May 14th, 2015
May 5th, 2015
Excited to note publication for all my readers here of a new nonfiction book I edited in manuscript, SMARTS: The Boundary-busting Story of Intelligence. It’s by the award-winning science writer and talented narrative journalist Elaine Dewar. A more expansive subtitle appears on the half-title page in the printed book the author just sent me:
Computing slime moulds, political primates, masterful plants, altruistic robots, amoeba machines, high IQ chips, philosophers of mind using screwdrivers,
signals, spies, the brilliant life and mysterious death of Alan Turing, and the boundary-busting story of intelligence.
An intellectually stimulating aspect of this edit was discovering that, in astonishing variety of ways, as Dewar writes, “the process of natural selection can lead to the evolution of adaptive behaviors.” I learned that these creative adaptations occur in even the most primitive life forms, such as the slime moulds referred to above. Even more startling are neural networks, a product of artificial intelligence, whose development Dewar chronicles.
“A neural network is a radically simplified computer version of the real thing. Real neurons build physical connections to neighbor neurons which link together in a network as they receive and send electrochemical signals back and forth. The more neuronal connections, and the greater the intensity of these interactions between neighbors, the stronger the information bond between them: thus, we learn. Neural network-style computation enables modern computers to learn by changing or weighting the frequency of interactions between one part of a network and another.”
Dewar earlier wrote BONES: Discovering the First Americans, on the ancient peopling of the Americas, and THE SECOND TREE: Clones, Chimeras and Quests for Immortality, a kind of nonfiction version of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel ORYX AND CRAKE. I published both those nonfiction books when I was with Carroll & Graf last decade, after they had been edited and published in Canada, where Dewar lives. Suffice to say, I relished the chance to finally edit one of her manuscripts!
While each of the earlier books dealt to a large extent with the human past, here Dewar—who in the course of writing SMARTS visited with and interviewed a dozen or more top thinkers, inventors, and scientists working in the Smart realm—synthesizes their work, boldly imagining where research and emerging technology may take intelligence in the years and decades to come.
SMARTS is published by a new company called Debonaire Books, and is available via this link in a quality paperback edition and as an ebook. I’m tickled to have a copy of the quality paperback, shown below, and especially excited that during a visit to Toronto later this month I’ll be attending a party to launch the book. Here’s what it looks like:
July 29th, 2014
A day after Amazon released its anonymous statement below, helpful analyses of it are appearing, including this one on PublishersMarketplace.com (subscription req.) and these annotations by Mike Shatzkin.
A new gambit from Amazon announced on their Kindle forum at about 1:30 PM (PDT) today strikes at the weakest part of the Big 5’s stance, with those companies still stuck on their overly parsimonious 25% royalty on ebooks, five + years into the digital transition. It’s a longtime bone of contention with authors and agents, and organizations like the Authors Guild, a position with which I agree. In their post Amazon says what they think the digital ecosystem ought to look like, and what most ebooks ought to cost: They say divide digital revenue 35% authors/35% Hachette/30% Amazon; and price most ebooks at $9.95. Gotta figure out now how that compares with the status quo. I’m sure it’s safe to assume that Amazon—though it wants to sound like it cares most about authors—wouldn’t propose anything that doesn’t give them much more than what they get currently. You may read it all at their link, or click on the full screenshot below.
October 5th, 2013
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) September 28, 2013
I began reading Katie Hafner’s journalism in the NY Times in the ’90s in what was known as “Circuits,” a section of the Thursday newspaper that covered the era of Web 1.0. Everything about tech was new, to me at least. Katie, and “Circuits,” helped make obscure things clear to me, then a not very tech-oriented book editor. Around 1999 I read a cover story Katie had written for Wired magazine and now I was really smitten by her work. Her story was a long one by magazine standards, about 40,000 words, on The Well, an early online community that emerged in the Bay Area starting around 1984. I was amazed–members of The Well had used a kind of proto-listserv and chat system that allowed them to share cyberspace together in a way no one had done before. But that historical first-ness wasn’t the only reason I wanted to make Katie’s article in to a book if I could. It was because of the extraordinary insight in to people that accompanied her reporting. In its early days, The Well had been a tight world where members supported each other like neighbors in a small town. They abided by founder Stewart Brand’s credo, “You own your own words.” Katie’s narrative, with used long threads of online conversations including multiple characters that the reader came to know and care about, was riveting.
In 2000–after a three-year stint for Random House, where the bulk of the time I worked at Times Books, with a big part of my job liasing with editors at the Times to make books with content from such departments as the Book Review, Real Estate, City, and Dining–I joined Carroll & Graf Publishers and contacted Katie with one of my first new book acquisition ideas. I asked if she’d be interested in turning the Wired article in to a book. I remember one day when she was in NYC from the Bay Area we met for coffee near Times Square. She was petite and had a great smile; I found her immediately likable. She talked like the voice of her journalism: a bit funny, and economical with her words that every so often sported a memorable phrase. Though she had not been trying to turn the Wired reporting in to a book, she was intrigued with my idea, and we made a deal to go ahead with it. I edited it with her revising and expanding the manuscript a bit and in 2001 we brought out The Well: A Story of Love, Death & Real Life in The Seminal Online Community. Among the many superb endorsements we printed on the back cover was this one from the proponent of communitarian philosophy Amitai Etzioni: “The best book ever written about communities and the Internet.” The book didn’t set any records, but it did well enough to justify C&G’s investment in it, and I was quite proud of it, as I believe Katie was, especially once the World Wide Web became such a big part of modern life that it was hard to remember a time before it existed. For anyone who wanted to know the prehistory of online interaction, it was right there in The Well.
After the book had run its course, Katie and I stayed in touch, but only occasionally. In 2002 I was startled and saddened when I read that her husband Matthew Lyon had died suddenly while on a visit to Seattle for his job with the University of California. He was 45. Katie and their young daughter survived him. I found something to say and wrote her a card with my condolences, grieving with her from a distance.
Last year, I read that Katie would be publishing a memoir with Random House. I was excited because I had never read anything by Katie about her own world. Mother Daughter Me came out in July and I was thrilled when I got a copy two weeks ago. After making it my #FridayReads last week, when I was only a little ways in to it, I now can say that it is gripping throughout, and likable, like Katie, even while it chronicles some pretty difficult and sad but ultimately transcendent Hafner family business. It begins with her mother’s move from San Diego to be with Katie and her now-teenaged daughter in San Francisco. I finished it the other day during a break while on a bike ride, and scrawled these words on a piece of scrap paper, anticipating I would use my first impressions in this #FridayReads essay:
“Exquisite, in many senses. Exquisitely painful, as it recounts the failures of her drink-addled mother to provide parental stability for Katie and her older sister when they were young. Exquisitely produced and edited with nary a typo or broken letter in the volume. Exquisitely truthful and unflinching in the way Katie examines her own behavior, no less than that of her mother and her daughter. As good a reporter as Katie is when writing about other people, she is somehow even more insightful and penetrating when the subject is herself, her widowhood, and her own family. I walked with her every step of the way on the difficult journey that she takes with her mother and daughter and am very glad I did. An amazingly honest book.”
I recommend Mother Daughter Me to anyone who’s still trying to riddle out truths about their family; to anyone who’s ever argued with a sibling, child or parent; to anyone with an aging parent who ponders future options for them, from living with you to “aging in place,” a term you will encounter here. I will add that like a particular Vaughan Williams symphony that I love–I believe it’s his 6th–this book winds up with a beautifully orchestrated cascade of multiple endings that transit from tragic to reconciled to fulfilled. If you’re like me, your eyes will be very moist as you finish reading Mother Daughter Me. This is a great book.
March 29th, 2013
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) March 30, 2013
#FridayReads, March 29—The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by British journalist Will Storr. I posted this book as a #FridayReads March 8, so it should be clear it is not a quick read. However, it should also be clear that I’ve stayed with it because reading it is a very rewarding experience. Storr’s investigation blends spot reporting from such locales as a revival meeting in Australia led by a creationist preacher with consideration of the placebo theory and homeopathy and its detractors. Like Jon Ronson, another British author with whom I’ve compared Storr, the author of this book is an affable guide who successfully inveigles his way on to a tour bus of Holocaust deniers led by disgraced former historian David Irving and in to a conversation with the churlish defender of Hitler. I’m reading the last 40 pages now where Storr probes the question of whether James Randi deserves the status he’s widely accorded as the ‘world’s most noble skeptic.’ Storr, shall we say, has some doubts. I recommend this thoughtful and nuanced book most highly. I first read about this book in the Guardian last January and I’m glad I was able to get a copy from Picador, Storr’s obliging UK publisher.
Please note: you may visit a ‘buy page’ for this book at the website of Powell’s Books–the affiliate bookseller for The Great Gray Bridge–by clicking on this book link: The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science.
February 11th, 2013
Before you rush to answer “no” to the first question, consider that Amazon.com recently applied for a patent in this corner of the emerging digital marketplace. That development was covered by the publication Motherboard, in a piece headlined, “Used Ebooks, the Ridiculous Idea that Could Also Destroy the Publishing Industry,” and in a sign this may have the potential to catch the reading public’s eye, that story was quickly linked to by the Huffington Post Books section. There are many people in book publishing who believe that if a resale market for ebooks is established it will unavoidably engender a race to the bottom in ebook pricing, causing not just disruption but real damage in the entire book world, digital and print. And, yet, notwithstanding the impulse to make wry jokes about somehow shopworn ebooks with torn covers, or the resale condition of dog-eared ebooks, a company exists called ReDigi that is trying to create what it calls “the world’s first pre-owned digital marketplace.” They say they are working to enable readers of ebooks and consumers of digital music to resell books and music they choose to no longer own.
Today, Publishers Weekly, in one of the Executive Roundtable forums they hold every few months, provided their podium to John Ossenmacher, CEO of ReDigi. We were told early on by moderator Joe Wikert that several journalists were in the room, and that the day’s conversation would be on the record. I was glad about this since I’m a blogger and I report on these issues too. Thing is, I would hardly have been willing to consider it off the record had Ossenmacher insisted on that. Though he came equipped with a deck filled with many slides, his presentation quickly turned away from the screen at the front of the room toward the audience in front of him. The result was a spirited Q&A between Ossenmacher, a self-described “engineer who likes to get his hands dirty,” with a rather skeptical book business and media-centric audience.
Ossenmacher said they began engineering the software for their platform in 2008, and went live to users and consumers in October 2011. He added that shortly after that Capitol Records filed suit against ReDigi, on the assumption they were an illegal file-sharing site. Capitol claimed infringement of copyright on their intellectual property was being committed by ReDigi. The court didn’t see it that way, and Capitol’s plea for an injunction against ReDigi has so far been unavailing. Ostensibly because of the litigation history, Ossenmacher was guarded in his statements, though I thought he could have been more open in answering how many people they already have on the platform. Still, he was not so careful that I couldn’t follow what they’re trying to do. Among the intriguing things he said was that ReDigi is striving to lend some element of “physicality to a digital entity.” Counter-intuitive though this may seem, it is also an issue publishers are facing in a related context, where they’re challenged to create an analog to the experience of print book buyers, who meet an author and eagerly purchase an autographed and inscribed copy of a book.* He claimed that rather than enabling theft of IP, ReDigi within its domain monitors resellers’/relicensors’ accounts and requests that they delete an efile of a book that’s been sold on to a new user, thus he said, preventing multiple copies from being owned improperly. He added they will terminate the accounts of users who don’t comply. Ossenmacher claimed their business practice will actually serve to reduce piracy, not enable it. One neat piece of tech he mentioned is what he called “digital sonar,” which allows them potentially to locate and find a digital file that has somehow gone missing in the vast digital ecosystem–it emits a kind of “ping” that allows a stray file to be recovered and reassigned to whoever is its rightful owner.
Ossenmacher repeatedly asserted that “publishers are currently leaving digital dollars on the table,” by not accommodating readers and customers who enjoy the ebooks they buy, but then don’t want to retain them for perpetuity. He claimed that by design ReDigi is sharing revenue with publishers, who he added, can in turn, share that revenue with authors. I tweeted my concern though that many corporate and some indie publishers are still offering the frequently contested royalty of 25% of net for ebooks, half of what many authors and agents claim would be equitable. It must be pointed out that publishers and authors currently enjoy no monetary benefit from the market for used print books. Somewhat relatedly, with my publishing friend David Wilk, I am an advocate for what in the UK and Canada is called a “public lending right.” The term is a bit arcane, and it’s meaning isn’t obvious here in the U.S. In those countries, each time a book is checked out from a public library, the author receives a small royalty. You might see this as the first micro-payment. During the Q&A I asked if there might be something like a “digital lending right,” that could follow a book down the resale or re-licensing trail, benefiting creators beyond the first sale. Ossenmacher answered favorably, but of course he wouldn’t be the party directly funding that.
After the program ended, I went to the podium to thank the speaker, and found him in conversation with Bill Rosenblatt, of Giant Steps Media Technology Strategies. Rosenblatt was saying to Ossenmacher that as far as he could ascertain, ReDigi must be creating a copy of efiles they receive from resellers, which if so, would suggest one kind of legal status for them vis-a-vis the IP they’re handling. For his part, Ossenmacher insisted, “No, we’re not creating a copy.” Standing there, I pitched in an observation, that in ReDigi’s parlance, they’re “passing on a baton,” as in a relay race, not making a new baton. I wasn’t trying to carry water for ReDigi, but that was his point. Rosenblatt appeared unconvinced, though he declined to argue the point further. Ossenmacher thought the baton image aptly fits what they’re trying to do and I later tweeted about our 3-way exchange.
I’m glad at least that ReDigi, in trying to create a secondary market for ebooks and music, is sharing revenue with publishers and record labels. If that part of it works, it could become a good thing for creators and content companies. And yet, I worry about the far greater possibility that a market for re-licensed digital files will only degrade the value, and the price, of initial sales that publishers make. I wonder if ReDigi’s willingness to share revenue is in part conditioned by their certainty that publishers’ reluctance to do business with them would never be overcome without this provision.
In the picture at the right, Ossenmacher is standing in front of the slide that charts the money he believes publishers are leaving on the table by not pursuing a second-hand market for digital goods.
*Autography is one company working to create personalization in ebooks, with digital autographs, inscriptions, etc.
January 19th, 2013
Amid an incredibly busy week–teaching a nonfiction book writing seminar on Tuesday at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and attending Digital Book World (DBW) Wednesday and Thursday, it was fun to still get out and hear some live music, when Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, aka Whitehorse, played at Hill Country, the fun BBQ restaurant and saloon in Manhattan on Thursday night. What made it even better was that I was able to bring some friends from DBW with me. Joining me were Peter Evans, CEO of Speakerfile, the Toronto company that connects conference organizers to author experts that do public speaking, whom I represent to the publishing industry; and Chris Howard and Jason Freeman of Libboo, an exciting new engine for book advocacy and discovery. We enjoyed an amazing dinner first and had a kinetic conversation that encompassed vintage guitars, music performance, emerging technologies, and whether Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) is the best beer to have with smoked wings. Before we knew it, Whitehorse was taking to the stage.
I had heard and met Luke and Melissa last year, so it was great to see them again, and this time turn some friends on to their music. Though they are ‘only’ a duo, they play like twinned one-person bands, supplying percussion, bass, keys, guitars, vocals, and foot-stomping to the sonic mix. Melissa’s voice is a powerful, arcing instrument, and Luke’s guitar work, mostly on a big, white Gretch Falcon, is consistently mind-blowing. Their ensemble work was especially powerful on such songs as “Wisconsin,” “Passenger 24,” “Devil’s Got a Gun,” and “I’m on Fire.”
October 12th, 2012
Via TPM, a really weird photo of what is apparently a very large eyeball that washed up on a beach in Pompano Beach, Florida. So far the lineage of the sea creature that housed this eyeball is unknown. Note that the TPM story sources back to the Facebook page of the Fish & Wildlife Commission (FWC) of the Tequesta, FL lab, which I also show below, in a screenshot. I add this post to one I did in July, also under the rubric of Annals of Urban Wildlife, when I saw a skunk along the Hudson River in Riverside Park this past July