18 June 2010

Peerless Link Sausages

The ordering of a "peer group" is influenced more than anything else by the definition of the group; superior (or inferior) status/performance/whatever depends more on the basis for comparison than anything else. Kobe Jones is a superior athlete... until you put him on a soccer pitch against the national team of any nation that qualified for this World Cup, at which point he's at best average.

In the mid-1980s, USAF officer evaluations were suffering from severe grade inflation, to the point that the exact wording of, and prevalence of, code phrases became determinative of promotion opportunities and assignments. This made things too hard for the personnel folks to manage, so they came up with the bright idea of restricting the levels of final indorsers... and applying quotas to the highest possible grades. Leaving aside the other gamesmanship that this resulted in — "In any personnel system intended to equalize opportunity, privileged factions will find a way to evade that system" — it resulted in a race away from critical assignments, such as those with a justifiable one-mistake basis, because officers were (justifiably) afraid of being caught in quota traps. Sorry, guys, but not all squadron-section command positions are equal... and neither are all maintenance operations officer positions equal, particularly when shifting from readiness to combat operations. However, these officers were all on the same quota basis as the true REMFs,1 too... and shared with the pilots, who already (by both law and regulation) had significant promotion and assignment advantages.

With that in mind, some peerless link sausages:

  • As a sideways followup on the size of the chocolate ration that Wiley is offering to its authors, Wiley reported substantial increases in net revenue for 2009, "earning" $144 million on revenue of $1.7 billion (a very, very healthy indeed — for media industries — purported profit margin of nearly 8.5%). Interestingly, the segment affected by the Bloomberg acquisition — the subject of the "chocolate ration" dispute — showed only middling results of a 7% net revenue increase, compared to 18% over in the higher education division. Sounds to me like somebody in management is comparing a chocolate truffle to one of the awful orange creams... because the economic characteristics of higher eduction publishing are (almost) completely noncomparable to professional-text publishing, which in turn are largely noncomparable to serious-fiction trade publishing.

    An 8.5% profit margin is nothing to sneeze at at any time in media... and particularly not in the midst of a recession. This leads me to believe that the impetus for increasing the chocolate ration reducing author compensation was competition across the three divisions: The top guy in professional/trade publishing looked at the higher margins in the other two divisions and felt a need to improve.2 On the one hand, that can be a good thing; comparable competition is almost always "good", in the economic sense. The key, though, is comparability; and one simply does not compare the speed of a cheetah to the speed of a horse without first asking "over what time/distance?" — let alone determining whether one of them has a head start.

  • Jose Saramago, a Nobel laureate in literature, has died. This will probably pass American audiences right by: He wrote in Portuguese, and was not well served by translations of his works like Blindness and The Double, which — while serviceable — never achieved the rhythm and poetry his works in the original language are reputed to have. Then, too, his politics did not make him exactly a celebrity in the US...
  • A mathematician's lament (introduction, with link to the actual lament). The truly cynical will apply many of the same principles expressed in the lament to foreign-language instruction... and to history... and to literature... and to the core sciences... and to everything else in the American education system.

    This really comes from two intersecting, insoluble problems with the American educational system. First, and perhaps most important, we don't demand that our educators themselves be educated. Although there are some good teachers for the middle- and low-range students who come out of bachelor's-in-education programs, they are the exception... and they are certainly not qualified to deal with high-range students. At a minimum, teachers need to have a traditional, core bachelor's degree; I'd even restrict it to liberal arts, engineering, and fine arts, if I thought I could get away with it. Second, American society's continued refusal to criticize for low achievement and/or effort results in peculiar distortions itself, and it would take thousands of words to describe why (Exhibit A: interscholastic athletics). But these aren't going to change, and particularly aren't going to change when we elect C-student legacy admits to the highest office in the land: If you want excellence, you've got to reward it.

    No doubt I'll be accused of some kind of "elitism" as a result of this entry. So be it; I really am an "elitist"... of achievement and potential, not of ancestry or ancestral achievement or ancestral wealth. That also, however, means accepting that everyone has limits; somehow, I don't think Bill Gates would have done too well if he'd been stuck in the educational system available in East Armpit in some farmbelt county, because he wouldn't be all that good a farmer... just as Judge Learned Hand wasn't that good an economist — or, returning to what started this item, mathematician,3 and Justice Souter wasn't/isn't that good a literary critic.4 Instead, virtually the only "reward" we do have is wealth accumulation — that is, devisable power without responsibility.

  • I remarked yesterday on the problems the legal profession has with not being able to spell "conflict of interest" if you spotted it the first fourteen letters, without knowing that Congresscritter Joe Barton (R-ARCO BP TX) had accused President Obama of "shak[ing] down" BP over the oil spill (while supposedly grilling the successor of his former boss). Barton should be glad he wasn't across the aisle from Darth Cheney, because Vice President Biden's response was measured and relatively polite; perhaps too measured and too polite, as I think Cheney's suggestion to Senator Leahy over a strictly partisan, procedural issue (and not one of substance) would perhaps — just perhaps — have been more appropriate.

  1. Rear Echelon Military Fella. Or something that sounds a lot like that. Don't get the idea, though, that I think REMFs are useless. Soldiers with guns, and pilots with guns hangin' off their planes, and sailors with missile launchers hangin' off their ships, win individual engagements, and occasionally battles. REMFs win wars by putting those soldiers, pilots, and sailors in position, in supply, properly trained (minimally distracted by what's happening back at the ranch), at the right time, knowing what they need to do. Too bad even the military establishment often forgets that.
  2. Without access to Wiley's own numbers, it's difficult to predict based on access to numbers that I have had. That said, reducing all of the professional/trade division's royalties (not just those acquired from Bloomberg, but that's a necessary step) to net-receipts with the same face rate, holding everything else relatively constant (that is, not plowing the difference back into increased marketing — there's no verifiable evidence indicating that any publisher has or would), would over time increase the internal net margins by about 2.3%... which, on the limited figures from other publishing groups that I do have access to, is approximately the net margin difference over time between an education/textbook division and a comparable professional/trade division. This only reinforces that these two "types" of publishing are not really in the same industry!
  3. To name just a few problems with the "B < PL" meme, note that it assumes linearity; predictability; accuracy of measurement; boundlessness; and congruence between individual circumstances and the entire population (not even congruence with a sample will do). Bluntly, it's quite obvious that Judge Hand knew nothing about statistical measures... and that doesn't even require calculus.
  4. It's more than a little bit ironic that Justice Souter's treatment of "parody" and "satire" very nearly inverts how those terms are used by well-educated literary critics, and that he completely fails to consider the instance that the Ninth Circuit has screwed up repeatedly over the last forty years: Parody by radical change of context. For example, under Souter's rubric in 2Live Crew, neither Lockhart's nor Galileo's transformations of the Simplicio dialectic would be treatable as "fair use"!