Saturday, September 20, 2014

Looking up at the universe

Been spending quite a bit of time over the last few days outside, trying to figure out the best way to take shots of that amazing view we get in the southern hemisphere of the galactic center riding high above at this time of the year.
Galactic Center (composite of ten images, Nikon D3200, 11mm wide-angle, f 4.0, ISO 3200, 25s)
Every exposure takes up to a minute (up to 30s/exposure + 30s/camera-noise-removal); and so there's plenty of time to just look up during those intervals between pushing the shutter-button and waiting for the process to finish and just be—well, I don't know what to call it. I guess it's a mix of amazement at what I see, an acute awareness of my size and utter physical insignificance, and an equal amazement at the sheer marvel of being alive and being able to experience whatever it is I'm experiencing. Plus all sorts of feelings I'm probably I'm not even conscious of.

I know, this all sounds like you've heard it all before; and it's obvious that my awe—I guess that's what it is—has probably been shared by millions of others at one time or other.

Something else is there, too, and oddly enough that is a measure of fear. Of what? I think it's mostly my utter helplessness when it comes to facing this cosmos and its power and utter indifference to what and who I am, or what I want or care about; about my utter inability to actually do anything that matters or protect those I care about, should this coldly indifferent universe unleash something lethal upon this tiny world of ours and snuff out our species and everything and everybody I hold dear.

But this fear is balanced by gratitude—to no one in particular; just 'existence' I guess—for all of these things that I am unable to protect; and which have been provided by that very same universe that might just wipe them out in a blink of an eyes. And I'd agree with those who  assert that even just a few fleeting moments of existence—or of the consciousness of existing!—are worth it, even if in those moments we may be forced into the awareness that it most certainly will end, and that we ultimately are powerless to prevent that.

I guess, looking out from the Earth like that is a bit like looking at it—like at Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot.

And, though it may seem...oh, I don't know... idealistic? unrealistic? just plain silly? ... it drives it home, at least to me, just how much people by and large have their priorities terribly, terribly wrong. Many of them of course have no choice about their priorities, but are forced by circumstances to focus on the basics of survival. But there are literally billions  who live in social and economic environments that do give them choices over what they consider important and how they choose to spend their money, what they require of their politicians, how invest their thinking time or treat their fellow humans, etc.

It is possible that we are the only form of "life' in the entire universe—at least as far as we can possibly understand it. Whatever else there is may be so different from us in form and context that contact, that is communication, with it may be utterly impossible. In that sense we, on our pale blue dot, may be completely alone among the billions and billions of galaxies in the universe—one of which we're partially seeing when we look up, like I do, when the skies are clear enough. I find that thought exhilarating and scary at the same time. And though we're just existing is less than a blink of time compared to the lifetime of the universe, that blink may indeed be the most miraculous instant in the entire history of this and any other cosmos.

Seriously, isn't it worth at least considering thinking about something else but—to name just a couple of random items from opposite ends of the human 'interest' spectrum—inane sports or plain-silly and utterly irrelevant philosophical or ideological disputes; and to focus our interest, attention and efforts on pursuits that will contribute to the goal of ensuring that we're not wiped out—just because, say, some big chunk of rock happens to be on a collision course with us or some virus has mutated into a deadly plague?






Thursday, September 11, 2014

Amazon, Hechette and the Author

For those who're not in the loop about this, here are a couple of URLs you might want to catch up on first:

Amazon and Hachette: The dispute in 13 easy steps
Dear Mr. Bezos

So, what's this all about once you dig deeper into this and weed out the personal interests and agendas involved.

Let's talk about disputers' agendas first:
  • Amazon's: Make money.
  • Hachette's: Make money.
That's it. Everything else is bullshit, spin, obfuscation of the self-evident. Whatever rationales or rationalizations are provided by either side are self-serving and utterly hypocritical.

Anybody gonna argue with me about this? — I didn't think so.

So, what's the real issue here?

Let's start with Janet Fitch's letter to Mr. Bezos, and I quote:

"As a middle-aged woman who has had some luck as a writer, I’d like this profession of author to remain a possibility for young writers in the future—and not become an arena solely for the hobbyist or the well-heeled. What will be lost when working writers no longer can support themselves pursuing their ideas, their art? What will be lost to this country, if these most talented can no longer make a living? I am making this an open letter, because I believe we are at a crossroads, and decisions are being made now which will affect our country permanently."

Seriously?

Fitch's attitude is fairly representative of the rationalizations put forward by her peers, namely those people who consider themselves to be "professionals" and "writers" or "authors".What issues do I have with it? Well, here they are.

Writers of fiction—and even more so poets—usually consider themselves 'artists' of sort, and that may be ok. And being an 'artist' shouldn't be, at least not in my view, something that entitles anyone in any way to make the activity into a 'profession'. It may be a passion and a craft, but 'profession'? I don't think so. Art, while it may arguably be necessary for artists to be able to release their passion into 'art', and for culture to have 'art' to have some substance, should be subject to ruthless evolutionary pressures.

By the way, I'm saying this as someone who isn't anywhere close to being able to earn a living as a 'writer'. But it's a passion, and the desire to get far enough with this thing that I do—and have been doing for the greater part of my life—is a powerful drive to become better at it, and at the time retaining integrity, my voice, and what I write about; not for fashion but because I believe it matters. In other words it's character-building in so many ways, and the honing of the craft and the development it's provided me with as a human being has been indispensable in forming my character. 

And I genuinely don't believe that there is even a smidgen of entitlement for me or any other 'artist' to get a chance, provided by the actions of some outside agencies, to make it into a 'profession'. If it happens, so much the better and I'd be delighted, but it's not something I'd ever claim any kind of entitlement for. In fact, this whole notion is a fairly recent concept that has a lot to do with the general, influenza-like spread of "entitlement culture" in general.

I think it's rather self-serving to call upon the putative future writers that will be 'lost'—either they or some general "what", which is even more nebulous and undefined—to the world, merely because they might have to end up having to work really hard and for a really long time before they get—if ever they do!—to a point where they make a living out of it. And that's all this is really all about; and slapping the label 'profession' on it...well, lots of bodies of people who want to be acknowledged by society in some way, clamor for being recognized as 'professions'—and the educational sector is making a packet out of that. 

The literary production-democracy introduced into the world by modern technology and the internet scares the shits out of many people, I know. The notion that a horde of hacks has effectively been let loose on the world of publishing, uncontrolled by the still-twitching elite of literary gatekeepers, is daunting, I admit. But it could also be argued that we're merely dealing with a different process of evolution, not any more controlled by the publishing industry but by the reading public directly. 

Is that a good or a bad thing? Who can tell? is it 'bad' that a lot more shit is getting published than ever before? Could it not also mean that there are more pearls there than ever to be discovered; only that the discovery mechanism has changed? What has been removed is the pre-selection mechanism formerly provided by the gatekeeper elite.  

As someone who has been exposed to the light and the dark side of traditional publishing, I am of a mind to come down on the side of telling the gatekeepers to go and shove it. Get with the program and figure out how to survive in this new style of literary evolution. 

On the other hand, however, I'm also quite disgusted at Amazon's attempt to impose its own vision on the world of publishing. How about just seeing what the reading public is willing to pay for and how all that plays out in a fair marketplace? 

Amazon is no champion of the future of publishing. Smashwords and Lulu are. They enable everyone who thinks they have something to offer to the world to offer just that and to see if the world is interested enough to read it and pay for it.

It's not about low-cost publishing, but about the possibility of the simultaneous existence of the traditional gatekeeper-controlled model, as well as the "Indie" mode—once labeled as "vanity" publishing; but over the last years it has become so much more. 

Let's see who'll be left standing at the end! Who knows? Maybe both of them will. I think if that happens, it will be to the benefit of all, but especially for the readers—who are the ones that truly matter, right?

† In the interest of full disclosure of my own 'interests', I would like to point out that I, too, am an "author". I tend to avoid the "writer" label, because I also do movies and in general think of myself more as a "storyteller" who does a lot of his telling by writing stuff down, either in prose or as screenplays. I have had one novel published 'officially' and ten more using lulu.com and smashwords.com; two organizations I can't praise highly enough for their approach to the business of indie-publishing.

†† Though if fiction writers thought more of themselves as storytellers, they probably wouldn't carry their noses quite as high up as they do. I'm saying this, because those who do, usually don't!

††† Not that this elite necessarily pre-selects on the merit of literary quality. Money always played a big part in the assessment criteria! Hypocrisy rules supreme here, too.