Moneyball and Antifragile

I’m in the process of starting a publishing house.

I know, I know. What century do I think this is? But having spent five years or so intensely studying how publishing works (and learning to write), I think we’re in a place as an industry where it’s time for something new.

As I wrote previously, I think Amazon is wonderful and also a stupid place to sell a book. Amazon long since moved out of the book space and into the data collection business. It’s the only thing they do that actually makes money, and I think that’s by design. That design works against the interests of authors (and other sellers of things like soap and lacy garters, but that’s another article).

For that matter, the publishing industry works against authors, too, while piously adopting the attitude that authors could not survive without them. Parasites often adopt this framework, enslaving the host and convincing it that its survival depends on the parasite’s prospering. Governments are notorious for this. But I digress.

The most important thing to an author is, or should be, the names of the people who like their books. Authors, for generations now, have not had those names. Agents have the names of authors, and the names of editors at publishing houses, because their product is not book sales, so the identities of the readers is not relevant to them. Publishing houses, which are the Guardians of Literature (ANOTHER separate post), should have those names, but they don’t, because they delegated that information to booksellers. Booksellers DO have that data. They can’t really use it, because they don’t produce books.

So follow the path here:

Author — → Agent — →Publisher — →Bookseller — →Reader

The author is three steps removed from the reader, the ultimate consumer. This is a certain recipe for inefficiency. It guarantees it, as a matter of fact. Just look at healthcare.

The various parts of this chain are only theoretically aligned. Many authors are realizing this, as the “bookseller” part of the chain degrades (in some ways) to the point of irrelevancy. Even if you’re Stephen King, you sell only a minor fraction of your books out of Big Bookseller Chain Store; most of your selling comes out of Amazon, which of course is a bookseller, of sorts (though of a very different character).

As authors realize this, they “go indie”, which for most means that they believe they are self-publishing their books. It does not, however, mean this. Their chain looks like this:

Author — →Amazon (Kobo, et al.) — →Reader

A shorter, more efficient chain. Less waste involved. But still, the most critical piece of the puzzle remains in the hands of the middleman, instead of in the hands of the producer. It’s a step forward for authors, for sure, and this has led to a great deal of self-congratulation on the part of indie authors, who believe they’ve found the way around the system and stuck it to the man.

That sound you hear is the man. Laughing his head off.

Last night I watched the relevant section of the movie Moneyball. I love baseball. I love the lore of it, the romance of it, the grizzled-veteran-who-understands-the-ineffable part of it. But the grizzled veteran is wrong. A lot. At least as often as the random guesser, if not more often.

Moneyball exposed this (after Billy Beane and his beancounters did it on the field). There were inefficiencies in the system. There were ways the game was being played by an unwritten set of rules that actively hurt the players of that game, and nobody realized it until Beane plugged a computer in and demonstrated that you could build a championship team for sixteen bucks and some pizza. He knew things nobody else knew — not just didn’t know, but actively resisted knowing.

This morning I was reading Nassim Taleb’s brilliant Antifragile. It’s a book about how some things gain from disruption, some things thrive from being attacked. In the section from this morning, I learned about the reverse-engineered narrative that progress comes from research and government funding, or the narrative that it is experts and academics that are relentlessly, incrementally, moving society forward. Taleb is fairly devastating in his dissection of this heuristic. It is, in fact, nonsense.

Countries become educated after they become prosperous, not prosperous because they are educated. It’s not (formal) education that makes success. It’s not the prescience of the scout that plucks the superstar from the serried ranks of high school pitchers (it’s just the numbers). And it’s not the agent, or the editor, or the publishing house, that identifies the huge bestseller from a set of pages in the slush pile. Outside of marketing muscle, which raises the likelihood of initial sales (like the opening weekend of a movie), they don’t know what books will sell any more than a monkey does.

Rather, these narratives are put together after the fact. My father is one of the most highly-educated people I know. He went to Columbia and Stanford. The narrative reads: he’s highly-educated because he went to Ivy League schools and their ilk. But this is false. He stopped going to school when he was 28. He’s 77 now. If his education was dictated by those schools, he would long since have lost it.

The truth is somewhat different. He is the sort of intellectually curious person that SHOULD go to an Ivy League school, not because they’ll make him curious, but because they have resources to satisfy that curiosity, marginally better than others. If he had gone, instead, to the University of Utah (which was blocks from his home), would he be different? No. That’s stupid. He’d be the same person he is now, without the impressive pieces of paper, sure, but the same. Columbia didn’t make Gordon Jones a titan.

Publishers didn’t make Stephen King a great writer. All they did was make him an international bestseller — by their own definition, notice — which they were, at the time, uniquely positioned to do. They controlled the lists on which author names appeared, and they control the authors (those contracts are insane), so they could work both ends.

Not any more.

Publishing houses offer almost nothing to a new author. Even the cred that used to accrue to an author who landed a publishing contract is diminishing; within a decade, it will be gone entirely (along with the big publishing houses, barring a miracle).

As Billy Beane exploited the gross inefficiencies in the game of baseball, so someone with a very little bit of vision and a small amount of willingness to risk…not much, actually…will put out books that sell millions of copies, without Amazon or Little Brown House of Penguins, or whatever the big houses are calling themselves these days.

It’s already happened, even in the still-inefficient indie system, where authors are still ceding control over their fanbase to other entities that don’t have the ability to deliver to that fanbase what it truly wants. Newsletter lists, street teams, book launches, all that indie authors put together to narrow the gap between the author and the reader, only can get so close. The middleman has to get out of the middle — or, alternatively, the middleman has to start offering to the producer what the producer actually needs.

No, it will not bring accolades from the traditional apparatus of publishing. It will not bring bestseller list mentions. It will not garner awards (except by accident). All it will do is provide a living for authors who couldn’t possibly make one by going through the current process, because the current process is not set up for authors to profit from it.

A couple weeks back, I was at a writing conference and overheard a conversation between a couple of mid-list authors, people that had had some success, publishing both with trad publishers and indie. “It’d be nice,” one said, “if we could find a publisher that would help us get directly to the people that want to read what we’re writing.”

“Fat chance,” said the other. “That’s never going to happen. Publishers are only out for themselves. Even if they came up with a system that was good for us, they’d only twist it to make money, and who cares about us?”

That’s where we’ve arrived. Producers believe that they can’t possibly get to consumers directly (and Amazon is NOT directly — that’s delusional, despite Amazon’s relentless marketing message).

But they can. And there will be publishers that help them do it.

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That’s Not What Writing Is.

Except I found out that writing is a lot more things than I had imagined.

Lemme back up.

I’m a working writer. I write for money, and I do it intentionally. It’s not a hobby. One day I’ll tell the story of how that came about, but today is not that day.

Anyway.

A problem I have that is common to many writers is the need for speed. I write relatively fast — 1500 words an hour, or thereabouts — but that still means that to write a 90,000 word novel I need to carve out 60 hours of writing time, which does not include research, editing, planning (assuming I do any of that), rewriting, junking everything before page 115 and starting over, etc.

If sixty hours doesn’t sound like a lot to you, your life and mine are very different and you should go read someone else’s stuff, because this is unlikely to help you.

I’m also fifty years old. I didn’t start getting serious (the second time) about being a writer until I reached my mid-forties, when the ticking of the Clock of Life attains audible volume, where you can hear it even when you’re not quiet and listening hard. Being the sort of person that would really, really like to have a shelf full of books with my name on them (whatever name that is, which is a discussion that will have to wait), I don’t have all manner of time to get those books out.

Add to this that I am a full-time teacher with 4 (four) side teaching jobs (that is not a misprint or an exaggeration), that I am taking classes to finish up my teaching license (which I do not really want, but that is another lengthy discussion I don’t have time for right now), that I have eight children and I am fanatically religious, and that my wife is gorgeous and worth paying a great deal of attention to, and what you have is about 75–78 hours of booked time every week already in the can. As in, Monday rolls around and I don’t have any space left on the calendar, anywhere, between 8am and 8pm Monday through Saturday. Thus, although I can find writing time before 8am (if I don’t exercise) or after 8pm (known to be both erratic and unproductive — the stuff I write after 8pm is garbage), I can’t find very much of it, meaning that sixty hours is going to take me a couple of months at the very least, and probably a lot longer than that.

Writing my first book took seven years. Twenty-five years later my second book took six months.

I wrote my latest one (number fifteen) in a little over three weeks.

How?

I recorded it. On a little device called a cell phone. While I was driving back and forth to various school gigs.

But…that’s not writing, is it?

Yes, my friends, it is. So is typing, or scribing things out longhand on legal paper, or dictating to someone else, or whatever other method you can think of (I’m fresh out, but you’re probably more creative than I am). I learned this from Kevin Anderson, who’s written dozens of novels, and produces them at a seriously ridiculous pace. At a League of Utah Writers conference I went to his session and asked him how he could churn out that much material that quickly. “I record everything,” he said. “I did 1000 words in the ten minutes between lunch and starting this session.”

This was two years ago, and I was young and naive, so I thought that was cool but not really writing. It’s not words on the page, I thought, so it’s not writing. Also, Kevin has an assistant that transcribes everything. I do not. Therefore it won’t work for me.

But I also am a fairly advanced disciple of Dean Wesley Smith and the inimitable Kristine Kathryn Rusch, both of whom extoll the virtues of writing at a pace that makes it possible to crank out five or (a lot) more novels a year, every year. I could not dismiss what Anderson was saying.

I also couldn’t do it. I did try. I got my cell phone out and started talking into it. Problems abounded.

If I had to transcribe my warblings, we’d be here forever — also, that didn’t solve the time problem. My cell phone is actually really good at transcribing text messages for me, but somehow that brilliant technology (which will punctuate!) is unavailable for longer-form text like a story. I tried Google Docs, which will transcribe pretty well but has a nasty, nasty habit of cutting off the voice transcription in the middle of a sentence for no discernible reason. I tried Dragon (not practical on the phone), and everything else I could think of.

I also couldn’t think fast enough. I’ve been writing for a long time at a particular pace — the pace I type at, roughly 45 words a minute (yes, I know that’s very slow). Voice was three, four times as fast as that, and I couldn’t make the scenes go fast enough in my head to be really tight. That meant I had to edit a lot more, and the time savings was reduced to almost nil.

Stymied, I quit, and went back to typing. That produced better copy, and hey, it’s what everyone else does.

Oh, but then.

Two fortunate things happened at nearly the same time. Still not quite abandoning all hope, I kept my eye out for good transcription services, and Google, invading my privacy, knew that and served me up an article that mentioned a new service called Trint.

Trint is a miracle.

It’s supposed to be used for transcribing interviews. Frankly — I’m being as honest as I can here — it’s not very good at that (though it’s getting better all the time). Interviews are messy, with changing speakers and weird noises and such. But a single voice, up close, like me talking into my cell phone? Oh, baby, it’s very good at that. I mean very good.

It doesn’t punctuate well. I cannot use “period” and “comma” and stuff to help it, either — it’s not built that way — but it will get all the words and spell a terrific number of them correctly. I still have to edit them, but I have to do that anyway, no matter how I put them together. That more or less cleaned up my problem with transcription.

The other problem, not being able to think fast enough, was thornier. But then I realized that I actually already do think fast enough, I just do it in a different venue — storytelling. I’ve done several storytelling festivals, including those where you take three audience-provided elements and make a story out of them on the spot (this is not for the faint of heart). I realized that when I did that, they were always fairy tales. Those I could write in my head and say them just as if I were having a conversation (well, close).

And all of a sudden I was writing three times as fast. 4500 words an hour, or thereabouts (my data show that I write about 100 words a minute like that). Trint transcribes them, and all I have to do is edit.

It’s all writing, people. It’s all creation. Don’t worry if it’s “real” writing, whatever that is. However you want to do it is good, because creation is good and if you want to do it, and your life is filled with wonderful things like your kids’ soccer matches and a junior-high production of The Little Mermaid, you can still do it. Don’t quit on it. I wrote 26,000 words of a novel while standing backstage of Beauty and the Beast waiting to put my candlesticks back on my hands and sing “Be Our Guest”. It can be done.

YOU can do it.

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Happy New Year!!!

It’s the new year for me. I actually run two years per calendar year, one from May to November, and one from November to May. This is because of two big writing events: NaNoWriMo (November) and the Storymakers Writing Conference.

Storymakers is a terrific blend of specific and general, beginner and intermediate (and even expert, this year). The Thursday sessions–I’m sitting in one right now–are individual, small-group instruction on manuscripts. They’ve been supremely helpful to me over the years. This year I brought a novel I haven’t done any work on in five years (according to the date stamp on my hard drive). I thought I’d throw it out, frankly (metaphorically speaking–I would NEVER throw out a novel), but my father, who loves books in the same way Anton Ego loves food, told me it was one of the best books he’s read in ten years.

[ASIDE: He also told me that he mentioned that to me five years ago. He did not. That’s something I would remember. Wouldn’t anyone?]

But I dusted it off and brought it, hoping that this workshop would figure out where the places were that kept it from being publishable. Faint hope, but at least I’d be moving forward in some way.

My hopes were exceeded, as they really have always been. Emily R King, a terrific writer, was my mentor in the last session where we worked on character and plot. I always thought the problem with this novel was plot–it’s a multi-protagonist religious romantic thriller, and it was complex to write–but the critique group was unanimous that the plot was fine. They were all in on it. The problem was character, but not all of the characters, just one of the protagonists. She wasn’t believable.

In half an hour, they totally remade her into someone far more interesting, and I think I can put the rest of it together and actually make the book work. As usual, Storymakers comes through. I’m so happy to have been able to be here, and so pleased that once again the old year comes to a grand conclusion.

On to the new one.

In which I have to find time to make the revisions. To this novel and three others. I have no earthly idea how to find that time. Having a whole new year ahead of me doesn’t help one bit.

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Work in Progress

My dear, lovely friend and sometime editor Lyz Schulte just tagged me on Facebook and challenged me to post the first seven lines of my current Work In Progress (WIP, for us author types). She posted the first seven lines of hers, which are solid.

I am posting this to tell her that I cannot acquiesce to her request (although I am inclined to, thank you very much). This is not because the first seven lines of my WIP are embarrassing–although they are–or that I do not do posting chains on Facebook–although I don’t–but because I have absolutely no idea which of my current projects qualifies as my “current” WIP.

Last month I attempted something insane for NaNoWriMo. I’m a six-time winner–have never failed an attempt, actually–so I know I can write 50,000 words in a month. I did it every month for a year, even, a couple years back. But–possibly not coincidentally–I have paying book contracts now, and that means writing a lot. In fact, it means that writing a lot just won’t cut it. I have to write more than a lot. I have to write pulp speed. Mamma’s children are hongry. I gotta get paid.

So I set a goal to write 80,000 words for NaNo, just shy of Pulp Speed One. And then I wrote in my journal (no, those five thousand words a month do not count) that I was going to actually hit Pulp Speed One, a million words in a year. Ten novels.

At that speed, you better have many more than one WIP. You actually have to, if you count any work that isn’t published as a WIP, which I think I do. Any work that has not been delivered to a customer or received payment, is the usual definition. Oathbringer is no longer a WIP, though there had better be several other books that are, Mr. Sanderson. But none of my books has seen print in that way (I’ve never actually published a novel). Therefore, technically, all of my books are WsIP.

But if you leave aside the finished books, the ones I consider finished, anyway, which means lightly-edited first draft stage, and yes I know that is not FINISHED in bold type, I have, right now, ten WsIP. There are, written in the dim past of four or five years ago, two novels I will not be doing anything with, because they’re too bad to be edited into pub shape, and will only be published after I die by my children trying to wring a miserable buck from my corpus. [That’s a pun, Dad. I know the difference between a corpse and a corpus.]

If I leave aside the books I’m not editing because I just don’t have time, and only count those that are in the active, ongoing, writing and editing process, there are eight: Trinity Flynn and the Five Points Gang; The Repairers; Cheating Death; Lies that Bind; Their Poop Don’t Stink; Army of Outcasts; a book I can’t tell you about; and another book I can’t tell you about. The books I can’t tell you about I’m ghostwriting, so I can’t tell you about them. But I wrote one of them in 51 days, the most complex and impossible project I ever undertook, and I’ll finish the second one by New Years, 36 days start to finish.

All of those, surely, count. Do I also count the books I’m writing, but not actually writing, orphan books crying out periodically for completion, that I just abandoned for one reason or another? (yes, I hear you Building Eighteen and Don’t Call Me Josephine) I think not. After all, P is for progress, which is not being made on those.

Which is “my WIP”? If you only count those that I am actively writing, on which I’ve put word count this week, there are still three. I can’t pick. There’s no rationale. And I’m busy, Lyz, writing more words. I don’t have time for your little Facebook games.

What’s that? I had time for this, so I have time for that? Well that’s just…I mean…you have to consider…

Fine.

Tell you what. I’ll give you the first few lines of each of the eight, how about? Then I don’t have to pick based on some arbitrary criterion.

Trinity Flynn:

Trinity Flynn rapped on the door marked “Service”. One smart knock, and a fervent prayer that no one would come around the corner to see what the noise was about.

A fumbling, and the door cracked open. A bloodshot eye peeked out. It widened in shock when it saw her.

“Trinity! What are you doing?”

“Let me in, you fool. I’m as good as dead standing out here.”

The Repairers: 

Alvaro Hernandes dragged his injured leg up the hill, chasing his herd. Dull ache had long since given way to stabbing, wince-inducing pain. Mother will say it is God’s punishment of me. If there were a God, she’d probably be right.

Cheating Death:

Happiness has a half-life. The first time I died, I didn’t get that. But I learn fast.

Tuesday I did not have any happiness, not before the stupid argument in the diner, and not afterward, after the warning shot went right across the top of my skull and should have killed me. Did kill me, somewhere, somewhen. Couple magic words, though, and I walked out of the hospital on . . . well, I was gonna say “on my own power”, but that’s nothing like what it was.

Lies that Bind:

Akoto sat, brooding, staring down onto the Lower Market from a perch on some hydraulic piping fifty or so feet above the steel decking. From below, the steaming odors of hundreds of sweat-soaked people, of thawing fish and roasting vegetables, succulent meats and overripe cheeses floated up and mixed with the scents of the station: machine oil, brimstone, off-gassing plastics, making a pungent stew that Akoto would have recognized as the smell of home, had he given any such thing a thought. But he didn’t, because he was watching someone and had no attention left for anything else.

Their Poop Don’t Stink:

Provo, UT, May 2016—The Harmon Brothers asked me to write a book about how they’re not the kinds of people that have books written about them.  

Let’s start with my meeting with Neal Harmon, the first meeting after I agreed to take the assignment. By this point I have already tried to talk the Harmon Brothers out of having me do it, but they have insisted. All I can do is my best, so here we are, in my first—my first ever—interview with an eye toward writing a nonfiction book. Fortunately, Neal Harmon is charming, easy to talk to, and paying for breakfast. 

Army of Outcasts:

Sarge put his slippered feet on the antique Chinese coffee table. Probably, such a thing would have had him executed in the Ming Dynasty. But his feet needed propping. The table sat there in front of him on the rough wooden veranda. And the gleaming table was low enough that his feet didn’t block his view of the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, summer haze made the crystal blue difficult to see even with his size eleven loafers out of the way. He reached over to the table next to him, picked up his saucer and cup–18th-century French, not Chinese–and began to noisily sip his tea.

An object hurtled past, plucking the cup from his fingers as neatly as an English butler.

One Book I Can’t Talk About:

“You made sure to pack a jacket, right?” Mom said. “You can’t be too careful. You’re going to be in strange situations and you never know.”
“Yes, Mom,” [redacted] said. “Two jackets. One light and one heavy. We have sixteen different changes of clothes and extra underwear, too. You checked all that. More than once.”

Another Book I Can’t Talk About:

[redacted] lifted a spoonful of sludgy goodness to his mouth. He savored the slightly crunchy, just-starting-to-get-soggy deliciousness of the Captain Crunch, and pretended that if he didn’t open his eyes, he could stay in a world where his mother had not spoken.

“Did you hear what I said?” Mom asked. “We’re going to drop you two off at grandmas for a couple weeks around the Fourth of July.”

Nope. Didn’t work.

There, Lyz. Happy?

I’m not tagging anyone else, tho.

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All The Things Wrong With Wonder Woman:

Spoilers are everywhere in this post. Do not read it if you have not seen the film.

None of these things matter, as I’ve written elsewhere. But here they are, because I have to put them somewhere, or go mad.

The simple things:
London cannot be reached from the Greek islands by sailboat in one night. It can’t be reached by tramp steamer in one night, either. A month, more like.
Belgium is right next to the North Sea. There’s no need for Steve Trevor to blow himself up. He can just fly over the ocean and dump the gas.
In fact, the plane is supposed to go to London, which is across the English Channel. Turn twenty degrees to starboard instead, and pull the bombay hatch.
If it’s against the rules for you to be trained, a warrior-general that can be sneaked up on and caught red-handed by a troop of horses is not someone you want to train with, ordinarily.
The training of all these warriors is awesome. If you’re never leaving the island, what’s it for?
Women are capable of interesting conversation. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to write some, in the first thirty minutes of your movie.
English is funny in a lot of ways. For instance, when someone says “you may not return”, it can mean “you might not return” OR “you cannot return”. Confusion on the part of your audience is never a good thing, so explaining that, or choosing different language, is a good idea.
If someone’s wearing a mask–very good, she does need to take it off–but some sort of explanation as to why it was there in the first place is a good idea.
The medium-important things:
If you make a point of showing someone setting up chairs outside a castle, best do something with those chairs. And no, that did not tell Steve Trevor that a big show was about to go down. He already knew it, which is why he was sneaking in.
And the “show” was taking place a long way away, hidden by woods. Not visible from those chairs. So what was the point?
If you’re going to have a five-minute conversation about sex and pleasure and whether men are necessary for same, when you have sex later on, you have to reference that conversation.
If you have a sniper that can’t snipe, and you take time to show us the likely reason why, you have to take a moment and deal with that before he just starts banging away at the end of the film.
If you have an Amerind that doesn’t take sides, because to him both sides are pretty crappy (and who can blame him), you need to deal with that before he chooses up.
If you have a heroine that doesn’t like killing, she needs to show some remorse for doing a whole freaking mess of it.
If you have a heroine make a moral choice not to kill someone, make sure it isn’t the one person we’ve met that seriously, completely, and totally NEEDS killing.
What all these things have in common is caring. When you throw away such great character possibilities, it makes it really hard for the audience to care about your characters being in peril, because obviously you don’t.
The fundamental things:
Why are you making a gas that can defeat gas masks if you then use it only and solely on those people that don’t have any?
Why, if you have this other gas that turns sixty-year-olds into superheroes, don’t you use that gas on your troops? Isn’t that a far simpler solution to winning the war?
Withholding information from people does not help them. It’s a trick writers use to amp up suspense. Used well, it can work. This was not used well. At all. My editor would have slashed the farewell beach scene to ribbons and threatened to quit. I can’t believe your editor did not do that, unless you were using a volunteer that didn’t get paid.
From a story standpoint, if you do decide to withhold said information, and you tell us why, please make sure that your reason for doing so isn’t completely obliviated five minutes after your heroine walks into London.
Why have you made a society of super-warriors whose stated purpose is to stop Ares (and thus, war among men) and then hidden them on an island which they are forbidden to leave? Is that not what Ares would do?
Why is the queen NOT Ares? She’s by far the most evil person in the movie. She has the weapon to stop millions of people from being killed, and she knows it, and she will neither develop the weapon, nor use it, nor allow the weapon to do it herself. And when the weapon finally defeats her and goes off to do it anyway, she withholds a critical piece of information that makes it less likely her weapon will be successful. That’s too many things for it to be incompetence. It must be malice.
If you birth a super-warrior to end all super-warriors, and she can only be killed by another god, you really should tell her before people start shooting at her.
If you’re going to make your protagonist immortal, you risk cheapening all the heroic self-sacrificing things that she does in the film, since she is, in fact, unable to sacrifice herself. I realize this is why you withheld this information, because for us as viewers it would really ruin the entire movie. But then you told us anyway.
And now Wonder Woman is Superman, only she’s eliminated all the kryptonite by killing the only remaining being that could kill her. Good luck making us care about her in the next film.
There are probably more, but I can’t find the energy to remember them all.

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Closing the Last Day of My 49th Year

Today I’ve completed 49 trips around the sun. When I was born, phones came attached to the wall, there were three channels and TV was mostly black-and-white (50% color TV penetration in the US didn’t happen until the middle 1970s). Isaac Asimov’s novels didn’t have computers in them, because what the bleep was a computer?

Man hadn’t landed on the moon, or even the Houston soundstage.

Seatbelts did not come standard on most automobiles.

Facebook was a paper printout at Harvard.

And so on. I tell my junior high students that we’re going to watch all the cell-cam footage of 9/11 every year, then just pull a “psych!” on them, because there isn’t any. Cell phones didn’t come with cameras until three years later.

No one had ever heard of Michael Jackson, Michael Phelps, or Michael Jordan. Bill Gates was broke. Steve Jobs was just an annoying teenager. And everyone was excited about the new retail sensation–K Mart.

I think it’s safe to say that nearly everything we knew about how the world worked, what was going to last forever and what wasn’t, and which things were worth paying attention to–was wrong. Hugely, incredibly, hilariously wrong.

But there are some things that were true then that are still true now:

* Every human being deserves to be respected.
* The color of one’s skin does not tell you a damn thing about the content of one’s character.
* Commitment is just another word for love.
* Music expresses more than words alone.
* Hard work and persistence will crush genius every day of the week, and twice on Sunday.
* No matter what your personal tragedy, no matter how awful it is, no matter how dark your personal night, the sun will rise. The sun always rises.
* My mother is a saint. My father is the smartest man I know.

I’m happy with where the last 49 years have gotten me. I’ve had it very good, in every way, from the day I was (prematurely) born. Few people in all the world, in any time, have ever had half the good fortune I have, starting where and to whom I was born, and running through the wonderful woman I’ve married and the children we’ve born together. It could, in all sincerity, hardly have gone better.

And here’s to another 50 more.

~Cristof

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Listen.

Captain Davenport: They’re pinging away with their active sonar like they’re looking for something, but nobody’s listening.
Jack Ryan: What do you mean?
Captain Davenport: Well, they’re moving at almost forty knots. At that speed, they could run right over my daughter’s stereo and not hear it.

That’s one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite Cold War movies, The Hunt for Red October. And I think it perfectly encapsulates one of my least favorite things about the 21st century.

You can see what I mean if you spend a couple minutes on Facebook, Twitter, what have you. Look at what is there–endless exhortations to speak up, to be heard, to get your “message” “out”. Make sure you get into the public eye, and make your voice stand out. By all means, ping. Blog. Vlog. Meme-ify everything. Emoji! Gif! Make your own noise in the world.

The increasingly noisy, cluttered, cacophonous world.

When a submarine shoots out a sonar pulse, it takes time for that pulse to go out and come back. If, in the meantime, the sub moves fast enough, the pulse will not return anything useful, no matter how loud or how big that thing is. What Captain Davenport is talking about is the nature of sonar–but it’s the nature of human beings, too. You cannot listen if you are talking. But you also cannot talk effectively if you are not listening.

All you can do is make noise. That can have its uses, as in the film. If all you want to do is scare the people you’re yelling at, listening is non-critical. But that kind of noise is useless for anything else. It will not persuade, uplift, correct, instruct, edify, teach, encourage. Are those things not absolutely critical in the modern age? Don’t we have enough fear?

I think we do. I’ll get off that hobby horse the first time I see a clinic open up to treat teen gratitude, instead of anxiety.

Look, I’m as guilty as anyone. I’m a talker. I love the sound of my own voice above all things. I write, and I write a LOT, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, you name it. Everything I can or even momentarily want to. I write lesson plans, blog posts, Facebook arguments. I’m contributing to the noise, absolutely, so this is not a see-how-much-better-I-am post. I need this advice as much as any person I know.

If we’re going to get anywhere, we have to work together. For every leader there has to be a follower. Performance needs audience. For everyone talking, someone has to listen. In all our wanting people to look at us, are we seeing anyone else?

Don’t we have to?

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Some Days, It’s All You Can Do.

Today is one of those days.

It should be glorious. Today is a day I look forward to for months, the first day of my favorite writing conference, and this year I’m faculty. I get to present. One more item off the bucket list. I should be ecstatic.

Instead, I find myself overwhelmed and sad, fighting off fifty things and deciding what I’m going to do next based on how many people I’m going to disappoint. Because I’m going to disappoint people. I’ve made commitments I can’t keep. Maybe someone better could keep them, but I’m just me, and I’m not going to be able to.

So I hate myself, because I told people I would do things I won’t now do. I’m a juggler, and I know, right now before the objects crash to earth, that there are too many things in the air for me to catch them all. It’s a matter now of choosing which ones I will drop. I’m trying to choose the ones that will bounce when they hit, rather than shatter. But I will fail. I don’t know which are which. Inevitably, I will choose wrong.

Sometimes I think I’d like to live a life where this doesn’t happen. Wouldn’t it be great to be supremely capable, where I can always finish the projects I’m involved in to everyone’s satisfaction? But I’m not that guy. I don’t know it at the time, but when I reach for some projects, I often seem to be committing to things I can’t…quite…do.

A few years back (more than a few, now) I was really into weightlifting. I had a training regimen, thirty or so exercises I was doing on a rotational schedule, pushing myself to get bigger and stronger. I was pretty religious about it, too, working myself very hard for quite a while. But I wasn’t seeing results, not in the mirror, not on the scale, not in the weight room.

Friend of mine was a strength coach at a local school, so I talked to him about it. I showed him my regimen, the exercises I was doing, and asked what I was doing wrong. “Do you finish all these?” he said. “Yeah,” I said, “Of course I do. I’m not a quitter.”

“It’s not about that,” he said. “If you’re working out to your maximum, you’ll get to a point where you simply can’t do the set. You’ll put a weight on the bar you just can’t lift. That’s not quitting; that’s maxing out. That’s showing you where you really are. And that’s the point where you make gains. No offense, but you’re playing this way too safe. It might feel good to get all your sets done, but sometimes you have to try to lift beyond what you can do, or you’re never going to find out how strong you can be.”

I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. There’s a quote on the wall of my writing space that says, “You should be trying to do the impossible at least once every day.” It is not in the harbor, but out on the seas where we find out what our ship is made of. That means that we are going to fail. The weather will beat us up, and waves will swamp us. But who wants to build a ship that never leaves the harbor? Is it not worth the risk of disaster to sail out into the wild spray and flying gale?

Today is sinking day. My boat is going down. I’m not going to be able to lift this weight. I’m going to have to ask the spotter to put it back on the bar for me. The balls and pins and bottles will come crashing down. Today all I can do is just keep repeating “I will not quit. I will not give up. I will never stop trying.”

But tomorrow, I’ll dust myself off and try it again. A little stronger. A little wiser. A little bit more. We can’t become all we could be unless we sometimes crash and burn because we attempted a bit too much. This is the pain day. But there will be a day of exhilarating joy, down the road, that couldn’t have been reached without this day.

I’ll see you on the other side.

Posted in encouragement, inspiration, Sheer Cussedness | 2 Comments

I did not write this.

But the guys that did, the exceptionally skilled wonderwomen and -men at The Oatmeal (consume at your own risk) deserve promotion for it. Here’s the article. (some swearing) It’s about this thing:


Photo Credit

I’m currently out of a car, myself, and doing some low-level shopping. I wasn’t shopping in the $70,000 range, but perhaps I should be. I don’t do car loans, and I’m not much for leases. And I’d prefer a convertible. But one of these babies would look really good in my driveway, I think.

Started me thinking about settling, and where in my life I’ve just gone for what would get me by instead of…

Read the rest.

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Education: Signal vs Noise

The 21st century has a whale of a lot of noise in it. The kids have coined a phrase to help us sift through all of it: signal vs. noise. Signal matters. Noise doesn’t. But a lot of what we do in education masquerades as signal, when all it is is noise.

First, we use “seat time” to signal to kids that education is important. That’s why the 180-day school year requirement, among other things. There is no strong correlation between seat time and test scores, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a signal that we care about education. Kids, however, pick that up as a signal that ADULTS care about education, but since adults (kids believe) are mostly morons, and often punitive and dangerously unstable morons, that’s not a positive message. In other words, this one is noise.

Second, we use pieces of paper to signal competence. Starting with the high school diploma, and moving onward from there, we signal to each other that graduating students are worthy of employment (and that they are valuable in other ways, as human beings). The high school diploma does not correlate with success at university. University education does not correlate with job security, and its correlation with income is tautological (employers believe a degree means something, so by definition a degree DOES mean something, so this reinforces the idea that a degree means something). The signal is being sent, and received, yet the results do not support the contention of the signal. Again, mostly noise.

Third, we use per-pupil expenditures to signal caring about kids. There is no rational human being that will contend that Utah parents care 55% as much about their kids as Virginia parents do (having lived for over 20 years in each state, I’d argue the reverse quite vociferously), but the Virginia per-pupil is $11,700, and the Utah per-pupil is $6500. It’s a signal. The signal is entirely white noise–again, there is no correlation between money spent per pupil and test scores, let alone long-term success.

But as a teacher myself, I think it’s exceptionally difficult to measure success in education. I’m not at all sure what the term even means. Test scores? Okay, but do test scores correlate to “life success”? No. They do not. Top SAT scorers are every bit as likely to be unemployed, bankrupt, divorced, and jailed, as other people. So I can teach to the test–indeed, I am all but threatened into doing so–but does that do my students a disservice? I believe it does.

I don’t signal to my students that I care about them, I actually care about them. As a result, many of them do very well on the traditional measures of academic success. But because my school is a magnet for refugees from mainline public schools, I also have a huge number of kids that will never perform well on such measures. Still, I believe they are learning and I believe they’re learning because of what and how we teach them.

I see no good way to measure that. I see even less how I could prove it to an administrator. And I suppose it is therefore possible that I am completely bamboozled, and that none of this learning is, in fact, happening. But if it isn’t, I guarantee you it wouldn’t happen anywhere else any better. In fact, I think that may be true anyway–kids learn what they learn.

Finding the appropriate fit for a kid, where he will learn the most, is not going to reduce down to 50 pages of core standards, or some kind of bar graph. It’s as individual as the kid is. But we signal, because 1) that lets people keep their jobs and 2) because we genuinely don’t know what else to do. We’re spending–literally–nearly a trillion dollars on education annually in the US, the vast majority of it public money. We have to have SOME way of being accountable for all that.

Which is why, in my opinion, government as an education monopoly is a bad idea. Government is a chainsaw, a huge, powerful tool that can take out a tree–or your leg–in a minute or less. But you don’t want to use it to remove a blood clot. Most education is logging, pure and simple. Carpet-bomb the basics. A good number of kids, though, aren’t going to do well with that, on both sides of the spectrum.

Exceptional kids can and should have access to exceptional opportunity (NOTE: this does not mean “rich kids”), and kids that won’t do well in the assembly-line education system need a way to get out and get what they need elsewhere. We currently make that quite hard, in most places, and I think our education system would benefit from making it easier. I also think we could get the same or very similar results with half the expenditures we now have, as they do in many charter schools and virtually all parochial schools (Utah private schools are, for many reasons, bad examples).

Technology won’t fix it, or even make a significant dent in the problem. A computer in every class is no solution (again, no correlation between technology and learning, at least not in schools). The problems are systemic. The system was designed to provide workers for defined problem sets–things you can learn to do from a checklist–and we still need a fair number of those workers, though fewer and fewer of them.

The 21st century, by contrast, will need ill-defined-problem solvers, people who can recognize problems that do not yet exist, or that exist but are intractable, i.e. eliminating malaria. Our education system does not provide much hope that those thinkers will come about. I think they will, but mostly from the segment of the population that has opted out of school.

And you know, maybe it wouldn’t matter, or matter very much. Maybe kids are going to learn what they’re going to learn, and it’s irrelevant what we teach them. I think that’s possible, and exceptionally hard to prove. Our society is, at any rate, built on the idea that we’re going to pen kids up for hours a day so their parents don’t have to worry about them, so this isn’t changing.

Still. I was in a meeting this weekend, and the facilitator asked how often we were holding meetings in our local units. The acceptable answers were anywhere from “once a month” to “once a week”. We all fell into the acceptable bracket. “But,” the leader said, “the key here is not frequency, but effectiveness. If your meetings are ineffective, and you’re meeting once a week, you should probably drop to once a month.” Until we have some solid evidence that spending $700 billion on education every year produces results we couldn’t get by spending half that, I wonder if we shouldn’t spend half of it.

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