Customers Aren't Idiots

While driving home over the Thanksgiving weekend, Megan and I talked about our respective retail experiences. I had worked at Waldenbooks/Borders for several years, while she had worked at Borders, Fashion Bug and Weis, a grocery store in the Pennsylvania area. It's not a stretch to say that we're both fairly disillusioned with how things worked in each of the stores, but I don't believe that the retail experience has to be bad for either the customer, or the people working there. There are certainly plenty of examples of places that are fairly decent to work for, and there were points in both of our stores where we felt that we enjoyed what we did.

The crux of the problem seems to lie in a band between the upper management to direct the strategic concerns for whatever company you're working with, and the people on the ground level: the middle manager level seems to be the biggest issue, because it allows for the priorities, directions and strategy from the upper echelons to be interpreted, translated and carried out, and in each of our cases, this was where things went very wrong.

We both had several stories of how our individual stores had fairly competent people working in them: employees and sales people who genuinely wanted to sell the products that we were selling, with a number of additional requirements handed down from up on high. In my own experience, booksellers had the directions to not only greet a customer when they entered the door, but to follow them around the store to be available. If a person asked for a book, we were to lead them to the book, place it in their hands, and do the same for any number of recommended titles. At the register, there was the usual script of asking if the customer had a loyalty card (Rewards Card, sorry), and if they were interested in any of the numerous 'key items' that were located near the register.

If I was a customer walking into the store for the first time, I'd never return.

Stores that sell non-essential items like books, films, clothing and other related things generally mean that the customer isn't pressured to buy something - they're there voluntarily, rather than by necessity, and as such, the customer should be treated as someone other than a source of income for the company: stores such as Borders, F.Y.E., Fashion Bug and numerous others have the wrong approach by forcing items into the hands of customers. The difference that I can see here is in how the customer is viewed by the respective companies: rather than a sales focus, the people on the ground, in the stores should adopt a better customer service model that would allow them to accomplish the same goal without harassing the customers.

I cannot begin to count how many people refused, and have gotten annoyed, or even angry at me for asking if they had the Rewards Card. Several years ago, Borders began their rewards card system, which allowed someone with a card to accrue a certain percentage of their purchases for the holidays and for every hundred dollars, they'd earn $5 back. It's a good system, and I can see the logic behind it: people who use a card will have an incentive to return.

The problem here comes with the requirements and quotas laid down by the company: with a finite pool of people to receive the card, the percentages of new signups will come down over a set period of time. The opposite reaction occurred: quotas went up, and several of my friends were fired as a result, for either signing up blank cards, using the same one over again, to keep up with the demand. Looking back, it's a problem that existed within the company, without taking into consideration the human element: the program turned from something that enticed customers (and continued to do so for the people who did sign up) but also estranged those who weren't interested in the card from day one. The card and the policy behind it failed to adapt to the changes in the environment: as more people signed up, better, more realistic expectations should have been set, and further goals for retention should have been examined.

The problem here, and with the instructions to place books in people's hands, seem to have come from a company that looked only at the numbers, rather than the people who were coming into the store. While I suspect that such practices worked; pointing out books to customers will gain a couple of sales, and should be continued, this only further reinforced the idea that more aggressive policies will equal a resulting sales figure. That comes across to me as being extremely shortsighted: costumers, fatigued with pressure from an aggressive sales front, will go elsewhere, so that they're not bothered or pressured into getting things that they don't want. From where I stood in the company, it seemed as though the management on the district level used a heavy hand when it came to selling their products: push as much out through the door, rather than retaining a population of customers that would return to the store because of the selection of products, the attitude of the sales staff and someone who was satisfied out the door.

As an employee there, I had very little customer service training: no poorly acted videos, program, probationary period, with little idea of the goals and ins and outs of the company as it stood. Quality customer service comes with the people at the front, and the goals that were established for them. Essentially, we were the people handing over the books to the people who wanted them, with little interest in anything else.

There are other companies out there that have done things far differently: Apple, AT&T, Zappos and Netflix all come to mind, as their models are more oriented towards customer satisfaction, rather than sales. Through the job that I currently have, I've attended several webinars and read up on the subject, and it's clear that any business - especially in an environment where consumers are more discriminating with their money. These companies, either in their stores, or over the phone (AT&T is horrid over the phone) are generally very good with their front of the line sales - this breaks down a bit depending on the issue, but for the most part, these places are ones that I've had fairly pleasant dealings with.

Such interactions, with people, rather than an anonymous sales figure or customer service representative are essential. People react positively within their own networks, and generally trust sales and information received from people who they know personally: this is one of the biggest strengths of using social media (and utilizing it well), because people will listen to their friends, and will talk about issues. The same logic can be applied in stores, with a customer sales person that works to make the customer happy, rather than simply filling the company's bottom line. Essentially, information and innovation needs to move from the sales floor up, with a staff that has the latitude to work as needed, rather than from top down requirements. Store and company policy should be informed by the experiences that the employees see.

One of the reasons, I suspect, that the larger book stores are facing hard times is because they haven't needed to understand this dynamic when it comes to their customers, because of their size, and as such, haven't fostered a loyal following. People don't tend to stick with the same stores out of loyalty: prices will help, but the experiences that a person has at any given store will help more. If they're not satisfied, they'll move to a competitor. As such, companies need to be able to adapt to the changes in the market place, and the changes in customer requirements. I suspect that sites such as have raised these expectations somewhat: having pretty much every item ever produced available, not to mention remembering what you purchased and searched for last time. This isn't practical in a brick and mortar store, when it comes to stock, but what stores should be doing is focusing on creating a loyal base of customers, one that caters more to what they are looking for, with the intent on bringing them the best experience possible, and going about that in an intelligent fashion. The bottom line comes down to understanding the customer: they're not idiots.

Understanding good customer service is something that will be essential in the future: companies that can't adapt will simply fade away, while others, with more flexibility, will earn the money that the customers are willing to part with. At the end of the day, Megan and my experiences were similar: the front-line sales staff weren’t able to contribute or implement changes that were needed on our level, changes that could have contributed and translated to a better customer experience. It’s no wonder that some of these places aren’t able to compete.

The Green Mountain Parkway and Vermont's Future

I heard a ridiculous commentary on the radio on the drive in this morning. As I cut through the hills between Montpelier and Northfield on Route 12, I listened to a comparison between the Green Mountain Parkway and a road that has been proposed in Tanzania, which would cut across the Serengeti.

In 1931, a highway was proposed the length of the state, similarly to the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina, and had the backing from various federal and state officials, while it was opposed by groups such as the Green Mountain Club. With a couple years of intense debate, the state voted in 1935, with the proposal failing in the House of Representatives, and going down again on town meeting date in 1936. Since then, the state has remained with two segments of highway: I-89, which cuts across West Lebanon and winds its way up towards Canada, travelling through Montpelier and Burlington on the way, while I-91 comes up from Massachusetts and shoots to the north. The Green Mountain parkway would have begun at the bottom of the state at Massachusetts and worked its way up through the middle of the state, connecting the western part of Vermont a bit more efficiently to New York and its namesake city.

I for one, would like to imagine what the state might have been like had the road been built. The 260 mile highway would have likely brought a number of needed jobs to the state during the Great Depression, and would have provided a massive infrastructure base for the future of the state. As the road never progressed beyond the planning state, we'll never know for sure, but after seeing the state have its own issues over the last couple of years, I would have imagined that such a project would have been heplful in the present day. The major population center, Burlington, is serviced by a small international airport (it goes to Canada), but is otherwise difficult to reach because of the lack of direct flights beyond some of the hubs, while reaching Burlington from somewhere like New York City by car means that someone has to drive up through Connecticut, Massachusetts and across the state in order to reach or, or up through New York and over some of the slower state highways. The short version is, it's not a quick trip.

Currently, the state has a difficult time retaining businesses. Companies such as Ben & Jerry's has remained in the state, but with most of its operations outsourced to other states or countries where regulations are a bit more lax. Burton Snowboards has relocated to Switzerland, and years ago, Mad River Canoe relocated away from its namesake Mad River Valley years ago. IBM has downsized some positions, and there have been rumblings that the company might leave at some point in the future, while a major startup, might put its expanding workforce in another state. It's difficult to grow a business here in the state, because of the location (NeW England is somewhat remote anyway), climate and terrain (Cold and mountainous) and its regulatory nature (fairly strict, geared towards preserving the state's image - Not a bad thing). One less avenue for transit is just one more thing against the state's own economy growing.

The reason, Dennis Delaney notes, is that the state would have destroyed a key part of the state's environment and natural beauty in order to make life easier for people. It's an easy enough reason to understand, and something that I support. I love how rural the state is, that its resisted the growth and population that New Hampshire (a state of similar proportions) boasts and that I can look up into the sky to see the stars without an incredible amount of light pollution. That being said, all of those benefits are able to be enjoyed because I'm employed and can enjoy Vermont for what it is, as well as the major source of income that comes from tourist dollars to see the state as it is.

What really gets me annoyed is Delaney's assertion that while infrastructure in Africa would likely help poverty (my understanding is that roads are bad, and much needed) in the continent, this major road project is something that should be shot down because it will harm the beauty of Africa, and the Serengeti. I can understand that to a point, but I would have to ask: how much does beauty compare to the human cost of poverty in the continent, and does the cost of keeping the African wilderness absolutely and completely pristine balance that? I'm not suggesting that the entire region be bulldozed and paved over, nor do I think that Western values will solve all of the problems overseas as a concerned liberal. Natural surroundings are important, should be preserved and protected, intensely. But at the same time, I believe that if there is something that can be done that will positively benefit the lives of people who have very little, it should be done, but it should be done intelligently. Create a roadway that will minimize the impact on the environment, put together protections for the herds that will travel across the road, create an engineering and technical marvel that will leave the road suspended tens of feet in the air.

I have heard the same arguments recently in the state (and out of state) when it comes to wind power farms that could reduce, in part, our dependence on energy technologies that are truly destructive, such as the failing Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant or coal plants that leaves us with acid rain in the hills. People place the intrinsic beauty of their surroundings over projects that are likely essential to the growth of the state and that support the well-being of its citizens. The alternative could very well be something that would be far worse to see: a coal fired plant in Vermont? The expanding slums of a city? How about a state that is forced into further economic problems because it cannot retain a profitable base that would ultimately help the state and its people?

I, for one, do care about the environment of the state, as contrary as it seems to what I just said. However, one needs to be fairly realistic as how we interact with our surroundings, and realize in just what state we can enjoy Vermont's natural beauty. I for one don't believe that the state has to be abandoned and undeveloped to retain the mountains and forests of the state. We just need to be mindful of how everything fits together. Personally, I would have been interested to see a Green Mountain Parkway weaving its way up through the mountains: I-89 is already a gorgeous drive, and that doesn’t really take away from the beauty of the state as a whole. It certainly allows me access to the beauty of the state.

I Care If Han Shot First

I saw this earlier today: "I'm a diehard 'Han shot first fan'."

I couldn't care less. Go away.

Last night, the news broke that LucasFilm Ltd. intended to re-release (rererelease?) the entire Star Wars series to theaters in 3D in 2012. There's no further details beyond that, except that the first film to be released again will be The Phantom Menace. The announcement has the usual complaints and accusations coming, from: "George Lucas is raping my childhood!" to "How can they make it better?! Leave it alone!" which evolves into: "Han shot first!" I just don't care.

Re-Releases aren't intended to be better. The usual argument of any remake, reboot, or extra special edition looks to the quality of the film, which isn't really the right thing to look at. In the case of a complete remake of a film, it's a different interpretation of the same story, generally within a new context or with the new technology that's available. In the instance of George Lucas's updates to the film (or the other notable re-releases of Blade Runner, Abyss, Lord of the Rings and so forth) goes towards updating scenes based on new technology, or adding in deleted or altered scenes, generally to better fit with the filmmaker's vision of what he wants the film to be.

This brings me to my point about Han Solo shooting first. I first saw the films with the special edition, but that one shot didn't really leave any lasting impact on exactly which one shot first. The point is, Han kills Greedo. Lucas's rationalization for the switch was that he wanted Han to be a more likable character by making him less of a 'bad guy', which has always struck me as odd: Han still fries the Rodian, kills several Sand Troopers in the spaceport (and later Death Star), to save himself and his friends. Making the switch, then, really doesn't make any significant difference in what people thought of Han. He's the lovable rogue, shooting first or whatever, and the only way to really make a major impact would be to turn Han into a vegetarian and someone concerned with the Falcon's fuel mileage. The same goes for some of the other changes that were made: the run into Mos Eisley, the introduction of the digital Dewbacks, Jabba the Hutt and so forth: there's nothing that really changes the film beyond its aesthetics. Similarly, I don't believe that adding the third dimension into the mix is going to significantly change anything in the film, beyond the visual appeal.

The real question will be: will it look good? Star Wars was filmed in a certain style, and there are points where the new CGI sections look somewhat out of place, and the conversion over to 3D is a complicated, expensive process, and I'm not holding my breath that it will be as good as Avatar's 3D, which was filmed natively. Still, it seems that the studio isn't rushing into this conversion, but will be working on it over the next couple of years (if they haven't started already).

Star Wars is a commercial empire: look at the recent diagram of where most of the money has come from for the franchise, and that's from merchandising, which strikes me as a smart move: it creates an incredible brand that people continually go to for all sorts of different things, from playing with the toys as a kid, to wearing a shirt or reading one of the books. It acts as a self-replicating advertising machine, and looking back, there's been a continual release of Star Wars works since the first movies were released. The prequels in 1997 set the stage for the prequel films, which in turn have been continued with The Clone Wars, bringing in a whole new generation to the franchise, who will be right at the proper age to enjoy the films in the theaters again in a couple of years. In all likelihood, we'll see a whole new marketing campaign to go along with this. I wouldn't be surprised if the live-action television series would follow in the mid 2010s, potentially with a new series of films following that. The long and short of it is, Star Wars isn't going anywhere, and with the attention span of the average consumer nowadays, it's no surprise that the franchise has kicked into overdrive. The franchise is now going into its 3rd decade, competing with films such as Avatar, which James Cameron has said is hoped to become a franchise on par with the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek. Economically, Star Wars has a major upper hand, but if given a choice, would the current rising generation go for Star Wars, or Avatar? I know which, and it isn't Star Wars.

3D is the next logical step in this move, given that studios can make a couple of extra dollars per ticket, but also because I've thought that Star Wars would be a fun thing to watch in 3D, going back to the visuals over storyline. (And if you don't believe me, go watch the prequels again) 3D films capitalizes on new technology, and will make the franchise grow even more: people will still going to go out and see them in droves, no matter the sputtering of the fanboys who can't see that the films aren't designed for broad introspection: they're blockbusters on a military scale, and the studio executives who have kept Star Wars a house-hold name for over thirty years, and multiple generations are doing their job well.

This isn't to say that everything that has been released with the Star Wars logo has been high quality: far from it. The prequel trilogy was lack-luster at best, with The Clone Wars series matching that for the most part. The books and comics have likewise been of mixed quality, but quality has never been a huge concern: it doesn't have to be. (It should be, but that's another argument altogether) The franchise has raked in billions (yes, with a B) based on the material that's been released, under the current formula, because of the efforts that have been made when it comes to branding and its awareness, not to mention its large fanbase. It really has no equal when it comes to popular culture influence: the book that I'm currently reading, The City and The City by China Mieville, just had a main character drop the 'Force is not with me' line a couple of pages ago, and any time that I've been out in armor, I've found that even if a person hasn't seen the films, they know exactly what I'm from.

To the people who say: "George Lucas is raping my childhood!", I say: George Lucas is not raping your childhood. Your childhood was back in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and shouldn't be defined by a single film series. Childhood is a series of rose-colored memories that include things such as Star Wars, and the impressions that you had of any film will change with time as you learn and actually grow up. The original films was something that I watched countless times after school, and over the years since, as I've graduated from high school, college and graduate school, has drastically changed as my outlook on life and the world has changed along with everything else. Attempting to hold onto the past through reliving it seems like a sad proposition. I certainly wouldn't return to my childhood, as much as I treasure most memories. When all fails, there's certainly nothing that compels someone to go and alter their impressions of the films, and you *don't* have to turn over that $10-$15 for a movie ticket, buy the next book, action figure or whatever.

With that in mind, a lot of the arguments that people have made against the prequels, rereleases and upcoming rerereleases are essentially meaningless, simply because this franchise doesn’t really need, or really care about what the fans really are looking for in the series: they’ve put together a good product, and it’s something that people are willing to dump a lot of money into. While they’ve done so, they’ve found ways that the films and books have given them meaning, direction and inspiration in life, which is fantastic. But that meaning and understanding that people find isn’t what drives the bottom line: it’s their wallets.  Does it matter if Han shot first? Not really, in the greater context, and even then, it doesn’t impact the story in any significant way. So long as people are continually arguing and talking about it, LFL is happy.

Am I going to see the re-release in a couple of years? Probably. I distinctly remember coming out of Avatar thinking: Star Wars would look pretty damn cool in this format, and I think that the visuals will be worth it, especially on the big screen. Star Wars has always been about flash over substance, and watching the films again in theaters is easily worth my time and money for that thrill. Plus, it'll more than likely mean some prime trooping opportunities for the 501st.

So, don't tell me that Han shot first. I really don’t care; it's irrelevant, annoying and honestly doesn't have that much of an impact on the film's story. There's going to be more Star Wars throughout the rest of our lives.

* Required listening for this rant should be MC Chris's 'Han Solo'.

Banned Books Week

Today marks the start of Banned Book Week, a campaign to bring about awareness of works of literature that have been suppressed or authors who have been persecuted for their works. According to the American Library Association, the week celebrates the importance of the First Amendment, while "drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States." Coming from a family that does a lot of reading, and from working within a couple of libraries, I detest the notion of banning a book for its content, especially in school systems, and I am continually worried when I hear of various books being banned by overprotective parents, school boards of bigoted, ignorant people who misunderstand the reasons behind education.

The ALA published a list of frequently challenged books from across the country. Looking down the list, I see a number of books that I read in high school, and on my own, that I both greatly enjoyed and/or read on my own: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell (the irony of this book being banned is almost comical), Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, The Call of the Wild by Jack London and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I know other books, such as Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series have also been burned or have been pushed to be banned, and I'm reasonably sure that numerous other science fiction, fantasy and other speculative fictions have been banned because of their content.

Education, I believe, is not strictly about the content that students are fed, but a way to understand the world around them. In subjects such as English, this is a paramount lesson to be learned, as books and stories pull specific themes and instances out for characters, and allows students to synthesize problems and see how characters are changed based on their experiences within the story. Within any story, conflict that challenges the characters should likewise challenge the readers, by looking at commonly held assumptions and continually questioning how they go about the world. This is where the greatest learning occurs for anyone.

The outrage here is that limiting the books that students can read traps them within a preset outlook on the world, where books that fall outside of the realm of political correctness, are 'indecent' or overly challenge assumptions are unable to do what they are intended to do. What bothers me even more is that a number of the locations where books are banned within the US come from traditionally right-wing regions of the country, regions where people claim to want to uphold the constitution, to ensure that freedoms aren't limited by their government, while turning around and insisting that they do the very same thing within their communities. The hypocrisy of the situation is stunning, and I can't help but wonder if our insistence on protecting our youth from things that we disagree with is hurting the country as a whole.

The argument against banning books is something that’s been out there for a long time, and there’s very little beyond my own experience and resulting conclusions that I can add to the situation. Looking over my own high school English experience (with some fantastic teachers in the humanities) I am shocked at how many of the books that I read are amongst the most banned list, and for fairly trivial reasons, such as language and content. Moreover, reading some of those books are incredibly valuable experiences for me. Some of the books, such as Of Mice and Men, The Lord of the Flies and For Whom The Bell Tolls, were ones that imparted a number of revelations and provided specific learning experiences that I was then able to build upon. These books are not easy to replace, and students do not read these simply for pleasure: the challenge is the object here.

Nor do I believe that reasons such as language and ‘obscene’ situations hold much water in this day and age, when students have access to the wider internet, where whatever is banned is conceivably right at their fingertips, where there is no guidance or supervision. Instead, parents should take the moral reins and instruction for their children, and teach them right from wrong.

Banning books isn’t the answer, or a good thing for any sort of quality education. Actually educating, challenging and extracting a reaction from students will bring about the proper understanding from students.

Rant: Education

As someone who studied to become a historian, one of the most frustrating things to watch unfold is the ongoing debate over textbook content that is happening now in Texas. School boards have opted to revise criteria in favor of modern political happenings, injecting their own preferences to combat the 'liberal version' of history as it has been playing out. The political as to how this will impact education aside, this seems to me to be a dangerous shift in how we will educate our younger generations.

In college, I studied both history and geology, and came away with a dominant feeling for context. While exploring vastly different subjects, both the study of prior human events and of geological happenings are linked by a couple of very basic things: they're about actions, and how those actions affect other things down the line. Listening to the radio this afternoon, Vermont Edition talked about a recent landslide that consumed a home in Canada, and geologists on the show noted that there is a direct correlation between what happened over ten thousand years ago and today. Actions have a tendency, in both nature and human history, to have both short term and long term effects. Thus, the context of whatever one is studying is just as important as the individual figures and events that make up the present day.

History is the interpretation of the past. When I've talked about my degree, an M.A. in Military History, I usually have to preface that with an explanation that I'm not an expert in the specifics of World War II, Vietnam, the Napoleonic Era or the American Civil War. This was a degree that was designed to teach someone how to think like a historian, how to research like a historian and how to put together an argument, backed up with evidence like a historian – I can confidently say that I can talk about any number of military concepts, battles and figures, but more importantly, I know how to research those things, but also understand how to examine them within the context of history.

The founder of my alma mater, Alden Partridge, conceived of the school at a time when practical achievements were just as important as the theory behind the words, and as such, sought to educate the first Norwich University cadets in ways that encouraged them to see their teachings in practice, but also to formulate their own thinking based on what they saw when they were seeing. Where Partridge looked to more practical studies, such as Engineering, the same line of thinking applies to the social sciences field, which is where the worry about the Texas Board of Education comes into play.

History is not a static field, but one that is constantly growing and changing as different minds enter the field. Nor is history the study of the past: history is the examination of the past, and the interpretation of events as they happened. Thus, removing important figures such as Thomas Jefferson from mention as a founding father based on some of the things that he pushed eliminates the change to examine some of the context, and arguments, that have helped to shape the present. While teaching any sort of correct form of what happened in the past is far more preferable than teaching something that is ultimately incorrect, the problems surrounding the study of the past in this instance isn’t about correcting past mistakes, it’s about re-framing the past with a modern mindset, and patently ignoring the context of past events to suit modern political thought.

Removing elements of the past is harmful in a number of ways, going far beyond the individual figures: it not only impacts a student’s understanding as to what events happened, but why they happened. Removing Thomas Jefferson as a figure who had pushed for the separation of church and State leaves a void in the understanding for a student as to why the founders placed such a restriction within the constitution. Rewriting history in this manner will thus leave a flawed understanding of the past, which in turn impacts how we view and act in the present.

While that, in and of itself is frightening, what bothers me far more is that a trend towards intellectual backwater and restriction on thought has grown. Often, there are arguments against spending on scientific endeavors, because a practical use or result might not result, or someone cannot think of how any such argument or study can be useful. However, the progress of science and thinking cannot be directed, channeled or moved for convenient thinking: science and learning will ultimately find what it will find: oftentimes, the results and findings exist, but only through searching, will answers be found. The same applies to education, and restricting what people learn simply for the sake of political convenience is short-sighted, ignorant and downright offensive to anybody who wants to see this country grow intellectually, politically and economically in the future.

Structures in History

I'm continually astounded at just how few people really know how to put together a decent argument and work to convince someone of some basic fact or side of any sort of story, especially at a graduate school. I've always loved school, learning and writing, and when as part of my job, I was to take a graduate program; I jumped at the chance, entering a writing-heavy course that emphasized scholarly knowledge and being able to write a point down in a way that is designed to teach someone something new. History is so much more than merely an order of dates strung together; it is the interpretation of the events that happened at a specific point in time, designed to explain how said events occurred within a specific context.

Much of what I have learned at Norwich and elsewhere makes a lot of sense to me, in all manners of writing, from historical essays to fiction, and more and more, I've become far more aware of just how the structure of making a good argument can make or break the information that you're trying to convey. Frequently, I've been paying far more attention to the books that I read, people I hear and television that I watch, and find that structure is everywhere in how we are trying to do things, and I'm beginning to realize just how this has impacted how I view things far beyond writing.

Most crucial is the intent behind a piece of interpretation. History is never a clear cut set of events, and often, the actions of people long dead are used to prove a theory or point in how they relate to the present day, the event itself or some other element that relates to a historical point. Numerous times, I've seen proposals for thesis papers that don't set out to prove anything, but just examine a larger set of events in narrative form. When it comes to history, especially critical history, a straight up account of the events that transpired is the last thing that needs to be written about: it has no place, unless it's a primary source of some sort, as history, because it does not examine: it shows, but doesn't explain.

History is a way to interpret, and through that, explain what has transpired in the past. At a number of points, I've largely given up reading soldier biographies from the Second World War, not because their stories aren't important, but because they do not do more than cover that soldier's individual experiences and relate it to a larger picture. This is a general argument, and there are plenty of books that fall on both sides, but when it comes to critical history, the works of someone like Peter Paret are far more important and useful than those of Stephen Ambrose.

When it comes to the execution of the history, or any form of writing, one of the biggest issues that I've seen with my writing and others is that the argument is under supported by the evidence that the writer puts together. The basic structure of any argument is an introduction, where the writer puts forth their argument, and exactly what they are trying to prove. That introduction is then used to bring out the arguments that ultimately prove the point that the author is arguing, using evidence to support that basic argument. The conclusion is then used to tie everything together, utilizing the argument, what was found in the evidence. For some reason, this sort of format isn't used very much, either in schools, or in stories, movies, television shows, and it undermines what the author or creator is trying to do. Ideas and intentions are good, but when they fail in their execution, it doesn't matter how good the idea is; the entire effort fails.

I've found that I like minimalism, as an art subject, but also when it comes to writing. While there are plenty of writers out there who utilize a lot of words to get their point across, there is generally a purpose to that: they better explain what is going on, and help to create an environment that ultimately helps the book. When it comes to writing, of any sort, the main intent of any form of writing is to get the information across to the reader, whether it be fictional or coming out of real life. In that, every bit of historical evidence, from examples harvested from primary sources to other author's words and analysis, must go towards proving that article, without extra stops along the way for an extra tidbit of information. In critical history, the main point is often a very small, dedicated idea that seeks to prove a specific point within a larger context.

If I was to select one lesson that I learned in high school as the most important, I would point to something that my Three Democracies (and later American Studies) teacher, Tom Dean, taught me: Microcosm vs. Macrocosm, i.e., how a small event can be taken out and applied to a larger context. The experiences of three men in the Philippines during the Second World War highlight some of the atrocities on the part of the Japanese, or the career of a race horse in the Great Depression as a way to look at the changing lives of people during the 1930s are two examples of this sort of thinking, and it goes hand in hand with how stories should be structured. Every chapter should work to prove the point of the introduction, while every paragraph should be used as a way to prove the point of the chapter, and so on. Books, in and of themselves, should follow this sort of microcosm / macrocosm effect, to the end. to prove the point of the author.

Stories are important, for the information that they contain, but also for what they teach us at the same time. Amongst the years of history are countless events, occurrences and actions that all have reactions and continued impact on each other and indeed, the present day. The execution of how stories are told is how history is remembered and thus learned.

Driving Like Crazy

Last Week, VPR's Vermont Edition hosted a program devoted to recent legislative efforts designed to combat cell phone usage in cars. Why there is any sort of debate over this issue is beyond me, but apparently there is quite a bit of discussion over whether or not this sort of thing is necessary or right for government to do to individual citizens.

A while ago, I read and reviewed Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), which is, as the title suggests, about driving and how we drive. Prior to reading the book, I was not thrilled with the idea of a cell phone law in Vermont - it's intrusive, it's problematic and above all, it is possible to drive, talk, text or so forth while driving. That's not the case, far from it, and recent deaths in the state suggest that this is only the start to a larger issue in the state.

Vanderbilt notes that studies show several things: it doesn't take long for a driver to be distracted, and that even small amounts of time without one's eyes on the road could mean the difference between continuing home and ending up in a hospital. While on the road, Vanderbilt explains, the driver is constantly taking in information about their surroundings - what's in front of them, to the sides and the road conditions. Modern conveniences such as radios, CD players, and connections for phones only add to the things that drivers have to contend with. Furthermore, the human brain is fundamentally incapable of processing everything that comes in, and mental awareness of one's surroundings drops. There have been occasions while driving that I've spoken on the phone or peaked at a text message and find myself further down the road, automatically steering around well known corners, but with little recollection exactly to what I just did. The same is true with any task that involves thinking. In today's culture, drivers have far more to distract them on the road, and that's what is getting scary.

The rise in texting (I remember reading something recently that noted that the average teenager sends around 40,000 words a month in text form) makes this all the more scary, because as drivers are increasingly spending some of their time looking at their phone, reading a message and then thinking about and typing a response out, their eyes are not where they are supposed to be: on the road. Normally, I would advocate personal responsibility for the driver and say that if they crash because they weren't looking, well, it's their own fault. However, the roadways are populated by everyone else on the road, in all directions, and the actions of one driver not paying attention can mean dire consequences for someone else on the roadway.

So what is the solution? Well, as pro-life people naively state: abstinence works. Well, yes, it does, but holding people to that sort of thing doesn't necessarily work as well. Keeping teenagers away from cell phones (and adults, for that matter), is a huge problem, and merely telling people to turn off the phone and keep their eyes on the road isn't necessarily going to work, even with a stiff fine from police officers. A law needs to be put into place, no doubt about that, with stiff penalties for any driver caught doing this sort of thing. But, in addition to that, money needs to be spent on educating drivers, young and old alike on one simple fact: driving is the most dangerous thing that you can do on a regular basis. Taken out of a normal, everyday context, you are climbing into a rolling collection of metal parts, fueled by a highly combustible fluid and set off along roadways with more people doing the same thing, at high speeds. If that isn't enough to freak you out, now imagine that nobody is looking where they're going.

eBooks & Value

Last week, and publishers started going head to head with the business model that has set up for their Kindle eBook store. With the recent release of the Apple iPad, new alternatives have been opened for publishers. With it, there has been a flood of problems and statements from all edges of public opinion about not just the power that seems to be able to field, but also to the very nature of the place of e-books.

The background of the story lies with Amazon's preference for a lower price for an e-book on their Kindle device. Typically starting at $9.99, one of the major publishers, Macmillan, went to Amazon with new proposals for how to sell their books. From how I understand it, it would introduce a graduated pricing system, starting their new books at $15.99 and gradually dropping the price as demand falls away. This is something that's already pretty well established in the book industry, with hardcovers of the really big books starting off at $25 to $30, before dropping down to trade paperbacks (Around $15 each) going to or going directly to mass market paperbacks, generally around $7.99 each. There's a new, taller book (I'm not sure what it is called) that typically runs around $9.99 per copy.

A big part of the issue is that profits that go to the publisher, and eventually, the author, have been cut into, as it is a cheaper way to distribute the book. This made a lot of sense for, because after purchasing a multiple hundred dollar device, because it helps the more economically minded consumers actually use the device. While it's just a little more than the mass-market paperback, buying a new release book that would normally be $30, for something between $9.99 and $15.99, makes a lot of sense, especially for the consumers who really matter - the ones who buy hundreds of books a year.

This makes good for the consumer, for sure, but it does impact other elements down the publishing line, and indeed, the bookselling line. Pundits, for years, have been predicting the demise of brick and mortar bookstores with the introduction of online bookstores such as, and with the slowly growing rise of e-books and the Kindle, it's coming back, and for good reason: bookstores are getting hurt by this new competition. I recently was laid off from Borders when they closed down 200 of their smaller stores in order to consolidate to their larger ones. While there are other issues at stake there, it is clear that people buy far more off of the internet than from in a store. When given a chance, I'll do the same thing - I can pick up other books cheaper from Amazon's used bookstore, but also from used bookstores around the area.

This is all part of a larger consumer culture that seems to be pushed along by giants such as, Walmart, Home Depot and other stores: consumers want to pay the lowest possible price for what they want. Bigger stores can make that happen, and we've been conditioned to respond to that sort of thing. One of the problems, however, is in how the consumer values the product that they're intending on buying, and how much the creator, whether it's a publisher or manufacturer, and there's a growing gap that's pushed forward by these larger stores. It's good for the consumer and good for these stores in particular, but it's not good for the manufacturer of whatever good you're trying to buy.

I'm not sure that that is a good thing, because eventually, the manufacturer's ability to produce will have to be decreased due to lack of profits. In the publishing industry, forcing a publisher to take a smaller cut for their books means that less money could make it to the author, who will either need to sell more books or negotiate a better deal with their publisher. This is even more of a problem when stores, such as sell a majority of your books, and where your entire publishing company has been taken off, as is the case with Macmillan.

I think part of the issue is addressing just how much a publisher should value their e-books, and making customer expectations meet that. Books have a lot that go into them, from editing, layout, marketing and so on, and in a consumer culture where expectations towards lower and lower prices are pushed as well, that particular detail is going to be lost. It would seem that the publishing industry has reached a level where they don't want to move any further.

How exactly does one value an e-book? I can say with certainty, that I will typically go with the price on the back of the book for a majority of the books that I purchase in a year. I try to find something with a discount, and made use of my employee discount, but once purchased, I know that the book was mine. When it comes to e-books, there are a whole lot of other options, especially with, which essentially sells you a license for the book, which can be revoked at any point. (This happened, somewhat ironically, with the book 1984, recently). This is the same with music and software, and has been around for a while, so I'm not sure why everyone is raising a fuss about it now. Thus, people purchase a product that they cannot transfer or resell as they could the physical product. Even if it is cheaper, I think that even $9.99 isn't a good value for the consumer, as opposed to my feeling that $25 is a very good value for a physical book in some instances.

Who's at fault for this? Well, everybody has blamed everybody. The publishers have been blamed for distrupting Amazon's plans, the consumers have been blamed for wanting low prices, the publishers for demanding too much, and the authors have been blamed for whining and complaining about this. This has always been an issue with business, because there are numerous people who get different cuts, and everybody wants a larger piece of the pie. Personally, I think that the publishers are well within their rights to set the books at whatever price they want - how they value their product - because they are primarily in charge of the creation. Amazon has just enough leverage to force their own prices on the publishers because they account for large portions of the sales. Authors, I think are largely blameless in this, because they simply have no control over how these books are sold, marketed and edited. Consumers, I think, need to have a more realistic value in their heads for what they buy.

The bottom line that I see here is that this row isn't the end, but in this instance, it's not unreasonable for a graduated pricing system, as publishers want. While is looking to entice people to their Kindle, I think that there is sufficient momentum on their part for moving people to digital formats. People aren't necessarily going to be scared away by higher ebook prices, because these higher prices will still be better than the alternatives. Just as casual readers will wait for a year for their favorite author's book to come out in paperback, the buyers who really matters, the repeat customers who buy a larger volume of books will buy the books as they come out, generally at the regular price, or at the sales price that drops that just a bit. Unfortunately, as has moved to punish a publisher, the authors have been caught as collateral damage.

This, more than ever, just reinforces my desire for a hardcopy book, rather than an e-book. The tactile crap that a lot of people go on about just doesn't figure into it. When I buy a book at a bookstore, that is my property, not just a piece of data that can be revoked by a company as it sees fit, and I can sell it and return my losses as I need. Plus, I don't need to worry about a battery for any of the books that I own.

I Like That Old Time Rock 'n Roll

As the decade has begun to close with the end of the year, there have been a number of 'Best of the Decade' lists in the music blog world, and a number of them have gotten me thinking about music over the past ten years. Since the start of the decade, I would consider these past years as some of the most formative in my own tastes in music, especially during my years in college. During that time, the entire music industry has been changed, for better or for worse, and with these changes has come new opportunities, sounds and experiences for musicians and fans alike.

My own taste in music has varied over the past ten years, from radio top 40 hits to Indie-Rap and I'm very eager to see what comes next. Looking back, I found that it would be almost impossible to put together any sort of comprehensive list for the last ten years, simply because there is too much music, it is too varied, and there is far, far too much that I haven't listened to. While computers have become paramount in the way that music is transmitted, shared and listened to, I can't help but wonder if it's harmful to the overall music scene.

Looking back over music of the 1960s and 1970s, the music is easily recognizable, memorable and classic. Looking back over the decade, I'm not sure that I can find a comparable number of bands that match not only the quality of the hits of prior years, but ones that have the same presence. With other years populated by bands such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Eric Clapton and more, revolutionaries all in their own way, the past couple of decades have much bigger shoes to fill.

The formative years of Rock and Roll have been filled with epic tales of musicians gone crazy: smashing up hotel rooms and instruments on stage, getting arrested on stage, all the while pushing the limits of free speech and taboo topics to entertain the masses, who ate it up with relish. And, the music was good too - music labels, I think , didn't quite know how to deal with all of the new sounds and styles that were coming out from aspiring musicians: all they could do was control the direction, like pointing a fire hose, hoping that the water inside was just right.

Since that time, music has become more refined. We've settled down, figured out what works and what sounds just right. Advances in technology, from the introduction of computers and editing programs allow musicians to put together a fantastic sounding album, cheaper, quicker and to an incredibly wide audience than ever before. Young people, ever the bright start of the music industry, have been freed, recording demos with cheap recording equipment and access to MySpace, and have the chance of finding an audience amongst the numerous people out seeking for new sounds, and even more obscure bands and singer/songwriters.

My music interests have ebbed and waned over the past ten years, starting with listening to 107.1, WORK FM (Now FrankFM, a Classic Rock Station) a Top 40 station, which effectively brought my music tastes to '90s alternative/grunge. I didn't get that much into listening to anything outside of that before a couple years into college. A friend of mine at the time, later girlfriend, now ex, introduced me to indie-rock, styles along what was heard in Garden State, which further influenced what I listened to. Artists such as Alexi Murdoch, The Decemberists, Spoon, Nick Drake and others entered my playlists. From that point, I began to listen to more - not only to new artists that were coming out, but also to bands that I'd grown up listening to: the Beatles, Gordon Lightfoot, Fleetwood Mac.

In listening to the old and new, there's an incredible amount of influence that is held by artists from long ago, especially by newer artists. Folk-rock has undergone a huge resurgence among the hip, from artists such as Alexi Murdoch, Iron & Wine and Bon Iver growing in popularity over the past couple of years - in no small part, no doubt, to commercial placement of their songs in television shows and commercials.

While the music is fantastic - I count all of the above to be some of the best artists of the decade, but at the same time, I've become very weary and wary of the independent market for music, because of the sheer drive to feed the hipster masses by going completely out on a limb and doing something patently outrageous, but in a calm, civil sort of way. In a way, the kids who go out and record come up with some interesting stuff, but they don't toe the line like musicians of old. The music that we have today, independent and commercial (although that distinction is flat out ridiculous in and of itself - all music is commercial) is sanitized, watered down and just too appropriate. Maybe I'm just listening to the wrong types of music, but a lot of bands just don't have that raw energy and bite that the '70s brought us.

We don't have our Hendrix, our Lennon or our Jagger - instead, a lot of our front men are put together by their publicists, who put them up on a pedestal for their outbursts, poor judgment or incredibly noble deeds (I'm looking at you, Amy Winehouse, Britteny Spears and Bono). But in a way, they become products in and of themselves, sold to the public through the spin on their actions, rather than the popular judgment of their actions unguided by the invisible hand of a major marketing company. In a world where news is paramount, and any news is good news, it seems that the rash actions of the people we admire are more constructed, rather than heat of the moment rashness. I have a feeling that those individuals, who've built up their personas in the time before facebook and MySpace, will be longer lasting. Even the persona of avoiding a personality, or just trying to be different by wearing mismatched clothing, acting the awkward soul in a way to appeal to more fans who make it out to see them.

Don't get me wrong, there's a huge difference between the personality of a band and the music that they play, but over time, how much of a band's persona becomes intermixed with their music as a whole? In an age where the choices of music and bands is akin to water from a fire hose, the strive to be completely unique by adopting a certain persona for a band just seems shallow, fake. There are very few bands out there right now that I would label as being truly unique, focused on their music and presenting a fairly honest image all at the same time. At the end of the day, while there is plenty of selection - good selection - I can't help but wonder if these musicians will really stand the test of time, or if they will just be lost in the multitude of other hipster artists who get their brief break of fame before realizing that they have to continue the act. At the same time, I wonder how many bands that have been sold to us will last in the long run.

Looking back over the music that I've accumulated over the past couple of years - and I've accumulated a lot - there are certainly bands that I go back to time and time again, while there are even more that I've listened to, and really enjoyed, but who soon become unmemorable. It'll be fun to go back and seek them out in another ten years to see if anybody knows their name and see if their record deal through the strength of their MySpace page and website is really enduring. In some cases? I would bet so. In far more instances, I would bet that a lot of these bands will fail the test of time, only to be resurrected by lone fans with overburdened hard drives. In the meantime, I’ll take that old time rock and roll.

Your fantasies merge with harsh realities

The movie Toy Story had a profound effect on me as a child - for a little while, I had my doubts that toys were really inanimate objects, much like the same doubts about the validity of Santa Claus and god. I was pretty sure that they didn't exist, but who knew for sure? Thus, I made sure to take very good care of what I had, lest they awaken in the middle of the night and try to exact revenge. Almost fifteen years on, and I know that's an amusing quirk, but I did gain some useful skills out of it: treat what you own with some semblance of respect, and they last longer. As I grew older, I found that I applied this philosophy to other things - namely books. I made sure that they were kept in prime condition, even going to great lengths to ensure that friends didn't abuse them while in their care. Even today, I'm still wary of lending books to people.

Thus, book stripping day is particularly troublesome for me at the bookstore, and even more so now that our store is closing for good. Recently, it was announced that Borders was closing 200 of their Waldenbooks stores in a response to the economy and to focus more on the bigger box stores that they have littered around the country. Our humble store is being shut down, and part of that entails scaling down our inventory in preparation for that. The Christmas season is a logical time to do that - there's a boost in sales, and I'm sure that a lot of inventory will go. Still, there is a lot of books that we are returning, and even more that we are destroying. Mass Market paperbacks are those that the store has us destroy, rather than mail back to a central holding area in order to resell them. Other chains carry a similar practice, and books are stripped of their front cover and thrown into recycling or the trash, with the covers mailed back to be accounted for.

This bothers me, a lot, because I absolutely hate the idea of both books being tore up, but also that a perfectly good book is otherwise tossed in the trash. As I've written many times before, I'm an avid reader, and I hold onto my books. I like the idea of having floor to ceiling shelves packed to capacity for that occasional time when the power shuts off and I'm left with nothing to do but read. I rarely give away or resell books, even if I've read them before - there's that niggling 'What if' in the back of my head when it comes to re-reading things, and I figure someday, I'll have a great collection of books to give away to a library or something like that. The corporate policy in this instance particularly grates with my own beliefs when it comes to books, especially when these books could easily be donated to those in need of a good read, or to struggling libraries somewhere.

What is even worse, in my mind, is that many of the books that are being destroyed are books that would likely be sold in the next month - I pulled a number of reputable authors off the shelf and from overstock to put into the pile, only to leave a number of other books that I don't think that I've ever sold or moved. It boggles the mind that we're reducing the number of J.R.R. Tolkien's books to make way for David Weber. The end result is that our Science Fiction section is being diluted with crappy books, which will likely hurt sales even more. It's frustrating to begin converting some of these genres to tie-in stories with huge, dedicated fan bases, away from some of the more 'original' SF/F that is far better in terms of quality and personal interest. I can understand the reasoning behind it, but that doesn't necessarily make it a better.

The other problem that I have with this situation is that it’s an incredibly wasteful symptom of commercial policy that demonstrates a lot of the excesses that got the country into financial trouble in the first place. Borders sent our store too many books with every shipment - something that I'm assuming falls under the notion of: "if the customer wants it, it should be there", rather than ordering the book for them, and having them either come in again, or pay for the book there and have it mailed to their home. The end result is a store that is packed to capacity - and most likely violating several fire and safety codes - with too much merchandise that is not going to move. This makes me wonder how much of Border's budget is devoted to the shipping of books back and forth, not to mention the amount of money that is spent on books that will ultimately never sell.

The large chain stores are really not doing well, especially in the face of major sellers such as, and it's no wonder, when you look at just how inefficient their business practices are. It's even more of a shame when it seems likely that excesses such as these have helped to contribute to the closing of stores - it's no longer cost effective to keep them in operation, but only because they have such a high push of merchandise that is designed to boost sales.

I'm annoyed that this is happening, and in a way, glad that I'm no longer going to be employed with the company anymore with the shutdown (or earlier, if some middle-management desk jockey decides that he/she's offended by this) because I dislike the sheer industrial and commercial grinder that these stores have become. There's no love for the books, for stories or for really retaining customers. It's a business in a place where there should at least be some pretense of an institution that is at least interested in what they're selling.

What's the Point of a Genre?

Working at the bookstore, I come across a constant annoyance: trying to put a book into its proper place, using BITS, the internal store inventory system. The program is antiquated, clunky and a pain to use, and whomever is hired to enter the information into the system in the first place should be duct-taped off the ground and had rotten fruit thrown at them. It would be a good incentive to get the information entered in correctly and consistantly. Still, while annoyed about this the other night at the store, a thought came to me that's been further pushed along by a post from John Scalzi on his blog, Whatever.

This recent post highlights something that I've noticed within the SF genre, and fandom: a general cry to be recognized by the literary establishment as a whole. Science Fiction, in general, has been trivialized by a number of establishments and authors of other genres - Margaret Atwood's comments come to mind at just how against being labeled in the genre some peopel can be: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen", and "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." (From the Guardian and Book of the Month Club).

To some extent, there's good reason for this - early science fiction, while fun, is loaded with rubbish, pulp and childish stories that were primarily geared towards selling as many copies as possible to the lowest common denominator demographic. Atwood's characterization of the genre is highly flawed - science fiction is far more than intergalactic travel and aliens, and while that's a common element, I see little difference between the superficial elements such as those, and the elements that contain a so-called speculative fiction. In the end, it's the story that really matters, and provided that an author can put together a compelling plot and array of characters, I've often found that those more unbelievable elements, such as 'monsters' and intergalactic travel works out just fine.

Scalzi's argument brings up a further version of this point - if the surrounding plot elements don't matter all that much - and I've noticed an increasing number of books with horror, science fiction, paranormal, fantasy, urban fantasy and other themes - where does the overall label matter when it comes to books? Indeed, with the aforementioned types, they're all lumped into the same small section in the larger bookstores, usually towards the back so the bookstore owners can hide the nerds and geeks from the rest of the cliental. (You know, kind of how the pretty people in gyms are always working out next to the windows?) I personally love the science fiction genre for its ability to tell stories, in addition to the settings and out there concepts that generally crop up. However, my enjoyment of one particular genre doesn't necessarily cloud my feelings towards books of another, nor does the label on the back of the book affect how I feel about another genre.

To some extent, I think that the argument is largely fueled by egos and excess time of overeducated people, and out of marketing necessity. Since much of bookselling comes out of browsing, it makes sense to group books accordingly, by genre, which is in turn placed on a pedestal, as something that is so profound, it can't possibly be associated with other books that have the reputation as science fiction / fantasy has.

This is where I have problems with the people who insist that any one particular genre is worthy of attention more so than the others. The same issue appears in Military History - I had a reading about this very same issue, as Military History is percieved by the larger academic community as an unimportant, somewhat annoying little cousin that wants to join in on the fun. Unfortunately, with the more established genres pushing out the newer ones, they miss out on a number of really good stories and insights into their fields. Cormac McCarthy's book The Road is arguably one of the better books of the past decade, and it won the Pulitzer Prize, despite the post-apocolptic storyline that appeals to the many followers of the 'geek' genre. Still, it wasn't marketed as such.

Marketing aside, I think the best alternative to all of this would be to get rid of the genre labels, sort out everything between fiction and non-fiction sections and shelve everything by the author's last name. Non-fiction can be sorted by subject, while people can just figure out what they like ahead of time and just go by author. Scalzi's hit on a huge point - this is an intellectual argument that really doesn't matter in the long run. Honestly, if Science Fiction starts scoring more people, longtime fans will just find something else to complain about - the new fans who don't have quite the same appreciation for the genre as they do.

Today, We Watched the Sky Fall

There is something that's been bothering me on this day, and it's something that I've noticed happening for a couple years now: "Remember 9-11!"

This year, I've been seeing more and more of this, people pouring out a simple one or two sentences, sometimes all in caps, reminding me that I need to remember the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the thwarted attack on United 93. As if I could forget. The events of September 11 will likely remain with me for the rest of my life - I can remember that day as clearly as I remember last week, and in the ensuing eight years, it has changed our world far more than any event that I can remember.

These simple status messages just don't cut it for me. I'm sorry, but from where I'm sitting, status messages are more about the person than anything else, and I've always seen these sort of messages as a simple reaffirmation that whichever person posts something like this, they want everyone else to see that they remember the day, that I'm honoring their memory in the maximum 140 characters and that with that out of the way, I can resume the next 364 days without issue.

What a fucking shallow thing to do.

September 11th was an incredibly complicated and vile act. Just under 3,000 people have died as a result of the attacks, either as passengers on the airplanes, bystanders or rescue personnel. The attacks were planned well in advance by Al Queda, and those plans were spurred on by larger actions on the part of many individuals and nations. In turn, it has unleashed some of the absolute best and some of the absolute worst this nation has to offer upon the world.

I am saddened by what happened. I remember the absolute horror that registered while I watched online as the news poured in. I remember the confusion and the terror of the unknown, wondering if another airplane would come down somewhere else. I can remember the smoke rising and the countless pictures that poured in. It's something that I don't think that I could forget if I wanted to. In the meantime, we have launched two major conflicts around the world, changed legislation, opened prisons and distrust anyone with a water bottle on an airplane. Every single one is a pointed reminder of what happened eight years ago. I can't forget, and I refuse to simply honor those who died on one single day. They deserve better, especially in this nation with such a short attention span.

We are reminded every day that something terrible happened, and I am so tired of being told to support the soldiers overseas, otherwise I'm unpatriotic, I'm tired of the idea that any opinion that differs from the larger public consciousness is nothing short of treason in some people's eyes, I'm tired of the polarization that has infected this country and I'm tired of 9-11 and the memory of those innocent people being used, manipulated into serving an administration's agenda. I'm tired that despite all of the remembering that is going on, we've largely forgotten why we're in the situations that we're in today.

Today, we watched the skies fall and change the world. I'll never forget that.

A Library Without Books

The other day, I came across an article that really shocked me. The Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, MA has decided to eliminate their twenty-thousand book library in favor of a digital one. According to the article, they have spent $500,000 to transform the library into a 'learning center' which will be outfitted with several widescreen televisions to display data from the internet and can interface with student laptops, while they have purchased 18 e-book readers (Most likely the Kindle and Sony Reader) which will have access to a large digital library. To cap it off, a coffee shop is being built in place of the circulation desk, including a $12,000 cappuccino machine.

While this really annoys me, I can see why the change is being made. The internet is becoming far more prevalent in our lives, and e-books are going to be on the rise with the successes of's Kindle device and other similar brands. The school is certainly making a logical, and enormously expensive effort to modernize their library to tap into these new changes in how education might go. With this upgrade, students will have access to quite a lot of material.

There are a large number of flaws with this idea, however. The first thing that came to mind for me was what happens during a prolonged power outage? My iPhone, with an e-book reader will barely last a day as I use it, and in a situation such as that, it's going to be going off until I can plug it in. While I can understand the desire to switch to a completely digital library, I can't understand why this would include eliminating the traditional stacks and contents of the library.

This doesn't necessarily stem from a desire to keep books because of the tactile feel and ease of reading - that is certainly a consideration, but that is not the sole virtue of keeping books on the shelves. The biggest concern that the teachers should feel here is the missed opportunities for students to utilize a working library in all aspects - being able to accurately locate a volume on the shelves, how to conduct searches, and simply browsing the shelves for related content. These are skills, especially in the humanities and social studies fields that will be vital for students to learn, for one simple reason: there are many archives and libraries with content that is not digitalized, and nor will it ever be, because of the sheer volume. Computers have successfully been integrated into libraries for years now - they are an invaluable resource for tracking books and their locations throughout a library. I myself have my own tracking software on my computer at home, called BookDB.

The introduction of online shopping and browsing, such as like on or, is something that has never really felt comparable to actually going into a bookstore and browsing the shelves. I've come across numerous books, some of which I never would have come across on my own by just browsing the web pages for books. With every advance, you lose something in the process. Nostalgia aside, presence on a shelf can also make or break an author.

What bothers me more is the attitude that books are unimportant. Books are easily one of the most accessible methods in which to introduce a person to reading, as opposed to an e-reader, which is not only expensive, but is a largely inaccessible technology for most out there - you need an internet connection, computer, account, and so forth. While the successes of the Kindle are well known, proving that there is a market for it, there is a portion of the population that may not have ready access to something like this. People who aren't inclined to read aren't going to go out and go through all the steps, as opposed to a bookstore, where they might browse the shelves and pick up a cheap paperback book.

Another problem with internet only and digital databases is the tendency to rely far too heavily on information gleaned from the websites. Coming from background with a Master's Degree from an online university and working for the same school, I've seen a number of examples of students utilizing Wikipedia as a credible source, as well as other online websites, without carefully scrutinizing or questioning them. Websites such as Wikipedia certainly has their places in the world - it's a fantastic resource for any number of facts, but due to the nature of its existence, it is hard to trust much of it beyond a glance. Online databases are much more reliable, such as JSTOR, but they can be difficult to access and aren't universal to much of the general public, unlike libraries or public archives.

My own experience with online and digital learning was a positive one, but the experience was not completely digitally based. Norwich University's School of Graduate Studies MMH program switched from digital readings to printed coursepacks to alleviate the burden on students printing out everything, and continued throughout to issue books each course. I personally found being able to sit down with a hard copy reading was much easier on my eyes, allowed me to take copious notes in the margins, and were something I could turn to without having to restart my computer after I went to bed.

I personally wouldn't trade books for anything digital. The lesson here that needs to be remembered is that hardcopy books and digital readings are both delivery methods that bring information to a reader, who then does with it what they will. Physical books have the inherent advantage, in my opinion because they are cheaper for the consumer, easier to handle and don't require additional hardware to access. E-books are a fantastic idea to supplement a student body, either through digital textbooks that could be easily updated and distributed, but not as a replacement to a library system in place. Libraries are far more than just for pleasure reading - they serve a scholarly interest, and their use is something that needs to be taught. Plus, walking around stacks of books is just an outstanding way to get carried away.


The future is here, I'm sure of it. For the past couple of years, I've owned a variety of Apple iPods to keep up with my growing interest in music. Looking back at my record with the devices, I'm a little surprised that I actually stuck with the product - since my first one, I've gone through five. Two 3rd generation Classics, 2 2nd generation Nanos and a 2nd generation iPod Touch, which has since been swapped out for an iPhone. Fortunately, I've only paid for a couple of these, because of Apple's fantastic warranty, which covered the first couple devices when their hard drives broke.

I resisted the idea of buying an iPhone for a while, which was one reason why I bought the Touch from a fellow 501st member earlier this year. That was where I realized that there was quite a lot to these devices, and partially the reason why I went out and got a phone. The sheer functionality of the two devices have been a very interesting one, and I believe that it's something right out of science fiction.

I'm finding that the iPhone is an invaluable tool - just carrying it around with me allows me ready access to my calendar, a camera, my e-mail, a calculator, notebook, dictionary, thesaurus, first aid guide, an e-book reader, maps, a compass, the weather, and the internet, among other things, as well as being my phone and music player. I'm slowly getting into the habit of tracking my bills, 501st and work events, concerts and a bunch of other things by using it as a planner, while noting down my food shopping list, interesting books as I browse and looking up the occasional word when I come across something I can't readily remember.

Essentially, what I can hold in my hand is an entirely new method of communicating with the world. I know I'm preaching to the choir here on the Internet. But I'm absolutely astounded that I can check my e-mail, various discussion forums, the news, weather and so much more, practically everywhere I go. (Given AT&T's crappy coverage of Vermont, my options are pretty limited in places). Thinking back to my family's first mobile phone, a clunky, bulky thing that could hardly be put into a pocket, and could only do one thing: call another phone. Here, calling another phone is almost an afterthought.

Star Trek is largely credited with the idea of a hand-held communicator, and the idea has been used throughout the SF genre for years. Taken back to the 1960s, an iPhone, even without having any form of cellular network to operate on, would still be a pretty handy device - it already would be more powerful than the Apollo spacecraft, and considering that the computers of the time were the size of a room. No wonder that the idea of a handheld, wireless communications device would have been a radical idea at the time, and even throughout the next couple of decades, this sort of thing can be used as a prop in the genre.

What interests me more is that for such a rapid development in our society, the influence of something such as a smart phone doesn't seem to make its appearance in Science Fiction as prominently as it might have been. During the Golden Age of Science Fiction, the knowledge that someday, people could walk around, constantly in contact with one another via an impossible technology would have made prime story material for some of the authors. Indeed, some of the effects of these devices would probably fulfill some science fiction authors worst nightmares about a healthy society. The declines in reading, the mutilation of reading and writing abilities, the shorter attention spans and other, similar troublesome trends that we are seeing now help provide the need for such devices.

I for one, have noticed the changes in my own behavior with my phone. Before, I existed without internet at my apartment, although I could check my e-mail on my prior phone. I didn't have television and most of my news updates came from my commute to and from work. Now, I find myself checking my messages every hour or so, while being able to access an incredible amount of information whenever I think of it. Should I want to learn anything about the Faroe Islands (an island group in Northern Europe between Norway and Iceland), or if I need to look up the meaning for the word 'causerie' (light informal conversation for social occasions) or tomorrow's weather, (Mostly sunny, highs in the mid 70s, Light and variable winds...), I have it at my fingertips. I've made a conscious effort to fill my phone with things that are useful, and as such, I've found that in this regard, the phone is a very powerful tool, akin to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or the Encyclopedia Galactica. But at other times, I just want to put it away, and just read a book.

Unfortunately, the phone has that covered. I downloaded the iPhone's version of's Kindle technology, which further adds to its already impressive array of uses by turning it into an ebook reader. I've downloaded a handful of the free offerings from the website. I'm currently reading Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon, Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, which is sure to keep me occupied at the next time that I am stuck in a line or away from my books. I can't say that I'm sold on the idea of an ebook reader, but with the option, and the occasions when I've found myself away from whatever I'm reading, I find it to be incredibly useful.

A couple years ago, this sounded like something out of a science fiction novel or film - the advances in technology and miniaturization over the past couple of years has the potential to change how we learn, access information and communicate with one another, but it doesn't change the way in which we interpret that information - it just gives us more and more as people's appetite for information over knowledge increases, which I find more worrying. I like to think that I have customized the programs in my phone be of use, for communications and information access, as well as for entertainment, and as a result, it's by my side constantly. It's handy, but I'm happy that there is one feature on it that has been a staple of all computers since their creation: an off switch.

Summer Weddings & Growing Up

This year has been particularly weird for me, when I was asked to be the best man for my two best friends, Sam and Eric, for their respective weddings, this summer. It's not weird that they're getting married - I wholeheartedly approve of their wifes, Miranda and Marla, respectively, but I'm a little more weirded out at how this helps to point out that we're all growing up. Maybe growing up isn't necessarily the right word - we're all adults now, thrust into postitions within the working world, and we've since scattered to the wind after high school and college to our careers, lives and hobbies in our own corners of the planet.

While at Eric's wedding, I talked with a couple of friends from high school for the first time in years. I've only really kept in touch with two friends from Harwood, a larger number from college, but there is very little looking back, or effort beyond things such as Facebook, to keep in touch with people. I see what a lot of my former classmates are up to, but I rarely engage with them in any meaningful sort of conversation. I think that's good and bad, honestly. There's very few people who I want to keep in touch with from high school, and as the years go on, (Six already!) we've all changed a lot. Some people, from what I've heard, have essentially moved from student to parent, something that continually baffles me. Others have gone on to travel to other countries and do some pretty cool things.

It's a very strange feeling, looking back at my education and realizing that I'm largely out of that stage of my life, and realizing just how little high school prepared me for this sort of thing. All of my social interactions have changed with my personality and mannerisms as I've grown older, largely formed while in college, but there was just so much crap that I didn't need or have any use for, and from everything that I read and hear about, it's largely the same everywhere else. There's been very little that's prepared me for 'real life', it would seem.

I'm very happy for my friends, I think that they're embarking on some very good places in life, but jesus. We're grown up! When did that happen, because nobody told me.

Rant: Montpelier Drivers

I love driving. I love it a lot, despite the slightly more frequent fuel ups - it's about $30 to fill up my car - and the annoying price of insurance in Vermont with my type of car. However, there are elements to driving that I'm not thrilled with, namely, other drivers from Montpelier, VT.

As a population, they need a re-education when it comes to driving their eco-boxes (As Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear and the UK Times calls the Prius and other hybrids). The amount of problems that I've come across lately is just annoying, and while I don't know if it's just Montpelier drivers, I do know that it's incredibly annoying.

  • While entering traffic, please look both ways before just driving into a lane. While there might be a small gap, you're most likely crap at figuring out the timing that's required to enter that gap. Most likely, it's not big enough.
  • Turn Signals are used to indicate when you're changing direction, entering a new lane or a new street. Slowing down to five miles per hour a hundred feet from where you're going to turn just pisses off the driver behind you.
  • There is a posted speed limit in Montpelier. Within the town, it's 25 MPH. Stick to that, because the people behind you have places to be.
  • Plan ahead and know where you're going. Don't slow down and turn on your turn signal every intersection because your girlfriend thinks this street might be the right one. Don't even think about waving your hand around in a WTF gesture when I honk at you.
  • When at a stop light, please keep an eye on the signal to see when it turns green. When it turns green, go, especially when there is a line behind you.
  • If said signal is a red, you're intending on turning right and there is no cars coming at all, please take a right on red. It'll keep traffic moving.

I much prefer driving on B roads than I do in the city, although larger cities are fun to drive in. While in a city, what I've found is that there's a couple of priorities that drivers should take - safety of their own person and vehicle, safety of the others around them, and to ensure that traffic flows smoothly as a unit. You're not the only person on the road, you're surrounded by other people, and any actions that you take will inevitably cause reactions down the road, such as stopping suddenly, not starting off, or being efficient with your driving habits.

Astronauts > Ninjas

A common scene of the day: Joe on a rock. Posing.

From here on out, I'm decreeing that Zombies, Ninjas and Pirates are no longer cool, and that Astronauts, Mongolians, Vikings and Robots are taking their place as the 'cool' things to geek out about.

Let me explain.

Over the past couple of years, these three character types have become more popular than usual. Pirates, Zombies and Ninjas have long been popular with the geek crowd. Recent films and games have only thrown the fuel on the fire. At camp, there were endless debates as to whether Pirates or Ninjas were better, or who would win in a fight, and I remember at least a couple of camp-wide games that revolved around these types of characters.

A couple weeks ago, I watched one of Yatzhee's Zero Punctuation reviews for a game called Left 4 Dead, which is essentially a point and shoot at the undead, and where he says the following: "It's my observation that Zombies are second only to Pirates, Ninjas and Monkeys in the list of things nerds like and need to shut the fuck up about." After listening to that, it got me thinking - He's certainly right, but but necessarily for the reasons that he presents in the game (basically, he rants about how Zombies have been overused for just about everything.)

I've never really gotten the whole pirates vs. ninjas vs. zombies thing. Sure, they make some interesting stories, but not to the level at which they're really adored at. I think that it's easy to atribute much of the hype to films because geeks and nerds like the various films that they've been portrayed in, and like to talk about it. The endless discussions are informed by the imaginations of screenwriters, and not necessarily fact, and as a result, 90% of the discussions are pure crap in the first place, a sort of rosy-nostalgic look at what we think these things should be.

The root complaint that I have at this point is that for such an inventive, interesting and imaginative genre, there's very little actual innovation and imagination going on amongst the fan community. We obsess over pirates, ninjas and zombies because we've seen them before in films, and know all there is to know about them, reading over books like the Zombie survival handbook and Under the Black Flag if you're really into the subject.

I've seen the fan community in action - we're an incredbily handy bunch, and especially when it comes to things like costuming, there's very little that people can't do, and do it well. But, I try and think back to the various conventions that I've gone to, and wonder, when was the last time that I've seen something truely original. I've seen amazing costumes, especially from the 501st Legion that I'm a part of - and I'm not trying to disparage their work in the slightest - but everything revolves around existing media - Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Batman, Spiderman, you name it, you go to a big convention, you'll likely see them. Even for halloween, unless you're five, you're unlikely to see any originality when it comes to costumes.

Forrest Ackerman, who recently passed away in December of 2008, was the first Science Fiction fan, appearing at the 1st World Con science fiction convention in a costume that he made himself, a sort of astronaut, essentially starting the trend of fan costuming. While I'm sure that there have been more cases of originality, I really haven't seen anything like it. I've thought to myself that it would be really fun to try and construct something new and original for a con, before I remember that I'm really not that into costuming or conventions, but should I ever have the time and inclination, it'll be something to attempt, for sure.

But this is something that falls beyond costuming - it's largely affecting the entire genre. There are two specific examples that I can think of where this is happening - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! and the downsizing of the science fiction sections in Borders Books.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a book that's unoriginal to its core - it takes most of the text of Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice and inserts Zombies into it. I'm not necessarily against this by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm more worried about what it stands for in the greater sceme of things - a general trend of unoriginal thinking when it comes to the genre, especially in popular circles. The big comic book giants in particular are guitly of this sort of thing, running their characters for years on end, without rest or retirement, without replenishing the ranks with new characters that might be more interesting or more relevant. This sort of thinking penetrates all levels of fandom, from the top down. Fans don't necessarily demand anything particularly original, and the production end of things doesn't seem to mind turning over the same franchises to them. And I don't blame them - much of this is a business, and this sells - keep it up, because there are good stories there. But the fan community should demand better.

Borders, last year announced that they were reducing the numbers of SF/F books that they'd have in their stores, a move that would likely hurt smaller and up and coming authors, as it put them in a catch 22 type postition - they weren't selling enough books to warrent shelf-space, but at the same time, they're not selling well because they don't have the shelfspace, at least in theory. The trent here seems to favor more of the media-tie ins that sell far better. While that works for authors who are writing media-tieins, what about the authors who want to tell their own stories?

I don't think that it's any coincidence that books that are part of a larger franchise, such as Star Wars or Star Trek do excepetionally well, and they should - there are some excellent reads out there, and I know a bunch of authors who view their works as far more than a simple paycheck (Karen Traviss, Michael A Stackpole, to name two), and it shows. But, they sell, because they contain familiar concepts, characters and ongoing storylines.

I have no issues with tie-in media, so long as it's well written. But for me, tie-in media is a form of advertising. That's fine, especially because it's generally entertaining, and features stories that are fun, but I'll always value a story that's original (and there will be those that will argue about just what originality is - in this instance, not tied in with someone else's works) over everything else, just because it's something new, a different way at looking at a story or story type. And there are good arguments here - because technically, there are only a handful of different story types - I mean, how many stories about space ships can you really expect? In a recent article that I wrote for io9, I was almost shocked to find that the main villian in most of the military science fiction stories were insectoids - Starship Troopers, Armor, Ender's Game and Alien - all used similar elements to tell their stories. But, their stories are all very different, and I always find that I get more out of them, and most other standalone SF/F novels than I do for 90% of the tie-in books that I read. You just can't compare Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to Spider-Man: Down These Mean Streets, no matter the protestations of tie-in authors, you just can't.

Sadly, this originality is something that seems to be lacking within the geek community, and we've become fans of the pre-existing. My complaint here is that Science Fiction and Fantasy has been an incredibly innovative and creative genre , and those qualities have become very far and few between when it comes to a good book or film. The imagination is still there, but the originality is not, and this is why we have the endless Zombies vs. Pirates vs. Ninja debates, I think - we just can't seem to think of anything else to geek out over. And while it's not completely original, how about Astronauts, Robots, Mongolians and Vikings? They're totally better than Zombie Ninja Pirates any day of the week.

Rant: Joe the Plumber

I have just one question: Why on earth are people still paying attention to this guy? Samuel Wurzelbacher, who gained some fame during the election during the latter weeks of the campaigning, has been made a 'War Correspondent' for the conservative site Pajamas Media. Fine, okay, he's going to try and do something. But when he starts spouting off crap like this, I have to really wonder about what's really newsworthy, and the intelligence of some of my fellow countrymen. From one article:

"To be honest with you, I don't think journalists should be anywhere allowed war [sic]. . . . I liked back in World War I and World War II, when you'd go to the theater and you'd see your troops on the screen and everyone would be real excited and happy for them," he said in an interview with the Associated Press. "Now everyone's got an opinion and wants to down soldiers—our American soldiers, our Israeli soldiers. I think media should be abolished from reporting," he said.

What complete and utter bullshit. Not only is it incredibly shortsighted, it just practically just shouts obedience and follow orders quietly. War reporting is an incredibly important thing to have happen in a war zone during hostilities. Without reporting, we wouldn't have known anything about what was going on, especially when a number of problems came up. Without reporting, atrocities would have never been reported and would have likely continued.

I can appreciate the notion of wanting to support the soldiers that we've deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. But to be completely honest, the reporting for soldiers has been largely positive, with much of the criticism going against the administration and people who have mismanaged the war. Soldiers have come under fire from the press when they've done something that is really wrong, such as torturing prisoners or other unconscionable actions. People who do that not only bring down the honor of our soldiers, but of our entire nation. If they commit a crime, they shouldn't be supported or allowed to continue.

Looking at some of the other things that he's said, he's alluded to World War II. There were atrocities there too. Our soldiers have been known to execute POWs, and there has been allegations and reports of rape and torture while the allied forces moved inwards. This wasn't reported, or it was suppressed, but it certainly has given a number of people the very wrong impression of warfare - It's never clean, it's almost never right and it brings out the absolute worst from everyone involved. World War II unjustly has a reputation for the Just War, or the Good War. It wasn't. It was just a necessary war that was still just a war.

Another small point: Israel's soldiers aren't our soldiers. They're not American citizens, not on our payroll, etc. A vast majority of the people that I've come across don't want to down soldiers - they have the upmost respect for them and what they do, but they want to make sure that we can be proud of our soldiers. The media is the only thing that really is a good safeguard to making sure that war is fought by the few, necessary rules that we've set up. But on the whole, I'm more astonished by the attitude here, that people should essentially put the war into the hands of someone else. To some extent, that's true, because I'm no more qualified to run a war than this guy is. But that doesn't mean that we can't question why we're doing this, because warfare and the political policies that go into it are things that need to be questioned, constantly.

Rant: Fanboy Expectations

There's a couple of things that I've never really gotten about science fiction fans when it comes to the genre, particularly when it comes to remakes or sequels. I come across these arguments almost everywhere, and it's just plain irritating.

"This has forever ruined the series for me"

Okay, this comes up a lot with Star Wars and whenever the prequel trilogy / TV series has been mentioned or when you talk about the Special Editions. Granted, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are nowhere near as good as the original movies, nor is the Clone Wars series. But when you look at the films, there are a lot of differences when it comes to the intended audiences. Episodes One, Two and Three really weren't aimed at the fans of the original series - they were to be included, but honestly? The entire prequel trilogy series was a good way for LFL to reboot the entire Star Wars franchise.

When it comes down to it, Star Wars has always been a huge franchise, not a work of art. While there is certainly a lot to be said for how it has changed cinema, I find a lot of the arguments about the destruction of the property because of some of the recent changes to be extremely superficial, misguided and completely irrelevant. There's some good evidence that this had potential to be a good money-maker. The novelization for the book was published several months earlier, and a number of toys were created right off the bat, which have remained popular to this day. There are a lot of properties out there, franchises, that have become incredibly popular, culturally relevant and just as shallow when it comes to marketing and money. Most children's television shows and cartoons have had a very high value tacked to them when it comes to licensing the property because it sells incredibly well. Transformers, G.I. Joe, Voltron and He-Man all come to mind.

Franchises are an incredibly good idea if you have a marketable idea. Spreading a film's image over books, comic books, action figures, playsets, video games, and spinoff features brings in a lot of money, because fans, especially geeks/fanboys, are able and willing to spend a lot of money. Even better, when a film, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, gains a cult/icon status in culture, when it has the potential to continue to sell to multiple generations. Star Wars succeeds at this because it appeals to a very broad range of people, and it is not necessarily tied to the generations growing up around the 1970s. It contains ideas and situations that apply and still instill a sense of wonder in people today.

Given the cult status of many of these icons, it becomes incredibly difficult to confront, meet and exceed the expectations, especially with people who have grown up with the series. In my mind, it's a nearly impossible task, one that is archived very, very rarely. Off the top of my head, I can only really think of a handful of films, such as The Dark Knight, that has really blown expectations away from an already lauded film. The real task for the crew there will be to find a way to overcome the high points of that film with a sequel. Terminator 2 and Spiderman 2 also come to mind. I'm sure that there are some others, but I just can't think of any others at the moment. No, wait, Lord of the Rings was one of those series that continually build upon the successes of the prior films. But for those couple, there are numerous other sequels that just didn't work. The Chronicles of Riddick, following Pitch Black, was an admirable attempt, but it didn't quite make the grade in a lot of eyes. Spiderman 3 certainly failed storywise, as did Terminator 3. There's a couple batman sequels that are truly abysmal, because they attempted to really please the demand after the first films, but failed. In addition to this, there are a number of remakes and up-and-coming projects in the near future that will have a lot of off the cuff fanboy complaints before the films hit screens. Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still come to mind, while War of the Worlds, Solaris and a couple others have already been made, to varying results.

It comes as no surprise, to me at least, that turning a series of films into a franchise has become a very popular thing now-a-days. There's the new Star Wars, Stargate and Galactica TV series, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Batman, Terminator, James Bond, and the Hobbit films, as well as a couple others - all with massive fanbases across a number of different formats. No matter what the critical reception is, they stand to make billions of dollars in profits from these fans, and will likely introduce a whole new generation and group of fans into their ranks.

Coming back to my original complaint about these fanbases and how these films have a far more difficult time meeting expectations. It's an incredibly frustrating thing to see at times, but from everything that I can see, fans are a greedy bunch of people - they want their originals back in prime, untouched condition because they thing that the film is something that's unique, special and inflexible. That, however, completely clashes with the fact that we're considering an industry that exists as a business - to make money. For some stories, it doesn't make sense NOT to make a franchise out of it because of how popular they've gotten. Honestly, I'm surprised that we haven't seen concrete plans for a Cloverfield 2 yet.

I've been seeing this argument a lot with the upcoming Watchman film, and with the news earlier today that another 15 or so minutes are being cut from the film, we can expect to see another rash of complaints at how the film will be completely ruined. Honestly, I've never understood how watching a new version of something can completely ruin the experiences that you would have gotten from the first. Time still goes in a straight line, right?

Borders Books & Music and The Science Fiction Genre

A number of authors have posted up on their personal blogs what appears to be a disturbing trend when it comes to one of the nation's largest booksellers: Borders Books & Music. It seems, that because of profitability, the Borders chain is cutting back on a number of SciFi titles that they used to carry, which has several authors up in arms, because if one of the biggest retailers doesn't stock their books, that represents a huge cut in their own profitability.

Author Greg Frost seems to have started this with a blog post here. In it, he notes that his book, which went back to the printers a couple times and received good reviews, is not being picked up by Borders anywhere. This is because the first book in the series didn't sell well. Through the rest of the article, he brings up several points that are both indicative of the industry and of the genre, disturbing trends alike. (I have to say, that after reading this, I'm tempted to pick up the first book and see how it is. )

I used to work at a Walden Books, which is owned by Borders, and I've noted a couple of problems with the chain that several of these authors highlight. I don't see this move as malicious intent on the part of the book chain - I see it more as misguided business models that are designed more towards profitability than towards promoting books and reading. Yes, this is a business - a very big one - but for all the need for Borders to make money, I've always seen a book store as a place where people can find something new, exciting, invigorating and fun, mainly through the joys of reading. This is far easier when it comes to a smaller, local bookstore, because they have the narrow shelves, creaky floors and obscure books, and generally, the knowledge and enthusiasm. As Frost points out, the book selling industry has never been a hugely successful one, but it's held up and kept moving by people who have a passion for books and reading. In my opinion, that's how it should be, and while this is largely unrealistic, it's still a nice thought to have.

Several other authors have chimed in about this. Pat Cadigan slammed the company in her blog, Ceci N'est Pas Une Blog with this post.  She notes that a lot of these stores tend to stock primarily movie edition scifi books - I, Robot and Minority Report as two examples, but not so much some of the lesser known, but equally just as good, authors. I think that she misses some of the bigger picture here when it comes to the business, but I do agree with several of the things that she says when it comes to losing our culture.

While I don't think that we're losing culture (any sort of culture that involves buying or selling is generally pretty superficial anyway), it is drastically changing because of the internet. Some things that we hold dear, such as browsing a bookstore has been lost to clicking away on a computer screen, while the books that really sell are the rapidly written movie novelization for the genre movie of the month.

Andrew Wheeler chimes in as well with a more balanced blog post here, and takes far more into consideration that bookstores are businesses, and that a lot of this is an effort to move over to online sales, in an effort to compete with the juggernaut He also explains something about why the big chain stores are in business, and how that has changed some of the landscape, and how that seems to be coming back to bite authors and consumers at this stage. Larger chain stores, when introduced, were big, had a lot of stock and introduced discounts and a fairly consistent inventory to the equation, which some of the more independent bookstores didn't have. Here in Vermont, I can tell you that there are a number of smaller bookstores near my house - Bear Pond Books is great, but they have a very, very limited selection of Sci-Fi and fantasy books. Rivendell has a slightly better selection, while the Northfield Book Store also has a fairly limited selection. The Walden Books where I used to work up the hill has four or five times the selection of SciFi books, than all of those stores, and they can order just about anything on the market.

Bookstores and culture is changing, mainly because of the internet. Major websites such as sell books very cheaply, offer a ton of options and are incredibly fast. Brick and mortar stores are struggling to keep up, and have had to really expand the selection of things that they sell, which is why you now see items such as candy, movies, cafes and discount cards. I'm not trying to defend Borders - I have several issues with some of the things that they do, but this is something that seems to be across the board when it comes to these big stores.

The Borders rewards card is a particular problem - it was when I worked there and it still is. Employees are given a percentage goal for the number of purchases made with a card, and how many people are to sign up. The idea is customer loyalty - If a customer gets coupons from Borders or benefits because of these cards, they're going to shop there more. The problem that I've always seen is that the required percentages are insanely high, and it's very hard to obtain for a cashier, and I know several people who have resorted to scanning in blank cards just to try and keep up - at the cost of their jobs. Borders tends to be pretty draconian about their business policies, and one of the things that really took the rosy hopes that I had for working at a bookstore right away from me. I didn't like worrying about my sales figures  more than telling a customer about a book that was really good - it became more of a how can I get this customer to buy more stuff? While again, this isn't a surprise or something unexpected when it comes with retail sales, it runs against everything that a bookstore should be. Bookstores have to remain in business, but the corporate structure really doesn't lend itself well in this case.

The biggest problem when it comes to science fiction authors is that these cuts, at an attempt to become more profitable, are being hurt for the sheer superficial reason that they don't sell enough copies, and much more of the genre, as I've ranted before, is moving more towards media tie-ins rather than the purely original stuff. While this isn't bad, it is leaving the genre with more of an image that its just a pile of crappy novels based off of this movie or that video game. Across the board, media tie-ins aren't as good as regular fiction, in my point of view. There are exceptions here, and a couple authors who would disagree with me, but when it comes to the genre, I would much rather see original works, not based off of any franchise, get the shelf space, rather than a work that's largely a product (even though it might very well be a good product) advertising for something else, like a movie. This lessens the genre. This added step from Borders doesn't help things at all when it comes to authors who haven't gone and written for the media tie-in market, either because of personal choice or because they haven't been able to work their way in yet.

Increasingly, I'm finding it harder and harder to find what look like good reads on the bookshelves of stores, which is a real tragedy, because this is one way that the newer and upcoming authors can really break out and get an audience. I'm not advocating for a boycott of Borders, because that doesn't really help things - if nobody buys related genres from there, the sales go down and you've made the problem worse. Supporting your independent bookstore is generally the best thing to do, if there is still one around, but the main thing is to continue to follow authors and follow up on new ones, and order their books from somewhere, even if it requires jumping through several hoops. Because in the end, you want to read the book, and the effort to get it should make it all the more worthwhile.

Edit: Wednesday: Neil Gaiman has chimed into the argument from his blog here.

Bookshops have neither infinite shelf-space nor infinite financial resources, and if you only have space and resources enough to put out on the shelves five new SF or Mystery or Horror books this month, then the sixth and the sixteenth books that come out in that field aren't going to get bought or shelved. And even if they are, a lot of them are going to vanish next month, and it's a rare author who remains popular enough to hold his or her shelf-space forever.