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Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

posted Oct 20, 2013, 5:22 AM by Mr. Thomas Forrest

It's important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members' interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I'm going to tell you that libraries are important. I'm going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I'm going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I'm an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So I'm biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.

And I'm here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And it's that change, and that act of reading that I'm here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it's good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn't read. And certainly couldn't read for pleasure.

It's not one to one: you can't say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Read the rest here!


Texting in movie theaters: An idea whose time has come?

posted Oct 28, 2011, 2:39 AM by Mr. Thomas Forrest   [ updated Oct 15, 2012, 8:11 AM ]

When it comes to people texting in movie theaters, I’m not just a crank. I’m a vigilante. When a couple of young women sitting near me starting texting at a screening the other night, sending bright shafts of light from their phones into my eyeline, I growled, “Hey, cut it out or I’m gonna throw your phones away.”

My 13-year-old son has heard so many anti-texting sermons that when I was recently touting Clint Eastwood’s performance as a take-the-law-in-his-own-hands cop in “Dirty Harry,” hoping he’d want to watch the film, my kid immediately asked, “Does he shoot people for texting in movie theaters too?”

So I wasn’t exactly a disinterested observer when I read about a panel at last week’s CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas that was highlighted by a noisy debate over, yes, texting in movie theaters. Several prominent industry figures seemed to endorse the idea that, at a time when teenagers are going to the movies less and less, it might be time to relax our prohibitions against texting in theaters.

The Big PictureRegal Entertainment chief Amy Miles, who oversees the nation’s largest theater chain, said that while her company discourages cell phone use, executives had talked about being more flexible in auditoriums showing youth-oriented films. “You’re trying to figure out if there’s something you can offer in the theater that I would not find appealing but my 18-year-old son might,” she said.

IMAX Filmed Entertainment chief Greg Foster also seemed to endorse a relaxation of standards. He noted that his 17-year-old son “constantly has his phone with him,” adding that “we want [youths] to pay $12 to $14 to come into an auditorium and watch a movie. But they’ve become accustomed to controlling their existence.” A cell phone ban might make them “feel a little handcuffed.”

Tim League, head of the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse theater chain and a militant opponent of cell phone use in its theaters, did not take this lying down. League said movie theaters were a “sacred place” that should be free of distractions, saying that texting would be introduced in his theaters “over my dead body.”

The response in the blogosphere was equally blunt. Dripping with sarcasm, Jonah Gardner at Filmology said that when it came to allowing texting: “Why stop there? Encourage people to come to the movies to make important phone calls. Have them bring their laptops and do some work. Invite businesses to hold meetings during Saturday night screenings of ‘The Hunger Games.’”

Before I launched into a full-on anti-texting rant, I decided to hear what Miles and Foster had to say firsthand. I was in for a big surprise. Contending that their remarks had been misconstrued, they said, ahem, they weren’t really in favor of texting at all.

Miles was very clear. “Customer etiquette is a big deal with us,” she told me. “We strongly discourage any cell phone usage in our theaters. So we weren’t trying to convey to the world that we had a new policy on texting—we do not.”

Miles acknowledged that theater officials had discussed trying ways to create a more interactive environment in certain auditoriums, but both operational and piracy concerns had stopped the chain from pursuing any texting experiments. “Even if kids’ habits are different, we’re never going to bring that generational issue into our theaters.”

Foster was just as insistent. “There is no way we would ever allow texting at IMAX theaters. We are the last bastion of showmanship for filmmakers who make great works of art and we would never encourage anything that interferes with the audience being allowed to enjoy the immersiveness of that experience. Our patrons pay a premium ticket price and they expect a premium cinema experience.”

I wish I could say that these no-wiggle-room clarifications mark the end of the texting-in-theaters squabble. But it’s just the end of the beginning. When I did an informal survey of my adult movie-going friends, they were just as aggravated as myself, happily volunteering stories about how they’d snapped at younger patrons who were texting in the middle of a movie.

But history proves Americans almost never resist technological change. Robots replaced factory workers. Napster and file-sharing decimated the recording industry. Newspapers are now being delivered on e-readers. There’s no easy way to fight consumers’ desire for convenience and access to information.

As my colleague Richard Verrier reported recently, consumers are using app-equipped cellphones to find nearby theaters, share their moviegoing plans with friends, skip box-office lines and store trailers for future viewing. One service, Run Pee, even tells you the best time during a movie to take a bathroom break. Most exhibitors have encouraged these technological aids, figuring they could lead to more frequent moviegoing among tech-savvy customers.

But having tethered moviegoers even more tightly to their cell phones, will exhibitors really continue to draw the line when these same customers nestle into their seats and the lights go out? I doubt it. Having already adopted new policies allowing, for example, reserved seating and alcohol imbibing, it’s hard to imagine that exhibitors won’t try similar experiments allowing cell phone usage in certain auditoriums.

Maybe it won’t be the worst thing to happen to western civilization since baseball adopted the designated hitter rule. The veteran screenwriter Howard Rodman, who’s also vice president of the Writers Guild West, remembers sitting with his mother as a boy in a glass-enclosed section of a theater in Brooklyn known as the crying room. “It enabled us both to see movies we wouldn’t have otherwise seen, since she couldn’t afford a babysitter,” he recalls. On the other hand, he remembers being unnerved seeing “300” with his teenage son, surrounded by other teens texting throughout the film. “I’d like to hold back the tide,” he says. “But everything is changing about movies, including what it means to go to the movies.”

It might be intriguing if the kids were texting each other probing analyses of the cinematography or production design. But judging from the teens I know, that’s hardly the case; the texts are usually idle chatter, extensions of conversations that began at school or on the baseball field. And no matter how thoughtful the comments might possibly be, I’m still being blinded by the light of their phones.

I remain a purist. The whole idea of going to the movies is about leaving all your other baggage behind. It’s why we call it escapist entertainment. If you’re checking your text messages, you’re missing out on the feeling of awe and exhilaration you can only get in a darkened theater. Film is a communal experience. The only screen you should be watching is the big one in the front of the theater, not the tiny one in your lap. One screen might tell you where your pals are going to dinner. The other one can make you laugh, weep and shriek with delight. Which one should you really be paying attention to?

Freedom, Respect and High Expectations

posted Aug 27, 2011, 4:42 AM by Mr. Thomas Forrest   [ updated Aug 27, 2011, 4:47 AM ]


Imagine a group of high school students who can work independently, do intelligent research and collaborate effectively in person as well as on the Internet.

Students who are enrolled in journalism programs around the nation usually do fit that description — notably at Palo Alto High School in California, where more than 500 students out of a student body of 1,800 are electing to take journalism this fall.

What would attract lots of teenagers to an elective writing class?

The main attraction is freedom — freedom to write about issues of importance to them. The program honors their First Amendment rights. They all want to be independent and in charge of their own lives. Journalism classes give them that opportunity.

Students have a lot of choice of journalism classes at Palo Alto High: newspapernews magazinesports magazineWeb site and broadcast television.

In the largest of the advanced journalism classes, a 72-student staff publishes the student newspaper, The Campanile. At the beginning of every production cycle, the entire group brainstorms story ideas for all the sections of the paper: news, features, arts and entertainment, opinion and sports.

Brainstorming sessions can be very lively, and the process encourages students to be aware of the world around them so they can suggest interesting topics. I tell them that good story ideas are the key to an interesting paper.

Many of their ideas come from reading other publications daily online, like The New York Times or The New York Times Learning Network. Writing all their ideas on the board, even the nutty ones, encourages them to think and empowers them as contributors to the discussion.

They then filter out the outlandish ideas in their quest to make sure the publication maintains its ethics and is treated with respect by readers. I, as the teacher, rarely have to intervene. The collaborative process fosters the development of good judgment.

Equally important to freedom for journalism students is respect. Students, like adults, know when they are respected. Student journalists are treated with respect on a daily basis — as individuals, as collaborators, as researchers, as writers. The No. 1 way that I show them respect is by honoring their First Amendment rights.

Showing respect is an important behavior pattern that I emphasize when training the new editors in September of every year. I tell them that showing respect is the most important part of working with their peers. They cannot buy respect; they have to earn it by doing a good job.

Teenagers are in charge of teenagers — and it works.

I allow the six editors to run the class session every day, with coaching from me before and after class. Yes, teenagers are in charge of teenagers — and it works. Putting them in charge is an act of trust and respect on my part.

The typical class organization is a three-week cycle. The first week they generate story ideas and assign stories. The following week is spent writing stories, and the third week is for production. Each student has a role, and they work together as a team. There are editors, section editors, senior reporters, reporters, photographers, business managers, advertising managers, circulation managers.

This process teaches students about teamwork, collaboration, problem-solving and self-control – all skills that are in demand in the job market.

Respect entails trust, and in our program students share the responsibility for learning with the teacher. While the teacher comes up with the curriculum, students implement it and practice real-world skills.

The third pillar is high expectations. The adults in charge expect students to measure up to the high expectations that the program has established. This is not busy work, but rather a series of challenging assignments that have a beginning, middle and end — and a tangible, authentic work product at the end, something that others can and will read, listen to or see.

My standards are high, and my students rise to meet them.

I expect high-quality, well-researched stories, turned in on time. I expect them to read the articles I send to their e-mail accounts every night. I expect them to work together and learn to get along. My standards are high, and I find that students, like adults, rise to meet them. My students always have. And not just in my own estimation: for many years, they have been recognized for their excellence with awards from theColumbia Scholastic Press Association and the National Scholastic Press Association.

It is really not surprising that students are attracted to the Palo Alto High journalism program. People want to work for organizations that give them respect and freedom. Teenagers, too, gravitate to opportunities that make them feel good about themselves.

Freedom, respect and trust, and high expectations: these are the the ingredients of a thriving learning environment, and they are inherent in school journalism programs.


    Big Shoes at Apple, but Maybe Not Unfillable

    posted Aug 26, 2011, 11:21 AM by Mr. Thomas Forrest   [ updated Aug 26, 2011, 11:26 AM ]


    SAN FRANCISCO — Proposition 1: Steven P. Jobs is a visionary who ranks among the greatest American inventors. Proposition 2: Apple will keep churning out the hits under his successor, Timothy D. Cook.

    These two notions, one indisputably true and the other somewhere between a prediction and a hope, dominated the discussion of Apple the day after Mr. Jobs stepped down as its chief executive, saying he could no longer effectively run it.

    Even Silicon Valley, long accustomed to seeing outsize personalities run a company one moment and be gone the next, has never seen a transition quite like this.

    Apple tried to stress that it was business as usual. Mr. Cook, the new chief executive, sent a message to employees saying, “Apple is not going to change.”

    Not immediately, perhaps. Mr. Cook should have it relatively easy for the next couple of years, most commentators agreed. The company will keep putting out phones, tablets and computers that are faster, thinner and lighter than those that came before. As the former chief operating officer, Mr. Cook has plenty of experience in securing a supply of cutting-edge parts that will make this possible.

    But at a certain point, if Apple wants to retain or even extend its $350 billion stock market valuation, the Apple executives must channel Mr. Jobs and think up a new product — like the iPod, iPhone or iPad — that is in a different category altogether. They will have to see the future and make it real.

    Silicon Valley is founded on this notion, that kids in a garage can build something that will topple the existing order. Indeed, that is Apple’s own story. But it is much harder to take huge risks when you’re no longer in a garage but running a 50,000-employee company.

    Mr. Cook knows this. At Apple, he once said, “we take risks knowing that risk will sometimes result in failure, but without the possibility of failure there is no possibility of success.”

    Now he will have the chance — probably many chances — to take those risks. Many who watch Apple closely say they think he is up to the challenge.

    “I would lean toward an optimistic view,” said Michael Maccoby, a management consultant and author of the book “The Productive Narcissist: The Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership.” “Steve Jobs is a hard act to follow but not an impossible one. I see so many positive factors here. Apple has created a platform, a technology, patents, processes. It’s created the Apple stores. It’s created attitudes among customers.”

    Still, genius on the Jobs level is not exactly plentiful.

    “Steve could build something beautiful and take all of the fright out of it. What the early Macs did was say a computer is just a tool, anyone can use it,” said Jay Elliot, an early Apple executive.

    “He’s leaving Apple with a long-term vision that his successors will implement,” said Mr. Elliot, who has written a book on Mr. Jobs’s leadership style. “But in three or five years they’re going to have to find some other visionaries.”

    Investors seem not to be looking that far ahead. Apple’s stock, which slid in after-hours trading Wednesday when the news was first released, fell only modestly Thursday even as the overall market stumbled, closing down 0.7 percent, at $373.72. They may be drawing comfort from the fact that Mr. Jobs is still around as chairman. He was on the Apple campus Wednesday for a board meeting, according to a person with knowledge of his whereabouts.

    Mr. Cook, with his soft-spoken demeanor, is at an advantage because his personality is the opposite of Mr. Jobs’s, who was mercurial, said Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford. They would otherwise be compared, and Mr. Cook would inevitably be described as “Steve Light.”

    “It’s better to be different than a second-rate version of what the last person was,” Mr. Pfeffer said. He compared the situation to that of Southwest Airlines, whose colorful co-founder, Herbert D. Kelleher, eventually stepped down and was replaced by a more sedate executive, Gary C. Kelly.

    Apple, continuing its tradition of being close-mouthed, did not make Mr. Cook, 50, available for an interview. In a commencement address at Auburn University last year, Mr. Cook, who graduated from the school, described his decision to join Apple in 1998 as the most significant of his life and one that allowed him to engage in “truly meaningful work.”

    Joining Apple was not obvious at the time, he said, because of its precarious state, which made many people think it was on the road to bankruptcy.

    A chief executive whom he did not name told Mr. Cook that he’d be a fool to leave Compaq, where he was vice president of corporate materials. His ultimate decision was not an obvious one, he conceded, adding that engineers are taught to make decisions analytically and without emotion.

    But Mr. Cook, who speaks with remnants of a Southern drawl, said: “There are times in all of our lives when a reliance on gut or intuition just seems more appropriate — when a particular course of action just feels right.”

    Compaq, which seemed so solid to that friend issuing the warning, no longer exists. In 2002 it was bought by Hewlett-Packard — itself a troubled company these days. There are no sure things in technology for longer than about a month.

    Fortunately for Mr. Cook, Apple has a number of top executives in place who can help him carry on the Jobs legacy — as long as they stick around.

    “Steve was smart enough to surround himself with very strong talent to do things that he wasn’t as good at or to execute the vision he had,” said Shaw Wu, an analyst with Sterne Agee. “That team is intact. The challenge is to keep it in place.”

    Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of design, plays a critical role at the company in perfecting the look and feel of its products. British by birth, he joined Apple in 1996 and has led the team that designed the iPhone, iPad and iMac.

    “He is responsible for everything down to the look and feel,” Mr. Wu said. “Steve helped him sculpt it to the end product.”

    Philip W. Schiller, senior vice president of marketing, is another important executive who helped lift Apple from near bankruptcy in the late 1990s. Apple has turned its image and sales around during his 14-year tenure.

    One top Apple executive has already announced his departure. Ron Johnson, who has been in charge of Apple’s thriving retail stores, said in June that he would be leaving to join J. C. Penney as its chief executive.

    The spotlight for better or worse will be on Mr. Cook and his willingness to take a risk on what could be the company’s next big thing.

    “The path between the iPad and iPhone can carry them a long way,” said A.M. Sacconaghi Jr., an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Company. “But at the same time, you have to ask, is there something beyond the iPhone? Is it in the living room or a blend of the PC and the tablet? Do they have that next defining great product?”


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