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June 29, 2004
Posted by Teresa at 01:15 PM *

We have always been moving. We will never do anything else. The remaining stuff that’s yet to be moved will keep expanding to fill an infinite number of boxes, an unending succession of U-Haul trucks. Only we will change, gradually growing older and more battered and decrepit, until finally we’re used up entirely. When this happens we’ll be propped up in front of the yard railing, on offer to any passers-by who think they have some use for our remains.

June 28, 2004
Nevertheless, we still move
Posted by Teresa at 01:33 AM *

We’re still moving house, and are astonishingly tired. We hope to be done soon.

Thanks to Claire Eddy, Skiffy Will Frank, Xopher, and Sean Bosker for help. Thanks especially to Jim Macdonald, who’s been here through the week and has done a prodigious amount of work.

Meanwhile, is anyone looking for a lattice-style folding steel security gate, suitable for a door or window? I’ve put it up on Craig’s List, but so far no one’s bought it over there. I don’t want to have to move it.

June 24, 2004
Moving house
Posted by Patrick at 09:47 AM *

[Post by PNH, copied over from Electrolite.]

The twelve people still reading Electrolite may wonder what caused the month-long gap between posts. Short version: we’ve been finding a new place and moving into it. Longer version: A few weeks ago, our landlords decided that instead of renewing anybody’s lease, it would be more fun to turf out the tenants and sell the building.

After a brief interlude of carefully-composed panic, we got busy looking at Craig’s List, and discovered that, actually, there’s plenty of good stuff in our price range in the parts of Brooklyn we’d like to live in. Fast forward through an extensive and highly scientific search process (sextant, calipers, telescope, Geiger counter), and the upshot is, we’re leaving Park Slope and moving three stops south to Sunset Park, trading our dingy cramped apartment in a building held together with paint for a large, light-filled, and freshly renovated row house about ten doors down from the hills and weeping angels of Green-Wood Cemetery.

Of course, all of this has been a large and unplanned-for distraction, which means both of us are even more behind on returning phone calls and answering email than usual, to say nothing of updating weblogs. Can’t be helped. On the bright side, all that’s left now is the actual move. This has been Packing Week. This Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, if any of our New York-area friends and/or readers would like to help move the high-tech chromium-steel-and-glass headquarters of, they should email us for details. Food and drink will be provided, along with the entertaining company of such literary reprobates as may also be along for the ride. Plus, toting boxes in and out of U-Haul trucks! Such a deal.

June 22, 2004
Posted by Teresa at 01:46 PM *

Hope observed, via Byzantium’s Shores: which remarked this October ‘03 post from Jeff Cooper, author of Cooped Up, about why he was suspending his weblog; and this 18 June ‘04 post, about why Cooper is coming back.

June 18, 2004
Typesetting: when it changed
Posted by Teresa at 04:12 PM *

Robert Legault sent me the URL for Denny Johnson’s Minding my p’s & q’s, which he described as “an old hot-type guy’s memories.”

In our family enterprise the happiest moments in our lives were when the Linotype, aka: The Lino or The Dragon, was working correctly. Which was, in-fact, usually never. My father either called it: “That lead-spurting bastard,” or “That no-good pile of #!!*!*!# garbage.” I never heard him utter a good word towards the apparatus, and on at least two occasions watched him hurl a perfectly good horsehide mallet at the device from across the room. We had three Linotype machines over the time I was growing up in the newspaper business. Each one cost about $12,500 at the time and would bring you at least as much today in iron-weight at the scrap yard.

Now it’s fair to suppose if you had a spanking brand new out of the box Linotype when it was invented you might have found it a pleasant, even interesting, machine. It had so many gears, pulleys, cams, parts, pieces and components that you just couldn’t accept as true it would ever work right and in the case of our Linotypes, you’d be exactly right and I would applaud you for your insight.

Because our Linotypes were usually someone’s cast offs in need of repair, so our one operator was out of necessity also our one mechanic, which would cut down production time nearly in half. And if the operator/mechanic got sick or drunk, which was not an unordinary occurrence, you ended up flirting with disaster trying to meet a weekly newspaper deadline. We had three of the machines but not at the same time mind you, because there never would have been the room for even two of the monstrosities in the back room of that newspaper office, and we wouldn’t have had anyone to operate three anyway; our guy was too busy fixing the one we had.
Some of these are my memories too, though I’m some years younger than Denny Johnson. I remember the Linotype, with its inscrutable keyboard, matrixes falling down chutes like a literate pachinko game, lead pig hung up on a chain to melt, bucket hanging off one side of the machine for collecting and re-melting old slugs, and all too eloquent splashes of now-cooled lead on the floor around it.
In a nutshell, here’s how it was invented to work. The operator (in our shop, “Frank”) would sit at a keyboard and strike out the proper letters one by one following the written copy on his clipboard. When Frank would touch a key it would trip a relay that would discharge a shiny brass matrix stored in a magazine at the top of the machine and start it on a wild adventure. The matrix or mat, into which an impression of a letter had been engraved, would drop down—gravity permitting—into its proper place in the line, letters gathering next to one another in the assembly elevator forming words. Spaces were added between words and when adequate mats and spacebands were assembled to form a full tight justified sentence, a bell would ring.

Next, the entire line would be moved up by a handle called the elevator lever, starting the line on the way to the casting mechanism. In the casting process the line of matrix letter molds would be impact-filled with liquid lead, which hardened almost immediately, and then was discharged from the mold as hot slugs with letters atop—and a “line-o-type” was born.

… The casting system consisted of the mold which was affixed to a hot metal pot filled with molten lead blistering at up to 600 degrees. When a line was cast that was too loose (or unjustified), lead would first fill up the mold and then squirt through the loose cracks, sending streams of molten metal soaring like silver bullets ten feet in all directions. Everyone who worked at and around the Linotypes was burned or injured at one time or another. They were known as “Magma Dragons” and always dicey to be around. The Lino was one of the reasons the print shop owner carried workers compensation insurance. Well that, and the metal saws. Hot lead is as unforgiving as molten lava.
I remember the old pressmen. They were a hard-bitten lot, and were usually missing at least one finger. I learned arcane skills like copyfitting, but I never got to operate a Linotype. I came in as a typesetter after the new photo-offset printing technology and computerized “cold type” systems did away with the old universe of hot lead.
About the time I reached the midway of high school, my life among the letters was about to be highlighted by three new characters on the scene: I, B, & M.

The noisy nasty Linotype had spurt its last gasp of scorching dragon fire, and sat dejected and rejected at the rear dock door, waiting for the scrap man. The gargantuan press had preceded the Lino in passing. No one mourned their demise for long, and in fact we saluted the occasion as a giant step-ahead in our production scheme.

… The IBM system would print-out photo-ready type for the new photo-offset printing process by striking a carbon ribbon onto a clean piece of enamel coated paper. It featured a virtual cornucopia of IBM golf-ball font-elements sized from six to twelve point -– bold , italic, or underlined. The clarity of the new typefaces were superior to the lead of old and didn’t wear out as fast. Plus the machine could be operated by any first-class typist. The operator need no more to be a mechanic, or for that matter, a man.
C’est moi!
[The IBM strike-on system was] like any other IBM Selectric typewriter of the time. The ever-recognizable keyboard was operated by a typist who was required to type the line once—push a button on the machine—and then re-type the line exactly the same as the first. At that point, presto, a justified line would print onto the paper in the typewriter.
I operated one of those things, or one of its immediate descendants. The image quality was excellent, but justification was a pain in the wazoo. If I recall correctly, the difficulty of getting the justification function to work on an IBM typesetting system was the reason The Whole Earth Catalog was typeset flush-left.
Our system also had a typist sitting at an IBM keyboard, but the letters (or keystrokes) that she chose were then memorized on a magnetic tape cassette that could be inserted into a second composing machine where the result would be a print-out of justified copy on enameled paper in any width.
That was a miracle: the same keystrokes used twice to produce repro copy in different widths and typefaces. The first several typesetting systems I worked on didn’t have any mechanisms for saving keystrokes. If something went wrong, you had to re-keyboard the copy. At the time, this didn’t seem as iniquitous as it would today, because we were all used to typewriters.
By the early 70’s an even newer machine had taken the place of our IBM system in what was now known as the newspaper’s computer room. This machine, the AM-Varityper 748 was paper-tape driven, affording the option of multiple operators, and featured eight different interchangeable sizes of photo-type from six point to 72 pt., and four different typefaces on-line, literally a choice of 32 fonts at the cost of a single keystroke. This was one of the first computerized photo-typesetters to hit the market and old Frank would have found it a wonder.
I don’t know about Frank, but I sure thought they were a wonder, especially the reuseable paper tape. We had a little device like a skeletal pencil sharpener for spooling up finished tapes, after which we paper-clipped the loose end, wrote the name of the story on the endbit, and hung them on a nail hammered into the wall.
When you lifted the gull wing-like doors on the top of the machine to gain access to the inner workings you would have thought you were looking back into the machinery of the old Lino: watch-like, mechanical and electronic working together. But this gear was driven by four large printed circuit-boards, and outfitted with more chips then a high-tech woodchuck. To set type, an intense magnified xenon light was activated by the operating system. The light source would be directed through an spinning Mylar disc that contained film of four different fonts of type, usually in the same family. The discs were simply removed to add a new disc with a different set of fonts. It was magical.
The internal workings looked like an orrery turned on its side. The system I learned on used mylar strips, one per font, that looked like elongated photo negatives. They were solid black, opaque, except for the letter forms, which were clear. You’d fasten the strip to a spinning wheel inside the machine, and as you typed, the wheel would rotate to position a letterform where the light could shine through it and onto a piece of photographic film.
This all took place in the matter of instants and the leaps in production time were mind boggling. Sixty lines a minute was normal in most sizes. In the unlikely event that old Frank’s Lino was operating at optimum speed, he could have expected no more than two lines in that same minute.
Faster, cheaper, easier to learn, and you could own lots more fonts. Publications used to be stodgier because so much effort went into just getting them out.
Once the story was typeset, a cassette containing the exposed paper could be removed from the machine and developed in the nearby newly constructed darkroom. The result was perfectly set copy, smudge-proof camera-ready type in virtually any size or face.
Oooh, fancy—they had a darkroom. We had a boxy tabletop machine that would feed in, develop, and spit out the photographic paper, and spit out a lot of fumes along with it. Then the paper would be hung on a line to dry, like Gutenberg’s laundry. By the way: that smudge-proof, perfectly set copy? If you were lucky, it was. Lightstrikes would produce solid black bars and patches. Misalignments in any of the moving parts could create very strange effects. But generally speaking, it worked.
With this machine the publisher could create his entire newspaper, headlines to obituaries to classifieds, and save cash. Input was through all the paper-tape producing keyboards your enterprise required. This machine boasted 16K of memory and went for sale at just under $40,000.
The next big jump was the Macintosh plus laser printer: faster, cheaper, and easier again. People sneered at the type quality—but it was good enough for a lot of uses, and typesetting shops started going out of business by the dozens. I’ll never forget the day I first saw Pagemaker pour text into page after virtual pasted-up page. Patrick and I stood there with our mouths open and our arms around each other, dazzled by this patent miracle.
These days we are all the operators, the compositors. In our day now there is not a thing that we could do on the Lino or the IBM machine or even the 748 that we can’t do right from here on a $2,000 (or less) Dell or Gateway home computer. In fact this very machine could have easily produced our entire sixteen page weekly newspaper, headlines, copy and advertisements in about one day had we possessed it in 1970. But of course that’s what technology is all about. In our simple home machines today we have a practically unlimited selection of sizes and type faces right at our very fingertips. We can toggle to boldface or italic on a whim. No drawer to open, no ink to dry, no Linotype to scrape. My keystrokes on my keyboard are the same letters that you’re reading at this moment—the process has become more personal between writer and reader—save the editor’s fine suggestions.
All true.

Linotypes were a cool piece of working technology. They hardly changed from the 1880s to the 1970s. When you consider what an advance they represented over the system they replaced (a guy with a type stick in his hand, setting text letter by letter) and the complexity of the task they performed, it’s mildly amazing that they came along when they did. In combination with faster presses and cheap pulp paper, they were transformative. When I see one in a museum, I feel fondly nostalgic. But I wouldn’t go back to hot type if you paid me.

June 16, 2004
Hot jets!
Posted by Teresa at 03:38 PM *

You know that old scientifictional idea about a device (usually a cloak) that renders you invisible by projecting an image onto its surface of whatever’s behind you? Professor Susumu Tachi says he’s done it. He has the technology. And what form has it taken? Why, a cloak, of course. He’s even given his material a great skiffy name: retro-reflectum. (via Laura Mixon)

Posted by Teresa at 01:58 PM *

Today is Bloomsday 100. But you already knew that, right?

June 15, 2004
A Houseful of Lords, pt. 2
Posted by Teresa at 10:45 AM *

Here we go again. Maybe we can have Tolkien pastiches in the style of other authors declared an Olympic indoor sport. James Murray has been so kind as to direct me to a further compendium of them, which I take as a clear indication that it’s time to play Spot the Style.

Down at the bottom you’ll find a series of links to the pastiches as they originally appeared. If you’re stumped but aren’t quite ready to give up, hover over the link number and you’ll get a hint. It’s not guaranteed to be helpful. If you’re posting guesses, you should probably stay away from the hints.

In the beginning was the ring. And the ring was with Sauron and the ring was Sauron. The same was in the beginning with Sauron. All things were made dark by the ring, and without it was not anything made dark that was made dark. In it was death, and the death was the darkness of men.
Oh, the quest is bigger It’s bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
To destroy this cursed ring!
Oh no, I’ve gone too far,
I put it on.
from III C 2, Whether Balrogs have Wings:

I assert that Balrogs do not have wings. For, it is a natural impulse to act to preserve one’s life, and in doing so, to make full use of one’s capabilities. If the Balrog did have wings, it would not allow itself to fall to its death in the mines of Moria, but save itself by the use of its wings. …

Reply to Objection ii. Dragons and Balrogs are alike in that they are both servants of evil and of flame, but they differ in their accidental traits. Because two things are alike in one way, it is not proper to argue that they are alike in other ways.
“Woolheaded man!” sniffed Arwen, folding her arms beneath her breasts, then unfolding them again so she could tug on her braid. Aragorn grimaced. If only Legolas were there. Legolas always knew how to talk to girls.
There are rings that come with diamonds that are used plight one’s troth, And there’s a ring round planet Saturn – or is it Jupiter? – or possibly both.
But whatever ring you have, there’s one type of ring that admits no tomfoolery
And that’s magic jewellery.
For as soon as you put it on, you’re sure to disappear abruptly
And whatever you were doing before, you’ll soon be doing it corruptly … to accept a ring from the likes of Sauron
You’d have to be a mauron.
The sun came up over the ridge like a fried egg on top of a burnt slice of toast. Then the trumpets sounded. Lots of them, as if Sauron had paid for a lifetime supply and wanted to get his money’s worth if the world ended today. The night shift went back to the holes they had crawled out of the night before, and the day shift started to straggle in, lugging their swords, as if they didn’t know which they hated more, Sauron or themselves. “Well, here we are!” said Sam. He liked to tell you things you already knew. I didn’t mind, most of the time, but here in front of the Black Gate of Mordor, I could think of one or two or a hundred more useful topics of conversation. He talked about his father a lot too, and his garden, and he seemed to think that if he ever got back to them, everything would be like it was. I kept quiet about that. It wasn’t my job to tell him that seeing the wide world changes your shape so that you don’t fit in the places you used to. He was a little guy, but I liked him.<
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-March, with the sun not shining and the usual look of hard, cold doom in the foothills. I was wearing an orc’s old suit, brown pants, brown shirt, no shoes, some mail and armor. I was tired, I was frightened, and I was desperate, and I didn’t care who knew it.
Once there was a way to get to Mordor Hope there’ll be a way to get back home
Sleep Master Frodo, do not cry
And I will watch for Uruk-hai
Frodo, the Deliverator, belongs to an elite order, a Fellowship of nine members only. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his only mission that matters. His armor is silver like the light of the full moon, jangling only slightly with its decorative gems. An arrow will bounce off its dwarvenmesh weave like a hammer off an anvil, but excess perspiration wafts through it like the winds over the charred plains of Gorgoroth. All the arrows of all the hunters in the world couldn’t cut it against this one. When they gave him the job, they gave him a sword. The Deliverator never looks for trouble, but some Orc might come after him anyway—-might want his armor, or his cargo. The sword is tiny, aero-styled, lightweight, the kind of sword a Hobbit would carry; it cuts quickly into load-bearing beams without visible effort, and when you get done using it around evil, you have to sheathe it, because it glows in the dark.
the ring being Brand -new;and you
know consequently a
little big i was
careful of it and(having

thoroughly shined the elvish
script checked my pocket felt of
its chain made sure it was around my neck O.

K.)i went right to it jammed-it-on my finger straight …
The door to Bag End deliquesced, and the derelict lurched into the hall.

He was an old man. He was a strong man. Must be Gandalf, Frodo thought. Dresses like Gandalf, grey robed, a rope holding up his torn grey pants. And his eyes. (Orcs’ eyes?).

“You , boy. Are you Frodo Baggins?”

Frodo fingered the dirt between his hairy toes. Wanting to say “no” he began a “yes”.

The codger flapped out a hand (a sack of magic-ruined knuckles) and caught a chair. “We were moving out, boy, the lights of Minas Tirith like a puddle of molten mithril on our left, the black of Mordor on our right. We’d turned off the palantir so we were flying blind. Then, centred on the dark, an Eye! It reached out, brighter than the elven-glass of Galadriel, grabbed our attention so we couldn’t look away.”

Frodo got the words ready in his mouth, excuse me, huh? I gotta go.

Gandalf coughed, spat red. “The Eye was Sauron’s. He took us this close” - his thumb brushed his forefinger (nail bitten to the quick) - “this close” - to Mount Doom. You can damn him, and damn the One Ring for that, boy, whoever you are!”
You may talk o’ ale and lembas And the nine Fellowship members
When you’re sittin’ in the Prancing Pony’s wing
But if it comes to questin’
The story that goes best in
Is of Nine-fingered Frodo and the Ring!
“There was me, that is Gollum, and my two droogs, Precious and Precioussss….”
In front of a grassy-mound, in the shire, stood a bearded man, in solomn-coloured garments and a gray steeple-crowned hat stood with his eyes intently fastened on the oaken door, for he was the wizard, Gandalf. The wooden edifice, by a strange chance, had been coloured by way of paint or some other form of dye a shade of green, long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that the hue and sprung up around, whether it being of personal or cultural taste, we shall not take upon us to determine. Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than to view the object held in by the might of the former foliage. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolise the wild and evils in this world, which hath spring forth from the land from where such a colour exists in abundance; as some moral lesson that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of hobbit and human frailty and sorrow.
Gandalf: What happen? Samwise: Somebody set us up the orc.
Pippin: We get signal.
Gandalf: What!
Pippin: Main seeing stone turn on.
Gandalf: It’s you!!
Saron: How are you Fellowship!!
Ever see an elfshot? I saw a wight catch one in Mordor. We rigged his grave with a one way looking glass and charged an orc kin to watch. He never got the arrow out of his arm, they don’t if the shot is right. That’s the way they found him, barrow full of buried treasure, dawn of a new day. The look in his eye when he was hit - it was tasty.
When perfect silence was once again restored, one of the two aged elves who sat at the side of the patriarch arose, and demanded aloud, in very intelligible Westron:

“Which of my prisoners is La Longue Rapier?”

Boromir, a little at a loss in what manner to proceed, remained silent; but the ranger, who had listened attentively to all that passed, now advanced steadily to the front.

“That I did not answer to the call for La Longue Rapier, was not owing either to shame or fear,” he said, “for neither one nor the other is the gift of an honest man. But I do not admit the right of the Uruks to bestow a name on one whose friends have been mindful of his gifts, in this particular; especially as their title is a lie, ‘anduril’ being a broadsword and no rapier. I am the man, however, that got the name of Aragorn from my kin, the compliment of Estel from the Sindarin, who live on their own river; and whom the Orcs have presumed to style ‘The Long Rapier’, without any warranty from him who is most concerned in the matter.”
Isildur was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. He was shot quite full of arrows by a party of orcs and left floating in the river. Sauron willed it. And Sauron’s will was great upon Middle Earth, for anything he chose to put his mind to. Isildur was as dead as a barrow-wight. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a barrow-wight I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a barrow-wight as the deadest denzien of all the undead hordes. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or Middle-Earth’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Isildur was as dead as a barrow-wight.
[FRODO holds his smoking hands in front of him, horrified by the force he has just unwittingly unleashed. He stops at the brink of the Cracks of Doom. At his summons, a machine of unimaginable monstrosity lurches upward from the depths and aims itself at him.]

FRODO: Sooner or later, Sam, I will lose all control, and the evil that will follow staggers the imagination…yet I can see it clearly. I can’t let that happen. I have to purge this power from existence before it consumes the cosmos.

SAM (straining hopelessly to unleash his garden-hothouse-lamp eye beams against the machine): Don’t you do it, Mr. Frodo!

FRODO: I love you, Sam!

[The machine disintegrates FRODO with a bolt of raw energy, colored slightly differently from the one that hit the elven ships to aid our comprehension.]





[The remaining CIRTH-MEN, NAZGUL, ELFJAMMERS, GONDORAN and EASTERLING ARMIES, and SAURON arrive in time to see SAM cradling a pile of ash. They kneel around him, overcome with emotion, in a tableau that will later be enshrined forever in a foil-embossed poster by Byrne and Austin.]

SAM: I love you, Frodo…

[Far away,… ULMO, ruminates.]

ULMO: Humanity! I will never tire of watching them! A blighted race, it’s said…and yet, in the face of certain disaster, they exhibit sacrifice that would shame the Valar themselves! There have always been forces like the Ring, trying to tempt and corrupt them into betraying their true destiny…but in the face of love and courage, those attempts are doomed to defeat! All admirable ploys — but they’ve failed!!

[Stay tuned until next month, when the CIRTH-MEN will do a lot of crying and looking at sunsets and being attacked by GRIMA THE WENDIGO on their way home. Excelsior!]
20. The SysAdmin’s view of LOTR.

Links and hints: 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10 : 11 : 12 : 13 : 14 : 15 : 16 : 17 : 18 : 19

June 14, 2004
A few more questions
Posted by Teresa at 02:10 PM *

4. If you put a dollar in a change machine and the machine refuses to take it, do you throw the dollar away?

(If your answer is “no”, then regardless of your other political affiliations and opinions, you know that a hand count is more accurate and reliable than a machine count.)

5. When James Baker stood up in front of the mikes at a press conference during the fuss over the Florida miscount, and asserted that machine counts are more accurate than hand counts, how come no one asked him what he does when change machines reject his bills?

Failing asking the obvious question, how come no one asked him how he thought he could get away with that statement, given that it’s a long-established fact that hand counts are more accurate?

(He might as well have announced, “We’re lying, and as long as the U.S. press keeps mum, we don’t care who else in the world knows we’re doing it.”)

6. Why should we believe that these people think it possible that they’ll be out of power following the next election?

June 12, 2004
Open thread 24
Posted by Teresa at 10:32 PM *

O who will come and go with me—

June 11, 2004
Posted by Teresa at 11:32 AM *

1. What are the odds that it’s always been within the law that the President has the right to flat-out ignore the law, but we’ve just never noticed it before? Wouldn’t Richard Nixon have noticed it, at the very least? All things considered?

(Sometimes, in extraordinary circumstances, Presidents have bent or broken the law, and had to square it afterward. There’ve been times when it didn’t square. Those were, not surprisingly, handled under the law. But there’s an unbridgeable gap between (a.) acting outside the law and having to answer for it, and (b.) declaring that you’re not answerable to the law for your actions. That second one is a breach of our entire legal system.)

2. When your local returns been tabulated on Election Day, what action can you take if you think the voting machines in your area have been rigged to give false results? Any suggestions?

3. Given that (a.) anyone who has any expertise in intensive interrogation knows that tortured prisoners will tell you anything they think will get you to stop hurting them; and (b.) given that it’s a disastrously stupid move to plan your operations and allocate your resources on the basis of such worse-than-nothing “intel”; and (c.) given that we have experts working in our government and military who know all those things in detail, what do you suppose was the actual point of getting advance permission to torture prisoners?

June 10, 2004
Harlan and the pirates
Posted by Teresa at 05:42 PM * says that a final settlement has finally been settled in Ellison v. Robertson, et al., a.k.a. Harlan Ellison versus AOL. The story started like this:

In early spring of 2000, famous author Harlan Ellison became aware that his works were being (sloppily) pirated in certain Usenet newsgroups. Two years of litigation later, two of the defendants have settled: the front-line pirate, and the news service that provided the front-line pirate with the opportunity to distribute his piracy. The remaining defendant, America Online, Inc., continues to assert that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (see Legal Authority on Copyright) prevents Mr. Ellison from obtaining any effective relief for any liability it might otherwise have.
Who won? Good question. The participants are saying things like:
Both AOL and Ellison are pleased this case was able to draw the courts’ and the public’s attention to the issue of online piracy and advance the legal issues relating to copyrights in the digital world.
I suppose.

June 06, 2004
Berube lays smackdown on Bloom
Posted by Teresa at 10:35 PM *

If this were an audio blog, the proper title of this piece would be the noise I made when Patrick read the first three paragraphs of Michael Bérubé’s “Azkaban Blogging” to me. I could try to spell it out phonetically, but it was a complex sound, encompassing both the concept “Patrick and I used to nominally work under Harold Bloom when we were editors on the Chelsea House Library of Literary Criticism project,” and “huge dish of schadenfreude with hot fudge sauce, whipped cream, and a cherry on top.”

The only piece of background information you’ll need is that Bérubé’s younger son Jamie has Down syndrome. The piece starts like this:
Yes, it’s true, I’ve read all five Harry Potter books and I know my Flitwick from my Umbridge. I resisted mightily at first, partly for the reasons the Onion gestured at in its December 2001 headline, “Children, Creepy Middle-Aged Weirdos Swept Up In Harry Potter Craze.” (I’d link to the story—it’s hilarious—but it requires Onion Premium or Onion Advantage or something.) Also partly because of that weird brand of American Anglophilia I associate with PBS, A&E, and Moynihan liberals. Also partly because I thought I’d already read all that stuff back when it was written by Roald Dahl.

I realize that parental reading habits in these matters depend heavily on the age of the children; I believe the last book I read with Nick, actually with him, night by night, was the quite wonderful Racso and the Rats of Nimh, and that would have been sometime around 1992. From that point on, he was on his own. So when he became one of J. K. Rowling’s faithful readers, buying Goblet of Fire the day it appeared and devouring it in one all-night reading marathon, I didn’t even look over his shoulder.

Then I took Jamie to the first Harry Potter movie, and I was stunned—partly by the story, which was at once darker and more charming than I’d anticipated, but mostly by Jamie, who completely got it. I suppose it helped that Jamie was 10 at the time, and that his glasses look a great deal like Harry’s, so that he began talking about attending Hogwarts when he turned 11, and practicing the “wingardium leviosa” spell now and then. As for me, after we saw the movie I was curious enough to read the dang book at last, and I was fairly impressed. I’ve since heard that Harold Bloom, that learned old gasbag and self-designated arbiter of all written words, despises the book and has said so at least once every six months for the past five years. Well, alas, Bloom, my good man—leave aside the sorry spectacle of the world’s most famous literary critic spending some of his dwindling energies trying to squash J. K. Rowling like a bug, all because of a series of books whose readership extends to eight-year-olds, for god’s sake (would Lionel Trilling have behaved this way with A Wrinkle in Time, do you think?), and let me put it this way: you style yourself after Falstaff, but you have no sense of humor whatsoever. You never did—and your Rowling snits seal the deal. Now, what do we call people who think of themselves as latter-day Falstaffs, but who have never uttered a funny thing in their lives? Don’t think Shakespeare—think Restoration comedy.
It was Bérubé’s smooth gear-shifting into Bloom’s high style that did it to me. Well, that and the bit about Lionel Trilling. (Literary predecessors. Anxiety. Long story.)

Bérubé goes on to make some interesting and insightful observations about how Rowling’s books, most notably that they’ve increased Jamie’s comprehension of narrative by a factor of ten. The piece is well worth reading for its own sake, and the rest of you should do so. In the meantime, I need to see about sending this URL to S. T. Joshi, Peter Cannon, and Scraps DeSelby.

June 05, 2004
Not the case for the defense
Posted by Teresa at 06:07 PM *

I was a bit surprised to discover that both Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber and P. Z. Myers in Pharyngula (and, in a me-too wave, Musical Perceptions, Nicomachus, and Rhosgobel) thought I was defending the plagiarizing habits of Michael Gunn, the student who’s suing the University of Kent.

They will not get full marks for that reading. I was saying that if an undergrad English major who’s a casual and habitual plagiarist hasn’t been nailed on it in three years of college, he might be pardoned for feeling indignant if the university suddenly decides to take a hard line a few days before he’s supposed to graduate. Gunn is still in the wrong. But if his practices were as as he describes—that is, if he’s been a casual and habitual plagiarist—he should have been caught long ago, and it shouldn’t have taken a computer program to catch him.

Here’s a longer version of what he said:
“I hold my hands up. I did plagiarise,” he told The Times Higher Education Supplement. “But I always used the internet, cutting and pasting stuff and matching it with my own points. It’s a technique I’ve used since I started the course and I never dreamt it was a problem. I can see there is evidence that I have gone against the rules, but they’ve taken all my money for three years and pulled me up the day before I finished. If they had pulled me up with my first essay at the beginning, and warned me of the problems, it would be fair enough. But all my essays were handed back with good marks and no one spotted it.”

Just to get this out of the way: I have no tolerance for plagiarism. I was helping my mother and the rest of her English department identify cases of it clear back in high school. I also don’t think Mr. Gunn’s plagiarism was inconsequential. He was stringing together cut-and-pasted material, which is wrong, albeit not in the same class as purchasing whole papers from one of the many websites that sell them. He must have known it was to some extent improper, but I can imagine him being honestly unclear on the exact degree of impropriety involved.

Doubtless some of Kieran Healy’s commenters will still think I’m defending Gunn’s plagiarism per se. They will definitely not get full marks for their readings.

What I want to know is, who’s been grading the papers at Kent University? Gunn’s papers will have been a patchwork of different writers, approaches, and voices. As I said in my earlier post, monitoring their use of the semicolon is often enough to catch student plagiarists. In Gunn’s case, he wouldn’t have had variable style and usage from paper to paper; he’d have had it within the papers themselves. That bothers me. Shouldn’t English instructors notice that? How could they not notice it? Yet they didn’t.

It also bothers me that none of his instructors recognized any of the material he was cannibalizing. There’s a lot of impersonal, undistinguished secondary literature on the web, but not all of it can be so described. Sooner or later, a student who’s not an expert in the field must unwittingly swipe material from some well-known or distinctive piece of litcrit. However, nobody spotted Mr. Gunn doing that. Also, some areas of English studies are quite specialized, with relatively small bodies of secondary literature, and relatively small numbers of scholars familiar with it. Lifting material from them is a variety of Russian roulette: you’re safe unless your paper crosses paths with one of those scholars, at which point they’ll have you dead to rights. But that didn’t happen either.

I repeat: Who’s been grading the papers at Kent University? Do they in fact have a faculty that can neither spot multiple changes of author within a single paper, nor recognize that an undergraduate is lifting paragraphs right and left from published literary criticism?

Dealing with plagiarism in an educational way, rather than this random-shootings punitive way, takes work. The University of Kent’s previous answer to the problem, which seems to have consisted of announcing in its student handbooks that plagiarism is a no-no, is simply not enough. You have to pay attention. You have to follow up on suspicions. Disciplinary action ought to happen at a point well short of graduation week.

Anyone who still thinks that what I’m saying constitutes a defense of Michael Gunn’s plagiarism are encouraged to re-read the last paragraph of my previous post on the subject. That’s still what I think Kent University should do: Reinstate Michael Gunn, give him three years’ free tuition, and let him re-do every scrap of that coursework he says he cheated on. And if you think that adds up to a defense of Michael Gunn or plagiarism, feel free to write me a note explaining how you got through school.

Pictures in Baghdad
Posted by Teresa at 05:00 AM *

Pictures in Baghdad is a photoblog from an Iraqi family: Faiza, Khalid, and MajiTriX (Majid). I don’t know much about them. Faiza wears a headscarf and works in a well-appointed office. Majid is a big fan of The Matrix.

One of the things that startles me whenever I see pictures of Baghdad is how much it looks like Mesa, Arizona did when I was growing up. There are photos of women sitting around a kitchen table, roadside watermelon stands, boxy little commerical buildings, loose light-brown soil, a few keenly-felt trees. If you’d showed me the photos of the PiB family’s garden and told me it was the back yard of a house a block away from my grandmother’s house, I’d have believed you.

It’s funny. I come home from work to a neighborhood that’s nothing like what I grew up with, except that both places are part of the United States; and look at snapshots of a foreign country, some of which look more like my vanished home town than anything I’ve seen in a long time.

Oh, well. Brooklyn’s a nice place too.

Other BiP photos of highways and a gas station have that peculiar desolateness of urban concrete and asphalt under the midday desert sun. They show a summer sky that’s flat and metallic, a pale grayish-blue that makes me want to reach for the AC knob on my nonexistent dash. Looking at that sky tells me that anyone who doesn’t have some shade, a good supply of water, and a cool place to sleep at night is going to be debilitated and miserable: Wait until the car’s cooled off before you get in. Don’t step on the pavement barefoot. Stop playing and come inside, your face is red. Don’t drink out of the cooler hose. Whatever it is, it can wait for evening.

(Anyone who thinks there’s something suspicious about celebrating a wedding at night must have grown up in a different climate.)

Check it out.

June 04, 2004
Any soldier anyhow
Posted by Teresa at 09:03 AM *

Via Snarkout’s particulate offshoot Sideout comes’s list of what to send to soldiers stationed in the Middle East. The list of items is mostly obvious and sometimes surprising, a combination I tend to trust.

Apparently Beanie Babies are a smash hit with Iraqi children. They’re also lightweight, and can travel in backpacks without getting broken.

The note from Major ‘Doc’ Meyer was a tad disturbing:
The problem the clinics/hospitals have is there just isn’t enough supply to meet the demand. The medications needed are basic: antibiotics, antihypertensives, antiparasitics. They can certainly be inexpensive/generic medications like amoxicillin, hydrochlorothiazide, atenolol, etc.

This isn’t about being for or against the war. It’s about our guys who are stuck over there being hot and bored and grimy, and who are mostly doing the best they can in a bad situation. If I read the list correctly, some of it is also about kindness to the Iraqis with whom they come in contact.

It’s the basic drill: feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, help where you can. Doing good is doing good.

Who screwed up firstest and worstest
Posted by Teresa at 05:00 AM *

A student at the University of Kent who got zapped for plagiarism right before his final exams is suing the university for negligence, on the grounds that he’s been cheating in exactly the same way throughout his studies there, and they’ve never said anything about it.

My first reaction was “Nice try, kid.” On second thought, he does have a point. It’s not enough of a point, but he has one. Here’s the story:
A student who admits downloading material from the internet for his degree plans to sue his university for negligence. Michael Gunn claims his university should have warned him his actions were against the regulations.

The Times Higher Education Supplement reports that he was told on the eve of his final exams that he would get no marks for his course work.

The University of Kent at Canterbury says students are warned about plagiarism.

Michael Gunn, a 21-year-old English student, told the Times Higher: “I hold my hands up. I did plagiarise. I never dreamt it was a problem. I can see there is evidence I have gone against the rules, but they have taken all my money for three years and pulled me up the day before I finished. If they had pulled me up with my first essay at the beginning and warned me of the problems and consequences, it would be fair enough. But all my essays were handed back with good marks, and no one spotted it.”
The school’s claiming that all students at Kent are given clear guidelines about what constitutes plagiarism. In the School of English, where Gunn studied, this information is conveyed in the faculty handbook and the departmental handbook. Students are given copies of both, and are also encouraged to attend the university’s workshops on study skills.

I’m not impressed. I’ve worked with university students. If one student in twenty sat down and read all the way through those handbooks, I’ll be surprised. It can be hard to get students to read all the way through a two-page document that explains how and why the university wants to give them money. Most students will only read a handbook if they hear other students talk about reading it.

I have to ask: Has there been a revolution in student handbooks since the 1980s? Because the last time I looked, most student handbooks were a mixture of hot air, vague benevolence, pious wishes, counsels of perfection, slabs of prose copied from earlier handbooks, stern warnings inserted by the legal department (useful only for generating FUD, since they were probably framed in response to a situation that came and went five years ago, which the current crop of students has never heard of), plus some reasonably useful advice that isn’t uniformly applicable to all the students, but isn’t unambiguously labeled in terms of which students it does apply to, and thus generates even more FUD—in the small number of students who actually read it.

Maybe they’ve gotten better.

If they haven’t, and if you therefore have an admittedly hypothetical document that mixes Ad astra per aspera (never literally true), You should approach your studies at the university as though they were a full-time job (a useful model, but not to be taken literally in all particulars), If you are having difficulties with your studies, your instructor will be available to help you during his regular office hours (true, insofar as it is translated correctly), and All coursework materials handed in must be your own original work, it may not be clear that that last one is a concrete and enforceable rule.

Let me make it clear that I’m not impressed with Mr. Gunn, either. I’m sure he knows plenty of things the university hasn’t explained to him, and I suspect that plagiarism is among them. I don’t recall ever having to have plagiarism explained to me; and I notice that the BBC news story didn’t feel it was necessary to explain the concept either.

The only place where I think he has an argument is his class work to date. That should have been the real measure of his scholarship. He says he’s been cheating like this all along, and that his instructors have been giving him passing grades all along. Now, given his evident attitude, he can’t have been a very gifted plagiarist. Few students are. Unless they’re better-than-average writers, it’s often enough just to monitor their semicolons: If they come and go, the student’s cheating. And if the student’s an English major like Mr. Gunn, sooner or later they’re bound to plagiarize something a more experienced scholar will recognize in a flash. When you spot something like that, you go back and check the student’s other work. It’s rare for someone to cheat only once.

That’s all pretty basic, so if Mr. Gunn has been openly plagiarizing online material for years, I think Kent University is not only entitled to feel embarrassed about it, but is arguably obliged to do so. They should have known. They say they’re now “running a pilot scheme which uses plagiarism detection software to analyse student work,” which I expect is how they caught Mr. Gunn in the first place; but they still should have known. The same internet that’s available to the students is available to the instructors.

Things may have changed, but that doesn’t mean they’re different. Before there was the internet there was the library, and if you thought someone was cheating but you couldn’t spot the source by eye and ear, you had to hunt for the book they got it out of. The real trick is to take plagiarism seriously when you see it happening.

And Mr. Gunn’s case? I’m all for taking him at his word. Reinstate him as a student at the University, give him three years’ free tuition, and let him re-do all that coursework he says he cheated on. He’s paid for that education. It’s only fair to see that he finally gets it.

June 02, 2004
A callous disregard for human life
Posted by Teresa at 10:33 PM *

Remember the rolling blackouts in California? The misery and waste and loss they caused? CBS reports that some audiotapes have turned up from that period that make Enron’s attitude all too clear:

During California’s rolling blackouts, when streets were lit only by head lights and families were trapped in elevators, Enron Energy traders laughed, reports CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales.

One trader is heard on tapes obtained by CBS News saying, “Just cut ‘em off. They’re so f——d. They should just bring back f——-g horses and carriages, f——-g lamps, f——-g kerosene lamps.”

And when describing his reaction when a business owner complained about high energy prices, another trader is heard on tape saying, “I just looked at him. I said, ‘Move.’ (laughter) The guy was like horrified. I go, ‘Look, don’t take it the wrong way. Move. It isn’t getting fixed anytime soon.”

California’s attempt to deregulate energy markets became a disaster for consumers when companies like Enron manipulated the West Coast power market and even shut down plants so they could drive up prices.

There was quick reaction in Washington to the Enron audiotapes first aired by CBS News last night, and the tapes have become part of the debate over the President’s massive energy bill.

“People were talking about market manipulation. People were talking about schemes, people were making jokes,” said U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

“While the president would like to have an energy bill, I’d like to have an energy bill that protects consumers,” said Cantwell.

Consumers like Grandma Millie, mentioned in one exchange recorded between two Enron employees.

Employee 1: “All the money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?”

Employee 2: “Yeah, Grandma Millie man.”

Employee 1: “Yeah, now she wants her f——-g money back for all the power you’ve charged right up, jammed right up her a— for f——-g $250 a megawatt hour.”

It’s clear from the tapes that Enron employees knew what they were doing was wrong, and now lawmakers are responding.

“I will offer an amendment to compel the Bush administration to get off the dime and get back this money that has been stolen,” said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.

Another taped exchange between different employees regarding a possible newspaper interview goes like this:

Employee 3: “This guy from the Wall Street Journal calls me up a little bit ago—”

Employee 4: “I wouldn’t do it, because first of all you’d have to tell ‘em a lot of lies because if you told the truth—”

Employee 3: “I’d get in trouble.”

Employee 4: “You’d get in trouble.”

Eventually, the lies unraveled and traders scrambled.

“I’m just — f—k — I’m just trying to be an honest camper so I only go to jail once,” says one employee.

Two Enron traders, from the office where the tapes were made, have admitted manipulating energy prices and pled guilty in court. Another goes on trial in October. Former Enron chief Ken Lay is the only top company official who has never been charged with any crime.
Yeah, but let’s see how much time they serve, and how tough the fines are.

Ken Lay’s a real prize. Before the Enron collapse he was being hailed as the top dawg businessman in his field, and he was lapping it up. Then, when the hard questions started being asked, poof! He suddenly doesn’t know a darned thing about what was going on. Anyway, that’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.

If I were Empress of the Universe, there’d be a law saying that any executive who’s received a significant performance bonus any time in the last three years will not be allowed to plead ignorance about the operations of the company he’s been working for. What are all those obscene salaries for, if the people receiving them don’t know jack about their jobs?

But I digress.

Enron stole from everyone they could, screwed over everyone from the power users of California to their own employees, and lied themselves so blue in the face that they looked like evil Smurfs. Is there some reason our legal system isn’t going after them with fire and sword? If so, I think we deserve to know what it is.

Estimated estimate
Posted by Teresa at 01:09 AM * 17 comments

John Savage, that excellent fellow, has built a printing cost estimator engine on his website. Tell it the trim size, number of pages, and number of copies, and specify a couple of things about the cover and binding, and it’ll give you a quote on the spot. It’ll also tell you your spine size, carton quantity, and number of cartons, which means it’s smarter than many —

Never mind. Splendid device. Check it out.

June 01, 2004
Looking at The Writers’ Collective
Posted by Teresa at 10:00 AM * 383 comments

My post on The getting of agents started life as a comment in the thread following Slushkiller. To continue the theme, this post started life as a comment in the thread following The getting of agents. I don’t believe the organization being discussed is wicked in any extraordinary way, just several of the usual ways; but the discussion of it may be of more general interest.

This latest outgrowth started with a comment posted yesterday by Charles Boyle:
You say to be wary of publishing assistance that requires payment by the author. A group called The Writers’ Collective seems to be different.
Can you provide an opinion, please.
I said:

Yes. There’s one throbbing, luminous, mindbendingly huge distinction: this particular vanity publisher calls itself a writers’ collective. Aside from that, it’s just another vanity publisher.

TWC charges you $275 the first year and $150 each year thereafter, and calls it membership fees or dues. There’s a further charge for having your book printed—had you noticed that yet? It doesn’t matter what TWC calls itself. You’re still paying to have your book published.

Different vanity publishers have come up with a bunch of different terms for the money they want you to pay them. That’s why Yog’s Law doesn’t specify what that payment is called. It simply states, “Money should always flow toward the author.”

(For those who want to follow along, here’s TWC’s main URL. Here’s their FAQ.)

As I said, TWC charges $275 the first year and $150 each year thereafter, in return for which you get an ISBN, a Library of Congress CIP number, a barcode (by which they may or may not mean you get an EAN), the right to set up a useless promotional page on their website, an optional free conversion of your text into e-book format, a listing at Baker & Taylor, and an XML conversion of info about your title for use in databases. Note: if they’re going to list you at Baker & Taylor, I believe they’re going to have to do that XML conversion anyway, so listing it as a separate benefit is a bit of a rip.

In addition, you get access to their cover template pages, where you get to design your own book cover using the resources they provide. I assume there are limited choices, because the colors on their template covers are spec’d as names—latte, goldenglo, putty, lapis—rather than Pantone shades or CYMK percentages. It looks like they had someone dummy up a bunch of generic cover treatments. You can spot the ones nobody’s wanted to use yet, because they don’t have any back cover copy.

Is this enough to get you into print? It is not. That $275 is only the beginning. You’re going to pay your own production costs. Here’s their page where you input your information in order to get a quote on your printing costs: a sure sign of expenditures to come.

You know, there are a bunch of printing companies out there who for years now have made exactly this kind of “get a price quote” page available to the public. Theirs are far more detailed and complete, and there’s no charge for using them. You input your info, you get your quote. Weeks or months after that you may get a follow-up letter from them, asking whether you ever got your book printed, and are you still interested; but that’s all. You can find out more about this and related matters in a piece called “Self-publication without Pretense,” available here, here, and here. It’s a few years old now, but the basic principles haven’t changed. To find out about getting ISBNs, CIP data, and the like, you could start here. Or start somewhere else; a little research will turn up a great deal of information. All you need is the knowledge that it’s something you can do for yourself. The biggest thing TWC has going for it is the pardonable ignorance of newbie authors.

Assimilated all that? Okay, here’s TWC’s page listing their printing charges. Don’t feel bad for not spotting it right away. That page is a bit hard to find. Normally, you wouldn’t see it until you were well along in the process of applying to have them publish you book.

Basically, TWC has a deal going with a printer called Fidlar Doubleday, of Kalamazoo, MI. I very much doubt that they’re connected with Doubleday Books. Give the page a good long look. Note all those minimum print runs and setup charges and other sobering requirements.

There are a couple of gotchas you may not fully appreciate, so I’ll point them out to you:
Prepress Charges

If Fidlar Doubleday services are required to help format, create, or make changes to the files over and above the time allotted by the Writers’ Collective package, the charge will be $80 per hour. Yet another reason to double and triple check your files before submission.

Never think they don’t mean it. Surcharges for tardiness, carelessness, poor organization, and (in some cases) naivete about the exact services for which one is being invoiced, are a major profit center for the printing industry. Don’t assume they bill by the fraction of an hour. One finds oneself wishing they’d specified how much time is allotted per TWC title.
Proof Samples: $ 0.05/page, $15/cover
Grit your teeth and pay it. If there are more than a few small corrections, grit your teeth again and pay for a second pass.
Changes To Text After Proof Approval: $9.50 per page
Woof! That provision’s a bitch. In my experience, corrections made at that stage are normally priced at a buck or two per line. Fidlar Doubleday’s being merciless. At $9.50 a page, you had better have your text proofread to within an inch of its life before you send it in, or you’re going to learn a salutary lesson about ground-level capitalism.

While you’re at it, remember not to make any late alterations that change the overall length of the page being corrected, because that will add words to or subtract words from the next page, incurring another $9.50 charge; and if that alteration keeps propagating forward, possibly all the way to the next chapter break, things could get very expensive indeed.

To put that $9.50/page charge for corrections into perspective, the last time I priced typesetting, we were paying an initial rate of maybe eight bucks a page.

(Obviously, even if you’re charging by the line, late alterations can run up the price pretty fast. I once got one of my typesetting sales reps tipsy over lunch, and he told me his next appointment that afternoon was with a client that published large complex guidebooks. “I’m giving them a beautiful rate on the first pass,” he said. “Doesn’t matter. I could give them the first pass for free, and I’d still be making a profit.”

My eyebrows went up. “They’re making that many corrections?”

He beamed. “They’re rewriting those things in fourth pass.”

I made an instant and horrified calculation, and blurted out, “With clients like that, why do you even bother typesetting our books?” And it’s true, we can’t have been paying a fraction of what that other house was cumulatively paying per page. But he soothingly explained that we were a bread-and-butter account, steady business in large volume, and thus dear to their hearts.)

Maybe Fidlar Doubleday’s offering writers a good deal. Maybe they aren’t. Personally, I’d want to check out the prices at a few other printing companies, just to see. Or, if you’ve written a decent book, you can take it to Booklocker. It still won’t be free, but their prices were quite reasonable last time I looked, and they’re straight shooters.

My overall take on TWC is that they’re a prime example of rent-seeking behavior. They’re not proposing to edit your book, or sell it, or publicize it, or design its cover and write the copy for it, or do any of that other hard work. They’re not even going to read it. They’re just going to provide you with a few semi-automated services, and broker you a few more services (some of them of a highly dubious nature), and sit back to collect an annual fee on the arrangement.

Should I be gentler in my judgements of TWC? Mightn’t they be well-intentioned but gormless newbies? They might; but alas, I have my doubts. For starters, there are too many places where they address difficult questions with a flurry of hand-waving, tapdancing, and fast talk, then move on without answering the question. To see some examples of this, look at their FAQ entries on “If writers have to pay dues to join TWC, isn’t this just another scam to part eager writers from their money?” (here), and on “But what if I don’t like having my Great American Novel sitting on the same Internet shelf as some lousy hackwork?” (here).

Sometimes they’re more obviously misleading. For instance:
Until now, writers who wanted to self-publish had to pay a minimum of $250 for ISBN numbers. About $200 for an LOC number. Another $200 in printer set-up fees. At least $300 for a decent cover. And the only other company on the net converting title info into XML (about to be made mandatory by major wholesalers) charges $150 per title. Per year. Well over $1000 before you’ve paid for a single book. The cost to join The Writers’ Collective and get everything listed above while retaining 100% of the sales price? Just $275. That’s it. No hidden charges. No catches. Your work. Your book. Your profit.
When they say “$250 for ISBN numbers”, they refer to the minimum purchase of a block of ISBNs from Bowker, which is 10 ISBNs for $225 (plus the $75 application fee). However, there are a number of outfits that will provide you with an ISBN for considerably less than that. And by the way, TWC bought theirs in a block of 100, which means they paid $8.00 apiece for them. The other figures TWC quotes there are likewise questionable. And for a newbie, those last fifteen words—“Just $275. That’s it. No hidden charges. No catches. Your work. Your book. Your profit.”—are going to suggest something which I can tell they don’t mean, but the newbie can’t. Next, check out this passage from their FAQ:
True, there’s no advance, but if your book is really good and you promote it well, you’ll make more money than with a small advance going to pay for a PR person, which new writers are expected to provide these days.
To put it bluntly: No, they aren’t. That is an untruth. I’ve never heard of a legit publishing house requiring a new author to hire their own PR person. Publishers may or may not pay for PR, but they don’t require authors to pay for it. Some writers do hire additional PR help, but by far the commonest arrangement is for the author to do their own adjunct PR work.

(By the way: one of the lines you’ll hear from scammers is that you might as well go with a vanity publisher, and take on the huge task of publicizing and selling your own book, because unless you’re a big-name bestselling author, conventional publishers aren’t going to promote your book anyway. Since you’re going to wind up doing all the work yourself, they say, why not keep all the profits while you’re doing it?

The answer is that of course publishers sell and promote their books, but most of that happens where the general public doesn’t casually see it. You don’t make most of your bookbuying decisions based on print ads, right? Well, neither does anyone else. What an expensive ad for a bestselling author is usually saying is, “You know that book you already know you want to buy when it comes out? It’s out.” Nevertheless, aspiring authors have this unfounded but persistent belief that selling a book consists of putting out a new press release every week and buying ad space in the New York Times. When they don’t see smaller books getting that treatment, they mistakenly assume there’s no selling going on at all. Scammers, evil bastards that they are, play on that perception, because despair drives aspiring writers into their arms.)

Here’s one more quote from TWC’s FAQ. This one’s not merely untrue, but has disturbing implications:
Any book not professionally edited has a fool for an author. We have several great editors whom we’ve personally vetted, and who give generous discounts to members. Use them, or use someone else who makes you happy. Use none — and you’re not going to sell many books.
As I mentioned briefly in The getting of agents, “professional editor” has become a warning sign. (As a professional editor, I resent this.) When you’re trying to size up an unfamiliar agent, catching them making the assertion that “no publisher will look at a manuscript unless it’s been professionally edited” practically constitutes prima facie evidence that they’re scammers. The legit industry has no such requirement. All that matters is the quality of the manuscript itself.

The reason scam agents do the “you have to be professionally edited” song and dance is that they’re in cahoots with dishonest book doctors. Baby authors who know they’re not supposed to be paying their agent will fail to realize that the very expensive (and not very good) editor to whom they’ve been referred is paying the agent a substantial kickback. These price for these “edits” can run into thousands of dollars. For some scam agents, it’s the most profitable part of their operation.

Maybe that’s not what’s going on at TWC. Maybe this time, “let me refer you to one of the excellent professional editors we work with” is nothing more than a helpful offer to put you in contact with an experienced freelancer. I have to believe in that possibility. Of course, it’s also possible that various mid-size mammals will sprout wings and fly. Wouldn’t it be cool if that happened? We can but hope.


When I finished posting my comment, I found Jim Macdonald had already responded to Charles Boyle’s question. Jim had cut right to the chase:
James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: May 31, 2004, 03:13 PM:

“A group called The Writers’ Collective seems to be different.”

The only way it seems different from your standard PoD vanity press is that they’ve added a dollop of the Professional Editor scheme.
Bill Blum also turned up, and mentioned that he knew a writer who’d gone with TWC. When I asked him to go on, he said:
The party still involved with TWC? The last time I checked, she was still working overtime to try and come up with more money for fees.

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