At the moment, I am working an scene in which my fictional character, Reggie Haskell, applies to the University of Chicago. It is based on my own experience 50 years ago. Reggie’s experience is more interesting, but I thought someone might like to hear my version.

I got fairly high scores on the achievement tests kids were encouraged to take in the 60s. In my junior year of high school, a guidance counselor handed me a brochure from the University of Chicago. For some reason only known to the UC, they were recruiting students from small places like Ferndale High School. The UC offered to waive its application fee for Ferndale applicants. The waived fee got the attention of someone from a family that lived off a small milk check from Darigold, the cooperative that sold our farm’s milk.

No one from either my mother or my father’s families had been to college. The closest thing was an aunt who went to nursing school. My grandfathers stopped going to school at the third grade, the 3 Rs were all a farmer needed at the turn of the century and my struggling great-grandparents could spare no more for them. Eight or nine years was not too young to put in a full day on the farm. I heard stories of great uncles who quietly disappeared, never to be heard of again. My father was the third generation to struggle to clear enough land to raise crops that could keep a family alive. He and my grandfather finished clearing before I started grade school.

That I was going to college was not by no means a given. I would be the first generation that did not have to fight the woods for crop land. My uncles and aunts graduated from high school, as did my parents. High school was all I could expect. My parents had no money for college and my father could use help on the farm.

My father was a small farmer whose security was owning his land. Cash had to be managed carefully to assure there was gasoline for the tractor, the cattle and equipment were maintained, and electricity flowed to run the milking machines and cool the milk. Income was uncertain. Sick cattle, ruined hay, a dip in milk prices all spelled a drop in the milk check.

It is easy to be nostalgic about the small farmer, but my father nearly bled out from a perforated stomach ulcer that he kept hidden by secretly vomiting blood into the manure pile. Eventually, he could no longer stand and he was too weak to milk the cows. Then he admitted to my mother that he was sick. They went to the doctor the next day. The emergency room was for people who were really sick. The doctor wanted to put him in the hospital, but he refused because he had cows to milk. That was early spring. He was out plowing within the week. He got the crops planted but by summer he was institutionalized with severe depression. He convinced the psychiatrists to let him out for harvest. I was thirteen. It was a tough year. He had a lot of tough years. He called his two months in a locked ward in a mental hospital his vacation. He put no guile in the statement and he never left the farm.

I applied to the University of Chicago and was accepted. Chicago offered me full tuition and room and board. My parents wanted me to go to college but they were not sure what it would mean. It turned out that I didn’t either, although I thought I did. College did not take very well for me. I may have done better if I had not done so well. I graduated with honors and a prestigious fellowship to go on to graduate school, but for some reason, this did not make me a college graduate. I had slipped through without the university leaving a mark. I knew that I could not use my diplomas and honors to get the kind of job or take the kind of place in the world that college graduates are expected to take. I was still a farmer for whom education beyond the 3 Rs was an excuse for not cleaning barns on the farm.


Hypocrisy and a hard heart comes easy in this season. For decades, the North Korean government has behaved like malicious frat boys with nuclear weapons. They treat their people like draft animals and can’t figure out how to grow enough food to avoid famine, something that, prior to them, has been done on the Korean peninsula for centuries. No Christmas presents for you! I still sympathize a little with them for being upset at a movie that shows their sitting leader’s head exploding, but their response was juvenile. Someday, their silly attempts at bullying could get them exterminated.

This is a nice build up to Christmas, the time of forgiveness, peace, and good cheer. I would like to send Santa Claus to North Korea. The kind of gifts that Santa delivered in nineteenth and early twentieth century in the west would serve well: simple toys, warm clothing, extra food for the bleak months to come. These are the things everyone should have at Christmas.

North Korea is not the only place that needs a good Christmas. The Ebola countries, the places where school children are killed in the name of holiness or principle. Everywhere that people hunger and suffer. Wishing many of them happy holidays is a cruel joke because, given the world, there will no happy holiday, any happy holiday, not just Christmas, New Years, Chanukah, Kwanza, for them for a long time.

Nevertheless, this is the season, and we must try. I will say “Merry Christmas” because that is my tradition. I won’t try to utter the greetings of the other traditions because I would be saying words that can only be understood fully when stamped on the heart, although I know that the feeling behind all the other greetings is the same heartfelt good wish that I somberly deliver now.

Merry Christmas to all the world, may your belly be full, your bed warm; may you be wrapped in the love of your family and community, and filled with joy.

Violent Culture

This week, the senate report on “enhanced interrogation” was released. I don’t want to comment on the report or enhanced interrogation techniques. The accusations, denials, finger pointing, and bloviation will have to settle down before I’m ready. For the time being, I prefer to look at the wider context.

Citizens of the United States like violence. Look at the local news. In my neighborhood, there are four main local television stations. When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, the same stations were broadcasting. Each station had a half hour of local news followed by a half hour of national news in the early evening. Another broadcast at ten or eleven, and an early morning half hour. Altogether, two hours, if that. Today, I would not care to count the number of hours of news the same stations broadcast, but it is much more than hour to two hours of fifty years ago.

And what have they filled it with? Murders, rapes, sexual abuse, beatings, robberies punctuated with an occasional lachrymose piece about recovery from adversity. Careful reporting on difficult to comprehend, and therefore boring, issues like statistical trends, financial reports, policies, planning, and the details of government—the stuff that citizens in a democracy must know—are rare.

Mayhem has become entertainment. Schadenfreude reigns. We love to see our neighbor’s houses fall over cliffs, lives ruined by scammers, families torn apart by abuse and violence, and then solace ourselves by throwing in a few bucks when the hat is passed.

I don’t blame anyone or anything, certainly not the television producers trying to make a living by giving people what they want. I am just sad. It is pointless to try to find who is responsible. It is everyone’s fault. It’s no one’s fault. Choose your favorite scapegoat. Maybe it is the aftermath of the Holocaust, or WWII. Or the pill. Maybe the hippies. Or Dr. Spock. Capital gains taxes. Or structural anthropology. The metric system. Or the new math. Maybe there is something in the water.

The consequence is violence everywhere. Folks want to buy guns so they can get in on the action and shoot each other .We watch violence on the news. We watch it in the movies. For the first time in my life, I felt a passing twinge of sympathy for the government of North Korea when I heard Sony was planning a movie in which the head of their sitting leader explodes.

The great literature of the past was violent. Read the Iliad or the Odyssey, War and Peace, Moby Dick, Bleak House. There is plenty of killing and violence. The past was violent. There is evidence that the murder rate has been decreasing for the last ten centuries. The difference I notice is fascination with the details of violence rather than the consequences of violence. In the Iliad, and Shakespeare, the violence is off stage. The motives, repercussions, ethics, and morality of violence are the subject, not the acts themselves.

There is no lack of principled conduct among the people and institutions I know, but in our cultural life, for every sincere politician, there are three murderers. For every honest and engaged citizen, a dozen grasping and greedy trolls refuse to support the common good and and only want to get rich. Why? I don’t know, but I hope it changes.

It’s Published!

As promised last week, Three Veils Over the South Side of Chicago was published on Kindle on Tuesday, November 25. That’s over! I enjoyed writing it. I am too close for anything close to an objective opinion, but I think it is good reading. As I said last week, I will not do anything to promote it. If you would like to read Three Veils, click on the link.

Life is short; writing is slow. I have time only for the vital. That is writing, family, friends, computing standards and the library system. And our dogs. And keeping up the farm. This list is far too long!

The outline for the Wrong Guest is beginning to fill in. More important, I have to concentrate on my business/computer book, Cloud Service Management, so Wrong Guest progress will be slow for a while.

Three Veils Over the South Side of Chicago

I’m starting something new. This week, if all goes well, I will place the mystery I’ve been writing for the past two years into Amazon’s Kindle Store. I decided in the last few days that I have done enough. It’s time to move on to the next book. I had a lot of fun writing Three Veils over the South Side of Chicago and I anticipate I will have a lot of fun with the next one. I have decided not to do much about promoting Three Veils. That stuff is too much like work for a retired person. I intend to publish Three Veils electronically on Amazon, do the marketing that Amazon makes easy, and forget about it. A few of my friends may read it, and that is enough for me. I hope more people read it, but I will not think about that.

Writing Three Veils was an opportunity to do things I have wanted to do for a long time. It is set on the South Side of Chicago where I went to college and graduate school. The headquarters for my fictional detective agency, Lupaster LLC, is located in the apartment building I lived in for several years when I was an undergraduate. It happens that our apartment building is only a few blocks from President Obama’s house, a fact that I use in Three Veils. I have been a passionate fan of Rex Stout since my PhD advisor told me to read Stout to improve my turgid prose. That passion shows clearly in Three Veils; the agency bears a remarkable similarity Nero Wolfe’s establishment in New York, although I hope I left my own stamp on Three Veils.

I’ve begun my next mystery. The same detective agency with some of the same characters, but a new challenge. In the mid-2000s, I was employed as a divisional vice-president of software development for a Fortune 500 software development company. Federal prosecutors threw most of the senior management of the company into prison for securities fraud and other shenanigans. Lucky for me, I was below the level that got the axe and development was never involved in any illegal activity. But I knew there were strange things going on. It was sort of like staring at a rattlesnake: hard to turn away. I intend to harness some of the personalities and feelings from those days in the novel I will start the day after Thanksgiving. Today, I like the title, The Wrong Guest At the Banquet.

Who Is Out There?

I don’t know how many people actually visit the Vine Maple Studio. Web analytics, the statistics collected by the web server, count approximately 120 visits per day and in the neighborhood of 1000 visits per month. That is tiny by successful site standards, but I am not sure I have even that many readers.

I am skeptical because the analytics also say that approximately half of the visits come from China. I have studied classical Chinese and I do occasionally mention the Confucian classics in the Studio, which might generate some Chinese interest, but I am inclined to suspect that most of these visits are from robots that are probing for whatever robots probe for.

The site also gets a fair number of spam comments. I have a spam trap that weeds out most of them. Some of the spam offers cheap prescription drugs and luxury watches, others are clots of URLs meant to game Google, yet others are strange ungrammatical mumbling with no clear purpose that must come from rootless demented text generators, which one can only pity.

In September, I decided I would start posting one item a week. Since I began that practice, the number of visits has gone up steadily. I suppose a robot could detect new posts and step up its probes, but that would require a bit more intelligence than I would expect anyone would bother to put into a web crawler. I prefer to believe that there are curious humans behind the increase.

So how many real people are out there? The only realistic way of gauging human participation is from comments. Therefore, if you are reading this, drop a comment and let me know you are there. I would appreciate it.

However, if your name happens to be “Hermes belts for men” or “authentic NFL jerseys” don’t bother to comment, my spam trap will roll you up into a tasty snack.

Were the Lambs Silent?

I finished reading Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs this morning.
I read it years ago when after seeing the movie with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. I don’t remember reading the book the first time and my recollection of the movie is vague. I did notice that Dr. Lecter’s comment on serving human liver with fava beans was moved to the end in the movie.

My most insightful impression on this reading was that Dr. Lecter progressed from devouring minds as a psychiatrist to devouring bodies as a serial killer, which appears to be an indictment of psychology in a book that popularized criminal profiling. I don’t intend to criticize, I enjoyed the book immensely, but it did not strike me as particularly well written. Too many sentences that sounded awkward in my ear, too many words that clunked because a better choice was available. The writing reminded me of Stephen King, another writer I like to read but would prefer that he put on a little more polish. Both Harris and King tell stories that are hard to put down with engaging characters, but read a little rough, like an elegant piece of furniture with a finish that needs another rubout and coat of varnish.

The characters central characters in The Silence of the Lambs are all driven by their psychology, which derives from their childhood experiences. In this book, we don’t know about Lecter, but Harris’s other books depict it as grotesque. Jame Gumb, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, was dumped by an alcoholic mother, whom he idolizes. Clarice Starling was deprived of her mother’s love and had to save her horse from her uncle and the glue factory. These wretched childhoods are not seen so frequently in books from the first half of the Twentieth Century. Even Dickens’ orphans were better treated.

Have brutally wretched childhoods become more common? Or have they become more interesting and more discussed? I have no means of knowing, but the media certainly cater to a taste for childhood misery. A scan of a local television app this morning reveals two stories involving children involved in gruesome crime. Thirty years ago, we didn’t have apps to look at, and I didn’t find a newspaper from 1984, but I think child brutality was not an established genre then. But I’ll bet it was rampant.

The Publishing Business

Publishers exist to make money for their owners, investors, and other stakeholders. They choose to make money by creating books and selling them at a profit. Publishers talk about preserving the culture and ideals of free speech, but tell that to a private equity firm planning a leveraged buyout or a bankruptcy court.

How do they make their profits? They sell many books to many people at prices that exceed costs. People who buy books are the sole source of their profits. (I’m ignoring movie rights and the like.) The costs that reduce their profit are the costs of acquiring and grooming the book content, marketing, and printing and distribution. I include salesmen peddling books and the bookseller’s cut among distribution costs. Publishers have a hidden hole card: authors are begging to be heard. Even though authors are a crucial element in delivering the money to Wall Street, they relinquish all but the tiniest fraction of their leverage in hope of being heard.

How do these reasons for reading interact with electronic publishing? The first fact to consider is that printing and distribution costs go to near zero. Anyone can effectively print and distribute an eBook for a few dollars. Second, the Internet has added new vectors for delivering marketing: Facebook, Google AdWords and similar advertising services, blogs, and Twitter, all deliver the message, and they can be pointed at very small sectors of the population that might have special interest in a given product. And these tools are cheap, very cheap compared to a full-page color ad in the New Yorker or an ad in a few metropolitan newspapers. In other words, it takes less capital to become a publisher than to set up a storefront retail business and there is no monthly rent.

All this adds up to tremendous pressure on publishers. If they can’t tune their business model to the new reality, they are on the verge of losing it all. I don’t have a window into the minds of private equity bankers, but I am not sure I would take on Hachette at any price. The advantage publishers have now is knowledge. They know marketing, they know the kinds of books that sell, and they know how to groom a book for publication. However, they have also trimmed their own marketing and grooming budgets to the minimum because their stakeholders will not wait: they must get their profit this quarter, not next. The pressure to show a profit on a division of a conglomerate is as the pressure on a Silicon Valley startup from the venture capitalists. No wonder Hachette is bargaining hard with Amazon. Unfortunately, I doubt that Hachette will do anything but stave off the inevitable if they win.

What is the inevitable? The big publishers may not disappear, I suspect there is a business for them selling top ten bestsellers in airports, but the entire publishing industry has to change. I predict that the market will become more segmented with many successful smaller publishers who target smaller markets, defined by region and interest. These smaller publishers will concentrate on selling books in a special area in which they have expertise. A single author could publish books to a small region and still make adequate profits for the business to prosper, adjusting the scope of their specialty to match their definition of prosperity.

I look forward to that future.

Whence Publishing?

The book industry suffers. First, Barnes & Noble and Borders destroyed the independent bookstores. Then Amazon destroyed Borders and put B & N into the Ebola ward. Now Amazon is threatening the big publishers in negotiations with Hachette. The industry is changing and it will change more.

The publishing industry manufactures books and sells them, like the automobile industry manufactures cars and sells them, but there are also differences. Car manufacturers need factories. Publishers need printing plants, but they also need authors. And authors are not a commodity. Not every would-be author can write a profitable book. They look to publishers for help and guidance. Yet, despite diligent help from the publishers, many books fail to show a profit.

Pesky authors and the fickle book market have lead the publishing industry to the peculiar notion that it is an institution rather than a business.

Traditional Publishing

The components of the industry are authors, agents and book publishers. Within the publishing houses, there are editors, book designers, production managers, marketers, and book salesmen. Independent and chain bookstores and online booksellers sell the books to readers.

Agents and publishers are the gatekeepers. They only accept product from the best candidates among the horde of aspirants. The publishing companies then groom the chosen authors’ submissions into presentable books and manufacture them. Marketers publicize the books and attempt to attract attention. Book salesmen take the books around to the retail outlets and try to sell them to the retailers. If all this effort works, the book sells and everyone is happy.

Often though, books fail to attract attention or sales. Publishers say that they act as a risk pool for authors. The successful books pay for the publishers’ investment in failed books.

Recent Publishing Trends

The institution is changing. Publishers used to be relatively small businesses. A dry spell with few successes and many failures could close the business’s doors. The industry has consolidated into a few large publishers that are part of even larger conglomerates. These well-funded enterprises are more resilient, but they also pursue profit with a single mind. Consequently, they trim budgets and eliminate unprofitable aspects of the business.

Cost cutting has reduced support for non-bestselling authors to a bare minimum. Instead of the nationwide book tours of the past, unproven authors are on their own for marketing. Good books that do not show and immediate profit are eliminated. Publishers have cut down on editing. Books that require extensive editing are rejected, causing authors to hire editors at their own expense. Meticulous book design is reserved for the better selling authors. Salesmen on commission are hesitant to risk sales by pushing books that might be returned. The risk pool concept becomes less compelling as publishers reduce their risk by only investing in bestsellers.

Other factors are influencing the industry. EBooks eliminate printing and shipping costs. This dramatically lowers the cost threshold for publishing a book. An author can publish an eBook and sell it on the Internet for less than the price of a power lunch. With the decrease in support, this is an attractive alternative for many authors.

Bookstores are finding it hard to compete with online booksellers that tap a larger market, have lower overhead, and a broader selection titles. In addition, bookstores have not been able to enter the growing eBook market, which is largely limited to Internet sales.

Amazon and the Future

Even mighty Amazon faces difficulties. In their quest for ever-expanding markets, their profit margin is miniscule. This, in itself makes them vulnerable. Further, eBooks may not be as good for Amazon as they appear now. With barriers to self-publishing down, authors are tempted to go it alone. Amazon offers few advantages to publishing with them. They do not select, edit, or market the books they publish. Readers don’t have help choosing the boats they might like and authors get no help writing books that appeal to readers. An ecosystem is developing that supplies the editing and marketing infrastructure that publishers used to supply and websites like GoodReads are becoming gatekeepers. If this trend continues, Amazon may find itself selling Kindles that are loaded with books sold and promoted by independent authors and cut out of the profits from EBook sales.

Amazon Through The Long Term

These days, my physical shopping is limited to grocery stores and lumberyards. Jeff Bezos has changed the way I buy almost everything. I have not been to a mall or a downtown shopping area in months. I don’t think I am alone and I don’t care to change.

Bezos and Amazon have accomplished this with relentlessly innovation and attention to what customers want. Their site is convenient and easy to use. The selection of goods is broad and appealing. Their customer service is exceptionally accommodating. The downside is waiting for delivery, which most people get used to. The upside is you can shop from almost anywhere and purchase almost anything.

I often hear that Amazon has such a large role that it is approaching a monopoly. With this, I differ.


Amazon is critically different from Standard Oil and AT&T, the two most prominent monopolies of the last century. In 1911 when Standard Oil was ruled an illegal monopoly, it had oil wells, refineries, and fuel distribution systems that would require massive capital and effort to reproduce. The same goes for AT&T’s telephony gear, transmission lines, and maintenance organization. Because they held an exclusive lock on critical infrastructure, these companies could charge whatever they felt like, be bonehead stupid, and still make huge profits.

Amazon, on the other hand, does not have special equipment. They have a web site for selling goods. So does eBay, Walmart, Home Depot, and many others. Amazon relies on generic infrastructure, computers and shipping operations that are used by almost every other industry. They have a distribution system, but other than warehousing, product delivery is executed by services like UPS, Federal Express and the US Postal Service, all services that are available to anyone.

Unlike monopolies of the past, Amazon’s strength is in ideas. Their site is the best and most convenient, because they are always experimenting, trying new concepts, refining what is already good. Their product line is the broadest, designed to appeal to the largest consumer market because they are always seeking new sources and goods. Their prices are consistently good, if not the best; because their supply chain gets the same care and innovation as their web site and they consistently negotiate optimal prices with their suppliers.

Ask this question: as a monopoly-buster, how would you break Amazon up? Standard Oil and AT&T were broken up into smaller companies to compete with each other. Amazon is not regional; it does not appear to be significantly organized in divisions beyond physical goods, downloadable goods, and web services. If Amazon were broken up into those segments, they would not compete with each other anyway.

Achilles’ Heel

But Amazon has an Achilles’ heel. The instant they run out of innovative steam, they will fade as quickly as Myspace. There is nothing to stop another company from taking their place as the consumer friendliest store on the planet because there is no monopoly on great ideas and drive to be the best. With advances in technology, it is easier than ever for a rival to overcome Amazon. They may last for decades. But they can always be replaced by the next company with vital ideas and ambitions.

Predicting how long Amazon will last is crystal ball work, which I avoid. But it is vulnerable and could be replaced in a few years by an ambitious and smart competitor when one appears. For that matter, the smart competitor may have already appeared. In 1995, do you suppose Sears was looking at Amazon as a threat?