Tag Archives: chameleon

Amazon Customer Help Unhelpful, Trollish and Bad

With Amazon, it’s not just troll reviews, it’s also their “customer help” that’s a problem.

Most of us who do business online may have asked ourselves more than once: “Just who is writing these online reviews?” Well – some see themselves as self-appointed “brand ambassadors,” according to a 2013 study of thousands of online reviews conducted by Eric Anderson and Duncan Simester—professors of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Anderson and Simester studied Expedia, Amazon and other companies, but of the group, no company is so associated with online reviews and the “5 star system” than Amazon.

Amazon-logo

I’ve told my friends, “YES there are some writers who pay for fake 5-star reviews,” and some who’ve probably paid people to put fake 1 star reviews for competitors. In the writing community, we go around and around about these problems. It makes legitimate writers question the reviews they receive. I have experienced a self-appointed “brand ambassador” who seems to have decided that a novella I published as an early experiment was the worst sort of self-published book (when it was not). I fought back. After my recent overview of many Nebula Award-nominated authors’ e-books, including single, standalone stories and collections (so, sorry online “Brand Ambassador” reviewer lady – I don’t think that other award-nominated authors you may not have heard of are as bad a writer as I am) — fighting back was better than sitting on my hands. I have more reviews and sales of Shakespeare in Hell than the majority of other single-story e-books or short story collections that I saw when I did the survey.

I didn’t realize until today that the problems in the online review system also extended to the “help community” for Amazon. Amazon’s Kindle message board help community is supposed to provide specific help to self-publishing authors: it’s nearly unusable, I discovered a couple of years ago. The Kindle message boards are dominated by trolls, weirdos and what-have-you. They seem to exist for some self-published Kindle formatting advice authors to troll and advertise their “How to” books, and for others to spam regarding their self published titles. For the average person seeking formatting answers: they’re a disaster!

The motive for this is obvious: most of the people who spend their time spamming others, slamming newcomers or exhibiting other forms of Web 1.0 behavior on these message boards make money from it. They sell their “How to” Kindle or other books by means of their online “help community” advertisement.

But what would the motive be for other commenters to be unhelpful, creepy and even abusive on the regular Amazon.com “community help” message boards? I recently experienced a double charge from Amazon. In attempting to rectify the problem, I clicked on the “Customer Help” message board option. It’s a lot easier to find than the customer service telephone option! Just one of the message threads I saw was this. I was motivated to respond because I’d seen answer after answer from the same small group of people saying “Click on the blue help button.” Well, there is no such button, it isn’t blue, and it isn’t located in the same place on mobile devices. In addition, the “help” link takes the customer to a page where a variety of help options (also web pages and FAQs) are located. There are no less than 3 clicks required to get to a page where the customer could answer questions and get to a telephone customer service option.

This may be a joke to these Amazon customer “help” weirdos making fun of or abusing average customers. But I saw one customer referring to overcharges on his bank account, and a second one referring to two $60 overdraft charges on her bank account. She stated she was a mother of two and they were only receiving small holiday gifts as a result. People like this guy like to inform others of exactly how their bank account works — instead of advising customers how to get duplicate or other wrong charges refunded. I finally broke and responded after seeing him and other commenters being downright rude or mean to regular customers one too many times.

These message boards aren’t hard to locate. They are listed before any paid Amazon customer service option, and long before the web page routine that will result in the telephone customer service. If people comment there, they get either repetitive, insulting or downright creepy and weird answers from a small group of “regulars.” It’s very similar to the same bizarre weirdos who go around clicking “unhelpful” on average or ordinary reviews of books or other products.

Amazon review seller

The only reason I’ll post an online review is if I think the product, restaurant or other business, or book, is really fantastic, or in very rare cases — really awful. I am reviewer #870,251 on Amazon and it is mostly books, dating back to 1998. I was tremendously tempted to review the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, but I resisted.

I know that Amazon.com has its own problems with employee morale, and probably, its customer service message boards are far down on the list as compared to new product launch, driving advertising revenue, and convincing people that ordering online is better than in-person shopping, up to and including getting products within an hour of placing an order.

But I have a hard time thinking that putting the “Customer Help Message Board” button first in front of an actual Customer Service representative method of contact (phone, chat, email) is a great business strategy. The “help” customers would get is non-existent. One of these people informed me that she had been “helping” people on the Amazon customer service help message boards for seven years. Her “help” that I saw consisted of telling people who were complaining about a duplicate, triplicate or otherwise incorrect charge needing to be refunded was to “click on the blue help button.” She persisted in disputing with me approximately 4 hours today and I have no doubt the weirdo crew there is Googling me to their heart’s content, just like some of the others did with the Canadian businessman who had an unusual concern/complaint.

I do not think you have to be an internet, mobile or new media genius to figure out there is a problem when that is your go-to “customer service” method. Some of it is a sort of misperceived value on the commenter’s “reputation” — representing about 1% of people who comment. A very different 1% to the “one percent” we have heard about in the news, but a bullying 1% all the same.

Amazon recently made news for suing over 1,000 fake reviewers. It turns out that auto review website Edmunds.com preceded them by two years. But Edmunds doesn’t directly sell anything: Amazon does. They should take control of their help and advice sections. Misinformation, disinformation and abuse that is rewarded by the company’s ill-considered 5 star review system is not “customer service” or “help.”

Don’t Mistake What I Am Saying About Women …

First off, I just finished doing some work I really do not have a lot of extra time to do, but I did it anyway. Second, I doubt too many male writers would share my experience of having to slack off to go get some items for dinner. It’s cooking right now. Of course there are some: single dads and others.

So hell I sit around and way more often than I should, I feel sorry for myself. I just counted up all the Nebula Award nominated stories and authors since this award began in 1966. I wanted to make the case that “who the story is about” is more important than “who wrote the story.” I discovered that my betters, Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm, Nancy Kress, Connie Willis, Vonda McIntyre, Nina Kiriki Hoffmann, Carol Emshwiller, Lisa Tuttle (who has ethics – she did not want her award, the only person to so-decline to date), Esther Friesner, Ursula Le Guin, and Jane Yolen – had all written stories with female protagonists who received the award.

I only dealt with the short story category. It would drive me insane to deal with all the other categories. And then there’s the Hugos, with which there is some, not a lot, of overlap.

So here’s who these babies are about – by year:

1966 The Harlequin and the Ticktockman
1967 Geology assistant/WWII Vet (“The Secret Place”) and “dead boy’s sister”
1968 Neutered Spacers (Chip Delany)
1969 Dr. Darin (male), monkeys, mentally deficient boy (Kate Wilhelm)
1970 A man (“Passengers” by Robert Silverberg – first person narrative)
1971 – no award –
1972 A man (“Good News from the Vatican” by Robert Silverberg – first person narrative)
1973 Janet Evason – this story is “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ about an all-female planet
1974 Moggadeet – an alien who is eaten by his female mate (by “James Tiptree, Jr.” – “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death”)
1975 Laia Asieo Odo, an elderly woman (aka Odo, in male form, in “The Dispossessed” – by Ursula Le Guin)
1976 Dolf, a man running out of time, who must catch that Zeppelin
1977 A man (“A Crowd of Shadows” by Charles L. Grant – first person narrative)
1978 Jeffty – he’s five. He is always five.
1979 Rob (a guy, a musician)
1980 “An old scientist” and “young female reporter” and giant ants.
1981 Boyd, a male archaologist who discovers his acquaintance Luis is an immortal
1982 An unnamed woman (Lisa Tuttle “The Bone Flute” the only author to refuse the award, due to problems with another author campaigning)
1983 A girl and her dog (Connie Willis)
1984 A young boy who survives a global flood
1985 An old man and a young boy (Williams and John)
1986 Sally Gourley, a truck stop waitress of indeterminate age (by Nancy Kress!)
1987 Pal Tremont, a Korean boy
1988 Gordon Sills (male), Avery Roda (male), love object “Anna” (female)
1989 Sheila, a prostitute rescued from the Biblical Flood, and mother
1990 Male physicist who discovers time travel
1991 Guy who observes that bears have discovered fire
1992 Vietnam guy, Charlie
1993 Three women discuss menstruation (Connie Willis!)
1994 Vietnam guy, first-person narrative
1995 Anli (female) and Derren (male) (Martha Soukup)
1996 The Librarian and Death (Esther Friesner!)
1997 A woman who has the day off for her virtual child’s birthday (Esther Friesner!)
1998 Sister Emily (Jane Yolen!)
1999 Vietnam guy (my dear friend Bruce Holland Rogers – but this theme is starting to look like “Never go full-retard” as stated by fake black guy Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder)
2000 Professional (female) victim (Leslie What)
2001 Investigator of Victim Rights Closure Statements (anti-death penalty story by Terry Bisson)
2002 Maria, African albino women
2003 Mother with a creature for a child (Carol Emshwiller who is better than all)
2004 Female narrator hunting gorillas (Karen Joy Fowler “What I Didn’t See”)
2005 Daughter coming to terms with elderly dying father
2006 A succubus-type of indeterminate gender who lives with a typical middle-aged working woman
2007 An abandoned mistress
2008 17 year old, formerly youngest female resident of Always
2009 Alanna and Ylva (by Nina Kiriki Hoffmann)
2010 “Nameless female survivor” of spacewreck
2011 A man who creates a tiny man
2012 A little boy with a paper tiger
2013 Quy an “older sister”
2014 A narrator of indeterminate gender
2015 Grandma, Eva, a Jackalope wife

Now, nerds and dweebs and geeks – this is who I am. The majority of these winners are either my friends or friendly acquaintances. Some of them have been my teachers and mentors.

I started feeling unholy sorry for myself. Some of my friends, acquaintances, teachers and mentors have unbelievable Publishers Weekly reviews for their work. They have loving retrospectives, and in-depth reviews, story-by-story, of collections of their work. And I saw book after book, whether single, standalone story or collection, with one, two, or three reviews on Amazon. I saw the same b.s. (maybe not the same “quality” as me – but I am “special”) on their work — two star reviews, etc. Judging by Amazon, my dreadful crap has even outsold some of their outstanding work.

So, what I wrote about was this:

To Kiss the Star
Mel Armstrong – 17 – wheelchair-bound, blind, spastic, chosen for spaceflight
The Renascence of Memory
Carol Meyers – 80 – Alzheimer’s patient, former wife, mother, college professor
This Monster
Grendel’s Dam – ageless
Jenny, With the Stars in Her Hair
Jenny Julian – 35 – addicted to extreme cosmetic surgery
The Color of Time
Gia – 21, Nana – 81, Faith – 31
Smiley the Robot
Miss Gia – 85
Everything I Have is Yours
Helene Bacon – 50 – famous film director, Sarah Bacon – 16 – her daughter
Heart of Jade
The Lady – 30 – daughter of 20 Rabbit, the last great king of Copan
Shakespeare in Hell
Emilia Bassano – 35-ish (actually died at age 74) – reputed “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets
The Ruined Gods
Ginger – 28 – a cat woman; Rikki/Roxane/Roksana – 73
The Gods That Men Don’t See
Ginny Baumann – 33 – primatologist
Digger Lady
Vi Elliott – 73 – paleontologist
Incandescent
Paperwhite – a newborn
Her Name is Jacqueline
Lori Johnston – 36 – attorney

The thing is, I might not write very well. I might be crude and maybe not very talented.

Instrumentality of women 600 x 900But I think I am honest. And I listen. So.

Disabled people really will go to the stars, once it is time. Women will continue to use extreme cosmetic surgery to get what they want, although it doesn’t work. There will be a sub-cellular level treatment for Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases – even a reversal of the aging process. People will come to understand that time and space are artifacts of our sensory perceptions. Some day, a robot will fall in love with and care for an old lady, because he knows no better. A woman will one day win the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award as a film director. Some day, a woman will write better than Shakespeare. A woman likely did co-found today’s Mayan community. Some day a woman who lives only a short time will travel faster than the speed of light and save many lives. There probably were early humans here in North America 100,000 years ago. The Mayan howler monkey god is real. Gender reassignment will become much more common and complete. People will so seriously clone for companionship and then – some – the scummy few – will use for organ donation.

There is a hot trade in Altoid mints, intergalactically-speaking.

“Don’t write about your little life,” said Toni Morrison. Open your ears, open your eyes, open your heart –

FREE YOUR MIND

I didn’t know this advice over the years. I know it now, and I’m glad I took it, instinctively. As I say to students, why should we become so upset about abortion, when medical science can and will solve this? Why should we become so angry about the death penalty, when the crimes to which it is the penalty will cease due to evolution?

You think I am wrong? I am an optimist; I am a listener.

Are you?

Introduction 2015: The Instrumentality of Women

My perspective has broadened a bit since 2014.

Introduction

When I was 13, one of the most popular songs was “At Seventeen,” by Janis Ian. I had a record player. There was no such thing as an iPod. If you played a vinyl record enough times it got a grayish tinge and started to crackle and pop. After a few months, I could hardly play Janis’ album any longer and it was gray as hell. I not only idolized Janis — her “look,” her fashion, her voice, her poetry – I related to this song just like every other teen girl. It turned out, later, that the song really was about Janis at age 13, my exact age.

I learned the truth at seventeen

That love was meant for beauty queens

And high school girls with clear skinned smiles

Who married young and then retired …

I had no sense I was “beautiful,” and as far as future career path, I pictured being the secretary to a wealthy and powerful man. I wanted to marry a handsome, strong man. My ideal wedding dress was an “empire” dress — but I didn’t know what it was called back then. I wanted two children: a boy and a girl. Sure, I wrote storylike objects and I painted pictures and I made things. I “whittled” and woodcarved and banged stuff together with old nails. I foraged and hunted and hiked and explored with my dog. I shoveled the manure out of my pony’s stall —

It had been nigh upon three years since I’d gotten a copy of A Wrinkle in Time from my aunt Donna.

The summer I was 13, as I listened to “At Seventeen” over and over, I read Lord of the Rings front to back four or five times. I got the “pancake tan” (didn’t want to turn over so brown in front, white in back). I read Dune. I read Warm Worlds and Otherwise, stories by James Tiptree, Jr. I read through all of Ray Bradbury. I read England Swings edited by Judith Merril. I read Dangerous Visions, and Again, Dangerous Visions. Those were edited by Harlan Ellison. He looked like a handsome guy, judging by his picture. But I wouldn’t have said anything like that to anyone. Admitting I was reading this stuff was beyond weird and nerdy.

Nobody told me I couldn’t be a sci-fi writer. Somewhere in the back of my head this idea took root. I liked to imagine things. I couldn’t help it. I imagined things whether I wanted to or not. These things: they were stories. Not about me. About people I didn’t know, lots of the time. Places, sometimes very far away in space and time, from where I was.

Then my grandfather died and my grandmother didn’t talk to me for a year, and then I moved away to Hollywood and then I came back to Redlands.

I was a different person; I’d lost a year. The normality of my life before was gone. I no longer imagined I’d marry a wealthy, powerful man, although that seemed like a pretty good plan if it ever did happen. I just wanted to survive from day to day.

And so it goes.

This is my third collection of short fiction. Three stories are fantasy; eleven are science fiction. All are about women. Although the fantasy stories are told with male viewpoint characters, their linchpins are the women.

The degree of prior professional publication and recognition on these stories is directly graphable by age. The younger the protagonist, the easier the sale — in fact, “To Kiss the Star,” the first story, was a cover story of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and nominated for a Nebula Award. Its protagonist, Mel, is seventeen, just like Janis Ian’s song. And I realize now what song I heard when Mel looked in the mirror after the ISA “cowboy” doctor gave her sight. In stories I have written, the older the female protagonist, the less likely the story would be to appear in a top publication. At best, these appeared in small press or anthologies edited by friends.

Now, these stories about women age 30 and over are in a book that is published in e-book form by Book View Cafe, the first, largest and most-successful author publishing cooperative, and in trade paperback, by Chameleon Publishing, the publishing company I founded.

Instrumentality of women 600 x 900Here are the stories and who they are about:

To Kiss the Star

Mel Armstrong – 17 – wheelchair-bound, blind, spastic, chosen for spaceflight

The Renascence of Memory

Carol Meyers – 80 – Alzheimer’s patient, former wife, mother, college professor

This Monster

Grendel’s Dam – ageless

Jenny, With the Stars in Her Hair

Jenny Julian – 28 – addicted to extreme cosmetic surgery

The Color of Time

Gia – 21, Nana – 81, Faith – 31

Smiley the Robot

Miss Gia – 85

Everything I Have is Yours

Helene Bacon – 50 – famous film director, Sarah Bacon – 16 – her daughter

Heart of Jade

The Lady – 30-ish and thought barren – daughter of 20 Rabbit, the last great king of Copan

Shakespeare in Hell

Emilia Bassano – 35-ish (actually died at age 74) – reputed “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets

The Ruined Gods

Ginger – 28 – a cat woman; Rikki/Roxane/Roksana – 73

The Gods That Men Don’t See

Ginny Baumann – 33 – primatologist, unmarried

Digger Lady

Vi Elliott – 73 – paleontologist, never married

Incandescent

Paperwhite – a newborn Vogue girl

Her Name is Jacqueline

Lori Johnston – 36 – attorney, married, male genes, female nature

For many years, I did not know that nobody wanted to read a story about a woman over age 30, or a story with a female character over age 25 who wasn’t a “black widow,” a canny elderly detective or nosy old lady next door.

Of course I know that now.

Of course I know there should be romance stories for women, men and transgendered people. There should be stories about crises of conscience for men. How stupid is it, for example, for there to be a story about Helene Bacon, the first female film director to receive an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award? There’s some sci-fi for you. Imagine that this successful, powerful director never had time to get married, but she did have a daughter, Sarah — a daughter very much like her. And right when she has achieved the height of her recognition and power, Helene learns she’s dying of lung cancer. Only a total lung transplant will save her. And Sarah’s not just her daughter: she is her clone. Oh, what to do? God, what a ridiculous, idiotic story. Its mate (architect dying of cancer learns that only his cloned son can save him) was a Writers of the Future winning story. When people questioned that a man would consider using his son that way — what about a mother? — the story was born.

“Digger Lady” has not so much been rejected, but rather – lost, three times, by three different editors of two major sci-fi/fantasy magazines. It is inspired by a lady I got to know at age 17 — some coincidence? — Ruth “Dee” Simpson, the archaeologist at the San Bernardino County Museum. That was my first real job — the “intern” at the museum. The character inspired by “Dee,” Vi Elliott, is explicitly said to be 73 in the story. She is being forced into retirement. There are few women who can claim to have discovered Early Man in the Southern California desert along with world-renowned paleontologist Dr. Louis Leakey. Ruth “Dee” Simpson is one of them. Nobody wants to read about someone like that.

I think they’d rather read about a naive 3-day old genetically manipulated prostitute who is bound to save the world from an alien plague, all the while being beaten to a pulp by a vicious, burned-out case who learns at the end, the value of what he valued so-little. I did write that story and it is in this book; I will not continue to write dozens of them.

It makes me sad when I think of the stories I was given to read while in school (this includes college and graduate school). “The Yellow Wallpaper” – a classic by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The husband’s name is John; the young female narrator has no name. This story was written well over a hundred years ago.

My life, oddly enough, was not over when I turned 25, nor 30, nor even the dreaded 40 and unholy, impossible, “no man will ever want you!” 50. Such adventures I have had – and still have.

The best stories are those which tell themselves. It isn’t “who writes the stories” that is so important; it is the stories themselves.

These are the stories that came to me, as they came to me. For a long while, I didn’t realize that I was, as far as getting paid or getting anybody to read the work, literally wasting my time even attempting to write stories outside the conventional genres (romance, mystery) and genre conventions (like Ellie Sattler in the Jurassic Park movies – she retires, is married, has children and becomes a children’s book writer) about women. Now I do understand that.

I’m writing them anyway. I’m publishing them anyway.

At 13, at 17, at 53, it was and is my job to listen.

Amy Sterling Casil

Aliso Viejo, CA

December 2015

 

The Instrumentality of Women: January 19

 

 

Instrumentality of women 600 x 900 instrumentality-of-women-wrap-cover (1)

You can read stories about women in love, women’s problems, or women’s issues.
Or, you can read stories about the future of women.

In the Nebula Award-nominated “To Kiss the Star,” gravely disabled Mel Armstrong gets the chance to explore the stars, but doesn’t want to leave the man she loves behind. In “The Renascence of Memory,” nanotechnology returns 80 year old Alzheimer’s patient Carol Meyers to her former youth and beauty — but everyone she knew and loved is dead, except her former young lover — he is now too old for her. Famous female film director Helene Bacon will be the first woman to win an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award — but she’s dying of cancer and her daughter is the best donor. How will she choose? The Lady, the only daughter of the last great ruler of Copan wishes to be a man, so she can save her father and her city. Dr. Vi Elliott believes she’s discovered Early Man in the Southern California Desert — maybe she has, and maybe she has not — but she does run across a couple of mint-addicted intergalactic eBay traders in this sequel to “Mad for the Mints.” And lawyer Lori Johnston is happily married to insurance guy Jack — until he tells her he’s committed to gender reassignment to save his job. What Jack doesn’t know is that Lori appears and is female, but her biology is male: born with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome.

The Instrumentality of Women

First eBook Edition Book View Cafe
18 January 2016
ISBN: 978-1-61138-584-7
$4.99

First Trade Paperback Edition Chameleon Publishing
4 April 2016
ISBN: 978-1-46380-239-4
356 pages
$14.99

This is the original introduction: it will be changed now but probably will still include the information about Asimov’s.

Elephant Seals and the Circle of Life

At 7:00, I tell Bruce that if we want to see Big Sur, we had better get going. My plan is to drive north out of the fog and into the sun. We leave Moonstone Beach and about ten minutes later we have entered Hearst’s Maxfield Parrish fairy tale domain and I spot a sign that, for all my years in California, I had never noticed.

baby elephant sealIt’s the California Elephant Seal Rookery. “Should we stop?” I ask. I needn’t have, but we were just getting to know each other.

We walk toward the rocky, low beach. Below us is a small cove rough with black volcanic rocks circling smooth, tawny sand. Lying in the sand is a hideous, grunting, scarred behemoth. A 5,000 pound male elephant seal. His snorts and exhalations are gruesome yet wondrous.

The surf ebbs and flows, the water glittering bright green-blue in the early morning light. Out of the surf emerges a creature with a lovely face and large, soft brown eyes. This is followed by a sleek-furred, round body. She is the mate to the grunting, farting elephant-snouted monster breathing raggedly by the rocks at the edge of the cove.

Bruce looks at me and I at him. We’ve known couples like this. A beautiful delicate female mated to a brutish beast.

“It looks like he’s about to tell her, ‘bring me a sammich, bitch,'” I say.

Bruce agrees, and we start a tete-a-tete about this mismatched pair. The female elephant seal works her way slowly up the beach to the side of her massive mate, heaving her body from side to side in the wet sand. The word “rookery” echoes in my mind. I wonder if she’s pregnant, but I say nothing.

We decide to walk farther south down the boardwalk, and soon realize, this single pair is by far the outlier. On the beach are hundreds of elephant seals, from a distance appearing like gray and brown beach umbrellas scattered along the shore. Here and there are small dark forms squirming in the sand like tiny leeches: the pups.

Up close, the faces of the pups appear exactly like pit bull puppies. The females are a vast array of shapes, sea colors and sizes. Most of the males are scarred fur-covered torpedoes like the massive beast from the small cove.

We see just one other couple, a serious-appearing pair with a tripod and massive camera with a telephoto lens focused on the beach. We pass them and watch a large group of females and pups, with the males arrayed closer to us along the beach, sunning their vast bulk and lying in a row like hideous fat cigars.

At once, about twenty seagulls converge on the beach, shrieking and jabbing their wicked beaks at something. I think that perhaps one of the seals has some fish and they’re grabbing for it, but say nothing. It’s cool and Bruce has his hand around my waist, the newness of this a shivering pleasure.

The moment is snapped like celery by the sudden appearance of a fifty-five-ish blonde woman with a severe haircut, wearing khakis and a dorky blue windbreaker, who rises behind Bruce’s shoulder. “They’re after the afterbirth,” she says, grinning.

Bruce’s eyes flash, but he merely smiles.

“I’m a volunteer docent,” she says. “You’ve just witnessed something people come here for years to see. Usually they give birth at night.”

“Oh,” I say, “Wonderful.” Bruce’s eyes say something very different.

On the beach, the mother seal is circling her darling black pup desperately. I see a spot of blood on her flank, but no sign of afterbirth. A perfect sand circle has emerged and she’s energetically digging it deeper amid the flock of shrieking, fiendish gulls.

“They’ll peck at anything bright,” Volunteer Docent Woman says. “They want to peck the pup’s eyes. She’s protecting him.”

Her eyes shine like bright pale blue crazy pennies. I remember the mismatched couple from the cove we’d seen before, and tell her about them.

“Oh that cove floods. They can’t be there,” she said.

“Well, we did see them,” I say. She’s as certain of her facts as Dr. Quest in a Jonny Quest episode. She mutters a few more things, then directs her attention to the couple with the telephoto lens: they’re the experts. On the beach, the elephant seal mother continues to circle round her beautiful sleek black pup while the males grunt and fart in the sun.

As we continue down the boardwalk, we talk about Volunteer Docent. She had appeared out of nowhere, a frenetic jack-in-the-box stuffed with natural history and expertise, wedded not to human life, but to these massive animals by the shore.

Bruce says, “I thought she was going to demand that I leap down on the beach and bag and tag the afterbirth.”

I laugh.

“She liked you better than me,” he says. Likely; however the seals, she liked best of all and moreso, perhaps a massive orca waited offshore to take her true love.

We get back in the Jeep and head up the coast to Big Sur. While we sun ourselves on a high patio overlooking God’s country, a burned-out hippie asks Bruce, who is wearing a Longhorns t-shirt, “Are you from Texas?”

Of course he is. Philly, Texas.

In quiet moments, I remember the exquisite face of the female elephant seal, about to give birth. She’s far too lovely to bring that monster a sammich.

Anderson at Computer (with puppets)

Five Reasons Movie Audiences Are Smart

Have we really come to the point where a film that’s suitable for all ages, genders, viewpoints and tastes, a simple, charming and spellbinding fable about how the earth might have gotten its start, is “too smart for the audience”?

Anderson at Computer (with puppets)

While it wins “audience favorite” and “best visual effects” at dozens of film festivals, some experts say that The Looking Planet is “too smart for the audience.”

Here is the teaser:

One of the reasons I enjoyed this short film so much — in addition to its visual excellence, engaging story and characters (even though they have only eyes and mouth, no nose), and charming way of explaining how the earth is such a paradise for life, thanks to our special relationship with our moon — was that it was about life.

It features a family: an irascible father, an attentive mother, a wayward, daydreaming son named Lufo, and numerous other brothers/sisters. The Looking Planet’s story covers a pretty big engineering project: the whole galaxy. Lufo’s family was working on one tiny part: our solar system.

In my humble opinion, The Looking Planet took a huge subject and made it into playful, joyful learning. I would definitely qualify it for a “common core” lesson on cosmology. Heaven knows that students need to learn about the universe and they might as well have their spirits uplifted and imaginations engaged while doing so.

Having just watched the PBS documentary about Walt Disney, I was reminded that somebody else took that approach as well.

I tell everyone, “we can only do something about books, we know nothing about film or television.”

But.

I am far from “normal.” Nobody should do market research off me. But I’m so, so tired of films where everyone is blown up, shot to bits, women are portrayed poorly, or what passes for a story is simply a reboot of an old TV show, old movie, or old comic book.

I think people might have gotten tired of horses and buggies too.

I really think this is where we are. When people stopped saying “Man wasn’t made to go faster than 20 miles an hour!” and “Man can’t fly!”

There are only seven different stories?

Why, men can’t watch movies about women unless they are sex objects. A white person can’t enjoy a movie with brown actors (as if they make a whole lot of those …). It not only has to be one of these seven stories, it’s best if the people who are dumb enough to pay $8 for a bucket of stale popcorn recognize the “brand name” from a toy or a movie their parents enjoyed.

Lufo is a speckled light gray color. He doesn’t even have a nose. His body bears resemblance to the characters in the “leaky pipe people” ad. He wears little brass wings that look like 19th century protractor parts.

This one of the seven stories! It really isn’t one of them, any more than you could shoehorn 2001: A Space Odyssey into that mold. They don’t call it “mold” for no reason.

moldy cheese

So, since we know that posts that list reasons are far more read than others, here’s your five reasons movie audiences are smart — and ticket sales are stagnant — and the schemes like computerized script analysis and endless remakes of films made only half a decade ago are driving customers away, not bringing them in:

  1. They are human beings who want to be entertained and uplifted
  2. They have hearts and minds
  3. Even though anybody can make a movie these days, not everyone desires to do so — they expect something better than they could do on their own — not worse
  4. Just because Pew-Die-Pie is the #1 YouTube celebrity doesn’t mean people want to pay $12 to see a movie about him
  5. Just like cheese, ideas can go beyond “aged” to stale … moldy and inedible.

 

Will Authors Hang Separately?

At the signing of the American Declaration of Independence, Ben Franklin famously said, “We must all hang together, or we most assuredly will all hang separately.”

benfranklinjohnadamsgifIt’s like that for writers these days.

In nearly every area, people have figured out how to make money off the creativity of others. I just reviewed the education app Nearpod this morning. It is primarily aimed at K-12 teachers and classrooms. While very interesting in terms of providing a tool for interactive classroom content (especially for tablet-enabled classrooms – it is mobile oriented), I was little surprised to learn that the “App” requests teachers who have made their own Common Core-friendly lessons to apply to be “authors” who will be able to sell their lessons to other teachers at prices ranging from $2.99 for a single lesson to $40 and $50 for “bundled lessons.”

The time and effort to make a decent Nearpad interactive lesson (the app’s beauty is it allows teachers to pace the lesson and break it up with assessments – quizzes, questions, etc.) is far in excess of being paid a few dollars here and there, most certainly what the Nearpad people would offer for the “lucky” teachers “selected” to be “Nearpad Authors.” There are a few such authors featured on the service. There are many more professional “educational content” companies listed. These in turn pay the people who make their lessons as little as possible, usually piece rates for “work for hire,” while making huge amounts of money from it.

We turn to “self-publishing” where authors are encouraged to make their own money and told it’s the “new frontier” enabling them to have creative and financial freedom.

The reality is, there is less freedom than ever. As to financial freedom, the small numbers who are making good money right now … or at least purported “experts” like Jane Friedman (who make money from aspiring writers and conferences and fees) … appear blissfully unaware of the writing on the wall.

writing on the wall

Search engines are going local. Mobile advertising and customer contact is going local and device-specific. Because retail stores aren’t going away. People will probably *never* buy everything online and after more than a decade of every algorithm known to man developed in the absence of direct human contact …

What any real salesperson will tell you is: you can guess about the customer but you won’t know until you talk to them in person.

Which authors other than James Patterson and J.K. Rowling are going to be able to afford targeted mobile ads? Everyone who was previously successful in self-publishing has gone for a traditional publishing contract if possible.

Why would that be so?

Because if we do not hang together, we will most assuredly, hang separately. They have some type of partnership with their publishers.

Yes, that is the future. It was the past – it was exploitive. It broke down. Now authors are being exploited individually.

Of course there’s a better way. But it sure as he** is not going to come from “subject matter experts,” “book formatting experts” or “author assistants.”

I have been a professional writer since 1996. I have worked in nearly every aspect of the publishing industry, from educational to trade fiction to magazines, and every conceivable type of online “content.” I’ve also worked as an executive in the nonprofit world, with government, foundation and private funders and a huge range of projects, and as a business development professional, with over 160 businesses. And, I’m a college teacher.

Writers, by far, have the least ability to work together to benefit each other of any group I have ever worked with. They are at present, hanging on every word of gurus that promise riches and hanging separately.

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Uparshin.

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How Will The World End? Is There a Clue From The Easter Island Heads? They Also Have Bodies!

Did you know? The Easter Island heads have giant bodies that are buried below the surface!

AH2B07The end of the world came sooner for the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) people than for the rest of us.

While people remain on the island today, all the trees of this once-tropical paradise are gone, and the secrets of making the giant statues are forgotten. This rare picture shows the size of the head compared to the buried body.

easter island head bodyThere are more mysteries on earth than we can possibly imagine!

I am often inspired by one of my favorite media personalities, Giorgio Tsoukalos. Giorgio’s open mind helps us to see many possibilities that we otherwise would not consider.

Aliens may very well have started the human race down the path of civilization. They may also have been a source of much ancient knowledge that has been forgotten today. From the ancient Mayans to the Easter Island Rapa Nui people to the ancient Greeks and Romans, many have predicted the end of the world or apocalypse.

Hundreds of predictions have not come to pass, but here are some of the threats coming up soon:

“There is an asteroid with our name on it,” British television astrophysicist Brian Cox told the Daily Mail. tv astrophysicist brian coxAn asteroid nearly impacted the earth in 2014. We almost died in a cataclysm similar to the one that destroyed the dinosaurs.

But, we didn’t.

Now, as many as six world-shattering asteroids could be headed our way, with reported impacts predicted for the days between coming between September 21 and 28 … less than a month from now!

The “Blood Moon Prophecy” originated with Rev. Efrain Rodriguez. Additional pastors, including the Revs. Mark Blitz and John Hagee, have told their followings of tens of thousands that the fourth “Blood Moon” this year will herald the arrival of a giant asteroid. This monster-sized rock the size of a city block, is supposed to hit the earth near Puerto Rico, causing a 300-foot tsunami, vaporization of Puerto Rico and surrounding areas, and a magnitude-12 earthquake.

jumbo jet sized asteroid

Asteroids “bigger than a jumbo jet” come close to earth on a monthly basis, according to NASA, which regularly updates the public on near-misses.

And guess what?

By anywhere from 1 to 2 billion years from now, the earth will for certain be burned to a cinder due to the inevitable expansion of our Sun. Some experts now predict that the end may come even sooner than that — as soon as 100 years from now. According to Reuters, children born today may live to see humanity’s end as a result of global warming above 2C.

Just in case …

You can read up on all of these doomsday scenarios and more!

For $15, you can get a bunch of classic disaster novels from StoryBundle, and donate to the Challenger Center for Science Education! Featuring FIRE by Alan Rodgers (there are some nuclear challenges in the book, but mostly a horrible virus that brings the dead back to life — including meat in freezers! — is on the rampage) and great books by Kevin J. Anderson, David Sakmyster, Laura Anne Gilman and more! If you have never heard of StoryBundle, check it out! You can get top-quality, best-selling books for a single low price, you can name your own price as well, and let them know how much of the proceeds you would like to go to the author, to StoryBundle, and to a designated charity!

 

 

Amazon is the Past, Not the Future

Amazon has made the self-publishing revolution possible; no question. They have also enabled a number of publishers, especially those in esoteric areas or those specializing in low-volume titles, to survive and potentially thrive.

They also provide a huge number and range of goods for sale and services, including data, cloud services, entertainment and shipping. It’s hard to visit their busy website and not think “Are they *everything* to everybody?”

The recent NY Times expose of working circumstances for the company’s white collar workers (tech, marketing, management) has raised a lot of questions. It’s certainly true that there are wretched companies to work for out there, many worse than Amazon. However, Amazon doesn’t appear anywhere on the top 50 companies for Executives from CEO Magazine in the past 5 years; numerous others do – and there’s high variability in rankings.  You will not find Amazon on any of Training Mag’s Top 125 awardees for 2015. You will find, from the tech and retail sector, Best Buy, CarMax, Cisco and Walgreens.

The people who so callously said that Amazon’s policies were fine used the excuse that the company earns a profit; indeed – according to Investopedia, “Amazon’s profits for its entire existence are still less than what ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) takes home every 2.5 weeks.” The company earned NO PROFIT AT ALL until 2009 (founded 1994).

According to BusinessInsider, which is partly owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, “Get it into your heads: Amazon is not going to become a big-margin company. Never has, never will — it’s not in the model.” Of course not. Most retail is not high profit margin; however, most retail cannot go for years with no profits.

The very day of the NY Times Amazon expose, a laudatory article about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos appeared in the UK Telegraph (a conservative or Tory publication). Last week, investment publications reported that Bezos sold over $550 million of his Amazon stock. Possibly, to buy the NY Times and prevent future negative articles.

Jet Amazon competitor

The company is not without competitors. Jet.com is just one of them.

WalMart also does more sales volume in books than Amazon does.

So, what’s the difference? Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re a writer or other professional. You’re an educated, sophisticated person and do not shop at stores like WalMart.

Therefore: no one does, right? Amazon may have advanced in revenue size but it’s still weak and tiny and resource-poor compared to WalMart. Amazon isn’t Apple. It’s not Microsoft. It’s not Cisco. It’s a retailer. An online retailer that ships and has realized it has resources that could compete with UPS or FedEx. It’s still using trucks and gasoline. It still has physical warehouses.

This extremely optimistic chart projects that Amazon will surpass WalMart in revenue by . . . 2024. Even with this hinky curve – there’s a better revenue curve there. It’s the blue one on top. If you’ll notice the raise there for the red one starts after 2015. It hasn’t happened yet.

Walmart vs AmazonSo to the people who work for Amazon, it’s a game with uncertain results.

To the rest of us, especially those of us who are creative professionals, in working with Amazon, we are working with … wait for it … and I *do* work with them and they are human beings just like everybody else. I am never discourteous to others in interactions, but let’s just say Apple customer service is celestial compared to Amazon’s.

If you read that NY Times article and didn’t come up with “crazier than a barrel of spider monkeys and a fifth of whisky,” then you should read it again. You should read Nick Ciubotariu’s “Data driven response” to the article. The only data in his long, full of hurt feelings response is “On average, the ratio of positive feedback to negative feedback was over 5:1.” That’s it. Thousands of words, ZERO data. Nick even says “I don’t know what the employee retention (or turnover/burn) rate is.”

Is it about good vs. evil?

It’s about poor management and decision making. I don’t care that Nick Ciubotariu’s “mentor” told him that Amazon was the “best company in the world.”

I can see from my own limited perspective that what impacts our publishing company and to a larger extent, our world that could benefit from better books (not more books – better books) that everything about Amazon’s e-book hardware, software, sales, delivery and marketing, is harmful to the product’s long-term growth and development of excellence. They are doing nothing but doubling and tripling down on that. For this customer growth.

Do you see the same growth curve in this chart of customer demographics as that optimistic “Amazon will surpass WalMart by 2028 chart”? Oh, those algorithms. There is a secret Amazon anti-aging project. It will deliver “instant youth” in one hour, guaranteed. Only to Amazon Prime members.

Amazon customer demographics

I don’t know how many times I can tell people, “The reason Amazon Kindle sales do not match ‘regular’ book sales is that the Kindle owner customer base doesn’t match everybody else/the general population.” Only about 10% of all books sold are via the Amazon e-book platform.

Now they’ve got Kindle Scout, which is basically another Kickstarter-type crowdsourcing for getting content for a whopping $1,500, some of which might end up being a great investment.

There’s not an original piece of work on the entire Kindle Scout page. People can upvote/downvote/game to their heart’s content. It’s crap made by people devoted to making crap they believe to be marvelous. Oldtimers know this as Sturgeon’s law (90% of everything is crap). Or – “imitation fast food.” Like this (Fast Food You Can Make at Home).

Kindle Scout Crap

Maybe a year from now if this keeps going, the titles will be better, the covers a little slicker. It will still be DIY Fast Food.

Am I saying independent authors only write crap?

No. I’m just saying schemes like Kindle Scout or various “author communities” have as much point as McDonalds opening its stores up to local cooks trying to duplicate dishes the restaurant has sold for years. It is the same whether Amazon does this or legacy publishers do it.

Ron Collins says that lots of big companies are using advanced math to determine the cost-benefit analysis of treating your employees as if they are worthless and interchangeable, and treating them as if they have some value to the business. Amazon’s math doesn’t add up all around. Low/no profits for years. High rate of employee turnover and burnout. Endless schemes, dozens of new business ventures, few of which pan out. Low growth in new business sectors.

All the algorithms and analysis in the world will not tell a business the truth about a customer who is remote (i.e. not “in the store”). And just because somebody buys something one day, does not mean they want or need the exact same thing the next.

Just because a reader stops reading a Kindle book on a certain page doesn’t mean they do not like, value or would not purchase a book by that author in the future.

And above all, these things cannot tell Amazon what people will want in the future. They cannot tell them why people didn’t adopt the Kindle Fire phone (I was told “it sucks” by the ATT representative – “Get the iPhone instead.”) An Apple and a GooglePlay store representative both said that the Amazon display in another office/tech store was “never attended.” One of them described how he bought his aunt a Kindle Fire this past Christmas. He said she returned it and used the money toward a new tablet. Her age and gender put her right in the middle of the Kindle demographic.

I had no negative feelings regarding Amazon until a few months ago. I just thought they were too fast-growing and somewhat impersonal. Then I noticed how nasty, unprofessional and a-creative many of the extreme self-publishing Amazon proponents were. They were not actual employees or executives. Yet their culture was horrifying. “This doesn’t go with creativity or good business,” I thought.

These vicious, rude, crude, unimaginative people are just unpaid versions of the brutes at Amazon HQ in Seattle. Maybe some people think this is winning.

ragnar lothbrok

I do not.

Let’s Do This Different

The Hitler Channel (AHC) has been showing documentaries about “The Evolution of Evil.” These cover such perennial favorites as Hitler and Stalin. Both gentlemen rose to power following the breakdown of monarchies in Europe/Russia and the first World War.

evolution of evil nazi brandBoth, interestingly, were young men from relatively impoverished backgrounds — “outsiders” who rose to power in the chaos following the fall of prior Imperial structures. Hitler was a German-speaking Austrian; Stalin a Russian-speaking Georgian. Both were educated in traditional religious schools prior to becoming involved in revolutionary movements.

Russia’s “Man of Steel,” Stalin, had a lot longer run than Germany’s Fuhrer, Hitler.

So in recent months I’ve had a bit of contact with younger people who desire change. Some reminds me of my great time working with Policymic. Others — maybe not so much.

I put my experience working with Policymic in the 100% positive column. I think many of the Policymic former and current writers are doing incredible things and that they want nothing but good for other people. They want, and are working, for positive change. I was really glad to see Laura Donovan writing for Attn:, for example.

I find a number of younger people who seem to be locked into a cycle of complaints, the same type of aggressive online attention-getting we see from many male media personalities, and the same lack of respect for older generations or diverse cultures and values that is typical of the Tsars, Kaisers or “American Titans” of the past.

Like Stalin became Tsar-Plus, worse than any Russian Tsar of prior generations, once his opportunity came. Like Hitler became Kaiser-Plus, worse than Kaiser Wilhelm ever thought of being.

Stalin has been commonly called a brute and a pig. What he was, was murderer to millions. He alone took the former Soviet Union back decades. People wanted freedom and opportunity after Imperial Russia and its abuses. They got the “Man of Steel.”

I now understand in all regards how and why my grandmother was one of the six founding members of the American Communist Party. It was at this time that women had barely achieved the right to vote in America. She was a first-time woman pharmacist in New York (Hell’s Kitchen) and California. She certainly would not have been welcomed by either U.S. established political party at that time; the Communists were the only ones who would have either welcomed, or listened to her.

My Grandma Mary was probably the most humane person I have ever met, and insightful enough about human nature to have easily repelled a serial rapist who broke into her small Fairfax District apartment when she was up in her 80s by saying, “Young man, if you touch me, you’ll get the worst disease you ever heard of!”

Like Stalin, some of these young militants today respect power — what they perceive of it. After watching the AHC documentary, which detailed some of Stalin’s consolidation of power — perhaps they are like Trotsky, who little understood the consequences of his snubbing Stalin. Average people “get” that you get back what you put into something, and the way you treat others is generally how you are yourself, treated in return (i.e. “The Golden Rule”).

These days, most people’s basic needs are met. They also get basic entertainment, comfort, and sexual needs met fairly easily.

Our intellectual and spiritual needs: not so much.

So, it is my hope that as we pass from one era to the next, we do not have the same circumstances as occurred with Hitler and Stalin, where higher-class hereditary monarchs and dictators were replaced by lower-class, non-hereditary, power-mongering ones who made their predecessors look like amateurs in oppression.

If you think you’re “left out” today and want to be the dominant voice of tomorrow, having no respect for those who came before you is hardly the way to make a change and make a difference.