Amazon: “an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error”

From the Seattle PI blog, quoting Amazon spokesperson Drew Herdener:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles–in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

You can find the original here

You know, I’m not really happy with Amazon’s response, rather, their lack of response. This should have been put on the front page of the site. Moreover, even though I realize that the magnitude of the error was because of a human making the wrong SQL and metadata choices, I’m not really happy about the initial decision to exclude “adult” books from the Sales Ranks, and thus, from Search. A large number of the books they’ve chosen to hide this way are standard scholarly history texts, novels, and critical theory texts, as well as book that feature queer characters, or are by queer-identified authors, even if the books have no sex, or queer characters. They’ve also “hidden” books about sexuality that are standard college text books—not only Alex Comfort’s Joy of Sex, but the text books my father used to use in his classes at Keene State and UNH. My father the tenured faculty member, and ordained minister, by the way. Not porn.

My feeling is, if you don’t want people to find the item in your store, Don’t Carry It In Your Stock.

Richard Nash has written a thoughtful post here that I think makes a very very good point

The vigilance and outrage demonstrated on Twitter are necessary, not because the folks at Amazon are bad people, but because the books that were de-ranked were de-ranked because it is always the outsider whose books get de-ranked and “mainstream” society and the capitalist institutions that operate within it, whether my old company or Amazon, must self-police ruthlessly in order to guard against this kind of thing happening.

I’m removing all Amazon affiliate links from my site, starting now. I’ll be keeping the links to Powell’s, and to Books for Scholars.

Amazon Rankings Reek of Homophobia and Puritanism

On beginning April 10, 2009, sales rankings of hundreds of books Amazon considers to be gay and lesbian began disappearing. These are not porn, most aren’t even romance or erotica. These are all books that Amazon subject metadata identifies as having gay and/or lesbian interest. Mark Probst, author and publisher, broke the news here. He wrote to Amazon as a publisher, and received this response:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards,

Ashlyn D
Member Services Advantage

Here’s a screen shot of Amazon’s page for C. J. Cherryh’s Regenesis. Notice the sales rank circled in blue. Next to it is the screen shot of Amazon’s page for Nicola Griffith’s Always. Notice the circle where the sales rank should be?

I want to be very very clear here.

Amazon is not removing books from sales rankings because of graphic sex. They are removing them because they have gay and lesbian associations. There’s a list of books here, being built by volunteers, but I want to talk about a few specifics. For instance:

Adrich, Robert. Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History.
This is about as far as you can get from being titillating. It’s a dry accurate, historical document. Thorough, balanced, and well-done. Not even a little bit “adult.” A standard college supplementary text though.

Brown, Rita Mae. Rubyfruit Jungle.
This is part of the canon. It’s taught all the time. It’s even considered a YA classic.

Forster, E. M. Maurice.
Again, a classic novel, taught in History of the Novel classes, by a major British author. I’ve taught this book; half the time people don’t even realize Forster is obliquely referring to sex.

Griffith, Nicola. Always.
This is a detective novel, and a love story. There’s more sex in a Harlequin romance. This is just a really good book that happens to be by a dyke, and that happens to have lesbian characters, including the lead, Aud, who, by the way, don’t die all miserable and alone.

Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness.
This is one of my least favorite books of all time, but it is firmly part of the novel canon, and routinely taught in college lit classes. The raciest thing in the book is this bit: “And that night they were not divided.” I think this book is personally responsible for 90% of all the subsequent books where lesbians characters have to be killed off, and generally made to suffer. This is where the trope started.

Newman, Leslea. Author. Diana Souza. Illustrator. Diana Souza Illustrator. Heather Has Two Mommies..
This is a charming, award-winning children’s book about Heather, and the fact that she has two mommies. Unless you live in dreariest podunk, your public library problem has this book. Amazon sells thousands of this a year—they’ll sell you a copy right now, they just don’t want the neighbors to know. Or something.

Tin, Louis-Georges. Editor. Marek Redburn.Translator. The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience.
Again, a scholarly, academic and solid history. You’ll find this not only at most college libraries, but a most large public libraries; it’s a standard reference work.

You can still buy the books, of course. If you know what to look for.

Here’s why this is a problem. This is the book equivalent of putting the books “in the back.” They are much harder to find. For the average book browser, someone who doesn’t have a particular author or title in mind, these books are not going to show up in the first five or ten or twenty screens. They may not show at all. The default settings for search show books based on sales rankings; no rankings, no showing.

And now, here are some other books you can buy, all of which show their Amazon sales ranks:

Lawrence, D. H. Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Famed in pornography trials, now embedded in the canon. It’s a really really poorly written, sexually lame novel by a closet homosexual homophobe who pretty clearly doesn’t like women, and has never even heard of a clitoris, but still . . . the fact that this tripe isn’t banned, when Well of Loneliness is, and the styles are similar, says rather a lot.

Ellis, Brett Easton. American Psycho.
This is too disturbing to describe, frankly. It still has a sales ranking, and lots of samples. You go have nightmares.

Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds.
Yep. Still has a sales ranking. Fortunately you can get it gift-wrapped so those models don’t get cold.

But the fact that Joseph Nicolosi and Linda Ames Nicolosi’s A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. is still ranked when Heather Has Two Mommies isn’t, says it all.

There’s a certain irony that Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex is unranked, while the most violent movies imaginable are ranked. I’m fine with Amazon deciding not to sell anything they want. But they’re not hurting their sales, only that of authors who write these books, and they’re making it harder for readers to find the books we want to buy. Guess I’ll have to start shopping elsewhere; they’ve removed the single reason I shop online: the ease of finding what I want.

There’s a petition you can sign in protest here.

ETA:This post from Dear Author pretty much satisfies me regarding what happened; a poorly formulated sql query and subsequent database commands because somewhere someone at Amazon has some odd understandings about what “adult” means, and included “gay and lesbian,” among other tags, as books that should have their sales rank removed. No, I don’t think it’s a corporate agenda, or conspiracy. Note too that generally the “Category” data is provided by publishers.

Quondam et Futurus: An Arthurian Wiki

Carl S. Pyrdum of Got Medieval has created Quondam et Futurus, a new Arthurian Wiki. His invitation in part reads:

My goal for the site is to create an encyclopedia of Arthurian knowledge accessible enough for the lay, non-academic audience (fanboyspeople included) and detailed enough to be useful for academics, too, a place where you can read about Malory’s changes to the story of Pelleas and Ettard, as well as about that episode of the Transformers where they pull a Conneticut Yankee.

So, if you know anything about the Arthurian legends, please drop by the King Arthur Wiki. Trade me a few footnotes worth of your cognitive surplus. And if you want to become an official administrator, contact me offblog.

This is pretty cool; I’ll link to it at the Ning medievalists site.

The Perfect Corpse: Nova on Bog Bodies

Yes, it’s tonight, and no, I hadn’t heard about it before. But PBS’s science show Nova is airing a documentary on bog bodies, featuring Tollund man, described on the program’s web site as “the most famous bog body of all” (he isn’t). The Nova shows usually repeat so I expect there will be other opportunities.

Requiescat in pace

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא. אמן בעלמא די ברא כרעותה וימלך מלכותה, ויצמח פורקנה וקרב משיחה אמן. בחייכון וביומיכון ובחיי דכל בית ישראל, בעגלא ובזמן קריב. ואמרו אמן. יהא שמה רבא מברך לעלם ולעלמי עלמיא. יתברך וישתבח ויתפאר ויתרומם ויתנשא ויתהדר ויתעלה ויתהלל שמא דקדשא בריך הוא לעלא מן כל ברכתא ושירתא תשבחתא ונחמתא, דאמירן בעלמא ואמרו אמן. .יהא שלמא רבא מן שמיא, וחיים טובים עלינו ועל כל ישראל ואמרו אמן .עשה שלום במרומיו, הוא יעשה שלום עלינו, ועל כל ישראל ואמרו אמן

Requiescat in pace, et lux eterna dona est, domine.

James Luis Spangenberg August 11, 1919–August 22, 2005

I’m [less] Ashamed

Washington, DC, Dec. 10 (UPI) — The inaugural committee for U.S. President George Bush is looking to raise more than $40 million — a record price tag for the event.

Washington Times

And then here’s what we’re spending on immediate quake and tsunami relief.

WASHINGTON : Two days after being criticised for not doing enough to aid in the Asian tsunami disaster relief effort, US President George Bush has announced a major American contribution.

US$35 million will be made available immediately, with more to follow in the days and months ahead.

Channel News Asia

If President Bush had any class, or any true decency, he would minimize the inauguration expenses and redirect the funds, and additional charitable donations from those who would have attended, to emergency relief funds for South East Asia.

“Compassionate conservative”—that’s code for “selfish hypocrite,” right?

Update 12/31/2004: According to the BBC:

The US plans to boost to $350m the funds being made available to help survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami which claimed more than 124,000 lives.

It is a ten-fold increase on an initial pledge attacked by critics as meagre. It is also the largest pledge so far.

That’s more like it, especially if most of it is in real goods and money, and if it’s not just a loan, and if we actually do what we say, since we haven’t always been as good on delivering as promising.

Cantigas de Santa Maria

A few days ago Metafilter had an interesting link to this site about the Cantigas de Santa Maria. The Cantigas de Santa Maria represent one of the largest collections of solo songs from the middle ages. The manuscripts were written during the reign of King Alfonso X “El Sabio” (1221-1284), though probably not actually by him, all attributions aside. The Cantigas, 420 narrative and lyric poems in praise of the Virgin Mary, are preserved in four manscripts, all closely related, and include the music (with duration and timing information). The lyrics of the Cantigas are in Galician-Portuguese, the literary language of thirteenth century Castile. Two of the manuscripts are illuminated, with images closely related to the lyrics of the songs. The illustrations are not only charming works of art in their own right, they’re highly regarded by music historians for the information they provide about early music performance and instruments.
The Cantigas Database project, directed by Dr Stephen Parkinson, is assembling data about the cantigas, including possible sources of the texts, classifying and organizing them in terms of content and type, with plans to analyze the texts and their illustrations.

Somewhat surprisingly, I first learned of the Cantigas, not from one of the early music classes I took as an undergraduate, but from a passing reference in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. In II 2 of The Game of Kings the always allusive Lymond Crawford writes in a letter to Christian Stewart, delivered via the inadvertent services of Agnes Herries:

Rosa das rosas e Fror das frores
Dona das donas, Sennor das sennores

Those are lines from Cantiga 10; you can see the accompanying illumination here from Cantigas de Santa Maria: Spain, ca. 1280, Codex Ms. T. I. 1 (Cantigas [Canticles] de S. Maria). Done under Alfonso X. Madrid, El Escorial.

The iTunes music store has a couple of albums containing selections from the Cantigas, including one from the Unicorn Ensemble, featuring “Rosa das Rosa.” You can hear it here
The Cantigas de Santa Maria: V. Rosa das rosas
. In addition to the melodic tonalities we associate with Western European medieval music, you can also hear the influence of medieval Arabic classical music.