculously high, which makes me wonder just how they can wait that long. And by ridiculously high, I mean anything above 15. Yes, I have a problem. I am a notification badge junkie.

But I know I’m not the only one. We need only consider what is arguably the hottest and most talked about apps on iOS platform right now: Mailbox. It’s an app designed not only to clear off your notification badge but your inbox altogether. And just in case you are worried you’re going to forget that important email you’ve put on the back burner, you can make it come back later with another notification badge and an “unread” status. An app that lets you make more badges whenever you want. I’m not the only crazy one. And in case you were wondering, no, I haven’t tried Mailbox yet because it only supports Gmail. I’m waiting until it supports Exchange and IMAP.

In the olden days when we used this thing called PDAs (kids, if you don’t know what that is, ask your… who am I kidding? Google it), we accessed the information when we needed it. You would open the calendar up to see what appointments were coming up. You would open up a to-do list or a notepad application to jot down something you need to remember later. You would have to open up the address book to look up a person’s phone number to punch into your push-button cellular phone. You controlled what information flowed between you and the PDA.

Today, your phone largely controls not only when and how the information flows to you but, over time, also controls your physical and mental response. Yes, I know you can adjust the settings, but majority of the smartphone users stick to the standard settings. And if you are among the majority, you are in a terrible relationship with your smartphone. Unlike the PDAs of the old, which waited patiently until you summoned it, smartphones of today are very needy. It constantly demands your attention. Let’s examine how a smartphone is like having one of those nightmarishly demanding significant other.

Ever since lock screen notifications became standard, your phone keeps talking to you when you are not even looking at it. Ever tuned out (or tried to tune out) what your boyfriend or girlfriend was raving on about? Dings, beeps, rings, red badge of control, and vibration. It keeps on talking to you.

Before the days of smartphones, did you ever have to have four different charging cables for an electronic device? One in the car, one at the office, one in the living room, one next to your bed on your night stand. Even worse, you now buy other devices after confirming with your phone that it is okay to make the purchase (i.e., check compatibility). If your phone wants to get a makeover, you have to throw away all of your old stuff and get new stuff even though the old stuff worked just fine.

And if you aren’t convinced that your phone can physically change you, have you not heard of phantom vibration syndrome? Even when it doesn’t want to talk to you, your smartphone has put the fear of god in you to constantly check it to make sure it isn’t talking to you.

That’s no way to be in a relationship–with a human being or with a smartphone.

So I was glad when woke up in the morning after uninstalling Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, FourSquare, and AP News to see that the only red badges that I had to attend to immediately were on the Mail app. I’m not completely free from the despotic rule of the red badge over my life, but I am taking small steps toward freedom.

The Art of Unplugged Conversation: Detoxing My Brain from Ubiquitous Distractions

Last Friday, I had dinner and drinks with few friends from law school. We talked about everything and nothing, catching up on each other’s lives having not seen each other in quite some time. At one point, we were discussing about a movie or some TV show, and there arose a dispute about which actor played which character. And couple of us immediately broke out our smartphones and started searching on IMDB. I commented that in the olden days, these types of arguments were more interesting because it would lead to bets on who was right. Another friend replied, “this is better because we get to immediately settle the bets.” But with the instant gratification of being able to locate the answer, few of us ever engage in these friendly bets anymore.

I’m not here to lament the decline of wagering or gambling. I am reminiscing the days when we used to engage in deeper human relations rather than resorting to the Interwebs for instant answers. Before we became tethered to our smartphones, a friendly bet over who had the right answer would lead to everyone going home, remembering the conversations they shared with the friends, researching the answer, and inevitably lead up to the “I told you so” conversation. That’s how relationships build: over repeated encounters and having interesting stories by which to remember those moments. Googling, IMDBing, and Wikipediaing right then and there when a good material for a bet comes up… it takes away the human element. You wouldn’t watch a sitcom where all that the characters did was searching on their phones; you watch sitcoms for the intricacies and quirks of human interactions.

The phenomenon of over-dependence on–or dare I say, addiction to–technology isn’t limited to the friendly bet situations. Too often, we constantly look at our phones mid-conversation. Emails, texts, Facebook, Twitter… Distractions abound that interfere with deeply engaging with the person sitting in front of you. I’ve had some friends who read news or Facebook feeds while talking with me over dinner or drinks. I sometimes half-jokingly ask them, “am I that bad of a company?” I’m sure they don’t mean to be rude, but they are used to the constant media stimulus with which I cannot possible compete even if I were standup-comedian funny.

By no means am I free of this sin; I’m just a guilty as the next one. I think it got exponentially worse when I switched from a non-smartphone to an iPhone. I had gone from a Blackberry to a non-smartphone during second year of law school to (1) save money while on a student budget and (2) “unpluggin” from the constant stream of emails. (SMU Law alums could relate; it was the ALLLAW emails that drove me to become a Luddite with respect to smartphones.) Then I got a real law firm job where receiving and replying to emails around the clock was the expected norm; I had to give in to the iPhone epidemic. Not too long after the switch, I noticed that I would exchange long strings of text messages or emails despite complaining about my fat fingers and the atrocious auto-correct errors. Dialing a number and speaking to the other person would have been much faster and more accurate. I also noticed that I send emails at the office to my colleagues when I could just as easily walk 10 seconds down the hallway and have a face-to-face conversation. And I was constantly staring at my phone to check for push notifications when I was working on my computer. There a mesmerizing, addictive quality to those push notification badges.

Something had to change, I told myself one day. I didn’t want to become an attorney I know who stared at his Blackberry at least 80% of the time we had lunch together. So I resolved to call my friends rather than texting them. I started walking over to talk to my colleagues at work rather than shooting one-liner emails. I turned off most of the lock screen notifications on my iPhone except for work emails and text messages. I made an intentional effort to put away my phone when I’m talking with someone.

Old habits are hard to kick, though. I still do check email and Facebook constantly on my phone. And when I tried calling my friends, I kept getting voicemail rather than being able to speak to them directly. Some would text back asking “what’s up?” I realized then that my resolution to call rather than text was unrequited for the most part, so I eased up on that front over time.

Then I recently had refreshing occasions where I got to enjoy lengthy unplugged conversations with people–ones free of interruptions from technology and gadgets.

It was a couple of days after the aforementioned bet incident (or the lack thereof), I met up a different friend for dinner. I picked a Korean restaurant to meet at, and he needed some directions. So we talked on the phone and texted until he arrived at the appointed place. Then, without an overt agreement, we both put away our phones. He’s much less media-addicted than me, so it probably wasn’t a big deal to him. But I put mine away in my purse, and didn’t even bother to check in on Facebook or FourSquare. We talked for nearly two hours about life, job, school, health, family, faith, and even world economy and finances. He had an article he wanted to share with me, and he said he’ll send it to me later. I didn’t think much of it at the dinner, but afterwards I thought that I much preferred this way of communicating: Give the in-person conversation your undivided attention; you can follow up with details later rather than rudely breaking out your phone to send it to the person sitting in front of you while he stares at the top of your head in boredom.

Another case in point. On Tuesday, I had a lunch with an acquaintance. I needed directions on the meeting location, so we communicated via iPhone/iPad until we met up. Then we put away out iDevices (again unplanned) and talked. For a good 1.5 to 1.75 hours straight. After that long conversation, I feel like I know him much better and he knows more about me–to the point where I think there would be little hesitation from either of us to call each other “friend” the next time we meet.

Then I came upon this gem of a video last night:

Too much, too fast makes us too dumb to remember anything worth remembering. While I can’t even remember what my friends and I were debating over during the bet incident, I clearly remember other conversations we had over subjective preferences and differences of opinions–to which one cannot Google for an answer. Having 24/7 access to smartphones with at our fingertips doesn’t make us smarter, wiser, or more efficient. It certainly doesn’t make us more attentive or increase retention. Makes me wonder then: why are we in such a hurry? Why do we feel the need for around-the-clock access to emails, news, social media feeds, and other forms of media?

So the contrarian in me decided to go on a type of “media fast” for next few days–perhaps indefinitely. I’ll come back here to report my experimental observations, though. Stay tuned.

Yesterday’s News: European Unitary Patent system becomes official

One February 19, 2013, 24 of the 27 EU member states (all but Bulgaria, Poland and Spain) signed the agreement that establishes Unified Patent Court (UPC) and unitary patent system. Italy changed its mind and joined, and Bulgaria is expected to budge and sign soon.

Requests for unitary patents may be filed from the later of January 1, 2014, or the date that 13 countries (which must include France, Germany, and the U.K.) have ratified it. Full press release from EPO can be found here.

Prosecution (application requirements, examination, etc.) before the EPO remains the same until the point the examiner decides to grant a patent. Once the new system goes into effect, applicants will have a choice of proceeding under the old county-by-county validation system or the unitary system. Unitary patents can save money up front because there are no translation costs (as you had with the national validation system) and you pay a single annuity for the unitary patent as opposed to each national annuity. But you do end up putting all your eggs in one, unitary basket, the validity of which will be determined by the UPC. So litigation-prone clients and attorneys may prefer the old system where you get multiple shots at the validity question.

Shameless Plug: My Article on Patent Law Reform

The Texas Lawbook just published my article on how March 16, 2013, will mark a significant change in the American patent law system. The last portion of the America Invents Act of 2011 (popularly known as the “patent reform”) goes into effect in less than two months, and it will have a profound impact on patent practice.

Head on over to Texas Lawbook’s website or the Carstens & Cahoon, LLP Blog to check out my article for more detail.