Leary Letter

Monday, July 27, 2015

Writing in the Cafe of Babel

In the not too distant past, Panera opened a new coffee shop in Washington DC's Chinatown. I somehow found myself in the area one early Saturday morning and so went in and discovered it was easily the biggest Panera I had ever seen.

Beyond the ordering counter near the door was another level where sat a large number of people, even though it was so early in the day. I placed my order and was given a small electronic device to take with me. I ascended the steps up to a second level and found an open table. A few minutes later, a waiter found me--guided to my location by the electronic device--and gave me my order.

What struck me about this visit was the crowdedness of the cafe given the early hour, its unusual size, the waiters arriving at your table without knowing where you went except for the electronic homing device, and the various sorts of people there.

I saw guys in business suits, young suits of races I couldn't identify, languages I had never heard before. People from all around the world had congregated in this Chinatown cafe early one Saturday morning.

It goes without saying that "there are no Chinese in Chinatown," and I didn't see any here on this occasion. That was the one missing ethnic group.

The varieties of races mimicked the varieties of coffee on the menu. Standard coffee, lattes, espresso, tea, smoothies. And once the drink has been decided, there are the breads and bagels.

The Café of Babel, with its infinite choices of drinks, suggests a certain frustration and impossibility of satisfaction, since there are so many variations than one could never live long enough sample them all even if one drank something different every day of his life. A person could simply order a drink at random and hope for an enjoyable experience. But it's like blindly throwing a dart at a world map and expecting to hit your hometown.

I know many visitors to the Café of Babel who pick the first drink they see on the menu and then order the same thing every day, simply as a method of avoiding the chaos and nadir of the impossible menu. Others will choose something different every day and claim they are on a journey to discover the tastiest drink, but it's clear from their demeanor and tone of voice that they don't believe what they say and know it is a futile endeavor. And of course, they long ago forgot which drinks they had already sampled.

As I write in the cafe, I see someone look at his drink in a funny way, take it back to the counter, and pretend that it isn't what he ordered. He returns with a different drink but seems no more pleased with that one than the first. He visits several different cafes every day, repeating the same ruse, with the same unsatisfactory results.

I overhear a conversation among several old timers complaining of too many choices, and their plans to write a petition, to be signed by thousands, demanding that the number of drink choices be reduced to only three to avoid confusing everyone.

As for myself, I order the same drink every day, because I long ago recognized the false allure of infinite choices that are essentially the same after all, despite their exotic and enticing titles. By drinking the standard coffee, all possible variations are contained within it. By drinking one, one drinks them all.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Almost Killed While Writing At Starbucks

Impossible Cafes #1

I write at several different cafes in my area, most of them Starbucks. I have a favorite table at one of them, right next to a large window and the parking lot. Lately I've been writing my upcoming novel "Drone Fever" and a short story called "Daybreak" while there. I'm often there in the mornings.  But I had gone elsewhere one day.

So when I returned the day after, I was surprised to see a large piece of cardboard where a window had been. I assumed as anyone would that someone had thrown a rock through it overnight. I didn't even mention it when I approached the counter for my coffee.

The barista waiting for me told me how lucky I was that I didn't come in the day before as usual. Because a car had driven right through the parking lot, onto the sidewalk, and smashed through their front window! On the other side of that window was the table where I always sat. She said the car hit the table and it landed on the other side of the wall. I would have been killed if I had been sitting there!

As you can see from the picture, the window has yet to be replaced.

Ever since the barista told me about it, I've wondered what would have really happened if I had been sitting there. Would I have noticed the car approaching and jumped out of the way in the nick of time? Would I have suffered a broken arm but still managed to survive? I suppose in another universe, I was sitting there when the car smashed through. But in this universe, I was somewhere else.

If I were a little more paranoid, I would suspect someone had put out a contract on me and the driver had been paid off to do the job. But who and why?

I've been waiting for weeks for them to replace that window. Why? For one thing, I don't worry about another car smashing through the window, contract on me or not. But there's more. After they had inserted the cardboard into the empty window, I returned and sat at that table again. After some time, I smelled something funny, and then the odor became overpowering. It was the strong smell of cigarettes! I looked around to see who was smoking a cigarette inside a Starbucks cafe, as I had never seen anyone do it before. But I saw no one smoking.

Then I looked around past the cardboard to the sidewalk outside. Right in front of the cardboard stood a man smoking a cigarette. The smoke was entering the cafe from around the sides and the bottom. On top of that, he would drop his still-lit cigarette on the ground right next to the bottom of the cardboard and then come back into Starbucks and sit there for a while at his laptop. Then after a few minutes, he would go outside again and continue smoking that lit cigarette he had left beneath the cardboard. So the effect of not having a window was that the cafe around my table was filled with strong cigarette smoke coming from outside.

I've decided not to go there until the window is fixed or I don't see the smoker around. It's been weeks since the window was busted, yet it still hasn't been replaced. The barista said they would fix it a couple weeks ago, but still no window.

Having narrowly escaped death at Starbucks, it reminds me of the story I wrote here earlier called "Unearthly Entities Haunt Starbucks." Some sort of other-worldliness is around these cafes, but it doesn't seem to affect or threaten anyone but me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

How Fast Should You Write a Book?

Lately I've read advice from self-published authors on how fast to write books. Some suggest no less than 3 novels a year. Others say you need to publish something regularly--every few weeks--so your audience stayed interested and doesn't leave. One prominent author claims to write short stories in 24 hours and then publish them.

Earlier I blogged on authors suggesting a book needs a certain word count for best effect on potential readers. 80,000-90,000 was considered ideal for novels.

The ideas of spending a fixed amount of time on a book, and aiming for a fixed word count, seem to work against achieving the best results in terms of literary quality. Clearly, a well-written book isn't the primary aim here, it is producing a lot of books and stories in a short period of time.

No doubt the advice that an author needs a lot of books on Amazon to get noticed and sell a lot is good counsel, and these recommendations on time and word count fit in with that. Unless somehow you write one book and it becomes a bestseller. That's not unknown but is the exception to the rule.

I find it tough to spend a very short amount of time on a story, because I know the literary quality will suffer. Perhaps I shouldn't mind so much as long as I am publishing a lot?

So far, I've published 4 stories in 2015 and hope to finish at least one novel and maybe two over the next 5 months. Fast enough? I suspect some of these authors are full-time writers.

My latest publication, the science fiction short story "I, Manikin."


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Snowden Leaks Continue to Aid US Enemies

Islamic State has used National Security Agency documents stolen by Ed Snowden to change their operations in an effort to prevent the US from gathering intelligence on the group, according to new reports:
The Islamic State has also studied revelations from Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, about how the United States gathers information on militants. A main result is that the group’s top leaders now use couriers or encrypted channels that Western analysts cannot crack to communicate, intelligence and military officials said.
I've mentioned here several times that Snowden and his friends continue to leak NSA documents long after he has made his point about government intrusion. The leaks serve no purpose except to aid the interests of the enemies of the US, such as ISIS, Russia, China, Iran, etc.

Whatever Snowden was when this all started, he is now no different than a mole working for the other side stealing the crown jewels. No logical case can be made at this point for divulging more classified documents on "behalf" of the average US or world citizen.

See my recent short story "The Flurry Abduction" based on the Snowden case.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

New York Times Finally Adds Ted Cruz's Book to Bestseller List

Responding to the firestorm of controversy that erupted after Republican conservative Senator Ted Cruz's book was left off the New York Times' bestseller list, the politically liberal newspaper caved in and the book will appear on their list tomorrow.

Cruz said public pressure led to the decision:
“They don’t want people to read the book, ‘A Time for Truth;’ they left it off and then an amazing thing happened. Number one, they accused me of bulk sales. I said that is a lie. ... Then my publisher Harper-Collins came out and said that is a lie. We have all the sales data. There are no bulk purchases,” the Republican senator told Fox News' Megyn Kelly on Wednesday.
The newspaper, unable to admit politics led to the book's exclusion, said nothing was changed in the selection process:
“This week’s best seller list was arrived at using the same process as last week’s – and the week before that,” said Murphy. “That process involves a careful analysis of data, and is not influenced in any way by the content of a book, or by pressure from publishers or book sellers.”

Without question, this entire episode will continue to raise questions in the public's mind about the Times' journalistic integrity.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Amazon's Bestselling Books 1995-2015

Amazon sold its first book in July 1995, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies by Douglas Hofstadter. They have now posted a list of their bestselling books for every year from 2015 (so far) going back to 1995. Here are the top books for each year:

  • 2015 Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
  • 2014 StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath
  • 2013 StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath
  • 2012 Fifty Shades of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy by E L James
  • 2011 Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • 2010 The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson
  • 2009 The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
  • 2008 A New Earth: Awakening Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
  • 2007 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
  • 2006 Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't by Jim Collins
  • 2005 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling
  • 2004 The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  • 2003 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling
  • 2002 Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't by Jim Collins
  • 2001 Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson
  • 2000 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
  • 1999 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
  • 1998 A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
  • 1997 Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
  • 1996 Creating Killer Websites: The Art of Third-Generation Site Design by David Siegel
  • 1995 How to Set Up and Maintain a World Wide Web Site by Lincoln Stein

12 are fiction, 9 are non-fiction. The internet was just starting to grow big in the mid-90s, explaining the website design books. Once a character like Harry Potter becomes popular, he stays popular, reflecting the passion readers have for a series of books starring the same character.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Authors Accuse Amazon of Antitrust Violations

A long list of authors and the American Booksellers Association are requesting Obama's Justice Department investigate Amazon for antitrust and anti-competitive behavior.

From Authors United to the DOJ:
In recent years, Amazon has used its dominance in ways that we believe harm the interests of America’s readers, impoverish the book industry as a whole, damage the careers of (and generate fear among) many authors, and impede the free flow of ideas in our society.
What I think is curious about this dispute is the expectation that Obama's infamous Justice Department is expected by all these writers to deliver some sort of fair and equitable ruling. I find that beyond belief, whether we are talking about books or people of any race or occupation. There is something surreal about appealing to this Justice Department for a fair solution.

I see famous names on the list, but many noteworthy authors are missing as well.

These same groups have tried to interest the Justice Department in this Amazon dispute before with no success. Perhaps that's why the ABA included in its letter:
We are concerned that the mega-book-retailer Amazon.com has
achieved such considerable market power with such questionable business tactics that it is undermining the ecosystem of the entire book industry in a way that will be detrimental, especially to mid-list authors, new authors, and minority voices.
Call me cynical, but alerting Obama's Justice Department to a "minority" angle on this is probably done with a view that there is no other way to capture their interest.

Should Obama's government intervene in this case? I suspect not. But it will if it sees one of its pet issues at stake here, such as minority rights or something along those lines.