Skip to content

Category: Culture

The best that has been thought and written and why these ideals are difficult to meet.

May 23, 2010 | 12 Comments

eBooks And The Future of Reading

Warning: Raw Speculation Alert. You have been warned!

You are reading. This form of reading will not disappear.

eBooks—whether they be standalone devices, or merely apps on multipurpose toys like cell phones—will cause the reading of short bursts of words on a screen to become increasingly common. The key is “short”: columns such as this already push the limit of most people’s patience (yes, the content, too).

The reading of book-length material—which is to say books in electronic or paper forms—will decline rapidly. eBook sales will increase, accelerating over the next five years. With the closing of mall stores, and with the mega stores faltering, “consumer” eBook sales will overtake paper books within the next two decades. Paper books will dominate in commercial venues for some time.

Do not confuse sales with reading! They are not the same; they are only weakly correlated. This is also so for paper books (pBooks?), but at least the correlation with reading and sales of pBooks is high. This correspondence is not exact for many reasons: many pBooks are especially designed not to be read (coffee table and “gift” books), college textbooks lie fallow, and we often do not meet our intentions.

Many reviewers of standalone eBook devices whine that the screens are not color or that the devices do not allow for distractions, such as web surfing. Manufacturers have heard these complaints and have responded, and they will continue to respond. Standalone, dedicated-purpose eBook devices, therefore will become rare, forcing distraction-free reading to become rare.

The number of books that will be published will initially increase dramatically, but only in electronic format. There is little reason for publishers to refuse all-electronic books: as long as would-be authors conform to the software standard, books will slide without friction into the system because the marginal cost of storing a new book is near zero. Most of these offerings will not be promoted, and fewer will earn money. Eventually, the flood will ebb, and most writing will migrate on-line, in bite-sized packages (I resisted “byte”-sized).

Print-on-demand will flourish. Many people and institutions, such as libraries, will continue to buy paper copies of books. Since most book stores will close, print-on-demand will become the only real route to obtain paper copies. Surviving publishers will merge with companies like Amazon to ensure top listings.

Used bookstores, for the most part, and in all small cities, will die, mostly because of the lack of new stock. Specialty stores might exist, but will be frequented only by scholars or other elite. Nearly all sales of used books will migrate on line. Discovering new writers, therefore, will be difficult for most.

eBooks will finally kill reading for the common man. There will remain a core, a small fraction of humanity that continues to read book-length material regularly. This fraction will return to the low levels seen for most of recorded history.

Cynthia Ozick, in her “The Question of Our Speech: The Return to the Aural Culture”, reminds us that “mass literacy itself is the fixity of no more than a century”, an era which began with the introduction of leisure and the industrialization of printing. Obviously, the number and types of entertainment which require less effort than reading will become ubiquitous and cheap.

Books are a wonderfully stunted technology: they require no power source, they can be dropped, sat on, crushed, filled with sand or even water, and they still work. They can be lent, used as props or decorations, hurled, written in. They are useful for storage of small, flat objects like leaves. They can be sold and resold.

They are single-purpose: all they do is to display the set of words they came with. No matter what else changes, no matter the speed of the latest chips, or the changes in operating systems, those words remain the same. As long as the book isn’t lost, burned, or otherwise destroyed, there will never be any reason to replace it, nor to pay for its content more than once.

But best of all, they offer no distractions! You cannot press a button on the page to bring you to a website, nor can you check email or Facebook, nor can you Tweet. You can only read, or possibly take a note as you read. Further, your notes will never be lost as long as the book is not lost. They have no volume dial!

eBooks do not allow ownership of books; they merely grant licenses, which may be revoked, as has happened, and will continue to happen, particularly for works deemed “controversial.” Electronic bowdlerization and deletion will replace bonfires.

Remember: you read it here last.

Update I have just learned that Martin Gardner has died. More tomorrow on this great man—and writer of timeless books.

May 21, 2010 | 55 Comments

Louisiana State University Professor Booted: Course Too Hard

I have long predicted that as the proportion of high school graduates attending college increases, the classes offered at colleges would have to become easier. If they did not, then the proportion of students failing courses would increase to intolerable levels.

This prediction was correct. As proof, I offer you the story of Dominique Homberger, who tried teaching Biology 1001, “a large introductory course for nonscience majors at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge.” A lot of kids flunked her first exam. And then a lot failed her second exam. In the end, about one out five students dropped out of her course.

Get it? Students were receiving bad grades! Grades that would decide their very future and control their fate. Horror!

The Dean, Kevin Carman, flew (well, walked vigorously) to the rescue. He booted Homberger from the classroom and had Homberger’s replacement artificially boost every kid’s grade.

“Don’t worry, poor children,” Dean Carman told the sobbing students, “Here are the As you deserve. You are not stupid. You are smart. Bad grades aren’t your fault. Remind your parents to send in your tuition checks.”

But, really—what excuse did LSU offer for this extraordinary act? “The grade distribution in Ms. Homberger’s section was far out of line with the historical pattern in Biology 1001.” I’m sure anybody from the Philosophy department (if they still have one) could have told them that this was a tautology with respect to the question asked: it is a restatement of the facts and not a reason.

Poor Dr Homberger didn’t see it coming. She ordinarily taught an advanced course in comparative anatomy, well known as brutal-going but rewarding. But she decided to see how the other half lived and volunteered to teach Bio 1001, a course specially designed for people who won’t be able to understand biology. Excuse me, I meant for non-science majors.

All went well until she gave her first exam. Students immediately complained of Homberger’s “eccentric format” of the test. A shocked LSU professor said that she “was using multiple-choice questions—but instead of the typical four or five possible answers, she used as many as 10.”

Oh, how I weep (retroactively) for the poor, benumbed kids who had to whittle down a correct response from twice as many possibilities as usual! (An example question from Homberger is copied below.)

What other infamies were there? Students said, “the questions often dealt with material that had been assigned as reading but never discussed in the classroom” (emphasis mine). Yes, dear readers, this termagant, this rogue professor assumed that the darlings in her charge would actually read the material assigned to them.

I know it may be difficult to face, but it was still worse. Many kids were downright “irked” because Homberger “did not give out detailed study guides for tests.” See! See! No wonder they couldn’t find the right answers.

Anyway, other smart alecks heard how Homberger was frog-marched from her classroom, so they began tossing criticisms at LSU. In the true spirit of collegiately, LSU responded by dishing dirt about Homberger, gossip which never rises above calling her a hard-ass.

For example, they put it out that “[s]tudents would complain and she would answer, ‘Did you have to read that? Well, then, you should know it.'” Just awful, no?

What about Homberger’s “academic freedom” to teach and grade how she likes? James Remsen, a professor of biology at LSU, called such talk “nauseating”, and said academic freedom “does not apply to what one teaches in core-curriculum courses.” He supports the Dean’s actions and said that LSU students “should worship at [his] altar” for giving them their (undeserved) grades.

Another prof fretted that Homberger didn’t hand out enough As, though he did acknowledge grading varies: “One [prof] is stingy with A’s, giving them to fewer than 5 percent of his students; one of his colleagues consistently awards 30 percent or more.” Did you catch that lingo? Grades aren’t earned, but are given or awarded.

LSU is now “investigating” a policy whereby the burden of grading can be removed from professors. Presumably, grading will be taken over by the Bursar. I jest not, dear reader. Just wait for the arguments that claim that high grades are a “right.”

Wait, did you hear that? It’s already being said. In an article on how maybe it’s not a good idea for all kids to go to college (sent in from reader and contributer Ari Schwartz), Peggy Williams, a counselor at a high school in suburban New York City said, “If we’re telling kids, ‘You can’t cut the mustard, you shouldn’t go to college or university,’ then we’re shortchanging them from experiencing an environment in which they might grow.”

The possibility that we’re saving them from routine humiliation caused from attempting what they cannot do evidently did not cross her mind.

Sample Question

From the Chronicle:

Students first read this article from the Financial Times (not usually considered difficult) and then answered this question:

(Choose the incorrect statement) Feral dogs in Moscow …

a. tend to have a similar look, with erect ears, thick fur, wedge-shaped head, and almond eyes.

b. look like a breed apart and very unlike the purebred dogs from which they may have descended.

c. vary in the color of their fur.

d. typically have a rolled-up tail.

e. tend to establish and defend territories.

f. are much less aggressive than wolves and are more tolerant of one another.

g. are an excellent example of feralization, which is the opposite mechanism of domestication.

h. rarely wag their tails and do not show affection toward humans.

May 18, 2010 | 6 Comments

Sue Over Climate Change? Comer v. Murphy Oil

You know the old saying: if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. And then sue a company with a lot of money—the inclemency must be their fault.

Consider the case of Ned Comer et al. (plaintiffs) versus Murphy Oil USA et al. (defendants), now making its way through the United States Court of Appeal, Fifth Circuit (PDF).

See, old Ned was a sittin’ down on the Mississippi bayou, mindin’ his own bidness, when along came hurricane Katrina. Whap! Knocked old Ned right on his keister. “Ouch!” he said, rubbing the only part of his body that had ever been any use to him.

Boy, was Ned unhappy. And so were his neighbors. They got together and reasoned thusly: since no hurricane had ever hit us before, no hurricane could have hit us without that something nefarious occurred.

Now, nefarious doesn’t just happen on its own; it needs agents, minions, evil lackeys. Who might they be? How about that global warming everybody was chattering about? Wasn’t that supposed to create killer ‘canes? Yes, sir, it was.

But what made global warming? Why, carbon dioxide. And who made that nasty gas? Of course! Oil companies!

The neighbors cheered.

“Those oil companies sure are a nuisance,” said one. “They knew their product would cause old Ned grief.

“They were negligent,” said another.

“They’s trespassin’ on my property!” shouted a third.

“I think you mean they engaged in an ‘unjust enrichment’ of your land,” said number four, who knew a lot of big words because he had actually started high school (in Arkansas).

“It’s a civil conspiracy, that’s what it is,” said five.

Old Ned smiled on his gabbling crowd and announced, “They said oil was good for us. They lied! We’ll get ’em for fraudulent misrepresentation.”

Once more, a lusty cheer rolled across the swamp.

Thus encouraged, the gang lit up their torches and headed down to Sorry Hollow, where Junior Beauford’s boy Dewey was fighting a gator over ownership of a dead possum. Dewey had had a case of beer fall on his head when he was just a tyke, and was never quite right after that.

“Dewey! Say, Dewey! C’mere, boy!” shouted Ned. When Dewey clambered out of the muck, Ned said, “Dewey, we need you to sue Murphy Oil et al. for us.”

Later, a stack of papers landed on the local judge’s desk. The judge saw that it was the work of Dewey, and he figured Dewey was either drunk or going through one of his phases, so he tossed the papers in the ashcan and forgot all about them.

But the judge’s secretary was keen on recycling, so she retrieved the papers and returned them to Dewey, who, poor soul, reasoned the judge wanted him to appeal.

Now, them appellate judges—Davis, Stewart, and Dennis—are some good old boys. Here’s what they said about Dewey’s brief:

The plaintiffs allege that defendants’ operation of energy, fossil fuels, and chemical industries in the United States caused the emission of greenhouse gasses [sic] that contributed to global warming, viz., the increase in global surface air and water temperatures, that in turn caused a rise in sea levels and added to the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina, which combined to destroy the plaintiffs’ private property, as well as public property useful to them.

The Murphy clan, previously silent, cried foul. They said, “Didn’t old Ned and his neighbors, and even you judges drive down here propelled by some of our oil? Nobody forced you. If you hated oil so much, you could have rode your horse, or even walked. Start thinking straight.”

These words caused Stewart and Dennis to squirm, but not Davis, who still smarted from a vivid memory of having his mouth washed out with Murphy’s Oil Soap. He figured that some mystery chemical in that soap was what was responsible for his occasional hallucinations and dementia.

Stewart and Davis knew Murphy was right, but they also had to get along with the ornery Davis, so they figured they would compromise. They tossed out the civil conspiracy and fraudulent misrepresentation claims. They also got rid of that unjust enrichment bit, mostly because nobody knew what it meant.

But they said to old Ned, “Go ahead and sue for nuisance, trespass, and negligence. Those other things, though are non-justiciable.” Dewey explained to old Ned that “non-justiciable” was a word they had to use to make the whole thing legal.

And legal it was. Even as I write this, lawyers everywhere are licking their chops, delighted to discover a new area to sue about. Tobacco suits, after all, had grown pretty stale.

But who will win: Old Ned or Murphy? Stick around!


HT WSJ. Insanity not unique to Mississippi.

Update Link fixed. Thanks DAV.

May 17, 2010 | 33 Comments

You Too Can Be A Genius After 10,000 Hours

No, you cannot. That title is a lie, and, judging by a recent spate of books on the subject, a popular one.

Ann Hulbert of Slate has compiled a list of books which preach the Gospel of Success (HT A&LD).

Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success was not, appropriately enough, a bolt of original genius when it appeared in November 2008. Geoffrey Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else had come out a month earlier. The following spring brought Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. …This spring David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong has gotten several raves. Hot on its heels arrives Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, by Matthew Syed, a former Olympic ping-pong player turned journalist.

Gladwell and his followers are rotten statisticians. They look upon their sample of the successful and say, “Hark! These shiny examples have all worked hard; their dedicated efforts brought them to the top. So too can elbow grease alight you on the pinnacle.”

Diligence is key! After reaching a certain level of practice, anybody can reach the height of their professions. Talent is a nicety, not a necessity.

These are obviously false, beliefs based on bad sampling. It is fine to catalog the habits of the successful, but it is a mistake to conclude that those habits are what are solely responsible for achievement. Why? Because this neglects the vastly larger–and hidden—pool of people who have adopted the same habits but who were not successful.

It’s true that mere talent is rarely sufficient to propel one to the top, but without it, one will not go far. Pete Rose had hustle, but he also had talent. Edison was right: genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. The error comes with believing that one-hundred percent perspiration can make up for the lack of one percent inspiration.

We can trace the error back to Enlightenment—particularly Locke and his tabula rasa. If everybody was a blank slate, then all were equal, all could achieve the same. Yet we observe differences; therefore, those differences must have arisen because of disparities in education and culture. Remove the disparities and—voilà!—equality is restored.

This unsound argument—its premises so earnestly desired—was seized by intellectuals, who to this day unquestioningly claim it as an obvious truth. They pet it lovingly; it is their precious. It lies to them. It tells them that they are great, too, but unrecognized. Paradoxically, it tells them that there were no great men, there was only circumstance, prejudice, effort, and luck. Anybody could be a Newton had they only had the proper upbringing.

How did such a ridiculous belief spread? David Stove said, “a twentieth-century professor of history can hardly be a hero himself, and he naturally finds it comfortable to believe that no one else can either.” Well, envy is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins.

Now, I am 6’2″ and 200 pounds, but I will never, no matter my willpower, no matter how many hours I put in, become a successful jockey. Nor will I ever be found on the offense line of the Detroit Lions, sad as that team is. Equally, successful jockeys, even if they expend 20,000 hours of “deliberate” practice, will never become successful NBA players.

These kinds of statements are never (well, rarely) controversial. Because why? Because physical differences are readily observed: even academics can appreciate that short people do not make great basketball players.

But differences in mental ability are not easily observed. The science of phrenology having falling into disrepute, one cannot, at a glance, tell a mundane brain from an excellent one. Therefore, the reasoning goes, since I cannot see a difference, it does not exist.

Our culture suffers dreadfully from the natural corollaries of this specious argument: all can be educated and should go to college, all can learn calculus and evolutionary theory, all are talented and deserve a ribbon, your business will succeed if you press these buttons, it’s what’s inside that matters, learn to love yourself, everybody is good at something, it’s not your fault.

The worst is that if only more money were spent, then circumstances could be fashioned so that all students will be above average. Dollars per-student is ever-increasing, rising faster than inflation, yet performance stagnates. The solution? Spend more.