Archive for March, 2007

Online Authors

Posted in Books, The Blog on March 23rd, 2007

Alright, so I’m 25 years old and theoretically an adult. But I’m still giddy as all get out that Elizabeth Bear linked to my blog. In the old days (read, 5 years ago), you might have a chance to run into a favorite author at a fan convention or possibly even get a reply to a letter that you sent to them. These days, authors are out here on ‘teh Internets’ engaging in conversations with their fans and building communities around their body of work. It is a radically different way of doing business and one that I think is slowly, but surely, changing how the publishing industry works.

John Scalzi is probably a prime example of the phenomenon. His blog, the Whatever, is one of the more popular science fiction blogs out there and is definitely one the prime examples of someone who has built a community around his blog. William Gibson may have a popular blog, but people read it because he is famous, not because what he posts is inherently valuable in a blogie sense. Most of Gibson’s posts (at least the ones that are longer than a few lines) have been excerpts from works in progress: these are always interesting, but are not about community in the way that Scalzi’s blog is. Scalzi is famous because of his blog. Without his blog and the publicity and audience that it brought, maybe he doesn’t win his Campbell award.

Why does his blog work for him like this? You read it for a while and you get the sense that you know this guy and, more importantly, that he is the sort of person you want to know. So what does having a popular blog get Scalzi?

One is the desire to read his books. Because I feel like I can identify with Scalzi it then stands that the books that he writes are going to be interesting to me the same way his blog is. And sure enough, I’ve got my share of Scalzi books on my shelves and I’m currently stalking the rest for their paperback release (there are very few authors who I buy in hard cover these days. With 200+ on the wishlist, I can afford to wait a bit longer for the paperbacks and not run out of stuff to read). So Scalzi gets money from me because he has a blog.

Two is that he has the ability to pimp out his friends and fellow writers. I’ve got a whole bunch of books either bought or on the wishlist because Scalzi has said nice things about them on his blog. Cherie Priest, Charlie Stross, Peter Watts, Susan Groppi, Chris Roberson, Kelly Link, even Elizabeth Bear: I have already or will soon be giving you money because of things that John Scalzi said about you. In the case of Elizabeth Bear, I’ve bought 4 of your books and pimped you out to a bunch of my friends. Cherie Priest I’ve got one of your books and convinced someone else to buy it as well. Etc. and etc. Because I like John Scalzi, I’m willing to trust his opinion and spend my money on you. In essence, this goes back to the whole small stories things I wrote about previously. Because I have nowhere enough time to keep up with every new science fiction and fantasy author who comes around, I have to rely on people to filter them out for me. Because I trust John Scalzi’s taste, I trust his condensed version of who is worth reading.

Third is that he has my attention for any hair-brained scheme that he can cook up. Like his current SFWA presidency gig. The reason that he can attempt to run such a campaign is that he has a whole crazy group of people like me that enjoy the community that he has built. We’re all willing to listen to what he has to say, maybe blog about it, maybe talk to someone about. His messages gets out there. With that sort of power he could, dare I say it, rule the world.

The reversal here is important. In the old days, authors wrote books which might build a community if they got popular. But these days authors can build a community which can then launch their books. Have audience, will write.

Trackback Test

Posted in Uncategorized on March 19th, 2007

As of yesterday, I didn’t have trackback working on this blog. I also could not use the Akismet spam blocking plugin. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with my host, aplus.net. Now I’ve never had any real problems with these guys, though there are people on the web who have had their share of bad things to say about them. Fair enough, but I’ve never had any real problems. I was having Server 500 errors a while ago and they fixed it in a day once I reported it to them.

Now I think that the problem with the trackback and the spam plugin have to do with port 80 being blocked on my host. So I got an email from them today claiming that they’ve fixed the problem. The spam plugin now works. However, it appears that the Dashboard does not work (and I think they both use the same mechanism. I don’t care about the dashboard. I do care about trackbacks. I’ve held off on a couple posts because I want to have trackbacks working before I post. Not being able to build a web of interconnected posts betweens sites defeats the purpose of blogs. So I’m throwing this up here to test the whole Trackback thing. Hopefully this next link registers a trackback.

Small stories and politics

Posted in Life, Politics on March 17th, 2007

There is another component, besides informational complexity, that explains why small stories are used: increased informational availability. There is more information available today than there has been in the entire course of human history and we are generating it at an ever increasing rate. There are more scientific studies, books, lectures, papers, experiments, philosophical tracts, esoteric websites in existence now than any one person could ever digest. There are probably more words written in a single week than a person could read in a lifetime. Which means that it becomes increasingly hard for anyone to know something about everything. There was a time when someone could be a “Renaissance Man,” excelling in all the scholarly fields. That is impossible now. It is becoming increasingly hard to even excel in a single field: people are not physicist anymore, but astrophysicists and theoretical physicists.

This has greatly increased the need for “small stories” in every facet of our lives. There is simply not enough time or brain-cycle capacity to absorb everything or even a tiny subset of everything. There is a lot of talk about the decreasing attention span of today’s youth and our need to have constantly changing stimulation Is that a reflection of some sort of deficiency in us as people or just a result of trying to keep up with the massive amounts of information that exist these days. Cable news stations are criticized for reducing everything to sound bites. But, really, what are their options? If you take the time to provide the full context for every story, including all pertinent prior events, you’d never get through the “news” in an entire day. There are more things that happen every day than could possibly be talked about.

That is not saying that cable news is a good thing. It is saying that it is an inevitable thing. As more things happen (and our society is currently increasing the number of things that happen every day) you have less time to talk about each of them. Less time to talk means you have to lose complexity, turn a real story into a “simple story.” It is this process, of condensing information into its most basic component, which is where problems start.

Smart people understand the process. They know that no one has the time to know the real story. So if you craft your press releases and your interviews in ways that are easily compressible, your message will be transmitted better. It is a process that Republicans have come to understand much better than Democrats. The reason that John Kerry was Swift-Boated is that he tried to turn it into a discussion, even though discussions do not get reported on. People do not have the time to know everything. They have to worry about their job, their kids, their sports teams, their investments, their TV shows, their music, their car, their mortgage, their health, their dinner, their marriage, their college education. Where in that is supposed to be the time to study all sides of the issues and reach an informed conclusion?

It is often argued that being informed about is important, where can be health, or retirement, or politics, or rasing children. But there is more conflicting information about all of those than anyone could read in a lifetime. How do you choose what to read? How do you educate yourself as to how to properly educate yourself about things that are too complicated for you to have the time to educate yourself about them? When a person is faced with deciding between two messages, one that says that John Kerry is lying about being a war hero and one that meanders about trying to explain why he doesn’t want to talk about, which do you think is going to win? It doesn’t matter which is right.

That is reality. This will never change. We will never have more time and less information. The history of human civilization tends towards complexity in all things. It may suck, it may be unfortunate, it may lead people to wring their hands and gripe about the old days. Doesn’t matter. It isn’t going to change. What is now important is learning how to craft small stories that tell the story you want to tell. Small stories that cut to the heart of your issue in the way that you want. Because no one has time to read all the small print all of the time.

Small Stories, part 1

Posted in Life on March 17th, 2007

Just finished reading “What we believe, but cannot prove” a collection of essays by prominent thinkers about theories or hypothesis that they consider true but have no factual evidence to support. It’s an uneven book. Some of the authors are apparently trying to prove how clever they are by playing word games with the question itself (What is something that you believe but cannot prove?). Others write about things which are so scientifically specific as to be rather meaningless to those of us without advanced astrophysics training. There are some that are quite excellent. And some which are odd.

One of the odd ones is from Jean Paul Schmetz who believes but cannot prove that most of the things that students are taught in Economics 101 are false. I find this interesting because I thought that everyone already knew this. The idea that what is taught in Economics 101 has any bearing on how economics really works or that the people teaching it actually believe what they are teaching is one that does not hold a lot of credence. There was an excellent article that I found a while ago (which I think I have currently lost) which talked about just this situation: where students progressing through economics curriculum learn that everything they had initially studied really doesn’t work.

Of course, its not like the professors are maliciously lying to these students. It is more that they are telling them “small stories.” It’s a concept that I ran across in an Elizabeth Bear novel I just finished (Worldwired, great book). Small stories are the stories we tell to children to explain things in simple, often “not-quite-true” fashion. A small story is telling a child that gravity is the force that keeps us from floating away off the Earth. Which is true in a fashion, but it really does not accurately describe what gravity is. But it does give a child a reference point for understanding and reassures them that they’re not going to float away. Of course, it gets more complicated when you have to explain things like balloons and airplanes, escape velocity, and the concept of gravity wells in the space-time fabric. So small stories never tell the whole story or even the right story, but they allow someone to grasp a concept enough to move forward.

In Worldwired, the concept is expanded from stories for children to the idea of stories that are told between adults who work in highly complicated fields who otherwise couldn’t talk to each other. How does a xenobiologist talk to a space pilot? How does a xenobiologist talk to an astrophysicist? As knowledge becomes more specialized, communication has to become more general. Stories needs to be smaller and smaller in order to be easily accessible. How does a scientist with thirty years of experience in a field, whose entire course of reasoning is based upon a foundation of basic knowledge, explain derived inferences to someone who does not even understand the basic foundation. That’s what small stories are about.

Amazon Wishlist

Posted in Books, Life on March 17th, 2007

When I started last year, my Amazon wishlist was around 180 books. I read around 75 books last year and I’ve polished off another 20 something this year (I’d have exact numbers if I want ed to go turn on the computer with the list on it, but that’s too much work right now). That’s almost 100 books read in a year and three months. Probably 70 some of them were off the wishlist (the rest were presents, re-reads, books borrowed from my sister or my mom, one book lent by a friend, etc.) Which means all things considered, my wishlist should be around 110 books. It is currently at 240. In the same period of time that I read 70 books off the wishlist, I managed to add 130 books to it! This is clearly going to be a problem.

I have a suggestion: everyone should stop publishing books for the next half year so that I can catch up.

The Delay

Posted in The Blog on March 12th, 2007

Sorry about the long delay in posting. I’ve got a bunch of stuff I’m working on, but I’m currently bogged down with coding projects. As soon as they start wrapping up and I have a more normal schedule, I’ll get back to posting. The things I’m currently thinking about are:

  • Rape, in particular the issue of rape in Iraq vs. America. And the larger theoretical issues about rape raised by Kipnis.
  • A system for saving, filing, and accessing quotes and other information. In essence, a tool for managing memes and drawing connections and correlations between data.
  • The Idea of small stories and how that plays into soundbites and shortened attention spans.
  • RIchard Dawkins
  • What is Free Will and will we ever be able to prove its existence (or non-existence as the case may be
  • Plus a long waiting piece on the male conversation (and lack there of) about sexuality.

So yeah, lots of stuff on deck at the moment. Looking towards having new posts up tomorrow night at the latest, but no promises.

Laura Kipnis

Posted in Gender, Sex on March 6th, 2007

Laura Kipnis is my sort of feminist. Her new book is the most succinct and lucid book on the current state of gender relations that I’ve read. I highly recommend “The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability.” She does a great job of spelling out the current struggle between feminism and femininity that often occurs not at the societal level but at the individual level. She has some provocative things to say about a whole host of issues including sex and rape. Definitely a lot there that I want to write more about here.

Marriage on the decline

Posted in Gender, Life on March 6th, 2007

Marriage as an institution has been a hot topic of debate as of late. Most notable has been the increasing struggle over gay marriage, but there has also been the somewhat quieter decline in the number of people getting married. While the divorce rate has stabilized (and actually decreased slightly) lately, part of that may be due to the fact that fewer people are getting married.

The WaPo recently ran an article on the decline of marriage, especially among the lower class. The Post points to statistics showing that increasing it is college graduates with high incomes getting married, while everyone else is resorting to co-habitation.

There are a couple odd statements in the article. One is this:

Married couples living with their own children younger than 18 are also helping to drive a well-documented increase in income inequality. Compared with all households, they are twice as likely to be in the top 20 percent of income. Their income has increased 59 percent in the past three decades, compared with 44 percent for all households, according to the census.

Now, the article has already explained that fewer people are getting married and that only rich people are getting married. If that is the case, then the truth isn’t that married couples are making more money thereby increasing income disparity. It is that poorer people aren’t getting married, which means that the average wage of married couples is going to go up. The Post seems to have put the horse behind the cart here, missing the point of the very demographic information they are quoting. What is true that the increase in income disparity has increased enough (and one real way that it has increased is that earnings among the lower and middle class have been dropping) that only people riding the crest of the wave feel like they are stable enough to risk getting married.

Which I think is probably the largest part of this decline. Stephanie Coontz writes about the changing attitude towards matrimony in her book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. One things that she highlighted was that the goals behind marriage have substantially changed from being financial partnerships to being love matches. The result is an increasing sense of unhappiness with marriage: if getting together with someone is about true love, rather than ensuring a higher standard of living, then the grounds for complaint are greatly increased. It is easy to measure financial security. But assigning a value to emotional satisfaction is a much harder and more fraught exercise. One that is continually open to ‘the grass is always greener’ syndrome, among other things.

The change that Coonz highlights here is, I think, reflected in the declining lower class marriage rate. Marriage used to be about financial stability. The new perception of marriage is that it is about love and that love is fleeting. While marriage is not expensive, per se, divorce can certainly be and alimony most definitely is. Since marriage is now considered much more transient it make sense that only people who have the financial stability to survive a divorce are getting married.

The government is trying to kill us

Posted in Health on March 5th, 2007

As if we needed more evidence of the triumph of business over everything else in our government, the FDA is on track to approve a new antibiotic for cattle. The new drug, cefquinome, is part of family of last-resort drugs that doctors can use to treat patients with diseases that are resistant to other antibiotics. Considering that antibiotic-resistant infections are on the rise (in military hospitals no less), you’d think that the government might have some small interest in preserving its last line of defense.

The problem with giving this drug to cows is that the more exposure there is to the drug, the easier it is for diseases to develop resistance. According to the WaPo article this is exactly what happened with the fluoroquinolones family of antibiotics when they were fed to chickens. So lets see, dangerous health situation, prior precedent of trouble, what’s the government going to do? Approve the drug.

But what really makes the wonder here are the scientists involved. I know our society has increasingly become monetized, but what ever happened to scientific ethics? How do you go to work every day, knowing that you’re developing a drug that is going to place thousands of lives at risk to cure a problem that doesn’t even exist (the new drug is to treat bovine respiratory infections, for which adequate cures already exist)? I have a hard enough time working in an industry that caters in large part to the advertising industry, but to actively go to work every day to create something that you know, as a scientist, is going to inherently increase disease?

And then there is Richard Carnevale, shill for the veterinary drug makers, sounding off:

“It’s not a question of whether there is a need or not. The answer is, there’s always a need.”

Actually, there is not always a need. A lust for profits doesn’t always have to be the be all and end all of life. How bout this, Mr. Richard Carnevale. If there is such a need and you’re so convinced that this is safe, would you be willing to bet your life on it? Maybe once this drug helps create a cefquinome-resistant strain of bacteria (and it will) you can get infected with it and we’ll see how you like it. See if maybe the need to have a human cure might outweigh the need to treat cattle that are only sick because of the crappy conditions we raise them in. I think your bottom line might change then.

Junk In, Junk Out

Posted in Finance on March 5th, 2007

Bloomberg is reporting (in a nice weekend leak-out) that the credit-default swaps for major New York investment banks are trading at near junk levels. Now I’m not a financial analyst so all this is slightly over my head. But my read of the situation is this. All these big banks have a fairly large amount of money riding in the secondary market on mortgages and probably a fair amount in the primary market as well. For example, Merrill apparently has had two mortgage lenders go belly up underneath it since 2005 and currently owns a third. Now that the housing market is creaking around the edges, companies are starting to worry that the investment banks might be over-extended.

Credit defaults, briefly, are basically insurance contracts against risky bond investments. The more risky the bond investment, the higher the cost of buying the credit default. Merrill, Lehman, Morgan Stanley, and Bear Stearns have all seen their credit default price more than double, in some cases triple. People think they’re holding a lot of bad debt that might be defaulted on.

So what does this all mean? Well, no one is really sure. The credit default market has only existed for a decade. This same sector has just reported its most profitable year ever. So there is little baseline evidence to judge on and from all external appearances the sector appears healthy. But, the big catch in all of this is the sub-prime market. According to the Bloomberg article, most of these companies have about 10-15 percent of their equity locked up in bonds representing sub-prime mortgages. As I said in my previous post, I don’t see a rebound for the housing market in the near future. No rebound means that a lot more of those sub-prime mortgages are going to foreclose, which means a whole world of hurt for the financial sector.

To get on the soapbox for a second, this is what comes from short-sighted corporate management. Sub-prime mortgages were an irresponsible cash grab by the entire financial sector. They were willing to take on disproportionally high-risk because it greatly increased their short-term cash flow and pushed up the bottom line (and the stock price). Anyone running a responsible company would have realized that the cycle was going to end eventually and that pushing consumers farther and farther into debt was only going to backfire. No one cared because everyone at the top was getting paid (and man did those stock options look nice). But now it is getting closer to being time for accountability. Buffet made the point in his report that bad financial policy comes home to roost in the end. It looks like that might start to happen for Wall Street. Between the mortgage lenders and the credit card lenders they’ve strung out the American public to the point where they cannot afford to pay off their debts. And now they’re going to reap the consequences. It’s just sad that so many people may be financially wreaked by this.