Category: Notables

Whoa, a new blog post, and it’s not about Doyle

cocmagcoverLet’s see, about 23 days since my last post here. The Fall 2013 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine has been a . . . chore to finish,  and has occupied all of my time and energy. Plus are editorial offices our moving—more on that tomorrow—and we have to be all packed up by Labor Day. Hence the unplanned and prolonged hiatus.

But now I’m back, with a few lines about the story I’ve most liked in the last few weeks: “Shattered Worlds,” by Alicia Lutz in the most recent issue of College of Charleston Magazine. It’s a profile of alumnus Hugh Howey, who incredibly became rich from a self-published science fiction novel titled Wool. Howey had already written nine novels or novellas and published all of them himself when he sat down at his Macbook Air and tapped out a 40-page short story and used Kindle Direct Publishing at Amazon to zip it out to the public. It cost $0.99 to download and read and Howey sold a thousand copies (so to speak—we’re talking electrons here) in three months. That encouraged him to write four more installments over the next two months. In January 2012, he released, again for Kindle, an omnibus edition of all five stories as Wool, and 23,000 readers bought copies in the first month. Before long, the author was pulling in $150,000 a month from sales of the ebook; Amazon named Wool the best indie science fiction title of 2012.

Hugh Howey has always gone his own way. He’s always done what suited him. As a kid, he was somewhat of a loner, an introvert. Not that he was antisocial or disruptive – not at all. He was a good student, a good athlete and a good classmate. He had one close friend, but got along with everyone. Still, he always preferred the company of the book sticking out of his back pocket. 

In high school, he managed to stay above the fray – remaining completely unaware of the peer pressure that plagued his classmates. He grew his hair long, played soccer, rode a skateboard and listened to his parents’ rock ‘n’ roll. 

“I thought of myself as a romantic, reading and writing poetry all the time, which often led to interest from girls who would grow frustrated by my lack of moves and run off with my best friend,” Howey sighs. “It worked out great for him.”

What makes the story work is Lutz’s sure hand with a narrative and her consistently sound judgement in what to harvest from Howey’s oddball life. It took the writer three tries to graduate from Charleston because he kept leaving to go to sea on various boats. He was on a boat at the base of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

shatteredworldsspreadHowey eventually made history, of a sort, by signing a substantial print-only contract with Simon & Schuster. The publisher would bring his work out in print, but Howey would keep the digital rights and keep on selling his ebooks. He’s peddled the film rights for Wool to Ridley Scott.

Two other things make this a great magazine feature package. One, Charleston convinced him to pose for Jason Myers (who is a hell of a portrait shooter) in what looks like a circa-1962 spacesuit, the sort of thing that would not look out of place on the cover of a 1950s pulp science fiction magazine. (I know this because I was once an avid reader of such magazines.) And second, illustrator Justin Fields did some killer art for two of the spreads. The story runs 12 pages in the magazine, including a page devoted to an excerpt from Wool, and it had to be expensive. But College of Charleston does this kind of thing really well. Nice work.

Richmond steps up

Matthew Dewald did good work when he was at the University of Dayton. Now that he plies his blue pencil—old-print-guy-editor reference—at the University of Richmond, he’s making Richmond a magazine that merits your attention.

madison-mooreThe most recent issue got my attention on pg. 2 with a photo of this guy, to your right in the killer heels. He is Madison Moore, a post-doc at Richmond, and I don’t know which I like more—that Richmond is cool enough to put him on the adjunct faculty, or that Dewald was cool enough to put him in the magazine.

In the feature well is something else you don’t see every day: Two readable stories written by faculty members. Political science assistant professor Monti Narayan Datta contributed a potent piece about contemporary slavery, especially the Asian sex trade. But the piece that impressed me the most was “Click to Agree” by Jim Gibson, a law professor and director of Richmond’s Intellectual Property Institute. It’s a six-page spread on boilerplate contracts. Yeah. Six pages on boilerplate contracts, those things that we all never read but must agree to before we can install software on our computers or a new app on our smartphones. And I read it all.

For one thing, Gibson has the wit to include this as an example of consumer oblivion to boilerplate:

Like price, a contract term is just a feature of the transaction. If you don’t like the contract, just walk away. When you walk away, you’re signaling to the invisible hand to come down hard on that seller.

But does the theory work in practice? Consider this: A couple of years ago, a British video game retailer hatched an April Fool’s Day scheme. Buried deep in its online sales contract, to which customers had to agree when making a purchase, was the following term: “By placing an order via this Web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul.”

The fine print described how the company could exercise its option, including serving notice “in 6 (six) foot high letters of fire.” But if you were an attentive customer and you wanted to hold onto your soul—or had “already given it to another party”—you could opt out of the provision by clicking a link. Those who did were rewarded with a discount offer and the chance to win free games.

You can guess what happened. The vast majority of customers never clicked the link. They simply agreed to the entire contract without reading it.

Gibson goes on to report on an analysis that he’s done of the cost to the consumer of actually reading and comprehending the boilerplate contracts that accompanied four computers that he bought, compared to potential consumer benefit. You’ll have to trust me on this until you see for yourself—the story at this point is still engaging and readable.

But wait—computers are expensive. One should expect to spend some time checking them out before parting with so much money. I addressed this issue by expressing the consumer’s burden in words per dollar. Even under this metric, the burden is high: 93 words per dollar spent. Imagine having to read 93 words of boilerplate each time you buy a can of soda, 279 words when buying a $3 gallon of milk, or 5,580 words when filling a 20-gallon tank with gas.

click-to-agree-infographicThat’s smart writing. And illustrator Katie McBride put all of this into a terrific two-page infographic, reproduced online in a stacked version. (Click on the image to fully appreciate it.) I finished the piece and thought, That’s the damnedest alumni magazine story I’ve read all year.

Makes me wonder what Dewald and Richmond will do next. Which is exactly what we all want readers to think when they finish our latest issues.

A readable story on personal budgeting. No, really…

marriottI am fond of “what you know is wrong” stories. Stories that persuade you of some counterintuitive fact of life. The summer issue of Marriott Alumni Magazine, from the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young, has one titled “When Budgeting Backfires.” We all know that one way to spend less is to set a budget, right? Well, the center of this piece is research by Jeffrey Larson of Marriott and Ryan Hamilton of Emory University that has found budgeting to be a good way to spend more money for objects of desire. Their study indicates that if you do not set a budget for, say, a new television, you might well come home from Best Buy with a nice $500 TV of satisfactory quality. But if you decide beforehand that you have a budget of $750 for this purchase, you will probably spend all of the $750. The setting of a budget creates an equation with two variables, price and quality. Once you set the first variable—price—you are more likely to solve for the second variable by getting the best quality available at that price. So you will spend the $750 for a television, even though the $500 set is actually good enough. The act of setting the budget nudges you toward a pricier, higher-quality item.

Bremen Leak wrote the story. He’s been at Business Week since 2005, and being a pro at a major periodical for eight years shows. Leak is deft with an illustrative anecdote, writes with clarity, and works a lot of material into a piece that, I’m guessing, did not run much over 2,000 words. The piece ends with a “news you can use” column that I could have done without, but I have a personal aversion to that sort of thing that skews my judgement.

Joseph Ogden and Megan Bingham edit the magazine.

When you have a creative photographer

St. Thomas Magazine has a great feature spread in its current issue. Dancers make great subjects for photography, but most dance pictures, even the well-crafted ones, follow a set of conventions. Now look at what photographer Mike Ekern was able to do with members of St. Thomas’ championship dance team:


The St. Thomas art director is Sara Klomp; Brian Brown edits. For more of Ekern’s images, go here.

Fine work from Pullmanlandia

wsupankseppEric Sorensen continues to impress. His latest piece for Washington State Magazine, “The Animal Mind Reader,” is a terrific profile of Jaak Panksepp, a scientist identified by Sorensen as a pioneer in the new discipline of affective neuroscience. The WSM story details the work he has done and idea he has promoted that animals have consciousness too, just like Homo sapiens sapiens. The goodness starts with the story’s first three paragraphs:

Last July, an international group of scientists with “neuro” in their titles convened in Cambridge, England, to give good weight to a radical idea. The conference participants, including the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, sat through some 15 presentations and closed the day by endorsing 612 precisely struck words that, in effect, said many of our fellow animals, including all mammals and birds, also have consciousness.

It’s an underwhelming notion taken on faith by those who commune with pets or embrace the fight for animal rights. But scientists hold to a tougher standard than the baleful look in a dog’s eyes. The question of animal consciousness has bedeviled them for centuries and drawn speculations from the likes of Charles Darwin and Nobel laureate Francis Crick, the Cambridge conference’s namesake.

Now an accomplished core of scientists cited the next best thing to a smoking gun—”the weight of evidence”—to say, “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” When it comes to the anatomy, chemistry, and physiology of our brains and the way they play into our consciousness, they said, we are not alone.

So much to praise there, especially if you appreciate the craftsmanship of a good sentence. The bit of indirection that substitutes “scientists with ‘neuro’ in their titles” for “neuroscientists” and announces, in Sentence One, that you, the reader, are in the hands of a writer who is dexterous with the language and has attended to each sentence of the story. The “give good weight” homage to John McPhee. The unobtrusive precision of “15 presentations” and “612 precisely struck words,” precision that does not slow the story’s profluence but does signal attention to detail. That lovely phrase “the baleful look in a dog’s eyes.”

Sorensen goes on to establish the scientific context for Panksepp’s work, situating the researcher in his discipline. He briskly gets to the “so what?” question that pertains to his subject:

His work inspires a litany of ramifications beyond the already impressive notion of animal consciousness, which Panksepp calls the “capacity to have experience.” It has philosophical implications, not only for how we should treat animals, but whether we have free will and where we might search for the meaning of life. It suggests that our most basic values are biological in nature. That we’ve been encoded to anticipate the future. That our fundamental consciousness is thought and feeling, heart and head. That we’re innately optimistic. That some of our most vexing psychological problems, like depression, might be addressed through these emotional systems.

Biography follows, tracing Panksepp’s path from war-ravaged Estonia to his remarkable research on animal behavior. Sorensen weaves clear explanations of Panksepp’s science with the narrative of the scientist’s life, a life marked by tragedy—his 16-year-old daughter was killed by a drunken driver—and personal trials—two bouts with lymphoma.

From first word to last closed quote, “The Animal Mind Reader” is an assured and skillfully wrought piece of factual storytelling. I’m not the only one who thinks so. The curatorial website recently featured the piece, a bit of well-earned recognition.