Thursday, February 28, 2019

Brutal Barbs

     It’s always interesting reading those few grumpy one-star Net comments on products and services, and those emotional discussions on every news issue or announcement, which often degenerate into the crudest kinds of name calling and vicious put-downs.

     We’ve always had put-downs, of course, but in those much-lauded good old days they were more civilized, more intelligent and clever.  Classier.

     A few examples:

     From Beethoven after listening to a rival improvising on the piano for a half hour: “Will it be long before you begin?”

     Theodore Roosevelt about President McKinley after he refused to declare war on Spain:  “No more backbone than a chocolate eclair.”

     Abraham Lincoln on the ideas of his political opponent Stephen Douglas:  “As thin as the soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death.”

     H.G. Wells on a literary work by Henry James:  “A magnificent but painful hippopotamus.”

     Winston Churchill on Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after he supposedly convinced Hitler to leave England alone in exchange for Britain’s noninterference:  “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”

     Winston again on Clement Atlee:  “A modest man, who has much to be modest about.”

     Prince on a rival’s new album:  “Michael Jackson’s album was called ‘Bad’ because there wasn’t enough room on the jacket for Pathetic.”

     But my favorite is one from radio and TV host Arthur Smith to a rude heckler.  I think it can be applied equally well to most of those mean-spirited losers out there who cruise the Net giving one-star reviews to everything they come across:  “Sorry, I can’t hear what you’re saying.  I’m wearing a moron filter.”


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Downside Up

     All my life, I’ve thought of northward on a map as ‘Up,’ southward as ‘Down,’ and eastward or westward as ‘Over.’  Living in New England, we would drive ‘up’ to Canada for a summer vacation or ‘down’ to Florida for a mid-winter warmup, or ‘over’ to New York State to visit my uncle and his family.  I would look ‘down’ at my feet to see if my sneakers were tied or ‘up’ into the night sky to marvel at the familiar constellation Orion.  Everybody else I knew seemed to observe the same orientations.

     Then a few years ago I went way ‘down’ to Chile in the Southern Hemisphere to view the night sky from a barren mountaintop high in the Atacama Desert, where it has not rained in decades and the atmosphere is not only free of moisture but also free of both air and light pollution.  Severe clear.

     The night sky was spellbinding in its majesty.  Impossible to adequately describe.  Venus was casting my shadow onto the ground, I could see the Andromeda galaxy with my naked eyes, and the legendary Pleiades, those ancient beautiful seven sisters, were dazzling and nested in a bed of diamond-like lesser stars I’d never even known were there.

     But the constellation Orion was upside-down.  A few other constellations that I’d been able to see from the Northern Hemisphere and that I could still see from the Southern Hemisphere were also upside-down.  What?  I had to make a sketch on a pocket pad to figure out why.  For the first time I realized there really is no ‘up’ or ‘down’ or ‘over.’  Those are all merely arbitrary concepts.  Weightless astronauts learn this lesson quickly on arrival at the International Space Station.  At any distance from our home planet, there is no longer any ‘up’ or ‘down.’  Even on the surface of our planet, if I look ‘down’ at my sneakers and then wait twelve hours, or half an earth revolution, I’m actually positioned on my head from where I was twelve hours earlier, looking ‘up’ at my sneakers.

     It was a disconcerting lesson in orientational prejudice.  The good people in Chile have every right to say they’ll go ‘up’ to Antarctica for penguin-watching or ‘down’ to Maine for photographing moose if they wish, and I have no right to fault them for it.


Monday, February 25, 2019

Crimes against graphics

     Authors often invest nearly superhuman effort—thousands of laborious hours over many months or even years—in creating fine books worthy of publication and significant readership.

     But in all too many cases those efforts are sadly thwarted by hasty, half-hearted, or just plain incompetent graphic cover artists, who in most cases I suspect have not even read the first paragraphs of the books they’re tasked to work on for a mere few hours.

     There are many ways a fine book can be cloaked in graphics rags that are sure to relegate it to obscurity.  I’ve served as an awards judge for two excellent writers’ organizations and have studied book covers in stores for years, and I think I’ve seen them all.  Dark red lettering on a black background is a frequent way to render cover copy unreadable.  A background photo that was never interesting to begin with and has no relevance to the subject matter or setting of the book is another unsubtle way to turn off readers as they scan the shelves; a novel set in the dead-flat country of eastern NC featured a dull cover shot of mountains, for one bad example.

      Whimsical graphic experiments that look like something created during a workshop/vaping session at a convention of abstractionists can also doom books quickly; a recent cover had the one-word title broken up into syllables and scattered, so it required some study to figure out, and the author’s name, in dark gray over slightly darker gray, was utterly lost at any distance over two feet away.  Selecting tiny font sizes on covers and for the inside text is a just-plain-mean way of convincing readers to shun a book.  Murky low-contrast nonsensical collages that turn to mud when reduced to the thumbnail sizes often used to advertise books in magazine ads and online is a clever way to test the vision, and the patience, of book browsers.  Why publishers allow, or even seem to embrace, such criminal graphics is a mystery.

     There are fads and trends in cover design that come and go, some good and some not so good.  There’s one current industry-wide trend I like.  Almost every hardcover dust jacket is done with an overall finish of matte varnish, which provides a good grip and a nice rich feel for the reader.  Using spot high-gloss varnish on these covers, such as for the title and author name and a selected graphic element, provides pleasing, attention-grabbing contrast. 

     And of course there are the superb covers that complement and even augment their books’ contents and make these relatively few volumes stand out amid all the intense competition in any bookstore.  Those graphics wizards are to be commended.  The covers and interior layouts are indeed works of art done by thoughtful, caring people with real talent.  The authors lucky enough to benefit are deeply grateful, I’m sure.  Invariably, such covers adorn books that the rest of us writers would do well to emulate. Just as these covers themselves ought to be studied and emulated by some of the lesser graphics practitioners out there.


Friday, January 25, 2019

Creating creativity

Where does creativity come from?

If it were possible to bottle it or press it into pills or entube it as a topical ointment, a person could quickly become richer than that Gates couple.

It’s often associated with mythical mists or muses, or angelic whispers in one’s ear, or superlative IQ, or an Ivy League education, or some divine gift twisted into a lucky person’s DNA.  I don’t think it’s any of those things.

Creativity, I believe, draws on a sort of savings account.  And the more a person has managed to squirrel away in that account, the more creative she or he can be.

But the account is not in a vault.  It resides in the convolutions of the mind.

A person who has studied—really studied—a molten sunset, or the way twilight burnishes a loved one’s skin, or the perfect play of muscles in a galloping horse, or a roiling summer thunderhead, or the changing veils of droplets in a waterfall, or a glassy backlit ocean wave, or an overheard happy or contentious conversation, and who has stored such knowledge away in that brain bank, has a wealth of material to apply to creative constructions of all kinds, from art to sculpture to crafts to writing.  Only through careful scrutiny can an artist or photographer begin to capture the subtle play of light and shadow and myriad combinations of hues that will have the power to deeply touch others of our species.  Only through listening to others and studying their behaviors can a writer hope to reproduce the panoply of human emotions faithfully, and thus command the widest possible audience.

A high, sad percentage of humanity idles along only peripherally aware of surroundings, assimilating only a fraction of the beauty, mystery, and majesty of life and nature that abounds all around us on our planet. 

Those relative few who do experience life to its fullest through habitual in-depth observation of everything around them are the richest by far.  And the most creative.

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”—Confucius

“You can observe a lot by just watching.”—Yogi Berra


Sunday, January 13, 2019

The New Killer Addiction

   It’s epidemic.  All over the planet.  And there doesn’t appear to be a cure.

  People, especially young people, are increasingly no longer involved in the real world around them but are almost constantly engrossed in the shallow artificiality that is flipping past their emotionless zombie gazes on their smartphones and tablets.  Take a short break from your own cell and look around in any public park, at the beach, on school campuses, in airline terminals, on buses and in airplanes.  Nearly everyone is immersed in Phoneworld.  You see couples on the street far more engaged with their phones than with each other.  People ostensibly go out for a group dinner, then rudely ignore each other so they can receive messages and feverishly thumb texts off into the ether.  Tourists standing before nature’s splendors take endless phone shots and selfies rather than indulge in old-fashioned experiencing and enjoying.

   The addiction all too often has gruesome and deadly consequences.  Driving while texting and talking on cellphones is killing 5,000 people a year and injuring thousands more across our nation alone.  Even distracted walking with resultant injuries is becoming a threat, with people bumping into each other on busy sidewalks or stepping out into traffic.

   A recent Baylor University study of college students, published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, found that women spend an average of ten hours daily on their cellphones, while men spend an average of eight hours.  Subtract sleep time and that doesn’t leave many hours for reality.  Sixty percent of all students queried admitted they may have Screen Addiction. 

   Nobody seems to know what to do about it. 

  There are increasing pressures that deepen the addiction through thousands upon thousands of apps.  A Hilton app lets you use your phone as a room key.  Restaurants and supermarkets and stores are encouraging you to use your phone as an ordering and checkout tool, allowing them to operate with fewer employees.  Theme parks have navigational and ride-wait-time apps that speed customer flow.  There are gadgets that tether your phone to you so you seldom even have to put it down or into a pocket or purse. 

   And all the while robotic web crawlers, lurking invisibly and silently behind our billions of screens, are at work for vast data centers like Facebook and Google and Amazon, tirelessly watching and listening and gathering and storing away data on every addict, from our educational and employment and medical and political and social histories to our dining and entertainment preferences to our brands of underwear.

   Is this an early sign of artificial intelligence (AI) creeping into our lives, eventually to seek more control over us than it obviously already has?  Robots are not only building our vehicles but are also taking over driving them.  Computers are piloting and landing planes and controlling our habitats and talking cordially with us and even generating news reports. 

   We lost one of our great minds recently.  Before he left us, Stephen Hawking warned humankind about the insidious encroachment of AI.  So far, there’s no evidence I can see that anyone has listened to him.

   We’re all too mesmerized by—and intimately occupied with—our wonderful cellphones.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

Three tips for writing well

1.  Read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.  Though slender, it’s the finest book I’ve ever seen on using the language accurately and effectively.  The book will give you most of the basic mechanics you’ll need as a solid foundation to succeed.  If you’re already producing publishable work, go back and re-read this book anyway.

2.  Read 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald Tobias.  It’s one of the better books I’ve come across about structuring fiction (and even good non-fiction).  On Writing by Stephen King is another worthwhile book.

3.  Shun adverbs (those words ending in ly) and don’t use too many adjectives.  An adverb is a lazy “tell” word, and you should always be showing the story to the reader.  Show a character to be excited, for example (instead of saying “she exclaimed excitedly”), maybe by her nervous mannerisms or by her flushed complexion.  On a related note I never use the lazy exclamation point, and many top writers don’t, either.  It’s nothing more than a punctuational adverb.  If your words are not powerful enough in themselves to convey your meaning, an exclamation point isn’t going to save the situation.


Are you sitting still?

   You may think you are, but you’re not.  You never can be.

   As the earth turns, a person standing on the surface at the equator is zipping along at 1,100 miles per hour toward the east.  (Do the math: a point at the equator has 24 hours to get all the way around to the same place, so 25,000 miles, which is the circumference of the earth, divided by 24 hours = 1,100 mph)  Depending where you are on earth you could be moving at up to this speed.  This is the biggest reason why we launch rockets toward the east; they’re getting a nice free boost in that direction just sitting there on the launch pad.  (Naomi and I are headed for FL today, by the way, to witness a 3 December launch.)

   And the earth takes 365 days to complete one orbit around the sun, which is 94 million miles away from us.  (Do the math: our orbit circumference is 2 x pi x 94 million = 590,619,418.9 miles, divided by 365 days = 1,618,135 miles that the earth speeds along its orbit per day, or 67,422.3 mph on average.

   And the entire solar system, the sun and all its family of planets and moons, is racing around the center of our Milky Way Galaxy at 514,000 mph. (A speed at which you would circle the earth at the equator in just 2 minutes, 54 seconds.)

   And the entire Milky Way Galaxy, with its approximately 400 billion suns (including ours) all arrayed in a beautiful glittering spiral pattern, is flashing through space at an incredible 1.3 million mph.

   So the next time you tell your child to sit still, dammit, be advised that she or he simply cannot. Not by a long shot.

   And neither can you.