the hypothetical maximum data transmission rate of a telecommunications medium

  • January 2009
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The Gambler, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-01-18

I stumbled across this page via Energy Bulletin, a site that continues to impress me with its eclectic choice of links to articles on energy descent and peak oil.

Here, then, is a short story by Paolo Bacigalupi, whose name harks to a more mediterranean heritage, but writes with extraordinary vividness of epic cultural clash between East and West. It brought back memories of reading James Clavell’s Shogun and Taipan that I read all those years ago, being as they were my first encounter with the Asian concept of face.

He relates the story of Ong, a Laotian refuge web journalist, writing stories about environmental collapse that no-one cares to read except to assuage their guilty conscience.

“You need to up your average. You’ve got almost no readers selecting you for Page One. And even when they do subscribe to your feed, they’re putting it in the third tier.”

“Spinach reading,” I supply.


“Mr. Mackley calls it spinach reading. When people feel like they should do something with virtue, like eat their spinach, they click to me.

With deft strokes, Bacigalupi draws a melancholic portrait of a quiet young man, cut off from his roots and adrift and lonely in a vaguely dystopian future America.  Ong needs to boost his ratings, his readership, or lose his job. (Plus ça change…)

Readership is measured in web clicks, feed subscriptions, pings, trackbacks and buzz generated from social networks whose precursors can be found in the likes of Plaxo, Facebook, del.icio.us and so on. And when I look at the statistics that my own tiny blog generates (on the order of single-digit visits per day), I can’t help but feel a certain kinship.

I’d buy the book it’s published in (it’s the closing story in a collection of short stories from different authors), but I worry that it would be like buying a CD for one great song and discovering that the rest are crappy. Sometimes you come across a story that is so powerful that reading something else straight afterwards feels like a letdown. This is one such story.

Update 2009-03-30: in a particularly strange episode of life imitates art, Robert X. Cringely has an article on the role of automated computer trading on the collapse of AIG and the US mortgage market. He paints the same picture of a single action occurring in the infosphere that generates a buzz, a glow, and creating a chain reaction of attention that will bring the house down, to the immense satisfaction (and profitability) of the same person who carried out the initial trade.

Reading the comments to the blog indicates that his logic is a bit faulty, but I think there’s some element of logic to the underlying premise. In any case, there’s a resonance with The Gambler that is hard to shake off.


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