En Words

A place to talk about words - whether from books, stories, magazines, brochures, or matchbook covers.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Jobs Dismisses Written Word?

Steve Jobs, when asked by the New York Times for his opinion of the Amazon Kindle, was apparently dismissive:
“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”
Media observer Simon Dumenco had a pretty funny and pointed take on this in Advertising Age (disclosure - I write on occassion for the magazine):
By all rights I shouldn't be writing this -- and for God's sake, you certainly shouldn't be reading it! Because reading is, officially, dead.
My own reaction is simpler: 40 percent of the country read one book or less a year? Simple arithmetic suggests that the remaining 60 percent must read at least one book a year, to say nothing of magazines, newspapers, and the occasional amusing product packaging. Sounds like a good sized market to me - maybe even more than the number of people who would buy a Mac.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Results of the WGA Strike

Wondering at all what the results of the Writers Guild of America strike has been on the public? Entertainment Weekly polled 1,000 people and came up with some results:
  • 20% thought WGA was the U.S.'s only association for professional women golfers

  • 44% watching less TV

  • 40% reading more books

  • 36% listening to more music

  • 22% cleaning the house more

  • 9% having more sex

  • 4% fighting with their spouse more
Ah, the wonders of the modern labor movement.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Books That Make You Dumb

This is just too amusing not to share. Virgil Griffith is a computer science grad student at CalTech. He looked at the top 100 books that were popular at thousands of colleges, brought in the average SAT scores, and came up with an "average" SAT score for each of the books. The chart is at a site he created called Booksthatmakeyoudumb.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies, and Robots

Oh, great. Just when we've been facing a world where lies are commonplace, now we're automating them. According to an article in Discover, Swiss researchers have managed to create some robots that would learn from their environment - and that included learning to lie to other robots when it came to sources of power to recharge their batteries. There were spots that would charge batteries and those that would discharge them:
By the 50th generation, the robots had learned to communicate—lighting up, in three out of four colonies, to alert the others when they’d found food or poison. The fourth colony sometimes evolved “cheater” robots instead, which would light up to tell the others that the poison was food, while they themselves rolled over to the food source and chowed down without emitting so much as a blink.
I hear that by the 53rd generation, they started running for office.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cellphone Novels Are Hit in Japan

It seems that the younger generation in Japan - the country that gave the world its first novel - have started reading the genre ... when composed on a cellphone. A New York Times article examines the phenomenon:
Of last year’s 10 best-selling novels, five were originally cellphone novels, mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging but containing little of the plotting or character development found in traditional novels. What is more, the top three spots were occupied by first-time cellphone novelists, touching off debates in the news media and blogosphere.
It seems that since flat rate message charges started becoming available, young people with novels in them started discharging their literary works via cell phone. The works get posted online for free, with only the sites getting paid via advertising. (Some things never change, even with technology.) And then, if your novel is exceedingly popular, it may get turned into a print version. It's a different kind of read, as one cellphone novelist puts it:
“They don’t read works by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally wordy, and the stories are not familiar to them,” she said. “On other hand, I understand how older Japanese don’t want to recognize these as novels. The paragraphs and the sentences are too simple, the stories are too predictable. But I’d like cellphone novels to be recognized as a genre.”

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Trademarking Cyberlaw

According to a blog post at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, lawyer Eric Menhart has applied for a trademark on the term "cyberlaw." Talk about people trying to own language. Has anyone broken the news to Menhart, or to the US Patent and Trademark Office, that the term cyberlaw has apparently been in use since at least 2000? For example, here's a page about a cyberlaw course from then. In fact, here's a reference to top cyberlaw cases, dated from about halfway through 1998. I'm all for owning intellectual property, but, puhlease, how about something original rather than trying to trap a bird of an idea that's already out of the cage?

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Nabokov Dilemma

Apparently, Dmitri Nabokov, the 73-year-old son and translator of writer Vladimir Nabokov, has a dilemma: whether to destroy his father's last literary work or make it available, in an unfinished form, to the world. I remember writing an article on literary executors. One of the discussions I had with an expert was the experience of Franz Kafka's executor. Kafka wanted all of his manuscripts destroyed, and yet the executor, a friend of his, decided instead to let them be published.

It would have been a pity if books like The Fall had never been available for reading. But there is a difference, I think, between completed books and a collection of index cards that might have the equivalent of 30 manuscript pages - not the same as a finished work. And yet, what do you do when you have control over such a hot literary property? I can understand why Dmitri Nabokov hesitates, though inclining to destryong them. But it's a pitty that he mentioned them in the first place, then. At his death, Kafka was not known broadly as a writer, so the decision was, perhaps, easier. But once Nobokov let the cat out of the bag, I can see how the pressure can mount. As I've yet to read a greater or lesser novel by the Russian, it's hard for me to summon forth the dudgeon necessary to literary angst. So much for ever becoming a Critic.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Fifteen Seconds of Fame and Fleeting Audiences

I caught myself doing something that makes me nuts when it's done to me - the fifteen second reading indulgence. I had followed a link to a column that former litigator Glenn Greenwald writes for Salon.com. The topic, mentioned in an email news list, that caught my attention was a critique of a reporter's coverage of John McCain, but I accidentally stumbled onto an earlier post about the unintended consequential results of hate speech laws. The topic caught my attention - I think that there are probably enough laws to cover pretty much anything that one person might do to another, and that legislating intent and thought is both dangerous and more than a little useless.

I finished reading, nodded to myself, and then was ready to head off elsewhere and suddenly knew that even though I just read two pieces back-to-back from the same author that seemed solid, I had no intention of checking back in the future for further posts. There is something more than a little peculiar about how many of us approach the world as readers, these days. We see something of value, but it is as though these items appear out of nowhere, have no connection to any one person, and certainly could not be evidence that more of the same might be found there. It's as though much of humanity had become thoughtless intellectual cattle, roaming about, grazing here and there, but never drawing any conclusions as to the best places to munch based on experience.

I'm sure people do bookmark spots, I do at times, but perhaps there is just too much out there and trying to keep up with it all has become more burden than freedom. Or maybe there is just so much out there that some of us are sitting tightly in a pool of serendipity, figuring that the interesting things will show up eventually. But I'm wondering how much of value I miss because I don't follow up - even for the few sites where I have a paid subscription.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Destination Bookstores

The Seattle Times ran an article on unique bookstores in the US that so express the communities in which they exist that they qualify as tourist stops. One not on the list that I stumbled across on my recent trip to Manhattan is The Drama Book Shop, 250 West 40th St., between 8th and 9th Avenues. I noticed it as I was heading in to CUNY's graduate school of journalism to give a talk and stopped at the end of the day after I met with some editors. I made it all of 15 feet in when a title caught my eye and I ended up purchasing it and heading off to read. Next time I'm in Manhattan, I'll be heading back. Another favorite of my wife's and mine is in the town of Montague, Mass.. It's called the Book Mill, as it's situated along side a river in an old mill building. A used book store, it has a good selection, but what really stands out is its marketing phrase: books you don't need in a place you can't find.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Government Eavesdropping in Collections

From the only-in-America department and a Department of Justice audit (via AP, in this case), we learn that the some telephone companies have cut off FBI wiretaps of suspects for lack of payment. Here's an interesting paragraph from the AP story:
A Justice Department audit released Thursday blamed the lost connections on the FBI's lax oversight of money used in undercover investigations. Poor supervision of the program also allowed one agent to steal $25,000, the audit said.
Out of 990 bills to five FBI field offices were not paid on time. One office had outstanding charges of $66,000.

This has me wondering about the collections process. Does the FBI getting reminders and dunning phone calls? Does the collections office have a ten most wanted field office list? And are suspects happily buying telco stock?

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Times of London Keeps Radar Close - Too Close

New York Magazine has an interesting piece about the ... mmm ... similarities - yes, exactly, similarities - between a September Radar articled called 100 Reasons Why You're Still Single, and a similar-sounding one - 50 Reasons Why You're Still Single - that the Times of London ran last weekend. New York compares many elements of the list, version by version. Surprise! There are similarities! (If there weren't, I suspect the New York take wouldn't have taken.)

But the entire affair has left me with two questions. One, why did the Times only have 50 reasons? Maybe it figured those were reasons enough. The second question: Why did the Times wait so long to run its version? Answer: it takes a long time for the print copy of Radar to arrive in their offices.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Driving with David

I was driving down to Manhattan yesterday to give a talk and meet with a few editors. After the three plus hours in the car, I was on the Henry Hudson and tuned into Fordham's station, which provided a surreal experience: David Bowie singing a cover version of Paul Simon's America and sounding for all the world like Anthony Newley every time he came around to the chorus. And it just dawned on me that Newley must have been the English male's answer to Ethel Merman, with that cross between vibrato and waver.

I make it sound worse than it was. Actually, there orchestration sounded like something out of a circus or carnival, and Bowie had a great cross between naive hope and utter dissolution borne of experience. But I had to tip my hat to the announcer, who managed to sound perfectly bland when explaining that the program was underwritten by Kaopectate. How do you say that with a straight face?

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Friday, January 04, 2008

More Political Speak

Listening to the Iowa caucus results, I was struck by Clinton's twin messages: I have experience, and I represent change. Hearing them in the same sentence got me thinking. Experience is the formal expression of knowing how to do things as they have been done, and change means knowing how to do things differently. If choosing a president was all about experience, then nothing would ever change. Maybe she means knowledge, but then there is no advantage to one person over another, so long as the candidate has learned something about the topic.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Banned Words

I find it interesting how institutions carve out odd niches for themselves. Lake Superior State University in Michigan has an annual rite of banning words, even though there is no particular reason that it should be the decider of what might well be cast out from our common linguistic life. Apparently the school takes nominations from the public at large. So we have the general populace of the world - whose collective wisdom has included the ascendancy of McDonalds and the Spice Girls - deciding on the tastefulness of language. Oh, my.

Some of the suggested excisions certainly had me applauding. For years I've hated the term "wordsmithing," often used by a certain type of pompous individual who simultaneously won't use something as plain as writing, but casts an attitude that the activity is nothing more than cleaning up and rearranging what the person set down as a first draft. Perfect storm, too, should be gone, as all manners of situations become one.

On using author as a verb, there was a funny quote: "In one of former TV commentator Edwin Newman's books, he wonders if it would be correct to say that someone 'paintered' a picture?"

But banning waterboarding? It seems to me that if the word seems overused, what should go is the practice, not the language. And using Black Friday as a retailing term? It's been around for years - the problem is that now people pay attention to it, particularly when the people are reporters who are forced to create some kind of news on a holiday weekend.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Do They Know More Than a Fifth-Grader?

While on a long car trip driving a friend of my daughter's back to her home, the friend was playing a cell-phone version of the game "Do You Know More Than a Fifth-Grader?" One of the questions involved identifying an adverb - and the answer was peaceful. Sound odd? It did to me, so I checked at Merriam-Webster online. It's clearly an adjective. In another question, you had to identify where music was written. The choices were notes, rests, tempo, and clefs. What was missing? Staff, on which you write the music in combinations of rests and notes. What answer did the game give? Clef, even though the clef only indicates the key identifying note for the staff. Sounds like if you want your kid to be smarter than a fifth-grader, a different game might be in order.

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