Monday, March 29, 2010

The Academy On-line

Brian Croxall is currently a visiting assistant professor at Clemson University, in the department of English. Late last year he did not attend the annual Modern Language Association (MLA) convention in Philadelphia, yet 7,000 people read the paper he would have given in person to, say, 35 fellow-attendees ... if he could have justified the cost of showing up.

How is this possible? It's the blogosphere, wouldn't you know?

Croxall's paper, a discourse on "contingent faculty" who can't afford to go to conferences like the MLA's, was read in a session he didn't attend by the moderator of the panel he would have participated in if he'd had the dough; then was tweeted, blogged about, posted on the author's own website, and read by an audience that exceeded any reasonable count he might have racked up in-person -- by more than two orders of magnitude.

The Absent Presence: Today's Faculty laments the sorry state and pathetic salary of adjunct faculty (Croxall's not-tenure-track salary puts him $100/month above the 2009 Federal Poverty Guidelines, he says, qualifying this 'full-time professor' for foodstamps). Like many of his peers, Croxall can't afford the expense of meeting face-to-face with his colleagues. Jennifer Howard gives the blow by blow in her Chronicle of Higher Education article of 29 December, and Prof. Croxall himself wrote an article reflecting on what it all meant in the CHE last week (this last is accessible only by subscription but should be reposted on Croxall's site by late April).

While I think it's sorry commentary on our culture's priorities that classes at institutions of higher education are being taught by well-qualified faculty who aren't paid enough to feed themselves, that's not what I'm going to blog about. Croxall does an admirable job of that, and he hardly needs my cheerleading.

What strikes me about his story is its confirmation of a 'zeitgeist impression' that faculty engagement with peers and students is being pushed off of campuses and into virtual space.

This is hardly unusual or below-the-radar:

  • As of this weekend, Facebook has over 400 million active users, half of whom log on daily, and each of whom has, on-average, 130 "friends"
  • Twitter is claiming 50 million tweets tweeted per day as of last month
  • The Radicati Group reports that 156 billion non-corporate e-mails are sent every day, of which about 19% are not spam (that's nearly 30 billion "real" e-mail messages sent daily). That figure is barely exceeded by the US Postal Service figures for "single piece letters and cards" in 2009. [Guess the direciton in which each of these statistics is heading?]

In a higher ed context, the most recent stats published by the US Dept of Education count 66% of postsecondary educational institutions that offer distance education programs; two thirds of these are degree programs. [These numbers are for the 2006-07 academic year. This year's figures are probably higher.]

Is any of this a good thing?

The question with respect to on-line learning is debated often and vigorously, and I won't pretend to have The Answer. Similarly, the quality of research produced in (relative) isolation from peers is difficult to compare quantitatively with scholarship produced in a milieu that offers opportunities for interaction and collaboration of the kinds Professor Croxall describes.

So I'm left little choice but to speculate.

One of my own personal touchstones on the intersection of humans and technology, mentioned in a prior post, is a book called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander. In Four Arguments, Mander asserts that a viewer's experience of what is piped through a television set is flattened experience. This is pretty obvious: television transmits no smells, tastes, or tactile sensation; limits the range of auditory and visual experience to the technology's bandwidth; and at best discourages interaction between the viewer and the viewed (such interaction is most often completely off the table). And flattened is lessened, Mander argues, not least because the technology tends to lull a viewer into believing that surrogate experience is substantively equivalent to the real thing and that s/he therefore 'knows' something better than limited perception permits.

This strikes me as a close analog to attempts to substitute highly mediated interchange for real interaction, as in on-line learning or virtual exchanges among academic peers.

While the circumspect reader may bridle at extrapolating too much from so little, the following morsel crossed my path last week (also thanks to CHE), and suggests a modern aspect of the limiting role of digital technology in mediating knowledge:

In October of last year, the results of a study conducted on subjects at Arizona State University were published in Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. The study, titled To Scroll or Not to Scroll: Scrolling, Working Memory Capacity, and Comprehending Complex Texts concludes that "scrolling negatively affects learning from text" compared to paginated material (e.g., books or books presented on screens that do not require scrolling to read). What this means, once you've sifted through the academic prose, data tables, and statistical methodologies, is that it's harder to retain complex information when you read it on your average web page, as opposed to reading it in a book (or on an e-reader that organizes information in single pages that one views discretely, in a sequence).

So what happens when faculty don't talk to each other in open, face-to-face, multiparty, interactive dialog ... but e-mail, blog, and tweet instead? What happens when students engage in something that mashes up television, video games, and web-surfing rather than read books & interact with peers and professors in lecture halls, seminar rooms, and office hours?

I suppose we're finding out now, like it or not.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cataloging Home Libraries

I have a fair number of books. Which books exactly? I couldn't exactly tell you. Though I think of myself as an organized person, I've never cataloged them.

Why would I? I like to read books, and I like to be able to find them on my shelves -- but I've never needed a catalog for that. There may be good reasons to catalog books but none of them have ever gotten me over the hump ... to undertake the work, that is, of plowing through the many shelf-feet crowding my apartment and type in the necessaries.

Here are some reasons one might catalog books:

  1. Got home/renters insurance? If you make a claim, your insurance adjuster will want proof of what you lost and its value. If you can't enumerate, you'll probably have to suck up your losses.
  2. You're interested in using social networking technology as a "recommender" to find new friends with similar reading history, and/or books that people with similar reading history have enjoyed.
  3. You can't remember what books you already own, and it would relieve no little frustration if you were able to check your catalog from the bookstore, before buying yet another set of Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
  4. You want to brag about how fabulously learned you are.
  5. You have OCD.

The first three, anyway, are decent reasons that have, singly or in combination, led hundreds of thousands of people to use on-line book cataloging services. I won't argue universal or objective good in cataloging home libraries ... if you've read this far you probably have your own reasons, interest, or at least curiosity.

I've only taken a shallow dip in these waters myself. As it happens, I was pushed in: a fellow reading group member harangued me until I agreed to try Goodreads. I seeded my catalog with seventy or so books listed on our reading group history page, and have added a few more over time -- as I said, a "shallow dip." The friend who lured me into Goodreads has more than 400 books cataloged there. My friends Quinn and Andy have gone even further, entering nearly 3,000 books into their LibraryThing catalog.

As a professional geek with a skeptical take on the durability of digital information, one of the things that makes me hesitate to invest a lot of time in cataloging my home library is the likelihood that whatever software or on-line service I use might go out of business, taking all my hard work with it if I can't make backups of the data that can be used with a different piece of software or a different service. That would be very sad. (In professional parlance, this sad problem is called "vendor lock-in." More on this below.)

So in this post I'm going to compare some of the features offered by two popular on-line cataloging services, and explain why I'm ignoring a third. Then I'm going to describe how each of the two services permits import and export of your catalog data. Last, I'll list the actual information that can be imported & exported -- this is, effectively, the extent to which you can avoid the vendor lock-in debacle if you choose to use either Goodreads or LibraryThing.

NOTE: The information in this blog was collected in mid-March 2010. Like any info about on-line services, it will go out of date sooner than later. Caveat emptor.

Goodreads, LibraryThing, but not Shelfari

Goodreads asks whether "you ever wanted a better way to get great book recommendations from people you know, keep track of what you've read and what you'd like to read, form a book club, answer book trivia, collect your favorite quotes." It's free; ads on the site appear to be the way this service answers the profit-motive question. Friends (including an ability to find friends-of-friends) and groups one can join offer ways to see what others are reading, and thus find books in which you too might be interested. Goodreads has an "Author Program" that encourages authors to create an on-line presence and promote their published work within the Goodreads community. A Writing Section is where unpublished authors can share work for others to read and review. Authors (or publishers, or author-publishers) can give away copies of their book, e.g., as pre-release copies for review, to generate interest and readership.

LibraryThing bills itself as "a home for your books" -- "an easy, library-quality catalog"; and "a community of 1,000,000 book lovers" that "connects you to people who read what you do." You can "enter 200 books for free, as many as you like for $10 (year) or $25 (life)." There's an awesome "Stats" page that tells you lots of cool stuff about your LibraryThing collection. Talk and groups pages allow people to interact about the books they've read or are reading or might get around to, and the service lets you find or add local book events like readings or book fairs. LibraryThing provides free early review copies of books provided by publishers.

Shelfari claims it's "the premier social network for people who love books," and allows one to "create a virtual shelf to show off your books, see what your friends are reading and discover new books." The bad news is they engaged in some truly ugly steal-your-email-contact-and-spam-them tricksiness back in 2007, eloquently documented on the LibraryThing blog. The company quickly apologized, and changed their interface to make it a less likely that you'll spam everyone you know when you sign up for the service ... but I'm going to let somebody else do the compare and contrast on this one. Try it at your own risk, and watch the invite-your-friends screens carefully to avoid doing something you'd rather not.

Own Your Own Library Catalog Data!

Here's the promised "vendor lock-in" part of this post.

The point, to recapitulate: nobody wants to invest hours in cataloging their books, then have the service used for the catalog go belly up, taking all that hard work to a digital graveyard. Think about it. The only thing more tedious than entering data on every book you own would be doing so twice. It's a no-brainer to insist on being able to back up their data, and extract the good stuff so it can be moved to a shiny new service if and when your first pick goes away. Therefore, it pays to be sure that the service you pick will permit extraction of data in a format that's usable elsewhere.

Both Goodreads and LibraryThing do pretty well in this department. Here are some general details (the big picture), followed by more detailed detail (lists of fields / information that can be exported and imported). Stop whenever you've had enough...

Goodreads: Allows export of your catalog to a CSV file (so you can pull it into a spreadsheet or a database). Import fields are a subset of export fields. After joining LibraryThing and importing my Goodreads collection, I exported from LibraryThing and reduced the file to two entries -- one a duplicate (from the imported data) and the other a book I'd added exclusively to my LibraryThing catalog. Got that? The added book lacked an ISBN in LibraryThing, and therefore lacked it in the export file. Goodreads wasn't too happy with the file (said it couldn't parse it -- meaning, it couldn't tell which columns in the file corresponded to which Goodreads fields), but it did automagically scan the file for ISBN data, recognized the duplicate book, and did the right thing by declining to re-add it to my Goodreads collection. Not perfect. But not catastrophic either, unless I'm really attached to rating and review data in the data I'm trying to import. I'm pretty confident that a little extra effort could have made this work as advertised. Cf. field lists, below.

LibraryThing: Allows export to a CSV file or tab-delimited text (again, easy to load into your spreadsheet or database software). You can import from a file or a web page, and anything that looks like an ISBN will be inhaled by LibraryThing, which then goes out and finds the metadata (Author, Title, etc.). File-based import fields are limited to a subset of export fields. I signed up for LibraryThing as I was writing this post and imported my Goodreads export (~80 books). No problems, quick, all my Goodreads ratings and reviews were added to LibraryThing -- just the thing you want to avoid vendor lock-in. Cf. field lists below.

Export and Import Field Lists

Here's a quick compilation (correct as of mid-March 2010) of the information Goodreads and LibraryThing export and import.

(Apologies for posting this information as images, which means the table contents are not searchable and can't be copied as text. Tables aren't rendered very nicely using my current blog template, so this was a quick & dirty solution...)

I'd love to hear your stories -- happy or sad -- about cataloging the books you own and/or read...

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sound bytes from the SF Writers Conference

It's been more than a month since I attended the SF Writer's Conference, and nearly a month since I've blogged my principal posts about what I learned. This past weekend, I hung out with a writer friend for the first time that wasn't virtual since the SFWC (that is, we saw each other in-person), and I tried to remember all the important stuff I hadn't already blogged about ... to share the wealth, as it were. The exchange made me realize that it's high time I go through my notebook scribbles once more to mine what's left unposted.

So here it is in categorized bullet points, with apologies to paraphrased presenters for whatever I've lost through poor listening or note-taking.

[Some of my notes have specific attributions, others are 'somebody said this on a panel' attributions. While some of the information given may be contradictory, I only included notes from presenters who I judged to be well-informed and articulate -- which, I should say, was a resounding supermajority of those who spoke at SFWC.]

About writing, for new novelists:

  • Why isn't it easier to get published? Well, it's hard to write a good book. Tom Robbins took 5-6 years and 4-5 drafts to write his. (Alan Rinzler, Executive Editor, Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons)
  • It's the content. Most of what's written is not very good. (Katherine Sands, Literary Agent, Sara Jane Freymann Literary Agency)
  • Expect revision -- perhaps radical revision -- at both the agent's and editor's stage of engaging with your work. Authors must be prepared to respond professionally to suggestions. (Elise Capron, Literary Agent, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency)
  • A platform is helpful, even in fiction. But. Craft first. (Laurie McLean, Literary Agent, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agency)
  • It takes two years to get from a completed manuscript to a published book. Trends are really hard to judge into the future. Write what you need to write, not what you think is today's trend. (Daniela Rapp, Editor, St. Martin's Press)
  • The reality of advances for new fiction writers? Don't dream bigger than $20,000, especially if you're going to a small press. Publishers will not risk a lot on new ideas. (Elise Capron, Literary Agent, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency)
  • How polished is a manuscript when it's "done"?
    • The first 100 pages have to feel really good. Solid. An agent is the best judge of whether a manuscript is done enough to be sent to an editor. (Jeanette Perez, Editor, HarperOne)
    • Characters and plot have to be solid. The basic structure, framework, vision. If your readers group says they'd buy it for $25, that's a good sign. (Daniela Rapp, Editor, St. Martin's Press)

About getting an agent:

  • Make yourself the object of an agent's chase. Publish wherever you can (quality on-line 'zines are absolutely a legitimate venue). It's about producing work. (Elise Capron, Literary Agent, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency)
  • You owe it to yourself to submit simultaneously to agents. Just tell the agents to whom you are submitting what you're doing. (Non-fiction agents panel)
  • First novels must be complete and polished before submission to a literary agent. (Paul S. Levine, Literary Agent)
  • Agents in the current market need to deliver a mss. that is very close to 100% perfect before going to a publisher. Editors no longer have time to edit. (Non-fiction agents panel)
  • Will agents shy away from older writers? Maybe. It depends on the project. But writers in their 50s get a first book published all the time. (Elise Capron, Literary Agent, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency)
  • Literary agents are dousers. Most often it's a voice that compels interest. (Katherine Sands, Literary Agent, Sara Jane Freymann Literary Agency)
  • An author's job is to write. An agent's job is to know the business and sell. (Ken Sherman, Literary Agent)
  • Know what you want from a literary agent, and -- only after s/he has expressed interest in representing you -- ask whether they will give it to you. (Cameron McClure, Literary Agent, Donald Maass Literary Agency)

About the publishing industry generally:

  • 80-90% of books don't make money. Too many books are published; it's cheap enough to publish and see what happens. (Alan Rinzler, Executive Editor, Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons)
  • Pre-orders significantly influence a publisher's decision about how many copies of a book to print. Higher numbers means a greater footprint in stores, more visibility, and possibly higher sales. But higher numbers also risk a low 'sell-through' which makes publishers very unhappy. A publisher's initial announced print-run of a book is usually inflated, significantly. Reprint decisions depend on the velocity of sales. There's about a two-week window to establish a toehold that keeps a book in the stores. (Daniela Rapp, Editor, St. Martin's Press)
  • Debut novels are booming. Not having a track record is an advantage. Every publisher is looking for the next big thing. (Alan Rinzler, Executive Editor, Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons)
  • Publisher's don't have huge promotion budgets. An author's professional engagement is core. You can buy professional publicity for $500-$15,000, and this can be the right strategy when a publisher isn't stepping up; an agent can advise. (Elise Capron, Literary Agent, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency)
  • No one gets book tours. Yes, of course there are exceptions; but this is the rule. (Daniela Rapp, Editor, St. Martin's Press)

On what makes a "successful" book:

  • Best sellers sell 100,000s fewer copies than they did even 10-20 years ago (Kevin Smokler, CEO,
  • If success is defined as books that earn out their advance & the publisher didn't "spend too much" producing it, maybe 65% of books are successful; and 25-35,000 copies in "a certain time" would be a best seller; a flop is a print run of 5000 of which 4500 come back. (Daniela Rapp, Editor, St. Martin's Press)
  • The NY Times doesn't sell books (necessarily). Buzz sells books. (Alan Rinzler, Executive Editor, Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons)

Memorable lines:

  • An author's enemy is obscurity, not piracy. (Mark Coker, [quoted earlier]
  • Guys don't buy books. (Daniela Rapp, Editor, St. Martin's Press) [quoted earlier]
  • Publishers are running out of money. The model is broken. Celebrity publishing is really a series of desperate Hail Mary passes. (Dan Poynter, self-publishing guru & author of 126 books)
  • Web 3.0 is video. (Philippa Burgess, Creative Convergence, Inc.)
  • Everything happens for a reason, but not necessarily a good reason. (Jacquelyn Mitchard, author; quoting her brother)
  • Don't give away the end before we care about the story. (Advice given at SFWC's Friday evening "Pitch Contest")

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Palin is poison, but Jon Carroll stepped in it yesterday

Jon Carroll wrote a column in yesterday's SF Chronicle titled "What's so bad about death panels?" Carroll is a sly and entertaining columnist who often adopts a sort of bumbling, grandfatherly innocence to make his generally liberal, often sympathetic points. I don't read him every day he publishes, but when I do I often admire his point of view. Not yesterday.

Yesterday's column opened with a refresh of the "death panels" gibberish "first floated by Sarah Palin" as flak in the right wing fringe's war against health care reform; correctly points out that "Of course, it was a lie" (no health care reform proposal ever in play had anything to do with or say about "death panels"); and goes on to peg the failed VP candidate "something of an expert in the untruth department."


Then, he asks, "What's the matter with death panels? I'm serious."

Okay, I get that opening an essay with a bang is good technique for drawing in readers, and drawing in readers is much on the mind of a five-days-a-week newspaper columnist. And I appreciate that Carroll goes on in this essay to confront some hard, important questions:
"As our health care system learns how to prolong life more and more effectively, we are more and more likely to be confronted with the question: to what end? [...] Do you want to spend two years on a ventilator? How does the phrase 'medically induced coma' strike you?"

Read the column. The middle paragraphs are really sharp. Carroll doesn't go deep into it, but the fact is that we as a society decide -- via health care policy in effect today -- what conditions get treated, and how, and for whom, and therefore whether and how many people live or don't. We decide that now, and we decide collectively it for you and for me as individuals (I don't mean to imply here that the 'collective' decision-making process is in any way good, efficient, or fair). The only reason people aren't wigged out about today's heath care rationing is that the status quo is not something people usually notice ... it's when the status quo is tweaked that people get bent. Anyway. As you're reading Carroll's column, and getting toward the end -- hold onto your chair.

Carroll makes a classic liberal argument -- with which I would largely agree -- that
"Government, in its best iteration, is about collectivizing our shared will to help people."

(Warm. Fuzzy. Of course the problem with warm & fuzzy is that it encourages one to glaze over at the key caveats. For example, "in its best iteration.")

But where he really falls down is in the column's next and concluding paragraph:
"So suppose there were panels, funded by the government but not controlled by it, composed of various medical, social and legal experts. A person could go to the panel, present his case and say: Now what? The panel would come up with an answer. The answer would not be mandatory; it would be dispassionate and informed advice."

I just hate it when I agree with people who, in their most hyperbolic manifestations, run around having tea parties in camouflage, carrying weapons that no sensible framer of a constitution ever meant them to run around with, despite what the Roberts court thinks. But when I read claptrap like Carroll wrote yesterday -- "The panel would come up with an answer" -- I get really, really fidgety.

The reason that it's hard to figure out what to do when a person gets very old and/or very sick is that there is no answer. Or, equally, there are lots of answers, none intrinsically better or more true or more fitting than the others. Who are these 'various experts' of whom Jon Carroll speaks? Do they think with one mind, and speak with one voice? Do his experts have the same point of view as my experts? Does someone else's panel of experts include, say, a minister or a priest whose views diverge, sharply, from people with MD and MSW and JD degrees? What in the world could induce a thinking person to fantasize that a "panel" could come up with "an answer" to questions that are deep, complex, contested, shape-shifting, and, in the end, pretty much unanswerable?

I do believe that we should fund health care through our government. Not like the bill that will be voted on this weekend proposes, but through a single-payer system. Why? Because it would cut out (most of) our system's current profit-sucking and net-care-reducing bureaucracy, and more nearly equalize access to the forms of care humans know how to and can afford to provide. Because it would leave doctors free to treat patients rather than spend inordinate fractions of their careers filling out paperwork aimed at maximizing some shareholder's profits (paperwork whose bottom line effect is to deny care to people who need it). How to fund heath care is an economics and organizational question, of a type and in an area of human endeavor that I believe governments, even in their imperfect iterations, are better suited to deal with than the profit-sucking and net-care-reducing "market."

But as to whether a person who is very old or very ill should be advised or directed by a government panel to pursue health care or euthanasia? No. That is not an aspect of life that would benefit from government standardization, streamlining, or any other form of intervention.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Narrative vs. Conversation

I spoke briefly with a colleague last week about "collaborative fiction" and how new e-book technology might light a fire under this relatively obscure pastime.

I'd recently seen an iPad demo made by the folks at Penguin Books in London (thanks to Nathan Bransford for the link), which gave a thought-provoking vision of publishing's future in which:

  • kids might initiate audio & animations at the touch of a finger and color their picture books with a digital palette;
  • anatomy textbooks allow zooming into 3D animations;
  • vampire novels for YA readers are integrated with on-line social communities;
  • hyperlinked travel guides can be arranged into individualized itineraries, call up street maps on the spot, and generate digital postcards to be sent home to family and friends
  • an interactive star map automagically displays maps and information about the part of the sky you're looking at, based on the device's digital compass and GPS features.

None of these are "collaborative fiction." My colleague and I were talking about a narrative built collaboratively and interactively by multiple participants. But the future-of-iPad video had made me think: books + social networking = ??? ... and that's what started us off.

For what it's worth, my colleague and I both have degrees in English literature (full disclosure: her degree is bigger than mine). Maybe having a stake in book-culture narrative explains why it was so easy for us to decide that social networking enables conversation, and that conversation is something other than narrative. And to agree that gaming, which involves stories that evolve in a way that is much like conversation -- with other players and/or with a game's algorithms -- feels different than stories of the bookish sort.

Narrative, we concluded, is a whole-cloth conception of a world imagined by a single, interesting human intelligence. There are exceptions, of course, both in the "single" and "interesting" departments. But let's leave that be.

My colleague and I both work in information technology. So we're aware that digital innovation is now making it possible for games, socially-networked virtual conversations, and collaboratively developed texts to look more and more like stories that have in Oulde Timen been rendered by authors and playwrights. Nonetheless, we thought, there are essential difference. We were skeptical that multiple contributors can evolve a shared conception of a world to a depth of detail and coherence that, when others peek in, they're enriched as deeply as one is enriched reading authors as skilled and evocative as, say, Mahfouz, McCarthy, McEwan, Melville, Milosz, Murakami -- not to mention authors whose names begin with letters other than "M."

But ... is that skepticism really justified?

What about film? Yes, there's a writer, usually several but often one who is principal. And a director. And an editor. The director is probably closest to the "single, interesting human intelligence" model, assembling cinematographers, actors, scenes, and sounds as an author assembles words. But what about those actors, actresses, location scouts, costume designers, composers, and the bazillion special effects people who seem to be essential to soooooooooo many movies nowadays (though not necessarily the ones that fall into the "interesting human intelligence" category). As far as film goes, there's a pretty decent argument for collaborative and interactive narrative, I'm thinking now.

And then consider narrative in fiction series that are written by multiple ghostwriters. What about The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew? Who are Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene, and is it fair to call the single, very possibly interesting human beings behind these facades "collective authors" of these enduring series?

Leaving aside YA mysteries, how 'bout Homer? Martin West of Oxford University says, in relation to the Iliad and the Odyssey, "Those who cling to the belief that one man was responsible for both poems seem to me to be hindered from a just assessment of the contrary evidence by a romantic attachment to the traditional idea of the one supreme poet." Similar statements might be made about The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Táin Bó Cúailnge, with some controversy about Beowulf, and so on.

There's also religious liturgy. Political party platforms. Legislation. Appellate Court decisions (lift that long black robe and see the clerks scribbling away underneath). These may not count as narrative, exactly, but they're usually coherent, and they engage or enrage or guide or otherwise affect big big bunches of people.

The question seems more complicated to me now than it did when my colleague and I tossed ideas over a cubicle wall.

What do you think? Will the technology enabling collaborative development of stories result in "narrative" of a sort that people living B.I.A. (Before the Internet Age) would recognize? Are the changes underway substantive or superficial? Are you looking forward to their evolution, or quaking in your metaphorical boots?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Raising a glass to Miss Ballou

Last year the Association Of American Colleges And Universities (AACU) commissioned a study called Raising The Bar: Employers’ Views On College Learning In The Wake of the Economic Downturn. The study was conducted in October & November of last year by an outfit called Hart Research Associates, and the report was released earlier this year.

The overview begins: "Employers want their employees to use a broader set of skills and have higher levels of learning and knowledge than in the past to meet the increasingly complex demands they will face in the workplace." This, of course, is good news for members of the AACU. Imparting "higher levels of learning and knowledge" is what Colleges and Universities do. In summary, the study finds that "Employers endorse learning outcomes for college graduates that are developed through a blend of liberal and applied learning."

There's lots of detail in the report, some of which could be classified as "common sense," though Hart Research Associates would probably frown on so dismissive a characterization of their findings. Be that as it may. I call your attention to page 9, to the last of seven "key findings" enumerated in the report. This is the finding that lists "learning outcomes that employers perceive to be in need of increased focus." In other words, stuff colleges & universities could do better. And what are the top two items in this list, items that need improvement according to more than 80% of employers?

  1. The ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing (89%)
  2. Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills (81%)

Over to Miss Ballou.

My junior high school offered 9th grade English in a couple of flavors, regular and "English Concentrate." Miss Ballou taught English Concentrate, and kids had to hover near the top of the class to have a shot at getting in. The class was taught as a double-period, and we covered the year's prescribed curriculum (and then some) in a single semester. It was 1974 -- the year Uniform Product Codes were first used to scan stuff at a grocery store checkout; the year Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army; the year Hollywood produced Chinatown, Young Frankenstein, and The Great Gatsby; the year Tricky Dick Nixon became the first POTUS to resign the office -- and Miss Ballou was old school.

Hella old school.

She scared the bell bottoms off of most of her fourteen and fifteen year old students, even the nerds who were granted the privilege of diagramming sentences under her watchful eye. She required that we read Shakespeare aloud in class, and memorize soliloquies then recite them in front of our peers (I picked one spoken by Brutus in Julius Caesar -- "The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power" -- and, yes, you bet your behind I knew then that Nixon was on the ropes). Miss Ballou assigned essays in which dazed adolescents were expected to critique Shakespeare and Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne at levels of sophistication that some TA's I've spoken with in recent years wish they could coax out of university sophomores. If we screwed up our grammar and dared to cite newfangled novelists who broke the rules themselves, she allowed us no leeway. Prove you can follow the rules, Miss Ballou challenged us. You have no right to break the rules until you know what they are and how to apply them.

Miss Ballou would have recognized those top areas in which higher ed could improve: teaching students to communicate effectively, think critically, and reason analytically. She was putting 14 year olds on that path dozens of years before Hart Research Associates tallied up their survey. (I'm not claiming, BTW, that she succeeded in my case; only that she gave it a serious go.)

When I read the AACU report I thought of Miss Ballou immediately. And I know for a fact that I'm not the only one who is still guided (and chastised) by her sharp, certain, decades-ago corrections. Just last week, an old friend wrote on wholly unrelated topics and caught herself leaving a preposition dangling at the end of a sentence. She didn't correct the syntax -- hey, it was e-mail -- but she couldn't help but critique herself parenthetically: dangling, I know...Roll over, Miss Ballou!

I raise a glass to Barbara Ballou, and to all teachers in her mold. You know who you are. And so do we, your fortunate students. (The rest of y'all better shape up, or the AACU's going to have you on the carpet.)

P.S. Speaking of Julius Caesar, happy Ides of March...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Virtual reality meets classical literature

A U. Connecticut professor is using online role-playing exercises to immerse students in the bardic tradition, this courtesy of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Professor Roger Travis required students to play virtual reality games one term, and to engage with each other via Google Wave more recently, as assignments for Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies (CAMS) 3208, a "course about the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides that first ran in the Fall semester of 2009."

Say what?

This blog post (on the LOTRO Reporter -- that's Lord of the Rings Online) gives a well-linked intro for those who'd like to dive in. For the rest, here's a sound-byte culled from Professor Travis's video introduction to his course: "adventure games, I realized, really did reawaken the ancient Homeric epic tradition, above all because they were participatory [...] the adventure video games allow the player to improvise his or her own course through the story in the same way that the bards, the Homeric bards, improvised their way through the stories they were telling to ancient Greek audience."

You can learn more than you might be able to digest re: Prof. Travis's practomimetic pedagogy by checking out his own blog.

I'm not optimistic about the improvised stories of university undergrads rising to levels as compelling as the tales Homer left us, but that's hardly the point. Prof. Travis is assigning exercises to predispose his students to understand an unfamiliar frame of mind, to shake loose modern sensibilities dulled by passive consumption of culture.

Travis asserts (in the CHE article): "You cannot understand Latin without understanding Roman culture. This is the best way I have ever found to actually get my students to pay attention to Roman culture."

I think this is pretty intriguing, but I have just about zero gaming experience by which to gauge Travis's claims. Any gamers out there who care to comment? Any diehard bibliophiles who want to stake a claim that technological tomfoolery can't possibly illuminate the holiest touchstones of literary culture?

P.S. Here's a propaganda break. The question of 'passive consumption of culture' gives me a great excuse to mention one of my favorite socio-political-techno discourses of all time, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander -- highly recommended reading.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Google Books Settlement in Six Easy Bullet Points

Raise your hand if you've read all hundred sixty five pages plus sixteen attachments, in all its dense & legalistic glory, that is the currently proposed Google Books Settlement (G.B.S., a.k.a. Settlement 2.0).

Me neither.

But I have assembled a selection of nicely boiled down positions from pundits, thinkers, and self-interested advocates on several sides of the controversy, each of whom has read the G.B.S. enough times to give your average human an aneurysm.

First a capsule summary: Google is digitizing lots of books (about 10 million as of late 2009). About 15% are in the public domain (no copyright currently applies). Another fraction are actively for sale by publishers. About three-quarters are in copyright but out-of-print, perhaps & unevenly accessible in libraries and/or used bookstores. For many of these, it is difficult or impossible to track down the copyright holder to ask permission to digitize a work -- and so they're often referred to as "orphan works." The G.B.S. is most interesting and controversial in its establishment of a mechanism for setting access rules, purchase prices, and royalty distribution procedures for digitized copies of orphan works. Google, because it is investing significantly in the digitization of these millions of books, reserves a set of exclusive privileges vis-a-vis the activities covered by the settlement.

Now the half-dozen boiled down positions on the G.B.S.:

  1. The G.B.S. "would give Google a monopoly on the largest digital library of books in the world," and it's good for nobody except Google that this constitutes "a major restructuring of the book industry’s future without meaningful government oversight" (Berkeley law prof Pamela Samuelson explains in a post on O'Reilly-dot-com)

  2. Even if our cultural heritage is preserved in our libraries, "it is effectively lost if no one can access it easily" (says Sergey Brin, the twenty-somethingth richest person on planet Earth, and not incidentally Google's co-founder & technology president, in an New York Times op-ed)

  3. The G.B.S. interferes with control of content by its creators, which makes it a "deal with the devil" (says sci fi doyen Ursula Le Guin to the U.K.'s Guardian)

  4. "[...] a vast repository of books — millions upon millions of out-of-print books and many in-print books — will find a new home and new readers online" (said Author's Guild Executive Director Paul Aiken at the October 2008 press conference announcing the initial settlement)

  5. It's not about monopoly, it's about a return on Google's investment of "a large amount of money in digitizing public domain books and giving them back to libraries and users" (according to Dan Clancy, engineering director for Google Book Search, in a May 2009 interview in Library Journal)

  6. Copyright is broken -- way out of synch with social good it ought to protect -- and the G.B.S. assures it'll stay that way, or worse (Stanford law prof Larry Lessig explains in a January 2010 piece written for The New Republic)

Whether the Google Book Settlement will resolve the stew of legal questions and social issues surrounding Google's colossal book digitization project is anybody's guess. Meantime the world waits for Judge Denny Chin to rule on the proposed settlement. It won't be over for a while. Jonathan Band, a specialist in technology & law, created a chart diagramming his best guess where the case might go following Chin's ruling, and it isn't simple, as this thumbnail version suggests.

What will the settlement mean to authors if it's approved in its current form? I'm not sure there's a simple answer to that question, despite Le Guin's certainty, cited above. I keep coming back to an idea I quoted in a post last month -- something Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, said during a session at the SF Writer's Conference in February: "An author's enemy is obscurity not piracy."

Much as I've admired Ursula Le Guin's vivid and politically nuanced speculative worlds, I can't help but compare posturing about the rights of content creators to the Horatio Alger myth. I wonder whether Le Guin's position might be protecting something idealized or rare, at the expense of something that is socially valuable in broader, more common contexts. That's not to say I'm against writers and artists and composers and performers getting paid for their work. Far from it. (Please, sir, can I have some more?) But, as I understand it, the G.B.S. doesn't get very much in the way of copyright holders who claim what's theirs. And it opens up avenues for access and sales of works that are no longer easily available or generating revenue for their creators. I also suspect that authors in a position to earn sums of any significance from their work aren't likely to make themselves so scarce that their hard-earned royalties go unharvested.

The pecuniary rights of content creators is just one aspect of the questions raised by Google's book digitization project and the legal issues that the G.B.S. proposes to settle, as the sampling of opinions given above demonstrates. My own musings tend toward the concerns articulated by Larry Lessig: we should be thinking as much or more about literary culture's value to the human endeavor as about individual property rights.

What do you think? Does the G.B.S. matter to you as a content creator? How, and why?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Rock, Paper, Digital Preservation

Digital preservation is da bomb.

It's an initiative at the Library of Congress. It's got a Wikipedia article, albeit a contested one at the time I'm typing this. It's got a library foundation. In my professional life, working in IT at UC Berkeley, digital preservation is a major concern. At UCB's School of Information, there are regular lectures and papers and courses on this topic by faculty I respect; not to mention the forum of this past August on the hot issue of last and this year, The Google Books Settlement and the Future of Information Access (that's me on the far side of the auditorium ... well, never mind, I can't see me either).

There's no question that in these times an enormous fraction of cultural activity is produced and disseminated electronically. In many cases, life-on-the-internet is the only life a cultural artifact has. Take these blog posts, for example. (Or, as Rodney Dangerfield might have begged, take these blog posts, please.) Where will they go when blogspot goes bye-bye? Will the Internet Archive be enough to save the world from oblivion? (Hint: the answer has two letters.)

Far more important -- circling back to turning books into unicode -- digitization, digital preservation, and digital access are the only hope millions of out-of-print, traditionally-published texts buried in obscure library stacks have of being read. Digitization or bust. And then there are the scholars of materials whose originals are scattered across the world, in archives that can't accommodate even those able to scrabble together funding to visit. For these researchers, digitization is the only hope of assembling a corpus of material suitable to their inquiries. So digital preservation probably does matter, and it may even matter a great deal.

My inner skeptic, however, is skeptical.

It's worth considering, I think, that the technologies by which human-created information have been preserved for the longest period of time are cave painting and clay tablets. Never mind that scholars of cuneiform texts are deeply reliant on projects like the Cuneiform Digital Library housed at UCLA, Penn, and elsewhere (because for them, too, complete corpora are widely dispersed). Seriously, though, there's really no contest. From 3350 BCE to 2010 CE: that's more than five thousand years of track record for preservation of human-written information. Hard to top that. And let's not forget the durability of stone inscriptions and stamped metal coins. Vellum, papyrus, paper ... it's all got better stats than any manufactured medium that preserves bits and bytes.

Last month I spent a bunch of hours rescuing the contents of hundreds of my own personal zip disks, 3.5" diskettes, and -- yes, wait for it -- 5.25" floppies. This mass of obsolete technology contained a quarter century's personal data, timestamped from the mid-80s to just last year. My household is about to recycle our last computer that has the right motherboard connector to accommodate a cable for the antique 5.25" drive I've been saving in a closet for just this purpose. It was now or never, really. The technology to read some of my old backup materials is on the point of disappearing. The lot -- all 25 years worth -- takes up 800MB, uncompressed. Do they even make flash drives that small anymore? I wrote the whole mess to a single mini-DVD. One shiny little 8cm disc. Imagine the drawer space I've freed up!!

But how many people put in the time and effort to save their digital ephemera? And just because I've saved mine -- this year -- doesn't mean that my DVD won't go bad, or DVD technology won't go the way of Betamax video before another couple of decades elapse (it will). Just because Google now allows you to "upload any file!" doesn't mean they'll never go out of business.

Hoping it's not bad form to refer to the same issue of the New Yorker twice in the same week, I have to comment here on one of my favorite magazine covers ever. If you ask me, there are real-world ideas in this speculative cover art (June 8-15, 2009). Sitting on the ruins of our electronica, come the day when the electricity stops, people (and aliens) will still be able to lean against an old, crumbling wall, open to the first paper page of a fine old book, and have a delicious, satisfying read.

So here's a question, circling back to the Great E-books Debate I've been mulling over in prior posts: if an author wants to see her own words last, not to mention the rest of literary culture, is digital publication -- the e-books thing as a sole channel for dissemination and preservation -- a truly viable option? Or is it a setup for near-certain, worldwide, catastrophic failure?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Forays into self-publishing

Getting back to non-traditional routes from author to a vast and happy sea of readers...

I mentioned in my initial post that some of my author friends & family are actively pursuing self-publication. As I think about what they're up to, I naturally filter it through a 'will it work for me?' lens. Here's what each of three self-realizing authors are up to:

Kate Raphael is writing a series of mystery novels set in Palestine: the Palestine Mystery series. Kate gave me the opportunity to read the first of these, Murder Under the Bridge, in manuscript form in the summer of 2008, and since then has taken it through further full edits, worked with an agent for a time, and submitted the mss. directly to a couple of small presses. Well into writing the second novel in her series, Kate became discouraged and impatient with her lack of progress through the usual channels. I've known Kate as a political activist for many years, and I assure you she is not the type to sit idly and wait for the world to catch up with her. A couple of months ago she let me know she was thinking of serializing her novel on-line ... and now she has begun. You can check it out on her Wordpress blog (the latest chapter posted shows up top; to start at the beginning, use the "Chapters" drop-down selector on the right side of the page). I thought Murder Under the Bridge was an engaging evocation of a complicated place (the West Bank) when I read the earlier draft, and the plot was intricate and twisty in compelling ways ... but Kate has since sharpened it up even further. I'm having a great time reading it again. And the serialization thing is terrific. What worked for Charles Dickens in the mid-19th century is still a great way to lure readers through a story that tends to end chapters with cliffhangers. Kate is doing some great self-promotion, soliciting reviews where her natural audiences are likely to see them, hooking up with webzines like SynchChaos who have indicated they'll happily publish an excerpt pointing to the 'live' serialization, and using her platform as a longtime blogger on (mostly) political topics to draw readers to her fiction. Meantime, she is busily working on that next novel in her series, and is no longer being distracted by the time-consuming business of finding agents & publishers.

Quinn Dombrowski is one of the most savvy acrobats in social-media space that I've had the privilege to know. Quinn and I met as colleagues in an ongoing, multi-institutional technology project to support arts and humanities scholarship, and watching her work has been an ongoing lesson in social media. Quinn has her own website; 40,000+ photographs on; and a thoroughly entertaining blog called Women, Snakes, and Stalkers in which she deals with the fact that she can't read Indo-Iranian languages by publishing freely-associated interpretations of cover art from the Indo-Iranian section of University of Chicago's Regenstein library. Then there's the book, self-published through Crescat Graffiti, Vita Excolatur documents -- in photographs, transcriptions, and translations -- graffiti in public study areas in that same, main library at UoC. Quinn blogs about that too. You can preview Crescat Graffiti on Google books and find it in a couple of Hyde Park bookstores. Like just about everything else that's for sale, you can buy it on Amazon. As evidence of her media skills, I invite you to peruse her list of citations on the Crescat Graffiti website, which include articles in a half-dozen print and on-line local publications, and blog posts from the LA Times, Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. Quinn even got slashdotted, which for a geek approximates a cross between going to heaven and winning a MacArthur Prize, only harsher and without the big fat check. I've heard rumor of even more impressive publicity in the works, but won't spoil the surprise. The point is, it's clearly possible to get terrific attention for a self-published project ... Quinn has run out her own stock of books (which she also sells directly from her website) a couple of times I'm aware of, but the good news there is that LuLu will print as many more copies as she likes. That's the joy of print-on-demand.

David Masover is my brother. He beat me to monograph publication by going the non-fiction route and, like Quinn, electing to self-publish. His Mastering Your Sales Process debuted last month, and you can find it on Amazon, where reviewers are giving it 4.7 stars (as of this post's timestamp). David blogs about his book and the framework of sales techniques on which it is built, and has two more books in the hopper that will form a series. He has amassed an extensive collection of blurbs, and is making an impressive dent in social-media space, promoting himself through Squidoo, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. A couple of weeks ago he started running a promotion allowing folks to read 30% of the book for free, confident that the material will sell itself.

These are three authors I know personally who are taking publication by the horns. There are no end of success stories elsewhere, self-publication that nets huge readerships, but the fact that these are friends and family compels my particular attention to the question of whether one or another of these strategies is right for me. First reaction? Heck no! But I will admit that a big part of my visceral response has to do with what it "costs" to produce a novel-length manuscript in the world I inhabit. I'm not Stephen King, or Steve Berry. This Steve takes multiple years to complete a mss., not mere months.

Of the three examples given above, Kate will probably have the hardest time recruiting the number of readers appropriate to her publication category ... which has nothing to do with the quality or intrinsic interestingness of her work. It's just tough to stand out from the crowd of fiction authors. We generally don't have much in the way of platforms to stand on, not until an author morphs into a brand (like King, or Berry, or Danielle Steele, or Nora Roberts). One of the key advantages of publishing fiction with a major house is that a novel gains a certain weight simply by passing the "gating" process (agent, editor, publisher). This functions for fiction authors the way "platform" -- visibility among a community likely to take an interest in one's work -- functions for writers of non-fiction. Quinn, for example, has a natural platform among the many students, faculty, staff, and alumni of the University of Chicago; David has a natural platform among the salespeople he works with, trains, and advises through the business-oriented social media forums in which he participates.

Kate will undoubtedly be helped in her arc as a novelist by the fact that she's writing a mystery series, and she's setting her series in a place and culture that is both poorly-understood and of current interest to many western readers. She'll bring the audience built for Murder Under the Bridge forward as new books in the Palestine Mystery series emerge. Still: a tough row to hoe.

If my new novel manuscript is a compelling read (and those who have seen it in manuscript thought so) I'm not ready to launch it short of diligent effort to find the publisher, promotion, and review it can earn. To get a leg up on a platform, I'm aiming to get the mss. onto the right desk. If a key reason for my attachment to a 'traditional' publishing venue is that my next project will take years, not months, before it is complete, there's also a certain safety to taking this path -- a fallback position. Any decision to stick to finding an agent now doesn't preclude my own foray into self-publishing somewhere down the road. I can change my mind if the mss. fails to find that right desk, or if the editor sitting behind it is crabby and hung over when it rises to the top of her to-read list.

What do you think? Are certain types of work better suited to self-publication than others? Certain genres of fiction? Is there a self-published book that rocked your world, and if there is, what drew you to it?

(P.S. If you happen to have the June 8-15, 2009 issue of the New Yorker at hand, open it to page 46. If not, imagine an author sitting across a desk from his agent. She's trying to buck him up. He's looking worried. "Great news!" the agent exclaims. "Your novel is in a medium-size pile in the middle of the floor about four feet from the left side of Oprah's assistant's desk." Now laugh. Bitterly.)