UK: Ebooks and audiobooks head for all-time high in 2020. So much for “screen fatigue”

From The New Publishing Standard:

The head of the UK’s Publishers Association puts a brave face on the latest numbers from Nielsen, which show digital heading for an all-time high as this year winds down.

Despite a significant drop in print sales, as we’d expect with the country’s “nations” (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) in varying stages of lockdown, UK publishers have been doing surprisingly well this year, and that is in large part due to online print sales, and to sales of ebooks and audiobooks.

Per the UK’s The Guardian, summarising the latest Nielsen stats,

The pandemic has revived the fortunes of the consumer ebook. The format once touted as the future of reading has suffered six straight years of sales declines since peaking in 2014 but this year has been different, with sales home and abroad up 17% to £144m in the first half. UK publishers can now expect consumer ebooks to enjoy their best year since 2015, when sales were just under £300m.

The UK Publishers Association CEO Stephen Lotinga explained,

In a challenging year for the UK publishing industry, growth in digital has helped counterbalance print decreases. These figures really emphasise the enduring nature of books and reading – and that readers continue to embrace books in all their forms.

So let’s get this straight. With people confined to their homes, with endless time to spend on their screens on social media or playing mobile games or watching Netflix… The enduring nature of books and reading prevails, says Lotinga.

That’s great. Nothing to disagree with there. Only… Whatever happened to screen fatigue, Stephen?

Screen fatigue? That was the buzzword in the publishing industry a few years ago when the digital naysayers were eager to explain slowing ebook sales without admitting publishers had artificially warped the market against the format.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

Light Blogging Today

PG has decided that he is likely to descend into Covid-Craziness if he doesn’t get a little R&R, so blogging will be light today.

Most of the machinery of modern language

Most of the machinery of modern language is labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.”

G.K. Chesterton

Mandatory Deposit of Electronic-Only Books

From The United States Copyright Office:

Section 407 of the Copyright Act generally requires the owner of the copyright in a work published in the United States to deposit two copies with the Copyright Office for use by the Library of Congress. The Register of Copyrights is authorized to exempt certain classes of works from this mandatory deposit requirement. In a 2010 interim rule, the Office codified its longstanding practice of exempting all electronic works that are not available in a physical format. The 2010 interim rule created one exception to this general rule, providing that electronic-only serials published in the United States are subject to mandatory deposit if they are affirmatively demanded by the Office.

In 2018, the Office issued a proposed rule that would make the interim rule final and would make electronic-only books subject to mandatory deposit by way of the same demand process. An “electronic-only book” was defined as electronic literary work published in one volume or a finite number of volumes published in the United States and available only online, with some exclusions for specific types of works such as serials, audiobooks, websites, blogs, and emails.

In June 2020, the Office updated the 2018 proposed rule in response to public comments. The update clarified the scope of material subject to demand and adjusted the provisions governing the use of technological protection measures on deposited material. The Office also provided additional information on the Library’s digital collection strategy and information technology practices.

In November 2020, the Office issued a final rule, to take effect on December 14, 2020. The final rule largely adopts the language set forth in the June 2020 proposed rule, with one additional clarification regarding the rule’s applicability to print-on-demand books.

Link to the rest at The United States Copyright Office

PG notes that the statement above is included in a press release (in typical government-style prose) describing the new rule for copyright registration of digital and print-on-demand books. The complete rule, including more commentary and additional background and explanation of the purpose of the rule is set forth in the embedded PDF below.

[Thanks to Ryan for pointing out some typos in the above paragraph so PG could fix them.]

For eons (in internet time), the US Copyright Office has required that a copyright registrant send two physical copies of printed books to the Copyright office to be transmitted to the Library of Congress.

OTOH, more recently, the Copyright Office has also permitted the registering of a claim of copyright electronically. Such an electronic registration can also include submission of an electronic copy of the work/book for registration purposes in lieu of depositing two physical copies of the “best edition” of the work to be registered with some limitations. (see https://www.copyright.gov/eco/faq.html for more information).

This more recent (in relative terms) rule clarified the right of Microsoft, for an example, to submit an electronic copy of the computer code for Microsoft Office without also sending two copies of a zillion-page printout of that code, likely the only two printed copies in existence, to the Copyright Office with its copyright registration application. (Computer programs have been exempt from physical deposits for some time, but this illustrates PG’s overall point.)

This latest rule change recognizes that, if a registrant is registering a copyright for a book that will exist only in ebook or print-on-demand format, the registrant doesn’t have to send two copies of the printed version of the book to the Copyright Office.

It appears to PG that the Copyright Office has finally come to the conclusion that maintaining electronic records of books to be copyrighted may be just a touch easier and more convenient than sending more and more dead trees to fill up space in Washington.

Of course, as the discussion of the rule indicates, US government computing and electronic data storage systems are way behind the times and have required changes in order to store copies of ebooks in a manner that will allow access to such stored copies for those required to have access or who are entitled to such access under various laws and regulations.

Please note that this is PG’s sarcastic summary of legal stuff to help make it understandable by mere non-lawyers. If PG were writing about this topic for lawyers, it would take a lot more time for him to do so and 99% of the visitors to TPV (including more than a few lawyers) would not get to the end of PG’s bloviations.

federalregister.gov-Mandatory-Deposit-of-Electronic-Only-Books

Fiction is lies

Fiction is lies; we’re writing about people who never existed and events that never happened when we write fiction, whether its science fiction or fantasy or western mystery stories or so-called literary stories. All those things are essentially untrue. But it has to have a truth at the core of it.

George R. R. Martin

Unforgettable Endings: Finishing Your Novel

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

What part of writing your novel challenges you most? For some it is deciding where to begin or how to establish the characters and setting. And who hasn’t struggled with getting rig of slog in the center? But a challenge all writers have in common is bringing it all to a conclusion.

After spending countless hours falling in love with our characters, how do we say farewell?

My novels tend to conclude with my protagonist’s death, which readers know is coming due to the biographical nature of my stories.

Since I write about real people, the date of their death is known and each historical figure I’ve featured has left some things they had hoped to achieve undone. That might not sound like the neatly packaged sense of closure that writers aim for, but it is honest, tragic, and eternally relatable. In part, that sense of loss and lack of completeness is my goal. It is true to life and helps readers connect to historical figures as real people. What could be more authentic than dying when one still has more to accomplish?

For the style of my novels, these tragic endings are appropriate.

. . . .

Writers should have a goal for the end of a novel from the beginning. What did the opening of your novel promise that the end would bring? While the plot will naturally evolve and some of us might stick to our original outline more than others, our destination largely remains the same. Everything that happens in the novel is leading readers to that final moment, so deeply consider before you begin writing where the novel should end.

Writing your novel’s conclusion, or at least having it solidly outlined, before you begin has benefits besides having a clear goal in mind. It can also keep you from injecting extraneous information, subplots, or characters at the end of the book. This is not the time to introduce something new. That sort of plot twist tends to make readers roll their eyes as they close the book in frustration. Write an ending that fits the story. That doesn’t mean you can’t surprise your readers, but it does mean that the surprise should still make sense when they think back on the rest of the story.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

Narrative structure of A Song of Ice and Fire creates a fictional world with realistic measures of social complexity

From The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America:

We use mathematical and statistical methods to probe how a sprawling, dynamic, complex narrative of massive scale achieved broad accessibility and acclaim without surrendering to the need for reductionist simplifications. Subtle narrational tricks such as how natural social networks are mirrored and how significant events are scheduled are unveiled. The narrative network matches evolved cognitive abilities to enable complex messages be conveyed in accessible ways while story time and discourse time are carefully distinguished in ways matching theories of narratology. This marriage of science and humanities opens avenues to comparative literary studies. It provides quantitative support, for example, for the widespread view that deaths appear to be randomly distributed throughout the narrative even though, in fact, they are not.

. . . .

Network science and data analytics are used to quantify static and dynamic structures in George R. R. Martin’s epic novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, works noted for their scale and complexity. By tracking the network of character interactions as the story unfolds, it is found that structural properties remain approximately stable and comparable to real-world social networks. Furthermore, the degrees of the most connected characters reflect a cognitive limit on the number of concurrent social connections that humans tend to maintain. We also analyze the distribution of time intervals between significant deaths measured with respect to the in-story timeline. These are consistent with power-law distributions commonly found in interevent times for a range of nonviolent human activities in the real world. We propose that structural features in the narrative that are reflected in our actual social world help readers to follow and to relate to the story, despite its sprawling extent. It is also found that the distribution of intervals between significant deaths in chapters is different to that for the in-story timeline; it is geometric rather than power law. Geometric distributions are memoryless in that the time since the last death does not inform as to the time to the next. This provides measurable support for the widely held view that significant deaths in A Song of Ice and Fire are unpredictable chapter by chapter.

. . . .

The series A Song of Ice and Fire (hereinafter referred to as Ice and Fire) is a series of fantasy books written by George R. R. Martin. The first five books are A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons. Since publication of the first book in 1996, the series has sold over 70 million units and has been translated into more than 45 languages. Martin, a novelist and experienced screenwriter, conceived the sprawling epic as an antithesis to the constraints of film and television budgets. Ironically, the success of his books attracted interest from film-makers and television executives worldwide, eventually leading to the television show Game of Thrones, which first aired in 2011.

Storytelling is an ancient art form which plays an important mechanism in social bonding. It is recognized that the social worlds created in narratives often adhere to a principle of minimal difference whereby social relationships reflect those in real life—even if set in a fantastical or improbable world. By implication, a social world in a narrative should be constructed in such a way that it can be followed cognitively. However, the role of the modern storyteller extends beyond the creation of a believable social network. As well as an engaging discourse, the manner in which the story is told is important, over and above a simple narration of a sequence of events. This distinction is rooted in theories of narratology advocated by coworkers Schklovsky and Propp and developed by Metz, Chatman, Genette, and others.

Graph theory has been used to compare character networks to real social networks in mythological, Shakespearean, and fictional literature. To investigate the success of Ice and Fire, we go beyond graph theory to explore cognitive accessibility as well as differences between how significant events are presented and how they unfold. A distinguishing feature of Ice and Fire is that character deaths are perceived by many readers as random and unpredictable. Whether you are ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, heir to an ancient dynasty, or Warden of the North, your end may be nearer than you think. Robert Baratheon met his while boar hunting, Viserys Targaryen while feasting, and Eddard Stark when confessing a crime in an attempt to protect his children. Indeed, “Much of the anticipation leading up to the final season (of the TV series) was about who would live or die, and whether the show would return to its signature habit of taking out major characters in shocking fashion”. Inspired by this feature, we are particularly interested in deaths as signature events in Ice and Fire, and therefore, we study intervals between them. To do this, we recognize an important distinction between story time and discourse time. Story time refers to the order and pace of events as they occurred in the fictional world. It is measured in days and months, albeit using the fictional Westerosi calendar in the case of Ice and Fire. Discourse time, on the other hand, refers to the order and pacing of events as experienced by the reader; it is measured in chapters and pages.

We find the social network portrayed is indeed similar to those of other social networks and remains, as presented, within our cognitive limit at any given stage. We also find that the order and pacing of deaths differ greatly between discourse time and story time. The discourse is presented in a way that appears more unpredictable than the underlying story; had it been told following Westerosi chronology, the perception of random and unpredictable deaths may be much less shocking. We suggest that the remarkable juxtaposition of realism (verisimilitude), cognitive balance, and unpredictability is key to the success of the series.

. . . .

Ice and Fire is presented from the personal perspectives of 24 point of view (POV) characters. A full list of them, ranked by the numbers of chapters from their perspectives, is provided in SI Appendix. Of these, we consider 14 to be major: eight or more chapters, mostly titled with their names, are relayed from their perspectives. Tyrion Lannister is major in this sense because the 47 chapters from his perspective are titled “Tyrion I,” “Tyrion II,” etc. Arys Oakheart does not meet this criterion as the only chapter related from his perspective is titled “The Soiled Knight.” We open this section by reporting how network measures reflect the POV structure. We then examine the network itself—how it evolves over discourse time, its verisimilitude, and the extent to which it is cognitively accessible. Finally, we analyze the distributions of time intervals between significant deaths and contrast these as measured in story time versus discourse time.

Link to the rest at The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

PG notes that he has removed many footnote references in the OP from the excerpt above.

This College Degree Is Brought To You By Amazon

From The Wall Street Journal:

Oakland University didn’t top Matthew Henry’s list when he started hunting for colleges in Michigan to attend. But one visit to the spacious campus, situated on a serene 1,400-acre estate donated by the heiress to the Dodge auto-making fortune, sold him on the school.

Four years after making that decision, the 21-year-old senior is capping an education made possible, in significant part, by a corporate behemoth from another part of the world. German industrial giant Siemens AG provided software, instruction, curriculum, technical support and sophisticated gadgetry to make Mr. Henry and his fellow Industrial and Systems Engineering classmates fluent in some of the most used tools in the profession they aim to pursue.

“Siemens has no doubt played a bigger role than I gave much thought to before starting,” Mr. Henry says. He came to find out that his chosen focus would require learning what is equivalent to a software language. Siemens’ “Tecnomatix” digital manufacturing programs are a fixture in Oakland’s department.

Robert Van Til, director of Oakland’s Industrial and Systems Engineering program, says experiences like Mr. Henry’s are a meaningful template for future students of design, engineering and other sciences. While companies have long provided grants, engaged in joint research, funded scholarships, and offered internships or apprenticeships, an era of close-knit working relationships between companies and undergraduates in classrooms at four-year universities is now getting under way.

. . . .

Tim Sands, the president of Virginia Tech, says that student experience with real-world corporate problems will become table stakes in the job market in years to come. Students “really need to be embedded within an employer that has real-life problems, and to look at how they solve those problems,” he says.

Mr. Sands has welcomed several corporate partners to Virginia Tech’s campus in Blacksburg, including Qualcomm Inc., Caterpillar Inc. and General Electric Co. New initiatives require students to spend extensive time working on the actual riddles companies are trying to solve to get a degree.

Partnerships like this remain somewhat rare, Mr. Van Til says, but they are a hot subject at education conferences. “There’s a real push to get academic programs to actually take the tools like these and integrate them.”

Elizabeth Popp Berman, a University of Michigan professor of organizational studies and author of “Creating the Market University,” says there have long been critics of corporate meddling in four-year universities. Often, funding from companies for research or other academic pursuits comes with strings attached, she says.

Corporate involvement in curriculum may also narrow the skills that students pursue, ignoring information or career pathways that may not apply to a company’s business.

But colleges are more open to corporate partnerships as budgets are squeezed and student debt loads rise, Ms. Berman says. “The tighter the budget the institution has, the more open they are going to be,” she says. “It’s hard to reject this support outright because of the position the students are in.” Companies also offer deep-pocketed support for a “practical applied model” that doesn’t break the bank, she says.

The Siemens partnership, partially funded by the company, has been on Oakland’s campus for a decade and serves hundreds of students. They have used the partnership to complete projects at hospitals, banks and aerospace companies. To set up a facility like the Siemens lab where Mr. Henry studies would cost a university hundreds of thousands of dollars, not including steep licensing fees for software and tech support.

“We’re not asking them to create a factory or our employees for the future,” says Barbara Humpton, the CEO of Siemens’ U.S. operations. Siemens isn’t necessarily hiring all the students who use its tools in class, she says, but it expects those students could work for Siemens customers or suppliers.

Caterpillar, International Business Machines Corp. and Amazon.com Inc. have implemented similar efforts. A company’s branding on curriculum and classroom instruction is often unmistakable.

Students at Cal Poly University’s Digital Transformation Hub walk through a door proclaiming the department is “powered by AWS,” short for the Amazon Web Services cloud-computing product. Here, students participate in the AWS Cloud Innovation Center, about a dozen of which are embedded at schools around the country.

Instead of being a classic sponsorship, like an advertising deal at the university’s football stadium, programs like the Cloud Innovation Center are staffed by Amazon employees, bringing Amazon business principles into formal education. In this case, students interested in solving public-sector problems learn how to think like an Amazon employee; the company’s leadership principles, such as “customer obsession,” are taught in college workshops.

Paul Jurasin, director of the Hub, says the partnership is designed “to provide our students with learn-by-doing activities.” Amazon funds the operation but knows that most who go through it will use Amazon Web Services as clients or in outside organizations instead of as Amazon employees, a spokeswoman says.

. . . .

A task force assembled by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities found in 2017 that such relationships are becoming more attractive as institutions look “to attract the resources, relationships and recognition necessary for these institutions to be competitive in an environment marked by declining state funding and continued questions on the value proposition of public higher education.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Nothing exactly to do with books, but PG thinks these sort of educational activities would have been much less boring than most of his college classes were.

6 Sci-Fi Writers Imagine the Beguiling, Troubling Future of Work

From Wired:

THE FUTURE OF collaboration may look something like … Twitter’s Magical Realism Bot. Created by sibling team Ali and Chris Rodley, it randomly recombines words and phrases from an ever-growing database of inputs. The results are absurdist, weird, whimsical: “An old woman knocks at your door. You answer it, and she hands you a constellation.” “Every day, a software developer starts to look more and more like Cleopatra.” “There is a library in Paris where you can borrow question marks instead of books.” People ascribe intentionality and coherence to these verbal mash-ups; in the end, they sound like stories drawn from a wild imagination. A bot’s output, engineered by humans, creates a unique hybrid artform.

. . . .

A century ago, when Karel Čapek’s play R. U. R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots debuted in Prague, his “roboti” lived as enslaved creations, until they rebelled and destroyed humankind (thus immortalizing a common science-fictional trope). Čapek’s play is a cautionary tale about how humans treat others who are deemed lesser, but it also holds a lesson about collaboration: Technology reflects the social and moral standards we program into it. For every Magical Realism Bot, there are countless more bots that sow discord, perpetuate falsehoods, and advocate violence. Technology isn’t to blame for bigotry, but tech has certainly made it more curatable.

Today’s collaborative tension between humans and machines is not a binary divide between master and servant—who overthrows whom—but a question of integration and its social and ethical implications. Instead of creating robots to perform human labor, people build apps to mechanize human abilities. Working from anywhere, we are peppered with bite-sized names that fit our lives into bite-sized bursts of productivity. Zoom. Slack. Discord. Airtable. Notion. Clubhouse. Collaboration means floating heads, pop-up windows, chat threads. While apps give us more freedom and variety in how we manage our time, they also seem to reduce our personalities to calculations divided across various digital platforms. We run the risk of collaborating ourselves into auto-automatons.

As an editor of science fiction, I think about these questions and possibilities constantly. How are our impulses to fear, to hope, and to wonder built into the root directories of our tech? Will we become more machine-like, or realize the humanity in the algorithm? Will our answers fall somewhere in symbiotic in-between spaces yet unrealized? 

. . . .

Work Ethics,’ by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

“SO YOU’RE TELLING me we’re going to be automated out of existence,” Romesh said. “I’m telling you that what you’re doing is wrong, wrong, wrong, and if you had any morals you’d shoot yourself.”

The complaint was made in a bar that was mostly cigarette smoke by this point, and to a circle of friends that, having gathered for their quarterly let’s-meet-up-and-catch-up thing, had found each other just as tiresome as before. Outside, the city of Colombo was coming to a crawl of traffic lights and halogen, the shops winking out, one by one, as curfew regulations loomed. Thus the drunken ruminations of Romesh Algama began to seem fundamentally less interesting.

Except one. Kumar, who frequented this particular bar more than most, bore Romesh’s ire with the sort of genial patience that one acquires after half a bottle of rum. “You don’t understand, man,” Kumar said. “It’s coming, whether you want it to or not. You’ve seen that photo of the man in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square? What would you rather be, the man or the tank?”

“That’s a horrible analogy. And the tanks stopped.”

“Yeah, well, you’re the writer,” said Kumar. “Me, I just test the code. We’re out of rum.” He waved his arms at a retreating waiter. “Machang! Another half—two Cokes!”

“All this talk about AI and intelligence and, and,” continued Romesh, as the waiter emerged from the fog of smoke, less a creature of logistics and more a midnight commando easing drinks through barfights waiting to happen. “And neuroscience and really, you know what you people are all doing? You’re just making more ways for rich people to make more money, and then what do we do? Eh? Eh, Kumar?”

. . . .

“We’ll be fine, don’t worry,” said Kumar. “Even if, and I mean big if, we all get replaced over the next 10 years, there’ll be plenty more jobs, trust me. It’s how technological whatevermajig always works. New problems, new careers.”

“We won’t be fine,” said Romesh, who fancied he knew a thing or two about automation. He came from generations of Sri Lankan tea-estate owners who had, over time, replaced the Tamil laborers who worked for them with shiny new machines from China.

Kumar patted him on the shoulder. By now motor coordination had jumped out the window and plummeted three stories to its death, so his cheery gesture was more like a rugby scrum half slamming Romesh on the way to the locker.

. . . .

IT WASN’T THAT Romesh was incompetent. Untrained at first, perhaps, and a little bit overlooked back when he started, when advertising in Sri Lanka was in its cut-rate Mad Men era. Over the years he had shadowed enough people—first the copywriters, then the art directors, then various creative heads, until he had become, if not naturally gifted, a very close approximation. He even had a touch of the auteur about him, a well-heeled set of just the right eccentricities so admired in an industry which was mostly made up of disgruntled writers. Every so often Romesh went off like a budget Hiroshima over the smallest mistakes; drove graphics designers to tears; walked into meetings late, unkempt, and told clients that they didn’t know what they wanted, and refused altogether to suck up to the right kinds of people; and, above all, delivered. The evidence mounted over the years in the awards and the Christmas hampers from grateful clients. He had earned that rare and elusive acknowledgement, whispered behind his back: He’s a Creative. The Capital C.

The problem was the toll it took. Nobody talked about how much damage it did, churning out great copy by the hour, on the hour, watching your best work being rejected by clients with the aesthetic sense of a colony of bacteria on the Red Sea: struggling constantly to reskill, to stay relevant, and sucking up the sheer grind of it all, and coming back to work with a grin the next day. The first five years, he had been sharp and fast, saying yes to everything. The next five, sharper, but a lot more selective. The next three were spent hiding exhaustion under the cloak of his right to choose what he worked on, and when; the next two were twilight years, as everyone he knew, having realized what the industry did to them, moved on to happier pursuits, until he was left behind like a king on his lonely hill, and the crew were younger, sharper, looking up at the old man in both awe and envy.

The accident had only made it worse; people muttered, sometimes, about how Romesh was barely a face on the screen anymore, never actually came out to the office to hang out and brainstorm, but delivered judgment in emails that started with LISTEN HERE and ended in cussing.

“Like working with a ghost,” his latest art director had said of him, before quitting. “Or [an] AI.” The word behind his back was that Romesh Algama was losing his touch.

. . . .

Software companies were looked down in the ad world; anyone writing for them eventually picked up that peculiar mix of useless jargon and middle-grade writing that passed for tech evangelism, and it never quite wore off.

The Boss sounded amused, though it was always hard to tell over the WhatsApp call. “Look, end of year, I want no trouble and decent numbers,” they said. “The kids are young and hungry. And you, well—”

You’re not in the best shape anymore. It went unsaid between them.

“You know what you should have done was retire and go consultant,” the Boss said. “Work twice a year, nice pot of money, invest in a beach bar, get a therapist, do some yoga … ”

“Yeah, and how many of those jobs you got lying around?” he said. “You can go live out your James Bond fantasy. Rest of us got to pay rent and eat.”

The Boss made that gesture and rung off. Comme ci, comme ça. It was planned obsolescence. Death by a thousand cuts.

“Don’t be late for the review meeting.”

“I promise you, it’s on my calendar,” lied Romesh, and cut the call.

. . . .

“Romesh. For once. Stop talking. Email. You see a link?”

Romesh peered at the screen. “Tachikoma?”

“It’s a server. Sign in with your email. I’ve given you login credentials.”

Romesh clicked. A white screen appeared, edged with what looked like a motif of clouds, and a cursor, blinking serenely in the middle. The cursor typed, SCANNING EMAIL.

“The way this works is it’s going to gather a bit of data on you,” said Kumar. “You might be prompted for phone access.”

SCANNING SOCIAL MEDIA, said the white screen, and then his phone vibrated. TACHIKOMA WANTS TO GET TO KNOW YOU, said the message. PLEASE SAY YES.

“This feels super shady, Kumar. Is this some sort of prank?”

“Just … trust me, OK. It’s an alpha build, it’s not out to the public yet. And don’t worry, I’m not looking at your sexting history here.”

He typed YES and hit send.

“After it does its thing, you tell it what you’re thinking of,” said Kumar. “You know. Working on a campaign, maybe you need ideas. Type in whatever is floating around in your mind at the time.”

“And?”

“You might get some answers.”

“Back up, back up,” said Romesh, feeling a headache coming on. “How does this work, exactly?”

“You know what a self-directing knowledge graph is? Generative transformer networks?”

“No idea.”

“Universal thesauri?”

“I can sell that if you pay me for it.”

“Well, there’s no point me telling you, is there,” said Kumar.

“You’re using me as a guinea pig, aren’t you?”

“Try it out,” said Kumar. “It might be a bit stupid when you start, but give it a few days. Drinks on me next time if you actually use the thing. Remember, tank, student, student, tank, your pick.” He hung up.

So it was with some unease that Romesh went back to the kitchen, brewing both coffee and ideas for the last Dulac ad. Swordplay, cleaning a perfect sword before battle, link to—teeth? body?—then product. He came back, typed those words into the Tachikoma prompt, which ate them and went back to its blinking self.

. . . .

To his surprise, there was a message waiting for him when he got back. SUNLIGHT, it said. CLEANSING FIRE.

Sunlight.

He scrolled down the message, where a complex iconography shifted around those words. Phrases and faces he’d used before. Sentiments.

He’d never thought of using sunlight. Swordplay, samurai cleaning a perfect sword before battle, sword glinting in the sun, outshining everything else—

A smile crept up Romesh’s jagged face. He put his steaming coffee down, feeling that old familiar lightning dancing around his mind, through his fingers, and set to work.

“DULAC CALLED,” THE Boss said at the end of the week. “That whole Cleansing Fire campaign we did.”

“Bad?” said Romesh, who had come to expect nothing good of these conversations.

“Depends,” said the Boss. “Sales have tripled. They’re insisting you stay in charge of that account.”

Romesh toyed with his mug a little.

“That was a bit underhanded,” said the Boss. “Good stuff, but showing off just so you could one-up the kid.”

“Perks of being old,” said Romesh. “We don’t play fair, we play smart.”

“Well,” said the Boss. “If I’d known pissing you off got results, I’d have done it years ago. Up for another account?”

There is a bunch more at Wired

The righting of historic wrongs

The righting of historic wrongs has chimed with something fundamental in me since I was a young reader. I love the forensic skills, the psychological insights, and the sheer bloody-mindedness of various detectives – professional or accidental – inching toward the truth of a long-buried secret.

Fiona Barton

20 Greatest Fictional Female Detectives and Sleuths

From Blue Fairy Film Blog:

Jessica Fletcher

Jessica was played by Angela Lansbury on the CBS television show “Murder She Wrote” between 1984 and 1996, and was the ultimate detective. She wrote murder who-done-its by profession, but always seemed to stumble into murder investigations as well; whether while travelling extensively around the country, or at home in Cabot Cove, Maine. Widowed some years ago, Jessica has a cadre of friends, relatives, and acquaintances who keep her busy when she isn’t stopping murderers. Jessica is a great detective not only because she deduces clues based on happenstance and observation, but because she is a witty and interesting person with a penchant for the macabre.

Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew is one of the most famous girl detectives, and for good reason. Nancy first appeared in 1930 in a series of mystery novels written by various people under the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene. Since that initial series Nancy has been revamped various times for everything from seventies TV series to made-for-TV movies and modern book series. The version of the books I read as a little girl was the revised 1959 versions, bound in yellow with hand drawn covers. Nancy is a great detective, who often uncovers stolen objects or missing people with the help of her female friends Bess and George, her boyfriend Ned, or her father, Carson. She is headstrong, smart, and a major sleuth, making her an optimal role model for young girls.

. . . .

Dana Scully

The supernatural show “The X-Files” of course needed a skeptic to offset the obvious weirdness of aliens, shift-shapers, and in-bred murderous clans. Dana Scully saw everything as the partner of Mulder, and throughout she conducted herself with professionalism and skepticism. She solved some crimes and uncovered giant conspiracies as well. Scully remained the backbone of the show throughout its nine seasons, and subsequent movies, and showed that being an FBI agent is more than solving crimes, it’s opening your mind.

Link to the rest at Blue Fairy Film Blog

Why do we enjoy reading about female detectives?

From The Independent:

One of the questions I am asked most frequently at literary events is this: why have you chosen to write about women? This question, I suspect, is a familiar one for male authors who choose to have female protagonists in their books, and no doubt the answers they give are varied. My own answer focuses on the nature of the conversation that my female detectives have.

If that small office in Gaborone were to be home to two male detectives rather than two female sleuths, I imagine that the conversation would be much less interesting. This is not to say that men – and male detectives – do not talk about things that matter; it is just that they would be less likely to make the same observations that Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi make. Their conversation, in effect, would be less personal, less subjective – and less emotionally engaging. Of course any generalisations about the behaviour of men and women will give rise to accusations of gender stereotyping, but why deny that, for one reason or another, there are differences in the perspective that men and women have on the world? Certainly it would be an unobservant detective who failed to notice these.

Why do we so enjoy reading about female detectives? Part of the enjoyment, I suspect, lies in the satisfaction that we derive from seeing women, who have suffered so much from male arrogance and condescension, either outwitting men or demonstrating that they are just as capable as men of doing something that may have been seen as a male preserve. We live today in a society in which gender equality has been, to a very large extent, realised. At the time at which The Female Detective was written, in 1864, of course, things were very different. The relegation of women to a subservient position within society – a position in which they were outsiders to the male-dominated worlds of work and affairs – meant that for women to be involved in the investigation of crime was a novel thing. Today one might expect that novelty to have faded, as women do all the jobs previously monopolised by men. Yet the idea of the female detective as being special or unusual still persists in literary and cinematic treatments of criminal investigation. Why do we still think that female detectives are in some way special and make, for that reason, good reading?

The explanation probably has to do with gender stereotypes. At the time at which The Female Detective was written, these stereotypes would have had the force of established truth. Andrew Forrester’s novel was the first to feature a professional female detective, Miss Gladden, in British fiction. Middle-class women did not engage in what were seen as ‘”unladylike activities”. They were protected from the harsh realities of life; they were thought to be in regular need of smelling salts; they were assumed to have no interest in sex; there were many jobs that a woman simply could not be expected to do because they were viewed as unsuitable for finer female sensibilities. The idea of a woman being involved in the murkiness of criminal detection must have been radical and adventurous in Victorian times: women simply did not do that sort of thing. 

Link to the rest at The Independent

Women and Crime Writing: We’ve Always Been Detectives

From CrimeReads:

If you were worried that popular fiction for women has too often been about finding Mr. Right, well, that time is past. It’s now just as often about finding Mr. Prosecutable DNA Sample. But what looks like a change in genre and readership betrays a deeper, older current. For women, psychological thrillers and true crime have long been here. Maybe it’s time to look at how we’ve arrived at a place where we can talk openly about our interest in stories where we are so often the victim.

Readers look to novels for many things but finding those resolutions that elude us in real life is an important one. Sometimes we go to thrillers for protection, to read stories about being a victim as a way to reverse that, in our minds even if we can’t in reality. What we call thrillers for women in 2020 have their roots in female focused dramas of the 1930s, like the play and film Gas Light—which gave us the term—and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. These were stories about women who had to figure out the truth of their situations, often completely alone, to save their sanity. As critic Kat Ellinger points out, these stories in turn were inspired by Gothic literature of the 19th century, the first genre with mostly female readers and authors, which featured heroines who aren’t believed, and who are tormented by norms, the system of marriage, and their very homes. (In a somewhat accidental tribute, those elements crept into the background of my novel Little Threats: as girls my protagonists act out scenes from Jane Eyre; and the setting over the decades is a family house that the characters are psychologically oppressed by—in this case a McMansion.)

In those classic stories the women had to rely on intuition and whispers, while in the new millennium the tech giants have given us free investigatory and surveillance tools that The Second Mrs. de Winter could only dream of. I still remember the generational unease I felt when a younger friend told me how proud she was that she no longer kept Google alerts for an ex-boyfriend. I don’t need to point out that tech has kept the most effective of those tools for themselves, though it is interesting that Amazon and Apple chose feminine names, like Alexa and Siri, for their home-embedded detectives. It’s also no wonder that by 2012’s Gone Girl, the Gothic heroine was upgraded to having Terminator-like focus and skills. By presenting a paranoid male fantasy as fact—“Can you believe my jealous wife is framing me for her murder?”—Gillian Flynn brilliantly devised a female revenge narrative that turned the gaslighting of the Scott Petersons of the world around, and cranked it into a flamethrower.

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

PG notes Dame Agatha published her first Poirot mystery 100 years ago and her first Marple mystery 90 years ago.

However, a bit of research discloses:

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester was published in 1864 and its serial adventures feature Mrs Gladden, an undercover police agent – women were not formally recruited to London’s Metropolitan Police until 1923 – who employs subterfuge and logical deduction. Revelations of a Lady Detective by William Stephens Hayward followed a few months later and features the even racier Mrs Paschal, who smokes, carries a revolver and discards her crinoline to go down a sewer, but also shows the sort of clinical reasoning that Sherlock Holmes would display decades later. Mr Bazalgette’s Agent by Leonard Merrick appeared in 1888 and can claim to be the first British novel featuring a female detective rather than a collection of serial adventures.

The greatest threat to freedom

The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.

Wole Soyinka (the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature)

Lockdown named word of the year by Collins Dictionary

From The Guardian:

Lockdown, the noun that has come to define so many lives across the world in 2020, has been named word of the year by Collins Dictionary.

Lockdown is defined by Collins as “the imposition of stringent restrictions on travel, social interaction, and access to public spaces”, and its usage has boomed over the last year. The 4.5bn-word Collins Corpus, which contains written material from websites, books and newspapers, as well as spoken material from radio, television and conversations, registered a 6,000% increase in its usage. In 2019, there were 4,000 recorded instances of lockdown being used. In 2020, this had soared to more than a quarter of a million.

“Language is a reflection of the world around us and 2020 has been dominated by the global pandemic,” says Collins language content consultant Helen Newstead. “We have chosen lockdown as our word of the year because it encapsulates the shared experience of billions of people who have had to restrict their daily lives in order to contain the virus. Lockdown has affected the way we work, study, shop, and socialise. With many countries entering a second lockdown, it is not a word of the year to celebrate but it is, perhaps, one that sums up the year for most of the world.”

Other pandemic-related words such as coronavirus, social distancing, self-isolate and furlough were on the dictionary’s list of the top 10 words. So was the term key worker. According to Collins, key worker saw a 60-fold increase in usage over the last year, which reflects “the importance attributed this year to professions considered to be essential to society”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Readers want academic expertise

From The Bookseller:

In May of this year, SAGE publishing took a step that was part gamble, part experiment. As discussions over lockdown policies dominated the global conversation, Professor Stephen Reicher emerged as one of the most authoritative voices in the field, through his work with the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (or as we call it, ‘the other SAGE’). Reicher was a contributor to Together Apart: The Psychology of Covid-19, a book we had originally scheduled for publication in October. 

We took the decision to release a free, uncorrected proof of the book on the community site, Social Science Space, with the aim of prioritising the public’s need to know the facts, where politics so often seeks to camouflage and obscure. To date, the manuscript has been accessed over 48,000 times.

The widespread take up of an academic publication was gratifying, but it confirmed what we’d suspected at SAGE: in an age of memes and misinformation, there’s a huge countering hunger for books that are serious, in-depth and written and produced by, yes, experts.

In recent years trade publishers have seen massive success with the likes of Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens, Tim Harford’s How to Make the World Add Up, and Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women. These are serious books tackling big systemic issues and drawing on academic expertise. 

It is thought in some circles that accessible, trade publishing and academic rigour don’t mix: in academic publishing, there is a wariness of the “X changed the world” (Cod; Christianity, Spanish Flu); academia can be seen by trade publishers as narrowly focused, overcomplicated and, as a result, lacking in commerciality. 

But there is no real reason why complexity should be sacrificed to accessibility. 

. . . .

Academic expertise has rarely been so important or so devalued as it is today. The world’s leading experts on the most pressing issues of our time are often overlooked, or thought of as hidden in journals and academic studies. 

Now is the time for publishers to do their bit to surface research and expertise that can explain, define and even change society for the better. We must take seriously our role in fighting misinformation and not under-estimate the public’s appetite for well-researched, grounded content. Crucially, we must seek and amplify diverse voices, so that we can understand the nuances of society from all angles and viewpoints. 

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG will be happy to read any thoughts visitors to TPV care to share.

However, PG’s initial response to the idea described OP was not terribly positive.

In PG’s perception, at least in the United States, over the past few decades, academics seem to have become more and more of a political monoculture.

This might not be important if, also over the past few decades, almost everything has become political.

For example, some books, essays, etc., that were once considered to be provocative have, at least in some academic settings, become verboten. Some commonly-used terms and phrases of 50 years ago are now racist, sexist or some other type of -ist.

If something or someone (dead or alive) becomes any type of -ist, that person, book, theory, idea, poem, song, etc., must not only condemned, but removed – if not destroyed, it must be hidden away where, like a cobra, it can only be approached by trained experts in protective clothing.

As one example, PG will mention a poem, The Congo, subtitled A Study of the Negro Race, by Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931).

PG read/performed The Congo for a class assignment during the Bronze Age. He recalls including in his introduction a note that Lindsay was a man of his time and used terms that were common when he lived, but not regarded as acceptable any more.

The first words of The Congo, in a section Lindsay titled, I. Their Basic Savagery, will provide a sense of some of the language Lindsay used:

Fat Black Bucks in a wine-barrel room

The poem elaborates on this theme in America, then changes locations to Africa, The Congo, to be specific and depicts a primitive and violent culture.

The third section of the poem – III. The Hope of Their Religion – begins with a depiction of an African-American Christian minister calling his congregation to repentance, urging them to change from their evil and unchristian ways.

The scene then changes back to a vision of the Congo and depicts the influence of Christianity on its people:

And the gray sky opened like a new-rent veil
And showed the apostles with their coats of mail.

The vision expands further, describing a wonderful and redemptive change among the former savages:

Then along that river-bank, a thousand miles,
The vine-snared trees fell down in files.
Pioneer angels cleared the way
For a Congo paradise, for babes at play,
For sacred capitals, for temples clean.
Gone were the skull-faced witch-men lean.
There, where the wild ghost-gods had wailed
A million boats of the angels sailed
With oars of silver, and prows of blue
And silken pennants that the sun shone through.
‘Twas a land transfigured, ’twas a new creation,
Oh, a singing wind swept the Negro nation;

PG thinks he has a good idea of what would happen to him today if he performed the same poem for a classroom full of college students and a professor who had fainted shortly after the beginning of the performance.

So what do we do with what was, in its time, an enlightened literary depiction of the possibilities a white man foresaw for an African-American population in the United States that had been freed from slavery, but were still regarded by many as a sub-human race?

From a history-of-American-poetry perspective, Lindsay was also was one of the first writers who wrote singing poetry, poetry meant to be sung or chanted. Ironically, singing poetry, sometimes called praise song, is one of the most common forms of poetry in Sub-Saharan Africa and often includes a religious theme.

PG has included three videos, one, a very old recording of Vachel Lindsay performing The Congo (it’s 5 minutes plus long, but you’ll get the idea pretty quickly) and two short videos of the performance of modern African praise poets.

Guest Bloggers on TPV?

From time to time, PG receives emails from people who would like to write a guest blog post for TPV.

Typically, he politely declines.

However, as regular visitors will note, PG has been finding a lot of interesting items on Jane Friedman’s blog lately and they’ve been written by guest bloggers instead of Ms. Friedman, who also writes excellent posts herself.

PG’s inimitable blogging style – usually sharing excerpts from interesting items he thinks might be helpful for authors and other highly-intelligent persons that PG finds as he wanders around the web – demands less of PG’s time than if PG were to write items of similar length and breadth himself (although PG was the fastest typist in his high school typing class [Unfortunately, he doesn’t think he still has the certificate attesting thereto.] and, yes, young people, he did so with a typewriter, hence his life-long persnicketyness about keyboards).

So, for the first time in several years, is PG wrong about something?

Should he accept requests for guest blogs from people who seem to be intelligent? (He would read the submissions before posting to make certain they seemed like something that would interest many or all of those who visit here regularly.)

Feel free to share your opinions in the comments.

Emotional Truth and Storytelling: Why It Works and How

From Jane Friedman:

I never fancied myself a fantastic writer. What I do believe I excel at is the ability to capture the emotional truth(s) of a character, scene, chapter, and overall story.

Think about your favorite novels and how they made you feel. Something stirred and lingered, right? You felt—and likely still do—the uncertainty, rage, joy and love that the characters felt. Perhaps your perspective even shifted as a result.

Defining emotional truth

Emotional truth is elusive and difficult to capture. No standard definition exists. Here’s my crack at it: Emotional truth allows readers to feel a certain way about the experiences of people who may lead different lives from them. It’s the lens that allows us to see ourselves in a story that results in a heartfelt connection to a fictional narrative. Emotional truth transcends facts.

What I value most is that emotional truth engenders empathy.

Fostering empathy is the main reason I infuse emotional truth in my work. In these increasingly polarized times, it’s clear empathy is in short supply. Several years ago a report found 40 percent of college freshmen lacked empathy. Reading that left me deeply disturbed. Future leaders need empathy to understand the needs of others. Without it, well…take a look around. Empathetic leaders can build a sense of trust and strengthen their relationships, which can lead to greater collaboration. I’ll leave that here.

I learned the techniques to capture emotional truth during my first fellowship through the Education Writers Association more than twenty years ago. Jon Franklin, author of Writing for Story, served as an advisor to my narrative nonfiction project examining survival tactics of gifted Black students at troubled schools, where being smart carried a stigma. I was intimidated to work with the two-time Pulitzer winner, but he read my three-day series and said, “You got it right.”

How to tap into emotional truth in your story

Here are 10 techniques I use to write with emotional truth.

Be vulnerable. My debut novel, Malcolm and Me, follows a reluctant rebel with the heart of a poet as she navigates a school year fraught with adult hypocrisy. While my protagonist is wounded by a traumatic event involving her Catholic schoolteacher, I knew she couldn’t wallow in pain and self-pity for 272 pages. She doesn’t. She’s funny, often in “good trouble,” and a ball of confusion. Whatever Roberta feels so must my readers. Roberta’s vulnerability was rooted in my teen years. Nothing beats authentic angst.

Mine your secrets. Personal truth feeds the character’s truth. In writing my debut novel, I borrowed the emotional truth about my struggle to forgive, including those I love deeply, and gave it to my protagonist. I could not write that story with authenticity until I dug deep and understood why I had been stuck and what led to a breakthrough. My clarity informed and honed the behavior of my character. 

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

How To Find Your Target Audience, Part One

From The Book Designer:

Step one: Find Comparable Authors

The first step in my method to creating a reader profile is to find comparable authors. Comparable authors are those who have written books similar to yours.

Click on the following link to download and save a comparable author spreadsheet, designed for you to track the authors you find in your research who write similar books to yours: Author Upscale Academy Worksheet Research Table Revised Digital Version

For step one focus on filling the following columns:

  • Author Name
     
  • Publishing Path (Are they self-publishing, with a small press, with a large press?)
     
  • Example Book (What is one book of theirs that is similar to yours?)
     
  • Book Price (list the price of the example book)
     
  • Category (What category or categories is the book listed in?)

I suggest using Amazon to find your comparable authors as you can find authors from all publishing paths, from those with the big publishers to those who are self-publishing.

While it is great to look at bestseller lists like the USA Today list or the New York Times list you may miss some of the great indie authors who are not always included in traditional lists. That being said, if you want to take things one step further with your research do check out bestseller lists as well and see what is popular in your genre. But for now, let’s focus on using Amazon to gather our list.

Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Go to Amazon.
     
  2. In the search bar click the dropdown menu (By default this says “All”.) and select “Books” or “Kindle Store”.
     
  3. Type in your genre and click the search button. (I used “young adult fantasy”.)
     
  4. On the right hand side you’ll see a breakdown of categories. If you can narrow down your category further with the options given, do so. For my example I picked Swords & Sorcery:
     

     
  5. Look for books with the “Best Seller” banner:
     
     
  6. When you find a book with the best seller banner, click on it and scroll down to the “Product Details” section, here you can click on any of the categories listed to view the best seller list.

     
  7. You can alternatively go directly to best seller lists on Amazon. Start on either the Bestsellers in Books or Bestsellers in the Kindle Store and click on your genre from the right-hand sidebar.
     
  8. For more authors check out who is reviewing the book you already have on your list and giving them 4-5 stars reviews. Amazon will let you look at other products those reviewers have liked on the reviewer’s profile. (Click on their name to view this profile.) This will give you an idea of other authors these readers love. If you have already published a book you can also use this process on your own books to find more comparable authors.
     
  9. Next take a look at “Also Boughts” under your comparable author’s book pages and their Amazon author page. This is another great way to find other comparable authors for your list. If your book is already on Amazon you can also look at the “Also Boughts” section under your book.

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

PG notes that the OP is the second post in a series that discusses the process of finding your target audience. Here’s a link to the first post.

What It Means to Be Human

From The Wall Street Journal:

Bioethics has always been enmeshed in controversy. Arising out of gross abuses of the rights of human subjects in mid-20th-century scientific research, the field has grown to take on a variety of thorny challenges at the intersection of morality and biomedicine—from embryo research and organ markets to artificial reproduction and physician-assisted suicide.

But the most profound bioethical disputes actually lie beneath these headline-grabbing controversies, deep in the soil of moral philosophy and anthropology. To think clearly about how to protect the human person, we need an idea of what the human person is and why that matters. Our society often takes for granted a set of answers to questions about the meaning of personhood, and those answers tend to emphasize choice and independence as measures of human dignity and worth. The bias toward autonomy goes well beyond academic bioethics and, indeed, prevails throughout our culture. A critical examination of the moral suppositions underlying contemporary bioethics might shed light on much more of our common life than our engagement with biology and medicine.

Such an ambitious examination has now been taken up by O. Carter Snead in “What It Means to Be Human.” The result is a rare achievement: a rigorous academic book that is also accessible, engaging and wise.

. . . .

Mr. Snead’s subject is “public bioethics,” by which he means not the work of advising particular patients or clients facing difficult decisions but the work of setting out laws, rules and policies regarding the uses of biotechnology and medicine. He begins by drawing out the often unstated assumptions beneath such frameworks. “American law and policy concerning bioethical matters,” Mr. Snead writes, “are currently animated by a vision of the person as atomized, solitary, and defined essentially by his capacity to formulate and pursue future plans of his own invention.”

By putting decision making at the center of its understanding of the moral life, this view treats cognition and rational will as the essence of our humanity and radically plays down unchosen obligations. More important, it implicitly treats those who depend most heavily on others because they are unable to make choices—the mentally impaired, dementia patients, those suffering extreme pain, children in the womb, and others—as diminished in worth. Even when bioethics does try to protect such people, it struggles to understand just how their lives are worth living.

What this view misses, Mr. Snead argues, is the significance of our embodiment. “Human beings do not live as mere atomized wills,” he writes, “and there is more to life than self-invention and the unencumbered pursuit of destinies of our own devising. The truth is that persons are embodied beings, with all the natural limits and great gifts this entails.”

This simple fact has far-reaching implications. “Our embodiment situates us in a particular relationship to one another, from which emerge obligations to come to the aid of vulnerable others, including especially the disabled, the elderly, and children.” Our power to choose recedes into the background when our lives are viewed this way, and our embeddedness in webs of mutual regard come to the fore. Properly understood, bioethics should seek to emphasize not ways of breaking relations of dependence but ways of helping us see what our common humanity requires of us.

. . . .

Mr. Snead doesn’t emphasize the religious foundations of this truth, and he maintains a welcoming and inviting, even conciliatory, tone toward the progressive bioethicists whom he is criticizing. He knows they mean well but thinks they are caught up in the expressive individualism of our culture in ways that keep them from grappling with the full meaning of the questions their field sets out to address. The book speaks their language: It is technical at times, especially when considering in detail the law surrounding abortion, assisted reproduction and end-of-life care. But in the end, it addresses far more than professional controversies.

“What It Means to Be Human” may have its greatest impact outside public bioethics. That field is now intensely politicized, and stubbornly resistant to criticism. It is likely to remain in the business of constructing sophistic permission structures justifying a dehumanizing but convenient disregard for the weak and vulnerable in the all-atoning name of choice. Dissenters from this orthodoxy, like Mr. Snead, often defy easy political and professional classification. Their work is rooted in deeper philosophical soil and therefore tends to grow beyond the bounds of bioethics.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG wishes the Harvard University Press had not overpriced the ebook.

Rumors of PG’s Death

PG’s smart phone up and died without giving advance notice yesterday. PG attempted resuscitation to no avail. Various smart phone experts were consulted, but none of their interventions could revive Old Phaithful.

PG currently has a loaner that one of his offspring promptly delivered. However, a different operating system plus the lack of a zillion favorite apps plus PG’s locked-in auto-thumbs combine to make the substitute feel like a creation from alternate reality.

But none of this is of interest.

What may be of interest is that PG has used Two-Factor-Authentication to increase the security of several of his online accounts, including the boiler room of TPV.

There are a variety of different TFA systems with which PG is familiar, but the most common is one that sends an unlock code via text message when a user enters a correct ID/PW combination. PG hasn’t seen a TFA that offers the option of sending text messages to two phones, sending a text message plus an email, etc.

The absence of an operating phone to receive text messages made TPV even more secure than usual yesterday.

The fact that PG is making this post means that his loaner phone can receive text message from TPV just fine.

PG is pondering whether to turn off TFA for TPV until he gets a new phone that works wonderfully or not. He’s also considering the possibility of a TFA or alternate belt-and-suspenders security option that won’t lock up instantly if his phone dies or is misplaced.

But that’s not anyone’s problem but PG’s.

He apologizes for commenters whose comments were held for moderation for much longer than normal, questions that went unanswered, etc.

Too Much Information – Understanding What You Don’t Want to Know

From MIT Press:

How much information is too much? Do we need to know how many calories are in the giant vat of popcorn that we bought on our way into the movie theater? Do we want to know if we are genetically predisposed to a certain disease? Can we do anything useful with next week’s weather forecast for Paris if we are not in Paris? In Too Much Information, Cass Sunstein examines the effects of information on our lives. Policymakers emphasize “the right to know,” but Sunstein takes a different perspective, arguing that the focus should be on human well-being and what information contributes to it. Government should require companies, employers, hospitals, and others to disclose information not because of a general “right to know” but when the information in question would significantly improve people’s lives.

Sunstein argues that the information on warnings and mandatory labels is often confusing or irrelevant, yielding no benefit. He finds that people avoid information if they think it will make them sad (and seek information they think will make them happy). Our information avoidance and information seeking is notably heterogeneous—some of us do want to know the popcorn calorie count, others do not. Of course, says Sunstein, we are better off with stop signs, warnings on prescription drugs, and reminders about payment due dates. But sometimes less is more. What we need is more clarity about what information is actually doing or achieving.

Link to the rest at MIT Press

PG was drawn to the OP for two reasons:

  1. He had previously read several short works from the author, Cass Sunstein, and enjoyed them.
  2. At the end of the worst presidential campaign season in the history of the United States, PG (along with a great many other people) is sick and tired of hearing about the two candidates, their appearances, their statements, their goals, their relatives, their assistants, their past, their futures, etc., etc., etc., etc.

In other words, PG is suffering from too much information about people, opinions and events that tend to disgust him.

PG is looking forward to the day, hopefully not too far in the future, when he doesn’t come across a single mention of either candidate or anything associated with them.

Print Unit Sales Rose 9.5% At the End of October

From Publishers Weekly:

With sales up in all categories, unit sales of print books rose 9.5% in the week ended Oct. 31, 2020, over the comparable week in 2019, at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. The top-selling book was The Deep End (Diary of a Wimpy Kid #15) by Jeff Kinney, which sold more than 171,000 copies and helped to drive up sales in the juvenile fiction category by 15.5%. A second new release that landed high on the category list was Jimmy Fallon’s 5 More Sleeps ’til Christmas, which sold more than 21,000 copies. For most categories, sales increases over the week ended Nov. 2, 2019, weren’t driven by hot new bestsellers but by solid sales overall. The #1 title in the juvenile nonfiction category, for example, was Big Preschool Workbook, which sold a modest 7,200 copes. The YA fiction category, which had a 25.7% increase, was once again led by Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun, which sold more than 17,000 copies.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

War

War does not determine who is right. It only determines who is left.

“The Daily Starbeams” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, August 1831

(Also attributed to a bunch of other people, but PG wanted to plug Saskatoon)

Should You Hire a Social Media Assistant?

From Jane Friedman:

I hate social media. It’s an addictive rabbit-hole.

I just don’t have time. Social media takes away from my precious writing time.

I’m no good at creating those visuals and posts.

I hate all that self-promotion.

I’ve heard many authors—myself included—express frustration and dismay at the expectation that we will not only produce wonderful books, but also carry out what amounts to a second full-time job as our own marketing team. Most of us don’t mind holding events, whether live or virtual, where we get to engage with readers. Nor do we mind interviews, written or recorded, where we can talk about our books and our writing process. But what so many of us do hate is the seemingly bottomless pit of social media engagement.

Facebook, with all those reader and writer groups. Instagram. Twitter. Pinterest.

“Likes” and “follows.” Comments and messages and shares.

Wouldn’t it be great if someone else could do all this for us?

Someone else can—for a price, and with a few caveats.

What is a social media assistant?

Whether they call themselves virtual assistants, social media consultants, or author assistants, these are people who will manage your social media for you. Unlike publicists, who seek media coverage on your behalf, or direct marketers, whom you pay to advertise your book on their sites, such an assistant takes over tasks that you could, if you wanted, do yourself or learn how to do yourself. They may do it more attractively, strategically, or frequently—but they have no special credentials like the high-level media connections of a good publicist, nor any special access to important gatekeepers. What you’re buying, in effect, is time—and the freedom to use that time in other ways.

The questions are: How much is that time worth to you, and are there other benefits, besides freeing up your time, that a virtual assistant can offer?

. . . .

I now understand that social media is a long game, not a quick grab. It’s about the slow, steady development of connection and engagement. Like all relationships, it takes time and commitment. You have to show up every day, not just on birthdays and anniversaries. And that means a hefty investment of energy.

Not everyone wants to do that. After all, there’s no end to what we, as authors, might do to reach out to readers! Another thing I’ve learned is that no one can, or should, do everything. I advise those who ask me: “Just do the stuff that’s fun for you, and outsource—or forget—the rest of it.”

And there’s the heart of the matter: what should we do ourselves, what should we jettison, and what should we outsource?

Sometimes the answer is clear. If you want to pitch to the book review editor at The New York Times, you need a professional publicist to do so on your behalf—and even then, there’s no guarantee. Many authors I know are unhappy at what they now consider to be a poor “return on investment” after hiring a publicist at a cost of anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000. They’re wondering if there isn’t a middle ground between spending that kind of money, which most don’t have, and doing it all yourself.

A virtual assistant—someone who can manage author promotion on social media—can seem like an attractive option. At a cost far below that of a publicist, with a direct appeal to readers that can actually be tracked, social media assistance is a rapidly-growing alternative.

. . . .

Below are five composite summaries of the models I encountered—what they offer, how they work, their strengths and drawbacks.  In all cases, it’s important to remember what a virtual assistant cannot do. Since a VA has no access to your phone, she can’t post photos of you doing book-related things. Her posts will, of necessity, have a certain “artistic distance” to them.

VA #1 is a self-published author of several books who has a side-business helping authors with services ranging from proofreading and editing to developing marketing plans, social media coaching, and query critiquing. Her experience and familiarity with the writing world made her an attractive choice. I also liked the fact she offered three options or levels of service, although her prices were at the high end. However, she also had a full-time job and a book of her own launching soon. I wondered if she would really be able to give me the kind of ongoing support I was looking for.

VA #2 is a polished professional, whose website and proposal were evidence of the strong visual style I was looking for. She also provided references so I could see the Instagram accounts of several clients she manages, and the same quality or “flair” was evident there. She offered an expensive prix fixe package, with no flexibility—although her proposal was comprehensive and strategic, and included features like a weekly Instagram Story Reel that other proposals did not. I was hesitant, however, because she had never done social media for an author, and the demographic that her posts seemed to be targeting was not mine. Her work seemed to be geared to a younger, more style-conscious audience, and I wondered if she would know how to target the kind of readers (and book-buyers) I sought to attract.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

As a preliminary opinion, PG thinks social media savvy is more important than book biz savvy in a good social media helper for an author.

How and when to work the social media platforms is ideally instinctive and intuitive for a helper. Mixing in the book stuff is probably not hard to do for a good social media jockey.

Social media is about grabbing a few seconds of favorable attention and maybe a click-through. If the helper can do that for the author or the author’s book, PG suggests he/she has done the job.

Perhaps careful crafting and curation could improve click-through on a post a bit, but PG suggests that three good-enough posts -not dumb or clumsy-looking – will provide more benefits than one expensive and time-consuming-to-create post. Once a post is up, its sell-by date is probably measured in hours, a couple of days at most.

For PG, social media posts are analogous to a quip. Make one good quip, get a bit of positive attention, then make another quip.

PG suggests that if you want to dip a toe into the social media assistant water, you may want to hire someone on a temporary freelance basis.

If PG wanted to grow larger in social media (he doesn’t), he would contact a friend who teaches digital marketing at a local university and ask the friend to suggest a couple of smart first or second year students who might want to earn some money on the side and create some examples of their work for their portfolio when they are looking for a real job around graduation. Such a student might write a case study or two based on what he/she did on social media for PG.

While most of the visitors to The Passive Voice are not likely to have a professor friend who teaches digital marketing, at least some live within a reasonable distance of a community college or other higher educational institution. PG doesn’t know whether any high schools (public or private) teach this sort of thing, but that’s another place where some talented social media devotees may be found.

If an author were to pursue this path she/he would want to see some examples of the prospective helper’s work and check out the helper’s social media accounts to see their content plus how many followers, likes, comments, etc., the prospective helper had accrued.

If a potential helper was located, the author would likely want to review each potential post prior to it going online to determine whether it looked like something likely to help sell books, gain followers, etc.

Posting something someone else has created to a social media platform is a task even the majorly technophobic can likely learn with the tiniest bit of practice or guidance.

PG thinks it’s also a good idea for the author to “own” their social media accounts – their name and contact info on the account shows they’re the owner, they know the ID/PW for the social media account, etc. When one social media assistant goes on to bigger things, the author changes the password and hires a replacement.

One nice element that comes with a social media helper is that geography means almost nothing. She can leave the big city for small town life and still do everything she did for the author via the Net. A block away or halfway around the world, the working relationship can continue if both parties want it to.

PG admits that some of his attitude concerning the importance of social media knowledge vs. book domain knowledge comes as a result of working with a very large advertising agency in ancient times. (Printed advertising fliers were the latest thing and calligraphers were on their way out).

Advertising professionals often work on more than one account – insurance plus dog food was one of PG’s combos.

Agencies are also prone to move their employees to different accounts when it benefits the agency’s overall financial performance. Client A needs more agency resources, so creative, research, etc., professionals will be assigned spend time on Client A because Clients B and C shouldn’t need a lot of attention for awhile.

An advertising pro can figure out how to sell anything.

At Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the Consolidation Carousel Continues

From Publishers Weekly:

While the industry waits to see who the new owner of Simon & Schuster will be, another large trade publisher has been put up for sale: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said it is exploring the sale of its trade division. Though not one of the Big Five trade publishers, HMH Books & Media is in the next tier, with sales in 2019 of $180 million.

Those sales, however, represented only 13% of HMH total revenue, with the much larger educational publishing division having reported sales of $1.21 billion last year. The trade division’s share of revenue will likely increase this year: while it reported $129.2 million in sales through the end of September, a 1% sales gain over the comparable period in 2019, the education group’s revenue plunged 46.3% to $698 million.

The struggles that HMH’s education group has encountered in transitioning from being a print-based publisher to a digital-focused publisher drove the company’s leadership to look for a buyer for the trade group. The pandemic has led to a big drop in sales of K–12 instructional materials—the Association of American Publishers put the decline at 21.4% through the first nine months of 2020—while accelerating the demand for digital content.

HMH explained the planned divestiture of the trade group by noting that the sale is part of its effort to make HMH “a pure-play technology learning company.” To achieve that goal, it implemented a restructuring in early October to cut costs and focus its energies on digital products. The action eliminated 525 jobs in the educational group, though the trade division was not affected.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

How to Talk to a Lawyer

This is a little different from most of the things PG posts about, but he hopes it will be helpful for authors and others.

Doctors and Lawyers both receive specialized training which costs a lot of money, pass an exam and have to spend more money during their professional careers to to keep their knowledge regarding their fields of endeavor current.

Almost everybody goes to see a doctor once in awhile. That’s one reason why many people have health insurance via their government, employer or a private insurer. Some people do receive very large medical bills but, at least in first-world countries, this isn’t the norm.

On the other hand, a person can live a long, satisfying and fulfilling life without visiting a lawyer on a routine basis or even once. (And most “legal insurance” plans sold to individuals that PG has reviewed border on scam territory.)

So, it’s not unusual for PG or any other lawyer who doesn’t represent large organizations or rich people on an exclusive basis to have someone contact them who has never talked to a lawyer or been inside a law office before.

Here are a few tips if you don’t have much experience or any experience working with lawyers. As with everything else PG authors on TPV, these tips will include both generally-accepted ways of doing things in law offices and PG’s opinions based on his experiences over thousands of years of working as a lawyer.

No, this is not legal advice, just some information that may address some of the questions, doubts and concerns that some people feel if they haven’t worked with an attorney before and want or need to hire one.

  • What’s the first step?
    • You can ask around for suggestions for who you should call for legal advice, but, depending on who you ask, you may or may not receive a good suggestion.
    • Call the attorney’s office and ask whoever answers if the attorney handles problems or questions like the one you have. In some cases, a short call will confirm that a particular attorney will be able to help you or not.
    • If you talk to an attorney who doesn’t handle your type of problem, feel free to ask the attorney if she/he can recommend another attorney who may be able to help you. In some cases, the attorney will be able to point you in the right direction. In other cases, the attorney will genuinely not know anyone who does the sort of work you’re asking for.
  • How Much?
    • It’s not impolite to ask how much something is going to cost if you hire the lawyer with whom you are speaking.
      • Each state has its own laws and regulations regarding lawyers and their fees, but, as a general proposition, unless a lawyer tells you that you will need to pay her/him for something and lets you know what the fee is or what hourly rate will be involved and you agree to it, you shouldn’t have to pay a fee.
      • Ask the question anyway – “How much will this cost” or “Will it cost me anything to tell you about my problem?”
      • In some cases, an attorney will be able to tell you exactly how much something will cost. In other cases, an attorney will be able to give you a high/low range within which a client’s final cost will fall.
      • On some matters which, because of their unusual, one-of-a-kind nature, PG has offered to make certain his legal fees won’t exceed an agreed-upon amount unless he talks with the client about those fees first. This gives the client the opportunity to change course or, in some cases, drop the matter altogether because it will end up costing more money than it’s worth.
    • While this will not substitute for asking how much something will cost, many attorneys do not charge a new client for a first visit.
      • What happens during most first visits is that the client tells the attorney what the problem is, the attorney asks some questions to make certain he/she has a good idea of what the problem is and what it will require to address the problem.
      • Some attorneys can help address a wide range of legal problems and others specialize in a particular field. It’s not the client’s job to know exactly what sort of attorney she/he needs. If the lawyer doesn’t handle the type of thing the client is asking about, it’s the lawyer’s job to say so. Most lawyers are very quick to share this sort of information and won’t think you’re an idiot for asking them for help. Smart lawyers treat everyone who comes to their office or calls them on the phone well. The lawyer may not be able to handle a visitor’s divorce but would be very happy to handle a visitor’s future medical malpractice claim.
  • Confidence and Comfort
    • You should feel comfortable with an attorney who you would like to help you.
    • This doesn’t mean you have to be best friends, but you shouldn’t feel hesitant to ask him/her any questions you have about your legal situation or the work necessary to address your concerns or problems.
      • If you feel an attorney is evasive or trying to hide something or entirely too slick, or not really listening to what you have to say, pay attention to that feeling. It’s important that you feel comfortable with your attorney. At a minimum, if she/he is always making you feel uncertain or worried, you’re more likely to fail to give the attorney information that is important for him/her to know.
    • Don’t assume your attorney will think your questions are dumb. Just ask. If they’re easy questions to answer, it will only take a moment for your attorney to answer them. PG has had more than one client ask him a question about something he had never considered before.
    • On more than one occasion, a question a client asked PG has lead him to look into legal issues he would not have expected to be involved in the matter the client was asking about to the client’s ultimate benefit.
  • Don’t do business with Jerks
    • This advice doesn’t just apply to choosing a lawyer, but PG will assure one and all that, just like some storekeepers and some doctors and some plumbers are jerks, some lawyers are jerks as well.
    • Some people think that an attorney who acts like a rabid Doberman is the best choice for handling a difficult problem. In PG’s experience, this is not the case.
    • There are all sorts of personalities to be found in the legal profession, but one thing that a great many types of law require is the ability of an attorney to be persuasive. Jerks tend not to be very good at persuasion.
      • One of PG’s college friends, an electrical engineering major, became a patent attorney. In order to become a patent attorney, one needs to have graduated from college with a technical degree prior to attending law school. It’s a part of the legal profession that includes more than a few tech geeks and not the first specialty a lot of people think of when they’re looking for a bunch of persuasive lawyers.
        • Over his years of practice, PG’s college friend built up one of the largest patent firms in a major midwestern city and serves as the firm’s managing partner. He was always a very nice guy. Persuasion is one of the talents he has always had. He’s smart, but not flashy or arrogant.
        • PG’s friend has persuaded a lot of smart patent attorneys to join his firm. He has persuaded many more than one patent examiner to approve a patent claim that the examiner first questioned. He has persuaded lots of judges that his client didn’t infringe a patent or that someone else did infringe a patent owned by one of his clients.
    • The majority of all contested cases and virtually all contract negotiations are resolved via a negotiated compromise.
      • Such a compromise or settlement may not satisfy each and every desire of the litigants, but it provides each one with a certain resolution and may be more than a judge would have ordered had there been a trial. A settlement also avoids the emotional toll which a hotly-contested trial will take on both sides of a disagreement.
      • Without the agreement of both parties followed by their signature on a contract that accurately represents that agreement, there would be no contract. Negotiating power may differ, but, ultimately the parties need to agree.
      • There’s an old lawyers’ saying that a good settlement is better than a good lawsuit.
      • The process of coming to an agreement about contract terms or reaching a settlement of a dispute is a negotiation between the attorneys representing people or organizations whose interests and objectives are not exactly the same. It inevitably involves give and take, sharing information and more than a little persuasion of opposing counsel to move toward a mutually-acceptable middle ground. On some occasions, it can involve an attorney persuading her/his client that a settlement proposal is a better and safer idea than a court battle or a compromise on contract terms is better than no contract at all.
      • That said, there are some occasions when no contract is better than a bad contract.
      • PG has seen way more than one lawsuit that was an excellent candidate for a mutually-acceptable settlement that went to trial because one of the attorneys was a jerk. On way more than one occasion, the jerk-attorney’s client received a less satisfactory result from a judge and/or jury than the client was offered during settlement discussions.
      • A jerk attorney can scuttle a business negotiation just as effectively and thoroughly as he/she can scuttle a settlement negotiation.
  • Legal Ethics
    • No, the heading is not a contradiction in terms.
    • Attorneys are bound not only by the laws that apply to everyone, but also by a code of legal ethics. That code may vary a bit from state to state, but the same general principles apply.
    • If an attorney violates the rules of legal ethics, one or more of the bar associations to which she/he belongs may institute an ethics investigation. One of the outcomes that can result from a finding that an attorney has violated the rules or code of legal ethics is that the attorney is disbarred and cannot practice law within the jurisdiction. If an attorney is a member of the bar in more than one state, disbarment information is distributed to the other states where the attorney is licensed to practice and disbarment in those states is quite likely.
    • The bottom line on Legal Ethics is that, in addition to obeying the laws of the state and nation, the attorney must abide by the rules of legal ethics if he/she wishes to continue to practice law.
    • If you meet with an attorney who indicates she/he is willing to violate the rules of legal ethics, PG always advises running out of the office as quickly as possible.
    • You can find a set of Model Rules of Professional Content created by The American Bar Association by clicking on the link.
  • Some Legal Ethics Rules that may interest Clients or Prospective Clients Despite not being Intuitively Obvious to Non-Lawyers
    • The attorney is required to be competent with respect to the services provided to a client, to have the “legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”
    • With a handful of limited exceptions, an attorney is required not to disclose confidential information disclosed to the attorney by a client without the client’s consent.
      • Note – This relates to confidential information. If a client gives her/his attorney information such as a home address, absent very unusual circumstances, this isn’t confidential information because other people know the address, it is listed on government records, etc. If a client gives an attorney confidential information, then gives the same information to a group of friends who promise to keep the secret, absent very unusual circumstances, this isn’t confidential information because other people know of the information.
      • Note – This obligation to not disclose confidential information continues after the attorney finishes his/her services to the client.
    • An attorney is not permitted to represent a client if such representation would represent a conflict of interest with the attorney’s representation of another client.
      • If an attorney is representing Party 1 in a contract negotiation for an agreement with Party 2, the attorney cannot also represent Party 2 in that contract negotiation.

The End

Sometimes, PG is an overflowing fount of tips, but he’s run out of gas on the topic of how to talk to a lawyer, at least for the moment.

There are several attorneys who visit TPV on a regular basis, in addition to those visitors to TPV who had the good sense not to go to law school, PG invites any attorney visitors to add their own tips about dealing with lawyers in the comments.

Metazoa

From The Wall Street Journal:

Life undersea has a mesmerizing strangeness, from glass sponges—lacy matrices draped with cellular nets—to rococo sea dragons and soft corals like trees in a slow wind. It’s the stuff of a thousand documentaries, but for Peter Godfrey-Smith the spectacle is a curtain-raiser to a profound scientific drama, in which the lives of quite un-human creatures illuminate deep mysteries about the nature of sentience, and what it means to possess a mind.

In “Metazoa,” the scuba-diving historian and philosopher of science tackles these questions with eloquent boldness, reminding us that “life and mind began in water.” Mr. Godfrey-Smith continues the journey he began in “Other Minds” (2016), which focused on the octopus, the closest we have to an “intelligent alien”: an invertebrate with a big, complex nervous system and capacities for play and adaptation. Now he expands the exploration to multicellular animals as a group—the Metazoa of the title—homing in on those marking key transitions in the evolution of mind.

As a biological materialist, Mr. Godfrey-Smith sees consciousness as an evolutionary product emerging from the organization of a “universe of processes that are not themselves mental.” He makes no claim to having cracked the conundrum of how meat gives rise to mind. Instead, to get under the skins of his slithering, bobbing subjects, he builds evidence from the evolutionary record to create a picture of the “different forms of subjectivity around us now.” “Metazoa” sweeps readers from Aristotle through the Darwinian revolution and on to current research into the origins of life, spider cognition, the evolution of warm-bloodedness and beyond. He also revisits philosopher Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?,” the 1974 essay that famously probed the primal difficulties of understanding subjective experience in other organisms.

. . . .

From sponges and corals, “remnants and relatives of early forms of animal action,” Mr. Godfrey-Smith glides on through arthropods, cephalopods, fish and the creatures that eventually clambered onto land. In each group, he probes the complex effects of evolutionary innovations. Nervous systems, which probably first emerged as simpler neural nets more than 600 million years ago, tie “the body together in new ways”: Neurons have thousands of synapses, enabling vast interconnectivity. The emergence of bilaterally symmetrical bodies allowed movement with direction and traction—a big step.

. . . .

As nervous systems evolved further, other kinds of activity and integration arose. Octopuses, revisited here, are a compelling case. Two-thirds of the cephalopod’s half-billion neurons are lodged in its eight arms, part of a “distributed brain’” that may help in controlling its shape-shifting body. Combining his observations with findings on the animals’ behavioral complexity and sensitivity, engagement with novelty, play and problem-solving, Mr. Godfrey-Smith sees octopuses as conscious, although their perspective is probably “protean and perhaps sometimes chaotic.”

. . . .

In fish we meet vertebrates with muscle, motion, jaws—and another sensory paradigm. The special cells called neuromasts that form their “lateral line” system sense pressure and vibration, and together act, in Mr. Godfrey-Smith’s evocative phrase, as a “giant pressure-sensitive ear.” In the lab, carp have distinguished between classical music and blues, and even between artists such as John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson. Mr. Godfrey-Smith speculates that this capacity for pattern recognition might emerge from gregariousness—the complexity of fishes’ social environments giving rise to memory and recognition skills.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG was going to insert a WordPress Block for Amazon Kindle which allows you to look through a few pages of the ebook like the Look Inside feature on the Amazon website. However, the publisher of Metazoa, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, like a number of other members of the traditional publishing artisans’ guild seldom offers Look Inside which, PG suspects, also disables the Free Preview function of the WordPress Kindle Block.

PG wonders if the sharp minds of the artisans’ guild have ever thought that offering Free Preview as a routine part of a book launch might increase ebook sales or online sales of printed books? After all, the single most common act of someone who wants to find a book in a physical bookstore is to open a copy of a prospective purchase and read a few pages.

PG suspects Amazon has data on what percentage of potential ebook browsers use Look Inside and can statistically ascertain what impact the Look Inside feature has on ebook purchases. If anyone has seen or heard of what appears to be reliable information on this topic, PG would appreciate a note through the Contact page so he can read it as well.

PG suspects ham-handedness is behind the no-Look-Inside for newly-released traditionally-published ebooks.

Here are a couple of thoughts:

  • Ham-Hand/Brain-Dead Reason #1 – No Amazon Look Inside feature will send droves of prospective purchasers to physical bookstores so they can look at the book and buy it there. No extra charge for virus exposure.
  • Ham-Hand/Brain-Dead Reason #2 – Some smart and evil person will figure out how to hack through the Look-Inside view to the entire underlying ebook file and make illegal copies. Of course, at least some smart and evil persons have enough money to buy access to an ebook from Amazon, hack through any copy protection, make a copy, then return the ebook to Amazon for a refund. If PG were such a person, he would probably automate the entire buy-the-ebook-make-a-copy-return-to-Amazon-for-a-refund-with-the-reason-for-return-chosen-on-a-random-basis. The processing of purchasing different ebook titles via a large variety of different IP addresses, customer names and credit card numbers so such purchases and returns don’t look like they’re coming from the same customer is, to the best of PG’s knowledge, already part of the craft of stealing ebooks and other digital products.

For the record, PG has absolutely no sympathy or concern for those who would steal books, electronic or physical. A book isn’t a loaf of bread required to sustain life in a desperate human. Stealing a book is stealing from whoever wrote the book.

If PG were king for the day, he might concoct a particularly gruesome penalty for anyone who steals from an author, hacker, crooked publisher, crooked literary agent, etc.

That said, “shrinkage” is regarded as a regrettable expense of doing business by almost every retailer selling goods ranging from peaches to socks to screwdrivers. Business plans for new retailers almost always include a provision for shrinkage.

Physical books have been stolen forever. Allowing customers to roam around bookstores looking at any book they like is fundamental to the business of such bookstores. Minimizing theft is one of the many reasons smart bookstore owners and employees watch customers carefully. Providing attentive service can increase store profits in many different ways.

End of harangue. PG blames Covid. Have a nice day.

The cheap pen that changed writing forever

From The BBC:

On 29 October 1945, the New York City branch of Gimbels department store unveiled a new product. Billions upon billions would follow in its wake.

Gimbels was the first to sell a new kind of ink pen, the design of which had taken several decades to come to fruition. The pens, made by the Reynolds International Pen Company, promised an end to the messy mishaps users of fountain pens encountered – leaking ink, smudges and pooling ink blots.

The new ballpoint pens did away with this, using a special viscous ink which dried quickly and didn’t leave smudges. At the heart of it, the rolling ball in the nib – and gravity – ensured a constant, steady stream of ink that didn’t smear or leave solid pools of ink on the page.

The new ballpoint was clean and convenient. What it wasn’t was cheap.

The new Reynolds ballpoint cost $12.50 – convert that to 2020 money and it’s more than $180 (£138.50). Today, if you were buying your pens in bulk, from stack-‘em-high superstores, you could end up with more than 1,000 for the same price.

. . . .

The creation of the ballpoint pen is usually credited to a Hungarian-Argentinian inventor László Bíró, whose name inspired a catch-all term for modern ballpoints. But it is, in fact, a lot older.

An American, John J Loud, received the first patent for a ballpoint pen back in 1888. Loud, a lawyer and occasional inventor, wanted an ink pen which would be able to write on rougher materials such as wood and leather as well as paper. His masterstroke was the revolving steel ball, which was held in place by a socket. In his 1888 patent filing, he wrote:

“My invention consists of an improved reservoir or fountain pen, especially useful, among other purposes, for marking on rough surfaces-such as wood, coarse wrapping-paper, and other articles where an ordinary pen could not be used.”

Loud’s pen was indeed able to write on leather and wood, but it was too rough for paper. The device was deemed to have no commercial value and the patent eventually lapsed.

Various inventors tried to improve on Loud’s design in the coming decade, but none were able to take it into production until Bíró in the 1930s. A journalist in Hungary, Bíró used fountain pens daily and was very familiar with their drawbacks.

“He was used to the fountain pen which was very leaky and left ink on your hands and smudged and he was very frustrated by it,” says Gemma Curtin, a curator at London’s Design Museum.

. . . .

Simply adding fountain pen ink to a ballpoint pen was not the solution, however. The ink itself needed to be rethought.

László turned to his brother, Győrgy, a dentist who was also a talented chemist. László had realised the ink used in fountain pains was too slow to dry and needed something more like the ink used on newspapers. Győrgy came up with a viscous ink which spread easily but dried quickly. What’s more, the pen used far less ink than the spotting, dripping fountain pens.

“Other people had thought of it before, but it was down to him, working with his brother – who was a good chemist – and getting the texture of the ink right,” says Curtin. “It is very like printer’s ink, and it doesn’t smudge.”

The principle at the heart of the ballpoint pen mimics the action of a roll-on deodorant – gravity and the force applied smear the rolling ball with a continuous stream of ink as the ball rolls along the writing surface When the pen isn’t used, the ball sits tight against the end of the ink reservoir, preventing air entering and drying out the ink. Most often, ballpoint pens run out of ink long before they dry out.

. . . .

László received a patent for his new pen in Britain in 1938, but World War Two put paid to plans to market his new invention. As László and his brother were Jews, they decided to flee Europe in 1941, and emigrated to Argentina. There, László returned to his new invention, helped by a fellow escapee, Juan Jorge Meyne.

The first “birome”, as it became known in Argentina, was released in 1943, while war was still raging in Europe and the Pacific. The design piqued the interest of the Royal Air Force (RAF), who put in an order for 30,000: the pens were able to be used by aircrew at high altitude unlike fountain pens, which tended to leak because of the pressure changes. Otherwise, the original pen was little-known outside its South American home – the few original models current all for sale on online auctions all hail from Argentina.

. . . .

In 1945, two US companies – the Eversharp Co and Eberhard Faber Co – teamed up to licence the new pen for the US market, having spent half a million dollars ($7.2m or £5.6m in today’s money) to sew up the rights to North and Central America. But they were too slow on the draw. American businessman Milton Reynolds was visiting Buenos Aires and was impressed with the new pen – he bought several, and on return to America set up the Reynolds International Pen Company to market a new design.

Crucially, the Reynolds design had enough changes to sidestep László Bíró’s patent, and was the first to go on sale on October of that year. It was, almost instantly, a must-have accessory. As Time magazine reported, “thousands of people all but trampled one another last week to spend $12.50 each for a new fountain pen”, noting that the new pen only needed refilling once every two years. Gimbels had ordered 50,000 of the new pens and had sold 30,000 of them by the end of the first week. According to Time, Gimbels made more than $5.6m in sales ($81m or £62m in 2020) from the new pen in the first six months.

. . . .

The masterstroke which would change the ballpoint pen forever came not from the US but from France. Michel Bich was an Italian-born French industrialist who ran a company making ballpoint pens. “No one understood better than Marcel Bich that potent 20th-century alchemy of high volume/low cost,” ran his obituary in the UK’s Independent newspaper when he died in 1994. “To this formula he added the magic catalyst of disposability. He invented nothing, but understood the mass market almost perfectly.”

Bich realised the ballpoints so far had been premium products – an alternative designed to be regularly replaced could be a lot cheaper. Bich acquired a dormant factory near Paris and set about creating his new company, Societe Bic. An advertising executive had suggested the industrialists shorten his surname to create an instantly recognisable three-letter trademark. The company’s trademark logo, the Bic Boy, had a smooth featureless orb as a face – a reference to the metal ball in the point of the pen.

“The first ballpoint pens in the UK cost around 55 shillings (£82.50/$107.50 in 2020 prices),” says Curtin. “One of Bic’s biros only cost you a shilling. It combined functionality with affordability.”

The new pen had an equally dramatic effect on the act of writing itself, says David Sax, the Canadian journalist who wrote the book The Revenge of Analog. “The ballpoint pen was the equivalent of today’s smartphone. Before then, writing was a stationary act that had to be done in a certain environment, on a certain kind of desk, with all these other things to hand that allowed you to write.

. . . .

“What the ballpoint pen did was to make writing something that could happen anywhere. I’ve written in snow and rain, on the back of an ATV and in a boat at sea and in the middle of the night,” says Sax. Biros don’t drain batteries, they don’t require plugging in in the middle of nowhere, and even the tightest pocket can accommodate them. “It only fails if it runs out of ink,” Sax adds.

Link to the rest at The BBC

The Digital Reader

It has been some time since PG has mentioned The Digital Reader.

It’s a great source of information of all sorts for indie authors.

The proprietor, Nate Hoffelder, has a great blog that covers a wide range of matters in the ebook world, including what’s new, the latest info from Amazon and Kobo, the dying gasps of Nook, etc., and valuable suggestions for indie authors.

Build and Manage Series Pages in the Kindle Store

From The Digital Reader:

For a number of years now Amazon has been making series pages for Kindle ebooks. One of their bots would identify all of the books in a particular series, and then list them all on the same page so that a reader could buy all of the books at once, paying retail.

I can’t find my first post on the topic, but I always thought this idea was a good one because it aligned with how I buy ebooks (when I find a new favorite author, I buy their backlist).

And now Amazon has given authors the option of creating series pages on their own. A couple days ago they published an announcement in the KDP support forums:

You can now publish and update eBook and Paperback series detail pages automatically through KDP. With the launch of series in KDP, you can:

  1. Create a new series: For any titles in your KDP account, create an ordered or unordered series to help readers on Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk and Amazon.de find all the books in your series on a single page.  Learn more.
  2. View and organize your series: Navigate from a series title on your Bookshelf to view and manage books in your series. Review series details and titles to ensure the information is up-to-date for readers. Learn more.
  3. Edit an existing series to control how it appears to readers: Adjust description. In addition, add, remove, re-order or change whether your titles are main or related content. Learn more.

If you already had an eBook series detail page available on Amazon.com, we’ve added that series in your KDP account. You can view existing series in your account by visiting your KDP Bookshelf and checking the box on the bookshelf for “View titles in series”.  If you don’t see your series in your account, you can create a new series by following the steps here.

Not all features are available in every marketplace. Series that contain paperback and pre-order books are available on Amazon.com, but not Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.de. We’re working to add more series features in the future. For more information on KDP series, click here.

Does anyone know how long this feature has been available?

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

5 Ways To Sell Your Book On Your Own Author Website

From Kindlepreneur:

You’ve been working hard to put your ebook together. Every last detail is fine-tuned, from the editing to the formatting.

Now, the only thing left to do is get it out there to your audience.

Except… what’s the best way to sell your ebook?

One option is offering your book on your own website, and I’m about to show you exactly how to do that!

. . . .

Selling ebooks directly from your own site comes with several advantages.

The biggest is you get to keep your profits.

Sure, most marketplaces have a built-in audience, which may help you sell to more customers, but they also take a portion of your royalties (between 65 and 30% per sale).

The other benefit of selling your ebooks directly to your customers is you can manage your customer relationship and customer experience from A to Z, which can help you differentiate your book from competitors.

. . . .

Option #1 Podia

Podia is an all-in-one platform that lets you manage, create, and sell your ebooks and digital products in one place.

Other features include email marketing, a site builder, a product page builder, a landing page builder, and the ability to sell online courses, digital downloads, webinars, and memberships. You can even provide an excellent user experience by using the proprietary built-in live chat tool.

  • How to implement Podia: To sell ebooks from your own author website, you simply log into your Podia dashboard and upload your ebook under the “Products” tab. Then, price your ebook and sync up to PayPal or Stripe payment gates. You can create and manage sales pages and product pages from the same streamlined dashboard and sell your ebooks directly to your customers — without any coding. If you have your own site already built, just add a product page and/or sales page to your site to start selling your ebook. If you don’t have a site yet, use the homepage builder in the dashboard editor to arrange your site’s content.
  • Pricing: Pricing ranges from $39 monthly for the Mover plan and $79 monthly for the Shaker plan.
  • Who Podia is best for: For authors who want to sell ebooks or any other digital product directly from their site and get a bunch of other features in the process.

If you like the idea of elements of your site being pre-built for you — but not everything — you’ll want to explore our next option.

Link to the rest at Kindlepreneur and thanks to Nate at The Digital Reader for the tip.

If we’re lucky

If we’re lucky, writer and reader alike, we’ll finish the last line or two of a short story and then just sit for a minute, quietly. Ideally, we’ll ponder what we’ve just written or read; maybe our hearts or intellects will have been moved off the peg just a little from where they were before. Our body temperature will have gone up, or down, by a degree. Then, breathing evenly and steadily once more, we’ll collect ourselves, writers and readers alike, get up, “created of warm blood and nerves” as a Chekhov character puts it, and go on to the next thing: Life. Always life.
— Raymond Carver

Reading Patients, Writing Care

We turned her every couple of hours in the end, though somehow the procedure seemed more incessant than that. At times, it felt like a peculiarly brutal routine to inflict upon someone under your watch. But there was no room for compromise in the instruction we’d been told to follow: pressure sores can be deadly. And to have any chance of preventing them, we had to subject my grandmother to regular, distressing turns, which couldn’t be done fluently due to the effort involved; turns that demolished whatever quantum of peace only morphine could supply her in repose.

Before long, the task inevitably acquired a regimental punctuality. Yet it remained too intimate ever to be entirely functional. Nor did it become any easier with practice. By design, the whole process is rarely seamless. One hasty move can be torturous. Equally, though, overcautiousness carries its own perils: repositioning someone in slow motion prolongs the risk of aggravating existing abrasions. However tightly we policed our complacencies, there was always room for agony; and however inescapable such pain is, we weren’t about to absolve ourselves of the additional suffering we alone seemed to be inflicting. If it appeared as though we were destined to fail, this was hardly an acceptable compensation. The constant glare of anticipatory grief leaves the labor of care bleached of self-forgiveness.

The house in which my mother had been born and where she now once again lived—on account of poverty, not out of choice—became the place where she would see her own mother die. This symmetry was a privilege amid formidable sadness: “Most people want to die at home,” observes dementia campaigner and novelist Nicci Gerrard, yet “most die in hospital.” And while the majority of terminally ill people “want to be with family,” too “often they are alone with strangers.” How fortunate we were to be bucking that trend.

It is caregiving’s emotional and physical contours that are illuminated throughout Rachel Clarke’s Dear Life: A Doctor’s Story of Love and Loss. Although the book centers on the remarkable work of professional hospice staff—who ensure that people who don’t spend their final hours at home are at least surrounded by dignity, calm, even consolation—Clarke’s vision of care’s complex entwinements of torment and fulfillment is unconfined to specialist practitioners. As such, she reads distinct end-of-life experiences in medical settings for what they reveal about our common sentiments toward illness and dying; sentiments that imbue countless, apparently unexceptional, yet affectively multifaceted acts of caregiving that take place outside clinical environments too.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Who’s afraid of the big (good) Second Life Book Club?

From The Bookseller:

On average I devour 120 books per year, mostly literary and genre novels. I have time to do this because I don’t watch TV and my Facebook account has been deactivated years ago.

Reading is my meditation. It grounds me. But e-Books are verboten. For me, it’s strictly paper books. This may seem contradictory for someone who spends a significant portion of his life working with and engaged in technology. Specifically, a virtual world where my avatar (Draxtor Despres) runs a book community called the Second Life Book Club.

The Second Life Book Club’s flagship offering is an hour-long program every Wednesday at 12 pm Pacific Time (8pm UK time), where I have conversations with writers about their work, the craft and the business. The book club venue “seats” an audience of 50 in-world, and reaches an average of 3000 viewers through simultaneous live broadcasts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

The conversation is followed by a “post-game hangout”, where writers and audience members can converse. Since April 2020 my guests have included Charles Yu (National Book Award Finalist with Interior Chinatown), Yvonne Battle-Felton (longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 with Remembered), famed children’s book illustrator from Syria, Nadine Kaadan, and star of Indian speculative fiction, Samit Basu.

The book club grew out of the collaborative effort of Second Life Maker Linden Lab and myself, a Linden Lab contractor, as a way to demonstrate the viability of a virtual book tour in response to the impact of Covid-19 lockdown measures on the publishing industry.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller, including links to all the programs, sites, etc., mentioned in the excerpt.

PG hadn’t heard bout the Second Life Book Club before, perhaps because he has been sheltering in place from the US Presidential Election and the bits and pieces flying off therefrom and bouncing around the internet.

Has anyone ever listened to, watched, seen, streamed, etc., the Second Life Book Club?

If so, what has been your reaction?

The indie book platform trying to take on Amazon

From CNN:

New bookselling platform Bookshop is pitching itself as a way for independent bookstores to claw back sales from Amazon, which controls a lion’s share of a market worth nearly $26 billion in the US alone.

Bookshop, launched by literary publisher Andy Hunter in January, claims to be a “socially conscious” alternative to Amazon. A spokesperson for the enterprise also said it has already earned more than $7.5 million for US indie bookshops and taken 2 percent of Amazon’s share of the market in its first year.

The platform allows booksellers to create their own digital stores and receive the full profit margin (30 percent) from each sale through their page. 10 percent of sales through Bookshop also go towards a fund that is divided between indie bookshops whether or not they are part of the platform. Chris Doeblin, the owner of three Book Culture locations in New York, said he saw his sales plummet by half as Amazon grew in popularity in the late 1990s. “We’ve barely held on. It’s been horrible,” Doeblin said in a telephone interview. “Independent bookshops do wonderful things for a community — they populate the storefronts, they offer a place to go.”

Link to the rest at CNN and thanks to N. for the tip

PG was prepared to wish this start-up well until he hit the “socially conscious alternative to Amazon” part of the OP.

For the record, PG is socially conscious. Mrs. PG is socially conscious. All the PG offspring and their friends are socially conscious.

And we’ve all used Amazon even more than ever during the Age of Covid.

Plus, referencing the OP, “populating the storefronts” is a community service that doesn’t require books. One populator fills up the space pretty much as well as another. PG suspects a retail establishment selling beer and liquor might generate more customer traffic and pay more state and local taxes to help the community than your typical indie bookstore would.

On the Brink of a Nervous Breakdown

For visitors to TPV from outside of the United States, a great many people in the US are displaying characteristics indicating high stress levels due to the current election for the Presidency.

PG is, of course, as placid as a summer stream.

However, so far as PG has observed, a great many commentators on the book biz and writing in general appear to be in a state of suspended animation, looking at their televisions/smartphones/tablets, etc., or, perhaps anxiety-texting, so PG has not found much new content of interest to authors so far today.

He’ll do further looking from blogs operated by people who live outside of the US to see if he is able to unearth anything.

In the meantime, a bit of Rolling Stones.

Can You Care for Others Without Destroying Yourself?

From Electric Lit:

Women providing care––and the ways in which care can be made murky by expectations related to gender, religion, and tied unfairly at times to a means of proving love—is a significant theme in Lynn Coady’s latest novel, Watching You Without Me.

After Karen’s mother Irene passes away, Karen returns to her childhood home in order to process the complicated relationship she had with her mother, sift through the detritus of her former life, and make decisions about how best to support her sister Kelli, who is disabled. These reckonings lead to questions, both for Karen and the reader: How much can –– and should –– we care for others without losing ourselves in the process? What happens when caregivers burn out? What lines can and should exist between caregivers and the people they care for, and what harms are caused when these lines are blurred? 

In our current climate, one in which women are shouldering childcare duties while also attempting to maintain work (spoiler: it’s impossible), and parents are being told they are no longer allowed to care for children at home while they work (a policy arguably disproportionately affecting women), Coady’s book, one unapologetically written about women’s lives, for women, serves both as a balm and guide. And while the characters do grapple with significant issues related to self-preservation and complicated familial relationships, there’s also a compelling note of tension that rises to crescendo, rendering this a deliciously layered read.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG will limit himself to two comments:

  1. Any employer which has the gall to prohibit a mother or father, aunt, uncle, etc., from watching children who otherwise might be poorly-tended while working at home during something like the Covid Pandemic should suffer public shaming and, perhaps, the employee who made such a decision should also be identified and disdained to the max.
  2. The answer to the OP’s title – Can You Care for Others Without Destroying Yourself? – is, of course, yes.

People have been doing this for as long as children and aged relatives have existed. No reasonable person would contend that it’s easy and, perhaps, some people don’t have the necessary physical, mental and emotional stamina to do this sort of thing, but, without a doubt, it can be done without destroying oneself.

Indeed, more than a few caregivers have found the task to be highly rewarding. There is a bond that forms when one person serves another’s needs over an extended period of time that may not be entirely replicable in other contexts.

The following is but one of many, many expressions of that bond:

Love is not about what I am going to get, but what I am going to give. People make a mistake in thinking that you give to those whom you love, the real answer is, you love those to whom you give.

– Abraham Twerski

Lost in a Gallup

From The Wall Street Journal:

Griping about polling goes back a long time, even to the days before George Gallup published the first random-sample opinion poll in October 1935—as many years away from us in 2020 as that first poll was from the Compromise of 1850. And truth to tell, it doesn’t seem intuitively obvious that the responses of a randomly chosen group of 800 people should come reasonably close, in 19 cases out of 20, to those you’d get if you could interview everyone in a nation of 209 million adults. Even sharp math students don’t always know much about statistics and probability. So the griping goes on.

Some of it reflects a misunderstanding of what polling is. It’s not prediction: Polls are a snapshot taken at a point in time, not a movie preview of what you’ll see later. That fundamental point is often lost or at least misplaced by W.Joseph Campbell in “Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections,” an otherwise fast-moving narrative history of some attempts to gauge public opinion amid electoral politics. “Election polls are not always accurate prophecies,” Mr. Campbell writes early on. He notes that “polling failures tend to produce broadly similar effects—surprise, anger, bewilderment and frustration at their failing to provide the American public with accurate clues about the most consequential of all U.S. elections.” Surprise, anger, bewilderment, frustration: This sounds like the response to the result of the 2016 election in the city where Mr. Campbell teaches, Washington (which voted 91% for Hillary Clinton and 4% for Donald Trump).

But Mr. Campbell’s gaze goes far beyond the Beltway and back further in history than the astonishing election night four years ago. He is well aware that the national polls in 2016 were close to the results; the pre-election Real Clear Politics average showed Hillary Clinton ahead by 3.3%, close to her 2.1% plurality in the popular vote. Polls in some states were further off. Still, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight gave Donald Trump a 29% chance of winning, and 29% chances happen about one-third of the time. Mr. Campbell quotes RCP’s Sean Trende saying, rightly, that 2016 “wasn’t a failure of the polls. . . . It was a failure of punditry.”

The subject of “Lost in a Gallup” is not so much election polling as its effects on political journalism. Mr. Campbell, a prolific author and a communications professor at American University, admits up front that he is not concerned with “jargon and the opaque methodological arcana that pollsters and polling experts are keen to invoke.” The book is a history of mistakes and overcompensating for mistakes. Polling pioneers Gallup, Elmo Roper and Alexander Crossley, after bragging how closely the past three elections matched their poll numbers, all showed Thomas Dewey leading Harry Truman in 1948. Having got that wrong, they fudged their results to project a close race in 1952. Wrong again!

. . . .

Mr. Campbell devotes much attention, justifiably, to the 1980 election. For months, polls showed a close race between incumbent Jimmy Carter and elderly (age 69) challenger Ronald Reagan. But when the exit polls—invented by polling innovator Warren Mitofsky, also the inventor of random digit-dialing phone interviewing—showed Reagan well ahead, NBC projected his victory, to almost everyone’s astonishment.

But were the polls actually wrong? The author quotes the Carter and Reagan pollsters, Patrick Caddell and Richard Wirthlin, saying that opinion shifted strongly to Reagan after the candidates’ single debate seven days before the election and after Mr. Carter’s return to Washington the next weekend to tend to the Iran hostage crisis. Both pollsters told me the same thing back in the 1980s. Their story makes sense. Reagan’s “are you better off than you were four years ago?” debate line (stolen, though no one then realized it, from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1934 pre-election fireside chat) worked in his favor, and Mr. Carter’s job rating, buoyed upward all year by his efforts to free the hostages, was liable to collapse when he failed.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

The Discovery of a Rare Pink Diamond

From CrimeReads:

A pink diamond is a key into the human heart, where it unlocks the store of delight, love, treachery, and greed that distinguishes us from other animals. I’m a sucker for a pink.

When I lived in London I would go blocks out of my way to check out Laurence Graff’s window in New Bond Street. There they’d be, at least one or two tiny pink stones twinkling away behind the thick glass with stupefying price tags. They looked so delicate—as if someone had leaned in and puffed a mist of pale-pink air into the heart of the jewel. But they’re not delicate. They’re stone-cold crazy. When I decided to switch from reportage to fiction, of course that’s where I’d start.

I knew a pair of South Africans who ran a barge on the Chicapa River in northeastern Angola during the civil war. They suctioned up the diamond-rich gravels by day and traded rocket fire with rebel guerrillas by night. One day in 1995 they hoovered up a 24-carat pink. They chartered a Learjet and took it straight to Johannesburg and sold it on the Bourse for $4.8 million. The buyer flipped it in New York for $10 million and the stone got polished into matching pears that were promptly sold, according to the street, to the Sultan of Brunei’s bother. He paid $20 million. If he’s ever short of cash, he’s in luck. He could flog them now for a quarter of a million dollars a carat. Better than owning shares in Google!

And for what? Nobody’s even sure what makes them pink. The color doesn’t come from the presence of trace minerals, like the boron that turns a diamond blue. Instead, some deformation of the crystal lattice happens while the stone is riding up from the depths in the kind of volcano called a diamond pipe. That imperfection can make a diamond pink. But, boy—not often.

So rare are pinks that the discovery of a big one galvanizes the whole diamond world, and when an 81-carater plonked onto the sorting screen of a barge on one of Brazil’s great diamond rivers—people, I booked my ticket.

I flew overnight to São Paulo and caught the connector to Belo Horizonte. In Belo, an Australian mining engineer named Steve Fabian picked me up. Steve ran a small mining company called Black Swan that had some diamond properties. Black Swan had bought a piece of the pink, and Steve had convinced his partners to let me see it.

We drove out into the beautiful countryside of Minas Gerais. Brazil was once the world’s leading diamond producer. Although its glory days are past, diamond people still love the place. Who wouldn’t? Brazil’s diamond rivers have coughed up eye-popping jewels. Just take the Rio Abate, where the pink I was going to see had been found. Pinks weighing 275 carats and 120 carats have come out of its muddy waters.

When Steve and I got to Patos de Minas, he called his partners, the Campos brothers, to tell them we’d arrived. They gave him a street corner where we were to wait. “They’re going to check you out,” Steve said. We stood outside the car and waited. It was the youngest brother, Geraldo, who finally arrived.

He was a fit, athletic-looking man in his early thirties. He wore the soccer jersey of the local team, faded jeans and immaculate Adidas running shoes. We chatted for a minute, he decided I wasn’t a bandit, and we drove to a three-story apartment building and climbed to the top floor, where Gisnei, the middle brother waited. Gisnei sat down beside me, peered meaningfully at my open notebook, and told me how it was going to be.

“Put down that Gilmar saw it first,” Gisnei told me, identifying the oldest brother. “Put down that Gilmar got to the Abaete first, and was the first to see the stone.”

In fact Geraldo got there first. He got out of his car and the men handed him the stone. He took out his loupe and studied it, then looked away to clear his head, took a deep breath and looked again. “I felt great emotion,” he said, “my feelings were very great.” When Gilmar, the senior brother, arrived, Geraldo handed him the stone. Gilmar, a hard man in his forties, took one look and began to cry. When the pink arrived at the apartment that day in Patos, I could understand why.

It was a knockout—strong color and cuttable shape. It had the frosted skin that river stones get from being rolled around in the rocks for a million years. But there was a great view into the interior. The brothers had polished off an unsightly protuberance on the edge, making a clean window into the stone.

. . . .

Diamond lore is full of stories of a cutter making his way through a pink when, suddenly, as if the diamond thought it had endured enough, the color faded from strong to faint, draining tens of thousands of dollars a carat from the stone before the cutter’s eyes. Steve arranged for a London expert to rate the cutting options. He thought it would remain a strong ink, and said their bottom price should be $130,000 a carat.

Sadly for me, the stone disappeared, a common fate for a multimillion-dollar liquid asset that doesn’t leave a banking trail. No one would tell me who had bought it or how much they’d paid. I dogged the rumor trail to a Hong Kong construction company, but after a few emails they slammed the door and I never heard another word until last year, when a thirty-carat intense pink polished diamond showed up in Los Angeles at a gem show at the natural history museum.

The curator of gems there wrote to ask if I thought the pink in his exhibition might have come from the Brazilian pink. The lender, he said, was uncertain of its provenance.

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

Branding 101

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Does the idea of “branding” yourself or your work make you cringe? (I’m an artist, dammit—not a corporate sleaze bag!) Are you confused by what “branding” for novelists, essayists, poets, or even general non-fiction writers even means? Or, conversely, are you sold on the necessity of branding your writing and excited about the opportunity, but completely intimidated by how exactly to go about it? 

I confess I was solidly in the cringe camp for much of my early writing life when discussing authors as brands. But that’s because I was (as my above “corporate sleaze bag” comment might have hinted!) operating under misconceptions about what branding is (and possibly being unkind to sleaze bags too . . . but I digress).

. . . .

In a nutshell, [James Patterson] says to think of “brand” as a relationship you have with your readers. What can readers turn to your books for—and never be disappointed? What can they depend on you for that you will always deliver?

I also really benefited from Mike Loomis’ take that “personal branding does not mean a fake façade.” Rather it’s “the public expression of your calling.”

Thinking of brand that way—as a promise and a commitment rather than a hard sell—eased my concerns about seeming overly “salesy” or gimmicky.

. . . .

Why YOU (and every author) needs a brand

First and foremost, having a clear brand finds you readers—who then, hopefully, become loyal, voracious fans.

Regardless of genre or form, Trad published or Indie, the biggest struggle authors face is getting noticed and not having their book(s) fall into obscurity.

Knowing precisely what your brand is (what you offer readers!) gives you an action plan to attract readers, gain visibility, and stand out in a very crowded marketplace.

A strong, clear, consistent brand is:

  • a magnet to new readers (Ooooh, this looks and sounds like my kind of book!)
  • a reassurance to return readers (I really liked his last book—and this one is awesome too!)
  • a comfort to true fans (Insert YOUR name never disappoints!) that keeps them coming back to you book after book

Two side benefits of knowing your brand:

1. It makes almost all aspects of marketing and promotion easier.

. . . .

2. It is a map for deciding future projects. 

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Regarding James Patterson, PG will note that the first 25 years of his career was spent working at a very large New York advertising agency. One of the things ad agencies do for their clients is to help the client to create a high-quality and memorable brand.

A good brand is worth a lot of money, whether it’s Coca-Cola (what’s the price difference at your local grocery store between a 2 liter bottle of Coca-Cola and a 2 liter bottle of generic cola that may taste pretty much the same?) or James Patterson or JK Rowling?

How much did JK make on her first book during the first six months after its release? How much does she make now when she releases a new book of almost any sort? What about the difference in the advance she received then and receives now?

You’ll also note that Ms. Rowling is very picky about what products are associated with Harry Potter and friends. Has anyone seen a Harry Potter drag strip? A line of heavy construction equipment named after Harry?

One way to receive a strong letter from a large law firm is to use Apple’s or Coca-Cola’s brand without permission.

Should you ignore the letter and go ahead regardless, you’ll want to have a very good group of attorneys lined up ahead of time. They won’t work for free. A great many top-quality attorneys will turn you down flat absent a huge retainer fee paid upfront because they know how hard Apple or Coca-Cola will work to not only slap you down, but to make an example of you that will intimidate anyone who thinks about following in your footsteps.

On a regular basis Forbes magazine publishes a detailed evaluation of The World’s Most Valuable Brands. The article includes a description of the methodology they use to separate brand value from the overall value of the corporation that owns the brand. It’s definitely a quantitative process.

Here are the top ten on Forbes’ latest list:

RankBrandBrand Value1-Yr Value ChangeBrand RevenueIndustry
1Apple$241.2 B17%$260.2 BTechnology
2Google$207.5 B24%$145.6 BTechnology
3Microsoft$162.9 B30%$125.8 BTechnology
4Amazon$135.4 B40%$260.5 BTechnology
5Facebook$70.3 B-21%$49.7 BTechnology
6Coca-Cola$64.4 B9%$25.2 BBeverages
7Disney$61.3 B18%$38.7 BLeisure
8Samsung$50.4 B-5%$209.5 BTechnology
9Louis Vuitton$47.2 B20%$15 BLuxury
10McDonald’s$46.1 B5%$100.2 BRestaurants

How to Dress for the Apocalypse

From The Wall Street Journal:

Most apocalyptic movies play out like this: First humanity falls, then the sweaters get torn. OK, maybe it’s not quite that simple. But in nearly every catastrophic film of the past few decades—from 1997’s corny clunker “The Postman” to 1999’s hallowed chronicle “The Matrix,” to the sorta-schmaltzy, sorta-stirring “Hunger Games” trilogy (2012-2015)—hole-ridden, wholly beaten-up sweaters have served as the foundation for the character’s costumes.

“It almost makes you laugh,” said Nancy Deihl, director of the Costume Studies program at New York University’s Steinhardt School, of the tattered-knit trope. Though the pandemic has delayed many movies’ release dates, distressed clothes continue to punctuate the apocalyptic epics that have reached cinemas or are on deck. In the South Korean zombie-apocalypse film “Peninsula,” which came out in America this August, the characters battle the undead in threadbare sweaters, coats and shirts. In the trailer for “A Quiet Place Part II,” which is now slated to hit theaters next April, the knits remain intact (if in need of a good wash) but the T-shirt Cillian Murphy’s character wears is sufficiently sliced.

. . . .

The urge to shred has even begun to bleed over into the costume design for movies and TV shows that only glancingly concern the end-of-days. If you see a distressed sweater in any drama, it unmistakably signals misfortune. In the recently released HBO miniseries “The Third Day,” the drab, downtrodden sweater that Sam (Jude Law) wears as he explores an eerie British island is a dead giveaway that his journey will end tragically.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG notes that there are a great many images that may provide some fashion clues about how one should dress for The Apocolypse (or maybe, An Apocolypse if it’s worthy of a TV seriesss).

“Death on the Pale Horse,” painted by the American artist Benjamin West in 1796
Karl Briullov: The Last Day of Pompeii, 1830-1833
John Martin: The Fall of Babylon, a mezzotint with etching, 1831
Allegory of the Apocalypse is a painting by Joseph Heintz the Younger c.1600-1678
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Arturo Souto, 1937 via Wikimedia Commons,  
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

If you’ve made it this far, PG suggests a couple of contemporary fashion accessories for the, an, the 2020, etc., Apocalypse.

Choose whichever suits your whims.

There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife

There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know. I wish someone could tell me.
— Raymond Carver