Monthly Archives: November 2010

Gutenberg Director Admits Error, Promises Revised Procedures. (But The Cat’s Out of the Bag)

Dr. Gregory Newby, Chief Executive and Director of Project Gutenberg, issued a public apology to Greg Bear, Astrid Anderson Bear, and unnamed “others”, for a “determination of non-renewal” that was in error.  He said he was ordering removal of “The Escape,” the work that provoked the Bears’ complaint, from the Project Gutenberg collections and catalog. You can read that complaint here.

Below are the pertinent passages of Dr. Newby’s letter.  However, it does not address the question of liability for possible damages resulting from release of the work into the public domain and subsequent exploitation by publishers and other third parties.

Richard Curtis

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Dr. Gregory B. Newby
Chief Executive and Director

Dear Greg, Astrid, and others:

My apologies for my long delay in responding. As promised in
September, I discussed the situation with one of Project Gutenberg’s
copyright lawyers. This particular lawyer had previously been very
helpful in preparing and then providing legal advice and feedback on
our procedures for determining non-renewal status.

Our lawyer advised that our non-renewal determination for The Escape
was in error. Therefore, on October 1, I removed The Escape from the
Project Gutenberg collections and catalog and announced its removal
to our mailing list.

On behalf of Project Gutenberg, I apologize for the error.

The error occurred because we did not know that Brainwave was a
complete publication of the serial parts of The Escape. We did know
from the publication of The Escape in 1953 that it was the first part
of a serialization, but did not know that Brainwave, from 1954, was
the title of the complete serialization.

We are working on enhancements to our procedures for serial works so
that we are more likely to find variations in titles such as happened
with Brainwave.

As a result of your complaint, we have received clarification from our
lawyer on situations where individual parts of entire works are
published serially, but only some of the parts, or only the entire
work but not the serial parts, are renewed. Until we received this
clarification, our procedure was that each part must have a separate
renewal for its first publication.

My long delay in responding is because our newly revised procedures
are not yet posted on our Web site. We’ve had some exchanges with the lawyer I mentioned, as well as among the Project Gutenberg copyright team and production volunteers. I do hope to have the revised procedures for non-renewals in place soon, and meanwhile Project Gutenberg has put a hold on public domain determinations for non-renewals.

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For the complete text of Dr. Newby’s email, click here.

And for a complete archive of E-Reads postings related to piracy, infringement and other unauthorized use of copyrighted works, click here.

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Gutenberg Director Admits Error, Promises Revised Procedures

Dr. Gregory B. Newby
Chief Executive and Director

Dear Greg, Astrid, and others:

My apologies for my long delay in responding. As promised in
September, I discussed the situation with one of Project Gutenberg’s
copyright lawyers. This particular lawyer had previously been very
helpful in preparing and then providing legal advice and feedback on
our procedures for determining non-renewal status.

Our lawyer advised that our non-renewal determination for The Escape
was in error. Therefore, on October 1, I removed The Escape from the
Project Gutenberg collections and catalog and announced its removal
to our mailing list.

On behalf of Project Gutenberg, I apologize for the error.

The error occurred because we did not know that Brainwave was a
complete publication of the serial parts of The Escape. We did know
from the publication of The Escape in 1953 that it was the first part
of a serialization, but did not know that Brainwave, from 1954, was
the title of the complete serialization.

We are working on enhancements to our procedures for serial works so
that we are more likely to find variations in titles such as happened
with Brainwave.

As a result of your complaint, we have received clarification from our
lawyer on situations where individual parts of entire works are
published serially, but only some of the parts, or only the entire
work but not the serial parts, are renewed. Until we received this
clarification, our procedure was that each part must have a separate
renewal for its first publication.

My long delay in responding is because our newly revised procedures
are not yet posted on our Web site. We’ve had some exchanges with the lawyer I mentioned, as well as among the Project Gutenberg copyright team and production volunteers. I do hope to have the revised procedures for non-renewals in place soon, and meanwhile Project Gutenberg has put a hold on public domain determinations for
non-renewals.

In the meantime, I will summarize for you the main points that allowed
the renewal for Brainwave to apply to The Escape. Then, I will
provide a listing of the titles by Poul Anderson that we are working
with. That way, you might want to confirm whether our bibliographic
research (on title variations) and copyright research (on renewal
records) seems to be correct.

I would also like to offer to ask our lawyer to communicate directly
with your lawyer on any of the topics we have covered. If you would
prefer such an approach, please provide me contact information for
your lawyer, and I will give the information to our lawyer.

Here are the main points of variation from our old procedures as
they relate to what we have corresponded on:

– variant titles, new reprints, compilations, and other republications
of items need to be identified as part of our bibliographic research,
within the time span for valid renewals

– in serial works, the serial parts are considered to be part of the
same act of authorship as the complete work. Thus, renewals for the
parts, or the whole, may apply to the other parts
(this applied to The Escape)

– renewals due the 28th year after first publication may actually
appear in the copyright registry in the 27th, 28th, 29th or 30th year,
and still be valid

– for serial parts, our conservative stance is that renewals from the
25th through 32nd year for any serial part, or the whole, including
any type of republication, will be taken to apply to any parts within
that time span
(this applied to The Escape)

– copyrights or renewals outside of the time spans listed above, for
any type of republication, are not applicable to earlier publication.
That is, serial parts or whole works published but not renewed do not
become renewed by later republication outside of the 2-year (for
non-serials) or 4-year (for serials) window.
(this applies to Industrial Revolution)

By the way, we are checking again on whether the 1965 republication
Industrial Revolution was subsequently renewed.

Here are the items we have already published, along with their
Project Gutenberg eBook number:

Duel on Syrtis, by Poul William Anderson 32436
The Sensitive Man, by Poul William Anderson 31501
Industrial Revolution, by Poul William Anderson 30971
The Valor of Cappen Varra, by Poul William Anderson 29542
The Burning Bridge, by Poul William Anderson 22554
Security, by Poul William Anderson 22239

Finally, here is the listing of titles we are working with, along with
a synopsis of our bibliographic and renewal research.

“Security” by Poul Anderson. Originally published in _Space Science
Fiction_ February 1953. No publication after SSF 1953 until 2007.

“The Burning Bridge” by Poul Anderson. First published in Astounding
Science Fiction January 1960. Astounding January 1960 renewed as
RE-322-832 with a claim limitation of NEW MATTER: compilation and all
editorial material. No publication after Astounding 1960 until 2007.

“Industrial Revolution” by Winston P. Sanders. First publication was
in Analog September 1963. Analog September 1963 renewed as RE-517-946
with a claim limitation of NEW MATTER: compilation and editorial
material. We found the renewal for the other Poul Anderson 1963
publications. RE0000562489 does not include “Industrial
Revolution”. Next publication after Analog September 1963 is in Analog
3 in 1965. This one was apparently retitled to “The Rogue” in 1970
when combined with other Flying Mountain stories.

“The Valor of Cappen Varra” by Poul Anderson. Originally published in
“Fantastic Universe” by King-Size Publications, New York, NY in the
January 1957 issue. The next publication found was in Swords and
Sorcery December 1963.

“The Sensitive Man” by Poul Anderson. Originally published in
“Fantastic Universe” by King-Size Publications, New York, NY in the
January 1954 issue. The next publication was found in Beyond the
Beyond in August 1969.

“The Chapter Ends” by Poul Anderson. Originally published in “Dynamic
Science Fiction” by Columbia Publications Inc, New York in the January
1954 issue. From the James Gunn contribution, the original filing
number is B00000442865. The next publication after DSF January 1954 is
in Adventures in the Far Future / Tales of Outer Space in 1954. After
that is Novelets of Science Fiction in 1963. We did not find a renewal
for Adventures in the Far Future or Tales of Outer Space. (We did find a
renewal for Behind the Black Nebula by L. Ron Hubbard from that
anthology. RE0000146004 on A00000155444.)

“Duel on Syrtis” by Poul Anderson. Originally published in Planet
Stories March 1951 by Love Romance Publishing Co. Inc., New York,
NY. After the PS March 1951 the next publication found is Strangers
from Earth in 1961.

“Sentiment, Inc.” by Poul Anderson. First published in Science Fiction
Stories with a 1953 copyright statement by Columbia Publications,
Inc. Science Fiction Stories was a periodical with an irregular
publishing history. 1953 had one issue. Next publication was in
The Weird Ones in July 1962.

Included for completeness, but already determined to be renewed:
“The Escape” by Poul Anderson. It appears to have been first published
in the U.S. and British editions of “Space Science Fiction” Volume 2
Number 2 September 1953 simultaneously. After the SSF September 1953 publication it was published by Ballantine in 1954. Brainwave
renewed.

Again, my apologies for the long delay in this correspondence. I do
anticipate we will have a revised procedure description online soon,
but did not want to delay further before sending this correspondence.

With best regards,
Greg

Dr. Gregory B. Newby
Chief Executive and Director
Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation http://gutenberg.org
A 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization with EIN 64-6221541

** This message is granted to the public domain **

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Franzen Finishes Out of Running in Bad Sex Sweepstakes

“Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.”

With those immortal words Irish author Rowan Somerville won this year’s edition of the Bad Sex Award, given out for crude and execrable sex writing in contemporary fiction. His novel, The Shape of Her, beat a work by another Irishman, Alastair Campbell.

The mantle of such illustrious countrymen as Swift, Joyce, Wilde, Shaw and Yeats now rests on the shoulders of these giants.

“Other amorous passages in The Shape of Her,” reports the Telegraph, “contained a female body part ‘upturned like the nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing the night’ and described how one character ‘twisted onto her belly like a fish flipping itself’.”

International literary lion Jonathan Franzen, wanting for lepidopteral and piscatorial imagery in his otherwise laudable Freedom, had to settle for a booby prize. (See Jonathan Franzen Nominated for Award He’d Rather Not Win)

RC

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How I Know There is a Pod

David Pogue’s “State of the Art” blog in the New York Times is not only our eye on technology but our eye on common sense as well.  His popular analyses of new devices and gadgets, trends and fads have stood out not just for their astuteness but for their practicality as well.  Underlying all of his product examinations is the question “What would a reasonable person like to know?”

In his latest posting The Lessons of 10 Years of Talking Tech he celebrate the tenth anniversary of his feature with a summary of major lessons he has learned over a decade, and one of them has particular resonance for us:

Sooner or later, everything goes on-demand. The last 10 years have brought a sweeping switch from tape and paper storage to digital downloads. Music, TV shows, movies, photos and now books and newspapers. We want instant access. We want it easy.

“Our grandchildren will find it hilarious that people, when they wanted to watch a movie at home, used to get in a ‘car’ and drive to a ‘building’ to rent a plastic ‘disc’ that had to be ‘returned.'”

If we substitute “book” for “movie” we’ll immediately understand that the current system of visiting “buildings” to purchase the tangible objects known as “books” may one day seem equally hilarious to our grandchildren.  They will have grown up in a world where books are purchased on demand.

As we have often said here, there is nothing wrong with books.  But everything is wrong with the way they are distributed: in vehicles to buildings,  buildings to which as many as 50% of the people who purchased them return them. The returned books are then returned to other buildings called warehouses, then back to other buildings to be sold at a loss or pulped. There is much in this process for our grandchildren to find hilarious.  Indeed, there is much for us to find hilarious. Yet we have suffered it because we had nothing better.  Now we do. It’s called print on demand.

“By now it must be clear to all but a handful of diehards,” we recently wrote (See A World Without Inventory, Part 1 and Part 2), ” that the business model based on returnability of books for credit, a practice instituted by the trade book industry some 75 years ago, is no longer viable.”

Publishing oracle Mike Shatzkin concurs: “The idea of printing and distributing speculatively will make less and less sense as the potential market to be reached by that tactic diminishes as a share of the whole.” And David Taylor, president of Lightning Source, the biggest print on demand supplier in the business,  declares that  “POD is no longer an optional novelty; it is an integral and essential part of the future of publishing.”

Sooner or later, everything goes on demand, David Pogue wrote. He made no exception for books. Publishers that fail to see what he sees – to see what any reasonable person sees – will pay dearly for their shortsightedness.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by The New York Times.

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Project Gutenberg Improperly PD’d Copyrighted Works, Authors Claim

By misreading copyright law Project Gutenberg may have infringed the rights of some authors and improperly put their books into the public domain, say science fiction author Greg Bear and Astrid Anderson Bear, his wife and daughter of another SF author, Poul Anderson.  Gutenberg’s release of several Poul Anderson works into the public domain provoked an investigation by the couple, who have issued the statement reproduced below in its entirety.

RC

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The online site Project Gutenberg (PG)  is systematically declaring copyrights void in many literary works published in the 1940s, 1950s, and later, with a special focus on stories published in science fiction pulp magazines. Project Gutenberg then makes these works freely available on the internet though their website, where the scanned texts are further disseminated by manybooks.net and other online text outlets.

After conducting legal research on the LEXIS database of legal cases, decisions, and precedents, we have demonstrated conclusively that PG was making incorrect determinations regarding public domain status in many, many works that originally appeared in magazine form. The Poul Anderson estate has been able to get one work, “The Escape”, that PG had firmly declared to be public domain, removed from their site. PG’s original reasoning was that since the magazine it appeared in had never actually filed for copyright, the work was unprotected. “The Escape”, printed in 1953, was the first half of Anderson’s well-known novel BRAINWAVE, which was published and properly copyrighted the following year.

However, even if ‘The Escape” had not been published as a novel, it would have remained under copyright protection until 1981 (28 years) and been eligible for copyright renewal. Authors of that era, and Anderson in particular, were very aware of the need to renew copyrights, and typically meticulously kept their copyright protections up to date. Copyright law for works created more recently is much easier: life plus 70 years. (Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, 1998).

Why is a work that appeared in a magazine that did not file proper copyright paperwork protected by copyright law? The opinion in a major case in the US 2nd Circuit Court, Goodis v. United Artists Television, explains: ”. . . “We unanimously conclude that where a magazine has purchased the right of first publication under circumstances which show that the author has no intention to donate his work to the public, copyright notice in the magazine’s name is sufficient to obtain a valid copyright on behalf of the beneficial owner, the author or proprietor.” The opinion goes on at length regarding the creation of copyright at the time of publication. The full text of Goodis is available here.

A second major case in copyright law, Abend v. MCA, Inc., Universal Film Exchange, James Stewart, estate of Alfred Hitchcock, et al, in the 9th Circuit, upholds this ruling and references Goodis lavishly. The full text of Abend is available here.

According to an email from Project Gutenberg’s CEO, Dr. Greg Newby, PG has changed their procedures for research of copyright non-renewal following the takedown of the Anderson work, although as of this writing (11/21/10) they have not posted these changes on their website. Dr. Newby says PG has also put a hold on public domain determinations for non-renewals. They do not seem to be reviewing the status of works already posted.

Authors and estates with works that are listed as public domain on PG’s site need to check out the true copyright status of those works, If they are posted on PG in error, PG needs to be notified via a DMCA notice. This is a powerful tool, created by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. A DMCA notice is a legal document that states the rights of the copyright holder and demands that illegally posted material be taken down. For a summary of the DMCA in general, go here. There are many online forms for the DMCA notices, such as this one.

DMCA notices also need to be filed with other sites such as manybooks.net, demanding removal of the texts from the sites. The DMCAs may not be honored until PG has pulled a title, as PG is considered the “gold standard” of copyright determination – all titles available there are thought (wrongly) to be free and clear for exploitation by anyone. Small, independent publishers are taking advantage of these treasures and making physical copies, usually with print-on-demand technology, and selling them through Amazon and other sites. Estates and authors should search out these publishers and make their rights known. Estates and authors can demand that publication stop immediately, and that all proceeds be turned over to them as the rightful copyright holder. It should be noted that these publishers don’t feel they are pirates, they feel they are merely taking advantage of opportunities that are perfectly legal. They are wrong, and need to be put in the right of it.

In general, Project Gutenberg is doing a tremendous service by making available texts that have truly long since fallen out of copyright, but they are clearly overstepping their original mandate. They are not merely exploiting orphan works, but practicing a wholesale kidnapping of works that are under copyright protection. Authors and estates need to aggressively take back what belongs to them.

— Astrid Anderson Bear
Greg Bear

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For a complete E-Reads archive on piracy, visit Pirate Central.

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Sorry, Miss Mitchell, “Goon with the Wand” Simply Will Not Do

We are grateful to Galleycat for informing us that Lulu, a leading firm in the self-publication field, has developed a program to help authors determine the odds that any given title will be a bestseller.  It’s called “Titlescorer.”

Galleycat explains: Lulu “commissioned a research team to analyze the title of every novel to have topped the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List during the half-century from 1955 to 2004 and then compare them with the titles of a control group of less successful novels by the same authors. The team, led by British statistician Dr. Atai Winkler, then used the data gathered from a total of some 700 titles to create this ‘Lulu Titlescorer’, a program able to predict the chances that any given title would produce a New York Times No. 1 bestseller.”

Literary agents spend a great deal of time helping authors distill an exquisite elixir of title and subtitle from a lumpy stew of nouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions.  (See My Life in Titles)  So, we were fascinated to read about Lulu’s magic potion and wasted no time trying it. It works this way: you enter your proposed title and answer some questions to help Titlescorer get a good fix on its grammatical construction.

We’re sure that Lulu’s scientific protocols and formulas are impeccably scientific.  Nevertheless we are duty-bound to report that the results fell somewhat short of our expectations,  restoring a glimmer of optimism that such tried and true sources as The Bible and Shakespeare might still yield some memorable titles; indeed, after feeding suggestions into Titlescorer we are optimistic that some great titles can be discovered by throwing darts at a dictionary.

The first thing we did was enter the titles of the current (November 21 2010) #1 New York Times nonfiction and fiction bestsellers, Decision Points by George W. Bush and Hell’s Corner by David Baldacci.  Titlescorer gave the Bush book a 10.2% chance of being a bestselling title. The Baldacci fared significantly better at 76.9%. Do we detect a political bias here?

As four days of Thanksgiving weekend idleness left us with an excess of playful spirits we decided to torment Lulu for sport.  We entered one of the greatest bestsellers in history (one of the greatest titles too) in Titlescorer and were dismayed to learn that “Gone with the Wind has a 26.3% chance of being a bestselling title!” We then entered Goon with the Wind – and got the same 26.3%.  (Actually there is a book called Goon with the Wind. It’s by Max Geldray and is currently ranked #2,931,172 on Amazon compared to Margaret Mitchell’s #3,389. Yet they have equal chances of becoming bestsellers according to Titlescorer.)   Same goes for Gong with the Wind and Goon with the Wand.  Strangest of all, an inspired invention we dubbed Gone with the Weird has a 79.6% chance of being a bestseller.  We freely offer it to all who seek in vain for a title with “bestseller” written all over it.

Galleycat tells us that Titlescorer’s programmers admit that “this is not an exact science.” That would seem self-evident, but in case you still need confirmation, the program gave something called Twilight only a 36% chance of becoming a bestseller. As a parting shot we tried Titlescorer Rocks and it fared better than Titlescorer Sucks, 72.5% to 63.7%

But don’t take our word for it.  Take Titlescorer for a test drive. Us? We’ll go on seeking our titles in The Oxford Book of English Verse, notwithstanding its 35.9% chance of becoming a bestseller.

Richard Curtis

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Yo! My Heartfelt Condolences on the Death of Your Loved One. Cheers and XOXO, and Please Consider the Environment Before Printing This Email

We’re not sure what your netiquette rule is but we personally draw the line at sending condolence notes via email.  But if we did we’d take particular care about how we signed off.  You’ll understand why when you read about inappropriate endings people put on their emails in When ‘Best’ Isn’t Good Enough by the New York Times‘s Judith Newman.

She writes: “In a medium where it is often oddly difficult to interpret tone, where the lines of friendship, love and business are easily muddied, and where people are sometimes a little too eager to shine brightly in the drab sludge of daily missives, something as seemingly trivial is an e-mail signoff can loom large.”

How true. And it doesn’t take a condolence note to produce inappropriate salutations and closings.  “Hi” and “Hey” and “Yo”, to which modern civilization has descended after centuries of elegant flourishes like “Your Serene Highness” and “I remain, most Excellent Sir, your dedicated and humble servant,” are not calculated to project the appropriate tone of gravitas.

Business communications are particularly knotty. Newman cites some contemporary signoffs like chocolatier Katrina Markoff’s “Peace, love and chocolate” and publishing executive David Hirshey’s “Stay Jewish.” She also debates the proprieties of XOXO and other huggy-kissy closings  in business emails. And her comments on when (if ever) to sign “Love” when emailing professional colleague proves just how fraught that little epistolary goodbye can be.”People will start with’“Sincerely’ and work their way up — ‘Regards,’ ‘Best,’ ‘Warmly,’ ‘Fondly.’ But then there’s inevitably a point where a decision needs to be made.”

The late Norris Church Mailer played it safe, “sticking with the lowercase xx — “which are not really kisses but a placeholder, as if I don’t really know how I feel about this person, and they can apply whatever meaning they choose.”

Oh yes – when emailing warm personal notes such as, say, a condolence, you might want to avoid notices like this one:

The contents of this email and any attachments are confidential and intended solely for the individual(s) and/or organization(s) to whom the email is addressed. If you are not the intended recipient of this email, any use, disclosure, forwarding, printing or copying of this email and any attachments by you may be unlawful. If you have received this email in error please notify us immediately.

Cheers. XOXO. Stay Sweet. Ave atque vale. Fuerte Abrazo!

Richard Curtis
Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by The New York Times.

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We Have Seen the Pirates and They are Us

Have you ever downloaded a document or file illegally?  Count to ten before you reply, and while you’re counting you can check your activities against the list below. It won’t surprise us to hear that you recognize yourself in this picture of transgressions advertent, inadvertent, or flagrant. Show us someone who hasn’t illegally downloaded a copyrighted file, song or document and we’ll show you a saint.

The fact is that not all piracy is committed by hardened criminals.  In fact, most of the perpetrators are ordinary people like you and me. Indeed, the majority are you and me.

RC

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Types of Piracy

1. Softlifting: Purchasing a single licensed copy of software and loading it onto several computers contrary to the license terms. For example, sharing software with friends, co-workers and others.

2. Uploading and downloading: making unauthorized copies of copyrighted software available to end users connected by modem to online service providers and/or the Internet.

3. Software counterfeiting: illegally duplicating and selling copyrighted software in a form designed to make it appear legitimate

4. OEM unbundling: selling standalone software that was intended to be bundled with specific accompanying hardware

5. Hard disk loading: installing unauthorized copies of software onto the hard disks of personal computers, often as an incentive for the end user to buy the hardware from that particular hardware dealer

6. Renting: unauthorized selling of software for temporary use, as you would a video.

Richard Curtis and Anthony Damasco

For a complete archive of E-Reads postings on piracy, visit Pirate Central.

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Franzen Nominated for a Prize He’d Rather Not Win

Bad sex – for this they give an award?

Yes, and it’s given to authors!  England’s Literary Review has been giving the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for several years, and it isn’t the kind of trophy for which you’re likely to be lionized.

It is hard…damn! I meant to say difficult – to write about the awards without lapsing into double entendre, and as one reads about them the mind teems with sophomoric jokes and snigger-inducing puns. For instance, Guardian.co.uk‘s headline is “Alastair Campbell outlasts Tony Blair in bad sex awards. Former spin doctor beats off stiff competition from ex-PM to reach shortlist for prize honouring clumsy prose about coitus.” And surely someone with a schoolboy prankster’s sense of humor booked the venue for presentation of the award at the In & Out Club in St James’s Square.

We can’t even discuss how the awards were conceived – see what I mean? – without smirking. But let’s try. Ironically,” we read in a posting in The Independent by Arifa Akbar, ” the bad sex awards were originally conceived, in 1993, to celebrate good sex, before the editor, Auberon Waugh, was advised by co-founder, Rhoda Koenig, that this might be ‘less interesting’ than plucking out the clichéd and the corny. Waugh went with her suggestion. ‘For something like 15 years I had to review a novel a week in various publications,’ he explained in an article for The Erotic Review, “and bit by bit I noticed how practically every novelist had taken to including a sex scene which had nothing to do with the plot and added nothing to the enjoyment of the narrative. Nobody could possibly have been aroused by these awkward, perfunctory couplings.”

For some witty and insightful articles from the British viewpoint about sex in literature, read  Bad sex please, we’re British: Can fictive sex ever have artistic merit? and Is it Difficult to Write Well about Sex?

The nominees for the 2010 are as follows (the publishers listed are British):

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (4th Estate)
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (Atlantic Books)
The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon (Atlantic Books)
Maya by Alastair Campbell (Hutchinson)
A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee (Constable & Robinson)
Heartbreak by Craig Raine (Atlantic Books)
The Shape of Her by Rowan Somerville (W&N)
Mr Peanut by Adam Ross (Jonathan Cape).

We don’t yet have the offending passages nominated for this year’s prize but here they are for 2009: extracts from the 2009 prize shortlist. Please let’s not all groan at once.

Ironically, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was not nominated for a National Book Award but it is a candidate for a Bad Sex one. Will he attend the award ceremony?  Has he prepared an acceptance speech?

Richard Curtis

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Digital Distractions Producing a Generation of Morons?

Techno-addiction is creating a generation of students with hypertrophied thumbs and  atrophied intellects. That seems to be the gist of Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction by Matt Richtel of the New York Times.  They may be dazzling multi-taskers but many cannot read, write, or calculate.

This comes as no surprise here, where we’ve posted a number of articles warning about the potentially destructive allure of screens (see below). But as the first fully wired crop of youngsters comes on stream the harmful impact of digital technology on academic performance is manifesting itself with a vengeance.

“The risk,” Richtel reports, “is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.”  He quotes Michael Rich, executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston: “Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing… The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

The article focuses on a California student described as one of his school’s brightest. His digital skills and passion for videos earned him an A in film critique.  But he also got a D+ in English and an F in Algebra II, netting him a grade point average of 2.3. It took him two months to read 43 pages of an assigned book last summer. Nor has he gotten much exercise. The senior says “I haven’t done exercise since my sophomore year.” Books? He prefers YouTube, where “you can get a whole story in six minutes. A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”  And just how well does he handle multitasking? In fact, even that’s a problem: “I’m doing Facebook, YouTube, having a conversation or two with a friend, listening to music at the same time. I’m doing a million things at once, like a lot of people my age. Sometimes I’ll say: I need to stop this and do my schoolwork, but I can’t.”

Another student, who exchanges 27,000 text messages every month (!!!), reflects the same inability to focus on task: “I’ll be reading a book for homework and I’ll get a text message and pause my reading and put down the book, pick up the phone to reply to the text message, and then 20 minutes later realize, ‘Oh, I forgot to do my homework.’ ”

Researchers confirm what these stories tell us: “Several recent studies,” Richtel writes, “show that young people tend to use home computers for entertainment, not learning, and that this can hurt school performance, particularly in low-income families.”

A teacher puts it more plainly: “It’s a catastrophe.”

Read Matt Richtel’s Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction. And for additional background about the negative  impact of screen technology see Watching Books, The Medium is Screens.  The message is Distraction and More Evidence that Screens=Distraction.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by The New York Times.

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