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GP 6 December 2006: Literary Notions

Christmas Books.  As you may remember, we told you to put Jock Elliot’s book on your Christmas gift list at the tail end of our “Easy Shopping for Christmas.”  Jock was a giant of a man who enjoyed a great martini, understood the import of big ideas and big people, and regarded himself, we think, as the guardian of Christmases past and future. 

Now if you really want to hit the spot with your loved one, you should get yourself over to Sotheby’s on December 12, when that auction house will sell off his wonderful collection of Christmas books, which were last shown at the Grolier Society a few years back. The Sotheby’s website is kind of clunky, so don’t spend a lot of time trying to find out more there.  Take our word for it: this is a great collection, and one of our money-manager friends promises to be there to represent us. Sotheby’s, incidentally, started as a book auctioneer in 1744, only later going into the full panoply of collectibles like Christie’s.  So it’s fitting that Jock’s books should go under the hammer at Sotheby’s. 

Porphyria’s Lover.  We have always liked the title of this rather ghoulish poem of Robert Browning that came on the scene in 1836.  In it a warped madman slays his beloved to preserve the perfect love and the perfect moment between him and Porphyria.  Just like book collectors and other accumulators, he wanted the treasure all to himself.  Browning had a habit in his poems of killing off lovely women, so that their jealous lovers could completely monopolize them. 

Which brings us to Porphyria.  This rather tricky disease is as elusive as the Browning poem, causing nervous complaints and discoloration, brought on by miscreant enzymes, and sparked by rogue genes.  Often mistaken for a host of other complaints, it’s fairly common in Northern European populations. 

We had a call just the other day from a bright and worthy friend in Northern California.  For three years he has gone through extreme discomfort and tens of thousands of dollars, seeing the best physicians money can buy.  Only now, quite by accident, did one suggest that he have the simple urine test that led to a correct overnight diagnosis—porphyria.  This shows us several things: that it’s a plus to be well read in all things, including, as you grow older, medical literature; and, once again, why 1/3 or better of all medical expenditures are worthless or worse.  To coin an adage, which we will explain at greater length on a later date, “When people, including doctors, don’t know how to get results and don’t know what they’re driving at, they resort to endless process and fruitless activities.”  The docs did all sorts of worthless things to our friend—but nothing worthwhile. 

Hospitals and healthcare systems are now trying to avert such debacles with diagnostic software such as “Isabel.”  (See “Preventing the Tragedy of Misdiagnosis,” Wall Street Journal, November 29, 2006.)  But our Porphyria friend and we agree that the best cure for errant doctoring is a restoration of clinical discipline and orderly diagnostic protocols as key ingredients in everyday medical practice. We can, in fact, name a number of physicians who would not have missed this. 

The Wisdom of Crowds.  Last Christmas James Surowiecki’s  The Wisdom of Crowds  crossed our threshold, and it’s sort of a fun read.  Surowiecki writes the moderately insightful one-page column on business now found in every New Yorker.  In effect, in this book he really is writing about swarm intelligence, on which we have commented elsewhere.  His subtitle gets to the point: “Why the Many are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations.” 

As is often the case, Surowiecki writes about a thesis just as it is ceasing to be very true.  Right about the time a new theory is highlighted in our world is almost exactly the moment when it no longer applies.  In fact, crowds do have a history of pointing in the right direction.  But, lo and behold, media—good, bad, and indifferent—have become so pervasive in the big, highly developed countries that they lead crowds astray.  Media send false signals to crowds which drive them off course.  O.J, or Paris Hilton, or Al Gore’s version of global warming so catch us all in their grip that we cannot really come to grips with the future.  At the moment, the ‘madness of crowds’ is in its ascendancy, not ‘wisdom.’ 

Media Insight.  So getting our media straightened out has a whole lot to do with straightening out our democracy: we need the collective mind of the vox populi to guide our nation.  We continue to get a rush of responses to our inquiry to our readers of several weeks ago where we asked how we can save our newspapers, many of which would appear to be in terminal decline.  The most pointed and sharpest insights, for whatever reason, have come from ladies.  One writes to say that she does her reading on the bus, and that we’ll have some pretty healthy newspapers if we can get people out of cars and onto rapid transit.  If you see all the stolid types coming in from Greenwich on the commuter in the morning—all glued to their newspapers—you would conclude that she has a very good insight. 

Another writes to say we have to better identify who likes paper.  There are a bevy of people who hate to read stuff on the Internet.  What needs to be done is to figure out who they are.  They don’t all fit into one demographic; they come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages.  But if we can get serious about who truly reads papers and get a notion of what else they buy, then we will have enough circulation and advertising to make a buck.  This woman is a banker and writes to say that ATMs did not end personal retail banking. There are robots amongst us who love machines, and there are others who love people. 

What about the product?  We find a lot of papers to be full of wire service stuff and thinly reported articles where the beat journalist clearly did not get out of the office. Do our newspapers deserve a readership or have they gotten crummy?  About the only thing we read or see that seems to be of consistently high quality is C-Span, where the interviewers have done enough reading to know what should be probed.  It’s a pleasure to see an author interviewed about a book on C-Span. 

What do you think?  Do the media, print or live, have to get the product right?  Can we find the merry band of people who want an intelligent experience, and is that band large enough to support a newspaper?  Would America start reading again if our yeomen weren’t driving around in cars?  Are our schools, which now cherish quantity over quality, imposing horrendous amounts of busywork on kids, driving tomorrow’s potential readers into videogames?  And driving the rest of us to drink. 

P.S.  We are gratified by the extraordinary number of trenchant responses we get back to these letters and to entries on the Global Province.  Our readers are providing more and more of the items found on the Province. 

P.P.S.  We have added a new merchant to the Global Province Network this week—Cary Towne Mortgage.  It’s a high-integrity shop where you can get a mortgage for your house over the Internet if you live in North Carolina.  Unfortunately it does not serve other states, but we’re hopeful it will someday.  Incidentally, the Financial Times has just run an article called “A Bitter Battle for Sales Territory,” where it shows how Internet real estate agents are making big inroads into brick and mortar realtors.  Real-estate commissions and other buy-and-sell costs are very inflated.  Hopefully the Internet can  drive out some of the over pricing. 

P.P.P.S.  All about self.  Byron Calame, the current ombudsman of the New York Times, tried to decipher what motivates reporters (December 3, 2006, WK p.12).  He lists, “Being first with new facts or fresh insights, Pursuing stories that can have impact, Winning Prizes, Impressing Sources, Figuring out what’s really happening, Telling stories in a compelling way, and Getting on the front page.”  You probably will notice that thoroughly serving the reader is not on anybody’s mind.  The motivation for reporters comes from self gratification, rather than from truly pleasing and helping the reader.  That’s always been a problem up and down newspaperdom.  The service ethic has evaporated.  We do remember that Ben Franklin paid close attention to what might make a difference to his readers when he was a printer-publisher, but then he knew he had to eat and that his Yankee customers wanted something for their money. 

P.P.P.P.S.  Monday’s Wall Street Journal has a long, wandering letter from publisher L. Gordon Crovitz explaining all the changes coming to the Journal, all of which boils down to the fact that it is going semi-tabloid.  The blather is rather ingenuous, telling us all the wonderful things he is going to do for readers.  Basically the moves are all about money—cost-cutting—and we suggest you to go to the New York Times, December 4, 2006, p. C4 for the straight poop.  It “will shrink in width by 3 inches, to an industry standard of 12 inches, reducing the space devoted to news by 10 percent.”  “The move has alarmed some journalists there, but executives say it will save millions of dollars….”  It will save $18 million a year on newsprint, save on distribution which is easier in the narrower format, permit it to oursource some printing, etc.  “Its combined print and online circulation of 2.04 million was down almost 2 percent from the six months a year earlier.”  As we have said elsewhere, it probably has made a vast strategic mistake milking the online edition for so much money.  We frankly don’t know whether this redesign is a good move or just a further retreat in an enterprise that has lost its way—for several years.  Dow Jones has become such a bureaucratic institution.  But the new size will be more handy for time-pressed readers who do their reading in transit.  In its endless redesigns, the WSJ gave up some of its best read front-page daily columns, the most important of which was the “Business Bulletin,” a column of light news oddities that appeared on Thursday and was widely read.  Ever since, the paper’s columns, now inside the paper, have not had the spark.  Another winner was Hal Lancaster’s careers columns, which were very widely read by people who don’t otherwise look at the Journal.

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