9 Apr 2014, 7:58am
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Captain America, Anti-Hero?

Now that CAPTAIN AMERICA 2: THE WINTER SOLDIER has had a gigantic opening weekend, people are starting to talk about how it ought to have been done.

Take this post on Vulture, which says that Cap would be interesting if he was a prick. As supporting evidence, the author trots out Millar’s repugnant characterization of Steve Rogers in the first few Ultimates comics, adding this panel to his post:

Captain Freeper

Do we really think a guy who actually fought the Nazis would have the same opinion of France as some random member of the freeper cheetotariat? Yes, the Nazis attacked and occupied France in WW2. You know what we call people who mock victims of the Nazi war machine? Assholes.

So try to guess how impressed I am by the idea that Steve Rogers isn’t actually interesting unless he’s being some kind of jerk. (Not very.) There’s a weird mentality in comics that treats cynicism, misanthropy, and nihilism are somehow more mature than idealism; it’s a teenage boy’s idea of agency. It’s all about contempt: for people without power, for social rules and bonds, and for compassion. It’s a hero who “Does what has to be done,” which the narrative conveniently frames as acting like a ruthless thug.

But none of these stories are being created by teenage boys: it’s middle-aged adults, whether we’re talking about The Boys, or Wanted, or one of the New 52 storylines (like the much-discussed new Harley Quinn or Starfire, or the bit about the Joker’s face) that rub their hands together gleefully and sell ever-shrinking numbers of copies to their aging audiences. Clearly, the author of the Vulture article is deep into this mindset; why else discuss (and post a panel from) part of a story where Bucky is made out to be the killer that Captain America could never be, as though the American people couldn’t accept a WW2 soldier who kills Nazis? [1]

Nevermind that, based on where Cap was born and raised, he’s unlikely to be the France-mocking conservative reactionary the Vulture writer seems to expect. Nevermind that the big wave of anti-heroes seems to have passed and left us with very few lasting characters. [2]

More interesting is that Captain America has been around, and been successful, for decades. Comic book characters come and go and they always have. Some are superpopular and fade away. Some keep getting reinvented without really breaking out. Some fade into obscurity. How many times has Marvel tried to launch a Dr. Strange comic to middling sales and eventual cancellation? [3]

Most of these characters stick around. They’re ongoing IP, turning up in other characters’ stories, but they can’t sustain their own ongoing series.

Cap is one of those who can. Forget about the ridiculous costume (which they had fun mocking in THE FIRST AVENGER), he’s been popular for a long time, even with readers like me, who are not exactly overflowing with reflexive patriotism. He works in the comics (and has for decades). He works in the movies (as you can see by the box office and rave reviews). Where so many others have failed, he continues.

Instead of saying he needs to be roughed up to make him interesting, it would be worthwhile to figure out why he’s already successful. [4] I suspect it’s because the conflict is not inside him, it’s between his ideals and the distinctly non-ideal world around him. No anti-heroes necessary.

My spoiler-filled review of CA2: THE WINTER SOLDIER here.

[1] Yes, there were years when comics were ridiculous about the death toll that would come from superpowered combat in Manhattan. “Thank goodness the buildings the Hulk just collapsed were all condemned! Someone might have gotten hurt!” When comics became more realistic about the damage their fights could do, that was a welcome development. I just wish it hadn’t gone so far.

[2] Wither art thou, Darkhawk? What about you, Maggot? Shatterstar?

[3] Not that I have anything against Dr. Strange, who ought to be a wildly successful character, with the right writer.

[4] A trade collecting part of Mark Waid’s run is pretty much the only superhero comic my son has ever enjoyed.

Randomness for 4/8

1) What is NeoRealism? Video. Extraordinarily interesting contrast between neorealist and Hollywood movie techniques. h/t @RodneyRamsey

2) The Uncomfortable, a collection of deliberately uncomfortable everyday objects.

3) Sony gets Blender-made animated short pulled from YouTube even though they have no copyright claim to it. You can still watch it on Vimeo, though.

4) Vatican to digitize 41 million pages of ancient manuscripts. Of course, the manuscript pages themselves will outlast whatever file type the Vatican chooses to put them in.

5) Workouts inspired by your favorite fandoms. Heh.

6) What if the moon was a disco ball? Video. A question we’ve all asked at one point or another.

7) The Love Me Letters, Open Letters to Random People.

5 Apr 2014, 4:19pm
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Captain America 2 and Institutional Power

I was supposed to take my family to see CA2 next Wednesday but, while that’s still going to happen, I didn’t want to wait. So I caught an early matinee on Friday when I was supposed to be writing.

It’s a fun superhero action movie, and Chris Evans is better than anyone would ever have a right to expect him to be in the lead. Johanssen is just as great playing Black Widow as she was in The Avengers, but that’s what I’d expect from her. Evans is a happy surprise.

Spoilers for the rest: more »

1 Apr 2014, 6:47am
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A Regression Analysis Comparing Box Office With Meta-critic Ratings

Boom.

Quality didn’t much affect earnings on opening weekend, but after that? The better the rating, the more money. Check it out.

Oh, and I know what day it is, but this isn’t a prank.

Randomness for 3/25

1) The inevitable D&D-themed yoga. So cool, Brewster.

2) True Detective as Hardy Boy’s style covers.

3) I have never been as deeply moved by anything as this lady is about curtains. True salesmanship. Video.

4) The High Five Camera. Video.

5) Which pet should I get? A Flowchart.

6) Visual charts showing how people around the world communicate. Very interesting and completely authentic, I’m sure.

7) The ten words in English with the most meanings. Another chart.

25 Mar 2014, 12:36pm
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Sample of new Veronica Mars audiobook, read by Kristen Bell

Posting an audiobook segment to YouTube is a great idea. Give it a listen.

25 Mar 2014, 8:09am
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Social Media Creates Sleeper Hit, a case study

Last weekend, a new low-budget movie called CHEAP THRILLS opened in LA and Austin, as well as on iTunes, Amazon and whatever. It’s about a guy who gets fired from a shitty job and finds himself desperate for money to avoid eviction… on the night he and his buddy meet a couple willing to pay them to do crazy stuff.

Here’s the trailer.

It looks intense.

It’s also a surprise hit, with great per-theater earnings, terrific VOD revenue, and a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What makes this movie different from any number of terrific indie films? A great social media campaign. Check out this article on how they managed it. I have a non-academic interest in how this sort of thing is accomplished, of course, but it seems the short version is: great movie, enthusiastic friends with huge social media footprints, and a little craziness to attract attention.

Anyway, interesting stuff.

Let’s face it: these links won’t be getting their own blog posts

Like most people, I follow a link or check out an article and think “I should share that with folks!” Twitter’s good if you have nothing in particular to say about it (or just want to add something snarky), but some stuff deserves to be talked about. Well, I’ve gotten in the habit of leaving browser tabs open that I want to get to later, then leaving them sit for way too long. Blogging! Who has the time!

So, instead of just giving up and closing those tabs, I’m going to list them here with a little note about why I thought they were worth reading about:

To Stop Procrastinating, Look to Science of Mood Repair. Note: this article did not get me to write an extensive response to it.

Amazon-owned Audible lowers royalty rates on self-published audiobooks Is this the first sign of the long-expected rise in Amazon’s sales commissions?

Ian Rankin: ‘It took 14 years for my writing to pay’ Bestselling UK writer talks about how long it took him to find success. Ten books! Funny, after this Kickstarter is done, I’ll have ten books out, too…

From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author’s life? A lament on the fact that nothing is guaranteed for writers, especially sales. No mention is made of the economic collapse, of course.

Making Compelling Arguments through the Power of Story Author (and professional marketer) Kameron Hurley offers great advice on writing blog posts people will want to share.

I thought this was interesting: So What Do You Do Brendan Deneen, Executive Editor of Macmillan Entertainment? Short version: he hires writers to write work-for-hire novels in company properties, which he then sells to Hollywood.

The Internet is Fucked (but we can fix it) An argument to declare the internet a public utility, create real competition, and fix the terrible internet-access situation in this country. I’m sold.

Is Genre Fiction Creating a Market for Lemons? Cheap ebooks as used cars.

Is the “Seattle Freeze” a Real Thing? Science says yes! For those who don’t know, the Seattle Freeze is a sort of chilly demeanor that makes it difficult for new arrivals to make friends.

21 Mar 2014, 8:03am
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More on Veronica Mars

I watched the movie again, mainly because I really like mysteries. Last night, the family finished watching season 2 (It’s slow going getting individual discs from Netflix on a one-at-a-time plan) and I have to say S2 was better than I remember it. Obviously, Lilly Kane was the heart and driving force behind season 1; Amanda Seyfried’s performance was so incredibly charismatic that the school bus explosion–with its numerous but mostly faceless victims, plus Meg–couldn’t touch. Every ep of S1 showed Lilly in some kind of flashback or dream sequence, if I remember correctly; how could sweet, honest Meg lying in a coma compete with that?

Still, watching both seasons all in a rush was very interesting. In season 1, knowing that some viewers would miss episodes, several of the clues and story beats were hit in several different episodes. How many times did they “reveal” that Weevil was having a secret relationship with Lilly, and that he loved her more than she loved him?

In season 2, they talked about the clues they’d discovered previously, but didn’t play them like story beats. What’s weird is that S2 almost completely drops the bus story line for several episodes in a row. The season gets caught up in a bunch of mini-mysteries that are either tangential to the bomb story (At no point did I believe Terence Cook was a serious suspect) or completely separate from it, like the murder of Felix Tooms. Then there’s the whole plot line that takes Wallace to Chicago, or the Casablancas family business troubles…

In fact, there’s a lot going on but much of it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the supposed Big Mystery of the Season. It feels fractured, leaving Veronica to act without the same wrenching need to Solve Everything she had in S1. The driving forces that should have been there–her guilt over surviving and over Meg’s condition, plus her name being written on Curly’s hand making her think the bomb was meant for her–just don’t feel immediate enough.

Another choice that felt weaker was the decision to lose the family lives of Duncan and Logan and replace those characters with Kendall Casablancas and the “Fighting Fitzpatricks”. Yeah, it’s a fine thing to widen the scope so we see more of Neptune, but Irish gangsters aren’t anywhere near as compelling as a fucked up family. Papa Casablancas is only in the first few episodes, Wallace’s mom goes up in a puff of smoke when she breaks up with Keith, and Aaron Echolls mostly turns up in his jail cell. Keith and Terrence Cook are pretty much the only parents on the show, and the Cooks are not nearly as fucked up as they should be for a long form mystery.

Still, the episodic mysteries were as strong as every, and Bell is still amazing as Veronica. I like Logan as a character but I’ve always had zero interest in their supposedly epic love. Seriously. If S1 didn’t exist, S2 would have been one of the best shows ever.

S3 is up next, and I remember it being more soap opera/relationship-focused than previous seasons. I was also Team Piz back in the day and I was even more firmly Team Piz after the movie. Still.

Anyway, the movie: I was sure the show would not work once the characters were adults. There was something incredibly effective about addressing class issues through teenage characters. They’re screwed up by the system but not really to blame for it, either. Plus, school forces everyone to be in everyone else’s spaces; you can’t avoid your enemies if you’re stuck going to school.

It worked anyway, which gives me hope for a sequel. Supposedly Warner has a dollar figure they want to see from the movie before they sign off on a sequel and no, I wouldn’t back another Kickstarter. Whatever annoyance I felt at the Flixster thing has been washed away by the movie itself. Still, Veronica with a cleaned-up Logan, back to work at her father’s PI office? I’d love to see a resurgence of PI stories.

Anyway, the show and the movie are buzzing away in my head, making work on my own stuff seem dreary and unpleasant. Must break through and get back to good things.

15 Mar 2014, 2:27am
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I watched the Veronica Mars movie

Okay. As much as I was annoyed by the decision to distribute the movie through Flixster, I actually sat down to watch it tonight.

It’s good. I mean, very good.

The portrayal of Neptune is the most winning part of the movie: Everything that was awful about the divide between the rich and the poor has gotten ten times worse since the series ended, the place is more corrupt than ever, and things look bleak. The characters are back, obviously, and they’re great but it’s the noir tone that makes this work. The only real let-down are a few cartoonishly nasty villains taking their three to five minutes to strut their bullshit for old times sake. That stuff doesn’t have the power it did when everyone was in high school.

But that’s easily overlooked. It’s a good movie, and I have to admit that it’s nice to see a real mystery played out in (just under) two hours. I’m not sure how well a Veronica Mars tv show would play out with a grown-up Veronica, but I’m glad I decided to back it.

If you haven’t seen the TV show, the movie would still make sense, but I wouldn’t recommend it. A great many characters breeze in and out, and it can be tough to keep track of them all. Better to watch the show first, if you haven’t seen it. The first season is great, the second season is not as great but still very good, and I haven’t rewatched the third season in a while so I’ll have to let you know. I’m making my wife and kid wait until they’ve seen the whole series before I play the movie; I recommend that for everyone.

14 Mar 2014, 3:20pm
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Downloading the Veronica Mars movie and feeling like a commodity

Veronica Mars, as a tv show and as a set of characters within a set of plot tropes and conventions, is pretty fucking great. Seriously, I enjoyed the hell out of that show and the famous Kickstarter for it has given me a chance to share it with my son. There are so many things that I really liked that bores the shit out of him (any kind of fantasy, anything I write, Buffy, stuff with spaceship battles, whatever) that it’s a real pleasure to see him latch onto something cool.

So, when the opportunity to download the movie came (which is today, because today is the movie premiere) I took it.

I’m not what you call a movie-buyer. I own a few DVDs (maybe a dozen or so, most bought at yard sales) and I watch Netflix, but I’ve never bought and downloaded a full movie before. Still, I know it’s a thing people do. iTunes, right? Or Amazon? I’ve definitely seem Amazon purchases in my affiliate link reports.

But the Veronica Mars Kickstarter did not direct me to either of those options, nor did they stick a file on a server and send me a link to go fetch it. Instead, I had to sign up for Ultraviolet and Flixster.

Apparently, Ultraviolet is a service created by the studios that lets people download films without the worry of omg piracy, and why am I being forced to turn over my name and email to some third-party service just to get the thing I already paid for?

Because I am a commodity. I’m being turned over to these two companies so they can market to me, and they can add my account to their user numbers when they go hunting for new clients.

It’s disappointing. I’d rather watch the DVD, but that’s two months away, apparently. To get the movie now I had to become someone’s marketing opportunity, and I pledged a Kickstarter for the privilege.

The endless flood of updates into my inbox was bad enough, but this tears it. Not more big media corporate Kickstarters for me.

Randomness for 3/6

1) First sentences of famous novels, diagrammed.

2) Guy creates Kickstarter to interview loving couples to find out what makes relationships last. His results.

3) Pedestrian rollercoaster not as cool as it looks. Why couldn’t they just make the stairs twist so you could go up the loop?

4) Medieval Pet Names.

5) Ursula Vernon on becoming tired of reading fantasy. I’m having similar feelings.

6) Star Trek Into Darkness: What Came Next. lol

7) In 2005, a fifth-grader wrote a letter to her 20-year-old self.

Wrecking the idea that popular art is superior to unpopular art

There was a great piece on Morning Edition yesterday about art that becomes popular versus art that doesn’t. Is there some quality that makes some art successful and preserved forever or is it all just random chance?

Obviously, the big problem with a question like that is that you can look at only one timeline; there’s no way to look at an alternate world where the Potter books never took off (or they did, inevitably).

For those who haven’t clicked the link (you can listen to the short news piece or you can read a transcript of it) a Princeton professor decided to create a number of alternate virtual worlds to test the hypothesis that popular art becomes popular because of its inherent qualities rather than random chance. He created a database of music by unknown, unsigned bands and invited thousands of teenagers to listen and download their songs for free.

Those teenagers were randomly sorted into nine different “worlds.” In one control group, the teens did not get the chance to see which songs other teens selected. In the other eight, they did.

Try not to be wildly surprised, but different songs became popular in different virtual worlds. A song that was number 1 in one setting was 40th (out of 48) in another. Further experimentation established that there was a minimum level of quality below which popularity was not possible, but after that there was no predicting what would be successful and what would not. Read it yourself if you’re curious.

My problem with this is not the assertion that popularity does not come solely from quality, and that a piece of art that is well-known is not inherently better than something obscure. It’s always been perfectly obvious to me that wonderful and excellent books could/should have been popular but weren’t (I’m not talking about me, now).

My objection here is that the good professor chalks popularity up to “chance.” In fact, he (or at least the reporter covering his work) hits the idea of chance very hard. But that’s a black box.

I’ve talked about this sort of thing before, but there are a lot of effects that people attribute to chance simply because they are not well understood. What I would like to see is an experiment that examines the way those songs became popular in each virtual world. Was it an early surge? Was there an early surge that faced a backlash, with the more popular work getting a secondary surge? I’d like to know, and by that I mean that I’d really really like to know.

#SFWApro

26 Feb 2014, 12:26pm
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National Eating Disorders Awareness Week:

Per Postsecret:

postsecret regarding anorexia

This week, Postsecret has a theme because it’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. For women 15-24, eating disorders are the leading cause of death, by a long shot.

If you have or know someone with an eating disorder, please seek help or talk to a doctor.

17 Feb 2014, 6:28am
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The Dunning-Kruger-Howey Effect

As a followup to the post I put together linking critical analyses of Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings report, I have something brief to say: It’s clear that Howey’s data isn’t all that great, which he knows. It’s also clear that the conclusions he’s jumping to–even before he gets to analyzing B&N or whatever he’s doing next–are not supported by the data.

That’s too bad because this could have been the data I’m looking for. The book I published before last was self-published, and this year I expect to self-publish five more times. As I consider small press offers to put out the books, it would be really helpful to have numbers to look out.

Sadly, despite Mr. Howey’s bold conclusions, I don’t. Yeah okay the guy keeps talking about the limits of the data he’s collected, but he also talks as though the data has proved him right. Actually, he’s claiming to be proved righter than ever.

As the links in that previous post demonstrate, that’s not the case. It’s pretty clear that, once Howey got the data, he didn’t really know how best to use it, nor did he know what was absolutely not allowed. The enthusiasm and certitude behind his conclusions are textbook Dunning-Kruger Effect.

We’re all prone to confirmation bias. How many people dismissed what he said without really looking at it? How many people really looked at the report, recognized the flaws, then decided to believe it all anyway? It’s easy to believe flattery. It’s easy to stand in the mirror in just the right way to catch yourself at a good angle. We exert that sort of unconscious control all the time; that’s why we need smart knowledgeable people who know the rules. Howey may know how to write a bestseller but when it comes to data analysis he’s just another thriller writer. Also, it seems that his “Data Guy” is really just “Coder Guy.”

It’s too bad. I could have used expert advice. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have any to offer and he doesn’t even know it.

Link farm for informed critiques of the Author Earnings report

ObDisclaimer: I self-publish fiction and plan to self-publish more fiction this year. I am not philosophically opposed to the Author Earnings Report that Hugh Howey has begun. I am seriously dubious about several of its conclusions and some of the ways they are presented. For example, I don’t like that his comparison of reader ratings runs only from 3.0 to 4.5 instead of from 0 to 5, which is the actual possible range. Anyone who has looked at graphs knows that “zooming in” is a way to make minor differences appear more important than they are.

Also, Howey is planning to do additional surveys to include vendors like B&N but he’s already rushing to judgement on the “best” path for authors after only looking at Amazon data.

To be clear, I would like it to be true that self-publishing will bring in a lot of money; I’m just skeptical of Howey’s report and waiting for some expert analysis. As I find that analysis, I plan to link to it.

That’s what this post will be. I don’t plan to link to praise or skepticism here unless it actually examines the methodology of the report. So:

2/13/14:
Digital Book World points out that the AE report is heavily focused on successes. See also this unrelated post on Survivorship Bias which predates the AE report.

UK Crime Writer Steve Mosby points out an excluded middle in Howey’s conclusions, along with raising other questions.

On Absolute Write, author S.L. Huang points out problems with the statistics and what’s excluded, along with other issues.

Agent Joshua Bilmes points out this isn’t the first time someone has tried to calculate earnings based on a list of bestsellers and that Amazon’s rating system is hopelessly compromised.

In the comments of the AE report, author Ramez Naam points out some basic errors in assuming royalties (even if they could be accurately calculated by Amazon sales ranks) equal payments to writers going the traditional route. There are a great many comments on the report itself, but few are substantive.

A more in-depth comparison of pricing and rating.

Later:

Comparing self-publishing to being published is tricky and most of the data you need to do it right is not available by Mike Shatzkin

2/14/14:

Porter Anderson talks about the cultural push behind the report and against it. However flawed it is, it’s seen as a powerful argument.

At Futurebook, Philip Jones lays out the contradictions between Howey’s admissions of his flawed data and his sweeping conclusions.

Digital Book World, which had criticized Howey’s report yesterday (see above) now claims it supports their own (much disputed by indie authors) findings.

I’d meant to include only analytical posts, but this is something I see quite a lot:

First let’s be clear. This data is pretty shonky. There’s no real way to tell how accurate it is. But, in the absence of transparency from the industry itself (either Amazon of the Big 5) it’s the best data we writers have access to. And the story it tells is shocking.

So the data is “shonky” but the narrative is too exciting not to buy in. So far, this is a very common reaction.

Jim Hanas calculates his “Hugh Howey Income.” Mine is zero dollars, which is, I promise you, wildly incorrect.

2/16/14:

This post by a person who creates studies and databases will likely be the last one, because it’s just what I was looking for. The author of the critique has no bias one way or another in terms of how to publish fiction, and she has informed and detailed critiques of not only the way the data was put together but by the sweeping conclusions that Howey presents. h/t @mlvwrites on Twitter

I’ll add more of these as they cross my path. I think that last one does it. If there’s another critique as informed that touches other issues, I’ll add it but I won’t be actively looking any more. Also, I plan to write up a little something later on, summarizing what seems to be going on with this report and the furor around it.

Spoke too soon: This examination of Howey’s methods by Courtney Milan is really excellent.

13 Feb 2014, 9:19am
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MIT tries to turn shitty books into great ones through crude VR

Via fastcodesign, the folks at MIT have tried to create a book with a crude virtual reality component: a programmable book and vest that supposedly makes the reader feel what the protagonist feels.

Follow the link if you’re curious how it’s supposed to work. There’s an embedded video, too, which I didn’t watch.

Personally, I would be embarrassed for any writer that used this technology. Text will already made the reader feel what the protagonist feels, if you do it right. That’s the point of books (well, one of the points) and having a vest that constricts, warms or cools to simulate emotions is just a distraction from the work a writer’s words are meant to do.

12 Feb 2014, 11:24pm
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The Mallory Ortberg Appreciation Society

Anyone who’s been reading my Randomness posts will recognize the name in the subject header: She’s one of the writers and editors of The Toast, and she’s hilarious. For example:

Your Constant Vigilance Is The Only Thing Keeping The Shape At Your Window From Coming Inside

It’s A Bunch of Years After The War And Everything Is Different


Things That Actually Happened In The Movie Vampire Academy, A Movie That Is About An Academy For Vampires

“Are You There God? It’s Me, MacGyver.”

A Gender-Flipped Version of “The Bodyguard” Starring Kanye West and Brienne From Game of Thrones

There Is A Book Inside Of You (I’m so, so sorry.)

She’s funny, and I’m not wildly envious of her ability. Just, you know, somewhat envious.

Also, I made my son read “After the war…” because he’s big on the dystopias and after he finished he turned to me and said “That’s every book I’ve ever read.” I didn’t tell him that was because he won’t read mine.

  • The prequel to Child of Fire: see here for more details

  • Starred review from Publishers Weekly

  • Starred review from Publishers Weekly

  • Named to Publishers Weekly's "Best 100 Books of 2009" list. Get the audiobook here.

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