Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The 2009 book onslaught

Cover of "Toast"Cover of Toast

My time is grandly overcommitted these days, so it is with extraordinary stupidity that I steal a New Year's resolution from my colleague and friend Michelle and foreswear to read 25 books in 2009. It's pretty crazy, since I'll be working three jobs this year (at least) and I'm also vowing to get at least one short story published in one of the Big Three sci-fi magazines (to say nothing of plans to lose 20 pounds, attend the Final Four, get back into shape, buy a new house, plus all the commitments native to being a decent friend, husband, father, and professional). But those are insanities for later discussion, as we've got books to showcase, beginning with...

Jay's Wonderous Christmas Book Haul:
This, of course, ignores the stack of unreads dating back to last year (or earlier) that I intend to wade through:
And, naturally, I can't start on any of those yet, because my sci-fi book club is reading Vellum by Hal Duncan in January and, since I helped pitch the book to the group, it only seems fair to read it. I had to hurry up and finish Saturn's Children, also by Stross, to clear room for it, which means I won't get to count Saturn's Children towards my '09 total. Also, since Northlanders and Ex Machina are graphic novels that took me about 60-90 minutes to read, I'm not counting them, either. Plus, I've read them already because they are awesome.

I expect paper cuts, sleepless nights, and abject self-loathing by mid-September when I'm hopelessly behind on most of my goals. But until then, bibliophilia awaits.
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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Why I'm not a professional novelist

Hemingway posing for a dust jacket photo by Ll...Image via Wikipedia

There are three reasons, actually. The first is my glaring lack of talent, though I can name probably fifty professional authors that haven't let that stop them.

The second is the appalling rate of pay. While I dream of making John Scalzi money, I'd almost certainly make something below Justine Larbalestier money--and that's no knock on Mrs. L. She is teh awesome, but clearly under-appreciated and underfunded. As are most novelists. That's why most writers have day jobs.

But the main reason Im not a professional novelist is that, to do what Charles Stross does, I'd have to average an output of 1000 words per day. And that's finished work, mind you, discounting edits, rewrites, and those days when you merely manage to vomit something onto the page which deserves nothing less that complete and total abandonment, if not outright exorcism from the memory of the universe. Oh, and if one were to get sick or take a vacation, those thousand finished words would needs be made up on another day, skewing the workday average.

I'm not sure I speak 1000 words per day--certainly not 1000 usefully repeatable words--let alone could average such an output in written form. This is why I do about 6 billion other things besides write: partly because I'm better at them than writing; partly because they pay more. But mostly because it's an output I can sustain.

More's the pity.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

On naming your company...

So, whilst trying to come up with a name for a company I'm forming, my impending partners and I momentarily considered billing ourselves as The Justice League of Social Media. We thought better of it, of course, not because it was too nerdy--the nerdy was a plus in our book--but because it was a serious case of hyperbole.

I mean, the Justice League of Social Media would have to include, like, Clay Shirky and Chris Brogan. The league is the best of the best in the DC Comics universe, boasting Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman on the roster. We're way further down the super-hero food chain. We're, like, the Doom Patrol of Social Media. (Dibs on Robotman!)

For what it's worth, we settled on Third Space Media as our name. This superkeen Wikipedia article explains why.

Details to follow, but for now, suffice it to say interesting times are ahead.

Video: The ultimate inspirational movie speech

The Written Weird has been quiet for a couple of weeks, mostly because the startup that comprises my day job is shutting down. Not to worry, contingency plans are afoot, and I expect I'll be in great shape 90 days from now. During the lean times, I might even have time to blog more. (Whoa! Crazy talk!)

In the interim, I leave you with this ingeniously amalgamated inspirational message from Overthinking It, which hacks together over 40 famous movie speeches into two minutes of pure awesome. It well bespeaks where my head is at.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Reverse Radiohead: The perfect Web 2.0 magazine...only better

Digitage Web 2.0Image by ocean.flynn via Flickr

Okay, so, with a deft assist from the sterling crew at SFSignal, my proposal for a Web 2.0 sci-fi magazine got worked over by some really smart folks: Lou Anders, Gabriel "SF Gospel" Mckee, Alex Irvine, Ian "SF Scope" Strock, Pete Tzinski, and Alan Baxter, among a few others.

The criticisms I received--and none were mean-spirited--helped me refine the business model I was proposing, and (hopefully) come up with something better. The advantage is that the new magazine concept is less a departure from traditional magazines than the first one. Here's how it breaks down:

Establish an editorial staff that accepts completed, queried stories from authors. Select from those stories the most promising and entertaining queries, and write a compelling synopsis of the work. Using a top-of-market word rate, place a "price" on each selected story. List the synopsis and the price on the magazine Web site, along with a Paypal account and a 30-day deadline. Readers can donate as much or as little as they wish to get the story published, but if at the end of the 30 days the minimum commission is not met, all donations revert to the readers, and the author is free to query the story elsewhere. If the commission is met by the deadline, the story appears online and is thereafter free to the reader, as is the expectation of most online content.

I've called this model a Reverse Radiohead, a slight variation on the ransom model used by other publishers.

The magazine makes money by earning 15 percent of all story commissions (this would be factored into the word-rate price). Authors get a top-market word rate--equivalent to novel work, if not better--and faster query turnarounds than most print mags can offer. Readers get a direct voice in what the magazine publishes, and they can vote with their pocketbooks.

As I said before, this readily complies with the 90-9-1 rule of online participation. The heavily invested one percent of your audience pays the freight of the 90 percent that just want to read stuff for free. I'd also extend the long tail value of the magazine catalogue by allowing readers to voluntarily donate to the author of a favorite story even after the minimum commission is met (the magazine would keep its standard 15 percent). This also gives authors an incentive not only to prefer this magazine, but to keep promoting readership on the site well beyond initial publication--because it could earn them money. It's like a radio/TV royalty check, only on the honor system.

As I mentioned in my initial pitch, I'd build in all the banners/buttons/badges necessary for fans and authors to promote a story and/or the magazine on their own sites (and Facebook, and Twitter, etc.), perhaps even donating directly through there.

Further extending the long tail, I'd co-opt some equivalent of Anthology Builder, so that readers can design and buy a customized print-on-demand physical version of the magazine, which would again pay a direct royalty percentage back to the authors (and the magazine). This brings in all the "I don't read off screens folks" but frees the magazine from all the print hassles.

Finally, since such a system will (like all systems, only moreso) favor established authors, the magazine will underwrite the word rate of at least one "newcomer" author each month, so as to encourage a flourishing of new talent into the writing fraternity.

Granted, all of this assumes you can build enough buy-in and buzz from authors and readers to get the system jump-started, and it still relies on on having a competent editorial staff to screen out the dregs and the trademark-violating fan-fic from amongst the submissions. But I think this magazine model can work because it exploits some of the central advantages that online mags have over conventional print. First, there is no printing and distribution overhead, since no physical magazine is printed (save on-demand, which is self-sustaining). This is a cost center that cripples most magazines, and we can take it right off the bottom line.

But in addition to having no physical product, the "ransom magazine" will have no physical constraints. Plenty of authors have written really great stories that have been turned down by print mags simply because the publication didn't have enough physical space to accommodate the work. An online magazine that doesn't have a set physical layout doesn't have this constraint. Even the online mags in publication today have a rather constrictive limit, simply because they either offer a PDF-printable version, which falls into the same layout trap; because they require their editors to make the final publication call, which is constrained by the time and bandwidth available to the staff; or because they have to pay for the stories on spec, which limits their publication to the number of words buyable with their cash on hand.

By offloading the cost and choice of publication directly to the readership, the magazine could theoretically pay more for stories and still offer a greater number of stories than any print competitor. Moreover, a ransom magazine could have very clear measurement of what stories, subjects and authors get the most readers and the most profit, giving them a decided business intelligence advantage over print magazines. That constantly overworked editorial staff could make smarter decisions faster by knowing what has sold in the past. And beyond the sale, what has been most read, and shared, and linked back to.

It's even conceivable that such a Web 2.0 magazine could also become a directory of record for authors, as they could create profiles on the site touting their backgrounds and bibliographies as a means to encourage fans to underwrite their submitted stories. The same business intelligence mentioned above could also document the relative popularity of each author and story, which leads to all kinds of intangible social media benefits.

Now, if only I can find some willing investors and that aforementioned team of crack editors, I'd chase this idea in a heartbeat. Feel free to volunteer for either role in the comments.
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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Building the perfect Web 2.0 sci-fi short fiction magazine

The second issue (Winter-Spring 1950), with a ...Image via Wikipedia

So two things happened today that morphed into yet another business idea I won't pursue. The first is that PBS MediaShift published what is merely the latest in a long line of online eulogies, from various sources, bemoaning the slow death of the Big Three Sci-Fi magazines. Second, fantasy-horror author Cherie Priest spoke to me on Twitter.

This, of course, got me thinking about how to save short-form science fiction as a print medium.

The Big Three--Analog, Asimov's, and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF)--have a collective circulation of less than 50,000 readers. The subscriber list for my Geek Trivia e-newsletter is 20 percent bigger than that, which is to say 50K is a dangerously low readership number if you're going to shell out the money required to put your fiction onto bundles of dead trees and physically ship them to people. If my sorry ass is outperforming you, then you're in trouble.

Now, the point of the MediaShift article isn't the usual "they didn't adapt to the Internet" screed, as the Big Three have been steadily bleeding readers for 20 years--before online competition was a real issue. The point is that these are iconic magazines that are dying because they refuse to adapt. They aren't, as Warren Ellis puts it, "designed to be wanted." They're stuck in a 1950s mindset, and it's killing them. That's the first strike.

The second strike is that SF magazines don't pay writers enough to be worth writing for--largely because of high overhead. Which is why so many online fiction venues have popped up, some free-to-read, some not. Heck, even Amazon has gotten into direct short fiction sales, acting almost as a publisher rather than a retailer. The Internet is putting pressure on the Big Three's business model thanks to lower overhead. But these online venues certainly haven't taken the world--even the sci-fi Internet world--by storm.

Which brings me to Cherie Priest. This morning, Wil Wheaton pimped one of Ms. Priest's latest short stories, "Tanglefoot," in his blog. The story is published in Subterranean Magazine online, so it's free for anybody to read, anytime. As soon as I read the two-paragraph pitch about a magical steampunk alt-history of the U.S. Civil War, I not only wanted to read it, but to share it with my fellow Cherie Priest-loving friends, most of whom don't and/or won't read fiction online. So, since I cyber-stalk Ms. Priest (amongst a host of other geek luminaries), I reached out to her via Twitter and I asked where I could snag a print edition of the story for my friends. Her response was quick and apologetic:

"Thanks, dude - but I'm afraid ... well ... you can't. It's a Subterranean exclusive. Next year, 2 books in this world, though."

"Tanglefoot," you see, is an online loss leader for some yet-to-be-published works from Cherie Priest. Even though I can order a print copy of Subterranean magazine, I can't order one with this story in it.

Which is where my idea comes from, courtesy of an old idea I called Ransom TV.

Start an online genre magazine that commissions writers to write stories, and then lets fans pay for the commission. Think of it as a reverse Radiohead album release. In this case, Cherie Priest writes the pitch for the short story, which is listed as a commissionable project. There is a price listed for the commission, and fans are given a Paypal account into which they can donate to get the story written--as much or as little as they want to pay. The faster the commission is met, the faster the story is published. Under this system, writers can earn a decent word-rate for short fiction, because the writers set they word-rate. We also harness a little wisdom of crowds on the selection side, turning the audience into the editor.

Once the story is paid for and published, it's free to be read. Period. No restrictions. If you're a cheapskate (like me) you can just hang out and wait for someone else to pay the freight. If you're a total fanboy (like me) and would pay good money to see a great pitch from a favorite writer fulfilled, you'll donate a fair amount to speed the cause. Moreover, if the site gives you badges, banners and buttons that let you promote the story commission on your site (and does the same for the authors), and combines that with some "ask your friends to donate" e-mail/Facebook/Twitter interfaces, every fan becomes a promoter.

As John Scalzi reminds us, writers shouldn't write for free, but readers generally shouldn't be required to pay online. That said, 37 Signals suggests that paid is the new free, because ad-supported models aren't generally workable except on huge economies of scale. Under this system, you get both. The fanboys pay for the content that the casual readers consume for free. Zealots pay for the lurkers. It totally complies with the 90-9-1 rule.

But that, my friends, is only half the battle. The other half is the custom magazine. I don't want to limit my readership to just the techno-savvy. I need to be print-accessible. The easy part there is making every story a downloadable PDF.

But what if I want something nicer than a desktop printout? What if I want an issue of Subterranean with "Tanglefoot" in it?

Well, I'd combine our PDF system with a print-on-demand service like Lulu, and design a magazine-assembly system that let you "shop" for stories in the catalogue and design a custom anthology that you could have printed. My contracts with the writers would pay them direct royalties for any physical copies printed, so they make money on the back end. (I'd also give them badges that let them promote their printable versions.)

Now my readers can build a just-for-them one-off magazine from my catalogue, have it printed and shipped anywhere. There would be a nominal charge, but we're used to paying for phsycial goods. And if we're feeling really crazy, we could even do a quarterly "most popular" or "editor's choice" magazine, print a modest run ourselves, and actually distribute it to book stores and newstands. Sounds nutty, but I think there might be an audience there.

Anybody else think this could work?
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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Sci-fi convention 2.0

Wil Wheaton (left) meets Tim O'Reilly at the 2...Image via Wikipedia

There's a pretty decent argument to be made that the Internet is killing the midsize and smaller science fiction conventions of the world. Unless the convention is local--and sometimes not even then--why haul out to spend a weekend with 500 or so fans and maybe one sci-fi/fantasy author or artist when you can stalk 500 geek stars from the comfort of your RSS reader? The only cons worth going to now are those that have a critical mass of stars and attractions: Comic-Con, PAX, DragonCon, Origins, GenCon. Right?


Yes, the Internet has made one of the primary reasons to attend cons disappear--once upon a time, the only way to connect to fellow fans and creators was in person at cons, but now you've got more geek friends in you World of Warcraft guild than you ever met at Mid-South or APolloCon. Except that chatting online and actually hanging out with people are still two very different experiences. And despite our reputations as introverted, girl-fearing basement trolls, geeks are social creatures, too, and crave real-life human contact. Mostly.

The problem with fandom in the Internet age is that most conventions refuse to adapt to Web 2.0. They work against the Internet, rather than with it. For example, I can conjure up a list of dream convention Guests of Honor--something I've done before-- strictly from my Twitter follow list. Social media makes reaching these people easier, not just because I can ping them in Twitter easier than I can penetrate their spam filters, but because by following them, I know how to approach them--what their interests are, what their preferences in terms of con attendance are, and a sense of their availability. Plus, I can appeal to their vanity by namedropping any of the recent projects they've pimped on Twitter. That's so much better than a blind e-mail.

And that's just one social media tool, making no mention of Facebook, Pownce, MySpace, or any other buzzword-compliant online community.

If I were to get any decent number of the people I tweet-stalk to attend my convention, they'd all Twitter and/or blog about it whilst attending, instantly creating a digital megaphone of free publicity for my con, which parlays into the next year's attendance and a desire for other guests either to officially attend or just hang out of their own accord. (This is especially true of the non-television and film folks, who tend to make more use of conventions as chances to promote their work.)

Since I know the Profilactic guys (name-dropping!), I could probably arrange for a credential-neutral signup system that let participants in any online community connect. More to the point, I'd invite the Profilactic team, along with geek-centric Web 2.0 people like Jake McKee (he's got serious Lego street cred). If PenguinCon can combine sci-fi and Linux, why can't my local ConGlomeration combine sci-fi and Web 2.0? Why not let the artists and the engineers comingle, to everyone's entertainment and benefit?

Cost is the general answer, of course. The Convention Committee pays for airfare, room, and a meal per diem to guests, and in the case of those that require it, an appearance fee and/or accomodations for the guest's family. Thus, most cons can only afford two or three guests, so attaining critical mass of several really cool guests means many of the celebs must pay to bring themselves, which means the con needs to be big enough for it to be worth their while to attend as a promotional expense, which is a chicken-and-the-egg problem.

Except I seem to recall that physical attendance is no longer a barrier to participation in the Web 2.0 age. Yes, I know this contradicts the "actually hang out with people" angle of my earlier statement, but what if you could do big-screen multiparty video-conferencing at our Convention 2.0, with panel sessions involving a mix of live and online attendees, Jedi Council-style? Maybe I can't afford to bring Charles Stross to the states, but if I can get him on a panel discussing space opera sci-fi with, say, John Scalzi physically in the room, that's worth signing up for, right? Or maybe having Internet-friends (with each other, not with me) Warren Ellis and Wil Wheaton discuss music and comics and blogging, with only Wil in the room? Who wouldn't want to get in on that? And if we made the conference virtually accessible, so you could buy a cheap online pass to the virtual sessions, wouldn't folks buy a few of those. We could also archive the recorded panels for free distiribution after the con is over, pimping out the coolness as a viral advert for next year's party.

This is just me spitballing, of course. The video conference expense and tech resources may end up costing as much as a couple of guests, but if those resources got us ten big-name panelists instead of two, and those panelists had an online presence that pimped us to the masses for free, isn't that a net gain? Besides, I'd love to finally meet the guys from SFSignal, or put a voice to Rich Lovatt after conversing with him on and off for a while now.

But most of all, as a guy who loves to read literature about the future, it would be nice if my fandom finally starting embrcing the futuristic tech of the present. If sci-fi conventions want a future, they're going to have to.
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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Eight easy ways to save American politics

The House Financial Services committee meets. ...Image via Wikipedia
Despite a rather unremarked history of very close contests, the process of selecting a U.S. President is not all that broken. (Yes, Gore loyalists, the system works more often than not.) The same, however, cannot be said of U.S. Congressional elections, due in large part to so-called "congressional stagnation"--namely, 90 percent or more of all Congressional incumbents are typically reelected, leading to a less responsive legislative body manned by career politicians whose main aptitude for their positions seems to be winning at the polls, rather than effectively executing the office.

This is not to say that Presidential elections couldn't use some improvements, or that all Congressmen are electioneering savants that secretly and exclusively want to fleece the American public -- but the entire system could stand some serious revision. Below are eight basic suggestions for improving all federal elections in the United States, with the overall goal of getting better, more effective leadership in both the Executive and Legislative Branches.
  1. Instant Runoff Balloting, which would aid primary contests more than final elections, given the dominance of the two-party system, but could nonetheless help third-party candidates become more of a legitimate part of the electoral process, rather than simply serve as protest votes or, worse, spoilers. Instead of simply voting for one candidate in a election -- a zero-sum game -- voters would rank their top three choices. Higher rankings earn more "points" and the candidate with the most points wins. This solves the problem of two relatively popular candidates splitting the mainstream vote, and the least popular third choice winning. (Academy Awards fans will remember that this sort of voting anomaly allowed Marisa Tomei to win an Oscar in 1992 because Vanessa Redgrave, Miranda Richardson and Joan Plowright split the voter base. Tomei, though a fine actress, is no Redgrave or Richardson. Range voting would have denied her an Oscar, but it probably should have.) Party Primaries would be much more competitive and representative under this system, and would undo the skewed "momentum" advantage that winner-take-all voting systems bestow on early primary victors. Speaking of which...
  2. Balanced Presidential Primaries would unshackle our Presidential election process from the undue advantage of "traditional" first primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. (If you wonder how corn subsidies stay in the Farm Bill despite rampant evidence of their detriment, at least some of the blame goes to the undue influence of the Iowa Caucases.) Instead, the country would be divided into primary groups such that an equal percentage of electoral votes is awarded every week or so between January and May, with the order of primaries shifting with the population and demographics to ensure representative diversity. Imagine, a contest that is decided progressively, rather than by who Iowa farmers and New Hampshire libertarians like best.
  3. Anonymous Campaign Donations, which is the primary facet of the so-called Ayres-Ackermann plan, AKA Voting With Dollars. The basic conceit here is that any campaign finance law based on funding limits or disclosures is just another loophole for creative accountants and lawyers to skirt. The simpler, easier, more effective solution is to anonymize donations, such that candidates don't know who is funding them, or by how much. You can't buy nights in the Lincoln Bedroom if a candidate doesn't know whether you've written them a check, and more importantly, a candidate can't owe a donor who has no proof he gave a massive donation to a campaign. Limit enforcement to the anonymization process, and quid-pro-quo influence peddling becomes almost impossible. Suddenly, campaigning will again be about garnering votes, not dollars.
  4. Computer-Generated Districting, wherein voting districts are determined by computer algorithm (there are several candidates), ignoring party affiliations of the population. This removes the notion of human bias and prevents incumbents from indulging in gerrymandering. Imagine that: Candidates running to represent a cohesive geographic and demographic group, rather than the boondoggled collection of neighborhoods most likely to reelect them.
  5. Universal Federal Term Limits, which has been tried more than once--notably by the famous Republican Contract With America in 1994 -- but getting Congress to limit itself is a tough proposition. Put simply, under this system, a House member would be limited to three terms, and a Senator to one. Gone are the notions of a career politician, unless that pol has done so well in one office as to merit running for another one. This would also have the beneficial side effect of removing the meaningless President Pro Tempore of the Senate from the Presidential Line of Succession. The Pro Tem is not an elected position, it's just someone who has gotten really good at winning his or her home district and is thus the longest serving Senator. At least Speaker of the House has some legitimate leadership duties, and creating a commensurate Senate position (or a better title for Senate Majority Leader) who would go into the Succession lineup is a net good. Moreover, Congressmen and Senators would have to seek office for the purpose of accomplishing something besides reelection.
  6. Ban Congressional Earmarks, which is to say Congress can only direct the amount of funding given to federal agencies, rather specify in which ways the money is spent. This cedes a great deal of power to the Executive Branch, because the Executive staffs the heads of these agencies (though most Executive jobs are held by non-partisan "lifers" that want to see the work done right and well; politically appointed agency heads set policy and priorities). Still, any agency head that would be spending this money would have to pass Senate confirmation -- so few ideologues would get through -- but the nationally responsive office of the President would have due influence on national spending, without the pork barrel requirements of bridges to nowhere or namesake libraries wasting our money and holding up more legitimate legislation. Ironically, this would have the effect of depressing spending not just because there would be fewer pet projects, but because Congress's sole fiduciary power would be in holding money hostage to ensure that the President and his cabinet agreed to spending guidelines. Any change that saves money is a good thing.
  7. Require Highest-Cost Reimbursement of all Lobbyist Gifts. Right now, Congressmen have to pay for any service or item given to them by lobbyists -- like, say, golf trips or airplane flights -- but they don't have to pay them back at market value. For example, a Senator can fly on a private jet but only pay for first-class commercial airfare, or might get a "member" rate an an exclusive golf course rather than an at-large rate. This can amount to thousands of dollars in "free" benefits, which is a primary advantage for lobbyists. Requiring that all gifts be paid back at the highest available market rate -- enjoy your Spring Break hotel rate, even if it isn't Spring Break -- will see such lobbyist contributions refused in record numbers. If lobbyists can't buy attention, they'll have to get by representing voting blocks. What a novel concept.
  8. Ban Fundraising During Congressional Sessions. The number of votes missed by our representatives because they were out fundraising is staggering. Moreover, Congress is only in session about 150 days a year, or less than half the time, so it's no great hardship to require that Congress limit its fundraising to that majority of time the members aren't directly tending to America's legislative business. This would also compress the available fundraising window, which would make fundraising itself more competitive, which would suss out the more viable candidates -- a net good.
All of these suggestions are designed to create a more responsive federal government, one which is hostile to career politicians or entrenched interests. No plan is perfect, no balm cures all diseases, and few if any of these are ever likely to occur. That said, if we want a better government, we'll need to create it, and that starts with a plan. Here's mine. What's yours?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ballad of a corporate flesh-eater

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jonathan Coulton, and his pop-catchy little tale of a corporate drone who went from metaphorically to literally undead, and his subsequent intra-office brain-acquisition negotiations on behalf of his legion of fellow shambling zombies. Seemed seasonal.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Friday, October 17, 2008

What kind of writer the Web thinks I should be

You Should Be a Science Fiction Writer

Your ideas are very strange, and people often wonder what planet you're from.

And while you may have some problems being "normal," you'll have no problems writing sci-fi.

Whether it's epic films, important novels, or vivid comics...

Your own little universe could leave an important mark on the world!

Friday, September 26, 2008

What could a $700 billion government investment buy?

Regardless of your position for or against the $700 billion investment bailout that the U.S. Congress is debating right now, it's important to realize exactly what scale of investment we're talking about. Whether you consider the following past government investments failures or successes, they are examples of what high-dollar federal funding can accomplish, and how much $700 billion federal dollars could otherwise buy:

(Note, these figures have been adjusted for inflation into 2008 dollars.)
  • The Apollo Program, which managed to put a dozen men on the surface of the moon and bring them back safely, cost $25.4 billion in 1969 dollars, or about $152 billion in 2008 terms. The bailout plan is about 4.6 Apollo Programs' worth of money. For the cost of the bailout, we could have put an entire 53-man NFL roster on the lunar surface, and that's a conservative figure. Over 60 percent of total Apollo cost lay in development for the Saturn V, the lunar lander and command module, which this crude math pays out four and a half times over. For $700 billion, I'm fairly confident we could put two complete NFL teams on the moon, with coaching staffs and referees, and play a regular season game from the Sea of Tranquility.
  • The Manhattan Project, which for better or for worse gave the world the atomic bomb, cost about $2 billion between 1942 and 1945. That's about $28 billion dollars in today's money. The bailout plan is about 25 Manhattan Projects' worth of money. Let that sink in--we could have invented The Bomb 25 times over for what it's going to cost us to bail out Wall Street.
  • The Smallpox Eradication Program, administered by the World Health Organization between 1967 and 1979, cost a little over $23 million annually, for a total cost of about $300 million by the end of 1979. That's about $905 million in 2008 dollars. And though the U.S. paid less than a third of the cost, for the purpose of this exercise, let's say Uncle Sam footed the whole bill. The bailout plan is about 773 Smallpox Eradications' worth of money. We could wipe out over 700 vaccinatible diseases from the face of the Earth for the cost of taking on these questionable mortgage-backed securities. Granted, that's assuming that such vaccines exist, which often they do not. Still, Bill Gates thinks he can conjure a malaria vaccine for a mere $100 million. Let's say he's wrong by a factor of ten. We could still probably develop 300 vaccines and adminsiter them to every man, woman and child on the planet for the cost of this plan.
  • The Marshall Plan, which effectively rebuilt the economy of post-WWII Europe and funded the U.S. military presence therein, from 1948 to 1949, at a cost of $7.4 billion. In today's money, that's about $682 billion, slightly cheaper than just keeping Wall Street from crashing as hard as it is right now. The bailout plan is roughly equal to the cost of the Marshall Plan--plus four Nimitz Class nuclear aircraft carriers. Put another way, we're being asked to soften the crash--not prevent it--in one sector of our economy will cost the same as rebuilding the entire European Economy in the late 1940s, plus the cost of four of the most expensive pieces of equipment ever devised by man ($4.5 billion apiece), just so we get to an even $700 billion price tag.
Some problems are of such a scale that perhaps only government can tackle them. This financial crisis may be one of them. But let's take a moment to realize what we could have bought instead of this bailout, and how many times over, before we blithely sign a check for a seven with a eleven zeroes behind it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Why you shouldn't expect to make money blogging

Technorati Ranking & LinksImage by manoellemos via Flickr

According to 2008's State of the Blogosphere, the most successful blogs are the ones that post at least five times per day. Success, in this case, being the highest Technorati Authority rankings. These rankings, by turn, are based on the number of other bloggers that link to your stuff and the authority of those bloggers.

This seems to paint a picture of a small cudgel of high-volume bloggers massively cross-linking each other, possibly because compulsive five-times-daily bloggers would theoretically always be in search of new material, and seeing what everyone else is doing (and reacting to it) is a fertile ground for blog fodder. This is mere cynical supposition, mind you, but I'd lay some money on it being at least partially true.

Whether Technorati rank translates to actual fiscal success is a muddier cause-and-effect to fathom. The majority of bloggers don't make any money at their blogs, but the average household income of most bloggers is over $75,000 a year. (Granted, this is only the subset of bloggers that have listed themselves in Technorati, but that would likely include anybody who either gets paid for blogging and/or does it at least five times daily.) This suggests most blogging is a hobby for college-educated middle-class folks, not a serious money-making venture.

What I'd really like to see is a breakdown of the Top 100, Top 1000, and Top 10,000 bloggers by authority as applies to income. Simply, does Authority convert to money? My guess is at the very high end, it might correlate, but that the correlation declines sharply and disproportionately as you drop out of the Top 100. I'm also betting the volume of posting declines as you decline the list, too. I don't have the means or the werewithal to post 25-30 blog entries per week--not without quitting my day job--and I never will.

Blogging is a hobby. Some folks can be professional hobbyists--I mean, there are guys that make their living trading baseball cards, after all--but they are rare. And most people who play the guitar never make a dime off of it. Dreaming of being a pro blogger is a lot like dreaming of being a pro musician or pro athlete--most of us just aren't going to make it. Don't stop playing, just stop expecting to get paid.
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Monday, September 22, 2008

Perfection is a four-letter word

"Free yourself from the myth of perfection, and you’ll become a better writer. I guarantee it." - Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

Yeah, I've got some redrafting to do before my writers group next week. I haven't had a story for them in two months. Time to get back in the groove.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Yet another great idea I won't pursue

So I had another idea for a Web show/blog that could maybe get a little bit popular and make just a little money if only I hate time for it: ICanHateAnything.com. It's sort of a larger, more general version of my Food Rants, wherein the audience suggests things for me to hate, and I conjure up a 2-minute video blog screen as to why I hate it.

I can find verbose and acidic justification for hating anything, and taking requests is always fun. It's low production-value, so i could produce something in about two hours. Promotion, obviously, would take longer. Of course, I have no time for this, like all my grand ideas. File it away with the Chrono-Anarchist Hitlist and Armchair Script Doctor. Alas.

I wish I was more into steampunk

This post from Fantasy Magazine lays out the most coherent and compelling case for the popularity of steampunk I've yet come across (thanks, SFSignal). When you read it, you almost feel stupid for not writing steampunk. Except--and this will just be the latest in a long line of my sci-fi heresies--I'm not all hat wild about steampunk.

Steampunk is fun for a goof, I suppose, but I guess I simply have too much of the dismal science in me. Steampunk, to me, has always been more fantasy than sci-fi. As wonderous as Charles Babbage's grand mechancical computers were, they really were hideously impractical. To my mind, the greatest technical achievements were those that made new things possible, largely by virtue of making them practical. Steampunk is the inverse, it revels in its impracticality, in the grand operatic largesse required to make these machines and indulge in the modest wonders they produce.

In the graphic novella Ministry of Space, writer Warren Ellis imagines an alternate history where the British, not the Americans, rescued Von Braun from Germany after World World II. It was the British that embarked on a space program to revive their war-torn economy and, as they "had opera in them," the Brits indulged Von Braun's mad bluster and brutish vision of putting men into orbit in the 50s, on the moon by the 60, and Mars by the 70s. All it took was one of the greatest cover-ups in history to pay the hideous cost. Ministry deftly examines both sides of the issue--space is a grand dream, but not a practical one. When its dark patronage failed, it could not be sustained.

That's the same issue with steampunk. Its dreams and devices are glorious, but they really only empower their mad creators--the dukes and princes with endless ennobled coffers to pursue these personal accomplishments, rather than some larger goal, some greater but simpler service to the world.

Maybe I just lack the imagination to truly embrace steampunk.

Or maybe stemapunk just lacks the imagination to conjure a world that could truly have been.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Why I gave up my UofL season basketball tickets

I snapped this photo of :en:Freedom Hall durin...Image via Wikipedia

Either I or my family have held UofL season basketball tickets since 1985--until this year. A large portion of my resigning the tickets has to do with my parents being older, so they never go, and me having a young daughter and working two jobs, so going to 18 or so home dates became time-prohibitive. But here's the real reason--the 2008-2009 Louisville home basketball schedule.

With the exception of the Kentucky game, which you get every other year regardless, there is not a single non-conference home game that is worth shelling out money to attend. UNLV is the next best team on the home non-conference schedule, and unless those seats come with a time-warp back to 1991, that's not much to write home about, either.

UAB? Sure, there's some interest because ex-Indiana coach Mike Davis is there and the Blazers beat Kentucky in Freedom Hall last season, but that should be the minimum we expect from the non-conference, not a highlight. The mildly exciting non-conference games--Mississippi, Minnesota (hello, Tubby Smith), and local fave Western Kentucky--are all neutral-site games. WHich is to say, season ticket holders don't get to see them. Just like last year, when the big North Carolina matchup was only a possible outcome of a Vegas tournament--and it didn't happen.

I get it that the Big East conference schedule is brutal, I do. And I enjoy that Notre Dame and UConn are coming into Freedom hall. But is it too much to ask that one, just one non-conference, non-Kentucky home opponent be a serious, name squad. We can't get Indiana, North Carolina, UCLA, or Kansas in here? We can't get Tennessee, or Florida, or Ohio State? Seriously? ESPN would shell out money for that? Or ABC?

I spent about $1500 last season on a pair of tickets and my seat donation for the right to buy tickets, and out of about 20 home games there maybe five worth attending. And I couldn't give away, let alone sell, the matchups with Sacramento State or Bellarmine. I'll actually save money this year paying scalper's prices for the Kentucky, UConn, and West Virginia games, rather than buying season tickets and selling the ones I don't want. There's something wrong with that equation.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why you're going to fail at Internet video

The above is Gary Vaynerchuk's keynote speech from the New Media Expo, wherein he lays out how his Wine Library TV online video show became perhaps the most successful and well known Web show going.

Here's Gary's recipe for success:
  • Production values don't matter, just the content.
  • Do a show about your biggest passion, and nothing else.
  • Promote your show 6-10 hours per day, 6 days per week, for at least 18 months and you MIGHT get popular.
  • Promote your show on every platform, every service, every network.
  • Hypersyndicate - Don't upload to one video site, upload to every site.
  • Answer EVERY e-mail.
  • Expose every avenue of contact. Publish your IM handles, your Twitter name, and your Skype number, etc..
  • Court every single fan, personally, for as long as you can.
  • Build your brand, not someone else's.
Having helped build a (very minor) Web franchise from the ground up, I agree with every single one of these tenets. And it just shows how few people will succeed in Web video (or Web content in general). Vaynerchuck basically worked a 50 hour uncompensated workweek for a year and half to get to decent traffic, and another two and a half years at the same pace to get where he is now. He could get away with that because he was using video as a loss leader for his multimillion-dollar liquor sales business, from which he could draw income. Vaynerchuk had a unique monetization model, which the only way you can remotely make the argument that he got a return on his time investment.

Now, there are ways to hedge out some of what Vaynerchuk did with some rather pricey outsourcing services, but that still does not fundamentally change the math that Web video will almost never be a serious fiscal endeavor for anyone. The return on your time is hideously low. It's is the ultimate low margin business and--what's worse--it pays out slow. The question for most of us is earn a little money fast or a lot of money slowly. Video is the worst of both, offering very little money over a very long time. Standard ad models just make it not worthwhile.

And all that is assuming you've got your hands on a passionate subject matter expert who can convey attractive Web video content covering a subject that people care about in sufficient numbers that you can profitably monetize it. Trust me, those people don't grow on trees, and those subject areas are already being hotly contested in text, and video is coming up on it fast. I'm still writing Geek Trivia after leaving CNet because they despaired of finding someone who could write what I write the way I write it. It's not high art, but my fans like it and there's sponsorship behind it, so they made an exception and pay me to keep doing it. And believe me, back when I was on the CNet payroll, I looked for people who could blog the way I do (so I could take a break after almost seven years writing the column) and couldn't find them. Talent is scarce, and it doesn't scale. Blogging already has this problem, and video is going to have it worse.

But Web video is getting bigger every year, right? Experts are projecting 25 percent year over year growth in online video advertising over the next five years. Video consumption online may increase by 5 percent a month, according to some numbers I've seen, for the same period. What's going to give?

The ad numbers, probably. By this point, everyone was supposed to be dumping billions into social network advertising, and it just never materialized to the degree everyone expected at the height of the 2006 MySpace/Facebook boom. (Insider hint: Media companies are really good at publicizing all the predictions that benefit them, and few to none of those that don't. Never believe the self-referencing "people are going to give us money" hype.) Online video will likely have the same scaled-down reality come this time next year.

So where does that leave the content producers? Mostly, you better love what you do, because the odds of you getting paid anything approaching a fair wage for your work are pretty astronomical. It's becoming more obvious on the blogging front that your blog better be a labor of love, because even professional bloggers don't make much money at actual blogging and the odds of you outplaying a pro are pretty unlikely. Video will follow the same track.

More to the point, once the big boys from old media figure out exactly how the monetization model is going to work, they'll flood the available market with known brands and suck up the few available dollars for themselves. We all fondly revere the guy at the indie magazine who refuses to join the corporate machine, but he gets paid like a guy who refuses to join the corporate machine. Indie blogs and indie video shows will always exist, but the democritization of opportunity--the big guys no longer own the means of distribution, unlike the printing press and broadcast tower days--mean the artificially high margins that media used to enjoy are over, and the value associated with producing these media have declined.

Put simply, there ain't much money in online content. Plan your career accordingly.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

How I'd pitch the Dark Knight sequel

Batman Begins was about fear. The Dark Knight was about corruption. The third Chris Nolan Batfilm should be about truth. I'll lay out me reasons in a moment but first know that this whole pitch is filled with DK spoilers. You've been warned.

Let me preface by saying I greatly admire the moral complexity and gritty realism of Nolan's Batfilms, especially Dark Knight. I feel the most important tenet of DK was its concession that district attorney Harvey Dent was a more vital, inspirational, effective and -- above all -- pure hero than Batman could ever be. Vigilantes are by definition criminals, and asking a criminal to save us from crime is itself a form of corruption. Batman is a necessary evil.

The Dark Knight ends unsatisfactorily for many people because Batman sabotages his own symbolism in the end. He takes the fall for Two Face's crimes, to preserve the image of Harvey Dent. According to Batman, the symbol of Dent is more important than the truth of Dent. Thus, it is Batman who takes the fall as a savage, murderous vigilante who killed the corrupt cops that betrayed Dent. He's now an even more terrifying bogeyman for the criminals of the city, but also a less potent symbol for its innocent citizens. His guilt is also untrue, and protecting Gothamites from the truth is a patronizing, pandering form of salvation. They deserve better, and so does Batman. That's why Batfilm 3 should be about truth.

It's also why the signature villain of Batfilm 3 should be the Riddler.

Setting: Gotham, brighter than before, with a glitz and glamor creeping back, but it's a false sheen. The Batman is a murderer, and it has made the people distrusting of symbols, yet still in love with them. Case in point, the new celebrity gangster, Oswald "The Penguin" Cobblepot -- yes, I said The Penguin -- an eccentric, glamorous, dapper "Teflon Don"-style mafioso who has taken majority control of Gotham City's underworld and taunted Commissioner Gordon for being unable to stop him. A Harvard-educated trust fund baby, he bridges the worlds of every elite: criminal, businessman, entertainer and politician. He is glorified corruption lovingly re-embraced by Gotham. The opening of his new Iceberg nightclub is the social event of the season.

Batman, naturally, crashes the party. Batman's intent is to reinstill fear in The Penguin, to let him know that his money and his fame can't protect him. It backfires. Cobblepot is the legitimate businessman -- so far as anyone can prove -- and Batman is the outlaw. Gordon and his men are forced to protect the Penguin and pursue the Dark Knight.

Batman's very public reappearance -- and his impotence in the face of the Penguin -- is the news event of the year in Gotham...until the first riddle arrives at the every newspaper and TV station in town. It's from a blogger known only as The Riddler, and within the cute mindteaser is evidence of The Penguin's guilt. The Riddler, presumably a hacker, has pierced Cobblepot's vaunted security and business acumen and nailed him. Gordon gladly brings The Penguin down -- he puts up a token fight, including taking a potshot at Gordon with a ridiculous umbrella gun from a collection of KGB artifacts that is laughably ineffective -- and the city has a new hero. Welcome the Riddler.

(For what it's worth, RiddleMeThis.Net will be a TMZ-style Gotham gossip and inside info blog, complete with all the over-the-top campy question mark motifs and green-and-purple color scheme. It sidesteps the need for a stupid Riddler costume and lends itself to a great alternate reality game for promotional purposes. Also, I'd go out of my way NOT to reveal who had been cast to play the Riddler, hinting at several Hollywood heavyweights but doing my best to set up the big reveal onscreen. That's promotional gold.)

The mayor is the next to fall, undone by The Riddler's exposes. The town is desperate to know his real identity, as is Batman. As Batman attempts to hack into his blog, the Riddler hacks back -- and let's Bruce know he's aware of the double identity. Not to worry, The Riddler is a fan. He believes in truth, in exposing secrets, in solving riddles. Everyone has secrets and masks, and uses them to hide their real darkness, but Batman is different. Batman uses untruth for good. Bruce Wayne pretends to be less than he is -- an idiot, rather than a savior. Batman does too: a murderer, rather than a protector. Batman has nothing to fear from the Riddler, who wants to see justice done as well.

The Riddler himself is a riddle. He is the symbol Batman wanted to be, but one of intellect instead of brawn. Until now, Nolan has displayed Batman as an urban commando rather than a vigilante detective. Perhaps the Riddler is a better hero than Batman, untouchable and incorruptible, and not vulnerable to the same frailties as himself...or Harvey Dent.

Then the Penguin turns up dead. Then the mayor. And the Riddler confides in Batman that he is responsible. Now Batman has to find a defeat an enemy that he can't beat into submission. One that is beloved by Gotham while he is feared and distrusted. Who has the technology to do what the Riddler does - -see into every space and know every secret? Why, Bruce Wayne, as we saw in Dark Knight. Who could possibly know that Bruce Wayne is Batman? Lucius Fox? Alfred? Ra's Al Ghul, Two Face, or even Rachel Dawes, back from the dead? Batman is truly alone, unable to trust anyone, and his past actions have made sure no one will trust him.

Batman will have no choice but to defeat the Riddler by facing his own mistakes and his own failures -- eliminating everyone he's ever known as a suspect. He'll have to win back the hearts and minds of Gotham in order to flush the Riddler out, to make the city see that this unknown character can't be trusted, and force the narcissist Riddler into the open to re-earn their love.

Imagine that, a mystery movie involving Batman. In fact, I'd probably call it that: Batman: Detective. I'd pay to see that.


Side notes:

The current comic book incarnations of the Riddler are about as far from the Frank Gorshin/Jim Carrey goofball image as you can get. In the (overrated) Hush storyline, the Riddler famously deduced that Bruce Wayne is Batman, and tormented the Caped Crusader with that knowledge. He then disavowed his villainous ways and became a detective for hire. In both cases he is a measured, controlled individual. The new film Riddler should combine these factors to terrifying symbolic effect.

Also, if the studio is making you ramp up the villain count but you don't want to revisit any of the bad guys you've already shown, I could work in a spot for Catwoman. Play her as a Robin Hood-esque celebrity cat burglar who robs from the rich and gives to the poor...mistreated animals, children, and such. She's Batman but skewed, a vigilante who preys on the wealthy to "right society's wrongs" rather than fighting the violently criminal. Her definition of evil is different. The city will love her too, but Batman will take her into confidence, trying to fill the void left by Rachel. They're both outlaws, and she can tempt him into being happy with that. Then, when the Riddler makes known that he knows who Batman is, he'll assume it's Catwoman that sold him out. Loyalties will shift. Women will be scorned. Drama will be amped. Also, the new Catwoman suit will be completely obscuring with a gas-mask, and she'll openly remind Bruce of Rachel, to the point he suspects her of being Rachel. Use Maggie Gyllenhal in flashbacks if you want. It would be a total mindjob. It also amps up the reveal of who Selena Kyle really is.

You could drop in enough winks and nods to the comics that even the fanboys would love this story line. Chris Nolan, David Goyer, I await your phone call.

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