Thursday, February 27, 2014

Your Own Cone of Silence

In his reviews of equipment and software, Hiawatha Bray often reveals easily overlooked implications and issues. He never says outright, "Privacy is such a sweet, quaint and obsolete illusion" but raises questions. There is a reason I make it a point to only share good news that I would be happy to have seen by anyone. Bray says the popular-with-youth "Snapchat, a photo-sharing app... erases each picture after it is viewed. While computer forensics experts with special software might be able to retrieve the photos, for the average user, they are gone." Don't you think today's "special software" used by computer forensics experts, will be in the hands of "the average user" in the blink of a digital eye? Think before you hit "Send!"

Below is the text of the entire article. If you click here, you can see it on the Boston Globe website with a three-minute video of Mr. Bray sharing related information.

tech lab
When our messages vanish, privacy gets a better chance
Hiawatha Bray; Globe Staff; February 27, 2014
The text message from my sister in New York was innocent enough, but it was nobody else’s business. I won’t repeat it here. Indeed, I can’t; it vanished a minute after I read it.
Rosemary and I were using Telegram, an instant-messaging service conceived by a couple of Russians and based in Berlin. Telegram features a “secret chat” setting that automatically destroys your text messages, whether on your phone, or your friend’s.
Suddenly, people are rediscovering the value of privacy. You remember privacy, right? We were quite fond of it until the Internet came along. Then we started handing our personal data to anybody who promised us free e-mail service.
Log onto Google, and every keystroke and mouse click gets recorded and analyzed, in a bid to sell us stuff. Place a phone call and the time, the place, and the number you’re calling are likely being filed away inside a giant database at the National Security Agency.
At last, millions of us are having second thoughts and would like some of our privacy back.
Are these apps as secure as they claim? The developers certainly make all the right noises.
Telegram aims to meet this need with its vanishing chat feature, and it’s got lots of company. There’s also Confide, which only displays incoming texts when you touch the words on the screen, and Wickr, a cool app with a “Mission: Impossible” trick — your messages can self-destruct after 10 seconds.
Privacy lovers were alarmed last week when Facebook agreed to pay $19 billion for WhatsApp, an instant-messaging program with 465 million users. WhatsApp’s privacy policy is pretty good, and Facebook says it won’t make any changes, but many WhatsApp users were skeptical, and began looking elsewhere for security.
Facebook, which mines gold from the personal data of 1 billion users, is famously willing to change its privacy policies in search of a few more dollars. The company settled a complaint from the Federal Trade Commission that it deceived consumers about how their personal data was being shared.
So it’s no surprise that demand for ultra-private alternatives to WhatsApp is surging. On Monday, Telegram, which is free, said it had picked up 8 million new users in the days after Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp.
Telegram, along with similar apps like Wickr and Confide, may be tapping into a growing global distaste for the constant monitoring of our digital lives.
But are these apps as secure as they claim?
The developers certainly make all the right noises. Indeed, they are so confident of how bulletproof their systems are they dare hackers to break in. Telegram, for example, publishes an encrypted Telegram message every day and promises $200,000 to the first hacker to decode it. Wickr offers a $100,000 prize to successful hackers.
Still, no software can ever be considered absolutely secure. For instance, one hacker got $100,000 from Telegram for finding a serious software flaw (though he didn’t manage to decode the message).
There’s another problem with these privacy apps — getting your friends to use them. Despite the rising popularity of ultra-private messengers, still relatively few people rely on them. Also, the apps are not compatible with one another. A Telegram user can’t send a message to a Wickr user, and so on.
Still, any one of these apps could catch on with remarkable speed. Less than three years ago, two Stanford University students developed Snapchat, a photo-sharing app that erases each picture after it is viewed. While computer forensics experts with special software might be able to retrieve the photos, for the average user, they are gone. It sounded nuts at the time. But now, 77 percent of the nation’s college students use Snapchat at least once a day.
Snapchat proved that people are hungry for truly private digital communications, and the booming popularity of Telegram shows they want privacy for their text messages as well as photos.
Telegram has a super-secret mode in which the sender switches on a self-destruct timer that will delete the entire contents of a message after a fixed time — a week, a day, or in as little as 2 seconds.
Although Telegram can protect against government or corporate snoops, it’s not much help against your friends: a smartphone’s screenshot feature can make copies of Telegram messages, or you could use a different phone to shoot a photo of the screen. So this app is best used with people you fully trust.
A much simpler secret messenger, Confide, is designed to be screenshot-proof. A free app available only for Apple Inc. iOS devices, Confide delivers text messages that look like a declassified CIA file with the words blacked out — in this case, every word. To see a word, stroke the blacked out portion with your finger. Lift your finger and the word disappears.
This clumsy reading method prevents a recipient from taking a screenshot of the message. If he even tries, the sender is notified. And when a recipient closes the Confide message, it disappears forever.
Wickr, also free, offers a lot more features than Confide. You can transmit photos, videos, and audio as well as text; the Apple version can also exchange PDF documents. It links to services such as Dropbox, letting you easily forward files to a friend. It even has a feature that scours your phone’s flash memory to ensure that deleted files are really deleted.
A simple fingertip control lets you decide how long your message will survive: as long as five days, or have it self-destruct 15 seconds after it’s opened. And while you can use the phone’s screenshot function to capture incoming texts, Wickr makes it tough to copy photos, by using the same trick as Snapchat. You must touch an on-screen icon to display a picture, making it very difficult to activate the screenshot command at the same time.
But if it’s absolute privacy you are after, consider going back in time — to good old-fashioned snail mail delivered to an anonymous post office box. And if you must have technology, maybe you can take a page from Maxwell Smart from the old TV spy show “Get Smart” and demand your own Cone of Silence.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at

Monday, February 24, 2014

Brockton Symphony pays homage to Pauline Perkins

Today's Enterprise has a gallery of four photos from yesterday's "Paris, City of Love" concert, including one of yours truly presenting Pauline Perkins with a crystal plaque honoring her 17 years on the Brockton Symphony Orchestra's Board of Directors, along with many other avenues of service to the community. One thing you cannot tell from the photo - the plaque is not only beautiful - it is HEAVY! Congratulations to Pauline, and best wishes to you and Faelton in the next phase and the next community.
The concert was magnificent! We were treated to the world premiere of Maestro James M. Orent's arrangement of "Clair de Lune" along with Chausson's Symphony in B-flat major, an almost overwhelming feast of musicality, and other French gems. The audience got a laugh when Maestro Orent described Berlioz's "March to the Scaffold" as a "French Love Song," wherein you can hear the head bounce down steps after the guillotine falls.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Ugliness; Beauty; Evildoing; Good: My eyes never once glazed over!

InnocenceInnocence by Dean Koontz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What is ugliness? What is beauty? What is evildoing? What is the good? Eyes have glazed over thousands of hours of sermons addressing these questions. Dean Koontz wraps them in a compelling story that kept me whipping through the pages of Innocence, holding my breath at times in suspense. I was attracted to the New York City setting and a unique story line.
He pokes fun at our treasured self image and delusions: (from page 112) "The people of the city were proud of being tough... case-hardened negotiators, brutal competitors, sharp with fools, stripped of illusions by the realities of the streets... not softened by sentimentality... What I do know is that the city was a comfort machine designed to provide amenities and conveniences, and regardless of how flinty and indurate its people might have been...they retreated at once from Nature when she turned furious. They took refuge in warm cozy rooms replete with so many forms of entertainment that the wet and windy world beyond their walls could be forgotten for hours at a time."
I enjoyed this thoroughly. Something just, but higher than justice, prevails in this story. In spite of taking me through literal and spiritual sewers, Koontz left me smiling and feeling light and clean at the end of this wonderful book. I recommend it highly for anyone who is not too "flinty and indurate" to enjoy it.

View all my reviews

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Another Great American Novel (in my not so humble opinion)

My nomination, offered for 30 years to anyone who would listen, for recognition as a great American Novel is Ken Kesey's Sometimes A Great Notion. I read the article below with great American interest, and stand by my opinion that Kesey's saga qualifies by working on so many levels, conveying time and place vividly while injecting them with timeless human passions and struggles that transcend set and setting.
I always was a sucker for the "new consciousness," but Kesey's masterpiece does not seem at all a remnant of the 1960s but something grand and exultant rising from the chaos of men and nature and raging rivers.

The Dream of the Great American Novel’ by Lawrence Buell

Thousands of books are published every year in this country. Some endure; most don’t. But only a very few are ever considered for that wholly imaginary accolade, the Great American Novel. The moniker — coined by Henry James — is nearly unique in world literature, says Lawrence Buell, an American literature professor at Harvard. Only Australia shares our passion for proclaiming a greatest.
“Even though the great American novel idea has regularly been scoffed at by the professors of American literature and highbrow critics,” Buell said, he noticed how persistent the concept has been. In his new book, “The Dream of the Great American Novel,” Buell traces the history of the idea. “It clearly started out partly as an anxiety expression about cultural legitimization and differentiating our culture,” he said in a telephone interview.
“But I don’t think that’s the whole story.” For one thing, Buell said, the dream owes something to America’s size, as well as to “the historic sense of this country as a country of the future.” And yet, he argued, it’s important to recognize that the term is “a plural disguised as a singular” — the great American novel, like Whitman, contains multitudes — and that despite the cheerleading nickname, “the leading candidates for great American novel are anything but nationalistic, anything but uncritically patriotic.
The emphasis from the start has been a sharp critique” of how our national ideals exceed our grasp. Among the titles most frequently discussed as contenders for the label, Buell mentioned Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!,’’ and Morrison’s “Beloved,” as well as books that have fallen off the radar, such as John Dos Passos’s “USA” trilogy (which he said might be “ripe for a comeback”).
When asked about contemporary authors, Buell demurs. “The closer we get to today the less prophetic anyone’s judgment is going to be,” he said. “We see best what we see at a distance, and sometimes it takes a long time for that distant object to come into view. It took almost a century for ‘Moby-Dick’ to get into the monumental position that it still occupies.” Buell will read from his new book at 7 p.m. Thursday at Harvard Book Store.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Book Publishing - Alive and well in Massachusetts!

While awaiting delivery (it's snowing again) of our print copy of the Boston Globe I read this online. When the paper came I was delighted to discover that this is a FRONT PAGE article. Just last night, after being introduced as "Harry The Librarian" I was asked about the future of libraries in light of the "obvious" demise of print books. If I knew this were coming I would have just told him to wait a few hours. Instead I gave him my usual lecture about foolish people seduced by the novelty of the newest media who fail to notice that TV did not kill the radio, people still go to movie theaters, magazines are still published - we keep adding to the mix with new options and learning to use each of the old ones most appropriately. It warms my heart to see hard working book lovers succeed right here in Massachusetts - publishing hardcover books!
"Somerville publisher finds big success"
By Matthew Gilbert, Globe Staff, February 15, 2014
Looking out her bedroom window, 10-year-old Flora sees her neighbor accidentally vacuum up a squirrel.
“Holy bagumba!” she says, before rushing down to the backyard and giving the little guy CPR.
Next thing you know, the squirrel, whom Flora names Ulysses, is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and write poetry on Flora’s mother’s typewriter. He has been transformed into a world-class squirrel superhero.
The girl and her squirrel are the stars of the American Library Association’s 2014 Newbery Medal winner, “Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures,” a graphic novel for children written by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K.G. Campbell, and published by Candlewick Press in Somerville.
It is another victory for Candlewick, a children’s book publisher in the heart of Davis Square that is enjoying a string of critical and financial successes at a time when most publishing houses have fled Boston for New York. In addition to the Newbery won by “Flora & Ulysses” last month, the American Library Association also honored seven other Candlewick titles. Founded by British Walker Books in 1991, Candlewick is projecting revenues of $44 million in 2013 — twice the size they were in 2000.
Children’s books and young adult literature are a hot commodity in publishing, and Candlewick has ridden that wave of popularity. And winning the Newbery does not hurt, either.
“Every grandmother in America is going to be buying ‘Flora & Ulysses.’ The Newbery is like getting the brass ring, and it will keep a book alive and in print for a long, long time,” said Vicky Smith, the children’s and teen book editor at Kirkus Reviews.
The Candlewick journey began when Walker Books decided to bring more of its children’s books to the American market, where its “Where’s Wally” series had already become a hit named “Where’s Waldo.” In the early 1990s, the Boston area was still a major publishing alternative to New York, and Walker opened Candlewick in Cambridge outside of Porter Square with only a half-dozen employees and a very busy fax machine.
Candlewick began to acquire books of its own, and it reached a critical tipping point in 2000 with DiCamillo’s “Because of Winn-Dixie,” a 2001 Newbery Honor Book about a 10-year-old girl and her dog that became a 2005 movie.
In 2008, bursting at the seams, Candlewick moved to Davis Square. The large open space was designed to spiral around the office kitchen like a conch shell, a callback to the early days when employees were given free lunch to keep them in the office during Walker’s British business hours.
Even after the Newbery win, the employees at Candlewick’s airy headquarters remain quiet and focused. The staff — which numbers 96 — has been here before, dealing with the bump in sales and publicity that comes with prizes.
Last year, Candlewick’s “This Is Not My Hat,” by Jon Klassen, won the Caldecott Medal, and there are now more than 460,000 copies in print. The press’s other recent honors include a 2006 National Book Award for M.T. Anderson’s “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party” and a 2004 Newbery for DiCamillo’s “The Tale of Despereaux.”
Candlewick’s distance from New York is an essential part of its success, says Cambridge author M.T. Anderson, who, in addition to being a Candlewick author was also an editorial assistant there in the early 1990s. “By remaining anchored here, they’ve created a different identity than the New York publishers, who are owned by multinational conglomerates and more about glitz and celebrity books,” Anderson said in an interview.
Candlewick has avoided the bottom-line New York mindset, Anderson said, where the sales departments affect the editorial choices and where everyone wants to clone bestsellers.
Candlewick is privately held and independently owned, with the other Walker subsidiaries, which means, according to chief financial officer Hilary Berkman, “the group has employee owners, and it has a group of artists and illustrators who are also employees in this context and included in that ownership structure.”
It also means that the editorial department — even more than sales — drives the business. “We have a thin acquisitions process,” said John Mendelson, vice president of sales. “That means editors go out, find books they love, and share them in house, and then our job is to go out and make sure the reading public is aware of all the unique attributes of the books. It’s a flat organization in that way, and a very collaborative one. A lot of our peers have more layers. It’s harder to convey the message and passion of the book all the way down through an organization.”
Anderson has published with Viking and Simon & Schuster as well as Candlewick, and he says that Candlewick editors are free to acquire “eccentric projects” they are passionate about. “Then they talk with their marketing and publicity people and come up with a sense of how the book can be explained out in the world. They turn what is often a problem in publishing — something that’s unusual — into the very thing that sells it.”
According to Cathryn Mercier, director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College, Candlewick stands apart from other children’s book publishers. “They don’t just slap on a cover, they don’t just slap on end pages, they don’t just automatically have a funky design,’’ she said.
With a book such as “Flora & Ulysses,” she said, “Everything they do is about what serves the artistic vision of a particular book. . . . They care about the book as an object.”
DiCamillo said she is always surprised by the choices made by Chris Paul, Candlewick’s creative director, noting details such as the doughnut with a bite missing that’s embossed on the cover of “Flora & Ulysses.” For her 2006 book, “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” DiCamillo says, Paul “couldn’t find exactly the green she wanted for the end pages, so she had Edward Tulane green invented.” Anderson’s “Octavian Nothing” also features complex graphic elements: words crossed out by a quill pen, letters in various styles of handwriting, and maps.
According to Smith at Kirkus Reviews, Candlewick has forged a strong presence in a market that, thanks to the enormous popularity of young adult novels in recent years, has been growing.
Last year, she said, her publication reviewed 169 Candlewick titles, compared with 229 children’s titles by the much older and much larger HarperCollins. “Candlewick is relatively young, but they’re competing with publishers that have been around for over a century.”
However Candlewick is not just banking on prizes to support the business. It has been developing its e-book catalog since 2009, redesigning the books for the screen experience. The Candlewick e-book line now includes some 500 titles, forming “a small but meaningful part of our revenue,” Mendelson said. “When you look at 2013, though, the growth in print book sales for us far exceeded the growth in our e-book catalog, which is really telling.”
The future for Candlewick also includes a nonfiction line that will benefit from the Common Core initiative to establish consistent education standards for K-12 that has been adopted by most states. When Candlewick’s “Bat Loves the Night,” first published in 2001, was listed as one of the Common Core Exemplar Texts, it took off. “We struggled to keep it in print for a while, and now it’s one of our top sellers,” said Mendelson.
Before she was a celebrated Candlewick author, and the Library of Congress ambassador for young people’s literature, DiCamillo worked in a Midwest warehouse pulling books off shelves to fill orders. That was when she first understood that Candlewick Press was different from other kid-lit publishers.
“I got to the point,” she says about that period in the 1990s, “where at 50 paces, by just looking at the spine, I could tell if I was picking a Candlewick book.”
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Plotting and Derring-Do: I liked it a lot

The Prince of Risk: A NovelThe Prince of Risk: A Novel by Christopher Reich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Imagine if James Bond were impressive, heroic, but not such a superhero as to be hard to believe, a lady's man rather than a ladies' man. Imagine if the particular lady were almost more Bond-like than our hero, beautiful, smart and oh so tough. Imagine the complications of their relationship (they are exes - not a spoiler - it tells you so on the flyleaf) overshadowed by terrorist plotting and financial derring-do. Or by anti-terrorist derring-do and financial plotting... In the wrong hands this could be a soggy mess, but Reich is the master of this form. The farther in I got, the faster I was turning the pages. The ending is satisfying and the trip to get there is exhilarating. I liked it a lot.

View all my reviews

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Maxine Kumin at the Brockton Public Library

Rest in peace, Maxine Kumin. What an incredible woman and powerful poet. I had the pleasure and honor to interview her on September 15, 2007. People have asked, "Isn't it boring to work in a library?" Only people who haven't been to one in a few decades would think or say that!

Friends who have seen me recently, or have seen my "Retirement Pic" in Thomas Crane Library may agree that the video is a good "before picture" of Harry The Librarian.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Keller @ Large: Is This You? « CBS Boston

Keller @ Large: Is This You? « CBS Boston I heard Charles Keller this morning, before driving 150 miles to and from Brockton and Quincy, most of it on the Mass. Pike. Some of the cars were shamefully snow-covered. I had to share his comment, "They haven't quite absorbed the life lesson that actions have consequences..." Pathetic. If you click on the link you can read his comments and there is a player so you can hear them.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

I Return to Podbean for a new Brockton Symphony promo

I thought I was no longer able to take advantage of Podbean's free podcast hosting and the ability to install a player right in my blog. I am please that I am again able to do so. Below is the text of my promo for "Paris, City of Love."
With Valentine still in your heart, bring your love to “Paris, City of Love.” The Brockton Symphony Orchestra pays musical tribute to that romantic City on Sunday afternoon, February 23rd at the West Middle School. Hear Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival Overture” and “March to the Scaffold” from his Symphonie Fantastique. Delight to Debussy’s “Clair de lune” and “Nocturnes.” Savor Chausson’s Symphony Opus 20. The Jubilate Chorale opens with a Special Prelude Concert at 2:15, and later joins the Orchestra for Debussy’s “Nocturnes.” Adult tickets are Twenty dollars, seniors and students fifteen, children 12 and under free when accompanied by an adult. Order at, or call the Symphony at 508-588-3841. That’s 2:15, Sunday, February 23rd at the West Middle School, 271 West Street in Brockton. The Brockton Symphony – Beautiful Music in the City of Champions! Sponsored by Harbor One Bank.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Different Kind of Data Breach!

A friend just shared a video on Facebook, "Never Trust a Photo Copier." You can see it on Youtube. An investigator purchased four random used photocopiers at a warehouse, pulled the built in HARD DRIVES, and found medical records, social security numbers, highly personal documents, everything that had been copied on that machine. Yikes! My response: I am embarrassed that I never thought this through. The video says a 2008 study found 60% don't know copiers store digital images of scanned items. I'm betting it's 99%. I understood that a document was digitized during the copying process, and "held in memory" for as long as the requested number of copies were being printed, but assumed they would then be replaced by the next image. Perhaps that's because I'm old enough to remember when storage was so limited - the days of truly floppy "floppy disks." Today's hard drives hold a frightening amount of data.

A Wonderful Summary of Libraries' Key Role

Ms. Sheketoff is probably referring, in the article below, to the same speech I attended at the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago in June 2005. Then-Senator Obama autographed my copy of Dreams From My Father "To Harry The Library, Thanks for the great work." Let's hope he hasn't forgotten what he knew and "preached" then - that libraries continue to be a crucial keystone for the lifelong learning of an informed public. This is a wonderful summary of how libraries continue to fill that role. Thank you Emily Sheketoff!

Mr. President: Where Have Libraries Gone? Posted February 4, 2014 by Emily Sheketoff

It was my pleasure to be in the audience today for President Barack Obama’s speech about the ConnectED initiative at Buck Lodge Middle School In Maryland. I found myself thinking back to a speech I attended by then-Senator Barack Obama in 2005, where he credited libraries with helping him land his first job as a community organizer.
“More than a building that houses books and data, the library represents a window to a larger world, the place where we’ve always come to discover big ideas and profound concepts that help move the American story forward,” he said. “At the moment that we persuade a child, any child to cross that threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better.”
Ninety-four percent of parents agree libraries are important, so I was disappointed to find libraries conspicuously absent in President Obama’s vision of connecting our students to world-class learning.
The President opened his remarks with his commitment to significant investments in education. But he missed the mark in a few key ways. First, he failed to recognize the importance of an effective school library program. ConnectED must include professional development and support for school librarians, in addition to broadband access and devices, to ensure students have the digital literacy and research skills necessary to effectively use those devices.
At a broader level, U.S. school, public and higher-education libraries complete education and help jumpstart employment in every community in this country. Afterschool WiFi use in public libraries spikes at 3:01 p.m. when students bring their devices and homework assignments to one of more than 16,000 library locations. New digital learning labs in libraries are seed beds for people to create content, as well as consume it—demanding upload speeds that rival download. And videoconferencing shrinks distances and empowers uses that range from virtual field trips with NASA in Maine to distance education and professional development for high school principals in Oklahoma.
Sixty-two percent of libraries report they provide the only free access to computers and the internet in their communities—for rural areas, this percentage climbs to 70 percent. With one-third of Americans lacking home broadband access, libraries provide a digital lifeline that supports essential education, employment and e-government needs. From the Department of Labor to the Department of Health and Human Services, federal agencies have called on OneStops and Head Start programs to coordinate with their local libraries to achieve their missions.
When one must have digital access and skills to find a job, apply for unemployment benefits, or enroll in a health exchange, libraries are the one place for all.
Library needs for high-capacity broadband are clear: fewer than 10 percent of libraries have internet speeds of 100Mbps or higher, and one in five libraries has speeds of 1.5 Mbps or slower. One internet user participating in an interactive distance learning program can cripple access for dozens of other learners in the library. This is not acceptable.
If we’re serious about learning, then we must be serious about libraries. The original framers of the E-rate program understood this, and we hope the President will recognize and engage the power of libraries and librarians in connecting communities and achieving the vision for 21st century education and a globally competitive economy.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

True "Beauty"

Many of us share Beverly Beckham's concern, but I think she misses the point that there are many people who will see and respond to true "beauty." We owe it to ourselves to look for those authentic humans, and not worry so much about the people (and media) she describes when she says, "I have granddaughters...who don’t yet know that no matter how smart or funny they they excel at sports or science...looking great and staying young will count for more." The video linked in the article is thought-provoking and scary, but let's not forget that the media and advertisers have been, for some time now, targeting the insecurities of men too, with products to keep us young and attractive and in denial that the years are passing.

"After ‘liberation,’ women still trapped," by Beverly Beckham, FEBRUARY 2, 2014 [Boston Globe South]
For years, the nuns went overboard when it came to sins of the flesh. This is a fact boldly recreated in the hit film “Philomena” which, though heartbreaking, isn’t nearly as wrenching as the book. This peek back at the 1950s and its rigid rules can’t help but make you grateful for today.
And I am grateful for today, most days.
But last week I watched the Grammy Awards and saw Beyonce, a superstar who five years ago sang “At Last” for the president of the United States at his inaugural ball, an amazingly talented woman who brought down the house. But now she was barely clothed, straddling a chair, gyrating and moaning and singing about getting drunk and having sex.
Then on walked her husband, Jay Z, dressed in a black-spotted tuxedo, to perform with her. And they were singing “Drunk in Love.” But the lyrics were crude and there was no love in the song, no love in the dance, no love anywhere. And I wanted to scream and cry because I knew an 11-year-old was watching, and I love that 11-year-old and I don’t want her thinking that growing up means growing into this.
There’s a lot to lament about this country right now. A war without end. Shootings every day. One in seven of us on food stamps. Public schools that continue to fail. Homelessness. Hopelessness. But this is lamentable, too, this sad, pervasive dehumanization of women.
All the men on the Grammys performed in clothes that covered their bodies. The women performed in clothes that revealed theirs. Why? Is this because even these multitalented, successful, popular, top-of-their-game professionals value what they look like more than what they sound like and who they are?
I lived through the 1950s and the sexual oppression of the Philomena days, then the 1960s and 1970s, when the world changed. Women said, “We are not subservient. We are equal.” Women shunned beauty salons and makeup, insisting that men — that the world — look at them, not at their bodies. Adamant, strident, determined women burned their bras and let their hair down and declared we are not Donna Reed and we are not Barbie dolls.
And everything began to change. At home. In the workplace.
But now? After all this change, there has been no change. Now, more than half a century after women’s so-called liberation, women are more subservient than ever.
Sure, we work at the same jobs that the men do, but for less money. And we can have babies minus a husband anytime and nobody blinks. But we better look good while working these jobs and having those babies, we better stay young and toned and buffed and above all thin and sexy, because if we don’t, if we don’t look like all the young and toned and buffed and thin and sexy people we see on TV, we’ve failed.
Sixteen-year-olds get breast implants, and 60-year-olds get face lifts. And there’s Botox for all the years in between. This is life for girls and women today.
There’s a one-minute clip on youtube ( which shows a pretty little girl being bombarded with images of what pretty’s supposed to look like. It’s wrenching.
I have granddaughters, four beautiful girls who don’t yet know that no matter how smart or funny they are, no matter how caring they might be, no matter how they excel at sports or science or baking cookies, no matter if they grow up and find a cure for cancer, looking great and staying young will count for more.
But I know. And it kills me.
Reach Beverly Beckham at

Got Writer's Block?

The short piece below is fun and informative. Any of you struggling with ambitions to "be a writer" may enjoy this. I hadn't read too many sentences before thinking, "She should think of herself as a poet," and not worry so much about the perceived "form" of her work. Then I got to the Penultimate sentence. She says, "The only people I know who write like this are poets." The end of the second paragraph says "she stared writing at traffic lights..." I'm thinking they meant "started writing" but their version makes an interesting image.

"Story behind the book: Jenny Offill wrote her book one index card at a time" By Kate Tuttle, Globe correspondent, February 01, 2014
“Dept. of Speculation” isn’t the novel Jenny Offill set out to write. “I had written a novel that was more of a classic linear novel,” she said in a telephone interview, “and I worked on it and worked on it for years, and it always seemed like it wouldn’t catch fire. At a certain point I just scrapped it all, and I kept maybe 15 percent of it, and I wrote those parts out on note cards.”
The process came, in part, from sheer frustration. “I was Googling writer’s block,” said Offill, when she found an article about Mary Robison. “I had read somewhere that she had had writer’s block for ten years. I came across a thing that said that she stared writing at traffic lights in LA, almost to trick herself into getting these small pieces done and going again.”
Though the book retained its central focus on a marriage, it’s also studded with ideas – “little facts about evolutionary biology, stoic philosophy, astronauts,” Offill said — each on its own index card. “Eventually I felt like I was starting to have the right rhythms and juxtapositions,” she said, “to create this sort of fragmented narrative.”
The result is a novel less than 200 pages, a size of book all too often disparaged even when praised (“a minor masterpiece” is the phrase Offill laughingly cited). “I have a slightly contrarian streak as a writer, and one of the things I was interested in was how distilled could I make a life,” Offill said, “and how I could cross what is kind of trivilialized as a domestic novel with a novel of ideas, a philosophical novel.”
The product, a book Michael Cunningham called “as compact and mysterious as a neutron,” would seem to validate its unusual creation process, but Offill offered a friendly warning: “It’s sort of a terrible way to write a novel. I’m not advising it. The only people I know who write like this are poets.”
Offill will read from “Dept. of Speculation” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Brookline Booksmith.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at