Gatekeepers

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The other day, a friend was critical of the arts granting process, objecting to the fact that writers had to have had 2 or more ‘professional’ publications to qualify for a grant, effectively excluding self-published writers no matter how successful they had been at selling their work. He went on to suggest that similar restrictions were not placed on musicians or dancers or painters.

The latter statement is simply not true. Except for occasional special programs to encourage new artists, (Canada Council used to have a category called Explorations grants – I applied unsuccessfully several times when I was starting out), all grants require that artists demonstrate they are professionals or on their way to becoming one. The wording differs but essentially it says you must be making an effort to make art a significant part of your work and livelihood. One of the ways you have historically done that is through professional publications (or performances in a professional venue or showings in a professional gallery).

But, of course, the world is changing. More and more people are self-publishing or, if you prefer, indie publishing. Some of them are quite good. And granting agencies and professional organizations are responding. For example SFWA – the organization representing professional science fiction and fantasy writers – recently changed their membership requirements to include indie publishers, provided they had made an income from their writing equivalent to the minimum advance required for traditional published writers (roughly $3000USD in a single year). In this case they are using the marketplace to establish your professional standards. Given how few indie authors make that, it still represents a significant barrier and keeps the organization ‘professional’ in its mandate.

The Canada Council of the Arts studied ways that it can be more relevant and helpful in the digital age. It is doubtful they will base their qualifications on income but nonetheless they are looking for ways to include professional artists who have been previously excluded. I strongly suggest those interested to provide input in the still on-going consultation process.

But why have qualifications at all? Why not let anyone who claims to be an artist apply and let the chips and grant dollars fall where they may?

Two reasons come to mind. First most professional artists served an apprenticeship, years or sometimes even decades working on their craft – getting rejected and then accepted, taking courses and workshops and finally winning acceptance from the larger community. A lot of them – myself included – resent the fact that all that might have been pointless. We could have just slapped together a document on our first try and then with the click of mouse published it on Amazon. We take some comfort that most of those books don’t get read but take even more in the idea that they aren’t viewed as professional.

For grant agencies there are practical concerns. They already can’t fund all the proposals that do get through the qualification process. Dropping those requirements would lead to flood of applications – almost all of which wouldn’t and, in fact, shouldn’t be funded. The purpose of government grants is to fund people to become self-supporting artists not to support their hobbies or whims. Sorry. And, on top of that, the only way they could judge the quality of someone’s work – without the screening of professional gatekeepers – would be to actually read the self-published books themselves.

Not only would the workload overwhelm the lightly-paid juries, it would probably burn the eyes out of their heads. Because while some self-published work is very good, the vast majority is unreadable drek. Trust me – having read some of the things at the bottom of my own slush pile, I know. Oh, god, how I know.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

TGIF

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Who among us, after a hard week at work, has not bellowed (or at least muttered): TGIF? Depending on your point of view, the G stands for either God or Goodness and we are thankful the weekend has arrived. Unless of course you are in the service industry in which case you have long hours and rowdy customers to contend with (and the faint hope of decent tips).

In any case, neither God nor Goodness has anything to do with having two days a week to ourselves. While the Bible (and other religious texts) calls for a day of rest, this was generally interpreted as a day spent in service to the church. Certainly, serfs in the middle ages didn’t sit around watching sports and drinking beer (although it was a fairly common breakfast food). When their work for their feudal Lord was done, they spent most of Sunday working in church fields for their heavenly one.

As for goodness, the owners of the means of production have never been driven solely (or at all) by altruism. These are the people who brought us sweat shops and child labour.

Few societies have valued leisure time as much as our own. Sure the Romans were notorious for their frequent holy days and mass celebrations – but their economy was run by slaves, who only got a break for one day a year when during Saturnalia,  they got to give the orders. Though, of course, they were careful not to go to excess. After all, it was back to the yoke the very next day.

The weekend, like almost everything we value in modern society, was gained for us by the struggle of working people, almost always organized into collectives called unions. A quick perusal of the newspapers of the nineteenth century and you will see endless diatribes about the evils of workers’ organizations. By God, they were teaching factory workers how to read! What next, the vote?!

Days off, shorter working hours, coffee breaks, unemployment benefits, health care (no matter how mediocre), pensions and disability insurance – all of these were wrested from society (that is, the rich) by the collective actions of workers and their allies in the intellectual class and the more progressive churches. Yeah, social gospel used to be a thing before most churches lost their way and became more concerned with limiting human rights than expanding them.

Nowadays, people like to say that unions are a relic of a by-gone era – even though they haven’t been around as long as capitalism or consumerism – and have outlived their usefulness. We should get rid of them or break their power. But every American state who has followed that route has sunk into a quagmire of lower employment, greater poverty and more rich people filling their pockets at the taxpayers’ expense (cause you know the first thing on a billionaire’s list of things to do is: avoid taxes).

So as you kick back and enjoy your weekend, maybe you should spend a moment thanking your grandfather and mother for the struggles they went through on your behalf. And maybe take a look at your own workplace and wonder if a little collective action wouldn’t do some good.

But that’s ten minutes.

Write Drunk

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The best advice I ever got as a writer was an off-hand comment Hemingway once made: Write drunk, edit sober. I often use that quote in workshops and on writing panels at conventions.

Of course, like all things in literature, it shouldn’t be taken literally. It is a metaphor for writing without inhibition, with passion and emotion. Hemingway also claimed that writing was easy; just sit at a typewriter and bleed.

I’ve read a lot of well-crafted fiction and I can always tell when the writer hasn’t bled in the process of making it. Restraint in the creative process always carries with it the faint stench of cowardice. As a writer or any other type of artist, you need to take risks – put things out there without censoring your thoughts, words or emotions. Say anything, feel everything – at least in your first draft.

Of course, throwing everything on the page doesn’t mean it has to stay there. Editing sober is as important as writing drunk. Then you have to exercise your craft, your understanding of what belongs and what is excess. Not everything we write when we write a story needs to be in that particular tale. It may not belong anywhere in your published work. But if you don’t tell your secrets even to your first draft, your work will always have the feeling of contrivance rather than creation. Well-crafted sentences are good – unless they are boring.

Frankly, creation is a messy business.

But how do you do it? How do you turn off the inner editor and let it all hang out? Practice is the best answer I can give you. Keep trying to write as if no one is reading and after a while you may get the hang of it. Write fast is another solution. Thomas Wolfe was known to write 10,000 words a day on occasion. By hand. No wonder he died young.

Hemingway himself was more restrained. According to his own records, he ranged from 500 to 2000 words a day – also mostly by hand when he was doing first drafts – at least on the days he was writing at all. He went for weeks or even months at a time without putting pen to paper, sometimes arguing that he had to let things ferment until the writing demanded to be done. But even when he was writing, he was only going at it for a couple of hours each day – always stopping when it was going well and he knew what was coming next.

Scott Fitzgerald took another tack. He suffered. He struggled. And when he put it down on paper, it was all filtered through that pain. Sylvia Plath was said to have taken the same approach.

Of course, it might not wise to follow the advice of these writers too closely. They all died young – Hemingway was about my age when he ended it all. The rest didn’t even come close.

Still, no guts no glory. If you are not willing to suffer for your work, you can hardly expect readers to respond with anything more than superficial emotion.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check on my supply of bourbon.

And, that’s ten minutes.

Hugos 2016

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The World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) is over for another year and, as has been the case for the last few years, it was not without controversy. The culture wars that permeate American society have reached deeply into the doings of the science fiction community. The campaigns of the conservative Sad Puppies and loony right Rabid Puppies to subvert the Hugo Awards were again in play with a limited amount of success. One proponent of the slate was expelled from the convention for hijacking a panel discussion to rant against the evils of Social Justice Warriors and I’m sure other, less public, debates, filled many of the rooms and hallways.

I wasn’t there but it seemed to me that the whole thing had lost some of its sting. Perhaps people have grown tired of it (Man, are my dogs barking!) or perhaps the impending rule changes to limit the impact of slate voting took the wind out of their sails. None of the true puppy nominees won though there were a couple of categories where No Award was given. In the rest there was at least one non-slate candidate to vote for – and in most cases, more than one – and that’s who won.

As I say I wasn’t there but I did watch the ceremony on my computer. After all, having recently won an Aurora Award, I have some interest in the matter of SF prizes. I thought the hosts handled the situation with dignity and lots of humour and did a good job of keeping the tension out of the room. Only Neil Gaiman in his absentee acceptance took a shot at the whole Puppies’ slate – essentially pulling aside the cover that they had tried to hide behind of nominating a few works from outside their own numbers so they could claim victory when those more ‘mainstream’ nominees won. It’s an old trick and would fool no one with any experience in the world.

It made me wonder – just how big is the Puppies movement? Fortunately the voting results give us a clue. Theodore Beale aka Vox Day was up for a couple of awards; he is the leader of the Rabid Puppies so presumably his numbers should be fairly telling. And they were. For Best Novella, his total on the first pass was 67 out of 2903. For Best Editor it was 165 out of 2386. That then is the core group of Rapid Puppies – who presumably would show some loyalty to their putative leader. As for the larger Puppies group? That’s a little harder to pin down but can be winkled out from looking at the results of later passes – how many votes did they get before the ballot expired? Somewhere in the range of 450 (the number of nominations their slate received) to 650 (the maximum number of people who preferred them to No Award) it seems.

So the hard core RBs represent 5-7% of voting fandom and the more casual supporters less than 20%. While everyone denies there is an opposite slate – there is one telling number. A book by Jim Hines featuring John Scalzi and which, I guess (as I haven’t read it), represents the opposite camp, garnered about 188 nominations (out of 2080) in its category (and didn’t make the final ballot) . Conclusions can’t be drawn from a single case but I have to ask: What is all the fuss about?

Looks to me like most fans just want to have fun.

And that’s ten minutes.

Rigged

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Donald Trump has expressed concerns that the upcoming Presidential election may be ‘rigged.’ I thought originally that he was making an elaborate metaphor about the apparatus of government – you know the ropes and pulleys required to drive forward the ship of state.

But no, he means it in the sense given by the urban dictionary:  to describe situations where unfair advantages are given to one side of a conflict.

He provides no evidence as to this claim – nothing new for Mr. Trump – so I guess we’re just supposed to take his word for it. Like we should accept his claim that there is nothing wrong with his tax returns (move along, nothing to see here) or that his small hands are no indication of anything else.

I suppose in a way he might be right. Clinton does seem to have some distinct advantages. She’s sane for one thing – though it is just my opinion that Trump is not. But she does seem to have more money, a better organization, and a substantial lead in the polls. And those are all unfair advantages: a form of systematic discrimination that Donald Trump – if he were anything but an old white man – might readily recognize.

It’s hard to know where Trump’s latest claim comes from – it is increasingly suspect that the things he says come from anywhere. He may well simply have impulse control and a supreme belief in the rightness of his own, well, beliefs. Who needs evidence when you know you are always right?

If I thought Donald Trump were capable of being self-aware and able to see the writing on the wall, I would say he is trying to prepare his supporters for an epic defeat – and it could well be truly epic. If current numbers hold up and Clinton wins the election say 50% to 42% with 8% going to third parties, it will rank in the top ten of the worst thrashings in modern American presidential races.

Nothing like the election of 1936, of course, where FDR got more than 60% of the vote and took all but 8 of the Electoral College votes. Or even Reagan and Nixon’s best performances when they beat very left wing Democrats (do I hear an echo?) by substantial margins. But it could be similar to the crushing of Barry Goldwater who was the worst performing Republican since the 1936 vote.

Of course, it might be simpler than that. Trump may simply be trying to change the channel – anything to get away from his attack on a Muslim American war hero and the subsequent close examination of his own draft deferments during the Vietnam War. It worked for him when he got into trouble accusing a judge of bias against him, why not now?

Because now, we are into the real race. Now, there is only him and Clinton (with apologies to third party supporters). Now, nothing will go away and the self-inflicted wounds of the GOP campaign threaten not only Trump’s defeat but maybe the destruction of the Republican party for the next 20 years.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Limits of Technology

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Technology is ubiquitous and has always brought with it benefits and risks. “Sure fire is great – it keeps us warm and scares away bears but did you hear about Og? Burned out of cave and home.”

But the real problem with technology is its limitations. For a lot of people, Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum rings true. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And magic – like all supernatural things – is infallible. It always works.

This explains people who follow their GPS right off the end of wharves or who take a nap while their ‘self-driving’ car runs into a transport truck. Technology can do wonderful things but in the hands of idiots? Well, Og shouldn’t have poured mastodon grease on the fire.

Technology, to again paraphrase Clarke, is a very powerful, very fast idiot. Machines don’t really think – at least not yet. They rely on programming to do their work which means they rely on programmers. And there is the rub.

Programmers are exceptional at what they do – which is write code. However, their expertise doesn’t necessarily extend to the things they write code about. Anyone who has ever used the grammar function of word processors will know what I’m talking about.

In Ottawa right now, the new IBM developed pay system is failing to deliver pay and benefits to nearly 80,000 people. My wife is one of them. She fortunately is being overpaid and has been for nearly 3 months. Being a rational person, she hasn’t spent the surplus but has stuck it in the bank. She hopes she has put enough aside so that she can pay it back when they finally get things straight. But it is worrisome because, like the programmers who developed Phoenix, she isn’t a compensation specialist. It is notable that to fix the problem they are not only calling on programmers to write new code (at least I trust they are doing that) but are mostly relying on human experts to identify and fix the problems one by one.

That’s what happens when decision makers think they are smarter than experts and buy the bill of goods that proclaims that technology can do anything and do it cheaper and faster.

Part of this problem lies not with programmers but in the nature of expertise. When you are good at something, you generally don’t think through every step in a process. You have internalized best practices and have a hard time explaining it in clear tiny steps. Which is exactly what a programmer requires when they are writing code. Think of it this way: Wayne Gretzky was a great hockey player but when it came to coaching he struggled to impart that greatness to other players.

Most of the problems caused by inadequate technology can be resolved by the application of human expertise and hard work. Eventually the program ‘evolves’ (that is, is changed by human beings) and the initial bugs are resolved – only for new ones to be discovered.

Not a problem when all that is involved is money but I have to wonder – how far should we trust automated medical technology?

And that’s ten minutes.

Party Unity

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While it may be a consummation devoutly to be wished, the question of unity within the Democratic Party remains in doubt. Or does it? A poll released yesterday suggests that 90% of hard-core Bernie Sanders supporters intend to vote for Clinton in November. Despite protests at the Democratic convention, it turns out that just as Bernie Sanders doesn’t control or even speak for his most rabid partisans, they, in turn, don’t speak for the majority of Sanders less active supporters.

Nothing new here. People who go to conventions are not the same is ordinary voters – they have more ego invested. Having been battle tested, they are always ready for the fight even if every victory they achieve is bound to by pyrrhic.

What will happen to the Bernie or Bust people? I expect a lot of them will take their ball and go home and won’t be heard from again until after the election. Others may turn their frustrated energy towards a campaign for the Greens or, illogical as it may seem, for the right wing Libertarian Party candidate. A few may even campaign for Trump. But most of those who remain active will work to get Democrats elected – they may not support Clinton directly but will pick local candidates for Congress or Governor to try to break the Republican stranglehold on those elected bodies.

The same cannot be said for the situation in Republican Party. Whereas the second place finisher for the Democrats, Bernie Sanders, called on people to elect Clinton, Ted Cruz, who finished second for the GOP, refused to endorse Trump and was actually booed off the stage. Meanwhile, numerous Republican leaders have been lukewarm in their endorsements or are actively working for the defeat of their own candidate. How that works out on Election Day is anyone’s guess, but the same Pew poll that showed the shift in Sanders supporters found that fewer than 80% of those who worked for another GOP candidate will vote for Trump. I doubt if many of those will wind up working for Clinton but it may give the Libertarian candidate a boost. Or, more likely, it will add to the huge number of Americans who simply don’t vote.

While many progressives and independents were somewhat shocked at the rhetoric at the GOP convention, they might take comfort in the fact that most of the convention-goers there, like the Bernie or Bust folks protesting at the DNC, don’t represent anyone but themselves. Radicals make great TV but seldom deliver what they promise. Trust me, after 45 years of activism on the left, I know.

And that’s ten minutes.