Thus, the editor of Slate, Jack Shafer. He’s referring of course to the hope that some kind of tablet e-reader will allow magazines and newspapers to break into the digital world bigtime, and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. More the reverse, says JS. He watched the debut of the super-duper Sports Illustrated, that was conceived in a format to fit a tablet reader, with lots of video, color, splash and other digital fireworks. Apart from the fact that no such thing as a tablet reader exists right now, the set-up was impressive. Schafer has what seem to me some sound reasons for his scepticism, which he shares:
Maybe it’s hard times, or maybe it’s something else, but the theft of books from bookstores is on the rise. For some, book theft is a kind of “proof of manhood”, and the docket of those busted for this offence runs strongly to the male side. For others, books are desirable entities that, alas, are financially out of reach, so the acquisition proceeds “by other means” as Clausewitz said about war. The most-stolen book is the Bible, which, when you think about it a minute shouldn’t be all that surprising. In fact, it’s swiped even from religious book stores which have a policy of giving away a Bible to anyone who asks for one, gratis. In some bookstores, the theft rate is one book per hour, which over a week would be a very nice sales figure, but in this case sadly reflects loss of income. It’s not clear who the “most stolen” authors are, but Martin Amis, Paul Auster and Jeffrey Eugenides are often mentioned, along with some semi-classics: Don DeLilo and Jack Kerouac for example.
The estimable Technology Review starts off the 2010 publication year with a long article on ways to make computing in the “the Cloud” more secure. We all have to get used to this “cloud” business, because it’s big stuff and we’ll be hearing a lot about it in the next couple of years, and things are moving pretty fast. I think it would be better if I didn’t try to summarize the contents, and just let you read it on your own. It’s about 5 pages, and that may sound like a lot for online reading, but it all goes pretty fast and the piece is well-written and clear. You need to know about this, and you will be hearing about it, I can guarantee that, so it’s better to be a little prepared, especially in exploring the downsides. Cloud-based computing has some impressive theoretical advantages, especially for administrators who want to save dough, and may not be too interested in hearing about problems. So, be prepared.
Well, is it? That’s the question posed by an article in the St. Louis Today, web site which surveys the scene and tries to take the public temperature on whether 2010 will be the kick-off year in the Great Migration from print to digital display devices. Not much new here, but it’s nicely put together and summarizes matters pretty well. There are some interesting comments appended as well, but the meat is in the story.What’s holding it all up seems to be the lack of a common format, problems with color, the price of the reader itself, and a few other things. All these have been addressed in these lines, several times by more than one commentator. In fact, maybe we should take a rest from reporting on this for a while, because all the writers are saying the same things, only in different order and with different emphasis. The almost total triumph of the cell phone will be seen, I think, as the necessary spark or gateway or whatever metaphor you want to employ. People use handheld devices all the time and for different purposes, so the idea of reading a book on them has lost any strangeness it might once have had. What all this means for writers and publishers is unclear, but I think the new year will usher in a long period of side-by-side existence, in which the two formats, print and digital, each play to their strengths, and users sort themselves out as belonging to which ever camp they want to claim as their own, at least at the moment. I don’t want to look at Hokusai’s Views of Mt. Fuji on a cell phone. But I don’t have to have what Germans call Bahnhofslekture, books you buy at the railroad station to help pass the time, in an expensive, handsomely printed format either.
It is or it isn’t. It now seems that it is, sort of, a little bit anyway. That’s the Google phone. For a while now there was talk that Google was planning to release a handheld phone of its own design that would be what The G thinks a handheld should be, without any compromises required by dealing with outside manufacturers. The rumors got a boost recently when the company handed out exemplars of what is being called Nexus One. The folks were told to try it out and see what they thought. Google has an operating system back for handhelds, called Android, and it seemed to make sense to go ahead and launch a phone to go with it. Motorola did, in the Droid package. Analysts are divided on the Google phone, whether it makes sense that is. There are some drawbacks. Not the least of which is that Google would have to get into retailing hardware, something it hasn’t done. In fact, it doesn’t retail anything, so why start now. Google would also probably have to sell the phone at a loss or subsidize it somehow, since most existing mobiles are sold by networks in bundles with a service plan. Customers would have to pony up a nice chunk for an “unlocked” phone, as they call it, and then shop around for a carrier. It’s all possible, and if the G-phone were something super-special, maybe enough people would do it. I use my phone to make calls and to receive calls, and that’s it. So almost any phone around is several times more sophisticated than what I want and need. But, that’s me. The last word is that Google seems to be fooling around with this phone idea and has gone as far as comissioning a number of actual devices, which people are using. But industry observers are scratching their heads over the rest of it. We shall see.
Gone With The Wind was probably the biggest money maker of all motion pictures, ever, once all the factors have been added in. Or, so they tell me. GWTW is also a kind of landmark in movie history. It was the Brontosaurus of movie making in the old style…spectacle, get the right stars, spare no expense, damn the torpedoes, everything has to be just right, in fact it has to be perfect. I wonder how young people today, seeing it for the first time, think about it, if they do at all. The soft-focus view of slavery has always disturbed people, and the characters seem un-human somehow: Melanie is too good, Rhett too irresistibly seductive, Scarlett too bad, Ashley too wimpy. Theyâ€™re more types than people, to me anyway. But once the film gets rolling, the viewer can sit back and enjoy the feeling of watching a well-oiled machine producing entertainment, by the yard. GWTW is not a history lesson, or a course in the sociology of the Old South. It’s more like a soap opera, only grandly done, on a great scale, against a heroic background.
We’ve been reporting on this side of things for a while now, and passing on the warnings of the Cassandra types who’ve been saying that science and technology are generating so much observational data that the management of all that information is turning into a first-rate crisis. Many research investigations in physics, chemistry, astronomy, climate science and others now generate floods of observations, and unless something happens soon, the investigators might just as well hook their instruments up to open windows and let all the data vanish. It’s not enough to capture the observations. They have to be stored, indexed in some useful fashion and made available for re-use, either by the original team or by others. And there is the little matter of preservation, which is bad enough when you are talking about preserving the digital version of Nature, from its first volume and first number, but becomes staggering when you are dealing with rivers of observation. A new book, called The Fourth Paradigm, underwritten by Microsoft, and featuring contributions by the company’s scientists or contractors, seeks to outline some possible measures. The work commemorates the legacy of a Microsoft scientist., Jim Gray, who disappeared in his sailing craft some years ago, and who had urged the research community to get serious about this question.
We cover death, off and on, depending on how I feel about it at the moment. I don’t go out of my way to find important deaths, but if somebody I have some connection with dies, or if the deceased is important, or at least if I think s/he was, I’ll say something. It’s pretty subjective, I admit, but it’s my blog. Well, we have had a number of interesting people depart this life recently and it’s time for a nod.
First, Thomas Hoving, who was Director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was an interesting guy, who ran the Met for about ten years, and did some good things there, the particulars of which I won’t repeat here, other than to note that he snagged the King Tut exhibit which was an absolute blockbuster at the Met and in other sites around the country. He also managed to tick off a lot of people, partly because of his non-reverential, non high-priest-of-culture approach to the job of Director, and his somewhat too frank admission of art collecting’s dark side, especially in the purchase of items which had left their original countries by the agency of colorful people and in unusual ways, shall we say. His interest in the art world’s lower regions upset many of his colleagues, and he carried it forward in a career as a “fakebuster”. Since he knew many of the fakers and forgers personally, he was often able to spot their work. Hoving suggested that the ranks of the fakers include some very talented painters, and if you wanted an Old Master or an Impressionist, such a thing could be had, well done and fairly simply too. The suggestion that quite a number of museums are displaying excellent forgeries has made some museum directors very uneasy. His books Making the Mummies Dance, and False Impressions are interesting and fun. TH was 78 when he died on Dec. 5.
Paul Samuelson was the first American to win the Nobel award in economics, and was a major figure in the development of the discipline in this country, working from his base at MIT. Samuelson wrote an enormously influential introductory textbook, which first appeared in 1948, and now is in its 19th edition. Colleges all over the world use it. Everybody says he brought clarity and rigor to the discipline, and I guess I have to agree, but if that’s so, why are there so many conflicting schools, sects, coteries and theories, each claiming to be the Only True Path. The Times featured a very lengthy obit, with evaluation.
Stephan Toulmin, scientist, philosopher and logician died on Dec.4 at the age of 87. Toulmin came here to give a couple of lectures and seminars on the history of science and medicine some years back. As I recall, he was better in the seminars than as a lecturer, but memory deceives often. Toulmin had a strong science background. As a young graduate, he worked with the RAF in WWII on developing radar equipment, jamming and counter-jamming, and was a participant in the “Sunday Soviets”, meetings of all ranks, civilian and military, in which the only rule was: anybody can say anything. High ranking officers were not pleased to have their views shredded by some junior, or worse, some civilian armed with a few equations, but it was felt that progress on radar was more important than hurt feelings. If somebody has a bad idea, kill it now, and don’t waste time on it. Maybe charming ideas such as that get a chance only in wartime. Toulmin was a very influential writer and thinker, who moved easily between different fields, but without being shallow. He really wanted to help everybody understand what science is and how it works.
Finally, we say goodbye to Gene Barry, dead at the age of 90. Barry was a movie actor, with a nice screen presence and a good, somewhat gravelly voice. These made him perfect for roles that required a certain class. He was perfect in a tux, and looked like he lived in one. I include him in these farewells because of one line of dialog in The War of the Worlds, not the Tom Cruise one, the earlier. Barry plays a scientist, in a nice suit, who is advising the Army about Martian weapons. A harried general tells him that the Martians seem to “be reversing the magnetic friztratz on the gravitational whatiz, making our systems useless. Is that possible?’ To which GB replies, “if they’re doing it, it is.” Poifect, as Moe would say. Empiricism summed up in six words. Barry had a long career, in all forms of ShowBiz from song and dance through musical comedy to drama, in the movies, on TV and legit.
Circumstances have not been kind to the publishing industry, and the bad news keeps on coming. Some landmark periodicals in book publishing are getting the chop as their parent company unloads them to “focus on growth”. That’s management euphemism for “kill the weak sisters and sick puppies”. Editor and Publisher magazine will close after 108 years of publication history. E&P is an insider’s trade journal for the industry, a place where publishing types could go to do some professional reading. I didn’t read it often, but from what I did read, I concluded that it was well put-together and not badly written. But E&P is not the only mag facing the firing squad. Kirkus Reviews will close as well, and that’s a real loss to many librarians because, as the name implies, KR was a source for reviews on new books, which could help libraries in selection decisions. In places such as small public libraries, you need all the help you can find to make sure the limited book budget is well spent, so KR played a useful role. AMAZON includes KR reviews of books, whenever they were available, as a help to dithering online buyers.
But, not anymore. You will be glad to know that the company that is closing these two venerable and useful publications has decided to continue Progressive Grocer or to sell it off, I forget which.
Variety is the house sheet for the Show Biz industry, and it is in no danger of going under, at least not right now. But the paper is in the news for another reason; the publishers are re-instating a toll gate for access to the contents. For a while, Variety went with the “information wants to be free” crowd, and let everybody in. But, the wind on charging for access is apparently shifting 180, and one site after another is locking up much, most, or all content behind a pay wall. The rationale in the present case is this: Variety is aimed at Show Biz types, and the assorted supporting populations. Too many casual general readers were reading online, but the core audience is insiders, so the publisher decided the best way to focus on them was to impose a charge to discourage non-pros. Makes sense.
Variety of course is famous for its punchy, telegraphic headlines that grab attention. Back in the Thirties, an article relating that people in rural areas actively disliked the movies about farmers and country people that were being shown was headlined: “Sticks Nix Hick Pix”, and one about the commercial success of the movie Passion of the Christ carried the headline: “Good Book Books Boffo Biz”. You get the idea.
David Pogue, one of the technology writers at the NY Times takes a look at the Nook, the E-reader recently launched by Barnes and Noble, and is not particularly impressed. Everyone has the right to an opinion, and Mr. Pogue doesn’t say the Nook is bad. He spends much of the review comparing the advertising and puffing claims against the gadget’s actual performance while in his hands.The gap, and there is one, makes him a little bit testy. But it’s the season for testiness; it’s Christmas.
The same issue features a story describing the formation of a design coalition of major magazine and newspaper publishers to work out the technical specifications governing a platform for the next generation of e-readers. After the surprise success of the e-book reader, and after some gloomy prognostications about the general fate of periodical publishing, and after a first-class battering admimistered to their advertising revenues by the recession, periodical publishers want to be ready for the next round, and a come-back. The group is not designing for a particular device or family of devices, but wants to create a publishing standard that will be operative on platforms not even designed yet. Publishers are very aware that someday, fairly soon, the e-readers will begin to offer high-definition color pages, instead of the grey scale now available. And when that comes, they want to be ready. TIME is circulating a video of what it thinks a digital version of Sports Illustrated would or at least should look like. Readers would download it in a fashion similat to buying music from I-Tunes or another such vendor. It will be interesting to see this develop. Magazines