07 June 2010

Consider the Source

I'm extra grouchy this morning about people who refuse to examine their own assumptions (and self interest) before spewing forth ill-considered self-interested pontification. Since that's a pretty good description of my normal state, though, I'm not sure how you'd know that it's extra grouchy today... you'll just have to trust me that the following is toned down.

  • Alex Tabarrok of the WSJ makes another misguided attempt to proclaim that Hollywood is "anti-business" and wrong to be so. First off, an industry that pushed Transformers as a major product, barely touched District 9, and wouldn't release Moon outside of metropolitan areas reflects such a horrific pro-business bias that it's hard to credit Tabarrok's thesis. What he really means, though, is that the way Hollywood depicts business is dysfunctional... but that's inevitable. Dysfunction (as is the somewhat-illusory "rugged individualist caught in a system" meme) presents more-fertile ground for both drama and comedy — for fiction in general — than does a smoothly functioning office that enables inexpensive delivery of a high-quality, high-need commodity to the rest of the world. One could make the same assertion about Hollywood's approach to education, or the military, or government, as Tabarrok makes about Hollywood's approach to business, and it would be neither more nor less valid.

    In short, Tabarrok is complaining that Hollywood is, in its fictional accounts, not being strictly factually accurate within his experience and dogma concerning his own area of interest. Even for a Monday morning, that deserves a "well, duuuuuuh." Apparently the dramatic interests raised by BP's oil spill follies, the safety problems Massey has had in its mines, and Bernie Madoff don't deserve some attention from Hollywood; I guess we're supposed to accept that nobody ever misbehaves. I'd make even more snide remarks concerning the blindness of those who accept finite-sum games as a model for everything, but that's going perhaps too far for a Monday morning. What's not going too far for Monday morning, though, is to point out that the better films out there criticize capitalism only indirectly; instead, if there is a criticism, it is about abuse of power, whether we're talking about All the President's Men (or All the King's Men), Richard III, or Wall Street.

  • "Ghostwriters Unite"? Well, ok, I suppose a trade association for ghostwriters isn't an entirely bad idea. If they really wanted to be proactive, though, they'd demand that publishers actually pay attention to the Lanham Act and accurately label the actual author of every book and magazine article. I don't have a problem with ghosts — only with invisible ones.
  • Scottish booksellers sort of stand up to Amazon. What this really points out is that any market definition that does not treat book distribution as overconcentrated, and therefore subject to searching antitrust scrutiny, is one that has been skewed away from reality. But you already knew that if you read this blawg...

    Not quite so much enthusiasm, though for eliminating the distorting effects of the returns system. And that's entirely understandable. One of the major problems with changing from system A to system B is that there are always "casualties" involved in doing so, and the prospective casualties don't like being prospective casualties... especially if either the change itself or System B would require application of individual judgment (instead of judgment-free "systems") to be successful.

  • Slate describes its own little version of the Milgram experiment. I find it rather interesting that Slate — which has repeatedly proclaimed its fidelity to exposing and discussing truth — was willing to engage in formal deception as part of its method. To me, that was one of the most interesting aspects of 1984, and indeed the entire Ministry of Truth: The effect that altering the past had not just on those who were actually doing so, but on those who were directing the alteration... and enforcing it. But then, I was never fond of reading 1984 as a mere roman à clef for the Soviet government; Orwell's own experiences as a BBC broadcaster demonstrated more than adequately that the Soviets weren't the only one doing that sort of thing, and the less said about the French Revolution's treatment of "truth" (and "animals") the better.

    This points out one of the seldom-examined problems with the Milgram experiment: It is as much a second-order examination of the experimental supervisor's own ethics (and, probably, results as an experimental subject in the same experiment) as it is of the stated objective: Determining whether explicit demand from authority will result in infliction of distress upon an "innocent" party. In Milgram's own experiment, the second-order authority was the reproducibility metric demanded for making a philosophical/psychological inference "scientific": leaving aside the rather dubious connection between "statistically replicable" and "scientific," Milgram (and his assistants) were equally subjects in inflicting distress upon the subjects of their experiment. Similarly, in this instance Slate — by engaging in knowing and purposeful distortion of factual material so as to influence the opinions and behavior of third parties — was doing, at the second order, what it was purportedly testing. This is not just some abstract ethical concern, either; an experimental design that makes the experimenter the subject is rather flawed. At best.

(Addendum at posting time) Sorry it's no longer "morning," but I'm in one of the areas with "intermittant problems accessing the Blogger site."