Words

“It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away.” The Bee Gees sang it way back in the 1960s, before they became smitten with disco fever and turned into the heebeejeebies.

And words are all I have, digital words at that. But before I start, let me show you a picture.

The gooeduck ejaculates. What's going on?

The geoduck ejaculates. What’s going on?

As you know (because you’re the one I have to thank for reading), The India Road blog now gets around forty hits a day, around 1000-1500 every month. This morning, when I came in to write, the normally hilly pattern of daily hits had turned into wasteland. You can see the thin blue lines above each day, and then the carpet bombing that took place today.

Well, either a zillion readers had discovered Atmos Fear, or else some mystical force was at work—and it was: it’s called the geoduck. I’m at the stage where I would pay money to find out what’s going on. Where did almost two thousand hits come from? The United States of America, of course.

It was around 9.30 GMT when I arrived here, which means 1.30 on the West Coast, 4.30 Eastern. WordPress won’t let me drill down to regions, but clearly there was much penile curiosity afoot in the wee hours.

I was coming in for a spot of non-linearity, and so I shall. Books first, because since I published Atmos Fear I’ve given the digital side more thought. And the book needs buzz, word of mouth. In Portuguese the expression is boca a boca, mouth to mouth, which is rather more sexual.

The whole book business is changing so fast it attracts all sorts of comment, even from business magazines such as Forbes. A couple of links in that article explore the subject in detail, probably TMI, really, but it attests to the buzz. The interesting thing is self-publishing was forever the industry’s dirty word, synonymous with lack of quality.

The author was a wallflower, too ugly to find a mate.

What Amazon did was to apply the whole concept of internet information to books. If you write something, it’s not up to Big Brother to judge whether it’s fit to read. It’s up to all sisters and brothers, both big and small. No longer a publisher, worse yet, an agent, will decide whether your prose stinks or skims. Democracy has come to The Word.

Why would conventional publishers do a digital deal with Amazon? How did Bezos persuade them to cannibalize their own market for printed books in exchange for a digital dream? I thought that, as companies, they might be shooting themselves in the foot, and in the long term I may be proved right.

But of course they did it for cash. Digital is where the money is, and Amazon had the network, the technology, and the customer base. Money is a zero sum game, although we seem to have lost our global compass on that one. Less than a century ago the Germans were pushing wheelbarrows full of Reichmarks to exchange for a loaf of bread, yet right now three huge economies are busy printing money as if there was no tomorrow.

Well, there is, as Japan, the U.S., and the E.U., will find out shortly. It’s worth recalling why digital printing (currency self-publishing) is a dangerous game: plastic and paper are a confidence trick, the underlying value is belief. Philip Coggan, in his excellent book Paper Promises, reminds us that credit comes from the Latin word credere—believe.

Put enough plastic out there, and like fake tits on a movie star, the underlying asset value eventually collapses. Plastic inflation hides better than barrows of banknotes, making it much more dangerous. Just like sub-prime, mad cows, austerity, and horse burgers, this explosion will be global, predictable, and avoidable—it will stun and suprise us all, as unexpected as a a thousand pounds of plastique in Quetta on a Sunday morning.

Currency wars are an astounding new discovery, almost as unexpected as pony patties. In a world of austerity, where did you think horses went when they died? The Pantheon? The big global blocks are upping the ante, with nothing underneath to support it. In my new book, two investment bankers discuss support on a transatlantic flight, right before the sub-prime bust.

“You got property goin’ up a steady six points or more, re-fi in suburbia is hotter than wife swapping. Yup, we’re good for a while yet,” said Wendale, the consummate trader.

Only one or two of the more clear-headed understood that the ship was headed for the rocks. After all, selling mortgages to sub-prime clients, charging the interest on only half the principal and then adding the unpaid part to the total owed, so that the new homeowner’s debt went up over the years instead of down, was bound to end in tears. But for pretty much everyone in finance, it was boom time. Dot com all over again.

“Some of those products we reviewed, I rather think they might put one in a spot of hot water.”

More Brit pinstripe-speak.

Wendale was now trading CDOs squared, and even cubed, where the product was supported on an identical product, making it increasingly difficult to grasp what the exposure was.

“Those cubed-things you have, they rather remind me of a flat earth story.”

“Huh?” Wendale drew a blank.

“Well, it’s the support, really. In the Middle Ages one thought the earth was a fleht dish. Do you know what supported it?”

“Before my time.”

Wendale couldn’t give a shit about flat dishes. Crazy limey stories. He held up his glass for some more burgundy, and stuffed his mouth with salmon.

“Elephants.” The Brit answered his own question.

“Elephants, huh? Pink ones?”

The British executive didn’t react.

“Four of them, one at each corner. Jolly big ones, one imagines.” He finished off his G & T and daintily picked at a cherry tomato, after anointing it with balsamic vinegar.

Wendale was totally confused. “What the hell do four elephants have to do with cubed CDOs?”

Goddamn limeys were so tortuous.

“Well you see, what troubles me is the support base. When they asked the chap what held up the elephants,  he said ‘it’s elephants all the way down!’.”

So in the imperfect world where money’s a zero sum game, resources are finite, and unemployment is a bane on family, future, and self-esteem, who did the publishers sell down the river? The bookstores, of course. All that distribution chain is collapsing, and after the ashes settle, there’ll be a few emblematic stores where you can take your grandchildren: Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, Foyle’s in London, and a good few others,to be sure.

But as you walk through the foyer the kids will hold out their iPads, or whatever the electrogadget flavor du jour may be. What they will want is to touch their device to a garish digital book ‘cover’, and you will push a button. And it will be bought, instantly downloaded. Their mother will say you spoil them, but then grandparenting is pleasure without responsibility.

As for me, I should be in the book export business, since I’m physically running out of places for all the books I buy. My bookcase is three deep, even my science books are double-parked. I can see a day when only really special tomes will inhabit my shelves, in a glory of dustfree lebensraum. The rest will skulk on digital shelving, packed tighter than Soi Cowboy on a Saturday night.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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