Pono Kickstarter Update

The Pono Kickstarter closed today, netting the third largest amount ever at $6 million.

While it’s still the only Kickstarter project I’ve funded, or even paid attention to, and it certainly had obvious advantages over rank and file projects, I think it’s a good example of how to approach Kickstarter funding at any scale. Or at least it seems to be from what I’ve read about such things over the past month or so.

It was obviously easy for the Pono team to add new rewards and new artists that had name recognition, but they did so in a well-paced manner that seemed appropriate to the project. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare or publicity involved, and I think that was in keeping with the overall tone. Welcoming, positive, maybe even a bit corny at times, but never slick or overbearing.

Updates were also regular, at 27 over the 30-day run of the project. Most of the updates were informative rather than sales driven, and several of them took pains to answer questions that bubbled up in the comments — another smart move given how eager trolls are to destroy anything they can get their hands on. On no occasion did I take the time to read an update and find it pointless or pedantic.

A certain amount of marketing-savvy and pre-production must go into high profile Kickstarter projects, but even at a much smaller scale I think the same process applies. Have a few new rewards in mind at launch, and if backers come up with others that are doable be prepared to shift gears and respond. Stay engaged with comments and answer trolls and backers as necessary, but always in a tone that makes you seem like the kind of person someone would want to give money to.

– Mark Barrett

The Uncertainty Principle

Following up on the previous post, it’s worth mentioning that while journalism can make use of storytelling techniques and still maintain its ethic, the routine crime committed by for-profit news outlets is the same as that committed by duplicitous authors: exploitation of audience uncertainty. This basic dynamic in communication between two people — one who knows and one who does not know — can be harnessed for good or ill by anyone, which is why the real test of a journalist is whether questions an audience has (or would have if they were more informed) are being answered, or whether audience uncertainty is being fed, led, and otherwise exploited as a means of generating ratings or sales.

Exploiting uncertainty (and its sibling, fear) is the modus operandi not of writers, storytellers and journalists, or even advertisers, attorneys and politicians, who often stoop to that level, but of con artists, propagandists and fear mongers. As a technique uncertainty is commonly generated by entertainers in all mediums precisely because it’s effective, but even then there are standards to such practices. The power of any fiction turns on withheld knowledge because the author could simply reveal all outcomes at the beginning, but as audience members we understand that the best experiences necessitate going along for the ride. What we will not forgive, however, is finding out at the end of a story that the uncertainty at the heart of a work was contrived: that information was withheld from us unfairly or that we were lied to in service of outright deception.

In the case of the missing Malaysian airliner that CNN has been exploiting for profit, simply understanding the context of such a search was and probably still is outside the cognitive capacity of most human beings because the scale of the search area is so vast. While anyone can confront how big an ocean is by going sailing on the high seas — or, alternatively, by looking at a globe and extrapolating — it’s not up to patrons of the news to do this. Rather, it’s up to purveyors of the news to anticipate or detect confusion and uncertainty and work assiduously to defeat it. Doing so, however, obviously shrinks the number of nutso conspiracy theories that can be sourced from the internet and debated by a panel of paid experts. (Here’s one example of how it might be done for web-centric news junkies.)

The test for whether you’re being honest or not in your communications with others is simple: how are you handling audience uncertainty? If you’re authoring a work of fiction, are you being honest in the telling? If you’re a journalist, preying on your audience’s lack of information means, by definition, that you’re not honest. You may get away with it for a while — you may even be able to make an Orwellian career out of misrepresenting yourself as an arbiter of honesty — but you’re still dishonest.

– Mark Barrett

Storytelling and Journalism

What is the overlap, if any, between storytelling and journalism? Well, that’s a tricky question. There should obviously be no overlap between fiction and journalism, because journalism is concerned with truth. If you profess to be a journalist but your reporting is a lie then at best you’re a propagandist and at worst you’re a fraud.

Storytelling is a murkier issue because the techniques that define storytelling are portable to almost any medium of communication. Not only do fiction writers tell stories but so do we all. Even children relate experiences not in a factual sense but as a narrative, picking and choosing among events, ordering events so they’re more compelling, and embellishing events so they’re more exciting.

It would seem, then, that journalists would be free to exploit storytelling techniques as well, but in fact they’re not — and they’re one of the few professions about which that can categorically be said. If you’re a journalist your first responsibility is to the truth of the facts you’re reporting, not to storytelling techniques that make those facts exciting at the expense of your professional obligations and ethics. (I know, I know, you’re blowing coffee out your nose because you know there are no journalistic ethics any more, but play along anyway.)

Yesterday, in announcing a new slate of programming, CNN’s new chief marketing weasel, Jeff Zucker, had this to say:

CNN President Jeff Zucker called [the new shows] “the foundation of our new prime-time lineup.”

In a statement, Zucker said, “The best journalism is, at its core, great storytelling. We are so pleased to welcome some of the finest storytellers in the business to CNN, the home to this kind of quality programming for more than 30 years.”

Coincidentally, as you may or may not know, for the past month CNN has been ruthlessly and brazenly exploiting the unsolved disappearance of a Malaysian airliner for the express purpose of making money. Using every storytelling trick in the book, including some of the most childish means of fostering speculation, morbid curiosity and lunatic thinking, CNN and its cast of purported journalists has turned an ongoing news event into an obsessive pursuit aimed not at the truth of the airplane’s disappearance, but at generating cash from the corpses of several hundred human beings.

Is that storytelling? Probably. Is that journalism? Not hardly.

Whatever CNN used to be, it’s noble heart died long ago. What’s left is not only an embarrassment to journalism as a profession, it’s an embarrassment to every storytelling profession as well. On the other hand, if you want to know how to make yourself rich off of other people’s tragedies, it’s easily the best example going.

– Mark Barrett

Flannery O’Connor: Cartoonist

Having crossed and recrossed Flannery O’Connor’s enduring literary wake a number of times in my life, I was intrigued when I ran across a book that detailed her more-than-passing interest in cartooning. (You can see a few of the cartoons here.)

It’s of course hard not to read O’Connor’s cartoons through the lens of her later success as an author, but as I worked my way through the book I became convinced that she had the eye and ear for cartooning, if perhaps not the signature flair. This in turn made it all too easy to suspect that what she first explored in cartoons she later explored in her evocative stories, but as soon as that thought formed in my mind I recognized it as belonging to the domain of the critic and slowly backed away.

What I was left with, then, was an appreciation for what she had created at a certain point in her life, and how that aspect of her creative life informed rather than confirmed anything else I knew about her, which was admittedly not much. That in turn reminded me once again that so much of what we think we know about anyone is only a facet, and what a horrible, self-aggrandizing conceit it is to think otherwise.

Flannery O’Connor’s pursuit of cartooning was as sincere as anything she is widely known for, and that sincerity shone through by the time I finished the book. She wasn’t interested in throwing off a few cartoons to widen or monetize her brand — which had yet to be defined — but was driven to do so internally, as part of who she was. If that reality collides with the conception of who O’Connor was as an artist, let alone as a person, that only confirms such conceptions are inherently flawed.

If you’ve ever enjoyed an O’Connor short story I encourage you to give the book a read. We are, all of us, more dimensional than our successes and failures, by which I do not mean to imply that O’Connor was a failed cartoonist. She wasn’t.

– Mark Barrett

The Importance of Technique

This is acrylic paint on a canvas:

While that aggregation of paint probably meets the definition of art in some way, and by virtue of its constituent parts is perhaps also a painting in some sense, relative to my intent it is neither. Rather, what that canvas represents is a variety of painting techniques I have tried over the past few months as a byproduct of exploring that medium.

Each time I work on a painting, which I tend to do in small pulses rather than sustained pushes, I take any paint I have left over and the brushes I’ve been using and I apply the paint to that canvas in various ways. Sometimes I work in a directed fashion, trying out a technique I’ve read about in a book or learned about online, sometimes I act impulsively or instinctively, but the goal in all cases is to explore and learn. And I’m learning.

Because a canvas can be apprehended at a single glance it’s much easier to see how individual techniques add up to both a whole and to an arsenal that can be used in future works, but the same applies to writing. The more you explore what you can do with words, and the more you learn how you yourself approach language and writing, the more likely it becomes that you will be able to realize the works you envision.

It may seem problematic to compare images and ideas because words are more logically connected than paint, but I mean the above image to be a direct analogy. That canvas is to painting what a notebook is — or should be — to writing. You are not obligated to practice techniques in the context of a coherent whole when you write any more than when you paint. Write a sentence fragment if that’s where your head’s at. Note an interesting detail, then express that detail in different ways. Write a single sentence that appeals to you, then rewrite it twenty times by adding or removing a single word and changing the order of the other words. What works? What’s muddy and dull, what’s clear and sharp?

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, comedy or drama, the power of your work comes not from conception but from the techniques you employ. If you can be funny or incisive or searing in fifty words then it probably won’t be hard to write five hundred in the same vein, but the reverse is not true. That’s the importance of technique in any medium.

– Mark Barrett


The Gatekeepers Are Dead

It has long been sanctimoniously asserted by the mainstream publishing industry that it alone can be counted on to ensure the quality of writing and discourse in society. While I have previously reduced that assertion to rubble on multiple occasions, it’s worth nothing today that the industry itself has thrown in the towel at the highest levels, openly trading its tattered reputation for cash from sources whose stated intent is to deceive, then abetting those same funding sources in that fraud.

That this is happening in journalism in companies that purport to hold themselves to the highest ethical standards tells you that the game is over in every other corner of publishing. This realization came to me, ironically, from news stories about PBS and the New York Times. The PBS story, which I happened across a few weeks ago, concerned the funding of a new series by its news division:

On December 18th, the Public Broadcasting Service’s flagship station WNET issued a press release announcing the launch of a new two-year news series entitled “The Pension Peril.” The series, promoting cuts to public employee pensions, is airing on hundreds of PBS outlets all over the nation. It has been presented as objective news on major PBS programs including the PBS News Hour.

However, neither the WNET press release nor the broadcasted segments explicitly disclosed who is financing the series. Pando has exclusively confirmed that “The Pension Peril” is secretly funded by former Enron trader John Arnold, a billionaire political powerbroker who is actively trying to shape the very pension policy that the series claims to be dispassionately covering.

I can’t say I was surprised that PBS sold its soul for money, but I was disappointed. I was surprised, however, when I read today that the New York Times is planning to use what are euphemistically called native ads in its new paid app, NYT Now:

The new, paid mobile app for iPhone and iPod, debuting April 2, will cost $8 per month, and will focus on aggregation and curation, with editors selecting stories from the NYT and the wider Internet for a “fast and engaging news experience.” It also marks the NYT’s biggest move away yet from regular display advertising, with all ads on NYT Now in the form of “Paid Posts,” NYT’s term for native advertising — or advertorial, as it used to be called.

If you’re not familiar with native ads, advertorials, sponsored content or paid posts, they are essentially the same thing: attempts to deceive an audience that what’s being presented comes from the editorial or content side of a business when it’s really coming from marketing weasels inside and outside the organization. As always, there are plenty of good people working in publishing who don’t support such tactics and who really do believe in standards — at least until their own paychecks are threatened.

Which is to say that if you still think you need to wait for or even ask for someone’s permission to write whatever you want, you don’t. So get to it. Because even if you write the worst thing that’s ever been written, you won’t be a fraud.

– Mark Barrett

Bing Catches On

At least to one website.

Eight to ten months after I gave up trying to get the Bing search engine to see my grandmother’s memoir on Createspace, it seems Microsoft’s search engine has figured out how to do so.

– Mark Barrett


Apple Maintains Innocence Despite Guilt

While I was away from Ditchwalk last year the legal system meted out punishment regarding Apple’s conspiratorial efforts to fix the price of e-books on an industry-wide basis:

As punishment for engaging in an e-book price-fixing conspiracy, Apple will be forced to abide by new restrictions on its agreements with publishers and be evaluated by an external “compliance officer” for two years, a federal judge has ruled.

Though the punishment is comically light, Apple remains determined to clear its tainted name:

Cupertino is not pleased, for example, to have an antitrust monitor who is responsible for making sure it does not violate antitrust rules going forward. Attorney Michael R. Bromwich was selected to serve as monitor, and Apple asked that his tenure be delayed pending appeal, but Judge Denise Cote denied that request last week.

Now, in filings with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Apple is arguing that it had no idea that publishers were colluding about e-book prices, according to Reuters. Any discussions it had with publishers were simply to boost competition “in a highly concentrated market.”

So on one hand Apple is a shining light of innovation, forward thinking and marketing brilliance, while on the other it’s a company run by dolts too stupid to realize that the relationships Apple entered into with multiple publishers at the exact same time and under the exact same terms constituted a federal crime. Good to know.

– Mark Barrett

Pono Kickstarter

As regular readers know I have serious issues with Kickstarter, in large part because the site/service can so easily be exploited for nefarious purposes. As RPS finally (and to my mind belatedly) made clear after flogging the site endlessly, when you’re giving money to a Kickstarter project you’re not buying anything. Instead, you’re investing in something that may or may not happen, which means the people you’re investing in need to have a great reputation to go along with their great idea.

I’m genuinely glad there’s a way for independent artists and creators to bypass gatekeepers and raise money for small projects, and from time to time I’ve considered the possible utility of the site myself. That I’ve never backed a Kickstarter project before is less a sign of where my heart is than where my brain is, because I know my brain would be angry with me if I put scarce personal equity into something that never materialized. (I do that enough on my own.) Having said that, today I backed my first project on Kickstarter for reasons that have nothing to do with Kickstarter, and I think the project I’m helping to fund is something you might want to consider as well.

For years Neil Young has been griping about the quality of music in the digital age. It’s a complaint I’m not only sympathetic to, at some point in the recent past I noticed that I had simply stopped listening to music for enjoyment for close to a decade. When I tried to figure out why it became obvious that my enjoyment of music ceased when the MP3 file became the playback standard. To bring music back into my life I tried using iTunes, but that proved to be just as bad, in large part because (unbeknownst to me at the time) Apple’s default sampling rate for ripped CD’s was less than lossless. Only when I discovered FLAC and Foobar2000 and was able to get CD sound out of my digital library did I once again start hearing sounds that had gone missing.

I want to stress here that I’m not an audiophile or a purist. I don’t need an oscilloscope to know what I’m hearing. Instead, I feel it, and all I can tell you is that digital music has generally left me cold. Not cold enough to go back to the hisses and pops and turntable maintenance of vinyl, but cold nonetheless. So when I first heard that Neil Young was pushing for a new standard for digital music I was all for it. Unfortunately, if memory serves, that was also a decade ago. (Or at least it seems like it.)

Well, that day is here. Sort of. As I understand it the PonoPlayer is ready to go and Kickstarter is being used as much to sell/reserve initial/limited copies of the device as it is to raise money for future development of the accompanying service. Still, if you believe in high-quality music and supporting the artists who make it, I think it’s worth considering what Pono is about and whether you want to chip in. At the very least you can help demonstrate demand is there which might encourage the big-money people to get off their stuffed wallets and buy in as well.

As for the risks involved, I’m confident that Neil Young isn’t going to take my contribution and blow it on a new couch, or something worse. Although he might be tempted to sink it into an all-electric Lincoln Continental. (I jest.) Currently, on day one, the campaign is halfway to its initial $800,000 goal. Given that it looks like the 30-day campaign will be fully funded in a day or two, and that it’s backed by people who have reputations to protect, I think the risk of the project falling apart are pretty low. Not zero, but close enough for me.

– Mark Barrett

Online Education and the Commitment Problem

There’s no question that the internet is a boon to learning. It’s a rare day when I do not pop open a browser and look up information that helps me solve a problem or move a project along. Compared with life before so much knowledge was available there’s also no question about which reality I prefer, even allowing for the inevitable costs and tech headaches that accompany such momentous change.

Given that others seem to share that preference it’s not surprising that there are widespread efforts underway to turn the internet toward education in a more directed fashion. From online courses that can be taken for continuing-education credit to the explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) and even the appearance of online-only ‘universities’ offering full degrees, there seems to be a genuine hunger for virtual academics, and why wouldn’t there be? Instead of having to alter or uproot your life to go where the knowledge is you can now simply log on and learn.

It’s probably also not surprising that some of the jazziest online schools and programs are for-profit. While making an honest living is a laudable goal in life, some of these for-profit online schools — like their for-profit brick-and-mortarboard kin — are nothing more than a skimming operation aimed at federal student-loan dollars. Couple premeditated leeching with administrative efforts to heap for-profit debt onto students at abusive interest rates and the worst of these schools are little more than a gussied-up Craigslist scam looking for student suckers.

Standing in opposition to the for-profit paradigm are fully accredited non-profit and governmental schools offering free MOOC’s. While academically laudable, it’s also true that some of these staid institutions are getting into MOOC’s for branding and marketing reasons, some are using MOOC’s to up-sell students on fee-based courses, and a few are acting as incubators in order to spin off for-profit start-ups that will eventually help enrich already bulging endowment coffers. Still, cynicism aside, a free course is a free course, and if a MOOC gives far-flung students a chance to learn at a distance I think that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, even if we narrow our attention to free MOOC’s and impute only golden motives to institutions hosting them, there’s a problem with this most benevolent form of online education. And as a recent New Yorker article points out, it’s a big problem:

An average of only four per cent of registered users finished their MOOCs in a recent University of Pennsylvania study, and half of those enrolled did not view even a single lecture. EdX, a MOOC collaboration between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has shown results that are a little more encouraging, but not much. And a celebrated partnership between San Jose State and Udacity, the company co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor turned MOOC magnate, also failed, when students in the online pilot courses consistently fared worse than their counterparts in the equivalent courses on campus.

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