The old show biz adage is: “if they liked it once, they’ll love it twice.” Or so they say. In the entertainment “industry” the “remake” is a staple. And another one is going to be added to the stable. All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel of infantry combat in World War I, was an international bestseller when it first appeared in the 1920s. The book was successfully translated to the screen, and millions more saw it. The novel and the film did a good deal to undo the anti-German sentiments that were lingering after the war, since they reminded people that German soldiers also underwent the horrors of frontline combat. In the book, a class of secondary school students are “called to the colors” just as they graduate. They learn pretty quickly that war is a savage and bloody business, light years away from the silly flag-waving and chest-beating cheapo patriotism they were brought up on. As the story progresses, fewer and fewer of the students, now very grim and efficient young killers, survive. It’s all pretty sad. There was a TV remake of so-so quality some years ago, with “John Boy” Walton as Paul Graber,the protagonist, and a pretty good back-up cast. Now, Harry Potter hisself, will put on jackboots and spike helmet and slog off to war. Daniel Radcliffe, who is trying very hard not to get boxed into that Boy Wizard slot for good, will play Paul Graber. I’ll say this for the kid: he’s really trying. On stage, he played the young man in Equus, he’s booked for Broadway in a revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and after that gig, he puts on the feldgrau uniform for Front. It’s surprising that anybody is risking money on this. A lot of the Iraq war movies have been financial failures, even though they were pretty good movies. And a Broadway revival of Journey’s End a good play about WWI, earned a wheelbarrow full of critical awards and great reviews. At the end, audiences just sat in stunned silence and didn’t know whether to cheer, cry, applaud or what, but it was a fiscal flop. People don’t want to lay out 60 bucks for theater tickets to a downer. They can see downers for free on TV news. War is bad box office. We have some wars of our own going, and people want to get away from them all, and the other bad news, stupidities and follies too…..Hello ToyStory and Adam Sandler.
Well, so what. It’s probably legal in California right now. Kidding aside, steganography is old technique for concealing a clandestine message in a carrier or vehicle of some sort that apparently has no such function. For example, say you’re an agent for Country X and your job is report on the number and type of naval vessels passing in and out of a base. So, you hang your laundry outside. Three shirts means three submarines, say. Two sets of jeans would mean two whatevers. Of course, you and your “control” have to agree on what garments stand for which types. That’s the basic idea, but it can be made more complex and more secure by computer gizmo-itry. The Russian agents picked up the other day apparently where using steganographic techniques to transmit messages in what seemed like ordinary images. We haven’t had a good spy story in a while, so maybe some interesting stuff will come out of it. Some folks are chuckling that the Russians were still using old-fashioned methods like message-drops and money buried in a yard someplace. Well, old ways are the best ways, right.
American companies continue their painful encounters with the strict privacy laws existing in Germany.The latest firm to find itself asnswering questions about its data gathering practices is Apple, especially after the launch of the new Iphone. The Minister of Justice in Germany has told Apple that the company is expected to inform the proper authorities in the various German states about the kind of information collected, the reason for the collection, and the probable fate of the data once gathered. So far, no muscle. It’s just a request to keep the officials on the state level in the picture about what’s going on. Facebook and Google have had prior sad experience. Facebook wound up having to pay fines, and Google’s fate is not clear, but it’s facing the music. Privacy laws in Germany make it very tough to do any kind of “consumer tracking”. The individual is pretty much in control of all personal information. So, unless companies are very careful, they’re likely to bang into some legal trouble pretty quickly. Of course, over here, all bets are off, and your information is worth money to somebody, so corporate interests resist anything even remotely like the German level of protection.
Extremes touch so they say, and everything that’s old is new again. Or something like that. The link goes to an interesting piece in yesterday’s paper, talking about the future of e-reader displays. Making them more flexible, in the strict sense of making them bend and twist without breaking is high on the agenda. So is color. But I guess it takes a librarian mind to note the similarity between some of the prototypes and the ancient and venerable scroll, the predecessor of our current codex book format. Scolls, if done right, could have a lot of advantages. Assuming the flexiscreen has all the features we want in a display, it would be nice if the whole thing could roll up into a tube, that you could just stash in a jacket pocket or slip into a backpack or something. I saw something very llike in a movie about Mars. The astronauts had these reallly cool maps that rolled back into a tubular case and went onto a belt or something. A gadget like that might be heading your way, and in the not too distant future either.
Some people are upset about the fact that drug companies spend lots of money on professional education efforts for physicians. Some others are shall we say less unhappy, but not exactly thrilled either. This latter group thinks such sponsorship is a necessary evil, in that somebody has to pay for this stuff. Critics contend that sponorship rules out objectivity, by definition. This critique extends to the activities of physicians who work for a drug company as part of the outfit’s speakers’ bureau. The piece in today’s paper shows some interesting faultlines. Academic physicians and administrators seem to take a pretty tough line, but some people at NIH, including Francis Collins, the director, think that being too restrictive about sponsorship could cut off information about industry science, and that this would be a severe drawback. Academic medicine has had enough experience with Big Pharma by this time to understand the old proverb, about having a very long spoon when you sit down to sup with the Devil. By little and little, you’re sucked in.
Today’s NYTimes has a piece on the woes of Apple Inc. I’ve noted before in these lines that the laid-back, cool image that the company has burnished so energetically for many a moon now has started to tear, reavealing, behind the scenes, a dour Mrs. Grundy,and a rather puritanical and unforgiving biddy she is too. The company elbowed past Microsoft to become tech league-leader not too long ago, but that elevation has been compromised by various little fouks passes, such as losing a prototype of a new generation cell phone in a gin mill someplace, and then sending the stormtroopers out to get it. Now something more serious has moved onto the plot board. And that something is the Federal Trade Commission. The Feds are looking at Apple for a number of reasons and are asking questions about this or that business practice. Totally routine, of course, not too worry. I’m sure the smiles on the kissers of the big dogs at Microsoft and Dell and Google are as broad as the Panama Canal is long. I think they’ve all had run-ins with the gummint on various points before, and some are still pending, as they say. So, no little satisfaction attends the news that the cool kids will have to answer some quite penetrating questions. For a guy who doesn’t like being questioned, much less contradicted, yes I’m looking at you Mr. J, this could be rather unnerving. On the other hand, the article is at pains to point out that all the attention, from the alliances among former enemies to the FTC poking around, is due to the success of Jobs’s various initiatives and projects, which have propelled Apple out of the ranks of the second-raters right to the top of the pile, where it can get a bit chilly and drafty.
An innundation of low-quality articles reporting so-so research is threatening to reduce scholarship to ridiculously low levels and make it a trivial pursuit. That’s what some guys are saying in the Chronicle of Higher Education and they are blaming all this on the practice of using “productivity” as a guage of academic performance.This emphasis leads to a proliferation of journals, since every manuscript must find a home, and the burden grows on editors, revievers and others involved in what is a quasi-industrial process. The article occasioned a large number of interesting comments, not all of which agree with either the diagnosis or the remedy. Frankly, I found some of them more interesting than the article proper. Representing a variety of academic disciplines, the authors apparently are making some common plea for help, although a good share of the attention in the article goes to the sciences and technical fieleds. I disagree with a number of the proposed recommendations,for example, making more use of journal impact factors in evaluating candidates for academic advancement. To my mind, this is a sure sign that the person making the suggestion has little idea of how the IF system works, and no idea at all of its flaws. Poor little IF was dreamed up as a way of helping librarians make a rough cull of significant journals for budgeting purposes. It was never intended as a means for evaluating individual researchers, the (ab)use to which it is often put today. Sheer megatonage of publicaton has been suspect for a long while now, but apparently is still a significant element in at least some decisions at some places. The authors recommend shorter papers, but there are problems here too. At any rate, they went out on a long limb and yelled loudly that there is a problem. They deserve good marks for that alone. But, we live in an “evaluation culture” and nobody is daft enough to say that funding bodies should just hand over money and then leave the researchers on their own. If something good shows up, they’ll publish it. If not, well, maybe next time, and here’s some more money. Figuring out how to evaluate scholarship is damned difficult, especially since, in many cases there is no tangible payoff to knowing something that we didn’t know before. It’s a good in itself and is its own reward. Try flying that one past your grant’s officer.
That’s what it said in this morning’s edition of the New York Times. The story was on the Business page, and concerns a competiton between Amazon and Barnes&Noble to sell their respective reader lines, the Kindle and the Nook, respectively, and lower prices. I’ll say it again: it’s razor and blades. The real money is in the blades, because you have to keep buying them, and the company could just give you the razor, but they sell it and make some that way too. In e-readers, the money is in the downloads, and discounting the price of the reader is a good strategy. Of course, it didn’t hurt to have people buying the gadget too, but as the field fills up with candidates, companies have to start making compromises, and the razaor/reader is one place to do it.
A new kid on the block gives information on what happened on any given day. The site is called Whenago and we learn neato things about today, June 22: this is the day in 1633 that Galileo was compelled to recant his version of the Copernican theory of celestial motion; it’s also the kick-off day for Operation BARBAROSSA, Hitler’s invastion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and for the Red Army’s payback counteroffensive in 1943. You can see whch albums and films were released on this date, since Whenago has a strong showbiz slant. They are inviting contributions i building the site.
The Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek (ONB), or the Austrian National Library to usuns has reached an agreement with a little company, heretofore unknown, called Google to digitize a nice passel (that’s a library technical term) of books in its collection and make them available on the web. Officials in Vienna announced the 30 million Euro deal, but I don’t want to put that into dollar equivalents, as the value goes up and down pretty quickly, depending on how scared bankers are.Some 400,000 books are slated for the project. The ONB has rich holdings in printed volumes from the 16th through the 19th century. No copyright concerns here, I don’t think.