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Doh! Finally, I understand the difference between # and @. June 17, 2013

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The Wall Street Journal published an article this morning on the importance of using hashtags (#whatever) to promote your business. It’s an excellent article, helping readers figure out how and how not to use hashtags.

But it was even more useful to a Luddite like yours truly, because until I read it, I hadn’t understood the distinction between # and @, and I’d been terribly confused. Now I understand that @ is a Twitter convention, but # can be used anywhere, including Facebook.

As a Luddite, I’ll never use Twitter or Facebook, but at least now, thanks to the WSJ, I understand the lingo. If anybody else has been confused by this, I hope it’s now cleared up for them as well.

Yes, it really IS funny. May 1, 2013

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Today’s Wall Street Journal featured a story about snide, sarcastic, ironic, and just generally funny reviews people leave on Amazon for books and products that strike them as ludicrous. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood, who are wordsmiths to the core of our beings, were laughing our heads off at some of these comments.

Admittedly, we wonder who had the time to write them. We’ve never left even one comment on the Amazon reviews pages, whether we loved a given book, CD or movie, or hated it. We can’t imagine how these folks—sometimes thousands of them—find the time to do so. But we’re glad they do.

Why? Because they’re screamingly funny. Take the reviews of the (perfectly serious) tome How to Avoid Huge Ships by Captain John W. Trimmer. One reviewer’s comment: “I bought How to Avoid Huge Ships as a companion to Capt. Trimmer’s other excellent titles: How to Avoid a Train and How to Avoid the Empire State Building.” Another: “Saved My Life and My Sanity. For about 8 months now I have noticed that a huge ship has been stalking me…I was fearful because my parents were killed by a big ship when they went out one day 4 years ago to walk the dog, and I have nightmares about it to this day.” Explaining why he’d given the book four stars rather than five, this reviewer added, “I do have to deduct a star because the book did not come out in time to save my parents.”

OFB and Silence enthusiastically support the efforts of anyone who chooses to commit the time to brighten our Dilbertian days. Our favorite from the article, however, left even How to Avoid Huge Ships in its wake. It was for a product rather than a book, a product that’s apparently sold on Amazon. Unlikely as it seems, you can actually buy a uranium sample on Amazon. Of the Images Scientific Instruments Uranium Ore Sample, one reviewer complained, “I purchased this product 4.47 billion years ago and when I opened it today, it was half empty.”

To discover more along these lines for products such as Fresh Whole Rabbit (“It’s Dead!”) and the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, head to http://www.wsj.com and check out “Products Are No Joke, but Reviews Are.” We could all use a good laugh.

Rotten tomatoes. September 26, 2012

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Why are people so bizarre? Our friend Ben was staggered to read in this morning’s Wall Street Journal that adults by the thousands are now lining up in parking lots across America and paying $50 for the privilege of hurling rotten (the article euphemistically refers to them as “overripe”) tomatoes at each other. (Find the article, “Messy Business: Now You Can Pay to Get Hit by a Tomato,” at www.wsj.com.)

These are adults, mind you, people in their 20s and 30s. Several who were interviewed for the article were schoolteachers, who presumably wouldn’t find it amusing if they were pelted with rotten tomatoes by their students. Yet there they were, many of the participants in wild costumes, in a parking lot with a semi truckload worth of rotten tomatoes, hurling and mashing them onto each other. What on earth were they thinking?!

Mind you, we Americans aren’t the only ones who’ve lost our minds. The entrepreneur who came up with the idea of our Tomato Battles was inspired by an annual festival of tomato-tossing in Spain that draws an estimated 10,000 participants. I guess it beats running with the bulls.

In case you’re wondering why they use rotten rather than ripe tomatoes, they’re softer and squishier, not to mention cheaper. Getting hit in the head with a firm tomato (or a few dozen) could do some serious damage. Having a rotten tomato mashed into your face is apparently hilariously entertaining.

There’s one useful lesson we can all take from the insanity: People are willing to pay for this. The entrepreneur who launched these events is raking in something like $100,000 per event. Perhaps you, our friend Ben, and other enterprising types could start our own series of events where people toss grapes, rotten eggs, popcorn, or raw bacon at each other. No doubt we’d have crowds of idiots lining up.

What are they thinking?! August 16, 2012

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Men. I’ll never understand them. Silence Dogood here. The other day, I was reading one of the quirky, delightful human-interest pieces that The Wall Street Journal loves to put on its front page. (It’s actually my favorite part of the paper, highlighting just how diverse and eccentric the human experience is.) This one was called “Lovers of Minecraft Are Belting Out Odes to Digging and Smelting.” (Read it at www.wsj.com; it’s priceless.) It’s about grown men who not only spend hours each day playing a video game called Minecraft, but also post Minecraft-based videos on YouTube. (Minecraft debuted last year and now has 37 million registered users, according to the article.)

Admittedly, I don’t even begin to get the allure of video games, having never played one. (We’re such Luddites here at Hawk’s Haven that we’ve never been on YouTube, either.) They strike me as a total waste of time. I can certainly appreciate the appeal for kids, but why would any adult play a video game when he could actually be doing something interesting and/or constructive? Or at least getting some fresh air and escaping to the golf course or a favorite stream or lake. Yikes!

But the guys profiled in the article have taken their Minecraft obsession to a whole new level, creating elaborate Minecraft music videos featuring the blocky characters performing original verses to popular tunes against a backdrop of blocky Minecraft scenery. They post them on YouTube, where they attract huge followings. One, by CaptainSparklez, is called “Revenge,” sung to the music of Usher’s hit “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love.” It has been viewed on YouTube 54 million times, compared to Usher’s original, which has been viewed 75 million times.

I’ll leave it to you to judge the quality of the lyrics. The article featured this excerpt from a Minecraft rap song that has attracted 2 million YouTube views: “It’s night, it’s time to dig,/ I need some health, man,/ But it’s too dark to find a pig.”

It seems clear to me that both YouTube users and these video creators have way too much time on their hands. But what’s also striking is the level of technical skill required to create one of these videos. We’re not talking about a guy focusing a video camera on himself and singing a stupid song. The backgrounds are elaborate and animated. It must take practically forever to put one of these videos together. Which raises the question: If you’re talented enough to create one of these videos, why don’t you develop your own video games? Then at least your obsession would pay off, and you’d have the satisfaction of creating something original instead of derivative.

Sheesh.

          ‘Til next time,

                    Silence

The ethanol issue. August 11, 2012

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Our friend Ben just finished reading an essay in The Wall Street Journal blasting the EPA for maintaining its ethanol-in-gasoline regulation in the face of the horrific heat and drought pummeling the corn belt this summer. The article predicted that food prices would rise worldwide as a result, since the corn crop’s been decimated, the U.S. exports 60% of the world’s corn, and corn is used to feed animals as well as people.

According to the article, organizations from the U.N. to the World Bank to the American hunger-relief organization ActionAid have called for the repeal or at least suspension of the regulation as a global form of disaster relief. But Washington, in the grip of the ethanol lobby, has turned a deaf ear to their pleas. (To read the article in full, look for “Ethanol vs. the World” at www.wsj.com; there’s a related article, “Prices Surge as Drought Stunts Corn Crop,” in the same issue.)

Our friend Ben is all for alternative energy. Biofuels made from used cooking oil that are refined to power cars sound like the ultimate recycling to me. I’d love to build a wind-powered well here at Hawk’s Haven and set up a solar array. It would be fantastic if some forward-looking scientists could figure out a way to convert our collective body heat into usable energy instead of global warming. But I have to wonder if insisting on the ethanol provision in the face of global shortages is in humanity’s best interest. It sounds more like elitism to me.

Top ten ways to stop wasting food. March 22, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, pets, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I was shocked and appalled this morning by an article in The Wall Street Journal with the innocuous title of “Leftovers: Tasty or Trash?” (check it out at www.wsj.com). The article turned out not to be about food preferences, as I’d assumed (though there were plenty of comments from men who hate leftovers, including one who said he’d rather eat a spoonful of peanut butter than leftovers).

Instead, it was about the massive amount of wasted food that’s thrown out in America’s home kitchens. Take a look at these stats: vegetables comprise 25% of trash in a typical home; fruit and juices, 16%; grains (presumably including breads), 14%; and milk and yogurt, 13%. Do the math, and it looks like 68% of a typical home’s trashcan is filled with food! In a world where even one person goes hungry, this is a sin and a disgrace. And this doesn’t even touch the food waste produced by restaurants, groceries, and the like. Yikes! 

Mind you, as anyone who’s taken a statistics course knows, statistics often aren’t what they seem, and this proved true in this case: “Trash refers to avoidable waste” was printed in tiny type under the stats. And what they considered “unavoidable” waste wasn’t defined.

There’s not much I consider to be unavoidable waste. It just kills me to see perfectly good furniture at the curb, waiting for the trash as it’s ruined by a downpour. Would it have killed people to call Goodwill or even—gasp—find the nearest thrift store and drop it off themselves?!

People need your old clothes, shoes and accessories. Even clothes that are worn out can be made into rags for rugs, etc. (that’s what they do with the clothing donated to those big dumpster-like bins you see around town). And here’s a tip: Buy clothes, shoes and accessories you actually like, that are flattering, comfortable, and easy-care, not clothes that fashion designers and stores want to sell you so you’ll have to constantly replace them to stay on-trend. If you buy stuff you enjoy wearing, you’ll wear it ’til it wears out (and then just be sorry you didn’t buy two).

Appliances can be donated or recycled. Plastic bags can be recycled at any grocery, paper bags can be used to hold papers for recycling or shredded and composted, and you can always buy earth-friendly grocery bags for 99 cents at the checkout and use those. (Even liquor stores now sell special compartmentalized bags for 99 cents!) You can cut down on plastic waste by purchasing water, milk, detergent, etc. in reusable containers. (Some companies deliver and pick up, you return the containers to other farms and stores, and you buy refills in your original container at others.)

Admittedly, some things do fall into the “unavoidable waste” category. I’d put used bandages, kitty litter, past-wearing athletic shoes, and toothpaste tubes in that category, though used toothbrushes can enjoy a second life cleaning grout, jewelry, or your rock collection. Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and I shred waste paper to put in our chicken nest boxes and mix with soaked coir for our earthworm composter. We burn boxes and cardboard in our fire pit, recycle everything we can, and wear our carefully-chosen and much-loved clothes ’til they’re literally unwearable, then part with these old friends with huge regret. We save bubble wrap for winterizing the house and mailing gifts; we return plastic flats and pots to the nurseries where we bought the plants.  

But I digress. Let me give you one more stat from the article before I move on to saving food. It notes that the average U.S. household spends between $500 and $2000 each year on food that ends up in the trash. I imagine that seeing 5 to 20 Benjamins in a trash can would turn most people into dumpster-divers. Just think what you could do with that money! You could put it toward painting the house, paying the mortgage, dental care, health insurance, car repair, college expenses, a family vacation. Think about this as you plan your family’s weekly meals. Did I say plan your family’s meals?! I guess it’s time to move on to those tips.

1. Look at what you have. Make some time this weekend to go through your kitchen cabinets, fridge, freezer, pantry, and anyplace else you store food, to see exactly what’s in there. Check out all the cans, boxes, packages, and bottles. This is a good time to think about whether you’ll really use everything you have, or whether you should donate some less-popular items to a food bank or soup kitchen. Our local bank (as in money, not food) has bags in their foyer for donated food, another reason we love them. It will also remind you that you have ten jars of jelly or mustard and don’t need to buy more until all of them are used. And of course, I hope it will inspire you to think about how you can plan meals that use the food you already have.

2. Make a weekly plan. Because OFB and I subscribe to our local paper, each week we get circulars from the local groceries and pharmacies with their discounted items for the week, as well as at least two circulars with discount coupons. Because I shop at local health food stores, I also pick up sales circulars for them. So every weekend, I compare the prices in the circulars, see if anything I want is on sale, see if there are coupons for anything I want, and then make my grocery list based on what I plan to cook that week and where I should look for ingredients. To avoid food waste, you must be absolutely realistic: How many meals will you make at home, and how many will you and yours eat at school, at restaurants, at the company cafeteria, order in, or grab at the fast-food line? This is probably a fairly set schedule, so thinking it through once will probably give you a good idea about how many meals you’ll really cook at home. Use that estimate to decide which meals you’ll need to plan for, and then what ingredients you’ll need to make those meals.

3. Rotate. This means two things, both of which are helpful: First, it means that you should plan for variety. Even if you’ve made big pots of delicious chili, spaghetti sauce, or soup, you should serve them on alternate nights or every third night, not every single night until you’ve used them up. Variety is, after all, the spice of life. And second, you should keep an eye on the use-by dates of your canned, frozen, bottled, packaged, and fresh food. This sounds like a pain, and is one for about 10 minutes, but every time you buy replacements for your go-to foods, you should move the oldest cans, boxes, packages, bottles, and etc. to the front and put the newest ones in the back. Tedious? Sure. But it will not only remind you of what’s available for this week’s meals, but make sure you use what you have with no waste.

4. Share. If you find you’ve cooked too much of any one dish, and you can’t think of a way to incorporate it into something else, consider sharing it. Perhaps your neighbor would enjoy a dish. (And please, perhaps they’d enjoy it even more if you invited them to share it with you!) Perhaps your friends might appreciate a care package. But don’t overlook your pets. Our dog, parrot and chickens love fresh veggie and fruit scraps, nuts, and grains.

5. Morph those meals. Today’s beans and rice can be tomorrow’s refried bean and rice burrito. Or they can be added to a soup or stew. Todays’ side-dish greens like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard can be added to tomorrow’s soup or quiche or omelette or spanakopita or lasagna. Leftover rice, veggies and greens can make a delicious fried rice. Curries use any quantity of mixed veggies. So do salads and stir-fries. I’ve found that homemade spaghetti sauce is endlessly forgiving, so you can toss in that last bit of fresh salsa or a few tomatoes or anything you need to clean out your fridge, and it will blend and taste great. (It also makes a great sauce for lasagna and pizza. Just ask OFB!)

6. Make good food. I have to wonder if the reason so many people apparently hate leftovers is because the food isn’t that great to begin with, and is even worse when it’s nuked as leftovers. (Of course, some folks may hate leftovers because their parents insisted that leftovers were only fit for pigs. Shame on them!) If your meals are luscious and flavorful, and you warm up made-from-scratch leftovers in the oven rather than nuking leftover convenience foods in the microwave, everyone will want more. Why? Because it tastes so good!   

7. Compost.* OFB and I have a simple 3-bin composter out back made from free pallets. We also have an earthworm composter. Anything that starts to go bad before we can eat it, or our chickens can eat it, goes in our kitchen compost bucket to make rich, luscious soil for our garden beds.

8. Learn the art of food preservation. It’s really not hard to learn how to freeze, can, pickle, dry, and otherwise preserve extra food. Yes, it sounds scary, but even I can do it. And if I can do it, you can do it, I promise! It’s incredibly satisfying to preserve your homegrown harvest, whether you’re drying herbs and hot peppers, making your own applesauce or marinara sauce, or making pickles.

9. Talk first, then eat.  That amazing three-for-one deal on collards isn’t going to save you money if your family refuses to eat cooked greens. You know it’s super-nutritious. It will provide essential nutrients for everyone in the family. But nobody wants to eat them. Even I wouldn’t eat a serving of plain steamed collards (or kale, Swiss chard, or even spinach). Tell everybody you’re making a super-delicious dish. Then stir-fry those greens in extra-virgin olive oil with diced sweet onion, sea salt, black pepper, and balsamic vinegar, with some raisins tossed in for added complexity, though, and your family won’t be able to get enough!

10. Be grateful. Slow down a minute, and think what you’re putting in your shopping basket or cart. Look at the beautiful fresh fruits, greens, and veggies. Take some time to savor the cheeses and cut flowers you’re adding to your cart. Take a minute to thank everyone and everything who made your choices possible: the earth, the plants, the people who grew and harvested them, the people who painstakingly bred the varieties you’re enjoying, the processors, truckers and grocers who put them into your hands. If you train yourself to be grateful for every stalk of celery you put in your grocery cart or slice for your family’s evening salad, you’ll be much less likely to waste food.

Be a hero—save the planet. We all want to, but it can often be so overwhelming. A good, manageable place to start is in your own kitchen. Just a look at your family’s food use can start a revolution!

              ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

Depressed? Please read this. January 4, 2012

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are lucky. Unless we’re in actual pain or something really bad happens, we’re happy, cheerful, upbeat people. We don’t see the glass as half-empty, or even completely empty; we see an opportunity to pour ourselves another glass. But some of our friends, and some of our friends’ kids, aren’t so fortunate. For them, depression is an ongoing struggle that defines their lives.

They are not alone. According to an article in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, “Nearly 20 million people in the U.S. suffer depression during their lifetime,” and “11% of Americans over age 12 take antidepressants.” Not to mention: “Only 30% get well on the first antidepressant alone.”

But statistics like these, which are enough to depress anyone, weren’t what attracted our friend Ben’s attention to the article. It was a promising discovery that could help everyone who battles depression, and the best news is, it’s one that’s easy (and cheap). The secret to fighting depression and to making antidepressants work better appears to be simply to up your folate levels.

Folate is one of the B vitamins, available in synthetic form as folic acid both as a single supplement and in B-vitamin supplements, as well as in multi-vitamins. It’s found in its natural form in spinach, kale, arugula, collards, and other leafy green vegetables, as well as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, avocadoes, artichokes, okra, and asparagus; in beans (including green beans and garbanzos), peas, peanuts, edamame, lentils, and other legumes; in nuts; in hot peppers; and in some fruits, including oranges and papaya.

Here’s why folate matters in regard to depression: “Recent research has found that the body converts folate (and folic acid, the synthetic version) into an active form called L-methylfolate, which is needed to produce serotonin, dopamine and norephenephrine, three neurotransmitters that are critical in regulating mood.”

These three mood regulators are essential to making us feel good, and when we don’t have enough of them, we feel bad/sad/depressed. The article goes on to say that about 50% of Americans have a genetically reduced ability to produce the mood enhancers, making them prone to depression. And that even people who aren’t depression-prone may become susceptible to depression as a result of reduced L-methylfolate levels due to aging, illness, poor nutrition, excess alcohol consumption, and some medications.

Most of the buzz reported by the article is caused by a prescription form of L-methylfolate called Deplin, which appears to boost the effectiveness of antidepressants and, if you’re one of the unfortunate ones whose antidepressant worked for a while, then stopped working, to restore the effectiveness of antidepressants. Studies are in the works to see if Deplin might be effective in combating depression on its own.

Meanwhile, if you take antidepressants, please read the full story and see what you think. (Go to www.wsj.com and look for “Giving Antidepressants a Boost with a Vitamin,” January 3, 2012). You might want to discuss Deplin with your doctor. If you have friends and loved ones who suffer from depression, please pass the article along to them. And for everybody, including those of us who aren’t afflicted by depression, take your B supplements and eat plenty of leafy greens, nuts, legumes, and other good sources of folate. It sounds like an easy way to get 2012 off to a healthy, upbeat start!

The high price of publishing. July 5, 2011

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It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the publishing industry is in a serious predicament. Predictions of print newspapers’ imminent demise, followed by the extinction of printed books, have made headlines for at least a decade. As a professional writer, our friend Ben follows these updates with ongoing concern. But as an editor and historian, I can assure you that it’s hardly news, as far as the history of the written word goes. Changing media are a fact of life throughout our writing history.

Picture these imaginary headlines from the past:

“Yesterday’s News? Clay Tablets Replaced By Papyrus”

“Today, the Commandments Would Be Written on Parchment, Not Carved in Stone”   

“Parchment Obsolete as Paper Takes Over”

“Monks Out of Business: Illuminated Manuscripts Fall to the Printing Press”

“Turn in Your Pens: Typewriters Take Over”

“End of an Institution: Digital Age Makes Typesetting Obsolete”

“Personal Computers Send Typewriters to the Trash Folder”

And on and on. We won’t even start on the shift from rolled vellum manuscripts to hand-sewn, leather-bound books to ornately printed clothbound covers to glued-in pages and paperback editions.

Our friend Ben will also try not to scream about the ever-increasing price for the most ephemeral of works, from $5 to $12-plus magazine issues to $13 grocery-store paperbacks (excuse me, that would be $12.99) to very ordinary, unillustrated hardcovers going for $35 and up. I hesitate to join the ranks of those doddering doomsayers who proclaim that they can remember when a movie/Coke/fill-in-the-blank cost 25 cents. But by the time a magazine or “cheap” mass-market paperback costs more than a day’s meals, it’s time to confront the real issue: that buying real as opposed to virtual reading materials has now become a luxury, and an often unaffordable luxury in these recessionary times.

Thank God for used bookstores and libraries. But what if they don’t have the particular book you want? Would you rather buy it for $49.95, or download it for $12.99? Or $2.99 or 99 cents?

Thanks to relentless marketing, Americans are turning more and more to e-reading devices like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. These devices cost no more than, and often far less than, a smart phone or iPad or whatever, and people are apparently quite used to shelling out this kind of money for portable web-enabling devices. Our friend Ben recently read that 14% of American adults now own e-readers, which might not seem especially impressive unless you take into account that that number has doubled since November. At that rate of acceleration, all Americans will own an e-book reading device by the end of 2012. (Well, all except for our friend Ben and Silence Dogood and our fellow Luddites.)

But I digress. When I talk about the high price of publishing, I’m not actually talking about the cost to readers. I’m talking about the cost to the authors themselves. And I don’t mean the cost of self-publishing.

The way that the book publishing industry has tried to secure sales in these shaky times is to shove the burden of marketing books onto their authors. Through most of the past century, it was comparatively easy to get published if you were a good writer and had a good idea for a book. You might not have gotten a big advance (upfront payment) if you weren’t well-known, but if your book took off, you’d get a few cents in royalties for every copy sold, and a bigger advance for the next book. Once you’d written it, it was up to the publisher’s publicity department to market your book, though you as an author were expected to support their efforts by giving interviews, attending book signings, and etc.

Then the world turned. Books began to cost a lot to acquire and produce, and there were lots of them out there competing for a dwindling market. No fools, publishers saw that celebrity was the driver for most consumer purchases, from clothing to cola. Why not create celebrity-branded books? The idea of the marketing platform, usually simply called a platform, was born. You signed an actor or a sports star or a fitness or diet guru or celebrity chef or doctor to the stars or what-have-you to a book deal, then paid somebody else to “ghostwrite” the book. Thus, the decades of “BY SO-AND-SO with [or “as told to”] So-and-So.” Everyone knew that a book with star power would sell better than most books by non-celebs.

Then came the era of social media, and with it, a slightly different skew to the idea of a platform. Suddenly, you no longer had to be a star to get published, but you had to be a star in your own social-media realm, be it blogging or YouTube or Facebook or Twitter. How many followers and/or friends do you have? How many of them would buy a book by you? Bloggers with large, enthusiastic followings like Julie Powell (of “Julie & Julia” fame) and The Pioneer Woman found themselves pursued by publishers, and that pursuit paid off handsomely for all concerned. Everybody won: the blogger/authors, their readers, and the publishers.

Who lost? Those good writers with good book ideas who hadn’t been able or willing to translate their talents to the world of social media. This was borne in on our friend Ben in an article in the Friday, July 1 edition of The Wall Street Journal, in an article called “Title + Twitter and YouTube Take Unfinished Book to No.1.” (Go to www.wsj.com to read the article in its entirety.) The point of the story was that a relatively obscure young-adult author (as opposed to, say, J.K. Rowling or Stephen King) whose book won’t even be published until spring 2012 has captured the #1 bestseller spot for it on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com, with some B&N readers giving it a 5-star rating, even though the author, John Green, is still writing it so no one has in fact actually read it. Not even the author himself.

How could such a thing happen, a nonexistent book by a non-celebrity rocketing to #1? Simple. As the WSJ writer, Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, explains in the article, “In only a few short years, the ability to use social networking as a literary megaphone has gone from an afterthought to the focus of most marketing and image shaping by publishers.” Mr. Green, the author of the nonexistent bestseller, has mastered this art. According to the article, he has 1.1 million followers on Twitter, where he tweets daily. He has made nearly 900 YouTube videos with his brother, a musician, including one of an impromptu victory dance after learning that his in-progress manuscript had become the #1 bestseller; his YouTube audience is 526,000.

Think making 900 YouTube videos and tweeting constantly in response to your Twitter audience might be exhausting, perhaps draining energy from your efforts to finish that unwritten bestseller? Not for Mr. Green. In addition, he has 62,000 friends on Facebook, 60,000 followers on Nerdfighters.com, 27,000 followers of YourPants.org, and 26,000 followers on Tumblr. (The last two follow up on his YouTube videos.)

In today’s world, this is what you call creating a platform, bringing in the buyers to guarantee sales for your publisher and yourself. But at what cost? How much time does a dedicated author like John Green spend tending his social network as opposed to thinking, creating, writing, living? 

Maybe networking substitutes for living for a lot of people today. Or maybe savvy authors realize that, once they’ve made enough money playing this game or become big enough names that they no longer need to play it, they can forget the secretarial maintenance and get on with the business of living, bolstered by their ample bank accounts. Our friend Ben can’t begin to say. But I will say that the cost of this form of publishing success, from an author’s point of view, seems very high. And I’m waiting with great interest to see what happens next.

Papers going to the dogs (and ‘hogs). May 23, 2011

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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I start our mornings with two newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call. Today, both had front-page stories related to animals.

The Wall Street Journal decided to feature an obscure and disquieting dog-related phenomenon that stubbornly refuses to die: knitting with dog hair. I’ve been aware of this activity, which sounds like a sick joke but is perfectly serious, since being sent a review copy of the seminal book on the subject, Knitting with Dog Hair, back in 1994. According to the WSJ, seventeen years later, there’s still an enthusiastic band of spinners and knitters trying to take dog-fur yarn mainstream. But now they’re calling it “chiengora” (chien being the French word for dog).

Okay, so I screamed at OFB (“Eeeewwww!!! Knitting with dog hair!!!”) when I saw the article, but then I read it. And it appears that many chiengora enthusiasts are saving fur from grooming sessions with their own beloved pets and sending it off to be spun into yarn so they can knit or crochet a wearable memento of a cherished companion, sort of a proactive memento mori. There’s certainly a precedent for this in the Victorian passion for making brooches and rings from the beloved deceased’s braided hair, though in their case, it was humans, not dogs, who were being commemorated.

OFB and I were just brushing our own beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, yesterday, and it’s true, there couldn’t be a more lustrous black coat on the face of the earth. (That’s the reason black shepherds are called “lacquer blacks” in their native Germany.) A glossy black Shiloh sweater, tank top, or skirt would make any fashionista proud.  But frankly, even with as much fur as we brush off Shiloh, I can’t imagine collecting enough for a scarf, much less a piece of clothing. And, according to the WSJ, dog-fur yarn is very pricey for that exact reason (not to mention that it has to be hand-spun).

Now, I’m an enthusiastic knitter who loves knitting scarves form beautiful yarns as mindless relaxation and for gifts. And when I saw a reference in the article to a golden retriever scarf, I’ll confess, my attitude towards knitting with dog fur abruptly shifted. As noted, I still wouldn’t collect fur from my own dogs to send to a spinner. But were someone to present me with some skeins of lustrous black German shepherd fur or golden retriever fur (which brings to mind our beloved goldens Molly and Annie) or mahogany-and-white Springer spaniel fur (recalling my childhood Springers), it’s true, I would not only knit them into scarves but wear those scarves with pride and pleasure.

Call me a chiengora convert. (And head over to www.WSJ.com to read the article, “In This Yarn With [sic] a Tail, Our Heroes Thirst for Hair of the Dog” by Stephanie Simon, May 23, 2011.)

Meanwhile, our local paper also featured a creature on its front page. But this wild thing wouldn’t make anybody’s heart sing. It was a groundhog that managed to sneak into somebody’s car, chew its way through the passenger seat, and then become stuck underneath the seat.

If you ask me, this doesn’t speak well for the IQ of Pennsylvania’s own Punxsutawney Phil and his prognostications about the duration of winter or arrival of an early spring. But, like the famous Phil, this groundhog became an instant celebrity, attracting the neighbors, the local police, a Deputy Wildlife Control Officer, and the local mayor, not to mention the screaming owners of the vehicle in question.

The article, “New Tripoli driver doesn’t dig his hitchhiking critter,” by Kevin Amerman, is hysterical, and shows photos of the groundhog in flagrante delicto, stuck under the passenger seat, as well as in a live trap on his way to being released back to the wild. Check it out at www.themorningcall.com.

Fortunately, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a groundhog here at Hawk’s Haven, so I’m hoping our veggie gardens are safe for another season. But I wonder what those dog-fur knitting enthusiasts would make of groundhog fur?!

               ‘Til next time,

                            Silence

The electronic library. April 21, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben’s head is still spinning from a pair of articles in this morning’s Wall Street Journal about electronic publishing. Taken together, they had all the makings of a blockbuster: ambition, success, greed, hope, and despair. (Not to mention murder, but that was in the plots of the e-books, not the articles.)

The first, “Cheapest E-Books Upend the Charts,” discusses how, among other things, writers can sell self-published e-books for 99 cents (of which they receive 35 cents per download) and still make a comparative fortune. The example they gave was of a mystery writer who made $126,000 from Amazon alone in March, thanks to 369,000 downloads of his 99-cent books, and received additional income from e-sales via Barnes & Noble, Kobo Inc., and Apple.

Lest you think I’m talking about Stephen King, the hero of this rags-to-riches tale is one John Locke, Louisville (KY) businessman by day, thriller writer by night, “who published his first paperback two years ago at age 58.” He’s only been self-publishing e-books since March 2010, so it took him exactly a year to reach that $126,000-plus monthly total. During that year he’s also kept the product coming: Seven of his e-books are now on Amazon’s top 50 digital bestseller list.

For a writer like our friend Ben, this success story is the ultimate fantasy, almost better than winning the lottery. Too good to be true? Yes and no. Yes, because Mr. Locke did everything right. First, he’s a businessman, not your average English major hawking fries at McDonald’s. He researched the market, settled on a format and price for his books, cranked them out to maximize exposure, put them up for sale on every e-book venue for the same reason, and did all the other things you have to do to create a successful sales platform: blog about the books, hire a freelance designer and editor, collect followers on Twitter (he currently has more than 20,000), answer hundreds of fan e-mails every day, get an agent to market the foreign and movie rights.

Mr. Locke sums up the reasons behind his books’ success succintly: “It’s all about marketing, but they have to like your stuff.” It’s also all about hard work and a major time investment, writing and tweeting and blogging and e-mailing and selling. Mr. Locke put all that in, and now he’s getting it out. If you or our friend Ben were to self-publish an e-book, be it never so wonderful, and not put that kind of push behind it, it would doubtless languish on the virtual shelves and we’d be lucky to make, well, 99 cents.

But in one sense, it’s not too good to be true, and that is that you no longer have to be Tom Clancy or Nora Roberts or one of the 12 other people whose books regularly flood the market to become a successful published author. But you do have to do the research, do the work, get it out there, and hope that enough people “like your stuff.”

 The other article that knocked our friend Ben for a loop was also about e-books, “Amazon’s Kindle Will Offer E-Books From [sic] Libraries.” Apparently, Barnes & Noble’s Nook other e-readers have offered purchasers the opportunity to download library books for free for quite some time. Now Kindle will join them in providing this service “later this year.”

Our friend Ben approves. I’m not an e-book reader; I spend my days in front of the computer writing, editing, and researching, and when I want to read for pleasure, I want a real book, not a virtual one. I also enjoy going to the library and looking around at the new books shelves and the stacks. But for those who do their reading on a Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, or what have you, having access to free library e-books, even if it’s just for the library’s normal lending period of 14 to 21 days, seems like a great feature.

But wait. Why on earth would you have to “return” a virtual library book? As our friend Ben continued reading the article, I became even more confused. “Only one person can check out each digital copy at a time,” it continued. Exactly as if the e-version was a physical book.

Say what, now?! What’s the point of making the books available digitally if everyone who wants to read them can’t do so simultaneously? Isn’t that, ultimately, the virtual advantage? Rather like the difference between streaming a movie from Netflix versus having them mail you a DVD. Imagine what an uproar there would be if Netflix only allowed one person to stream a movie at a time!

Clearly, our friend Ben wasn’t following here. It turns out I wasn’t just clueless but naive. The reason only one person can check out a virtual copy of a library book is that the library itself must buy each copy from the publisher, and since e-books don’t wear out, the library need never replace it, unlike hardcover and paperback books. Publishers aren’t at all happy about the resulting loss of revenue, and have been trying to approach the whole digital books-in-libraries dilemma and come up with a profitable business model; limiting each digital book to the one-at-a time checkout, so each library must buy multiple copies of popular books, is one strategy.

So far, the profitable business model has proved elusive. Two major publishers, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan, won’t sell digital books to libraries at all. Another publishing giant, HarperCollins, insists that libraries must repurchase their digital titles after 26 checkouts. Our friend Ben would think that publishers might view libraries as marketing tools—you read it, you love it, you buy it for yourself or as a gift—but I guess not.

Turning a profit in the virtual world has always been a publishing challenge. But now, thanks to e-readers and entrepreneurial writers like John Locke, that may be changing. I just hope that Mr. Locke gives copies of his books to libraries for free.

To find out more, go to www.wsj.com. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some writing to do…