27 August 2010

Redefining the Sausage Ingredients

If there's a theme today, it's rather Orwellian: The redefinition of terms to mean something other than they mean, and thereby drag the rest of the conversation along with the redefinition — and, more particularly, the indulgent self-interest behind that redefinition. This time, we'll look at how the sausages got made.

  • Sometimes people defending the rightness of their parasitism should just shut up in their own self-interest. The item I noted a couple of days ago on PW's new pay-to-play review program for self-published writers (see Writer Beware's blog entry) has resulted in a response from a proponent of pay-to-play... and it reads even more like a defense of selling snake oil than one might expect. As quoted at GalleyCat,

    In the literary world, free (poverty) seems to have been the only criteria for integrity. Yet, people happily pay doctors and lawyers for a diagnosis — plenty of conflict there to enourage clients to come back for more. What critics of our pay for service miss is what they accept about lawyers and doctors — namely that reputation means a lot to a professional — and the path to your door will grow weeds fast when you prove to be a sellout.

    In a way, this is a slick comparison. But it fails at a fundamental point: Neither marketers nor publishers are professionals. Unlike for doctors and lawyers, there's no regulation; no ability to exclude for ethical violations, and indeed no enforceable code of ethics; no measurement of acceptable result independent of revenue streams; etc., etc., etc. Once again, this is not just apples and oranges, but apples and orangutans... and this time the orangutan is giving the visitors at the zoo the finger by redefining "professional" to mean "someone who gets paid to do x" while simultaneously importing the reputational benefits of "professionalism" without any of the long-period-of-training-and-regulated-conduct baggage. OK, it's not baggage: It's the entire game, because it causes "professionalism."

    The less said about the focus on "branding" in preceding quoted paragraphs, the better. Remember that the modern concept of "branding" is, at its root, an outgrowth of anticounterfeiting law arising among silversmiths in the East End of London, and of the concept of authorship and artisanship that arose before mass production. Ms Sutherland's concept of ethics seems at least as divorced from reality; or maybe she just needs to watch Mad Men more often and pay attention to the products that Don Draper and colleagues are pushing.

  • As a related issue, just fining companies for Astroturfing reviews is probably not going to be good enough, but it's a start. With a mere fine, and particularly a fine reached in a settlement, the amount of the fine is just a cost of doing business... for both the marketing company that gets fined and its clients. It seems to me that we've been here before... and maybe Mr Trudeau didn't learn anything from being prosecuted.

    My point here is that the economic meme that "enlightened self-interest leads to improved economic activity" silently assumes that (a) all self-interest is enlightened, not criminal; (b) "more transactions" is necessarily an "improvement"; and (c) only economic mechanisms are appropriate for dealing with economic failings. Since not one of those assumptions is either sound or valid, maybe that's just one of those religious imprecations we can do without. After all, as the next item implies, not all economic self-interest expresses itself in the profit motive anyway...

  • Here's a shocking, shocking revelation: Relief efforts after Hurrican Katrina devastated New Orleans were disproportionately focused on already affluent areas, not on those requiring the most effort to bring them up to that same standard. And here I thought our aspirations were for "life, liberty, and property," not "life and liberty as expressed in property."
  • Just like law — and publishing and entertainment; "&" is not the same thing as "and"! — economics twists standard-English terms into technical terms. As one example, consider "efficiency"... or, better yet, don't, because the economic concept of efficiency is merely a time-independent, closed-system-only, entropy-free variation on the Carnot efficiency calculation that necessarily bears little resemblance to real economic systems. At least in thermodynamics, one admits that there will be heat loss...

Oh, did I forget to mention that sawdust — pardon me, powdered arboreal cellulose — is insoluble fiber useful in maintaining regular gastrointestinal function? It's a feature, not a bug (although consuming chitin probably has hidden health benefits that Mr Trudeau, as linked above, could expound upon).