Archive for January 2010

Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Derive Drunk

January 22, 2010

xkcd to the rescue of a very bad week:

And yes, it was all an excuse for the vile wordplay in the headline, and yes, it doesn’t quite fit the comic, but its my blog. So there.

Poseur Alert (not to mention wallet grabbing): Ken Burns, Baseball and the 2004 magical Red Sox run

January 22, 2010

Here’s the sage of New Hampshire, opining on the spiritual genius of America’s pastime:

Baseball is a precise mirror of who we are, and I can’t recall a time that was more evident, particularly considering the deep emotional, communal, and personal impact, than during the 2004 ALCS when the Red Sox overcame the Yankees,’’ said Burns.

Arrrgh!  Bullsh*t.  Baseball is many things, and I enjoy it greatly, and I thrilled to the events of 2004, made yet more rich by the disasters of 2003.  But it is not “a precise mirror” of anything but, perhaps, itself.

It may offer metaphors, of course, and a genuinely penetrating examination of the dynamics of the game and the business of baseball could illustrate a some of what matters in America these days — no exploration of the Red Sox triumph of that year would be complete without diving into the steroid-scummed waters of the performances of Ramirez and Ortiz, for example.

But this malarky about “emotional, communal and personal impact” is an example of why I so loathe much of what Burns does as a historian.  Given the choice between easy myth and stilleto cut to the heart strings vs. actually coming to grips with what happened and why — he goes all kleenex and swelling orchestras on you.  Every time.

His stuff is superficially persuasive.  He’s got that style down, the lugubrious (“serious”) pacing, the soft musical bed, and the one aspect of his practice that is truly first rate, those exceptionally well done interviews stitched together with often brilliantly shaped archival spoken words.  But the substance is designed to coddle his viewers, not to challenge them.  He’s a myth maker, not a historian — and right now, when we are drowning in manufactured myths, just the thought of another Burns’ extravaganza turns my stomach.

And then there is the sheer greed and sloth involved in Burns’ current plans and pleas.  Now that he is no longer the largest receipient of corporate welfare in the PBS system, Burns has decided to milk the regular channels of PBS funding as hard as he can, potentially squeezing out dozens of hours of television in which the equivalent of watching grass grow — those endless pans across sepia photographs — are not actually seen as production values.

For example:  I have heard through the gossip channels that run through PBS that Burns intends to submit funding applications to the NEH in every funding cycle.  This is inside baseball I know (and as gossip, should be accorded the truth value such sourcing always enjoys), but if true, this puts significant pressure on the development and production of novel and original voices.

That’s simply bad, but rational behavior.  Burns likes making films, has certainly earned an audience, if not this pair of eyeballs, and there is no law against seeking any dollar of funds that might conceivably fall one’s way.

But recall that in this particular instance Burns proposes an update of an already broadcast and, IMHO, bloated series on baseball.  He’s doing a bit of an update — got to keep the shop going, after all — but the bulk of this broadcast and something along the lines of three to four percent of PBS’s primetime air for the entire year, will disappear into maw of a massive rerun.

That’s the sloth part — indolence on Burns’ part and on PBS’s.

The greed comes from Burns’ production plea, also contained in the Boston Globe article linked above:

“And one impactful way to capture the essence of that is to feature those personal mementos, the photographs of joy and jubilation, the celebration photos in the immediate aftermath, the fathers and sons and daughters, that picture of a Red Sox cap on a gravestone of a loved one who didn’t live to see the day,’’ Burns added. “Anything that illuminates the feeling and moment of what that was like for those who truly lived for this team, those snapshots and memories, we hope they will generously share them with us. The story can’t be fully told without them.’’

Leave aside the unlovely diction (“impactful.” Pah!) and what you have is a very well-budgeted production seeking unique visual material for free.

Burns is well known around New England documentary circles for this kind of thing, for poor-talking his crew, his artists and his sources of archival material.  I’ve worked with crew members who worked at cut rates for Burns in the wake of his pleas of poverty.  He is very good at striking enormously advantageous deals with young and inexperienced musicians — caveat vendor, of course, but still.

And I’ve run into the consequences of his enormously persuasive gift for getting people who should know better to give him unique visual resources for free.  More than once I’ve had to talk down curators who wanted to get from me all the money they felt they should have charged Burns.

Again, caveat vendor, as they now all do.  The usual grievance was that Burns underrepresented the non-broadcast secondary market into which he planned to sell work that contained images, and people supplying, as they thought, a nonprofit educational venture with material at their nonprofit rates felt deceived.

The archives don’t give that break to  any PBS work anymore — and they shouldn’t. (Or rather, they quote one price for broadcast only — which is nonprofit and educational — and another, higher one if the work is going to be marketed in secondary venues, which it always is.  It gets more fragmented and complicated than that in many cases, but that’s the broad outline.)

So here Burns is turning to another source.  Not newspapers or the commercial or public archives, but you and me.  And he asks for generosity. His prerogative, and if you want to have a shot at getting your pic on TV for a few seconds, go for it.  But don’t forget.  Burns is trying to get something for free that most people pay for.  Nice work if you can get it…but I don’t like it.

There.  I’m not sure if I feel much better, but pouring out a bit of bile helps.

I’ve been grieving this week, and yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, ratifying what will be, I’m afraid, the decisive erosion of both the American claim to exceptionalism and of American power worldwide, has left me almost unable to move one finger after another at the keyboard.

So yes, I know that in the great scheme of things, the success of a minor con man peddling wares to the network that now reaches, on average, less than one percent of American households every night, is less than trivial.  Still it gives me a start.  More rage to come.

Image:  Winsor McCay “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend,” 1908

Science Online 2010 Brain Bubbles: Duck Genitalia Doggerel

January 17, 2010

As has been amply twittered, (search #scio10), one of the hit of this years Science Online conference has been Carl Zimmer’s account of the extraordinary sexual equipment of ducks.

Not only did it serve as an object lesson (and what an object!–ed.) on the intricacies of science journalism in the age of the web, it became a running theme throughout an evening in which the tool a duck’s penis most resembles received an excellent work-out.

My own response?

Why a limerick, of course.

So, for all of you who sadly had to miss this most excellent meeting, I offer you this take-home.  With no apologies.

There once was a mallard quite amorous

Whose genitalia were certainly glamorous

But its left handed screw

Rotating quite true,

Brought results that were sadly calamitous.*

*The calamity here implied could either be the destruction of the silicone vagina used in early versions of the experiment in question, or from the implications of the idea being tested that the co-evolution of duck penises and vaginas occurred in the midst of sexual competition to enable or prevent forced copulation. For the detailed account of the experiment in question — here’s the paper.

Update: Via @JBYoder, this. You will all be punished until moral improves.

Image: Song Dynasty (960-1229) album painting of a duck.

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) no number quick update on blogs and books…

January 16, 2010

…which is the topic of tomorrows session at Science Online 2010, led by Rebecca Skloot, Brian Switek and your humble (sure about that?–ed.) blogger.

In the haste of getting to the hotel and then getting together with Rebecca and Brian to figure out what we really are going to talk about tomorrow, I haven’t found the time to write in detail what I had wanted to talk about today:  some thoughts on what the blogs can do — or even whether they should — to step into the void left by the collapse of the American book journalism at the mass media level.

So here’s a truncated version, which I will try to develop later with whatever insights come out of our conversatons tomorrow.

First:  there are tons of books being published — I’ve seen numbers in excess of 200,000 per year in the US.  I expect that number to both rise and fall in coming years:  rise through the opportunities to self publish that exist now in ways that no vanity publisher of an era gone by could have ever imagined; and fall in the category of books published by institutions attempting to reach large audiences through some kind of worked out distribution and publicity channels — “real” publishing as we’ve known it for a couple of centuries, at least.

Second:  whatever the precise balance between non-traditional and old fashioned publishing will turn out to be, the idea of national or broad conversations centered on books is mostly gone.  There are basically three remaining MSM outlets that can drive a book that does not already have its own media platform (Sarah Palin’s memoir, which was an industrial operation, not a literary one, for an obvious recent example).

Those three, in my guess as to order of importance, are The New York Times Sunday Book Review; NPR (which is not a unitary operation, of course) and, a rather distant third, The New Yorker. Some might through the NY Review of Books in there — and it is true that though its circulation is small, it is influential. Other radio and certain TV outlets are important as well, but these are the outlets that still make a claim to provide real literary journalism — to treat books as cultural events to be covered as news.*

(It’s different in the UK, where there is still a considerable literary news hole; but the mother country (literally, in my case is  have a different problem — an exceptionally rapid decline in their high street retail book trade.  But that’s for another post.)

This is not how it used to be.  Earlier in my career, even though I’ve never gotten much of a rise out of the Times, major newspapers around the country actually had reviewers, and devoted some real space to them, and I found I could hope for significant public discussion of my work in the LA Times, in the Chicago Papers, in the Washington Post…a bunch of places.

Now many of those places have stopped reviewing, picking up the AP review if there is one, or simply not bothering.  Meanwhile the Times has cut its reviewing hole, and now maybe checks out, in brief notices included, something between 1,000 and 2,000 books a year.  And there’s a vicious circle there too: book reviewing space in the NYT and in any other newspaper tracks advertising dollars spent to support such space.  As publishers consolidate and find their profit margins shrinking, they spend less on such ads.  As they do so, the book review hole declines…and the opportunity to sell more product goes with it…

and you know that tune.

So here’s the problem:  blogs and web attempts to create communities of writers, readers, and critics are popping up all the time.  They are important. They work — my post of a piece on Scalzi’s Whatever blog, as part of his Big Idea series drove Amazon sales and other blog interest.

But it’s a really big blog that gets 10,000 hits a day.  Only a small handful can hope to get 100,000.  A decent newspaper in a moderate metro area used to do that every day — in quite recent memory.

And of course, mere numbers only tell a part of the story.  Consider, for example the audience partitioning that goes on in the web is another impediment to permitting a book to find that part of its audience that doesn’t know yet that they might be interested in, say, a story about a scientist-cop whose detective career illuminates the birth of the modern idea of money. (If that describes you, here is the inevitable plug: you can find it at  AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.ukWaterstonesBlackwellsBorders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store.)

So the thought to consider, in all this doom and gloom, is what, if anything, can be done to make up for the gap left by the MSM abandonment of serious books as an essential beat in cultural journalism.

I have some ideas — as do my co-presenters…all to be discussed, I hope, in tomorrow’s session. From thence, to more bloggy meanderings.

*There is one type of venue that is new and that can do enormous good for a book: the non-book oriented avidly followed TV show.  The gold standard now for book publicity is a gig on The Daily Show, or Colbert, or — and happy indeed are the happy few who achieve this for non-fiction trade book — Oprah.  But we are talking a few dozen books at most in any given year, single digits of which would be science or history-of-science works.  So for purposes of this discussion, hope for the best, and prepare for an acceptable alternative.

Image:  Norman Rockwell, “Fact and Fiction,” 1917

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 13.0: Prelude to Science Online 2010’s Book/Blog session.

January 14, 2010

I’ve been a little slow to update my series of posts about the practice and emotional reality of publishing a (would-be) popular book on science.  (Ya think? — Ed.)

But its time to get back into it for several reasons.

The first is that I’ve got more to say — about what to do in the face of the collapse of serious book journalism within the US mass media; about reviewers and the question of whether and how to respond (no and carefully, if you can go a little Red Queen on me just now); on the kindness of strangers; on the second book crisis, which is a subset of the next book conundrum; and probably some other stuff that will occur to me as I start scribbling all these.

The second is that Science Online 2010 is on hand.  That’s the annual conference that started as a science blogging meeting, championed by the indomitable North Carolina-based duo of Bora Zikovic and Anton Zuiker, and is now, still led by the same pair, with a lot of help, become a vibrant meeting engaging a wide range of questions about the interaction of science and the web.

That’s relevant because Rebecca Skloot (whose book, The Immortal Life of  HEnrietta LAcks, is on the verge of publication, and is fantastic), Brian Switek, (up and running on his first book, born in part of writing to be found here) and I will be leading a session titled “From Blog to Book” at the unFSMly hour  of 9 a.m. this coming Saturday, January 16.

And third, of course, I want to continue to draw attention to the book whose passage to its readers this diary documents.  That would be my true-crime tale, Newton and the Counterfeiter, which as ever, can be found at AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.ukWaterstonesBlackwellsBorders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store.

As noted above, there’s a lot of stuff I want to cover, and not being sure quite where to start, I guess the context of the Science Online meeting pushes me towards a few scattered thoughts on the enormous problem all of us book-fetishists face in connecting a book to its audience.

As before, any entry on this theme has to be in part a confession of failure.  I began this blog about eighteen months before my book was due to come out, and I did so for several reasons.  Mostly, I felt — and still do, vehemently — that science as a tool for making sense of daily life gets short shrift in the whole range of public and civic debates we have in this country.  My first real post on this blog was on the gap between what neuroscience was telling us about the pathology of mental injuries suffered in combat and the way the US military was dealing with victims of such injuries.

Since then, I’ve written about how important it is to use even the simplest of quantitative tools — grade school arithmetic — to grasp the meaning of reports like casualty levels in Iraq, and the essential nature of a commitment to empirical research to deal with just about any civic issue.

I’ve gotten more purely political at times than I had intended — partly as a result of an almost completely debilitating obsession with the election of 2008. And I have tried to maintain my connection to my core intellectual pleasure, the history of science, but the presenting face of the blog is captured in the tag line:  “Science and the Public Square.”

But there is no doubt that from the start, I knew that I would use this blog to help bring my upcoming book to folks’ notice in any way that I could.

As an aside:  one piece of advice I do have for writers planning to start blogs specifically to aid their upcoming book projects — don’t.  At least don’t imagine that blog created simply to promote a specific book is going to do much for you.  Either your book is already attracting attention, in which case the blog won’t hurt but won’t add much value for the time taken to do it right, or your book is struggling to find traction, and a brand new blog is not usually an immediately effective way to reach much of an audience.  Especially if the blog is explicitly built around the work that already isn’t getting enough play.

Actually, that’s not really a digression:  one of the points of starting my blog long before my book was out, and of using it to stretch my wings over a wider territory than the book itself was to see if I could enter a community of bloggers and readers who would then be sufficiently interested in my take on the world to respond to the book when it became a major focus.

And in that, this effort succeeded, to a great extent, at least as I see it.  I’ve made a bunch of blog friends over the last two years, and a number of carbon based ones as well, a subset of that group.  I’ve interacted with a bunch of different web presences and audiences, and yes, a number of people responded to my book on their websites over the summer and fall.  (I’m very remiss in posting the relevant links with thanks to all who did so.  I will.)

And it succeeded in another way.  One of the odd things about writing a book is that there are long stretches of time in the production process when you are not writing, really. That’s most true after you submit your rewrite to your editors, and the production process really begins.  I find it hard to do more than preparatory work on a next book while one is still in the making — more on that in a post or two — so that leaves me with a lot of days when I don’t have anything I “have” to write.  So from early on I used my blog as a kind of methadone for book writing addiction; not quite the same thing as working out a long form  narrative, but still, every day a venue to fill with words and thoughts.

But I failed to use my blog to best effect.

I mean, I meant well, and I started out on the right track with my “Friday Isaac Newton” blogging.  But I didn’t keep it up, and if there is one thing every blogger knows, (I say, speaking from my one data point, more or less) it is that the blogging marathon requires the stamina and sheer imaginative will to deliver on such promises week in and week out.

And in that I think I lost a significant opportunity to build a community of readers around the core passions that led me to write my book.  I do know that a couple of the posts I did write in that series remain among the most popular of anything I’ve written — especially the one in which I posted my photographs of Newton’s childhood home and the apple tree that may have been implicated in his first thoughts about gravity.  It still pulls in hits every day, and has had almost 27,000 unique views over the last two years.  And while that’s clearly the best performing such single post, I have no doubt that if I had put up some cool bit of Newtoniana most weeks on Friday, it would have both been fun and useful to the project of publicizing the fact that a book illuminating some truly wild facets of the great man’s career was on the horizon.

If you want to see how it works when someone does get this right, or at least more nearly so than I, check out Jen Luc Picard, AKA Jennifer Ouellette, whose book, The Calculus Diaries has just entered the production process.  She will also be presenting at Science Online 2010, as it happens, and in the post announcing that and other bits of excitement in her life, she gives her readers a partial list of links to the posts she used to develop the ideas in her upcoming book.

That’s how to build long-distance buzz.  And what Jennifer did is exemplary in my view because it was real (as I tried to make my Newton posts as well, certainly) —  by which I mean that what she wrote on the blog materially shaped what she came to think about as she wrote her book.

(In my case it was somewhat different — I used the blog to write some of the Newton stuff I loved but did not fit into the sharply defined (I hope) narrative of the book. But the principle is the same:  this was stuff I was thinking about and wanted to express, and not simply puffery for the book to come.)  And at the same time, each of Jennifer’s posts served to whet appetite for the larger work to come.  Good buzz; smart writing.  So I guess my advice to anyone else would be (as always, it’s worth what you pay for it):  do what I say, not what I did.

In my next post I’ll write about why I think this kind of long range preparation is absolutely essential, and yet may never be good enough.  Hint — it’s because the old channels through which book conversations used to pass have mostly gone…and I’m not so sure the brave new world in which we live has figured out how to replace it just yet. There is an alternative hypothesis…but that’s for yet another post.

(Oh — and I do plan soon  to turn to a specific concern I’ve been getting some questions about promotional videos for books — like this one I made about Newton’s London. (Click on the “video” button on the right side of the page if you’re interested.)

In the meantime, see some of you at the Radisson in Research Triangle.  Science Online 2010, here we come.

Image:  Mathieu-Ignace van Brée, “George Cuvier,” before 1832.

Sam Cooke vs. Marvin Gaye: A Response

January 14, 2010

Ta-Nehisi Coates is weighing in on this claim about who tops who.  Postbourgie says Sam, no contest.  TNC waffles — it’s the old spikes of excellence vs. body of work wheeze, but what got me going is that when he sees the lines blurring as white kids rise to clap for Sam Cooke’s rendition of “Blowing in the Wind,” that gives me the excuse (as if I needed one) to post this retort on Marvin Gaye’s behalf.

This was a Rubicon, IMHO.  A revelatory approach to this song.

There’s the virtuosity — no singer me, but still I know from talking to a lot of performers how challenging it is, how brave you have to be to stand out there on an island, all by yourself, sing damn near a cappela, and hit every moment of feeling just as you imagine it — especially on a tune as famously singer-hostile as the Star Spangled Banner.  On national TV. Live.

And there is sheer fact of ownership.  That song, for that moment, is Marvin’s property, lock stock and barrel — and he’s laying the fact that this song belongs not just to one narrow idea of America but to a much bigger one.  And he’s doing so to start a celebration of America’s blackest major sport beamed out on mass media, when that term actually meant something.  If in Sam Cooke’s performance TNC sees a major milestone, then this is surely another.

And to the larger claim:  I’m biased. (And those others are not? — ed.)

Marvin Gaye provided a big part of the soundtrack of my youth, and Cooke, for all his unquestioned wonderfulness, much less so.  So my props go here to the man who I still think had an almost perfect sense of the song.

My blog, remember.  Here, if no where else, I get to pick the winner. 😉

Open Lab 2009!

January 14, 2010

Now this was a nice bit of news to receive:

The list of posts selected for Open Lab 2009 — a collection of 50 exemplary science blog posts from the last year — was announced earlier this week, and on it you will find this post by your humble blogger.  It’s a look at the rhetorical debt Charles Darwin owes to Isaac Newton, and it’s pretty good, if I do say so as shouldn’t.

You can see the complete selection here.  It is great company in which to find oneself — kudos to all here represented — and my thanks to the heroic team of judges, led by Scicurious of Neurotopia, who worked through more than 700 pieces to reach this conclusion.

Illustration: Franz Eugen Köhler “Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis)” 1887.