Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Amazon.com and art

In my once-yearly reading of the New Yorker that I discussed in a recent post, I also ran into an interesting article about Amazon.com, and its model of making books cheap.  Obviously Amazon sells a lot more than just books now, but it got its foothold and became the success it is today based on books.  The article is long, but basically it discusses the tensions between Amazon's business model of cutting costs, automating processes, and strong-arming suppliers, and the artistic process of writing (and then publishing and promoting) quality books.  There are a lot of good insights in there, but the central thesis is that quality writing is favored in part by the gatekeepers of editors and publishers, who separate out the dross from the gold, and offer new and challenging products to readers.  Amazon's big data approach, of compiling customer tastes and suggesting similar things based on algorithms, is much better at making sales and perhaps at providing short-term customer satisfaction, but it is inherently unsuited to the creation of new, quality writing.  Ironically given Amazon's focus on innovation, all its disruptive and streamlined processes in fact favor intellectual stagnation for readers, who are fed a steady diet of what they already like, instead of a varied diet that may push them in new directions.  The article closes with the following quote:
Bezos is right:  gatekeepers are inherently elitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking.  But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths.  When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?
And this question of efficient retail overriding art doesn't even take into account the bad-faith, rent-seeking tactics Amazon.com employs to extort more money out of publishers, like disabling sales if they don't pay certain arbitrary product placement fees.  The article has lots of detail on this aspect of Amazon.com's business model.

It occurs to me that Amazon is an extreme case of something I hinted at in a prior post on plant breeding.  When you streamline any process, and especially when you make it more responsive to short-term customer tastes, you tend to become very efficient at rehashing and recombining things that already exist.  But the creation of new things, the real genesis of original thought or products, come from processes that are hard to streamline or automate:  contemplation, patient observation, artistic inspiration, even quirky ways of looking at everyday things or things totally unrelated to the final idea.  Just as truly new apple varieties arise from hundreds of years of farmers patiently observing rare mutations in their orchards, and modern plant breeders can only recombine the fruits of this inherently slow process, new art or literature can't be made by algorithm.  We see a dystopian proof of this in the modern film sector.  The vast majority of films you hear about these days are simply remakes of older films, books, or comics, or sequels thereto.  Movie executives have very clearly opted to earn lots of cash in the short term as opposed to investing time and effort in creating enduring art.

This article contrasted with another in the same issue, about how consumer brand loyalty is fading in the age of the internet, when instant communication with strangers has made it possible to rapidly gauge the real quality and customer satisfaction of a particular product instead of relying on the reputation of a brand.  I don't know how I feel about this.  On the one hand, I think that most consumerism is silly, and have never held much to brands myself.  My shopping habits tend to focus on low price and decent quality, and the internet certainly does favor me in my pragmatic, unceremonious way of looking for what I want.  But on the other hand, a brand is one of the few links between producer and consumer in a modern mass economy, so ignoring brands means eliminating one more shred of humanity from the purchasing process, one more reminder that behind this thing I want there are people who make their living and take pride in making it.  And when you use no other criterion than cost and product quality to shop, you squeeze those producers, and get rid of any price premium that could potentially reward companies and people that you think are doing good things in the world.

Between the Amazon article and the twilight of the brands, one can envision a future in which all people, liberated from the tyranny of brands, can now fully devote themselves to seeking absolute customer satisfaction through constant online shopping.  And since no one cares about brands anymore, people won't even notice that they are enriching, and their tastes controlled by, the handful of companies that house and channel all this online commerce--Amazon, Facebook, Apple Store, etc.  What a great future that would be!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Three stray reflections on money and justice

  1. My wife and I were recently reminded of a family member who used to spend all his time at a posh country club in a major Colombian city, despite not having much money himself.  I assume that he felt he was entitled to feel special, to live among luxury, despite his humble pedigree.  The problem is that his entire family had to live as slaves to his pretensions, working hard to support his expensive habits while he refused to work.  I feel that sometimes in the US, struggles for justice for an individual or an entire community devolve a bit into thinking similar to this family member's.  "My oppression has consisted in keeping me away from luxury, so overcoming this oppression would mean bringing me into the exclusive folds of luxury."  The problem is that this is not justice; it's just changing or broadening the group of those who exclude others.  True justice consists not in my accessing an elite circle I was heretofore excluded from, but rather in tearing down inherently exlusionary institutions.  Not just scholarships to the country club, but rather universal access to it.  Which of course would convert it from a posh country club into just a nicely-manicured public park.
  2. A friend of my daughter's recently declared that his main interest is in making money.  I can understand this; I want and need money to live relatively comfortably, and I do what I can to get money.  But despite having a pretty nice job, a few sage investments, and even inheritances from my family, I would not consider myself very prosperous economically.  We often struggle just to pay for the basics like housing, food, and medical care.  If I only desired and defined myself by the money I make, I'd be pretty miserable, because I'd have to consider myself mediocre in that respect.  Luckily, I find my joy in my family, my work, my beliefs, the books and music and sights I experience.  I hope that the young man who says he only is interested in money broadens his horizons, because otherwise he is bound for failure and disappointment, especially as US society becomes every-more unjust and feudal.
  3. A few months ago I visited El Salvador, as I detailed in a long blog.  One thing I forgot to mention in that blog was that, while visiting the San Salvador zoo, I came across a group of young children that were visiting the zoo as part of a Young Pioneer day camp, run by the Communist Youth of El Salvador or something.  It was funny to see a bunch of young kids with their matching daycamp T shirts, and with young camp counselors keeping order, but they all had a red star and sickle on the front of the T shirt, and a quote from Lenin on the back!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Tourism in Haiti

This is a nice little article about what a cool place Haiti is to visit.  It treats Haiti not like some horrid, squalid apocalypse zone, but rather like a normal country, that is to say a place with interesting cultural quirks to see, where you can have a lot of fun if you're interested in seeing new things.  The sentence where the author looks into the resilient, proud faces of the noble people is a bit much, but the rest of the article is a fresh-faced look at what Haiti has to offer the visitor.  It's funny, because Haiti today, at least in the tourist attractions that the author describes, isn't much different from what it was five or ten or forty years ago.  There have always been taptaps, and the history museum, and the bustling iron market, and the beautiful views of the mountains and ocean.  But depending on the prevailing "common knowledge" of the rest of the world, people go through trends of seeing the country as a Caribbean jewel, a despondent basketcase, a promising economy, a sex tourism destination, an AIDS-ridden cesspool, a violent warzone, an emblem of resilience or despair.  And of course the country is affected by the way outsiders see it, because that reputation determines who visits, who invests, who does mission trips or donates used underwear or whatever.  But the actual status of violence in the country, of AIDS, of growth, of poverty, has very little to do with outsiders' image-du-jour.  I guess it's similar to Colombia, which was still considered a decent place for Peace Corps and travelers in the midst of its highest rates of violence, and then afterward, when it became much more peaceful and prosperous, was plagued by images of Pablo Escobar twenty years after he'd died!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Odyssies

We have gone through many sleep routines with our two young boys in the year and a half since Paulo was born.  We've had the boys in different rooms, together in the same room, spent more effort getting one or the other to sleep, done bottles and cups, songs and stories.  We are constantly adjusting the routine based on our changing living arrangements and their evolving characters.  The major challenge is balancing the need to get them to sleep quickly and without fuss, and our desire to spend special time with them and enrich their lives in some extra way, as through reading to them great works of literature, for example.

For a few months, we had a pretty set routine where my wife and I would put Paulo in his bed with his bottle, and Sam in his bed nearby, and the whole family would be together as we said prayers and then I'd read a book.  In this way we read Liberation Theology, Great Expectations, a good chunk of the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and we finished Homer's Odyssey.  In many ways this last work was the most special, for I'd started reading it to Paulo in the womb back in our town in Colombia, but between time spent apart, a series of moves, busy-ness with new jobs and new living quarters, I had not gotten very far before we set it aside.  I felt bad about this; during Sam's gestation, I was jobless, so I read to him anthologies of US and world literature, tales of the Brothers Grimm, and Greek Myths, and I continued the heavy diet of reading once he was born.  For Paulo I couldn't be as diligent about reading to him.

Once we'd been in Washington for a few months though, we settled into a nice routine, and so I found myself better able to minister to Paulo's development by reading a lot to him, both alone and with his brother Sam.  It was extra special then to finally resume the Odyssey and finish it, night by night as my boys fell into slumber.

I had never read it before, and I must say that I was surprised by the plot.  I guess I'd been expected a full-out account of Odysseus's journey just post-Troy.  You know, all the famous stories about the Sirens, the Cyclops, the island of the lotus eaters.  But the whole first part of the book is about his son, Telemachus, searching for his father.  Eventually the action does jump to Odysseus escaping the island of Calypso, but this means that we're meeting him for the first time well after all his famous adventures have transpired.  In fact, most of those famous adventures are only shared with the reader through flashbacks, as Odysseus tells his story to others, or has it told by bards.  I was surprised and even a bit dismayed at this roundabout way of getting to what I thought was the main narrative, but I was also impressed, because this is a very post-modern way of telling a story, used in one of the most ancient stories we have in Western culture.

The last parts of the story really drag out Odysseus's return to his home island of Ithaca, and the planning of his revenge on the suitors courting his wife and eating up all his palace's food.  This means that, of some five major parts to the story, only one of those tells the famous episodes of Odysseus and his men returning from Troy that we always hear about.  The rest are other metaplots, ambientation, explorations of personal relationships and character.  Which are of course the things that make a great story, a true-to-life exploration of the human experience.

Homer does an excellent job capturing the whirling feelings Odysseus experiences at his homecoming.  The overflowing joy of setting foot on your homeland, the trepidation and dislocation as you face sights and places and even people who are at once deeply, vitally familiar to you and yet now strange after such a long separation.  Odysseus's ironic pleasure at disguising himself and passing unrecognized by those who love him (and his impossible self-control to keep himself from reaching out to his wife), only to reveal himself triumphantly as he prevails over the evildoers that have beset his home.

I also loved the images at the book's very end, when Odysseus and his son Telemachus suit up for battle alongside Laertes, who is thrilled to see his son and grandson become such valiant men, and to share in their valor one last time.  And of course it's Laertes, the coolest grandpa in the world, who takes a break from tending his fruit trees to hurl a spear from afar and skewer a guy's head, right through his metal helmet, which convinces all the other bad guys to make peace immediately.  I obviously hope I never have to go into battle, and especially not my children or grandchildren, but I can imagine the pride and exhilaration that Laertes and his brood must have felt to share that experience.

I'm still a lot younger than Laertes or even Odysseus at the time of the story, but reading about them, I sometimes wondered if my best years are behind me, as Odysseus felt his were.  I guess I don't mean my best years, because I expect (and hope) that the years to come will be wonderful, spent with my wife and children and doing work I believe in.  I don't expect to be like these World War Two vets that had the most vivid, raw experience of their lives when they were 18 years old, and then settled into a (self-chosen) suburban inertia thereafter, stripped of any drama or passion or conviction.  But I recognize that the novelty, the uncertainty, the precariousness and thrill and fear and wonder of your first years of adulthood probably aren't going to repeat themselves once you're older.  Or maybe they do, but you live them vicariously through your children.  It's very clear to me that, biologically, I've basically done my work by having kids, and any time for me beyond that is just extra icing on the cake.  Am I coming to the end of my life's Odyssey, to settle into a tranquil, satisfying postlude?

I mused on this as I read the Odyssey, but in all honesty, I don't think my life's drama or wonder have run their course and been consigned to the past.  I guess I'm lucky that, through personal choice and also due to factors beyond my control, life keeps presenting new adventures, and I've found a partner in life that is just as open to those adventures as I am.  At least thus far, our lives have become gradually more exciting (sometimes too much so!), not less.  No, we don't go out to nightclubs or travel to farflung places on a whim anymore.  But we manage to involve ourselves in debates and struggles and discoveries and triumphs that feel much more real and more vital than the errant pleasure-seeking of youth.

Around the same time we were reading the Odyssey together, my mother came to visit us, and left an issue of the New Yorker, as she always does.  I generally try to stay away from the New Yorker, because you could easily blow a lot of hours reading an issue from cover to cover.  So I read an issue just a few times a year, when my mom leaves one behind after a visit.  Anyway, this issue I read concurrently with the Odyssey had an essay by Roger Angell about growing old, specifically being in your 90s.  The main takeaway I got was that loss is a constant presence when most of your friends are dead, but that memories become alive and reassuring at that age.  Also, you keep on living, learning new things, loving people, doing whatever it is that motivates you.  And seeking human companionship and love, whatever your age.

After finishing the Odyssey, I was motivated to finally get around to learning Tennyson's poem Ulysses, which is itself a reverie on old age, on memories, and on the never-dying desire to act and work and make a difference in the world.  It's taken me upwards of a year of intermittent effort, but I'm just short the last stanza (which is admittely a pretty long one).  I remember that my grandmother used to talk about childhood in a small town in Kansas, before television and even radio.  She and her family would memorize and recite poems to entertain themselves at night.  I like that idea of a concentrated solo effort to learn a poem, and then the social occasion of sharing these great words with others.

From the Odyssey I loved getting a sense of the ancient Greek morality, a code of honor and violence that strongly condemned personal betrayal but thought nothing of slaughtering a village, if the latter were part of one's duty as a warrior.  It is obviously a different set of values than we have today, and that is to the good; the old ethics was incomplete insofar as it did not consider the full humanity of women, slaves, foreigners, enemies, and it is a vast improvement today that we have widened the scope of who we consider to have rights.  Likewise, Homer's society seems not to have seen any flaw or inherent injustice in monarchy, in the hereditary division of people into servants and masters, ruler and ruled, rich and poor.  The prevailing order was not to be questioned, but rather each was to carry out their preordained role in society with honor and excellence.  In fact, any departure from the status quo, such as that represented by the suitors vying for Odysseus's kingdom, was regarded as aberrant and evil, to be stomped out mercilessly.  In this sense I could never in good faith live in the time of Odysseus, or adopt his value system.

At the same time, I appreciated the aesthetics of the time and place of Odysseus, what the ancient Greeks considered good and beautiful.  For them the good life was focused on good food shared with good people, stories and songs shared around a fire, hospitality freely given, craftsmanship and excellence in execution of one's duty.  An orderly farm and orchard, abundant harvests and herds, and all the work that goes into achieving these.  And physical exertion in sport, in battle, in love-making.  All these things remain true and good today, though more fleeting pleasures like iPads and Us magazine and combustion engines and concentrated psychoactive drugs cause many of us to forget the simpler, lasting pleasures of family, friends, food, work, soil, and stories.  For those of us ensconced in the white noise of modern consumer society, it may seem like a very alien idea to sit down on an old sheepskin and eat swine leg in front of a dying fire, telling stories of shared household memories or legends of valor.  But if we open ourselves to what we really care about, what really matters, I think most of us would find meaning and satisfaction in the good life as proposed by Homer.  Maybe we have a dining-room table instead of a sheepskin or a dirt floor, maybe we eat pizza we prepared as a family instead of fresh-slaughtered pork brought in by the servant swineherd, and maybe our achievements are getting an important project through the office bureaucracy, instead of fighting alongside Achilles on the "ringing plains of windy Troy".  But the good life today, as in Homer's time, is to do good work, to love fully and passionately, to celebrate life with people and food, and through language to both remember the past and dream of the future.

I'll close with a long quote from the translator Robert Fitzgerald's 1962 (pre-Moon landing) postscript to the Odyssey:

Why care about an old work in a dead language that no one reads, or at least no one of those who, glancing at their Rolex watches, guide us into the future? Well, I love the future myself and expect everything of it: better artists than Homer, better works of art than The Odyssey. The prospect of looking back at our planet from the moon seems to me to promise a marvelous enlargement of our views. But let us hold fast to what is good, hoping that if we do anything any good those who come after us will pay us the same compliment. If the world was given to us to explore and master, here is a tale, a play, a song about that endeavor long ago, by no means neglecting self-mastery, which in a sense is the whole point. Electronic brains may help us to use our heads but will not excuse us from that duty, and as to our hearts -- cardiograms cannot diagnose what may be most ill about them, or confirm what may be best. The faithful woman and the versatile brave man, the wakeful intelligence open to inspiration or grace -- these are still exemplary for our kind, as they always were and always will be. Nor do I suppose that the pleasure of hearing a story in words has quite gone out. Even movies and TV make use of words. The Odyssey at all events was made for your pleasure, in Homer’s words and in mine.