Thursday, December 18, 2014

Oh Tra La-La-Lally . . .




I’ve been listening to some old Clay Shirky videos on YouTube, and have stumbled across something I’m sure I’d heard before but now has great implications for me as I want to write and publish books.

He says the following in a presentation he gives on cognitive surplus, arguing that the Internet is leading people to use their surplus time and brain power to share, create, and collaborate in ways we’ve never seen before.

First, there’s this:

Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for.
So, how to include readers in the worlds I write about? I don’t know.

Then he says this:

We’re going to look at every place that a user or a reader or a listener or a viewer has been locked out, has been served up a passive or fixed or canned experience and ask ourselves: If we carved out a little bit of the cognitive surplus we now recognize we can deploy, could we make a good thing happen? And I’m betting the answer is yes.

Again, reinforcing that a shared, collaborative environment is going to be part of any creative endeavor.

But not any creative endeavor.

First, I think a creative endeavor has to have a critical mass of followers. Until that mass is achieved, writers can get by easily with Amazon and GoodReads reviews, occasional presence there, as well as presence on blogs and social media. When the audience reaches a critical mass – and I have no idea what that mass might look like – the writer has to create his or her own space for the mass to congregate. Creating Rivendell will have to wait until there are many elves to populate it. And if they ever come at all.

There’s A Peck Here with A Hyphen Pointed Right at Me!



Every writer has his or her own tick. Yours might be the run-on sentence. The one-word paragraph. Mine tends to be dashes – I love dashes.

But what about if someone doesn’t like your tick? Up until now, they could rail against the machine futilely, seeing as your books went through professional editing and were printed and unless it’s a non-fiction book you made up entirely, there’s almost nothing that’s going to get your book pulled from the shelves.

Yes, I said until now.

Per this blog post (warning, naughty words ahead) UK author Graeme Reynolds’ book “High Moor 2: Moonstruck” was pulled from Amazon after the company received a complaint from a reader that too many words in the book were – gasp – hyphenated.

Reynolds sez:

Apparently Amazon had received a complaint from a reader about the fact that some of the words in the book were hyphenated. And when they ran an automated spell check against the manuscript they found that over 100 words in the 90,000 word novel contained that dreaded little line. This, apparently “significantly impacts the readability of your book” and, as a result “We have suppressed the book because of the combined impact to customers.”

Reynolds seems to think everything was entirely automated, from complaint processing to hyphen-counting, if I’m reading his post correctly. Or some of it comes from humans reading from scripts. Nevertheless, through a thicket of f-bombs Reynolds outlines his understandable frustration about having to explain basic English punctuation rules to someone relying on a complaint, an algorithm, and a script to resolve the issue, all rolled in with a polemic about the questionable writing that Amazon doesn’t seem to bother about in the Kindle universe.

Reynolds’ plight (the book was eventually restored for sale on Amazon, hyphens intact) has attracted some attention.

And that attention’s a good thing, as it helped get his book back on track – though it’s unclear if the eggheads at Amazon finally recognized their part of the confusion and just fixed things; though you’d think they’d be bragging about it/apologizing for it if that were the case.

So there’s something else to think about. That a big meanie faceless corporation run by a bald man messed with the livelihood of a writer is only part of the story – the bigger part is that one complaint from who knows who got a book derailed and that derailler seems to have walked off anonymously. Was it a sincere, if punctuationally-inept reader, or a competitor to Reynolds? Do grammar Nazis wield such power in this new publishing landscape? Apparently, we don’t get to know. Reviews at Amazon only mention the hyphen situation in high-ranking reviews, so there’s no good going there.
But unmasking the culprit isn’t the end game here – that one person had such power is, however, amazing and a bit creepy. What other complaints are slouching toward Bethlehem, set to derail the progress of another book? I live in fear of dash-haters.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Has it Finally Happened?



For the last few years, we’ve heard report after report that Voyager 1, launched from Earth in 1977 to explore the Solar System, had left the heliosphere, the invisible magnetic and charged particle bubble in space dominated by the Sun, and had encountered the heliopause, the point in space where the Sun’s influence ends and interstellar space begins.

That may have finally actually happened, thanks to data recorded by the probe in 2012 and 2013:


Per the folks at Space.com:

The density of the particles around Voyager 1 was 40 times higher than scientists had previously observed when the space probe was still in the outer layers of the heliosphere, the giant bubble of charged particles and magnetic fields that surrounds the sun and the planets in our solar system. Voyager 1 team members concluded that the spacecraft had exited the heliosphere and entered a new cosmic realm. After researchers went back and looked at old data, they concluded that Voyager 1 crossed into interstellar space on August 25, 2012.

Cool stuff.

Also, consider this: The data coming back to us from Voyager 1 is recorded on old-fashioned magnetic tape, then relayed to Earth. Magnetic tape, capable of recording up to 64 megabytes of data. How robust must that little probe be? Damn robust. The recorder is set to shut down in 2015, leaving only direct communication with Earth possible – until the probe’s plutonium power source dies out in about 2025.

It’s part of a small club of man-made objects that have either left the Solar System or will within my lifetime.

Who's Afraid of the Sony Hacks?



The Sony Hack thing confuses me.

Not that Sony has been hacked. And not that North Korea is suspected in the hacking.

What confuses me is the reaction:

Fear.

Is there something I’m missing? Yes, these hackers have made allusions to 9/11 if the Sony film “The Interview” is released – and it appears Sony has pulled the film from release after three major cinema chains in the United States said they would not play the film on is proposed Christmas Day release.
But I’m reading everywhere that these guys are terrorists. Here’s what David Auerbach is saying at Slate:

[w]hile this attack is particularly damaging to Sony’s rank and file, the hack itself poses no threat to people’s lives or critical infrastructure. But by so effectively creating a climate of fear and making threats of actual violence, the Guardians of Peace have raised the specter of genuine cyberterroristic acts to come. These acts aren’t scary because they’re ingenious, but because they could be easily replicated by anyone with the right resources and enough malice.

Alison Willmore, writing at Buzzfeed, has the most ludicrous things to say about the situation:
The movie engages with how ludicrous it can be that pop culture can bridge such enormous gaps between people as well as how unstable it can be as common ground, but it still ultimately has faith in pop culture’s inclusiveness and ability to shake the world. And in this case, it kind of has, though not in the way anyone might have guessed. “You know what’s more destructive than a nuclear bomb?” Kim asks quavery sincerity in the movie. “Words.” Not to mention jokes.

Unless I’m mistaken, the film isn’t meant to bridge cultures – it’s just entertainment. A paranoid hermit state may not see it that way, granted. But it’s no worse than North Korean propaganda out there depicting the United States as a vast Detroit landscape of shattered houses and factories where the beneficent North Koreans are there to pass out cakes to the starving masses.


Yes, we ought to laugh it off. That’s our nature. But then again, our nature is also to use predator drones on Muslim weddings, spy on every last person in the world and endorse torture. (And we’re also not above conducting cyber attacks of our own. Stuxnet, anyone?) So maybe I understand the North Korean paranoia. I just don’t understand the paranoia I’m seeing here.

Slate also wants hacked material from Sony not to be published in the United States by media outlets who would publish any hacked material if it came from, say, Julian Assange or Chelsea Manning – but they want to draw a line here. Why? (And it seems Slate, in publishing this piece by Jacob Weisberg, wants to have its cake and eat it too. Justin Peters, writing at Slate, seems to think the provenance of the hack shouldn't proclude publishing if there is real news interest present.

But the decision to desist from publishing this stuff should be based on ethics and respect for the right of free expression, not legal pressure. News outlets should obviously cover the story of the hack itself, the effect on Sony, the question of how it happened, and who’s responsible. This is a big and legitimate news story. But when it comes to exploiting the fruits of the digital break-in, journalists should voluntarily withhold publication. They shouldn’t hold back because they’re legally obligated to—I don’t believe they are—but because there’s no ethical justification for publishing this damaging, stolen material. (I am articulating my opinion here, not Slate’s policy. While the magazine has been judicious in its coverage of the emails, it did publish this article about indications of a gender pay gap among Sony executives and the editors will continue to apply their own judgment about when and whether to cover stories arising from the hack as they emerge.)

Weisberg wouldn’t be saying this if the information was being leaked from, say a big oil company or the Koch brothers.

As Will Macavoy says in The Newsroom, we as a nation didn’t used to scare so easily. Why be scared now?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Spoon River Today?




First of all, I had no idea Percy Grainger wrote a piece of music called “Spoon River,” dedicated to Edgar Lee Masters. Obviously, Masters’ anthology struck a chord with the famed composer.

I’ve written a few posts on my recent reading of Masters’ New Spoon River, so I won’t re-hash them here. I will go on to say that with Sinclair Lewis, Masters has done his part to preserve the times and seasons of the United States in the early 20th century, probably moreso than F. Scott Fitzgerald, who portrayed the new United States that the people in Lewis’ and Masters’ novels were fleeing to.

I’m fascinated by this kind of slice-of-life writing, which was evidently very popular back then. Sinclair Lewis originally intended to write his famous novel Babbitt as 24 hours in the life of one George Babbitt of Zenith, but that went on to different ends. Also, there is Thornton Wilder’s Our Town that paints a pleasant if melancholy picture of small-town life in the same era.

What would we write today if we were writing slice of life? We’ve seen it all – but what could be done unique to the age? Maybe the telling of tales of a group of Facebook friends, or friends on some other social network? I’m afraid it’s been done. But something. Something.

I often wish Edgar Lee Masters had continued writing an anthology every decade, with others taking up the torch as he passed on and as time passed. What would the inhabitants of Spoon River be saying, say, in the 1960s, as Chicago enveloped them, and as time passed, and as the inner city and even some of the suburbs slipped into the control of the Mafia and crumbled into crime. Would the characters of the 1910s still have descendants there, or would they all have moved on? What would the new inhabitants of Spoon River say, not knowing the town’s history but feeling oddly connected to it or disconnected to it through their own eyes and through the lives of their contemporaries?

Marcus Jessup


They say long ago there was a village here

With green lawns and apple orchards

Where people rode in buggies

And sniped at their neighbors.

Spoon River, they called it

Surrounded by farms and farmers

Home to the banks and the general stores and the churches

All I see is asphalt

And concrete and crumbing red-brick buildings

Where are the orchards?

Where are the trees?

The sniping, I knew that well, killed as I was by a stray bullet

Someone fired from somewhere at someone else.

Where are the apple trees in Spoon River?

Passer-by, I lie underneath them.

Never having tasted their apples.

Or something like that. Sustained for three hundred or so pages.

It could be done. By someone who knows a Spoon River, subsumed by concrete and time.

Also, some industrious soul has put the entirety of the Spoon River Anthology online.