Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A novel approach to Google

An author friend, Warren Adler -- who wrote the popular "War of the Roses" and "Random Hearts," among others -- has weighed in on the Google Print controversy. For newbies, that's the brouhaha that has erupted over Google's intention to scan some copyrighted books and make them available in a giant "cyber-card catalog" to readers. Some authors and publishers have sued to prevent Google from scanning copyrighted works; Google has argued it's not violating copyright laws but actually enlarging the books' audience by enlarging access.

Adler doesn't oppose Google's idea, but suggests some novel (pun intended) approaches to protecting authors' property, such as asking libraries to pay a small fee for every book loaned, and a crusade to stop publishers from declaring books "out of print" -- something rendered obsolete in the age of electronic storage and printing-on-demand.

Here are the salient parts of his new essay on the topic:

People have been telling me for years that authors in general are totally brain dead when it comes to business decisions. I have always denied this accusation, but it appears that the Authors Guild, which purports to represent authors, is pursuing a lawsuit against Google that confirms this general opinion.

In a nutshell, the suit against Google contends that Google's project to digitize whole books and make available snippets in their search engines is a violation of the author's copyright, which endures more than seventy years beyond an author's lifetime. Moreover, the idea behind the suit is that Google makes money on its adjacent advertising and therefore the authors of the material being searched should be compensated for the privilege of viewing their work.

It may provide an opportunity for rediscovery and perhaps income to the heirs of the author since their copyright will last through nearly three generations beyond their lifetime. It is true that this vast data bank of material will be the lure for people seeking to advertise their products or services to people who are eyeballing the data provided free by Google. Dependent on advertising for their revenue stream, they will not sell an author's works but refer them to vendors online. Through Google's free search engine, millions of people throughout the world will be given the opportunity to become aware of an author's books, even if they have been relegated to out of print status which is the fate of more than 80% of published books.

Where is the upside for those authors of books that have been declared out of print by the publishers? For them, at long last, people will have an opportunity to be aware of the author's work, and perhaps enhance or resurrect an author's career path, providing he is still alive and writing. Or it may provide an opportunity for rediscovery and perhaps income to the heirs of the author since their copyright will last through nearly three generations beyond their lifetime.

For those books not declared out of print but not being currently promoted by the publishers, Google's search engines will, at the very least, provide the possibility for a potential customer to view passages of the work in a virtual bookstore and with luck spark an interest in purchasing the book. Is that a downside for an author who still has a book in print, albeit one that is not advertised and not publicized or promoted by the publisher?

Of course, being included in the Google search engine is no guarantee that the book will ever be called up by a click of the keys. But the very fact that it might trumps all possibilities available to authors with books out there collecting dust on library shelves or being sold by second hand dealers which provide no financial benefit at all to the author. The Authors Guild suit wants Google to pay the author a royalty for putting the book into its search engine.

Authors will be a lot better served if they concentrate their resources on other battles.

How about mounting a battle to prevent publishers from declaring books "out-of-print"? It is an antiquated idea that modern technology has made obsolete and it should be done away with. The concept is not the author's friend. Indeed, with digitization it is no longer applicable. Tied to that system is the method of rights reversal, which allows the author to get his rights back from the publisher, the grounds being that their book is no longer a viable income producer and takes up too much warehouse space. The burden for the reversal is on the author who must ask for the return of his rights. How about making such a reversal automatic after a number of years if sales are low? Isn't that a more worthy project than fighting to block a bookie awareness from public view?

Another noble authors cause would be to get libraries to pay authors a fee for each borrowed book. A library buys a book which is read by multiple people without any further compensation to the author than what he is due as a royalty on the sale of a single book. Such fees are paid to the author in some other countries. Why not the United States?

The fact is that the Google Book Search program is good for writers. ... I am hardly naive about the principle behind the idea of copyright. I guard the copyright of my 28 published novels and numerous short stories and plays like Horatio at the bridge. Yet, one can never know how valuable such a copyright will be in the future, although the chances are that, for most authors, it will be of dubious worth.

The inescapable fact is that the digitization of books is an enormous boon to writers. It does not relegate an author's work to a disintegrating commodity on a musty shelf. Adigitizedd book is forever "in print." Indeed, authors should fight for the right to retain their digitization rights, which might be yet another battle plan for the Authors Guild. ... Authors should celebrate Google's plan, not fight it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Now that's what I call TAIL-gating ...

Is there no limit to American entrepreneurial spirit?

Tampa cops have busted nine football fans who had apparently parked their converted a 40-foot RV at Tampa Bay Buccaneers' home games -- where they served booze and lap dances in their "strip club on wheels":

TAMPA (AP) -- A 40-foot motor home was converted into a strip club on wheels, offering alcohol and lap dances to football fans outside the stadium before kickoff of Sunday's Tampa Bay Buccaneers game, police said.

Six women performed lap dances inside the motor home, charging $20 to $40 depending on whether they danced topless or totally nude, police said Tuesday. The vehicle, adorned with a sign for strip club Deja Vu, was parked across the street from Raymond James Stadium.

It apparently all began earlier this season when a Bucs tailgater's wife asked him if he had enough buns for the hotdogs.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Another barking dog muzzled

“A free press is the watchdog of a free society.
... Some extraneous barking is the price
you must pay for his service as a watchdog."
Alan Barth [1906-1979]

Administrators seized 1,800 copies of a high school newspaper in Oak Ridge, Tenn., last week because the paper contained what can only be assumed to be sensitive information that threatened national security ... What's this? Stop the presses! This just in ... the school papers were seized because they contained stories about birth control and tattoos?

Yep, the superintendent and principal at Oak Ridge High School reportedly snatched all copies of the paper from classrooms, desks and mailboxes. Why?

"The Oak Leaf's birth control article listed success rates for different methods and said contraceptives were available from doctors and the local health department," according to an Associated Press report. It "also contained a photo of an unidentified student's tattoo."

Superintendent Tom Bailey had his reasons.

"I have a problem with the idea of putting something in the paper that makes us a part of hiding something from the parents," he said. "We have a responsibility to the public to do the right thing. We've got 14-year-olds that read the newspaper."

Pay attention, now. You kids in journalism class are getting several good lessons.

First, you're learning that publishers (in this case, school administrators) often see things differently from editors, and tend to be more concerned with business and appearances than actual journalism. Get used to it.

Second, you're learning that every story is brilliant to somebody -- and loathsome to somebody else. Get used to it.

Third, you're learning that people who dismiss the "media" as trivial, obsolete, wimpy and out-of-touch will still try to control it whenever possible. Get used to it.

The Battle of Midway ... and media bias

A dear friend forwarded a copy of one of those anti-media spams we all get. Even as President Bush and his crew attack those who'd revise the history of the Iraq war, somebody has revised the history of Americans at war, journalism and politics entirely.

As the last election proved, the Internet has become a weapon in the politcal wars. Spams like this originate from who-knows-where without bylines, to slice a political foe or institution from the safety of a dark mind, a dark motive and a dark office somewhere.

Here's the "rewritten" dispatch on the Battle of Midway, a great American victory re-imagined in a new form by anti-media mopes. The essence of my response to my friend appears below:


If Today's Media Reported the Battle of Midway:

Midway Island Demolished.
Yorktown, destroyer sunk.
Many US planes lost

June 7, 1942 -- The United States Navy suffered another blow in its attempt to stem the Japanese juggernaut ravaging the Pacific Ocean. Midway Island, perhaps the most vital U.S. outpost, was pummeled by Japanese Naval aviators. The defending U.S. forces, consisting primarily of antique Buffalo fighters, were completely wiped out while the Japanese attackers suffered few, if any, losses.

In a nearby naval confrontation, the Japanese successfully attacked the Yorktown which was later sunk by a Japanese submarine. A destroyer lashed to the Yorktown was also sunk. American forces claim to have sunk four Japanese carriers and the cruiser Mogami but those claims were vehemently denied by the Emperor's spokesman.

The American carriers lost an entire squadron of torpedo planes when they failed to link up with fighter escorts. The dive bombers had fighter escort even though they weren't engaged by enemy fighters. The War Dept. refused to answer when asked why the fighters were assigned to the wrong attack groups. The Hornet lost a large number of planes when they couldn't locate the enemy task force. Despite this cavalcade of errors, Admirals Fletcher and Spruance have not been removed.

Code Broken

The failure at Midway is even more disheartening because the U.S. Navy knew the Japanese were coming. Secret documents provided to the NY Times showed that "Magic" intercepts showed the Japanese planned to attack Midway, which they called "AF".

Obsolete Equipment

Some critics blamed the failure at Midway on the use of obsolete aircraft. The inappropriately named Devastator torpedo planes proved no match for the Japanese fighters. Even the Avengers, its schedule replacements, were riddled with bullets and rendered unflyable. Secretary of War Stimson dodged the question saying simply: "You go to war with the Navy you have, not the Navy you want or would like to have". Critics immediately called for his resignation.


(My response to my friend)

I don't think a modern report would be so obviously ignorant of the overall facts and outcome of the battle, but regrettably, I think this faux-report might be closer to what we'd see today than what we saw at the time of Midway ... especially on TV.

I'm sure I've told you that I was dispatched by the Denver Post to cover the Middle East during the first few months of the Afghan War in 2001. No editor ever took me aside and told me how to "see" what I was covering, nor to report some things and not others. I was aboard the USS Enterprise for about 10 days, and later joined Operation Bright Star, some international maneuvers in the Sahara. Mostly I wandered around the Middle East trying to get a sense of the Arab/Muslim way of thinking about America. For myself, I would not have risked my life to spread my petty political philosophies. I would -- and did -- risk my life to tell the story of what I saw so YOU could decide for yourself. I don't doubt that everything I wrote was taken differently by every reader, but I assure you it was as factually correct as I could make it.

Do you know the ONLY story I wrote that was spiked (in fact, the only story in my entire career that was spiked)? It was a piece I wrote in Cairo that summarized the editorials in the 7-8 Egyptian dailies that particular day. Most were insanely critical of the USA. My editors apparently decided it was probably not a good story for the moment -- about 5 weeks after Sept. 11. So in that one instance, we have evidence of a major American newspaper making a decision that the media's more conservative critics wouldn't believe.

During my reporting, I strove only to tell the story I saw. Sounds good, but I could only report what I saw -- a view rather like looking at the Universe through a soda straw. Today's world requires the reader/viewer/listener to gather many "soda-straw" views and triangulate like a forward observer to get an approximation of the truth. Reporters aren't lying; the good ones care more about the facts and truth than anyone on this planet (including evangelists!) Yes, they are human and humans must make choices.

I've literally had a debate with a reader over whether the subject of a story "hopped," "leaped," ""skipped" or merely "jumped." This reader cared passionately that my description matched his. Bias is generally as much a function of the reader/listener/viewer as the writer; I believe that today's readers aren't as interested in "unbiased" coverage ... they want coverage that suits THEIR biases. Thus, the popularity of Fox and Air America.

One last thing about Midway and WWII media: They were subject to censorship. The front-line coverage at the time simply HAD to be positive or it wouldn't get out (or the correspondent would be removed, maybe prosecuted.)

Do you know the quotation: "The first casualty of war is truth"? There's dispute over who said it, but not its accuracy. And I fear that even an unrestrained media (a relatively new notion) doesn't mean war news is truthful. But I do believe that an unrestrained press (at wartime) is better than allowing the government (Democrat or Republican) to determine what you should know. The Midway piece is fun, and as a parody, it's insightful (and incisive.)

I wish I and my colleagues could prove somehow that we are better than our critics say, but we've dug ourselves into a hole that seems to get deeper and deeper by the day. I genuinely believe, deep in my heart, that humankind has always valued messengers who can report accurately from afar, and we will always value those messengers who bring us information we can truly use to make our lives better. That's what keeps me going in this craft.

Friday, November 25, 2005

SOUTHERN IDENTITYWhat's it mean to y'all?

What does it means to be a Southerner in the 21st century? Here's a good way to speak up.

Starting Sunday, The Beaumont Enterprise looks at various aspects of our region's unique personality in a five-part SOUTHERN IDENTITY series from the Associated Press. After Sunday's overview, the paper explores:
  • TUESDAY: Race relations
  • WEDNESDAY: Civility and manners
  • THURSDAY: Why we laugh AND how we talk
  • FRIDAY: How we read and what we write
In The Enterprise's blog, you can participate in this fascinating exploration of this "most maligned and mused-upon of American regions."

So ... what does being "Southern" mean to you? Y'all come and express yourself at The Enterprise's blog on any aspect of the "Southern way" that you please. Many readers' answers will become part of the daily series next week.

Sticks and stones ...

A leftist high school teacher in Vermont is in the hot seat for salting his vocabulary quizzes with liberal propaganda, tweaking President Bush and the Evil Empire of the Far Right.

The Associated Press reports that Bret Chenkin, an English teacher at Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington, Vt., gave the quiz several months ago, and it asked kids to fill in the right word on questions like this one:
"I wish Bush would be (coherent, eschewed) for once during a speech, but there are theories that his everyday diction charms the below-average mind, hence insuring him Republican votes."

("Coherent" is the right answer.)

Can you believe this guy is a so-called English teacher? A vocabulary test ... and he can't even spell "ensuring"!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

What are you thankful for? No, really ...

It has been a tradition in my family -- maybe in many families -- to go around the Thanksgiving table and ask everybody: What are you thankful for?

One Thanksgiving when my children were very young, we began with me. I was thankful for my family, for being together, for the time we had, and other patriarchal oratory. My wife was thankful for similar things. My daughter, maybe 8 at the time, added her lengthy list of friends and possessions.

Then we came to Matt, only 4. He was still thinking, but soon it dawned on him, this thing he was most thankful for in his so-far short life.

"Handles," he said.

I gotta hand it to him: It never occurred to me to be thankful for handles, even though I am regularly thankful for handles. And knobs, rails, hinges, shelves, screw caps, cup-holders, envelopes, sandwich bags, can openers, lids, screwdrivers, soap dishes, buttons, rubber bands, remote controls, cardboard boxes, paper clips ... all kinds of stuff I typically don't take time to appreciate. But I guarantee there's usually a string of choice words when they're missing!

So ... don't forget to be thankful for the little things.

And have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 21, 2005

The delusion of fences

"The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land,
said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naive enough
to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society"
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
~~~~~~

Out West — where my sense of place is firmly rooted — fences not only marked the edge of our land, but also bounded the more abstract real estate of safety, privacy and belonging. When I was very young, I believed a fence served only to keep something in, but by the time I could own a small piece of my own land, I understood it also served to keep things out.

Now I live in Southeast Texas, where no fence could repel Hurricane Rita. Now, almost two months after the storm, the meager perimeter-defense of my cedar-plank fence has finally been rebuilt. The edges of my property are again defined from within and without. After two months of a fabulously free life, my dog can venture no farther into the world — and the rest of that world can venture no closer than my padlocked gate without my invitation. Whether this pathetic wooden fence is a rampart or a cage, it doesn’t matter. It comforts me that it exists again. My ruined lawn, the wind-splayed rose garden, the greenish swimming pool, the few remaining leaf-stripped trees … they are all my private country again.

I have a colleague who shared a fence with a neighbor before Rita erased that particular divider between them. Now the rebuilding of the fence has become a bone of contention. Somebody called the cops, somebody else argued. After a weekend of angsting about what form a new barricade should take, my colleague settled on a “Love Thy Neighbor” theme. A worthy sentiment, indeed, at this time of year, and I can only imagine the message will be splashed in big letters … across the neighbor’s side of the fence. In neon paint.

I have crossed many boundaries in my life. Some international, some emotional, some merely lines in the sand, but almost always I did it willingly. So I’m not sure why it comforts me to be surrounded by fresh fences again. Maybe security? Maybe possessiveness? Maybe because what’s inside is mine, and what’s outside is an adventure. In this, I am just like my dog, who enjoyed immensely the freedom that comes from a fenceless world. A fence conundrum.

An old German proverb says: "A fence lasts three years, a dog lasts three fences, a horse lasts three dogs, and a man lasts three horses." Thanks to Hurricane Rita, my dog is on his second fence, and I am secure in my delusion (as Emerson would say) that a fence is something more than an easily destroyed row of planks.
~~~~~
“As long as our civilization is essentially one of property,
of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, November 18, 2005

2B R Nt2B?

Dot mobile, a British mobile phone service that's mainly aimed at students, has announced it will boil down classic literary works into SMS text messages, which the company believes will greatly enhance the whole educational process by streamlining studies and leaving more time for whatever students do with all the homework time they're saving.

An Associated Press story offers a couple of examples of the Dotmobile's summaries:

John Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost" begins "devl kikd outa hevn coz jelus of jesus&strts war." ("The devil is kicked out of heaven because he is jealous of Jesus and starts a war.")

The ending to Jane Eyre -- 'MadwyfSetsFyr2Haus.' (Mad wife sets fire to house.)

Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," which describes hunky Mr. Darcy as "fit&loadd" (handsome and wealthy).

Hell, we had Cliff's Notes when I was in college and now things have evolved. Face it, 90% of students will embrace their ignorance and never have any need, as adults, to describe Mr. Darcy to the gals in the Pampered Chef party nor to explain "Paradise Lost" during that uncomfortable lull between strippers.

But the death of reading is real. Despite record numbers of published titles and record sales (thanks to Oprah, B&N and Amazon), the actual breadth of our reading is narrowing. Until Oprah chose "East of Eden," it hadn't ever sold a million copies; Oprah's imprimatur made it sell a million ... even if most of those readers probably never really "got it." Having a book isn't the same as reading it ... and reading only Stephen King isn't really understanding the enormous scope of humankind's storytelling (or even to understand what's possible in the written word.)

I once entertained the fantasy that the Internet would resurrect reading and writing skills. After all, to be successful on the 'Net would require extraordinary written comprehension and communication skills, would it not? Now, when Tom Sawyer, Moby Dick and Elmer Gantry can be summarized on a cellphone screen (presumably) well enough for a college student to pass an exam ... well, this might be the wintr uvR dscntnt.

Welcome to the ... Rooster Ranch?

The ever-entrepreneurial Heidi Fleiss now has a new idea: A brothel for women. The famous Hollywood madam -- apparently no longer a "former" madam -- announced plans this week to open a whorehouse for girls in Nevada, where prostitution is legal in some places. Hey, what's good for the gander is good for the goose, right?

It's only fair. Heidi frames it as just another streetcorner on the long road to women's ultimate liberation, telling the Los Angeles Times:

"Women are more independent these days; they make more money and it's hard to meet people," Fleiss said as she packed for what she said would be a permanent move to Nevada."You wouldn't believe the number of women who've told me, 'Heidi, if you do this, I'll be the first one in line!' I mean, relationships are harder than dieting, you know what I mean?"

You gotta hand it to Heidi: She might have found the one job that even lazy men will want to do.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Starkweather redux?

Today's unfolding story about missing teen Kara Beth Borden and her murdered parents bears -- at this early stage -- a striking resemblance to the story of mass killer Charlie Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Fugate, who murdered 10 people one week in Nebraska in 1958.

Today, a relative reportedly says she saw Borden's boyfriend kill her parents in an argument over the teen girl's curfews, and travelers say they've seen Borden and her boyfriend on the road. Right now, nobody knows who shot whom, or why, but the case has captured the national media's attention -- and more than a few haunting comparisons to Starkweather's case 47 years ago. [UPDATE 12:25 a.m. on Associated Press: "An 18-year-old man wanted in the murder of a Pennsylvania couple and the apparent abduction of their 14-year-old daughter was captured today after the car he was driving crashed in Indiana following a police pursuit, Indiana State Police said."]

Starkweather, 19, and his girlfriend Fugate, 14, began their killing spree by murdering her parents and their 2-year-old daughter. It's said that Fugate calmly made their lunch while Starkweather choked her baby sister to death. When they were captured in Wyoming, Fugate claimed she had been Starkweather's hostage although the facts suggest she actually participated in some of the killings.

"The country that uncomfortably watched James Dean's Rebel Without A Cause in 1956 suddenly saw a Dean-like figure in Charles Starkweather to make them really uncomfortable. What was the world coming to? Were the violence and the alienation of Starkweather just the beginning of some uncontrollable trend that would destroy the fabric of society?"

[From Court TV's Crime Library]
Starkweather was executed in Nebraska's electric chair in 1959, and Fugate was jailed for life (but was paroled in 1977 after 18 years.) She lives in Michigan but refuses to talk about the case.

And back in 1957, Starkweather and Fugate's murderous rampage was compared to another cold-blooded couple, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, in the early 1930s.

Sometimes, the news just doesn't seem new enough. Although it's interesting to wonder if 1958 authorities would have considered issuing an Amber Alert for Caril Fugate (Bonnie Parker was 20 when she met Clyde.)

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The price of memory

"I would rather be ashes than dust.
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze
than that it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be
a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow,
than a sleepy and permanent planet. I shall not
waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."
Jack London

~~~~~~

The cellphone rang this morning in my blacked-out Albuquerque motel room. I fumbled for it in the dark, half-knowing why someone was calling at that hour, half-hoping I was wrong. A few days ago, a dear aunt, her body freighted with an insurmountable cancer, had left the hospital to spend her last days in hospice care. She was the wife of my father's brother, and she'd fought this scourge for the last few years madly, desperately, but it outlasted her. She was too young for all this, in her 60s, not much older than my mother. Now her pain is finished, and there's some solace in that.

Everyone should have an aunt like Billie. She was tall, pretty, full of life and warm. To me, she was like a mother without all those motherly complications, although I don't doubt for a minute that she'd have scolded me brusquely if I'd needed it. Except for a few years a long, long time ago, I always lived far away, so seeing her was always part of a grander adventure to her native Los Angeles, a magical and illusive city where my father's family was rooted. For me, it was Oz, and Billie was Glinda.

Ironically, I flew to Albuquerque this weekend to celebrate a friend's 90th birthday. Wanita remains a sharp, inquisitive and educated woman. She's a retired military veteran who survived a couple wars, a couple husbands and her own daughter's murder by a man who periodically comes up for parole. She has lived alone and independently -- in the fiercest sense of the word -- for 20 years. She loves the birds in the parking-space-sized backyard of her three-room apartment and reads voraciously about other people's lives. And she is matter-of-fact about her own death, an eventuality for which she has meticulously planned.

So life and death haunted me this morning over free waffles and orange juice in the motel lobby. If you knew you had exactly 45 years left on this planet, would it make a difference? How long might you wait before you got serious about living? When has a good life been lived long enough? Would you worry about dying so much that you forgot to live?

I've been lucky in so many ways. Knowing and loving Billie and Wanita are just two. They both lived like London's meteor, but on distinctly different arcs. I've come to believe that a good life is as much about memory as time. Even if its life is relatively short, who knows what the meteor remembers?

Pain is the price we pay for memory. It’s some kind of sin to forget what hurts, as much as it is to forget what makes us smile. Suffering has its meaning, and memory has its graces.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Today is the 30th anniversary of a shipwreck most of us probably wouldn't even know about -- or care -- except for a ballad by Gordon Lightfoot. Who says art has no real purpose?

The wreck of the Edmund Fitgerald on Nov. 10, 1975, and the 1976 song are explained in an Associated Press story today by Mike Householder:
"Any bit of literature, prose or poetry that magnifies the loss of loved ones is so dramatic," said Bishop Richard Ingalls of the Mariners' Church. "Gordon Lightfoot's song definitely has given it a life that seems not to end."
Want to know more than you'll learn from Lightfoot's haunting lyrics? Did you know it was to be the Captain's last voyage? Check out Tim McCall's tribute site, where you'll find everything from a piece about the ship's bell found by underwater archeologists to a memorial "book" where readers -- many Great Lakes sailors themselves -- have left remembrances. You can, too.

Pictured above: The Fitzgerald's bell (Courtesy Tim McCall / SS Edmund Fitzgerald Online)

Goodbye, TV guide

This week, something remarkable happened to TV and you probably missed it. Now you'll have to settle for this pathetic re-run ... hey, just like real life!

On Monday, CBS said it would make some prime-time shows available through Comcast's video-on-demand system, letting Comcast cable subscribers to watch brand-new episodes for about $1 each.

And since TV is all about copycatting, NBC announced -- also on Monday -- that it would do the same thing through DirecTV's competing video-on-demand service.

What does this mean? It means now YOU -- not network executives -- will decide when you want to watch "Desperate Housewives" or "Sixty Minutes." Introduced by cable networks more than five years ago, video-on-demand has allowed people to order movies or shows from providers such as HBO or Discovery. Because network advertisers pay more for bigger audiences, it's gonna be a hassle for the networks to sell ads since they haven't truly shifted their paradigms yet, but on-demand TV is the wave of the future.

OK, here at the start, you won't get much choice: NBC is only offering in-house-produced shows, and CBS just four popular prime-time shows. They'll be available only until the next new episode airs, and for only 24 hours after they are ordered. Such a meager menu ain't gonna cause a stampede to VOD, but it's a start.

TV analyst Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research got it right, especially for us teeth-gnashing newspaper folk who've produced indispensable-but-unprofitable local TV guides for years :

"Today is the beginning of the end of the television schedule."

Monday, November 07, 2005

Author John Fowles is dead

There are many reasons why novelists write,
but they all have one thing in common --
a need to create an alternative world."
Author John Fowles
1926-2005

~~~~~~~

Who knows why an author becomes an author. A tricky wiring of the senses? A quest to recapture some too-brief moment in the distant past? A hubris that allows him to believe he has something worth somebody else's attention? A wan attempt at immortality? Keener-than-normal typing skills?

I wrote "stories" when I was very young -- snippets, really, without the pretention or self-awareness I now combat. I read voraciously and unwittingly collected a vocabulary that stood me in favor with English teachers. I started working on the school paper when I was 12 and never stopped.

But it wasn't until college, when I read "The Magus" by John Fowles, that I believed I could write a book. Not because it seemed too damned easy, but because Fowles was alive and because his writing was rich beyond belief. Intensely erotic in its language, incredibly brave in its structure, and utterly asymmetrical in its intellectualism -- it opened a door that had been cracked only a sliver. Here was this Brit who spoke so beautifully and viscerally and poetically when all I knew about British literature to that point was stuffy, overwrought and exceedingly long. And the ending ... inconclusive, atmospheric, an unanswered question. To this day, "The Magus" remains among the two or three books that made my life better, both as a writer and a man.

Fowles' death Saturday, then, gives me pause. We'd never met, although I had hoped someday to shake his hand and to tell him what his writing meant to me. I spent some time in his old hometown -- Oxford, England -- while doing some international reporting years ago, and I asked about him, but I was discouraged from knocking on his door like a troublesome literary groupie -- which, I suppose, I was. After all, he was a private man and the fact that I had written two novels gave me no unique dispensation to ask him to share a pint at the corner pub and tell me a secret. I'm sorry now that I didn't.

John Fowles did what a writer must do: He created his alternate, parallel world and invited me in. More than the others whom I admired -- the literally all-American passel of Hemingway, Steinbeck, London and Fitzgerald -- he showed me possibilities I hadn't considered. His later books taught me everything I needed to know about non-linear storytelling, the free-verse that prose could be, and diabolic irony. And more than the rest, he showed me that poetic eroticism and visuality -- not the strength of the Americans either -- wasn't only the country of women writers. But his mystery was no mystery at all; he knew there were no magic beans, no answers, no perfect resolutions, no knowing what comes next, except dying.

I'll miss Fowles. And I promise: If any young writer ever knocks on my door to tell me he became a writer because of something I wrote, I'll let him take me to the corner pub for a pint. I just won't have any secrets to share. I'll just hand him a copy of "The Magus."

~~~~~~~

We all write poems;
it is simply that poets are the ones
who write in words
.
John Fowles

Sunday, November 06, 2005

A plunge into warm water

My son was perched 10 feet up on the diving platform, and almost 30 years back. It's a memory that pursues me today, for the simple reason that it's raining, nothing more.

It was more than 10 years ago, and we had stopped at a spa in a small Wyoming town on a warm spring Saturday, snatching a little quality time in the amniotic waters. My own father had brought our family here on rare, idyllic weekends when he geared down enough to have fun. So little had changed that it was easy to remember.

Matthew, a 6-year-old so full of enthusiasm that he inspires polite people to say he has "character," is just beginning to understand childhood and its rites of passage. The little guy wasn't much past Page One in the lessons of life. And the lesson this weekend is that the high dive always looks shorter from the shallow end.

So deceived, Matt decides to jump - but only if I'd tread water below, just in case. It is the same deal I'd made with my own father, on the very same high dive, three decades before. Satisfied I'd hold up my end of the bargain, Matt scrambles out of the pool and heads toward the platform in that stiff little run-walk kids do when the lifeguard hollers, "Don't run!"

He spiders up the ladder, and onto the flat square that must seem to him, at this moment, at least a mile above the green water.

From below, I coax him further onto the jumping plank, until I hear my father."It's OK," he says. "Move out to the edge. Don't worry. You'll be OK. I'mright here. That's it, son."

And when I look up, I see a skinny little kid who looks like my son, but not him, standing on the platform, clutching the side rail. Brave enough to be standing there, not brave enough to jump, stuck between his father and endless blue sky.

"Don't be afraid," the father says. "Just come out to the edge and jumpfeet first. That's all. It won't hurt. I'm right here for you."

And the son edges out a little closer to the edge of the plank, which suddenly looks to him as if it will buckle under the weight of a 6-year-old.

"That's right. A little farther now. You're doing great, son. Easy now. See, I'm right here."

The little boy, so brave moments before, permits himself a whimper and ponders whether it's wiser to leap or to step aside for the next jumper. A few swimmers are now engrossed enough in the drama to watch furtively, not certain if they'll witness a triumph or a train wreck.

And mom sits on the deck nearby, rendered superficially stoic behind her sunglasses, pretending not to be nervous. At this distance, you can't see she's biting her lip.

"The water's deep enough, you won't hit anything," dad says in the tone a father reserves for the most genuine moments with his son.

"After you do it, you'll want to do it again. That's the way it was for me. Honest.

"Little feet edge nervously to the brink of the wet plank. In less time than it takes for a father to see himself in his son's eyes, the boy jumps. He doesn't dare breathe or open his eyes, though it takes only a second ... or is it 30 years? ... to splash down.

As the son paddles up through the effervescence of his own plunge into the unknown, he finds his father's hand reaching out to him under the water, true to his word.

"Great job, son!" my dad told me. "Ready to go again?"

And I jumped many times after that, and sometimes my dad was there, just in case.

"Great job, son!" I tell Matt as we dog-paddle to the side of the deepwater. "Ready to go again?"

"Will you be here?" he asks.

Always.

Pictured above: Matt Franscell, who'll graduate from high school in May.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Link me, baby. Oh yeah. Oooh ...

Today, Amazon.com has previewed its idea to sell just a few pages or chapters of a book — "allowing one of the world's oldest media to be chopped up and customized like an album on iTunes," according to a Los Angeles Times story.
Although he offered few details, Chief Executive Jeff Bezos said Amazon customers soon would be able to buy digital snippets of books for as little as a few cents a page. That might come in handy for tourists planning a trip, chefs seeking recipes or students assigned one chapter in an expensive textbook.

Purely as a customer service, you understand ... to save time and money as Amazon.com makes even more money off my writing than I do ... I humbly direct the reader to the dirty part in my first novel, "Angel Fire."

It's on Page 232.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Take my seat, please

From the Associated Press today:

"Thousands of mourners waited in long lines in the chilly morning to honor [Rosa] Parks. Hours before the funeral began, the line to get one of the 2,000 available public seats at the church extended more than two blocks west in Parks' adopted hometown [of Detroit.]"


I'm wondering ... what if somebody just sat down in one of those seats and refused to move?

Could there be a more fitting eulogy?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Did Bible-thumping dummy meet a grim end?

The story you are about to read is true.
No names have been changed to protect anybody. I'm not that creative.
~~~~~~~~~

This is the city, Beaumont, Texas. I work here. I carry a chewed-up pencil, a ratty notebook and my fingers are stained with bubble-jet ink. I'm a newspaperman.

(Here's where you, the reader, sing, "Dum-de-dum-dum.")

It was 3:56 p.m. on Tuesday. It was muggy. I was working the morgue -- that's newspaper talk for the room where we keep all our old clippings.

It's not much of a life, unless you don't mind missing an Astros game because the hotshot phone rings. Unless you like working Saturdays, Sundays and holidays at a job that doesn't pay overtime. Oh, the pay's adequate -- if you count pennies you can put your kid through summer camp, but you better plan on seeing Florida on your television set. And the coffee, well, it ain't Starbucks, lady.

Anyway, I was scanning the minutes of a 1955 Rotary meeting when something caught my eye.

It was a 50-year-old story about a dummy getting a haircut. A ventriloquist's dummy. The front-page headline blared: "George, Bible-Quoting Dummy in Pastor's Family, Has Terrible Secret."

Something told me -- perhaps years on the beat where you'll have few facts and a lot of hunches, and you'll run down leads that dead-end on you -- that a dummy's hair doesn't grow. Call it a hunch.

I decided to investigate.

Just the facts: At the time, George was the cohort of one the Rev. Ben Cash of Calvary Baptist Church in Nome, Texas. The 29-year-old preacher had taught himself ventriloquism while driving to college classes every morning at Lamar Tech in the 1950s. Seems he jiggled his rear-view mirror so he could watch whether his lips moved when he spoke. (Note to Gannon: Slap this perp with a traffic ticket.)

The Rev. Cash coaxed George to quote Scripture in Sunday School and camp meetings. He tested his routines on his 4- and 8-year-old children. Once, he even performed on a local kids TV show in Beaumont. He was a big hit with kids.

But George was tired of being the sidekick. Made of cheap cloth and plastic, he wore toddler cast-offs. He only could speak when spoken for. He also was bald, with painted-on hair. Something had to give.

Back in 1955, the Enterprise story offered a clue -- or maybe just a stupid observation: "George sincerely hopes he'll be able to live down his 'sissy' reputation."

That day, the Rev. Cash took his cohort to the big city, Beaumont. Bad things happen in big cities, especially to dummies. With the help of hair stylist Eula Mae Holden, Fertitta's Shoe Service and a place called the Doll Hospital, George was given a whole new identity. He got new moving eyeballs, some strings to move his arms and legs, a tuxedo and new shoes. He also got a girl's curly red wig, which was promptly shorn into a swell cut. At least that answered how a dummy could grow hair.

That's the last we've heard of George.

I began to wonder: Where's George?

4:35 p.m. I knew my only chance to find George was to find the Rev. Ben Cash. How hard could it be to find a 79-year-old Baptist preacher in Texas? They're everywhere. I made a few calls.

In this game, you walk your beat and try to pick up the pieces. Do you have real adventure in your soul? Oh, it's a thrill a minute when some housewife thinks you're a telemarketer and hangs up all six times you call.

Turns out, the Rev. Cash is retired in Port Aransas. He grew up in Normangee, and after a couple military enlistments, he attended college and preached at churches in Silsbee, Nome, Spurger and other Texas towns. Now confined to a wheelchair by a series of strokes, he left the pulpit in 2000.

But George didn't run away.

The Rev. Cash gave George away. That's his story. He doesn't remember to whom he gave George or when, but it was another preacher, he's sure of that. And he taught him a few ventriloquism tricks, too.

"So you don't know where George might be today?" I asked.

"No, sir," the preacher responded. "Got no idea."

Likely story.

The Rev. Cash got a new dummy. He still owns that British model, one with a real wooden head, he named Cary. Why? He wanted to entertain as "Cash & Cary." (Note to Gannon: Are bad puns a felony?)

8:29 p.m. A dead-end in the hunt for George. Maybe he was tossed on the scrap-heap of ventriloquism with all the other woodenheads who never realized their Howdy-Doody dreams. Maybe he got mugged by some pill-head woodpecker high on crape myrtle. Maybe he just got tired of being strung out.

That's how it is out here.

After a few years on the beat, you have the ability, the experience and maybe the desire to be an editor. If you like to fly by the seat of your pants, this is where you belong. For every story that's written by somebody else, you've got 3 million ways to do it better. And most of the time, you'll have few facts and a lot of hunches. You'll work some days that last a week, but some days are more like two days. You'll send a reporter back to the street until you're sure she's talked to everybody in the state of Texas.

George, aka The Dummy, remains missing, even after four hours of non-stop Googling.

Where's George? I won't sleep until I find him.

Or until later tonight.

(Anybody seen my pencil?)