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Spam is not always this amusing… August 4, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Language.
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For those of you old enough to be around before personal computers became a permanent fixture in everyday life, spam had a different meaning.

In 1937, the Hormel Foods Corporation introduced a meat product called “Spam”, which is still available today.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of spam is apparently an abbreviation of “spiced ham”.

As the Internet started to take hold of our lives, the word became a pariah in polite company, taking on the meaning of unwanted electronic messages sent to a large number of recipients at the same time.

This modern usage of the word “spam” is said to derive from a sketch from the British comedy Monty Pyton set in a café in which every item on the menu is spam.

In 1975, the Monty Python comedy team produced a movie called Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  If you’re interested, you can watch it here.  The movie further spawned a Broadway musical in 2005 called Spamalot, which claims to be “lovingly ripped off” from the movie.

Most of us are not amused when we receive spam, which often jams our mailbox and prevents us from getting to the genuine messages of importance, but I’ve recently received a message from one Pandit Vikram, who claims to be “in charge of Sovereign Wealth Funds” in Citibank.  You may recall that no so long ago, a gentleman by the name of Vikram Pandit was CEO of CitiGroup.

The fun doesn’t stop here.  Mr Vikram promises that he can arrange an interest-free grant to me of US$10.5 million, which “will stay on CitiBank Books for 36 months” and then written off.

Mr Vikram goes on to say that Sovereign Wealth Funds in his charge usually remain dormant for years “because some leaders of the United Kingdom who made the initial deposits intended to steal the funds after leaving office”.

Unfortunately, Mr Vikram says, these depositors “are either kicked out or killed in office”.  That’s why, he continues, the funds “go into dormant mode”.

And what does this privilege of an interest free grant (someone needs to prompt Mr Vikram to look up the word “grant” in the dictionary) cost me?  40% of the US$10.5 million, apparently.  This is how much of the “grant” I need to “set aside” for Mr Vikram.

What am I to do?  I need to send Mr Vikram all my personal details and a scanned copy of my “identity”.

If you’re interested in having your identity stolen for US$6.3 million (60% of $10.5 million, after setting aside 40% for Mr Vikram), please let me know and I will give you his personal email and telephone number.

Spam on…


The Brave New World of Books – a layman’s view April 9, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Books, Communication, Language, Literature, Marketing, Reading.
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I have always had an interest in books, but should have read more than I have.  My excuse?  That the books that matter are too bulky.  The arrival of e-books has totally destroyed this excuse.  My iPad now carries Oscar Wilde Complete Works Ultimate Collection (140+ works), Works of George Bernard Shaw (30+ works), James Joyce’s Ulysses, War and Peace, and The Works of Mark Twain (24 books in a single file).  It weighs exactly the same as it did without them.  Some of the books were even free to download.

The world of books has gone through wrenching change in the last few years.  Prognosis, diagnosis and predictions aside, we don’t quite know what it will look like when the dust settles.  Yet the new world already looks exciting to some, and frightening to others.

Despite the idiosyncrasies of some of the players in it, the world of books is not that different from other industries.  Some generate the product ideas (the authors), some manufacture the products (publishers and printers), some distribute them (booksellers) and others consume them (readers).  There are the usual intermediaries, such as literary agents and editors who work for publishers.

So what does the new world of books mean to all these players in the industry?


Many published and aspiring authors feel that they are the most oppressed people in the world.  They toil for years to develop their product (the book), only to get serial rejection letters from publishers and biting comments from editors.  With the increasing popularity of e-publishing, authors feel truly liberated.  They don’t have to ask publishers for permission, or beg editors not to change their work.  They can now choose to self-publish anything they want, provided they are prepared to put up with a lot of extra administrative work.

Yet like karaoke, which gives people who can’t sing the illusion that they can, e-publishing gives authors who can’t write or tell a story a similar illusion.  This blog post you are reading could be a case in point.  As the quantity of published material in the market goes up, the general quality comes down.

In other words, authors can now bypass publishers as gatekeepers of “quality”, but there are no more or less “good” authors.  It only means that the work of more bad authors gets out into the market.  Let’s face it, some authors who publish their own works electronically now may not be worthy of publication at all.

The Wall Street Journal reported that some authors also complain they earn less per e-book than they do the physical equivalent.  All we can hope is that a larger number of e-books sell to make up for this shortfall.


The manufacturers of books – the publishers – have never been short of raw materials.  They have always been inundated with more manuscripts than they can handle in several lifetimes.  Their trade is also fraught with sometimes substantial risks.  How many titles have they published which don’t even cover the cost of printing, not to mention the occasional advances and huge marketing and distribution costs?

E-publishing has cut the cost of production for publishers to the bare minimum, although physical production probably accounts for a small part of a publisher’s total cost.  A few printers will go out of business.  The cost of distribution has also come down, as there is no real physical handling of an e-book.  Besides, there are now more cost-effective channels for promotion, such as social networking.

The price of an e-book, however, is sometimes 20% cheaper than its paperback equivalent, and sometimes even more expensive.  As e-publishing guts a publisher’s business of costs, book pricing doesn’t seem to have fallen proportionally.  Publisher profitability should have gone up, and the business should be less risky.  Although publishers are also vulnerable to literary agencies selling rights direct to new-world retailers such as Amazon, as Wylie did last year, this doesn’t seem a widespread threat yet.

As purveyors of quality products the reading public wants to buy, publishers should feel secure in their jobs, as long as they continue to keep close to the taste of readers, insist on quality writing, embrace new media and don’t get too naïve about forking out huge advances for celebrity appeal.

Literary agents

Authors love to hate literary agents.  They need them to get to a decent publisher and a wide market, but simply getting to them is a five-year project itself.  With the right confluence of temperament, a literary agent will remain an author’s best friend.  This sometimes cantankerous and oddball breed will likely continue to thrive, and behave just as obnoxiously to the unfortunate writing low-life that dares cross its path.


By all accounts, booksellers seem to have hurt the most.  In an article in Fortune magazine dated June 21, 2010, Borders CEO Michael Edwards defends the raison d’être of bookstores: “If they continue to innovate in the services and experiences they offer…consumers will continue to make bookstores a vital part of their lives…The next chapter is up to them.”  For Borders, that next chapter was Chapter 11, in February, 2011.

My personal experience may be a curved mirror of reality, but it should nevertheless make booksellers stand up and take notice.  Browsing in bookstores is no longer a pastime.  The few physical books I have bought in the last year have either been bargain end-of-the-line titles, or ones I need to share with others.  A few months ago, I saw a title in an exhibition which appeared to be on sale, around 20% cheaper than in bookstores.  There and then, I looked online, found and downloaded an electronic copy at almost half the already reduced price at the exhibition.

Predictions about the demise of anything are usually correct in direction but wrong in timing.  Die-hard physical book lovers will be far bigger in number and slower to change their habits than futurists envisage.  Bookstores will die a slow, painful death.  A few may even survive.


For the already overloaded reading public, it’s now harder to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Who cares?  We have always made bad choices anyway, and can now do so at lower cost.  Nor do we need to find bigger bookshelves to house those unwanted and unread titles.  As a life-long reader, I find the immense convenience of e-books simply irresistible.  Similar sentiments may even drive up general readership, and give the book industry needed impetus for growth.

In conclusion

As a reader not in any way involved in the book industry, I am excited by the changes I have seen, but would like to see more.  I want more titles to be available electronically, and at the same time as the hard copy comes on to the market.  I want pricing to come down further.  I’d hate to get caught in the commercial maelstrom, though.

Grammar, leadership and clarity of thought April 26, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Communication, Language, Leadership.
Tags: , ,

It has been a harrowing few weeks, and finding time to write original material for the blog has been a challenge.  I tried to recycle material I had received from friends and associates, but that turned out to be quite inadequate as well.

Instead I spent the little time I had to re-read an article by an actor I admire, about a fascinating new product from a company I respect, in a magazine long established as one of the best in the world: Stephen Fry’s article in the April 12th 2010 edition of TIME magazine on the iPad: http://bit.ly/bY9ah5

Doing that opened the floodgates.  I noticed something in the article which I had missed altogether when I skimmed through it the first time – a grammatical mistake!

No, I said to myself, that can’t be true.  A grammatical mistake in a TIME magazine article by a world-renowned actor and author spotted by an ignoramus like me?  That’s not possible.

I rubbed my eyes, and read the offending sentence over and over again.  I concluded that it was a mistake.  Here’s the passage where the error occurs (page 29 of the written article and at this link on the web: http://bit.ly/aP7eWa), as Fry describes Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO:

“…I do believe Jobs to be a truly great figure, one of the small group of innovators who have changed the world. He exists somewhere between showman, perfectionist overseer, visionary, enthusiast and opportunist, and his insistence upon design, detail, finish, quality, ease of use and reliability are a huge part of Apple's success..

Job’s insistence on the variety of factors that account for Apple’s success is a singular noun, and therefore should be followed by “is” rather than “are”.  Had the first part of the sentence been written “The aspects of the product he insists on getting right – design, detail, finish, quality, ease of use and reliability…”, then it would have been appropriate to use “are”.

Let me be clear: finding a mistake in TIME magazine is a rare occurrence.  Its editors are human and therefore susceptible to the same chances of oversight as everyone else.  To err, after all, is human.

Which is not to argue that we should consider it acceptable, as many writers nowadays do, on the pretext that when the English language becomes more common as the medium of communication among people from different backgrounds, we should be more tolerant towards grammatical mistakes.

That’s codswallop, as it’s tantamount to saying that Pidgin English is good English.  Grammar is a set of rules by which sentences in a language are constructed and therefore understood.  To tolerate grammatical mistakes is to condone fuzzy thinking, which makes for bad leadership.

A simple grammatical mistake does not a bad leader make.  Perhaps, but an important skill of a good leader is the ability to communicate clearly.  How can a leader do so when grammatical mistakes clutter up speeches and proclamations, thereby creating confusion, ambiguity and suspense?  Besides, leaders are supposed to set examples.  If they tolerate sloppy use of language, woe betide their followers when they write and speak.

Recently I came across an excellent talk by Clive James, an Australian raconteur and author who has been living in the UK for some time.  In May 2006 the Australian magazine The Monthly carried an article he wrote on the English language, entitled “The Continuing Insult to the English Language”.  He explains further on his web site:

The piece …attracted a gratifying amount of attention, although I got the impression that I was preaching to the converted, whose numbers were dwindling. Even if that were so, I got the chance of preaching to a lot more of them when Jill Kitson of the ABC asked me to turn the text into a broadcast… 

The broadcast can be heard at this link: http://bit.ly/dhNym5

James continues:

That melancholy long withdrawing roar you hear in the background is generated by all the surviving members of my generation who were taught to parse a sentence. The text of the piece is filed under "Recent Essays" — two versions of the same doomed campaign. 

The text James refers to can be found at this link: http://bit.ly/bbicwT

I am one generation down from Clive James, but if he is right, I must be one of the endangered species of purists who insist on getting things right in language, as I am dead scared of fuzzy thinking.  I am happy to be so.