IBM Model M / Unicomp Customizer Keyboard update: Mac edition

EDIT: Unicomp now offers a SpaceSaver M keyboard, in which the “M” stands for “Mac.” That’s probably what you want, rather than the Customizer, since the mechanical keys on the SpaceSaver M are the same as they are on the Customizer, while the keyboard itself is considerably smaller and includes Mac-specific keys out-of-the-box.

My Product Review of the Unicomp Customizer keyboard has proven one of the most enduringly popular posts on this blog (see in particular the numerous comments, most of them about positive experiences with the Customizer). The last few days have seen an especially large amount of traffic thanks to an NPR story on how an Old-School Keyboard Makes [a] Comeback Of Sorts, which talks about Unicomp. The saddest part: the company is laying off workers because the Customizers and similar keyboards last too long and cost too much. The latter, of course, has a great deal to do with the former, but economic conditions mean that the initial investment apparently isn’t available to many people.

Aside from the durability of its products, Unicomp also has unusually good customer service. I use a Mac and the Customizer ships with Windows keys by default, which one can see in my original post. For $10, however, Unicomp sent me custom keys with “option” and “command” instead of Windows buttons (pardon the fuzzy pictures: I only have a lousy cell phone camera at the moment):

01-31-09_1223

Option and command close up

01-31-09_1225

Perfect: the Windows buttons aren’t staring at me and other people who use my computer aren’t confused (“Hit command-w to close the window.” “Where’s command?” “The one with the Windows logo to the left of the spacebar.” “Huh?”).

Mac users who care about typing, take note: buy a Unicomp SpaceSaver or SpaceSaver M rather than the lousy Matias Tactile Pro 2. You can find Unicomp’s website here.

The Gift — Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde’s The Gift is one of these frustrating books whose last chapter is vastly better than any other and whose main point is somehow true even as the support for that point is weak, nonexistent, or wrong. He argues, reasonably enough, that contemporary Western capitalist societies tend to undervalue creativity in the arts, particularly when said creativity doesn’t sell. But in trying to make his point, he too pretends that a firewall exists between the creative, “gift” economies and the exchange/contract economies. At the end he decides the two can be reconciled, but that occurs after a series of irritating pronouncements with unsubtle jabs the exchange/contract economy. Nonetheless, The Gift made me think differently about the world by the time I finished with it, which few books do. I’ll swing back to that at the end, because The Gift also deserves plenty of criticism.

Although The Gift is a book, it feels like a long magazine article might have been the more appropriate form for it. Do we really need more than 50 pages about American Indian gift exchange cultures? And the chapters on Ezra Pound seems particularly worthless, and the one on Whitman interesting but overlong—a microcosm for The Gift as a whole. Some of its metaphors strain credulity and seem almost deliberately narrow, as when Hyde writes:

Gifts of peace have the same synthetic character. Gifts have always constituted peace overtures among tribal groups and they still signify the close of war in the modern world, as when the United States helped Japan to rebuild after the Second World War. A gift is often the first step toward normalized relations. (To take a negative example, the United States did not offer aid to Vietnam after the war. [...])

The United States didn’t rebuilt Japan in hopes of joining hands and singing about world harmony—the goal was to build Japan as a bulwark against Communism in Asia. The “gifts” were probably closer to bribes. At the same time, the United States didn’t win in Vietnam, which might explain why no foreign aid money went to the country; if the North had been overrun and destroyed, then it might have been rebuilt with American dollars. Likewise, the United States’ proxy war in Afghanistan resulted in little subsequent aid, as discussed at the end of George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War.

I’m not sure this shows anything other than Hyde failed in this example, but he does in many others too. In a footnote, he says:

There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.

Time-saving devices can free up more time for creative labor: there are more writers and artists today than there were in, say, 1800, in part because most people aren’t engaged in backbreaking farming or 15-hour days in factories. Education levels have risen enormously, in part thanks largely to time-saving devices that give us more time to study and more wealth to devote to schools, libraries, and the like. Furthermore, labor expressed in exchange value does not automatically devalue creativity—establishing things like copyright, which allowed writers and others to derive an independent income from their work, if anything increased the worth of creative labor for people like writers. And creativity is not limited to what we think of as traditional arts—for example, computer programming is often enormously creative, and those who tend to be maximally creative also tend to be better compensated than those who aren’t. If Hyde were going to say that “When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, creativity can be devalued,” I would agree: the number of poets whose contribution can be measured monetarily is small. As Gabriel Zaid says in So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance, “[...] the conversation continues, unheeded by television, which will never report: ‘Yesterday, a student read Socrates’ Apology and felt free.’ “

Such problems occur throughout the book, although they’re alleviated in the conclusion, where Hyde retreats on many of his more ridiculous assertions. He says:

[...] my own ideas underwent a bit of a re-formation. I began to understand that the permission to usure is also a permission to trade between two spheres [the commercial and gift economies]. The boundary can be permeable. Gift-increase (unreckoned, positive reciprocity) may be converted into market-increase (reckoned, negative reciprocity). And vice versa: the interest that a stranger pays on a loan may be brought into the center and converted into gifts. Put more generally, within certain limits what has been given us as a gift may be sold in the marketplace and what has been earned in the marketplace may be given as a gift.

Damn: if only that line of reasonable thinking had informed the entire book. It didn’t, which render sections of The Gift reminiscent of freshman-year manifestos written by tipsy students who just finished Marx. Despite those problems, some sections early fascinate, like the chapter on “The Gift Community,” where Hyde says:

Is is a rare society that can be sustained by bonds of affection alone; most, and particularly mass societies, must have as well those unions which are sanctioned and enforced by law that is detached from feeling. But just as the Roman saw the familia divided into res and personae, the modern world has seen the extension of law further and further into what was earlier the exclusive realm of the heart.

The more one tries to regulate the affairs of the heart, the less those affairs seem like they are of the heart. Dan Ariely and Tim Harford make similar observations, backed up by experiments, in Predictably Irrational and The Logic of Life, respectively. And institutions are fond of exploiting the gift economy by masquerading their exchange/commercial actions. For example, Division I American college sports piggyback on the gift economy: although to football, basketball and baseball players are essentially professionals, high-caliber universities pretend that tuition is a “gift” even as the same universities extract millions of dollars in television and merchandising revenue from such players. The idea that Division I players are amateurs has become increasingly absurd, much as the Olympics have been professionalized. In Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education, Murray Sperber even argues that the sports mentality harms students.

Yet I can’t help but imagine places where gift economies don’t apply at all, and they’re often not very pleasant. As I write this, I sit in a Tucson airpot bar. Airports have everything wrong with them: they are transitional, one-off spaces filled with strangers, the “restaurants” they offer consist of pre-made food with character slightly above a TV dinner, and for some reason we as a society have decided that Constitution rights and privacy don’t apply here. People I don’t know can stop me at will, and merely flying requires that I submit to security theater that is simultaneously ineffective and invasive. Everything is exorbitantly expensive but not of particularly high quality. Menus don’t have beer prices on them.

The airport, in short, is designed to extract money from a captive audience; this might be in part why I don’t care much for sports stadiums, Disneyland, and other areas where I feel vaguely captive. In Great American Cities (to use Jane Jacob’s phrase), something is always happening, there is always another place down the street, and you can decide to be as invested or anonymous in society as you like. In contrast, airpots feel like a trap: you can’t choose to avoid them, at least not without enormous costs in terms of time, money, and concentration. Maybe I wrote about college sports above because a few basketball games are playing around me, along with facile, noisy political news that’s more like a talk show than newspaper. If there were a bar in the Tucson airport without this ceaseless parade of visual noise, I would go to it. I’m trapped in an extreme form of the market economy, where no reciprocity exists and the gift is hidden and completely subservient to commerce. I might not have the gift, but regardless of whether I do, I’m frustrated here, where the food is more fuel more pleasure, as if choosing between burritos and pasta is like choosing between octane grades. Good chefs are artists, and maybe none could work in the security of an airport. I only wish that I had somewhere quiet and comfortable to sit. Neither kind of place exists in airports, unless you pay for it, and, again, I have no choice but to participate. At least with the most market, you have a choice.

In short, there are few better places to instill sympathy to the arguments of a book like The Gift, which, for all its problems in expression, nonetheless drives at a serious problem in market economies that seem unlikely to depart. They are not as serious as Hyde makes them out to be—I too would like it if more people read Saul Bellow and fewer watched Flavor of Love, a show I’ve never seen but have heard allusions to at least three times in the last week—and the market has a habit of self-correction, but that doesn’t mean they do not exist. And The Gift gives one a better way for analyzing the world and believing in creative acts that don’t necessary have immediate financial gain.

Despite my antipathy towards The Gift I occasionally find myself recommending it, albeit with caveats attached. It threads an argument that deserves to be more often heard in a non-sentimental or strident context: that not all worthy forms of creativity are financially remunerated adequately but that they are valuable nonetheless. The Gift is not brilliant, as the jacket copy claims, but art deserves all the defense it can muster, but over the long term, I suspect that art will be its own defense.

Watchmen — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I fell for the hype surrounding the movie version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, a mostly indifferent graphic novel: many if not all of its characters seemed flat, especially Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach, whose fearful misogyny might be typical of equally fearful teenage boys and some highly right-wing politicians, but in the story he came off more as a case of amateur psychoanalysis combined with arrested development masquerading as personality. (For some reason I’m reminded of the New Found Glory song “Something I Call Personality.” This bodes ill for Watchmen.) Others are better, maybe, but still have trouble with platitudes and leaving the realm of the silly—and this in a work with no sense of humor.

To be sure, Watchmen has many intriguing and unusual aspects, chief among them that most of the “superheroes” don’t seem to actually have special powers from an unusual source, as happens in Spiderman or the X-Men; rather, they decide to don costumes and kick ass and learn on the job, rather like 40-year-old office workers who decide to become Olympic-caliber swimmers. Instant skill acquisition is (arguably) less realistic than most superhero stories, as a single person is, more likely than not, going to get his ass kicked by four guys no matter how skillful he is. But realism has never been the genre’s strong point, and I like the postmodern tweaking involved. Still, I also wish that someone had read On Faerie Stories.

Another unusual tactic: the panels in Watchmen are temporally intermixed and sometimes the scenes jump around, so following the action can resemble assembling a Faulkner-esque jigsaw puzzle more than walking the traditional storyline. It’s noirish in places, especially when Rorschach is speaking; Watchmen opens with him thinking that “The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over all the vermin will die.” The next panel says, “The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘save us!’ ” Er, well, maybe, or maybe these notes read like a teenager’s angry musing after being jilted by the girl he wants.

Dr. Atomic suffers from a similar brand of flatness: he’s a blue character of seemingly infinite power whose presence wrecks whatever semblance of balance the book might otherwise have. In The Lord of the Rings, one is ceaselessly aware of limitations on power, and a persistent weakness of many fantasy novels is the tendency for a character to become God-like, at which point conflict disappears—and so does plot. Having one built-in from the beginning, and particularly one who likes to spout low-grade philosophy, seems more a weakness than strength. Likewise some of the awkward history lessons, as when the only female character, Laurie, interacts with virtually anyone. She’s explained away as a ditz, while Rorschach’s darkness gets a movie-of-the-week treatment regarding his past, which includes his mother’s prostitution. The novel’s view of women is not quite so retrograde as it appears at first glance, but nor is it particularly palatable, even by the end.

There’s a bit too much imagining aloud—page 20 of chapter 8 demonstrates it well, with conversations designed chiefly to impart information to the reader, rather than other characters. Watchmen reinforces rather than obviates the somewhat pervasive sense that graphic or graphic novels are lesser forms of art than text novels. This is unfair, of course—one need only look at one of Moore’s later works, like Lost Girls, to see the genre’s potential fulfilled—but a certain snobbishness sneaks up nonetheless. The failure of utopian dreams and the triumph of pragmatism over ideology are promising developments in the story and for the genre, but the expression of those fundamental ideas isn’t sufficiently deep to make the ideas transcend their circumstances, just as the characters never stop being characters and start being people. No matter its technical virtuosity or innovation, a work of narrative that fails that test can’t be truly great.

January links: Distraction, reading, routine, and more

* I wrote a lot about distraction in this post, and now Cory Doctorow—the same one who wears a red cape and blogs from high-altitude balloons—has written another of these articles. I’m going call them a genre. Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way! in The Atlantic might be part of it.

* The Daily Routines of Interesting People, courtesy of Mental Floss. Most of them are writers of some sort. You can find similar material in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times.

(I don’t remember where I picked up the link, but someone deserves a hat tip.)

* By way of the New York Times’ idea blog, a write up in New Scientist says Victorian literature might function in ways that demonstrate or reinforce positive social behavior:

WHY does storytelling endure across time and cultures? Perhaps the answer lies in our evolutionary roots. A study of the way that people respond to Victorian literature hints that novels act as a social glue, reinforcing the types of behaviour that benefit society.

Literature “could continually condition society so that we fight against base impulses and work in a cooperative way”, says Jonathan Gottschall of Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania.

[...]

The team found that the characters fell into groups that mirrored the egalitarian dynamics of hunter-gather society, in which individual dominance is suppressed for the greater good (Evolutionary Psychology, vol 4, p 716). Protagonists, such as Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, scored highly on conscientiousness and nurturing, while antagonists like Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula scored highly on status-seeking and social dominance.

I wonder how the writing of, say, Bret Easton Ellis, Martin Amis or Elmore Leonard would fit that theory. Maybe they’re showing us what not to do.

* Speculative Fiction and criticism is a nice complement to Science Fiction, literature, and the haters, my post on a topic that, I’m now starting to realize, is constantly discussed anew as though it hasn’t been analyzed before.

* The New Yorker has a simpering article about The Village Voice and its history. Although it’s not clear that the Voice did much to change journalism or is important beyond a New Yorker’s myopic vision, there are a few amusing pieces worth quoting:

Wolf considered his editorial policy as philosophy. “The Village Voice was originally conceived as a living, breathing attempt to demolish the notion that one needs to be a professional to accomplish something in a field as purportedly technical as journalism,” he wrote in the introduction to “The Village Voice Reader,” in 1962.

[...]

Since devaluing authority is one of the things journalism does, this [habit of internecine warfare among Voice writers] amounted to using the methods of journalism against the pretensions of mainstream journalism.

The same descriptions are frequently applied to bloggers.

* Another reason not to like the Kindle, this one from Philip Greenspun:

My Amazon Kindle is just slightly past its one year anniversary and showing signs of very ill health. Half of the pixels on the screen are stuck following a light knock. I called Amazon and they’re happy to fix it… for $180 plus $7 in shipping (free if you’re a Prime member). The Kindle is more fragile than a laptop computer but less likely to be pampered given that you use it in all the situations where you’d use a book.

I may have to rethink my enthusiasm for the electronic book. Realistically the way that people handle books, the Kindle is not going to last more than one year. That means you’re spending $360 for the initial purchase and $187 every year for hardware repairs. Some of the Kindle editions of books are edging their way up towards $20 [...]

See my reasons here.

* Read Jason Fisher’s excellent post on The Imaginative and the Imaginary: Northrop Frye and Tolkien. Pay special attention to the second comment, which is from Glen Robert Gill.

* The Wall Street Journal asks, Blockbuster or Bust? about the incentives behind mega-advances in the publishing and other media industries (merely calling them industries feels dirty, but I guess everyone else does it, which makes it okay). Compare this to my recent post on how the Publishing Industry’s Gloom is Readers’ Gain and Why are so many awful movies so awful

* In the post on the publishing industry linked to above, I also linked to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Staying awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading, which is so good that I will point to it again here. See too Ann Patchett’s The Triumph of the Readers: The markets may be down, but fiction is on the rise in the Wall Street Journal. I agree with this sentence: “I am a firm believer in the fact that it isn’t so much what you read, it’s that you read.” Later, she says “Even if you’re stepping into “Valley of the Dolls,” it’s better than nothing. I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug.”)

Compare that to Reading: Wheaties, marijuana, or boring? You decide, my post from June 2008:

Let this be a lesson, by the way, to the natterers, including myself, on getting young people to read—instead of pushing reading ceaselessly like whole wheat bread, maybe it’s time to forbid it, and stock copies of Henry Miller and Bret Easton Ellis in the liquor store, thereby necessitating that teenagers get their older siblings or boyfriends or whatever to buy it for them. They might pass copies of [Alan Moore's] Lost Girls around like furtive bongs at parties. I call this the “gateway drug” approach to reading, as opposed to the “whole wheat” approach.

There are shades of Orwell too. Here’s Patchett:

It’s true, as a source of entertainment reading ranks somewhere between cheap and free, depending on where you get your books. A movie can give you two hours of entertainment, but a book can go on for days or even weeks.

And here’s Orwell in 1942:

Reading is one of the cheapest and least wasteful recreations in existence. An edition of tens of thousands of copies of a book does not use up as much paper or labour as a single day’s issue of one newspaper, and each copy the book may pass through hundreds of hands before it goes back to the pulping mill.

* Reason #1041 why I dislike Tucson: no authors come here because the city’s literary culture is insufficient to draw them. One might think a town with a major university would do better, but, alas, it does not. Steven Berlin Johnson’s book tour for The Invention of Air doesn’t include Tucson—but Johnson will be in Seattle, L.A. and Portland.

* As long as I’m beating up Tucson, notice this post from Nigel Beale regarding the United States’ most literate cities. Minneapolis/St. Paul dominate, Seattle is number two, and Tucson doesn’t make the top 10. But at 32, it does beat Los Angeles (56) and Phoenix (57), although I would take literary L.A. over Tucson for the better bookstores if nothing else.

* PCWorld writes “Inside the World’s Greatest Keyboard” concerning the IBM Model M. I wrote about the Unicomp Customizer here; it’s a version of the Model M that’s still manufactured.

* I’ve linked to Paul Graham’s essay on Philosophy several times, but now someone has written an excellent post disagreeing.

* From Kate’s Book Blog quoting “What is Style?”:

There is no such thing as a writer who has escaped being influenced. I have never heard a professional writer of any quality or standing talk about “pure” style, or say he would not read this or that for fear of corrupting or affecting his own; but I have heard it from would-be writers and amateurs.

* Although politics don’t interest me much, this seems so insightful regarding the Middle East as to deserve a link:

IV. As a consequence of the above three trends, major political issues of importance to the people of this region are increasingly inconsequential to most people and powers around the world. The electoral politics of the Metn region in Lebanon, the tribal politics of Gaza, the human rights conditions in Syria and Morocco, and the forty years of Moammar Gaddafi’s rule in Libya are issues that no longer occupy any serious time or thought among leaders in the world’s most powerful countries, regardless of whether we accept that or not.

The worst ramifications of the Middle East’s dysfunctions — terrorism, illegal migration, ethnic strife, corruption, police states, and assorted atrocities perpetuated by both state and private actors — are only occasional irritants for the rest of the world, not pressing strategic threats. We have marginalized ourselves as serious players on the global political stage, and now assume the role of nagging annoyances and miscreants.

Indeed: and the pity is that too few seem to realize this.

(Hat tip Jeffrey Goldberg. Incidentally, his piece Why Israel Feels Threatened is worth reading too.)

* The Wall Street Journal discusses Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. See my analysis of the novel here.

Why are so many movies awful?

The short answer: they’re ruled by marketing, not by art, feeling, or emotion, to the extent that those characteristics can’t be captured by marketing.

The longer answer comes from Tad Friend’s article in the January 19 2009 issue of The New Yorker, “The Cobra: Inside a movie marketer’s playbook,” which describes how movies get made. Today, the answer is nearly identical to the question of how movies get marketed. My favorite quote is a little less than midway through:

” ‘Studios now are pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates,’ one studio’s president of production says. ‘So at green-light meetings it’s a bunch of marketing and sales guys giving you educated guesses about what a property might gross. No one is saying, “This director was born to make this movie.” ‘ “

“Pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates:” it’s a great metaphor that conveys precisely how much vast corporations care about art as well as the relative power of those existing within studios. Creativity isn’t dead, even in major studios’ presidents of production, but neither is cynicism, as the article shows in too many places to enumerate. “Cynical” might be too light a word—if Julie Salamon’s ‘The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood is somewhat cynical, then nothing except perhaps nihilism describes the Hollywood marketer’s mind as portrayed by Friend.

Read the whole article for more: it never comes out and baldly states what’s obvious, as I have. This blog only occasionally strays into territory dealing with movies; this analysis of Cloverfield is my only extended treatment of one, although this post discusses movie versions of Ian McEwan’s Atonement and George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that the movies I tend to pay the most attention to are based off books; according to Friend’s article, such movies are “‘pre-awareness’ titles: movies like ‘Spider-Man’ whose stories the audience already knew from another medium [...]” like virtually all that have made extraordinary amounts of money in the last decade. Movies also tend to raise a book’s profile enough to encourage me to read it when I otherwise wouldn’t; the movie version of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is an example of this.

I suppose the same question regarding why so many are so bad could be applied to books too, but books are often less obvious: critics seem to have (slightly) more power, and the sheer number of books makes the bad ones easier to ignore. Call it strength in diversity. Movies are noisier, and because there are fewer of them, each one collects more attention. But because they cost so much to make, they become a numbers game; I care vastly more about aesthetic worth than opening weekends. But, at least as shown in this article, Hollywood cares about those numbers.

It shows in their product.


EDIT: Wynton Marsalis, by way of Alex Ross:

 

At the root of our current national dilemmas is an accepted lack of integrity. We are assaulted on all sides by corruption of such magnitude that it’s hard to fathom. Almost everything and everyone seems to be for sale. Value is assessed solely in terms of dollars. Quality is sacrificed to commerce and truthful communication is supplanted by marketing.

In addition, see my comments on Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood for more on how the way movies are made affects the movies that are made.

… I'm not the first or only one to have noticed Amazon.com's utility

My recent post on how Publishing Industry Gloom is Readers’ Gain discussed the pervasive fear of used books. But now I’ve found an article from a decade ago concerning and predicting its rise, in Philip Greenspun’s hilarious (and depressing) piece about his experience writing a tech book. Towards the bottom, he included this:

Looking at the way my book was marketed made me realize that amazon.com is going to rule the world. A traditional bookstore is useful as an entertainment venue. You can arrange to meet someone there. You can kill 20 minutes browsing. But if you’re picky about what you want, the chance of them having the book is pretty small. They carry books that are being heavily hyped and books that were popular and relevant six months ago. Traditional bookstores can’t respond quickly to customer demand for new or newly popular titles. In dozens of cases, friends of mine would go into a store to ask after Database Backed Web Sites. Usually the book had not been ordered and the store had no intention of stocking the title. The front desk clerks had no mechanism to provide feedback to the buyers. If a person did not plunk down his credit card and special order the book, no record would exist of the inquiry.

Although I couldn’t find a date of original publication on his site, it appears to have been sometime around 1997. Talk about prescience. Not long ago I desperately wanted a copy of Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev—which was a mistake—so I could start it immediately after finishing My Name is Asher Lev. None of the Bookman’s stores in Tucson had it. Antigone (of course) didn’t have it, but that didn’t stop me from calling. Eventually I found two stores, both inconveniently located, that did: a Barnes & Noble and a Borders. The Barnes & Noble didn’t actually have it, though their computer said they did. The Borders did have it for about $15. If I’d just started driving to bookstores, I would’ve been irate by the journey’s end. For the privilege, I paid a little more than $15.00. Amazon charges $10.20 as of this writing. A used copy costs $8.08 with shipping. Don’t get me started on the dearth New York Review of Books Press or Library of America titles, which are two of my favorite imprints.

This is why Amazon is growing in power.

In Seattle, I would go to Elliott Bay and the University Bookstore to hear authors. In Tucson, I lack even that reason.

Still, it appears that used books might not be substitutes for most Amazon buyers, according to Internet Exchanges for Used Books: An Empirical Analysis of Product Cannibalization and Welfare Impact, which says

Our analysis suggests that used books are poor substitutes for new books for most of Amazon’s customers. The cross-price elasticity of new book demand with respect to used book prices is only 0.088. As a result only 16% of used book sales at Amazon cannibalize new book purchases. The remaining 84% of used book sales apparently would not have occurred at Amazon’s new book prices. Further, our estimates suggest that this increase in book readership from Amazon’s used book marketplace increases consumer surplus by approximately $67.21 million annually.

Then again, it was also written in 2005, and I wouldn’t be surprised if reader behavior changes quickly.

… I’m not the first or only one to have noticed Amazon.com’s utility

My recent post on how Publishing Industry Gloom is Readers’ Gain discussed the pervasive fear of used books. But now I’ve found an article from a decade ago concerning and predicting its rise, in Philip Greenspun’s hilarious (and depressing) piece about his experience writing a tech book. Towards the bottom, he included this:

Looking at the way my book was marketed made me realize that amazon.com is going to rule the world. A traditional bookstore is useful as an entertainment venue. You can arrange to meet someone there. You can kill 20 minutes browsing. But if you’re picky about what you want, the chance of them having the book is pretty small. They carry books that are being heavily hyped and books that were popular and relevant six months ago. Traditional bookstores can’t respond quickly to customer demand for new or newly popular titles. In dozens of cases, friends of mine would go into a store to ask after Database Backed Web Sites. Usually the book had not been ordered and the store had no intention of stocking the title. The front desk clerks had no mechanism to provide feedback to the buyers. If a person did not plunk down his credit card and special order the book, no record would exist of the inquiry.

Although I couldn’t find a date of original publication on his site, it appears to have been sometime around 1997. Talk about prescience. Not long ago I desperately wanted a copy of Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev—which was a mistake—so I could start it immediately after finishing My Name is Asher Lev. None of the Bookman’s stores in Tucson had it. Antigone (of course) didn’t have it, but that didn’t stop me from calling. Eventually I found two stores, both inconveniently located, that did: a Barnes & Noble and a Borders. The Barnes & Noble didn’t actually have it, though their computer said they did. The Borders did have it for about $15. If I’d just started driving to bookstores, I would’ve been irate by the journey’s end. For the privilege, I paid a little more than $15.00. Amazon charges $10.20 as of this writing. A used copy costs $8.08 with shipping. Don’t get me started on the dearth New York Review of Books Press or Library of America titles, which are two of my favorite imprints.

This is why Amazon is growing in power.

In Seattle, I would go to Elliott Bay and the University Bookstore to hear authors. In Tucson, I lack even that reason.

Still, it appears that used books might not be substitutes for most Amazon buyers, according to Internet Exchanges for Used Books: An Empirical Analysis of Product Cannibalization and Welfare Impact, which says

Our analysis suggests that used books are poor substitutes for new books for most of Amazon’s customers. The cross-price elasticity of new book demand with respect to used book prices is only 0.088. As a result only 16% of used book sales at Amazon cannibalize new book purchases. The remaining 84% of used book sales apparently would not have occurred at Amazon’s new book prices. Further, our estimates suggest that this increase in book readership from Amazon’s used book marketplace increases consumer surplus by approximately $67.21 million annually.

Then again, it was also written in 2005, and I wouldn’t be surprised if reader behavior changes quickly.

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