Thursday, May 27, 2010

Nerd Word of the Week: Spoiler alert

Lost Black WikipediaImage via Wikipedia 
Spoiler alert (n.) - A warning given to an audience that the following content or discussion will divulge plot details of a particular work of fiction. The term originated in online forums devoted to discussing movies, television shows, and books; if you have not seen or read the works under discussion, the spoiler alert warns you to proceed no further in the discussion thread lest you "spoil" the surprises inherent in any future reading or viewing experience. Tossing out spoilers without a spoiler alert is considered a serious breach of netiquette and geek civility -- to the point that Wikipedia articles describing many fictional works are required to exclude spoilers or to clearly segregate such content and mark it with spoiler alerts.

I bring it up because: The long-running plot-complex TV show Lost aired its finale last Sunday, and the web has been overridden with dissections of the series resolution. For those of us that have never seen Lost but may wish to view it on DVD or Hulu someday, the appropriate use of spoiler alerts is much appreciated, as was the case with reimagined Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, The Wire, and Sopranos finales before it. Basically, any cult-favorite show that has ended since the advent of Twitter in 2006 has been subject to a delicate balance of fan commiseration and judicious spoiler-alerting, as divulging too much via a social networking post can earn you ire and scorn from the masses, and divulging too little will miss the point. Such is the online geek paradox.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On how many screens did Star Wars appear when it opened on Memorial Day, 1977? (Truly Trivial)

Iron Man 2 enjoyed the fifth best opening weekend in US box office history earlier this month when it raked in $128 million according to Box Office Mojo. The all-time champ (for the moment) in domestic opening weekend sales is The Dark Knight, which barely beat out Spider-Man 3's $151 million with it's own $158 million. Clearly, The Dark Knight had the best opening weekend ever, right?

Not so much.

The most successful movie of all time is Gone With The Wind, even though it ranks 103rd on the list of all-time US movie money-earners. That's because you're confusing gross income with tickets sold. Tickets are way more expensive now than they were in 1939 (or in 1999, for that matter). When you adjust for inflation, Gone With The Wind earned $1.6 billion in the US alone. We don't have opening weekend stats from 1939, but you can bet that Scarlett O'Hara had more to brag about than Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark.

All of those numbers go to prove that the phrase "biggest opening weekend ever" is basically useless, suitable only for empty-headed bragging rights..

No fair, you say, Gone With The Wind didn't have to compete with TV. That was a different era. We agree. But the second-place movie on the inflation-adjusted list is Star Wars at $1.4 billion, and I'm pretty sure there was lots of (crappy) TV in 1977. More to the point, Star Wars didn't enjoy one of the huge advantages all these pointless recording-breaking modern movies use to inflate their numbers: wide releases.

Iron Man 2 enjoyed the widest release in movie history, opening on 4,380 screens. The Dark Knight was second, opening on 4,366 screens. Star Wars originally opened in limited release on a number of screens that was a mere fraction of Batman's or Iron Man's opening screencount.

On how many screens did Star Wars appear when it opened on Memorial Day, 1977?

Friday, May 21, 2010

I'm a hacker, not a writer. Can you give me 3 to 5 practical tips on becoming a better writer?

Like any other skill, the only way to get better as a writer is to actually write. My buddy David Finch just pointed me to this Amber Naslund post on how to go about the actual work of writing, and I agree with most of it.

I always point out that writing non-fiction is RADICALLY different from writing fiction. I write nonfiction almost everyday and at this point, while it all isn't art, I can pretty much hammer out a decent instructional, referential, or evaluative post on almost anything in an hour or so (excluding research). That comes from having regular deadlines for non-fiction work for the last decade.

Almost none of that writerly muscle memory translates over to fiction, which includes things like character, setting, and plot. Dialogue I can handle, because even my nonfiction stuff has a voice and a cadence to it, so giving that to characters is not so difficult. The structural meta-points of fiction? Those I'm still hacking at.

All of which is to say, if you want to write fiction, practice fiction. If you want to write tech articles practice tech articles. Write blogs; practice blogs, etc. You won't get very good at baseball by practicing basketball, other than simply getting in shape. You hone specific skills for specific results.

As to explicit practical tips, here are a few:
  1. Writing is a habit, just like not writing.
    If you want to be a writer, you need to set aside time on a regular schedule and write. I'm a big believer in setting regular wordcount goals -- 300 per day is a good beginner pace, at least 3 days per week -- because it's too easy to "try" to write for an hour and just kill time. Having an output goal keeps you (or, at least, me) from dicking around. The goal doesn't roll over, either. If on Monday I feel the muse and blow out 1000 words, I still owe Tuesday another 300. That doesn't mean ignore the muse, but again, this is about a disciplined habit.
  2. For frak's sake, read. A lot.
    To continue the athletic analogy, the best athletes watch tape of their rivals to get better. The best writers are also copious readers, and not just of the genre or style they wish to write. And while I own and have read a few "How To Write" books, nothing is so helpful as reading actual writing. There are skills aplenty to be found in almost any successful writer's output. And if you paid for the writing in question, you know at least one thing about it: It did enough right that someone would pay for it. Figure out what that is and see if you can duplicate those qualities.
  3. Join a writer's group, if only for the deadlines.
    This is advice I've personally done a lousy job of following lately, but do as I say and not as I do. To completely exhaust the athletics analogy, the best athletes play against the best competition they can find. And they do it often. Having a writer's group not only exposes you to other people's "game," it also gives you someone to whom you're accountable. To completely invert the athlete analogy, the best aspect of Weight Watchers isn't the meals or the guidebooks, it's the meetings. Having to face your peers and explain why you haven't written anything in the last week or month will do wonders in ensuring that you write something every week or month. There's no better managing editor than peer pressure. Trust me.
  4. Don't wait to be inspired.
    The final point I'll leave you with is that the muse is a fickle bitch and you can't live your life on her schedule. Inspiration is fleeting and nebulous; writing is a job. Scott Kurtz over at PvP pointed me to this TED talk from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat, Pray, Love." It's a must-watch for anyone who does creative work, but especially so if you want to write. You write when it's time to write, inspiration be damned. That's what separates the writers from the wannabes.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Nerd Word of the Week: Silver Age

Showcase #4 (Oct. 1956): The Silver Age starts...Image via Wikipedia
Silver Age (adj.) - Describes a period in comic book history that saw science-fictional remakes of many famous superheroes, most of them in reaction to the publication of Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, a scathing indictment of comic books as endorsing delinquency, sexual deviance and even communism. The Silver Age birthed many inventive new characters and concepts, but is perhaps best known for the campiness and absurdity of the 1966 Batman television series, which epitomized the worst excesses of the Silver Age aesthetic.

I bring it up because: Today would have been Gardner Fox's 89th birthday. Fox, along with legendary editor Julius Schwartz, almost singlehandedly invented the Silver Age with science-fictional revamps of The Flash, Hawkman, Green Lantern and The Atom. Fox in particular was notorious for sprinkling interesting factoids into his comic works, especially from forensic scientist Barry "Flash" Allen, who often introduced these trivial tidbits as "Flash Facts." Moreover, DC Comics has recently gone to great trouble reinstalling the Silver Age versions of many characters -- including the Fox-created Hawkman, Atom, and Flash -- to some less than enthusiastic response. While the campiness hasn't reemerged, the return of these fondly remembered but often outgrown Silver Age icons is viewed by many (myself included) as a move backwards.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Are you sometimes hesitant to tell people you do social media consulting?

Yes and no. I'm not embarrassed by the work, because I feel I offer a legitimate service in a burgeoning and profitable field. That said, calling myself a "social media consultant" is often like calling myself an existential astronaut -- all the words in the title sound familiar, but nobody knows what it means. My business card says "online media consultant" because that's a more comprehensible term to the average Joe or Jane.

As to whether I think this is a sustainable business, I don't think so. Not because social media consulting is a scam, but because the skill set is propagating so quickly.

In 1995, you could make really good money designing even the most basic web sites, because web commerce and web marketing was so new and so few people could do it. In those days, simply having a web page was enough. Quality and strategy were optional, and while most web consultants got by offering neither, the few that did have a clue survived, thrived, and now own multimillion-dollar consultancies that are slowly being destroyed by WordPress and Google Apps. That destruction has been fueled in part by the average marketer or publisher knowing what a decent web site looks like and merely needing an intuitive set of tools to make it happen.

Replace the word "web" in the preceding paragraph with "Facebook" and you have the current social media consulting market along with its eventual future. I'd like to think I offer some quality and strategy to my clients, but the point is that eventually everyone will be comfortable with social media tools and will be able to do this work by and for themselves. The role of the consultant in social media is ephemeral and the whole notion of "social media expert" as a widespread specialization has at best 2-3 years of life left in it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What fictional search engine is the unofficial Hollywood stand-in for Google?

The Oceanic Airlines logo from the ABC televis...Image via Wikipedia
I'm on vacation this week so I'm recycling another of my old Geek Trivia columns for the Truly Trivial question this week. Sue me.
[T]here is something of an open-source pool of brands and trademarks that have made their way into various productions over the years, filling in for companies that might not care for the treatment they’d receive in certain Hollywood plots. The prime example of this is Oceanic Airlines, which has of late been made famous by the genre-bending TV drama Lost. ... 
Heisler beer, Morley Cigarettes, and Gannon Car Rentals are other shared, unreal brands that have circulated around Tinseltown in unrelated projects. Of late, however, a new product type has emerged on the plot-device scene — the search engine. Even though Google is now a verb, the “Don’t be evil” folks look unkindly on characters using the search engine for nefarious — or at least unlicensed — purposes on-screen. Thankfully, the unofficial fictional brand vault has a budding Google substitute that TV shows can turn to.

Get the complete Q&A here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Nerd Word of the Week: Genericide

A Band-Aid bandageImage via Wikipedia
Genericide (n.) - The process of a trademark becoming interchangeable with the type of product the trademark describes, to the point that the trademark is almost totally worthless and legally indefensible. Examples include Band-aids, which are synonymous with any brand of adhesive bandages, Zippers, which are synonymous with any brand of interlocking slide fasteners, and Escalators, which are synonymous with any brand of motorized staircase. All of these previous terms used to be defensibly trademarked, but have since become so popular as to defy being identified with any one company. Next up: Google, which is now a verb and may soon be a genericized trademark.

I bring it up because: Velcro was trademarked 52 years ago today, and its still (barely) holding the line against genericide, forcing imitators to refer to themselves as "hook and loop fasteners." We'll see if Google has the same luck.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What geek-favorite card game was invented as an antipiracy measure?

War Star WarsImage by Márcio Cabral de Moura via Flickr
It's a busy week and I failed my saving throw versus sloth, so here's a reclaimed Geek Trivia for your minutial pleasure this week:
If one day you find yourself sitting down to pen that long-imagined bestselling science-fiction or fantasy novel and you’re looking for one particular trick that will give your speculative story a sense of reality (and lead to shameless marketing opportunities), just throw in a made-up card game or chess variant that everyone in your fake universe knows, enjoys, and plays with inhuman regularity. You don’t have to make up any actual rules for the game, as your devoted fan base (geeks) will retroactively conjure them based on the clues you drop in the prose — even if those clues don’t make any sense.

Don’t believe me? Then explain how it is that I can find “official” rules for fizzbin, a fictional card game that was fictional even in the Star Trek episode in which it originally appeared? ...

Not all fictional games are just for show, however. One hacker-favorite made-up card game actually served a real-life purpose — it was an anti-piracy measure for a classic video game.

Get the complete Q&A here.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Nerd Word of the Week: Ecopocalypse

Mt. San Miguel continues to burn.  San Diego w...Image by slworking2 via Flickr
Ecopocalypse (n.) - Collapse of civilization caused by widespread and rapid environmental degradation or change. A subgenre of apocalyptic fiction that focuses on ecological collapse. Sometimes referred to as The Ecopocalypse. Also used as a derogatory (and/or ironic) slang term for human impact on the environment.

I bring it up because: The term ecopocalypse tends to bubble up whenever a major environmental disaster, like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, makes headlines. If you're a bookseller, now would be a great time to stock up on some apocalyptic fic with an environmental (or, at least, post-peak oil) bent, such as Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake or The Handmaid's Tale, The Rift by Walter Jon Williams, or S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

What was the largest *accidental* oil spill in history?

Ixtoc I oil well blowoutImage via Wikipedia
US Gulf Coast residents are bracing for the environmental impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which by some estimates has to date dumped some 40,000 tonnes of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of an oil rig explosion on April 20, 2010. While the ecological (and political) cost of this disaster has yet to be tallied, the sad truth is that the Deepwater Horizon spill doesn't even crack the Top 10 list of worst oil spills ever.

Sadder still, the single worst oil spill in history was intentional. On Jan. 21, 1991, Iraqi forces retreating during the first Gulf War intentionally opened transfer valves at Kuwait's Sea Island oil tanker terminal, dumping over one million tonnes of crude oil into the Persian Gulf in a failed attempt to prevent US Marine forces from landing in the area. Along with oil spilled from damaged tankers and pipelines, the Gulf War oil spill was roughly three times larger than the largest accidental oil spill in history.

What was the largest accidental oil spill in history?