concept to publication

Month: November 2007 Page 1 of 2

Friday Roundup

If Folly link with Elegance no man knows which is which ….
— William Butler Yeats

Trouble at Quebecor

Quebecor was for years the other big domestic print company, the competition to R. R. Donnelley. But the company appears to have fallen on difficult times. It canceled a $250mm share sale when the reception proved tepid at best. Quebecor shares have recently dropped from $5.10 to $2.80. Now it has to figure out how to manage its sizeable debt. Report on Business observes:

Let’s start with the balance sheet. Long-term debt and preferred shares add up to $2.4-billion against hard assets – that is, not counting goodwill – of about the same. Working capital is negative. By the book, then, the value to shareholders lies in the goodwill on the balance sheet. There’s no goodwill in the printing industry in the digital age. Debt has to come down. …

Quebecor World’s capital expenditures are supposed to drop to between $100- and $150-million next year. Assuming it can generate cash flow of $250-million – a big assumption and more than it will make this year – free cash flow is about $125-million.

On a market capitalization of roughly $279-million, that looks like a lot. But keep in mind that this cash has to go toward righting the balance sheet. Meanwhile, as common shareholders wait for their kick at the coffers, cash flow falls relentlessly.

There’s probably an interesting short-term trade for the aggressive investor here, but long term it looks like a hard way to earn a buck.

The book is dead

and Brian Dettmer is performing the autopsy.

brian dettmer book sculpture

LINKS (the first three are the artist’s galleries)

Bad Sex

The Literary Review has announced its nominees for the 2007 Bad Sex Award. The award supposed draws attention to “the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description … and to discourage it” in modern literary novels. In fact it’s just an excuse to talk about sex and make fun of writers who sells more books than you do. Here’s the list:

  • Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods
  • Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach
  • Richard Milward, Apples
  • Ali Smith, Girl Meets Boy
  • Maria Peura, At the Edge of Light
  • James Delingpole, Coward on the Beach
  • David Thewlis, The Late Hector Kipling
  • Norman Mailer, The Castle in the Forest
  • Quim Monzo, The Enormity of the Tragedy
  • Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan
  • Christopher Rush, Will
  • Claire Clark, The Nature of Monsters

McEwan may have the inside track with passages like these:

Like most young men of his time, or any time, without an easy manner, or means to sexual expression, he indulged constantly in what one enlightened authority was now calling ‘self-pleasuring’ … How extraordinary it was, that a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body, should instantly free his mind to confront afresh Nelson’s decisiveness at Aboukir Bay.

Because the instrument was a cello rather than her violin, the interrogator was not herself but a detached observer, mildly incredulous, but insistent too, for after a brief silence and lingering, unconvincing reply from the other instruments, the cello put the question again, in different terms, on a different chord, and then again, and again, and each time received a doubtful answer.

Digital divide

right reading - visits by region

I was talking with someone the other day about website statistics packages. The image above comes from Google Analytics. As you can see, Right Reading has yet to develop a big presence in the markets of Belarus, Greenland, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Oman, and much of Africa.

More significantly, what we are really seeing here is a representation of the global digital divide. Check out this image of the planet at night.

the planet earth at night - africa

According to the United Nations Information Communication Technology Report, “in Africa, ICT has barely taken a foothold. Computer illiteracy and the lack of access to ICT are widely recognized as an increasingly powerful obstacle to the economic, civic, and political development of Africa.” And Africa Recovery notes that in Africa “For most people even making a telephone call is still a remote possibility in an era when most of the world is now communicating almost instantly across cities, regions and the globe using wireless and satellite technologies to send high-speed electronic messages.”

In the words of Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal, “The digital gap brings with it a danger of isolating certain peoples, those in Africa in particular.”

More links:
Computers for Africa
Earth at Night


More posts on globalism

[catlist ID=45 numberposts=10]


Seven Junipers

It’s premature to announce this but I’m impatient so I’ll go ahead and do it anyway. The empire is expanding with another website/blog. It’s, and it will be my place for comment on Asian art and culture.

The title alludes to the seven junipers of Zhidao Guan, a Taoist temple in the city of Changshu in China’s Yangzi delta, as well as to a famous 16th-century painting of them by Wen Zhengming. The junipers, which apparently still stand on the site, were planted in the year 500. For more on the significance of the seven junipers, see the site’s “about” page.

Some of my Asian material is among the most popular on this website, including pages on Taoism, Chinese jades, and the Daode jing, for example. I confess I do hesitate a bit to move pages that are drawing a lot of traffic, so I might proceed cautiously — but sooner or later I expect to move all of this material over to 7 junipers.

Friday Roundup

A week of landmarks and landmines.

86 recommended travel books

the emperor, by Ryszard Kapu?ci?skiConde Nast commissioned a distinguished group of writers to nominate their favorite travel books. Participating authors included André Aciman, Monica Ali, Julia Alvarez, Tom Bissell, Geraldine Brooks, Vikram Chandra, Jim Crace, Jared Diamond, Linh Dinh, Anthony Doerr, Jennifer Egan, Stephen Elliott, Nuruddin Farah, Nell Freudenberger, Peter Godwin, Peter Hessler, Uzodinma Iweala, Sebastian Junger, Robert D. Kaplan, Mary Karr, Erik Larson, Rosemary Mahoney, Peter Mayle, Tom McCarthy, John McPhee, Adrienne Miller, Jan Morris, Stewart O’Nan, Francine Prose, Jonathan Raban, Graham Robb, Akhil Sharma, Matthew Sharpe, Jim Shepard, Darin Strauss, Robert Sullivan, Manil Suri, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Lynne Tillman, Luis Alberto Urrea, Gore Vidal, Sean Wilsey, John Wray, and Lawrence Wright.

The result is a list of 86 books. Looking at this list, the first thing that strikes me is how few of them I have read. West with the Night was our first bestseller at North Point Press, and we also published Ted Hoagland and M.F.K. Fischer. At Mercury House we reissued some Robert Lewis Stevenson as part of our neglected classics series. A few others I read here and there, but I haven’t read the majority of these books. Is it an especially peculiar list or have I just neglected my travel reading? Maybe a bit of both, but I think the list is a little odd because of the methodology of just collecting nominations — I mean, how can Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan not make a list of great travel books? Anyway, here’s the list. For more information about the nominated books, go to the CNT page.

Along the Ganges, Ilija Trojanow
Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger
An Area of Darkness, V.S. Naipaul
As They Were, M.F.K. Fisher
A Barbarian in Asia, Henri Michaux
The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer, Eric Hansen
Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, Lawrence Durrell
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West
Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon
Captain John Smith: Writings
Chasing the Monsoon, Alexander Frater
Chasing the Sea, Tom Bissell
Cross Country, Robert Sullivan
Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux
Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff, Rosemary Mahoney
The Emperor, Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski
Endurance, Alfred Lansing
Eothen, Alexander William Kinglake
“Exterminate All the Brutes,” Sven Lindqvist
Farthest North: The Voyage and Exploration of the Fram, 1893–1896, Fridtjof Nansen
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
The Fearful Void, Geoffrey Moorhouse
From a Chinese City, Gontran De Poncins
Great Plains, Ian Frazier
The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux
Hindoo Holiday, J. R. Ackerley
The Histories, Herodotus
The Impossible Country, Brian Hall
In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson
India: A Million Mutinies Now, V. S. Naipaul
The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain
In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
In the Country of Country, Nicholas Dawidoff
In Trouble Again, Redmond O’Hanlon
Iron and Silk, Mark Salzman
I See by My Outfit, Peter S. Beagle
The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
Journey to Portugal,
José Saramago
Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indians, George Catlin
Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849–1850, Florence Nightingale
Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain
London Perceived, V. S. Pritchett
The Long Walk, Slavomir Rawicz
The Lycian Shore, Freya Stark
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta,
The Muses Are Heard, Truman Capote
The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Matsuo Basho
News from Tartary, Peter Fleming
The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt
No Mercy: A Journey into the Heart of the Congo, Redmond O’Hanlon
Notes from the Century Before, Edward Hoagland
Old Glory, Jonathan Raban
The Pillars of Hercules, Paul Theroux
The Pine Barrens, John McPhee
Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux
The Rings of Saturn, W. G. Sebald
The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan, Winston Churchill
The Road to Oxiana, Robert Byron
Rome and a Villa, Eleanor Clark
Roughing It, Mark Twain
Arabia, Peter Theroux
Sea and Sardinia, D. H. Lawrence
Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby
Siren Land, Norman Douglas
Skating to Antarctica, Jenny Diski
Slowly Down the Ganges, Eric Newby
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin

Vector Magic

vector magic

VectorMagic is an “online tool for precision vectorization.” In other words, it is an autotracer that converts pixel-based images (photos, screen captures, etc.) to vectors, which can then be scaled without loss of quality. You upload an original image and download the vectorized result. This would be a big time-saver if you wanted to manipulate an image in a program like Illustrator. There could be other uses, which I will leave to your imagination, except to say that the folks at typophile can’t be altogether pleased, and it will be up to the user to observe copyright and EULA image restrictions. In my tests the program performed extremely well. In the screen shot above the original image is on the left and the vector conversion on the right.

Best book covers

Since I posted about the best magazine covers of the year, why not have a look at book covers too? When I first saw this selection of “the best book covers of 2007” (via BoingBoing) I thought it remarkable how the judges had chosen a group of covers that all reflect a similar aesthetic. Then are realized that these are not judged but rather Joseph Sullivan’s personal choices of the best covers of the year. Sullivan runs a blog called the book design review. His preferred covers tend to be typographic and conceptual with a somewhat retro flavor. He shows no interest at all in pictorial covers (standard in museum book publishing, my main gig these days). Of his choices this is my favorite:

the worst years of my life

Friday Roundup

A week of landmarks and landmines.

Language Wars

Language Hat has been following the arguments about Russian translation that have been taking place at the NYT Reading Room blog. Are the renderings of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky superior to those of Constance Garnett and others? Pevear and Volokhonsky have said that Garnett (for example) smooths out the originals and makes them read more fluidly in English than they do in the original; they have tried to retain something of the originals’ roughness. But it appears from the comments that there is a bit of a Pevear/Volokhonsky backlash taking place.

Is copyright corroding our society?

That’s what Stanford professor Larry Lessig says in this lecture (it takes about 19 minutes and it’s well worth watching the whole thing — but in any case be sure not to miss the mash-up about 9:30 in). Dan Blank summarizes:

He concludes that copyright laws remain antiquated with regards to how our kids are using media online – via mashups, downloads, and original content creation using pieces of existing copyrighted works.

The end result is that our children are growing up knowingly breaking the law in their daily lives. They “live life knowing they live it against the law.” He calls this corrosive and corrupting to a democracy.

Style Trends in Fiction

statistical data on style trends in fiction

For the past couple of years has been including a feature it calls “text stats” on many of its book pages. Among the statistics presented are “readability calculations” that estimate “how easy it is to read and understand the text of a book.” But there is also more raw data, including stats on the percentage of complex words (however that is measured), the number of syllables per word, and the number of words per sentence. For example, Alejo Carpentier’s The Harp and the Shadow (my translation, with Carol Christensen) scores in the 13th percentage for word complexity, a low 1.6 syllables per word (hard to believe), but a whopping 39.1 words per sentence, or one and a half times as much as Faulker, putting it in the top one percent of all books in the amazon sample.

I was curious to see if this feature could be used to identify any trends over time. My first thought was to compare best sellers across the years, but I quickly abandoned that idea as the list of books was simply too boring. Instead I chose Pulitzer Fiction Prize winners at five-year intervals, beginning with 1950 (the fiction prize was first given in 1948). Statistics were not available for all of these books, so I had to substitute by going a year forward or back in some instances. Here is the list of books I used in my test:

1950 The Way West by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
1955 A Fable by William Faulkner
1961 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1965 The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau
1969 House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
1976 Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
1980 The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
1986 Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
1990 The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
1995 The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
2000 Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
2005 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

(For Faulkner’s Fable I had to substitute an edition called Novels 1942-1954.)

The results were interesting. One might assume that the style in fiction has been toward simpler language, but this is not what I found. For example, although the differences in word length aren’t great, it would appear from the results that words in fiction — at least, the fiction that wins Pulitzer Prizes — are clearly getting longer.

increasing length of words in fiction over the years

Similarly, there is a clear increase in the number of complex words.

increasing complexity of words in modern fiction

The trend in sentence length is unclear. There is a big spike with Faulker in 1955; otherwise, there may be a slow increase in this category as well.

increase length of sentences in modern fiction

Does this prove anything? Not really. My sample is very small, and a slightly difference choice of books might find something completely different. Moreover, the category of Pulitzer Prize winners is obviously a minute fraction of overall fiction, and Pulitzer judges might deliberately resist overall trends. More research would be welcome. At the same time, it is suggestive to find that in all three of the amazon statistical categories the trend in this sample of fiction has been to greater complexity and length over the past half century and not the opposite as one might have guessed. I would be interested to hear other opinions.

On Taste

grand cru glassIn a previous post I mentioned that Norman Mailer was not a writer particularly to my taste. Just after writing that I came upon an account of a couple of interesting experiments that speak to the subjectivity of taste — in this case the taste of wine. The following passages are from an article by Jonah Lehrer on “The Subjectivity of Wine.”

In 2001, Frederic Brochet, of the University of Bordeaux, conducted two separate and very mischievous experiments. In the first test, Brochet invited 57 wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn’t stop the experts from describing the “red” wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its “jamminess,” while another enjoyed its “crushed red fruit.” Not a single one noticed it was actually a white wine.

The second test Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle was a fancy grand-cru. The other bottle was an ordinary vin du table. Despite the fact that they were actually being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the differently labeled bottles nearly opposite ratings. The grand cru was “agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded,” while the vin du table was “weak, short, light, flat and faulty”. Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only 12 said the cheap wine was.

It’s hard to judge these experiments without knowing more about how they were conducted. But it’s amusing to see, from the comments to the original post, the reactions they produced.

Norman Mailer has died

It’s a shame he will not be around to read his obituaries, as his favorite subject was himself.

It was never a subject that particularly interested me.

Friday Roundup

.A week of landmarks and landmines.


3,778 overdue books returned

And they were 126 years overdue. The books were taken by Chile from Peru during the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific. The Guardian reports:

Nivia Palma, national director of libraries, archives and museums in Chile, presented the books to Peruvian officials at a ceremony, calling the act a “concrete expression of our deep commitment to building a relationship of brotherhood and cooperation between our countries.”

Foreign Minister Jose Garcia Belaunde thanked Chile for returning the books, and said the two neighbours must work to strengthen their friendship.

Does this mean the two countries are putting their disputes about pisco behind them?

Madam Mayo

C.M. Mayo will be reading at Alta on Saturday. Her site, Madam Mayo, is a good blog for those interested in Latin American (especially Mexican) literature and the art of translation (although I subscribe to the belief that blogs should have comments enabled). Click the screen shot to visit the site.

the latin american translation blog of c.m.maya

The year’s best magazine covers

According to the Magazine Publishers of America’s 2007 American Magazine Conference Awards, that is. This Texas Monthly cover won for “best coverline.”

texas monthly magazine cover

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