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Booksellers versus Bestsellers

  • A 4th helping of notes on a novel in 1940s noir

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    I woke with an aching head, and found there was a heavily-built character sitting on the bed with me. A stitched-up scar ran up his swarthy face to the missing eye, and his remaining eye was dead, completely devoid of human emotion.

    But he was my teddy bear, and I loved him.
    _______________________

    "You're undercover?" she whispered.

    "Yes," I said.

    "Well, you look about as inconspicuous as Herman Cain at a Republican convention."

    ____________________


    "The streets were dark with something more than night," Chandler said.
  • On the illusion of the self

    By John MacBeath Watkins

    As we discussed in an earlier post,Julian Jaynes introduced the intriguing concept of the origins of consciousness in the bicameral mind. He supposed that brains worked differently until about 1200 BC, that the part of the brain that produces hallucinations was speaking to us with the irresistible compulsion of the voices of the gods.

    This represented a different sort of mind than we now experience, a mind without the metaphorical self-narrating person in our heads.

    This brings up several questions. Jaynes claims that only the mentally ill still hear voices from that part of the brain, which is not much used by modern humans. But surely the part of the brain responsible for these hallucinations existed prior to human culture. What role did it play before that, and what role does it play in the style of perception used by animals other than man? Is it part of a system of perception for a spiritual world that is real, or the source of the invention of the spiritual? 

    I propose that the supposition of the breakdown of the bicameral mind is unnecessary. Psychologists refer to a healthy psyche as a well-integrated personality. This recognizes that a personality is made up of many motivations, often conflicting - the self who wants sweets and the self who wants to be slender, the self who wants children and the self who is selfish, the self who aspires to goodness and the self who cheats on its spouse. Some of us avoid conflicts by compartmentalizing. Some actually fragment into different personalities.

    There was a case a few years ago in which a man was accused of raping a woman with multiple personality syndrome. What had happened was that the accused had started having sex with the woman's adult personality, then asked to speak to her little girl personality. The woman had consented to have sex in one personality, but not in the other - in fact, that personality was incapable of consenting to sex. The man was convicted, but the conviction was overturned.

    That the woman had shattered into several personalities is considered pathological, but what if a single, well-integrated personality is as much an hallucination as the gods were? Does that mean that neither is real, or that both are real, or something in between?

    I propose that both are ways of constructing reality. Scott Adams says that religion is a pretty good interface with the world, and I suspect that for many people it is. Think of it as a graphical user interface. The real world of computers is a world of 1s and 0s, but this is not a way of thinking about computers that enables us to work smoothly with them.

    Similarly, the world we perceive is one of differing amplitudes and frequencies of light and sound, of the atoms we are composed of interacting with the atoms of other objects. Who knows, it may even be one of our spirit interacting with other spirits, though I see no particular need to suppose this. We have several levels of perception, memory, and constructing all the evidence of our senses into a narrative that "makes sense" of our lives. The product of all this is a useful interface, a sort of useful illusion of the world.

    When societies became larger and needed coordination beyond the clan level, we developed institutions and patterns of behavior that made that possible, resulting in the great age of religion, which gave societies a sort of group mind.

    This group mind gave us a structure that allowed stable societies of great size to develop, but it was not adaptable. As Jaynes pointed out, in the Iliad, there are almost no references to individuals having motivations that were not the gods dictating their actions. The later Ulysses is all about one clever, adaptable individual making his way through changing circumstances that his gods did not issue instructions for.

    About the same time, the great age ofprophecy began, and for about a thousand years, new religions told people how to act as individuals. And those religions focused on human prophets, less than on ethereal gods. Mohammed gave the word of God to Muslims, Jesus gave the world of God to Christians, and while Siddhartha had no brief agains the Hindu gods, his followers focus on his teaching more than on worshiping those gods.

    Each, in his own way, taught people not to be selfish. It may have been literally unthinkable in the age of myth to be selfish, but in a world where adaptable individuals made their way, it was an ever-present danger.

    An it is a danger. Any society that relies for its survival on people having and raising children requires some level of self-sacrifice. Any society that needs to defend itself from aggressive neighbors requires it as well.

    We live in a transitional era, when adherents of the prophets are worried about the relentless rise of unbelief, when prophets of the Singularity are trying to invent an entirely material god, when atheism is no longer the creed that dare not speak its name. Reason rules our world more than myth, although often, it is motivated reasoning that seeks out desired conclusions.

    But what role does reason really play? Often, our reason justifies things we already want to do, but have not consciously acknowledged. What if, when we spoke to the gods to get our guidance, the same thing was happening there as happens when we talk to ourselves?

    If Jaynes was right about the literary evidence pointing to a different sort of mind prior to 1200 BCE, it may be that it was a different way of integrating a personality than our current mode, rather than a completely different way of using our brains.

  • Demonic males: Failure of a narrative

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    On July 25, 2014, ESPN host Stephen Smith brought an uproar on his head with the comment that women should not "provoke" men to anger, shifting the blame for domestic violence.

    And he was quite properly pilloried for the comment. There is no excuse for beating your mate. Shifting the blame from men to women is wrong, not just because it's blaming the victim, but because blame is not a useful framework for solving the problem.

    Because there is another issue here. The consistent narrative about domestic violence is that the problem is demonic males, and the solution is controlling those demons.This seems obvious from the fact that most people hurt in domestic violence incidents are women.

    Logically, the real hell should be two men living together.

    And, in fact, according to a Centers for Disease Control study, gay men report that 26% have, in their lifetimes, been subject to violence from a domestic partner. That's a shockingly high number. But it's not the highest number. For lesbians, the figure is 44%. For straight couples the figure was 29% for men, 35% for women.

    This is the opposite of the expected result. The more women are involved in a relationship, the more violent that relationship becomes. It is an astounding, disturbing result that has received far too little attention.

    Now, there are several possible explanations for this. It could be that women are more likely to report having been hit. This is possible, but I submit that this is not about police reports, these people participated in a survey that allowed them anonymity. I believe the numbers. In any case, why would straight men be more eager to report domestic violence than gay men? And why would lesbians be more eager to report than straight women?

    Another possibility is that men are beating up lesbians. After all, not all lesbians start out in lesbian relationships. I'm sure that happens, but a psychologist I know told me years ago that a deplorable amount of domestic violence happens in lesbian couples.

    A 1949 comic, for sale here.There are other possibilities. Some people fight with their mate as a prelude to sex. I've never understood that one, but I know it exists.

    Maybe there is something wrong with the CDC's sampling or the wording of their questions, but I doubt it. I do think the survey opens a window on a deeply emotional issue, and may even point a way to making peoples' lives less violent.

    There is a more disquieting possibility, that women are more subject to violence because they are seen as more vulnerable, even by other women. That would be a more intractable problem. It would also fail to explain why straight men report being hit more than gay men.

    If this is the problem, the solution would be to decrease the perception of female vulnerability, a rather difficult bit of cultural engineering.

    It is possible that what we are teaching women in our culture about conflict resolution is working badly, especially when dealing with other women.

     That is an intriguing possibility, because if conflict resolution styles is a problem, teaching better techniques could benefit any couple having this problem. You'd have to teach both parties, and not everyone would be willing, but lesbian, straight or gay, you'd be better off.

    There are a number of stereotypes about this. The woman who enforces her will with a rolling pin. The woman who won't tell the guy what he's done wrong, but expects him to know, for example. I know nothing about the validity of the stereotypes, and I doubt that's the sort of thing that leads to most domestic violence, but having never been involved in domestic violence, I don't know what problems lead to it from personal experience. Is it score settling? Naked competition for power within the relationship?

    I don't know, but someone must find out.

    We'd have to open our minds to a new approach. I would suggest teaching kids conflict resolution, before their patterns are set. You could ask them what they would do in certain circumstances, and what would likely result, and explore alternatives. If 26% of those in all-male relationships are subject to domestic violence, it's clear men need this. If 44% of women in all-female relationships are subject ot domestic violence, women could use it even more.

    Part of the problem with the notion of demonic males is that it focused on who was to blame, just as the problem with what Mr. Smith said was its focus on shifting blame. If we shift the focus to how to resolve domestic conflicts without violence, everyone could benefit. After all, most couples of all types manage to avoid violence.

  • The proper strategy for selling ebooks (publishing in the twilight of the printed word continued)

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    When Amazon sells an ebook published by Hachette, the proceeds are divided as follows: 30% to Amazon, 52.5% to the publisher, and 17.5% to the author. The two companies are now at odds over the fact that Amazon wishes to discount books more heavily.

    They have also proposed the authors should get more -- 35% instead of 17.5%. Only, that wouldn't come out of the Amazon share, it would come out of the publisher's share. So far, the company under attack, Hachette, has had very vocal backing from its authors, who are deprived of part of their income because Amazon is refusing to sell their books. The tactic in suggesting that the publishers give authors a bigger share is an attempt to drive a wedge between authors and their publisher -- let's you and him fight. It's a free lunch for Amazon, which would not dream of giving authors more money out of their share.

    And in Germany, Amazon is trying to get a 50% share of the ebook price..

    My question is, why should Amazon be getting even 30%? The cost of delivering ebooks is minimal, while many of the marketing costs are borne by the publishers.

    Suppose you could plug the title of a book into a search engine and pull up a variety of booksellers offering the book at a lower price than Amazon's. The publishers would have greater influence over a large group of independent booksellers than they do over Amazon. They might find themselves paying as little as 15% or even less to such competing sellers.

    The reason this hasn't happened is that publishers worry about losing control over the perception of value of their products. What is needed is the agency model -- they wholesale books to an agent who then sells them.

    Ah, you say, but that has been tried. Not, I answer, in the way that I propose. The publishers tried to ally themselves with Apple and set a higher price than Amazon wanted to charge.

    I say they should fully commit to ebooks, and under-price Amazon. They were tripped up by the fact that they colluded with Apple to have high prices. Well, don't collude. Set prices that cover the cost of finding, editing, and promoting the book, plus a reasonable markup, and try to sell a lot of copies. Don't negotiate what margin the seller gets, just sell them the book and let them set the retail price. The company that can keep its overhead low while effectively promoting itself and the books can make money with a lower percentage of the price. With competing companies selling the books, the one who can make money on the smallest margin will have the lowest price.

    No doubt a company like Google could build such a marketplace quickly that would be highly automated and have minimal costs. Or maybe someone wearing bunny slippers and working in their basement will find the key. The big problem is overcoming Amazon's marketing muscle, so I would expect either a well-funded startup or a fairly large existing company to take this on.

    Amazon has a large and increasing overhead connected with delivering physical objects. A company with lower overhead could charge less for ebooks.

    It has now become evident that not everyone wants an ebook. They seem to be best for leisure reading. For absorbing information, print books still have an edge. There is still, therefore, a place for bookstores and experts on the physical delivery of books such as Amazon.

    This is not too different from the mass-market paperback revolution of the 1940s and '50s. Suddenly, news agents who had never sold books before were selling paperbacks with lurid covers. More people read more books, and publishers found that what had been a carriage trade became a mass market. The process was very well documented in one of my favorite books, Two-bit culture: the Paperbacking of America.

    But even during the paperback revolution, the business was one of distributing books through centralized organizations.  Most publishers did not own printing plants, let alone warehouses and trucks to take the books to the many independent bookstores that peppered the land, which meant more middle men were needed. With ebooks, that lack doesn't matter, and in fact, becomes an advantage, because it means lower overhead.


  • Still more notes for a novel in 1940s noir

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    A ricochet zinged off the rock we hid behind.
  • Superstition and the singularity

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    I always figured California would be a place where religions could arise, but I had no idea smart people could come up with one so lame.

    I'm talking about the Singularity. Vernor Vinge invented the term, which describes the future advent of a super-intelligent, conscious being as a result of computers getting smarter. Consciousness is supposed to emerge, but Vinge used the term "singularity" as a metaphor from black holes, from which no information can escape. His view was that we could not predict the capabilities or motives of such a being.

    Which has not kept people from speculating.

    Some believe a benevolent super-intelligence will be effectively all-knowing and omnipresent. Some believe they will be taken up into the cloud and given eternal life. And some believe in the devil.

    I'm talking here about Roko's Basilisk. From RationalWiki::

    Roko's basilisk is a proposition that says an all-powerful artificial intelligence from the future may retroactively punish those who did not assist in bringing about its existence. It resembles a futurist version of Pascal's wager; an argument used to try and suggest people should subscribe to particular singularitarian ideas, or even donate money to them, by weighing up the prospect of punishment versus reward. Furthermore, the proposition says that merely knowing about it incurs the risk of punishment. It is named after the member of the rationalist community LessWrong who most clearly described it (though he did not originate it).Despite widespread incredulity,[2] this entire saga is about things that are actually believed by some groups of people. Though it must be noted that LessWrong itselfdoes not, as a policy, believe in or advocate the basilisk -- just in almost all of the premises that add up to it.
    One of those premises is that an exact copy of you is you. It would feel what you would feel, suffer as you would suffer, and react as you would react. To a materialistic atheist, it would be no different from you.

    I am a bookseller. I have recently seen a first edition of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. I have in my store a rather nice facsimile of the same book, the only detectable differences being an entry on the copyright page. If I were to sell the facsimile as a first edition and were found out, it would ruin my reputation -- and if the publisher had not included an entry on the copyright page, the book would be not merely a facsimile, but a counterfeit.

    An exact copy of you would be a counterfeit you. In fact, the super intelligence could make endless copies of you if it were so inclined. Differences in experience would start to occur almost at once, and each copy would become a different person as time when on. If so, which one would be you? All of them? None of them?

    The notion that an exact copy of you would be you is atheist theology, based on the idea that you are no more than a physical being. I consider it a claim to know more than can be known, so one might call it a superstition or a religious belief.

    And short of creating a new body for you, some of those who are doing the theology of the singularity speculate that you could do a mind upload, which would give you a bodyless existence in the cloud. But would that be you? Again, once the copy of you is in digital form, it can be copied endlessly. None of the copies would be you. They might act like you, or they might not, depending on how badly the copy gets corrupted and how different the urges of an expert system "living" in a machine are from those of a person living in a body.

    What you could create would not be you. It would be a sort of software monument to you. Theoretically, a super intelligent machine could more easily create a software version of your mind than an entirely new you, but in either case, what motivation would it have to build monuments to inferior beings?

    The next problem is that the assumptions about the singularity are that it will come to evolve differently than machines have to date. Up to now, machines have evolved the way ideas evolve, being designed and built by humans. If a machine started designing better versions of itself, its motivations would have to be those designed into it. Yes, you could even program it to be motivated to build software monuments to internet billionaires, but that seems like a vainglorious use of a powerful machine. At the point where we have "conscious" machines, they will be designed to simulate consciousness, which will be a signal to start an endless controversy about what consciousness is.

    But part of the theology of the singularity is that consciousness is an emergent property, which will appear when the conditions are right, such as sufficient intelligence, sense data and memory. I see no reason to assume that this is the case, and I posit that any conscious machine that we create will be designed to be conscious, with its motivations in its software.

    Which brings us back to Roko's Basilisk. It can only be created if we create it, and do so in a way intended to harm ourselves. I wish I could be certain that fearful, superstitious people would not do that.



  • Productivity, corporate ideology, and getting your "share": Rethinking liberalism continued

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    ADP, the company that does my payrolls, includes in this promotional material a common bromide --  that automation "can cut costs dramatically and free up time for higher-value work."

    And that's generally been the argument for productivity growth. It means more wealth, therefore it will make you wealthier.

    Except, of course, that whether this is true depends very much on who you are, and what your prospects for participating in the new wealth are. Andrew Carnegie became one of the richest men in America by always making sure his steel mills had the best technology. He'd seen the effects of falling behind first-person. His father was a weaver in Dunfermline, Scotland, who lost his profession when the handweavers were put out of business by the big weaving mills. The family had to borrow money to move to America, where Andrew's first job was as a "bobbin boy" at a textile mill in Pennsylvania at age 13.

    He worked 12 hour days, six days a week, changing spools of thread for $1.20 a week. But he was a man of great ability. Fortunately, through a family connection, he was able to get a job as a telegraph messenger boy, and his energy, ability to learn, and hard work brought him to the attention of his superiors. He was more a self-made man than any other I can think of, but he never lost sight of the things that helped him. And he never forgot that his father had been a skilled man and a hard worker, yet had been ruined.

    That's the trouble with disruptive technologies. Our society gives us time in our youth to learn a profession, and expects us to make our way based on those skills for the rest of our lives. But when skills become obsolete, it tosses people aside, with little chance to ride the new wave.

    And as to the higher-value work, was the elder Carnegie doing work that called on his human abilities to a greater extent as a weaver in Scotland or as a textile mill worker in Pennsylvania? Was the work less routine, more challenging, requiring more of his judgement?

    Perhaps for the term "higher-value work" we should substitute "harder to automate work." Higher-value is a term that makes us think of getting a promotion, of using our judgement more. Yet the jobs created when others are destroyed are not necessarily of that nature.

    Janitorial work is hard to automate. So is sex work, the ultimate "high-touch" profession. We've seen a decline in workforce participation as productivity has soared. And it has soared. Look at this graph, from my favorite magazine, The Economist (from an excellent article here, which you should read):

    The other problem is one unique to capitalism. The distinguishing characteristic of a capitalist system is that the major source of wealth is the investment of capital in the means of production, rather than, say, conquering more land or enslaving more people.

    As a result, there is a tendency for wealth to concentrate in the hands of those who own a lot of capital. And with wealth, comes influence, and with influence, comes the

    Rising inequity creates unrest, seen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the form of labor strife and extremist movements.

    Part of the problem here is that the distribution of wealth depends in part on politics. In the U.S., decisions at the federal level have moved the tax burden from those who make their money by owning things to those who make their money working for wages. Wages were already declining as a percentage of the GDP, as you can see in the chart from this site, which has several other charts that may interest you:

     The decline dates from about the time corporate raiders started changing the way companies do business. In part, this reflected changes in the banking business that made it possible to raise money for a takeover. In part, it reflected a new orientation in business, the belief that companies should be managed for the highest possible stock prices for shareholders. Historically, public corporations prior to this had been managed on the basis that shareholders were one of the groups served by the company, along with bondholders, creditors, employees and customers.

    The new orientation justified making war on a company's own employees to produce higher profits to benefit shareholders, stripping assets to pay off the debt contracted in a takeover, and other tactics that would in an earlier age have been considered bad for the company. Private equity companies, such as Mitt Romney's old company, Bain Capital, raised money from investors to do similar work.

    I have a book to recommend on this subject, The Shareholder Value Myth, by Lynn Stout, Distinguished Professor of Corporate and Business Law at Cornell Law School. Prof. Stout makes a compelling argument that the pursuit of "shareholder value" -- a term with difficulties of its own -- has been bad for investors, corporations, and the public.

    The problem is that we've seen this movie before. It was a bit more direct when federal troops killed 30
  • The first unplanned words from the moon

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, everyone was eager to hear man's first words from another
    world. We all know what he said, and we all know about the controversy -- he muffed his lines and failed to say "a man."

    But what interested me that day in 1969 was the first unscripted words from the moon. And they told me more about the moon, and less about mankind. Here's what Armstrong said after his famous line:

    And the--the surface is fine and powdery. I can--I can pick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers like powdered charcoal to the sole and sides of my boots. I only go in a small fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles. 
    Now, that's an authentic astronaut talking the way those guys talked.

  • Free-lunch Conservatives

    by John MacBeath Watkins

    Our political taxonomy puts "fiscally conservative" voters mostly in the Republican voting bloc, but this seems indefensible. The last Republican president to act in a fiscally responsible manner was George H.W. Bush, who realized that his party had no taste for real cuts in the budget and raised taxes to deal with the deficit.

    Republicans hated him for that. Merely failing to deal the a budget deficit would probably have allowed him to be re-elected, but raising taxes was not acceptable.

    Yet About.com informs us that "...the Republican Party is most often credited with creating the fiscal conservative ideal, despite the big-spending tendencies of the most recent GOP administrations."

    Substitute "fiscal conservative rhetoric" for "fiscal conservative ideal" and you'll have it about right. The Republican Party from St. Ronald of Reagan onward has been all about lowering taxes. Reagan claimed that the effect of his lower taxes would be such an economic boost that revenues would increase rather than decrease. When this did not turn out to be the case, Republicans chose to stick with tax cuts and invent a series of justifications.

    Reagan vastly increased the size of the government and tripled the deficit. While there was some budget cutting early in his administration, it soon became evident that Republicans do not, in practice, want smaller government. They want government that spends less on Democratic priorities and more on Republican priorities.

    In short, they want more goodies for their side, and they want to pay in less in taxes. This is not fiscal conservatism. It is free-lunch conservatism. It is the reason Republicans are the party of "borrow and spend."

    The "fiscal conservative" label has been a bit of marketing genius, but at some point, our country is going to have to face the truth. The tax revolt and the anti-tax movement have never been about cutting government, they've always been about getting a free lunch. Oh, sure, Republicans have talked a good game about cutting the sorts of programs Democrats support, but since they've wanted to spend more on Republican constituencies, there's always been an element of "we cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you!" in their rhetoric.

    If you want a tax cut, and you want it paid for out of someone else's pocket, how fiscally conservative are you?

    The concept of "the other" has an enduring appeal to Republicans of a nativist bent. About 13% of the people living in America at present are foreign born, a percentage last seen in the 1920, which were about the peak for the Klu Klux Klan, then preaching "One Hundred Percent Americanism"

    Republicans have clearly campaigned against those who who are not 100 percent American by the standards applied by the Klan back in the 1920s -- White and native-born. Only what might be called the "Bundy fringe" have violated the law,as the KKK liked to do, but the nativists have this time allied themselves with the free-lunch conservatives. One group wants to cut a certain kind of spending that they think benefits "those people," the other wants to cut taxes regardless of the cost to later generations or society as a whole.

    It's a marriage made in one of the inner circles of the Inferno.

  • More notes for a novel in 1940s noir

    by John MacBeath Watkins


    "Get your mitts off me," I said.

    "Those are your mitts," the bouncer answered. "See, they're connected with a string that goes through your sleeves."
    ________________________________________

    It was a nice, quiet joint. There hadn't been a knifing in a month, and they'd hired librarians to shush the


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