An American Editor

June 11, 2010

A Musical Interlude IV

Filed under: A Musical Interlude — Rich Adin @ 7:05 am

Every summer I long to go back to the 1960s. For me, it was a great ime, a time of maturation, a time when my eyes were truly opened to the world around me. It was a time of hope and of despair.

Sadly, some things don’t change. Although it is unlikely that Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction would be banned again in Boston, the words of the song that rang true in the 1960s still ring true today.

The 1960s were filled with summers of protest and winters of discontent. The hopes of a significant portion of America were reflected in these words: “We shall overcome!” Not just black America but poor America, Americans of all races, creeds, and economic status were stirred by these words.

Against the backdrop of domestic change was the Vietnam War. People didn’t know what to protest against or march in favor of first. Civil rights or peace. The 1960s brought forth to the mainstream (i.e., to popular music, to the top 40) the protest song.

And protests against the draft — I still remember the draft lottery; my number was 78.

It seems that some things haven’t changed and the protest songs of the 1960s are still relevant today.

But the 1960s were so much more than marches, demonstrations, protests, and upheavel. There was love to be found and celebrated and a world to be conquered for those of us who came of age in the 1960s.

Plus it was a time for experimenting and dreaming. 🙂

As well as for doing something unexpectedly different —

I’m ready — to return to the dreams and hopes of the ’60s!

June 10, 2010

There’s No Apple in My Eye!

I am probably an anomaly in the digital age. I do not own any Apple products (except the free version of QuickTime that has been forced on me) and have no plans to acquire any Apple products. I am not particularly impressed by the iPad or the iPod, and see the iPhone as just a money sinkhole.

I used to think how great it would be to be able to build a computer to my own specifications and use the MacOS, but that never occurred because Apple doesn’t permit it. Of course, that was also in the days when I believed the hype about how much better Macs were than PCs.

Something else I never do is buy from Amazon. I occasionally buy from independent sellers who are using the Amazon platform, but not from Amazon itself. A very long time ago I did buy a few things from Amazon, but the last time I did so, was so many years ago, I can’t even remember when it last happened.

As I was drinking my morning tea and reading the newspaper press release about the new iPhone, it occurred to me that the only two consumer companies I intentionally avoid patronizing are Amazon and Apple, which got me thinking about why I avoid them. In the final analysis, it was because each company is the flip-side of the same coin and neither is different from the other — in both instances the company leaders are people who I do not admire and do not trust and both companies want to control too much of me.

In Amazon’s case, I simply do not approve of Bezos’ naked attempts to mold the publishing industry to his view. I think this is ultimately anticonsumer and only good for Bezos. The deception is that Bezos presents himself and his company to the consumer as if they are their champion because they want lower pricing. Unfortunately, lower pricing is not a panacea for all of mankind’s ills — just look at how rock bottom pricing from China has affected us, or how BP’s cost-cutting attempts in the Gulf of Mexico will affect us — and cost us — for decades. Similarly, having been on all sides of the publishing equation except that of author during my quarter century in publishing, I can see how concentration of market power and pricing power in the hands of a single person like Bezos could be devastating to readers — perhaps not today or tomorrow, but not so far down the line. It also irks me that Amazon insists on a closed system for its ebooks, refusing to adopt the ePUB standard and a common DRM scheme. Consequently, I have chosen not to support Bezos’ quest to dominate publishing and do not buy from Amazon.

Apple, however, presents a slightly different problem. In some market segments it is dominant and has set the ground rules, but that really doesn’t bother me because there are any number of powerful competitors to Apple who could bounce Apple from its perch. The problem with Apple is Jobs and his insistence on closed systems and his arbitrariness (for a recent take on the arbitrariness theme, see the Ars Technica column “Apple’s ‘Evil/Genius’ Plan to Punk the Web and Gild the iPad”).

Maybe Adobe’s Flash is problematic; maybe that political video is insulting; maybe that book uses too many 4-letter words. Maybe, maybe, maybe — except in Jobs’ world where it is definitely, absolutely, and without question. I fundamentally object to Jobs telling me what I can and cannot do. Why should every application for the iPad or iPhone require Jobs’ approval? I bought the hardware not a nanny — or did I? (And the SDK kit for application developers is as controlling as Jobs can make it.)

Jobs assumes that the experience that I want to get from an Apple product is the experience that he wants me to get; that I have no idea of what is a good experience or a bad experience. I do not want to encourage the control mania that Jobs seeks to exert; consequently, I do not buy Apple products. If I want to read James Joyce’s Ulysses, I do not want to first check whether it is on Jobs’ approved list — I just want to read it, 4-letter words and all.

I also do not want to encourage Jobs to think that I acquiesce to his power grab over hardware and applications I buy. Today, Jobs permits Barnes & Noble and Amazon to have iPad applications, but will he permit them tomorrow if he discovers that they are making 90% of the ebook sales that are being made to iPad owners? It would be more true to form for him to find some reason why the applications need to be banned or for him to revise the operating system to make the applications incompatible.

I know that Apple devotees believe that when you buy an Apple-built computer or other Apple product you are buying the best; but that isn’t really true. You are buying the best that Apple has and the various components do work well together, but the individual pieces are not necessarily the best available for what I want to do. For example, few video gamers would put an Apple at the top of their wishlist to play games. More importantly, at least for me, is that Jobs has decided this is how the hardware will be configured and who can write applications for his operating system and I will buy it whether it truly meets my needs or not. Jobs wants me to adapt to him, yet one would think that in the consumer age the seller would adapt to the buyer.

In the end, it boils down to arrogance. Both Jobs and Bezos arrogantly believe that they know what is best for me and either I agree or they will take home their ball so no one can play. In Apple’s case, I wonder how many people look beyond the shiny new toy; in Amazon’s case, I wonder how many people look beyond the price; in both cases, I wonder how many people have read George Orwell’s 1984 and recognized that it might apply to something other than nations.

June 9, 2010

Is it Time to Go Beyond Hyphenation?

Today’s paper New York Times had a front page article spotlighting the Republican primary in South Carolina that described Nikki Haley, candidate for governor, as “an Indian-American,” as if this was a reason to vote for or against her. USA Today reported today that Hispanics — both illegal immigrants and legal residents and citizens — are leaving Arizona in anticipation of the new anti-immigration law becoming effective in a few weeks (see Documenting Me).

Hyphenation is a tricky topic because people want a group identity, but unlike anywhere else in the world, Americans are hyphenated. I haven’t yet met a hyphenated British, Jamaican, Algerian, German, Mexican, Brazilian person, only of hyphenated Americans.

We speak of ourselves as Mexican-Americans, Irish-Americans, African-Americans, even though our connection to Mexico, Ireland, or Africa is really tenuous. If someone tells me they are Mexican-American, I wonder whether that means they are immigrants just recently naturalized as American citizens or that they are Americans of Mexican descent (and if the latter, are they Mexican on both sides and for how many generations have they lived in America).

Here’s my question: If they were born in the United States, or were naturalized, aren’t they simply Americans?

Okay, I understand that this is an attempt by some of us to keep a link with a past with which we really have little familiarity or solidarity. And I also understand that it is an attempt by some to have a handy way to categorize others — either favorably or unfavorably. But if my paternal grandfather emigrated from Russia, my paternal grandmother from Poland, my paternal grandfather from Austro-Hungarian Empire, and my maternal grandmother was born in America (but her father emigrated from Germany and her mother from Spain), and both my parents and I were born in the United States, what am I?

What link should I keep? Why choose one link above the others? Does it matter that, for example, the Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer exists? If I emigrate from the United Kingdom, is my hyphen United Kingdom, British, English, Scotch, Welch, Anglo, Saxon, Celtic, Irish, Jute, French (remember 1066)? If from my hodgepodge background I choose, say, Russian and declare myself Russian-American, what am I really saying about myself? What useful (and accurate) information am I really conveying to someone when I respond by saying “Russian-American” — especially as I have never been to Russia and only know it by what I read?

How many generations back should I go to establish my hyphen? I suppose we could all claim to be African-Americans if science is correct that our first ancestors did come from Africa. How tenuous a connection is acceptable?

I am not suggesting that we should not appreciate or celebrate our roots; after all, somewhere along the line those roots made us what we are. But for those of us who were born in the United States or who became naturalized citizens, isn’t it enough to simply say we are Americans?

“Why,” you ask (I’m sure), “are you raising this issue? Is it really an important matter?” Good questions; let me see if I can provide satisfactory answers.

When we classify ourselves by hyphenation, we separate ourselves from other hyphens. After all, we all know that a Mexican-American is not the same as an Irish-American. When we hear the hyphenated identity, we conjure up specific images. We group ourselves, and our interests, in accordance with the left side of the hyphen rather than with the right side. And this is tragic. We see the tragedy in, for example, the discussions regarding immigration. No one views the struggle to solve America’s immigration problem as solving an American problem; it is viewed as solving (or addressing) a hyphenation problem. For example, Mexican-Americans and Latino-Americans view the troubles in Arizona as being discriminatory against them.

But without hyphenation the perspective changes. The solutions, or where someone falls in the spectrum of solutions, may not change, but the perception of the problem changes. No one asks now why it is okay for other countries to limit the immigration of Americans (no hyphenation) but it is not okay for the United States to limit immigration of prehyphenates. Mexico objects to our limiting Mexican immigration but no one objects to Mexico’s limits on American immigration. Why? Because of hyphenation. The problem gets mischaracterized into a problem of hyphenation rather than of America. The problem is viewed as a restriction on the Mexican part of Mexican-American.

Are we electing presidents and governors and senators and other officeholders based on their hyphenation or on their qualification. I think if the former, it is a sad commentary on us.

Isn’t it offensive that Americans and legal immigrants believe they must flee Arizona, a state they have a right to live in, just to avoid being harassed. It certainly offends me to think that Americans have to flee America to avoid being harassed for being American or where they have a right to be.

Hyphenation does have a role to play today and certainly had a much larger role to play not so many decades ago. But hasn’t the time come when we should all just be Americans and unhyphenated? Yes, we should continue to celebrate ancestral days with parades and festivals and cultural organizations and activities — after all, what makes America great and different from everywhere else is the variety of nationalities that melded together, and continue to meld together, to create America. But perhaps we should just be Americans, without hyphenation.

Perhaps once we all think of ourselves as simply Americans, we will discover that we can, together, solve America’s problems — the universal problems that affect us all as Americans — and overcome the rancor that now pervades the political process. I do my part: When asked what I am, I always answer “American” — no hyphenation needed!

June 8, 2010

The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud

Note: I wrote the following article as a guest piece for Kris Tualla’s Author & Writing Blog, where she has been discussing ebook publishing, among other topics. Kris published The WYSIWYG Conundrum on June 3, 2010, as part 6 of her series “The Death of Traditional Publishers?” I recommend reading the other articles in the series as well as her blog for an author’s look at the publishing world.

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We’ve had this discussion about the value and importance of professional copyediting but it seems that it is a topic that just won’t die in the eBook Age. As I have noted before, too many authors believe that they are capable of doing everything themselves while producing a superior product. I admit that out of 1 million authors (in 2009, more than 1 million books were published) there are a handful who can do it all themselves and even do a very credible, if not superb, job — but it is a handful. As my grandfather used to say about a neighbor who thought he could do it all, “jack of all trades, master of none.”

Like writing, editing is a skill. It is a developed skill, that is, experience brings a higher level of editing quality just as an author’s second novel is often better written than the first as the author’s experience grows. There is a significant level-of-quality difference between a well-experienced professional editor’s skill set and a nonprofessional editor’s skill set.

When we look at a sentence, we see what we expect. When we look at thick clouds, they look solid enough to walk on (do you remember being a child and talking about how someday you were going to walk among and on the clouds?), but as we know, our expectation that they can support us is a false expectation. What we see is not what we get — the WYSIWYG conundrum!

The same is true of words on paper (or computer screen). We often see what we expect, not what is really there. If we always saw only what was really there, we could turn out perfect manuscripts every time. But the truth is that if you hand a manuscript to 5 different people, each of the 5 will find something that the other 4 missed, in addition to what all 5 do find.

Think about eyewitness identification. This is a field that has been explored by scientists for decades and the conclusion hasn’t changed: eyewitness identification is one of the least-reliable forms of evidence because the eyewitness has certain expectations that unconsciously get fulfilled, even if those expectations deviate from the facts. (If you haven’t watched it recently, I highly recommend Twelve Angry Men with an all-star cast lead by Henry Fonda.)

Professional editors provide a dispassionate look at an author’s work. They provide a skilled, experienced eye that is trained to find the kinds of errors that the author, who is intimately familiar with the manuscript, will miss when he or she tries to self-edit. A good author lives with his or her manuscript for months and years, lives with the characters, and lives with the plot. The author knows how the heroine spells her name and whether or not she is left-handed, the color of her eyes, and all the other important details. Consequently, it is not unusual for an author who is self-editing to miss the extra “r” in Marrta because the author expects to see Marta. Our mind skims over minor errors, converting them into what should be because we have trained ourselves to see it as it should be.

It is this role that the professional editor, the “indifferent” or “dispassionate” set of eyes, fills. The professional editor can stand back — aloof — from what the author has lived with and can note the misspelled or changed name, that in 20 other instances the heroine was left-handed but now is right-handed, the sentence construction that the author understands but the reader doesn’t. If nothing else, this last item can be the most valuable service the professional editor provides an author — making sure that the story, the plot, the characters can be followed by the reader.

Authors tend to forget that most readers read a novel once and then never look at it again. They also tend to think that their work deserves the same intense scrutiny that a reader would give to a nonfiction book about the theory of relativity, but novels are intended to entertain, which means nonintense reading. The reader does not want to have to spend time trying to follow the storyline and certainly does not want to study the text to make it understandable. But the author rarely is capable of standing in the reader’s shoes because of the intimate relationship the author has with characters, plot, and storyline. The author knows where it should be going and expects it to go there; the reader doesn’t know, doesn’t have the intimate knowledge needed to draw everything together in some logical fashion. The author’s job is to draw it all together for the reader, but if the author can’t stand in the reader’s shoes, the author can’t honestly judge how well he or she has accomplished that task. The professional editor can because the professional editor is disinterested; there is a difference between one’s passion and one’s job that enables one to stand back and look objectively at one’s job but with bias at one’s passion.

Professional editors bring many skills that are complementary to the author’s skills to the table. These skills cannot be brought to bear on the project by the author because the author cannot separate him- or herself from his or her writing. The author suffers from the WYSIWYG conundrum: the author sees what the author expects to see.

The authors who recognize this conundrum and who take steps to have their work professionally edited are the authors who enhance both their readers’ enjoyment and their likelihood of success in an overcrowded marketplace. Success is much more than the number of downloads of free or 99¢ ebooks, especially when there is no way to know how many of those downloads actually were read or well thought of. Instead, success is having readers clamor for your books, talk about your books, express a willingness to pay a higher price for your books — all things that a professional editorial eye can help an author achieve by preventing the kinds of mistakes that turn readers away.

June 7, 2010

On Books: The Hebrew Republic

One of my recent book purchases was Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought. I purchased the book because I saw it advertised by Harvard’s Belknap Press in The New York Review of Books and thought, based on the title, that the subject would interest me.

Nelson’s thesis is that modern political thought — the thought found in 18th and 19th century political documents and thinking — arose not from excluding religious discourse from political thought but from the embracing of religious thought, particularly Jewish political thought through the renewed interest in study of the Hebrew Bible that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nelson notes that many of the leading writers and thinkers of those times learned to read the Hebrew Bible in its original language and then read the commentaries on the Bible written by leading Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides.

Nelson explores three thought transformations that arose as a result of the study of the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinical commentaries: (1) that the only legitimate government form is the republic; (2) that the state must coercively maintain an egalitarian distribution of property (but not that the state must redistribute property); and (3) that a republic that followed god’s laws would of necessity tolerate religious diversity. These notions led to an attempt to create new social constructs, new covenants between individuals and society, based on what was perceived as a constitution designed by God as revealed in the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic interpretations.

It is Nelson’s argument that these transformative thoughts were what lead to the notions of “liberty, equality, fraternity” that dominated political thought beginning in the 18th century and continuing on to today. He shows the influence of the Hhebraic thoughts on theorists and writers such as James Harrington, Hugo Grotius, John Milton, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, and Thomas Hobbes.

The book is short, approximately 230 pages cover to cover. This is not a bad thing but I mention it because of what I perceive to be the critical flaw in this book, aside from the question of the validity of his thesis: the book is written and reads as if it is a doctoral dissertation or a master’s thesis.

The book also suffers from one other significant flaw, at least to my way of thinking, although it is far from alone in this regard: It uses endnotes rather than footnotes. I’ve discussed this before (see Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses), but I consider this a major defect in a book because of the constant need to switch between the beginning and the end of the book. If the endnotes are not intended to be read, then don’t have them; just have a bibliography. But if they are intended to be read, then use footnotes, which are less disruptive.

The constant switching degraded significantly the reading experience of this book. They made it hard to follow the argument Nelson was making. At first I tried to ignore them and just concentrate on the text, but I failed — I was afraid of missing important information. And I discovered that had I ignored the endnotes, I would have missed some important information. A couple of examples are notes 99, in which Nelson elucidates how one group read and understood certain words; 105, which discusses Rousseau’s view of the distinction between “sovereignty” and “government”; 106, which identifies sources for the role played by “the Hebraic exclusivist argument I have sketched out in the wholesale delegitimization of monarchy during the American Revolution”, which lead me to note additional readings I need to pursue; and 198, in which Nelson identifies his position as being between that of Martinich and that of Collins as regards Thomas Hobbes’ religious beliefs.

Ultimately, the question is does Nelson have something valuable to say. Yes, he does. And his ideas are worth further pursuit, although I am not convinced by this current work that his view of events is correct. What is important is that they are thought provoking. Now if he only had written his work so that it was more accessible and less like a doctoral dissertation whose emphasis was on meeting the peccadilloes of a degree-granting committee than on expounding a new way to look at the roots of modern political thought.

Should you read this book? If you are interested in the origins of modern political theory and want to know more about what influenced the critical thinking of the 18th and early 19th centuries, then yes, you should; otherwise, probably not.

June 4, 2010

Are Multifunction Devices a Threat to Young Readers?

The talk of the times in ebookland is about multifunction devices that not only allow you to check e-mail, surf the Internet, play games, and write memos, but also let you read ebooks — devices like Apple’s iPad. The discussion centers around whether multifunction devices (MFDs) or single-function devices (SFDs) are the better choice when looking for an electronic device to read ebooks.

When it comes to adults whose habits are already set, I’m not convinced that the answer boils down to anything more than a one’s preference. Right now I want an SFD; when I am reading, I want to read and not be distracted by anything else. I already am overwhelmed by e-mail at work; I don’t need to spend my leisure time dealing with it, too.

The real question — and the one that is generally not being addressed — is whether MFDs or SFDs are better for those just beginning their reading career: Do I want a 10-year-old to be exposed to the distractions of an MFD or focused on reading by using a SFD? How do we teach a child the love of reading? How do we teach a child reading for reading’s pleasure? Can a child learn to love reading when the lure of games and Internet surfing are just a screen touch away?

We already know that too much TV time, too much video game playing, too much texting are changing our society — and not necessarily for the better. Those of us who professionally edit for a living see the poor writing that seems to be the result of too little emphasis on literacy fundamentals and too little attention paid to creativity skills. (For one example, see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!)

To be a successful reader requires concentration. One needs to concentrate on the immediate words while retaining what preceded the words of immediate focus. Reading requires cognitive skills, focus, and the ability to exclude outsiders from intruding. Reading stimulates imagination and creativity, which are nurtured by concentration.

Recall the last passage you read that was rich with description that you were putting together in your mind, when — the telephone rang, the doorbell buzzed, your child called you, your spouse asked about dinner, or you heard the “you’ve got mail” chime. Think about what was lost, how it needed to be recreated as if never previously created.

MFDs are an invitation to antsy reading. It has been 5 minutes since you checked your e-mail; perhaps that long-awaited Viagra ad has arrived. Yes, this particular passage in Moby Dick is difficult to follow, so maybe a few minutes of Internet surfing will revive the thought process. If we adults can’t stay focused long enough to devote concentrated time to reading, how can we expect our children to do so?

Children are already subject to distraction. How many times have you heard the plaintive cry, “boring”? Yet, I think most of us would agree that the ability to read and to stay focused on what we are reading is the difference between learning and not learning, between subjection and freedom. (Remember that in the antebellum South one of the prohibited acts was for a slave owner to teach slaves to read and write. Why? Because reading and understanding would open the world to the slave and make the slave discontent, possibly leading to insurrection. And think about why this reluctance to educate was carried on in the subsequent Jim Crow era.) Reading is the key to freedom, for if the mind is free, the soul is free. If imagination is cultivated, it leads to change and progress.

MFDs are really not conducive to gaining these skills. The MFD provides the ability to escape from intellectual difficulty at the flick of a button. And what child won’t take the easy way out when given the opportunity? Yet, it is the facing of and the overcoming of these reading challenges today that will enhance the child’s life tomorrow. Too much of one’s future is dependent on reading skills to ignore them.

Consequently, MFD devices like the iPad are, I think, adult-only devices. They should carry a warning label to parents such as, “WARNING: Use of the iPad discourages concentrated reading and is not recommended for anyone younger than 16 years of age.” (Such a warning would both alert parents to the problems of MFDs for their children and self-fulfill Steve Jobs’ belief that people don’t read and thus the iPad is not really a reading device.) Given the choice, I prefer the SFD for the young child, as well as for myself.

Reading is a pleasure. A well-written book transports me to places I have never been, can never go, will never go; it gives me experiences that I would not otherwise be able to experience; it lets me live in someone else’s shoes, albeit for a moment. But for a book to accomplish these things, it must stir my imagination and keep me focused — there must be few (preferably no) interruptions. An SFD aids this by not distracting me, by not encouraging me to check e-mail, surf the Internet, play a game, or do a little bit of waiting work.

MFDs have their place in the adult world, but I think they are a disservice to young, developing children who should be encouraged to read because of the importance of the reading skill in our world. SFDs, I think, are better suited for this task. This is not to say that a MFD doesn’t have an educatory role, too, but perhaps not when reading is the goal. Maybe the solution is an MFD that works as an MFD in every mode but reading mode; when in reading mode, it acts as if it were an SFD. It is something to consider.

June 3, 2010

None of the Below: An Election Blessing

I live in the most politically dysfunctional state in America — New York. In my state, there is really only one truism: if it is good for the citizens, the legislature will not enact it; if it is good for the politicians, they will.

As the November elections get closer, I become more irate with the political process. With a lot of hoopla and expectations, Andrew Cuomo has been nominated for governor. So far, he has had exactly one good, solid idea — call a constitutional convention and rewrite New York’s anti-citizen constitution. Now if Rick Lazio, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, would join this call, there might be hope.

Of course, this was tried in the 1960s and failed — the politicians and special interests convinced the citizens to vote no on the proposed reforms, and like good sheep, we did. Perhaps this time would be different — assuming the politicians muster the courage to call for a convention and the delegates are ordinary citizens not politicians.

There is one major reform I would like to see: the “none-of-the-below” ballot option. I am tired of professional politicians, people whose only interest is in preserving their own jobs regardless of the cost to those whom they purportedly represent. I’m even more tired of New York’s faux part-time legislature that receives more than full-time pay. Consequently, I propose a new election system.

My proposal would begin, as is done today, with each political party nominating its candidate for a political office. The ballot would list each party-nominated candidate and affiliation but at the very top of the ballot would be the option — in extralarge letters — NONE OF THE BELOW.

Now here’s where it gets good — at least good for the citizens. If “None of the Below” gets the most votes — even if it is just a plurality — “None of the Below” wins. The consequence is that none of the party-named candidates who were on the ballot can be on the ballot again in this election cycle.

How do we get new candidates? If the election is for a county-level office or lower, anyone, regardless of political affiliation or independent status can be self-nominated by a petition signed by 3% of the county’s population (if it is a city, town, or village office, it would be by 3% of the city, town, or village’s population). A candidate for an office at a level higher than the county level, would need signatures equalling 1% of the population that the particular office covered; for example, if it is a statewide office like governor, 1% of the state’s population would have to endorse the candidate. If it was a congressional district, it would be 1% of the population of that district.

A petition-nominated candidate would have to declare any party affiliation (if the candidate is a party member) or list him- or herself as independent (nonaffiliated). The political parties would not be permitted to run a party-nominated or party-endorsed candidate — the parties had their exclusive run and lost to “None of the Below.”

To move things along, a special website would be created where potential candidates could list themselves and where people willing to “sign” their petition would go to sign it. There would be no door-to-door or street corner petitions to sign; it would all be done electronically and petition signers would be permitted to sign only one petition for a particular office. The nomination process would be open for 7 days.

Once the nomination process closed, an electronic ballot would be created within 3 days and the first-round vote held online within 30 days after that. Candidates would have 30 days to campaign. Unless a single candidate received at least 50.1% of the votes cast in the first round, all candidates would be removed from the ballot except the top 2 candidates who would face each other in a runoff. Again, the balloting would occur 30 days from the first-round balloting, thus limiting the final 2 candidates to 30 days of campaigning.

The winner of this second-round vote would be elected to office.

The advantage to this system is that it would empower the citizens and decrease the power of special interest groups, including self-serving politicians. The established parties and the special interest groups would have the first crack at electing a candidate, but if they fail, the general citizenry takes over. With the uncertainty as to who would make it to the final round, and the limited campaign time, it would be difficult for the special interests to muster their forces behind a particular candidate — not impossible, just difficult. Consequently, their influence would be reduced.

More importantly, it would also give independents and disaffected party members an opportunity to nominate candidates who don’t owe their success to the political parties — candidates who, hopefully, would be more responsive to constituent needs than to special interest needs. And it would make it easier for unhappy citizens to remove office holders. Now it is almost impossible when one party renominates the incumbent and the other party has difficulty finding a good party member to run against the incumbent.

This plan also has the bonus that once a candidate is rejected, the candidate doesn’t get an immediate second chance. The citizens rejected the candidate once, which should be sufficient. It is this feature that I particularly like, because it will mean that an incumbent who wants to be reelected will need to pay less attention to special interest groups and more to constituents to strengthen his or her chances of getting elected on the first ballot.

It seems to me that this would be a good way to flush the dysfunction and special interests out of New York’s politics and reempower the citizens. Perhaps New York would become a good place to live. I know the plan has its problems and needs refinement, but even if enacted as outlined here, it has to be better than what New Yorkers currently suffer with.

June 2, 2010

The Death of “Personality” in the eBook Age

eBooks present some unique challenges to the “personality” of books, challenges that make me think there will yet be a very long life for pbooks, particularly hardcover pbooks.

I am a book collector. I am proud of owning, for example, an excellent first edition of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. I love my first editions of Steinbeck, Twain, and numerous other authors — some signed, most not — books that I canvassed used bookstores and online booksellers for over many years. I sometimes attend lectures by authors at the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library and purchase the authors’ books and have them sign them. I’m even on the list for one of the 1,000 autographed copies of former President George W. Bush’s forthcoming book.

As a collector, books hold special value to me. And being able to obtain a well-preserved first edition, first printing of books by well-known and well-appreciated authors is important to me. Although once I acquire a book for my collection, I do not part with it, many people view the books as investments and buy and sell them like stock. Me, I look forward to passing them down to my children and grandchildren with the hope that they will keep passing them on and never part with them.

I revere books because books are a source of knowledge, of entertainment, of civilization, of social connectedness. I value books because they can take me places I would otherwise never be able to go, see things that I would not otherwise ever see, learn things that I need to learn to be a better person. It is true that ebooks can do all these things for me, but ebooks, unlike pbooks, can’t be passed on, can’t give a sense of permanence, and literally have no value because they are infinitely reproducible and infinitely correctable (see eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite).

Collectible pbooks are collectible for many reasons, not just because of who is the author. pBooks are collectible for the quality of the artwork, the cover design, the fact that the first edition, first printing had an error in it that was corrected in subsequent printings, because the author signed it, because it is a first edition, first printing of which there were only a few hundred copies before the book took off, because collectors can literally own the pbook (a currently impossible task with ebooks), and because pbooks can have a special personality: the personalization of the book; the recording of when and why it was given/received; an author’s signing of it, making it stand out from other copies..

None of these attributes apply to ebooks. As we all know, an ebook is really a leased collection of digits. Amazon has already demonstrated how fungible ebooks are when it removed 1984 and Animal Farm, regardless of the validity of the reasons for the removal, from purchasers Kindles — something it could not have done with a pbook. And ebooks, at least in current form, are unlimited editions. Even if Apple declared that the centennial Dickens was a limited edition and therefore worth an extra $50 to lease, the limit is really unlimited because of the ease of reproduction. Plus we all know that Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble — or any other publisher or seller — will fill consumer demand for an ebook rather than cut it off, which is something that cannot be done with a pbook — there is no such thing as an unlimited print run because of the cost.

Additionally, there is literally no way to autograph an ebook that adds value to it. Even if a “real” signature could somehow be planted on a bunch of digits, the fact that the digits could be remotely taken away under the licensing terms destroys the value of the signature. Would you pay extra to have your ebook digitally signed knowing that if you change from, say, a Kindle to a Sony device that the book is no longer accessible, or that if it is subsequently discovered that buried on page 210 the author accidentally included embarrassing, highly personal information that the already-leased copies could be remotely erased without your approval.

It should also be noted that because ebooks are leased, there is probably no requirement in the lease terms that a vendor-erased book be replaced with another copy.

This brings us to the second problem, which really puts the nail in the coffin of “personality.” One of the things that makes a book special is when it is received as a gift, and when that gift is specially inscribed, such as “Happy 12th birthday, John. Love, grandma Pearl.” Or when you meet your favorite author who personalizes a copy of his or her book for you.

These inscriptions give a book a special personality. And that personality not only remains special to the initial recipient, but can have a great deal of meaning to subsequent family generations or even to collectors or historians. It is not unusual for a collector or historian to come across a special inscription from an author or gift giver that gives an insight to a major historical person’s thinking and lead to new knowledge about that historically important person.

Alas, with ebooks, that personality dies. Again, the death has many causes, not least of which are the ephemerality of the digits and the limitations imposed on ebooks by digital rights management (DRM) schemes, leasing terms, and the inability to create a single, unalterable version.

With this in mind, I think pbooks will have a long life, even if they ultimately constitute a minority share of the book market.

A Postscript: The day after I wrote this article, the value of the inscribed pbook was again demonstrated to me: My family gave me a signed first edition copy of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969. Opening to the half-title page and seeing President Johnson’s signature was thrilling; I cannot imagine how that thrill could be duplicated with an ebook. LBJ’s signature adds to the “personality” of the book by making it more than just cold digits that are duplicable at will.

June 1, 2010

Enhanced eBooks & the Death of Imagination

Enhanced ebooks, TV, videos, video games all share a common feature — they stifle imagination and creativity. Enhanced ebooks have a proper role to play in educating people, but perhaps not in educating the very young.

OK, I admit I’m old and that I can remember back to the birth of television, when The Lone Ranger was the hot show. And I can remember picking up a book and letting the words create a picture in my mind. These pictures were born from my understanding of what the words meant. Authors had to create worlds in writing that could be recreated by me. When Robin Hood described Maid Marian, I recreated her in my mind. One day she could be as short as me, the next twice my height. As I grew and aged, so did my mental picture of Maid Marian — all because as I experienced life and gained new insights into my world, I could apply those insights — via my imagination — to Maid Marian and to Robin Hood. 

Alas, I fear that “enhanced” ebooks will take away the last bastion of imagination. We already know that videos and movies hurt the imaginative process. We watch a movie and we no longer have to imagine the effect of a sword thrust through the chest — it is given to us graphically. We do not have to imagine what happens when a soldier picks up a live grenade and it explodes — the movie tells us clearly. Avatar left nothing for the viewer to self-create, which may be why it was so successful. We do not have to imagine because someone else has already imagined for us. How many of us had one picture of Robin Hood — a picture we created via our imagination when we first read the book — that was supplanted by Errol Flynn’s depiction of Robin Hood after we saw the movie in our youth?

Books — especially books for the preadolescent child — are the last bastion of imagination. When an author describes the heroine, we need to close our eyes and create that picture. We exercise our cognitive abilities. If the author describes a sword thrust to the chest, we imagine it within the limits of our experience and within the limits of our tolerance. These limitations, however, do not exist when we see the result displayed visually in a movie with ever increasing explicitness. (Do I really need to see the intestines falling out of a belly wound? Does it really add to the movie’s value?)

What made the Lord of the Rings trilogy so great? For those who read the books as children, it was the ability to create from Tolkien’s words the world of the hobbits and elves and other characters. We could create our own Gollum. Now, assuming someone actually reads the books after having seen the Peter Jackson interpretation, is the reader likely to create his or her own world based on Tolkien’s words or will they simply picture Jackson’s visuals? My experience suggests the latter. Will this not also be a problem for future Harry Potter fans? Won’t future readers conjure up Harry, Ron, and Hermione as the three stars of the movies?

Maybe this doesn’t matter for someone of my age, although I would like to think it does. (They do say that exercising the mind’s thinking processes is the most important thing one can do to thwart memory loss in old age.) But certainly it matters for the young who already face a dearth of opportunities to exercise their imagination. (Remember when the broomstick was your horse and it was your imagination that made it so? Now the broomstick looks like a horse?) Schools are test preparers and have no time to coddle imagination. Parents too often think quality time with their children is watching TV or playing a video game — imagination-numbing activities — rather than reading a book or playing a board game that requires thinking.

It isn’t that enhanced ebooks don’t have a proper place or role; they do. A biology text with video would be useful and probably enhance understanding. But I’m not convinced that enhanced fiction or non-science, -technical, or -math nonfiction ebooks are good for learners, especially young learners as a general proposition (there will always be exceptions to every rule).

I am particularly worried that enhanced ebooks will supplant the parental role with the very young, as TV and videos and video games do. Just as parents often turn to TV, videos, and video games to babysit their 3-year-old child, they may turn to enhanced ebooks. At least one bastion of creativity and imagination should be preserved. Parents need to spend more time with their children, especially in the preadolescent years, and that time should be encouraging use of the childrens’ imagination and brain power, not letting someone else’s imagination rule them.

What prompts my concern? A large-scale, long-running Canadian study that was reported in many U.S. newspapers and on the New York Times Health blog. The study didn’t address issues of imagination, but it seems to me that just as TV robs “effort control” skills, it also robs creative skills. In today’s hard-to-get-ahead world that often requires both parents to work just to keep from drowning, it is foolhardy to rely solely on parents to do what is right and necessary. (How many parents do you know who would be willing to cancel their cable TV so that they aren’t tempted to use TV as a babysitter? How many young children have their own cell phones?)

Publishers of ebooks need to step up to the plate and recognize that they do have a social responsibility. Today’s young are tomorrows’ readers and writers, both of which publishers will need. Rather than rushing everything possible to “enhanced ebook” status in hopes of propping up revenues, publishers should look to the their own future: If they cannot instill the desire to read in the young, they will have no future readers to sell books to.

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