Letters from our readers.
June 12 1998 3:30 AM

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Advertising by Numbers

David Plotz writes in his June 6 "Assessment" of Tina Brown, "In 1997, [The New Yorker's] six double issues and three other special issues accounted for 35 percent of the magazine's advertising pages."

By my count, the six double issues (at two weeks per issue) and three special issues (one week each) total 15 weeks, or 28 percent of 1997. Is it so impressive that 28 percent of the year accounted for 35 percent of the ad pages?

I'm reminded of Dilbert's boss, who was outraged to find that 40 percent of company sick days were being taken on Mondays or Fridays.


--Andrew SolovayBelmont, Calif.

The New YorkerTurned Brown

David Plotz claims ("Assessment") Tina Brown "supplemented the already prodigiously talented staff with her own snazzy hires." She also lost a prodigious lot of talent, either by firing people, forcing them out, or forcing them first to throw up and then to give up. You're right about the magazine's sameness, however; it's the same damn thing each week, and it's the same as the other slick, self-referential, celebrity gossip mags around. As for the chattering classes, they chatter almost exclusively to one another, and they are very dull people--far duller than the old New Yorker.

--Susanna Margolis


Yes, Sex, Please--We're Scientists!

In "Today's Papers" for June 5, Scott Shuger writes:

The NYT, LAT, and WP fronts herald the discovery that the sub-atomic particle called a neutrino, which is chargeless and was formerly thought massless too, in fact has mass. The papers assure us this is earth-shaking. "The Universe May Never Be the Same" is slugged over NYT Universe reporter Malcolm Browne's dispatch. The Times says the discovery was announced by 120 physicists at a "neutrino conference." Hoo-boy, bet the bartenders and hookers go on vacation during that one.

Science reporting in the United States is hampered by the deep-seated conviction that the press knows even better than the people that it's just a bunch of pinheads nattering about nothing. Well, these little nothings called neutrinos have a lot to say, if only we could find a press willing to pass on the message. I applaud the New York Times for trying to convey some of that excitement and say woe to you for dipping to such cynicism. Uncharacteristic, I might add.


Oh, and by the way, scientists get lots of sex.

--Rob PikeBell Labs

Organ Music

I have several problems with Richard Epstein's June 3 comments on organ peddling ("Dialogue"):


1) Epstein writes: "Better that we have 200 people alive with one kidney each than 100 people alive with two kidneys." I mention that point to my medical students (150 presumably healthy young people) every year in an effort to get them to agree to a utilitarian plan making it mandatory to remove one kidney from each of them to be made available for donation. Every year they reject this plan. Something about personal autonomy being more important than utilitarian calculus in certain situations. It just may be they are right--that utilitarian math may not be the highest virtue when dealing with organ procurement (one murder could net two kidneys as we are likely to find out from the Chinese prisoner situation--should we trade one life for two?).

2) Epstein writes: "Look it up on the Web. ... If it is possible to do this kind of research with standard illnesses, it should be possible to do it with organ transplants." The point being that access to good information fosters legal markets. The Web example proves just the opposite: Much of the information people get about illness on the Web is incomplete, imprecise, or just plain wrong. There is absolutely no guarantee that good information will create legitimate markets for organ sales. The likelihood is the opposite--that bad (misleading, coercive) information will be disseminated to entice people to sell their organs and ignore the very real risks that people incur when they give up their organs. (Donating organs can bring consequences to the donor far more momentous than buying a fake Rolex on Fifth Avenue.)

3) How would such markets ever be regulated? No regulation? Without some screening (who will the brokers and middlemen be?), not only will donors suffer (see above) but some recipients will receive unsuitable organs. While Epstein can argue that this happens currently, consider what wholesale expansion of an unregulated market would bring in terms of the number of complications. In fact, there are reports that in some countries where organs may be sold and the process is not monitored closely, the numbers and types of infections in recipients are much worse.

--C.M. Franklin, M.D.

Microsoft Über Alles?

In "Monopoly Shopping," Steven E. Landsburg sings a paean to the vertically integrated monopoly. He argues mainly that including the Internet Explorer browser as a free part of the Windows 95 operating system will ultimately benefit the consumer since a rival browser would be sold as a separate profit center.

I happen to agree that one predominant browser architecture would ultimately benefit the consumer, but for a different reason--it would create a market standard for developers and consumers to focus their investments. I expect Microsoft to prevail, despite Netscape's better technology and implementation and despite the government's well-intentioned efforts to intervene. I would certainly hope, however, that resources would continue to be dedicated to innovation in this arena until the technologies had matured to the point where they were clearly superior and worthy of becoming a standard.

It's odd to read this whole economic argument in light of Netscape's pledge to distribute Navigator (and its source code) for free in perpetuity. But even if Navigator were to be sold at some point, the ultimate cost to the consumer would come not from the cost of the browser itself, but from the ramifications of Microsoft's control of the emerging desktop software interface to the internet. The focus in the browser wars and legal wranglings has already begun to move away from browser choice and toward the more important issues of gateways and the branded services they feature.

The configuration of computers when sold will determine to a large degree which services a consumer encounters. Note how the cable companies have profited from control of the channels that they carry, some of which they own fully or in part. Note also how the Baby Bells have profited from charging for advertising in their Yellow Pages. Consider then the value of a gateway when it contains not just a few dozen TV channels or local business listings, but the emerging broadband multimedia marketplace only a few years away. Do we want to allow Microsoft to parlay its control of the desktop architecture into control of the content that appears on the desktop?

--Mark Safire

How About Windows $94?

In his article, "Monopoly Shopping," Steven Landsburg notes that Windows 95 costs about $90 and suggests what would happen to Microsoft if it tried to raise the price.

A better topic to examine is why the price of Windows 95 hasn't come down in three years on the market.

My understanding of the economies of scale suggests the Windows iterations being produced today should be costing less to produce than the first ones that entered the pipeline. Prices of Intel processors, laser printers, fax machines, etc., all drop as the learning/production curve results in lower costs. Why not Windows 95? Could the lack of competition have anything to do with it?

--Marvin Katz

Virtual Criticism

In "Peep Show," David Edelstein writes:

Would I welcome The Truman Show for what it is--a sharp-witted, visually layered, gorgeously designed, meticulously directed piece of formula pablum--if I hadn't been bludgeoned by pre-emptive raves in Esquire, Time, Entertainment Weekly, and the New York Times that proclaim it some sort of subversive postmodern masterwork?

Did Edelstein read Janet Maslin's review in the Friday, June 5, New York Times? In her review, Maslin acknowledges the mania surrounding The Truman Show (in the first paragraph, no less) and concludes that, while it is a good film, it has been lauded excessively by critics. Maslin gives no indication she thinks the film is a masterwork of any kind.

--Dan Flynn

David Edelstein reponds: It's too bad that Slate doesn't pass along letters critical of its contributors before posting them. I share the general disdain for lengthy tit-for-tat replies, but when facts are at issue, it's only fair to give a guy a chance to set the record straight. Dan Flynn suggests that I misread Janet Maslin's review of The Truman Show in the New York Times, which indeed begins in much the same vein as mine. In fact, her review and mine were published the same day, so I didn't read hers. The "pre-emptive rave" to which I referred was by columnist Frank Rich; it came more than a week before the film opened. I saw no reason to name Rich, whose work I respect, but his column--along with those of critics in Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, and Time--sure fit the description in my review.

Don't Knock the Rock

"In God He ... ," Brent Staples' review of Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. perpetuates a few misconceptions about Standard Oil's business practices.

For example, he repeats the myth that Standard pursued a "predatory pricing" strategy (though that was indeed among the charges brought against Standard by the U.S. government). Though Standard did indeed buy out many of its early competitors, that was due chiefly to their tremendously inefficient processes--Standard ended up mothballing most of the refineries it bought, while expanding output from its own, efficient facilities. Furthermore, if Standard did pursue a predatory pricing strategy, it sure didn't work. Standard faced constant competition both in America and abroad throughout its corporate existence, causing the price of oil to slope ever downward.

Second, Staples claims that the trust system "disallowed genuine competition." Far from it. As Chernow himself puts it: "With additional oil strikes in California, Indian Territory (later Oklahoma), Kansas, and Illinois in the early 1900s, the industry became too vast and far-flung for even Standard Oil to control. It might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the antitrust cases brought against the trust in the early 1900s were not just belated but were fast becoming superfluous." In other words, the marketplace was already bringing Standard to its knees, and Rockefeller did indeed end up "eclipsed by others"--without government intervention.

The reason monopolies are bad is that, in theory, they lead to high prices and less product. Staples points out, though, that Standard Oil provided a product which was "consistently good--and cheaper to boot." In other words, it acted exactly as a theoretical monopoly should not. While Standard's practices may have led to, in Chernow's words, "misery all around" for producers, the low prices and improved product they brought to the refining industry meant nothing but good news for consumers.

--Ananda GuptaResearch assistant, Competitive Enterprise Institute

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