Amazon.com is clever in its use of tracking and follow-up e-mails

I’ve been thinking about selling my camera and buying a smaller one, so I’ve been reading about the various choices and, naturally, looking at prices—including prices on Amazon. This morning I found, unprompted, a random e-mail from Amazon:

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Not only has Amazon listed at the top some of the cameras I’ve looked at (like the X100S and RX1), but it recognized the general kind of camera I’m interested in (high-end, fixed lens camera; small mirrorless cameras) and listed a bunch of those too. Some of them are misses—Leica’s cameras look completely silly to me—but the hits are there. I haven’t done more than browse, and browsing alone caused Amazon to kick out an e-mail telling me about their financing credit card. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a retailer do so before.

The Amazon finance card doesn’t interest me and I’m not going to buy a camera today—or one from Amazon, because of they charge sales tax and most online retailers don’t. But I’m simultaneously impressed and creeped out by the company’s nudge e-mails.

This e-mail and post are also useful reminders: virtually everything you do online can be tracked, if someone wants to track you. Amazon does, for reasons that presently seem benign. Nonetheless, next time I move I might delete this account (if that’s possible) and start another one, which won’t have a purchase history going back to 2002.

Links: Unmarried moms and ignoring incentives, higher education and competence, Moleskine’s IPO, Victoria’s Secret, and more!

* “The New Unmarried Moms: We’ve reduced teen pregnancy, but now childbearing outside wedlock is exploding among 20-somethings,” which is interesting but ignores some of the really powerful social factors at work. A lot of women are willing to sleep with fun-loving bad boys over dutiful workers; consequently, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that men modify their behavior in response. In addition, as Philip Greenspun says in “Another reason to feel like a failure: Scientists say that women are easy to get into bed:”

At lower paternal income levels, a variety of forms of government assistance will provide the single mother with roughly $45,000 per year in tax-free benefits, depending on the state (see this chart). That is more than the average American worker’s take-home pay. At higher paternal income levels, court-ordered child support payments may provide the non-working single mother with a substantially higher (tax-free) income than working at an average wage.

In other words, the financial consequences of having a child often aren’t dire and in some cases may actually be a net financial improvement. Note that I’m not trying to make a normative statement about whether this is good or bad: I am trying to observe how people respond to incentives.

* Great news: we’re (slowly) moving toward a world where education looks at competency, not hours with ass-in-seat. This is flying under the radar of the national press but is hugely important.

_MG_9736-1* Moleskine’s IPO; if the company is this profitable, why aren’t more companies getting into the notebook biz? Rhodia’s Webnotebook is my favorite, despite some flaws.

* Get LED lightbulbs.

Buzz Bissinger’s extraordinary story of shopping and (a little bit of) sex. I thought it would be boring but laughed a lot.

* “The Shadowy Residents of One Hyde Park—And How the Super-Wealthy Are Hiding Their Money.” I don’t think I’d want to live in a $5M+ apartment even if I had the money for it.

* How marriage changes relationships and gender dynamics; actual title includes the phrase “the boob test.” See also the first link in this post.

* How to think like the next generation, by Penelope Trunk; as usual overstated but still useful.

* 11 solutions to the Fermi Paradox.

* “Victoria’s Secret Sells to High School Girls. So What?” Sample: “Apparently, you can fill out applications to major universities or have boys see you in your underpants, but you can’t do both.”

* A Man’s “C-Card:” Commitment.

TheAtlantic.com is increasingly copying others instead of writing their own work

Something is rotten at The Atlantic: Jordan Weissman “wrote” a piece called “Disability Insurance: America’s $124 Billion Secret Welfare Program,” which is just a restatement of an NPR Planet Money report and some of David Autor’s work (which I’m familiar with through his Econtalk interview and reading some of his subsequent papers; he’s also mentioned by NPR.) This comes not long after Nate Thayer called out The Atlantic for trying to get writers to work for free. It seems like TheAtlantic.com is increasingly doing things like this: using thinly-veiled re-writes to drive traffic to it. Weissman’s piece adds little if anything to the NPR piece, and The Atlantic could have just linked to that piece.

The magazine is still very good, and original, but The Atlantic’s web content has been getting worse in a very noticeable way, with thinly-veiled re-writes of other people’s work. If you want to write about other people’s work, just link to it directly.

I’ve been noticing this phenomenon more and more, but this is the first time I’ve posted about it. I hope it doesn’t become a series.

(And I’m letting the Scientology ad thing slide, because I think it was an honest mistake.)

Bowl of Heaven — Larry Niven and Gregory Benford

Bowl_of_heavenIt’s almost always a mistake to represent alien consciousness in science fiction. Aliens, if we ever encounter them, are likely to be so alien that we can’t or won’t understand them—not at first, and conceivably not ever. The bigger problem with representing alien consciousness in science fiction comes from the language that is doing the representing.

Language, as pretty much everyone who has ever learned a foreign one knows, shapes what and how you think, as does the culture that carried by that language. Languages, though translatable, have different flavors. And the aliens in Bowl of Heaven sound like the humans, who sound like each other, and all of whom sound like Americans. They can’t do much better than call the human-built spacecraft “boldly simple.” These are aliens who, even more than most aliens in fiction, feel like humans dressed in exotic garb and wielding exotic technology.

Arthur C. Clarke wisely avoided this problem in Rendezvous with Rama, which is one reason the first one is so good and the latter ones less so.

It’s very hard to create fully differentiated human characters, each with a style all their own. Few accomplish this, which is why most writers choose a single first-person narrator, or a limited third-person narrator. One accomplishment in a novel like Anita Shreve’s Testimony is that the characters don’t sound alike, as they do in, say, Tom Perrotta’s Election, or many of Elmore Leonard’s novels. Hell, the style of, say, Remains of the Day, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and Atonement are as different as they are because each of their authors is trying to achieve (and achieving) a very specific effect and way of thinking. Niven and Benford aren’t.

I got into Bowl of Heaven because Peter Watts blurbed it and wrote about it in Circling the Bowl. I should’ve paid more heed to the way he described it: “Bowl of Heaven resonates with me, not so much as a work of fiction but as an artefact of the publishing industry.” I can see why it wouldn’t resonate with him “much as a work of fiction,” because by that standard it doesn’t succeed well. I should’ve read his post more carefully and noticed that sentence, though he also notes that “Bowl of Heaven seems to have done just fine with the advance reviewers.”

_MG_9690-1Watts looked at Amazon reviews for the book and noticed that “27% of the reviews complain about sloppy editing and continuity errors.” I’m going to complain about sloppy editing too: a lot of my pages looked like the one on the right, in which extraneous words and sentences are crossed out. This is the sort of thing nearly all authors do on their own (many pages of my own work are filled with cross-outs), and that line and copy editors do too. Generally I ignore extraneous sentences in novels, because everyone commits a couple. But when page after page looks like the one depicted to the right, I get annoyed.

Anyway, Watts’s recommendation kept me reading despite editing problems, but I quit reading when the English-speaking aliens appeared, with all of their Capitalized Proper Nouns (“For Memor was not amid the fevered straits of the Change;” there are also mentions of “the Dancing,” “the Watchers,” and capital-A “Astronomers”). There’s better work out there: before Bowl of Heaven, make sure you’ve read Blindsight and Starfish first: those are Watts novels, and I don’t remember where I first learned about them, and both are hard to read at their beginnings but dazzling by their ends as pieces click into place.

To return to the language issue, novels like Bowl of Heaven tend to give SF a bad rep among lit-fic types, who are obsessively attentive to language and how people use language in very particular way. As I noted above, these authors aren’t attentive to those issues, and they also seem to have a confused point of view—and not one that’s intentionally confused for artistic effect, like Virginia Woolf. The effect feels like a mess: it seems like the novel is following Cliff from a first-person limited view, but then it slips into a paragraph or two with only things that Redwing, or other characters, could know. It’s the sort of thing that undergrads learn about in creative writing classes.

Maybe there’s an artistic purpose here, but if so I’m not seeing it. If not, it’s just a mistake, and seeing novels with many simple mistakes praised by many eminent science fiction writers will tend to subtly and unfairly devalue the genre as a whole.

J.M. Coetzee’s realism

“[T]he generability of the particular is the of realism, is it not? I have in mind realism as a way of seeing the world and recording it in such a way that particulars, though captured in all their uniqueness, seem yet to have meaning, to belong to a coherent system.”

—J.M. Coetzee, Here and Now: Letters 2008 – 2011

How much criticism amounts to taste? Jonathan Haidt and The Happiness Hypothesis

In Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis he writes:

Consider the following story:

Julie and Mark are sister and brother. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other.

Do you think it is acceptable for two consenting adults, who happen to be siblings, to make love? If you are like most people in my studies, you immediately answered no. But how would you justify that judgment? People often reach first for the argument that incestuous sex leads to offspring that suffer genetic abnormalities. When I point out that the siblings used two forms of birth control, however, no one says, “Oh, well, in that case it’s okay.” Instead, people begin searching for other arguments, for example, “It’s going to harm their relationship.” When I respond that in this case the sex has made the relationship stronger, people just scratch their heads, frown, and say, “I know it’s wrong, I’m just having a hard time explaining why.”

The point of these studies is that moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment. When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate. You don’t really know why you think something is beautiful, but your interpreter module (the rider) is skilled at making up reasons [. . . .] You search for a plausible reason for liking the painting, and you latch on to the first reason that makes sense (maybe something vague about color or light, or the reflection of the painter in the clown’s nose). Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a persons’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgment was made.

Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at a time, and the same is of art.

Haidt’s description shows why political, religious, and even economic arguments are often so unsatisfying: regardless of what ideas or evidence one person cites, the other person isn’t really going to care (and you’re probably the other person, too). The other person is looking for ways to justify their thinking, like you are, and feelings can’t really be argued with—not by most people, most of the time.

Plus—and Haidt doesn’t discuss this, but it’s hard to miss if you’re paying attention to everyday life—most people have only a superficial understanding of the opinions they hold. This is especially obvious to any expert discussing matters with a non-expert. In many fields, even experts discussing matters with other experts may just have more sophisticated versions of their initial opinions and impressions; that’s certainly how I often feel when I read papers in English lit, or talk to some English professors. That discipline certainly seems to proceed funeral by funeral.

Still, I wonder if Haidt has run studies in which he has explicitly primed participants for critical thinking and reasoning, then asked similar sets of questions. One of the rare ways that people might open up and think is to avoid the direct discussion—”Is gun safety good or bad?”—and move to a meta discussion—”most people are too closed to new information to have political discussions”—prior to the “real” discussion about gun safety, or whatever the political or social issue du jour happens to be.

In light of these ideas, it might be best not to argue directly: when abortion comes up, don’t talk about the issue directly. Talk about what happens to the people in the moment: what pressures is the woman having the abortion feelings? What does the protester feel? Why? The same is true of art: what’s a great sentence in that novel? Where does the plot turn suddenly? What is greatness in general?

These are the same methods good teachers use: they don’t directly fight with their students, because the fight is unfair and, more importantly, it’s unproductive. I tend to ask questions that students find oblique, and now, after reading Haidt, I know why.

I also know why I give some of the answers I do when I’ve been asked to read friends’ or students’ stories, novels, and other writing. Sometimes they asked if I think the work is good. I never answer directly, because the more useful answer isn’t mine—it’s the writer’s answer, five years from when they’re asking. If the writer spends five years working on their craft and thinking about their problem space, they’ll have a very different perspective, and they’ll be able to judge for themselves. At a high enough level, taste rules, but getting to that high level is a steep climb.

Opinions also shift in the individual over time: many novels I liked in middle and high school I would now find unbearable boring, clichéd, and stupid, while my middle-school self would find many of the books I like now incomprehensible or pointless.

Links: Publishing, BDSM (these two are not related, surprisingly), Chekhov the player, Lasch, parking, L.A., the ten-year hoodie, and more

* “The [Non] Death of Publishing,” which argues that publishers used to the recession to consolidate their positions and make more money; I can’t evaluate most of the claims, but they seem plausible.

* “BDSM in the mainstream.” (Maybe.)

_MG_8952-1* “The No-Limits Job” is dumb, but it’s also in the NYT’s Fashion & Style section, where rigor goes to die. The basic problem is that the industries described glamor industries, which means lots of people want to get in because people think they’re cool. This drives the salaries down (to zero, in the case of internships). You may notice that there are no examples of programmers working 70 hours a week for $22,000 a year, and the words “supply” and “demand” never appear. I’ve seen this basic supply / demand principle in action, since I went to grad school in English Lit, where many, many people want jobs (because they’re fun) and relatively few jobs are available, with the result being that supply and demand meet at a low number. Solution: Don’t go into glamor industries. If you do, don’t complain about the trade-offs you’ve made.

* Chekhov: a lifetime of lovers. Demonstrating that writers can be players too.

* Christopher Lasch: Scourge of the elites.

* Don’t subsidize parking. This should be obvious.

* Has L.A. fallen behind? (Hat tip Marginal Revolution). To me, the car-centric culture and traffic are the worst parts, and I don’t see those improving without some combination of removing or raising urban height limits wherever subways or light rails are built or planned.

* Upgrade or die.

* The ten-year hoodie on Kickstarter; I “backed” the Flint and Tinder underwear project and though the outcome okay but not exceptional.

* The case for a true Mac Pro successor.

* How New York Could [and should] Get More Affordable Housing.

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