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Monday, January 31, 2011

This post is a work of fiction. Any resemblance...

by John MacBeath Watkins

Spotted this on Matthew Yglesias's blog:

http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2011/01/strange-disclaimer/

I finished Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World earlier today. It’s the third volume in his enormously long Baroque Cycle, a work of historical fiction featuring such characters as William of Orange, Isaac Newton, the Duke of Marlborough, and King Louis XIV of France. I liked it so much that after reading several thousand pages of book proper I read through the acknowledgments and kept flipping all the way to a disclaimer page where I read (per usual):
This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

His objection, of course, is that  Stephenson spent page after page giving due credit to the historians who influenced his portrayal of such historical personages as Isaac Newton, who, unless the NASA hoax started a lot sooner than the nutcases out there think it did, was a real person.

Yglesias further objects:

What kind of society includes this boilerplate with ever book? The disclaimer comes, after all, right after several pages of acknowledgments in which Stephenson talks about which historians’ work influenced his portrayals of these historical events and historical characters. It is a work of fiction, but it’s clearly not the case that any resemblance between the “Isaac Newton” character and the actual person, Isaac Newton, is a coincidence. Why lie like that? It’s a heck of a world.

I think we should take this the other direction.  Instead of not using the disclaimer for a carefully researched historical novel, why not start using it for shoddy reporting and opinion pieces that rest for their credibility on a tissue of lies?

Could we at least have this disclaimer on next year's half-dozen books Glen Beck "writes?"  Wouldn't it be useful appended to the beginning of any political party's platform?

Give it some thought, there should be any number of documents that could use such a disclaimer.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The ideology of capitalism and the ideology of liberalism

by John MacBeath Watkins


I live in a sort of society generally referred to as liberal democracy, which features private property and democratically elected representative government.  It is based on a set of ideas known as classical liberalism.  That set of ideas is now challenged by a radical ideology that I will describe here.

John Locke is generally considered the father of liberalism.  His Two Treatises of Government was published in the late 1600s, well before the invention of capitalism.  His influence can be seen in the Declaration of Independence; whereas Locke maintained that we are born with property, in that we own our lives and cannot sell, or "alienate" them, the Declaration says that, among its self evident truths is "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."  Pretty much what Locke said.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert was writing at about the same time as Locke, and articulated the French version of mercantilism.  Most writers on economics between 1500 and 1750 were what we would now call mercantilists.

From Wikipedia:

The Austrian lawyer and scholar Philipp Wilhelm von Hornick, in his Austria Over All, If She Only Will of 1684, detailed a nine-point program of what he deemed effective national economy, which sums up the tenets of mercantilism comprehensively:[7]
  • That every inch of a country's soil be utilized for agriculture, mining or manufacturing.
  • That all raw materials found in a country be used in domestic manufacture, since finished goods have a higher value than raw materials.
  • That a large, working population be encouraged.
  • That all export of gold and silver be prohibited and all domestic money be kept in circulation.
  • That all imports of foreign goods be discouraged as much as possible.
  • That where certain imports are indispensable they be obtained at first hand, in exchange for other domestic goods instead of gold and silver.
  • That as much as possible, imports be confined to raw materials that can be finished [in the home country].
  • That opportunities be constantly sought for selling a country's surplus manufactures to foreigners, so far as necessary, for gold and silver.
  • That no importation be allowed if such goods are sufficiently and suitably supplied at home.

Mercantilism has, of course, never completely disappeared.  The above sounds very much like the current policies of China.  But as a dominant intellectual paradigm, the challenge to mercantilism began, coincidentally, at about the time of our nation's founding.

1776, in addition to being the date of the Declaration of Independence, was the year Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations was published.  Its impact was not immediate, and mercantilism continued to be the dominant paradigm for national policy.  The intellectual challenge to mercantilism of course preceded the shift to a free-trade paradigm.  For example, The Economist, a magazine devoted to the repeal of England's corn laws, was started in 1843, and the tariffs imposed by those laws were repealed in 1846.  The word "capitalism" was first used in its modern sense about 1850.

Students of history will recall that the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848.  About the time capitalism was becoming the dominant economic paradigm, its most important critique had arrived.

Capitalism was an economic system, not a system of governance, so the ideology of America and England continued to be liberalism.  Communism came as a full package, or at least the form of it that came to dominate a number of countries did.  While the countries that practiced capitalism were ideologically liberal, Marx defined capitalism as an ideology.  It is perhaps coincidental that at about the time the volumes of Capital were coming out that capitalism began to become an ideology.

An ideology is a set of ideas that gives one a comprehensive world view.  The founding fathers, if they thought much about economics, tended to be mercantilists.  The American System, championed by Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams and others, was distinctly mercantilist, including high tariffs which, in addition to encouraging domestic manufacture of things that would otherwise be imported, were to finance improvements such as roads and canals that would make possible the development of the untapped resources of North America.  They had no problem with public expenditures on projects like the Erie Canal, because there was no question in their minds that government could create useful goods that contributed to the well-being of the commonwealth.

The ideology of capitalism claims that the capitalists are the creators of wealth.  In the Gilded Age (a term invented by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in 1873) railroad and steel magnates, lumber barons and financiers possessed far greater wealth than the landowners and merchants who made up the bulk of the founding fathers.  The morality of such unprecedented concentrations of wealth required justification, and it came in the guise of science.

William Graham Sumner, a cousin of Charles Darwin, came up with a philosophy of "social biology," later referred to as social Darwinism, which claimed that social differences reflected different levels of "fitness" to survive, that in fact this was nature's cruel but necessary working out of who should get the rewards in life.

A biologist might have pointed out to him the classic observation that "the rich get richer and the poor get children," which means those who devote themselves to gathering wealth are less likely to pass on their genes than those who devote themselves to family, so natural selection seemed to be working the other way.  But not all intellectuals serve the function of discovering truth.  Many serve the function of justifying what those passing out the honors in society wish to see justified.  This seems to have been the difference between Darwin and his cousin.

Social Darwinism seemed to say that the rich should be rich, because, after all, they were the fittest.  Jay Gould, the railroad robber baron, hired strikebreakers in 1886, saying "I can hire 0ne-half of the working class to kill the other half."  Could such a cynical thought occur to a man who did not see himself as a better sort of creature?

Sumner, in his book What the Social Classes Owe Each Other,  argued that assistance to the poor harmed them, by weakening their ability to survive in society.  Therefore, not only did the rich deserve to be rich, their disinclination to help the poor was justified as well.

Gould made his infamous statement about the working class in the middle of the Long Depression, a period of slow growth and deflation that started with the panic of 1873 and ended in 1896.  The Long Depression did a great deal to delegitimize social Darwinism, because defining most people as "unfit" because they have failed to prosper in a desperately bad economy turns out not to be persuasive to most people.

The failure of laissez-faire capitalism to perform well, first in the Long Depression, later in the Great Depression, undermined the ideology of capitalism.  Its resurgence required an outside threat and a long period of prosperity.

The outside threat was again Communism, in the post-WWI world.  Americans defined themselves in contrasts to the Godless Communists: President Dwight Eisenhower allowed Billy Graham to convince him to get baptized and to get Congress to make "in God we trust" an official motto of the U.S. government.  At about the same time, God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.  In addition, while liberalism had assumed the existence of private property, the Cold War put this in stark contrast to the assumptions of Communism, making this distinction more important.

New Deal politics still had some life to it, but the coalition of the New Deal was broken up by the introduction of civil rights legislation by President Lyndon Johnson.  Johnson is supposed to have said that in passing that legislation, he had lost the South for the Democratic Party for a generation.  As it happens, he was wrong.  The realignment of the parties was rapid at first, as Southern Democrats defected to the Republican Party, but it was not until a black Democrat, Barak Obama, was elected president that the realignment was completed.  Two years after he was elected, most of the remaining Southern Democrats in Congress were defeated.

America now has a political party that is conservative from top to bottom, unlike the coalitions of an earlier age.  With that development has come a conservative ideology that combines social conservatism, religiosity, nativism,  nationalism, and a capitalist ideology that seems straight out of the Gilded Age.

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) has argued that child labor laws are unconstitutional.  Sen. Jon Kyle (R-AZ) has argued that unemployment insurance keeps people from looking for jobs "because people are being paid even though they're not working."

A couple years ago, then Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele  said, "Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created jobs."

The Founding Fathers would have found this a peculiar notion.  Article 1 section eight of the Constitution specifically authorizes Congress "to establish post offices and post roads."  It was well understood that building a post road enabled no only communication necessary for commerce, but commerce itself, since anyone could use the road.  Indeed, as mercantilists, they would have considered the role of the state in encouraging and regulating commerce essential to the development of the commonwealth.

Steele was articulating a view widely held on the right, and disseminated by such spokesmen for the conservative movement as Rush Limbaugh.  It reflects an ideology that is, in the end, opposed to most of academic economics and alien to the principles of the nation's founders.  Liberalism, the movement they were a part of, was about how we should be governed.  For Locke, property was a starting place for describing the proper way to organize society.  From the need to defend our property (which includes our lives) we get the need for the social contract.  The social contract makes society and government possible.  But the new ideology of capitalism seems to say that only property relationships outside of government are legitimate, which is a very different thing.

Consider this passage from the Second Treatise of Government:

Sec. 89. Where-ever therefore any number of men are so united into one society, as to quit every one his executive power of the law of nature, and to resign it to the public, there and there only is a political, or civil society. And this is done, where-ever any number of men, in the state of nature, enter into society to make one people, one body politic, under one supreme government; or else when any one joins himself to, and incorporates with any government already made: for hereby he authorizes the society, or which is all one, the legislative thereof, to make laws for him, as the public good of the society shall require; to the execution whereof, his own assistance (as to his own decrees) is due. And this puts men out of a state of nature into that of a common-wealth, by setting up a judge on earth, with authority to determine all the controversies, and redress the injuries that may happen to any member of the commonwealth; which judge is the legislative, or magistrates appointed by it. And where-ever there are any number of men, however associated, that have no such decisive power to appeal to, there they are still in the state of nature.

I suspect this notion of a commonwealth would be considered suspect by  the advocates of the ideology of capitalism.  They prefer the vision of the state of nature, and the survival of the fittest, defined by the state of one's bank balance.  Locke's writing, tremendously influential for men such as Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, said that in forming a social contract we become something larger.  Thus, the motto that still appears on our quarters and on the Great Seal of the United States, E pluribus unum, "out of many, one."

The newer ideology of capitalism is skeptical of this old-fashioned notion, preferring a more individualist approach.  How this will changed liberal democracy, the form of society in which we live, remains to be seen.  It has certainly become distinctly different from the classical liberalism from which is has developed.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dumb criminals? The correlation with IQ

by John MacBeath Watkins

As a merchant, I have over the years formed the opinion that shoplifters as a class are dumb people trying to feel clever.  Not dumb in the strict sense of low IQ, but in the sense of not being able to accomplish much that they can be proud of.  Now, via the Marginal Revolution blog, we learn that there is, in fact, a link between low IQ and criminality.

Kevin Beaver and John Paul Wright, of Florida University and University of Cincinnati respectively, provide this abstract of their work:

"An impressive body of research has revealed that individual-level IQ scores are negatively associated with criminal and delinquent involvement. Recently, this line of research has been extended to show that state-level IQ scores are associated with state-level crime rates. The current study uses this literature as a springboard to examine the potential association between county-level IQ and county-level crime rates. Analysis of data drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health revealed statistically significant and negative associations between county-level IQ and the property crime rate, the burglary rate, the larceny rate, the motor vehicle theft rate, the violent crime rate, the robbery rate, and the aggravated assault rate. Additional analyses revealed that these associations were not confounded by a measure of concentrated disadvantage that captures the effects of race, poverty, and other social disadvantages of the county. We discuss the implications of the results and note the limitations of the study."

Now, I find it interesting that state-level IQ rates and crime rates could differ as much as they do.  It could be that the link is poor nutrition in childhood or some other extraneous factor, but the other thing that occurs to me is that education differs from state to state, and to some extent any IQ test is an achievement test.  Stable homes, good schools and a culture that values learning are all factors that contribute to student achievement.

Or, if you are fond of the old post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, you could argue that proximity to Canada is the key.  The map below shows average IQ in various states, the brightest states showing the brightest colors. (By the way, there was a notorious hoax about the relative IQ of states that voted for Bush back in 2004. For a comparison between the real numbers and the hoax number, look here, it's the site I got this map from.):






Now, I can tell you that in my first 12 years of school, I went to 12 different schools.  Three of them were in Maine, and I'm quite certain that the Maine school system was the best I attended.  I went from that system to a middle school in Salem, Ore., where I was amazed that anybody learned anything, since the teachers seemed barely in control of the classrooms.  My niece, who is currently doing a practicum in Salem, tells me that the school I attended there is still considered one of the toughest assignments in the state.

But Oregon's schools are above average.  The average states are in blue.  One of the things I notice about the below average states, which are in purple and black, is that many of them are heavy in immigrants.  People taking an IQ test in English when that is not their native language will score lower than native speakers of the same intelligence.  In the early days of the Stanford-Binet IQ test, immigrant Eastern European Jews did badly on the test.  The same people, tested first as freshmen and tested again a couple years into their college careers, scored much higher the second time.  They had improved their English.  Now, we have people looking for genetic explanations for the high intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews.

But the issue of immigrants and crime is a confused one.  Most of the available data is flawed, and the most comprehensive study I've found, by the Center for Immigration Studies, concludes that it's impossible to tell whether immigrants have a higher crime rate.  Another possible correlation to IQ scores by state is spending on education.  In this map, the darkest spend the most:





And here we have a map showing the crime rate by state, with the worst, appropriately, being darker:





Again, a less than perfect correlation, but a correlation.

One possible link is wealth.  Better education leads to better wealth creation.  So how is wealth distributed?




The grey states are the wealthiest, then pink, then light blue, then dark blue, then green, then red.  California is fairly wealthy, yet North Dakota has lower crime and higher IQ.  Maybe the link is to wealth distribution?


This correlation is not too bad.  If we go back to my original theory, that thieves are dumb people trying to feel clever, wouldn't they have greater self-esteem issues in areas with greater wealth disparities?  Texas and New York rank average in IQ but above average on the GINI coefficient and the crime rate.  Notice also that while California and Florida are in the same range for wealth distribution and California is actually lower in average IQ, Florida is poorer.  A richer state permits more scope for people to achieve with a given set of tools.



And what about illegal immigrants, the target of so much rhetoric?






This certainly doesn't explain why Florida has a higher crime rate than California, or why South Carolina has a higher crime rate than North Carolina.  It doesn't explain the crime rate in Louisiana, or why Mississippi has a lower crime rate than Louisiana.  Alaska, despite being a wealthy state with few immigrants and little disparity in wealth has a moderately high crime rate.  It does have a less than average IQ level, and spends less than average per pupil on education (I know, it's missing from my map, but its expenditures per pupil are right between Florida and Washington.)

None of these factors correlate perfectly, and in some ways it's hard to tell which way the causation runs, but it looks to me like better education means better wealth creation and a lower crime rate.  If the wealthy can see this is the case, they might be more willing to help pay for education of the children of the less wealthy.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Publishing in the twilight of the printed word, cont'd

by John MacBeath Watkins

On Jan. 23, 2011, 241 people read "The Role-Playing Game," a poem I had written, on Scribd, a service which chose to feature it.

So, I thought, maybe it's not too bad a bit of writing.  A friend of mine has an open mic at her bookstore, Inner Chapters, maybe I should read some of my stuff there.

I find, however, that it is difficult for me to get up in front of a group and read.  And of course, almost no writers get paid to read.  Few enough get paid for works that are published in dead-tree form, so what happens when their work is available in electronic form?  Will it be subject to the sort of piracy that has taken so much of the money out of the music industry?  And if so, how do authors get paid?


Well, there's your problem.  Musicians who cannot make money anymore on recorded music can at least make money on performances. There was a time, a  century ago and more, when musicians always relied upon live performances for their income, and that time has come again.

But what is the fate of the writer?  Few have made much money on stage performances -- well, Twain did, and Vonnegut.  I'm sure some writers of business books have made a beautiful dollar that way. But for most authors, their income has come from the sale of a physical object, and to pirate it was a bit of a task -- one which much of the American publishing industry engaged in during the 19th century, but not something the individual could do just by wiggling their fingers over the keyboard for a couple of minutes.


As a bookseller, I've had people telling me for 15 years that e-books would put me out of business, but you know why that hasn't happened so far?  Publishers are aware of what has happened in the world of recorded music, and have no wish to follow that path.  Only now are they getting comfortable with the notion of the e-book, long after music in electronic form took off.

Writers, as emotional a breed as they may be, are not entirely irrational. Cyber-libertarians may say, "information wants to be free," but writers say, "we want to be paid!"

And how can they be paid? Musicians have relied on live performances for most of the millenia music has existed, but writing is a newer art, and has always been sold as an object.  The scroll, the book, however it has been packaged, the intellectual property of the written word has always been a tangible object to be possessed.  The Lollards, one of whom, according to Foxes' Book of Martyrs, traded a cart-load of hay for a few chapters of Paul's Epistles, knew what they were getting -- written words on paper, copied by a clever clarke. To copy the entire Bible was the work of ten months for an educated clarke. The Lollards sought pages of John Wycliffe's translation of the Vulgate Bible, and took those pages to abandoned places to read to each other, careful to conceal themselves from the prying eyes of the Church, aware that their neighbors might spy on them, and discovery could lead to death.


Would they be satisfied to say, as modern software licenses allege, that they had bought only a performance of the text, and could not sell it on?  I think not.

Whether from the sort of personal difficulties I experience, or the simple expectations of the buyer, the written word has always been an object to be possessed, not a performance to be (in my case) endured or (in most cases) enacted.  Is it now to be a cipher made of ones and zeros in the memory of a cheap computer? This is a major change in how we regard the written word.  The new world of publishing is an alien world without the comforting bulk of a novel to assure the reader they've paid for something of value.

A publisher has always been a marketing organization; few have owned a press, or a warehouse, or a distribution network.  Publishers are perhaps the most flexible part of the supply chain to the reader.

So is it the publisher we must rely upon for guidance through the fog of the future?

Perhaps.  We know the writer has not the alternative the musician has fallen back on.  As our notion of intellectual property changes, and the written word adapts, someone must reinvent publishing.

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word:

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2010/03/whither-word.html 

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/03/missing-memory-palace-publishing-in.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/blue-man-speaks-of-octopus-ink-and-all.html  

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/12/on-sensuality-of-bookstores-sterility.html


http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/03/publishing-in-twilight-of-printed-word.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/01/publishing-in-twilight-of-printed-word_27.html


http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/01/publishing-and-twilight-of-printed-word.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/wow-newspaper-advertising-revenue-60.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/04/apple-amazon-and-amazing-agency-model.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/09/publishing-in-twilight-of-printed-word.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-lost-library-of-electronic-book-and.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/used-e-books-threat-or-menace.html

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Toward less tasteful and more accurate titles

by John MacBeath Watkins

Just a link and a few images this time.  Better Book Titles is a site that features new, more accurate titles for some of the great literature of our time.

For example, here's their effort for Of Human Bondage:


And here's the retitled The Night Before Christmas:


The Stranger:



Title of the Day: Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality

by John MacBeath Watkins

The subtitle is Readings from the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity.  The first essay is The Etiology and Treatment of Childhood, essentially a proposal to include in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to include the syndrome of childhood, characterized by:

1. Congenital onset
2. Dwarfism
3. Emotional lability and immaturity
4. Knowledge deficits
5. Legume anorexia

Sources cited for the paper include Seuss, 1983, Temple-Black, 1982, Rogers, 1979 and Tom & Jerry, 1967.  The paper speculates that children have few friends who are not themselves children because of the fact that while they may exhibit intelligence at or above normal, people afflicted by this syndrome lack general knowledge of art, politics or science.

The title paper, Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality, is based on the neo-Fruitloopian school, which finds that vegetarians exhibit "schizoid-like inability to empathize with certan living organisms (usually vegetables)" and "Paranoid and hypervigilant preoccupation with the oral zone..."

Fans of that famed periodical, The Journal of Irreproducible Results, will certainly enjoy more than the title of this book.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Publishing in the twilight of the printed word, continued

by John MacBeath Watkins

 On Jan. 23, 2011, 241 people read "The Role-Playing Game," a poem I had written, on Scribd, a service which chose to feature it.

So, I thought, maybe it's not too bad a bit of writing.  A friend of mine has an open mic at her bookstore, Inner Chapters, maybe I should read some of my stuff there.

I find, however, that it is difficult for me to get up in front of a group and read.  And of course, almost no writers get paid to read.  Few enough get paid for works that are published in dead-tree form, so what happens when their work is available in electronic form?  Will it be subject to the sort of piracy that has taken so much of the money out of the music industry?  And if so, how do authors get paid?

Well, there's your problem.  Musicians who cannot make money anymore on recorded music can at least make money on performances. There was a time, a  century ago and more, when musicians always relied upon live performances for their income, and that time has come again.

But what is the fate of the writer?  Few have made much money on stage performances -- well, Twain did, and Vonnegut.  I'm sure some writers of business books have made a beautiful dollar that way. But for most authors, their income has come from the sale of a physical object, and to pirate it was a bit of a task -- one which much of the American publishing industry engaged in during the 19th century, but not something the individual could do just by wiggling their fingers over the keyboard for a couple of minutes.

As a bookseller, I've had people telling me for 15 years that e-books would put me out of business, but you know why that hasn't happened so far?  Publishers are aware of what has happened in the world of recorded music, and have no wish to follow that path.

Writers have as well, and as emotional a breed as they may be, they are not entirely irrational.  Cyber-libertarians may say, "information wants to be free," but writers say, "we want to be paid!"

And how can they be paid? Musicians have relied on live performances for most of the millenia music has existed, but writing is a newer art, and has always been sold as an object.  The scroll, the book, however it has been packaged, the intellectual property of the written word has always been a tangible object to be possessed.  The Lollards, one of whom, according to Foxes' Book of Martyrs, traded a cart-load of hay for a few chapters of Paul's Epistles, knew what they were getting -- written words on paper, copied by a clever clarke. To copy the entire Bible was the work of ten months for an educated clarke. The Lollards sought pages of John Wycliffe's translation of the Vulgate Bible, and took those pages to abandoned places to read to each other, careful to conceal themselves from the prying eyes of the Church, aware that their neighbors might spy on them, and discovery could lead to death.

Would they be satisfied to say, as modern software licenses allege, that they had bought only a performance of the text, and could not sell it on?  I think not.

Whether from the sort of personal difficulties I experience, or the simple expectations of the buyer, the written word has always been an object to be possessed, not a performance to be (in my case) endured or (in most cases) enacted.  Is it now to be a cipher made of ones and zeros in the memory of a cheap computer? This is a major change in how we regard the written word.  The new world of publishing is an alien world without the comforting bulk of a novel to assure the reader they've paid for something of value.

A publisher has always been a marketing organization; few have owned a press, or a warehouse, or a distribution network.  Publishers are perhaps the most flexible part of the supply chain for the reader.

So is it the publisher we must rely upon for guidance through the fog of the future?

Perhaps.  We know the writer has not the alternative the musician has fallen back on.  As our notion of intellectual property changes, and the written word adapts, someone must reinvent publishing.

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word:

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2010/03/whither-word.html 

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/03/missing-memory-palace-publishing-in.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/blue-man-speaks-of-octopus-ink-and-all.html  

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/12/on-sensuality-of-bookstores-sterility.html


http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/03/publishing-in-twilight-of-printed-word.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/01/publishing-in-twilight-of-printed-word_27.html


http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/01/publishing-and-twilight-of-printed-word.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/wow-newspaper-advertising-revenue-60.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/04/apple-amazon-and-amazing-agency-model.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/09/publishing-in-twilight-of-printed-word.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-lost-library-of-electronic-book-and.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/used-e-books-threat-or-menace.html

The subjectivism of objectivism

by John MacBeath Watkins


I've been reading a bit about Ayn Rand's theory of objectivism, because such prominent political figures as Paul Ryan and Alan Greenspan profess to be influenced by it.

It makes peculiar reading.  Consider its claim that values are objective.

Thomas Hobbes laid out the system of value that is the basis for classical liberalism and free-market economies.  In Chapter X of The Leviathan, he states that:

"The ‘value,’ or ‘worth,’ of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power; and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgment of another. An able conductor of soldiers is of great price in time of war present, or imminent; but in peace not so. A learned and uncorrupt judge is much worth in time of peace, but not so much in war. And, as in other things so in men, not the seller but the buyer determines the price. For let a man, as most men do, rate themselves [himself] at the highest value they [he] can, yet their [his] true value is no more than it is esteemed by others."

Chapter X goes on like that, laying out how honor and worth are dependent on the opinion of others.  In short, Hobbes was describing a subjective system of value, and that system has become the basis for our civilization.

If value is a matter of opinion, markets are a place in which people discuss those opinions and reach a consensus.  Merchants who esteem their goods too highly will find they have no customers, those who set the value too low will soon have no stock, because they must respect the opinions of buyers as well as their own opinion.

This meeting of minds is what give markets their vitality and their usefulness in deciding values.  Opinions are subjective, by any useful definition of "subjective."  Remove the subject who holds the opinion about the value of the thing being traded, and the market ceases to exist.

This applies, as well, to the "marketplace of ideas," in which we negotiate the truth value of claims to knowledge, and to our choice of government, where we form opinions of the rightness of our government's actions and negotiate how we should be ruled through the medium of politics.

Again, from Chapter X of The Leviathan:

 "To believe, to trust, to rely on another, is to honour him, a sign of opinion of his virtue and power. To distrust, or not believe, is to dishonour."

Again we see the theme of subjectivity, in which the "opinion of his virtue and power" shows how we value a person.

Now consider the following paragraph, written by Ayn Rand in 1962 and reproduced on the Ayn Rand Institute's website:

"Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."

Now, should I wish to sacrifice myself for my family or my tribe, who is Rand to say this is less moral than acting as though I were an end in myself?  It is, after all, my life, and I am free to value what I wish.  It is Rand's opinion that I must exist for my own sake, not some objective truth.

In evolutionary terms, we should wish to continue our line, and it might therefore be more rational to sacrifice our own happiness to ensure that our offspring can survive and further propagate our genes.

Now, I've had people argue to me that if that is what I want, then it is my own rational self-interest and my own happiness, but if that is the case, any action I take can be justified on the same grounds, and it would therefore be impossible to claim I am sacrificing myself for others.  Such a defense would make Rand's statement meaningless.

I'll be reading more Rand, but at the moment it appears to me that she considers it "objective" that I accept her opinion.  This is not objectivity, it is simply a demand that her judgment not be questioned.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Is there a soft path for China?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Hu Jintao's visit the the U.S. has got me thinking about China's future.  The legitimacy of Communist Party rule once rested on ideology, but now that the party has accepted capitalism and seen the resulting economic boom, that source of legitimacy is gone.

There are a couple obvious potential paths.  One would be the "China model," using nationalism as the key to legitimacy and stoking xenophobia to justify party rule.  China's military owns factories in exporting industries, and there are only a couple civilians above the military.  In fact, it's quite possible we'll see a bellicose, militaristic China bearing all too great a resemblance to the Japanese government of the 1930s.  It would make China a destabilizing force in the world, and the record of such governments in the long run has not been good for the people ruled by them.   Bellicose nationalism was a major part of the Japanese, Italian and German regimes in World War II.  Each of these countries became embroiled in wars than finally devastated them.  This could be a hard path for China, a country that saw about 3 million people die in World War II.

There is another movement in China, the movement for "universal values."  Supporters of this view believe that human rights, fairness, and rule by law and a government that gains its legitimacy by serving the people.  An incident reported by UPI China illuminates the controversy.

Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend), a newspaper published in southern China, published an editorial in 2008 titled “Wenchuan earthquake generates a new China.”  In that editorial, the publication argued that the Chinese government's effective rescue work following the earthquake showed the Chinese people and the world that they were committed to universal values.

“As long as the state keeps the people in mind and operates centered on their human rights, our nation can walk with the world on the path of prosperity where human rights, rule by law and democracy can be fully practiced,”  the Nanfang Zhoumo editorial said.

This brought a sharp response from a critic named Sima Nan, who wrote in a Beijing newspaper that universal values are a myth, and that they are in fact Western values, applicable only to Western society.

According to the UPI report, "Democracy, freedom, human rights and constitutionalism cannot be called universal values, Sima argues. He claims that those who promote such values actually have another agenda – to weaken racial and national bonds."

To those who have studied fascism, Sima's arguments will sound familiar.  German fascists argued that there could be no universal science, that each nation would have science appropriate to its people.   They were, of course, concerned that such universal science would undermine racial and national bonds.

I've talked about this in connection with Robert A. Brady's excellent book, The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, in this post: http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2010/12/spirit-and-structure-of-german-fascism.html 

 In other worlds, Sima's nationalist argument is no more Chinese than the argument he criticizes.  We need not assume that either group has copied their ideas from abroad, there just seem to be ideas that keep occurring to people whether they live in ancient Greece or modern China.

It points to the fact that if democracy and freedom are to continue to spread, we need to rethink the arguments in their favor.  A property-based social contract proposed by a 17th century Englishman isn't going to be persuasive to a modern Chinese thinker.  As it happens, I think there is a persuasive argument to be made based on the social nature of language, and I've laid out the basic argument here.

We've spent far too much time and blood trying to achieve freedom by perfecting our relationship to property, both under classical liberalism and communism.  If we can define "universal values" and think through the implications, we might have a more prosperous and peaceful future.

Such a future would need to have a place for China's current elites.  A system that allowed party members to run against each other might be helpful.  Certainly the lesson of Russia is instructive, showing it is possible to go from economic stagnation under Communism to stagnation under an authoritarian regime without the benefit of ideology.  What we might call the Russia Model has been in place for a while, and the results don't look promising.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What Huck Finn means to me



by John MacBeath Watkins

Jamie has written a wonderful post on her struggle with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and because my experience of the book has been very different, I'd like to take some time to talk about the book.

I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn seven times between the ages of ten and twelve.  The book spoke to me in a way no other book I'd read by then did, and this was a time in my life when I was reading about a book a day (mostly science fiction, but also the plays of Shaw and a wide variety of other stuff.)

I was reading about a boy my own age who went out into the world and made his way, dodging the authorities and dealing with rascals like the con men who insisted that they were a duke and the lost dauphin, befriended a runaway slave, saw a family destroyed by a feud, and in the end went against his moral teachings for the sake of friendship.

The great moral lesson of the book is this last.  After Jim is recaptured, Huck concludes that he will go to hell if he helps Jim escape from slavery.  He's determined to do it anyway.  Huck understands that the problem is not the question of whether to be "good," the problem is that the "good" people are engaged in a monstrous system that treats his friend as an object to be bought and sold regardless of his wishes.

Although I was born in Louisiana, my family moved to France shortly thereafter, then to Maine, where I read the book.  My parents grew up in Oregon, where there were not enough black people to train the young to hate them.  I had not had enough contact with blacks to have learned the moral landscape of racism.  To me, the world Huck roamed through was as alien as the distant planets Robert Heinlein wrote about.

But Twain made it real to me.  This was a book only a Southerner could have written, in which the slave owners weren't the bad people, they were church-going property owners who were the mainstay of their communities.  A recent edition of the book replaces the word "nigger" with the word "slave," thus changing the moral landscape Huck navigates from a racist South to one in which the evil of slavery has nothing to do with race.

Slavery had existed since the dawn of civilization.  Aristotle mentioned that the management of slaves was always difficult because the slaves tended to think themselves as good as their master (he didn't mention the possibility that they were right.)  In most parts of the world, slave and master were the same race and often lived in close contact.  It was never a good deal to be a slave, but it was a social status that could befall people who looked like you.

American civilization was not a comfortable place for slavery.  Our Declaration of Independence drew heavily on the ideas of John Locke, who claimed that we each own our lives, and that is the basis for all property.  Society is, according to Locke, a compact to protect property including our lives.  Locke was aware of slavery, and was complicit in it as a shareholder in the Royal Africa Company, which bought slaves in Africa and shipped them to the New World.  He even wrote a justification for slavery, which did not in fact apply to the sort of slavery the Company took part in, or as it was practiced by the English in America.

There was a tension between slavery and liberal democracy from the start; if "all men are created equal" why should some be slaves?  One way to reconcile this was through racism.  People could tell themselves that their slaves were less than human, that they lacked the capacity to enjoy freedom.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn humanizes Jim while at the same time showing how racism dehumanized him to make his treatment bearable to whites.  It takes place in a world where Jim's feelings don't matter, where the word "nigger" is thrown around casually by the "good" people.  Those good people were willing to send Jim back into slavery because they thought it proper.

George Orwell once wrote that "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle."  Most of the characters in this book are happy to believe that all men are equal, born owning their lives, and that Jim, as a slave, belongs to a group of people for whom this is not true. The human mind has, as Orwell noted, the ability to believe two contradictory things at the same time.  Huck Finn, however, was so changed by his experiences on the river that he became able to see what was in front of his nose -- that the social order that he belonged to was engaged in an every-day atrocity so widely accepted and ingrained in the good people of the South that no one he knew questioned it.  The book enables us to understand why people acted that way, and why they were wrong.  The slave owner is not, in this book, a cruel person like Simon Legree, but instead the good people, the churchgoers, the property owners, people who play by the rules.  Twain managed to at once humanize slaves and slaveholders, and to show that sometimes playing by the rules is immoral.

Huck, through knowing Jim, came to understand what an atrocity it was that Jim should be a slave.  He was ready to commit a crime that would consign him to the eternal fires of Hell rather than stand by and let this happen to Jim.  This is what makes Huck Finn the most heroic figure in American fiction.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My encounter with Huck Finn

by Jamie Lutton

I have been dodging this book for forty years.

I read, for example, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, when I was about ten, and enjoyed the sort of preachy story about class differences that Twain tells in this book. It is a good yarn, but Twain signals his punches.  The writing is good, though; I could read this book again, easily; I think I read it two or three times in the last forty years.

I also really like Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; this is a good time travel story that, again, has a lot to say about class prejudice, and entrenched ignorance. The first illustrations in this book were suppressed for being politically and religiously subversive.   They are particularly good little ink drawings, showing bloated priests and kings being carried on the backs of weak, ragged peasants,etc.  Most editions with all of those those illustrations are pretty hard to find.

But The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I could not read. It  is the chapter where Huck's dad catches up to him, Chapter 5, and bellows at him for learning to read, that had me putting the book down, over and over, not able to go further.

Twain has slipped in a dagger where we were not looking. It is Huck's father who is the second subversive figure, here, next to the outrageous character of Huck, himself:  Huck's resistance to 'civilizing',  his desire to loaf and just be, captures the secret heart of all children who might come across this book. How many of us wished to ditch books and just be Outside, playing? To go Nowhere, and just see what turns up? That he was completely illiterate, and did not mind too much, but could hunt and fish really well, and take care of himself in the wild makes him even more outrageous.

Huck is three dimensional, real, with all the character problems and troubles a real child has. The parents who examine The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn notice that Huckleberry is a 'bad boy', even before they notice all the uses of the 'n' word,  but they miss how 'bad' Huck's father is, and that he is right there in the text for the children to see, and to remember, and compare to the authority figures in their own lives. Even if their own parents are sober, the child reading the text might have an uncle or aunt like Huck's dad. . . . ..   .  There are so many adults that act like Huck; he is almost a stand-in for Parent, and if not Parent, the State and Government itself.  But we, like Huck, think that this is normal, he slips by the modern reader, as we are anxiously looking at how  the black character Jim's is presented.

The subversive nature of Jim, who seems to be the only rational, kind, totally good adult in the book, is secondary to setting up Huck's father as the standard for Parenthood, for the irrational, raving adult.


This part of the book, starting in chapter 5,  is amazing.. Huck's dad is a very believable character, if you are familiar with the habitual drunkard.  Huck describes his father as a man middle aged, hairy, ragged, ruined by drink, pale with misuse of his body, dirty, illiterate, and angry. And  Huck does not like his father, and fears him; this is foreshadowed in the earlier chapters, that he fears him showing up, in very eloquent prose. that this preys on his mind, but he knows no adult could help him, that he knows this well.  This is  the typical experience for the child of an alcoholic. No matter how awful the parent, the child is the parent's property, even if the child is in danger of his life.  Huck is going about in fear, and has no one to help him, even though he supposedly has 'guardians' to look after him.

His father, as described by Huck, is also lonely. I noted that he kept his son close by him, ostensibly because he wanted to extract money from his guardians; but from the text, it was evident so that he would not have to be alone. He must have loved the boy,  but would never say so, or act like it by rational standards. While he had his son with him; he had removed him from his guardians and from school, he maintained a fabrication of a household; functioned better, hunted, cooked, lived in a shack; but when he was by himself, he roamed the land a homeless person, drinking and gambling and getting into fights with people over and over, barely functioning as a rational creature.  His son was his reason for living, even though it was a parody of life, as he lived only to drink. Huck can't see this, as he grew up with his dad, and thought this was a kind of normal. Normal, even though he was beaten daily, and badly, and kept locked up. When he is not locked up, he and his dad hunt, and fish, and quietly hang out in the wilderness together. In the text, he recalls his father telling him about how to get by in life - the rationale on stealing things like chickens, for example.

This modern tone of Huck's dad is what makes this great literature alone. The conversation between Huck and his dad in Chapter 5 could have been written yesterday.  Twain dared to put a realistic violent drunken parent on the page, the sort of parent who, no matter what you do, you are wrong; as in real life.  And the child as property, to perhaps kill if they think that is what they want to do, when they are in that mood.  And, above all,  the child has to listen to them.  Huck's father is what makes this book subversive, and is the hidden subversiveness. Huck is the real slave, here. Childhood as slavery.  No one wants to say 'this book should not be read' when this book challenges the right of fathers, parents, to batter their children.  People are looking at the wrong part of this book to "suppress"..

I am sure some children, reading this book, look up and say to themselves "this reminds me of Dad. Or Mom, or my uncle or aunt, or grandparent", and have trouble reading further.  Me? I had to put the book down, again and again, over the years, as it was as if the book was going to reach out and throttle me. I had a parent who was like this; who I will write more about, in another blog, when I am ready to treat the subject fairly.

So, to read the first subversive parts of the text, read Chapter 5 in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Some people who analyze this book, say that the hero will end up like his father, in the end.  It is us to the reader, reading about his friendship with Jim, to hope that he will not, and that there is hope for change in the human heart.

(For another view of Huckleberry Finn, see here.)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Prometheus for the crows

by Jamie Lutton

  I have been thinking about crow civilization, and the future of crows. Most species on this planet only last about 8 million years. So, both humans and crows have only a limited time on the Earth, before they die out or some fraction of the whole evolves into something else, if we go by geological history. There are  exceptions to this rule; some few animal and plant species  last for a long time, and beat these odds. But most fade away, to be replaced by others, in about that time.  What with man's impact on the environment, both crows and humans might die out a lot faster than that, though I think we are a tenacious species, able to cling on in concrete and smog and dirt.

        I was feeding a few crows, and considering what their fate as a species might be. I recalled a SF novel by David Brin called The Uplift War, when I was writing this blog post. One of the conceits of his future universe was the humans had 'uplifted', or genetically altered, dolphins and chimpanzees so that they could talk to them, and they could be fully intelligent.  The dolphins sang in a haiku form, using artificial arms we made for them they could strap on. The chimpanzees closely resembled humans, except when they did not - such as in mating habits. Also, in this book, the humans, and their 'client species', had begun to explore planets circling nearby stars. But Brin missed a bet, not uplifting crows or anther bird species in his novels. He, like a lot of SF writers, had not considered the birds, or birdlike aliens, when they wrote. Only a few, like Robert Sawyer, saw the future inhabited by intelligent birds.  Some bird species, like crows, are very close to sentience, by all the studies. I do not think their brains or their larynx need much of a change. And because they are so light, tweaking their genes so their claws have opposable thumbs  might not hinder their gripping power in roosting.  They do not need to sacrifice the skies for speech. It certainly would not be worth it; a crow, knowing that it ancestors could fly, would probably curse us for taking that away.

   I considered what humans could give them that they don't already have. Well, they suffer from a very high infant mortality rate; only about half of their chicks make it to their first year.  And they suffer from tiny
  parasites under their feathers, that make them itch all the time. This is not so different that humans; until the 1880's, when soap became cheap, most humans had some sort of tiny parasite or flea or crab in their hair, or in their clothes, somewhere; the only exception being some particularity well scrubbed rich people.   We could offer the crows flea collars, or good flea baths, and reduce their infant mortality, with perhaps safer pre-built nests and better health care, surgery for broken wings, immunization against disease. Bird flu recently killed millions of crows in this country; local crows have missed the epidemic, so far. If the epidemic had happened with humans, it would have been rated worse than the Black Death.

     .  If you have ever spent much time around crows, the thing that makes them most anxious in their lives is taking care of their young crows, who are very naive, and get killed off easily.  The adult crows often dive bomb humans who get too close to their chicks, who are on the ground learning how to fly.  The young crows get hit by cars, killed and eaten by raptors and cats, and fly into electric wires.

  Besides that,  I don't know what benefits civilization could hold for crows. Cities? A written language?  Longer lives?  Besides ridding the skies of raptors (or giving them a good raptor warning system), fixing broken wings,  flea collars, and health care,  what could we give the crows?   

        I have never seen human so obviously joyful, all the time. And so filled with physical energy, swift, swift, physical joy.   Once you are used to the cawing, it sounds similar to the singing of other birds, but more emphatic, louder. They say I AM HERE over and over. They are constantly living, not worrying, not consumed with any horrors or sadness. They are filled with strong emotions, yes, scolding, angry at times, but mostly joyful.

      If we did "uplift" crows, it would be so that they could escape extinction, in the way humans will have to, by escaping Earth. We, (or perhaps intelligent machines we make), will escape Earth and go to the stars.  If we go ourselves, we might take the crows with us, since they are almost sentient, on their own. Or perhaps so that they could inherit the Earth, for a time, after humans leave it.

     Would they thank us, if they had instead of  ordinary claws, claws with opposable thumbs? I read a remark once by a SF writer, that if cats had opposable  thumbs, they would be firebugs; that is what first put this in my mind. Human beings learned how to make and use fire, before they were humans; firepits in humanoid campgrounds go back almost 3 million years, when we were not completely human yet. If we bred crows who could make tools with their hands, would they first make fires?  I would like to give them their chance; like Prometheus, give them the fire. We should perhaps give them rational speech first, so we can dissuade them from burning down our cities for the fun of it. Though perhaps that is primate thinking; they might not have that urge. Perhaps they would drop trash on people heads to start conversations, or to pick fights, or just to tease us, once they could know us, and know what we really did not like, and do it anyway.

   I fear for the domestic cat, if the crow got smarter.  We would have to have a long talk with the crows about our cats. It might be the end of the outdoor cat.   And what do they need fires for?  The predators they fear do not come from the ground, like our ancestors did; they usually come from above, the raptors in the sky.  Fire would not do them any good against the predators that they face. They do not use tools to fight the predators they face, they use sheer numbers to 'mob' them. Fire would do no good against cats, say.  Unless they were starting over, and had no civilization like ours around to use as reference, the best tool that they could get, that an opposable thumb would make use of, would be to be able to write.  The seduction of being able to record thoughts, songs, epics, histories, would be what humans could offer crows. They have a vast quantity of yet unthought epics, waiting to be written down. They could learn our languages, or we could learn the language they would develop....

        They probably don't need cities, streets (streets!) or other trappings of intelligence that we have, but a real language, then the ability to record the language, might be worth tweaking their nature for.
    That, and a be able devise a good flea collar, or get one from us.

          Someone reading this might think it would be 'terrible' to interfere with the the basic nature of crows.But I am disturbed by their high chick mortality rate.   Why not have a world where their chicks mostly all live to adulthood?  We had a world, up till 200 years ago, where half of our babies died before they were five; it was the aim of every doctor to try and prevent these deaths. We have more or less succeeded, with vaccines and clean tap water, why not the chicks of crows, since they are so intelligent.... though then, we have to talk the crows into having fewer babies, otherwise we will be hip deep in (lovely) crows.

           I can just imagine the urban problems, (everyone would wear a hat they could wash). consider the problem with crow criminals. Most humans can't tell one crow from another; so if we have a 'renegade' crow who is breaking laws* - how could we ever tell him or her from the 'good' crows?  We would then have to have either leg bands, or crow policeman. The mind boggles at a crow policing another crow. They look and act like natural anarchists.
     But, think of the crow poetry we will get to hear.  I would not mind living in that world, a world with intelligent crows. We could make that world, if we wished, in a few generations, with genetic manipulation, an act we already perform when we alter animals to make them better food for ourselves. Instead, making the animal  completely self-aware, which would be a good in itself.

    We have the legend of Prometheus in every language on Earth, for a reason. 
 
   And if I lived then, I would want to invest my money in the manufacture of hats.

   This morning I left my apartment building, and got a half a block away, when I realized that I had forgotten to put a sweater on under my coat. I turned back, but as I did, I could hear the crows cawing at me, anxiously.  When I came out of my apartment, seven flights up, three of them flew by me as I stood on the open leni.  They did so gracefully, cawing at me, saying hello, flying parallel to me, each taking a turn to do so,  then roosting in a nearby tree at the very top. The trees were swaying in the wind; the crows were cawing merrily at me.  They did not approach me closely till I was a good block away, like always, but these three were letting me know that that knew where I lived, and were so glad to see me.  I gave them peanuts today, and today they brought about 20 of their friends.  They cawed at me loudly, some cawing while the others pecked up the peanuts. They never get very close, except to fly over my head to let me know they are near.   I left them enough peanuts for all, but a few sang me all the way to work, and I gave them more peanuts, on the way.

       A few days ago, I did not have any peanuts or dog biscuits on me, and I was leaving a restaurant I had breakfast at. On impulse I saved my leftover toast and jam; wrapped it up in a paper napkin.  I tore up the warm toast and jam, instead of biscuits, and threw that to a few crows.  One crow got a very large piece, a very long piece of warm toast, and flew off, with two crows racing right behind him, trying to take the tidbit away from him. This continued till they disappeared into the distance,around a building. It looked like a regular game between them all. Some of the crows were flying off to hide the toast pieces to eat later, while others were stuffing themselves right there. I decided not to give them toast too often; that it was probably not that good for them. I am actually worried about what they eat; considering that they subsist on rotten garbage, this is foolish.  I really wish I had a back yard, that the crows could come to, and feel safe.  I have read other accounts where people have had backyards, where they got to see baby crows learn to fly, and see the parents tend to them. All I have is the morning streets of Seattle, where both the crows and I have to dodge cars, and other people, while I walk to work.
     
             *Dropping stuff on human heads
            *REALLY getting good at stealing food
            *unscrewing stuff till it fell down
             *practical joking against humans

Publishing and the twilight of the printed word

by John MacBeath Watkins

The publishing industry is ripe for reinvention.  I saw Tom Dougherty, founder of the Tor imprint, talk a few years back and he said he was printing three books to sell one.  Books that didn't sell had their front covers stripped and sent back to the publisher so that the publisher give the bookseller credit for the purchase of more books.

There are a couple reasons for this.  The publisher can't write off the cost of producing the book if it hasn't sold or been destroyed; until one of those happens, the book is an investment rather than an expense.  By taking back books the stores don't sell, the publisher plays an important role in financing the bookstores' stock.  If the books are remaindered, they must be shipped back to the publisher, then shipped to a store that sells remainders.  The cost can be more than the price the book will command in the bargain bins.

This is part of the reason that books can't hang around and find an audience.  Another is the transformation of the publishing industry over the past few decades, in which the gentlemanly publishers of a more tweedy age have been bought out by entertainment conglomerates and eccentric independent bookstores succumbed to chain megastores.

The result has been something like monopsony, with publishers so dependent of Barnes & Noble that their entire business strategy has been to find a book the chain can promote and sell all across the country.  In a month they might know if the book is a success or a failure.  If it's a success, sales will be higher for that book than it would have been under the old system, as the homogenized culture of the big-box store promotes the same books across the country.  If it's a failure, there are not enough independent bookstores to give it a chance to find an audience.

In addition, the entertainment conglomerates are more comfortable pursuing the same strategy they do in the movie business, paying top dollar for top talent and devoting their promotion to the chosen few.  The result is both market forces and habits of mind that feed the culture of the blockbuster.

But the problem with the publishing industry is that almost no one can pick winners.  An author might produce a blockbuster, then decline to the point where people start comparing them to Howard Fast.  Another might toil in relative obscurity, never having a best seller, but producing books that sell year after year as long as they are kept in print.

One way to approach this is the way Tor has, by publishing a lot of different authors and seeing what succeeds.  This works best in genre fiction, such as sci fi and fantasy, where good cover art and word of mouth can give a book life.

The next question is, how will the new world of publishing look?  Will Amazon manage to make itself dominant in e-books the way Barnes & Noble made itself dominant in physical books?

Or will there be enough distribution channels for publishers to promote the niche author, the book that will sell a few thousand copies to a dedicated group of followers?  Amazon can do a little of this, but sites dedicated to a smaller area of publishing might have a chance to find audiences for authors who would be lost in the sea of offerings from Amazon.  Could the New Yorker become a publisher people go to for poetry and short stories?  Electronic distribution means that the marginal cost of more pages is less than it would be for the physical magazine; the editing costs would increase with the number of pages, but the printing costs would be non-existent.  You can already buy cartoons from the magazine.  It clearly has the possibility to blur the line between magazines and publishers.

In addition, there are many orphan titles, the rights to which belong to publishers who do not consider it a viable business proposition to keep them in print.  With the lack of production costs and no carrying costs for inventory, such books can be in print again.

We may also see a transformation in the nature of what is published.  The nature of the book is partially dictated by the physical nature of the object.  Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, ran to nine volumes; the modern novel tends to be one volume, about the same length as one of the nine Clarissa volumes.  Authors with as severe a case of logorrhea as Richardson can spread their wings on line, while those who are more concise need not pad to make the book look right on the shelf.  One of my favorite short stories is The Scarecrow, by Kalil Gibran.  It runs only seven lines.  A magazine that pays by the word would get it almost for free, but it could command as much as people feel it's worth as an electronic offering.

Could poetry find an opening?  It's a curious thing, but the most-read post on this blog is a poem, The Pirate With a Hook for a Heart.  It's nothing like modern poetry, and I doubt there is a poetry magazine that would publish it, but it seems to have a broad appeal.  A more open market for such offerings could transform this moribund form and free it from the academic bonds that have made the public loose interest in it.


Now consider The Scarecrow, and ask yourself, why must this be in a book (The Madman) to find an audience?

The scarecrow

by Kalil Gibran

Once I said to a scarecrow, "You must be tired of standing in this lonely field."
And he said, "The joy of scaring is a deep and lasting one, and I never tire of it."
Said I, after a minute of thought, "It is true; for I too have known that joy."
Said he, "Only those who are stuffed with straw can know it."
Then I left him, not knowing whether he had complimented or belittled me.
A year passed, during which the scarecrow turned philosopher.
And when I passed by him again I saw two crows building a nest under his hat.

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word:

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2010/03/whither-word.html 

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/03/missing-memory-palace-publishing-in.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/blue-man-speaks-of-octopus-ink-and-all.html  

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/12/on-sensuality-of-bookstores-sterility.html


http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/03/publishing-in-twilight-of-printed-word.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/01/publishing-in-twilight-of-printed-word_27.html


http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/01/publishing-and-twilight-of-printed-word.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/02/wow-newspaper-advertising-revenue-60.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/04/apple-amazon-and-amazing-agency-model.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/09/publishing-in-twilight-of-printed-word.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-lost-library-of-electronic-book-and.html

http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2013/03/used-e-books-threat-or-menace.html

Great title of the day

by John MacBeath Watkins


How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

by Mike Brown

 I haven't read this one, but I've heard an interview with the author and I'm betting it's a good one.  It's a great title, but still not up to Words of the big-footed Giants, by Pigafeta. Brown was part of the team of astronomers who discovered the dwarf planet Eris, slightly bigger than Pluto, sparking a controversy that eventually resulted in Pluto being demoted from planet status.  In all likelyhood there are many objects close to the size of Pluto in the solar system, so it was a question of making them all planets or demoting Pluto.  Astronomy chose the small-tent approach, preserving the exclusivity of the planets. 

Edited to add: For another view of the matter, check here.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Jared Loughner not Jewish

by John MacBeath Watkins

Looks like the rumor that Jared Lee Loughner has a Jewish mother has been put to rest.

http://blogs.jta.org/politics/article/2011/01/12/2742519/loughners-jewish-mother-not-so-much

The Tucson rabbis have never heard of the family, public records show his ancestors having funeral ceremonies in Catholic churches, etc.

The rumor started with a friend of Loughners, Bryce Tierney, who told Mother Jones that Loughner was provoking his Jewish mother when he put Mein Kampf on his list of favorite books.

This tells us a couple of things.  One, Lougher's friends didn't really know him very well: He was a terribly isolated person, and if statements about his religion by his friends are inaccurate, statements related to his ideology may be as well.  Two, putting Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto on his list of favorite books was probably not directed at his mother, it was directed at everyone who he knew would be looking at the list after his crime.  The use of the past tense -- he "had" favorite books -- makes me think he expected to be killed, perhaps after killing many more people than he did.

In a way, the link between him and his victim had as much to do with celebrity as with politics.  Gabby Giffords had been in the news a lot, vilified and defended in a heated re-election campaign. My bet is that he wanted to be "somebody," because he felt that he was nobody, and he felt that killing a high-profile target would make him famous, as it has.

Of course, the paranoia that seems to be part of his makeup would have fed on the sort of claims traveling the Internet and the airwaves.  There is a strain of redemption ideology in his talk about currency, and the fixation on grammar might come from David Wynn Miller.

Miller makes good money giving quack advice.  He's no more to blame for Loughner's actions than Sarah Palin is, which is to say he contributed to the paranoia of strange young man who was looking for a structure that would give direction and justification for an act that would make him feel significant.  We can't know whether, in the absence of such sources, his paranoia would simply have found another target.  We don't yet know whether he was sane or not, at this point.  We do know that peoples' minds are shaped by their environment, whether they are sane or not.

Charlatans like Miller do enough harm without the blame for this incident, and the same might be said of Palin. All these influences are by themselves like a single cigarette; we certainly can't blame one cigarette for giving someone cancer, we can't be sure his cancer came from cigarettes, but if the guy smoked like a chimney, chances are that's what gave him cancer.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Could I have changed Krugman's mind?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Paul Krugman has consistently argued for years that morality and economics are not the same.  Today, he argued that morality is dictating the economic stands of many of those discussing the matter.  I can't help wondering whether this has anything to do with the comment I made on his post on Jan. 10, "Economics and Morality: Not the Same."  Krugman has in the past said he moderates the comments on his blog, though I'm sure at times this task falls to others, so I'm not at all sure he read the comment, but his turnaround is quite a coincidence.

Here's the comment I put on his "Monetary Morality" post today:

On Jan. 10, comment number 60, I posted the following in response to your blog post Economics and Morality: Not the same:

It is often obscured by the math and the charts, but economics is a science values. Adam Smith was by profession a moral philosopher, and Hobbes laid out the value system we still use; that the worth of a man is that which would be given for the use of his power, or his price.

The economic theory you embrace is tied to your view of morality. If you think merit is hereditary, no death dues, if you think the individual owes much of their success to the society that nurtured them, you'll approve of progressive taxation. We may as well deal with the moral content of the field.

More here: http://www.scribd.com...


Prior to that you had consistently argued that economics is not morality. Now you are arguing much as I have. If this is coincidence, that's fine, but if I influenced you in any way, it would be nice to be acknowledged. I doubt you went to the essay I linked to, but I put it up July 10, 2010, and it's based on a post on my own blog here: http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com...

This is part of a longer work that I hope someday to profit from, so although it's flattering that I may have influenced one of my intellectual heroes, it's also potentially a problem for me.

What we are made of? In part, each other.

by John MacBeath Watkins


David Brooks' wonderful column today brought to mind an issue I've been thinking about a lot.  There has always been a strong strain of individualism in our culture, which perhaps achieved its first peak in the Gilded Age of the 1880 and 1890s, with its philosophical expression being social Darwinism.

We now seem to be at another peak in this trend in thought.  But what is the individual?  If we are not introduced to language at the right age, we have difficulty mastering it, as demonstrated by the problems of children raised in isolation.  Language is a social enterprise.  The sounds we use to express meaning are arbitrary.  It doesn't matter whether we use the word water or eau, what matters is that the people we are talking to agree what the word means.

As a result, to lead a human existence requires that we be social beings. What would the individual be without the rest of society?  A clever animal without language or culture.  With society we can do things no one person can accomplish -- cultivate rubber trees, refine metal, drill for oil, and drive down the street thinking nothing of the fact that these things and much more complex things were done to make the car we drive.  We are a part of something larger than ourselves, and part of us comes from it.

Yet there are those who would have us believe that those who, through talent, hard work, persistence and, yes, luck, are solely responsible for their success, and owe nothing to the society that nurtured them.  This seems as silly as thinking that success shows no merit at all.  As Brooks points out, we are all made more capable by our participation in society, and we all contribute to it and make others more capable.

What are we made of?  In large part, each other.