Tag Archives: doctorow

30 Days of Giving 5: Heinlein Society

I was introduced to science fiction by the Laura Donovan Elementary School librarian, who picked out a Robert Silverberg book for me to read. I’m pretty sure I read it at least three times, given the rather narrow selection of the genre in 1969 — but then I was introduced to the Monmouth County Library system, where Robert Heinlein, Silverberg, Isaac Asimov and others awaited. Science fiction has continued to be a staple of my life, with John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, China Mieville, and a host of others filling my head with visions of what is possible, impacts of the future on current policy and politics, and how we might bridge the present and the near present.

I discovered the Heinlein Society through a posting on John Scalzi’s annual holiday postings, where he allows readers to represent their artistic and charitable works to a wider audience. The Heinlein Society attempts to pay forward the legacy of one of the greats of the genre, and my donation supports its educational efforts. Hat tip to both Scalzi for networking good works, and to friend Marc for renewing my interest in my first sci-fi literary crush over a series of breakfasts.

Day 5: Support the Heinlein Society with a one-time, one year membership.

Perfectly Named Strangers: Pinchot Reads Doctorow

Short form: Bronson Pinchot, widely acclaimed and (vocally) prolific audio book narrator, picks up Cory Doctorow’s “Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town” in an unedited, 11+ hour DRM-free audiobook. That’s one great week of commuting time this gnarly winter for less than the cost of half a tank of gas.

Long form: SCTTSLT is probably Doctorow’s strangest novel but one of my favorites. It’s ten years old, and still deliciously off-center. You have to experience it knowing that all of the characters with alliterated first names are the same; you have to listen deeply to get into the symbolism. It’s weird, and it’s reflectively weird if you are a first or second generation immigrant to the West. One of the insights Cory shared with me years ago was that he chose the flexible naming conventions because it seemed the Russian immigrant generation in his family used so many names to refer to the same person, and the foreign family member stand-ins (stacking dolls and washing machine, for example) conveyed that same rough sense of being in a foreign land. If you can’t envision a washing machine as a maternal metaphor, go re-listen to “Do You Love Me?” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” If matryoshka dolls don’t resonate as siblings, you don’t have (or are not) a middle child in the family. And if the alliterative nicknames don’t work, pick up your Dostoevsky (ideally, “Crime and Punishment”) again. The Russian force is strong with this one.

In the art-life transverse universe: People of roughly my age remember Bronson Pinchot as Balki from “Perfect Strangers,” a strangely setup TV sitcom about a Greek immigrant to Chicago and the foreign interpretation of his somewhat appealing naivety. It makes the narration seem all the more appropriate, although there isn’t even a tenuous connection between the choice of narrator and his previous small screen credits.

Tangential but completely unrelated music reference: Mimi’s wings (and their scarred history) and her role as creative forcing function remind me of Prise Ambellina from the Coheed & Cambria Amory Wars universe. The cover for Downpour’s audio book of SCTTSLT is eerily similar to Coheed posters from their first four albums.

Circular Reasoning: Darwin To Purrington And Back Again

I admit to a certain amount of Internet vanity. While Google alerts for “Hal Stern” most frequently turn up the Cal professor of statistics or the Arizona real estate agent who share my legal name, Google Analytics tells the colder, bolder truth about my public persona: about 300 people a week pay attention. Discounting for parents, co-workers, and people who have my in a long-forgotten RSS reader, it’s probably 200 sets of eyeballs.

What’s interesting to me is where they came from, and why they’re here in the first (or more often, second) place. And every so often, I see traffic redirected from Colin Purrington’s blog. It’s one thing to get a spike in redirects after someone points at a post, it’s another to see regular, background radiation level interest — it’s a long-reverberating echo from someone who gets significantly more of a readership chorus than yours truly.

Curiosity and vanity got the better of me last week: There’s not much on Purrington’s site that would immediately make you think of a 50-year old extra slow hockey player who consumes too much science fiction. But a little searching on his site looking for references to mine turns up the saddle point. My overly detailed description of unboxing Cory Doctorow’s “With A Little Help” included my surprise at finding the Darwin sticker, and Colin picked up the cross-site sighting. Mystery solved.

Meanwhile, I discovered a great writer and a source of goodies that I’m going to forward again and again. I’ve already sent his notes on securing a research job to some folks, and I’m in love with his great ideas for subtle, civil disobedience in support of science. It’s xkcd meets Thoreau, with stickers.

Doctorow’s “Homeland” Hits The NY Times Bestseller List

Cory Docotorow’s newest YA novel, “Homeland”, hits the NY Times YA bestseller list in week one. Called it.

It’s a superb followup to “Little Brother,” and Cory’s found a good balance between technical exposition and moving the story along, with decidedly less snogging and more insight into the root causes of greed and corruption. It has what DJs call a “cold ending” – it hits a strong final note that resonates, without the need to play out every single chord, making it even more thought-provoking and open to personal adaptation.

It’s now on the top of my gift list for everyone, and I’ve referenced it twice this week in various meetings.

Right To Art: Cory Doctorow’s “Pirate Cinema”

“I sampled your voice, you was usin’ it wrong” – Jay-Z, “Takeover”, from 2001’s “The Blueprint”, which itself contains samples of The Doors “Five to One” (which contains the lyric “no one here gets out alive” which became the title of a Jim Morrison biography, so either I’ve proved the point I want to make or I’m mind-clicking into a twisty little maze of passages)

Cory Doctorow’s “Pirate Cinema” is both a great book and an important book. It’s a great, quick read with a story that bounces and bounds along, sprinkled with the right mixture of Doctorow’s adopted British culture and legal and technical exposition And there are kissy scenes, at which Doctorow has become increasingly adept with successive novels. Dealing with copyright and the current, frightening trend toward more draconian enforcement and broad interpretation of copyright laws, it’s an important book – everyone should read it. If you didn’t know that it’s now illegal to unlock a cell phone in the US, start reading.

The actions and events portrayed in “Pirate Cinema”, however fictionalized, are based in reality. They are the result of a set of industries that don’t understand how culture is spread and discovered, or even how new art is made. Intense copyright enforcement is not just an assault on our ability to enjoy and share and ideally influence others to buy and refine their cultural tastes, it’s a frontal assault on art in general. To quote from an email exchange with Cory shortly after I finished the book, “Referencing and remixing is inherent to all art.” I have to believe that, somewhere, Dizzy Gillespie smiles every time a jazz musician drops “Salt Peanuts” into a solo or shout chorus, and the reason that Phish fans feel compelled to document every song tease that peppers a live show is that for a few seconds, we’re all in on the reference and joke. When xkcd references Jay-Z with a perl and Unix command line riff, the pointers now make a cyclic graph. And that’s a good thing, even though I had to explain it to a co-worker yesterday (who heard Jay-Z for the first time, so I have completed my musical civic duty for the week).

Art has always been about sampling, out of respect or honor or a tip of the beret to the first guys to try something. Recognizing the value of remixing and reassembly puts required recognition on creativity, not just content. Is Claus Oldenberg less of an artist or cultural icon because Split Button samples the non-Amish approved part of a men’s shirt? When I finished “Pirate Cinema” my first thought was “This is the Barry Ulanov moment for digital content” — Ulanov being the critic who propelled bebop artists out of the jazz canon of the time.

Salt Peanuts, Salt Peanuts entered our vernacular as a result. What else are we missing by dampening creativity, or ignoring the artistic life lessons of a self referential copyright fairy tale?

Doctorow Short Stories (And A Long One)

In anticipaion of today’s mail drop, I re-read “Another Time, Another Place”, the short story contributed by Cory Doctorow to the Chronicles of Harris Burdick anthology. Without spoiling it too much, it’s a great story about hope and possibility. As much as I’m a fanboy at MAXINT volume for all of Doctorow’s work, I tend to favor his short stories just a shade over his novels, mostly because they elicit such a great emotional response that’s packaged and primed and then released with timing worthy of a circus acrobat. It’s right up there with his contribution to Welcome to Bordertown and both are high on my young adult/sci-fi enraptured gift-receiving list this year. Having just finished Orson Scott Card’s Pathfinder and The Lost Gate, I’m reminded that Card’s books are long novels with a short story like ending (why can’t he bring his books to a rousing conclusion?) while Doctorow’s stories take you along the single thread of a novel in short form.

Why the fawning? I’m the happy recipient of the Doctorow/Stross collaboration Rapture of the Nerds and tomorrow I’m going to hear them read/speak at Makerbot in Brooklyn (7pm, 85 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, near the 3/4/5 and D/N/R Atlantic Avenue stops). Been waiting for this one for a while — two of my favorite authors in one binding, dealing with topics that skirt some themes in Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom (Doctorow’s first book). It’s up there in the Simon-esque pantheon of seeing a naked girl while eating ice cream.

Rapture, indeed.

Review: “Life on Mars: The New Frontier”

Unrelated to the TV series, other books with similar titles or even the Governator in Total Recall, Jonathan Strahan’s collection of short stories is a superb glimpse into what life might be like on the red planet. What sets it apart is that all of the stories are related through the eyes of its intended young adult audience. My detours into young adult sci-fi are driven by references from Cory Doctorow and it’s his story “Martian Chronicles” that was my hook, as it was with Welcome to Bordertown. Doctorow’s tale of Martians-to-be rings of Gibson’s Spook Country underlaid by the gaming riffs in Little Brother and For The Win.

The other stories are quite good as well, and represent a who’s who of writers — Ellen Klages, Alastair Reynolds, Nancy Kress being just three of the thirteen represented in the collection. Klages’ writing in particular sits on the boundary of real and imagined, present and potential future; her inclusion makes the overall narrative that much more rich and made me go looking for my copy of her Portable Childhoods.

At about $1.50 per story “Life on Mars: The New Frontier” is rich in value and variety.

Peoplehood II: Alliteration

Anglicization does strange things to non-English alphabets. My father’s family name (in the Ukraine) was “Shtechter”, probably with a hard “ch” in the middle (like Bach), but it turned into both “Stern” and “Shtier” when the two halves of the family arrived on Ellis Island. Hailing from a rural town – a “mudhole”, in the words of my aunt – that part of the Ukraine was then within the boundaries of the Austria-Hungary empire, otherwise known as Galacia. It’s entirely possible that “Schtechter” derived from something Czech or Magyar in origin, and the name migrated east decades before the family came west. I don’t know too much of the family history before the mid-19th century, and sadly, there’s nobody who remembers left to ask.

Independently of the family name, everyone’s given name went through transmogrification. Aunts and uncles interchanged Jack, Joel, and Julius with remarkable ease considering that none of their native tongues had a “J”-sounding consonant. My second bit of peoplehood backstory stems from a conversation with author Cory Doctorow in which he shared the personal reference point for the alliterative character names in his novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Everybody descended from the Russian side of his family had half a dozen names, dimunitives, family nicknames and chosen preferred first names joined only by initial and context. Doctorow captures the out-of-place experience when you are a true greenhorn, new to culture, language and custom, but simultaneously pinpoints where community spackles over the gaps. It’s easily one of the strangest books I’ve read, but no more confusing than following my family tree or immigration history, and piecing together its stories.

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “Ant King and Other Stories”

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s The Ant King and Other Stories is flat-out weird. And this comes from a reader who has a very high dynamic range for values of “weird.” However, the magnitude of the weird vector also indicates its value to you a a reader. Buy it, digest it, ponder it.

Strange and varied as the book is as a whole, it’s also that good as a whole. A mix of novellas and very short stories, covering any number of supposed genres, it’s a book that gives you pause and makes you think. It’s filled with little self-deprecating and self-referential asides that are mentally fecund and jocund (how’s that for tail-alliteration and recursive stylistic reference, complete with LISP annotation?)

I discovered Rosenbaum through his collaboration with Cory Doctorow on their “True Names” interpretation, which hurt my brain so much I read it twice. The actual prompting to buy Ant King, though, came from the end papers in my hand-bound edition of Doctorow’s With A Little Help – notes from the Ant King manuscript. More recursion.

Music Discovery and Distribution

I’ve had a number of conversations over the past few weeks with established and emergent talent in the music management business. Most of them started with thinking about how people discover new bands or new types of music, and how those processes relate to the more abstract notions of brand. All of this was made more front and center by my work over the summer on the Let Us In campaign tying music – the original social media platform – to a social action agenda and in reading Zero History, the latest William Gibson book in his anti-brand yet anti-hipster trilogy.

Here’s a revenue model for an established band with an RIAA gold-certified single. I based some of these numbers on discussions and business models put together with someone who has done music distribution in a previous life; the others are based on estimates of average artist royalty share for physical goods sold through the big box stores and discounters like Wal-Mart. Even if the numbers are off by a bit, the rough orders of magnitude indicate that whole-album sales and touring put the most money in the bank. The extremes of the spectrum: single downloads from iTunes (and its degnerate cousin, people who share music “for free” and violate the copyright) and high-end, limited edition items, are important but not funding the retirement account.

So why play at the ends? Because that’s what drives volume back into the middle.

The lack of a solid middle is what’s killing the music business today. To quote Cory Doctorow, it’s not piracy, it’s obscurity. Any garage band can use Garage Band and CDBaby to get a song into iTunes. The music business and listener’s ears aren’t necessarily the better for it until that band develops a following, a sound, an album or three, and a business model. The good news is that music doesn’t need to be dominated by bands jamming the distribution channels terminating in Wal-Mart and Best Buy; there’s aural room for an order of magnitude more small, variegated acts. Just not a song at a time. Want the evidence? Harvard Business Review’s quick note that while downloads are up, album sales are down. Artists are losing money on a song-by-song basis but making it up in volume, as the old anti-business adage goes.

The numbers above are what I’d expect a band like Coheed and Cambria to do in support of an album (consider Year of the Black Rainbow, their latest; CoCa had two gold albums previously). They derive benefit from airplay and some promotion by the distribution companies, but for a smaller act (think Five Finger Death Punch, who opened for Godsmack on their latest tour), the volume is created by personal recommendation out of word of mouth, a shared car ride, a social networking site link or direct band outreach to fan clubs and street teams. There’s immense value in getting your one-song fans to listen to an entire album, or attend a live show and decide they want to buy the rest of your catalog; there’s even more value in getting a non-consumer to enjoy his or her first song and become a paying fan.

The ends of the spectrum are important because at a dollar a song, the barrier to new listener entry is very low; people will spend a buck if they think they like a song. Shazam and shared playlists like those from my yoga teacher drive volume on the low end. At the high end you have your strong affinity super-fans; the people who are the first to update their Facebook status to “Got tickets for Denver show” and to take a dozen pictures at the show. You strengthen that affinity with exclusive offers, direct outreach, and implicit permission to share your passion for the band. Coheed and Cambria, to extend the example, most definitely get this – from the limited edition versions of the graphic novels used as album backstory to the green vinyl re-release of Second Stage Turbine Blade in support of this spring’s tour. They don’t need non-stop airplay, heavy advertising, and direct promotion because their hardest core fans do it for them. That’s what musical passion incites in fans: a desire to share the music and the passion for it.

The price-versus-consumption spectrum reflects a nearly 1:1 mapping of a brand sub-spectrum. Brands are created and curated; they are imagined and then distributed to the public to varying degrees. On one extreme you have “forced inclusion” brands, where you simply can’t get away from them. Think Disney in Times Square, or on Saturday morning TV. This hasn’t changed in 40 years – it was the Wonderful World of Disney and a re-release of an animated movie and the Mickey Mouse Club before Simba chased the hookers off of 42nd Street. The musical equivalents are Miley Cyrus, Miranda Cosgrove and Justin Bieber. This hit me while sitting at a Miranda Cosgrove concert (with my outstanding young rocker nieces) when the tween behind me exclaimed (in reference to opener Grayson Chance) “He’s my new Jonas Brothers.” I hope that in the next few years, she develops her own tastes in music, and not just what the mass media tell her is appropriately hip.

At the other extreme are things so rarefied that they don’t need any media support: Lamborghinis, country clubs, Indie Rock Pete and his musical elitism, high-end oenophiles, the American Express Black card and the secret level of the affinity club. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it doesn’t even scratch the surface. If you have to ask, you don’t belong, and that’s the root of the exclusivity. It’s driving in Boston. Taken to an extreme, it’s the elitist fascination and brand allergies as central themes in William Gibson’s Zero History, Spook Country and Pattern Recognition.

Neither extreme holds much promise for the music business. While you can buy a guitar played by Sully Erna on tour, your ownership of an item with a cardinality measured in tens doesn’t make Godsmack more popular; and just because anyone with a piano and a flip camera can make music and a video doesn’t mean that they will turn it into a community with fans (Hoku anyone?). It’s the middle ground that matters: reaching out through selective inclusivity (Twitter, Facebook, email opt-in) and attraction of the super-fans through selective exclusivity that build a brand outside of the physical goods distribution networks.

Selective exclusivity relies on first followers: brand spotters, trend setters, whatever you want to call them. In the music world, though, the spotting and rebroadcast is many to many; it’s not one skirt length or one set of colors but Seattle grunge and sadly (for me) Autotune. It’s how Rush has managed to be the fourth best-selling band of all time despite only a handful of Top 100 songs. You either know the Lerxst in Wonderland, or you’re on the outside. It’s Jac Vanek bracelets (disclosure: Jac Vanek is a partner in the Let Us In Campaign; she makes our bracelets).

I think the selective exclusive domain is the savior of album sales and the breeding ground for successful tours. It has to be carefully cultivated (there is a measure of exclusivity); but it also has to be given the ability to participate and share and promote. This is the fundamental shift awaiting the music industry – to move away from a hierarchical, top-down controlled distribution of music to a bottom-up, empowered and infinitely broader set of networks. It’s Tim O’Reilly’s architecture for participation and I’m counting on it to make more music accessible more broadly. I’m counting on it, because I can’t afford that Godsmack guitar and I definitely can’t do another Miranda Cosgrove gig.

[note: Thanks to Jonathan Kriner, Stu Hinds, David Ross, Ben Stern and Cory Doctorow’s interview with William Gibson for thoughts that went into this rant]