The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.
- U.S. District Judge Denise Cote, who will hear the Justice Department's e-book price fixing case against Apple, hinted at her initial leanings during a pretrial hearing: "I believe that the government will be able to show at trial direct evidence that Apple knowingly participated in and facilitated a conspiracy to raise prices of e-books, and that the circumstantial evidence in this case, including the terms of the agreements, will confirm that." Reuters adds: While she stressed that the view was not final and that she had read only some of the evidence so far, her comments could add to pressure on Apple to settle the lawsuit, in which the Justice Department accuses the company and five publishers of conspiring to fix e-book prices." The trial is set to begin June 3.
- One of those publishers accused of e-book price-fixing, Penguin, has now settled with consumers and the Attorneys General of 33 states for $75 million, after settling with the Justice Department last December.
- Poet Mary Karr speaks to the addiction and recovery website The Fix about the fallacy of the "tortured artist": "I think being tortured as a virtue is a kind of antiquated sense of what it is to be an artist." She also touches on her friendship with David Foster Wallace: "I think we kept each other alive to some extent, for a period of time when we were trying to quit using and it was all but impossible for each of us to do that."
- In reaction to the news that Amazon will begin selling fan fiction, Melville House's Dustin Kurtz writes some (mildly racy) fan fiction featuring Gossip Girl's Blair Waldorf and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos: " 'It's important you listen to me, Blair.' Jeff ran his hands over his gleaming scalp."
- Maria Semple — screenwriter, amphibian enthusiast and the author of the brilliant novel Where'd You Go, Bernadette — tells The New York Times about her reading habits. She said, "My favorite kind of book is a domestic drama that's grounded in reality yet slightly unhinged. So Jonathan Franzen is my big daddy." She also notes, wisely, that "I steer clear of any novel that gets billed as a 'meditation.' I've seen 'moving meditation,' 'elegiac meditation,' even 'angry meditation.' To me, this is code for: Run! There's no story!"
- Alberto Manguel writes about dreams for The New York Review of Books: "In literature, dreams often serve to bring the impossible into the fabric of everyday life, like mist through a crack in the wall."
- The silence surrounding the resignations of senior editors at the literary magazine and publisher Granta has finally been broken. Editor John Freeman, who recently announced his departure, told The Guardian that owner Sigrid Rausing "decided a while back she wanted to run the magazine and books on a very reduced staff," and that he "didn't want to be part of that change."
Miracle is the word that comes to Dan Sligh's mind after he and his wife Sally survived a plunge off a highway bridge in Washington State Thursday evening.
Sligh tells The Seattle Times that they were driving on Interstate 5 near Mount Vernon, Wash., around 7 p.m. local time when he saw a truck carrying a heavy load strike the southbound side of a bridge over the Skagit River. Moments later, a long chunk of the bridge began collapsed into the river.
"Forward momentum just carried us right over and ... we saw the water approaching," Sligh told the Times. "You just hold on as tight as you can. Then just a white flash and cold water."
Judging from photos taken at the scene, they fell at least a couple stories. The Slighs were in a pickup.
As we reported earlier Friday, authorities say no one was killed. At least two vehicles went into the river. Three people, including the Slighs, were rescued from the water and are said to be in stable condition at area hospitals.
NPR's Martin Kaste tells our Newscast Desk that the bridge's collapse will have a major impact on traffic in the area. "This is the principal artery between Vancouver, Canada, and Seattle," he says. The Washington State Department of Transportation says Insterstate-5 is closed between exits 227 and 230. There's a map showing an alternate route through the area posted here.
Martin adds that the bridge, which was built in 1955, was not on a "watch list" for spans considered to be dangerous or in need of immediate attention. But, according to the Times:
"The bridge is classified as a 'fracture critical' bridge by the National Bridge Inventory.
"That means one major structural [failure] can ruin the entire bridge, as compared with a bridge that has redundant features that allow one member to fail without destroying the entire structure."
That inventory also lists the bridge's type of construction as "functionally obsolete," which KING-TV in Seattle says means that "the design is outdated, such as having narrow shoulders."
The newspaper adds that "the bridge is used by an average of about 70,000 vehicles per day, 12 percent of which are trucks."
Denise Mauzerall arrived in Beijing this year at a time that was both horrifying and illuminating. The capital was facing some of its worst pollution in recent memory and Mauzerall, a Princeton environmental engineering professor, was passing through on her way to a university forum on the future of cities.
"I took the fast train from Beijing to Shanghai, and looking out the window for large sections of that trip you couldn't see more than 20 feet," Mauzerall recalled.
To Mauzerall, the lesson was both surprising and inescapable.
"This air pollution problem is on the scale of eastern China," she said. "It's definitely not just a Beijing problem. It's a national problem and it needs a national solution."
Earlier this week, state-run China Daily called most of China's major cities "barely suitable for living." Such unusually blunt language from the Chinese government's English-language mouthpiece is a sign of just how bad conditions have become.
'As Long As There Is Political Willingness..."
Tong Zhu, a top air pollution specialist who teaches at both Princeton and Beijing universities, says the solutions to the problem are no secret, and ultimately depend on political leadership.
"There is technology available," Zhu told me earlier this year over dinner at the Princeton-Fung Global Forum in Shanghai. "I think as long as there is political willingness, the environmental situation can be drastically improved."
This is may be the best news I've heard about air pollution since I first lived in China 16 years ago. The nation's air problem is profoundly depressing. There were times, even a dozen years back, when I would land at the airport in Beijing, only able to make out the runway 50 feet before we touched down.
Inevitably, I would wonder: Why am I coming back?
As air quality deteriorated, with the exception of the efforts led in part by Zhu during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I joined most Chinese in viewing air pollution as an insoluble problem, an inevitable result of the nation's relentless economic growth.
Although he knows it sounds incredible, Zhu says Beijing has actually done a lot to control pollution over the years. In the 1990s, officials pushed industry out of the city and replaced most coal-burning heating with natural gas.
"The newest fuel emission standards are even higher than some European cities," Zhu says.
The problem is that air doesn't respect borders. Neighboring Hebei province, which rings most of Beijing, is much poorer and less developed. It has lower fuel quality standards and has emphasized the sort of dirty factories Beijing exiled. As a result, when the winds are right, pollution from Hebei's factories, cars and coal-fired power plants can blow into Beijing and help choke the capital.
Since the Communist Party is an authoritarian regime, you might expect it could just force Hebei to change its economic model and clean up its act. In reality, China is highly decentralized politically and provinces often ignore policies from the center.
"We have the impression that the central government controls everything," says Zhu, "but the regional and local governments have a lot of say in how to develop their own economies."
Industrial provinces aren't the only vested interests standing in the way of solving China's air problem. The country's powerful state-owned oil companies have resisted pressure to produce cleaner-burning fuel for years.
"Improving the fuel quality in China is very tricky politically," says Vance Wagner, a senior researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation, an independent research organization.
Most of China still uses high sulfur fuel. That fuel damages catalytic converters, which reduce tail pipe emissions. To cut sulfur content, oil companies here must buy at least $800 million worth of environmental technology, according to Chinese state media.
Energy Companies' Role
When the government needed advice on fuel standards, it turned to experts from China's major state-owned oil company, Sinopec and Petrochina.
"You can imagine that Sinopec and PetroChina have a pretty clear conflict of interest in terms of how aggressively they want to push a new stringent fuel quality standard," says Wagner, who spent more than six years working in China on air pollution.
This is how China's authoritarian capitalism - sometimes praised for its efficiency - can end up in political gridlock. The government, which sets fuel prices, is cautious about raising them and worries about a popular backlash. The oil companies, though highly profitable, still want to keep expenses as low as they can.
Wagner says China's state-owned oil companies serve two masters: the government and shareholders.
"They should feel the responsibility as the entire Chinese government does to improve people's livelihoods and reduce air pollution," Wagner says. "But they also serve the market, and these are publicly-traded companies and so their responsibility is to produce fuel at the cheapest cost possible."
But January's dreadful air pollution led to a breakthrough of sorts.
Sinopec Chairman Fu Chengyu surprised people and took some responsibility for the problem and the government set a dramatically lower national fuel standard that matched those in Europe. Wagner says the new standard essentially removes all sulfur from the fuel and could reduce emissions from 90 to as much as 99 percent.
That's the good news. The bad news: The deadline for implementing that new standard is more than 4 1/2 years away and it isn't clear who will pay for all that clean technology.
In the meantime, vehicle emissions will continue to grow. This year, China's annual auto sales could - for the first time - pass the 20 million mark.