An Evening of Awesome redux

First, I want to say that I wasn't all that scared.  I was surprised, because it seemed like a situation that ought to have been really scary.  But getting there went very smoothly, and there wasn't really anything to be particularly terrified of. The show, by the way, was awesome.

This isn't going to be a bery directly informative post, because I don't really know how to report on something like this.  It's kind of a blur.  A big, extraordinary blur.

I really hope the opening bit was unplanned.  Or, rather, because it couldn't possibly have been totally unplanned, I hope Hank really hadn't told John he was doing it.  (John came out to give an opening speech, and Hank started singing a jingle-like routine about Carnegie Hall.  Then he kept cutting in over John's narration, and John seemed genuinely surprised, and a little annoyed, by it.  It was very funny.)

John's speech after that, which was obviously planned and fairly serious, was also incredibly moving.  More than Hank's goofy singing, I think John's speech set the tone for the night.  (Hank's singing seriously contributed to the tone, though, which is a very good thing.)

Here's a link directly to the right part of the video.  Unfortunately, apparently YouTube no longer makes it easy to link directly to partway through a youTube video, so if you're watching this at the embed below, it's at 46:00.

A recurring theme throughout the night is the idea that art isn't about convincing people who disagree with it that they're wrong, it's about letting people who are already in the kind of place that the book is about, that they're not alone.  John talks about it in that segment, listening to the Mountain Goats reminded me of that idea over and over again, and Neil Gaiman (who, holy crap, was there) talked about it when he talked about the sense of security he gets around the writing that makes him feel most exposed, because the response he gets, from thousands of people, is "I thought I was the only one."

By the way, the musical guests were all awesome.  (I nearly wrote "Apart from Hank," but that's not fair.  Hank is awesome.  I just didn't think of him as a musical guest.)  I had heard the Mountain Goats a bit before, not a whole bunch, but seeing them live is really amazing, and makes me want to look into more of their work.  One of their songs, "Love, Love, Love," has kept me thinking for a while now about that idea of art meeting you where you're at -- all their songs, but this one in particular, seem like the kinds of songs that would be perfect for someone who's at a place where it's what they need to hear.  They pull this off, it seems, by being near-completely inscrutible to people who don't necessarily need them.  Personally, I keep feeling like I'm on the edge of knowing what that particular song is talking about, which is weirdly annoying.

I had never heard the other musical guest, Kimya Dawson, before.  Well, that's not entirely true.  Looking into it today I discovered that she's the singer from the Mouldy Peaches, who I have heard before.  But I'd never heard any of her solo stuff, and it's really incredibly amazing.  She performed "I Like Giants" and "Same Shit/Complicated," and in doing so convinced me that I need to listen to way more of her music.

Did I mention, by the way, that Neil Gaiman was there?  It was crazy.  He actually tweeted that he wished he could have been there during the show, while he was backstage in order to secure the secrecy of his appearance.  He was on stage with Hannah Hart and John and Hank Green for Question Tuesday, where Hannah asked Hank questions and Neil asked John questions, and mysterious voices from back stage gave warnings about time running out.

Below this paragraph is an embed of the show -- the show part doesn't start for like a half an hour, but it's okay, you can skip the static screen that's part of the first huge chunk of the livestream video.  Nothing important happens then.

Don't forget to be awesome.

Evening of Awesome

If all has gone according to plan, as of this post's publication I am in New York.  Probably, I'm in the process of walking from the bus station to Carnegie Hall, for John and Hank Green's Evening of Awesome.  And if all has gone according, not to plan, but to expectation, I am terrified. Not of New York in particular, but of being in a situation where I am very far from home with very limited options if things don't go quite according to plan.  It's particularly stressful because I'm hoping to have a very good night, and if that doesn't happen, it's going to be more disappointing than usual.  Bad nights are one thing, bad nights during which I've spent several hours in Carnegie Hall watching two people I admire talk is quite another thing.

To be honest I don't even begin to know what to expect, so I can hardly blog about it in advance.  In consequence, the blogging about the Evening of Awesome will have to wait until tomorrow, Wednesday, some time in the evening.  And probably written kind of loopily, because I don't get home unitl noon of the following day.

TEDxTalk: The Paper Town Academy

How was I unaware that John Green has a TED talk?

This is a fantastic talk.  It gets at exactly how I feel about learning -- it's not about collecting a catalog of disconnected ideas in a great big mental list, it's about mapping out the territory in your mind to guide you in learning new things.

There isn't much else to say about it, it just deserves as many views as it can get.

Spoilers!

I could have sworn I'd written about this before, but I can't find any older posts here.  Maybe I just linked it on Facebook.  Oh well. There's scientific research that very strongly suggests a counter-intuitive truth about spoilers:  That they improve the reading experience.  This is on my mind because Boing Boing has pointed out another study demonstrating this claim.

As a writer, and a reader, I've thought hard about the issues around spoilers.  In general, I try to avoid them as much as possible.  I once attempted to persuade someone to read American Gods, pitching it as: "It's about a guy named Shadow, who gets out of prison.  On his way back home, he meets a strange man called Mr. Wednesday -- after that, things get weird."

If you've read the book, you know that description barely even covers the contents of the first chapter, and certainly doesn't capture the heart of what the book is about.  And when I think about having described it like that, I can't help but feel like I was wrong.

Because American Gods is one of my favorite books.  I've read it several times.  But I knew it existed for about six years before I ever picked it up -- and it wasn't just a complete absence of interest.  I was intimidated, because I knew it was supposed to be challenging and elaborate and I didn't know anything else about it.  That made it scary.  It made it hard to want to read.

On the other hand, the books I find easiest to pick up are the ones where I know exactly what's going to happen -- Steampunk books still have a damn-near cookie cutter structure, and Terry Pratchett is always reliable for a particular kind of funny, social commentary, and affirmation of a worldview I want to hear celebrated, via poetic justice through a heavily metaphorically resonant plot.

I know that American Gods is a better book if you know what's going on.  There are subtle foreshadowings and clever buildups that seem totally banal on your first read-through, but are like bombshells if you know how everything ends.  The second read is just better.  That's true of every Gaiman book I've read, and every Pratchett book I've re-read.  (A lot of Pratchett, I've only gotten through once.  But I've read The Truth three times, and Going Postal seven.)

Yet, still.

I can't bring myself to spoil books for people, especially not without a huge amount of forewarning.  And I don't fully understand why, but I have the beginnings of a theory.

Reading a book you already understand a little bit is very nearly always a better experience than reading it the first time.  Certainly, any great book is better on the second read than the first, and on the third read than the second, and so on.  Stories by brilliant writers are better when they're seriously considered in the fullness of their context and outside the linear fact of their narrative than they are if read as though you were simply living the life of the narrator once, the way we live our own lives.

But that better experience is available an unlimited number of times, in whatever context and however much illumination any reader wants.  Once a reader knows the story, they can explore it from a huge number of perspectives.

The fresh read, the version of the story that you only live once, is available only that one time, only the first time you read a book.  And that opportunity is so fragile that it can be broken even without getting to the book.

We use stories to build the narrative of our experience, and we use stories to create shared experiences within our communities.  [Spoiler Alert Final Fantasy VII] There's a whole generation of gamers who experienced a shocking, tragic moment at the end of the first disk of Final Fantasy VII when Aeris is killed by Sephiroth, permanently.  That kind of shared experience is nearly impossible to replicate in such scale outside fiction, and I think a lot of people, myself included, are afraid that spoiling stories takes away the power of a story to deliver that experience.

The subsequent reads, watches, or plays of a work of fiction are deeply personal experiences, and they have more power to enrich the lives of the audience than the first pass ever does.  But the first time through is the work's best shot at creating a community -- at giving people a shared, lived experience that connects them in a meaningful way.

The moment of beautiful surprise in the middle of Zombieland, the way The Fault In Our Stars ends, the way understanding builds itself sideways in the City and the City, these things create the experiences in fiction that connect us.  I don't know if that would still work if stories were spoiled more often, and I think a lot of people (myself included) aren't quite ready to risk trying it out.

John Green on Brushing Teeth

I'm writing this here because (a.) it's a question-and-answer on John Green's Tumblr, and you can't reblog question-and-answers on Tumblr, and (b.) it's really good advice about the nature of stress. John answered a question on his Tumblr about brushing one's teeth.  This is a topic he's discussed before, and he's experienced in the field of discussing dental hygiene failures.  The whole post is quite good, but I want to draw attention to a particular segment:

So here’s the best way to overcome [your mental block] in my experience: You have to acknowledge that the thing you are about to do, even though there is nothing technically difficult about it, is extremely hard for you to do at this particular moment. You know that it is extremely hard because you have failed to do it on many previous occasions.

You don’t need to think about why it is so difficult; you just have to accept that it is difficult.

(I have to do this all the time when it comes to doing the dishes, which is not a hard chore, but I get very anxious about it and overwhelmed and my brain just says THE DISHES WILL BE THE HARDEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED, and I have to tell my brain: Okay. You are right. The dishes will be very hard. But I am going to do them! I am going to do this very difficult thing!)

So then once you have accepted in a non-judgmental way that for whatever reason this thing you have to do is very difficult for you, you can then psych yourself up to do it, and then you do it: You’re brushing your teeth, and you spend a solid minute or two brushing all the surfaces, and then you spit and rinse your mouth out, and you have just done a really difficult thing.

[emphasis John's]

John really nails, in this post, what it's like to have anxiety.  When it's light, there might be only a few things that feel overwhelmingly difficult.  When it's bad, it can feel like almost everything is prohibitively hard.  But, the important thing to note is that it actually is difficult.  You're not just imagining it -- well, okay, you could probably characterize it as imagining it.  But that fact, because you can't un-imagine it, adds genuine difficulty to the task.

Figment: a writer's community?

John Green referenced Figment.com in his latest vlogbrothers video, claiming it's a community for beginning writers.  I'm arguably a beginning writer -- I've been doing it for a while, but I haven't published anything -- and I really need to start using online communities more, so I decided to check this one out. First thing:  Why do websites make it so hard to find their 'about' pages?  The links on Figment's top bar are: Home, Figment library, Features, Groups, Contests, Forums, The daily fig, Sign up!.  None of those sound super-informative, and the FAQ is only linked in tiny text way at the bottom.  That's great, but a lot of sites don't even have a bottom -- you scroll, and they just generate more content.[1. I know my site doesn't have an about page yet.  I realize this makes me a hypocrite.  I'm working on it.]

That said, the FAQ is pretty informative.  It sounds like a fun, immersive community, and it was founded by a couple of New Yorker writers, which leads me to believe they're probably pretty good about copyright.

The sign up page looks pretty straightforward, asking for your name,

(We encourage you to use your full real name. Ex: Barbara Walters)

email, and password, and date of birth and gender.  The only options for gender are Male, Female and Not Telling, which doesn't seem super-inclusive -- like, you have to be one or the other, but it's okay if you prefer not to say.  Better than just male and female, though.

Not super-thrilled about one of the clauses in the Publications section of the terms and services, either:

Unless otherwise provided in the terms and conditions of a Special Promotion, you will retain all of your ownership rights in your Content. You do, however, hereby grant us an irrevocable, non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, publish, publicly perform, and publicly display your Content, your name, and your screen name on the Website and elsewhere in any media now known or hereafter devised, along with the right to excerpt, analyze, and index your Content. Figment will not use your Publications in an anthology without your prior, written permission.

I might use this community to practice a bit and have some fun, but I definitely won't be posting anything here that I'm super-attached to.

Also, in section 10, there's a clause about not granting warranties that's in ALL CAPS FOR ALMOST AN ENTIRE PARAGRAPH, WHICH IS QUITE A LONG ONE.  This seems to have been for emphasis, but makes it really hard to read.

It also says (if I'm reading it correctly) that I can never, ever sue them if I sign up for the site.

I will update on further explorations as they become relevant.

Ethics and the Advertising Model for Web Financing

The Vlogbrothers have had a lot to say on YouTube in the past few days about the relationship between advertising and content on the internet -- the tricky ethical terrain, the financial needs of creators, and the fact that we all want this whole internet thing to stay free. I haven't known what I wanted to say about this, until I watched Hank's song today, and more specifically, the rant afterwards:

The American eyeball -- more generally, the affluent eyeball, and yes, you are affluent if you have an internet connection fast enough to watch YouTube videos -- is one of the most valuable commodities in existence on Earth right now.So valuable, in fact, that many amazing services can be offered, for free, in exchange for nothing more than those eyeballs.

I don't like advertisement. [...]  But the internet is built on the idea that this stuff should be free, so that's problematic, because advertising is then the only model.  And if you want YouTube to be free, and yet continue employing thousands of people, you're gonna have to look at ads.  But if you don't want YouTube videos to be supported by ads, and you don't want them to be free, then we should talk about that.

If there's a way to make an online company that doesn't rely on users providing their psyche and their behavioral habits to be put into a collective commons that is then auctioned off literally to the highest bidder, then let's have that conversation.

(Emphasis mine)

For the most part, I'm okay with advertising.  I feel conflicted about the fact that advertisers get to practice psychological manipulation on us, but I don't mind getting to watch YouTube for free in exchange for occasionally being annoyed by having to click another button before I watch my video after waiting a whole five seconds.

For a lot of people right now, it seems like the solution is just to feel conflicted.  Some people (like, recently, Tom Milsom) decide to forsake advertising revenue altogether, but a lot of people choose to go with the ads, hope they do relatively minimal cultural damage, and try to create art that's good enough that it's worth passing ads to see it.

I think we can do better than that, and I think we should -- and there are three levels on which I would like to see change.

Individual creators' control

Artists should have the right to decide what kind of ads they want on their content.  I imagine an interface in which creators would be able to select particular ads to put on their content, specify categories to let through, specify particular categories to exclude, or just automatically take the highest-paying ads that they have access to.  Advertisers, too, would have the option to make their ads available to everyone, or blacklist or whitelist particular users.

Institution-level ad curation

At an organization-level, websites that rely on artists to create the content that makes their site valuable should do some amount of broad filtration.  The parameters by which they filter should be explicitly stated in an easy-to-understand format so content creators know what they can expect in terms of advertising.

Case:  Project Wonderful

The poster-child example for these first two levels is Project Wonderful, an ad company designed for artists by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics.

From their website's about page:

They use a mechanism called 'infinite auction,' where advertisers bid on how much they're willing to pay for ad display time, and the highest bidder is automatically charged the lowest amount of money that will beat all the other bids.  Advertisers are only ever charged for the time their ads spend up on the site, and creators get the most anyone's willing to pay for their ad space at the moment.

I don't think that the Project Wonderful system could be directly transposed onto YouTube, but if they were to renovate their advertising system, this would be a good place to get inspiration.

Government-level advertising standards

This category is pretty self-explanatory:  we need better legislation protecting us from misleading and exploitative ads.  I wrote on Wednesday about the DSHEA, a bill passed in 1994 that makes it easier for companies to lie about the medicinal value of their products, and harder for the FDA to catch them doing it.  Food and medicine aren't the only areas where we're not very well protected against false or misleading claims.

This isn't something that individual artists or companies can do anything about directly, but if we adopt more proactive control over what we advertise, we might be able to start breaking down this cultural assumption that ads are entirely good or entirely bad, opening the way for popular political support of legislation that helps to manage false advertising effectively.

Economic drawbacks

Of course, if all my suggestions are implemented, it will necessarily decrease ad revenue for creators and networks.  The more selection creators have, the more the market gets divided and the more intelligently individual advertisers can direct their money.  When networks and governments impose quality control, the effectiveness of manipulative and dishonest ads are severely crippled, so the ads that make their owners the most money, and therefore are worth spending the most money airing, aren't legal anymore.  As John Green explains in his video on ads, You ARE The Product,

Corporations actually have a really good idea of how advertisements affect your behavior.  In fact, there are many thousands of people who are working full time to make sure that the ads you see are worth more than they cost.  To put it succinctly, almost by definition, advertisers buy you for less than you're worth.

I would argue, though, that the dip in revenue would be worth the gains, because in the long term, the more we, as a nation and as a world community, make our information standards, the more thoughtful and responsible we will become.  People are at least in part a reflection of their media landscape, and a more intelligent media landscape means a more intelligent citizenry, a better-run country, and ultimately, a positive-sum world community that will increase value for everyone.

Awesome John Green Quote

John Green, elder Vlobrother and author of novels, writes a secret blog that's only for people who have read his latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars, and want to participate in a spoilerific discussion of the book's contents.  Here's a link to that blog.  I'm not giving you the password, or telling you how to find it. He said something in one of his answers on that blog recently, which I'm going to clip massively out of context, but I don't believe I'm cutting away much meaning.  Anyway, it's a quote I'd like to remember, and maybe make needlepoint pillows with it on them, and since it's from such an obscure source I wanted to create a clear path back to it.

There's not much to say about the quote that's not specific to The Fault in Our Stars, except that it's pretty clearly implied that he's talking about writing ideas, not valuable objects.

I am always talking to people and trying to listen to them so that I can steal from them.

- John Green

And as a chaser, here's a Vlogbrothers video about being quoted out of context.

Reviews: Will Grayson, Will Grayson; Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Today has been a very reading-ish day.  I started it off finishing Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, one of Douglas Adams's masterpieces.*  Here's the review I posted on my goodreads account:

This book is amazing in so many ways. It starts off being funny, and that doesn't stop pretty much for the entire book. Then it gets a little confusing, but in a good way, and then sort of chords of sense and organization start peppering throughout the book, until it hits a crescendo of weird logic in the most beautifully well written way possible.

Then I started reading Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which is about two teens in the Chicago area who happen to have the same name.  I don't know if it was the way their writing works together or if both John Green and David Levithan are just that brilliant,** but this book never gives you a point where you want to put it down.  Here's my review of that one:

Brilliant book. Packed with angst, but in an incredibly effective and accessible way. Green and Levithan do an amazing job of weaving the deep, resonant subject matter together with the funny, clever and beautiful characters themselves and their interactions. The ideas never overpower the plot, and the plot never overpowers the ideas -- and neither any of the ideas nor any of the characters overpower each other. Absolutely excellent.

I gave both of these books 5 stars, which might suggest that my 5 stars isn't worth much, but I hope it suggests that they're both totally worth reading -- definitely books to get your hands on.

*All of Douglas Adams's books are masterpieces. **I haven't read any of either of their other books, though I intend for that to change.