I paint

20 February 2018

I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.

Frida Kahlo

Now Google trains AI to write Wikipedia articles

20 February 2018

From The Register:

A team within Google Brain – the web giant’s crack machine-learning research lab – has taught software to generate Wikipedia-style articles by summarizing information on web pages… to varying degrees of success.

As we all know, the internet is a never ending pile of articles, social media posts, memes, joy, hate, and blogs. It’s impossible to read and keep up with everything. Using AI to tell pictures of dogs and cats apart is cute and all, but if such computers could condense information down into useful snippets, that would be really be handy. It’s not easy, though.

A paper, out last month and just accepted for this year’s International Conference on Learning Representations (ICLR) in April, describes just how difficult text summarization really is.

A few companies have had a crack at it. Salesforce trained a recurrent neural network with reinforcement learning to take information and retell it in a nutshell, and the results weren’t bad.

However, the computer-generated sentences are simple and short; they lacked the creative flair and rhythm of text written by humans. Google Brain’s latest effort is slightly better: the sentences are longer and seem more natural.

. . . .

The model works by taking the top ten web pages of a given subject – excluding the Wikipedia entry – or scraping information from the links in the references section of a Wikipedia article. Most of the selected pages are used for training, and a few are kept back to develop and test the system.

The paragraphs from each page are ranked and the text from all the pages are added to create one long document. The text is encoded and shortened, by splitting it into 32,000 individual words and used as input.

This is then fed into an abstractive model, where the long sentences in the input are cut shorter. It’s a clever trick used to both create and summarize text. The generated sentences are taken from the earlier extraction phase and aren’t built from scratch, which explains why the structure is pretty repetitive and stiff.

Link to the rest at The Register

PG thinks an easier job would be to create an algorithm that would produce interview quotes from European publishing executives.

He suggests seeding the algorithm with words like stupid, price, protect, booksellers, kill, enriched, Amazon, obscene, amuck, insane, predatory, greedy, la fréquencerépugnantsale américain, dégradégoulualiéné and vorace.

PG spent a few minutes re-familiarizing himself with websites that generate random words, sentences, etc., to see if he could locate one to inspire him with potential quotes from European publishing executives.

He did not find exactly the right tool for that task, but he did discover InspiroBot, a lovely site to help you create beauteous and profound social media posts. (Yes, it can be addictive.)



Michigan prisoner turned celebrated author may face incarceration bill

20 February 2018

From The Guardian:

Curtis Dawkins, a Michigan prisoner and publishing sensation, could be forced to repay the costs of his incarceration from the proceeds of his literary work.

The convicted murderer is serving a life sentence for a 2004 crime spree on Halloween night that left one man dead. His debut collection of short stories, The Graybar Hotel, was written in a Michigan penitentiary and published in July.

But now the Michigan department of treasury is seeking 90% of Dawkins’s assets, including “proceeds from publications, future payments, royalties” from the book. Michigan puts the cost of his incarceration at $72,000; Dawkins, 49, received a $150,000 advance from Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

The state claims that Dawkins, who is representing himself at a hearing next week in Kalamazoo, has no right to pass his literary earnings to his family.

But Dawkins, who has expressed deep remorse for the murder and described writing as his “lifeboat”, claims his family is being unfairly punished and state law contains a provision stating that the court must take into account “any legal and moral obligation” he has to support his kids.

. . . .

Last year, Michigan collected $3.7m from 294 prisoners. The state counts 40,000 inmates of the 2.2 million adults in US jails. According to the Brennan center, roughly 10 million people owe $50bn in fees stemming from their arrest or imprisonment.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Children’s Publishing Reckons with Sexual Harassment in Its Ranks

20 February 2018

From School Library Journal:

A writer was making small talk during the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ (SCBWI) annual conference when she says the man she was chatting with, a successful children’s book illustrator, reached over and touched her hair.

“He fondled a lock of my hair and leaned in to my ear and said, ‘You’re kinky, aren’t you?’” says the writer, who asked not to be identified. (See updated story: “Ishta Mercurio Goes Public as David Díaz Accuser.”)

The exchange, which happened in 2012 at SCBWI’s winter conference in New York and was witnessed by one of the writer’s friends, left the woman feeling “horrified” and “disgusted.” The illustrator, David Díaz, was a member of SCBWI’s board and a faculty member at the conference. Still, the writer, who at that point in her career was an unpublished aspiring children’s book author, did not complain about the incident at the time. However, in December 2017,  Díaz resigned from his position on the SCBWI’s board, after sexual harassment complaints emerged about his past.

. . . .

In an investigation by Publisher’s Weekly (PW) this fall, numerous women reported troubling incidents of sexual harassment over the course of their publishing careers, ranging from degrading remarks to groping and physical attacks. Two recent resignations this winter have shined a light on the problem within the more close-knit world of children’s publishing.

. . . .

At the beginning of December, Giuseppe Castellano, executive art director of Penguin Workshop, Penguin Random House’s imprint for children’s books, resigned due to allegations made against him by actress Charlyne Yi. In a series of messages posted on Twitter on Nov. 14, Yi claims that after a work meeting at a bar earlier that month to discuss a potential book project, Castellano walked Yi back to her hotel and repeatedly pushed Yi to invite him to her room as she repeatedly refused. Yi says the interaction was unnerving because Castellano had gone on at length during their meeting about the many “creeps” in children’s publishing who abuse their power to sexually harass and assault women. He also, according to Yi, told her his wife would be OK with him having an affair.

Castellano denied Yi’s claims outright, calling her story “fabricated” in a statement published on his blog shortly after his resignation. His meeting with Yi was social, not professional, he claimed, and he never pressured Yi to allow him up to her room. He resigned, Castellano says, because Yi’s public claim against him made it untenable for him to continue in his job. In response to his statement, Yi released copies of emails exchanged between them in which Castellano suggested they meet for drinks to discuss her book ideas and later apologized, saying he was “sick” about how he acted during the meeting. Penguin Random House had also previously disclosed that the company was investigating the matter.

The details of Yi’s and Castellano’s interaction—outside of the office, at a bar, while the actress was traveling and staying at a hotel—highlight aspects and dynamics of the way informal socializing is embedded into the publishing world, sometimes creating scenarios that leave people vulnerable to sexual harassment. Networking is considered a crucial part of making it as an author or illustrator or rising in a publishing house, and many women told PW that they had experienced sexual harassment during off-site social situations, such as book parties, readings, and conferences.

Link to the rest at School Library Journal

The Food Explorer

20 February 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Decades before M.F.K. Fisher wrote about the marvelous meals she enjoyed at three small inns in Switzerland, before Julia Child had her legendary epiphany over a platter of sole meunière, and before financial straits forced a failed actor named James Beard to open a catering company, David Fairchild (1869-1954), a little-known young man from Kansas, literally planted the seeds of the culinary revolution that would sweep the United States during the latter half of the 20th century.

Today, Fairchild’s legacy can be found in the produce department of any supermarket. The next time you put avocados, kale, mangoes, zucchinis, dates, nectarines, seedless grapes, cashews, pistachios or lemons into your grocery cart, pay homage to Fairchild, who first introduced these foods to the United States. During the waning years of the 19th century, when he was in his early 20s, Fairchild began a series of expeditions that would take him three times around the world—to more than 50 countries and every continent except Antarctica—in search of novel crops to send back to American farmers and orchardists. As a roving botanist for the nascent U.S. Department of Agriculture, he shipped home more than 4,000 plant varieties, either new to the country or improvements on crops grown here.

Before Fairchild’s discoveries, the nation’s diet was drab, limited primarily to eating habits brought from Britain by colonists. Fairchild set out to change that. “The government enterprise of Plant Introduction [is] to introduce and establish in America as many of the valuable crops of the world as can be grown here,” he said. He considered his work to be “one of the most powerful means [to increase] the agricultural wealth of the country.” Less formally, he described his work as that of a “food spy.”

. . . .

Fairchild’s first venture, undertaken in 1894, might well have been his last. A senior scientist at the Department of Agriculture dispatched him on a secret mission to Corsica. The young researcher’s instructions were to acquire citrons, one of the progenitors of modern oranges, lemons and grapefruits. A Corsican policeman mistook him for a political spy and tossed him in a jail that, according to Fairchild (who also had a fondness for metaphors), “would rival in filthiness any that the Inquisition ever had.” Once he convinced the jailer of his innocence, Fairchild retreated to a waiting ship on the back of a donkey, dismounting just long enough to surreptitiously snip four buds from a trailside citron tree and pocket three of the lumpy yellow fruits. This material would boost California’s citrus production for the next two decades.

While searching for undiscovered wild palm species, Fairchild visited Fiji at a time when cannibalism was still practiced by some elders. To Fairchild’s relief, they believed that the meat of white people carried diseases and, besides, had a rank flavor.

. . . .

Beer lovers, too, might want to raise a mug to Fairchild. A boozy night in a village inn buying rounds for Bohemian farmers resulted in Fairchild procuring the finest German hops, which he smuggled out of the country, allowing American brewers to vastly improve their sour, inferior beers.

. . . .

Detouring briefly from his quest for new crops, Fairchild cajoled the mayor of Tokyo into giving him Japanese cherry trees that bore no fruit but produced clouds of delicate pink flowers. The shipment that arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1908, became the rootstock for the capital’s iconic springtime burst of cherry blossoms.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal 

How I beat anorexia by savouring the lavish meals of literature

19 February 2018

From The Guardian:

Laura Freeman was first diagnosed with anorexia aged 14. A decade later she had begun to rebuild her life but still struggled with her attitude to food, eating small portions of the same thing for months on end. “At 24, I’d got to the point where I was recovered enough that I could eat, but only in a very formulaic way,” she says. “I had a pretty boring diet. It was more about getting through each day.”

Then one day she read a passage in Siegfried Sassoon’s 1928 Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man describing “a breakfast of boiled eggs eaten in winter”. It changed everything.

. . . .

“At that time I’d established that I was all right to eat Weetabix or happy to eat pasta and tomato sauce, so I would just eat small portions of those things over and over,” Freeman, now 30, explains. “I would take cereal bars on holiday to eat in my hotel room because I was so worried about not being able to eat new types of food.”

Freeman was always a voracious reader and had, even during the worst of her anorexia, used books as an escape – “there was comfort in being able to think: I’m not in my sick room in London in February, I’m in Paris with Nancy Mitford”.

Sassoon’s vivid descriptions of eggs on buttered toast, and hot chocolate, made her think that there was “a different way of eating … one that was less mean and more adventurous”. Encouraged by this notion, she began to hunt down other authors who wrote vividly about food.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG does not minimize the problems of those suffering from anorexia, but he does not remember reading any wonderful descriptions of meals in the books he has read. (He also sometimes forgets where he put his keys, too.)

So he searched for a lovely description of a meal.

Of course, The Guardian stands ever ready to improve PG’s literary education:

3. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by by Joan Aiken

“Mr Wilderness’s porridge was very different from that served in Mrs Brisket’s school. It was eaten with brown sugar from a big blue bag, and with dollops of thick yellow cream provided by Mr Wilderness’s two cows.”

. . . .

7. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Grandma stood by the brass kettle and with the big wooden spoon she poured hot syrup on each plate of snow. It cooled into soft candy, and as fast as it cooled they ate it. They could eat all they wanted, for maple sugar never hurt anybody.”

. . . .

10. All the picnics in Enid Blyton

“The high tea that awaited them was truly magnificent. A huge ham gleaming as pink as Timmy’s tongue; a salad fit for a king. In fact, as Dick said, fit for several kings, it was so enormous…. ‘Lettuce, tomatoes, onions, radishes, mustard and cress, carrot grated up – that is carrot, isn’t it, Mrs. Penruthlan?’ said Dick. ‘And lashings of hard-boiled eggs.'”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Occupy Author Photo: On Elena Ferrante, Privacy, and Women Writers

19 February 2018

From The Millions:

When I was in my 20s, I used to spend hours at the Strand Bookstore in New York, obsessively gazing at book jacket photos of authors. I was trying to discern something — A key to genius? Or the mere fact that this lucky person, in this photo, had managed to get a book out into the world?

The variations were endless: Here was a classic black-and-white, chin resting on fist. Here was a playful one, slightly off-center. Sexy duck face for a middle-grade children’s book…okay. Or, how about this one, gorgeous photo, but one that looked completely different — like witness protection plan different — from the author I saw as I sat in the audience at a crowded Barnes & Noble. Or this one: instead of confined to the inner flap, her face on the entire back of the book, where the blurbs would normally be. Was this good? Did this mean the press thought she was such a great writer they wanted everyone to know her? Or, was it like using a pretty face to sell toothpaste?

Fast forward a few years on, and I’m finally published. My husband is in grad school, but before that, he’d worked at the venerated publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Knowing my obsession, he would often point out the different FSG authors’ pictures, noting how the press often signaled the importance of a book by commissioning one of the well-known author photographers, most famously, Marion Ettlinger, whose black-and-whites portraits are instantly recognizable by the unsmiling, dramatic poses of her subjects, the marmoreal lighting. These could run thousands of dollars for a single image.

. . . .

But after being out of the publishing game for more than a decade, it’s author photo time! But I have come to wonder if, perhaps, for women, author photos are too often a lose-lose situation.

Women are judged — very often wrongly — because of their looks.

. . . .

It’s as if we already give any American (white) man the benefit of the doubt in terms of fitting into any narrative, especially one of heroism or competence, but a woman who breaks through always has to be stopped, something must be wrong.

Women authors, genius aside, must make sure they are not too old, or too young. Not too serious, but also serious enough. They have to be attractive, but not too attractive; for some reason in men it’s dreamy but in women it’s suspicious.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG says if you’re nervous about an author photo, don’t have one. Or, to stand out from the crowd, demand a photo that obscures your face. Here are a few examples:



Or doesn’t show your face at all:


Of course, just like authors regularly use pen names, you could also have a pen photo. Here are some pen photos PG might use.


The Domestic Thriller Is Having a Moment

19 February 2018

From The New Yorker:

An archetype, as Mark Twain might have observed, is nothing but a stereotype with a college education. Where modernists and postmodernists boldly plunder the collective treasuries of myth, legend, fairy tales, and art for their own idiosyncratic purposes, commercially minded writers replicate formulaic situations, characters, and plots in order to appeal to a wide audience. The challenge is to invest the generic formula with just enough distinction—what dust-jacket blurbs might praise as “originality”—without leaving formula behind; to fuse the familiar and the unfamiliar while assuring the reader that the ending will be clear, decisive, and consoling in a way that “literary fiction” usually is not.

“The Woman in the Window” (Morrow), a highly successful début novel by the pseudonymous A. J. Finn (thirty-eight-year-old Daniel Mallory, a former editor at Morrow), is a superior example of a subset of recent thrillers featuring “unreliable” female protagonists who, despite their considerable handicaps—which may involve alcoholism, drug addiction, paranoia, and even psychosis—manage to persevere and solve mysteries where others have failed. Its title evokes such best-sellers as “The Girl on the Train” and “The Woman in Cabin 10,” not to mention “Gone Girl” (in which the titular girl is the contriver of the mystery), while its frame of reference involves classic American noir films: “Gaslight,” “Vertigo,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Wait Until Dark,” “Sudden Fear,” “Rope,” and, most explicitly, “Rear Window.” Indeed, although the protagonist of “The Woman in the Window,” a thirty-nine-year-old child psychologist named Anna Fox, is wryly self-aware, her mode of narration resembles a film script. We get very short chapters and a preponderance of single-sentence paragraphs, in cinematic present-tense prose that seems to teeter breathlessly on stiletto heels.

. . . .

Since a personally devastating experience some months before, Anna has become cripplingly agoraphobic:

Many of us—the most severely afflicted, the ones grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder—are housebound, hidden from the messy, massy world outside. Some dread the heaving crowds; others, the storm of traffic. For me, it’s the vast skies, the endless horizon, the sheer exposure, the crushing pressure of the outdoors. “Open spaces” the DSM-5 calls it vaguely. . . .

As a doctor, I say that the sufferer seeks an environment she can control. Such is the clinical take. As a sufferer (and that is the word), I say that agoraphobia hasn’t ravaged my life so much as become it.

It is said that most agoraphobics are female and that there are far more of them than statistics suggest.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Most near-future fictions

19 February 2018

Most near-future fictions are boring. It’s always dark and always raining, and people are so unhappy.

Haruki Murakami

‘The ebook is a stupid product: no creativity, no enhancement,’ says the Hachette Group CEO

19 February 2018

From Scroll.in:

With over 17,000 new titles each year and sales of $2,826 million in 2016, the Hachette Livre Group of companies comfortably sits among the Big Five English language publishers, alongside Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and MacMillan Publishers. Headquartered in France, its authors include John Grisham, Enid Blyton, James Patterson, Robert Ludlum and Stephen King. While its India subsidiary just completed 10 years of operations in India, the parent company has been in business for almost two centuries.

. . . .

The Chairman and CEO of the Hachette Live Group since 2003, Arnaud Nourry, was in India recently to celebrate a decade of Hachette India and spoke to Scroll.in about their strategy and the future of publishing.

. . . .

Is Europe still your largest market? Which are the emerging markets with the most potential that you see right now?
One-third of our business is in the French language across France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and other French-speaking countries, 25% in the US and English-speaking Canada, 20% in the UK, India, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, 10% in Spanish, and another 10% in the rest of the world.

. . . .

In 2014, Hachette famously took on and won against Amazon in deciding who gets to control ebook pricing – them or publishers. Looking back, has that victory helped?
When I took the job of Chairman and CEO of Hachette in 2003, I studied what had happened in the music and video industries, or in the present, take the example of the magazine industry. I realised that they made two mistakes. The first was to delay the digitisation of their product, which helped piracy to emerge. The second mistake was that they didn’t keep control on the price point of their creations, so they were unable to protect their turnover, the revenues of their singers or writers.

So, in the year 2006-2007, when ebooks came to our market, I was absolutely convinced that when we jumped into the ebook market, we needed to keep control of our price. This wasn’t just coming from thinking of our revenues. If you let the price of ebooks go down to say $2 or $3 in Western markets, you are going to kill all infrastructure, you’re going to kill booksellers, you’re going to kill supermarkets, and you are going to kill the author’s revenues. You have to defend the logic of your market against the interest of the big technology companies and their business models. The battle in 2014 was all about that. We had to do it.

It’s not that we’re against ebooks. People have to pay a price that is about 40% lower than the print price. And it works. The ebook market has gone down a little bit, not much, from say 25% to 20% in some countries. There is still a readership for ebooks but at a price that keeps the ecosystem alive. That’s absolutely key because the music business has lost half of its turnover in ten years. I love music but books are about culture, education, democracy, so it’s even more important to keep the diversity in book publishing, more so than music publishing.

It’s been a little over ten years since ebooks came to the market in the form of Kindle. You mentioned a small decline – do you think the market has plateaued? Are there formats other than ebooks that publishers should be looking at?
There are two different geographies to look at for this. In the US and UK, the ebook market is about 20% of the total book market, everywhere else it is 5%-7% because in these places the prices never went down to such a level that the ebook market would get significant traction. I think the plateau, or rather slight decline, that we’re seeing in the US and UK is not going to reverse. It’s the limit of the ebook format. The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience. We, as publishers, have not done a great job going digital. We’ve tried. We’ve tried enhanced or enriched ebooks – didn’t work. We’ve tried apps, websites with our content – we have one or two successes among a hundred failures. I’m talking about the entire industry. We’ve not done very well.

I’m convinced there is something we can invent using our content and digital properties beyond ebooks but I reached the conclusion that we don’t really have the skills and talents in our companies because publishers and editors are accustomed to picking a manuscript and creating a design on a flat page. They don’t really know the full potential of 3-D and digital. So we acquired three video game companies in the last two years to attract talent from different industries and see how we can nurture one another and how we can go beyond the ebook on digital. We need to offer different experiences to our consumers.

. . . .

Do you really think their role is limited to discoverability and advertising? In term of impact, while not being direct competitors to traditional publishing, they are also providers of content and free content at that. Is that something for publishing to factor into their long-term plans?
I don’t think we’ll ever be publishers who give content for free. It’s not something we’re good at. We’re good at selecting, curating, promoting and selling value-added content, which is kind of the reverse of what others do. I don’t think there’s any kind of competition with Google or Facebook. There is only one thing – it’s that the time spent reading books tends to decline everywhere and goes to social networks. So yes, we are competing for people’s time. It’s why we need to be more attractive in the way we deliver our content. But not beyond that. Even self-publishing, which Amazon does a lot and is sometimes pitched as competition, is the opposite of our business. Our business consists of saying no to three thousand manuscripts and saying yes to one. And self-publishing says yes to three thousand and doesn’t see the one that there should be investment and support around. But yes, because of digital, we are competing against all other forms of leisure. We do need to take that into account.

. . . .

France, where Hachette is based and which forms your biggest market, has legislation restricting the amount a bookseller can discount a book. It stands at 5%. But what about a market like India where deep discounting is a big part of bookselling strategy? Do you think that’s just a way to develop an untapped market and eventually all book markets should reach a place like France? Or is there always going to be this difference in consumer behaviour across geographies?
The purpose of the law, which was voted in 1981, was to protect all the independent booksellers from the bigger players by preventing them from discounting and putting the small ones out of business. It worked very well. If you’re in a city in France, you can go to a newsstand, a bookstore, or order from Amazon and you’ll get the book for the same price. This being said, there is no such agreement in the US and the UK, where deep discounting flourishes and that also works. There are independent bookstores that specialise in backlists, curation, they still exist. That environment, in fact, helps sell more copies of one book, which in France is more difficult.

. . . .

You just mentioned the continuous acquisition of smaller publishers. How does that affect the publishing and editorial landscape – when smaller publishing houses end up under the umbrella of a larger conglomerate, sometimes swallowed by it?
You’ve used a word I hate – conglomerate. I’m not a very good swallower. Acquiring a publishing company to swallow it is the stupidest thing you can do. Its value comes from the fact that it is a different imprint. Of course when you acquire an independent publisher, you’re not going to keep the accounting department, the IT department, etc., – that doesn’t make any sense. In most cases, these companies don’t have huge profits due to costs that bring them down. So we get rid of that and let them grow and develop their publishing list and have entire freedom.

Link to the rest at Scroll.in and thanks to Nate for the tip.


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