Archive for May 2009

Saturday Eye Candy

May 30, 2009

Slow blogging this weekend — swift West Coast trip necessitated by the happy occasion of my nephew’s bar mitzvah (he did great, thanks, w. a drash on the fourth commandment in which he managed to bring Mark Twain to bear on Maimonides). 

So, for your viewing pleasure, this, via Kos diarist Occams Hatchet:

Friday Wordfun: Antonyms for Empathy/Sotomayor edition

May 29, 2009

I haven’t had anything to add to the Sotomayor nomination.  I’m not a lawyer, I don’t follow the circuit courts, and there are plenty of places to get both real insight and delightful snark/schadenfreude.

But it did occur to me on this jetlagged Friday afternoon to do just the first scratch of the surface word digging to get a handle on this “empathy” that has our friends on the right measuring each other for the Armani straight jackets.

So I did the quick google on antonyms for the word.  Read ’em for yourself:

Main Entry: empathy
Part of Speech: noun
Definition: understanding
Synonyms: affinity, appreciation, being on same wavelength, being there for someone, communion, community of interests, compassion, comprehension, concord, cottoning to, good vibrations, hitting it off, insight, picking up on, pity, rapport, recognition, responsiveness, soul, sympathy, warmth
Notes: empathy denotes a deep emotional understanding of another’s feelings or problems, while sympathy is more general and can apply to small annoyances or setbacks
sympathy means the stimulation in a person of feelings that are similar in kind to those that affect another person; empathy means a mental or affective projection into the feelings or state of mind of another person
Antonyms: apathy, misunderstanding, unfeelingness

Main Entry: compassion
Part of Speech: noun
Definition: tender feeling
Synonyms: benevolence, charity, clemency, commiseration, compunction, condolence, consideration, empathy, fellow feeling, grace, heart, humaneness, humanity, kindness, lenity, mercy, softheartedness, softness, sorrow, sympathy, tenderheartedness, tenderness, yearning
Antonyms: cruelty, harshness, hatred, indifference, meanness, mercilessness, tyranny Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition. Philip Lief Group 2008.

Especially drilling down into the empathy-compassion-antonyms chain, one can make the case that those who find empathy an unacceptable quality in a judge are advocated something on the spectrum from apathy to tyranny.

I wouldn’t call any of the current Supremes apathetic, as it happens…but I’m not sure lauding misunderstanding, indifference or mercilessness as a guide to  the application of law to lived experience is a winning proposition.  Just sayin’

And on this note, enjoy this anthem to the nasty man:

Diary of A Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 5.0: Editors and your (dis)Contents

May 28, 2009

Going back to a little chronology in this series.  Idea – proposal – agent…what happens next is (a) some editor or editors at major houses cannot resist the idea, bid on it, and leave one with a choice:  who (and why).  And even if no auction occurs to propel one (me, oh why not me?) to riches beyond the dreams of avarice, there is still some choice to be made — to whom to send a given proposal.

The reason that’s important is because of what comes after that brief moment when a writer has some kind of a choice, and has to get on with producing the book.

That means, working with an editor.  This post is about the how I’ve tried to match myself up with those who’ve taken me on.  It’s also about what your editor can and cannot do for your book as it moves through the production process, to the point (now) when it is almost out the door.

The most important thing is to remember that a good editor is a writer’s absolute best friend, despite — because of — the pain that can follow when someone who will not compromise tells you that your copy isn’t there yet.  Those writers who’ve felt they’ve grown past editing (and I’ve known, and read, a few) are like those lawyers who choose to represent themselves in court.

So what makes a good editor?  First, most, but not exclusively, it’s how they read, respond and think.  At least for me, the one thing any editor has to do is read my work, understand its engines, and be able to tell me clearly where problems lie and what the nature of those flaws may be.  They don’t have to tell me how to fix each issue (though good advice is always welcome).  But they can’t let dead spots, confusion, lapses of any sort go by.

Which means that I need people who are actual  editors, those who will give my mss. the kind of close reading and analysis that takes a couple of weeks, at least, of sustained attention.  I’ve been, by design, fortunate enough to have such editors for each of my four books to date — working with Rick Kot  on Ice Time:  Climate, Science and Life on Earth (now, sadly, out of print, to be revived soon in in PDF form); Becky Saletan on Measure for Measure for Simon and Schuster; the legendary Ann Harris of Bantam on my third, Einstein in Berlin;and then Becky again — that glutton for punishment, on Newton and the Counterfeiter, for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


A Quick Kindle Bleg Before Getting Back To Serious (ish) Stuff

May 26, 2009

Anyone out there have one?  Use it? Thoughts.  Does the large one make sense if the major intended use is books?  (I.e. — I can see how more real estate is better for magazine and newspaper reading, but what do folks think about the limits to portability in their experience w. the little one).

Finally — as someone (a) in the writing trade and (b) teaching younger writers some of their craft, is the Kindle a device that helps reshape our craft, or is it just a convenient bucket.   That is:  do I have to have one if I’m going to presume to profess writing, or can I get by with a laptop and dead trees for the next while?

Any and all reax gratefully received.

Image:  Scribe’s exercise tablet with hieratic text. Wood. Dynasty XVIII, reign of Amenhotep I, c. 1514-1493 BC. Text is an excerpt from The Instructions of Amenemhat (Dynasty XII), and reads: “Be on your guard against all who are subordinate to you … Trust no brother, know no friend, make no intimates.” Image uploaded by One dead president, David Liam Moran.

Holiday Post: Anti-personnel Food.

May 25, 2009

Ex food network via Hulu, this has to be a dish that only an out-of-work cardiologist could love. (h/t brer Richard).

Image:  Hieronymus Bosch, “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things – Gluttony” (1485, oil on panel).

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 4.0: Those low-life, bottom-dwelling, horn-swaggling, no-goods who do wrong by their review copies.

May 24, 2009

It’s been a couple of days since I got to this series, and in that time I’ve been doing (a) my day job, including a quick trip to talk to folks at the Rochester Institute of Technology about their very ambitious plans to incorporate writing into a range of endeavors there, and (b) obsessively doing what every author should not do:

Checking Amazon on an hourly basis to see what has happened to their book’s ranking.  Newton and the Counterfeiter hasn’t even been officially published yet (the due date is June 4), but Amazon has been taking pre-orders for a while and started shipping copies last week.

Now trust me — and I’ll write more about this as the inevitable psychosis deepens — it is unbelievably stupid to look at the Amazon rank, if for no other reason that leaps or falls of thousands can turn on one or a handful of sales of yours or someone else’s book.  It is also terribly hard not to do.

But that’s not what got my goat when I noticed this on Thursday, on one of my six or fourteen refreshes of the page.  It is what showed up in the line just below the delivery notice at the top of the page.  That’s where Amazon offers you the choice of other vendors…”x new” starting at some price, $16.50 for Newton as I write this — .and then five used (as of this morning) starting at $14.25.

Now remember — the book is not yet officially out.  Most brick and mortar booksellers don’t have copies.  Those few hundred brave souls who pre-ordered theirs from Amazon or another online retailer are receiving their copies more or less now.  So where could these “used” copies be coming from?

From the book trade itself — from people who have received advance copies for review.  Now these are unsolicited copies, in one sense (that is, mostly potential reviewers/opinion makers don’t ask to be sent one particular book.

But at the same time, accepting these books does carry, it seems to me, an implicit obligation:  you get a free book, and if you don’t choose to take notice of it, at least do it no harm.  Don’t take it down to your corner used book website and undercut whatever meager hopes of a profit-making sale anyone so foolish as to write a trade book may yet harbor.

Remember.  These are free books, sent out to folks, many of them writers themselves, to  help create some public interest in new work.  The only way that as-new copies show up in the used trade is if someone in the business decides to score a few bucks — and really it’s a trivial sum, maybe five, at most seven or eight for a typical hard cover — before at title has had even a month or so out in the market to see if it can get a little traction.

So this is my diary for the day:  here I am, on the Sunday of a long weekend, supposed to be relaxing with a beer in one hand, and a good book that I actually paid for in another — and instead I’m cursing some unknown person, even money or better another writer, who has just in some small way stabbed me in the back.

You know who you are, whoever fobbed off your copy of Newton and the Counterfeiter to somebody flogging it for $2.25 below the deepest discounted legitimate price.  I hope that the price of a burger was worth it.  And I will keep my deepest hopes for the fate of your next book, if ever it comes into existence, discreetly to myself.

Sunday Link Fest 2: The Links! (What a radical notion)

May 24, 2009

As promised.

1.  Grand snark about self-aggrandizing musicologists.  My question?  If physicists can figure out arXiv and if PL0S-ONE provides a pre and post-hoc review model for scientific publishing, why can’t those musicologists shut out of the charmed circle come up with  new-era publication model of their own?

2.  Fun you-are-there tale about a curator of a Chinese eco park.  Failed attempts to hack cobra anti-venom, fried snake, and some strategic MIT product placement, all in one place.  (By Phil McKenna, an alumnus of the MIT SciWrite Grad Program.)

3.  Long, interesting text-of-speech by Martin Baron of the Boston Globe on the future of the newsroom/newspapers.  More of a meditation than a prescription.  Worth reading.  I wish I could h/t the blog-denizen who sent me here in the first place, but it was long ago in another country and besides….

4.  Good NYT piece on the importance of basic quant skills — especially that of estimation — for everyday life. This is stuff I think about a lot — and even hope to write about more formally than the odd blog post, but for now, this is a nice intro.  (Meanwhile — I almost didn’t link this because of a pop-in add obscuring the top two lines that ignores its “close” button.  NYT take note:  this is not the way to monetize readers.)

5. The kind of piece that makes me see red.  Lazy-man reporting from the Beeb in response to the announcement of the Templeton Prize.  A reporter asks five scientists for bites about God.  No attempt to engage any of the arguments, just five potted quotes.  Read it and gnash.

6.  Sad story of the Nicholas Hughes’ suicide.  The son of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath suffered from depression over the long haul.  While each person’s response to such an affliction is distinct, it has been an occasional theme of that blog that perhaps single most important outcome of neuroscience in the last few decades is the deepening understanding that mental states are the product of material events….that Hughes suffered and seems to have died of a physical illness whose symptoms are experienced as mental phenomena.  I’ve focused on the consequences of mental trauma for veterans of our wars, but as a general area it is hardly reserved to any one class of experience.

More to come, but that clears off the top layer of my browser.


Image:  Stanislaw Lenz, Fanfara – Serenada, 1910

Sunday Link Fest 1: Stuff I meant to blog about but didn’t — well not quite.

May 24, 2009

I don’t know how my comrades-in-blog deal with this one, but in my surfing through the days (and weeks and months) I come across tons of interesting items that seems obviously blog prompts.¤*

¤This post has just succumbed to the impulse that overcame a marvellous old Journal of Irreproducible Results article on a theory of footnotes, in which the text petered out half a sentence in, overwhelmed by the nested array of information, notes and notes on notes that consumed the entire space allocation.  Links to cool stuff coming in the next post.  Below find YAUPBDMSM — Yet Another Post Bewailing the Death of the MainStream Media.

*This**, btw, is the nub of the argument that the blogosphere is not a replacement for actual journalism, but an extension of it. Through my recent entry into the TwitterDome, I’ve been getting a sort of strobed exposure to the argument that the digital transformation of media of which the blogosphere is a prominent part has eliminated not just the financial model of MSM journalism, but most of the justification for it as well.

This is nonsense of course — not the financial part, which is obviously happening — but the notion that we needn’t figure out how to create a digital-era infrastsructure for sustained, full-time, professional journalism, because “we media” will solve all our problems for us.


Newton and the Counterfeiter: more reviews

May 22, 2009

They’re starting to come in, with all the existential dread that each one offers in prospect.  It’s both exciting and terrifying to let the outcome of one’s intense effort for years go out, undefended onto the sea of critical review.

I’ll talk a bit about this part of the experience in the next Diary of a Trade Book post (previous entries here, here, and here), but for now, I’ll confine myself to noting that in the first review I saw yesterday, New Scientist managed to combine both an on-balance quite positive notice with exactly the kind of commentary that gnaws at a writer (this writer).  Theirs was the kind that gave points for a number of things — what they saw as really new in the book (an account of Newton as an economic thinker, for one) and the rigor of the work (they called it meticulously researched, which soothes the soul a bit), but also complained about some of the bits I like best — and it is in the nature of authors to remember only the cavils.

But that’s why we have horse races, of course, and I’ll take up my substantive disagreement with a couple of points the author of that review made in a separate post.  And anyway, as my publicist pointed out, in this review-starved era, such a prompt and informative notice in a major publication can’t be bad.

But it ain’t nearly as much fun as the piece that crossed the wire later in the day.  New York Magazine’s May 25 issue includes their “What to Read This Summer” feature.  First up for June, is Newton and the Counterfeiter.  I’m not sure what their view of wholesale quotation may be, so until I can check, I’ll confine myself to reporting my glee at reading phrases like this one:

“Levenson gives us a historical metamorphosis you’d never believe if it weren’t so well documented:  Isaac Newton — the antisocial human calculator who revolutionized Enlightenment science– as badass London supercop.”

Now why can’t I write like that….;) 

I also liked this remark:  “The plot is fast, loaded with rich pockets of history (gravity, alchemy, bubonic plague*) and strangely resonant with current affairs:  Imagine Stephen Hawking solving the global financial meltdown while catching Ponzi schemers.”

That’s what we writer types call a keeper.  Thanks, New York.

Image:  William Blake, “Newton,” 1795

For a Good Time in Rochester: First Book Talk department

May 22, 2009

If you happen to be in Rochester (NY, not MN) this afternoon, I’ll be doing a public event talking about Newton and the Counterfeiter and the future of science writing (so they tell me) at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  This will take place in the College of Liberal Arts Faculty Commons (Building 6 on this PDF of the campus map).  I’ll be getting up on my hind legs at 1 p.m.

Come on down!

Image: Peter F. Rothermel “Patrick Henry Before the Virginia House of Burgesses,” 1851