So, are cell phones really destroying the bees?

That’s what you might think from reading a recent headline, says David Sims, writing for ThomasNet Green & Clean — see “Are Cell Phones Killing Off Bees?

Sims was alerted to an article with the headline, “It’s Official – Cell Phones are Killing Bees.” Sounds pretty definitive, right? Sound science must have finally proven it, right?

Not so much. Drilling down into the sources, Sims finds that,

Favre himself [the researcher] concluded the study did not show that mobile phones were deadly for bees. The most he’d commit himself to was a hypothesis that electromagnetic fields “might be contributing to the disappearance of bee colonies.”

So, whither the bold headline ‘It’s Official’? I think the answer is that science journalism, like most journalism today, has to grab eyeballs, so journalists are motivated to write sensational headlines to attract readership. As a result, all kinds of nonsensical assertions are promoted as “fact” and “proven” when such is far from the truth — see “How the Media ‘Inform’ People What Science Has ‘Proven.’

Unfortunately, many readers don’t get past the headlines.

AB — 19 June 2011

SEO Angst: The Secret of Search Engine Optimization

Many who manage web sites invest great effort and expense in search engine optimization (SEO), the practice of optimizing the content and format of a site and its pages so as to attract the most search engine traffic.

SEO is important to online businesses, because qualified web traffic can translate into eyeballs (if a site sells advertising) or sales (if it’s an e-commerce site) or potential clients (if the site is run by, say, a consulting firm).

I’ve been around the practice of SEO for about 15 years (before it was even called SEO), and I’ve come to believe in a central truth about it:

If you want search engine traffic, the first thing you have to do is deserve it.

This means providing honest, substantive content.

This also means offering well-executed services and a customer experience that serves the visitor well.

This concept is approximately equivalent to customer-centeredness in marketing or user-centered design in software development. A business has to make a profit, try to grow, strive for market share — but business success in the long term is hard to come by without a strong customer focus, or user focus in the case of web traffic.

By all means, optimize your site for search engine traffic, but be aware that few businesses make it for very long by tricking Google.

Do what you can to direct web traffic to your site, but make sure you deserve it.

AB — 5 May 2011

El vaquero y el río congelado

by Al Bredenberg

Paramos allí en la orilla del río, yo y la vaca, Grateful. Confundido, yo estaba mirando en alrededor, buscando el lugar de dar a beber la vaca sedienta, pero no pude ver el lugar. El problema: ¡El río estaba cubierto por una capa gruesa del hielo!

De repente, la vaca empezó a actuar nerviosa y de abordar al río. “¡No, Grateful!” dije a ella, pero ella no prestó atención, y ¡comenzó a pisar al río congelado! Con un creciendo sentido de pánico, yo pisé también al hielo para tratar de desviarla de la peligrosa situación. “¡Ay-ay-ay!” pensé. “¿Qué va pasar si se quebranta el hielo?”

Traté de empujar la vaca hacía la orilla, pero una vaca es un animal bien grande, y ella no se desvió, y lo que era más, comenzó a caminar adelante en el hielo.

“¡Grateful, párate!” grité, y en ese momento ¡la vaca empezó a correr! En un pánico total, empecé a perseguirla, gritando.

Pero, ¿cómo llegué a estar en esa situación, corriendo atrás de una vaca grande por un río congelado en el invierno? Voy a explicar, y también voy a recordar una lección que aprendí acerca de las capacidades de los animales.

A la edad de 24 años, me mudé al estado de Vermont, Estados Unidos, para vivir con unos amigos en su granja en el campo al lado de un río hermoso. Durante los días, ayudaba a ellos en su negocio de ebanista. Muy de mañana y por la noche, cuidamos a los quehaceres, incluso alimentar y ordeñar la vaca Grateful, que nos proveyó con mucha leche rica.

Grateful era una vaca de mayor edad que mis amigos han adquirido de un lechero del área. Ella recibió su nombre “Grateful” (inglés, “agradecida”) porque ella tenía solamente tres tetas y por eso proveyera menos leche. Pero a pesar de eso, ¡no la han matado por carne!

Desafortunadamente, el agua de la casa dejó de funcionar durante el invierno por causa del frío intenso. Pues decidimos de dar a beber a la vaca en el río a unos ciento metros de distancia del establo. Dejamos una hacha en la orilla para excavar un hoyo en el hielo cada noche para exponer el agua por la vaca sedienta.

Pero, durante unas semanas, yo acepté la asignación de cuidar a la vaca durante la mañana, y otra persona la daba a beber en las noches.

La noche en que ocurrió el incidente que mencioné anteriormente, todos mis compañeros estaban trabajando tarde, pues se cayó a mí de cuidar a Grateful.

Pero, cuando llegamos al río, descubrí que mis compañeros habían movido el lugar para dar a beber. Yo busqué todo alrededor, pero no pude ver el hoyo en el hielo ni el hacha para cortar el hielo.

Entonces, ¡esta vaca loca estaba caminando en el hielo, determinada para seguir adelante, sin prestar atención al ser humano persiguiéndola, gritando!

Bueno, con gran temor, continué corriendo atrás de Grateful por uno o dos minutos, impotente de hacer nada, esperando que el hielo grueso pudiera sostener la vaca pesada.

Pero sorprendentemente, después de unos minutos, Grateful empezó a minorarse, y entonces ella regresó a la orilla en una manera muy calma, y me esperó. ¡Aparentemente, después de todo, no estuviéramos pasando por una estampida!

Resollando, calmándome, yo miré alrededor, y en ese lugar más adelante al lado del río, vi varios montones de estiércol de vaca, un hoyo en el río, y el hacha apoyándose en un árbol.

En ese momento comprendí de que durante las semanas pasadas, mis compañeros, sin informarme, habían cambiado el lugar por dar a beber la vaca. Este lugar estaba más adelante en la orilla. Pero, llegué a entender que la vaca recordó perfectamente el lugar correcto y simplemente había tratado de llegar allí a pesar de la tontedad de su ayudante humano.

Yo grabé el hacha, y comencé a cortar la capa fina de hielo en el hoyo para permitir de beber la pobrecita vaca sedienta.

Pero, al la misma vez, ocurrió a mí una realización y lección: ¡Muchas veces, los animales son más inteligentes que pensamos!

AB — 18 enero 2011

‘Quriosity’ Is Dead – Long Live ‘A Thinking Person’

Readers of Quriosity.com will be interested to learn that I have sold that domain (someone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse). As a result, I have transferred all Quriosity content to the new domain and blog AThinkingPerson.com.

You’ll be glad to know that A Thinking Person will continue to publish the same brilliant commentary you have come to expect from Quriosity.

The new RSS feed address for A Thinking Person is https://athinkingperson.com/feed/ .

AB — 14 September 2010

John the Baptist’s Bones and BBC’s Quotation Marks

A BBC article today (3 August 2010) highlights the discovery of a small box of bones reputed to be the remains of John the Baptizer, who announced Jesus’ appearance as Messiah and baptized him, and who was later executed by Herod Antipas — see “Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’.”

I’m always intrigued by archaeological discoveries that relate to Biblical accounts. The article includes a video showing the find, and it’s interesting to watch (aside from some silly clerical comments about the find’s significance).

But more than anything, what this article brought to mind was the frequent and peculiar use of quotation marks (or single quotation marks, more accurately) by BBC’s headline writers. Look at the headline again:

Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’

Now in standard written American English, a writer would most often use quotation marks in this way to express irony or skepticism. (For example, “My neighbor plays that ‘music’ too loud,” perhaps referring to rap or heavy metal.)

But in the case of the story about John’s bones, what is the headline writer skeptical about? Maybe the writer is doubtful that these bones were really ‘found’? Perhaps the writer suspects that some Orthodox priest fabricated them?

I’ve noticed other puzzling uses of quotation marks in BBC headlines. Here are some examples:

  • BP ready to plug ‘biggest leak’
  • ‘Ground Zero mosque’ moves closer
  • State ‘can challenge health law’
  • Paraguay star Cabanas ‘recalls little’ of shooting
  • Schumacher ‘almost disqualified’

My best guess would be that this practice has something to do with attribution —  the headline writer is limited by a certain number of characters, but doesn’t want to stick his neck out by actually calling the Cordoba House cultural center “the Ground Zero mosque.” So he has decided to put quotation marks around the phrase to indicate that other people are calling it the Ground Zero mosque but that he doesn’t feel comfortable calling it that.

I’ll bet this practice has been thrashed out after many days of argument at the BBC offices.

After a little investigation I have found that quotation marks used to express irony or skepticism are called “scare quotes.” The gestural version is called “air quotes.” Somehow in all my years as a writer and English student, I have never come across these terms. See the Wikipedia article about “Scare quotes.”

The Wikipedia editors write that, besides denoting irony or skepticism, scare quotes can “serve to distance the writer from the quoted content” and to “convey a neutral attitude on the part of the writer, while distancing the writer from the terminology in question.”

This could be the BBC’s reasoning for the odd way it uses single quotation marks in its headlines. (These might be called “inverted commas” in the hallowed halls of the BBC.)

I also found a useful discussion of the BBC headline conundrum at Wordwizard, a surprisingly active discussion forum dedicated to English words and usage — see “The BBC’s use of quotation marks.” In the discussion, which took place in December 2009, Erik Kowal shares these insights:

This habit of the BBC’s web writers is difficult to understand. I presume that sometimes they are quoting someone without direct attribution, but this does not explain why they do it when the facts described within quotation marks are unquestionable and do not need to be signalled as being opinions or unchecked assertions (which the BBC should not be basing its news stories on in any case).

The practice makes it appear as though the BBC has no confidence in its own reporting, or that it is suggesting that its sources are not to be trusted. Regardless, it is highly irritating and even patronizing.

It also reminds me of the equally annoying habit that some people have of giving capitals For No Real Reason to Certain Words they feel are Particularly Important.

AB — 3 August 2010

Classic e-Book on Internet Marketing – Now Available in Free Archive

Some readers might recall that in 1995 I released one of the first e-books published and sold online, The Smart (aka Small) Business Guide to Internet Marketing. Publishing this e-book was a great adventure and was a good experiment in online marketing itself — I didn’t get rich from it, but it did pay the groceries for the Bredenberg family for a few years.

So if you’re interested in finding out what the state-of-the-art thinking was about online marketing in the mid-1990s, the whole thing is now archived on my Optimization Marketing site at: The Smart Business Guide to Internet Marketing.

AB — 25 May 2010

Jeff Bredenberg of Oreland, Pa., has died, March 2, 2010

Jeff Bredenberg Nov. 2009My brother, Jeff Bredenberg, died at home in Oreland, Pa., on Tuesday night, March 2, 2010. He had been sick with brain cancer for about 2 1/2 years.

Jeff and I are both natives of Raleigh, NC. Some readers might know him as a Raleighite. Others might know him for his work in the newspaper world or book publishing. Recently he had become known for his How to Cheat … book series, which included How to Cheat at Cleaning — see How to Cheat Books.

A memorial service for Jeff will take place this Saturday, March 6, 2010, at 1 p.m., at the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Warrington, Pa. — this link should lead to a map.

Here is the text of Jeff’s obituary — see also the versions in the Philadelphia Inquirer and in the Raleigh News & Observer for March 5:

Jeffrey Ellis Bredenberg

Nov. 26, 1953, to March 2, 2010

Jeff Bredenberg about 1970Jeffrey Ellis Bredenberg, 56, a former newspaper editor who later wrote and edited books, died Tuesday, March 2, 2010, of glioblastoma, a brain tumor, at his home in Oreland, Pa.

He completed two books after his diagnosis in September 2007.

A native of Raleigh, N.C., he got his first newspaper job at age 16 working as a copy boy and then copy editor for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. He then worked for newspapers in Fort Myers, Fla., Burlington, Vt., Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, and Wilmington, Del. He worked for the News Journal in Wilmington as an assistant managing editor from 1988 to 1994. During that time, he redesigned the newspaper and supervised various newsroom departments.

In 1994, he joined the book division of Rodale Press in Emmaus, Pa., rising to the rank of managing editor. In 1998, he became vice president for content for the Internet health portal Intelihealth.com, based in Blue Bell, Pa. Since 2002, he had worked as a freelance writer and editor of books and articles (www.jeffbredenberg.com).

During his career, he wrote, edited, or otherwise contributed to more than 25 books. His most recent releases were a how-to series, How to Cheat at Cleaning, How to Cheat at Organizing, How to Cheat at Home Repair, and How to Cheat at Gardening and Yard Work (www.howtocheatbooks.com).

He appeared frequently in print articles, online, and on television. His TV appearances included “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “The Rachael Ray Show,” and “The Today Show—Weekend Edition.”

Jeff graduated from Needham Broughton High School in Raleigh in 1972. His higher education was a patchwork affair, including a year at North Carolina State University and classes at Edison Community College in Fort Myers, Fla., the University of Vermont in Burlington, and Temple University.

He met his wife, Stacey Burling, at the Rocky Mountain News, where he worked as an editor and she was a reporter. They married in 1988 in Denver.

Jeffrey Ellis Bredenberg 1955He frequently participated in events at his sons’ Cub and Boy Scout troops, volunteered with the youth group at BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and rarely missed his sons’ soccer or baseball games or band concerts.

He is survived by his wife; sons Adam and Colin; his mother, Gladys Bredenberg, of Raleigh; and his brother and sister-in-law, Alfred and Virginia Bredenberg, of Raleigh. His father, Paul Bredenberg, a retired philosophy professor at North Carolina State University, died in November 2009.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m., Saturday, March 6, 2010, at BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 2040 Street Rd., Warrington, Pa. 18976.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the National Brain Tumor Society, East Coast Office, 124 Watertown St., Suite 2D, Watertown, MA 02472.

AB — 4 March 2010