Why Nate Silver is Awesome, but not a Wizard

The 2012 election is now officially over. The dust has (mostly) cleared, the winners and losers have been (mostly) identified, and the accountability game has started up. Who made the best predictions? The worst? Did Tagg Romney take a swing at anyone on election night?

Some of these questions may never be answered. But it’s clear in the wake of the results that The New York Times’ (and former DailyKOS blogger) Nate Silver is being heralded as a modern-day oracle, possessing of superhuman knowledge and predictive skills. #NateSilverFacts has taken off on Twitter, generating a list of impressive feats about the Chicago Economics-bred statistician (my favorite? “Nate Silver can recite pi — backwards.”)

Does he deserve the credit? Absolutely! He’s been doing this since the 2008 primaries, and while he’s always been known in political blogging circles, it’s great to see him get some mainstream recognition. That said, equating him to a wizard is sort of problematic to me, not because Silver isn’t awesome (again, he is — his book, The Signal and the Noise, was one of my favorite reads this year), but because it highlights the fact that the rest of us should be doing a lot better.

This whole concept is especially interesting to me, as the novel I’m working on finishing up for NaNoWriMo (uh … right after this post, I swear) is about a guy who predicts the future with mathematics (sort of akin to Foundation, but more fantastic than science fictional). So … yeah.

With that in mind, I’d like to present a few reasons why Nate Silver is not a wizard — and most of these assertions actually come from Silver himself.

The Basic Idea is Simple

Nate Silver’s model is, by all accounts, a complicated beast. It aggregates polls in a sophisticated manner, weighting them according to previous pollster performance. It also uses economic data and accounts for certain ‘bumps’ (naming VP candidates, conventions, etc) to come to a conclusion. And as we saw Tuesday night, it’s pretty damned accurate. At the presidential level, Silver called 51 out of 51 races correctly.

That’s impressive. But how impressive, really? There’s something called the Pareto Principle (also referred to in Silver’s book as the Power Law Distribution, or 80-20 rule) that can be applied to a large number of endeavors — the most basic formulation is that 80% of your sales will come from 20% of your customers, or in software, 80% of your bugs will come from 20% of your code.

In political predictions, I’d claim that you can become 80% as accurate as the big guys (Nate Silver, Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium, who also had a fantastic night) with 20% of the work. In fact, I’d claim that the truth is probably something like 90-5 — 90% as accurate, 5% of the effort.

Can I back that up? Sure. Let’s take a look at RealClearPolitics. RCP is a right-leaning poll aggregator started by Steve Forbes. It’s simple. Every single state poll* is averaged to get a final number. That’s about as easy as it gets, folks. Assuming we don’t count things like web design, all we’re doing is averaging numbers. I can write that program in less than five minutes. So how did RCP do? Pretty damn well. At least 80% as well as Nate Silver.

As far as I can tell, they called 50 out of 51 races correctly. The one they missed was Florida, which even Nate Silver called a coin flip, and even then, RCP didn’t miss it by all that much.

This is not to denigrate Mr. Silver, or claim that he’s wasting his time. Instead, it’s meant to admonish people who say “Well, sure, but he gets paid to blog and predict full-time. Come on, that’s not fair.” This stuff is not incredibly hard. It was easy to see that Obama would win if he won Ohio, and as Silver pointed out on Twitter, Obama had lead in something like 98% of Ohio polls in the week before the election.

Predicting Tomorrow is Easier than Predicting Next Year

Nate’s final prediction range for the electoral results — the president winning re-election with somewhere in the neighborhood of 313 electoral votes — was fairly accurate (at the time of this writing, it seems likely President Obama will win Florida, netting him a total of 339 EV). Not bad, right? But that’s the day before the election. Fivethirtyeight went up in June of 2012, and since then, it’s been something of a rollercoaster. While Obama always maintained a lead, the range went up and down dramatically, decreasing to a low of 285 EV after the first debate.**

Is that a problem? Perhaps not. We should always adjust our predictions to account for new data. But at the same time, that adjustment doesn’t mean we get to discount problematic predictions. I might predict a sunny morning on Tuesday, but if I see black clouds coming in late Monday night, I’m obviously going to change that prediction and take an umbrella. Doesn’t change my initial forecast, however.

We can make judgements about the usefulness of far-out forecasts, of course. To take the weather metaphor even further, predicting rain two weeks in advance is much more impressive than doing so a day in advance, but is it appreciably more useful? Maybe in some cases (taking a vacation?) but probably not most.

So give Nate Silver credit for his final forecast, but keep in mind that the model wasn’t a magical prediction machine that foresaw events like the lopsided conventions, Romney’s debate performance and Hurricane Sandy. That realization leads us to…

His Model Isn’t Perfect

Fivethirtyeight called every state correctly at the presidential level, but it wasn’t all perfection. Some margins were off fairly signficantly. Silver predicted Obama would win Ohio by 3.6 percentage points; he actually won by less than 2. He projected Florida to be a literal tie (though he did think it slightly likelier than not that Obama would take the state); Obama is expected to win by a full percentage point when the counting is finished.

On the Senate level, we see some misses. While most of the states were called correctly, Montana and North Dakota were predicted to be taken by the Republican candidates with a 67% and 93% likelihood, respectively. Democrats won both races.

In fairness, these are probabilistic predictions, not guarantees. If I roll a die and predict I’ll roll a number between 1 and 5 with a 83% probability, that doesn’t make my prediction incorrect if I roll a 6. And furthermore, Silver includes his uncertainty about his predictions, generally stated as a margin of error.*** But if someone gave Silver 9 to 1 odds on Heidi Heitkamp losing ND based on his model, he could have lost quite a bit of money.

I think Mr. Silver would be the first to admit his model is not perfect. He says as much in his book, predicting that once the media and campaigns start to catch on to his basic methodology, he will probably be outclassed. I’m sure his model will continue to improve in 2014 and 2016. But improvement is definitely possible.

The Bar is Low 

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is god. Or wizard, or something. Silver’s predictions are quite accurate, but at the same time, he doesn’t really have substantial competition. Pundits suck. Everyone knows it. Nate Silver himself knows this — in his book, he performs a study which concludes that predictions made by political pundits (in this case, on The McLaughlin Group) are no more accurate than a coin toss. And while he doesn’t make any strong claims as to why this is, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s not just laziness — it’s that there’s no incentive for a pundit to be accurate, as the political parties pay them to toe the party line, and the media facilitates it in the name of being “fair and balanced” and “hearing both sides of the story.”

But imagine we lived in a world where campaigns readily accepted polling data (whilst recognizing that no individual poll or polling organization or going to be perfect). Imagine we lived in a world where pundits like Dick Morris, who is renowned for poor predictions and forecasted a Romney landslide, and Jennifer Rubin, who had been predicting a Romney win for ages, then after the election, straight up admitted to lying about it all, were fired and never listened to again.

In that world, Nate Silver would be a pretty average fish in a big pond, I would think. As it stands now, he’s a trout sitting at the top of a bucket of dead minnows.

In Conclusion: Nate Silver is awesome, but that’s no excuse for others not to be.

Really, the whole point of this post is not to take anything away from, or even bolster, Mr. Silver’s analysis. He has plenty of detractors, defenders, and judging from his sales post-election, money. What I do want to get across, however, is that the rest of us, and the media in particular, should be doing a lot better. Republicans who were utterly shocked by Romney’s loss may have bigger problems than who is president — they might living in a bubble impervious to rational thought. Those Democrats who had the same reaction in 2010, or who in 2012 thought that the House would gain a massive Democratic majority as the populace stood up and loudly rejected conservatism, are similarly in trouble. Even worse are certain segments of the  punditocracy, who in the name of ratings, decide to ignore anything that doesn’t fit with the narrative they’d like to tell.

Nate Silver does solid work with honest numbers. We should be demanding the same of all our talking heads.

Finally, some advice for the Republicans

You’ve been hearing this from pretty much everyone, but allow me to reiterate. Your constant dismissal of Nate Silver (and Sam Wang, and many others) is yet another data point in a worrying trend, namely the refusal of certain higher-ups in your party (and lower-downs in your base) to reject facts. Being an underdog doesn’t mean you’re going to lose; it means you need to work harder, and be prepared if you fall short. We can argue about the extent of global climate change and the optimal decision for an individual government to make. We can argue about whether gay and lesbian Americans should have the right to marry, as abhorrent as I find even pretending that there’s a moral counterargument to that.

But there is no arguing that Barack Obama was the huge favorite to win the 2012 election. There is no arguing that carbon emissions from fossil fuels have exacerbated a problematic greenhouse effect. There is no arguing that sexuality is not something that can be dismissed or changed by praying hard enough.

These are facts, and facts are immutable. Denying them and ignoring them will lead to failure. Always.

* RCP has a habit of excluding certain polls, sometimes with justification, sometimes not. I suspect it would be more accurate if it included everything — let the right-biased polls be counteracted by the left-biased ones.

** FiveThirtyEight also included a daily “NowCast,” a prediction of the results if the election were to have been held that day. If Silver’s model was 100% perfect, I’d expect the NowCast to change substantially each day, while the Election Day forcast would stay completely same. Obviously, no model is perfect.

***One of the funny things about margins of error is that, though uncertainty is a sign of an honest prediction, they can be abused. I don’t think this is the case with Nate Silver (though his +-70 EV margin might be viewed as a large range), but one can easily see how this could be the case in general. It’s not really fair for me to predict an earthquake next year centered in downtown Los Angeles with a 3000-mile margin of error, and then claim I called it correctly when something rumbles up in Canada.

Friday Fun: Overclock Remix’s FFVI Kickstarter almost finished!

Happy Friday! It’s been kind of a weird week (or two) what with all the Reddit stuff, politics, and getting ready to move into my house (my first time dealing with lenders, builders, landscapers, etc). So I thought I’d throw up something light for Friday — look for this to continue on Fridays for the foreseeable future.

Today I want to talk about OverClock Remix. It’s a fantastic website for anyone into video game music, and I’d be surprised if there are any VGM aficionados out there who haven’t at least heard of it. It’s essentially a community dedicated to remixing songs from video games and providing those remixes completely free-of-charge. If you need to take a peek at their body of work, all their songs are available at their website, and if you want to listen to a big chunk, their newly redone torrents containing every song they’ve ever done are likely to be right up your alley.

There’s more, though. The past few years, OCRemix has gone from doing individual songs, to remixing entire game soundtracks. They’ve done soundtracks for Donkey Kong Country, Final Fantasy I,IV,V and VII, Wild Arms, Pokemon, Zelda and tons more. Now they’ve set their sights on one of my favorite games ever, Final Fantasy VI, with an album called Balance and Ruin. And not only are they releasing the music free, digitally, as they always have, but they’ve also created a Kickstarter for a physical release.

Check it out!

With a week left, they’ve wildly surpassed their goal (and even added physical releases of previous albums to the rewards!) but there are still slots left to get your hands on the album. To encourage you to kick a few bucks their way, I’ve posted some of my favorite tunes from the game. The first two are remixes from OCRemix, entitled “Cid in the Factory” and “Arab Painting.” If you’re new to the site, these two should give you an idea of the diversity of musical styles that OCRemix plays with.

And finally, I have to post the climax of the soundtrack: the ending theme. One of my favorite pieces from the entire series, it’s a shame this has never been properly remixed or orchestrated. Hopefully Balance and Ruin changes that.

Have a chill weekend, and I’ll see you next week!

I’ve been infected with a virus … and the only cure is blogging about my WIP!

Thanks to Jim Reader over at the Central Texas Home for the Terminally Twitchy infecting me with a viral bloghop, I’ve decided to share some information about my current work-in-progress (which is, of course, different from the book I’m currently shopping). I’ve also decided not to tag anyone else, as most of the writing friends who I know are working on novels have already been tagged. SO THERE!

What is the working title of your book?

Chanter: A Song of War

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I always forget the answer to this question as soon as I start writing. I remember the initial seed of the story came from the system of magic (which is based on music combined with the Japanese elements), partially because I love Bard-type classes in video games, and thought they’d never really been given the potential they deserved.

What genre does your book fall under?


Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Hmm. For Magdalena, possibly Christina Hendricks (but, like, a young Christina Hendricks) or Deborah Ann Moll (she’s a bit too thin, but she seems to have the right sort of fiery temperament). For Professor Rylock, uh, maybe Clive Owen or Colin Firth? All are absurdly attractive, but then, lead actors sort of have to be attractive, right?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A songstress with an incredible power and a researcher delving into the mathematics guiding magic work together to fend off vicious insectoid invaders.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Good question, that. I’m going to do everything in my power to go the trade publishing route, but I won’t say no to self-publishing if years and years pass and there’s no progress.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I started last November for NaNoWriMo, and it’s about 3/4ths done.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I hate this question as well. I suppose the first “Mistborn” book might be a decent comparison, given that there’s a bit of focus on the magic system, and it’s also about a young woman caught up in events as opposed to a predestined hero of the world or anything like that.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

As I said above, the initial seed of the story was based around music and bards, and it sort of took off from there. I’ve used (limited) experience in high school band and my (more extensive, but also limited) experience in academics to tug at some of the threads.

What else about the your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Aside from the music-as-magic idea, which I happen to think is pretty cool, I think this story’s strength is the same as all my stories, if such strength exists: the characters, their relationships and the themes that come out of them. I try to create flawed, complicated but still admirable characters, and that goes for both protagonists and antagonists. Stephen King said something like “Fantasy needs a really strong, really evil villain to succeed” in reference to Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter, and while that might be the case, I’ve never really ascribed to that. My antagonists are rarely “evil” — “misguided” is about as far as it goes. If that idea appeals to you, you might enjoy Chanter.

Something From My Wonderous Work-In-Progress

Just thought I’d post an excerpt of what popped out of my head these past few days. It’s a stupid project, one that will not amount to anything, but one that seems to refuse to stop bouncing around my thoughts until I write it all down. See if you guess what it is.

Do you want to know how your sisters died, Amazon? They died screaming, crying for mercy, begging Ares to spare their honor. They died cowering. Not like warriors. Like women. I wish I could have seen it.

DIANA appears on top of a crumbled pillar, clenching her teeth.

You want to hit a woman? Here I am. Go ahead and try me, coward. See what it feels like to be a big, strong man. But I promise whatever you give me, I can give it twice back in return.

CONQUEST stomps forward. DIANA lifts a massive piece of rubble from nearby and pelts him with it, halting his progress. She barrels forward into his chest, pushing him back. He swings wildly but misses, and as promised, DIANA hits him with two powerful blows to the midsection. CONQUEST swings again, hitting DIANA with little effect. She drives a heel into his knee, and as he bends forward, she directs a savage elbow into the side of his head. CONQUEST’S helmet falls into the dirt, revealing a bloody, battered head beneath it.


Don’t bother begging for your honor. You never had any to begin with.

Release Day: 100 RPM

Today’s the day! My short (short! As in shorter than most of my blog posts!) story “Gold Digger” is included in the anthology 100 RPM, which is now for sale on Amazon for 99p (that’s ~$1.50 for us Yanks over in The Colonies).

I’m pretty proud of this, not only for the challenge of writing a story with so few words, or for appearing in print with Caroline Smailes and 80s idol Nik Kershaw. I’m also proud that the proceeds from the eBook go to One in Four, a charity aiding sexual abuse survivors.

So give it a go and let me know what you think. I’m only a few stories in and already loving it — so many imaginative examples of what can be done in a tiny amount of space.

Buy at Amazon!

A Few Reasons ‘The Hunger Games’ Film Rocked

The Hunger Games is immensely popular. The book is flying off shelves, and the movie broke all sorts of records. And of course, when something is popular, it’s generally fashionable to hate it. Case in point, many of the critical reviews of the film.

One review in particular, sent to me by a friend, had me a bit worried about the movie before I saw it. Now, in retrospect, I think the review is actually comically petty. It’s MovieBob at The Escapist’s review. In it, he rakes the film over the coals for some pretty minor infractions, many of which are actually criticisms of the source material (for instance, he says the name ‘Katniss’ pulled him out of the story — seriously?).

MovieBob is probably being completely honest with his review. But it seems to me that popular things are often held to a much higher standard from certain critics. For instance, if The Hunger Games was some independent film no one had ever heard of, I would bet money that MovieBob wouldn’t have grasped at quite so many straws to tear it down.

Now, I’m not immune to this. I’ve launched my share of criticisms at popular media. Twilight comes to mind. But, in my opinion, the criticisms of Twilight are vastly more fundamental than “Their names are weird” and “The visuals are lacking.”

So what did I think of the movie? Actually, I’m going to make a pretty horrifying comment for bibliophiles. I think The Hunger Games film might actually have been better than the book. While the book had some interesting themes and characters, it was dragged down, in my opinion (and it’s just my opinion) by Collins’s simple and sometimes lazy writing. The film doesn’t have the same issues. Aside from some minor laziness in the visual effects department, all the components of the film were very well done. Here are a few of my highlights:

Katniss (and Jennifer Lawrence) kicks ass

When I first read The Hunger Games, I wasn’t immediately on board the Katniss bandwagon. Sure, she’s loads better than, say, Bella Swan – it’s not even close – but I still felt that she was far too passive. Things happened to her, but she didn’t affect a lot of change. I grew to like her more in the second book, but I still would have liked to see more from her in the first.

The movie, on the other hand, has no such problems. Katniss isn’t any more active as far as the plot is concerned, but Jennifer Lawrence (one of my favorite young actresses, as I elucidated in my 2011 Oscars roundup) imbues her with such quiet strength that one can’t help to root for her. The most fantastic scene in the movie, in my opinion, occurs during the countdown to the games. Cinna is trying his best to reassure Katniss, who seems almost in shock as the announcer marks each passing second. A lesser movie, with a lesser actress, would have done something like the following.

Cinna: “It’s okay. *Hug*”

But that’s not what happens. Instead, Katniss doesn’t say much of anything. Instead, she just shakes. It’s noticeable, but subtle. And it’s completely realistic. The look on her face as she rises into the arena is pure acting perfection. Katniss is capable, strong — but she’s also terrified out of her mind. It made me feel the same emotions, and I’d already read the book.

The film doesn’t shy away from brutality — but it’s not cartoony, either

In NPR’s David Edelstein’s review of the film, he comments that “If the film’s director, Gary Ross, has any qualms about kids killing kids, he keeps them to himself. The murders on screen are fast and largely pain-free — you can hardly see who’s killing who.”

I must respectfully disagree. I understand the worry that the PG-13 rating drove the lack of violence, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true. The film did a fine job of evoking horror at the brutality of the Games. At the end, we see Kato, the most villainous of the children, and it’s clear he’s been completely broken and stripped of his soul by the experience. And while it’s true we never linger long on gore, Katniss’s shock, the desperation of those around her, along with the fantastic mood-setting music work much better.

The problem with using violence as a way to elicit a horrified response is that it rarely works. No film portrays this concept better, in my opinion, than The Passion of the Christ. The entire point of the movie was to make the audience weep at Christ’s torture. But the violence is so over-the-top that it feels like a Looney Tunes cartoon. He might as well have dropped a piano on Jesus’s head.

I, for one, am very glad Ross didn’t go this direction with the film. I think it’s actually more relatable that way.

The music is perfect

Not a whole lot that needs to be said. While I’m not sure the score works as a standalone piece, it was fantastic in the movie itself.


 Backstory is handled cleverly

One issue movie adaptations often have is trying to fit in a bunch of past history and technical details. The Hunger Games deals with this two ways.

The first is via flashback, mainly to two important events: Peeta giving Katniss his old bread, and Katniss’s father’s death. Both of these could have been done hamfistedly, of course, but I think Ross handles them well. The bread flashback is done in spurts as Katniss gets to know Peeta — we get a little more of the scene each time, and finally, in the end, we see why it’s relevant. The flashback to Katniss’s father (and her mother and sister, incidentally) come while she’s hallucinating from the tracker-jacker stings. It’s sort of a convenient way to do it, but it also makes sense. It’s not too jarring, and it sets up the Rue-Prim equivalence without Katniss having to say “OMG RUE YOU REMIND ME OF MY SISTER.”

As for the details about the games, I think the film does a brilliant job of telling us exactly what we need to know, and no more. Yes, there are some unanswered questions. That’s going to be the case for any speculative fiction (well, any good speculative fiction). But I had a good grasp of what was going on, as did my fellow moviegoers, none of whom had read the book.

In MovieBob’s most boneheaded criticism, he says the whole concept of the arena was confusing. That comment is inept to the point where I’m wondering if he even saw the same movie I did. The film makes it clear the arena is artificial, subject to the Game Maker’s whims. I’m not sure what else Bob thought the audience needed — perhaps he wanted President Snow to come out and deliver a “HERE ARE THE TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS OF THE ARENA” speech. I dunno.

Is the movie perfect? Nope.

For all I liked about The Hunger Games, there were some missteps, and even some places where I agree with MovieBob’s critique. The lack of focus on the actual hunger part of The Hunger Games is really mystifying. I suspect we’ll see a lot of tummy-rumbling and cake-gobbling in the deleted scenes, but the fact that Ross really thought none of that was necessary really confuses me.

Also, as I previously mentioned, the visuals were a let down. The effects were blended poorly, and it’s incredibly obvious when the backgrounds switch from a set to a green screen. In a specific example, Katniss’s “Girl on Fire” outfit is incredibly underwhelming. In the book, I imagined her being encircled by flames, something truly otherwordly. In the film, it’s little more than a little fiery cape, and I probably wouldn’t be very impressed if such a thing made an appearance at the Olympics.

But all in all, I came away incredibly impressed by the effort. It’ll be interesting to see if they can keep it up for Catching Fire, given that I was fairly disappointed in the book.

Anthologies available – Now in Paperback!

Quick update for you all. After getting some crap from some friends for not alerting people about the latest anthology I’m included in (which is simply because I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet!), I decided to check the previous one. Sure enough, that one’s out in paper for too. So, without further adieu:


Timeless is an anthology celebrating eternal love … as well as some more complicated relationships. It includes my story, The Boy and the Nymph, a fairy tale about, well, a boy, and also a nymph. But, like, a fairy-tale nymph. Not the other meaning of that word.

It’s got some great and unexpected stories: “The Gate of Ethos,” about a newly-born demon and the human woman who messes with his head, and “The Trippet Stones,” where a time-traveling-spirit-sorta-it’s-hard-to-describe is forced to seduce the descendant of her former lover — as well as a bunch of others.

Ch-ch-check it out!

Amazon – Paperback
Amazon – Kindle
DRM-free from Cool Well Press

Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations

On the other side of the coin, Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations (or DaTaLoC, as I call it [I don’t actually call it that]) explores things that aren’t so eternal. My story for this one is entitled “We Are Not The Favored Children,” and it follows an Ancient Pueblo woman who sets out to find what might be the last hope for her people’s survival.

This one also includes a story by prolific and all-around awesome horror author Joe Lansdale, known for writing Bubba Ho-Tep as well as a ginormous list of shorts and novels. If you’re looking for something a little darker, definitely pick it up.

Amazon – Paper
Barnes & Noble – Paper

If you pick up either of the anthologies, I’d greatly appreciate dropping a review of it on Amazon, Barnes + Noble, Goodreads, or anywhere else. Good, bad, ugly — just so long as it’s honest!

Other Stuff

While the anthologies are definitely my biggest news, I do have other things a’brewing. My novel is, for all intents and purposes, finished. It will be off to beta readers by tomorrow, likely, so after I deal with another round of revisions from the feedback I get (mostly on the second half), I’ll be shooting it out to agents. Scary, but also exciting.

I also have some short stories in the works. There’s one I’m pretty proud of that I’m targeting for a specific market, but if that falls through, I might give it a go via self-publishing. I dunno. We’ll see. I’ve been wanting to jump into the Kindle market to at least give it a try.

Finally, I have a very short (100 words!) story that will be appearing in an upcoming flash fiction anthology entitled 100 RPM, edited by Caroline Smailes. It’s for charity y’all, so you know you have to check it out. I’ll let you know when that one hits (also a big shout out to my friend Teresa, who also made it into that one. Congrats!)

It’s that time again … Oscar 2012

So the 2012 Oscar nominations hit today, and I’ll be writing up my complete list of predictions in the coming weeks. For now, I have a few thoughts:

  • This was one of those hard years for casual moviegoers, where many of the big, critically acclaimed films were artsy movies that came out in December. That means that they’re hard to catch in theaters, and Netflix is a no-go because of the studio’s insane 1-2 month restriction. As a result, I’ve yet to see a lot of these (The Artist, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Descendants, etc.)
  • While she won’t win, it’s good to see Melissa McCarthy nominated for Supporting Actress for her performance in Bridesmaids. To me, she exemplifies what a good Best Supporting nominee should have: she doesn’t necessarily steal the movie, or change its focus, but without her, it would have been significantly weaker.
  • Jonah Hill is sort of the opposite. Yes, he did a very good job in Moneyball, and he absolutely proved he can do more than sit around and make dick jokes. However, compare his performance to last year’s Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale in The Fighter) and it doesn’t quite seem up to the same level.
  • Really? They stretched out the Animated category to five with the unmemorable-at-best Puss in Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2, but couldn’t have done the same last year for Tangled? Whatever. Rango wins this category easily.
  • Rooney Mara should take the Best Actress trophy. Her performance was stunning.
  • Speaking of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was surprised that Fincher didn’t get nominated for Best Director. While I wasn’t expecting a Best Movie nomination, I would definitely categorize the lack of Fincher as a ‘snub.’
  • Also interesting to see both Tree of Life and Terrence Malik garner nominations. That’s a very love-it-or-hate-it movie, and I expected most critics to hate it.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks after I track down the remaining movies.

New Dangers in a New Publishing Landscape

One of the things that’s often thrown about with self-publishing is the unprecedented level of freedom and control authors have with their works. And sometimes it’s true. But if you think you can just assume that well-known companies like Amazon and Apple have your back … well … think again:

The nightmare scenario under this agreement? You create a great work of staggering literary genius that you think you can sell for 5 or 10 bucks per copy. You craft it carefully in iBooks Author. You submit it to Apple. They reject it. Under this license agreement […] they won’t sell it, and you can’t legally sell it elsewhere.

For those with a lack of experience in the publishing industry, I’ll go ahead and tell you: this is insane. It’s akin to Microsoft saying “If you write your novel with MSWord, you can only publish it via Microsoft Reader.” Wineman is correct when he calls this arrangement “unprecedented.” I can’t think of a single other case similar to this one.

Predictably, Apple evangelists have come out of the woodwork to decry that it’s only fair that you can’t sell your book anywhere else — after all, Apple’s product is freeeeee! And if they don’t enforce this rule to make sure you don’t, say, use iBooks Author to create a book and sell it on Kindle, then they’re helping their competition!


First of all, the concept is ludicrous. Do they really think a large number of people are going to use iBA, and then not use iBooks? That’s absurd. Most people who use Apple products do so because they like Apple. Furthermore, if that’s really an issue, charge for the product. Do not justify whittling away an artist’s rights because you can’t bother coming up with a solid business plan.

It used to be that writers needed to worry about scammy publishers who wouldn’t pay, or agents that would demand money up front. And while those things are still concerns, the actions of Big, Presumably Non-Scammy Companies are becoming more and more worrisome.

This exclusivity trend is starting to be a problem, and it’s not just Apple. Kindle’s recently introduced KDP Select program requires that they be the exclusive seller of the submitted book, whereas before they required only that you don’t sell your book cheaper anywhere else. KDP Select is essentially a book loaning program — there’s absolutely nothing that requires exclusivity. Amazon simply introduced it here, where it would be less of a disruption. I wouldn’t be surprised if they required the exclusivity for all Kindle Direct books in the near future.

So, self-publishers: keep your wits about you, and don’t assume just because you’re striking it out on your own that you’re protected from the shenanigans of corporations that don’t have your interest at heart. Remember Yog’s Law: “Money flows toward the author.” And remember that anyone asking for rights above-and-beyond “let us publish this” is essentially trying to take some of your cash.

UPDATE: Apple has changed (“clarified,” they say) their EULA to say that you’re only prohibited from selling the iBooks file you create with the iBook Author software — not the content itself. This is certainly a welcome “clarification,” though it’s still an absurd restriction. Going with the MSWord metaphor above, imagine if Microsoft said “You can write your novel in Word, but you’re not allowed to distribute the .doc file.” What a helpful piece of software that would be.

P is for Piracy

No, I’m not doing the totally-hip-and-cool A-Z Blogging Challenge (which I would link to, but I have no idea where it started). I just couldn’t think of a better title.

This post is going to be fairly short, and it’s going to be big on assertions and assumptions, cause that’s the way I’m feeling today. I’m channeling a lot of energy into my new job (Linux!), and into finishing the final, tricky scenes in To the Boundaries of Heaven.

That said, I’d like to talk a little about piracy, specifically book (though I may touch on piracy in other media as well). The topic has come up recently in several forums and blogs, as well as in my local writing group.

I think the most salient point I can make about piracy is the difference between an emotional response and an economic response. Most people who focus a lot of energy on fighting piracy have an emotional response: “These people are stealing my hard work!” That is a completely legitimate response, because it’s true. While “stealing” is not quite the right word, it certainly feels like the same thing. These people are enjoying the fruits of your labor (years of writing and editing!), and contributing nothing for it. Hell, I’m a big believer that piracy is free marketing, and even I get a little bit pissed off.

But emotional damage is not economic damage. Where I think a lot of parties, both individual artists and publishing/distribution companies, are getting off mark is the idea that their emotional interests and economic interests are 100% aligned. “My book is downloaded 1000 times a month from ThePirateBay, so if I stop those dirty pirates, I’ll see 1000 extra sales monthly!” Anyone with a smattering of common sense (and I absolutely hate the concept of common sense) can tell that this is a faulty argument. This makes as much sense as saying an author pricing an eBook at $.99 could multiply his profit by six figures simply by charging $1,000,000 for it. Many, if not most, illegal downloaders are downloading the material not because they’re highly interested in it, but because they’re highly interested in it at the price of $0. Raise the price to $.99, and they no longer care.

But let’s assume that perhaps 10% of pirates would buy your book if an illegitimate option were not available (I think that’s more than generous). Is spending a good chunk of your time and frustration chasing down 10% of a market that’s not all that interested in being your customer really a great business decision? Wouldn’t a better business decision be to just ignore this sector, and write another book for the people who ARE your customers? This is where emotional and economic decisions diverge. The author focusing on the emotional will track down every torrent, send out DMCA notices and nasty emails, try to seed the web with fake torrents, etc. The author focusing on the economic will say “screw it” and spend that time writing.

I don’t have the space to address the multitude of topics on this matter, but here’s some food for thought:

  • Piracy is publicity. Even if it takes a bite out of your profits (which I disagree with), it’s still publicity. A pirate is just as likely as a buyer to tell his friends that a book rocked (or sucked!)
  • Not all illegitimate downloads are a lost sale. In fact, very few are.
  • DRM (Digital Rights Management, obtrusive software that makes it more difficult to pirate) does not work. At all. Pirates can get into the most locked-down DRM in a matter of weeks, usually a matter of hours, and disseminate a clean, DRM-free version to the pirate community. This means the only people that DRM affects is legitimate users. In fact, if your DRM is so bad that it makes the product hard to use, or removes expected features, it will likely drive people who would have bought your book to pirate it.
  • You can not stop piracy. Ever. If a book can be read, if a song can be heard, it can be copied. At best, you can try to delay it, but that hardly ever works. Like death, piracy is inevitable. So why spend your time worrying about it?