Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Layer 252 . . . A Revolution in Publishing, Brown and Bullying, and More Citizen Ethics

More zeitgeist.

I was talking last week to a friend about self-publishing, and how blogs, or summaries of blogs, could easily and cheaply be made available for downloading and reading on tablet reading machines like the Kindle and the iPad, and would work extremely well if they had embedded in them hyperlinks that could take readers off to websites via wireless links for further and complementary reading material.

Yesterday I came across this article from the New York Review of Books in the Observer:

Publishing: The Revolutionary Future
By Jason Epstein


The transition within the book publishing industry from physical inventory stored in a warehouse and trucked to retailers to digital files stored in cyberspace and delivered almost anywhere on earth as quickly and cheaply as e-mail is now underway and irreversible. This historic shift will radically transform worldwide book publishing.

Digitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author.

Titles will also be posted on authors' and publishers' own Web sites and on reliable Web sites of special interest where biographies of Napoleon or manuals of dog training will be evaluated by competent critics and downloaded directly from author or publisher to end user while software distributes the purchase price appropriately, bypassing traditional formulas. With inventory expense, shipping, and returns eliminated, readers will pay less, authors will earn more, and book publishers, rid of their otiose infrastructure, will survive and may prosper.

Authors, with the help of agents and business managers, will become their own publishers, retaining all net proceeds from digital as well as traditional sales. With the Espresso Book Machine, enterprising retail booksellers may become publishers themselves, like their eighteenth-century forebears.


The huge, worldwide market for digital content is not a fantasy. It will be very large, very diverse, and very surprising: its cultural impact cannot be imagined. E-books will be a significant factor in this uncertain future, but actual books printed and bound will continue to be the irreplaceable repository of our collective wisdom.


Another entertaining and very funny column by Charlie Brooker.



To give this next piece some context, it might be worth remembering the confession that Jonathan Aitken recently made - much to his credit - about his state of mind when he was at the peak of his time in politics, which was also the time of his downfall - "I was puffed up with too much self-centredness, self-importance and pride."

This is clearly an occupational hazard for anyone in government, and anyone who's been through the elite education system which we seem to value so very much.

Gordon Brown hit by fresh bullying allegations


The cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, was tonight under pressure to launch a formal investigation into Gordon Brown's treatment of his staff after an anti-bullying helpline revealed it has received several complaints from people working at No 10. It follows publication by the Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley of hotly- disputed allegations about Brown mistreating staff, including assertions that he swore at staff, grabbed them by lapels and shouted at them.

Lord Mandelson, flatly denied Rawnsley's claims, insisting that Brown was simply "demanding", "emotional, "and had a degree of impatience".

The claim of routine bullying was today backed up a senior former adviser to Brown in No 10, who told the Guardian: "His intense bouts of anger are unremarkable to anyone who has worked closely with him. You just have to put up with this stuff. It is part of the daily experience, almost part of the furniture. He would behave in that way constantly. He suffers from a massive paranoia and an inability to accept blame, yet he runs a blame culture that allows him to blame others.

What we see here is very simple - a man, and a whole circle of people, who are low in emotional, social and spiritual intelligence. Raging egos, puffed up pride, aggression in response to stress, and powermania.

Nothing that a few years of full-time Zen meditation and practice wouldn't sort out, though, under the guideance of a skilled practitioner.

Whereas psychopaths like Blair are too clever and cunning to get caught out being blatantly aggressive and bullying.

Ethics and Morality

This all feeds very nicely into the intiative called Citizen Ethics that Madeleine Bunting and The Guardian are promoting, and which was launched in The Observer yesterday.

Madeleine's column in the paper yesterday was superb, and has to be read in full -


To tackle the last decades' myths, we must dust off the big moral questions

A robust debate on ethics is crucial to the pursuit of a good society in which individuals are more than mere economic units

It's year 10's English class in a ­London comprehensive. Forty kids are debating the purpose of a school. "Teaching social skills," they suggest. Why do you need them? I ask, playing devil's advocate. "To get a job." Is that the only point of having social skills? "Yes, what else is there?" One demurs, hesitant and not entirely sure how to ­express herself. "No, there's more to life than a job. There's happiness. Social skills are needed to make you happy."

It was a fascinating illustration of how deeply the instrumentalist values of the market have penetrated our everyday thinking when kids talk in this way. "Social skills" is the type of phrase management experts dreamed up to put a market value on a set of human characteristics. Cheerful, punctual, able to co-operate, take instructions: these are all marketable skills. But to many of these kids, equipping them for the labour market was the primary purpose of ­education. Any idea of it as enriching and deepening their understanding of what it is to be human and lead meaningful, contented adult lives, had been entirely lost to view.

The central premise of the Citizen Ethics supplement published in this paper at the weekend (the full pamphlet can be downloaded on Comment is free) is that we have lost a way of thinking and talking about some very important things. The preoccupation with market ­efficiency and economic growth has loomed so large that other activities, and other ­values, have been subordinated to its disciplines.

A poll for the World Economic Forum last month found in 10 G20 countries that two-thirds of respondents attributed the credit crunch and its ensuing economic recession to a crisis of ethics and values.

Citizen Ethics was a project to ask nearly four dozen prominent thinkers what this was all about. Did ethics really have a role to play, and had it failed? First, despite plenty of disagreements, on one thing there was a clear consensus: ethics are crucial. They are the underpinning to all political debate; they frame the questions we ask of ourselves and of our political economy and therefore do much to shape the answers we end up with.

They are vital to the civic culture in which both politics and economics are ultimately rooted. So, as Will Hutton will do in his book, Them and Us, out in the autumn, if we really want to understand how some of the incredible myths perpetrated over the last couple of decades have gone unchallenged, we have to go back to some basic arguments of philosophy. What is justice? Who deserves what? What constitutes human flourishing?

Too many of these questions have simply been shelved for too long. Questions of justice and reward were left to the market to resolve; questions of human flourishing were privatised. It was left to everyone to decide their own sequence of pleasurable experiences in life with little acknowledgement of how many of those depend entirely on mutual co-operation.

One explanation for this abandonment of the debate is that we lost a language in which to think and argue about ethics. Perhaps this is partly attributable to the vexed legacy of institutional religion and the long shadow it still casts. The promotion of ethical behaviour has been bound up with particular institutions, and as they decline, it leaves a vacuum of authority. Who dares talk on this subject with confidence? It prompts fear that any such discussions are really a Trojan horse for promoting a religious belief. There's a suspicion that words such as "morality" tip us quickly into the kind of instinctive conviction made infamous by Tony Blair in which sincerity is regarded as an adequate substitute for careful reasoning.

Even the language itself is mired in a history of ­social control; morality and virtue are words that are reluctantly used, since both still convey overtones of intrusive monitoring of (particularly female) sexual behaviour.

Since most of the contributors to this pamphlet express their commitment to ethics without any reference to religious practice, perhaps it is finally possible to move beyond these familiar anxieties and resume a task of ethical reasoning regarded through most of history as essential to being human. This is philosophy as the Greeks understood it – love of the wisdom to lead lives of meaning and fulfilment, not some kind of abstract game with words.

Our aim is to provoke a noisy debate on what kinds of habits and characters we need to run the good society.

To go back to the lovely kids in the classroom, what is the good society we want to inspire them with – beyond their future roles in the economy as workers and consumers? What habits and character can we offer them as ­conducive to deeply rewarding lives? If we don't know plenty of possible answers to that question, it's no ­surprise they don't.

Wonderful stuff, Madeleine.

Synchronicity and Comedy Corner

There was possibly the best-ever panel for this week's Just A Minute on R4 - Paul Merton, Sue Perkins, Tony Hawks and Graham Norton. This particular comedy show can be quite dull if the panellists aren't extremely sparky, quick-witted and off the wall.

We seem to be in a real golden age of comic talent right now, just as the sixties were a golden age for original musical talent. Programmes like this one show just how naturally funny the performers are, since they have to be very spontaneous and original, without any scripts or planning. Sue Perkins and Paul Merton are phenominally talented, and Messrs Hawks and Norton aren't far behind.

During the programme the subject of Edwin Drood came up - via Paul Merton going into a spiel about Ernie Wise appearing in a West End play based on Dickens' story of Edwin Drood. Immediately before listening I'd been doing today's quick crossword - 17 across: Dickens' unfinished mystery tale (5,5)


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