Friday, May 27, 2016

How to be a Billy Goat

Last night I got to share some ideas about being a billy goat in an internet filled with trolls. It was at the first ever VanTalks (video will be available soon).

I shared (one of) the origins of the metaphor of a troll as a bully on the internet: the Norwegian fairy tale "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" in which a troll lives under a bridge and keeps the goats from grazing in a lush pasture.

Right now it seems like the internet is filled with trolls, like there's no good comments section, like there isn't a place to have good conversations online. The way we can start to change that is by being the opposite of trolls. We need to be billy goats.

Trolls

Trolls are rude, abrasive, and abusive.

Trolls are confident in what they know and cannot, will not be swayed from their certainty.

Trolls are never, ever, ever wrong.

It's nearly impossible to have a conversation with a troll and, what's worse, trolls often succeed in devolving the conversations around them. There might be good people trying to have a decent conversation, but in walks a troll and things fall apart. People start taking sides. It stops being a conversation and starts being a shouting match.

Bad News

I hate to say it. I don't want to be a downer. But the truth is we won't ever be rid of trolls. A medium like the internet that allows anyone anywhere anytime to share their thoughts will the world will, inevitably allow thoughts that are abusive, hurtful, and intransigent.

Fighting the trolls, more often than not, won't do much of anything to help. Trolls love the conflict and won't be swayed by even the best of arguments.

Trolls are here to stay. But they don't have to dominate the conversations. The reality is that trolls are the exception that is writing the rules. They are the tail that's wagging the dog. They are the minority influencing the majority.

Billy Goats

We can offer an alternative. We can offer a different way. We can be the billy goats to the trolls of the internet. 

Billy goats treat everyone with dignity and respect (even trolls). 

Billy goats seek to understand before they seek to be understood. 

Billy goats willingly and graciously admit when they are wrong. 

If you want to start being a billy goat there's something you need to know. This isn't a short term engagement. This isn't something you can sign up for and knock out in a week. This will take time and commitment. It will take consistency and it will mean you are attacked by trolls. 

But it also means that you are stepping between the vulnerable and the trolls, that you are showing people a different way to interact online, that you are a part of a minority that is influencing the majority for good. 

C'mon, be a billy goat. 

Next up (next week) what this looks like in real life and some practical next-steps. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Socrates and the Internet

Socrates said “[T]hey will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

He could have been talking about the internet. He might as well have said: "Don't read the comments section." But he was talking about a different communication technology: writing. 

Socrates didn't like writing; he thought it undermined the thoughts of people and made them vapid. The irony is, we only know that Socrates said this because his student, Plato, wrote it down. 

Communication and the Brain

The way we communicate affects how we think, which affects how we process ideas, which affects everything about us as human beings. Socrates was right, moving from oral to written communication fundamentally changed humanity. Ideas were no longer bound by space and time, the great thinkers were able to build upon each other's work, and whole fields of study like philosophy, religion, history, mathematics, and science came into being. But there was a cost. Thought became a specialized field. Ideas became the property of the wealthy and powerful. The conversation of humanity was concentrated into the hands of a very few, well educated people. 

The rise of the printing press in Europe (it had been around in China for centuries before) paired movable type with an alphabet-based language and drastically decreased the cost of written communication. Within just a few years of Gutenberg's first printing Europe began to transform at a fundamental, cultural level. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Protestant Reformation were all spurred onward by the rapid spread of ideas, not among the wealthy and powerful, but among the common people. Culture changed, the people were no longer willing to be ruled from ivory towers and castle walls, the masses revolted based on the power of ideas. On the far shores of a distant continent a few ragged colonies took up those ideas and rebelled against the most powerful nation on the planet.

The Internet is Kind of a Big Deal

There have only been a few changes in the way human being communicate. The first was from oral to written, then from script to printing, and now we're in the midst of third great change from printing to electronic communication. For ease I'll use the internet as a catch-all term to refer to all of our instantaneous, electronic communication (i.e. texting, emailing, blogging, messaging, etc.). 

With each shift in communication the speed of idea transmission and the percent of the population involved have increased. Oral society was slow and ideas could only be shared as far as a voice could be heard. Writing sped things up and allowed more people to receive the ideas (though for much of its history written communication was still, primarily, transmitted to people orally). Printing increased the speed and the participants even further. Now with the internet we have almost half of the population on the planet able to communicate with each other instantaneously. 

That has immense ramifications for how our brains work, how we process ideas, and what our culture looks like. And we're only just starting to see those effects really playing out in the world. 

Socrates was Right

There is always a cost to go with the benefit of changing the way we communicate. The internet is reshaping our brains, for good and for ill. We are losing something with the rapidity of the communication and the number of voices that are clamoring for a place in the conversation. But we are gaining something as well. 

Socrates was right that there's a cost, but he was wrong in not wanting to pay the cost of changing the technology we use to communicate. We should weigh the cost. We should know the cost. We should consciously and actively work to mitigate the cost. But we cannot avoid the cost of communication on the internet, nor should we. 

Next up: what you can do to help. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

VanTalks, Civil Discourse, and Billy Goats

This Thursday I'll be giving a talk at the first ever VanTalks. It's styled after TED talks but focused on the thought leaders, innovators, and creators in the local community.

My topic is on civil discourse online. Something that seems like an oxymoron. You're not supposed to read the comments section, you're not supposed to talk about politics or religion, and you're certainly not supposed to expect anyone to change their mind due to a conversation online.

I'm not okay with that. I used to be. I used to be checked out, to ignore the comments, and to avoid arguments. I thought that was the best path, the path that offended the fewest people.

If you've followed me online for very long you know I don't feel that way now. For the past five or six years I have actively engaged in conversations online about the most difficult topics. No conversation has been off limits and, with very few exceptions, the conversations and conversationalists have been thoughtful, respectful, and civil.

On Thursday evening (6:30pm at the Kiggins Theater in downtown Vancouver) I'll share what changed, what I've learned, and why I think civil discourse online is not only possible, but necessary.

And I'll tell you why you should be a billy goat.

Buy tickets (they're only $10) and tell your friends (or enemies, they need to hear this too).

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Long, Slow Death of NOOK and the Problems with DRM, eBook Pricing, and Publishing

If you haven't heard yet, Barnes & Noble is closing the UK NOOK store. This comes after they closed down all of the other markets besides the US and UK over the summer. With most of the ebook sales going through Amazon and Apple, it's no wonder that B&N is having trouble, but were it simply brick and mortar stores that failed there wouldn't be an issue, or if the ebooks had been priced as essentially disposable content, or if the ebooks hadn't been saddled with digital rights management (DRM).

Digital Ownership

For most things in the world, when you pay for them you own them. If you pay for your hamburger you can choose to eat it, spray paint it red and frame it, or throw it at a passing unicyclist while they try to hit you with their lance made of straws. But digital ownership is different. 

You don't own your copy of your computer's operating system, you only have a license to that OS granted by the software maker and, if they so decided, you could be kicked off of your computer in an instant. That wouldn't be very smart for a company to do when they want to make money, but what happens when a company can't make money? What happens when a company like Barnes & Noble can't support the software they created? 

Digital Rights Management

When there's DRM involved what happens can be pretty terrible. 

Even though I don't own my OS, I could still run it offline, make changes as necessary, and get along fine for a while if the software company decided to cancel my license. If my MP3 collection were to suddenly be turned off by the company that hosts it, I would still have the copies of the files on my computer that I could listen to, just without the convenience of listening to them everywhere through the cloud service. 

But some levels of DRM prevent copying files from one location to another, some DRM requires internet access to verify the validity of the file and the reader hardware. These tools exist to prevent piracy, but usually only serve to annoy honest customers. Unfortunately, when the company that instituted the DRM goes out of business, there may not be a legal way to continue to use the files that you have paid for. 

eBook Pricing

Most ebooks published by the major publishing houses are around $10 apiece, while most ebooks published by independent houses or authors are around $3. I don't want to get into too many of the arguments about the difference in price. There are plenty of voices on both sides of that debate. 

Where it comes into play here is in what you can or cannot do with that ebook once you've paid your money. If you bought a paper book, you could sell it to a used bookstore, you could loan it to a friend, you could pack it in a box and ship it around the world, or you could leave it on your shelf until you decide to read it and then know it will be readable. But with an ebook you can't sell it, you can't loan it (most of the time), you can't send it to anyone else, and if you leave it on your digital shelf, you have no guarantee that you'll be able to read it in the future. 

One of the key pieces here is that the ebooks published by the major publishing houses also employ DRM so you can't make copies, you can't make a backup for yourself, you can't change formats, you can't do anything with that ebook but read it on the devices that are approved. 

You are, essentially, renting your ebooks if they have DRM (note that I won't voluntarily put DRM on any of my ebooks or stories). And, if you are paying the higher price demanded by the major publishing houses, you are renting a book in electronic format that is less versatile, less capable, and less long-lived than a paperback that might be the same price (or cheaper if you get it used). 

Publishing

Businesses exist to make money and they do that by providing a good or service. Right now the publishing industry doesn't know what they're providing or how to make money off of it. In the past publishing provided a good: books. That physical thing had value that could be exchanged for money. 

But now with ebook readers and ebooks what's being sold isn't exactly a good. There isn't a physical thing with value. But neither is it completely a service because each book is valued differently and separately. The major publishing houses are trying to retain the goods-model of pricing while independant publishers are gravitating more toward the service-model of pricing. 

What this means for readers is similar to what shift toward digital music has meant (or digital video, or digital news). Namely, readers will have to be more aware, more vigilant, and more flexible with the increased options. 

As an author I want to make this as easy as possible for you. If you have a copy of any of my books on your NOOK platform (regardless of which region you're in), let me know and I'll get you a DRM free version for your platform of choice. I know that may not be the way to make the most money, but it's the way I would want to be treated, so it's the way I'll treat my readers. 


Monday, February 15, 2016

I've Got Your PG-13 Deadpool Right Here!

I got to see Deadpool last night. How shall I say this? It is awful and amazing. No matter your tastes or preferences you will find something in the movie to deeply offend you. If you're like me, that uncomfortable feeling of being offended will melt quickly into bouts of gut-wrenching laughter.

Disclaimer: This movie should not be viewed by anyone under the age of 31 without a papal edict and probably a fistfull of indulgences. 

Because of the R-rating for the movie there were several fans that petitioned the studio to release a PG-13 cut of the film. But for Deadpool, the R-rated bits are almost completely inextricable from the rest of the movie so that Ryan Reynolds said the only thing remaining would be a trailer.

While I haven't read any of the solo Deadpool books, I have always liked the character when he shows up (my favorite so far was in Hulk vs, you should check it out if you have the chance). And, after seeing Deadpool, I realized how much he was an influence for the main character in my novel Like Mind

I have often said that Like Mind is a PG-13 book and, after having seen what Deadpool did with a full R, I'm happy to keep my work in the PG-13 realm.

In Like MindI you get all of the snark, pop-culture references, 4th-wall breaking, action, explosions, guns, fighting, car chases, nicknames, romance, and unnecessary exposition of a Deadpool movie without the horribly offensive nature of Deadpool himself.

So if you can't bring yourself to see Deadpool because it is so very, very R-rated, then get a dose of the same type of humor in a PG-13 package.

Or, if you were like me and already watched Deadpool and you need a half-way-house for your soul to come back from the utter darkness, then pick up Like Mind as a brain-palette cleanser so you can once again speak acceptably in mixed company (by which I mean speaking to other human beings).

What did you think of Deadpool?

Would you have preferred a PG-13 version?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

6 Ways an Author is Like a Role-Playing Character

I've been doing this whole writing thing for a few years now and I have come across, in roughly equal numbers, writers with varying styles and writing guides promoting those various styles. I know writers who are hard-core engineers and plot out their stories using spreadsheets and Github. I know other writers who use note cards taped to the wall to visualize their tale. Others still eschew plotting altogether and simply write words until the story coalesces out of nothingness.

All of that got me thinking about Dungeons and Dragons. Follow with me here.

There's No Such Thing as a Bad Character or Writer

When you first sit down to start playing D&D (or any such role playing game), the first step is to create a character. The character is created by rolling dice and assigning those numbers to different statistics that define the abilities of the character. The rolls often determine how the character will need to be played, which attributes will be emphasized and which will need to be minimized.

If I were to roll up a character with a lot of strength and charisma but with very little wisdom or intelligence, I wouldn't play that character as a mage or cleric, but that same set of attributes would make a nice cavalier. There isn't really a bad roll when it comes to character, just limits on the way that a character can be played.

The same is true for writers. Some of us are ideal engineers, others are poets, others are marketers, and others are professors, but in the end every one of us can write a compelling story. The stats we rolled and the characters we play don't exclude us from writing, but they do force us to consider the best way to take advantage of our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.

We've All Got High Stats

Authors and D&D characters come pre-set with strengths. For the authors it's a mix of nature and nurture that gave them abilities that turn word-piles into stories. In many ways the abilities of an author are as random and uncontrollable as the roll of the dice for an RPG character. None of us had any choice in where we were born or to whom, we weren't able to decide our genetics or our economics. We all just came into this world with the attributes that were given to us and we have to make the best of it. 

The engineer, by trade, may excel at creating believable, well-researched worlds, while the philosopher may force the readers to ask the deep questions. Neither is any less a writer though their strengths vary wildly. 

We've All Got Dump Stats

The flip side of the randomness of our strengths is the utter randomness of our weaknesses. Some of us are born with disabilities or conditions, some of us develop them throughout life. Some authors are crippled by dyslexia others by depression. Some authors struggle with writer's block, unable to come up with ideas, while others are overwhelmed by writer's lock being swarmed by so many ideas they can't seem to choose which one to write. 

If your RPG character has terrible dexterity, that doesn't make it an unplayable character, but it does demand that you take the stat into account while playing. If you don't, the game or the writing may not be very much fun. 

Rigidity Causes Struggle

If you were to sit down, before rolling up a character, and decide that you could only play a warrior in your D&D game, you might be in for a long slog. If you roll up a character with no strength or constitution, your warrior will be doing precious little damage with each hit and have even fewer hitpoints with which to stay alive. You could, if you were committed, push through, get gear that minimizes your weakness, and never leave the side of your party's healer, but every fight would be a struggle to manage the stats of your character. 

Sometimes as a writer, I want to do things the way my heroes do. I want to write Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, but I'm not G.R.R.M. or J.R.R.T. (I don't even have that many initials). If I were to insist on writing according to a certain formula or in a certain style, I might be able to do so, but not without constantly managing the struggle of that choice (and likely relying on my cleric-editor to bail me out time after time). 

Flexibility Leads to Fun

If, instead of choosing to force your character down the path of a warrior, you decided to emphasize your character's strengths you might play it as a bard or a thief that doesn't need to be strong or tough. Having that flexibility gives your more options when playing the character which can lead to more fun in the actual game. Struggle is, absolutely, a part of both role-playing and writing, but so too is the fun of rolling high and doing awesome things. 

By no means am I saying that authors should only concentrate on their strengths and avoid their weaknesses, because we all need to work and grow in our craft, but if it's not fun some of the time, then it'll be increasingly difficult to keep going when the struggle comes. Keeping fun as a part of the work is the carrot that balances out the stick. 

Adventure, Loot, Level Up, Repeat

The point of D&D isn't to craft the best character with the best stats, but rather to go on adventures. The character serves as a vehicle for getting to the adventures not a replacement for the adventures. I'll be the first to admit that it can be fun to obsess over abilities and backstory and gear to tweak a character until it's shiny and perfect. But then that character needs to get beat up and messy as it tackles the challenges in its world. The reward for that effort and struggle is loot and experience that you can use to make your character better so you can go out and have more adventures to get more loot and experience and so on. 

As a writer it is absolutely important to set the stage for adventure by working on the building blocks. Take classes, learn grammar, dissect story, understand character, go to conventions, participate in workshops, even get a degree. But all of those things, as fun and important as they are, exist to get you ready for adventure, not to replace it. There comes a time when you, the shiny, perfect author, must go out and face the adventures. You may be battered and messy after the attempt, you may fail, you may need near-magical healing to get back on your feet, but without adventure there's no improvement and no way to get to bigger adventures in the future. If you don't get rejected submitting your story, if you don't get bad reviews, if you don't have lackluster sales, you lose out on the experience and the leveling up without which greater adventures would be much more difficult to handle. Also, the loot of the writing adventure can be pretty nice. Writing credits, awards, good reviews, and plain-old money all help to make the next writing adventure that much more fun. 

Metaphors break down at some point. You probably don't have orcs or goblins to slay in your writing life (unless you do), but the point is this: there is no one template for what makes a writer. If you're a dyslexic introvert with a degree in chemical engineering or a natural poet who's the life of the party and struggles with depression, you have just as much opportunity to thrive as a writer. But trying to fit yourself into someone else's template, trying to judge your weaknesses by someone else's strengths, or trying to perfect yourself before you ever dare put down words on the page will keep you from writing as surely as trying to run a thief with no dexterity or a mage with no intelligence.