Friday, April 26, 2013

Amazon vs. Everyone Else

As I've mentioned before on this blog, in the publishing world of the moment, the battle lines are formed: Amazon against every other publisher in the world. At least that's how it seems, to listen to noise of the writing blogosphere.

The latest salvo from Everybody Else comes from James Patterson, mega bestselling author (reportedly made $94 million last year). He took out an ad in the New York Times recently with the headline "Who will save our books? Our bookstores? Our libraries?" Now, these are three of my favorite things in the world. If I have nothing to read I want to be at a bookstore or library to find a book to read. Of course, I have tons of books to read. Still I find myself in a bookstore or a library at least once a week. It's close to an addiction.

You can see the ad at Joe Konrath's blog. He also has an interesting take on it in his text. The gist of Patterson's argument is: e-books are killing off print books, e-retailing of books (e- and print) are killing off publishers, and the death of bookstore and publishers will be the death of the book. Which will mean the death of the library. At least I think that's Patterson's argument. His solution: The government should do something about it. What exactly I don't know. Make a law banning e-books? Or banning Amazon? Or at least put that upstart e-retailer in its rightful place as a bit player in the book business?

I took logic in college, though I'm no expert at it, but it seems to me the only way Patterson's argument can make sense is that e-books aren't books. Because right now more books are being bought than ever. Print book sales have flat lined, maybe even slightly declined, but e-book sales continue to grow. As said in this discussion over at the Absolute Write forums (in which I'm taking part), Patterson seems confused and unhappy about how the world of books/publishing is changing, and he doesn't like it. So let the all-wise government figure out how to stop progress and keep his world the same.

As I said in the Absolute Write thread, Amazon has produced a better mousetrap, and the world is beating a door to it. Consumers like their prices. They like not having to spend gas to buy a book. They like that they can buy their books, running shoes, and coffee filters all at the same store without hoofing it from section to section. As far as e-books are concerned, they like having organization and wall space available to hand stuff, not to rest bookcases against.

Technology drives everything, I believe. Well, almost everything. I few things are driven by something else. If they don't embrace and exploit technology—they meaning the publishing industry and bookselling industry and the best-selling authors who have made their money using those industries for production and distribution—they will go the way of the milkman and buggy whip manufacturer.

But what he says about the book needing saving is poppycock. The book as a means of transferring information or providing entertainment is alive and well. More are being produced than ever before. Many of these lack the curation function that the publishing industry has provided, but they are available to consumers along side the curated ones. Prices are coming down. Ease of purchase is going up. Organization of personal libraries is easier than ever.

Technology marches on. Sorry, Mr. Patterson, that you don't like it. I'm kind of glad I've never provided you with any revenue.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Hanging Out with the Beautiful People

So I was at my desk last Friday, just after lunch. Four or five more hours of work for the day, then a day off Saturday, then work a few hours Sunday to try to get ahead of a deadline. Saturday evening was to be spent with our church Life Group, hearing the report of a couple who recently returned from a missions trip to Cambodia, where they worked with those who are combating the human sex trafficking business. All this in temporary bachelorhood, as my lovely wife is back in Oklahoma City, helping with grandchildren. Not quite yet on baby watch for our granddaughter due May 15 or so.

One of the women who works with us came to my office, saying my boss, the CEO, said I needed to go to the social event on Saturday evening. It was a fundraising evening for a children's museum the plan to build in Bentonville, built around a Dancing With The Stars theme. A silent auction and regular auction were to be part of it. The company had bought a table of tickets and needed some butts in the chairs. But the bossman was flying out the next day and thus couldn't attend, and the under-bossman was flying out the day of and couldn't attend. So they were dragging the bottom of the barrel and I got dragged up. "Cocktail dress" the tickets said. I said I would go but that I was charging mileage.

So Saturday after my chores, my weekly Wal-Mart run, and a little writing time, I showered, shaved, put on my one suit that fits, and drove the 19.1 miles to the Hammond Center, parked, walked in. Immediately I ran into the Beautiful People. You know who I mean: the ones who are always photographed for inclusion in the society magazines. Women in tight, low-cut dresses, their hair done up big and with loads of make-up. Their men photographed for balance. I worked my way through the crowd, appreciative for the view.

The prices for soda pop at the cash bar were way too high, the starting bid on the silent auction items were way too high, and I didn't really want or need either one. So I went inside the grand ballroom and found our company table. Already sitting were the under-bossman's wife and a female friend of hers. I sat next to the female friend and was introduced and we began the small talk. Eventually our CFO came in, without his wife, and he sat next to the under-bossman's wife. With the two women in the middle and the men at the ends, these four married singles probably looked like two couples (though I was way too old for the woman I was sitting next to). We were shortly joined by Mr. & Mrs. Bachelor. He's a young engineer with our company. No one else from the company showed up to claim the other four seats at the table. So the four married singles and Mr. & Mrs. Bachelor settled in for the mass banquet style meal and the show.

The food was typical banquet fair: good but probably loaded with MSG and other equally unhealthy things designed to pass as savory taste. Celebrity waitresses dressed up like the Beautiful People filled our water glasses when needed. The dancing was quite good. There were six local "celebrities": a woman VP with Wal-Mart, someone high up in Arvest Bank, someone from Tyson's Food, the Benton County sheriff, one older man who serves as a good will ambassador for the region, and one other whose position escapes me right now. They had obviously practiced, and the routines were great. The sheriff's partner had a pair of handcuffs tucked in her back belt line. When their routine was over she handcuffed him behind his back and led him over to the emcees. When they got their score, two uniformed officers came up and led him away, still handcuffed. It was all good fun. And I have to say the "stars" did very well. Their pro partners did well too.

And always, swirling all around, were the Beautiful People. Photographers went from table to table, putting groups of four to eight people together and snapping the pics. Two tables had Bentonville City Council members at them, and they were snapped. Another table was filled with 30-something couples, the women showing lots of skin and curves, and they were snapped. Our table was ignored, as well it should have been, with the four married singles looking like couples and the Bachelors being a couple.

In addition to the six celebrities were some dancing exhibitions, including performances by a couple of previous year winners.  By the time it got to 9:00 p.m, with the judges retired to calculate who won and the auction just about to start, I decided it was time to leave, find my pick-up among the cars of the Beautiful People, and leave those Beautiful People and drove the 19.4 miles home (different interstate ramp configuration). I'm glad I went. I wasn't as edified as I would have been at the Life Group gathering, and I'd have rather been there with Lynda than appearing to be the date of the woman friend of the under-bossman's wife, but all in all it was a nice diversion.

I just hope they don't ask me again next year.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Assigning Blame for the Boston Bombing

It happened yesterday, apparently a terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon. Two explosions, a fire in the JFK library, some uncertain number of other bombs found and isolated or detonated. People dead and injured, patients still in area hospitals with critical injuries.

Like for almost every major news event of the last 35 years (Reagan shooting, Waco fire, 9-11) I was at work. Instead of learning about it via a call from my wife, who was driving to Oklahoma City at the time, I learned it when I got out of a staff meeting and looked at Facebook. I had to make a quick dash to my mother-in-law's place then to the P.O., and programming on the radio filled me in on the facts.

Except the only facts, at that time, were: multiple explosions happened at the finish line of the Boston Marathon; people were injured; and rest of the race was halted. Oh, that's not all the radio announcers and commentators said. The told of the library fire and at least one person said it came from a bomb. The number of people dead was 2, 3, or 12 in various reports. The number injured ranged from 20 to 100. One of the dead was an 8 year old child, said in some reports to be a boy and in others to be a girl. ATF officials had found anywhere from 1 to 5 non-exploded devices.

For me this was all eerily similar to September 11, 2001. The news reports, both television and radio, gave us all kinds of rumors. That the twin towers were hit was undisputed, supported by multiple video feeds. That the Pentagon was hit was undisputed for the same reason. But I heard reports, on TV and radio, that the White House had been hit, the Capitol had been hit, that anywhere from 1 to 3 commercial jets were down elsewhere. Rumors were passed off as news, sometimes with "confirmation," sometimes without.

I wanted news yesterday, and there wasn't much news being reported. I suppose the radio thinks that they have to fill the air time, and filling it with speculation is as good as filling it with news. At home after work, turning into the television, it was pretty much the same. Lots of speculation, a smidgen of news. The speculation was mainly about who would do such a thing, and for what purpose. The possibility of these explosions being unrelated to terrorism, e.g. a gas line explosion, were immediately dismissed. That was an assumption that appears to have been correct, one of the few assumptions that was.

Just stating my opinion here, I'd rather news organizations just state what they know, and what they are trying to learn. Don't speculate. If commentators are filling the role of anchormen due to the news, put on their reporter's hat and don't speculate. Just give us the facts. How well I remember Dan Rather solemnly intoning, "James Brady is dead" on that March 1981 day. He was wrong, and I haven't listened to CBS news since (except during times I wanted to be abused).

So, all you news organizations who read my blog, cut out the speculation! Just give us the facts as you know them.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dealing With Adversity

I don't do adversity well. I may have written about this here before, though I can't remember for sure. I should probably define adversity. In the broadest sense it could be anything from war to a totaled car to dealing with a bully to a hangnail. In the extremes.

For me, I need to have peace in my life to be fully productive. The bills need to be paid, the house needs to be in order, the cars need to be running, the government should be a beneficent protector, and I should be surrounded by books. That would come close to being the absence of adversity.

So when we try to Skype with the grandkids, discover for sure that our webcam isn't working (which we didn't think it was but trying to Skype was worth a try), that's a minor adversity. When I don't remember that the wife wants that computer for a webinar and so call Dell at a bad time, that's adversity. When Dell fixes the webcam (taking about 45 minutes to do so) but at the same time seems to knock out the wireless capability, that's adversity. When for the next 4 hours they can't get the wireless back up despite multiple analytics, system restores, and who knows what else, that's adversity.

Five hours of phone time with a foreign call center tech, with the problem left unresolved, is not my idea of peace. Nor is three calls the next day from Dell about how much they want to get it right. I'm afraid that by the end of the call I was not very nice to the technician, nor to his supervisor.  Last night I rebooted the router, which we didn't do the previous night because Lynda was connected and said she had service. After the reboot I had service—but now the webcam wasn't working again. Sigh. I'm scheduled to talk with Dell tonight. Maybe I'll let them work on it, maybe not. Maybe my webcam and my wireless are at war with each other

In the realm of "things adding to a peaceful life," this morning I left work for an hour to go to the nearby tire shop and have a slow leak on one of the van tires repaired. In and out quickly was nice, although their debit card reader wasn't working, I had no cash and no checkbook, and so couldn't pay them the $17.26 bill. I said I would bring a check by later in the day, and they let me have the van. As I was driving back to work, they called me on my cell and said to never mind coming back, that they would waive the bill. Peaceful.

Now tonight, if Dell can fix the webcam in an hour and not screw-up the router, I will declare peace in my war with them. If I can complete my state taxes I will declare peace in my war with the government. Well, maybe not quite yet on that one. If I can get a couple of bills paid and the checkbook entries completed, I will declare peace in the household and make time to edit my work-in-progress novel.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Leave your homeland, your family, your life

Today was the first of two weeks of world missions emphasis at church. Our speakers were our own members, Bob and Bessie Black. They are retired lay missionaries who have an incredible story to tell. They were a farm family in South Dakota, having a good life but a poor living, as Bessie likes to say. Sensing the call of God, they moved off the farm to take a job in town, only to have that job disappear. Bob found work as a handyman over the next two years while Bessie stayed home with their four children.

Then they sensed God telling them to move to Olathe, Kansas, where they had no family, no roots, no home, and no work. They obeyed, and almost immediately found work and a home, moved their children down, and began worshipping in a large church there in our denomination. At that church they became challenged to give to world missions in a way they hadn't been before.

But then the voice of God spoke clearly to Bob that they weren't just supposed to give money to missions, but go to the field, to serve as missionaries. They were in their early 40s by then, normally past the age where sending organizations will appoint new missionaries. But they received counsel from their pastor, applied for service, and were accepted. After seven years in state-side missions appointments, they were off to Papua New Guinea, where they served for the next eighteen years.

Bob told the story of how he questioned God's calling to go as missionaries. He said he was a layman, and not in one of the professions that sometimes gives people to missions, such as the medical fields and teachers. God told him that He had missionaries on the field repairing air conditioners and water lines and building buildings, when He needed them preaching the word and building up congregations. Bob, in his years on the farm, as a handyman, and working with a water company, had learned the exact skills that were needed on some of our missions fields.

For our Life Group lesson after the first service, we compared Bob and Bessie's call to that of Abram as told in Genesis 12:1-9. Abram, at age 75, was told to leave his home (actually, his second home since he had already moved once), his extended family, and go to a place He would show him. Abram obeyed, and the rest is history. In a way, Bob and Bessie's move was a bigger move than Abram's. Not only in terms of distance (though travel and communication technology negates some of the distance), but in terms of a change of life work. Abram had herds he took with him and simply tended them in a new place. Bob and Bessie changed careers, left two older children in the States, and went where God wanted them. Big change.

In Life Group several shared how they had been "called" to move to the northwest Arkansas area. One couple said the winds in Oklahoma blew them eastward. Another couple, newly married at the time, moved from Iowa to join recently moved parents, but only after two events, one somewhat miraculous and one a life passage, had come to pass. Others had similar stories. None of these were calls to the mission field, or to the ministry; they were simply physical moves. But everyone said they could see God in it.

I hope I still hear the voice of God in my life. I want Him to direct my steps. Just five or six years away from normal retirement, I can't say that if it were up to me I'd make any kind of move at all. But I listen, and pray for the strength to act if that divine direction should come.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Pulled Multiple Ways

Life is busy, though this busyness is my own doing.

I want to write on this blog, but busyness seems to prevent me. Last night is a prime example. My plan was to write a review in the next chapter of the Carlyle lectures on Heroes. However, I came home from work and found myself much more tired than normal, at least in part due to the excessive busyness of the work day: a luncheon, a webinar, a couple of impromptu training sessions with engineers, working on prep for a training seminar next week, turning in comments to the EPA on changes to regulations, and submitting an abstract to present a paper at a conference. By the time I got home my mind and body were tired.

But not too tired to go to The Dungeon and work on my taxes. I was real, real close to finishing the trading business taxes, and wanted to complete them last night. I did so, was checking them over and relative to my spreadsheet records, when I found a $10 error—not in my favor. That would mean an extra $2.50 in taxes. Since the error was in my spreadsheet, not on the tax forms, I could have turned them in as-is and not worried about it. But I decided to fix it, which then meant transferring new numbers to and reprinting the tax forms. When I did I discovered I failed to carry the change fully on to one form, so had to do that again. By that time I was pretty much good for nothing, gathered the forms together to take to work today and review, and headed upstairs.

Upstairs not to write but to read. I have these two books out on inter-library loan, and I have to have them turned back by April 17. They are modern harmonies of the gospels, and I only need to read the essays in them—the explanatory notes of their methodologies—and take a few notes on their ordering of the events in Jesus' life, and I can turn them back. It's about 50 pages in each book. Shouldn't be a problem over a two week period, but it's reading that requires a lot of concentration, so it takes time. Last night I was able to read only about five pages in one with my limited brainpower of the moment.

As far as writing is concerned, my main task at hand is editing China Tour. As of Wednesday I was on page 115 (out of 253). Last night I was way too tired to do any. Tonight I better equipped mentally, and took it all the way to page 155, to the end of the key chapter with physical danger for one of the tourists; well, I guess for both of the tourists, and for their children as well. I think, taxes permitting, I could actually finish this first round of edits by Sunday and be ready to type them on Monday.

After that, assuming the taxes are really, really done and mailed or e-submitted, I will concentrate on the print versions of my first two novels. Doctor Luke's Assistant is formatted and ready to go, just waiting on the cover. I talked with the cover designer today, and I think she'll have a couple of options for me by Sunday. I'm also talking with a couple of cover designers for the print cover for In Front of Fifty Thousand Screaming People. I haven't yet formatted that book for printing, and won't till the logjam clears.

Meanwhile the writing ideas continue to fill my head until I almost can't contain them. Wednesday when I walked on the noon hour, I saw a scruffy hawk fly off an electric wire near the office. That gave rise to a haiku, which I was able to capture on paper when I returned to the office. Yesterday and today the books I will someday write on John Wesley finally came into focus. I captured the list of those on paper. Don't ask me why, in the height of my busyness, this series of books at are probably a couple of years away (at the earliest) from seeing paper) found it necessary to occupy some of my ready gray cells.

They yesterday and today the possibility of my writing a simple book on floodplains came into focus. It would have a name something like Floodplain Management: What FEMA Wants, Translated into Clear English. I actually have quite a bit of this written, scattered in various classes I've taught over the last three years. So far I haven't captured this on paper.

So, for all of this, I didn't get the blog post I wanted to write written on schedule yesterday. I don't know how well I'll be able to do three posts next week, but I'm going to try.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Review of the miniseries "The Bible"

I watched most of the miniseries The Bible on the History Channel. I meant to watch all of it, but forgot about it the first night. So I made plans to watch it the next week. I didn't know, however, that they were repeating episode 1 before episode 2. Somehow I found out about that late and saw the last twenty minutes or so of the first episode, and then the entire miniseries over the next weeks.

I enjoyed the series, but don't know how to characterize it. Is it documentary? Fiction? Something else? Obviously to fit the Bible into ten hours of programming, including commercials, requires severe editing. I'm sure I would have chosen some different things to include, and maybe excluded some of what they put in. But that would be being picky. Even if it had been twenty hours of programming, I probably wouldn't have agreed with everything.

A filmmaker clearly needs to add things to what the Bible says to change words on paper to images on a screen, so no problems with how they did it. For the most part they did an excellent job. I thought they especially did a good job showing how the Jewish leaders reacted to this new problem coming out of Galilee, and how they interacted with Pilate. The Bible gives us few words about this, so we have to add to it to make a movie. I think those responsible did it well.

They also have to create scenes with scenery. Since the Bible tells us little about what various places looked like, we can only guess. Style of clothing, type of buildings, vegetation, habits of the populace. All of these must be created from sources other than the Bible. Except as I will mention below, I thought they movie did well with this.

Here are a few specific criticisms.
  1. Almost every scene showed a desert land, brown and tan colored and devoid of vegetation. The only exception I can think of was the scenes in the garden of Gethsemane. What happened to the western arc of the fertile crescent I learned about in grade school and junior high? What happened to the land flowing with milk and honey described in the Old Testament? Sorry, folks, but I just don't believe it. At the time the Jews first took possession of their inheritance it was all a garden. I know climates can change over time, but I don't believe that, by Jesus' time, it had become a desert. There are desert lands south of Israel, and perhaps east as well. But Israel itself? I haven't been there, but I just don't believe it. Those who have been there tell me a different story.
  2. Quite a few things that happened at night were shown in daytime scenes. I didn't catalogue these as I saw them, and right now specific examples don't come to mind. I remember noting them, however, as the miniseries unfolded.
  3. Many legends of church history were included. These non-biblical vignettes are fairly well established in church lore, but are not established by the Bible record. Such as Saint Veronica wiping the face of Jesus as he slowly trudged to Calvary.
  4. The life of King Saul, predecessor of King David, was the main Old Testament story I thought was poorly done. I would have to see it again and take some notes to be able to expand on this comment, but I remember that was my reaction at the time I watched that part of the miniseries.
I did not, as I sat watching the miniseries, make a running list of all I saw wrong with it—or all I saw right. All in all it was good. Will I watch it again? For sure I will try to see the part I missed. I may watch it all again, as opportunities arise and as it is convenient.

That brings me down to: Is it fiction or nonfiction? I think it is something in between, what they now call creative non-fiction. It is close enough to the biblical record to be considered nonfiction, but has enough things added, enough interpretation, to not be able to call it documentary or pure nonfiction.