Can the University Press Be Saved From Itself?

Two_Arabs_Reading_in_a_Courtyard

Painting by Rudolf Ernst via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been following an online discussion about the relevance and sustainability of university presses (here and here) and whether or not there’s a future for publishers of “books that no one needs to use or wants to read.” Opinions expressed by those laboring within the UP community cite shrinking budgets, the corporatization of the academy, niche markets, and the disruptive onslaught of the Digital Revolution as the leading threats to the traditional UP publishing model. Charles Watkins, director of Purdue University Press, described a more nuanced problem and proffered a solution:

Many university presses, especially smaller ones, did not do themselves a service by attempting to fly beneath the radar at their institutions … . Focusing just on academic disciplines and not serving their university community was not a good strategy. If a university press is subsidized by its parent institution, it should expect to give something tangible back. That can range from explicity aligning the publishing list with the institution’s disciplinary strengths to providing additional publishing services outside the press’s imprint.

Very diplomatic, but he’s still just dancing around the real issue. In a post at a copyeditors’ virtual water cooler, Tammy Ditmore (a professional editor with considerable academic press experience) pointed out the obvious: The king has no clothes!

What [Watkins] doesn’t mention is how the pressure on academics to publish monographs remains as high as ever. Tenure and promotion committees rarely acknowledge changing times, and many give little weight to anything other than scholarly mongraphs published by the top UPs. … So universities pressure their faculty to create books that no one will read, which puts pressure on libraries to buy books that no one will read, which puts pressure on universities to support UPs to create books that no one will read. It seems like a vicious and pointless cycle that very often does NOT contribute to informed dialogue, which is ostensibly the role of academic publishing.

It’s that old “publish or perish” rubric. In the pursuit of tenure, academic aspirants are required to crank out esoteric monographs that no one outside a small circle of specialists will ever consult. It is a rite of passage that those who came of age with Mr. Chips are loathe to surrender: Academics writing to impress other academics in an infinitesimal echo chamber, an exclusive club that disdains anything so unseemly as social media or publishing well-researched, interesting nonfiction aimed at the unwashed masses.

A Broader Mission

In our extended conversation, Ditmore elaborated,

In the nonacademic world, those niche markets get taken care of through self-publishing or tiny niche publishers or even through blogs and electronic discussion lists. Why do the specialized academic niches need to be subsidized so they can produce expensive, hardbound volumes that few people will want to buy? Especially when about three-quarters of  [the content of] those expensive, hardbound books is re-hashing all the prior research on an issue to prove the author has read everything else written on the topic, and one-quarter of the book attempts to advance an argument by one turn of the screw?

Why indeed. Times do change, and the university press must change with them. Publishing scholarly monographs has long been the university press’s raison d’être, but what happens when the dead-tree monograph becomes an anachronism—a quaint artifact of the pre-digital world? Just as it no longer makes sense for the doctoral curriculum to be focused solely on preparing PhD candidates for nonexistent tenure-track teaching positions, an overemphasis on the publication of pricey, small-run, hardbound doorstops is unrealistic and misguided.

Here’s a thought: Why not publish books people want to read?

I certainly won’t gainsay the importance of the monograph to the scholar’s professional development, but there’s no reason for it to be a physical volume, or the primary source of the university press’s income. Digital technologies render the publication and distribution of this kind of specialized research and analysis a relatively inexpensive process. Further, open-access, cross-platform publishing encourages scholarly collaboration and ensures that such data will be searchable. Both of these factors promise to boost usage, but even such expanded utility will not generate the revenue stream necessary to keep a university press afloat.

I agree with Watkins’s contention that UPs need to rethink their mandate, but he’s being entirely too timid. I would recommend broadening his parochial concept of “serving their university community … [through] aligning the publishing list with the institution’s disciplinary strengths [and] providing additional publishing services outside the press’s imprint” to a more expansive mission statement—something along the lines of “servicing an eager and receptive global market by producing books its constituents want to buy and read.”

The UP as Trade Publisher

There are more college-educated readers in the population today than ever before, so why not tap this huge potential market? Rather than being content with churning out yet another scholarly monograph on global economics (zzzzzz…), wouldn’t it be more fiscally responsible and creatively rewarding to have a book like Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (a New York Times bestseller) prominently featured on your university press’s website and Facebook page as well?

The university press should be a robust and functional organ in a multifaceted publishing ecosystem, not an insular, adamantine ward of the academy. Remember those hulking console stereos from the ’60s? Oh, they were adequate—if all you wanted to listen to was Mantovani. But as consumers became more sophisticated audiophiles, they replaced those beasts with component systems that enabled the user to mix and match complementary elements to achieve the sound that soothed their soul. The university press needs to adopt that kind of creative flexibility.

Commercially viable titles would help subsidize pure scholarship while building the professor-cum-author’s (and the press’s, and the university’s) cred. We need not throw the baby out with the bathwater—digital monographs (scholarly journals, too, for that matter) can peaceably coexist with stellar trade nonfiction in the university press’s catalog. Generating income to underwrite a sustainable business model that foots the bill for orthodox scholarship while entertaining and enlightening the public-at-large with worthy trade nonfiction sounds like a win-win proposition to me.

Turning Scholars Into Storytellers

But there’s a catch: Producing compelling nonfiction calls for authors who can write well, ably assisted by editors who know what they’re about. The first element in the equation is problematic; PhD programs are not designed to produce skillful communicators. That really needs to change, and I believe it will.

The unvarnished truth is that a PhD sheepskin is no longer a ticket to a cushy tenured faculty berth, so the nature of scholarly exposition must also evolve. An increasing number of universities are retooling their curricula to prepare doctoral candidates for alternative careers in the Real World, where strong communication skills are critical—and this applies to both the arts and the sciences.

And what about the other half of the equation? University presses should be hiring rather than firing editors. Without good editors, the quality of the books they produce will suffer. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t believe me, ask any bestselling author.

If they can’t justify the cost of keeping a full complement of top-flight editors on staff, university presses should cultivate a stable of qualified freelancers. And they shouldn’t cheap out—unpaid grad students, peer reviewers, beta readers, and crowdsourced editing just won’t do. Professional editing is simply a sound business investment. As Tom Wolfe reminded us in The Right Stuff, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

Demoting and digitizing the monograph, turning scholars into masterful storytellers, adding that professional editorial polish, and aggressively marketing the product to a general audience may not single-handedly rescue the university press from oblivion, but it sure can’t hurt.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

David Byrne Predicts the End of the World

19th Nervous BreakdownIn a truly depresso screed in The Guardian, Renaissance man David Byrne laments the sad state of the music industry. If free or cheap digital streaming services are allowed to become our sole source of recorded music, as Byrne predicts, “the inevitable result would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left.”

Take that, Spotify!

David seems convinced that the music industry is being co-opted and monopolized by the insidious streaming delivery services, which in turn threaten artists’ livelihood, resulting in the total collapse of Western civilization. Perhaps he’s just in the grip of that dreaded Celtic melancholia, I don’t know.

In all seriousness, I can see where he’s coming from, and I share his concern and applaud his support of a vibrant, ethical musical scene—it’s good to see a successful artist paying it forward. But I think his highly charged rhetoric is a bit too strident. (For an alternate, but equally vehement, take on the Downfall of Music Thanks to Spotify, read veteran axeman Steve Lukather’s comments here.) As much as I respect David Byrne as an artist, I find it difficult to warm up to his apocalyptic vision of a future devoid of creativity.

Same As It Ever Was

His primary concern is that while record labels are raking in profits by licensing material to Spotify (a streaming music service), they are tossing mere crumbs to their artists. Byrne cites some truly horrific figures to prove his point: “Daft Punk’s song of the summer, ‘Get Lucky,’ reached 104,760,000 Spotify streams by the end of August: the two Daft Punk guys stand to make somewhere around $13,000 each. Not bad, but remember this is just one song from a lengthy recording that took a lot of time and money to develop. That won’t pay their bills if it’s their principal source of income. And what happens to the bands who don’t have massive international summer hits?”

I’ve been a working musician without a “massive international summer hit” (or as Little Feat put it: “I did my time in that rodeo, it’s been so long and I’ve got nothin’ to show”), so I feel qualified to respond. They’ll do what they’ve always done: carry on. They’ll keep humpin’ it (and if they’re smart, they won’t quit their day jobs). Maybe they’ll “make it,” maybe they won’t. Even commercially successful artists ride a wicked bell curve—and most ultimately find themselves playing the club circuit and county fairs to pay the rent.

Such is life. If you had wanted a six-figure income and matching retirement portfolio, you should have listened to your mother and become a doctor, lawyer, day trader, or computer programmer (preferably with a top-secret clearance). You chose to be an artist. The stereotype of the “starving artist” is firmly grounded in fact and it’s nothing new. As Byrne surely knows, it’s the “same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was… .”

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

SpotifyAs I see it, Byrne’s argument is based on a false premise. He believes Spotify (or some other streaming music service) will evolve into an Amazon-like behemoth and become the go-to source for music, thereby nullifying the sale of CDs and other forms of paid content (“streaming looks to be the future of music consumption”). His seemingly logical conclusion is dire: “In future, if artists have to rely almost exclusively on the income from these services, they’ll be out of work within a year.”

That’s a very big “if.” It’s the second time he’s trotted out this fatalistic prognosis (“That won’t pay their bills if it’s their principal source of income.” [emphasis mine]), and like the chorus in a song, he’ll hammer it home a couple more times before he’s through, just to be sure you got the message. But there’s a major flaw in his reasoning: clear-eyed, serious, working musicians don’t expect to make a decent living off of their airplay or CD sales alone—they gig to supplement their income, and yes, some even hold down jobs to bring home the bacon. In the Real World, you do what you’ve got to do.

Byrne’s projected omnipotence of Spotify is also questionable. Truth is, we just don’t know. The digital marketplace is an extremely volatile shape-shifting beast—today’s innovation is tomorrow’s fish wrap.

The World Keep On Turnin’

As I have said before (and will no doubt have cause to say again), we are currently engaged in the most profound cultural shift since Gutenberg gave us moveable type. Digital technology (the juju that powers the internet) is fundamentally altering the humanities—how we learn and communicate and tell our story—and that certainly includes music. As we’re now in the throes of the digital revolution, it is simply impossible to divine where this cultural metamorphosis will lead. But rest assured, in a decade’s time we’ll laugh at our crude conception of the digital possibilities back in 2013. As my friend David Diggs (musician/producer/arranger/A&R man and IT maven) quipped, “The Xerox machine was supposed to destroy the publishing industry. We all know that in reality it was the Kindle that did that.”

We needn’t fear the future; rather, we should embrace it and get involved in shaping it.

In the current climate, streaming services have supplanted radio as the primary means of showcasing new talent; they offer the kind of exposure that major label flacks could only dream about back in the day. It is now possible to tap social media to make a song go viral—or crowdsource a revolution to depose a tyrant. Pretty potent stuff. To his credit, Byrne allows that some aspiring artists and smaller indie labels view Spotify as a useful promotional tool, a way to get their music out to a broad—indeed, global—audience. That’s one helluva lot of PR for the money (i.e., free).

So remind me: How much revenue did artists accrue from radio play in the 1970s? How much did they receive in album royalties? For every Led Zeppelin, there were thousands of struggling unknown artists. Back in ’77, when Talking Heads released their first LP, very few bands could have survived on their royalties alone. And without supporting their releases with heavy touring schedules, there wouldn’t have been any royalties to worry about. Making a living playing music is a business. You need exposure to build a tribe.

So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star

When vinyl was king, the record industry revolved around a sophisticated system of payola and favors (you scratch my back…). Your record label bought ad packages in the trades to insure that you got positive reviews and positioning on the charts (“with a bullet”). Then they used those metrics (and more money and favors) to strong-arm radio programmers into giving your single heavy rotation on their playlist to coincide with their marketing campaign. All of this was linked to carefully mapped-out tour dates to guarantee exposure to the right markets at the right time—it was an intricately choreographed ballet. I was working in the business end of the industry at the time and saw this firsthand.

Mick Ralphs & Me

Mick Ralphs (Bad Company) & Aden Nichols (editor-in-chief, Performance magazine), Dallas, ca. 1976

But that was the 20th-century analog business model. Today, aspiring artists can harness technology to produce high-quality digital recordings (and supporting videos) relatively inexpensively and market them via the internet—much as indie authors are learning to do.

If Spotify proves to be an unsustainable model (and I suspect it will), it won’t survive. As novel business models emerge and mature, wise musicians will align themselves with professionals to handle their management, booking, promo, and sales—folks who know how to navigate the new digital landscape. But again, we really can’t predict what the music industry will look like in a decade; we only know that it will be something we wouldn’t recognize today.

No matter what the biz evolves into, one thing is certain—there will always be a market for good music crafted by talented artists. But here’s the catch: If you’re doing your art to get rich or become famous, you will most likely fail. If, on the other hand, you’re doing it because you can’t help yourself, because you can’t even imagine not doing it, then what does it matter?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Can History Be True?

“Time dissipates to shining ether the solid angularity of facts.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Napoleon a Dit“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” This pithy maxim is generally credited to Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who had plenty of experience manipulating the historical record. Ironically, I have not been able to satisfactorily link this quotation directly to the Little Corporal—the earliest reference I can find is Ralph Waldo Emerson citing it in his famous essay, “History” (1837).

And therein lies the rub: This dubious attribution has been repeated often enough for nearly two centuries to gain credence (a Google search returned 1,140,000 hits). And as repetition leads to consensus, consensus rationalizes validation. All the more so in the Information Age, in which an anonymous “editor” can submit material to Wikipedia, which (universal warnings notwithstanding) has become the go-to reference for Everyman. So hearsay becomes fact by default. Never mind that even if such a declaration was traceable to its original source, its meaning is contingent upon its context.

History is a malleable commodity, indeed. So much for Ranke’s objective historicism!

History is more than a series of data points

Still, the thrust of this aphorism should not be dismissed out of hand. Despite the well-meaning efforts of cliometricians and practitioners of the new social history to infuse the study of the past with the scientific certitude of Big Data and sociological methodology, history obstinately refuses to be reduced to mathematical formulæ and statistical tabulations. “The operations of life, whether private or publick admit no such laws,” counseled Samuel Johnson. “The caprices of voluntary agents laugh at calculation.”

Historical evidence takes many forms: from intimate personal correspondence to authoritative institutional documents; from anecdotal tribal traditions to carefully collected and curated oral histories; from graphic images on hillsides, standing stones, cave walls, illuminated manuscripts, and websites to sound recordings on a variety of media; and of course, there are those three-dimensional artifacts… . Each with its own hidden agenda. Collectively this body of evidence is capable of yielding some understanding of the essence of an individual subject or group at a specific moment in time, but none of its component parts are value-neutral.

The relativist would say that every scrap of evidence collected by even the most fastidious historian, regardless of provenance, is subject to interpretation—the highly subjective filter of human agency. If that is so, history will always be more art than science, a unique species of literature, or as Emerson framed it, “There is properly no history; only biography.” Whatever your philosophy, it’s hard to argue with E. H. Carr’s commonsense pronouncement: “The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present.” The writing of history is truly an interdisciplinary form of composition.

Putting the “human” in humanities

History is the record of an event or events instigated, experienced, related, and recorded by people. Some were lettered, others illiterate; some were eyewitnesses, others had their backs turned at the crucial moment; some were well-intentioned reporters, while others were just looking for a free beer. No social forces—be they economic, political, religious, technological, ideological, or military—can exist without the involvement of human beings; flesh and blood, gristle and bone. And the relationship is a symbiotic one: Real people, from serf to lord, are the fulcrum upon which these inanimate forces exert their powerful influence and vice-versa.

Commenting on the profound value of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, Thomas Carlyle reminded us, “the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state-papers, controversies and abstractions of men. Not abstractions were they, not diagrams and theorems; but men, in buff or other coats and breeches, with colour in their cheeks, with passions in their stomach, and the idioms, features and vitalities of very men.” (I trust we can forgive Carlyle his quaint chauvinism—we are all a product of our times.)

But academic history is presumed to be nonfiction (even if it falls within the genre of creative, or narrative, nonfiction), so to maintain a sense of verisimiltude it must be predicated on thorough research and data collection in as many of the evidentiary fields as possible. Clio (whom Herbert Butterfield affectionately called “that old reprobate”) must be courted with deference and respect. Yet when the research phase is complete, these cumulative facts reveal nothing in and of themselves; the past is unconcerned with the present.

A historian must weigh every word, every fragmentary artifact, and paint a convincing portrait of her subject based on the subjective selection, arrangement, and interpretation of these data. Any randomly chosen group of impeccably credentialed, conscientious scholars can analyze an identical assemblage of primary data and produce wildly divergent readings of the same historical “truth.” None are necessarily right or wrong—they just reflect different points of view, as in Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The problem is articulately expessed by comedian Steven Wright when he deadpans, “How do you know if it’s bad jazz?”

This is not meant to be a deconstuctionist diatribe; rather, I am suggesting that as historians, we belong to an exclusive club. We are the progeny of the bards and the shanachie—keepers of the flame. We are the storytellers…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Typography: Best Practices

type catalogReadability is—or certainly should be—a major consideration for web designers, and readability is predicated on good typography. Even though content editors aren’t designers per se, they are often called upon to collaborate closely with designers and/or to critique websites for overall usability. In smaller operations, they may assume some or all of the layout tasks. So it’s a good idea for web editors to develop a working knowledge of basic web design and the role of typography in great design and readability/usability.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Smashing magazine conducted its first survey of web typography back in 2009. Advances in responsive design, evolving browsing habits, and the explosion of mobile devices with a plethora of form factors led the editors to revisit the project.

The updated survey was recently published as “Typographic Design Patterns and Current Practices (2013).” It’s detailed content is worthy of your consideration, but I’ll share some of the highlights to give you an idea of what they found:

  • Serif fonts have eclipsed sans serif families in popularity for headlines as well as body copy (though it’s apparently still considered acceptable to combine the two for emphasis or contrast between titles, subheads, body copy, sidebars, etc.).
  • The most commonly employed headline fonts are Georgia, Arial, and Chapparal Pro (but the majority of websites surveyed still incorporate lesser-known fonts to some extent).
  • The most common body copy fonts—no surprises here—are Georgia, Arial, and Helvetica (poor old Times Roman has been put out to pasture).
  • Headline font sizes typically range from 29 to 32 pixels.
  • Body copy font sizes flucuate between 14 and 16 pixels.
  • Characters per line average from 75 to 90 (though 55 to 75 is actually more optimal).
  • Body text is pretty universally set on a left alignment, hyphenation is verboten, and links are predictably underscored and/or highlighted with bold face or a bright or contrasting color (occasionally only on hover).

Content marketing editor Tom Mangan registers his frustration with the “roll yer own” approach to digital typography that yields control to the end-user: “What drives me crazy is that font usage is more of a suggestion than a command. Every browser displays it differently and [an] individual user can override my type choices.”

There was also a lacuna in the article: it doesn’t even mention the concept of negative space in relation to type. Mangan opines, “I would bet the true keys to legibility lie in character and line spacing—if you get that right, it should stay that way (pretty much) no matter which font the user is actually using.”

The judicious application of white space is near and dear to the hearts of all graphic designers, since text and negative space are really just opposite sides of the same coin—and both are graphic elements. I was taught to view white space as the yin to text’s yang; the two engage in a sort of graphic dance, each bringing out the best in the other. Marcella Drula-Johnston, head honcho of the Spectrum Creative design atelier in Fairfax, Virginia, wistfully intones, “White space seems almost neglected these days. Andi [her associate] and I have both noticed the lack of thought or intent regarding kerning or tracking in most contemporary design as well.”

But the lack of respect for good typography and the appropriate use of “text-free zones” predates the Internet. As a young in-house editor for Petersen Publishing (Motor Trend, Hot Rod, Guns & Ammo, and many other newsstand titans), I was sworn to embrace Pete Petersen’s dictum, “If God had wanted there to be white space, He wouldn’t have created type!”

Oh, dear…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 6/4/13

Mary Rose cutaway

Mary Rose Museum“Britain’s Pompeii”: Looking like the love child of an old sailing ship and a flying saucer, the Mary Rose Museum made its debut in Portsmouth last Friday. The unique facility houses an equally unique historical artifact: the hull of the ill-fated Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet. The ship sunk under mysterious circumstances during an engagement with an invading French armada in The Solent in 1545.

maryrosedogA veritable Tudor time capsule, the Mary Rose offered up a wealth of amazingly well-preserved artifacts. The treasure trove comprises clothing, personal items, longbows and arrows, musical instruments (including the only extant example of a still shawm, a medieval ancestor of the oboe—you can listen to a sound clip here), the master carpenter’s and barber-surgeon’s sea chests (with a full complement of the tools of their trades)—even the skeleton of the ship’s dog (a whippet-terrier cross) and one of the rats he no doubt terrorized.

Remains of nearly half of the 400-man crew (all but 35 went down with the ship) were recovered, 97 of which were near-complete skeletons. Of these, seven were selected to serve as models for facial reconstruction, utilizing techniques employed by criminal forensic artists (view a fascinating video of the process here). Tentative occupational identifications were determined by location of the remains (see diagram above) and forensic analysis of the bones.

Wikipedia has a very thorough entry covering the ship itself as well as the recovery operations. Finally, you should take the time to watch this 45-minute documentary, “Ghosts of the Mary Rose”; it offers a new and highly plausible hypothesis for the ship’s untimely demise:

Rockin’ the cosmos: I recently profiled a fella who made music in outer space; this week I’ll introduce you to some folks who make music from space itself. Wanda Diaz-Merced is a grad student performing an internship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She’s working on a project that uses a process called sonification to translate data drawn from X-rays emitted by the EX Hydrae star system into sound patterns. The researcher can manipulate pitch, volume, and rhythm to produce something akin to music.

One day a colleague, Gerhard Sonnert—who also happens to be a bass player—noticed that the sound patterns Diaz-Merced was generating were reminiscent of a common Afro-Cuban rhythm called a clave. Enlisting the aid of his cousin, Volkmar Studtrucker (a professional composer), the pair wrangled the cosmic waves into musical compositions in a variety of genres. They’ve even released an album: “X-Ray Hydra.” Now that’s what I call avant-garde!

Network mad as hell“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” Lynne Truss (of Eats, Shoot & Leaves fame) advocates a subversive “no tolerance” approach to punctuation errors in signage—she’s even depicted in her author’s portrait poised before an offending sign with marker in hand and a mischievous grin plastered across her mug. But balaclavas notwithstanding, one would hope Truss didn’t intend to encourage “grammar terrorists” like Leonard Burdek.

Borrowing a dash of indignation from Howard Beale in the movie Network, Burdek waltzed into the reception area of the State of Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission and declared that he had intended to blow up the sign outside because it was missing the letter ‘d’ in the word ‘and.’ To reinforce his point, he then sat a pressure cooker with wires hanging out of it on the counter.

Burdek claimed his home-brewed bomb misfired because there were so many grammatical errors in the online instructions he had trouble deciphering them. This decline in literacy should concern the organization responsible for certifying teachers, the mad bomber allegedly informed the shocked receptionist and her boss. He beat a hasty retreat when they dialed 911, but was soon arrested without incident (hey, he’s a grammar geek, not the Boston Marathon wingnuts). The “explosive device” was found to be fake and the whole affair a stunt to get attention and make a point. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1875

Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1875

Technology + words = art! I’d like to wrap up by calling your attention to a wonderful photographic study of the evolution of the typewriter by Vincze Mi Klós. Beginning with the first patent for a “Machine for Transcribing Letters” in 1714, the portfolio continues on through the electronic Brother WP-1 in the mid-1980s. Would you believe that the first electric typewriter made its appearance in 1870? Steampunk aficionados, prepare to drool!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/25/13

things come apartTechnology and culture embodied in art: Since we’ve still got a few days of Bike Month left, I thought I’d share some velo-centric goodness with y’all. To kick things off, get a load of photographer Todd McLellan’s wild photo of a dissected vintage road bike. This image, taken from the artist’s “Disassembly Series,” is just one of many quotidian items rendered as objets d’art that McLellan says, “have, are, or will be in our everyday lives.” The complete study is now available as a coffee table book called Things Come Apart.

Bike helmets work! Well, there’s a shock. I’ve addressed this issue before, and I’m gobsmacked that it takes a well-funded scientific study to conclude that you’ll protect your eggshell-like brain bucket by wearing a helmet. I’m equally appalled when I see a cyclist riding sans helmet—a transgression occasionally compounded by a helmet dangling from the handlebars. D’oh!

Some folks believe that commuting by bike is dangerous and are petrified of experiencing a Close Encounter of the Automobile Kind, but that seemingly rational fear has been proven fallacious. Still, when New York City announced its plan to launch a bike-share program, skeptics insisted that it would be unsafe, due to the automotive congestion (and the notorious recklessness of the cabbies of Gotham).

Mayor Bloomberg caved, so while it is apparently perfectly sensible to legislate the volume of sugary drinks New Yorkers can consume to protect them from diabetes, protecting his constituents’ heads from brain damage would be compromising their personal freedom. Go figure.

A recent piece on NPR reinforced the conclusion that cycle vs. automobile collisions are rare, but cycling crashes (with other bikes, pedestrians, or potholes) are in fact quite common. In any case, a helmet will protect your noggin. It’s just—sorry—a no-brainer. And counterintuitively, the report concludes, “the more people bike, the safer it may become.” Just wear yer dang helmet, people…

Silent spring of (18)62: You might think we’ve pretty much squeezed all the life out of the Civil War, but as Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln revealed, there are always new perspectives to be illuminated. As a Civil War historian myself, I was fascinated to learn that two academics have discovered another way to put old wine in new bottles. Timothy Silver and Judkin Browning, professors at Appalachian State University, received a $100,000 research fellowship to co-author an environmental history of the Late Unpleasantness.

The peripatetic migration of men and animals during the war years was largely contingent upon weather patterns, and the environmental impact of those movements on the local populace and the nation-at-large has yet to be the subject of academic scrutiny. For example, Silver believes that weather, rather than strategy or tactics, resulted in the termination of McClellan’s “On to Richmond” campaign. The environmental historian speculates, “If it hadn’t rained and the war had ended with McClellan taking Richmond in 1862, there would have been no Emancipation Proclamation,” and therefore, no fodder for another Spielberg epic. Interesting theory, but there are a couple of pretty big “ifs” in there.

HhHH cvrMetonymic magic: “me·ton·y·my (noun) : a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated.” So says Merriam-Webster. While the media is all atwitter with the announcement of the billion-dollar deal involving the acquisition of Tumblr by Yahoo! (who concocts these silly names?), I was, perversely perhaps, more entertained by James Fallows’s treatise on this obscure linguistic construct.

Fallows shares his readers’ comments regarding the subtleties that escaped elucidation in the dictionary definition. There are some colorful examples given to illustrate the point, my favorite being, “Calling [Karl] Rove ‘Turd Blossom’ is metaphor – he’s not actually a flower. Calling him ‘the Brain’ or ‘Bush’s Brain’ is metonymy – he is famous for his use of his brain.” To put a finer point on it, I suspect this particular metonym was a play on the German epithet, Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (abbreviated as “HHhH”), which translates to: “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” (Incidentally, there’s a wonderful novel by the same name—check it out).

This may seem like so much pedantry to the average reader, but you’re not “average,” are you? Language matters. The proper use of our rather rich language is what separates the men from the boys in the world of intelligent, clear messaging (it’s just a figure of speech, so please don’t label me a “sexist pig”—that would be a metaphor, not a metonym).

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/20/13

Down Survey MapEthnic cleansing, ca. 1653: Last week we took a peek at the emerging discipline of GIS, and there’s more cool map-related news to report today. Following his conquest of Ireland, Oliver Cromwell doled out confiscated land to his soldiers in lieu of pay and transported the hapless Irish, either into slavery in distant lands or banishment to the barrens of Connacht (those who refused to go quietly were summarily executed). The story produces haunting echoes of Hitler’s landgrab and pogroms.

Digital humanities scholars at Trinity College Dublin have now assembled and digitized an atlas of remarkably accurate survey maps drafted by Cromwell’s minions (called the “Down Survey”) and georeferenced them with 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps, Google Maps, and satellite imagery. Accurate down to the parish level, the maps enable historians to identify the original owners of the purloined lands (no reparations are anticipated…). Needless to say, this amazing digital repository has proven a boon to researchers, genealogists, and students of Irish history—and the maps are beautiful works of art in their own right.

Dangerous obsessions: In The Lost City of Z, journalist David Grann plumbs the depths of the Brazilian Amazon jungle following in the wake of Percy Fawcett’s final—and fatal—1925 expedition to locate the storied city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold” (also know as Ciudad Blanca, the White City). Grann concludes that there is indeed evidence of such an ancient citadel (many, actually, according to anthropologist Michael Heckenberger) but the tantalizing theory has yet to be validated. Armed with an innovative digital mapping technology called LiDAR, cinematographer Stephen Elkins believes he’s struck paydirt—but in Honduras rather than Brazil.

LiDAR uses laser pulses to map terrain, enabling it to “see” through the triple canopy jungle and construct a 3D digital image of the elusive topography. Working over a 60-square-mile patch of jungle, engineers of the National Science Foundation (contracted by Elkins to perform the aerial data collection) found evidence of man-made structures (one doesn’t normally see straight lines in nature). But the jungle may well have swallowed a good many ancient cities and towns—could this really be the famed Ciudad Blanca? Archeologists scoff while Elkins prepares to head into the bush on foot to find out…

Geo-economics lesson: Though perhaps not imbued with that Indiana Jones cachet, another GIS project worthy of your consideration is an interactive map of global trade published on the Smithsonian’s website. “Interactive: The 50 Largest Ports in the World” is a really interesting example of how the combination of maps and data can be combined to relate a compelling story. Factoid: Six of the 10 busiest ports in the world are located on China’s mainland coast.

Grammar on the brain: According to a study performed by neuroscientists at the University of Oregon, our brains are hardwired to detect—and correct—grammar errors without our conscious intervention. It’s kind of like having a spell-check chip embedded in your head. Pretty cool, huh? The study, which was conducted using electroencephalography, included native English-speaking subjects between the ages of 18 and 30. Sounds intriguing, but the article didn’t mention anything at all about the subjects—their socioeconomic status or educational level, for example. I’ve got to wonder whether the amount of prior education in language skills isn’t a very critical factor here. Further, even with substantial grounding in the fundamentals, I’ve seen some atrocious writing produced by folks with graduate-level educations, so how is it these scholars’ brains aren’t autocorrecting as this study indicates they should?

While this study may establish that your brain parses grammar and syntactic data so quickly that it appears to be unconscious or intuitive, I would think the capability to perform this process would be contingent on how well you know the grammar and syntax rules to begin with. Your brain has to have that database to draw on. As a paratrooper, I was drilled (and drilled, and drilled) on how to react in the event of a malfunction; so well-drilled, in fact, that the response seemed automatic. It wasn’t, of course. Without that prior training, I’d have been in a world of hurt.

Wikipedia editing in real time: And here’s one more installment of visualization coolness for you—if you’ve ever wondered who’s doing all that crowd-sourced editing for Wikipedia, now you can see it happening geographically in real time. The site developers explain, “When an unregistered user edits Wikipedia, he or she is identified by his or her IP address. These IP addresses are translated to users’ approximate geographic location.” Only 15 percent of the edits come from unregistered users, but it’s still an amazing process to watch unfolding before your very eyes.

Dan Brown, man of letters: This lampoon of incredibly wealthy, renowned fiction scribe Dan Brown’s latest sure-to-be-best-seller will have you rolling on your highly polished antique heartwood pine floor, with the lemony scent of the polish in your nostrils, and snorting like a coke fiend who just won the lottery…

Spaced out: Let’s wrap up this week’s installment with a tribute to that bona fide space cowboy, Canadian astronaut and cosmic troubadour, Chris Hadfield. In case you’re not one of the 14 million people who’ve viewed the self-produced video of Chris crooning “Space Oddity” in orbit, I’ve posted it here:

You’re welcome. That’s one small step for Ziggy…

It is truly a memorable milestone in the history of rock, but we must also recall that just last summer, Mark Kelly, commander of the International Space Station and husband of Gabrielle Giffords, was beamed (from space) onto the jumbotron at a U2 concert to introduce the song “Beautiful Day” quipping, “Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.” Could this have possibly provided Chris with inspiration? I don’t think he should quit his day job, but it was pretty cool. Nicely done, Commander Hadfield!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/10/13

coffee plantCoffee redux: As previously noted, NPR recently devoted an entire week to a special report on the many aspects of coffee culture. This week it’s Maria Popova’s turn to sing the praises (and dis the dark side) of that most social of beverages in her precocious Brain Pickings blog. In her wonderfully eclectic style, Popova profiles Mark Pendergrast’s sweeping history and anthropological study of coffee, Uncommon Grounds. As usual, her text is generously sprinkled with breadcrumb links that suck you down the rabbit hole and into related essays, all of which are equally compelling. Hopefully, once you’ve been enticed by this preview, you’ll be moved to seek out a copy of Uncommon Grounds, brew up some joe and enjoy…

Thanks to Google Earth, we’ve all become familiar with amazing imaging of our built environment from various altitudes and perspectives; now even men can find their way without asking for directions! A joint effort undertaken by TIME, Google, the U.S. Geological Survey, and NASA, Timelapse (as it is called) raises the bar exponentially. See for yourself:

The project employs still satellite photos taken from 1984 to 2012 in flip-book style animation sequences. The scenes dramatically document the effects of human activity on the Little Blue Marble. From the explosion of development in Las Vegas (and the concomitant draining of nearby Lake Mead) to the rape of the Amazon rainforest and the travesty that is mountaintop-removal mining, this empirical evidence of our stunning lack of stewardship will take your breath away. On the positive side of the ledger, it’s interesting to see the results of irrigation projects in Saudi Arabia. Bonus: use the “Explore the World” dialog box to view the time-lapse changes for any location!

Our geospatial relationship to the planet constitutes the very heart of the geographic information systems (GIS) discipline. GIS enables us to visualize, analyze, and interpret data to identify trends and patterns. It’s also very good at putting historical events in context. Evolving tools, such as Neatline (an app designed by the University of Virginia Scholars’ Lab), facilitate the use of GIS by non-programmers. Take a stroll through the Neatline demo and prepare yourself to be impressed!

Archeology News reported on this emerging technology as well, with specific reference to how it can be employed to make history more accessible, using Mapping the Jewish Communities of the Byzantine Empire as a case study.

If you’re interested in getting your feet wet, there’s plenty of material to work with, and more becoming available every day. For example, the British Library just announced the digital open-access debut of its collection of incredibly detailed Ordnance Surveryors’ Drawings (OSDs), executed between 1789 and 1840. Want more? Click through to Old Maps Online. This site serves as a portal and search engine for the online collections of various libraries and research institutions (of which there are nineteen currently participating). The David Rumsey Map Collection Database and Blog is another great resource. This leviathan sports 38,000 historical maps and related images, and will soon be partnering with the Digital Public Library of America (we’ve mentioned the wondrous DPLA here, here, and here).

And switching gears, I have to post this entertaining video, “Vigilante Copy Editor” (factoid: AP styles “copy editor” as two words, CMOS prefers closing it up). Lynne Truss (of Eat, Shoots & Leaves fame) would be proud…

Have a fantastic weekend!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 5/3/13

nat'l bike month

The science of safety: May is National Bike month (loads of related activities here) and we should all be spending more time on our bikes. Cycling is good for your body, mind and spirit, it’s easier on your wallet than driving and it’s a blessing for the environment (the trees will thank you!). Really, there’s no down side. Some folks worry about getting hit by a car. Don’t. Believe it or not, you are 15 times more likely to die while riding in a car than you are while riding on your bike. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true. Our irrational fear is predicated on cognitive biasIn this brief presentation from Bike Summit 2013, Tom Bowden (chairman of Bike Virginia and vice president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation) cleverly explains this phenomenon.

To catch a thief: And while we’re on the subject of two-wheelin’, KALW radio (San Francisco NPR affiliate) produced a great story about using social media to track down stolen bikes. There’s also an engaging read in the February issue of Outside magazine profiling one man’s obsessive quest to craft the perfect sting operation to nail bike thieves. Interestingly, the level of law enforcement cooperation hinges on how many cyclists there are in the local precinct: “Departments that can muster a peloton, like those in San Francisco, Portland, and Houston, are generally more proactive.” The bottom line is that you should be proactive, too; you can increase the odds of seeing your lost bike again by keeping a file with your bike’s serial number and lots of photos, and blasting out info relating to your stolen bike all over the cycling forums. Cyclists are a tight community; use crowdsourcing to your advantage! It doesn’t hurt to put your name on a piece of paper, laminate it and stuff it into your seat tube. There will be no argument that this is your bike!

From the Velolinguistics Dept.: In a recent tweet, noted lexicographer Peter Sokolowski revealed that he is not a devoted cyclist:

“How unhip am I? I used to think that ‘fixie’ meant a fixer-upper. A junk bike you won’t care if stolen.”

Personally, I think the beauty of the ‘net is that you can so easily discover how little you know about so many things—and broadcast this revelation to the entire planet with the push of a button.

Alexis Madgrigal knows what a fixie is; in fact, he employs it as a metaphor in his current blog post in The Atlantic: “Online Media is a Fixie: Simple, Low-Maintenance, Fun, and Dangerous.” He offers a pretty technical profile of just what a fixie is, and suggests an analogy with online reportage. Read the comments following Madrigal’s testimonial to his own hipness; they are much more on-point (and entertaining!).

E-book sales are on the rise and the e-publishing titans are duking it out in an attempt to establish proprietary models designed to lock authors and readers into a lucrative (for the publisher) gated community. But standards are elusive, and one developer is determined to wrest the self-publishing arena from the clutches of Apple and Amazon. Called “FuturePress” (squeezed into one word, cute), the open-source project is the brainchild of the UC Berkeley School of Information (where else?). According to the website, “FuturePress aims to free books from the prisons of current proprietary formats.” The idea is to build an API based on HTML5, enabling an e-book to be read on any device. “I should be able to read a book regardless of what type of device or application I want to use,” defiantly asserted Jake Hartnell, product manager for FuturePress. “It’s like that for things like music and video! But not ebooks. 🙁 ” It’s a kick-ass concept, but an unfortunate choice of moniker (and they have no logo—has no one told them about “branding”?). It should come as no surprise that the name “Future Press” has long since been nabbed by any number of commercial outfits. So type “futurepress” into a search engine and see what comes up. Just sayin’…

Pet peeves of the word-nerd crowd: According to The Atlantic, “definitely” is the latest overused buzzword. Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ben Yagoda casts his vote for “literally.” Yes, some of the greats of belles-lettres have fallen prey to this tick, but that doesn’t make it correct, or even acceptable (it just makes them human). I doubt that I’ll be giving too much away to admit that both of these linguistic abuses are like fingernails on a blackboard to me. I failed high school biology because my teacher, Mr. Shelsky, had a habit of prefacing every statement with, “Strangely enough …” and concluding his diatribes with a (no doubt) trenchant observation beginning, “Irregardless, ….” It got to the point that everything else he said was just white noise punctuated by those annoying exclamations. Entranced, I was reduced to a drooling zombie state in which I mindlessly counted how many times he uttered these expressions and recorded the totals on my Pee-Chee notebook. Little wonder that I couldn’t recall much about the Periodic Table of Elements.

Publishing and paywalls: The revered publication, American Heritage, is the latest in a long line of periodicals struggling with the digital revolution. Having suspended publication last fall, the publishers claim to be restructuring the book as an education-oriented digital history offering (behind a paywall); they’re hoping the “educational” cachet will prove to be a viable sales strategy. In its new incarnation, the publication will be available in print and digital formats designed to complement the company’s nonprofit project, “Education, A Transformative System for Teaching American History and English Language Arts.” With so many innovative open-source alternatives already available or coming online now (the DPLA, which I discussed a couple of weeks ago, the University of Houston’s impressive Digital History website and the various educational initiatives produced by George Mason University’s Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, to name a few), it’s difficult to see how a for-profit venture is going to keep its head above water.

Digital Humanities 101: The aforementioned efforts all fall under the umbrella of the “digital humanities.” If you’re even the slightest bit curious about this fascinating movement, there are many resources available to acquaint you with the basics. Defining the Digital Humanities: A Bibliography is a great place to begin your journey. A Companion to Digital Humanities is an open-access textbook on the subject (and a very accessible read), while “A Guide to Digital Humanities” (by Northwestern University) is another well thought-out introduction to the field. This should be more than enough to whet your appetite; I’ll revisit this subject frequently.

CERNHappy birthday, Web! It’s hard to believe, but the World Wide Web is only 20 years old. British physicist Tim Berners-Lee developed the idea of creating an information network, and the technology that made it possible was made freely available to all on April 30, 1993. The first website (for CERN, a nuclear research organization) wasn’t much to look at, but Gutenberg’s initial efforts were pretty crude, too. In celebration of two decades of open-access information exchange, CERN has resurrected its original website. This technology has profoundly changed information sharing—how we interact, how we tell our story—in fundamental ways. What will the third decade bring?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 4/27/13

fairtrade_intl_logo_custom-8e5e5ca5e4c336afa79a44820f5043b52c3b4ad0-s3In honor of Arbor Day, I’m celebrating a very special bit of greenery — the coffee tree! Yes, I have a bit of a fetish for the fruit of the bean. I’ve blogged about the application of technology to my favorite beverage here and here. For no particular reason that I can discern, NPR elected to run a special series called “Coffee Week” with a couple of segments airing each day (you can view an index to all of the programs here). It’s a very well-executed profile of coffee and coffee culture — Jerry Seinfeld even dropped in. The programs cover a wide range of topics, from the historical, social, medicinal, and sociopolitical aspects of coffee to the music emanating from the coffee-growing regions. And for more great java jams, check out Putumayo’s Music from the Coffee Lands and MCL, vol II.

Even more espresso love: These amazing panoramic views of one of my favorite java joints, Atlas Coffee in Charlottesville, Virginia, offer a great mashup of coffee culture and techno-coolness. Several views taken from different vantage points; you can scroll all around the shop! Take the virtual tour then stop by if you’re in the area. Atlas is a wonderful family business that specializes in friendly.

"Atlas Coffee" by Michael Bailey Photography

“Atlas Coffee” by Michael Bailey Photography

Neo-what? There’s no denying that language is a dynamic thing, constantly evolving. New words — neologisms — are always entering the lexicon. Some slang is (mercifully) ephemeral and passes with its generation, while jargon is often limited to a discrete community (a particular occupation, etc). Portmanteau words are all the rage (adorkable means “adorable in a dorky way”) and they can certainly help to clarify concepts, provided you understand the cultural connection, the “hip factor.” Then there are the symbols endowed with a fresh linguistic role — such as the @ (“at”) symbol, now commonly associated with twitter handles. Hence, you can follow my tweets @AdenNichols.

According to Ann Curzan, an English professor at the University of Michigan, the term “slash” is a case in point. In addition to its use as a formal noun by the guitarist Saul Hudson, slash has become the common verbal expression of a punctuation mark. The interesting thing is, it is being spelled out in written discourse. Seems counterproductive to me, but who am I to say? So as Ms Curzan explains, you may see the conjunction rendered thus: “culminating in Friday’s shootout-slash-car-chase-slash-manhunt-slash-media-circus around the apprehension of the bombing suspect.” My apologies to my British friends, to whom this is a “stroke.”

And in other linguistic news: I find NPR’s new “Code Switch” program to be very thought-provoking and entertaining (see “I’m the Café and He’s the Leche,” for example), but I must say I wasn’t blown away by the piece exploring the use of the slang term “yo” (“‘Yo’ said what?”). Researchers express their fascination with the fact that the term is used as a gender-neutral noun (in contrast, apparently, to “ho'”). That’s deep. Even more profound is the observation by Christine Mallinson, a sociolinguist at the University of Maryland, that “… even if ‘yo’ is just a fad, it says something about the kids who use it.” Yes, it says that literacy is on the wane. Rather than legitimizing this form of verbal degradation (I’m having Ebonics flashbacks), I was hoping we could just ignore it and let it die a natural death.

Turn it up to 11! As neuroscientist Oliver Sacks has ably demonstrated, music affects our brains in dramatic ways. It helps us establish our sense of self and our worldview, and contributes to our overall health and well-being. A survey article in Smithsonian offers links to eight studies providing insight into the fantastic world of musical neuroscience. My favorite is a study that defies your parents’ warnings about how “that loud music is going to permanently damage your hearing!” According to a group of Australian researchers, the hearing loss only lasts about twelve hours (YMMV). So in the immortal words of Humble Pie, Rock On!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Humble_Pie_Rock_On