Pardon The Dust

Every time I pick a WordPress theme, I tell myself that this time it’s going to be permanent. There’s no way this theme could ever look dated, I think. And then a few years go by and I realize time has moved on and the thing I thought was cool now looks outdated and lame.

So then I have to spend two hours tweaking settings and playing with previews until I find something that feels not lame. And all the while, a little voice whispers in my ear that it’s time to get out of the bush league and buy a professional theme for real money dollars because the lack of professional theme is the only thing that’s keeping me from realizing my dream of being an author. And then I start to think, you know, maybe that’s a good point; 80 or 100 bucks for a theme isn’t an extravagance, it’s an investmentIn my FUTURE CAREER.

And then I see a perfectly good free theme that meets my needs and I go with that, because otherwise I have to justify to my wife (and to myself) why I spent 150 bucks on what basically amounts to a different usage of white space and a different font choice.

Yeah. Better stick to the free themes. When I find a good one, I play around with it until I’m happy and then I tell myself that this is the one, this look is timeless and will never, ever look lame.

So anyway, if you’ve been trying to read anything over the past few hours, that’s probably why things keep shifting. It’s not just you. Unless your graphics card is starting to fail, in which case it might be you.

It’s Easier To Stay Away

So, it’s been pretty quiet around here, yeah? My fault, of course; I’m the sole proprietor of this little corner of teh intarwebz. There are a lot of things I could blame for my recent lack of personal responsibility, a state that extends far beyond just not blogging for a while.

I could say that the double punch of rolling from another grueling NaNoWriMo right into “having an Xbox One” ended up being a lethal blow to my personal productivity. Why sit down and try to write something when there are so many games to play? Dragon Age: Inquisition alone took about a month to play, although that was because I took my time with it and sipped slowly, savoring each story progression quest like a fine wine. I still have Titanfall (shoot things as a giant robot!) and Destiny (shoot things with space magic!), not to mention that I finally tried MineCraft for the first time, even though this puts me a few years behind everyone else in the world.

If there’s a more deadly game to one’s productivity than MineCraft, I don’t know what it is. Last night, I intended to relax and play for half an hour before going to bed; and then suddenly, it’s 1:30 am and I’m halfway through the construction of an underwater glass tunnel. Why am I building an underwater glass tunnel? BECAUSE UNDERWATER GLASS TUNNEL.

I could say that all of those fun things are the reason why my blog went stagnant, I stopped updating my budget, and failed to really do anything outside of going to work. But that’s not the real reason. I could also say that, well, basically I’m a video game addict and so it’s my addiction’s fault, but I’m hesitant of using the word “addiction” so freely. There’s a much more appropriate word, in my opinion: escapism.

It’s easier to escape into a virtual world. It’s smooth and it’s easy and it’s fun. The problem is that you tell yourself you’re just going to take one quick dip into the abyss, just stick your toe in a little, but the abyss doesn’t want to let you go. Its pull is slow and steady and sure. And once you’re in up to your knee, suddenly the fact that you haven’t written anything, anything for four weeks feels like too much failure to overcome. What would I write about at this point? Sorry for not writing? I hate posts like that. A blog that fills up with “I promise to write more” is a blog that’s already on life support.

It’s easier just to stay in the abyss.

I write this because I’ve learned to come up from those depths. It was World of WarCraft during my undergrad years that taught me the importance of actually attending to my own life, although sadly it was a lesson that took much longer than a month over the holidays to learn. But I did learn it, even if sometimes it’s easy to slide back down.

It’s not a New Year’s resolution. I’m not resolving to write more often, exercise more, play fewer games, worker harder on my budget and paying down my student loan debt. This is just a moment in time; a realization that I am an escapist and like so many facets of one’s personality, there is a dark side as well as a light one. Realizing it is the only way I know how to keep it in check.

The Potential Dilution Of The James Patterson Brand

Even though it’s trendy for bibliophiles to take potshots at James Patterson’s quality as a writer, that’s not what this post is going to be about. Regardless of one’s opinion of his writing, the man is a tremendous supporter of public libraries and reading in general. He’s donated money for scholarships and for awards to institutions to help encourage the love of reading. I may not care for his work but I respect his contributions to literacy and the love of reading. Honestly, albeit unrelated to my main point, Patterson does come off as much more of a classy guy than Stephen King does when the latter snipes at the former:

In an interview for USA Weekend, Stephen King referred to Patterson as “a terrible writer [but he’s] very successful”.[13] Patterson said of King in a Wall Street Journal interview, “he’s taken shots at me for years. It’s fine, but my approach is to do the opposite with him—to heap praise.”[14]

Though I don’t have a strong opinion on the quality of his writing, I do have a few thoughts on his prolific output and what it might mean for the future of his career. This opinion is informed pretty much entirely by my experiences working in a public library and conversing with several dedicated Patterson fans.

Patterson is one of those writers that I consider to be a brand unto itself. He’s not the first writer to do this; Tom Clancy turned his name into a brand years before his death. You knew what you were getting when you picked up a Tom Clancy book, whether it was one of his Jack Ryan novels or one of the series that were ghostwritten under his name: Op Center, Netforce, and Splinter Cell are the ones that come to mind first, although I’m sure there are others. Regardless, when you pick up a Tom Clancy book, you can expect a political/military thriller of some kind. It’s what people who read Tom Clancy want. It’s why they read him.

Originally, you could say Patterson fit into this same brand identity, albeit as a more general thriller. This is the advantage of the Patterson brand: if you like thrillers, you can reliably pick up books with his name on them because they’re going to be thrillers of some sort.

Scoff if you like, but this is a reliable way to sell books. Here’s why. Most readers don’t want to venture too far out of their comfort zone. I’m not being dismissive of this tendency. For many people, free time is at a premium. The time one has to spend reading is valuable and there’s nothing worse than spending that valuable, precious, limited time on a book that you’re going to hate.

You might only have enough time to read four or five books a year. Me, I try to pack in around 100 or so a year, but I have the kind of life and the kind of work situation where I can do that. I can read for an hour every day on my lunch break. I can read for a few hours when I get home because I don’t have kids or pets that require much attention. Not everybody has that kind of time.

Thus, if you’re a reader with limited time to spend on books, you’re more likely to stick with something you know you’ll enjoy. You pick up a Patterson because he always entertains. It’s a safe investment for your reading time.

The scope of the Patterson brand is growing. It’s also changing. In addition to his thrillers, he’s writing YA fantasy novels. He’s writing humorous novels about kids in middle school. He has a picture book. Romance novels. Crime novels. Some nonfiction.

You can’t look at the Patterson brand and expect to pick up a thriller anymore. And I have to wonder: is that a good thing?

Is the value of the brand harmed when the brand identity is diluted? Patterson’s strength is his prolific output and the fact that his name on the cover sells books. What if that output becomes so vast that readers with limited time/funds/attention lose what made him an attractive option? If you can’t trust the Patterson brand to deliver what you want, you won’t pick up a book or trust a book that’s carrying his name. That weakens the ability of the Patterson brand to sell books.

The widespread nature of what Patterson’s name has been attached to is also potentially weakening to the strength of the brand as a whole. While authors often like to spread their wings and try different things, few authors have ranged as widely in subject, theme, and appropriate age level as Patterson. Stephen King readers would likely not pick up a Stephen King book for their middle schooler, but Patterson has a few YA series. Do readers of his YA series also want to read his adult novels? Do parents reading his adult novels want their kids reading the adult books after finishing his YA fare? It’s hard to say.

Ultimately, I perceive a potential future where Patterson’s name is put on too many things and it loses its value to readers. Already, I hear rumblings from some of our more dedicated Patterson readers coming into the library. They can tell which books have his actual writing and which books are a ghost writer working from the man’s outlines and style guides (or at least, they think they can tell). It doesn’t matter if they’re right, because if that’s what they’re thinking, it’s already going to affect their browsing habits. If the Patterson brand loses its ability to promise entertainment, they’ll turn to different authors until they find someone who fills that need for reliability.

James Patterson isn’t going anywhere, not when he’s sold over 260 million books. He alienate thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of readers and still bring home a nice paycheck.

But could the success of his own brand turn off some of his dedicated readers? Could he become a victim of his own success? It’ll be interesting to watch and see what happens.

This Week In Terrifying Theoretical Science

If you ever need something to cause you to reflect on the futility of life, look up “fate of the Universe” on Google and do a bit of reading. The Big Freeze, the Big Rip, the Big Crunch . . . there aren’t too many scenarios in which the Universe makes it out alive at the end of time. Even the most optimistic scenario, the Big Bounce, still ends with this universe dying so a new one can take its place.

But that’s deep time. The Big Freeze will be about 10^100 years from now, which is an unimaginably vast length of time. Even the soonest possible fate, the Big Rip, will still take 22 billion years. Nothing for us to worry about, right?

Except that maybe we won’t have to wait that long. Turns out the Universe could collapse at any moment:

Danish scientists say an expanding bubble of existential doom could crush the Universe into a tiny ball. And crazily, the odds of this collapse is higher than previously thought.

This theory isn’t actually new. But the scientists who conducted the new study say previous calculations were incomplete. Their new, more precise calculations, now show that (1) the universe will probably collapse, and (2) a collapse is even more likely than the old calculations predicted.

You can check out the article for the how and what for what a Universal collapse would actually mean, but practically speaking, it’s The End. Of everything.

That’s not the scary part. We already knew the Universe is going to die someday; current physics do not allow for a scenario in which the Universe survives forever, as mentioned before.

The scary part is that it could be happening right now:

“The phase transition will start somewhere in the universe and spread from there,” says Jens Frederik Colding Krog, PhD student at the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics Phenomenology (CP3) and co-author of an article on the subject that appears in the Journal of High Energy Physics. “Maybe the collapse has already started somewhere in the universe and right now it is eating its way into the rest of the universe. Maybe a collapse is starting right now, right here. Or maybe it will start far away from here in a billion years. We do not know.”

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that if a Universal collapse is happening right now on the other side of the Universe, it would travel at the speed of light, meaning that it would take a while to reach us. On the other hand, we’d probably know about it juuuust long enough to panic and contemplate our coming demise.

So, you know, there’s that.

Actually, there is other good news; all it would take is the existence of other, currently unknown elementary particles to call the whole model of collapse into question.

Hopefully you’re out there somewhere, little particles. I rather like existing and would hate to see all of reality buckle in on itself. It would seem a rather ignominious end.

On Surveillance

A few months ago, I wrote the following:

If you are able to complain about the “lack of freedom of speech” in a public forum, you still have freedom of speech. You’ll know when free speech is gone, because nobody will be able to say anything about it. (Complaining about the erosion of free speech is still vital, however, as it safeguards against that erosion.)

The day I know we’ve slid into an actual authoritarian police state will be the day when I do not see numerous books on the shelf in a public library accusing the current President of destroying the countrybeing an idiot, or just being evil in general. We won’t have a news networks that are pathologically dedicated to mocking everything the government does. Those things don’t exist in a police state. You don’t get to be a talking head on a popular news network, you get to be shot in the head.

I’m trying very hard to remember the certainty I felt when I wrote those words. Because I don’t feel it now.

I’m not going to bother linking to any news stories. There are too many to choose from. The Daily Show segment was probably the most amusing, though.

I take back what I wrote. I thought about deleting the original post, because I know longer believe it to be true, but I think it’s important to oppose censorship, even and especially self-censorship. Let the old post stand as a reminder that I was wrong.

Pope Francis is Time’s Person of the Year, but in this blogger’s humble opinion, Edward Snowden should have been.