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Archive for the 'Ethics' Category

Susan Sontag on Storytelling

Another article on writing and reading. This time Susan Sontag on Storytelling which has some very useful insights from one of her last public appearances — a lecture on South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer delivered shortly before Sontag’s death in 2004.

As well as looking at the difference between telling a story and imparting information or the writer’s role in deciding whhich of many stories to tell, the part of the article that really spoke to me was a quote of Sontag’s definition of what a writer does and is:

Every writer of fiction wants to tell many stories, but we know that we can’t tell all the stories — certainly not simultaneously. We know we must pick one story, well, one central story; we have to be selective. The art of the writer is to find as much as one can in that story, in that sequence … in that time (the timeline of the story), in that space (the concrete geography of the story).
[…]
A novelist, then, is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.
[…]
Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once … and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.
[…]
The work of the novelist is to enliven time, as it is to animate space.

Thought-provoking and well worth taking the time to read and absorb.

Hat-tip to Jan Whitaker on OWW SFF Writing Forum for drawing my attention to it.

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Oppressed Majority

This post moves outside my usual focus on writing, particularly SF and fantasy. However, there is a linkage I want to make in the imagining of a matriarchal society the video below does what SF does best. It turns the tables on conventional thinking by making modern-day France a matriarchal society and looking at a man in that society experiencing the sort of harrassment that happens daily to women in Western countries.

I first came across it in this Guardian article, Oppressed Majority: the film about a world run by women that went viral, which is worth reading in itself.

This short film (around 11 minutes) is worth watching both from the perspective of challenging thinking in our present-day society and also, for writers, to provoke thought about the types of gender stereotypes we introduce around our characters.



Updated 15 Feb:
A Guardian “Comment is Free” article responded to the film with the opinion Feminism can save France from Islam: that’s the real message of Majorité Opprimée. I disagree that its focus is on Islam, that is just one aspect. Much more it is about reversing male and female roles to point out how we make assumptions and stereotype.

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PRISM: Orwellian surveillance and the Cloud

The recent disclosure of the extent of US covert electronic surveillance through PRISM (and, one must assume, that of other governments via access to PRISM data or through their own tools – Yes, China, we’re looking at you!) shows the paranoid had it right about living in an Orwellian dystopia where one’s every utterence (presumably, including this post!) is scooped up into the maw of the US intelliegence machine to search for key words that ring their alarm bells.

Americans themselves appear to have some (probably scant) constitutional protection from all this. The rest of us suckers appear to be fair game. This is a “wake-up call” for anyone who has placed any faith in Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, IBM and all those other US-based providers of data storage and cloud services. Do they deny PRISM because they knew but couldn’t tell (due to secrecy orders) or because they really didn’t know? Either way, this is bad news for privacy and security.

For a British technology writer’s take on the imlications for Cloud computing see this Computerworld article on Why PRISM kills the Cloud.

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Do Barnes & Noble want to sell e-books on the Nook?

If you publish e-books through Barnes & Noble, you should check out this post from author Holly Lisle: #WRITERS, Barnes & Noble Nook Press Contract Terms are INSANELY Bad!
This does not look like a good change to the terms and conditions.

Holly is an established genre writer (who not only writes fantasy and science fiction but also runs writing courses and publishes writing “How-To” books). I have been following her advice and information blog and email articles for a while. She is taking down her work from B&N.

Reading her post and some of the comments after, there are serious questions about B&N’s e-book business model – are they trying to suppress the e-book market because it eats into their “bricks & mortar” business model? Not the best way to compete in a changing environment!

Updated: 12 April:
Holly Lisle posted an update, detailing corrections relating to the B&N contract, which was not putting the full contract in the printable version: #WRITERS, Barnes & Noble CORRECTED Its Contract

For a different perspective, including references to Holly’s and other comments on the B&N collaboration tool contract see a post on Book View Café: Writing in the Digital Age: Nook Press – A Boon, or Boondoggle?

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Writers Beware: Random House’s e-book contract

When a major publisher like Random House seeks manuscripts for three new genre e-book lines it sounds like “good news”. I certainly thought so when I heard about the call for manuscripts last year. Unfortunately, the “small print” in the contracts has been anything but…

The Writer Beware blog from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (the objective of which is to “… [shine] a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls”) published a detailed critique of the conditions – Second-Class Contracts? Deal Terms at Random House’s Hydra Imprint – at the end of last month.

John Scalzi (president of the SFFWA) also weighed in with an article – Note to SF/F Writers: Random House’s Hydra Imprint Has Appallingly Bad Contract Terms – that details just what he saw wrong with it.

I first came across this furore through SF and fantasy writer Judith Tarr’s excellent article – Random Hydra and the Terrible, Horrible, Awful, No-Good, Very Bad Contract – at the Book View Café blog. Her whole article on e-publishing is well worth a read.

In the meantime, it is good to see Random House has responded to the wave of criticism and have proposed changes to the contract terms. Writer Beware carried an update – Random House Announces New Terms at Digital Imprints Hydra, Alibi, Loveswept, and Flirt – detailing these.

Anyone considering an e-book (or conventional) contract will be well-advised to review these articles (and the rest of the “Writer Beware” site) to gain an awareness of things to look out for. We all want to be published but don’t want to be scalped (or be pushed back towards “vanity publishing”).

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‘Space marines’ – Games Workshop’s appalling trademark claim on SF trope

Ever heard of “space marines”? If you read Heinlein or Doc Smith, watched “Aliens” or “Avatar” – or many other SF stories from the 1930’s onwards – the term will be familar enough. Yet Games Workshop are claiming it as a trademark as part of their Warhammer 40k universe. They forced Amazon to remove Indie writer M.C.A. Hogarth’s self-published e-book, “Spots the Space Marine”, last December. Read Hogarth’s Blog for her side of the story.

Fortunately, following high profile SF names taking up the case, including a blog by John Scalzi (current president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), Amazon have now reinstated the story. Good – but it should never have been taken down in the first place. GW seem to have attacked an Indie author on the assumption (correct) that she would not have the funds to fight such frivilous nonsense claims rather than attack a mainstream publisher.

“Space marine” is such a common term in SF circles it could be called a trope, a cliche even. What are GW thinking of? What will they try to trademark next?

It is fortunate the SF community is rounding on them over this and defending a writer who used the generic term and did NOT take any GW-specific aspects of the “space marine”. It highlights an issue for indie authors. I suspect we will see more of these spurious claims in the future. Shame on Amazon for how they responded initially.

The story has now made the mainstream press such as the BBC and an excellent article by Lewes Page on The Register which highlights that GW values are ‘Honesty, Courage and Humility’ – all of which are conspicuous in their absence in this case. GW seem to be imitating the “patent trolls” that plague the technology industry.

What do you mean, I can’t use the term “troll” because someone’s trademarked it?

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eReader snoopers: Is Big Brother on your Kindle or iPad?

Every now and again, I come across a website I just keep wanting to revisit. Dennis Baron’s The Web of Language is one, full of fascinating information on the use of language and technology.

One particular article has caught my eye: the e-reader over your shoulder.

I dislike the idea that my reading habits are monitored, assessed and sold. Yet that is the trade-off I entered into when I started using a Kindle (and the same goes for Apple products too). As Baron comments:

Kindles and iPads track what we read and when, record our bookmarks and annotations, remind us what we searched for last, and suggest other titles we may like. They collect our personal reading data in the name of improving… our digital reading experience, and along the way they may sell the metric of how and what and when we read and use it to improve the company’s bottom line as well. … CCTV may monitor our comings and goings from the outside, but e-readers have spyware that actually looks inside our heads. And e-books provide the ultimate interactive experience: they read us while we are reading them.

The whole article is well worth a read, running from teachers being able to monitor student study patterns, through Amazon and Apple selling your reading habits through to the implications of DRM and the fact that one never “buys” but “rents” through their stores.

It makes uncomfortable reading.

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Abandoning Amazon because of their tax position? Waterstones not ready to take up the slack

In recent weeks there has been a lot of chatter in the UK press about global firms such as Starbucks and Amazon avoiding local taxes in the countries the operate in through accounting devices increase local costs and route profits through lower tax locations. Not illegal, but is it ethical?

I have been a regular and satisfied customer of Amazon in France and UK for some time. I am also, when in UK, habitually drawn to Waterstones excellent book stores which have received a generous portion of my custom over the years.

In the light of the discussion about tax and supporting local businesses, when I needed to buy a book for my daughter’s birthday, I decided to try Waterstones.com. Sadly, it has been a frustrating and, ultimately, fruitless endeavour. The web site was not quite as easy to navigate as Amazon but I found the book and, with a competitive price and an indicated delivery date of 4 to 7 days, ordered it on 22 December. An acknowledgement indicated estimated delivery date of 29 December so some days ahead of the birthday.

Delivery date came and went, birthday arrived and still no book and no email indicating status or despatch. After waiting a fortnight from ordering, yesterday I phoned the Waterstones.com customer service desk. Relatively straiight-forward set of menus and a UK landline number for customers phoning from abroad (rather than the costly 0845 numb ers that drive me mad) meant I got through easily. After confirming the order number (twice) I was told the book had not been desptached yet.

And????

And there was no indication when the publisher would be supplying it. So it is “out of stock”? I asked. Yes. Why could this not be indicated on ordering? Response: that was why they said 4-7 days delivery originally. They then said they would investigate with the publisher and would send me an email updating me on the expected delivery date.

Going into email today, two emails from Waterstones waited for me. One automated, the other from Customer Services. Both said the book is now out of print and cannot be supplied. Aggghhhh!

Given it is intended as a present and is related to my daughter’s up-coming visit to Korea this left me up the creek unless…

Amazon’s UK site showed they still had two copies left. I immediately ordered it. Estimated despatch date Saturday 12 January with free delivery within the week. However, within three HOURS of ordering I received an email from Amazon confirming despatch, estimated delivery date: next Tuesday, 15 January.

Result: birthday missed, no sale for Watersones, one hacked-off customer and the book ordered late from Amazon… but at least it seems to be coming.

Oh! Final point: When on the call to Waterstones, I was offered the opportunity to feedback on the Customer Service. Pressing the button to do this I was informed all I had to do was hang on at the end of the call. Yeah, sure! I hung on and hung on and… nothing. (The suspicious side of me suspects a light illuminates so that they know this will happen and, if the customer is less than impressed, the call gets dropped. This is the main reason I decided to blog about this experience.)

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Merry Christmas? Not for Jack Bauer

Don’t you just hate those cute-sy Christmas videos?
Here’s a slightly different Christmas video (for fans of “24”). Jack Bauer interogates Santa for the names of the reindeer:

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Firefly, free speech and SOPA

I am a huge fan of Firefly and Serenity. Recently I heard about the attempt to censor a US university professor who put a humorous quote from the show on his door (and which the thought police had totally misunderstood…) but have only just heard how it ended.

The YouTube video below, featuring Nathan Fillion and Neil Gaiman, tells the tale of how common sense only prevailed after fans of Firefly got involved.

Firefly campus censorship video

Another interesting thought… if Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) are passed in US could someone based in Europe share this with friends outside the USA?

Given Firefly was a Fox series, check out the hypocrisy of Rupert Murdoch, that stout defender of the rule of law, whose News Organisation is committed to saving us from all those who would break it. Murdoch on SOPA

Oh? Did someone mention phone-hacking?

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