Indy-Writing Scene; 2018

The indy-author scene is not the only thing which has radically changed over the last decade; just the one that I know the best, through having the great good fortune to start as an indy author just when it was economically and technologically possible. It used to be that there were two means of being a published author. There was the traditional and most-respected way, through submission to a publishing house – which, if you were fortunate enough to catch the eye and favor of an editor, meant a contract and an advance, maybe a spot on the much-vaunted New York Times best-seller list. This was a method which – according to the old-timers – worked fairly well, up until a certain point. Some writers who have been around in the game for a long time say that when publishing houses began viewing books as commodities like cereal brands and ‘pushing’ certain brands with favored places on the aisles and endcaps, and treating authors as interchangeable widgets – that’s when the traditional model began to falter. Other experts say that it began when tax law changed to make it expensive to retain inventory in a warehouse. It was no longer profitable to maintain a goodly stock of mid-list authors with regular, if modest sales. Mainstream publishing shifted to pretty much the mindset of Hollywood movie producers, putting all their bets on a straight diet of blockbusters and nothing but blockbusters.

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Po nan Jwèt la: Asymétri Kache nan Lavi Chak Jou

Taleb, Nassim N., Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. New York City: Random House, 2018.

NB: precisely because I regard Taleb as a national treasure and have considerable respect for his work, I am not going to pull punches here. I get to do this because I have … skin in the game, and not only in Haiti[1] (where I wrote this post over the past ten days, thus the Kreyòl Ayisyen title), but in a couple-three moderately hair-raising situations back in KC, which I will relate when appropriate. Which might be never; see Matthew 6:1-4 (cited by Taleb on page 186).

Getting this out of the way—buy this book, read it, and recommend it to others. I say this very much irrespective of what might be called the Manifold-Taleb delta, which is not altogether trivial, as I will explain in some detail—again, as a sign of respect—below. Immediately below, in fact.

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Flyoverphobia

So, there has always been a tension existing between city folks and country folks; the tale of the city mouse and the country mouse being an example. Then there are all those jokes about the city slicker and the country bumpkin, the effete city dweller and the down-to-earth country folk, the books, movies and television series painting the city as a glamorous yet spiritually and physically unhealthy place, the country being dull, desperately boring, backwards, even a bit dangerous … all in the spirit of good fun, mostly. But now we have a new and malignant version, and there is nothing at all fun about it. Here we have the bicoastal enclaves, all drawn as the glamorous and fabulously wealthy, sensitive and with-it woke folks … and then you have the flyover country in between, filled with – as the bicoastal see it – with those hateful, stupid looser deplorables, clinging to their guns, and religion, and hating on all those with darker skins.

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I Am a Barbarian

Scott, James C. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.

Scott has hit another metaphorical grand slam with this one, a worthily disconcerting follow-on to his earlier work. I have previously read (in order of publication, rather than the order in which I encountered them) The Moral Economy of the Peasant, Seeing Like a State, and Two Cheers for Anarchism, and found them congenial. Scott is particularly good at encouraging a non-elite viewpoint deeply skeptical of State power, and in Against the Grain he applies this to the earliest civilizations. Turns out they loom large in our imagination due to the a posteriori distribution of monumental ruins and written records—structures that were often built by slaves and records created almost entirely to facilitate heavy taxation and conscription. Outside of “civilization” were the “barbarians,” who turn out to have simply been those who evaded control by the North Koreas and Venezuelas of their time, rather than the untutored and truculent caricatures of the “civilized” histories.

By these criteria, the United States of America is predominately a barbarian nation. In the order given above:

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2017 Reading, continued

A Prophet Without Honor, by Joseph Wurtenbaugh.  An outstanding work of alternative history.

It is now known that when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936, his forces were under orders to withdraw if faced by serious opposition by the (then-much-superior) French and British militaries.  But these countries did not take action, being focused on their economic problems and convincing themselves that the German move wasn’t really much of a threat.  But they didn’t know about the Withdrawal Order.  What if they had?

Some of the characters are fictional, others are real people imagined as following different trajectories.  The central figure is a German officer named Karl von Haydenreich; he has become friends with American officer Dwight Eisenhower and this friendship will prove critical in changing the course of history.

Very well-done, should not be missed.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz.  Advice about running a startup from a venture capitalist…the author is cofounder of the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.  A lot of worthwhile points, some of which should be obvious, others not so much so.

Understanding what you did wrong if you hired an executive who did not work out:  Horowitz goes through several possible causes of the failure, including this:

You hired for lack of weakness rather than for strengths.  This is especially common when you run a consensus-based hiring process.  The group will often find the candidate’s weaknesses, but they won’t place a high enough value on the areas where you need the executive to be a world-class performer.  As a result, you hire an executive with no sharp weakness, but who is mediocre where you need her to be great.

On excessive focus on quantitative metrics:  “Management purely by numbers is sort of like painting by numbers–it’s strictly for amateurs.”

I especially like Horowitz’s emphasis on the importance of organization design, and the point that all such designs are compromises…indeed:

The first rule of organizational design is that all organizational designs are bad.  With any design, you will optimize communication among some parts of the organization at the expense of other parts.  For example, if you put product management in the engineering organization, you will optimize communication between product management and engineering at the expense of product management and marketing.  As a result, as soon as you roll out the new organization, people will find fault with it, and they will be right…Think of the organizational design as the communications architecture for your company.  If you want people to communicate, the best way to accomplish that is to make them report to the same manager.  By contrast, the further away people are on the organizational chart, the less they will communicate. The organizational design is also the template for how the company communicates with the outside world.

The book was inspired by this thought:  “Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying, ‘That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.'”  For example:

The hard thing isn’t hiring great people.  That hard thing is when those ‘great people’ develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things…The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.

Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy, by Tim Harford.  Includes not just the sort of things that would typically show up in an ‘inventions’ list, but also such things as double-entry bookkeeping, tradable debt, the welfare state, and the department store.

Regarding the latter, Harford credits Harry Gordon Selfridge, who worked for Marshall Field, with creating the concept.  Key to the new stores was the idea that “just looking” was okay, indeed was to be positively encouraged.

Selfridge swept away the previous shopkeepers’ custom of stashing the merchandise in places where sales assistants had to fetch it for you…he instead laid it out in the open-aisle displays we now take for granted, where you can touch a product, pick it up, and inspect it from all angles, without a salesperson hovering by your side…Shopping had long been bound up with social display: the old arcades of the great European cities, displaying their fine cotton fashions–gorgeously lit with candles and mirrors–were places for the upper classes not only to see but to be seen.  Selfridge had no truck with snobbery or exclusivity.  (When he opened his London store), His advertisements pointedly made cleaer that the ‘whole British public’ would be welcome–no cards of admission are required.”

Harford also mentions an Irish immigrant to America named Alexander Turney Stewart.  It was Stewart who introduced “the shocking concept of not hassling customers the moment they walked through the door. He called this novel policy ‘free entrance.”  Stewart also introduced the concept of the clearance sale and established a no-haggle pricing policy for his good.

Discussion of inventions such as the department store provides a useful reminded that so many of the things we take for granted–with ‘things’ including assumptions about ways of doing things as well as tangible objects–haven’t always existed; somebody had to think of them and drive them into reality.

This post to be further continued.