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


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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.

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 vote​forenivron​ment​.ca:

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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