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Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

'Read This' and help someone

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2010 at 10:15 am

The New York Times today has a good read about one of the major drawbacks of ebooks — how “it is not always possible to see what others are reading or to project your own literary tastes.”

The story points out that if you’re reading on an IPhone, Kindle, Sony Reader… whatever… no one’s going to know what you’re reading… there won’t be a book jacket to notice, a title that might catch your eyes… And while it’s not likely bookstores are about to completely disappear — there are problems out there and not having a store to walk and browse could lead to more stores closing.

But today is not the day to dwell on the bookstore browsing experience.

I would like to use this opportunity to talk about another problem with ebooks — you need a device to read one and many schools around the country are unable to afford books let alone devices on which they can be read. Just look at the recent stories about “Race to the Top” grants and the disappointment some states felt because they couldn’t get more money for schools.

For a slightly more informed perspective, I’d like to turn this over for a moment to Biz Mitchell, a great reporter whose 2000 W: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty probably should have been read by many, many more people and whose Three Strides Before the Wire is just absolutely fabulous, moving, well-written (insert your own words of praise and you won’t be far off).

“Books are the greatest gift you can give a student,” she wrote me the other day. “A student might have a bad teacher or a good teacher, but if he or she can select a book to read, that student is going  to have access to the wider world, to history, to human struggles and delights.

In November 2008, Biz and some friends started a group called ReadThis (here they are on Facebook). I’ll let her tell the story.

“Back in November 2008, post-Obama election, some writer friends and I who had volunteered at the grassroots for that campaign got sick of hearing about the death of books. I saw an article in the Times about a middle/high school out in deep Brooklyn where the librarian had to space the books out on the shelves to make it look like they had more to choose from. We held a book drive for them and were able to deliver a couple thousand books to that school.

“We also put up an online wishlist. The circulation rate went up from something like 23 books taken out in the September before we helped, to 219 or something in the September after we helped. When I later went to the school to pick up “extras” that the library didn’t need, I decided instead that people had donated the books with that school in mind. I offered the books to a senior English class coming in for a session.

“The students yelped with delight, jumped up and down, hugged me, and carted away 19 boxes of great literature and nonfiction. The librarian said, “Can you believe this?”

What makes it even more astonishing is that when Biz went to a member of the Board of Education to try and get some funding — any funding — she was blown off with “Forget it. Kids don’t read.”

Since then, Biz and the others have stepped up their efforts.

“Another high school school in the Bronx had no library and now through ReadThis does. At an elementary school in the Bronx, where we delivered thousands of books (with the help of one of our 12-year-old members who held a bar mitzvah drive and collected about 2500 books), the principal teared up and put everyone who delivered them on their Wall of Heroes.”

According to the Daily News, as of a couple of years ago, 17,000 kids in the Bronx have no school libraries and Biz thinks the number is now substantially higher.

To help further the fight to get books in the hands of kids, Biz and company — along with the Center for Fiction — are turning Saturday April 10 into Books for NYC Schools Day, a full day of events with readings by Jamaica Kincaid, Sam Lipsyte, Rick Moody, Elizabeth Gilbert and others.

The price of admission is two books. And, if you’re like me — thousands of miles away and unable to attend — you can go here and make a donation online.

Clearly there are many great things about IPads, Kindles and the like…. there are also many great things about old fashioned printed books and until we can find a way to get a device to anyone who wants one, let’s remember the joy of discovering books the old fashioned way.

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Is Pricing the Point?

In Entertainment, Technology on March 28, 2010 at 10:53 pm
SAN FRANCISCO - JANUARY 27:  Apple Inc. CEO St...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

So, here we are less than a week away from the arrival of the IPad and more details are beginning to come out, including details about what Apple’s bookstore will be charging.

When the IPad was introduced, Apple boss Steve Jobs seemed to tell Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal that when it came to pricing ebooks, his company would take advantage of publishers’ anger at Amazon, which was trying to drive prices down.

“Publishers are actually withholding their books from Amazon, because they’re not happy with them,” Jobs said.

Apple reached agreements with Hachette, HarperCollins, MacmIllan, Penguin and Simon and Schuster — five of the six largest publishers in the country; the company is still talking with Random House —  allowing the publishers to set the prices (believed to be from $12.99 to $14.00) with Apple taking a 30 percent commission.

Amazon, meanwhile, has clearly been taking the Apple threat seriously. Two weeks ago, The New York Times reported that Amazon “has threatened to stop directly selling the books of some publishers online unless they agree to a detailed list of concessions regarding the sale of electronic books.”

Well, it turns out that Amazon may have even more reason to worry.

The tech website Appadvice is reporting that despite all the talk of Apple sharing more, it appears not to be the case.

The site said they had seen a preview of Apple’s ibookstore and of the 32 books featured in The New York Times bestsellers list, 27 of them — including the entire top ten are priced at $9.99, the same as Amazon.

One thing that’s a little weird about appadvice.com’s report is that the screenshot they include lists the numbers 2-6 on the fiction list and numbers 1,11,12 and 15 on the nonfiction list… so something might be a little off.

Maybe part of the agreement with publishers calls for bestsellers being held at a certain price but allowing for more flexibility for backlist and other selections?

Also, pricing only seems to be part of the point as more and more books become available for Apple’s devices.

According to Mobclix, a mobile phone advertising company, books are now the most available items in the ITunes store — there are 27,237 book apps available compared to 25,238 games.

And then there’s what some publishers are doing to enhance what they are selling.

For instance, check out Enhanced Editions and what they are doing for books like Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets by David Simon and Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel.

And then there’s YouYube preview of some of what Penguin has planned.

It’s getting very interesting, very quickly.

As I said, less than a week until IPad.

Old Forms and New Directions

In Uncategorized on March 27, 2010 at 8:44 am
Johannes Gutenberg

Image via Wikipedia

Some 570 years or so after Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type — giving birth to modern printing — people are still buying books.

And while the technology has improved somewhat over the centuries, the basic concept is the same — books are printed (though in numbers that probably would have staggered Gutenberg’s mind) and people buy them.

Numbers released last week by Publisher’s Weekly show this is still the case.

It was the recap of the best sellers of 2009 and it showed that in this age of distraction, with movies, television, video games and life moving at a seemingly ever-increasing rate, people are still going to the store (or their computer) and ordering books.

Presumably, some of the books are also actually read.

Dan Brown followed up the monumental success of The Da Vinci Code with the monumental success of The Lost Symbol, selling more than 5.5 million copies in hardcover to make it the best selling novel of 2009. While there aren’t exact numbers around, it does appear that he sold more copies than the next few books on the list combined.

As expected, the list is filled with the familiar named authors of blockbusters (John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Stephen King), and the usual group of literary best-sellers such as Barbara Kingsolver, Philippa Gregory, EL Doctorow and John Irving.

What’s really interesting about the list — as the LA Times pointed out — is that this is the last year it won’t include ebooks, which raises the possibility that next year a classic like Alice in Wonderland could make an appearance.

Which sort of leads to the purpose of this blog’s new direction — to look at the business and culture of print from the “death” of newspapers to the future of books. It will mix news of how and what we read with occasional reviews and stories about interesting new projects and people moving in new directions.

There’s been a lot of talk about how ebooks will change the way we read and write and while things like the Kindle and IPad will make a difference — it remains to be seen how big and how soon.

It does seem, however, that while ebooks have actually been around for almost 40 years, that we are appoaching a tipping point of sorts.

The Guardian pointed out that last year was the first time that Amazon sold more ebooks than printed books.

What changes are coming up? How will we be reading? Who will be writing? Stay tuned.

TSA & Company Explain That Queasy Feeling

In Crime, Politics, World on March 24, 2010 at 3:24 pm

The occasion was yet another Congressional hearing on the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner — the House Judiciary Committee meeting on the topic of “Sharing and Analyzing Information to Prevent Terrorism.”

Testifying were:

Timothy Healy, the director of the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center;

Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary for Management at the State Department;

Patricia Cogswell, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary (kind of sounds like the title they give someone from the temp agency) in the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Policy;

And, the person with one of my favorite titles — Russell Travers, the Deputy Director for Information Sharing and Knowledge Development at the National Counterterrorism Center.

Why do I like his title? Because it implies there is actually someone in charge of learning (knowledge development, no?) and sharing that information when clearly, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

In the case of each person’s testimony they basically thank the committee for “inviting” them, describe all the great security measures that have been put in place since 9/11, tell the committee why nothing really worked — to some degree why it wasn’t their fault — and then tell the committee how committed their agency/department is to keeping America safe.

For instance, Travers told the committee that “the incident does not raise major information sharing issues” but the government “needs to look at overall standards — those required to get on watchlists in general, and the No Fly and Selectee List in particular” and “The US Government needs to prove its overall ability to piece together partial, fragmentary information from multiple collectors.”

He finished by saying:

“The men and women of the National Counterterrorism Center and the Intelligence Community are committed to fighting terrorism at home and abroad, and will seek every opportunity to better our analytical tradecraft, more aggressively pursue those that plan and perpetrate acts of terrorism, and effectively enhance the criteria used to keep known or suspected terrorists out of the United States.”

Of course.

Healy, of the FBI, told the committee that the people who work at Terrorist Screening Center are “committed to protecting the American public from terrorist threats while simultaneously protecting privacy and safeguarding civil liberties” as they manage the terrorist watch list but that they rely on their partners in law enforcement and intelligence to nominate people for the lists.

He finished by repeating what was his real theme:

“We have a standing commitment to improve our operational processes, to enhance our human capital and technological capabilities, and to continue to protect Americans from terrorist threats while protecting privacy and safeguarding their civil liberties.”

Then there’s the testimony of Cogswell who, as expected, begins by talking about how her Department and its partners are: determined to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat terrorist networks by employing multiple layers of defense that work in concert with one another to secure our country.”

She then lays out all the security measures put in place since September 11 — none of which really made a difference on Christmas — and then claimed how on Christmas “the attack on board the flight failed in no small part due to the brave actions of the crew and passengers aboard the plane.”

Actually, it was ENTIRELY because of the passengers and crew.

Anyway, I’m flying tomorrow and again on Tuesday and would feel a lot better about the whole thing if these guys could actually appear before Congress and say something positive that doesn’t stink of spin.

Gitmo Detainee Ordered Released

In Uncategorized on March 23, 2010 at 9:51 am

Mohamedou Slahi, a Mauritanian national who has been held at at Guantanamo for more than seven years, has been ordered released by a federal judge.

The order, by Federal Judge James Robertson, makes Slahi the 34th detainee to be ordered released since the Supreme Court decided prisoners at Guantanamo could challenge their detention. Robertson’s order is still classified though he indicated a version would eventually be released.

Slahi, though, is not a typical detainee.

Captured in November 2001, he was actually familiar to law enforcement in the United States for at least two years before that, even being suspected of involvement in the failed Millennium Bombing plot in Los Angeles.

And the 9/11 Commission Report described him as having helped recruit the 9/11 hijackers in Germany.

According to a report by the FBI’s Inspector General,  Slahi’s time at Gitmo was “another example in which FBI agents raised concerns through their chain of command about rumors of detainee mistreatment.”

The report found that the military had criticized the FBI’s handling of Slahi and sought permission to have him designated “special projects status” — allowing for enhanced interrogation techniques, a request that was granted in July 2003.

The plan included having him “hooded and flown around Guantanamo Bay for one or two hours in a helicopter to persuade him that he had been moved out of GITMO to a location where ‘the rules have changed.'”

The plan also called for “isolation, interrogations for up to 20 hours, sensort deprivation and sleep adjustment.”

On August 3 of that year, “military interrogators told Slahi to ‘use his imagination to think up the worst possible scenario he could end up in’ and that ‘beatings and phyical pain are not the worst thing in the world’ and that unless he began to cooperate,  he would ‘disappear down a dark hole.'”

At least, I guess, he wasn’t killed.

I’m not defending anything Slahi did but it is yet another example of what happens when the rule of law is abandoned. There are consequences.

Bank Robberies Still Big Business

In Crime on March 22, 2010 at 1:05 pm
Mug shot of John Dillinger

Image via Wikipedia

Last year’s release of Public Enemies, which told the story of John Dillinger, showed that the people still have a thing for bank robbers.

Early Monday, the FBI released further evidence of that.

While their annual report on bank crime showed that bank thefts were down about ten percent from 2008 to 009, it also shows that there were 6,065 bank violations (robberies, burglaries, larcenies, etc) in which $45.9 million was stolen.

Of that, less than $8 million was recovered.

The report says most incidents occurred on Friday, followed by Monday, Tyesday, Wednesday and then Friday. I guess people were usually looking for some extra cash for the weekend.

Most of the incidents occurred between 9AM and 11AM, followed very closely by 11AM and 1PM and 3 PM to 6PM.

Violence rarely occurred during incidents (only 4 percent of the time) though there were 21 deaths during incidents — each victim being a perpetrator. Most of the time, the robber made an oral demand for money (3,368 times) and roughly the same amount of times (3,269 times) a note was passed.

A firearm was used 1,619 times though about half as many times (2,553 times) use of a weapon was threatened.

More bank robberies occurred in Texas — 484 — than in all of the New England states (309) combined.

Most perpetrators were black males (3,147) followed by white males (2,796); Only 44 were female hispanics.

Judge Throws Out 9/11 Settlement

In Crime, Politics on March 20, 2010 at 10:58 am

Eight days after a tentative deal was reached to create a $657.5 million settlement fund to compensate thousands of rescue and cleanup workers who toiled at Ground Zero, the judge overseeing the case has ordered the parties back to the bargaining table.

“In my judgement, this settlement is not enough,” Judge Alvin Hellerstein told lawyers Friday afternoon. “I will not preside over a settlement based on fear or ignorance.”

Hellerstein also criticized the part of the settlement that would give lawyers a third, saying it should be less and it should come not from the settlement but from the WTC Captive Insurance Fund, which was set up with a $1 billion grant from the federal government.

“I will fix the reasonableness of the fee and the fee will be payable by the captive insurance fund,” he said.

The head of the fund, Christine LaSala, reacted to the judge’s order by seeming to demonize it and play upon the fear of the families, which was exactly what Hellerstein had warned against.

“I am very disappointed that the judge has now made it very difficult, if not impossible, for the people bringing these claims to obtain fair, timely and just compensation, a settlement that they have long waited for.”

Hellerstein’s decision was also a blow to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg who had praised the settlement, saying:

“This settlement is a fair and reasonable resolution to a complex set of circumstances.”

Maybe not.

Several workers praised Hellerstein’s decision.

“I was real proud of the judge, former cop Richard Vole told The New York Post. “I think he showed a lot of compassion and I think he showed a lot of bravery.”

Indeed.

Deal Close on Closing Gitmo

In Crime, Politics on March 19, 2010 at 3:14 pm

That’s according to the Wall Street Journal, which is reporting that Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham has been working with Democrats Carl Levin, Ben Cardin and Dick Durbin. The paper also reports that two unnamed Republicans are prepared to go along with the deal.

The Journal says that as part of the deal more detainees — including 9/11 Mastermind Khallid Shaikh Mohammed — will be tried before military commissions.

Curiously, ten days ago, The New York Times reported a similar deal was in the works but that Graham was without support from Republican colleagues, leading the ACLU to throw an ocean-full of cold water on the idea.

So, what’s changed? Not really clear.

My only hope — and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — is that before they close Guantanamo, they figure out why four people died there — were they murdered?

American Terror Suspect Pleads Guilty

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2010 at 3:36 pm

David Coleman Headley, one of two Americans arrested in connection with the 2008 terror attacks in India, has pleaded guilty.

Headley, who was indicted last year, admitted to scouting targets and has agreed to testify against his former co-defendants, including several Pakistani nationals and another man from Chicago.

“That’s right, your honor,” Headley told the Judge this afternoon.

Headley had faced the death penalty if convicted.

Al Qaeda Crippled? Not So Fast

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2010 at 4:20 pm

So, CIA Director Leon Panetta has told The Washington Post that Al Qaeda is crippled.

“Relentless attacks against al-Qaeda in the Pakistan tribal region appear to have driven Osama bin Laden and other top leaders deeper into hiding, leaving the organization rudderless and incapable of planning sophisticated operations,” the paper reports Panetta told them.

Panetta added that they recently intercepted a message from an Al Qaeda lieutenant to leader Osama bin Laden pleading with him to come out of hiding and provide some leadership.

Of course, it is worth remembering that it was just over two months ago, a Jordanian pretending to work with the CIA while really an Al Qaeda operative managed to get into a CIA base in Afghanistan and kill seven officers.

And around the same time that Panetta was talking with the Post, Clark Kent Ervin, who was the first inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, was up on Capitol Hill testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment.

He said:

“The recent spate of aborted terror plots, especially the Christmas Day bombing attempt, all serve to underscore the fact that terrorists remain determined to strike the homeland again, and the odds of preventing them from ever succeeding are low.”

So, maybe Panetta’s right. Maybe I’m just going to take it with a grain of salt.