September 21, 2009

Another law of nature

Poincare Halfplane by Claudio Rocchini

Rudy Rucker has a post on finishing his memoir.
...thanks to the chapter I wrote about society as a kind of computation in The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul, I’ve finally came to accept that writers’ sales obey a scaling law that’s technically known as an inverse power law distribution. You’re not getting lackluster book advances because someone is actively screwing you. It’s the scaling law.

The scaling law applies across the board—to the populations of cities, the number of hits on websites, the heights of mountains, the number of friends that people have, the areas of lakes, and the sales of books. There’s no getting around it. Thus, if you’re the hundredth-most popular writer, you earn a hundredth as much as the most popular one. Instead of a million dollars, you get ten thousand bucks. That’s how nature is. It’s not anyone’s fault. [more]

About the same time I read that I saw John Gray's review of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton [which I haven't read], and this passage jumped out:

One episode covers the time the author spent with a career counsellor, “a professional dedicated to finding ways of ensuring that work will be synonymous with fulfilment”. Describing a session with Carol, a private client, “37 years old, a tax lawyer, in charge of a department of 45 in an office near the Bank of England”, de Botton recounts how Carol suddenly stared to sob as the counsellor “watched her with his kindly eyes, and outside, the neighbour’s cat took a stroll round the carp pond”. The counsellor has dedicated his life to the belief that work is a quest for self-enactment, a way of becoming who we really are. The trouble is that, like many of his clients, Carol seems perplexingly diffuse in her interests, and it is not clear whether there is a self concealed somewhere within her that is waiting to be enacted. Worse, it is unclear whether, if such a self does emerge, anyone will have any interest in it. These uncertainties extend to the counsellor himself who, in return for allowing de Botton to sit in on the sessions, asks to be referred to a literary agent who could promote a book on which he has been working. Twelve agents are contacted, and each replies with polite enthusiasm. The book remains unpublished.

Commenting on this episode, de Botton writes: “For the rest of history, for most of us, our bright promise will always fall short of being actualised; it will never earn us bountiful sums of money or beget exemplary projects or organisations. It will remain no more than a hope carried over from childhood.” [more]

I don't have these anxieties anymore, but that might be due to a lack of imagination or effort. This week is the first for a long time [four weeks, more?] when too many deadlines to reasonably handle have not been trailing me. I spent today [Monday] sleeping in, worked a little, scootered around town, collected cash from some clients, came home, cooked, read, took out the trash, bought some coffee and settled down for an hour or two's work ahead of a swim, and then came home to this. I don't have a boss, and work in my study or anywhere else I set up my notebook. I know how lucky I am, but I also know my story, although I almost never think about it.

Power laws and the failures necessary for success were also explored in this earlier post: The myth of 1,000 true fans

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