An American Editor

May 27, 2010

Moral Dilemmas and Thoughts About Them

Filed under: Politics — Rich Adin @ 7:52 am
Tags: , , ,

Once again I am sidestepping the core issues of this blog and moving outside the realm of publishing. This has occurred because we had to euthanize our Cocker Spaniel two days ago and that has caused me to think, yet again, about some of the moral conundrums we face in our lives.

Our children are all adults now, living their own lives with their own cares and worries. Consequently, the animals in our household (until 2 days ago, 2 Cocker Spaniels and 1 mixed breed cat) became our children. (Have you ever noticed how often you talk directly to your pet as if the pet could speak back?) The emotional ties are certainly no weaker than those to our children, especially when there has been a long-term relationship with the pet.

Jasmin, our now deceased 15-year-old Cocker, had been our joy and worry for all but the first few months of her life. She had a rough start, abused by her breeder, but she was a wonderful dog who grew comfortable with her life with us. Then she became ill and the decline that comes with old age began to set in until the past few months when the decline became so rapid that she no longer was the same dog we had known. She was still wonderful, just different as she tried to cope with her ailments.

As I related in a previous post, Jasmin’s condition became progressively worse and culminated in a seizure that appeared to us to be very painful for her. Now we had to face a decision that we had waffled around for months: Should we let her continue and die a natural death or should we have her euthanized?

This dilemma is not confined to our pets. It is a dilemma that we humans also need to face when we make end-of-life decisions for loved ones. Granted, not authorizing tube feeding is not the same as euthanasia, but the desired end result is the same. We humans have an infinite capacity, it seems, for denying to ourselves the options we would have for our “lessers” in nature’s hierarchy. We have decided that there is a one-size-fits-all morality that we need to impose to assuage our consciences.

We see this sense of moral superiority in many different battles. We saw it in the mischaracterization of the universal healthcare plan as including “death panels”; we see it in the debate over abortion; we see it in the debate over physician-assisted suicide. I do not mean to suggest that there is a single clear answer and that one side of the moral debate is clearly right and the other clearly wrong. Rather, I mean to suggest that neither side is right nor wrong, that on a universal level these questions can have no resolution because they all come from a position of belief and the one thing that is absolutely certain is that there are numerous beliefs to which we individually adhere, that we take as a matter of faith, none of which are universally accepted.

In Jasmin’s case, I began with the question: “Am I doing this for me or for her?” For me, I did not want to let her go. One more hour, one more day, one more week I wanted. But she was suffering. She was confused (she would walk into a corner and not know how to extricate herself); she wasn’t eating (she had lost one-third of her body weight in a few weeks and had lost 2.5 lbs in the previous 4 days); she wasn’t drinking water (she was dehydrated and had to be given saline intravenously twice a day); she couldn’t stand or walk (we had to hold her up for her to be able to urinate or defecate); she had kidney failure that was progressing at a rate that would have caused her to die in the not too distant future (whether 1 day or 1 week or 1 month, no one knew for certain) — Jasmin was dying and there was no preventing it. So for whom would I keep her alive?

Is this not the same question we need to ask ourselves when we make life-giving and life-ending decisions for ourselves and our family members? Yet, we lack the ability to make those decisions for ourselves. Our societal moral structure is set to stop us from considering any alternative other than extending our life — regardless of cost, consequences, or suffering. In the case of abortion, some members of society demand that it be wholly banned regardless of the consequences to either the child or the mother. But what adds to the tragedy of removing decision-making power is that once the child is born, we tend to abandon it, our role seems to simply be to bring the child into being; after that, we often walk away.

We deal similarly with end-of-life decision making. Our societal moral structure is set to stop us from considering early termination of life regardless of the means. We do not permit consideration of the costs — financial, emotional, and of the dying person’s suffering — to enter the equation except to say that we (broadly the taxpayers) should not have to bear the costs, only the dying person and that person’s family should bear it.

We have chosen to “do it for us”, to do it for our moral conscience even though we are at a distance from the situation; we choose not to “do it for them” because they can’t possibly disagree with our benevolence.

There is no easy solution to moral dilemmas — never has been, never will be. There always have been moral absolutists and always will be. There always has been a belief that “I” know better than “you” and there always will be. But what we really need is a way to say “what is good for you is not good for me and we need to accommodate both goods.” The likelihood of that occurring is slim because the arguments are invariably driven by the absolutists, the rigidists, the always right.

It strikes me as a shameful commentary on our society that we show more compassion for the suffering of animals than for our fellow humans, that we are willing to allow the question “Am I doing this for me or for her?” to be asked and answered fully only when we are not asking it in regards to our fellow humans, that we do not extend the same ability to decide to ourselves.

For Jasmin, may she forever rest in peace.

May 25, 2010

A Musical Interlude (III)

Filed under: A Musical Interlude — Rich Adin @ 7:08 am

Once again it is time for a musical break. This time it is necessitated by my need to announce that I probably won’t be posting again until next week. We are in the midst of a family crisis (our 15-year-old cocker spaniel is in rapid decline; it had a seizure at 3:30 a.m. this morning and we’ve only just returned from a visit to the emergency vet), I need to finish editing my daughter’s paper that she is presenting at Oxford University in July as part of an international conference, I’ve got editing deadlines fast approaching, and the list goes on.

Sometimes it is interesting to see how the same song is done by different groups and that is how we start today. First up is the Ten Tenors’ version of Bohemian Rhapsody:

followed by the Elton John-Guns ‘n Roses version:

Switching away from the “hard” stuff, our next interlude is an ode to joy (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 final movement performed by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic; because of length, it is in 2 parts):

And on a lighter note, The Flute Thing by the Blues Project. There isn’t any “video”, just a picture of the album cover, but this is one of the classiest “songs” to have come out of the 1960s by a group of some of the best rock musicians of the time.

Finally, this takes me back to my undergraduate days when I worked as a DJ on the local radio station. The Blues Project’s Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire was my theme song. Again there’s no video, but the music raises great memories for me.

I’ll be back to writing as quickly as I can.

May 24, 2010

Viewing the Future of Publishing

Sometimes all the discussion that can be had about publishing’s future can be boiled down to a few minutes of video.

Although humorous, the video does illustrate the confused state of publishing. No one knows how to accommodate all  the different needs that each of the characters in the video represent.

What is clear, however, is that none of the pundits, none of the publishers, none of the technologists — no one — has a clear vision of tomorrow’s publishing landscape. Some commentators predict that ebooks will soon be 25% of all publishing; others predict it will soon be 50%. But those predictions are really unhelpful without a plan for maintaining publishing standards while moving to a more standardless medium.

Everyone says that publishers need to adapt and change. Easy enough to proclaim, but without firmer guidance as to what adaptation is needed, what changes to the industry must be accomplished, and how all the various competing interests  can be reconciled, the pronouncement is like spitting into the wind.

Before the ease of computer-to-Internet ebook publishing, the book market was inundated with new books, many of which could be classified as a waste of time, effort, money, and paper primarily because finding a particular book (without guidance to the book) was like finding a needle in a haystack of needles. Too many books were being published for any person to rummage through. Now the problem is compounded as the number of books brought to market has quadrupled with ebooks and the direct-from-computer-to-Internet model — and it will continue to grow, because with ebooks, there is no need for any book to go “out of print.” Now it is like looking for a sliver of a needle in a haystack of needles.

The one thing no one wants to hear is that the more books that are available, the fewer will be read and the less valuable books become. In the marketplace, it is scarcity that causes prices to rise, not abundance. It is true that marketplace forces have had little effect in list pricing of books before the Age of eBooks, but there was definitely an effect on actual selling pricing — at least until agency pricing. And it has been true that certain authors could lead a price increase that “trickled down” to books of all authors, but this required that the certain authors were authors of such repute that they were instant million sellers.

Alas, this is all changing under the new regime. As difficult as it was to find financial gems among 250,000 books published traditionally in 2009, imagine how much more difficult it will be to find those gems among 1 million plus books, especially as that 1 million grows to 2 million and more in the Age of eBooks.

With such increases in numbers of books available, the only way to get one’s needle to be seen in the haystack of needles will be price. Consequently, ebooks will lead the spiral of pricing downward. As that happens and as there is less money to divide among multiple parties, there will be lots of negative effects on the publishing industry:

  • a publisher who can only sell an ebook for $2.99 (or less) will be unwilling — if not unable — to spend money on production and marketing, thereby gradually eliminating the publisher’s role altogether, which will make a chaotic market even more chaotic
  • an author who has to sell his or her work for $2.99 (or less) has to rethink the whole artistic endeavor and has to consider 100% self-publishing as the only viable way to earn a return
  • such pricing and self-publishing will also put downward pressure on production quality, even more corners will be cut by necessity than are currently cut, leading to a downward trend in quality
  • readers will continue to exert a downward pressure on pricing because readers are, for the most part, author agnostic; that is, they are less interested in who the author is than in a story they enjoy, the consequence being that they will look for lower-priced ebooks to try
  • third-party book producers — the editors, the marketers, the printers, the designers, etc. — will struggle to keep afloat in a world that wants to pay less for fewer of their services, adding to the overall decline in quality

The future of publishing — once we get past the notion of quantity and instead focus on the notion of quality — as a structured enterprise appears bleak in the eBook Age. I, for one, have difficulty imagining a survivable structure focused on quality in the absence of an easing of pressure on pricing. Consequently, I am like the other pundits — I know that there has to be adaptation and change, but I can offer no guidance on how to accomplish either, not even for my role in the production process. Will historians of the future look at the 20th century as the epitome of publishing?

May 21, 2010

May 20, 2010

Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance

Editors rely on lots of “professional” resources to guide their editorial decisions when working on a manuscript. In addition to dictionaries and word books, we rely on language usage guides and style manuals, among other tools. [To learn more about the professional editor’s (and my) bookshelf, see The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf.]

But it isn’t unusual for an author (or publisher) to have a different view of what is appropriate and desirable than the “professional” resources. And many editors will fight tooth and nail to make the client conform to the rules laid down in a style manual. As between language usage guides like Garner’s Modern American Usage and style manuals like The Chicago Manual of Style, I believe that editors should adhere to the rules of the former but take the rules of the latter with a lot of salt.

The distinction between the two types of manuals is important. A language manual is a guide to the proper use of language such as word choice; for example, when comprise is appropriate and when compose is appropriate. A style manual, although it will discuss in passing similar issues, is really more focused on structural issues such as capitalization: Should it be president of the United States or President of the United States? Here’s the question: How much does it matter whether it is president or President?

When an author insists that a particular structural form be followed that I think is wrong, I will tell the author why I believe the author is wrong and I will cite, where appropriate, the professional sources. But, and I think this is something professional editors lose sight of, those professional sources — such as The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association — are merely books of opinion. Granted we give them great weight, but they are just opinion. And it has never been particularly clear to me why the consensus opinion of the “panel of experts” of CMOS is any better than my client’s opinion. After all, isn’t the key clarity and consistency not conformity to some arbitrary consensus.

If these style manuals were the authoritative source, there would only be one of them to which we would all adhere; the fact that there is disagreement among them indicates that we are dealing with opinion to which we give credence and different amounts of weight. (I should mention that if an author is looking to be published by a particular publisher whose style is to follow the rules in one of the standard style manuals, then it is incumbent on the editor to advise the author of the necessity of adhering to those rules and even insisting that the author do so. But where the author is self-publishing or the author’s target press doesn’t adhere to a standard, then the world is more open.)

It seems to me that if there is such a divergence of opinion as to warrant the publication of so many different style manuals, then adding another opinion to the mix and giving that opinion greater credence is acceptable. I am not convinced that my opinion, or the opinion of CMOS, is so much better than that of the author that the author’s opinion should be resisted until the author concedes defeat. In the end, I think but one criterion is the standard to be applied: Will the reader be able to follow and understand what the author is trying to convey? (However, I would also say that there is one other immutable rule: that the author be consistent.) If the answer is yes, then even if what the author wants assaults my sense of good taste or violates the traditional style manual canon, the author wins — and should win.

The battles that are not concedeable by an editor are those that make the author’s work difficult to understand and those of incorrect word choice (e.g., using comprise when compose is the correct word).

A professional editor is hired to give advice. Whether to accept or reject that advice is up to the person doing the hiring. Although we like to think we are the gods of grammar, syntax, spelling, and style, the truth is we are simply more knowledgeable (usually) than those who hire us — we are qualified to give an opinion, perhaps even a forceful or “expert” opinion, but still just an opinion. We are advisors giving advice based on experience and knowledge, but we are not the final decision makers — and this is a lesson that many of us forget. We may be frustrated because we really do know better, but we must not forget that our “bibles” are just collections of consensus-made opinion, not rules cast in stone.

If they were rules cast in stone, there would be no changes, only additions, to the rules, and new editions of the guides would appear with much less frequency than they currently do. More importantly, there would be only one style manual to which all editors would adhere — after all, whether it is president or President isn’t truly dependent on whether the manuscript is for a medical journal, a psychology journal, a chemistry journal, a sociology journal, or a history journal.

Style manuals serve a purpose, giving us a base from which to proceed and some support for our decisions, but we should not put them on the pedestal of inerrancy, just on a higher rung of credibility.

May 19, 2010

On Words: Politics, Political, and Their Progeny

Okay, I know this is dangerous territory, but I heard a speech by Robert Reich recently in which he amused his audience by defining the origins of politics. Professor Reich noted that poli is from the Greek polis and polites, or city and citizen, respectively, and that tics are blood-sucking insects. Although I found his definition amusing, and perhaps a bit accurate in our current state of political partisanship, I began to think about politics, political, and their various progeny. So here goes a look at the words and a political rant.

One source says politic is a late Middle English word derived from the Old French politique, via Latin from the Greek politikos. A different source traces its roots to a borrowing in 1427 from the Middle French politique. In the end, the birth is the same — from the Latin politicus and the Greek politikos.

But deviant forms also appeared. Politician appears to have been coined in 1588 and meant a shrewd person (and today we might mean a shrew person). One year later the meaning had morphed to a person skilled in politics. And today, when we say someone is a political animal, we can thank Aristotle and a translation from the Greek of his words politikon zoon, whose literal meaning was “an animal intended to live in a city.” Interestingly, polecat, a possible term of endearment for a politician, doesn’t have the same roots as politics.

Politics as the science and art of government dates from the 16th century. Political science first appeared in 1779 in the writings of David Hume. Political appeared in 1551 and was the English formation, believed to have its roots, again, in the Latin politicus with the addition of the English al. Politics is one of those few words that is both singular and plural, depending on context and usage.

In American English, politician originally was a noun that referred to the white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus). In Wilson’s American Ornithology (v. II, p. 166) published 1804, the vireo was described as: “This bird builds a very neat little nest…of…bits of rotten wood,…pieces of paper, commonly newspapers,…so that some of my friends have given it the name of the Politician.” Could this have been the first linking of rotten and politician? (Okay, perhaps a bit harsh.) In 1844, Natural History repeated Wilson’s association. And it was repeated again in 1917 in Birds of America.

In 1914 the Cyclopedia of American Government defined political bargain as “an agreement, usually corrupt, between contending political factions or individuals….” Seems like nothing has changed in 100 years.

Today, politician and political are simply synonyms for stalemate, for corruption, and for abuse. Alright, that’s cynical, but I’m tired of politics and politicians as usual because that is what it generally amounts to — the grinding to a halt of the country’s business to satisfy the egos of those who wield the political power and those who can buy it — especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court has given license to unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns. I can see it now: Goldman Sachs will spend $500 million — probably 1 day’s profits — to buy the next Congress, against which my paltry $500 contribution will be like a single grain of sand thrown at the Rock of Gibraltar as my attempt to influence the crumbling of the Rock.

America is quickly becoming the land of the extremes, a place where centrists, which is what most of us are, wield little to no influence, and a land where doublespeak is the language of the day. (I’m still waiting for my Tea Party neighbors who rail against socialized medicine to give up their Medicare [can I suggest a Burn Your Medicare Card rally?]. The day I see that happen will be the first day I really believe that the Tea Party is a semi-honest political movement. Until then it looks like a “me first and only” movement.)

Group greed is what seems to move America today. In my local school budget vote, my city’s school budget was soundly defeated by a 3:1 margin. I admit that for the first time in my life I voted against a school budget — and that’s a lot of votes cast over many years. The final straw was when the teachers refused to make any sacrifice whatsoever, claiming that they needed their raises and continued free benefits because their living costs have been rising. Are they so naive as to think no one else’s living costs have also been rising, that they are unique?

I know that in reality nothing has changed. Today’s group greed is the same as yesterday’s, only the groups have changed. But somewhere someone besides me must recognize the lack of equilibrium between lower taxes and maintaining or increasing government services. Something has to give. It’s like the demand for electricity to power our summer air conditioners — we want more without brownouts but we don’t want to build the infrastructure to provide more; we want less reliance on foreign oil but we want ever larger and powerful automobiles; we want our children to breathe clean air but we oppose cap-and-trade legislation.

Makes me wonder who the children really are!

May 18, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf (III)

As always, I keep expanding my to-be-read pile. Since my last report, I have added several books, including these hardcover books:

  • The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch
  • Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaind MacCulloch
  • The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought by Eric Nelson
  • Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam by Fred M. Donner
  • Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court by Jeff Shesol
  • Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius
  • Secret of the Dragon (Dragonships of Vindras Series) by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
  • The Shadow of Saganami (Disciples of Honor Series #2) by David Weber
  • A Mighty Fortress (Safehold Series #4) by David Weber

David Weber is one of my favorite scifi/fantasy authors and so when I get a new book from him, I drop all else to read. Weber continues to entertain me and I enjoyed both of the books in the above list.

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman used to be favorite authors in that same genre, but their last two books have ended that relationship, particularly the one listed above — that one, I couldn’t even finish, I found it dull and boring.

The remaining 6 books are nonfiction (you probably guessed that from the titles) and just recently arrived. I haven’t broken any of them open yet, as I’m still reading through earlier purchases (hardcover novels tend to get read immediately because they are quick reads for me; nonfiction takes longer, especially if the author has a lot of footnotes, as I often get sidetracked checking out books cited to see if I want to purchase them for my library).

I recently finished reading For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus by Frederick Brown (see On Today’s Bookshelf (II)). I have a particular interest in the Dreyfus Affair. I admit, however, that For the Soul of France was not a particularly engaging book — I struggled to get through it. Another book that was on my first bookshelf that I struggled to read is Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp by Christopher R. Browning. The writing style simply didn’t resonate with me. I should have known that I would find the book difficult because I also had difficulty getting through his book The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942. It isn’t that the books are poorly researched — they’re not; they are well researched. It is simply the style of writing that I found difficult.

I am currently reading A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War by Daniel E. Sutherland, which is a well-written and interesting book from my first On Today’s Bookshelf list. I plan on reviewing the book in the future, but for anyone interested in the Civil War, here’s an advance thumbs up recommendation.

But, as I’m sure you may know, I also read a lot of ebooks. Up to this point, all of the books I have cited in the On Today’s Bookshelf articles have been hardcover pbooks I have added to my collection. Beginning with today’s article, I will also mention some of the ebooks I have purchased.

eBooks for me are a different being altogether. Rarely will I buy a nonfiction ebook. The few I have bought have been problematic, including foot-/endnote links that don’t work, not-well-reproduced illustrations and figures, and the like. Consequently, nearly all of my ebook purchases are fiction. Unfortunately for you, my taste in fiction runs in cycles (cycles that last many years) and the current cycle is science fiction/fantasy. Someday it will switch to mystery or action or some other genre (alas, never romance or vampires for those who like those genres).

In addition, because the traditional publishers tend to cripple their ebooks by overpricing them, I often buy from unknown authors, many of whom have provided me with hours of enjoyment, others of whom either bored me or annoyed me with poor everything (spelling, grammar, character development, plot, etc.).

Rather than give you a list of what I’m waiting to read, I’ll give you a list of a few titles or series that I have already read and that I enjoyed. None of these are great literature — all are good reads and inexpensive. All are available without DRM and in multiple formats from either Fictionwise or Smashwords.

  • The Chronicles of the Necromancer (a 4-book series) by Gail Z. Martin
  • The Asphodel Cycle (a 4-book series) by Celina Summers
  • Lord of Wind and Fire (a 3-book series) by Elaine Corvidae
  • To Find a Wonder by Jennifer Carson
  • The Lords of Dus (a 4-book series) by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • The Demonstone Chronicles (a 7-book series) by Richard S. Tuttle
  • The Sword of Heavens (a 7-book series) by Richard S. Tuttle
  • Forgotten Legacy (an 8-book series) by Richard S. Tuttle
  • The Targa Trilogy (a 3-book series) by Richard S. Tuttle
  • Promises to Keep (trilogy plus sequel) by Shayne Parkinson

The last listed series by Shayne Parkinson is neither scifi nor fantasy — it is the story of a New Zealand family in the 1880-1910 era. It will be the subject of a separate review. It is not normally a genre I would read, but this is one of the best written series of books in fiction I have read in several years. I highly recommend it. It is available at Smashwords and is comprised of these 4 books: Sentence of Marriage, Mud and Gold, Settling the Account, and A Second Chance.

With summer coming, reading time may become more precious, but there is nothing like a good book to stimulate the mind.

May 17, 2010

On Books: The Most Important Novel in Your Life

As I was reading yet another book — seems as if that is all I ever do — a stray thought occurred to me: What was the most important novel I had ever read? By important, I mean that changed my perspective and influenced future decisions I made.

I started thinking about the thousands of books I have read; some I misremembered as fiction when they were really nonfiction. Who knows how many I have completely forgotten, which, I suppose, means they weren’t all that important to me. And my list began to grow.

First, there were all the Tom Swift (made me think I wanted to be an scientist) and the Hardy Boys (nothing cooler than being a detective, or so a 10-year-old once thought) books. Then came the standard books that most of us read or tried to read, such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and hundreds more. It rapidly became a mountain of a task, when I originally thought it would be just a molehill. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I realized that I had at least limited the question to novels. I’d be in great distress if I had included nonfiction, although perhaps I’ll ask that question in the not-so-distant future.

Well, it was quite a struggle. I had to pass through many doors, and even had to double-check a couple; for example, I remembered Black Like Me by John Griffin as a novel when it is a true story. I shut the door on 1984, Animal Farm, Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Portnoy’s Complaint, and myriad other novels. I eventually narrowed it down to 4:

  • Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
  • Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer

Now I was stymied. I just couldn’t decide (and really can’t decide) which among the 4 was the most important or influential. Each influenced me in a different era of my life, and each had major consequences for me.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s story of a future America when books were burned and critical thinking was discouraged, made me question my schooling. I began challenging teachers; I was taught in an era when memorization was key, not critical thinking. There were a few teachers — the good teachers whom I still remember 50+ years later — who encouraged critical thinking, encouraged discussion, encouraged debate, but who, alas, were so few and far between and often forced to leave the school system, as to turn me away from becoming an educator. I simply could not picture myself being a typical, uncritical, nonthinking teacher. I also had difficulty with the publish-or-perish aspects of education that predominated in those days.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird made me aware of the racial tensions in my surroundings. I grew up in a small city along the Hudson River in New York. My playmates were of all creeds and color; I had never given a second thought to the issue of race. But after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I began to look around me. I realized that prejudices of all kinds existed even in my little world. I began to see that my friend and coworker, who was black, never was allowed to wait on customers in the store in which we worked. I began to recognize the subtle covert segregation and discrimination — even in school. And so I joined my first protest movements in support of civil rights — and I never looked back. Harper Lee awakened me to the real world of race relations around me.

Outside of the civil rights movement, I wasn’t involved in political matters. Yes, I did protest the Vietnam War, as did many of us in our teens and early twenties in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I wasn’t politically involved. Whether it was Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon who was elected president didn’t really matter to me. Then I came across It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, originally published in 1935.

It Can’t Happen Here is the story of a U.S. senator’s bid to duplicate in America what had happened in Nazi Germany and how he began by creating a private military force that through fear and violence began suppressing voices opposed to his coup. This book started me thinking and suddenly Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were in the headlines, and I realized that it can happen here if we aren’t diligent about keeping our political processes and (especially) our politicians honest. The confluence of reading Lewis’ book and the political events brought about by Nixon’s paranoia made me change from apolitical to political. Whereas before newspapers were mainly for sports and comics, they now became important for keeping me abreast of current affairs. (Perhaps it is worth noting that Lewis’ “hero” is a newspaper reporter.) This is why I worry about what will happen to high-quality news reporting in the Internet Age (see, e.g., Judging Quality in the Internet Age, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, and Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall) and the age of sound-bite reporting that is seen too often on programs like Fox News..

The final book, Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer, changed my career path. The book appeared a year after I had graduated law school. Throughout law school and in the beginning of my career, I had wanted to be a commercial lawyer. I thought I loved the dull, dry world of commerce. But Rumpole opened my eyes to the world of the underprivileged, the downtrodden, the criminal, and I began to take on fewer commercial cases and more “human” cases. I found that the lawyer I wanted to be was the lawyer that Rumpole was. If you have never read the Rumpole books or seen the television series (available on DVD), you should. Rumpole is, at least in my estimation, what every lawyer should be and few are.

Rumpole of the Bailey was a game changer for me; unfortunately, my career as a lawyer was short-lived as personal circumstances lead me to yet a new career and one that I have enjoyed for more than 25 years, that of publishing and editing.

So, although I asked the question and asked for the single most important novel in your life, I couldn’t/can’t answer the question myself. The best I could do is narrow it down to 4. But it does prove, at least to me, one thing: great authors can have a great impact on our lives, whether we consciously know it or not.

What was/is the most important novel(s) in your life?

May 13, 2010

Summertime & The Living Gets Better

Summertime and the great outdoors are calling. So it is time for a seasonal announcement. To set the mood, here is something from the always fantastic Ella Fitzgerald.

For those of you who prefer something a bit more lively, here is the original Summertime Blues, performed by Eddie Cochran, from the beginnings of the rock ‘n roll era, which The Who made into a major hit in the 1960s.

Are you in the groove? 🙂 Here is my announcement.

As you know, I have been publishing this blog 5 days a week since it began last winter. Generally, I have devoted Saturdays to at least drafting the articles for the upcoming week. But the weather is changing and the outdoors and long weekends are calling, which means something has to give. Unfortunately, for those few of you who hang on my every word, what gives will be this blog. I plan to continue publishing but I am likely to miss a day or two or three now and then. So if you don’t find a post, don’t despair — it’s simply the call of the wild that is overwhelming me.

My summer starts tomorrow. There will be no article tomorrow. This weekend is the first of what I hope will be many long ones :).

I hope you will enjoy your summer and take some long weekends for yourself. Maybe at the end of the summer we can regale each other with stories of what we did for fun. Enjoy!

May 12, 2010

Judging Quality in the Internet Age

As a reader of An American Editor, you know that one of my concerns is what will happen if no one is willing to pay for news (see Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall). Compounding my anxiety over this issue is a recent The Economist article, The Rise of Content Farms: Emperors and Beggars, which notes that “[n]ewspaper articles are expensive to produce but usually cost nothing to read online and do not command high advertising rates, since there is almost unlimited inventory.” The article goes on to discuss content farms like Demand Media and Associated Content, which use software to figure out what Internet users are interested in and how much advertising revenue a particular topic can support.

These content providers then send the results to freelance writers who are paid as little as $5 to write an article, which then is published on various websites, including that of USA Today. As The Economist notes, “[t]he problem with content farms is that they swamp the Internet with mediocre material. To earn a decent living, freelancers have to work at a breakneck pace, which has an obvious impact on quality.” One supporter of content farming is Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint.

In his article at paidContent.org, “Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless”, Elowitz identifies 4 criteria of “old media” quality — credential (i.e., reputation of the media), correctness (i.e., fact verification), objectivity (i.e., not pushing a particular agenda), and craftsmanship (i.e., in-depth reporting) — and then relates how they are irrelevant in the Internet Age because:

The audience doesn’t care where the content comes from as long as it meets their needs. Decisions of what content is trustworthy are made by referral endorsements from our friends and colleagues on the social networks, and by the algorithms of search that help weigh authority vs. relevance. In the abundant world of content, consumers know to apply their own sniff tests — and with myriad sources, they develop their own loyalties and reputations. The brand’s stamp isn’t the point anymore — the consumer’s nose is.

He has it right that the audience doesn’t care about the source of the content so long as the content meets the audience’s need, but that is nothing to boast about. That the audience determines whether something is trustworthy is not something to praise but something to worry about, and to worry about greatly.

Essentially, content farmers and supporters leave the question of truth/fact to each reader — either the reader believes or the reader doesn’t. If a favored website repeatedly writes that the Earth is flat and 10 million people visit that website and agree, then, according to Elowitz’s standard, it must be true or that website wouldn’t have 10 million visitors. The reasoning isn’t sound — either the Earth is flat or it is round, regardless of what 10 million persons believe. Fact by definition is not belief, it is actual being or what we used to call truth.

There is a lot of distance between ease of access, which the Internet provides, and truth/fact, which neither the Internet nor mass belief can provide. This is and has been my problem with the current view of some in the Internet Age that news sources that want to go behind paywalls can be ignored because information is so readily available free. There is rarely a discussion of the credibility of the free information or how high factual standards will be maintained in the age of free.

How many Photoshopped images have you seen; if a photograph is so easily faked, why should we assume that a news story isn’t also faked? How many times have you read a press release from a repressive government that complaints of police brutality are untrue, that no one is starving in Darfur, that the Iranian elections weren’t rigged, that North Korea is paradise on Earth? And have we so quickly forgotten the few instances when “old media” found reporters faking news and the outrage it caused because of the “old media’s” credibility? Have we forgotten how quickly sound bites that were factually false (e.g., “death panels”) became believed by millions because of the viral reporting of the “new media”?

Elowitz goes on to say:

Without a staff of old-school journalists, Gawker has managed to rack up over 10 million visitors a month who come because the rumors and snark meet their definition of quality — without any of the institutional qualities of old media.

The flaw is the equating of numbers of readers with quality. The rumor that Ben Elowitz is a robot may make interesting reading but doesn’t equate with quality (or necessarily reality), and because a million people read that rumor doesn’t make the source trustworthy, the rumor true, or do away with the need for “old media” quality.

Somewhere, somehow, we all need a fact baseline against which to judge the quality of website — and government — pronouncements. In past generations, that fact baseline was provided by “old media”; in the Internet Age, if the content farmers are correct, there is no provider of that baseline — there are simply websites that agree with me and websites that disagree with me, no matter how far-fetched or absurd my beliefs are.

Elowitz and the content farmers tackle the problem from the economic perspective — “old media” qualities are bad because they are unprofitable, and therefore irrelevant, in the Internet Age. But that skirts the fundamental question of whether the only thing that matters in any decision-making process is profitability. It also ignores how businesses that are profitable make their daily business decisions; don’t they rely on truths rather than mass opinion? Additionally, if it is OK for the masses to be self-delusional, can we expect anything different from those who govern us?

We went to war in Iraq because “old media” qualities were ignored and the “new media” relevancy prevailed (remember the rumors of weapons of mass destruction?). Instead of applying the “old media” qualities of objectivity and correctness and being sure that the source of the rumor met “old media” credential standards, the “new media” qualities were used. How many more Iraqs must we suffer before we recognize that “old media” standards should be applied to the “new media” as well?

“Old media” standards aren’t irrelevant in the “new media”; rather, they are expensive and difficult to implement and thus the “new media” prefers to take the easy way out. The “new media” also tends to be more concerned with dollars than with accuracy or truth, and happily sacrifices accuracy and truth on the altar of greed — not caring about the subsequent consequences.

The danger of content farmers and of their supporters, like Elowitz, is that they believe there is wisdom in sheer numbers and that everything boils down to a popularity contest. Such thinking and believing doesn’t bode well for the future of civilization. With such reasoning, it won’t be long before we truly do revert back to the standards of the Dark Ages. In this regard, Rupert Murdoch is right and the Elowitzes of the world are wrong.

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