Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas, then Cancer

I'm going to say Merry Christmas. Even if you're Jewish, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic, or anything that isn't a Bible-believing Baptist. Have a great holiday season even if it's for completely different reasons.

There's a precedent for this. Just after Christmas in 2001 I was diagnosed with Cancer. This freaked me out a fair bit and I had my surgery scheduled for early January. Between that time and the surgery I told all my friends about the Cancer and the surgery.

I have a wide circle of friends. Despite being a Christian who believes the same as that unpleasant person who tried to save you, I try to be a friend to people who I believe differently than I do.

So, when I told my friends about my impending surgery, the response varied quite a bit. A lot of folks prayed and not all of them prayed in Baptist ways to the God of Christianity. My name was mentioned in the local Synagog. A Neopagan friend did something involving tossing stones into the sea.  People belonging to different religions prayed to different gods in my behalf. A dozen different Christian denominations interceded with the Almighty on my behalf. And my surgeon told me he said a Hail Mary for me. I replied, "Great! Thank you." My Atheist and Agnostic friends didn't exactly pray, but they did think positive thoughts toward me.

So, I went under the knife and they took out a grapefruit-sized tumor plus a handful of involved lymph nodes. During recovery, it seemed like I had a hotline to heaven. I'd pray for something and BAM God seemed to expedite delivery. It was impressive. I was tempted to ask for a winning lotto ticket and the thought came back, "don't push it."

Now, a stern old Baptist might object that God didn't hear those prayers addressed to other deities, but I figured the God I worship being omniscient overheard those prayers. I encouraged everyone to address the deity of their choice for me.

I'm not shy about what I believe and I try to always be ready to give reasons for why I believe as I do. This means I've enjoyed quite a few disagreements with folks who aren't Bible-believing Baptists.

When I got out of the hospital, I realized that I might doubt what my friends believe (or disbelieve) and I might deny it with reasons I find compelling, but when all those people were praying on my behalf, I could not deny that they cared.

The fact that they cared for me means a lot even if they expressed it in ways I didn't believe.

So, I'm going to tell you Merry Christmas. You may not give a fig about the Christ of Christmas, you may deny Jesus was born, and everything else I say about his life.

But don't deny that I wish you all good will and peace.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Climbing Glass Walls

You may have heard that the Apple Mac is supposed to "just work" without a lot of muss and fuss. Largely, this is true. When you need to do something on a Mac, all the commands are straightforward and clear.

Yet, beneath that beautiful face that Apple shows to the world is a beast. It's like you learn that the cute blonde cheerleader is also a vampire hunter.

And not lame pursuer of sparkly metrosexual vampires. A hard-core sort who'll drink Professor Van Helsing under the table then go on to stake the most powerful vampire on the continent.

My latest brush with the beast in cheerleader clothing happened this evening when I went to print a draft of "Gallows Pole" a story in my upcoming anthology Grimm Futures. I didn't want to print using my Ink Jet printer, and I had a Laser Printer I wanted to use.

So, I queued up the print job and nothing happened.

I kicked the printer and it was happy and healthy. The Wireless Print Server less so. Somehow its DHCP settings got bolluxed up so I couldn't set it on my network. This unit has been a pain since I bought it years ago. I tried a factory reset and couldn't get it to talk to my Mac, my work PC, or an ancient XP laptop.

He's dead, Jim.

So, I went googling for a solution. My first stop was a USB to Parallel port cable. It might work, but Apple warned of compatibility issues preferring I use a network printer. I googled network adapters that had a parallel port and I saw my solution on the web for sale at $230. But, hey, I recognize that device in the printer, someone gave me one a few years back and it's sitting in my junk box.

Then I went about finding the darn thing's power supply. It took some looking.

I got everything hooked up and managed to ping the print server.

Then came configuring the thing. When you print on the Apple, you use something the Unix boys put together years back called CUPS. It's a very powerful printer management tool. And Apple doesn't want you to see it, so they hide it in the attack like an autistic savant who embarrasses the family. But I have the knack.

I goto CUPS and it tells me that Apple has shackled, and where the key to the handcuffs are. So, I unlock the CUPS Web Interface. Ah, yes, I remember you old friend from configuring my Linux boxes a decade ago.

Five minutes later, I've created a new print queue, and moved the print job I'd started four hours earlier. And the print job comes out. Huzzah.

The lesson is that all that hard Unix stuff lies beneath the OSX surface. Apple does a good job of hiding all the really powerful--and dangerous--functionality. But every once in a while, particularly when configuring a 20 year old printer with a 15 year old print spooler, that Unix stuff is invaluable.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Romancing Economic Inequality

The destination of Economic Inequality is not as important as the way in which we get there.

When I proposed the notion of a magic wand either doubling, or halving everyone's wealth, on at least two occasions, I've heard the objection that this wealth-doubling would cause inflation. This happened despite the fact that I proposed the hypothetical taking pains to avoid the inflation objection.

The trouble with hypothetical scenarios is that an objection can posit a 2nd hypothetical on top of it to cloud thinking.

I just realized a powerful, real source of Economic Inequality and like most social problems it was caused by an earlier cure to another social problem.

Contrast this with the 1950s where we had a male breadwinner and a female housewife. He was 100% responsible for breadwinning and she was doing whatever Donna Reed did. If she made any butter-and-egg money, it was off the books.

These were the times past when men were men, and women were property. This was unfair to the fairer sex and enlightened societies like ours went along with women's liberation. Instead of being shunted into traditional female occupations in the secretarial pool or in nursing, women sought and acquired the right to follow traditionally-male vocations like doctoring and lawyering.

You've come a long way, baby, and nowadays we see women succeeding in all of the high-status, high paid jobs. This is good. A woman needs a man as much as a fish needs a bicycle, but Cupid did not get the memo. Liberated women fall in love and marry. Ain't love grand!

BUT romance is not completely random. People are attracted to people with whom they share interests and experiences. Despite what Hollywood might tell you, a hotshot lawyer guy will not be as strongly attracted to the chauffeur's daughter as he will be attracted to the girl in his law school study group. Same goes for the hotshot lady doctor and the dashing internist.

Consider three classes of wage-earner:

  • Ms. Big Lawyer can hook up with Mr. Big Lawyer and buy the nearest McMansion. 
  • Ms. Average Worker can hook up with Mr. Average Worker and buy one of those little pink houses for you and me. 
  • Ms. Minimum Wage can hook up with Mr. Minimum Wage and live in subsidized housing.

In the inflation-adjusted, women barefoot-and-pregnant, 1950s, these three households would have yearly incomes of, say $80k, $50k, and $15k, respectively with one breadwinner carrying one housewife. The economic difference is $65k. But when both partners work full time incomes double to: $160k, $100k, and $30k and the inequality doubles to $130k.

You can't blame this Economic Inequality on Republicans or Democrats.

It's Cupid's fault.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Amazing Productivity

I woke up Saturday with a single thought in mind: Make sure the first thing I do each day is write 500 words.

I grabbed my computer and sat cross-legged on the bed. As soon as I launched Microsoft Word, the phone rang. It was my wife, Mary. Would I like to go to breakfast with her? Yes, I would.

I jumped up, showered, and went to my favorite breakfast joint.

My wife was delightful company and we talked about the story I'm working on. And about wiring the Christmas lights. And how she'd like a light in the space under the basement stairs.

Mary suggested we go to my niece's basketball game, but I explained that I had to finish the story I'm working on.

Since Lowes was nearby, I stopped to buy Christmas lights, a battery-powered light, and other stuff. I got what I needed and as usual a lot I didn't. In the back of my mind those 500 words nagged me.

When I got home, I brought in the stuff I'd bought and installed the under-stairs light. And I rewired the Christmas tree. And I got a ton of things done. I really felt motivated and I got a lot done.

But I didn't write 500 words.

It is amazing how productive you can be at non-writing tasks when you're procrastinating writing.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Is Economic Inequality a Bad Thing?

It depends on how the scales of economic justice become imbalanced. There's more than one way for economic inequality to occur. And some of those ways are a lot more toxic than others. I suspect the good or the evil is not in the destination, but in the road we take to get there.

The Savior said the poor will be with us always. Simple mathematics bears him out. You are rich if you have one dollar more than I do and you are poor if you have less.

When in school I always liked to grade on a curve. I found it easier to learn a little bit more than average than to master 100% of the material.

Grading on an economic curve sorts us into "the rich" and "the poor."

This isn't Republican, Democrat, or Libertarian. It isn't Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street. It's just math. It's comparing two numbers--my wealth, your wealth--, so don't tell me you can't understand it. (I think you can understand multiplication and division, too. Can you double a number or divide it half? I promise not to do anything harder than that.)

I saw a TED talk recently by a woman named Chrystia Freeland wherein she described increased economic inequality and "The rise of the new global super-rich." She says the things you'd expect about the rich getting richer.

BUT the poor aren't getting poorer as The Economist says in Not Always With Us. Their headline appears to contradict the Savior.

Or maybe it doesn't.

I think the Savior, and Ms. Freeland are grading poverty on a curve, whereas The Economist and you'll see Bono are working with an absolute scale.

I asked my wife how much it costs to eat for a day. We guessed about $5, then rounded it up to $2,000 a year. At some level, without enough money, you starve to death. And that's what Bono has in mind with his TED talk The Good News On Poverty.

For sake of argument, let's assume $2,000 is what you need to not-starve.

Let's suppose you're John Doe with only $2,000 to your name. You may not vacation on the Riviera, but you'll feed yourself. However, Forbes magazine says Bill Gates has $67B. The difference is not chicken feed: $66,999,997,000.

Let's suppose the ghost of Milton Friedman waves a magic wand and make everyone richer. And I don't mean inflation, I mean real wealth. The magic wand takes all debts and makes them half as big, and all savings twice as big and all the prices are the same as before.

Consider John Doe: he now has $4,000 and he can move up from Ramen Noodles to Macaroni & Cheese with a MacDonalds hamburg on Sunday. He's not yet puttin' on the Ritz, but he's got more money for a better life.

The bad news is that Bill Gates is now worth $134B. And the difference between John and Bill has more than doubled to $133,999,997,000. If you're grading on a curve, that's very bad news, but John's happy, and Bill is happy, too.

It gives both Bono and Chrystia Freeland topics for happy and unhappy TED talks, respectively.

Now, let's consider an alternate parallel universe. Like the one where Spock has a beard. And the ghost of Karl Marx shows up with his own magic wand to make everyone poorer. Everyone's wealth is cut in half and prices don't go down to compensate. Now, let's look at Bill Gates and John Doe.

Bill "only" has $34.5B and has to adjust to the straightened means the Koch brothers now enjoy.

But John starves to death. He can go to his grave enjoying the thought that he's only $34,499,998,000 poorer than the Microsoft billionaire. Bono won't be happy because a lot more people like him will starve to death, but Chrystia Freeland can cite the dramatic decline of economic inequality.

This is just math. It just requires a feel for the way in which numbers move when they are multiplied and what kinds of stats do or don't make sense.

Frankly, I'd rather live in a world where nobody starves to death.

But what if that is a world where poor get ahead, but the rich get much farther ahead?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why So Serious?

A bit of disclosure is in order. I don't know Bryan Thomas Schmidt, but I do know RayGun Revival, the magazine that inspired it--having sold a couple stories there.

So, I felt a pang of guilt over not pledging any money to the Kickstarter campaign for Raygun Chronicles.

Fortunately, they didn't need my help and the campaign reached their goal and the project went forward.

I recently had occasion to take another look at the Kickstarter page and I found reasons to find fault with it. I hope this fault-finding will be taken as it is intended: coaching on how to do better at managing communications with the stakeholders of a Kickstarter campaign.

The campaign has come to the time when all the rewards that have been promised need to be fulfilled. And I understand that there have been difficulties. Every project is a bit like the Passion of Christ. There come times Gethsemane--the olive press--where the pressures on the project manager come to a head.

I took a fresh look at the video that Mr. Schmidt created and remembered why I didn't underwrite this campaign. Though I like the concept, though I believe in what RayGun is doing, though I read the sort of SF that is in this project, I found Mr. Schmidt's video to be creative, but annoying.

I listened to about 10 seconds of it and stopped--that's when I remembered why I did not subscribe to this project in the first place. The video chased me away.

So, I forced myself to give it another go.

You have to balance serious and goofy as I've mentioned before. The video is a mash up of a guy in a golden-age of Science Fiction getup getting ready to go out and do something (cool) and a web-cam quality cut to Mr. Schmidt enthusiastically describing the anthology--sounding too much like a used-car salesman.

He had a sale until that used-car spiel, whereupon I put my billfold away.

Maybe I'm just a fuddy-duddy, but I think a Kickstarter campaign has to avoid the look of being flippant. Looking at the web page now, I see this: "Risks? Your head may explode from too much space opera awesomeness!"

Does this mean there is no chance of schedule slip? Or a new vendor will wig out? Or a hurricane will interfere with deliveries? What about people getting sick and family crises? These are the risks you can't mitigate or predict. There are other risks you must rack your brain to enumerate, and have plans to mitigate should they occur.

There were real schedule risks that did occur. It is really easy, AND UNDERSTANDABLE for difficulties to attend order fulfillment.

When risks come to pass, that head-exploding joke does not inspire trust.

Kickstarter is about trust, because you're asking people to trust you first to the extent of putting their hopes into the campaign and then to the extent of putting up their money if the campaign goes forward.

As the project winds down the people running the campaign need to keep stakeholders in the loop, make themselves vulnerable to stakeholders, and give whatever information possible about why anything is not perfect and what steps are being taken to remediate the situation.

I was told that when Mr. Schmidt did so, they looked like spammy emails: "When you get an email of an unkempt editor and the caption on the video is that he's going to sing (I did not listen to it) well, you kind of stop paying attention so closely."And because they were easy to ignore, this stakeholder felt she'd been scammed. Her complaint prompted a defensive response and things got quite ugly.

It may look like I'm dumping on Mr. Schmidt. I feel he is a good person. I don't believe he has any intention to scam anyone.

It looks like he needs to do more to inspire trust. There is a reason why bankers are boring: you trust them with your money.  Bankers wear ties and dress in starched clothing. Their hair is neatly trimmed and combed. They don't do this to enrich barbers and clothiers, but to inspire trust.

There's a correlation between trust and an over-serious (boring) affect.

Banker Cosplay does not come natural to creative types. To make things worse: looking like a banker violates a lot of fannish trust cues. (Like Mom said, life isn't fair.) But you need some of it when you're asking for money.

And more importantly asking for faith: Faith in you. Faith in your project.

I know precious little about building an author platform. But I realize a publisher-platform is even more important.

The first and only thing I can say about building an author platform is that I must exceed your expectations of me.

I fail at this all the time, so I have no business throwing rocks at Mr. Schmidt for seeming unprofessional or being quite professional while giving an impression of unprofessionalness. And no, unprofessionalness is not a word.

It is great to have a light touch and not take oneself too seriously. But there's a time and a season for everything. when people have put money on the table and you promise them stuff, you can't just treat things seriously, you have to look serious, too.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Not Another Vacuum Story

A friend, Martin Shoemaker lamented the fact that when one writes near-future hard science fiction stories one risks copying from one of the grand masters.
One of the tricky parts of my preferred writing niche -- near future, near space hard science fiction -- is avoiding rehashing of crises that were already explored by Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and others 80 years ago. There are some obvious, critical dangers in space, and I'm tempted to write about them even though better writers have already written about them.
Any story has setting, character, and plot, but the science fiction story can make the technology a quasi-character that's worthy of consideration in and of itself. Boy can meet girl in any coffee shop on the planet, but if it's on a space station built into an asteroid, the reader of science fiction will be more interested in the space station than other readers will have in the coffee shop. If the coffee shop is in a space station, the writer may want to put some thought into the problems of zero-gee coffee brewing.

The difficulty that Martin addresses here is how to incorporate a likely hazards near-future hard science fiction that the grand masters already wrote about. Space has vacuum, radiation, and zero-gee. You aren't going to do a better job than the grand-masters if you write a plot-heavy story wherein these hazards are encountered and solved in the same way they solved them.

What I believe the writer should do today is update any science/tech that has been learned since the Golden Age, then make his/her story fresh via unique characters. For this reason, when I wrote High Rail Breakdown, I made the female lead character a convicted murderer with anger-management issues.

Maybe Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov never wrote stories with the same plot devices I put into my story, but even if they did, I know they didn't have her.

There's a taxonomy of basic plots for stories that date back to Aristotle. And it's been updated many times. Golden Age Science Fiction was unique in that it added fantastic new settings beyond Earth's atmosphere. This freshened a number of stories by making these settings almost a character in and of itself.

We don't have that luxury today. Thus our stories need to rely upon distinctive characters to be fresh. So, take another look at your Spaceman Spiff, and ask yourself if maybe he would be more distinctive if he was a Calvinist.
What sort of character traits do you think belong in your characters in a near future, near space hard science fiction story? I have some ideas, but want to hear yours.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy Black Friday

It's funny. I checked all the flyers in the newspaper.

I even bought the newspaper for the first time all year just to get the flyers. And I couldn't find anything on sale that I really wanted. Sure, they had televisions for cheap that were 2x larger than the television I MIGHT upgrade.

Same goes for items I might want to give as Christmas gifts.

Nothing seemed worth the bother. My only motivation to venture out on Black Friday was to cheese off anti-capitalists whining about stores being open on Thanksgiving. And that's cruddy motivation.

Next year, I should hire actors to stage an incident outside Walmart. We'd stage a fight between two people, maybe a big white guy and a tiny black woman, over some junk advertised for cheap earlier in the week as going on sale. I'd buy the item full-priced, put it in a Walmart bag then hand it to the less-sympathetic looking actor, with instructions to defend him/herself against the more-sympathetic actor who is claiming it by virtue of deserving it more.

The whole idea would be to stage the fight at whatever door has a news crew camped outside.

If that works (and nobody goes to jail), we repeat the performance at Target.

Think of it as performance art. What do you say? Sound like fun?

Friday, November 22, 2013

It Depends How You Look At It

It was the 1970s and I was in college. I worked at the library and one of my jobs was to take films out of the library, set up the projector, and then show the film. One of the brightest lights in Christendom back then was a philosopher named Francis Schaeffer. He came out with a series of films called "How Should We Then Live?" These discussed general trends in western civilization and their relationship to Christianity first as a slave-religion in ancient Rome then the dominant world-view of Europe, and then its decline of influence.

I watched it again a few years ago and realized it had not aged as well as it ought.

The last film of a series like this invariably touches upon the future and what to expect. When you do a historical survey of the last two thousand years, patterns and trends appear that cry out to be extrapolated into the future. Or that's what the audience expects.

And since I'm as much of a sucker as anyone for someone pontificating over a crystal ball, I paid careful attention to that last episode. 

You must recall that this was the 1970s and we'd all read 1984 and 1984 was in the future. Since I was expecting the Rapture and the Tribulation at any minute, wild theories of the Beast and 666 being implemented with computers and bar codes danced through my head at night.

This must have conditioned Francis Schaeffer's thinking as well because he spent the last episode of this film series talking about the government. One part of his argument was the way in which mass media can manipulate public opinion. He showed two made-up news reports of a conflict between some police and protesters.

The pro-government report showed the cops valiantly defending themselves against a bunch of violent protesters. The pro-protester report showed the protesters getting beat up by brutal cops and fighting back. Both reports showed exactly what was happening, and the only difference between them was the way the shots were cropped and the direction from which the scenes were filmed.

The pair of photos on the left is a good example of this. PLEASE ignore the text overlaying the image.

I don't really want to make this about gun or anti-gun. Your opinions for or against human rights, are up to you and I don't want to change your mind on the subject.

In the top picture, you get the idea that a crowd of insurgents are bracing for an assault. But from the other In the bottom picture, you get the idea that some folks are having some fun posing with guns.

I am interested in how the writer can use perspective in his or her storytelling.

It can be a lot of fun to write a scene where the reader sees something like the top half of the picture above. The reader gets the idea that one thing is going on when you, as the writer know for certain that something different is going on. Ambiguity is one of many tools the writer that you can use to keep something interesting and just a little less predictable.

Think of something your hero will do that puts him in a bad light. Or something your villain does that puts him in a good light. Do just enough of this to mix things up. If you overdo it you risk making your readers hate your hero and love your villain.

Keep a light hand and just keep things interesting.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mind, Body, and Spirit -- Some Speculation

One of my earliest recollections of Physics in High School was the proposition that it would start with certain undefined things. This bothered me. How does one speak of that which is not defined?

Well, Newton did it and Physics seems to work well enough for us to build a lot of Technology on top of it, so shut up about the undefined things and get cracking on your homework's problem sets. So, I solved problems about length, time, mass, charge, temperature, and the amount of substance without knowing what they were.

But I sort of did know. Length is how long my yardstick is. Time is how long I have left to sleep. Temperature is how cold it is outside. And so on.

And, as the title of this post suggests, we sort of do know what mind, body, and spirit mean. Sort of.

Let's break things down in simplest terms. Humans are both material and in some sense immaterial. Our bodies are made of matter and can be quantified in terms of length, time, mass, charge, temperature and amount of substance. 

If you've ever been in the presence of a corpse, you'll know that there's something more. When I looked down at the body of my deceased father my overriding thought was, "He's not here." Some people seem to think that they can weigh the body of a dying person and sense a change of weight when the soul leaves their body. Good luck with that. I'm skeptical.

But I'm not skeptical that there's something more than material going on. We think, and we solve problems, and we derive theorems. Lawyers solve legal problems. Accountants solve accounting problems. Two kids entering school are both kids, but one may emerge a lawyer and another an accountant by virtue of their training. These things we learn sometimes at great effort are contained somewhere. Though the Theorem of Pythagoras is not a thing in the world, my knowledge of what it is and how it works are encoded as neural connections inside my noggin. But they seem to be more than mere neural connections.

And I am conscious of my existence. This, too, is non-material thing that emerges from the pattern of neural activation in my brain.

How do I map these thoughts about thoughts into the words mind, soul, and spirit? I feel pretty confident that the patterns of neurons and their linkages in my brain constitute those immaterial things I described and I think I'm write to identify them collectively as mind or soul.

But what about spirit? Has mankind any sort of transcendent aspect beyond the hardware of body/brain and the software of neural links/weights? If the answer is no, then we may stop right here.

OR if you're not afraid by being cut by Ockham's Razor, perhaps you might consider some conjectures that don't have a lot in the way of physical evidence to support them or anything I'd call deductive proof from experiment.

Ghosts. What are ghosts made of? How do they work? They remember stuff that happened when they were alive and those memories were laid down in neural networks made of matter. And ghosts seem to be linked to places--their haunts. I figure most ghost stories are bunkum. Ghosts make a good literary device to introduce some ambiguity into a story. But let's suppose, Ockham's Razor be damned, that some ghost stories are real.

Something has to go to Heaven or to Hell wherein the injustices of this world are balanced in the next. Let's call that something spirit.

Descartes would say that body and spirit are two parallel planes of existence that somehow touch in the pineal gland of the brain. Conversely, Spinoza would say that body and spirit are made of the same stuff somehow. What if they're both wrong in one sense and both right in another sense? 

(Make sure Ockham isn't watching, ok?) Suppose the matter is made of more-than-four dimensional stuff. The string theory guys talk about 10 or 12 dimensions with the first three being what we're used to, the fourth being time, and the rest being "rolled up" so small we can't detect them. In this case, the operation of our brains and the activation of our neural networks would define a more-than-four dimensional pattern of neural connections. After death, ghosts might be the persistence of the pattern in those higher (rolled up) dimensions. This makes matter and spirit orthogonal subspace projections of a single monist substance.

This formulation makes Descartes and Spinoza happy, though we do keep an eye out for Ockham. And it provides a potentially helpful elaboration of otherwise undefined terms body, mind, and spirit. No, you should not take any of this dogmatically. And if you take this as anything more than pure speculation, Ockham will cut you.

Book Reviews and Market Failures

I read this and it got me thinking. The folks there are all worth your time.

We live in a marvelously decentralized time. There is no pope or emperor telling us what we can and cannot read. Though traditional large press publication is centralized in a hand-full of giant corporate behemoths, only low-information readers confine themselves to their offerings.

Instead, we live in the golden age of indie and small-press publishing. Got a buck? Trust me. There are amazing ebooks being published right now for that price by genius authors. You just have to find them.

But, Steve--you may reply--I don't trust you. Very wise of you. I'll come back to that momentarily.

The trouble is finding these amazing works of genius. If you go to, everything is for sale. If you want some Evangelical Christian ripoff of Fifty Shades of Gray, I'll wager you can find it. (I haven't looked. I hope I lose that bet!) Amazon is also selling mystical t-shirts and groceries. So it is easy to get distracted before you can get to the good stuff.

Amazon has a good system of recommending new books that are like old books you've bought. This is helpful, but it's only a machine and state of the art machine understanding algorithms are liable to make mistakes. There are helpful blogs like Glenn Reynolds' that often provide links to books.

Thus you click on an Amazon page for a book you know nothing about by a fella you've never heard of published by an outfit that's similarly obscure. Do you click on it to buy it? It's only a buck or three. Not much risk there. But I generally get paid more than a few bucks an hour, making my reading time relatively valuable. We live in a busy time with a lot of competing demands on our time.

Once you start reading a book, you hope it doesn't suck, because it's hard to stop mid-way. I would prefer a book be really good or really bad, because if it's really good, i'll enjoy it. And if it's really bad, i want to decide that the book sucks sooner rather than later. Thus the worst books aren't 1-star or 2-star but mediocre 3-star works.

Thus I want to know a lot about the book before I make a decision to buy it or not. If this is a known author, no sweat. I have to work when I see an unknown author. I am unsatisfied with the blurbs for many books, because they're out to tease interest in the story--not give away what it's about. I'm never happy with any of the blurbs I've written for my works, so I understand when another author has the same problem. When I'm unsatisfied with the blurbs, I look at the reviews.

Reviews are a key factor in the buying decision. I asked my beta readers to write reviews, provided they be honest--even if they hated the work. And I exhort those I know best to write reviews. I know I'm imposing, and I know these reviews won't be as brutally honest as the reading public deserves.

However, others have been known to hire folks to write reviews. And there are companies that market reviews to the writer desiring reviews.

Sure, there's a lot of talking and hand-wringing about ethics and morality. Some of it may be sincere, but the problem is a basic conflict of interest. I need you to review my work. The reading public needs you to review my work. You are not a sacrificial animal and nobody can demand you work without compensation.

Sure, I'll send you a free review copy. That's compensation in part. You are spared the expense of buying the work, but you are not spared the time to read it or write the review. That's not enough.

But as long as I'm directly paying you for that time there's a conflict of interest. Honesty demands that you tell the truth in your review. And the reading public deserves to know the weaknesses of my work that you might not want to include if I were paying you.

The result is a market failure. We need someone whose interest is in honesty paying you instead of me whose interest is selling books (and honesty, too, modulo conflict of interest).

I don't have an answer here. Just an observation and some speculation.

  1. Maybe some indie readers' union could pool a few bucks to pay for reviews. This would be best, because readers' interest is in good reads.
  2. Maybe vendor(s) like, or could identify and pay reviewers for their time.
  3. Maybe the government mental health board could identify ideologically pure works and commission favorable reviews on that basis.

OK, that last bit is a bad idea, which means it will most likely happen.

Seriously, we have a market failure here. I don't have a corner on good ideas. Do any of you have any idea(s) can fix it?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Ambiguity and the Shark

If you remember Scoobie Doo, every plot turned around the notion that there was some mystery that seemed to have something supernatural at its root. However, in the last scene, the spectral figure would be unmasked as old man caruthers who'd invariably say "I'd have gotten away with it had it not been for those meddling kids."

It was very important that these stories have no actual supernatural explanation.

Then there was Magnum PI wherein you'd have plots
wherein a beautiful woman would be the spitting image of the long dead victim of some decades-old crime. There would be broad hints and possibilities that perhaps there was something supernatural going on. Maybe the ghost of the dead girl gave Magnum the vital clue, or maybe it was a coincidence. There was both a naturalistic explanation, and there was a supernatural one, too.

It was very important that these stories have a naturalistic explanation for everything except for one spooky ambiguity introduced in the last scene. Though you might see t
he ghost in the last frame, there'd be no proof.

Castle is a TV show that does this a lot. You can see several episodes wherein something spooky, science fiction, or horror related might explain the crime. Rick Castle is all about wild about jumping to the supernatural conclusion, and Kate Beckett spends the show shooting him down and coming up with a reasonable explanation.

Castle is not the Sarah Connor Chronicles. Nor is it the Dresden Files. This places constraints upon the writer if s/he wants to avoid jumping the shark.

One of those constraints is to maintain ambiguity. You can't prove definitively within the story that the murderer or the red herring actually was from the future.

This means you can have the putative time traveller disappear from Castle's view, but you cannot allow Beckett to spill coffee on a letter in exactly the same pattern as shown in the picture of the letter from the future. If the pattern varies, you can plausibly maintain the photo was a coincidence. And if it varies, you can use a butterfly effect argument to maintain the time travel was real.

Clearly, I should be writing more and watching TV less.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Prequels Not Advised

I've always been biased against prequels. I think they come with too much baggage.

You've got a story about a teenaged orphan who's living with his aunt and uncle. He does on a quest where he meets a sage mentor who knew his father and said his father was killed by the story's antagonist who in turn murders his aunt and uncle. He goes on to rescue the damsel in distress and achieve his quest. Cool.

Two sequels go on to show the quest encounter various reversals before it unfolds into a larger crusade to defeat the focus of evil in the world. One major complication in the story is that the boy's father turns out to be the antagonist who'd been turned evil. Yes, Darth Vader is Luke's father who's gone bad and ultimately repents of evil and receives a modicum of redemption.

It's not a bad story arc over the course of the three installments.

But, you may wonder, how did Darth Vader become evil in the first place? The answer is held in not one, but three prequels. But while consuming millions of dollars worth of CGI animations and all manner of explosions, sword fights, and derring-do, we all know that Anakin is going to break bad.

Seems sort of pointless, doesn't it? You like the girl? She's gonna die. You like the annoying kid, and the petulant teen? He's gonna be wearing the black helmet. Why bother investing in the story along the way when you know where it's going?

Play him off Keyboard Cat.

When I watched the second Indiana Jones movie, I thought it was a SEQUEL to the first. Thus I was on board with the fight scene where the two guys with swords go after him, and he reaches for his gun and it's not there. It was cute, because if this fight scene happens after the first fight scene with one guy with a sword that Indiana Jones dispatches with a gunshot, then his reaction and my reaction makes sense.

However, I recently learned that Temple of Doom was a PREQUEL to Raiders. How is it that Indiana Jones could react as he did when the two sword fighters dressed identically to the one sword fighter confront him? Had I known this was a prequel, it would have utterly taken me out of the story. In fact, this is such a violation of continuity, that I'll never be able to watch these stories again. The whole franchise is dead to me. There's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that's good and reasonable, but there are limits.

So, you've finished a well-received work and you're considering another writing project that's set in the same world. You have thought through the back-story of all your characters and you're proud of how well all that scaffolding holds together. You may have even written a few scenes with the detective's dead partner that were key in developing his character.

You don't publish scaffolding.

Instead of turning that scaffolding into a prequel, turn it into a sequel. Maybe Spade and Archer did something special before they had a case involving a black bird from Malta. Then carry it forward a generation after Sam sends Bridgid up the river. Then put together some young punk with those old clues from a generation before and solve the case in a context where the reader doesn't know for sure who's coming out of the story alive and who isn't. 

You know that Saul Goodman is an amoral lawyer with a dark sense of humor when you meet him in the second season of Breaking Bad. And you know he has a rolodex of guys who know guys who an make any unlawful thing happen. If you start telling his story when he's in law school, you know he's going to end up passing the bar. If he starts with a girlfriend who he thinks is "the one" you know they'll part company. If he has any shred of morality and idealism, you know it'll be gone by the time he meets Walter White. These things are foregone conclusions.

Instead, I'd like to know what becomes of him after he's managing a Cinnabon in Omaha. Or when one of Jesse's burnout buddies gets a job in that Cinnabon. What's past is past. Tell me what happens next.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Strange Love

A friend recently remarked that she really loved old-time songs she termed "hellfire and brimstone," but she felt the old-time songs didn't love her back.

She was right, but she was wrong.

The Westboro Baptist crowd is an exception I'll describe in hopes of making my point by contrast. I once watched one of their YouTube videos where the girl spent five minutes repeatedly saying, "You're going to Hell," in a perky voice with a smile on her face. One cannot say this with a smile on your face and have an infinitesimal of love in your heart.

I think there is a sort of sadistic personality type who enjoys inflicting emotional pain on others. Such people are beneath contempt.

Such people are NOT the folks who were writing and performing the old-time "hellfire and brimstone" songs.

What were they thinking?

My earliest memories of church involve crying. "Hellfire and brimstone" sermons are not as common as they once were, but if you read any of the old-timers' books about soul winning, they say there ought not be a dry eye in the place. The fellow who wrote the book on "Hellfire and brimstone" just happened to be a Christian philosopher named Jonathan Edwards. He reasoned that a sinner doesn't love God, but he may love his own skin enough to seek a way of escape and thereby acquaint himself with the good news parts of the Gospel. Upon learning what God has done for the sinner, the sinner may think it fitting to love God back.

If you really believe those around you are at risk of destruction, the compassionate thing to do is warn them and share what you know about how to escape.

This line of reasoning makes the "hellfire and brimstone" warnings an expression of love. So, my friend is indeed loved back. But it's a strange love. The only way you can distinguish this love from Westboro's hate is whether the person saying it is crying or smiling when s/he says it.

Now, when writing a plausible villain. The conventional motives are money, jealousy, hatred and revenge--Plus whatever other negative emotions I've overlooked. Better motives are unconventional, positive emotions.

Provided you can make them plausible.

You see, it's because I love that young girl that I inflicted all those tortures upon her and eventually burned her at the stake, because God would judge her witchcraft more harshly and perhaps my efforts turned her to repentance and the joys of Heaven. 


Religious fanaticism is a dangerous thing when writing villainy department because a) it's overdone, and b) most writers doing it are functionally illiterate of religion. Their villains come off as off-key and get all the trust-cues wrong. And I hate when they do that.

So, I suggest something different.

My favorite villain is the Operative in Serenity. He's perfect because he's not motivated by the stale and trite things. He says he's motivated by Faith. Not the concrete Faith in God that J. Gresham Machen wrote about, or the vague objectless Faith in Faith that Soren Kierkegaard wrote about. His faith in the government who empowers him and sends him on his killing spree.

In a post-Christian, or post-Theist society, there are some folks who will still need to find something bigger than themselves to put meaning and purpose in their life. If they are Atheist, then the government is the second-best thing. Thus, I see a government fanatic is a better villain than a religious fanatic.

Mindful of this, consider this quote by C. S. Lewis:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
So, next time you're wondering about your next villain, perhaps you'll consider some sort of overbearing altruist.

Those more worthy than I: