eBook Revolution?

in 73

Amazon is reporting that on Christmas it sold more Kindle books than physicals books. At the moment, because it insists on charging no more than $9.99 for books, even for best-sellers, and despite publisher protests, Amazon loses money on each Kindle book it sells.

Now, we may find this impressive or not in and of itself — and, speaking in my capacity as an author, I’m perfectly happy to sell e-books to those who prefer to read in that format; and I see the value in selling a high volume of individually cheaper books — but I’m skeptical about this statistic and its importance. To understand why, look at the list of Kindle bestsellers.

At the time of this posting, 7 out of 10 of the bestselling books for the Kindle cost $0.00. That’s right, lots of authors are giving Kindle books away, and consumers predictably prefer free books to books that cost them money. I mean, really, is it any surprise that people are willing to download lots and lots of free books?

Mind Reading, Writing

in h+

The Singularity-loving transhumanist guys over at h+ magazine have an interesting article on technologies that allow people to interface with machines via thought.

A brain wave study presented at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Epilepsy Society shows that people with electrodes in their brains can “type” (input data into a computer) using just their minds…. The patients were asked to say or imagine words flashed on a screen while their brain activity was recorded. Schalk’s team then used specially designed decoder algorithms to predict the vowels and consonants of the word, using only the pattern of brain activity. They found that both speaking and imagining the word gave roughly the same level of accuracy.

The article emphasizes the active aspects of this technology, what it allows users to do with/to their computers, e.g. writing, tweeting, moving a cursor across the screen. What Surfdaddy Orca — the author of this article; I’m not joking… — doesn’t talk about are the obvious ethical/philosophical/political counterparts to all the active things this technology lets us do or will let us do someday.

I.e., helping quadriplegics communicate is vitally important and wonderful, but to work in the first place, this set of technologies needs first to be able to read minds accurately and reliably. If we can do that (read minds), can we also read them from a distance? If we can read minds from a distance, should I be ordering myself up a tinfoil hat?

That thin and flimsy fiberboard wall separating our outside from our inside may just have gotten a little thinner.


in David Foster Wallace, MLA, Uncategorized

I’m still working on trying to figure out how to restore my older blog postings. I think my XML export file might’ve been corrupted during export. In the worst case scenario, I’ll manually restore my old posts, though that’ll screw up the dates and mean all comments on these posts will be forever lost.

On an unrelated note, I want to put in a plug for the special session I helped organize at the upcoming MLA Convention in Philadelphia. If you’re around, please stop by “The Legacy of David Foster Wallace,” which is at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, December 30th, in Independence Salon I at the Philadelphia Marriott.

We have a distinguished group of panelists including Stephen J. Burn (North Michigan U.), Marshall Boswell (Rhodes C.), Sam Cohen (U. of Missouri, Columbia), John Conley (UMN, Twin Cities), Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Pomona), Mary Holland (SUNY New Paltz), and — very fortunately — Wallace’s Little, Brown editor, Michael Pietsch.

I’ll be talking about how Wallace’s interpretation of the role of the avant-garde shaped his literary projects.


From Google Goggles to Omni Science

in Pop Apocalypse

Google has created an interesting new product for Android-based mobile devices called Google Goggles, which allows you to do visual searches based on images your phone’s camera captures.  Needless to say, this is just one more step on the long road to the visual search revolution, as described in Pop Apocalypse.  It’s all happening right on schedule, and each incremental step will seem — as this does! — real neat when it happens.

Repairs Forthcoming

in Uncategorized

I’ve managed to import my old blogger postings to WordPress, but I still can’t quite import my XML export file containing everything I’ve written since I switched to this site.  I hope to resolve this problem shortly, and restore all the shiny design elements while I’m at it.

Site problems

in Uncategorized

Please excuse the blankness of this page as I fix some errors with my site.  We’ll be live again, ASAP.

From Google Goggles to Omni Science

in Pop Apocalypse, visual search revolution

Google has created an interesting new product for Android-based mobile devices called Google Goggles, which allows you to do visual searches based on images your phone’s camera captures.  Needless to say, this is just one more step on the long road to the visual search revolution, as described in Pop Apocalypse.  It’s all happening right on schedule, and each incremental step will seem — as this does! — real neat when it happens.

io9 on PA

in Pop Apocalypse

Lauren Davis over at io9 has written one of the most perceptive reviews of Pop Apocalypse I’ve seen yet out there in the mediasphere. Davis concludes:

Pop Apocalypse is a genuinely frightening book, not for its apocalyptic prophesies, but for its peek five minutes into the future. It’s suggestion that photo-tagging software could someday turn all of existence into the ultimate reality television show isn’t far-fetched in the least. One character comments that when you see how sausage gets made, you’ll want to become a vegetarian. And in Pop Apocalypse, we’re the sausage, and the whole world sees how we’re being made all the time.

She’s quite right about the apocalyptic framework of the book: it’s more of a way of thinking about the social, political, and economic problems of the present (and maybe the very near future) than it is a genuine Cassandraish forecast of planetary doom. I’m saving genuine planetary doom for future projects, in fact.

Also, I’m pleased she caught the sausage line. Check it out.

Listmania vs. Lake Woebegone

in Andrew Seal, Edmond Caldwell, Helen DeWitt, John Guillory, The Millions

X-posted at Plasma Pool.

There is an interesting emerging conversation about The Millions‘ recently published “Best [Books] of the Millennium” list on a number of blogs I follow. First, Edmond Caldwell over at Contra James Wood questions the whole premise of list-making, associating such lists with the predominantly corporate character of the imprints represented on the list: “the listing and ranking game goes on–and on and on–as if all sectors of society were afflicted with a kind of mass obsessive-compulsive disorder or species of autism. “If ordered lists like this must exist,” stipulates Andrew Seal – but why must they? Why should we submit to such fatalism? Where do these lists come from, whom do they benefit, and what ultimate ideological function do they serve?”

Andrew Seal, responding to Caldwell on his blog, (fatalistically?) argues that “I don’t really see how I’m going to stop them [literary lists]. They have a manifest utility for a number of different types of readers: they make well-read people feel good, both by allowing them to sneer at them and by allowing them to note what a great percentage of the list they’ve read; they allow younger (or less well-read) readers to get a feel for which books to allocate their temporal resources toward; they allow readers with well-defined tastes to pick attention-grabbing fights; they allow readers with no well-defined tastes an opportunity to pick up one. These lists don’t function as tools for generating a consensus which a critique can overturn or disrupt; they exist to attract a broad range of interests, many of which contradict one another.”

An interesting debate. My eyes sort of glazed over when I read The Millions list.


I bear none of these authors any animosity as individuals — though I am frankly not always fans of their books (except for those books I am a fan of!) — but The Millions list seems to me tediously predictable on a number of levels and in ways that I find it hard to articulate. I am left with a number of questions: What’s the matter with lists? If lists can be used as a bludgeon in a game of status-conscious warfare, aren’t lists also a convenient time-saving device, a way of getting started exploring some intellectual or cultural domain for non-initiates? If I wanted to learn more (to pick in an innocent example) about the history of Marxism, wouldn’t a list of the “best” books on the history of Marxism — organized by a trusted expert on the subject — be an excellent and useful thing? Indeed, isn’t a good list a way of getting started in a cultural domain, not the final word on that domain? Is there no practice of list-making which is ideologically neutral? John Guillory has a lot to say about the ideological function of the list in the canon debate in Cultural Capital, but Helen DeWitt gives what seems to me the most lucid answer I’ve found to some of my questions; explaining why she refused to submit her judgments to the listmakers, she writes that “[t]he only writers who stand any chance of making it into the top 20 are going to be writers a significant number of other contributors have also noticed – which means they are wildly unlikely to come from the undeservedly neglected. They will come from the pool of writers who got promoted, who won acclaim, in other words from the much smaller pool of writers many of us have happened to hear of.”

Aggregation around socially interesting “nodes” is perhaps an inevitable part of social life, but — as I’ve discussed elsewhere — such nodes are also deeply self-reinforcing. In artificial music markets where “consumers” can see the preferences of other “consumers,” initial consumer clustering (almost at random) around certain “seeds” has a powerful effect on subsequent consumer choice. That is, if you happen by chance to take an early lead in a competitive race in an open market, social clustering around apparent “winners” will create feedback loops. The popular become more popular, and the unpopular become less popular. (Moreover, this difference in popularity isn’t just a cynical consumerist copying of the tastes of the Joneses — it’s not all about status anxiety — but is arguably experienced sincerely as pleasure or disgust, though this is a secondary point.) In this context, if the form of the list has an ideological function, it is to reduce thought to a sort of cant, to give an illusion of superiority of one item in a field of more or less equally good (middling) products. Genuine superiority or inferiority is exceedingly rare. Experiments that construct artificial music markets in which consumer choices are genuinely independent — where you make your own choice and issue a rating independently of others — demonstrate in general that consumers have no particular preference for one artist or another, except at the tail ends of the distribution. If you stink, you won’t get very far; if you’re great, you’ll always do modestly better in your ratings. If you’re in the middle of the stack, your fate is a crap shoot.

If we accept this admittedly speculative analysis, and are willing to apply it to our conversation about books, what do these results portend for literary lists? It seems to me that all we can say about lists is that their popularity and consistency is a symptom of a highly stratified, hierarchical culture in which truly independent thought is incredibly hard to find. Eliminating lists will not eliminate this stratification or the social forces that drive us toward some canonized set of authors. To make an unjustly bold claim, given the sketchiness of my evidence: a just distribution of attention — attention allocated in a society where highly educated individuals made genuinely autonomous value assessments, independent of marketing and spin, under conditions free of coercion — would reveal the (arguably) fundamental sameness of most literary and artistic products or at least make constructing literary lists impossible, since the autonomous judgments of a hundred judges like DeWitt would not cluster around any nodes whatsoever. These lists would look like statistical noise to us. Some small set of artists might garner slightly more attention under such conditions, others a bit less, but most would — like the children of Lake Woebegone — be equally regarded as (slightly) above average, and we would be forced at last to love all our above-average children equally.

Inherent Vice

in Inherent Vice, Plasma Pool, Thomas Pynchon

Check out my microreview of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice over at Plasma Pool. And while you’re there, check out the rest of the site. They’re doing some interesting stuff.