Monday, April 30, 2012

Words matter?

There's a commercial building on Shattuck Avenue between an Italian restaurant called Giovanni's and a Dollar Tree. The building has been under renovation for a while now. It used to be another, ostensibly local cheap-stuff-store -- called Berkeley Mart -- but I gather that business was killed off by the national chain cheap-stuff-store that hunkered down next to it.

I have no opinion whether one of these cheap-stuff-stores is better than another, but in any event there's a pressboard fence now in front of the property that used to be Berkeley Mart and it's pretty much always plastered with movie posters, political announcements, advertisements of one sort or other. The photo at the top of this post is what the fence looked like about a week ago.

Note the wheat-pasted double row of poster-size announcements for The Five-Year Engagement, a movie that opened this past weekend. It's a romantic comedy. Now of course anybody's free to like that sort of thing, but I'd respectfully recommend you watch the trailer before you buy a ticket. My vote? Straight-to-DVD, not that anybody asked me. I base my opinion solely yet confidently on the trailer. I confess that I only bothered to watch the trailer because one doesn't want to publicly judge a movie by its title.

But I digress.

Note, in the photo at the top of this post, the many many blue, photocopied, 11 x 17" sheets stapled over the movie posters. Maybe you can make out the larger line of text? If not, I've provided a close-up, at right. Words Matter, that's the sound-byte here. The ad, as you can see, is for the San Francisco School of Copywriting. Their claim? That one need only visit the web site and register for a class in order to start a new life. As a copywriter, one assumes. Because Words Matter.

On Facebook, the school's tag is this: "Learn the art of copywriting. Online and live copywriting classes. Words that Matter. Words that sell."

I don't want to cast aspersions on David Alger. I don't know the man from Adam, but I can tell you (because it says so on the web site) that he identifies himself as the founder of the San Francisco School for Copywriting. This post is not about David Alger. Hey, everybody gets a shot at making a living, this is America, right? This post is about the way he advertises his copywriting school.

As someone who aspires to get more out of words than a catchy advertising slogan, it kind of chokes me up -- and not in a good way -- to see the idea that "words matter" conflated with an ability to inspire ... a purchase. Or, taking the tack of Alger's About page, to inspire strangers to toss a few coins to blind guys. Not that there's anything wrong with tossing coins to blind guys, or anyone else who needs them, as my friend Kate advocated in her post of last week, Five Reasons to Give Money to Panhandlers.

But there I go, digressing again.

Wanting more than advertising copy out of words ... does that make me old school? Is it impossibly starry-eyed to imagine that "Words that Matter" is a slogan distinct from "Words that sell"? Is it conceivable that humankind might arrest a slide into groupthink that conflates "sell" only with "convince"? Have you looked up "sell" in a dictionary lately? (Merriam-Webster places the "to convince" sense of sell at #5 of 8, after senses of the word that boil down to 'betray'; 'exchange, especially foolishly or dishonorably'; and, my personal favorite -- here quoting directly -- "to dispose of or manage for profit instead of in accordance with conscience, justice, or duty.")

On the other side of the storefront that used to be Berkeley Mart there's more pressboard facade. Last weekend there were posters for Designer Shoe Warehouse wheat-pasted over the posters for The Five-Year Engagement, and 11 x 17s hawking the San Francisco School of Copywriting are stapled over those, and atop those were stapled yet another set of posters, calling for participation in tomorrow's General Strike, organized on the occasion of May Day by "Occupy Oakland and comrades across the bay."

The mind reels. Romantic comedy, discount shoes, cooperative classes for copywriters, general strike.

It's life on the Left Coast in the 21st century. Enough to make a person long to sink into the lotus position and meditate, clearing the mind of words altogether.

Do you think words matter?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Story Matters
Craft and art: erasure and accent
Starbucks' vacuum-packed greenwashing
N-gram fetishism

Thursday, April 26, 2012

On the bright side: an iris in someone's front yard

When I reworked my web site on the WordPress platform earlier this month I had to cast around for a 'sub-title' to the site name, 'cuz there was a field to be filled out and the default (Just another WordPress site) wasn't doing anything for me. I looked at my sound-byte bio here on One Finger Typing, and figured I could re-use "writer" and "activist" ... but lists are so much better when they enumerate in threes.

What else besides "writer" and "activist" then? I'm not so interested in showcasing my day job on the site; that's what LinkedIn is for. My father likes to joke that I'm forever trying, unsuccessfully, to be a curmudgeon. It's never clear whether he's trying to goad or dissuade me. Hmmm... Thanks, Dad, for item #3: writer, activist, aspiring curmudgeon.

When I looked at the titles of my posts so far this month I realized I've been skewing pretty heavily toward my pessimistic, curmudgeonly aspect, and even the arty and bookish posts were kind of heavyweight. So with only a few more chances to blog in April I think what's called for is something lighter. Something ... purty.

Those who keep an eye on my Tumblr know I take a lot of walks around Berkeley, especially on the weekends. And to take a walk in Berkeley is necessarily to admire the lovely front yards of a city with more than its fair share of excellent, committed gardeners. It would be impossible to pick a 'best' front yard, or a 'favorite' flowering tree or bush or bulb. Seriously, Berkeley is awash in vegetal eye candy.

But the iris pictured in the images here -- snapped with nothing fancier than the camera built into an iPod Touch -- took my breath away the weekend before last.

In its startling strength, its simplicity and delicacy as a thing, a life, and a work of nature's art, this lone iris reminded me of the pared-back power of imagist poetry.

Think William Carlos Williams, The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

That's the thing about being an aspiring curmudgeon, but not quite measuring up. Just when you imagine you've attained the height of bitter snarkiness, a flower by the roadside changes everything.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Mark Rothko on art and oedipal struggle
It's the culture, stupid: blindered blather on Amazon, Apple, and the agency model
Flowery front yards in Berkeley

Monday, April 23, 2012

Thinking of Fukushima on Earth Day

Yesterday was Earth Day according to whoever makes this kind of stuff up (the way I figure, every day is Earth Day, I've never been anyplace else). Here in the San Francisco Bay Area summer has arrived: it was hot as heck on Saturday, but Sunday dawned foggy and cool. In Berkeley, just opposite the Golden Gate, it pretty much stayed that way. To those of us who like living on the left edge of the East Bay, this is a pleasant thing.

Late last week I biked by the west entrance to the UC Berkeley campus on my way to work, as I do most days, and found the customary anti-nuke vigil in its customary place with the usual vigil-holders holding their customary banners. I wrote about these folks a while ago, in a post titled TV Debate on Nuclear Weapons Needed Now. I took the post title from the text on a banner they've been bringing to vigils for more than thirty years, and pointed out how sadly off the mark I thought that message reads nowadays, no matter how well-meaning. (A TV debate? Really?)

Well, here's the thing. These steadfast elders have made a new banner to complement their customary set.

(I want to make a joke along the lines of Papa's Got a Brand New Banner, but I can't figure out how to work James Brown into a post on Earth Day and nuclear power plants and oil spills. Aaaaaaanyway...)

The new banner reads: Fukushima - Earth's Nuclear Warning!

Still a little on the corny side, eh? But I'd say it's on point, nonetheless.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdowns are, of course, a disaster that isn't yet behind us. Here, from Fukushima Daiichi: Inside the debacle from Fortune magazine and published on late last week:
More than a year has passed since a massive earthquake and a series of tsunamis triggered the worst accident at a nuclear power plant since Chernobyl in 1986, but the epic debacle at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station remains front and center in Japan, at the very core of a historic debate over the future of nuclear energy [...]

[...] The epic disaster at Fukushima Daiichi represents failure at almost every level, from how the Japanese government regulates nuclear power, to how TEPCO managed critical details of the crisis under desperate circumstances.


On December 16, [former Prime Minister] Kan's successor, Yoshihiko Noda, announced that the stricken reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station had reached "a state of cold shutdown." Japan's worst-ever nuclear accident, the Prime Minister said, had finally been brought under control.

The moment was meant to be a calming milestone, psychological balm for a wounded country in the process of trying to heal. The only problem with it, as workers today at the nuclear power plant, will tell you, is this: it wasn't true then, and it's still not true today. "The coolant water is keeping the reactor temperatures at a certain level, but that's not even near the goal [of a cold shut down,]" says an engineer working inside the plant. "The fact is, we still don't know what's going on inside the reactors."
On the side of the Pacific Ocean where I live, the SF Chronicle recently reported the results of a scientific analysis out of CSU Long Beach: Fukushima radiation found in California kelp. Yep, it took a while to complete the analysis, and Iodine 131 has a short half-life so it's more or less gone now, but the sobering point is not to be ignored: what happened there happened here too. It's a small world, after all.

So you'd think the lesson Earth administered last year would be pretty well assimilated by now. You'd think that a national government that was part of last year's epic failure would proceed with due caution going forward.

You'd want to think again.

Here, from the lede of a NY Times article datelined 13 April, Japan Seeks to Restart some Nuclear Power Plants:
Hoping to avert potentially devastating summer power shortages, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Friday that his government would seek to restart two nuclear reactors, in what would be a first step toward ending an almost complete shutdown of the nation’s nuclear power industry.
When you consider how governments tend to respond to crisis that don't lend themselves to neat solutions, Prime Minister Noda of Japan doesn't look like an outlier. Of course it's not just Japan's regulators and government officials who shut their eyes to risk in order to meet massive demand for (cheap) energy. Consider the Washington Post of this past Thursday, Two years after BP oil spill, offshore drilling still poses risks:
Two years after a blowout on BP’s Macondo well killed 11 men and triggered the largest oil spill in U.S. history, oil companies are again plying the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Forty-one deep-water rigs are in the gulf. The vast majority of them are drilling new holes or working over old ones, while the other behemoths are idle as they await work or repairs. A brand new rig — the South Korean-built Pacific Santa Ana, capable of drilling to a depth of 7.5 miles — is on its way to a Chevron well.

But three recent incidents in other parts of the world show just how risky and sensitive offshore drilling remains.


Many experts say that even with tougher regulations here in the United States, such incidents are inevitable.
It's stories like these that make me wonder whether people are capable of identifying and empowering leadership to reimagine and reconfigure human relations with the rest of the planet ... in time to stave off a reset precipitated by human-induced catastrophe.

It's the 'one year later' stories like those about Fukushima and the Gulf oil spill that make me wince when somebody suggests I have a Happy Earth Day...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Nuclear meltdown abroad and at home
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind
TV Debate on Nuclear Weapons Needed Now

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The lemming situation: things we've known for 50 years about environmentalism

I'm reading two books right now, neither of them my usual, fictional fare. One is The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder (2008). The other is Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962).

For decades I've regarded Snyder as a key teacher and a deep thinker about human culture and our relationship to the many places and beings, more and less sentient, with whom we inhabit the Earth. I haven't read Ginsberg as deeply, and don't have a well-rounded sense of his similar concerns. But I was moved to read Ginsberg's letter of 26 July 1967, sent from New York to Kyoto where Snyder was then living, in which he notes, in a telegraphic style the poets sometimes used in their correspondence:
Gregory Bateson says auto CO2 layer gives planet half-life: 10-30 years before 5-degree temperature rise irreversible melt polar ice caps, 400 feet water inundate everything below Grass Valley -- to say nothing of young pines in Canada dying radiation -- death of rivers -- general lemming situation.

Five years earlier, in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson had written of human effort to eradicate the Japanese beetle in the American midwest by applying insecticides over very large tracts of land:
Incidents like the eastern Illinois spraying raise a question that is not only scientific but moral. The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.

[...] Scientific observers at Sheldon described the symptoms of a meadowlark found near death: "Although it lacked muscular coordination and could not fly or stand, it continued to beat its wings and clutch with its toes while lying on its side. Its beak was held open and breathing was labored." Even more pitiful was the mute testimony of dead ground squirrels, which "exhibited a characteristic attitude in death. The back was bowed and the forelegs with the toes of the feet tightly clenched were drawn close to the thorax ... the head and neck were outstretched and the mouth often contained dirt, suggesting the dying animal had been biting the ground."

By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature, who among us is not diminished as a human being?
There's no doubt that since Carson published her seminal book, and Ginsberg wrote to Snyder in Kyoto, humans have done a great deal to curb detrimental impact to the planet's environment of our residence on Earth. Yet our effort of the past fifty years has been insufficient to ward off threat of mass extinction, according to scientists around the world ... even when the rate of extinction is a topic of academic haggling.

So let's fast-forward to 2012, the present-day.

Turns out that the question whether we ought to make efforts to fix what we've broken -- even at the insufficient levels undertaken to-date -- are hotly contested. Here, for example, is the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's summary on presidential candidate Mitt Romney's positions on environmental issues, datelined Tuesday of this week:
ROMNEY: Supports opening the Atlantic and Pacific outer continental shelves to drilling, as well as Western lands, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore Alaska; and supports exploitation of shale oil deposits. Wants to reduce obstacles to coal, natural gas and nuclear energy development, and accelerate drilling permits in areas where exploration has already been approved for developers with good safety records.

Says green power has yet to become viable and the causes of climate change are unknown. Proposes to remove carbon dioxide from list of pollutants controlled by Clean Air Act and amend clean water and air laws to ensure the cost of complying with regulations is balanced against environmental benefit. Says cap and trade would "rocket energy prices."

Blames high gas prices on Obama's decisions to limit oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas and on overzealous regulation.
Overzealous regulation (my emphasis added)?

We can only wish. Never mind the ju-jitsu with facts implicit elsewhere in this brief position summary, about which I've written elsewhere. Let me explain what I mean:

Also on Tuesday of this week, Associated Press reported a proposed Obama administration rule for managing environmental threats to polar bears. The proposed rule fails to change policy enacted by the GeorgeW. Bush administration, and pretends that the threat to the polar bears' environment (that is, the threat to polar ice) can be managed independently of the question of greenhouse gasses and the warming temperatures they precipitate ... which is, after all, the substantive threat to the polar ice that these magnificent creatures require to live. You can find the AP article in The Republic, out of Columbus, Indiana, under the headline Federal agency again proposes polar bear management rule that leaves out greenhouse gases. From the lede:
Polar bear management policy proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to omit regulation of greenhouse gases blamed for the climate warming that's reducing the animals' summer sea ice habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday that it is proposing a special rule clarifying how the agency will manage polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. The proposed rule, the agency said, will replace a similar special rule issued in 2008, but as before, will not change regulations regarding greenhouse gas emissions.

It happens that this story came to my attention because I have friends with whom I did political work in the 1980s who are now affiliated with the Center for Biological Diversity. I follow CBD posts on Facebook, and friends 'like' and re-post the juicy ones. One old friend was cited in the AP article:
A spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity said that means the Obama administration will duplicate ineffective polar bear management policies put in place by the Bush administration. Polar bear conservation measures that don't mention greenhouse gases are like a discussion of the Titanic without mentioning icebergs, Brendan Cummings said.

"What they're doing is essentially going through a song and dance routine to essentially say, 'We're going to do nothing,'" Cummings said.

Nicely done, Brendan, bringing this week's 100th anniversary of the sinking of a monument to human hubris into discussion of one staggering testament to what Allen Ginsberg called, some forty-five years ago, the lemming situation.

It's not like nobody ever told us.

It's not as if we don't know.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Mutant food: agribusiness vs. everybody else
Water, water everywhere and a lot of murky reasoning
The Compromise: Sergei Dovlatov, there and here
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind

Thanks to PBS for the polar bear image from the Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Adventures Educators Library; and to the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies for the graph of world temperature over time. And a special thanks to for the fab do-it-yourself image generation, discovered by searching for ... images of lemmings. You never know what you'll find on the intertubes...

Monday, April 16, 2012

It's the culture, stupid: blindered blather on Amazon, Apple, and the agency model

Everybody who cares a lot about books, or even a little about e-books, has heard about the Department of Justice announcement last week about Apple, book publishers, Amazon, and something called the "agency model" in businessspeak.

Missed it? You can get the high level summary from Nathan Bransford's post of this past Friday, What Will the Book World Look Like After the DOJ Lawsuit? His summary, under the heading "How we got here" weighs in at less than 300 words, and describes the essentials about as succinctly as they can be described.

If you're already following the story you won't miss much by skipping the next section of this post, and picking up at What book people aren't talking about ...

What book people are talking about

For a more detailed look at the DoJ, Apple, Amazon, and this month's threat to literary culture, Nathan Bransford linked to a longer overview on Shelf Awareness, dated Thursday 12 April 2012. It's titled Justice Department Sues; Three Publishers Settle, and I'd recommend it too. Here's the issue everybody close to books is talking about, as Shelf Awareness spun the story:
Already, Amazon has "plans to push down prices on e-books," the New York Times said. "The price of some major titles could fall to $9.99 or less from $14.99, saving voracious readers a bundle."

So, in the name of antitrust, the level playing field of the past two years--agency model e-books were priced the same whether sold by Amazon, Barnes and Noble or independent bookstores--will likely revert to a situation where a near-monopoly power determines pricing and most other retailers see their already-smaller market share shrink. Although Apple and the publishers may have cooperated in ways that violated the nation's sometimes contradictory antitrust laws, for the Justice Department to single this matter out and not address other issues in the book industry or in business in general seems misguided.
More pointedly (starting with the spot-on headline) here's an excerpt from The Justice Department Just Made Jeff Bezos Dictator-for-Life, in The Atlantic on Saturday 14 April:
Readers will pay less. That's the bright side. The settlement gives Amazon carte blanche to discount the eVersions of popular titles, much as it used to. Of course, that also happens to be the dark side. Because that control over price is going to reinforce the monopoly power of the world's largest online retailer. [...]

In other words, Amazon will have two years to consolidate its hold over the fast growing eBook market by offering virtually any sort of discount it pleases -- a marketing strategy it can afford thanks to the volume of business it already does. The question, then, is what happens after that time is up? Will there be any company that can challenge Amazon in the digital market? Maybe not. Thanks to the use of DRM technology, most eBooks can only be read on a propriety device. Amazon's eBooks can only be read on a Kindle, or a Kindle app. Barnes and Noble's books can only be read on a Nook. So the larger a library any one customer builds with a single retailer, the less likely it is they'll ultimately switch.

In my own sound byte: the DoJ is going after big publishers and Apple for colluding to break Amazon's monopoly on e-books.

What book people aren't talking about

I looked -- maybe I've been looking in the wrong places, using the wrong search terms -- but what I can't find in all this kerfuffle is anybody talking about what an Amazon monopoly (or anybody else's dominant proprietary device/format) is going to mean in the long run.

Do you own books? The paper kind? More than a shelf-full? Can you say, off the top of your head, what company published them? Even if you can -- even if you can for ten percent of the printed books you own -- now that you own them, does it really matter what publisher's name is printed on the spine and the title page?

I'll answer that question for myself: no.

Not at all.

And why not? Because whoever published any of the hundreds of printed books making shelves sag all the way around my living room, and my bedroom, and even my kitchen come to think of it -- no publisher, now that I possess my books, can keep me from reading them, re-reading them, lending them, giving them away, or selling them to any of the many used bookstores within or adjacent to the city where I live.

I don't need to worry about a proprietary device breaking or wearing out, rendering it unfit for use in reading my books. Doesn't touch me or my printed books, I can still do what I will with them.

I don't need to care whether the proprietor of any digital device does or does not go out of business, relegating the library of books that proprietor sold me to the graveyard as soon as the grace period expires that corresponds to the working life of that proprietor's proprietary digital device. What graveyard, you ask? Why, the very same graveyard where BetaMax and VHS videotapes and name-your-dimension-and-format floppy disks are interred.

My books are printed in ink, on tree flakes (a.k.a. paper). No electricity is required if I don't mind reading in daylight.

And they'll outlive me.

Come to think of it, there's no reason my printed books can't outlive the corporate deaths of their publishers ... by hundreds of years. Some of my books have already outlived their publishers, that clock's already ticking.

What happens if Amazon becomes a monopoly bookseller, and Kindle a monopoly reading device, and the proprietary Kindle format the only way you and everybody you know is able to possess new books, the ones that nobody will bother to print (or print in quantity) because there's no market or profitable distribution channel for big runs of printed books anymore?

Then what happens when Amazon goes broke?

Can't imagine that'll ever happen?

In an article about corporate longevity, The business of survival (The Economist, 16 Dec 2004), we get some perspective that might fuel imagination:
What is clear is that corporate longevity is highly unusual. One-third of the firms in the Fortune 500 in 1970 no longer existed in 1983, killed by merger, acquisition, bankruptcy or break-up. According to Leslie Hannah, a business historian at the University of Tokyo, the average “half-life” of big companies—that is, the time taken to die by half of the firms in the world's top 100 by market capitalisation in any given year—was 75 years during the 20th century.
For printed books, seventy-five years is not so long. This past September I read and blogged about a book that I found in a used bookstore for six bucks. It was printed in 1926, eighty five years before I found it on a store shelf and brought it home to take its place on mine. Its technology needed no refreshing. I opened. I read. That's the long and short of it.

If you bought a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad this week, would you expect it to be functional in 2097?

If one such device -- oh, let's say the Kindle -- were the only sort of device you could use to read the new books you wanted to read, including the really really good new books that you'd like to re-read and pass along to friends and family, maybe even your grandkids someday ... and if the company that owned the Kindle were to kick the corporate bucket and render your copies of those books not only unreadable (once you can't transfer them to a Kindle XXVII Next Generation Turbo because that product died on the vine along with the company that manufactured it) ... what do you do with your decades-long investment in e-books? See where I'm going with this??

What's in a book?

Are books a set of pages, magnetized digital media, or commodity price points? Or are they vessels of culture? Both? Some are greater vessels than others, I suppose; so does it depend on the book?

There are a couple ways to look at how books as a commodity are being "reset" in the current, digital shuffle.

On the one hand, there's a war on to anchor consumers of book culture into proprietary format/device channels. You pay your chosen proprietor(s), you read your books, and you can continue to use them until the proprietor goes out of business. It may or may not be possible (or easy) to loan your book to a friend or family member, that's up to the proprietor who might well (as Amazon can today) exercise its prerogative to "amend any of the terms of this Agreement in our sole discretion." When your proprietor goes out of business and your device dies, you can buy the book again from another proprietor, or you can just ... let it go.

"Used e-book stores"? I'm guessing not. From the Kindle's current Terms of Service: "you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party." If publishers and retailers continue to have their way, e-book buyers will be paying for something that functions more-or-less as a privately-leased, pay-per-views or pay-per-device product.

If it's a book you're not likely to look at once you finish reading it, that's probably about the same as how you bought books like that in print, only you don't need to store them on a shelf or recycle them when you're done. If we're talking about books that are keepers, you may find yourself needing to 'renew' your ownership at some time or other by ponying up the purchase price again, perhaps again and again as reading technology changes -- more like a movie ticket than a printed book.

This is all pretty good for people who produce and sell content. They get paid repeatedly. By you, the reader.

On the other hand (or on the same hand but from a shifted perspective) e-books -- which could include the better part of "all books" as production and distribution channels for print dry up -- are being positioned to be sold like performances rather than as they are currently, as artifacts of material culture. Books that are worth keeping, worth re-reading, worth passing around a circle of friends or family, worth saving for when it's the right time for your kids ... well, you might be able to get the use of your original book purchase over time, and you might not. It's not going to be under your control so much any more, and it may depend on whether the proprietor from whom you bought the book in the first place is still in business, or if you're still sufficiently loyal to that proprietor to keep buying new devices as the old ones burn out.

Books published by a retailer -- a "vertical" market that companies like Apple and Amazon both hope to lock down -- may simply disappear once a proprietor goes out of business. And who will own the legal rights to republish those books? Who knows? Remember, those agreements may change at a publisher/retailer's "sole discretion." Maybe UPS and FedEx and the owners of very large warehouses will assume ownership of failed publisher/retailer assets, including publishing rights. They, after all, will be left holding the unpaid leases, and the overdue invoices for delivery of all those tubes of toothpaste and smart phones and shoes people ordered from the same on-line retailers that published and sold books.

What will the future bring?

Your crystal ball is as good as mine. I don't really know. I didn't write this post to answer that question.

I wrote this post to ask why, when book people worry about an e-book monopoly, are book people only worrying about the survival of bookstores and publishers, or about the recompense paid to editors, agents, and authors in exchange for their time, skill, and effort?

Those are important things to worry about, no doubt. I look forward myself to making more than a few bucks (or a couple copies of a literary magazine) for the hours and weeks and months I spend conceiving and revising and honing and polishing even a short story. I do have skin in that game.

But are the monetized aspects of books as important to society as a whole as the prospect of entrusting human culture to the sole ownership and control of a corporate monopoly that will surely go the way of the woolly mammoth, and probably sooner than later?

When we think about the future of books, I think we'd do well to keep the long-term future in perspective. Ready or not, here it comes.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Six things about e-books
Old books, new insights
Rock, Paper, Digital Preservation

Thanks to Evan Bench for the image of a stack of books at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris; to James Duncan Davidson via Wikipedia for the image of Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO; and to Akbar Simonse for his image of a crystal ball -- with books, even!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Water, water everywhere and a lot of murky reasoning

The other day I was browsing through the Washington Post, looking for an article I expected would be published on Saturday, written by an old friend, R.C. Barajas. The article is about a woman from Trinidad who works at the NIH by day, and runs a Capitol Hill bakery by ... even earlier in the day. The photo's yummy enough that I might have stopped by when I was last in D.C., had I only known.

On my way to my friend's article, I ran across an opinion post written by Charles Fishman titled Five Myths about Water. It was a water-focused week. The Associated Press had just run an article describing states' readiness (or not) for changing weather patterns; you can see it in the on-line Wall Street Journal: States' readiness ranked in face of water threats. Then the SF Chronicle ran an editorial on Sunday: California's water wars could heat up. So I took a look at the Fishman post.

Wow. Talk about murky reasoning. I mean, you expect the wacko conspiracy theorists, like WSJ on-line commenter Paul Merrifield, who responded to the AP article as follows:
Is threatening my kids with a CO2 demise going to make anyone vote Liberal? CO2 crisis fear mongering could keep Republicans in power forever. Climate change wasn’t sustainability, it was a 26 year old death threat to billions of children. If there were real legal consequences for you remaining climate blame believers in condemning our children to a CO2 death, none of you bed wetting, drama queen baby talk intellectuals would still be shooting your mouths off like this. You climate cowards didn’t love the planet; you hated humanity for real planet lovers are happy, and not disappointed the crisis wasn’t real because it was exaggerated. [...]


But Charles Fishman? Charles Fishman blogs about water over at National Geographic, and he published a book called The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. You'd think he'd have something serious to say. But three of his five "myths" are ... kind of gee-whiz, really; and the two that suggest historical consequence are out-of-focus.

Charles Fishman's myth #1: "We're running out of water." The lie in Fishman's rendering of this myth is a textbook exercise of getting the facts right at the expense of the truth. Fishman writes, getting the fact correct as I understand it, "The amount of water on Earth isn’t changing, and as a planet we’re in no danger of running out." But he doesn't get anywhere near the truth until paragraph six of six on myth #1:
The problem is that we’ve built our communities, our farms and our reservoirs in places we expect water to be. The scarcity we’re seeing is a result, in part, of a shifting climate — it’s still raining, but it may not be raining in the watersheds of our reservoirs. Water scarcity is also a result of population growth; more people need more water. And it is often a hidden cost of economic development. As people get wealthier, they use more water for things such as bathing and running the dishwasher, and more energy, which requires huge volumes of water.
Well, yes. And therein lurk the sort of problems that could use government-scale attention, because the only way they'll 'solve themselves' is through scarcity-driven disease and conflict in areas where water is needed but isn't available in sufficient quantity, irrespective of the number of water molecules distributed here and there on our lovely planet.

And thus to Fishman's myth #3: "This is going to be a century of water wars." A myth, Fishman thinks? He argues that "Water is simply too cheap to fight over, and too hard to move around the world on demand." But is water as a resource to control, store, hoard, and ship over great distances -- as humans do with oil, to which Fishman compares it in the Washington Post piece -- the driver for anticipated so-called water wars? No, probably not. But lack of fresh water may well cause collapse of agricultural economies, means of energy production, and urban infrastructure at a scale that invites political upheaval and power vacuums that have been the tinder to war's flame for as long as humans remember.

The odd thing on doing a bit of digging is that Fishman does seem to have a handle on the big picture.

Here, for example, excerpted from a National Geographic blog post of 1 March 2012, When It Comes to Water, We’re All Maya Now:
It’s possible that the stunning Maya civilization — with mastery of mathematics and astronomy, farming, water management, pyramid building and city planning — was undone by summer rain. Not enough summer rain. Undone, in fact, by exactly the kind of rainfall changes we ourselves are starting to experience — small shifts in rainfall that persist, and end up having an outsized impact.

And from his book's cover flap:
Fishman vividly shows that we’ve already left behind a century-long golden age when water was thoughtlessly abundant, free, and safe and entered a new era of high-stakes water. In 2008, Atlanta came within ninety days of running entirely out of clean water. California is in a desperate battle to hold off a water catastrophe. And in the last five years Australia nearly ran out of water—and had to scramble to reinvent the country’s entire water system. But as dramatic as the challenges are, the deeper truth Fishman reveals is that there is no good reason for us to be overtaken by a global water crisis. We have more than enough water. We just don’t think about it, or use it, smartly.

Did the Post water down Fishman's ideas? (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Or does the newspaper piece reflect that good old we-can-engineer-our-way-out-of-anything-we-engineered-our-way-into mentality (about which I've written unsympathetically before, in Digging deeper holes, for example).

It's a tempting trap, masquerading as a solution of the "oh, the experts'll fix it" variety. Fishman writes, "We have more than enough water. We just don’t think about it, or use it, smartly." As if it were nothing at all to 'just' think and be smart.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Pacific coast watersheds
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind
Digging deeper holes
Things fall apart

The image in this post shows MacArthur Burney Falls just south of Mt. Shasta, about which I blogged in Pacific coast watersheds this past October.

Monday, April 9, 2012

If you don't want to drive you've got to be driven

Last week the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG) put out a news release: New report: Long-term drop in how much people drive, youth desire more transportation options. From the news release, with a link to the report itself:
A new report released today by the CalPIRG Education Fund with Frontier Group demonstrates that Americans have been driving less since the middle of last decade. The report, Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People are Driving Less and What it Means for Transportation Policy shows that young people in particular are decreasing the amount they drive and increasing their use of transportation alternatives.

Over the last seven years, the report reveals, and for the first time since the Second World War, Americans are driving less: 6% less in 2011 than in 2004.

This cheers me up. Reduction in human dependency on industrially manufactured and supplied energy is good reason for good cheer.

But there's more! The reduction in driving could be a real, lasting trend. This from the report itself:
The trend away from driving has been led by young people. From 2001 and 2009, the average annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita – a drop of 23 percent. The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting – even once the economy recovers. Young people are driving less for a host of reasons – higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support alternative transportation, and changes in Generation Y’s values and preferences – all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come.
Is it just the economy? Apparently not:
The recession has played a role in reducing the miles driven in America, especially by young people. People who are unemployed or underemployed have difficulty affording cars, commute to work less frequently if at all, and have less disposable income to spend on traveling for vacation and other entertainment. The trend toward reduced driving, however, has occurred even among young people who are employed and/or are doing well financially.
  • The average young person (age 16-34) with a job drove 10,700 miles in 2009, compared with 12,800 miles in 2001.
  • From 2001 to 2009, young people (16-34 years old) who lived in households with annual incomes of over $70,000 increased their use of public transit by 100 percent, biking by 122 percent, and walking by 37 percent.
Robert Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, published a blog post on the same date the CalPIRG report quoted above was released.

(As it happens, I -- not a young person by the CalPIRG report's definition or my own -- passed Prof. Reich a couple days earlier, riding my bike down a hill between UC Berkeley's main library and my office off the northwest corner of campus. I had just borrowed a copy of John Logan's script Red, from which I quoted in my last blog post, Mark Rothko on art and oedipal struggle. But now this is turning into a shaggy dog story ... back to Reich's blog.)

Professor Reich called his post of last Thursday The Fable of the Century. Here's how the fable begins:
Imagine a country in which the very richest people get all the economic gains. They eventually accumulate so much of the nation’s total income and wealth that the middle class no longer has the purchasing power to keep the economy going full speed. Most of the middle class’s wages keep falling and their major asset – their home – keeps shrinking in value.

Imagine that the richest people in this country use some of their vast wealth to routinely bribe politicians. They get the politicians to cut their taxes so low there’s no money to finance important public investments that the middle class depends on – such as schools and roads, or safety nets such as health care for the elderly and poor.
Can you imagine that? I thought you could, it's not so hard.

Reich goes on in this vein for some paragraphs, building to a description of a certain very wealthy, nearly-nominated aspirant to presidential office and how -- in one ending to the fable -- this fellow gets elected and cements the gains of his fellow gazillionaires by further putting the screws to middle- and working-class people.

However. As Reich puts it, there’s another ending to the fable.
In this one, the candidacy of the private equity manager (and all the money he and his friends use to try to sell their lies) has the opposite effect. It awakens the citizens of the country to what is happening to their economy and their democracy. It ignites a movement among the citizens to take it all back.

The citizens repudiate the private equity manager and everything he stands for, and the party that nominated him. And they begin to recreate an economy that works for everyone and a democracy that’s responsive to everyone.

It's just a fable, Reich wrote. But the ending is up to you.

What connects these two threads for me -- CalPIRG's transportation report and Reich's fable -- is the question whether enough of those who are voting with their feet, derailleurs, and bus passes are aware of and invested in the long-term implications of their part in shaping political leadership and policy ... that is, whether they are committed to vote at the polls, then follow up to influence elected leaders.

We know the people with scads of money are on that task like vultures on carrion. But the rest of us?

CalPIRG issued their report on shifts in preferred modes of transportation as a call to policymakers:
America has long created transportation policy under the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady rate. The changing transportation preferences of young people – and Americans overall – throw that assumption into doubt. Policy-makers and the public need to be aware that America’s current transportation policy – dominated by road building – is fundamentally out-of-step with the transportation patterns and expressed preferences of growing numbers of Americans. It is time for policy-makers to consider the implication of changes in driving habits for the nation’s transportation infrastructure decisions and funding practices, and consider a new vision for transportation policy that reflects the needs of 21st century America.
The ending of the fable, as Robert Reich characterizes it, will depend how many of the young people who would rather take public transportation or bike or walk than drive a car take part in getting the ending right.

Here's hoping......

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Mark Rothko on art and oedipal struggle
Sharrows and stripes: bike lanes for a common good
Paying what things cost
Facing things we'd rather weren't so

Thanks to Rachel Kramer for the image of Robert Reich at a Brandeis University book-signing, circa 2004.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Mark Rothko on art and oedipal struggle

John Logan's Red, a play set in the studio of the late painter Mark Rothko, is currently playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Les Waters directs; David Chandler and John Brummer are the two-man cast.

I saw Red last week, and recommend it: the Rep is staging a powerful production of a work that originated at London's Donmar Warehouse (a point in any play's favor) and won a Tony for Best Play in 2010.

Yes, there's a certain piling on of the 'anguished artist' trope, but for the most part David Chandler's Rothko is moving -- much more than convincing -- in his depiction of a "serious" painter who insists to his new-hired assistant and artist-in-the-making that art is more than slathering paint on canvas. From Logan's script:
You have a lot to learn, young man. Philosophy. Theology. Literature. Poetry. Drama. History. Archeology. Anthropology. Mythology. Music. These are your tools as much as brush and pigment. You cannot be an artist until you are civilized. You cannot be civilized until you learn. To be civilized is to know where you belong in the continuum of your art and your world. To surmount the past, you must know the past.
Over the top? Sure. And, in David Chandler's performance, not so much.

Surmounting the past is really what this play is about:
The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him. [...] Courage in painting isn't facing the blank canvas, it's facing Manet, it's facing Velasquez. All we can do is move beyond what was there, to what is here, and hope to get some intimation of what will be here. 'What is past and passing and to come.' That's Yeats, whom you haven't read.

The quasi-Oedipal struggle between generations of artists -- Cubism 'killed' by Rothko's generation of Abstract Expressionists; Rothko on the point of being deposed by the Pop Art likes of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauchenberg, and (Sauron himself!) Andy Warhol -- is as simultaneously gripping and ridiculous as any fiercely-fought contest between fathers and sons. Again, in BRT's production, it's Chandler's ability that carries the drama: his simultaneous portrayal of the artist's absolute commitment to his own work, and of Rothko's knowledge that his own demise is inevitable -- as inevitable as that of the forbearers he himself dispatched.

I've quoted Henry Kissinger before on the topic of academic politics -- "academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small" -- and found myself remembering the aphorism as I watched Red unfold last weekend. Here's the thing, though. I wasn't thinking of Kissinger's sneer as a mode of dismissing the play. I was thinking of it in light of the truth that everything that matters only matters in a context.

Take all of the history of western art -- or all human history for that matter -- and stack it against the immensity and age of the universe.

Voilà! A flash in the pan!

But, year-by-year, we don't inhabit that universal scope. At humankind's best, our hearts and minds are committed to and moved by intellectual depth, cultural breadth, artistic integrity, and formal rigor of just the sort Logan, Waters, and Chandler give us in a bio-drama depicting a certain twentieth-century Russian immigrant to the United States, née Marcus Rothkowitz.

Red plays at the Berkeley Rep through 29 April 2012 12 May 2012 [extension announced a few hours after this post was originally published].

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Jim Campbell's "Exploded Views" at SFMOMA
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Matrixed higher education

Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for his image of No. 14, Mark Rothko, 1960 taken at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in December of last year.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Google Translate, AI, and Searle's Chinese Room

You've probably heard one or another peppy manager-type or cleric or motivational speaker cite a particular nugget of ancient Far Eastern wisdom: a mysterious truth revealed by the etymological observation that Chinese words for "danger" and "opportunity" are the composite elements of the Chinese word for "crisis." That is, from a perspective allegedly implicit in the Chinese language, a crisis is both danger and opportunity.

The project on which I work for a living found itself at one of those is-the-crisis-danger-or-is-it-opportunity junctures last week. In an e-mail weighing in on a colleague's proposed path out of the thicket, I concluded with a mangled version of this etymologically suspect aphorism. I did excuse myself by noting the weak foundations of Ye Olde Orientalist Saying, but when I mentioned the e-mail to my Mandarin-speaking partner we dove into the Chinese more deeply. That's when things got interesting.

"Bring up Google Translate," my partner suggested. I did. And then he did a bit of typing into my web browser.

Now we could have just gone to Wikipedia's article, Chinese word for "crisis" ... where we learn that:
Chinese philologist Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania calls the popular interpretation of wēijī in the English-speaking world a "widespread public misperception." Mair argues that while wēi (危) does roughly mean "danger, dangerous; endanger, jeopardize; perilous; precipitous, precarious; high; fear, afraid" (as in wēixiăn 危险, "dangerous"), the polysemous jī (机) does not necessarily mean "opportunity." The compound noun jīhuì (机会) means "opportunity," but jī is only a part of it; jī has numerous meanings, including "machine, mechanical; airplane; suitable occasion; crucial point; pivot; incipient moment; opportune, opportunity; chance; key link; secret; cunning." More importantly, these are "secondary" meanings—according to Mair, jī only acquires the connotations of secondary meanings (such as "opportunity") when used in conjunction with another morpheme (in this case, in jīhuì); by itself, it does not necessarily have these meanings. Mair suggests that jī in wēijī is closer to "crucial point" than to "opportunity."

Though he's not a credentialed philologist, this is just about exactly how Matthew explained the loose construction of the "crisis = danger + opportunity" myth to me. But if we'd left it at that, I would have lost a chance to play interesting on-line games with Chinese characters.

Check it out.

First, we asked Google to translate the words danger and opportunity into simplified Chinese characters:

Then, we took the first character of each of the compounds returned by Google Translate, and used them as input to see how they translate back into English:

Neat, eh? You can try it in your own web browser, but if you don't care to and can't make out the fuzzy screenshots, the upshot is this:

  • take the first Chinese character of what Google Translate returns for "danger"
  • concatenate the first Chinese character of what Google Translate returns for "opportunity"
  • feed the resultant two characters into Google Translate and translate it back into English; the result is "crisis"

But that's just the start.

Because it was here that I flashed on a professor of philosophy from whom I took a course when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley. Prof. John Searle had recently published his "Chinese Room argument" on the relationship between rule-driven manipulation of symbols (a.k.a. computation) and understanding; cf. "Minds, Brains and Programs" in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

In the more than three decades since, Searle's argument has spawned a breathtaking span of debate on the relationship between syntax and semantics -- formal operations on language vs. meaning. A cleanly articulated 14,000 word summary of the give-and-take can be found on-line in David Cole's The Chinese Room Argument, published in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Here's the paragraph-length description of Searle's argument, from the introduction to Cole's SEP article:
The Chinese Room argument, devised by John Searle, is an argument against the possibility of true artificial intelligence. The argument centers on a thought experiment in which someone who knows only English sits alone in a room following English instructions for manipulating strings of Chinese characters, such that to those outside the room it appears as if someone in the room understands Chinese. The argument is intended to show that while suitably programmed computers may appear to converse in natural language, they are not capable of understanding language, even in principle. Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of meaning or semantics. Searle's argument is a direct challenge to proponents of Artificial Intelligence, and the argument also has broad implications for functionalist and computational theories of meaning and of mind. As a result, there have been many critical replies to the argument.
This is a blog post, not a philosophical treatise, so I won't (foolishly) attempt to critique three decades of argument conducted by very, very smart people.

What I will say is that our Google Translate experiment demonstrated Searle's original point with searing immediacy. It was a you can do this at home moment.

Not only do I have no ability whatsoever as a Chinese philologist, I'm not even a Chinese speaker. Yet I easily followed (my partner's) English language directions about how to snip this or that character from a 'page' (result pane) out of a 'rule book' (Google Translate) to construct an apparently meaningful argument about the relations between Chinese words.

At the end of the exercise, I still didn't understand Chinese.

It's true that I can speak a few phrases of Mandarin. I learned them when I prepared for travel to China a couple of times over the past decade. I can say "yes" and "no" and "I don't want it" and "chili oil." I can count off a few numbers. The most complex statement that (a) I can speak in Chinese, and (b) is actually comprehensible to Chinese-speakers is this one:


Transliterated into Roman characters, this amounts to something like: "Wo boo hway shwo han yu."

Translated, it means: "I can't speak Chinese."

And there you have it.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Linguistics, semantics, pragmatics: words, meaning, and wacky translations
Google yanks APIs, developers caught with pants around ankles
Are computer languages really languages?