What We Can Learn About Storytelling From Third-Graders

For one thing, how to retrieve a magnet that somehow got stuck in your nose.

Find the Magnet

Courtesy of reporter Rob Rosenthal and the Public Radio Exchange, the link above will take you to the story of David Green’s third-grade class in Illinois, and how he teaches his students to tell stories. Among the tips:

  • Be curious about the world.
  • Pay attention. Be in tune with what is going on around you.
  • Find a good subject. What intrigues you? What fascinates you? What makes your jaw drop, and stops you in your tracks?
  • Research it. Do your homework. Talk to people about it.
  • Then tell the story. Write a poem about it.

News Flash: Hacking [Things] Is No Longer News

gartner_hype_cycle_chart_-_Google_SearchAlthough it is increasingly in the news, the Internet of Things is not new. The first “thing” attached to the Internet was probably John Romkey’s Internet Toaster at the Interop trade show in 1990. The “Internet of Things” has grown a bit since then, to some 2 billion “things” at last count, including smartphones, smart thermostats, smart security cameras, smart watches, smart cars, smart insulin pumps, smart ATM machines, and even smart toilets. In fact, the IoT is rapidly approaching the peak of the Gartner Hype Cycle, that breathless period just before the Peak of Inflated Expectations tumbles into the Trough of Disillusionment.

Not in Kansas, Toto
Not in Kansas, Toto

The Peak is the giddy time when people get excited about such marvels as the ability of the smart toilet to raise the lid and begin warming the seat when a motion detector senses your entry into the bathroom. Then magic happens: More sensors inside the toilet bowl perform elaborate diagnostics on your bio-effluvium, and wirelessly send the data to your doctor.

The Trough of Disillusionment inevitably follows, when a software glitch causes the toilet to tweet your bowel movements to your social network, and when the doctor’s robotic assistant calls to congratulate you on your pregnancy, even though you have a “Y” chromosome.

Another key trigger event of the Trough of Disillusionment will come when someone hacks your smart toilet.

Dave Aitel
Dave Aitel

Some people are already disillusioned, including Dave Aitel a prominent information security specialist. Aitel went to work for the National Security Agency at age 18, and now runs a Florida-based company called Immunity Inc.

Aitel has a news flash for you: Yes, hackers will penetrate your smart toilet, along with your car, and your toaster and your coffee pot. Get over it. There will NEVER be hack-proof Things on the Internet of Things as long as they rely on porous software like Windows and Android and iOS. And to the hackers seeking fame by revealing their smart-toilet hacks, shame on you, Aitel says.




The Memory Hole

Eric Blair (George Orwell) prepares to cut the baby in half

As a best-selling  modestly selling occasionally selling book author on Amazon, I received a letter recently from “The Amazon Books Team” urging me to write to the CEO of Hachette Book Group to demand that Hachette capitulate to Amazon in a battle over ebook prices.

The letter from Amazon invoked George Orwell. It was an exceptionally poor choice on Amazon’s part for two reasons:

  1. Amazon is notorious for once having remotely erased digital copies of George Orwell’s “1984” from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them. Oh, the irony.
  2. In the latest battle, Amazon took a quote from “the famous author George Orwell” and, in a blackwhite transformation worthy of Big Brother, completely twisted and reversed its true message.

Here’s what The Amazon Books Team wrote to me:

“Dear KDP Author,

“Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

“With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

“Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Let’s pause only briefly to marvel at Amazon’s “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” non sequitur. Here’s what Orwell really said:

“The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.” … “It is of course a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade. Actually it is just the other way about … The cheaper books become, the less money is spent on books.”

Suggestion to Amazon corporate communications: It might be a good idea to avoid mentioning George Orwell henceforth.

The Amazon letter to authors then gives me the email address of the head of Hachette’s USA Book Group and urges me to tell him that:

  • “We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
  • “Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
  • “Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
  • “Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.”

Here’s my open letter to the CEOs of Amazon and Hachette:

Dear Jeff and Michael:

You are attempting to thrust me, a powerless writer, into the middle of your corporate dispute over revenue and profits. The only analogy that comes to mind is that of two acrimonious parents, in the midst of a bitter divorce, each appealing to the children to take sides against the other parent.

I depend on you both. I love and hate you both with equal passion. Both of you have afforded me great opportunities, and both of you have treated me and other authors with breathtaking contempt. And, increasingly, I fear you both, Amazon because it is becoming a fearsome monopoly for book sales, and Hachette (as well as other book publishers) for lavishing attention on a handful of superstar writers while slashing advances, royalties, and support for your less-favored children.

We all agree on one thing: All of us want to sell more books. It doesn’t matter to me whether the books are made of atoms or bits, although I confess to a fondness for atoms; either way, all I want is an audience and a fair deal from both book publisher and book seller.

Amazon, if you don’t want to offer ebooks for more than $9.99, fine. Expand your in-house book publishing business, sign up your own authors, pay them decently out of your $9.99 — you can do this because, as you note in your letter, “there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs” — and win authors away from Hachette by giving them a better, more supportive home.

Hachette, if you don’t want Amazon to dictate prices for your books, don’t sell to Amazon. If you insist on charging higher prices for ebooks, and are confident that people will buy them at those prices — and confident that your authors will accept being cut off from the world’s biggest bookseller because of a battle over corporate profits — make a commitment to use some of your profits to support independent bookstores that offer an alternative to Amazon. Do more to support your mid-list authors. Take chances on first-time authors.

But leave George Orwell out of it. I’m pretty sure he would not be fond of either of you.


No comment.

A reader asks why the Words & Ideas blog no longer allows comments.

It’s not because I don’t value feedback and discussion with readers; rather, it’s because spamming technology is advancing faster than anti-spamming technology.

Kills 99% of Spam Dead
Kills 99% of Spam Dead

According to WordPress’s official spam-blocking partner Akismet, Words & Ideas is about to reach a major milestone: 250,000 spam comments blocked since the current iteration of this blog went live.

I’m guestimating that this represents a success rate of about 99 percent, which is admirable … but it also means that 1 percent (0.01) percent of spam comments elude the filters. This translates to about 2,500 solicitations for erectile dysfunction pills, counterfeit designer purses, beyond-dubious investment opportunities and other scams that have required manual intervention over the years. It is a piddling amount compared to other, larger web sites, but it’s still a time-wasting annoyance.

Imagine one typo for every 100 characters in a newspaper article. (Yes, it’s increasingly easy to imagine.) The lede story in today’s New York Times contained 10,197 characters. If the copy editors at The Times had the same success rate as Akismet’s spam filters, there would have been more than 100 typos in the article.*

A typo in the Constitution?
A typo in the Constitution?

The difference, of course, is that The Times‘s writers are not constantly devising diabolical new ways to insert typos into their copy. (Copy editors, being testy by nature, might disagree.)

So, regrettably, comments are no longer accepted. And if you don’t like it … well, I’ll never know.

* No, the spelling of “tranquillity” in the Times article’s second paragraph is not a typo. Tranquillity with the double-L has long been the preferred spelling, and it is mandated in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, even if tranquility with a single-L is used in the preamble of the Constitution.

P.S.: New discovery: WordPress has a 100 percent success rate in automatically and arbitrarily overriding my stylebook’s spelling of WordPress (I refused to capitalize the “P”).