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Sometime during elementary school, more than 30 years ago, I decided to start using my middle initial, and calling myself Derek K. Miller. I'm not entirely sure why. I was probably inspired by science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Ursula K. LeGuin, as well as my dad, who signs his name as J. Karl Miller but goes by Karl as his familiar name to everyone. And I was starting to be asked for my signature on documents: the extra K. added some flourish.

It seems a little snobby and effete to choose to lengthen your name as a prepubescent kid—and I suppose it was when I did it. But that is the age where we start to establish our own identities apart from our parents, and manipulating the names they give us is one means to that end. (My younger daughter is seriously considering having everyone address her by her middle name, for example.)

My decision turned out to be handy a few years down the line, however. When I needed my first university email address, dmiller was already taken, but dkmiller was free, and I've used that as part of almost every email address I've created since, sometimes to my detriment.

In the early days of the Web, my site was the first one you'd find searching for Derek Miller, but that didn't last. Today there are quite a few Derek Millers out there in the Google database. And to find me, you not only have to get past them, but also two separate ones who are musicians like me—though much more famous. One is a new indie sensation, the other is even Canadian (and performed at the Olympics Closing Ceremony here last year). But look for Derek K. Miller, and you still get me.

There's no way I planned that back at the turn of the 1980s, however. Some things just work out.

Yesterday I met my friend Bill for lunch, and as we were ending our visit, he half-jokingly pledged that, after I die, one way he will honour me is to avoid typing two spaces after a period in his writing. I posted that to Twitter and Facebook, and was surprised at how many people report still using two spaces after sentence-ending punctuation, something that is typographically wrong. Coincidentally, the same topic showed up at Slate and at Andrew Sullivan's blog too.

If you're a convinced two-spacer, please pick up any professionally-typeset publication: a book, a magazine, or a newspaper. Here, for instance, are bits from Yann Martel's award-winning novel Life of Pi (left) and an article from this month's Marie Claire magazine:

Page from Life of Pi Page from Marie Claire

Look at the end of each sentence: one space after a question mark, period, or other sentence-ending punctuation. No multiple spaces anywhere. So, unless you handle nothing but personal correspondence all day long, chances are that the vast majority of everything you read each day, prepared by people whose job it is to know what they're doing, uses single spaces. And, chances are—even if you use two spaces in your own writing—you've never noticed the difference in publications or thought, "Gee, I wish there was more space after those periods."

I never took typing lessons, and always modeled my typing (I've typed pretty much every day for more than 30 years) on what I saw in print. So when I heard that typing students were compelled to use two spaces, I thought, Why the hell would you do that? And while people who do it have given me all sorts of reasons (beyond, "that's what my typing teacher demanded"), none of them refutes these six reasons why you should only ever use one space:

  1. The most common explanation for why two spaces were introduced after the end of a sentence is because of the fixed-width characters on typewriters, where they supposedly helped legibility. (I don't personally think so, but it's a reasonable argument.) However, few people today use fixed (a.k.a. monospaced) fonts: we type with proportional characters on our computers, and typographers long ago established that single spaces work better for proportional type. By the way, I'm typing this in a fixed-width font in my text editor, and I still don't find two spaces necessary or helpful.

  2. As I've already noted twice, single spaces are what professionals use. You don't always have to follow authority, but the job of a typographer or page designer is to make words as clear, legible, and pleasant to read as possible. None of them use two spaces to do so. There are plenty of circumstances in life where large numbers of people, perhaps the majority, understand and do things the wrong way. Typing two spaces because it's "more professional"—like thinking that the Coriolis effect applies to bathtubs, or avoiding sleeping with a running electric fan because you might die, or writing email messages with lots of different fonts and colours—is a misconception and a mistake.

  3. Even if you're laying out your own text in a word processor or page design program, single spaces automatically make text flow better on the page. That's because more than one space often creates rivers of whitespace that unconsciously distract your readers, reducing comprehension and slowing down their reading.

  4. If you're publishing text on a web page—on a blog or wiki, in comments, on Facebook, or elsewhere—web browsers automatically convert any multiple spaces into a single space, according to the HTML standard. There are many reasons for that, both technical and historical, but the end result is that typing two or more spaces is simply wasted effort on the Web, because readers won't even see that you've tried. (Okay, you could take this behaviour as, "yay, I can type the way I want," but that's like never learning to spell because your word processor has a spell checker: you're asking for trouble when the machine isn't there to help.)

  5. In my long experience as an editor, the simple fact is that in documents from two-spacers, sometimes there are two spaces after a sentence; sometimes there are three or four, or even more; sometimes one. No one who prefers to type two spaces after sentences, it seems, can actually make it happen regularly in real life. Every document I get from them that's more than a paragraph or two long has inconsistent spacing. I don't know if that's because people hold down the space bar too long so it repeats, or sometimes only hit it once instead of twice, or if the extra spaces end up migrating around as writers copy and paste sentences and phrases in their document. It doesn't matter. I've learned that the first step I must take with any manuscript is to search and replace multiple spaces with a single space. The text I receive is always a mess in that respect, and the simplest way to clean it up is to purge multiple spaces, wherever they are.

  6. I'm asking you to do it. This topic originally arose because Bill thought (correctly) that I'd appreciate his changing how he types spaces more than, say, bringing flowers to my memorial service, or myriad other ways people might pay their respects to me when I die. Better yet, you can make the change now, so I'll appreciate it while I'm still alive! That's right, I'm playing the cancer card and giving you a guilt trip about typing two spaces. If I'm willing to do that, this must be pretty important to me, right?

Since words have been my living and my interest for so long, I have plenty of staunch opinions about other matters of English grammar, style, and punctuation—from different types of dashes to the serial comma, from split infinitives to positioning prepositions. However, in most cases, I simply prefer that you be consistent, even if you choose differently than I would.

For me, typing two spaces after a period is a mistake. It's like smoking: an unfortunate bad habit. While I'm glad it doesn't have such drastic health consequences, it's still a pity so many people learned the practice as kids and continue to follow it when there are many good reasons to stop.

Links of interest (2010-09-28)

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Yesterday was another side effect hell, but I managed to visit a few websites in bed between trips to the bathroom:

  • "Even after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups in our survey [of knowledge about world religions]." (I managed 14 out of 15.)

  • The Prime Meridian line at the Royal Naval Observatory in Greenwich, U.K., actually is red, like on maps.

  • "But given the current arrangements, I'm being charged just a little bit less than I pay for paper and getting a whole lot less, and it just doesn't feel like a good deal. Of course, a setup like I'm proposing would leave the publishing industry as we know it in ruins. Which wouldn't bother me in the slightest as long as the authors and editors can still get paid."

  • "Maybe death is a good time to go offline."

  • "But recent budgets have shown a carbon tax deficit: tax cuts have completely swamped carbon tax revenues. While some were concerned that the carbon tax would be a 'tax grab', instead we [have] a carbon tax is that is revenue negative not revenue neutral."

  • "Perhaps 25,000 years ago, a child visited the cave and left a footprint, the oldest human footprint that can be accurately dated."

  • "See, aspiring thief, you just never know what you're stepping into when you hit up a random car on a random street. However badass you think you may be, there is someone on the other side of the robbery. And in this particular case it was someone who escaped the Iranian Revolution as a child; who roamed the world alone for five years because her parents couldn't get out; who watched from a dozen blocks away as the twin towers crumbled; who had just barely clawed her way out of that concentration camp known as late-stage cancer, if only because she was intent on raising her babies, come hell or high water. And all of this before she even turned 40. Can you see how that someone might be way more twisted than you?"

  • I don't buy lottery tickets. Why? Here's a simple lottery simulator, using the U.S. Mega Millions Lottery scheme—but many others, like our Lotto 6/49, are similar. I simulated playing the same numbers twice a week for 10 years. I "won" a total of $50 in that time, "spending" $1040, for a net loss of $990.

  • Worst oil company print ads ever?

  • Charlie Brooker's How to Report the News (video) and Martin Robbins's This is a News Website Article About a Scientific Paper. Those cheeky Brits. And damn if they aren't completely right.

  • "At its best, science fiction can help people better understand science, explaining new ideas and theories in the context of a thrilling, gripping story. And then there are these 10 utterly ridiculous stories about evolution."

  • "To accept something like residential cancer clusters are often just coincidence is deeply unsatisfying. The powerlessness, the feeling you are defenseless to the whims of chance, can be assuaged by singling out an antagonist. Sometimes you need a bad guy, and The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy is one way you can create one."

Day 2 - Emote, dammit!For almost seven years now (!), I've been compiling an occasionally-updated list of tips and tricks on giving good presentations and talks—and avoiding bad ones. That takes the form of links to articles and advice from experts around the Web on the topic.

You can always find the list at—but it's not really about Microsoft PowerPoint. In fact, much of my commentary is about avoiding PowerPoint, or at least not giving presentations the way it generally leads you to do them.

A good talk is three things: informative, memorable, and entertaining. I hope the advice I link to can help all three parts of your talks be better. And if you want to see how all three can really come together, watch Dave Olson's WordCamp Vancouver session from earlier this month, "Art and Tech Are Old Pals," or any of his others.

As a writer and editor, I find knowing that Red Robin Canada printed and laminated thousands of these menus a bit depressing:

Really, Red Robin? Really?

At least the website gets it right, even using the proper accent on "entrées." But the website would be way easier to fix if it were wrong, wouldn't it?

A couple of days ago, Ayaan Hirsi Ali—author, politician, activist, and polarizing figure worldwide—appeared on CBC's Q radio show to discuss her second memoir, Nomad, with host Jian Ghomeshi.

Ali, who was born in Somalia and raised there, as well as in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, later emigrated to the Netherlands and became a strong critic of Islam (especially how Muslim societies treat women) and of multiculturalism policies in the West. As a Dutch parliamentarian, she faced threats of assassination from Islamist extremists, and eventually moved to America.

I blasted through her first memoir, Infidel, a few months ago—it's a riveting account of her physical and mental journey. There's little doubt why she thinks the way she does now. She's a little younger than me, but her life well deserves two books (so far).

It seems to me that the core of Ali's argument on the radio was that no moral or political ideas should be respected or endorsed simply because they emerge from religion or other ideologies, culture, or traditions. She pointed to societies that cling dogmatically to such ideas, as in Somalia, who remain backward and fail. Conversely, societies like those in the Netherlands, the U.S., and Canada are largely successful, prosperous, and safe because we analyze and debate ideas of all kinds, make decisions about which ones are better—and then improve because of it.

We're far from perfect at it, of course, but it is an ideal we strive toward. And it applies not only to ideas coming from immigrant communities, but to long-standing homegrown ideas as well. In Canada over the past few decades, analysis and debate helped us decide that Indian residential schools were wrong, fomented the Quiet Revolution in Québec, and are bringing gay people into the legal and cultural mainstream. Similar progress happens much more slowly, if at all, in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, North Korea, Haiti, Burma, Malawi, or even China.

Isn't it an inherently good idea that one of CBC's top-rated national radio shows is hosted by a guy named Jian Ghomeshi, who didn't have to change that name to seem "more Canadian?" It would have been unimaginable 40 or 50 years ago.

Gutenberg press in 1568 from WikimediaI have a few friends who've written non-fiction books and had them published, including Darren and Julie, Tris, Susie and Shane, Dave, and Kris. I haven't, and while I'm not planning on writing one, I do wonder what the experience is like. If you've published a book, how did you find the process, and why did you go through it?

I ask because I've copy-edited and proofread books, and written many booklets (PDF file), brochures, technical documents (PDF file), proposals, manuals, magazine articles, and other publications—and people often say to me, "You should write a book!" Maybe about photography, maybe about podcasting, maybe about my cancer experience. I even have a Diploma in Applied Creative-Non Fiction writing, so I could be considered academically qualified for the task, whatever that means.

But my question is always, "Why?" Because none of the people saying I should write a book has been someone wanting to publish it.

Yes, there's still a lot of prestige in being a Published Author and having a printed and bound copy of your work on a shelf, but publishers large and small have been in trouble for awhile now. Many writers, from Salon's entertaining aviation columnist Patrick Smith (whose 2004 book Ask the Pilot is a great read, but won't see a printed update anytime soon) to my friend and former podcast co-host Paul Garay (who wrote an entire huge book on Logic, the digital recording software, only to see it never get published at all), put in a lot of work and receive little but frustration in return. (Then again, even back in the print-heavy 1800s, Mark Twain found it necessary to supplement his considerable publishing royalties with public speaking—though that was mostly because he invested his other money very badly.)

So, I'm curious what motivates non-fiction writers today. (Fiction is a whole other ballgame, but that would be interesting to find out about too.) I want to know, if you've had a book published, why did you write it? How did the process go? What benefits did you get from it, direct or indirect? Would you do it again, and if so, what would you change?

What Darwin didn't get wrong

Last October I reviewed three books about evolution: Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish, Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True, and Richard Dawkins's The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. It was a long review, but pretty good, I think.

There's another long multi-book review just published too. This one's written by the above-mentioned Jerry Coyne (who will be in Vancouver for a talk on fruit flies this weekend), and it covers both Dawkins's book and a newer one, What Darwin Got Wrong, by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, which has been getting some press.

Darwin got a lot of things wrong, of course. There were a lot of things he didn't know, and couldn't know, about Earth and life on it—how old the planet actually is (4.6 billion years), that the continents move, that genes exist and are made of DNA, the very existence of radioactivity or of the huge varieties of fossils discovered since the mid-19th century.

It took decades to confirm, but Darwin was fundamentally right about evolution by natural selection. Yet that's where Fodor and Piattellii-Palmarini think he was wrong. Dawkins (and Coyne) disagree, siding with Darwin—as well as almost all the biologists working today or over at least the past 80 years (though apparently not Piattellii-Palmarini).

I'd encourage you to read the whole review at The Nation, but to sum up Coyne's (and others') analysis of What Darwin Got Wrong, Fodor (a philosopher) and Piattelli-Palmarini (a molecular biologist and cognitive scientist) seem to base their argument on, of all things, word games. They don't offer religious or contrary scientific arguments, nor do they dispute that evolution happens, just that natural selection, as an idea, is somehow a logical fallacy.

Here's how Coyne tries to digest it:

If you translate [Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini's core argument] into layman's English, here's what it says: "Since it's impossible to figure out exactly which changes in organisms occur via direct selection and which are byproducts, natural selection can't operate." Clearly, [they] are confusing our ability to understand how a process operates with whether it operates. It's like saying that because we don't understand how gravity works, things don't fall.

I've read some excerpts of the the book, and it also appears to be laden with eumerdification: writing so dense and jargon-filled it seems to be that way to obscure rather than clarify. I suspect Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini might have been so clever and convoluted in their writing that they even fooled themselves. That's a pity, because on the face of it, their book might have been a valuable exercise, but instead it looks like a waste of time.

Coyne, by the way, really likes Dawkins's book, probably more than I did. I certainly think it's a more worthwhile and far more comprehensible read.