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Friday Reads – Pico Iyer on the Pleasures of Being Foreign, Ethan Siegel on Dark Matter

Soon there’ll be more foreigners on earth than there are Americans. Foreignness is a planetary condition, and even when you walk through your hometown—whether that’s New York or London or Sydney—half the people around you are speaking in languages and dealing in traditions different from your own.

Read the article at Lapham’s Quarterly

But there are still gravitationally bound systems, and they exist on small scales in great abundance, on medium scales in moderate abundance, and on relatively large scales in sparse but non-zero abundance. And it’s all part of the same cosmic story.

Ethan Siegel on dark energy, dark matter, and the fate of our expanding universe on Medium. Read the article.

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The Copyright Problem: Three Myths That Are Killing Literary Culture

  1. via Wikicommons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Orange_copyright.svg
    via Wikicommons

    1. Writers just want to be read.

I recently heard a young woman at a party say that writers don’t mind when their books are downloaded for free on the internet, because “writers just want to be read.”

As a working writer who pays my mortgage and buys groceries and sends my kid to summer camp with the proceeds from my books, I can tell you that this isn’t true. While I do want to be read, that isn’t my primary concern. My primary concern is making a living.

2. Writers don’t need to be paid for their work.

Let’s say you design and produce a T-shirt. Let’s say you sell the T-shirts for $20 each, and with the proceeds from these T-shirts, you pay your rent, buy coffee, pay off your student loans, pay the electric bill,go to the movies, buy a beer at the corner bar, etc.

Now, you may give your shirt to a few friends in order to drum up business. That’s called marketing, and it’s not much different from when publishers send out review copies of books to newspapers, magazines, and influential bloggers. You’re willing to give away a few shirts in the hopes that it will lead to sales.

Now, let’s say a bunch of people—a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand, half a million—come to you and say, “Hey, you should give us that shirt, because we’ll wear it, and when we wear your shirt, it’s going to be good for you.” What would you say? You’d probably turn them down. You’d probably point out that creating the shirt took time, effort, and resources. Maybe you went to university to learn the skills that went into making that shirt. Maybe you worked at McDonald’s for a few dollars an hour while you were figuring out how to arrange your life in a way that would allow you to do more fulfilling work. You’d probably point out that you didn’t make that shirt just to give it away. You need to sell the shirt, because that’s how you make a living, and, no matter how good-looking or smart or self-contented these free-culture advocates are, the mere fact of them wearing your shirt does absolutely nothing for you. It’s good for them, maybe—free shirt—but it is most definitely not good for you.

Authors make a living by selling our books. We write books that we hope will be good, books that we hope will be meaningful, but we also write books that we hope people will buy. We do not go to the store and walk out with a new pair of shoes or a new baseball bat or an ice cream cone without paying for them. We don’t expect the taxi driver to drive us to the airport for free, and we don’t expect the tech guy to fix our computer for free, and we don’t expect the piano teacher to give our kids piano lessons for free. We understand that when a service is provided, it is good practice to pay for it. We hope that others will show us the same courtesy. When increasing numbers of readers decide they’re going to get our books for free by illegally downloading them, and when increasing numbers of libraries lobby for the “right” to lend digital copies of our books to anyone, anywhere, without paying author royalties, authors don’t make a living.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, The Slow Death of the American Author, Scott Turow points to the offshore pirate sites that offer illegal downloads of copyrighted works. Google and Bing serve ads to these pirate sites, and subscribers pay a fee to download content, so both the pirates and the mega-corporations are making big money off of the books they had no role in creating. Kim dot com gets another Rolls Royce, Google tops up the multi-billion dollar coffers, and PayPal gets a huge chunk of the pie. The prize goes to the middleman. Yay for them. The only ones who aren’t making money off of those books are the people who wrote them.

If I stood on a corner telling people who asked where they could buy stolen goods and collected a small fee for it, I’d be on my way to jail. And yet even while search engines sail under mottos like “Don’t be evil,” they do the same thing.

The only people who can legitimately say, “Authors shouldn’t be paid for their books,” are people who go to their job for free. I don’t know many people who do that. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t know any. There’s been a rallying cry among certain academics and librarians who say that copyright is anti-culture, that all books should be free to all people, but I don’t know a single professor or librarian who doesn’t get paid to show up to the university or to the library.

Traditionally, libraries purchase a hard copy of a book, which they then lend out to their patrons. I happen to be a longtime fan of libraries and the services they provide to the community. As an author, I have accepted the fact that I only receive a royalty on the copy the library purchases, not on the lending (although in Europe, authors do receive royalties each time their books are lent). Unlimited e-book lending is an entirely different ballgame; by effectively ensuring that no reader will have any incentive to purchase an e-book, ever, it erases a huge chunk of the author’s royalties.

If you happen to be a professor or librarian who believes that information, including copyrighted books, should flow freely with no compensation for the creators of that information, or that publishers should offer books to libraries for free or next to free, or that soft copyright laws are essential to democracy, I urge you to put your money where your mouth is: the next time you receive a paycheck, return it. You are just happy to be able to go to work, right? You don’t do it for the money. It also bears saying that libraries need content, and the content comes from somewhere, so when libraries lobby against fair payment to authors, they are lobbying against their own existence.

3. Writers make so much money, they shouldn’t mind if their books are illegally downloaded.

Advances for mid-list authors—that is, the vast majority of authors—are far from a living wage. The advance for my first book was $2,000. As I wrote the stories in the collection over a period of eight years, I wasn’t exactly raking it in. My second book, which took a much more reasonable three years to write, received an even smaller advance of $1,000—or about $333 per year. My third book, which took me more than four years to write, received an advance of $25,000, as did my fourth book, which, fortunately, only took one year to write. Obviously, during those years of writing I was making a living in other ways—from working at a tanning bed salon right out of college to selling credit processing machines all over New York City to teaching. For my next two books (neither of which has been published yet), I received a much bigger advance, but this only happened after I had proved myself by turning that $25,000 advance into a book that sold nearly half a million copies.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend $50,000 is the average advance for a book by a midlist author (in fact, the average midlist advance is rapidly declining). Let’s say the book for which you receive a $50,000 advance takes three years to write—which is fairly normal among writers. You receive your advance in increments—upon signing, upon delivery of the finished product, upon hardback publication, and upon paperback publication—so the advance is spread out not only over the years it takes to write the book, but also over the years when you are waiting for it to be published, and then waiting for the paperback release. So if it takes you three years to write the book, the advance is spread out over a period of about five years.

That makes the annual income for that book $10,000. With that, you need to pay for child care so you can write the book, pay your mortgage, buy the groceries, etc. In order to make this work, of course, you need another job, although that other job is the reason it takes you three years to write a book. It also helps to be married and to therefore be in a two-income family. If you’re a trust fund baby, like most successful writers were until fairly recently, you’ll be fine. (There’s a reason that only independently wealthy people wrote and published books before the mid-twentieth century.)

Only after you have earned out your advance do you begin earning royalties. For a $50,000 advance, you’ll have to sell close to 50,000 books to earn out the advance. If you don’t earn out the advance, you don’t get royalties. Also: if you don’t earn out the advance, the publisher doesn’t see you as a viable investment, and your next advance is a) much smaller or b) nonexistent.

The fact is, very few authors are making the big bucks. Stephen King is, of course, and so are Danielle Steele and J.K. Rowling (which is not to say that these authors are not also losing huge sums of money each year to illegal downloads), but the vast majority of authors make far less per hour than the barista at Starbucks or the person flipping those admittedly amazing burgers at In n’ Out. So when you say, “If I download this book for free, it doesn’t really hurt anybody,” you’re wrong. It hurts the person who made it.

I assume that most of the people who read this post do not illegally download books, music, or movies. But if you are a person who does that, I ask you to do one thing before you download the next book or song from a file sharing site: take a moment to visualize yourself reaching into that author’s purse, or that musician’s wallet, and stealing money. Are you comfortable with that image of yourself? If so, go ahead; download away.

Why this should matter to you. If you’ve read a good book in the past few years, if you’ve read a book that moved you, a book that enlarged your world-view, a book that changed you, if you have ever read a book that made you want to be a writer, then remember where that book came from: an author who lives in the same world in which you live, an author who cannot download lunch, blue jeans, or an apartment for free.

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Fear, Trembling, & Tribulation: Notes from a Raptured Childhood

Before I was a San Franciscan, I was a Southerner, and every reformed Southerner knows a thing or two about the Rapture. As a child in a strict Southern Baptist household in Alabama, I was fed a steady Sunday diet of Revelations and lived in fear of the day that Jesus would return, the graves open up, and the skeletons of the saved start rocketing skyward. I pictured the waking dead like puppets on strings, a grisly group dancing its way toward eternal life. Of course, it wasn’t just the dead who would suddenly be lifted heavenward. The living born-again would also be among the raptured. Rapture was a noun, but it was also a verb. To be raptured was divine, to be left behind was hellish.

One of the ironies of the Rapture is that it’s supposed to be a celebratory moment for Christians, the moment when all of their spiritual dreams come to fruition, the moment when they are rewarded for their belief and their evangelizing. But I didn’t know a single child who looked forward to the Rapture, and I always suspected the adults were just pretending. Because there was always that nagging question: what if I am not among the raptured? What if I’m left behind? (The creepy Left Behind movie/book juggernaut has cashed in on precisely this question.)

We all have our childhood rituals. Some people went to Tahoe, some to Panama City, a lucky few to Europe. I, on the other hand, went to Vacation Bible School, and to lock-ins at DauphinWay Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama. The pizza was great, but the entertainment was a downer. At some point in every lock-in, the lights went off, the movie projector ticked and hummed, and some low-budget film about the end times began to play.

One scene in all of these movies, one that haunted me for many years, was the scene in which the cars start crashing and careening off the road, as unsuspecting drivers disappear from behind their steering wheels. I had nightmares of suddenly being alone in the backseat of a speeding car as my mother went the way of the righteous. Other nightmares involved waking up in the morning to find the house empty. Left to my own devices, I wondered, would I submit to the Sign of the Beast – the numbers 666 stamped on my forehead? It was a choice that anyone who was left behind would have to make. Accept the Sign of the Beast, and burn in hell forever. Refuse the Sign of the Beast, and meet a horrific worldly fate.

Every year or two, we hear the doomsday scenarios about the coming end times, usually predicted for a certain day (remember poor old Harold Camping’s botched May 21 prediction?) Those who weren’t raised in the shadow of the Rapture may not know, however, about the Tribulation. I asked my husband, who is the product of many years of Catholic schooling, and he’d never heard of it. The Rapture is supposed to be followed by seven years of hell on earth following Christ’s second departure: war, famine, misery all around. During the Tribulation, those who have been left behind have the opportunity to repent and publicly announce their belief in Christ. Doing so, refusing the Sign of the Beast, means you can’t buy groceries, find work, feed your children. You’ll probably be tortured by the heathens, and there’s a good chance you’ll go to prison. But at the end of the seven years, you get to go to heaven.

As a child I was not allowed to watch Star Wars, on account of it being too graphic and possibly frightening, but I was steeped from an early age in the blood-curdling imagery of the Rapture and Tribulation. My mother was a product of her own childhood. As the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, there was no room for debate on matters of the Bible; she considered it impregnable, our instruction in it as much a part of her maternal duty as feeding and clothing us. Darth Vader was off-limits, but the Devil was real and dangerous, and we better be prepared.

Aside from moving to San Francisco, ceasing to believe in the Rapture is probably one of the most radical things a Southern Baptist girl can do. But I am here, and I’ve traded the ghosts of my childhood for more practical concerns. The Rapture now seems to me as outlandish as any other religious myth, a grand narrative of fear meant to keep the followers in line. But there was a time in my childhood when a bolt of lightning or a coming tornado would have me looking skyward, wondering if this was the moment, and whether I’d stay or go.

One more thing you should know about those doomsday predictions: Aside from a tiny group of radicals within the radicals, the vast majority of people who believe in the Rapture think Harold Camping and his ilk are nut cases. One of the basic tenets of the Rapture, according to Revelations, is that no one can know when it will happen. It will be preceded by an Antichrist (a certain faction loves to point to President Obama), a human who convinces millions around the world that he is the Messiah. Evangelicals believe that there will be earthquakes and tornadoes, plagues and pestilence, but that anyone who claims to predict the date is to be viewed as a false prophet. Jesus promises to come “like a thief in the night,” when you’re least expecting it. You don’t get to save the date, and you don’t get to dress for the occasion or turn on the TV at 6 p.m. to watch the earthquakes roll toward you. The Rapture may be televised, but it won’t be scheduled.

I sometimes wonder if this steadfast belief in the Rapture is what leads a large percentage of evangelicals to take a slash-and-burn approach to everything from the environment to foreign relations. If you believe the world is about to end, you don’t worry too much about the oceans. If you’re about to be whisked up to heaven,you don’t mind dropping bombs whenever someone looks at you the wrong way. The Rapture, with all of its attending self-righteousness and brutality, is just one more reason to keep religion out of politics.

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First a spot of tea RomoBomb

RomoBomb

Everyone’s #RomoBombing over at Twitter for a chance to win tickets to see the San Francisco Giants in the world series. I had to give it a go.

Definition of RomoBombing: An ecstatic expression of unbridled joy unleashed in the immediate aftermath of a beautiful catch, a hard-earned run, or any mind-blowing play on the baseball diamond, made famous by SF Giants pitcher Sergio Romo. Includes leaping into the air while pumping the arms in a hugging motion and lifting the face toward heaven while jerking the head back and forth. Tends to energize large crowds of people wearing orange.

 Romobombing also be applied to everyday situations. Did you just get promoted, say I Do, give birth, hit the bestseller list? Time to RomoBomb.

How to RomoBomb:

Download the picture of Sergio Romo doing his victory dance, and do a mash-up with other photos. Add your witty text, then tweet it with the hashtag #RomoBomb or #RomoBombing Add a shout-out to @SFGiants or @SergioRomo54

Follow me on Twitter.              View more #RomoBombing over at twitter

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Major Art theft from Kunsthal Museum

 

Waterloo Bridge by Monet, stolen from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam

Thieves broke into Kunsthal museum on Tuesday and walked off with works from the likes of Picasso, Monet, Gauguin and Matisse potentially worth hundreds of millions.

The stolen paintings include:

Pablo Picasso’s 1971 “Harlequin Head”; Claude Monet’s 1901 “Waterloo Bridge, London” and “Charing Cross Bridge, London”; Henri Matisse’s 1919 “Reading Girl in White and Yellow”; Paul Gauguin’s 1898 “Girl in Front of Open Window”; Meyer de Haan’s “Self-Portrait,” around 1890, and Lucian Freud’s 2002 work “Woman with Eyes Closed.”

Bad timing for art in general. Serendipitous timing for one author, B.A. Shapiro, whose novel The Art Forger recently hit the shelves.

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