A retrospective glance

The New Yorker, as you may have heard, has redesigned its website, and is making all articles published since 2007 free, for the summer, in hopes of addicting you as a reader. Once you’re hooked, they’ll winch up the drawbridge, and you’ll have to pay, pay, pay. But for the moment let’s not think about either the metaphor I just mixed or its consequences, shall we?

A self-publicist’s work is never done, and it seemed to behoove me to take advantage of the occasion. So I googled myself. It turns out that I’ve been writing for the New Yorker since 2005 and that ten articles of mine have appeared in the print magazine over the years. All seem to be on the free side of the paywall as of this writing (though a glitch appears to have put several of the early articles almost entirely into italics). Enjoy!

“Rail-Splitting,” 7 November 2005: Was Lincoln depressed? Was he a team player?
“The Terror Last Time,” 13 March 2006: How much evidence did you need to hang a terrorist in 1887?
“Surveillance Society,” 11 September 2006: In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals tried to record the texture of everyday life
“Bad Precedent,” 29 January 2007: Andrew Jackson declares martial law
“There She Blew,” 23 July 2007: The history of whaling
“Twilight of the Books,” 24 December 2007: This is your brain on reading
“There Was Blood,” 19 January 2009: A fossil-fueled massacre
“Bootylicious,” 7 September 2009: The economics of piracy
“It Happened One Decade,” 21 September 2009: The books and movies that buoyed America during the Great Depression
“Tea and Antipathy,” 20 December 2010: Was the Tea Party such a good idea the first time around?
Unfortunate Events, 22 October 2012: What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Four Legs Good,” 28 October 2013: Jack London goes to the dogs
“The Red and the Scarlet,” 30 June 2014: Where the pursuit of experience took Stephen Crane

“Steamboats are killing it,” or whatever

That’s how a friend misremembered the name of my blog last week, while taunting me during soccer. (“Why don’t you just write about it for n+1?” I had previously taunted him, when he had complained of an alleged foul.)

And on that slender pretext, here’s a quote about steamboats from A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes’s perverse, dark novel about children abducted by pirates:

“Look! There’s a steamship!” exclaimed Margaret, with much too bright a brightness.

The mate glowered at it.

“Aye, they’ll be the death of us, those steamers,” he said. “Every year there’s more of them. They’ll be using them for men-on-war next, and then where’ll we be? Times are bad enough without steamers.”

But while he spoke he wore a preoccupied expression, as if he were more concerned with what was going on at the back of his mind than with what went on in the front.

For the record, the title of my blog actually comes from the muttered aside of a disreputable, nostalgic sailor in a different novel. (FYI, the Google Books scan that this links to is of Columbia’s printout of the NYPL’s microfilm of volume 1 of Charles Frederick Briggs’s Trippings of Tom Pepper. I’ve never been able to lay my hands on volume 2, though you could probably piece it together from back issues of the newspaper that serialized it, which I believe the New-York Historical Society still owns.)

Walking the plank one last time

A rough graph of how copyright and piracy affect supply and demand curves

Over at Slate, I’ve written a response to Matt Yglesias’s reply to my criticism of his ideas about piracy and copyright.

In the last paragraph of my new post, I qualify my assessment of piracy’s impact on copyright by wondering “if I’m drawing the graphs correctly.” Should anyone want to inspect those graphs, here are a couple! As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m no economist, so they could be riddled with errors. I didn’t draw the supply curve as a straight, upward-sloping line because I’ve always understood that in the book-publishing world, publishers are willing to sell books cheaper if they can sell more of them, and editors spend much time and energy trying to guess whether demand will be sufficient to justify a low price, or insufficient and require them to charge a high one. This may be an elementary error for all I know; if it is, please accept my apologies and straighten out my supply curve. If I’m right about the shape, though, it means that the surplus that a producer can rely on, even if he doesn’t have copyright protection, is just a tiny horizontal slice, lying like a pancreas under a liver, hard to see unless you click on the graph and view it full size. I drew the demand curve with a hump in it because it’s my impression that the audience for a given art work has a natural size, who won’t be deterred by a slight increase in price or much encouraged by a slight decrease. I could be wrong there, too, of course. The inset that I drew in the upper right corner, by the way, is intended to show how unimpeded piracy apportions the economic value of a work of art. As I write in my latest Slate piece, unimpeded piracy “cedes almost the whole triangle under the demand curve to consumers—transferring just a sliver along the bottom to the pirates themselves and leaving virtually nothing for legitimate publishers.”

I wondered about that claim after filing my article, and found myself doodling another graph yesterday afternoon to speculate more methodically about what happens when pirated work competes with copyrighted work. It seems to me that what you need to do is see where the demand curve meets the total supply curve, which is the sum of the legitimate supply curve and the pirate supply curve. Those curves have to be added along the axis of quantity, not price, so if nothing is impeding piracy, don’t bother going any further—the little inset that I drew in the graph above is fine. If piracy is “taxed,” however, by social disapproval, legal jeopardy, or some other inconvenience, the pirate supply curve gets shifted upward along the price axis, and when you add together a taxed pirate supply curve and a legitimate supply curve, you get something that looks a little like a sideways tuning-fork prong, in darkish pencil in the graph below. A tax on pirates makes it possible for legitimate publishers to stay in the marketplace. If the tax is high enough to raise the effective price of a pirated work above the copyrighted price, the legitimate publishers lose nothing, comparatively speaking. If the effective price doesn’t rise that far but does rise above the equilibrium price that would obtain in the absence of copyright and in the absence of piracy (a somewhat notional distinction, IMHO), producers can’t get as large a surplus as they would under copyright, but they can get something. If the tax doesn’t raise the effective price of a pirated work above the notional equilibrium, however, it looks as if producers get no surplus at all.

Advisory: These graphs should be accorded no authority other than as samples of what happens when a humanities-type person tries to puzzle out an economics problem.

A rough graph of copyrighted work competing against taxed pirated work

Free piracy today only

With a brilliant sense of the à propos, the University of Chicago Press has emailed me to say that they're making Adrian Johns's history of intellectual piracy (mentioned in my post on Saturday night and reviewed by me in The National (Abu Dhabi) last week) available today only as a free e-book download. If it's still February 1 when you're reading this, you can get a free electronic copy of Adrian Johns's Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, by clicking here.

Update, Feb. 5: A reader alerts me that although Mr. Johns's Piracy is no longer available as a free e-book, his earlier work, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, also à propos, has been made available for free instead, at the same link. Not sure how long this will last, of course, . . .


A printout, corrected in green ink, of Google's scan, partly obscured by the hand of Google's scanning technician, of an essay by Immanuel Kant on the injustice of counterfeiting books

“Terms of Infringement,” my review of Adrian Johns’s new history Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, appears in this weekend’s issue of The National (Abu Dhabi).

In the opening paragraph of my review, I refer to an essay by Immanuel Kant. Its title is “Of the Injustice of Counterfeiting Books,” and in Google Books, you can see a Google technician’s hand obscuring the text of it at the bottom of page 234. Above: My scan of a print-out, corrected by me in green ink, of Kant’s essay as scanned by Google, along the scanning technician’s hand.