Monthly Archives: September 2018

Do we really still need Banned Books Week?

30 September 2018

From The Washington Post:

If you tell anyone, I’ll deny it, but I’ve been irritated for a long time by Banned Books Week. Despite my unqualified support for the freedom to read, the annual celebration, which began Sunday, has always struck me as shrill and inaccurate. I know the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association and other fine sponsors are doing important, necessary work. I just wish Banned Books Week didn’t appear to exaggerate a problem that’s largely confined to our repressive past.

All week in bookstores and libraries around the country, you’ll see displays, banners and special events like the Drag Queen Story Hour at the Brooklyn Public Library on Wednesday. Central to these celebrations is the annual list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books. This year, like most years, that list includes: Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and other fantastic, award-winning novels that only the most ignorant and backward people would object to.

. . . .

Which is part of the problem. Are we winning any converts with this annual orgy of self-righteousness? The rhetoric of Banned Books Week is pitched at such a fervent level that crucial distinctions are burned away by the fire of our moral certainty, which is an ill that wide reading should cure not exacerbate.

And what books are actually, effectively “banned” in the United States nowadays? The titles on the Top 10 Most Challenged list, in fact, sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year. How many authors would kill to be “challenged” like that?

James LaRue, from the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, is ready for these quibbles even before I call him. He’s heard them before, but he answers my questions with the patience and clarity of a good librarian — which he once was.

“Who are we kidding?” I ask him. “Books aren’t ‘banned’ in this country anymore. The Supreme Court has made that impossible.”

But LaRue nudges me away from the legal meaning of the term “banned” to consider the lived experience of a vulnerable, lonely reader:

“There are so many places like in rural communities where you say, ‘Well, the book isn’t banned. It’s still been published. It’s still available on Amazon. It’s still in a bookstore.’ But let’s say you’re a young gay kid, and you go to your library, and David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’ has been removed, and so you don’t know that it’s there. You don’t have a credit card to get it from Amazon. You can’t hop in a car if you’re 14 years old and drive to a bookstore. So the ban is not a trivial thing. It’s a deliberate suppression of a viewpoint that has real consequences for people.”

. . . .

But what about the way Banned Books Week implicitly stigmatizes anyone who objects to a librarian’s or a teacher’s judgment? The vast majority of people who “challenge” titles are simply parents concerned about the age-appropriateness of books their children are being exposed to. Doesn’t Banned Books Week carelessly lump together the interested mother with the book-burning Nazi?

“If I say, ‘I don’t want my child to read this,’ you have the right to do that,” LaRue acknowledges. “But when you try to remove it from the library, you’re saying that other people’s children don’t have the right to read it.” That, he suggests, is the hallmark of an intolerant society.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

PG suggests there are certain groups of people who enjoy the frisson that accompanies protests that stick it to the man without actually risking anything and protecting “vulnerable, lonely readers” without actually knowing any.

The biggest threat to libraries in “rural communities” is the lack of money to acquire books and keep the lights on. There’s also the inconvenient truth that a great many people who read are reading on the internet. Spending a dollar to improve internet access might bring more benefits to vulnerable, lonely readers than spending a dollar on a physical library.

Real cities

30 September 2018

Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck. Los Angeles has Hollywood—and hates it. It ought to consider itself damn lucky. Without Hollywood it would be a mail order city. Everything in the catalogue you could get better somewhere else.

~ Raymond Chandler

You know what’s the matter with you?

30 September 2018

From George’s Marvelous Medicine:

“You know what’s the matter with you?” the old woman said, staring over the rim of the teacup with those bright wicked little eyes. “You’re growing up too fast. Boys who grow too fast become stupid and lazy.”

“But I can’t help it if I’m growing fast, Grandma.” George said.

“Of course you can,” she snapped. “Growing’s a nasty, childish habit.”

Link to the rest at George’s Marvelous Medicine by Roald Dahl

Research tools for crime and thriller writers

30 September 2018
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From The Parlour:

If you’re including authentic technical or procedural information in your crime writing, you’ll be wearing your research hat. Your story should come first, of course. However, be sure to get your facts straight before you decide if and how far you’re going to bend reality.

. . . .

My brushes with the law have been limited to bad parking. Still, I know a few coppers socially, and it’s to them I’d head for procedural guidance in the first instance.

If you know a police officer, a forensic anthropologist, a crime-scene investigator, a barrister, or whatever, ask them if you can pick their brains. They’ll have expert subject knowledge and insights, and your talking with them face to face could be the most powerful tool of all.

If you don’t have existing contacts, ask your friends for theirs or put a call out on social media. A writer recently requested help from munitions experts via the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) Facebook group. Several commenters provided advice and one offered to put her in touch with an expert.

. . . .

In a bid to improve relations between the police service and the public, some larger forces now operate ride-along schemes that allow members of the public to patrol with an officer. In the UK, these include Avon & Somerset, Nottinghamshire, Essex, Lincolnshire, Lancashire, Humberside and Warwickshire Police.

. . . .

How about TV and movies? Your favourite crime dramas and fiction might have been meticulously researched. Then again, they might not. In ‘Five Rules for Writing Thrillers’ David Morrell urges writers to do the research but to use caution:

‘You don’t need to be a physician or an attorney to write a medical thriller or a legal thriller, but it sure helps if you’ve been inside an emergency ward or a courtroom. Read non-fiction books about your topic. Interview experts. If characters shoot guns in your novel, it’s essential to fire one and realize how loud a shot can be. Plus, the smell of burned gunpowder lingers on your hands. Don’t rely on movies and television dramas for your research. Details in them are notoriously unreliable. For example, the fuel tanks of vehicles do not explode if they are shot. Nor do tires blow apart if shot with a pistol. But you frequently see this happen in films.’

Morrell talks more about how research makes him ‘a fuller person’ and how he learned to fly in order to create an authentic pilot for his book The Shimmer. The expense of a pilot’s licence will probably be out of reach for the average self-publisher. YouTube could be the solution.

. . . .

There are thousands of hours’ worth of real-life video footage on YouTube. You can learn from experts about how a body decomposes, how an autopsy is carried out, how a forensic sketch artist works, and how to clean up a crime scene.

And there are lectures on the science of blood spatter, computer forensics, investigation techniques, and forensic imaging. You name it, it’s probably there.

Link to the rest at The Parlour and thanks to Shirl for the tip.

The Danish Tolstoy

30 September 2018
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From The New York Review of Books:

Henrik Pontoppidan rules over the province of Danish letters with a grey-bearded authority akin to Leo Tolstoy’s or Henry James’s. The author of three sweeping epics, Det Fortjættede Land (The Promised Land, 1891–1895), Lykke-Per (A Fortunate Man, 1898–1904), and De Dødes Rige (The Kingdom of the Dead, 1912­–1916), he was awarded the 1917 Nobel Prize for Literature, an honor he shared with his exact contemporary, the now little-read Karl Gjellerup. Ernst Bloch admired him, and Georg Lukács likened his novelistic achievement to Flaubert’s. On the occasion of his seventieth birthday in 1927, Pontoppidan was lauded by Thomas Mann in an open letter to the Danish newspaper Politiken, describing him as “a full-blooded storyteller who scrutinizes our lives and society so intensely that he ranks within the highest class of European writers.” In August, a cinematic adaption of Lykke-Per by the Academy-Award winning director Billie August opened in Danish theaters.

And yet, Pontoppidan’s writing has remained almost entirely unavailable to English-language readers. He has occasionally been invoked as proof of the Swedish Academy’s penchant for giving Nobel Prizes to seemingly obscure minor writers (Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, once asked: “Who wouldn’t rather be in the company of Proust, Auden, and Nabokov than of Erik Axel Karlfeldt and Henrik Pontoppidan?”), though it’s probably safe to assume that such judgments are not based on any great familiarity with Pontoppidan’s writing. Lykke-Per, his masterpiece, was not published in English until 2010 (in a translation by Naomi Liebowitz titled Lucky-Per), and only then in an academic edition costing a little over $80. At long last, an affordable new translation by the Irish writer and filmmaker Paul Larkin, published by the Danish Museum Tusculanum Press and bearing the more English-friendly title A Fortunate Man, is now available. Though I do not always agree with Larkin’s choices (in particular, regional dialects and Danish colloquialisms are often rendered in a rustic, sometimes archaic English, like something out of Thomas Hardy), it is on the whole an impressive, fluent achievement. It presents the first real opportunity for English-language readers to encounter what the scholar Flemming Behrendt, in his afterword, calls one of the most re-read and talked about novels in Danish literary history.

Published serially between 1898 and 1904, A Fortunate Man offers a vast, fictional panorama of Danish society in an age of social and industrial change and cultural renewal. It is set against the backdrop of a Copenhagen that, in the final decades of the nineteenth century, was transformed into a battleground of struggles between conservatives and progressives, Christians and atheists, the old and the new. The influential critic Georg Brandes gave a series of lectures on modern European literature, championing French naturalism and Darwinian freethinking, that inaugurated the prolific cultural and intellectual flowering known throughout Scandinavia as the Modern Breakthrough, encouraging writers like Ibsen, Strindberg, Hamsun, and Jacobsen.

. . . .

A Fortunate Man tells the story of Per Sidenius, the descendant of a long line of austere clergymen, who revolts against the dogmatic piety of his family home and embarks on the young man’s familiar march on the metropolis, where he intends to seek fame and fortune as an engineer. His great ambition is to build a massive harbor project on Denmark’s west coast that will, he fervently believes, “transform Denmark into an industrial manufacturing power of the first order.” Neglecting his studies at the College of Engineering, Per spends his days and nights in his poky abode, reading up on hydraulics and turbines and making elaborate and detailed drawings.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

The Radio Auteur: Joe Frank, Ira Glass, and the Legacy of Narrative Radio

29 September 2018
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From The New York Review of Books:

Through his broadcasts over the course of forty years, Joe Frank, who died at seventy-nine this past January, brought the notion of the auteur to postwar American radio. He cleared a path for generations of producers who think of telling stories for radio not as a disposable information-delivery system for a mass audience, but rather as a place for ambiguous, strange artistic expression. Frank’s style earned him no more than a modest cult following. But his legacy lives on, in a very different form, in the work of Ira Glass (whose first job in public radio was as Frank’s production assistant) and in Glass’s own outsize influence on radio and now podcasting, where many of the best shows don’t aim to break news or provide trenchant analysis. Instead, they prize, above all, narrative tension and surprise, lending them an absorbing, binge-worthy quality that helps to build an emotional connection between the hosts and their listeners.

According to Glass, it was when he was watching Frank record a monologue in the studio in Washington, D.C. that he first realized that “radio was a place [where] you could tell a certain kind of story.” Frank gave him the desire to make this kind of story, by which Glass means an intimate, quasi-literary narrative, as opposed to a “straight” news report—although, Glass says, he decided to try to make this sort of radio narrative using just “facts and reporting,” rather than the blurred memoir and theatrical fiction that Frank dwelled in. Frank’s influence on Glass and others recalls the cliché about the Velvet Underground: not many people bought their records when they first came out, but everyone who did went on to start a band. This American Life’s success comes in part from its editorial emphasis on what marketers like to call “relatability.” This idea got Glass into trouble with the Internet a few years ago after he observed on Twitter that a performance of King Lear he’d attended in Central Park had “no stakes” and was “not relatable,” concluding, “I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.” Frank’s work, for all its willingness to provoke and confuse his listeners, still managed to have “stakes”; the major difference between Frank and Glass (and the rest of the journalistically oriented world of narrative audio) is less Frank’s use of fiction, or his idiosyncratic deployment of music, than his disinterest in Glassian relatability.

. . . .

Frank’s work is, in fact, immensely “relatable”—if you’re disaffected and overcaffeinated and exhausted, driving alone on an empty freeway into Los Angeles in the middle of the night. But listening to his aggressively surreal and provocative work, it’s hard to imagine that he’d find a home on one of the major radio or podcast networks that bear his imprint today.

. . . .

One of the strangest biographical details that recurred in Frank’s obituaries this year, usually mentioned in passing, was that, for a few months in 1978, he was the host of National Public Radio’s Weekend All Things Considered. This should be a highlight of any radio personality’s career: reaching a national audience in a position of great prominence and authority. But Frank’s work was dark, profane, sometimes perverse, and hilarious—words no one has ever used to describe any of the daily news shows on NPR (at least not since the first Gulf War, when it completed its transformation into a respectable mainstream news organization).

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books


Europe’s antitrust chief uses U.S. visit to explain Amazon probe

29 September 2018

From MarketWatch:

The head of the European Commission’s antitrust authority used a visit to the U.S. to describe in greater detail the latest American tech titan that’s the subject of possible action, Amazon.

As European Union Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager has had a lot of influence on U.S. technology companies like Google  which was fined $5 billion for violating EU antitrust rules, and Apple, which was ordered to repay over $15 billion to Ireland.

Now she has her eyes on another American company: Amazon.

. . . .

The EU’s investigation into Amazon which was announced last week was flagged as a company that may be in violation of EU antitrust law through an e-commerce sector inquiry Vestager’s commision conducted over the summer.

“We found that there are price maintenance issues where businesses not only give you a recommended price, but they also police that you actually take this recommended price,” Vestager said at a press conference held in Washington D.C. on Thursday.

When it comes to Amazon, she added that there is also a concern centered around how the platform utilizes consumer spending behavior data from the “little guys”, or third-party sellers that sell goods their goods on Amazon. “Since you have thousands and thousands of little guys you get quite a big horizontal picture of what’s going on in the marketplace,” she said, “and that is giving the big guy an advantage that cannot be matched because you have this special access to data.”

. . . .

On her visit to Washington, Vestager also met with Makan Delrahim, the assistant attorney general for the antitrust division, and Joe Simons, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. “It’s been a very long time since we have had this sort of formal meeting,” Vestager said, “but it was a good way to sort of make a point of information and then of course cooperation will continue.”

“This is about her getting ready for her next job in the EU and it shows she can play a bigger role in the U.S.,” said Roslyn Layton, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

Unlike the United States, Layton said that Europe has still not fully recovered from the financial crisis in 2008. “Many people say, ‘Why not make better policy to help growth?’ Well, those things are hard and it doesn’t sound consumer friendly so it is much easier to say let’s go after the big U.S. companies.”

In addition to Amazon, given that the majority of technology companies Vestager has investigated are from the United States, many question whether she intends to use European antitrust policy to weaken U.S. companies to benefit smaller European ones. Be it in the United States or the EU, the goal of any antitrust policy should be to leave consumers better off, said Guido Lobrano, senior director of global policy at Information Technology Industry Council. “It is a reality that tech companies and large groups have originated in the United States because it is favorable to innovation which is not quite the case in Europe,” he said.

Link to the rest at MarketWatch

If PG were in a business and his competitors were selling on Amazon, in addition to watching online pricing and the Sales Rank of his competitors (probably with some technology that automated the process), he would be using this information to inform his own pricing strategies and, where appropriate, to hammer on his suppliers for lower prices.

If a competitor were selling a product below cost, PG might use the opportunity to restock his inventory.

It’s much, much easier to monitor competitor pricing/promotion activities on an ecommerce platform than it is if a competitor is selling through 500 individual physical stores. It costs money to track in-store competitor activities in meatspace (there are companies who will do this for a fee) and generating a physical retail version of Amazon Sales Rank and tracking it over time would be very expensive.

This Could Be Bigger Than E-Commerce for Amazon

29 September 2018

From The Motley Fool:

Amazon has set its sights on the multibillion-dollar insurance industry in India. Bloomberg reports that the e-commerce giant wants to “carry out the business of soliciting, procuring and servicing insurance as a corporate agent” according to its latest filings with the regulatory authorities — a move that could disrupt the way insurance is sold in this market.

Amazon is clearly looking to boost the popularity of its e-commerce platform by adding yet another product to its offerings. But this time it’s targeting a large and underserved market that could help it mint big money in the long run.

. . . .

The Indian insurance industry is expected to be worth $280 billion by fiscal 2020 according to a joint survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India and APAS. Even then, there will be a huge underserved market, as insurance penetration in the country was just 3.7% last year.

For comparison, India’s e-commerce industry is expected to hit $188 billion by 2025. As such, Amazon is going after a much bigger market, one that has the potential to grow at a solid pace in the coming years as penetration increases.

The Boston Consulting Group estimates that online insurance sales in India will increase 20 times from 2016 to 2020, hitting a size of just over $2 billion. That’s because a good chunk of Indians are now looking to buy insurance online rather than through traditional channels, since they can choose from a wide range of plans to suit their requirements and get the best available price by comparing different providers.

. . . .

Amazon started laying the groundwork for its insurance push in India earlier this year when it led a funding round for digital insurance start-up Acko. The start-up is providing insurance services for ride-hailing apps and other travel-centric areas such as flights. Rumors suggest that Amazon and Acko will eventually move to provide coverage for items sold on the e-commerce site, such as smartphones.

The bigger play for Amazon, however, will come once it applies for a license from the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority and uses its digital payments platform, Amazon Pay, to roll out more insurance products. The e-commerce giant’s executives have already hinted that it is going to launch insurance products using the Amazon Pay platform, which is a smart thing to do as the company’s vast user base can buy insurance with just a click.

Amazon reportedly holds a 31.1% share of the Indian e-commerce market, and it is now targeting 70 million online shoppers in the country through Amazon Pay, providing financial services such as loans and EMIs (equated monthly installments). Amazon Pay already allows customers to book bus tickets, pay bills, purchase movie tickets, order food, or buy car insurance. The company also offers lucrative discounts and cash back to those customers who purchase items on its site using this platform in a bid to boost adoption.

Link to the rest at The Motley Fool

PG is anything but an expert on the Indian insurance business, but, on a world-wide basis, insurance is a huge (and profitable) business. OTOH, at least in the US, most insurance companies have a relatively low share of consumer awareness.

Amazon’s widespread name recognition and its reputation for innovation, low prices and good customer service would give it an immediate and substantial market advantage over traditional companies who don’t necessarily have that advantage. If/when Amazon enters the US personal lines insurance markets, PG would certainly investigate.

The other characteristic of insurance consumers is that, for a large proportion of them, insurance tends to be a set-and-forget purchase, providing an excellent long-term stream of reliable income.

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