Sunday, August 24, 2014

APP - Another Phonic Program

Time was, when one wanted to make a phone call, the process involved nothing much more than finding the number in the telephone company-issued phone book, picking up the “receiver” and “dialing” the number. One then heard either a sound that told you the phone you had called was ringing, or that it was already in use (busy) or you actually heard someone say “Hello.” Oh, do I have to define some of those terms?

“Receiver” referred to a black object, shaped like a dumbbell, that had a microphone at one end and an earphone at the other. It fit your hand, and if you were an adult, the earphone was pressed to your ear and the microphone was in front of your mouth. I don’t know if there is significance in using the term “dumbbell,” but unless you were talking or listening, it was “dumb,” and it was more than likely an instrument owned by a “Bell Telephone” affiliate. But that’s another story.

“Dialed” was another term of art. It meant sticking your fingertip, or perhaps a pencil or similar object in a small round holes, itself one of ten in a round, wheel-like plate attached to the base of the telephone, and which, by placing a fingertip in the hole corresponding to the number you were dialing, and turning the wheel as far as it would go before releasing it, actually (through the magic of electrical (not electronic) contacts, activated some switches between you and the person you were calling, and “dialed” the number. Enough tech lesson for today.

What I wanted to comment on is the generally held idea that we are better off with things generically called “apps.” That is, I suppose, modernspeak for “application,” a word with meanings, but in this case referring to little computer programs that do things for you. Mostly expensive things that often get you into trouble, but that too, is for another day.

I’m not complaining. I use “apps” myself, or rely on the one closest to me to use them for our mutual benefit, such as telling us where to go (really, not metaphorically) or when we should be somewhere that we are also being told the above. And they do save time, find things or places we need (at least we think we do), and perhaps things even my imaginative brain can’t dream up. Living as we do in what is known as a service economy (as opposed to a manufacturing economy), we have been led to believe that anything that does something for us, or does part of something for us, regardless of why or what, is generally good. In fact it has created an entire economic and social design for living that puts some or much of what we do or want or get, literally in the palm of the hand. And people say, “Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that convenient?” Well, not really.

Convenience was when you walked into a store, when a floor-walker asked it you needed assistance, when a clerk showed you the options available and described the good and bad points based on what other shoppers had said or even on personal experience or observation. One might even have formed an opinion for one’s self before leaving home.

The “app” I liked best was to simply say to the clerk: “Charge it to my account, and have it sent to my home.”

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Living, Naturally

We try to live with the environment we have. Our mountain homeplace lies on the slopes of two mountains, with a narrow valley between them. The little flat land that we hold is good for hay but not much else. Even that is rock-bearing, like the hills. Aside from hay we grow rocks and trees. Of the three annual crops, the rocks are the easiest to manage. They seem to be self-seeding, and come up by themselves with little help from us.

This year, as we have for some time, we planted tomatoes on the south-facing deck, in boxes that husband the sunshine and allow the excess water to run off without rotting the roots. Unlike suburban lots, we don’t encourage grass unless it is within ten or twenty feet of the perimeter of the house or one of the outbuildings. That’s mostly because we like to maintain a border where snakes and other wildlife are more visible (and avoidable) when we’re outside. We encourage those local denizens because they keep the insect population in check to some degree. This summer, as we have noted in previous summers, the insect population seems to be diminishing each year. Even house flies have not caused us too much annoyance this year; an attribute of changing climate cycles, we suppose. We’re happy about that, but concerned about the future. Insects and wild animals may be a nuisance, but they are as necessary as air to our lives.

When we chose the site for our house we cleared an area that left a twenty to thirty foot swath all the way around. Elevated more than 300 feet above the valley, we had a wonderful view of the western face of the eastern mountain side, and the fields that lay in the narrow flatland. In the evenings we could sit on the deck and watch the herds of deer materialize in the fields, feasting on the wild grasses and the corn crop the previous owner had abandoned there. Over the last twenty-plus years the trees have grown, filled out, been joined by lower-growing or bushier scrub and young trees. It isn’t possible to easily see the fields any longer, but for the last decade or so the deer population had been getting smaller anyway. Lately that has changed.

This summer we have had more deer in the courtyard on the north side of the house, and in the woods all around the building than we have had in years. Nature, adjusting to the new structures and people on this hillside, had redirected the herds of wild animals away from us, but now it seems as though we are more acceptable as neighbors (especially since we have some raised beds for the summer vegetables, and tasty blossoms in the flower garden). Deer ate the cantaloupe this week, and the bears that seem to be everywhere this year leave ample evidence that they are no longer intimidated by either people or dogs. And that is good.

I’ve long held the belief that Nature (yes, with a capital “N”) is really in charge. We can do as we will, make messes and miracles, deplete and rebuild when it is often too late (for us), and perhaps, in the end, find ourselves not only endangered, but done as a natural part of the world. Nature will survive, probably long after we are extinct. Nature will modify its need for oxygen, hydrogen, and all the other “gens” that keep us alive, and those that can’t adapt will disappear, leaving the changed and clever cells that remain, in charge. It isn’t much of a jump to imagine a world in which life forms as we know them (ourselves included) are replaced by some kind of energy enclosed in a new kind of shell or skin still marching forward, perhaps to create yet another life form that, until the last rays of the sun, will be able to populate our earth.

Where there is life, there will be - - - life. Maybe not the life we know, or can sustain, but there will be life.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Prices and Profits

The big controversy over prices and profits, as in the conflict between Amazon and Hachette, means little to most of us who write. My previous publisher (I’m now doing it myself) set prices for my books so high even I can’t afford them. (DISCLOSURE: My books are sold on Amazon, and my new one was published using Amazon’s CreateSpace on-line program.) I have set the prices for both paper and electronic versions and I have kept them low because I would rather sell many at a small profit and reach more readers.

For the most part, this is a fight between opposing rocks. Neither is liable to move without some earth shaking of the base. The reason it probably doesn’t touch the vast majority of published writers these days is because the landscape has changed in a major way. I don’t know the per cent age of books being self-published as opposed to “traditional” publishing, but a review of titles offered on sites such as Amazon indicate more and more of us are heading in that direction. Not that it guarantees good or bad writing. That is still up to the writer. I’ve read far to many books in my lifetime, published by “traditional” publishers, that were poorly written and edited, full of typos and “the almost right word.” It is something one finds increasingly wherever words are published. When I read a book that has full throttle promotion behind it, and I read that the character “put on the breaks,” I do wonder if the copy editor really knows what is being presented. “The almost right word,” again.

But back to the big battle between rocks. The crux of the matter seems to be who sets prices, and how fair those prices are to author, publisher, seller and (oh, yes!) buyer. I understand, from the publisher’s point of view, that there are people who must be paid, profit that must be made if the company is going on to publish more books and distribute those it produces. From the retailer’s side, it is axiomatic that lower prices bring more sales.

There used to be a maxim in retail that said, “We lose money on every item, and make it up in volume.” There is truth in that if you base the money lost on the reduction in price from the “MSRP,” the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. You see it all the time on ads for automobiles, and volume discount stores. You seldom find it in stores that must pay a high wholesale price to be the first outlet for a product. Books especially, become “remaindered” rather quickly and soon show up at discount counters in all kinds of stores today. But nobody does business at a true loss for very long.

The other part of this controversy lies in what one means by “publishing.” To the copyright office, as I read their information, publishing occurs the first time you read or show an original piece of writing to others. It is documenting and proving that date which is important. How it is published is another matter. As more and more people do their reading on their computers and pads and phones (and probably on their eyeglasses) the idea of “publishing” has less and less to do with paper, and everything to do with bits and bytes. Now, and at least for the immediate future, the bits and bytes themselves are free. The programs that convert them into whatever they are meant to represent are the things one pays for, as well as much of the information they convey. Whoever owns that can set whatever prices they feel the traffic will bear. Those decisions are related to how much it costs to buy the product that is being resold. And that, if I remember my classes in economics, is an accumulated number that includes the manufacturing costs, delivery costs and profit. Nobody does business for very long without profit. Profit, you probably know, is what keeps the wheels rolling. If the MSRP is too high, sales fall. If price is too low, producers fail. Somewhere there must be a balance. That, it seems to me, is what the present controversy is all about: who is willing to take the hit to keep the presses (and profits) rolling? If the producer can’t profit sufficiently to keep the doors open, the seller will have noting to sell. That includes writers who publish directly via the internet.

While few of us expect to become rich and famous from our writing, it is something to which we aspire. But we are unique: we are sole proprietors who, for the most part, have no raw materials costs (at least for physical materials), and no shareholders (unless your family depends on what you earn as a writer to put food on the table). We depend on those who sell our wares and deliver them in whatever forms are available to obtain the best price consistent with the greatest number sold. That’s why I, at least, don’t see a “side” I can claim in this contest.

Unlike automobile manufacturers and clothing makers and the rest, writers will keep on writing regardless of the numbers.

It’s what we do.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

On Vacation

I’m taking a vacation. A vacation from writing. For the last year and more I have been working on several stories that are now on their own (see my web page), and frankly, I’m tired. I need to remove myself from my desk, from my office, and (while the weather is good), spend more time outside preparing for the coming winter, cleaning up after the last one, fixing things that got put aside and just, in general, doing things other than writing. Everyone needs a vacation.

I can’t put writing away, though. There is something in me that won’t be sequestered (the Politically Corrupt term-of-the-day); something that cannot be turned off for more than a few minutes at a time, it seems. My mind, and I suspect that of most who write, isn’t capable of stopping the process of examining and playing with ideas. The ideas are mostly triggered by what we see and hear and experience second-by-second, or if fatigue has entered the equation, hour-by-hour.

It is almost as though I have two people in me: one is the person I am “in the moment,” and the other is the observer, considering what I see and participate in as part of a story; a story I will write later perhaps, or discard as not a story worth telling. Most of life is in that category, I think. Life is, well, life. It is what we all experience day-by-day. The exceptional events, the unexpected things that happen, are what make a good story, or at least trigger a line of thinking that results in a story. Sometimes that works to produce a story I want to tell. Sometimes it is just a bit of text I scribble in my mental notepad and later discard. Whatever happens to the idea, it is a process I can’t turn off. That’s why I carry a notebook in my pocket, a notebook and a pen, and fill with “jottings” as well as notes about things needing my attention or supplies that need to be replenished. I have a box full of little pocket notebooks that probably aren’t worth keeping, but I keep anyway. Now and then I go back to them, looking for an idea I know I put down, or details of an event I witnessed or participated in, and want to elaborate on.

A vacation, then, for me at least, is a period in which I will be able to turn off the keyboard, if not the process.

Sometimes it lasts all day.