Category Archives: Material World

“A Fistful of Dynamite”: Director Sergio Leone’s Overlooked Masterpiece

Fifty-five years ago, in 1964, Italian film director Sergio Leone took the film world by storm with the release of A Fistful of Dollars. In the process, he singlehandedly created the spaghetti western subgenre and established Clint Eastwood as a screen icon. Initially panned by critics in Italy, Fistful nonetheless found a cult following; American critics, on the other hand, got the joke, and the rest is history.

Fast-forward to 1971. After three more westerns (For a Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; and the glorious, epic, Once Upon a Time in the West) a tired Leone once again took to the dusty hills and arroyos of Andalusia, in southern Spain, to make the final, and most mature, of his western masterpieces.

I’d known of this film for many years, but somehow — despite being a lover of the subgenre — never got around to seeing it until this week, when I found it on Amazon Prime*. If you’re also a Leone fan, I can’t recommend this film highly enough: it’s jaw-dropping, spellbinding, and hugely entertaining.

A meditation on and a critique of both oppression and revolution, the film is visually sumptuous, with many sequences of sheer art — if you’ve seen Once Upon a Time in the West, you’ll get my drift. Coburn and Steiger’s (the latter fresh from In the Heat of the Night) acting is flawless. And Ennio Morricone’s score contributes a perfect, teasing, brilliant counterpoint to the action and the dynamic tension of the film, which balances tongue-in-cheek and sober social commentary.

Set in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution, the film, whose main themes are friendship, the dawning of social conscience, and class struggle, opens with a quote from Chairman Mao**:

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

Enter Rod Steiger as Juan, a raggedy-assed and apparently illiterate Mexican peasant; he soon turns out to be a wily bandit, modeled on the character of Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, with a gaggle of bastard sons for a gang. The first scenes of the film see an increasingly feverish, near-surrealist scene in which Juan is degraded and humiliated by a stagecoach full of rich upper-class Mexicans, who soon get their comeuppance.

As the bandits loot the stagecoach, an explosion up the trail interrupts their business. Moments later, James Coburn appears on a vintage motorcycle from a cloud of dust, very much in the manner of The Man With no Name. The initial face-off between these two is priceless, and Coburn soon reveals himself as Irish Revolutionary John Mallory, a man not to be toyed with on account of the fact that his duster coat is lined with enough dynamite and nitroglycerin to reshape large parts of the landscape.

As the plot develops, the continuing tension between the two protagonists develops into a strong, if unacknowledged friendship, and the initially simple story grows around them. One of the movie’s set-piece scenes, depicting a massacre of revolutionaries by the army, is straight from World War II… as is the German colonel who is the film’s rather surreal antagonist.

The movie’s name went through some interesting changes. In Italy, it was released under the title, “Giú la Testa,” which in English approximates, “Get your head down.” Originally titled, “Duck, you sucker!” in the U.S., the title was later changed to “A Fistful of Dynamite,” to tie in with Leone’s Dollar films. In France, where the film did very well, it was named “Once Upon a Time… the Revolution.”

The genesis of the film was equally tortuous. The screenplay was originally written for Jason Robards and Eli Wallach, who’d respectively starred in Leone’s previous epics, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but ended up with James Coburn and Rod Steiger in the leading roles. Additionally, Leone didn’t want to direct the movie himself, but after three other candidates (Sam Peckinpah was the second) didn’t pan out, and at Steiger’s insistence that Leone direct the movie, he finally acquiesced.

The review site Rotten Tomatoes gives A Fistful of Dynamite 91%. Brilliant, thoughtful, visually rich, and immensely entertaining, this is a film that deserves to be seen.

Are you a fan of Leone’s work? Have you seen this film?

Notes

* You can watch the movie here on Amazon Prime, or buy it here in various formats

** It’s worth mentioning that the Mao quote, along with several scenes, was cut from the initial 1972 release as they were deemed too politically sensitive for U.S. audiences. The film was banned in Mexico until 1979 as offensive to both the people and the Mexican Revolution.

 

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Writing Dreams, Writing Delusions

About six months ago I joined a very large and well-established L.A. area writing group, with the idea of getting to know and spending some quality time with other local authors, as well as the possible side benefit that some networking would bring me more copyediting clients. Six months later, I haven’t been to a single one of their meetings, and will undoubtedly just let my membership expire at the end of its term.

Conferences and events, heralded by a breathtaking daily barrage of spam emails, are frequent and not cheap. These emails trumpet “Your Chance to Meet and Pitch One of California’s Top Literary Agents!” as if this were (and should be!) every writer’s sole and desperate goal, the only thing standing between them and riches. And of course you can save big bucks by reserving a spot today.

Seriously? This is 2019, not 1999. Get real, people.

I know whereof I speak. I’ve had my own imprint since 2009; I have five of my own books out, and have had some notable success; I’ve helped several other authors get their first novels published. I’ve written on writing craft, and I guest blog for others. I’ve participated in and moderated conference panels for almost two decades; I’m occasionally asked to beta read work for some big name authors, and have interviewed many on this same blog.

Above all, I pride myself on my approach of dealing with authors honestly, even if it makes me look like a deeply cynical contrarian, rather than trying to capitalize on their dreams. I may not be rich, but I can look at myself in the mirror every morning and see an honest man.

So here’s the straight dope: a writer’s chances of landing an agent (especially a good one) today are so slim that they might as well as buy a lottery ticket. Oh, the odds may not be quite so bad, but I wouldn’t let a child of mine even think about making it their goal or dream. If, like Russian Roulette, getting picked up by a top agent carried a high risk of violent death (hmm, now there’s a story seed!), I’d tell them not to worry.

Now, there are many agents and people in publishing who care deeply about trying to give newer authors a chance; but the likelihood of anyone who isn’t already a name getting a book deal is vanishingly slim, and the road to publication time-consuming, burdensome, and peppered with potholes.

Ask yourself this: do you really want to spend years, possibly decades of your life facing rejection after bitter rejection as you struggle to shoehorn your work into  the industry’s ever-increasingly restrictive formulas in the vanishing hope that an agent will pick you up and get you a publishing deal?

And then what? If everything goes very, very well and you successfully run the gauntlet and deliver all the rewrites necessary to please everyone, including the publisher’s marketing people who think your ending may not quite please some readers, or that your brilliant magic realist subtheme makes it less easy to fit your novel into a clear category, you might eventually end up with a $5k advance for years of work, and face the very real likelihood that your novel won’t earn out its advance (because your publisher likely put zero muscle into marketing it), and a reduced likelihood of ever getting another book deal.

Years of your life, and a mountain of soul-crushing disappointment.

And yet fanning this very delusion has become an industry on the internet, with hundreds, possibly thousands of rah rah cheerleading blogs and a blizzard of stridently-titled books on Amazon promising to show you how to write a bestseller and get it published. There is, sadly, a great deal more money to be made by selling writers snake oil than by actually writing.

It’s possible you don’t care about fame and riches, but simply see being traditionally published as validation of your writing ability and the strength of your work. That ship sailed long ago: today, even publishing industry insiders no longer see themselves as the arbiters of literary quality, the thin red line protecting readers from an ocean of awful dreck.

All this said, wanting to become proficient at your craft and have your work read is a worthy and beautiful dream which I encourage every author to nurture and cherish; but getting there via the traditional trajectory of landing an agent and publishing deal — in my personal opinion — sails so close to the delusional that a visit to Vegas in the hope of returning rich seems like a great option.

Nurturing a creative’s dream (hell, I’m a creative too), is a wonderful thing. Encouraging them is their delusions and making money off them by selling them snake oil is exploitative and predatory. And, honestly, if you want to be a writer, what you need is realism, toughness and tenacity, not fairy visions and stardust sprinkles. I could make far more money telling desperate writers what they want to hear, but I’d rather keep my self-respect, thank you.

Should you want to be published? Hell yes! (Incidentally, I wrote a post many years back on why we want so badly to be published.) But today, more than ever, you should consider taking the indie route: I talk about this, and much else, in my craft book linked below. In both that volume and my work as a freelance copyeditor, my entire focus is on helping authors tell their story in a way that will please the reader rather than conform to the stifling and questionable requirements of an industry long past its expiration date.

And as I delete the last few days’ hyperbolic emails from the big writer’s group, I feel good that even if I haven’t told you what you wanted to hear — that you’ll land that trad publishing deal and soar to stardom if you just pony up the cost a few weeks’ groceries for a chance to pitch that top agent — I’ve at least told you the truth as best I know it.


The Fiction Writing Handbook* is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems. Similarly, the importance of both character and narrative voice, as well as tone, cannot be overstated.

Drawing on twenty years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. The Fiction Writing Handbook gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Other topics covered in The Fiction Writing Handbook include external and internal dialog, writers’ block, traditional vs. indie publishing, PoV (point of view), creating suspense, and much more.

Whether your interest lies in short stories, novels or screenwriting, The Fiction Writing Handbook shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing novel plotting formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

*The Fiction Writing Handbook was originally released in 2017 under the title, Drown the Cat, as it directly challenges much of the write-by-numbers advice in screenwriter Blake Snyder’s cult book, Save the Cat!

 

 

 

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The Curiously Personal Nature of Bad Reviews

Whether you’re a writer, plumber, dentist, restaurateur, or a vendor of online goods, sooner or later you’re going to get one or more mean-spirited and stinging reviews. It doesn’t matter an iota whether it’s justified or not: you can write the best book in the world, provide a flawless, customer-centric service, sell the highest quality goods, and you’ll still get them, those snide little one-star jabs out of the blue that drag your perfect five-point-oh average down to a four-point-something or worse.

As a writer, my personal experience is with Amazon. I’ve seen people with scores of four- and five-star reviews receive a one-star review that appears to have zero relevance to the book, or that is factually inaccurate. Occasionally the poster focuses obsessively on some inconsequential detail or scene which has, for whatever reason, sent them off the deep end. Sometimes the reviewer confesses to not reading beyond the first chapters; others, they state they enjoyed the book but the Amazon eBook wouldn’t open on the first try, or a print version arrived in the mail with a creased  cover and because of that they’re giving it one star.

It’s annoying and just plain wrong.

What is very clear though if you look carefully at these outlier reviews of a generally fine product or service, is the very personal nature of them: whereas good reviews are generally thoughtful and clearly phrased to be informative, targeted at potential buyers in a general spirit of helpfulness, the low-grade, plainly nasty review is often aimed as clearly as any poison dart at the service provider, vendor, or, in the case of books, the author. Personally, unequivocally, and with the intent to sting. It’s there for you to read, and is as targeted as a personal letter.

The worst reviews often fall into three categories:

  • An intentional attempt by a competitor or rival to damage your product or service
  • A mean attack of a personal nature from someone who dislikes you or has an axe to grind
  • An issue not with your service or product, but instead the way it was delivered or handled by a third party

In the case of books, it also occasionally happens that person hasn’t taken the trouble to thoroughly read the book description or look at other reviews, and is not in the target audience for the book; instead of owning their shoddy research, they blame the poor author for not writing the book they wanted to read.

There’s no doubt that bad reviews hurt. It is, however, worth remembering that most potential buyers, on researching a product that has overwhelmingly good reviews and just one or two very negative ones, will either entirely dismiss the negatives or take the time to examine them. In many cases, a negative review gives itself away in its tone, or by the obviously incorrect or unfair detail in the text. Readers and buyers aren’t stupid, and while a terrible review may sting, it rarely will hurt the author, vendor, or service provider as much as the poster would like: often, it only makes the poster look stupid, emotionally unstable, or an outright liar.

One thing I always do in the case of these outlier negative reviews is click on the poster’s name. On most sites (Amazon is one), it takes you to a page listing all their reviews. This can be extremely revealing: I’ve more than once found that someone who’s left a nasty one-star review on a book or other product hasn’t posted a single other book review. In other cases, the reviewer gives all books of a particular genre bad reviews. This sort of thing says far more about the reviewer than the product.

Sometimes the list of products the buyer has reviewed reveals a great deal about them as a person, and, in showing us the things they spend their money on, lays bare their interests, even their obsessions, in a way that doesn’t always reflect well on them.

All of us who care about our writing, or the products and services we provide are at some point going to feel the sting of these intentionally unpleasant reviews. My advice is to trust that potential buyers, by now well-experienced in navigating the landscape of the online review ecosystem, are shrewd enough to see through these nasty little missives and not be influenced by them. It’s unfortunately just the way things are, and worrying about it does no good. The best response is to get on with one’s work and put out more good product for that vast majority of readers or clients who appreciate the true worth of your efforts.

Have you been the subject of nasty, personally-targeted reviews? What have you learned from these instances?

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Manufactured Crisis or Thoughtful Analysis? Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind

Some days it seems that everyone I know is stressed over what’s going on in the world. Extremely stressed. I mean, like, freaking out. Panic attacks.

This is most apparent on social media, where everyone’s fears are repeated, reinforced, and magnified in a white-knuckle crescendo of screaming feedback and hyperbole. Some of the stress is justifiable: it’s pretty clear we’re not living in the best of all possible worlds. Bad enough that we have North Korea, ISIL, almost weekly terror attacks in Europe, resurgent racism, and what looks like a new cold war starting up. Add to that an unpredictable US president with a Twitter account and a penchant for pouring gasoline on every fire he sees, and it’s hard not to be concerned.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen many people expressing fears about everything from nuclear missile attacks vaporizing US cities to civil war in the US. Friends and acquaintances are having panic attacks, rage episodes, and experiencing chronic depression. This is hardly surprising, since the two biggest stressors in primates are lack of predictability and lack of control.

I share some of my friends’ concerns to a degree, but I’m far from depression or panic. Part of this is simply being older—I remember the Cuba missile crisis and lived in London throughout the brutal IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. I’m still here, and so is almost everyone else.

Beyond that, there’s one thing I do control, and you can too: your media. That doesn’t mean not staying informed—in fact, you can be both better informed and less stressed if you want to.

First, let’s remind ourselves that it wasn’t always like this. The 24/7 news cycle began in 1980, when Ted Turner’s CNN first came on the air. Before that, the news cycle was a daily one, beginning with the newspaper, and the same applied to the evening news on network TV. CNN was a game-changer: suddenly news was breaking 24/7, and anything even remotely newsworthy stood a good chance of being magnified for impact.

It’s important to understand the power of the visual medium in humans, who are primarily visual creatures (unlike, say, dogs, who get the vast majority of their information through their sense of smell).

Accordingly, a dramatic news item presented as video—a CCTV clip of a car mowing down innocent pedestrians, say—has infinitely higher emotional impact on the viewer than if they read the same item in textual form. Repeat that image over and over, and the impact on the audience is multiplied. Anyone who watched network news daily at the time of the 9/11 attacks probably saw the twin towers coming down at least scores of times, and probably several hundred: the networks played them over and over and over. For weeks. Months.

When Marshall McLuhan, back in 1964, wrote, “The medium is the message”,1 he wasn’t joking. The medium in which content is delivered shapes the content and the way it affects society in ways that are often unforeseen.

I haven’t watched TV news in almost thirty years. I have for many years listened to the BBC and NPR news on radio, and for the last decade mostly online, but in the last year or so I’ve mostly ditched that too.

How do I stay informed? I read. I read good news sources that report accurate, factual news—and, no, there’s no debate over what that is. (If you’re someone who believes the alt-right and president Trump’s definitions of “fake news”—or for that matter think Occupy Democrats and Addicting Info are credible news sources—you really shouldn’t waste your time reading this post. You’re not going to be convinced, and there’s a good chance I’ll can your comment: it’s my blog and my op-ed.)

I happened to be born with news media in my veins. My father was a celebrated, first-rank journalist, and I had a clear grasp of media accountability and the importance of credible sources before I was ten. Nine or ten newspapers were delivered daily to our house, and a number of news and current affairs weeklies, from Time Magazine to The Economist, as well as several Italian and French publications, were always to hand.

Now here’s the point. Television and radio news are push media: what that means is that the newsroom determines the hierarchy of importance of each item or topic and pumps them at you in a steady stream: you can’t just dip in and grab what interests you or what you consider important. Moreover, TV news has to be both sensational and simplified enough to keep the largest possible audience riveted: it’s fueled by advertising dollars, and airtime is very costly.

Text, on the other hand, is a pull medium: you can scan, determine what matters to you, and read just that; moreover, you can usually go and read more on that same subject in depth elsewhere. Lacking dramatic video imagery and manipulative voice tone, text media is much closer to sterile than visual or audio. Articles may of course carry spin or falsehoods, but selecting good sources addresses that.

Here’s a handy graph which compares news sources. The vertical axis defines journalistic quality; the horizontal, partisan bias. On the whole, I think it’s very accurate.

News Source Graphic

image too small? click here to enlarge

Another upside of text is that it’ll leave you better-informed. A four-minute radio piece—about the length of most items on NPR, undoubtedly one of the best news sources in the world—is perhaps 600 words. That’s not much, about the length of a typical blog post;2 you can barely scratch the surface. By contrast, the average length of a NYT article is around 1,200 words. Publications that take analysis really seriously, such as The Economist and The Atlantic Monthly, run some articles up into the several thousand-word range.

It’s true that readers’ attention spans are diminishing, and many people won’t take the ten minutes or so required to read a 1,200-word article. And the fact that everything is powered by the advertising makes it even more likely that newsroom editors, even in gold-standard publications, will be tempted to trim analysis and background material from articles.3

So: get your information fix from image-rich, emotionally manipulative push media, or pick your topics at leisure from in-depth, thoughtful, and less strident text media? Anxiety attacks or informed consideration?

The choice is yours. And there’s always antidepressants, right?

 

Notes

1  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan (Signet, 1966)

2 Most of my posts on this blog, and when I guest post elsewhere, are usually in the 1,200-1,500-word range—that’s how long it takes to dig a little into a subject.

3 https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/jul/15/tldr-quartz-associated-press-article-length

Thanks due to Vanessa Otero for her wonderful graphic comparing news sources. Check out her excellent blog here

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Poorly Served: The Upside-Down World of Dining Out and Shopping in America

It’s not easy being a cultural transplant.

After almost three decades in the US, one thing in particular still makes me gibber and foam at the mouth: the absolutely awful service in stores, and especially restaurants.

Say, what? Let me explain.

I’ll be in a store — a supermarket, say — and deeply focused on my mission. I have a list, either on paper or in memory.  I’m juggling menus and selections in my head. I may be examining tomatoes, considering their ripeness because the recipe I intend to use them in is three days away, and I want them perfect then.

And from behind me, a complete stranger asks me how I’m doing today, not only startling me but also totally disrupting my chain of thought.

Or the restaurant where I’m deep in conversation with my wife or a friend, and every five minutes either the waitperson will interrupt us to ask how everything is, or some poor wretch tries to refill my water glass every time I take a sip. Worst of all is the breathtakingly inconsiderate habit of starting to bus our plates before everyone is finished, on the pretext of “let me get these out of your way, sir.”

You moron! Go away! They’re not in my way, and my wife hasn’t even finished her meal!

Okay, I’ve never called anyone a moron yet, but I have told water-bringers to “go away and never come back.” For real. And, yes, I like to linger with my empty plate, to adjust and tinker with the carefully-positioned utensils laying across it as we chat and refill our wineglasses. It makes me feel I’m not being rushed. What’s the damned hurry?

Why do I get so bothered over this? Because I’m European. I come from a place where a diner’s chief priority isn’t wolfing down their food and getting out of a restaurant in twenty minutes. Where sharing a meal is something to be enjoyed, a chance to be unwind and bond and connect with one another. Where once you sit at a table, it’s yours until you’re ready to go. Where people aren’t coerced into hiding their real feelings behind a corporate mask of bland niceness and fake solicitousness.

I’m sure the waitstaff at restaurants and the people who stock the shelves in the supermarkets are often wonderful people, but I don’t go there to have a social experience with them: I have friends for that. And greeting a shopper when you’re not even in their field of vision isn’t merely annoying, it’s downright creepy! (Trader Joe’s, where all the staff are under substantial pressure to be full of puppy-dog good cheer, has an especially bad problem, as revealed in this NYT piece).

I don’t care what my restaurant waitperson’s name is. I just want them to bring my food while it’s still hot (a particularly challenging item in the US, especially with soup), and leave me to enjoy my meal in peace. Why must they waste our time and confuse us by reciting an endless list of specials in mind-numbing detail which we’ll all forget two seconds after they finish? Surely the restaurant has a computer and printer, and could just slip a sheet of paper listing the specials into the menu like they once used to. Is the management  under the illusion that we’ll find it a bonding experience and like the place better? It’s nuts.

Look, good service isn’t intrusive — it’s discreet and invisible. Waitstaff and store employees should be around and available when you need them and stay out of the way when you don’t. Pestering people, interrupting them, interrogating them…none of this is good service. It’s pretend, flummery, stagecraft. Sadly, these are core American values. (Discuss.)

The same goes for clothing, household, and other stores. I understand acknowledging the customer as they walk in to let them know staff is aware of their presence in case they’re thinking of shoplifting. But if — as happened to me in the lovely Huntington Museum gift shop just a few weeks ago —  four different people come up to me in the course of ten minutes to ask if I need help, I just walk. Usually after telling them why, and sometimes handing them the item I had intended to buy until they shattered the last of my dwindling patience.

Once or twice I’ve sought out the manager in a supermarket and told them that the smiling attempts to catch my eye, the repeated greetings, and the dreaded, “did you find everything okay?” at the checkout are excessive. When pushed, they’ll mumble that they and their staff hate it too, but head office makes them do it. And head office is probably getting that advice from some consultancy firm or guru, for which advice we, of course, are ultimately paying.

Service industry protocols in this country are upside down. It’s like living in a sick mirror universe, and there’s not much one can do about it. When my wife and I go into a restaurant these days, I’ve taken to telling the waitperson, nicely and right up front, that we’re not in a hurry, want the food to come slow, and don’t want to be bussed before we’re ready. They nod and smile and seem to get it. And yet four out of five times the result is no different.

So does anyone actually enjoy all these forced interactions and interruptions? Or am I simply legend?

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Notes From an Alien Shore

A few weeks ago I happened to ask two friends a question that had been on my mind a good deal lately. Both conversations went very much like this (I’ll call the friends “X” for simplicity):

ME: “Do you ever wonder what we are? What we really are?”

X: <Silence/blank stare>

ME: “I mean, think about it. We’re not our bodies, that’s obvious. But we’re not our minds, either, that’s just the organ that does the thinking. A Christian would use the word “soul”, but that just raises more questions, as does the notion that we’re a splinter of some kind of supreme being. So what are we?”

X: Honestly, I try not to think about that sort of thing.

Admittedly, two people is a narrow sample. But that fact that two intelligent, thoughtful friends should give me exact, identical answers really made me think.

I ask myself questions like the one above all the time. Questions of existence, of reality, time and space, life and death, meaning and ethics, good and evil; questions of everything that concerns our existence and what it means to be human…these occupy my thinking for large parts of every day. Metaphysics matters.

I also have a quirk in that I tend to consider everything from basic principles, taking little on trust or as given. So much of what we’re taught or presented with is false, biased, or founded on incomplete and/or sloppy assumptions that anyone interested in investigating the real must go back to the beginning or risk building on sand, or shaky foundations at best.

Moreover, to see reality at its clearest, I believe it’s critical to be free of any and all ideologies, especially political or religious belief. The moment you assume an ideology or a belief system is the moment you stop seeing reality as it is, but begin instead to filter it through the lens of your ideology, to try to make the actual territory of the real match your map. As someone once put it, “we see the world not as it is, but as we are.” So the answer is to just not be as anything—be you, a naked flame of being with no philosophy or ideology. Simply observe and think.

I do this with everything. When I was a decorative painter—a career I pursued with considerable success for twenty-five years—I took no classes but taught myself everything about colour, materials, and technique from scratch. Once I’d mastered the basics, I looked for new ways to achieve certain effects, as well as creating an array of paint effects nobody had ever seen. I mixed most of my own materials rather than buying off-the-shelf. The result was that within a decade or so I’d not only mastered the craft and was in high demand, but the look of my finishes was entirely different to the generic, cookie-cutter “faux painting” that my many competitors were practicing. This gave me a huge edge.

More recently, I’ve taken a similar approach with writing, approaching the craft from the standpoint of what works and gets results, and eschewing the mountains of stupid, fashionable rules and diktats endlessly touted at writers’ workshops and on countless blogs and Twitter feeds. Of course it’s important to know these “rules”, and a small minority of them are useful, even vital; the rest just need to be buried and forgotten.

It always struck me as odd that people talk about reinventing the wheel as though it were a waste of time—nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes you invent a better wheel; sometimes you come up with something that makes the wheel like as useless as a bag of rocks.

On a related note, we were recently given a bag full of DVDs of new and recent TV shows by an actor friend; apparently these things are passed around to people in the Screen Actors Guild so that they may consider them when dvds2-crop-smvoting for Emmy nominations. The shows include a wide variety of stuff, from The History Channel to offerings from Amazon, from American Crime to Portlandia; the last three episodes of Mad Men are in there, as well as the whole mini-series of Wolf Hall (a historical about Henry VIII, and the only one of any interest to me).

Since I don’t watch any TV at all, the huge majority of these were new to me. After enjoying Wolf Hall, we attempted some of the others, like an episode of Mad Men, and now, American Crime.

In trying to understand what people get out of TV shows like these, I’m thrown back to the gulf I sense when trying to discuss existential truths that concern me deeply only to discover that people I care for and respect would rather just not go there. I feel—and I suspect many writers will share this feeling—as though I’m living among aliens, where I barely grasp the parameters of the society and what makes it tick.

Is it even possible to understand why people behave the way they do without buying in to pop culture? Sometimes when I see people talk (and certainly when they argue), it seems to me that rather than processing and responding with thought and intelligently, they’ve learned to interact with others from TV soaps, and are just throwing out stock phases, learned reactions, mannerisms, expressions, postures. No wonder the world is the mess it is.

Why, for instance, would any sane person want to watch something like “American Crime”, which is so drenched in realism that no shred of escapism or joy is left to the viewer, so that the only possible reaction one is left with is to just end it all now? The question baffles me.

And don’t get me started on reality shows or celebrity chef contests. What possible pleasure anyone can take in watching real people put in often humiliating conflict situations, subjected to extreme stress, and then publicly defeated or even ridiculed, I can’t imagine. The Roman games were at least honest.

Fnally, take a simple predictive Google search. The trending popular searches which flash up as you click in the box are almost invariably to do with celebrities, sports, TV shows, or something so mind-numbingly banal as to leave me shaking my head. It’s glaringly obvious that the overwhelming majority of us aren’t much preoccupied with the mysteries of existence.

I am, it seems, legend. Perhaps I’m not even real.

Are you?

 

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The road Most Traveled: Good Intentions, Catastrophic Results

A Federal judge has just ordered Apple to unlock the phone used by one of the two San Bernardino shooters so it could access the phone’s records. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has said the company will fight the order, stating that it has neither the ability to bypass its own strong encryption and that this would set a dangerous precedent. Although I’m not an Apple user, I’m 100% with the company on this and applaud their decision.

The question here is a simple one of the road to hell. It all begins, as usual, with good intentions: we want to stop terrorism. But as Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a back door. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”

Yet we continue to jog blissfully into an Orwellian future in which the state (the UK is no different) not only insists but has also persuaded a good many of its citizens that their lives are in dire and imminent danger from foreign threats, and that any violation of privacy or individual freedoms is secondary to fighting that threat. Politicians of course make huge capital on this, and the media does nothing to bring some perspective and reality to the actual real threats to our daily lives, which for most people are to do with poor education, debt, poverty, ill health, unaffordable housing, the criminal cost of healthcare, and long-term insecurity—not terrorism.

The US has been in a state of perpetual war for over thirteen years, and continues to be. Its misguided foreign policy actions have destabilized a huge region of the world by trying to impose Western notions of government on nations utterly ill-equipped to embrace democracy (you have to have an Enlightenment before you can consider democracy, and when you still think tribally, corruption and self-interest are going to quickly corrode and ruin any attempt at forging a new state).

Saddam was undoubtedly a brute, and Bashir-al Assad (still in power today) not much better; Gaddafi was mercurial and unreliable. But although some individuals and/or sections of those societies were persecuted during these leaders’ rule, the vast majority of people in Iraq, Syria, and Libya had jobs, food, and a reasonable, often happy and secure standard of living. Today they’re straggling across Europe by the millions like beggars, taking handouts and desperately looking for places to settle—and that’s if they haven’t drowned in the Aegean or Meduterranean after having been fleeced by a whole new class of local criminals our good intentions have benefited: people smugglers. In the process, the rest of Europe is being destabilized.

I fully understand that government has a primary mandate and responsibility to keep its people safe. But in reality, the risk from terrorism is infinitesimally small: if you live in the USA, your chance of dying in a terrorist attack is about 5,000 times less than that of being shot by a US citizen (and even that’s not something that keeps most of us awake at night). The simple act of getting on a plane has already become a tedious, time-wasting hell despite the fact that study after study has shown TSA checks to be up to ninety-five percent ineffective at detecting threats. If you live in a city, your actions while out in public are already recorded on countless cameras; your cellphone and the plastic in your wallet provide extra layers of tracking and monitoring. But government insists it needs a further backdoor into everyone’s lives, and argues tooth and nail that any level of  inconvenience and curtailment of individual privacy and liberty is justifiable.

Every day we see evidence of how the well-intentioned use of electronic records ruins lives. The undiscriminating and poorly-thought-out register of sex offenders is one: is it—to take just one example—really okay that because an eighteen-year-old had consensual sex with a seventeen-year-old, he should be viewed as a sexual predator in the same data bucket as a child molester? How many of my readers didn’t have underage sex of one kind or another in their high school or college days? And let’s not even talk of the teens whose lives have been upset by the (silly, but, hey! these are kids) practice of sexting one another.

The argument of course is that an honest citizen has nothing to fear from all this. Really? Try telling that to someone who’s been accidentally put on a no-fly list because of some data entry error or some other innocent reason (it happens). And although China’s new Social Credit System—a data-driven rating system similar to our own credit rating systems but with the emphasis on your status and trustworthiness as a citizen—isn’t likely to be replicated in the US  anytime soon, the reality is that all kinds of aggregated data, including your online browsing and shopping habits, are already finding their way into databases that can affect your ability to rent a home, get a job, obtain credit, and a great deal more.

Nor is it just government. PayPal has just clamped down on allowing account holders to use its system to pay for VPN (virtual private network) subscriptions, presumably on the grounds that VPNs, which are used to mask a user’s real computer identity (IP address), may be used for terrorist communication or other illicit activity. What about the many hundreds of thousands of people who use VPN for entirely legitimate activities such as researching sensitive subjects (journalists do this all the time), getting around censorship in countries under authoritarian rule, or simply  avoiding being tracked by advertisers. (PayPal are of course doing this not out of any noble motives but simply to forestall any possible future heat from government over enabling the masking of criminal communications).

Consider the slew of new voice- and audio enabled devices that are appearing in your home, like the Amazon Echo, which “hears you from across the room with far-field voice recognition, even with music playing”: do you really want that in your house? Even if it doesn’t come with a backdoor or a camera, what do we think happens to all the data it collects about our and our family’s daily habits? You don’t think that’s mined? Increasingly sophisticated AI can do that with ease and extract every ounce of commercially  valuable information about us.

You’ve already been carrying around a tracking device (your phone) for years. Within the very, very near future, your home is going to be bursting with microphone- and camera- equipped devices which are all connected to the net as part of the IoT, or Internet of Things. If you’re not concerned about this, you should be. Quite apart from any government surveillance, just about anyone can hack in to these devices. For a single, chilling example, the camera on the monitor in your childrens’ room is ridiculously easy to hack, its IP address quite possibly already on a website. Think about it.

Everything—everything—that takes place in your home and car will—unless tech companies hold a hard line, and good luck with that one—be available on production of a court order. Right now the bar is terrorism; but other, more everyday, criminal activities will soon qualify. How long before all that data becomes available to your ex’s divorce lawyer? What if your current prospective employers can one day gain access to the data mined from these devices? Because you can bet that it’s all going to be for sale, legally or otherwise. And don’t forget that security on the current IoT is just about non-existent (this is in fact a big concern with self-driving cars, which can currently be hacked with such ease that a person with a laptop can take control over the car with very little difficulty from anywhere in the world).

In conclusion, I believe that tech companies have an absolute responsibility to protect the rights and privacy of their customers at every level. Not only should devices not come with a backdoor, ever, but every possible measure should be taken to ensure that networked devices, from our phones to our cars, refrigerators, baby monitors, and home thermostats are protected against intrusion and hacking by strong encryption and security measures. The emphasis and primary focus should be on the inviolability of the consumers’ privacy and individual rights. And we should demand that of them.

After all, it is we, and our hard-earned dollars, that have made Apple, Google, and Amazon what they are today.

 

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