Eighteen Views Suffice

View of Mt. Fuji, originally uploaded by bradipo.

Jackie and her mom and I went to the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s exhibit of Utagawa Hiroshige’s “36 views of Mt. Fuji.” This was part 2 of the exhibit, and featured 18 of the woodcuts.

I’ve always liked the Japanese woodcuts of this era, for much the same reason that I like poster art: I like the use of strong, simple images and the effective use of a limited color pallet. (I also rather like the particular shade of blue that they used.)

Besides the woodcuts, we also spent a chunk of time in an exhibit on drawings together with prints, etchings, and the like. Some were source drawings prepared for the engraver. Others were copies of etchings, drawn as studies. I find it interesting to think about the differences between poster art and woodcuts, versus etching, engravings, and so on—differences in intention, technology, result, etc.

We also walked a bit on the grounds. I particularly enjoyed the tow path along the canal behind the museum.

This was just our second visit to the museum, which is too bad—it’s a great museum. It’s more than 2 hours away, though, which makes for a rather long day. We enjoyed it enough that we’re thinking about getting a room in a hotel and making a 2-day trip of it. That would mean that we could spend a whole day (or two half-days) at the museum, instead of trying to cram everything into a few hours between two long drives.

Immigrants not competition for jobs?

Cardiff de Alejo Garcia links to a paper by economists Gianmarco IP Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri that tries to make the case that, because US and foreign-born workers choose different occupations, they’re really not competing for the same jobs. (The paper itself is behind a paywall.)

The main thrust of the argument seems to be this:

Certain jobs get lots of foreign-born workers while others get almost exclusively US workers (tailors 54% foreign-born, crane operators 1% foreign-born). Because of this, more foreign workers won’t increase unemployment, because the foreigners would just be competing with other foreigners for those jobs. Further, more foreign workers won’t even decrease US wages, because even another thousand tailors won’t put any pressure on wages for crane operators.

No doubt my own experience as a software engineer colors my perceptions (computer engineers are 33% foreign-born), but I’m unconvinced.

For one thing, these sorts of pressures occur at the margin. Even a modest number of workers (of any nationality) willing to work for less, will have the effect of holding down wages for everyone else.

For another, there is indirect pressure. Even if a Chinese cook doesn’t compete with a US cook for a job at a diner, another thousand of them will hold down wages for Chinese cooks. That will result in lower costs for Chinese restaurants, which do compete with diners. That puts pressure on diners to hold down their costs—including wages for cooks.

Finally, people’s job and career decisions aren’t static in the face of these pressures. Perhaps few software engineers decided to become lawyers (only 4% foreign-born), but a great number of software engineers have moved on to doing something different. Each one who does so is now competing in that new field, potentially holding down wages over there.

Of course, outsourcing production overseas has had at least as strong an impact on employment and salary levels as immigration has. I’m just glad that I figured out early that I would shortly be competing with someone who could live a middle-class lifestyle on $6000 a year. That gave me a few years to take the necessary steps to arrange my life otherwise.

Speaking on Esperanto

Our local group will give a brief presentation on Esperanto this evening. We’ll speak (in English) about the language itself, why you might want to learn it, and about the activities of our group. If you’re local, and interested in Esperanto, consider stopping by.

It’ll take place at 5:30 PM this evening (Thursday, August 26) in the Foreign Language Building on the University of Illinois campus. We’ll gather in the atrium, then move to some free room. (Campus organizations can’t reserve rooms until they get re-certified, which apparently you can’t do in advance.)

If you can’t make this meeting, we’ll be  doing a repeat Wednesday evening next week (September 1st).

And, in any case, if you want to learn Esperanto, join us Thursday evenings all semester for a free beginners class!

Paŭzo en la stacidomo Union

My first Esperanto-language short story “Paŭzo en la stacidomo Union,” appears in the new issue of Beletra Almanako!

Kovrilo de Beletra Almanako N-ro 8.My first Esperanto-language short story “Paŭzo en la stacidomo Union,” appears in the new issue of Beletra Almanako! My contributor’s copy arrived today. I even made the cover.

I am in very good company—a veritable who’s who of current Esperanto literature.

“Tiu,” Emma diris

Otto rigardis kien ŝi kapmontris. “Tiu alta viro en la drelika jako?” Li pripensis. “Filo de riĉaj gepatroj. Eksigita el pli ol unu universitato pro tro da petoloj kaj maltro da studoj. Ricevas iom da mono de la patrino, sed ne sufiĉe por vivteni sin.”

You can get it from Amazon: Beletra Almanako 8 (BA8 – Literaturo en Esperanto) (Esperanto Edition)

Or directly from the publisher.

If you can read Esperanto, pick up a copy today!

Cool Scrivener feature: show stamps

Tobias Buckell’s recent post on chapters was not only interesting in its own right. It also brought me to Scott Westerfeld’s valuable post on pace charts. Even more cool, though was a tidbit in a comment on that post, with details on a cool feature of Scrivener: You can show stamps on the note cards!

Scott’s example involved marking the note cards to indicate what sort of tension was driving each scene. With that information he could see if there were long stretches without an action scene (or if his action scenes started falling too much into a simple rhythm). That gave him useful information for adjusting the pacing—keeping things moving, mixing things up, etc.

I’m going to be using this all the time now. For example, the story I workshopped last month is both a heist story and a love story. This feature gives me a way to mark the scenes so that I can see which aspect of the story is being advanced and then view that aspect of all the scenes:

Screen capture of Scrivener corkboard
Scrivener corkboard

I was completely unaware of this feature, even though I use Scrivener all the time, so I thought I’d spell out how to do it.

  1. Make sure that the “Inspector” is being displayed.
  2. In the Inspector under “General” find the “Status” pop-up menu and select “Edit.”
  3. Add whatever status items you’ll need.
  4. Go through your scenes, setting each Status as appropriate.
  5. In the Menu select “View->Index Cards->Show Stamps.”

It was step 5 that I was completely unaware of. That’s what causes the diagonal overprinting of the status to be shown across the cards.

I can see using this a dozen different ways to illuminate the story structure.

What renewable energy really looks like

Tobias Buckell just posted about Portugal’s push into renewable energy. He links to an article claiming that 45% of Portugal’s grid electricity now comes from renewable sources, and that they’ve managed this with just a 15% increase in electricity costs. Making the (somewhat unlikely) assumption that one could get another 45% increase for another 15% increase in price, he suggests that it would be totally worth it:

I’d take a 30% hike for energy independence and no money being sent to terrorists in a fucking heart beat.

Frankly, I would too. In fact, I’d be willing to pay a lot more than that. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it would cost a lot more than that—more than most people would pay.

First of all, Portugal was already paying about twice what we pay in the US for electricity. The 15% bump was on top of that. Second, Portugal had substantial untapped sources of hydro power. The US doesn’t.

Either of those, I expect, would doom the project. The first makes it unaffordable—I’d be willing to pay 30% over double what I’m paying now for electricity, but I doubt if very many other people would. The second makes it impossible—we have a lot of untapped wind power, but that comes and goes. Use of wind power will grow, but even with a much better grid (to distribute power from where the wind is blowing to where people are using it), you need something more reliable for baseline power.

But neither of those is the real problem, which is that the US uses three times as much electricity per person than Portugal does. (13646 kWH  versus 4663 kWH per capita in 2005, data from the World Bank.) If you look at the historical per capita energy use in each country, you can see that both countries have shown steady growth—but Portugal is only up to about where the US was in the early 1960s. (And, sadly, following right in our footsteps.)

So, to shoot for the Portugal model we’d have to:

  1. Cut our energy use by two-thirds,
  2. Double the price (plus 30%), and
  3. Either invest vast additional sums in the grid (perhaps $100 billion) or accept brownouts when the wind wasn’t blowing.

Again, I’m totally up for that. My electricity consumption is probably already two-thirds below the US average. My typical electric bill runs just about $30; I’m sure I could stretch my budget to cover $70 if the payoff was no more carbon in the air and no more sending buckets of cash to people who hate us.

But based on the way people actually behave, I’m forced to assume that most people would rather burn the planet and fund terrorists than turn off the AC, downsize the car, and pay up for organic, locally grown food.

Taiji, weight shifting, and intention

One of the practices that we do in our Taiji class is a moving qigong exercise with a Taiji stick where we bring one end of the stick toward us, press that end down and point it down toward a spot outside the foot on that side.

We’d long done two versions of that exercise, one where we just shift some of our weight to that foot, and another where we stand on that foot (lifting the other and moving it close to the foot we’re standing on). We usually start with the former and then go on to the latter after a few repetitions.

In a class last week, though, one of the instructors called out the switch differently, prompting an interesting insight into weight shifting.

The instructor just said something like, “Now shift all your weight to that foot.”

I initially thought that this was some new, intermediate version of the exercise, so I was shifting all my weight, but without actually lifting the other foot.

Right away, I noticed that the instructors weren’t doing some new version, they had just described it differently, so I went ahead and lifted my foot—but only after having shifted all my weight to the foot I was going to be standing on. What a difference! This was obviously what I should have been doing all along.

Comparing the experiences, it was clear that I hadn’t been getting the weight shift properly established before trying to lift the other foot. Of course, once you pick up one foot all your weight is on the other foot, so the result (assuming you don’t fall down) ends up being the same. But the process is much easier and more comfortable if I make a point of getting the weight shifting completed and then raising the foot only after it is no longer supporting any weight.

It’s giving me some interesting insights into intention. I’m comparing the weight shifts I do in other activities, such as walking and climbing stairs. I’m sure there’s more to learn here.

First meeting of the incognito writers group

A few of us here in Champaign-Urbana are trying to get a local writers group going again. Caleb Wilson, Kelly Searsmith, Charlie Petit, and I got together last night at the Urbana Library for the new group’s first meeting.

I had suggested that we might want to talk about a name for the group, simply because I knew I would want to post about it and thought it would be handy to be able to call it something, but everybody else seemed to want to go straight to the critiquing. Kelly suggested that the group could remain incognito for the time being. That was good enough for me—I’ll just call it the incognito writers group until we decide we need a better name. [Update: I’ve created a page for the Incognito Writers Group.]

It’s really nice to have a local writers group again. The actual writing part of being a writer is such a solitary activity, it’s worth making the effort to generate some amount of actual interpersonal contact. And we’ve got an excellent selection of writers: three Clarion grads and an intellectual property lawyer. (I’ll resist making a James Watt joke.)

It’s a real boost to be around people who understand what it’s like to write fiction—people who understand the rush that comes from getting a bit of dialog just right (and the anguish from trying and failing), the absorbing intensity of world-building, the stoicism needed to keep persisting in the face of rejection. When those people also understand crafting a good story, writing vivid prose, and developing compelling characters, so much the better.

One other thing we didn’t talk about was opening the membership up to other people, but I suspect the group would be even better with a couple more people. If you live in Champaign-Urbana (or close enough to attend monthly meetings), write some variety of speculative fiction,  can demonstrate a seriousness of purpose (regularly submitting stories to markets, attending well-regarded workshops, etc.), and you’d be interested in joining, see the Incognito Writers Group page.

Open Source Fiction?

Frank Gilroy, a guy I used to work with at Motorola, has written a post called My Thoughts on Open Source Story Telling about why he’s putting his fiction up on the web. I had a few thoughts on the topic that I would have shared in a comment, except that he’s got comments turned off. So, instead here’s the long version.

To begin with, fiction was always “open source” in the sense that you can’t keep the text secret from the reader. In this way it is unlike software (where you can keep the source code secret from the people running the program). Because of this, in software “open source” was an important (and somewhat transgressive) notion. In fiction, though, it’s just the way things have always been.

Since fiction has always been open source, stories have always been pieces of a greater conversation. Some explicitly respond to other stories, but even the ones that don’t are informed by what the author has read. At least as important, the readers’ reactions are informed by what they’ve read, whether or not the writer has read the same things.

It’s rare in fiction for writers to do what’s common in open source software—use their access to the source to improve it (fix bugs, add functionality, improve standards compliance, and so on). But the reason has nothing to do with a lack of access to the text.

Putting that issue aside, the remaining issues seem to be money (how does the writer get paid) and access (how does the reader find the work).

Money

In software, the open source model offers a revenue stream for providing support. Is there an equivalent for open source fiction? Perhaps one could say that some professors of English and literature do, in a sense, get paid to support the readers of open-source literature. But I don’t see a business model forming around the idea that a writer would publish his stories free on the web and then charge a fee to explain them.

Why do people ever pay for fiction? They pay to be entertained, to be edified, to be amused, and so on, but I think the root value that they’re paying for is novelty. People will pay for access to new fiction (that they’re confident that they’ll enjoy) and there are revenue streams built around the fact that people will perceive access to new fiction (that they expect to enjoy) as being of value. (Advertising being the most obvious.)

Putting a story up on the web can only hurt its novelty value. It may be worth doing for other reasons (in particular, if you’re getting paid for it), but a piece of fiction is only new to a reader once.

Writers are as happy as anyone else to get paid, but they’re also motivated by other things. In particular, they want their work to be read: They want to be part of the great conversation that is literature—or at least part of some tiny piece of that conversation. This, I think, is the reason that so many writers are tempted to post their fiction: it means that the whole world has access.

Access

It might seem like putting your fiction up on the web would maximum the chance that it would be read, but that’s very much not true.

Fiction is different from nonfiction, where a brief glance can give the reader an pretty good sense as to whether or not a piece is worth reading. Fiction needs to be read from the beginning. Good fiction often produces temporary feelings of frustration or confusion and then resolves those feelings in a satisfying way. But there’s plenty of bad fiction that produces frustration or confusion and then fails utterly to produce a satisfying resolution.

Every reader has been repeatedly unsatisfied by bad fiction. Most of them have responded by choosing not to read random pieces of fiction. Instead, they only read fiction by writers that they trust to make it worth their while, or after someone they trust vouches for it as being worth the effort.

These pieces—fiction by writers they trust, or selected by editors they trust—they’re willing to pay money for. But fiction that lacks such credentials is not only not worth money, it generally doesn’t even get read. Just offering it for free does not make it worth investing the time to read it—in fact, just the opposite. Being available on the web for free doesn’t prove that it’s not worth reading, but in the absence of a recognized by-line or an endorsement by an editor, being offered for free is a negative.

Because of that, posting a story on the internet usually means that almost no one will read it except the writer’s friends and relations. In this way it’s very different from software, and from other things that have flourished on the internet, such as music.

[In the interest of full disclosure, let me mention that my story “An Education of Scars” is currently available to read for free on the internet at Futurismic, which paid me for the right to offer it.]