Valuing Yourself and Your Work

On the heels of the previous post about money junkies it’s worth taking a moment to think about self-worth. The reason it’s an important topic is that if you’re not willing to set the floor on your own value, you can assume everyone else will set it at zero. In fact, only a few years ago there was a theory being floated that the smart play in the internet age was to give yourself away in every respect, including work you created.

Called the freemium pricing strategy, the idea — much like the overriding ethos of web development in general — was that eyeballs, marketing and branding are more important than anything else. Gather enough attention and you can cash in by monetizing your online celebrity. Now, if your product is celebrity that might be true, just as it’s probably true if you’re a money junkie and have lots of cash and employees to burn through. Likewise, if you have no compunction about abusing your own customer base, and in particular children and young adults, making free-to-play games can be profitable. Like street-savvy drug dealers, the makers of free-to-play games give their products away until users are hooked, then stick them with carefully engineered pricing strategies and deceptive promises that all but compel players to pony up real cash if they want to stay competitive.

Unfortunately, if you are an unknown, do not have a round of funding you can torch in order to attract your next round of funding, or you have a conscience, giving yourself and your work away will always yield exactly no money, which is problematic if you also like to eat and don’t want to live under a bridge. If you aspire to make a living doing something you love, or even doing something you hate, you’re going to have to give some consideration to your worth as a worker and as a human being. Depending on the state of the economy it’s entirely possible that the world will laugh in your face, particularly if the money junkies on Wall St. have blown the earning power of the average consumer to to smithereens and unemployment is through the roof, but still — at some point you have to draw a line in the sand.

Speaking of which, when you’re just starting out in your chosen field — or playing around until you figure out what you want to be when you grow up — it’s probably a good thing to be humble. Nobody likes a know-it-all or someone who is overly confident. If you’ve written a book and you’re sure it’s going to sell a million copies at $100 a piece — well, you get points for valuing yourself, but many more points off for being an idiot. By the same token, however, if you have zero confidence, even if only in your ability to bounce back from what will almost certainly be a setbacks, you’re probably going to fail.  Read more ]

Money Junkies

I’ve been reading a lot of posts and articles lately about people trying to get into this business or that, and about people being marginalized while trying to get into this business or that, and it struck me that while discrimination is never acceptable, the premise of having a boss also needs to be considered. Where it used to be the case that jobs were offered by companies that had been in business a while, in industries where get-rick-quick schemes were not common, let alone the main product, when it comes to working in tech the opposite is often true. In fact, if you take a job in tech, including interactive entertainment, it’s quite possible that the human beings cutting your checks will be money junkies posing as entrepreneurs.

What is a money junkie? Well, as the name suggests, a money junkie is someone who will do anything they can to make money. Unlike a normal businessperson who wants to do business, and more importantly keep doing business, a money junkie is determined to burn through as many resources as possible in pursuit of money, including those human resources called employees.

If you’re a money junkie yourself there might be some benefit in working for a money junkie, because they really do know how to squeeze the last drop of productivity from a human being before casting the dessicated corpse aside. If you’re not, however — and particularly if other human beings rely on your paycheck — the last thing you want to do is sign on to work for a money junkie. Yet that’s probably not what you’ve been told.

What you’ve been told is that by allying yourself with a money junkie you can make heaping piles of money, and in some extremely rare instances that does happen. Not surprisingly, the people pushing that million-to-one-shot message are the money junkies, because they need all the eager, bushy-tailed employees they can get. It’s like that when you’re a money junkie, because the employees who were bushy-tailed six months ago will soon fail to demonstrate loyalty, initiative and drive by impertinently cracking apart at the seams.

You may be thinking you’re too smart to be exploited by a money junkie. You may be thinking you’ve got the right stuff to succeed no matter who you work for. You may believe you’ve got to take any job to get your foot in the door. No, no and no.

Your job, before you take a job, is to avoid working for people who are going to grind you down and have an unpaid intern sweep your shavings into the trash. Fortunately, particularly in the tech world, there’s a way to test the waters without naively exposing yourself to money junkie abuse.  Read more ]

The Ditchwalk Indignation Scale

Following up on the previous post, about how 90% of the internet is righteous indignation and ridicule, I thought it might be useful to provide some context. While ridicule is of course childish in all instances, there are times when righteous indignation is warranted. Unfortunately, those times are few and far between when compared with the perpetual tide of indignation surging across the internet.

Not everything is worthy of true indignation, though it is admittedly easy to get lost in an argument and forget that what you’re talking about is meaningless. So next time you think you may have lost your bearings, or you’re not sure if flaming someone for their opinion about an espresso machine is appropriate, take a deep breath and consult the Ditchwalk Indignation Scale:

Practically speaking, the benefit of the Ditchwalk Indignation Scale is to remind us all that when we’re arguing about a 1 — which is pretty much all we ever argue about — we’re arguing about a 1. In fact, you can even use that point to express your righteous indignation. For example: “I’m sorry, but I have more important things to do with my time than argue about a 1.” At which point the other person may slug, you, allowing you to continue your discussion on a more substantive basis.

— Mark Barrett

Social Networking as Entertainment

Sturgeon’s Law states that ninety percent of everything is crap. Ninety percent of music is crap, ninety percent of food is crap (unless you’re starving, in which case it’s life-sustaining crap), ninety percent of television is crap, ninety percent of literature is crap, and so on.

Sturgeon’s Law is correct. Ninety percent of everything is crap, which means ninety percent of the social networking being done in the name of democratization and personal empowerment is also crap.

What’s interesting about social networking crap is that it breaks down into two symbiotic categories which are opposite sides of the same entertainment coin. On one side we have ridicule, which makes us laugh, and on the other side we have righteous indignation, which makes us cry.

Comedy. Drama.

It’s as if social networking is actually a medium of entertainment, and only incidentally concerned with socializing or networking.

Adding to the appeal of social networking as entertainment is the fact that ridicule tends to generate righteous indignation and righteous indignation tends to beget ridicule, meaning there’s no stopping them once they get started.

Looking for laughs? Log onto any social networking site and you’ll find someone making fun of someone, which you can then like or retweet or comment on. If anyone has the temerity to accuse you of ridicule you can respond with righteous indignation.

Looking for justice? Log onto any social networking site and you’ll find someone standing up to someone, which you can then like or retweet or comment on. If anyone has the effrontery to accuse you of righteous indignation you can respond with ridicule.

(If you were in third grade you might be accused of bullying or playing victim, but because you’re an adult using expensive information-age technology you don’t have to worry about that.)

Like every other medium of entertainment, the ninety percent of social networking that is crap would be harmless fun if it wasn’t also inherently dehumanizing. Unlike every other medium of entertainment, participating in the generation of all that crap diminishes our ability to appreciate the remaining ten percent.

— Mark Barrett

Publishing is for Professionals

One problem with allowing people to publish their work without first taking the benevolent guiding hand of the publishing industry is that writers are left open to all sorts of potential exploitation. Just as it’s easy to take advantage of an elderly person who’s had a stroke and get them to sign all sorts of papers and statements and turn their lives over to virtual strangers, it’s easy to dupe young writers into making choices and deals that are not in their best interest.

That’s why I’m thrilled — thrilled — to see HarperCollins’ Jonathan Burnham taking such good care of Harper Lee and her recently discovered long-lost novel, Go Set A Watchman, which she apparently wrote prior to writing her rightly celebrated masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird. I get sick thinking how Lee might have been ill-served by a lesser white knight incapable of anticipating a jaded public’s dubious reaction and providing a preemptive and detailed forensic defense of such an important discovery:

“Everyone had believed it to been [sic] lost, including Harper Lee herself,” Burnham said. “You can see that it is written on a manual typewriter from the period. It has on the front of it the address where Harper Lee was living at the time in New York. But if you read the book, more importantly, only Harper Lee could have written this novel.”

Thank goodness! Because in the dark corners of the publishing world you can only imagine how easy it would have been for someone with fewer scruples to take an early draft of Mockingbird and pay a ghost writer to bash out a few new chapters on and old typewriter, using the resulting bastardized mishmash not only to exploit Harper Lee but rip off an adoring and trusting public. Fortunately, that has obviously not happened.  Read more ]

The Sixty Percent Solution

This post is for those of you afflicted with the desire to write. Maybe you’ve tried all the right medications, maybe you’ve gone through rehab and gotten clean a few times, maybe you’ve even been through conversion therapy and pretended to be a happy human being who enjoys getting up and going to a job. Yet, for some reason your mind keeps coming back to an empty page.

If this is you, and if you’ve been at it long enough to write what you consider to be a large document — maybe fifty pages, maybe five hundred; it doesn’t matter — I’d like to pass along a little psychological survival tip that has kept me from doing something foolish over the years, either to myself or the project I’m working on.

While any first draft has its agonies, the fact that you don’t know how long your work will eventually be prevents you from thinking about your percentage of completion — assuming you’re not one of those numerologists who believes documents for certain mediums should always conform to specific page counts. Once your first draft is finished, however, you know exactly how much work you have to do to get through the next pass, and that in itself can prove daunting.

For example, if you’ve written a three hundred page novel, you know going in that you’re going to have to gut through a hundred and fifty pages just to reach the halfway point of the next revision. No matter how much you love writing that’s nobody’s idea of fun, and the more passes you have to make the more such awareness can take a toll, turning each draft into its own little death march.

Well, here’s the good news. When you’re revising a long document all you need to do is make it to 60%. If you can get there, if you can hang on that long, finishing the other 40% is easy precisely because of the math involved. (You may think, based on your prior history with math, that you’re not the kind of person who pays attention to percentages, but there is a primal part of your brain called the percental cortex that is solely devoted to doing exactly that.)  Read more ]

Little Scream — Black Cloud

In late November of 2013, for the second year in a row, I found myself staggering to the end of a six-month battle with the same massive document. As had long become habit, largely to preserve some tenuous connection with life outside the confines of the virtual pages that were my waking reality, I spent much of my writing time listening to several custom stations on Pandora. While I enjoyed the great majority of the songs that played, most of them came and went without intruding on consciousness.

From time to time, however, a particular song would grate on me until I silenced it, and on even rarer occasions a song would seize and hold my attention. Among that small number of mesmerizing songs, before and since, none stands apart like Black Cloud by Laurel Sprengelmeyer, who goes by the stage name Little Scream. In the moment, sixteen months ago, it was arresting in its beauty and ability to transport, and I still feel that way today.

While looking up information on the artist back then I searched for a video but could only find uploads by others, and I didn’t want to link to something that wasn’t officially released. I did find additional songs and performances by Little Scream, but Black Cloud was not among them. Recently, however, I found this:

I listen to a lot of music and I know what I like. Give me the choice between a beat and a groove and I go groove every time. But there’s another thing music can do, and that’s take you on a trip, and that’s what happens each time I listen to Black Cloud. I’m not sure what the musical word for that would be, but my word would be storytelling.

If Black Cloud takes you somewhere, and you like the trip, tell someone when you get back. Musicians in particular have always had a tough time making a living doing what they love, and I don’t think anyone will ever solve that problem. One problem the internet can solve, however, is making sure musicians and other artists who touch us know that their voices matter and are being heard.

Lyrics here. Site here. Album here. Videos here. Another favorite here.

— Mark Barrett

Digital Natives Prefer Print

Ran across an article in the WaPo that was interesting both for its contents and the fact that the paper is now owned by Jeff Bezos, emperor of Amazon:

Frank Schembari loves books — printed books. He loves how they smell. He loves scribbling in the margins, underlining interesting sentences, folding a page corner to mark his place.

Schembari is not a retiree who sips tea at Politics and Prose or some other bookstore. He is 20, a junior at American University, and paging through a thick history of Israel between classes, he is evidence of a peculiar irony of the Internet age: Digital natives prefer reading in print.

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, it’s definitely worth a read. Despite Silicon Valley prophecy, human beings are apparently not so easily led to the digital light.

— Mark Barrett

Storytelling and Real-World Violence

This is the final post in a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.

In setting out to prevent mass murder as much as humanly possible you have learned a great deal. Most of what you learned will do nothing to keep anyone from being killed, at least for a long while, but you no longer feel confused. It is understandable that people attribute motive to all kinds of things, including mediums of entertainment, and particularly to mediums that feature violence. It is also true that violent entertainment — along with every other aspect of life — may, in some instances, be a contributing factor in murderous mayhem, but it’s equally clear that there will never be any methodology by which such eventualities can be predicted. Even banning the most violent mediums would do nothing to prevent acts of violence from happening because acts of violence have been a part of human history since long before the invention of entertainment technology.

One thing you are convinced of, which you did not believe before, is that stories do play a big part in violence — but not the fictional kind that people usually blame. Narratives are always hard at work in life, including when people go berserk and start killing, but the most dangerous stories do not come from mediums of entertainment, they come from the omnipresent tension between society and the individual mind. They are persistent fictions that people believe in all the time, not just when the telly is on for a couple of hours or a game is played or a movie is streamed. They are beliefs that may even have no basis in reality, yet people are nonetheless convinced those beliefs not only explain how the world works, they unfailingly reveal how the world should be.

One of the most corrosive of these cultural narratives, by far, is the false belief — the protective fiction, endlessly reinforced by the profit-driven press — that we can ever truly know the motive behind any act of madness. Not only does this widely held mistaken belief lead to waste as everyone tries to assign and avoid blame after an act of madness, it perpetuates the false hope that understanding motive in one instance will enable us to predict and prevent acts of violence in the future. Worse, by pretending that the divination of motive can save lives, the real-world benefits of limiting access to the means of violence go largely unreported, and those who might otherwise consider such options remain perpetually misled about the viability of the choices before them.  Read more ]

Real-World Violence and Means

This post is part of a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.

Unable to prevent mass murder by focusing on opportunity or motive, you are now reduced to considering how to limit the means of such monstrous acts. From the outset you know this is not a particularly promising approach to protecting innocent lives because almost any object, including the human body itself, can be used to kill. Other than wrapping everyone in a straight jacket it will be impossible to prevent human beings from injuring each other, but with judicious limits it might be possible to decrease the total amount of carnage that berserkers commit in a given calendar year. You won’t ever know who you saved, and you won’t ever be able to keep people from going berserk, and some people will still die, but you might be able to limit some of the fatalities that would otherwise take place when individuals do become homicidal.

Although you rightly abandoned your plan to incarcerate people by the millions based merely on broad suspicion about their potential motives for going berserk, because doing so would still fail to prevent mass murders among the remaining free citizens, your realize that the same was not true for those individuals who were incarcerated. Even allowing for the fact that they might be more likely to go berserk compared with their free counterparts, perhaps as a result of being unjustly imprisoned, by virtue of being locked up the potential for any individual to commit mass murder would plummet. While supervision and isolation would certainly prevent some violent acts from taking place, even in the general population where the opportunity exists to murder people en mass, the means of doing so would simply not exist. Even if prisoners went berserk with regularity, the total amount of damage they could do would be limited — at most — to whatever carnage they could cause with a shank or other weapon before others intervened en mass.

Leaving aside full-blown riots, the likelihood of a single individual going berserk and taking out twenty or ten or even three people in a prison yard is severely limited by the fact that they will rapidly find themselves outnumbered. If they had the right weapons the plan would have a better chance of success, but among all the institutions known to man prisons in particular are notoriously loathe to permit the possession of exactly those weapons that make killing human beings easier. For example, while many prisons allow prisoners to express themselves with paints or drawing materials, including tools that could be repurposed to violence, few prisons allow personal expression through use of chemical agents or explosive devices. Even if you are the baddest of the bad in Cell Block C, the fact that you can’t get your hands on the tools that would allow you to kill many people quickly means you’re limited in the damage you can do.

Unfortunately, when trying to limit carnage outside prison walls such prohibitions do not apply. Not only are people allowed to own a wide variety of products that can be used to kill many people in a short amount of time, as long as those products are legal they can stockpile them for that exact purpose and nobody can tell them you’re not allowed to do so. Only after they’ve gone berserk and killed a bunch of human beings — thus proving that they are criminals if not also mentally ill — can citizens, by law, be deprived of many of the means of mass murder.  Read more ]