When will the OED get the web?

I love the Oxford English Dictionary. When I bought my copy of the Compact Edition about 15 years ago for $299, I began poring over it using the magnifying glass provided for that purpose. Since then, I’ve watched for the online version to become a reasonable proposition. It hasn’t.

Today, one can buy a year’s individual online access to the OED for $295, four dollars cheaper than the print Compact Edition cost me a long, long time ago. In fact, the print Compact Edition has increased to $380 over that time. The online edition is still the same price as a print product 15 years or so ago.

Granted, the definitive source of information about the English language isn’t cheap. The OED’s authority is  partially a function of its ability to define the language. Why has the OED remained stratospherically expensive in digital form? It seems obvious that the company could go down market with the price and drive both more sales and, with existing customers like me who have never had the print copy fail us, get ongoing revenue for providing updates in real-time.

The cost of fulfilling a digital order — one order, not the infrastructure — for access to the OED is microscopic in comparison to the print version. The cost of Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite and everything else has fallen while the OED sits tight on a small institutional market with some dedicated wordies like me picking up print editions.

The OED should be $29.95 a year, not per month. They could get $99 a year easily. I’ll pay that price right now, just give me the opportunity.

The lack of a lower-priced product makes no sense, when the OED could literally wipe out the competition with a reasonably priced web service based on its brand. At minimum, please open an API for developers and allow others to innovate on search and presentation while focusing on its linguistic excellence. Let them sell the subscription as part of their app cost and take a share. Give me my words in more places — apps, platforms, contexts, such as embedded in other applications as an up-sell — and I’d consider $199 a year. The magic price is south of $100, I believe.

What got me started on this topic today? My copy of the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary app, the closest I can get to a digital OED for $29.99, asked me to rate it. My response was to look for a way to get the real OED, even if it cost me more. No one would reasonably pay the same price for the digital service as they did for a book they may replace once a decade or less often, if they ever replace a book.

Digital books are revenue streams. Tap into it, OED.

A higher goal. 20,000 ft. higher, in fact.

Antisana approach CotopaxiYears ago I was a climber and hiker, and it was a challenge from a friend just a few days after my 53rd birthday that made me realize I was excusing myself from the kind of work needed to climb a big mountain. I’m acting older than I am, time to flip the bit on aging. Rather than retire I’ve decided to climb two volcanoes in Ecuador this winter (Ecuador’s summer). Cotopaxi and Antisana, pictured above, are my targets.

Now I need to get into shape. Mountains require a good deal of respect. If I am not ready this year, I’ll go next year. For now, I am an older fat guy with 50 lbs. to lose — and a lot of strength to rebuild — before I can venture to the 18,000 ft. – 20,0000 ft. peaks of these Ecuadoran volcanoes. Pleural edema (bleeding into the lungs) at altitude will be my biggest challenge, as I live and train at sea-level. The opportunity to acclimatize, while working and remaining an engaged father and husband, is the hack I need to figure out as I start training.

It is very easy to die climbing mountains and I don’t want to creep or freeze off this mortal coil. I do want to see things from the top of the world. It’s the moment you reach a summit and turn to look at what you climbed and the view around, that makes mountaineering worthwhile. Except for all the rigorous exercise and your climbing partners, the ascent is something that each climber has to get themselves through largely on their own in order to be a good team member. My getting in shape is what I owe the people I’ll climb with, or I will not go. I’m no Into Thin Air kind of guy; I like to win and stay alive.

Today, I did my second hike to prepare, a three-mile run over a largely hilly, albeit at sea-level, route. I climbed about 400 feet. It wasn’t exhausting. I’m sore. Coming on the heels of a five-mile walk with my son yesterday, it feels like this year’s climb may be doable. Either way, I will lose a lot of weight and be ready for a climb this year or next.

With the disasters on Everest and Rainier this season, it may seem a strange time to decide to climb. I was on Rainier in 1980 when the biggest ice fall collapse in history killed 11 people on the mountain. This year’s Everest tragedy, which claimed the lives of 16 Sherpas, was very similar in terms of the kind of sudden failure of a glacial body that killed so many people in 1980. The unexpected is to be expected while on a mountain. I can only prepare to see if I’ll be able to make the trip this year. If one is smart about mountaineering, giving nature the respect required to survive nature on its worst days, the worst outcome for this new goal is: I lose a lot of weight, get in shape, strengthening my degenerative back in the process, to add maybe more than a few years to my life.

Onward, to Cotopaxi and Antisana.

Picketty, Rifkin and the future of prosperity

Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is drawing much deserved praise. I’ve also been reading Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society, an envisioning of a post-Capitalistic collaborative commons, which deals with a scenario Picketty describes but cannot project in his economic analysis, because it assumes unlikely progress in clean energy and technological gains that, even after all we’ve seen in our lives, may not be plausible. Rifkin’s vision, which proved extremely compelling in The Third Industrial Revolution and his popular writings on the impact of the Internet, may be an important element of the future economy. Picketty’s analysis suggests we need that vision if we are to sustain anything close to the prosperity we are used to in the West as economic opportunity spreads.

Picketty’s findings that inequality is a structural feature of capitalistic societies suggests that, if we do not put policies in place to modulate the level of inequality, the economy will eventually collapse in social unrest. Equality of opportunity — access to knowledge, education, and the basic requirements of life — is the soundest foundation for an unequal but fair outcome. I wholeheartedly agree with Picketty that the U.S. in particular has failed to continue to invest in providing that fair start to its citizens.

In Rifkin’s model, the cost of producing the next copy of virtually anything, except for the cost of materials, will be negligible in the future, because of the increased efficiency of production, logistics and support systems due to digitization, transportation and communications innovations. Meanwhile, the cost of inventing the next new thing will remain high, and it is in that innovation space that fortunes will be made, as investment and risk are part and parcel of any innovation. So, someone may discover a new drug at a very high cost, but the cost of reproducing that drug, once it is discovered, will be very low. Wealth will be made in volume, so to speak, selling lots of copies of that initially expensive design for the drug in the form of pills or injectables, a little each time the product is delivered. The paydays for those innovations happen before the wealth is actually earned, as the startup is sold to the public, which can harvest the projectable, but still uncertain, profits of distributing that innovation.  Sounds very much like what we have today, right?

But it is not, it represents a segmentation of economic activity into innovation and reproduction. Rifkin’s innovators will continue to have huge paydays, the copiers of innovation — even within the company doing the inventing — will be living on marginal improvements in their income and what they can reap in terms of improved standard of living and buying power due to the efficiencies. A new organizational model, the collaborative collective, in which costs and benefits are shared, sometimes literally in the sense that a purchase may be shared by many people, will fill in the “gap” between wealth and sustenance. Think car-sharing or serial re-use of products. I would call this “public hand-me-downs” as a kind of shorthand for the idea that someone buying a car may pass it along in a structured agreement to others; one may buy a new car every year for the enjoyment of it, but the car comes with a built-in sharing network that will distribute the residual value of the vehicle to others as the first buyer moves on to the next car.

Here’s where Picketty’s findings come back to present the real challenge. If inequality is a structural feature of markets — and it is, Picketty shows as incontrovertibly as an economist can — the innovators will increasingly separate themselves from the other citizens of their countries in order to increase the efficiency of their capital investments — they will seek out low-tax or special tax situations for physical plants and ethereal innovative thinking will no longer have a home in a nation. Vast differences in pay today will continue to translate into growing inequality in the future. Rifkin’s notion of a collaborative commons co-existing with an innovation economy describes what will happen to the ordinary person in any country: They’ll be left to fend for themselves as the wealthy pursue innovative opportunities anywhere on the planet. In those local lobes of the Marginal Cost Society, poorer citizens will have to share goods they could not afford alone. I think Rifkin’s projection of the collaborative commons is a picture of the post-national capitalism that will give the wealthiest people a perpetual and increasingly closed range of options that others do not share, even if that is not his intention — he’s simply projecting the economic model that is emerging in response to pervasive inequity. The new transnational aristocracy  will get these options without sharing their fair share of the cost of sustaining a nation, its legal system, its rights and the burdens of citizenship.

Wealth is going trans-national, beyond the control of any organizational model. Picketty’s inequality leads to the necessity of Rifkin’s  collaborative commons, because everyone in today’s upper middle-class down to the poorest of people will be competing only for a fraction of the marginal cost of production while innovation becomes the province of the super-wealthy. The gains from innovation will continue to accrue to the wealthy and economic mobility will be a very rare phenomenon.

Some of you will be screaming “Marxist” or “Leftist” by this point, but I want you to suspend that for a moment. I am not calling for any particular program to respond to this phenomenon, rather I am saying we need to recognize it and factor it into our thinking. If reasoning based on well documented historical data is not allowed because it suggests an ideology, we’re never going to make any progress. We’ll just argue over ideological ghosts. Communism was a spent notion before the Soviet Union, even if it seems to be threatening to rise again in the Age of Putin. Put that behind us and begin to reason about how to establish a fair foundation for competition from any economic level of society, which will increase economic and mobility, and you have a chance to stem the tide if inequity. Why?

Because inequity can eventually destroy our societies. The Economist argues effectively for aiming for a measure of overall material well-being, as it both acknowledges inequity and dismisses the inevitability of revolution due to inequity. I think the editors at The Economist are being a bit glib about the impact of inequality; our memories are conditioned by extraordinary progress in technology, organization, energy production and much, much more, and they minimize what it would be like to recognize stark inequity in one’s own life. But stark inequity is what all but the top .06 percent or so of the population experience as a growing reality in their lives. Yes, the quality of our lives may be improving overall, but the disparities are increasing, too. An accurate measure of material well-being, even one predicated on the buying power of a population relative to the value of their currency, as Picketty suggests, would be a far better basis for policy analysis.

In the long run, we’ll all be dead, Johnny Depp’s transcendence notwithstanding. But I worry for my children and children’s children that, if inequality continues to expand from today’s near-historically high levels, they will be relegated to something similar to slavery. They will have choices, but they will be property of the innovators’ influence, having to endure the kind of capricious and arbitrary exercises of power and wealth that we are familiar with today. Donald Sterling’s an example of it — because he has money, he feels entitled to denigrate blacks without remorse. Fortunately, the NBA did not grant him a pass, as he has been granted during thirty-plus years of documented racism. This time, inequality was not rubber-stamped. However, we see this kind of personal expression of indifference to the values of anyone with less money across society. Sterling, or the idiotic pro-slavery rantings of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who succeeded in avoiding payment for use of public property but thinks blacks would be better off if they were still slaves, down to the local bigotry of the Boy Scouts against gays, and calls for the wealthy to have a greater say in politics than others (one-dollar-one-vote and venture capitalist Tom Kleiner’s ridiculous arguments that the rich are persecuted) to the imposition of religious tenets on the employees of private companies, which is headed to the Supreme Court in the case of Hobby Lobby, where the owners insist everyone should live by their moral decisions; all these are not isolated examples of poor judgment or bad taste. They are evidence that inequity is rising and the most fortunate of today’s families are seeking to ensure they are always on top of the economic pile. Surely, that’s rational at one level, but when it becomes ideology it becomes poison to society.

The crisis will come when wealth divorces nation, building its own systems for enforcing contracts and seeking to avoid any cost not directly related to the product they want to invent or manufacture. At this point, national investment in opportunity, which is one of capitalism’s greatest features, will be undercut completely. High personal wealth will exist extra-nationally and we’ll hear howls about the unfairness of paying any taxes at all, but wealth will still want everything it can get for free from the nations where it chooses to do business. The only logical solution is policy that establishes a baseline of opportunity, with completely free access to education and information for anyone at any stage of life, because, as capitalism has proven, we never can predict where the next great idea will come from. This is not an argument for life-long welfare, just lifelong education, which is a tenet of post-industrial civilization. Policy can ensure opportunity is (more) equally distributed, that it not retreat to become the playground of a very few families. If we fail in this effort, we would complete our return to pre-Industrial life, but with television to entertain us.

Read together, Piketty and Rifkin paint a range of potential economic outcomes we may see in the future, but it is certain that the disappearance of inequity in opportunity will not come to pass without the political courage to stand up for an equal start, even as we accept unequal outcomes. Bully for the innovators, who should profit from their hard work. Yet  let’s remember that Teddy Roosevelt, a conservative, finally had to recognize and stand up to the inequality of his time in order to lay the foundation for a century of unprecedented growth with less inequality than at any time in history.

Lobal Economics

I was riffing on some neologisms last night in Facebook comments…. But here, I can add a picture of a Riemann space to help clarify my point about the way personal and global networks become optimized in non-linear ways to produce substantial influence within the global economy.

— Snip —

RiemannSpaceDon’t get your orthogodoxy in my face, orthogodoxical man. Once you start thinking lobally, you’ll be beyond the local and, even, the hyper-local to the lobal personal influence networks that build trans-national+multi-local-node markets and movements (these can be visualized as a collection of Riemann spaces, crumpled up balls of relationships that tie the world together in fundamentally local ways that defy the orthogodox thinker, who lives in a three-dimensional conceptual space inadequate to understanding the spidery links that make a lobal world), such as the diamond industry, the various “silicon” places connected to one another on the telecom grid like Columbian-era ports are a map of the major and minor sea routes, or the dawning realization of the political importance of global warming to personal identity that is going on now. The word “lobal” also conjures the way the brain develops in mammals, which is a lyrical and biological image at one time.

The next step is to think of some of these crumpled networks as partially tangled, crumpled together, if you will. The global economy grows these new lobes of influence, and they may be inter-related.

 

The Cows, a story from the future

Cli-Fi” is a new genre in fiction. Here’s my first and intentionally ridiculous shot at it. If you enjoy this, please donate to Grist.org, an excellent, and often funny, news and commentary site about climate events and sustainability. I’ve become a supporter and you can, too.

The Cows
The following article was discovered in  a time capsule buried at an as-yet unidentified university campus in the former Western United States.

Eventually, the world became so networked and measured it was easy to observe every species on the planet in such detail that we discovered many other intelligences at work around us. We studied ourselves, and like the bees watching a returning scout’s waggle dance we eventually recognized that there are patterns of intelligence everywhere and that those patterns differ based, in part, on our measuring them. It seemed as though we were gods able to predict our future, to program events as it would be best, or from an actuarial perspective, the least risky, they turn out. We felt great, but we looked about for things and species to suspect. A tyranny of probabilistic analysis of the behavior of other species established a hierarchy of intelligences, monitoring each carefully for advancement and potential threats to humanity. We suspect the cows were the worst.

Cows everywhere stand in the same places or wander the same paths around a pasture during the day, not only lying in alignment to the magnetic North Pole, but repeating patterns of standing and walking and standing again, in the same places as each cow did previously, but at regular intervals, so it was inevitable that we recognized a time awareness, as well as a complex geometric calculus, in the bovine species.

This put the cow high on the threat list. But where  exactly did they lie  in the threat matrix relative to the eagle, dolphin and octopus, each ripe with evolutionary potential? Top scientists were deployed to discover the truth about the bovine threat. Of course, the early discovery through the analysis of webcams used by dairy farmers that cows walked and stood in patterns, is well known. It had been a matter of common sense in farming communities for decades, but the press picked up on it with the scientific discovery. Coming on the heels of the realization that dogs were actually smarter than and in greater control of subservient species than cats, the lens of concern shifted to the providers of our milk, cream and other dairy goods.

At first the studies focused on the repetitive patterns and the cows’ ability to course correct when obstacles were placed in their way. The cows variously stopped at the obstacle and defaulted to repeating only their pattern of shifting the orientation of their stance to the pole, walked around or leaped, usually accomplishing of the crushing of the obstacles. Rocks did stymie the bovines who took the latter course of action when blocked by a boulder, and many test subjects were put down in the field as a result. Moving cows to new pastures, the so-called “greener fields” studies of the 2029 to 2034 era, likewise produced unpredictable results. While almost all cows moved from one pasture to another adopted a new pattern, path and timeframe of the repetition, a few did not and instead recreated their previous pattern, path and timeframes despite differences in topography, obstacles and occasional EMP bursts set off by scientists to disrupt the bovine time axis, if one does exist.

We think we’re onto one thing when another sneaks up. At this point, there was clear evidence of intelligence, time-awareness and, it became obvious only after years of study that cows where constantly performing differential equations in their heads in order to keep perfect track of their longitude and latitude, we concluded they possessed the capacity to someday split the atom.

The course-correction epoch gave way to the confrontational behavior studies, in which man challenged cow, examining the cows’ reactions for signs of resistance or rebellion. It was mostly new ways to inflict death that researchers found. Cows were poked with eight-foot pikes, their heart rates, skin galvanic response and brain cells were monitored. Many of these studies, which took place at religious or corporate universities seeking to buttress the public’s concerns about the cows in order to distract everyone from the growing evidence of global warming, reported escalated brutality among the researchers, who ignored the primary evidence in the fact all cows that entered these programs were eventually killed in the programs in order to pursue reports that in the last seconds of a cow’s life it is terribly angry. Grant proposals poured in to pursue the question, if that fading anger recorded as cows were gored, bazooka’d, dropped on land mines or hauled into slaughter houses, as they provided a large sample of angry cows to measure, could at some point in the future be linked to the bovine capacity for complex mathematics?

One animal fought back. Unlike the chimps, orangutans and gorillas who allied to crush humanity in the popular science fiction series that reached its 49th installment in 2051, this bovine, given the name “Willard” by his trainer, would be the exception that proved the rule, as he was the only cow (or steer, as we follow the convention of adopting the feminine when referring collectively to mammals whose species are characterized by their relationship to the dairy industry. — Ed.)  when Willard tore his trainer’s adam’s apple from his neck with his bared flattened teeth. He had been savaged with a chainsaw on the hindquarters. The researchers’ abuses where chronicled in the Congressional investigations that followed.

Meanwhile, the pasture observation movement in science reasserted itself as the terminal weather effects of global warming took hold. An astonishing phenomenon associated with the heavy fogs that blanketed the unflooded valleys of western Washington was reported just as the Willard story broke in the news. The climate was ignored by most mainstream researchers, who juiced the bovine threat to win additional funding. As the general sense of doom increased, we blamed the cows for the fog.

Heavy fogs often obscured the camera views on the farms, sometimes for minutes and often for hours. We don’t know when a new behavior started, but we are certain it accelerated as the fogs have increased in frequency and tenacity. It went unnoticed for so long and all seven films we have of early fogs shows the same behavior: The cows would move when they were unobserved. Let us be very specific: No human witness or camera has been able to see the cows move. They changed their pole orientation from their standard pattern to a new one. As heavy fogs became more frequent, we discovered through additional human analysis, that sometimes the cows switched places  with one another while obscured from observation, assuming the patterns of their new “role” and carrying them on.

The cows were cagey. One could not catch them at it. Ground motion sensors failed to capture their tread against the background resonance of the busy planet. Researchers using cloaking devices to approach fog enshrouded herds were confronted by cows passively chewing, lowing and looking about, apparently disinterestedly, as teams stood by to capture no results. It became a widespread controversy, reported upon heavily before the cows died out, based on the well-worn slogan, familiar from the t-shirts, “What are they up to?” The phrase appeared as a standing banner on the news networks. There were the t-shirts worn by the on-air reporters after the fad hit the global scale. There was speculation the cows were experimenting on us. A lunatic fringe developed a theory about quantum transportation of cows by cows, perhaps not of this world, which felt to many like a plausible answer in a world that has changed so surprisingly so fast. We wanted you to know that this was one of the unsolved questions of our time, but other disasters intervened. Sorry about that.

These Mariners are good

Wow, the M’s are up 6-0 against the Angels in their first Anaheim sweep, if I am not jinxing them by writing this, in seven or eight years. Who knew Justin Smoak would hit like this? Brad Miller is playing just as well as he did in Spring Training. Zunino’s got a three-run homer. Everyone’s hitting — could there be some sort of Cano Effect. And the pitching is great.

These Mariners are the Mariners you have been looking for.

Liberty

“Does the love of virtue denote any wish to discover or amend our own faults? No, but it atones for an obstinate adherence to our own vices by the most virulent intolerance to human frailties.” — William Hazlitt, On the Pleasure of Hating

We like to say we’re all on our own in this day and age, competing for our share of the goods available and free to choose. That simple assumption could destroy liberty by making it appear irrelevant in an age of apparent plenty.

If we are all going to sink into our own little digitally enabled just-in-time worlds, the assurance of liberty we’ll grant one another is all the more important to achieving justice and the diversity of lifestyles we hope to provide to our children.

I want my children to have the liberty to experience the odd and wonderful lives they could, not ones defined only by the services they can afford or a narrow range of choices allowed by the prevailing definition of normal.
 

Sovereignty isn’t like money

This is a very readable, cogent analysis of the challenges of democratizing capitalism. While I agree with the spirit of this posting, I think it conflates the process, the result of which we call “sovereignty,” with the fungibility of money, which is the hallmark of capital, the ability to transform an asset from one purpose to the other, regardless of the consent of all parties — A and B may agree, but C, owed money by B, may put that money to any use they want. Sovereignty, on the other hand, is a process that results in compromise without any reference to the specific power of the individuals involved, except their ability to deploy capital. The genius of capitalism is the fungibility of capital, which can be directed purposefully. But it lacks the deliberation between perspectives and equitable distribution of power that Democracy requires, so the analogy fails once you dig into it.

The VRM mailing list I originally posted this comment produced a reply that allowed me to expand on why the sovereignty-fungibility comparison is flawed.

Mitch,
By having a system of money (capital) that is built on the “word” of each individual or their sovereignty we distribute economic power. That is exactly the point of each of us having the ability to create our own IOUs (money, capital, credit).
Kevin

It’s not a misunderstanding, but a disagreement. What you are describing is a system in which Tom Kleiner’s vision of democracy – “one dollar, one vote” – becomes a reality because the underlying sovereignty-fungibility comparison is flawed. By trading fungibility for sovereignty, we end up with a system in which economic power becomes one with the ability to marshal political power. I think that the evidence for my perspective in the clear in the Koch Brothers’ approach to social media and advertising. They flood the medium with self-reinforcing messages, a “paramedia” takes up amplifying their messages. The Koch Brothers treat social capital, as expressed through the mechanism of “votes,” as a commodity to increase the reach of their messages.

I think you are well intended, but that the aim is off, based on a flawed sovereign-fungibility construct that results in no distinction between doing business and doing politics. I envision a democracy where there is no connection between money and politics, though I am quite aware we are unlikely to get there.

Capital knows your ju-jitsu and will throw you flat on your back if you give them a mechanism like an IOU representing a share of the collective will expressed through democracy.

I welcome a counter-analysis, but will not engage in ideological debates.