Some Shameless Self Promotion

April 30th, 2013  |  Published in announcement

The Revolution Will Not Be MicrowavedThe Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved is up! I have published it at Amazon as well as Smashwords (which means that it should be available everywhere once it gets approved, but that might take a while. I had a great time writing this story, and when I went through to do a final edit, I realized that I had forgotten how much I enjoyed it. As usual, the most difficult part of the self-publishing process was writing up a brief description, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out:

For Sam, working at the Future Shoppe is a study in absurdity. Every week, he receives a directive from home office, a new product display, store layout, or signage style. And in the middle of every week, the orders are countermanded, often only hours after they have been completed. One week, the set of contradictory directions never comes.

Something is rotten in Coeur d’Alene, the nerve center of the Future Shoppe. And so Sam, Rosa, and Isaiah are roped into a mission to find out what, or at least steal some office supplies. Each of them is looking for something different: Rosa is expecting zombies, Isaiah just wants to see an old friend who lives there and Sam wants some sauce for his Guinig Meat Snack. But what they will find is stranger than they could have ever imagined.

So go grab a sample from one of the aforementioned retailers or read the first bit on the TRWNBM page and enjoy!

P.S. – As for what’s next, if you’re curious, I hope to publish There Are No Words in late May or early June and after that I will hopefully get Caldera all polished up and ready to go.

Meme Culture

April 24th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

Sometime last year, I stumbled across a blog post about how Star Trek had prefigured the direction our language and culture is heading in. In essence, there was an episode that dealt with a race that communicated purely by metaphor, the author then compared this to the rise of memes and reaction gifs. Of course, these things were around long before that post was written, but it wasn’t until I read it that I saw the connection between memes and language. And now I can’t unsee it.

More and more, I see emails and facebook posts that consist of nothing but a meme or reaction gif. These things can be fun, and I know that I’ve spent my share of time looking at lolcats, but when they become a substitute for communication, I begin to worry. These things are sort of like the graphic equivalent of cliches. Both are useful for expressing a common sentiment to someone who shares the same cultural frame of reference to yourself, both make it difficult to say anything interesting, novel, or memorable. The main difference is that I would guess that there are fewer memes/reaction gifs than there are cliches, due to the higher cost of production and the shrinking half-life of popular culture phenomena.

To be clear, I am not worried that using memes and reaction gifs will start us on the slippery slope to complete illiteracy. Rather, I feel that their use constitutes a vocabulary of expression, and a small one at that. The capacity of expression of ideas and sentiments seems as though it could limit the occurrence of them, or put another way, if you cannot express something, how fully can you be said to experience it?

On the other hand, if you’re reading this, you speak the English language, and if those upstarts over at Oxford Dictionaries are to be believed, “there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary”. This number likely also doesn’t include cool untranslatable words like fingerspitzengefühl, or neologisms (look at what Shakespeare did to the English language). Taken together and considering that most things will be expressed by a combination of words, and the possibilities appear to be virtually endless.

The Devil’s Advocate in me responds to all this by saying that creativity is often the result of artificial limitations, and so reducing our vocabulary to a handful of memes might actually act as a font of creative expression. I would have to disagree. As a culture, we use memes as a shorthand for complex ideas and sentiments, as a shortcut. Words, on the other hand, are hard to use well, much like representing three dimensional objects on a two dimensional medium. As such, it would seem that words are inherently more limiting, and thus more beneficial to creativity (which also helps to explain why we have a quarter million of them in the English language).

So the next time you feel the urge to reach for that comfortable meme, take a moment and do yourself and your culture a favor. Just put it into words. Don’t worry, we won’t run out any time soon.

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The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved Cover

April 23rd, 2013  |  Published in announcement

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I need to get my act together and do something with some of the stories that I’m sitting on. So today I went ahead and did a cover for “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved”. I’m pretty happy with it, but may tweak it a bit before I’m ready to stamp FINAL on it (naturally, feedback is welcome). Other than that, I need to take another pass through the story and format it for Smashwords and Amazon. Hopefully I’ll be ready to go with it early next week. I’ll let you know.

The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved

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Organization: what it is and why it matters

April 17th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

When we talk about organizing and organization, we often think about it in terms of optimizing an existing organizational structure. This is all well and good, but the concept of organization has become so ingrained in our culture and language that it is often assumed as a given and little thought is given to what it means to organize and how the resulting order differs from disorder. So I’m going to do some thinking out loud on the subject.

First, what is organization? Following the word’s etymological trail leads one eventually to the greek organon which apparently translates literally to “that with which one works”. In short, organizing is the act of creating something that is useful, an infrastructural element of getting things done. One could think of it as the fundamental aspect of toolmaking. All of this is good if you’re making a musical instrument (something else that pops up when looking into the history of the word), but how does it function when applied to people? Sure, forming a task force to get something done fits the notion, but a couple of interesting ideas come from it:

  1. Organization is a multiplier of force. For example, take a mob of people who want to effect some sort of change. As a mob they have certain amount of ability to influence the world. Now, arm the mob, give them all guns. The mob has exactly one more option, violence (and even that isn’t really anything new, any mob is capable of violence with or without weapons, arming them just makes that option more effective and more likely). Okay, so go back to the original, unarmed mob. Instead of giving them weapons, organize them. Get them talking to each other, have them work out what it is they want and delegate tasks to individuals or subgroups. All of a sudden, the mob (although it is no longer a mob, really) has as many options as it has ideas, and the amount of ideas in proportion to its size. Instead of adding to its options, the mob has multiplied them. This is specifically why governments are leery of any well-organized group, they are more dangerous than an armed crowd ever could be.
  2. Mindset. Unorganized groups (and individuals within the group) approach problems from the perspective of the individual, organized groups (and individuals within the group) approach problems from the perspective of the group. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is in fact the difference between powerlessness and power. Many of the issues that we find troubling in our world are not problems at the individual level but problems at the neighborhood, town, state, national, or world level. Dealing with problems on those scales as an individual is difficult, if not impossible (which is why superheroes seem to be such a dangerous fantasy to me, almost no one can deal with those problems on an individual level).

All of this is not to say that there aren’t problems with organization. Take for example the Stanford Prison Experiment, which suggests that it is possible for our individuality to be overridden by group identity. Despite this, I don’t honestly believe that there is a better option, yet.

In short, organization is a process by which useful things are created, multiplying the options of a group and providing the potential for hope against long odds.

So why am I going to the trouble of working all of this out? Aside from the subject being interesting in its own right, I’ve wanted to write something about organizing in a post-privacy society, and so this post was a necessary prerequisite. I’ll try to get that (more interesting, I promise) post written in the next week or two.

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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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Brought to you by the American Guinea Pig Council

April 11th, 2013  |  Published in writing

Last May, for ShoStoWriMo I wrote a short story titled The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, an element of which was the rise of Guinea Pigs as a common food in the US (as one friend said, “I think of that story every time I see a Guinea Pig now.” Sweet savory success.). According to NPR, it seems that I was ahead of my time. Which reminds me, I need to put together a cover for that story and publish it, so that you can read 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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Nothing of substance this week.

April 4th, 2013  |  Published in announcement

Although I’ve been trying to get in the habit of writing a blog post each week, the laptop on which I write has had an accident. That being said, I do have a couple of updates for you. I’ve been working on a YA short story, and I recently passed the 7,000 word mark, so the rough draft should be done soon. Second, I’ve been making notes for the Broken Shores story that I’m working on, and even came up with something that might work as an epigram for it: “The danger is, as always it has been, that in our reaction to violence we not only become incapable, but also undeserving of peace.” It will probably change, but it fits the story, so not too much. Finally, it is April, which means that May is coming up, and I have decided that I will run the Short Story Writing month again. However, since setting up and moderating a forum has been a pain in the ass (and time suck) I’ll probably do it as a Facebook or G+ group this year. More news on that in the next couple of weeks.

Update: I went ahead and made a Facebook page, this year all things ShoStoWriMo will be at http://www.facebook.com/ShoStoWriMo. Although, there isn’t much there now, there will be soon.

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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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