Five Things: September 29, 2022

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On Hurricane Fiona | Alicia Kennedy

“The day after category 1 Hurricane Fiona had left the entire archipelago of Puerto Rico with no power, caused destructive flooding, and generally unleashed catastrophe in most places, tourists were back to normal in Old San Juan.”

The year after Hurricane Maria, we were considering visiting Puerto Rico again, and I asked a couple of people who either still lived or had close family there if it was a bad idea. Opinions varied, and although the general consensus was that visiting most parts of the island would be okay(ish) at that point, we decided against it because I don’t ever want to be one of those tourists.

When we travel anywhere, we try to be as local as possible, eschewing hotels in favor of rentals in interesting neighborhoods; walking everywhere possible; favoring street food and local favorites over fancy touristy restaurants. We’re also increasingly conscious of the role we might be playing in gentrification and overtourism.

I’m half-Puerto Rican, though — missed being born there by a couple of months (long story for another time) — and although I don’t have any close family still living there, it makes my relationship with the island more complicated than the average tourist. There’s always been a cultural divide between those born on the island and Nuyoricans like me, widened even further for those, also like me, who don’t speak Spanish — and arguably even further for those, also like me, who are part-Black or Afro-Latinx.

Nevertheless, other than the Bronx and by extension, NYC — and awkwardly, by circumstance, NJ — Puerto Rico is the closest place I have to a “homeland,” and I frequently struggle with what that actually means, amplified whenever another hurricane hits and I’m not directly affected by it.


Puerto Rico: America’s Forgotten Colony | Antonio Weiss & Brad Setser

“There was a clear racial dimension to the rulings: in the opinion for the Court in the 1901 case of Downes v. Bidwell, Justice Henry Billings Brown worried that if Puerto Rico were recognized as part of the United States, then its inhabitants, ‘whether savages or civilized,’ would be ‘entitled to all the rights, privileges and immunities of citizens.’ In a prescient dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan attacked the majority ruling for allowing Congress to ‘engraft upon our republican institutions a colonial system such as exists under monarchical governments.'”

Since I don’t live there, I’ve never felt I have the right to an opinion on Puerto Rico’s potential independence or statehood, other than to acknowledge that its current commonwealth status is unsustainable and unfair. This article is from 2019, but as far as I can tell, the only notable thing that’s changed is our President.

Side note: Foreign Affairs writing about Puerto Rico strikes me as “funny” considering the number of times over the years I’ve had to correct someone who assumed PR was a foreign country. It was also somewhat ironic to see U.S. media covering Queen Elizabeth’s death like she was American royalty, while mostly ignoring what was happening in one of our own colonies.


When Everyone’s a Winner | Roy Christopher

“The mainstream isn’t the monolith it once was. It’s a relatively small slice of the total culture now, markedly smaller than it was at the end of last century. For better or worse, the internet has democratized the culture-creating and distributing processes we used to privilege (e.g., writing, music, comedy, filmmaking, etc.), and it’s brought along new forms in its image.”

This is a great read on its own merits, but it also fits what’s happened/ing in book publishing — everything from PRH’s “lost” market share and the growth of self-publishing, to the many opportunities at the “edges,” aka niche & regional publishing.

Of course, opportunities at the edges present their own unique challenges because opportunity invites competition, and discovery remains a challenge whether you’re competing for the head or the long tail…

Side note: Christopher is the author of Boogie Down Predictions: Hip-Hop, Time, and Afrofuturism, a new collection of essays that seems like it’s right up my alley, but I’d never heard of it until this essay on long tail hit my radar via Twitter. Serendipity!


The Long Tail Theory, Debunked: We Stick With What We Know | Serguei Netessine & Knowledge@Wharton

“Contemporary recommendation algorithms are quite simple. They look at what people like you have bought previously, for example. Of course, many niche products will just never come up. So you have to be very careful about designing those algorithms and making sure that whatever niche products you add, they’re well-classified and actually show up in searches, and they’re not completely downplayed just because people buy them very, very rarely.”

Chris Anderson’s Long Tail Theory has been criticized and debunked many times over the years, and Anderson himself eventually admitted it’s difficult to monetize and requires massive scale few could muster, but that hasn’t stopped people from using his theory to “support” a variety of wild claims that go well beyond his own.

While I wholeheartedly believe the internet has created and/or exacerbated a variety of “long tail” opportunities across the board — especially in publishing where backlist was always important — it hasn’t led to a major shift in power away from those still able to play the blockbuster game at the head. Discovery — and the algorithms that purport to drive it — still favors those with the deepest pockets, and they’re also well-suited to take advantage of any long tail opportunities they decide to focus on.

Deep pockets chasing scale can also be a weakness, though. Focused niche players can (and do) absolutely punch above their weight and find sustainable success in the long tail.


Circulating Ideas – Library Services and Incarceration | Jeanie Austin

“The latest version of the library standards for services for incarcerated people was published in 1992. That’s currently being updated under the leadership of Tracie D. Hall, ALA’s Executive Director, but recent research found that most prison libraries weren’t even hitting the mark of those 1992 standards, despite it being almost three decades later.”

Circulating Ideas is a great podcast I don’t talk about too often because I cherry-pick episodes based on the topic and/or speaker, often well after their release. It’s my favorite type of podcast, though: an intellectually curious host (Steve Thomas) combined with an interesting guest who has clear expertise in the topic they’re discussing. In this one, Austin candidly discusses the opportunities, obstacles, and limitations of prison librarianship. Zero vocational awe, 100% real talk.

I’ve had a number of friends do literary work in prisons over the years, and it’s the one area where a bit of vocational awe is absolutely deserved. It’s mentally and emotionally taxing work, not for everyone, but it’s critically important if you truly believe in equitable access for all.

PS: Here’s a Twitter thread about some of my other favorite podcasts.

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