Art or Cheese?

“Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese,” said Charles Bukowski “On Writing”, which reminded me of something I was thinking earlier this morning as I was stuck in a long commute. Who do you measure your own work against? Do you hold yourself to a high standard, a low one, somewhere in between, or not at all.

I understand that for many writers their standard is a commercial one. Writers who have achieved worldly success are the measure of the craft. They look up to a Stephen King or a J. K. Rowling. They aspire to that. They measure their own worth against that.

On the other extreme are those who measure their own writing against the best books they have ever read. I’m in that camp myself, and I know just how far I fall short of that bar. I tell myself that I would know if I ever wrote something as worthy as “The Hour of the Star” or “El Juguete Rabioso”, and I’m pretty damn sure I never will.

And that’s okay, but it also means it’s perfectly all right in my mind that my books will never occupy a shelf in the bookstore of my dreams. That shelf space is too precious. The store is small and very selective. It’s also a commercial disaster, like all the best bookstores.

But the world needs more than the best bookstores. It needs the decent ones, and the good enough ones too, and it needs the decent books and the good enough books. If you only read the best books, you’d come to the end of the list pretty quickly.

Anyway, I can’t even produce much of a cheese. It’s either art or nothing for me. Art doesn’t have to be great. “[It] carries its own reason for being” (Bukowski)

Stupid Things I Have “Learned”

I was walking to the grocery store this morning – returning, because despite spending one hundred and seventy dollars I had of course forgotten the one thing my son asked me to get – when the thought popped into my head (of course it didn’t literally “pop”, that would have hurt as well as making a sound), the incredibly stupid thought that, according to a book I once read, decades ago, called “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior”, a real man should never be holding anything in his hands while he walks.

Seriously.

Because … reasons?

I have no idea why a real man should never be holding anything in his hands while he walks (although I could guess it might have something to do with fear), but I do remember reading that and somehow the idea got lodged in the old brain somewhere, only to pop out decades later, unbidden and unwanted.

I was not holding anything in my hands. I was walking. I was soon to be holding a coffee drink in my right hand while pushing a small cart with my left, so I knew it was coming, I knew I was shortly going to be violating that sacred principle.

If only this were the only absolutely stupid and useless thought that ever got stuck in my head, but sadly, it’s hardly alone in there. My brain is stuffed with such nonsense. All my life people have told me about the great benefits of reading, and I’ve read, read, read and read some more. I’ve read too many books by now. Way too many books. And although I’ve already forgotten most of what I’ve read (thanks to age and assorted brain damaging techniques along the way) some of that crap is still crammed in there.

It’s one thing when you’re young and just being exposed to the world and all those incredible ideas and the huge number of truly wonderful writers (not to mention the huger number of truly awful and hideous ones) and it sometimes seems like random chance alone determines what gets recalled and what is gone forever. The Way of the Peaceful Warrior was written by Dan Millman, if memory serves at all.

Partly this is a byproduct of nearly twenty years of working in bookstores, even though it’s been more than twenty years since I last did that. I had entire bookstores memorized back then, when I could close my eyes and navigate the store blindfold and correctly pick out the third book from the left on the second shelf from the top of the Nature and Gardening section and it would indeed be the book the customer had asked for. I was put to that test many times. I had a gift.

A stupid and pointless gift, of course, because eyes work better when they’re open and there was no point to it, just showing off, and now the price I pay for it is the ability to recall every title that V.C. Andrews and the people who were later paid to pretend to be V.C. Andrews after she died, ever published.

Eyes wide open work better. Now a “software engineer in tools and infrastructure” (S.E.T.I. is my actual job title!), I can only envy a computer operating system’s ability to delete whatever you tell it to delete and wish my brain worked the same way. The Way of the Peaceful Warrior and it’s nonsensical notion of not using one’s hands to carry things – one of the main jobs they’re really good at – would get flushed off disk forever, along with the many, many other stupid things I have so-called “learned”.

“The way is gained by daily loss. Loss upon loss until at last comes rest.” A certain translation of the Tao Te Ching put it that way. Perhaps Lao Tze knew how to forget. I seem to have no control whatever.

Lost in Spaces

I was sitting here sipping from a bottle of Honest T (“Just” Green Tea ™) when I noticed some writing on the inside of the bottle cap. Turned out to be a 6-word memoir: “Oldest couple on the dance floor”. You can submit your six word memoirs to honesttea.com/sixwords, where your six word memoir will have the absolute remotest chance possible of ever being read by anyone.

Or, you can self-publish your fiction.

Same odds, really.

I was recently revising a set of Python scripts I’d written to scrape the various websites where I’ve self-published over the years and was reminded of one amusing incident – it turns out that slightly more than one-half of every dollar I’ve ever earned ( from my free e-books) happened when Amazon decided to pay royalties on free downloads. They paid me for more than 6,000 copies they gave away of “Snapdragon Alley”. It seems to have been an ill-advised policy which they quickly discontinued (this was in 2010). I remember thinking, wow, this free giveaway stuff sure pays off!

Now I wonder how much Honest T would pay for my six word memoir:

“being a zombie, not so easy”

(turns out the page is no longer active! –

(which is only five words)

You and Your Number: Story Notes from a Dream

There is a statistical tool that continually measures the social value of everything all the time, normalized on the same scale of 0 to 100. It’s a stately progression of regression to the mean by nature, and includes everything – not just individuals but products, corporations, governments, agencies, programs, art works (movies, books, songs, etc …), anything and everything that can be ranked. It becomes the focal point of everyone’s life as well as the meaning of life, art and business. There are machines on the street, like ATMs, where you can find out your current ranking at any time, as well as the ranking of anything else. There are long lines at these kiosks all the time.

It was originally intended as an analytics program to track historical trends over time but somehow leaked out into the public sphere and conquered the world.

Popular celebrities might be rated 35.1, 35.0, 34.9 as they trend over time …

Most people are less than a 10.

In the dream that provided this idea, a big smoky fire in a building put a sudden end to many people, and their rankings along with them, in a sort of punctuated equilibrium of social status. They more or less trend to zero after death. This is true for everything. In this world there is no room for nostalgia. Nothing lasts. Nothing is remembered.

Nobody knows how the ranking is calculated – well, somebody knows. A man named Peter knows. He invented it when he worked for the AllDat Corporation, international legal and sole owners of all of the world’s information. The factors that go in to the rankings might be anything. There is a lot of general anxiety, a lot at stake all the time. People are desperate to game the system, improve their rankings, but it’s anyone’s guess how it works. Many have tried and many have believed they have found the secret, but no one really has. Some believe the whole thing is rigged, it’s randomized, nothing but a test program being contiuously fed with false, synthetic data. Others believe there are religious factors – are you doing good, are you helping others, are you following the rules, are you properly aligned with the universe. Businesses, artists, politicians, everyone is scrambling to tweak their ranking.

(I’m afraid this sounds like a fairly typical YA Dystopia of the kind currently littering every bookstore and ebook site. If I were to write it, there would have to be be a drastic element of farce at the core, the more ridiculous the better)

Recommended: Wattpad readings

Update time! It's summer so I've been outdoors where I can barely see my phone screen, so my Wattpad reading has lagged a bit while I indulge in physical books (Roberto Bolaño, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Richard Brautigan) but there are a few things here I've been keenly reading and am happy to recommend:

@MelissaJaneFerguson - The Neanderthal Girl is a very creative and excellent speculative fiction about the social difficulties future clones of Neanderthals might very well encounter. I love this story and want to binge-watch the series on TV. 

@PJWhittlesea continues to update his outback adventure "Loreless" while skipping around the globe. His main guy, Billy, is off the rails and on his way to who knows where. 

@ShalonSims continues her epic adventure The Dreaming in multiple volumes I like to think of as concurrent. You want to read them all at the same time as they skip back and forth across generations in a saga of multiple lifetimes.

@JuliaProud - if you haven't read any of her sci-fi stories and you like sci-fi, what are you waiting for? she's just great.

@LaraBlunte keeps adding to her travel tales "The Lazy Traveler" and I can never get enough. She's been seemingly everywhere and her stories are not your typical tourist attractions but much more what it's  really like to be in places like Uganda and Siberia. I am living vicariously off her words and loving it.

(Might as well be) Lost in Translation

I can now say in perfect honesty that my books have been translated into four languages. Yup, four. Add French now to Spanish, Portuguese and Farsi. Of course, it’s only one book in each of those four languages (and only three titles altogether) but hey, what the heck, and as of this morning there were at least 27 people around the world (including one in Morocco and one in Oman) who’ve downloaded the (always free) version of “The Outlier #1 Beepers”, or, as it’s called in French, “La Variable Aléatoire, Tome 1: Après le bip” (translation and title courtesy of the awesomely professional Laure Valentin of France). It’s also slated to be published in France by Les Éditions du Net, as well as available from Smashwords, Feedbooks and Kindle (where you’d have to pay a buck).

What’s it about”

“Dillon Sharif est le plus grand détective au monde spécialisé dans les ensembles de données. D’ailleurs, c’est aussi le charmant petit-fils des milliardaires fondateurs de AllDat Corporation, propriétaires légaux de toutes les informations mondiales. Mais lorsqu’une nouvelle énigme lui est confiée et qu’il doit enquêter sur ces mystérieux signaux sonores qui se déclenchent régulièrement dans la nuit, Dillon va devoir faire appel à toute son ingéniosité, et compter sur l’aide précieuse de sa fidèle assistante. Après le bip est la première aventure de la série La Variable Aléatoire.”

As the world’s foremost “big data” detective, Dillon Sharif is fortunate to be the charming heir of the the AllDat Corporation, legal owners of all of the world’s information. (Also available, for free, in English).

Obligatory marketing slogan: it’s like candy, and it’s free. who doesn’t like free candy?

Notice: this book has not been approved by any known harbinger of failure

Harbingers of Failure

Today I came across a story that FINALLY convinced me that the whole “data science” world is not utterly useless (joking! I’m joking! I do that.)

A study from the Wharton School of Economics uncovered the existence of a class of people I always suspected were out there, hiding in plain sight:

“We show that some customers, whom we call ‘Harbingers’ of failure, systematically purchase new products that flop. Their early adoption of a new product is a strong signal that a product will fail – the more they buy, the less likely the product will succeed. Firms can identify these customers either through past purchases of new products that failed, or through past purchases of existing products that few other customers purchase. We discuss how these insights can be readily incorporated into the new product development process. Our findings challenge the conventional wisdom that positive customer feedback is always a signal of future success.”

People who are likely to buy these doomed products are also likely to LIKE those doomed products, and provide positive feedback about them – in other words, they give good rating!

Once identified, it is merely a matter of tracking these consumers, following them around, inviting them into your lab, so to speak, so as to know which of your products really and truly have no chance in the marketplace. These are VALUABLE people, these harbingers. Think of how much time, money and effort could be saved merely by suggesting product notions to such a group.

“I LOVE IT” they exclaim. Straight to the trash goes the idea.