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How Dare You

3 Oct

To Congressman Budd, and Senators Burr and Tillis:

This afternoon, I opened my inbox to see a brief message from my congressional representative, Ted Budd. Continue reading

Let the Pimpslaps Fly

15 Aug

The latest skirmish in Amazon vs Hachette happened while I was on the road, which worked out well for me, as I was forced to spend five days as passive observer to the initial volley and the subsequent Category 5 Opinionstorm. I’m actually grateful for this, as when I got home I had already read the email Amazon sent out to its Kindle authors; if I had seen it raw in my inbox for the first time, I probably would have roared and said Things I Would Regret Later.

Seriously. It’s not a very good email. It’s insulting and pandering, and when I asked Brown to read it, he said: “Amazon did know they were sending this to writers, right? Because I’m taking a heavy beating from these metaphors.” You can read the full text for yourself here. If you don’t want to read it (don’t blame ya!), the takeaway argument is that readers (and yet somehow the primary audience for this email was authors who publish on Amazon…) need to come together and put pressure on Hachette to lower its ebook prices.

They referenced Orwell.

The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

They referenced Orwell several times, actually, which is a huge warning sign to me because Orwell is synonymous with the little guy fighting against a giant oppressive force. Also? That giant, oppressive force tends to be a self-interested douche. Whoever wrote that email/press release seems to have intentionally misrepresented Orwell. Amazon could have chosen better, stronger quotes from any number of Orwell’s contemporaries to support their position, but Orwell wasn’t picked by accident. There’s never any subtlety when the O-bomb is dropped: it instantly creates the impression of conflict between good and bad, oppression and freedom, mind control and free will… It’s a trigger warning that an emotional argument is underway.

I can’t stand emotional arguments. I make them myself, and I’m as susceptible to them as anybody else, but if I’m being called in as part of Amazon’s own personal army, I’d like there to be a little more logic involved. Crowdfury is an exceptionally useful tool, especially for smaller persons and companies who do not have lawyers and publicists on staff. As one of those smaller persons and/or companies, I know firsthand that you do not release that particular Kracken unless there is no other choice. Crowdfury is nigh impossible to control, and can turn on you in a heartbeat because nobody likes to be used.

Don't knock the militant cuttlefish. Those buggers are small but grumpy.

Don’t knock the militant cuttlefish. Those buggers are small but grumpy.

Which seems to be what is happening here. There’s been a substantial backlash to Amazon’s call to arms for this exact reason. No number of invocations of the ghost of Big Brother can change the fact that they are a giant organization with entire battalions of lawyers and publicists. They do not need us to fight their battles for them.

I am not obligated to go to war for Amazon. I provide content to Amazon, they provide services to me, and that is the end of that. And they are arguably less accountable to me than to some of the other service providers I’ve worked with: my relationship with Amazon has the illusion of transparency, as I can check my stats to see if my books are selling, but I can’t request additional data to verify these sales have occurred. I have to trust that Amazon’s algorithms are working, and that there is a 1:1 ratio between actual sales and reported sales. (I have no reason to doubt this is exactly what happens, but I can’t read an article about ebook price-fixing without thinking, “Hmmm…”)

I’m probably not alone in saying I would fight their battles with them if saw a righteous cause. I happen to like Amazon. They have provided great opportunities for me and many other self-published authors. I like the quality of the paperbacks they print for me. And I love the way their monthly payments arrive on time! If I saw another company actively threatening Amazon, I’d probably go and get my old plowshare and start hammering it back into shape. However, that’s not what’s happening here. Amazon’s existing business model is not being threatened, and many (most) of the points they have made to support their anti-Hachette arguments have been disputed.

Each of Disney's lawyers is formed from a minimum of five smaller lawyers.

Each of Disney’s lawyers is formed from a minimum of five smaller lawyers.

By pushing this campaign, Amazon has made itself vulnerable. Best-selling authors are ten kinds of grumpy with them. And it’s quite possible that they have overextended themselves in going up first against Hachette, and then against Disney. (Disney, people!) Google Shopping Express, the fledgling Google/Barnes & Noble partnership, sees Amazon’s fight against Hachette as an opportunity. Since nearly a third of my income comes from Amazon. I’m watching all of this play out very, very closely.

p.s.: It seems a good time to offer up a new take on old advice. Here! I’ve redone the Orwell poster for you, free!

Follow the link below to download a free copy at Gumroad.

Thanks to the Guilford College library staff for letting me photograph their stack of old Orwells.

Download your own copies here. The .zip has two convenient print file sizes (4.5″x6″ and 8″x10.5″). If you want it in a larger size on heavy paper stock, let me know and I’ll see if I can get it into the store.

Who Made Us Gatekeepers?

9 Jun

Hi guys! Today’s comic touches on gatekeepers and technology. It’s a theme that figures heavily in the next Rachel Peng novel*, but won’t get too much more time in the comic. I pulled a segment from the upcoming novel if you’d like a sneak peak. It’s set in Mako’s office, where he and Santino have been hard at work to make the chip user-friendly. They haven’t made much progress.

As always, this is a rough draft. There’s no need to point out errors!

_________________________________________________

“We don’t know what the long-term effects will be,” Mako said. “Five, ten years from now? I might have the most splendid of brain cancers.” He rapped a superstitious knuckle on the wooden desk.

“But say the implant is safe.” Santino picked up the conversation. “Say Mako and I find a way to put controls on what data it can access, and there are no medical side effects whatsoever. Why wouldn’t everyone want one?”

“I…” Rachel flapped her hands uselessly. Because they shouldn’t! was one of those arguments that wouldn’t go her way at all. “They probably would.”

“They absolutely would! It’s the next generation of smart phones. More utility, more capacity—”

“Farmville in your head,” Mako added. “Major selling feature, right there.”

“—and don’t forget the collective.”

“No.” Rachel shuddered. “God, no! It’s bad enough with just us. There’s no way I’m going to add every single Verizon customer to my psyche.”

“Exactly,” Mako said. “So, we’ve got a lot of bugs to work out. Damping down the communal elements of the collective is almost as important as making sure the average schmuck can’t take control of a nuke. It’s not going to happen any time soon.”

“It will happen, though,” Santino said. “Eventually. Then the really big problems will start to show up.”

“Don’t.” Rachel held up a hand. “Just don’t.”

The men ignored her. “The implant isn’t cheap,” Santino continued. “What was it, about ten million per item?”

“If you figure in research and development costs, yeah,” Mako said. “But production costs are still incredibly high. It’s a quantum organic computer, so you’ve got to grow each device so it’ll be compatible with its user. Not everybody will be able to afford that.”

“Barely anybody, really. Just the upper class.”

“And then you’ve got a society where the wealthy are blended into their tech.”

“Not to mention each other—we might be able to downplay the role of the link, but there’ll always be some element of collective consciousness involved. So it wouldn’t be the usual issue of the Haves and the Have-nots… This’ll be one where there’s a small group of people who are intrinsically connected to each other, and to the tech which runs the world.”

“And those outside of the new collective will be a fuck-all ginormous group of people who won’t be allowed to sit at the cool kids’ table.”

Ever. It’ll be a whole new dimension to the usual stratified societies.”

“Jesus.” Rachel looked around for an uncluttered surface. When she didn’t find one, she dropped on the floor and put her head in her hands, the familiar scratching of a stress headache beginning behind her eyes. “This is what the two of you do in your spare time? Sit around and discuss how we’re going to destroy civilization?”

“Pretty much,” Mako said, shrugging. “Or save it, really, if we can find ways to kill these problems before they get traction.”

“OACET didn’t invent the implant. Who decided we were the gatekeepers for this clusterfuck?”

“You did.” Santino was an unpleasant combination of smug pink and jealous green. “Going public put a face on it.”

_________________________________________________

*Really have to come up with a title for this one.

 

On Rachel and Reading

1 Jun

Long-time readers of the comic may remember that I’ve been working on the Rachel Peng series for years. I’ve got giant files full of scraps of notes and stray paragraphs, and each time I found a new news item that could fit in her world, I’d open these files and slide that tidbit into its appropriate place.

Maker Space closed with Rachel coming to terms with her blindness. The next book in the series has her relearning how to read. She’s one of those people who has a stack of favorite books, and she can pick one at random, flip to any page, and plunge herself into a familiar world. In that respect, she’s probably like every one of you reading this. Now, imagine if that was taken away from you. All of those worlds you loved? Gone. Rachel can still read, but it takes her a lot of effort: ever since she woke up and found her eyes no longer worked, the only way she can visit these favorite worlds of hers is on brief business trips.

Semi-tangent: Audiobooks are often held up as a viable substitute for reading for persons with visual impairment, or just used as a substitute for reading in general. They aren’t. Listening to a book is passive. You are an audience to a performance. Reading a book makes you an active participant in a world that is only partially described, and you fill in the rest with your own ideas. What did the birds sound like the first time you entered the Shire, what did the sewers smell like under Derry… A good audiobook gives us some limited opportunity to fill in these blanks, but the rises and falls within characters and plot? Those are carried along with the performer, and tend to dominate the experience.*

It’s been my intention that Rachel will relearn to read with her fingers instead of her eyes. A few years ago, Yanko Design went into my plot note files. This is a South Korean company that’s been working on innovative technologies to translate printed text into Braille. They’ve developed a portable Braille tablet, as well as some other (ridiculously cool) product concepts. Fast-forward to this week, when I’m working on the part of the new novel where Rachel is relearning how to read, and I decide to revisit Yanko Design to fact-check their progress on these products.

As far as I can tell, none of them have gone into production. This seems kind of messed up to me, so I started looking around and found that no low-cost portable Braille e-readers exist.

what the actual

For me, this is an opportunity. It’s a handwave where smart people do things with wires and poof! Rachel has her magic device:

“The Braille e-reader was slightly thicker than a tablet, its back and edges sealed in some sort of silicone to make it waterproof. Calling it a first-generation device would have been generous: the thing was so far removed from the production line that it might as well have come from the technological equivalent of a farmer’s market. The silicone was lumpy, the metal shell beneath covered in deep scratches where a Dremel tool had kicked sideways, but the reader’s face was as smooth as glass. Mako and Santino had made it for her, and it had quickly become one of her favorite things in the world.”

In real life, tho’…

Guys, this is truly messed up. I’m going to do a little more searching to check if there’s a different barrier besides “the economics don’t make it worthwhile.” Maybe the prototypes worked for about three days and then caught fire, I don’t know. I do know that we are at a time and a place in our civilization in which these types of products should exist.

*Not bagging on audiobooks, by the way. We got the recording and editing of Digital Divide all wrapped up just this past Friday. Just saying that listening to a book is a different experience than reading it.

 

Thoughts on the legislative process and the NC State legislature

3 Jul

I was sick as a dog last night.  Just horrible stuff coming out of me all over the place.  I’d like to turn that into a cunning segue to lead into the discussion of the NC Senate, but no, it’s simply why I missed the Blogosphere explosion when the Senate attached a rider to a bill to substantially limit the nature and availability of abortion services in North Carolina.

Here is my personal stance on abortion: It’s personal.  Abortion is one of those topics that is, and will always be, filtered through a personal lens. Your life experiences, your religious views, your alignment with political parties, your background in science or philosophy or whatever… These and many other factors will shape your opinion of abortion.

You cannot legislate an opinion.  But last night, North Carolina joined with other states that are trying their damnedest to do just that.

In issues like abortion, due legislative process is essential.  Any comprehensive discussion of abortion must include topics such as socio-economic status, religion, health care (access to, types of, risks associated with, etc.), women’s rights, short- and long-term repercussions of changes to the size of the population… You see where I’m going with this. It’s complex and complicated and it should be, because abortion is an issue that matters to a lot of people for many different reasons.  You cannot arbitrarily decide that some of these associated topics matter and some do not, because each time the discussion is reduced or oversimplified, it loses complexity and becomes more and more about providing legitimacy for opinion.

When used appropriately, legislative process are the filter for personal opinion.  Legislative process allows individuals, groups, and communities a forum through which complex issues can be argued and a consensus determined (please note the use of “consensus” rather than “solution” or “answer,” because those are incompatible with an issue such as abortion, or war, or euthanasia, or any of the numerous other issues which are deeply rooted in opinion: hell, while we’re at it, let’s throw taxes and education into that mix, too.).  It’s what allows us to live together, because rational, reasonable human beings recognize that different personal opinions will result in conflict if we don’t have functioning mechanisms which force our opinions to play nice.

Last night… late last night… late last night going into a long holiday weekend… the NC state Senate introduced a bill that was ostensibly about Sharia law, but a last-minute rider was added that not only introduced limits on abortion but literally redefined the name and purpose of the bill to one in which women’s rights were restricted. This is not a new phenomenon.  In the 2012 elections, North Carolina went through a political shift and is now strongly GOP, and many such bills have been making their way through the state assembly.  The renamed “Family, Faith, and Freedom Protection Act of 2013” is just the most recent example of this.

Here’s the thing.  Personally, I don’t care what your opinions are on abortion.  I don’t care if you are a Democrat, a Republican, or Other.  Whatever.  You’re you, I’m me, and even if we disagree on almost everything under the sun, we can still talk about how hot that darned sun gets in July.  But I do care about the legislative process.  I care a lot about the legislative process.  It’s what allows us to find consensus so we can live with these issues rather than constantly coming to blows over them, and it’s what allows us to resolve one issue so we can move on to the next.  Progress is the result of discussion, not domination.

As I write this, I have the live feed for the North Carolina state Senate ticking away in my browser.  The current speaker is saying that he and others in the Democratic party had no idea that a women’s health issue would be tacked on a late-night bill.  He has just made the point that “The citizens of North Carolina have not had the opportunity to speak towards this bill” and that 45 minutes of debate is not enough time to even scratch the surface of these issues.

Folks, this is not just about abortion, nor it is exclusively a women’s issue.  This is the legislative process tossed aside because it is an inconvenient barrier to the official sanctioning of opinion.  I am aware of it now because the current topic is a woman’s issue–if this had something to do with car dealerships or mining rights, for example, I would have never heard about it–but it could just have easily been legislation passed on a topic that does not directly involve me and had the same significance.

This is happening all over the country.  It happened in Texas last week, and North Carolina last night and today.  It’s been happening for decades, and it’ll keep happening until we let our politicians know that we actually do recognize the legislative process is the only way that we can participate in a shared civil society.

Our opinions can be assholes.  The legislative process is pretty much the only reasonable recourse we have to keep them in check.  Even if we disagree on abortion, I hope we can all agree on that.