Zeroes and Ones and Your Odds of Writing a Best-Seller

best-sellers

Did you ever suspect the runaway best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey was written by robots?  Well, somebody check E.L. James for vital signs because she might actually be an algorithm.  Check this out:

wordrep

Surely a human being would die of boredom before biting a lip in print forty-three times in one novel.

Actually, I’m skewing things a bit.  But it is true that “[s]cientists have developed an algorithm which can analyse a book and predict with 84 per cent accuracy whether or not it will be a commercial success.” (Source)

By downloading books in public domain from Project Gutenberg , scientists from Stony Brook University in New York developed a program called “statistical stylometry, which mathematically examines the use of words and grammar” to determine the popularity of a book, matching the programs results to the sales of works from the past. The experiment involved a wide range of literary styles, from science fiction, to novels, to poetry. Factors in determining sales and popularity included the “style” of writing as well as novelty in plot and character (they do acknowledge that “luck” plays a role as well.)

The program accurately predicted success, or failure, of those works an astonishing 84% of the time.

So what factors seemed to indicate, in a more concrete way, what you should do to increase your odds of becoming a best-selling writer?

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Happy Birthday, PBS!

pbs

On Sunday, November 3, PBS turned forty-four years old. Wow.   That’s a lot of numbers.  I’d have to count with this vintage piece from Sesame Street a bunch of times to count THAT high!

PBS’s mission, from the beginning, has been to “inform and inspire the diversity reflected in the American audience.”  Astonishingly, even with the plethora of choices in broadcasting today, 90% of households watch PBS annually.

There are many reasons to continue to love and support your local PBS station.  Its news programming has “been named the most trustworthy institution among nationally known organizations, for ten consecutive years.”

How about Masterpiece Theater, which just celebrated its fortieth birthday and is enjoying wild success with its hit show Downton Abbey?  Here’s a preview of Season 4, which premieres on December 17, 2013…

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Should Everyone Go to College? New Studies Suggest the Answer is… Probably Not

hats_air

I was listening to The Diane Rehm Show on my commute to go teach my classes this morning. Diane’s guests were Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institue, Nina Marks of Collegiate Directions Inc, and Robert Lerman, professor of economics at American University.

I wasn’t surprised that the answer to the question, “Should everyone go to college?” seemed to be a qualified no. I have been a community college professor for more than a decade.  Please don’t misunderstand. I believe anyone who wants an education should  pursue one. But I also see many incredibly gifted students who have skills that they are actively discouraged from mastering because they are supposed to have a Bachelor’s degree.  I see young people who have no real interest or desire to stay in school another four years who are miserable and many who are racking up debt when they could be doing something they enjoy, avoiding debt, and making money.

The reasons many students embark on a college career is that society expects them to do so. High schools now are heavily invested in Advanced Placement classes; this push to be “college ready” actually begins in middle school, where Pre-AP classes are not the exception, but the rule. Gone, for the most part, are offerings that used to be alternatives in high school electives, like shop classes. One of Diane’s guests remarked that kids go to college because they have no idea what else to do. They know simply having a high school diploma is not enough so they enroll in community colleges or universities, with no clear idea why or what they truly want to do with their lives.

Of course, not being sure about one’s career path in their late teens or early 20s is not unusual, but some students never settle on a true choice and a fair percentage drop out by their junior year. Now they have little to show for their efforts (“some college” doesn’t say much to a potential employer) and most have debt to boot. Ironically, trades in this country, like welders, mechanics, and plumbers, are sorely lacking skilled people yet we continue to insist that everyone go to college.

So why do so many still go? Statistics like this are indeed compelling:

avg_ba

Well, because most kids haven’t taken statistics yet, they are blinded by that number at the end. But what they miss is that key, determining word… “AVERAGE.” Many of us, (and I have far more than a BA), earn FAR LESS.  Three factors, studies show, greatly affect on what end of that average you will be: school selectivity, college major, and graduation rate.

If you do decide to go to college, considering what to major in ought to be a part of your process. For me, I love literature and writing and I wholeheartedly pursued advanced degrees in those fields. But now… well, I do not regret for a minute what I learned BUT I do wish I had pursued something with higher earnings potential that would allow me more free time to indulge my passion rather than being dependent on it. Ya feel me?

So take a look at this, The Cold Hard Facts.

by_major

I wonder if it’s too late for me to become a plumber. I’ve got the perfect pair of pants…


That’ll Be a Gazillion Dollars, Plus Tax: The High Cost of Textbooks

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I remember the first time I had to buy books as an undergraduate.  I took my schedule and dutifully pulled book after book off the shelves for my courses and tried not to hyperventilate as I mentally tallied the increasing tab. Since I was a literature major, I was relatively lucky. My trade paper readings were typically between $20 and $40 dollars, but there were usually three or four required books per class. In addition to the required books, there was frequently a required “course packet,” a collection of copywritten essays the professor had had copied and bound. These course packets could vary widely in price, but I do not recall any being less than fifty dollars.  With a six course load, books fees were hundreds of dollars every single semester.

Yet, looking at the science major’s cart beside me, I knew I was getting off easy. Just one of their hefty, hardcover textbooks was $200 or more. We all stood in line and wondered just how long a person could survive on Ramen noodles…

Now, I graduated (static…crackling…mumbling) years ago. Okay… ten years ago…with my Master’s degree. Since then, there have been incredible technological advances: no one knew a “Nook” or a “Kindle” or an “iPad” could even be a thing in the world in 2003. If we had known such innovations were coming, I’m certain most of us would have guessed ebooks would have made textbooks and other materials far cheaper for students.

Nope.

Let me say that louder.

NOPE.

In fact, textbooks have gone up EIGHT HUNDRED AND TWELVE PERCENT since 1978!  Look!

textbook_prices

Ummm, what? And why?

Both The Atlantic and Slate have recently written about this issue. In Slate, Kevin Carey puts some of the blame on professors who order up their “wish list” of course materials for their classes with little regard to how necessary the book is to their class. (I cannot say that this has been my experience as a professor, but perhaps that is because I teach in a relatively low-income district. We are all hyper aware of how much our students have to shell out for required materials and make every effort to minimize those costs.)

Carey also identifies another reason for the elevation of textbook costs: bundling.  Publishers include things like software or handbooks that you may not want or need, either as a student or a professor, but you have no choice in the matter; you have to buy the bundle.

Still, the move to digital textbooks is increasing  and this astronomical rise in prices is likely a last-ditch effort for the textbook publishing mob…errr.. business…to collect all the money possible while they can.

I wonder what’s going to happen to the price of Ramen noodles in ten years?

 


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