Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Controversies abound in the "print on demand" business


There has been some controversy over Amazon’s entry into the supported self-publishing print-on-demand (POD) business (a bit like what agents used to call “cooperative publishing”), with BookSurge. At first glance, the various pricing options appear reasonable to me, in comparison to other services (iUniverse, xLibris) etc. Amazon mentions relationships with LexisNexis and Morgan Claypool.. Amazon also offers short run printing, something comparable to what we used to call “book manufacturing” when I was self-publishing my first book with a print run in 1997. Apparently Amazon gets the ISBN number. Here is a typical reference on how the process works, “My first Amazon BookSurge self-publishing project,” http://www.actasif.com/bookproject/page2.htm

There is a challenging article in Writers Weekly from March 27 2008, “Amazon is telling POD publishers – Let BookSurge print your books, or else …”, here.
It isn’t hard to imagine what follows, foul cries about monopoly and antitrust. I’ve checked by own books (“Bill Boushka”) and those of some other iUniverse authors and found all the Amazon links to purchase working in a normal way there. Mine are available in a normal way, in stock, with next day delivery. (I don’t see “Amazon Prime” right now; I’m not sure if that matters.) The article claims and admission from an Amazon exectuve that “this” is happening, but that books would remain on the database from resellers (which has been controversial, too, because it cuts down on new print sales, particularly for books that are overpriced).

iUniverse has “strategic alliance” with Barnes and Noble, and Books-a-Million. Apparently iUniverse and Barnes and Noble are owned by the same holding company.

Borders is partnered with Amazon. If you go to the Borders website and search for a book, you will get the Amazon listings.

Angela Hoy, publisher of BookLocker and Writers Weekly, has some tips on self-publishing in her March 21, 2007 article, “How some POD publishers milk authors,” link here. One of her strongest points is that authors not hand over any rights. She doesn’t mention indemnification clauses (just as in the traditional publishing industry) which could be dangerous even if they are rarely actually invoked in practice.

Angela says that BookLocker publishes less than 5% of submissions. Her publishing page is http://publishing.booklocker.com/ and she has an article “The Print On Demand Industry’s Dirty Little Secret” here.

All of this is, well, interesting. Inevitably, expect to see more consolidation and merging in the POD business (as with iUniverse and Author House, recently).

Update: Jan. 28, 2009

iUniverse has introduced a "Bookstore Premier Pro" self-publishing package, on the comparison chart here. The least expensive is the Select, but it is considerably more expensive than the least expensive package was in 2000.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Jonathan Zittrain: The Future of the Internet - and How to Stop It (review)


Author: Jonathan Zittrain.
Title: The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop It.
Publication: New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-300-12487-3, hardcover, 342 pages, endnotes, heavily indexed, 3 Parts, 9 Chapters.

Well, the cover is certainly entertaining. A railroad track junction, almost from a model railroad, splits,with one track leading over an escarpment into what looks like the Great Rift Valley in Africa, the other staying on the trail. The visual metaphor is clear enough.

The rest of the book is not cinematic; in fine print, and a somewhat thick and speculative writing style, it would make for a difficult book report. But Zittrain has an important message: the public has come to perceive the Internet as intrinsically “unsafe” and companies, partly out of liability concerns and partly because “covered wagon days” business models run their course, might be inclined to lock down a lot of the “generativity” that has enabled user-generated content and added an important element of both competitive efficiency and pseudo-direct democracy in Western society (not so much so when misused). Already, as with the iPhone “fiasco,” there is a tendency to “re-tether” users to specific vendors.

“Generativity” is a rather intuitive concept. I guess I’ll say the visitor should buy the book to see his exact definition, on page 70.

The book has three parts: (1) The Rise and Stall of the Cooperative Net (2) After the Stall (3) Solutions.

In the first part, he gives a pretty informative history of computing culture, particularly going back to the rise of commercial mainframes in the 60s where everyone had to “get IBM” (including programmers). There was, for a long time, a conceptual distinction between organization (government, company), and the individual / family / microbusiness. When personal computers were introduced in the late seventies, there was at first a concept that they were more like “appliances.” It wasn’t long, though, before computers could manage most of the “business” functions within a home. I recall that even in the early 1980s, when I owned a Radio Shack TRS-80 (the Tandy Center decorated downtown Fort Worth when I lived in Dallas), it was apparent that the home PC and even rudimentary printers (like the dot matrix –ices and then the daisy letter writers) could revolutionize life for freelance writers. Even so, in the early days, magazines like Writers Digest were recommending computers “specialized” for writing. (in 1979, a Lanier office word processing system still cost $15000). Some computer brands (like Atari or Commodore) seemed designed more for the gaming and entertainment market. (Remember the Osborne?) In computer courses at community colleges, instructors talked about “general purpose computers” (IBM and its competitors, all of whom eventually failed in the iron horse market). By the mid 80s, home PCs were becoming much more “general purpose” and even home laser printing was becoming practical. (I remember a predecessor of both Word and Word Perfect: Q&A, which was pretty effective). The “appliance” concept still held, though. Consumers had to choose between VHS and Beta formats for VCRs (we know what happened -- or do we, as the remnants of the litigation over VHS still show up today in copyright cases), and soon were teased by CD’s which would “last forever” (especially for classical music hobbyists who used to wonder about tone arms and elliptical styli to play vulnerable vinyl recordings). To “get published” or get a movie made, you had to go through well established industry agenting channels, without exception.

There were various early experiments at home online connectivity – Compuserve, and FidoNet, in the 80s, while “the Internet” was perceived as the province of academia and government and perhaps big business. Naturally, networking operations at first had a lot of control over what got “published.” In the early 1990s, toward the end of the first Bush administration, the National Science Foundation eased the Internet into public access. A particular connectivity tool within Microsoft (Winsocket) would become critical to generativity. Home computer hobbyists learned how to set up their own servers (sometimes on 386 machines, even) to connect to the Internet, while “average Joes” depended on ISP’s like AOL and Prodigy (and Compuserve, still, and then Earthlink), which first tried to work profitably on a proprietary content and subscription model (especially for email). In those days you could function at 2400 baud on dialup with a PS-2 (486). With Windows 95 (and winsocket), the idea of more generalized protocols (http, ftp, gopher, etc) took hold, and the “generativity” of http (particularly) was apparent. Companies like AOL started offering personal publishing around 1996 (with “hometown AOL” and an embedded FTP, which was a little clunky to use). Microsoft offered Front Page, with the ability to connect directly to a domain and edit online, easily (although “Front Page Extensions” were tricky to manage, all now replaced with “Expression Web”). By around 1997 or so, it was practical for an average person to set up his own domain and use a package like WS-FTP (or Front Page) to edit content. Self-publishing of text documents in large volume, capable or reaching the entire planet, was at hand. By 1998, it was apparent that search engines like Google really would give “average Joes” global reach. Zittrain points out that by the end of the century, the traditional publishing and media industries were becoming worried about how they would “compete” with no-cost amateurs who wanted to be noticed and would offer often valuable content for free or at low prices. Even so, some concepts (like e-books and Softlock) expressed the old “appliance” model.

Probably the first big concern, though, was security. Viruses had been known since the Morris affair in 1988, and at first they were spread mostly with diskettes, and then email attachments. Eventually they became more sophisticated until eventually even connecting to the Internet at all incurred some risk. Zittrain sketches out some scenarios, of how a total cyber meltdown could conceivably occur or, more likely, some individual users could find all their files trashed and their machines rendered useless without rebuilding, even when they thought they had kept up anti-virus protection. Much more likely, though, is gradually infection of machines with spyware, or possibly having machines taken over as zombies with DOS attacks (a problem widely reported in the media in 2001). The vulnerability of Microsoft operating systems (along with their omnipotence) led to the massive “service pack” update around the end of 2003 and the need for most home users to have broadband to keep their machines adequately protected by both frequent anti-virus updates and Microsoft security fixes.

Home users, and operators of websites for small business or just personal political expression do encounter potentially serious risks. ISPs could cut them off if their macines become zombied, although it’s not always clear that ISPs have an incentive to do so, or to help customers after some security disaster has occurred. Hence, the risk of kneejerk. Websites, even those of small businesses or individuals, could be hacked, either randomly (most likely) or because of an “enemy” issue, and then quarantined by site advisor services or even search engines. It’s difficult for individuals or small businesses to “appeal” these actions by other private parties, partly because the “locking” parties tend not to have much financial incentive to do much, and because their employees (even in abuse departments) may lack the skills to do much. “Acceptable use policies” of ISPs and various business facilitators usually include legal indemnification policies; these are rarely enforced or pursued (with the notable exception of proven spammers) for rather transparent business reasons. In rare and perhaps elaborate cases (maybe the stuff of John Grisham novels), a particular individual could be “framed” by a hacker for committing some particular computer crime. In practice, however, actual wrongful prosecutions have been rare. Auto and property insurance companies can try to cover these with “umbrella policies” but must contemplate the actuarially unknown risks of dealing with “amateurs” on a public stage, and even questions like what makes someone an “entertainer.” Media perils companies have generally not been willing to insure “amateur” bloggers (at least those dealing controversial political stuff like LGBT issues) on the Net because of the unknowability of risk.

At some point, the discussion of generativity (vs. lockdown and “tethering”) comes back to social engineering and social values. Zittrain covers much of this with his detailed discussion of how Wikipedia works and enforces its ethical standards. (He refers to its founder as “Jimbo Wales”, whom other writers characterize as a “curiously powerful man”). Zittrain spends a chapter on the “reputation” problem, although not so much from the viewpoint of the harm to employment prospects from videos of underage drinking (what Dr. Phil calls “Internet mistakes”) as something much broader and of a real concern to business. As I noted in the previous review, young entrepreneur Cameron Johnson talks about a business person as equivalent to his reputation and brand, as if they were synonyms. Zittrain feels the same way. He suggests the idea of “reputation bankruptcy,” as if various private mechanisms will gradually rate people’s “reputations” the way Fair Isaacs calculates FICO scores. It’s not clear how a reputation can be cleaned, however, other than through the moral suasion efforts of companies like “Reputation Defender.” (I covered Dr. Daniel Solove ‘s book on online reputation on this blog Jan. 12). Perhaps there will evolve new “aging” standards about how long references to “non-celebrities” can remain on totally public websites.

Zittrain points out, as have many others, that with the generative Internet, the a different and somewhat amorphous idea of “privacy” has evolved. In small town America, no life was private; in urban America, life could be anonymous, an asset for the LGBT community dealing with throwing off McCarthyism. With technology, at first there was an emphasis on the value of anonymous speech and access (which EFF and the ACLU always vigorously defend), now the desire for “fame” and “pride” has complicated the picture. People want to express themselves and be known for what they can say, as on the Internet, but they don’t want the National Security Agency eavesdropping on their conversations. (Zittrain covers the FISA and Patriot Act issue briefly.)

There could be some benefit to biometric identification of users in some cases. There needs to be careful thought to the responsibilities of ISPs and content facilitators, even though it seems important to protect them from downstream liability (as with Section 230 of a 1996 telecommunications law), even though some "pro child protection" see that exemption as controversial. The Internet makes defining precise legal standards for child protection (from both explicit and "implicit" content) problematic, as we know from litigation (COPA). On spam, he sounded optimistic about Sender-ID, and discussed how captcha boxes (and attempts to defeat them) work.

I think that the self-expression has even more social significance than Zittrain or Solove state. Self-expression goes along with “individual sovereignty” and the idea that one can be the absolute god of his own social connections. This lives in a certain tension with “family values” and ideas of blood loyalty that used to impose some socialization on everyone.

In his Conclusion, Zittrain discusses Nicholas Negroponte ‘s initiative “One Laptop Per Child” with special laptops called XO ‘s with a design that encourages a kind of “localized generativity.”

Correlated post on Zittrain's position on Network Neutrality, here.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Cameron Johnson: You Call the Shots (Review)


Author: Cameron Johnson, with John David Mann, Foreword by David Bach.
Title: You Call the Shots: Succeed Your Way --and Live the Life You Want --with 19 Essential Secrets of Entrepreneurialship.
Publication: New York: The Free Press, 2007. ISBN 10-4165-3606-X. 260 pages, indexed.

Well, this book provides a lot more cheer to review than did the one on the previous post. It’s really upbeat. Now 23, Roanoke, Virginia raised Cameron Johnson has (beginning at age 9) started and run an unbelievable number and mix of businesses, some in the “real world,” many on the Internet.

If Donald Trump reinstantiates “The Apprentice” – watch out. He does come across as The Apprentice. His advice reinforces all the business values demonstrated on that show (especially in the boardoom scenes), and Cameron actually got to meet The Donald at age 9 – by asking to. (Remember Trump’s “How to Get Rich”? Cameron’s book really isn’t about that at all.) That becomes his first tip, “Put Yourself Out There.” Cameron’s absolutely first business was door-to-door selling of fresh produce tomatoes, just as Donald Trump’s first assignment on the first “Apprentice” was selling lemonade in New York City streets.

The book progresses through the nineteen tips, with each tip a chapter that relates some more of his autobiography, including a story of another business or other episode, like his time in a private boarding school when he had to struggle to get Internet access. Even then, he managed to keep in the running. Genuine businesses continued to prosper after the "dot-com" bubble burst.

Like Mr. Trump, he maintains that the principles of good business are the same everywhere. One of his most important principles is branding: YOU become the brand. Of course, that brings up a couple of subjects: reputation (since I’ve discussed online “reputation defense” on this and other blogs), and domain names. It would seem to me that if “you” are the brand, your name should be a good domain name. (Try his.) In fact, one of young Cameron’s businesses was in “flipping” domain names, and he got a visit from a process server in 2000 (at age 16) for registering a domain name that Ford Motor Company claimed was one of its trademarks. In fact, Ford had not bothered to register the mark as a domain or even register it as a trademark for several months, and their claim sounds totally frivolous.

Well, I’m getting off track. His principle idea is that YOU and the Customers are the business, no matter what. People make money when they deliver goods or services that people want and will pay for. People get in trouble when they get obsessed with securitizing (yes, flipping) everything, and that is what leads to these bubbles and busts, none of which relates to sound business models. Fair enough.

One of his most interesting ventures had to do with selling ads with a CPM click revenue model in 2000, a model that is common today. By this time, as a teen, he had learned to hire programmers and manage them. He had to anticipate the problems inherent in the business model, develop a conceptual solution, and invest in and manage the work to solve the problems. With Internet advertising, a major potential problem is the temptation for fraud, and the need to develop algorithms to detect it and thwart it automatically. There was also the business problem of increased supply and a dwindling demand after the bubble burst in 2001.

His ventures tended to be practical in nature, and tended to leverage small capital investments with high transaction volumes, but always in an ethically acceptable way. (He talks about business ethics toward the end of the book.)

Toward the end, after piddling with business courses in college, he goes back to the “bricks and mortar world” of auto sales, and it seems like his motive is sort of like, well, paying his dues. His father always wanted him to have a “real job,” not all this Internet stuff – except that his Internet ventures always involved in solving real customer-related problems. In fact, they were always based on simple things – like swapping gift certificates. He mentions, in conjunction with the "real world" issue, that Japan presents a paradox: while it has led the world in consumer electronics, it has a cohesive family structure that discourages unmarried adults from leaving home and doing things on their own until almost thirty (and other have noted Japan's low birth rate, as in the posting below).

Cameron has a penchant for starting a business, proving that it can make money, and then selling it and moving on. Sometimes he would just close it, rather than take the legal risk involved in selling a marketing list of customers.

At this point, I do start to wonder about the point of it. “Business is business,” and he runs through a variety of them, like the varied, numbers-driven gauntlets that Donald Trump makes his contestants run through. He admires the concept of Dell Computers, eliminating the middleman. He does compare business creativity (the expression of ideas in the business world) to artistic creativity (on p 218). But I think more can be said about merging the two. Some of his business ideas do seem to come from socialability: enough interest in an social contact with people to garner of sense of simple things that they "need" or "want"; so some of his techniques might not work as well for introverted people. He thinks it is OK to work in several businesses at the same time and does not pay a lot of attention to potential conflicts of interest that have concerned me over the years.

A couple months ago, I met young composer Dominik Maican at a concert where one of his works was premiered. We had a discussion about a couple of “business” ideas. One was film music. I pointed out that must movies have poorly composed music for end credits. (Movie scores have taken a tumble since the best of John Williams.) He could take up that idea as a challenge: compose a 7 minute work for a motion picture end-credit that fits the emotional tone of the movie but that is performable on its own in concert. There would be a demand for this. I think some motion picture directors and studios would like an idea like this. But the “idea” would require “business” salesmanship. A related idea would be “modern” (dissonant, extremely rhythmic) dance music that can work on both the disco floor (eliminating the awkward transitions and cuts) and concert hall (even if somehow related to rap or hip).

That brings to me. I wrote a big “political” book in 1997 in order to explore some social and political problems, well explored elsewhere on these blogs (and familiar to many of my visitors). I felt motivated to do so not by money but by something traumatic that had happened during my “coming of age” that I believed, with a lot of conviction, relates in an unusual way to some critical issues today. I didn’t make (much) money, but I didn’t lose it either, because I kept costs low (eventually with “print on demand”) and took full advantage of the Internet, with inexpensive disk space, bandwidth, domain names, and the like. I needed very little capital, and I did not need to borrow money or go into debt. The goal was to attract publicity, which can be both good and dangerous.

I’ve talked about how to “make money” and this is not the sort of thing that lends itself to “transactions.” It needs more concept, something like knowledge management, as I’ve outlined before, something that expands on what others already do (like with Wikipedia). Since so much of the content is “free” much of the income for an idea like this might have to come from advertisers, so Cameron’s experience with his CPM certainly relates. (There are all kinds of data on what kinds of ads and placement strategies bring the biggest revenue streams.)

I’ve also been looking at, for a few years, in what it would take to bring the substance of the book to film. There are all kinds of “business” issues and instrumentalities – investors, legal filings, actors and writers guilds. I’ve networked with IFP and various screenwriting groups. There are mechanisms to get screenplays into “table readings” and public readings in rented theaters. But I can think of related ideas. That would be to assist in making a film by someone else on the same or related subject matter. Or here is an interesting idea: to look for unusual, overlooked films that need distribution, and set up domestic distribution and even theatrical release. It seems it is possible for a small operation to do this now. Still another idea could be to become an agent for selling screenplays and scripts (because of the “third party rule”). So there are ways to take what starts with artistic content and turn it into business ideas. I’m not big on anything that sounds like a “pyramid” – like taking a motivational book and trying to sell “self-help” tapes and DVDs even though I know this has been tried many times.

Cameron writes at one point that we have “glut of information.” But we need to organize the information to see how all these issues are linked. In my view, what I am trying to do is still problem solving.

Cameron part of Oprah's "Big Give"

Cameron Johnson is one of the contestants in Oprah's Big Give. He has made it to the final three contestants. Here is Oprah's link for him, and it includes a brief video.

Related discussion of his Ford trademark case on my trademark blog (compared to another important case).

See also "Start-Up Kids Grow Up to Be Millionaires So Fast" by "The Technologist" Steven Levy, April 9, 2008, p D01, The Washington Post, link here. He discusses Kulveer Taggar and a start-up called "Auctomatic."

Update: April 20

Steve Rucker has a story about Cameron Johnson on p C1 of The Washington Post, "Young Entrepreneur Spreads Cheer, with Oprah's Blessing," here.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Adam Steyn: America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It (review)


Author: Mark Steyn:
Title: America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It
Publication: Washington: Regnery, 2006 / rev. 2008, ISBN 978-1-59698-527-8 in paperback, 224 pages indexed with 46 roman numeral pages of Introduction (2008, new) and Prologue)

First, a note about the publisher, Regnery. I remember this company well from the 1990s, when I was researching my own book. In the Clinton years, they would come out with hard-hitting titles, making the “conservative cause” sound funny. Conservatives usually have more humor than liberals, don’t they. The Wikipedia article does mention that Regnery has some controversy with its authors.

The book has excited a lot of controversy, to the point that the author provided an extended new Introduction, and that the publisher claims (even with an illustration of the paperback version cover) that the book will soon be banned in Canada (as politically inflammatory “Islamaphobia”), where the author is from. I had pre-ordered this book around New Years Day and it arrived recently.

That is certainly true of this book, which has plenty of colorful metaphors, such as on p 187 when (in analyzing 9/11) he writes that an airline cabin in Massachusetts in “cloud-cuckoo land.”

The book combines the arguments of two other controversial opuses: Philip Longman’s “The Empty Cradle” (Basic, 2004), about falling birthrates in the West, and Bruce Bawer’s “While Europe Slept" (Doubleday, 2006).

Back in February 2008, I had written a post (here) on an article in The Nation by Kathryn Joyce on the call for “the ‘Right’ Babies, or (to put it crudely), “more white babies,” and a new evangelical film by Richard Stout “Demographic Winter: The Decline of the American Family,” here. Joyce has indicated that this is a very old argument, with certain emotional racist overtones.

Steyn, however, has nuanced his points. America, he says, is in relatively good shape. Its fertility rate is about at replacement. Canada is worse off, and Europe is in real trouble, with some countries having barely more than one child per family. So, one sees the “threat”: Muslims become more numerous, take over the Continent politically, and impose sharia and their own strict moral standards. He even, tongue in cheek, warns that the gay bars in Amsterdam have to move to San Francisco. The assault in Amsterdam on former Washington Blade Editor Chris Crain is mentioned. Later, a couple of his speculations in this area get a bit horrific.

In the United States, lower income and particularly minority populations have more children than upper income “Europeans”, who still, as Longman points out, don’t replenish themselves. It’s dangerous, it seems, from a moral point of view, to “outsource” reproduction and parenting. Then why isn’t this as big a problem in the US? For one thing, despite all of the problems in the past (slavery and segregation) and despite the political controversy over illegal immigration, the United States has done a reasonable job of assimilating minorities, by taking civil rights laws seriously. It’s far from perfect, but it makes a big difference. Furthermore, in the United States, there is a long tradition of “moderate” Muslims from a number of countries, especially Pakistan, assimilating and working, often in information technology areas, raising their own families within their own culture but participating as consumers and workers in a straightforward manner. For much of the 1980s, my own boss (in Dallas) was from Pakistan. I never thought anything of it.

But there is something more going on. After all, European countries have even stronger human rights laws. Why don’t immigrant Muslims want to assimilate, and simply practice their own culture? Bruce Bawer had explained some of that: Muslim roots are much more tribal and patriarchal, and Muslims tend to maintain ties with blood families back home. (Although many Hispanics do so, too, here.)

Steyn talks about a tendency of Europeans, and to some extent upper class Americans, to focus on the experience of the present, and to disconnect themselves from a sense of responsibility to the future (they do have a sense of the past). Religious faith is pretty good at doing that, and that’s especially true of Islam and of conservative Christian faiths. Steyn maintains that the European welfare state tends to discourage people from maintaining a sense of personal filial responsibility. Perhaps Steyn would agree with the religious criticisms of "utilitarian" values (three reviews down, Jackson's "Personal Faith, Public Policy") even if he does not seem religious himself.

He makes mixed observations about America. As a super-power, it behaves in a relatively timid fashion (I would disagree, given the war in Iraq). But because there is relatively less dependence on entitlements (although there is a lot), there is more intra-family self-reliance, so there are more babies. He makes a lot of other odd observations to explain history. England became a superpower because it conquered infant mortality in the early 19th Century, he says. Actually, England had already been a superpower for centuries. But Mother Country has lost it, and America stands alone, likely to wind up the last major part of the world not dominated by an Islamic caliphate ("Eurabia"), for a while -- but vulnerable to terror.

Like Longman, he thinks that western countries (America included) need to make it economically much easier to have families and children. A person with five dependents, he says, should pay only a fifth of the taxes of a single person. (Sometimes that’s already true, and European countries seem to be lavishing generous family benefits these days, including paid family leave in the workplace, which the United States does not mandate, so he seems off base here.) But, it’s true, in practice, many families have a hard time coping with the competitive economic pressures on them, given health care, the mortgage mess, and everything else. Steyn argues that welfare programs actually weaken reproduction, by weakening the sense of filial obligation, loyalty, and interest that encourages families to battle for themselves as units and to survive external threats (here, radical Islam). He also argues that adolescence lasts too long. School schedules should be compressed so that young adults can get out and start their families in their early twenties, the prime years biologically for reproduction. I don’t think he’s too sympathetic with (“straight”) women who join the Army, get their medical school paid for, and spend years as military surgeons in Iraq before having kids.

Here is where it gets interesting, for me, at least. He sniggers a little bit about gays, but in the long run he probably doesn’t see gay non-procreation (that’s not always the case) as statistically significant. It’s heterosexual infertility that matters. Muslim religion, as we know, is usually vitriolic in its anti-gay stances and penalties.

Of course, for “people like me,” it seems to come down to a “moral” question. I am asked or made to sacrifice for those with families. It certainly sounds “anti-libertarian.” It’s possible to propose that, in a competitive world, that some adherence to biological loyalty is a moral requirement. Yet we all know that people are wired differently, particularly with respect to gender issues. Many people contribute a lot to society and culture without personally making babies, and there seems to be a question (often phrased in religions terms) in some people’s minds whether “we should let them” or demand some sort of filial competence from “people like me” as a pre-requisite to keep families as a whole from being disrupted by unwelcome competition from singles and the unattached. It’s always seemed that the whole “public morality” concept of prohibiting homosexuality (which I had to deal with during my own coming of age a few decades ago) was a convenient “irrational” social ruse to make “marginal” heterosexual men more comfortable with their own roles as “proletariat” fathers, to protect them from ideas that would make them uncomfortable with their own situation as heads of families or let them get disinterested in their own marriages. Indeed, then they would make more babies, in marriage.

Philip Longman has criticized modern individualists as too "preoccupied with themselves to want children." I don't know if that refers to women who have careers, to gays, or to people with Aspergers syndrome. Maybe all of the above. I have gotten used to the idea that psychological diversity is a good thing in the long run: many people will have successful families if they set themselves up as adults with the expressive lives they want before marrying and having children, even if that means that children come later, and that there are fewer children or sometimes no children. It's the way responsibilities and "burdens" are shared among people that becomes an issue. Yes, being a parent is difficult, and requires some social support. Some people are not "wired" to want the emotional complementarity of marriage and parenthood (especially fatherhood), and what their responsibilities should be (mine included, to those who do "choose" to have children) becomes a real "moral" issue that ought to be articulated and faced. For one thing, eldercare (of parents and sometimes other relatives) is a kind of filial responsibility that can be demanded of everyone; it is not chosen, and it is emotionally demanding. (Longman and Steyn are right that the longer lifespans with fewer children adds to the problem, but long life spans in good health would not be a problem.) Unfortunately, some people see childlessness itself as a form of self-deprecation that invites demands of sacrifice from others.

I see that Longman's book was discussed on this blog in March 2006 (see the Blogger archive links on the left) along with several other related books. George Gilder 's "Men and Marriage" was discussed in April 2006.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

New alliances in bookstore wars: chains and independents may have to work together


Business, like politics, can generate strange bedfellows. Now, the chain bookstores may be finding allies with independent bookstores in fighting off the “box stores” (Wal-Mart) and, of course, e-retailers (Amazon). Sometimes chains and online stores belong to the same company: Barners and Nobles is both physical and virtual; Amazon works with Borders, and BooksaMillion and Powells have major online stores.

There is talk that Barnes and Noble could buy Borders. And independent stores could eventually be owned by larger chains. Politics and Prose, Kramerbooks (near Dupont Circle in Washington – used to be in Ballston in Arlington but that close), even the G&L chain Lambda Rising could some day become absorbed. Presumably acquiring companies would want to continue the browsey neighborhood atmosphere that independent stores have; many of them have larger collections of very specialized books (as does Kramerbooks with history and politics, and a large restaurant on the premises) that attract “upscale” neighborhood residents. Borders, it should be noted, started as a small independent.

The threat from the “box stores” could be overblown, as they would never carry on the premises the large range of specialized titles. Sure, you can always find plenty of genre (romance and horror) paperback novels even in supermarkets, often discounted.

The Washington Post had a major story to this effect on Saturday April 5, 2008, Business, page D1, by book industry analyst Michael S. Rosenwald, “The Changing Bookstore Battle: It used to be little vs. big guy, then the bigger guys came; link here.

In 2000, I saw a 16 mm film at the University of Minnesota from Avatar Films, "Book Wars", by Jason Rosette, about the lives of people who sell used books on the streets of New York City. I could not find a DVD on Netflix for it yet.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Jesse Ventura: Don't Start the Revolution Without Me (review)


Authors: Jesse Ventura (aka James George Janos), and Dick Russell.
Title: Don't Start the Revolution Without Me!
Publication (2008, Herman Graf / Skyhorse, ISBN 978-1-60239-273-1,
Description: 312 pages, hardcover, with color photos, 16 chapters)

Back in 2000, Ventura had written “I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed” (Signet, ISBN 0-451-2008601, paper, 306 pgs)

Ventura, of course, hit center stage with his at-the-time shocking win of the Minnesota gubernatorial in 1998, with the Reform Party. I remember the election night party at a tavern in St. Paul, and a particular LPMN member cackled as Ventura pulled ahead, and left both Republican and Democratic candidates severely behind. (He had previously serves as mayor of the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park.) He was thought of as “libertarian” but is not always consistently so. He recently appeared on Larry King Live and made appropriate criticisms of the hegemony of the Republicrats. (Discussed here toward the end of the posting.)

The book is told from the “present tense” of his sabbatical in Baja California (Mexico), away from cell phones and most of the modern rush of civilization. In each chapter, he gives a retrospect to an important episode of his life. The organization causes the book to lend itself to docudrama film-making. Will we see a movie, perhaps?

The most obvious episode is his governorship, and the implosion of the Reform Party when Pat Buchanan took over. He indicates that the leadership of the party could have taken it into a viable third party option for the American people, but instead let it lapse into petty squabbles. He also agrees that Perot might have won in 1992 had he not acted like a baby for a while. The promise of Perot’s candidacy has been forgotten. He argues for abolition of the Electoral College. When I moved to Minneapolis and became active in the LPMN subsequent to my book’s promotion of cable TV, the Reform Party tried to get some of my attention.

Not always was he “libertarian” in the strictest sense, and he even suggests that libertarianism can encourage anarchy. He helped put in the Minneapolis light rail system, which was being built when I left (one terminal is in Uptown, near the Landmark theaters). He says that in the early 50s, Minneapolis had the best streetcar system in the nature, but it got torn up by the automobile lobby. He offers interesting accounts of travel to China and Cuba, and believes that China is rapidly westernizing.

He describes himself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, a combination that makes common sense but seems difficult in American politics. He says that the combination of big business with religion threatens to create fascism, which he believes has already come into being in the United States under the current Bush administration.

He sees most laws regarding “public morality” such as drug laws, and in the past laws targeting gays, as inspired by religion, and says that government has no business regulating private consensual behavior, only letting people reap the consequences of their own bad behavioral choices. This is a philosophy of, as I once called it, “consequentialism”. He believes that the state should recognize civil union contracts (including same-sex couples) but “marriage” as such. He doesn’t get into the “institutionalist” debate over marriage, but it is clear than many people see external social rewards and even “preferences” as essential to keeping marriages stable and able to raise children.

He offers some interesting theories about great catastrophes in history. He offers some analysis that suggests that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have acted alone in the JFK assassination. But his remarks would need to be compared carefully to details in several documentaries and books (by Posner and others) that claims that the JFK is a “case closed” and that it is proven that Oswald acted alone.

Likewise, he offers comments to the effect that 9/11 could have encompassed a conspiracy including the government. He cites specific delays and odd behaviors by the President and Vice-President immediately afterward, and discusses Michael Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9/11”. These would have to be compared in detail to other accounts.

He believes that Bush’s war in Iraq in self-serving and sees the Patriot Act as a step toward fascism. Yet, he acknowledges that Saddam Hussein did use banking arrangements also used by terrorists. He criticizes the “backdoor draft” (or military “stop-loss” policy) as a sham for a volunteer military, which makes it vulnerable to misuse at presidential whim. He thinks that a draft should be reinstated whenever we go to war for a legitimate purpose. (He doesn’t say what happens to “don’t ask don’t tell” but I can predict that it is repealed.) Of course, using the draft seems anti-libertarian, and it didn’t keep us out of Vietnam. Other commentators, like Jack Cafferty, have supported reinstating the draft in such circumstances.

I talked to Ventura at the 2001 HRC dinner, shortly after 9/11. I remember that he said, "It is safe to fly."