Burning down the house

I’m really supposed to be finishing up a book, but I’ve been putting off doing a post about this whole Sad Puppies/Hugo Awards deal for a while now, and if I don’t do it now, I probably never will. I doubt there are many people waiting for yet another blog post on this issue, but I occasionally get questions from people wondering what this whole kerfuffle is about, so here’s my take.

Burning HouseFirst, a bit of background: The Hugo Awards are the most prestigious awards in science fiction. The Hugos are fan-based awards: anyone with a membership in the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) can nominate a work, and after the nominees are announced, this same membership votes for winners in a variety of categories. The awards are given out at an event called Worldcon, which was in Spokane, Washington this year.

For many years the Hugos were the gold standard of quality in science fiction writing. A few years ago, however, some science fiction writers began to complain that the awards had become dominated by political concerns: rather than going to the best stories, these writers believed, the awards were being given to writers for superficial reasons: either because the work adhered to a certain political ideology at the expense of quality writing (pejoratively called “message fiction”) or because the author herself was a member of a cliquish in-group that is open only to persons of that ideological persuasion.

Sad-Puppies-3-smallThe concerns of these mostly conservative and libertarian-leaning writers were dismissed (and laughed at) by the WSFS, so the writers took it upon themselves to solve the problem, as they saw it. This group jokingly referred to itself as Sad Puppies, because “boring message fiction is the leading cause of Puppy-Related Sadness.” The Sad Puppies, spearheaded by authors Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia, came up with their own slate of science fiction works, which they believed were worthy of recognition based purely on the quality of the work. The Sad Puppies slate included several female and non-white authors, and authors of a wide range of political persuasions. The Sad Puppies encouraged their readers to read the works on the list and vote for them if they thought they were worthy of a Hugo Award. Nothing the Sad Puppies technically broke any rules, although many people accused them of cheating or gaming the system.

Complicating matters is a separate, unaffiliated group called Rabid Puppies, led by author Theodore Beale, who sometimes goes by the pseudonym Vox Day. I honestly don’t know that much about Vox Day, but as I gather that he’s unabashedly sexist, racist, and opposed to homosexuality [EDIT: I’ve been informed that this characterization is false. As I say, I know very little about Vox. Feel free to investigate him yourself]. Vox put together his own slate of works, which overlapped with the Sad Puppies slate. As far as I can tell, there has been no coordination between Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, and Correia has repeatedly stated that he disagrees with Vox Day on many things, doesn’t particularly want Vox’s “help,” but ultimately can’t do anything about Vox putting together his own Hugo slate. In Correia’s words: “Look at it like this. I’m Churchill. Brad is FDR. We wound up on the same side as Stalin.”

The Sad Puppies campaign went viral, apparently tapping into a vein of anti-political correctness fervor among science fiction fans. Opposed to their campaign was a group of Internet activists commonly referred to as “Social Justice Warriors” or SJWs. I avoided the term SJWs for a while because I thought it was needlessly pejorative, but then I found out that many of the SJWs, like authors John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig, use this term unironically for themselves, so that’s what I call them now. Despite (or because of) this resistance, the Sad Puppies’ slate swept the nominations. This drove the SJWs into apoplexy.gallo

In an attempt to fight back against this “hijacking” of the Hugos, the SJWs spewed all manner of lies and hatred, often deliberately conflating Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies. It isn’t difficult to find samplings of this bile; just Google “Sad Puppies racist” and you’ll find plenty of it. As one small example, here’s a quote from a Facebook post by Irene Gallo, the creative director of TOR.

There are two extreme right-wing to neo-nazi groups, called the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies respectively, that are calling for the end of social justice in science fiction and fantasy. They are unrepentantly racist, sexist and homophobic. A noisy few but they’ve been able to gather some Gamergate folks around them and elect a slate of bad-to-reprehensible works on this year’s Hugo ballot.

Sounds terrible, right? Of course, every statement in this excerpt is a lie. Specifically:

  1. The Sad Puppies are not an “extreme right-wing group” (and they certainly aren’t neo-Nazis), and I challenge anyone reading this to fit a shred of evidence indicating they are.
  2. The Sad Puppies have never called for the end of social justice in science fiction and fantasy.
  3. The Sad Puppies are not racist, sexist or homophobic (as mentioned, their slate includes several women and people of color; Brad Torgersen himself is married to a woman of color and has a mixed-race child; Larry Correia is Hispanic). Of course, particularly classy SJWs dismiss even this indisputable evidence, witness the supreme douchebaggery of SJW extraordinaire Arthur Chu (who was selected to be on a “diversity” panel at this year’s Worldcon!):
    arthur_chu_douchebag
    (A “shield” is SJW-speak meaning “a person you can point to in order to excuse your own racism.” In other words, Brad Torgersen married a black woman and had a child with her so that he could go execute his racist plans with impunity. Clever Arthur Chu has seen through the facade.)
  4. There was never any concerted effort to “gather Gamergate folks”, although there is certainly some overlap in the groups, as both were started in resistance to what was seen as social justice activism run amok. (For those who don’t know, GamerGate was a movement ostensibly aimed at exposing corruption in video game journalism. The movement is widely disparaged by SJWs.)
  5. “Bad-to-reprehensible”? Seriously? Taste is subjective, of course, but I’m wondering where Jim Butcher’s Skin Game or Kevin J. Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars fit on Gallo’s “bad-to-reprehensible” continuum. Anderson’s book is published by TOR, for fuck’s sake. Why didn’t Gallo, as TOR’s creative director, prevent this dreck from being published in the first place?

After a public outcry, Gallo was forced to issue a half-assed non-apology to the public, but tellingly her peers in the SF community stood by her, completely ignoring her lies and gratuitous insults. Some, like the now-thoroughly discredited Gawker, hilariously denounced TOR for “giving in” to the Sad Puppies. Did these people not know what she had said? Did they not know she was lying out of her ass and tossing out baseless, blanket insults? Or did they just not care?

It is important to note that while the hubbub over Gallo’s post was one of the more visible examples, it is by no means unique. This scenario has played out hundreds of times over the past year:

  1. Someone on the Social Justice side making absurd, inflammatory comments about the Sad Puppies.
  2. Puppy defenders point out the lies and ad hominems.
  3. Other SJWs come to the defense of the person making the attack, shouting down dissenters, calling them “sea lions” (a pejorative term for commenters who share a common criticism) and, of course, racist, misogynist, and homophobic. These slurs are so common among SJWs that they are yawn-inducing.Those familiar with the GamerGate phenomenon will recognize the pattern.

At this point you’re probably thinking, “Okay, but that’s just the Internet, right? Somebody says something crazy, and everybody loses their shit for three days arguing about it. Eventually things settle down and the truth comes out. Right?

Well, no. Not if you’re fighting against the SJWs, because the SJWs and their allies control nearly every major media channel. I know, this sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s true. If you Googled “sad puppies hugo awards” before this past weekend, you would see:

  1. This DailyDot article, which contains the line “This year’s nominees were announced on Saturday, and most of them came directly from a Gamergate-affiliated campaign known as Sad Puppies. By bloc-voting for a specific slate of anti-progressive authors, editors, and fans, the Sad Puppies managed to game the selection process in every major category,” along with quotes from such objective observers as professional victim Brianna Wu and the aforementioned King of the Douchebags Arthur Chu.
  2. This essay in The New Republic, which claims “[N]ominations for women and non-whites have risen in recent years. That trend has upset right-wing fans who say they’ve been marginalized by affirmative action gone mad—and who organized a successful nomination campaign to undo these gains in diversity, creating an unprecedented party-line slate which has led to the stacking of this year’s Hugo ballot largely with white men once again.”
  3. This article from The Atlantic, which states “The prizes have been targeted by voting blocks opposed to progressive efforts to recognize more women and writers of color. But trying to undo change in an increasingly diverse world is futile.”

And on and on. Articles in Slate, io9, The Guardian, Salon, and dozens more publications all decried the Sad Puppies’ efforts to stifle diversity, when even a very cursory investigation of this topic would tell you that “stifling diversity” has never been the Sad Puppies’ goal. You could argue that a slight decline in diversity is nevertheless the consequence of the Sad Puppies’ actions (and this is true only if you use a very superficial definition of diversity), but to state flatly that this is what Sad Puppies was all about from the beginning is sheer dishonest hackery. And despite the fact that all these news outlets seem to be have no trouble procuring quotes from SJWs, very few of them ever bother to even contact Brad Torgersen or Larry Correia for comments. Correia recently stated that The Guardian, which has written several anti-Puppies hit pieces, has never contacted him.

wu

But this sort of “journalism” provides cover for the SJWs; they can support their positions with quotes from respected publications like The Atlantic and The Guardian. And God help you if you’re a Sad Puppy supporter engaged in a debate with an SJW and you toss out a link to a Breitbart article, even if it is a more objective account than anything published in The Guardian. You’ll be laughed at for relying on an unabashedly conservative source; it doesn’t seem to occur to these people that liberal sources are also sometimes unreliable.

Sadly, those who aren’t familiar with the SJWs’ tactics and their close ties to the media understandably take this coverage at face value. Everybody knows that the Sad Puppies are racist, homophobic misogynists, and who wants to be on the same side as that? Anyway, “social justice” sounds like a pretty good thing, right? Who could be opposed to “social justice”? Of course, “social justice” has nothing to do with actual justice; it’s just a euphemism for cultural Marxism. But Leftists (sorry, progressives) have never been above abusing language to manipulate the masses.

The end result of this battle between the SJWs and the Sad Puppies was something of a draw: although the Sad Puppies swept the nominations, the SJWs struck back by voting “No Award” in all the categories where there was no non-Puppy contender. Both sides are claiming victory. The Sad Puppies argue that they have proved their point, which is that the Hugo Awards are dominated by politics. After all, it was a reaction to the Puppies’ supposed right-wing politics that prompted the “No Award” votes. SJWs, who don’t understand that the Puppies’ intention was never to promote a particular ideology, are patting themselves on the back for stopping the barbarians at the gate. George R. R. Martin, no fan of the Puppies, makes the case for a Puppies win:

Most of [the rules], frankly, suck. And the mere fact that so many people are discussing them makes me think that the Puppies won. They started this whole thing by saying the Hugo Awards were rigged to exclude them. That is completely untrue, as I believe I demonstrated conclusively in my last post. So what is happening now? The people on MY SIDE, the trufans and SMOFs and good guys, are having an endless circle jerk trying to come up with a foolproof way to RIG THE HUGOS AND EXCLUDE THEM. God DAMN, people. You are proving them right.

I think GRRM is being a bit disingenuous when he implies that suddenly the SJWs started acting politically only as a reaction to the Puppies (SJWs are people for whom picking a restaurant for lunch is an excruciating political decision, for fuck’s sake), but I give him credit for seeing the reaction for what it is: an overtly political maneuver to prevent the wrong people from taking over the awards. You can argue that it was a justified maneuver, but to argue that it was apolitical is pure sophistry.

The SJWs, not ones to leave their echo chamber if they can avoid it, are gleefully congratulating themselves on their victory, and their lapdogs in the media are playing along. This Wired article, after bizarrely implying that there were no women, gays or minority in science fiction until sometime in the past few years (presumably as a result of the tireless efforts of the SJWs, without whom no social progress has ever occurred), goes on to congratulate the progressives for beating the Puppies. Somehow the author also manages to make room for the batshit crazy assertion that “GamerGate makes a political movement out of threatening with rape any woman who has the temerity to offer an opinion about a videogame.” The Guardian, meanwhile, crows that “diversity has won” (because when nobody wins, everybody wins, I guess?) and repeats the same old lie that “The Puppies have riven the SF community this year by organising a reactionary vote in protest against the increasing number of women and writers and colour who have been winning the awards.”

Those opposed to the politicization of the Hugo Awards, to say nothing of the larger SJW assault on culture, might very well despair at this point. The SJWs take over an institution, silence their opponents, and then get their “journalist” friends to paint them as heroes. But I don’t despair. I smile, and this tweet (Joe Hill’s, not my response) is why:

scalzi

In Joe Hill’s (and John Scalzi’s) magical Social Justice Land, the Sad Puppies are the Grinch, out to ruin his fun sci-fi celebration with his cool SJW pals. And as a Puppy supporter, I’m supposed to be sitting here dejected that the Puppies’ dastardly plan failed. But see, I’m not. I’m glad they had fun at their little party. Who doesn’t like to have fun? A bunch of like-minded people getting together over drinks and congratulation themselves on how great they are sounds like a lot of fun to me. Next year I might even go to the party myself, although I will likely be the guy standing in the corner by himself, because my political and religious leanings make me something of an outsider at these events, but that’s my cross to bear. I certainly won’t begrudge others having fun.

Here’s the thing, though: the social aspect of the Hugo Awards is all they have left. The “social” in “social justice” turns out to refer to just hanging out with people. The SJWs are claiming victory, but if they “win” again like this next year and the year after that, the Hugos will have become an awards ceremony that doesn’t give out any awards. It will literally be just a party that authors attend to drink and congratulate each other, with no bearing on anything that happens outside that room. So am I upset they are having their little Social Justice Who Party? Absolutely not. If anything, I want them to do more of it. I want Arthur Chu, Brianna Wu, John Scalzi, Joe Hill, Chuck Wendig, David Gerrolds, Irene Gallo and all the rest to sit in a big room together, wearing fancy clothes, sipping champagne and telling each other how smart and brave and progressive they are.

Awards? Goodness, no. We don't do that anymore.

“Awards? Goodness, no. We don’t do that anymore.”

Meanwhile, outside that room, science fiction will move on without them. Maybe the WSFS can fix the process to prevent the awards from being dominated by politics, but I doubt it. Any “reforms” will likely end up just pushing the corruption underground, which will have the effect of rewarding the sort of cliquish, secretive whispering campaigns that the Sad Puppies were fighting against while eliminating overt campaigns like the Sad Puppies slate. The Hugos will become, more than ever, the Social Justice Awards. And that will just erode more of what little relevance the Hugos had left. Eventually even the excuse for the party will start to seem pretty flimsy, and all the Whos in Whoville will look around in dismay, wondering what happened.

That’s too bad, because the Hugos really did mean something at one point. Maybe they can still be saved; thanks to the Sad Puppies campaign, the Hugos received a record-breaking 5,950 ballots, indicative of an unprecedented level of interest. But to leverage that interest would require a caliber of leadership that I don’t think exists in the WSFS. These are people who see a massive increase in interest as a problem to be solved. For now, they’ve solved the problem by burning down their own house. It’s a dubious strategy, unless your goal isn’t to save the house, but rather to keep the wrong people out at all costs.

So drink up, SJWs. Enjoy the party while it lasts.

For the hell of it paperback giveaway!

Because I haven’t done one of these for a while, I’ve decided to do another “for the hell of it” book giveaway. I will be be giving away a signed copy of the book of your choice to three randomly selected people who sign up for my email list by midnight EDT on Tuesday, August 18. That’s all you have to do. Just enter your email address in the form below. I won’t spam you, although I may send you occasional updates about my books (usually once a month or so). You can unsubscribe at any time, but it will hurt my feelings a little. Oh, and your odds of winning are pretty damn good, because usually when I do this I only get five or six entrants. #truthinadvertising

Mercury_Trilogy

Fine print: this offer is only open to U.S. residents who have not previously signed up for my email list. All books will be signed upside-down. Offer good while supplies last; right now I have copies of all the Mercury books, DistopiaSchrodinger’s Gat and City of Sand.

What do you have to lose except your dignity, which you weren’t really using anyway. Sign up now!

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Flags, collectivism, and quantum physics (seriously)

Adam Gurri has posted a followup to my post about the subjective meaning of flags and other symbols. It’s well worth a read. In it, he argues essentially that I’m hung up on the whole subjectivity/objectivity framework when there’s, like, a whole other world out there, man*:

Rob complains that I “elevate intersubjectivity to the level of objectivity,” but that’s simply a symptom of being stuck in subject-object thinking. You begin to think “objective” is a synonym for truth.

Well, yes. I think that a proposition that is objectively true is, um, true. I don’t really see any alternative.

But Adam suggests that instead of seeing things in terms of subject/object, I should maybe try looking at them as true or false:

Rob trips up because he think truth just is objective truth. But the subject-object distinction is very young, compared the the distinction between truth and falsehood.

He goes on to provide lots of reasons to think that the Confederate flag is a racist symbol, concluding that anyone who claims that the flag is not a racist symbol is therefore holding onto a falsehood.

I would point out that members of the Confederacy proclaimed that the cornerstone of their cause was “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” I would also point out that the designer of the flag argued that “we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race”. Finally, I would point out that the flag was not even flown by the state of South Carolina after the Civil War until 1961, precisely to signal its position on the Civil Rights Movement, which was mounting at the time.

Notice, though, that the reasons Adam gives for this proposition are what most people would call “objective facts.” So the statement “the Confederate flag is a racist symbol” is (objectively) true because of these (objective) facts. The whole subject/object versus true/false thing would seem, then, to be a red herring. It doesn’t really make any difference, at least in this case, whether we say something is “true” or “an objective fact.” The result is the same.

But for the sake of argument I’ll adopt Adam’s language, so that we end up with:

“The statement that the Confederate flag is a racist symbol is true.”

Or, more succinctly:

“The Confederate flag is a racist symbol.”

But notice as well that all of the facts Adam cites in support of this proposition are incidences of people expressing their belief that the flag is a symbol of a racist ideology. He points to the beliefs of “members of the Confederacy” and the “designer of the flag” and the presumably racist motivations of government officials in flying the flag after 1961. In other words, his entire argument rests on the subjective beliefs of other people.

So we are left with an argument that is essentially: “This flag is a racist symbol because these individuals believe/believed it’s a racist symbol, and if anyone would know, it’s them.” If the intent of this argument is to show that the proposition “The Confederate flag is a racist symbol” rests on more than an aggregate of subjective beliefs, it fails.

Another example Adam gives of a symbol that supposedly has meaning over and above its aggregate subjective meanings is the dollar:

This is not about adding up percentages of people who believe a dollar is money. A dollar is money. It can certainly cease to be money. But when that happens, it is unlikely to look like a process where fewer and fewer people agree with you that it is money. If you’re just looking at subjects, it happens like a cascade—all of a sudden you can’t find hardly anyone who thinks money is money.

But isn’t this exactly what happens in the case of hyperinflation? In fact, that description seems like a pretty good summary of what happened in the Weimar Republic prior to World War II: The Reichsmark gradually lost value until eventually more and more people accepted the fact that it was no longer money in any real sense.

Fewer and fewer people agree with me that this is money.

Fewer and fewer people agree with me that this is money.

The abruptness of the final phase of this process, from the loss of 99%+ of the currency’s value and the final acceptance by virtually everyone that it was no longer money, seems immaterial to me. Sometimes beliefs are communicated very quickly. So what? Of course, the paragraph uses the weasel words “look like,” and I will grant that depending on your vantage point, it may not look like that is what is happening. But that doesn’t change the fact that that is exactly what is happening.

Yes, a dollar is money. This is a true statement. But here’s the thing: money is a concept that is fundamentally linked to value, and value is a concept that is fundamentally linked to (wait for it) subjectivity. There is no value outside of an individual’s preference for one thing over another. A dollar is money because you can use it to pay for things, and you can use it to pay for things because people value it. So to say “a dollar is money” is to say nothing more than that a dollar has subjective value to various people.

Now at this point Adam is reading this and going, “Seriously, dude? You’re going to insist that the most meaningful way to talk about money is in terms of its subjective value to hundreds of millions of individual people? You don’t see how awkward and unwieldy that is?”

So let me to clarify that no, that isn’t what I’m saying. There are certainly times when it is useful to talk about money as something that has (what I would call) objective value over and above its subjective value. I would even grant that such statements can be “true,” given a certain framework of other premises. What I object to isn’t the use of different sets of terminologies for different circumstances, but the importing of terminology from one set of circumstances to another.

As an example, consider the entire body of classical physics. No one would argue that classical physics isn’t useful. On the other hand, it also happens to be completely wrong. This isn’t an overstatement. All the physics you learned in high school has been completely debunked. Feel free to research the matter yourself. Read Feinman’s lectures if you don’t believe me.

Fortunately for aerospace engineers and the like, classical physics is still an extremely useful approximation. It’s so useful for determining behavior of the objects you’re likely to experience in your daily life, in fact, that high school physics textbooks contain such lies as Force = mass x acceleration without even an explanatory footnote. For almost all practical purposes F=ma is true.

The only time you’ll actually run into a problem using classical physics is when you try to explain the behavior of very small (or very large) objects. If you try to use classical physics to predict how one atom will react when struck by another atom, your prediction will be laughably, absurdly wrong. That’s because the so-called “laws of physics” that we “know to be true” don’t really kick in until you’ve got a whole bunch of atoms to work with. Sound familiar?

In essence, we have two different sets of rules for physics (although in reality classical physics is a subset of quantum physics), and you have to know when to use each one, or Very Bad Things will happen. If you prove something on the macro level with classical physics and then try to apply that knowledge to individual atoms, you will fail spectacularly. Similarly, if you’re a panelist on CNN, you can probably safely assert that the Confederate flag is racist. If you’re sipping moonshine with Jedediah the hillbilly in his cabin, you might want to consider a different approach.

Remember, the issue isn’t which approach is “correct” or “true.” The issue is which approach is more useful. If Very Bad Things start to happen, there’s a good chance you haven’t picked the most useful approach. I noted in my previous post that collectivist logic applied at the individual level results in some very troubling conclusions:

After all, if people are to the nation-state as cells are to a human being, then executing a few dissidents should bother us no more than excising a suspicious mole.

Adam’s rejoinder to this is:

First, as David Hume pointed out long ago, pointing out the consequences of a theory does not make it false.

But remember, we’re not talking about what’s true or false. We’re talking about what’s useful. And if your theory results in the conclusion that it’s acceptable (or even desirable) to execute dissidents, I would venture that it is perhaps not the most useful theory to use under the circumstances.

Regarding my contention that collectivist logic leads to totalitarianism, Adam responds:

The idea that believing that groups have no ontological status outside of aggregating individuals will protect us from tyranny seems to overstate things quite a bit.

I agree. Of course, I never said it would. What I said is that we should be careful not to assign to groups attributes which are properly the domain of individuals, such as “consciousness, intention, or moral authority.” Groups have, by definition, properties that their constituent members do not possess. I’m not objecting to that idea. I’m objecting to (1) assigning particular attributes to a group without compelling reason to do so; and (2) applying conclusions derived at the group level to individuals (as I’ve already detailed above).

Let me add, too, that this isn’t some fanciful slippery slope argument about collectivist logic someday leading to totalitarianism. I see examples of both (1) and (2) on a daily basis, and there is a clear connection between those two errors and the encroaching power of the centralized state. Books have been written on this topic, but I’ll just give one obvious example: Politicians often speak of the “common good,” which is evidently some sort of good that benefits the nation as a whole. The problem is that each of these politicians has a different idea of the “common good,” and they seem to be unable to agree on any objective criteria for determining what that good is. So we take it as a given that the “common good” exists, and that it is an admirable goal, despite the fact that nobody seems to know what it is.

The libertarian explanation of this curious state of affairs is that there is no common good. There are only individual goods, because each individual values things differently. The idea of a common good is an illusion resulting from treating groups as if they were individuals. In other words, we’ve anthropomorphized the group, granting it attributes that are properly the domain of the individual. That’s an example of error (1) above.

This error leads directly to error (2), applying collectivist logic at the individual level. Now that we’ve decided we must pursue the “common good,” we find that certain troublesome element stand in opposition to this laudable goal. Some of these troublemakers even deny the very existence of a common good! We weigh the “common good” of the group up against the selfish desires of these dissidents and find that the group’s needs are more important. The dissidents (a very small group in the scheme of things) are eliminated, and society continues to progress toward its ineffable goal.

On a group level, this makes perfect sense. Again, if individuals are cells in a the body of the state, then eliminating dissidents is comparable to excising a suspicious mole. The health and survival of the state is the main concern. Of course, on an individual level, this solution is horrific. But if you don’t accept that the individual is sacred and that there is a specific set of rules to be used when dealing with individuals to avoid horrific outcomes, it’s very easy to fall into that trap. Every collectivist society has.

One final point: the illustration of classical versus quantum physics is illuminating in another way. Although it may appear that quantum physics is only used in certain rare situations, quantum physics is actually the more comprehensive of the two systems. Classical physics is simply a set of approximations that are useful in certain special cases. All of the properties of classical physics are actually the aggregate of quantum properties. They don’t look that way to the untrained observer (or to the trained observer most of the time), but it’s true. Again, does this sound familiar?

It may seem like groups are completely different things from individuals, and there are certainly handy rules that we can use for making sense of the behavior of groups. But in the end, groups are simply an aggregate of individuals. Individualism is the default system. Collectivism is the special case. Unless you want Very Bad Things to happen, never use collectivist thinking when individualism will suffice.

 

*Adam does not actually talk like this as far as I know, but it’s more fun if you picture him talking like The Big Lebowski.

On flags and other subjects

Fair warning: this post is long and will probably bore people who are not interested in exciting philosophical concepts like the difference between subjectivity and objectivity. So, like, pretty much everybody.

As you recall, a few weeks ago many people were demanding the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol on the grounds that the flag is a symbol of racism. At the time, I wrote on Facebook:

What bothers me about this Confederate flag controversy, like most issues, is the almost complete lack of interest on the part of the outraged party to understand the people they are outraged with. Here’s the thing: a flag is a symbol. Symbols mean different things to different people. The symbol “Coke” means something different in the South than it means in the rest of the country. That doesn’t make the people in the South stupid, evil, or wrong. It just means they are interpreting a symbol differently. Clearly, with the spread of information and changing of attitudes about race, the Confederate flag’s meaning in the South is catching up to its meaning elsewhere, and it’s only a matter of time before that symbol is removed from official use. If you want to accelerate that process, the absolute worst way to do it (other than physically removing the flag) is to accuse the people who support it of being stupid, racist, evil, etc. The only purpose that kind of rhetoric serves is to make you feel good about your moral superiority and self-righteous indignation. If you actually want to effect change, start by trying to understand what it is you want to change.

Shortly after posting that, still a bit irritated about the self-righteous attitude of the flag-yankers, I got into an argument on Twitter with Adam Gurri about this very topic. I can’t for the life of me find the conversation back, but as I recall it started with Adam stating that those fighting the removal of the flag were clearly in the wrong because the Confederate flag has an agreed-upon meaning that includes certain racist attitudes. I responded that a flag is a symbol, and that symbols have no intrinsic meaning, so it’s unfair to assume that all other people are using the flag to mean exactly the same thing. I half-jokingly asked what percentage of a society had to think the flag was racist for it to become objectively racist (my point being that symbols never have objective meaning, no matter who believes what about them).

Adam acknowledged that the flag has no objective meaning, but he also insisted that its meaning is not completely subjective, because otherwise everyone could make up their own meaning for the flag, which would presumably defeat the purpose of having a flag in the first place. He suggested the flag’s meaning was “intersubjective,” meaning that the flag has a meaning that is shared among many people. At the time I dismissed the idea of intersubjectivity as a sort of cheat, a way of pretending that there is something other than subjectivity and objectivity. But Adam makes a pretty good argument for the idea of intersubjectivity in this blog post, which I recommend you read now, because otherwise you’re not going to know what I’m talking about. Here’s a puzzling image that you can use as a placeholder while you read it:

Then why is it on your sign?

Then why is it on your sign?

Back? Good.

The fact is that on some level intersubjectivity has to exist. It’s absurd to dismiss the idea of the shared meaning of symbols while writing in a language that depends on the shared meaning of symbols. It seems to me, though, that intersubjectivity is not a property of the symbol/meaning pair itself, but of the relationship between two subjective viewpoints. In other words, intersubjectivity isn’t a thing in itself; it’s an emergent property of a collection of things. Think of it this way: there are such things are parallel lines, but there is no such thing as a parallel line. A line cannot be parallel by itself, and a single symbol/meaning pair cannot be intersubjective. The intersubjectiveness arises as a result of isomorphism between two subjective points of view, in the same way that parallelism arises as the result of equidistance between two lines.

So to the question “Is there such a thing as intersubjectivity?” I would answer “Yes, but only as an emergent property that depends on subjectivity.” It isn’t a new class of thing in between (or otherwise in addition to) subjective and objective. It’s just a description of shared subjectivity.

(A clarification before I continue: when I say a symbol/meaning pair is subjective, I am not using subjective to mean that the symbol/meaning pair is completely arbitrary and up to the individual’s discretion, in the way that people sometimes talk about “subjective morality.” If you’ve grown up in an environment where the Confederate flag denotes racism, then that is the meaning that is going to be imprinted on your brain. You can’t just arbitrarily choose a different meaning for that symbol any more than you could just start talking backwards if you wanted to. Thus your understanding of the flag is going to be subjective, but it’s also going to be largely intersubjective with that of other people raised in the same environment.)

In the last few paragraphs of his post, Adam seems to anticipate my argument about intersubjectivity just being a description of a shared subjective state:

Most people take it for granted that groups exist. Libertarians, as well as economists and social scientists committed to methodological individualism, cry foul here. Only individuals decide, they argue. A “group” is just a shorthand for a bunch of individuals. Maybe they look cohesive because of economic and social processes, but individuals and processes are all that there is.

But wait a minute. What the heck is an individual? Aren’t they just a cluster of cells that turnover on a regular basis? Aren’t they just a bunch of atoms, 98 percent of which have moved on by the end of a year? And what are cells, but molecules and atoms? And what are atoms, but subatomic particles? At any level of substance, isn’t there just some process going on that makes the thing look like a thing? Aren’t processes the only thing truly real, in the end?

I think what Adam is getting at is that intersubjectivity exists in the same sense that groups of people exist: you can argue that only subjectivity exists or that only individuals exist, but ultimately reducing reality to those terms is just as arbitrary as talking about symbols as having definite meaning or talking about society in terms of the interplay of groups. If that is what he is saying, though, he is wrong. The individual is the seat of both consciousness and perception, and because of that, it is qualitatively different from both its constituent elements and groups of which it is a part. Neither an atom nor a government has ideas, perceptions, a point of view, or consciousness. Granted, we often talk about what the United States “wants,” “believes,” etc., but this is just anthropomorphism: we talk about groups as if they were human beings because we understand human beings, and thinking of groups this way is a useful shortcut to describing the intragroup dynamics that ultimately result in certain external effects. In the same way, we might talk about an electron “wanting” to “jump” from one place to another, but this anthropomorphism should not be take to mean that an electron is conscious, intentional thing, as if an electron were a human being writ small. It is not, and neither is a nation-state a human being writ large.

Some libertarian/anarchist-minded thinkers take this qualitative difference so seriously that (as Adam indicates) they refuse even to use figures of speech that hint at similarities between individuals and groups, insisting that “groups don’t exist.” The problem with this is that you preserve your intellectual purity at the expense of being able to talk in accepted terminology with normal people. It’s virtually impossible to have a sociological or political discussion without acknowledging that the government or other groups exist in some sense (after all, what does an anarchist have to complain about if nation-states don’t exist?). And in the same way, you have to assume that certain symbols have certain widely accepted meanings. Insisting on total atomistic individuality / subjectivity simply isn’t practical. So in that sense I agree with Adam: groups do exist, and intersubjectivity describes an actual phenomenon.

That said, the dichotomy Adam presents between groups being “just shorthand for a bunch of individuals” and groups “actually existing” is a false one. I am willing to accept, for the purposes of efficient conversation, that groups exist. I do not accept, however, that a group is something more than a collection of individuals. Groups do exist–as a shorthand for a collection of individuals. Similarly, intersubjectivity exists–as a description of shared subjective meanings. We can talk meaningfully about both of these things, but let’s not pretend that our ability to identify something as “existing” somehow imbues it with other properties, like consciousness, intention, or moral authority.

So to say that the Confederate flag is a racist symbol, and to base this statement on the idea of intersubjectivity, is, I think, a cheat after all (and maybe that’s not what Adam was saying, but that is my interpretation of his argument). It’s a way of saying “Pretty much everybody thinks X; therefore X is true.” You can’t derive either objective meaning or moral authority from a bunch of people believing something, no matter how many of them there are or how fervently they believe it. And ultimately, that’s what bothers me about these arguments. I honestly don’t give a shit about the Confederate flag. If it offends a lot of people, don’t fly it on government property. What I object to is the characterization of the people who disagree with this sentiment as necessarily racist. Think about what is happening here:

Group A says: “This symbol means X, and that is offensive. Take it down.”

Group B says: “No, this symbol means Y, which is not offensive. I won’t take it down.”

Now the charitable, rational thing for Group A to say at this point is “Maybe it means Y to you, but I want you to know that it means X to a lot of people. So out of respect for those people, you should take it down.”

But instead, Group A seems to want to insist that Group B is somehow objectively wrong in its interpretation of the symbol. So they say, “Look, any idiot can see that this symbol means X, so take it down.” This is a very uncharitable interpretation of Group B’s stated beliefs, and the only way Group A can coherently make this argument is to deny that any valid interpretation of the symbol other than their own exists. That is, they assume that the symbol has an objective meaning, even though this is impossible. To get around this problem, Group A brings in the idea of intersubjectivity (although they may not use that exact term), deliberately fudging the concept so that “Agreed upon by many people” becomes “Objectively true for all practical purposes.”

The problem is this: the moment that you elevate intersubjectivity to the level of objectivity, or pretend that groups have some kind of importance above and beyond that of the individuals comprising the group, you are on very dangerous territory. This is the domain of groupthink and collectivism, where the lone dissenter is marginalized and crimes against individuals can be justified on the basis of the good of the group. After all, if people are to the nation-state as cells are to a human being, then executing a few dissidents should bother us no more than excising a suspicious mole. Unless we recognize that the individual is something qualitatively different from the group, and that the individual viewpoint is irreducible and sacrosanct, we risk falling into the trap of believing that human beings are just collections of atoms or that a single human being has value only insofar as he contributes to an arbitrarily defined group.

Do I feel bad for the benighted hillbilly who can’t understand why his beloved symbol of regional pride is being removed from the capitol? Not particularly. But the same reasoning used to dismiss that hillbilly can be used to marginalize any viewpoint and demonize (or dehumanize) any nonconformist. In a society where widespread intersubjectivity is used as ersatz objectivity, conventional wisdom becomes dogma and the dissenter becomes a heretic. If one has a perspective that differs significantly from that of the majority, she is either evil or insane, and must either be cured or removed from society, like a cancerous cell.

The alternative to this ultimately totalitarian ideology is to view each person as an end to himself, and to see each subjective viewpoint as having intrinsic value. This is the viewpoint that says “I understand that this symbol means Y to you, but it means X to a lot of people. Let’s try to come to an agreement about what to do about that.” To me, that seems like the way forward.

Dis audio books and more

I figured it’s probably time for an update on the projects I’m currently working on.

The second book in the Dis trilogy, Distopia, is now available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback. I’m currently 20,000 words (about a quarter of the way) into book three, Disillusioned. (And yes, I swapped the titles of the two books, in case you’re wondering why Distopia came out before Disillusioned). I hope to have Disillusioned to Kickstarter supporters by the end of August. It will be available on Amazon two weeks after that. If you don’t want to miss out on cool stuff like advance copies of my books and posters (see pic), make sure you follow me on Kickstarter.

Land of Dis posters!

Land of Dis posters!

I also have some good news for audiobook fans: I’ve signed a deal with Audible.com to produce audio versions of both Distopia and Disillusioned. I’m trying to get Phil Gigante, who did a fantastic job on Disenchanted, to narrate the second two Dis books as well. Additionally, my friend Joel Bezaire of Nashville Bass Works will be producing the audio version of Mercury Revolts. I expect the audio version of Mercury Revolts to be available by September; the Dis books should be available by the end of 2015. I hope to have audio versions of Schrodingers’s Gat, The Force is Middling in This One and City of Sand sometime in 2016.

Next up after finishing Disillusioned is to make revisions to my near-future noir mystery, The Big Sheep. Once that book is finalized, I’ll start on the sequel. Since The Big Sheep and The Big Sheep 2 (or whatever I end up calling it) are being published by St. Martin’s Press, I don’t have control over the release date, but I would expect the two books to be out around August 2016 and January 2017, respectively.

But don’t worry; you don’t have to wait a year for new books from me. I will most likely be writing at least one, and probably two, new Mercury books this fall. Since these will be self-published through Westmarch Publishing, I can get them out pretty quickly. I will probably do a Kickstarter for these.

To sum up, here’s the tentative schedule:

August 2015        Disillusioned to Kickstarter supporters

September 2015  Disillusioned available on Amazon, Mercury Revolts audiobook

Fall 2015             Distopia audiobook

Winter 2015        Disillusioned audiobook, Mercury #5 (Kindle and paperback)

Spring 2016        Schrodingers’s Gat, The Force is Middling in This One and City of Sand audiobooks, Mercury #6 (Kindle and paperback)

August 2016       The Big Sheep (St. Martin’s)

January 2017      The Big Sheep 2 (St. Martin’s)

 

 

I’ll keep you updated as things progress.

Let’s All Freak Out About Amazon’s Pay-Per-Page-Read Scheme!

freakoutAny time Amazon makes a change to the way it pays authors, people freak the hell out—and not without reason: Amazon currently controls over 60% of the ebook market, so for authors like me who subsist primarily on income from ebooks, Amazon has a lot of control over our lives.

The latest freak-out has to do with Amazon’s decision to pay authors by the number of pages read, rather than paying them per download, in some cases. That “in some cases” is in italics for a reason: Amazon will continue to pay authors / publishers the same as before for ebooks that are actually purchased; the change only affects books downloaded from the Kindle Online Lending Library or through Kindle Unlimited. (You would probably have missed this important point if you read some of the media hand-wringing about this change; whenever Amazon is involved, journalists trip over themselves to make Amazon look bad, regardless of the facts.)

KOLL, as the name indicates, is Amazon’s online book-lending service. KU is Amazon’s book subscription service, which allows consumers to pay a flat monthly rate to download as many books as they like. For authors / publishers, enrolling your books in KOLL and KU is completely optional. If you want your book to be included in KOLL/KU, you sign up for Amazon Select, which means your ebook is exclusively available on Amazon. If you don’t like the idea of “giving away” your books, you can opt of Amazon Select, continue to sell your books on the site (and other sites), and make a set royalty per copy sold (generally 70% of the price).

This move makes perfect sense from Amazon’s perspective: under the previous pay-per-download model, I could split one of my novels into twenty separate “books,” invite all my friends to borrow each book through KOLL (or download it through KU) and make money on every single download, while providing very little value to the readers and clogging up Amazon’s system with crappy, five-page-long books. Presumably enough authors were engaging in this sort of behavior that Amazon decided it needed a better system, for the sake of both its bottom line and the integrity of its library. So they implemented a system where the author only gets paid per page read. (And yes, it’s a little creepy that Amazon can tell what pages of a book you’ve read, but that’s been the case since Kindle first launched, so you’re about five years late with your Big Brother concerns.)

So what has really changed for most authors under this new system? The short answer is: not much. Despite articles with titles like “Amazon set to pay self-published authors as little as $0.006 per page read,” it turns out that for now at least, Amazon seems to be paying very close to what they would be paid if someone bought the book. The system is a little arcane and counter-intuitive, but basically it works like this:

  • Every month Amazon establishes a fund used to pay authors for KOLL/KU page reads.
  • Amazon determines how many pages of each book were read during the month, using its Kindle Edition Normalized Pages (KENP) algorithm, which is a fancy way of saying that you can’t get away with that trick you used in college of making the margins smaller and using 14-point font to make your paper seem longer.
  • Amazon divides the fund amount by the total number of pages read and pays you your share.

For example, the May fund total is $10.8 million. The total number of pages being read per month, according to Amazon, is around 1.9 billion. That means authors will be paid about ($10.8 million / 1.9 billion = ) $0.0057 per page read. It should be noted that a “page,” according to the KENP algorithm, seems to be somewhat shorter than a normal paperback page: my novel City of Sand is 255 pages long in paperback, using 6” x 9” paper and pretty standard margins and font size. But according to Amazon, it’s a whopping 455 pages using the KENP algorithm. So if someone downloads City of Sand and reads the book in its entirety, I would make about (455 x $.0057 = ) $2.59 per copy read.

Previously, I was making around $1.30 per copy downloaded through KOLL/KU, so I’m actually making more under the new system than I was making previously (assuming people actually read my books). Of course, authors of short fiction who were cleaning up with twenty page short stories at $1.30 per download are doing worse. But overall, the system seems pretty fair to me: when I sell a copy of City of Sand, I make 70% of the sales price of $3.99, which comes out to ($3.99 x 70% = ) $2.79 per copy. So if someone downloads City of Sand through KOLL/KU and reads the entire thing, I’m making twenty cents less per copy than if they had bought it. Sure, I’d love to have that additional $.20 per copy (and I’d love to get paid even if they never read the book), but I’m not going to shed any tears over it.

So what’s with the freak-out? Well, most of it is just ignorance and knee-jerk anti-Amazon sentiment on the part of the media. But part of it is legitimate concern on the part of people who are going to lose a lot of money because they can no longer game the system like they used to. Consider this quote from the Guardian article:

Casey Lucas, a literary editor who works with self-publishing authors, says she has lost six clients already. They have decided to stop writing after “estimating a 60–80% reduction in royalties”.

This almost has to be hyperbole. The only way it’s possible for someone to be losing even 60% of their royalties because of this change would be if they were making the vast majority of their income from unpaid downloads of books that were either very short or that very few people actually read. In other words, they deliberately took advantage of a loophole in Amazon’s system that allowed them to make a lot of money despite the fact that they were providing very little value to Amazon’s customers, and now Amazon has closed that loophole. If you have a stable full of clients using that business model, you aren’t a “literary editor”; You’re a scam artist, and not a very good one, because your scam was built on the premise that Amazon wasn’t going to catch on to what you (and people like you) were doing. Pardon me if I don’t shed a tear while you go look for a real job.

So should you as a self-published author make your books available to download through KOLL and KU? That’s going to depend on your feelings about being highly dependent on Amazon for your income. The only way you can get your books into KOLL/KU is to enroll your book in Kindle Select, which means your ebook is exclusively available on Amazon. Whether you want to give Amazon that much control over your livelihood is up to you. Hugh Howey enrolls all his books in Kindle Select. Other authors, such as my friend Denise Grover Swank, prefer to diversify, making their books available through Apple’s iBooks and other marketplaces in addition to Amazon. For me, it makes sense to enroll my books in Kindle Select because a lot of my books are published by 47North, an Amazon imprint, so they are exclusive to Kindle anyway. Putting some of my books on other marketplaces wouldn’t make me enough money to make up for the lost KOLL/KU income, and it would probably frustrate people who can’t find the rest of my books. So for me, enrolling my books in Kindle Select makes sense.

One big caveat to this conclusion: Amazon is in sole control of the amount of the Kindle Select fund, and could change the terms of the deal anytime they like. If you’re a self-published author, this is something you’re going to want to keep an eye on. Don’t assume that because KOLL/KU is a good deal now, it will always be. Amazon is a business, and isn’t in this to help you earn a living. That said, they also aren’t in this to screw you. If you write quality books that people want to read, it’s in Amazon’s interest to make those books available to consumers.

On the other hand, if you write short, lousy books nobody wants to read… well, maybe you’ll get quoted in the Guardian some day. :)