How this Texas woman changed the lives of the blind and impaired with creation of audiobook studio

28 March 2017

From The Houston Chronicle:

Carolyn Randall is enthralled by words. She’s been so as long as her 90-year-old memory can recall.

Decades before she’d create the Texas State Library’s audiobook recording studio, a project that has helped thousands of blind and impaired people, Randall was a bookworm growing up in Champaign, Illinois. She read historical fiction and scripts by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

“I was a slow reader,” said Randall, now a Houston resident. “I paid attention to each word.”

. . . .

Shortly after, Randall heard that the University of Houston needed help to record audiobooks. She began volunteering weekly.

In the late 1960s, Robert Levy founded what was then Taping for the Blind, a Houston audiobook and radio program now called Sight into Sound. The news made its way to Randall, who, upon hearing it, remembered an uncle who had once said he needed audiobooks while recovering from cataract surgery. She had an idea.

“I thought, ‘I can do this in an even better way than at the University of Houston,'” Randall said. “That’s how I really got started.”

She stayed with the program for about 10 years before moving with Howard to Austin.

Living in the capitol meant an opportunity to volunteer at the state library.

Randall couldn’t pass it up. She began with small tasks, “filing whatever they needed,” she said. But she quickly cultivated relationships. She also noticed there was no state-sponsored studio to record audiobooks. The library’s Talking Book Program had for decades used an audiobooks archive provided by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. But no state resource existed for audiobooks and authors specific to Texas.

Randall lobbied for funding to outfit a room with recording booths. Volunteers were recruited, and the studio was born in 1978, with Randall as its director.

. . . .

Almost 40 years later, more than 5,000 titles (books, magazines, etc.) have been recorded at the studio, which in total has a collection of more than 10,000 titles in multiple languages. The studio has about 100 volunteers, and it services roughly 18,000 blind and impaired people statewide. It also offers some books in braille.

Link to the rest at The Houston Chronicle

Of course, PG was reminded of 17 U.S. Code § 121, which provides, in part:

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106, it is not an infringement of copyright for an authorized entity to reproduce or to distribute copies or phonorecords of a previously published, nondramatic literary work if such copies or phonorecords are reproduced or distributed in specialized formats exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities.

. . . .

“authorized entity” means a nonprofit organization or a governmental agency that has a primary mission to provide specialized services relating to training, education, or adaptive reading or information access needs of blind or other persons with disabilities;

Amazon’s lockers gave me a shameful taste of a world without people

28 March 2017

From The Verge:

There’s an idea going round that we’ll all live like shut-ins in the future. Thanks to a combination of cashier-less shops, same-day deliveries, and work-from-home jobs, we’ll never have to leave the house. When we do, driverless cars will whiz us from location to location, ensuring we never have to actually speak to another human being.

. . . .

Let me put it like this. The other day I had to return a package to Amazon (no, not headphones this time). It was a Saturday and I had a full to-do list to work through. So rather than spend time queueing up at the post office, I decided to use Amazon Locker, the company’s self-service parcel pickup and delivery service.

Amazon places these lockers all over big cities (often in retail stores like 7-Eleven and Spar) and lets you send your packages there or use them for returns. The one I visited in central London was just a room in the basement of an office building, but inside, it felt weirdly calming. I walked in from a crowded, blazingly hot street, into a air-conditioned oasis. It was quiet, calm, and utterly devoid of people.

Inside, I found my designated block of lockers (there were five or six different rows, each comprised of different-sized compartments stacked together like Tetris blocks) and punched in the drop-off code into a waiting touchscreen, while an embedded camera peered up my nostrils. The moment I hit the enter button, a locker the size of my parcel sprang open a little way down the wall, with a satisfying whir. I dropped in my parcel, clicked shut the locker, and walked out. Simple.

. . . .

I didn’t have to waste time, or think too much (I even re-used the packaging Amazon sent me) and, most noticeably, I didn’t have speak to anyone.

Link to the rest at The Verge and thanks to Jan for the tip.

The author of the OP felt guilty about this. Her reasons were not expressed with great clarity, but apparently, there might have been something better about the experience if a minimum-wage clerk had somehow been involved.

Apparently, Amazon will now have to tackle urban anomie to provide complete service.

Hachette launches The Future Bookshelf for underrepresented writers

28 March 2017

From The Bookseller:

Hachette UK has launched a new diversity initiative, a creative writing hub called The Future Bookshelf, to make publishing more accessible for writers who feel they aren’t well represented by the industry.

The initiative aims to “demystify publishing”, by guiding users of the website through the process of writing, editing, submitting and publishing, and will offer monthly tips and shareable infographics from its own authors and other experts.

It will also hold an open submissions period from 1st – 7th December this year for writers who are both unpublished and unagented and “feel the industry doesn’t adequately represent people from their background or with their experiences”. They may be authors of either novels or non-fiction.

. . . .

“Publishing has long suffered from a perception that it is a closed shop. But things are changing. There is increased room for diverse new voices. Authors from non-traditional backgrounds and communities bring colour and stories from all over the world – there is a new appetite in the publishing industry for this sort of work. I was delighted to be asked to contribute to The Future Bookshelf initiative as I am a living breathing example of how the winds of change are sweeping through the industry. Helping Hachette nurture other writers from similar backgrounds gives me immense personal satisfaction … I am truly excited to see what comes out of the box.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Here’s How Many Books You Can Expect to Read Before You Die

27 March 2017

From Mental Floss:

Life is too short to suffer through a book you just don’t like. For proof of that, Literary Hub has done some (slightly morbid) calculations regarding how many books you’ll be able to squeeze in during your remaining years on Earth.

The table below breaks down the number of books you’ll have time for if you maintain your current reading habits. Twenty-five-year-old women, for example, have 61 years left to live according to the Social Security Life Expectancy Calculator. Assuming they live that long, average readers in that group have 732 more books to read in their lifetimes. “Average” in this case means people who read 12 books per year.

. . . .

25 and female (61 years left)
Average reader: 732
Voracious reader: 3050
Super reader: 4880

25 and male (57 years left)
Average reader: 684
Voracious reader: 2850
Super reader: 4560

. . . .

60 and female: 86 (26 years left)
Average reader: 312
Voracious reader: 1300
Super reader: 2080

60 and male (23 years left)
Average reader: 276
Voracious reader: 1150
Super reader: 1840

Link to the rest at Mental Floss and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Amazon Delays Opening of Cashier-Less Store to Work Out Kinks

27 March 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amazon.com Inc. is delaying the public opening of its first cashier-less convenience store because of technical complications.

Amazon Go was due to launch to the public by the end of the month, after launching in beta mode to employees in December, according to people familiar with the matter. It is unclear when it will now open, as it works out kinks in the technology to automatically charge customers when they leave, instead of needing to have cash registers, checkouts and lines.

The store in Amazon’s hometown of Seattle uses cameras, sensors and algorithms to watch customers and track what they pick up, according to the people. But Amazon has run into problems tracking more than about 20 people in the store at one time, as well as the difficulty of keeping tabs on an item if it has been moved from its specific spot on the shelf, according to the people.

For now, the technology functions flawlessly only if there are a small number of customers present, or when their movements are slow, the people said. The store will continue to need employees to help ensure the technology is accurately tracking purchases for the near future.

. . . .

The setbacks with Amazon Go highlight the difficulty the online retail giant faces in modernizing brick-and-mortar retail. Amazon is exploring chains of book, convenience and grocery stores to challenge its rivals on all fronts. But it has little experience in anticipating and managing the flow of customers and products in a physical space.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

I’ve heard stories

27 March 2017

I’ve heard stories about authors filled with this kind of Lotto-winner hubris. I’m a Dutch boy from the Midwest. We don’t have hubris.

Chris Van Allsburg

Exploring Amazon with Data Guy

27 March 2017

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The DataGuy portion of the podcast begins at about the 9:00 point.
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Thanks to Karen and others for the tip.

Why Literature and Pop Culture Still Can’t Get the Midwest Right

27 March 2017

From Literary Hub:

When they ask, I tell people that I’m from the Midwest. Indiana, I’ll say with a playful, nasal intonation if badgered further, though I don’t typically expect a follow-up question. Only on the rare occasions when explicitly asked “but what city?” will I offer up my hometown: Fort Wayne, which I describe as a small place where “there’s not too much,” despite it being the second largest city in the state. I’ll say I’ve seen Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but that I don’t love the teasing nature of their implication; I’ll say Fargo is one of my favorite movies, though Indiana and Minnesota aren’t totally the same.

. . . .

But the script is always the same—when people find out that I come from a place known as the Heartland, I know I can expect one of two responses: That I’m so lucky to have escaped such a conservative place, or that people from the Midwest are so nice. Neither of these statements are necessarily false, though neither convince me that the speaker has a nuanced understanding of the region: something that mainstream pop culture and literature have done little to subvert.

. . . .

Oversimplifying any part of the United States can be irresponsible and, in some cases, discriminatory, though most regions have come to be defined by certain broad traits: New England is steeped in Puritanism, the Southwest has Spanish-Catholic and Indigenous traditions, and the South is bound by its Confederate past. But then there’s the Midwest, where not even those born and raised in the area can offer up a consistent response as to which states belong and which ones do not. The region is overwhelmingly white, though ethnically heterogeneous; early settlers came not only from surrounding domestic regions, but also Germany, Scandinavia, Ireland, and Poland. There are the major cities likes Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis, but as Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib writes in The Baffler, “the divide between its rural and urban constituencies is . . . sharp, [and] ten miles outside of a city there’s often a rural area that feels like an entirely different world.” There is no defining Midwestern accent; the phrase “Midwestern music” is meaningless.

. . . .

Though not the sole factor, the dearth of nuanced understanding of the Midwest results from its failure to arrive at wholly truthful or enduring cultural distinction. In a 1998 essay titled “The Heartland’s Role in US Culture: It’s Main Street,” University of Kansas professor James R. Shortridge traces the region’s relative undefinability, starting with the first geographical reference of the “Middle West” in the 1880s. at the time, the phrase referred only to Kansas and Nebraska, and by nature of its small scope, the cultural tropes and mannerisms associated with the region were more universal: the people there were kind and moral, idealists; they were pragmatic and hard-working, but also humble. It was very Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series based on her childhood in the Midwest during the 1870s and 1880s—happiness is a piece of maple candy, manual labor is an integral part of your character.

. . . .

But by the turn of the century, “the Midwest was America,” Shortridge writes, as multiple industries in the region (notably Detroit’s automobile industry) were proof of industrialization’s success, and immigrants were finding opportunities in states that were thought to know the meaning of hard work. However, it was this very industrialization that would cause the heart of the country to suffer its first crisis of identity. The urbanization of cities like Chicago and Detroit did not coincide with the area’s reputation for Christian morality, pastoralism, and agriculture. And, at least colloquially, many people within the region attempted to disassociate themselves from what they saw as centers of depravity, which is reflected in what we today consider “Midwestern.” As Athitakis said, “We change both the borders and the definition of Midwest to accommodate the visions most close to religion and the nuclear family.”

. . . .

Over the past 20 years, Atihtakis argues, a good handful of writers have sought to drill into the “hearty, churchy, white-bread vision” of the region that’s been projected through literature popular culture. But a specific region or issue must first become newly relevant for it to merit such a meditation. Athitakis brings up Detroit, a city crippled by decades of white flight, falling home prices, and the collapse of the automobile industry, which left it in an exceptionally poor state after the Great Recession. In 2013, Detroit filed the largest municipal bankruptcy case in US history and quickly became the national media’s favorite example of economic collapse and urban struggle. It was only after this, Athitakis says, that people outside of the region were ready to read about the Motor City.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

Although he doesn’t live there any more, PG has spent quite a lot of time in the Midwest. For him, it doesn’t really seem to be one region culturally.

For example, Chicago and Minneapolis are much different cities. PG has lived in and enjoyed both cities and, for him, they are more distinct than Boston and New York.

Chicago was largely settled by Poles, Irish, Germans and Italians while Minneapolis was settled by Swedes, Norwegians and a smaller number of Germans. At the turn of the 20th century, Chicago was the third largest Czech city in the world after Prague and Vienna.

During the first half of the twentieth century, large numbers of African-Americans migrated north to settle in Chicago, where there were lots of jobs, but few traveled further north to Minneapolis. During the 1920’s and 30’s, Chicago had blues, jazz, nightclubs and Al Capone. Minneapolis had General Mills and Pillsbury.

Even within Midwestern states, generally much larger geographically than Eastern states, there are significant differences. Northern Missouri is a different place than southern Missouri. Western Nebraska is not much like eastern Nebraska geographically or culturally.

As PG thought about the OP, it occurred to him that it might be useful to think of the Midwest the same way he thinks about Western Europe.

Obviously, the Midwest doesn’t have different languages (although Minneapolis and Chicago had distinctly different accents when PG lived there), but no one seems to worry about the defining characteristics of the Western European arts as opposed to German, French, British, etc., arts.

PG says let Iowa be Iowa. Don’t try to shoehorn it into the Midwest.

The High-Speed Trading Behind Your Amazon Purchase

27 March 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

I wanted to buy some mini marshmallows recently, so I went on Amazon. Perhaps because of their resemblance to packing material—light, bulky, ubiquitous—I figured they’d be cheap. But when I found the most popular brand, not only did the marshmallows cost twice what I’d pay at my local store, but the price had skyrocketed overnight.

Just beneath the placid surface of a typical product page on Amazon lies an unseen world, a system where third-party vendors can sell products alongside Amazon’s own goods. It’s like a stock market, complete with day traders, code-slinging quants, artificial-intelligence algorithms and, yes, flash crashes.

Amazon gave people and companies the ability to sell on Amazon.com in 2000, and it has since grown into a juggernaut, representing 49% of the goods Amazon ships. Amazon doesn’t break out numbers for the portion of its business driven by independent sellers, but that translates to tens of billions in revenue a year. Out of more than 2 million registered sellers, 100,000 each sold more than $100,000 in goods in the past year, Peter Faricy, Amazon’s vice president in charge of the division that includes outside sellers, said at a conference last week.

It’s clear, after talking to sellers and the software companies that empower them, that the biggest of these vendors are growing into sophisticated retailers in their own right. The top few hundred use pricing algorithms to battle with one another for the coveted “Buy Box,” which designates the default seller of an item. It’s the Amazon equivalent of a No. 1 ranking on Google search, and a tremendous driver of sales.

. . . .

The vendor of the marshmallows I wanted told me his high price was an attempt to bait competitors into raising their own asking prices for the item. This works because sellers of commodity items on Amazon are constantly monitoring and updating their prices, sometimes hundreds of thousands of times a day across thousands of items, says Mr. Kaziukėnas. Most use “rules-based” pricing systems, which simply seek to match competitors’ prices or beat them by some small fraction. If those systems get into bidding wars, items offered by only a few sellers can suffer sudden price collapses—“flash crashes.”

More sophisticated systems for pricing are offered by companies like New York City-based Feedvisor, which claims to use artificial intelligence to learn the market dynamics behind every item in a catalog. This system is “set it and forget it,” says Barry Lampert, one of Feedvisor’s customers and a top-500 seller on Amazon. The algorithm will often raise the price on items in a seller’s catalog, to see if other sellers will follow suit. The goal is to maximize sales while avoiding bidding wars that can be a race to the bottom.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

Hogs Norton

27 March 2017

From The Oxford English Dictionary:

 Hogs Norton, n.

. . . .

A fictional town renowned for its uncultured and boorish inhabitants; often in (depreciative) phrases suggesting that someone is a native or inhabitant of this town.

. . . .

1725 N. Bailey tr. Erasmus Colloq. 317 You saucy Fellow, where was you drag’d up, At Hogs Norton?

Link to the rest at The Oxford English Dictionary

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