Things to ponder

Several articles caught my eye recently.  Some are only tangentially related to writing and publishing, but all have a bearing on it to a greater or lesser extent.  Here goes with a roundup.  The title of each article is a link to the original.

1.  “The Great Inversion“.  Eric S. Raymond discusses how socialism has developed from a working-class movement into a managerial and pseudo-intellectual one, where those adopting it actually look down on the working class.  There are strong echoes of the “gatekeeper” phenomenon we’ve seen between traditional and independent publishing.  For example:

The working class increasingly found itself trapped in dying towns. Where it wasn’t, credentialism often proved an equally effective barrier to upward mobility. My wife bootstrapped herself out of a hardscrabble working-class background after 1975 to become a partner at a law firm, but the way she did it would be unavailable to anyone outside the 1 in 100 of her peers at or above the IQ required to earn a graduate degree. She didn’t need that IQ to be a lawyer; she needed it to get the sheepskin that said she was allowed to be a lawyer.

The increasingly internationalized managerial-statist tribe traded increasingly in such permissions – both in getting them and in denying them to others.

. . .

In this and other ways, the internationalized managerial elite grew more and more unlike a working class for which both economic and social life remained stubbornly local. Like every other ruling elite, as that distance increased it developed a correspondingly increasing demand for an ideology that justified that distinction and legitimized its power. And in the post-class-warfare mutations of Marxism, it found one.

2.  “An Overview of the Dunning-Kruger Effect“.  Again, consider this in the light of the “gatekeepers” of traditional publishing:  but also think about it in the light of authors who can’t or won’t be told when they’re screwing up monumentally, and insist that they know better than their critics.  (Remember “the book that must not be named“?)

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. Essentially, low ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence. The combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability leads them to overestimate their own capabilities.

The term lends a scientific name and explanation to a problem that many people immediately recognize—that fools are blind to their own foolishness. As Charles Darwin wrote in his book The Descent of Man, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

3.  “How computers will eventually steal jobs from white-collar workers“.  This article points out that artificial intelligence systems are no longer slavishly copying human ways of doing things.  Instead, they’re increasingly performing tasks in their own way, learning from themselves, and coming at even creative tasks with a novel approach (you should pardon the expression) that bypasses much of our accumulated knowledge and experience.  As writers, we’re far from immune to this.

… last month, DeepMind, an AI company owned by Google, announced the development of a system that can outperform human specialists in breast-cancer diagnosis. How does it work? It does not try to replicate the instinct or judgment or intuition of a doctor. In fact, it knows or understands nothing about medicine at all. Instead, it exploits recent advances in processing power and data analysis to run a pattern-recognition algorithm through thousands of past cases, hunting for similarities between them and the particular mammogram in question. Technological progress means it no longer matters that human beings cannot explain themselves.

This is increasingly true for a great many other white-collar activities: There are systems that can predict the outcome of legal disputes, compose beautiful music, design remarkable buildings and write articles much like this one — not by copying the way a lawyer, musician, architect or journalist might do it, but by using recent technological advances to work in a fundamentally different, entirely un-human way.

The lesson, then, should be clear: Not all white-collar work is as complex as commonly supposed, and even more complex activities are increasingly within reach of machines. For those reasons, it would be a grave mistake to think that white-collar workers are somehow immune from current technological change.

4.  The Atlantic moves into the online short fiction market.  Given that outlet’s notoriously left-wing perspective, I suspect those of us who don’t share it may not get much of a look-in;  but who knows?  If you write short stories, this is a potential new market that may be worth pursuing.

Contemplative reading might be viewed as a minor act of rebellion in the internet age. At a time when every available surface is saturated in information, it sometimes seems as though facts are absorbed osmotically, even accidentally, just by moving through space and time. And although the internet is not the perfect opposite of the novel, as some people have argued, it makes fairly efficient work of splintering attention and devouring time. Literary reading—of fiction and of poetry, the kind of reading that commands moral and emotional reflection—is far too easily set aside.

In addition to the several short stories that appear in the print magazine each year, we’ve decided to create a new destination for those who seek the intellectual nourishment that fiction provides.

5.  A writer of transgender fiction recently ran afoul of the politically correct brigade.  Reason magazine reports:

Clarkesworld, a well-regarded science fiction and fantasy web magazine, recently published first-time author Isabel Fall. The title of her story, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter,” alludes to a meme typically used to delegitimize transgender people. But the tale is anything but anti-trans: It’s a surreal, mind-bending war story that turns the meme on its head. It was read and approved by sensitivity reviewers—some of them trans. Its author, Fall, is herself trans.

As far as I can tell, most of the social-media reaction to the story was positive. But a small number of militantly unhappy people attacked the story for offending them. Their harassment of Fall was so unpleasant that she asked Clarkesworld to un-publish the story, and the editor complied.

It’s a typical example of wokescolds at work.  Whilst I don’t sexually objectify (or subjectify, for that matter) attack helicopters in any way (the ones I saw in my younger days, I was usually trying to shoot down!), and I’m more of a transgressor than a transgender, I nevertheless sympathize with the author.  The Right Geek agrees, and regards the outcome of the incident as fundamentally immoral.

Allowing the loudest complainers to control what art gets made will lead to bad, boring art. But beyond that, bending the knee in this way is fundamentally immoral. Why? Because it stomps on the individual freedom of your creators — and because it allows the unreasonable few to dictate to the many what they may read and what they may watch. Nobody, no matter their political sympathies, should be permitted to wield such power over others.

6.  Finally, there’s “The Top Ten Publishing Industry Trends Every Author Needs to Know in 2020“.  Some that I found interesting included the following (more details at the link above):

2. More indie authors will collaborate on marketing.
3. We’ll see more published works from author groups.
4. Organic reach will decline.
5. Running ads will become a requirement.
6. Big five publishers will start using KDP Select. (I’m already seeing this with authors I enjoyed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, many now deceased. Their back list is beginning to appear on KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited, put there by their publishers. One does wonder whether the original author contracts allowed this . . . or whether the publishers are taking a chance on no-one in their families complaining or caring, so long as at least some royalties are paid.)
10. Creative indies will experiment with new ways to make money.

Well, there’s your reading matter for today.  I hope you find it as useful and/or thought-provoking as I did.



  1. re 3: yeah a lot of midlevel government employees can be replaced by computers now….

    (I bet a decent AI could process Form 4s in less than 18 months)

    1. Disagree. Lot of the approaches now are Artificial Neural Network based.

      That means that not only can you poorly specify or implement the system, you can have a very difficult time trouble shooting the internals of the process when you get a portion of your answers that are just wrong some how.

    2. After all those families pressuring their kids to attend college, it’s rather ironic that the jobs that CANNOT be replaced (and, if the border is handled better, can’t be taken by non-citizens) are the skilled trades:
      – Plumbing
      – Carpentry
      – Roofing
      – Nursing (yet, a profession, but – also a skilled trade)
      – Dental and Medical Assistants
      – Fracking

      Just to name a few.

      1. It is the same wrong thinking as ‘magic AI can make socialism work’.

        How does AI work, how does education work, how do various economic activities work? Understanding all of these well is hard. Understand them a little bit, and you realize that there are a lot of hard to automate tasks, and no one educational process that will get everyone prepared for all of the tasks. Understand them badly, and you get theories like “We will just teach everyone to be a professor of economics, and everyone will get super wealthy with lots of leisure time.”

    3. AI wouldn’t work so well for any of the existing forms– right now I’m fighting with taxes, and wow some of the mistakes that the import program makes on a standard form with numbers– but if you had someone who actually uses the system design a new import system, they could probably cut 90% of the work.

  2. “Not all white-collar work is as complex as commonly supposed, and even more complex activities are increasingly within reach of machines.”

    So very true. A lot of it is tedious, menial, and requires no more skill level than the average retail job. The only difference I see (at least as regards my job at the moment) is the better potential for advancement Because my foot is in the door, so to speak.

    The ‘credentialism’ is utterly ridiculous though. I do NOT need a college degree to do this job. Or, frankly, a goodly number of jobs in my field office–and even the ones where a degree in the specific field might be useful…one could still train a non-degree holder to do the job very well indeed.

    I’m one of those mid-low level gov employees too. I mean, I don’t WANT to be replaced by a computer, but I could be, and it wouldn’t shock me. But for the fact that the government will NEVER pay enough for a good enough system to do it–they like the lowest bidder, after all, and that leads to really crappy software.

    Anyway, I don’t intend to stay here forever. I’m here for the regular paycheck and insurance, but soon as I’ve got the savings to pay for the training course, I’m off to do either court stenography or from home captioning, which a.) pay very well if you’re good (and I plan to put in the work to be very good) and b.) they’ve already discovered CAN’T be done by a computer, because computers just cannot replicate the human ear. 😀

    1. I do not think the best counter argument is in praising bureaucrats, or arguing that the status quo does a good job of matching qualifications, abilities, and getting the work done correctly in a timely fashion.

      I think the strongest argument goes more or less a) a central government bureaucracy causes problems, and that tendency to cause problems is inherent in the information losses in moving decisions between humans b) a wholly computer implemented bureaucracy will lose more information than one at least partly implemented in human beings c) Managing a society with an ‘AI’ bureaucracy will result in the society changing past the initial design criteria of the computer system* d) trying to force human societies to conform to the simple model that the computer bureaucracy has will either result in killing lots of people in a futile effort to make things match, or abandoning the whole process as not workable.

      There is a more general problem in Federal Government based AI services. They either have the option of procuring it, and supporting it from a contractor, or doing it in house. A lot of the Silicon Valley companies basically have to be considered information warfare adversaries at this point. Some of those would still qualify under the procurement rules. In house, some types of programming are rare and difficult. If the federal government has to automate something, and that something must rely on something difficult to program well, is it going to be able to recruit and retain the workforce to debug it and keep it working reliably? (My answer is that we probably need to find ways to do things that are comprehensible for a wider number of programmers.)

      This summer, I was exposed to a video of an AI debater. Hugely generic arguments, with significant weaknesses. It was arguing for education ‘investment’, with a typical approach, and weaknesses to, among other things, a debater willing to do socially unacceptable things like refusing to recognize common humanity. Some of the commentators speculated that the human judges might have been biased in awarding the victory to the human. With what the AI was bringing to the table, any debater of minimal competence, some care, and fast on their feet should have been been able to eke out a victory. There are absolutely tasks better automated. I think we are still wildly overhyping AI.

      *I believe that this is generally true of all controls imposed on human societies. It is just that a free societies of individuals can adjust their self control and how they try to influence others quickly enough that this flaw does not become obvious.

      1. Lemme tell ya, we spend as much time in-house, so to speak, sneering at the inefficiencies of our OWN bureaucracy as anyone outside of it as well. It makes those of us with actual jobs to do (I help set up rights-of-way for businesses and individuals over public lands–sure, one might argue that why do we even need to do that, but that’s a different discussion) harder.

        For example, there is the view of the bureaucrat who makes everyone outside the org follow the rules, but does not himself follow them. This is, sadly, true–but is NOT true of all of us who work for the org. In fact, those twerps make our jobs a thousand times harder, because those outside the org argue–not without reason–why do THEY have to follow these rules, then?

        And because the gov makes it nearly impossible to fire people, bad actors tend to receive the “promoted to become someone else’s problem” which explains sooooo very much about the upper echelons of your average gov agency. The truth is, the bulk of that agency is probably, at the very least, decently average at their jobs–but unfortunately, the incompetent scum floats to the top, and taints everyone else…

        1. And, usually, the rules are there for ****ed good reason, which may cause death if you assume folks followed them, and they didn’t.

          My husband narrowly escaped that because someone gave themselves permission to violate electrical safety standards. And only escaped it because of the fail-safe of “guy holding rope yanked him off the live circuit.”

  3. I think AI/ML is a good example of assuming correlation is causation. In other words, it tries to match correlations, which often works, but doesn’t lead to understanding causation.

    So beyond the hype AI is often brittle. It works well, for narrowly defined, static areas. But it can’t handle black swans – for example, use AI to try to predict political-charged law suits, especially as the composition of the judiciary changes due to who is appointing judges….

    I’ve heard of AI designed chips that supposedly were great (faster, smaller, etc), except when the requirements changed a bit, they weren’t great. In a similar vein, here’s an article about issues with generative design (which has been hyped in the manufacturing world):

  4. > or whether the publishers are taking a chance on no-one in their families complaining or caring, so long as at least some royalties are paid.)
    From following a few rights battles, I’ve learned that some agents have been kind enough not to bother families about annoying sales or royalties from deceased authors. Particularly ones who have been gone long enough for there to be no immediate family.

    For that matter, recent news indicates some agents seem keen to shield authors from that sort of minutia while they’re still alive…

  5. “Some had apparently claimed that Fall’s stated birth year—1988—was an alt-right dog whistle, since the double eights could be seen as referencing H.H. (H being the eighth letter of the alphabet), or “heil Hitler.”

    When I first read this, I said something profoundly inappropriate for a public forum such as this. I mean, how paranoid do you have to be to believe something this insane.

    1. I was so dumbfounded I totally forgot the ? that was supposed to end that last sentence.

      1. OK, I thought I’d read some over-the-top stuff on the ‘net this past year or so. That might just have won the award for “Paranoid and Obsessed to the Point of Singularity.”

        1. I guess I’ve gotten lazy then.

          At least this time this year has been more productive than last year.

    2. Or he knows Mandarin and wants to be rich (in Mandarin, 8 and rich sound similar, so many Chinese like the number 8). That’s just as logical.

    3. Actually, little known fact, there is a thirty one to thirty two year old cohort that is exclusively composed of white supremacist anti-Semitic murderous nutjobs. They’ve been diligently working to radicalize those younger than them for a very long time. They’ve been secretly waiting until they can put one of their own into the Presidency. 2020 will be the last election we have with a good outcome for a very long time.

      More seriously, 1988 has a very significant role in my current WIP, and is not at all a racist dogwhistle.

      As someone who identifies as a Dalek, a Necron, or one of Saberhagen’s Berserkers, I am hurt and offended by the way Fall sought to other and discriminate against me.

    4. The “1988” thing is the type of foolery you see when an imbecile is trying to one-up some other, previous imbecile. Very common on the Left.

  6. Was it ever seriously believed that white-collar work was exempt from automation? Punched card machines started replacing office workers in the early 1900s. Teleprinters replaced Morse telegraphers. Mainframe computers replaced the thousands of workers calculating bills (for insurance companies for example) and replaced much human decision-making relating to inventory replenishment and production planning(not always with good results). Many draftsmen were replaced by computer-aided design systems. Accountant work involving lots of arithmetic was replaced by spreadsheets. And so on.

  7. A good book on the realities of artificial intelligence is Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans, by Melanie Mitchell, herself an AI researcher.

    She mentions an example of one of her students, who trained a neural network to distinguish nature scenes including an animal from those not including an animal. It did a good job. But it turned out that the network wasn’t really recognizing animals at all, but rather detecting how to photo was focused…basically, it discovered that photographers tend to focus on the subject–an animal in this case–and leave the background blurry. An interesting shortcut, but the network was doing something entirely different from what one would have thought it was doing without further investigation.

  8. “Eric S. Raymond discusses how socialism has developed from a working-class movement into a managerial and pseudo-intellectual one, where those adopting it actually look down on the working class.”

    This is no surprise if you understand what socialism actually was: an attempt to recreate a medieval society, with an aristocratic upper class and an “everybody else” working class, with eligibility for the upper class being determined by one’s intelligence, and one’s intelligence being measured by one’s level of education in the socialist creed. Genuine workers, lacking any such education, were forever marked as inferior, and forever banned from becoming members of the upper class.

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