Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Go read Idiomocracy. Because I said so. At my site, of course: www.jonathanladen.com

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Review of Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Science Fiction authors who may not agree on much else (e.g. Orson Scott Card and Connie Willis), agree that understanding history is most important for an S.F. author. So, I undertook recently to read Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. Possessing more hubris than sense, I’ve also undertaken a (very) general critique. Just because “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” is emblazoned on the cover, doesn’t stop me from throwing in my reactions.

First, let me say I found it persuasive. I was compelled to agree with almost all of Mr. Diamond’s arguments, seeing logic and connections where I hadn’t even thought to look. Of course, not being a historian, geologist, or linguist, most of this information was knew to me in any form.

I’ll summarize the case here in the super duper cliff notes version. The differences in outcomes between the “races” is determined by the random chance of the geology and biology of their initial locale, nothing more nothing less. Agricultural started where it did because the most promising candidate plants happened to be in those locations (mainly the fertile crescent near the Mediterranean). By 11,000 B.C., when humans were potentially ready to settle down, virtually the only large, domesticable mammals that hadn’t yet been exterminated by humanity lived in Eurasia. The food package could spread wide in Eurasia due to its east-west orientation, as opposed to the north-south orientation of the Americas and Africa. (Weather and day length tend to be more similar at the same latitudes, essential for the easy transfer of many plants.) Thanks to humans living in close quarters with each other and animals, epidemic diseases developed, which – once the Eurasians were forced to develop resistance to survive – became a potent weapon, clearing their path once they started invading other lands. Additionally, the specialization and centralized governments made possible by agricultural food surpluses allowed for the development and use of technology (guns, and steel) that created devastating advantages. This is massively oversimplified, of course, but I’m not writing a book review here. Go read it yourself. I’ll wait here ‘til you get back.

Back? Good. Now, I have two major complaints. My main complaint was with the repetitive style employed. The first mention of an idea would evoke a “wow” from me. The second mention would work to reinforce that idea in the context of the historical information that had just been presented. By the umpteenth mention of the idea, often in the exact same two or three sentence wording as the previous iterations, I was less impressed. I’m convinced this book could be many pages shorter without sacrificing a single bit of information or cogency of argument.

On a more substantive note, I was somewhat apprehensive about sample size and hindsight bias. There is a certainty to Mr. Diamond’s prose that I don’t yet share. He cites the Polynesian islands as a set of past experiments that prove his hypothesis. Certainly, they support his hypothesis: the same peoples did develop societally in different ways seemingly depending on the geology of the island on which they alighted. However, we are looking at one group of people, among whom different individuals settled each island at different times. What looks like proof may be coincidence. Societal history, by its very nature, provides a relative paucity of test cases. In my opinion, Mr. Diamond doesn’t fully acknowledge this limitation to his arguments.

There also is the problem of hindsight. We know Europe was most successful, therefore the hypothesis is fitted to the result. Not only is early development of agriculture essential, but – because Europe didn’t get agriculture first, after all – also a moderately fragmented society is important (not as fragmented as India, but much more fragmented than China; Europe-level fragmentation to be precise). To be fair, Mr. Diamond does a good job supporting each of his arguments with the evidence available, there’s just not enough to be nearly definitive,

In the updated epilogue, Diamond repeats himself some more. Then, he says something new. To wit, his minor argument about the optimal fragmentation of society happens to apply perfectly to understanding optimal business organization. How do we know this? Because a business consultant told him so!

Now, as an MBA myself, I can tell you just how probative flattery from a business consultant is, but we won’t get into old battle scars here. The general point is doubtless valid: some level of cooperation is necessary for progress to be made, else every group must reinvent each wheel, but healthy competition is also important. I have, however, some reservations about the specifics he uses to support that thesis in the business world.

Mr. Diamond first talks about how spectacularly wonderful German beer is. It is great, I agree (almost as good as they make in Belgium). Then, he decries the horrible inefficiency that makes the German beer industry only 43% as productive as the American. The blame, he says, lies in the overly protectionist German government that creates isolated local monopolies who do not adapt each others’ (and Americans’) “best” practices. It is difficult to imagine, but Mr. Diamond evidently sees no problem with suggesting that German breweries should adapt American mass production efficiencies to improve their product. Let me state my dissent as clearly as possible: German beer is the (second) best in the world precisely because it is lovingly crafted in smaller-scale, “inefficient” breweries. (Belgium’s beer industry runs by similar principles.) They can make some money licensing Lowenbrau and Beck’s (which taste like American beers, by the way) on the side if they want to, but to sacrifice their competitive advantage in the name of progress would not serve German brewers well. Lower productivity and higher quality don’t come together by accident.

He argues next that Japanese food producers are inefficient for many of the same reasons. His argument has more traction here, though here also it must be pointed out that Japanese beef is a gourmet luxury item (not for me, thanks). The exorbitant price is related to more than inefficiency: it’s also about lack of land, a deliberately high-end rather than staple market, etc. The Japanese, I suspect, are quite aware they would be more productive if they didn’t hand-feed their cows gourmet grasses.

Mr. Diamond then compares internal cultures at Microsoft (good) and IBM (bad) to argue again the need for autonomous competitive units who freely share information, which again is fine so far as it goes. However, it bears mentioning that IBM was a several decades old monopoly with long traditions that had served it well in the past, but were not appropriate to the emergence of the personal computer. Microsoft is still a fairly new monopoly, full of the energy and massive competitive advantage that implies. It hasn’t been tested by the obsolescence of its very raison d’etre as of yet. (Despite what you’ve heard monopolies are perfectly legal under American business law. I’m not criticizing either company here.) By the same token, Route 128 had its day, and now it’s Silicon Valley’s turn, regardless of any differences of organization between the two technology hubs. This too shall pass. (A helpful perspective here may be Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which points out that every empire has a life cycle, no matter how invincible it may seem at the height of its powers.)

It also feels a bit disingenuous to laud Microsoft as the perfect model of (internal) competition leading to innovation and progress with nary a mention of how its stifling of external competition throughout the computer and internet sectors has slowed what had been the most dynamic explosion of innovation in history. (Yes, they lost the anti-trust case. That the government decided not to levy any penalties is besides the point.) Is Microsoft’s bundling and monopoly leveraging optimal practice? For the company, yes, for America, maybe not.

Finally, Mr. Diamond stretches the analogy to include the competition among the fifty states in the U.S. Federal system. Maybe it’s just me, but I perceive somewhere between little and no competition between the states. Thanks to the laws of interstate commerce, even the business environments operate almost entirely under the same rules (without which national companies couldn’t emerge, which would put us back in the situation of the German breweries, minus the quality). I can see an argument being made for a broad sort of competition between regions, but even that is a minor factor at best.

I had more nits to pick with these several pages of epilogue than with 400+ pages of text. Either I hit a critical mode in my brainspace, or just maybe, Mr. Diamond doesn’t understand business nearly so well as he does geology and the myriad interactions of historical humanity. I have this niggling worry in the back of my head that if I only knew as much history, geology, linguistics, sociology etc. as I know modern business, I might disagree with more in this magnum opus. Yet I don’t, so I don’t.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Caveats aside, the learning to be had more than justified the time invested. Buy it, read it, use the information garnered to write great SF. Go forth and conquer, taking whatever microbial baggage you've got along for the ride.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

My thoughts on Worldcon

I didn't feel these were as good as at San Jose. First, I had heard much of it before. Second, there were bunches of panels with almost exactly the same title. (economics of the future, future currencies, the effect of future developments on the world economy, a future without money, etc.) Third, bunches of panelists were double-booked, so you never knew who would show up at which panel. Two days in, I realized that the subject of the panel was irrelevant (they never follow them anyway). The game is all about finding the panels with folks who are willing to play with the subject matter until something fun falls out. Connie Willis, Howard Waldrop, etc. The panels about interesting scientific topics with real-life experts tend to be borefests--much to my surprise--descending into semantic arguments and shout-downs from the audience. Worldcon ain't all about learning science. Some of the writing advice is good, but so many panels every year seem to be about how to format a submission, a truly boring topic that can best be answered by going to SFWA.org or reading the guidelines of almost any market one intends to submit to.

Koffee Klatches:
I only went to one this year. I spent an hour and a half hearing Charlie Stross throw off some of his interesting ideas. It was great of him to spend so much time at this. (maybe he didn't want to get roped into attending the closing ceremonies?)

We spent some time with four fellow Clarion graduates, six or seven members of Clarion West 2001, an upstanding group, my instructors, meeting a few folks who edit semipro zines, and a few other folks.

Overall, an interesting experience. Fun, but could be even moreso.

Are you reading this? Come find me at Boston in 2004, and say "Hi."

Finished another freelance job for White Wolf. Yes, indeedy. Anyone else need some copyediting, proofreading, dancing under a pale moon light? email me (jonathan@jonathanladen.com)

What else is new? Idiomocracy! Check it out. (www.jonathanladen.com)

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Hello. In addition to several rejections, I just received an acceptance at AlienSkin magazine for their October online issue. Yay!

Okay, at .5 cents each word (<$5 total) , I'm not quitting the day job (if I can find one) just yet. But still, for any of you out there who write or are thinking about it, these little tiny bits of validation (from strangers no less) can make a big difference.

One acceptance is karmically worth 10-25 rejections. Since I've collected way more than that along the path to establishing myself, this one from AlienSkin is a blessing. (A nice rejection can compensate for some cold rejections too. I know it shouldn't -- rejectomancy is a fantasy trope not one based on science of any sort. However, the psyche of a writer ain't rational. That much shouldn't be in any dispute.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

I haven't been around these parts much of late. Sorry about that. The gentlefolk of Chaos Theory, Tales Askew put together an attractive semiprozine/funzine/whatever it is. Check 'em out (and read my story). It's the one about Billy Goats, though still doesn't qualify me to join the goatpunk movement. Wouldn't even if it were a pro-level sale. Such the pity.


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