Why books will always trump e-readers

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People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, and not merely an electronic version, are in some sense mystics. We believe that the objects themselves are sacred, not just the stories they tell. We believe that books possess the power to transubstantiate, to turn darkness into light, to make being out of nothingness. We do not want the experience of reading to be stripped of this transcendent component and become rote and mechanical. That would spoil everything.

— Joe Queenan, One for the Books

Posted from WordPress for Android

Art Matters, So It Shouldn’t Be Free

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In a previous life, I worked as a wind energy developer. It meant lots of long trips to exotic places where people are usually not (at least, not in great or even middling abundance): places like Sweetwater, TX; Minot, North Dakota; Ozona, TX; and Santa Rosa, NM. Don’t get me wrong — these are all lovely places with very kind, welcoming communities. But wherever there is plenty of wind to support industry-scale wind projects, there is typically not much in terms of population.

Anyway, I remember vividly one day trip I took to some North Texas county (I can’t remember which one anymore, but it was a very rural, remote area with a lot of trees and, as we soon figured out, not as much wind as we’d hoped) one spring day. The company I worked for had sent over a young intern named Adam from Irish HQ, so as an educational experience and for some company I took him with me.

During the long, two-hour drive to the meeting, we somehow got to chatting about artists (musicians in particular), creativity, and the bubbling tension between the need for these artists to make a living and the demand of their fans for free content. This was a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world, when Pandora was just starting to find its audience and YouTube was exploding with illegal uploads of both official and “unofficial,” fan-made music videos.

Adam believed that artists should make their work freely available on the Internet and suffered not an ounce of guilt from downloading copyrighted content without paying for it. He genuinely believed that because his generation (he was about 19, and this was the mid-2000s) had grown up accustomed to paying little or nothing for music, movies and books because of their wide availability on bootleg sites, they shouldn’t be expected to suddenly pony up for access to them. Sure, he was happy to pay a few hundred dollars for an iPod, but for the music and other content he would actually play on it and without which the iPod would just be an outrageously priced paperweight? Nada. When I asked him how in the world he expected these artists to survive and continue to create without compensation, he said, “They can get a full-time job and create in their spare time.”

Artists have always, always struggled for respect and an adequate income for their work. Distributing content without artist compensation is a longtime tradition — it’s why copyright law was invented in the first place. But with technology making it so incredibly easy to distribute any creative work on a mass, global scale, it’s become even harder for artists to control their work and earn a living wage from it. If even musicians with vast financial resources and the power and influence of corporate money behind them can’t make money solely from their creative output but must hustle to make themselves into a “brand”, is there much hope for the “independent artist” who would rather spend their time and energies actually making art and not shilling t-shirts and plastic wrist bands out of cramped apartments?

I could never convince Adam that artists deserve to be paid every single time their music is downloaded, their film is viewed, and their book is sold. But while the conversation happened nearly a decade ago, it stuck in my head and comes out periodically whenever I read articles like this one, which calls for basically an overhaul of society and more expansive public investment in artists and their art.

Despite what I just wrote above about the importance of compensating artists for their work, I’m of two minds about the idea of devoting public funds to support artists. The Depression-era programs put to work thousands of writers, photographers, filmmakers, and visual artists left an astounding legacy of documents, films, and artwork that serve as a rich repository of content about a particularly critical time in American history.

On the other hand, the content, while voluminous, wasn’t exactly created solely for the sake of art. As this article carefully points out, “Nothing was published that was not first approved by Washington and the entire process required that the author remain anonymous.” Government money is rarely offered without strings, even today, and while I consider myself fairly liberal, I hesitate to endorse any arts program or idea that relies so heavily on government largesse. Socialist art has rarely produced anything of lasting cultural value and more often than not serves as a propaganda tool. The artist should only ever be beholden to their creative impulse, never to an outside agency with its own agenda.

Still, I also don’t think that we can expect the “masses” (who my former political science prof often referred to as “asses”) to suddenly have a change of heart and refuse to download anything without ponying up a royalty to the artist. One program I find appealing is Ireland’s Artists Tax Exemption. Rather than requiring artists to submit exhaustive applications and compete with their peers for a limited amount of earmarked funds — a process ripe with bias and the stifling of free speech and creativity — the program offers a simple blanket benefit to all artists who make money from their work. It’s not a perfect program: the government is still the final arbiter of what it considers “of cultural merit” and thus eligible for tax exemption. But it does strike me as an easier and more liberal means of supporting artists by removing or at least minimizing the burden of supporting oneself through one’s art. Like everyone else in society, the artist must still organize her paperwork and receipts to prepare for filing the appropriate returns, but at least she’s not enduring the soul-sucking business of filling out reams of grant applications, writing one more goddamn essay about why her work should be funded, and gathering reference letters and budget forecasts.

I’ve not spoken to Adam since I left the company in 2006, but I wonder what he thinks now, a decade later and 10 years older, about the state of the music industry. Folks wanting unlimited free music have never had it better — I listen to Spotify all day long and have never paid for it. But as a writer who works hard for every word and every page, I’m terrified of what the future holds for creatives who want and deserve to be paid for doing what they love and doing it well.

The ‘great and cursed work’ that was the Encyclopédie – Ideas – The Boston Globe

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Here’s the great difference between the Encyclopédie and the Internet, between what reading meant then and what it increasingly passes for today. While Diderot encouraged differences of opinion and perspectives among his closest contributors, he knew that all of them — from Voltaire to Rousseau, Baron d’Holbach to the Chevalier de Jaucourt — took the act of writing as seriously as did those who read it. No activity was more noble.

via The ‘great and cursed work’ that was the Encyclopédie – Ideas – The Boston Globe.

Ten Years of Automattic | Matt Mullenweg

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I’ll remember the days before I knew everything.

— The Automattic Creed

via Ten Years of Automattic | Matt Mullenweg.

When I was still running my old business, I always had in my back pocket the idea that if I were to ever close up shop and work for The Man again, there would only be one man I’d want to work for, and that’s Matt Mullenweg. I’ve been a WordPress user and fan for years, but I’ve also been kind of a Matt groupie, ever since I read his “How I work” profile in Inc.

It’s kind of weird now to actually be working for Matt, be on a first-name basis with him, and even get to chat with him now and then. But now that I’ve been here for just over a year and have become a part of the Automattic, I’ve come to realize that the WordPress and open source communities are bigger than any one person. While there’s a part of me that will always be a tiny bit starstruck by Matt, I’m in even greater awe of how much this little software project has grown to power nearly a quarter of the Internet. It lets everyone from giant media organizations like the New York Times and Fortune to mom bloggers with hyperlocal audiences have a global platform from which to share their ideas, their vision, their message with the world. And heck, you can even do it for free.

Remember the days when you needed to get the word out about anything, even if it’s just your neighborhood yard sale? Or when beautiful, innocent animals would perish in local shelters, forgotten because they received so little attention, and municipalities and volunteer groups struggled to get any kind of media attention? Now, if you have a message, you have the means to blast it out to the world, and at no cost to you other than your time. I’m still in shock that this has all come about in such a short period of time, but most of all I’m so incredibly proud to be a part of the company driving this forward and inspiring so much change.

We’re celebrating 10 years of being in the biz this week, and I can’t wait to see what the next 10 will bring.

Amazon to pay Kindle authors only for pages read – Telegraph

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Amazon’s new system will cut the royalties for self-published authors who fail to hold a reader’s attention until the final page

via Amazon to pay Kindle authors only for pages read – Telegraph.

This is horrifying and a terrible precedent. Frankly, I don’t understand the position of author Kerry Wilkinson, who is quoted in the article as asking, “If readers give up on a title after half a dozen pages, why should the writer be paid in full?”

If I go to the emergency room with a heart attack and die on the operating table because the EMTs didn’t get me to the hospital in time, is my family still liable for the bill?

If I buy a dress but then take it altered to my favorite tailor because I think the hem should be 2″ shorter to truly flatter me, should I get a refund from the designer for whatever percentage of the dress I cut off?

If I book a flight to Paris, but then fall in love with someone while on layover in London and decide not to continue my journey, should I demand that the airline reimburse me for the percentage of the flight that I didn’t complete?

And yes, as Peter Maass is quoted as saying in the article: “I’d like the same in restaurants — pay for how much of a burger I eat.” Or a glass of wine I drink. Or if I walk out of a movie halfway through, I only want to pay half the bill. Or better, yet, hell, just give me all my money back.

Yes, it’s true that writers can “opt out” of the Kindle Select program, and frankly, it’s not that great a deal anyway since you’re essentially getting pennies so that someone can read it for free. But it sets a terrifying precedent to a future in which writers are mere commodities in the same way that education has become a commodity, valued only for what it can produce for in a free market.

I used to think that I wanted to live forever, but now I just want to die before it all goes to hell and writers will be mere content producers, not the scribes of an age.

Carolina On My Mind

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"South Carolina State House." Photo by Mikel Manitius. Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/cirXzE.

“South Carolina State House.” Photo by Mikel Manitius. Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/cirXzE.

The shootings in Charleston have been on my mind quite a lot lately, not least because I lived there for several years in the late ’90s, both for graduate school and for a couple of years of work after I finished my studies at the University of South Carolina.

I’ve always thought the genteel, quietly elegant and polite society of South Carolina was far more sophisticated and mature than just about any city I’ve ever visited or lived in here in the United States. Outsiders only see the Confederate flag flying on the state capitol grounds, but while the black heart of racism clearly still beats in this otherwise verdant state, and deep, crippling poverty afflicts a shockingly high percentage of the population, there’s so much more to South Carolina that can’t simply be reduced to what you see in the national headlines.

There is, of course, so much genuine kindness, compassion, and generosity overflowing in every city South Carolina. The outpouring of forgiveness and unfathomable grace that the community of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston extended towards the killer during his appearance before a judge last week is but one example of just how much that city has truly earned its moniker, The Holy City. There is also hate and there is plenty of resentment. There is a deep well of grief and sadness with roots woven tightly into family histories dating back generations. There is ugly racism, social inequality, and the ever present shadow of vicious hate groups devoted to the denigration of other races.

But during my four years in Columbia, where my route to and from school was within the shadow of the Confederate flag when it still flew over the capitol dome, I also met some of the finest, most welcoming people, many of whom later became dear friends. I worked at a private college that was surrounded by a predominantly African-American, poverty-stricken community, and the administration was (and is) active in breaking down the barriers between “town and gown” that often afflict institutions in similar settings. I lived in the same neighborhood myself, and I and a close friend often ran for miles through its maze of dark streets at 5:30 am and never once felt unsafe.

I’m also not white, in case that’s not obvious, and while racial relations in South Carolina was and still is defined largely along black/white lines, I was welcome to attend and participate in panels and workshops that addressed the ongoing struggle to move beyond the struggles of the civil rights movements of decades past and forge a better future. And yep, there was plenty of discussion, plenty of words spoken, lots of handouts distributed. Outsiders assume that, as in many parts of the country, South Carolina doesn’t know how to — and doesn’t want to — face the intractable problem of racism that still exists in the Palmetto State, but the truth is that it does and wants to.

It could certainly move much faster, and clearly, as the events of the past week have demonstrated, there remains a lot of work to be done. But the way that Charlestonians and South Carolinians everywhere have come together to grieve and honor its dead, and how swiftly Governor Nikki Haley and other elected officials of both parties called for the removal of the Confederate flag after years of ignoring the issue, demonstrate just how much things have changed and will continue to change, and that no one will be ignored, whatever their skin color.

As Fitbit Goes Public, It Will Have To Outrun Competition : All Tech Considered : NPR

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“We believe that as health care costs continue to rise and as employers continue to seek ways to keep their employees active, engaged, and productive, more employers will implement or enhance their corporate wellness programs.”

via As Fitbit Goes Public, It Will Have To Outrun Competition : All Tech Considered : NPR.

Am I the only one who thinks that employee-sponsored wearables and wellness programs are a bad idea? It smacks of Big Brother surveillance, only this time BB is also paying you a salary. The dream of the twenty-first century worker is to have the flexibility and creative freedom to pursue fulfilling work that they can balance with their personal responsibilities and interests. The remote, distributed workplace is part of that dream for a lot of jobseekers and employees, and with good reason. Working from home, especially if it comes with the ability to choose your own schedule, is a tremendous perk, and one still elusive to most full-time employees.

But what if one of the other benefits is a wearable that also tracks your sleep, physical activity, heart rate, and a number of other biometric data that, previously, only your doctor was privy to? There are already employers who dangle that carrot to their employees, ostensibly as an incentive to maintain their fitness and health in an otherwise competitive, stressful industry. Is it really as benign as it seems?

Once upon a time, I worked for an employer who offered a free wellness program. It included giveaways like pedometers and water bottles, and at the end of a certain period, if your activity sheet (which the company distributed) recorded at least one activity a day, your name was added to a drawing for a couple of high-value prizes. I think one of them was actually a laptop, which in 2007 was definitely a big deal.

Execution, though, was inconsistent at best, and humiliating and painful at worse. Case in point: they brought in a couple of volunteer paramedics to the office to take blood samples from each of us and also measure our BMI. The paramedic attempted to draw blood from my arms at least a half-dozen times. He had such horrible technique that by the time he was done, I had a 7-inch discolored bruise on my upper arm that lasted weeks. I fared better than others, though. One of my co-workers actually had blood drawn from her fist – that’s how bad that paramedic was. I still cringe thinking about the pain she must’ve felt.

The worst part, though, was when he measured my BMI (Body Mass Index). He used both a tape measure and calipers, and for some odd reason he came up with a BMI of 31. Thirty. One.

Note that I am 5’3″ and, at the time, weighed about 125 lbs. While that’s actually a few pounds more than my ideal weight (I have a relatively small frame and don’t hold extra weight well), I don’t know how anyone could argue that I was obese. All my doctors reassured me that I was well within a healthy range. But 31 is right there under the “Obesity” category of the BMI scale.

The number was duly noted and was included in my health assessment, and god knows how my employer used it. Several of us complained to HR about our experiences with the paramedic, and even the HR manager gasped when she saw the massive bruise on my arm. I doubt anything came out of it — I suspect our health files ended up in some dusty warehouse somewhere, kind of like that final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Still, I’ve been suspicious of wellness programs ever since, and more so when technology raises the stakes by introducing even more intrusive means of tracking intimate employee data. It’s enough that my employer gets my intellect, my physical energy, a big chunk of mindshare for the majority of my waking hours. I’d like to reserve the privacy of my body and my health just for myself, my doctor, and when necessary, close family members. I hardly think it’s too much to ask that my employer stay out of that part of my life.

A perfect EFF score! We’re proud to have your back.

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Marjorie:

Yep, this is where I work. And I couldn’t be more proud.

Originally posted on WordPress.com News:

Concerns about online privacy and illicit government snooping are at the top of users’ minds, now more than ever. We appreciate that you trust us to safeguard your sensitive information on WordPress.com, and Automattic has a long-standing commitment to defending your rights and holding firm against legal bullying and over-reaching government requests. We work to have the most stringent, user-friendly policies possible within the law, and to be as transparent as we can about information requests we receive and how we respond to them.

Our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), on organization dedicated to defending your digital rights, recognized our efforts in their latest annual Who Has Your Back report, which evaluates the user privacy practices of prominent online service providers. We’re proud to receive a perfect score of five stars on the report, one of only eight (out of 24) companies to earn that honor. You can learn more about EFF’s evaluation…

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