Saturday, December 31, 2011

с Новым годом

On copyediting-l (mailing list for copyeditors) a little while ago, a member inquired about an arcane typesetting matter: what is the convention for representing the Russian soft sign in transliterated Russian text?

Now this is not a question that comes up in material for a general audience (such as newspaper readers); the presence or absence of soft signs and hard signs is ignored. But in scholarly work, there is a convention that, depending on the particular style guide in use, the soft sign (ь) is represented by a prime or an apostrophe and the hard sign (ъ) is represented by a double prime or a double quotation mark. I know you don’t care, but stay with me a second (or should that be stay with me a ″?)

It seems to me that this whole system of transliteration is an artifact of the machine age. Before the introduction of linecasting machines (Merganthaler Linotype, Harris Intertype), scholarly works typically included foreign words in their original alphabets, be they Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, or whatever else was under discussion. This was a particularly cumbersome thing to do with a linecasting machine (and not all that much fun with a Monotype machine).

Fast forward 100 years (the Linotype was actually manufactured for just shy of a century, giving way to filmsetters and then to electronic typesetting machines). Then add another few decades, and here we are in the world of Unicode and OpenType.

It’s fine for non-scholarly work to use transliteration, because we can’t assume that the general reader of a novel will necessarily know that с Новым годом means Happy New Year! But if we’re talking about an audience that already knows what a soft sign and a hard sign are and knows the convention of representing them with primes and double primes, then wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to skip the transliteration altogether and just use the Cyrillic?

It is a rhetorical question in the case the list member asked about, because the author already made that decision. Perhaps next year, in ירושלים.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Funnel follies

Dear United Airlines: Your funnel is fermischt. The first decision your site visitor has to make is whether to book a flight using cash or miles. Well, if my wife and I want to travel on the same flights, with one paying cash and the other paying with miles, we have to make two separate reservations, hoping the same flights are available for the second ticket and hoping you get it that we want to travel together on an eight-hour flight, not at opposite ends of the plane when you decide to upgrade one of us but not the other. Don’t you think it would make sense to let us reserve two tickets together and THEN tell you we’re paying for one with miles? Show the price for every itinerary in both dollars and miles, and put the payment choice, for each ticket separately, at the end of the sales funnel, not at the beginning, please. Thank you, Frustrated Mileage Plus member

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Doctor in Spite of Himself at Yale Rep

Worried about global climate change? Depressed about the stock market? Angry about political corruption. Heartsick about hatred and violence?

Well, pack up your troubles, c’mon get happy, and head to Yale Rep. There’s nothing like good slapstick to put you in a good mood for the holidays. The current production of Molière’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself is fabulous. The audience was dancing in the aisles even before the curtain, but the show was a laugh a minute. The cast was as brilliant as the writing and direction.

Supposedly it’s harder to do comedy well than to do drama well. But it hardly looked like anyone was working tonight (although I’m sure they were), because they just looked like they were having a grand old time.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Keeping books on the books you don't keep (and the ones you do keep)

You’re a publisher, right? Sure, you’re a self-publisher, and you only have one title under your imprint. Nonetheless, you’re a publisher. And you’re trying to sell books at a profit.

But you’re also an author, right? And as an author, you want to be paid for your effort.

This is a hard concept for some people—many people—to wrap their heads around.

Wholesale or retail?
In a previous life, my first wife and I exhibited and sold our wares at large arts and crafts fairs, mostly in upstate New York. Because the region is somewhat isolated, many of the same exhibitors did all the shows we did; so I got to know quite a few of them. Quite a few of them, consummate craftspeople though they were, did not quite get that they were in business. Some were happy to collect enough from their sales to pay for their materials (never mind the booth fee, the transportation, or their time). It was just a hobby, after all. Others decided what their time was worth and then proceeded to sell at the same price to everyone, retail or wholesale. They could not understand how that might hurt them financially. Others applied a formula to calculate their wholesale and retail prices but never looked at whether they were actually making money as retailers.

I looked at the situation differently. I figured that for every piece of every product we made, I had the opportunity to sell it wholesale to a shop at a price determined by what the competitive traffic would bear, and I had the opportunity to sell that same item retail if I took it to a craft show. So my wholesale left hand told my retail right hand what the wholesale value of the item was. And my retail right hand had to make enough of a margin to pay for the booth, pay for the truck rental, pay my helper’s wage for the day, pay for meals and occasionally lodging, and cover the opportunity cost of my being there. Otherwise, I was losing money by going to the show. After a couple of years of testing all the craft shows in the region on this basis, we winnowed our schedule to fewer than a dozen weekends a year while other people kept beating themselves up week after week after week and never knowing whether they made money or lost money.

Self-publishing works much the same way.
As the author, you want the publisher to pay you royalties. As the publisher, you want to show a profit after paying those royalties. And you don’t want to count the same money twice, only to find out when it’s time to pay your bills that you have half what you thought you had.

Marion Gropen consults with publishers of all sizes on accounting and finance matters. The other day on a mailing list for mostly small publishers and self-publishers, she had this to say in response to a question from a new publisher:
Publishers have a few unusual issues. First, we are not ever allowed to include the fixed costs of producing an edition (such as editorial, cover design, etc.) in the inventory value. They are, of course, part of your cost of goods sold (COGS), but they are not part of the unit cost of your books. Instead, you are required, for tax purposes and by Generally Accepted Accounting Principles for publishing, to put them in an asset account when you incur them, and then to amortize them over the expected lifetime of the book. This is generally a trivially easy task, and you can certainly do it in any basic accounting software, but you do have to know that you’re going to do it when you set them up.

Second, even if we’re self-publishing, it’s wise to pay ourselves a royalty, and treat our publishing operation and our authoring operation as separate functions, and entities.
When I asked Marion to elaborate a bit on that last point (does she really mean that the one-title self-publisher should formally pay royalties in that way?), her was her answer:
The typical one-book self-publisher may need to be dragged into recognizing that they are running a business, and this will help in that effort.

But the best reason, from my perspective, to do this is that it makes crystal clear how much of your income is coming from which part of your operation. If you pay yourself as an author, and also as a publisher, you will often see that you’re doing much better from the author side of the table. If you also don’t enjoy the publishing work, then it becomes clear that you need to sell the rights to a traditional publisher.
Words to the wise (quoted with Marion’s permission,of course).

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Makeover time!

I took Jane Mackay’s advice in updating my website (see her comment on previous post). I integrated some other people’s thoughts, too. Better, I think. We’ll see what Google thinks.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sunday, October 23, 2011

You missed a good event

The Self-Publishing Book Expo, October 22 in NYC, was well attended. Sessions were excellent, I’m told. But the crowd in the exhibit hall kept me pinned to my table all day, so I can’t offer any direct reports. I do know that the list of speakers included some of the major lights of independent publishing, and people came away with a lot more knowledge than they arrived with. The exhibitors included a number of companies that provide important services to self-publishing authors, and I had productive conversations with both attendees and other exhibitors.

This is a fast-evolving business, and attending conferences is an important way to stay up to date.

Sorry you couldn’t make it. Maybe I’ll see you there next year.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Self-Publishing Book Expo, October 22, NYC

I’ll have an exhibit table at the Self-Publishing Book Expo this coming Saturday. Stop by to say hello.


The Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers
811 7th Avenue (between 52nd & 53rd)
New York NY 10019
Main number for hotel: 212-581-1000

The exhibit hall will be the New York Ballroom West, on the third floor.

Hours: 9 am to 5 pm

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Are you a soon-to-be-famous novelist?

Read this interview. Thanks to Jane Friedman for the tip on Google+.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Making Mini-Mes

I was in Baltimore Friday and Saturday, at this year’s Communication Central conference, organized every year by the freelance publishing world’s very own hostess with the mostest, Ruth “I can write about anything!”™ Thaler-Carter.

I spoke yesterday afternoon to a roomful of editors on how to attract self-publishing authors and how best to help them. The audience was receptive, and I hope some of the people there will take up the challenge.

The more the merrier, I say. Independent publishing is growing at a tremendous rate, far outpacing traditional publishing. In 2010, 2.8 million titles were released in the United States. If independent self-publishing is going to gain traction and credibility—as well it should—in the publishing world, producing quality books is going to be a key, whether they’re printed books or e-books. And that invariably means that most self-publishing authors are going to need at least some input from professional editors and designers. There should be plenty of work to keep us all busy.

There were several excellent presentations at the conference, running in two tracks. I picked up some valuable ideas, and I know others did too.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Suggestion box

Your credit card statement comes. There’s a charge ascribed to some company with an obscure name you don’t immediately recognize, but there’s an 800 number associated with it. So you call the number, speak with someone who eventually answers, and find out that, indeed, this was a purchase you made and agreed to pay for. You hang up.

What has this cost the company (which is obviously set up for just this transaction and probably goes through the process many times an hour)? The call cost something. The representative’s time cost something. Let’s call it $5 (wild guess), which is a cost they then have to build into their prices, probably lowering total units sold.

But there’s a solution. I just received the following email:
Dear Dick Margulis,

This notification is just a friendly reminder (not a bill or a second charge) that on Sep 9, 2011, you placed an order from [obscure company]. The charge will appear on your bill as “[even more obscure rubric]”. This is just a reminder to help you recognize the charge. You will not be charged again.
Bingo! One email, sent by automated script two weeks after the purchase, alerting me to what I’ll see on the bill. Total cost: less than a penny.

Some employee of the company suggested that strategy and hopefully got a reward or a promotion for doing so.

I don’t know if you’re old enough to recall when every box of Kodak film came with a folded sheet of instructions printed on lightweight paper. You may not even be old enough to remember film, but just go with me on this. Kodak had an employee suggestion program. Any employee could write up a suggestion, and if the suggestion was implemented, the employee would get a hefty reward. The number that sticks in my mind is ten thousand dollars, which was nothing to sneeze at fifty years ago.

Well, one inspired employee came up with the idea of printing the instructions on the white inside surface of the yellow box itself, rather than on a separate piece of paper. The cost of the reward was recouped within weeks of making the change, perhaps within days.

A decade or so before that, another Kodak employee noticed that the Brownie camera kits sold as Open Me First Christmas presents were being returned in large numbers because of dead batteries. The batteries were dead because they were inserted into the cameras when the packages were put together, in July, so they could be shipped to stores in time for Christmas sales. The employee suggested packing the batteries in a separate slot in the box, rather than in the camera. Problem solved. Returns cut to a negligible level. Millions of dollars saved.

When was the last time, in this age of MBA-led corporations with their attitude that all innovation comes from the top, that you saw an employee suggestion box?

Just asking.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What color should I paint the hall?

Caller: Is this the architect to whom I am speaking?

Architect: Yes. How may I help you?

Caller: Well, I’m thinking about building a house. I don’t have a piece of property yet, and I don’t know how big the lot will be or whether it will be in town or in the country or near the ocean or near the mountains or what direction it will face or whether it will be in a neighborhood where it’s safe to have picture windows or what style I want the house to be, but there’s a paint sale on at Sears, and I want to know what color I should paint the hall.

The other day in a LinkedIn group called Creative Designers and Writers, someone began a discussion thread under the heading “How do you choose the best font?” [If you can access the group link and then find the discussion, go ahead and do so. I think access is restricted group members, though, so you may not be able to until you are accepted into the group.]

The question, though, is like asking what color to paint the hall. It’s approximately the last question to ask when designing a block of text for a book or a website or anything else. This is old ground for me, but it’s worth repeating. A few of us old type hands tried to put the question in context. Alas, others kept extolling their favorite typefaces (and continuing the confusion about the difference between a font and a typeface, which are not the same). As I said in my comment, “Context. Context. Context. What’s the medium? Who’s the audience? What is the content about? Does the type have to be read, or is it just there to make a statement or draw the eye? If it is to be read, what are the page dimensions, margins, line length, character count, leading, …?”

Details matter.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Two cultures

A visitor last Sunday by the name of Irene blew a tree onto a neighbor’s house. Onto two neighbors’ houses, actually. It was a mature white oak that yielded two good-size saw logs.

The complicating factor, aside from the precariousness of the tree’s crown over the second house (its lower trunk having already crushed the front porch of the first house) was that the neighbor lives on a state road. So the state owned the tree, but the tree fell on private property. Well, rules are rules. It was the homeowner’s responsibility to get the tree taken off the houses. The homeowner, after due consultation with an insurance adjuster, called in a tree service who had worked on the property before.

It was quite a show.
Wednesday, three people showed up in two vehicles. One was a large stake-body truck that would be used to haul away branches and brush. The other was a log truck, the kind with a large hydraulic boom and claw mounted on the back.

One man did all of the technical work. He did both the chainsaw work and the claw work, making a complicated, difficult, dangerous job look like child’s play. It’s a joy to watch someone with that level of skill ply his trade.

His two helpers flagged traffic while he went about his business. Now I don’t know how traffic is flagged on construction sites in your state, but the standard practice around here is that the contractor gets a permit for doing pretty much any work on or near a road, then pays for a police officer to come park a cruiser with flashing lights and stand around in a Day-Glo vest chatting with the workers and occasionally glancing at traffic. In this situation, though, perhaps because of the extraordinary nature of the storm, that requirement seems to have been waived. There was no police officer anywhere to be seen. And despite the two large trucks jutting into the road, there were no traffic cones and no vests of any kind. Just two guys, one before and one after the worksite, in nondescript clothing, with nothing but hand signals, stopping traffic when it had to be stopped and letting it pass when it was safe to do so.

Some people took umbrage at being told to stop by a person not wearing a uniform and decided to thread their way through at inopportune times, but there were only a few near misses and no actual collisions.

Total of three people. At the end of the day, a full truckload of branches and brush headed out and the log truck stayed parked.

Thursday morning, the crew returned, this time with a fifteen-yard Dumpster instead of the large stake-body, and finished the cleanup, then left. No muss. No fuss. Just working guys doing their job as efficiently as possible.

All that was left was the upturned stump, where the tree had tipped out of the soggy ground. State tree. State right-of-way. The state’s job to remove the last piece. This is not a dangerous situation anymore, as the stump is nowhere near power lines or structures of any kind.

This morning, seven state vehicles arrived.
Supervisor’s pickup, large front-end loader. Backhoe. Cherry picker. Three dump trucks.

That was an hour ago. They’re still here. The road, during commute time, is blocked at both ends, forcing traffic to detour. At some point I’m sure they’ll get done with what they’re doing, but what they’re doing consists principally in picking up one large, heavy object and placing it in a truck for removal.

Just working guys doing their job, in full compliance with all state work rules.

To all those who complain about regulations hampering private business,
I offer this counterexample.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Teach them to write an English sentence

At a recent industry conference (I’m intentionally obfuscating the location and the industry, but my source is reliable), a speaker, the head of the mechanical engineering department at a large university, invited the audience to tell him what specific coursework would make graduates with master’s degrees more attractive as new hires.

The first person to rise to the challenge indicated that his company was less interested in hiring people with master’s degrees than in hiring people with bachelor’s degrees in engineering; but, that said, there were two basic skills he found lacking, not just in graduates of the speaker’s program but in graduates of all three of the local engineering schools.

First, he said, they all know about CAD and 3D modeling software, but none of them know basic drafting. So they design products that can’t actually be manufactured. Make them take a basic drafting course, so they can make a sketch.

Second, he said, teach them to write an English sentence. I want engineers who know enough about technical writing to produce a report that I can understand when I read it. You’re not doing that.

The audience approved. The professor responded pusillanimously, saying those courses had to be removed from the curriculum to make way for more engineering courses. The questioner was not impressed.


Saturday, August 06, 2011

A crowdsourcing tale

Everyone should read this blog post on crowdsourcing. It speaks volumes and is applicable in many fields—mine and maybe yours, too. Thanks to Carolyn Haley for the link.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Fix the USPS

If you’re even tangentially involved in publishing, a functioning USPS is important to you. If you live in the United States, you know the postal service is in trouble (and not for the first time). If you’re older than twelve, you’ve probably gotten crosswise with the USPS more than once in your life. I know I’ve lodged my share of complaints over the years, and I’ve watched the service deteriorate, improve, and deteriorate again. It’s time to fix what’s wrong.

In the short term…
Mail volume is down in all categories. A lot of mail has gone online. A lot of the reduction is a symptom of a weak economy. Volume is not going to recover. As a result, the USPS is losing money hand over fist and they’re looking for ways to save money. They always trot out their old standby—eliminating Saturday deliveries—because they know that will be rejected and they’ll get a rate hike instead.

Well here’s an idea: For business deliveries, go ahead and drop Saturday. It’s okay. Really. For residential deliveries, keep Saturday and drop Tuesday. People who work regular Monday-to-Friday jobs, what few of them remain, need to be able to get to a post office when it’s open, to pick up parcels that were not delivered, to mail bulky items, to purchase money orders, to apply for a passport. They need Saturday hours. Once mail that came in over the weekend is delivered on Monday, most people would probably accept skipping Tuesday. And for federal holidays that fall on Monday, the postal workers would get an extended break (something they rarely get now). That wouldn’t happen if the skipped day were Wednesday. Similar arguments can be made against Thursday and Friday, particularly as regards checks that come in that you want to deposit during the current week. But Tuesday? I can live without it. How about you.

Why does my letter carrier drive a truck?
In all the countries I’ve visited in the last several years, letter carries use pushcarts, bicycles, tricycles, or scooters. They do not drive a fleet of custom-made gasoline-powered trucks for a total distance of two miles a day each in order to move mail from a local branch post office to houses that are within easy walking distance.

My local post office is on the current closure list, and the neighborhood is up in arms. Why? Because the post office is within walking distance, and it would be a shame for seniors to have to get in a car to go to the next post office down the road (less than a mile away). Doesn’t that suggest that the letter carriers could manage without their own individual trucks? Do it the way every other civilized country does it. Save capital costs. Save energy costs.

Why is my post office lobby frigid in summer and broiling in winter?
Because it was built when James Farley was Postmaster General and postal workers were not entitled to a pleasant working environment. So the only heating and cooling equipment is in the lobby, and by cranking it to the max, enough makes it through the service windows to the back to make life bearable. In other words, the building is an energy hog. It should be retrofitted or closed. How many other post offices are of the same vintage and wasting huge amounts of expensive energy for equally ridiculous reasons?

In the long term…
All of the long-term dysfunctions of the USPS—and for all they do right, they are certainly a dysfunctional organization—can be traced to a single root cause: the USPS is the archetype of the Theory X organization. It’s time to figure out how to migrate to Theory Y, to empower employees to make decisions that solve problems instead of hobbling them with thousands of pages of regulations, procedures, and rules.

First, teach managers to manage, not the way they’re trained to manage now but in accordance with modern practices. Then empower them to do so.

An example. A couple of weeks ago, our mail deliveries suddenly became very irregular. We got little or no mail when it was eventually delivered, which was not every day and certainly not during daylight hours. When I inquired, the reason eventually given was that our route only takes three and a half hours to deliver and so does not justify a full-time carrier. Therefore we’ve been designated an auxiliary route (don’t ask). After a bit of conversation, I asked why the manager doesn’t just divvy up the routes differently so they are all roughly equal in length, rather than always having to designate an auxiliary route and leave customers angry and upset. No can do; laying out routes is not the manager’s responsibility. Well, why the hell isn’t it the manager’s responsibility?

Classic Theory X. The manager is powerless to manage, because all decisions and rules are imposed top-down from layers that are totally inaccessible from below.

Change it. Make every employee from the carrier to the CEO accountable for meeting performance goals and then empower every employee to make decisions to that end. If that means replacing trucks with bicycles to save enough money to keep the office open, then the carriers and manager should be empowered to make that choice.

This will take a long time. The USPS is composed of people selected for their ability to digest, abide by, and enforce rules—on each other and on us, the customers. It is not peopled with employees dedicated to serving customers or meeting performance goals creatively. If they change their hiring practices today, it will be thirty years before the workforce turns over. But they should start today anyway. And they should start intensively training the managers they have (who come from the same ranks of rule-bound employees) and favor the ones who understand how to adapt.

The USPS says it has a crisis. There’s no better time to act. Fix the system.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Typography books at ABE

A nice collection of typography books. I own too few of these. But then I also own many not listed here. The subject is both broad and deep.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Moses behind a laptop

I am sitting in the living room at a retreat center—one of those 1930s-era lefty summer camps for adults that fill their calendars with workshops and lectures and canoeing and hiking and bad vegetarian food. This is not my thing. “Fun group activities” is an oxymoron in my idiolect. I readily acknowledge being a curmudgeon. I am here only to humor my wife, who is here because of a particular workshop she wanted to attend.

Earlier this morning, another guest, a woman about my age with a German accent, came down the stairs, saw me sitting here, and asked if I would mind if she took my picture. “If that would amuse you, feel free,” I said, and kept reading my email.

She took her picture and then volunteered that she is accustomed to seeing young people tapping away at their laptops but that she was startled to see me. She said, “You have a patriarchal beard.” I replied that the last time I shaved I was a young man and my beard was not patriarchal. “You look like Moses behind a laptop,” she said.

Maybe I’ll go on that hike this afternoon, after all. It’s up a mountain.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011


On the umpteenth round of revisions on a book I’m working on (don’t ask), the client reworded the dedication. The original wording began by thanking his wife and then his children. The revision began with his children and omitted any mention of his wife.

Well, people’s situations change, and this is a client, not a personal friend. So I don’t like to pry. But just to be sure the omission was intentional, I queried the change.

Good thing I did. The author did not intend to omit his wife. We’re both glad I asked.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

As you were

Yesterday’s story of the demise of the Oxford comma was greatly exaggerated. The rumor began with a style guide used by the University of Oxford public relations office and had nothing to do with Oxford University Press, where the Oxford comma remains safely ensconced. I regret spreading the false rumor. As you were.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Oxford shmoxford

Oxford has dropped the Oxford comma.

I have not. It serves a useful purpose in nonfiction, and it is a non-issue in nonfiction.

From now on I will refer to it by its other name, the Harvard comma. If Harvard drops it, I will just call it a serial comma.

Maybe Oxford will come to its senses in time for their next edition.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Stick a fork in it

The final week of our trip was a sojourn in Cyprus, another country where politics is a touchy subject. The southern part of the island (the Greek Cypriot part) has a population of about 700,000, with the annual tourist influx a multiple of that. Tourists (and investment) come from many countries—notably Russia and England—but not particularly from the U.S. English is widespread in this former British colony, but at least in the Limassol area, where we stayed, commercial signs are as likely to be in Russian as in English or Greek.

Cyprus is old. When Aphrodite emerged from the sea, near Paphos according to Greek legend, the island had already been continuously occupied for thousands of years. There are archeological digs—some of the most spectacular I’ve seen—everywhere, ranging from Late Stone Age through the Hellenic and Roman periods. I got the feeling that if you stick a shovel in the ground at random and dig down a few feet, you’re likely to hit the foundation of some ancient building. One person we spoke with suggested that most of the beachfront resorts might have been developed illegally by people who, upon digging for a foundation and finding ruins, failed to report what was there, because doing so would have scuttled their projects.

Cyprus itself emerged from the sea, of course. The Trados mountains are igneous rock that formed as an ocean ridge where two tectonic plates collided. The lowlands are limestone pushed up from the surrounding ocean bottom. Construction materials are a mixture of the two kinds of stone in the middle of the island and almost entirely limestone toward the southern beaches. The beaches themselves, at least where we were, are nearly black in color, from the weathering of the mountains. But the overall landscape in the lowlands is overpoweringly light in color, just barely tan. This looks like a desert at this time of year—fertile desert with good crops, but desert nonetheless. The appearance is probably deceptive, but just a little bit uphill, the slopes are stripped bare of soil, with just the scattered tree here and there. Once this island was forested, but the Bronze Age inhabitants four millennia or so ago mined and smelted copper here. And smelting copper requires fire. And fire requires wood. And so the hillsides were stripped and what remains is dry land and a dry, hot climate. Culturally, Cyprus is part of Europe. But in terms of climate and soil, it is part of the Levant.

Our hosts, as has been true in other countries we visited, overfed us. But they did so in a way that is apparently customary on Cyprus. Many of the restaurants are taverns, and whether they specialize in meat or fish or some foreign cuisine, they all offer meze. Meze (rhymes with “yeah, yeah”) was described to us as “like tapas.” Um, not really. With tapas, you order specific small plates for specific prices and you run out of money before you run out of appetite. With meze, you pay a prix fixe per person (twenty euros, give or take a couple of euros), and you are served heaping platter after heaping platter after heaping platter. It is immediately obvious that if you empty a dish, it’s a signal that the next dish should have even more food on it. It is also immediately obvious that if you consume more than a forkful of each dish, you will not make it to the end of the meal. It takes discipline to have just a taste, because the food is delicious, whether it is souvla on freshly baked pita or any of a raft of dips and condiments or sausage or fish or anything else. The cuisine overall is heavily influenced by Greek food, but some Turkish and Middle Eastern and North African influences are there too. With meze, there are invariably leftovers to go home with someone. Of course, if that’s not your scene, there’s always Pizza Hut.

From Cyprus, we flew to Frankfurt, spent the night, and caught a morning plane to home sweet home.

It has been a fabulous trip, but the junket is done. Stick a fork in it.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Tiptoeing through a minefield

We have been in Israel for nearly a week. Between hosts and tour guides and exploring a bit on our own, we have seen old cities and ruins and religious shrines of all sorts. There were places we were not permitted to go, though. When a gesture asking a guard if we might pass is answered with the barest shake of a head, the meaning is clear. It would be rude to argue, particularly when the guard is visibly armed, as nearly all are. There are guards, both uniformed and plainclothes, and gates and locks and security checkpoints everywhere, as is understandable.

We have had interesting conversations about souks and taxi drivers and food and ancient history and farming and geology. As polite guests, we have not brought up any topics of modern history or politics or living in the middle of what some might think of as a perpetual war zone. But neither has anyone we’ve spoken with. We learned, for example, that most farmworkers are from Thailand, but we knew not to ask why.

On a bus tour a couple of days ago to visit some archaeological sites, the guide, a smart, knowledgeable, and articulate person, provided a running commentary about communities and land features and crops as we drove past. (Guides are licensed and must pass a rigorous exam.) But whenever we approached a cemetery—and some that we passed appeared to be quite old—she diverted our attention to something on the other side of the road, often something banal. In the course of the day, she made no mention of any deaths more recent than the eleventh century or of any extant graves anywhere.

I am reminded of three wise monkeys.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Unordered set

Herewith some more random notes and photos from the trip we’re still on. Maybe some day I’ll gather up these travel posts and sort the notes chronologically (not on a blog and not particularly for publication, as I don’t fancy myself a travel writer by any means), but for now I make no such promise. If you are a newcomer to this blog, you should know that it is usually devoted to topics of at least tangential professional interest, but for the duration of the round-the-world trip my wife and I are taking, I am using this space as a travel journal for my own benefit. Feel free to ignore this space until after June 10 or so.

Public art
Taking a shortcut across a park in Fremantle (near Perth) to get to a brewpub on the beach, we walked past the sort of statue of a local historical figure that you might see in any park in the world. But we noticed that it bore two bronze plaques, one above the other, and stopped long enough to snap these two photos.

The upper plaque reads in part as follows:
This monument was erected by C. J. Brockman as a fellow bush wanderer’s tribute to the memories of Panter, Harding and Goldwyer, earliest explorers after Grey and Gregory, of this terra incognita, attacked at night by treacherous natives, were murdered at Boola Boola near Le Grange Bay on the 13th November 1864, also as an appreciative token of remembrance of Maitland Brown, one of the pioneer pastoralists and premier politicians of this State, intrepid leader of the government search as punitive party.
The lower plaque, apparently added later, reads in part as follows:
This plaque was erected by people who found the monument before you offensive. The monument describes the events at La Grange from one perspective only: the viewpoint of the white ‘settlers.’ No mention is made of the right of aboriginal people to defend their land or of the history of provocation which led to the explorers’ deaths. The ‘punitive party’ mentioned here ended in the deaths of somewhere around twenty aboriginal people. The whites were well armed and equipped and none of their party was killed or wounded. This plaque is in memory of the aboriginal people killed at La Grange. It also commemorates all other aboriginal people who died during the invasion of their country.
In googling for more information on the incident, I came across this recent essay by a local student.

When in Bangkok…
I have not ventured far into Thai cooking at home. We have so many Thai restaurants in New Haven, some of them quite good, that I’ve limited my home versions to the few things I can fake with help from Trader Joe’s. But Bangkok has a number of cooking schools for foreign tourists, and I had a morning to myself, so I took a class from the Bangkok Thai Cooking Academy. This being the off-season, I was the only student last Thursday. I met my instructor, as directed, at the…

…and we walked through the nearby wet market, where he told me what many of the unfamiliar ingredients were, so that I could recognize them in the Asian markets at home. A good start. (In the wet market, as in the one we visited in Beijing, meats were sold from unrefrigerated displays, although fish were at least on ice. The Thai health ministry doesn’t have a problem with this, so I don’t either.)

We walked from the market, where we bought the items on the day’s shopping list, some for my class, some for the afternoon class, to the home where the classes are held. The prep area was a mat on the living room floor. For the first hour I knelt (I’ve never been able to sit cross-legged, even when I was little). After that, I retired to a couch and a small prep table was provided so I could work sitting.

Closely following instructions, I made the dishes in the picture. Clockwise from the left: stir-fry of snow peas, straw mushrooms, and chicken (not a challenge, but I picked up some pointers); stir-fried water morning-glories (pad pak bung fai daeng); pumpkin custard (dessert); papaya salad (som tum); and (in the center) pork and tomato chili dip (nam prik ong).

Coffee in Thailand
Throughout this trip I have been whining about the difficulty of finding coffee I like. There has been plenty of expensive coffee that other people like, so I know I’m in a distinct minority. Nonetheless, I’ve resented spending more than I think it’s worth for coffee I don’t particularly enjoy. I had promised to drink green tea instead, but so far I’ve only done that occasionally. I did find that one great coffee place in Perth, as previously noted. Coffee in Singapore and Malaysia was uneven, but I found some that was drinkable.

And then we got to Bangkok. The first opportunity to drink coffee as we were whisked around on our VIP tour was in a gift shop that sells only goods made or grown in Thailand. That included the coffee, and the coffee was delicious. It had a rich, deep, strong, chocolaty flavor, without a hint of bitterness. It went down smoothly, with no acid reflux. For the rest of the week, I had coffee that was perhaps not made so skillfully but that was nonetheless immediately recognizable by its flavor as being from the same region. Thai coffee is worth looking for, although I don’t know how much of it is exported.

In both Singapore and Thailand, I encountered “3-in-1” when trying to get myself a glass of iced coffee. This vile substance is a premix of coffee, sugar, and some sort of milk product (probably condensed milk) sold from a dispenser. It is to iced coffee what a McDonald’s hamburger is to Chateaubriand, although perhaps that’s unfair to McDonald’s. And “iced coffee” in this part of the world (including Israel, where I am as I write this) is a rich, ice-cream-based dessert drink.

(So far, “coffee” in Israel appears to be Turkish coffee, made by boiling ground coffee in water briefly and pouring the slurry into a cup. If you want an espresso drink, you have to ask for it explicitly. This is an improvement.)

An addendum on Thai technology
I snapped this telephone lineman from a pedestrian overpass. Click for the larger image.

Room with a view
The view from our hotel room in Tel Aviv.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?

Somewhere in southern Thailand to visit the princess.

Tuesday morning—yesterday, although it seems much longer ago—we left the hotel in Bangkok at 4:30 to catch a 6:00 flight. From a military base, not from an airport. We jumped a ride on a C-300 (cargo plane with a big rear door, not much in the way of passenger comfort, earplugs required) with a bunch of armed military police, to Nakhon Si Thammarat (spelling varies), in southern Thailand. Then we trailed around the territory in a military-escorted motorcade to meet HRH Princess Srirasmi, the Princess Consort to the Crown Prince of Siam.

With the birth of her child six years ago, she was recruited to lend her name and sponsorship to a program to increase breastfeeding among the Thai population. She was reviewing the troops, as it were, in one of the program’s demonstration areas.

The princess is cool. Forty, looks twenty-five, dressed in slacks and a nice top, sneakers, and a tasteful amount of jewelry; and she carried her own large purse. If it weren’t for the guy carrying the huge parasol to cover her every time she stepped out of the van, you wouldn’t have been able to pick her out as royalty. She warmly greeted her fellow graduate students (she’s working on a PhD) and engaged with many individual villagers and families. She was led down the VIP line, and my handshake was just a minor courtesy on introduction as Tina’s husband.

Most of yesterday consisted of variations on a theme as the princess first sat politely for a welcoming ceremony and a presentation about the program, then visited a family enrolled in the program, then visited a community health center. At that point our contingent peeled off, and our local hosts took us to see the sights. We visited a Buddhist temple (not our first, not necessarily the most impressive, but the biggest the local area had to offer). Then we did a drive-by of a palace built by the local province to entice the king to visit (well, that didn’t work), next to a decade-old tidal gate that does work to keep the sea from making the river too brackish, thus enabling the surrounding land to be farmed again.

From there we went off to a small town in which all the largest buildings are for the birds. The town, on the coast, is a mecca for swiftlets, which build their nests of saliva. These are the nests of Chinese bird nest soup. Swiftlets naturally congregate and nest in caves, but in this town, the caves all look like modern apartment buildings. We ate overlooking the water, watching the swiftlets returning at dusk.

The province we were touring in produces, aside from a lot of bird nests for export to China (at about $5,000 a pound), a great deal of rubber, the price of which has risen fivefold in the last few years, and palm oil, the price of which has risen because it is used for biodiesel. As a result, the province is doing pretty well financially.

Today, we toured the main hospital in Nakhon Si Thammarat and a number of related facilities before catching a commercial 737 back to Bangkok.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Elephant jokes

What’s yellow and hangs from the ceiling?
If you remember elephant jokes you probably also know that what’s yellow and hangs from the ceiling is a yellow ceiling-hanger.

What’s red and hangs from the ceiling?

That’s right. It’s a red ceiling-hanger?

And what’s blue and hangs from the ceiling?

No. Ceiling-hangers only come in red and yellow.

And taxicabs only come in yellow in most cities.

But not in Bangkok. I was glancing out the hotel room window and saw this line of taxis waiting for a light to change. This is not the full range of taxi colors here. There are others, including chartreuse.

And in other news on the street,
I stepped out of the hotel’s front door and looked up. I assume these are telephone wires, but I am at a loss to explain why they are managed, if that’s the right word, in this fashion.

Friday, May 20, 2011

One degree north

In Perth it is autumn, and there is what passes for a chill in the air in Australia. Singapore is in the same time zone but a different climate zone. Singapore is one degree north of the Equator.

Singapore is all business all the time, though, and men are required to wear suits to the office (cf. Collapse, by Jared Diamond). So indoor spaces are cooled more than we anticipated. Outdoors, the heat is tolerable, as there is lush tropical greenery everywhere, providing natural cooling to what would otherwise be a concrete oven. Apparently energy costs are relatively low, as Singapore is a major oil-refining center. Nonetheless, there is a move afoot to think green.

Friends took us to a rotating top-floor restaurant (physically similar to other such restaurants in big cities worldwide) for a view of the city, particularly of the port, which was adjacent. The meal was a spectacular Chinese banquet of too many courses to count.

From there they took us to the Singapore Flyer, a Ferris wheel similar to the London Eye, but larger, for a broader view of the city. We then went for a drive to explore more of the city. Our host likes to show off his town.

In the morning we flew to Bangkok, where we will spend the next several days. After clearing Customs, we were greeted by one of Tina’s colleagues and an assistant from the hospital motor pool, who then hailed the driver from the cell phone lot (I assume). Eventually we all piled into a comfortable passenger van and, still in our tropical travel clothes, were whisked to an embarrassingly formal, rock-star-worthy reception at a model child- and elder-care health center on a military base. We were led from room to room and department to department by two senior military officers in full uniform, with chests full of medals, accompanied by other senior staff and two photographers. The photographers initially focused on me, as I was the larger target, but I think we eventually conveyed to them that Tina was the rock star in question. The military officers, as well as other senior staff, sported pins on their shirts bearing the photos of babies. The program that was the main focus of the tour was the initiative, now about five years old, of one of the royal princesses in support of increasing breastfeeding in Thailand.

The base where the demonstration project is taking place houses a thousand-and-some military families, over five thousand people. The center provides child care for infants through preschoolers, health care for the community, and a rich elder-care program, all in one center, so that there are many opportunities for intergenerational interaction. It is also the coordination center for the propagation of these programs across Thailand. What was most impressive was that the entire complex represented a quite modest capital investment. What is mainly required is cooperation and intent.

I admit to being somewhat uncomfortable with all of the bowing and scraping we have encountered so far (on the plane, at the center, at the hotel, in the hotel restaurant, but not at the airport). I don’t know what goes through the mind of someone who is executing exaggeratedly obsequious gestures in a country that has an active, occasionally violent, political opposition. I know what would be going through my mind if I were behaving that way. Yet this is apparently a standard feature of Thai culture, and I’m being a boorish and ugly American if I try to carry my own bag. I will try to behave better henceforth.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

And in no particular order

So how did we end up in Johor Bahru?

Singapore Air from Perth to Singapore. While we had never flown Singapore Air before, both of us had often commented on the gorgeous, floor-length dresses worn their female flight attendants. Perhaps they would not be so striking if they were not also all size 2 and if they did not spend so much time on hair and makeup. In any case, this is an airline that does economy class right. Plenty of knee room. Excellent curried chicken for dinner. Free drinks (as on virtually all non-U.S. carriers). The drink menu promoted the Singapore Sling, so we tried one. Took a sip each and handed it back. Ewww. Too sweet. Never mind.

Got to the hotel quite late. Worked a bit after breakfast. Then we were picked up at noon by a driver from the Malaysian university where Tina is speaking as I type this. UTM has about 25,000 students on a huge, modern campus in Johor Bahru, which is why we are here. The conference organizer had a schedule conflict and was not able to be our tour guide for the afternoon, so she sent in her stead the head nurse from her department, to accompany the driver.

Our first stop after the very efficient border control operation (the U.S. border control folks could learn a thing or two about how to design a border crossing for efficient processing) was a handicraft center. It turned out that the center only bakes a cake if they know you’re a-comin’; so we caught them off guard. But a gentleman who spoke excellent English graciously showed us around and introduced us to the craftspeople who were working that day. We saw an artist producing batik and got a full explanation and demonstration of technique. Then we moved on to a musical instrument maker who was making drums called kompang of goatskin stretched over lauan heads. He started with hides and logs and turned out highly finished goods that included several types of drums as well as bamboo flutes. The next stop was a knife-making operation. These were various styles of hunting knives and reproduction historic weaponry, all in intricate, highly finished wooden scabbards that matched the handles. They began with a block of wood and a block of steel (mostly 440C stainless) and turned out gorgeous work. The head of the operation is a customs agent in his day job. He acknowledged that it would not be possible to take a knife back to the U.S. on a plane.

After the craft center, we stopped for a latish lunch at a neighborhood eatery. It was an open air place under an insubstantial shelter that nonetheless kept the sudden, drenching rain off us as we ate. This was street food. Much of it was deep-fried and banana-based. Yummy, filling, cheap. What else can you ask for from street food. The locals keep asking us if the food is too spicy for us, but we really haven’t encountered anything that sets off fire alarms yet.

And it was nice to be someplace where bananas are a staple. In Australia, where imported bananas are forbidden and the main growing area was wiped out by floods, organic bananas (grown in a different region and therefore the only kind available in the market) were selling for AUD 12.98 (about USD 13.25) per kilogram. That’s around six bucks a pound, up from the three bucks a pound they cost before the floods. Needless to say, we had no bananas in Australia.

Dinner in Johor Bahru

We were taken out for Thai food in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. But this was definitely a Malaysian take on Thai.
  • We began with satay (both beef and chicken). Not the flat slices we’re accustomed to. Wasn’t sure if it was just tender chunks of meat or meat that had been ground and formed into tiny meatballs. The sauce was a sweet chili sauce (not much bite) with some peanut nibs, rather than a smooth peanut sauce as you’d get in the U.S. Other dishes:
  • Steamed whole fish (white-fleshed, mild, can’t say much more about it) with a thick garlic sauce
  • Same fish, fried whole, with a sweet chili sauce
  • Greens (maybe bok choy leaves or something on that order) in a nice sauce
  • Mussels in a different sweet chili sauce, this one with a bit of a bite to it (really, no two sauces were the same)
  • Tom yum, with prawns (whole, head on, peel your own), mussels, baby octopus, etc.)—highlight of an excellent meal
  • Rice
  • Fresh squeezed orange juice by the pitcherful
  • And the pièce de résistance: on the drive into Malaysia from Singapore in the afternoon, our hostess on the ride initiated a conversation about durian, which I knew from seeing it in NYC Chinatown fruit stands but had never tasted. Tina had not heard of it. I knew it only as something with such a powerful stench that it is not permitted on NYC subways. We passed a roadside stall piled high with the stuff. Well, she brought one to dinner and had the kitchen split it open for us. The inside consists of chambers (six?) running the length of the fruit, filled with large seeds (an inch in diameter, roughly spherical), each of which is coated in a thick layer of sweet yellow paste. Grab a seed, suck off the paste, savor, swallow. Rinse and repeat. There’s really not a lot of food in that huge fruit, when all is said and done. But it’s tasty.
The venue was a very casual, family-friendly café with an open kitchen, no tablecloths, a box of Kleenex for napkins, plastic plates, tacky flatware. We didn’t see the bill, but after I sprang for lunch for four at a neighborhood eatery for three bucks, my guess is that dinner for eight adults and three kids, with leftovers to take home, probably came to less than forty dollars American.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Best coffee in Australia

I like my caffeine. What I do not like is bitter, reflux-inducing coffee. I like a medium roast coffee made in a drip coffeemaker. Under duress, in need of a fix, I’ll drink espresso if I can dilute it sufficiently with water or ice. But even that is unsatisfying.

Unfortunately, the Italians seem to have brought their form of coffee to Australia before we Americans did. Or perhaps they just overtook us. But having now spent three weeks in Australia’s largest cities, I can report with confidence that drip coffee is hard to find. Hotels serve some sort of percolated or drip coffee at conference breaks, but as the chefs don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like, they make it badly. Otherwise, everything comes out of an espresso machine. I’ve learned to order a long black, which has some water added, and then to add icewater to that to make it drinkable.

In Perth, though, walking through an arcade, I discovered the real thing. The place is Low Down Espresso, and they don’t even advertise their drip coffee. But there’s the machine, big as life, on the back counter; and these guys know how to use it. They even make proper iced coffee. Best I’ve had in a long time. If any coffee in Australia deserves a plug from an American traveler, this is the place.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Let's see, where was I?

After Brisbane, we headed to Sydney for a few days (itinerary determined by speaking schedule, not by geographic logic).

In Sydney we stayed in the World Square area of the CBD. Our block, including the large indoor mall adjacent to the hotel, seemed to be the center of Japanese and Korean cuisine. Chinatown was a block up from us. The block to the left was mostly Spanish restaurants. So much good food, so little time. Sushi was everywhere, it seemed. Several restaurants offered freshly made plates of sushi on a conveyor belt that surrounded the chefs. Plates were priced according to what color the china was, totted up when it was time to leave. We had dinner one night, though, in a restaurant called Tokyo Ria. The menu was closer to the wide variety of food we had in Japan two years ago than any of the sushi lunch places had or than we typically see in the U.S. Their ordering system consisted of a jukebox-like touch screen display in each booth. The photo menu went on for many pages of thumbnails. Touch to open a full-screen photo and description. Order immediately or cancel. Click another button to call a server to the table for help. Each dish was prepared immediately upon ordering and delivered when it was ready. So there’s a bit of an art to ordering things in the order you want to eat them. The food was excellent.

The next day we took a bus down to Circular Quay and walked to the Sydney Opera House. We took the one-hour tour (not the two-hour backstage tour) and enjoyed that very much. We had lunch at one of the Opera House cafés. Then we walked along the water, under the Sydney Harbor Bridge, over to Darlington Harbor (a bit of a hike). We both watched the people traversing the top of the bridge while we were eating lunch and decided that was a little too high and too scary for us. (It was odd to see, a couple of days later, that a fellow had caused a stir by climbing the bridge and hanging a protest banner, considering that hundreds of people a day climb almost to where he stood.) We had a light dinner at Darlington Harbor (shared some appetizers and some grilled kangaroo loin), then walked the last few blocks back to the hotel.

Early the next morning we flew to Perth. There’s a bit of the Wild West about Western Australia that expresses itself in terms of the jocular disdain the residents have for what they lump together as the “Eastern States,” to the dismay of the residents of those states. Perth’s CBD is a lot less glitzy and glossy than those in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. There are plenty of unpretentious small shops of all sorts that are not chain stores catering to the rich and famous.

After a day in Perth capped by dinner at a home in the hills on the north side of the city, we drove south yesterday in a rented car, to a rented house in Prevelly, a surfers’ beach community near Margaret River. This is a major wine region, and the main tourist activity is winery tours. But that doesn’t interest us particularly. For one thing, we’re getting on a plane to Singapore Monday and can’t exactly take a case of wine with us. So we skipped the tours in favor of hanging out at the beach. It’s fall here, cool and overcast, but I couldn’t be this close to the Indian Ocean and not take at least a brief swim.

Driving in Australia is always a challenge, as it’s on the wrong side of the road (well, it’s the right side of the road here, but it’s the wrong side for an American driver). Our solution to the safe driving problem is that I drive, and Tina sits in the passenger seat constantly reminding me what lane I’m supposed to be in. It works out better than it sounds. We also try to avoid driving at night if we can.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Barristers to the left of me, barristers to the right of me

Just travel notes, mostly for my own benefit…

We’re in a hotel on the edge of the central business district (written and pronounced CBD in Australian English, never spelled out, even on first use) in Brisbane. The CBD borders the Brisbane River and it includes various state buildings as well as commercial offices, stores, and hotels. Some years ago, the downtown waterfront, as in many cities, was entirely industrial and inaccessible to pedestrians.

I haven’t researched the political process that led to the current situation. I imagine there was conflict in Brisbane as there is conflict everywhere when planners and developers want to displace businesses in favor of tourism. However, as a tourist, I can say that the effort paid off in spectacular results.

The CBD is chock full of the sorts of building architects mostly dream up for competitions in the U.S., with no thought of ever being allowed to actually build them. Public spaces, including those in front of commercial buildings, are showcases for large, modern public sculptures, the result of a requirement that 0.25% of construction budgets be spent on public art. In the U.S., the one percent for art movement has not done nearly so much.

Pedestrian bridges seem to be a special art form in Australia. Here’s one that connects South Wharf and North Wharf in Melbourne (an area that includes a discount mall, a convention center, some casinos, and some pleasant walking paths along the shores but not much else to hold one’s interest).

Here’s one of a much larger pedestrian bridge across the Brisbane River, a block from the hotel, although the photo does not really convey the dramatic design, I’m unhappy to report.

Because the museums here are state-owned, admission is free. The one I spent the most time in, the Gallery of Modern Art, mounts a heck of a show. It is what the other end of the bridge connects to.

Walking around the Brisbane CBD, I came across a large weekly farmers’ market and spent a pleasant hour or so talking with growers. This is fall, so the stalls were full, mostly with familiar produce at unfamiliarly high prices, typically double what I’d pay at a farmers’ market in the States and three or four times what I’d pay at a supermarket. However, there was a grower of mushrooms, with spectacular-looking goods, whose prices were less than half of U.S. supermarket mushroom prices. I asked the woman whose company runs the market why she thought that might be the case. She answered, “because he doesn’t know how to price his goods.” (I immediately thought of a number of conversations on editing lists about pricing services.)

Prices in general, at least in the CBD, are higher than I’m used to. Espresso shops are everywhere, and they are everywhere more expensive that Starbucks at home, by quite a bit. Coffee of the non-espresso type is virtually unobtainable. I’ve learned to order “black iced coffee,” which consists of a great deal of espresso, ice, and additional water to make the stuff drinkable. “Iced coffee,” in Australia, is a dessert drink consisting of two scoops of vanilla ice cream, milk or cream, and a little coffee. Not the same thing at all.

Yesterday I toured the botanic gardens (42 acres, ten full-time gardening staff). The point of botanic gardens, as opposed to other sorts of gardens, was historically to have a place to test the suitability and economic viability of various plant species, both native, such as the still extant tree that produced the world’s first commercial crop of macadamia nuts, and alien, such as date palm and tamarind tree. The botanic gardens here date to the mid-nineteenth century. Many of the native plants on exhibit have common names similar to Northern Hemisphere plants but they are botanically unrelated or only distantly related. It is always interesting to see how biological niches get filled, though, one way or the other.

On the way back from the garden to the hotel, I passed three or four barristers at the end of their day in court. They had on the starched white collar-type thingies that cross on the chest, the white dress shirt, and the lightweight black robes; they were dragging their large, wheeled briefcases behind them. They were a rumpled, bedraggled lot. Hard day in court, I guess. This morning, I chanced upon a couple of barristers on their way to court. They were freshly pressed and starched, their hair was kempt, there was a spring in their step, and they were carrying their wigs in hand. I got the impression they have several changes of their court attire and afford the nearby dry cleaners a nice livelihood.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The wombat zone

Saturday (yesterday here, probably today where you are) was the birthday of a colleague of Tina’s who lives in Melbourne. Lisa and her husband, Maury, picked us up at the hotel in the morning, and we went to the Healesville Sanctuary, part of the Victoria Zoos system, about an hour’s drive northeast of Melbourne, in the Yarra River area.

A zoo is a zoo, you may think, and why spend precious tourist hours visiting one, especially sans grandchildren. But many of Australia’s native species are not easily seen in American zoos, and so it was an interesting excursion. I had never seen a platypus other than on tv and no idea how small they are in real life, for example. Nor did I have a clear mental image of what a wombat looks like. And although I’ve been to Tasmania, this was the first time I’d seen a Tasmanian devil in the flesh.

After a few hours there, we drove back through wine country and stopped at an elegant winery bistro for tea (the time of day, not the beverage). It is fall here, harvest time (think Halloween), which explains why pumpkin is featured on so many menus and in so many interesting dishes, none of which bear any remote resemblance to pumpkin pie. And no, there are no outdoor decorations of pumpkins, gourds, and cornstalks to be seen anywhere. The American fruit has been adopted but not the kitsch that goes with it.

I was struck, on our drive, by the difference between public works in Australia and those in the U.S. This is a place where architects and artists are allowed—perhaps encouraged—to play. Everything from highway sound barriers to tunnel entrances to bridges of all types to train stations to customs houses is a work of public art, not just a utilitarian structure devoid of personality or attitude, as seems to be the only permissible style in the U.S. At home it’s considered wondrous that a government entity can ram a cable stay bridge through the approval process. Here, there is a sense of exuberance. Cable stay bridges are merely a starting point for beautiful and varied ways to move people from one side of a river to another. In fact, the tunnel we went through yesterday was built to get beneath a mountain stream that was thought important enough not to disturb with a bridge over it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Around the world in 52 days

If you are old enough to remember Cinerama, you may recall Around the World in Eighty Days, with David Niven as Phileas Fogg and Cantinflas as Passepartout in the 1956 film adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. The movie poster featured the two of them in a balloon.

This morning, eating breakfast in the executive lounge at the Hilton South Wharf in Melbourne, my wife and I looked out the window and saw five balloons rising over the harbor. The hostess explained that this is a daily occurrence, organized by commercial balloon excursion companies for people who want to pay ridiculous sums to then have to rise at three or four in the morning in order to get to the launch site in time for their adventure. I guess we’ll be passing on that experience, although we were up well before then today, having just arrive in Melbourne yesterday morning local time and not having adjusted completely to the time shift yet.

In any case, the blog will be given over to a travel journal for the next few weeks. If this bores you to tears, feel free to stop back mid-June, when it will return to the regular mishmash of more professional observations.

The occasion for this junket is a series of speaking engagements Tina arranged for herself in such a way that we end up circumnavigating the globe. This is something airlines like to encourage people to do, and so they offer deals. In particular, Star Alliance (owned by Lufthansa but participated in by many airlines) offers two plans, one about half the price of the other. If you can limit your itinerary to five stops (stops quite loosely defined, so that you can land in one city and take off from another, arranging your own transportation between them) and you can make the trip in less than 26,000 air miles, then you can take advantage of the lower-priced deal. Tina, in addition to being the sort of person who gets invited to speak all over the world, is also a savvy travel planner; she gets the credit for making this trip possible.

We also have a pretty good deal with Hilton that makes it possible for us to hole up for free in luxury hotels from time to time and eat free in the executive lounge. That cuts way down on daily expenditures as we go along, even as it embarrassingly intensifies the sense that we’ve become the kind of tourists we mocked in our youth.

Eat your heart out, United
The domestic airline whose mileage program we participate in is United, a Star Alliance member. Tina accumulates enough miles to qualify for a variety of privileges that I, as her spouse, get to enjoy as well. The occasional upgrade out of cattle class is one.

The first two legs of our trip were a short flight from Hartford to Washington followed by a cross-country flight to San Francisco, where Tina grew up and still has friends. We flew first class on both planes. This is not particularly special. While there are only two seats on either side of the aisle, rather than three, it is the space between seats that is wider, not the space between the armrests. In fact, in economy class, in most rows, you can raise the armrests between seats, providing a little extra hip room. In first class, the armrests are wide and filled with gadgetry, but they cannot be raised, so the seat is effectively narrower than an economy seat. There is slightly more legroom, but the tray tables extend only so far, making it a tight squeeze for someone my size, and the distance to the seat in front is not quite enough to comfortably open up a laptop. So much for plan A. Meanwhile, the entertainment, such as it is, is on an overhead monitor, not a seatback monitor, so you have no choice in what to watch. The only personal option is to not bother putting on your headphones; that’s the one I exercised, as the programs on offer were not suitable for anyone over the age of 13. There was a meal, but it was nothing memorable.

After a few days in the bay area, during which I was treated to lunch by a client and had drinks and light meal with some editing colleagues, it was off to Melbourne by way of Auckland, on Air New Zealand. We had to check out of our San Francisco hotel at 3:00 in the afternoon, but we couldn’t check in for our flight until 6:15. A good part of the interval between was spent in slapstick comedy as we chased between terminal buildings trying to track down a lost passport that wasn’t lost at all, just in the wrong person’s possession. Let’s just say that one of us was (accidentally) holding both of our passports and neither of us realized that. By the time we found it, it was time to get in line to check our bags. Then we were finally able to navigate unencumbered. We headed through security and on to the lounge.

Traveling as Star Alliance gold members, we have access to airport lounges. We had the choice of United’s Red Carpet Club or the Eva Airways Evergreen Club lounge shared by several of the international carriers. Hmmm. Decisions, decisions. Well, we know what Red Carpet Club offers—cookies and crackers, mini-slices of plastic-encased processed cheese, underripe fruit, and soft drinks. Anything else that might be on offer, such as beer or mediocre wine, comes at a steep price. Let’s try the other one. Lovely trays of charcuterie, interesting New Zealand cheeses, sliced fresh fruit, New Zealand wines (quite nice), and more. All free. Not a hard choice.

We had paid for an upgrade to Economy Premium for the fifteen-hour flight to Auckland. Now on United, there is something called Economy Plus, which is the first several rows in the economy cabin. It gets you five inches additional knee room, thus preventing permanent injury, but is otherwise identical to regular cattle class. On Air New Zealand, though, it entails a substantial array of perks. On board, we learned that Economy Premium is its own seating area. Leg room is comparable to United’s first class seating. The tray tables push away several inches further than in United’s first class, making it possible for me to sit up and eat like a normal human. A large storage locker on the window side holds a large, heavy duvet to supplement the standard-issue airplane blanket. Service includes complimentary beer or red, white, or sparkling New Zealand wine and the sorts of amenities, such as hot washcloths before meals, that United provides in Business Class. The supper menu started with cured and seared tuna with salad ratatouille and lobster dressing over mesclun greens. For the entree we had a choice of New Zealand lamb lin with yellow bell pepper salsa, lyonnaise potatoes, and broccolini with lemon; pan-seared cod with lemon caper sauce, baby potatoes, spinach, and caramelized shallots; or wood-roasted chicken breast with soft herb mash, zucchini, mushrooms, and red onion. We both had the lamb. A basket of various interesting warm breads was passed with dinner. Dessert was a berry almond sponge cake with a dollop of cinnamon cream on the side. There was an after-dinner plate of New Zealand cheeses with grapes and apricots, but neither of us had room to consider even looking at it.

Breakfast began with a fruit plate, yogurt, croissants (warm) with New Zealand butter and fruit conserves. Cereal was available but we passed. There was a further choice of cheddar and chive scrambled egg served with chicken sausage, mushroom ragout, and cherry tomatoes; or Belgian waffles, strawberries, manuka honey apple syrup, and freshly whipped banana cream. Tina had the eggs. I had neither, as I was still full from dinner.

The menu for those traveling the other direction, Auckland to California, is entirely different for both meals, featuring more fresh New Zealand ingredients, but of the same quality. While I don’t know what the choices were in regular economy, I note that this is the Premium Economy menu I’m talking about, not the same menu as is offered in business class or in first class, and yet it is quite elegant, and the food lives up to the description.

The onboard entertainment system on many international carriers consists of individually controlled seatback monitors. The Air New Zealand system, in addition to whatever musical offerings, informational pages about destinations, and television episodes it had, offered a choice of seventy movies—many more than I’ve seen offered on any other airline. I generally don’t bother unwrapping the headphones. There were the expected kids’ movies, romantic comedies, and recent action flicks. There were extensive selections in Japanese and Chinese. And there were classics. On the transpacific flight I saw Elmer Gantry and almost all of The Misfits, neither of which I’d ever seen. So that was pretty cool. On the Auckland to Melbourne flight, I saw Buena Vista Social Club, another I had missed.

About an hour before breakfast, we were awakened by a PA announcement requesting the assistance of a doctor or registered nurse. Tina turned out to be the only doctor who volunteered, and her major contribution was to be present so that the aircraft’s medical kit could legally be opened. The medical problem was one that the nurses who volunteered were much more qualified to treat than Tina was. Nonetheless, the crew were quite grateful for her stepping forward. As a consequence, on our Auckland to Melbourne flight, we were upgraded from the regular economy seats we had booked (I can tolerate tight knee room for three hours) to business class.

In Auckland we did a little airport shopping and proceeded to the Air New Zealand lounge for our second breakfast of the morning. (Really, we ate little, but there was a nice buffet spread that included scrambled eggs, pancakes, a selection of breads and pastries, fresh fruit, and more.)

Business class was interesting. Maybe you’ve seen ads for business class seats that recline into full-length individual beds. That was the arrangement. Each pod included a comfortable seat (wider, finally, than any of the other seats so far), an ottoman that doubled as a guest seat (it had a seatbelt) and a large table (normally stowed) that is adequate for two people to eat facing each other, which is how we had our third breakfast yesterday. Service began with a choice of water, juice, sparkling wine, or a banana-honey smoothie. This was followed by a sliced fruit plate, assorted cereals, bircher muesli, and yogurt. The passed bread basket included croissants, muffins, Vogel’s (a New Zealand brand of dense, whole grain bread), or fruit toast, served with New Zealand butter and fruit conserves. This was followed by a choice of smoked chicken pesto and parmesan omelette with slow-roasted tomato and chicken sausage; or corned beef and root vegetable cakes with grilled field mushroom (actually, it was half a portobello), leaf spinach, blistered vine tomato, and tarragon mustard mayonnaise. The breakfast entrees were credited to, respectively, chef Geoff Scott of Vinnies Restaurant, Auckland, and Rex Morgan, Boulcott Street Bistro, Wellington.( A third chef pictured in the menu did not have a dish listed on this version.) The corned beef was a minor and subtle ingredient in an almost latke-like cake of shredded vegetables—not what either of was expecting, but much lighter and more subtle.

As a further gesture, when we were about to land, the plane’s concierge stopped by to speak with Tina and handed her a bottle of one of New Zealand’s better Cabernet Sauvignons.

United Airlines is the U.S. flag carrier. We’ve flown their D.C. to Paris route, once, by mistake. In comparison with any other Star Alliance carrier we’ve been on, they are an embarrassment to their flag. The food is barely edible, even by American standards. Service is generally polite but never warm, regardless of class. On the Paris flight, there were perhaps two members of the cabin crew who spoke French. Every other flag carrier we’ve traveled on has been superior on all counts and in all travel classes.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Noted in passing: become becomes obsolete

Language changes. The rate at which a given language changes is something linguists can measure and write papers about and draw conclusions about, and I’m not a linguist. So I’ll leave all that to the experts.

But we all recognize that certain phrases and words and usages rise or fall in popularity within our lifetimes. So linguistic change is not always glacial.

For some reason, the word become popped into my head Saturday night. Not the intransitive verb become, as in “a caterpillar becomes a butterfly,” but the transitive verb become, as in “that outfit becomes you” or the gerund (I think I have that right) “that outfit is very becoming.”

This was a common locution in my childhood. My mother would say it to my sister, as she would say to me “that behavior is unbecoming a young gentleman.”

Sunday morning, my wife and I had brunch with her daughter and son-in-law. My wife remarked to my stepdaughter, “Is that jacket new? It looks cute on you.” Driving home, I asked her if her mother, like mine, would instead have said “that jacket is very becoming.” We agreed that neither of us had heard anyone use the word in recent memory—certainly no one of our generation or those after.

So I did a cursory corpus search, using Google’s new Ngram viewer. It seems the use of the word unbecoming, at least in printed works, peaked around 1710 at 20 times its current frequency, and related phrases that I tried have similarly declined. The decline has been about fifty percent since the 1950s. There has been a slight uptick in the last few years of “unbecoming a young lady,” apparently in Christian behavior manuals. Otherwise, this sense of the word become seems to be quite moribund, although dictionaries treat it as current and unremarkable.

So let me ask you: if you are under forty, is this a word you hear or use in speech? Other than in nineteenth-century and earlier literature or in the title Morning Becomes Electra, are you familiar with it in writing? Did you even know the word before reading this post?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Intended to be a true statement

About this sendup of a book signing, by the Onion (do read it; it’s a hoot), guest blogger Dave Marx of PassPorter Travel Press had this to say on a publishers’ discussion list:
…there’s a lot of truth to it.

Too many authors and small pubs don’t understand that an author event’s greatest value is in the pre-event publicity. Far more will see that and be exposed to author and title than will ever haul their butts down to the store. Author events are an excuse for the book store and author to send press releases, appear on local radio/tv, etc. Showing up at the store, pen in hand, is the payback, not the payoff.
Dave will be be speaking on Marketing 101 in the Digital Age at the 2011 IBPA Publishing University, May 22–23 in New York

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

the eyes have it

Disambiguation page

The following three words all sound alike:
First person singular pronoun

Organ of vision

Yes, as in “Aye, Cap’n” or “the ayes have it”

The following two words sound alike:
Yes, as in, “Are you with me, yea or nay?” or “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”

A cheer, similar to hooray, with which it rhymes.
And the following word does not sound like any of the above:
An informal or slang way to say yes, as in “yeah, right” or “yeah, I’ll pick it up on the way home.”
This message brought to you by someone increasingly annoyed that anyone who writes or edits for a living can possibly be confused about this.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

If you don't subscribe to Nathan Bransford's blog, you missed this

Nathan Bransford’s blog is a must-read. Yesterday’s post offers this nugget:
Comment! of! the! Week! I’m going to Twitter for this one, as EvilWylie responded to my question about how authors of the future will make money:

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The blind leading the blind

A screen reader is a piece of software that converts written words to a computer-generated voice. The technology has improved over the years, and I guess some of these programs are at least satisfactory, even if listening to a book read by a screen reader will never be as fulfilling an experience as listening to an audio book recorded by a skilled voice artist.

For a publisher who is trying to accommodate people with visual impairments, producing a version of a book that works with screen readers is much less expensive than producing an audio book or a Braille book. And now that a large number of books are being packaged as electronic books (e-books), it should be no trouble to do this. At least that’s the theory.

There are some snags, though.
First, the popular e-book readers have visual controls for navigating the text. This makes them unsuitable, and therefore the main e-book file formats (.mobi for Kindle and .epub for everyone else) don’t solve the problem.

Instead, the preferred format is something called accessible PDF. This is a PDF file in which Alt tags have been embedded so that there is a verbal description associated with every picture. The PDF also has a document structure set up so that the order in which the screen reader reads the elements on a page can be controlled.

That’s the theory.

In practice, books undergo frequent revision in the last stages before they are released. So it would be very inefficient to have to start with a regular PDF after every revision and reenter all of the Alt tags, then reimplement the structural arrangement for the screen reader. Therefore, ideally, one should be able to create the Alt tags and the reading order in the original document before creating the PDF.

Now all of this—creating the book layout and generating the PDF and making it an accessible PDF—is done entirely within the integrated Adobe Creative Suite. So the programs should communicate with each other correctly.

Further, because this is Adobe’s technology, Adobe ought to have good documentation and support for the process.

Not so much. On both counts. The documentation for the process omits a great deal of critical information, and the actual output process does not work as advertised. At best the solution is partial.

This is all pretty new, though.
It’s so new, in fact, that Bowker, the company responsible for assigning ISBNs in the U.S. and for publishing the Books in Print database, have never heard of the accessible PDF format before. They learned about it today from a client of mine who is the person on whose behalf I had to disentangle the production process in the first place.

Bottom line.
I’ve now figured out what is needed to produce a proper accessible PDF that works for people with visual impairments using screen readers. Bookmark this post. If you need to produce such a book in the future, get in touch with me. What I’ll charge you for a consulting fee to walk you through it is much less than what it will cost you to figure it out on your own.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

How does that work, Daddy?

When I was a little kid (before about three quarters of people now living were born, in other words), technology was macroscopic. I could ask my father how something worked, and most of the time he could answer with what, in retrospect, was reasonable accuracy. (I could ask my mother, but her answer was consistently “Ask your father.”)

The reason he was able to do this is that an observant person could see how something worked. If you stood and watched a machine for a while, you could figure out its theory of operation. You could, if you pondered a bit, see why a particular piece was shaped the way it was. A tour guide in a factory could point to some part of the operation and explain, so a six-year-old could understand, what was happening.

This is no longer the case.
Yesterday, UPS delivered a new camera my wife had ordered. Because she plans to use it to take short movies for her next DVD, she also ordered a spare memory card. Now the camera—a high-definition model—is about the size of a pack of playing cards. The spare memory card is small enough that a spy might swallow it to avoid its discovery. And while this particular card holds 8 gigabytes of data, for a little more money the same size card could hold 32 gigabytes (256 gigabits).

There is nothing in either of these devices that the average dad can explain to the average six-year-old. Yes, I’m sure Wikipedia has articles that explain the technologies and even provide schematic diagrams. But I defy you to visualize—in a way that reflects the reality of how it’s done—how 256 billion bits of information are stored on that memory card or how a factory can produce such a device as reliably and cheaply as it does.

The same can be said for much modern technology. I know how a rotary telephone dial works. I’m okay with a Touch-Tone keypad. But my Droid does things I would not want to have to explain. (Do you really know how GPS navigation works or do you just sort of wave your hands and say plausible-sounding things about satellites whizzing around and the general theory of relativity?)

Now I say this as someone who started programming in numeric machine language in 1962 and who minored in physics and who is familiar with modern programming languages as well. It’s not that I don’t know how to make a computer do what I want it to. But that’s different from satisfying the need to see parts moving in visible space, making things.

In the natural world, we’ve gone from distinguishing organisms by their appearance and criminals by their fingerprints to distinguishing both groups by their DNA—a molecule whose structure was unknown when I was born.

Every generation faces the struggle to keep up with a changing world.
And every generation looks back at the changes it has seen. My grandparents were born before automobiles or electric lights were invented and they lived to see men walk on the moon.

I’ve heard pundits pontificate about the changes my Boomer generation has witnessed. We grew up with television and were shaped by it. Computers have moved from the periphery to the center of our lives. The Internet has truly changed the way society functions. Social media are enabling whole populations to liberate themselves. Yada yada. All of that may be true. But I think the biggest change in the way we human organisms interact with the world—what has perhaps pushed us further from our cousins in the animal kingdom rather than closer to them—is this shift from seeing the world as filled with things we can see and touch to seeing the world as filled with technology so advanced it is indistinguishable from magic, as Arthur C. Clarke put it.