Thug Life, or the Napster of Books

I just stole food out of the mouths of Kenneth Fearing’s heirs — I pulled down his The Big Clock today from my new favorite book-sharing site instead of forking over the money for it to my local chain bookstore. I think his heirs will survive, but the $26 I would have had to pay for the anthology if it weren’t for the site is going to go elsewhere. We’re on month to month budget here, so someone will get it — just not the heirs of Kenneth Fearing. Most likely it will go to buying some of the plastic film you use to seal windows. I think Kenneth, who died almost fifty years ago, is not going to object.

It’s pretty neat how far these book-sharing sites have come — the one I use even has more than a dozen or so paid staff to maintain the site. And some people may think I’m a lousy dad, but because I want my daughter to grow up literate, and not spend a lot of money when she doesn’t have to, I’ve been teaching her to always check the book-sharing sites first, and not to pay money to get a book unless she has to.  If she can get it off the site, do that first.

I know that means less money for the author, but I tend to think my daughter’s literacy is valuable to society, and that literacy can’t be enlarged if she has to pay $10 a pop for kid’s books. So it’s best she learns to do this now for the good of society.

After all, this book-sharing site we use — our town’s public library — will hopefully be a great resource for her in years to come.

You probably have one of these sites in your own town. You should check it out.

Next week I’m going to show her how to read a book without paying the author by going to an even more evil institution: the used bookstore.


A weird thing happened the other day that I’ve been thinking quite a lot about.

Someone asked me when I would run for office. (If you know my political history that makes more sense).

I replied offhand what I usually say, which is I wouldn’t have a chance anyway, I’m an atheist.

I’ve said that before, but it struck me as kind of weird hearing it. It’s absolutely true — in the recent history of Congress there has been precisely one nontheist — Pete Stark. And in his case he kept that under wraps until year 30 of his service.

But isn’t it a bit weird? About one in eleven people in this country are atheist or agnostic (and agnosticism is really just a bogus distinction to divide nontheists), but to be revealed as a nontheist is the death of any campaign.

I’ve been an atheist for a very long time, since I was 19, which means usually when people have conversations about religion in groups I’m in I just wait it out. The assumption people have is that if the discussion broadens out to the We’ll-even -accept-God-as-transcendent-life-force level then of course everyone is included.

But everyone’s not included.

I’ve never had a moment, a Big Scene where I went home and said, “Mom, I’m an atheist!” and consequently my mother thinks my issues are with the Catholic Church, or maybe Christianity. I’ve said in a couple conversations “Mom, the reason I don’t go to church is I don’t believe in God.” when she’s asked, but somehow the answer never sticks. It never sticks with my high school friends either — it’s come up a couple of times, but I’m not pushy about it, and the next time we talk it’s clear they are assuming once again I am just a “lapsed” Catholic.

But if you’re an Atheist, it doesn’t really matter if others get it right, so why be an ass about it, right?

This has turned into  a bit of a ramble I guess.

What I’m leading up to I suppose was until recently I never understood my Atheism as a positive belief. Society doesn’t let you, really. The very meaning of atheism is “Without God-belief”.

And that’s how I understood it until recently — I operated without something that other people had.

The odd thing is when my Dad died this summer, in the midst of heart-wrenching days where nothing else could comfort me I turned to my Atheism. And it gave me comfort when nothing else could. Despite the frame society puts on it, it is not the absence of belief. It’s a belief so strong you are willing to see past prettier thoughts and take comfort in the truth. To me, at least, it is the strongest belief there is, to know the randomness of the world, to know that it bears no essential “meaning” outside what we ascribe to it, to know that there is no greater plan and that the consciousness we raise up and deify is a fortunate side-effect of this creaky frame we walk around in — to know all that and still to love, and cry, and laugh.

It’s not the absence of belief. It’s not something we lack, or a deficiency, or a weakness, or an “inability to believe”. We aren’t people that “lack a balance”. We believe something you don’t. You believe something we don’t.

Atheism is not negative belief.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. An awful lot.

I don’t plan to talk about Atheism here much more. But I felt I needed to mention this somehow, if only because most atheists never say a word.

GReader, Twitter Feeds, and Searching the PLN

Not sure how I missed this the first a couple days ago, but luckily @psychemedia called my attention to it today. Scott Leslie has a great post on using Twitter with Google Reader and the implications of that.

Money graf is here:

I’m not sure how many people actually realize that GReader allows you to search across all the feeds your subscribe to (or even a specific feed). Why is this important? Because – if it’s in my feed reader it has already reached a certain level of ‘trust’ as a source for me. I’m not saying I “believe” everything in my feed reader, but the vast majority come from people who are curating their own identities/output, whose context overlaps mine to some extent (otherwise I wouldn’t be subscribing to them). Being able to see who else in my network wrote or linked to something I find is of great use for me, increases my ability to assess information 10 fold.

I’ve been doing this in a slightly different configuration (I use gtweet), but I can vouch it works as advertised. Like Scott, I started doing this several months ago; for me the reason was I wanted to get out of the Skinner-box behavior that Twitter can elicit from me (I get to constantly checking for pellets) – a great way to do that is put twitter in a feed and read a whole days tweets at once.

But as my reader filled with tweets, I quickly discovered the search benefit. When searching my feeds for something like collaboration, I can see tweets referencing material on collaboration as well (of course, I make sure I use the twit-iom “collab”).  Perhaps an even more common use is to see if someone has been covering an issue that I want to write on. If someone in my network has been talking about, say, the realtionship of independent bookstores to state colleges recently I want to make sure I add to that discussion rather than start an unrelated discussion that doesn’t build on what’s already been said.

The most fascinating thing about this to me, as a person that has just come out of writing draft new media fluency standards for the college, is how natural this activity is for all of us (that so many people have discovered it independently), yet how hard it is to explain to people that it is this sort of tuning of your PLN that represents true fluency.

Bookstore Chains as the Unsustainable Middle

Further interesting trends in bookstores in my neverending attempt to find a bricks-and-mortar business model that can withstand broadband.

(And if you don’t understand why that’s important to education, well, I don’t have enough time to help you.)

OK, you saw below the recent slump that the chains have hit, compared to Amazon.

Well, here’s a neat fact – Amazon, e-books, and a lousy economy are apparently beating the hell of of the Barnes & Nobles of the world, but according to the Boston Globe independent booksellers have been barely touched:

Nationwide, sales in bookstores of all types fare better than in many businesses. The Census Bureau reports that bookstore sales in January 2009 were virtually unchanged from January 2008, compared with an 8 percent decline in total retail and food service sales. The big chains did not share that good news. Barnes & Noble’s store sales dropped 5 percent last quarter compared with 2007, capping a year that CEO Steve Riggio called “the most challenging year that the company and the industry have ever experienced.” Fourth-quarter sales in Borders superstores plunged 15 percent, and the chain closed 112 of its Waldenbooks locations in 2008.

Interesting, right?

Or, Then Again (The Bookstore Numbers Are In)

I’d been looking for an example of an industry that had successfully altered its business model, and defied the onslaught of BEE (Broadband Eats Everything). Stories about the newspapers and the record industries wake people up, but people need positive models to function and get inspired, one can’t run entirely on anti-patterns.

The other day, after reading Clay Shirky’s Social Hubs piece,  I thought I’d come across one – bookstores. True, the e-book and Wal-mart threats to book sales are relatively new. But was one of the first commercial web sensations, widely proclaimed as the death of brick and mortar stores.

Yet the stores are still here, right?

Well, kind of:


I don’t know enough about the industry to say much worthwhile, but those curves up there start to look a little like other industries, ones that muddle along thinking they have dodged the bullet, that the “internet thing” was all just hype, a passing fad – and then boom – the decline begins.

On the other hand, this looks a much softer landing than the newspaper industry — you don’t see a 68% reduction over 8 years here.  The initial effects seem to be muted by the fact people are reading (and watching and listening) more than ever. It’s not quite the zero-sum game a daily newspaper tended to represent.

Bookstores as Social Hubs and Education

Clay Shirky, from a recent post on his blog about bookstores:

The local bookstore creates all kinds of value for its community, whether its providing community bulletin boards, putting rocking chairs in the kids section, hosting book readings, or putting benches out in front of the store. Local writers, harried parents, couples on dates, all get value from a store’s existence as a inviting physical location, value separate from its existence as a transactional warehouse for books.

The store doesn’t get paid for this value. It gets paid for selling books. That ecosystem works — when it works — as long as the people sitting in those rocking chairs buy enough books, on average, to cover the added cost of having the chairs in the first place. The blows to that model have been coming for some time, from big box retailers stocking best sellers to online sales (especially second-hand sales) to the spread of ebooks to, now, price wars.

A while ago I asked a question on twitter that got no responses. Basically, the question was this: We always talk about the industries crashing in the digital economy. But where are the models of survival?

In other words, it’s great to tell college administrators they shouldn’t be like the record companies or the newspapers. But where are the inspiring stories of industries that changed? Because frankly if we’re all going down anyway, why not just double down on failure and cross your fingers?

It occurs to me that bookstores are a great example of an industry that survived through evolution. As Shirky points out in his post (emphasis mine):

Online bookselling improves on many of the core functions of a bookstore, not just price and breadth of available books, but ways of searching for books, and of getting recommendations and context. On the other hand, the functions least readily replicated on the internet — providing real space in a physical location occupied by living, breathing people — have always been treated as side effects, value created by the stores and captured by the community, but not priced directly into the transactions.

All of this makes it clear what those bookstores will have to do if the profits or revenues of the core transaction fall too far: collect revenue for the side-effects.

The most famous version of this is bookstore-as-coffeeshop, where the revenues from coffee subsidize the lingering over books and vice-versa, but other ways of generating revenue are possible. Reservable space for book clubs, writers rooms, or study carrels; membership with buy-back options for a second-hand book market run out of the same space; certain shopping hours reserved for members or donors; use of volunteer labor, like a food coop; sponsorships from the people or businesses in the neighborhood most interested in the social value of the store and most interested in being known as local machers.

Local bookstores have survived much longer than I would have predicted. And in the world where Amazon’s name recognition is pretty much ubiquitous, the mega-chains have actually grown.

But unlike local record shops, which have largely disappeared outside of major metropolitan areas, and chain record shops (of the Strawberries and Coconuts variety) that where still extant seem to have that slight eau-de-Radio-Shack, bookstores have survived. And they did so primarily by embracing and emphasizing their function as a social hub — increasing the readings, providing other means of subsidizing the activities of the store (coffee shops, etc).  In fact, bookstores did this so well and record stores so poorly that in country where book sales generate a fraction of the revenue music does, the average consumer is probably more likely to buy a CD in a bookstore at this point than a record store.

There’s problems with this analysis, sure.  But I wonder if it provides at least a partially positive model for campus-based education in general, if only because I’m drawing a blank on any other significant broadband survivors….

Better Balance

I think I’m going to try to get a better balance on this blog. I’m actually excited about a lot of things we are doing at Keene State — but because a lot of the things we are moving forward are fragile I’m in the position a lot of bloggers are in — the rants about the outside world end up outnumbering talk discussions of the real progress we are making — because we’re afraid that talking about it too early will spook people, or cause unnecessary drama.

That’s not to say the rants will go — I need some way to funnel my frustration with the ridiculous politics around education into something constructive. But I’m going to start trying to blend in more of what we are doing…

School Choice, Civics Knowledge, and Fraud

So that Oklahoma “civics test“” from a couple of months ago? The one that looked fishy to anyone with half a brain? The one where most students couldn’t name the first president, and thought the two parties in the U.S. were Republican and Communist?

The one that generated of so much-hand wringing from the Ed Hirsch Fan Brigade about how Democracy couldn’t function unless we adopted voucher programs right-the-hell-now and replaced all this liberal kid-hugging nonsense with some old fashioned content drills?

It was faked, says Nate Silver:

There is no reason to think, in other words, that the students in House District 15 should have gotten such profoundly superior results to the “students” in Strategic Vision’s survey. Nor could Strategic Vision’s results have been the result of any sort of mathematical or methodological oddity. Consider their claim that literally none of the 1,000 students they surveyed were able to answer more than 7 of the 10 questions correctly — lower than the average score achieved in Cannaday’s test.

There are, rather, only two possibilities. Either the Strategic Vision survey was entirely fabricated — or Cannaday’s was.

Once again, not suprising to anyone with an ounce of quantitative literacy, or even a passing familiarity with actual students.

As always the bigger question ends up being not about the content knowledge of our current students, but about the critical thinking skills of their parents, the dumbest generation by any objective standard, who get duped by this nonsense again and again.

Open Google Test

This is a neat idea — because if you make assessment authentic, courses have to change, of necessity:

In Denmark, the government has taken the bold step of allowing pupils full access to the internet during their final school year exams.
A total of 14 colleges in Denmark are piloting the new system of exams and all schools in the country have been invited to join the scheme by 2011.

I’d be interested to know (and may research) how the practice of open book tests transforms pedagogical practice (and student focus) in those classrooms that adopt it. I would guess that we are looking at something similar here.