My Photo On Treeplanting Book Cover

I’m pleased to report that a photo of mine is going to be used on the cover of this new book:

Eating Dirt cover

That’s Jane schlepping in across the scree slope at the top of a truly nasty block on the Bluebird road outside of Creston. Looks pretty good to me. And I like the font.

The book is by Charlotte Gill and presumably has its roots in this award-winning short story. It should be out in a few months. I gather there’s a lot of back-and-forth in book publishing, all of which takes time.

Howard Zinn

I think the reason that I’m surprised by Howard Zinn’s death — even though he was 87 — is that he seemed so alive right up to the full stop.

Howard Zinn, historian who challenged status quo, dies at 87 — Boston Globe

Howard Kunstler once said that the most interesting people he knows didn’t know what they wanted to be until they were 40. I guess Zinn figured out he wanted to be a historian slightly earlier than that, but 40 was about when his particular way of being a historian started changing the world.

Two Things I Didn’t Know About The Monkeywrench Gang

1. Robert Crumb did illustrations for an 80’s hardcover edition. Some samples here or here, or buy the t-shirt. Check out Crumb and Abbey hanging out together in Arches:

2. This one is just surmise, but as if the Sally Fields character in Smokey and the Bandit wasn’t based on Bonnie Abzug. TMWG = 1975, S&TB = 1977.

The Curious Habits of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas

“Miss Stein has an outsize bathtub that was especially made for her. A staircase had to be taken out to install it. After her bath she puts on a huge wool bathrobe and writes for a while, but she prefers to write outdoors, after she gets dressed. Especially in the Ain country, because there are rocks and cows there. Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn’t seem to fit in with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow. When the great lady has an inspiration, she writes quickly, for about fifteen minutes. But often she just sits there, looking at cows and not turning a wheel.”

— Janet Flanner, James Thurber, and Harold Ross, The New Yorker, October 13, 1934

via Daily Routines

Busting Google’s Book Monopoly

Not so long ago Google signed a deal to end a lawsuit launched against them by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. The Google Book program has been scanning books from a few major libraries since 2005–University of Michigan was one of the first–and making the text searchable online, and displaying snippets of them in the search dialogue. There was an assumption that Google would make money from this process, either by posting their ubiquitous text ads on the interface, or just by the inexorable process of making the internet more useful and thus bringing more folks into Google’s path, or something. The Authors organizations were convinced, reasonably, that Google must have seen a way to make money from it, or they wouldn’t be doing it. And they figured that since it’s their job to represent authors, and the product of authors was making money somehow, they wanted a taste. When Google pointed out that making book discovery easier might just be the single biggest thing that anyone could do to drive up declining book sales and make back-catalogs profitable, they didn’t care or weren’t convinced. They wanted money up front, directly, from Google.

So they opened up a public relations front, and opened up a lawsuit alleging infringement.

In the meantime, some other folks got concerned that Google was the only entity scanning books. They figured book discovery was indeed an important public good, and one that probably shouldn’t be the domain of a single for-profit. Google wasn’t talking about giving away their databases, and in fact seemed to be re-negotiating the terms of their agreements with the contributing libraries such that access to the data was becoming increasingly centralized. So the non-profit Open Content Alliance (with cash and tech from Microsoft and Yahoo, among others) fired up their scanners, with the intent of creating a commonly available pool of data on what was in all those books that are sitting on all those shelves.

I give huge props to Google for starting the book scanning movement. Before them, nobody thought it could be done technically, and nobody much seemed to realize that it should be done. In the time since, librarians at participating universities say they’ve seen an enormous uptick in book check-outs. It’s a great program, broadly speaking.

But the data shouldn’t only belong to Google. If the libraries had been collectively smart, once the Open Content Alliance came along offering to scan the books into a shared database they should have switched exclusively over to them, and suggested that Google join to the alliance too. If the author’s associations were smart, they should have supported the initiative whole-heartedly, made what-can-you-do gestures when the databases were leaked and started showing up on Kindles (or alternatively, struck a deal with Amazon), and watched the royalties on sale of physical copies of their back-catalogs skyrocket.

Some libraries did indeed join the OCA, for example University of California and U of Toronto. But the Author’s associations–as content trade groups tend to be–were stupid with greed. How stupid? In order to settle the deal, Google made them an offer: give us a license to scan the works of all the authors you represent, and we’ll give you some money. But only us! And the author’s association said, hey, money! That doesn’t seem like a good deal for the authors to me: book readership has been declining, and getting a few cheques cut from Google HQ isn’t going to change that, but making books relevant and discoverable certainly can. Centralizing that capacity in a single search-provider won’t facilitate relevancy and discoverability. And regardless of the financial benefit or loss to authors, it certainly seems like a bad thing for human knowledge.

And that looked to be that. Yet another centralization of a significant public good into that one single monolithic information infrastructure corporation, Google. Aided once again by Google’s vision, their engineering prowess and their strategic astuteness (I like the term “deep cleverness“). You have to hand it to Google, they are brilliant at what they do. The thing is, you might want it back some day. Google should flourish on their ability to compete in technology and business, not on their ability to end competition. So that deal made me very sad.

Which is why today is a happy day:

Justice Dept. Opens Antitrust Inquiry Into Google Books Deal — MIGUEL HELFT, New York Times (Registration required.)

“The Justice Department has begun an inquiry into the antitrust implications of Google’s settlement with authors and publishers over its Google Book Search service, two people briefed on the matter said Tuesday.

Lawyers for the Justice Department have been in conversations in recent weeks with various groups opposed to the settlement, including the Internet Archive and Consumer Watchdog. More recently, Justice Department lawyers notified the parties to the settlement, including Google, and representatives for the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild, that they were looking into various antitrust issues related to the far-reaching agreement.”

Also some reporting from the Wall Street Journal here, but it’ll cost ya.

My guess is that the search term “google antitrust” is going to get popular over the coming years. Google is like a government: they’re only as good as we make them. As far as books, personally, I’d rather have the Open Book Alliance, and if this investigation is a move towards breaking the weird little collusion between Google and the author’s associations, maybe open scanning and searchability of books still has a chance.

Climate Science Heretics

Kevin Kelly studies western science from a few different perspectives. He’s got a pretty good feel for it as an institution. For his regular Cool Tools newsletter, he reviewed The Deniers, a book celebrating scientists who dispute the global climate change consensus. If I get a chance I’d like to read it, but regardless of the book, Kelly’s review is worth a read in its own right.

“What should we do with the 1% who dissent about global warming? By logic, we should embrace them, but currently “deniers” of global warming have become demonized, which is a sign that global warming has become slightly religious. Which is a shame because many global warming skeptics are not crackpots or paid shills, but first-class prestigious scientists with a minority view.

Throughout its history, science usually advances from the edges. Heretics should be cherished for forcing edges to the center. The most respected scientific global warming heretics have been rounded up in this very readable book, The Deniers. Significantly, many of the eminent scientists included here don’t call themselves deniers at all. They say, “I believe global warming is evidenced in all these other fields; Except in the field that I am expert in, the evidence is totally bogus.” One by one the field-specific heretics make their case. And a number of them are rather persuasive. But at the moment there is no unified alternative theory of climate change, so the critique of global warming amounts to exposing holes in the current science. Any good scientific theory will have holes.”

I get frustrated when I hear people complain that scientists didn’t do enough to alert the world to the climate change threat. According to received wisdom, scientists aren’t supposed to be involved in the setting of social priorities at all, they’re just supposed to pump objective factual information into the mix and let civil, democratic institutions decide what to do or not do about it. So even if scientists hadn’t become activist around global warming, it wouldn’t seem totally fair to blame them. And the thing is, scientists were activist. For decades, when media and government and even environmental groups seemed to be dropping the ball on global warming, it was a cadre of research professionals who fumbled it along, and if they didn’t do a better job of it, can you really blame them? If you didn’t hear about global warming during the 90’s, it wasn’t because there wasn’t a labcoat who was trying to tell you, they just didn’t know how to do it well.

Perhaps one of the drawbacks of that breaking down of the notional firewall between science and politics is that scientific institutions subsequently aren’t dealing productively with climate change minority views, as Kevin Kelly and apparently the authors of this book think.

A Badly Recorded Thumb War with John Hodgman


A couple of weeks ago John Hodgman was in town, and as engineer for T. Hetzel’s Living Writers show, I got to meet the man and watch him through a glass partition for an hour. JKH may only score as a minor celebrity on the vertigously logarithmic US celebritometer scale, but he’s one of the few that I might actually be giddy about meeting, and I was giddy.

The interview was great, and John is by any metric of sober non-giddiness a real pleasure to interact with. He’s (surprise!) funny and interesting and affable. Which may actually be surprising if you’ve read Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the social lives of writers; roughly paraphrased: people expect writers to be articulate and sparkling, since they may write articulate and sparkling things. But the truth is they require two years locked in a room to get just a few basic thoughts out of themselves, and when forced to relate to humans in real time (here I’m quoting) “drag themselves through society like a gut-shot bear”.

Hodgman’s books are about being funny and interesting and affable, and yet that is what he is, so there you go.

The interview is great, T. did a lovely job as she usually does and John needed little prodding. They do in fact engage in a thumb war at one point.

Which brings me to my involvement. Since I first listened to this audio, I have been gradually forgiving myself, but it still pains me to say this: I screwed up the levels. John initially asked for more volume in the headphones, and I chose a very stupid way of bringing those levels up. Consequently there is clipping and distortion, to a degree that significantly detract from the experience. No, I couldn’t hear it when it was happening, but there were three different meters that I failed to absorb visually. Oh man, it still hurts. It does start getting better around minute 8, but it never gets good.

Anyhow, I’m putting the audio up because despite my ineptitude, it’s still worth listening to.

  • 20081027JohnHodgman.mp3

The End of Drunken Email, the Dawn of Drunken Librarying

So the munificent folks at Google have spared us the trauma of drunken emailing. Thanks.

But those of us at U Michigan have a more local conundrum. Now that “7-Fast” book delivery has been experimentally enabled for graduate students, it’s possible to search for a book and have it delivered to your departmental mailbox without the penalty of actually going to a library to find it or even to pick it up from the circulation desk. Without physical costs or library hours to consider, drunken librarying becomes a too-easy option.

It’s not that I’m not enjoying The Way of Ignorance, by Wendell Berry. It’s just that I have no idea what led to it arriving in my mail folder.

Don’t drink and patronize folks. Or, heck, do. Books can never be a bad thing, right?

Thom King is Running for MP in Guelph

Fun. I know nothing about the race, except for this tidbit from

Our Pick: Frank Valeriote, Liberal Party of Canada

This is a riding where vote-splitting could easily elect a Conservative this time but it is very tricky to call. Liberal incumbent Brenda Chamberlain is not running again and the NDP candidate is high-profile Aboriginal broadcaster and writer Tom King. The Green party with candidate Mike Nagy has also shown strongly. Based on past results, it looks like the Liberal candidate has the only chance of winning however please check back close to election day for up-to-date information.

About Thom.

Recent Good Reading

Some good reading from the last week or so:

Panty Raid, 1952 — Michigan Today, U-M Heritage

By now it was 9 p.m., and for a moment the storm seemed to have spent itself. But then the milling crowd of men spotted a counterattack heading their way: a horde of women flooding into Central Campus from the Hill.

The women aimed straight at the symbol of male privilege—the front door of the Union, which by tradition was never to be entered by an unaccompanied female. They surged through the Union, then into all-male West Quad, where “several quadders, caught unawares with their shorts on, were forced to scamper for safety,” according to the Daily.

 Apparently the chaotic-spontaneous archetype of what apparently became a fad of campus panty raid riots. Charming on one level, disturbing on another, given the mistily ambiguous allusions to rape.

Me and My Girls — David Carr, NYT

“But that’s where the plot thickens and the facts collide. Erin and Meagan were born on April 15, 1988. Whenever I felt compelled to explain myself and the cold facts of our history, that night outside Kenny’s was the necessary moment. In the story as I recited it, that horrible night occurred very soon after they were born. I thought I quickly entered treatment because even though I had been an unreliable employee, a conniving friend and a duplicitous husband, nothing in my upbringing allowed me to proceed as a bad father. The twins were then whisked into temporary foster care soon after their birth. After that, it’s a Joseph Campbell monomyth in which our hero embraces his road of trials, begins to attain a new Self and hotfoots it back to the normal world.

Nice story if you can live it. If the girls were born in April, and I went into treatment a few months afterward, as I have always said, where did the snowsuits come from? Minnesota is cold, but not that cold.”

This has now shown up on Boing Boing, but if you don’t know, now you know. Times columnist and former hard-core junky David Carr investigates his own past. Highly recommended.

Taking the Cure – The Walrus, Christopher Shulgan

“As the night wrapped up, Keithley let slip that the band’s tour van was having mechanical problems — something that might prevent them from attending their next gig at a snow-boarding competition in Fernie. Verigin and his friends immediately began burning through their cellphone minutes, trying to track down someone in the region who would be able to fix the band’s van at the crack of dawn.

I saw something in that moment. Until then, I had lumped the Doukhobors in with ultra-conservative sects like the Amish and the Mennonites. But Verigin and the rest of the Kootenay Doukhobors were anything but conservative. After more than a century in Canada, they retained their communitarian sensibilities, and their anti-authoritarian, anarchist vibe. They were far more comfortable alongside counter-culture legends like Joe Keithley than buggy-riding Christian conservatives.”

Christopher Shulgan wrote a biography of Aleksandr N. Yakovlev, who is credited with influencing Gorbachev towards perestroika. This is his story of Yakovlev’s vist, as the Soviet Ambassador to Canada,  to the Doukhobor sect of Castlegar BC. He convincingly theorizes that the Doukhobors were a turning point for Yakovlev. Even if I hadn’t been living near Castlegar this summer, I think this would still be a heck of a tale.

Memories of a Dead Seer: Werewolf at Foocamp08! – Jane McGonigal

“Having played nearly 100 games with the Ultimate Optimal Villager strategy, I have only ONCE seen a Werewolf play this strategy and pull it off. (In games where the village isn’t playing by this strategy, it’s actually quite common for a Werewolf to successfully claim to be the Seer.) It will probably hurt me in future games to admit that this was a game in which I was the Werewolf and Jimmy Wales was the Seer and investigated me on the first night. So, um, forget that I said that.”

On a lighter note, an informal rundown of the culture of the party game werewolf (aka mafia) at geek conventions, and a game-theory guide to probable victory. 

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