Dynamist Blog

Literary Entrepreneurship

Salon has an interesting interview with Dave Eggers, whose comments on procrastination remind me of some of my blogging bursts. It's hip and trendy to disparage Eggers as overhyped, but he is not only a talented writer but a remarkable entrepreneur, having completely bypassed the literary establishment to create a new one--an accomplishment that struck me when I was reading Michael Chabon's hilarious and penetrating intro to McSweeney's Issue No. 10. (Full disclosure: Dave's brother Bill, who writes good wonky books, is an old friend and former colleague of mine. But I don't know Dave.)

Dallas Blogs

On the Glenn Mitchell Show Monday, I mentioned that Dallas isn't exactly a blogosphere capital. That doesn't mean, however, that there are no non-corporate blogs (other than this one, sometimes) in Dallas. The most famous Dallas blog is, of course, Mark Cuban's, which slipped my mind because I never read it. Some Dallas blogs I do read include two by Dynamist readers: Alan K. Henderson and John Lanius. I also periodically check in on Fayrouz Hancock, an Iraqi-Australian living in Dallas. Law blogger Stuart Buck used to live in Dallas. And Austin Bay lives, appropriately, in Austin--but I'll put him on the list as an honorary member because his blog and site are very good.

An "Offensive Bioethics Agenda"

The WaPost reports that Leon Kass and friends are promoting what they call an "offensive bioethics agenda." Parsing the Post's skimpy details, it looks like they want to separate their anti-research agenda from the convictions of Sam Brownback and other religious pro-lifers. They seem to think they'll be stronger politically without their religious allies, a peculiar calculation. But I've long argued that there are two completely distinct worldviews here: one (the traditional zygotes-are-persons view) that supports the end (longer, healthier lives) but not the means (embryo research) and another (the Kass view) that opposes the end and, only incidentally, the means (embryo research). If there's one thing Leon Kass isn't, it's pro-life.

Born of the Dot-Com Bust

"The key to making an invention useful is turning a technology into a tool," writes the LAT's Michael Hiltzik in this profile of Movable Type creators Ben and Mena Trott.

"Like Robin Hood, Only With Parking"

In his Sunday NYT column, Daniel Akst nails what's really going on with Wal-Mart:

The recent bankruptcy filing of Winn-Dixie Stores, the supermarket chain, would seem to be the latest evidence that Wal-Mart, dreaded by competitors as retailing's 24-hour-a-day death star, has lost none of its price-cutting potency. The company's apparent invincibility is part of what galls its critics, whose opposition led to the cancellation of a proposed Wal-Mart in Queens.

The conventional criticism of Wal-Mart is that it's an insatiable capitalist juggernaut, reaping private benefit at the expense of the public good. The view retains some currency, I suspect, because many of Wal-Mart's critics haven't really shopped there.

The funny thing is that, for quite a while, this view has had the situation almost exactly backward. Instead of producing private benefit at public expense, Wal-Mart has been producing public benefit at private expense. And the equation is likely to become ever more lopsided.

Like the airlines, whose investors generously provide low fares and convenient service while forgoing gains for themselves, Wal-Mart has kindly mustered considerable capital from investors with the goal of providing all kinds of basic goods under one roof at convenient locations and amazingly low prices. These investors must be charitably minded because they aren't the main beneficiaries of Wal-Mart's business.

For several years now, the shareholders, who have more than $200 billion tied up in the company, have not done especially well. Since the end of 1999, Wal-Mart stock is off 23 percent, while Target is up 43 percent and Lowe's is up 95 percent.

The big winners during this period were the juggernaut's customers, who gained by having Wal-Mart drive down the price of consumer goods. Assuming that Wal-Mart investors are more affluent than its shoppers, the system offers a progressive transfer from rich to poor--from capital owners to less prosperous American consumers and hard-working Chinese factory hands. It's like Robin Hood, only with parking.

If that sounds like unalloyed praise, you should really read the whole thing. This piece is, after all, by someone who actually shops at Wal-Mart from time to time.

Intellectual Life in Dallas (cont'd)

One of Dallas's intellectual high points is the excellent local NPR interview show hosted by Glenn Mitchell. Fred Turner, Jerome Weeks (who is probably a little ticked at me for dissing the DMN's boring book reviews), and I will be on the Glenn Mitchell Show Monday at 1 p.m., following an interview with Vaclav Klaus. The show is available in streaming audio.

Michael Chabon in Dallas

Reader Jim Rain writes, partly in response to my DMN piece, to let me know that the great Michael Chabon will be giving a reading at Highland Park High School on March 30. The talk is at 7 p.m., and, against all Dallas custom, is free and open to the public. It's part of a literary festival at the well-funded high school. Details are at here. I will, alas, be in L.A. and Columbus, Ohio, on March 30 and unable to attend.

Is There Intellectual Life in Dallas?

After nearly a year of dilly-dallying in meetings, the Dallas Morning News is finally launching its new Sunday opinion section, Points, edited by Rod Dreher. The inaugural issue features a debate on intellectual life in Dallas, with me taking the centrist position, Fred Turner arguing Dallas is great for intellectuals, and DMN book review editor Jerome Weeks saying it's lousy. Here's the opening of my piece (the first word should actually be "five," since I wrote it nine months ago):

Four years ago, I told my New York literary agent that I was moving from Los Angeles to Dallas. He replied, "You have my condolences."

Keep in mind that New Yorkers look down on L.A. Dallas is certainly not an obvious place to be an independent writer of serious nonfiction–a so-called public intellectual. You're an oddball here. Without a university job, you won't have colleagues to talk to. The closest real research library is in Austin. The bookstores' "new nonfiction" tables offer mostly talk show tie-ins and theology lite. The local paper runs short, boring book reviews.

"Provocative" is not a compliment in Dallas, except maybe to strippers. Few interesting, as opposed to merely famous, speakers come to town. People actually pay money to hear David Gergen on the platform with Bob Dole and Al Gore.

Condolences indeed.

The professional intellectual could do a lot worse than Dallas, however. You could, for instance, be stuck in the provincial ghettos of New York or San Francisco. There you'd have lots of other writers to talk to. The newspaper would report publishing gossip as major business news. You'd go to book parties and free lectures. You'd know who was arguing with whom about what.

But unless you traveled a lot, you'd have no idea what the rest of American culture is like. Reporters in New York have called me up to ask about the business significance of Whole Foods Market and the cultural meaning of the Left Behind series–both ancient news everywhere but The New York Times. New York is an intellectual cave, and San Francisco is even worse.

Read all three entries here. And, for the record, I think Dallas, while no Silicon Valley, is a fine place for "smart people," a group that is much, much bigger than professional intellectuals. The folks at American Leather are incredibly smart.

Survey Request: Who Are You Readers, Anyway?

Blogads is conducting an admittedly unscientific survey to determine who reads blogs. Please go to this link and answer Dynamist to question 16.

For interesting news on the evolution of blog ads--which are increasingly not just print ads online--see the Blogads blog. How meta is that?

New Voice

I'm delighted that John Tierney has been named to succeed William Safire as a Times op-ed columnist. John is a great guy and my kind of empiricist libertarian. He's also funny and a writer's writer. (Thanks to Sean Dougherty for the tip.)

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