Archive for June 2009

On Wise Latinas, Identity and Experience, Civic Media, and the Lethal Stupidity of the Right

June 19, 2009

Another update from the Knight/MIT Future of News/Civic Media conference.  In the final plenary, one of the speakers noted that one of the ways that local and or civic media engages audience is across common experience.

Well, duh…except that the idea of experience and identity advanced in the comment was one with actual meaning, as opposed to the dangerous (lethal) mindlessness of the view captured in mainstream versions in the  Latina=racist nonsense spewed over the Sotomayor nomination.

Here’s the example:  Imagine someone in town, living on the good side of the community with an annual income of 100K.  Now imagine another person, working poor, renting across town.  Not members of the same community, right?  Different identities across all the “important” axes, perhaps.

Now imagine they both are parents of six year-olds with leukemia.

Speaking as a parent of a (thankfully, touch wood) healthy child, there is no doubt as to the identity of such parents.  They are people with sick kids.  Everything else is secondary.

And there is no doubt that the experience of taking care of your kid, and your spouse, yourself will without doubt give you a quality of wisdom on issues like the current state of American health care, that the parent of a healthy kid will never quite match.  Sympathy is no substitute for empathy (not that I wish the opportunity for empathy in this circumstance on anyone).  Lived experience makes a difference (duh!) and ranges of experience represented in power…and in the creation of media…the consumption and or participation in the making of information … and so on.

And clearly, as a background for creating media applications that have an economic rationale and an intellectual or informative purpose, the most diverse view of connections of identity, self, and experience is not just useful, but essential.

And that’s so airy that I wince at my own words:  but what I’m trying to say is that when I first got involved in pull media, a VOD project called MagRack, the idea was to narrow cast on a very crude definition of interested populations.  We had no real data to help us refine our groups.  Now we do — and clearly one of the pro-active steps we can take to create an economically possible new media environment is to think creatively how to create communities across interests that conventional “census”-like categories (Latino/as, wise or not; RV owners etc.) don’t capture.

That’s still pretty airy, which is a state of mind conferences like these encourage — born in part of a sense of glorious unanchored possibility in everyone’s good ideas.  But I don’t think (I hope not, anyway) that it is entirely stupid.

Image:  “Passer Payez”, a ca. 1803 painting by Louis-Leopold Boilly.

Stray thought from the Knight Future of News and Civic Media MIT conference

June 19, 2009

Just hearing a bunch of proposals for new projects to advance civic media.  Kind of a blur — but much cool stuff.  My ears perked up, however at the mention of, a site that enables the creation of local magazines from blogs or other web sources.

I quickly surfed on over, clicked on the “create your magazine” button, and arrived at this starting point — a list of topics or departments for your new magazine.

Look carefully.

What’s missing?

Science, of course.

Nature, too, any way to connect local news to most local of ways people find entry into science — things like birding or amateur astronomy or weather watching.

All of which is a way of wondering why this most important of stories gets no respect…and to say that I took the opportunity afforded by meatspace meetings to put this to the Printcasting guy here — who promised new categories on the way ASAP.

One small step for a science-literate population…

Image:  John James Audobon, “Carolina Pigeons,” plate 17 from Volume IV, Audubon’s Birds of America.

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 9.1: Voices in my head, or why Neal Stephenson has to stop talking to me.

June 18, 2009

Just a little story here.  Last post I talked about getting blurbs from busy and very accomplished folks.  One of those was Neal Stephenson, author of some of best novels-of-ideas/racing action reads of recent memory.

The connection between his work and Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) is pretty obvious, at least if you are (a) familiar with the three volumes of The Baroque Cycle, Neal’s massive fiction on the roots of both the scientific and economc revolutions of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century and/or (b) have gawked at the leaning tower of manuscript that Neal donated to the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle.  (Fun venue tucked in Gehry’s worst building, IMHO.)

Most notable, Neal’s characters include one Isaac Newton, whom we first meet as an awkward, prudish, timorous boy at Trinity College in the 1660s.  I understand that Newton acts throughout the whole multi-stranded epic, but I don’t know.

Why don’t I have at least that one fact down?

As I’ve worked to publicize my book, I have gotten asked more than once some version of these questions — have I read Neal’s telling of the story of science and gold?  Is mine a non-fiction version of the history Neal reimagined?  What did I think of Neal’s Newton?

And my answers are:  no, maybe, and I have no opinion…because though I have read almost everything Neal has put between book covers (I missed The Big U., but I have it on very good authority that I may have dodged a bullet there), I put down Quicksilver after I was about 75 pages in.


Because Neal’s Newton was too loud in my ear.  He was a real character; things happened to him, he felt, responded, changed and spoke.  I could see that Newton in my mind’s eye, and the last thing I wanted — absolutely the worst possible thing for a writer — would be to start hearing Neal’s Newton arguing with mine — and I certainly didn’t want his version colonizing mine.

Even more dangerous — Neal’s books are full of incident. Stuff happens all the time.  These three books centered on precisely the historical moments I was interested in, and for reasons that overlap with mine.  It was hard enough to keep track of my sources anyway.  Did I need the grief of remembering whether it was Enoch Root or John Locke that said something or other?

I did not.

So I didn’t just put vol. 1 down, I got it out of the house, as fast as its little legs could carry it.  I’m reclaiming it from my brother now, and look forward to reading the whole trilogy without peril this summer.

One last note:  I happened to meet Neal when he gave a talk at Harvard a couple of years ago.  He was speaking to the History of Science department there, so the bulk of his talk and reading centered on his rendering of the daily life of the scientific revolution within The Baroque Cycle.  Talking to him afterwards I made my confession that I had had to banish that work to the Boston equivalent of Siberia (Brighton, where my brother lives) — and I did receive my dispensation.

And one more last note:  there is nothing new under the sun.  Some version of everything has been written — and if I or anyone were to worry about that, I, we, would never get anything done.  But still, sometimes, it’s better not to read.

Image:  Frontspiece to Voltaire’s Elémens de la philosophie de Neuton (1738).

What I Said — but from someone who knows what he’s talking about: Isaac Newton and Money Manias edition

June 18, 2009

Readers of this blog may have noticed that I recently published a book (ya’ think? –ed.).  Titled Newton and the Counterfeiter (AmazonPowellsBarnes and Noble,Indiebound), it tells a story from Isaac Newton’s second career as boss of the Royal Mint — how he chased down the notorious currency crook William Chaloner in a battle that ranged across London and took two years.

Through that story I get to look at lots of other stuff — the way the scientific revolution worked itself out at street level, connections between ideas of faith, science, and what with the benefit/arrogance of hindsight we call magic (alchemy), and how England for a variety of reasons undertook a financial revolution in parallel to and in part propelled by the same ideas and people who led the scientific one.

In that context I look at some of the stuff that Chaloner counterfeited — truly weird new bits of paper that still represented enormous value — and I trace the evolution of Newton’s thinking about whether or not money is just a thing — a chunk of gold or silver with a pretty design — or something more abstract, more elusive…a promise.  (See this post from last year for more on that subject.)*

And in telling all this I give my readers a glimpse of a true economic and financial wild-west, one in which there is not only a dearth of anything resembling regulation, but in which the meaning and import and dangers inherent in the newborn tricks of financial engineering eluded even the brightest of thinkers, up to and including the great Isaac Newton — who in fact lost one of his shirts, at least, in the infamous South Sea Bubble.

And there I conclude, gently, by implication, that the reason financial regulation with teeth is an essential part of a modern capitalist economy is that none of us, not even the one man in history best placed to see through the fraudulent math behind bubbles, are immune to the derangement of reason that money manias educe.  (I made the same point in this post , in which I discussed both some of Newton’s ideas about money (again) and his troubles in the summer of 1720.)

All this by way of preamble that while all the above is true and, I believe, a strong argument, I can’t suggest that your humble blogger could hold a candle to lighthouse beacon of economic chops in the person of the man who just said this in an interview with The Atlantic‘s Conor Clarke:

Self regulation never worked as far as macroeconomic events — whether we’re talking about post-Napoleonic War business cycles or the big south sea bubble back in Isaac Newton’s time, up to today’s time. The pendulum just swings back in the other direction.

The speaker there would be none other than Paul Samuelson, Nobel(ish) laureate, for years America’s leading Keynsian (or at least, popularizer of Keynes’ work) and author of the single most influential introductory economics textbook since the satraps of Ur first put stylus to clay.

Maybe if Tom Levenson says it, you can consider the source and ignore it.  But Samuelson?  Might as well try to bargain the ten commandments ten down to six.**

*Or, of course, just buy the damn book. 😉

**Old, old joke:  Moses comes down from the mountain the second time and says, “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news.  The good news?  I got Him down to ten.”


“The bad news?…”

“…Adultery stays.”

Rimshot, please

Image:  Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, “Moses smashing the tablets of the law,” 1659.

THe Future of News and Civic Media: Digital story telling/complex investigative stories on the web session.

June 18, 2009

William Buzenberg, Center for Public Integrity honcho, is speaking at a “barcamp” at the FN+CM conference at MIT.  What follows is an attempt at a live-ish blog:

First up:  Bill talks about a computer/assisted reporting project on the subprime lenders, “The Subprime 25” — real story was that the banks we are bailing out invested in the big bad 25…all of which are now out of business.

He is going through the mechanics of reporting.  1)  took 3 months just to gather the data on the 25 lenders and the 7 million mortgages…and the SEC documents that helped uncover the underwriters, from Lehman on down.

William takes us through both the contents of the story(ies) — with material like heat maps to show where subprime was happening — and who was doing it…

At the same time he spends some time talking about how to get this stuff out in the web ecosystem…went too fast to capture, but the idea was to catch both traditional media and places like Huffington post.

Mostly, though, this is superstructure.  The story and the reporting he describes in tracking who did what to whom in a large and complex story are familiar…investigative reporting is investigative reporting; the value add of web-based distribution is clearly significant, but by far the larger and harder task is just working the story in the first place.

Now Bill is facing questions on the display and the penetration of the story and whether or not people will actually find the material.  One example Bill used as something that didn’t work as well as he hoped was this set of cards with a “more info” feature.

He did talk about the creation of an e-book available for five bucks or so through the site and Kindle — but it has not produced all that money.

More questions are coming about the searchability and linkability to parts of the story.  Basically it’s all or none.

William now wonders about whether the amount of work — fact checking thousands of words, triple editing and so on is overkill for a web in which folks want it right now…but that gets at the heart of the new v. old journalism debate.

Switch of story:  we’re now looking at the pentagon travel story…took him about a year to get all the information from initial FOIA, through students (i.e. free or v. cheap labor, I assume) working through the results, to final organziation and cleaning up of the information.

This is a very simple, clear story — but still a year in development.  Again, the story being told here is that the investigation is what makes investigative reporting work.

William now talks about the evolution fo the Center for Public Intregrity — began as an investigative service to the MSM, now with the emergence of the web, issue of getting platforms to use it.  This gets to the ecology/economy of news on the web. One point:  he wants to give his stuff to the places that will find audiences.  So bloggers — have at it.

One of the technical issues that Buzenberg is now focusing on is the future of journalism as the creation, manipulation and drilling down through large data bases.  For his organization…that means subcontracting to folks like Palantir to do the database infrastructure work.  Hence, he argues on some level (this is me) the argument about the economics of newspapers is secondary. The digital revolution is transforming the back rooms of journalism as well as the boardrooms — and getting that going requires matching old line investigative skills with data and digital distribution chops.

11:30:  A bit of unintended comedy — how to point the browser to another site.  This is MIT!  This is the future of journalism!  Be afraid!

Gregor Hackmack now takes the stage.  Hackmack is the co-founder of  He presents this as a tool being used to connect citizens and representatives, displaying crucial legislative data about German and now Europe-wide parliamentarians, allowing constituents to find their particular representatives, and then pose questions.  Both questions and answers are published.

Some of the issues are data display– parliamentarians are ranked by number of questions answered and (if I caught this right) by the amount of discussion on any given politician.  The site can also organize questions by theme rather than respondent.

Question:  how does the website get known?  One way is through a partnership w. Der Spiegel and a widget connecting Spiegel stories that have a political element and the Parlamentwatch website.

Conceived of as building a repository of voter memory — nice phrase.

For an English language versions, see Ireland’s Candidate Watch.

Again, the emphasis is on building a body of data that may satisfy an enduser need, but is really accumulating into a point of access into stories for journalists.  This, even more than Public Integrity’s project is a kind of middle-man in the new journalistic infrastructure:  if data will drive new journalism, this is a way to construct data as well as archive or organize it in a way that catalyzes stories.

11:45:  question time.  Hackmack is talking now about how a change in the electoral law in one state in Germany to allow voters to alter party lists of candidates created a need to provide information about the candidates and parliamentarians…and beginning in the Hamburg era in 2004, they moved the idea of Parlament Watch national in 2005.

Problem, as always:  where’s the money?  Offered profile upgrades to 2000 candidates — paid 100 euros to get picture up on the site.  They were able to raise about $25,000.  Hackmack and his colleague, two guys with computers, leveraged that to a larger donor base, advertising — with an ingenious opt out that tells a user how much money they cost the site by withholding one click (.o4 Euro in the demo presented here); and a kind of membership involvement — currently about 600 members, with a goal to reach 1,000.

In other words just about anything that works.

Now question comes up on multi skilled journalists:  Buzenberg wants reporters that can write, report, shoot and blog.

I’m dubious for certain applications at least.  ENG shooting is a real skill, and documentary work, especially: I’ve done enough documentary work to know that the skills required for visual story telling are not the same as those for the core journalistic practices that Buzenberg describes as the backbone of his center’s projects.  I’m a believer in a more team based approach, working a documentarian/video news person with an investigative person or team.

12:05  Buzenberg — there is a technological solution to everything that is wrong with journalism today; we should just go for it.  You don’t need to bat an eye at 350 million mortgages.  He’s working on a medicare/medicaid story with more technologies.  In this context Buzenberg walks back the claim that new hires need to do everything.  To get to computer-assisted journalism (his phrase, and another nice one) you need a team including traditional journalists — editors and the investigators — with web designers, coders, videographers, data base folks and so on.

Buzenberg — talks about the international network of investigative journalists….on a tobacco underground story — all be done, with just 30 folks in Washington, connecting virtually to “the jedi knights of journalism” for a story that has global reach.

The point — where I find a very familiar investigative journalistic approach in what’s been described here, Buzenberg and Hackmack both point to the extraordinary multiplier that the web allows for this work.  The key, I think, in this argument, is the degree to which the connectivity side of the web (as opposed to the distributive function) powers this extreme amplification of journalistic effort.  People and data are at a (clever) persons fingertips…thus permitting a different set of stories to be approached.

Buzenberg now talks about his location in the ecosystem:  if a newspaper does something, the center does not have to do it — but there is an enormous “middle ground” (his phrase) where an investigation can find plenty to sink its teeth into.  Watchdog role is available, e.g. (references the Pentagon travel story as an example).

Do people care about such transparency?  Does it matter if they do?  Buzenberg replies that watchdog journalism is about holding powerful transparent.  (All this in response to a rather defeatist question about whether or not people care about the stories that document official wrongdoing.)

ProPublica guy talks about the value of putting information people together with journalism.

Buzenberg talks about a concept called an impact grid as a tool of measuring how a project has penetrated the media space.  Traffic, hits, links and so on — wants to get his journalists thinking about that grid at the start of the project as well as the end.

The reach can be achieved in different ways:  briefings on the hill; ngos etc.  So one issue is what that community is interested in.  Did a pesticide story that took a year of FOIA stuff and a suit — but that is now valuable for an advocacy community (which the Center for Public Integrity is not.)

The question comes up again — is anyone reading the stuff?  Shouldn’t investigative journalists find out from the public what they want to have investigated?

Answers range from crowd sourcing is doing that, to the fact that folks respond to big investigations.

And with that, we’re done.

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 9.0: Blurbs redux

June 17, 2009

So, when we last left this journal, I promised to get to the point on the dark art of blurbing. 

Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) is by far my  best-blurbed book, boasting enthusiastic and generous praise from a very diverse crew of luminaries — (David Bodanis, Junot Díaz, Timothy FerrisBrian Greene, Walter Isaacson, Sylvia Nasar, and Neal Stephenson).

This follows, as I wrote last time, a much sparser field of those who promoted my three previous books.  How — and why — did I go for this level of long-lead pre-publication encouragement?

The how first:  I began to contact potential blurbers as I was finishing the editor’s revisions to my first-submission mss.  That’s nine months before publication — four or five months earlier than I had in the past, following publishers’ schedules of bound galley production.

Again the reasoning behind this can be found in diary entry 8.0 — basically, if you plan to ask busy people for a favor, best to do so in a time frame that gives them more of a chance to say “yes” than plead the press of prior commitments.

What this choice meant was that I was sending a version of my book that was at least two, and really three passes short of being done.  It wasn’t typeset.  It did not possess the form factor of a book.  All of which meant that I was asking a double favor:  that someone should read my work and that they should do so  in an inconvenient form.*

So, step one was simply to render my mss. as readable as possible.  Book Antiqua font, printed double sided at 1.5 line spacing, a photocopy of the cover design to front it inside a Kinko’s black spiral binding with a clear plastic front  — i.e. a pretty standard “I’m trying here” manuscript package.

Step two was to identify a couple of people who might be willing to read with charity — knowing that what they were seeing was still unfunished.  That means personal friends and/or those who have made it clear that they are supporters of my body of work and this project.

Critically:  the ask has to be open-ended, imho:  you enquire of those already well-disposed to you if they are willing to do you an unusually large favor (large with reference to this favor-space), or whether they would prefer to wait until the galleys come along.  Minimize the chance that they will say no to your first ambition, in other words, in a way that will make it more difficult to come back at a later date for help from someone reasonably inclined to deliver.

So that’s what I did, with three folks on my short list.  First up was David Bodanis, author of E=MC2, and much else besides.  David and I met about five years ago at an Aspen Institute event celebrating the Einstein miracle year centennial, and it was one of those instant friendships.  He’s a great, funny, incredibly smart-and-quick guy, and we share a lot of the same interests and personlity tics (for good and ill…but that’s a different story).

He and I are serendipitously-met are personal as well as professional friends, in other words, and that made it possible just to call him and ask him both to read the mss. as a fellow writer, providing a reality check, and, assuming it wasn’t in his eyes a disaster, to give me a very early blurb.

A call from my then-editor Rebecca Saletan made the timing more important than I had first expected.  Despite the usual wait-for-it counsel I had already received on blurbs, when I told her in early September, 2008, that David had liked the mss. she immediately asked for his blurb so that she could use it in her presentation to the sales conference for HMH’s spring list.

And that gets to one of the “whys” of blurbing


It is a truth universally acknowledged…

June 16, 2009

…that the default nature of a Pat Buchanan utterance is (a) wrong, (b) hateful, (c) deliberate deceit or/and (d) all of the above.

As an aside, it’s pitiful that Buchanan, that deeply involved parent, has no f*cking clue about either the joys or riches of literature written ostensibly for children.

But enthusiastic, happy, self-celebrated ignorance is feature, not a bug of much (most? — ed.) of what passes for elite opinion on the right’s side of sane.*

To which we can only add:  what extraordinary tolerance for mediocrity of mind and absence of common decency amongst Buchanan’s employers enables him to rise above his natural medium:  muttering to interlocutors only he can hear as he staggers from curb to wall while the well-grounded around him yield all the sidewalk space he needs.

*See this piece by George Will for a type specimen of argument by unexamined expansion.  Will’s work offers what you might call a target-rich environment, but the point is that he is what passes for the high-end of right-of-center argument.  Oh well.

I know I’m delinquent in what I want to get done with this blog right now — more writing about the experience of publishing, and much more on the intersection of science, its history, and social/political/cultural pleasures.  I promise more to come tomorrow, and though I know I’ve made and broken such promises in the past., this time I really mean it.  Really.

Check this space tomorrow to see whether or not I’ve just invoked the Hollywood producer’s dialect form of the phrase f*** you.**  I hope not.

**”Q:  How does a Hollywood exec say “f*** you?”

A:  “Trust Me.”

Why I Love Providence: Newton and the Counterfeiter Review Update

June 14, 2009

It’s not just Al Forno’s menu, (pdf) though no complaints there.  The Providence Journal today published its review of Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound), and I’m exceptionally happy to say that it’s a rave.

In it, Tony Lewis (not the Times writer, I assume) said all kinds of things any author would love to hear.  I’m not going to grab’s content bodily, (that’s what links are for) but here are a couple of quotes that Spencer Tracy might have called “cherce:”*

…in focusing on one particular confrontation in Isaac Newton’s almost 30 years as warden and then master of His Majesty’s Mint,  [Levenson] creates a surprising true-life thriller.

The man who “weighed, measured, tested, smelled, worked — hard — with his own hands,” who “stabbed his own eye, built his own furnaces, constructed his own optical instruments” all in the name of science, was hardly one to rest on his laurels when his country’s economy was about to implode, Levenson notes, setting the scene with the clear and exact prose of a science writer and the panache of a hard-boiled crime writer.

And then there’s this:

Newton and the Counterfeiter packs a wonderful punch in its thoroughly surprising revelation of that other Isaac Newton, and in its vivid re-creation of 17th-century London and its fascinating criminal haunts.

This review is, as they say, a keepers.  Happy weekend all.


Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 8.0: Catching Eyeballs 1 — freelancing and blurbso

June 11, 2009

Apologies for the gaps in this series — let my advise any would-be writers not to try to close on a house whilst publishing their books. (As for the wisdom of buying a house at all amidst global financial meltdown…that’s another story. If I could count I wouldn’t be in this business…;)

There are a lot of stray threads on publishing as a general proposition and some specifics as to what’s happening right now with Newton and the Counterfeiter, (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound), so my plan for the next couple of days is to mix some background with some of the right now in a few, hopefully shorter posts.

This one is about the most basic task an author has to accomplish, besides writing the thing in the first place.  You have to put your book in the best possible place to secure an audience.

That’s it.  Books unread are books forlorn.

I don’t write for myself.

I do the writing for me.  The play of language, the pleasure of finding things out, the puzzle solving, the sheer daunting “I’ll never get this done” terror to be overcome, all of it — this is what gives me happiness on every most some one or two working days.

But the work once written is for others, and if those others don’t see it in sufficient quantities, what’s the point?  A journal and a commonplace book would be enough for solo pleasure.  I write to engage in conversation with others, and for that  you need eyeballs.  And they can be hard to find …which is what this series is all about.

So, first, full disclosure:  on the record so far, I’m crappy about doing this part of the book-writer’s job well.  My books have emerged to a whimper of public outcry for the most part.  I have all kinds of excuses.  (Have I mentioned that you shouldn’t publish a book of serious trade non-fiction about Albert Einstein three weeks into a then popular war?  Oh, I have?  Sorry.)

But excuses aside, not only am I reasonably bad at attracting attention to my own work, so are almost all authors, and, increasingly most publishers.  I’ll write more about my experience with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Newton, but the short form is that while I think they are working hard and are ahead of some others in making the transition to a publishing marketplace in which the power of print reviews has waned enormously, they have some way to go yet.  (And I’ll promise you that’s about the most measured a sentence as you will ever get out of an author about the amount their publisher is doing for their book.)

But that said, it’s still pretty clear that there are some things that always benefit a book.


The Subtle Bigotry of Low Expectations

June 10, 2009

Found while procrastinating, presented without comment:

Palin may be more fun to watch, but Gingrich dominates on the battlefield of ideas.

Image:  Auguste Rodin, detail of “The Thinker” 1902.