Category Archives: Writing

Can Underdogs Save the World?

I’ve been thinking about this blog post… for months now. What would I say, what would I write? It seemed that everywhere I turned, the subject of peer influence versus ethics has been causing waves in our communities, in our media, in our everyday lives, yet it’s not being connected in the way I see it all connecting.

Police killings going uncharged as homicides

Lenders providing loans to people with unverified incomes

Lack of enforcement on California drought conservation restrictions

Physicians providing unneeded care for profit

Domestic abuse still going strong after all these years

Hollywood’s inability to see that ethnicity is a sensitive topic among historically marginalized groups

Government employees who are afraid to become another Edward Snowden if they speak out against abuses

When was the last time you saw something unethical and stood up to stop it?

If you did not, then the reason, most likely, wasn’t because you’re an ‘evil’ person intending hurt to others. Most likely you’re a normal person who is just following the crowd, fearing to let someone down, maybe fearing to let a lot of people down.

To quote Yoda, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” And with this platitude, Yoda pretty much sums up the major problems in our collective societies today. But where does this fear come from? It comes from our peers, their expectations of us, their opinions of us, and our own preconceived prejudices of what we should be afraid of.

I’m a Gen-Xer. I grew up in the 1980’s with a firm background in the study of peer pressure. I was never sold drugs or alcohol (until I was old enough). People offered me drugs, but they easily and politely took no for an answer. In fact, I found that I got more pressured to drink later in life than I did to get stoned in college, and nobody ever offered me anything more illegal than pot. Maybe I’m unusual, maybe not, but there’s one thing that I got offered in droves: advice on how to avoid peer pressure. “Say No to DRUGS!” went the campaign. It was plastered all over my high school, we had to attend special events where we learned the dangers of peer pressure. In the end, I realized they were just creating an atmosphere of expectation, that if our peers were saying no to drugs, that those ‘good’ peers would apply enough peer pressure to others that the rate of drug use would decline but my peers and I weren’t really moved by the films and the testimonials. I knew that drugs were bad for me, but there was no emotional connection. I could see prominent members of society snorting coke in movies. Smoking happened everywhere then, and drinking was never mentioned as a drug. The campaign seemed to be politically motivated and designed to prop up Reagan’s war on drugs.

Today we have plenty of meth and crack in the U.S., and the Say No to Drugs campaign had lackluster results. It had to. The people telling me to say no were not my peers, nor were they peers to millions of other youngsters. Instead, we listened to our parents and the people around us. Their perspectives were, shall I say, various.

The Say No to Drugs campaign was very much a ‘think for yourself’ campaign. It tried to get people to bypass peer pressure, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here and say that it would have been better had it tried to use peer pressure as a positive influence, and to constructive a positive culture of health. But the government has issues with people thinking for themselves. It is almost always free thinkers point out the flaws in our systems and bring down prominent ‘successful’ individuals who arrived in their positions unethically, or who use unethical means to get results.

In our modern myths, heroes almost always have to contend with massive amounts of peer pressure. The entire genre of ‘underdog’ stories is based on this concept, and it’s present in our most prominent franchises. The X-Men, Captain America, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Elsa the Ice Queen, Frodo Baggins, Batman, Arrow, Shrek, and Katniss Everdeen are all subject to extraordinary amounts of societal pressure to just give up and not stand up for what they know is right.

It would be easy to look at these successful (in some cases) heroes and say that because we have them in our collective mythologies that standing up for ethical behavior is the thing we encourage in people, but the reason these stories are so successful and engrossing is because they are so unique, because fighting the flow is hard. These heroes have to give up substantial freedoms and potential futures to do the right thing. Katniss pretty much commits an entire country to war, and sees most of her community bombed to ashes. Frodo barely makes it to Mount Doom, then basically gives up on life. Luke Skywalker probably comes out the best–I think he ends up a wandering Jedi or some such (I’m really looking forward to The Force Awakens). Captain America wants to stand up for the rights of supers who want to protect their families from retribution by hiding their identities, and ends up watching his friends die in the resulting Civil War.

The risks of taking a stand aren’t lost on normal humans without super powers. Edward Snowden is only now being redeemed by U.S. courts, and whistle blowers in general get the short stick, being unable to find a job and often face bankruptcy after they leave the companies that have wronged society. Courage is rarely rewarded in today’s world.

But surely, shouldn’t police officers (paragons of virtue, dedicated to the public welfare!) stand up for what is right even when it’s difficult? Frank Serpico is one of the very very few. Has anyone else stood up like he did forty years ago? I haven’t noticed anyone particular, and police shootings of people in suspicious circumstances go largely ignored, especially when the person shot was black. State legislatures are reluctant to buy and use body cameras, even though they apparently are really helpful, and potentially could help good cops to reinforce good decisions just as they would point out bad cops who make poor ones. Because of this lack of oversight and systemic problems, abused communities have started taking action, thus the riots in Baltimore, Oakland, and Ferguson in recent years. There will be more to come unless our police forces take serious stock of their own houses and start behaving like the people we need them to be.

Even health providers are taking advantage of their positions of power (see link above) to suggest unnecessary surgeries and tests that serve mainly to line pockets of providers, not to actually improve the quality of life of the people they have pledged to serve.

In the end all of this bad behavior comes down to peer pressure. Pressure to feed cases to other doctors who then feed cases back to you. Pressure to not rock the boat when some officers are taking bribes, or when they are roughing up captives. Pressure to stay silent when circumventing the law in the hope of catching an elusive bogeyman terrorist. Pressure to make movies like we did last year, because making one that was racially sensitive is just too expensive, and might not be as funny to the general public. Pressure to underwrite a loan or a deal even when the repayment is likely to fail, because you need to make loan volume this month.

This peer pressure has a particularly dark side that can eventually result in police states: dictatorships like Nazi Germany or the U.S.S.R. where human rights go out the window in favor of doing what is right for the state and the leaders, in the name of not rocking the boat. For every hundred-thousand followers, there might be one Oskar Schindler (maybe), and that is not near enough.

This is something that has irritated me for a long time, and one of the reasons I left Christianity behind. I’m not going to go into my personal choice here, but atheism (not recognizing or following any god) appealed to me because it was my way of saying that I would not succumb to the pressure to believe something that no one can prove exists.

Religions are particularly peer-pressurey (new word, coined here first!). In the Middle East, atheists face a steep climb out of obscurity, even though their obvious non-religious behaviors are tolerated openly. But that’s not where it ends, is it? Christians, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and a host of sects and mini religions out there all try to prop up themselves by putting others down.

What weapon do they use in that battle? Peer pressure, mostly. Some are more violent, true. Those occasions make the news, but the day-to-day influences from media and friends are what really cements the deal. “God bless you,” said when you sneeze. “One nation under God,” in our pledge of allegiance (I’m more than happy to pledge allegiance to do my best to serve my country and the people in it, but not to someone else’s mythical god). Kids required to go to churches where they are subject to more training and pressure.

These tools are endemic in our society, and they are starting to come into the light, but people are still making excuses for them, like the police officers whose cultures have highly imbalanced policing policies that unjustly target black communities.

The world around us is full of ideas, and the people around us are full of advice. Some of that peer-pressurey advice is so culturally accepted that it’s nearly invisible unless you’re consciously looking for it.

There is a way to overcome these issues, but it’s not by eschewing peer pressure. You cannot become an ‘atheist to society’ you cannot help fix problems in lending or policing or health care by dis-believing in them. They exist, they need solutions, and more importantly, they need a positive, caring, compassionate culture.

Building a culture of compassion–essentially a network of peer pressure around treating people well and doing what is right, rewarding people who stand up for injustice–is the only way out of this funk we find ourselves in lately.

Fortunately, there are some companies, both for-profit and non-profit, that are making this a priority. Find out who they are and vote with your cash.

For governments, it’s tougher. Most governments make lots of talk about how ethical they are, but like the U.S. Marines, when push comes to shove, it’s very difficult for a junior officer or enlisted soldier to take a stand against injustice, abuse of power, or poor decision making. They’re trained to take orders, not to challenge, not to think for themselves. Police agencies inherit many of these ideas, because they get lots of recruits from the military, and have similar training policies. How do you combat this in government, police, and military agencies? That’s a tougher question. The leadership needs to come from the top. Mr. President, I’m looking at you, but not just you, I’m also looking at police commissioners, generals, and mayors. The president has taken a stand to allow gays into the military and to build better health care incentives in the Affordable Care Act, but we need lower-level leaders to pick up this baton and carry it even further.

I’m also looking at the public. Can we support leaders in government who have admitted to failure and let them try something new? Can we let them try to build a culture of compassion? Would they even try? I don’t know, but I feel like it’s what we desperately need today.

We need to make peer pressure work for us, not against us.

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How to Change the Internet in One Easy Clickbait Step

There are two types of internet out there today. There are Quiet Sites and there are Screaming Sites. You probably know which I mean. Quiet Sites have articles, maybe a few links, maybe one or two pictures, some links to Facebook and Twitter, and a copyright notice. No biggie, they say their peace and they let you go about your business.

Then there are the Screaming Sites. These sites have mined the actual behaviors of users and concluded that we (the general public) really want the following:

Clickbait headlines

Clickbait images

More clickbait on the sites with purported content

Small, easily disgestable content blurbs

Listicles

Pop-up hover ads

Video content cut from old television and movies

Happy images of the champions of the human condition

Fortunately, those sites know exactly what we want, and they know how long we read, how many follow clicks we provide, and how many advertising impressions we are likely to endure in our quest for that one tidbit of new information.

So, my advice to you if you want to change the internet is to watch your own habits and to be very careful where you go. If a site delivers a lackluster article full of fluff that makes you feel unfulfilled after reading it, get out of there fast! Chances are, all the other articles linked from that site will deliver the same thrill of almost getting what you want.

Don’t do it. Be strong. Vote with your time. Demand better writing and better content. Together, we can change the world!

Bwahahahahahahahaha!

 

More Women, Please

The Bechdel Test has been on my mind recently. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a simple little ditty you can sing in your sleep, namely:


1. The story/movie/whatever has two named women characters
2. Who have a conversation (meaning that they both talk to each other)
3. About something, not a man.

Anything. Shoes. Genetic manipulation of sapling DNA. Clouds of choking dust. The freaking wall color. Anything. (For a list of movies, see BechdelTest.com)


As they say in some commentaries, this is neither a guarantee of a balanced story nor of a story that has women as compelling or powerful characters. However, it’s a start, you know? It’s a start.

Because, when you apply the opposite rule, you get like 100% of movies and 100% of books ever written, except maybe Thelma and Louise (which I haven’t seen, so I’m just making things up, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie or read a book that did not have two male characters having a conversation about not women).

Romantic comedies are particularly bad at this, I’ve noticed. There actually are women characters in romcoms, but they don’t often bother to discuss anything other than the problem getting or having a relationship with a man. Unless it’s a lesbian comedy, of which I can think of like one independent film. Maybe two. Which is sad.

I think one of the problems is that there’s not a lot of competition on this front yet, despite the whole women’s movement. There’s not a lot of content out there yet that goes the other way. Because I believe that to obtain balance, we need to have content available that shows the other side of the spectrum, dramatically. Books and movies that minimize the male voice as much as possible.

Why? Well, because in my personal world, I work with women. I work with a lot of women. I live with women. Believe it or not, I respect my friends and co-workers who are women. And I rarely, if ever, discuss men with them. Seriously.

So, if they say you should write about what you know, I really should be writing about women running multi-billion-dollar Fortune 500 companies. I should be writing about girls who build things out of cardboard and duct tape. I should be writing about women who create cooking and entertainment shows on YouTube and become famous.

Because that’s life today. I’m just kind of sad that our fiction in many ways hasn’t caught up to the reality of the world of fact around us.

I’d also like to see more women in video games. And no, I’m not talking about cheesecakey women who fight with big guns, have bigger guns hiding under their clothes, and look like they should be posing for a glamour shot on a nerd’s shelf. I’m talking about women like in The Walking Dead video game, who try to navigate the zombie apocalypse. I’m talking about Mass Effect, where my Commander Shepherd can be female, has women on her team, and hardly ever talks about anything other than the mission.

So, if you’re like me and you want to see more of this stuff, buy it. Promote it. Talk about it. Because it’s all about us. We’ve got to make our voices heard, every day.

Wow. Soap box. Step off, dude…

Back to your not-so-regularly scheduled commentary…

Wouldn’t it be cool?

Oh, it totally would be cool to have Random House distributing my book. I just found this  2012 Random House video fervently explaining why it’s great to have a major publisher back you as a writer of any sort. 

I totally agree. They seemingly do everything for you – they provide you with an in with the major media networks, they have relationships with book bloggers, they gather audiences to book readings and create viral promotions. They even help you edit your book!

I’m really not being snarky there (well, maybe a little). The things that Random House and the other major publishing houses do is truly awesome. Those groups give your work quite a boost. Some say (although I do not trust these wily rumors) that some publishers will actually pay you to write a book before you have written it.

Now that’s awesome. I wish I could go to work and get paid in advance for my Motivational Technologist gig. Alas, my salary gets paid to me a week or so after I deliver the Motivation or the Technology.

Oh well.

Let’s apply some Motivational Technologist know how and common sense to Random House’s claims.

First, let’s examine the concept that major publishers provide good editorial support for most authors. Random House, according to Yahoo Finance, has over 200 publishing arms. Despite their large size and global reach, they only did $2.2 Billion in revenue in 2011.

That’s revenues, not profit. Much of that gets paid back to authors, who are de-facto contract-employees, but not noted as such. Fortunately, they don’t have to pay most of those authors benefits. By comparison, Costco, a much less sexy operation, but a favorite investment of mine, did $87 Billion in revenues that year (and pays benefits).

Costco? Why compare them? You are right to ask. Well… They employ 170,000 employees. And they’re profitable. They help millions of customers and thousands of manufacturers the world over. If you’ve visited a Costco, you know that it’s fairly hard to get help from one of those diligent employees, simply because of the number of transactions they do. They even sell some Random House books on the side.

Random House reportedly has 5,343 employees. This is prior to them taking over Penguin, though. Still. These employees range from printers to editors. Not all of them are editors. Each editor’s time is restricted. They have to eat and sleep, right? Need time with their mistresses and time to go clubbing in Manhattan, right?

How many books can these editors cook in a year? According to their website, 11,000.

Interesting. How many books came out last year? I’m not really sure, and quick searches yielded zilch (let me know if you know), but I can tell you this. There are, at the time of this writing, 1.8 Million books available on Amazon Kindle.

Here’s a little math for you. 11,000/1,800,000 = 0.6%

Now, I will admit, Kindle does have some older books. I mean, it’s not like Amazon just started selling ebooks a few years ago and not all of the old ones have converted to digital…

Oh. Yeah. They did. Still, some of these books are older. So, what’s current?

Well, in the last 90 days, new releases totaled 170,000. If that is a fairly constant rate, we can multiply by 4 to estimate total new releases for a year. That’s about 680,000 publications. Not precise, but it’ll do for a comparison.

Let’s see… 11,000/680,000 = 2%

So. I guess we all know where the 2% get their editorial services.

Please don’t take this the wrong way all you awesome editors, printers, and publicists out there. You have great taste, great resources, and can be a huge help to any author in polishing a product and marketing it. The thing is, you simply don’t have the time to be a help to every author.

You can and do help about 2%. I’m not one. That’s ok. And in a way, I respect that you want to share with authors and readers more about your business. We all want to be understood.

I hope you will also respect that the other 98% of us also want to be read and heard, and you’re not standing in our way anymore. And I, for one, believe that’s a good thing.




Analysis paralysis and more

Well, at long last, I’ve made a few steps toward my next works.

First, I’ve got pages written for my analysis book. I always wanted to put down in book form some of what I’ve learned working with my friends and colleagues at Wells Fargo. I’ve met many people over the years who seemed to be interested in analytical work but didn’t know how to get into the job, and didn’t think they were technically astute enough to make a career in analysis. Hopefully this book can help connect me to those folks, and maybe even give some decent advice. Regardless, it’s going to be rather funny, because all of the case studies I’m putting in are rather risque. I can’t help it.

Second, I just had a comforting breakthrough on my outline for Demigod Resistance (current title), the second Demigod Chronicles novel. I wouldn’t say that it’s a done deal; you never know what will happen to the plot when the characters get hold of it. Hopefully their ad-libbing will be contained. I’m on track to have the novel finished this year, should all go well.

Third, I procrastinated on writing today in order to put together the cover for Demigod Resistance. You can have a look at it on Facebook. While you’re there, hit me with a ‘Like,’ eh?

Special thanks to my daughter for collaborating with me on the cover design. That girl has a good eye. When she’s older, I bet she’s gonna to be my illustrator.

Top ten inspirations for Demigod Conception

I had a great time with some friends this last weekend and we had some deep conversations about what a weird world we live in, and how hard it can be to get by from day to day, especially if you’re poor, out of work, addicted, or homeless. Think about other people when you cast your votes this season – I don’t care who you vote for, so long as you do it with good conscience and measured thought.

Demigod Conception - Demigod Chronicles IWe also had a much shallower, but more fun conversation about what inspired me to write my book. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have inspirations – many, in fact. Some people, some were events, some were things I know I like or dislike. However, I don’t remember many of them, as I wrote Demigod Conception over such a long period.

So, here’s a rundown of some of the main ideas I wanted to get across, in a top ten list, because who doesn’t love lists? Before anyone gets angry and says they hate any of these, remember: My book. Not yours. That said, feel free to disagree in the comments below. :D

10) No Royalty. (Not royalties, I like those.) I dislike kings, dukes, barons, and princes. Queens are okay, but only if they’re gay. Princesses are not okay, neither are duchesses, nor baronesses. I hate knights, errant or straight. Unless they guard bridges. Royalty bothers me. I’m American, okay? We’re born this way now.

9) No teenage boy coming of age story. *Yawn*. Read it too many times. Also, I dislike the awkward non-sexual crush they must have on the only cute but unobtainable girl in their village.

8) My hero wants to go home. One of my favorite facets of heroic literature is the uncomfortable hero. They are thrust into their position and must decide: will they take up the challenge?

7) Battles aren’t won by warriors and feats of strength. Not always, anyhow. Battles are sometimes won by logic, timing, and cunning. Remember the invasion of Iraq? We hardly shot a bullet there because we had great timing and troop movement.

6) I want a female hero! When I started writing this, I felt like you could only find female heroes in Anne McCaffrey fantasies. There wasn’t even a Buffy back then. I was dying for a powerful female character willing to bust some heads. Kyla fit the bill.

5) No weak women. I love Ursula LeGuin’s work. I would love to have that kind of talent. But, I can at least follow her lead and promote my female characters to the helm. I have a baddie, a hero, and several female side characters that I hope are strong parts of the story. I’m particularly fond of Cameo, who will take a much bigger role in the sequel.

4) I want action. I remember reading a book where the main character had an entire battle described like this: “Stepping crow, cross-sweep. Upward crane, flying cheese-cloth. Split the silk with dragon tooth.” The author had jumped the shark for me, and had been watching waaaay too much kung-fu. I love kung-fu movies, don’t get me wrong. But this is a book. There’s no cool action on screen to back up the fancy-snappy names for the moves. The reader has to see it. The author must describe it. That’s the arrangement. I decided I would have action in my stories. Always. If I ever make a story with no action, slap me.

3) People are complex. We’re both experts and novices, perfect and flawed. Even people I dislike are complex, and deserve respect. Everyone’s a hero in their own story.

2) Black holes are awesome. (Think about it. There’s a black hole MacGuffin in the book.)

1) Bald people rule.