The World of 2026 … Again

First, a thank you to readers. A couple of months ago, I asked you to help me out with my vision of what the world would look like ten years from now. A group of intrepid souls realized that my request to answer the blog post in the comment box wasn’t working (my WordPress skills are Future technologyapparently lacking), and I got a wealth of commentary from them anyway. The most regular critique of my initial vision came in the form: “Your 2026 looks a lot like today. Surely much more will have happened by then.” That gave me pause. Leaving out geopolitics, which I didn’t have the temerity to predict (except to assume CyberWar I will happen in a few years, which I take to be obvious), things did move pretty much at current pace. I hadn’t fleshed out that assumption with deep analysis; after all, I’m writing fiction. But really, look back at 2006. More apps, yes; otherwise, not so different.

About a week ago, the economist Paul Krugman reviewed THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN GROWTH, by Robert J. Gordon, in the New York Times. Krugman, reflecting on Gordon’s thesis, says “The truth is that if you step back from the headlines about the latest gadget, it becomes obvious that we’ve made much less progress since 1970 — and experienced much less alteration in the fundamentals of life — than almost anyone expected.” He notes that between 1870 and 1940, “Electric lights replaced candles and whale oil, flush toilets replaced outhouses, cars and electric trains replaced horses.” But today, “you or I could walk into a 1940s apartment, with its indoor plumbing, gas range, electric lights, refrigerator and telephone, and we’d find it basically functional. We’d be annoyed at the lack of television and Internet — but not horrified or disgusted.” (Tell that to one of the chilly dudes waiting in line outside the Apple store for the latest iPhone. Wait … have our lives become trivial, or is the insatiable quest for life improvement focusing on that which is available?)

Anyway, I feel more comfortable with a world in which I don’t have to spend too many words explaining exotic, transformative technology. Thanks again for your additions and corrections.

The World in a Decade – Thanks!

When I asked you, my friends and readers, for your take on the world a few years from now, I expected comments responding to the post.

I waitedWaiting

and waited

and waited

… nothing.

Then I realized the comment section wasn’t working and your comments were in a special folder in my e-mail.  So I stopped mumbling under my breath. One friend was probably right that I jumped the gun having Congress start using genetic data to ration healthcare by five or six years from now.  Hell, just getting the roads fixed is in the Too Hard column for Congress.  My friend Weaver gave me a prescient warning three years ago that I’d better deal with drones, so I was glad to see his references to several articles (the media does tend to look forward at the end of a year).  I got some help on the likelihood of grid coverage or lack thereof and the staying power of wired connections. A member of one of the critique groups that are pulling me (slowly) toward good writing mentioned that the implanted blue tooth devices I imagined in my second novel are just around the corner, not the few years away I imagine.  Another friend comments that I haven’t really addressed demographics … I have no Muslims, just Bostonians, North Dakotans, Floridians, good old boys.  The third book will have Muslims.

Thanks to all of you!

Herman Melville … Sore Butt?

I wonder if Herman Melville’s butt got sore.

He looks comfortable enough here, doesn’t he?Melville  Or is that a look of pain?

I mean, the man wrote 206,000 words, then apparently did a rewrite, all in just a year and a half. . How many hours is that? Figure 100 – 200 words an hour and we’re talking 1,000 – 2,000 hours for the draft, and … I don’t know about you, but rewrite is twice as long.

So, let’s say at least 3,000 hours with butt planted firmly. Spread over a year and a half, that’s five and a half hours a day with no break, no vacation. Ouch!

I only mention this because my own backside has been complaining since I started writing. It’s an uncomfortable and unwelcome transition to add having a pain in the butt to being a pain in the butt (a somewhat longer-lasting problem).

Of course I live in a world of technology. Poor Melville! No FitBit or Apple watch to remind him to get his butt off the chair. No Herman Miller Aeron chair. (He probably couldn’t have afforded one, anyway.)

My butt still hurts if I write more than 1,000 words in a sitting, regardless of technology.

The Novel and Budweiser

Word has it that Amazon has taken yet another step in the value chain that is writing. They have the distribution part down pat, and the production part? Well, they have that, too. So where does a restless creative force go next? Pretty obvious: The making of the product, which is to say, the writing.

In the near future, if you’re a hyper-qualified Prime member and you’re knocking around Amazon looking for something to read, you will be able to tell Amazon the genre and the plot elements you’d like and their algorithms will whip up a story for you and drill it right into your Kindle. And you wondered where art comes from.

Now, maybe I’m biased, but that strategy will (of course) work well for Amazon in the short run, but I bet the result will be a Budweiser.

There is a little town in Bohemia called Budvar. Folks have been making beer in BudvarBudvar since before recorded history, and it is good beer. When you’re next in Vienna or Prague, ask for a Budweiser. You will get a beer from that little town in Bohemia, and it will have only a vague resemblance to the Budweiser you can get in the States. The beer from Budvar is the modern version of the beer Budvar has always made, and its flavor is a function of a master brewer’s palate.

When the Budweiser from Budvar arrived in the States, it was probably pretty similar to the delicious stuff that now comes from Budvar. But in the years since, it has been run through consumer testing, the cost accounting department, the advertising department, and so on. The result is essential Crushed Beerbeer. Beer stripped of any taste that might offend. It is light. It is bubbly. It is aggressively anodyne, if that is not an oxymoron.  It is high-priced water. As a result, not surprisingly, a whole new industry has sprung up – Craft Beer, aka beer that tastes like beer.

So, I’m wondering how long it will take for automata to reduce writing to its essential drivel and for Craft Writing – aka Not Drivel – to triumph once again.

The Difficulty of Simplicity

I keep running into the oh-so-true bits that slap me upside the head:

A comment from Benjamin Moser (New York Times Book Review):  “Today, I realize that clear expression can come only from clear thinking. And I know how hard it is to write something that is easy to read.”

A comment from Tim Mahoney (tpmahoney.com), who has a couple of great books set in the days of Prohibition, back before St. Paul, Minnesota had discovered “Minnesota Nice,” in last night’s critique group:  “watch out for the word ‘because.’  What follows it is almost always an explanation. If you need an explanation, you’ve often not done a good enough job of creating the scene or the emotion.”

The Value of Literature in 30 words or Less

It was a simple statement on a subject too often drowned in words:

Study of the Liberal Arts “is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”

It came from Anne Hall, a lecturer at Penn, as quoted in a New York Times column by Frank Bruni. He remembers being transfixed by her lectures on Shakespeare.  His telling took me back to my undergraduate experience, where I, too, realized the power and depth of Shakespeare because of a gifted lecturer.

These days, I am greedy for examples of good writing. I see in this short phrase the brilliance of an analogy that packs a world of meaning into a few words.  Would that we might often write with such clarity … and brevity.

What is writing like?

Roger Cohen wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about Israel a couple of Legoweeks ago.  He began by quoting a novelist.  The quote is perhaps the best commentary I’ve seen on the process of writing.  He said:

“(Writing) is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work very hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.”

Doldrums, and a question

Can it have been a month since the last post?

Oh, yes.  The holidays, perhaps the handiest excuse for inactivity.

My question to myself has been sitting there, sitting there, day after day:  Self publish or traditional?

In favor of traditional publishing:  It’s traditional.  People have been making a living at it for pushing 600 years (not counting the monks working the vellum).  Somebody out there knows the many-more-than a few hundred people I could contact by myself.  Somebody knows how the business is done.  Right?

Well, maybe not.  I see randomness, chaos and poorly executed fundamental practices.

So, self-publish, right?

Umm … maybe.  Amazon’s out there throwing business models on the wall to see if they stick.  One can self publish, hard copy publish, audio-book publish, get reviews from other writers, offer up completed books for reviews … all on Amazon.  I think of Amazon as an avuncular alligator, happily consuming writers’ products as long as market share keeps rising.  As self publishing flattens, as it reportedly has, does the alligator tear off your arm for a snack?  (Pardon my mutilation of metaphor.)

Dunno.  A couple more contests coming up.  More queries.  Freshen up the platform (Ugh!) Who knows?  Soon, I may get writing again.

Valuing Writing and Music

Claire Cain Miller writes an interesting article in the New York Times titled, As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up.

Yes, I know, we have been through what, three or four “computers are going to kill jobs” moments in the last half-century.  Economists think those prior scares didn’t kill jobs.  Miller’s article is worth reading, and it raises the issue of intellectual property.

Intellectual property?

Sure.  The general thinking has been that computers/automation/artificial intelligence is stripping the repetitive, lower-skill jobs, so we all ought to go to college and get jobs that require more brain and less brawn, right?  Create intellectual property, right?

Okay.  Great idea.  But consider the reality that intellectual property — songs, music performance, writing — is highly undervalued.  And that seems to be a trend, one which seems to be exacerbated by — guess what? — the same forces of technology that are supposedly driving us up the intellectual content curve.  Whether we are discussing musicians or writers or sports or (in the future) college professors, the new electronic media tend to make the few, the very top-notch (in public opinion), available to all.  So the great jazzman that’s not famous struggles to make a living.  Smashwords says that the average self-published author makes a pittance.  The wonderful university professor’s lecture is trumped by the famous guy on TED talks.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but we’d better find one.  Intellectual property really shouldn’t be free.

 

No Jealousy

Surely, if there are two professions in which there should be no professional jealousy, they are prostitution and literature.

WIlliam Faulkner said this.  Not sure why.  Are both providing similar stimulation, although typically in different locations?

Every time I read a phrase I would really have liked to write, there is that little twinge.  But on the balance, we are running a race against ourselves and our inner voice, aren’t we?  So jealousy is pointless.  Then we get to the publishing part, and need to act a little more like that other profession.