Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Contest to Celebrate ASHEN WINTER!

My author copies of ASHEN WINTER came in today! I know, I know, I already posted about it only an hour ago. Here's a completely gratuitous picture of them with my cat, Pepper:


So how can you get one early? Preorder! There are links at www.ashenwinter.com. Want one even earlier? Okay, okay, let's have a contest! I'm not going to give away my shiny new hardbacks yet, but I have five paperbound advance reading copies (ARCs) of ASHEN WINTER, and I want to mail one to you!

So for the first ARC giveaway, I'm going to think of a completely random name. Quiet, I'm thinking....


I've got it! The completely random name I thought of is Sheryl Russell Clark. If there's anyone reading this blog by that name who also went to high school in Paris, Illinois, email me your physical address! You've won! I'm at mike.mullin.writer at gmail dot com. (I've made Grant wait long enough, ha!)

Want to win one of the other four ARCs I'm giving away? Easy, just comment on this post with something you will do to help me spread the word about ASHEN WINTER. The crazier the better. I'll pick the four ideas I like the best and send ARCs out to the winners right away. Include your email in your comment so I can contact you, please. I reserve the right to award no prizes, or if the ideas really rock, I might dip into my stash of hardbacks. Good luck!

ASHEN WINTER Arrived!

Check out what I found on my doorstep when I got home from taekwondo tonight!





Aren't they gorgeous? I'm so excited! Here's a close-up:



That's the new paperback of ASHFALL on the left and the hardback of ASHEN WINTER on the right. The cover art is by the same fabulous artist who did the original ASHFALL cover, Ana Correal. Even my cat, Pepper, thinks they're beautiful, check it out:


I hope this means the books will ship early. You should preorder, just in case :). I put preorder links, information on the HUGE launch party we have planned for October 7th, and the first two chapters of ASHEN WINTER up at www.ashenwinter.com.

Did I already say I'm excited! I did? Sorry.

I'M EXCITED!


Monday, August 20, 2012

Is the Digital Piracy Threat Real?

(Originally posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

I've been discussing digital piracy here for the last few weeks--in this post I argued that pirating digital content is immoral because if everyone did it, it would blight our creative ecosystem. In this post, I went further, arguing that the very structure of the internet encourages immoral behavior, and that we need to redesign the internet to better serve the humans who use it. I also argued that digital piracy is a form of counterfeiting, not theft, and that "counterfeiters" is a better term than "pirates."

So the question might naturally arise--am I being a Chicken Little? I imagine that if the counterfeiters get the upper hand, we might wind up with a digital dystopia in which no content creators can get paid for their efforts and all content becomes amateur. Instead of Hollywood movies that cost tens or even hundreds of millions to produce, we'll have . . . YouTube. Novels will still be written, but many of our greatest novelists--those who make a living from their work--would write less or not at all due to the necessity of taking on other work to put food on the table. Could that really happen?



For an answer, I turn to a fascinating discussion I've been having with Tanvir Hossain on Goodreads. Hossain is a Bangladeshi, and graciously took some time to comment on one of my posts. You can read the whole discussion here.

Hossain begins his comment:  "You are right. Piracy isn't right. But still I pirate ebooks. So why I do it? The main reason is - there is almost no chance in getting caught. If I try to steal a book form a book store, there is 99% chances that I will get caught. But If I download a book from a pirate site there is almost no chance that I will get caught. But this is illegal and immoral."

In Bangladesh, counterfeiting digital work is so widespread that it has become a social norm. Hossain again: "My dad works on a Government office and the operating system of the computers of his office is pirated windows 7. So if government is using pirated software, what can you say about this country?"

Counterfeiting has decimated the creative community in Bangladesh. Take the film industry, for  example:  "Yeah, piracy is destroying the country. It had destroyed the movie industry and disabled the music industry. It all started in 1990's. When the VCR hits the stores of Bangladesh, piracy of Video Cassette begins [...] when the bootlegged copy of Bollywood movies came to Bangladesh they were instant hit. People started watch movies in VCRs not in cinema halls. As a result attendance to cinema halls dropped. So the movie industry get less money and with less money they made low budget and lower quality films than before. Now if you ask a Bangladeshi what was last bangla
movie he watched I don't think he will able to tell you."

Could this sort of digital dystopia spread to the rest of the world? Of course. All it requires is that those who counterfeit creative work believe they can do so without getting caught. If the social norm becomes that content is free, then most kinds of professional creative endeavor must end. And that world would impoverish both content creators and consumers.

What can you do? Don't frequent counterfeiting sites. Don't link to them. Report counterfeiting sites to authors and/or their publishers. Let your friends who download counterfeit content know that it's not okay to do so. An ultimate solution requires redesigning the internet and probably our copyright laws, but in the meantime we can all help to maintain the social norm that authors and other content creators deserve to be compensated for their work.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What's Wrong with the Internet?

I saw this video on Galleycat last night, and it stuck in my head, so I'll share it with you:


I like its message: We should remember that the internet is populated with real people, similar to ourselves. I'm going to try to be a kinder person online. And I wish everyone would do the same.

But I also wish there were winged unicorns flying outside my office window farting rainbows.

We've had the internet for 21 years. If simply connecting people online were enough to create kind and productive spaces, then we'd read the comments on YouTube videos and smile in delight. 4chan would be a marvel of helpfulness instead of the communal cesspool of the internet.

The video, wonderful and well-intentioned as it is, places the onus for the problem in exactly the wrong place. It exhorts people to adapt to the internet when instead we should demand that the internet adapt to us.

Simply put, the internet is defective.

Very few physical spaces are as dysfunctional our online world. Parts of Somalia, maybe. In general, we design physical spaces to encourage civility. Consider restaurants. There's a general expectation that you'll get good service and that you'll tip for it. Could I sit down, get good service, and not tip? Sure--in fact, from an objectivist point of view, that's an optimal strategy if I don't plan on returning to that restaurant. But because of the design of the system, even the people who wear their butts as hats online generally tip in restaurants.

Some corners of the internet are better than others. Actively moderated blogs, for example. John Scalzi does a great job keeping Whatever more or less civil. But active moderation is kind of like placing a band-aid over the gushing fundamental design flaw in the internet.


Could we design an internet to encourage civility? Sure, and it's only going to get easier as bandwidth increases. Flamewars rarely happen in real life in part because you can see the person you're hurting. Even without ubiquitous face-to-face communication, we could improve the internet dramatically with design changes. Consider what our online world might be like if we implemented just two changes:

1) End transient anonymity. Allow only one online identity per person--real or anonymous. Make that identity persistent from site to site. By making identity persistent, your behavior online would follow you, just as it does in real life.

2) Attach a reputation score to these persistent identities. This is no different than what we do with businesses now. Google nearly any business and you can find ratings and reviews. This makes most businesses careful to interact online only in positive ways.

Perhaps those aren't perfect solutions. I'm sure smarter folks than I can come up with better ways to redesign the internet. The important point is this: We need to design an online world to better serve people, not just exhort people to change themselves to fit the internet as it exists today.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Another Example of Idiocy in Education

The District of Columbia Public Schools are cutting librarians. Almost half their schools will be without qualified librarians when school reopens.


This despite more than 60 studies conducted in 22 states that directly link qualified school librarians to student achievement.

Hey, D.C.! I've got a suggestion for you. Why not cut 9% from your bloated $36.3 million administration budget? That's enough to save all the district's librarian jobs. You should start the cuts with whichever idiot at central office thought librarians contributed less to your children's education than the pencil pushers downtown.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Immorality of the Internet

(Originally Posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

Two weeks ago in this space, I posted about a discussion I had with the owner of an ebook pirating website, and went on to explain why I believe it's immoral both to consume and to provide pirated copies of copyrighted works.

I've continued to think about this issue because it's important to me both as a writer and as a reader. An environment in which the value of writing drops to zero would impoverish me personally and the literary world in general. Yet people who love to read pirate books. Why? I found my answer in the book I read today, You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier.



Part of the reason digital piracy flourishes is the fundamental immorality of the internet as currently designed. (No, I'm not talking about porn sites--I'm talking about this blog, YouTube, Facebook: the bits of the internet all of us use every day.) How can that be, you ask? Isn't the internet just a tool that can be used for good or ill?

While the internet certainly contains numerous tools, it's more than that--it has become an environment in which many of us spend a significant fraction of our lives. And that environment--or any environment, for that matter--has a profound influence on our actions.

The popular conception of morality is that it's something innate to individuals. Most people think of themselves as moral, but can readily identify others (a mother-in-law, a spouse's friends) who aren't. In fact, for most of us, morality has far more to do with our circumstances than any innate characteristic. A famous study Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point found that most seminarians would stop to help a person in distress if they were told they had plenty of time before their lecture, but only 10% of them would stop if they were told they were late. To a lecture on the Good Samaritan, no less. Similarly, cities have discovered that they can cut crime rates merely by cleaning up graffiti and broken windows--the people haven't changed, but the environment around them has.

Would thousands of people have stolen ASHFALL if they had to come into my house and look me in the eye as they took it? Of course not. The internet is immoral as currently designed precisely because it creates conditions in which immoral behavior is easy, anonymous (or nearly so), and so widespread as to become a social norm. (Lanier never calls the current design of the internet immoral, by the way, but that's the logical outcome of his arguments about transient anonymity and mob behavior.)

I can hear the howls of protest from pirates. File-sharing is not stealing, they will say. I'm not depriving anyone else of a book when I pirate it. And in a sense, they're right. Stealing is an inadequate metaphor for digital piracy. Lanier suggests a better one when he compares digital piracy to counterfeiting.

Currency and books only have value (except perhaps as fire-starters) when they're scarce. Counterfeiting doesn't take money from anyone--rather, it devalues all money in exactly the same way that digital piracy devalues all content. Counterfeiting is a worse crime than theft because it hurts the entire society, not just one individual. That's why faking a $100 bill (or even just holding a fake with fraudulent intent) is a felony that will get you 15 years, while shoplifting a $100 item is only a misdemeanor. Counterfeiting undermines the value of currency; digital piracy undermines the value of most types of creative endeavor. Piracy is far worse than mere theft. In fact, the term pirate has too much of a romantic connotation--let's call them counterfeiters instead.

I can hear more counterfeiter howls. Elitist, they will cry. Everyone should have ebooks, even if they can't pay! Information wants to be free! I actually agree with the first statement. Everyone should have access to books--which is why copyrights are issued for a limited period (and why recent expansions of that period should be rolled back). There are literally tens of millions of books that are free and legal to distribute. Recent titles should be distributed in physical and digital form by free public libraries which have paid for the rights to the books.

The second statement is so wrong-headed it's dangerous. It places information--bits in our computers--above the humans who consume and create it. And remember, "worthless" is a synonym for "free." True freedom demands a rich flow of information which can only be achieved by paying for the efforts of content creators--if information ever does become free, humans won't be.

What can we do? Lanier suggests that we redesign the internet, putting into place a system that rewards content creators and prevents the worst abuses to civility. He proposes placing content in the cloud, rather than on our devices, and charging a small fee that compensates creators when the content is accessed. Another idea he espouses is ending all forms of transient anonymity, so that bad behavior will follow its perpetrators, whether they're anonymous or not--i.e. you'd still be able to be anonymous on the internet only by assuming a persistent fake identity.

What do you think will help end piracy and make the internet a more moral place? Let me know in the comments, please. 


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Extraordinary Power of Kindness

Too often kindness is relegated to a random act performed only when we’re feeling good. But an even greater kindness (to ourselves and others) occurs when we reach out even when we aren't feeling entirely whole. It’s not easy, and no one is perfect. But we’ve decided it’s not impossible to brighten the world one smile, one kind word, one blog post at a time. To that end, a few of us writers have established The Kindness Project, starting with a series of inspirational posts. We post the second Wednesday of every month.

A few years ago, I was caught in the maw of one of the darkest periods of my life. The remodeling company I'd founded and run for 8 years had collapsed. A worker had died on a job I was responsible for. My writing was going nowhere. I suffered through days so bleak that I couldn't get out of bed. Think pills by the fistful; psychiatrists by the van-load.


On one of my better days, I ventured into the front yard to weed. We have more of a wildflower garden than a yard, but my wife and I stay so busy that it often looks a bit disreputable. One of my neighbors--I'll call him Fred, since he doesn't like his real name used--stopped by and asked if he could help. I said sure, and we spent more than two hours weeding the front yard (yes, it was that bad).

Fred walks with a cane, and his head is slightly misshapen. I knew he'd had some kind of accident about a year before, but I'd been too self-absorbed to learn the details. As we worked, he told me about it.

He'd been riding on our local bike trail, and a group of five young men accosted him. Four of them had bicycles, and they wanted one more. Fred's. They hit him over the back of the head with a 2x4 and kicked him over twenty times. They broke dozens of bones, including his skull. They thought they'd killed him, so they dragged him into some nearby bushes and fled.

Another cyclist called 911, and a determined police officer stayed on the scene for hours before he found Fred. No trauma surgeon in Indianapolis was skilled enough to piece Fred's brain back together, so a team from Chicago was videoconferenced in. He coded six times on the operating table, but he survived and ultimately recovered, sort of. When all the bills were in, Fred had racked up $800,000 in debt over a $10 garage-sale bike. He was bankrupt. To top it all off, Fred is gay. I won't go into the discrimination he's faced throughout his life, but whatever you can imagine, it was probably worse.

I ask you: Did anyone ever have a greater reason to hate the human race?

But here's the amazing thing about Fred. He greets everyone with a cheerful hello and smile--from businessmen rushing around in suits to alcoholics begging on the street corner. After that day of weeding, we started getting together for breakfast now and then--in each restaurant we've walked to, Fred knows everyone--right down to the busboys--by name.

We didn't just talk about what Fred calls his "accident" that day. I told him about my struggles, pitiful though they were by comparison. Fred said he'd hadn't seen me around lately and had been worried. Which was one of the reasons he took some time to talk to me and help me weed that day. Not long afterward, I started working on the first draft of my debut novel, ASHFALL. And I enrolled in taekwondo--partly because I knew the protagonist of ASHFALL would need to know some kind of martial art, but mostly because Fred's story had completely freaked me out.

None of us are undamaged--Fred perhaps least of all. He'll probably never walk without a cane again. But I trace part of the turnaround in my own life to his simple actions--helping a neighbor weed, listening. And that's the extraordinary power of kindness.

Be sure to check out all the inspirational posts for THE KINDNESS PROJECT. Want to join us by writing your own inspirational post on kindness? Sign up in the Mr. Linky widget below and post.