Thursday, April 27, 2006

Reality trumps fiction in "branding the U."

Another kindred spirit weighs in on the branding of universities. It's in today's NY Times op-ed. (reg req)

Excerpt from Stephen Budiansky's op-ed piece:

I RECENTLY did some research for a satirical novel set at a university. The idea was to have a bunch of gags about how colleges prostitute themselves to improve their U.S. News & World Report rankings and keep up a healthy supply of tuition-paying students, while wrapping their craven commercialism in high-minded-sounding academic blather.

I would keep coming up with what I thought were pretty outrageous burlesques of this stuff and then run them by one of my professor friends and he'd say, Oh, yeah, we're doing that.

One of my best bits, or so I thought, was about how the fictional university in my novel had hired a branding consultant to come up with a new name with the hip, possibility-rich freshness needed to appeal to today's students. Two weeks later, a friend called to say it was on the front page of The Times: "To Woo Students, Colleges Choose Names That Sell." Exhibit A was Beaver College, which had changed its name to Arcadia University. Applications doubled.

One writer's tale of the book "packager"

Great story on Slate.

OK, now back to what's really important: the Charlie Sheen/Denise Richards/Richie Sambora/Heather Locklear love quadrangle. They have temporarily supplanted the other four most-important-stars-in-the-world: Brangelina and TomKat.

And today is Thursday, when the new tabloids hit my local supermarket. Feh on The New Yorker. I need my Star and Enq fixes. Who's wearing something hideous besides Chloe Sevigny or Helena Bonham Carter? How far along is the second Feder-letus?

The spring semester is over and done with. Time for another jaunt to the Texas beach and some pool time with the trash-mags.

Hey, I have a new writing gig that allows me to obsess about television. And to all of you 'demics who deny watching the glowing blue box holding up your collection of Lingua Franca, I know you're lying and you're secretly addicted to The Real Housewives of the O.C. and 8th & Ocean. If you want to hear my other writerly "voice," go here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

How do we get THAT job?

They're called "packagers." They write the books then get some young thing like the Opal Mehta girl to "front" the project. A hot novel by a pretty 17-year-old on her way to Harvard is a much sexier sell than a first novel by a couple of unknown 40-year-olds. For more proof of how to create a "front," look up the exposes of one J.T. Leroy.

To learn more about being a "packager," read this.

The Harvard Crimson is kicking everyone's keister on this story, including the NYT.

Every week, it seems, we learn a new dirty little secret about the publishing industry. Years ago a journo-friend of mine forced Tom Clancy to admit during an interview that the author uses a team of writers to produce some of his paperback series -- a veritable assembly line for quicky adventure fiction. But there on cover is "Tom Clancy."

And you can't tell me Nicole Richie knows enough words to produce her first "novel," The Truth About Diamonds. Whattaya bet she can't even type, much less know where punctuation goes?

Forget being a real writer. Being a "packager" is where the money is right now. Can someone tell me how to get that job?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The stolen plot thickens

So now it turns out that the novelist/wunderkind from Harvard is part of a "think tank" that writes books. As this entry on Huffington Post by Jesse Kornbluth posits today, is she actually just the "face" for a team of ghostwriters and book packagers? And dig the quote from her writing teacher. It's the writing teacher's assessment of the young author's skills that I trust -- for obvious reasons.

Another copycat caught

When a student plagiarizes for a research paper, you can chalk it up to laziness, dishonesty or naivete. When a young author does it and claims it's because she "internalized" another writer's material, you wonder if her publisher -- in the case of the Harvard girl (see below) it was Little, Brown & Co. -- can ask for their $500K check back. But when a CEO does it and quotes his little "rules for management" in an interview with a national newspaper, you have to believe ego got in the way of "truthiness." And check out the last quote in the "gotcha" piece from USA Today.

Raytheon chief says he didn't plagiarize
Updated 4/25/2006 12:20 AM ET
By Del Jones, USA TODAY

Raytheon CEO William Swanson said Monday that he is not guilty of plagiarism because he has never claimed to be the original author of the 33 rules in his popular booklet Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management.
However, in a Raytheon press release, he said the similarities between his book and a book written in 1944 are "beyond dispute."

About half of Swanson's rules can be found word for word or nearly so in the 1944 book The Unwritten Laws of Engineering, by W.J. (William Julian) King, a one-time General Electric engineer who retired as a UCLA engineering professor in 1969. He died in 1983.

One Swanson rule, "A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter — or to others — is not a nice person" was not in King's book. But it is the reason the many similarities were discovered. Swanson's waiter rule was the topic of a USA TODAY article on April 14 in which several CEOs agreed that the rule is an accurate barometer of character. USA TODAY also published a Q&A with Swanson on Dec. 19 that focused on several of the rules published in the booklet, which Raytheon gives away on its Internet site.

The waiter article caused Carl Durrenberger, 29, who does inkjet printer development at Hewlett-Packard, to note the similarities because he had found an old photocopy of the 1944 book while cleaning his desk days before. The New York Times reported his findings Monday. Durrenberger's discovery first came to USA TODAY's attention Sunday night when an editor was reviewing e-mails sent to a reader inquiry queue.

Not only were many rules nearly identical, but Durrenberger recognized the dated language. The rules in Swanson's book are also in similar order to those in King's book.

In a phone interview, Swanson agreed that many of his rules were exactly or nearly exactly the same as those written by King. But he says he has been scribbling down random words of wisdom on scraps of paper going back to his days at California Polytechnic State University, where he graduated in 1972. He became Raytheon CEO in 2003.

Swanson says it's possible he once read King's book, but he doesn't recall. But he says he never copied from the book. It is possible, he says, that his professors, managers and other engineers and mentors had read the book and passed the rules down through the engineering ranks before Swanson wrote them down and eventually published them.

"These rules were passed around in the '50s, '60s and '70s," Swanson said. "I think what happens is the author gets lost."

Monday, April 24, 2006

A million little plagiarized pieces

April 23, 2006
Publisher Investigates Young Author at Harvard

BOSTON -- The publisher of a 19-year-old Harvard University sophomore's debut novel is investigating the work because it includes several passages that are similar to a book published in 2001.

Kaavya Viswanathan's "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" was published in March by Little, Brown and Co., which signed her to a hefty two-book deal when she was just 17.

On Sunday, the Harvard Crimson reported the similarities on its Web site, citing seven passages in Viswanathan's book that parallel the style and language of "Sloppy Firsts," a novel by Megan McCafferty that Random House published.

Viswanathan, whose book hit 32nd on The New York Times' hardcover fiction best seller list this week, did not return a phone message seeking comment. On Saturday, she told the Crimson: "No comment. I have no idea what you are talking about."

Michael Pietsch, the publisher of Little, Brown, said Sunday that the company will investigate the similarities.

"I can't believe that these are anything but unintentional," Pietsch said. "She is a wonderful young woman."

McCafferty told The Associated Press in an e-mail Sunday that some of her readers pointed out the likenesses.

"After reading the book in question, and finding passages, characters, and plot points in common, I hope this can be resolved in a manner that is fair to all of the parties involved," McCafferty said.

She didn't elaborate on what kind of resolution she was seeking.

Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, told The Boston Globe that lawyers are examining the books for similarities. He would not comment on the extent of those similarities or what action the company might take.

"I'm sure everyone will take these concerns very seriously," he said. "And more to come."

Viswanathan's book tells the story of Opal, a hard-driving teen who earns all A's in high school but gets rejected from Harvard because she forgot to have a social life. Opal's father concocts a plan code-named HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get A Life) to get her past the admission's office.

McCafferty's book follows a heroine named Jessica, a New Jersey 16-year-old who excels in high school but struggles with her identity and longs for a boyfriend.

On page 213 of McCafferty's book: "He was invading my personal space, as I had learned in Psych. class, and I instinctively sunk back into the seat. That just made him move in closer. I was practically one with the leather at this point, and unless I hopped into the backseat, there was nowhere else for me to go."

On page 175 of Viswanathan's book: "He was definitely invading my personal space, as I had learned in Human Evolution class last summer, and I instinctively backed up till my legs hit the chair I had been sitting in. That just made him move in closer, until the grommets in the leather embossed the backs of my knees, and he finally tilted the book toward me."

Viswanathan told The Associated Press in an interview last month that the heroine bears similarities to herself: Indian heritage, New Jersey upbringing, Harvard and both she and Opal's father drive Range Rovers.

There's also a teenage boy in the book who has a striking resemblance to a classmate for whom Viswanathan had an unrequited crush. But the author said last month that those were just superficial details and the book is invented fiction.

Viswanathan is the youngest author signed by Little, Brown and Co. in decades, and the movie rights for the novel have already been sold to DreamWorks.

McCafferty is a former editor at Cosmopolitan who has written three novels.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Required reading

It's a lengthy piece, but it's the one everybody's talking about this week. Rolling Stone asks "Worst President in History?" See if you think it makes the case.

Monday, April 17, 2006

See? It's not just me

The World of Pig blogger surely risks getting fired from teaching for being so honest. But you have to love it.

The Running of the Winners!

We have winners in the "Running of..." fill-in-the-blank contest from two weeks back. Although Hillary, as usual, had exemplary suggestions, she's won twice before, so I'm disqualifying her. No offense, Hill. You're a smarty-pie and I loves ya bunches. But let's give the others a chance. You can play-for-pay the next time around.

So the first prize of a fine new "Phantom of the Opera" black canvas totebag goes to Cold Potato for the "Running of the Diarrhea Association." (A better prize would be a stool but they're hard to wrap for mailing.) CP also suggested "Running of the Turtles," which could make for a nice, relaxing event. (Winning time: Thursday.) Reminds me of Monty Python's Race for the Directionally Challenged, in which the runners take off at the gun and scatter to the winds.

Second and third prizes of new blank journals are Devon in Eugene, Ore., for the "Running of the Hippies" and Dave Avery for "Running up of the Charge Card."

All right, everyone send me your snailmail addresses at and your prizes will be in the next mailbag. Thanks for playing!

And to those of you who've been posting comments about my being a crabby old bat who bashes the kids too much. Point taken. I'll attempt to be more positive -- until I'm not.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

TV Tune-in Alert

If you have Showtime on your cable system, tune in Monday night (April 17) at 10 p.m. ET (9 Central) to Penn & Teller: Bullshit! to see the libertarian magicians take on the issue of the death penalty. If you watch this feisty series, you've seen the duo attack America's "safety obsession" and call for legalized prostitution.

One of the experts featured on Monday night's show is our favorite human rights professor. He had never heard of Penn & Teller before the show called him for an interview. Brilliant, he is. Pop culturized, he isn't.

You try explaining Penn & Teller!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

After you

Place: Celebrity Cafe & Bakery.
Time: 11:55 a.m. Sunday
Five people wait outside the still-locked doors of this neighborhood cafe, waiting for the place to open at noon. All five are grown-ups. We acknowledge each other with nods and smiles and mentally tick off our order of arrival: Nice older couple in tennis togs first; then the lady in yoga pants holding a six-pack of seltzer waters; white-haired lady in Sunday School attire; then me. We know that when the doors are unlocked we will line up accordingly. It's an order-at-the-counter type place. And it's teeny-tiny inside with lots of outdoor tables at which to dine.

At two minutes till noon, four college-age girls bop up, each in an identical outfit of chewed-hem denim miniskirt, Bernardo sandals and T-shirt depicting some form of the word "Kappa." They ignore the five of us earlier arrivals and wouldn't you know, the owner of the cafe steps up and unlocks the door just as they position themselves in front of it on the sidewalk.

Door opens. Sorority chickies push toward the counter and proceed to order vast numbers of take-out sandwiches, salads, cookies and beverages. Then they slow things down further by charging the eats on four different credit cards. The five of us WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN FIRST IN LINE take our places on the sidewalk in correct order and wait--for-fricking-ever--for the me-first!-Kappas to get what they want in their sweet time.

The place is the size of a thimble, so even after they've placed their orders, the Kappas don't move aside to let anyone else step up to order (you're supposed to do that--they bring your food to you when it's ready). They just stand there like idiots, not realizing they're keeping not just five patrons WHO ARRIVED BEFORE THEY DID from ordering, but now another seven who've lined up behind us.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” So goes the old Zen koan. More accurately in my experience would be, “When the teacher is ready to go home, a student will appear.”

I have my keys in my hand and my bookbag over my shoulder, just read to flip off the lights in my office when Mara steps into the doorway.

“Going home?” she says. Mara. From Tennessee. Complexion as milky-white as a bite of Jonathan apple.

“Trying. Whatcha need?”

“I have a dilemma.” Mara and I go back a few years. She’s a sixth year senior and has taken everything I’ve taught.

“A dilemma which would be….”

“I’m late. You know – late late.”

Click, whir. Brain making the connection to what a 23-year-old college senior means by “late late.”

“Oh, that kind of late. I get it.” I step back into the office and shut the door behind us. But I don’t sit down. It’s nearly 6.

“The one time my boyfriend and I didn’t use anything.”

“Well, that does increase the odds. Have you done a test?”

“That’s what I need…I kinda sorta have a problem. I don’t have any cash and if I ask my roommate, she'll blab it all over the Theta house. If I charge it, the bill goes to my parents and I’m afraid….”

“Say no more. All those questions. I gotcha. Want me to buy the test for you?”

“Would you? I’ll pay you back tomorrow, I promise.”

“Don’t worry. Let’s go.” We head for my car and zip up to the nearest pharmacy. Mara waits outside on the sidewalk while I plunk down 19 bucks on an EPT home pregnancy kit. It’s the first time I’ve ever bought one. (I am neither Catholic nor careless.)

I drop Mara and the box containing her future back at her car in the student lot. All I can think to say is, “Good luck!”

The next day I’m standing at the Coke machine in the hall as Mara reaches the top step from the first floor. She sidles up close, opens her palm revealing 19 dollars in crumpled bills. She presses the money toward me and I take it. “Everything’s OK. know,” she says. “See you later!”

Friday, April 07, 2006

The dream class

More than halfway through this semester with the film criticism class I'm teaching now, I've decided I've found the perfect group of students. Not once has anyone come in late or not done the assignments. They say smart, insightful things about the films we're studying (some Hitchcock, some Altman, with Casablanca thrown in for good measure), always anticipating where the discussion should go next. Each 90-minute session flies by in a whirl of opinions, arguments, film clips and hearty laughs. I can't wait to see them every week.

On the second day of the term, I got to the classroom early to set up the video/DVD equipment. As I opened the door, I saw almost every seat filled and thought I'd accidentally walked in on the end of a previous class. No, as it turned out, my group of 55 enrollees were almost all there 30 minutes early, eager and ready to go. They introduced themselves and told me how excited they were to get into the course. Nobody goes to sleep on the back row during this class. Nobody leaves early. They keep the discussions going all the way to the parking lot.

So what's going on? Who are these Stepford students? Ah, here's the secret to this perfect college class: Not one of them is under 60 years old.

In a program for "lifelong learners," retirees and senior citizens pay a fee and sign up for a wide range of classes each semester. They can learn languages or study literature, film, theater and music. They take courses in philosophy and physics, photography and poetry. Many of the instructors are retired, too -- or, like me, were retired involuntarily by other institutions. We're there because we like teaching. And the money's not bad either.

The classes are held on the school's west campus in a comfortably appointed building with lots of brightly lit rooms and a huge student lounge. The air-conditioning hasn't broken down once. And the soda machines have Coke Zero, which is a bonus.

Such energy these students have! Maybe it's Geritol, maybe it's beta-blockers and high fiber diets, but these folks are wide awake and ready to rumble every single day. Nobody drags in complaining about a roommate stealing their ADD drugs or how they're hung over from happy hour at Primo's. And hands down, these students are the best-dressed, cleanest, most polite and well-spoken I've ever encountered. Not a "tramp stamp" tattoo or navel ring among them--or at least they're not showing them off in public. (Hey, some of these gals are they say, 70 is the new 50.)

The best part of it for me is not having to explain who's who in the films and what the cultural references are. I have yet to meet a 19-year-old who gets what Altman was doing in Nashville or can find the Freudian symbols in Psycho-- or even knows what "Freudian" means. As I told my class the other day, this is the first time I've taught Casablanca to a group who didn't need me to spend 10 minutes going into the history of the Vichy government.

Even better, they bring a wealth of life experiences to the table. When I asked last week what makes films like Casablanca hold up over six decades, I got wonderful answers. "They show us what love should look and feel like," said one student. And, said another, "You can see that a woman can love two very different men (Bogie's Rick and Paul Henreid's Victor Lazslo) for very good reasons." Then for a few minutes we talked about the benefits of a Rick over a Victor Lazslo, and vice versa. I sense that some of them have experienced great love and great loss in their long lives. Typical undergrads wouldn't even go to that place in the conversation.

When you teach a class of senior adults, you get students who want to be there and who wouldn't dream of skipping a minute of it. They're eating life in great big bites, these guys.

OK, I get some complaints when I walk to the back of the room while I'm talking and the hearing aid wearers on the front row can't pick up my voice. I turn the AV equipment up a little louder than I would for younger students. There aren't any Ashleys or Brads in this group, but I do have five Barbaras and seven Bobs, which perhaps are the Ashley/Brad equivalents for another generation.

Teach older students like these and rest assured you'll never have a helicopter mommy calling to complain about grades or exam schedules. With the over-60 crowd, hey, for the most part their parents are dead.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Short takes on various themes

  • Check out this week’s Dallas Observer for a new story about yet another young ID-forger, Jeremy Johnson, arrested near campus (last fall). Students at OU ratted out the 23-year-old student when they were caught by the cops with the fakes he'd sold them. Story says Johnson shipped thousands of IDs out of his $1500-a-month apartment at The Phoenix on Mockingbird Lane (about half a mile from school). He pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony and was sentenced to seven years' probation and fined $2,000. According to reporter Andrea Grimes' story, he also was ordered into drug rehab in Utah. Not sure why Utah, as he's a Colleyville (TX) HS grad (class of 2001). On his page, he says his greatest weakness AND his greatest fear are "hookers." Also says he's on a "break" from the university, "but not by choice." This junior gangster says he wants to die "in a hailstorm of bullets." Guy looks like a load.
  • More middle and high schools are eliminating art, music, drama, journalism, phys-ed, social studies, world history (!) and other “electives” to drill students longer and harder on math and verbal skills. It’s all about raising the standardized test scores, while saving budget money on these "extras." In Florida Gov. Jeb Bush--and we know what friends to education the Bush boys are--has introduced a 107-page bill aimed at molding Florida schools into a tougher, more career-oriented system that gives children "relevant learning opportunities" (Orlando Sentinel). Yeah, good idea. Make school more boring. That will keep ’em in their seats for 12 years. American education takes another 40 giant steps backward. And college profs everywhere shake their heads at the prospect of explaining to future undergrads even more basic stuff they should have learned before.
  • Meanwhile, several state legislatures, including Florida, Georgia, Kansas and Utah, are trying to declare the Bible a textbook in public schools. No art, world history or PE, but Jesus? You betcha!
  • Elsewhere, a scientist from U-Conn has predicted human time travel possible in the next 94 years. If we could move people back and forth in time, I say let’s zap Thomas Jefferson forward and have him tell these yahoos a few things about what he really intended in the First Amendment. “Yes, I really did mean freedom FROM religion, too,” I can hear him saying. “And could you introduce me to Halle Berry?”
  • Will they have to make the school desks bigger, too? Baby-seat manufacturers are having to super-size car seats and carriers because tots are getting fatter earlier. And Maury Povich smiles, knowing that his “fat baby day” theme-shows will have no trouble finding new 200-lb toddlers to waddle onto his stage for years to come. And because schools won't be teaching PE...well, you can extrapolate the results. From fat babies to fat and stupid adults. I don't want to time-travel to that part of the future where Homer Simpson is regarded as an intellectual icon.
  • Best case for not letting pretty kids drop out of high school and enter the world of modeling: MTV’s 8th & Ocean series. It follows a group of dumb but incredibly beautiful teen-agers living in group apartments in Miami, obsessing over their weight, their boob size and the one zit that could get them fired from the agency. There haven’t been this many vacant looks in big eyes since Farrah Fawcett last gazed in a mirror. Horrifying and compelling.
  • Want to wake up a sleepy college class? Just mention the latest episode of 8th & Ocean. They watch it. They worship it.
  • This weekend in Acuna, Mexico, they’ll be hosting the annual “Running of the Cows” (their version of Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls). Made me think that on campus, they could hold a “Running of the Ashleys” to commemorate the official post-Easter switch to white pants and white sandals. Or Highland Park (our version of Beverly Hills) could organize a “Running of the Poodles.” What are your suggestions for location-specific “Running of…” events? Post them in Comments here and the best three (decided by moi) will receive fabulous prizes. From the over-stuffed gimme closet, I’ve just pulled a very fine “Phantom of the Opera” black canvas tote bag. Have fun and I’ll post more later. After seeing and reviewing 12 plays in three weeks, I’m still recuperating from keyboard-cramp.