Yo Soy Fiesta


I was going to write a Super Bowl post and about how much I love the New England Patriots and being a Pats fan; about how I was never really into football until the arrivals of my sons, how Mrs. Kuhl and I began watching Pats games on winter weekends as we cradled a baby in one hand and a bottle in the other, and about how, years later, there I am, standing in front of the TV watching the fourth quarter of SB 49, my heart pounding like I just sprinted 800 meters; about how the Patriots appeal to me not because they win so damn much or often pull victory from between the lion’s jaws but because of their “Do Your Job” culture and Belichick’s insane work ethic; about how that buy-in culture discourages showboaters and demands discipline and how men like Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork are role models as fathers and husbands in an NFL that doesn’t care if a player punches a woman unconscious in an elevator; about how I was never more proud to be a Pats fan when they offered free exchanges on Aaron Hernandez jerseys; about how, in a Connecticut town divided between Giants and Pats fans, I use the Patriots to teach my sons to be lovers not haters, and to root for their team without putting down others (except the Ravens because many of the Ravens are thugs who should be in prison who try to injure other players); and about how hatred of the Patriots is a metaphor for contemporary America, a place where people no longer believe that success derives from hard work and good luck (with “luck” defined as being in the right place at the right time after being in the wrong place 99 times beforehand) but instead assume you must have cheated and stolen to win, even when there’s no evidence of it.

I was going to write all that. But instead I’m just gonna repost this photo from Twitter. Go Pats.

The Pledge of Obedience

Because January 2015 is never too early to battle for the soul of the Republican party, the conservative Washington Free Beacon is already kicking dirt on Rand Paul like a dog after doing its business:

A blogger who has been hired to do social media work for Sen. Rand Paul’s (R., Ky.) likely presidential campaign is not a fan of “stupid armchair jingoes” in the Republican Party, says Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) “will use anything to satisfy his blood lust,” and wants Edward Snowden to receive a Nobel Peace prize, according to her Facebook page.

Beacon writer Alana Goodman then continues with all the journalistic even-handedness of a cartoon housewife standing on a chair and hiking up her petticoats by noting in an update that said libertarian blogger, Marianne Copenhaver, also opposes the Pledge of Allegiance. As Robby Soave at Reason points out, this isn’t very unusual for libertarians: the pledge was written by socialist (and later local Nationalist Club president — ahem ) Francis Bellamy to promote nationalism in schools. Originally the pledge was accompanied by what became known as the Bellamy salute:

At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the Flag the military salute—right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it… At the words, ‘to my Flag,’ the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, towards the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.

Ahem, ahem.

To not follow in the footsteps of a proto-Nazi is good reason to oppose the pledge but I can think of better objections. For years I’ve refused to recite the pledge on both the grounds of foolishness — a flag is a thing which exists separate and indifferent to my actions; and the ideals it supposedly represents are, as abstractions, even more remote and indifferent — and principle.

Ever wonder why the end of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution is worded thusly?

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:–“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The reason the Founders threw that bit in there about affirmation is because they, as residents if not frequent habitues of Philadelphia, believed it likely that one day a Quaker might be elected president (Richard Milhous Nixon!). Quakers swear no oaths. Quakers, like Mennonites — and this is where my Lancaster County blood rises to the top — believe that oaths sworn to things and people compromise one’s relationship with God. If I swear to support a man and that man tells me to kill and killing is against God’s law, then I have put the man before God. If I swear to support a nation and that nation commands me to do something contrary to God’s wishes, I have been compromised. Will that man or that nation be there to defend me when I stand in judgment before God? No. The most you can do in this lifetime is affirm a commitment to self-control: I can affirm to my wife I will not cheat on her; I can affirm to uphold the Constitution to the best of my abilities. And, in any event, both Quakers and Mennonites believe in always conducting themselves honestly, obviating the need for most oaths.

Of course, you don’t need God to reject the pledge. If I have decided that killing is wrong then why should I swear allegiance to a nation which, on a whim, may demand that I travel overseas to kill someone who has never harmed me? How or why does the will of the mob or some bloodthirsty politician trump my own principles? I have to live with what I’ve done.

To the statists of the world, an individual’s utility is only what labor or gold he or she can supply them. This is why the Pledge of Allegiance should be seen in its proper light not as a declaration of patriotism but as another link in the chains used by the rapacious to shackle and enslave. The pledge is meant to enforce conformity, and yet the United States is a country of dissidents founded upon dissidence: it’s more American-as-apple-pie to not recite it.

Short News, Autumnal Pursuits Edition

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, 1858

Tracking the Horseman. “Irving is pretty specific about the route Ichabod Crane takes while fleeing from the Headless Horseman.” So noted Scouting New York’s Nick Carr upon rereading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, inspiring him to visit the Hudson Valley town and retrace one of the most famous chase scenes ever put to paper. His photo safari captured the landmarks of Crane’s flight while explaining their historical significance. Unfortunately it seems the site of Crane’s fateful terminus has been lost to time.

Speaking of Hollows. I recently learned a new word: holloway. Also called sunken lanes, holloways are tunnel-like paths so worn by centuries of traffic that they lay below the grade of the surrounding landscape.

Raising Jakarta. Indonesia announced a 30-year, $40-billion plan to save their sinking capital by creating a sea wall and 17 artificial islands. This story notes that rising sea levels aren’t the main source of Jakarta’s flooding problems; instead, “the city has pumped its water out of deep underground wells for years — leaving empty chasms that are now sinking.” This is somewhat reminiscent of New Orlean’s problem, where the organic material in the wetland, preserved in anaerobic conditions, is exposed to air by drainage and construction, leading to decay. The soil, having lost mass, then packs down and the buildings sink.

Pumpkin Spice My Ears. AC/DC, Brian Ferry, and Foo Fighters all have new albums coming out.

Publishers Have Pea Brains

Brontosaurus by Charles R. Knight, 1897

After months of wondering whether the Amazon vs. Hachette dispute was over the pricing of e-books, Amazon has finally revealed that the fulcrum of the argument is indeed the pricing of e-books:

A key objective is lower e-book prices. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book.

Even without knowing the exact details I’ve been on Amazon’s side since the beginning based simply on my belief that most publishers are idiotic criminals. No, I’m not just referring to the DoJ’s suit against Hachette and others for conspiring to fix e-book prices — by “criminal,” I mean many publishers are too stupid and lazy to earn their money sensibly, so like purse-snatchers they must resort to stealing it.

How else to explain the atavistic business model of publishing heavy, antiquated hardbacks for $30, then a year later a less-expensive paperback edition? Or delaying an e-book version until well after the print copies have laid on the bookstore tables? Or not offering e-books at all, even though sales of print books are estimated to be down 8 percent since 2008, the year after Kindle was introduced?

Consider these three personal anecdotes:

  • Earlier this month, it was announced that Arcadia Publishing would be acquiring The History Press, publisher of Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer. All well and good. Yet buried in the Publisher’s Weekly article was this fact: although Arcadia has a catalog of 9,000 titles, only “about 4,000” of them are offered as e-books. The CEO explained, “Since Arcadia’s titles are heavily illustrated, it has been cautious in moving them into digital format.” Except the postcards and photos included in most Arcadia titles are already black-and-white, which means they would translate well to Kindle’s E Ink or a Nook, let alone a tablet. I can understand how the nature of Arcadia’s books might slow down the conversion process — but less than half their catalog? The article also notes, “nearly all of History Press’ titles are already sold as e-books.” Methinks Arcadia, raising their serpentine necks from the mire with mouths full of water weed, saw the comet tail in the heavens and sought to stave off extinction by very quickly diversifying their backlist.
  • While standing at the school-bus stop one day, my neighbor who works for a well-known publisher in New York mentioned his efforts to digitize some of the processes at the company. I asked, Is this part of a green initiative to use less paper? He said it was an attempt to use less paper period. He then went on to tell me that no part of the process for publishing a book at his company was digital, save for the copyediting — and that, he said, was a recent development. The author submitted a hardcopy manuscript, edits and additions were made in hardcopy, and eventually the whole thing was shipped off in a big box to the printer in Quebec who, as my neighbor said, “somehow makes sense of it.” I was gobsmacked; the process for Smedley was entirely digital. But then again, small companies like The History Press don’t have cash to waste like the big houses do. So authors: when the publisher tells you it can only spare an eight-percent royalty, now you know the other ninety-two percent goes to Dunder Mifflin.
  • Chaosium mainly designs role-playing games but they also publish a line of Lovecraftian fiction. I’ve been interested in checking out a few titles, if only to read (and support) my old pen-pal Jeffrey Thomas, whose work appears in some of their releases. Yet Chaosium doesn’t offer e-book editions of their fiction. At all. In the year 2014. Because plugging the completed manuscript into, say, Jutoh and spitting out a .mobi or .azw is just too tough. This week I wrote the company asking if they had any plans to offer e-books. I haven’t received a response.

Meantime, Amazon has had to teach the concept of price elasticity to Hachette, a giant multinational company:

It’s also important to understand that e-books are highly price-elastic. This means that when the price goes up, customers buy much less. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000.

What dark sorcery is this? Is this so-called “price elasticity” some new, overwrought theorem clawing its way out of the black pits of the Chicago school of economics? No, wait — price elasticity in regard to e-books has been bandied about since at least January 2010, at a time when self-publishers, wondering how to price their e-books and unencumbered by the publishing industry’s arch-conservatism, had a crash course in the subject and determined pricing lower was better.

Publishers like Hachette, by pricing e-books at $14.99 or $19.99, want them to be comparable to their paperback editions, which by their nature they cannot be and which the public, realizing this, rejects. And yet the dinosaurs insist because they perceive e-book editions as competitors against the print editions of the same title. They think the cheapest edition will cannibalize sales of other editions. While that’s definitely true of hardbacks, in my experience sales of paperback vs. e-book come down to preference. People like one or the other but both can live alongside. A frustration with Smedley was the nine-month delay between publication of the print and e-book versions; while promoting the book in 2011, I had many would-be customers ask me if it was available as an e-book. Alas, at the time it was not. Those were lost sales. But the publishers in their skyscrapers never see this, so they stagger the release of editions and try to hike the prices of e-books.

Unable to adapt either processes or economics, publishers — the large ones, anyway — instead resort to gouging readers, shafting writers with low royalties, and colluding to form trusts. Rather than hate the orange smile, I see Amazon as the asteroid that is cleansing the Earth of predatory gargantua, allowing the rest of us small, shrew-like mammals to rise.

Update: I added a link to a New Yorker article to illustrate a point above about cannibalizing sales, but the story criticizes Amazon on several other issues worth noting:

For one thing, he said, Amazon doesn’t actually get to decide what share of revenue publishers pay authors, a fact that the company is aware of. Its call for a thirty-five-per-cent share sounds nice, [literary agent Brian] DeFiore said, but it means little.

So how is that Amazon’s fault? That’s an indictment of Hachette, not Amazon.

DeFiore also pointed out that Amazon doesn’t quantify what lower e-book prices would mean for sales of physical copies of the same books. Authors who work with traditional publishers like Hachette tend to make more, per copy, from hardcover sales than from e-books. If cheaper e-books draw people away from hardcovers, that could hurt these authors financially.

Yes, usually authors do receive a higher royalty on hardbacks. (A conspiracy theory of mine: publishers offer higher royalties on hardbacks than on the paperback rights because they know damn well about price elasticity, and realize they stand to sell greater volume of paperbacks and hence make more money on them.) But, over time, how many $30 hardbacks do you think an author will sell compared to its $9.99 e-book counterpart? The conclusion in the above graf does not follow from its preceding sentences.

If lower e-book prices were to eventually destroy the market for physical books entirely—or even shrink it enough so that it wouldn’t make financial sense for traditional booksellers to publish them—that would help Amazon consolidate its power, which would ultimately be dangerous for authors.

I admit this is a legitimate concern. If we only read e-books and Amazon is the solitary stall in the marketplace, that would be bad. But again: whose fault is that? The reason we’ve arrived at this destination is because Amazon moved faster and more nimbly than legacy publishers; it’s the Year of Our Lord 2014, and publishers can’t decide on a strategy for e-books or, like Chaosium, whether they should even offer them at all. As a writer of alternate histories, I can imagine a world where publishers established their own online market site to sell their products, bypassing Amazon altogether.

In the end, what confuzzles me most is why so many authors loathe Amazon for theft and bullying that has yet to occur while meanwhile defending publishers like Hachette, who are stealing from and bullying them right this minute.

Beyond the Sea

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

J.D. Tuccille of Reason.com has rounded up the latest denunciations of seasteading — the concept of autonomous man-made islands:

Criticism of seasteading now takes on an oddly strident tone, and from unusual sources.

A week after reporting on DeltaSync’s Seasteading Implementation Plan, Global Construction Review, an online publication of Britain’s Chartered Institute of Building, ran an attack on the idea as an abandonment of social responsibility. The publication’s editor, Rod Sweet, took time away from the business of covering engineering and construction to “to lay bare the motivation behind the movement—the libertarian urge for the freedom to profit without having to contribute to the social conditions that make profit possible.”

In recent years there’s been a trend toward attacking Information-Age developments based not on the deficiencies of the technology or issues but rather on the perception that said plans are libertarian schemes to avoid taxes. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? Libertarian criminality. Secession — not from the US, but into smaller, more responsive state or municipal bodies? Perfidious libertarian tax evasion. Seasteading? A misguided dream by “adherents of ‘libertarianism,’ that peculiarly American philosophy of venal petty-bourgeois dissidence.” This last written by none other than China Mieville, the Marxist don who moonlights as a successful science-fiction writer.

Any news story about seasteading invariably descends into Rapture jokes in the comments but there’s nothing inherently libertarian about man-made islands. You could just as easily use the technology for a floating kibbutz as for an art-deco Galt’s Gulch. Even one of seasteading’s major advocates has said, “We can’t build libertopia … Whatever we build will have to have security forces who will bust in your door if they think you’re designing nuclear weapons or funding terrorism.”

Regardless of seasteading’s practicality (while cautiously intrigued, I have several unanswered questions about it myself), it is disturbing that scientific futurism is met so reactionarily — especially by readers and writers of speculative fiction (to see examples by readers, check out the comments sections of any io9 article on these subjects). Setting aside the questions of when and why did libertarians become bogeymen to the left (Radley Balko keeps a list), what the hell happened to sci-fi? Are Martian colonies not dismissed as libertarian conspiracies because they are decades away while Bitcoin, etc. are happening now or very soon? When did imagining a better world of tomorrow go from Heinlein to thought-crime? After all, the first proponent of oceanic utopianism was the 19th-century hero of the left, Jules Verne, who inspired those seeking an escape from the -isms of capital and czar:

“Also,” [Nemo] added, “true existence is there; and I can imagine the foundations of nautical towns, clusters of submarine houses, which, like the Nautilus, would ascend every morning to breathe at the surface of the water — free towns, independent cities.”

I think it’s more likely that, in the words of another 19th-century author, these same writers and readers, so eager to throw out the old idols, have sworn loyalty to another, and to turn your back on it is heresy.

Or maybe it’s simply because misery loves company.

Energy Individualism

National Geographic News reports on the evil of those 1-percent DIYers:

For many homeowners, the availability of diesel-powered or increasingly common natural gas generators provides peace of mind amid ever-more-common power outages. … And in the immediate wake of Sandy, the Daily Beast suggested that backup generators had taken on a status-symbol aura, quoting a Westport, Connecticut, real estate broker who recommended emergency power boxes to all of her clients: “For the kind of money that these houses cost, to spend $8,000 or $10,000 on a generator isn’t a significant extra investment,” she said.

But a number of energy experts believe there’s a troubling side to the trend. It reflects an increasing reliance on go-it-alone solutions—for those who can afford them—rather than the needed society-wide investment in a modernized and more resilient electric power grid.

“We’ve gone to this pioneer mentality,” said Richard Little, who before retiring was director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the University of Southern California, in an interview following Hurricane Sandy last year. “Everybody’s got to have a generator. If I lived in New Jersey, I’d have a generator too. But not everyone can do that. We’ve got to find better solutions.”

For all its reactionary bashing of profit-taking by generator manufacturers and touting of renewables, the article’s progressive solutions are just another conservative argument to maintain the status quo. The author’s base assumption — full disclosure: I’ve written stuff for Marianne — is the power grid is good and worth saving, and that only the very wealthy can afford “a pioneer mentality.” An example of the article’s slant: that $8,000-$10,000 estimate is undoubtedly for a stationary natural-gas generator; portable generators run much, much cheaper. (And even then that number rings high: I was recently quoted $5,000 by an SCG rep — but that’s what Marianne gets for believing anything a real-estate agent says).

Earlier this year Jesse Walker at Reason wrote about his liberal-feminist friend in Vermont who grows her own food, owns a shotgun, and chops wood because she refuses to live “without supplemental heat that operates without electricity” — all a result of losing power in an ice storm years ago. For this, Walker argues, she would be tarred with the pejorative “prepper” if the national media were ever to take notice of her. He has a point: anyone interested in self-sufficiency is always portrayed in either mocking or sinister tones. Instead I would call his friend a reasonable New Englander. We don’t suspect someone who drinks well water or has a septic system. So why are we suspicious of someone who can supply her own needs independent of the power grid, at least in emergencies?

We were well prepared for Irene, yet we never lost power and ended up having a fun staycation. Sandy, on the other hand, caught us with our pants down. Although I have a saltmarsh in my backyard, we were saved from flooding by a quirk of geography. Nonetheless our neighborhood was devastated and we lost power for a week. Had Sandy occurred at the same time as Irene — in late August — it would have been fine. Going to bed early and reading by candlelight was fun. We had a propane stove to cook on. The freezer needed defrosting and cleaning anyway. I found the cold showers bracing! But as the days stretched from late October into early November, the house gradually grew cooler without non-electrical means to heat it. Had the power outage continued much longer, we would have had to abandon our home for a friend’s house or a shelter.

Sometimes late at night I think about what would have happened had the outage been caused by a winter storm like Nemo. We definitely would have had to evacuate within days of the power loss, if not hours.

After more than 12 years in our little cape on the marsh — and after many, many improvements to it — we are moving next month. Our new This-Old-House house, which required substantial renovations, will feature several upgrades to our current condition. My philosophy this time has been to install multiple redundancies: natural-gas heating and hot water, negating the need for electricity to run the oil pumps; a generator hook-up hardwired into the breaker and a portable generator to power the basics; and when the gasoline runs out, a big frickin’ fireplace with a large woodpile out back and a half-acre of timber if things go really arctic. Long-term I’m thinking about solar (I grew up in a house with solar panels; my engineer dad taught college courses on solar power during the Oil Crisis) and maybe even rainwater collection and use.

A pioneer mentality is exactly what we need now. Resources should be poured into the power grid only so far as to keep the toilets from backing up or the trains running, which is already sketchy when the sun’s shining and temps are in the 80s. We need to return residential generation to a time when every homestead could fulfill its own demands. For densely populated urban areas, neighborhoods need to develop microgrids or Science Barges. And in the suburbs, homes need to become electrically independent, or at least independent enough to sustain themselves for a few weeks. “Prepping” or a “go-it-alone solution” is acceptance of contemporary failures and a visionary answer to them. Saying “not everyone can do that” isn’t a coherent argument — it’s a prejudice against those of us who have committed the ultimate political heresy of losing faith in the system.