Quotulatiousness

August 29, 2015

We need a new publication called The Journal of Successfully Reproduced Results

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

We depend on scientific studies to provide us with valid information on so many different aspects of life … it’d be nice to know that the results of those studies actually hold up to scrutiny:

One of the bedrock assumptions of science is that for a study’s results to be valid, other researchers should be able to reproduce the study and reach the same conclusions. The ability to successfully reproduce a study and find the same results is, as much as anything, how we know that its findings are true, rather than a one-off result.

This seems obvious, but in practice, a lot more work goes into original studies designed to create interesting conclusions than into the rather less interesting work of reproducing studies that have already been done to see whether their results hold up.

Everyone wants to be part of the effort to identify new and interesting results, not the more mundane (and yet potentially career-endangering) work of reproducing the results of older studies:

Why is psychology research (and, it seems likely, social science research generally) so stuffed with dubious results? Let me suggest three likely reasons:

A bias towards research that is not only new but interesting: An interesting, counterintuitive finding that appears to come from good, solid scientific investigation gets a researcher more media coverage, more attention, more fame both inside and outside of the field. A boring and obvious result, or no result, on the other hand, even if investigated honestly and rigorously, usually does little for a researcher’s reputation. The career path for academic researchers, especially in social science, is paved with interesting but hard to replicate findings. (In a clever way, the Reproducibility Project gets around this issue by coming up with the really interesting result that lots of psychology studies have problems.)

An institutional bias against checking the work of others: This is the flipside of the first factor: Senior social science researchers often actively warn their younger colleagues — who are in many cases the best positioned to check older work—against investigating the work of established members of the field. As one psychology professor from the University of Southern California grouses to the Times, “There’s no doubt replication is important, but it’s often just an attack, a vigilante exercise.”

[…]

Small, unrepresentative sample sizes: In general, social science experiments tend to work with fairly small sample sizes — often just a few dozen people who are meant to stand in for everyone else. Researchers often have a hard time putting together truly representative samples, so they work with subjects they can access, which in a lot of cases means college students.

A couple of years ago, I linked to a story about the problem of using western university students as the default source of your statistical sample for psychological and sociological studies:

A notion that’s popped up several times in the last couple of months is that the easy access to willing test subjects (university students) introduces a strong bias to a lot of the tests, yet until recently the majority of studies disregarded the possibility that their test results were unrepresentative of the general population.

August 14, 2015

QotD: When “the science” shows what you want it to show

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

To see what I mean, consider the recent tradition of psychology articles showing that conservatives are authoritarian while liberals are not. Jeremy Frimer, who runs the Moral Psychology Lab at the University of Winnipeg, realized that who you asked those questions about might matter — did conservatives defer to the military because they were authoritarians or because the military is considered a “conservative” institution? And, lo and behold, when he asked similar questions about, say, environmentalists, the liberals were the authoritarians.

It also matters because social psychology, and social science more generally, has a replication problem, which was recently covered in a very good article at Slate. Take the infamous “paradox of choice” study that found that offering a few kinds of jam samples at a supermarket was more likely to result in a purchase than offering dozens of samples. A team of researchers that tried to replicate this — and other famous experiments — completely failed. When they did a survey of the literature, they found that the array of choices generally had no important effect either way. The replication problem is bad enough in one subfield of social psychology that Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote an open letter to its practitioners, urging them to institute tougher replication protocols before their field implodes. A recent issue of Social Psychology was devoted to trying to replicate famous studies in the discipline; more than a third failed replication.

Let me pause here to say something important: Though I mentioned bias above, I’m not suggesting in any way that the replication problems mostly happen because social scientists are in on a conspiracy against conservatives to do bad research or to make stuff up. The replication problems mostly happen because, as the Slate article notes, journals are biased toward publishing positive and novel results, not “there was no relationship, which is exactly what you’d expect.” So readers see the one paper showing that something interesting happened, not the (possibly many more) teams that got muddy data showing no particular effect. If you do enough studies on enough small groups, you will occasionally get an effect just by random chance. But because those are the only studies that get published, it seems like “science has proved …” whatever those papers are about.

Megan McArdle, “The Truth About Truthiness”, Bloomberg View, 2014-09-08.

August 1, 2015

QotD: How to write a headline about a “scientific” result

Filed under: Humour, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… let’s not forget the Heads We Win Tails You Lose rule of the in-group affirmations which we loosely call “social sciences.”

Suppose you run a test to distinguish whether women, or men, are more willing to hire family — that is, engage in nepotism — when filling a job.

If it turns out that men are more likely to engage in nepotistic practices, the study will be titled:

Women More Ethical in Business Dealings Than Men

On the other hand, if it turns out that women are more likely to approve of nepotism, whereas men are less likely, the study will have the title:

Women More Caring Towards Family Members; Men Care Only About Filthy Careerism & the Welfare of Total Strangers Who Might Be Rapists

Ace, “Shock: Social Scientists Determine Conservatives Are Stupid”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-09-09.

July 8, 2015

Political correctness reaches even the railfan community

Filed under: Media, Politics, Railways — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In his blog at Trains magazine, Fred Frailey explains why he’s not a fan of the attempt to shut down an advertiser’s access to the magazine for personal expressions of the advertiser that offended certain ultra-sensitive readers:

Jack runs a company that sells supplies to competitive swimmers. He advertises in Jill’s magazine, which is devoted to competitive swimming. And Bart is a competitive swimmer. On Facebook one day, Jack says that Bart is a alcohol-swilling has-been of a swimmer. Bill and Bob are admirers of Bart and subscribers to Jill’s magazine. They are angered by Jack’s remark and pressure Jill not to accept Jack’s advertising.

Jill asks, what in the dickens do I have to do with this? I didn’t start this fight, none of it occurred on the pages of my magazine, and Jack meets all our advertising standards. Am I to police everything that every advertiser says anywhere? Impossible, she says, and tells Bill and Bob no, she has no reason to ban Jack’s ads. But Bill and Bob respond, Bart is our hero and the hero of many if not most subscribers to the magazine. It’s a smart business decision to ban Jack. They cancel their subs to Jill’s magazine, naturally, thinking this will really, really hurt Jack (let’s all roll our eyes).

I have a name for this. It’s political correctness, and it is becoming the death of independent thought. The tempest involving a small advertiser in Trains Magazine over a comment he made on social media after the derailment of Amtrak train 188 has upset some readers of Trains, who have cancelled subscriptions. To be specific, the businessman ridiculed 188’s engineer, calling him a foamer.

[…]

To go back to my example — which I think fairly describes the dispute involving Trains Magazine as an uninvolved bystander — Bill and Bob’s normal recourse would be not to patronize Jack’s company. Certainly this is their right. But Bill and Bob don’t patronize Jack’s company to start with, and it is unlikely that boycotting Jack’s business would have much if any effect. So they twist the arm of Jill, a third party who has no dog in this hunt. It’s not her fight. She probably has no opinion of Bart one way or the other and if she did, it’s still a barroom brawl she isn’t interested in entering. And even if her editor wants to stake out a position on one side or the other on the editorial pages, what does this have to do with access to her magazine by an advertiser?

So now comes the insidious entrance of political correctness. On this blog this past weekend, a poster said to me in a comment: “I’m at a loss trying to figure out how dropping an advertiser that insults many of the magazine’s contributors and readers is somehow equal to stifling dialogue and free speech? Seems like a stretch.” I read that and thought to myself, this is politically correct thinking in full flower. Let me paraphrase the contributor: Some of us don’t like what was said, and therefore this offender must be thrown out, ostracized, punished, silenced. And it is fair to use any means at hand, including bringing outsiders into the fray.

June 14, 2015

More on that Reason grand jury subpoena

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At the Foundation for Economic Education, Ryan Radia discusses the free-speech-quashing subpoena issued by a federal prosecutor in New York state:

In late May, Judge Katherine Forrest, who sits on the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, sentenced Ulbricht to life in prison. This sentence was met with mixed reactions, with many commentators criticizing Judge Forrest for handing down what they perceived as an exceedingly harsh sentence.

A few Reason users, some of whom may have followed Reason’s extensive coverage of the fascinating trial, apparently found Ulbricht’s sentence especially infuriating.

One commenter argued that “judges like these … should be taken out back and shot.” Another user, purporting to correct the preceding comment, wrote that “it’s judges like these that will be taken out back and shot.” A follow-up comment suggested the use of a “wood chipper,” so as not to “waste ammunition.” And a user expressed hope that “there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.”

Within hours, the office of Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, sent Reason a subpoena for these commenters’ identifying information “in connection with an official criminal investigation of a suspected felony being conducted by a federal grand jury.”

This doesn’t mean a grand jury actually asked about the commenters; instead, in federal criminal investigations, it’s typically up to the US Attorney to decide when to issue a subpoena “on behalf” of a grand jury.

[…]

Even if this subpoena is valid under current law — more on that angle in a bit — the government made a serious mistake in seeking to force Reason to hand over information that could uncover the six commenters’ identities.

Unless the Department of Justice is investigating a credible threat to Judge Forrest with some plausible connection to the Reason comments at issue, this subpoena will serve only to chill hyperbolic — but nonetheless protected — political speech by anonymous Internet commenters.

June 4, 2015

When did “scientific literature” transmogrify into bad science fiction?

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In The Lancet, Richard Horton discusses the problems of scientific journalism:

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.
Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”. The Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have now put their reputational weight behind an investigation into these questionable research practices. The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures, such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivise bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct.

April 3, 2015

QotD: The long decline of Rolling Stone

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The gap between Americans raised before World War II and after was huge in a way that’s difficult to recall for those of us who came of age after the ’60s. Greatest Generation parents who might have grown up without on-demand indoor plumbing and survived the Depression and fighting in Europe, the Pacific, North Africa, and Korea came from a different planet than the one on which they raised their kids. To their credit, they bequeathed to the baby boomers a world that was still full of major problems but one that was much richer and full of opportunities. And to their credit, the boomers (of which I’m a very late example, having been born in 1963) readily went about using new opportunities and freedoms (expressive, sexual, educational, economic) to build the world they wanted to live in.

In the late ’60s and a good chunk of the ’70s, youth-oriented pop music was central to that project. Whatever you might think of the Beatles’ music, their very existence — and their constant self-recreations — made everything seem possible. They were far from alone as pop music maguses, too.

Simply by talking with major pop figures, Rolling Stone could be a vital and compelling magazine because it served as something like a boomer conversation pit. Over time, however, music stopped playing the same sort of vital role in generational conversations — don’t get me wrong, it’s still a part of it all. But as the mainstream in every area of life splintered and recombined into a million different subspecies, no single form of cultural expression matters so much to so many people anymore.

That’s a good thing for the culture and the country (and the planet, really), but Rolling Stone has been looking for a replacement core identity for decades now. The magazine that once published New Journalism masterpieces about David Cassidy and stardom, Patty Hearst’s rescuers, and “Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse” had trouble figuring out how to deal with a world in which pop and movie stars were less interesting than ever (and more disciplined in terms of talking with the press) and in which men and women of good faith might actually disagree over complicated aesthetic and ideological matters. There has been a lot of good writing and reporting over the years, but there’s no question, I think, that the magazine is chasing trends and insights rather than creating them.

[…]

In a world in which pop culture — especially youth-oriented pop culture — allows a thousand flowers to bloom in a way that was unimaginable even 40 years ago, Rolling Stone can no longer get by simply by talking with Patti Smith or John Lennon or Bob Dylan for 25,000 words at a time. It might have reinvented itself as a clubhouse where people who love music or movies or whatever could get together to argue over politics, economics, and policy. That could indeed be interesting, especially in a world where large chunks of young Americans are going right, left, and especially libertarian. Just as there is no longer one dominant mode of music, there is no longer one dominant mode of politics.

But the people at the helm of Rolling Stone cannot seemingly even acknowledge that anyone who might disagree with them on, say, the effects of minimum wage laws on the poor, is worth a second thought. All they can do, out of a sense of liberal guilt, is publish radical calls to arm that they must know are ridiculous. Sadly, a magazine that was once required reading for anyone who wanted to know what the younger generation cared about is now a pedantic, insecure, and ultimately ineffective tool of Democratic Party groupthink.

Nick Gillespie, Rolling Stone‘s Sad ‘5 Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For'”, Hit and Run, 2014-01-04

April 2, 2015

The new editor of The Walrus bows in

Filed under: Cancon, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Jonathan Kay, formerly of the National Post, is now the editor-in-chief of The Walrus. Here’s the start of his first editorial for the magazine:

“Any slighting reference to Canada is bound to produce a flurry of anguished letters, most of them attached to manuscripts,” Michael Kinsley wrote in The New Republic three decades ago. “On the other hand, so is any favorable reference to Canada, so it would be futile to add at this point that I think it’s a lovely country and we’re darn lucky to have it next door, especially considering the alternatives. Yet Canada is, for all its acknowledged merits, a nation of assistant professors, each armed with articles designed to ‘dispel misunderstanding.’ These literary missiles are aimed at the American media, ready to be fired at the slightest provocation.”

Any Canadian past the age of thirty will recognize the whiny writing that Kinsley aptly skewered: until recently, our relationship with the United States was the great neurotic obsession of our intellectual life. This neurosis didn’t just produce insecurity; it also produced bad writing.

In the domain of foreign policy, especially, virtually every debate — missile defence, Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism, peacekeeping — was brought back to the question of whether we were doing enough to distinguish ourselves from the southern hegemon. To describe our place in the world in a way that made us feel morally superior, we became reliant on a canonical set of clichés — honest broker, human security, global citizenship, soft power. The dreariness of these tropes was unavoidable, because the approved form of argumentation among all those assistant professors was to string old ideas together in new ways.

[…]

This attitude is gone — or at least very much on the wane. Whatever you may think about the way Stephen Harper has changed Canada, it is undeniable that we have become a richer, more interesting, and less insecure country than we were just a decade ago. I’ve lost count of the number of international surveys that Canada (and Toronto, its largest city) now tops. Ambitious Canadians in every field have better reasons to stick around than they did even a few years ago.

And all those assistant professors whom Michael Kinsley disparaged have become less whiny: having shed our anxieties about our relationship with the US, Canadian intellectuals now draft their impassioned manifestos in a country that is important and interesting in its own right.

Needless to say, this is good news for The Walrus, a magazine that explores Canada and its place in the world. Never in my lifetime has it been a better time to write — and read — about this wonderful country.

February 10, 2015

Smug Torontonians preen themselves over another meaningless survey

Filed under: Cancon, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Richard Anderson supplies the appropriate level of disdain:

It’s always nice when a big important magazine notices Canada. It’s also a big important British magazine. Even nowadays it’s extra special when mother says we’ve done so very well for ourselves. Did we mention the solarium we’re having installed? The Americans don’t have a solarium. Just thought we’d mention that. We got a great deal with the contractor. Excellent references.

Torontonians are known through out our fair dominion for two things: Having a gigantic tower that is no longer the most gigantic in the world and being incredibly smug. The original logo for Toronto actually featured a very smug looking beaver carefully ignoring the rest of Canada. If you paid close attention it was obvious the beaver was looking at New York but in a very nonchalant sort of way.

I hate it when The Economist or the OECD or UN or the OAS or whoever the hell puts out these surveys. Like most rankings the whole thing is a bit of numerical legerdemain. A recurring example of how the easiest way to bullshit your way through life is to use numbers. In what real common sense way is Toronto better than Sydney? Did you talk to someone who has lived in both cities?

Didn’t bloody think so. That would be journalism.

As a native Torontonian I would like to ask the editors of The Economist, those non-byline using smug bastards, why they think Toronto is so wonderful? Yes I know you visited here one summer for a conference. You strolled down Bloor Street and bought something at the Roots Store or Holts. It was so terribly clean and the homeless people were so very polite. Have you lived here? Would you ever in your right mind move from Chelsea to the Annex? Exactly. You’d prefer to be cramped and gouged in London than less cramped and less gouged in Toronto. Why? Because it’s friggin’ London! The potholes are older and more historic than the whole of Toronto.

January 8, 2015

Media man of the year for 2014 – Ben Trovato

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At The Federalist Robert Tracinski nominates perhaps the most appropriate candidate for media man person of the year:

As the year winds to a close, it is traditional to pick a “man of the year,” or in our more enlightened age, a “person of the year.” I’ve never done that before, but this year there is one candidate who has left his mark so indelibly on 2014 that I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge his vast influence.

Thus, my own personal pick for 2014′s Person of the Year: Ben Trovato.

He has been everywhere and had a hand in just about every big story, from Ferguson to the University of Virginia. He has been most active in his usual fields, journalism and politics, but we can see his impact as far afield as espionage and even retail.

You’ve never heard of him? Maybe so, but you already know him very well.

For those who suspect that Ben Trovato is not a real, literal person, you’re right. But the whole point of old Ben’s influence is that it doesn’t matter whether he’s literally real. Or whether anything is literally real, for that matter.

I first heard of Ben Trovato while reading a curious little volume of unusual word origins. A number of these supposed etymologies, most of the really colorful ones, were attributed to “Ben Trovato.” The name is taken from an old Italian saying: se non è vero, è ben trovato. Roughly translated: if it’s not true, it’s a good story. These were the kind of word origins that you really wanted to be true, but for which there was no real evidence. In contemporary parlance, they are “too good to check.”

I think you can begin to see why 2014 has been the year of Ben Trovato. It has been a year full of things that were non vero, but which had really good narratives. Or at least really convenient narratives.

January 7, 2015

Claire Berlinski reports from the scene of the Paris massacre

Filed under: Europe, Media, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:20

Claire Berlinski wasn’t working as a journalist earlier today, but she happened to be right in the area of the terrorist attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo:

If I sound incoherent, it’s because I am shaken. The reasons will be obvious.

I had no intention of reporting on this from the scene of the Charlie-Hebdo massacre. I was walking up Boulevard Richard Lenoir to meet a friend who lives in the neighborhood. But the moment I saw what I did, I knew for sure what had happened. A decade in Turkey teaches you that. That many ambulances, that many cops, that many journalists, and those kinds of faces can mean only one thing: a massive terrorist attack.

I also knew from the location just who’d been attacked: Charlie-Hebdo, the magazine known for many things, but, above all, for its fearlessness in publishing caricatures of Mohamed. They’d been firebombed for this in 2011, but their response — in effect — was the only one free men would ever consider: “As long as we’re alive, you’ll never shut us up.”

They are no longer alive. They managed to shut them up.

The only thing I didn’t immediately know was how many of them had died.

All of them, it seems, or close enough. So did two police officers who had been assigned to protect their offices. Twelve are dead for sure; I assume that number will rise; seven are seriously injured. It was at the time I was there unclear how many were wounded.

And the attackers are still at large.

Given that two police officers are dead, now doesn’t seem the time to say what comes to mind about the fact that the assailants escaped. It will say this much though: if they’re not dead before nightfall, I’ll say exactly what comes to mind, respect for the dead be damned.

This was the Twitter update sent shortly before the attack began:

This was the worst terrorist attack in Europe since the London tube bombings of 2005. If I’m correct — I have not checked carefully — it was also the worst in France since the Nazis were running the place.

I was there only by luck: I had no desire to see this. Luck is probably not the right word. I wish I hadn’t seen it. But lucky, certainly is the right word to use in noting that I was running late, and thus there a few minutes after the fact. Had I not been running late, it’s fairly obvious what might have happened. They weren’t discriminate in their targets.

There wasn’t much for me to do. I didn’t even have a pen on me. I spoke to a cameraman from France 3, to make sure I understood the facts. I didn’t ask if I could quote him, so I won’t use his name. But his comment summed up the sentiment. “This is the kind of thing you expect in Pakistan. And now it’s coming here.”

January 2, 2015

QotD: The democratization of fame

Filed under: Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The radicalization of renown is good for America.

In these times of seemingly limited job and business opportunities, celebrity has become a goal attainable by all.

Gaining public attention by performing for the masses once required skills — deft strokes with ochre on the walls of Paleolithic caves, facility with trident and net in the Roman coliseum, recitation of iambic pentameter by the swath from the stage at the Globe.

Talent and practice were needed for popularity from the dawn of time until the debut of America’s Funniest Home Videos in 1990. And even then a contestant had to have steady hands and steely resolve to keep the video rolling while his son pedaled off an improvised plywood ramp trying to leap a row of Tonka toys on his Big Wheel and got whacked in the testicles.

But what does 18-year-old Bethany Mota who still lives at home with her parents (two-page spread, People, pp. 196-7) do? She does “reviews of new makeup, clothes, and other mall finds.” Her YouTube channel has 5.9 million subscribers. She “reportedly makes $40,000 a month.”

There are 10,900,000 teenage girls in America, an estimated 10,899,999 of whom have the same skill set as Bethany. This includes the teenage girl at my house who is presently locked in her bedroom sharing “reviews of new makeup, clothes, and other mall finds” with her 5.9 million Facebook friends. She is about to get pages 196 and 197, torn from People and heavily marked with a highlighter pen, shoved under her door. Bethany Mota, you are a beacon of hope.

P.J. O’Rourke, “Welcome to Showbiz Sharia Law: No talent? Kind of dim-witted? No shame? Perfect. The celebrity industry needs you — just don’t ever veil your face”, The Daily Beast, 2014-05-04

December 30, 2014

Economics of SF writing – the fall of the short story and the rise of the novel

Filed under: Business, Economics, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:48

Charles Stross outlines the reason SF writers pretty much stopped writing short stories en masse in the mid-to-late 1950s:

A typical modern novel is in the range 85,000-140,000 words. But there’s nothing inevitable about this. The shortest work of fiction I ever wrote and sold was seven words long; the longest was 196,000 words. I’ve written plenty of short stories, in the 3000-8000 word range, novelettes (8000-18,000 words), and novellas (20,000-45,000 words). (Anything longer than a novella is a “short novel” and deeply unfashionable these days, at least in adult genre fiction, which seems to be sold by the kilogram.)

[…]

Genre science fiction in the US literary tradition has its roots in the era of the pulp magazines, from roughly 1920 to roughly 1955. (The British SF/F field evolved similarly, so I’m going to use the US field as my reference point.) These were the main supply of mass-market fiction to the general public in the days before television, when reading a short story was a viable form of mass entertainment, and consequently there was a relatively fertile market for short fiction up to novella length. In addition, many of these magazines serialized novels: it was as serials that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and E. E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space were originally published, among others.

For a while, during this period, it was possible to earn a living (not a very good living) churning out pulp fiction in short formats. It’s how Robert Heinlein supplemented his navy pension in the 1930s; it’s how many of the later-great authors first gained their audiences. But it was never a good living, and in the 1950s the bottom fell out of the pulp market — the distribution channel itself largely dried up and blew away, a victim of structural inefficiencies and competition from other entertainment media. The number of SF titles on sale crashed, and the number of copies each sold also crashed. Luckily for the writers a new medium was emerging: the mass market paperback, distributed via the same wholesale channel as the pulp magazines and sold through supermarkets and drugstore wire-racks. These paperbacks were typically short by modern standards: in some cases they provided a market for novellas (25,000 words and up — Ace Doubles consisted of two novellas, printed and bound back-to-back and upside-down relative to one another, making a single book).

The market for short fiction gradually recovered somewhat. In addition to the surviving SF magazines (now repackaged as digest-format paperback monthlies) anthologies emerged as a market. But after 1955 it was never again truly possible to earn a living writing short stories (although this may be changing thanks to the e-publishing format shift — it’s increasingly possible to publish stand-alone shorter works, or to start up a curatorial e-periodical or “web magazine” as the hip young folks call them). And the readership profile of the remaining magazines slowly began to creep upwards, as new readers discovered SF via the paperback book rather than the pulp magazine. With this upward trending demographic profile, the SF magazines entered a protracted, generational spiral of dwindling sales: today they still exist, but nobody would call a US newsstand magazine with monthly sales of 10,000-15,000 copies a success story.

A side-effect of dwindling sales is that the fixed overheads of running a magazine (the editor’s pay check) remains the same but there’s less money to go around. Consequently, pay rates for short fiction stagnated from the late 1950s onwards. 2 cents/word was a decent wage in 1955 — it was $20 for a thousand words, so $80-500 for a short story or novelette. But the monthly magazines were still paying 5 cents/word in the late 1990s! This was pin money. It was a symbolic reward. It would cover your postage and office supplies bill — if you were frugal.

December 22, 2014

QotD: Celebrity gossip as a common good

Filed under: Humour, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Celebrity gossip is psychologically healthy.

It provides an outlet, a useful sublimation, of our self-destructive subconscious compulsion to lean over the back fence and cluck (or tweet) about the godawful things our relatives, friends, and neighbors do.

Celebrities are not our family. Although there are so many celebrities that we are probably related to some. But they’re not the niece looking daggers at us across the Thanksgiving turkey because of what we said to Uncle Bill about her hookup with that McDermott idiot. They’re not the daughter locked in her bedroom running up our Visa card bill with online shopping for new makeup, clothes, and other mall finds.

Celebrities are not our friends. They don’t borrow our money or power tools. They don’t forget it’s their turn to carpool the kids to junior high. They don’t come over when we’re busy watching The View and litter the kitchen table with used Kleenex, pouring their hearts out about their (remarkably frequent) divorces. They don’t get caught — unless Dean McDermott is late to the set for his televised therapy session on True Tori — necking with our spouses in the coat closet at our cocktail parties.

P.J. O’Rourke, “Welcome to Showbiz Sharia Law: No talent? Kind of dim-witted? No shame? Perfect. The celebrity industry needs you — just don’t ever veil your face”, The Daily Beast, 2014-05-04

December 14, 2014

The New Republic was probably doomed anyway…

Filed under: Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 10:20

Let’s just say that there’s not a lot of profit for a monthly magazine with single-issue newsstand sales as low as this:

From a business standpoint, The New Republic was undoubtedly facing an uphill battle for profitability, even before last week’s events. According to the Pew Research Center and the Alliance for Audited Media, single copy sales of the magazine (considered the most objective measure of a magazine’s print appeal) have steadily declined over the past year, dropping to around 1,900 per issue.

They note that, between the first and second halves of 2013, newsstand sales fell by 57%, and fell a further 20% in the first of half of 2014.

One thousand, nine hundred readers. Per month.

Let me just give you a bit of perspective here:

Quotulatiousness daily visits - 14 December 2014

At shortly after 10 a.m. on a quiet Sunday, I’ve already had more visitors to my obscure little personal blog today than there were copies of The New Republic sold in a recent month (not counting subscriptions).

That is not a viable business.

H/T to Kathy Shaidle, who also gets more daily traffic than TNR sells in a month.

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