Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Writing From the Scholar Factory

Patricia Goodson, Becoming an Academic Writer: 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful Writing

I’ve heard it often recently: write like it’s a business. From mentors, professional writers, career counselors, quotes circulated on social media, I’ve even told myself I need to have a businesslike approach to writing. But like many widely circulated bromides, that doesn’t translate into action without details. As I attempt to restart my academic career, I’ve questioned how to be a more businesslike writer. This book couldn’t be more timely.

Patricia Goodson teaches Health and Kinesiology at Texas A&M University, perhaps an unusual discipline for a writing mentor. But as she notes, the physical sciences are very writing-intensive, with their own unique disciplinary approaches and a publish-or-perish mentality. Since much advice on writing comes from professional poets, novelists, and other creative writers, a science-based approach to writing makes an interesting change. It also makes a relief from fortune cookie sayings.

Goodson offers here an intensively researched, heavily documented exploration into what makes for good writing. Not just what ought to make for good writing, but what scholars in the field of verbal productivity have proven improves a writer’s output. Not just in abstract notions of output quality, either; writers using these approaches have improved their productivity as measured in both pages produced and editorial acceptances received.

Having researched what actually works—a field into which Goodson has made significant contributions herself—she translates the approaches into what she calls the POWER model: Promoting Outstanding Writing for Excellence in Research. She teaches this model to fellow Aggies, and has licensed its use at other universities too. Now she distills its essence into fifty exercises for a one-year self-guided immersion into improved scholarly and academic writing.

Patricia Goodson
Several exercises seem particularly common-sense… if you already know they work. For instance, many people avoid writing simply because they don’t see themselves as writers. But how does one feel like a writer, except by writing? I didn’t feel like a carpenter until I started building frames, and realized I could do it. Likewise, Goodson insists, dedicated academics should cultivate the “write” attitude simply by establishing writing as a continuous daily habit.

Other exercises address topics I never would’ve consciously considered. Since Goodson writes for graduate students, faculty, and other academic professionals, her audience requires an unusual familiarity with specialist vocabulary. She has an entire chapter dedicated entirely to cultivating a professional glossary. Since I’ve done that through osmosis, a deliberate approach never occurred to me. Yet seeing it now, I realize the massive importance of mindful vocabulary cultivation.

Again, Goodson writes for academics, not creative writers. Numerous books for aspiring novelists already exist. She writes for scholars who, having performed research and made discoveries, need to translate those insights into words and find their intended audience. (Notably, she doesn’t have a research chapter. Which makes sense, as career academics often use indefinite research as a stalling tactic to avoid writing. Don’t lie, I’ve done it too.)

I don’t want to reveal Goodson’s exercises, for multiple reasons: because she provides valuable ancillary guidance that moves her instruction beyond mere advice, into actual teaching. Because she has a specific curriculum you can customize to your needs. Because I’m only partway through myself. But here’s a thumbnail of Exercise One: don’t just intend to write. Ink writing time into your daily schedule, and defend it as rigorously as you would family time.

And Exercise Five: keep a daily writing log. Use a spreadsheet, graph paper, or template available on Goodson’s website (included), to chart your daily progress. Seriously. Though only barely into Goodson’s curriculum, I’ve found my output increased, because these two exercises, which she explains in more detail, have already increased my sense of accountability for writing output. They may seem like added work, but they’ve already improved my writing experience.

I repeat, Goodson writes for academics, mainly those in physical and social sciences. Creative writers may find plenty that applies herein, and as a two-track writer myself, I’m utilizing much she says in all my endeavors. Humanities scholars will also run across some practical limitations; I’d recommend Wendy Laura Belcher for you. But for Goodson’s unusually specific target audience, this book opens new vistas of opportunity for improving scholarship.

This isn’t a magic cure-all. She has a specific course of exercises to undertake, which she suggests over the course of a year. Like most learning opportunities, you must work for your results. But for academics willing to invest the necessary effort, I believe Goodson’s techniques will stretch and improve writing outputs. They’ve already improved my writing.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Powerball: Your Money or Your Life

At this writing, 44 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and two outlying territories participate in the Powerball Lottery. That means, if you’re an American reading this, you could probably purchase a Powerball ticket right now. Odds of picking all five matching numbers and the Powerball number itself is nearly one in 300,000,000—close to the entire population of the United States in the 2010 census.

State lottery offices frequently sell such public gambling initiatives not only as opportunities for massive payouts, but investments in local issues. Much lottery revenue goes into road repair and public education. States have broad latitude for spending lottery revenue; Nebraska, where I live, dedicates some lottery takings to environmental restoration. But the most consistent portion goes into public schools. Gamble responsibly, the promise goes, and local kids get better education.

Jonathan Kozol’s book about poverty and American education, Savage Inequalities, includes a momentary aside while visiting one of America’s poorest communities, East St. Louis, Illinois. On a street so decayed, sewage literally bubbled through the pavement on rainy days, Kozol spotted a regional lottery office. These offices exist to disburse jackpots under a certain threshold, now typically around $100,000. Small beer against typical Powerball takings.

Initially puzzled by the state lottery office in such a decrepit neighborhood, Kozol has a sudden realization: “The rich,” he writes, “don’t play the lottery.” They don’t need to. They don’t require longshot odds and government largesse to overcome the stigma of their address. Job applications marked with East St. Louis addresses probably get round-filed immediately. Law professor Paul Campos writes that playing Powerball requires a special breed of desperation.

Paul Campos, professor at the University of
Colorado, Boulder, School of Law
This past January, Powerball hit its largest jackpot payout ever, nearly $1.6 billion. If that jackpot were ever paid out simultaneously, which will never happen, a single-buyer ticket winning that pot would’ve been catapulted instantly into one among the 500 richest people in America. That winner would just miss the Forbes 400 list—bottom rank, $1.7 billion—but some savvy investing and a little entrepreneurial drive could vault that last hurdle quickly.

But the promise only matters if people believe they can win such totals against astronomically long odds. It isn’t about understanding math; it’s about believing hard work and industry can overcome poverty. And poor people don’t believe that, libertarian rhetoric notwithstanding. Hard work only profits those who don’t face structural impediments. Having a “poor” address, name, or complexion excludes uncountable numbers.

But this overlaps something else Kozol writes. Most school districts get funding from property taxes—and that money mostly stays local. Communities with valuable land and houses see money percolate into better computer labs, shinier band uniforms, and more experienced career counselors. Dirt-poor communities with dwindling tax bases see their physical plants deteriorate, while skilled senior teachers move to districts that can afford better salaries. Low-value houses lead to low-value schools.

According to Kozol, even people who consider themselves liberal egalitarians get twitchy whenever anybody suggests keeping resources local that way hurt students. Propose pooling property tax resources into a statewide common pot, Kozol writes, and you’ll hear a panoply of reasons that’s impractical and unjust. They’re too long and diverse to synopsize here (Kozol recounts them well), but they have the same upshot: well-off communities refuse to support poor neighborhood schools.

But even if taxes aren’t pooled statewide, lottery revenues are. Though some Powerball and other lottery takings go to private contractors and the retailers that sell tickets, most lottery money goes into the state treasury. The money then filters back outward, generally on a formula too arcane for ordinary ticket buyers to follow. And remember, the most consistent fraction of that money gets putatively plowed back into public education.

Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities
So, follow the reasoning here: it’s impractical and unjust for states to create a property tax pool so communities which can afford it, help bolster neighborhoods too impoverished to support their schools. It’ll never happen. But lottery revenues, mostly accrued in poor neighborhoods by people desperate for any escape hatch, go into a common pot, which gets distributed in a supposedly fair manner statewide. Are you with me so far?

This means rich communities’ resources won’t go into poor schools, but poor people pay to reinforce already rich schools. At approximately $60 billion over nearly 25 years, this represents probably the biggest hoovering of money upward on the economic ladder in history. We need to stop considering Powerball a game or a revenue stream, and call it what it is: the biggest reverse-Robin-Hood theft in world history.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Christian Who Couldn't Find His Message

Greg Fromholz, Broken: Restoring Trust Between the Sacred & the Secular

Christianity today doesn’t suffer a crisis of faith, contends multimedia entrepreneur Greg Fromholz. We have faith everywhere: faith in God, in the Church, in each other, in science, in politics, in ourselves. Today’s more subtle conflicts, Fromholz maintains, deals more with trust. We’re progressively losing the ability to trust one another, and in doing so, losing the ability to relate to the image of God around us.

Fromholz proceeds from the same “emergent church” tradition that begat authors like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. He writes in the same low-key, “just asking questions” style that characterized these authors’ early works. How you receive Fromholz’s ruminations probably reflects how you received these other authors too. But I’ll note that Bell and McLaren have recently graduated to more muscular, source-noted writing styles. If that tells you anything.

First, the title is somewhat misleading. When Fromholz describes “the Sacred & the Secular,” he doesn’t mean these terms as, say, Mircea Eliade does. Dialog between seemingly opposed social forces doesn’t interest him much. He writes for Christians already struggling to trust and connect with others, those who feel estranged from authentic faith. He expends no particular effort reconciling faith’s claims of reality with secularism’s tempting, fact-based counterclaims.

Then, his prose stylings take some getting used to. He writes in a breezy, conversational tone, like a man thinking with his fingers. I have no problem with that; I do so regularly. However, I have a term for my similar writings: “first draft.” Having found my thought, I believe it’s necessary to organize my writings into a tight, case-hardened format. Fromholz leaves his metaphysical meanderings on the page.

Greg Fromholz
Near the beginning, I appreciated Fromholz’s thesis. Citing the Adulterous Woman from John 8, a favorite of mine, Fromholz writes: “Jesus’ love is with not at. Jesus is there in the dirt, in the woman's brokenness, in solidarity with her. Jesus puts himself firmly between the accuser and the accused. The incarnate God now a human shield.” If Fromholz maintained this level of boldness, he could potentially pierce today’s situation.

Instead, he writes for an audience apparently primed for Internet reading. His formatting looks like a web page, with open lines between paragraphs, sans-serif font, and several paragraphs structured like listicles. Like web writing, his prose rewards a very short attention span; few examples or illustrations receive more than about 500 words before getting abandoned. Web writing is fine; you’re reading this online. But book readers expect something heftier.

Fromholz’s storytelling mixes personal anecdote with something more scholarly—I can’t quite call it exegesis, but close. His childhood struggles with bad posture, for instance, dovetail into a discussion of the story of the woman healed of a bent back on the sabbath (Luke 13). Such parallels point up the continuing relevance of Biblical Christianity to today’s world, even if Fromholz wasn’t unable to straighten his back for eighteen years.

Unfortunately, even when he attempts such solid Biblical exegesis, his writing suffers a nigh-clinical inability to maintain focus. A discussion of the Prodigal Son, which Fromholz could’ve completed in three pages, takes an entire chapter, because he keeps vanishing on cow paths and tangential side discussions. His attention wanders to encompass everything that crosses his mind; my attention wanders because I’m bored waiting for Fromholz to find his point.

This, probably, encapsulates my entire problem with this book: Fromholz clearly has something meaningful to say. But he hasn’t attempted to put that meaning into a form. The resulting product looks like a rambling Socratic discussion, possibly at a Protestant youth group meeting. Fromholz says much that resonates with my faith struggles, which kept me reading. But his prose is pitched too low to hold serious readers’ attention.

The problem, I suspect, isn’t this book. Fromholz publishes with Abingdon, the official publishing organ of the United Methodist Church. Many similar publishers, like Crossway and Augsburg Fortress, publish two strands of books. They stake their reputation on serious, scholarly books for seasoned theological readers. But they mass-produce books like this, which lowball their theology, to move copy and maintain shelf space in Christian bookstores.

Books like this move copy with people who browse Christian bookstores. I cannot say whether they change hearts, but they certainly change pocketbooks. These titles generally go through only one printing, never earning their authors much royalty, because they don’t have staying power. Maybe they build the author’s résumé and reputation. But they certainly prove that, whatever the moral motivation, a Christian business is still just a business.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Sorry, Trump's Theatre Tweets Are A Real Story

Ecologists like to keep tabs on what they call “indicator species": those species whose relative health substitutes for larger, murkier health measurements. The northern spotted owl, synonymous with environmentalism in the 1980s, was an indicator species. Its ecological contribution was debatable, but because its biome remains poorly understood, the owl represented ecology overall. The indicator represents a concept too vast to comprehend directly.

When the cast of Hamilton on Broadway interrupted a curtain call on Friday to read a prepared statement for Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in the audience, it initially received a mild response. Though a nice piece of citizen activism, it's unlikely to change current politics. Eight hours later, President-elect Donald Trump posted his first tweet of pants-wetting outrage, the first of several on Saturday. He clearly considers the theater a place of bland, non-confrontational entertainment, and demanded the cast apologize for violating his prejudices.

According to pundits who track web activities, as interest in Trump's Hamilton tweets skyrocketed, other Trump-related stories cratered. Google searches for presumptive Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the out-of-court settlement in the Trump University fraud case, and white nationalist consultant Steve Bannon, all went through the floor. Critics charged that liberals and progressives has gotten distracted from the real story. We need to maintain focus, they warned us.

But I suggest the Hamilton story isn't a distraction, it's an indicator. Many of the Trump stories to emerge in the nearly two weeks since he won the presidency, on a technicality, have been very abstruse. Even committed news followers like me have difficulty understanding the intricate details of these accusations. The Hamilton story, however, seems very close. It's a one-stop survey of everything wrong with how Donald Trump is likely to use presidential authority.

Many charges against Trump seem distant: Jeff Sessions, whom President Reagan nominated for a federal bench, was rejected by the Senate nearly thirty years ago. For some young voters, that's practically the Triassic Age. Understanding why this demonstrated racist is a bad pick for Attorney General requires unpacking a career in public affairs over forty years long. Attaching Sessions' lingering odor to Trump requires even more effort. Young people with jobs can't spare the time.

As for the Trump University accusations, even I don't fully understand the charges. Okay, he misrepresented his contribution to the “school." He collected tuition from aspiring millionaires and returned them diplomas worth less than the paper they were printed on. How is that worse than the unaccredited “Bible colleges" that proliferated in America during the 1970s and 1980s? How is that worse than ITT, Strayer, and other private, unaccredited, for-profit technical colleges that advertise aggressively on basic cable? Beats me.

So if even motivated news junkies find the bigger stories tough to follow, how do Trump's opponents explain the situation to less dedicated citizens? Through indicator stories. As awful as the “grab 'em by the pussy" tape sounds, it provides a meaningful indicator of Trump's attitudes toward women, law, class status, and anyone he considers beneath himself. That tape, and the coverage it spawned, conveyed a shorthand glimpse into Trump's inner workings that some data-heavy exposé would've missed.

Trump's Hamilton tweets are a prime indicator story. They don't just reveal a bad attitude toward one situation. They communicate a range of facts on his beliefs about free speech and the right to dissent; his beliefs about who is allowed to voice opinions, and when; and how Trump handles disagreement from common citizens. Mike Pence reportedly smiled at the criticism and walked away, like a grown-up. Trump, by contrast, flipped his shit.

This story also indicates how Trump will likely treat, well, you. Jeff Sessions might eventually prosecute Black Lives Matter leaders, anti-war protesters, and other dissidents, someday. Steve Bannon might move the weight of government against his personal opponents. But those are large, slow-moving instruments that might reach you, eventually. If your criticism catches air, Donald Trump could use his widely-read Twitter feed to turn partisan outrage against you. And Twitter shaming can be a powerful weapon today.

So no, I disagree altogether that Trump's Hamilton tweets are a distraction from the real story. In the grand scheme, they're probably a less important story, a mere footnote future historians will find amusing and illustrative. But right now, at ground level, these tweets are a prime indicator of the challenges America will face under Trump's leadership. In the ecology of contemporary America, these tweets indicate just how critically endangered the rest of us really are.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Messianic Presidency

Donald Trump’s trademark close-lipped, V-shaped smile hasn’t been in much evidence recently. In its place, we’ve seen The Donald either apparently biting his lips, like a man trying not to cry, or the slack, puffy-eyed face of a man who just finished crying. Maybe the magnitude of his newfound responsibilities has finally hit him. Or maybe he’s slowly realized that his strong, emotive electoral base didn’t just pick him for President. They’ve elected him Messiah.

I first noticed this phenomenon during the George W. Bush administration, though others might argue it started far sooner. In the months following September 11th, the President, whom even many Republicans treated like a jocular but insignificant also-ran who stumbled into the White House, suddenly began showing up everywhere. Seasoned journalists, who’d previously mocked his frequent vacations, began hanging on his every word. He became a veritable folk hero, and began receiving almost universal deference.

This included deference from Congress. Though the Constitution establishes the President as Commander-in-Chief of America’s armed forces, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 strictly checks presidential autonomy in military deployment. Except, in 2002, an awestruck Congress gave Bush unlimited authority to move troops without oversight, authority that still applies despite subsequent administration change. Even Congressional Democrats agreed that only an independent, unchecked executive could fix Saddam Hussein’s menace.

Yeah, how’s that working out for you?

As Bush swaggered around America and the globe, promising swift retribution for anyone who threatened his domain, the blatant messianism became undeniable. Though nobody worth mentioning literally considered Bush Christ-like, his loyalists nonetheless expected him to “save” America, redeem world politics, and bring peace on earth. When a fan-made artwork of Bush as heavily muscled Uncle Sam circulated online, preparing to dispense rapid justice, the Old Testament longing for law, prophecy, and payback achieved apotheosis.

As someone whose politics had recently shifted, this messianic hero-worship made me uncomfortable. I wanted a President to lead boldly, sure. Who doesn’t? But Bush’s partisans didn’t look to him for leadership; they sought salvation. Bush himself, to his credit, neither solicited nor encouraged such worship, and though I disputed his policy decisions, he limited himself to enacting policies. Like Monty Python's Brian, followers thrust messiahship on Bush without his permission, maybe against his will.

Thus I felt particularly squeamish, upon Barack Obama’s election, when public pundits and ordinary Democrats directed the same messianic adulation upon him. White liberals expected Obama to usher in a redeemed, post-racial America unblighted by class divisions or Jim Crow baggage. Black activists, by contrast, expected a colleague in the Oval Office, an expectation largely upset by Obama’s greater interest in coalitions than causes. Both sought a messiah who’d redeem America’s original sins, probably supernaturally.

Of course, just as President Bush had virulent detractors across the aisle, President Obama had his enemies. If white liberals considered Obama their black messiah, white conservatives quickly elevated him to Antichrist status. Visiting a gun show in 2015, I was struck that opposition to Obama personally was almost as visible as support for guns. Having a nigh-religious enemy unified Republicans in ways sharing a messiah often didn’t, especially considering how Bush’s star waned post-Katrina.

In exactly this way, President-Elect Trump’s election last week has received undeniably religious acclaim. David Duke has proclaimed Trump a leader for “our people,” and anecdotal evidence has trickled in, accusing American racists of acting out, expecting Donald Trump to redeem their sins. Democrats and progressives, meanwhile, have prophesied fire, flood, and plagues of frogs—or secular damnation into a pre-Doctor King world, anyway. The push-pull between messianism and brimstone condemnation should make Americans nervous.

The President is the only official elected by America nationally. This puts unique burdens on one man’s (or, someday, woman’s) shoulders. The President must ostensibly represent America altogether, not only to itself but to the world. Since around half of eligible Americans don’t vote, and since Trump is America’s second President in a generation to win the Electoral College without the popular consensus, that makes the presidential messiah a difficult role, and a dangerous one

America needs to overcome its messianic imputations. The President can set policies which improve or harm America, but he cannot save or damn us unilaterally. When we expect presidents to redeem the nation overall, we necessarily expect him to take off ourselves the requirement to do right. Obama didn’t save America, and Trump won’t either. Until we stop expecting that, we won’t embrace the necessary efforts of redeeming our nation internally, from our own hearts.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Jesus I No Longer Believe In

According to USA Today, four-fifths of white Americans who self-identify as “evangelical Christians” voted for Donald Trump this week. This despite his multiple marriages, admitted infidelities, make-do morals, and disdain for repentance. And America is already paying for it. Literally the day after Donald Trump was “elected” President of the United States, anecdotal reports trickled in of whites giving voice to the ugliest, most reprehensible parts of their id.

In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James H. Cone, professor at Union Theological Seminary, writes something that really struck my heart. During America’s “lynching era,” which he roughly situates from 1880 to 1940, he writes that there were essentially two Christianities. White Jesus told believers that they deserved power because they were righteous. Anyone who disturbed that power was blasphemous, and deserved to die.

Black Jesus, by contrast, reassured believers that they didn’t have to face violence and persecution alone. They didn’t need to shrink into despair because the structure of society left them permanently outside the power structure. They always had a force more powerful than themselves to lean on. Whether we believe a literal God provided that strength, or that faith simply bound believers together, Black Jesus gave African Americans reason to persevere.

The classic “negro spirituals” reinforced this countercultural message. They sang: “If I could, I surely would / Stand on the rock where Moses stood,” that is, outside Pharaoh's gates, demanding justice for the people. The images of prophets standing outside the Temple, decrying the “den of thieves” within, permeate African American religious music. So do psalms of the Babylonian exile, which also find homes in Jamaican reggae. Mahalia Jackson sang:
Ezekiel said he saw him
Wheel in the mid' of a wheel
John talked about him
In the book of the seven seals
Some say the Rose of Sharon
Others say the Prince of Peace
But I can tell this old world
He been a rock and a shelter for me
Searching my heart, I realize one message resonates with the Jesus described in my Bible. The Jesus who drove the moneychangers out of the Temple, who caught the priests holding Roman money in defiance of Jewish law and told them to “render unto Caesar,” who told the Rich Young Ruler to “sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and follow me.” Beyond doubt, this Jesus knew and followed the Law. But he didn’t use it as a lethal weapon against anyone.

When the Temple elders dragged the woman “caught in the act of adultery” before Jesus and demanded justice, in John 8, Jesus called the elders on their moral inconsistencies. He never denied that the Law of Moses called for this woman’s brutal, violent death. He simply kicked the performance of that death onto one morally worthy: Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

We know the story. Importantly, Jesus did not countenance the woman’s sins. “Neither do I condemn you,” he said after her accusers fled his truth bombs, but continued: “Now go and leave your life of sin” (NIV). Like the men, this woman will eventually be held to account. But it will only happen before the throne of the one worthy to dispense such justice. It won’t happen in the temple courts before white-robed, male elders. And it certainly won’t happen from a sycamore tree.

Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity, was its ascension to earthly power. I’m not the first to say this, and certainly won’t be the last. But the underlying reality shift that accompanied Christianity’s newfound dominion did worse than place Jesus’ representatives on the side of princes and potentates. It gave Christians material motivation to defend worldly power structures. It gave rise to White Jesus.

As conservative evangelicals assert, yes, some things are clearly wrong. Giving vent to sexual appetites without building family bonds, creates a volatile, unstable society. But so does allowing the wealthy to accumulate so much money that they disturb their nation’s economic peace. So does marginalizing some people for their poverty, gender, irreligion, or melanin. So does turning our country into an exclusive club with a “No Blacks, Jews, or foreigners” sign on the door.

If we take Biblical Christianity seriously, we do have to call certain things “sins.” But those sins are usually displays of power. Jesus came to “preach good news to the poor,” not to reassure the already righteous of their salvation. We as Christians need to get in the mud with the impoverished, the black and brown, the scared, the powerless. We need, like Isaiah, to challenge the rich in their high places. We need, in short, Black Jesus.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Monopolists' Manifesto

Alex Moazed & Nicholas L. Johnson, Modern Monopolies: What It Takes to Dominate the 21st-Century Economy

Let's start by eliminating a source of confusion that fuddled me, and probably you too: this isn't a book against monopolistic business practices. Our authors don't disparage market consolidation (two conglomerates control two-thirds of America's beer distribution, for instance). Moazed & Johnson consider monopoly the bright shining future, provided it's the right monopoly model. And that model, for them, is platform business.

Yeah, I didn't know what that meant either. From the beginning, they define platforms as “a business that connects two or more mutually dependent groups in a way that benefits all sides.” Um, that sounds like commerce to me. A later explanation of eBay clarifies for me that they mean platform businesses create centralized meeting points where commerce happens. They make their profit licensing their location. Some entrepreneurs own individual stores; platform businesses own the whole mall.

Besides defining platform businesses (as opposed to platform technologies and industrial platforms—I admit, it’s confusing), Moazed & Johnson provide a thoroughly source-noted explanation of how their business model plugs gaps in market economics. By diffusing production and distribution decisions among multiple producers, they assert, they allow ground-level producers to deploy real-time decentralized knowledge to market circumstances.

Though admittedly well-founded, this model encounters problems under scrutiny. First, many “platforms” don't behave like they describe. Our authors extol platform businesses for eschewing supply chains and warehouses. Yet their list of lucrative platforms includes, which has warehouses in twenty-four U.S. states, two Canadian provinces, and multiple other nations. Clearly their definition isn't exclusive.

Nicholas L. Johnson (left) & Alex Moazed

Second, platforms may themselves lack linear distribution structures, but the businesses they connect don't. eBay doesn't store or ship products themselves, but their vendors do. Therefore, dismissing linear business models as retrograde, as these authors do, misses an important point: the digital platform model only works as an adjunct to traditional businesses. Newfangled platforms may add value, but don't supplant older structures.

This added layer imposes a quantitative cap on platform businesses, too. Assuming server capacity, digital platforms’ peer-to-peer connections are hypothetically infinite; but their content providers aren't. Each individual Über driver, Etsy knitter, and Twitter writer can provide only one service at a time. Thus, platform businesses have potentially infinite profit capabilities off IRL providers’ necessarily finite outputs.

I don't blame you if that sounds rather abstruse. This book goes down similar cow paths in constructing its fairly intense pro-platform arguments. The economic argument is very dense, bolstered with charts and histograms. As a Distributist, I dispute some of our authors’ premises—though too minutely to explain in a 750-word review. The reasoning is generally sound, but not light bedtime reading; expect your attention to wander occasionally while reading.

Moazed & Johnson are thought-provoking, and shine light on an unexamined, up-and-coming element of the digital marketplace. Yet I can’t get past certain complications. For starters, their love song to monopolistic market domination should give historically literate readers the heebie-jeebies, remembering how John D. Rockefeller created artificial shortages to submarine market forces. If, as our authors insist, free markets rule, we should worry about anybody hoping to monopolize, and render un-free, any market.

Then, even if these “monopolies” are transitory with evolving technology, as our authors acknowledge, they create a bottleneck that potentially squeezes vulnerable producers. Moazed & Johnson repeatedly cite Über; critics have asserted that Über aggregates profits upward, while front-loading expenses onto providers. Platform businesses’ impact on the economy is, to put it lightly, controversial, and this book won’t change many minds.

My most concise criticism, though, comes before page one. Facing the copyright page, the authors include a blurb for their business, Applico, a platform entrepreneurs’ consultancy. Most business books are, fundamentally, billboards for their authors’ consultancy services, and that includes authors I’ve praised, like Jonathan Raymond recently. But Raymond advertises principles he can help you implement. This book is a love song to its own authors.

That doesn’t mean its content is wrong. Moazed & Johnson offer well-documented, thoroughly researched evidence to back their position, and even without their consultancy, platform entrepreneurs could apply many principles to their business design. But this book is much more dependent on its authors than Raymond’s, which explains why, between the good evidence, they pay scant attention to counter-claims.

I can’t completely recommend against this book. Savvy business professionals can utilize its principles to stay abreast of changing markets. But reading it, without its authors present to question, requires a pre-existing familiarity with business and economic fundamentals; shoestring entrepreneurs shouldn’t jump in cold. This book isn’t wrong; it just requires a cold, distant eye.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Murder at the Time Lord Academy

Sally Gardner, The Door That Led To Where

Young AJ Flynn has flunked almost all his GCSE exams. In a British meritocracy that values official credentials, that renders him functionally unemployable—before he’s even turned 17. Post-industrial Britain doesn’t value his love of solitude and contemplation, his fondness for Victorian literature and pre-modern history. But a fluke job interview leads AJ to his long-denied inheritance, including a mysterious door into pre-Victorian London. He also finally discovers his name.

On first face, award-winning British YA novelist Sally Gardner’s latest novel pinches elements of Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and Sherlock Holmes into a fantasy thriller for older youth and young adults. But themes slowly emerge subtly criticizing Britain’s meritocracy, and “skills drillz”-based education everywhere. Young AJ occupies a Britain where he’s unqualified for adulthood, but childhood diversions are costly when you’re poor in one of Earth’s most expensive cities.

Britain’s exam system pigeonholes students into career paths and avocational opportunities at an absurdly young age. The demand that AJ know his desires and calling at age 16 is anachronistically quaint. Maybe that’s why AJ stumbles accidentally into smoggy, cobblestoned historic London, because it’s important he views an era where he’s already considered a man. AJ flits between eras, seeking a time and place where he feels a sense of belonging.

In that pre-modern time, AJ witnesses a culture where science is rudimentary, technology is unreliable, and “madness” is a cultural disease more feared than cholera. He meets a winsome lass as dissatisfied with her own time as he is with his. But the vagaries of pre-Victorian inheritance law, and a long history of conveniently mysterious deaths, threatens Miss Esme’s sanity and freedom. AJ brings modern skills to defend his anachronistic love.

Sally Gardner
But in his present, AJ also struggles with 21st Century problems: London’s pervasive poverty, and his mates’ mutual lack of skills, lead to Trainspotting-like struggles with nihilism and identity. AJ’s friends Slim and Leon have run-ins with rotten, disreputable characters, and both need to hide. Regency London seems convenient, but that world proves even better than useful. The low-tech city gives two boys with simple manual trade skills a world where they can flourish.

Seriously. Slim quickly ingratiates himself with lucrative trading partners because he has a skill both rare and valuable: he can boil tea. The social criticism is blatant. Modern London de-values simple skills, giving unaccountable wealth to bankers, barristers, and other brainpower workers. Young adults who simply make stuff belong to another time. One simple fluke, politely unexplained because “why” doesn’t matter, shows them a world where their lives mean something.

Is this therefore an innate criticism of Britain’s education system? And by extension a rote memorization school system, regardless of nation? Gardner tacitly rejects Common Core and STEM movements, just in how the characters relate to their work and skills. Simply knowing how to filter water makes unemployable teens suddenly valuable. In a time when simple mechanical skills matter, being young isn’t a disadvantage.

How old is a 17-year-old boy? Is age based on anything internal, or does it derive from culture? At that age, teens seek their adult roles, and in a time defined by manual trades and other limitations, maybe 17 really is mature and grown. We’re at our peak physical ability. But in an age defined by mental skills, when accumulated knowledge and skills matters more, 17 is too young to know ourselves, much less our place in the world.

But there’s a trade-off. Like many teens, AJ considers himself as a man out of time, but when he encounters the time with which he feels most comfortable, it doesn’t value the mental skills he brings. The constant evolution of labor markets has trended away from manual trades: what Slim knows how to do, and revolutionizes London doing, is done today by machines. Slim can’t survive in a brain economy. Notwithstanding his scores, AJ hypothetically can.

The very exams that circumscribe AJ, and define his combative relationship with his very angry mother, supposedly channel people into brain jobs. But the attitudes reflect a pre-Victorian, mechanically skilled attitude of what it means to be adult. What constitutes “merit” is decided by bureaucrats structurally out of touch with modernity and its needs. Modern and pre-modern circumstances which metaphorically co-exist within the exam system, literally co-exist in AJ himself.

This book was warmly received when first released in Britain nearly two years ago. Advance responses to its American release, however, have been merely lukewarm. Maybe AJ’s culture clash is too inherently British to travel internationally. Maybe this book mainly attracts Anglophiles like me. But I think there’s something universal happening here. I believe, with time, this book will find its audience, and its message will resonate, regardless of nationality.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Do Old People Hate New Music?

I must admit, I’d never heard the Chainsmokers’ number-one smash “Closer” until I’d been told that proved I was old. An Atlantic online article, quoting a Psychology Today blog, insisted that most people stop listening to new music around age 33, and cited “Closer,” currently in its eleventh week at number one, as proof. While the cool kids are swingin’ with this bouncy paean to romantic disappointment, fossilized fudds like me have never heard it.

Well, yeah, I hadn’t. But mainly because I don’t follow Top-40 pop. You could make the point that, nearly a decade past the age when the Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber claims our musical tastes fossilize, I’m no barometer of nouvelle quality. But I regularly listen to new music. At the same time the Chainsmokers monopolize the teen-pop charts, remarkably good recent releases by K.Flay, Phantogram, and Judah & the Lion currently languish unacknowledged on the “Alternative” charts.

Listen, I actually grew up in a musical milieu that disfavored the present. In my family, country music was still current—and this at a time when country radio would slip thirty-year-old songs into its rotating playlist. When I rebelled against my parents’ musical tastes at sixteen, I embraced “classic rock,” crunchy guitar-driven music that was popular before I was born. So I know a little something about fleeing the present in my musical tastes.

But I discovered indie and alternative rock at age 38, five years after my musical tastes were supposed to ossify. It was a nigh-religious revelation, that melodically ambitious, lyrically daring music wasn’t the sole domain of the past. Good musicians are making good, non-imitative music right now. I hadn’t believed such bold musical innovation possible. But here I was, for the first time in my life, listening to popular music being recorded in the present.

So that’s who you’re listening to when I say: the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” sucks. Taking Spencer Kornhaber’s dare, I listened to the song. And it’s every bit as bad as I would’ve imagined going in. Its lightly syncopated dance beat, backed with undistinguished tenor vocals that scarcely vary from a single pitch, struck me for their lack of ambition. Top-40 radio is always attracted to unthreatening, teen-friendly ratings grabbers. This boring pop oatmeal probably pulls numbers.

We could seriously question the value of number one status anyway. The chart success of Elvis or the Beatles misleads us into thinking that good songs produce meaningful airplay. But a brief survey of historic Billboard charts reveals that being the most-played, most-purchased, or most-downloaded song in America proves little. Ernie K-Doe, Paper Lace, and Milli Vanilli all have number one hits. Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bob Dylan do not. Popularity isn’t quality.

The Chainsmokers, unfortunately, prove that. At eleven weeks atop the Billboard charts, they’re now tied with Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” and All-4-One’s “I Swear,” two of the blandest, most undifferentiated songs of the 1990s. Charles Duhigg writes that, historically, bland songs that challenge listeners little generally do better in airplay. Songs pull numbers by sounding similar enough to prior hits that mass audiences, listening with half an ear while driving or studying, feel comfy.

Therefore, Spencer Kornhaber’s underlying thesis, that “Closer” embodies post-modernity’s pervasive ennui (or something), doesn’t survive market analytics. The mostly-young audience that listens to Top-40 radio, actively courted by programmers for their generous disposable income and few fixed expenses, doesn’t want music that embraces their social or spiritual needs. Their musical tastes don’t reflect some high-minded literary analysis or deep meaning addressing their economics. They want something they can curl up in and make a nest.

Citing Duhigg again, significant chart hits are often completely forgettable. Any re-listening of classic Casey Kasem will confirm this. Ambitious artists like Lorde or AWOLnation might occasionally cross over into mainstream success, possibly for their lyrical resonance. But mostly, Top-40 songs become hits because they’re danceable, comfortable, and familiar. “Closer” has a poppy, club-friendly texture so utterly ordinary that they could literally be anybody, singing about anything. That, not their “meaning,” is why they succeed.

And if their popularity rests with a particular age cohort, that reflects youths’ lack of experience. As they get older and develop more sophisticated tastes, they’ll forget the Chainsmokers, like my generation forgot All-4-One. Most chart hits through the Billboard Hot-100 era are entirely forgettable. “Classic” programmers sift the good tracks, which weren’t always hits upon first release. “Closer” will join “Boom Boom Pow” or “The Macarena” as songs everyone loved, until we forgot them.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Life, Science, and their Many Intersections

Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality

Anyone who closely follows academic innovations or social activism has probably heard the term “intersectionality” thrown around recently. But like many authors writing for the already well-informed, these sources generally don’t define that term. That leaves us uninitiated, merely interested audiences struggling to derive its meaning, usually from context or etymology. This has created no shortage of confusion and flagrant misuse of the term. Or is that just me?

Professors Collins and Bilge, of the University of Maryland and the Université de Montréal respectively, strive to overcome this neglect. They define intersectionality as a heuristic (another term scholars toss around indiscriminately) linking different influences that shape individuals and communities. This may include geography, religion, and learning. For our purposes, however, Collins and Bilge focus on the most readily quantifiable: the classic race/gender/class troika.

As an introduction to a philosophical concept, this book rapidly telescopes between global discursion on (putatively) universal notions, and narrow, applied examples. In the first chapter, for instance, after laying out the terms of discussion, our authors address the multiple layers of social inequality exposed by the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. How do we discuss racism, for instance, in a country that doesn't track race, where race officially no longer exists? How do we discuss working-class issues in a country with widespread poverty, where Pope Francis’ influences have recently muddled the Catholic Church's historical anti-communism? The overlap of issues creates a massive intersectional maze that makes discussion more complex, but more meaningful.

(I think the authors miss a wonderful opportunity. As Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto writes, the notorious Brazilian favelas host a vast off-the-books parallel economy that in some ways mirrors, and in other ways remedies, the inequalities of the official economy. But authors, of course, have to make choices.)

Professors Patricia Hill Collins (left) and Sirma Bilge

Our authors often use terms in a very self-reflective or “meta” manner that readers will absorb more through osmosis than reason. “Intersectionality as a form of critical praxis,” they write, “refers to the ways in which people, either as individuals or ad part of groups, produce, draw upon, or use intersectional frameworks in their daily lives.” Notice how the definition contains the word it seeks to define? Your Freshman Comp professor would’ve graded you down for this, but it’s common in scholarly writing.

Therefore, once Collins and Bilge establish the terms, their reasoning may seem superficially circular. One doesn’t so much receive their writing like information, as contemplate it like a Zen koan. As a heuristic, that is, as a semi-guided experimental approach to learning, intersectionality invites us to perceive a world outside our usual individual experience. It isn’t a research method, so much as an invitation to get lost in someone else’s world. Who could resist?

Like most scholarly writing, this book makes its most important points in the early chapters, then spends the remaining pages explaining, clarifying, and sharpening how those points apply. Less committed readers could dip casually into the first sixty or so pages, get the general thesis, and move on. Admittedly, after that range, the writing gets somewhat abstruse and pointy-headed. Though I consider myself a minor scholar, I found the latter chapters rather slow, difficult reading.

However, that doesn't mean the later chapters aren't worth reading. As Collins and Bilge consider the applications of intersectionality to education or public protest, not exactly fun bedtime reading, I felt the discussion challenging my outlook on areas I assumed I understood pretty well. As a sometime educator, I’ve struggled with how race, sex, and economic standing have influenced my students’ learning capabilities. The intersections of these forces, though, often remain invisible until someone calls our attention to them.

Thus, these authors have a somewhat self-selecting audience. Readers who embrace difficult reading, hoping to see their worldview changed, will find plenty to love between these covers. Running barely 200 pages plus back matter, this book’s fairly standard length for academic writing. Though readers should expect to make slow progress, that progress remains consistently meaningful and transformative.

This book is part of the “Key Concepts” series from Polity Books. Over the last few years, I’ve reviewed several Polity titles, in categories ranging from politics and current events, to history, to philosophy. Polity may be the best, most influential publisher you’ve never heard of. I have not agreed with every Polity title I’ve reviewed, and a few have pushed me into awkward positions as a critic. But they’ve always pushed me. Polity titles always leave me a better, quicker, more refined thinker.