Category: Books

Markets in everything, part II

You can now buy a personalized romance novel, featuring you and your sweetheart:

To get their names in print, customers decide on a book – most companies offer several stories to choose from – then fill out a questionnaire with details such as their love’s hair color and nickname. The information is inserted into the context of pre-fab story and presto, a personalized romance.

Don Fox of Port Saint Lucie, Fla., bought the novel “Treasure Seekers” for his wife last Valentine’s Day and included details such as the type of car he drives and his wife Josephine’s favorite radio station in the text.

“It’s something my wife and I will have forever. It’s unique,” said Fox, 43. “If you get a box of chocolates, it looks just like the box you got before that one. Then you eat it and it’s gone.”

The novels come in “mild” and “wild” versions and the plots take place in various standard romance novel locales such as a dude ranch and the white sand beaches of Tahiti (search). While their text won’t win any Pulitzer Prizes, they offer a quick read and, at $55.95, the books won’t break the bank.

Some people actually like this idea:

“It was an addictive read because it makes you the star,” said Pete Hart, 34, who received a pre-fan novel called “Vampire Kisses” from his girlfriend. “I was referred to as Pedro in the book, which is my nickname. I found that quite charming.”

Another fellow noted:

“It read more like a novel or novelette and less like a typical romance novel,” he said. “I enjoyed reading it. Besides, I was in it.”

So what is next? How about DVD movies with your face superimposed upon that of Tom Cruise?

But our world is not always taking steps forward. Ebay has been moving to take down sales of imaginary girlfriends.

If you are curious, here is part one of “Markets in everything.”

Electronic newspapers and human electronic billboards

…after years of unabashed hype and dashed hopes, truly flexible displays are at last being ramped up to commercial production. Among the uses that manufacturers foresee are electronic newspapers that can be folded or rolled when not in use and then opened to display the latest news; flexible strips for store shelves that display constantly updated price and product information; and watch bands or bracelets that offer streaming news or other information.

Some companies are even considering working the technology into lines of clothing. Forget those low-tech embroidered Gap or Gucci logos on your shirts, said Barry Young, vice president and chief financial officer for Austin-based DisplaySearch, a market research company that tracks the flat panel display industry. We’re talking about a Times Square-style news crawl moving across your chest: G . . . U . . . C . . . C . . . I.

“Now we’ll have to pay to be a billboard,” Young quipped.

Flexible-display blouses are still some years off. But a more modest rollable display — the first to be truly mass-produced — is now being churned out at the rate of 100 per week and may reach production levels of 1 million a year by the end of next year…

Here is the full story. Just think, you could read your favorite blogs on your MarginalRevolution T-shirt.

The evolution of language

On Wednesday, the Agence France Presse news service reported that author Phil Marso has published (on paper) an antismoking novella for teenagers called “Pa Sage a Taba” (Not Wise to Smoke), composed in the jambalaya of abbreviations, slang, and neologisms that teens worldwide use to send each other text messages online and via cellphone. In English, for example, 2moro is “tomorrow” and YYSSW is “Yeah, yeah, sure, sure, whatever.” So in Marso’s book, when a detective asks the villain, “6 j t’aspRge d’O 2 kologne histoar 2 partaG le odeurs ke tu me fe subir?”, what he’s actually saying (in translation) is, “What if I spray you with cologne so you can share the smells you make me suffer?” A glossary of terms is included.

Marso, who admits that his book may “annoy the guardians of the French language,” says he wrote the book as a public service announcement.

Here is the original link. The constraint, of course, is that you wish to send and receive information as rapidly as possible, given your limited typing or punching speed. If you are interested, why not try some Shakespeare?

“Luv Loks Nt Wiv T iis
Bt wiv T Mnd”

Translation: “Love looks not with the eyes
But with the mind,”

William Shakespeare

Or this one?

“2 b or nt 2 b, thts de qn”

r v upset now? I think it’s pretty neat. And to keep you busy, here is a short glossary, TMMV stands for “Your Mileage May Vary,” which refers to different luck, POS stands for “Parents Over Shoulder,” B4N.

Robert Rubin

Brad DeLong reviews the new Robert Rubin book In An Uncertain World. Rubin sounds like a brilliant guy, and I am sorry never to have met him. I like this description:

I have never seen anyone else able to guide a meeting to the consensus he wanted by occasionally raising his eyebrows and saying little other than, “That’s very interesting, very important. Now I think we should hear what X has to say.”

Rubin himself emphasizes his habit of “probabilistic thinking,” always asking such questions as, “What else might happen?” and, “What if we’re wrong?”; looking at the full range of possible outcomes rather than the most likely or the most comfortable; and recognizing that just because things came out well in one case, you didn’t necessarily make a good decision, or that just because things turned out badly, you didn’t necessarily make a bad one.

Best non-fiction books of the twentieth century

Here is a left-wing list. Here is a National Review list, with Hayek and Robert Conquest near the top. Here are two Random House lists. The critics elevate Henry Adams, William James, and Booker T. Washington. The readers favor Ayn Rand, L. Ron Hubbard, and John Lott. The readers’ list has all kind of libertarian books, including David Boaz and Tibor Machan. Thanks to the ever-interesting for the link. All of the lists make for fun browsing, especially once you start thinking about the contrasts.

Where is our economy headed?

The ever-interesting Brad DeLong is on a real roll lately. Read his post on current economic trends. Here is my favorite part:

…more important than the short-run cycles are the long-run trends. Labor productivity growth in the United States rose from 1.2% per year from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s to 2.3% per year in the late 1990s to 4.2% per year–so far–in the 2000s. How much of that second jump-up in productivity growth will be sustained? We do not know, but it is safe to bet that some of it will. (Me, I don’t believe those numbers: I prefer to look at the income rather than the product side of the National Income and Product Accounts, and say that the three economy-wide productivity numbers are 1.2%, 3.1%, and 3.2% respectively, with the difference between the income and product side blamed on an erratic “statistical discrepancy.”) When will the rapid productivity growth that we have seen in the United States and ascribed to information technology spread to the rest of the rich countries? We do not know, but we do know that one of these years it will make itself visible. How long will it take world trade in information-services like form-processing, accounting, and customer service to truly boom as a result of the internet and the fiber-optic cable in the same way that the iron-hulled ocean-going steamship and the submarine telegraph made world trade in staple goods–not just luxuries and preciosities–boom in the late nineteenth century? Once again we do not know, but once again we do know that one of these years it will make itself visible.

It is time for governments, firms, investors, workers, and parents worldwide to begin betting on the long-run trends that have become visible over the past decade. Such bets probably won’t pay off in the next year, or two, or three. But they surely will start to pay off sometime in the next ten.

I will direct your attention again to Brad’s recent post comparing Bob Rubin and Paul O’Neill. I think it is one of the finest things an economist has written on bureaucracy, ever.

Risk aversion, immortality, and science fiction

Jacob Levy, following up on my earlier discussions (click here, here, and here) considers how immortal characters in fiction have behaved. Many but not all are extremely risk-averse. Part of the basic thread is how immortality would change our behavior. Randall Parker argues that immortality would not alter our behavior much, at least not until we could alter our genetic programming.

How do consumer reviews affect book sales?

Judith Chevalier and Dina Mayzlin have studied the impact of consumer reviews of books on word of mouth and subsequent sales, here is their NBER working paper, here is another draft. They find the following:

1. Most consumer reviews of books on and are very positive.

2. The reviews at Amazon are longer and more extensive. They are also more critical on average.

3. Better reviews on one site boost relative sales. The use of two sites gives us a controlled experiment to determine that word of mouth does indeed help authors rather than being a mere side effect of higher sales.

4. A bad review hurts you more than a good review helps you.

5. It remains to be seen whether allowing consumer reviews increases aggregate sales or simply shifts around sales to more suitable titles. Even a shifting affect, however, may increase consumer loyalty to the on-line site. If you know that Amazon helps you discover good books, you may be more likely to buy from Amazon.

My advice: I don’t put much stock in how favorable the Amazon reviews are, whether I am buying books, movies, or music. (I am most likely to buy music from Amazon.) This well-known example is one reason to distrust the reviews, although I think bad taste is more common than masquerades. Instead I look at how many reviews have been generated. I take this as a kind of sufficient statistic for how much passion the item has generated. Since I am at the tails of just about any distribution of taste, and since most cultural products disappoint in any case, look for something that creates a spark in people. I then see some chance of finding a product that I truly love. This advice will sometimes steer you wrong, but a little added intelligence will allow you to make the necessary adjustments.

By the way, there is now a whole blog, on how collaborative web enterprises shape society. Clay Shirky writes for it regularly, it is highly recommended.

Thanks to Eric Crampton for the pointer to the article.

Violence and Economy Building

Vadim Volkov’s “Violent Entrepreneurs” has an interesting discussion of protection rackets in the Russian economy. An interesting point is that Russian business and oranized crime have become symbiotic. Once a gang provides “protection” to a business, the gang considers the business their “turf” and becomes dependent on the income from the business. Eventually, gangsters come to guarantee transactions of the businesses they protect, a sort of underwriter that facilitates business. Volkov points out that a later wave of ex-army “protectors” came to provide a more legitimate, institutionalized form of protection against these earlier gangsters, which in turn opens the door for the reclaiming of the Russian state’s monopoly over violence. Robert Cottrell has a nice discussion in his New York Review of Books essay.

Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History

Oxford University Press has just published a five-volume Encyclopedia of Economic History, edited by Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University.

Virginia Postrel offers a good review and some interesting details:

Did you know that the oldest records of chemical pest control date back 4,500 years, to Sumerian farmers who used sulfur compounds to kill insects and mites?

Or that a century ago, railroad companies accounted for half the securities listed on the New York Stock Exchange? (Before the railroads, with their huge demand for capital, securities markets traded almost entirely in government debt.)

Or that in 1850, shoemaking employed more workers in the United States than any other manufacturing business?

The past doesn’t look quite like we tend to picture it: many of the people who got rich from the Industrial Revolution were not industrialists, but landowners who held urban real estate or property with access to water power or mines. From 1880 to 1914, unions went on strike at least 50 times to stop American employers from hiring black workers. Above all, Professor Mokyr says, “in the Middle Ages and in classical antiquity, the destitute were the vast majority of the population.”

And what is the bottom line to economic history?

Professor Mokyr says: “There are certain unifying themes that you see everywhere. People have to make a living. People would rather have more than to have less. On the whole, they don’t behave stupidly. They do as well as they can under the circumstances. The variation is in the circumstances, in the richness and diversity of human economic institutions that have emerged over time.”

That is not all:

“Economic history,” Professor Mokyr writes in the preface, “covers nothing less than the entire material existence of the human past.” The encyclopedia gives theoretical economists a way to check their ideas against the realities of the past. “You guys can’t write these big, fancy models without looking at the details,” Professor Mokyr says.

I have not yet seen the volumes but most likely the set will not be surpassed anytime soon.

The importance of status in business

Gregg Easterbrook directs our attention to the following two anecdotes about business, both taken from Art Kleiner’s Who Really Matters:

Why, for example, does Coca-Cola insist on keeping its original formula in a safe-deposit box that only a few top executives are allowed to open when at this point any cola company could reverse-engineer the ingredients? It’s done, Kleiner says, to make the Coke “core group” feel important. Another great anecdote: When former ITT CEO Rand Araskog published an as-told-to book of self-praise in 1989, ITT public relations panicked on learning that almost all copies were going to be remaindered. Araskog would be furious if he walked past the Strand, New York’s famed used book store, and saw his book on sale for $1. So ITT contracted for another company to buy up thousands of copies of the book and quietly destroy them.

Here is a brief review of the Kleiner book, here is Kleiner’s home page. The remainder of Easterbrook’s post contains brief reviews of other recent books of note.


Often I love the idea of science fiction more than science fiction itself. I’ve read most of the classics, and I am left with junk at the relevant margin. But lately I’ve been wrapped up in Stephen Baxter’s Evolution, published earlier this year. The book, spanning almost six hundred pages, tells the story of evolution from the point of view of our genes. To be sure, the book would be easy to satirize. It has no central characters, covers 65 million years of history, and frequently presents how different animals think [sic] about copulation. OK, that doesn’t sound like an obvious recipe for success but Baxter pulls it off to a surprising degree. The treatment is reminiscent of H.G. Wells or Olaf Stapledon, a particular favorite of mine. If you, like me, are desperate for science fiction that is actually intellectually stimulating, give this book a try. We are told, by the way, that the capacity to believe contradictory ideas is what makes human beings special.

Baxter pushes the Stephen Jay Gould line that the results of evolution are highly dependent on small accidents. For a contrasting point of view, from a more scientific front, see Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. The author Simon Conway Morris argues that the path of evolution is much less contingent than is commonly believed. He points to numerous biological structures, such as the eye, that have evolved repeatedly under different guises. Here is one brief summary, here is a longer and more critical presentation. Life’s Solution, which occasionally verges on theology, should be read with a critical eye. Nonetheless if you feel you have read all the good popular books on evolutionary biology, here is a text with something new and provocative.