08 July 2010

Mad Link Sausages

Shoe, 08 Jul 2010 (scaled)It's not just scientists who get mad this way, though: Consider authors — who start out mad — being told that they should be satisfied with the "honor" of being published in venues that nobody has ever heard of...

  • The Atlantic offers eight theories on why college students study fewer hours each week. Some of the theories make sense, in particular the lower language requirements and the ability to find information more quickly via the 'net than in libraries. However, the list just plain missed the four most relevant reasons:

    • More students are in non-latinate bachelor's degree programs, which are more "practically" than academically oriented (and therefore require less study time and rigor). At the U of I, that's reflected in the obscene growth of the business school's enrollment (proportionally) compared to arts & sciences, while engineering has proportionally held constant. Bluntly, there's simply less study required for classes in marketing than for classes in political science, or chemistry, or literature at the same "level," because the nature of the subject matter considers fact and method more than it does analysis — and you get the former from the professor's lectures and class discussion, not from deeper outside reading.
    • The rise of the so-called "objective" examination means that, for classes intended for non-majors in any event, the depth of understanding and preparation to get an acceptable grade (whatever that is) is less than when one expects to be confronted with essays... and required to justify those glib answers.
    • Professors tend to assign fewer primary sources and more secondary sources. In some ways, this is a good thing: A lot of primary sources are polemical pieces of crap, even more so than secondary sources — particularly in anything related to examining cultural imperatives. For example, one can adequately discern and discuss Hitler's antipathy toward Jews without reading (badly translated) rants from Mein Kampf; and many of the scholars producing such secondary works actually do a better job than do most commercial translations (I'm thinking, in particular, of two recent "translations" of Clausewitz that utterly miss the point, because neither translator knew didly-squat about the imperatives of military leadership). In many ways, though, this is a bad thing, because it overemphasizes reliance on unverifiable expertise. Whether it's good or bad, it's different.
    • But the most obvious reason is the rise of advanced placement. Back in the day, I invented the AP biology syllabus and course for my school; I was the first-ever AP biology test-taker not just at my school, but in my school district (or, for that matter, in three of the four surrounding districts... and there had been exactly one, the year before, in the fourth). I also took two other AP exams (chemistry and calculus) — which, according to someone who studied that sort of thing, made me a severe outlier among public-school students. These days, though, even farming-community high schools here in East Central Redneckistan offer three to five different AP courses at minimum, accompanied by commercial study aids that did not exist in the 1970s, and virtually all college-bound students take at least a couple of them. This matters to the subject of the article in The Atlantic because many of the most "study-intensive" courses are those that are now eligible for AP treatment, and in fact fairly routinely managed through the AP process rather than in college.
  • If you, or someone you know, needs to consume medical marijuana, the City of San Francisco wants to help you get a regularized therapeutic dose of mind-blowing (not to mention nausea-suppressing and pain-ameliorating) tetrahydocannabinol efficiently, safely, and without attracting kids to your medication-delivery systems... via the time-honored tradition of issuing regulations on how to make "therapeutic" brownies.
  • And now, some publishing follies. I'm purposely burying this sausage deep in the platter, because it's going to result in some ire and accusations of ire. As a preliminary disclosure, I do have personal knowledge of some of the problems in question, having been consulted by victims.

    Night Shade Books, one of the bigger small presses in speculative fiction publishing, is in trouble for being noncommunicative and screwing authors. This is not news; I have records going back four years demonstrating similar (if less pervasive) conduct, regardless of the self-serving bullshit served up by the publisher as an excuse. The key problem is this: Night Shade, regarding its business practices, appears to have long operated in a "we can do no wrong" world of its own; that ranges from contract negotiations to royalty payments to refusal to play the distribution games demanded these days to poor quality control of the physical merchandise. This brouhaha represents a competence and attitude problem on the business aspects of being a publisher (not ill will, not editorial incompetence, not sheer stupidity... problems endemic enough in publishing, which Night Shade has mostly — but not entirely — escaped) combined with an abject refusal to acknowledge valid criticisms (definitely a problem endemic to the entire entertainment industry). That Night Shade has even gone so far as to issue that self-serving bullshit press release puts it above its peers... but that is still not acceptable.

    Ultimately, the source of the problem is inadvertently revealed early in that bullshit press release:

    While we’ve faced the same difficulties every small and independent press has suffered in this age of sales downturns, higher-than-expected returns, and other challenges, what has caused us the most trouble have been our successes. Night Shade has grown faster and more uncontrollably than we had any idea how to handle. What started as two guys shipping books out of a garage now consists of a full staff working out of an office in San Francisco. We’ve shuffled around a lot of our responsibilities, but in many ways, we’re still figuring this out as we go.

    Really? How can any level of returns be called "higher-than-expected" these days?1 How can one excuse problems caused by adding the nth staff member by ignoring the problems caused by adding the (n–1)th one? In this age of downsizing in New York publishing, how can anyone implicitly claim that there's no pool of expertise available to help with the "figuring this out as we go"? No, this is just arrogant PR bullshit; and it fails to acknowledge other deeper, longstanding problems with publishing in general, with Night Shade's own business practices in less general, and with those who've consulted me over the years in particular. Who still haven't been paid, I might add.

  • Meanwhile, we're paying man-children playing a game invented to keep active during Massachusetts winters more than the entire publishing category's take for speculative fiction authors.

    Also from the world of sport, though, an Englishman has made the World Cup final — the farthest any Englishman has gone at the World Cup since 1990 (a problem that bears disturbing similarity to the attitude of Notre Dame toward championships in college football). This is particularly appropriate for another reason: Spain v. Netherlands may need a lot of policing, given the temper tantrums of players on both teams and the history between the nations.

  1. I won't bore you excessively by repeating all of my objections to the returns system. I will note, however, that the continued shrinkage of the "independent" bookstore segment — I remain immensely pissed off at the loss of Pages for All Ages in this area — combined with increasing ability to use the 'net to find materials directly, makes the continued existence of the big distributors even less justifiable, whether from an antitrust perspective or in mercantilist economic terms. (Comparative advantage doesn't enter into the picture here, because books are not fungible, or at least not purely fungible.) The root of the economic problem is not publishing itself, but how books make their way from the publisher to the actual purchaser; and it is absolutely certain that Night Shade's operations have been adversely impacted by a broken system. The loss of those independent stores means that the casualties of a wholesale change (pun intended) — the big distributors — will be those who deserve to be casualties, because they're either causing the problems or are mere arbitrageurs.