Review: Crossing Over (2009)


Wayne Kramer has made two exceptional motion pictures. The Cooler presented us with the wild premise of a pathetic loser played by William H. Macy whose temperament was particularly suited to “cooling” the luck of gamblers at a casino operated by Alec Baldwin. It needs no further encomia from me, but it’s certainly worth seeing. 2006’s Running Scared was a giddy, unapologetically caffeinated action flick that presented creepy child pornographers and a crazy climactic battle on a hockey rink. It was the kind of fun and scruffy and overexcited movie that perhaps comes along once every two years, and it was woefully misunderstood by such humorless snobs as Cynthia Fuchs, Harvey Karten, and Stephanie Zacharek.* Here was a movie that, much like Sin City, reveled in the absurdities of cinematic violence and only hoped that the audience would share in its zaniness. It was the kind of movie that a certain strain of entitled and elitist New York critic could never understand: a much needed corrective to the overrated and overly referential Kill Bill couplet. That Running Scared succeeded as well as it did, despite the potentially disastrous casting of Paul Walker, was to its immense credit. (And it’s worth noting that even Andrew Sarris wasn’t immune to Running Scared‘s over-the-top charms.)

But I’m sad to report that Kramer’s latest film, Crossing Over, doesn’t share these savage charms. There are two very funny scenes: one intentional and one unintentional. An Australian Jew who is far from faithful attempts to convince a federal agent of his religiosity so that he can secure a visa. A rabbi is enlisted to supervise, to ensure that he’s properly carrying out the kaddish. Not only is the Australian clearly unqualified, but he demands that the agent put his hands against his head in deference. The rabbi, hardly a dummy, gives the agent an okay, hands the Australian a business card, and tells the Australian that he expects to see him in his synagogue tomorrow. It’s a scene that’s vintage Kramer. A moment that defies our expectations and gives us something slightly absurd but believable. Unfortunately, later in the film, we encounter, shortly after a convenience store shootout, one of the most preposterous monologues I think I’ve seen in a movie in some time, in which a man attempts to persuade a young hood that citizenship was “the most spiritual moment of my whole life.” Even the austere crowd at the screening I attended couldn’t stop themselves from howling during this ineptly directed moment.

All this is in service of a Serious Story. There’s an immigration problem in Los Angeles. One that this movie won’t solve. It’s Serious. So Serious that immigration agent Max Brogan (Harrison Ford) can be seen staring into a television downing a glass of scotch as the camera dollies around his lonely and dumpy home in full Hollywood cliche. (A cat enters the frame of the first establishing shot, but the feline is never seen again. Presumably, Brogan was so miserable that he was forced to kill the cat.) But Brogan is driven by that audience-tested commodity of white liberal guilt. What could have been an intriguingly contrarian take on a morally-minded immigration agent caught in a corrupt system (and possibly a thespic comeback for Ford) becomes a formula no different from any other Ford hero. It’s so bad that one expects Ford to boom “Get out of my sweatshop!” in true Air Force One style.

(A few words on Harrison Ford: There was a time in the mid-1980s when Ford took on interesting roles in such films as The Mosquito Coast, Witness, and Frantic. He managed to shed the Han Solo/Indiana Jones image and demonstrated, at long last, that he was a surprisingly versatile actor. Alas, he returned to the money-making roles. So if you’re hoping that Crossing Over represents a return to these halcyon days, you’re probably going to be as disappointed as I was. It doesn’t help that Ford mangles his Spanish. Here’s a man who’s been on the beat for decades. You’d expect a guy of this type to possess some reasonable fluency. But, alas, as an actor, Harrison Ford has become a lost cause. I’m convinced that there isn’t another great performance in him, unless a ballsy director whips him into shape.)

Ray Liotta, who is looking more and more like George W. Bush with each role, is also in this film. He’s a guy on the inside who offers carnal quid pro quos to any hot babe willing to get on all fours for a visa. Liotta, who has this troubling acting tic of keeping his mouth slightly agape, is okay. But that’s only because Alice Eve is utterly amazing in this movie. Like any good actor, she plays not to serve any dormant solipsistic needs, but to keep the scene going. And she saves Liotta’s ass. Her character is an aspiring actress who wants to get ahead but who needs visa status. If this role were played by any other actor, this archetype would have easily transformed into a cliche. But Eve conveys such an accurate sense of removal and a quiet sense of horror when she’s trapped in sleazy motel rooms that she manages to add an emotional quality that this film is sadly lacking. (One wonders what Kramer could get out of Eve if he returned to the quirky sensibilities he established in his two previous films.)

Alas, this is a Serious Story. One in which the feds predictably intercede when a young woman (horribly played by Summer Bishil) delivers a controversial essay before a class about the 9/11 hijackers. (In 2009, the class still resorts to calling her a “sand nigger.” Which leads one to wonder: How long had this script been sitting in Kramer’s drawer? The IMDB, of which more anon, informs us that Kramer made a short film called Crossing Over in 1996. Oh, that explains it.) One in which Ashley Judd (married to Liotta in this) begs her husband to help her out. (She’s an immigration rights attorney.) Too bad that Judd contributes very little to the story. Should I mention the ridiculous brother-sister subplot, with the sister perceived as slutty? Probably not.

At times, this film is so hackneyed that one is tempted to momentarily hold up Crash as a Babel or Touch of Evil comparative point. It wrangles too many storylines and feels utterly phony in its sentiments. Which is too bad. Because this is the first film I’ve seen in which a law enforcement agent actually quotes the Internet Movie Database as an authority. And what is Phil Perry doing in this singing the national anthem? You can take the filmmaker out of the quirks, but you can’t take the filmmaker out of the quirks. Too bad these incongruities aren’t enough.

What the hell has happened to Kramer? Has he been led down an incompatibly damning mainstream path by the take-no-chances producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy? Did superstar Harrison Ford demand script changes? Ford’s possibly exorbitant salary appears to have debilitated Kramer’s ability to provide the punchy and moody visuals observed in his two previous films. There is a slapdash and predictable feel to the editing. Every new scene is intercut with rote helicopter shots of the Los Angeles skyline and various interchanges, as if this second-unit footage is supposed to serve in lieu of a proper master shot.

I certainly hope that the title doesn’t apply to Kramer. If Kramer simply wanted to try out a Serious Story, he’s permitted one fumble. We’ll forgive him this dog and hope that he returns to form with the next. But if he has permanently crossed over into pedestrian filmmaking, then this would be grounds for deportment from the pantheon of lively filmmakers to keep tabs on.

* — An update on Saturday morning: Harvey Karten has written to me personally to assure me that he is not a snob. Rather mysteriously, he insists that he’s humorless. I will take his word on these two points, but I am not entirely convinced that he is entirely humorless and will conduct investigations to see if he is capable of blowing a raspberry or two. I am also willing to overturn my assertion about Cynthia Fuchs, should someone present compelling evidence. Zacharek, however, is beyond the point of no return, as her arrogant and uninformed remarks in this article indicate.

The Bat Segundo Show: Charlie Huston II

Charlie Huston appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #267.

Charlie Huston is most recently the author of The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. To listen to our previous interview with Mr. Huston, check out The Bat Segundo Show #98.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking for an efficient and affordable cleanup service.

Author: Charlie Huston

Subjects Discussed: Huston’s concern for locative detail, unusual sentence structures, sequential details within sentences, the run-on sentence in relation to narrative action, the burdens of writing novels quickly, rhythm and alternating sentences, whether or not the word “motherfucker” haunts Huston in his dreams, sentences repeating and following a character demand, getting across pace without having characters describe the pace, working over sequences amidst restrictive writing conditions, pushing the story forward with aggression, trying to steer around cliches, being subconsciously funny with the books, the burden of the Joe Pitt books, masturbating on the page, avoiding violence directed at dogs in the most recent books, consciously playing down the violence, on “going soft,” slipping into habit, the typographical dash mistake in Mystic Arts, on whether John Wayne is the standard for the roundhouse haymaker, why almonds were chosen over pecans, agricultural hijacking, cockroaches, transcribed speech and fey okays, the culinary horrors of Slim Jims, and conducting research.



hustonHuston: Sometimes, if you use the same words, you can put a little tinkle of irony into it. In the fact that you describe him doing it exactly the way the person just told him. So you use the exact same words. It’s hard for me to answer questions about the writing that are that precise. Because so much of the process is not that precise for me. So much of it is shoveling. And you’re not too terribly conscious of how you shovel while you’re doing it. Whether you’re good at it or not.

Correspondent: But you just confessed to me that the “heartbeat” sequence was worked over. I mean…

Huston: That one, yes, absolutely. But in general, I’m saying. Like if you’re asking general questions about the way I use rhythm and use repetitions and stuff, I can draw out an example like that. Where it was very specific and where I had very particular goals that I’m articulating now with much more depth than I ever articulated to myself at the time. But in terms of being able to generally say why those rhythms appeal to me, why I use them, I don’t know. I’m kind of making it up right now the same way I’m making it up as I write it. Well, I think it works like this. But does it? That’s kind of where I am with that stuff.

Correspondent: Yeah. But this is interesting to me because you have such restrictive deadlines. And here you are working over a specific sequence. This is why I’m kind of interested in how you’re developing your rhythm, even with these constrictive conditions.

Huston: And that may also just be part of it. You know, some of those things. You know, Ed, I just don’t know, man. I mean, that’s really the bottom line. I don’t know how far I can penetrate into this and have it not just be bullshit at a certain point. I mean, it’s just coming out that way. It’s just coming out that way. And I don’t know if the time frame has as much to do with it. The time frame tends to play more into things that slip through the crack that might be messy. Like that long sentence that you had. And how it’s a combination of “I find myself making connections that I might not otherwise make because I’m writing clip clip clip” and also a situation in which “I find myself writing sloppy things that I might otherwise clean up if I had more time.” The time constriction tends to manifest itself more in pushing the story forward very aggressively. In sometimes making choices that, fifty pages later, I wish I hadn’t made. Because there were implications I hadn’t considered, but with enough time to go back and unchoose that choice. So I have to do some more tap dancing to make it all work. And it also plays a large role in the extent to which I will more willingly embrace some genre conventions and cliches that I might otherwise try to find ways to steer around if I had a little more time.

(Photo credit: Mary Reagan)

BSS #267: Charlie Huston II (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #266.

Catherynne M. Valente is most recently the author of Palimpsest.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Looking for a way into a secret city.

Author: Catherynne M. Valente

Subjects Discussed: Writing a novel with four character perspectives, how structure influences perspective, the importance of numbers, color theory, thriving on restriction, Neal Stephenson, the importance of flow and reading out loud, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, synesthesia, the purpose of puns, being a child of the Internet generation, Italo Calvino and the literature of the new millennium, planning a book entirely in one’s head, PersonalBrain, on not outlining a novel, having semiotics for breakfast, writers with kinks, multiple topographies within Palimpsest, perceptions of New York, the individual relationship to a city in relation to one’s individual sensibilities, genre classification, New New Weird and mythpunk, thinking while doing other things, the factors that cause Valente to write very fast, fighting the forces of marketability, chick lit, a future project involving the myth of Prester John, the problems with accessibility, the addiction to story, geek outreach and the publishing industry, Lev Grossman’s article, the communal experience, novel patches, the book as a permanent medium, secretive networks, the Kindle and the Sony eReader, Cory Doctorow, the bridge between print and online, Eric Kraft, and the signal-to-noise ratio in e-books.


valenteCorrespondent: Which number is your favorite? Or maybe one of your five favorite numbers?

Valente: Oh, my favorite number!

Correspondent: Do you do this on a single digit scenario?

Valente: I’m going to have to go with seven.

Correspondent: Seven!

Valente: Actually, a little girl came to one of my Orphan’s Tales readings. She came up to me after and said, “Why are there all those sevens in your book?” And I love seven. It’s a prime number. And it’s a typically mystical number. And it’s fascinating to me. But I almost never use it in structure. Because it doesn’t fit very well. It’s kind of an ornery number that way, which, I suppose, is why I’m attracted to it. Because I’m kind of ornery myself.

Correspondent: Well, you know, Neal Stephenson told me that seven was the ideal number of guests at a dinner table.

Valente: Oh, wow. I hadn’t thought about that.

Correspondent: What are the applications of seven? Not just to your fiction, but also to your general life?

Valente: Well, I guess it’s the number that I don’t use though. Seven is a number that doesn’t occur in nature very often. There aren’t too many seven-leafed or seven-petaled plants. That is why it’s a mystical number. Because it exists outside of the world. And so I don’t actually use it all that much. When I’m arranging things, I go with three. I go with four a tremendous amount. Of course, four is a very thorny number in Eastern culture. Because there’s four noble truths. But four also means death in Chinese and Japanese. And so they will often, much as our number thirteen, consider it unlucky, remove it from hotel rooms, and things like that. But I love the number four. I love the number eight. But seven is the number apart. So I use it in fairy tales all the time in terms of time. Seven days, seven years, seven months. There’s a character named Seven in The Orphan’s Tales. And that particular character deals with coins that have a seven-pointed star on them. But seven, I love, because it’s weird.

Correspondent: What’s your position on The Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai?

Valente: Well, of course, those come from Seven Against Thebes! Which is a wonderful ancient Greek play. I’m a classicist. So I always go straight back to that. And, of course, Seven Against Thebes comes from the seven dragon teeth that Cadmus planted in the earth. Yeah. Seven’s great.

(Photo credit: Ellen Datlow)

BSS #266: Catherynne M. Valente (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #265.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is most recently the author of The Pluto Files.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reconfiguring his planetary paradigm, with the aid of minatory electrodes.

Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Subjects Discussed: The Great Planet Debate, sensible classification systems, “reorganizing” the solar system, why the International Astronomical Union wasn’t approached before the Rose Center display was established, the usefulness of the word “planet,” playing 20 Questions to gain insight into what Tyson talks about, Copernicus, acceptable groupings, quibbles with the New Horizons reconnaissance mission to “complete” the exploration of the solar system, government and space exploration, Sedna vs. Pluto, efforts to explicate Sedna’s orbit, the ethical implications of scientists who write popular books, scientists and get rich quick schemes, pedagogical paradigms, manned missions to Mars, the celebrity culture of astronauts, manned space program vs. robotic expeditions, how science can endure in the face of looming budgetary cuts, the financial return of science, communications with the Obama Administration, and the possibility of the asteroid Apophis colliding against the Earth in 2036.


ngtTyson: We just reorganized the solar system, combining objects of like properties together. And at the time, more frozen bodies — small with tipped orbits, crossing the orbits of other planets — were found in the outer solar system that looked more like Pluto. And Pluto looked more like them than any one of them looked like anything else in the solar system. So all we did was group Pluto with its brethren in the outer solar system. Then we grouped the gas giants together as a family. Then we grouped the terrestrials — Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars — together. So the family photo of the solar system was presented in these groupings. At no time did we recount the planets in the solar system. And, in fact, the word “planet” is undervalued in the exhibits entirely. We prefer to focus on physical properties of these objects, rather than try and salvage a word that hasn’t been formally defined since before Copernicus.

Correspondent: Well, to talk about the notion of introducing this exhibit and not tipping anybody off initially, until this New York Times reporter ran with the ball and created something of a media storm, you…

Tyson: Something of a media storm?

Correspondent: Something of a media storm.

Tyson: Just say “media storm.”

Correspondent: Well, I’d like to use reverse hyperbole here. But in the case of this considerable media storm, you didn’t tip anybody off. And I’m curious. I mean, the sentiment in this book that you express multiple times is “Science is not a democracy.” And I’m wondering though why you didn’t approach the IAU to essentially get them to get with the program. That Pluto is not a planet. That it is essentially a TNO, and…

Tyson: Trans-Neptunian Object.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly. Exactly. I’m wondering why. Perhaps you could have smoothed things over a little bit with the IAU before introducing this. Does the IAU really not matter in this particular group?

Tyson: IAU cares about what a planet is. And we didn’t. It’s that simple. We didn’t present a case for planethood or not. All we did was say, “Here’s an interesting way to look at the solar system.” Put Pluto with the icy bodies and present it as such. We didn’t say Pluto was not a planet. We made no such claims. We were widely stereotyped for having done so. And that’s the simplest — if you don’t have the time to read what we did, then that’s the simplest thing that people did. Many interviewers — media — would come up to me and say, “So how many planets are there in your exhibits?” And I said, “We don’t count planets.” We just simply don’t count planets. So I had no interest in lobbying the International Astronomical Union. Because they’re concerned with the definition of planet. And when they do, fine. Define it however they want. It doesn’t change sensible ways to organize the information content of the solar system.

Correspondent: But in the minds of people. You had to be aware of the public perception. I mean, in this book, you point, of course, to the Caltech parade in Pasadena, the funerals for Pluto, the endless editorial cartoons and the like. In fact, I actually saw a Discover magazine headline that said, “Beyond the nine planets.” That was a week ago. So people are still struggling with this taxonomy, even though it’s clearly not a planet. I mean, you had to have been aware of this in some sense. What kind of adjustment period do we need? What kind of outreach do we need? Even to the IAU members. The 10% who voted against the idea, who voted for Pluto being a planet.

Tyson: Obtaining its planet status.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly.

Tyson: A mere 10%, I might add.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Tyson: Well, let me make it clear. There are people who have a lot invested in the word “planet.” Odd. Because like I said, “planet” had no formal definition. Not since ancient Greece. Planet means — it comes from the Greek “planetas,” meaning “wanderer.” And it referred to the objects in the night sky, from night to night, would wander against the background stars. There were seven of them — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and the moon. Did I get the seven there? Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and the moon. Seven. That’s an unambiguous definition. No argument there. Seven planets. Copernicus says, “Wait a minute. The Sun is in the middle. Earth is one of these objects that goes around the sun. The moon goes around the earth.” So Earth became a planet. The sun became not a planet. The moon became not a planet. And so, okay. But even at Copernicus’s time, the word “planet” did not get a formal definition. It was only, “It just seems right. Let’s just keep it.” It was not formally defined until the IAU in August 2006. I’m fine with their definition! Because it doesn’t matter to me. The word is not useful.

BSS #265: Neil deGrasse Tyson (Download MP3)

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Another New Review

There’s a lot of fresh content that will be unloaded onto these pages over the course of the day, including three podcasts and a film review. But while you’re waiting on all this, you can find my review of Christopher Moore’s Fool in today’s Barnes and Noble Review. About a month ago, this assignment caused me to delve into any number of King Lear adaptations and reworkings, getting in touch with a rather obsessive interest of mine that I’ve kept quiet about (for reasons cited in the review). And while I’ve long championed the work of Christopher Moore (who was interviewed on The Bat Segundo Show in 2007), this review asks a number of very important questions about the satirical novelist’s present output. To find out what those questions are, and what my ultimate conclusion about Fool was, you can read my review.

Amazon Profiting Incommensurately Off Bloggers?

As I pointed out more than a year ago, Amazon has been offering monthly blog subscriptions to Kindle readers, but, in some cases, it hasn’t been paying the bloggers a reasonable cut of the revenue. And as my investigation revealed, in some cases, Amazon didn’t even bother to ask permission from the bloggers. While the monthly subscription cost has gone down to 99 cents per month, as Rebecca Skloot discovered on Twitter this afternoon, Maud Newton’s site is now for sale on the Kindle. (Maud has since revealed that a nonexclusive contract she signed with Newstex gives them the right to distribute her content through the Kindle.)

But there’s a big question here. If Amazon makes 99 cents per subscription, how much of this goes to the bloggers?

I am now in the early stage of a major investigation to determine, once again, if the bloggers listed on the Kindle store are collecting any commensurate revenue or granting their permission to Amazon to have their blogs distributed. And I will be updating this site with my findings. If your blog is listed on the Kindle Store, please contact me so that we can begin to hold Amazon accountable for seizing content generously offered for free and selling it to others on the open market.

There are currently 1,280 blogs listed at the Amazon Kindle Store.


successNow imagine living a life, like Elizabeth Gilbert, in which you’re convinced that your greatest success is behind you. That seems to me a boring and not particularly ebullient existence: you’re holding onto a trajectory in which you’ve done the best you can and there isn’t anything better that you can do. You’ve hit the big time, and that’s it! Finito! It’s all downhill from here! But at least some elitist organization meeting out in the middle of nowhere will pay you a good sum of money to speak to a bunch of people who seem to believe they are successes based on a few large sums they’re filling into the blanks of their 1040s. And it’s all a bit confusing because the speaker has already reached the highest form of success possible! And the people who are gathered together at the secluded retreat have already predetermined that they are successes, based on being better than the sad Joe Sixpacks who must settle for the YouTube videos kindly distributed on the Web. I suppose, if you’re Gilbert or one of these dutiful attendees, you’re not really planning on being a better success, or the success that you have is somehow proportional to the amount that is in your checking account. But is that really success? Or is that boasting? And since boasting falls into that regrettable terrain occupied by arrogance, are the TED folks, in this particular instance, arrogance enablers?

Is it becoming for any artist or curiosity seeker to boast about any particular success? Or to put a final value on what success is? Is success, as Booker T. Washington once suggested, something to be measured not by the position one has reached in life, but through the obstacles that a person has overcome? And is it not incumbent for any decent person to create new obstacles so that success becomes meaningless? (Eat, pray, and love all you want. But if your soul is hollow and solipsistic in the first place, you’ll never get anywhere.)

By that measure, success becomes something unmeasurable and, in all likelihood, unattainable. It’s a bit like an experiment that the Caltech folks spring on first-year students. The story told to me about two decades ago is this: You put a girl at the end of the gym. You tell a group of boys that if they can get from one end of the gym to the other, they can kiss the girl. But the deal is this. They must constantly move one-half the distance that they started out with over a series of stages. Now it seems at first, particularly in the early stages, that you’re going to get to the other end of that gym. But, of course, as we all know, if you’re constantly moving one-half the distance, you’re constantly splitting the distance. One half becomes one fourth becomes one eighth becomes one sixteenth. You get the picture. But the incentive to kiss that girl — perhaps similar to the value of success we’re bandying about here — overwhelms any rational sense. You’re never going to kiss that girl if you constantly move forward by one half of the distance with each move. But perhaps you will if you never agreed to this condition in the first place.

Success then, like the Caltech experiment, is one of those tricky yardsticks that really doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if you’re quite happy putting your efforts into evolving, trying to get better, creating more obstacles. The honest person in this situation will tell you that she really hasn’t a clue as to whether she’s a success or not, because the honest person is forever shifting. Not letting some weird economic qualifier hinder or destroy what she does. Not letting some mythical unit called “success” put a cap on what she does. Casablanca, as we all know, was just a studio picture. It’s a fine motion picture, but it wouldn’t have happened if Michael Curtiz and everybody else had worried about how much of a success it should be or whether it represented the maximum amount of success that the cast and crew would ever obtain.

Such a burden seems counterintuitive to the wonderful impulse of being. Why should a subsequent failure matter so much because it follows a “success,” if, after all, the person working on the project is simply pumping the work out in the same daily manner performed in producing the “success?” (Unless, of course, there was never any plan to be distinct in the first place, and a convenient “book advance” permitted the person to live in a sad bubble.) Is this the way that we ferret out the frauds? We’re fond of penalizing the “lesser” work, when we really should be looking at the person’s entire trajectory. The real element to be concerned about here is the person who refuses to set up obstacles, the individual who settles into a declivity rather than fails quite naturally (and accidentally) in the act of producing more work. The person who takes the check to spread misinformation. The type who doesn’t understand that risk and failure are virtues. The austere soul who refuses to hop on board the wild rollercoaster of life.

The Publishing Industry: An Economic Thought Experiment

Case Study 1: During Presidents Day Weekend, the software company Valve tried out an experiment. Valve, the company behind the successful Half-Life franchise, temporarily halved the price for Left 4 Dead, a cooperative first-person shooter title, from $49.99 to $24.99, over the course of a few days through its centralized Steam client. The results exceeded Valve’s wildest expectations. Sales rose 3,000 percent, and the revenue generated over the weekend dwarfed the game’s sales during its launch. By temporarily offering the game at a price point that was affordable to everybody, and making the game instantly downloadable, not only was Valve able to breathe life into a four month-old game, but they were able to get more people attracted to the product. Valve’s DRM policy is fairly straightforward. If you purchased a game, you can download the game on another computer, should you login as that user. (This was, incidentally, how I was able to redownload Half-Life 2 last year after a move, when I had accidentally deleted my Steam files and couldn’t find the original disc that I had purchased. One overnight download and I was back in action, happily fragging alien creatures.)

There are a number of important points here.

1. Unlike the Kindle or the eReader, there isn’t an expensive entry point here. You don’t have to pay $400 to get started on Steam. You can download the client for free on the hardware you already have and just pay for the games. The cost is minimal and affordable.

2. Unlike the Kindle, the DRM rights aren’t limited to the device or a singular computer (unlike last year’s Spore DRM controversy). If your hard drive goes kaput, then you can download the game again on another computer. Simply identify yourself through your Steam ID, and you can download the game on as many PCs as you want.

3. By offering a variable price point that considered what the general (and probably out-of-work) consumer wanted, Valve was able to generate more interest in the title than they anticipated.

Case Study 2: For seven years, the comic book industry has offered Free Comic Book Day. The idea is this. The general consumer goes into a store, gets a few free comic books, and is reminded why comics are great in the first place. The consumer divagates through a store and purchases more titles. And the whole thing gets considerable media attention.

The smart retailers, like Mike Sterling, spiff up their stores and offer additional in-store sales: 10% off graphic novels, four for the price of three on manga. (And in Sterling’s case, the graphic novel sales alone paid for the cost of the FCBD floppies.) You get the community involved by making celebratory cakes. You get to find out what titles get people excited. You get to form relationships with potential new customers. You move product. (For Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find owner Shelton Drum, FCBD is one of the top three sales days of the year.) You get to demonstrate to people why they need to keep going to a comic book store. And, like the Valve experiment, there’s no expensive entry point. Plus, the consumers will walk away from the store with something.

Case Study 3: Board game manufacturers are now considering something that worked very well during the Great Depression. If you offer an American family a reasonably priced form of entertainment that will last for a long time, they may very well set aside $20 to buy the product during lean times. (According to a Hasbro spokesman, board games and puzzle sales rose 2% in 2008.)

Case Study 4: Soft Skull had a surprisingly profitable year in 2008 because the efforts here were focused on (1) knowing the audience and (2) working hard to connect the audience as intimately and personally as possible. (In other words, if you treat your audience like some dopey general demographic, why on earth would they bother to buy your product?)

* * *

So what do we take away from all this? How did these successes emerge during a recession? In each case, the individual’s daily realities were respected. There probably isn’t a lot of money to go around in the household, but there was just enough cash for a micropayment. The individual wasn’t asked to invest money she didn’t have in some fancy-schmancy technological doodad before purchasing an affordable form of entertainment. The individual received an affordable long-term option that would keep her entertained or occupied for many hours. The individual did not have to deal with invasive DRM that suggested she was a criminal. The individual was listened to and treated with respect by the retailer. And the retailer never assumed that it would make a sale. But the retailer likewise had opportunities to listen to what the audience wanted and to find out what it may be doing wrong.

So if there is a modicum of money to be made in a limping economy, why aren’t today’s publishers and book retailers accounting for these realities?

Most people who are now out of work cannot afford a $30 hardcover, let alone a $400 Kindle. And yet corporate arrogance keeps these units at prices unreasonable to someone unemployed who needs a little entertainment during an economic downturn. And what is the result? Anger boils to the surface. Long-term relationships with potential customers suffer because the corporate overlords remain inflexible on price point.

So if you’re a publisher or a bookseller, consider this. If you know that people can afford a $10 hardcover (as opposed to a $30 hardcover), why in the hell aren’t you learning from these examples? Why aren’t you offering a Valve-like time window where people can walk into a bookstore and purchase a few $10 hardcovers over a weekend? And why aren’t you promoting the hell out of this? Why isn’t there a Free Book Day in which you get to introduce people to the joys of books and you get to know your customers? Why aren’t you forming intimate and personal connections with readers so that they’ll continue to buy your products? And why aren’t you considering that they really don’t have a hell of a lot of cash to throw around right now?

Are you willing to take a hit on the first spate of units, much as Valve did, if there’s the possibility that you may just hit a thundering mother lode after the initial curve? Or do you want to continue to turn off readers?

Can you truly afford to refer to the territory between the coasts as “flyover states” when there are good people there who want to enjoy books right now? If you’re an author or a publicist, can you afford to thumb your nose up at any media opportunity that isn’t the New York Times Book Review? Or are you not really all that interested in establishing relationships? If you’re a newspaper or a magazine, why aren’t you citing the blogs or providing helpful URLs to the blogs that break the stories or make the connections? Why aren’t you hiring bloggers to write the articles? Don’t you realize that online audiences might come your way if they know that a particular voice is attached? And here’s a bold concept to consider. If you took the top 10,000 bloggers on Technorati and paid each of them $40,000 a year — a livable wage that would permit them all to carry out their work, which could also include serious investigations — that’s a cost of $400 million. For $400 million a year, someone could get the top 10,000 bloggers reporting for newspapers and seamlessly integrate their content into the great whole. And the newspapers could offer copy editing and journalistic resources so that their voices might improve. (Of course, you’d have to accept their unadulterated voices. For these voices, differing from the mainstream, are what caused these bloggers to rise up in the first place.)

If today’s publishers, booksellers, and media outlets hope to answer these questions and produce results similar to the above four case studies, then bolder ideas and experiments need to be attempted and shared with transparency in mind. It is not economically feasible to sit back and wait for the magic results of the stimulus package to trickle around. The current Dow Jones declivity has demonstrated the follies of lame ducks. The previous ways of doing things may very well be at an end: possibly with some permanence. But we won’t know this for sure until those in positions of power attempt a little innovation and modify the current formulas that aren’t working. Change, it seems, was something we hoped somebody else would do. But it’s now become quite apparent that today’s real innovators are those with the courage to take hold of their own destinies.

[UPDATE: Since this post, like many of these lengthy ones, originated from thoughts and musings I expressed on Twitter, here are a few related thoughts from others on the subject. @jimmydare observes that Orbit is experimenting with the $1 ebook. @AnnKingman pointed out that Record Store Day was a huge success for her local record store. (More details on what goes on at Record Store Day here.) @thebookmaven suggests that a Free Book Day might be one way that independent bookstores can compete with ebooks, and also suggests a $5 Book of Your Choice Day.]

It’s the Content, Stupid

Dick Meyer’s sad, little article about the impending death of newspapers fails to pinpoint several root causes. The end of stand-alone book review sections may strike a symbolic blow to those, like Meyer, who remain blissfully terrified of the present. But if the coverage still remains available and accessible, how then can this be a blow to literacy, wisdom, and intellectual agility? The coverage, as has been repeatedly documented, isn’t going away. It’s just going online and finding its way into other sections of the print newspaper. Meyer’s uninformed position is that, because the Washington Post books coverage is shifting from Book World to the daily section, somehow, the books coverage itself will become more primitive, less wise, and otherwise worse than it is presently.

This is a remarkable insult to the hard-working team at the Washington Post. Does Michael Dirda become a lesser critic because you read his work on a screen instead of a piece of paper? No, he doesn’t. So Meyer’s position isn’t snobbish. It’s idiotic. It doesn’t concern itself with the reviews at all, but with the medium. It’s the position of a doddering coot who isn’t “against the grain” at all, but very much for the grain. Meyer wants to keep things the way they once were without accounting for the way they are now. By Meyer’s own standards, his own article must be inferior because it is appearing on a website. By Meyer’s own standards, his status is very low indeed. Lower than Smeagol crawling through the caves in search of the ring.

Let’s examine Meyer’s paralogia here. His position is that one must protest the demise of print book sections because “what lives in books” must be preserved. This assumes that “what lives in books” cannot live online. Let’s imagine that the Internet never came into existence. Few critics saw their collected book reviews bound into books. And those who did, like the late great critic John Leonard, have seen their collections fall out of print. A daily newspaper, assuming that it was even read by a subscriber, would be replaced by another. The newspaper piece that a writer would slave over for hours would often find its way to the bottom of a birdcage.

Now if you wanted to hunt down a specific piece, you had to go to the library, roll up your sleeves, stare at a bleary strip of microfilm (assuming the specific roll was there and assuming that the people who OCRed the newspaper actually went to the trouble of scanning the text correctly and assuming that the microfilm machine’s focus wasn’t off or that the machine wasn’t otherwise malfunctioning), and hope for the best when you clinked your dimes into this appealing yet temperamental contraption. It was, as any curiosity seeker fumbling about in libraries during those days knows very well, a colossal pain in the ass.

The Internet, by contrast, permits you to find a specific piece without such technological hangups and serious investments of time. That forgotten newspaper piece? Instantly locatable, assuming that the newspaper has had the good sense to preserve an online archive. It can be sufficiently argued that the Internet can produce greater attention to a books section. Suddenly, a midsized metropolitan newspaper has a national audience greater than its analog local base. A talented writer, seemingly working in the middle of nowhere, suddenly becomes thrust into an unanticipated spotlight. The books section lives, so long as the newspaper lives. (And that is the real problem that none of the print partisans are willing to confront or concoct solutions for. Can an online-only outlet be profitable? Can book review coverage be preserved or even be augmented through online coverage?)

Given these developments, newspaper writers are possibly in a greater position to expose their readerships to “a wide variety of writers.” Except that, more often than not, newspapers are more interested in writing to a “general audience,” instead of presenting the “general audience” with “a wide variety of writers.” Small wonder then that newspapers are relying more on their brand names instead of their content, and book enthusiasts have turned to the Internet for alternative options. It is not that books are being devalued by readers. It is that audiences are being devalued by newspapers. When you view your audience as “general” and you limit your spectrum, the audience is smart enough to know better. This regrettable editorial mentality has likewise made its way towards the more “distinguished” online ventures hoping to pick up the slack. Consider the Daily Beast’s recent profile of Colson Whitehead. Here was an opportunity to interview an author shifting in a new direction, a moment to engage a talented author and get people more interested in his work with lively and thoughtful questions. But the questions, which include such dull zingers as “So how does it feel to come back to Sag Harbor now that you’re older?” and “Are you a barbecuer now, like Benji’s dad was?,” are no different from a vapid puff piece. They insult the general audience and insult the practice of journalism.

If, as Meyer suggests, “huge profiteering and wildly promiscuous marketing” is a “cruel virtue” for books, it is not far crueler to sustain an atmosphere in which a talent like Whitehead must be subjected to these meaningless questions? And if Meyer truly wishes to offer a culture in which “oddballs and dissenters” are allowed to flourish, why then is he so smitten with capitalism and celebrity?

This mad scrambling has nothing to do with the format it appears in. Antediluvian types, such as Meyer and editor Eric Chinski in this lengthy conversation, remain terrified of today’s shifting notions of cultural authority, but the underlying issues have very little to do with the outlet or the medium it appears in. It’s the content, stupid. And the sooner that we all recognize this, get past our own fears and prejudices, and create a few viable revenue models that benefit all and provide a sustainable room for the “oddballs and dissenters,” the better books coverage will be in the long run.

Meaningless Infograph #2


This above graph continues our very important series, Meaningless Infographs, in which various infographs, often of a personal nature, are presented to the public in an effort to demonstrate that blogs can present just as much meaningless data as newspapers. Now here we have an infograph with some very disturbing information. On February 16, 2009, the subject stayed inside most of the day. He had work to do. We can aver that the two boobs he noticed were likely someone close to him and permit other scientists to draw their own conclusions. However, we also know that the subject stayed inside for most of the day on February 15, 2009, save for a few errands that he had to run, which entailed leaving the house. Apparently, while the subject ran those errands, he went out of his way to deliberately espy boobs. What accounts for the discrepancy? Is the subject a sexist pig? Or is he merely a red-blooded male who likes boobs? Is it possible that the subject was somehow surrounded by too many boobs, thus causing an unexpected spike in boob sightings?

The data that most confounds our scientists is the set for February 13, 2009, in which the subject deliberately noticed one boob, but not two. Is it possible that the subject observed one pair of boobs, deliberately glimpsing one boob while accidentally or unintentionally glimpsing the other? Is this the lustful answer to continuous partial attention?

Meaningless Infograph #1


In an effort to keep things somewhat unpredictable, I will be juxtaposing meaningless infographs — most of them of a personal nature — at random intervals on this website. Since other newspapers seem needlessly fond of meaningless infographs and these newspapers continue to view blogs as threats to their business models, it makes sense for blogs to begin inserting meaningless infographs on their pages. In this way, the newspapers and the blogs can work together to saturate the media landscape with meaningless data, rather than information that minds can masticate upon.

New Review: George Friedman’s THE NEXT 100 YEARS

Well, the Gerald Celente post continues to draw plenty of haters to this site. And that’s fine. Because everybody needs a hobby. But I’m pleased to report that I’ve taken on another dubious futurist in the fine pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. I had truly hoped for more from the book. I have a soft spot for futurists and I always start reading a book hoping for the best. But, alas, it proved to be grand bunk.

Today, if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can pick up the paper and read my review of George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. Unless, of course, you want to read it now. I can’t possibly predict the future of your own decision, but I’m all too happy to embrace the uncertainty of the present.

Roundtable Discussion: Eric Kraft’s FLYING

kraft-flyingBeginning on March 2, 2009, this website will be kickstarting a lengthy roundtable discussion of Eric Kraft’s Flying over the course of the week. (For those hoping to follow along with the discussion, this is the same week that the book comes out.)

Who is Eric Kraft? Well, as I learned when enlisting roundtable participants, a lot of people aren’t all that aware of him. In fact, I only found out about the guy by accident about a decade ago, when I stumbled upon a series of paperbacks labeled The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy at City Lights. I flipped through the pages, and found a number of pleasantly fabricated pictures, diagrams, and illustrations, ended up purchasing a number of these books, and began reading.

Peter Leroy, as it turned out, was a guy in the present writing his “memoirs.” Except that these memoirs are fabricated from hazy childhood memories. Or are they more accurate than can be believed? One of the pleasant side effects is that the lie of the “memoir” often reveals ebullient truths about the human condition. But we never quite know how much of this is invented and how much of this is true. Why is Peter’s wife, Albertine, so patient with his imaginative condition? Or is this likewise a put on? One character, Matthew Barber, is a miserable toy executive with an alter ego named B.W. Beath who he impersonates when he reviews restaurants for the newspaper. In Reservations Recommended, we initially believe Barber to be real. But we learn in that book, and, most notably in Passionate Spectator, that he is fabricated and that the alter ego within the alter ego is of great importance to the “real” Leroy.

Now my description here suggests that Kraft’s novels are needlessly complicated and will give you a headache. But they’re really not. What’s especially striking about Kraft’s work is that none of these postmodernist tricks come across as exceptionally showy. His books are perverse, funny, obsessive, entertaining, and sometimes quite heartbreaking.

But Kraft hasn’t quite found the great audience that he deserves. And one of the reasons I maintain this website is to draw attention to overlooked and underrated authors.

So in a few weeks, we’re going to have about fifteen people here discussing Kraft’s latest book. There is also a separate podcast interview with Kraft in the works, in which I will do my best to conduct as definitive an interview as I can. (I have read all ten books in the Leroy series. This is the first author interview in which I have conducted this kind of insane preparation.)

The book that we will be discussing is Flying.

Flying is composed of three novellas (“Taking Off,” “On the Wing,” and the previously unpublished “Flying Home”) and follows Peter Leroy’s pursuits, as he sets out to build a flying motorcycle that will carry him to such exotic places as New Mexico. Each novella takes on one part of the journey, and the “journey” often involves numerous side quests and other divagations. But how much of this adventure is by design? What of the reconstructed Babbington Historical District that looks suspiciously similar to the Babbington in which Peter Leroy grew up? And what does all of this have to say about memory, permanence, and experience?

Well, we hope to answer these questions and more when the roundtable discussion begins. Until then, keep watching the skies!

I’m Done With Facebook

It was bad enough with all the apps and the winks and the intrusive nonsense that greeted you every time you logged on, but this was the last straw. Facebook, showing how smug and contemptuous they are of community, now wants to seize the rights of anything you create and happen to distribute through their networks, by changing the Terms of Service to suit their avaricious purposes. I never agreed to these Terms of Service, and chances are that neither did you. For the record, I sure as hell do not grant Facebook any right to store archived copies of any content imported form my blog, and if these boneheads even try to use my content, they will face severe legal ramifications. And it won’t be limited to arbitration. Because I never agreed to the new terms of service. And nothing in the OLD terms of service indicated an automatic update to the NEW terms of service.

So I’ve deleted my account. If you want to delete yours, the magic link is here.

Nothing that I create will ever be distributed on Facebook again. If you want to contact me, you can get me on Twitter or email.

I would advise any writers, artists, and photographers to remove their content posthaste, and not give Facebook the right to profit on your hard labor. Creative Commons and community is the solution. Not autocratic assignation of rights.

UPDATE: J.F. Quackenbush has put up a post in relation to this, suggesting a certain hypocrisy among those who are up in arms about Facebook’s decision. (In Quackenbush’s view, since we have no problem copying a picture, we should, in theory, have no problem giving up our content.) He also calls out Chris Walters for failing to contact a Facebook representative is lousy journalism. Ordinarily, I would agree with him on the second point. But in this case (and unlike the Washington Post Book World/NBCC contretemps), we have very specific language in the TOS to work from and interpret.

To respond to Quackenbush, what’s not to suggest that Facebook wouldn’t do precisely what Eric Bauman did? Bauman, as you recall, took the content that other people created, hosted it on eBaum’s World, and profited without distributing the money back to the people who created it. This was the scummiest of business practices, running counter to the open distribution of content — that is, if we can all accept the ideal model for rights and sharing to be some optimally tuned Creative Commons license. When you upload a YouTube video and it becomes a hit, Google (most of the time) ensures that the content producer is involved with revenue. And Google, to its credit, amended the Chrome EULA when there was public concern about content rights.

But the Facebook language clearly dictates that you are giving Facebook an irrevocable and perpetual right to distribute and make derivative copies of content you upload to Facebook for any purpose. ANY. Whether it be a book, a film, or whatever other options Facebook may have cooked up. Recall Alison Chang, who saw her Flickr photo turned into a Virgin Mobile advertisement without her consent. I certainly don’t want my likeness being used for advertising “for any purpose” without my consent. And that’s precisely what I’m giving up under the Facebook “license.” Granted, my interpretation here assumes that “on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof” will be interpreted fairly broadly. (And actually, the trickiest bit in the paragraph is the final sentence, which conflicts with the previous sentence. If you’ve already granted Facebook the irrevocable right to give up your content and likeness, then how can you still have “all rights and permissions?” Perhaps an IP attorney can sort out this thorny language.) Since Facebook has demonstrated no reservations in sharing private data with developers, the company’s history suggests that this same recurring invasion of privacy will carry forth under the new Terms of Service. The only difference is that Facebook now intends to profit from the content you upload, and they can now use it in any way they want, because you’ve capitulated all your rights to it.

UPDATE 2: The Photo Attorney thinks the new Terms of Service are bunk. And Dhananjay Nene explains why he deleted his data. MediaVidea conjures up some sordid possibilities for what Facebook will do under the new TOS.

Mashable: “Until now, users had options with regards to how the data they generated on Facebook was used. Now, they have no options whatsoever, rather than quit the service altogether. It’s a major difference; I’m not going to take it lightly, and neither should you.”

Meanwhile, Andy on the Road compares Facebook and YouTube’s respective Terms of Services. When you delete a YouTube video, YouTube does not have any control over the data. The license ends. And it’s also worth noting that Twitter’s Terms of Service maintain a what’s yours is yours policy.

UPDATE 3: Amanda French compares Facebook’s TOS against other social networks. The results, in the words of Ms. French, are “extraordinarily grabby and arrogant.” Facebook has responded, claiming, “We certainly did not — and did not intend — to create any new right or interest for Facebook in users’ data by issuing the new Terms. None of the news or blog reports at the time we announced them on February 4 suggested any confusion or misunderstanding.” On the contrary, the current Terms of Service spell out Facebook’s intentions quite clearly. If Facebook genuinely was not interested in “confusion or misunderstanding,” then why didn’t they inform the users of the ToS change? This is insulting corporate boilerplate from an arrogant organization that truly believes its users are idiots. Boycott Facebook!

UPDATE 4: To clarify my stance for the FOX News crowd (you know, you could have contacted me), my quibbles are with both versions of the blanket license. But the newer one is especially diabolical because of the manner in which it abrogates rights to content that you have deleted without informing the user. As abundantly proven by Ms. French above, none of the other social networks do this.

UPDATE 5: More spin control from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in which he claims that Facebook’s philosophy is predicated on people owning their information and content. Alas, like the Facebook spokesman cited in the Standard article in Update 3, Zuckerberg does little to mollify the salient issue. You can have all the philosophy in the world, but it’s the language that exists in the terms that matters the most. Zuckerberg promises that “over time we will continue to clarify our positions and make the terms simpler.” He may want to think about speeding up that time window, because, according to Brian Stelter, a story is running in the New York Times tomorrow morning.

UPDATE 6: Facebook has revised its TOS back due to public outcry.

Review: Friday the 13th (2009)


Why in the hell would anyone want to see a reboot of Friday the 13th? Well, the killings, of course. Jason has such a physics-defying command of the machete that he can stab the top of a woman’s skull through the floorboards of a dock, pull the woman up with the machete so that the camera can conveniently film her tits, and then plunge her back into Crystal Lake. I’m surprised that Jason never made an appearance on Letterman’s Stupid Human Tricks or Playboy After Dark.

Over nearly three decades, the people who have made the Friday the 13th movies have transplanted Jason into Manhattan, shot the undead psychotic into space, and pitted him against Freddy Krueger. But the silent and murderous hockey-mask-wearing killer is such a bore that even these “high-concept” storylines have revealed just how utterly hopeless this horror series is. Jason has spent too many years lumbering like a dopey hulk with a chip on his shoulder. He’s the kind of mindless zombie who could probably use some therapy, but he never seems to talk back. Although he does stop sometimes if you’re a woman who looks like his mother with the talent to shout “Jason!” in an obvious and peremptory tone. Which is too bad, because even Michael Myers — the character who Sean S. Cunningham ripped off — had Sam Loomis. And unlike Freddy Krueger, you don’t even get the benefit of the wisecrack when the blood gurgles from your throat. Which seems impolite at best and a missed opportunity for full-scale vengeance at worst.

It doesn’t help that the people killed are just as vapid as our intrepid murderer. Jason’s victims, by and large, are dopey teens who like to fuck each other’s brains out. Jason — that great American Puritanical impulse — is always there to redefine the terms of afterglow. His victims have included Crispin Glover and Erin Gray. But Corey Feldman was recast between films before he could be eviscerated for popular audiences. At least there’s some more explicit sensuality in this film. Characters jack off to Hustler (and a winter catalog, of which more anon) and, put their noses close to bottles of alcohol and marijuana crop. Presumably, this permits them a last fix of living in lieu of the Krueger bon mot. Oddly enough, nobody in this film smokes cigarettes. I can really see Jason making a mortal statement on behalf of the Surgeon General.

So what do director Marcus Nispel (who also remade The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift bring to the formula? One of the most deafening sound mixes I’ve ever had the misfortune of being subjected to. Nispel is so incompetent at executing a proper shock that he’s had the sound designer on this show crank up the volume at the highest fucking decibel level. And this is perhaps a worse crime than the feds blasting heavy metal to ferret out Manuel Noriega. He’s even added in inexplicable whooshes of the flashlight. So be sure to bring your earplugs. That is, if you haven’t lost your hearing already. (And perhaps that’s the demographic this film has been designed for.) There’s also been an effort to incorporate present technology into this movie. You’ve got your GPS systems, iPods, and the cell phones that malfunction at convenient moments. Jason now has a mine beneath the dilapidated camp, where a victim has been held for six weeks and still manages to have impeccable hair and makeup. I presume that Jason has offered full continental breakfast service between murders. Or maybe she was fed and kept hydrated by the random rats running around.

We also meet some of the people who live around Crystal Lake, which include a redneck stereotype fond of smoking and dealing weed and permitted to live until Jason feels the need to kill him to obtain his hockey mask. (That great Puritanical impulse again. The redneck stole the weed from Camp Crystal Lake.) And I’d hate to be employed as the poor cop, who doesn’t seem to be fully aware that there’s been a major spike in disappearances and murders. There’s product placement for Pabst Blue Ribbon and Aquafina, explicit in the dialogue, which I believe may be a first for the Friday the 13th series. The murky photography is perhaps the grainiest of any of the Friday the 13th films. The dunces who shot this movie don’t seem to understand that low light, high speed stock, and silver halides aren’t the best combo.

Perhaps the film’s greatest innovation is the introduction of racism to the Friday the 13th series. We’ve come to expect sexism. But here, we get a token Black Guy and a token Asian Guy (and I hope that Angry Asian Man will be on the case with the latter). There’s initially some promise with the former, as he confronts a white woman who assumes that his music career involves rap. “Because I’m black, I can’t listen to Green Day,” says the Black Guy. And there was a brief moment in which I thought to myself that the filmmakers might actually subvert the formula. Alas, Caucasians are the only ones who get down to business in this movie. Our Black Guy, hearing all the white people getting lucky upstairs, is forced to sift through a winter catalog so that he can masturbate to a rich-looking white woman. And he doesn’t even get the consolation of ejaculating. For the door is opened, the Black Guy zips up his pants, he rushes out to look after his friend, and is then axed (asked?) in the back by Jason, wailing at the top of his lungs for his friends to save them. Well, they never do. He’s bait, you see. And Jason turns him around and punctures the axe through the front of his chest. The brother always gets it.

The Asian Guy appears inspired from the Long Duk Dong stereotype in Sixteen Candles. He drinks from a shoe and is mocked for purchasing condoms at a store. He knows how to fix things. And even the Black Guy persuades all that he knows how to fix things. (Presumably, the Asian Guy operates a rickshaw business too.) He expresses sexual interest in one of the white girls and, as he’s about to down a flaming shot, he’s too clumsy and falls over. He is mocked further. And then he goes out, drinking directly from a bottle of scotch, and is found chopped up in a meat locker.

So if you’re white, you’ll get laid. In the view of Nispel and company, you are the bacchanalian master race. And you have to hand it to Nispel and his collaborators for making Crystal Lake a world where the whites win. Where douchebags named Trent may whimper like a coward when faced with death, but inevitably get cowgirls bouncing up and down on their cocks.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Friday the 13th becomes a big hit among Ku Klux Klan members. It does succeed at upping the stakes in the Friday the 13th series, but then the stakes were atavistic in the first place.

A Brief Interregnum from Arnie the English Bulldog

While the proprietor attempts to come to terms with the many emails that poured in over the last several days, the considerable notes he took for several TOC panels, the video footage he has to put together and get on YouTube, and the rather insane obligations he has going on during the next few days, the proprietor interrupts the scheduled program to present a photo of Arnie the English Bulldog, which should tug gruffly at heart strings and serve as an interregnum to the considerable e-chatter about ebooks that has popped up at this li’l e-place.


Tools of Change: Nick Bilton

The New York Times may very well be the only newspaper that has an R&D Lab. And as Nick Bilton boasted on Wednesday morning at a keynote address, there don’t appear to be any publishers with an R&D lab either. Bilton had called about ten publishers “just for fun” to see if any of them had an R&D department. The receptionists were baffled. But what Mr. Bilton may not understand — particularly in this publishing environment in which ebooks again represent less than 1% of the market — is that the average Joe is probably not familiar with the term.

None of this prevented Mr. Billton from some wild generation generalizations — channeled by way of his three-and-a-half-year-old nephew Luca, captured with digital tools on slides — that the generation now in prepubescent form will require everything instantly. In Bilton’s view, Generation Next will be growing up in a world in which they will expect all content in seconds. But not after they’ve been scolded by a diligent parent while grabbing for seconds before all the firsts have made room on their plates for dessert.

I was uneasy about the technological razzle-dazzle applied to toddlers. Yes, it’s a truism. But to bask in it without considering the deeper social ramifications was unseemly. Bilton’s enthusiasm reminded me of unscrupulous advertisers who have boasted about two-year-olds who can identify the Golden Arches. Or the kids who now enter a demographic before even saying their first words. But little thought has been paid to the ethics behind hitting kids up in their formative years. Instant gratification certainly gratifies, but how precisely do all the doodads aid rumination? Maybe there are some circumstances in which it’s probably best not to have it immediately. Maybe the limitations of a device produce creative and journalistic constraints that improve content. (Case in point: Because the laptop I am currently borrowing is having some issues and may shut down, and because I have approximately ten minutes to finish writing this post before heading of to another panel, I must express great care for these sentences, essentially writing this in one very careful and fast first draft, and strive to get as much here as my copious notes will allow. The technological limitations prevent me from liveblogging, as others are doing, and so I have additional time to think about what I have witnessed before writing about it. The reader may not be instantly gratified through the liveblogging. But I’d like to think, in light of the good observations made by Carolyn Kellogg, that this permits some things from not being lost between the tweets.)

Is long form content dying? As Bilton demonstrated by dragging up New York Times articles from the late 19th century, there were similar reports made when the telephone and the phonograph appeared. The “X is dead” statement has remained a constant through every iteration of technology. But I couldn’t help but consider the slide Bilton showed which read “Our Brain’s Are Changing” [sic]. Clearly, technology does have a downside. And it is, given the ebullience Bilton evinced at the possibility of going into a tangent comparing ants and those who work online, leveled squarely against individual expression. I do not view anybody who may be reading this post as an ant. I welcome outside perspectives, particularly from those who can sufficiently prove that I am wrong. I only ask that they take the time to actually understand the difference between plural non-possessive and singular possessive.

What do we lose in this greater scope when we settle for a custom version of the New York Times that conveniently elides those stories we might stumble across? And how does this facilitate — to use one of the dreaded corporate verbs I’ve heard too much around here — another’s curiosity? It is not enough to employ sensors as editors. It is vital that we use technology in a way that matches the human impulse: masticating instead of thoughtlessly devouring, listening instead of pontificating, and ensuring that the tools actually match the way our brains cogitate.

And if that means taking the cute young Luca aside and telling him that he can’t have his toys all the time, and extending these general limitations to a manboy or two here at TOC, then I think this might get us to a more constructive conversation about our relationship with technology. If we can’t factor in the concept of waiting into our daily lives, as Bilton clearly does not, then does he really have his finger on the pulse? Or is he just some guy more impressed by the flash and flicker of a new atavistic fire?

Tools of Change: Smart Women Read Ebooks

Panelists: Kassia Kroszer (moderator), Angela James, Malle Valik, Sarah Wendell

(For related coverage, you can check out my video interview with Wendell shortly after the panel.)

So if you’ve been following these lengthy reports, you’ve probably developed a sense that there is a profound disconnect between the geeks who develop the technology and the readers who imbibe it. Jon Orwant may have talked with readers during his magazine editing days, but is he really doing this to the greatest possible extent now? Do web stats and trends of the moment alone really account for what the consumers want? Thankfully, Kassia Kroszer, in a nonscientific manner, conducted a survey with 750 female readers, hoping to determine their relationship to books. Yes, they read a lot. And the development geeks may want to consider that they read two to five books per month and that 60% of the readers surveyed between ages 30 and 50.

Malle Valik pointed out that there were three development efforts she made at Harlequin: (1) downloadable audio, (2) manga, and (3) ebooks. And guess which of this digital trio was the proud winner? Harlequin readers liked ebooks. Quite a lot in fact. Valik joked that she should probably earn a commission for talking ebooks up. And when you are considering the many series inhabiting the romance genre, well, wouldn’t you be foolish to avoid making some titles online for readers? But Amazon has often done just that. Further, as Wendell pointed out later, Amazon does not tend to acknowledge the button you press when you express interest in a title. Talk about wasting an opportunity to connect with your customers. (And while I have expressed skepticism about the buzz term “social community,” I think it can generally be agreed that Amazon’s failure to respond to requests certainly represents just about the biggest asocial step you can take if you want to continue to attract repeat customers or sell them on your shiny new toy.)

In fact, as Wendell pointed out, women are the customers. Her website, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, had received 16 million hits in January 2009. These are the ebook readers you’re looking for. Women, in Wendell’s view, like pretty objects and usable design. “We will reward you,” continued Wendell. “We will tell you how good you are in bed with multiple swipes of the credit card.” Wendell rattled off recent studies in which 55 out of 96 million spent on electronics were from women, and that 80% of fiction was purchased by women. Is this an audience that any self-respecting businessman wishes to ignore or treat as dumb?

Some more interesting stats from Kassia’s study: 60% of women read ebooks on their laptop. And why is that? Probably because these e-readers are too damn expensive. So why not a $100 price point? Or perhaps, as Angela James suggested, throwing in a few complimentary ebook titles in with an e-reader purchase? And why, given this revealing data, would any self-respecting hardware publisher continue to offer closed ebook formats?

These hardware distinctions are perhaps more important than the developing geeks might think. After all, Ms. James revealed that she had broken up with he Kindle. The Sony Reader had better folder management. And the back of the Kindle kept falling off. The panelists were dismayed that they had to be pegged as criminals because of Amazon’s restrictions. Furthermore, as Ms.James noted, consider that Sony has expanded into non-American markets, while Amazon has kept its focus in America. You can’t use the Kindle’s wireless network outside of America. So what good is it when you factor in the salient realities of human migration?

Wendell noted that $10 seemed to be the “hard stop” on ebook price. If a reader is regularly purchasing paperbacks for $5.99 or $6.99, where then is the incentive to purchase a $25 ebook? There is the notion that an ebook should cost less because it’s not a tangible object that occupies space. But Wendell didn’t have a specific answer about where ebooks should be priced.

And here’s another problem with ebooks. You can’t resell them or loan them. And that’s simply not acceptable to the average reader. Sharing is a vital part of reading, and that’s now become illegal. There was a hypothetical question posed about someone emailing 100 people with the latest Nora Roberts book, with the publisher losing the sales. Valik pointed out that Harlequin was in the interest of obtaining nearly all rights and that she was certainly trying to figure out a reasonable way to ensure that sharing becomes a viable option.

Which returns us, in a more reader-inclusive manner, to the TOC buzz term “social experience.” I think, based on my Tuesday peregrinations, that I’ve observed how people think about technological developments. But I’m not so sure if they’re accounting for the reader. Certainly this panel provided a few more pertinent answers than “The Rise of Ebooks.” But I think it’s important to consider that social experience is something that emerges from the form, often with helpful and ancillary results. But it is not necessarily the form. In order for ebooks to penetrate beyond 1% of the market (and, again, the assumption here rests that ebooks will take off with Wilcoxian dreams of riches and avarice), it seems to me that they are going to have to not only listen to readers (particularly regular readers and women), but consider every aspect that makes the printed book work. These aren’t going to be easy questions to answer. And they’re certainly not going to be cleared up in three days by a bunch of excitable plutocrats at an O’Reilly conference. While the music industry has seen the phonograph switch to the cassette, and then switch to the CD, and then switch to the MP3, we really haven’t seen anything like this with books and paper. Joe Wikert suggested that emerging forms of technology look ridiculous until they’re established. But there’s possibly a greater risk in looking and acting ridiculous when you accept the emerging possibilities without healthy skepticism or learning a few lessons from the past.

(More reports on Wednesday’s events, which I am presently in the middle of, to come.)

Tools of Change: The Rise of Ebooks

Panelists: Mark Coker (moderator), Joe Wikert, April Hamilton, David Rothman, Russell Wilcox

If I had to compare Tuesday’s panel with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, I would say this. Claire Danes was superior to April Hamilton. Russ Wilcox, a rather cocky gentleman who spoke like some snobby Yale know-it-all with his head held high and dashed off a number of wild and extravagant and unprovable claims, would be comparable to Nick Stahl. The difference is that Wilcox isn’t living off the grid. Indeed, despite the technological benefits of his E Ink invention, he’s all too happy to smudge his fingers and sell the human race to Skynet. David Rothman was Ah-nuld, and he did okay. Regrettably, there wasn’t a nude T-X character who liked to seduce and kill, but I suppose Mark Coker, who started off stiff but began to prove his sardonic worth upon poking holes in Wilcox’s extravagant vale, will fit the bill. But Joe Wikert was the smartest guy on the panel: open to present technological realities and a man who, unlike all the other panelists, was not entirely willing to buy into all the hype.

While I will confess that the Brad Fiedel theme played in my head at numerous points, I can say this. With Coker and company relying on Amazon’s dodgy 10% figure, along with Sony’s extravagant claim that 300,000 Readers had been sold, I was skeptical. Ebooks, after all, represent only one half of 1% of the total market. And to my knowledge, there hasn’t yet been a figure from an independent third party to determine if ebooks are indeed the great white hope that will decimate print and get all of us fighting robots in an apocalyptic future.

Rothman said that Amazon’s DRM was what was really killing this natural evolution. In order for the ebook market to expand, it’s going to be necessary to consider open source. Wikert likewise agreed that DRM had to go away, but added that any e-reader should consider adding value to the print products. If future e-readers didn’t do this, then they would eventually hit an artificial ceiling. “When you’ve got a hammer in your hand,” said Wikert, “everything looks like a nail.” He hoped to see more exemplars of rich content. Video and dynamic possibilities. Fancy little bells. But nobody on the panel chose to consider the issue of whether it would be the author or the publisher that would provide this additional content. Still, Coker did joke that the iPhone might be programmed to vibrate at a certain tone upon a new e-volume of erotica cascading against the technological shoals.

Wikert elaborated further. One product, he said, could be calibrated based on what that person wanted to do with it. He urged the audience (and those who work in this industry) to not only study the latest technologies, but to be actively involved in using these technologies.

This sense of play and flexibility did not apply to Russ Wilcox, who should have worn a T-shirt reading I’M HERE TO PIMP MY GOODS in large lettering readable from half a mile away. Wilcox suggested that Moore’s Law now applied to e-readers. The speed of E InkTM innovations now doubles every eighteen months, all contingent upon brightness, contrast, and speed. He foresees this future: In 2010, the flexible displays expand, with a larger size permitting an advertising-driven model in which the profit machine becomes self-aware. By the end of 2010, a full color e-paper device hits the market — initially limited to pastels. Over the next eight to ten years, various color e-readers duke it out with each other and geeks presumably choose sides in the forthcoming jihad. He also cavalierly predicted — with no hard sales or trend data; because we all know that he’s sworn to corporate secrecy on the subject — that in eighteen months, 2-3% of American households would have e-readers in their homes. Coker quibbled with this, pointing out that he would need an enormous growth rate for this massive jump to happen. There was no mention of the limping economy, much less the incentive for Joe Sixpack to buy the latest Kindle at a gargantuan cost, only to see another version released less than a year later.

I am not really certain why April Hamilton was on this panel. But she brought up a notion even more preposterous than the failure to consider the time and money it would take for authors and publishers to generate dynamic content. She believed that smartphone applications would be the future. Never mind that the book is a rather specific medium and that, indeed, some books may not necessarily work this way. As Rothman observed, because of an iPhone’s limited storage space, apps have the tendency to be deleted. This prompted a rather defensive answer from Hamilton, delivered in the timbre of a beauty pageant contestant, “I would say there’s no single answer.” Well, can you perhaps agree that you might be wrong? Can anyone at this damn conference confess that they really don’t know where things are heading?

Actually, yes. Wikert was wise enough to point out that the early version of the iPhone in 2001 looked rather silly and that the current version of the Kindle will look silly in five years. It helped to talk shop with rapid technological evolution in mind. Wikert expanded on the panel’s general anti-DRM sentiment by suggesting that a Kindle App Store might open up Amazon’s possibilities.

Wilcox suggested that Stanza wouldn’t exist without Kindle. This gave him a ripe opportunity to trot out a catchphrase pertaining to the unit: “the container affects the experience.” And just as he was about to get beyond the topic of E InkTM, he then suggested that E InkTM wouldn’t really make its way onto cell phones. The outside of cell phones maybe. But I wondered whether Wilcox might somehow find a way if Nokia came to him with millions of dollars. Then he might appear on another panel, hold his haughty head up high, and remain absolutely convinced that he was right. (Note to Wilcox: If you’re going to talk like a snob, it helps to speak like William Buckley.)

I don’t want to delve into Ms. Hamilton’s Indie Author Movement (almost TM, but since it represents “the people” in a rather naive manner, I will leave subscript silliness outside of my report). Mainstream publishing just doesn’t have what the Indie Author needs. And how dare these other authors tsk-tsk their fingers against self-publishing? It’s not vanity at all to pay your hard-earned money for a slapdash operation without editorial oversight. The books industry, Hamillton proudly declared, is now as ignoble as the movie industry. Nothing more than highly commercial fare! I mean, they haven’t thought about the niche markets at all! An author publishing her work was never vanity.

“Uh, great. Thanks,” responded Coker.

By the time Wilcox brought up “tipping points,” I wondered if the bright young thing had ever considered the common reader. Fortunately, the next panel brought this very important subject to the center.

Tools of Change: Jon Orwant

Jon Orwant is a highly confident man. Some might say (and a few certainly did to me) that he is one of the great egotists of our epoch. By his own admission, he is certainly not an amateur. But then when you’re the Engineering Manager for the world’s biggest search engine, and you’re white, and you’re rich, and you’re male, and you’re at a conference with an egregious gender divide in place, and the likes of Tim O’Reilly and Cory Doctorow are there trying to throw a few jabs and you answer their questions without really answering their questions, well then you really don’t have a lot to lose, do you? Particularly when you’re talking about Google Book Search. Which is just so much better and making everybody so much money! Even in this economy. And isn’t cash what it’s really all about in the end?

There was a good deal of swagger at the panel titled “Google Book Search: Past, Present, and Future.” And I don’t believe the Scrooge parallels in the title were entirely unintentional. But it was my second favorite panel of the day.

“I’m happy to geek out about copyright,” announced Orwant at the onset. But everybody wanted to hear him talk about Google Book Search. Google has some seven million books indexed. It’s “a platform for searching, discover, reading, and buying.” (Fun fact: The word “buy” appears six times in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” — I know this thanks to Google Book Search — and it is always used, in all cases, in relation to buying items for the poor. But this may not have be the “buying” that Orwant or Google have in mind.) Google Book Search has a Partner Program, in which the rights holder wants the content searchable, with boxes of books and PDFs sent Google’s way for OCR magic. It also has a Library Project, in which 100 million books are checked out of libraries and scanned. Google, Orwant says, doesn’t charge for it. No money exchanges hands. Charity! Nevertheless, the “buying” participle still exists in that “platform” designation.

Thanks to a concept called blending, Google Book Search options remain in the top search results. An effort to direct traffic GBS’s way. For while Google is the patron of GBS, GBS must be kept profitable. You didn’t think they were doing this out of the goodness of their heart now, did you?

There are 1.5 million free books, all public domain titles, available on Google. But if you want to access them, well, you’ll have to go to Google. Or you’ll have to have Google generate results at your site. Because the Google team are specialists in latency. They can do things with milliseconds that you couldn’t work out in your dreams. As an experiment, Google recently unleashed Google Books Mobile, which means that you can nose search Google Book Search from your smartphone, assuming that Thomas Friedman isn’t hogging all the bandwidth on the island. Orwant was careful to point out that Google is not in the handset manufacturing or carrier business. But he anticipated, just as many of the seer-like speakers at Tools of Change did based on sketchy inside information, a “rapid evolution.” Nevertheless, because someone had cracked a Twitter joke about reading Ulysses, there remained the possibility that someone was using GBM for serious literary endeavors. Why? “I personally have no idea,” rejoined Orwant to his own question. This was an experiment to see what usage will be like in the next few years. Google wishes to dominate.

The revelation about 1.5 million free ebooks prompted Cory Doctorow to press Orwant on a question about why these couldn’t be released as a torrent. A sensible idea. But you see, Google needs to keep these books on their site. Because they’re constantly tinkering with the display results. Latency and other assorted topics of expertise, remember? And there is no evidence that GBS harms sales. Trust Orwant on that.

Tim O’Reilly tried to badger Orwant too. You see, O’Reilly used to have good webpage placement for many of his titles. But those days are gone, replaced by Google Book Search results above the O’Reilly pages. And that hardly seems fair. “It’s not me; it’s the algorithm,” responded Orwant. But wasn’t Orwant one of the guys who came up or oversaw the algorithm? Orwant may have only been following orders, but it did raise a very important point. If a publisher has a specific webpage for a book title, should they not have that webpage come up in the search results before a GBS page?

There’s some comfort in knowing that 99% of the books at GBS have been viewed at least once. Even the sleep-inducing textbooks. Which is really quite something. Which brings us to the future, which is based on the past, which does not involve thrown mugs. You see, Orwant was once the editor and publisher of a magazine. Subscription base: 12,000. (He said at the panel that he did not know what he was doing.) Orwant loitered in a bookstore and watched people picked up his magazine and would approach them for insights. (He said he did not know what he was doing.) He learned valuable lessons about pictures, the size of the title, and other layout factors. (He said he did not know what he was doing. But as we learned above, he’s no amateur.) So if Orwant did not know what he was doing, he certainly wanted to figure out these trends. Perhaps in telling us that he did not know what he was doing, he is actually alerting us to the possibility that his real interest was in tracking. And, lo and behold, now GBS is all about figuring out what people are reading next. It hopes to introduce more options to render these images as XML. Which means text-based pages and character recognition. Which means distributing content further and getting more GBS results. And why are the publishers being so irksome about the price point? They can’t possibly make a profit at $50 a pop, but they can at 50 cents a pop. If the information can’t be free, then it can certainly be brokered at a cheaper price thanks to Google technology. Of course, the price has to work for Google, not the publisher.

That snippet view you see with some titles? Orwant’s official position, pressed by Cory Doctorow, is that it’s fair use. But once the October 2008 settlement in Authors Guild v. Google is approved by the court, you’re going to see that snippet view jump to 20% of the book. But in the meantime, GBS’s dominance is all but confirmed. You’ll begin to see public access terminals in libraries. But there’s always consumer purchasing options. A guy named Adam Smith (no joke) is head of the product. Sure, we’ll reap some benefits of these developments, but it doesn’t feel entirely right that a private and cash-heavy corporation holds all the cards. Particularly one with the smarts to keep a savvy guy like Orwant on the payroll.

Tools of Change: Bob Stein & Peter Brantley

tocsteinThe morning started off with Bob Stein, founder and co-director of The Institute for the Future of the Book. It’s worth pointing out that for thirteen years, Stein worked for The Criterion Company, which he founded. Stein observed that he had always viewed the Criterion discs as items that he published and that this notion of “publishing” arose from a then groundbreaking video in 1980 that depicted the moving image with text on a screen. In Stein’s view, there was a McLuhan-like distinction to be made between user-driven media (books) and producer-driven media (movies, radio, and television). But because issuing a laserdisc meant giving an item to one individual at a time, it involved “publishing” it. (In fact, the early Criterion logo featured a book turning into a disc.)

The Internet, however, stretched Stein’s meaning about what a book was. While CD-ROMs offered staggering data that permitted a user to study the life of Stravinsky, the Internet, of course, imploded this notion. There began to emerge a separate sense of what a book was or could be independent of its categorization of an object. The book itself became much more important than data or content, and became very much about connecting other people. To illustrate this, Stein cited three examples: (1) Without Gods, a blog that chronicled Mitchell Stephens writing a book for a year, in which every day had a post and coteries of readers emerged who went on the journey with Stephens; (2) McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, in which a draft of Wark’s book was posted online, with each paragraph represented by a card (and in turn generating numerous comments next to the text, putting the reader on the same level as the author); and (3) an annotated version of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in which twenty students annotated the book (similarly to Wark) using a WordPress plugin called CommentPress.

Stein viewed the recent experiment involving Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook as a failure to create a culture of public reading, but a success in connecting seven women together through the annotation. And Stein believed that the connection that the book had engendered was now part of the book as well. In Stein’s view, if you look at a book as an object, you effectively hide and obscure the social engagement that comes with the tome. And that social experience is perhaps more corporeal than we realize. So Stein’s new definition of a book is “a place where readers (and sometimes authors) congregate.” The authors may become leaders of communities of inquiry (nonfiction) or they may become creators of words that readers populate (fiction). To this end, Stein viewed World of Warcraft as “the best book as a place.” It is therefore up to publishers to create a future that involves building and nurturing communities for authors and their readers.

Stein’s examples certainly represent fascinating enhancements which permit a book to take on a supplemental life. And it really had me thinking about some possibilities I may employ to augment the roundtable discussions that crop up here from time to time. But is the supplemental reaction to a book really part of a book? The buzz term “social community” kept cropping up at these keynotes and panels with troubling frequency. While I’m all for the notion of the information wanting to be free, I’m wondering if these supplemental aspects truly encourage other people to think independently about these subjects, and whether open source philosophy and “social community” (soon to be trademarked, I presume) is truly open to opposing viewpoints.

My skepticism was warranted when the Digital Library Foundation’s Peter Brantley gave a presentation that came perilously close to the treacherous Speedlearn experiment from The Prisoner. In Brantley’s view, a book is a social construction simply because we create our own reading environment in our home, shared with other books, or we happen to create that space in public. Therefore, getting involved with a “social community” becomes vital to the form. Such enlightenment! I wondered if Brantley, like many readers I know, had ever read a magazine or a mass market paperback while sitting on the can, or whether his income bracket had made such a common consideration declasse. I suppose if I sat with my ass hanging out long enough, I could probably justify the amount of toilet paper on the roll as a vital “personal space” component. If someone were to pay me money to stand in front of a bunch of unquestioning techies, I could also claim to have seen a deity while reading some Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker and attempt to persuade you that this was a religious experience that called for a “social community.” But you’d probably throw tomatoes at me and demand that the cane extract me from the stage. And rightly so.

Here was a man who presented a programmed keynote without spontaneity, even producing slides like “ah, let me explain that…” to mimic his seeming asides. It was as if the audience was there to be programmed rather than consider a viewpoint. And it was the primary reason why I decided to skip Cory Doctorow’s predictable anti-DRM rant. One of these was quite enough for me.

Among some of Brantley’s generalizations:

“A book is a social construction.”

“A book is a machine to think with.”

He even used the phrase “We’re reaching into books,” as if to suggest that the reading experience was more of a phony New Age experience in which some fifth circle might be obtained. But then in Brantley’s deense, I’m naturally suspicious of ponderous speakers who walk up and down a stage wearing a silly beret and holding a coffee cup. If Brantley had delivered his keynote in French, smoked an unfiltered cigarette, and perhaps thrown in a few passing references to the oppression of the working class, then I suppose I might have forgiven him. But he was dead serious about this.

A book may be generated by a machine and ebooks may be available through machines, but that does not mean the book itself is a machine. Nor should the reader transform into a machine. This kind of perspective may work in programming circles, where jargon and other linguistic bullshit is tossed around as casually as spitballs. But for those readers — most of us, I would gather — who see books as organic, guys like Brantley really fail to see the bigger picture. And I’ll have more to say about how the reader’s perspective — with the exception of one notable panel organized by Kassia Kroszer — has been utterly ignored by these slick and affluent concept slingers in subsequent posts.

(Photo: James Duncan Davidson)

Tools of Change: Initial Report

During a morning in which news of layoffs at HarperCollins and the future of BookExpo America was severely reduced in time and topography, here at the Marriott Marquis, Tools of Change rolled on. I appear to be the only guy here wearing a T-shirt, but not the only one nursing a hangover.

I’ll have some reports of the panels later in the afternoon. But I can report that the crowds here are largely male, that the recent publishing news has left those attending this conference with their hopes somewhat crestfallen, and that Tim O’Reilly and Cory Doctorow offered a few contrarian questions to Jon Orwant — that too cocksure man from Google, who answered in response to a critical query, “It’s not me; it’s the algorithm.” Orwant’s answer is quite fitting, because nobody here I’ve talked to really does have the answers, nor do they want to take responsibility. A CEO insisted to me that his POD machine will change the world, but when I asked him about whether or not an independent bookstore could afford to lease it, he refused to divulge the details. A new e-reader displays a crossword puzzle, promising “annotations and marks,” but one cannot so much as fill in the letters for 4 Across. Peter Brantley lectures to his audience like a New Age dope hoping that we’ll accept his mantras about “social community” without question, but there are considerable holes to his sunny utopian vision.

Nobody knows anything. But people wish to carry on as if they somehow do know everything. And that means being on the cutting edge for any half-assed technological development that gets people’s eyes bulging out of their sockets.

That’s not the change we were promised. And these aren’t necessarily the tools you’re looking for. But we all carry on. Let us hope we aren’t fiddling while Rome burns.

“Now I Understand That Frustration…”

Or does he? Has Rep. Paul Kanjorski ever known a day without a hot meal? Or a day in which he had to scrape together change from under the sofa to buy groceries so that he could feed his family? Has he ever fallen behind on rent? Utilities? The electric bill? You see, those are the facts that millions of Main Street Americans — many of them recently unemployed — are now living. Or is Kanjorski one of those types who believes that one cannot live in New York City on less than $500K a year? Rep. Kanjorski’s claim in the above clip — that the world economy would have collapsed within 24 hours had not guarantee money been granted to banks — is, to say the least, highly suspect and deserves careful and detailed scrutiny by economists. Like the supply-side schemes of the past, the money has not trickled down. And if the Democrats cannot produce tangible evidence that it will trickle down, then they must be called on the carpet. Assuming that the carpet does not fray up before a reasonable answer.