Saturday, February 28, 2009

Yet another discussion on the future of books

In the comment stream on my post last Saturday, I tried to make a point that has been, I hope, a consistent theme of this blog, to wit: Asserting an argument that favors one’s narrow self-interest and doing so loudly enough to drown out other points of view tends to lead to bad outcomes. Society functions better if people consider others’ interests in addition to their own and try to design a solution that meets everyone’s needs. I don’t think this is a particularly controversial viewpoint; I just think it’s one that, in the age of talk radio, many people have lost touch with.

In the interest of airing points of view different from my own, I now link to this post from Frank Wilson (a man who, as a long-time book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, suckled at the teat of large publishing companies for many years), in which he comments favorably on the idea that perhaps the book is dead, after all. But please do follow the link trail from Wilson’s post to Patrick Kurp’s comments and thence to Adam Kirsch’s review in Slate. Interesting reading, all of it.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

True colors of Pantone

For anyone who does print design work…

I got myself a Pantone Huey the other day. Pretty cool device. Takes about two minutes to color-calibrate your monitor automatically (rather than by trying to decide when two squares match, by eye, using the Adobe Gamma tool).

If you’re thinking about buying it yourself, these notes may be helpful.
  1. The price listed on the above page is $89. If you call 1-866-PANTONE and just order it over the phone (no special deal), the price is $69 (plus shipping). On the website, you can’t even place the order until you “become a member” (member of what? Dunno. It doesn’t say). If you do that, maybe the price drops online, too, but I just ordered on the phone instead. Fast. Easy. Knowledgeable customer service rep to take the order (can’t say that about a lot of companies anymore). And I didn’t have to join a club I didn’t want to be a member of.
  2. There’s a Pro model for more money. However (as I learned from the CSR), you can order the regular $69 device and then, if you decide you’d rather have the Pro model, you can just download the Pro software upgrade later. What you pay for the software upgrade brings the total price to exactly what it would be if you bought that model in the first place. It’s a wash, in other words, and if you end up not needing the Pro model, you’ve saved some bucks.
  3. I have a two-monitor setup. It turns out that the base model can only calibrate one monitor. The Pro model can handle multiple monitors. Okay, fine, but I really only need calibrated color on my main monitor, and I’m a cheapskate.
  4. True to its name, the device calibrates hue. I guess it does saturation okay, too. But it doesn’t really do brilliance. I’m working on a book cover with a dark forest green background (color picked from a Pantone Process swatch book) and, both before and after calibration with the Huey, it looks a lot brighter on screen. There is no adjustment I’ve found that will render that deep a color accurately and still have the screen bright enough to read email without eyestrain.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Robert Darnton is a fool

Robert Darnton, a University Professor at Harvard is presumably not stupid, but he is certainly short-sighted.

This is about the proposed Google settlement. Darnton is upset that the tremendous repository of out-of-print (but in copyright) material being scanned by Google will not be made available free to all comers. Google is proposing to have one free-access terminal in every library, but that isn’t good enough for Darnton. He thinks there should be unlimited free access.

Let’s think about this a moment. We’re talking about books that some library somewhere bought a single copy of. Google, upon scanning these books, is enabling (in theory) simultaneous free access to that book by one person in every library in the United States. This is already an outrage from the point of view of the publisher and author of that out-of-print work, because if every library in the country had bought a copy of the book in the first place, the book would have been a financial success and might still be in print.

But on top of the very real injury of giving free access to every library, Darnton is proposing the additional insult that everyone everywhere ought to have free access. He further asserts that this is somehow in keeping with some great foundational principle of our nation. The Founding Fathers, though, had another idea. They thought that creators ought to be compensated as an incentive to further creation and invention. And so they created copyright and patent rights. Darnton seems to think that creators will keep on writing books with no hope of ever being paid for their work. Why would they do that? Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

No, the Google settlement is already bad enough. We don’t need fools like Darnton lobbying to make it even worse.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Octavio Solis's Lydia at Yale Rep

Everybody ought to have a maid
Yale Rep is the kind of theater company that tries to push boundaries. They put on a lot of risky new work. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes it does.

Lydia, the latest play from Octavio Solis, works. It works as storytelling. It works as psychodrama, peeling back the layers of every character’s social (or antisocial) behavior to expose the beating heart within. It works as metaphor, exploring and exposing the nature of duality, as evidenced in everything and everyone we see. And it works as an evening of theater, showcasing the talents of a brilliant cast (all excellent, but especially Onahoua Rodriguez, who plays Ceci).

The playwright, in an interview, described himself as a happy man. Lydia is the product of a happy man’s comfort in exploring the darkest fantasies of human desire, apparently safe in his ability to separate fantasy from reality in his own mind—or at least adept at stepping through the wall that divides them.

Lydia is set in the border town of El Paso, in the 1970s. Border is the overarching conceit of the play—a literal border between countries, but also the border between yin and yang, between good and evil, between love and hate, between male and female, between life and death.

Maybe this is the play David Adjmi set out to write when he fell into the abyss of The Evildoers. The difference is that play did not work. Lydia does.

The writing and acting carry the Yale Rep production. The set and the staging were adequate but less imaginative and less precise than what we’ve become accustomed to from the company. The audience on Wednesday was on the thin side, with some season ticket holders not attending, and less than enthusiastic in their applause. Perhaps others were not as impressed as I was, or perhaps the emotions the play evoked in them left them drained and unable to respond. I don’t know. See the play and decide for yourself.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Your's, our's, and their's

Maybe you saw the news item about the Birmingham, England, City Council deprecating the use of the apostrophe in road signs. (If you missed it, the most recent Language Log post on the topic has links to earlier discussions, which, in turn, have links to the original news item.)

The council’s action should not have been news, of course, least of all in the US. The US Board of Geographic Names made the same decision in 1890, and the postal system dropped apostrophes from virtually all place names when they introduced their earliest optical scanning equipment in the 1960s. This has had the unfortunate consequence of giving us names like Fishs Eddy, New York, but it’s easier to get people to write something a new way than to change what they call it in conversation, and Fish Eddy (or Pike Peak) would not have done at all. Such a change has been tried in the medical field; but whereas journal style is Down syndrome or Alzheimer disease (on the theory that Down and Alzheimer discovered but did not suffer from the eponymous conditions), doctors in conversation, just like laypeople, call them Down’s syndrome and Alzheimer’s.

Except that there are no apostrophes in conversation. What people say (pardon me for not rendering this in the International Phonetic Alphabet, but that would be beside the point) sounds like Downs and Alzheimers.

So what’s the deal with the apostrophe as a marker of possession anyway? Well, it’s standard in English, and an editor would be a fool to abuse it. But that’s the short view. The long view is that, as with many other niggling details of English, the use of the apostrophe to mark possession is something that has waned and waxed over the centuries. Our pronouns (see the title of this post) are among the oldest words in English (as in any language), and they don’t need no steenkin’ apostrophes, do they?

All of this has nothin’ to do with the use of apostrophes to mark elision. That’s somethin’ that seems likely to persist for a long time.

But I do sometimes wonder if two hundred years from now, the genitive will be written the same as it is today—in Fishs Eddy or elsewhere.

And the apostrophe isn’t the only endangered punctuation mark. Quotation marks are under attack in modern fiction. Hyphens are in retreat everywhere. The semicolon, even though old fogies like me know how to use it, gets a lot of bad press. And the question mark—who needs it. If the structure of the sentence makes it a question, why add a redundant mark. See how that works. You didn’t have any trouble reading the last three sentences (or this one) as questions, did you. I won’t speculate on which of these endangered marks will bite the dust first. Certainly the answer won’t be known in my lifetime or yours. But it’s interesting to think about in the context of the many ways both languages and writing systems change over time.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Capital Idea

Editors can obsess at length about what should be capitalized and what should not, but one thing we all agree on is that Non-Writers Tend to Capitalize Far Too Many Words for No Apparent Reason.

This comes up on discussion lists—as well as in my own work—from time to time, and I’m beginning to have an inkling as to the reasons authors do this. Here are the three reasons I’ve come up with so far. If you recognize yourself here, you know what to do. If you can think of other reasons, by all means please submit a comment.
  1. The German influence  In German, all nouns are capitalized. Authors writing in English who studied German or who grew up in German-speaking families sometimes allow the noun-capitalizing habit to slide over into English. Usually, they apply the principle sporadically, but all of the erroneously capitalized words are in fact nouns. That’s the clue.
  2. The abbreviation factor  A common style for introducing an abbreviation into a document is to write out the full phrase and then enclose the abbreviation in parentheses. For example, a medical paper might refer to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The unobservant reader recalls that MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging but does not notice that magnetic resonance imaging is not capitalized. When that same reader turns around and writes a document, suddenly the name of the technology is expressed as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), because if MRI is capped, surely the words it stands for must be capped too, right? And the editor gets to play Whack-A-Cap again.
  3. The head fake  A similar situation arises when a phrase is seen repeatedly in titles and headings. In many styles, article titles and subheadings are downstyled, meaning they are written in sentence case. In others, they are upstyled, meaning they are written in title case. But in nearly all styles, table column headings are written in title case. So if a table of feed ingredients has column headings that read—to take a recent example—Wheat, Corn, Soybeans, Barley,and Dried Distiller Grains, an author might take that to mean that those words should be capped in any discussion of feed ingredients. Um, no, they shouldn’t. But that’s okay. Your friendly, local editor will take care of the problem.
In the grand scheme of things, excess capitalization of words is not a problem on the scale of undercapitalization of banks. But it’s also an easier problem to fix.