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About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Longest Established Permanent Floating Thing I Do

We change, you know.

We think the things we're doing will always be the things we're doing, but we change.

Sometimes even the things that don't seem to be changing, change.  As an example, I've been a literary agent for over 25 years, but the job description within the job has changed multiple times.  I've had the same job, two employers (one of them being myself), and probably close to half a dozen job descriptions.

But for me, there's one thing that hasn't, and that's going to the movies.

And the earliest movie that I can place seeing at a particular theatre dates back to when I was five.  We saw Airport at Radio City Music Hall.  Would my younger brother had been with a baby sitter?  It's hard even to think about.

And since my parents didn't believe in film ratings and took us to everything...  Deliverance at the Plaza Cinema, or stopping for Godfather, which I think we might have done as a side trip returning from visiting family in upstate New York.

Sleeper in Manhattan the next year.  One show was sold out, we walked across town to another show that was sold out, and then back again to the original theatre.

I can remember the drive that seemed to last forever to see Earthquake in Sensurround at the Cinema 46 in Totowa, NJ.

Montclair, NJ over the holidays, to see Network, and then stopping by actual non-Jewish family friends to hang out around their Christmas tree afterwards.

Drives up to Monticello in 1977 to see The Spy Who Loved Me at the theatre downtown, or to see Star Wars at the theatre by the dying mall on the outskirts of town.

The Brinks Job at the Sack Cheri in 1979, which we would have seen the same weekend that I got those free samples of Omni from the Boskone dealer's room, setting me on my current path.  So the thing to remember here is that I have movie-going memories that date back almost seven years further than the career path.

No, I can't remember every single movie I saw, and I couldn't tell you which theatre I went to for every single movie I can remember seeing.

But think about your own life, and ask yourself what are the things you can still remember from when you were in kindergarten, and the things that you can remember from 40 years ago.

That's the movies, for me.  The thing I've been doing, memorably and enjoyably doing, for longer than anything.

And hey, take a screen shot, print out the blog, in a few decades when I'm closing in on 90, let's see if I can remember the first batch of movies for this weekend, Filling the Void and 20 Feet From Stardom at the Kew Gardens Cinema.  And bonus credit if I can remember that Filling the Void was on Screen 3, which is the big one at this cinema.

Pauline Kael I'm not.  I haven't lost it at the movies, not yet at least.  But I promise to keep trying.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Surveillance State

A week back, Thomas Friedman, the distinguished author and columnist for the New York Times, wrote a column approving of the NSA's surveillance and monitoring of metadata of email and phone calls for pretty much everyone.

His argument:  I like civil liberties, civil liberties will take it on the chin even more than they are now if we have another 9-11 style attack.  So the government should do all that is can to prevent another such attack, and if that's what the surveillance is doing, I'm in favor of it.  Also, that this has been going on for two American presidencies now.

What an idiot!

OK, I mean, Thomas Friedman isn't an idiot, and there's a certain soothing logic to his column which reflects an opinion that's apparently shared by a lot of my fellow Americans.

But it's wrong, it's misguided, and quite obviously so.

It took me several days of mulling over Thomas Friedman's soothing article to zone in on the basic fallacy, but once you do, it's really quite simple.

And that fallacy is this:  There is no guarantee that any of the NSA programs will stop another 9-11 type attack.  The fact that the Boston Marathon bombings could take place is kind of proof positive that we cannot be 100% protected from terrorist activity.  Since neither Thomas Friedman nor President Obama nor the head of the CIA or NSA or Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) or Speaker John Bonier (R-OH) or any of the other many people defending this surveillance cannot guarantee that their efforts will not protect us 100% from another 9-11, I would respectfully ask that my 4th Amendment rights be protected and that the government not go vacuuming up information on every single phone call I make. And that the government not go vacuuming up information on pretty much every e-mail I send.

Of course, the head of the NSA has come out and said how these wonderful surveillance efforts have lead to the stopping of 50 plots against us.  Of course, he won't give much detailed information about any of these because it's a secret.  I have no secrets, he gets to keep all of his?  That's not the way to have a debate or discussion.

If we could look at the details, we would probably discover that many of these plots could have been discovered in ways other than vacuuming up metadata on every phone call and e-mail.  We might discover that there would have been plenty of time to get warrants for the specific individuals vs. invading the privacy of all of us.  But we won't get a lot of these details.

Several editorial cartoonists have been quite succinct in pointing out the ludicrousness of many of the same Senators who filibustered reasonable background check legislation for gun sales now turning around to say it's perfectly fine for the government to get the metadata for every single phone call I make.  I guess it could be argued that I am inconsistent for wanting my metadata to be protected while thinking background checks for guns are a good idea, but isn't there a common sense difference between placing a phone call and buying a weapon used to kill people?

I don't buy the idea that my e-mails aren't being looked at because that program is limited to getting data for people overseas.  I happen to email people overseas almost all the time, and I have this hunch that the computer that vacuums up the emails of those people will vacuum mine up along with it.  Have you ever sent an e-mail where the chain includes ten other e-mails?  Even, on occasion, the computer might fold in some e-mail from a completely different conversation because you started a new conversation in a reply or had the same subject line.

My blog is supposed to be about publishing, so I want to make this conversation a little bit relevant.

Government power:  A lot of us think the Department of Justice had a pretty weak case against Apple and the major publishers on e-book price fixing.  The publishers changed to a model that reduced the power of Amazon, which had 90% of the e-book business and was selling e-books as loss leaders.  Amazon provided a lot of the information and a lot of the impetus behind the lawsuit.  Yet the publishers all ended up settling.  Why?  Well, it's pretty simple.  The government has a lot of power and a lot of tools and a lot of resources, and when it decides to use those against you, it's awfully hard to resist. Why do you want to give the government such benefit of the doubt that it will vacuum up all of this information and never use it foolishly or bullyingly or in a bad way?

Asymmetric information:  The next time you are negotiating a new contract with a publisher, ask the publisher to show you their P&L (profit & loss) statement for the proposed acquisition.  See how far you'll get!  For all the increased amounts of information some publishers are providing, like real-time information to hard sales numbers, they are never going to negotiate where you have equal access to information with them.  They will never tell you what their actual excess of revenue over expenses is, and let you see exactly how much of that money they are willing to give to you and how much they intend to keep for themselves.  And if I come up with my own best guesses... you can trust me on this, that the publisher will always say I'm wrong but never come up with a specific beyond that.  It's similar here.  The government isn't engaged in an open exchange with any of us.  The information we need to know is a secret, and all of our information is there for them to look at.  And you don't have an agent in this negotiation.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Every Move You Make I'll Be Watching You

The British newspaper The Guardian found out that the US has very likely been receiving details  of every phone call most of us make -- who we called, when we called them, how long we spoke.

Where are all of those constitution lovers who are so fond of my 2nd amendment rights to start using those guns to fight against this colossal infringement of our 4th amendment rights?

I'm bothered not just by the blatant violation of privacy rights but by the idiocy of this and of everyone who defends this.

Let's take a specific scenario, where the government knows that some particular person is a terrorist.  Well, the government has always had the ability to go to a judge and get a warrant and find out who is calling this person and who this person calls, and even to listen in on the phone calls. Some of these abilities are impaired by the switch from land lines to cell phones.  The calls no longer go through particular switching stations for particular phone lines in particular places where the government can attach a tap.  However, solving that problem doesn't require getting detailed reporting on who every person in the country speaks to for how long.  So the government isn't, in this instance, adding anything helpful for people whom we know are terrorists.

Let's say the government doesn't know someone is a terrorist until they do something bad.  In such an instance, yes, the government might be able to review records retrospectively and find out who called this phone number.  Emphasis on retrospectively.  This is closing the barn door after cows left, after bad guy does his bad thing.

If you want to say that this is a good thing because we can catch this bad person and keep him from doing another bad thing -- well, I can't argue with that.  But what I can say is that this isn't what the United States is all about, or at least not that the US is supposed to be about.  We're not East Germany in the 1970s, where everyone was spying on everyone else.  We don't keep everyone in prison because we suspect all of us might commit a crime someday.  Or at least we're not supposed to do these things.

And once you start saying that all these little things are perfectly fine because we can't risk anything bad ever happening to us -- again, that's an argument we had 230 years ago which led to our having a Bill of Rights, and those rights are supposed to protect us from exactly this kind of thing.

So again, where are all the second amendment defenders now, when the fourth amendment is once again under attack?

There's also a practical problem here.  For all the computers in the world that make our lives easier, there are real costs to our government to collect all of this data, to organize all of this data, and then the government is either just putting the data off in some dark corner just in case or it's taking time to have people look at all of those phone records for everyone.  That's a lot of infrastructure, a lot of people, a lot of lots of things, all to go looking at data which is 99.9999% useless, records of calls that don't mean anything.  But which are there.

So if you don't want the government collecting gun records for newspapers to find so that everyone knows where the guns are, do you want the government to have all this information on all the people you've called, how long you spoke to them, information which could somehow get out into the world and into the newspapers?

It gets worse.  The government's also been collecting gobs of data from everyone who surfs the web from outside the US, around $20M worth a year for that expense according to The Guardian.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Your Opinion is Important to Us

Since I still have a land line it is susceptible to getting calls from polling companies.

I kind of like this.  It is occasionally interesting because you can tell who's paying for the poll by the kinds of questions being asked and the way they are being phrased.  And who doesn't want to be asked their opinion.

But I've got to take a few minutes to complain in public about a call I got yesterday.

I was sitting around watching tennis from Roland Garros, so I figured I could watch tennis and be polled at the same time.  And the person taking the poll assures me it's just a few questions and won't go on for very long at all.

It turns out to be a poll on the NYC mayor's race.  I'm asked multiple times to choose whom I would vote for today, which I refuse to do.  There are two or three candidates I am strongly considering and a few I am strongly not, and I don't want to pick a side now when there haven't been any debates and the contest not yet fully in swing.  I'm read biographical descriptions of each candidate, all of them very much like what the candidates themselves would write.  Then there are questionable actions about each candidate that are read off, and I'm asked to say if these things give me super strong doubts or tiny doubts or no doubts.

I admire the even-handedness of the poll.  The biographies aren't suspiciously shady, and the doubt raising questions are all legitimate.  This one did block paid sick leave legislation, that one did have shady fund-raisers, another did travel through the revolving door.

However, the poll just goes on and on and on and on.  It takes a long time to read several candidate biographies and several more critical statements, and to repeat every time the "doubt" scale.   And I admit, I took up a few minutes pointing out that the quick poll was at ten minutes, and soon approaching twenty.  And then at around 18 minutes I explained that while I was sorry to have wasted everyone's time, I was hanging up.  Because I sure as heck wasn't giving more than twenty minutes of my life to participating in this poll.

And that's the thing I don't get.  How do you expect anyone to participate in a poll that's going to take a half hour out of their lives?  Anyone?  How can you have an accurate poll when the only people you'll get to take it are people with nothing better to do for an entire half hour.

Can Nate Silver explain this to me?