Meme Weaver

Yesterday I followed this mellifluously titled article on why the author hadn’t been able to write a best selling ‘ideas book’.

This is what I had to do. First, I needed to have a platform. A platform is something you stand on. It makes you taller than you are. In trade publishing, a platform is the same, but it’s a prestigious brand. I had two: from a trade editor’s point of view, I had been a “professor” at the big university and a “writer” at the big magazine. Second, I needed a big idea. A big idea is an enthusiastically stated thesis, usually taking the form of “This changes everything and will make you rich, happy, and beautiful.” A big idea must be counterintuitive: the this that changes everything must be something everyone thinks is trivial, but in fact matters a great deal. In my case, the this had to be Wikipedia, so my big idea was “Wikipedia changes everything.” I had done no research to substantiate such a claim. Third, I needed a catchphrase title like The Wisdom of CrowdsThe Tipping Point, or The Long Tail. The title had to be the kind of thing that becomes a cliché. Trade editors would demand this. And in fact a trade editor suggested a good title—WikiWorld. . . .

I started doing research. . . . It forced me to scotch the idea that “Wikipedia changes everything,” because it obviously didn’t. The truth about Wikipedia was messy. I couldn’t boil it down to catchphrases and anecdotes. So I did my best to reduce the inherent complexity of the subject, and submitted the manuscript. Was it good? Well, the book did the job as I understood it. Was it done? Yes, and that was important. But I was worried. I had strayed from the big-idea template. My book was a convoluted story involving evolution, human nature, media technologies, and their effects on human society and thought. Surprisingly, my editor liked it a lot. He compared me to Jared Diamond. I didn’t know whether that was a compliment or not. I had some serious questions about Diamond’s work, as did many other historians. My agent, however, assured me that this was the best possible news: Diamond’s books sold like hotcakes.

Then my editor fell ominously silent. E-mails went unanswered, phone calls unreturned. What had happened? My agent explained that my big idea—which in fact was no longer my big idea—had a short shelf life. That’s why my editor had wanted the book in six months. Other Wikipedia books were in the pipeline. Some of their authors had higher platforms, bigger ideas, and pithier titles than mine. The clock was ticking. After six months, my editor finally wrote me. Not surprisingly, he no longer liked my book. Too complicated for the average trade reader. He advised me to speculate. “Unleash your inner Marshall McLuhan,” he said, and rewrite the book.

This was excellent advice from a smart man with decades of experience in trade publishing. But I realized that I had no inner Marshall McLuhan. Even more important was my realization that I had no inner James Surowiecki, Malcolm Gladwell, or Chris Anderson. From my editor’s perspective, these were models, and rightly so. They made trade publishers a fortune. From my perspective, however, they were good writers who had spun big ideas into gold. I couldn’t write a big-idea book, because, as it turned out, I didn’t believe in big ideas. By my lights, they almost had to be wrong.

Anyway, at the bottom of the article was a link to another project of the author’s – the new book network where there are podcasts of interviews with the authors of new books. Seems like a good idea to me.  Apart from anything else I like the guy’s sense of humour – which is evident in the site’s video and in lots of his write ups. and, as I snuffled through a cold in bed last night, managed to listen to a bunch of interesting interviews, the highlight being the one with Elizabeth Anderson on her recent book  The Imperative of Integration (Princeton University Press, 2010).

Melbourne Ignite – on again on Nov 30th

Another Ignite Melbourne is on! What is that? Ignite is a format for public speaking which emerged from the tech sector. You get exactly 5 minutes to speak and you must speak to slides that move forward at a preset rate every 15 seconds. It’s quite hard to do well, which is part of the fun of it. Kind of like a haiku for demagogues. If some of the tyrants of the Middle East had learned to be a little more succinct they may not have come to quite such sticky ends.

The other rule is that usually these sessions are organised by tech types, and so they want you to speak about tech related things – but most themes that would fit a TED talk would work well with Ignite. I had a go here. Anyway, there’s another Ignite session on on the 30th November at the Apartment in Little Bourke St (a pub). It’s a lot of fun. So maybe I’ll see you there.

And maybe you’d like to try your hand at the art form. If so, email Mark Mansour on mark AT agilebench DOT com NO dot au.

What’s wrong with inequality?

Photo credit: Matt McDermott

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has a message for the Occupy Wall Street protesters: Keep focusing on gross inequality of outcomes and you’ll get nowhere.

Haidt and his colleagues have developed a theory about how people make moral judgments. He argues that moral judgment is intuitive. "We know what is right and wrong in much the same way we know what is beautiful", says Haidt. "When called on to explain ourselves we make up reasons after the fact."

This intuitive ethics rests on five foundations: Care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. In the US, liberals focus on the first two foundations while conservatives rely on all five. In itself, inequality doesn’t offend against any of these foundational intuitions. As a result, the OWS protesters needs to spell out exactly what’s wrong with inequality. In a recent article for Reason magazine Haidt writes:

Fairness means proportionality, and if Americans generally think that the rich got rich by working harder or by providing goods and services that were valued in a free market, then they won’t be angry, and they won’t support redistributionist policies. But if the OWS protesters can better articulate their case that the “1 percent” got its riches by cheating, rather than by providing something valuable, or that the 1 percent abuses its power and oppresses the 99 percent, then Occupy Wall Street will find itself standing on a very secure pair of moral foundations.

In making their case, Haidt argues that the protesters need to avoid "acts of violence, flag desecration, destruction of private property, or anything else that makes them seem subversive or anti-American." These would offend against the foundations of loyalty, authority and sanctity.

As in Australia, people disagree about whether inequality of wealth and income is a bad thing. Haidt’s analysis suggests that these disagreements may grounded in differences of opinion about the causes of inequality rather than differences in moral principle.

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Tweeting the Qantas shutdown

Update – Tweets placed in a more coherent context in In search of Qanilingus at CDU Law and Business Online.

NB Australian Financial Review arguably has the best coverage and has no paywall for the weekend.

Stephen Downes

downesyStephen Downes

by CDUlawschool
Alan Joyce’s secret ambition is to pursue a merger between #Qantas and his old airline, Aer Lingus. It would be known as Qanilingus
Angus M-a-c-i-n-n-is

AequoEtBonoAngus M-a-c-i-n-n-is

by CDUlawschool

@
@gavinrebetzke Yes, grounding was said to be to permit lockout to occur safely. Difficult for a court go behind that.
Karen Barlow

KJBarKaren Barlow

by CDUlawschool

@
Right then RT @leigh_howard No decision till tomorrow arvo it seems folks. #Qantas
leigh_howard

leigh_howardleigh_howard

by CDUlawschool
There are at least 15 people appearing. This will go all night. #Qantas
leigh_howard

leigh_howardleigh_howard

by CDUlawschool
Appln under s 424(d). Never been used in history. Govt could have jumped this step by declaring grounding void under s 431. #Qantas
Angus M-a-c-i-n-n-is

AequoEtBonoAngus M-a-c-i-n-n-is

by CDUlawschool
So Qantas’ go-to silk, Harry Dixon SC, was in Melbourne today? What a lucky coincidence!
leigh_howard

leigh_howardleigh_howard

by CDUlawschool
Minister: seeks to terminate ALL industrial action, not just lockout. #Qantas #ausunions

The intellectual collapse of the right

John Quiggin reprises an old theme of his – which I recall supporting previously (I’d forgotten that my post “the stupid party” was actually in response to another of John’s posts/columns). In any event, I was talking to a CIS person the other day and mentioning that for me the IPA had lost all credibility with me by sponsoring the visit of Lord Monckton. He pointed out that the CIS had been offered the rare privilege of sponsoring the tour and turned it down. Anyway, it’s a pity how hard it is to be serious on the right these days. It’s not as if the right aren’t the custodians of an important strand of thinking about our society. But they’re not if they’re getting Lord Monckton to tell us how wicked the carbon and mining taxes are. It was Monckton’s focus on the evils of the latter mining tax that shows his true colours. No clue as to why the tax, which the free market Treasury has regarded as a crucial tax reform for some time might be a good idea.

Asian Language and Cultural Proficiency in Australia

Edit – I really want opposing views. Anyone who thinks there is a strong case for a concerted push for more literacy, please give it in comments

At the Lowy Interpreter Andrew Carr says “One policy guaranteed to feature in the ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ White Paper is the take-up of Asian languages by Australians.” It’s a recurrent topic, and an interesting one for musing.

I certainly back Carr’s call that “One focus of the Asian Century white paper should be explaining how Australians can benefit from higher Asia literacy.” I back it because I don’t really understand the benefits of a concerted top down push for greater Asia literacy. I say this as someone who chose to study Mandarin at university, someone with family ties to Japan [fn1], someone who spends much of their free time reading about Asian societies and languages and someone who writes long posts such as this, (or thisthisthisthisthisthis or this for just a sample). Asia literacy is interesting, but is it beneficial? I genuinely don’t know and if anything I should be biased towards that view. The need for Asia literacy, particularly language proficiency, is asserted frequently, but rarely argued.

The phoenix and the lyrebird

The economic case needs some bolstering. There doesn’t appear to be a major shortage of graduates that business is desperate for, else they’d be lurking around universities ready to  pounce just as the mining industry goes hunting for geologists and surveyors or they’d be providing the kind of salaries that would entice people to undertake such studies. And if they were, we wouldn’t need to discuss a government policy [EDIT - See fnA]. Carr recognises this when he says the individual rewards are minor, but the gains to the country as a whole are great. But this market failure needs to be demonstrated, not just asserted. What are the positive externalities generated by greater literacy and how do they improve economic ties? Continue reading

Legislating mandatory corporate death

I didn’t really expect that my recent posts about the somewhat indeterminate aims of the “Occupy …” protest movement would result in a lively discussion thread about what I imagined was the entirely uncontroversial proposition that the limited liability corporation is by and large not only a positive thing but a key element of the modern capitalist economy.  For Socialist Alliance types and at least one ultra-libertarian, it isn’t uncontroversial at all (though for almost diametrically opposing reasons).

I was discussing this with my CDU Law School colleague Geoff James over lunch a couple of days ago when he mentioned a corporate regulatory policy idea that I hadn’t heard before.  Given that the corporation is a “fictitious legal person”, Geoff said, why not take the analogy to its logical conclusion and legislate a mandatory corporate lifespan?  After (say) three score years and ten all corporations would be compulsorily liquidated and their assets and business undertaking sold.

Apparently this was a policy of the old Australia Party founded in the 1970s by eccentric transport tycoon Gordon Barton.  Be that as it may, it’s an interesting if fairly radical idea.  I’d be interested in the reactions of the diverse Troppo readership, especially the economists among us.

In a sense, it would bring the corporate structure more in line with that of trusts, which once had a maximum life span (perpetuity period aka rule against remoteness of vesting) delightfully defined as a “life in being and twenty one years”.  That equitable description gave rise to the equally quaint drafting convention of maximising the duration of any trust instrument by providing for vesting on the death of the “last currently living heir of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II”.  Sadly, most states and territories have now legislated for a more prosaic perpetuity period of 80 years or thereabouts.

Legislating for a maximum corporate life span might also be argued to enhance the prospects for business growth and productivity through harnessing Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction” as the principal engine of capitalist growth and renewal.  However it may be a bit more complex than that, as Arthur Diamond discusses (extract over the fold).

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