Friday, May 31, 2013

Write As If Your Life Depended on It

Image: "even snow melts" book cover
"even snow melts"at @Amazon
by Leo Walsh

I recently stumbled upon a short blog posting by marketing 2.0 guru Seth Godin called "As if your life depended on it" in my quest for information on  effectively market my recently published novel, even snow melts.

Ironically, Godin spoke to exactly what I was thinking about. Since there is a huge dichotomy between creating a work of art, and promoting it. Here is what Godin had to say (emphasis mine)...

"Art is best done all in, as if everything is on the line.  ... Marketing ..on the other hand, is ... a strategic game to be understood and tested."
Very true. Since when I do write fiction, I am completely focused on the creative act. Asking myself "What are my characters trying to say? Is this section, paragraph, sentence or word helping me convey my internal vision, the 'truth' as I see it and am trying to convey through my work?"

And then, I am faced with turning the work into a commodity. Which sort of bothers me. And then, I realize that the reason I wrote what I did was to communicate.

Godin continues, cautioning against being gratuitously commercial.
"The more you need to (must!) succeed at bringing the idea to market, the less success you'll encounter, because your fear will come through."
I think that we all sense that fear. Especially considering all of the free-time most writers I know devot to their craft. We toss our books to the world. And wonder if anyone will read them. Because, the dedication we show as authors aside, most of us want to either earn a living, or at least make some money from our ventures. And yet are often caught between the "sell out" vs. "starving artist" modes of thought.

Do we want to write just to be popular? Which means with calculation? Or do we just go all in? And write (or paint, sculpt, snap photos, etc) as if our lives depended on it?

I know that the best writers were artists. But many of them also had a flair for getting their works before people. Shakespeare wrote incredibly complex, poetic plays. And yet wrote for the popular theater. And I remember a story of young Jack Kerouac nearly camping in the offices of a perspective publisher who was skeptical of the free-flowing, disconnected but poetically exuberant prose of On the Road.

At the end of the day, I suppose, we've all got to live. And we have to live life to the full. So though it's a bit of a pain, why not create (live) hard, and market hard? You're only given one shot. And you may as well follow Neil Young's advice. "It's better to burn out, than it is to rust."

'Cuz rust never sleeps.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Infinite Jest: perhaps the finest American novel I have ever read

Infinite JestInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Leo's Rating:: 5 of 5 stars

There are some books that sit in the center of culture. Like big masses in physics, they either devour lesser tomes, or pull them into orbit about them. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest -- like Joyce's Ulysses and Dante's Inferno were for their eras -- is one of these rare books.

Wallace displays incredible virtuosity in this book. It is by turns satirical, sad, funny and frequently heart-rending. And, like all great literature, manages to be both realistic and yet peel away the reality, to show what lies beneath the surface.

The central concern of this book is escapism. And the lengths that contemporary Americans will go through to escape our empty, frequently atomized realities. Where people are not valued as people, but value streams for mega-corporations. Often, people will go in for mindless entertainments. Like the samizdat, the movie that is supposedly so engrossing that a viewer will be consumed with watching it over and over again. They will not eat, sleep or go to the bathroom. instead, they watch.

This, of course, is "out there." And Wallace keeps this sort of tongue-in-cheek. Because it is part of a preposterous sub-plot in the book. And Wallace is pretty deft with his humor, especially when dealing with politics. Both the inept, commercialized government, and its cross-dressing secret policeman Hugh/ Helen Steeply, who functions as a tongue-in-cheek allusion to J. Edgar Hoover. And Wallace makes even the radical anti-government actors equally outrageous. By placing the main radical group in North America, the Quebec Separatists, in wheelchairs.

This is post-modern deconstruction on a massive scale. And a gas.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Following Ourselves: Cognitive Dissonance and why behavior change is sticky

Image: Smoker in front of a hospital
Image: Smoker in front of a hospital
(Source: Twelves' photostream on Flicker)

# 3 in the Series "Applied Social Psychology" 

by Leo Walsh

Human beings are strange creatures. Despite what we think, we behave in odd, irrational ways. 

One thing that has always amazed me is how loyal people can be to decisions that they have made in the past. We all like to be consistent. If you've always purchased Acme brand detergent, you always will.

And advertisers and politicians use this mental inertia to manipulate us into taking actions or buying things that are frequently not in our best interest. And quite often, we as people are unable to change our behaviors. This tendency to maintain consistency to avoid the pain and embarrassment of being wrong is what Psychologists call "Cognitive Dissonance."

1. Leon Festiger's Classic Experiment on Consistency

Leon Festiger, a professor of psychology at MIT, ran a classic social psychology experiment in 1959. As always, the experiment was set up like a classic confidence game. In this one, "Pasty" is the subject. And the experimenter is "Conman." ...

Saturday, May 25, 2013

"Genre writers cannot write?" Well read this book and say that...

More Than HumanMore Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am always amazed when I read authors from the Golden Age of science fiction. They write with economy. And tend to say more in 250 pages than many contemporary series say over a trilogy weighing in at 1,000 pages. I am thinking of masters like Bester, Le Guin, PKD, Heinlein and Clarke.

And now, I can add Theodore Sturgeon to that mix.

More that Human is a very interesting read. I really enjoyed the way Sturgeon tells the story. Especially in the last two parts, where the story is uncovered bit by bit as the characters come to terms with repressed memories. The technique is effective and poetic. In fact, there were times that the general style, which often runs towards the literate Gothic, reminds me a lot of Faulkner. Who said that genre writers cannot write?

The big idea in Human is "homo gestalt." That we are more than the sum of our parts. And that living in a connected network will help us all "blesh" into a single entity by each individual providing exactly what he or she does best. Anyone who has worked in a large organization or played on a sports team can sense the truth of this. For example, take a simple business organization. The sales guru has not the patience to crunch the numbers. So the finance guru must set limits to the deals the salesperson is making. But cannot program the order system so it will not allow prices below a certain threshold. So the IT guy is called to code it. Etc. But, off in the wings, there's the Industrial engineer worrying about inventory levels. And the finance guru trying to work with the engineer to minimize warehousing costs. Etc. Etc.

The big problem I have with the book, though, is that he makes this all a bit creepy. When he's just creating a complex, poetic "conceit" for teamwork, or Synergy. Sturgeon also seems to have the Social-Darwinian idea that Evolution is a climbing up, a bettering. When instead, Evolution tends to be random and driven by population statistics and probability. And, lastly, is the emphasis on psychic powers -- which are, to say the least, pretty non-scientific. So I class More than Human as a Scientific Fantasy, more in the lines of a Ray Bradbury, than as a Science Fiction tale proper.

Quibbles aside, a very good classic Science Fiction. I almost gave it five stars it was that good. So it is highly recommended to fans of Science Fiction & Fantasy.

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Friday, May 17, 2013

It from Bits & Bytes?: A review of James Gleick's "The Information."

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodThe Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
Leo's Rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have not been this impressed with a general math/ science book since reading Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach /. Gleick's The Information introduces the reader in a pretty straight-forward way to the history of information. You learn about a lot of the key concepts -- coding, cryptography, the relationship between information & probability & entropy. And that Gleick manages to do this without reverting to the tough and often difficult math of information theory is remarkable. Since most people tend to freak out at when they see equations like this, the key equation of Information theory:

Information Theory's key equation
Fig. 1: Formula for amount of information contained within a system. 
What makes the equation interesting is that it is the same equation that describes the level of entropy, or disorder, in classical Thermodynamics. So it appears that information is essentially a force for ordering -- and is thus dis-entropic in physical systems.

And Gleick gleefully follows these ideas into some interesting fields. Of course, Information Theory stands behind computers. But it also explains the power of Gutenburg's printing press and literacy, a technology that allowed for completely reliable, accurate and interchangeable transcriptions of texts. And how this increased ability to capture and interpret information led to necessary standardization of core vocabulary (so we could understand each other better). And yet, instead of making us more regiments, those "redundancies" in language and vocabulary were, in a sense, necessary to creating truly noteworthy contributions to the world of information.

Because, following the laws of Information Theory, the most valuable message follows the rules just enough to be understood. But random enough to grant us surprise. Like, say, the regualr, almost mechanical fugues of Bach. That, for all their repetitions and formulaic adherence, still manage to delight listeners. Even today.

Gleick then expands his reach from the human world. And shows how scientist are applying the Theory to observed phenomena. He introduces us to Quantum Information Theory ("it from bit"). And how Information Theory has she light in evolution (through Dawkins) and how cells interpret the genetic code.

But Gleick finishes up on a cliff-hanger of sorts. Because, the theory addresses only information. And treats false information the same as true. And how our modern communications channels amplify these errors -- consider that about of Americans think that Barack Obama is a Muslim, despite the evidence. And points to the next level that needs to be approached: "Semantics."

But that, no doubt, is another book.

Overall, a great book. Better than Gleick's other excellent foray into theory, Chaos , The Information is a super enjoyable, easy to read book. That updated a lot of my internal paradigms about the current state of mathematical descriptions of the world that scientists apply. And made me think about communications channels -- Sender & Message & Encoding & Decoding & Receivers -- in a way that was refreshingly new.

Recommended for all science fans. And also anyone interested in communications -- writers, poets, artists, Web designers, etc.

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