commentary

Tolerance

April 12th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

Back when I worked in a bookstore, I would frequently hear the following sort of exchange between my co-workers. One of them had been asked where the bibles are kept, and told the other that they had been tempted to tell the person that they should look in fiction. Both of them would have a good laugh. Even though I’m not a Christian (not even close), I always got a bit offended (but, to my shame, never said anything). Now, I’ll be the first person to say that if you can’t poke fun at your religion (or handle others doing so), you might want to consider changing it. But the fact is that for anyone who spends much time thinking about it, coming to terms with your own mortality is one of the most important and difficult things that you will do in your lifetime. Belittling someone else’s choice on this matter is not a sign of enlightenment, but rather of insecurity and immaturity.

Of course, reading the above paragraph puts me in mind of the stereotypical retiree waving his cane at a group of teenagers and telling them, “Get off my lawn!”. Then again, if that is the price of tolerance, so be it.

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As I was saying . . .

April 9th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about some of the issues that arise when a for-profit company offers a free service. A week later, as if to prove my point, it was announced that Amazon has purchased Goodreads. There has been quite a bit of outcry about this, ranging from indifference to outrage. I’m somewhere in the middle. I think that there is a value in an independent social book review site that is incompatible with a retail-owned version of the same. But the change will be gradual, and there will be plenty of time for something else to come about (and perhaps something even better). In short, I won’t be deleting my account, but I will be keeping my eyes on the horizon.

But what do I mean about the values of Goodreads being incompatible with ownership by amazon? Well, the reviews on Amazon suck, and they suck for a simple reason: there is money to be made, and so reviews are posted that reflect not the opinions of actual consumers but rather the purchased opinions of whoever stands to make money when you choose this book over that book (not Amazon, who doesn’t care which book you buy so long as you buy a book, preferably both books). Although Goodreads no doubt has this same dynamic present, it is much less pervasive, as the site was focused on the readers, not selling the books.

On another topic, what I find really interesting about this is that the value of Goodreads was largely created by the users. Users wrote the reviews, rated the books, categorized the books, and Goodreads’ part in all this was largely that of facilitator. And yet, when they sell, the money goes to the facilitator, not the people responsible for most of the value (Amazon could have written similar software for far less than what they no doubt paid for GR, what they were paying for was the stuff you and I put in). Now, this isn’t to say that users weren’t compensated for any of this, when you receive a free service, that can be viewed as a form of compensation.

So what to do if you care more about the service than the compensation? Well, you’ll just have to pay for it.

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The Problem(s) With Free

March 27th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

A couple of weeks ago, you might have heard from your geekier friends that Google has decided to “power down” their Google Reader service, which, even after they hobbled it, was still a great service. This prompted me to write a lengthy post on the topic . . . just in time to find someone who said it better. I do still have some things that I wanted to add, however, so no concise blog post for you today.

When looking at web services offered by for-profit companies, here is a simple rule: If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. Companies like Facebook do not make money off their users, they make money off of advertisers, which means that those advertisers are the actual customers, not you. What Facebook is selling to those advertisers is your attention and your data (whether that be direct information like name and hobbies or indirect information like anonymized browsing and social networking trends).

Of course there is a moral component to all of this, nobody wants to be a product, after all, and it is easy to get worked up over having your information traded between third parties, but I’m going to ignore that. What this relationship means is that for companies like Google or Facebook, their loyalty is to their advertisers, not to you. And when it comes down to it, if you are not that good of a product (Google Reader was apparently difficult to monetize), if that product doesn’t sell, they will find a new one. And so Google Reader gets dropped in favor of Google+, whose users are apparently much shinier products. (Of course, there is doubtless more to the decision than this, Google appears to be attempting to build a large, integrated platform with G+ and Reader simply didn’t fit in, I do not begrudge them their business decisions).

On the other hand, when you are paying directly for a service, you are the customer (or at least a customer, there is nothing to keep that service from selling your information). The company has a vested interest in keeping you around, as you provide revenue. That doesn’t make all paid services better than their free equivalents, but a lot of them are.

Of course, this starts to get complicated when you are talking about minors or college students, who are often defined by their inability or unwillingness to pay for things that they could otherwise get for free, so regardless of icky ethical practices or instability, free services will continue to dominate the market, but I imagine that in the coming years we will see an increase sophisticated premium services, and equally sophisticated methods of paying for them.

Finally, much of this post was inspired by NewsBlur, a social RSS reader based on a subscription model (although they do offer a free, limited, account). When I got it working (it took a while due to them being slammed from the Reader announcement), it felt like home: a visually pleasing RSS reader with a solid social network built in. In some ways, I kind of wish that I had jumped the Reader ship earlier, but I was unaware of the alternatives. And although it may sound like they are paying me to say this, I am in fact paying them, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Stuff that I came across after I had finished writing this post (but that I don’t feel like editing into the post):

  • Tobias Buckell mentioned a post by Jeremiah Tolbert that talks about why having a website is important. The article goes over some of the stuff that you just read, and other things as well. Also, that rule that I stated above about being the product? Apparently I was remembering it, not creating it (thanks for bursting my bubble, internet). I guess that the idea has just become so deeply embedded in my worldview that I have a hard time remembering that at one point I didn’t know it (“The step after ubiquity is invisibility” and all that)
  • Forbes: Google Reader Shutdown a Sobering Reminder That ‘Our’ Technology Isn’t Ours – “We are all participants in a user driven Internet, but we are still just the users, nothing more. No matter how much work we put in to optimize our online presences, our tools and our experiences, we are still at the mercy of big companies controlling the platforms we operate on. When they don’t like what’s happening, even if we do, they can make whatever call they want. And Wednesday night, Google made theirs.”
  • NPR’s All Tech Considered: ‘Keep Google Reader Running’ Petition Hits 100K; Fans Audition Replacements – Of course, 100k isn’t that many people to Google, especially considering that Reader doesn’t really fit in with G+ (and probably competes with it).
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Applied Logic

March 20th, 2013  |  Published in commentary, logic

Earlier this month, a bit of a kerfuffle broke out between Representative Ed Orcutt and the Washington state bicycle community. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the linked article, and I suggest you read it, but what I want to talk about is logic.

Logic is the study of the connections between things, and is often not taught explicitly until college (although Geometry class might cover it). In short, logic is the difference between being told “one one two” and “one plus one equals two”. The first example is just a bunch of numbers, the second is a logical statement. Simple, right? Not exactly. The thing about logic is that it is not about whether or not the individual elements are true, but whether the connections between them make sense. Take, for example: “All pigs are green. I am a pig. Therefore I am green.” On the face of it, this argument is wacky, but the logic works out, if all pigs are green and I am one of them, then I must be green, too, right? The connections between these false statements make sense even if the content being connected is factually incorrect.

At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “And this guy thinks this green pig nonsense is more likely to make me study logic? Maybe he is a green pig.” I’m glad you’re thinking critically about what I’m saying, but I have a point, so bear with me.

When someone makes an argument, it can be approached in many ways. I would argue that there are three basic approaches, and I will focus on those: emotional, fact based, and logic based. The emotional approach is basically evaluating an argument based on how it makes you feel, and many arguments count on this, which is why so many politicians try to induce fear or anger when they speak. Unfortunately, it is wide open to manipulation, as it makes you want to just react, rather than thinking about it. Fact based evaluation is what you most likely did when you first read the green pig argument. You most likely rejected it based on the fact that you had never seen a green pig, and that it would be very difficult for me to type this with cloven hooves instead of fingers. Logical evaluation is the analysis of connections, which entails ignoring whether or not the statements in an argument are true and instead assessing whether or not they necessarily lead to the conclusion.

To be clear, I’m not advocating the use of one of these over all others, but rather that you should expand your evaluative toolbox and use whichever method or combination of methods is most appropriate. If something feels wrong emotionally, then there is a good chance that something is wrong with it. If you don’t have the right facts, you can be convinced that I am a green pig. If you don’t have good logic, you can be led to bogus conclusions from accurate facts.

You might be thinking that in this networked age, where an unprecedented amount of information is available, we should just be able to fact check everything. Yes and no. We can fact check a lot of things, but the truth of the matter is that when someone is trying to convince us of something, there is a good chance that we simply will not have time to check all of their assertions, and even if we did have the time to do that, we probably would not want to. And so we might just have to rely on logic. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, true assertions can lead to false conclusions if they are not linked logically, and Rep. Orcutt’s argument is a perfect example of this.

Here is an excerpt from his email (the whole thing is available in the linked post):

Also, you claim that it is environmentally friendly to ride a bike. But if I am not mistaken, a cyclists (sic) has an increased heart rate and respiration. That means that the act of riding a bike results in greater emissions of carbon dioxide from the rider. Since CO2 is deemed to be a greenhouse gas and a pollutant, bicyclists are actually polluting when they ride.

And here is a breakdown of his argument:

  1. Cyclists have increased heart rate and respiration.
  2. Increased heart rate and respiration result in increased CO2 output.
  3. CO2 is a greenhouse gas and a pollutant.
  4. Therefore, cyclists are polluting when they ride.

This is a solid argument. The facts check out and the logic is sound. The problem comes in when you look at the claim that he is attempting to disprove: “it is environmentally friendly to ride a bike.” On the face of it, this looks fine, if we define environmentally friendly to mean “not harmful to the environment” in an absolute sense. Unfortunately there is context. The assertion that he was responding to was: “Additionally, bicyclists produce fewer emissions and reduce healthcare costs through increased physical fitness.” (full text of original email, if you’re curious). To rephrase, skipping the bit about healthcare, “Bicycles produce fewer emissions than cars.” Which brings us to the wonderful world of logical fallacies.

There are forms of arguments that are always invalid. One of the most common is the straw man. In a straw man, a person is confronted with an argument. Instead of attacking that argument, they create a weaker argument (a straw man, if you will) and attack that instead. For example, it is much easier to attack the argument that bicycles cause no pollution than the argument that bicycles cause less pollution than cars. Rep. Orcutt never said anything about the original argument, but tried to trick us into believing that he had. His argument makes no sense and can be safely ignored.

Whew. That may seem like a lot of work to go through simply to call bullshit on a politician for acting like a politician, but once you get used to thinking like this, you will read a paragraph like that and immediately realize that there is no connection between what he is saying and what he wants you to think he is saying, no fact checking required.

On a final note, Rep. Orcutt did issue an apology, saying that the issue of bicycles not being zero-carbon “was not a point worthy of even mentioning” and went on to sound like a much more reasonable person. Nonetheless, the fact remains that he used a straw man in dealing with a constituent. Either he did so knowingly, which is a form of dishonesty, or unknowingly, in which case I would question his competence as political representative.

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Separating the Wheat From the Barley

March 12th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

Back when I lived in San Francisco, so more than five years ago, I realized something: marketing for fiction is terrible. Here’s the chain of relationships between an author and a reader, as far as I can tell (and this is for novels, other formats are much worse): Writer writes a book. Writer markets book to agent. Agent markets book to publisher. Publisher markets book to bookstore. Book store markets bookstore brand to potential reader. Reader hears about book from a friend or notices a catchy cover and buys book. Most of the books that get any marketing support are books that are already pretty much guaranteed to be popular (think Evanovich, Patterson, or Rowling; they could have announced the Deathly Hallows by way of a Post-it note on a random desk in Tunisia and it would have been around the world in three hours).

Granted, this is not necessarily a problem with a good solution. Books are personal things, and marketing to the wrong demographic is a waste of money. The traditional solution to this is the bookstore/library model of browsing. By arranging books by genre, a reader has the opportunity to discover something new. Of course this model falls apart when bookstores start to act like theaters, focusing almost exclusively on the first week of sales, which can easily prevent a new book from finding an audience (just ask the unfortunate authors who had books released on 9/11/2001 what happened to their books/careers). Unfortunately, this browsing model doesn’t seem to translate to digital bookstores, which means that finding new books can be very frustrating if you don’t already know what you are looking for (which, to me, is kind of the point of finding new books to read)

On to my point. Last week I realized that I read books in three different formats: paper books, audiobooks, and ebooks. Each format fills a different need. I read paper books on lunch breaks and in the bath (as I really don’t want to break my shiny new smartphone) and the books I read this way are mostly the ones that I can’t find in one of the other formats. Audiobooks I listen to while at work or doing household chores. Ebooks I read before I go to bed (a backlit screen is much more convenient for me than a book light) or when my son falls asleep in my arms (turning pages on a hardcover with only one hand free is a pain). In addition, I decided that I wanted to read more indie fiction, stuff that was good but didn’t fit into the publishing industry’s current fad. I read enough paper books and audiobooks that reading indie fiction on my phone wouldn’t really keep me from reading anything that I read now.

Somehow I had assumed that things would be better, 5+ years down the road. So that evening, instead of reading, I went on to Smashwords to look for something to read. Forty minutes later and I still hadn’t found anything. I tried again the next night, and the next. Still no luck.

I chose Smashwords for three reasons: 1) everything on there is indie, meaning that I wouldn’t have to filter out traditionally published works; 2) they are device neutral, when you buy a book from them you can download it in any format you want from plain text to kindle; 3) they have the best filtering tools. I’m going to focus on point #3.

On Smashwords, I can filter my browsing by genre and subgenre, as well as by various types of popularity and release date, and by length (which is my favorite feature, as I like short fiction). The subgenres are nice but don’t offer enough specificity. For example, lets say I want to read a short piece of fantasy set in a secondary world (meaning not Earth). The subgenres listed for fantasy are: General, Paranormal, Epic, Contemporary, Short Stories, Urban, and Historical. Out of these, I can write off Short Stories (which, on Smashwords, usually indicates anthologies), Paranormal, and Urban, and Contemporary (which implies contemporary Earth), and Historical (which implies historical Earth). Granted, there may be a few stories in those categories that fit what I’m looking for, but the vast majority won’t.  That leaves General and Epic, neither of which are exactly what I’m looking for but are better than the alternatives. Filtering down to just short fiction, those categories have 136 and 49 pages of results, respectively. At ten results per page, that is a total of nearly 1900 results to sort through, a large number of which will not fit my criteria at all.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. With ebooks, we don’t have to shelve things in just one place, we can have a near infinite number of categories, and each book can fit into more than one. In fact, there is already a system in place that could handle this. Each book is tagged. When you look at the detail page for any particular book, it lists the tags that the author has assigned to it. Click on the tag, and it brings up a list of every other book that has that same tag. For example, lets say that I clicked on the tag for space station, it brings up 94 results. Cool, right? Well, no. I can’t filter that list at all, and as far as I can tell, the only way to get to the tag list is to find a book with that tag and click or to know the format that the site uses and type it in manually. If I, say, search for space station, it brings up a page with “title search” results and “full search” results (whatever that means). Of course, I can’t further filter this list in any way, but the weird thing is that between the two types of searches that are performed, there are only 70 results, which would indicate that the full search does not include tags.

Which is why, after a week of looking for something to buy (or just download, if its free), I have nothing.

And to be clear, Amazon is no better. In fact, it is worse, as I have yet to find a way to filter by length and the recommendations are almost all books by authors I have bought books from in the past.

Furthermore, notice that I have said nothing here about quality. If I can find something that fits what I’m looking for, I will happily try a sample and decide for myself, especially since I have been burnt by high ratings too many times. What I want, to use the metaphor from this posts’s title, is not to separate the wheat from the chaff, but to separate the wheat from the barley from the oats. I want to be able to filter by genre, length, popularity, intended audience, and tags. If the system is built on one big database (which it would almost have to be), then this shouldn’t be hard to do. Maybe someone can even be convinced to give it a shot. Of course, if not, we will have to do it ourselves, but that’s another post.

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Dystopia Fatigue

August 17th, 2012  |  Published in commentary

Dystopian fiction is everywhere.

Why this would be so isn’t hard to figure out, anyone who pays attention to the world beyond their big-box commerce node will tell you that things are not going so well out there. We are on the brink (quite possibly already over it) of ecological collapse; the cheap, relatively clean energy that we used to build 20th century civilization is dwindling, rapidly; we are something like four years into the largest economic catastrophe of our generation and no serious changes that would address the root of the problem have even been proposed in the private airstrips of power; social media is being harnessed to watch us ever more closely ;meanwhile the media is obsessed with celebrity rather than reality. Naturally, this sort of environment is going to produce dark, dystopian fiction.

And what’s so wrong with that, you ask. Isn’t part of the job of fiction to reflect the human condition? Well, yes, but the answer is contained within the question. Part of the job of fiction is to reflect, the rest of the job is something else entirely. Writing dystopian fiction is only natural when there appears to be no end in sight to our problems, problems that many do not even seem to notice. To a degree, it is necessary. After all, it is difficult to deal with a problem that you don’t even know you have. On the other hand, I think that it is safe to say that anyone who doesn’t yet realize that we have a problem will not be made to understand, no matter how rational or compelling the argument, for them, only experience will suffice. Furthermore, the continuing drumbeat of despair has outlived its purpose among those who do realize there is a problems, and simply adding troubles onto those already extant will more likely serve to paralyze than to galvanize.

We need to have the second half of the conversation. There is a problem, what is to be done? And what better place to have this conversation than in fiction?

 

Like the future, only better (because its here).

August 10th, 2012  |  Published in commentary

Apparently, scientists at Boston Children’s Hospital have created a liquid that can supply oxygen to a trauma patient via injection for 15 to 30 minutes. This may not sound like a big deal, but if you aren’t able to breathe, you aren’t getting any oxygen. After something like six minutes without oxygen, bad things happen, so tacking another 15 minutes or half an hour could easily make the difference between life and death in many cases. Of course, I am neither a scientist or a doctor, so I may be wrong about this, but even so, its better than reading about the climate.

Building on the Ruins

July 24th, 2012  |  Published in commentary

This entire post is going to be full of Warehouse 13 spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the season 4 premiere yet (and plan to) you may want to ignore it. Then again, it may save you some disappointment. And if you don’t watch the show, don’t worry, this post is about storytelling, not limited to a single story.

Last night, I watched the season 4 premiere of Warehouse 13. At the end of the previous season, the warehouse was destroyed. It looked like the only way forward would be to rebuild (there had been 12 before, and the show had already indicated who would be the new warehouse protector). Instead, the entire episode was devoted to finding a way to undo what had happened. Fair enough, it would have been out of character for the warehouse agents to do anything else. What was disappointing was that they succeeded.

So now the show is left with what? A secret (Artie can’t tell anyone that he turned back time), a mysterious order dedicated to protecting the time-reversy device (can’t say that I particularly care), and possibly Claudia gone off to the dark side. And that is supposed to be a better story than having to deal with the loss of all of their work, having to rebuild something from scratch?

Stories should do one of two things, they should either reflect the world as it is or reflect the world as it ought to be (and I use these terms loosely, I think that the Lord of the Rings stands up to this test, as does Star Wars). Stories in which mistakes and catastrophes can be fixed after the fact fail this test, we do not live in a world in which we can undo our actions (outside of a computer, that is) and I don’t think that I would want to live in a world in which I could rely on a god on a crane.

There are, of course, reasons to have an undo button in your story, but I don’t think that any of them have to do with quality. Even if you do manage it relatively well, it creates doubt in your audience. If a catastrophe can be magically undone, why should your audience believe you the next time something happens? In the end, it allows you to do an over the top climax once. After that, your audience will lose faith in your story, and the only way to fix that is to have bad things happen that can’t be undone. Of course, your audience will expect things to be undone and if you let that beloved character die they will feel betrayed.

So if you are a writer (or TV executive, since I doubt that Warehouse 13’s writers had any say about the overall direction of the season) go ahead and destroy the world, just be prepared to build on the ruins.

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Some hope for readers and publishers alike.

June 21st, 2012  |  Published in commentary

If you spend enough time paying attention to the evolution of e-books, a curious trend emerges. It seems that readers and publishers are at odds. Readers say that they want to be able to read books on whatever device they want once they buy it, publishers say that they will lose their hats if their books aren’t locked down with DRM or if they were willing to sell to libraries. All of this seems to ignore the whole part about readers wanting to read books and publishers wanting to give them books to read. Of course there are exceptions to this, but they are just that, exceptions.

Yesterday, however, I ran across something that gives me some hope, a site called unglue.it. The idea behind unglue.it is that people want to read books and are willing to pay for them and that rights holders (publishers, authors, and estates, mostly) want to receive money for their books. How it works is that it negotiates with the rights holders for a particular work to determine a fair price, then raises that money through crowdfunding (similar to kickstarter) and pais the rights holder. In return, a Creative Commons licensed ebook edition is released, available for free, to everyone on every device with no DRM.

Of course, this won’t be a panacea for the dysfunctional ebook landscape, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

 

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The Future of Book Cover Design

June 15th, 2012  |  Published in commentary

The Ash Tree Bound Induction
The other day, I had just finished creating covers for a couple more of my Broken Shores stories (which are now available for free on Smashwords, click the covers above) when I saw an article by Craig Mod about cover design that a friend had shared.

The basic idea that is presented is that book covers are dead. In a digital marketplace, the book art is no longer the primary thing that a reader has to go by when trying to decided whether or not to give an unfamiliar book a shot. Now we look for metrics, namely aggregate reviews. To compound that, the cover is no longer life-sized, but has been compressed down to a thumbnail next to an Amazon listing or removed entirely by browsing your ereader’s list of books and then jumping immediately to the text itself, bypassing all of the hard work that a designer has put into it.

This is the point where the essay could have gone off the rails, lamenting about a bit of beauty fading silently from the world. But it doesn’t. Instead, he reminds us that all of the artistic features of a physical book have arisen from and evolved out of the physical requirements. This new medium, then is not so much a loss as an opportunity to do something new and exciting.

What is the future of book covers? Who knows. But I, for one, am excited to see where this leads.

If you’re interested in cover design, I have written a couple of posts on the basics of cover design, which you might want to check out: DIY e-book Covers 101 and DIY e-book Covers 102.

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