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Odd Lots

  • I hurt my back and had to cancel a trip to Chicago to see family, and then to Chattanooga for Libertycon, which is the only con I go to anymore. Now, two weeks before my 70th birthday, I have to remind myself that, weight training or no weight training, lifting and carrying heavy things can be a hazard to your health.
  • Health, yeah. New medical research from South Australia shows a causal relationship between low vitamin D levels and dementia. Vitamin D has a number of benefits, most of which have been known for years. Carol and I have an ace in the hole: We’re in Arizona, where cloudy days are rare, so we get a lot more sunlight than we used to. And we take a 5000 IU supplement every morning, mostly because we’re not kids anymore, and D synthesis declines with age, sunshine or no sunshine. Bottom line: Don’t be D-ficient.
  • I dunno, but it sure looks like all the recent Corvettes we’ve seen here around town look like a car that some giant foot stepped on. Not to be outdone by Chevy, Cadillac is fielding the same profile. We giggle every time they go by.
  • I’ve never heard of “foot pool” before, but it looks like a lot of fun. Most of the activity I see mentioned online are from the UK.
  • Bet you never wanted to read the history of canned wine, eh? Well, here it is. I clearly remember drinking a can of white zinfandel among friends circa 1971. Nothing about it seemed odd to me then, as I had yet to encounter conventional wine culture.
  • New research suggests that THE MOST HIDEOUSLY DANGEROUS DEADLY DRUG IN THE ENTIRE COSMOS DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT has anticancer properties. More research is planned, if the poor researchers are ever allowed to lay hands on the stuff.
  • Can we literally throw things into orbit? A startup named SpinLaunch has built a small-scale proof-of-concept launching machine, and has managed to throw a 9-foot payload up as high as 30,000 feet. Fuel, water, atmosphere, clothes? Though the article does not state an acceleration in g’s, it’s gotta be intense, and way beyond what living material can stand. But for provisioning space stations it could be just the thing. Good luck, guys.
  • Wow. I didn’t know this: Big dust clouds near the center of our galaxy taste like…raspberries. Oh, and they smell like rum. Alas, it’s just the ethyl formate talking.
  • A new research paper out of the New England Journal of Medicine has found that in a small trial of a new drug called dostarlimab, with a cohort of 18 colorectal cancer patients, the remission rate was…100%. Dostalimab is a monoclonal antibody originally intended to treat endometrial cancer. Researchers think it may be a much more general cancer treatment, and new studies are planned.
  • And here’s another: A study conducted at the University of Toronto showed that toddlers who grew up with dogs (but not cats) appear to have some protection against Crohn’s Disease. The article doesn’t say that having a cat nullifies the protection, only that growing up with cats has no similar effects.
  • Finally, Amazon must have thought I was Geoffrey Chaucer. Or that the man was WAYYYYY ahead of his time. (Read the page closely.)

Is Substack Special?

Sometime very early this year, probably January, a reader asked me in an email what I thought of Substack, and if Contra would be better off there. She likes my work, and told me she “binged” on my old entries. At the time, I’d heard of Substack but never looked at it. Over the last couple of days I googled on the site, went there, and learned a great deal about it.

The answer is no. I’ll be 70 in three weeks, and I don’t have the stamina to try to blog for money. Ten or fifteen years ago, I would have been sorely tempted. No more. I have my loyal readers, and I don’t need the money that badly. But…but…if I were on Substack, I’d be famous!

No. Anybody can be on Substack. If I were already famous, I might try it. But I’m not. (I do have a certain fame. It’s five miles deep and three inches wide.)

Basically, Substack is Kindle for newsletters. And newsletters in this context are long-form blog entries. You can charge readers a subscription fee, minimum $5/month, or any dollar amount greater than that. (Newsletters can also be free if you prefer.) Readers can then read your entries on the Web, or on the iPhone app. (They’ve been a thing since 2017, and they don’t yet have an Android app? That’s just, well, stupid. They say they’re working on one. Sheesh, I hope so!)

Substack has thousands of newsletters, and as of the end of 2021, over a million paid subscribers. The top 10 writers in aggregate make $20M per year. That’s better money than I’ve ever made doing anything. But if you look at who the top ten writers are, it becomes painfully obvious: All of them were famous working in other venues long before Substack ever existed.

I’ve read Andrew Sullivan sporadically for a lot of years. I read him on the late suck.com back in the ’90s and lots of other places since. He’s the #5 writer on Substack. He’s interesting, funny, and doesn’t bend the knee to partisan bitchlords demanding unquestioning allegiance. I haven’t subscribed yet, but I may. He’s damned good.

Other writers I’ve heard of and read elsewhere include Bari Weiss, Matthew Iglesias, Matt Taibbi, and Glenn Greenwald. (Greenwald is #1 on Substack.) A chap I know, Tom Knighton, has three different Substack newsletters. (You’re not limited to one.) I’m sure other people out on the edges of my circles have Substack newsletters. (Have one? Let me know!) However, I’m guessing that there’s an 80/20 rule on Substack (or maybe a 90/10 rule) stating that 20% of the writers make 80% of the money. That’s the rule in a lot of business models, Kindle included.

That may just be the way the universe works. You have to build a platform, as the agents put it. In other words, you have to promote yourself, especially if you don’t already have a pre-existing reputation and thousands of cheering fans. As some of my self-published author friends on Kindle have learned, you sometimes have to do so much promoting that you don’t have the time (or the energy) to write new material.

So I won’t be there. I’m having too much fun on 20M and writing new SF. What, then, do I think? No question: It’s worth it, if you’re young and energetic and can write interesting text on a definable topic on a regular basis that at least a few people might pay $5 a month for. I have one concern about Substack’s viability: They do not currently discriminate against conservative writers, or centrist writers who don’t care for progressive dudgeon. Apparently a number of progressive writers have ditched Substack because–the horror!–Substack doesn’t censor conservative viewpoints.

Not yet. If they ever start, it’ll be the end of them. In the meantime, you have your choice of a very broad spectrum of very good writers. A lot of the posts are free, and you can sample any author you want. I’m budgeting myself four paid subscriptions, not because it’s expensive, but because there are only so many hours in a day.

Go take a look. I was moderately impressed.

In Pursuit of x64

You may be wondering where I am, given that I haven’t posted a Contra entry for over a month. I didn’t want May to conclude with zero entries posted, so I figured I’d take a break here and get you up to speed.

Here’s the deal: My publisher has asked for a Fourth Edition of Assembly Language Step-By-Step. It’s been thirteen years since the Third Edition came out, so it’s well past time. The idea here is to bring the book up to date on the x64 architecture. In fact, so that no one will mistake what’s going on, the title of the new edition will be x64 Assembly Language Step-By-Step, Fourth Edition. Whether they keep the “x” in lowercase remains to be seen.

So I’m off and editing, writing new code and checking every code snippet in a SASM sandbox, and making sure that I don’t forget and talk about EAX and other 32-bits-and-down entities without good reason. (There are good reasons. Even AH and AL are still with us and used for certain things.) Make no mistake: This is going to be a lot of work. The Third Edition is 600 pages long, which isn’t the longest book I’ve ever written (that honor belongs to Borland Pascal 7 From Square One, at 810 pages) but it’s right up there.

My great fear has been the possibility of needing to add a lot of new material that would make the book even longer, but in truth, that won’t be a huge problem. Here’s why: Some things that I spent a lot of pages on can be cut way back. Good example: In 32-bit Linux, system calls are made through the INT 80H call gate. In the Third Edition I went into considerable detail about how software interrupts work in a general sense. Now, x64 Linux uses a new x64 instruction, SYSCALL, to make calls into the OS. I’m not completely sure, but I don’t think it’s possible to use software interrupts at all in userspace programming anymore. I do have to explain SYSCALL, but there’s just not as much there there, and it won’t take nearly as many words and diagrams.

Oh, and of course, segments are pretty much a thing of the past. Segment management (such that it is) belongs to the OS now, and for userspace programming, at least, you can forget about them. I’m leaving a little description of the old segment/offset memory model for historical context, but not nearly as much as in previous editions.

I also dumped the Game of Big Bux, which doesn’t pull its weight in the explanation department, and isn’t nearly as funny now as it was in 1990. But have faith: The Martians are still with us.

My guess is that from a page count standpoint, it will pretty much be a wash.

It’s going to take me awhile. I don’t know how long, in truth. Especially since I am going to try to keep my fiction output from drying up completely. The book will slow me down, but (for a change) the publisher is not in a huge hurry and I think they’ll give me the time I need. I have 56,000 words down on The Everything Machine, and don’t intend to put it on ice for months and months. I’m not sure how well that’s going to work. We’ll see.

Odd Lots

  • Pertinent to my last two entries here: City Journal proposes what I proposed two years ago: To reduce the toxicity of social media, slow it down. What they propose is not exponential delays of replies and retweets to replies and retweets until those delays extend fifteen minutes or more. Like a nuclear reactor control rod, that would slow the explosion down until the hotheads cooled off or got bored and went elsewhere. Instead, they suggest Twitter insist on a minimum of 280 characters to posts. That might help some, but if the clue is to slow down viral posts, eliminate the middleman and just slow down responses until “viral” becomes so slow that further response simply stops.
  • A statistical study of mask use vs. COVID-19 outcomes found no correlation between mask use and better outcomes, but actually discovered some small correlation between mask use and worse outcomes. Tough read, but bull through it.
  • While not as systematic as the above study, an article on City Journal drives another nail in the coffin of “masks as infection prevention.” Graph the infection rates in states with mask mandates and states with no mask mandates and they come out…almost exactly the same.
  • Our Sun is getting rowdy, and getting rowdier earlier than expected. Cycle 25 is starting out with a bang. Recent cycles have been relatively peaceful, and nobody is suggesting that Cycle 25 will be anything close to the Cycle 19 peak (1957-58) which was the most active sunspot max in instrumental history. What Cycle 25 may turn out to be is average, which mean 20 meters may start to become a lot more fun than it has been in recent (slow) years.
  • And this leads to another question I’ve seen little discussion on: To what extent are damaging solar storms correlated to sunspot peaks? The huge solar storm of 1921 took place closer to the sunspot minimum than the maximum. The legendary Carrington event of 1859 took place during the fairly weak Cycle 10. As best I can tell, it’s about individual sunspots, and not the general state of the Sun at any point in time.
  • NASA’s Perseverence Mars rover caught a solar eclipse, when Phobos crossed the disk of the Sun as seen from Perseverence. The video of the eclipse was sped up, but it really is a startling image, especially if you know a little about Phobos, which is decidedly non-spherical.
  • I found this very cool: An online, Web-based x86/x64 assembler/disassembler. Although intended for computer security pros, I found it a lot of fun and it may turn out to be useful here and there as I begin to revise my assembly book for the fourth time.
  • Skipping sleep can lead to putting on belly fat, which is absolutely the worst place to have it. Get all the sleep you can, duh. Sleep is not optional.
  • How many stars are there in the observable universe? It’s a far trickier and sublter calculation than you might think. But the final number looked familiar to me, and might look familiar to people who do low-level programming.

The Twitter Damn Breaks

Twitter’s damn has broken. That’s not a typo. The word “damn” means “to cast into the outer darkness.” Twitter is famous for doing that. Well, alluva sudden I’m seeing reports of the Twitter-damned finding that their accounts are live again, and they suddenly have thousands more followers than they had a couple of days ago.

Ok, I’m not one of them. A couple of days ago I had 612 followers. Last time I looked it was 614. But people I know personally suddenly have a thousand or so new followers, and on Twitter itself I see people claiming that they have gained thousandsof followers in the last day or so.

Something’s happening.

And it’s happening too soon. Musk and Twitter have not yet closed the deal. You can’t sleep in a house until all the papers are signed and the money changes hands. So why is Twitter suddenly casting the gates wide again and allowing–conservatives, urk!–to rejoin the global conversation?

Makes no sense, not like that’s a new thing for Twitter. But as a Fluffy the Puppy in my novel Dreamhealer said to Larry the Dreamhealer, “Sense is overrated sometimes.” I can think of two (related) reasons why Twitter is suddenly unbanning the damned, and giving them their followers back. This is speculation, obviously, but if you have any better crackpot ideas I’ll hear them:

  1. Twitter’s current rank and file are terrified of Musk. Not sure why. It’s not beyond imagination that they fear Musk using their own censorship machinery against them–and so they’re dismantling it. I doubt our man Elon is dumb enough to try something like that. But an awful lot of people with ivy degrees think he’s the devil incarnate. Or:
  2. Twitter’s management wants to erase all records of their banning decisions, as well as all operational details of whatever algorithms they employed to do the dirty work. What they fear is the general public finding out how pervasive Twitter’s censorship was, and how laser-focused it all was against a fairly narrow demographic. The worst outcome they can imagine is Musk taking over the company’s servers and posting all the details of how it once worked where the public can easily see them.

There may be more to it than that. We won’t know for awhile what Musk actually intends to change in Twitter’s daily operations. I’ve often wondered if the whole thing is theater, and that something will magically turn up at the last minute that makes the whole deal go belly-up. If so, well, Elon has made his point: Free speech is worth something, and it isn’t free if half the discussion is artificially suppressed.

Again, it’s too soon to be sure of anything. Sooner or later, we’ll know. In the meantime, the water’s over the damn and the damn is in ruins…wich is how all damns richly deserve to be.

Quo Vadis, Twitter?

Elon Musk just bought Twitter. For 44 billion dollars.

Egad, I could think of several thousand better ways to spend $44B. In fact, I brought the topic up ten or fifteen years ago, in an entry here called “If I Had a Billion.” Funny how I can’t find it now on Duck Duck Go, or I’d post a link. Maybe I just imagined it. Maybe I’ve been canceled. Maybe too many people want to talk about being billionaires and my post is down in the noise. No matter.

So what is the guy actually going to do with his new toy? It’s tempting to think of the acquisition as a shot across the bow of social networking, in essence saying, “You can be bought. You won’t like being bought. So lay off with the censorship already.”

Threats of that sort aren’t his style. My best guess is that he’s going to tweak a lot of noses by focusing on Twitter and allowing real discussions about formerly forbidden topics, like climate, race, COVID treatments, and such–you know, the things that have gotten a lot of people thrown off Twitter in recent years. I haven’t gotten thrown off because I’m careful about what I post. Being careful (and not spending half my life there) means I won’t get a lot of attention. (I will admit that mentioning my books on Twitter always sells a few. Otherwise I might have quit long ago.) I don’t talk about politics. And this is why I have 611 followers, rather than several thousand. Being famous is hard work. And if I’m going to be famous, I’d rather not do it on Twitter.

He could also order his techies to add an edit function to Twitter. Dare we hope?

I’ll hope. I won’t assume. Anyway. He could do a number of things to make the service worthwhile:

  1. Add edit functionality. Ok, that’s too easy.
  2. Expand the size of a tweet to 1,000 characters. Or 2,000? At their current length, tweets are most useful in online fistfights. Real discussion requires more space than that. Give users more space, and the quality of the dicussions almost can’t help but go up. I hope.
  3. Slow down replies and retweets. I’ve written about this here before. The idea is to exponentially increase the time it takes for a given tweet to “go viral.” One reply, instantly. Two, one second. Three, two seconds. Four, four seconds. Five, eight seconds. Etc. This would put a huge damper on Twitter lynch mobs. And one would hope that that the psychotic hotheads who comprise those mobs will get bored and go somewhere else. In their place will be slower, and (with some luck) more rational conversations. Read the entry I linked. I think it would work. I don’t think Mr. Musk will do it.
  4. Eliminate the “blue check” status game. Have one color check (which color doesn’t matter) indicating that the poster has proven that he or she is who they say they are and are not a bot. Require that “checks” use their real names. You’re either real or not real. Twitter has no damned business deciding who is important and who isn’t.
  5. Charge users by the tweet. Really. Retain free memberships, but limit the number of tweets that free memberships can post. Create brackets of paid memberships in which the highest paid memberships can post unlimited tweets, with less expensive memberships allowing fewer tweets. This would probably cut the number of Twitter users in half (if not more) but would bring in enough revenue to make the system pay for itself. And I can’t help but think that the people who would quit would be the people who make the most trouble. The quality of dicussion would almost certainly improve.

That’s what I have so far. One thing that I think would be very useful but I doubt anyone will ever do is create a federation API allowing different social media services to share messages among themselves. Maybe Twitter should become a back-end for systems that want to participate but also want to curate the content that their network allows. In other words, if people on the left want to toss out people on the right, and people on the right want to toss out those on the left, Twitter would take everybody and let individual users choose to follow whomever they please. Let the crazies have their bubbles. Make Twitter the Big, Here-Comes-Everybody bubble.

A system like that would take some thought and some serious work. It wouldn’t be impossible. (There’s something called Mastodon that has gone some distance in that direction, albeit at a much smaller scale.) And what it would create would be infinitely better than what we have now.

G’wan, Elon. Give it a shot. You own it. Now do what you do best, which is…surprising us.

Problems with SASM on Linux Mint

I’m scoping out a fourth edition of my book, Assembly Language Step by Step. I got wind of a simple FOSS utility that could be enormously useful in that effort: SASM (SimpleASM), which is an IDE created specifically for assembly-language work. It’s almost ideal for what I need: Simple, graphical, with a surprisingly sophisticated text editor and a graphical interface to GDB. It works with NASM, my assembler of choice. I want to use it as the example code IDE for the book. I installed it without effort on Windows, which is why I decided to use it. But I want to use it on Linux.

Alas, I’ve been unable to get it to install and run on Linux Mint 19 (Tara) using the Cinnamon desktop.

I’ve installed a lot of things on Linux Mint, all of them in the form of Debian packages. (.deb files.) I downloaded the SASM .deb file for Mint 19, and followed instructions found on the Web. There is a problem with dependencies that I just don’t understand.

I got it installed once but it wouldn’t run. I uninstalled it, and then it refused to reinstall.

Keep in mind that I am not a ‘leet Linux hacker. I’m a teacher, and most of what I teach is computing and programming for newcomers. The problem may be obvious to Linux experts but not to me. Most of the software I’ve installed on Mint came from repositories. SASM is a .deb download.

So. Does anybody else use it? If you’ve got Mint on a partition somewhere, could you try downloading it and installing it? I need to know if the problem is on my side of the screen or the other side.

Thanks in advance for any advice you might offer.

Odd Lots

  • I got caught in an April Fools hoax that (as my mother would say) sounded too true to be funny: That Tesla canceled all plans to produce its Cybertruck. (Read the last sentence, as I failed to do.) I like Musk; he has guts and supports space tech. About his Cybertruck concept, um…no. It looks like an origami, or else something that escaped from a third-shelf video game. The world would go on without it, and he might use the money to do something even cooler, whatever that might be.
  • Oh, and speaking of Elon Musk: He just bought almost 10% of Twitter, to the tune of about $3B. He is now the biggest outside shareholder. This is not a hoax, and I wonder if it’s only the beginning. Twitter is famous for suspending people without explaining what they did wrong, sometimes for things that seem ridiculously innocuous. A major shareholder could put pressure on Twitter’s management from the inside to cut out that kind of crap. It’s been done elsewhere. And boy, if anybody can do it, he can.
  • Nuclear energy has the highest capacity factor of any form of energy, meaning the highest percentage of time that energy producers spend actually producing energy. I knew that from my readings on the topic. What shocked me is that there is in fact an Office of Nuclear Energy under the DOE. I’m glad they exist, but boy, they hide well.
  • The Register (“Biting the hand that feeds IT”) published a fascinating article about how C has slowly evolved into an Interface Definition Language (IDL). C was never intended to do that, and actually does a pretty shitty job of it. Ok, I’m not a software engineer, but the way to build a new operating system is to define the IDL first, and work backwards from there. C is now 50 years old, sheesh. It’s time to start again, and start fresh, using a language (like Rust) that actually supports some of the security features (like memory protection and safe concurrency) that C lacks. This is not Pascal sour grapes. I’m studying Rust, even though I may never develop anything using it. Somehow, it just smells like the future.
  • Drinking wine with food (as I almost always do) may reduce your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. It’s not taken up in the article, but I have this weird hunch that sweet wines weren’t part of the study. Residual sugar is a real thing, and I’m drinking way less of it than I did 20 years ago.
  • People have been getting in fistfights over this for most of a century, but establishing Standard Time year-round may be better than year-round Daylight Savings Time. I’m mostly neutral on the issue. Arizona is on permanent DST and we like it fine. The problems really occur at high latitudes, where there isn’t much daylight in winter to begin with, so shifting it an hour in either direction doesn’t actually help much.
  • There is Macaroni and Cheese Ice Cream. From Kraft. Really. I wouldn’t lie to you. In fact, I doubt I would even imagine it, and I can imagine a lot.
  • Optimists live longer than pessimists–especially older optimists. Dodging enough slings and arrows of outrageous fortune somehow just makes the whole world look brighter, I guess.
  • Finally, some stats suggesting that our hyperpartisan hatefest online has pushed a lot of people out of political parties into the independent zone–where I’ve been most of my post-college life. 42% of Americans are political independents, compared to 29% who are Democrats and 27% who are Republicans. I’m on Twitter, but I don’t post meanness and (as much as possible) don’t read it. And if Mr. Musk has his way with them, I may be able to post links to ivermectin research without getting banned.

The Publishing Problem That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Last week a friend of mine pointed me toward something I might otherwise have overlooked: Fiction editors at big NY imprints are quitting their jobs at a boggling rate. There was evidently a Twitter meltdown back on March 11 about the Big 4 (or is it 3? 5? 2.7343? ) losing editors and not being able to find new ones. The trigger was evidently a junior editor at Tor (the SFF imprint of Macmillan) writing a longish note on why she was quitting. Molly McGhee loved the work and did it well, but there was far too much of it for what she was paid. And so she quit.

She was not alone. This appears to be a trend: Fiction editors at NY imprints are bailing in droves. A number of other articles on the topic have appeared in the days since. (Beware: Google the topic and you’ll find a lot of articles about editors resigning due to racist accusations and other weird things, but that’s all old news, going back to the last years of the oughts. This is something much more recent, and completely different.) People aren’t screaming about racism or sexual assault. It’s all about too much work for too little pay. The New York Times asks, “When Will Publishing Stop Starving Its Young?” (paywalled) What they don’t ask is why they’re starving their young to begin with.

Indeed, there is this peculiar air of mystery hovering like a grim gray cloud over the whole unfortunate phenomenon. Why are the big NY imprints treating their staff so badly? Nobody seems willing to even venture a guess. Question marks buzz around these articles like wasps from a poked nest. Want an explanation? I can give you one, an explanation that none of those articles mentions at all:

Indie authors are eating NY’s lunch.

And their hors d’oerves. Not to mention dinner. And their bottomless bags of Cheetos Suzettes. It’s the publishing problem that dare not speak its name: Basically, Kindle is detroying the NY publishing business model. So far it’s just fiction. Technical nonfiction can be a gnarly challenge for ebooks. But I’ve also read a lot of indie-published textual nonfiction ebooks in the last couple of years. For titles without a lot of diagrams or source code, it’s no greater a challenge than novels. Once you know the tools well, a reasonable text-only ebook can be laid out in an afternoon. (I do it all the time.) It doesn’t take weeks or thousands of dollars of hired help. The NY presses lie like rugs: Ebooks are not as costly to produce as print books. And once produced, there’s no printing costs or warehousing costs. Unit cost for the product is zero. Sure, indies have to pay for freelance editing services, and probably cover artists. I maintain that anyone who can write can lay out their own damned ebooks. Lots of people I know are doing it all the time and have done it for years. The cost of entry isn’t zero, but it’s a lot less than New York City.

A huge part of this is the peculiar business model that has grown up around hardcover editions since WWII. I’ve written about this at some length. We had to cope with it at Coriolis back in the 1990s. We did as well as we did for as long as we did in large part because we were not located in luxury pestholes like New York City. Publishing is a low-margin business. It cannot succeed in the cores of monster cities. Rent is soaring in most large cities. You can’t pay staff enough to afford local rents. These days, a publishing company can be spread out among several small towns, or anywhere Zoom-capable broadband is available. NYC culture is its own worst enemy: Smaller cities don’t have the nightlife that huge urban centers have. People who demand that nonstop nightlife won’t be happy in Des Moines or Omaha–much less Flagstaff. But those are the sorts of places where publishing can thrive in 2022.

Will Molly McGhee move to Omaha? Somehow I doubt it.

This doesn’t mean I don’t sympathize. Big companies need to pay their people well, or staff will quit and start careers in other industries. Amazon has trained its customers to feel that ebooks should not cost more than $9.99, You have to operate somewhere that a $10 ebook will pay your bills. That is not NYC. Or San Francisco. Or Chicago. Or LA. Alas, it probably isn’t Phoenix anymore either, though it certainly was when I created Coriolis in 1990.

There are other issues: Spreadsheets now run traditional publishing. Editor instincts matter a lot less than they did 30-40 years ago. The people who make decisions at big publishers (as a friend of mine said years ago) are people who don’t read books. There is also a sort of near-invisible good-ol-boy/girl network in NY that decides who gets promotions and plum positions. It’s gotten to be more who you know than what you know. Choosing the right parents and getting into Harvard now matter a lot more than talent and hard work.

In the meantime, NY publishers who are short on cash are cancelling recently acquired books and putting more muscle behind their existing midlist. They claim (and lie, as do other businesses) that they can’t find anybody to fill positions of those who quit–and then pile the work of vanished staff on staff who remain. Not hiring people is a great way to save cash, and you can always blame the pandemic, or supply chain problems, or the Russians. (Everybody else does.) Rents are up hugely in the big cities. Editors can’t work for peanuts when rent is caviar.There’s a deadly feedback loop here that I don’t need to describe in detail. Do the math.

New York City is too expensive for book publishers. Really. There is absolutely no reason for publishers to remain there, now in the age of Zoom. The city’s fixed costs are astronomical. To make any money at all, publishers have to keep ebook prices just a hair below hardcover prices. Making ebook prices higher than trade paperbacks is nuts–unless you simply can’t abide the idea of ebooks and are privately terrified that they will drive those essential hardcovers into a relatively limited luxury market. Which they will. And then Boom! goes their business model.

I still see articles online claiming that ebooks never really took off, and indie publishing is a tiny little corner of the publishing world. Tracking indie ebook sales is essentially impossible, so a lot of publishing pundits simply ignore them. If you can’t plug a number into a spreadsheet cell, the item in question might as well not exist. My conversations with indie authors gives the lie to that delusion. They’re making money. Few are making their entire living from indie publishing–but how often did authors make their entire living writing under traditional publishing? Damned few, and only the most famous.

There is middle ground, in the form of small press. Coriolis was a small press, even at our biggest, because, well, everything is smaller than Macmillan. My hunch is that many editors who bail out of the Big Apple may be quietly hunting down jobs at smaller presses in smaller cities. (The editors are not alone.) Enough of that, and the notion of Manhattan Publishing will quietly fade into the background, obscured by the taps of tens of millions of fingers moving to the next indie ebook page.

Flashback: Ash Wednesday

From my Contrapositive Diary entry for February 25, 2004. I have a conflicted relationship with Lent, as I suggest here and may explain in more detail in coming days as time permits.


Ash Wednesday. Lent is not my favorite season. I spent my Catholic youth up to my nostrils in penitential sacramentality, and it’s taken me a long time to get over it. I’m mostly there; St. Raphael’s parish here [in Colorado Springs] is about as close to perfect a Catholic parish as I’ve seen in my years-long search-and it’s Episcopalian. The boundaries are slippery, but there’s something called Anglo-Catholicism, and…well, that may have to be an entry for another time. Right now, I’m kind of exhausted, but I wanted to relate a quick story of why I really love St. Raphael’s.

We went to the small noon service for Ash Wednesday, a reverent, quiet, music-less Mass with ashes distributed after the sermon. I hadn’t had ashes put on my forehead for a lot of years, nor had I seen a church with the statues and crucifixes covered with violet cloth for even longer-the Romans don’t do such things anymore. Carol was acting as acolyte-an adult altar girl-and I was in the pew by myself. It was hard to see something as deeply mythic as the enshrouded crosses without thinking back to my own childhood, and remembering being in the pews with my parents during Lent, with all the statues covered and in the air that inescapable sense of misdirected contemplation that somehow always came across as fatalistic gloom. As Deacon Edwina made the ashy cross on my forehead, whispering, “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you will return,” I could only think of my father, who became dust far sooner than the father of a confused and anxious young man should. There were tears on my cheeks as I walked back to my pew, and as I began to kneel again, a little girl in the next pew back (whom I didn’t know) reached out and touched my arm.

“Why are you crying?” she asked, her face full of concern.

“I was thinking of my father,” I said, trying to smile and failing, “who died a long time ago.”

She didn’t say anything in reply, but she leaned over the pew, put her arms around my waist, and gave me a quick hug. I was thunderstruck. She was maybe nine years old, and I had never seen her before. (Her family goes to the 8:00 liturgy, and we attend the 10:30.) There are times that I find myself thinking that cynicism has won, and we who believe that all manner of thing will (eventually) be well should just pack it in. But at that moment I felt that if a nine-year-old girl will reach out to comfort an old bald man she doesn’t even know, well, the Bad Guys don’t stand a chance in Hell.

And on Ash Wednesday, to boot. The contrarian moment passed, and I felt wonderful all afternoon. What power our children have over us!