Storytelling, Motive and Tony Stewart

Over the past weekend, at a dirt track in upstate New York, three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart ran over and killed another driver, one lap after the two were involved in an on-track collision. The other driver, twenty-year-old Kevin Ward Jr., climbed out of his car and attempted to confront Stewart when Stewart came back around, at which point Stewart’s car struck and fatally injured Ward.

Because the internet is almost entirely devoted to righteous indignation and ridicule these days, and because media outlets are perpetually poised to profit from the deaths of other human beings, particularly if a celebrity is involved, there has been, as you might expect, a great deal of SEO-driven debate about this tragedy. Unfortunately, even the narrow segment of conversation which has not been fueled by cynicism and exploitation has broken down along predictable lines shaped by diverging presumptions and the reflexive human instinct to convert slim facts into stories that entertain, explain, sell and reassure.

You Don’t Get To Know
What everyone wants to know, and no one will ever know, is whether Tony Stewart hit Kevin Ward Jr. on purpose. That such a possibility exists is abhorrent, but also perfectly in keeping with Stewart’s established record as a hothead if not a bully. Long before last weekend’s race Stewart repeatedly made clear that he had no problem using his fists, helmet or race car as a weapon in on-track disputes — though it should be noted that he’s hardly alone in that approach to his sport. Still, if there was an established meme about Stewart going into that fateful race it was that he routinely converted emotional responses into physical confrontations.

It will never be known what Stewart was thinking before his car hit Ward. Even if Stewart comes forward and answers all such questions in an entirely convincing manner, the most anyone will be able to say is that he was entirely convincing. He might be telling the truth, but he might also be a sociopath with no compunction about lying, or so mortified by what happened that he has repressed the truth of his actions. In any case, because Stewart is alive and Ward is dead the media spotlight will inevitably feature Stewart’s version of events, backed by the full faith and credit of interested corporate entities like NASCAR and ESPN, which have the muscle to force almost any narrative into the mainstream.

If you only manage to keep one thought in your mind about this or any other tragedy that involves questions of motive, try to remember that you will never, ever know what really transpired. Because the moment you believe you do know is the moment when you stop living in the real world and start telling stories.

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Amazon Outrage Redux Ad Nauseum

Apparently more people are noticing that Amazon doesn’t care about authors or readers or anything other than making as much money as possible:

After months with Jeff Bezos’ fingers planted in their eyeballs, hundreds of pissed off writers are buying a full-page middle finger to Amazon. Their message is clear: please stop screwing us in order to promote world retail domination.

Sensing vulnerability, Google is attempting to ingratiate itself with authors and readers by teaming up with Barnes and Noble to provide a trivial service in a few public-relations-rich locations:

Starting on Thursday, book buyers in Manhattan, West Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area will be able to get same-day deliveries from local Barnes & Noble stores through Google Shopping Express, Google’s fledgling online shopping and delivery service.

The big picture takeaway is of course that none of these companies care about you except to the extent that you can be co-opted or exploited in their wars with each other. Moral of the story: stop caring about technology, technology companies, or anything other than your work and your readers. And maybe your local independent bookstore if you’re lucky enough to have one. That’s where the love is.

Update: In counterattacking on the authorial front, Amazon manages to shoot itself in the foot, fall down a flight of stairs, bounce out the door, roll into the street in front of a steamroller, then to stagger to its feet only to be crushed by a highly rated piano that unfortunately did not quality for free shipping:

The freshest part of Amazon’s call to arms was the history lesson. It recounted how the book industry hated mass-market paperbacks when they were introduced in the 1930s, and said they would ruin the business when they really rejuvenated it. Unfortunately, to clinch its argument, it cited the wrong authority:

“The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if ‘publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.’ Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.”

This perceived slur on the memory of one of the 20th century’s most revered truth-tellers might prove to be one of Amazon’s biggest public relations blunders since it deleted copies of “1984” from readers’ Kindles in 2009.

Amazon has apparently also decided to pick a fight with Disney, thereby opening up a war on two fronts in flagrant disregard for historical precedent.

– Mark Barrett

Making the Move to Mobile Web Design

After taking eight of the previous twelve months off from the haphazard blogging I do here on Ditchwalk, I knew when I picked up the mouse again that I needed to redesign the site to reflect a broader but also more personal focus. Less platform and profession, more craft and art. Less business and commerce, more being and seeing.

What I did not fully comprehend until I took up that task in February was that a sea change had taken place in computing over the previous two years, and that I would need to factor that change into the redesign of Ditchwalk. (I had noticed aspects of the change, but because I can be fairly slow on the uptake I didn’t perceive those dissonant experiences as part of a fundamental metamorphosis in computing.)

In retrospect, the loudest and most prominent signal came from Microsoft with it’s release of Windows 8. Unlike previous versions, Windows 8 came with a default desktop environment that emulated the screen of a mobile device, including touch-sensitive tabs perfect for use on tablet displays — then an exploding technology. As someone who has never owned a smartphone or tablet I reacted with a practiced and oblivious roll of the eyes because Microsoft is always trying to drive computing in directions that favor its various monopolies, often with disastrous results. What I did not realize was that the decision to try to kill off the desktop PC was not a sign of active corporate idiocy, it was a sign of reactive corporate idiocy.

During the two years following the release of Windows 8 Microsoft first denied it had made a mistake, then belatedly began trying to undo the damage it had done to its own brand by once again attempting to force everyone that used its products to adopt another self-serving interface metaphor. Watching this ritual inanity play out further convinced me that Microsoft’s initial decision was just another blind lurch by a company that cannot perceive its own meaning in the marketplace, but that was a mistake on my part.  Read more ]


Note Cards

Over the past few years, while initiating two personal non-fiction projects each running hundreds of pages in length, I found myself struggling to structure coherent wholes from the dizzying sums of the respective parts. I knew generally what I wanted to say in each case, and I had no shortage of content to work with, but in contemplating the structural expression of my ideas I became overwhelmed both by the complexity of the issues and the amount of information on hand.

Having learned to write in the pre-computer age, when every word had to be hand-chiseled into a block of marble, and having been liberated by the amazing technological advances in word processing that continue to this day, and generally being the kind of person who believes that software is a better medium for grappling with ideas than stone, I invariably tried to use computer programs to wrap my mind around each project. Unfortunately, each tool I tested proved more trouble than it was worth because visibility of the whole became obscured by the inherent limitations of the computer screen — by which I mean an old-fashioned desk-top monitor.

It’s a given today that the only thing worth holding in your hand is the latest-and-greatest smartphone, but I’m going to suggest you may want to expand your arsenal of helpful physical objects when you’re writing something that can’t be adequately communicated with your thumbs. And yes, as you undoubtedly surmised from the title of this post, I’m talking about note cards. What you may not yet realize, however, is that I really am talking about real paper note cards just like your grandparents used when they were structuring their long-form projects.Read more ]


It’s Not About the Money

Last week author Tony Horowitz wrote an op-ed in the New York Times detailing his tragicomic experience writing an e-book:

Last fall a new online publication called The Global Mail asked me to write about the Keystone XL pipeline, which may carry oil to the United States from the tar sands of Canada. The Global Mail promoted itself as a purveyor of independent long-form journalism, lavishly funded by a philanthropic entrepreneur in Australia. I was offered an initial fee of $15,000, plus $5,000 for expenses, to write at whatever length I felt the subject merited.

At the time I was researching a traditional print book, my seventh. But it was getting harder for me to feel optimistic about dead-tree publishing. Here was a chance to plant my flag in the online future and reach a younger and digitally savvy audience. The Global Mail would also be bankrolling the sort of long investigative journey I’d often taken as a reporter, before budgets and print space shrank.

Alas, things did not go well. If you’re eying the e-book boom Horowitz’s piece is a must-read because it comes from someone in the trenches, not someone selling you a shovel that you will eventually only use to dig your own grave. Based on the totality of his experience I don’t begrudge Horowitz his eventual retreat, but if you’re new to the writing game I think it’s important to understand what has and has not changed during the past few years of publishing upheaval.

Making money as a writer — to say nothing of making writing a career, even for a few years — has always been brutally hard. If you’re passionate and lucky and plucky and willing to do whatever it takes, and you meet the right people at the right time, and you have the chops, and you’re less trouble than you’re worth, you can, maybe, get a gig. If you do a decent job and meet your deadline you might get another gig, or even an actual job with regular hours and benefits and somebody else paying two thirds of your social security taxes. But it’s hard. Always.

While the e-book craze is in large part being driven by people who hope to profit from doing so, and it’s always nice to make a buck, the real value of e-books, and by extension, self-publishing, is the fact that you no longer have to ask someone for permission to write what you want to write. You may not make any money following your bliss, but when was that ever guaranteed? The best you could usually hope for was to write for hire, to get someone to pay you for services rendered, then use that income to cover the cost of personal projects. Even if you were a literary lion your high-dollar advance came with expectations and limits.

If you want to make money as a writer you’re looking at a hard life, but it was always thus. What’s changed — what the e-book revolution and self-publishing are really about — is that everyone now has access. So while you’re right to think about how much money you can squeeze out of the marketplace with your talent and guile, take a moment to ballpark the opportunity cost of the self-publishing and internet distribution options currently available. What would it take to replicate those opportunities if you had to pay for them yourself? A billion dollars? Ten billion? A trillion?

The e-book market will sort itself out in time, at which point it will become just another market you can sell your services to if you aspire to be a working writer. What you no longer have to do is wait for someone to say yes if you’re willing to bet on yourself, and I see that change as priceless.

– Mark Barrett

Amazon Catches Fire

While the world’s landfills can always use more toxic waste, Amazon’s introduction of the Fire phone strikes me as particularly problematic for people in airplanes, airports, hospitals, restaurants, foxholes, firing squads, artillery batteries and crowded theaters.

It wouldn’t surprise me if someone gets tossed off a plane for saying the wrong word at the wrong time. I would also like to believe that Amazon simply didn’t game out the possible implications beforehand, but given the amount of free publicity such an incident would generate I think it’s more likely that they did. Fire indeed.

– Mark Barrett


The Ditchwalk Turing Test Coma Algorithm

On the heels of news that the Turing test has been successfully gamed passed, I would like to suggest a qualitative leap in such efforts. In order to defeat the Turing test with certainty I propose the creation of a computer program that replicates communication with a live human being in a coma.

In doing so I predict the following:

1) It will be impossible for anyone to distinguish the Ditchwalk Turing Test Coma Algorithm from a real human being in a coma.

2) Because the Ditchwalk Turing Test Coma Algorithm will not use scripts it will pass the most stringent interpretation of the Turing test.

3) Not only will the Ditchwalk Turing Test Coma Algorithm prove unbeatable using any technology currently available or any technology invented in the future, it will also prove unbeatable if we attempt to divine the real coma patient using telepathy, ESP, seances or other supernatural forms of communication.

Harry Houdini would be proud.

– Mark Barrett


Turing Test Fail

No, the Turing test has not been passed by anyone.

Yes, the tech press are idiots and will happily report anything that produces page views even when they know it’s a lie. In order to feign integrity they will quickly follow up with a post that pretends to analyze that lie, which is in fact just another attempt to drive page views.

If you can’t pass the Turing test honestly, what do you do? Yes, that’s right, you game the entire concept of the Turing test, dumbing it down to the lowest level you think you can get away with, which, as just noted, is pathetically low in the world of technology.

Announce it and they will report, even if it’s blatantly wrong.

This is the world you live in. Ninety percent of the stuff you read started out as a press release from a dubious source with an obvious agenda, not as an objective fact.

Update: better commentary here, here and particularly here. And still a fail.

– Mark Barrett


No Means No

It’s been a long haul, but we’ve finally gotten to a place in the world — or at least in the U.S. — or at least in the aspirational version of the U.S. that is depicted by mainstream media — where we acknowledge that physical intimacy always requires consent from both parties. This is important because in the not-so-recent past it was considered bad form for one of the parties to say yes, meaning a whole lot of confusion got built into what should have been a fairly easy vetting process. On some occasions no meant no, but on other occasions it meant not yet, or try harder, or I want to say yes but I was told I’ll go to hell so don’t actually pay attention to the words coming out of my mouth. Unfortunately, not only did this often lead to hurt feelings, it also made it difficult to prove guilt when a crime was perpetrated.

It is only a good thing that no now always mean no. This is not to say, however, that confusion can’t still take place, as happened Monday night on Louie when Louis C.K.’s quasi-eponymous onscreen persona unilaterally decided he was going to kiss a recurring character named Pamela no matter how she felt about the matter. (You can see the moment, and the confusion it caused in at least one viewer, here.)

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