An American Editor

February 28, 2011

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break!

In 1936, in the movie Poppy, W.C. Fields tells his daughter, “If we should ever separate, my little plum, I want to give you just one bit of fatherly advice: Never give a sucker an even break!” It appears that Apple has adopted it as its motto for the 21st century, at least in regards to ebooks and publishers.

I’ve got to give credit where credit is due, and Apple deserves credit for great design. Apple’s approach is like wrapping a Volkswagen Beetle in a Lamborghini shell and proclaiming the new car to be a $100,000 car. Apple gives you a great shell but the components are often mediocre at best. And when a design flaw is caught out, the usual response seems to be it’s the customer’s fault — never give a sucker an even break!

Let’s face it — the iPad is really a so-so device. Pretty to look at, but not a great computing experience, especially when compared to notebooks that permit multitasking. Perhaps this will be cured in the forthcoming version 2, but even if it is, Apple still will be a company that treats its customers and partners as suckers — suckers who will part with hard-earned dollars in exchange for good design, mediocre performance, and anticonsumer restrictions. Just consider Apple’s recent insistence on getting a cut on all ebook sales.

The initial culprit in the current ebook fiasco was Amazon who spread its tentacles to far too quickly, giving Apple the opening it needed to give false hope to publishers and consumers that there would be another, better way. Regular readers of my blog may recall my post from 9 months ago, The Decline & Fall of the Agency 5, in which I wrote:

April 2011 is the month to prepare for armageddon in ebookdom. It is when the 2010 agency model pricing scheme will be buried by publishing’s 2010 savior, Steve Jobs and Apple. You read it here first.

All the stars and moons and planets will align and the caterwaul of panic will be heard throughout ebookdom, because that is when the Agency 5 — Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Penguin, and Hachette – will realize they have been snookered by the snooker master.

In April 2011, publishers will discover that the iBookstore is a losing proposition. Oh, Apple will have sold many millions of iPads, fulfilling expectations for a successful tablet, but the buyers, it will soon be discovered, either aren’t buying ebooks at all (maybe 1 or 2) or what they are buying they are buying from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Smashwords.…

Well, I wasn’t spot-on, but pretty darn close. iPads did sell millions and the iBookstore is a loser. iPad owners who are buying ebooks, emagazines, and enewspapers are buying them through the Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and publisher apps, not from the iBookstore. But Apple has moved to close down any pipeline that bypasses the iBookstore by making it impossible for those apps to remain in the Apple iOS system.

So, tell me again how much of a friend Steve Jobs and Apple are to publishing and to readers. How did Apple become the publishers’ white knight? How did Apple save publishers from the clutches of Amazon?

Publishers certainly have had their comeuppance. What was supposed to save the industry has turned out to be less a saving grace and more of another poke in the eye. The Agency 5 can sit back and be satisfied that what ebooks they are selling they are selling at their dictated price. But if they look at Random House’s ebook sales (remember that Random House was the only one of the big 6 not to embrace agency), they must look with jealous eyes.

So how did Apple’s “generous” offer in April 2010 help the Agency 5? It appears to have put them against the proverbial wall and offered them a rotten carrot — never give a sucker an even break! The Agency 5 will have to pay yet again (i.e., in addition to lower sales for going the agency route) for siding with Steve Jobs when the various ebook apps, including the Amazon, B&N, and Kobo apps, disappear from the iOS. Because of their greed and reluctance to embrace ebooks, the Agency 5 have shot themselves in the foot yet again. They bet on Apple and the iBookstore and the only winner was Apple.

The harder it is for people to buy ebooks, the fewer ebooks they will buy. Yes, I know the Agency 5 would prefer to sell fewer ebooks, but they are already doing that. This latest Apple move simply makes it more difficult for a large segment of the reading market to buy ebooks, a segment that no publisher can afford to ignore in the long run. It seems that no matter what the Agency 5 do in their attempt to thwart the rise of ebooks or to control pricing and sales, someone is waiting to prove to them that they really are fools for not embracing ebooks and trying to exploit the new market to its fullest — never give a sucker an even break!

On many levels I am glad to see the Agency 5 suffer from this blow; it seems to be fair payback for Macmillan’s and Simon & Schuster’s refusal to sell ebooks to libraries and for HarperCollins’ new change to library licensing terms that restrict the number of times an ebook can be lent even though libraries are paying 60+% more for an ebook version than for the hardcover version of the same book. (One example: A library can buy John Grisham’s The Confession in hardcover for $17.37 and lend it out hundreds of times. In ebook, a single license costs $28.95 and if the new HarperCollins license terms were applied, it could be lent only 26 times. In addition, while libraries have to pay $28.95 for an ebook version, the consumer, whose taxes support libraries, can buy the ebook version for $9.99.) It also seems fair payback for the outrageous pricing the Agency 5 have imposed on their ebooks.

It is clear to me that with each misstep that the Agency 5 takes, the more likely it is that increasing numbers of ebookers will remove DRM and share ebooks. When you make an enemy of someone whose good wishes you need, you invite them to retaliate as best they can. In the case of the Agency 5, the best way to retaliate is to not buy their books, or if you buy them, to remove the DRM and share them.

When will publishers ever learn?


February 25, 2011

The Forked Tongue Dialogues: The Budget and Abortion

It seems that the Republican antiabortion wing is in a celebratory mood, having cut off funding for Planned Parenthood in the House budget legislation and tightening abortion restrictions. I’m not getting into the morality of abortion vs. no abortion; rather, I want to think about the forked tongue approach that the Republicans and antiabortion crowd take.

The problem is this: At the same time that abortion funding and family planning funds were cut, so were the funds that would provide medical care and food and education for all of the “saved children.” How hypocritical can one be! Save a life so that it can starve, suffer from illness, live in poverty, be uneducated. There is something wrong with this type of thinking.

What I see wrong is that the fight to prevent abortion isn’t really a fight to save lives; rather, it is a fight to save money gussied up in a moral argument. I’m waiting for one of the congresspersons who are antiabortion to come forward and offer to underwrite from their personal funds the costs for feeding, housing, and educating, as well as for medical needs, of the next saved child. They don’t come forward and make such an offer because the argument is not one of morality but one of money.

It seems to me that if you are going to insist that I adhere to your vision of morality, you should at minimum provide me with the tools necessary to do so, which is more than spouting words. You don’t want me to abort a fetus but you also don’t want me to be educated about family planning. You don’t want me to abort but you don’t think it necessary to provide me with a minimum, barebones way of feeding, housing, or educating the child. You don’t want me to abort yet you do not want to give me access to the medical care necessary to carry the fetus to term or take care of it after its birth.

Is there something missing in this dialog?

Common sense is missing. For every action there is a reaction is applicable not only to the dynamic of physics but to the dynamic of life. Every child born needs food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education. Unfortunately, under the current Republican view, the dynamic stops at “every child born” in the fantastical belief that every parent can adequately provide for their child on their own. Republicans used to boast that they were grounded in reality and that it was the Democrats who believed in fantasy, yet here they are disproving that self-assertion.

I agree that the federal deficit is a problem and that it must be addressed. I also agree that government is not the answer to every social ill. But if government is going to be the cause of the social ill, it has the responsibility to alleviate that ill or not create the ill in the first place — and that is what is at the heart of the abortion dilemma and why Republicans act in a forked-tongue manner.

Republicans claim to want government out of citizens’ personal lives. Wasn’t that the argument in the Second Amendment cases? Isn’t that the argument as regards Obamacare and mandatory participation? Yet the Republican tongue forks when it comes to keeping government out of the abortion muddle — one fork bans or restricts abortions, the other takes away the support system for those who don’t abort.

One can’t prevent all unwanted pregnancies by simply declaring unwanted pregnancy to be illegal, undesirable, antisocial, not worthy of funding. Nor can one prevent unwanted pregnancies simply by education. And we all know that although abstinence is the most effective method of preventing unwanted pregnancy, universal abstinence just doesn’t work. With all the dalliances outside marriage in which congresspersons seem to indulge, one would think that would be self-evident to congress, but apparently it is the typical story: do as I say, not as I do!

Consequently, if Republicans are going to ban or make abortion so restricted that it is in essence unavailable (except, of course, to politicians and the wealthy for whom abortion has always been available), then there is a corresponding duty to make available to the newborn and to children all of those services that are needed to ensure that the child grows healthily and receives the education needed to be a productive citizen.

February 24, 2011

Where Have All the Publishers Gone?

The following “poem” can be sung to the tune of Where Have All the Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger.

Where have all the publishers gone?
Since ebooks came to be.
Where have all the publishers gone?
Since Apple befriended them.
Where have all the publishers gone?
Steve Jobs fooled every one.

They’ve gone to find salvation elsewhere,
They’ve gone to find another savior.
Oh, when will publishers ever learn?
Oh, when will publishers ever learn?

Where have all the newspapers gone?
Since epapers came to be.
Where have all the newspapers gone?
Since Apple befriended them.
Where have all the newspapers gone?
Steve Jobs fooled every one.

They’ve gone to find salvation elsewhere,
They’ve gone to find another savior.
Oh, when will newspapers ever learn?
Oh, when will newspapers ever learn?

Where have all the iPad readers gone?
Since ebooks came to be.
Where have all the iPad readers gone?
Since Apple befriended them.
Where have all the iPad readers gone?
Steve Jobs fooled every one.

They’ve gone to find salvation elsewhere,
They’ve gone to find another savior.
Oh, when will iPad readers ever learn?
Oh, when will iPad readers ever learn?

Oh, when will the hopeful ever learn?
Oh, when will the hopeful ever learn?
That Apple is for Apple and not for everyone!

February 23, 2011

The Forked Tongue Dialogues: Romneycare vs. Obamacare

Here’s my question, one that no potential Republican candidate for president has been willing to directly tackle, at least not to date: Why is Romneycare good for Massachusetts but bad for America?

I used to be a Republican, back when one didn’t have to pass a special test to be a Republican. Remember those days when what mattered was a belief that big government wasn’t the answer to all questions and people’s rights and well being were important mainstays of Republicanism? The days of the Rockefeller, Ford, even Reagan?

Civil Rights legislation passed in the 1960s because Republicans cared about people, not because Democrats were overwhelmingly in control. It was the Republican Everett Dirksen who ensured that there were enough Republican votes to pass Civil Rights and Medicare and other Great Society legislation as the Southern Democrats and the Dixiecrats rebelled.

But today, I couldn’t be a Republican even if I was desperate to be one because I couldn’t pass the ideological litmus test: I believe that what has made America great is that its politicians ultimately sought the middle ground and compromised. Today, “middle ground” and “compromise” are banned from the Republican lexicon.

Which brings me back to Romneycare. Massachusetts undertook, at the instigation of its then Republican governor, Mitt Romney (who desperately wants to be the next president of the United States), an overhaul of healthcare, requiring that every resident of Massachusetts have health insurance or pay a fine/tax — universal healthcare for Massachusetts. And it apparently is working. The latest information indicates that nearly 99% of Bay Staters are insured and that insurance premiums have declined over the past several years (or at least the rate of increase has declined) as compared to pre-Romneycare.

On the other hand, in my state, not only has it been difficult to get good healthcare insurance, it has been exceedingly expensive and every year premiums have increased by 20% or more over the prior year. Plus there is a large swath of residents who have no insurance, can’t get insurance, or can’t afford insurance. So I ask again: Why is Romneycare good for Massachusetts but bad for America?

Perhaps instead of calling it Romneycare I should call it Republicancare. Maybe then Republicans would own up to having “coerced” citizens of Massachusetts into buying healthcare insurance whether they wanted it or not. Why is it a good argument that Obamacare is unconstitutional because it “coerces” citizens to do something they do not want to do (buy health insurance) but Republicancare/Romneycare is constitutional because it “coerces” citizens to do something they do not want to do (buy health insurance)?

Clearly, or so I would think based on Republican Second Amendment arguments, Republicans don’t believe citizens lose their constitutional rights at the state border. So where is the Republican outrage against Republicancare/Romneycare for Bay Staters? I guess the answer is wrapped up in the old state’s rights argument — states can do harm but the federal government can’t.

The reason that argument fails (at least in my thinking) is that Republicancare/Romneycare has a direct impact on interstate commerce, which the federal government can regulate. So where are Mike Pence (R-Indiana), Michelle Bachmann (R-Minnesota), and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), or even Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) when their help is needed? Why haven’t they, or one of them, introduced legislation to repeal the Bay State’s Republicancare/Romneycare and rescuing millions of Americans from fiscal enslavement? Or legislation cutting off all federal funding for that bit of socialized medicine?

The answer lies in the origins of that bit of state socialism: it was brought to America by Republicans and therefore cannot possibly be socialism or bad for the citizenry. So I ask yet a third time: Why is Republicancare/Romneycare good for Massachusetts but bad for America? Where is the moral outrage? Where are the witty Palinisms that rile up the Tea Party and the Republican right?

Obamacare is Republicancare/Romneycare just on a broader scale. But one would never know that by listening to the Republicans or the Tea Partiers. I offer this suggestion to Republicans and Tea Partiers: Solve the healthcare reform problem by repealing Obamacare and replacing it with Republicancare/Romneycare. Alternatively, a simpler and quicker approach would be to introduce legislation that renames Obamacare as Republicancare/Romneycare. Now you can trumpet your triumph over big government and socialized medicine yet show that you want to treat all Americans equally — a win-win for Republicans and Americans.

February 21, 2011

From Obamacare to Pencecare: The Illogical Republican

…or Sometimes You Just Gotta Keep Those Matches Away

I admit that since I became a thinking adult way back in the 1960s I have thought there was something wrong with America’s healthcare system. Even then a single-payer system made the most sense to me. But I wasn’t rabid about it. I did think that Medicare, which I strongly supported and wrote my first-ever political letter to my congressperson about, would be the baby step that would move us down that path. As history has demonstrated, 50 years later we haven’t really gone beyond either that first step or beyond the internecine wars regarding what is and isn’t a proper government role in healthcare.

I do respect the views of those who fear government encroachment into healthcare. I don’t discount some of their arguments as some of them do have merit. But I do discount and have little respect for those whose arguments essentially boil down to “your government intervention threatens my freedom and thus is bad; my government intervention threatens only your freedom and thus is good.” Alas, that is the rhetoric being applied to Obamcare (“your government intervention threatens my freedom and thus is bad”) and Pencecare (“my government intervention threatens only your freedom and thus is good”) by Republicans and Tea Partiers.

(For those who haven’t quite caught on, Pencecare is the healthcare plan that Congressperson Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana, and his fellow Republicans and Tea Partiers would like to foist on me and America — essentially, fend for yourself. Obamacare needs no definition today.)

What raised my hackles this week was the cutting of all funding for Planned Parenthood, abortion under any circumstance, and Obamacare. I don’t agree with everything Planned Parenthood does; I don’t agree 100% with the current plans for Obamacare; I don’t agree that abortion should be lightly undertaken or given — but I more fervently do not agree that Planned Parenthood should be wholly defunded; that Obamacare is not good for America and should not be funded; or that all abortions should be prohibited or made so difficult to get as to de facto prohibit them. There needs to be middle ground.

The Republican illogic runs many paths. It is not that Democrats aren’t often illogical, they are, but when it comes to healthcare, budgets, and morals, today’s Republicans are significantly more illogical (and more likely to run amuck) than Democrats. Consider this bit of budget busting: According to budget-cutting Republicans it is logical for the U.S. military to spend millions of taxpayer dollars sponsoring NASCAR races (which as a sport has a declining fan base; it would have been more logical to sponsor NFL football) but it is illogical to fund Sesame Street or family planning or universal healthcare. There is a severe disconnect.

And hasn’t the Republican-Tea Party battle cry against Obamacare been government intrusion into personal healthcare decisions — putting the government between the patient and the doctor? OK, let’s step aside from whether I think I am more likely to get an unbiased and better-for-me decision about my healthcare from a government bureaucrat who doesn’t have to worry about quarterly returns for shareholders than from a private insurer whose staff bonuses are determined by how much profit the company makes, not by how much healthcare it delivers to its insured. Instead let’s look at what the Republicans-Tea Party combination wants to give us: Pencecare. Pencecare puts the government squarely between the patient and the patient’s doctor because it has predetermined that universally certain forms of healthcare shall be denied the patient. No ifs, ands, or buts.

The difference between Obamacare and Pencecare is the neutrality factor. Obamacare is neutral. It gives citizens a menu of choices, from among which the citizen can choose. In contrast, Pencecare dictates what is permissible healthcare; it gives no choice. Whereas under Obamacare the patient, the patient’s family, and the patient’s doctors can consider the totality of circumstances and choose to take action (and among actions) or inaction, under Pencecare the patient has no need to consider anything, the family’s decisions are irrelevant, and the doctor might as well not exist — the government has made the decision in advance and regardless of circumstances.

Pencecare is the Republican formulation of Sarah Palin’s “death panels” for the rest of America. Sarah Palin’s “death panels” were dealing with end-of-life decision making (should we, for example, spend $1 million dollars of taxpayer funds to prolong the life of a 90-year-old person for 30 days?); in contrast, the Pencecare “death panels” deal with beginning-of-life decision making (should we, for example, compel a 12-year-old girl who was raped by her father to carry the fetus to term even though it is likely that she will die during the childbirth process?).

The other difference between Obamacare and Pencecare “death panels” is that under Obamacare the end-of-life discussion was voluntary whereas under Pencecare the beginning-of-life discussion cannot be held — to discuss it is forbidden.

One other thing that is striking about Pencecare. Unlike Obamacare which affects all classes of Americans, Pencecare almost wholly affects the lower socioeconomic classes. Enacting Pencecare has to be a relatively easy thing to do when your income is $170,000+ a year, enabling you to financially skirt its effects, and it is clear that the primary people affected will be those who earn less than $35,000 a year and often less than $15,000 a year.

Voters gave the Republicans and Tea Partiers matches to play with in this past election. The Republicans and Tea Partiers seem to be giddy with excitement about finally being able to play with fire, and so indiscriminately keep lighting those matches. The problem is that such giddiness is blinding them to their own hypocrisy. The least we should expect is no hypocrisy.

(For one perspective on the availability and affordability of health insurance, see Money Won’t Buy You Health Insurance, written by Donna Dubinsky, a cofounder of Palm Computer and CEO of Handspring, who begins: “This isn’t the story of a poor family with a mother who has a dreadful disease that bankrupts them, or with a child who has to go without vital medicines. Unlike many others, my family can afford medical care, with or without insurance.”)

February 16, 2011

The Demise of Borders, Blockbuster, and Choice

I admit that I’m not crying too hard over Borders’ troubles. I once worked for Borders Group (a lot of years ago) and even then I couldn’t figure out how it planned to survive. It has survived a lot longer than I expected.

I am crying a little bit harder over Blockbuster’s demise. My movie watching habits come and go in spurts, which is why I haven’t joined Netflix — why pay a monthly fee if I don’t regularly watch videos? And it is true that I have through Verizon’s FiOS video on demand, but I never use it. My current bill for Verizon landline telephone, Internet, and TV is already in heart attack country — the last thing I want to do is discover that I’ve added $30 or $40 (plus the fees and taxes) to an already outrageous bill.

But the demise of these two 20th-century behemoths got me thinking, especially when combined with the daily reports of another indie bookstore closing, another art gallery that didn’t make it, the lack of record stores, about how consumers are changing the cultural landscape.

You’ve heard me opine before about how I think the growth of the behemoths like Amazon are rally not good for consumers, and as each day passes, I become more convinced of the truth of that belief. I know that many of you, if not most, will talk up Amazon’s low prices, which is the short-term view to consumer well being. This short-term view is so pervasive that it extends from the consumer to our politicians who are deciding what budget cuts should be made to Wall Street’s emphasis on quarterly profits. Instant gratification with the least muss and fuss is the consumer-politician-Wall Street mantra.

Yet if we look objectively at the long term, we can see that we are only destroying the diversity and cultural norms that we say we value. When we oppose Walmart building a new store in our community because it pays low wages and its prices are so low that local stores can’t compete, we send a message that we value local businesses and community members. Yet we make that protest then shop at Amazon or the nearest Walmart because we value the low prices. The message and values are contradictory.

This is the problem with Borders’ demise. On some forums people are posting about how they miss browsing in their local bookstore, but then end their comment by stating that they never bought there — they would just browse, find what they wanted, and then order it online because it was cheaper. Then when the bookstore closed and the staff couldn’t find other jobs and began collecting unemployment, the complaint arose about how our taxes are and we should cut unemployment benefits.

It is a vicious cycle. We choose among our competing values and inevitably most of us choose cheap over any other value.

In my youth, many decades ago, we always bought locally. We knew the store owners and the employees — we went to the same schools as their children, to the same worship house, to the same cultural events, to the same social gatherings. Not today. Today, we rarely know the store owner or anything about him or her, let alone their family. And even if we do know the owner, we want to avoid paying sales tax and pay the lower price we can get from places like Amazon. The fact that Amazon simply takes our money from our community and never returns any of it doesn’t register — price is what registers.

In the brick-and-mortar retail world, Walmart has competition from Target and Costco and other discount retailers. But with the demise of, for example, Borders and indie bookstores (who would have thought that Powell’s, a bookworld icon, would need to lay off staff because of 2 years of losses?), competition in cultural venues is declining and local communities suffer — both culturally and financially. I find it distressing that young people will be within talking distance of one another yet prefer to communicate by texting or twittering. Or that their idea of a social gathering where they can interact with peers is an online game or Facebook.

Humans originally migrated to create clans, then villages, then cities, then nations, places where they could interact with other humans and develop what we euphemistically call civilization. We are beginning to see the cultural rollback to where each human stands alone in a world of their own. When we forsake local culture for price, we chip away at one of the pillars of civilization because those nonlocal places don’t give back any of what they take away.

The Internet age has its pluses, but it also has its minuses — minuses that we are only beginning to see and of which the demise of local, indie stores and outfits like Borders and Blockbuster that have a local presence are symptoms. The forsaking of choice for price as a value will come back to haunt us.

February 14, 2011

Citing Sources in the Age of the Internet and eBooks

It has been an ongoing frustration of mine, dealing with bibliographic information that cites the Internet and ebooks.

In the olden days, way back when I was a student, the rule was that citing a source meant it really existed and was verifiable; one couldn’t cite and have accepted “James, J. (2010, August 10). Private conversation.” But today, I guess, anything goes — at least if you are in the role of author but not in the role of paper grader; that is, I find these types of cites in academic papers knowing full well that if a student of the author submitted such a cite, it would be unacceptable.

More important, however, is that cites to web pages that no longer exist — if they ever really existed — seem to be de rigueur, and no one complains. It used to be that it was not enough to cite a source, but the source had to be reputable and accepted in the field. It was pretty hard to cite Portnoy’s Complaint as an authority on sexual mores, yet I suspect that would not be true today.

Recently, I edited a book that relied on the Internet for 85% of its authority. A spot check of the cited URLs showed that 50% of those checked either no longer existed or led to an article that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. Interestingly, in another book, the URLs led to third-party summaries of the cited articles, not to the articles themselves.

This does not bode well for the quality of authorship of future work. The problem is compounded when ebooks are thrown into the mix. I’m currently reading a 1200-page ebook. If I cited the ebook for some proposition, how would a reader verify it without reading the whole ebook? eBooks, unlike pbooks, are not paginated. eBooks in the ePub format come with page numbers, but do they correspond to the pbook pagination? Or are they even the same across devices?

What the Internet and ebooks have done is encourage scholarly sloppiness. Increasingly, the response to a query about a source cite is, “Well, it was at that URL on the date I noted. What has happened since, I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter.” And publishers and academicians are buying into this view of source cites — publishers because it is too difficult to get authors to provide solid cites and academicians because it is easier than the more traditional citing procedure.

No one is addressing, however, what this does to the value of the “research.” I find that when I am reading a book I bought and the author has used an URL citation or referred to an ebook, I begin to doubt the accuracy of the book. If I find that a cited URL no longer exists, the value of the book as a scholarly work diminishes rapidly.

I’m not sure what the solution to the problem is. Supposedly there are Internet archives whose purpose is to take snapshots of the Internet daily so as to preserve information, but I’ve not been able to access such an archive.

I recognize that as the face of information changes, so must the acceptable methods of citation. Yet there needs to be a method of ensuring that a cited source exists today, tomorrow, next year, and next decade or scholarly value will decline along with the availability of the source material. In addition, there needs to be a way to vet online sources such as Wikipedia for accuracy.

It is not enough that an online citation format appears in the standard style manuals; somehow the online sources need to be preserved, vetted, and accepted, especially as reliance on such sources grows. In addition, there needs to be a system adopted for universally being able to find cited information in an ebook, not just a broad citation to the ebook, and whatever that method is, it needs to be implemented by ebook device makers and publishers. Whatever method is designed, there needs to be a correspondence between the pbook and ebook versions of the same book; in addition, the method has to be device independent.

There is still a long way to go to make the Internet and ebooks scholarly sources, but the day is coming when it must be accomplished.

February 9, 2011

On Today’s Bookshelf (VI)

My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of my to-be-read acquisitions. Fortunately, ebooks don’t weigh much.

My newest hardcover acquisitions include:

  • Behind the Dream by Clarence B. Jones (story behind Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech)
  • How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish
  • Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier

My ebook acquisitions include (an asterisk [*] following a book title indicates that I have completed reading the listed book):


  • Olivia’s Kiss* by Catherine Durkin Robinson (see my review of this book: On Books: Olivia’s Kiss)
  • The Hunger Games Trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay* by Suzanne Collins (good series but not outstanding, although its appeal to young adult readers is evident)
  • Lady from the Jade Mountain by Jonathan Saville
  • The Man with the Iron-On Badge* by Lee Goldberg (excellent police-procedural-type story; well worth reading)
  • An Agent of the King by Nigel Slater
  • Faithful Warrior* by Basil Sands (not particularly well-written or interesting)
  • The First Betrayal by Patricia Bray
  • The complete Lord Vorkosigan* Series by Lois McMaster Bujold (an excellent and highly recommended series)
  • The complete Vatta’s War* Series by Elizabeth Moon Bujold (it, too, is excellent and highly recommended)
  • The complete Heris Serrano Series by Elizabeth Moon
  • The Healer’s Apprentice by Melanie Dickerson
  • New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd
  • Carved in Bone* by Jefferson Bass (an excellent murder mystery)
  • Daughters* by Consuelo Saah Baehr (well-written and interesting story of multiple generations of Arab daughters; similar to the outstanding Shayne Parkinson Promises to Keep quartet reviewed in On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept)
  • Starlighter by Bryan Davis
  • A Plunder by Pilgrims by Jack Nolte
  • The Sword Lord by Robert Leader
  • Justice is Served by D.P. Clark
  • Champion of the Rose by Andrea Höst
  • The Borgias by Alexandre Dumas
  • Ameriqaeda* by Markus Kane (a well-written thriller that imagines home grown terrorism in America)


  • Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch (I bought this in hardcover but it still sits in my TBR pile, so I decided to buy the ebook version as well in hopes of getting to it sooner; the result is that I have finally started this long tome)
  • Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard
  • A Magnificient Catastrophe* by Edward J. Larson (see my review of this book: On Books: A Magnificient Catastrophe)

As you can see just by the length of the lists, in the past couple of months I have been more involved in reading fiction than nonfiction, and definitely more involved in ebook reading than print book reading. (Many of the fiction ebooks are available for free or for nominal cost at Smashwords. If you are willing to give indie authors a chance, you can obtain myriad ebooks, ranging in quality from poor to outstanding, with most falling in the good to above average range, for $2.99 or less — all the way down to free — at places like Smashwords, Feedbooks, and Manybooks.)

Although I have been trending toward reading more ebooks than pbooks, the trend really accelerated with the purchase of my new Sony 950 in late October. Reading on the device is so pleasurable, that I almost hate to pickup a hardcover book.

My browsing habits have also changed. In previous months and years, you could almost set your watch by my at-least-once-weekly habit of going to my local bookstore and browsing the new nonfiction releases and buying several books. Except to buy a new opera, I haven’t been to the local bookstore in a couple of months.

A recent New York Times article discussed the impact ereading devices are having on children. Apparently, the devices were high on the holiday wishlists of many children and for those who received one, has changed their leisure habits. One 11-year-old girl featured in the article has spent significantly more time reading and less time on the computer or watching TV since receiving an ereader for the holiday.

Although I rarely watched TV before getting my first ereader (a Sony 505), my habits, as I have noted in various articles on this blog, also changed. I began reading more fiction and more books overall. This change has been reinforced with the acquisition of my Sony 950.

Perhaps as these ereaders gain traction among the very young, reading will have a renaissance, something that would definitely be worthwhile.

February 7, 2011

On Books: A Magnificient Catastrophe

The politics of 2010-2011 is simply history repeating itself. The presidential election campaign of 1799-1800 is nearly a twin of the politics of today. The lack of comity shown today by the right, especially the pundits on Fox network, is similar to that of the Federalists and the Republicans in the 1800 campaign.

Today we revere Thomas Jefferson. But to read the Federalist newspapers, broadsheets, and pamphlets of the 1800 campaign, Jefferson was everything we despise — he was a deist rather than a Christian; he was a “Jacobin”; he was the white Barack Obama.

The story of the campaign, the struggle between Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Aaron Burr, and Thomas Jefferson for political supremacy is the subject of Edward Larson’s A Magnificient Catastrophe (2007). The election of 1800 was so bitter that it ended with Jefferson and Burr tied in electoral votes (in those days electoral ballots were not separately cast for president and vice-president), leading to the election having to be decided in the Congress. It took numerous ballots over many days and weeks before a moderate Federalist cast a deciding vote in favor of Jefferson.

Larson’s book is the story of the campaign, the bitterness and acrimony between the key players, and, ultimately the congressional balloting. It is the story of Hamilton’s and the High Federalists plotting against their own candidate, John Adams, who was running for reelection, having defeated Jefferson in 1796, and trying to swing the election any which way except toward Jefferson.

A Magnificient Catastrophe should be read for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the story of a presidential election that was decided by Congress and thus of historical interest. It should also be read to gain an understanding of how American politics and Americans haven’t changed in 200 years. We need only substitute labels, Republican for Federalist and Democrat for Jeffersonian Republicans, and the campaign of 1799-1800 is magically transformed into politics of 2010-2011.

Today we call Jefferson a great man and a founding father; in 1800 he was called a traitor. Today we have “news” organizations and commentators who fabricate “facts” just like was done in 1800.

For those interested in where we have been, where we are now, and where we are likely to be in the presidential campaign of 2012 (and probably campaigns well beyond), A Magnificent Catastrophe is the place to begin. A well-written, concise look at an ever-recurring political scene, A Magnificient Catastrophe should be on every American’s must-read list. Perhaps if we understand where we came from and with hindsight see the excesses, we will gain the fortitude to change our current political stalemate.

February 1, 2011

Do Words Matter?

I know this is an odd question to ask of editors, but the recent hullabaloo regarding the vituperative exchanges from the far right and the far left and their influence in the recent Tucson massacre brings this question to the fore yet again: Do words matter?

To listen to the pundits, the Tucson incident and statements by people like Sarah Palin have little to no connection. I suspect that there is no direct connection, but I’m not sure that one can so easily dismiss responsibility for incitement or for creating the conditions under which deranged minds would think such actions are expected and normal.

Let’s go back in time — not very far — to the summer of the debate over the health care reform bill. Sarah Palin declared that the health care bill would create “death panels.” Forgetting about the falsity of her charge, consider only the import of her description. The name was chosen because of the image it would send: of doctors deliberately withholding treatment from grandma in order to kill her and save taxpayer dollars.

Similarly, go back a few more years and consider how conservatives described the estate tax as the “death tax.” The implication was that every citizen’s estate and family would have to pay a tax at death, yet the reality was (and is) that it would apply only to multimillionaire estates or less than 3% of U.S. citizens.

And consider what we do as editors and authors. Do we not evaluate words and try to choose words that convey the message we want to send clearly and directly? Do we not try to minimize obfuscation? Isn’t the difference between a great author and all other authors how the author has used words to craft a “spell” over the reader?

If words do not matter, then why mischaracterize end-of-life options as death panels intended to kill grandma or estate taxes as death taxes applicable to all Americans rather than to the wealthiest few? What these slogans demonstrate — and demonstrate forcefully — is that words do matter. That the choice of words has consequences, both intended and unintended.

Which brings us to the question of responsibility. Should we not hold those who utter the words responsible for the consequences of their words, even if the consequence was unintended? I’m not talking about criminal-law-type responsibility; I’m talking about a moral responsibility. I don’t doubt that Sarah Palin didn’t intend for someone to murder a congressperson when she put up the map with crosshairs, but should she not have thought about the people with access to guns who would look at that as an invitation to justifiable murder?

If words do not matter, then why is the right-wing so upset with being charged with complicity in the Tucson shooting as a result of their incendiary invective? The answer, of course, is that words do matter, just as tone matters, and the one thing that every American can say without contradiction is that the political discourse in the United States has become a bitter lake of violent, hateful words.

Every time I read or hear someone say we need to return to our original founders for guidance, to original intent, I think “nice words that are being spouted by someone who doesn’t understand what they mean.” Our original founders founded the United States by political compromise, not by diktat. Yet those who seek to implement original intent pronounce that our founders were united in single beliefs.

We need look no further than the question of whether we are a Christian nation. Note that none of the founding documents call us a Christian nation or refer to Christianity. In fact, the original constitution was barely passed and was passed only after it was agreed that the first 10 amendments would be added, of which the first amendment talks of religious freedom, not of Christianity. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others were not Christians as current people would have us believe. Franklin was an atheist, Thomas Paine was an atheist, Alexander Hamilton was an atheist, Jefferson and Washington were deists — not one of these founders insisted on America being a Christian nation.

So does it matter that the constitution doesn’t call us a Christian nation? Yes, it does matter, because words do matter. The choice of words that our founding fathers made had consequences — then and now. John Hancock made it clear that he endorsed the word choices — and the consequences that flowed therefrom — made in the Declaration of Independence by boldly signing his name. His is the most legible of all signatures. Hancock understood that by signing the Declaration it was tantamount to a declaration of war and he stood by his word choice.

Yet politicians of all stripes today, but even more so on the right than on the left, dismiss responsibility for their word choices and the consequences that follow. It is always someone else’s fault, someone else’s responsibility. It sure would be nice if those who wish to lead us today could show the leadership skills of our founders, rediscovering both the art of compromise that enabled the United States of America to become a single, independent nation, and the willingness to take responsibility for their words and actions. Alas, I fear that today’s “leaders” really have no vision grander or broader than their own wealth and well being and that the lessons they should have learned from our founding fathers will be left on the ashes of Tucson.

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