Thursday, December 31, 2009

El Al and airport security

"Why can't TSA be more like El Al?" you sometimes hear when people grouse about American airport security. "El Al hasn't had a terrorist incident on one of its planes for many decades."

True. El Al's security measures indeed are highly effective. Instead of examining shoes and toothpaste tubes, El Al agents -- all trained psychologists -- quietly interview each passenger at length, watching for telltale signs that all might not be well.

Years ago, when I flew El Al from JFK to Tel Aviv on a travel writers' junket, a pretty young Israeli sat me down in a cubicle and politely asked me about my business in Israel, where I was staying, with whom I was traveling, and so on. She kept her eyes on mine during the entire interview -- "interrogation" is too harsh a word for the deceptively soft questions she asked -- and presumably watched my body language for unconscious but revealing twitches of guilt and evasiveness.

It was clear that she knew exactly who I was and why I was traveling to Israel -- I was a guest of both El Al and the Israeli tourism authority and presumably had passed a background check -- but she pressed on anyway, until she was satisfied that I posed no danger.

Afterward, she thanked me for my patience and waved me and my luggage through the metal detector and X-ray machine and into the passenger lounge. I looked about. Three or four men and women in unobtrusive civilian clothes strolled quietly among the passengers, apparently observing their behavior. It was hard to miss them; they had the watchful look of cops.

Wouldn't it be nice if American air security could do the same?

But TSA agents could never follow this scheme. They barely have a high school education, let alone a degree in psychology. They obey a rigid operations manual; they do not make considered decisions.

We also have to remember that El Al is a minor national airline and is government-supported. It can afford the relatively small number of highly trained security personnel it needs.

And so for us, El Al's policy is way too labor-intensive as well as too brain-demanding.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


In today's New York Times, the estimable David Pogue (I never miss a column of his) offers his "Pogie Awards" for the year's best tech ideas.

Some of these notions are better in the conception than in the execution, but not Pogue's favorite, Readability, a tiny (and free) button for your browser's toolbar that strips out everything from a Web page except the text and accompanying photos. With a single click of that button you're suddenly presented with a narrow (but adjustable) column of text as clean and clear as one in a well-designed, well-printed photo book. No muss, no fuss.

Reading newspapers and magazine content on the Internet can be maddening. Often we're presented with a visual dog's breakfast, cluttered with graphics that howl and bark for our attention. Click on a news story, and you'll get a new page with a bunch of new ads. This can be very annoying, especially since ad blockers no longer work as well as they used to. (There's a war on, you know -- a war between pro-ad and anti-ad programmers.)

The problem of readability seems to be a fairly new one. After all, those of us who grew up with printed newspapers, especially mainsheet-sized dailies, quickly got used to the ads surrounding the stories we read. We trained ourselves to skip over the huckstering, or perhaps just glance at and quickly dismiss it.

Yes, some readers did complain about ad-heavy newspapers and magazines -- but back in those days, most of us understood that the ads paid for producing the papers we bought for a mere quarter. Besides, we almost instinctively knew how to read around them, unless we were actively interested in their content.

The Readability button does make a difference for Web news and blog readers. As Pogue points out, it does not handle all Web pages properly, but it presents most of them swiftly and smartly. Reading long-form articles suddenly becomes almost soothing.

You can get Readability here. Just follow the simple instructions and mouse the button to your browser's toolbar, where it will stay.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Heads up, buddy!

One of my New Year's resolutions is to get Hang Fire finished, now that the old ticker is tocking properly, and another is to fan the flames of shameless self-promotion.

You know that "midlist" (meaning slow-selling) authors get few publicity dollars from their publishers. This means that we poor scribblers have to get out there with sandwich boards and bullhorns if our books are to survive in the marketplace. We can't allow our tiny lights to gutter under a bushel.

I've made a start with the home page of

Immodest and in-your-face, isn't it? But that's what it takes these days.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds

Govert Teunisz Flinck, Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds. Oil on wood, 1639. Musee de Louvre, Paris. (Click on image for large version.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Adoration of the Magi

Pieter Aertsen, The Adoration of the Magi. Oil on panel, c. 1560. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. (Click on image for large version.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Increasing Your Word Power

Great new words I discovered while looking up other stuff on the Internet:

Seppo (n.) An American, in Australian argot. Backformation from imported Cockney rhyming slang (seppo=septic tank=Yank).

Angel turds (n.) Those annoying Styrofoam peanuts that fall out of packing boxes around Christmas when the air is dry and staticky and stick to your sleeves and the rug.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

When the title becomes the design

Richard Hendel's design for the cover of the newest edition of What's That Pig Outdoors?

Yesterday the new and updated edition of my first book, What's That Pig Outdoors?: A Memoir of Deafness, took another stride down the road to its August 1 publication date at the University of Illinois Press. Just last week the text editing was finished.

Cope Cumpston, the press's art director, sent me a copy of the art for the cover for the new edition.

The design is spare and elegant, with the unusual title set in an equally unusual font (Geogrotesque Stencil) that almost fades out of a light gray block background. The subtitle -- which reveals the subject of the book -- is set in eye-catching red underneath.

I like it. I think it's perfect for the new edition's most important target audience, academics and students, yet has commercial bookstore appeal as well.

Commercial books -- that is, those sold in bookstores (and online) for the mass market -- need bold and brassy covers to compete with all the others that jostle for space on the tables. They especially must catch the eyes of casual browsers, those who aren't sure what they're looking for, and push them into impulse purchases.

Many commercial bookstores don't carry university-press titles, except for the rare crossover title that attracts both scholarly and ordinary readers. The audience for university press books is different. Much of it consists of solitary professors perusing catalogs and complimentary copies of books in their bailiwicks, searching for fresh viewpoints to expose to their students as well as new data for their own research.

Here the task of the cover is not so much to grab the eye as it is to engage the mind. Subtlety counts. Still, the covers need to be strong enough to attract students browsing in university bookstores, searching out supplementary reading for their courses.

This new edition of Pig is the third. It was first published in 1990 as a hardcover (above, right) by the Hill & Wang imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, then as a Penguin paperback (below, left) in 1991.

The cover designers for the first two editions had a difficult problem: How to illustrate the idea of deafness. Unlike other disabilities (or different abilities, as some folks would argue), deafness is not visible. You can't spot it just by looking at a deaf person. Only when the subject speaks, either in voice or in sign language, can you discern it.

The designers made several stabs at illustrating that difficult visual concept before they settled on the solution: Make the odd title of the book the major illustration. The result in both earlier editions was fine, in my opinion, but I think freelancer Richard Hendel's design for the U. of I. Press edition is the best of the three.

Hendel is a veteran in the business -- he is the award-winning author of On Book Design. He told Cumpston that what he was trying to do is illustrate "the idea of barely heard by making the title not quite seen."

The challenge for a designer, Hendel writes in his book, "isn't to create something different or pretty or clever but to discover how best to serve the author's words."

I think he's done that with his Pig cover. I'm pleased.

The next step in the production of the new book will be to design its interior, then place the text on pages and proof them. I'll see those pages in February.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Squirrel spinner

Squirrel proof? This tree rat doesn't think so.

A couple of weeks ago I bought a cylindrical bird feeder at Walmart. The box guaranteed that it was squirrel-proof. Ha. Within five minutes the tree rats in our backyard had it figured out.

So on Sunday I installed a newly purchased Twirl-a-Squirrel onto the shepherd's hook and hung the feeder from it. As its name suggests, the Twirl-a-Squirrel contains a battery-driven electric motor that spins the device and (supposedly) causes the squirrel to bail out quickly.

I haven't yet seen the thing in action -- yesterday the squirrels were holed up in their nest playing poker -- but found this demonstration video on YouTube:

Let's hope my tree rats get the idea.

But I suspect the device will be more entertaining than effective.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Railborne wanderlust strikes again

Amtrak's combined Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited at El Paso.

In another week I will be freed from three months of what amounted to house arrest, the need to stick close to home in order to attend every Monday-Wednesday-and-Friday cardiac rehab class at the hospital.

Let me tell you, cardiac rehab has to be one of the most brain-numbing pastimes extant: Forty minutes on an elliptical trainer or exercise bike plus fifteen minutes with dumbbells and stretch cords while watching a dozen other geezers gasp and wheeze through the routine. Every day the same old thing in front of the same old nurses.

Otherwise I'm not knocking it. (Or the nurses, who are all top-drawer.) I feel better than I have in years.

All this has lighted a fire under my wanderlust, a yearning best satisfied by train travel.

And so I've been researching an Amtrak trip, preferably on trains I've never ridden, sometime in the next few weeks.

The one that seems most interesting is a six-day journey from Chicago to Los Angeles and back.

The trip begins on a Tuesday in Chicago, when Amtrak 421, the Texas Eagle, departs Union Station at 1:45 p.m., heading south for San Antonio. There, early in the morning Thursday, the through cars of the Eagle hook up with Amtrak 1, the westbound Sunset Limited from New Orleans, and at 8:45 a.m. Friday the combined train ties up in Los Angeles Union Terminal.

At 6:45 p.m. the same day, the trip continues back to Chicago on Amtrak 4, the Southwest Chief, arriving in Union Station at 3:20 p.m. Sunday.

Exactly 4,984 miles and five nights in a rolling sleeper room, one of my favorite places to get some writing done. No hotel expenses at all. (Hygiene is not a problem; Amtrak's sleeping cars all have communal showers.) All meals are included in the price ($833.10 at this writing) of the sleeper ticket, but the long layovers at San Antonio and Los Angeles would allow me to go out and gather decent supplemental tucker.

Both the Texas Eagle and the Sunset Limited would be inked onto my scorecard of Amtrak trains, and it would be the first time I'd ridden the Southwest Chief all the way from terminal to terminal.

(Here are RailPassenger USA's route guides (with lots of photos) and maps: Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited, Southwest Chief.)


Thursday, December 10, 2009

E&P and Kirkus bite the dust

This just in from New York:

Two longtime and influential publications in my line of work, newspapering and book writing, are folding. The demise of Editor & Publisher and Kirkus Reviews is going to leave enormous holes in the daily lives of word workers everywhere.

For decades Editor & Publisher was the most important trade magazine in the newspaper field. It reported on industry news and in its heyday contained pages and pages of help wanted (and jobs wanted) ads.

Now it is dying, killed by the Internet and by lack of industry advertising -- newspapers are on their knees and no longer able to afford E&P ads.

Kirkus never had much advertising and, because its subscriptions cost hundreds of dollars, never had a big circulation (about 2,000 copies every two weeks). Still, it was invariably the first out of the blocks with advance reviews of books to be published two or three months in the future. Booksellers and librarians relied on it to help make purchasing decisions, and newspaper book review editors consulted it before sending out books for review in their own bailiwicks.

So did authors eager to find out how their newest offerings might fare with critics. They were rarely subscribers, but they waited for their editors and agents to give them the good or bad news. A starred review from Kirkus almost always ensured widespread purchasing of their books by libraries as well as picking for newspaper reviews. Favorable quotes from Kirkus often ended up on the dust jackets of new books.

Kirkus was that authoritative.

I know that the Internet will pick up much if not most of the slack, and is already doing so. But so far no Web source has the kind of clout those two magazines had.

For us old print fogies, the Earth has shifted on its axis.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Whistling past the graveyard

Every once in a while, when I have nothing else to write about, this hole in the blogosphere will be filled with an old review of a book still very much worth reading -- and worth giving for the holidays. The following piece appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2005, a year before I retired.

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.
By Mary Roach.
Norton, 2005, available in paperback, $13.95.

By Henry Kisor

There are three kinds of people in the world: Those who believe in an afterlife, those who don't, and those who whistle past the graveyard.

Mary Roach sides with the nervous undecideds. She is the author of Stiff, a 2003 best seller that explored in exquisitely grisly (and hilarious) detail what happens to our bodies when we die. Her new book, Spook, chronicles her equally rollicking attempt to find out what transpires when we shuffle off our mortal coil -- what happens to our spirits when they leave their temporal homes.

Or, rather, if we really have spirits, or souls, or ghosts, or whatever you want to call them.

Never mind Heaven, Paradise, or the nonsectarian Great Beyond. Roach is not out to debunk religion, for she has the good sense to separate faith from science. Those are two distinct and parallel realities that don't mix well (a fact that seems to escape rural school boards with unintelligent designs for their science curricula).

What she wants to know is if there's actually something quantifiable within us -- call it a floating consciousness -- that leaves our bodies when we die and goes somewhere to say hello to all those consciousnesses that have gone before.

What is this consciousness? What is its shape? What color is it? How much does it weigh? How does it get in there? And afterwards, where does it go?

Or are these silly questions? Maybe the late Francis Crick, the discoverer of DNA, had the right idea: "You, your joys, your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

"But can you prove that, Dr. Crick?" Roach asks. It is apparent from the beginning that she wants to believe that humans have a soul, but she is also a skeptic. She wants proof, one way or the other.

First she travels to India to find out if the disembodied human spirit can set up housekeeping in someone else down the pike -- in other words, if it can be reincarnated. The reincarnation researchers she observes may be serious scientists, but their eagerness to believe seriously affects their techniques. There's lots to debunk, and debunk she does.

She enrolls in a school for mediums and learns their parlor tricks as well as weird practices (you'll never be able to watch James Van Praagh again without bursting into laughter). But she is willing to give some of them the benefit of the doubt: "I believe that they believe, honestly and with conviction, that they are getting information from paranormal sources. It's just a different interpretation of a set of facts."

Most mediums prosper, she argues, because their clients are so uncritical, so credulous, so eager to believe that they will grasp at any straw of possibility and ignore a mountain of contrary evidence. Who cares if Uncle Joe never owned the Mercedes the medium said he drove if he actually wore the blue tie she says he mentioned? (Bet you've got one in your closet, too. Who doesn't?)

Roach visits weird historical researchers, such as the doughty Duncan Macdougall, a Victorian doctor who put moribund TB patients on a scale at the moment of their deaths to see if he could weigh their escaping souls.

Most fascinating of all was Harry Price, a famous magician and spirit researcher in the 1920s, who proved that the filmy "ectoplasm" a celebrated medium regurgitated was actually cheesecloth smuggled into the room in her vagina.

She takes us to a University of Virginia operating room where doctors have installed a laptop near the ceiling, out of reach, to study out-of-body experiences during surgery. If someone's spirit takes a brief stroll, perhaps it will report what it saw on the laptop screen. So far, no dice.

In the end Roach answers her questions with a resounding "Who knows?" The existence of the human soul is not proven, she avers -- nor is it disproven.

That would have been a disappointing anticlimax if this book had been written by a sober and single-minded debunker of the paranormal, one whose mission is to annihilate hokum wherever it might be. But Mary Roach is warm, deliciously witty and has the happy knack of unearthing humor under the oddest tombstones. This makes her the ideal guide for a field trip into the otherworld.

When she joined spirit researchers in the high Sierras where members of the snowbound Donner Party turned to cannibalism to survive the awful winter of 1847-48, she took great delight that the International Ghost Hunters Society set up shop at the Donner Camp Picnic Ground.

All sorts of weird facts cause Roach to bubble over in glee. Many of those alleged voices from the beyond claim that in the afterlife, fat people are thin. One dear departed is even supposed to have confided to a medium that "I can wear pleated pants now."

But discarnate beings never seem to say anything truly interesting. They never discuss what we're curious about, Roach complains, such as "Hey, where are you now? What do you do all day? What's it feel like being dead? Can you see me? Even when I'm on the toilet? Would you cut that out?"

In the afterlife there seems to be no sex, if we are to believe those dispatches. If that's so, what's the purpose of all those voluptuous houris in the radical Muslim Paradise? Window dressing? All those suicide bombers who were promised an eternity of whoopee for their martyrdom must have been sold a bill of goods.

If you read this book, you'll laugh past the cemetery every Halloween for the rest of your life.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Skinback of the week

A correction from the New York Times:

An article on Nov. 13 about Sean Bedford, the Georgia Tech offensive lineman who is also an aerospace engineering major, misstated the terms that David Scarborough, a senior research engineer, used in teaching the jet and rocket propulsion class. The terms were “isentropic flow,” “stagnation states” and “adiabatic efficiency for the diffuser” — not “isotropic stagnation state” and “idiomatic deficiency for diffuser.”

That idiomatic deficiency will get you every time.

Monday, December 7, 2009


I worried in Saturday's blogpost whether the University of Illinois Press editor handling the manuscript of the upcoming second edition of What's That Pig Outdoors? would do so with a gentle and deft touch, or change stuff just for change's sake to show me who's the boss.

No need. Got the MS. back just now with this note:

"Edits were minor. Most of my edits were simply adding serial commas, italicizing Sun-Times, and correcting the stray misspelling or awkward phrase. I have one comment and six queries in the file. . . .

"I must compliment you on your writing. Your style is very readable and enjoyable. I’m also going to look for copies of your other books, as they all look interesting to me!"

Now isn't that a brilliant and discerning fellow as well as a true scholar and gentleman, and an astute student of human nature, especially the agonies of anxious writers?

His name is Tad Ringo, and I am going to buy him dinner sometime.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

It begins again

"It" meaning the process of publishing a new book, an enterprise that can be rewarding, frustrating and humiliating all at once.

What's That Pig Outdoors: A Memoir of Deafness, my first book, first published away back in 1990, is being re-issued in a new and updated edition next August 1 by the University of Illinois Press.

Most of the manuscript was of course edited and set more or less in stone two decades ago, but the new, 38-page Epilogue I wrote for the second edition has yet to go under the editorial knife. That will happen during the next week or two.

Will the U. of I. editor accept my carefully crafted sentences, praising them for their shapeliness, or savagely rip apart the unholy mess I've dumped in his lap?

A lot of tender ego rides on the result.

I should not be so nervous, having spent 40 years working both sides of the editorial street as the fellow with the typewriter and the fellow with the blue pencil. If the experience taught me anything, it was that no matter how good a writer one thinks one is, a competent editor can always make him look better.

I had a brilliant editor for my first three books, all nonfiction. First at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, then at Random House and finally HarperCollins, Paul Golob actually taught me how to shape a book, how to craft a narrative, how to draw the reader into my tale.

For the three later mysteries, I was on my own, doing my own "line editing" and trusting a freelance copy editor (hired by the publisher) to tidy up the verbal dust kitties. (A smart production editor caught several stupid mistakes before they made print.)

And now I'm back in the hands of a New Guy. I'm a New Guy to him, too. We shall see.