Politics repeats itself while science and art make it new

In “Coolidge biography shows how little American politics has changed” Philip Greenspun points out that “Coolidge is primarily about events that occurred roughly 100 years ago, but the political debates often seem as though they could be in tomorrow morning’s news.” Greenspun points out a large number of similarities, though I do think there are more notable differences than he lists; one of the more prominent is the calls, whenever something bad happens, for the federal government to Do Something. Many of those calls in Coolidge’s time were directed at the local or at most state level.

Still, most of what he says is correct and to me the many similarities between 1910 – 1930 and the present imply that a lot of political posturing is wasted signaling. Energy towards politics would probably be better directed towards art, science, and technology—the latter fields at least move unambiguously forward, and in my view the first field does too.* A really good book lasts for decades or centuries while political opinions are almost always of the moment The effort expended in fields that make progress move not just the individual but the whole of humanity forward; most energy spent on politics is just a circle and maybe even a circle jerk.

Science and technology in particular increase the size of the pie that politicians (and the voters who elect them) can fight over.


* When I hear people—usually professors or wannabe professors—argue that art doesn’t move forward like technology (sample, from Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: “There is no progress in the world of letters, as there is, say, in science or manufacturing. As the centuries pass, we do not get better or smarter at reading, and the authors among us do not get better at writing”), I usually ask them why people keep creating so much new art and why so many people want the new stuff, not the old stuff. By now, there are an infinite number of books to read and an infinite number of songs to hear. If art really didn’t move forward and become better over time, at least as defined by popularity, we wouldn’t see people constantly move towards the new. I haven’t heard a really good response to this point.

The power of conventional narratives and the great lie

In Confessions of a Sociopath M. E. Thomas describes manipulating bureaucratic sexual harassment structures in a way that reminds me of Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. That novel is about a college freshman who sleeps with her creative writing instructor, thinking that he’ll get her book published, and then alleges sexual harassment when he doesn’t. The school’s bureaucracy largely rallies around Angela’s dubious claims. I wouldn’t argue that Angela, the female protagonist (or antagonist) is a sociopath, but the novel itself is good and the story about what happens when people of bad will have access to institutional structures designed around imagined goodwill.

I sent a note to Thomas about Blue Angel, and she replied that many “well-intentioned people having access to institutional structures designed around imagined ability to ascertain the real ‘truth’ of a situation and accordingly enact justice.”

She’s right, and that theme keeps showing up in various novels and nonfiction pieces. “What happened to Jamie Leigh Jones in Iraq?” is one; the whole story is worth reading and difficult to excerpt, but I will note this:

As it turned out, I found smoking guns, but not of the sort I was expecting. The next morning, I started looking through the filings posted online on PACER, the federal judiciary’s Web site. There I found expert witness reports filed by KBR, psychological evaluations of Jones conducted by workers’ comp companies, medical records, and much of what later came out at trial about her many previous rape claims and complicated mental health history. The trial record was so at odds with Jones’s public story that I was simply dumbfounded.

As best that reporter can say, Jones probably fabricated a rape story and in doing so tapped into a powerful narrative about sexuality and about the way evil corporations (and men) try to abuse and suppress women. Her case is at the very least much more complicated than that and at worst she made up her story. But powerful narratives have a way of overriding specific particulars that don’t support the narrative.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn does very well in playing out the way a media circus creates heroes and villains based on limited information. Like Blue Angel it’s also a lot of fun. Both also contain an element of terror: what happens if you’re the one the narrative turns against. There must be others.

Philip Greenspun’s review of Divorce Corp. is also relevant:

What is important is a story and it is always the same story: “There is a victim and a victimizer. Then you need a third person, a rescuer, which is sometimes an attorney and sometimes a judge.”

We’ve got these stories in circulation and almost no one is publicly fighting back against them.

Complaints about Amazon’s rise ignore how long it has taken the company to rise

The latest raft of articles about Amazon and its power over the publishing industry appeared in the last couple of days (“Amazon, Destroyer of Worlds,” “What Amazon’s ebook strategy means,” “Booksellers Resisting Amazon’s Disruption”), and the first two note what is the most significant thing about Amazon, at least to my mind: how much better an experience Amazon is than the things it replaces (or complements, depending on your perspective).

Like any incumbents, publishers, as far as I can tell, want the status quo, but readers (and consumers of electronic gear) are happy to get something for less than they would’ve otherwise. Stross gets this—”Bookselling in 1994 was a notoriously backward-looking, inefficient, and old-fashioned area of the retail sector. There are structural reasons for this” and so does Yglesias—”But for consumers, it’s great. An Amazon Prime membership is the most outrageously good deal in commerce today. But competitors should be afraid.” Stross is suspicious of Amazon, and so is the New York Times writer. Their suspicions are worth holding, but the basic issue remains: Amazon is successful because it’s good.

Their books are cheap and arrive fast. Their used section is really great, for both buying and selling. Prior to Amazon and its smaller analogues, used bookstores simply wouldn’t buy books with writing in them. Amazon used buyers, however, don’t care, as long as the book is described honestly. I’m getting ready to move, which means that I’m selling or giving away somewhere between a couple hundred and a thousand books. I sold about 15 through Amazon, resulting in about $100 that I wouldn’t have otherwise. That efficiency is great, but it’s great in a way that publishers don’t like, because publishers would rather have everyone buying new books.

Amazon looks particularly good to me because I’ve spent a lot of time trying to wrangle a literary agent and failing. Five or six years ago, that meant my work would’ve spent its life on my hard drive, and that’s about it. But now that I’m done with comprehensive exams, I have time to hire an editor and a book designer and see what happens through self-publishing. The likely answer is “nothing,” but the probability of nothing happening is 1.0 if I leave the novels and other work on my hard drive forever.

Most of this was predictable: in 1997, Philip Greenspun wrote “The book behind the book behind the book…“, in which he observed: “Looking at the way my book was marketed made me realize that amazon.com is going to rule the world.” I’m sure others predicted the same thing. The publishing industry’s collective response was to shrug. I guess no one read The Innovator’s Dilemma. If publishers once were innovators, they’re not anymore.

Stross is averse to profit to the point that I think he’s signaling mood / group affiliation to some extent, but his basic economic analysis is good. Stuff like this: “piracy is a much less immediate threat than a gigantic multinational [. . .] that has expressed its intention to “disrupt” them, and whose chief executive said recently “even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation” (where ‘innovation’ is code-speak for ‘opportunities for me to turn a profit’)” could be rephrased; Amazon selling for less means more consumer surplus, and it appears that Amazon’s whole modus operandi is to very low, if any, profit margins; if it had margins as high or higher than what publishers and retailers shoot for, it wouldn’t be such a threat.

Anyhow, I too don’t want an Amazon monopoly or monopsony, but I don’t see a good alternative to Amazon. Barnes and Noble is, at best, second-best; their online prices finally became competitive with Amazon’s a year or two ago, but they still they’re chasing the leader instead of striving to be the leader.

If DRM on ebooks actually dies—as Stross thinks it will—that will make Barnes and Noble and other players more viable, in the same way that killing DRM on music made Amazon a viable purveyor of music (although a lot of people still use the iTunes Music Store).

Philip Greenspun's Why I'm Not a Writer and Hacker News

I submitted a Hacker News (HN) link to Philip Greenspun’s essay Why I’m Not a Writer, which begins:

I’m not a writer. Sometimes I write, but I don’t define myself as a career writer. And that isn’t because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of an obscure writer. It is because I couldn’t tolerate the garret lifestyle of a successful writer.

He’s right. The garret lifestyle is one reason (there are many others too) why so many writers are now affiliated with universities, as detailed in Mark McGurl’s excellent book The Program Era. In fact, university affiliation has become so pervasive that Neal Stephenson told this hilarious story on the subject in a Slashdot interview:

[… A] while back, I went to a writers’ conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we’d exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me “And where do you teach?” just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another “And which distro do you use?”

I was taken aback. “I don’t teach anywhere,” I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. “Then what do you do?”

“I’m…a writer,” I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

“Yes, but what do you do?”

I couldn’t think of how to answer the question—I’d already answered it!

“You can’t make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?” she tried.

“From…being a writer,” I stammered.

At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn’t snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

And once I got over the excruciating awkwardness of this conversation, I began to think she was right in thinking so. One way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable.

In the HN thread, another poster named Quantumhobbit linked to Orson Scott Card dealing with the same subject. As Quantumhobbit says, “Basically his advice is make sure you have another source of income, such as a rich uncle, before you decide to become a full-time writer. There is no guaranty that you will make enough to support yourself, even in genre writing.”

But the most interesting response comes from Gwern, who said, “I note that [Greenspun’s essay is] from 1996, when the bubble was getting hot; are you suggesting that the web has not panned out for writers and that they are equally screwed online as off?” In reply, I said:

I think that the date of Greenspun’s essay is indicative of how little has changed, rather than how much. Most writers didn’t make very much money then, and they still don’t, which many people don’t seem to realize; one writer friend who also teaches university classes recently wrote to me and said that a colleague had asked, in all seriousness, if he was rich now that he’d written a book. Writers often work like astronauts to achieve relatively modest financial success, which people like the poster in the original HN thread might want to know before getting started in earnest at trying to write for the book market. Take a look at these posts from a guy who works in the sales department of a major publishing house regarding current advances for most types of fiction.

“are you suggesting that the web has not panned out for writers and that they are equally screwed online as off?”

Depends on what you mean by “panned out” and “screwed”; I can’t really tell from the nature of the question. If you mean, “Do I think writers can make enough from the Internet to support themselves?” the answer is yes; if you mean, “Will many of them do so, especially relative to the number who would like to?” the answer is “no.” In fact, I even wrote a blog post at Grant Writing Confidential on the subject of how unlikely it is for people to make money from blogging.

(Note: the above is slightly edited from the original.)

Gwern replied:

But to expand on what I meant: I remember that back in the dot-com bubble, the bubble Greenspan wrote that essay in, there was a lot of enthusiasm and hype about how the future would be so much better for authors and artists than the old world of offline publishing – the Web would empower creators, cut out the middlemen, and channel tons of money to them, via the magic of 0-cost publishing, micropayments, and other things like search engines or aggregators. Greenspan’s essay seems to buy into that zeitgeist, albeit relatively modestly.

Of course, that vision has largely come failed to come true (spectacularly so in the case of micropayments and agents). I wondered if the point of your linking this old essay was to emphasize the contrast and make clear that writing is still a marginal business regardless of where it’s being distributed or what neat technical gadgets are involved.

That wasn’t my point, but if I’d been smarter it would’ve been. Half the 1996 equation Gwern describes has come true: the web has vastly empowered writers’ ability to reach readers (and consultants’ ability to reach clients). But it definitely hasn’t channeled vast amounts of money to most writers, and many kinds of writers—like professional journalists—are being laid off en-masse.

In the world of the web, as in the 1849 California gold rush, the people who make real money aren’t the people panning for gold, but the people selling equipment to and building infrastructure for the people panning for gold. So too with online writing: Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, which drives this blog, probably makes or will make far more than anyone writing on it.

All of this could probably be appended to advice for a very very beginning writer. I think that knowledge for its own sake is valuable, even, or maybe especially, for artists.

The Secret Currency of Love — Hilary Black

A Time magazine interview called “The Truth About Women, Money and Relationships” with Hilary Black, the editor of The Secret Currency of Love: The Unabashed Truth About Women, Money, and Relationships inspired me to buy the deceptively titled book, which has little if any truth in it and no useful financial advice save that it’s not a bad idea to play defensively with one’s cash, lest it come to affect other aspects of one’s life. As Terry Teachout recently quoted from Dickens’ David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Black solicited essays about money from a bunch of women and published the results, which are less than the sum of their parts. The confessional tone man adopt often seems forced, as one’s partner might after having paid for an hour or two of time, and the reductive nature of the problems—am I selling out? If so, should I? And why is it so nice to sell out?—grates by halfway through; you’re better off reading the interview and skipping the book, thus avoiding the trap I fell into. Black says, “One thing I noticed over the many years I worked at More was that although people often wrote about divorce and Botox and sex, they didn’t really talk about money in a way that was as profound or exploratory.” That’s still true. To read profound and exploratory discussions about money, try Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life. Or, hell, try Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Martin Amis’ Money, which tell you more about the issue through fiction than The Secret Currency of Love does through superficial fact.

The openings of two essays might help convey the genteel banality, which smother, like wrapper over an eggroll, the insight that genuinely exists in sections of The Secret Currency of Love:

I didn’t have a regular cleaning lady until I was thirty-seven years old. I would have loved to be free of the daily drudgery of sweeping, dusting, and the Saturday scrubbing of the toilet, but paying another person to clean up my mess felt wrong. Overindulgent. Spoiled. Excessively first world.

(Ah, the joys of wealth: worrying about how one’s wealth functions on a symbolic level more than on a practical level. Is the overly examined life really worth living?)

Some women wake up at forty-five and realize they forgot to have children. I realized I forgot to make money.
I’ve never given much though to personal finance. Truth be told, it hasn’t been a serious problem: I’m grateful I’ve never had to worry about having enough or finding a place to sleep. Nor has money ever been a major goal, accomplishment, or dirty secret: I did not get an M.B.A. or go public with a company, and I don’t worry about having to hide my wealth for fear of attracting the wrong friends.

Another woman opens with a generic-seeming description of a playdate for a son at a new school, only to find that the friend’s family is loaded to the point of Google-level wealth. And it’s hard to care about another fish out of water story, or another story about the tortures of picking between money and love. Although each essay is well-written in a way that lets the seams show, many authors tell tales of financial deprivation by way of their profession, since writers are not as a rule remunerated highly. Consequently, I begin to suspect a sample bias problem: writers are, tautologically, better at writing than most people; the editor needs writers to fill a book about money; therefore, the nature of the people who offer their services affects the content even more than usual. Writers are often conflicted about commerce and thus are more likely to feel the schism when others would simply take the money—or not. And many of the contributors have absorbed the idea that writing in an unheated garret is romantic and that money is corrupting, which makes their relationships to money more tortured that those relationships perhaps need to be.

This essay’s tone is critical, and perhaps overly so, since The Secret Currency of Love is nonetheless instructive in showing that many people, even the wannabe bohemians, have more uncertainty about how income shapes us than they might admit under other circumstances. It would be nice to have enough money to live above it, like someone who has taken their company public or someone who has inherited enough not worry, but even that is fraught with intellectual and perhaps corrupting peril.

There are clever bits, which come chiefly at the beginning, when the repetitiveness of the problems suffered hasn’t yet drawn one’s attention to where the next essay starts rather than where this one is going, as when Abby Ellin writes:

In other words, I live life on my own terms.
The only problem with this lifestyle is that “freedom” is generally just another word for “nothing left to deposit.”

In which case, are you really free? I get the sense that one is paging Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own. More recently than Woolf, Philip Greenspun dealt with the same issue in his unfair but still fascinating essay “Women in Science:”

In the personal domain, young people are very different from old people. If you interview old people and ask “What are the greatest sources of satisfaction and happiness in your life?” almost always the answer “my children” comes back. At the age when people are choosing careers, the idea of having children is often unappealing and certainly few have the idea that one should choose a “kid-friendly” career. Old people, on average, also have higher income requirements than young people. A youngster is happy to backpack around the globe, stay in youth hostels for $20 per night, and sleep in a tent. Most oldsters become devoted to their creature comforts and get cranky in anything less than $200 per night private hotel room. Young people don’t mind one $400 per month room in a dingy 4BR apartment shared with three or four other young people; most oldsters need their own apartment or house (edging up towards $1 million in America’s nicer neighborhoods).

The long blockquote might seem irrelevant, but because of the age of the contributors to The Secret Currency of Love, I suspect that their choices in career and other terms have come to seem less sagacious in retrospect than they were at the time such choices were made. Hence the fear of penury, the desire for a family, and the fact that, as Greenspun says elsewhere, “Any resource that is scarce, such as real estate, is snapped up by society’s economic winners.” Writers are seldom among that group.

Alas: I suspect that reading Greenspun’s essay along with a regular dose of The Atlantic would be more instructive and insightful regarding money, as well as innumerable other subjects,than The Secret Currency of Love. Don’t be fooled by an alluring topic—underneath its cosmetic marketing, the book is fundamentally shallow.

… 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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