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April 2010

Battle of the As: Apple vs Amazon

The launch of the iPad earlier this month, with 300,000 units sold on the first day, has led to significant coverage in the mainstream media, and (surprisingly, given the state of the publishing industry) quite a few articles on the upcoming clash between Apple's iPad and Amazon's Kindle.

The Economist has a piece with the wonderful title "E-publish or perish" (March 31, 2010), which highlights the main issues with the current situation regarding digital copies of books. Amazon.com, the market leader, has been pricing many e-books below what it has paid for them in order to gain market share for its e-reader, the Kindle; publishers now fret that customers have been conditioned to believe $9.99 was a fair price for e-books.

A row with Macmillan in January resulted in Amazon.com briefly pulling out Macmillan books from its website in January, although the dispute was later resolved. As explained in this New York Times blog post, Amazon.com has agreed to shift from a "wholesale model," where it decided how much to charge customers for e-books, to an "agency model", "in which publishers sell e-books directly to consumers and pay retailers like Amazon and Apple a set 30 percent commission. The move allows publishers to raise e-book prices from the default $9.99 that Amazon had set for most new releases and best sellers to as much as $14.99." Macmillan, worried about its shrinking margins, used the impending release of the iPad to force a renegotiation of Amazon's pricing model.

(From this other New York Times article, before the media began to emphasize Amazon had been selling e-books below cost: "In a strongly worded message on its Web site on Sunday, Amazon said that while it disagreed with Macmillan’s stance, it would bow to the publisher’s plan. [... Amazon said:] “We want [our readers] to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books.”" For a different perspective, see HBS link three paragraphs down.)

The Atlantic recently published a fascinating post on its website about the vast array of prices charged for books; for instance, "the hardcover list price [of a recent book] is $29.95 and the CD audio lists at $50. But that is barely the beginning. Amazon sells the printed book for $16.47, the Kindle e-book version for $14.82, the audio CD for $31.50, and the downloadable audio for $34.12. B&N.com has a "member" price for the hardcover of $15.52 and the CD for $36. At Borders.com, the book is $17.97. The Sony Reader e-book is $14.50."

The blog author, who founded Public Affairs Books, comments that "the competition for readers is so much more about choices and platforms than it ever was." He strikes an optimistic note: "As for the notion that overall readership is collapsing, final numbers for 2009 show that not to be the case. E-book sales are surging, up 176.6 percent, to $313 million. Even adult hardcovers were up 6.9 percent, to $2.6 billion." He also repeats a statistic that first appeared in The Economist: "e-books could be as much as 25 percent of the market in the next five years." Maybe the book industry is not quite dying yet.

The former CEO of Random House, now senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, offers his insights here. Interestingly, he appears to be disagreeing with Macmillan. "Instead of making books more accessible and attractive, publishers are attempting to prop up the print book business by upping the price of e-books, Olson says. [...] "I don't know of many successful examples of pricing a product based not on what it costs or what people want to pay for it, but based on another format that is completely different, just because you want to keep that format alive.""

Here come sobering statistics: "Less than half of all American adults ever read a book after leaving school. Most of the remainder read, at most, only one or two books a year." I read about three books a month, usually nonfiction. I know I am atypical; yet it frightens me to think most adults don't even bother to pick up a book on a topic that interests them. The great hope with e-readers is that it will lead people who usually don't read to give it a try, so that digital books, far from cannibalizing the sales of printed books, will expand the market. Interestingly, the HBS students who discussed the case study suggested bundling hardcover and e-book, to allow readers to use both as they please. The former Random House CEO concludes: "It's a very nice time to be at HBS and not in the book industry. It's fun to watch, but it's probably not as much fun to be in the middle of this."

Finally, it should come as no surprise that The New Yorker's Ken Auletta - "the" expert if there ever was one - wrote a piece about Amazon vs Apple in its Annals of Communication series. If you only have time to read one article among all those I link to, make it that one. He echoes many of the themes touched upon in the other articles, from Amazon's strategy to sell e-books below cost to the hope e-books will represent 25% to 50% of the book business in the few years; he also emphasizes the iPad's advantages: "The iPad was clearly a more versatile device: it would provide color and full audio and video, while the Kindle could display only black-and-white text." Auletta also puts the row between Macmillan and Amazon in context, by pointing out it started the day after Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad in downtown San Francisco. (Asked why customers would buy an e-book at $14.99 from Apple when they could get it at $9.99 from Amazon, Jobs replied: "The price will be the same. [...] Publishers may withhold their books from Amazon. They’re unhappy." Sure enough, the row broke out the next day.)

A BNET blog post takes issue with some of the numbers Auletta presents in his article, specifically, the costs of the publishing industry. Using the example of a $26 hardcover selling 10,000 copies, including  the blog author argues that "you’ve got $4.10 in the publisher’s pocket for every $13 book sold [$13 being the discounted price the publisher receives from booksellers and retailers], rather than the $1 Auletta claims. That’s a 31.5 percent margin." He also takes issues with Auletta's basing his calculations on hardcovers, when paperbacks represent an important part of the business.

The truth is probably somewhere in between The New Yorker's and BNET's figures. Anyway, Auletta's article also provides a good overview of Amazon's beginnings, a detailed account of the row between Amazon and Macmillan, and a timely reflection on what this all means for independent booksellers. (I am a fervent supporter of independent bookstores, especially Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, MA and - my new favorite, now that I no longer live in the Boston area - McNally-Jackson in New York City. If you're going to buy books, you might as well buy them from people who love them, rather than from companies that view books as one more commodity to make profit from. But again, I am atypical. I know that. The Economist also has a sidebar on the fate of bookstores. An excerpt: "Independent bookshops face a particularly grave threat, because they are unable to match bigger rivals’ prices. Many are branching out by offering new services, such as creative-writing classes." Unsurprisingly, Harvard Book Store and McNally-Jackson run excellent reading series, where they also sell the books of the featured authors. All successful independent bookstores seem to hold high-quality author events, with an edgy vibe in the writers' choices.)

From Auletta's article: "According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent booksellers has declined from 3,250 to 1,400 since 1999; independents now represent just ten per cent of store sales." and "Bookstores, particularly independent bookstores, help resist this trend [of focusing on mega-hits rather than good books with a smaller audience] by championing authors the employees believe in." But Auletta also points out many customers are unwilling to pay the higher prices. It is worth noting, however, that many independent booksellers do offer discounts, in particular for best-sellers on the Indie Bestseller Lists (books that are best-selling in independent bookstores), and for holders of the bookstores' frequent-buyer cards, although terms vary. In addition, as the BNET blogger pointed out, Auletta focuses on hardcovers, which are indeed pricey. I buy paperbacks as much as possible, where the Amazon discount doesn't translate in a steep price difference. They are easier to carry around anyway.  

I'll end with a quote by an Apple insider, from the Auletta article: "Ultimately, Apple is in the device—not the content—business. Steve Jobs wants to make sure content people are his partner. Steve is in the I win/you win school. Jeff Bezos is in the I win/you lose school."(Both that article and the one in The Economist do mention Apple might have kept an option to charge $9.99 for some of the books, though, which might have to do with Random House not yet agreeing to having its books available on the iPad.)

Please read the full article for great information on Amazon's aspirations as a possible future publisher that will continue to transform the book industry, more tensions between publishers and Amazon.com, and a ton of additional insights!


Twitter and the observer effect

Slate has an article about the decision recently made by the Library of Congress to "store the complete archives of Twitter [s]tarting six months from now." This apparently represents 50 million tweets a day. "Historians are interested in ordinary life," said a Yale University professor. Maybe one can expect, in a decade or two, PhD dissertations on the use of multiple exclamation points in tweets at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and other things of that order.

I do wonder how the decision of archiving tweets will affect users' behavior - this is known as the observer effect in physics, which Wikipedia defines as the "changes that the act of observation will make on the phenomenon being observed". This effect was for instance observed at some ski resorts which, according to researchers at Dartmouth College, "sometimes boost[ed] their snowfall reports to attract more customers" but stopped after the release of an iPhone application that allowed skiers and snowboarders to report snow amounts themselves (I already linked to this article here.) Maybe people will simply decide to have none of their tweets public.

The Christian Science Monitor also has a relatively funny article about this decision, which includes statements such as: "Hmm – by our count that sentence is about 180 characters. And it's clipped from a quote that's a whole paragraph. [The Librarian of Congress who made the announcement] is going to have to start tightening things up if he's going to get in the 140-character-per-message Twitter spirit," and "The books [so far in the Library of Congress] included [...] Thucydides translated from Greek into English by Thomas Hobbes, Plutarch in Latin – that sort of thing. Now these will be supplemented with, among other things, the tweets of Canadian pop star Justin Bieber ("...Time for school. Back to learning. Haha.")"

In contrast, the Baltimore Sun does not even attempt to be funny in its criticism of the new policy: "The august Library of Congress has decided to spend untold millions on archiving Twitter, that latest open exercise in getting off your chest in print anything that crosses your mind, in 140 characters or less." It adds: "Personal messages won't be archived, according to the library, which will focus on tweets that have 'scholarly and research implications.' " Well, that clarifies everything, doesn't it?


Revenue Management in Museums: Picasso, Picasso, and More Picasso

The Wall Street Journal published an insightful article last week about museums' new revenue management strategy in these times of financial crisis. The strategy can be summarized in one word: Picasso. ("Picasso to the Rescue", April 16, 2010)

If you live in the American Northeast, you might have read that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is having a Picasso retrospective, which has just been extended to May 2 ("Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris"), while the Picasso exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City will open later this month. MoMA is also having a Picasso exhibit, focused on printmaking. What these exhibitions have in common, besides Picasso, is that museums are using works from their own permanent collections instead of relying on loans from elsewhere. As the journalist writes in the WSJ article, museums are "cutting back on costly exhibits that travel among several venues and involve complicated art loans. Instead, they're dusting off the works they already have."

I remember attending the MoMA exhibition on van Gogh a little over a year ago and hearing that some of the paintings had come from the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam on their own jumbo jet, with the insurers refusing that anything else travel with them besides the person assigned to holding the dear thing (in a crate, I assume) for the duration of the flight. I am not sure how much of it is true, but I believe I also read something similar in a magazine, possibly ARTNews; there seemed to be broad agreement that such shows will become increasingly difficult to put together, because of the amounts of money involved to insure the paintings as they travel across the globe.

While exhibitions relying solely on works that museums own would decrease travel and insurance costs, the former director of the Milwaukee Art Museum also warned the WSJ journalist that "[v]ery few museums have got a deep enough collection to pull this off convincingly." The trend does not bode well for museums that use traveling exhibitions to boost their attendance numbers and shore up their operating budgets. On the other hand, "[m]ost museums display less than 10% of the artwork in their collection at any given time," and donors are naturally eager to see their paintings on display. It is not clear, however, what will follow all these Picasso retrospectives. Cezanne, van Gogh, abstract expressionism? More Picasso?

As for the exhibition in Philly, which I saw over the weekend, I didn't care much for it, despite the good reviews. It was crowded (although not as crowded as the From Cezanne to Picasso [him again!]: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in late 2006, which is the one and only time I seriously wondered in the middle of a museum why the Fire Department did not get involved and force everyone to get out - the Met Museum does not have timed tickets for its special exhibitions, which means that there is, to the best of my knowledge, no apparent capacity control. Picasso in the title and no capacity control! Just boggles the mind. Hopefully things will have changed for the upcoming show.)

I enjoyed some of the paintings in the Philly exhibition, but there just wasn't enough material I liked - of course The Three Musicians and Self-Portrait with a Palette made the trip worthwhile, as well as Fernand Leger's The City; if you are going to show so many minor works in addition to the masterpieces, though, maybe you should work a little more to explain why they remain important contributions, or at least why you bothered acquiring them. For me, the show did not rise to the level of the Picasso and American Art retrospective at the Whitney in Fall 2006 (Picasso again! it is a national obsession!) Besides, I am always a little suspicious of supposedly blockbuster exhibitions for which no catalog is printed.

Maybe displaying so many works from one's own permanent collections requires a different kind of approach. This being said, I am looking forward to the Picasso retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum. The museum seems to be testing new techniques to educate its audience, with for instance a "video of nine Picasso paintings [that] will demonstrate how the artist revised his compositions, styles and themes in reworking specific paintings," according to this article in the Washington Post. The article, which also mentions an upcoming auction of Picassos, aptly starts with: "Picasso fans, rejoice." But hopefully museums have more original plans for next year.


Random Links

  • PhD Comics Tax Day: "Dork Barrel Spending"
  • "Stop publishing!" from the Computer Scientist blog.
  • A post from the Brandbuilder blog about things Bette Davis could have said about social media.
  • Weekly engineering trivia quiz.
  • "Home invasion case to go to trial": three armed and masked men robbed ten Lehigh students gathered in a house in December, after gaining entry via an unlocked door. I was glad that the police was able to arrest one of the suspects, thanks to the quick response of a student in another room. The case reminded me of the Eve Carson case, in which the two intruders also entered the house via an unlocked door, with tragic consequences. Even if the Bethlehem story had a far better ending, I hope the punishment is severe.
  • There is a formula out there for perfect parallel parking. It does not seem particularly insightful, but I read in one of the comments on the NPR blog that this is of interest because cars will soon be able to parallel-park themselves, thanks to this formula. Oh, how much I am looking forward to that day.
  • The power of the Internet in keeping ski resorts honest about snowfall amounts.
  • My blog was named one of the Top 50 engineering blogs by onlineengineeringprograms.org. I was glad to see the Curious Cat blog on the list too. He has a great entry on Google Social Search (linking to this January announcement by Google) and, in a separate entry, links to an article from The Guardian on volcanic ash and the reason why the volcanic eruption in Iceland has grounded planes all over northern Europe.
  • A local thief with Twist as his last name must write a book report on the Fagin character of "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens, as part of the sentence imposed by the NorCo PJ. Uh-uh. And the thief "who smiled after he was assigned the report, said he’s read the book five times and even had an uncle with the main character’s name." Dickens? Five times? Seriously?
  • According to this post from the Slice of MIT blog, about a third of teens view teachers as doing the most important profession in America. (I wonder how long they keep thinking that.) "Less than one-fifth of respondents viewed scientists as having the highest impact on society and only 5 percent chose engineers."
  • An interesting analysis related to revenue management in the local hotel industry.

With a high school degree, without a college admission letter

I wrote a few days ago about college seniors or graduates who find themselves without job offers. There is an even worse situation to be in, though: think of high school seniors who want to go to college but aren't getting admitted anywhere. The New York Times has been running a blog written by high school students about the college admission process, and last week a Texas student with straight As and a ranking of sixth in his class wrote about getting wait-listed or rejected everywhere, with the exception of UT Austin which offered him a deferred admission in the Spring of 2011, although not in the business college - his first choice. He is putting on a brave face, but this is clearly not a good situation to be in.

Commenters on the NYT blog have made much of the fact that the student did not seem to have any safety schools (or maybe what he viewed as safety schools was regarded as reach schools for everyone else - he applied to UT Austin, Rice, the University of Virginia, UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, Stanford and Princeton.) I think that says a lot about his strong belief that his credentials - "Advanced Placement scholar, four-year varsity athlete" - warranted admission into some of the schools above. If some college seniors hold out for the perfect job, why would high school students apply to schools they don't want to attend? Of course, few of them thought the choice would come down to a gap year or more last-minute applications. But if the student uses his gap year wisely, he might draw attention of some top schools next year. I can't remember the name of the recruiter who once told me he always asked for examples of failure when he interviewed students, because you don't want to discover first-hand that someone cannot handle setbacks.

What struck me most was an anonymous comment (Comment #9), by someone who writes she/he was in a similar situation four years ago ("valedictorian, impressive extracurriculars") and clearly has been unhappy with his/her decision of attending one of his/her safety schools ("nothing can make it a good fit, and I’ve regretted coming ever since.") The commenter sounded dejected, as if he/she had been deprived of that great experience college was supposed to be and would feel the sorrow for years to come. ("I thought about taking a gap year, but... my life was suddenly full of people who felt like I’d already let them down... Transfer options for my dream schools were very limited for my class year–all of them accepted record low numbers–and I never got in despite trying.")

For some reason, that commenter's disappointment at his/her college years, which were supposed to be such a defining part of his life, reminded me of (some of) the first-year students I work with in the Fall through the evoLUtion program - a Lehigh seminar series for freshmen. This year, the students had to write essays about how they viewed themselves and what they expected of Lehigh, or something along those lines (no it wasn't my idea - the Office of the First-Year Experience came up with the assignment). I cannot begin to tell you how many students, who did not know each other, came up with the line that college is supposed to be the best four years of their life, with that exact wording over and over again. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know I find that line aggravating. If you haven't, I'll give you a second to think about why.

Still thinking? Here is why: students who enter university with the innocuous idea that college is going to be the best four years of their life go on to graduate with the idea that the best years of their life are now behind them. Frankly, that is just sad. Twenty-two-year-olds nowadays have about sixty more years to live. Spending six decades believing that their life went downhill from the day they got their degree is nobody's idea of a good time. (I am convinced this happens a lot more often than what people let on.) I tell the freshmen they should hope every year is going to be better than the previous one, forever!

I don't miss college at all. I certainly don't think college has been the best four years of my life. I do think the following years have been more challenging, because you have to face the real world after the bubble that college is and you can't just coast by with big announcements about what you plan to do later - you have to actually do it - but those post-college years have also been a lot more rewarding. Seen from afar now, I remember college as this place where I waited for my real life to begin, with apologies to Colin Hay (since I lived in Paris back then, the waiting was very enjoyable, I have to admit); some people just never get over the happy anticipation. Given how much high school students love to repeat that cliche of college-as-the-best-four-years-of-your-life, and how much their parents want them to attend a good school despite the odds and the intense competition, I am not surprised that high school students take college rejection so harshly - and that some who do get admitted proceed to do as little work as possible to make up for the lost teenage years they spent in SAT prep classes or resume-padding activities, trying to gain college admission.

As for the other student bloggers on the NYT blog, they have been writing extensively about getting rejected. One girl gives the standard pep talk: "so many high school seniors today, myself unfortunately included, put so much weight and validation in Ivy League schools... And I think it’s ridiculous. At the end of the day, you can be just as successful going to a non-Ivy League colleges or university as you would be going to Harvard... college, like high school, really is what you make of it", but then she can't resist pointing out that she "did get into one Ivy - Cornell." Another one makes an attempt at dark humor: "Since I’ve put most of my rejections behind me, I can focus on the brighter side of life, like all my unfinished homework or cleaning out my closet." All these blog posts leave me vaguely depressed for their authors, although they try to remain cheerful - their writings appear in the Times, after all. Maybe an admissions officer out there will move them off the wait list after reading their post.

The French system of classes preparatoires and grandes ecoles requires steel nerves because written and oral exams determine which grandes ecoles you get to attend (and then your job opportunities and the salary you can claim for years to come). You don't have any extra-curriculars or other "soft stuff" to help you out. On the other hand, students take the exams with very clear ideas of who has a good shot at the top schools such as Ecole Polytechnique, Ecole des Mines de Paris or Ecole Centrale de Paris because of the extensive training they go through. If someone crumbles under pressure during the Polytechnique exams, he can probably make it up during the Centrale Paris exams. The hardest part of the US admissions system is that some students seem to lack the faintest idea whether they have a chance or not at some of their reach schools, thus allowing themselves to dream they might get in; besides, schools enjoy saying they are selective, and improving the selectivity ratio if you plan on admitting the same number of students as before can only be done by increasing the number of applications. This all creates a vicious circle that does not seem close to being broken.


Education Links

Lehigh honorary degrees for 2010. Lehigh recently announced the recipients of honorary degrees at this year's Commencement. In addition to Elie Wiesel, who will deliver the Commencement address and receive a Doctor of Letters honorary degree, Pulitzer-Prize winning author John McPhee and research scholar Daniel Callahan (the cofounder of a center dedicated to bioethics) will receive a Doctor of Letters degree and a Doctor of Humane Letters humane degree, respectively.

Moving on. Congratulations to MIT professor, Vice-Chancellor and Dean for Graduate Education Steve Lerman, who was named provost at George Washington University after over 40 years at MIT! Lerman arrived at MIT as a freshman in 1969 and just about never left. I worked with him when I was on the Graduate Student Council back in 2001-2002; he co-led the Grad School 101 seminar with then Dean for Graduate Students Ike Colbert, who retired a few years ago after an outstanding tenure at MIT. Lerman displayed a tremendous dedication to students and a genuine eagerness to help them flourish, as evidenced also by his decision to become Housemaster in one of MIT's graduate student dorms. I am not surprised at all that he decided to take an administrative role to further this aspect of his career. GWU is lucky to have him.

Cambridge Commencement. Again in my former hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT's student newspaper announced two weeks ago that "Raymond S. Stata ’57, founder of Massachusetts-based Analog Devices, Inc. and namesake of MIT’s Ray and Maria Stata Center, will [deliver] this year’s commencement address." I spent two months in the Stata center before I graduated, back in 2004, and loved it. Although I was very skeptical of the odd shapes and bright colors at first, I did tremendously enjoy my short time there. It is unfortunate the building has been plagued by design malfunctions (especially leaks), which led to legal action against the building architect in 2007. I am not sure where the situation is at this point.

The ability of top institutions to invite their own very successful alumni back to campus as Commencement speakers does offer unique teaching opportunities, because it is so much easier for students to identify themselves with the speaker and imagine what could be. My favorite Commencement address at Lehigh so far has been the one given in 2008 by William Amelio, then CEO and President of the Lenovo Group and Lehigh alumnus. I wrote about it here.

Here is an excerpt: "[Amelio] started his remarks by telling us the circumstances surrounding Lehigh's decision, back in 1979, not to let him receive his diploma with his class - in March 1979, as he was trying to leave a fraternity party, a bunch of drunk students blocked his path and rocked his car while he was sitting inside. Amelio, tipsy himself and upset by the event, got out of the car and punched one of the kids. In wrestling, he competed in the heavyweight category, and apparently the kid he punched needed a very good dentist afterward. That kid, of course, went straight to the police to file a complaint. Lehigh took action by barring Amelio from attending the graduation ceremony... Amelio described the anger he felt and how it took him time to learn to forgive and let go - forgive the people who had wronged him, forgive himself for throwing the punch that imperiled his career (he had a job offer at IBM that was conditional on him getting a degree and he was supposed to start right after Commencement), let go of his resentment, move on." You'll have to read my old post to learn whether he kept his job or not.  

Neither Amelio nor Stata are household names, but I hope the alma mater connection will help Stata deliver a speech as inspiring as Amelio's back in 2008, instead of an impersonal address that could easily be repeated in front of a different audience of twenty-two-year-olds elsewhere in the country. This being said, I was not planning on attending Commencement this year (we are only expected to attend every other year and I have attended three years in a row), but the name of Elie Wiesel was enough to make me change my mind. I cannot imagine him not delivering an outstanding address. As for the other school down the river and MIT's arch-rival, it will welcome one of its own alumni and former Supreme Court Justice David Souter as this year's Commencement Speaker. I am sure Souter will give a fine speech (in the words of Harvard Alumni Association's president, he "is a prime example of someone who has made a profound contribution to society not by seeking the limelight but by selflessly devoting himself to serving the public good.") But if I had the choice between either, I would still be more interested in what Wiesel has to say.

Health Care is All the Rage

Frank Rich had an op-ed in the New York Times last week, entitled "The rage is not about health care". He discusses, among other things, the vehement reactions to the health care bill, including "reports of death threats and vandalism" (see also this article in USA Today). Rich focuses on the behavior of Republican supporters, which admittedly has lacked in moderation. He writes, "At least four of the House members hit with death threats or vandalism are among the 20 political targets Palin marks with rifle crosshairs on a map on her Facebook page." Later: "To find a prototype for the overheated reaction to the health care bill, you have to look a year before Medicare, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964." Rich makes the point that the health care bill is only a handy excuse, a proxy, rather the main source of popular anger, and attributes the spiral of protests to a disenfranchised (white, right-leaning) minority.

The discourse has certainly become more radical, and people with extreme viewpoints have become more strident. The Christian Science Monitor ran a fascinating article about the connection between heated discourse and risk of violence almost a year ago. ("Are we just grumpy, or have politics gotten dangerous?") In particular, a civil-rights organization called the Southern Poverty Law Center "sees a direct connection between all the grumbling, shouting, and threats and the rise of antigovernment radicals, specifically right-wing militias." This same organization was quoted in the news recently in the light of recent developments. In addition, in some cases, heated arguments can lead to high ratings, as the feud between Bill O'Reilly of Fox News Channel and Keith Olbermann of MSNBC illustrated until high-level executives put an end to it because of "the venomous culture between the networks and the increasingly personal nature of the barbs" ("Voices from Above Silence a Cable TV Feud", New York Times, July 31, 2009.)

At least Olbermann and O'Reilly are well-known TV personalities. Deborah Howell did not have that kind of name recognition, and I admit I had never heard of her until she died in January in an accident in New Zealand. Howell served as ombudsperson for the Washington Post and I would never have heard about her if an article on NPR.org had not caught my attention. It is entitled: "Cruelty in Obituary Comments Shocks Editor." The article itself - a transcript of a radio chat - is short on details, but the first few lines ("A long-time journalist was killed in an accident, and in the comments on her obituary, a small but vocal minority cheered. Melinda Henneberger, editor-in-chief of Politics Daily, wonders whether we are trading our humanity for a little negative attention.") motivated me to look up Henneberger's article on the Politics Daily site. Here it is: "Why would any non-psychopath dance on Deborah Howell's grave?"

An excerpt: "[T]here was also a shocking number of comments to the effect that since Howell was in the news business, she must have been a lefty, so how fabulous she'd been killed." I appreciated Henneberger's efforts to go beyond political lines by mentioning similar comments about Rush Limbaugh's chest pains and Irving Kristol's obituary. Henneberger attempts to find explanations for this behavior; Howell herself had been the target of political rage after she erroneously reported that "convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff had donated to both political parties instead of only to Republicans."

According to Hennerberger, Howell wrote the following week: "Nothing in my 50-year career prepared me for the thousands of flaming e-mails I got last week over my last column, e-mails so abusive and many so obscene that part of The Post's Web site was shut down." (Please go to the Politics Daily article to read more about the public response to Howell's gaffe and her own reaction to that response.) Along the same lines, a local resident and his deceased daughter, who was killed by a drunk driver, have been the subject of vitriolic emails and anonymous comments at the man's blog, where he documents the concerns he has about local people in power. Howell wrote about her 2006 mistake: "[I]t is profoundly distressing if political discourse has sunk to a level where abusive name-calling and the crudest of sexual language are the norm, where facts have no place in an argument." The current Washington Post ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, has an interesting article about the fact that "anonymous online commenting has always been rowdy." Some of the quotes are shocking, even more so is the comment that "Post reporters say increasing numbers [of average folks who agreed to be featured in The Post] are expressing regret they cooperated for stories that resulted in vicious anonymous attacks." Make sure you read the whole article. It truly is eye-opening. Alexander advocates comment moderation and announces a future tier-based system of commenters at the Post, "based on their past behavior and other factors." It should be interesting to see what comes out of it.

To end on a more cheerful note, click here for an excellent parody of a political exchange on Facebook.