Saturday, July 31, 2010

Memo to Abe Foxman:

When even Joe Friggin' Klein is saying that he can't support your stance, it's time to either recant or retire.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Book Publishing "Death Spiral"

Not my usual baliwick, but I wanted to pass on this piece about the decline of publishing by Norman Spinrad, courtesy of Warren Ellis. Spinrad had a book rejected that the publishing company reviewer absolutely loved, because the "math" wasn't there.

What math?

This math:
Here’s how it works.  Barnes and Noble and Borders, the major bookstore chains, control the lion’s share of retail book sales.  They order centrally for all their outlets together, for instance there is a single buyer for all science fiction, all mysteries, etc.  How, you may well ask, can these buyers read and pass judgement on, for example, the over 1000 SF titles published in a year?

Of course the answer is they can’t.  Instead, an equation makes the buys of most of the books on the racks or blackballs the ones that don’t make it that far.  It’s called “order to net.”

Let’s say that some chain has ordered 10,000 copies of a novel, sold 8000 copies, and returned 2000, a really excellent sell-through of 80%.  So they order to net on the author’s next novel, meaning 8000 copies.  And let’s even say they still have an 80% sell-through of  6400 books, so they order 6400 copies of the next book, and sell 5120....

You see where this mathematical regression is going, don’t you?  Sooner or later right down the willy-hole to an unpublishablity that has nothing at all to do with the literary quality of a writer’s work, or the loyalty of a reasonable body of would-be readers, or even the passionate support of an editor below the very top of the corporate pyramid.

And there’s a further  wrinkle to it because what significant independent bookstores that still survive and the non-speciality outlets like WalMart subscribe to BookScan and have access to the Death Spiral numbers too and act accordingly.  If there’s a book to order at all, because in many cases if the chains’ order to net equation zeros out and they don’t order at all, the book in question doesn’t get published.  Back in the day, I knew of novels that were commissioned, accepted, and paid for but never published because the chains didn’t order.  Today BookScan prevents such expensive mistakes from happening by aborting them at the acquisition stage.

Voila, the Death Spiral.  And I too am in it.
This might be one of the reasons why Cory Doctorow makes his stuff available online for free. It's certainly disturbing. The book industry is already in a difficult position right now, and this is only going to make it worse, especially for new writers.

It also shows how "safe" equations can choke you to death. It reminds me of one line from The Big Short: "The Lomas Financial Corporation is a perfectly hedged financial institution: it loses money in any conceivable interest rate environment." No matter what happens, everybody loses, like a casino where the house burns their winnings at the end of the day.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bobo's Still Ridiculous

So, Bobo, was the younger, leftier you a better writer?

Because, damn, the old, conservative you just can't stop writing about liberals and progressives using ridiculous stereotypes, and erecting strawmen big enough to blot out the sun.

About the only thing he got right was progressives' tendency to wring their hands over how and whether the Republicans will "blast" them for policies the Republicans don't like.  It makes sense. Democrats and Bobo share a predilection for blaming the Dems for Republican intransigence and ignorance. They came out as Supply-siders, for God's sake. Their policies are absolutely toxic to the health of America and are best ignored when they aren't ridiculed.

Still, its their backers that have the cash.  Young progressive Bobo could never make the fat stacks that old, reactionary, strawman-erecting Bobo can. Ideals often melt away when they bring in the big sacks with the dollar signs on them.  Young Bobo's gotta eat, after all, and why not fight to preserve and extend widening inequality when you're on the wealthy side?

Shame, though. I would have liked to have met young, impressionable, liberal Bobo. I could tell him about everything that he'd become: about his goofy comb-over, goofy glasses, and goofy arguments based on a goofy ideology. I doubt he'd enjoy it. But after having old Bobo inflicted on us, I'm sure the rest of us would.

Monday, July 26, 2010

WH Presser on Wikileaks Afghanistan Docs

This is a sad, sad thing. Gibbs is stammering and stuttering, trying desperately to look like he's on top of this. He sounds like he's about to cry.

The reporters are merciless. They aren't happy about how the NYT/Guardian/Der Spiegel scooped the hell out of 'em by doing real, honest-to-goodness investigative journalism. They're trying to score points by sounding tough, so as to have something to show for their (lack of) efforts. The smarter ones probably realize that they're struggling for their profession's existence: the main value of newspapers and television news was their ability to get interviews and primary source material, and wikileaks showed that non-newspapers can handle it.

The worst part is the whinging. Gibbs keeps saying "we didn't get to see the material beforehand! They didn't bring it to us! They won't talk to us!" Of course they didn't, Rob: Julian Assange has no reason to. You've already arrested his source, and he's been subject to a manhunt by your people since the helicopter footage leak. You aren't his friends. You aren't his allies. And since you aren't his government, he holds no allegiance to you. He clearly doesn't trust you, either, hence the Guardian/NYT/Spiegel stunt. He wanted to make sure that you couldn't pressure a single publication into shutting it down.

(As I write this, he admits that they would have tried to shut the NYT story down on "national security" grounds.)

The second-worst part is the "no new revelations" line. Leaving aside all the stories about the ISI bankrolling and supporting the Taliban, it only reinforces the idea that only novelty and spectacle is worth discussing. That's half the reason American media is so terrible. It doesn't need reinforcement. Assange himself has acknowledged that there is no single electrifying incident. He's said that the value of the documents is showing the broader nature and progress of the war. He's probably delayed releasing the really juicy stuff, since he's trying to minimize the harm the material could cause in the here-and-now.

What's really valuable, though, is the way that it snubs its nose at the trends in modern western media. Everything is short-form these days. Sound bites, twitters, and up-to-the-minute scrolling newstext are paramount. You can't get long-form analysis even if you want it. That someone would think that releasing a ton of information is a good idea, in the service of allowing people to understand it themselves is practically revolutionary in-and-of itself.  There's no mediation or digestion. You can read it for yourself.

(If you haven't, go read some of it now, if only to show to yourselves that you're grownups and not just "media consumers". The "propaganda" category is compelling, for example, since it gets into the nighttime anonymous letters that the Taliban uses to intimidate regular Afghans.)

...okay, now Gibbs just used "misunderestimated". I think we're done here. Go read some memos.

Wikileaks Blows Afghan War Wide Open

Holy hell, they did it.

There has been a lot of talk over the last few months about the thousands of documents that Wikileaks (and its founder/owner, Julian Assange) was sitting on about the Afghanistan war. That's one of the reasons why many had thought that Julian was going to get "disappeared" or at the very least arrested; the U.S. government would NOT want this leaked.

Well, get ready, because it's out. Not all of it, mind you. A lot of the documents have been withheld in order to prevent people from getting hurt. Once that's no longer an issue, they will be released too. Eventually it will all be published, assuming Wikileaks gets the change.

Assange explains his motivations in an interview on the Guardian website. He makes it clear that he knows what this means, and what sort of position this puts him in. He said "if journalism is good it is controversial by its nature. It is the role of journalism to take on powerful abuses; and when powerful abuses are taken on, there is always a back-reaction...this shows the true nature of this war." No doubt.

It doesn't look good, either. These are still early days and there are a LOT of documents to get through, but the news is grim, according to the Guardian's War Log analysis. The Afghanistan police and army are shooting at each other. The shadowy American special forces in "Task Force 373" are moving through the country assassinating Taliban targets, as well as killing civilian men, women and children—and even Afghan police officers—who stand in their way. Friendly fire deaths are rife.

(The Guardian, given early access to the logs, is doing impressive work in analyzing them.)

This is a major, major story. This is probably the greatest intelligence leak in history, or at least since the Soviets opened up the Russian diplomatic files. It cements Wikileaks as one of the most important organizations in the world right now. It means that investigative journalism is not dead in the age of the Internet. And, most importantly, it means that we should all keep a VERY close eye on what's going on with Julian.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that I fear for his life.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

All This Time and "Jane Galt" is Still an Idiot

Nice bit from Thomas Levinson about Megan McArdle, the most baffling "economic analysis" in the Union:

The old joke* about Richard Nixon asked “How can you tell when he’s lying?”

The answer: ”When his lips move.”

I’ve finally come to the conclusion that something similar must be said about Megan McArdle. Perhaps lying is too harsh a word — but the serial errors that all fall on the side that supports her initial claims and that recur again and again in her work suggest to me that something other than mere intellectual sloth and sloppiness is the driver.

Ordinarily, such a record wouldn’t matter much, especially in journalism. In theory, a series of clips as riddled with error as McArdle’s would end most careers in high prestige journalism. Hot Air might still find a use for you, but The Atlantic?

But the problem is that McArdle is useful: she advances an agenda — that which comforts the comfortable — and she does so with what I think is truly her original talent, the capacity not to notice the ridicule and ferociously dismissive debunking that she so often attracts.

Being able to be wrong in a form and fashion that aids the powerful, and possessing the ability not to mind a life that must be thus lived in willing embrace of error…now that’s a trick.
See, you can always tell who wasn't around back in the day, around 2002-2003; back when men were men, women were women, and even conservatives used pseudonyms because they weren't being given BS sinecures at otherwise-respectable publications. "Jane" was always wrong. She was probably the most reliably wrong blogger I can easily think of. Glenn occasionally said something insightful about law, that green footballs guy would talk about tech, and even that one guy who called me a "megalomaniac" would post some interesting stuff about cell phone tech.

(I think his name was Steve something-or-other.)

But Jane? No, Jane was always wrong. She was either citing some bit of Econ101 lunacy as gospel truth, or erecting some strawman about Krugman, or writing apologias for Wall Street/Pharma Corps/Other Big Businesses, or predicting the doom of the Democrats and saying that the Republicans are a bigger-tent party than the Dems. It was always some damned thing, and it was always wrong.

(No, I didn't make up that last one. )

Thing is, it didn't matter. It was quickly apparent that she was being rewarded for being convenient, not right; the arguments were just cover for people to use when justifying their pre-existing opinions, nothing more. As Levinson said, she "aids the powerful"; not surprising, considering she's a child of immense privilege who exploited that position to get where she is today. "Right" doesn't matter as much as "rich and useful".

Levinson demolishes her hamfisted attacks on Elizabeth Warren; I won't really get into that, since you can read it yourself. But there is a bit that I'll focus on:

McArdle relies on the strength of her platorm. As “Business and Economics editor of The Atlantic” she routinely writes in assertions that we are to accept on her say -so...this argument from authority is never that strong, and, as McArdle demonstrated very recently, can descend to pure, if unintended, comedy...[e]verytime someone gets something thing wrong in a consequential way, the loss of trust should advance, ratcheting up with each such error detected, to the point where it becomes the safest default position to assume that someone — McArdle, for example — is always wrong till proven otherwise.
She dropped the pseudonym years ago, and that adds an interesting spin to Levinson's point. Jane Galt" was an obvious pseudonym, just as "Demosthenes" is. The strength and weakness of a pseudonym is that it starts off as a Tabula Rasa; there is no reason to trust you, but no reason to distrust you, either. You have to build up your own reputation and "authority" through the strength of your arguments. If you're right, you develop authority; if you're wrong, people have no reason to trust you.

She was always wrong. She was always getting demolished. Real progressive economists—she's not really an economist, by the by—and even pseudonymous progressives like me would tear her up on a daily basis.  Sure, she might be good for some laffs, but you would never cite her. She could never successfully argue from authority, much as she tried, because she didn't have any.

So she pulled the ripcord, ditched "Jane Galt", and became Megan. She didn't have to drag around that reputation anymore, because most people who weren't around during her "Jane" days would just engage with "Megan McArdle, economic analyst". The baggage was gone, and she could move on. Sure, there would be the occasional wiseass who would bring up Jane Galt, but no matter; she still gets to be an "expert" in the eyes of most people thanks to her position. Everything that pseudonymity rejects—real-world authority, the credibility involved in using your real name, your physical presence in a real community—is propping her up now. Galt may have always been wrong, but she's Megan now.

But Megan's always wrong too. Levinson called it, and loads of other people (TBogg, Brad DeLong, Atrios, lots of others) agree. She's just as wrong now as she was then, if not more so. As I said, Levinson has completely demolished her; and now every time she tries to act like an authority, someone can just point to Levinson and say "why should we take you seriously again?" It's a good question. I couldn't answer it.

It's Jane all over again. But this time, she's got nothing to escape to. She's stuck with "Megan", stuck with Levinson, and stuck with her own poorly-thought-out opinions and tattered "authority". Nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide.

Edit: I'd also highly suggest Susan of Texas' collection of comments from Megan's blog, where Megan gets schooled over and over again. That's something that was always true back in the Galt days; her comment threads would be immensely entertaining, since her commentators would absolutely tear her up. I think they had a drinking game or something.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Asking the Wrong People

The New York Times has a nice piece discussing what Obama needs to do to get re-elected, or (even better) hold the House this year.  Good idea.

Sadly, the Times' opinion of "balanced advice" is as bizarre as it is useless. You don't get useful advice from useless New Dem losers like Mark Penn and Harold Ford, whose policies will only jack unemployment even higher. You certainly won't get it from the Times' selection of wingnuts like Ari Fleischer and David Frum who are joyously concern-trolling their little black hearts out. That's all they have on offer.

You'd think they'd bother to add at least one actual progressive on there. Get Markos or Yglesias or Klein or someone that they can kinda-sorta call a progressive. Apparently not.

(No wonder Obama's in a bubble. Why emerge from it, when you all you have to read is that?)

Friday, July 09, 2010

Wealthy Defaulting More Than Others on Their Home Loans

Well, well, well. We knew it was probably the case, but I never would have expected it was this bad.

Whether it is their residence, a second home or a house bought as an investment, the rich have stopped paying the mortgage at a rate that greatly exceeds the rest of the population.

More than one in seven homeowners with loans in excess of a million dollars are seriously delinquent, according to data compiled for The New York Times by the real estate analytics firm CoreLogic.

By contrast, homeowners with less lavish housing are much more likely to keep writing checks to their lender. About one in 12 mortgages below the million-dollar mark is delinquent.

Though it is hard to prove, the CoreLogic data suggest that many of the well-to-do are purposely dumping their financially draining properties, just as they would any sour investment.

“The rich are different: they are more ruthless,” said Sam Khater, CoreLogic’s senior economist.
 Well, yes, of course they are. But they also get better financial advice, free of all the moralizing BS that gets shoved down the throats of everybody who doesn't have accountants and financial advisers to tell them what's actually in their best interests.

The problem here isn't that the wealthy are defaulting, it's that other people aren't. Logically, everybody should have a similar likelihood of walking away from an underwater home. In fact, according to economic doctrine, the poor would be more likely, since they've got less potential cash to lose if their credit goes south and have homes that are worth less.  Yet they're essentially indoctrinated to believe otherwise:
The rapper Chamillionaire[...] recently walked away from a $2 million house he bought in Houston in 2006.

“I just decided to let it go, give it back to the bank,” he told the celebrity gossip TV show “TMZ.” “I just didn’t feel like it was a good investment.”

The rich and successful often come naturally to this sort of attitude, said Brent T. White, a law professor at the University of Arizona who has studied strategic defaults.

“They may be less susceptible to the shame and fear-mongering used by the government and the mortgage banking industry to keep underwater homeowners from acting in their financial best interest,” Mr. White said.
Was there ever any doubt?

So, once again, whenever somebody with a crapton of money starts lecturing you on TV about the morality of debt repayment, make sure take it with a gigantic hunk of salt. He probably already has his keys in the mail.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Obama Rolls Over for Netanyahu

I knew he'd roll over. I didn't know how hard.

"Well, I just completed an excellent one-on-one discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu," he began. For those tuning in late, he added at the end: "So I just want to say, once again, that I thought the discussion that we had was excellent."
Netanyahu was pleased with the pandering. "Mr. President, I want to thank you for reaffirming to me in private and now in public, as you did, the long-standing U.S. commitments to Israel."

Obama didn't even mention Israel's settlements until a reporter inquired -- and then he declined to say that Israel should extend a moratorium on settlements that expires in September. Avoiding any criticism of Israel, he instead directed Palestinians not to look for "excuses for incitement" or "opportunities to embarrass Israel."
That last quote is absolutely incredible. What could be a greater "excuse for incitement" than Netanyahu's complete willingness to bulldoze the entire West Bank and fill it with settlements?
Well, that's that. I think, at this point, we can safely say that Israel can literally do whatever it pleases. There are no repercussions, and there aren't going to be any repercussions, and considering how many in Netanyahu's coalition are barely-concealed "transfer" (read: ethnic cleansing) advocates, that fact is goddamned scary.

Mearsheimer and Walt couldn't be more vindicated.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

"How to Access the Internet in 2025"

Well, now, this is brilliant:
Before signing on, please ensure you have received your RealIdentity card from local authorities. Signing on to the internet without identifying yourself has been ruled illegal in the Stop Anonymity Act of 2012, and you need to be sure to associate your comments, emails, posts and more with your real name. Setting up your RealIdentity is easy, as your computer (MacOS 15 or ChromeOS7 and higher) will automatically connect to your near-by card, verifying it with your biometric data. Do not put on shades, veils, contact lenses, and please shave before the biometric scan starts; it is advised to not perform biometric authentication after a long night of drinking...

...Many content offerings depend on the internet you’ve signed up to. If you’ve signed up with the GoogleAppleAmazon Internet, then you have one-click access to a great digital library, many movies, as well as a certain approved set of homemade web pages. If you’ve signed up with the DisneyWarnerBrosViacom internet, you get a different digital library, set of movies, and approved homemade web pages.
This is incredibly timely, considering that Blizzard has just announced that you will need to use your real name on their forums. Or, as they call it, your "RealID".


The Internet is a great idea. I'll miss it when it's gone.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Pelosi: "End the Filibuster!"

Demosthenes: "Damned Straight!"

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has some advice for her Senate counterparts: Try majority rule for a change. Pelosi, in an interview with the Huffington Post, called for an end to the filibuster, which she labeled "the 60-vote stranglehold on the future."

Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that "the Senate has to go to 51 votes, and not 60 votes."

The filibuster, which was not an original element of the Senate, has evolved over the body's history and has only recently become the upper chamber's standard operating procedure. The Senate was designed as a majority-rule institution that allowed for extended debate. Under the Constitution, the vice president is empowered to break 50-50 ties. Such a clause would be wildly out of place if the framers intended for a 60-percent majority to be required.

Senate Democrats are eying January as the time to reform the filibuster, when the Senate convenes a fresh Congress and votes to establish rules. New rules can be approved by a majority vote if the presiding officer, Vice President Joe Biden, allows the vote to go forward. Liberals in the Senate worked hard to reform the filibuster between the 1950s and 1970s, eventually succeeding in reducing the threshold from two-thirds to 60. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Rules Committee, is holding hearings looking into the future of Senate rules and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has endorsed some sort of reform.
Pity this couldn't have happened last year; it would have meant a whole hell of a lot for Americans' health. Then again, it probably should have happened last January; it was pretty obvious even then that the Republicans would be playing the obstructionist game, and that the Dems needed to seize any advantage they had.

As it is, I fear that this will run up against Democratic losses in the Senate; pundits will argue that "the public has said that they want the Republicans to have a greater say"; and Dems are nothing if not knock-kneed when been criticized by pundits. The time to take the advantage was back when they were ascendant.

Still, it's good that Pelosi has gone on the record on this. Considering how effective she's been when compared to her Senate counterparts, her endorsement is a big deal.

(By the by, happy belated Independence Day. I wasn't in a position to wish it until now. But I do wish it, and do still believe that America is an experiment that is worth its tribulations.)

Sunday, July 04, 2010

British Treasury "Brace for 40% Cuts"

Well, if the United Kingdom wasn't in a depression before, it'll certainly be in one after this goes down.

Cabinet ministers have been ordered by the Treasury to plan for unprecedented cuts of 40% in their departmental budgets as the coalition widens the scope of its four-year austerity drive.
The eye-watering demand from the chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, was sent this weekend to cabinet colleagues ahead of a week in which ministers will step up emergency cost-cutting across the public sector.

The only departments not included in the Treasury trawl will be health and international development, which have been "ringfenced" for the current parliament. Education and defence will also escape lightly. Alexander has told the education secretary, Michael Gove, and the defence secretary, Liam Fox, to plan for two scenarios – cuts to budgets of 10% at best and 20% at worst over four years. All other departments – including the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Transport – have been ordered to produce plans showing the impact of cuts of 25%, and at worst 40%.
Let us remember that this is all in the service of a complete fantasy: the idea that the invisible bond vigilantes will come in and punish the Sterling unless they try to fix budget issues that may hit 30 years from now IN THE MIDDLE OF A DEPRESSION.
(But, of course, Defense will remain untouched.  Since that's just how it works.)

The rich will become richer, and the poor will become desperate. Hell, they'll become homeless:

Ministers were also warned last night that the number of people classed as homeless in Britain could more than double because of "unfair" benefit cuts. The National Housing Federation, the body representing England's 1,200 not-for-profit housing associations, predicts that impending cuts to housing benefit will put a further 200,000 people at grave risk of homelessness and lead to a concentration of social problems in the most deprived areas of the country. Currently 140,000 people are classified as homeless in Britain.
Great. It's Dickensian England with iPads. Everything old is (horribly) new again.