16 September 2006

General Grumbling

I've made a few minor updates in the sidebar, mostly for offsite links.

In the process, I've discovered one minor annoyance at Blogspot: One cannot limit the front page to x days of posts if one is using a non-US-civilian date format. Like I said, minor annoyance; I can live with it, as I'll be doing more than one post a day on only very rare occasions. (That one of those is coming up in a couple of weeks—First Monday—is beside the point.)

On to matters of (dubious) substance…

  • The publishing pond in the blogosphere has erupted with comments about the so-called "Sobol Literary Enterprises." The [insert favorite expletive concerning inbreeding here] editorial staff at PW Online needlessly gave the thing credence—and, as usual, did so without doing any of the math. The best advice on this dubious attempt to force the publishing industry to rush forward into the twentieth century: Don't. "Miss Snark" and my colleagues at Writer Beware say why at length. The math is just a bit shorter:

    • Each entry costs $85.
    • Total prize money is $142,000.
    • Thus, the breakeven point on sunk costs is less than 1700 entries.
    • Based on the number of known victims of clearly fraudulent fee-charging agents in the last four years, there are at least 50,000 potential victims out there.

    The real problem is that the underlying assumption for the contest—that the current system of selecting works for publication is broken beyond repair—is in fact correct. This, however, is not a viable way to fix it, especially when the potential authors will be bearing the cost.

  • The September 2006 Atlantic has an interesting article by James Fallows (unfortunately, available online only with a subscription). The biggest problem with Fallows' approach is that it is not broad enough in its statement of strategic principles. The unusually accurate summary on the front of the magazine reads:

    Al-qaeda's [sic] mistakes, and our successes, have sharply reduced the terrorist network's ability to harm the United States. Its threat now rests less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing. Its destiny is no longer in its own hands…

    (emphasis added; ellipses in original) I could accept this if one substituted "has always rested" for "now rests", and "has never been" for "is no longer." Historically, every successful insurgency/revolutionary movement found success only when the status quo essentially committed suicide through an oxymoronic combination of overreaction, complacency, and nonassimilation.1 Historically, the lowest-cost means of defeating a terrorist movement in the mid- and long-term has been to remove the surface reasonability of the movement's motivation. One does not do so by turning the movement's propaganda about the status quo's evil, repressive nature into prophecy!

  • Chief Justice Roberts has begun making the Supreme Court's proceedings more transparent. Starting with this term, oral argument transcripts will now be available to the public, free of charge, on the day of argument. I applaud this move toward openness, but I think it less important in substance than as symbol. Oral argument of a fully briefed appellate matter can be terribly misleading to the uninitiated; most of the time, one can only lose at oral argument, because the crux of the case (and, in particular, the analysis of precedent) is in the briefs. Oral argument in front of a jury is ordinarily much more enlightening… precisely because the advocate is not being peppered with technical questions from judges who have already read the briefs, and frame their questions (and expect to get answers) in shorthand. Hopefully, the pages with the oral argument transcripts will include embedded links to the petitions for certiorari and the parties' (and amici's) briefs.

  1. There have been a few—very few—instances in which a prototerrorist revolutionary movement was successfully suppressed by brutal militaristic action… in the short term, anyway. One obvious example is Elizabeth I's campaign to keep Catholic dissenters from taking away her throne; another, even darker example is the hundred-year-long campaign waged by the Okhrana against anti-Tsarist forces in Russia. These are notable precisely because they are exceptions… and they both set the stage for truly terrible long-term prices. Misuse of Walsingham's apparatus was one of the causes of the English Civil War, and the Okhrana's excesses laid the groundwork for Iosef Stalin.