Sunday, December 4, 2011

Novellas and short novels

One of the things I've noticed is that a lot of the novel submissions I get sent for Hukilau feel like they're too long, as if they've been padded out to hit the publishers' sweet spot of 80,000 words, when in reality they'd be better as short novels, or even novellas.

Print publishers don't like short books. They take about as much work to create and market, but they don't generate as much money. And readers like to buy big books so they feel they've got their money's worth. When I was first reading, I was used to novels of 150 pages. Now most publishers won't even touch anything under 300 pages, and some genres seem to demand even more.

E-books, on the other hand, don't have that sort of prejudice. I'm wondering whether e-books are going to spark a revival in shorter forms.  Any thoughts?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My worst birthday ever

I don't remember exactly when this was. Five or six years ago, I guess. It might even have been my 40th birthday. I've done my best to forget.

My birthday started in a horrible, uncomfortable Central London hotel after a lousy night's sleep. The tiny, overpriced room was stupidly hot, the bed was lumpy, and the walls were so thin I could hear my neighbours' televisions as if they were in my own room. The guy next to me on one side was watching cable porn at 5am, and on the other side, they'd decided they needed to watch a war movie before breakfast. And for this luxury, I was paying well over £100. Not a great start to the day, but never mind. I was determined to have a good time.

The plan was that I would be speaking at a conference in the morning, then heading 150 miles home by train to have a birthday dinner with my family after being away for two weeks, and then we'd all go to the local carnival. Carnival's always a fun night out.  Didn't quite work out that way.

I got to the conference in good time for my technical rehearsal at 8am, only to discover that they'd moved my slot to mid-afternoon, and there was no need for me to have stayed in the damn hotel anyway. Still, I figured I could do my bit, get a later train, and just about make it in time for dinner. Well, if they'd been on time, it might have worked. The entire conference was chaos, and they were running late right from the get-go. I don't even remember my panel, though I think it went well. When I got to Paddington station, I literally ran from the Tube for my train, and missed it by about 30 seconds. There was no way I was going to make it home for dinner now.

At least I'd make it to the carnival, though. Stay positive, Matt.

Since I had an hour to kill, I figured I might as well get something to eat. That's when I discovered there was a "problem" with my credit card, and they wouldn't accept it. Turned out the bank's automated systems had decided that the hotel bill was an "unexpected expense" and had blocked my card for my own protection. And since it was after 5pm, there were no humans available, and they couldn't deal with it until the next day. Thanks, Lloyds.  So, no money. No food.  The day gets better.

Finally, I got on a crowded train at 6.30. I should have been home three hours earlier. Twenty minutes into the journey, the heating broke down. This was November in England, remember, and nights are cold. That was okay when the train was full, but once it started to empty out, it began to get really chilly.

Never mind, I could endure it. Just a short while longer, and I could enjoy my long-awaited evening with my family.

And then, ten miles from home, the train broke down. No power. We sat in the cold, dark carriage, with no idea what was going on, until a repair train came and towed us back to the previous station. We got onto a replacement train, and I finally reached my station at about 10pm.

Even though this is starting to sound like a rejected script for a John Candy movie, the day wasn't finished with me yet. You see, when the carnival's in town, our tiny little town would get thousands of visitors. Everywhere you can possibly squeeze a vehicle is taken. Half the roads into and around town are blocked off, and the rest are full of traffic. My usual ten-minute drive home turned into well over half an hour, and I ended up having to park nearly a mile from my house. Of course, I wasn't dressed for a cold English night, and I recall the walk as an endless, freezing trek, losing the feeling in my fingers and face.

I eventually arrived back, tired, cold, hungry and dispirited, to a cold, dark, empty house, and a note that said, "Sorry, didn't get you any cards or presents, and there's no food in the house because we didn't get round to shopping. You'll have to go out and get yourself something."

And that, as they say, was that. My worst birthday ever.

* * *

This year, I spent most of my birthday lying on the sofa, suffering from a stomach bug. It wasn't a great day, but it's far from the worst birthday I've ever had. I had loads of Facebook & Skype wishes, I talked to friends and relatives from round the world, and I was surrounded by a family who love me. That's what matters.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Grab Vol 1 of my new book - free!

It's been nearly a week since I released my new book, and for some inexplicable reason, I haven't yet mentioned it on my blog. Oh, that's right, I've been hard at work on Volume 2, which will be out in a few weeks.

I'm writing a book about how to use Moviestorm as a film training tool: as Phil South puts it in the introduction, it's like a pilot learning to fly a plane. Using a real plane all the time is way too expensive (and dangerous), so you train in a simulator. That enables you to log plenty of hours, practice the difficult maneuvers in safety, and become familiar with all the basics. It's the same with filmmaking: it's complicated, time-consuming and expensive, so why not use a simple, easy animation tool to practice with?

Each book in the series consists of a set of 15-20 simple exercises that you work through. You have to film the same thing in several ways, focusing on how to use a specific technique. It's all self-guided, so after each version, you review your work, see what was good and bad about it, and do it again. Of course, I recommend using Moviestorm to do this, because it's quick and easy, and you can do it without needing anyone else's help, but you could equally well do it using any other animation tool or even in live action if you have the time and enough willing friends. Most importantly, the skills you practice are relevant to any film medium, not just to machinima or animation.

So far, reviews and comments have been extremely positive, which is immensely satisfying.

“Spot on. The exercises are set up in a very logical, progressive way.”
James Martin, University of North Texas

“Excellent - great for schools and colleges alike. The tone of the writing is perfect - neither patronising or too authoritative.”
Jezz Wright, Blockhouse TV

“I really liked how you tell the reader to try a shot with and without each technique to be able to actually see the difference they make.”
Dan Horne, film student, Full Sail University

Volume 1 covers camerawork; the upcoming volumes cover staging, editing, lighting, sound, and so on, and will be released monthly. They're initially available free in PDF form via Moviestorm. When all five volumes are complete, I'll compile them into a single full-length book with some additional material and release that commercially for Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers.

I'm doing it this way for four reasons. First, after discussing this with Moviestorm, we figured it would be good to release something early to gauge the reaction, so we decided not to wait until it was complete. The book naturally divides into several sections, so this was an easy way to do it. I'm having a lot of meetings with film teachers and film students at the moment, and it's useful to have the book on hand and available for them to download.

Secondly, I'm taking a leaf out of Roz Morris's book. She recently released her novel My Memories of a Future Life in four weekly parts before the whole thing was available. While this was irritating in some ways - mostly because I wanted to read the whole story - it did enable her to get a lot of publicity, effectively doing five launches instead of one, and keeping the momentum going throughout. I'm hoping the same will work here, but without the "I want to know what happens next" factor.

Then there's the argument about proving the point. If I can generate a lot of interest in the free version, it makes it easier to pitch to a print publisher. Several film schools have said that they see this as potentially a useful textbook, and that's a market I'd love to get into. A few thousand downloads and some useful feedback would be a great way to prove to a specialist publisher that the book would be worth taking on.

And lastly, Moviestorm were happy to pay for the rights to distribute the PDF free as a marketing tool. Sure, it's likely to impact my sales when the completed thing becomes available, but it's money in the bank right now, and I'll have made more from it than many self-published authors, and I can't argue with that. What's more, the version I'll be selling will be expanded, revised, and formatted for a range of devices, so there's still a reason for people to buy it.

Please do go and grab a copy, pass it on to your friends, and let me know what you think.

Download Making Better Movies with Moviestorm, Vol 1

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fiverr - what would you do for $5?

As an experiment recently, I've been using fiverr to test out the lower end of the e-book market. It's a really neat idea: you offer to do small jobs (called gigs) for $5. The site takes a buck, leaving you with $4.

Now, let's get some perspective. $5 isn't exactly a lot of money. It's what you pay someone to park your car for you - not the parking fee, just the tip. It's the price of a latte or a glass of cheap wine. It's less than an hour at minimum wage. (Florida's minimum wage is $7.21.) In other words, these are the sort of jobs you expect to spend a short time on.

When it works, fiverr works well. I've done a bunch of short e-book conversions for people - the kind of thing that take me 15 minutes with the tools I have. I do a 15-minute training course where I show them how to upload books to the Amazon Kindle store. I do another one where I take them through the options on how to convert e-books. They're easy little jobs I can do on the side, and they're really useful to people who can't get going without a bit of help. It's also helped me get a good understanding of a different segment of the e-book market.

Where fiverr doesn't work is that too many of the buyers expect far too much from it. Some of the jobs I've been asked to do would take me, quite literally, days, and often they seem to want to enter into contractual negotiations that would be more appropriate for a six-figure contract.

For example, I make it clear that the conversion services I offer cover short, simple books only (max 20 pages, text only, I require Word format, I do not upload the book, and you get either Kindle or ePub format). Here's a typical request:

"My book is just over 450 pages, fully illustrated, in PDF format. I require Kindle and Nook versions, and I need you to upload it to Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo, priced $19.99. I will also require a notarized warranty from you that in the event of any defects you will fully reimburse anyone who has purchased the book from me. If I do a second edition, will this be included in the original price?"


For five freakin' bucks?

And you expect me to pay a lawyer out of that as well?

Did you even read the terms?

One that really made me laugh was a guy who sent me a 10-page questionnaire to "assess my suitability for the gig". Just filling in the damn thing would have taken me two or three hours. I can't help wondering how long he spent coming up with all the questions to make sure he was going to get best value for his $5.

Sadly, I guess about 50% of the requests I get are equally ridiculous. A glance down the "gigs wanted" section shows a similar level of expectation permeating fiverr. "Design and build my corporate website and set up the customer database." "Create me a 15-minute animated video using 3DS Max." "Record my novel as an audiobook." "Conduct a telephone poll of 1000 people." "Create a series of 25 5-minute training videos."

I know the economy's in a bad way, but honestly, people need to keep some sense of proportion! We're helping out for tips here, not providing full professional services. Frankly, it's insulting. I'd rather be asked to do it pro bono than be offered five bucks. I'd still decline, but at least that way we wouldn't be pretending that this was a serious commercial transaction.

On balance fiverr's a good service, as long as you can avoid the time-wasters. I've had some nice clients, and it's actually been a pleasure helping them out, particularly for the tiny gigs that aren't worth doing "professionally". It's not really a business, but it's not charity either - it's more as if the clients are just giving you five bucks to say thank you.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Memories of a Future Life (the end)

About a month ago, I wrote about Roz's new book, My Memories of a Future Life. Well, more accurately, I wrote about Episode 1. Not Volume 1, note, Episode 1. Roz took the unusual step of releasing her novel in four instalments for Kindle, and it's only now become available as a single book.

Before I return to the format, I guess I should say something about the book. I almost feel like I should be doing a proper literary criticism, of the sort I haven't done since school: Synopsis, Themes, Characters, Style, Symbolism, Summary. That's because this feels like a proper bit of "literature". That's a word I use with some trepidation: usually "literature" means "stuff I feel like I ought to have read but probably won't actually enjoy" - whether it's modern lit or classic lit. And don't get me started on "chick lit". This isn't one of those bits of "literature", though. It's intelligent, thoughtful, and heavily character-based, yes, but it's also very easy to read and it's got a damn good story. That's because most of Roz's books are very different. She's written under a number of well-known names, including [REDACTED] and [CAN'T TELL YOU OR I'D HAVE TO KILL YOU], and she knows how to tell a rattling good yarn. She's not your usual literary novelist.

One of her other readers summed it up best - Memories is like John Fowles's The Magus. I loved that book when I was a teenager, and I'm now getting a hankering to read it again. It's the sort of literature I enjoy reading, combining a slightly unsettling plot with hints of more beyond. It's not the depressing realism of your typical Booker novelist or the light fluffiness of a slice of middle class city life.

Memories is about a pianist who can't play any more who goes to a hypnotist and starts channelling, not a past life, but a future life. Anything more would be a spoiler, so I'll stop right there. Roz's writing is some of the sharpest I've read in a while. She uses short, punchy sentences, punctuated by powerful metaphors and vivid descriptions. The result is some of the most readable prose I've come across in a while.

I will admit that after the first episode, I was slightly dubious about where it was going. I was enjoying it, but once she introduced characters who were regressing to past lives involving Jack the Ripper, there was a small part of me inwardly groaning and hoping it wasn't going to turn into some cheesy From Hell scenario. By the end of the second episode, I still wasn't much reassured. But I'm glad I stuck with it, because the end is an absolute rip-roarer. (Her husband Dave popped up on Twitter when I mentioned my concerns, and assured me I wouldn't anticipate the end. He was right. I should have known Roz wouldn't resort to cliche without good reason. She's better than that.)

Here's my one grouse. The release in instalments didn't work for me. I wanted to read the whole thing in one go. I didn't like waiting for the next episode to come out. In fact, after Episode 2, I decided to skip Episode 3 the following week and waited until the whole thing was published.

As a marketing technique, I hope it worked for Roz - self-publishing is a challenge at the best of times, and you have to do whatever you can to get attention. I certainly tweeted and facebooked about it much more than I would have done if I'd just bought the one book. But as a reading experience goes, I wish I'd waited and read it straight through. To be fair, I find the same with comics and television series - I enjoyed the anticipation of waiting for next week's Doctor Who or 2000 AD when I was a kid, but now I'd prefer to settle down for a long session whenever it's convenient for me.

However, none of this is a problem for anyone out there. It's all out now, and you can buy the complete novel for $9.99 on Kindle or $14.95 on paper. (You can still get all four episodes separately for $0.99, but not for much longer.)

So yes, I enjoyed this immensely. I'm torn between 4 and 5 stars, but that's only because I'm really, really picky when it comes to giving out 5-star ratings, and I'd have enjoyed it more without the enforced breaks in the middle. However, it's an easy four and a half. Memories is sharp, well-written, and a damn good read, and I'm looking forward to whatever Roz does next.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

My Memories of a Future Life - Episode 1 of 4: The Red Season

Last night, I grabbed this from Amazon for a whole 99c. It's the first fiction book Roz Morris has published under her own name. She's written a lot of stuff before, but it's all been ghost-writing for people like [SSSHHHH! trade secret!]. I was intrigued to see what she would do when writing with her own voice.

Carol is a gifted musician who needs nothing more than her piano and certainly doesn’t believe she’s lived before. But forced by injury to stop playing, she fears her life may be over. Enter her soulmate Andreq: healer, liar, fraud and loyal friend. Is he her future incarnation or a psychological figment? And can his story help her discover how to live now?

A novel in the vein of The Time Traveller’s Wife, Vertigo and The Gargoyle, My Memories of a Future Life is much more than a twist on the traditional reincarnation tale. It is a multi-layered story of souls on conjoined journeys – in real time and across the centuries.

I have to confess that after the first episode, I'm still slightly confused as to what's going on. That's not a bad thing - it's because this is not a complete story. It's the opening part of a 4-parter. I'm very much looking forward to the next part (due out next week) - a feeling I haven't had before with prose. We're used to episodic content in comics or TV, but it's a form that's more or less disappeared from literary fiction since the glory days of pulp SF magazines.

Roz's writing is beautiful, simple, and evocative. She makes you empathize with the characters almost instinctively, despite - or more likely because of - their flaws and weaknesses. They, more than the plot, are what kept me reading until I'd finished the book in one sitting. I cared what happened to them more than I cared what happened next.

In my review on Amazon, I've given this four stars rather than five only because I'm still unsure where this is going. The story could develop in several different ways, some of which appeal to me more than others. The elements of hypnosis, sci-fi and time travel are intriguing, but I'm hoping the Ripper sub-plot doesn't turn out to be too much of a cliche.

Roll on September 5 and Episode #2! I'll happily throw Roz another dollar.

(If you don't like the idea of waiting for each part, hang on until September 19th and buy all four episodes.)

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Yellow Flowers

That, as you probably can't see, is the title page of the manuscript of my novel-that's-been-languishing-in-a-trunk-for-twenty-years. Twenty-one and three quarters, if you want to be precise.

I wrote it one December while recuperating from a motorcycle accident. I was ruthless with myself. Every morning, I wrote a chapter, tapping away on my Amstrad word processor with one hand, and didn't allow myself lunch till it was done. Then after lunch, I rewrote yesterday's chapter. Then on Saturdays, I re-read everything I'd done in the week, and on Sunday rewrote it all. The book was finished in three weeks - about the same time it took for my shattered hand to become usable again. (Sadly the bike wasn't so lucky. That was scrapped.) It's unashamedly inspired by Stephen King's The Eyes of the Dragon - not so much the plot, but the tone.

No-one told him the yellow flowers were for the princess, but then, no-one ever tells you anything when you're ten. Gareth was sitting in the loft of the barn, swinging his legs over the edge and thinking gloomy thoughts. To make matters worse, his mother had spanked him in front of the whole Court, and everybody, except of course the King, had laughed at him.

I nearly got it published too, but I turned it down.

Why? Looking back on it, total and utter stupidity.

It was a young teenage fantasy romance, exactly the kind of thing that was huge in the very late 1980s. I submitted it to just one publisher, who loved it, but said that they wanted to do it as a trilogy, because fantasy trilogies were what you did back then. I thought about it for a couple of days, and decided that I didn't really see how the story could continue from there, so I suggested to them that maybe I should write two other unrelated books instead. They said no, and that was the end of that.

Wait, I did what?

A leading publisher offered me - an unknown author - real actual money for two further books as a start of a series, and I said no because I wasn't inspired? These days I'd take that deal instantly, and then figure out what goes into the next two books. Hell, I'd send them a proposal for a trilogy of trilogies. And merchandise. And spin-offs. And versions for every medium ever invented and a few new ones. That's the kind of deal that most aspiring authors would kill for.

As I said, total and utter stupidity.

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading through some fiction submissions, and thinking we should do more novels. (Did I mention I'm part owner of a digital publishing house?) And then I remembered The Yellow Flowers. You know that moment where it dawns on you that you've been even stupider than you realised? It was one of those. I've got a novel of my own sitting right here ready to go. After all, it can't be that bad if someone was prepared to offer me an advance for it and demand more of my work.

So here it is, no longer in a trunk. It'll doubtless get some re-editing in the process of getting re-typed, and then I'm damn well going to publish it. And this time, it'll be The Yellow Flowers, Volume 1.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The myth that's killing America

A lot has been written in the last few weeks about the American economy, the growing wealth divide, and how best to address debt. The most controversial aspect is, of course, taxation of the very wealthiest.

One argument that's repeatedly trotted out is that taxing the wealthy means fewer jobs. After all, it's the wealthy who create jobs, and if the government takes their money away, they won't be able to help people get back to work. And, by extension, poor people don't create jobs.

That's a myth, and I call bullshit.

Wealthy corporations have just one aim: to make profit for their stockholders. Yes, they create jobs, but they create the cheapest possible jobs. That means laying off expensive American workers and offshoring as much as possible to the developing world.

By contrast, the poor and the middle classes do create jobs. Not in huge numbers at a time, but there are millions of small entrepreneurs who are creating jobs for themselves, bringing on help, and starting small businesses. Every little shop, every small service industry, every roadside stall, every family diner, every business who employs a cleaner - they're all creating jobs, one and two at a time.

Take the guy who fixes our air conditioning. He's just taken on an assistant, and is teaching him a trade. There's the lawn guy who used to be a one-man outfit two years ago and now has a crew of three working for him. There's the pest control guy who set himself up in business last year. The auto repair guy we got our car from has recently taken on a part-time helper. Our friends who run a boutique employ part-time shop assistants. Our friends who started their own spa employ therapists, nail techs, and reception staff. There's the lady who runs her own dance studio and employs teachers. There are the tattoo artists, the comic shop guys, and the web designers. Our own promotion business helps local artists sell their work.

In fact, very few of the people I know in Orlando work for companies started or owned by wealthy people. Nearly all of them work for themselves or for small businesses, often started by friends or family.

It's not even just the middle classes who start businesses and employ people. Every food truck, every repairman, every cleaner - they're all creating jobs, usually from absolutely nothing. Millions upon millions of jobs, right here, on our doorstep.

It's a dangerous myth, and it's killing the economy.

While the rich get bailouts and handouts and exemptions, the middle classes and working classes are getting squeezed even further. As a result, we're seeing small shops closing, small businesses failing, and entrepreneurs giving up before they even start.

Of course, the wealthy are only too happy to see this happen. It gets rid of the competition. When the small businesses are gone, the consumers have no choice but to go to the massive national chains and franchises. We're paying our tax money to concentrate wealth even more in the hands of the wealthy than it is already.

Even the poor have been brainwashed into believing this is a good thing. They want the rich to get richer. The only future they can see for themselves is big companies opening up new plants or offices and giving them work. But it's not happening that way, is it?

This myth needs busting, and it needs busting now.

The truth is simple.

It is high taxes on the wealthy that create jobs, not low taxes. Raising taxes sends a clear message to the rich: use it or lose it.

Don't take my word for it. Look at the facts, as presented by none other than billionaire investor Warren Buffett. "I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what’s happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation."

Let's face it, Buffett knows more about capitalism, investment and job creation than you or I ever will. He knows these people personally. He knows this is a myth, and he knows how damaging it will be - for him as well as everyone else - if the economy continues to skew further and further in favor of the elite.

It is small business that creates the overwhelming majority of local jobs, and it's small entrepreneurs who should be stimulated and rewarded, not millionaire investors who pump money into offshore schemes that actually destroy local jobs.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


This morning, my friend Hugh Hancock made a comment on Facebook.

Rioting is, obviously, Not Good. However, working on the assumption that the sole reason it's happening is because the people involved are idiots / "animals" / chavs / etc may not be the most viable long-term strategy. We've had idiots for a while now, and they ain't always a-rioting.

This led me to a rather long reply, which several people have asked if they could repost. So I figured I'd repost it myself somewhere more prominent than half-way down a thread on Hugh's FB feed.
What we're seeing is anger leavened with a large dollop of dontgiveafuck.

If you have a kid, and spend their entire life telling them that they're worthless and lazy, telling them to shut up, not giving them pocket money but expecting them to help out around the house, promising them stuff but not delivering it, dangling your shiny toys in front of them, and meanwhile constantly ramming down their throat that the only measure of success is wealth, expect them to be resentful and surly instead of grateful and happy.

One day, if they don't top themselves in a fit of depression, they will snap. They'll lose their heads and go crazy. It will be over some trivial, pointless thing, like the colour of your tie. If you try to figure out what was wrong with your tie, you're totally missing the point. It ain't about the fucking tie. It's not even a protest. It's not rational. It's just an explosion of pent-up emotion and aggression.

So what do you do? Yell at them? Lock them in their room while you carry on partying? Take away the little they do have in order to pay for your smashed porcelain that's worth more than they can ever hope to repay? Beat them for being uppity?

Or maybe you should try talking to them and figure out what's actually wrong. In fact, if you go to a neutral person, they'll probably tell you to start treating the kid differently. The kid doesn't have control over his circumstances. You do. So it's up to you to make the changes.

I'm not in any way condoning the riots. But if we want to stop them happening again and again, we need to understand why they're happening, and address the circumstances that lead to people feeling this way. Yes, some of them, maybe most, are idiots along for the ride, but the mood in the country is so discontented that it's not surprising that they've turned to looting shops en masse instead of scratching cars in parking lots and spraying graffiti on the walls.

Give people decent jobs with a living wage. Give them hope for a better life. Help them get out of debt instead of bailing out the bankers. Reduce the gap between rich and poor. Lock up corrupt politicians and businessmen instead of people who just want to smoke a bit of weed. Educate people instead of closing schools.

Then the idiots will be the crazy outcasts once again, not role models for thousands of pissed off people who've had enough of feeling that they might as well kick the shit out of something.
By way of explanation for those who don't know me, I'm a social anthropologist by training. Understanding social phenomena does not imply approval of the behaviour involved. Understanding is, however, necessary to engaging with members of that society in a meaningful way, especially if you wish to change that behaviour.

Please feel free to repost.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

My 100 best photographs

I'm becoming increasingly pleased with my photography. I'm by no means a professional, and I use pretty low-end kit - phone cameras and cheap digital cameras - but when I look back at the pictures I've taken over the last few years, I'm pretty happy with the composition and the use of light, and very occasionally I even get a good shot of a person. I've really enjoyed learning to make the most of what I've got, and I'm particularly happy with some of the phone camera shots.

As I was looking through ten years' worth of photos, I could see some very clear themes emerging: silhouettes, sunsets, trees, shorelines, shots through trees, forced perspectives, dilapidated buildings, and roofs.

I've tried to pick the best 100 of my photos and I've assembled them into a Flickr gallery. Sadly, many of the pictures from amazing places like Bombay weren't particularly good, so they're not represented. Most of them are from the last few years, so there's a heavy bias towards pictures of Florida. I had a hard time with the family pictures: some of the pictures I think are great probably only had meaning to me, so I cut most of them as well. Same with the events: the pictures had to work even if you weren't there, and most of them didn't. As a result, most of what I'm left with is landscapes, nature shots and buildings.

Anyway, do stop by and take a look. If there's anything you like, please leave a comment or like it. It would be good to find out what other people think.

One last note: none of these images - with one exception, which I noted in the caption - were Photoshopped, Hipstamatic'd, or even cropped. This is exactly how they came out of the camera. I thought of messing with them, but I decided to leave them exactly how they are.

Friday, June 24, 2011

At the appointed time

I've been finding myself reading a bunch of fantasy novels recently, and mostly enjoying them after not having anything to do with the genre for several years. However, I'm really finding that some of the tropes annoy me. They make for good storytelling, and I understand them from a dramatic or authorial point of view, but they frequently make me want to bludgeon the offending characters to death with a shillelagh after applying electrodes to their sensitive parts.

The worst of all is the mysterious helper who clearly knows what's going on, but won't say, because the time is not yet right. Sorry. The Time Is Not Yet Right. You have to say it in a portentous, pompous, know-it-all voice, with capital letters.

Imagine you're the hero. You find yourself attacked by weird beasties, and then you're told you have to go to somewhere, retrieve a MacGuffin, and then save the world, but first you will have to face some major opponent, and the fate of the world rests upon you. So of course, you want to know as much as possible before you set off. What the hell are these things? What can they do? How can they be defeated? What's the big bad nasty? Does it have a weak spot? And is there anything else you can tell me to give me an edge? Because, you know, the fate of the world is at stake. It would be kind of useful.

Then this wise guy turns round and basically says, "well, I know, but I'm not telling."


Thanks for nothing, buddy.

And then - even worse - he probably gets killed a few chapters later without divulging the precious secret. It's not like you didn't have enough on your plate what with saving the world, now you have to figure it all out on your own, because this guy who was supposed to be on your side reckoned it would be more cool to be mysterious and withhold vital information from you. That makes him kind of an asshole, don't you think?

100 miles of US-17

Driving home from South Florida today, we cut across country from Fort Myers to Orlando on US-17. It goes through rural Florida, nowhere near the coastal towns or theme parks, through small towns like Arcadia, Fort Meade, and Winter Haven.

Arcadia, FL

If you Google for any of these small towns, they appear to be charming, quaint little places with gorgeous historic districts and thriving communities. Much like, it must be said, the sort of rural towns in England where I spent most of the last forty-odd years.

Shepton Mallet, Somerset, England

They're not. They're mostly dilapidated, ramshackle places where the majority of people seem to be barely scratching a living from whatever local industry is around and the harsh climate of Florida. In one place, there's a citrus processing plant. In another, there's a giant Wal-Mart warehouse. The so-called historic districts are sometimes just a few buildings, and they're clearly just clinging desperately to some semblance of dignity. In Arcadia, over 25% of the population is below the poverty line, and a typical family earns under $20,000, compared to around $40,000 in Orlando, over $45,000 here in Casselberry, and nearly $75,000 in Winter Park.

As you drive through these towns, you can't help but notice the shuttered up shops and the empty businesses. What little remains is mostly Mexican supermarkets, Mexican diners, and occasional auto repair shops that usually consist of some guy's garage with a load of rusted vehicles outside and hand-painted signs that feel more like a plea than an advertisement for services: Cars Fixed Very Chep + Used Tires. There's no Starbucks here. Even McDonald's don't see a market in these places. Just churches, churches, and more churches. All these people have got going for them is a promise it'll be better when they're dead.

Baptist Church, Bartow. Most of the churches on US-17 aren't this impressive. They're one-room affairs with a crucifix nailed to the roof and little more.

There aren't even many actual houses in evidence, and most of those are covered in peeling paintwork, their porches hanging off, and their windows taped up. Most of what you see are mobile homes and trailers, generally surrounded by the decaying detritus of the truly poor: a broken refrigerator, half of several bicycles, bits of engines, and undriveable cars up on blocks. Unusually, there aren't even many American flags to be seen, and you begin to wonder whether that's because they've been stolen, or whether the majority of these people are immigrants. It's hard to believe they don't have pride in their country: this is usually where you find the staunchest, most patriotic Americans.

Fort Meade, FL

I've driven along this road before, but this was the first time it really struck me how different it was to the parts of America I usually see. Superficially, I think I was expecting it to be much like the sort of rural towns in England where I spent most of the last forty-odd years. Poorer than the cities, and lacking the bright lights, not as quaint and pretty as the postcards make out, but still mostly civilised.

It's not.

It's like this part of America was just forgotten and left to die.


Arcadia FL Oak Ridge cem06
Oak Ridge Cemetery: photo by Ebyabe

Life expectancy in these towns is twelve years less than in the rest of Florida. The richer parts of Florida have the highest life expectancy in the world after Japan. But if you live in one of these towns, you can expect a shorter lifespan than your typical inhabitant of Libya, Tunisia, the whole of South America, and the whole of Asia except Afghanistan and Burma. As long as they keep shipping the oranges to the rest of the country, that's just fine by everyone else.

Today wasn't the day for it, but some day soon I really want to drive back down US-17 and photograph what I see. Not the gussied up civic buildings you see in this post, but the endless, depressing existence of the America which the tourists never see, the politicians prefer to ignore, and the affluent don't want to think about.

Friday, June 17, 2011

In Praise Of Boobs

Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an extraordinary film. If you're an artist or an archaeology nut, go and see it on the biggest screen you can manage, in 3D. Ignore the fact that it's repetitive, and ignore most of the bits when people are talking. It's worth it just for the incredible footage of prehistoric art from 30,000 years ago.

The artistic style of these ancient painters was unexpected. Egyptian and Babylonian art, some 25,000 years later, is highly stylized, with simple outlines and profile views. These images of horses, lions, and other animals are often fully shaded, with 3/4 views.

The 3D gives you a real sense of the shape of the rocks and how the paintings flow over them, and the camera gets in so close you can see every line, from the subtle shading on a horse's mouth to the fur on a bison's shaggy mane. It's more than you'd ever see if you went there, and you'll never be allowed inside the cave anyway because the environment is so fragile. It is a quite breathtaking cinematic experience.

So why the title of this piece?

I was already familiar with the cave paintings and the prehistory, and was mostly just absorbed in the imagery rather than listening to the narration. The one thing that really struck me was this little lady, who got a mention in passing.

She's the Venus of Hohle Fels, and at around 35,000 BC, she's the oldest piece of figurative art in the world. She's less than three inches high, she was found in 2008, and she's one of the most important milestones in human history.

She was carved from a mammoth tusk at about the time Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis were jockeying for supremacy. Neanderthals, contrary to what we all believed when I grew up, were stronger and smarter than sapiens. They had bigger brains, and as far as we can tell, they had similar social organisation, similar weapons, and comparable technology. Yet the inferior sapiens - that's us - won.

So what was the difference? Well, the only thing archaeologists can point to is that Homo sapiens created art. He learned to make symbolic representations of his world. Which, apparently, paves the way for religion, stories, and a whole bunch of new forms of thinking. And just look at what the very first sculptors made - carvings of women with oversized breasts. An ancient fertility icon, or the prehistoric equivalent of Playboy? We don't know. We'll never know. But we do know that it's what made the difference between the winners and the losers in the struggle between two species for global supremacy.

So, archaeologically speaking at least, that's what makes us human. An appreciation of boobs.

Because otherwise, we'd all be Neanderthals.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


I love theories about ancient aliens and lost civilizations. I'd love to believe them. The world would be so cool if the ancient skies were filled with spaceships, and the Pyramids really were some kind of power plant or spaceport.

However, I just keep wanting to throw things at the pseudo-archaeologists whose overblown claims make it impossible to take them seriously. For example, I just watched someone talking about Pumapunku in Bolivia. It's an amazing site, including one stone weighing well over 100 tons. That's a big puzzle for archaeologists. But then the guy went on to make the following statements:

  • The edges of the blocks are so perfectly straight they look like they were cut with lasers, and they're accurate to within a couple of microns, more accurate than we could do today.
  • The designs on the blocks are cut absolutely identically, as if they had been moulded.
  • The edges are so sharp that if you touch them, you will cut your finger.
  • The blocks fit together so tightly you can't get a razor blade between them.
  • There is no sign of weathering or damage on any of the blocks, they're as pristine as the day they were cut.
So take a look at this photograph of a few blocks from Pumapunku. (Click on it and see it really big to get all the detail.)

It's immediately obvious that every one of the above statements is total and utter crap.

It's incredible work, and very precise, no doubt about it. And it's a mystery how 5th century South Americans created them. But they're simply not micron-perfect. You could touch those edges quite safely. And they're sure as hell not pristine.

If I can prove he's talking bollocks after spending fifteen seconds on Google, then no serious archaeologist is going to take any notice of him whatsoever. There are certainly anomalies to be explained, and maybe aliens did visit Earth, but I'd rather hear from people who don't make their facts up.

No shit, Sherlock!

I recently watched Sherlock, the recent BBC modern era take on the Great Detective. It was a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to the next series. One thing that bugged me, though, was that Holmes's apparently incredible deductions are so often completely fallacious. (Mind you, the same was true when Conan Doyle wrote Holmes, so nothing new there.)

Here's an example. Holmes deduces that a dead man cannot have shot himself. He has a bullet wound in his right temple. However, everything in his home suggests that he is left-handed: he places his coffee on the left of his chair, he slices his bread from the left, his pen is on the left of his notepad, and so on. Consequently, if he had shot himself, he'd have used his left hand, and the wound would be on the left of his head, ergo someone else shot him. Genius!

Well, sorry, I call bullshit.

I'm left-handed. I slice my bread to the left. I place my pen on the left. I generally drink coffee with my left hand - but frankly, I'll put my coffee whichever side of the chair is more convenient. But, Mr Smarty-Pants Holmes, I fire a gun with my right hand, as shown below. As, indeed, do many left-handers. I also play guitar and violin right-handed, shoot a bow right-handed, and use a computer mouse right-handed.

Yes, Holmes turned out to be right, but for the wrong reasons, and in spite of his faulty logic.

I so often find that Holmes writers must be like people who design IQ tests. Holmes puts forward a logical theory based on what he observes, but that doesn't mean it's the correct one. For example, he deduces that Watson has returned from Afghanistan or Iraq, based on his posture and the fact that he has a suntan on his hands, and therefore he must be a soldier who has just served in a hot climate and got wounded. Again, Holmes turns out to be right.

But Watson could equally well have been serving in Belize, or an embassy in the Far East. Or have left the service some time ago and been working in a office abroad for a few months. And he could have been injured in an accident, not necessarily a combat wound. But we don't think of those possibilities when we're watching the show, we're too busy being dazzled by Holmes's cleverness.

Yes, I know they're just stories and I should just sit back and enjoy it, but that's not the way my brain works. I keep looking for other explanations of the data and alternative hypotheses. That's why I have so many problems with the aforementioned IQ tests - I can usually think of half a dozen equally logical different answers to the same question, and it turns into a guessing game as to which one the questioner had in mind.

Q: London, Munich, Moscow, Miami. Which is the odd one out?

Well, obviously London, as it's the only one that doesn't start with M. Or Miami, as it's the only one with only five letters. Or maybe Munich, as it's the only one without a repeated vowel. No, of course, it's Miami after all, as it's the only one not in Europe. Hang on, it's got to be Moscow - that's the only one that's both a city and a river. No, dammit, it is Miami. It's the only city that was founded by a woman. And it's the only one that's also a county. And the only one that's also a tribe, and a language. And the only one with a beach.

See what I mean? Just pick one: you've got a one in four chance of being right.

That's how Holmes feels to me. He's brilliant at unerringly picking the right answer out of all the possible ones, and annoyingly, he's right even when he's totally wrong. Just like these guys figuring out where the Riddler is going to strike next.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Game of Tropes

Last week I read Game of Thrones, seeing as people are talking about it, and I have no idea when the HBO series will be coming to Netflix. A few hundred pages in, it struck me just what an unpleasant world he was describing. And it’s not just George R. R. Martin – a world based on medieval feudalism is common to the vast majority of fantasy literature. The chivalric values these worlds espouse are usually held up to be heroic, noble, and something we should aspire to. But they’re not. They’re inherently fascist, racist, and backward-looking.

Let’s just look at six common themes in fantasy literature. Sure, there are plenty of counter-examples of fantasy literature that don’t use these tropes, but there are a lot that do. I’m sure you’ll recognize them.

By the way, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not bashing Game of Thrones. It’s a good book, and I really like a lot of George R. R. Martin’s work. The Armageddon Rag is one of my favourite novels. My concern is with the underlying ideas that appear in a lot of books of this kind, and which we somehow automatically accept as “good” without necessarily thinking them through. I blame the troubadours and the pre-Raphaelites who created this perception of the world of knights in shining armour that still persists into the 21st century.

The rightful heir

Our hero seeks to regain the throne that is his by right. His family was deposed, perhaps many generations ago, so he intends to kill the usurpers and restore the true monarchy.

There is an implicit assumption here that inherited power is fundamentally right. Because our hero’s great-great-grandfather used to run the country, this gives him the right, and indeed the duty, to take charge. Don’t ask whether he’s competent. Don’t ask whether he’s the best person for the job. Just look at the genealogical tables, and that determines who should have the power.

And, furthermore, don’t ask how his family got into power in the first place. So a few generations further back still, our hero’s family conquered the kingdom and seized power? Well, that’s okay. They’re not usurpers. That was legitimate because, well, he’s the hero, right? And if anyone from those days should try and regain power for their family, they’re obviously evil rebels and should be put down, harshly.

Here’s a modern comparison. A descendent of the Duke of Thuringia, who was deposed by Napoleon in the 1780s, decides he’s the rightful heir to the throne of Germany. So he gets a group of loyal Thuringian supporters together, and plots to assassinate the President of Germany and blow up the Parliament, then set himself up as a divinely appointed dictator. By most standards, that would make him a great villain, but in a fantasy world – he’s our hero.

The family

That example leads in perfectly to the next trope, the Noble House. Everything is done out of loyalty to the House. The House is everything. The only people you can trust are members of your own House. The reason for wanting power isn’t for your own selfish ends – that wouldn’t be heroic – it’s to bring glory and honor to your House. And woe betide anyone who insults your House – they clearly have to die. Anything you do in defense of your House is justified. After all, it’s for a noble cause, right?

We have that trope in modern literature too. It’s called The Godfather. The Noble Houses of fantasy worlds are no different to Mafia families jockeying for supremacy, and dealing out death for the slightest imagined slur on their honor.

And relying on your family to do everything, and putting them in positions of power? That’s called nepotism, and it’s one of the most widespread forms of corruption. Here’s an example from Game of Thrones: one of the country’s leading generals dies, and the king replaces him with a highly experienced warrior. The dead guy’s family is insulted, because his son should have followed in his father’s footsteps (see the rightful heir trope above). But the son in question is six years old, sickly, and largely insane. Anyone with half a grain of sense could see that he’s not exactly the ideal candidate for the job, but in a fantasy world, family honor trumps common sense every time.

The pure bloodline

The bloodline is a recurring trope throughout fantasy literature. Everything about a person can be determined by their genetic background. Everyone from this country is shifty and untrustworthy. Everyone from that country is a skilled trader. Everyone from that nomad race is a cruel savage. And in order to preserve that distinction, the cultural norms of every tribe, nation and family dictate that crossing those genetic backgrounds produces half-breeds who are to be treated as outcasts.

In many places in fantasy worlds, people who aren’t of the True Blood, or foreigners, are treated like scum. They’re only fit for lower class jobs, and the city guard can mistreat them with impunity.

It makes me think of slave-owning states in the 18th and 19th century, where white people carefully graded everyone by their degree of blackness: mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, and so on, and that determined their civil rights. It’s reminiscent of eugenics programs, apartheid, or the segregation of the Jews in ghettoes. But in a fantasy world, that’s okay.

The highborn

Here’s another common trope. Our hero is the son of a blacksmith, but he’s always felt different and special. That’s because he’s really a noble. And so he regains what is rightfully his. (Because he’s the rightful heir, he’s restoring his family and the bloodline is what counts, remember.)

In most fantasy worlds, apparently, nobles really are different to ordinary people. They’re more skilled. They have better morals. They’re more intelligent. And they have a Destiny (say it in your most sonorous Christopher Lee voice, with an echo). They’re highborn, and so they deserve to have the best of everything. And if they have to kill a few people to get it, then fair enough. They’re nobles, after all.

And, by contrast, peasants are peasants, merchants are merely money-grubbers, and slaves are just slaves. And, of course, they should keep to their station in life. If they have to die in the service of the nobility, then don’t worry. They’re only commoners. In fact, if you have to start a major war to settle a dispute between nobles, then that’s fine too. The joyful populace will cheerfully line up to be slaughtered, just as long as House Hero avenges the insult from House Arrogant.

Let’s just recap one little thing in that last paragraph in case you missed it. Slavery is legal in most fantasy worlds. It’s okay for our hero to own people. Because he’s a noble, right?

The measure of a man (or woman)

Our hero has to acquire many skills, but there’s one that matters above all else. He becomes a real man when he learns to use a sword and kill people. Even women aren’t exempt from this – if she’s not a Xena-esque warrior woman, she learns how to use a weapon in secret. Again from Game of Thrones, we’re supposed to like Arya, the girl who studies swordsmanship, rather than her girly big sister Sansa, who just wants to marry a handsome prince.

Combat is everything – either in the form of vengeance or tournaments, or simply to demonstrate prowess. Rulers who aren’t warriors are usually to be despised, and it’s a matter of personal honor that our hero should regain his throne by killing the evil king himself, thus proving his fitness to rule.

In a fantasy world, violence settles everything. Tombstone and the Wild West were a model of law and order compared to most fantasy worlds. Think Somalia and you’d be about right. Everyone’s armed, and death in a bar brawl is nothing unusual. Power goes to the strongest and most ruthless, and they keep it by inflicting death on anyone who might be a threat to them. In the modern world, that’s a country in chaos. In a fantasy world, that’s how things should be.

A return to the old ways

After our hero regains the throne (at the point of a sword, naturally), he’s going to restore the Old Ways. Once again, everything will be like it was in his father’s day, or a century ago, or a few millennia ago. All you have to do is invoke that trope, and the reader knows implicitly that our hero is doing everything for the best of reasons.

In a fantasy world, there’s no such thing as progress. It was always better back in the old days. The Old Religion was right, and the country will be improved if we get rid of the false priests and put the old ones back.

When that happens in the real world, it’s scary. Margaret Thatcher once proclaimed that she stood for a return to “Victorian values” in Britain. What the Victorians stood for was actually pretty horrific: the belief that white people had the right to conquer everyone else and destroy their culture; the belief that Christians were morally superior to everyone else, and therefore had the right to treat them as they pleased; no votes for women, black people, or peasants; the entire economy and judiciary in the hands of a small hereditary elite; the workhouse for poor people; death for the most trivial offenses; sexual repression (except if you were an aristocrat, in which case you could do as you liked) and so on. Dickens wrote about social injustice for a reason – Victorian society was a far from pleasant place for the majority of people.

Further back in history, look at what happened when the Catholics and Protestants took turns bringing back the Old Ways throughout Europe. Decades of death and terror, and people burned at the stake for following the previous Old Ways. One minute you’re a loyal subject, the next you’re a dangerous heretic in fear of your life.

In the West, there are very few people who think it’s a good thing that Ayatollah Khomeini re-established the Old Ways in Iran. Though we liked it much better when the British, the French and the oil companies got rid of democracy in Iran, and brought back the Other Old Ways in the form of the Shah. And look how well that worked out for the Iranian people.

But in a fantasy world, it’s somehow different. If you bring back the Old Ways, everyone will be happy.

So that’s the world of chivalry in a typical fantasy novel. It’s a violent world ruled by warring mafia families, where your station in life is determined entirely by who your parents are, where commoners exist only for the benefit of the wealthy, and where any attempt at modernization is regarded as treason.

Monday, May 16, 2011

When technology isn't the answer

Whenever I get frustrated with technology that doesn't work as well as it should, I'm always reminded of a documentary I saw about ten or fifteen years ago about the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, the most advanced piece of military technology in the world at the time.

They had a sophisticated computer system running everything, a real novelty in the day. It handled the weapons systems, the stores, even the daily menus. It was a pretty impressive piece of software.


Downstairs in the aircraft hangar, they had a huge magnetic metal table. On it there was a painted plan of the hangar deck, complete with all the bays. They had a box of colored nuts, some red and some blue, with the serial numbers of each aircraft on it, and they simply put them in place on the table to give them an instant view of which planes were where, and which were unserviceable (red) or ready for action (blue).

At flight deck level, in aircaft dispatch, the dispatcher used a chinagraph pencil to write the number of each aircraft on the inside of the plexiglass dome as it took off, and erased it with his thumb as it landed, giving him an instant view which aircraft were in flight.

Despite all the technology, the guys who had to run the place relied on simple, manual systems, because they were easier to maintain, more reliable, and actually gave the people who needed it the information they wanted faster than computer readouts. And - though they never had to test it - more likely to continue working if the ship ever took damage.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Vanity publishing

Digital publishing is changing the industry in more ways than you might realise at first. It's not just about the economics of publishing, it's about the whole nature of what publishing is.

The other day I was reading Roz Morris's blog, Nail Your Novel. (If you're a writer, or an aspiring writer, then you really should have this on your feed. It's full of good stuff.) She was talking about self-publishing, and made this comment:

Vanity publishing is not the same as self-publishing. With vanity publishing you pay – usually a lot of money – for someone to print thousands of shoddy copies of your book and then you discover they’re not going to sell or distribute them for you. It’s usually verging on a scam. With self-publishing no money changes hands until a copy is sold (of course you may spend money on covers, editing etc, but that doesn’t usually have anything to do with the self-publishing company).

A friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) recently sold a novel to a Very Big Publisher (who shall also remain nameless). I was a little puzzled why he was so happy about it. I pointed out that he actually owns a digital publishing company, so he could have self-published. And, by his own admission, he'd probably make more money from self-publishing. That's not blind optimism, by the way. He's got several successful self-published books to his credit already, and can make a pretty fair assumption how much he'd sell if he did another.

His response was a little surprising. "It's vanity publishing, I suppose," he said. "I've got plenty of my own books on my shelf already, but it'll be nice to have one with that logo on the spine."

How's that for a total reversal? Self-publishing is where he makes money, and going to one of the biggest names in the book publishing industry is just a vanity project.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A request

Dear people of the world,

I have a small request to make of you all.

If we have an appointment, and you can't make it or you're going to be late, please let me know, preferably ahead of time. If this appointment involves me going somewhere to meet you, ideally, let me know early enough that I'm not going to make a journey for no reason.

On a similar note, if you've promised to do something for me by a certain time and you're not going to be able to do it, I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me, rather than just leave me wondering what's going on. It'd make my life so much easier.


Love, me.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


I've been musing for a while about the cost of digital books. Typically, they're about 25% cheaper than paper. Although it's nice to see a cheaper alternative, that's a pretty outrageous price when you analyse it. In some cases, the Kindle versions are actually more expensive (the Kindle version of Game of Thrones costs $8.99, but the paperback is only $7.59, or $5.03 if you want the mass market paperback) and there's no justification for that pricing at all.

As a general rule, 35% of the cost of the book is for printing and paper. Then there's 5% to cover distribution (to the retailer, not the customer). The retailer takes about 30%, which pays for his staff and shelf space. None of those costs apply for a digital book, apart from a minuscule amount for listing it on a web site. So you could cut the cost of a book by 70% and make the same profit.

I've seen it argued in several places that you could reduce the cost of a digital book to a flat fee of $1.99 and you'd still have a viable business. Probably, from the publisher's (and author's) point of view, a more viable business, as people would buy more books at that price. What's more, since you don't have to worry about print runs, overstocks and remainders, you can publish more niche books and expand your inventory. You can't do that right now, because of the fees Amazon and the like charge, but let's assume for the next few minutes that it could be done.

Then what I'd like to see is this.

I pay $20 a month, and can download as many books as I want. Absolutely unlimited. But here's the catch. If I stop paying my membership, those books are no longer available to me. It works just like Netflix or Lovefilm. I can get whatever I want, whenever I want it, as long as I'm a member.

Practically, I can only read a book a day, and that's pushing it. More realistically, I might get through 15-20 books a month. So even if I download hundreds or thousands of books in one month (equivalent to loading my Netflix queue with hundreds of movies), I won't be able to read them all for $20. It'll take me all year. So I'm not paying for the actual downloads, I'm paying to read.

Sure, this isn't the same as owning them. If I stop paying my monthly sub, I "lose" all those books I've "bought". That's true, but frankly, I don't want to re-read 99% of the books I read. So maybe the system could allow me to keep any book I like for an extra $1. It's just like using a library (which I do, much more than buying books anyway), except that I can take out as much as I like, I don't have to go there, there are no late fees or due dates, I don't have to worry about whether they've got the book in stock or how many copies they have, and I pay for it directly instead of through my taxes.

In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that one day, I'll be able to get a single media subscription covering books, movies, games and music. Pay a flat monthly fee, and read, watch, play or listen to anything I like, when I like, where I like. I'd sign up for that in an instant. Wouldn't you?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Last week I tried an experiment. Instead of posting bits and pieces on Facebook as I encountered them, I compiled everything into a single daily blog post which appeared first on the Web, and then on Facebook as a note. It was a deliberate attempt to reduce the number of FB posts I make: I know I post a lot, but that’s because I keep stumbling over all sorts of interesting things. The journalist inside me wants to share them with you, but I’m wary of bombarding people with stuff they don’t want to read. I also wanted to try writing slightly longer pieces, but not as long as the short essays I usually put on my blog.

The blog experiment revealed several interesting things.

· The number of comments and likes dropped off almost to nothing. Most of my posts get some reaction. The blog posts, which typically contained 10-15 items, got almost no response. I suspect this is due to the following reasons:

  • Most people simply don’t read the longer posts. They’re not good to read on a phone, for example and they demand a lot more commitment than short 240-character posts. It’s also really easy to skim through your Facebook feed and see what looks interesting, whereas this is much harder with a blog. No readers = no reaction. Simple.
  • The layout Facebook gives to links is actually very effective: a short summary, an obvious thing to click on to see the item (and you can view videos right in the post without leaving the page, and an easy mechanism to make a comment or like a post, again, without leaving the page. In a blog, it's much less obvious whether you're going to like what you get, and you actually have to look for the link, so people don't click through as much.
  • It’s much easier to react to a single post than to a long post. It’s clear what you’re reacting to, rather than having to explain in your comments which bit you mean. If I post about three films I've seen, it's so easy to click "Like" on the one where you agree with my comment, rather than write a comment saying "Yeah, I didn't think much of BLAH movie either."

· Blogging is hard work. It would typically take me an hour at the end of the day to write up one of those posts with all the URLs I’d saved, add in all the links, find images, and so on. Clicking “share this” is so much easier. Click the button, add a quick comment, and get back to what I was doing. It takes less than a minute.

So, in other words, compared to Facebooking, blogging is more work for me, and is less effective at communicating this kind of information to you. Sure, blogs are great for longer pieces like this, where you need to hold someone’s attention for a few minutes, but that’s not what Facebook’s for.

What we seem to have created is a smorgasbord of what I've taken to calling "infosnacks": tiny morsels of assorted information that we can help ourselves to all day long every time we fancy a little nibble. There’s an endless supply of it out there, and we can survive on it quite happily.

You could argue that a non-stop diet of infosnacks is bad for us, and initially, that was how I felt. Surely spending time reading proper, well-written articles has to be somehow “better” than lots of stupid little postings.

On reflection, though, I’d have to disagree. Infosnacks are a fine metaphor, but it’s not the same as subsisting on a diet of chips and chocolate. There's no requirement that our daily information intake has to be limited, or contain certain vitamins. And infosnacks aren't all we consume anyway. We can, on occasion, easily find ourselves drawn to sampling more weighty, nutritious fare: someone posts a small taster, we follow it up, and next thing we know we’re reading an informative article about something quite in depth.

It all depends who your friends are. It’s more like a conversation, where people are quite happy to contribute a few sentences here and there, rather than a debating society where everyone takes turns to hold the floor for half an hour and make a speech. And because it’s so easy to post, you may find that your friends post some quite surprising and interesting things, which actually makes for a pretty damn good conversation.

So, it’s back to Facebook posts for the little things, and blogs for longer, more complex thoughts that won’t fit into 240 characters.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Stuff'n'nonsense #7

No blog yesterday. Did you miss me?
  • OK, movies. Watched two documentaries, Food, Inc and Urban Explorers. Food, Inc didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know, but seeing it on screen really turned me off eating a lot of what's in the supermarkets. Urban Explorers was interesting, but could have done with being half an hour shorter. Still, well worth watching just for the pretty images of abandoned places. I just wanted to know who the hell simply walks away from a fully furnished castle and leaves it to rot?
  • Here's one I may or may not see when it reaches Netflix. Atlas Shrugged could be fascinating, or could have me throwing things at the screen. This review intrigues me: A Movie This Demented Should Be Against The Law. I have to admit, I've tried to read it and failed. And Ayn Rand's philosophy pisses me off. But I'm prepared to give the movie a shot.
  • Game footage is getting more and more like movies. Check out this latest Unreal demo. And remember, this is real-time in-game footage. This is not a cut-scene. This is not pre-rendered. This is gameplay.
    And while your jaw hits the floor, I'll just tell you that this is taking not one, not two, but three top of the range custom nVidia graphics cards to run it. So don't expect it to work on your laptop. Don't even expect it to work on your current generation super-duper video production PC. Figure on getting a whole new machine when this comes out in two years.

  • I spent much of yesterday browsing Wonderland, a hugely entertaining blog that talks about games of all sorts. What initially caught my eye was this glorious Lego steampunk TIE Fighter. Neat, huh?

  • Also from Wonderland, an excellent post on social mechanisms in games, based on a superb talk by Raph Koster, who I should follow more closely than I do. He "explained how societies work, how humans work, and how we interact as beings with each other, described as social mechanics and how they could be applied (and are sometimes applied) in social games. [Here's] his list of the 40 essential social mechanics that have ever existed, in order that game designers need never have to reinvent them again." Bloody brilliant stuff.
  • ExtinctIt's a damn shame I missed the Muppet Art Show last night. Woulda liked to see that, and it looked like people had a lot of fun.
  • Damn shame I missed the hillbilly burlesque last night too. Looking forward to the next Kitschy Kittens show.

I'm still wondering whether to continue with this long blog format. It doesn't generate anything like the responses I used to get with FB posts, and it doesn't feel like many people are actually reading these. I'm seriously considering whether to revert to just sharing things on FB or take a vow of social media silence and focus on writing proper stuff.

Last week I had to do some research into Twitter, and came up with some depressing facts.
  • The average person on Twitter gets 2700 messages a day. A year ago, it was 400, and I thought that was a lot. Math: if it takes 5 seconds to read a tweet, it would take 3 hrs 45 minutes a day to read your Twitter feed.
  • Most people log in once a day, and only read their direct messages, @messages, and whatever's been posted in the last 10-15 minutes. Math: most people only read 1% of their feed. In other words, if you post something on Twitter, there's a 99% chance that a given one of your followers won't see it.
  • Click-through rates on Twitter links have dropped from 38% a year ago to 14% now. So given that hardly anyone is going to read your tweet, the number of people who will actually click on a link is near enough non-existent (o.14%). Math: if you have 500 followers, then maybe ONE of them will actually click through.
  • Retweet rates have dropped from 25% in 2009 to 17% in 2010 and 11% now. Math: if you have 500 followers, maybe ONE will RT your post. And if he has 500 followers, maybe one will click through and/or RT it.
In other words, it's Babel out there. Everyone's talking, nobody's listening. It's not a conversation any more. It's no longer a viral way of spreading information as transmission rates are so poor. It's just noise, pretty much drowning out all the signal, and the only response people have is to turn up the noise. In December, I wondered what Twitter was for. Now, I'm none the wiser.

Well, that's not quite true. I am. In December, I had a hunch that Twitter was becoming useless. Now, I have the stats to prove my hunch.