THE BLOG


  New KnowledgeBlocks Explorations - 06/18/2012

Every month over on KnowledgeBlocks, we publish three business book explorations that examine a narrow subject within a broader business topic. Each begins with a featured book and then branches out, introducing you to author insights via podcast or interview, other related books, curated links, and brief analyses that will help you build your business knowledge.

In June, members can access these Explorations:

On the Being a Leader channel, you’ll find an exploration titled “Beyond Pros and Cons” which features the book Judgment Calls: 12 Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams that got Them Right by Thomas Davenport and Brook Manville as a jumping off point for a deep dive into decision making. We’ll look at why knowledge is not enough, why leaders have a superhero complex, what happens when new leaders began as creators, and why leaders should be more concerned with how a decision is made, not who it is made by. And finally, we close the Exploration with a podcast Q&A with Judgment Calls authors Davenport and Manville.

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The Creativity & Innovation exploration for June features Tina Seelig’s inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, a book based on her course on creativity and innovation through the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, and answers the question: “Can Creativity Be Learned?” Seelig assures us that it can, so we set out to explore how to wake up our latent creativity, why it is important to do so, how what you already know can inspire your own brand of creativity, how to turn your observations into actionable innovations, and why it is important to ask the questions that can generate lots of answers. A Q&A with Tina Seelig is forthcoming.

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And for our Running a Business exploration, we looked toward Jason Jennings’ The Reinventors to instruct us on the dangers of standing still, the value of letting go, why small steps take the risk out of the possible reward, why the need to be resilient and adaptive are the only guarantees in 21st century business. A business isn’t always going to stay “up.” But you can make the decision to surf the wave–become a partner with change–, and that starts with becoming a reinventor. A Q&A with Jason Jennings is forthcoming.

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Still not sure what KnowledgeBlocks is?

KnowledgeBlocks is an interactive, subscription-based site powered by the business book experts at 800-CEO-READ. Our mission is to help build your business knowledge by offering the following four features:

Explorations: Every month we publish three business book explorations that examine a narrow subject within a broader business topic. Each begins with a featured book and then branches out, introducing you to author insights via podcast or interview, other related books, curated links, and brief analyses that will help you build your business knowledge.

Thinkers in Residence: Our showcase for business authors and thinkers with bios, brief interviews, reading lists, curated blocks, Q&As, and webinars.

Blocks & Stacks: Blocks and Stacks offer a system for you to save, highlight, and aggregate the business information that is important to you.

Book Giveaways: Each month we give away 20 copies of a current business book. (Membership not required.)

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To see what it takes to become a KnowledgeBlocks member, click here!


  Friday Links - 06/15/2012

➻ I haven’t been over to Alain De Botton’s School of Life blog in quite some time, so I decided to pay it a visit this week. The post from Elke Lahousse on the Rise of Amateurism made it worthwhile:

We live in a do-it-yourself age. … Not only is the world more competitive than twenty years ago, there’s also our expanding life span, growing levels of education, a more open society in which people can seek individual fulfillment, and the trend towards second careers later in life. Not to forget the impact of the digital revolution—just look at how blogs and social media are changing journalism.

It’s worthwhile that amateurs are learning from professionals. It makes society more fluid and varied, and individuals more fulfilled, even in difficult economic times. As Jack Hitt writes in A Bunch of Amateurs, “the cult of the amateur is the soul of America. It’s really in our DNA that you can walk away from everything and start again in your metaphorical garage. Just think of Steve Jobs as one of the most iconic amateurs turned superstars.”

But while we’re busy competing and comparing, and setting the bar ever higher, are we still having fun in our spare time? Getting up at 5am in the morning to train for a marathon before going to your office job is not everyone’s idea of a leisure activity.

On the eve the Olympics, when it will rain numbers and personal records while the whole world is watching, I find it a fascinating thought that until very recently only amateur athletes were allowed to participate in the Games. Amateurs! Those who were in it for fun, not for the money.

Big contracts and sponsorship have changed the rules over recent years. But today the professionals can still learn something from amateurs: enjoyment. It’s precisely that careless joy, in combination with vitality and passion, that sometimes lets the underdog win against their betters. As Intelligent Life [magazine] wrote recently on the dangers of over-thinking, “experienced athletes and artists often complain that they have lost touch with what made them love what they do in the first place.” Sometimes we need to train ourselves to get more skilled at ignoring information in order to get that pure joy back.

Dusting off the roots of the word amateur (the Latin for ‘lover of’) could relieve some stress in our professional and personal life.

The article in Intelligent Life referenced above, Non Cogito, Ergo Sum (I don’t think, therefore I am), by Born Liars author Ian Leslie is also worth a read. It makes a solid case, supported by Novak Djokovic and Bob Dylan, for unthinking.

➻ The other fine insight from The School of Life comes from a post in which Hugo Whately reviews How to Change the World by John-Paul Flintoff. From that review:

Here is John-Paul’s message of liberation: we do not have to be leaders. Try by all means, but remember we do not necessarily have to inspire the masses, live saintly lives, galvanize revolutions, reverse climate change, stop wars, save the children or stamp out malaria. Rather, we can bring the big ideas home. Small changes matter; history is nothing but small changes happening everywhere all the time, and the world we might wish to change is but a tangled mass of the details of everyone’s lives. So we are freed from thinking top-down, which can be dispiritingly daunting. This is an ode to domesticity; albeit with a health-warning: as misanthropic philosophers the world over have often found, it can be easier to love humanity than to keep loving specific people.

So keep giving to charity, and keep voting and shopping to support the organizations you believe in, but take a little time too to think about what kind of life you hope to be able to look back on. “Changing the world” is such a nebulous phrase that it is hard to pin down: Whose world? Which bit of it? How much? What John-Paul asks is a rather more personal set of questions: What really matters to you? What is there in your own life that jarrs or violates your own sense of what matters? Once you know, start with one do-able and realistic act to put that right.

And even if I weren’t ardently pro-feminist myself, I believe I would still agree with this:

If one of the universal insights of feminism is that the personal is the political, then John Paul is a fantastic feminist. It is humbling to think that whatever we may say in public, however we may vote, however we shop and consume, whatever our professed allegiances, values and careers, it is our domestic arrangements that speak most powerfully of our own politics. The economic, cultural, moral and behavioral patterns that mark our home lives are the building blocks of the wider world. Our true politics are but our home lives writ large.

As Gandhi once said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change” (often paraphrased to “be the change you want to see in the world”). Or as Q-Tip so famously put it, “If you got knowledge and dolo of delf for self, see there’s no one else… who can drop it on the angle, acute at that, so do that, do that, do do that that that (come on). Do that, do that, do do that that that (okay).” Actually, maybe both of them were just bragging.

➻ Rob Walker at the Design Observer Observatory suggests a counter-intuitive approach to telling your story, The Bizarro Storytelling Exercise:

As Adam Gopnik suggested on The New Yorker’s Page Turner blog the other day, there’s not much new in pointing out that stories are important to humans. When this time-worn observation gets repeated in a marketplace context these days, it’s usually freshened up by tying in some reference to technology: You can tell your brand or product’s story online, via social media, or interactively, and ergo stories are more important than ever. [...]

[S]o here’s my thought: The Bizarro Storytelling Exercise.

The Bizarro Storytelling Exercise would entail devoting serious, systematic, hard thought to the question: What is the very worst story someone could tell about our company/brand/product?

I don’t mean what’s the worst pack of lies, I mean the company/brand/product-makers asks itself: Based on what we do and how we do it, what is it that we are least likely to bring up in telling our story? And why is that, exactly—why wouldn’t we bring it up?

It may also be instructive to uncover the worst story in your personal life right now. Don’t let it debilitate you; just turn the page, and start a new chapter.

➻ Stephen Pressfield, the author of numerous novels and a famous book on The War of Art, has some thoughts on this and on our original topic today—amateurism. He strongly suggests against it. His new, self-published book, Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work, argues for, well, turning pro—in whatever you’re truly passionate about:

Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we’ll pursue a shadow calling instead. The shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.

Are you pursuing a shadow career?

Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan Studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies you know you have inside you? Are you living the drugs-and-booze half of the musician’s life, without actually writing the music? Are you working in a support capacity for an innovator because you’re afraid to risk being an innovator yourself?

If you’re dissatisfied with your current life, ask yourself what your current life is a metaphor for.

That metaphor will point you toward your true calling.

I appreciate Pressfield’s passion, and I love his thoughts on art. I love the novels of his that I’ve read, and I’m glad he had the ambition to get them out into the wider world. But I also think that as inspirational as the message above is, and as Seth Godin’s and many others’ are, that it shouldn’t make us feel like a failure if we make our wage doing something other that what we’re most passionate about in life. After all, just because we love food doesn’t mean we should open a restaurant. And even if we do, it doesn’t mean we’ll be good at it.

The inspiration to break out of a 9-5 existence, pursue our passion, to build a career out of it—and get rich doing so—is great, but I think that we must also know that it’s okay to struggle with our passions while we continue making a living in other ways. The struggle is often the greatest blessing. To never be recognized for your passion is not to have failed in its pursuit.

I had a chemistry teacher in high school who was one of the happiest and most alive people I’ve ever known. His real passion was in the visual arts, but he chose a career as a chemistry teacher solely because he didn’t want his passion to become his job. Sometimes remaining an amateur is the healthiest decision we can make. Maybe true engagement with the world lies at the heart of non-attachment, and the only thing we can do is continue—or not. And, maybe no matter how hard we try, the struggle will always show.

➻ Which is why I absolutely love Josh Linker. He is a phenomenal writer, who has a widely read and well regarded blog, has published a few books, but still struggles with his writing as he works a day job and raises a family. He writes about his life by writing about his baseball cards, and the struggle of life is on the surface of his work. He recently wrote about Luis Tiant:

I spent some time recently writing an essay on Luis Tiant for a forthcoming compilation. It was impossible. I always feel like I fail whenever I try to write about something I really love. There is too much to say, so whatever ends up getting onto the page feels like a reduction, a diminishment, a mistake.

I have to balance my writing—well, balance is the wrong word. I have to jam my writing life into the rest of my life, going to and from work, working at a job where I am responsible for locating and correcting mistakes, looking after my baby, a wobbly lurching being who makes me want to maim myself when I make a mistake and allow him to fall down and bang his head. I try to allow the writing to be the one place where mistakes are okay. That is why I’m writing right now, beyond the end of my work on the Luis Tiant essay. By the way, I just misspelled Tiant and went back and corrected it, so I’m full of shit on my open invitation for mistakes and some kind of unreachable freedom. The way I keep misspelling Tiant is Taint, which is kind of funny. Taint is kind of like a mistake, meaning a flaw in something. [...]

I can’t find the right words. I can only make one mistake after another.

That was one of my failed plans for the Tiant essay I just finished, that it would be organized around the Zen notion of shoshaku joshaku, first coined by Japanese master Dogen and brought to my attention years ago in the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. The phrase means “one continuous mistake.” I wanted to describe Luis Tiant’s unorthodox and unforgettable pitching delivery in those terms, everything about it wrong but somehow beautiful and more than that somehow, hitches and pauses and twitches and all, continuous, and his career, too, with his exile and his injuries and his releases and his comebacks, one continuous motion, too, Tiant untainted by surrendering to the life of one continuous mistake, the mistakes not the point of this all but rather the will to continue. This was the point of these words, and all my words, and all my mistakes: continue.

Hopefully, through all the mistakes and all our struggles, we’ll be moving forward.

➻ I Believe in You.


  Jack Covert Selects – The Honest Truth about Dishonesty - 06/14/2012

The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely, Harper, 304 pages, $26.99, Hardcover, June 2012, ISBN 9780062183590

If Dan Ariely’s new book is anything like his last two, it will sell like gangbusters and enlighten a lot of people on a matter of the mind we take for granted, or don’t even stop to consider. And the book, The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, comes at a time when we can use some pause and reflection.

The seemingly never ending series of corporate scandals and financial chicanery (Ariely begins the book by considering Enron) and the complete inability to clean it up or stop them from occurring, makes the question at the heart of the book, “is dishonesty largely restricted to a few bad apples, or is it a more common problem?” a very important one for both the business community.

Ariely, through both reasoning and research, rejects the long-accepted Simple Model of Rational Crime (SMORC), that “in weighing the costs versus the benefits, there was no place for considerations of right or wrong; it was simply about the comparison of possible positive and negative outcomes,” and the book’s central thesis replaces it with a more nuanced and human explanation of dishonesty:

[M]uch of our behavior is driven by two opposing motivations. On one hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people … (psychologists call this ego motivation). On the other hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money as possible (this is the standard financial motivation). Clearly these two motivations are in conflict.

The Honest Truth about Dishonesty explores different territory than his previous books, Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, but if you’ve read those previous works you’ll be pleased to know that it continues and moves forward the general arc of those studies.

Beyond exploring the topic of dishonesty, this book is fundamentally about rationality and irrationality. And although dishonesty is fascinating and important in its own right, it is also important to keep in mind that it is but a single component of our interesting and intricate human nature.

And he believes we can create an environment that fosters optimal behavior:

Once we more clearly understand the forces that really drive us, we discover that we are not helpless in the face of our human follies (dishonesty included), that we can restructure our environment, and that by doing so we can achieve better behaviors and outcomes.

To understand what keeps businesses honest and profitable, it is important to understand what keeps the people within them honest, and to put appropriate systems in place. It is not about becoming a nanny or absolving individuals of responsibility, but of simply understanding human nature, and putting the better angels of our nature to work within our organizations and societies.


  Jack Covert Selects – The Hour Between Dog and Wolf - 06/14/2012

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust by John Coates, The Penguin Press, 352 pages, $27.95, Hardcover, June 2012, ISBN 9781594203381

Many of today’s top graduates, the best engineers and scientists, mathematicians and physicists of the day, have been lured to Wall Street by the overwhelming amounts of money the big firms there are offering. One would assume that with all that talent and brain power, all the sophisticated risk analysis they’ve done and all the money that flows to Wall Street every day, that the world economy would be humming along. Instead, risk takers on Wall Street rode a series of bubbles into a false sense of security and invincibility, stoking hubris instead of humility when taking on great financial risk, and the world continues to sit on a precipice of financial collapse as a result. This is, of course, not the first time we’ve been here, but that didn’t stop it from happening again.

Joan Coates, a great mind that has moved from Wall Street to university—specifically Cambridge, to research the biology of risk—thinks that with the assistance of modern science, we can now explain why this destructive tendency occurs.

Recent research in physiology and neuroscience can, I believe, help us explain this ancient, delusional and tragic behavior. Human biology can today help us understand overconfidence and irrational exuberance, and it can contribute to a more scientific understanding of financial market instability.

And although this research is applicable to all aspects of human life, he focuses on the financial world for two reasons:

[F]irst, because finance is a world I know, having spent twelve years on Wall Street; second, and more important, because finance is the nerve center of the world economy. If athletes succumb to overconfidence, the lose a match, but if traders get carried away on a flood of hormones, global markets founder.

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf is, simply put, fascinating. It is a book on finance that explores consciousness and the subconscious, a book about markets and their “animal spirits” that calls on Kant to explore free will and what “lurks beneath our rational, conscious selves.” But it is first and foremost a book of modern science that works through those formerly philosophical unknowns to show us what is physically happening to our bodies, and how our intuition and conscious reality interact, when we make decisions and encounter risk. It ranges from fun phenomenon like the physiology of goose bumps to more serious problems like ulcers and heart disease.

The book explores “gut feelings” in detail, explaining what’s happening physiologically when they occur, and demonstrates that trading skill (as opposed to luck) does actually exist and should be measured and compensated accordingly. In the end, Partnoy begins to illuminate “the invisible hand” of the market, showing that the hand belongs to us and that it’s up to us to decide how to play it.


  Jack Covert Selects – Wait - 06/14/2012

Wait: The Art and Science of Delay by Frank Partnoy, PublicAffairs, 304 pages, $26.99, Hardcover, June 2012, ISBN 9781610390040

Frank Partnoy won the Biographies & Narratives section of our 2009 800-CEO-READ Business Book Awards for his outstanding history of Ivar Krueger in The Match King. I am a big fan of Biographies, so I was partial to it, but his was one of the best I’ve read in recent years. Partnoy’s new book, Wait, though not a biography, is just as well written.

It could be read as a narrative of latency, of how our brains have evolved and what it means for us in our present moment, and explains the powerful force of delay on our decision-making.

Professional tennis and baseball players follow the same two-step approach to good decision-making that we should follow in our longer-term personal and business decisions. First, they figure out roughly how much time they will have available to respond. Second, they delay their response as long as they possibly can within that time period. If you watch Albert Pujols hit a baseball in really slow motion, he looks just like Warren Buffett buying a stock: study the pitcher, watch the ball carefully, and don’t respond to any opportunity until you have taken the time to decide if it is a good one. Wait as long as you can so you’ll have a better chance of swinging only at fat pitches.

Chapter Three, “High-Frequency Trading, Fast and Slow,” is particularly fascinating in its implications for how we make decisions and manage the world. He begins the chapter by telling the story of UNX, a high-frequency trade firm that had become a leader in the market. It moved it’s black box computers from the West Coast to NYC to speed up their transaction time by milliseconds, believing it would increase their yield, only to learn that the trades were actually getting worse. After manually delaying the transactions back to the speed it had taken to travel the continent—mere milliseconds—they returned to their former profitability.

Some continue to argue that high-frequency trading is inherently risky, “that increasing the speed of trading is not only socially wasteful but dangerous.” But others view it as essential for increasing trade efficiency, and are simply building latency into their systems and putting pauses in their algorithms:

[O]ptimizing delay—buying and selling only a few shares during the first few milliseconds, like the initial feint of a fencing duel, to test how other traders respond.

But regardless of whether we’re talking about markets, sports, or warfare, the optimal instruction, according to Partnoy, is Wait—not to delay action, but the decision to act. If you are quick enough in your execution, if only by milliseconds, you can give yourself more time to make the all-important decision to act, and that can make all the difference.


  ChangeThis: Issue 95 - 06/13/2012

How to Make Change Stick: Kill the Company How to Make Change Stick: Kill the Company by Lisa Bodell

“Innovation is not just about data analysis, plans and processes, and thinking outside the box. More than anything else, innovation is about change. And the truth is that as much as we’d all like to think otherwise, we are all hardwired to resist it.”

A Three Trillion Dollar Reason to Work Together: Public-Private Partnerships Are Here to Stay by Mary Scott Nabers

“Relief won’t come quickly or easily, but one thing is crystal clear: government must reach out to private sector partners for innovative solutions.”

The ROE Manifesto: How to Maximize Your Return On Energy by R. Michael Rose

“It’s easy to measure how much time we have and how much money we have left, but energy is something that is hard to explain, much less tie to business results. Until now.”

Selling, Art or Science? by Jim Holden

“[There] has always been the debate as to whether sales is an art or a science, almost to suggest that for some, sellers are born and not made. The intent of this manifesto is to apply unconventional thinking to the question of art or science.”

The Struggle by Nate St. Pierre

“Most people bear a heavy burden, quietly and alone, so focused on making sure it looks like they have everything under control that they forget they don’t have to have it all under control, and they certainly don’t have to walk their road alone.”

Why Companies Must Reduce Complexity by Neil Smith

“Too often companies look at reducing expenses without even thinking about reducing complexity. These types of programs to increase profitability may be successful in the short term, but unless you look at how things get done, change won’t be sustainable.”


  Friday Links - 06/08/2012

➻ One can have their heart broken by a place. What seems like a move forward to many can devastate a community, make obsolete a tradition that has made a place what it is, that has shaped the people of that place into who or what they’ve become. The decision to close a bookshop where a future writer stumbled upon Sartre, or to shutter a theater in which an artist had “an early inkling that there might be a difference between a film with good intentions and a good film,” can feel like cutting off one’s own limbs, can crush us as much as losing a long-time lover to a new suitor.

Those examples come from a recent article by the wonderful Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth, On Beauty, Changing My Mind, and the upcoming NW. Her piece in The New York Review of Books is on The North West London Blues she’s come down with upon learning of the decision to close the bookshop and reduce the Willesden Green library she fell in love with literature in to make way for private, luxury flats. In that article, she writes about the problem of libraries today:

What kind of a problem is a library? It’s clear that for many people it is not a problem at all, only a kind of obsolescence. At the extreme pole of this view is the technocrat’s total faith: with every book in the world online, what need could there be for the physical reality? This kind of argument thinks of the library as a function rather than a plurality of individual spaces. But each library is a different kind of problem and “the Internet” is no more a solution for all of them than it is their universal death knell. Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library in which I write this, despite the fact every single student in here could be at home in front of their macbook browsing Google Books. And Kilburn Library—also run by Brent Council but situated, despite its name, in affluent Queen’s Park—is not only thriving but closed for refurbishment. Kensal Rise is being closed not because it is unpopular but because it is unprofitable, this despite the fact that the friends of Kensal Rise library are willing to run their library themselves (if All Souls College, Oxford, which owns the library, will let them.) Meanwhile it is hard not to conclude that Willesden Green is being mutilated not least because the members of the council see the opportunity for a sweet real estate deal.

All libraries have a different character and setting. Some are primarily for children or primarily for students, or the general public, primarily full of books or microfilms or digitized material or with a café in the basement or a market out front. Libraries are not failing “because they are libraries.” Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.

In the modern state there are very few sites where this is possible. The only others that come readily to my mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership. It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep re-stating the obvious. There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.

I don’t think the argument in favor of libraries is especially ideological or ethical. I would even agree with those who say it’s not especially logical. I think for most people it’s emotional. Not logos or ethos but pathos. This is not a denigration: emotion also has a place in public policy. We’re humans, not robots. The people protesting the closing of Kensal Rise Library love that library. They were open to any solution on the left or on the right if it meant keeping their library open. They were ready to Big Society the hell out of that place. A library is one of those social goods that matter to people of many different political attitudes. All that the friends of Kensal Rise and Willesden Library and similar services throughout the country are saying is: these places are important to us. We get that money is tight, we understand that there is a hierarchy of needs, and that the French Market or a Mark Twain plaque are not hospital beds and classroom size. But they are still a significant part of our social reality, the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet.

If the losses of private companies are to be socialized within already struggling communities the very least we can do is listen to people when they try to tell us where in the hierarchy of their needs things like public space, access to culture, and preservation of environment lie.

I fully share Ms. Smith’s naivete here. I also share her belief that public space can’t be replicated or replaced by the very real and wonderful enticement of the digital world. Amazon, for all its obvious strengths, cannot enhance a community’s character as a local bookstore can. A library of free books online cannot replicate or replace the serenity or intellectual serendipity that one finds in a local library.

➻ “Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone.” —Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203

➻ Judging from a conversation between Neil Young and Patti Smith at B.E.A. this week, Young has similar feelings that something is being lost in the digitization of music:

“I was talking about my new record the other day to an interviewer who knew lots of things, or thought he did,” he said. “And he said that the new record sounded very underproduced. ‘What did you listen to it on?’ I asked him, and of course it was an MP3 on a Mac. We used to struggle to make these things sound great. It’s like reducing a Picasso to wallpaper. Who did that? You can hardly see. You can hardly feel it.” [...]

As the conversation wound down, Young once again worried over the creep of technology. “The decline of improvisation in music,” he said, “coincided with the decline of resolution in digital feedback. Now things are more condensed and organized. There’s even the ugly word ‘quantized.’ The technology we’ve been burdened with by content providers is very, very, very stifling and very neglectful of the muse.”

I swear I’m not a Luddite. I’m writing this on a digital device, and I love my iPhone with its music library and its Words with Friends and the ability to call my mother by touching a screen twice and not having to worry about how much it’s going to cost me to do so. I believe that one day we’ll be able to stare up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling without actually being inside the Sistine Chapel, and that’s going to be wonderful for education and the arts. But, I also believe that reality is analog, “a continuous flow of signal” as it were, and that as much as we digitize our own creations, the future of creation will continue to exist in analog.

And as much as I appreciate having a music library on my phone, I really do love me Neil Young’s “Harvest” playing on a vinyl record through a solid state receiver and Pioneer CS-801 speakers.

➻ “I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That’s a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don’t know—you haven’t done it yet. You must live life at the top of your voice! At the top of your lungs shout and listen to the echoes.” —Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203

➻ I know I link to Nicholas Carr far too often here, but he keeps on coming up with profoundly simple, yet compelling insights that escape most of us—or at least me—such as Books Ain’t Music. After discussing his own (and everyone else’s) music piracy dating back to the ’70s, he delves into the many differences between books and music, one of which is:

The average music buyer is younger than the average book buyer. Young people have long been a primary market for popular music. Young people also tend to have the spare time, the tech savvy, the obliviousness to risk, the constrained wallets, and the passion for music required to do a whole lot of bootlegging. Books tend to be sold to older people. Older people make lousy pirates. That’s another crucial reason why book publishers have been sheltered from piracy in a way that record companies weren’t.

This is a conversation we’ve had for years here at 800-CEO-READ. Being big music fans, and having musicians among us, we look at the recent history of the music industry and wonder if publishing is headed in the same direction. Carr again:

Executives in the publishing industry are probably kidding themselves if they think that they’re responsible for the fact that, so far, their business hasn’t gone through the wrenching changes that have affected their peers in the music business. And if they think they can use the experience of the music business as a guide to plot their own future course, they’re probably kidding themselves there, too. The impending forces of disruption in the book world may resemble the forces that battered the music world, but they’re different in many important ways.

And we’re still left here trying to figure it all out.

➻ “Those aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.” —Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203

➻ Junot Diaz, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, talks about the power of literature, and of Loving Ray Bradbury.

And then there was his story “All Summer in a Day,” a perennial middle-school favorite. I remember reading that story very young, when I was still wrestling with English, when I was only beginning to understand that I loved stories more than anything, that books would be my calling. I read that short tale, and when I came to those ruthless final lines I was shattered by them. In the back of the Madison Park library I read that story and cried my little eyes out. I had never been moved like that by any piece of art. I had never known what I’d been experiencing as an immigrant, never had language for it until I read that story. In a few short pages, Bradbury gave me back to myself.

Ray Bradbury died on Tuesday.

➻ Again from the The Paris Review‘s Art of Fiction No. 203 with Ray Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury: The need for romance is constant, and again, it’s pooh-poohed by intellectuals. As a result they’re going to stunt their kids. You can’t kill a dream. Social obligation has to come from living with some sense of style, high adventure, and romance. It’s like my friend Mr. Electrico.

The Paris Review: That’s the character who makes a brief appearance in Something Wicked This Way Comes, right? And you’ve often spoken of a real-life Mr. Electrico, though no scholar has ever been able to confirm his existence. The story has taken on a kind of mythic stature—the director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies calls the search for Mr. Electrico the “Holy Grail” of Bradbury scholarship.

RB: Yes, but he was a real man. That was his real name. Circuses and carnivals were always passing through Illinois during my childhood and I was in love with their mystery. One autumn weekend in 1932, when I was twelve years old, the Dill Brothers Combined Shows came to town. One of the performers was Mr. Electrico. He sat in an electric chair. A stagehand pulled a switch and he was charged with fifty thousand volts of pure electricity. Lightning flashed in his eyes and his hair stood on end.

The next day, I had to go the funeral of one of my favorite uncles. Driving back from the graveyard with my family, I looked down the hill toward the shoreline of Lake Michigan and I saw the tents and the flags of the carnival and I said to my father, Stop the car. He said, What do you mean? And I said, I have to get out. My father was furious with me. He expected me to stay with the family to mourn, but I got out of the car anyway and I ran down the hill toward the carnival.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I was running away from death, wasn’t I? I was running toward life. And there was Mr. Electrico sitting on the platform out in front of the carnival and I didn’t know what to say. I was scared of making a fool of myself. I had a magic trick in my pocket, one of those little ball-and-vase tricks—a little container that had a ball in it that you make disappear and reappear—and I got that out and asked, Can you show me how to do this? It was the right thing to do. It made a contact. He knew he was talking to a young magician. He took it, showed me how to do it, gave it back to me, then he looked at my face and said, Would you like to meet those people in that tent over there? Those strange people? And I said, Yes sir, I would. So he led me over there and he hit the tent with his cane and said, Clean up your language! Clean up your language! He took me in, and the first person I met was the illustrated man. Isn’t that wonderful? The Illustrated Man! He called himself the tattooed man, but I changed his name later for my book. I also met the strong man, the fat lady, the trapeze people, the dwarf, and the skeleton. They all became characters.

Mr. Electrico was a beautiful man, see, because he knew that he had a little weird kid there who was twelve years old and wanted lots of things. We walked along the shore of Lake Michigan and he treated me like a grown-up. I talked my big philosophies and he talked his little ones. Then we went out and sat on the dunes near the lake and all of a sudden he leaned over and said, I’m glad you’re back in my life. I said, What do you mean? I don’t know you. He said, You were my best friend outside of Paris in 1918. You were wounded in the Ardennes and you died in my arms there. I’m glad you’re back in the world. You have a different face, a different name, but the soul shining out of your face is the same as my friend. Welcome back.

Now why did he say that? Explain that to me, why? Maybe he had a dead son, maybe he had no sons, maybe he was lonely, maybe he was an ironical jokester. Who knows? It could be that he saw the intensity with which I live. Every once in a while at a book signing I see young boys and girls who are so full of fire that it shines out of their face and you pay more attention to that. Maybe that’s what attracted him.

When I left the carnival that day I stood by the carousel and I watched the horses running around and around to the music of “Beautiful Ohio,” and I cried. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I knew something important had happened to me that day because of Mr. Electrico. I felt changed. He gave me importance, immortality, a mystical gift. My life was turned around completely. It makes me cold all over to think about it, but I went home and within days I started to write. I’ve never stopped.

Seventy-seven years ago, and I’ve remembered it perfectly. I went back and saw him that night. He sat in the chair with his sword, they pulled the switch, and his hair stood up. He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.

Ray Bradbury did not die on Tuesday.

➻ In My Blakean Year.


  Tubes - 06/07/2012

“They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet.
And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on.
It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand,
those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in,
it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube , enormous amounts of material.”

—The late Senator Ted Stevens, of Alaska

Senator Stevens caught a lot of flack for that comment, made in an attempt to argue against an amendment on net neutrality. And while I still find his, or any, argument against net neutrality somewhat wrongheaded, Wired correspondent Andrew Blum reports in his new book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, that Stevens probably didn’t deserve the amount of tech condescension he received. Blum describes why in the prologue:

I have now spent the better part of two years on the trail of the Internets physical infrastructure, following [the wire from my backyard]. I have confirmed with my own eyes that the Internet is many things, in many places. But one thing it most certainly is, nearly everywhere, is, in fact, a series of tubes. There are tubes beneath the ocean that connect London to New York. Tubes that connect Google and Facebook. There are buildings filled with tubes, and hundreds of thousands of miles of roads and railroad tracks, beside which lie buried tubes. Everything you do online travels through a tube. Inside those tubes (by and large) are glass fibers. Inside those glass fibers is light. Encoded in that light is, increasingly, us.

I’ve just started this book, but so far the journey is fascinating (not only, yet not hurt by, the fact that he begins in Milwaukee at Kubin-Nicholson print shop). Part technological exploration and part travelogue, Blum takes the reader on a physical tour of the internet, transferring our understanding of it from “a landscape of the mind” to a real geography. It’s an important understanding to have, I think, as it reconnects the digital world ever more to the physical—something I think we forget when we’re able to push a button on a screen and have a box arrive at our doorstep the next day. Just as it’s important to know where the food that ends up on our plate comes from, I think it’s just as important to know how information ends up on our computer screens, and where it comes from. Blum explains his journey there:

The Internet has a seemingly infinite number of edges, but a shockingly small number of centers. At its surface, this book recounts my journey to those centers, to the Internet’s most important places. I visited giant data warehouses, but many other types of places as well: the labyrinthine digital agoras where networks meet, the undersea cables that connect continents, and the signal-haunted buildings where glass fibers fill copper tubes built for the telegraph. Unless you’re one of the small tribe of network engineers who often served as my guides, this is certainly not the Internet you know. But it is most certainly the Internet you use. If you have received an email or loaded a web page already today—indeed, if you are receiving an email or loading a web page (or a book) right now—I can guarantee that you are touching these very real places. I can admit that the Internet is a strange landscape, but I insist that it is a landscape nonetheless—a “netscape,” I’d call it, if that word weren’t already taken. For all the breathless talk of the supreme placelesssness of our new digital age, when you pull back the curtain, the networks of the Internet are as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was.

I love this book so far, and if you’re interested in taking a really unique tour of the world of technology, and a tour of that technology as it exists throughout the physical world, I think you will, too.


  Stolen!, an Excerpt from Digital Wars - 06/06/2012

Reading JP Mangalindan’s recent story about how the browser wars are back in Fortune reminded me of a great book by Charles Arthur that Kogan Page put out in late April. Arthur is The Guardian‘s technology editor, and the book is Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft, and the Battle for the Internet. It’s a fascinating history, well told and concisely written. It’s written so concisely, in fact, that he needed just five paragraphs for his introduction. In the final paragraph, Arthur writes of the beginning:

The first time that all three found themselves sharing the same digital space was 1998. They could not know of the battles to come. But those battles would be world changing.

World-changing, indeed. I’m only 31 years old, and the world of technology I remember from my youth looks nothing like it does today. Today’s youth have never had to untangle a long phone chord, or wind up a busted cassette tape with a Bic pen. Their phone and music device are now the same thing, and there’s no chord or magnetic tape to tangle with. They’ve never had to consider how much a long-distance phone call would cost—probably have never even heard the term “long-distance call.” And if they’ve ever used a stylus, it’s most likely been on a touchscreen, not a long-playing microgroove record.

That is just a small snapshot of the change these three companies have effected in our daily lives, and Arthur’s history of covering the industry, following the intricate details of those changes every day for the last 25 years, has made him one helluva digital war correspondent.

Below we have an excerpt from Chapter 4, “Digital music: Apple versus Microsoft.” It is a story of failed diplomacy in one digital battle, and how much that can cost.

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

Stolen! BY CHARLES ARTHUR

On Sunday 3 October 2004, Steve Ballmer blew through London as part of a European tour. He was lined up with various meetings, including a couple of media events—a one-to-one meeting with the Financial Times and the other with a round table of technology journalists from newspapers and prominent online sites.

He had plenty on his mind. Oracle was making a $9.4 billion bid for PeopleSoft, which provided human resource management and customer relationship management systems, just the sort of field Microsoft might want to compete in. Ballmer indicated to the Financial Times that Microsoft would not be entering the bidding. If Microsoft was going to buy anything, he implied, it would be Germany’s SAP—a leading maker of CRM software—for which, Oracle had revealed in June, Microsoft had privately begun bidding in June 2003.

With the discussion about billion-dollar business deals done, Ballmer went on to the round table meeting. He was a veteran of such encounters; it was unlikely that he would encounter anyone who would know more about almost any subject than him, and certainly nothing regarding industry information. He could feel confident.

Ballmer began by declaring that he had a “fundamental optimism” about the future of information technology and Microsoft’s role in it, and especially integrated devices: “the number of smartphones [presently] sold is relatively small,” he said. “That number will grow.”

The questions moved through the European Commission antitrust case (which was grinding on over the tying of Windows Media Player to Windows, and access to Windows systems), the problems of security with Windows (“There are bad people out there in cyberspace and they are not going to go away”), browser rivalries, and spam.

Then came the question. “Despite digital rights management, isn’t piracy still rampant?”

The transcript by Jack Schofield of the Guardian, one of the attendees, records Ballmer’s reply:

Ballmer: Let me first talk about DRM. Now we’ve had DRM in Windows for quite some number of years, there’s nothing new about that…

Journalist: [interrupting] Having said that, that hasn’t stopped, you know, pirates from running rampant…

Ballmer: Of course not: nothing does! I mean, what’s the most common format of music listened to on an iPod?

Journalist: On an iPod…

Ballmer: Stolen! Stolen!

Journalist: [confused] On an iPod?

Ballmer: Yes. Most people still steal music. [laughing] The fact that you can buy it and it’s protected doesn’t affect the fact that most people still steal [music]. I’d love to say all problems have been solved, whether it’s iPod/iTunes—where Apple has done some nice work, no doubt about it—but the truth of the matter is we can build these technologies, but as long as there’s alternate forms of music acquisition, there still will be ways for people to steal music.

What Ballmer, then 48, meant was that it was inconceivable that someone under 25, as most iPod owners probably were, could possibly own the 8,000 songs you’d need to fill the largest 40GB iPod released that July; iPods at the time couldn’t display photos directly. Logically, the majority must have been “stolen”—downloaded from file-sharing systems.

On its face, this was true. But the chief executive of a truly consumer-facing organization would have recognized two elephant traps to avoid. First, telling iPod owners that they’re knowing thieves (which the news organizations did with delight, using headlines such as “iPod users are music thieves says Ballmer”) is hardly good marketing, especially if you want those people to use your forthcoming products.

Second, the majority of iPod owners used Windows PCs. (Jobs had con-firmed this at the European iTunes launch.) In that case those being insulted by Ballmer for their alleged thieving were using software from his company—and could feel doubly aggrieved. Jobs’s words at the April launch of the European store make an interesting contrast: “Piracy is the biggest market for downloads—we have to understand it and offer a better product,” he said. Conciliatory rather than confrontational.

Ballmer’s real error, though, was failing to realize the loyalty that iPod owners felt. The woman in the Guardian’s feature section pitying her friend with the MiniDisc was subconsciously preening about owning an iPod. Ballmer hadn’t grasped the emotional attachment and how, when you attack something people feel emotional about, they will react emotionally.

His attitude was entirely natural for someone more used to dealing with the corporate customers who would be expressing outrage at the wholesale theft of their content via file sharing. Had the room been filled with music executives, they would have been hanging on every word, waiting to hear what silver bullet Microsoft’s coders had created to solve the piracy problem. To a bunch of journalists writing for a consumer audience, though, he came across as gauche.

“Part of the reason people steal music is money, but some of it is that the DRM stuff out there has not been that easy to use,” Ballmer said. “We are going to continue to improve our DRM, to make it harder to crack, and easier, easier, easier, easier, to use.” He agreed that it wasn’t going to be simple, and pointed to his own child as an example: “My 12-year-old at home doesn’t want to hear that he can’t put all the music that he wants in all of the places that he would like it.”

Lapping it up, another journalist asked: were they close to a tipping point with digital media devices and home entertainment?
“I think we are close to the tipping point, to where we may get a device that can take on critical mass,” Ballmer agreed. “There will be an explosion in demand. People weren’t really sure where these new devices fitted in. At 200 bucks, maybe, but at 300 or 400 bucks it was too hard to bootstrap the device type.” He paused:

You mention Apple, and with great respect for Apple I don’t think you’ll get… there’s no way anything gets to critical mass with Apple, because Apple just doesn’t have the volumes. They don’t have the volumes anywhere in the world; they don’t have the volumes particularly in some countries… The critical mass is going to have to come from the PC, or the next-generation video device.
He made another comment that is interesting in hindsight. One journalist asked: “Microsoft’s smartphone has been a slow seller [its Pocket PC-based phones sold such small numbers Microsoft didn’t announce sales figures until 2005, when they hit nearly 6 million], while Apple and other companies have stolen a lead in portable music player markets. How will Microsoft tackle that?”

Ballmer’s reply:

Over time most people will carry a phone that has a little hard disk in it that carries lots of music. Mobile phones are about 600 million units a year. Now, how many devices do we want to carry? We have to have a more compelling value proposition. [Research In Motion’s] BlackBerry has a niche market position [at the time, around 2 million users worldwide] but it’s not a very sticky device. It allows you to make bad phone calls but it’s a good Exchange client. We will see an explosion of larger keyboard devices.

What’s interesting about that comment—apart from how well it illustrates Ballmer’s gadfly salesperson’s mind flitting about the subject in search of a compelling way to persuade people to buy an integrated device that could make phone calls and play music—is its lack of technological foresight. First was that most people would carry a phone with a “little hard disk.” Apple had already bought up supplies of solid-state flash memory for an iPod with no moving parts, and when meeting me four years earlier Hase had introduced the idea of a 1-gigabyte flash chip—enough to hold about 250 music tracks. The Motorola phone being co-developed with Apple would store its songs in flash memory; and any technologist knew that prices for flash storage were, like those for hard drive storage, halving every year.

Second, the idea of the explosion of larger keyboard devices is classically short-term thinking that also ignores the relentless march of processing power. Although touch computing was still mainly in the laboratory, it was already conceivable: Nokia had that year built a prototype touchscreen phone, and a small company called FingerWorks had been working between 2001 and 2005 on “multi-touch” systems for screens, and making presentations at conferences. A technologist—an engineer—keyed into the industry’s future would have known of it and seen its direction.

But it was Ballmer’s remarks about the iPod and piracy that captured the moment. The internet was soon aflame as the comments were spread from news site to news site; the story itself barely mattered. People didn’t like being called pirates by extremely rich people.
Ballmer acknowledged that he might have put a foot wrong in subsequent interviews that week. “I don’t [recall] what I said, but it was bad,” he told some European journalists. But soon there was to be a growing gap between what the iPod offered—a simple system for getting music from your computer to a music player—and Microsoft’s efforts to build a DRM system called “Janus” that could be the Windows of the digital music player world.

Excerpted from Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft, and the Battle for the Internet
Copyright © Charles Arthur, 2012
All rights reserved
Reprinted by arrangement with Kogan Page Limited

About the Author

Charles Arthur is technology editor at the Guardian. An experienced journalist, he has also worked at the Independent and New Scientist—all adding up to over 25 years in technology and science journalism. He has met all the senior figures in the technology industry and has extensive experience of reporting on the activities of Apple, Google and Microsoft. He has interviewed Bill Gates and Steve Jobs on numerous occasions. Charles has a large following and regularly speaks, writes and blogs on all topics relating to technology.


  Friday Links - 06/01/2012

➻ Peter Brantley had an interesting piece in Publishers Weekly on the Storm Clouds in Academic Publishing. After discussing the closing of the University of Missouri Press, he discusses the growing inevitability of smaller, largely open access libraries replacing the University Presses as distribution model for scholarly publications that have never made much money, and indeed, shouldn’t have to make any money to justify their existence. From the article:

[T]he other thunderbolt today was exceptional only because of its source, as such announcements are taking on an air of inevitability: UCSF [University of California, San Francisco], the largest public university recipient of NIH [National Institute of Health] funding in the country, has passed an open access policy for its faculty. UCSF faculty will be required to make each of their peer-reviewed articles freely available, immediately upon publication, through an open-access repository, thereby making them available to the entire world. A White House petition to require publicly funded research be made freely available is already well on its way to obtaining its signature goal; every supporter should add their own endorsement.

What’s remarkable is that new web-based software technology is enabling a revolutionary disruption in the costs of scholarly publishing. Easy to use authoring tools like WordPress have given rise to academically tailored products like Annotum, which in turn are being used to power next generation journals by the Public Library of Science, in PLoS Currents. And recently, the former editor of PLoS One, the “Gold” open access journal of PLoS, has left to help found a new publishing enterprise, PeerJ. PeerJ offers open access publishing in return for a $99 lifetime membership for contributors.

As web publishing becomes more mainstream, we will see newer open access models become increasingly distributed and localized. Universities could become their own publishing platforms; each academic department can mint its own journal, and every lab its own publication series, should it choose. Given commercial publishers’ barriers to discovery through high-cost portal products and abstract and indexing databases, the accessibility of these new general models, offering a “flat” discovery horizon, will be noticeably superior. Further, open web publishing systems are intrinsically capable of supporting a wide range of peer review options, from open to closed, and all the hybrid models in between.

Storm clouds are gathering; monsoon rains are coming. But the wild flowers will be amazing.

If the business schools of America end up moving in a similar direction, just imagine the wealth of information that would be available in the form of case studies, entrepreneurial ideas, and business model explorations.

➻ The former editor at the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Steve Wasserman wrote a very lengthy and great history of Amazon for The Nation, and an analysis of The Amazon Effect on the book world. Looking at the recent history of publishing and bookselling, he writes:

For many of us, the notion that bricks-and-mortar bookstores might one day disappear was unthinkable. Jason Epstein put it best in Book Business, his incisive 2001 book on publishing’s past, present and future, when he offered what now looks to be, given his characteristic unsentimental sobriety, an atypical dollop of unwarranted optimism: “A civilization without retail bookstores is unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature. The feel of a book taken from the shelf and held in the hand is a magical experience, linking writer to reader.”

That sentiment is likely to strike today’s younger readers as nostalgia bordering on fetish. Reality is elsewhere. Consider the millions who are buying those modern Aladdin’s lamps called e-readers. These magical devices, ever more beautiful and nimble in design, have only to be lightly rubbed for the genie of literature to be summoned. Appetite for these idols, especially among the young, is insatiable. For these readers, what counts is whether and how books will be made available to the greatest number of people at the cheapest possible price. Whether readers find books in bookstores or a digital device matters not at all; what matters is cost and ease of access. Walk into any Apple store (temples of the latest fad) and you’ll be engulfed by the near frenzy of folks from all walks of life who seemingly can’t wait to surrender their hard-earned dollars for the latest iPad, Apple’s tablet reader, no matter the constraints of a faltering economy. Then try to find a bookstore. Good luck. If you do, you’ll notice that fewer books are on offer, the aisles wider, customers scarce. Bookstores have lost their mojo.

The bookstore wars are over. Independents are battered, Borders is dead, Barnes & Noble weakened but still standing and Amazon triumphant. Yet still there is no peace; a new war rages for the future of publishing. The recent Justice Department lawsuit accusing five of the country’s biggest publishers of illegally colluding with Apple to fix the price of e-books is, arguably, publishing’s Alamo.

His view of the coming war is nor all dystopic, as this passage suggests:

How the Digital Age might alter attention spans and perhaps even how we tell one another stories is a subject of considerable angst. The history of writing, however, gives us every reason to be confident that new forms of literary excellence will emerge, every bit as rigorous, pleasurable and enduring as the vaunted forms of yesteryear. Perhaps the discipline of tapping 140 characters on Twitter will one day give rise to a form as admirable and elegant as haiku was in its day. Perhaps the interactive features of graphic display and video interpolation, hyperlinks and the simultaneous display of multiple panels made possible by the World Wide Web will prompt new and compelling ways of telling one another the stories our species seems biologically programmed to tell. Perhaps all this will add to the rich storehouse of an evolving literature whose contours we have only begun to glimpse, much less to imagine.

But his worries are real. Quoting two bookselling veterans, he writes:

Another bookselling veteran made uneasy by Amazon’s colossal success is Andy Ross, who—having succeeded the venerable Fred Cody as the owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley until online competition forced its flagship location to close in 2006, after fifty years in business—now works in Oakland as a literary agent. “Monopolies are always problematic in a free society, and they are more so when we are dealing with the dissemination of ideas, which is what book publishing is about,” he told me. “In the realm of electronic publishing, Amazon until recently controlled about 90 percent of the market, a monopoly by almost anyone’s definition. Most people bought their e-books in the proprietary Kindle file format that could only be purchased from Amazon and only read on the Kindle reader that was manufactured by Amazon. Other makers of e-book readers designed them to accept the open-source e-pub format that allowed customers to have a wider choice of retailers to supply them with e-books. Since then, Amazon’s market share has been declining, but 60 percent of all e-books in America continue to be sold by Amazon in the Kindle file format. Amazon simply has too much power in the marketplace. And when their business interest conflicts with the public interest, the public interest suffers.”

It’s a fair point—one that also plagues Peter Mayer of Overlook Press: “All sides of this argument need to think deeply—not just about their businesses, but also about their world. I grew up in a world in which many parts together formed a community adversarial in a microcosmic way but communal in a larger sense: authors, editors, agents, publishers, wholesalers, retailers and readers. I hope, worried as I am about the current trajectory [of publishing], that we do not look back one day, sitting on a stump as the boy does in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, and only see what has become a largely denuded wasteland.”

Wasserman’s full piece is simply colossal reading for the Internet, and very worth reading.

➻ Going back to PW, here’s Andrew Albanese’s report on how After a New Ruling, Google and the Authors Guild Appear Headed for Trial:

On May 31, Judge Denny Chin rejected Google’s motion to dismiss the Authors Guild as an associational Plaintiff, and granted the Authors Guild’s motion for class certification, meaning that Google’s library scanning program, barring another settlement, is headed to trial as a class action. On its face, the ruling is a setback for Google and a victory for the Authors Guild. But the highest hurdle—a ruling on the legality of Google’s program—is still to come.

“Point to the plaintiffs,” observed New York Law School’s James Grimmelmann, on his blog, the Laboratorium. “This doesn’t resolve the merits of the lawsuit itself, but it does doom Google’s hopes of keeping the lawsuit from ever getting to the merits.” After more than six years, and an ill-fated settlement proposal, the Authors Guild case against Google could now go to trial as early as September. And, things are set to heat up quickly. Motions for summary judgment are due to be filed by June 14, barring any unforeseen schedule changes.

Chin also granted standing to the American Society of Media Photographers in its parallel class action.

For more on the case, read Albenese’s full report.

➻ One of my very favorite articles in recent week was Nicholas Carr’s exploration of The Hierarchy of Innovation. He writes:

Justin Fox is the latest pundit to ring the “innovation ain’t what it used to be” bell. “Compared with the staggering changes in everyday life in the first half of the 20th century,” he writes, summing up the argument, “the digital age has brought relatively minor alterations to how we live.” Fox has a lot of company. He points to sci-fi author Neal Stephenson, who worries that the Internet, far from spurring a great burst of creativity, may have actually put innovation “on hold for a generation.” Fox also cites economist Tyler Cowen, who has argued that, recent techno-enthusiasm aside, we’re living in a time of innovation stagnation. He could also have mentioned tech powerbroker Peter Thiel, who believes that large-scale innovation has gone dormant and that we’ve entered a technological “desert.” Thiel blames the hippies:

Men reached the moon in July 1969, and Woodstock began three weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country, and when the true cultural war over Progress was lost.

[...] Let me float an alternative explanation: There has been no decline in innovation; there has just been a shift in its focus. We’re as creative as ever, but we’ve funneled our creativity into areas that produce smaller-scale, less far-reaching, less visible breakthroughs. And we’ve done that for entirely rational reasons. We’re getting precisely the kind of innovation that we desire—and that we deserve.

My idea—and it’s a rough one—is that there’s a hierarchy of innovation that runs in parallel with Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. Maslow argued that human needs progress through five stages, with each new stage requiring the fulfillment of lower-level, or more basic, needs. So first we need to meet our most primitive Physiological needs, and that frees us to focus on our needs for Safety, and once our needs for Safety are met, we can attend to our needs for Belongingness, and then on to our needs for personal Esteem, and finally to our needs for Self-Actualization. If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy as an inflexible structure, with clear boundaries between its levels, it falls apart. Our needs are messy, and the boundaries between them are porous. A caveman probably pursued self-esteem and self-actualization, to some degree, just as we today spend effort seeking to fulfill our physical needs. But if you look at the hierarchy as a map of human focus, or of emphasis, then it makes sense—and indeed seems to be born out by history. In short: The more comfortable you are, the more time you spend thinking about yourself.

If progress is shaped by human needs, then general shifts in needs would also bring shifts in the nature of technological innovation. The tools we invent would move through the hierarchy of needs, from tools that help safeguard our bodies on up to tools that allow us to modify our internal states, from tools of survival to tools of the self.

Makes sense to me. Head over to Carr’s Rough Type to read the full argument.

➻ Sea Above, Sky Below.


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Cleveland Public Library

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100 Best event at Joseph Beth in Lexington

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Todd at Fox Point Borders

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photos by Kat Berger

  Flickr image posted by 8CR Staff - 01/30/2009

photos by Kat Berger

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Jack signing

photos by Kat Berger

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Todd L. and Paloma

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  Flickr image posted by 8CR Staff - 01/30/2009

photos by Kat Berger

  Flickr image posted by 8CR Staff - 01/30/2009

photos by Kat Berger



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