Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Artificial Scarcity (or: Damn You Konami)

I didn't want to buy a PlayStation 4 today. Yet as I type this, my new PlayStation 4 is downloading a game demo called P.T. that, as of tomorrow, will no longer exist.

I blame Konami. Also publishers' failure to come to grips with an increasingly post-scarcity world for intellectual property. But mostly Konami.

Back up a bit. When I was a young lad I came across a book by David Peters (who is Peter David's secret identity) called Psi-Man: Main Street D.O.A. It was book three in a series starring a telekinetic Aikido-master Quaker and his telepathic German Shepard. It was, frankly, awesome: funny, action-packed, sexy, and skewering the living hell out of Walt Disney.

When I got older I looked around for the rest of the series, but it was out of print when I found it and things hadn't improved. I ended up asking Peter David himself if it would ever come out as an eBook, and he explained that 1. it was a work-for-hire series he had no control over (that something like Psi-Man was work for hire is still bizarre to me) and 2. that it was out of print for a reason and unlikely to be revived again. I still haven't read the complete series.

Some years later, I got heavily into Warhammer 40,000 and Black Library, and found out that a limited edition book called Xenology existed which detailed the biology of a bunch of their alien critters, including a mysterious ratlike race called the Hrud. I like Skaven (their swords and sorcery mysterious ratlike race) and hunted for a copy. Sadly the book was out of print and could only be had for heavily inflated prices from eBay resellers (now Amazon - currently starting at $92).

I'll admit it, I sinned. I located a PDF of the book online, struggled through five pages, and then gave up and deleted it. (Pirates are not known for quality. I'm lucky I didn't get a virus.) I've kept an eye out, but despite the publisher's print on demand experiments the book is still not available, and I still haven't read it.

Flash forward. Some time ago video game publisher Konami released a game demo called P.T., or Playable Teaser. It turned out to be the announcement for a revival of the classic horror franchise Silent Hill, now Silent Hills, created by the legendary Hideo Kojima in cooperation with the brilliant Guillermo del Toro and starring white-hot actor Norman Reedus. And fans squeed with delight.

Then last week, after a strange and half-public breakup between Konami and Kojima, del Toro confirmed that the game was no longer happening, at least with Kojima. Then Norman Reedus tweeted that it was flat-out canceled. And this past weekend, Konami announced the demo was going to be pulled from the PlayStation store entirely, never to return.

I'd been looking forward to playing Silent Hills when it came out. It was one game that sold me on the PlayStation 4 over the XBox One. (Persona 5 was the real seller. The Last of Us and Bloodborne haven't hurt either.) But I wasn't planning to go out and buy the console for another year, when more of the games were out and I had time to actually play them.

But... hell, I was weak. And I couldn't let the chance to play P.T. go by. It was already a unique and masterful piece of marketing and horror game design, and by the end of the week it'll be a video game legend.

The thing is, there's no real reason this should happen. Yes, the game P.T. is trying to sell no longer exists, but the demo alone was a critical hit and as far as I know, it costs Konami nothing to keep it on the store. But for whatever reasons the game is being consigned to the dustbin. Within a decade it'll be gone forever, beyond recovery.

Similarly, we've entered an age of ready access to digital books, where there are no physical reasons for anything to go out of print. You don't get charged to maintain a book on Amazon, even if it doesn't sell. But scads of back catalog material will never be uploaded, never be made available again.

Sometimes there are good reasons for this: it costs money to make a decent quality eBook and publishers have limited resources. And sometimes there are bad reasons for this, such as when game companies use copyright law to prevent fans from even doing the minimal updates needed to keep abandoned games playable

But either way it's a shame, and it feels so unnecessary to lose works of art this way. We've got enough to worry about with file format lock out, hardware obsolescence, and the damn DCMA without self-inflicting more wounds to society's collective store of knowledge.

Now if you'll excuse me, P.T. has finished downloading and I need to go scare myself shitless before Solid Snake breaks into my house and wipes the hard drive.

Update: I played P.T. For like five minutes. That's when I got too scared playing it alone in the dark to continue. Seriously, if you have or can get a PlayStation 4, download this demo. If you have a PSN account but no PS4, order the demo and hope you can redownload it later. If you're out of luck entirely, pray for a fan port.


Monday, April 27, 2015

Baltimore

I was planning a different post tonight, but with everything going on in Baltimore I can't do it. My mother is receiving care in the city - not where the violence is, up until now, and I'm praying it stays that way. But a massive fire just appeared on my television and I don't know what's burning and I'm scared. I'm scared it's going to get worse before it gets better.

If you're in Baltimore tonight, stay safe, and stay inside if you can.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

And The First Law Shall Be RTFM


I got a new phone last week. Apple this time, not Android. I hear Scrivener is coming for iPhone this year, which was a factor. So were the better games. So were the numerous glitches my Droid RAZR developed over the last year after one too many OS updates.

Changing your phone's operating system is a chore. Not a huge one, since Google is ubiquitous and the cloud has its pseudopods into everything. But getting used to a new interface, and a new level of responsiveness, can be a pain. So can dealing with the tiny little wrinkles you didn't expect. Like Bluetooth not working.

My old phone paired to my car and just worked. My new phone paired to my car, then unpaired. Then refused to pair again. In Maryland it's illegal to be caught diddling your phone on the highway, so I kinda needed the Bluetooth to work.

I turn the phone off and on again, same thing happens. Google tells me this is a known bug in iOS 8, but a patch is due out this very day. I apply the patch and nothing changes. I try out about ten home remedies from various Mac forums and nothing changes.

I end up sitting in my car at 10 p.m. with a flashlight and a Subaru owner's manual before I realize that I've been pairing my phone as an audio device, and not a phone. "But a phone is an audio device," you say. "Yes," I say, "but Subaru made some less than intuitive design choices in their dashboard computers."

I pair the phone as a phone. It works. Sweet Home Alabama returns to plague me for the millionth time. I realize that every complaint I had about Apple's Bluetooth was Subaru's fault. But really, my fault.

I forgot to RTFM.

Or, "Read The Fucking Manual", for the uninitiated. It's a sysadmin solution for a user problem that wouldn't be a problem if the user had deigned to read the documentation on his shiny new toy, covered in blinkenlichten.

It's generally not polite to actually say this, of course. Nor is it wise to list PEBKAC* in a trouble ticket. But RTFM is the Truth and the Way, and you shall be rewarded if you abide by its tenets in all walks of life. The most successful criminals know the law inside and out. So do the most successful businesses. This is not a coincidence. They have RTFM and it has given them power.

If you drive a car, you want to know what all the levers, knobs and buttons on your dash do. You want to know how to open the gas tank, adjust the steering wheel, and put the rear seats down so you can fit that Vegas billboard in your cargo area. So you read your owner's manual. If you're on the road you want to know what the speed limit is, what the rules are to pass a bicyclist, and what side of the road you should be driving on in the first place. So you take a class and learn the traffic laws.

If you make money, you'll want to read up on the basics of paying taxes. That goes double if you're self-employed because you won't have a company figuring any of the numbers out for you. If you're planning for retirement, you want to know how IRAs and mutual funds work. If you're planning your estate, you want to know how wills and powers of attorney work. Because you can pay an accountant or an attorney to know all this stuff for you, but they'll do a much better job if you know the right questions to ask.

(I took an estate planning course recently and it's like I read five fucking manuals. Protip: if you own a spouse with your house... Jesus, did I really just type that? I can't believe it. I'm leaving it in as evidence.

If you own a house with your spouse, and she slips into a coma and you need to sell it to pay for her care, you can't do that unless you have a valid Power of Attorney. Same for your spouse's car. And in Maryland, the statutory, standard, fill-in-the-blank Power of Attorney form will only cover the house, not the car. Your lawyer will not explain this to you for free, so if you live in Maryland I've just done you a favor. A non-binding favor that should not be considered expert legal advice. Feel free to send money.)

And if you are a writer, you've heard that you must know the rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling before you can break them. The same holds true for character, story structure, pacing, you name it. Hell, maybe you want to publish your book in literal blood. Isn't it best if you know the right blood-to-ink ratio to prevent flaking? Or what type of blood to use to prevent the CDC from stomping your ass?

I could talk about James Joyce,  or E. E. Cummings (sorry, e. e. cummings), but my personal favorite example is: you're not supposed to write books in second person. First person or third person, fine; second person, you're on drugs, or drafting a sourcebook for a role playing game. Nevertheless, Charles Stross did it twice, in Halting State and its sequel Rule 34, and because he knew what he was doing (aping the style of a game) and why he was doing it (because he was writing about a heist set in a game world), they were awesome books.

RTFM. Know the rules. Know how things work. Then go forth and conquer, in the full knowledge of how far you should go and how far you can go.

*Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Help, Dictation Is Hard

As part of an ongoing effort to free up more writing time and Get Things Done, I tried using Android's speech-to-text function today to get some writing done during my commute home. When you have a two hour commute, it seems a shame to waste it on podcasts when you could be writing.

This... is the result.


Ask return enter new line backslash
Physical storey apparel son of a woodcutter 02 is gable master Matix terrible monster and a boy Harold story begins in a log cabin in the woods forest cold there in the dead stop the woods for Harolds home is off penal colony for the dead a place where they are taken by the burning Kate to serve out ternity service 
Harold live with his father big car and his brother Magnus Magnus was well liked by the village it was considered a good man I really on them but he was unhappy because he wanted most in life was to go out it was forbidden by were burning king and his father big nor would not permit him to run off on though I'm staring and take over as wood cutter for the village Herald News can sometimes but most times and no it was not an outcast roster size it has little in the way of friends and there's an old woman standing there holding a little girl in her arms quickly the girls name was Carol the color rose then when I ask what you're talking about it
So, yeah! If anyone out there can recommend a good text-to-speech solution (Android, iOS or otherwise), please let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Time To Write

If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. - Stephen King

State of the Author, 2015:

I barely have time to read. I very barely have time to write.

I am starting to suspect that only barely having time to write, is worse than having no time to write.

("Oh God", says the reader, "he's going to whine that he doesn't have enough writing time." Bear with me, there are some good links coming up.)

I went into this year with no real resolutions, authorly or otherwise. But after doing my taxes I developed one, which is that this year I would finally make some money with my writing. Because I could really use some extra money.

(Technically I've already achieved my resolution: Black Library sent me my latest royalty statement for The Assassin's Dilemma, and with two sales this quarter I made a handy twenty-two cents. It doesn't matter that the company doesn't pay royalties until you hit twenty-five dollars or more, I celebrated.)

I've read some great motivational books on self-publishing, like Let's Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should and Write Short Kindle Books: A Self-Publishing Manifesto for Non-Fiction Authors; and I've read some not-so-motivational articles on self-publishing, like Confessions of a Failed Romance Novelist (which you can find through the somewhat better Confessions of an Irritable Romance Novelist). I've been seduced by royalty numbers and sales figures and the apparent success of even dinosaur erotica on Amazon.

And I like writing short fiction, damn it. I enjoy writing good twists and fast pacing. So, I figured, I would write some short works, put them up for sale, and see what happened. I certainly wasn't short on ideas. Even total failure would be a good learning experience, and maybe I could beat Beverly Bush at her own game.

And...

Nothing. Total mode lock. Not writer's block - this is coming out just fine - but I can't seem to even start anything.

When I get stuck I tend to read books on writing to un-stick myself. This time I sprung for 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron, which is only a freaking dollar and you have no excuse not to pick it up. No matter what your writing habits are, there are some solid tips there and I'm looking forward to trying them out.

I enjoyed the book, but I'm still not writing, still freezing up at the blank page, which pisses me off to no end because I know I'm better than this and I don't understand what the problem is. But I think I might be getting a handle on it.

I came across a post by Kameron Hurley, Life on 10,000 Words a Day: How I’m Hacking My Writing Process, which after "2k to 10k" seemed like a natural read. (And it's name-checked in the blog post!) And it was thought-provoking and interesting, but there was one passage that stuck out to me:
I heard author Catherynne Valente once compare falling into this immersive state while writing with falling asleep, and the metaphor was so apt that a little bell went off in my head, and I realized that I’d been trying to fit the act of writing into a work week designed to produce widgets, not prose. When you only have 90 minutes to lie down and take a nap, and the dog is barking, and people are opening and closing the doors, and the TV is on, and cars are driving by… you’re constantly popping in and out of that glorious place where you’re drifting off to sleep, and you really never reach the deep sleep you need to feel rested. Sure, you might get some “rest” but you haven’t really slept the way you would if you have five hours, eight hours, ten hours to nod off.

This is what trying to write in 90 minute chunks of time feels like for me. I know I have 90 minutes. I know it’s not going to be enough time to really get into what I’m doing. I know there will be distractions, and my brain won’t have the time it needs to slip into the sleepy-dream-hallucinating-I’m-in-another-world state that I need to crack out some effortless writing.
My writing time has been limited for awhile, but lately it's gotten significantly worse. I'm at work for nearly eleven hours a day, and when I get home my son demands most of my time until he goes to bed. (And he does whatever Daddy does, so if I open a notebook? He's scribbling in it five seconds later. Pull up a keyboard? dkla;ahgdls;a.) After that there's dishes, walking the dog, actually spending time alone with my wife... basically if I want a block of writing time during the week, it's going to start at 11 p.m. And my weekends and days off have been taken up by personal and family crises that obliterate any notion of writing.

I know about that dream-state Kameron and Catherynne are talking about. I've been there, I love it. And I know I'm not going to get there with the time I have available. And knowing that - knowing that any time I start to write, I could be forcibly and irrecoverably interrupted at any time - is turning into a crippling block for me.

For example: I tried to draft this post at 6:00 p.m., and my son scribbled all over himself with my pen, sat on my lap ripping Boogie Wipes out of their bag, demanded I read him the book with the shark puppet, and picked a fight with the dog, all within ten minutes. And then it was his bath time. I am writing this at 11:29 p.m. I am sitting in my office, scared that the clatter of my keyboard is going to wake my son up. He sleeps right above my office, and I've got superstitions about him. He'll wake up if I type too fast. He'll wake up if the dog barks. He'll wake up if I'm up after midnight. And he's stuffy and coughy tonight, which has me even more worried, because if he does wake up that's two hours of rocking and shushing him back to sleep.

Did I mention I have a second child arriving soon?

I'm going to keep writing, that's not in question. But doing it well, and doing it in a way that makes me happy... that's trickier. And I'm not sure how I'm going to work it anytime soon.

So. How are you all doing with time/space management? Any good reads on the subject you'd recommend? Here's one I enjoyed, to send you off with: A Shed Of One's Own, by Chuck Wendig. Who has a writing shed that isn't filled with lawn mower.

I'm not jealous.

Not one bit.