Archive for April, 2007

Quantifying the Unquantifiable

First Dilbert and now college presidents… and it’s long past time. What am I talking about? As technology and instant calculation capabilities permeate U.S. society, Americans’ long-standing love of statistics and numbers has become an obsession, to the point that quantification crowds out qualification or anything that can’t be quantified, and we exalt these sacred numbers, from the Dow Jones to baseball batting averages to point spreads to SAT scores to cost-effectiveness in business and higher education to ranking colleges numerically… and thousands of other numbers. As a culture, we seem to be under the misapprehension that once we know the right numbers, we’ll somehow understand things better, be able to make the right decisions, set the right regulatory guidelines, pick the right college, determine whether there is or is not global warming…

Now, a number of college presidents are attacking the U.S. News and World Report collegiate ranking system. These aren’t the heads of fly-by-night diploma mills, but the presidents of rather prestigious institutions, some of which, heaven forbid, have already decided that SAT scores aren’t even a partial measure of a student’s abilities. With all the effort to quantify high school students to see who gets admitted where, is it any wonder that students respond with their own forms of quantification — adding community service projects, science projects, tutoring underprivileged students, athletics, internships, whatever they can find to boost that magic score that will get them accepted. And the treadmill continues in college as students and their parents press for higher grades, more prestigious summer jobs and internships, cram prep courses for the LSAT, MEDCAT, or GRE.

There is a place for numbers in society, and there are places where precision in such numbers is vital. I definitely want the components of my vehicle’s brakes machined precisely. I want medical measuring systems to be accurate and precise. I want architectural specifications, and the buildings constructed from them to match.

But there are more than a few places in society where numbers only provide a misleading and inaccurate assessment of quality. Nonetheless, numbers are being used there, despite the fact that the accuracy of the inputs is subject to such variance that the outputs, no matter what the mathematical models say, are less than statistically meaningless. There seems to be little understanding of the old GIGO model because of the continuing fascination with computer modeling and statistical analysis methodologies.

I’ve mentioned some examples before, such as rating the quality of the teaching of university professors on the basis of how many students they teach, or even worse, on anonymous student evaluations to which near-arbitrary numerical coefficients are attached. In certain disciplines, such as music, particularly on the undergraduate level, the competence and teaching expertise of the individual studio teacher is usually the most important single factor for the success of the individual student. In other disciplines, the laboratory facilities may be the most important, or the collective strength of a department faculty. Most of these factors are not accurately quantifiable, no matter what U.S. News and World Report claims.

Then, another set of examples comes from sports such as gymnastics and figure skating competitions, where the subjective analyses of judges are quantified in numerical terms, then calculated to hundredths or thousandths of a point. And how many times have audiences and seasoned professionals figuratively, if not literally, shaken their heads at the results.

In business, the emphasis on quantification has led to a short-term, profit-oriented mentality whose shortcomings are illustrated practically daily by the increasing revelations of back-dated stock options, misstated or incorrect financial statements, excessive executive pay, bookkeeping schemes to put expenses off the balance sheet. Yes, a business does have to make a profit to stay in operation, but emphasizing the quantifiable to the exclusion of all other factors leads inevitably to excess. What about fair-dealing, open communications, good service, reliability in products and services?

In entertainment, across the board, the issue is the ultimate in quantification — what sort of movies, games, programs, and music will appeal to the most people and bring in the most dollars, regardless of how crude, rude, and culturally repugnant they may be to tens of millions of Americans. Even more disturbing is the denigration of excellence as elitism and the pressure to exalt fame in any form increases, whether on one of the endless Survivor shows or on Fear Factor and various adaptations and clones. How does one quantify the loss of excellence, or the disillusionment with the United States occurring in other nations when people see what passes for entertainment in the USA? How does one quantify the loss of civility created by a media that increasingly seeks advertising revenues by fostering adversary journalism? How much crime and corruption results from this? What are the dollar costs in police and social remediation?

What about the areas of space and science? Yes, small unmanned satellites and space probes are certainly more cost-effective, but exactly how do they kindle a spirit of adventure and public support for space exploration? Aircraft design has now become a matter of how many bodies can be crammed into what space for maximum profit, a situation almost praised recently in the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, lost baggage claims, delayed flights, and customer complaints are at all-time highs and have been for the last three years.

There is a place for numbers and quantification, but let’s try to remember that not everything can be or should be quantified, because trying to quantify the unquantifiable, as Dilbert noted, is nothing more than a process of lying.

E-Books and Print Books

Over the past year, I’ve received a number of questions about why more of my books are not available as e-books. I’ve discussed this with my editor and others at Tor, and the answer is fairly simple. Tor doesn’t like losing money. Most e-books don’t cover their costs of production.

At this point, someone always points out that Baen Books makes lots of their books available online and electronically. That’s true, but it’s not primarily because Baen thinks that it will make money on those formats. In fact, the goal of making electronic editions available on-line is to get readers to buy the hardcover and paperback editions of those books, as well as other Baen products, not to make millions, or even thousands, from e-books.

While there are readers who prefer to read in e-book and electronic format, the vast majority of readers still prefers books in some print format and is likely to do so for some considerable time. Now… I’m definitely not against e-books, although I frankly prefer books employing the printed page because most of my reading occurs when and where using electronics would be inconvenient or difficult, if not impossible. And… in time, science may well resolve such issues, but for the moment, as an industry, book publishers are faced with several options, none of them even close to perfect. They can create few or no e-books and alienate that small minority who prefer them. Or they can use e-books as loss-leaders and trust that the readers will eventually buy more of the print kind to cover the costs and losses of e-books. Or they can selectively release as e-books those novels which have a large enough audience that the small percentage of readers who prefer e-books is large enough for the publisher to come close to covering e-book costs.

The last position appears to be the strategy most publishers, including Tor, are following, but that creates particular problems for me, because certain of my books sell far more than others, and that means — as I have been told more than a few times — that more than half my books are not available in any electronic format.

At this point, there’s very little I can do about this situation, but since I haven’t seen much discussion about this point — except surrounding the Baen initiative — I thought it might be useful to discuss the situation.

Sex As Key To Literature?

The other day I was reading The Atlantic Monthly and came across a statement by one of their reviewers who noted that he had “never bothered with the genre” of science fiction because of its “dearth of sex.” After I re-read the statement to make sure I had read what I thought I had read, I began to think about his aside.

The assumptions contained in and implied by that statement, besides being flat-out incorrect, also illustrate, I believe, the ignorance and intellectual poverty of those who have anointed themselves as the U.S. literary “establishment.”

First, to say that sex is not part of the SF genre, as anyone who has read it widely knows, is patently false. To paraphrase a noted scientist, that statement is so incorrect that it’s not even wrong. Now, I happen to be older than the reviewer is, and while the SF of the 1950s, with some notable exceptions by Philip Jose Farmer and others, did not deal with sex directly, since the 1960s there’s certainly been a significant segment of fantasy and science fiction that deals with sex, sometimes far more graphically than is to my taste, and it often deals with sexual issues that few mainstream novelists explore. Even in the comparatively prudish 1950s and earlier, however, F&SF dealt with sexual dynamics, if not always that well. Admittedly, in those days, it seldom went past the bedroom doors. But in that period, comparatively little English language fiction did so.

To make such a totally inaccurate assertion, even as an aside, about another fiction genre reveals both ignorance and contempt, leavened heavily with arrogance.

Second, the paramount implication of the reviewer’s statement is that no fiction genre which does not deal graphically with sex can claim to be literature, nor can it be considered as such. While I will be among the first to note that sex and sexual tensions are among the primary drivers of human behavior, I will also note that to explore the social, practical, political, and psychological implications of sexually-motivated human behavior does not require that each and every novel explore in graphic or even semi-graphic details the mechanics of sexual plumbing.

Third, the emphasis on sex, and its graphic portrayal novelistically, is in fact sexist. Humans do have sexual drives, but their biological basis is skewed by gender. Put relatively bluntly… men want sex; women want sex with attached conditions, such as security, closeness, babies and protection. This is not to say that there are no men who want closeness and children and no women who want sex for itself, but there is a biologic bias in the direction I indicated. The graphic portrayal of physical intimacy is, in most cases, effectively exalting the masculine preference.

Fourth, graphic portrayal of sexual intercourse is all too often, but not always, merely a tool for selling more books, and as such, a confession of literary ineptitude. If a writer cannot carry his or her readers without lots of sex and plumbing, what are the literary and redeeming qualities of the work? A good writer ought to be able to make the moment when a character leafs through a telephone directory [or an email address list] interesting, and without a striptease being involved. This does not mean that there are not novels that deal well and meaningfully with sex and physical intimacy. There certainly are, but there aren’t nearly so many as their authors think there are.

All in all, I found that single aside in a three page review far more revealing than anything else on those pages, including the basics of the review itself, which, by the way, was about a biography of Kingsley Amis.

Science and Agendas

When asked whether he was concerned about global warming, a young colleague of my wife, with an earned doctorate [but not in the sciences], replied that there wasn’t any evidence of global warming. He dismissed the numerous scientific studies suggesting that global warming is indeed a real problem with the statement that, “I don’t pay any attention to the scientists. They’ve all got political agendas.”

His statements were stupid — and not just about global warming. While the probable causes of global warming are clearly multiple and still highly debated, the actual evidence of such warming is close to incontrovertible. More bothersome to me was his statement about agendas. Every single human being has agendas. Does that mean nothing any of us has to say can be trusted? Einstein definitely wanted recognition as a scientist, and that was so much of an agenda that he agreed to give the money from the Nobel Prize he had not yet won to his first wife. Did that personal agenda invalidate his Theory of Relativity? Clyde Tombaugh wanted to discover Pluto. Did that agenda invalidate this discovery [regardless of whether that body is now "officially" classified as a planet or not]?

My wife’s young colleague was in effect denying that science has a factual basis, one which stands independent of opinion or agenda. I’m not saying that scientists are infallible or that they don’t have opinions. As is true for all of us, their opinions and even their theories are sometimes incomplete or wrong, but the basis of science is found in repeated observations, replication where possible, and scrutiny and challenge. A scientist may well be wrong, but good science and the process behind it stand independent of opinions and beliefs.

An issue such as global warming highlights the difficulty of maintaining scientific impartiality in the light of political and economic agendas, because the worst impacts of global warming are in the future and the costs of addressing it are in the present, and most people really don’t want to pay for acts from which they do not benefit personally and directly. Nor do most corporations, because the top executives’ pay and bonuses are based on present-day performance and profits, and spending significant funding to address future problems — or even to provide future profitable products — reduces current performance… and executive compensation. Now, if one wants to talk about agendas… I’d suggest that any agendas of climate scientists pale besides those of the corporate world.

The greatest environmental impacts are in the Arctic and the Antarctic, where only a few people are there to observe, and where there has been no continued human settlement to live with and comprehend the changes. The costs of addressing — or of not addressing — global warming will have to be born, in greater or lesser degree, by every human being. The politician who denies the severity of the problem because he does not wish to spend public funds now may well require his successors a generation hence to bear the costs of dealing with massive coastal flooding as the sea levels rise. Does that politician’s agenda affect the factual basis of the science? Not in the slightest, but his agenda may well affect the public support of science and increase the costs of dealing with the impacts of global warming by several orders of magnitude.

The same is true of the near-earth asteroid search program. It is not a matter of opinion whether large bodies will pummel the earth. They have at irregular intervals for billions of years, and small bodies pummel the planet every day. It is only a question of time before a large body finds itself on a collision course with our home planet. That fact will not be affected by the agendas of those in support of or in opposition to the near-earth asteroid search program.

Wherever science reveals an impact on society, everyone has an interest that will be threatened or benefited, and that means that everyone from scientists to clerks in Wal-Mart has an agenda. I spent all too many years as a relatively senior staffer in politics, and one of the most effective rhetorical tricks, and one that dates back as far as human politics, is the attribution of an agenda. Equally long-standing is the habit of politicians of denying any agenda. Hmmm… you want power, but you have no agenda? Yet, somehow, most people believe that if a politician has an agenda, that invalidates his or her concerns. Now, we’re seeing the attribution of agendas to scientists as well as to politicians. But exactly what do such attributions have to do with facts and evidence?

What I fear is that, with the hurry-up, high-speed, and high-pressure society that has developed, particularly in the USA and parts of Asia, very few people are taking the time to analyze and assess the facts and fundamentals of the practical and scientific issues facing our world. Instead, decisions are being made on non-factual bases, such as agenda attribution, selective fact choice, personal bias, or wishful thinking. Just because communications and technology are almost near-instant doesn’t mean that decisions should be.

And it certainly shouldn’t mean that decisions should be based on whether a scientist or a politician has an agenda — but on how economically, politically, and scientifically well-based such an agenda may be, not on whether there is an agenda.

Whenever someone asserts that something is not a problem because someone else “has an agenda,” I’d worry far more about the unspoken agendas of the critic. Yet, historically, comparatively few people do. It’s far easier to agree that anyone who has an agenda can’t be trusted — as did my wife’s colleague.

Those Awful Secrets

Some weeks ago, a comparatively new SF author’s blog listed his income from writing, and there was quite a flurry of comments. Much of it centered on how “secretive” the field is, and how veteran authors and editors “hide” the financial facts from new authors and how grateful some of the commenters were to the author for revealing the awful truths. I don’t know who all these people are in the field who are hiding matters. Certainly, over the years, I’ve also received a number of questions and comments about how much writers make, and often pointed inquiries about how much I earn from writing. I’ve declined to comment, except in general terms, partly because I value my privacy and partly because the issue of income diverts attention from the work at hand, that is, the writing itself.

The issue, however, remains. Is there a conspiracy to keep financial truths from aspiring writers? From what I’ve seen over the years, no such conspiracy exists, except perhaps one. That one? It’s simple. The number of writers who can tell a publishable story or novel is extremely small, and the number of those who can do so with technical skill is even smaller, and the number who can do both of the former and sell in high enough numbers for their works to be profitable is even smaller. There is a widely accepted myth in the English-speaking world, and for all I know elsewhere, that anyone who is basically literate can write a story or a book. In very basic terms, that is true, in that with a computer anyone can string together words and sentences at story or novel length. Doing so, of course, does not really make the product either a story or a book. As many editors and publishers have attempted to point out for years, given that most first and second novels lose money, editors are more than willing to publish a book that is: (1) entertaining, (2) popular; and (3) well-written. They’ll even settle for a book that only meets the first two criteria. But this should be no secret to anyone.

As for the financial “secrets” of the publishing world, in general, the information is out there. Reputable publishers do have standard contracts, with fairly standard rates and break points, and while the sales numbers of most books are not officially published, and those that are generally apply to a handful of atypical writers, just by listening and asking questions, even when I was younger and new in the field, it wasn’t that hard to figure out the ranges and the probable earnings involved, which at that time were even more modest than now. In the end, a writer’s income is largely a function of the three factors I listed above. Because royalties in a standard contract are based on a percentage of sales, even if a writer doesn’t get the largest possible advance, since the advance is taken out of total royalties, in the end the writer still gets the same amount of money. Now, some writers claim that publishing houses will commit to pushing harder to sell a book for which they have given a larger advance. This is certainly true… in some cases, but at least one well-known publisher is of the opinion that advertising does very little for book sales.

After years of experience in the military, politics and government, business, and writing, I’ve discovered that there are always those who believe in secrets and conspiracies. I’ve even had to investigate a few, and I’ve discovered one interesting aspect of it all. While there are a handful of conspiracies, most don’t last long because human beings can’t keep secrets very well. The rest of what people think of as conspiracies are just the interaction of human greed, ambition, economics, short-sightedness, and stupidity.

Over the years, more than a few would-be authors have approached me asking how they can get published, and more than a few have voiced concerns that the reason why they hadn’t been accepted for publication was that there was a conspiracy against their kind of writing. I’m sorry. There’s no such conspiracy. There is a shared concern by all publishers. It’s called profitability. Publishers have to make money. Publishing books that will not appeal to enough readers, no matter how well written technically, to cover costs is a certain way to ruin.

By the same token, with all the waves of POD, internet publishing, and the like, big-name print publishing is here to stay because reputable publishing houses provide one very valuable service that tends to get overlooked — quality control. No, they’re not perfect, and turkeys do slip through, but unless you’ve ever read through a slush pile, you cannot imagine how little literary wheat there is for all the chaff. Most readers don’t want to sort through that. They don’t have the time. They rely on publishers to do the sorting, and the better a publisher is at sorting, the more likely that publisher is to be profitable. That quality control and sorting process, combined with the lack of anything remotely comparable on the internet, is also why I doubt that internet publishing on an individual basis will ever provide a significant number of widely-read titles.

So much for all those awful publishing secrets.

What Is a Good Book?

As one writer [and I can't remember whom or I'd credit him or her] once said to me, “Everyone wants to have written a book that sells, but few of them want to actually write it.” Computers and spell-checkers have changed this a great deal, and now piles and piles of material appear on the internet and upon the doorsteps and post-office boxes of editors and agents and authors cornered at conventions. And almost all of it by volume, at least, not only according to me, but to the renowned Patrick Nielsen-Hayden, is, shall we say, less than acceptable.

But what is good writing? Is it measured by awards or sales? Or both? If so, in what proportion?

An editor once told me that there are two kinds of awards, those that a writer gets nominated for by one relatively small self-selected [and often self-important] group or another and those measured by the author’s royalty statements. Now, over the years, what I’ve observed is that the excellence of a book is not measured exclusively by either group. In fact, personally, I’ve discovered that I tend not to find the majority of either the “critically acclaimed” F&SF novels or the runaway F&SF best-sellers as those books that I would personally judge as the best in the field. But then, both critically acclaimed and best-sellers tend to be, although not exclusively so, at various extremes in the field, and I tend to err on the side of flaming moderation.

I’m so moderate, in fact, that if someone corners me and starts to rave about a book, and I mean rave, as opposed to discuss, my initial reaction is that I probably have no interest at all in the book. This may not seem fair, but to me, it’s a workable system, and one that complements those certain reviewers whose recommendations are a sure sign that I don’t want to read that particular book. There are other reviewers, none of whom to my knowledge rave about books, whose recommendations I take as seriously as any, but the bottom line is relatively simple. I just open the book and try to read it.

I’m more interested in how well a writer writes than the personal or financial details of his or her life. I don’t buy or read books based on the appearance and lifestyle of a writer… but it’s clear that a growing number of writers and particularly so-called recording artists are selling their works on the basis of their appearance and media-charisma, or their internet blogs, rather than upon the excellence [or lack thereof] of their work.

Yet for all my interest in moderation, I’ve found something rather unusual that suggests moderation is decreasing. In reviewing the “reader reviews” of The Magic of Recluce on the internet sites of both Barnes & Noble and Amazon, I’ve discovered a very interesting pattern. I was obviously pleased to note that 60% of the readers rated the book with either four or five stars, but also, more than half the reviews (51%) were either one star or five stars. Less than fifteen percent were three stars, and although the book has been in print for almost sixteen years, almost 90% of the one-star negative reviews were made in the last six years, as were nearly 65% of the negative two star reviews, while the rave five star reviews, the mostly favorable four star reviews and the “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other hand” three star reviews, all showed a consistency across the entire rating period. Put another way, although roughly 14% of the total reviews were one-star negatives, almost all of them were posted in the last several years.

I’m obviously not going to do this kind of analysis for other authors, but I wonder if this occurs with other books that have been in print for years. It also suggests to me that there’s a growing close-mindedness and intolerance for books that don’t meet the expectations of what seems to me to be a growing body of readers… and that seems rather sad to me, because I’ve always thought of reading as a way of opening horizons, rather than reinforcing closed preconceptions.