Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Current Experiments in Self Publishing

Modern technology, which greatly simplifies self-publishing, raises the possibility that the conventional market structure may be replaced by a new model in which the role of the publisher is reduced or eliminated. That future is here and I am there. My second novel, Salamander, is  up on Amazon.com as a Kindle file and has received its first (positive) review. We will have to see whether it attracts enough readers who like it, review it positively and tell their friends to read it, to make up for the lack of a publisher's endorsement and marketing. I'm not quitting my day job just yet.

That is not my only experiment in online self-publication. My wife and I have produced a collection of medieval and renaissance recipes—about 350 of them, each accompanied by a description of how we make it—along with related articles, and are in the late stages of publishing it as a physical book using CreateSpace, Amazon's POD subsidiary. The process turned out to be surprisingly easy and inexpensive. By the time we are done, it will have cost us less than a hundred dollars, mostly postage for proof copies—it is amazing how many minor errors  can survive one, two, or even three rounds of proofreading. Once we are done—real soon now as one friend likes to put it—the book will be available via CreateSpace or Amazon. All we have to do is collect royalties.

The project is not entirely new; this book is based on the cooking section of the Miscellany, a book on our medieval hobbies which we have  been self-publishing for twenty-some years, nine editions and something between a thousand and two thousand copies sold. The great thing about doing it via CreateSpace instead of Kinko's or OfficeMax is that I will never have to fill another order.

Assuming that the next proof copy is, as I profoundly hope, the last, the book should be available in a month or so. The title, for the benefit of any of my readers who might like to try cooking from very old recipes, is:

How to Milk an Almond, Stuff an Egg, and Armor a Turnip: A Thousand Years of Recipes.

One way of replacing the marketing efforts of a publisher is online self-promotion. Blog posts, for instance.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Learning from Evidence: Not

This morning I listened to a commencement address by a former judge. It struck me as an interesting example of the failure to modify beliefs on the basis of evidence.

The speaker began by saying that every American had a legal right to health care, education, financial aid. He took for granted, and obviously approved of, one of the major changes in America over the course of the past century, the shift from a system where almost all goods and services were provided by voluntary transactions on the marketplace to one where many are provided by government, paid for by taxes, allocated by government bureaucracy.

Much of his talk dealt with his own experience with the latter system, the result of his and his wife taking responsibility for, eventually adopting, a young relative with severe autism and related developmental disabilities. Under existing law, she was entitled to a wide range of medical and educational services. When he tried to obtain those services for her, however, he found himself involved in a tangled web of bureaucracy, detailed and inconsistent rules, phone conversations with a computer on the other end. He suspected that insofar as he finally succeeded in working his way through that tangle to a successful outcome, it was at least in part because a federal judge was better able to get attention and favorable treatment from government bureaucrats than most other people would have been. He concluded that the young law graduates to whom he was speaking should devote their lives, at least in part, to seeing that poor Americans got from the government the things to which they were legally entitled.

It apparently did not occur to him that the contrast between his experience in getting services provided by government and his experience buying groceries on the private market, where you simply pay your money and walk out with what you have bought, might say something about the relative workability of the two systems for providing goods and services. Nor that if a system introduced in large part on the theory that it would even out differences between rich and poor turned out to serve higher status people much better than lower status people, perhaps the theory was wrong, perhaps government production and distribution was creating, rather than eliminating, inequality. When a judge goes to the grocery store, he gets the same groceries at the same price as anyone else. 

His conclusion was that these were real problems with the existing system, and the solution was to make that system work better. Institutions which, on the evidence of his own first-hand experience, were still functioning badly seventy or eighty years after they were first designed and built, were to be reformed by the wave of a magic wand with the aid of lots of well intentioned young lawyers inspired by a commencement address.

The experience reminded me of a passage by George Orwell that I recently read. Orwell spent his final months in a private hospital, attempting to recover from the tuberculosis that ultimately killed him. Commenting on the difference between that and the (presumably government supported, although he does not say) hospital he had been in earlier, he wrote:

"The routine here ... is quite different from that at Hairmyres Hospital. Although everyone at Hairmyres was most kind & considerate to me—quite astonishingly so, indeed—one cannot help feeling at every moment the difference in the texture of life when one is paying one's own keep."

Orwell was a convinced socialist. One cannot tell from the comment whether it occurred to him that he was observing one of the advantages of the free market. 

That observation would not, of course, have been a sufficient reason for him to have changed his views; he could reasonably enough have pointed out that a few years earlier, before the success of Animal Farm, he could not have afforded the private hospital, and the public one was considerably better than nothing. But one would like to know whether he thought about the question, whether, if he had lived a few years longer and considered the implications of a variety of observed contradictions between his socialist beliefs and his experiences, his beliefs might have changed. 

Unfortunately, he didn't.

Salt, Fish Oil, and the Implications of Optimization

Suppose you are designing a race car; further suppose that you are very good at designing race cars, and so get everything right. You face a variety of tradeoffs. A larger engine will increase the car's power to accelerate, it will allow it to better overcome wind resistance—but it will also weigh more and require a larger gas tank, which will increase the car's mass, reducing the gain in acceleration and possibly making the car more likely to burst its tires or skid out on a turn. Similarly with the size and shape of tires, width of the wheel base, and a variety of other features.

Your car is designed, built, and it and its close imitators are winning races. A critic points out that you obviously have it wrong; the engine should have been bigger. To prove his point, he builds a car that is just like yours save that the engine is half again as large. Testing it on the straightaway, he demonstrates that it indeed has better acceleration than your car. He enters it in a race against your car—and loses.

He should not have been surprised; if the advantage of a larger engine had not been at least balanced by its disadvantages, your car would have had a larger engine. While there may be many ways of changing your design that produce a gain on one margin, each of them, if you have done your job right, will result in equal or greater losses on others.

Which argument helps to explain two recent news stories about human health.

There is a longstanding argument for reducing the amount of salt modern Americans consume, based on evidence that a high salt diet tends to produce high blood pressure. A recent European statistical study, however, reported just the opposite of what that argument suggests—evidence that lower salt intake was correlated with an increased risk of death from heart disease. Similarly, there is evidence that an increased consumption of omega 3 oils reduces the risk of heart attacks. But it has recently been reported that it also increases the risk of the more serious form of prostate cancer.

The logic of optimization provides an explanation for these results. The human body, like the race car, is a machine optimized for a purpose, although the optimization is by evolution rather than deliberate design. If it functioned better with less salt, the design would at some point of have been tweaked to consume less salt, excrete more salt more rapidly, or in some other way take advantage of that particular opportunity for improved design. If it functioned better with whatever metabolites fish oil produces, the very sophisticated chemical factory build into our metabolism would, presumably, have been modified over time to produce those metabolites without requiring that particular input. It is not surprising if changes produce improvements on some dimension of successful functioning for the human organism—but it is also not surprising if those changes, like changes in the design of a race car, produce at least equal worsening on other dimensions.

I do not want to overstate the point; there are at least two reasons why the design of my body might be suboptimal from my point of view, hence capable of improvement by, among other things, changes in my diet. To begin with, my objectives are not the same as the objectives of my genes. Evolution has optimized my design not for my longevity or happiness but for reproductive success; I am a machine for getting more copies of my genes into future generations. Living a long and healthy life is one means to that end, so optimizing for reproductive success will imply, among other things, changes that make my life longer and healthier. But where the two objectives are in conflict, evolution will unhesitatingly sacrifice welfare in favor of reproductive success. There might be ways in which my deliberate choices could reverse that preference.

Second, evolution is slow. We have had hundreds of thousands of years to optimize our bodies to function in the environment of hunter/gatherers, about ten thousand years to optimize against the environment of agriculturalists, and only a century or so to optimize against an environment where, in the developed world, most people have all the food they want and little need for physical labor. Hence it is not surprising if some of our behavior, and some of our biology, is poorly adapted to our present environment—making possible deliberate improvements in diet or life style.

But the implication of the argument I have offered is that we ought not to be surprised by results such as the two I just discussed. The fact that some change produces a gain in one measurable dimension that matters to us is very poor evidence that it produces an overall gain. Before altering behavior or diet, one ought to look for evidence of net effects on life expectancy or other reasonably final goals, not merely for desirable effects on one input thereto.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Orwell: Two minus, one plus

I'm now most of the way through the four volume Essays, Journalism & Letters, which I've been rereading and enjoying. Several points struck me, and since Orwell is unfortunately not around to argue with I thought I would put them on my blog instead:
"One argument for Basic English is that by existing side by side with Standard English it can act as a sort of corrective to the oratory of statesmen and publicists. High-sounding phrases, when translated into Basic, are often deflated in a surprising way. For example, I presented to a Basic expert the sentence, "He little knew the fate that lay in store for him"—to be told that in Basic this would become "He was far from certain what was going to happen". It sounds decidedly less impressive, but it means the same."(Volume III, 63, "As I Please," Tribune, 18 August 1944)
The denotation of the two sentences may be about the same, but the connotation is quite different. The first clearly implies that something important and surprising is going to happen to the character, the second carries no such implication. An extraordinary mistake for Orwell, who was not only a writer but a novelist, to make.
The book was suppressed ... . But in the process an important step forward was made. It was ruled that you may now print the first and last letters of the word with two asterisks in between, clearly indicating that it had four letters. This makes it reasonably sure that within a few years the word will be printable in full.

So does progress continue—and it is genuine progress, in my opinion, for if only our half-dozen "bad" words could be got off the lavatory wall and on to the printed page, they would soon lose their magical quality, and the habit of swearing, degrading to our thoughts and weakening to our language, might become less common.(Volume IV, 65, Tribune, "As I Please," 6 December 1946)
A plausible conjecture, but unfortunately a mistaken one. "F**k" can now be printed in full, and is. And its present participle is routinely used in conversation as the modern equivalent of "um," or perhaps a comma. I had a recent online conversation (in World of Warcraft) with someone who was surprised that I had any  objection to the practice.

On the other hand, in "As I Please" for 27 December 1946, Orwell cites Shaw as arguing that people today are more credulous than in the Middle Ages, with the example of the belief that the earth is round. Orwell goes on to discuss in some detail his own reasons for believing that the earth is round, and concludes that while he has good reason to think it is not flat, his belief that it is not, say, egg shaped comes down to belief in the authority of experts which he is not in a position to confirm at first hand.

It is very much the same point that I have made in the past here about evolution—that most who accept it, like most who deny it, are doing so out of their belief in the authorities they respect, not because they know what the arguments and evidence are.

Readers who follow the links will find that they go to pieces which cover a variety of subjects in addition to the ones I am discussing—and are all worth reading. It occurs to me that perhaps, when I set up this blog, I should have borrowed the title Orwell used for his columns.