Links: Critics and novelists, ethernet, dissertations, fashion, writing, porn data, and more

* “There comes a moment in the life of every literary critic when they need to give up and admit they’re never going to be a novelist. [ . . .] I don’t, in short, have a novelist’s soul.” Though I disagree with this: “Novelists appear to dwell most deeply in their childhoods.”

* “Ethernet at 40: [Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet’s inventor] reveals its turbulent youth.” Ethernet is still, even when wireless is a viable alternative. In some circumstances running a cheap ethernet cable from a router to a desk, couch, or other work station can still be a real win, especially given how even very long ethernet cables from only cost a couple of dollars. Ethernet cables last forever, aren’t subject to the level of interference wireless is, and, in many conditions, have faster data transfer speeds than wireless.

* Essays in Biography.

* “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended,” which makes points that should be obvious to damn near everybody involved in the humanities section of academia.

* Three views of consumption and the slow economy.

* Riding Around Paris With Olivier Zahm, Fashion’s Most Libidinal Editor.

* “A warning to college profs from a high school teacher,” which is actually about the stakes of student testing.

* New York Times “journalist” John Broder lies in Tesla motors review, gets called out for it.

* “Deep Inside: A Study of 10,000 Porn Stars;” highly data-driven and should be safe for work.

* New York real estate: a study in price escalation.

* Megan McArdle: “How to Make the Most of Your Higher Education.” The bit about not majoring in English, and not getting a PhD in it, resonates, especially as someone who did the one and is doing the other.

A.S. Byatt and Tracy K. Smith speaking in New York

A.S. Byatt and poet Tracy K. Smith spoke in New York last night, and my favorite moment may have been Byatt’s comment on influence: she said, “I learn from dead people. I read books.” Which is accurate, simple, and too seldom mentioned. She also said, “If there is one thing I shall never do it is write a memoir.” But Byatt does watch viral YouTube videos, though I won’t offer the context. No word on whether she’s seen “Gangnam Style.” I wanted to listen to her indefinitely; she seemed low bullshit and subtly, Britishly funny in a way not conveyed by these quotes and perhaps not conveyed by any quotes. I would take her seminar despite the danger of being assigned Henry James and Melville.

IMG_2029Byatt also said that at some point “I got sick of realism. . . and I realized realism is only one way of putting prose together.” That remark—”putting prose together” was deliberate. English’s promiscuous borrowing also delights her (as it does pretty much anyone who really writes), and to that I would add that English has a sophisticated technical vocabulary offering a rich lode of metaphors not always available, or easily available, in other languages, unless they’ve borrowed from English (often in turn borrowing from other languages).

One senses that literature for her is urgent, as it is for Roland Mitchell in Possession (in one of my favorite moments in the novel, Roland Mitchell explains that he stole letters from the British Library “Because they were alive. They seemed urgent,” implying that much of what happens in the British Library and academia is so not urgent that one must wonder if and why it should happen at all) and many characters in The Children’s Book. She makes me want to be a better writer.

Smith said, in the context of mentorship, that having someone ask different kinds of questions of your work can be useful. She’s right, though I’d never conceptualized the issue in those terms, and it’s difficult to find people who will ask questions different but still useful than those you ask yourself.

Does she like Billy Collins?

Is’s Marketplace encouraging buyers to scam sellers by filing a refund claim?

I’ve been selling miscellaneous books on for years, and in the last three months three people have filed requests for refunds or sent messages claiming that their items never arrived. That’s a big problem because the cheapest way to ship books and similar items is through the Postal Service’s Media Mail. Big sites, like eBay, solve this problem by letting buyers rate sellers and sellers rate buyers, but Amazon only lets buyers rate sellers—sellers can’t rate buyers. Sellers have to ship the item and hope for the best, which worked fine until recently, or add a confirmation number, which increases costs to the point that selling books isn’t really worth it for me.

Someone claiming one item didn’t show up could be chalked up to USPS, or bad luck, or whatever. Two could be a coincidence. Three makes me think of enemy action: buyers heave learned to game Amazon’s system.* Looking around the Internet makes it apparent that problems like mine aren’t so unusual bad stories are more common than I would have imagined before I had this problem.

Looking back at the problems I’ve had shows that the buyers are systematically weird. In one case, the name of the person contacting me for a refund didn’t match the name of the person to whom the book was shipped (in most cases, Amazon encourages or requires buyers to contact the seller before filing a refund claim). Another message said, “Recipient has not received the item,” which is curious: most people would say, “I haven’t receive the book.” “Recipient has not received the item” is generic enough to be a bot. The third person has a U.S. address but doesn’t actually appear to live in the United States.

The only conclusion I can draw are that medium-priced items (in the $10 – $30 range) probably aren’t worth selling on Amazon: they’re expensive enough that adding a confirmation number makes them uneconomical, but not so expensive that a confirmation number is a necessity and a small percentage of the price.

Amazon could reduce this problem by providing symmetrical buyer / seller feedback. But Amazon presumably doesn’t want sellers to cancel orders to unproven buyers, and it’s still possible to game feedback systems (as eBay users have discovered). Nonetheless, I sent Amazon a couple of e-mails about the issue, and someone at Amazon did reply to eventually say, “I would also like to let you know that we do have a team that checks on the buyer’s account for any fraudulent activity and take the necessary action on them.” Still, buyers could file claims only on the occasional item. I’m happier knowing that someone at Amazon is at least thinking about the problem. Amazon, however, is a notoriously data-driven company, and I can’t see them taking action unless sellers stop selling on Amazon.

I’m tempted, in the name of science, to buy a moderately expensive item and then claim it never showed up, or showed up damaged, to see if Amazon will refund the money, and, if so, how many times I could do this before Amazon boots me. But I won’t for obvious reasons.

* This is of course a reference to Goldfinger’s rules about coincidence. I should also point out that the items shipped all had normal return addresses; none of them came back to me.

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