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Science, Fiction, and points in between

Saturday 30 June 2001

Reading, Writing, Bookselling

§ You may have heard about the "new" Mark Twain story, "A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage", a previously-unpublished piece written 125 years ago now available in the July/August 2001 issue of The Atlantic. Critics acknowledge that the story is minor; of greater interest is its origins -- as an impetus to a writing contest.

[Twain] concocted the idea of a writing contest for The Atlantic Monthly. He told the editor, William Dean Howells, that he would present a handful of famous authors with a single skeleton plot, an outline (now lost) that they would each flesh out in their own novelettes without seeing what the others were doing. The "Blindfold Novelettes" would be published in successive issues of the magazine. He listed the contestants he hoped would take part - Howells, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Bret Harte, Henry James, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Charles Dudley Warner, John T. Trowbridge, James Russell Lowell and others.
New York Times, June 23, 2001

Unfortunately, none of those writers was much interested. (Though this "new" story isn't available online, The Atlantic website does have this archive of Twain works from the magazine.)

§ Also in this month's Atlantic: Big bookstore chains bad? No, big bookstore chains good!

What if fifteen years ago someone had suggested a nationwide network of gigantic bookshops, carrying about 150,000 titles each, staying open until 11:00 P.M. or midnight, and offering cafés, comfortable chairs, and public restrooms? And what if these sumptuous emporia were to be found not only in the great urban centers but also in small cities and suburbs all across the country—places like Plano, Texas; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Mesa, Arizona? Wouldn't we have thought that sounded like pure, if unattainable, heaven? Well, that is what the superstore chains—Barnes & Noble; Borders; and Books-A-Million, based in Birmingham, Alabama—have brought us. Why, then, the chorus of disapproval from the cultural elite?
The Atlantic, July/August 2001

§ Microsoft's new Encarta College Dictionary (St. Martin's), due in July, will include lined-out word misspellings, literary synopses of significant books and essays, and advisories such as "Do not confuse coarse with course, which has a similar sound. Beware: your spell-checker will not catch this error."

New York Times, June 28, 2001
Washington Post, June 27, 2001

§ How many of those Amazon reviews are written by the authors' friends?

Chicago Tribune, June 21, 2001

§ The latest Jason Epstein monograph on the state of digital publishing.

The New York Review of Books, July 5, 2001

§ Check out the Bruce McCall cover of the current issue of The New Yorker: a Frank Gehry-esque JFK International Rocketport. Inside (though these links will change in a couple days):

  • Bruce McCall's "BLITZKRIEG!," THE MOVIE extrapolates from Disney's editing of Pearl Harbor for Japanese audiences.
  • David Denby reviews A.I.
  • The cartoon on page 39 shows a man ready to take out his garbage, admonished by his garbage container: "Trash contains eighteen items. Are you sure you want to remove them permanently?"

Science Corner

§ In the beginning, perhaps, there were no dimensions, only time.

— George Johnson in New York Times, June 26, 2001

§ Salon interviews David Darling, author of Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology (Basic Books), about astrobiology, the creationist influence on rare-Earth theories, and the best places to search for extraterrestrial life.

Salon, June 29, 2001

§ Glasses so smart, they'll know what you're looking at.

New York Times, June 28, 2001

Friday 22 June 2001


§ Who needs 'em? Not the W. administration.

On the one hand, [the Bush administration] cite the lack of conclusive research on climate change to argue against the Kyoto accord on global warming. At the same time, they are eager to push ahead with the development of a national missile defense despite even greater scientific uncertainties. ...

This sort of reasoning has led many scientists in the United States to conclude that the current administration is uninterested in scientific research or its conclusions. ... Indeed, some experts believe that science's influence in public policy matters has not been at such a low ebb since before World War I.
New York Times, 17 June

§ At Caltech, science students are being taught to communicate--

This year, for the first time in the school's 110-year history, its faculty demanded that each junior produce a feature-length article on a scientific subject, one worthy of publication in a lay magazine (say Discover or Scientific American) and comprehensible to a lay audience. ... Needless to say, this left those several of us hired to edit them with some explaining to do. The requirement wasn't just burdensome; it was heretical...
Los Angeles Times, 17 June

Writers, Readers, Booksellers

§ Plans are underway to track book sales -- the actual numbers, not just rankings on bestsellers lists...

Bookscan, a unit of the company that tracks the music industry's retail sales, appears at a turning point in its four-year effort to build a system for disseminating sales information collected at the cash registers of bookstores nationwide.
New York Times, 18 June

§ How predicts what you'll like.

Slate, 19 June

§ David Galef examines how modern technology thwarts writers' traditional means of contriving engaging plots...

Obstacles to communication and travel set up some of the most common types of conflict in fictional narratives. Get rid of them, and the occasion for either comedy or tragedy can vanish as well. If Romeo had left his pager on, what a disaster might have been averted for both him and Juliet! He would have called in for messages, found out about Juliet's trick of feigning death in the tomb with a trance-inducing drug and -- voilà! -- no double suicide. In that case, Shakespeare would have had to resort to some other unfortunate hitch: The tomb might be a dead zone for reception or Romeo could accidentally delete the crucial voice mail from Friar Laurence.
Salon, 21 June

Monday 11 June 2001

Web Obits

§ Word is long-gone; now Feed and Suck are shutting down.

Salon, 9 June

§ Could Salon be next?, 4 June

Arts & Ideas

§ The Web encourages polarization of political and social views, bringing together like-minded people who reinforce each other's views into more extreme positions... Some websites try to avoid this trap through website design ("The software engineers, as Percy Bysshe Shelley said of poets, are the unacknowledged legislators of our time") by, for instance, emulating modes of discussion modeled after Sparta's "Shout", or the technique of "deliberative polling". But a critic responds,

I think it's a waste of time," said Mr. Huber. ... by the time you try to implement it the technology will be 10 years ahead. When online video becomes as accessible as e-mail, the whole game will change again. And if you think there is fragmentation now, you ain't seen nothing yet."
New York Times, 2 June

§ A French astrologer has earned a Ph.D. in sociology for a 900-page tract on her subject, but the controversy isn't about astrology per se, rather about rival branches of sociology: "between positivists who rely on quantitative techniques and objective measures when assessing social life and phenomenologists who attach greater importance to subjective experience and emotion."

New York Times, 2 June

§ Last month The New Yorker essayed about the influence of Microsoft's PowerPoint program; a few days later The New York Times described how PowerPoint has invaded the classroom.

Sandee Tessier, a kindergarten teacher at San Altos Elementary School in Lemon Grove, Calif., has been using PowerPoint with her 5- and 6-year-old students for nearly four years, integrating it into her regular reading and math lessons.

"People come in and they have tears in their eyes because they can't believe what these little kids are doing," Ms. Tessier said. "It's part of their day, like picking up a pencil."
New York Times, 31 May

§ More on sequels:

New York Times, 7 June

Nonfiction Books

§ Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire (Random House) is subtitled "A Plant's Eye View of the World" and examines the role humans play in the coevolution of four plants -- apple, tulip, marijuana and potato -- for what they represent to humans: sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control.

If the sum total isn't quite ''a natural history of the human imagination,'' as Pollan hopes, it manages to deliver -- without threat of jail time -- what mind-altering plants have always promised: ''New ways of looking at things, and, occasionally, whole new mental constructs.'' It restores ''a kind of innocence to our perceptions of the world.''
— Burkhard Bilger in New York Times, 3 June
Other reviews:
— Kathryn Kerr in Chicago Tribune, 10 June
— Richard Bernstein in New York Times, 6 June

Literary Debate

§ The era of the great novel is over, said Andrew Marr in The Observer (May 27), prompting much debate including a response from Ian Jack in Granta that concludes:

What the novel allows, and which Andrew Marr doesn't make too much of, is imagination. I look at my own children, aged seven and eight. They are fascinated by all kinds of things: dinosaurs, railway engines, dolls, Lego. But what transfixes them, hour after hour, are the made-up stories of J. K. Rowling and Enid Blyton. Novelists of a kind, but novelists all the same.
Aside: Granta polled its readers about their favorite five books of the last 10 years: the top 50 includes Iain Banks, #7, and J.K. Rowling, #9.

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