Remember when libraries didn’t suck?

A few times in the last several months I’ve considered getting a library card again. I’m not made of money here, and there are books I want to read that I can’t get for cheap or on Kindle Unlimited. Unfortunately every time I look in my local library’s catalog, they don’t have what I want. Fair enough, I thought, since a lot of this stuff is new, published in the last 3-4 years.

Yesterday, I started a project that involves reading a pile of books from the 70s through the 90s, by two not-particularly-obscure science fiction authors. A number of the books I want to read are either expensive—as in, the good old $12 for a fricking ebook—or out of print, so I thought I’d check ye olde library catalog, in case a few of the books were available there.

They didn’t have a single book I was looking for. The catalog covers not just my local library, but the whole county library system. I live in a county of well over a million people, and there are lots of libraries.

Let me repeat myself. Not one book I wanted was even listed. Hell, they didn’t even list the authors I was looking for.

What the fuck happened? I used to go to the library all the time as a kid, and I never had trouble finding new stories to read. I never even had to use the interlibrary loan system because my local library had 95% of what I wanted. There was a huge fiction section to draw from, and a huge YA section too, though I didn’t read much YA stuff even when I was a kid. Since I’m back living in the town in which I grew up, I’m looking at the same library now, and I can’t find a damn thing!

They remodeled the library a couple years ago. I haven’t been there in a while, but I used to hang out there and program sometimes. They must’ve removed at least half the shelves that used to hold books, and there’s about 1/3 as much room for just sitting around and reading as there used to be. It’s much more cramped. It’s also packed with teens now, but they’re sure as hell not reading. Nope, they’re screwing around in the huge computer area the library added. It’s much noisier than it ever was when I was young.

My parents moved here when I was 1 year old specifically because it was a great place to raise kids. Excellent local schools, safe, room to play and stuff to do. I know the schools have gone downhill, largely thanks to the program that buses inner city kids into our suburban school system (started when I was a junior in HS, and ramped up quite a lot since then), and now the library system has gone to hell too. It’s sad to see the decline of a fairly nice place to live, and what’s worse is I really doubt it’s just this town that’s on the way down.

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Video games and violent crime

I’ve been a gamer since I was a young kid. I grew up with an NES and Amiga, got an N64 for Christmas the year it came out, and spent many evenings in high school playing multiplayer first person shooters like Quake 2 and Rogue Spear with friends. Everyone I knew who was into gaming grew up to be a well-adjusted adult, just like I did, so I’ve always ignored the claims that violent video games cause an increase in violence in the real world.

But, I never really looked at the data. It’s foolish to build one’s worldview based on just one’s own experiences, so when the topic came up again recently on Jon Del Arroz’s periscope, I decided to look into it. Is there any real correlation between the rise of violent video games and either normal violent crime or outliers like rampage killings? That’s the first thing I wanted to know. Of course, correlation does not imply causation, but if the correlation isn’t even there, that rather blows the argument out of the water.

In this post I’m ignoring multi-factor situations where causation can exist without simple correlation (as in the case of illnesses that almost never result in death because nearly everyone who contracts the illness gets treated, even though untreated, the illness would be moderately correlated with death). The claim is simple: violent video games increase violence in the real world, especially mass violence like rampage killings.

The first thing I looked at was rampage killings in the US over time. I pulled my data from Wikipedia, from the school shootings, workplace shootings, and other rampage killing spree tables. Rampage killing in this case is defined as:

A rampage involves the (attempted) killing of multiple persons at least partly in public space by a physically present perpetrator using (potentially) deadly weapons in a single event without any cooling-off period. Included data:

– Rampage killings with 6 or more dead

– Rampage killings with at least 4 people killed and least ten victims overall (dead plus injured)

– Rampage killings with at least 2 people killed and least 12 victims overall (dead plus injured)

Note: my data does not include rampage killings attributed to clear political, racial, or religious motivations. For example, the San Bernardino terrorists from 2015 are not included here.

This is what US rampage killings look like over time:

I found two things interesting about this chart. First, I was surprised how few there actually are. No single year has included more than four rampage killings. I’m tempted to dismiss the idea that video games have any significant causal effect in killing sprees right now, just on the basis that we’re dealing with extreme outlier events. There are tens of millions of gamers in the US playing violent video games, but only a handful of people in the country commit rampage killings every year. Even if every single rampage killer played violent video games since the rise of first person shooters in the early 90s—the release of Wolfenstein 3D, in 1992, is what I’m defining as the beginning of the graphically violent video game era—that means ~60 out of about 100,000,000 gamers took that path.

That’s only 0.06 per 100,000,000, being as generous as possible by putting all the rampage killers in the gamer category and using what I believe is a fairly low estimate of the number of gamers who played violent video games in the 25 years they’ve been available.

The second thing I found interesting about the chart is there’s a clear uptick starting in 1969. That’s a full 23 years before violent video games become readily available. Home computers didn’t even become available until 1977, and were not common until the mid-late 80s. There’s clearly something else going on.

Before I continue, I need to point out that the population of the US has been continuously rising, and rose significantly between the beginning of that uptick in 1969 and today. Between the 1970 and 2010 censuses, the official population of the US rose 44.7%, from about 213 million to 308 million. The estimated population today, in 2017, is 325 million.

That’s important because the absolute number of incidents doesn’t matter. Rates matter. Using yearly population estimates, I charted the rate of rampage killings over time per 100,000,000 people starting with the 1969 uptick:

With this, I think it’s safe to say there’s no relationship between the rise of violent video games and rampage killings. It’s clear the uptick in rampage killings began much earlier than 1992. I’m not trying to figure out what did cause the increase in the rate of rampage killings, so I’ll leave it at that.

But what about violence in general? Was there any post-1992 rise in violent crime that might still be correlated with the violent video game era?

I stole this from the internet (HuffPo, I believe), but this is what violent crime has looked like since 1960:

Not only has the violent crime rate not increased since 1992, it has actually fallen significantly. Interestingly, the precipitous drop in violent crime began right around the time violent video games came to market! I’m not claiming any causative link, of course, but it’s interesting that the exact opposite of the original claim—that violent video games contribute to increased violent crime—cannot be true because violent crime has not been increasing.

This post is much shorter than I expected it to be, because the assumptions I thought would be born out—that there’s been an increase in rampage killings in the last ~20 years—are simply not true. So I find little value in looking at more granular data, like the age of the killers. Rampage killings are such extreme outliers, with so few available for analysis, that there’s just not enough data to do more than guess about the contributing factors. Even if you find common threads between the killers, they will still be a tiny, tiny fraction of the larger population that also shares the attributes in question.

So in closing, I’m comfortable saying that violent video games do not, in fact, correlate with higher rates of violence in general, and further that there is no reason to believe violent video games had anything to do with the higher rates of rampage killings we’ve seen since 1969, since the violent video game era didn’t begin until 1992. It’s possible some of the rampage killers were influenced by video games individually, but there’s no reason to believe there’s any kind of negative broader social impact from ubiquitous violent video games.

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~7500 words behind

I haven’t written at all the last couple days. A serious disruption of my routine and what feels like a minor illness knocked me out of the game a bit, but worse was trying to sort out what I feel about NieR: Automata. I’ll probably write more about that at some point, but the game knocked me for a loop.

I’m now 7500 words behind, ignoring what I need to write today to stay on pace.

Not much else to say. I am well rested and I have nothing to do today, so we’ll see how much ground I can make up. I might try to write a complete short story instead of continuing to work on my other projects, to purge some of these nagging (distracting) thoughts.

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Book piracy, and what you can do about it!

The TL;DR is: not much. But read on if you’re interested in the subject.

Before I get into the meat of the matter, consider games for a minute. Computer games, I mean.

Games often come with some kind of digital rights management (DRM) designed to stop people from pirating the game, playing it without the disc, or doing anything other than exactly what the company who made it wants them to be able to do. Games have a built-in advantage over books, movies, and music, in that they’re difficult to open up and decipher, because they generally come in some compiled format. If they came as raw source code for some reason, most gamers cannot understand computer code. Even a skilled programmer can’t just leaf through someone else’s code and understand it immediately if the program is of any significant complexity, because code is usually idiosyncratic and always discontinuous. It’s a sort of intrinsic encryption, where the key is spending a fair bit of time studying the code.

Compared to game code, the information in stories—no matter the format, whether audio or text—is very simple indeed. It has to be, because humans need to be able to understand it. An encrypted ebook or audio file, keyed to only work with approved applications, necessarily must be decrypted if a human is going to understand the content.

Despite the advantages game developers have over writers and publishers in protecting their content from pirates, games still get cracked all the time. People reverse engineer the code, figure out where the DRM is, and strip it out. Or they write new executables that ignore the DRM, or emulate the DRM authorization. They kill the phone-home functions. Eventually, everything gets cracked. My understanding is game developers hope to stop people cracking the game for a couple weeks, to minimize launch impact. Whether piracy really hurts the gaming industry is up for debate, but I do at least understand the desire. Taken too far, though, excessive DRM means I just don’t buy the game. And yes, I buy all the games I play.

Now, you can still put DRM in your ebooks. But if you’re putting out a machine-readable form of your story, it’s child’s play to pirate it. If the computer is rendering the story as selectable text, all a pirate needs to do is copy and paste everything. If you use a more sophisticated application that draws the text as an image, instead of normal text—which, to my knowledge, nobody does—it’s still trivial to automate screen-grabbing the text and using optical character recognition (OCR) to convert the images into text.

I’m not sure what software I would use to do such a thing, but I’m confident I could automate scraping DRMed books to pirate the stories with less than a day of effort, starting from scratch. And the process would be very quick with optimization. In the end, if I was a determined book pirate, I could probably pirate your book within a few hours of launch no matter how you tried to protect it, if I had it in some digital form.

So what if you don’t put out an ebook at all? You only sell paper books. Fine, but that only adds a minor step and some equipment to the process. I’d have to buy the book, then cut the spine, scan the pages (or get by with high res digital photos, even), and compile them in PDF format as the quickest way to put out a “product”. It’s all automatable. Using the OCR technique, I could then convert the scanned images into ebooks quite easily. You wouldn’t stop the book from being pirated; you’d just lose a lot of sales by depriving ebook lovers of the opportunity to buy your work.

See my point? If you’re popular, and there’s enough demand, there’s not much you can do to stop pirates from making your work available for free online within half a day, tops, of your book release. The information is too simple, and computers are too fast. The only way you can stop pirates from cracking your book is by not releasing it at all.

However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to fight the problem. I saw this post (archived because Tumblr can be ephemeral) come across my Twitter feed and was amused at the method the author took to fight piracy:

I was intent on proving that piracy had affected the Raven Cycle, and so I began to work with one of my brothers on a plan. It was impossible to take down every illegal pdf; I’d already seen that. So we were going to do the opposite. We created a pdf of the Raven King. It was the same length as the real book, but it was just the first four chapters over and over again. At the end, my brother wrote a small note about the ways piracy hurt your favorite books. I knew we wouldn’t be able to hold the fort for long — real versions would slowly get passed around by hand through forum messaging — but I told my brother: I want to hold the fort for one week. Enough to prove that a point. Enough to show everyone that this is no longer 2004. This is the smart phone generation, and a pirated book sometimes is a lost sale.
Then, on midnight of my book release, my brother put it up everywhere on every pirate site. He uploaded dozens and dozens and dozens of these pdfs of The Raven King. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one of his pdfs. We sailed those epub seas with our own flag shredding the sky.
The effects were instant. The forums and sites exploded with bewildered activity. Fans asked if anyone had managed to find a link to a legit pdf. Dozens of posts appeared saying that since they hadn’t been able to find a pdf, they’d been forced to hit up Amazon and buy the book.

 

Ha, I love it! That is a tactic that can actually work. Just fill the air with so much chaff people have trouble finding the real thing. It probably requires a lot of effort, though, especially as pirates get wise to the scam.

In my opinion, as an indie—not under the thumb of a tradpub house looking for an excuse to cancel your series—worrying overmuch about piracy isn’t really worth it. Yeah, it sucks that people don’t want to pay for content, but you can’t really stop it. Just focus on your fans, and make sure you’re giving them what they want so they’ll keep shoveling filthy lucre your way.

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Respect mah experience!

Just because you’ve been doing something for a long time, it doesn’t mean you’re someone I’m going to listen to. Especially once I have more than a smidge of experience in the area myself.

See, I’ve met a lot of people over the years who have been doing something for decades, who turned out to be idiots who were doing a mediocre job that whole time. There’s no guarantee time on the job means you’ve been learning and getting better the whole time. You might’ve been doing many things wrong for decades. Getting a paycheck in a specific field for, say, 33 years just means you met some minimum standard of competence the whole time.

In most fields, by the time you’ve been doing something for three or four years you know over 90% of what there is to know. More time just exposes you to the weird stuff, the edge cases. There’s not even any guarantee that by the time you put in 30 years you’re as capable as a sharp five-year veteran day to day. You’ve just seen more. And in a rapidly changing field, your experience might not mean a damn thing anymore.

Since this is mostly a writing blog, I’ll simply point out that there are successful professional writers who have been doing this for decades who still give new writers awful advice about finding an agent and trying to make it with traditional publishing. Today, in $CurrentYear, about seven years into the ebook revolution, experienced professionals are still writing articles about the best way to get your manuscript past a slush pile.

You’d be a fool to automatically respect someone’s opinion about professional writing just because they’ve been doing it for a long time. Pay attention to what they actually say and how it relates to the real world you see. The writing world has been turned upside down, and the changes are still coming. If they write current advice that ignores all that, you should ignore them.

If you want to impress me, to earn my respect? Display your knowledge and don’t act like a bitch when people question you. If you’re a master, you should not be overly affronted by challengers, because it should be trivial to swat them down.

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It’s NaNoWriMo Eve

As I mentioned in my writing log last night, I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. Mostly just because I’m planning on writing a lot anyway, and I know of a few other writers doing it.

Since I have several stories in progress I’m not really sure which to work on, but I have four front runners. One story is a pure pantsing project, a sort of military adventure/horror deal, but there’s no way it’s going to last 50,000 words. I’m guessing it’ll be a shortish novella, maybe 25,000 words tops, and it feels more like a 20,000 word story.

The second story is a fairly complicated adventure fantasy novel, complicated because it requires writing about things I don’t know much about. Lots of boat stuff (I’ve been on the ocean a few times fishing but I am definitely a landlubber) and technical and lifestyle details from time periods I didn’t experience. So I keep writing a few hundred words, then running into something plot-relevant I need to research. In this situation I don’t want to get too far ahead in the story by accumulating the sort of “research debt” that comes with writing a note to myself to just fill in the holes later, because I might end up having to do significant rewriting.

The third story is a longish novella about a veteran (who happens to be able to use magic), a damsel in distress, and some evil people preying on college kids on campus. It is also intended to introduce the veteran’s family and insular society of magic users. It’s really the second book in a series.

The fourth story is that veteran’s “origin story”, so to speak, which spends a lot of time introducing the magic system as pertains to combat and setting up relationships for chronologically later stories. I think that might be a short novel. It should go pretty quickly because it’s so action heavy and I write action very quickly. I’d prefer to write it before writing story #3 above, but it’s not required.

Jeez, I could go for awhile. Those are the four stories I’ve been working on lately, but I have literally ~15 projects in various stages of development right now, including a couple novels with significant work done already. So you see, it’s irresponsible to start something new.

I haven’t actually written a single word of option 4, unlike the others. I think I’ll give that a shot. I’m in the mood for some heavy action.

Two hours to go before Nov 1, here. I’ll spend it working on character profiles and whatnot, then get cracking at midnight.

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Women in refrigerators

Women in refrigerators. I’m sure I’d heard the term before, given that it’s ancient in internet terms, but I didn’t know what it meant until yesterday.

I ran across the term in an article someone linked on Twitter, about mistakes DC made in the 90s that “still haunt them today”. Some of the items were actually pretty good points, dealing with flanderization and similar issues long-running creative endeavors run into. But one point stuck out as really, really stupid:

We certainly do not mean to suggest that the trend of female supporting characters being injured or killed in service of motivating the main male character was something that began in the 1990s. It had been around for many years before that. However, it was forever encapsulated in 1994, when new Green Lantern Kyle Rayner saw his girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, literally stuffed into a refrigerator as part of a message for Kyle from the sadistic Major Force.

This led to the term “women in refrigerators” being coined by Gail Simone to describe how poorly women have been treated in superhero comic books and it is an issue that affects comics today almost as much as it did in 1994 and the term has as much relevance today as it ever has in its history.

Allow me to demystify things for you, ladies and soyboys. Bad things are not happening to women in fiction as motivating factors for male characters because men just don’t like women. It’s not that people get off on seeing women hurt. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The men are motivated to act because of the bad thing that happened, because men are hardwired to view women as precious, and worth protecting!

If you’re an idiot, you might be offended by that. Sorry, but it’s basic biology. Men are able to tolerate bad things happening to other men much more than they are those same things happening to the women in their tribe. Soy-free men exist to do the dangerous things. Non-feminist women exist to perpetuate the tribe. A tribe can survive many of the men dying. It won’t survive the women dying.

Getting away from basic human motivations is one of the things that ruins modern fiction, in my opinion. Not everyone agrees with me, I know. Some people are more focused on the worldbuilding or Big Ideas in stories than the characters. But if you get people fundamentally wrong, if your characters are unrelatable and alien, I don’t care what the rest of the story is like. I just won’t read it.

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The Alt★Hero campaign has ended

…and it’s a hell of a success.

I’m in for $135 myself. I was originally going to go for the Rebel figurine tier (when it first launched), but with so many good add-ons I decided to put my money into the RPG and website, then just get digital copies of everything. Someday when I have the cash I’ll get softcover copies of the comics.

So congrats to Vox Day and the Alt★Hero team! I look forward to seeing what y’all create.

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On accusations of unoriginality

It’s fashionable these days for critics and readers to describe a work of fiction as unoriginal or derivative as a way of attacking not just the work, but the author. There’s no particular group of people that does it. It’s just a convenient cheap shot that is effective because, frankly, most people are stupid and lack sufficient knowledge of the history of fiction to see through the attack.

Understand that what most people mean when they say something is unoriginal is “it’s kinda similar to this other story” or “the basic premise is the same,” not “Story A is exactly Story B except in a different location with different names.” If you have to point to fairly high level fiction concepts, compare scenes that depict common human customs, and rely on coincidences to say Story A is ripping off Story B—as the people who claim A New Hope is a scene-by-scene ripoff of The Hidden Fortress do—you might just be a dick with an agenda.

The most recent example of this sort of cheap shot comes from a comment at Vox Day’s blog (post here):

I’m posting a screen shot because I think it’s likely the comment is by a certain banned commenter, and will soon be deleted.

“Derivative.” “Uncreative.” They’re just variations on the old “unoriginal” slur.

This attack gets my dander up a bit not because I’m concerned about being unoriginal myself, but because it’s damaging to aspiring authors. It was very damaging to me, personally.

You see, when I was a young man, my memory was amazingly good. I never needed to study in school, or even take much in the way of notes. And by the time I was in my late teens I’d read over a thousand books, spanning some 175-200 years of fiction (not including the ancient works I read in school). My point is, as a young man I was fairly well-read and I had a lot of detailed knowledge of what other earlier authors had done packed in my head.

When I started to write in my mid-teens, I was horrified to find I could not seem to come up with a concept that was remotely original. Everything I tried had been done in several, if not dozens, of books I’d read. Oh, I wasn’t copying outright, but I could pick any given element in my stories and see it as nothing but—at best—a lightly modified element from another specific story.

It was crippling. Between that and the fact that back then traditional publishing was the only option—and it was virtually impossible to make a living at it—I gave up on fiction writing. I blogged a lot, but I didn’t write fiction again for over ten years, other than the occasional little short story about things I’d personally seen or done.

I’m not sure why I snapped out of it. I know when: just in time for NaNoWriMo 2010. Maybe it was just more experience. Maybe I finally put things together myself. Maybe the fact that my memory isn’t quite so sharp these days helped me get over it. I don’t remember anything specific other than deciding one day in early November ’10 that I had a damn good idea for a story and I was going to run with it.

Looking back now I can see I was foolish when I abandoned fiction writing, but, well… hindsight is 20/20. I did not make the connection at the time that many of the books I’d read had a lot in common with each other, whether it was plot elements, characters, or whatever.

The fact is, humans only experience a limited range of situations and emotions, and the creative content we’re likely to produce is therefore necessarily limited. There are only so many ways to mash up the human experience. Beyond that, if people are going to understand our work, it can’t be too off the wall. Motivations need to be understandable. Dangers and conflict should not be too different from what humans might experience in real life. In short, if you want readers to enjoy your work, you need to make it relatable.

Further, fiction wasn’t invented last decade or even last century. We have some five thousand years of known written literature, and that was influenced by oral traditions that probably go back to the dawn of human speech. It seems likely to me that fiction predates Homo Sapiens.

Given all that, how likely do you suppose it is that what you write will be completely original unless you were raised by badgers in a cave with no human contact? Even then, because the human brain is essentially a chemical computer with some predefined behavior, and because Mother Nature ain’t exactly nice, your work (when translated) could be called derivative and unoriginal because other people have written about survival in nature, and even talked about kids being raised by badgers! Originality is objective, you see; it doesn’t matter if you didn’t know something existed, or had never heard the story. You’ll still get accused of ripping off some other work.

I don’t worry much about originality anymore. Oh, I’m not going to plagiarize. But I’m not only not worried about being called unoriginal, I’m happy to crib concepts from other writers (high level concepts, not details) and make them my own if they’re cool enough, or if I think I can do them better.

The project I’m working on now sprang from a brainstorming session that started with the questions “why don’t people just shoot Jedi with miniguns?” and “what would a secret magical community really be like, as compared to the version Rowling put together in the Harry Potter books?” The world ended up much more like The Dresden Files universe than either Star Wars or Harry Potter, but the actual society and the stories I’m telling are nothing like Butcher’s work. And I didn’t have to try to make it different, because I’m my own person. I’m not JK Rowling, I’m not George Lucas, Leigh Brackett or any of the people who wrote in the EU, and I’m not Jim Butcher. I have my own experiences, beliefs, and knowledge to draw from. I started from some very high level ideas—informed by their work, plus many others’—and ended up with my own world. And I’m not remotely ashamed of how I got there.

So next time you see someone toss out the “your work is completely unoriginal” attack, understand that it’s nothing but rhetoric meant to wound. Oh, there is an element of truth to it, but that truth doesn’t matter most of the time. It’s unavoidable! Almost nobody is writing truly original stories. And unless you outright, knowingly ripped someone else off when you were writing your own story, you can safely ignore it if someone aims the barb at you.

P.S. This post isn’t even original! I know I’ve read plenty of similar posts from people I respect in the past. The one I usually point people toward is Larry Correia’s 2013 post: Ask Correia #13: Ripping Off Ideas. I don’t have any others handy, but I’ll probably compile a list of good posts on various new-writer subjects at some point, and that’ll be one of the big points to hit.

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