En Words

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

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Maxim Reviews Album Sound Unheard

Folio, the trade publication of the magazine business, has an interesting story about Maxim reviewing a Black Crowes album without having the CD available to them. The group's blog has a fairly scathing posting, including the following:
Case in point: the “review” of Warpaint--the new album by THE BLACK CROWES--in the March issue of Maxim magazine. The writer--who has not heard the album since advance CDs were not made available--wrote what appears to be a disparaging assessment anyway, citing “it hasn’t left Chris Robinson and the gang much room for growth.”

Incredulously, the magazine gave the album a two and a half star rating--although neither the writer nor the editor could have heard more than one song (the single “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution”).

When approached for an explanation, the magazine described the review as “an educated guess preview.” Huh?
If this is accurate, and I have no reason to disbelieve it, then "Huh?" is fairly mild. Dylan Stableford eventually got a comment from Maxim:
An apology from Maxim editorial director Jim Kaminsky: "It is Maxim's editorial policy to assign star ratings only to those albums that have been heard in their entirety. Unfortunately, that policy was not followed in the March 2008 issue of our magazine and we apologize to our readers."
Heard in their entirety? So, now I'm wondering if they heard anything at all. Granted, rating a CD without hearing the whole thing seems ridiculous, but are the magazine's comments completely unwarranted if they had a few sample songs from the group, particularly as you'd think performers would put their best crow's foot forward, so to speak, in a case like this.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Wisdom of the Usual Suspects

I wish I could take credit for the title "The Wisdom of Chaperones," what with all the droning on about the wisdom of crowds, and ho, miraculously, they're supposed to come up with smart answers. Maybe they do, when they're not looking for a free lunch in a dot com bubble or heading off to blow each others brains to a gaseous physical state when at war. No, the credit for the title goes to Slate.com, for an article by Chris Wilson about the myth of online democracy in such "Web 2.0" sites at Wikipedia and Digg - or, I'd add, Slashdot.org. Wilson's essential point goes like this:
Social-media sites like Wikipedia and Digg are celebrated as shining examples of Web democracy, places built by millions of Web users who all act as writers, editors, and voters. In reality, a small number of people are running the show. According to researchers in Palo Alto, 1 percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the site's edits. The site also deploys bots—supervised by a special caste of devoted users—that help standardize format, prevent vandalism, and root out folks who flood the site with obscenities. This is not the wisdom of the crowd. This is the wisdom of the chaperones.
Wilson continues to point out that in 2007, 100 people at Digg were responsible for 44 percent of the site's top stories.

I'm not surprised, having noticed something similar in a practical way. I look at the story entries at Slashdot.org on a regular basis, and I notice that most of the postings are by the same group of people. In fact, I've tried on multiple occasions to suggest a story and have never had one chosen to run. The concept runs beyond Wilson's thesis. Not only does a tiny portion of people contribute the vast majority of content (or at least popular content), but I think this can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. When publications hire writers, they often rely on the same names, because those people get the tone of the publication and are proven to the editors. There's a relationship.

I suspect there are also relationships in the social media sites. It's such a human reaction, to trust those that you know and be wary about newcomers, who might bring something fresh, but who also have the possibility of upsetting the apple cart. Even though there is no money exchanging hands, you still have the comfort of the devil you know. Of course, the flip side of this situation is the movie Casablanca, in which the local police would generally look for the usual suspects in the case of a crime, even if those people had nothing to do with it. And the line between an effective oligarchy and five year Soviet planning is, perhaps, not that broadly chalked.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

St. Pete Times Campaign Truth-O-Meter

Congratulations to the St. Petersburg Times and its "Truth-O-Meter" analysis of attacks in the presidential campaign. Instead of letting things slide into a metaphorical freeway pile-up, the paper is keeping a record of candidates accusing each other about this, that, or the other thing. The ratings of factual veracity go from True to Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Short List for Odd Book Titles

The Bookseller, a publishing trade magazine in the UK, has released its annual short list of odd book titles. Head to the publication's web site and take your pick of the following:
  • I Was Tortured By the Pygmy Love Queen

  • How to Write a How to Write Book

  • Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues

  • Cheese Problems Solved

  • If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs

  • People who Mattered in Southend and Beyond: From King Canute to Dr Feelgood
The first title is from a novel, but the rest are nonfiction. And here are some of the titles that just missed this year's short list:
  • Drawing and Painting the Undead

  • Stafford Pageant: The Exciting Innovative Years 1901–1952

  • Tiles of the Unexpected: A Study of Six Miles of Geometric Tile Patterns on the London Underground
But, really, how could Drawing and Painting the Undead miss? I detect an anti-zombie bias.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Marsha Norman's Playwrights and the Theater

Playwright Marsha Norman had an opinion piece in the New York Times the other day about playwrights attending theater. When you boil it down, for her, a dramatic writer's experience of the theater is one of relationships with colleagues, actors, directors, and the audience. Sometimes the feelings run to jealousy or sympathy, but they (well, sometimes) move quickly beyond it: "The main thing playwrights understand from very early in their careers is that any successful play is good for everybody." Success means that more people go to the theater, which means more chances for people to do theater. Using the current hit "August: Osage County" as the impetus for the article, she notes that playwrights need long-term relationships with theatrical companies:
If we wanted to do one single thing to improve the theatrical climate in America, we’d assign one playwright to every theater that has a resident acting company. ... Playwriting in America has suffered a devastating blow from the development process that keeps writers separate from the rest of the company, working on the same play for years. What playwrights want is what Steppenwolf has given Mr. Letts: a way to get a new play done, see what works, and then go on to the next one. “August: Osage County” is way more than a wonderful play. It is how we get back to having American plays on Broadway. We get them written for actors who want to do them, then producers get on board and start selling tickets.
Imagine, writing plays with the expectation that they might be produced. This short falling is the reason that some playwrights have taken on producing themselves. For all the Shakespeares and Chekhovs and Mamets and Wassersteins, there have been many more who had to create their own opportunities. It was either that, or see no theater done at all.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Writing Teacher Rants About Writing Workshops

In an interesting piece in Poets & Writers, at least for those of us who have never approached a college writing class, let along a creative writing MFA program, Dan Barden has at creative writing workshops. What makes this more curious is that he teaches creative writing:

Creative writing workshops don’t, in my experience, churn out the same kind of writing. Nor do they encourage a personality cult centered on the instructor (on my weaker days, I wish). And they don’t destroy tender creative spirits. There’s no writer worth her salt who needs any help with self-destruction.

Rather, my primary objection to creative writing workshops is that they don’t work. Not, mind you, because they can’t work—it’s that they don’t work. There’s something rotten at the core of most of them, which makes them extremely unlikely to work.

The problems? They seem to include the following:

  • Workshop participants get the false sense that others have to read what they write.

  • People taking workshops often notice that the experiences seem structured as democracies, which should mean that no one has more of a say or knows more than anyone else, including the teacher.

  • Most teachers these days are too nice and don't deliver the bad news and pain that many writers need if they want to improve.

I think there is another reason people often have a low opinion of writing classes, and say that you can't teach writing. Of course you can - just ask writer reeling from the ocean of red ink a decent editor has let flow over the deathless prose. Or would that be prose of the living dead?

You have to get your stuff ripped apart so you can see where you're screwing up. Some has to be done by someone outside yourself, and, eventually, you must build this ruthlessly critical facility inside. But the problem that I see with creative writing MFA programs is that they have become an industry. People churn through, learn the things you do and don't do to get approval, enter editing positions, and use the same sense to propogate the MFA sensibility. Eventually, it becomes very difficult for people who have talent and have put work into their writing to break into literary publications because they don't have the lettered pedigree.

Perhaps the reaction to writing programs also has something to do with the often dull fiction, poetry, and drama that comes out of such programmed writers. Instead of meeting the world in all the ways they might, the writers go into programs, staying within the safe paths of academia. Until a few decades ago, writers travelled, worked a succession of menial but tough jobs, wrestled with what regular people were like, loved and lost, and a thousand other things. They walked into the maelstrom, and eventually came out with something to say, because they had filled themselves with experience. Maybe instead of saying that you can't teach writing the criticism is that you can't teach someone living. They have to do it themselves. And until someone has lived, there will be too little to say.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Obama: I Borrowed

Senator Barack Obama borrowed some lines from Deval Patrick, who is his friend as well as Massachusetts governor, according to this AP story. Apparently, Obama said that it's not a big deal, though he says that he should have given credit. Glad to know that he's so open-minded about it. The Clinton campaign went on a moderate attack, with a spokesperson saying, "If your whole candidacy is about words, those words should be your own. That's what I think." Oh, wait, did maybe someone tell him to say that? Does the spokesman now have to provide credit? And has Clinton ever used a phrase from someone else? I can see it now, we're going to move into an era where stump speeches will all need footnotes.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Need for Rhetoric

Usually people dislike the idea of rhetoric, equating it with empty communications. But it is actually the study of how to frame and understand arguments. A Scientific American article suggests that people fall prey to "reasoning errors" in the media, which explains why, for example, that nearly half of Americans in 2003 falsely thought that there was solid evidence of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda:
News shows often have an implicit bias that may motivate the portrayal of facts and opinions in misleading ways, even if the information presented is largely accurate. Nevertheless, by becoming familiar with how spokespeople can create false impressions, media consumers can learn to ignore certain claims and thereby avoid getting duped. We have detected two general types of fallacies—one of them well known and the other newly identified—that have permeated discussion of the Iraq War and that are generally ubiquitous in political debates and other discourse.
I think it is again time for schools to teach formal rhetoric. Why not let people learn what a bandwagon or straw man tactic is?

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Simpson Ex-Agent Accomplice After Fact?

The New York Observer reports that O.J. Simpson's former sports agent, Mike Gilbert, is coming out with a book called How I Helped O. J. Get Away With Murder:
According to a brief announcement published this afternoon on industry Web site Publisher's Lunch, the book will "detail O.J.'s late-night confession" and offer new evidence showing that Simpson did kill his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her boyfriend Ron Goldman. The book also promises "information on Gilbert's crucial role in obtaining the not guilty verdict and why he stayed silent for so long."
I have a dozen words: What a pig. Murder accomplice after the fact. Don't buy his book. Oh, and then there's this:
Some of the proceeds from the book have been pledged to the Make-a-Wish foundation, according to the posting on Publisher's Lunch-- a commitment most likely motivated by the public outcry sparked back in November 2006 when HarperCollins announced plans to publish O. J. Simpson's kinda-sorta confession, If I Did It.
Let's add two more: blood money.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Paying Kids to Read

The mayor of Noblejas, Spain thinks he's found a way to keep high schools students studying and not dropping out of school: bribery. Agustin Jimenez, the socialist official, suggests that the town pay students a euro - about $1.50 - for each hour they spend reading in the library, according to an Associated Press story:
The sweetener is part of a series of measures to be voted on by the Noblejas council in March. Others include funds for apartments in university towns for students from Noblejas, teachers to give private lessons to struggling students, and expert advice to parents on the virtues of keeping their children at school.
Supposedly, 31 percent of Spanish students leave school early, and they have some of the worst reading levels in the EU. The dropout rate in Noblejas is reportedly about 80 percent when you factor in kids who leave school at 15 or 16 after their obligatory time in classrooms is over.

Now, really, do Spanish McDonalds pay so little that a euro an hour seems generous?

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Legislating Pi

Yesterday was the one hundred and eleventh anniversary of the Indiana legislature's unknowing attempt to set the value of pi. The story, told here, is amusing. A physician in Solitude, Indiana (that should have been a warning itself) was an amateur mathematician who thought he had devised how to square the circle. For those who aren't aware of this pastime, the idea was, using compass and ruler, to construct a square that had the same area as a given circle.

Although the possibility of doing this in a finite number of steps was disproved in the early 1880s when pi was shown to be a transcendental number (not the root of a polynomial with function with rational coordinates), Dr. Edwin Goodwin had apparently not heard. He wrote a bill encapsulating his idea and persuaded his local representative to introduce it.

The quasi-mathematical ramblings must have worn on the unfortunate elected officials, who, largely not understanding a word read out loud, were ready to pass it, with the byproduct of effectively setting the value of pi to 3.2 and also of legislating a royalty, to be paid the ingenious fellow, on the use of the new value. Luckily the universe did not need to adjust its functioning because an actual mathematician, the chair of Purdue's math department, happened to be in the chamber at the time, and he took the time to explain the problem.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Grisham Has Healthy Attitude

I just read this AP piece about John Grisham. He apparently - correctly - views what he does as straight entertainment, not literature in the slightest:
"I'm not sure where that line goes between literature and popular fiction," the mega-selling author says. "I can assure you I don't take myself serious enough to think I'm writing literary fiction and stuff that's going to be remembered in 50 years. I'm not going to be here in 50 years; I don't care if I'm remembered or not. It's pure entertainment."
Now out with his 21st book, he's likely right, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Not all writing has to be high literature or something that will last the ages. But I'd hope, at least, that any writer would try to make what he or she did as polished and pleasing from the view of the craft as possible. If not, I can't imagine something that would be duller and more painful to undertake.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Review: How Good Is David Mamet, Anyway?

I'll admit (and, probably, commit) the tediousness of many reviewers. Sanctimonious and certain, they often slash and burn their way across a landscape that they know only as outsiders. But now and then you find someone who understands a topic deeply, has experience in it, and a sharp and humane eye, all while being amusing. I'd place John Heilpern in this category if his work didn't do so itself.

Theater critic for the New York Observer, Heilpern is passionate about the topic, has seen his own plays produced, and has an unusually keep wit. Although his latest book is a biography of the British playwright, John Osborne, I came across How Good Is David Mamet, Anyway?, which came out in 1999, in a used book store. I'll confess to never having read Heilpern's work before - it was the title that got me, as I'm not the world's largest Mamet fan, at least in the non-fiction of his that I've read of late. And it's fairly unusual for someone in the theatrical community to take on a contemporary icon.

But take him on Heilpern did, as well as writers at the New York Times, American anglophilia, Disney Land (the new name for Broadway), and other topics. At the same time, he's anything but mean-spirited. Many of his pieces put praise where he thinks it's due and tries to analyze what is good and bad about productions. Many of his observations run from the droll to the uproariously funny. And where else can you get a delightful transcript of a lunch between Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson.

If you've any regard for theater, or for intelligent criticism of any sort, you should be tickled with this book. Now I'll have to get hold of a copy of his Osborne biography.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

New York Times Reporter Claims NYT Book Review is Unfair

Sometimes you see the strangest things, like an employee of an organization vociferously attacking his own publication for offering an unfair and twisted review of his own book. Editor & Publisher, a trade magazine for the newspaper industry, has a story about David Clay Johnston, who says that an upcoming NYT review of his book Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves At Government Expense (And Stick You With The Bill) has a number of "egregious errors." Here's the letter that Johnston sent, and that is included in this article:
To the Editor:

Jonathan Chait's review of my book "Free Lunch" (Feb. 3) ignores its central thesis and neglects to disclose that he wrote a competing book.

He writes that I embrace litigiousness to solve societal problems. In fact, I describe litigation as "scary and nasty" and show ways to reduce lawsuits. My solution is for taxpayers to cover the full costs of Congress, ending legalized bribery.

Chait writes that I regard corporations as "inherently malevolent," which is ridiculous given that I am chairman of the board of a small corporation with big ambitions. He says I regard deregulation as "evil," when I wrote that deregulation is a fantasy and I show new regulations that thwart market capitalism, drive up prices and hinder competition. The only things I call "evil," citing the Bible, are policies that take from the many to give to the rich.

Chait twists words I use to describe the shared values of those Democrats and Republicans who favor people over corporations to make them appear as my views, not a description of theirs.

Chait misleadingly connects me to a faction of Democrats and calls me a left-wing populist, even though I am a registered Republican, a matter of public record that is posted all over the Internet, and without mentioning that classic conservative values drawn from Adam Smith, Andrew Mellon and the Bible are invoked throughout "Free Lunch."

"Free Lunch" is full of news, hard facts and plain English explanations of how market capitalism has been perverted. Chait did an excellent job of one thing -- hiding what "Free Lunch" actually says from readers of The New York Times Book Review.

David Cay Johnston

Ouch. E&P tried to reach Chait, who declined to talk.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

One More Thought About Political "Experience"

I keep hearing presidential candidates tossing about the word experience, but in a very loose manner. Clinton, for example, touts that she'd be ready to go because, well, she was around the White House before. That may be so, but the argument strikes me as equivalent to the spouse of a world reknown cardiac surgeon saying, "I'll be performing the open heart surgery because, after all, I've been around the business for so many years." All the same, I think I'd rather have the surgeon. Secondary exposure is not the same as primary experience.

And then we have Mitt Romney criticizing Clinton on the same grounds. Here's most of the text from his new TV ad:
Hillary Clinton wants to run the largestenterprise in the world. She hasn't run a corner store. She hasn't run astate. She hasn't run a city.

She has never run anything. And the idea that she could learn to bePresident as an internship just doesn't make any sense.

I have spent my life running things. I've learned how to run a business. I've learned how to run a state. I ran the Olympics. In each case, I've brought change.

Let's take this in two parts. First, did he really have to use the term "internship," which in the context of the Clintons is a loaded word? No, he could have said apprenticeship, but he didn't. Given the sensitivity that political types have toward language, this could ony have been deliberate, so shame on him for trying to ineptly use emotional subtext, becasue I suspect this will only backfire on him.

Second, let's look at how Romney has led. Did anyone else, like the Olympic committee, have a hand in the LA games? Of course, and if Romney were smart, he'd show how he could work with others. But I suspect he doesn't because he really does want to run things. And he has - into walls and ditches, at least in Massachusetts. His major business experience? He was at a venture capital firm, which is far different from running an ongoing concern. But experienced at working with people to really accomplish things? Nope, Romney appears to like giving orders, and that's about as far as effective in politics, even if you're president, as anything can be.