Archive for the Random Weirdness Category

Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive?

Posted in Book Review, Education, Random Weirdness with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2013 by davehurwitz

I get asked this question a lot, usually by frustrated students who’ve had to plunk down a serious chunk of change for a book they don’t really want to read in the first place.  By way of example, the required text for one of my English classes, Evergreen: A Guide to Writing with Readings, has a list price of $132.95.  Textbooks for hard science subjects like Physics or Chemistry can run twice that much.  Publisher’s reps, when I ask them this same question, invariably give the same tired old answers.  They say that textbooks are a niche market, with smaller print runs than popular novels, which drives up the per unit printing cost.  They also say that they must often pay royalties to not only the editor of a textbook, but to the authors of various essays reprinted within the book, which adds to the cost.

Strangely, the jacket art is white, not green.Both of these excuses–for they are excuses, not reasons–are transparent bullshit.  I buy fiction titles from niche presses all them time.  These are books with severely limited print runs, often no more than 500 copies.  Sure, the per unit cost is higher, but I’ve never paid $133 dollars for one of these titles.  The most expensive work of fiction I own cost $60, and was bound by hand with sewn in signatures.  Besides, with 89% of U.S. high school graduates enrolling in colleges and universities, how small is the textbook market, really?  The second excuse is equally bogus.  I’m sure you’ve all seen multiple-author story anthologies at your local bookstore.  All those writers had to be paid individually, too, but those books don’t cost any more than single-author titles of the same size.

Textbooks are overpriced because textbook publishers cling to outmoded notions of how their books should be produced and sold.  Having worked both as a small press publisher and as a college instructor, I naturally have a few ideas about how this situation can be improved.

Print Textbooks in Standard Trim Sizes on Cheap Paper:

They say this book jacket can't pay the rent...Let’s face it, college textbooks are a disposable item.  Most students can’t wait to get rid of them when the semester is over.  If they cling to them at all, it’s because they want to sell them carefully in order recoup as much of the cover price as possible.  Given these truths, there’s no reason not to print cheap books that can just be tossed in the recycling bin after finals week.  As an example, let’s look at another book I use, They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  This is a small, short, softbound book, with no color printing, but a new copy will still set you back $25.  Why?  Because it’s printed on slick paper with it’s own unique trim size.  There’s simply no excuse for this.  A mass market publisher like Angry Robot could knock out newsprint copies for $8 each and still turn a profit.  That’s less than a third of what my students are asked to pay.  Mass market style textbooks would also mean more new book sales for publishers, since an $8 paperback is scarcely worth reselling.

Stop Printing in Color Unless Absolutely Necessary:

English Composition is not a subject that requires a lot of charts and graphs, yet most of the textbooks I see are printed in color, and styled like commercial websites.  This not only requires a more expensive printing process, but necessitates a higher quality of paper than simple black and white.  So why use color in an English book?  The main reason seems to be that it adds ‘visual interest,’ eye candy intended to lure students into reading the presumably uninviting content.  I’m not against this in theory, but in practice, a lot the ‘visual interest’ items seem pointless or even counter-productive.  Going back to Evergreen for an example, right smack in the middle of a chapter on sentence fragments, there is a half-page full color reproduction of an ad for Tommy Hilfiger clothing.  Yes, it is visually arresting.  Yes, it could reasonably generate a discussion on the psychology of advertising.  But what is it doing in a chapter about basic sentence errors?  Nothing, except distracting my students from the matter at hand, and possibly selling some yachting outfits.  Frankly, I’d rather have plain old black and white, especially if it brings the price of the book down.  In cases that absolutely require full color figures–hard science textbooks again–I suggest the solution adopted long ago by the publishers of true crime books and movie star biographies, print most of the book in black and white, with a signature or two of color in the middle where all the nice photos go.

Ditch the Enhancements:

In the Fall of 2010, a video made the rounds on YouTube in which Management Professor Richard A. Quinn of the University of Central Florida accused most of his class of cheating on a midterm exam.  The test in question had been assembled from a database of potential questions provided by the publisher of his textbook.  Though Quinn seemed sincerely outraged, I was shocked by his naivete.  Really, what did he expect to happen?  Any sizable student population is bound contain a few individuals with Mad Hacker Skillz.  It’s a given that this not-terribly-secure database would be cracked by someone who would then pass on the the questions and their answers, either for profit or out of a misplaced sense of altruism.  No professor worth his tenure–especially one with multiple grad students to use as slave labor–uses canned test questions for precisely this reason.  Yet, this is exactly the sort of ‘bonus content’ that publishers waste time and money producing.  Other typical ‘enhancements’ include publisher hosted blogs and social media sites keyed to specific textbooks.  These too become fertile fields for cheaters and short-cut artists, this time in the form of term papers plagiarized from other students who have posted their legitimate work to these sites.  Frankly, I’ve even grow leery of using textbooks batched with readings.  Once they’ve been in circulation a while, corresponding essays start to appear on the internet, either posted to personal sites by proud students, or for sale as ‘research tools.’  Either way, these present even more opportunities for plagiarism.  Publishers should stop providing these crutches for lazy professors.  They increase the cost of textbooks without improving their intrinsic qualities, and ultimately cause more classroom problems than they solve.

Embrace Student-Friendly Technologies and Sales Points:

There are hopeful signs in this area.  The webpage of Cengage, the publisher of Evergreen, offers an electronic version of the book for $46.49.  This is a rental, a bit like a library ebook, which will vanish from students’ computers at the end of the semester.  Weirdly, it’s actually cheaper to rent the physical book, which comes with a postage paid return.  Clearly, Cengage isn’t pushing its electronic content very hard, despite the obvious cost savings.  But how many students will even find this page without assistance?  Over at Amazon, where most ebook purchasers wash up, a Kindle-ready copy of Evergreen will set you back $92.49.  Hardly an alluring price tag, especially when you consider that you can buy a used copy for half that much from These Sellers.  Evergreen isn’t even for sale at Smashwords, where all the cool kids hang out.  This situation is fairly typical for electronic textbooks.  They’re often too expensive relative to the cost of the print book.  Students and even instructors may be unaware of them because they’re not sold in the usual places, and campus bookstores have an obvious motive to deny their very existence.  But these problems can be overcome.  Publishers can strike deals with popular ebook providers, or at least promote their own sales points more effectively.  A sane and consistent pricing policy, one that bears in mind the easy availability of used print books, can be found.  After all, publishers earn nothing from used book sales, a clear reason to make electronic books cheaper.  In the end, both textbook publishers and their customers–the students–will benefit.  Isn’t that what good business is all about?

Dave Hurwitz

Good News for CRK Fans

Posted in Random Weirdness with tags , , on January 13, 2013 by davehurwitz

Just a short one today…

I don’t normally post a straight plug for anything, but having just written about a Caitlin R. Kiernan story, I thought I’d pass this along.  Subterranean Press, Kiernan’s publisher of choice for story collections, has just announced The Ape-Wife and Other Stories.  Based on the publisher’s description, this looks like a collection of regular stories–or as regular as CRK gets–as opposed to another compilation of Sirenia Digest erotica.  I must confess that I’m heartened by this.  As dedicated as I am to reading all of CRK’s work, I find some of her weird smut a bit of a slog. Regardless, I’m looking forward to this new collection.  The Ape Wife and Other Stories is slated to appear this July.  Kiernan’s Sub Press books usually sell out before publication, so if you’re interested, you need to order ASAP.

Dave Hurwitz

Misinfromation Mars Small Business Saturday

Posted in Random Weirdness with tags , , , , , , on November 26, 2012 by davehurwitz

It's blue.  It's soothing.  It makes you feel good about shopping.

I have an American Express card for one reason only, so I can buy gas at Costco.  Okay, sure, sometimes I actually go into Costco and grab a sack of basmati rice and a case of Pellegrino, but on the whole the card stays firmly wedged in a dusty corner of my wallet.  Still, when Small Business Saturday rolls around, I give the Amex a bit of exercise.  The deal is, if cardholders buy at least twenty-five bucks worth of stuff from a participating small business, Amex will give them twenty-five bucks back.  Effectively, this means free stuff for anyone with an Amex, provided they can afford to wait a statement or two for a refund.  American Express even provides a handy online map which shows the locations of participating small businesses.

At least, that’s what it’s supposed to do.

The trouble began when my wife and I tried to find Mysterious Galaxy, our bookstore of choice, on the map.  It simply wasn’t listed.  Since I’d received an email from the store reminding me about the event, I felt confident that they were, in fact, participating.  My wife, who is a librarian and can never leave a question unanswered, kept digging.  Eventually, she found a listing for their Redondo Beach store, but it only became apparent when she zoomed the map in on its location.  It seemed to be invisible to the map’s search function.  The San Diego store never appeared at all, even with the map in hover mode.

Strangely, several other participating businesses in the same mini-mall were perfectly visible, including Game Empire, and the sushi restaurant Niban.  We decided to make an evening of it.

We know some people who are very into boardgames, and though we don’t shop there regularly, Game Empire is fast becoming a necessary stop at holiday time.  We went there first.  Now, I don’t want to spoil anyone’s Christmas surprise, but suffice it to say that we selected a couple games for certain people.  But when we brought them up to the counter, we got a holiday surprise of our own.

It seems Game Empire, like all those exotic merchants in the Visa commercials, doesn’t take American Express.  They never have.  And, according to the gentleman we talked to, they never will.  The transaction fee that Amex charges businesses is just too high, apparently.  Which begs the question:  Why was Game Empire on the American Express map?  Yes, it’s a small business, but it certainly wasn’t participating in the Amex offer.

According to the proprietor, we weren’t the first people to wander into Game Empire that day expecting to use our Amex cards.  Most of them had wandered right back out again once they discovered there was no chance of getting cash back.  The owner suspected that his store had been placed on the map deliberately, as a sort of message.  “See, look at all these customers you’re not getting because you don’t take American Express.”  A far cry from sending someone around to bust up his display cases, but in roughly the same spirit.

Now, I’m not a big conspiracy theorist.  I try not to attribute to malice anything that can be explained by simple incompetence.  The errors on the Amex map were probably just that, errors.  But let’s look at the overall effect of these errors.  Taken together, the mistakes in the map tend to send cardholders away from businesses that are sincerely participating in the Amex offer, like Mysterious Galaxy, and toward business that don’t even take American Express, like Game Empire.  Of course, I’m generalizing from a very small sample, but you can see how American Express might benefit from this behavior.  And I’d bet there are any number of similar ‘mistakes’ elsewhere on the map.

So how did my particular Small Business Saturday turn out?  We actually did buy some things from Game Empire, though not as much as we would have had the Amex offer been valid.  Afterward, I wandered around Mysterious Galaxy feeling preoccupied.  I picked up and put down Boneshaker by Cherie Priest five or six times.  In the end, I utterly failed to buy anything there, despite the lure of free books.  We finished with dinner at Niban, though we double-checked whether they accepted American Express before we ordered.  They did.

Dave Hurwitz

Does Nolan’s Batman make people crazy?

Posted in Cinema, Random Weirdness with tags , , , , , , , on July 26, 2012 by davehurwitz
Go look in your copy of Miller's Dark Knight.

Arnold Crimp

Not long after I heard about the so-called ‘Batman Shooting’ at the Century Theater in Aurora, Colorado, I remembered a similar incident from Frank Miller’s seminal Batman comic, The Dark Knight Returns.  A single page depicts Arnold Crimp, an obvious schizophrenic, opening fire on the audience at a porn movie.  I am hardly the only person to notice this odd coincidence.  A number of people on-line and in traditional media have offered their views, many of them radically misinterpreting that single page.  Miller’s intent seems pretty clear to me.  Crimp’s interior monolog cites ‘Father Don’ and backward-masking on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” as motives for the shooting, but says nothing about Batman.  In fact, the shooting is only linked to Batman by a newscaster shown in the final panel of the page.  Miller seems to be saying that the media is eager to blame Batman for violence he did not inspire.

With an introduction like that, you might reasonably expect me to spend the rest of this post defending Batman and his most recent cinematic incarnation.  I wish I could.  I support free expression, and I’ve enjoyed Nolan’s Batman trilogy, both as entertainment and as social commentary.  But there is something about Batman, particularly Nolan’s Batman, that seems to bring out the crazies.

First, there were the well publicized death threats against Marshall Fine, whose largely negative review of The Dark Knight Rises led Rotten Tomatoes to unplug its comments feature for the first time ever.  Next came the shooting itself, about which a great deal has already been written, none of it very enlightening.

If that had been all, I would be left with little more than an uneasy feeling in the back of my skull and very little to add to the conversation.  But three or four days before either of these incidents, I read an unusual article in Film Comment, one that adds a new dimension to argument over Batman as a public touchstone.  J. Hoberman’s “Cine Obamarama” deals mainly with black Presidents in film, but devotes a small section to the Caped Crusader.  Specifically, he describes how various political candidates have responded to Nolan’s movies.  To quote from Hoberman’s article:

Those teeth!  That flag!  Aagghh!

John McCain, Batman Fan

“The summer of 2008 also belonged to the being that Senator McCain was eager to identify as his favorite superhero: Batman…  The Dark Knight was rich with 9/11 references but even more insistent was the movie’s ongoing meditation on civic responsibility, due process, and the legitimacy of torture.  The Joker was Bin Laden in greasepaint.  Batman, not coincidentally the richest man in Gotham City, was understood as our leader against the master terrorist–and Batman recognized no limits.  Right-wing pundits gratefully embraced the movie as a glorification of their fantasy.”

The idea that any presidential candidate would so eagerly identify himself with Batman, a vigilante law-breaker and (in some versions) borderline fascist is frankly disturbing.  It would be like admitting to an admiration for Richard Nixon.  As if that weren’t bad enough, Hoberman closes his discussion of The Dark Knight with this horrid little factoid:

“A poster applying Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup to President Obama began appearing at Tea Party rallies during the summer of 2009.”

Trust me, you probably don't want to see this anyway.

And then there’s Christopher Nolan himself.  In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Nolan had this to say about Bruce Wayne:

“I find him a very aspirational figure… the ways he tries to push himself, physically and mentally, and dedicate himself ruthlessly to a cause… there’s something obsessive about that.  Even disturbing.  But there’s something admirable about it, too.”

Or is there?  Is it right to admire a figure, even a fictional one, that arouses so much bizarre public behavior?  I enjoy Batman as a character, but the more popular he becomes, the more I begin to fear what he stands for, what people might decide is acceptable because of his example.

Frankly, I’m not sure what I’m trying to say with all of the above, except that I’m worried.  I’m worried as a citizen and as a father.  I’m worried about a world where Batman is the best hero we’ve got.  For a few minutes in a theater in Colorado, I’m sure there were people who devoutly wished that Batman was real.  But on the whole, I think we’d be better off without him.

Dave Hurwitz

The Future Is… Cluttered

Posted in Random Weirdness with tags , on April 12, 2009 by davehurwitz

Young as I look, I have an old man’s attitude toward technology.  To me, a cell phone is just an annoyingly portable land line.  A computer is just a glorified typewriter impersonating a stereo system.  When I look at any new bit of tech, I see the older toys that inspired it.  I don’t (perhaps can’t) see it for what it is, or what it might become.


William Gibson's newest novel

William Gibson’s newest novel

William Gibson never had this problem.  Just about every serious reader my age remembers the 1984 publication of Neuromancer, the novel that defined (or maybe even created) our expectations for a computerized future.  Somehow, Gibson saw the pokey little machines of last century and made the fantastic leap into cyberspace, a term which he himself coined.  For that achievement, he earned science fiction’s triple crown of awards (Hugo, Nebula, and PKD) and cult status as an oracle of the near future.

Gibson is still writing.  While the world at large is catching up with Neuromancer, Gibson has lost interest in the future, turning his energies to defining our rather peculiar present.  In Spook Country, Gibson explores the possibilities of Locative Art, digitally rendered images tied to a specific GPS location and viewable only with the aid of a clunky VR helmet.  Examples from the book include the corpse of a virtual River Phoenix outside the Viper Room, a hotel carpeted with flowers, and a giant squid whose skin surface is composed of ever-changing TV and movie grabs, destined to hover outside a Japanese department store.

Another piece, which is alluded to but not directly described, is an apartment where every object has been annotated, often more than once, by the resident.  In a modern example of life imitating art, Spook Country itself is heavily annotated on a website called NodeMagazine, named for an as-yet-unpublished and possibly fictitious magazine in the world of Gibson’s book.  (I get a headache just thinking about it.)

Node Magazine

Node Magazine

Also published in 2007, Halting State by Charles Stross pushes the idea of digitally augmented reality a few years into to the future, where it has become a fully realized, commercially exploited technology.  The VR helmet has been replaced with trendy glasses, through which users can view a wide variety of ‘overlays’ onto the real world.  Need directions?  Just type your destination on your nonexistent keyboard and follow the fat red path down the sidewalk until you reach the blinking building.  Bored with the scenery?  Log on to your favorite game and battle some orcs and goblins on your way.  Guy on the bus bench ahead of you look dodgy?  Click a virtual menu button and any criminal record should appear above his head.  Assuming he exists at all.

While all this might sound both useful and amusing, a moment’s reflection should cause you to reconsider.  Once this technology becomes widely available, the whole world becomes one big Philip K. Dick novel, where what you see and what is real are two very different things.  What’s worse, what you see has been created by Pixar, sponsored by Coca Cola, and jammed into you irises by Microsoft.  Reality itself gets painted over to the point where it is no longer visible, like a billboard entirely obscured by graffiti.  Except in this case, the graffiti is the advertisement.

I pay the bills teaching English composition.  My job is hard enough already.  I compete for my student’s attention with laptops, cell phones, iPods, and the lure of instant entertainment they represent.  Add augmented reality, and my job becomes impossible.

Halting State

Halting State

See that guy in the back row?  He’s watching a porno instead of listening to my lecture, but I can’t tell because only he can see it.  The dude next to him is drawing a Hitler moustache across my lip and emailing it to his buddy across the room, who is busy dissing me on RateMyProfessor.  The girl in the front row looks like she’s paying attention, but that’s just because she’s mapped Edward Cullen over me in real time.  Another student has turned me into a zombie.  Another is filling the air around her with butterflies and faeries, all of which are visible only to her.

Are you beginning to get the picture?

Do me a favor.  Once you’re done reading this, step away from the computer for a minute.  Go to a window, or better yet go outside.  Feel the wind on your face.  Look up at the sky.  The plain, ordinary blue sky.  No virtual dragons flying there yet.  No digital pterosaurs.  No mile high letters of fire advertising Jesus or hemorrhoid cream.  Just blue sky and fluffy white clouds.  Take a deep breath.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

Dave Hurwitz