April 01, 2005

LiveSci: Animals Laugh

No Joke: Animals Laugh, Too

By Robert Roy Britt
LiveScience Senior Writer
31 March 2005

Life can be funny, and not just for humans.

Studies by various groups suggest monkeys, dogs and even rats love a good laugh. People, meanwhile, have been laughing since before they could talk.

"Indeed, neural circuits for laughter exist in very ancient regions of the brain, and ancestral forms of play and laughter existed in other animals eons before we humans came along with our 'ha-ha-has' and verbal repartee," says Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Bowling Green State University.

When chimps play and chase each other, they pant in a manner that is strikingly like human laughter, Panksepp writes in the April 1 issue of the journal Science. Dogs have a similar response.

Rats chirp while they play, again in a way that resembles our giggles. Panksepp found in a previous study that when rats are playfully tickled, they chirp and bond socially with their human tickler. And they seem to like it, seeking to be tickled more. Apparently joyful rats also preferred to hang out with other chirpers.

Laughter in humans starts young, another clue that it's a deep-seated brain function.

"Young children, whose semantic sense of humor is marginal, laugh and shriek abundantly in the midst of their other rough-and-tumble activities," Panksepp notes.

Importantly, various recent studies on the topic suggest that laughter in animals typically involves similar play chasing. Could be that verbal jokes tickle ancient, playful circuits in our brains.

More study is needed to figure out whether animals are really laughing. The results could explain why humans like to joke around. And Panksepp speculates it might even lead to the development of treatments for laughter's dark side: depression.

Meanwhile, there's the question of what's so darn funny in the animal world.

"Although no one has investigated the possibility of rat humor, if it exists, it is likely to be heavily laced with slapstick," Panksepp figures. "Even if adult rodents have no well-developed cognitive sense of humor, young rats have a marvelous sense of fun."

Science has traditionally deemed animals incapable of joy and woe.

Panksepp's response: "Although some still regard laughter as a uniquely human trait, honed in the Pleistocene, the joke?s on them."

[original article]

Posted by thinkum at 03:13 PM

WSJ: Harriet Klausner

A Novel Heroine
Meet Harriet Klausner, Amazon.com's most prolific reviewer.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005 12:01 a.m.

Harriet Klausner read four books yesterday. Frankly, this was no big whoop for Ms. Klausner. The only days she doesn't read four books are the days she reads five. Her peregrinations through the printed word are charted in the critiques she posts on Amazon.com--she's been voted its No. 1 reviewer--and other online book sites.

Reviewing on Amazon isn't a singular achievement. The site welcomes all those eager to tap into their inner Orville Prescott, often posting multiple reviews of a single book. All that's required is literacy, a point of view--and, of course, adherence to the Amazon's stern fiats about profanity, spiteful remarks, and injudicious blabbing about crucial plot points.

Still, in terms of productivity (8,649 reviews as of mid-March) and the ability to turn out what the site calls helpful information, Ms. Klausner is in a league of her own.

More than 53,000 Amazon visitors have given a thumbs up to commentary like "the fast-paced story line contains intriguing heroes battling with one another as much as with their common foes." That was Ms. Klausner on the thriller "No Man's Dog" by Jon A. Jackson. "Exhilarating British police procedural" was her word on "Flesh Wounds" by John Lawton. "Daniel's Veil" by R.H. Stavis, meanwhile, was deemed "a fascinating and enthralling paranormal tale."

It would be overstating things to suggest that Ms. Klausner, 53, has never met a book she didn't like. It would be more on the money to say she's of the "if you don't have anything nice to write, don't write anything at all" school of literary criticism. "If a book doesn't hold my interest by page 50 I'll stop reading, which is one of the reasons I give a lot of good ratings," says Ms. Klausner, whose voice suggests she's taken more than a few nips of helium. "And why review a book to give it a low rating or to tear it apart? Nothing in that."

But rest assured she can cut the motor on her enthusiasm when necessary. "I give Ralph McInerny, the author of the 'Father Dowling' mysteries, a low rating and tell why I can't stand the books," says Ms. Klausner, who's contributed reviews to Amazon since 2000. "It's basically the same story over and over."

She has the same "been there, read that" problem with Cassie Edwards, a scribe of Native American romances. "It's either a half-breed Indian male or a full-breed Indian male and a white virgin," sighs Ms. Klausner, running down the essential plot of titles like "Savage Joy," "Savage Devotion," "Savage innocence," "Savage Hope," "Savage Courage" and "Savage Torment." "She gets kidnapped, returns to white society, then comes back to Native American society to be with her lover, who ends up as her husband.

"Her books individually are good," adds Ms. Klausner. "If she wrote five of them they would be great, but if you write 75 or 80, which she's written . . . enough is enough.

"I have one basic criterion: A book should entertain me and take me away from the rest of the world."

A recent day's entertainment comprised "The Hidden Quest," a fantasy by New Zealand-born author Alma Alexander; a novel Ms. Klausner describes as "a Christian legal thriller" by Randy Alexander ("I forget the title, but the book was very good"); "Hitler's Peace," a thriller by Phillip Kerr about Germany trying to negotiate a peace in 1943, and a mystery by Nevada Barr. "I can't remember that title either. Just look it up on Amazon." Aha: "Hard Truth."

As may be clear by now, Ms. Klausner's taste runs to fantasy, chick-lit romance--particularly the paranormal and supernatural variety--horror and science fiction. Pet authors include Laurell K. Hamilton, Jan Burke, Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz and particularly Patricia Cornwell. "I need a lot of variety. There's never enough for me to read," says Ms. Klausner, who has zero truck with poetry, westerns ("You put on a cowboy hat, place the story in the wild west and you have a police procedural") or nonfiction ("unless it's a subject I'm really into. Otherwise it's too time-consuming.")

While Amazon declined to comment specifically on Ms. Klausner to avoid the appearance of showcasing one particular reviewer, others in publishing were less demure. "I'm sure there are people who go online and think, 'I wonder what Harriet has to say about this book,' " notes Knopf publicity director Nicholas Latimer. He sends Ms. Klausner every fiction title his house publishes "because I'd like her to weigh in. There are authors she covers that don't get covered by a lot of major review outlets because of space limitations. Harriet's their champion."

It's not that Ms. Klausner is immune to the charms--and plot turns--of marquee names like Ms. Roberts and Ms. Cornwell, but "you'll see that I often review lesser-known names. Some of those authors are just as good as John Grisham," she says. "It's just that they don't have a publicity machine behind them. That's the whole purpose of my doing this on Amazon. It's a way of bringing writers to the attention of audiences who wouldn't otherwise buy their books. That's the whole purpose of my doing this on Amazon," continues Ms. Klausner, whose sole remuneration is the thanks of newly enlightened readers (they sometimes send appreciative e-mails) and grateful authors (they sometimes send promotional bookmarks).

More tangible compensation comes from Ms. Klausner's book reviews for periodicals like Affaire de Coeur and I Love a Mystery, the online 'zine Baryon, and from her work as an advance reader for the Doubleday Book Club. "It's like magic when you find that gem of a great new author," says Ms. Klausner, who claims she saw gold in a then-unknown Tess Gerritsen, now a perennial on bestseller lists. "People say I have influence over book sales, but I don't see it. If I thought about it, I would get nervous."

The elder of two children, Ms. Klausner grew up in the Bronx. Her father worked for the publisher McGraw-Hill, a bonanza posting for a young bookworm. "I got a lot of free books. I was very lucky," says Ms. Klausner, who worked her way through series like Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames with dispatch.

A master's degree in library science seemed like nothing short of manifest destiny. Subsequent gigs in bookstores catering to fans of horror and science fiction, and stewardship of various library newsletters, were good prep work for Amazon, a connection Ms. Klausner made simply because "it seemed like a good idea. I need to review."

On more than one occasion, she says, publishers have approached her to push the envelope--to write a novel of her own. "I think it's sweet as can be that they ask. It's just not something I could do."

Daily, books come by the cartload to Ms. Klausner's Atlanta home, putting her at odds with the mailman, the UPS delivery guy and her husband, Stan, a business analyst for the Army. "He says we have to get rid of some," says Ms. Klausner, who stacks the overflow on the kitchen table and in a shed out back--and makes covert online purchases of new favorites like legal-thriller author Christine McGuire. "But don't tell my husband."

Friends encourage her to get a hobby, to develop some new interests. One pal recently gave her a combination VCR-DVD player with the directive to "go to a new venue." "It was a great present," says Ms. Klausner. "It's still in the box."

Ms. Kaufman covers arts and entertainment for The Wall Street Journal.

Copyright 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

[original article]

Posted by thinkum at 03:11 PM

Guardian: Children's Literature

Thursday March 31, 2005

The greatest stories ever told

JK Rowling and Jacqueline Wilson top the bestseller lists. Businessmen and teenagers alike devour Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, says Dina Rabinovitch - there is so much talent out there that this is a truly extraordinary era in children's literature

Even in a business that has seen Madonna, in top-to-toe Prada and perched on a swing, reading her tale The English Roses to mega-star-oblivious two-year-olds; even in a business where Jemma Kidd, superstar makeup artist, was hired by Harrods to highlight the features of tweenies in honour of children's author Meg Cabot; even taking into account the teddy-bear party hosted by Gordon and Sarah Brown at 11 Downing Street to launch a collection of children's stories - even among this crowd, mention of the party that the children's publishers Egmont organised for Michael Morpurgo can still cause strong businessmen to blanch.

Morpurgo is our children's laureate, and to mark the publication of his recent book The Sleeping Sword, the publishers threw a party that involved renting out the Scilly Island of Bryher. People arrived in helicopters, and the Duchy of Cornwall had to be placated. The original party budget was tripled and then some. But Egmont didn't even blink. That's because it, like other publishers of children's literature, has realised something of literary historical import, something that goes waybeyond the fact that grown-ups read Harry Potter on the tube. We are right in the thick of a golden age of children's literature.

What does it mean to call a specific period of literary endeavour "golden", without it being mere hype? What it doesn't necessarily mean is a golden age as accountants might understand the term (except in rare instances; Walker Books is popping champagne corks this week as it publishes 250,000 copies of Anthony Horowitz's latest Alex Rider story, Arkangel). Publishers mutter gloomily that while there are a huge number of children's books out there, there hasn't actually been a rise in the number of authors selling books. The market share for children's literature is stuck at 15%. What is happening is that a few (a very few) children's authors are selling loads; the names you know already - JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson, Philip Pullman.

Why, then, will publishers countenance huge spending on book launches when adult authors are lucky to get away with not paying for their own white wine in some fusty club? Why are celebrities falling over themselves to become children's authors - Madonna is already on her fourth title, while Paul McCartney's first tale of Wirral the Squirrel is being published this coming autumn. Why are even celebrated authors such as Jeanette Winterson (The King of Capri) or Elmore Leonard (A Coyote's in the House) also keen to get in on the act? Why is Horowitz, winner of the Bafta people's award for his adult detective TV series Foyle's War, best known for his teenage boy hero Rider?

Every once in a while - not at regular intervals, not even every century - one literary form comes to dominate. When that happens, all the other practising artists are pulled towards the dominant form. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England, drama became primary; in the 19th century, it was the novel. So strong were the writers in these fields that all other writing took on some of the qualities of the dominant genre; practitioners in other fields turned to playwriting, poets experimented with the novel. So in a decade in which Salman Rushdie has produced a children's book, the question is whether children's fiction is exercising that gravitational pull right now.

The answer has echoes in that previous time. What made Elizabethan England a golden age of literature? It was because there wasn't just Shakespeare - who raised standards higher than they'd been before - but the plethora of other brilliant playwrights (Marlowe, Middleton, and later Webster and Ford); authors who in any other age would be hogging the limelight all to themselves.

That is the situation in today's world of children's literature. Not just Rowling but several other names are at the top of their game: in no particular order, Lauren Child, Geraldine McCaughrean, Jerry Spinelli, Ann Brashares, Michael Morpurgo, Mark Haddon, Philip Ridley, Neil Gaiman, Joel Stewart, Eva Ibbotson, Michael Rosen. The talent out there is dazzling.

So how is it that these names aren't on the tip of every literary adult tongue? Where is the Granta photograph of the top 20 children's authors? Surely, in this instant information world, we pride ourselves on knowing what's happening? The books pages in the national press are sticking to their occasional round-ups of children's books; non-specialist TV and radio aren't interested either. "We are up against this kind of resistance," says Justin Somper, children's books publicist, "producers saying, 'It's a children's author, that won't be of interest to my audience.' I always know I have to compete with the latest Ian McEwan, which will definitely merit an interview."

It is a mark of these fertile times that the arts reviewing is lagging behind the news. I remember a Saturday lunch at our house some years back - 2000, I think - just us and one of England's top books editors with his wife. She, talking to my 11-year-old, mentioned that she had a review copy of the latest Harry Potter. Electric excitement around the table. The only person who looked bemused, and said, "Who? What?" was the editor. And this wasn't the first Harry Potter novel, it was the third. In children's books, it's been word of mouth that has spread the gospel. The arts media - so quick to name trends in adult literature - haven't spotted what is happening at knee height.

The major turning point in children's literature was the publication of Alice in Wonderland in November 1865. The crux was that Carroll made the child central to the story, rather than the adult. A rule was broken, a new law established, and a first golden age of children's literature was inaugurated, ending, critics generally agree, in the late 1920s with AA Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh.

Barry Cunningham, the founder/publisher of The Chicken House and the man who famously signed JK Rowling to Bloomsbury, knows exactly when he first realised that this was a new creative boom. "This is the real thing," he says. "I worked for Puffin in the 70s, which was also considered to be a time full of talent, but there is a much broader span of achievement now. The barriers have all exploded, so there is harsh, realistic fiction being written for children, and fantasy - like Cornelia Funke's - that transcends international borders."

And the first inkling Cunningham had of what's going on? "I had the shock of my life when I saw young executives with Harry [Potter] propped on their laptops. I know exactly when it was. I was in an airport lounge in the States, walking through to the plane, and instead of reading thrillers, guys were reading Harry."

One of the markers of the first golden age was that a book written for adults, The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, turned into a children's classic. This time around it's the opposite; books that are written for children but appropriated by adults. The classic example is Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which was being handed from adult to adult in children's publishing before most children had even seen it.

Cunningham says the statistics may show that market share of children's books has not increased, but he himself never looks at statistics. "My experience," he says, "is that we're selling to a much wider age group - an enormously expanded world reading children's fiction".

There is a catch though, for all those would-be children's authors. "Children's books," says Cunningham, "are being invaded by pseudo-children's books - books being produced with an eye to this burgeoning market." Writing children's fiction has to be done by those who've retained their childhood. "Otherwise," says Cunningham, "you're writing 'about' childhood."

Until the day we see the name Aaron "West Wing" Sorkin on the cover of a children's title, we cannot claim supremacy for children's fiction over that other monstrous reservoir of talent this early 21st century, American TV drama. But don't be surprised when it happens.

What's the story? Classics for every age

Age 0-5

Lauren Child 's picture books (I Will Not Ever, Never Eat a Tomato, What planet are you from, Clarice Bean, to name just two) are a mix of drawing and collage, with a style as vibrant as childhood. She is that rare talent: the words she writes are as good as the pictures she draws. Child is a perfectionist, and it shows: "I can't just hand my illustrations over [to publishers] and say, 'Whatever you do is fine.'" Her characters Charlie and Lola (from I Will Not Ever, Never Eat a Tomato) are about to debut on television.

Neil Gaiman (words) and Dave McKean (pictures) form the most distinctive partnership working in picture books (The Wolves in the Walls, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish). Scary stories, though no more so than your average fairy tale. Gaiman lives in America, McKean in Kent, and their collaboration is phone-based.

Joel Stewart cut his teeth illustrating others' stories; his version of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky brought new meaning to old words. Now he is writing and illustrating his own works, and Me and My Mammoth proves that his talent for telling is every bit as insightful as his line and ink drawings.

Age 7-12

Eva Ibbotson 's novel, Journey to the River Sea, is a childhood classic - one of those books that children mention as seminal to their childhood reading. Eighty years old this year, she is still writing, her work now coming from a different, darker source than the lightweight tales of witchcraft with which she made her name.

From the first sentence of a Michael Morpurgo book, you know you are in the hands of a natural storyteller. His latest, written during a period when he has been a very active children's laureate, is The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips.

Geraldine McCaughrean has just been chosen to write the sequel to Peter Pan. The only children's author to win the Whitbread Children's award three times, she remains surprisingly anonymous. Children happily stick with her books even though she takes a certain pleasure in using unfamiliar words. "I don't give any quarter on vocabulary," she says. "I reckon children are so close to acquiring their entire language, it won't stretch them enormously to work out what a few more mean."

Philip Ridley is, unusually, read as much by boys as by girls. He covers, via fantasy, the same territory as Jacqueline Wilson - depressive mothers, children who look after parents - but his writing is more sophisticated. He prides himself on getting dialogue sharp and distinct.

Age 12 +

Jerry Spinelli (Milkweed, Stargirl, Wringer) writes spare and beautiful stories about outsiders, and how they change the people around them. He creates profound emotions in his readers out of the most ordinary settings, as in the schoolyard, with Loser, and out of the most difficult backgrounds, such as the Holocaust, in Milkweed.

Jennifer Donnelly 's coming-of-age story about teenager Mattie, A Gathering Light, stands out as one of the best teen novels published. We are drawn into a drama of mysterious letters, a drowned hotel guest and much else.

Ann Brashares is on her third tale of the four girls who share a pair of trousers, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. Teen-lit material - love, parents, angst, clothes, friendship - but handled in a complex way. Brashares' theme is that clothing has the power to transform, and she has combined this quintessential teenage obsession with a bit of fairytale magic.

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

[original article]

Posted by thinkum at 03:00 PM

NYTimes: Segway Polo

April 1, 2005

Thwack! Whir!... Whir? Segway Polo Is Born


WHEN Alex Ko and his companions took up polo, they made some subtle changes to the sport once enjoyed by ancient Mongol warriors, who are said to have played with the severed heads of their enemies.

Mr. Ko and his friends opted for a 6-inch-diameter Nerf ball.

And instead of horses, they chose to ride Segways, the self-balancing transportation devices first developed as a short-distance alternative to the automobile.

"It's similar to real polo," Mr. Ko said, "but without the manure."

He was standing in the thick grass of Ponderosa Park, a shaggy patch of green in Sunnyvale, Calif., preparing to compete in a game that replaces the thundering of hooves with the whir of battery-run machines.

On the first and third Sunday of every month, Mr. Ko, 34, a mechanical engineer from nearby Santa Clara, organizes Segway polo matches with friends and colleagues, most of whom work in the Silicon Valley, all of whom belong to the Bay Area Segway Enthusiasts Group.

Their matches have some of the trappings of traditional polo. Players wear jerseys - actually, colored T-shirts - and use mallets to knock a ball into a goal. Score is kept. And there is an umpire, although players feel free to ignore his calls.

"There are a few guys who take it seriously, but mostly this is a big goof," said Jon Bauer, 37, of San Francisco.

This morning's contest pitted four against four. Mr. Bauer's team wore blue T-shirts. Mr. Ko's team wore yellow and included Stephen G. Wozniak, one of the founders of Apple Computer and the owner of seven Segways. He is respected, if not feared, on the polo field for his aggressive play.

"My swing feels off," Mr. Wozniak said just before the match began. He whirled his right arm in a windmill motion and said that he was operating on virtually no sleep, having stayed up at a party and then to watch a movie until 8:30 that morning.

The teams lined up on opposite sides of the field and rushed toward each other when the umpire rolled the ball between them.

At first glance, Segways could be mistaken for large push mowers, and in the early going, as the players found their rhythm on the grass, the game resembled a frenzied act of landscaping. But near the end of the first period, or chukker, in polo parlance, both teams showed signs of organization, even fleeting hints of skill.

"You should have seen us at some of the first games," Mr. Bauer said. "We were all bunched together. Not much passing. Very little strategy."

Like the birth of polo, placed variously in Persia or India more than 2,000 years ago, the genesis of Segway polo is hard to pin down. Mr. Ko traces his own interest in it to the fall of 2003, when a Segway polo demonstration was staged during halftime of a professional football game.

"I didn't see it," Mr. Ko said of the halftime show. "But it sounded pretty cool."

Jonathan van Clute, a real estate and stock investor from Sunnyvale, said he had stumbled onto the idea even earlier, while consulting at a software company. "I brought my Segway into the office so everyone could goof around with it," he said. "And this one guy pokes his head through the door and says, 'Dude, two words: Segway polo.' "

WHATEVER the case, in April of last year, Mr. Ko and Mr. van Clute met at Ponderosa Park and began to tinker with their version of the game. Mr. Ko fashioned a mallet out of plastic pipe. They tried different types of balls before settling on a Nerf. They adopted rules from polo, water polo and bicycle polo, another contemporary offshoot. They outlawed high-sticking, or the polo equivalent of it, and agreed to run their Segways on the yellow-key setting - one of three settings on a Segway - limiting the top speed to eight miles an hour.

"We've never had any serious accidents," Mr. Bauer said. "But there have been some pretty spectacular falls."

During the match, the prospect of injury seemed to heighten whenever Mr. Wozniak entered the fray. Despite sleep deprivation, he played with zeal, charging after loose balls, leaning forward on his Segway like a ski jumper searching for extra air.

Mr. Wozniak's opponents attributed his fearless play to his competitive gusto and his fleet of backup Segways, not unlike a traditional polo player's string of ponies.

"Woz is the only guy who's always cranking his Segway at top speed," Mr. Bauer said. "I think it has something to do with the fact that he's the least concerned with damaging his."

Most Bay Area Segway Enthusiast Group members own only one Segway, which sell for around $5,000. Although the stated mission of the group is to promote public acceptance of the machines, many members spend more time playing polo on them than proselytizing for them. Mr. Bauer, in fact, who lives in San Francisco, where Segways are prohibited on sidewalks, said that his was used only for the Sunday matches.

"I used to ride mine more, but part of me got tired of dealing with the negativity," Mr. Bauer said. "You can't use them on the sidewalk, and if you do, people are yelling at you. Or they're thinking of you as a yuppie, which in a sense you are."

This was not the dream of Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, when he rolled out the first model in 2001. Easy to ride and ecofriendly, the Segway was hailed as an innovation that would revolutionize the modern city.

Just how much has changed is perhaps evident in the transportation used by players to get to their polo matches. Most drive. Mr. Wozniak often shows up in his Hummer, hauling four Segways in the back.

If the Segway has yet to transform urban living, it has at least altered recreational sport, if only slightly. It is fitting that it has happened in the Silicon Valley, a region renowned for finding innovative uses for technology. Recently, Mr. Ko said, a group of Segway enthusiasts in Southern California has taken up Segway polo. But his hopes for an intrastate rivalry have not materialized.

"I don't think they're quite that organized down there yet," Mr. Ko said.

At Ponderosa Park, meantime, the match wore on. In the third chukker, Stuart Moore, 39, of San Jose, notched an impressive goal, moments before taking an impressive spill when his Segway bumped wheels with Mr. Wozniak's. Mr. Moore hurtled headlong onto the grass; his Segway rolled on poignantly, like a riderless horse.

The score was tied in the fourth and final chukker when Mr. Wozniak shot at goal and raised his arms in triumph. The umpire, Chris Knight, 16, of San Francisco, ruled that it went wide. But Mr. Wozniak and his teammates paid no heed, exchanging high-fives with their mallets. The goal stood.

Other things happened. A player's shin was bruised and another took a glancing blow to his helmet. The blue squad tried a last-ditch comeback. But as time expired, the score was 7 to 5, in favor of the yellow team. The players left the field, laughing and giddy. They were still full of energy, but their Segway batteries were running low.

[original article]

Posted by thinkum at 02:55 PM