Monday, June 30, 2014

For The Good Of The Community

Andrew Carnegie was, at one time, the richest man in the world. He made it there by hard work, having come from nothing as a Scottish immigrant to America with a head full of ideas and a heart full of ambition.

Once he reached the top, he made it his life's work to get rid of that fortune, in a way that would do good for the community. He spent a large part of his immense wealth in building libraries where the poor lived. He gave those who most needed knowledge a place to find it. Because he understood that those who could not afford private libraries were the very people who toiled in his factories and made him rich, he returned the favor by providing them with libraries where they could improve their minds. He gave them a chance at betterment, and then the rest was up to them.

We could use an Andrew Carnegie again.

The town of Robbins, south of Chicago, is a hardscrabble place. Dirt poor, with nothing going for it. No industry to speak of. No jobs. Poor schools. Rundown housing. But at least they had a library.

That library is about to close because there simply isn't any money around to keep the doors open.

A library needs librarians working inside of it, and librarians have to be paid. There are daily costs to light the place, cool it in summer and heat it in winter, and after that there are books to buy. Not a cheap operation by any means, even if most of the new acquisitions are donations.

A hardscrabble town doesn't have a strong tax base, and with the economy in the tank, Robbins is particularly hurting. Even in the best of times it was a struggle for the town to get by, and when the area is essentially reliving the Great Depression, the budget won't stretch. So what has to go? One of the most essential services that the town provides, but one that is not recognized as essential.

Children in Robbins don't have Internet access at home. They go to the library to get online to do their homework. Like kids in better-off towns or the well-funded city, but without the convenience. You don't have much convenience when you can't afford to buy it. It's part of being poor, finding ways to get past the inconvenience. They go to the library in the summer to participate in reading camps and reading competitions that all help to improve their brains and make them a little smarter, so maybe when they grow up they can go to college. Even a junior college would be an accomplishment when you come from the bottom.

There is not enough money to keep the doors open and the library will close, leaving all those children with no place to go when they have to look something up. No computer. No set of encyclopedias. No works of fiction to entertain a kid and entice him or her off the streets.

The William Leonard Public Library will close tomorrow due to lack of funds.

We could use a modern-day Andrew Carnegie, someone who doesn't just dump their money in some faceless foundation and then step back to accept the world's applause. We could use a modern-day Andrew Carnegie who can see the benefit to the world that can be derived from education that doesn't take place in a classroom but in a self-directed fashion. While it's all well and good to donate computers to schools, the kids aren't in school all the time and what are they supposed to do after class?

That's where the library comes in.

Adults can go there to read a newspaper and cool off on a hot day because they can't afford to buy a newspaper or pay for electricity to run an air conditioner. The library is a haven for those who want to sit quietly and drift into an imaginary world in their mind, inspired by a book.

The poor people of Robbins won't have that come Tuesday. They are the very people that Andrew Carnegie was thinking of when he set about donating his entire fortune to do good for the community. We need a new Andrew Carnegie.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Getting The Most For Your Money At Trader Joe's

MSN Money did some comparison shopping so you don't have to, and they have prepared a very nice comparison of several items that you might be thinking of buying on your next trip to Trader Joe's.

For those of us whose shopping excursions to the California-based grocery usually begin and end at the wine department, it may be surprising to find out that Trader Joe's has good prices on some things. Better prices than what you're paying at places like Walmart. If you shop at Walmart. Somehow, it's hard to imagine a Trader Joe's aficionado pushing a cart through Walmart, but whatever.

Better, instead, to focus on the Trader Joe's equivalent, which would be Whole Foods. There is a demand for organic foods these days, with people very concerned about what they're putting in their mouths and will they wake up twenty years from now with gastric cancer. Trader Joe's is meeting the demand of the wary, and they are competing with Whole Foods for those food dollars.

Would you ever have guessed that Whole Foods, which is not a cheap place to shop, would be selling organic milk at a far lower price than Trader Joe's? Hard to imagine that Whole Foods would be selling anything cheaper than any other store, but MSN Money checked and it's true.

Don't waste your money on organic milk at Trader Joe's, but you can pick up almond or soy milk and consider yourself a clever shopper.

Of course, you might want to consider the cost of the gas you'd need to burn in order to drive to Whole Foods to save a dollar on organic milk. That's where the stores get you. Unless Trader Joe's is in the same strip mall as Whole Foods, you aren't likely to drive out of your way and spend more on fuel than what you'd save on organic milk.
No extra charge for the listeria. What a bargain

Price isn't the only issue, however, and MSN Money failed to consider another important aspect to comparison shopping.

No matter how much you might save, you don't want to buy listeria-tainted products at Trader Joe's, even if it is far cheaper than the equivalent at Whole Foods. Of course, you wouldn't want a tub of listeria from Whole Foods either, even if you could get sick for less.

The cost will prove to be far higher than you anticipated.

Vladimir Sokhatskiy picked up a container of egg white salad, which sounds so very healthy. Avoid all those egg yolks with the cholesterol they contain, cut the calories of your egg salad, and the price is right. It turned out that Hot Mama's Foods, maker of private label goods for stores including Trader Joe's, had shipped a quantity of foodstuffs tainted with listeria, such as the egg white salad. A recall was not long in coming, but unfortunately for the purchaser of the egg white salad, it did not come quite soon enough.

The recall notice did not appear until after Mr. Sokhatskiy ate the egg white salad and became violently ill. It was particularly worse for him because he is being treated for leukemia and his immune system is compromised, making him that much more susceptible to bacterial infection.

Mr. Sokhatskiy is now suing the manufacturer, and Trader Joe's, which is guilty of selling the product that might have been relatively inexpensive on the shelf, but cost the purchaser plenty in lost time to say nothing of the pain and suffering.

Overall, it is probably far cheaper to make your own egg white salad. It takes a little more time than tossing a pre-made container into your cart when you pick up the bread for the sandwich you'll make, but in the long run, you'll save hours of time sprawled in a hospital bed with tubes stuck in your arms, dripping antibiotics into your body. Like calculating the cost of the gas needed to drive to another store for a cheaper price, it's all relative. You have to look at the bigger picture.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Forever Open, Clear And Free Of Lucas

The most die-hard "Star Wars" fans are celebrating, maybe, if they even really care that George Lucas has deigned to honor Chicago with his museum. His props, his special effects collection, and yes, even his trove of Norman Rockwell art will be housed in Chicago.

By the way, George, did you notice the Art Institute just to the north of where your museum is to go? Loaded with great works of art. Did you never think to maybe donate your stuff to them? You could have had the George Lucas wing if you were not so insistent on having your name plastered on a building.The Museum of Science and Industry would be a good fit for the film-oriented items. The museum that's already there, in place, built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Of course there are plenty of other sites available as well, but those are in the less desirable neighborhoods where poor people live and, well, they're not our kind, are they.
Field, Shedd, Adler and soon, Lucas

Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, fought hard to get that museum built in his city. How else can he stand for re-election if he doesn't have some great public construction work ongoing, with all the jobs that are traded for votes and contracts that come with campaign funds?

Mr. Lucas wants his grand tribute to himself put in the midst of Chicago's historic museum campus, where the Field Museum meets the Adler Planetarium and the fishies swim in the Shedd Aquarium. Land being scarce in the region, it has been decided that a large parking lot used by Bears fans at Soldier Field can go. Let those suburbanites go elsewhere to tailgate. George Lucas wants his personal monument put there.

If you are hoping for a construction job at the George Lucas Museum of Stuff Left Over After The Garage Sale, don't hurry to the site any time soon.

The Friends of the Parks are getting ready to file a lawsuit that would block construction based on a law that was enacted after McCormick Place was constructed on the east side of Lake Shore Drive, a strip of land that has been kept as open parkland ever since Daniel Burnham made no small plans.

Ordinary Chicagoans know a power play when they see one, and this is another example of the rich and powerful doing what they like where they like, leaving the taxpayers to cover the cost. There is no popular demand for a museum of Star Wars memorabilia. George Lucas is not a famous Chicagoan who made good, but an out-of-towner looking to brag of his achievements like Donald Trump with his in-your-face buidling sign.

To put the self-tribute in the middle of a beloved museum campus, and to take away the already limited parking at Soldier Field, does not sit well with the general public.

To construct a building on parkland east of the drive has rankled many, and the battle lines are already being drawn up. According to the city, the Lucas museum will be built with private funds but then it will be handed over to the Chicago Park District so technically it's a public building and the law only bans private construction so the museum is good to go.

Mr. Lucas' representatives may not know that he will not get to own his museum, but that is another matter to be worked out as the lawsuits get filed and the public gets riled up. The public that knows how these things work in the city that works, where politicians proclaim the glories of a pet project and the next thing you know the parking meter rates are skyrocketing and the 911 surcharge on every phone has more than doubled and the water bill has climbed so high you don't know how you'll pay it.

Who cares that much about Star Wars to go to a museum? And when people don't go, and the admission fees don't cover operating expenses? Chicagoans are familiar with the routine. They don't much want to add another financial burden to a city that is already broke and running further into the red.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

And Then There Was One

Perseus Books Group is know for its non-fiction. Hachette Book Group is known for its ongoing war with Amazon, but beyond that, it is a heavy producer of fiction.

A marriage made in heaven, surely. Perseus and Hachette have declared their intention to merge, thereby creating one from what once was two, and shrinking the publishing universe a little more. Random House and Penguin did it not long ago. Why not us, the happy couple said.

We won't end up like Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt did, on the rocks from the start and nearly breaking up completely. That lesson has been learned.

But like the whale of a merger that united Riverdeep with two other large publishers, those who would blend Perseus and Hachette speak lovingly of synergies and all the cost savings that will be had.

Those who once worked at Harcourt or Houghton Mifflin can tell you what realizing synergies means. It means you lose your job in accounting because there are plenty of other bean counters toiling at the other company. It means you're out on the street because there's a limit to how many editors any publisher needs, and when two can do the work of three, well, there's a synergy in there to be given the sack.

Hachette will gain access to the American market, and all those textbook sales that Perseus controls. You'd almost think Barry O'Callaghan was directing things from behind the scenes, with this fascination with academic works and creating the world's largest publisher of educational materials. But then again, there are always children and young adults going to school and they need textbooks so it's a market in need of product on a regular basis. And the market is in bookstores, not Amazon's website.

The ethos between the two partners is radically different, however. Hachette is all about blockbuster bestselling fiction, while Perseus plods along with non-fiction that typically reaches smaller markets. There's the occasional self-help book that sells well, but with non-fiction the concept of a bestseller is not quite the same.

Will Hachette's executives be able to keep their ethos out of Perseus? While Hachette plans to keep the Perseus imprints running as they have been, Perseus' CEO David Steinberg will leave after the dust of the merger has settled, along with his chief marketing officer and chief operating officer. There's a fine example of realizing some synergies.

Hachette will sell Perseus' distribution division to Ingram, which is already a powerhouse in book distribution, and so focus the merged publisher's attention on publishing.

It is up to Ingram, then, to decide how many of Perseus' distribution employees it will retain, but the folks who ship books out of the Tennessee warehouse are not feeling the love emanating from the upcoming union. Ingram is more likely to take over the physical space and consolidate its operations, again realizing synergies because one warehouse does not need multiple managers when one can do the job.

For authors, there is always the concern that fewer outlets buying manuscripts means fewer opportunities. While the two publishers are producing books in different areas, there is a concern that Hachette's acquisition of Perseus' back list would provide enough profit that Hachette would not have to take as much risk with someone new and untested. They wouldn't need the money so much, not with the back list selling and the e-book potential ready to be tapped.

Synergies all around, so.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Drama In Three Courses Plus Dessert

The star enters stage left or right, and the audience knows what will happen next.

Yes, Gordon Ramsay will sample items from the menu of the struggling eatery and declare it all shite on a plate. Every episode of Kitchen Nightmares is the same drama playing out from the same script. Of course it had to end. Even the longest running play has a final performance.

The programme had a format that was standard drama, a three act play with conflict and resolution and usually something sweet at the end. It made for riveting television, for a time, until viewers figured out that they knew how things would end and the only reason to keep watching was to pick up a few recipe tips for next Sunday's dinner.

Gordon Ramsay has pulled the plug, as they say in show biz, and will wrap up the long running series at the end of this season's filming schedule. The nightmares are coming to an end.

Just like a steady diet of romance novels, the menu for the show became fixed and hence predictable. You knew the chaotic kitchen was going to get it together and crank out dishes. The wait staff would sprout smiles as the operation started to run smoothly and customers were happy. After a while, you wouldn't much notice if you missed an episode or two or five. It was the same thing, over and over, and once in a while you need some literary fiction in your diet or your brain will go soft. So, too, with television. Instead of Chef Ramsay some night, you might sit down to a delicious costume drama or comedy, just to taste something else.

The biggest draw for the show could have been the commonly held belief that anyone could operate a restaurant if they knew a few simple recipes. So many of the cooks appearing on Kitchen Nightmares were just ordinary folk with a dream and a love of cooking, and those watching at home could relate to the hero and his/her struggles.

But the second act always showed how wrong that naive notion was, and the third act's resolution put reality on display. Sure there would be those who could sit through the whole drama and still believe that they could do it, make a go of some small eatery, and for them the third act was proof that it was possible to pull off such a difficult task. Even that sort of happy ending has its limits of interest, however.

Enjoy your last few meals in the kitchen of nightmares because it's time to close up shop. The palates have been sated and there's not enough interest in the repetitive menu. One last drama, then, a full meal of three courses...or acts, if you like...with a sweet finish to tickle your tastebuds as the doors close...or the curtain rings down. It's all the same.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Finding Money In Publishing

Thieves generally gravitate towards that which will bring them money, or why else would you risk your freedom in taking something that doesn't belong to you?

Steal on a massive scale for the thrills?

Not likely. You still have to put food on the table and a roof overhead. If it was a question of thrill alone you'd become a commodities trader or a stockbroker. You know, professional gambler-type occupations that keep you on the edge of your seat because you never know when your bet will come up a loser.

So we're talking about theft as a money-making scheme. Steal something, pawn it or sell it at a flea market, and pocket the cash. But how could any respectable thief expect to turn a tidy profit in publishing?
The illegal library

Spanish police report the disruption of a massive fraud ring that centered on a criminal publishing enterprise, proving that there must be money in publishing if done right.

According to reports, the three would-be publishers skipped past the whole process of acquisitions via slush pile or literary agent representation and selected only blockbuster books. Isn't that what every publisher is after? Wouldn't it be a highly profitable business if every book that was selected was a sensation that sold through?

The books that the thieves chose to print had already been thoroughly edited for content and typos, so there again they saved money on hiring an editor to whip the manuscript into shape. Of course, the major publishers are already doing this to a large extent, being interested only in polished manuscripts that won't require much work. Hence the plethora of MFA holders getting published. They know how to structure a manuscript and so they represent a cost savings for the publisher.

Using modern technology, which must have been a bit expensive unless the equipment was also stolen, the copyright infringement gang scanned and then printed well over 1,000 books. There were hard drives filled with more texts, all from prominent authors who could command some comfortable royalties from their works, except of course that these are thieves here and they don't pay royalties. Again, if legitimate publishers could get away with it, they would. Why spend more when there's not much coming in?

Although the police haven't given out much by way of details, they have mentioned that this arrest was part of an investigation into Asian criminal gangs. But where were these books being sold, and were they in Spanish or English or was there an international library of best-sellers ready to be shipped and sold on the black market?

So there is money in publishing, but it comes after a book has been promoted into wide-ranging public notice and acclaim.

The problem for publishers is that someone, namely the publisher, has to pay for the creation of the book. Little wonder that they are so keen to see governments put some effort into ensuring that copyright laws are not violated. Considering the huge scale of this recently rumbled operation, you have to wonder if a considerable amount of publishing's profits is being siphoned off by thieves who know where the money is.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Nation Airs Its Dirty Laundry

As if the past is being slowly unearthed, like a massive archaeological dig with but a few dedicated workers manning small shovels, Ireland's past is coming to light and the nation finds that its dirty laundry is on display for all the world to see.

Back in 1996, the victims found the courage to speak and so the government was made to issue an apology to the tens of thousands of children who were locked up in industrial schools over a period of decades. The young and vulnerable were made to suffer because the newly formed Irish Free State was going to reshape society and create a new national order in which all lived happily in poverty, under the thumb of the Catholic Church. The social experiment was a disaster and left several generations scarred, but no one dared say a word against the system for fear of being abused in turn. The prosperity of the Celtic Tiger finally released inhibitions and so the dig was opened.

Women who had been incarcerated in Magdalene laundries, forced into slave labor for the benefit of the religious orders that ran the facilities, stepped forward. For the crime of falling pregnant outside of marriage they were locked up without a trial, the length of service set at life if the woman had a skill the nuns could make a profit from. For the crime of being pretty, for the crime of being an orphan girl in a family with bachelor brothers, for the crime of being in the parish of a perverted priest, thousands and thousands of women were put away behind locked doors and nobody said a word against the system out of fear until the dig into Ireland's past revealed that which had been hidden.
Mother and baby home
A new nightmare has come to light, another piece of the dark past that was hidden for too long. The Magdalene laundries were not the only places where a girl might end up if she was pregnant, even if it was the result of rape or incest. Women who were unmarried and pregnant for any reason were often shut away in mother and baby homes, a set of institutions that were operated by the State but run by religious orders.

The story told by Philomena Lee was the opening into this latest example of fierce misogyny, and her story has been told around the world. With that horror still fresh in the mind, it should be no surprise that the world has taken a keen interest in another corner of this historical uncovering.

Twenty years after the first scandal broke, the heartbreak of forced adoption has been joined by evidence of cold disregard for the life and health of babies born outside of wedlock. The historians are digging deep into the records of the mother and baby homes and the Irish nation must face its past and inconceivable lack of care and concern for helpless infants.

796 babies, most of them less than one year old, died at the Tuam mother and baby home while it operated from the 1920s through the beginning of the 1960s. This phenomenally high infant mortality rate has led others to check the old records of other homes, and it has been revealed that the infant mortality rate at other homes scattered around Ireland are, perhaps, even more shocking.

What does it say about a nation that would allow its female citizens to be mistreated and abused? What does it say about a country that claims to cherish its children but then locks up the poor ones and lets the illegitimate ones die off at levels far exceeding that of legitimate children? What does it say about a country that bans abortions to this day, but essentially turned a blind eye to the outbreaks of disease that ran rampant through the overcrowded homes? Abortion is bad, but if the baby dies of a treatable disease it's not an issue?

Politicians call for more women in public office, and then wonder why so few women become involved in the public arena. After decades of being crushed underfoot, it will take decades more for the ladies to stand tall without fear of being cut down by a misogynist state and a misogynist church that continues to exert its influence in Irish life.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Land Of Saints And Scholars And Tax Inversions

It's all the rage now, in pharmaceutical circles. Everyone wants an Irish domicile. Sure it's a lovely land, the Emerald Isle, but its true beauty lies in its corporate tax structure.
Home Sweet Tax Haven

Recently, Medtronic bought up an Irish firm that made related products, but what Medtronic most liked about Covidien was its Irishness. The marriage is not a love-match, but a business merger that will allow Medtronic to lay claim to an Irish address which in turn allows the firm to pay Irish taxes. What might once have been paid to Caesar Americanus can be plowed back into research and development, to say nothing of the benefits to be derived by the executives when it's time to hand out bonuses.

Medtronic is not alone.

Due to complex and convoluted laws governing corporate taxes and who pays what to whom, American multinationals have lots of money sitting in the bank accounts of their overseas branches, but to bring the cash back to headquarters would mean paying American taxes at 35%, the largest in the world. CEOs see more benefit in keeping the money in house, where they can use it as they see fit, rather than throw it away at a wasteful government. So how to revert this cash inversion? Buy overseas and move houses. Invest the capital in Ireland, make Ireland the home base, and the bottom line plumps up instantly.

AbbVie, a spin-off of drug-maker Abbott Labs, is trying to get in on the game as well, but the Irish-based pharmaceutical industry knows what's up and there are no bargain prices to be had.

The American firm's recent offer to Shire was summarily dismissed as inadequate. Not that Shire is worth what it claims it is worth, but those tax savings are worth some serious cash and it's no secret that AbbVie is buying that more than acquiring a competitor. AbbVie stands to benefit from Shire's rare disease pharmaceuticals, but AbbVie is doing quite well with Humira and really just needs an Irish address to call home. For tax purposes. And Shire's stockholders know this.

AbbVie will either have to come back with a counter-offer or find another suitor willing to make an arranged marriage of convenience. It's all the rage in Irish business circles, this courtship by wealthy swains in search of tax inversions in the land of saints and scholars.

Is it any wonder that the Irish State is fighting the EU on corporate tax regulations? What America does not get in tax income, Ireland will acquire a portion thereof, and as the Irish learned long ago, it's better to have a little than nothing at all.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Neighborhood Is The Monument

The Easter Rising came too late to be fought in open fields and farmland. What was once country was built up by 1916, and so the failed rebellion took place in a bustling city filled with buildings of various types.

The key battles that were fought by the rebels were situated in urban structures, and we all know that cities do not remain the same over the course of one hundred years. Architectural styles change and technology advances, so that the the Georgian facade common to 1916 Dublin becomes outdated and slated for renewal.

But what does a nation do to preserve the places where its history was made?
After Easter Monday, 1916

At the time of the Rising, the buildings where things happened were owned by individuals who expected to make a profit of some sort from ownership. These were assets, after all, to be bought and sold and then used by new owners to suit their purposes. Like other rebellions before it, the rebellion failed in 1916, and the British managed to inflict some heavy damage in putting down the uprising, so who was thinking about preserving anything at the time?

The Irish State has an interest in preserving the run-down building on Moore Street in Dublin where the rebellion died. The surrender was signed at 14-17 Moore Street and the leaders taken away to be shot as traitors. Today, the neighborhood is derelict, in need of attention to encourage economic development at a time when there is no cash on hand to fund such a grand scheme.

The surroundings buildings are owned by individuals who might like to ride the government's coattails as the site of the surrender is saved for posterity. Tourists visiting Moore Street would need fast food and souvenirs and vendors would need storefronts from which to sell such items, and if the chipper next to the historical site is tacky, well, it's bringing in money to someone.

The government must preserve the neighborhood, and not just a single building, if it is to preserve its heritage. The building should be seen in the context of the time instead of being preserved like some specimen that fails to provide a full picture of the area where the Rising ended. It is a battlefield as much as Normandy or the Somme, and deserves the same regard.

Maureen O'Sullivan has begun a campaign of sorts to push the government towards greater zoning regulation in the area so that when the tourists come in 2016 for the centenary of the Rising they are not walking through a decrepit neighborhood to see the building on Moore Street. Sure the country is poor again, but do the neighbors really need to see how threadbare some areas are, and it's not as if you could tell people not to go there when the building is such an important part of Ireland's history.

What Ms. O'Sullivan proposes is a new regulation that would control the re-development of the immediate area, to avoid the construction of a massive, modern shopping center smack up against the outer wall of 17 Moore Street. Anyone coming in to the area would have to maintain the historic facade and treat their building as part of the national monument, even if it is not owned by the government.

That sort of regulation puts a burden on the property owner, and calls for an owner with a commitment to historic preservation.

If those aren't the types of people who currently own the buidlings on Moore Street, there could be quite an outcry from well-heeled developers who don't want the government telling them what they can do with their property and if they want to tear something down, they'll raze it in a minute.

Otherwise, those visiting Moore Street in two years time will not find the same street once trod by Padraig Pearse. They'll find a little, nondescript building in the midst of either squalor or modern facades, and a small piece of the experience will be gone forever.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Art of Writing Dialogue

People talk. The characters in your novel talk, but when you are using dialogue in a work of fiction, those spoken words have more uses than simple filler between blocks of narration.

In an article published in the Irish Times, three authors discuss the art of writing dialogue and how they use conversations between characters to develop the story and move the plot along.

As a writer, you can use dialogue to convey information to the reader, but as author George Saunders point out, the sentences have to be natural and conform to normal speech. If you learn nothing else, this one bit of advice could save you from a steady stream of rejection letters that begin as soon as the literary agent reads the first conversation.

Listen as people talk to each other, whether it's eavesdropping on strangers at the shopping mall or your family gathered around a holiday table. There is a rhythm to speech, a way of using words that can be simple or complex. Is your character talking to a child or an adult? The language would be different, and you have to write it in keeping with what you have heard. Two men chatting will not sound the same as two women arguing, and neither would the conversation be the same between mixed couples. You can convy a great deal about your characters through the words they speak, without requiring long stretches of description that bore the reader.

What is the key to writing believable dialogue?

You, as a writer, must listen. 

The Cold, Inhuman Sherlock Holmes Belongs To The Public

Copyrights have a finite existence. After the term has expired, the written work belongs to the public.

You can download a free version of The Count of Monte Cristo if you like, because M. Dumas is long dead and he can no longer control what is done with his characters or his novels. In a way, his patent expired and anyone can use the work. You could write a novel based on one of his characters, a modified version of fanfic, and not be taken to court for violating copyright.
Copyright infringement, Mr. Watson

Such is the case with Sherlock Holmes, a beloved character who entered the scene in 1887. Despite the author's attempt to kill the character off, Sherlock Holmes continued to experience adventures and solve crimes well into the 1920s. Only Arthur Conan Doyle's death brought an end to the tales of the fictional British detective.

The literary estate of Arthur Conan Doyle inherited the copyright on the author's works, and with the market still hot for Sherlock, it became the licensing agent for anything related to the novels. All those films featuring Basil Rathbone? Every one of them was money into the literaty estate's pocket in licensing fees.

Leslie Klinger edited an annotated version of some classic Holmes stories, and dutifully paid the licensing fee to the estate. However, he knew that books fell into the public domain after a set period of time, and when he set out to create another annotated collection, he did not write a new cheque. Why pay for the license if the license is not required? There is a limited amount of money to be made in peddling annotated works and who can afford to spend needlessly these days?

Not willing to part with an income stream, the estate declared that it would stop book sales, which would leave publisher Penguin with a lot of pulp to dispose of if it went ahead with the book release. Mr. Klinger was not willing to back down, and it was up to the courts to decide.

And so the literary estate lost on the first round, and has just been handed a second defeat on appeal. The judge has found that copyrights do not go on forever, and the copyright on the novels that Mr. Klinger was editing had passed from this earth. He did not have to pay a fee for works that had fallen into the public domain.

As for the later stories penned after 1923, those continue to enjoy the privileges and benefits of copyright protection. Therefore, if you choose to pen your own version of the famed detective, you may not use elements introduced in those works. According to the estate's representative, that would mean your Holmes would not be warm and human, and could not mention a second wife. Or be shown growing increasingly friendly with Dr. Watson. Does that mean they could not be depicted as gay lovers, or is that more than a growing friendship? Consult your solicitor on that one.

Just keep him cold and heartless, writers, or you'll be facing the ire of the literary estate in a court of law.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Come Into My Facebook Page Said The Dressmaker To The Hacker

Hacking is not all that sophisticated in every instance. The easiest way for a hacker to get into your accounts is by having you let him/her in (usually it's him so let's make this simple). He knocks and you open.

That is how Justin Brown lost control of his Facebook page, where his clients would come to find out about his services and then contact him for fashion design and apparel.

Mr. Brown was wondering if he was reaching his target audience so he contacted Facebook. An e-mail came back to him with instructions on altering his page settings, and he thought it was Facebook trying to fix his problem. As it turned out, the hacker sent him a scam e-mail that appeared to have come from Facebook, the resemblance sufficient to fool Mr. Brown into believing it was real.

He did as directed, making the required changes to his settings, and the next thing he knew, he no longer controlled the page.

Everything he had set up on Facebook to attract clients was suddenly turned into a pornography site, with links to sex videos. Thousands of euro worth of advertising to bring traffic to his page was instead bringing traffic to a hacked page that did not lead to increased business for Mr. Brown. It was money down the drain, with no customers coming in to bring a return on  the advertising investment.

Naturally, everyone who tried to get through to the dressmaker via Facebook could not contact him, and as they knew no other way to contact him than via Facebook, Mr. Brown lost clients. Then there would be those who thought Mr. Brown was not legitimate while the page was, and he lost out on potential clients who would have been upset at being sent to a sex site when they were looking for clothes. For over two weeks he was essentially out of business, without a place in social media to act as his storefront.

The hacker is not making any money off the hacking, which is clearly intended to disrupt a man's life and ruin his business on a lark. The hacker hacked because he could, and so he did, and if an innocent man is hurt, well, it's all great fun isn't it.

Facebook was of little help to Mr. Brown, but then again, so many phishing scams are launched at the website that the administrators are hard-pressed to handle them all. Besides phishing, you'll get disgruntled ex-spouses or former lovers looking to cause trouble, and how can you prove you're not a hacker yourself when you lodge a complaint with Facebook about a hacking?

The social media site can do little more than issue guidance to its users, warning them of phishing scams and suggesting ways to determine if an e-mail is real or not.

Mr. Brown has regained control of his page after contacting a newspaper which in turn contacted Facebook. He will be more cynical in the future, more aware of the dangers of taking things at face value because that is how the hackers operate.

It's a question of looking for the right clues, of always being suspicious and verifying the source of an e-mail before opening it. Trust, but verify? Or is trust gone when it comes to the Internet?

Friday, June 13, 2014

City Of Literature As Long As You Pay For It

Every year on the 16th of June, the tourists descend on Dublin for the sole purpose of walking in the footsteps of a fictional character.

That tourists will do this every year, and drop a lot of money in the process, should be an item of great excitement in government circles where the acquisition of more money is a never-ending quest. Yes, by all means, bring in tourists with their willingness to spend whatever on hotels, food and souvenirs. But to provide them with places to hand over the cash? Even charity has its limits when there is the potential to squeeze more blood out of some volunteering turnips.

Lemon soap from Sweny a la Leopold Bloom
This year, the fans of James Joyce's Ulysses will make their way through the same circuit that the author described for his character Leopold Bloom. Some will dress in costume. Many will pop in to Sweny's for a cake of lemon soap, just like Leopold Bloom, before moving on to the next stop of the literary tour.

Sweny's Pharmacy is now a museum dedicated to the novel and staffed by volunteers who spend many hours wrapping cakes of soap in the requisite paper. The facade is lovingly maintained in all its Edwardian glory, to provide a little entertainment for the visitor who is looking for a full Bloom experience. It isn't just fans of Dan Brown who use a novel to create a tour itinerary, you know.

As a museum, the facility has received funding from UNESCO via Dublin City Council because the city is considered a city of literature and the United Nations has been supportive of promoting important sites. This year, however, Sweny's Pharmacy will not be receiving the funds. Dublin City Council, of course, still wants their taxes. And a little more, if you please.

Not only is Sweny's not getting the UNESCO funding, but they have been hit with an increase in rates because the Dublin City Council has determined that the parcel is more valuable than previously thought. It's considered a commercial property, not some sort of charitable museum sort of thing, and so the museum must meet expenses that soap cannot fund.

Someone in the City Council is clearly not a fan of James Joyce, Ulysses, or the hordes of giddy tourists in their Edwardian dress who clog the streets of Dublin every 16 June. The museum appealed the new rate but was told they were not eligible to be classified as a museum, because all they do is sit there and sell soap to tourists one day a year and then hold a fundraising dinner during the Christmas season to keep the doors open so they can sell soap on 16 June. Clearly a going concern, and not a museum as defined by whatever bureaucratic-speak is on the official book of definitions.

So if you are a fan of Joyce and plan to do the Bloomsday tour, this may be the last time that you can buy your bar of lemon soap at 11:00 am like Leopold Bloom. Volunteers will be out on Bloomsday, hoping to receive enough donations from Bloomsday participants to keep Sweny's open until another round of appeals can be heard by the Council, and if you want to see Sweny's next year, you might consider making a donation.

Or you might wander over to the Dublin City Council chambers after you've completed the Bloomsday festivities, and ask them why they so despise Joyce or cash-wielding tourists who could buy a bar of lemon soap just about anyplace if it was only about the soap. Why isn't the Council doing all it can to preserve Sweny's, instead of callously raising the rate without considering the cost to literary tourism?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Something About Closing A Barn Door After The Horse Is Out

The sign went up and the Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamin said it was hideous. The building on which the sign is placed has been lauded for its architectural simplicity, for the way it mirrors the bends of the Chicago River as the tower rises up from the banks in a fluid motion. The sign, however, is more like a massive pimple on an otherwise pretty face. Even the building's architect panned the egotistical addition to his gem.

The sign had to have been approved before it went up, so someone at City Hall knew full well where the letters would be placed and how big they would be, what they would be made of and what color would be featured. You don't slap up signs without getting things cleared through zoning and the local alderman.

But it is only after Blair Kamin says he doesn't like the sign that Mayor Rahm Emanuel suddenly takes note of something that was approved by his underlings.

The horse is out, and the Mayor is looking to shut the barn door.

Signage is often left for later when a new building is being reviewed prior to construction. The developer might be trying to find a tenant willing to pay big money for naming rights but that sort of deal isn't usually completed before ground is broken. Just as often, the developer has a sign in mind that might not meet with applause by the entire City Council, and so permission gets delayed until later, when it's just a question of massaging the alderman or maybe dropping a few thousand in a campaign coffer to grease the skids.

Chicago can, of course, regulate signs within the city. The problem in this case is that the regulatory process was followed and legal approval granted. The sign is actually smaller than the dimensions approved by the City Council a few years ago, shortly after the building opened, so how can the city argue size after the fact? Too late, the Mayor thinks it's ugly and too big, but where was he when the specs were submitted?

Regulations exist to protect the city's appearance, but regulations also exist to protect the investment of the building owner who is paying for the gigantic T-R-U-M-P. Other than taking Donald Trump to court to try to force him to remove an expensive sign, there is little the city can do in this case. About the best that can come out of the sign fiasco is that an ordinance could be passed to prevent a recurrence at the next building to go up along the river. An ordinance passed after the sign has been approved, however, cannot be applied retroactively without a bruising court fight.

Then again, the court system in Cook County is heavily skewed towards the interests of the ruling Democrats, so it isn't impossible to imagine that Rahmbo could have his way.

Mr. Trump would be wise to seek an immediate change in venue. He'll never get an honest court to hear this case. That's the Chicago Way.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

If Pavlov's Dogs Were Irish Setters

Ring the bell and offer food, and before long you've trained the test subject to expect food when the bell rings. Ring the bell and the test subject expects food. Anticipates a reward with all the physical manifestations that are seen when food is actually present.

Ring the bell on the ice cream van and you'll get the same response from the wee little ones who have been conditioned to expect ice cream when those tempting chimes start to ringing.

And that, says Senator Catherine Noone, has to stop.

It's making the children fat.

Actually, it's only making the children fat if the parents of said children then hand the child enough money to buy an ice cream from the truck with the ringing bells, but we can't let parents have to parent and possibly say no to the child. Far better to stop the bell from ringing, from conditioning the children to expect a fattening treat at the sound. They won't want what they can't hear, now, will they?

Without the conditioning bell, the children won't know about the ice cream truck because they're all indoors playing video games while sitting immobile on upholstered furniture, not burning off the calories they consumed at breakfast or dinner or tea. Not that any of that lack of activity is contributing to childhood obesity. It's the conditioning bell of the ice cream that has to be stopped if we as a nation are to tackle this epidemic of fatties.

In Ms. Noone's opinion, it's the aggressiveness of the bells that is a matter of concern. No other industry would use persistent bell ringing to generate sales. You won't see a fruit and vege wagon trundling down the road with chimes breaking the peace, coercing people to purchase a bunch of grapes or a head of lettuce. No shoe company in the world sends its sales force out with a set of bells to drum up business and encourage children to purchase a new set of trainers so they can run and jump outdoors. No, it's only the ice cream vendors who take advantage of Pavlov's discovery regarding conditioning.

The Senator may think she is tackling an important issue, but even she realizes that she is likely to be laughed at for suggesting the ban. It's all a bit ridiculous, to stop a practice that has been part of childhood for decades, when the real issue is a lack of activity. That issue does not have a simple and easy solution, because you can't ban children from being lazy and send the gardai into every home to roust the miscreants and make them play football or camogie for an hour every day.

Although if one was to ring a bell and then offer ice cream after a match.....

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

An Agency In Need Of An Editor

Before you submit your manuscript to a literary agent, you have been told countless times to make sure that the thing is ready for publication. That means you have to be the editor, or pay good money to have an editor slice and dice your prose. No misspelled words, no run-on sentences, no flaws in pacing, etc. etc. are allowed.

So imagine how clean your manuscript would be if someone at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth took you on as a client.

The literary agency is looking for an editor to work in house, to clean up manuscripts for ZSH clients.

Would you happen to have a friend with some experience at editing? This could be your foot in the door.

The position requires experience, so it's not as if you could offer to telecommute for free and edit whatever manuscript the agents sent to your computer inbox. So you'd have to line up an accomplice with the proper credentials. A person who owes you an enormous favor because you are going to ask for an even more enormous favor in return.

While said friend is working away, you would have him or her add your manuscript to the pile so that it would get under the nose of a likely party. Say you've penned a bit of women's fiction and Jane von Mehren might bite. She's relatively new to the agency and possibly in search of new clients with publication-worthy manuscripts. How convenient if your manuscript landed on her desk, bypassing the usual gates that have been closed to you.

Then again, if you had a friend with the skill to gain employment, someone with superlative publishing credentials, you would already have asked that friend to edit your manuscript or at least give it a quick glance to offer you some advice.

In which case, you really, really, really need an insider to get you in through the back door, because your brilliant prose just isn't getting the right attention.

And if you find such a one, would you find room for a second manuscript in your scheme? And then let me know where to send it so it arrives at the right time when the plot is launched.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

125 Years Ago On This Day In Chicago

It has been 125 years since Daniel Coughlin fell under suspicion for the murder of Patrick Cronin, a murder that is unsolved to this day.

The newspapers were plastered with lurid headlines from the inquest into the death, each one trying to out-sensationalize the other in a mad bid to acquire the most readers and sell the most copies. Fair and balanced? Not in 1889.

To commemorate the events of that long ago era, when Chicago's Irish were despised and faced blatant discrimination, Newcastlewest Books is offering THE KING OF THE IRISH for free at Smashwords. Don't have a Smashwords account? Please sign up. There is no charge, and well worth joining for the variety of ebooks available.

Download a free copy today and journey back to the Chicago of 125 years ago, when juries could be packed and justice was not to be had by those who were Irish and Catholic.

A History Of Publication Hell

Anyone who has tried to land a literary agent and then see their work published will feel as if they have descended into a circle of hell reserved for those who dare to try something as difficult as writing.

Take heart, writers, and look to the saga of James Joyce and his quest to see his manuscript THE DUBLINERS published.

It was a long, frustrating period that ran for years, and had Mr. Joyce contemplating the wisdom of self-publishing. You've been there yourself, but at least you have far more options than one of Ireland's greatest literary lights.

He wrote during a time of turmoil in Ireland, an era that would see the Easter Rising of 1916 after the Dublin Lockout of 1913. Publishers were not willing to rock the boat too much, fearing censorship by the British government that ruled over the United Kingdom, while Joyce wanted to be honest in his work and present his world as he saw it.

From editors inserting their opinions and demanding changes to a publisher who was promoting the works of the Irish Revival, except where James Joyce was concerned, the author faced countless barriers. The lesson for you? He did not give up.

So read the article in THE IRISH TIMES and find inspiration. Don't give up. There are plenty of people in the industry who will reject you, but that doesn't mean you don't have the talent. It's a question of finding the industry insider who recognizes it. Like James Joyce, fighting against the rejection army arrayed before him but confident in the strength of his manuscript.

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Friendly Divorce

Mergers are useful in that the companies joined together in holy alliance can cut some costs. If you're of the costs being cut, it's not of any use to you, but for a bottom line, it's grand to join accounting and marketing and secretarial services into a single, more efficient unit.

Bottom lines, of course, have no relationship issues to spoil the fun. For the real people living with a merged entity, things may not always work out. Indeed, the pairing may have lost its charm once the honeymoon period ended and living together devolved into cold reality.

Was it a friendly divorce, do you think, when Paige Wheeler split from Folio Literary Management and went back to the place she started at Creative Media?

Did she fling verbal abuse at colleague Scott Hoffman who convinced her to align with him in the first place? Were there screaming matches in the hallways at 630 9th Avenue? Did the wee little ones run for cover and scurry into the safety of their offices when the firm's founders were having at it?

Perhaps it was a comfortable parting of the ways, with Ms. Wheeler deciding that Folio had grown too big and she was no longer comfortable in its ethos. It's not you, she might have said to Mr. Hoffman, it's me. We've grown apart, with all these agents added to the little venture we created when we merged.

Ms. Wheeler has left Folio and gone back to her roots, leaving a growing agency for the comfort of a place so small that it's just her in the agent's seat. She has Molly Jaffa and Jita Fumich along to manage digital and foreign rights, but they are still listed in Folio's stable of agents. Who gets the friends in the divorce, right? Or are some of the younger ones trying to navigate between the two former partners?

Now that she's single again, Ms. Wheeler may be feeling a bit lonely. You might bring her some cheer with a fresh query, the opening line in a courtship that would unite writer and agent in a prosperous partnership.

Act quickly, and you could catch her on the rebound.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Road Trip

Do you really need to stop, he says, can't you hold it? I'll need gas in three hours can't you wait?

Drive any distance with a man and that's what you'll hear when you ask him to stop because you must meet a biological need. Once on the road, the male of the species will not get off the road until it is impossible to keep driving on that road. Then, and only then, will the car come to a halt.

A man driving from Arizona to Detroit had no intention of stopping, not when he was making good time or good progress or the sun was still up or they had to make another hundred miles to reach the day's distance quota. Ray Tomlinson would not stop for something as insignificant as a dead passenger in the car.

No, indeed. He was probably relieved that his girlfriend in the passenger seat had expired from an overdose of oxycodone because it meant he would not have to make rest stops so she could empty her tiny bladder. His ninety-something-year-old mother was in the back seat and was probably using adult diapers so that the trip could be shortened. All those pit stops add up, you know. At sixty miles per hour that's a mile lost for every minute in the toilets and before you know it you're fifteen miles behind and how can that be made up without speeding.

Mr. Tomlinson was only a day or so out of Phoenix when he realized the lady was stone cold, and wasn't just sleeping like he thought.

So why not just keep going, and try to reach Michigan before her corpse started to stink?

If the mental health facility that had just released his girlfriend had not done a well-being check, no one would have known she was dead, but Mr. Tomlinson answered her phone and stated the facts quite clearly. She was dead. Stone cold, in fact. Went peacefully, though, just fell asleep.

Call the police, the facility people insisted, but what good would that do Mr. Tomlinson in his quest to drive back home to Michigan in as short a time as possible? If he did stop, he'd have to wait for the local authorities to do an autopsy, and then there would be more delay in shipping the body home. But why do that? He's going that way anyway. Why not just get the late girlfriend as close to home as possible? Doesn't that make more sense?

The police are trying to come up with some kind of charge to level against the driver, but what are the odds of that happening? These are other men we're talking about, other men who in their hearts know that they would have done the same thing because once you're driving, you just don't stop unless you absolutely have to. The woman was already dead, so what was the emergency at that point?

Once a man gets behind the wheel, there is no stopping. Even if that means driving with a corpse in the shotgun seat for 1900 miles.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

There Are No Coincidences In The Chicago Way

Former Chief of Staff to President Obama (on the right, not the guy on the left)
When you go against the local alderman, stir up some trouble or complain too vigorously about all the potholes in your street, you will find that the four-flat you own is suddenly of intense interest to the building inspector.

Sure, buildings are inspected all the time in Chicago, but that doesn't mean your bundle of violations was discovered by pure coincidence.

In the Chicago Way of doing business, there are no coincidences.

Which brings us to the ongoing battle between Amazon and the publishers who provide books for Amazon to sell.

Jeff Bezos owns Amazon, and he donates largely to Democrats. And he has plenty of money to give them, given his considerable salary. Amazon itself may not turn a big profit, but Mr. Bezos is profiting from his business.

You, with the four-flat, can donate heavily to the alderman and all those nasty tickets will be voided. Again, it is not a coincidence. Political campaigns cost money to run. If you help your alderman get re-elected and hold on to power, the alderman will return the favor and let you get off easy. Except you have to keep giving, but if the rental income is substantial you can keep donating and your worries are gone.

Jeff Bezos does not like the mulish tactics taken by Hachette Book Group, which is not going along with the program as written by Bezos. He wants deeper discounts so he can make more money. The publisher wants smaller discounts so they can stay in business. Their authors would like the publisher to get a little more so they can wet their beaks as well. Everyone knows that if Amazon gets its way, every other publisher will have to yield and the loss of profit to the publishers will lead to an even greater tendency to only publish blockbusters and celebrity drivel that sells. No chances will be taken on literary fiction, new authors showing promise, or non-fiction that targets a niche audience.

So if you think it's a coincidence that the Department of Justice is re-visiting an ongoing anti-trust case involving Amazon and the publishers, you are naive to the ways of Chicago politics.

Amazon instigated the anti-trust suit against the publishers who were fighting back against Amazon's demand to offer all ebooks at a set price, whether the publisher made money or not. The Department of Justice took the publishers to court and they all backed down from the so-called agency model. Only Apple continues to fight, which is moving on to the appeals court where Amazon's latest shenanigans may or may not open up the eyes of the judges.

Anti-trust is about more than fixing prices. Predatory pricing, designed to drive a competitor bankrupt, is also illegal.

The building inspector will keep coming back to your four-flat is you don't pacify the alderman. Your garbage won't get picked up, or the streets department will tear up the road in front of your place and make things miserable for you. If you're a publisher taking on Jeff Bezos, the DOJ will come knocking at your door and ask questions that are less interrogatory and more threatening of further legal action that costs money and valuable time to tackle.

The publishers can either roll over, buy themselves some clout, or gather enough public support to force those controlling the DOJ to rein the agency in.

It is no coincidence that the Justice Department is letting the publishers know that they are being watched. The Chicago Way is how Washington runs these days.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Eight Hundred Babies

Sean Ross Abbey Mother and Baby Home
Philomena Lee was in attendance yesterday when she and other mothers like herself gathered to remember what was stolen from them by the Irish State and the Catholic Church in Ireland.

The treatment of the most vulnerable by the powerful has been beautifully depicted in THE LEAVEN OF THE PHARISEES, but over the course of time, even more of the hypocrisy described in the novel has come to light. 

While the mothers who were forced to give up their children for adoption were holding a memorial services, the Church hierarchy was meeting to talk further damage control.

A mass grave long ago uncovered in Tuam, County Galway, has been brought to light in the modern era where ordinary people dare to question the Church. The grave is unmarked and contains the remains of almost eight hundred babies.

Eight hundred.

The gravesite is connected to a facility once operated by the Bon Secours Sisters. Like so much of the sordid history of the Church and State colluding, the mother and baby home in Tuam began operations in the 1920s when Ireland gained independence from England. The home shut down in 1961, but the nuns did not leave any burial records for nearly eight hundred dead babies during their forty years of so-called "care" for unwed mothers and their fatherless offspring.

The burial site is not exactly a cemetery, either. Instead, it is a septic tank that was not in use when the nuns opened up their facility in a former workhouse. Clever bunch, to figure out a brilliant use for an already existing opening in the ground. No need to pay someone to dig a hole every time a baby died, and how much easier to cover up what was going on by dropping the corpse into a septic tank where no one could see it.

The bones were discovered back in the 1970s, but back then the Magdalene laundries and industrial schools were still operating and no one asked questions of the clergy. The place in Tuam had been used by the nuns and whatever they did they surely had a reason they were doing God's work, and that was the end of it, until recently.

Those who were adopted out of the mother and baby homes have been searching for their birth mothers, and many of the birth mothers have been searching for the children stolen from them. One researcher looking into the history of the home in Tuam found a collection of death records that boggled the mind, with an infant mortality rate that was stunning even for Ireland during the hardest times.

Some of the children may have died of malnutrition, and this while the Irish State was giving the nuns money to take care of the little ones. The scandal is only just now coming to light, and the Bon Secours Sisters are working diligently to come up with some sort of excuse.

Hard to imagine what they can say, when they tossed so many dead children into a pit and never bothered to put up any sort of marker. And why did so many die?

And how does this differ from abortion, except that it's the death of a child after it's born? Isn't that a sin of some sort?