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Category: Culture

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

September 29, 2010 | 14 Comments

Predictions of E-Books And Reading Verified?

Just something quick today; I mean written quickly. Typo alert!

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published “Authors Feel Pinch in Age of E-Books“, in which are various observations that appear to verify some predictions we made about the future of reading and e-books. If not verified, then pointing the way towards verification.

  • Prediction 1: fewer books. “Priced much lower than hardcovers, many e-books generate less income for publishers. And big retailers are buying fewer titles. As a result, the publishers who nurtured generations of America’s top literary-fiction writers are approving fewer book deals and signing fewer new writers. Most of those getting published are receiving smaller advances.”

    Publishers make an average $14 from selling a hardcover book, but only $9 for each e-book. The obvious math is that published will have to sell 55% more copies of a title just to make what they have been making. That is an astonishing increase. Couple this to prediction 2 (next), and we can be nearly sure that the only publishers that survive will be specialty presses and one or two “mega” press that pumps out books that are better left unread.

  • Prediction 2: less reading. “The lower revenue from e-books comes amidst a decline in book sales that was already under way. The seemingly endless entertainment choices created by the Web have eaten into the time people spend reading books.”

    Anecdotal, sure. We can note that the author chose to categorize books as “entertainment.” We might even prefix the term “ephemeral.” This classification is undoubtedly true for most books. Big “name” authors such as—as he calls him—the “celebrated” Jonathan Franzen still do well with e-books, but only because they are already a “brand.” New writers are having a tough time finding publishers.

    In this case, less reading would be a good thing. Anybody that skips reading Franzen is doing himself a favor. Read B.R. Myers’s evisceration of Franzen’s latest in the Atlantic for why this is so.

  • Prediction 3: only scholars will read. If “consumers” aren’t consuming ephemeral entertainment in the form of serial words linked in sentences and paragraphs, non-“consumers” still will. William Germano writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education said, “I’m struck by the fact that the designation ‘scholarly book,’ to name one relevant category, is in itself a back formation, like ‘acoustic guitar.’ Books began as works of great seriousness, mapping out the religious and legal dimensions of culture. In a sense, books were always scholarly. Who could produce them but serious people? Who had the linguistic training to decode them?”

    I would only substitute “patience” for “linguistic training.” Books will return to their beginnings, as works of (at least intended) seriousness. This does not preclude novels, of course. But “genre” writing will wane as the readers of these works age and die off, not to be replaced by the iPod fiddling young people coming after them.

  • Prediction 4: fewer writers; this is a corollary to Prediction 2. Since publishers are selling fewer books, and the books they are selling they are selling for less money, they haven’t the funds to pay authors large advances, advances which in any case the author would have a difficult time making up. Thus, publishers are paying less for a books.

    One “author received only a $1,000 advance, typical of the advances paid by small independents. ‘I can’t make a living as a writer, but it feels great to have these stories out in the world,’ says Mr. Lea. The author, who lives in Vermont, builds electric guitars and writes on the side. Jonathan Rabinowitz, publisher of Turtle Point Press, says ‘Wild Punch’ has sold about 1,500 copies, including 150 e-books. He described the performance as ‘encouraging.'”

    This situation hurts agents, too. “The smaller advance has a ripple effect. Ms. Daniels, who earns a 15% commission, used to make $11,250 on a big publisher advance of $75,000 or so. Her cut on Mr. Lea’s $1,000: $150.” This can only lead to fewer agents, which of course will lead to fewer authors still.

    The authors that are still selling, even in e-books, are those that are already known. These few authors skew the statistics (they make the mean a less meaningful term; get it?). Of course, it follows that as these authors lose readers, or when they die off themselves, there will be nobody behind them to fill their pages.

  • Prediction 5: paper books will not disappear. The Chronicle has an odd story of a man who is chopping his books to pieces and then scanning the pages into his computer. I wonder that he did not worry about changing technology.

    Scan your books today into, say, PDF, and ten years from now when the PDF format is no more, your books are gone or have to be changed. Anybody with any experience in coding will know that this must lead to the destruction, or other loss, of many files, i.e. books.

    Print on demand will ensure that physical books, read mostly by scholars, will continue to exist.

September 28, 2010 | 24 Comments

How To Guarantee Enthusiastic College Students

I Didn’t Do My Homework

Apathy is contagious. I discovered this after only two of the forty-five students registered for the statistics class I teach bothered to do their homework over the weekend. This, incidentally, is an estimate on my part. Only thirty showed up for class on Monday, so I am assuming the fifteen who skipped were as lax as those who managed to (barely) clamber in.

I arrived two minutes before class was scheduled to begin, and there sat twenty-some kids, immobile and in the dark. Yes: not one could be bothered to switch on the lights. As usual, the shades were drawn because the previous class used the projector. No one was talking. Most look dissipated.

The situation for my High School Algebra Redux Sans Algebra 8 ante meridian class was similar; though these students also managed a dropsical appearance. This, incidentally, was a repeat of Friday’s class: those that showed then said that the missing “Went out” on Thursday night; the university I’m at has a reputation as a “party school”.

As usual, I started the statistics class by asking how they did with the homework. I do this because I do not collect homework. I warn students from the first day that this puts them at a disadvantage if they have no self discipline. They will be tempted to leave it undone, and since my exams are very much like the homeworks, they will do poorly on the exams. My prognostication was fulfilled, too: the median for the first exam (given the week before) was about 60.

I went down the row and queried, “What did you get when you tried the problem?” Answers came there none. After the tenth—yes, tenth—I gave up and asked, “Do you guys like me so much that you want to retake the class with me next semester?” Laughter and giggles. Actually, this was for effect of my part, because I’m only here for the semester.

The reader might wonder why such apathy? I asked the students. Seems the school’s football team was away and that many traveled with it. Upon returning, the travelers found their energy supplies sapped. It is also the case that (in my classes) the next exams are not for three more weeks. Plenty of time to cram.

Finally, these two classes are in the way of forced requirements. The algebra class is the bare minimum needed to graduate with a BA; the statistics is necessary for business majors, which most kids are. Not one student in either class wants to be in the class; by which I mean, they do not care to learn the material.

I know this because I asked on day one, “Tell me the truth. How many really want to learn statistics, want to really get into it? Or are you just here because you’re required to take the class?” Laughter, agreement with the later. I back this up with the evidence that only four kids (the same four) ever attend my office hours. These four—coincidentally?—also did well on the exams.

I don’t mean to exaggerate, but I put in significant time, usually on the weekends, preparing the classes, trying to find good examples, pertinent subjects, and so forth. In class, I try to will the material into the kids’ heads. In other words, I take it seriously. But when only a tiny fraction of the students do, I feel punctured, deflated, and just as apathetic as they do.

My Solution

I am not sure I can get away with it, but I’d like to try to the following: come next class, I will offer every student a C if they sign a pledge to never return to class. Those that want to stay have the possibility of receiving an A or B, but only if they merit it. If they choose to come to class but under-perform or fail, they will have to live with their grade.

My bet is that most would take the offer, and be grateful to no longer be forced to learn a subject they “don’t need” (the most common rebuttal when asked why they did poorly). The few that remained would earnestly try, and probably even be serious about assimilating the material.

What a joy it is for a teacher to find a student who wants to learn! This joy is magnified many fold when the student actually can learn. But the enthusiasm is enough.

Grade inflation would earn most kids a C, or C-ish, anyway. So why not?

P.S.. The situation is not entirely bleak. The upper level calculus course I teach is a pleasure, the ratio of enthusiastic to apathetic students the exact inverse of the required courses. It is the bright spot in my week. Thus one solution to guarantee interested students is to teach only high-level courses; of course, you can see why that fails.

September 27, 2010 | 7 Comments

Reading Lyrics by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball

First, thanks, Google. Aren’t you all sweethearts. 10100 != F1 + F4 + F6 + F9.

Reading Lyrics: More than a thousand of the finest lyrics from 1900 to 1975. A Celebration of our greatest songwriters, a rediscovery of forgotten masters, and an appreciation of an extraordinary, popular art form. Reading Lyrics


Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball

This is the book of American Standards, starting from 1900 and running to 1975, but mostly containing entries before 1950. Why stop at 1975? Since then, “the era of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sung-through pastiches—haven’t produced many talented lyric writers…In Hollywood, the musical was more or less gone…and pop music had increasingly become more about arrangement and performance than about words and music.” To which I say Amen, especially if by “arrangement” they mean celebrity, personality, and genre.

Lyricists are included in date-of-birth order, which has some advantages over alphabetical. A rough idea of the change in song can be had from reading front to back. Better would to have been to list songs when they were published, but that would have broken up each authors’ works. The method chosen is a good compromise.

Songs are complete, too, and beat references found on the internet, where you too often find only the most popular refrain from a song; or you only see a refrain and no verse. The index is alphabetical by song, and includes a key saying whether the song came out in a play, movie, and so on.

I defy you to read through this book without singing along. Think you’re made of stronger stuff? Then try this refrain on:

What a day this has been!
What a rare mood I’m in!
Why, it’s…almost like being in love!
There’s a smile on my face,
For the whole human race!
Why it’s, almost like being in love…

Alan Jay Lerner, music by Fritz Loewe, written for Brigadoon. If you managed to read that without at least humming or blowing through your front teeth, try this (a little goofiness never hurts):

Yes, Sir, that’s my baby,
No, Sir, don’t mean “maybe,”
Yes, Sir, that’s my baby now.

Gus Kahn, music by Walter Donaldson, made popular by the bug-eyed Eddie Cantor. The book finally had to be pried from my hands after I came across an all-time favorite from Mort Dixon (Harry Warren music). Here’s a snippet from the first refrain:

Hot ginger and dynamite,
There’s nothing but that at night
Back in Nagasaki
Where the fellers chew tobaccy
And the women wicky wacky woo.

Some lyrics cry out for the music, without which they’re meager and non-memorable. This state of affairs is, of course, now ubiquitous. The difference is that with standards, the music doesn’t flourish without the lyrics either; but with modern pop music both the lyrics and music are interchangeable from one song to the next.

There’s probably no better example of the necessary marriage of lyric and music than Ten Cents A Dance by Lorenz Hart, Richard Rogers music. The refrain begins:

Ten cents a dance—
That’s what they pay me;
Gosh, how they weigh me down!
Ten cents a dance—
Pansies and rough guys,
Tough guys who tear my gown!

Doris Day sang this in Love Me Or Leave Me, a (wonderful) movie about the life of singer Ruth Etting. Recordings of Etting singing the song exist, but she pales utterly next to Day. YouTube has a copy, but the sound quality is poor (starts at about the two-minute mark). Even so, her performance is riveting.

I learned an unexpected lesson from this book: if you want to live a long life, become a song writer. Irving Berlin lived to be 101. By all reports, he was a cussed individual, yet his heart lifted when wrote his music, thus giving him (and us) health. P.G. Wodehouse—he was lyricist before novelist—made it to ninety-four before handing in his dinner pail. Harry Ruby (Three Little Words, Give Me The Simple Life), was born and died in the same years as Wodehouse.

Edgar Leslie (For Me And My Gal) started the same year as Ruby and Wodehouse, but made it through one more anniversary. Leo Robbin reached eighty-nine, and always had love on his mind. Among other standards, Robbin wrote what would be Bob Hope’s theme song, Thanks For The Memories. For final proof, I offer Haven Gillespie, who wrote a song so happy that I’m surprised he didn’t break the century mark: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, with music by J. Fred Coots.

What’s remarkable is that every one of these men, and there are many more such examples, started life in the nineteenth century, a time which life expectancy was not high. It’s not clear whether what caused these long lives also led to the creation of great song, but I prefer to believe that beauty adds years.

This book was given to me as a gift, one of the best I’ve ever received. You should lavish upon your own selves, too. I leave you with the lyrics of Yip Harburg, and music by Harold Arlen. Just you see if Groucho Marx isn’t dancing before your eyes when you read this:

Lydia, oh Lydia,
Say, Have you met Lydia?
Oh, Lydia, the tattooed lady.
She has eyes that folks adore so,
And a torso even more so,
Lydia, oh Lydia,
That “encyclopidia.”
Oh, Lydia, the queen of tattoo.
On her back is the battle of Waterloo,
Beside it the wreck of the Hesperus, too,
And proudly above waves the red, white, and blue,
You can learn a lot from Lydia.

September 26, 2010 | 21 Comments

USDA Bans Delicacy? Pork Blood Cake Candles Snuffed Out

Continuing our popular theme of pig innards, we focus today on blood, and prove that there is a little vampire in all of us. Yet our bureaucrats seek to disguise their nature.

Yesterday’s headlines in all Taiwanese newspapers screamed with indignation: United States Department of Agriculture To Ban Pork Blood Cake! Typical is this news report (which is in Mandarin; but you’ll get the idea; word-for-word, pork blood cake = jew shiyah gao):

Pork blood cake is just that: a cake made of pig’s blood and rice stuck on a stick. The rice and blood are cooked together and then left to set up; the rice binds the blood. The end results is like a sausage without a skin.

The best pork blood cake looks like a slightly melted fudgesicle. Just before eating, it is steamed or otherwise warmed, then dunked in a sweet and slightly salty black concoction which tastes of a cross between oyster and sugary soy sauce. This ersatz fudgesicle is then coated with cilantro and finally plastered with sweet peanut powder. It is almost always ensconced in a plastic bag so that the sauce can’t drip on your fingers.

If you’re a fan of black pudding or blood sausage—and who isn’t?—then you will adore pork blood cake, which is sweet, warm, unctuous, and with a slight chewiness. It is delicious. This only goes to prove the old adage: all the best food is on sticks.

The worst pork blood cake isn’t; by which I mean that inferior duck or chicken blood is substituted, but it is—let’s admit it—sometimes still called pork blood cake. A telltale is usually that the cake is rectangular and hard. Real pork blood, as the saying goes, melts in your mouth. You have to apply some heavy-duty tooth friction to get duck blood to slide down the tubes.

The telltale only works in you are in a night market, where a food’s origin can often be mysterious; grocery stores sell pork blood cake in plastic-covered rectangles. Manufacturers also export it in this shape, where it eventually makes it way to the States. But you won’t find it in your local Safeway or Super Walmart. Head to the nearest Chinese of East Asian grocery; where even if you find it, you’ll still have to make your own sauce. Pork Blood Cake

So much for recipes. Why would the United States Department of Agriculture ban this delicacy? After all, pork blood cake was just picked last year as the Number One Strangest food by the site Virtual Tourist—which only proves that these folks don’t get out enough; deboned decrowned inverted pork rectums didn’t even make the list.

I have not been able to discover on any official site whether the ban is real. But people in Taiwan sure think it is, which is saying something. Food is taken seriously in Taiwan, and such ban, even if only a rumor, is seen as a personal insult, almost fightin’ words.

Many Taiwanese think Americans are being hypocritical. After all, we eat pig, and some of us even eat pig blood; actually, anybody who eats pig meat eats some blood, of course. So why specifically ban pork blood cake? Could it be retaliation on the part of the American government?

Earlier in the year, Taiwan banned (at least temporarily) the importation of American beef innards, fearing that they might be contaminated with mad cow disease. Many restaurants went further and ceased using American-produced cow meat of any kind.

A poster was designed for vendors and restaurants to place in their windows, which advertised that they did not use any American cow parts in their cooking. I am unable to locate a copy of this, but my memory tells me it was red and had a picture of an angry, yet very manly, stars-and-stripes bull, painted over with a circle with a line through it.

Taiwan’s ban of American cow innards produced little outcry here in the States, mainly because most people here do not regularly dine on cow guts (though they are delicious, especially tripe).

In Taiwan, one man, who calls himself Lucifer Chu, is so incensed that he is threatening to create and release another video to “promote” pork blood cake. He calls the USDA’s action “cultural discrimination.” Chu unleashed a video last year on the subject, after seeing Virtual Tourist’s survey. You can watch it linked from a story on Radio Taiwan International. We should take Chu’s threat seriously.

Newspapers are saying the USDA suspects pork blood cake production is unsanitary; hence the emphasis in the video above on the cleanliness and sophistication of the process. If the ban is real, it is another example of bureaucrats sticking their palates where they do not belong. Let pork blood cake be released from its regulatory bonds!