Non-Fiction

A Shakespeare Scholar Turned Nazi Hunter

15 October 2017
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From The New York Times:

Not all superheroes wear capes, and Elizebeth Smith Friedman should be the subject of a future Wonder Woman movie. In “The Woman Who Smashed Codes,” Jason Fagone recounts the stranger-than-fiction story of how the 23-year-old Smith was hired in 1916, along with other scholars, by an eccentric tycoon who wanted to find secret messages in the work of Shakespeare. Those messages didn’t exist, but within a year Smith was recruited into a wartime code-breaking project. (“American history is very strange,” Fagone told me.) Smith met and married the cryptologist William Friedman; helped break up smuggling rings during Prohibition; and spent World War II successfully decoding messages sent between Nazi spies, ruining the Germans’ operations in South America, among other triumphs. Below, Fagone talks about the long odds he faced in filling in the gaps in his subject’s life, the role sexism played in her career and more.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

After the Edward Snowden story broke in 2013, I started reading about the history of the N.S.A. Like a lot of Americans, I didn’t know a lot about it. While I was doing that, I stumbled across a web page about Elizebeth Smith Friedman at the library where she donated her personal papers — the George C. Marshall Foundation in Lexington, Va. It was really just a bare description of her life. She was a poet who taught herself to break codes; she caught gangsters during Prohibition; and, oh yeah, she was married to a godfather of the N.S.A. And I thought, that’s unusual: Married codebreakers. I saw there was an old biography of William from the ’70s, but no books about Elizebeth.

She left 22 boxes of her files. It’s a wonderful archive. You can read her letters from a hundred years ago, her college diary, her original poems, her original code work, letters that she wrote to her kids in code. She and William taught their daughter how to use cipher, and she would write them cipher letters from summer camp.

When I finished going through the boxes, I realized there was this gap where World War II is supposed to be. And it kind of screamed out, because she had documented the rest of her life so meticulously. I was pretty sure the records existed somewhere, but I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find them. I talked to a historian who had worked on William, and she told me, “Sometimes it’s not that the N.S.A. is evil and trying to keep this stuff from you; sometimes it’s just that they don’t know where it is.” The National Archives is like the warehouse at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” You can spend months looking for something in there.

. . . .

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

There was this amazing hidden woman behind the development of American intelligence in the 20th century, a genius who solved all kinds of problems and fixed all kinds of messes. She didn’t set out to be a codebreaker. She was a poetry scholar, a Shakespeare scholar and a schoolteacher. But all her life, men from the government — that’s how she put it — “Men from the government keep showing up on my doorstep, and the only way to solve it is to say yes and fix these puzzles.”

Prohibition became law. Criminal gangs got very good, very fast, at hiding their operations with secret messages. The Treasury Department couldn’t read these radio transcriptions. The men from the government would try to get William, because of sexism, but William worked for the Army, so these guys would settle on Elizebeth as the next best thing, hoping to use William’s brain secondhand. But very quickly, she always proved her own mettle, and that she was a master in her own right.

She provided the technical expertise, the tech back end, for J. Edgar Hoover’s Special Intelligence Service, the part of the F.B.I. that was going after spies in South America. After the war, Hoover stuck up his hand and said to the American public: The F.B.I. saved you from this dangerous Nazi spy invasion, and we’ll accept the honors now. And Elizebeth wasn’t able to talk about what she did, because all of her records were top secret and classified.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Here’s a link to The Woman Who Smashed Codes.

Pauciloquent

11 October 2017
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From The Oxford English Dictionary:

pauciloquent, adj.

. . . .

That uses few words in speech or conversation; laconic.

. . . .

1863   C. G. Leland There was Sharp Lawyer in Bk. of Copperheads 26/2   All he would say was ‘ah!’ ‘h’m!’ ‘oh!’ and ‘ay!’ This pauciloquent person named P—.

Link to the rest at The Oxford English Dictionary

Text-only news sites are slowly making a comeback. Here’s why.

4 October 2017

From Poynter:

A few days before Hurricane Irma hit South Florida, I received a query on Twitter from a graphic designer named Eric Bailey.

“Has anyone researched news sites capability to provide low-bandwidth communication of critical info during crisis situations?” he asked.

The question was timely — two days later, CNN announced that they created a text-only version of their site with no ads or videos.

. . . .

The same week, NPR began promoting its text-only site, text.npr.org on social media as a way for people with limited Internet connectivity during Hurricane Irma to receive updated information.

. . . .

These text-only sites — which used to be more popular in the early days of the Internet, when networks were slower and bandwidth was at a premium – are incredibly useful, and not just during natural disasters. They load much faster, don’t contain any pop-ups or ads or autoplay videos, and help people with low bandwidth or limited Internet access. They’re also beneficial for people with visual impairments who use screen readers to navigate the Internet.

. . . .

NPR’s text.npr.org is likely the oldest example of a working text-only news site that’s still in existence. It originally launched as thin.npr.org back in June 2005, in response to the September 11th attacks — when many news sites struggled to stay online amidst record traffic numbers — and also to help people who were navigating to npr.org back in 2005 on handheld mobile devices like Blackberries.

Earlier this month, a number of improvements were made to the site (which redirects to thin.npr.org) aimed specifically at low-bandwidth users.

“More recently, our full site [npr.org] has made major accessibility gains,” write Patrick Cooper, NPR’s director of web and engagement, and Sara Goo, the managing editor of digital news. “But as accessible or as fast as you can make your full site —and speed is critical for us — low-bandwidth situations are a different challenge. [Our] improvements focused on those users in particular.”

Text.npr.org’s improvements included  “adding a caching layer to greatly improve speed and adding code to make the site display well on phones,” write Cooper and Goo. “We also increase[d] the number of stories on the [text.npr.org] homepage, made the homepage use the story ordering from our full site, updated the navigation links, removed an interim page in each story that showed only the first paragraph (something that was more valuable before we improved the page speed), and created an easier to remember “text.npr.org” redirect for the site.”

In recent months, TwitterFacebook, and Google News have also published their own versions of stripped-down sites that use less bandwidth, mainly aimed at users in emerging markets who might not have access to faster network connections. Earlier this week, Twitter announced that it was now experimenting with an Android app designed to use less data for people with limited connectivity.

. . . .

Kramer: I’m curious. What kinds of things can be stripped from sites for low-bandwidth users and people with visual impairments?

Bowden: Those are two very distinct user groups but some of the approaches bleed over and can be applied together.

For low-bandwidth users: Cut the fluff. No pictures, no video, no ads or tracking. Text files are good enough here. Anything else is just fluff.

Link to the rest at Poynter

PG is happy to have high-speed internet access, but he likes the stripped-down sites because he can scan them for interesting items more quickly.

Stanford University Press pioneering digital academic publishing through innovative program

1 October 2017
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From Stanford News:

Stanford University Press is redefining the world of traditional academic publishing through an innovative publishing program.

The press was the first academic publishing group to offer scholars a way to publish and peer review academic research that involves digital tools not usually found in online journals. The idea for the program, launched last year with the help of a $1.2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, came out of press director Alan Harvey’s desire to “break the box of publishing.”

. . . .

Since the 17th century, scholars have traditionally published their academic findings and analysis in a written or print format. A rigorous peer-review process and a network of respected academic journals and societies evolved to vet that scholarly work.

With the advent of the internet, academic publications, like other formerly print-only material, were digitized and transferred online, but these publications continue to be static text or images like the original print versions.

The type of research the press’s initiative showcases does not have roots in print. These works are digital-only productions, applying techniques such as interactive data mapping, narration and slideshows to bring the research to life.

Until the kickoff of the press’s digital publishing program in 2016, scholars were unable to publish these unique, interactive academic works and have them undergo the rigorous peer-review and professional publishing process that printed works receive. Digital works like these often resided on a researcher’s personal website or other online platforms devoid of academic review.

. . . .

Mullaney’s project, The Chinese Deathscape, integrates interactive maps with accompanying scholarly analysis, examining the spatial relocation of graves in China over time. Mullaney’s work, scheduled to be published in spring 2018, is one of six digital-only projects the press plans to release in 2018 and 2019.

Those projects will join Enchanting the Desert, the first interactive project the press published in 2016. The work, authored by former Stanford postdoctoral scholar Nicholas Bauch, is a book-length examination of more than 40 landscape photographs and audio narrations included in acclaimed photographer Henry G. Peabody’s 1905 slideshow of the Grand Canyon.

. . . .

The press’s staff developed a peer-review process specifically for interactive projects. Each project is assessed by three to four of the author’s peers who provide objective, independent evaluations. Some are specialists on the project’s subject and others are technical and visual experts. The feedback includes suggestions for the research and analysis, but also for the interface and online accessibility of the digital product.

“So far, it’s been a closer process than it has been in the print world,” said Friederike Sundaram, an acquisitions editor for digital projects at the press. “We go back and forth to really create a publication that fits our needs as publishers as well as the author’s needs as scholarly communicators.”

Link to the rest at Stanford News and thanks to Paul for the tip.

Students Forgoing Required Learning Materials Due to Cost

22 September 2017

From No Shelf Required:

A growing number of college students are choosing not to purchase textbooks and other required course materials in an effort to save money, according to a new study conducted by Wakefield Research on behalf of VitalSource Technologies LLC.

The study finds 85 percent of the college and university students surveyed have either waited to buy course materials until after the first day of class or opted not to purchase the materials altogether – up five percent from a similar survey conducted in 2016. Nearly all (91 percent) of the students surveyed cite cost as the reason for not buying their books, and half admit their grades suffered as a result.

. . . .

“As costs have risen, we have seen course material cost become a significant barrier to student retention and completion. Students are increasingly finding work-arounds that are not working – like putting off buying materials or choosing not to buy course materials at all.”

. . . .

“With college costs on the rise and student outcomes lagging, offering more affordable options on critical course materials is just common sense,” said Pep Carrera, Chief Operating Officer of VitalSource®, a leading provider of digital learning materials. “In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the number of students who are forgoing course materials due to costs. This is alarming, but even more disturbing is the consequence this decision has on students’ grades.”

The study also confirms students’ interest in “inclusive access” programs as a solution to their textbooks and course material cost woes. Inclusive access rolls the cost of digital course materials into tuition, making it easier for students to automatically access critical learning materials at a more affordable price.

“The prevalence – and success – of digital inclusive access programs has increased significantly in recent years,” said Carrera. “The survey results mirror the anecdotal data we have collected from students about the value of digital course materials delivered through an inclusive access model.

Link to the rest at No Shelf Required

Meet the original single lady, who wrote the book on living alone

10 September 2017

From Medium:

In 1930, Marjorie Hillis stood in front of a large, empty house in suburban New York. It was the home where she had lived with her family. But her parents were dead, and her sister had recently remarried. She was all alone. Hillis had just returned from Venezuela, where she’d had an epiphany. Though her brother and his children lived nearby, she refused to be “an old maid aunt,” haunting the periphery of the family. She was in her mid-thirties, a successful editor at Vogue, a former flapper who frequented the best cocktail bars in Manhattan. Instead, she would pack up everything she owned and head directly to the city. The idea of a woman moving on her own wasn’t really that shocking anymore. Tens of thousands of women were doing it. Her move was radical because she planned to live alone and have a blast doing it.

During the Depression, marriage rates plummeted and thousands of women of all ages worked and lived alone, some by choice, others by necessity. It was an age when a single woman, especially one who was no longer young, was the object of pity, if not outright scorn. Newspapers from the time read, “They are all left-over ladies, biologically, racially, and in the end, personally.”

In 1936, at the age of 47, Hillis published her bestselling self-help book, How to Live Alone and Like It. The book rebranded the single lady as powerful, chic, and savvy. Living alone had benefits, she claimed, “Even going to bed alone can be alluring. There are many times, in fact, when it’s by far the most alluring way to go.” These women were not spinsters, she said, but “Live-Aloners.” America was ready for her message. The book went through six editions in its first year.

. . . .

Should a single lady find herself afraid of the dark and convinced that a burglar is breaking in, Hillis writes, “The trick is to turn over and think furiously about something else, like your new dress or what you’d say if the good looking man who took you to the theatre proposed.” She goes on, “If this sounds a little dreary, think of the things that you, all alone, don’t have to do … You don’t have to get up in the night to fix someone else’s hot water bottle, or lie awake listening to snores. You probably have your bathroom all to yourself, which is unquestionably one of Life’s Great Blessings.”

Link to the rest at Medium

protreptic

9 September 2017

From The Oxford English Dictionary:

protreptic, n. and adj.

. . . .

A book, writing, or speech intended to exhort or instruct; an exhortation, an instruction.

. . . .

1678   R. Cudworth True Intellect. Syst. Universe i. iii. 125   To rank Anaximander, amongst the Divine Philosophers, as he [sc.Clement] doth in his Protreptick to the Greeks.

1797   T. Beddoes Alternatives Compared 9   He has this time so compounded his protreptic, as to destroy its intoxicating effect.

Link to the rest at The Oxford English Dictionary

The Corporate Satirist

8 September 2017
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From Medium:

It started with a Venn diagram. Sarah Cooper was sitting in a meeting at Yahoo. It was her first job in tech. Adults varied the cadence of their nods and encouraged each other to “take a step back.” During a lull in the conversation, a brave product manager walked to the whiteboard and drew two imperfect, intersecting circles: the universal symbol for I’ve Got A Brilliant Idea.

What was on the inside didn’t matter — everyone started arguing over the diagram anyway, debating its labels and the size of its circles. Sarah took note: The product manager had successfully Appeared Smart in a Meeting.

Seven years later, Sarah reflected on the incident (and others like it). She distilled them into one of her first posts on Medium: 10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. It ricocheted through Slack channels worldwide, making all of us a little more self-aware about how we do our jobs. From overzealously agreeing with each other to asking whether the questions “on the table” are really “the right questions for us to ask” — we’re all just trying to look good under unflattering fluorescent lights.

Judging by the success of that first post, it was obvious there was an audience for a new kind of corporate satire — not The Office, but… The Slack. Rather than cubicles and commutes, Sarah focuses on pretentious engineers and the everlasting awkwardness that is videoconferencing.

Link to the rest at Medium and here’s a link to 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings: How to Get By Without Even Trying

PG enjoyed some aspects of working in the corporate world, but these posts reminded him of why he sometimes zoned out in conference rooms.

Thanks to My OCD, I Wrote a Self-Published Best-Seller

6 September 2017

From MediaShift:

Whenever I leave a room, I flicker the lights on and off twice. If any object isn’t exactly where it belongs — a dish, the remote, the clock by my bed — then I need to fix it before I can move on to the next thing, let alone leave the house.

Good writers write what they know. But many don’t keep that knowledge organized. I do, because I don’t have a choice.

I know I have some level of OCD. But at this point, I’m not looking to treat it. That’s because I’ve learned to harness it professionally. Without it, I wouldn’t have written a book during a week-long vacation. I self-published it upon return, made six figure profits within months, and turned down an offer from a major traditional publisher — until eventually selling them the reprint rights.

While most people don’t share my obsessions and compulsions, anyone can learn from the steps I took to write and publish in little time.

. . . .

Make Distractions Impossible

A lot of people who want to write books get too busy with other tasks. I gave myself no choice.

My writing process began on a flight from Sydney to Singapore. I was sitting in a bulkhead coach seat, and had no wi-fi.

I hate flying. But when I work, I get into a mental zone in which the task before me has to get done. So I forget I’m on a plane.

I spent all eight hours of that flight writing the outline. Each folder became a chapter. Within the notes for each chapter, I put bullet points and ideas. By the time we landed, I had a 15-page outline.

. . . .

Know, And Be Established In, Your Market

Specialized how-to business books of about 30,000 words can do quite well. This is particularly true when you sell a book about selling — to people who sell. I knew this about my market.

Just as importantly, I had established myself as a known quantity within my niche: where sales and technology meet. Through my work at Sales Hacker and the big conferences I was running, I had built up the right connections who would help spread the word. And I had a substantial e-mail list that would make initial marketing a breeze.

In my professional community, Amazon is generally the first place people turn to for books. So I hired an editor to format it and made it available on Amazon, as e-book and print-on-demand.

Soon after, I received an offer from a traditional publisher. But I saw no reason to give another company the vast majority of the money.

Link to the rest at MediaShift

Final chapter for Pears’ Cyclopaedia after 125 years in print

2 September 2017

From The Guardian:

One hundred-and-twenty years after Pears’ Cyclopaedia made its first appearance, offering “A Mass of Curious and Useful Information about Things that everyone Ought to know in Commerce, History, Science, Religion, Literature and other Topics of Ordinary Conversation” for a shilling, its publisher Penguin has announced that the newest edition of the beloved compendium of facts will be the last.

Penguin attributed the decision to discontinue the almanac to the retirement of its long-term editor Dr Chris Cook, as well as “the ready availability of electronic information [that] has made the printed reference book no longer commercially competitive”. According to the Bookseller, sales have sharply declined in recent years, with the 2001/2002 edition selling just under 25,000 copies, while last year’s sold barely 3,000.

“Chris Cook has been editing Pears’ Cyclopaedia for 40 years and we are incredibly grateful to him for the tireless work that has gone into making it a book of extraordinary longevity, durability and value. In the age of the internet, Pears has continued to be a uniquely British almanac, reaching readers across generations. It is with great sadness that we stop publishing it as Dr Cook retires but we celebrate his dedication and generosity over the past four decades,” said the publisher in a statement.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

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