If you haven’t seen the Ken Burns special on the national parks you are missing a treat. I think Burns has a mixed record, but on this one, he has nailed it. Of course, the scenery is stunningly beautiful, and the edting is clever and professional. Of course, also, the research for both text and visual materials is first rate and would do any historian proud. The narration and voice-overs are very good. But, for me, the biggest jolt was in the discovery of how interesting the people are, and about how little I really knew about any of them. My series favorite, so far anyway, is John Muir. Everybody knows the name, and a boatload of Amercians have visited Muir woods near San Francisco, but exactly how deep and complicated a person he was came through in the show, especially in the power of his writing. And, he’s not the only one. Almost all the people appearing, whether as heros or villains, wrote and spoke with a compelling power that makes you pay attention. It also underscors how far public discourse has fallen, and how impoverished our expressions have becomed. Even the simplest letters to friends are marvels of concision, choice of words, and aptness of comparison. And these are ordinary blokes, remember, not university grads. When you listen to the dreadful word salads tossed out by people who hold or aspire to high office, and compare them to these works of ordinary citizens, it’s enough to make you despair of the country’s future. How is it possible that the politicians of the 19th century could express themselves so clearly and forcefully, when our contemporary leaders can produce only ungrammatical stammerings? What happened?
Google has opened for examination and testing a new product called The Wave. It blends into one interface several functions such as Wiki, blogs, email and others. The Wave is intended as a “sharing” software package working in real time. Some 100,000 testers were recruited earlier by Google and now their suggestions will be considered for incorporation into the final release. Things are happening.
Time here equates with interest. Tina Brown, formerly editor of the New Yorker and other mags and now running a blog about journalism called The Daily Beast has signed a deal which will help authors get books published while the topic they address is still, well, topical. Ms. B has a point. The present gear-up cycle is too slow in many cases to get a book into draft, edited, approved and produced while people are still interested in the subject. Of course, you can run a sloppy job through without much difficulty, but I’m sure that Tina Brown has higher standards. Perseus Publishing Group will issue books under the Beast Books imprint, and the expectation is that writers will spend no more than three months working up the books, which will appear in e-format initially. A paperback version may be issued as well, if interest and demand suggest this is a good move. It’s an interesting experiment, but don’t expect too much in the way of contributions to world literature. I think celebrity bios and more detailed treatments of current topics already covered on The Beast are more likely candidates, at least at first. Ms. Brown mentioned that she foresees the typical Beast book as running about 150 pages. There are some precedents that other publshers have launched, and some of them have been quite successful. So, again, we’ll see.
Well, almost dead, for sure, in its previous form. Judge Chin who is presiding over the case canceled an Oct. 7 hearing on the matter, because he had become aware of actions on both sides undertaken to meet objections raised by critics, including that ole meanie the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. The judge said, in essence, that it would be pointless to hold a session to discuss the settlement when both sides were quite energetically engaged in renegotiating many key points. It would be more workmanlike to see what emerged from theses discussions and then bring them forward for consideration by the court. It makes sense to me.
It was introduced on this day in 1792. The revolutionaries of the French Republic wanted to break with the past in every way possible, and introduce new ways of doing familiar things. They replaced the set of customary weights and measures with what we now call the metric system. And they junked the old Gregorian calendar in favor of a new one, a “rational” creation. There were twelve months, each of thirty days, and a month contained 3 “decades” or “weeks” of ten days. The last day in each “decade” was a day of rest. At the end of the year there were five consecutive holidays. The months were renamed with poetic titles such as Brumaire “foggy or misty”, roughly February, and Thermidor “heat bringer”, roughly August. The whole contrivance was to mark the course of that very special new something, the French Republic. So, Sept.22, 1792 became 1 VendÃ©miaire of An I, the first day of the first month called Winegiver, in the first year of the Republic. It lasted until 1805, when Napoleon returned the country to the Gregorian observances. It never really caught on among the people at large, and those who had to do business outside the territory of the Republic had to keep constantly calculating and converting to sure the equivalent dates on contracts and shipping assignments were correct. Many were displeased at the loss of a day off, and I have to say that a ten-day week does seem like an awfully long haul. Napoleon wanted to dump all the trappings of the Republic and get back to bare-faced monarchy, with himself as bare-faced monarch, so he was not reluctant to see it go.
WIRED has a good story about it.
One thing this blog has been doing reasonably well is keeping our readers informed about the twistings and turnings of the fabulous Google Book Deal. Antagonists of different stripe have been complaining about aspects of the Deal for a while now, but criticisms, and the range of sources from which they stem, have been growing. Now, the biggest critic of them all has told the G that the deal, as written, should not happen. The Department of Justice has been watching the proceedings and has also been listening to the quality of the arguments made by opponents. The Department wants the Deal restructured. It has bought the argument that the current agreement does give Google a de facto monopoly over the digitization and sale of “orphan” works: books covered by copyright law, but whose rights holders cannot be determined. Justice has other concerns, relating to the so called Rule 23, which governs class action suits. This is not to say that DOJ is agin the whole thing and wants to scupper it. Reports say that parties have been encouraged to rewrite the settlement in ways that meet the Department’s concerns, and that Google and the authors’ and publishers’ societies are striving to come up with a draft that will work. DOJ realizes the potentially enormous advantage of having so many millions of books available. The presiding judge wants something on his desk by October 3, so time’s a wasting.
In a note, I will confess that I was completely wrong about the prospects for easy approval of the Deal by the court. I’m not sure how much the new Administration has to do with it. After all, both parties seemed happy. But Justice is now apparently watching Google very closely, in whatever they do. And the public interest claims maybe are getting more attention than I expected. All this is good. I’m pleased to have been shown wrong, since it means the regulators are doing what they are supposed to do: encourage competition and safeguard the public interest. Cheers all around.
It’s pretty lame, I have to admit, but it’s Monday and I’m just coming back from a bad shaking up I got from a bike accident. I don’t think this blog has been doing enough to cover the widening scandal of ghosted articles in the medical literature. We talk about it among ourselves, the librarians I mean, and there is an active discussion among some faculty here, but over all, I feel I’ve let the side down somehow. So, it’s time to redress the balance, and we’ll start by bringing to our readers’ attention a story that ran in the New York Times of Friday last, in the Business section. The paper is running a series of articles on the topic of ghostwritten articles in medical journals. Ghosted articles are those written at the behest of a drug company, by a firm of “medical educators”, and then circulated to some “key opinion leaders” in the field, with the suggestion that they review and submit these articles for publication under their names, and receive a suitable expression of corporate gratitude for their cooperation. Nobody knows for sure how many such articles are in the medical literature, serving as the basis for research efforts and patient care decisions. But, the orotund Latin phrase non pauci, not a few, comes to mind. Well, there are some “issues” here, as they say, and I don’t want to review the whole topic in this post. I do want to highlight one reaction to the whole mess by one editor of a major journal, Dr. Cynthia E. Dunbar, editor in chief of BLOOD. In brief, her response is “get rid of them”, and perhaps bar the submitting author from furter publication in the journal, at least for a period of years. Needless to say, such action would also lead to considerable bad odor in whatever professional community we happening to be discussing, so it’s a pretty big stick. Journal editors have been accused of being too wussy on the question of “undisclosed contributions”, let’s call them. So the BLOOD action ups the ante quite a bit. PLoS Medicine has also suggested a stance of zero tolerance on ghosting. And Sen. Grassley of Iowa has been after journals to see what kind of policies they have on the matter and is not really satisfied with the replies. My own idea is to ask the National Library of Medicine to introduce a new publication type, Advertisement, and then request that this be applied to any discovered ghosted article. The withdrawal problem would take care of itself, as authors begged to have their offending articles withdrawn. Who, after all, wants to be unveiled as a corporate shill?
The Times piece has several internal links which are worth following:
Google’s proposed deal to settle all claims resulting from class action suits brought against it by groups representing publishers and authors gained some support from the editors of The Economist recently. The paper (it calls itself a newspaper, even though there is nothing in its format to suggest that) outlined the elements of the proposal, and then reviewed some of the main arguments against it. Worries of cartel-like behavior were dismissed, as the writer insists that price gouging would chase away customers, so pricing has to be kept at some reasonable level. The piece leaves open the possibility of other reviews by regulators on other aspects, but says any drawbacks have to be balanced against the inherent benefits, namely, the provision of books, previously difficult to obtain, in enormous quantities to those who might want them. The European Commission is pondering the implications of the Google deal as a potential model for similar arrangements in its jurisdictions. Next month, the court in New York which must decide the case will open discussions, and we will see what we will see.
PS: Judge Denny Chin, who is to make the decision, was recently nominated by President Obama for promotion to the Federal Appeals Court bench. He’s also the judge who slammed Bernard Madoff with the 150 year sentence for his Ponzi scheme scam.
SONY showed that it wasn’t being scared away from the ebook market, when it announced the newest member of the SONY reader family, one called the Daily Edition. This is a a newbie, in fact I don’t think it’s in production yet, but at an event held in the New York Public Library, SONY showed a prototype. Free wireless service is included in the deal. The Daily Edition is the biggest of the three Reader models, will sell for $199, and be available in December. I’ll bet the SONY execs are begging and pleading to get models out faster than that, in order to maximize whatever advantage the Christmas season might give them. If things are the way they were last year, that won’t be much. The name, Daily Edition, suggests but does not prove that SONY is gunning for the newspaper/magazine market in addition to books. Just a thought, that.
So, let’s see who’s in the running. Amazon, of course, with its Kindles, then SONY with its three machines, then Barnes and Noble with PlasticLogic, maybe, then AUSA, and then TIME, INC. That’s five groups developing or selling dedicated readers. In addition, there are apps for various hand-held units, like Iphones and Ipods and such. Add in the market formed by laptop owners only, not desktops, and you start to come up with some pretty impressive numbers of people who might be willing to pay to download books, enough to make the little hearts of publishing execs go pitter-patter at a rapidly accelerating rate. Of course, there are problems. None of the current dedicated readers will do color. Relatively small screen size is not good for technical materials, or for anything that requires demonstration or illustration: art history, how to manuals, engineering or science texts, etc. But, for the new Dan Brown, any one would do just fine. Ye pays yer money and ye takes yer cherse, as the pitchman says. Two years or so ago the ebook reader arena was empty. Now, gladiators are pushing in from all sides.
Norman E. Borlaug, the father of the so-called Green Revolution, died in Dallas over the weekend at the age of 95. Borlaug was a plant scientist who researched and developed new forms of high-yield grains. He was widely credited with having saved millions from the horrors of starvation and millions more from the misery of chronic undernourishment and slow death. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel, but that doesn’t seem anything like enough as a sign of appreciation.