The London Olympics — A Retrospective

August 29, 2012

What a show London threw for the world!

And that’s one thing London appears to do better than any other city in the world, unexcelled as they are in royal pageantry.

Every four years of our lives–barring world wars–, the world gathers for another Olympics. The Winter Olympics, since they disenfranchise the Southern hemisphere countries, can never be truly global. In today’s electronic world, it would be almost unthinkable for any nation to do a no-show for a Summer Olympics for its very place among the family of nations is at stake; not to show up would represent a worldwide black eye. Indeed, these Olympics can truthfully be said to represent the most-watched spectacle on earth. Hence the sheer amount of money and effort expended for bragging rights for specific events.

Each Olympics of our lives gifts us with a new set of heroes and heroines. The coin of the realm is medals, with Gold equating the laurel wreaths of ancient times. One moment, an athlete is unknown; only seconds later, the athlete’s name and image is transmitted on every computer screen in the world. One moment, an athlete may be facing a minimum wage future; only seconds later, endorsements worth millions! No wonder they cry, when they have to settle for fourth place, for not to earn at least a Bronze is to be saddled with an achievement that doesn’t even make a blip on the media screen.

Especially is this true in the U.S., where, sadly, the only medal that appears to count is Gold. On talk shows, Silver and Bronze winners rarely are even approached for interviews. This is, of course, a far cry from the Olympic ideal: To be honored for the effort represented by the achievement of edging out their competitors in their native countries–and thus earning the right to show up in the quadrennial Olympic parade of nations. Tragically, this U.S. led perception that only Gold counts has seeped into the global Zeitgeist and distorted it as well.

The Olympics creates its own royalty. In this respect, case in point is Ethiopia’s most famous runner. So idolized is she that in her home nation she has achieved such a level of idolatry that she is treated as though she were empress of that former monarchy.

The same is true with the so-called “fastest man on earth,” Usain Bolt of Jamaica. Yet even he had to re-earn this status, beating out an up-and-coming Jamaican who had defeated Bolt in Jamaican pre-trials, proving that past laurels are ephemeral at best: lasting only until someone else comes along who proves better, stronger, or faster.

Or if further proof of fame’s short shelf life were needed, we’d need look no further than Michael Phelps, the Superman of swimming. Even though his supremacy in prior Olympics had seemed absolute, he came into the London Olympics under a cloud of doubt, which early meets did little to dispel as in several cases he failed to medal at all. The big question had to do with whether archrival Ryan Lochte might supplant him. But then Phelps awoke, and the lion roared once again, and he finished his astounding Olympic career with 22 medals, 18 Gold, making him perhaps the greatest Olympian ever. At least for now. Next Olympics, in Rio, it will be someone else’s opportunity to shine and inevitably Phelps’ medals will lose their luster. As Robert Frost famously put it in his poem by the same name, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Prior to the Olympics, all around the world, in each nation, as Olympic tryouts took place, those who excelled became locally famous, high hopes held out for the best of them. This local fame crescendoed as each team was sent off to London. In some cases, this early fame proved to be justified; in the majority of cases, it would not, and that early fame wouldn’t even last long enough to accompany the athlete back home.

We couldn’t help but note this phenomenon in the case of our state’s Wunderkind, Missy Franklin, temporarily lauded nationally, lauded as well in Colorado. In her case, however, the hype proved to be justified for she went on to win five medals (five Gold and two World Records). More significantly than that, however, she emerged from the games as America’s new sweetheart, her infectious joie de vivre lighting up every room and venue she entered; and not coincidentally energizing every team meet she participated in. Just as significant, if not more so, had to do with her parents’ determination to value their daughter’s right to a normal growing up over the siren call of professional sports and the money it could shower upon her if she’d just renounce normal girlhood in favor of becoming a cog in professional sports’ straightjacketing and mass-produced squirrel cages, akin to the State-run sports programs operated by medal factories such as China and Russia, in which the athlete’s parents are provided few opportunities to interact with their children.

Nor should we forget the way the so-called “Flying Squirrel” Gabby Douglas, captured the adoration of every little girl in the United States.

A serendipity had to do with the sight of the world’s most iconic couple, William and Kate, reveling in the sights and sounds of the games like any other couples sitting in the stands.

These, of course, are but a few of this year’s crop of Olympians who capture–at least temporarily–hearts all around the world.

See you in Rio!

Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club — Charles Sheldon’s “In His Steps”

August 22, 2012

Somehow this summer has just galloped away from me! So much so that I forgot July’s Book of the Month, and all but forgot August’s as well. The mere fact that no one jogged my memory about the omission makes me wonder how many of our readers are seriously into reading our selections. So belatedly, here is September’s selection.

“For hereunto were ye called: because Christ also
suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye
should follow his steps.”
1 Peter 2:21

1897 Edition

In 1889, a young minister named Charles M. Sheldon founded the Central Congregational Church of Topeka, Kansas. Profoundly convicted that it was long past time for Christians everywhere to forsake their doctrinal warfare against each other and instead—really study Christ’s example while on this earth: in short, our Lord’s example of humble selfless service for others. The 1890’s produced a veritable explosion of interest in Christ’s Didoche (one is saved, not by doctrine or creed, but by loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, and unconditionally loving and serving one’s neighbor)—and, of course, by the Cross.

1899 Edition

Sheldon couldn’t help but notice that Story was about the only thing that caused his parishioners to be faithful in their attendance, so he began packaging his Social Gospel sermons in story serializations. Presto! Church attendance swelled. Each chapter would conclude with a fictional cliffhanger of sorts—so people naturally had to show up for the next installment. The core of the story had to do with the question, What would Jesus do? were He faced with the same circumstances and decisions the parishioners were.

As Sheldon read his story to his congregation, a religious weekly of Topeka published it serially, gathering the chapters together in a paper-bound book in 1897. Within two years In His Steps went through five editions. In 1899, ten different publishers, finding a flaw in Sheldon’s copyright, and disregarding the central premise of the book, What would Jesus do?, unleashed a veritable torrent of new editions, not paying its author a dime. It was then pirated overseas as well. But one good thing resulted from all this chicanery: it became one of the best-selling books of all time. 115 years later, it is still selling.

1900 Edition

If you have not yet read it, now is the time! Do let me know what you think of it.


Hart, James D., The Popular Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).
Mott, Frank Luther, Golden Multitudes (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947).

I Have Seen Tomorrow! Part Three

Part Three
August 15, 2012

So, building on the last two blogs, where do all these wondrous technological breakthroughs leave all of us lesser lights? Is it lights out for us?

It’s anything but.

It’s all shades of Chris Anderson’s landmark book, The Long Tail (Hyperion, 2006). If you haven’t yet read a copy, grab one, for it prophesies the tomorrow Terry Bolinger and I just experienced.

The era dominated by mega bestsellers, mega TV ratings, mega music, mega films, etc – is not gone, but it has more than peaked. In its place is the world of The Long Tail. Anderson famously predicted six years ago that the world-wide-web was accelerating the demise of dominant anything. In other words, think of a large animal [perhaps a rat] with a long tail, representing say 2% of its body height. When sales shrank to 2% in that ancent world, it was curtains for those books—not any more!

Let’s back up a bit so Anderson’s premise will make more sense. Up until around 20 years ago, most books, for instance, that were salable at all, could be found somewhere. Bookstores were much more eclectic then: bestsellers, recent good-sellers, classics, and other books that stood the test of time, stayed in print as long as they sold a steady number. But then in roared the mega-everything. Publishers developed the constancy of a rabbit, with no loyalty to anything. As long as a given book or author was selling through the roof, the chain stores would sell it—sell it at cheaper prices than the smaller stores could. The big chain stores gobbled up the bestsellers that had been the life-blood of the lesser chain stores and stand-alones. Even the Christian chain stores. They have all but put them out of business. Just look at how many have closed their doors.

Now comes the Long Tail world. Borders is reeling, and Barnes and Noble is much weaker than it was—and they have been the nation’s dominant booksellers!

We used to be ruled by a world where publishers marketed their books and promoted their authors. They stored their books in big warehouses, from which they shipped out inventory, then accepted all those books back that didn’t sell quickly. Then came the digital age and the decline of print. Now publishers went broke sitting on unsold inventory.

So a new template is rising: print by demand. Terry and I were shown that world: Let’s say I’m a teacher [which happens to have been my career], now I can bypass an academic publishing house and put together my own books, go to a given printer, send it the digital manuscript and illustrations (b/w and color will be same price), then notify printer – I need 300 books by such a date – or 200, or 100, or 50, or 25, or 15, or 5, – or one! Presto! Those books will be printed and mailed to you in such a short time that it will boggle your mind. Price will shock you as well. What makes all this possible? No inventory gathering dust in warehouses. No publisher marketing.

And the Long Tail? As long as a book sells at all, it can stay alive. It no longer has to sell through the roof. Just sell. The book world, like everything else, has exploded into untold millions of small pieces, making possible a Brave New World where anyone, anywhere, can survive—as long as they’re satisfied with a small margin of profit per item.

In parting, I asked our guide about the future of print. He said, “Nothing’s going to destroy print, but more and more of it will be read digitally. But not to worry: books have been around for several thousand years, print for 600. In the future, the educated elite will pride themselves on gathering around themselves the best in printed books.” In other words, those who care enough to surround themselves with the printed bullion of the centuries will be tomorrow’s truly rich people. And you don’t have to have a lot of money to accumulate that kind of inner wealth.

That, my friends, is the new world of the Long Tail.


I Have Seen Tomorrow! Part Two

Part Two
August 8, 2012

As we know, an epiphany is a life-changing day. Looking backwards through time, we can pick out certain days that, had they not have been, our lives would have taken a different trajectory than was true with them. I strongly suspect that our tour through the great printing plant may prove to be one of them.

Our illustrious guide honed our sense of anticipation by hyping in almost every room we toured the piéce de résistance that awaited us at the end: something—we weren’t told what—that would radically change the publishing world.

But early on, we were ushered through the world we knew. What shocked us was our guide’s off-hand dismissal of them as being already passé. Examples: “This machine [huge, filling most of a very large room] was state of the art back in 2000” . . . . “This machine [yes it was built in Germany like so many of the finest and fastest printing machines] came out in 2003. Dated now” . . . . “This machine came out in 2005—revolutionary for its time” . . . . “This made real waves back in 2008″ . . . . This machine—oh it’s so 2010!” [as if it were already a dinosaur]. “This is one of our newest ones—2011—still the best of its kind.” And then: 2012.

After being plied with question about why 2012 was so significant in the history of printing, our guide pointed out that for over half a millennium—ever since Gutenberg—,speed has been the constant goal. If the fastest press known to man could run off 100 sheets in an hour, one that could do 200 represented a notable breakthrough. So there came a long line of ever-faster machines, machines that made obsolete everything slower that came before.

He showed us the current workhorse of the establishment: one they used for print-runs for 20,000 – 30,000 books at a time. They are so expensive to purchase and operate that they lose money on book-runs of fewer than 20,000 copies. I had a sudden flashback: hearing editors say, “Unless your book sells a minimum of 20,000 copies, we’re not interested in keeping it in print.” “So could this machine be the reason?” I asked our guide. “Bingo!” was the response.

But back to the break-through machine. Our guide informed us that throughout printing history lithography (dot-based printing) has had a finite limit—sort of like the old sound-barrier (many prophesied that no one would ever be able to fly faster than sound); but, as we all know, that threshold has long since been passed, so that today no one knows whether or not there is a limit to aeronautical speed.

Seeing the bemused look on our faces, our guide smiled and said, “Here’s the problem that has faced modern engineers for so long that many maintained we’d reached our printing speed ceiling. As the press spits out printed sheets at faster and faster speeds, you reach a point where the ink blurs, blobs (loses its distinctiveness), and you’re forced to back off. But companies—even nations, especially printing giants such as Germany and Japan—have for years been in an engineering race to see which one might accomplish the impossible: break the printing speed barrier.

And then we walked into another room—and there it was!. To the deep chagrin of Germany and Japan, Hewlett Packard’s engineers came up with the break-through. So America can yet triumph technologically over the rest of the world. Our guide tried to explain how, in layman’s terms, the miracle works: a different sequence of print color applications—I must confess, as being one of the world’s most technologically deprived thinkers, that I only vaguely understand why this one works and all the others don’t. All I know is that it does. And TerryBolinger and I were able to reverently touch one of fewer than a dozen such machines in the world.

Now, they say, using this breakthrough technology, press-runs may now speed up so fast, thanks to nanotechnology, that there appears to be no upper limits—opening up the probability that sooner than one might think, authors will be told that the next big machine will print so fast that only the works of best-selling authors selling in seven, eight, or nine figures will qualify.

So, does this mean all hope is gone for all of us lesser-lights? Is there no hope for the continuing existence of slower-selling but continuing-to-sell books that never go out of vogue?

We’ll get into that next Wednesday.


Part One
August 1, 2012

Yes, it’s true! Six days ago, Terry Bolinger and I were privileged to experience tomorrow’s publishing world before it actually arrived. The venue was one of the oldest and largest publishing conglomerates in the world, and we were graciously given a two-hour VIP tour.

As we threaded our way through room after room of machinery, we experienced first a world I felt supremely comfortable in: the world of traditional print, that began during the decade of 1440 – 1450, with the German goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg leading the way with his 42-line Bible in 1456, 556 years ago. That Golden Age of Print reached its zenith during the century beginning in 1880 and ending in 1980 (roughly speaking). I am personally a product of its last half.

Occasionally, during my blogs and published writing, I have referred to the tides of life: periodically, both collectively and individually, we experience ebb-tides and incoming-tides. They are God-given because nothing in all creation is static, for change is constant. But both ebb-tides and incoming-tides dramatically alter our lives, for better or for worse.

Perhaps some of the most poignant and pertinent lines in all literature were penned by the American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson in “The Mill,” which contains in its muffled understated lines two work-related suicides:

“The miller’s wife had waited long,
The tea was cold, the fire was dead;
And there might yet be nothing wrong
In how he went and what he said:
‘There are no millers any more,’
Was all that she had heard him say;
And he had lingered at the door
So long that it seemed yesterday.”

The second stanza contains his suicide by hanging, and the third concludes with her drowning.

Back then, every self-respecting hamlet and town boasted a mill, where farmers brought the product of their land to be ground into food for themselves and their livestock. But suddenly, due to the pace of technological change, the miller realized with a shudder that since “There are no millers anymore,” his place in the world had been eradicated; the only career he knew was, without preamble or advance warning, no more. The mill itself, in which he and his ancestors from time immemorial had invested their life savings, was now all but worthless. Facing absolute financial ruin, he concluded that suicide offered the only viable alternative to starvation and bankruptcy; and she, facing a world which demeaned women and offered them terribly few career options, was so overwhelmed by the hopelessness of her situation, that she quietly slipped into the mill-pond, feeling it offered the least messy departure from life.

There is an equally powerful short story written by the English author John Galsworthy. Simply titled “Quality,” it tells the story of a London shoemaker who prides himself on making the best and longest lasting shoes and boots it was possible to make. His customers knew their footware would be custom-made to their own foot contours. Of course they took time to make for each was a one-of-a-kind work of art. But technological change made possible mass market footware at lower prices and instant availability. And Galsworthy’s protagonist ends up starving himself to death rather than compromise on the issue of quality. Whenever I have read this story out loud to my students, there has been absolute silence in the classroom, the ultimate tribute to a life-changing story.

So what Terry and I saw and experienced six days ago represents both an ebb-tide to a vanishing way of life and an incoming-tide whose long-range impact can only be guessed at. One reality is, however, inescapable: life as we know it, and have known it, will never be again.

* * *
We will pick up where I left off (beginning the publishing house tour) next Wednesday.