31 March 2009

Chunky Sausages of Dubious Origin

  • So, what's your major? Answer: It doesn't really matter; the real difference between a liberal-arts education and a trade-school education is that the liberal arts graduate knows something, in some depth, outside his/her major, by design... and the trade-school graduate does only by accident.
  • Bobby Jindal Hates the Arts! Yeah, I'm surprised.
  • It's a bad time to be up for sale, even if you're leading academic publisher Springer. What this really reflects is unrealistic expectations of purely financial returns on the part of both the owners and the potential buyers. Yes, publishing is about making a profit; it is not, however, about all publishers earning returns that are above average, like Lake Woebegon's children. Which, now that I think about it, is all too apt a comparison.
  • Speaking of everyone being "above average," The Poz (the Hon. Richard J. Posner) tries to explain the housing bubble, irrationality, and being wrong in purely economic terms... and fails. That, however, is not surprising; it's similar to the failure to classical physics to explain nuclear interactions. Economics works as a dominant explanation only inside the "meat" of the bell curve of behavior (approximately ±1.5σ); once outside that frame, other factors dominate. Since, by definition, a "bubble" is outside that area, this shouldn't surprise anyone, and exposes the primary problem with economic explanations of human behavior: the neglected distinction between "necessary condition" and "sufficient explanation". Economic factors are always a necessary condition in an explanation, but they're seldom sufficient in themselves; for one thing, no purely economic model can explain either "altruism" or "artistic integrity" and remain internally consistent, and that's just the beginning (and the letter A).
  • A new "optimization" site "for authors" called filedbyauthor.com (which I'll call "FBA" for obscure reasons, and to avoid repetition... a common SEO strategy) has started up. As this LAT article notes, it's not exactly author-friendly. The business model is quite curious: Everything is initially generated in-house by FBA, but authors are then "invited" to pay annual fees of about $100 — and up — to get control over the information and become "verified" members.

    This is much less surprising a business model than it might seem, given its origins. First of all, the site and corporation are based in Nashville. That, by itself, should send up a huge red flag to anyone who is actually concerned with creator control. One of the dirty little secrets of copyright law is the partial cooptation of the Sixth Circuit by corporate music interests from the early 1960s on — to the point that one can seldom rely upon Sixth Circuit opinions on copyright issues for an even-handed statement of the controlling facts, let alone the legal principles (and sometimes even the controlling precedent!). One of the key distinctions between the way the music business has established its contracts and the way the publishing business has established its contracts is that in music, the corporate interest always asserts trademark-like control over the creator's image, although it actually tries to enforce that assertion almost entirely with performers and not with writers, whereas publishers have seldom done that (although some — Hachette's US outpost being the largest — are starting to do so).

    Second, there's no apparent way to opt out. It's going to get awfully interesting to see how FBA handles objections from trademark holders... and I am no doubt going to be involved in that, if only as a consultant. It will also be interesting to see how it impinges upon existing communities built by authors, such as the Scalziverse and the Doctorow Continuum (which don't have much in the way of existing fan sites) and Hogwarts (which does).

    Bluntly, this is a misconceived attempt to hold authors' images — in the Nashville sense of the word — hostage. I'm strongly opposed to the business model, which clearly violates California law and probably violates a whole bunch of other law. The real question will be how to do anything about it... because, like Dracula, this sort of thing keeps coming back.