Thursday, February 25, 2010


I've been planning on moving away from Blogger for a while now...the time has come.

The theme support and customization blows, the UI is clunky and doesn't much like Firefox, and, on top of it, Google (Blogspot owner) has started shutting down user blogs with no recourse and no deliberation for "content violations" (even though some of the so-called violators had explicit permission from the rights owners).

That all said, I am very happy to announce that I am moving to:

My new permanent home on the intermawebs.

(Remember: the "d" in the middle stands for "Don't forget the "d" in the middle, because is owned by a gay porn distributor")

I hope you all will stop by and update your bookmarks and RSS on the new site is always welcome!

And...stay tuned, I will likely be holding a contest soon to get some new folks to visit.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

I am a Part of the Writing Continuum

I wish I was a better artist.

I wish I woke up in the morning to find that my pillow was coated in colorful, fantastic dream-spill that had leaked out of my ear in the night, and that I could strip off the pillowcase and ring the nectar out onto my desk and transcribe what I saw into what would eventually become a brilliant book.

I really do. Writing is hard.

Writing borders on art, but in many ways literature--at least scribblings that can be sold at a reasonable return--is as much technical and business venture as it is the creation of something new and interesting. If you want to sell a book in the standard model (and, in many ways, in any model), it has to fit readers' expectations for what a book should be; or, at least, be palatable to enough people to make it worth your time to do it. And, as with most media, the business part tends to squeeze the artsiness out of the work to appeal to a wider audience.

Robert Swartwood linked to a great article a while back where the NYT followed James Patterson around for a day to see what the life of a hated-and-vaunted bestseller-machine looks like from the inside. It's pretty much what you would expect: he writes a lot (longhand, and has someone transcribe), he plans new books, he farms out work to co-authors, and he works on his breast stroke in a swimming pool full of fifty dollar bills and Scores Girls (note: that last part is probably a lie on my part).

He says one of the things he learned--and one of the reasons he is successful--is that people don't want colorful writing or deep meaning in airport books; they want formulaic plots and familiar characters and books of a uniform size and density. It made him rich, and single-handedly saved his publishing house from the brink.

Another example: I just read an article in Esquire talking about a company working on the technology to do near-real-time focus groups on dailies (the raw edits of a day's worth of shooting in a movie that the director reviews at day's end) wherein the dailies would be shown to a group of people whose neural reactions would be monitored and correlated to the on-screen action, and a report would be given to the director telling him what turns us on and what doesn't. The net result: if you think Hollywood puts out formulaic assbombs now, wait until they can keep your brain's "on" button pressed for 2 hours straight with explosions and boobies and car chases, with nary a plot in sight.

Which loops back around to the question: is it more important for literature to be commercially viable or personally fulfilling for the writer? (Assuming that it can't always be both). Who is "right": the kid writing emo poetry on the sleeve of his jacket and the guy posting Avatar fanfic to his blog, or is it James Patterson and his ilk? Should it be business or art? If it's all business, will the art die? If it's all art, will it kill the industry?

I go back and forth on this almost daily--especially on my current novel attempt, which is probably a mixed bag of fancy wordplay and purple-ness mixed in with some chase scenes and some hand-holding under the sunset. I worry constantly that I'm writing it for me, and not to be sold.

But, ultimately, I don't think I care. I think that I can create what I want--and what I want is to make a living as a writer, telling stories that I enjoy--and I can call it art if I want to. If it sells, great. If it doesn't, hey, I tried. And I'll keep trying, probably until I am physically or mentally unable to. As I get older, I feel more strongly about art being there for it's own sake--and I don't feel the need to qualify art based on success, or even necessarily the intentions of the artist.

Sure would be nice to only have one job, though.

Anyway, here are some thoughts on art from Amanda Palmer. Even if  you have issues with ukulele music, the lyrics are pretty much how I feel about art at this point in my life. In her song, GaGa is James Patterson, but it's the same result: art is still art. As I type this, it seems like I may have posted this before, but the message remains: call it a masterpiece, call it a urinal...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

An Essay on Shifting Power Centers (pack a lunch!)

(In which our blogger pretends to be an economist and writes a long-ass essay providing big-picture, historic context on what the changing economy means to writers, musicians, and other artists.)

Part I: The Decentralization of Power

The Power of Coordination

Centralized power is corollary to the human condition. You don't need to spend more than a few seconds thinking about the large- and small-scale evidence in the world: there are no nations without governments, no lasting groups without leadership, little action without common direction.

We are tribal; during one of the most recent ice ages, the human race was decimated, and, arguably, rugged individualism and self-efficacy only got one so far when food was scarce and survival--breeding, hunting, gathering--took more energy than a body could produce on their own. It took a village, literally, to raise a child. Scattered, uncoordinated peoples died, and those with common goals and direction passed on their genes to us.

Hence our natural propensity to join, to socialize, to form cities where we can be close to each other and erect buildings in those cities to bring us closer still, and leaders within those structures to keep us moving in a common direction. Nobody questions why the workplace needs a boss, or why the church needs a patriarch. It just feels right.

Fast forward a few dozen thousand years, and we have moved several notches higher on Maslow's Hierarchy; and, no longer primarily concerned with the daily drudge of staying alive, we are now free to focus on more complex social dances like art and scientific inquiry and self-actualization.

And power.

The natural progression always moves toward power. When we have abundance, we share with those who would share with us; when there are subsidies, we barter; when there is scarcity, we horde. Again, it's what comes naturally to us.

The Tipping Point

The propensity in the post-survival model seems to be to start as individual contributors bartering what they have--farmers/food, craftsmen/goods, laborers/labor, soldiers/fighting/defending--but always seems to move toward top-heavy supplier models.

For example: a ten hectare plot, split evenly between ten farmers. Each grows a unique food, and they trade amongst each other. They have more balanced diets, healthier children, longer lives than if they would if did not trade. One farmer is bought out by (or taken over by) a neighbor, who then has two hectare and, presumably, more bartering power to buy out the other eight or possibly hire people to move them out and take the land for him. After many years of dealmaking, he owns the entire plot, and he keeps on the original nine farmers as serfs who work the land for the landlord, who now sits on his ass in a large house situated on an eleventh plot down the way; the serfs are given a pittance of food for their labor--just enough to survive, not enough to barter. They are doing the same work, but for less benefit, while the excess benefit now rolls uphill to pay for the landlord's new, opulent lifestyle.

(This is not a tear on capitalism, mind you; on the contrary, the only way to keep the farmers from consolidating and creating power hierarchies would be to have someone with a bigger stick--the state, the church--to intervene. The problem there is that there is always ulterior motive by any party involved--power, by and large--and anyone with the power to control the landlord will want their toke at the end of the day as well. We're better off with the landlord.)

The landlord's tower of control gets higher and higher as he amasses more land and more serfs; he becomes a Lord or a King, and levies taxes on the already-poor serfs working his land. Eventually, the serfs are fed up, and they rise together to reset the board in their collective favor--storming the Bastille, declaring sovereignty from a monarch, staging a paramilitary coup, etc.

History is riddled with examples. The towers fall, but only temporarily. The pieces are collected by those below who will, inevitably, begin making towers of their own. It's a repeating cycle, and it's been in motion probably since the first agrarians made plow blades from ox ribs and increased their productivity, thus moving from sustenance to a business model. Technology, as a rule, seems to drive the downward-and-outward power shift.

Which brings us to the age of computers and worldwide connectivity. If you make your living (or want to make your living) creating goods in the age of new media--music, art, technology, literature--it's important that you understand that we are in that last stage: the towers are crumbling, and it's up to us to pick up the pieces and build our own fortifications. This is part of the ongoing cycle of production, the part we can call the renaissance of decentralization; and our window of opportunity is finite.

Part II: The Power of Decentralization

Beating Our Ploughshares into Cisco Routers

The cycle continues because new technology is, by-and-large, uncontrolled. The King's smithy may have figured out how to forge swords from steel, but that doesn't stop the peasants from figuring it out and arming themselves to the teeth. The internet may have been developed by DARPA, but once students and hobbyists got their hands on it, the playing field got horizontal faster than Tiger Woods at the Playboy Mansion West.

But, for the most part, innovation does not come from the top down. It comes from us, and it belongs to us.

That's the power; that's the magic. From a technology standpoint, we are a million monkeys whacking away at typewriters, and every now and again, one of us will inevitably come up with something brilliant, simply because we've been given the opportunity to do so. The tools to do great things are out there for us to use, as long as we continue to have the ability to use them freely.

Again, narrowing our focus to creators of art--literature, music, graphics, etc--we know our markets. We can look around and see who lives in the tallest towers, who controls the environment and dams the flow of information and resources in their own favor. We talk smack about them every time they do something that bolsters the power structure, even if they are the ones we rely on for our bread and wine rations.

The Queen is Dead, Long Live the Queen

Amazon and Walmart sell Stephen King's new book for one third of the market value, and authors rage. Amazon presses for price fixes for e-books, and publishers revolt. Publishers insist on higher prices for print and electronic books, and consumers slam their wallets shut.

Online news outlets begin to charge for content, and the world collectively balks.

Apple sells music with digital locks, and music buyers move their business to alternative suppliers. Independent musicians find that they can't sell their music on iTunes without an aggregator (like a large label), and that their sales figures aren't actually counted by Nielsen/Soundscan and they, therefore, aren't legitimate artists in the eyes of the industry. After the LiveNation/Ticketmaster merger, the number of venues to see reasonably priced music drops significantly.

Artists like Amanda Palmer and Trent Reznor opt out of the music label system completely, because they have come to realize that although they are giving up the rights to their own work to provide revenue the labels that "support them", they aren't really making much money for their life's work after the piper has been paid.

Once-friendly outlets for user-controlled media like YouTube begin to lock down/out content that does not meet their standards for profitability.

Music and book publishers put more of their resources toward a much smaller stable of dependable, albeit generic and crowd-pleasing, talent.

And in all of this turmoil and finger-pointing, there isn't a single bad guy to be found. These are free market dynamics, nothing more, nothing less. And, just as importantly, these are early indications of top-heavy towers swaying in the wind.

Will they fall? Will there be people below to pick up the pieces, and put the recovered resources to use for their own good?

I don't know for sure. Nobody does. It probably will happen, in one fashion or another. If you consider that many of the public moves we see from these tower masters are defensive, finding ways to divert more resources away from customers (fair use rights for "purchased" media, higher prices) and suppliers (smaller payouts for work, fewer opportunities), it really does seem inevitable, and it seems near. It does not seem sustainable that you can treat everyone in your supply chain poorly and continue to survive.

Sooner or later, the peasants will rise up and topple the throne, loot the treasury, and find their own way to make a living. The result will be an inversion of the power structure, a disaggregation of resources away from middle-men and back to content producers. The crown deposed, the farmers reclaim their plot of land and sow their seeds. And the cycle begins anew.

The Survivors

This essay wasn't intended as a history lesson, nor a primer on market economics. Zeus knows, I 'm not an expert in either. I'm just a schlemiel trying to break into the glamorous and exciting world of literature.

And, to the best of my limited ability to read market trends, I'm trying to provide context for what is likely to happen next (and, arguably, what is already happening).

Resources are finite, as we saw in the farmer example above. It takes resources to create products, and it takes resources to sell products, and it takes resources to acquire products. If some--or a lot--of the resources are being used to sustain the machine that gets your product from the workshop to the street, the opportunity is upon you to reclaim some of those resources and put them to work for you in a way that they are not being used now. The game-changer, the lever that will allow you to move the Earth, is cheap computers and fast, affordable internet access.

You can make it work for you as long as you are willing to reframe your idea of what it means to produce successfully.

Are you willing to sell a thousand song downloads at $.80 profit apiece instead of ten thousand at $.08, knowing that you won't have someone helping you beat the street, placing ads, coordinating, selling, managing your website, and bookkeeping for you, and that it is highly unlikely that you'll ever be as big as GaGa or Muse?

Can you deal with making the same net income from a print-on-demand book that you had to pay someone to edit, has no ISBN and features cover art from as you would from a book that your publisher edited, your agent managed the contract for, and some PR team in Manhattan is actively shilling for you? Maybe a book that doesn't come in physical form at all?

If you can handle that reality, then this may work for you. But if you really like having people in ivory towers doing the work for you while you sit around hoping that your big break is just around the corner, knowing that you can't settle for moderate income with fewer sales and more work--well, you probably have good reason to be stressed about the new economy. Sorry.

Everyone else, keep looking up. These are exciting times the likes of which we may never see again. If you can't stomach the way it's being done now, this is your chance to find another way.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Burn the land and boil the sea...

I'm mad at Fox.

Not Fox Movies (nèe 20th Century Fox) for releasing Marley and Me and making me pretend that I wasn't crying on an airplane full of people flying over the Pacific Ocean last year. Not even for letting George Lucas make Phantom Menace. Rupert Murdoch backing Avatar made those offenses forgivable.

Not FoxNews for flapping their arms around like rabid ospreys, shouting above the surrounding din of mass media sound bites and reality TV and talking heads "Hey, look over here! We have Crispy Cremes at our booth! Hey!!" Everyone on TV does it, it's hard to fault them exclusively for playing along. Mostly. Heaven forfend that they should be the classy ones at the dinner table.

Not even their cable network FX, who had the gall to produce what I understand is some pretty quality stuff like Rescue Me and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but not appearing anywhere on the stupid satellite service that I inexplicably pay $60 a month for.
No, I'm mad at the broadcast network arm, simply known as Fox, as in "sly as a". Well, those sly bastards did me a disservice, and it wouldn't come to my attention for another five years (give or take).

I'm not a big TV watcher. We will typically pick up Mythbusters, Man vs Wild, and 30 Rock, but that's about it. My wife likes Craig Furgeson and I'll watch it if I happen to be on the couch, too lazy to move. But, for the most part, we are Netflix junkies.

So, it came to pass a month or so ago that I was browsing Netflix, and came across a 2004 TV series called Firefly. The blurb sounded interesting: 500 years in the future, transport ship, dangerous fringes of space...sounds good. I threw it in the queue, and put the 2006 movie Serenity in my Watch It Now queue, assuming that, based the release dates, I should wait on the movie until I'd seen the series. My expectations were middling, at best (the last sci fi TV show I was really into was the original Battlestar Galactica, although I tried my best to love Star Trek TNG and Enterprise, but the relationship never got past hand-holding and a few flirtatious pecks on the cheek).

I was very impressed with both Firefly and Serenity. Although the whole space cowboy-thing seemed a bit over the top at first, it is completely forgivable as an artistic hook. Joss Whedon, the creator, did a fantastic job of creating a world that is instantly immersive--even believably so--and rich, and deep, and addictive.

The characters are likable and memorable, even so much as some of them are unlikable and maybe even detestable. The captain is about as charismatic a leader as you could write (and I think that has as much to do with the actor Nathan Fillion as it does Whedon's spellcasting), his pilot Wash is a scene-stealer, and the rest of the cast tie the crew together nicely. It's exciting and dark and very entertaining.

Also: catchiest theme song ever.

If you are a Firefly fan but have only seen it broadcast, it may be well worth it to pick up the DVD/BluRay. It has two episodes that, I understand, did not air on Fox: the pilot, "Serenity", split into two segments. Having not watched the show on-air, I think it would be confusing to watch the series not having seen the pilot first.

Anyway, back to my hate-filled thesis: Firefly apparently wasn't making money, and Fox killed it after one season--fifteen episodes, if you count the pilot. I know, Fox isn't a charity, they need to play to the revenue base, blah blah blah. I know that. It just really blows to learn that something that awesome existed for a short time, but was killed off in its prime. Whedon was fortunate enough to get funding for the movie Serenity, which brought the final plot lines that were intended for later seasons of the TV show together (primarily the Reavar storyline which never got a fair shake in season 1), gave viewers closure, and closed in an open-ended but heartbreaking conclusion that put a nice period on the tale.

I'm glad I found it, but it's almost kind of sad. Firefly is one of those discoveries that you make that you wish you could re-discover over and over, like when I first picked up Nirvana's Nevermind on a whim, or realized that a Jägermeister and Redbull was a great way to start the day (kidding, kidding...Redbull makes me crash in the afternoon).

So if you haven't seen it, go see it. If you have seen it, well, see it again. One of these days I'll pine so hard for it that I'm sure I'll buy the Bluray set. I may even check out some of Whedon's other work; but, in keeping with my slow-ass TV timeline, I'll probably need to wait another four or five years until they've been canceled and forgotten by all but his biggest fans.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Some Credit Card Miscellany

Earlier today, I got a phone call from the local po-po; a Detective told me that a few months ago, my credit card was skimmed by a waiter at a well-known steakhouse chain. Yeah, bummer. Luckily, he didn't use it yet (that we know of), but apparently he was working with another guy to clone the cards and run them for cash advances, prepaid cards, etc.

I know a little bit about credit cards. I've been in the payments processing industry for close to twelve years, and have had at least some exposure to pretty much every facet of the industry--card issuing,  downstream processing, fraud and security, chargebacks, etc. It's a constantly-shifting, complex, layered world, and understanding the rules is extremely difficult. I don't talk about that much here because, well, it has nothing to do with my writing hobby and, frankly, my company can be a bit uptight about employees discussing shop publicly. That said, a lot of what I know--and can share--is publicly available, and can be helpful to people like you (yes, you), who have not spent a decade learning the inner workings of credit card processing but do like to whip out the plastic now and again.

(Note: I work on the processing side; I'm not an expert in issuing, which means that I can't tell you how to best reduce your rate, how to defer your payments, explain why your issuer just raised your rate, which cards are best, or anything to do with credit scores...I work exclusively with companies for processing.)

Without further ado, a top-of-mind, non-exhaustive laundry list of things that may be helpful for a card user or someone who accepts cards.

  • If you are nervous about using your card online, get over it--it's just as safe as in person transactions. But, just like any business transaction, know who you're dealing with. If you are typing your credit card number into a website with a dubious domain name or odd website, be wary. If you don't know who you're dealing with, go somewhere that you do,, etc. Your card is far more likely to get stolen by an employee than from a hacker.
  • For in-person transactions, try to keep your eye on your card as long as you can; and, although it's not always feasible, consider only going places where the card is swiped at the counter or at the table--somewhere where you can always see the plastic. Cards have two important sets of data: the account info (number, expiration, CVV code) and the data on the magnetic stripe. The latter is far more dangerous--with a card number, someone can run a few transactions online or over the phone, but it's going to take time for the merchandise to arrive, and the thief has to provide a physical address for goods. Magstripe data, however, enables the thief to create new cards that can be used in-person for purchases, cash advances, pre-paid cards, etc. To get that data, however, the card has to be swiped, typically in a small, handheld device called a skimmer. Know where your plastic is, and your risk is much lower.
  • Another aspect of skimming is ATM fraud. If the slot on the ATM machine that you're about to slip your card into looks exceptionally bulky or unusual, beware. There are a host of fake card acceptors and ATM faceplates that will not only skim your magstripe, but have a small camera to record you pressing the PIN number. Another clue: these transactions will often fail (card not read, try again later, etc).
  • In most cases, merchants are not allowed to add surcharges to credit card transactions (PIN-based debit is a different story). This is less a fraud issue as it is merchants taking advantage of consumers not having read the 1,000+ pages of Visa/Mastercard operating regulations. If they want to add $.50 to your card bill for buying a beanie baby at that mall kiosk, dispute it. If they insist, you can walk away, or you can accept the charge and fight it later with Visa/Mastercard or your local attorney general. Also, although I'm having trouble finding the regulation number, it has historically been prohibited to set minimum purchase amounts for cards.
  • Fighting a disputed charge can be a chore. Although it doesn't always work out that way, chargeback rules are stacked more on the consumer side than the merchant side. But, just like with insurance adjusters, if they have to back out charges and refund your money, the issuer and acquirer stand to lose money--so do your homework. Call your issuer right away, get names, document everything. Follow up. Send letters. Get manager names. Read the above-linked dispute regulations. Build a strong case.
I could go on for days...there is a lot of info out there. Again, this is all publicly available information, and only a few of the aspects of cards and fraud. Fraud is rare, but it does happen, and some of these points may help.

And, I would be more than happy to take questions in the comments. Hit me.