Tag Archives: rant

Nearly Quit Writing This Week

I almost quit writing this past week. Art is a very rough road, and there are no clear signs to “success.” Effort and ability are not enough. I’ve got a bookshelf and tablet full of indie writers who have gone through the considerable effort of writing and publishing their works – but the truth is that few people are likely to read what they write. It is as I said: hard work and ability aren’t enough.

The flat truth: the number of writers in any given market are increasing at a much faster pace than the number of readers. The limited amount of time and money the audience has is being more finely distributed over an ever-increasing number of authors. So bad is it that it is considered de rigeur for indie writers to pay promotional sites to give away their books. It is a reader’s market, and for the readers it’s great! They get to read to their heart’s content and not pay a dime, to have a plethora of high-quality work for free, indeed, the expense is borne by the writer, not the consumer.

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How to get people riding recumbent bicycles

This Cruzbike blog post talks about the new Union Cycliste Internationale’s manifesto, Cycling for All. Cruzbike’s Jim Parker says, and I paraphrase, that without recumbents in the conversation, the UCI’s manifesto is so much hot air because upright bicycles are structurally unhealthy for people – causing serious pain if used regularly, particularly in middle-aged and older cyclists. If the UCI is serious about “bicycling for all,” we must talk about place of recumbents in the cycling world.

Of course, I agree that recumbents should be in the conversation – indeed, I think that most riders would prefer recumbents due to comfort. In the car biz, top speed and hill climbing ability is not the only criteria for excellence – comfort, style, affordability, etc., play serious roles. The constant criticism of upright bicyclists about the perceived lack of hill climbing ability of recumbents is simply irrelevant to the “the all” in the bicycling for all. Most riders will never seek out ten thousand feet of climbing for a day’s ride, after all, and will go to great lengths to avoid that kind of climbing.

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Publishers have always made a killing on the backs of writers

Tara Sparling posted There’s An Indie Publishing Gold Rush, And Guess Who’s Making A Killing?

While the article is, itself, worth reading, I’d like to point out that publishing as we currently know it is the primary form of writer exploitation.

In traditional publication, writers give up much of their rights over their work for a period – often years, sometimes indefinitely. Most writers get damn little support, too. And for giving up the right to price their book, sell it where and how they please, and a bunch of editorial control, the writer gets ten percent of cover price (or about 20% of what the publishing house makes).

Defenders of traditional publication will say that the publisher assumes all the financial risk. Which is untrue. The writer has spent untold hours of their life writing and editing before they get to the point of publication – that’s financial risk, too. But no one talks about the financial risk of a writer because it happens beforehand. But it’s there and its real. The writer has spent their precious hours writing the book with the hopes of financial reward for their labor, after all.  That’s the definition of financial risk.  Writers are taking a chance writing at all.

Absent an argument of financial risk – which is shared equally by the writer and publisher – the rationale for the publisher getting eighty percent is. . . what, exactly?

Let’s flip the script a bit. You’re an engineer. You’ve spent a lot of time, money, and effort to become an engineer. And you spent another year of your life making a cool invention. So you take it to EngineerCo and pitch your invention. What they say is, “It’s a great invention, we like it, but we’re not going to pay you anything for it – or we’ll pay you a pittance, like, five grand for your years of work – and if we sell any, we’ll take eighty percent, and you won’t get paid anything until we recoup the money we forwarded to you.” If you’re an engineer, you’d be insulted and seek elsewhere – or go into business for yourself.  Society would praise you for your entrepreneurial spirit.

But that’s what publishers tell authors. Even when they like their work, they don’t pay a living wage for it (unless you’re one of the lucky few), and they take a shamelessly high percentage of book sales. So if your book sells a few hundred copies, they make their money back, and if it sells a million. . . well, they make about four times as much as the author.

It’s a good scam, really.  And the most significant one, too.  Traditional publishers are robbers.

I can’t seem to figure out what a publicist does – which is a good reason for not hiring one

I acknowledge that publicity doesn’t come naturally to me. And since I am lucky enough to be middle class, and have a little bit of money to just throw at a problem, I started looking into the effectiveness of a book publicist. So I found this article by Jane Friedman about her takeaway from a panel about book publicists.

Perhaps I have trained myself to see too many fnords – to see the unsaid but relevant things. But Friedman’s article goes on at some length about what publicists want from the writers with whom they work, but nothing about what the publicist brings to the table. What the publicist does for the writer is discussed in ONE LINE in Friedman’s article: “Publicity seeks to find, identify, or target the audience to make them aware of your book.” The rest? It is about saying how much work the author will need to do, and lowering expectations.

Continue reading I can’t seem to figure out what a publicist does – which is a good reason for not hiring one

Wine tasting as the construction of “quality”

One of the things vexes me as a writer is how quality gets constructed. How do humans decide what they like and dislike? The simple answer is “we like what’s good.” Slightly less simple, but only slightly, is “we like what we like.” But the longer I think about the subject, the more I think that perhaps the most significant factor in determining quality is a person’s internal narrative. I also believe that how we decide what we like and dislike is intensely important because unless we understand the origin of our internal narrative – and how outside forces shape it – we diminish our intellectual freedom and harm our communities.

Which brings us to io9‘s article, pithily entitled, “Wine Tasting is Bullshit. Here’s Why.” It is useful for my purposes because it is a survey of other articles that discuss the problem with wine tasting. In none of the articles does the idea of “narrative” come up, but I firmly believe that’s the underlying issue.

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Bad editing at both Politico and the Brookings Institute: Susan B. Glasser and “Covering Politics in a ‘post-truth’ America”

Susan B. Glasser’s article “Covering Politics in a ‘post-truth’ America'” is an interesting read, though not in the way it was intended. At least, not for me. As usual, the interest comes in the form of fnords, and how it demonstrates bad editing.

What’s the fnord? The whole thesis of the article! The idea that the press is better than it has ever been while also being more hated and more ignored than it has ever been is FUCKING INSANE. “The press is so good, today! It’s too bad that we have poisoned the well and no one respects us or pays attention to us.”

(And, as ever, I will take this time to point the finger at the Brookings Institute guys who let this obviously flawed thesis past the draft stage. The fundamental contradiction in the article is obvious, and I’m hardly an elite editor. If my primary job were to make sure that content was intelligible, I’d be ashamed to have let something this obvious slide by. The thesis makes no sense, and Glasser should have known it, and her editors at the Brookings Institute, too.)

Glasser also ignores some very real items. The biggest is the money.

The press loved Trump because he sold newspapers. So they followed him with a dogged, slavish devotion, hanging on his every word. The amount of free press that Trump got from the traditional media was in the billions of dollars. If they had treated Trump fairly, if they had focused as much on his flaws instead of just his fucking Twitter account, if they hadn’t been so sycophantic in following him, Clinton would have won. And they did this for money. It does not follow the basic principles of journalistic ethics – they prostituted themselves for money, and the whole country will suffer.

And, not for nothing, for the press, there is a hell of a silver lining. Trump is now President, and he’ll keep on selling papers. For them, there was no downside. Middle-class white people – and the press has yet to face the racism in its biz – are going to do fine under Trump. We’ll probably see big tax cuts, even! PLUS, they’ll sell a lot of papers! It made it very easy for the press to ignore how much they profit from Trump, and how that profit makes it hard for them to be objective about what happened in 2016.  Glasser ignoring the role that money played in the media portrayal of Trump is unconscionable.

So when Glasser says that “the big media crisis of the Reagan era was all about the ease with which the journalists could be spun or otherwise co-opted into the Hollywood-produced story line coming out of Reagan’s media-savvy White House,” I think she’s ignoring that media manipulation is a problem we have today. Her article with the Brookings Institute is part of the modern willingness of the press to succumb to manipulation!

After all, part of the very story of the election was the way Trump was manipulating the media. They knew it was happening. It wasn’t a secret. But they let it happen; they let the Trump stories that should have remained in the pages of TMZ and other gossip rags spread through the “real” news and treated his every tweet as important. Sure, there were good stories about Trump’s corruption and incompetence – but they were buried in a non-stop barrage where the news media hung on his every word and movement.

Otherwise, it reads like a paean to the Good Old Days. I understand that Glasser believes that the democratization of media of the Internet age is a good thing. But the fact remains: as the media has been democratized, it has become easier to dismiss. This is not good. So while the technology of the news has improved dramatically, its effects have diminished. If computers ran faster than ever but broke down all the time, we would not say that “computers had improved.” We would yearn for the days when computers worked properly.

The inability of the news media to adapt to modern technology – even as that technology has made parts of their job much easier – means that the media has not improved!

That at this stage of the game they’re only becoming aware of the crisis is, itself, exceptionally telling. The public’s dissatisfaction with the news is old news. The Daily Show – the show is nearly old enough to vote – has been a running commentary on American dissatisfaction with the media. So while Glasser writes her personal history in the news business in the rise of Internet news, she doesn’t talk about how media’s failure with the Internet created the dissatisfaction with the news. It becomes a story of a day late and a dollar short – that the traditional press didn’t understand the significance of the 24-hour cable news, or the Drudge Report, or Facebook, or Twitter.  She doesn’t describe better news, but worse.

Perhaps most tellingly, the article has a chart where age cohort ranks people’s primary news sources. Unsurprisingly, young people mostly get their news from the Internet. Equally unsurprisingly, the older you are, the more likely that you get your news from cable news shows, local news, and newspapers.

But remember Glasser’s thesis – that the Internet, specifically social media, has created insular worldviews that allow people to ignore objective facts.

Her chart, however, seems to indicate, well, the contrary. Young people voted for Clinton, they like gay and trans rights, they are pro-choice and believe in evolution and anthropocentric climate change. Trump’s anti-fact, news-hating cohorts tend to be older Americans, often with limited or no direct Internet access!

By her own data, there is an inverse correlation between getting news on social media and being gulled by anti-news conspiracy theories and counterfactual stories. If anything, it suggests that the real culprit behind hating the traditional news is cable news channels! But it is hardly a story that Fox News has attacked the basis for objectivity in America. However, that’s where Glasser’s data goes.

(And, again, how did this pass editorial muster? I know that analyzing data is hard. I do. But Glasser is the editor of Politico, and I presume there are editors for the Brookings Institute, too. These people are supposed to be the best in the world at editing news stories. I am constantly struck while reading this at how badly it is reasoned and analyzed. Clearly, they don’t even understand the data that they’re looking at, or else they would not have so brazenly printed it!)

Scattered throughout are ads for Politico (“These days, Politico has a newsroom of 200-odd journalists, a glossy award-winning magazine, dozens of daily email newsletters, and 16 subscription policy verticals. It’s a major player in coverage not only of Capitol Hill but many other key parts of the capital, and some months during this election year we had well over 30 million unique visitors to our website, a far cry from the controlled congressional circulation of 35,000 that I remember Roll Call touting in our long-ago sales materials,” and similar nonsense.)

It ends by continuing to ignore the brute fact that the Internet generation is pretty fact-loving – that they aren’t the problem. The people buying the “fake news” and “post-truth” garbage get their news from cable TV and newspapers.  Glasser offers no solutions, not even for the wrong problem her article identifies. She says that traditional news media “took their audience for granted.” She talks about the dearth of investigative reporting and ignores Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowdon and the whistleblower websites that have utterly transformed investigative journalism. She also doesn’t mention the many failures of the news media – not just with Trump, but with, say, the Iraqi war when journalists “embedded” themselves with military units and praised Colin Powell for his “slam dunk” presentation to the UN that was entirely fictitious. Even though UN weapon’s inspectors were highly vocal about Powell’s failure and critical of the American march to war in Iraq – how did THAT happen, hmm? Glasser creates a fairytale where the sole problem with the news media has been a little arrogance, not that they have failed at every turn to both effectively communicate their ideas (which is necessary for their job) combined with factual errors of the highest caliber.

And while bragging about how much Politico is worth, Glasser fails to mention the extent to which editorial greed motivated the news media’s puppy-dog-like prancing after Trump, and how this plays into modern news reporting on all platforms. When Glasser started the job, newspapers were sustained almost by patronage. No one expected to get rich owning a newspaper. Nowadays, that’s the whole point. CNN ushered in an age where news was profitable on a scale large enough to interest big-money investors. And they want their money’s worth. And they were willing to pursue Trump – and be one of the forces that handed him the Presidency – to get it. So by failing to touch on the role of money in news, Glasser doesn’t have to look at the incredible journalistic ethical failures of modern news corporations including Politico and her own compromised status.

I also find it utterly disingenuous by Glasser to admit that the press sabotaged the election with their non-stop coverage of Trump (and, as a corollary, their equally bad coverage of Clinton) but then have a “shucks, who, us?” look on her face.  You can’t grab a bunch of money in defiance of journalistic ethics and then claim that it was just a little mistake.  If she was honest, she would have known that chasing money rather than legitimate, fact-based stories is part of the problem – and part of the reason why the news isn’t trusted.  How many times can the media chase money and fail at their jobs before surrendering their claim to truth?  I would argue we are well past that point.  That skepticism of the news is a rational decision in the face of their money-grubbing and lies.

Which does not make it good for people to fall for conspiracy theories and fake news.  It is, however, a dilemma.  If you can’t rely on the news for accurate facts – and as the Trump election shows, again, we can’t – where does a person go?

The ass-kissing sycophancy of Ron Chernow’s Titan makes it altogether unreadable

About seventy pages in I stopped reading the biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Titan by Ron Chernow. The reason is simple: it is unadulteratedly sycophantic and the otherwise shoddy research and analysis.

The precise moment I quit was when Rockefeller proposed. Chernow said, “One imagines the two of them smilingly shyly with relief.”

No, Ron, one doesn’t. Because you’re writing history, not fiction, and there are a lot of explanations why it might have taken Rockefeller so long to propose – ranging from profound social awkwardness to homosexuality, for instance. Maybe the reason why Rocky took SEVEN YEARS to propose is that he. . . wasn’t interested in women. Which, admittedly, might make him smile in relief, but not for the reason you mention, but because his beard agreed to it. And if we’re just imagining things, why not imagine that he was gay? BECAUSE IT ISN’T HISTORY WITHOUT RESEARCH. You don’t just get to “imagine” things!

Of course, this is the same guy who did not discuss the possibility that the reason Rockefeller avoided the Civil War, which started when he was a young man, was cowardice. But, later on, when Rockefeller doesn’t give into a bully, Chernow is quick to attribute Rockefeller with bravery. Like it’s some great feat to tell someone yelling at you in your place of business to fuck off!

He also quotes several times even in the first seventy pages, the “philosopher” Max Weber. Weber’s contributions to philosophy are racist and sexist – and as one of the founders of sociology, his racism and sexism would cast a long, fascist shadow.

In particular, Chernow is obsessed with Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I have no fucking idea why Chernow would quote this book during the early years of Rockefeller’s life, given that it was published in 1905 and not 1955, except that Chernow is a terrible historian. Chernow also gives no indication whatsoever that Weber ever influenced Rockefeller, or even that Rockefeller was aware of the German philosopher.

From the start, Weber’s work was also highly controversial, even in theological circles. Immediate critiques flowed in from Catholic and atheist Germans who were less than impressed by Weber’s “reasoning.” And, of course, there were a lot of German philosophers in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Why not discuss Schopenauer, Hegel, Marx, or Nietzsche? Of all the German philosophers to pull, why Weber?

Because Weber provides an intellectual-sounding rationalization which casts Rockefeller’s greed in a positive light. Rockefeller was successful because of his Baptist theology which created virtue, and (Chernow repeats this) teaches that wealth is gained to be a steward of God’s creation. Bringing up those other Germans would reinforce the possibility that Rockefeller was aware of his greed and how ethically atrocious it was, and how charity is a poor substitute for political action.

Lastly, while Weber is still highly regarded in sociology, his works are intensely racist. The Protestant Work Ethic is an ideal example of this. Weber took the previous century of human existence, and his feelings about it, as “proof” that Protestants work harder than other people, and it is from their hard work that wealth is created. It ignores, of course, the effects of colonialization perpetrated by Protestant nations, including Germany, but especially England. It also ignored poorer Protestant nations, particularly Scandinavian countries, in the 19th century – that wealth was created along the lines of conquest and colonization rather than religious background.

Of course, it also ignores that the origins of capitalism arose not in Britain, but in Renaissance Italy and that for centuries before the Industrial Revolution, it had been Catholic nations that were economical, politically, and culturally dominant. And, of course, it ignores that the reason industrialization happened more in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe were the easily accessed coal in England, Scotland, and Germany, as well as the captured markets created by European colonization.

I could go on in this vein for a while, of course, but suffice it to say that Weber twisted history in racist ways to prove his “point.” And as I have said before, and I’m sure I’ll say again, if you have to go on a campaign of wholesale lying to prove your point, you don’t have one.

In the context of Titan, then, one would ask what any of this has to do with Rockefeller? The answer is simple: nothing, other than a reason for Chernow to get down on his knees and shove his tongue up Rockefeller’s anus. By repeatedly returning to Weber, Chernow can create a facile intellectual argument that Rockefeller wasn’t just a grasping, greedy sonofabitch, but motivated by ethics. Which is why Weber comes up half a dozen times in the first seventy pages – every time Rockefeller does something sketchy, Chernow drags out Weber’s corpse to say we shouldn’t be too hard on the old boy. I found this sycophancy disgusting and intellectually dishonest.

If one looks at Weber’s other religious works, this bias becomes more evident. In his book on Protestants and capitalism, Weber focuses on the 16th century forward. In Weber’s The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, he primarily looks at ancient Chinese history. Which conveniently ignores having to face the troubling aspects of European colonialism in China, such as the British engaging in a policy of addicting China to opium, which was highly relevant at the time Weber was writing. (The Boxer Rebellion was in 1899, whose origins were the Opium Wars.)

It is highly interesting today, a century later, because no one in their right fucking mind would say that the Chinese suck at capitalism or that they don’t work like rented mules. Weber rationalized the present economic domination by Protestant nations in a simple, ahistorical, and inherently deceptive way. Confucianism and Taoism did not stand in the way of economic development! Most most of human history, China has been a powerhouse of trade, industry, and technological progress, as well as good government. But rather than look at why China, in 1920, was “the weak man of Asia,” after literally thousands of years of cultural, military, and economic dominance of the greater portion of humanity, Weber studied things that happened literally thousands of years ago and drew the Hegelian conclusion that China was “frozen” in development. It is teeth-grindingly racist, and Chernow embraced him to “demonstrate” the benevolence of Rockefeller – which is depraved, and demonstrates how poor Chernow’s research was and that his analysis was worse.

And time and again, Chernow characterizes Rockefeller in a positive light, offering only flattering portrayals. So Rockefeller avoiding the Civil War was not cowardice, even though Chernow stresses that Rockefeller was an abolitionist, but guided by his desire to serve God by making money, so he could be a steward of wealth to help people. Just ask Max Weber.

When Rockefeller went behind his partners’ backs to set up funding and then dissolved the company without consulting them, this is not characterized by Chernow as a slimy, borderline illegal business practice, but a sign of his vision and adamantine will that viewed things on a longer timeline than us ordinary mortals. (This kind of language about Rockefeller’s “vision” being above us normal folks is everywhere in Titan, even though in my previous review I covered how Rockefeller stumbled into the oil business through coincidence, not vision.)

When Rockefeller overexposed himself by buying the business from his partners, it is again described as will and vision – not happenstance. In retrospect, we know that oil becomes the biggest business in the world, but at the time there was no reason to think that. The oil vanished in Western Pennsylvania very quickly, and there had been no other discoveries. But in Chernow’s farcical world, this happenstance is “vision.” If the oil had vanished in Pennsylvania just a year or two sooner than it did, Rockefeller’s financial overexposure when buying out his partner’s refinery would have spelled doom. But there is simply no acknowledgment that Rockefeller got lucky, that Rockefeller had no fact-based reason to overextend himself buying the refinery, or fact-based reason to think that the oil would last.

At any rate, the book is terrible. When Chernow wanted us to imagine what might have happened when Rockefeller proposed, though, it veered from simply bad analysis and writing to outright fiction.

But there’s always another book about a rich asshole being written, and hopefully, my research into the Johnson & Johnson dynasty will go better.

Criticism of John Galt’s Speech in Atlas Shrugged – I come not to praise Johnny the G, but bury him

statue-1515390_1920-1200x900I’ve just got done with John Galt’s long speech in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It’s part philosophy lecture and part insult-comic rant. It is bad at both. (Later on, in my general critique of Atlas Shrugged, I’ll cover the most serious of her flaws in regards to art, politics and economics. It would take a book-length critique to get them all, but there are several that are especially glaring, even to me.)

There are three primary philosophical sins in John Galt’s 36,000 word speech: the first is badly constructed syllogisms, the second is reliance on arguments from authority, the third is straw man arguments. I’m going to give an example of each, but just one, because the speech sixty-plus pages long and it would take forever to cover everything.

Continue reading Criticism of John Galt’s Speech in Atlas Shrugged – I come not to praise Johnny the G, but bury him

Why people like Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s philosophy

Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand

I believe I have figured out the appeal of Atlas Shrugged.

#1. Herbert Spencer’s defense of capitalism is flawed. Before there was Ayn Rand, the philosopher of the market was Herbert Spencer, who used a social Darwinism message to defend the unchecked accumulation of wealth. The argument ran: “Evolutionarily speaking, if you’ve got it and you can keep it, you deserve it, no matter the source.”

The immense flaw with this plan is that if, say, the Russian Revolution came along and reminded merchants that they were a bunch of wussy powderpuffs wholly dependent people capable and willing to kick ass to defend them from brutal thugs who would kick their middle classes asses in a hot minute, then the very philosophy they espoused was turned against them: unable to hold onto things, they did NOT deserve them, and now the communists do.

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On using magic as a critique of the world: Ayn Rand and math

Ayn Rand “math”: Rearden Metal is cheaper per pound than iron. One of the major components of Rearden Metal is copper.  It is not used in trace amounts, but requires hundreds of tons of the stuff for thousands of tons of Rearden Metal.  In other words, Rearden Metal is at least 10% copper – and maybe more.

Cost of iron, per pound: $0.004 per pound.

Cost of copper, per pound: between $0.55 and $1.95 per pound, depending on quality.

Continue reading On using magic as a critique of the world: Ayn Rand and math