The measure of things

The headline caught my eye back in September, and I knew it was a subject that I had to write about for Gydle. I stashed it in my “writing ideas” bookmark folder and there it sat, waiting. Last week, an article appeared in the local paper, reminding me. And then yesterday it hit – today, February 29, is the perfect day to write about this.

Did you know that the kilogram is losing weight? So you, therefore, are gaining weight?

But, you say, a kilogram isn’t a thing, it’s a measurement unit! You’re right, it’s one of the SI units, which together make up the solid mathematical foundation upon which all science is done.  When you study science, you study units. Rule #1: make sure the units balance out.

(Well, if you’re an American, it’s more like First, stop thinking in feet and ounces. Then make sure the units balance out.)

A kilogram can’t lose weight! That’s just absurd.

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Open up

A couple of years ago, a co-founder of an EPFL start-up came to me for help. Their html5 video player had just gotten fantastic reviews on gizmodo, and they wanted to make sure the English on their website was good. I suggested a few corrections, he asked me how much they owed me, and I said it was on the house. I thought their product was great, their enthusiasm was palpable, and I knew they probably didn’t have much money. He was very appreciative.

A few weeks ago, I translated an EPFL press release about another start-up. I visited the company’s website to check some details, and noticed that it had some serious problems. I wrote the two young co-founders an e-mail, telling them that I would be willing to help them polish the English on their website. I didn’t mention money explicitly, but I hinted that I was prepared to spend a couple of hours working for free, like I had with Jilion.

No response. Not even a No, thank you.
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Colorful language

I’m sure at some point in your life – even if only as a teenager under the influence – you’ve asked yourself this deep, philosophical question:

How do I know that what I’m experiencing is real?

The answer? You can’t. What you see as reality is unique to you, because it’s a complex interaction between the physical world, your senses and your brain.

As proof, here’s a little snippet from my reality:

It’s Tuesday. We’re on the top part of this week’s circle, heading counterclockwise in the direction of Wednesday. We’ve come out of Monday’s black zone successfully, and because Tuesday is red, I’m pretty energized. It’s February, which is my favorite color (green), so all is well. We’re heading clockwise towards March, which is mauve and located at roughy 8 o’clock on the circle of 2012. I think a bit more about the word I described in my last post, plebiscite, and realize that because of the p and b, it’s a very blue word. Could that have been why I didn’t associate it with approval, which is much more yellow-orange, despite the double p?

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Translation and transition

There it was this morning, on the front page.

Un jury unanime plébiscite le nouveau stade de Lausanne.

Lausanne is going to get a new stadium with an Olympic-size swimming pool. I’m happy about this, because I like to swim laps. I love doing flip-turns at the end of the lane, stretching out for that long glide off the wall. I love the baby-blue of pool water and the crisscrossing, wavy lines of light that form on the bottom. I love doing breast stroke and watching the bubbles form at the tips of my fingers as I carve out the water in front of me.

But I digress. What really caught my attention was the word plébiscite. No matter how many times I see it, I still do a double-take. Is it just me, or is there something icky about this word?


Usually when I read in French I have a good sense of what a word probably means. But this word? Undermine, infiltrate, infect? It almost sounds like someone blowing their nose loudly into a handkerchief.

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Did you read the manual?

After a discussion about books and publishing at the monthly meeting of my writing group, my friend, fellow writer and book designer extraordinaire Sue Niewiarowski forwarded this video to the group. It captures the whole issue I wrote about last week  much better than I did. Hilarious!

I do believe we will evolve into the world of new media.

The life of the book

Last question,  said the moderator, scanning the room.

I’d been ruminating on something said in an earlier workshop at the writer’s conference I was attending. An agent, one of two who had come to help all us clueless writers try to figure out the labyrinthine process of getting a book into print, had responded to a question about contracts with a sentence that included the curious phrase “the life of the book.”

The life of the book. This resonated. A book is a living thing. Like a baby, the idea is planted, it gestates, you work and work and work, and then one day it is born into the world. Yes, I thought, it’s more than just a a physical thing, or even an electronic thing – it’s a living thing. It’s the distilled energy, hope, effort, blood, sweat and tears of its creator, offered up in human communion. It’s the physical (or electronic) embodiment of the relationship between writer and reader. What a beautiful concept!

I had carried that idea around with me all day. The life of the book.

I raised my hand. Last chance to look like an idiot. The moderator nodded at me.

I looked at the clean-cut representative of Scribner right in front of me, here to help us navigate the confusing world of traditional publishing, and said:

Suppose you manage to get an agent, who then gets a contract with a publisher  – how long does your book stay on bookstore shelves, once it’s published? How long does your book last? What is the “lifetime” of your book?

He looked uncomfortable.

Realistically? he said. I just stared. The moderator stared. We all stared. He squirmed a little.

I wasn’t interested in the one-in-a-million blockbuster bestseller that no one saw coming. (Although, of course, he was.) Miracles happen — but I’m not counting on it in my case.

Realistically?  Six weeks to two months. If it’s not selling well, it will be pulled off the shelves.

The room was quiet.

But as long as it’s selling electronic copy, even just one, it will still be available in e-book format, he added quickly, brightening. Several people started breathing again. Phew.

What a lovely baby, fantastic job, I know it was a tough pregnancy, you did everything right, but sorry love. We did everything we could, but this one isn’t going to see its first birthday. In fact, it’s going to die even before it’s gotten over that tricky three-month colicky stage. You can keep the pictures, though.

I felt like I’d been sucker-punched. But I was very, very glad I’d asked the question. Because his answer hammered the last nail into the coffin that holds all my former ideas about what a book is and how it’s published. Now I can bury it and move on.

The internet is changing everything. The industry’s gatekeepers – publishers who decide what readers get to read and how long books stay on shelves, agents who decide what publishers get to see, all in an effort to make as much money as possible for themselves in the process – are so twentieth century.  The traditional publishing model, as another speaker at the conference had said earlier, is broken.

Last year, Dave sent me a link to a blog post written by author Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  She made a very convincing case that the publishing industry is now where the music industry was ten years ago. I think she’s right. I think the panel of agents and publishers at the conference were representing a dying industry, one that no longer serves the interests of either writers or readers. In a last gasp effort to keep the money rolling in and their jobs intact, to stem the hemhorraging influence of e-books and the Internet, the industry preys on nobody writers like me, writers who are naive enough to entrust them with their babies in hope that someday they can say with pride:  I’m a published writer.

UPDATE: I didn’t like the way this blog post ended, so I’ve changed it.

I don’t know what the future is. I don’t know if Amazon is evil, out like everyone else for one thing and one thing only: our money. Probably. But I do know one thing: if you’re willing to do the hard work involved in exploring new territory, it’s a good time to be a writer. The paradigm is changing. There are possibilities today that were not there yesterday.

I came away from the conference a bit lost and confused. A week later, I’m optimistic and motivated. I’m having a “baby” – hopefully the first of several. Like any expectant mother, I’m anxious about whether or not I’m up to the task. But I’ve done pretty well with humans, so I like my chances with books as well. Cheers!

Moment of beauty III

This is a photo from the UN flickr site, showing the lake this past weekend near Geneva. It has been bitter cold and windy, and that makes the ice do weird things as it sprays up onto the shore.

More images of frozen cars, trees and benches like this one can be seen at 9gag, just type “Lake Geneva” in the search window.

I’ll take this opportunity to pass along a few more links: