#WATWB – Your Monthly Shot of News That Doesn’t Suck

To truly grasp the spectacular awesomeness of this story, you first have to understand a few things. If you’re an American reader, most of this will be old hat and you can happily skip down a bit, but you’ll miss some snark and a few cheap shots at Alabama. If you’re international (or a ferriner, as we like to call y’all), you might want to stick around a bit.

Alabama has a reputation in the U.S. as being that special person you don’t like to have around when company comes over. It’s not that every person in the state is gun-toting, semi-literate degenerate, but they have quite a few of them. Remember, this is the state where the leading candidate in the recent special election was accused – multiple times – of liking his girls young. Like early teens young. And, amazingly, he still nearly won the election. Thankfully, enough people came to their senses and decided that an accused child molester might not be what they wanted to represent them and Roy Moore – who showed up to vote on horseback – had to ride his horse home in defeat.

In Alabama, men are rated by how much horsepower their trucks have.

It’s a state that sticks to its traditions, even when those traditions are insane and should be left by the wayside.

Speaking of traditions that should probably take a long walk off a short pier, we also have our annual Miss America competition where young women display their value to society based on how well they look in bikinis and evening wear. Again, it’s a traditional thing that probably needs to go away. I may be getting on my soapbox here, but I like to think there’s more to women than beachwear, and Miss America doesn’t exactly hand out awards based on smarts, eloquence, or capabilities. Look good, smile, and wave, and you can win even if you don’t have much going on upstairs. To all the Miss America contestants reading this (I have a huge supermodel following, too), I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about the other girls.

Congratulations, you’re pretty! You might have some other qualities, but the important thing is how you look in bikini.

So, if you combine Alabama (home of the not-so-bright traditionalists) and the Miss America competition (congrats, toots, you’ve got a great pair of knockers even if you aren’t too bright), what do you get?

Oddly enough, you get Deidre Downs Gunn, winner of Miss America back in 2005. She represented Alabama and won the diamond tiara or whatever it is they give out there.

But that’s where the story breaks the mold. Deidre Downs Gunn went on to become a practicing medical doctor and recently married her girlfriend in a traditional Southern wedding complete with mini chicken and waffles and probably some other stuff, too. Honestly, anything after mini chicken and waffles is superfluous.

So, why is this a big deal and good news? Well, in addition to breaking the molds of both Alabama and Miss America by being smart enough and dedicated enough to become a doctor, Deidre went onto break another much beloved tradition and marry her girlfriend rather than pretending to be straight. A few years ago, that wouldn’t have even been legal. A few years before that and she would have been lynched.

Equality is a big deal and marrying whoever you want is an important part of that. I guess the whole story just made me happy because it goes to show not all stereotypes are true – even the ones about Alabama and Miss America contestants.

Plus, I found out that mini chicken and waffles are a thing.

Read the story here.

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Our co-hosts for the month are the lovely and talented:
Dan Antion, Mary Giese, Michelle Wallace, Simon Falk and Shilpa Garg

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And now, your moment of Zen.

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So, You’re a Writer, eh?

One of my great fears is trying to explain the plot to whatever book I’m working on. The latest – Roadside Attractions – was built off the Satanic paranoia of the 80s and 90s and tosses together a renegade devil, the hitwoman sent from Hell to stop him, a ghost, and a pair of ghost hunters who find themselves stuck in the middle of a power-struggle straight out of Hell. It’s not the easiest thing to explain.

Actually, come to think of it, that’s not a bad description. Needs work, but doesn’t totally suck.

DeadSexyTwitterLilith
Note: not the actual cover.

I’m currently actively working on the 4th Henchmen book and that gets even more difficult to sum up succinctly because it’s the 4th (and final) book in that series and it’s still too early to tell exactly where the plot will take me.

I’m not a good plotter. Other writers have sketches and timelines and plot-points all neatly laid on beer-soaked cocktail napkins or Chinese Excel knock-offs. I just keep all that in my head. The closest I’ve ever come to successfully plotting out a book was Greetings From Sunny Aluna and even that ended quite a bit differently than I’d planned. Originally, Huizhong was going to kill Kevin and then kill herself. It didn’t turn out that way and now I’m stuck figuring out where to take the next book.

Anyway, back to the original task at hand: What’s the book about? I’ve done a bunch of posts on blurbs and even took a shot at loglines (Sean Carlin’s post on loglines is still the gold standard), but I’m still extremely weak at the punchy descriptors. Usually when someone asks me what the book is about, I change the subject and then pretend I don’t speak English.

smoke_bomb_archer

That’s not an adult way to handle things, especially when it comes to something I’d really like to do for a living. If I can’t talk about what I’m writing, there’s no way anyone’s going to be interested in reading it. Saying, “Trust me, it’s really, really good” doesn’t cut the mustard. In fact, it cuts the cheese.

I think it all stems from that deep-down insecurity everyone has. There’s that nagging sensation that someone you work with will say, “I read your book. It sucks.” Then you’re stuck at work with everyone knowing you’re the guy who writes shitty books. And that can’t be good for the ol’ ego.

I’ve met plenty of other people over the years who have zero problems talking about their books. I’ve even met people who will happily tell you they’re taking a year off work to write the next great American novel and it would be really great if you could give them some money to do that. To those people – the ones that want help funding their yearlong vacation in South France – I say, “Just write the fucking thing. You can do it in your living room and you don’t even have to take off your pajamas”.

I’m good at the “just write the fucking thing” part. Over the years, I’ve gotten disciplined to where I write something every night, usually 500-1000 words or so. Now I need to get better at getting people to “just read the fucking thing”.

If you have any tips on that, leave me a comment, I’d love to hear what’s worked for you and what was a waste of time and money.

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Now if I could only get my hands to do this.

On a somewhat related note, I’ve always been curious about my typing speed. I code all day and write at night, so I’m used to a keyboard. I can type reasonably well with my eyes closed. In fact, I’ve even fallen asleep and kept typing (that generated some…interesting text), but I’ve never tested my typing speed. According to Live Chat’s free online typing test, I type about 64 words/minute with 100% accuracy. Crunching the numbers, that means 3840 words an hour. Theoretically, if I didn’t need luxuries like food and sleep, I could write a ninety thousand word book in under 24 hours. That’s way faster than my usual six to nine months.

All Your Data Are Belong To Us

My dad, before he died, was a market analyst in the semiconductor industry. His job, as he put it, was to “take information from companies, analyze it, and sell it back to them in a different format”. He was really good at his job because he had a solid understanding that data had value and that, like polishing a diamond, knowing how to polish that data could make it more valuable.

Here’s a quick factoid for you: Facebook’s worth – at least of October 2017 – was around $500 billion. That’s half a trillion dollars. Not bad for a company that gives its services away, right?

Well, that’s the rub, now isn’t it? Recent events, like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, should show us that Facebook isn’t exactly giving its services away to its user base. Not that they ever claimed to doing that. I find it amusing that now, in the midst of that scandal, that people are losing their shit over Facebook not protecting their personal data. The real problem is Facebook has never protected personal data. They’re in the business of collecting and selling data on a massive scale. In return for a platform for sharing cat pictures and political screeds, Facebook collects as much information about you as possible and sells it to whoever wants it. Ever posted something about your dishwasher dying only to see ads for dishwashers the next time you log in? Post a picture of your dream car and suddenly you’re getting ads for Mercedes Benz? Or Yugo. You know, whatever floats your goat.

Not your dad’s Yugo.

Like most social media sites, Facebook is nothing more than a fancy data collector and redistributor. Normally, companies have to fight tooth and nail to get information about what floats your goat. That kind of data is priceless, especially if you’ve got a platform you can use to deliver targeted advertising at the right time. Everyone on Facebook (yes, me included) gives that information away freely in exchange for more time with cat pictures and political screeds.

Is it an equitable exchange? Depends on what you’re doing. I don’t tend to post much personal information on there, so free access to cat pictures, friends, and the occasional political screed – er, heated political discussion – is worth it to me.

Still angry? Kill another bunny slipper, pal.

So, how does all this happen? Is Facebook actively giving your information to anyone that asks for it? Yes and no. They’ve something like over 2 billion users, so it’s not like Tide is going to ask for all the people who are likely to eat colored pods and Facebook is going to run a query and hand it over for few bucks. Facebook, like Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and all the rest, are services, not websites. Wait! How can that be? You use a web browser to access it, right? So it must be a website.

Back up, Sparky. Yes, most people access Facebook with a web browser, but that doesn’t mean it’s a website. It acts like a website, but you can also access Facebook with an app on your phone, a program on your desktop, or any other number of ways. Most of those programs render out the whole site for you because that’s what people want to see. Never mind the fact that Facebook is nothing more than a tarted-up group from back in the Usenet days, it’s the pictures and cool stuff that we really want to interact with. As users, we don’t care about the data. Unless you’re stalking someone, you probably don’t care that they live in Schenectady, love Nissans, and work for an advertising firm. You just want to see what people are posting. If you are stalking someone, stop it. That’s not cool.

Advertisers, on the other hand, don’t care about the cat pictures, but the political screeds and personal information are a goldmine to them. In addition to the random things we all post each and every day, the very metadata about you as a person is invaluable. Let’s say I run VHS to DVD shop in Clovis, NM and want to figure out how many people in the surrounding area could use my services. I could use your metadata about where you live and a scrape of your posts to target advertising to the right people (both of them) that might use my business. From there, I can decide to buy targeted ads on Facebook that promote my service to the right people.

So far, there’s nothing too terrible to see there. You share information, Facebook sells it, advertisers use it, you get your copy of Night of the Comet copied to a DVD. Everyone winds up happy.

Except Zuck. He doesn’t look too happy, but two days in front of Congress will do that to you.

The downside happens when unscrupulous groups use less-than-savory custom-built apps that exploit holes in Facebook’s API security to push misinformation or flat-out lies to people for the purposes of nudging us in a direction. That was the whole goal of various Russian data centers during the last election (and probably continuing to this day). And make no mistake, a nudge in certain direction is far more effective than a shove when it comes to getting people to do what you want them to. Now imagine doing that on a massive scale, say in the billions of users. Imagine what you could do with that kind of power.

That’s the why. The how is surprisingly simple. Remember, Facebook is really nothing more than a service. That means it can be accessed from a variety of different clients. That’s where the malicious apps come into play. Beyond creating a data scraper that exploits Facebook’s API, you could also make a Facebook app that looks like a regular game, but asks for certain kinds of information. If the game looks good enough, people will happily tell the game their names, birthdates, places of residence, political leanings, religious leanings, and everything else a data aggregator could possibly want. Just like with legitimate advertisers, someone who wants to nudge you in a direction can take that information and build on it, pushing you stories that reinforce a belief they want you to have. The next thing you know, something that was “meh” last week is the most important thing in the world to you.

And all it takes is enough people analyzing data you freely handed out and enough people pushing the message to make it a thing.

So, rather than getting pissed at Facebook for selling your data – they’ve never been opaque about that – think about what you’re sharing before you share it. Information is power. It’s a bullet, and if you aim it correctly you can blow the kneecaps off the world.

Definitely have fun with Facebook, that’s what it’s there for. But be wary of what you share because all the information is out there and available for a price. The same goes for any social media site (or, you know, blog site). We’re long past the industrial revolution and the computer revolution. The new model of currency is data and it’s very big business. If you don’t want your data polished and sold back to you, don’t give it out.

The Timelessness Of Spaceballs

We were watching Spaceballs last night and explaining some of the jokes to my son when something hit me. While the movie is pretty damned funny, it’s got some jokes that are forever stuck in the late 1980s. For example:

The Rocky tapes are a nice touch. Also, apparently Mr. Coffee has expanded their lineup.

Not only did I have to explain what VHS tapes were, we had to explain the significance of the scene in terms of movie making. Back in 1987, being able to watch a movie at home was a novel idea – and something that the movie studios were wary of. Remember, this was the time when replacing a video tape could cost you upwards of $100 and the cantankerous players could fetch nearly a grand. But all that price paled in comparison to what movie studios thought they were losing. If you could pay for a movie once and watch it over and over, that was a bad thing.

The movie theaters were less than enthralled at the idea as well. Why would someone come to a theater to watch a movie when they could watch it from the comfort of their own home?

Flash forward thirty years and not only are DVDs (and their ilk) cheaper, but you can pick up a player for next to nothing. Amazingly, movie theaters are still in business and Hollywood is still cranking out movies. They’ve just embraced the model of releasing a movie, waiting a bit, and then selling it to you.

But, at the time, plenty of people were nervous about the idea of video cassettes and that lead to a classic scene that bears explanation to younger viewers who are used to pushing a few buttons on Netflix and watching whatever they feel like. So the whole idea of video tapes and the associated commentary in the movie were a little lost on my kiddo.

The jokes about Dark Helmet using the Schwartz to crush people’s balls were right up his alley, though. To be fair, dick jokes never go out of style.

Admit it, you just laughed.

Anyway, the whole thing got me thinking about the idea of timelessness in a story. I’ve never really tried to set a story in a particular era. It would be fun to write something set in the 80s, but unless you lived through that time it would be difficult to explain things like “gag me with a Fraggle”, why anyone thought 7-Up Gold was a good idea, or the general appeal of The Cure. And, as the brief discussion of the Mr. Rental joke in Spaceballs shows up, if you have to explain a joke, it’s already not funny. Or, at least, not funny anymore because the world has changed.

The funny thing about Spaceballs, though, is just how timeless a lot of it has become. For what amounted to a throwaway send-up of Star Wars, it’s held up remarkably well and has spawned its own line of jokes. For instance, did you know the Tesla Model S has a Ludicrous Speed setting that will push that beast from 0-60 in 2.8 seconds? Ludicrous Speed, itself a joke about speed overkill in sci-fi movies, is straight out of Spaceballs.

Madness!

The second part of that joke, “They’ve gone to plaid”, has become a regular phrase to describe something that’s going way too fast. That one even has an Urban Dictionary entry.

In that way, Spaceballs created its own jokes and parlance. I regularly use the line “Oh, sure, I could carry two or three of these”.

That, I guess, is the genius of Mel Brooks. For a movie that only holds a 57% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Spaceballs has become its own timeless thing. Which just goes to show, when people are still talking about your work 30 years after it was released, it doesn’t matter what the critics say, that’s a piece of timeless art.

How do you go about telling that timeless story? Will people 30 years from now remember what you’ve written? That’s the rub. I seriously doubt back when he was writing Spaceballs Mel Brooks ever thought the joke about Ludicrous Speed would ever be resurrected in an electric car or “they’ve gone to plaid” would be a thing. At the time, it’s likely that he was just as concerned about the VHS revolution as everyone else who depended on movie goers to put food on their tables.

The things that become timeless – “I’ll be back”, for instance – are inherently unpredictable. You can’t set out to make that kind of thing happen. All you can do is make the best of whatever it is you’re making and keep your fingers crossed.

And have some really kick-ass marketing.

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