All posts by Matthew Callan

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Jeff Bezos Makes the Trains Run on Time

This week brought a post by Matt Yglesias at Vox in which he says, more or less, it’s a good thing that Amazon is bringing the publishing industry to its knees. I’ve made my position on Amazon clear, but even beyond my baseline antipathy toward the online shopping giant, Yglesias’s post disturbed me. It exemplified the most troubling attitudes of the Silicon Valley Thinkfluencers who are supposedly leading us to a glorious digital utopia.

The thrust of Yglesias’s pro-Amazon argument is that the publishing industry is full of inefficient corporate dinosaurs. By this reasoning, Amazon’s dominance of the bookselling market has done nothing more than expose that industry’s soft underbelly. Now that any person can make an ebook and sell it on Amazon themselves, he says, publishers are “superfluous” and “don’t contribute anything of value.”

Yglesias’s main objections to the publishing industry seem to be over questions of efficiency. He believes publishers should put their money into software/hardware development and marketing, and not into author’s advances. They should stop publishing print books, which cost way too much to produce and ship. They should charge rock-bottom prices for their ebooks because these cost very little to produce.

The culture of digital innovators lies somewhere between Ayn Rand and Logan’s Run. For them, the Invisible Hand Of The Market dictates the path on the evolutionary cladogram of business. Follow it or die. The implication of Yglesias’s post is that publishers’ failure to take any of the steps he prescribes is proof enough of their obsolescence, a sign their extinction is not only inevitable but deserved.

The problem is, publishing can’t follow Amazon’s example, even if it wanted to. The industry was founded around a far different core than the company that aims to bury it.

It is true enough that most publishing houses now are owned by conglomerate behemoths indistinguishable in their size and structure from the GE’s and Viacoms of the world. It is true that publishing houses, like any branch of the culture industry, produce as much malnourished dreck as any fast food chain. But this bloated exterior is wrapped around a nucleus that actually wants to produce quality.

At their core, publishing houses are charged with the long, laborious process of enabling  the creation of art. This process is almost like developing prospects in baseball: It resists being rushed, is rife with the potential for failure, and doesn’t always prove lucrative even when good “product” is produced. An editor could spend years working on just one book with an author, believe with all his/her heart and soul that it is The Great American Novel, and release it into the wild, only to watch it go over like a lead balloon. Publishing is the opposite of efficient.

It is telling that nowhere in Yglesias’s piece do considerations of literature or art come up. The word editor is mentioned once, and then only for Yglesias to suggest a big-time author like George R.R. Martin could hire a freelance one if he wished to self-publish. In other words, editors should join his vision of the 21st century and be set adrift on the rocky seas of The Gig Economy.

Efficiency is Amazon’s religion. Amazon’s enormous success rose from its ability to bring you the things you want when you want them. Amazon has zero stakes in the content of your package, except to see that it gets to you as scheduled. This credo drives all on-demand internet businesses. Netflix, Seamless, Uber, Airbnb, and all their imitators operate on the same idea. None of them “make” the service they provide (except possibly Netflix and its “original shows,” at best a gray area). These businesses simply ensure that the service is provided.

What Amazon and its kin also have in common is that their efficiency comes from relying on all the dirty work and high costs to be carried out by traditional businesses. Amazon has never tried to create books any more than it’s tried to make t-shirts or dumbbells or coffee tables or any of the other billion things they sell. The considerable costs involved in creation—R&D, editing, advertising—are borne by others. Once someone else pays those costs to produce something, Amazon steps in to offer it at wholesale prices.

Amazon is praised for its logistical wizardry, but even this “efficiency” comes at the expense of others. It farms out fulfillment to third-party contractors (and washes its hands when said contractors abuse workers).  The burden of its deliveries, in man-hours and stress, is placed on other organizations both private (UPS) and public (US Postal Service).

Think back to when Netflix was new and still primarily a DVD-rental service. The problem and cost of processing all these oddly-shaped red envelopes fell on the Post Office, while Netflix shrugged and said Good luck with that. The old, inefficient Postal Service gets constant threats of bankruptcy. Netflix gets Emmy nominations. That is the world created by our glorious digital innovators, in a nutshell.

Maybe if it publishing were run in a more efficient manner, as Yglesias prescribes, it would produce more and better art. Perhaps it wouldn’t. In either case, Amazon wouldn’t care. If a book is crappy, it means no more to Amazon than if a chair or a HDMI cable or anything else it sells is crappy. The bad review will reflect on the product, not Amazon. If the industry collapses and all we’re left with is a hellscape of self-published One Direction fanfic and Benghazi conspiracy screeds, Amazon would roll merrily along.

I don’t expect a retailer to be overly concerned with quality, whether that retailer is Amazon or Sears. But I would like someone to be concerned with it. What Yglesias seems to advocate is a universe in which Amazon is not simply a seller of books, but the model for making them. Why? Because their model works. And in the mindset of the innovator worshipers, anything that works is inherently good. Why it works, how it works, and who it works for is irrelevant.

It’s this rallying behind a corporation like Amazon for the sheer fact that it “works” that troubles me the most. In the universe where efficiency trumps all, anyone that stands between you and the thing you want is evil. Anyone that gets that thing to you slightly faster is good. Anything that takes time to produce is to be consigned to the scrapheap of history. Anything instantly deliverable is to be celebrated, no matter how rotten it is, because it’s here now.

The prevailing thought Ygelsias is espousing is the one that drives digital business in the 21st century: Stop being so sentimental. Someone was gonna come along and do this. Why not get behind the guy who did it the best?

Thinking like this was once condemned as fascist. Now it’s celebrated as Thought Leading. But at least our latest thought leaders make the drones run on  time. And with free shipping, too.

Photo Jul 19, 8 49 39 PM

Scores Settled

When I was in high school I wrote music. When I was in high school I did a lot of things. I used to write stories and write sketches and draw cartoons and draw comic books and play trumpet and play bass. I was not encouraged to do any of these things. I didn’t go to an artsy school and I don’t come from artsy people. I simply wanted to do many things and didn’t understand people who said it was important to pick one thing and stick with it. Who could be satisfied doing just one thing with their life?

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Maspeth Avenue, 6:05pm

A mom and grandmother push an angry infant in a stroller. A two-year-old girl with dirty blonde curls flails at her restraints. She arches her back trying to snap herself loose and expels primal howls of want.  If you had no visual and only heard her screams you would think the girl was either being murdered or was committing a murder. She doesn’t care that she looks and sounds crazy. Kids have to learn how to be sane.

I am a half a block away from the trio when the screams first catch my attention. I am walking the opposite direction. We will soon overtake each other. Once I spot them I feel my steps quicken. The little girl is a magnet of anger and id.

I have been where they are many times. Every parent thinks s/he can win a battle of wills with a two-year-old and every parent is proven wrong. You want to demonstrate you will not give a child what she wants just because she wants it. You want to instill some idea of patience and propriety. And then one day you’re out in public with your kid and she loses her mind over something trivial and suddenly your larger point is subsumed by the need for a few precious moments of peace.

The grandmother silently acquiesces to the little girl’s shrieking pleas. She reaches into a bag slung over the back of the stroller to produce the prize that will restore order to her universe.  What the girl wants is a tiny toy gun. Assembled in garish plastic of purple and yellow and green. Shaped like a 1950s idea of a Martian weapon. It is a gun all the same.

The moment the little girl has the gun in her hands she points it at the only living thing in her line of sight. That thing is me. I am five or six feet away when she aims the gun at me and looks down the barrel and jabs it in my general direction. She doesn’t say bang bang but the motion has the same effect. After each “shot” she jerks the gun back and sets it up again as if reacting to recoil.

She adjusts her aim as I get closer and continues to “fire” at me even as I draw parallel to her stroller. The mom and grandmother are relieved the scene she caused is over and say nothing.

I pass them by and continue on my way. The little girl continues on hers being chauffeured toward new targets.

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This Season on “Complicated Antihero”

HBO’s critically acclaimed series COMPLICATED ANTIHERO returns for another season of gritty, uncompromising drama.

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO wakes up in a seedy motel room next to a stripper who is totally naked and nude but still asleep. The end table is strewn with empty fifths of Jack and overturned pill bottles. He sits up in bed and places his weary head in his heads while we hear Metallica’s cover of “Turn the Page.”

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO

You try to be a good man. But what is a good man? What is good? What is right and what is wrong? What is “is”? Does anything mean something anymore? Not from where I’m sitting.

CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO pouring wet concrete down a snitch’s throat.

* * *

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO is at his EX-WIFE’s house. She smokes and looks on disapprovingly while he watches his  SON play with blocks. He has a look of paternal pride mixed with an immutable element of sadness and also wears a badass leather jacket.

EX-WIFE

You wanna be a father to him now, after all this time? You’re gonna teach him right from wrong? (sardonic laughter) You ain’t no father.

COMPLICATED ANTI-HERO

You think you know what a father is? You think anybody knows what a father is? You think anybody knows anything?

CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO running over the mayor with a tank.

* * *

Police interrogation room. COMPLICATED ANTIHERO sits handcuffed to a desk and his face is a little beat up but not so much we can’t see his eyes still burn with righteous indignation over all the world’s injustice. His nemesis, DETECTIVE WISNIEWSKI, gets right in his face.

DETECTIVE WISNIEWSKI

You might beat this rap, scumbag, but mark my words, I will take you down if I have to do it all by myself. Because YOU represent everything that’s wrong with this world. We used to have RULES. We used to have RIGHT and WRONG. We used to have CLEARLY DEFINED BORDERS BETWEEN THINGS.

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO lets out a wan laugh.

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO

Did we?

CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO whipping everyone in a subway car with a bike chain lit on fire.

* * *

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO sits in a confessional, his hands clasped in prayer and clutching a rosary.

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO

I used to have faith, Father. I used to believe in things like right and wrong. But I don’t see them in this world no more.

PRIEST

I wish I could tell you otherwise, my son. But I’m afraid I don’t see them in this world either.

A single tear runs down COMPLICATED ANTIHERO’s cheek, lit by the slightest hint of moonlight creeping through a latticed window. It also lights up his stubble and makes it look great.

CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO forcing some dude to eat an anvil.

* * *

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO genuflects at his FATHER’s hospital bed. There’s tubes up his father’s nose  because he’s gonna die of some cancer thing.  COMPLICATED ANTIHERO grasps his father’s wizened hands in his own and chokes back the tears welling in his throat.

COMPLICATED ANTI-HERO

You never cared for me, Pop! You never taught me right from wrong! You never taught me nothin’!

DYING FATHER

I taught you the most important lesson of all, son. There ain’t no right and wrong in this world.

DOCTOR

So, let’s see how our patient is doing…

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO pistol-whips DOCTOR with crash cart.

* * *

 A dream sequence. COMPLICATED ANTIHERO watches helplessly as a bird pecks away at his hands, eating the flesh all the way to the bone. The bird flies away.

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO wakes up, in a different motel room next to a different totally naked nude stripper. He sits at the edge of the bed and rests his head in his hands.

COMPLICATED ANTIHERO

What does it mean? What does anything mean?

CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO throwing a flaming school bus at an orphanage.

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F train, 4:55pm

It is near-rush hour on the F train which is to say it is crowded but not packed. A pair of drag queens crack each other in a nook by a shut door. One baby wails in each half of the car. The one attacking my left ear is a little more persistent than the one attacking my right. A panhandler says “Excuse me” in a clear smooth voice so he can move past other riders before adopting a pitted groan to give his  SPARE CHANGE pitch.

I’m attempting to read Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb which is a long and heavy book and not conducive to standing-up-on-the-subway reading but I’m reading it anyway. I’ve read this book before but I recently felt compelled to reread it.  I’m not sure why.

We are stalled at the Queensbridge stop when a yell asserts itself above the din. I look down at the far end of the car and see a man in gray packed against a closed door. His brow is knotted as he unsheathes his shaved dome from his headphones.

IT’S CROWDED BUT IT AIN’T THAT CROWDED! he shouts. WHY YOU GOTTA BE ON TOP OF ME?! From where I stand no one appears to be on top of him. I can’t see the target of his yells. I can only see the other riders craning their necks to get a look at the noise.

MOTHERFUCKER YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME? he yells. These words are a signal that tell every pair of eyes to avert its gaze and every head to pivot away. Nothing good has ever happened after these words are spoken. No one ever says YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME?! before handing out freshly baked cookies.

YOU GIVE ME AN ATTITUDE?! YOU TRY THIS CONDESCENDING BULLSHIT WITH ME?! The man was obviously convinced that he of all people should not have to stand for whatever transgression was just visited upon him. The world should have known that he was a man not to be trifled with or a man with a reputation or a man at the end of a long bad day or a man at the end of his rope.

The doors won’t close to move on to the next station. This gives the drag queens enough time to give each other a knowing look and run out onto the platform to find another car to ride in. I contemplate doing the same until a conductor squawks over the PA. For a moment me and all the other riders in the car believe someone will do something about the man’s escalating anger.

The conductor has other fish to fry. I told you you can’t hold the train doors to panhandle, he bleats in exasperated pixilation to some other miscreant. Let go of the doors so the train can move. You do that again and I’m callin the cops. The doors stutter back and forth for a few seconds to chase away this unseen annoyance.

Then the doors shut and we continue on out way but the yelling man is still yelling. YOU DO THIS TO ME?! he spits. Everyone else’s head is cast down. The F is an express once it leaves Manhattan. A long ride lies between Queensbridge and Roosevelt Avenue. It will be an even longer ride with this man screaming and everyone silently begging the train to move faster toward its next stop.

The car takes on the feel of a hospital waiting room. No one can stand to look at anyone else. Everyone expects bad news and they prefer it come sooner than later. The bad news will be nothing compared to the torture of waiting for the bad news.

I try to distract myself with my book. The Making of the Atomic Bomb starts with the amazing discoveries of physics in the early 1900s and how these advances laid the groundwork for the weapon to come. I’ve reached the point in the book where scientists first ponder the possibility of fission: Is it possible? Can a reaction be contained? Would this unleash more power than the world can handle? It’s also the point at which the rise of Hitler in Germany sends many of the world’s best physicists to America. At least the ones perceptive enough to recognize the approaching danger. Even some of the smartest people who ever lived had trouble believing the Nazis were going to do exactly what they said they’d do. It was all too monstrous to be real until it was monstrously real.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb is about as accessible as a book mostly about physics can be. Rhodes’ prose alternates between breezy comparisons and touching profundity. But the finer details can be rough to negotiate even without a crazy person threatening to explode in your subway car. Someone who is wailing at a foe who I can’t see and who may have a weapon and may just be hunting in his overcharged brain for an excuse to produce it.

I kept my eyes on the exploits of Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard because they were all past. We all know how that story ended. The one in my car had a more doubtful outcome.

Bohr did not think his compound model of the nucleus boded well for harnessing nuclear energy….THIS AIN’T NO GAME…Einstein had compared it to shooting in the dark at scarce birds…I AIN’T PLAYIN…the efficiency of slow neutrons “might never have been discovered if Italy were not rich in marble”…YOU GONNA DO THAT TO ME?!…The truth was, uranium was a confusion, and no one yet knew…THIS WHOLE CAR MAN THIS WHOLE CAR…Szilard saw beyond “energy for industrial purposes” to the possibility of weapons of war

The book slowly overtakes the voice. The yelling stops completely as light pierces the car and we approach Roosevelt. Whoever this man felt the need to yell at refused all that time to yell back—assuming he existed at all. Without someone to react with his anger burned up all its fuel and died off.

I dare to look in the yeller’s general direction as I depart for the local. I do not see him. He produced only fright before dispersing into the ether. If only every outburst failed to spark a chain reaction.

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And now, without further ado, we present our recap of episode 507, “The One Where Wrathmire Kills Galdarf and Assumes the Throne, Only to Be Thwarted By His Bitterest Rival and Burned Alive”

[image blatantly stolen from Forbes]

Buy My Novel At Your Local Book Shoppe (Sort Of)

Last week, I took Hang A Crooked Number down from Amazon for a variety of reasons delineated here. Since then, I’ve made it available for purchase directly from my blog in epub and PDF form.

Following that announcement, I’ve gotten a number of requests from the device-disinclined population to read the book in non-electronic form. I wish I could fulfill these requests, but while book printing is easier and cheaper than it’s ever been, it remains neither cheap nor easy. The price to make physical copies of my book wouldn’t be insane in the grand scheme of things, but they would probably run into 4 figures, and if my ebook sales are any indication, I’d never make back those costs.

I honestly wish I could make my novel a “real” book because I still have a romantic attachment to seeing a book I wrote on a shelf in a quaint book shoppe where WQXR plays gently in the background and some weird dude monopolizes the store’s only table to plow through a pile of Schopenhauer. So I went ahead and did the next best thing.

I’ve put my book up for sale via Kobo, an ereader device/app that has partnerships with a number of indie bookstores across the country. It’s a small way to read ebooks for titles like mine that are only available in ebook form, yet still support the existence of local bookstores (as opposed Amazon, which wants to crush them). If you go to this page, you can a zip code and find a nearby store that sells ebooks via Kobo.

If you’re in the NYC area, I know Word, Housing Works, and Greenlight all work with Kobo. So if you wanna buy Hang A Crooked Number while still supporting the printed word dispenser near you, consider this path. The bookstore gets a cut, I get a cut, local shops get to stay in business, and you get to buy something quickly and easily without stepping on someone’s throat. What a novel concept.