Friday, February 27, 2009

What It All Means

There's a video going around the Internet about the proliferation of technology and Asian people. I usually don't even watch these things; they're generally naff and/or a waste of band width (with the exception of the one of an American teenager sticking a fireworks rocket up his butt and having his friend light it), but this one was really quite thought provoking, almost frightening. I’ve seen it in several places, but this is the only one I can remember. At the end, they pose the question: What does it all mean?

They didn't answer it, so I will.

Partly, it means, in a relatively short time, we're due to be overrun with Chinese and Indian people. But at least they will all speak English. It also means that, as the 5th most populous “country” on the planet, MySpace better start pulling its weight in terms of foreign aid and UN military support.

But mostly it means we are all getting stupider at an exponential rate.

Think about it; if the most intelligent man in the world, back in 1800, knew, let's say, 10% of all there was to know, he would know only about .01% percent of all there is to know now, and in 5 years time, only about 0.0003473%. We are all, therefore, becoming less intelligent at an alarmingly increasing rate.

As writers, this means we are under pressure to churn out more and more information, while at the same time, facing the burden of having to absorb more data at a faster rate. Even with the advantage of having 5 times as many English words at our disposal than Shakespeare did, this is still a daunting task.

To put this into some sort of perspective: back in the 1980's, I became interested in the history of fingerprinting. Yes, I'm as very sad person, but that's not my point. The thing was, I studied this field over the course of a few years, finding esoteric texts, private correspondence and first-hand histories from sources I worked hard to locate and traveled far to find.

I then had the luxury of reading, absorbing, analyzing, cross-referencing and extrapolating my own findings and ideas from this information. From this, I published several articles in trade journals and newspapers and soon became a sought after speaker at conventions and universities.

All the materials that went into this effort now reside in a single, albeit fat, folder in my file cabinet.

Presently, with 4 Exabytes (that’s 4.0x10^19, and I won’t pretend to know what that means) of unique information churned out this year, it is not unusual for me to acquire just as much data—in the form of e-mails, reports, memos, specifications and project proposals—over the course of a single work day. How is a person supposed to absorb all of that? The answer is, they can't. The best anyone can hope to do is scan the most important bits and attempt to formulate an intelligent decision based on their sketchy understanding of the facts.

This, I believe, leads to stupid decisions.

The video claims that one weeks’ worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in their lifetime in the 18th century (which may be true; how many peasant farmers needed to know their BMI or remember their PIN number?). In order to feed this insatiable appetite for knowledge, useless or otherwise, writers today are left to scan and gulp down great hunks of indigestible data so they can spew it back out as, what they hope are, reasonable articles. These articles then go into that gigantic jumble of disarray that "QI" likes to call "general ignorance."

The next person to write on similar subjects might scan those articles and pull out a few facts. But these facts were probably drawn from other articles whose authors gleaned them from yet other articles that were based on quick searches of Wikipedia entries compiled from FaceBook postings. So the irony is, the more information we produce, the less we know, and what little we think we know was probably made up by an eleven year old delinquent pretending to be a 17 year old girl.

In all probability, in the time it took me to write these words, another sixty seven million gigabytes of data have been spun out, making me (and you) just that much more proportionally ignorant of everything around us.

One can only hope that this constant spinning of information will slow down enough for us to catch up. If not, we will all be doomed to watch our relative intelligence quotas spiral downward into statistical insignificance.

But I hope, no matter how bad it gets, that none of us will become stupid enough to shove a lit fireworks rocket up our butts.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Celebrity Life

This past weekend I did my first book signing. As I completely sold out my stock in under three hours, I guess you could call it an unqualified success, but it wasn’t all down to my careful planning and/or foresight.

Mainly, I was lucky in about three different ways. It was a lovely spring morning, and that brought a lot of people out. The bookstore manager, after a few trial and error attempts, put me in a location to die for (right at the top of the stairs so no one coming up to the top floor could possibly miss me, and right next to the very, very popular—just try to get a table—coffee shop). And there was another signing going on downstairs at the same time, which brought in additional people (I know for a fact that got me at least one additional sale).

So I’m trying not to let this go to my head; if I do another signing, it could just as well be on a miserable day in a deserted book store with me sitting at a table in the back by the Graphic Novels section. But at least I know a successful signing is possible.

The things I did right:

I went to the local paper about three weeks prior to the event and offered them the opportunity of interviewing me. They were very good about it and held off publishing the article until the day before the signing. Nearly half of the people who bought a book said they had heard about me in the newspaper.

I made a poster with my name, book name, photos of both and the large title “Local Author” on it. I printed out one but, after the bookstore manager saw it, she made another copy, put them both in A4 display frames and set one on either side of me on the table. She also took my books off of the display rack (about 15 feet away) and put them on the table as well. This proved the winning combination: anyone going to the second floor to browse for a book or get a cup of tea could not avoid seeing me; the colourful posters and pile of books told them right away who I was and why I was there; if they sat in the cafĂ© for any length of time, many of them became interested in what I was doing and stopped by as they were leaving.

So I got good press and good location, but I still could have blown it. The final key is to smile, make eye contact and chat to people even if they just stop by for a quick look (only one person who stopped at my table did not buy a book, and I gave her a business card with my web site address on it; you never know, she might become interested later). If you’re friendly, people will generally be friendly back; it was a bookstore, not a back street pub, the people were predisposed to buy books and were, overall, pleasant, so there was no need to be shy.

Other items that were not make-or-break but were nonetheless important included bringing a bottle of water, two pens and some mints. My business cards, while not necessary, also came in handy and I gave out almost all of them. I also wore my “Postcards From Across the Pond” tee shirt (what, you don’t have one?) but I don’t think anyone noticed.

The last item, but one I think really helped in a number of ways, was my AlphaSmart Neo. Sitting at a table with people milling around you can make you feel awkward, but if you have something to do, it helps you relax. I found typing into the Neo also reinforced the notion that I was, actually, a writer. While no one came over to ask what the cunning little device was (I get that a lot in pubs) I think it aroused some curiosity, and at the very least, it acted as an electronic security blanket.

If I had it to do over again, what would I do different? Not much. I might print off more than one poster, and bring my camera (I had to call my wife and ask her to come down and take a photo of me) but otherwise, I think I came across as a real, professional writer doing a real, professional writerly-type thing.

And only one lady came to my table to ask me where the toilets were.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Whitter On

You have the right to remain silent

In the event that you live in a cave somewhere and communicate by carving messages on stone tables, or use the Internet exclusively for downloading porn, you may not be aware of the Times On Line article that has the blogshpere and its resident bloglodites in a tizzy.

Here is my USA Today-esque bullet-point summary:

     - The Ignition: The Times on Line wrote an article
     - The Bad Thing: Said article lifted quotes out of context and without permission or link-credit to the author, Miss Diva
     - The Aggrieved: Miss Diva is upset, and rightly so
     - The Irony: The Times on Line is staffed by professional journalists, who reportedly look down upon bloggers as unprofessional, yet they engaged in egregiously unprofessional and unethical behavior themselves.
     - The Action: Link to the Times on Line article, link to Miss Diva and write a post to “tell the world that you and your writing and your blog deserve respect." (credit: Miss Diva: "Write on! Respect the blog"
     - The Point: To start a revolution demanding respect for bloggers
     - The Result: High profile for a shoddy Times on Line article (and Miss Diva) and a great subject for bloggers to get their knickers in a knot over.

I realize the above sounds rather flippant, but that's just what I do. For the record, I do believe Miss Diva has every right to feel aggrieved and her response is admirable. I do believe the Times on Line behaved unprofessionally and unscrupulously. And I do believe that bloggers are entitled to the respect they deserve. But I do not believe that bloggers necessarily deserve respect.

That’s a subtle difference, but an important one, so pay attention.

The first responses I saw to this brouhaha had me convinced they were coming confiscate our keyboards and legislate away our bandwidth. Curious, I followed the links.

The offending article, which I will not compliment with a link, is simply a lengthy, rambling advertisement for a book (which one might suspect is equally long and rambling) and deserved little attention. Instead, by behaving unprofessionally and unethically, they got a lot. So what are we to learn from this except that pissing people off is a good marketing strategy?

The article, in case you’re interested, simply poses the controversial notion that maybe too much blogging and/or revealing too much in your blog might not be good for you. Whoa! Stop the presses! On the ground-breaking revelation scale, they might as well have said that having unprotected sex with random strangers probably isn’t the best use of your leisure time. Blogging doesn't require you to buy drinks, and is less likely to result in a worrying rash, or late night, drunken phone calls demanding to know why you never return their messages followed by unnerving accounts of weeing on a stick and what it revealed.

I think everyone who has the notion ought to blog. It's free, it’s easy and, unless you live in a country run by a despot, it’s legal. It will also give you satisfaction in ways you never expected. Sure you run the risk of blog-addition but, as addictions go, you’re better off with that than, say, a three hundred dollar a day cocaine habit. I don’t know of anyone who has come to after a night of enthusiastic blogging to find they’ve traded their living room furniture for an eight-ball.

So have at it, just don’t anticipate automatic respect; it doesn’t come as part of the package like all those annoying Blogger widgets.

Miss Diva, herself, appears to agree with me. What she says is bloggers “…should demand the respect that their traffic, their influence and their talent commands.” I read this as: good blogs deserve respect. The attention of the billions of people surfing through cyberspace needs to be earned. This happens through good writing. Good writing takes practice. And practice is best conducted in private.

Just because you can post every word you write doesn’t mean you ought to. There are many fine blogs out there, but some (not yours, surely) make me long for the days when people used to write their innermost thoughts in notebooks and hide them in their sock drawer. If professional journalist do not respect bloggers, it is quite likely because the vast majority of bloggers do not deserve respect.

Miss Diva says if you put "Blogs Ruin Journalism" into Google you’ll receive 3,900,000 hits. I tried that and got exactly ten, and most were from blogs linked to Miss Diva. When I tried it without the quotes, I got 614,000. On the other hand, I got 32,500,000 hits by entering “Big tits are bad” and 121,600,000 for “See me naked.” So what are we to learn from this? Nothing, really, except that “Big Tits are Bad” would make a wicked title for a blog post.

But back to the professional journalist; even if they really do believe blogging is ruining journalism, can you blame them for feeling that way? Suppose you were a professional housepainter. That’s what you trained for and take pride in and it’s how you earn the money to support you and your family. Now suddenly, everyone on earth has taken such an interest in house painting they are all going around painting each other’s houses for free. Wouldn’t you circle the wagons? Wouldn’t you point out the ones who, given the results of their passion, should maybe take up a different hobby?

So I can’t really blame the journalists for feeling that way, but I don’t want to hand them any more ammunition, either.

Let’s use me as an example (because I’m all I have and I’m not likely to file a lawsuit against myself). I have been keeping a written diary since I was 13 years old. This was back when long distance communication was limited to smoke signals. As soon as the Internet came along, I started a web journal. I now have a published book, two blogs, a web site and I guest blog on about half a dozen other sites. But I also continue to keep a private journal. This is because I understand that many of my inner thought do not deserve an audience (you should thank me for this, really). In my private journal, I don't have to think about content, form or my audience; I am free to experiment without worrying about criticism. My private journal is batting practice, and I did a lot of it before I inflicted my writing on the wider world.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t blog; I’m just saying that, if you’re looking for respect, you might want to put off the public blog for a bit and start by keeping a written journal that you hide in your sock drawer where the kids won't find it. Then, after you’ve put in some meaningful batting practice, the World Wide Web will be much more grateful when you do appear, and in the meantime it will remain less cluttered and the Internet can go about doing what it was meant for: downloading porn.