Monday, January 27, 2014

Amazon: The Everything Company

Amazon is a company all Americans should be watching right now, because it's a symbol (as well as a concrete physical example) of what's happening—and what will happen—to the macro economy as we transition from a pre-Internet world to whatever comes next. This is a company that wants to be the single-source provisioner of both the protons and electrons in your world. It wants to sell you physical books (and other physical goods; the protons) as well as electronic books (electrons). At the same time, it wants to sell other businesses the computing infrastructure with which to make the transition to the Information Economy. (Here, I'm of course talking about Amazon Web Services.) It wants to be the Everything Company.

Because of this odd confluence of missions, Amazon is easily the single most dangerous company in the world today. It has the power to disrupt whole segments of the economyand the whole economy. It's on a growth jag and is willing to run at breakeven (or even at a loss) in order to gain market share—in every market, without limit.

Jaron Lanier's book outlines the issues in stark terms. (If you haven't read Who Owns the Future?, you should do so immediately.) Amazon represents the New Monopolism, a path toward the impoverishment of the many by the few. Every time it lays waste to a Blockbuster or a Best Buy, it puts tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of people out of work. Meanwhile, it adds a small handful of IT geniuses to its staff and goes about its business. It renders jobless the very customers it hopes to sell things to.

Joel West ( professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the Keck Graduate Institute) has written that 
  1. The transformation of retailing is ongoing and unstoppable.
  2. Traditional retailers will be unable to out-Amazon Amazon, and only a handful will come close to competitive parity.
  3. The only hope firms have to compete with the volume leader is to offer superior service.
Some firms already value service, and may be able to find a way to monetize those competencies. For those that can't or won't, it's hard to imagine a viable path forward (other than exit via M&A).
Amazon's ability to empty out strip malls and take down big-box stores (of the Best Buy ilk) has led Howard Lindzon to describe the brick-and-mortar economy as a brick-and-mortuary economy. The big box stores have become Amazon's de facto showrooms. You go to Best Buy to see what you want to buy; then you go home and order it online from Amazon at a lower price.

With its Elastic Cloud (EC2) offerings, Amazon wants to sell you time on the same Internet infrastructure it uses to gut its competitors. Amazon has already built the computing infrastructure; now it wants to monetize its excess capacity by letting you use it for pennies per hour. By all accounts, this aspect of Amazon's business (its AWS/EC2 Infrastructure-as-a-Service business) is one of Amazon's fastest-growing and most profitable segments. (We'll know more particulars on Thursday when Amazon reports its financial results.) 

What makes Amazon so dangerous is that Jeff Bezos (the CEO) has no qualms about using the several billion dollars a year Amazon makes on IaaS to underwrite the under-pricing of the rest of its offerings, so as to grow the company's already huge footprint in online retail. Amazon is all about growth; it's a cancer. It won't stop until it owns everything. 

If you're thinking about putting your company's Web presence on Amazon's computers (using EC2), you might want to ask yourself a few questions. Does Amazon already compete with your business in any way? How long before Amazon does compete with you? Do you want to put your online business in the hands of a potential competitor? Do you want Amazon to know more about your business than it already does? No one's suggesting Amazon is actually going to spy on your business's bits and bytes (which are already encrypted anyway, right?), but they can learn a lot simply by knowing your capacity needs, your business's Web traffic patterns, your scale-out and failover strategies. Just by metering your Web usage, they know too much. 

Ironically, by being the "everything company," Amazon provides a pretty big disincentive to using its cloud infrastructure. Someday, at some level, you're going to be in competition with Amazon. When that day comes, you probably don't want to have all of your bits and bytes on their computers.

For now, businesses that are in competition with Amazon can take comfort in the fact that Amazon is not now (and probably won't be, any time soon) all about customer service. Amazon is about automation; they see customer service as a failure mode of automation, a necessary evil. You can compete with Amazon on customer service—today.

Tomorrow, who knows?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Who Owns the Future?

In Who Owns the Future?  (Simon & Schuster, 2013), virtual-reality pioneer and futurist Jaron Lanier succeeds in doing what no economist (so far) has been able to do, which is to provide a credible explanation for the perverse persistence of the current economic downturn while also outlining a possible path to a new resurgence of the middle class (reversing its current state of rapid decline). But the story he tells is by no means all brightness and light. This is not another über-technologist giving us a saccharine "technology will fix everything in the end" Weltanschaung.  Lanier's interpretation of current Information Economy reality is a chilling one, and the implication that a special kind of doom awaits us if we do nothing (as politicians and others in a position of power are wont to do these days) reverberates throughout.

Lanier's contention is that the leviathans of the information economy—not just Google, Amazon, Facebook, eBay, and so forth, but also Apple, Walmart, and many others who have used Big Data to reimagine and reconfigure their supply chain
s—derive their wealth (and power) from hundreds of millions of people (that's us) who supply personal data (not just name and address, but info about browsing, reading, and purchasing habits) to these giants for free. Google's $130 billion valuation is due not to any facilities or land they own, not to their employee headcount, not to any magic computer code (no codebase in the world is worth $130 billion), but rather, stems directly from the ability of Google to spy on hundreds of millions of people. Without the people-data, Google's business model, based on contextual placement of ad links, doesn't exist. With suitable variations, the same holds true for Amazon and all the rest. 

Think of it this way: Google has a focus group. It contains around a billion people. Google knows the searching, browsing, purchasing, e-mailing, document-storing/creation/sharing, scheduling (Google Calendar), reading (Google Books), and other habits of those billion-or-so people. (The information available to Google through the Chrome browser, which is a type of full-time spying device, or the Android OS, another full-time spying environment, is mind-boggling.) But no one in the focus group gets paid for this exquisitvely valuable (indeed priceless) information. The spoils go directly to Google and its workers and stockholders. They get paid. The rest of us don't.

Proudhon would call it straight-up theft. In Lanier's view, it amounts to an accounting irregularity that should be corrected at once—not just for the benefit of the average person but for the long-term survival of Google, Facebook, etc. According to Lanier, you and I and all other users of ad-festooned websites should be compensated, on an ongoing basis, for the use of our private and public data (including all data pertaining to browsing, purchasing, etc. habits), via a system of micropayments that would register whenever information derived from you is captured. He doesn't say how big these micropayments might be, but he maintains that in the long run, such a system (of compensating ordinary people for the use of their online behaviors) would significantly strengthen a middle class that's currently on the way to disappearing. So we're not talking a trivial amount of money.

Why is it in Google's (and others') interests to do this? Because over the long haul, the current system is unsustainable. To put it more bluntly, at some point in the future there won't be a purchasing class (a middle class) to spy on. All the "good jobs" will have disappeared. A small Mandarin class of technocrats will exist to maintain the info-plutocracy, but in the meantime the rest of us will be flipping burgers (or doing whatever it is burger-flippers do in future generations).

Lanier states flat-out (on p. 19 of his book) that "The Internet has destroyed more jobs than it has created." He cites a number of examples, mostly famously that of Kodak. At the height of its power, Kodak employed 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. By the time digital photography became a throwaway feature of cell phones, Kodak disappeared and we had Instagram. Meanwhile, Instagramwhen it was purchased by Facebook for a billion dollarsemployed 13 people. One can argue endlessly about whether Instagram was fairly valued or whether any discussion of Instagram in relation to Kodak is apropos, but does anyone seriously question that Amazon has reconfigured the bookstore industry to employ fewer people? Does anyone seriously question that Walmart (with its computerized supply chain and Chinese maufacturing operations) has put ma-and-pa stores out of business? Add up all the Kodaks and mall closures, etc., and you end up with what we have now, which is a situation where there are three unemployed persons for every job opening in the U.S., otherwise known as structural unemployment, or (how about plain English?) mass suffering. 

President Obama and many others (including past presidents of both administrations) have bought into, and continue to sell, the myth that more education—more degrees in science, math, and technology, in particular—will enable us, somehow (by magic, apparently), to bootstrap our way out of our current predicament. They tell us this even as science, math, and technology jobs regularly get outsourced to India. Lanier buys into no such sophistry. He explains how even fields like surgery and nursing (once thought to be invulnerable) are being automated, reducing employment prospects for even the very well educated. Anyone who doesn't believe "good jobs" for the well educated are going away need only talk to a recent Ph.D. graduate. (See "A Generation of Jobless PhDs.") University degrees are becoming less valuable by the minute, even as the cost of obtaining them soars out of reach.

The arts have always been a hard place to earn a living. In the Information Economy it's become even harder. Lanier (himself a musician) explains, in some detail, the sad story of what's become of the music industry; then he reports how the same scenario has played out (and continues to be played out) for authors, videographers, photographers, and others, creating a lotto-like winner-take-all star system in which a relative handful of lucky YouTube and Amazon indies (those for whom sales or views happen to go viral, essentially) win the online lotto, providing the success stories that motivate thousands or millions of others who will go on to fail. The point being, if every field becomes as hard to break into (and succeed at) as acting, music, or (now) writing, there will be a lot of starving artists out there. Wouldn't it be fairer if every time someone downloaded something you created (whether it's a photo, a blog, a short story, a video, or whatever) you got paid something? Information, after all, isn't really free. We pay for it with our online lives, which are pirated on a mass scale by Google and all the rest. Right now, the information about your online life that gets harvested and processed by Google (by programs that sift through your mail, take note of your search habits, track your site visitations, etc.) is not shown on Google's books as having any intrinsic value; the raw materials are valued at nothing. The value shows up later when Google puts an ad for a firearms training course next to the e-mail you wrote mentioning squirt guns. Google profits from raw materials it doesn't pay for. Few industries enjoy such an advantage.

When information is no longer free, you'll have to pay something, of course, to use a service like Wikipedia, or to watch that hilarious video that's making the rounds. But Lanier says right now, the balance of accounting is so out of whack, so massively in favor of Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc., that if accurate accounting were done (if the books were properly kept), ordinary web users would still come out way ahead, even if you had to pay a micropayment of some kind for every site you visited. Amazon, Google, etc. would continue to exist, but they'd pay for raw materialsand you would know exactly what information they acquired about you. You'd be able to opt out of their spying activities; but chances are, you wouldn't want to miss out on the income.

Jaron Lanier
Lanier's book is light on actual computation, ironically, but it's clear that the combined revenues of the top several hundred digital brands comes to many trillions of dollars, which means that even if a billion or more web customers participated in the profit-sharing, rebates to online customers would amount to thousands of dollars per person per year. I suspect the reason Lanier didn't trot out the actual calculations isn't that the accounting doesn't favor his position but because it would only cloud the basic argument. With Who Owns the Future, Lanier is trying to start a dialog. I can understand him not wanting to get sidetracked with details before we know what we're arguing about. Still, critics will want to see pro formas. In any future editions of this book I would expect to see an Appendix showing some actual numbers justifying the major ideas in the book. As it stands, that level of specificity is lacking; and it tends to weaken Lanier's case, IMHO.

Criticisms aside, Lanier's book deserves serious consideration, right now, today, by technocrats, economists, politicians, planners, and (of course) CEOs and board members of top companies. The path we're on now—toward ever-greater automation, and subsumption of the proton economy into a world of electrons
—has led and continues to lead toward loss of "good" jobs and the massive enrichment of the few, while the private data of the many are compromised. The "market efficiencies" brought about by Amazon and Walmart are not putting more people to work; what we've gotten, in fact, is a net loss, not only in quantity but quality of jobs. Today, it's three unemployed Americans for every job opening; tomorrow it will be four. At what point do we stop and take Lanier's arguments seriously? I think we're reached that point now. We ignore the arguments in his book at our own peril.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Do You Know These 20 English Words?

Lately, I've been keeping a list of unfamiliar English words that have appeared in books I'm reading. These are words I've either never encountered before or have seen before but didn't look up in the dictionary until now.

How many of the following 20 words did you know the meaning(s) of?

abatis—a rampart or barricade of felled trees, optionally with sharpened branches directed toward an enemy.
amphora—an ancient Greek jar or vase with a large oval body, narrow cylindrical neck, and two handles that rise almost to the level of the mouth
baize—coarse cloth napped to imitate felt, used on gaming tables.
cartouche—structure or figure, often in the shape of an oval shield or oblong scroll, used as an architectural or graphic ornament.
crepuscular—Pertaining to twilight. Crepuscular animals are those that are active primarily during twilight.
echolalia—1. The uncontrollable and immediate repetition of words spoken by another person. 2. the imitation by a baby of the vocal sounds produced by others.
empyreal—of, like or pertaining to heaven; sublime; skyward.
Quick: Which word describes this object?
euphobia—fear of good news.
farrago—a confused mixture; hodgepodge;  mishmash; mélange; gallimaufry. "A farrago of fact, fiction, slander, and rumor."
lanate— covered in or composed of wooly hairs, or having a wooly appearance.
liminal—1. of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.  2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. The threshold of a physiological or psychological response or ritual.
periphrasis—refers to the use of excessive language and surplus words to convey a meaning that could otherwise be conveyed with fewer words and in more direct a manner.
recrudescence—reappearance of a phenomenon after a period of abatement or inactivity (e.g., a recrudescence of barbarism after peacekeepers leave a war zone).
ridibund—inclined to and/or easily brought to laughter; happy.
rocaille—(often capitalized) In Western architecture and decorative arts, rocaille is an 18th-century style featuring elaborately stylized shell-like, rocklike, and scroll-based motifs. According to, "Rocaille is one of the more prominent aspects of the Rococo style of architecture and decoration that developed in France during the reign of King Louis XV (1715–74). The Rocaille style has been defined as a reaction both to the classic rigidity of the waning Baroque style and to the new interest in nature and the natural sciences. In French, rocaille means 'rubble,' or 'pebbles,' and style rocaille is synonymous with Rococo."
scrimshaw—scrollwork, engravings, and carvings done in bone or ivory.
serried—pressed or crowded together, especially in rows: troops in serried ranks.
uncial—designating, written in, or pertaining to a form of majuscule writing having a characteristically curved or rounded shape and used chiefly in Greek and Latin.
vitrine—a display case, usually with glass shelves and/or glass-paned doors.
Note: The illustration further above is  a Louis XV style French vitrine.

Monday, January 06, 2014

115 Noteworthy Articles on Writing

If you're a writer, no doubt you've accumulated some bookmarks, over the years, to articles that have proven inspirational to you. That's been the case with me. I thought today I might try to consolidate some of those links in one place, for easy access (not just for you but also for me). I found 115 article links that merit visiting, and revisiting.

Almost any writer, of any level of accomplishment, will find something useful in the following articles, some of which actually point to lists of additional articles.

Get ready for some terrific free reading.

115 Noteworthy Articles and Essays on Writing
If any of the links have gone dead, please let me know (by leaving a Comment below). If you found this list helpful, please do two things. First, bookmark this page. Secondly, share this post's URL with a friend. Thank you!
Firefox 3.6:
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Opera 10.61:
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Acrobat 9.0.0 Pro Extended:
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Sunday, January 05, 2014

Let's Get Sociopathic

On a trip to my favorite bookstore, Chamblin's Bookmine in Jacksonville, Florida, I happened across a copy of a book called Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight (Crown, 2013), by a woman writing under the pen name "M. E. Thomas." I bought it partly because I'm a sucker for any kind of memoir, and partly out of curiosity. I wanted to see which parts of the book, if any, resonated with me.

It's impossible to read a book on sociopathy (or any other psychological condition, really) and not have some part of it resonate. One hears statistics like "sociopaths make up 1% to 4% of the population"; but in truth, sociopathy is not an all-or-nothing diagnosis. We all fall somewhere on a continuum between "normal" and "outside the norm." There is no magic boundary on the continuum that, once you cross it, makes you a sociopath or makes you a psychopath or makes you anything in particular. We may want to believe we're able to slot people into neat categories, but reality is not so crisp and binary.

Truth be told, sociopathy is one of the least crisp ideas in all of psychology. There is still debate over how best to distinguish psychopathy from sociopathy (the two are often conflated), and there was much disappointment among clinicians when the recent revision to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) failed to include any substantive clarifications in the description of Antisocial Personality Disorder, which is defined according to the following:
A) There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three or more of the following:
  • failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
  • deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
  • impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
  • irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
  • reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
  • consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
  • lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another;
B) The individual is at least age 18 years.
C) There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
D) The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.
The age cutoffs are, of course, completely arbitrary and artificial (and thus silly), and the whole definition reads like the committee-brewed dreck that it is.

If you happen to meet the above criteria, bad news: There's no pill you can take to get better (although you can rest assured, drug companies are trying to connect serotonin reuptake to ASPD in various ways as we speak). But that's okay, because if you're a true sociopath, chances are you're not interested in "getting better" anyway. In fact, you may well be a highly functional, productive member of society. (Notice that you don't actually have to be a lawbreaker—or even antisocial—to meet the DSM criteria for  ASPD. You might simply be impulsive, grumpy, and reckless.)

Sociopaths tend to be charming, confident, perceptive, resourceful people who are good at "gaming the system," whatever system it happens to be. They're canny and cunning. They're manipulators and users with a deep grasp of situational ethics, who often go far in their careers. Look around you. Sociopaths are running major corporations; armies; legislative bodies; movie studios; nations. These people are running the world.

Google Engram Plot of Psychopathy vs. Sociopathy in Books, 1908-2008

As ill-defined (and dated; see graph above) as sociopathy is, it's a concept that resonates strongly, because it's so familiar. The TV show Dallas was a hit because of the starkly sociopathic machinations of its characters. Indeed, most of Shakespeare still resonates because of the chill of recognition caused by characters like Hamlet or "honest Iago" in Othello. Every memorable vampire character in literature is the embodiment of sociopathy. (Dracula was charming to a fault, supremely adept at giving the appearance of sincerity, yet also a heartless, self-centered, calculating, dispassionate killer.) Sociopaths and drama go hand in hand.

Western capitalistic society is rooted in predatory economic behavior (profiting off others)—there have been many articles in professional and lay journals comparing corporations to psychopaths—but it would be a mistake to believe sociopathy is not cross-cultural. The Chinese concept of Thick Black Theory goes back more than 100 years. In Europe, Machiavelli wrote extensively about sociopathy in the 1500s. (Many of Machiavelli's precepts have precedents in Greek literature; Machiavelli himself cites Xenophon extensively.) Harvard anthropologist Jane Murphy reported in 1976 that the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria had its own word ("arankan") for sociopathic individuals. Whatever sociopathy is, it's been around a long time and can be found in many cultures.

One of the more interesting insights provided by M. E. Thomas in her confessional book is the notion that sociopaths typically have a poorly defined sense of self, or at least a highly protean self-construct. (At one point, she uses the term "shape-shifters.") This partly explains how sociopaths are able to dodge feelings of remorse or personal responsibility. But it also means sociopaths are likely to score high on a test for sociopathy one day and lower on the same test another day. And it aligns with the idea that certain specific social situations might bring out the latent sociopath in a person, whereas other social situations might bring out the same person's "normative" side.

As if  to prove her worthiness of being called a sociopath, M. E. Thomas, in her book, goes beyond telling of her official diagnosis (including suitably damning scores on the PCL:SV and other tests; you can try one of these tests online here) to relate, in detail, a number of personal escapades involving unscrupulous (or at best, ethically questionable) behavior: stealing (but then returning) a bicycle, letting a baby opossum drown, inserting herself in other people's romantic relationships (for the express purpose of scuttling someone's budding romance), manipulating coworkers, bringing charges against teachers, etc. (Chapter 7 of the book is devoted to Ruining People.) After you read enough of her exploits, you'll be duly revolted by them (or maybe not, if you're a sociopath yourself). If you want more, you can always go to the author's website, You can also see a video of "M. E. Thomas" (wearing a blond wig) on the Dr. Phil show here. (The link was live at this writing. Who knows how long it will stay up, though.)

Jamie Lund
Since M. E. Thomas is a fan of ruining people, I'm sure she won't mind me revealing her real identity here. The website is registered to Jamie Lund, who is apparently the same Jamie Rebecca Lund (see photo, right) that taught law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio until recently. (Her identity was pegged last May by Elie Mystal at I'm in no way trying to ruin Ms. Lund, however. She's fully capable—as most sociopaths are—of doing that on her own.

For more on this subject, be sure to see my post at BigThink. If you enjoyed this post (or the BigThink post), please share the URL. And feel free to leave a comment.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Know Your Cubbyhole

Today on Twitter I happened to catch an interesting series of tweets. The first comes from well-known literary agent Sara Megibow (the Nelson Agency). The followup tweets are from romance writer Cassandra Carr. Take a look at the tweets (below). Pay close attention if you're a fiction writer working on a novel.

This is how people working in traditional publishing think. I'm not saying it's good or bad; it is what it is. It reflects the current economic reality of book publishing. Publishers, in order to know how to promote a book, need to know what category it fits into. Booksellers, in order to know what shelf to put your book on, need to know the same thing. Put yourself in their positions for a moment so that you know what their problem is. You've just written a dystopian time-travel romance set partly in the past and partly in the future. Quick: What shelf does your book go on? Is it sci-fi? Is it romance? Is it fantasy? What is it?

If your book cannot be quickly cubbyholed, you won't get much attention from literary agents, nor traditional publishers, because (can you blame them?) they don't know what to do with your work. Their heads will explode.

What are the popular genres, and how popular are they? Here's a possible answer, from BookBub. The table below shows the categories of books "stocked" by e-book purveyor BookBub along with the number of customers on their various mailing lists pertinent to each genre (results are not sorted; I simply grabbed the data "as is" from BookBub's site):

Contemporary Romance580,000+
Historical Fiction450,000+
Historical Romance450,000+
Biographies and Memoirs390,000+
Erotic Romance170,000+
Religious and Inspirational320,000+
Women's Fiction410,000+
General Nonfiction280,000+
Action and Adventure350,000+
Literary Fiction320,000+
Advice and How-To240,000+
Paranormal Romance210,000+
Science Fiction260,000+
Romantic Suspense160,000+
Children's and Middle Grade130,000+
Teen and Young Adult150,000+
New Adult and College Romance60,000+

Notice, incidentally, there is no humor category. If you're writing a comedic novel, it sure as hell better also be a romance, or women's fiction, or action and adventure, or sci-fi (or whatever), because otherwise BookBub isn't going to know what to do with it. (Note: When I looked up certain bestselling humor titles on BookBub, I found they often fell under Literary Fiction.)

In the best of all possible worlds, good fiction wouldn't need to fall into neat categories. Indeed, great fiction often defies categorization. (How often have you heard the term "genre-bending"?) Surely there is room in the literary world for another China Miéville, another Thomas Pynchon? The standard answer you get, when you pose the "genre-bender" question to traditional-publishing types, is: Yes, there is room for genre-destroying fiction; all it has to be is great. In other words: If what you've written is good enough, it'll get published, no matter what it is (or isn't).

We'd all like to think that's true. I don't know the degree to which it is. Maybe that's something each author has to decide for himself or herself. But I think there's a certain validity to the general advice: If whatever you're writing doesn't fit neatly into existing sales-and-marketing taxonomies, it better be so good, it dares agents and publishers not to champion it. Because otherwise, it'll get slapped down. That much, we know.