Another Bookstore Goes Away

Once again, it is time to say goodbye to a bookstore, and if one of the “big guys” had to go away, I am sorry that it is Borders. Their store in Athens, Georgia, was one of my favorites. The customer service was always good, and the store was in a great location.
As I have noted in previous posts, the new way to read is the ebook. I am actually surprised that it took this long for the ebook to finally fulfill its destiny. Previous readers, including the Rocket eReader, the similar EBookman, and the Palm, were all were capable of displaying a variety of books, but the new generation of reading devices, including the Nook, the Kindle, and the multipurpose iPad have made reading ebooks so convenient that even beautiful stores with good coffee, friendly faces, and ample parking are not going to be enough to keep them in business.
A decade ago, I first learned about the problems with print publishing from long-time literary agent Richard Curtis. As a first-time attendee at the Harriet Austin Writer’s Conference in Athens, I was in a bit of awe as Curtis described the vast number of books which are printed but never sold. Some of these are recycled into pulp after sitting in a warehouse, but many of them go out to stores then come back in as “remainders.” There are other models for selling books, including print-on-demand, but the larger houses do waste a lot of paper and ink.
Bookstores, by and large, do not pay for the books on their shelves, but those volumes are on “loan” from large publishers. When customers buy the books, a part of the money goes to the store, part goes to the publisher, and a wee bit goes to the author. If a customer browses in the store, then buys the book for his eReading device (whichever one) then the publisher gets more money than with print, unless the book price is substantially less. And, depending on the price paid, the author gets a wee bit or a wee bit more. Either way, the physical store gets zip. While I am sure some customers were still buying printed books, and maybe a coffee or a gift, there just were not enough of them to keep the Borders chain afloat. Business people who are writing about the situation mention that Borders, which was selling CDs and DVDs just a few years ago, was slow to realize that video and music were moving to online delivery. Now, books take their place alongside film and music. There will still be some good independent bookstores, I hope, and Barnes and Noble has its Nook and Fictionwise eBookstore, so it may survive the downward trend in print sales. I suspect the next casualty will be Books a Million.
While I will certainly miss Borders, I did not buy much there. I guess that makes me one of the many reasons that it went bankrupt. So, I will be buying the next novel I read for the iPad. Just like the last few that I read.
Coming soon— a review of a SF series by Thomas DePrima.
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The Last Shuttle Launch

The last space shuttle launch occurred last week. Although NASA claims to be working on a new vehicle, it is years (or decades) away from launching, if it does launch at all.

Having grown up during the space program’s heyday, I see this as just another symptom of America’s declining health. A Democrat president declared that America would not be left behind in the conquest of space, and through administrations led by both parties, NASA put men and satellites into orbit, then sent men and machines to the moon.

As a percent of total federal dollars spent, the space program peaked in 1966, at 5.5% of all U.S. spending. Three years later, I, along with most other Americans, sat spellbound as the first men stepped onto the surface of the moon. Critics of the space program would probably say we got some pictures and a few rocks out of the deal (and we did) but myriad technologies were first used in the space program, including the foundations of modern computers and software. Each year, NASA publishes a list of “spinoff” technologies, by-products of space related tech. If there had been no space program these technologies would either not exist, or would have developed later:

• cordless tools
• memory foam
• gps navigation
• medical implants, including some artificial joints and cochlear implants
• polymers used in firefighting gear
• advanced firefighting oxygen delivery systems
• lithium batteries (yes, like the ones in your phone and in your computer)
• LEDs and LCDs
• industrial robots

There are many more, some of which my spotty understanding of science does not let me fully understand, but suffice it to say that even social program loving critics of NASA probably enjoy talking on cellular phones, watching satellite television on LCD screens, and finding their way with gps navigation.

If this program has been so valuable to our nation, why is it in decline? Perhaps, because the government caters to the selfish. Critics of NASA tend to say something like, “Let’s solve our problems here, before we go into space.” So, the United States government has put more and more dollars into the hands of the so-called poor, the educators, and buying medical care for an aging population.

Despite being the source of new technologies and national price, NASA seems to be in a death spiral. From that high point of 5.5% of federal revenues, NASA was down to .58% in 2007. Current spending on our space program is roughly equal to what was spent in 1960. To put that in perspective, the cost of social security was 30 times greater than NASA’s costs in 2007.

Social programs, although well-meaning, have ruined certain segments of American society, and turned the greatest generation into the “gimme” generation. No outlay of funds is sufficient to provide the poor with what they want. Only work can do that; but with a sputtering economy and a no confidence vote from business, there are fewer and fewer jobs. Elected officials tend to vote to please the electorate which put them into office, and government paychecks trump rockets.

With the space shuttles decorating museums, what will happen to the satellites that provide us with spying capabilities, gps navigation, and Entertainment Tonight? As long as the satellites remain functional, we won’t know the difference. But, with no means of launching new satellites, we will be like Cuba. In Castro’s country, streets are dotted with fifty year old America autos, because there are no new ones coming into the country. After NASA, our satellites will be just like those ancient autos.

Maybe my children will see the first Martian colonists. Or maybe, they won’t see anything, because the satellites will have fallen from the sky.

By Pamela/Pilar Posted in writing

Ne’er Do Well Boys, or a Failed Education System

This is a tough review to write, but it needs to be told. A decade ago, I was serving as a parent representative on a Southern Association of Colleges and Schools committee to evaluate the local elementary school. I was a “plant” because I had been a classroom teacher for some twenty years, as well as being the mother of two students in the school. Despite what I knew about education, I learned a great deal from the experience. The other parent rep made an astute observation, which I will no doubt misquote due to the years which have passed, but he said, “I see a lot of boys in the community and none of them are interested in school. Something needs to be done.” And a light went on in my brain. Okay, as an English teacher, I knew that many of the males in my classes had not had much fun, but that is because boys like math and science better, right?

Wrong. Boys, or at least a majority of them, don’t like anything in school. Or they only like one or two classes, such as physical education, shop, or ROTC. That means many, many hours of misery. Worse, it means that boys either drop out of school or graduate with such poor skills that they don’t make it through college. Nowadays, colleges are 65/35 female. The never quite ending recession has shown how vulnerable marginally educated men are to long term unemployment. Years ago, boys had a better chance in school than their female counterparts, but those days are long gone. Now, it is boys who suffer. But why?

Since I first was made aware of the depth of this problem, by that fellow parent, I have read some articles and a few books about the gender gap in education. Although it is now considered flawed, I view many of the points raised by Christa Hoff Sommers in her book, The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Boys, as factors. Or, as my favorite talk radio personality puts it, “the wussification of America.” When having a tool such as a penknife results in permanent expulsion from school, boys are clearly being emasculated by the system. But, the gains by girls are taking place in other countries, where boys can still be boys, so the feminization of education is clearly not the only issue.

A newer take on the problem is Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind by Richard Whitmire. Instead of putting the blame on the rise of female leadership in education, reporter Whitmire suggests that the push toward early literacy leaves boys behind the more verbal girls, and those boys are turned off to education before they become ready to read. This book is quite readable; instead of being written for a scholarly audience, feature reporter Whitmire uses real people to illustrate the statistics which are troubling to anyone who cares about the male half of the population.

Lest any readers of Pam’s Pages think, who cares? I will offer some reasons to care. The days when a man could work with his hands and not be especially literate are waning. If our daughters are to have a mate worth marrying, in terms of intellect and in terms of earning power, then we need educated males. Of course, that argument won’t work for some, so consider this: When males can’t earn a living, they may turn to crime. The number of males in prison seems to reflect that, doesn’t it? Most of us would not be in favor of an education system which produces criminals. If you think that is overstating the matter, just do a web search for the phrase “school to prison pipeline.”

How can we address this problem? As Whitmire goes to some length to explain, the education system needs to acknowledge that there is a problem. By and large it does not. Thus, I propose a simple first step to do that. In my state, all sorts of test stats are reported in the newspaper. By law, these figures must be printed in local newspapers, but there is no breakdown by gender. So, I am going to write to my local representatives and ask that this small change be made to our state’s laws. The best way to solve a problem is to get started, and this problem must be put before the public. Reporting the scores of boys and girls side-by-side should show the general public that there is a real problem to be addressed.

The more I read, and the longer I serve in education, the more I realize that society may think that boys are being bad, instead of recognizing that they are being short-changed by the megalithic education system. ’Tis sad.

By Pamela/Pilar Posted in writing

New Contract for The Gift Horse

Publishing has made a significant change in the past couple of years. I’ve long loved the convenience of ebooks, and I have touted them to folks in person and online. A decade ago, I read books from now defunct publishers, on computers which have been recycled. I listened to my CDs on my computer, too. And, yes, I have watched a few DVDs on my laptop. Some would call me an “early adopter” but I don’t think so. Rather than that, I read a great deal, and having to lug around a stack of books (plus a radio and a television) does not appeal to me.

But, just as it was possible to listen to music via a computer, which did not really “catch on,” reading books and watching DVDs on a computer did not “catch on” either. The iPod was the device which made digital music easy to use, and the iTunes store made it cheap and convenient to purchase content. Record stores largely disappeared, and the music industry changed. Netflix, with its inexpensive streaming video content has made digital movies easy to access as well, and my children never watch television; instead they watch Netflix, YouTube, or other web-based video.

Amazon introduced the Kindle in 2007, and that device has been tweaked a bit since then. But, just as Apple did not invent the iPod and not supply content, Amazon’s Kindle store has made the difference. I read Kindle books on an iPad, and the experience is amazing. Look for a book you want, and you can download it in seconds, with “one-click” from Amazon’s Kindle store. The book is then searchable, as well as being easily read. My iPad has several titles on it, and it weighs less than one hard cover book.

Apparently others believe this is great way to buy and read as well. According to Business Insider, the sale of Kindle books at Amazon outpaced hard covers by July 2010; six months later, the sale of Kindle books has surpassed paperback as well. Amazon now sells 105 Kindle editions for every 100 print books. And, thus far, Amazon is selling three times as many Kindle books in 2011 as it did in 2010. Amazon now has 950,000 titles for the Kindle, and that includes The Gift Horse. I recently renegotiated the contract for my debut novel, and it is now part of the $2.99 promotional price package of books offered by its publisher. This is a great price for a full length novel, of course.

Other ebook sellers are offering the The Gift Horse at the same price point, so here are the links:

Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0053DUK4A

Barnes and Noble:
http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Gift-Horse/Pamela-J-Dodd/e/2940012901996

iBookstore:
http://itunes.apple.com/us/book/isbn9781614340836

BookLocker.com:
http://www.booklocker.com/books/1482.html

By Pamela/Pilar Posted in writing

Two Reviews— Waiting for Superman and Temple Grandin

While I have made most of the money I have ever made (or ever hope to) in public education, I genuinely enjoyed and appreciated the expose of public education called Waiting for Superman. The film is captivating, and somewhat suspenseful for a documentary.

As it opens, viewers meet five young people, of different ages, genders, and ethnicities. Each one has hopes and dreams which can only be fulfilled by a proper education. And each one is in a school which feeds into a “failure factory.” That term is applied to high schools where most students either drop out or fail to have the right background to get into college and succeed there. The facts and figures are playfully represented, and the stories of the five subjects introduced early on unfold gradually, along with commentary from educators.

Viewers will take away different images, I am sure, but I certainly identified with the “hidden camera” video of a classroom where the students were in the back of the room, playing craps, while the teacher sat in front of the room, with a magazine, waiting for his time to be up. My husband found that footage to be shocking, but I did not. Certain classes are like that. Really. I know, because I used to work in a public high school.

My experience tells me what the filmmaker does, and that is the answer to education problems is to hire good teachers and only good teachers. A good teacher is indeed “a work of art.” Of course, making sure that only good teachers are employed in public schools would entail firing bad ones. The filmmaker explains how difficult it can be to fire a bad teacher, and he professes to have an answer for this problem. I enjoyed the film, including the solution part; but as an educator, I am also skeptical that the solution can be so simple. (No, I won’t say what it is, but I hope readers of Pam’s Pages will want to know and will watch Waiting for Superman.) As the film draws to a close, viewers get a glimpse of the future of each of the youngsters, with mixed results, of course.

On a recent evening, our whole family enjoyed the excellent biopic from HBO which explains the life and thought patterns of the most famous autistic person in America, Dr. Temple Grandin. Anyone who has dealt with autism, or merely wants to know more, should see this film. And anyone who likes a good story will probably be just as impressed with it. Clare Danes is simply amazing, as she becomes the namesake of the film, Temple Grandin, in her speech patterns, her mannerisms, and she does a fair job of suppressing her movie star looks to appear more like Grandin would have looked in her earlier years.

Dr. Grandin writes well, and I first learned about her via her articles on how autistic people think. But, before she was famous for speaking out about autism, she was famous for being an expert in animal husbandry, and this biography begins with her summer trip to her aunt’s ranch, which was the beginning of her intense interest in animals and how they think. Grandin believes that there are distinct similarities in the thought processes of animals and autistics, and that is in pictures. Indeed, she has authored several books, as well as becoming a college professor, and one of her books is entitled Thinking in Pictures.

There is quite a bit of humor in this film, as Grandin blunders through social situations, but there is plenty of heart, too, as she is befriended and mentored by various people. As a mother, I do identify with Grandin’s mother, ably portrayed by Julia Armond. There can be no greater task than that of the mother of an autism spectrum child.

Unfortunately, neither of these movies will attract the viewers of the latest sci-fi blockbuster, but they are such worthy films that I hope you’ll go rent them or buy them and then share them so their messages will be spread a bit farther.

How Many Moms Does It Take to Graduate Eight Boys from Homeschool?

Homeschooled

Three years ago, a post a entitled “Graduating and Graduating Some More” was written on the day that our daughter graduated from the local high school.

Only a few months after that, our son, who has never found education to his liking for more than a few minutes at a time, was so unhappy that he began to rebel against education and his parents. Not good. Over his years in public school, both teachers and administrators had suggested that we consider homeschooling, and early his sophomore year, we took the plunge. During that time, I have learned some things that didn’t work well for him, and some that did. In some ways, homeschooling is no different than public school education. For instance, taking the ACT involved getting up early on Saturday, just like it does for public school students. Formal dances require flowers, spiffy clothes, and all that is left are the pictures, and that is just like public school, too.

In other ways, homeschooling is more like college. Until I embarked upon the homeschooling journey, I did not know that there are homeschool “groups” and “co-ops” and private tutors who cater to homeschooler families. The state of Georgia also allows homeschoolers to enroll in online classes via the Georgia Virtual School. During our three years of homeschooling, we have experienced all of those. Actually, not only are there many options open for educating, there are also opportunities for socialization, from drama groups to homeschool swim day, skate day, winter and spring formal dances, and bowling leagues. And I learned that one can order everything from entire curriculums with books, tests, and DVD instruction; to invitations, a diploma, and even the cap and gown. I’ve met a number of interesting people, including my son’s tutor, his music teacher, and a number of other homeschooling moms. Without participating in homeschooling, and a homeschool group over in Hall County, I would never have known about the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center, Yonah Skate and Bowl, the nifty ice cream cones at the Corner Drug Store on Thompson Bridge Road, the HEART co-op, Nuçi’s Space, Camp Amped, Baxendale Guitar, the Athens School of Music, Oasis Bowl, and I probably would not have visited nearly so many churches and parks in Hall County. My car has added a humongous number of miles, too. (Thank goodness, it is Honda.) As I look back on it, there are many activities we did not do. I don’t see how anyone could come close to doing them all.

When I was in graduate school, studying English and education, a chronologically gifted professor had us read The Sabre Toothed Curriculum, a satire which points out how old ways remain a part of schooling, far beyond their usefulness. Things have not changed much since its publication in 1939; schools still teach outdated skills. Some homeschool families have made it a priority to teaching their children life skills, rather than merely to sit still for long hours. The group instruction model does not take into account individual learning styles, either. Among homeschool moms, there are discussions about the Charlotte Mason method, Classical Conversations, and whether Saxon math is better than Teaching Textbooks. My curriculum and methods classes at Piedmont College did not cover the myriad of choices available to enterprising moms who choose to homeschool.

My daughter had gone through four graduations before her high school ceremony, and my son had also gone through four previous ceremonies, from preschool to middle school. Despite his lack of interest in the homeschool ceremony, our son did agree to this last ceremony, so he graduated, along with seven other young men, at a church in Hall County. All the moms have helped with the preparations, so the answer to my title question is eight, plus eight dads, and a number of siblings and friends.

Quite honestly, homeschooling has not been easy, nor inexpensive, but it is often a better plan for children. Most of the homeschool students I have met are more polite, more social, more mature, much more moral, and usually smarter than their public school peers. The bullying and moral decline evidenced in many public schools is reason enough to consider homeschooling. The main problem with it, other than time and expense, is the prejudice which is better summed up by the video than by me.

Star Trek as the Mother of Invention

iPad/Padd

This is an odd post for Mother’s Day, but it is tough to discuss it without writing about my mom, myself, or other family members.

But, as one who appreciates gadgets, I am grateful to science fiction authors for dreaming up some of the useful objects that we take for granted. Like other science fiction yarns, Star Trek is a mother of invention.

The original series of Star Trek was telecast in the mid-60s, and there were not many computers around. Those that were in existence then were low in processing power and huge in size. They recorded data on large spools of magnetic tape. During its three-year run, the characters on STOS used objects which resembled computer disks. They also used wireless (blue-tooth) ear phones, projectile free weapons, and even flip open communicators that look quite similar to Motorola’s flip phones.

In my youth, I just thought that science fiction writers were a bit prophetic. However, more reading has helped me understand that SF writers may be helping fulfill the prophecies in their fiction. Among the most ardent fans of SF on the page and one the screen are engineers and scientists, and they derive some of their inspiration from SF. So, the reason we have flip phones is because an engineer saw Captain Kirk chatting with his ship, and decided to build a device which can actually do that.

Since the Enterprise was only a space-going vessel, characters used shuttlecraft to make some short trips down to planets, and this concept no doubt inspired the name and some functionality of the space shuttle fleet which came along a few years after the series ended.

Technical inspiration did not end with the original series. When Roddenberry’s Star Trek, the Next Generation aired, the entire ship ran via touch interface. I can’t view a rerun of STNG without seeing technical concepts which have made the jump from screen to reality. Notable STNG inventions in everyday use include their oft used PADD, which clearly helped inspire today’s iPhone and iPad. The frequently used touch panels have inspired many kitchen gadgets, too. My microwave, my stove, and my dishwasher all use multi-colored touch pads, just like the USS Enterprise NCC 1701D.

The Borg of STNG and Star Trek Voyager relied heavily on nano technology. That is an up and coming method of enhancing everyday objects. Recently, I saw a pair of men’s pants which professed to have a nano stain fighter woven right into the fabric.

Star Trek gave us five different television series, and the tech of Trek continues to inspire engineers and scientists to create more and better gadgets. In fact, you may have given one to your mom today.

EPub, Kindle, and a new to me author

My iPad does many things, and it has become my reader of choice. After playing with it for a day or two, I began downloading eBook reading “apps” and right now, Kindle for iPad is beating out iBooks. In part, that is due to the vast selection of books at Amazon, but in part, it is due to the way Amazon can zero in on what I enjoy reading.

Within the last couple of weeks I have read two novels by D. A. Boulter, both purchased from Amazon. Indeed, Amazon Digital Services is listed as his publisher. For $2.99 one would be hard pressed to find a better novel than his Courtesan. Now, readers of romance or erotica, do not get excited. It isn’t that sort of book at all. If anything, it reminds me of early Elizabeth Moon space operas, and that is a complement. As the story opens, Jaswinder Saroya is on the run. The author sprinkles in enough back story to create suspense, but not so much as to give away his plot line too soon. There are not so many scenes and characters that a reader has to work too hard, either. I suppose I would have to call this lighter science fiction. But, the plot would be just as welcome in a more tech savvy thriller, and I rather liked it just the way it unfolded.

Having enjoyed Courtesan so very much, I went back to the Kindle store and purchased a book which seemed to inhabit the same “universe” but with different characters, Pelgraff. This one was also entertaining, but I did not find it to be as much fun to read as Courtesan. If anything, the world building in Pelgraff is better, because it is set on that planet, whereas, Courtesan is set mostly onboard a space going vessel. But the characters are not nearly so engaging in Pelgraff, and the plot is mostly fight, withdraw, fight some more. Still, it is a war story, so that is how it goes.

I’m sure I will read more of D.A. Boulter, but for now, I am rating Courtesan four and a half stars and Pelgraff is a solid three star read. Either one is well worth the asking price, and with an eBook, there is nothing to sell at a yard sale or try to trade at the used book store.

I am loving the iPad, and I would like to see my own works in ePub format so that other eBook readers will be able to enjoy them.

Bible Babel— a review

Last Christmas, one of my sisters gave me an autographed copy of Kristin Swinson‘s latest book, Bible Babel, Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time. Professor Swinson’s goal is to make some sense of what the Bible says, and what people say about it. That’s an almost impossible task, but the author makes a good effort, and the result is a highly readable book with a really interesting cover. One of my favorite passages is in the introduction:

“…many think that the Adam and Eve story in Genesis equates its talking snake with Satan, that the fateful fruit was specifically an apple, and that to this day men have one less rib than women. None of these are true…”

Some books are to be read at a fast pace, such as the latest thriller on someone’s best seller list, but others are worthy of more thought, and Bible Babel falls into that category. With a blend of pop culture usage (think DaVinci Code in the movies), and common concepts and misconceptions used as a springboard for topics, the author attempts to blend history, linguistics, scholarly research, and the good book itself to explain what it says, and why everyone seems to think it says something else. The table of contents reflects the varied topics she addresses, including “As It Is Written” History and the Bible….” and “Quotes and Misquotes….” and even “Flora, Fauna, Etcetera….”

As one of the best selling books of all time, and one of the least read, the Bible is constantly alluded to, but many of those who say, “it says in the Bible ________” could not give a book, chapter, and verse for the rest of the sentence. That’s because their “reading” isn’t reading at all, but they have heard something, somewhere, which was purported to have come from the Bible. Those readers who believe, for instance, that the Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves” are not Bible readers, but are instead, have been educated by proxy. Bible Babel is written for such readers, as an introduction to what the Bible does say, and in what context. Those who have read and studied the Bible may be bored with passages which explain that the Jewish Bible is the basis for the Christian Bible, or that Paul is the author of much of the New Testament. And those Christians who believe that Jesus spoke in Elizabethan English, as recorded in the King James Version, will be a bit disappointed as well.

But, for those who are religious, the author is quite respectful. For those who are skeptical, there is plenty of fuel for their skepticism. While I fall into the former category, my brain is still working, so I enjoyed both aspects of this book. If you have ever wondered why the scripture seems to be in conflict with itself, at least some of the time, or if you simply want to know more about one of the foundations of western world literature, then do read Bible Babel. Just carve out some time, because, like its subject matter, it is worthy of more than a casual reading.

By Pamela/Pilar Posted in writing

Reading (rather than writing)

Since my last post, I have been reading, reading, reading. First there were research papers, and while that is work, it is work I mostly enjoy. Over the four going on five years I have taught at the post secondary level, I have read papers on welding, auto repair, hair coloring, the history of perfumes, heat pumps, dirigibles, the physics of guitars, and even drag racing. There is much to learn in life, and those who stop learning must be really sad people. Anyway, I learn quite a lot when I read student papers.

When the quarter break came, we did some historical traveling, including a visit to the “Little White House” in Warm Springs, and the POW museum at Andersonville. At each of these spots, there are, of course, many many plaques and brochures to read, so I just kept on with my reading. Among the things I needed a refresher on were the vast number of progressive programs which began under FDR, including the “Rural Electrification Act.” Most everyone associates social security and with Roosevelt’s New Deal, but how many realize that without his direct input, farmers might have gone for many more decades without affordable electrical power? Another stop was the Currahee Military Museum in Toccoa, Georgia. There, visitors can see a number of artifacts from WWII, including a reconstructed stable, which housed troops in England, prior to the invasion of Normandy.

Also, a writer’s group in North Georgia has asked me to judge a category in their annual contest, which means more reading. While these entries won’t be like my research papers, I do look forward to reading the submissions.

Yes, I am really behind on writing, but I’ve been reading like crazy, and some writing will follow. (I hope so, anyway.)

By Pamela/Pilar Posted in writing