Saturday, August 28, 2010

Notes from the Proprietor

Assuming this blog offers readers some value, I will try to continue offering whatever that value is.

No one could be more astonished by this blog's relative success than its writer/proprietor (me).

The writer who is new to blogging may feel a temptation to check his/her site's traffic to see if anyone is reading, and it is a thrill to find the blog had 23 visitors that day.

It's actually pretty darn amazing that even 23 people find your work in a World Wide Web of hundreds of millions of users and tens of millions of websites and blogs.

For a writer/journalist, there is no thrill quite like a printed byline in a widely distributed publication. There is your name for all to see. Wow. You are now a "real writer" in the sense that you are published and perhaps even paid.

I had my first byline back in 1988, in a major newspaper. I have since had hundreds of bylined articles published in newspapers and magazines, and I have authored eight books: one novel published by a respected literary publisher and seven self-published.

I have found that the thrill of seeing my name has been largely replaced with a keen concern (bordering on gnawing worry) that whatever I have written will stand up to high journalistic (or polemic, depending on the entry) standards.

I write a lot: close to 300 blog entries a year, often over 1,000 words each, roughly 100 feature stories for AOL Daily Finance a year, somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 emails a year, and thousands of words on whatever book(s) I am writing (and there are always two: one novel and a non-fiction title). I recently deleted 8,800 emails from my "sent file" that covered about 18 months.

Many of the emails were substantive.

I believe other bloggers with audiences much larger than mine (for example, Mish) answer all their voluminous mail, and I have no idea how many emails this might be annually.

Success is of course relative, but any success brings with it a host of new challenges. In many ways, being hungry and unknown is the ideal place to be, for any success is immensely rewarding. But once the enterprise (whatever it might be) becomes moderately successful, then it is in grave danger of slipping from being fun to being a great burden.

I am sure many of you know the feeling well.

While I maintain a modest curiosity about my web traffic, I don't really follow it closely or attempt to analyze it. There are several reasons for this.

The chief one is that I am not really writing this to "build an audience," just as I don't really care about search optimization. I just write what interests me and let go of it. I hope it interests readers, but I can't control that.

The second reason is that my readership is basically impossible to quantify. I can measure the page views of this site, of course, which are around 500,000 to 600,000 per month and 15,000 to 20,000 per day. I reckon this is roughly equivalent to a small newspaper or journal.

But then there is my mirror site and the RSS feed from that site, and all the aggregator sites which have permission to republish my work:, Business Insider, Seeking Alpha, Before Its News, Benzinga, etc., and lastly, my features on AOL Daily Finance. I have no idea how many people read my work on those sites.

Perhaps it is just my contrarian nature, but the more that the received wisdom on the Web solidifies around obsessively tracking the response-rate to each bit of content one posts so that you can post more on that topic, the more I focus on the quality and variety of what I write, and thus the less I care about tracking what may or may not interest others.

I am usually wrong about that anyway. Some entry I tossed off in a flurry of enthusiasm for some idea will get picked up by Zero Hedge, Jesse's Cafe Americain and other blogs I hold in high esteem, while some entry I labored over as "really important" generates little feedback and no visible widespread interest.

For example, Japan and the U.S.: Ad Hoc War, Ad Hoc "Recovery" (June 14, 2010) in which I suggest that both Japan and the U.S. have responded to global financial and political crises in an ad hoc fashion; in effect, there is no "master plan" and thus no understanding of the crises at all. No wonder the status quo is falling apart. (The idea that a secretive group that's "really in charge" actually knows what they're doing remains no more than an appealing fantasy.)

The point is simply this: what I reckon is important may nor may not be what you or other readers think is important. Rather than guess what might be of interest to any one audience, I will keep doing what I have been doing, which is writing about topics which interest me, and attempt to do so in a modestly entertaining fashion.

Back in June, I attempted to define why this blog continues: So What's the Point? (June 1, 2010)

Since then, some other thoughts on purpose, value and intent have occurred to me.

There is a long tradition in the U.S. of what I call the Good Governance Movement. The core of this faith is that good governance--sunshine laws, sunset laws, open democracy, regulations enforced by agencies protected from corruption and self-interest, etc.--can fix whatever ills afflict our society and economy.

This movement combines citizen activism with healthy dollops of expertise; that is, we need to raise the political will to restrain naturally corrupting forces, and we will turn to academic and other experts to craft those restraints.

I applaud this movement and its many successes.

But I have concluded that our crises have moved beyond the reach of mere good governance, and that in a nutshell is what this blog is about.

There are two strains of what I consider perniciously appealing but ill-informed views on policy and "solutions." One holds that humans are inherently greedy, duplicitous, self-serving and thus easily corruptable, prone to self-delusion, violent, etc. etc. etc., and thus "there is nothing new under the sun" and so we should throw up our hands and accept the status quo as inevitable, with the caveat that whatever we might attempt to replace it with will be just as bad/good/indifferent.

This is an appealing ideology because 1) humans are obviously all those things and 2) it justifies being passive and not bothering to understand how today's problems might in fact be "something new under the sun" or perhaps worse than the usual status quo of corruption, self-service, embezzlement, etc.

An adjunct notion is that all we really need to do is return to some Camelot in the distant past in which good governance, common sense, propriety and fiscal restraint reigned supreme.

Upon examination, this reveals two apparently contradictory truths: humans were just as self-serving, greedy, etc. back then, and there are times in history when resurgent ethics and good governance are the dominant collective goals. The cycles of history show that we do not live in a steady-state; things can get better, or they can get worse. Doing nothing usually guarantees the latter.

The second perniciously appealing but ill-informed ideology is ideology itself. The human mind is inherently lazy, and so we seek simplistic generalities to guide our thoughts and actions because figuring out each unique situation is time-consuming and tiresome.

This is why it's so tempting to blame the Democrats or Republicans for all the nation's ills, and why choosing a professional sports team to cheer is satisfying, even if the player roster is a revolving door and the games are mostly wastes of time and money.

If we combine these two appealing but ill-informed notions, we get the present: a lot of sound and fury expended over ideologically fueled "governance" "fixes" which accomplish essentially nothing of value.

They do, however, provide plentiful fodder for the media machinery to grind into the sausage of carefully packaged "news" and "commentary," most of which is neither newsworthy nor enlightening.

The reason I wrote Survival+ was to explore two interwined alternative views: 1) that cultural and spiritual forces--those which are internal or internalized via the politics of experience--were just as important as financial/political externalities.

These are not "fixable" with more regulation or policy tweaks.

2) That larger intellectual forces offer more explanatory and predictive value than the superficial "brands" of ideology currently available. I would count natural selection and systems analysis among these ideas, and this is why I devote so much of Survival+ to an exploration of feedback loops and similar ideas, and to the forces of natural selection which work within groups, nations and economies alike.

These ideas have not been fully explored, and that is the direction I wish to take going forward.

My other focus will be on solutions. Many readers ask for practical solutions, and I have attempted to provide some--but there is much more to say about solutions. (Type "solutions" into the custom search window in the lefthand sidebar to see what I've written on this topic in the past.)

It is remarkably easy to agree on what's wrong, and remarkably difficult to agree on what is a solution. That's why we must each choose our own solutions; no one "solution" or ideology can offer up a list or a refuge for everyone.

That's the hard part: undertanding the problems we face, coming up with alternatives and then choosing which ones work best for us in our current circumstances.

As I wrote in Survival+: if the "solution" is to stockpile six months' of supplies and gear, then what happens in month seven?

If the solution is is throw up our hands because it's all a mess and will always be a mess, is that really a solution, or is it an excuse for passivity and thus complicity in the status quo? Is there really nothing that we can to improve our chances for a better future?

You may picture me as a slob in shorts, mumbling gibberish while I type out my daily rants and ramblings, covered in Cheetos dust. You would be wrong; I don't like Cheetos.

Actually, my online life is only a limited part of my life; the success of the blog (however you choose to define "success") has now pushed my life into overload. I find 12 work-hours a day is not enough, and that I fall ever farther behind on one project or another. That erodes the joys of work, and depresses the spirit.

I find 2010 two-thirds over and I have only a few thousand words written on the books I dearly want to complete this year.

I would also like to settle on some way to reward the 25-30 long-suffering subscribers to this blog, who get nothing from their monthly contribution other than the exceedingly modest satisfaction of supporting my ramblings.

While I admire those few bloggers who have fashioned a decent living from their online efforts to educate and enlighten, I have trouble thinking of this blog as a business. This is not to say that I don't think it a serious enterprise--on the contrary, I approach my writing here with the utmost seriousness, professionalism and intent to provide value (or amusement) and positive problem-solving.

In this way, is what others call a social business, meaning it is a gift to the community rather than an enterprise focused on reaping a profit. Yes, I host Adsense adverts, and am delighted to earn a small commission from sales made through this site; these help offset the expenses of the site. But if revenue were my focus, I would need to establish paid premium content and/or a subscription forum membership.

I am unwilling to do so for two reasons:

1. I am a "pure" writer, meaning that's all I really like doing. I manage the technical stuff and all the rest as a necessity, because it is in my "chippy" (carpentry) genes to want to learn how to do the thing myself rather than leave it as some sort of magic that I am dependent on others to perform. (That's why I don't use Wordpress or other complex software that I don't really understand.)

2. I like the freedom to write whatever interests me, be it stock charts, cultural analyses, a recipe or some silliness to relieve the seriousness of our collective situation. Since the content here is free, there are no implied obligations. You are free to enjoy it, disagree with it, stop reading, etc. You are also free to voluntarily support the site with a book purchase, an purchase, or a direct donation via PayPal or the mail (pleaserequest P.O. Box address.)

In other words, the site depends on the kindness and generosity of its readers and contributors. That is how it has evolved; one day a reader suggested I add a PayPal "tip jar" button, so I did. A year or so later, another reader suggested I add a voluntary subscription button, so I did.

Readers have spontaneously gifted me with wonderful, valuable objects. Just recently Paul L. sent me a beautiful, rugged DeWitt garden spade; Robert N. sent me a 1888 silver U.S. dollar, while J.F.B. sent me a number of mint Canadian $5 coins. Scott C. sent me U.S. Navy service medallions from Korea, and Bart D. mailed me a handsome Australian $20 bill. I have also received rolls of old nickels, and numerous excellent books. Thank you, readers, for sharing your hard-earned wealth.

I am overwhelmed by this voluntary sharing and generosity, and that has fueled my goal to reply to every email I receive.

But I have concluded something has to give, and after much guilt-soaked deliberation (for it has always been my policy to respond to every email), I have realized that I have only a few limited choices: either respond to all email and give up writing books, limit the blog to a day or two of new content per week, or write the blog and books and limit my email responses to a rigid timeframe.

That means my goal will shift from answering all email to answering as many emails as I can in a restricted period of time.

Various bloggers handle this differently. Some never respond, even those with much smaller audiences, while others with vast readerships always respond. Some use auto-responders. It just depends on the person, their priorities and the time and energy they have available.

I value my email correspondence greatly, as correspondents are my network and my source of information and knowledge. This is why I have poured so much time and energy into maintaining my correspondence.

But I am just one individual. Even if wanted the headache of hiring a part-time staffer to help me, they couldn't write the blog or the articles for Daily Finance or my books or respond to my email from the many correspondents I have around the world. So they would just be another expense and timesink.

Some readers have asked if I am a real person; it looks like I am a real person, but apparently my output has introduced a sliver of doubt. I wish this was the work of a small organization rather than of one individual; I wouldn't be overwhelmed and constantly triaging an impossible workload. But I am.

So please don't take it personally if you don't receive a response to every email; I will read every email, and value it, even as I am unwilling to use an auto-respond to acknowledge it. Alternatively, I could stop writing, but what value would this absence offer to readers? There are no good answers to any triage, and even a simple blog requires hard choices. Success, especially the unexpected kind, has its own burdens, so it has to be managed like everything else (including failure) --as best we can.

I will be tending to family matters for the next few weeks and will be unable to read or respond to email--please accept my apologies in advance.

If you would like to post a comment where others can read it, please go, (registering only takes a moment), select Of Two Minds-Charles Smith, and then go to The daily topic. To see other readers recent comments, go to New Posts.

Order Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation and/or Survival+ The Primer from your local bookseller or from or in ebook and Kindle formats.A 20% discount is available from the publisher.

Of Two Minds is now available via Kindle: Of Two Minds blog-Kindle

Thank you, Christi N. ($35) for your wonderfully generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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