Sunday, March 17, 2013

Babes In Tights And Weirdoes In Onesies

That was my weekend, in a nutshell.

I agreed some time back to attend Aicon in Hobart this weekend. Of course, when I agreed I didn't know I'd be behind the eightball on the exegesis, and desperately entangled in projects and problems. But sometimes you gotta do these things. I'm a writer, and I promised to be a writer for a panel thereof at the Hobart Anime Convention. I also promised to be a martial arts demonstrator, since the organisers of said convention have a thing for all matters Japanesy and cultural. However, there was a considerable dose of rain on the day, and as they'd scheduled the chop-socky demo for an outside venue... yeah, didn't happen.

Can't say I mind, really. I did bring two students down with me -- no, three if you count young Jake -- but it was largely by way of coincidence. The redoubtable Baggins sisters are huge anime and comic fans, and both of them were all set to costume up and dive into the anime con anyhow, so it made sense to car-pool, and they were kind enough to accept the possibility of double-duty: not just fans, but demonstrators, etc.

But any demonstration of which they were part would have been... problematic. Elder sister Amy was done up as Harley Quin from the DC comics. Yep: the whole skin-tight spandex jester suit and hat, whiteface make-up, booties, the lot. Also a gigantic comedy mallet for threatening people. Ms Baggins -- also our mighty perky model for the Mighty Perky Nana Bar day -- is pretty dedicated to her costumery, and she went after the look with... well, everything. Not to put too fine a point on it, the lass in question is constructed rather like a comic-book heroine in her own right, and once she was in that second-skin... let's just say I'm pretty sure there are a lot of anime fans in Hobart today nursing wrenched neck muscles.

Meanwhile, younger sister April Baggins is also costume-prone, and landed herself a very fine Black Widow outfit, of the sort wrapped around Scarlett Johansson in the recent Avengers flick. April's a natural redhead, so the costume was a no-brainer for her.

So: yes. I recognised the humour of the situation -- setting up to do a martial arts demo in which the two assistants were both comic-book Queens of Biffo and Oomph. I assure you it wasn't planned on those grounds, but sometimes these things happen. And that's why I'm not sure whether I'm glad or disappointed the rain came over. It did save me from being hurled about the place by my wrists... but I think I would have enjoyed watching a bunch of anime people goggling at the martial antics of Harley Quinn and the Black Widow, while themselves being twisted, bent and brutalised. (Yes. I planned a very hands-on demo. Sod all that standing around smashing boards. Get the audience involved. Make them hurt. That way they know they had fun!)

The Con itself was interesting. I definitely prefer the SF cons, I must say.  Completely different vibe. This one was all about costumes and play-acting, about celebrating the consumption of pop culture. I like the SF cons more, with their very strong strand of creating and interpreting the material at the centre of the whole phenomenon. I like the proactive nature of SF fandom, I guess, and the community of content-creator types that rock up to the conventions. The Aicon had a lot of shopping, but only a few venues, and the events were by and large about posing and playing, not about thinking and recreating.

But to each their own. I believe the Aicon people were predicting something like 2000 people over the weekend. I'm not sure if they got it, but I know that's the kind of numbers we get at a full WorldCon event in Melbourne, so if the pockymuncher movement (thank you Jake for that term. "Pockymuncher" is now the generic term for die-hard wannabe otaku anime fan types. You gotta love the creativity of a cynical kid, eh?) can generate that kind of outcome in Hobart for a yearly event -- yep. Lot of energy there. Clearly, people are getting something enjoyable out of it.

The writers' panel went very well. What with not having a glut of writers and panels to choose from, we got a very respectable audience -- myself, Tansy, Bob and two others whose names currently elude me, because I am shit at names. (Apologies!) Nominally, the panel was supposed to be about the importance of research in creating SF, fantasy, whatever, but by mutual consent, we threw it open and handled questions from the audience. And the audience were interested, and engaged, so we did our best to be just as interested and engaged in response. It was definitely one of the very best panel-efforts I've seen, and from what I heard and saw, the audience thought likewise. Jake said he wasn't bored anyhow, which is pretty good. When you get through an hour of QnA with five writers without boring the twelve-year-old, something has definitely gone right.

We finished up our day at the con by skipping out on the late afternoon stuff. We'd got into Hobart the night before, and I made the Baggins sisters visit an Indian restaurant with Jake and I. They'd not had experience with Indian food before, so they were delighted by the joys of Madras and Vindaloo, Tikka Masala and Biryani. I also made sure they both got a mango lhassi into them, and to the credit of the restaurant -- Dolphin Indian, on Sandy Bay Road in Sandy Bay -- it was one of the best lhassi I've ever had. Lots of ripe, fresh mango, good yoghurt, subtle spices.

Anyway, since we'd already done the going-out-eating-weird-food thing, I made a concession to Jake and the Bagginses. We were all accommodated in Wrest Point, in adjoining rooms, so I got some pointers from the girls, bought some anime DVDs and we executed Plan Veg. That is: we got lots of cheeses, biscuits, snacks, fruit, munchies and drinks, grabbed a DVD unit from the hotel, and spent about six hours watching Japanese cartoons.

Yeah. I know. That sounds kinda slothful. But it was a lot of fun. The Baggins lasses are good company, and young Jake is old enough to have a decent wit on him too. We didn't exactly trash the hotel room, but I'm going to guess they'll be finding stray Maltesers in odd places for quite a while.

It was a good weekend. I was forced to look away from the exegesis for a while, and I was stripped of the usual kid-handling responsibilities. Taking a bit of time to watch weird cartoons and eat exotic snacks with friends is a good thing. There's not enough 'fun' programmed into the whole 'being-an-adult' situation, you know? Sometimes you have to let go, and just play -- or what's the point? What are you doing all the work for if there's nothing left of you afterwards to enjoy things?

Anyway. I'm back now. Exegesis. Dinners. Lunches. Laundry. Commuting with the kids. Finding school uniforms. Routines, schedules, plans.

Never mind. End of the month, and Jake and I are off to Melbourne to see Mr Barnes and his Weapon Against Society. There will be food, drinks, and gaming galore.

I can't wait.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Taking The Mickey

Enough is enough.

Those as know me well know that I generally find sports laughable. I'm just not interested. The notable exception is cricket; most particularly, Test cricket.

I won't go into the why of it all. Either you understand Test cricket, in which case whether or not you love it, you will know why I do -- or you don't understand it, in which case I'm not talking to you anyhow. Go read something else. There are plenty of sites out there without cricket in them.

Folks, it's time. Time to revive the old larrikin spirit of Australian cricket. To put it bluntly, it's time to take the Mickey out of Australian cricket. Mickey bloody Arthur, that is.

Right now, four of our best players have been sent packing because they didn't respond to a grade-school homework assignment in the wake of a massive bollocking by the Indian cricket team. Well, fair enough. They've been naughty boys. Fine 'em, slap 'em on the wrist, whatever. But whose dimwit fucking idea was that homework assignment, anyhow? I see a lot of support for it from the pantywaist crowd of commentators, but tellingly, all the old-timers and all the players and coaches whose opinions earned my respect through years of really goddam hard-fought cricket -- all those people are either laughing uproariously at this piece of crap, or they are conspicuously silent. A few - a very few - are tugging at Arthur's coat-tails, sucking up to the teacher.

But the rest are right, for all of me.

Chennai, 1986. Australia have a few problems, and Dean Jones comes to the crease. It's hot. Fearsomely hot and humid. Captain Alan Border looks at Deano, and he says: "Deano. I want you to write me a dot-point presentation on why the conditions here are conducive to a big score."

Oh. No. Wait. No he fucking doesn't. Actually, Border sneers at Jones and tells him he looks too weak. Border says he needs a real fighting Queenslander at the crease, not a weak Victorian.

Two hundred Dean Jones runs later, the batsman in question is carried off to hospital with a drip, suffering dangerously from dehydration and from heat. After pissing himself onfield. To this day, he claims he can't remember a damned thing after about 140 runs.

Centenary Test. Melbourne, 1977. In his first innings of five runs, Rick McCosker gets a bastard of a bouncer. Nobody wears helmets yet. McCosker's jaw is badly broken.

In his second innings, McCosker comes out to face the bowling, his head swathed in bandages. He makes 25 runs, but importantly, he's part of a 54-run stand with Rod Marsh, who scores a century. The bowling is sharp and nasty. McCosker wears the baggy green on top of his bandages. There are still no helmets for him. And in the end? Australia won by 45 runs. And not a fucking dot-point presentation in sight.

Mickey Arthur. Mickey fucking Arthur.

Go back to South Africa, mate. And if Michael Clarke genuinely thought this was a good way to handle Australian cricketers, then let him go with you. Sure, he may be the only batsman we've got who's scoring -- but if this is his idea of building an Australian Test squad, then clearly the bleach-blonde stuff he uses has finally penetrated past the roots of his hair, and into his brain.

Real Test cricketers don't make dot-point presentations, like naughty schoolboys. Real Test cricketers drink fifty-odd beers on the plane over to England, and then beat the shit out of the English bowlers, hangover and all.

You may argue that with the recent performances, it's a bit of a stretch to call these men 'real test cricketers'. The answer to that is simple: even Bradman got dropped early in his career. All the talent in the world still needs hard work, and most importantly, it needs experience and seasoning.

You don't build a Test squad with a bullshit revolving-door rotation policy, and a roster of who's in and who's out. You build a Test squad by supporting a team, and getting them to trust and support each other. You make sure they understand that playing under a Baggy Green is a privilege shared by a very few, who have moved mountains to achieve it, and who will keep moving mountains to maintain it.

You don't make Test cricketers by assigning them dot-point homework assignments.

If they haven't got the grit to play like Jones, or McCosker, or Boon or Marsh on the field, fine. Let 'em try. Give 'em a fair shake. And if they really haven't got it -- soon enough, you'll know. Then you put them aside, and you find another player.

But don't fucking send them home because they didn't do their dot-point homework.

It's time to take the Mickey out of Australian cricket. Thanks mate - take your golden handshake and your dot-point bullshit and piss off back to South Africa. Put someone in charge who knows what a Baggy Green cap really means. And anybody who thinks that Test cricket is about doing your homework on time, and not about blood, and sweat, and broken bones -- they can bloody well go with you.

Even if they've got "captain" next to their name. Talent is great, but it's no substitute for the stuff that kept people like Border, Jones, McCosker and so many others going even when there wasn't a sniff of a win in the air.

The truth is, sometimes you lose at Test cricket. That's how the game works. Don't fucking write me a dot-point presentation. Train harder. Play harder. Get the team pissed together. Give them a chance to get used to being an actual team.

And send that bloke Arthur off to coach the English, will you? We've got a couple of Ashes series coming up. Surely they'll be wanting his obvious expertise to help them compose their dot-point plans...

Saturday, March 2, 2013

How To Kill Your Big Publishing Business In The 21st Century

Pardon the infrequent updates. Life is challenging. Getting the kids into their new life as shiny private-school drones is difficult. There's a lot of to-and-fro to Launceston, which is forty-five minutes either way. I know: that's a pretty average commute, and for us, it's not about traffic, but about winding roads with forests and fields and wildlife, so it's not what you'd call hard. But it does add a lot of travel into a week already crowded.

It doesn't help that the private school tossers are sport-freaks. Nat insisted the whole private-school-thing would give the kids "more opportunities". Languages. Music. Advanced programmes for clever kids.

Actually? Well, it took three weeks before Jake had a single Japanese lesson. And we still haven't succeeded in getting either his 'cello lessons or his sax lessons set up with the school. And despite the fact that he's been reading Hunter Thompson at home, and just wrote a 5000 word gonzo-style report on his school camp for his English class (I sent a note to his teacher, asking for permission), and despite that the teacher liked the piece and handed it to the gifted-and-talented-kid handler... well, this weekend's homework was to make a shoebox diorama of a scene out of Blueback, by Tim Winton.

Yeah. A shoebox diorama. I ought to feel insulted, but I'm just too fucking tired. And in the meantime, during all this, the school's sport master has been pursuing us like one of the Erinyes of old, demanding we sign Jake up to some kind of sport with lots of extracurricular shit. Even though he's already at ju-jitsu and orchestra, yeah. Oh, and no: they're not going to tell us things like training times and rehearsal times, no. We're just expected to sign up and take what we get.

Well, we've sorted that one out. There was no fucking way under the sun we were signing the kid up to a bunch of shit without knowing the hours we were expected to put in. I don't know where these people get their ideas, but there's no feasible way for this family, with two other children, two very busy parents, and a fifty km commute, to just blithely reconstruct our schedule around jai-alai practice, or kayaking, or competitive downhill fellatio, or whatever.

But it's the Blueback thing that's really pissed me off. The boy got his copy of the book late, and there was a school camp, and so now he hasn't read the whole thing, but their hard-charging diorama challenge is due Monday. No worries. We've done it. But I want the boy to read the book. Winton's not bad. The diorama idea is pathetic, kindergarten-finger-painting shit as far as that goes, but at the very least, the boy should read the book.

Unfortunately, they haven't yet given him permission to bring his copy home. So I thought yeah: I'll just get an ebook.

From Penguin.

Well. Fuck me.

One of the more interesting things about doing this Masters degree is the manner in which it has forced me to appraise the nature of the publishing industry in the light of the current wave of technological revolution. The Internet represents the fourth wave of major technoshift to reading. The first was the moveable-type press. The next was the industrialisation of paper, ink, book-binding and book production in general. The third was about distribution: the petrol engine, aeroplanes, roads, cars, trucks -- a whole system to ensure that books and magazines could  go almost anywhere.

Each of these waves of technoshift altered the way we read, both as individuals, as a society, and as a culture. The people who were in those waves doubtless didn't perceive them initially as the paradigm shifts that they were. No doubt the changes appeared incremental, almost trivial, as they began.

Thus it is with the Internet, and the associated paraphernalia of ereading. And just like every previous shift, there are people who have understood what is happening, and those who have not.

Amazon understands. Unfortunately, Amazon are a bunch of evil fucks, and are using their market position and their knowledge of the changing field to achieve a near-as-dammit monopoly on electronic reading. This is good for nobody except Amazon, by the way.

Unfortunately, Amazon are being aided and abetted by big, old-style, stupid, slow publishing firms who really do NOT understand the first thing about what's going on.

One of those companies, apparently, is Penguin.

I needed an e-copy of Winton's Blueback, because I needed a copy in short order. The situation was similar to the time I needed a copy of Gelder on Popular Fiction, for my own study. To read Gelder, I checked Amazon, and found the Kindle edition of the book was available at less than half the cost of the paperback. I downloaded Kindle software for my computer from the Amazon site itself. Then I bought the book, downloaded it in one move, and read it on my screen. Done.

But Blueback and Penguin? Oh dear.

First I had to find the book in e-form. Okay. That wasn't too difficult. Then I had to buy it. Same as anywhere, really. Sure, I had to set up a userID and all that, but no biggie. Except... the paperback price is $15. And the ebook price? Oh. Wait. That would be $15 too.

Why? No: don't waste my time answering that. I've heard all the shit from the big boys on this, and it is bullshit. There is no reason for the ebook to cost the same as the paperback. None.

Nevertheless, I needed the book, so I gritted my teeth, and paid up.

Next, I needed to get my download. But it wasn't visible on my account. And it wasn't emailed to me. So... how do I get my ebook, Penguin? I looked all over their site, found a link to 'ebooks', clicked it... and found more bullshit.

First, I had to download some third party software from Adobe. I don't much like Adobe software. Oh, the software itself works okay, usually, but it tends to be big and bloaty, and they're forever bugging you about updates and reloads and they have real compatibility issues. I try to avoid Adobe's stuff where I can.

This time I couldn't. So I downloaded the installer. Then I activated the installer, and set up the machine. And then I found the download for Blueback, and activated it... ooops. No. Not yet.

First I had to download some sort of authentication/DRM protocols. And I had to 'authorise' the computer. And to do that, I had to give it some kind of special ID, or I wouldn't be allowed to move the ebook to any other formats, or share it anywhere. Which meant I had to set up yet another ID and password system with Adobe. (The Kindle system just used the one I already had with Amazon.)

After all that was done, I finally got to download the text from Penguin. (I note I'm limited to four downloads. Evidently I'm only allowed four devices for reading. Hmm. Okay.)

Jake is now sitting and reading his copy of Blueback. It took me nearly an hour to get it. It cost me as much as the paperback edition. I had to set up two new accounts with two companies online, and install a piece of intrusive third-party software. I got no new content, no extras, no nifty usability bonuses -- nothing.

The technological shift in reading is real. The new model of reading is not a paperback we carry around. It's a file that we can shift from phone to 'pod to 'pad to desktop, as needed. And we're not stupid: we know that creating the file has costs... but we know that there's no paper, no ink, no dead trees, no boxes to load in trucks, no bookstores, etc. We know very clearly that the price of an ebook should not be as high as a paper copy, and we don't appreciate being treated as fools.

I paid my $15 and wound up on two mailing lists so I could get the book immediately. I did that because I needed it, and there are no bookstores here where I am. But I did not stay on Penguin's site to browse. I did not buy more books. I did not linger. I did not click through to Winton's own site.

Nor will I. Penguin have offered me no reason whatsoever to return to this experience. Clearly, for Penguin the e-publishing world is a distant second to its primary task of producing and selling books made of paper, ink and cardboard.

In future, I'll get my Penguin books the way I've always got them: from second-hand bookstores, and at discount sales.

The Internet is real. The world will not go back to the way it was before, unless we have a civilisation-wide collapse. That's entirely possible of course, but if it happens, the old model of Big Slow Publishing Empires is going to die anyhow, along with pretty much everything else. So either way, the Big Slow Publishing Empires are in a lot of trouble: if the world doesn't break down, the Internet will get them.

Some publishers are learning. Birmo has got a useful price-point deal going with his people, and I do believe they've put somebody smart on the job.

Some publishers are *not* learning.

If I had significant money invested in Penguin, I'd be starting to consider my options about now.