Monday, December 17, 2007

Be of Good Cheer: Maria Bamford is here

Okay, so there's nothing particularly Christmassy about Maria Bamford, apart from the [maybe] green background in this pic. But I always feel the need for a good laugh over the holidays and this lady makes me laugh, a lot.

I just got her first audio CD, The Burning Bridges Tour, and it's a gas. Who can resist such gems as "Goddess of Little Lake Pequaym" and "The Pterodactyl Song"? The answer, apparently, is quite a few of my friends, who don't seem to find Maria as hilarious as I do. No mind, I can put on my headphones and guffaw insanely at this true original without scaring the dog too much.

I mean, who else could come up with "My father is really just a series of sound effects." And then proceed to do the sound effects, in a way that is frightening real, at least to this old geezer. However, I am prepared to accept that others might not 'get' this gorgeously amusing comic, so I have two links here that will get you to a bunch of video clips from which you can judge for yourself before you splurge on an album. They are Comedy Central and Maria's official site. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Another Dependable Author: Cruz Smith and Stalin's Ghost

Just got the latest Martin Cruz Smith novel: Stalin's Ghost. This is another in the Arkady Renko series and as good as any of the others, all the way back to Gorky Park. I don't know how Smith does it, but he captures the essence of Russia time and again, over time, as the country has emerged from the Cold War to its current state of nationalist resurgence.

Is the Russia that Smith describes the real Russia? Well, between the previous installment, Wolves Eat Dogs, and Stalin's Ghost, I was fortunate enough to spend about a week in Moscow. Everything I experienced there meshed perfectly with the Moscow that Arkady inhabits in this latest installment. (I only wish I had used the metro while I was there--you'll understand when you read the book).

So my guess is that all the other Arkady Renko novels are equally realistic. Each captures a part of the Russian reality, not the whole story, but enough to give you a lot more insight into the country and its people that many history books and documentaries. And they are enjoyable books, dependably tense, full of surprises, and the persistence of Arkady, a character who seems to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune despite himself and his utter lack of respect for [illegitimate] authority.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Blonde Faith: Why it's good to be able to trust an author

Just finished reading Walter Mosley's latest, Blonde Faith, and I wish I hadn't--finished that is. There are some authors who are so dependably good you just wish they'd write as fast as you can read, so you'd never be without one of their books. Almost all of my fiction reading is done just before I go to sleep and I look forward to that time as a reward for a hard day's work. If I don't have a dependable author to turn to, I get cranky and have a hard time falling asleep.

For me, Walter Mosley is one of the most dependable. Even though he has tried some very different genres over the years, I have enjoyed them all, from the spacey afro-youth novel "47" through the gritty tales of Socrates Fortlow to the darkness of "The Man in the Basement." For sheer enjoyment, the Paris Minton and Easy Rawlins series are the best and this is where Blonde Faith fits in. I don't want to give anything away, but this one could be a shocker for Easy fans. If you have not read any of the others in the series, don't start here, go for Devil in a Blue Dress. In fact, what I recommend--and literary purists are going to cringe at this--is first watch the movie of Devil in a Blue Dress then read the book. Why? Because then you will see Easy as Denzel Washington when you make your way through the rest of the series, and that really worked for me. Denzel Washington has the same wry smile of an angry soul that is so often an Easy's face.

And remember, with any Easy Rawlins novel you not only get night after night of suspense and intrigue and illicit sex, you also get a first rate education in what it felt like to grow up black in America in the forties and fifties (and probably the sixties through the nineties as well).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Steve Donnelly and the Soaring Seventies Guitar Solo

Last month's post about guitarist Steve Donnelly [Great Guitarists Never Die--My roomie from uni lives on] was perhaps a little too cryptic even for a blog post. So let me explain, Steve was my first year room mate at the University of Leeds. The day that I arrived at the flat, assigned to me by university housing, Steve was practicing on his Fender Telecaster, feet up on his Marshall amp, surrounded by every cup and mug in the place, all of which contained various amounts of coffee dregs (to his credit, Steve quickly rounded the mugs up and set about washing them).

The point is, he was a dedicated guitarist, even back then, and already very good. He had been playing the pub scene in London for several years and when he told me that Mick Fleetwood had asked him to be in the new line-up it was not hard to believe. But Steve found that being in a band has its downsides, like getting paid in relation to effort. So he does session work, paid for every hour of his time. Over the years he has developed a reputation as the go-to guy for great guitar work, appearing on albums by Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, John Wesley Harding, Nick Lowe, and Sheryl Crow. He was also a member of Suzanne Vega's stage band on the Nine Objects Of Desire tour.

One of Steve's specialties is the soaring seventies guitar solo and so when the late Brian Gibson decided to make a movie that revolves around a mythical seventies super-group, he turned to Steve for the guitar work, and the job of teaching actors to look like they are playing great guitar. The result was Still Crazy, a very enjoyable movie, particularly if you are a fan of Billy Connolly, Jimmy Nail, or the quietly brilliant Bill Nighy. In some reviews I have seen various musicians from Foreigner and Squeeze credited with the music, but there's no doubt Steve created the film's musical centerpiece: Brian's Theme. Check it out on Amazon.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Great Guitarists Never Die? My first year roomie fron uni lives on

One of the greatest guitarists of our time is someone you've probably never heard of, Steve Donnelly. Here he jams with another excellent player, Elliott Randall. Might seem a little slow to start with, but watch those fingers warm up, until Steve's pick goes flying!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Chey's Xtreme Flowers "Today's Best" on Zazzle

Chey's amazing image called Extreme Azalea's was selected as one of "Today's Best" on!

In fact, she has been getting a lot of favorable comments on her latest direction in digital imaging, taking her photographs of flowers and 'shredding' them into various levels of abstraction. Like Xtreme Sunflowers:

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Freesound: A cool site for people with ears

If you are fascinated by sounds then check out the freesound home page. This is the home of a project to make sounds available under Creative Commons licensing. What's cool about that? Well there are times when you want a sound, maybe for a movie or a music project. This site is working to make sounds searchable so that you can find the sound you need, then use it under a Creative Commons license.

I used the sound of a film projector from this library in my first video on YouTube. I am in the process of uploading some of my own sounds, things like dogs barking, rain on a tin roof, frogs doing what frogs do, and so on. In fact, I sometimes carry a small digital recorder with me just to capture sounds.

Is it art? Well, there is an art in the use of sounds, as many a motion picture sound track reveals. And there is an art in the capture of sounds. Creating sounds is also an art form. Some of the sounds on this site are generated from chips. Maybe you need to have grown up with radio drama as a major form of entertainment to get same the kick out of sound that some of us old folk do. Few things have sparked my imagination like listening to BBC radio plays on an earpiece under the covers after bedtime using a crystal radio attached to the drain pipe with an alligator clip.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Is This Art:? Coverage of the Virginia Tech Coverage

For years people have complained that network news and the major news networks have become less about news and more about entertainment. A fad? All about the money? No. It is an emerging phenomenon of considerable significance to human development (both in general terms and in the specific terms of Hegel's Aesthetics, which I happen to believe is the most prescient of his works).

The conclusive proof for me is that the best political journalism on TV today is The Daily Show. No doubt about it. Doubt it? See Jon Stewart's handling of the coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.

That is art.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Cool Fine Art Posters: Lively up your living space, work space, head space

A new collection of fine art posters based on the amazing photographic talents of Chey Cobb (yes, we are related) is now online at Zazzle. Take a break and check out the miniature art show below. See something you like, click for a closer look, order the size and frame style you need.

Chey's Cobb's Fine Art Posters at Zazzle

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Publish or Be Published: Sixth part

In talking about self-publishing in the last few parts of this piece I did not intend to give the impression that Amazon is the only way to go. By no means. Plenty of other online outlets exist, as well as other old-fashioned channels like book signings and boot sales. Lets look at one online alternative to get started:

Privacy for Business listed at Atlas Books, operated by Bookmasters.
compare to:
Privacy for Business listed at
Privacy for Business listed at
Privacy for Business on its own site.

The first thing to note is that Atlas sells the book for $18.97 which is a price set by me (in fact, I am about to lower it to try and clear out the last remaining copies of this version). I could have chosen to make Atlas the sole source on the book's web site. but felt like leaving the Amazon option open. The Barnes & Noble option has not been very productive. Amazon sells the book for an attractive $16.47, so the ten bucks or so that I get per copy through them is a good deal. I may try lowering the Atlas price to $15.79 and see if that pulls more sales across to Atlas. What Atlas does not offer is a UK outlet. Amazon does, and it requires no extra work by me. They sell the book for £17.99 which means a decent chunk for me, although I am not aware of any UK sales yet.

So why Bookmasters/Atlas? Well, Bookmasters is the only company I know that is both a regular printer and a bookseller. This can save you a lot of money in shipping. You get a competitive price on the printing of your books, based on a run of 1,000 or more. In other words, this is not the much more expensive print-on-demand pricing you will see at some online operations. Then you escape shipping charges because Bookmasters warehouses the books for you. Buyers can get the book from the Atlas web site and through 7x24 toll-free ordering (some people still like to order by phone instead of the web). Plus, Bookmasters is hooked into one of the big distributors, so bookstores can order direct from them. So can you. They will ship a carton of books to you when you need one, or to a buyer (I sell about 40 books a quarter wholesale to a university book store and they go straight from Bookmasters to the store).

The warehousing is not free. I pay from $50 to $70 per month in charges. And obviously Atlas is not Amazon when it comes to online presence. But this brings us to an interesting question: What is going to drive sales? If you are out on the speaking circuit generating buzz, it may not matter that you are not on Amazon. All you need is a simple way to channel people to the order page. For example, you put a "buy now" link on your web site (hopefully you have already registered your name as a web site) or on the book's web site (hopefully you have already registered the title as a web site). That link can be to Atlas and the price can be whatever you decide.

Of course, neither Amazon nor Atlas are exclusive, so you can go with both, but I am not sure how many people buy books on Amazon just through browsing. In other words, without buzz your Amazon sales are not guaranteed to be anything more than one or two a month. (At some point I will get around to discussing how to perk up your Amazon listing to increase sales). is an interesting example of print-on-demand. Check it out at You submit your manuscript and cover design, they print copies when people order them from the web site. Their pricing model seems complex at first (check it out here) but if you have read the previous parts of this posting you should be able to grasp what they are getting at. If not, check the example on this page and keep trying, it's a good way to learn the ropes.

You can see that copies sold through retail distribution (e.g. by Barnes & Noble) are going to make you $4.00 per copy. This might not sound like much but it remember you have zero up-front costs, zero shipping costs, zero warehousing costs, and $4.00 is probably twice what you would get with a mainstream publisher. Now look at the Lulu Marketplace price. You could get $10.00 per book sold direct through their web site ($4.00 royalty plus the difference between $13.53 and selling price, e.g. $19.95-$13.53=$6.22). If you are actively marketing your book then telling people to order from may work well.

Now, I ended Part V by saying we would talk about how to move a lot of books in a hurry. I don't mean to be crass but one of the best ways is to give them away. Please wait a moment before you ask the perfectly logical question: "Where's the profit in that?" Remember the question I put to you in Part One? Why do you want your book to be published? If you want to "get out the word" or become "renowned author and expert" then giving away some of the first print run can be a smart move.

Think about the cost of your books. If you pick them up from the printer in your car they can be under $2.00 each (that's for the 6x9 240 page glossy covered paperback we have used in previous examples). Now look at the list price on the back (we will deal with pricing and the all important ISBN number and bar code in Part 7).

That list price is more like $22.00 than $2.00. In other words, the perceived value is at least ten times the raw cost. But if you, the author, whose name and photo are on the cover, hand the book to someone, they will feel it is worth even more than the cover price. That's because you, the author, handed it to them, spoke to them about it, maybe even autographed it.

Think about what could happen if you were to take boxes of your books to a trade show where you are promoting the services or products of yourself or your company. You make sure everyone at the show gets handed a copy of your book. With the right book this will seriously boost your credibility AND jump-start sales. And you'll be surprised at how many people will ask you to sign the book. I've had congressmen and CEOs ask me to autograph books I have given them. Never under-estimate the combined value that personal contact + your name and photograph on a book jacket generates (the photograph is particularly important in any professional field where it is helpful for people to know what you look like).

If your book is good—which of course it is, right!—then the chances are it will stick around on the desk or bookshelf of someone to whom you handed a copy for quite a bit longer than other books. Recipients of complimentary copies are likely to recommend the book to others, who will have to buy their own copies. One person who got a free copy of one of my books at a conference ordered 30 copies the next day to hand out to his employees.

I don't mean to belabor the point but think about the traditional tchachkes that companies hand out at trade shows. They cost at least $2.00 each and have a perceived value of what? Rarely as much as $20. Furthermore, their value seldom relates to the features and benefits of the company/service being promoted. I have a nice coffee mug from an encryption company. It reminds me of that company when I use it, but that is not often because I have a lot of other coffee mugs. And a coffee mug adds nothing to my opinion of the company's encryption expertise (except perhaps that they drink a lot of caffeine when they are coding).

In the next part we will look at several practical aspects of the book production process, including the ISBN number, the bar code, and the selection of a printer. We will also discuss getting your book adopted as a textbook.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Publish or be Published: Part V

So, how do you go about putting out a book? Let's assume you have a manuscript. You need to get it typeset in a form that can be sent to printer and printed. You also need to think about where you are going to put the books once they are printed. At the same time you need to be thinking about the channels you are going to use to sell your book. It might seem backward but we will discuss the last of these items first: Where to sell?

How about "the world's biggest book store" which is There is a fairly simple way for independent publishers--which includes you as an author who has published your own book—to sell through Amazon. It is called the Advantage program and you can read all about it here, but the following is the bit you want to know right now:
There is an annual fee of $29.95 to be a member of Advantage. Your fee includes unlimited title enrollment, access to our Vendor Services team, and access to the Vendor web site to manage your account. The standard terms for Advantage vendors is 55% - you keep 45% of the List Price. That means that is entitled to 55% of the List Price for each unit that sells. You, the vendor, receive 45% of the List Price. You set the List Price, also known as Suggested Retail Price, of your products, and all payments made to you are calculated based on the List Price. If decides to further reduce the sales price to the customer below the List Price, the customer discount comes out of's percentage. For example, if the List Price is $39.95, you will make $17.98 from each copy sold, even if the Customer Price or Our Price on is discounted from the List Price.
Now, I don't know what kind of book you are going to publish, but if you are going to give it a list price of $39.95 it had better be very special. Don't think you can game the Amazon system by listing a high cover price and expecting Amazon to discount it. You don't control their discounting. (I will give you an example in the next posting.)

Let's say you are looking at a 240 page trade paperback in the 6x9 inch size range. You can probably get these printed for $2.00 each. A realistic cover price for this might be $22.95 which gives you $10 and change for your 45% cut, less $2.00 printing costs. But PLEASE don't make the classic mistake of thinking "Great, if I can sell just 2,000 copies through Amazon I will make $16,000, which is twice what I was going to get as an advance from McGraw-Hill."

First of all, the books for which Amazon pays you $10 have got to get to Amazon and won't earn you a dime until they sell. Herein lies perhaps the biggest secret of publishing: books are HEAVY. That means shipping is going to be a big factor in the profitability of your publishing venture. Consider these numbers:

It will cost $4.05 to ship your 240 page 6x9 book via Priority rate for 2 day delivery within the US. Parcel Post runs $3.95 for 5 days but is probably not worth it since Bound Printed Matter rate is $2.15 for about the same speed. Slightly slower but a relative bargain is Media Mail (Book Rate) for $1.59. Compare that to the cost of printing the book. If you do a large print run you can probably get the cost of your book down to around the cost of sending it somewhere via Media Mail.

But surely your customers will pay shipping?

Yes, they will pay to get the book from Amazon, but you have to get the book to Amazon (or another other distribution point—for example, to your garage from the printer, or from your garage to a friend who has a book store that you can't get to by car). For an idea of bulk shipping costs, check this chart of UPS prices.

BTW, I have found UPS is the way to go with books. They are more reliable and do less damage than other carriers I have tried. So, these are current UPS rates for a book of 40. As you can see, 2-day is more than $2 per book. Regular 5-day is about 62 cents per book.

In my experience Amazon is unlikely to give you a chance to ship in bulk. They will order two or three copies at a time. A lightweight mailer for one or two books will cost about 50 cents. So your cost before the book gets to Amazon could be $4.71 (printing cost + shipping to you + shipping to them + mailer to ship in = $2.00, 0.62 + 1.59 + 0.50 = $4.71). That means one sale at Amazon may only net you $5.30 versus the gross figure of $10.00. And that means you have to move more like 2,000 copies to get a return greater than the $10,000 advance you might have received from a mainstream publisher. And you are fronting the costs and taking the risk. Nevertheless, it may be worth it.

Next posting we will talk about some alternatives to Amazon and how to move 2,000 books in a hurry.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Publish or be Published: Part Four

Being a best perspective:

Technically, I did write a "best-seller" once. It was about how to use a particular piece of software and it sold fast enough to make Number One on the list of record at that time for computer books. So, it was, briefly, the number one selling computer book. I think total sales for that book were 80,000 copies over the first 6 or 7 months. I have had several successful 'literary' writers tell me they have never had a book sell that well. Of course, you can sell screen rights to a literary work a lot easier than you can for a software guide.

Speaking of sales, something to bear in mind, whether you publish yourself or get published, is that books have a somewhat unique place in the retail market because they are shipped to book sellers on a "sale or return" basis. A book store is allowed to return unsold books for full credit. If 10,000 copies of your book ship out in the first six months of publication, 3,000 could come back in the second six months.

While the publisher is going to count initial 'sales' against the advance they may hold some money in reserve in case your books come back. BTW, the publisher will likely want to give you just two statements per year. Insist on quarterly. Even that will mean you won't see any money over and above the advance for some time after publication, IF the book sells well.

How well a book sells is often determined by how many people know the book exists and that is often determined by how much effort the book's publisher--either the publishing company or you if you self-publish—puts behind the book. Publishing operates on small margins and is known for high staff turnover. A not uncommon phenomenon is for the editor who signed up your book to have 'moved on' before it comes to market, or for the publisher to have shifted focus. The enthusiasm you saw when they presented you with the contract has ebbed and although your book is in their catalogue there is nobody 'pushing' it to the big chains and reviewers. Alternatively, the big chains were eager at the outset but now have lost interest.

These are some of the factors that are beyond your control when you sign with a publisher. At least if you know about them you can plan to counter them. Don't bask too long in the glow of signing the contract. Deliver the manuscript as fast as you can and keep in touch with your editor to maintain the buzz.

By now you might be wondering why you would even bother with a major publisher. I know I found myself wondering and I have tried self-publishing. But in fact, there are several very good reasons to publish a book with a major publisher. First is the "authority" factor. Not sure if authority is the best word for it, but what I mean is: You come across as more of an authority, more likely to be accepted as the real deal, if your book is published by a big name publisher or a publisher who is respected in your field, whether it is animal behavior or literary fiction.

Second, publishing with an established publisher, particularly for a first book, is a great way to learn the ropes. What is good copy editing and how cruel does it need to be? What is stacking? What's a galley proof and what can you do with it? So, doing your first book with a big publisher is actually a good fit. You get the credibility and you learn a bunch of stuff that will come in handy if you decide to self-publish later.

Notice I said "good reasons to publish 'a' book with a major publisher." You might find that one is enough with a big publisher. Or you may decide you just want to go ahead and get on with putting out a book.

Publish or be Published: Part Trois

So, by now you're probably chomping at the bit for some examples of how the numbers work in publisher. A traditional publisher may offer a royalty that is somewhere from 10% to 15% of the net price. The net price is what the publisher gets for the book. The publisher sells the book at a discount to bookstores. This varies and used to be about 40% but domination by just a few big book chains has forced it closer to 50%. That means if the price on the cover is $20 you may get 10% of $10 or $1 per book. You might get as much as 15% of $12, which is $1.80 but I wouldn't count on it. Remember that royalties on foreign sales are likely to be half of domestic and book club sales are often at a special discount (all of these things are technically negotiable but it might be hard to get a publisher to budge from their standard terms).

Now, a publisher may well be happy with a first run of 6,000 to 7,000 copies that sells close to that number. So an advance of around $10,000 is quite common. You may get a check for that on signing the contract or staged over the delivery of the manuscript (one third on sgning, one third at halfway, final third on final mnanuscript approval).

Now, I am pretty sure you can get on the New York Times Best Seller list with one week sales of 10,000 or more [but would be happy of someone could correct me or expand on that]. So a book that is a "best seller" may sell only 30,000 copies and I am under the impression that sales of that level for a literary novel are considered good. In that case the author may earn $40,000 or so. Not bad, but relate that to the time taken. A lawyer or other professional may well bill at $300 an hour or more. Earn $30,000 from a book and you are looking at less than three weeks of billable hours. And the publisher will likely tell you this is a very good outcome.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Publish or Be Published: Second Part of Several

Fortunately for authors, if a book goes to press and sales do not generate enough royalty to cover the advance, most publishers do not ask you to return the unearned portion. (If your experience has been different, I'd love to hear about it—heave a comment.)

Suppose Madonna gets a $1 million advance on her autobiography but sales are way less than the publisher expected (I know I am not going to buy a copy). Will Madonna have to hand any money back. No.

Bear in mind that I am talking about advances on books that actually go on sale. If you don't deliver a manuscript that meets the publisher's requirements [which are specified in the book contract, which was agreed between you and the publisher] then you may well be asked to return the royalty.

That said, it seems to be a point of honor among publishers not to ask for unearned royalties to be returned if they go through with publication (they figured the sales would be enough to cover it and so asking you for the unearned portion would be a loss of face). I must have written a dozen books that did not earn their advance and never had a request for a refund, so to speak. Some still sit on the publisher's ledger as negative balances.

And here is a lesson: If you are writing a book for money, never count on it earning more than the advance. You simply cannot afford to do that because you are not in charge of the publishing process. This is true however strongly you feel about the book's irresistible appeal to the masses. There is a lot you can do to promote your book. But there is a lot a publisher can neglect to market your book if they lose interest between signing that book contract and printing the first run. Certainly in the field of technical books, publishing houses seem happy to publish a lot of books with mediocre sales, waiting for a break through book to come along. So, write for the advance and the rest is glory or gravy.

To Publish or Be Published: First of several posts on being an author

A friend recently asked me about the benefits, if any, of self-publishing versus publishing. The scenario goes something like this: You have a book idea, or maybe even a manuscript, and you want the world to read it. What is the best way forward?

It is going to take quite a few posts to answer this, so before I get to it, you might wonder why my friend asked me. I have self-published and been published. I have had twenty-some books published by traditional publishers such as McGraw-Hill (the photo on the left is me as a much younger person, leaning on a stack of books I wrote--each one is a different title, although to be fair, some are foreign translations). These were technical books and most of them were commissioned. In other words, the publisher had already decided that a book about subject X was needed and I was asked to write it (this happens a lot more than many beginning non-fiction writers realize). A few of them were books where I suggested X, but I suggested a lot of X's that were not picked up by the publisher.

My "break-through" book was about a subject that was my idea, but the publisher only agreed reluctantly and really the book only happened through an odd set of circumstances. What do I mean by "break-through"? I don't mean best-seller. Relative to some of my books, sales were dismal. But the book established me as an expert in a field that has been good to me. I was able to leverage my "expert" status to make money and this is an important first lesson for anyone thinking of trying to publish a book: I have made a lot less money from book sales that I have from the status of being a published author. Furthermore, I can generalize this—I have several friends and acquaintances for whom this is also true. And that's okay. I'm not complaining. Although I have learned some harsh realities about publishers along the way.

So this is something for you to think about as we look at book business numbers: Why are you writing the book? Is it because you want/need to make money? Are you planning to make the money from the book sales? The work that being a published author may bring you? The screen rights? Are you writing the book to make a point, change the world, help others? My advice to everyone is to publish at least one book, but don't expect it to earn you a fortune. In fact, be prepared for it to loose money.

Really serious cash flow from book sales alone is unusual. Bear in mind that stories of a "six figure advance" for a book often involve a writer who is famous (or infamous). That advance is a sum of money paid to the author at some point before the book appears in print. It represents an advance on the book's earnings, known as royalties and the book may not actually earn that advance. In fact, some of the most talked about book big money deals don't earn the royalty that the author got in advance. So what happens? Check the next post, coming soon.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Hot Week for Art Events: Starring friends of mine!

Wow! It's not often that two seriously hot art events featuring personal friends go down in the same week. But that's what's happening this week, and so here they are:

The Photon Ballet, Tuesday, March 13th, Hollywood, California. Featuring numerous pioneering digital artists including our good friends Michael Masucci and Kate Johnson of EZTV Media. In fact, EZTV is co-producing the event with Microsoft and Maxxon. This promises to be an awesome event to mark the 25th Anniversary of the LA branch of SIGGRAPH. Time and ticket info is here.

TELOORIKA: Thursday, March 15, the Embassy of Argentina in Washington, DC cordially invites you to the first art show to be hold simultaneously at the Embassy and in the virtual metaverse Second Life, created by our good friend Socorro Villa. For our Spanish readers, check out this very interesting discussion of the show's origins. Soco is a wonderful and uplifting artist (not surprising since she is also a wonderful and uplifting person).


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Hogfather DVD Draws Near: How American Discworld fans can see Pratchett's masterpiece

Sadly, so far no American networks have picked up the movie based on Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel The Hogfather. But the film will be coming out on DVD in April in the UK. This means that us Disc-aholic Yanks can order the DVD through and then play it on a region-hacked DVD player.

I actually have one of these and can attest that it works great. The model that I have is the Toshiba SD3980. I bought it through Amazon about 18 months ago for around $80. I was immediately impressed with how easy it was to install and use. I play it through a Sony Wega widescreen using component connections and the picture is great, regardless of the region or PAL/NTSC coding of the DVD (I also found it is smarter about aspect ratio than some more expensive DVD players--the ones that squish video shot in 4:3).

The big test was the 5 hour German PAL version of Until the End of the World, which is my wife's favorite movie. Played great, all 5 hours of it. However, it appears the 3980 itself is no longer available, replaced by the 3990. Since the price is the same, this would seem to be a good thing. (Note: some reviewers seem to have found the 3890 flimsy and easily broken--all I can say is they must give their DVD players a tougher workout than me, mine has given me no problems.)

So, for around $120, you and your North American Discworld-addicted friends [a phrase I am using in a good way] can have a Hogfather party in April.

(For more on region-hacked DVDs, check this link.)

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hegel's Aesthetics: A handy way of looking at things

I have long been an admirer of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the German philosopher (1770-1831). Like another German philosopher, Nietzsche, Hegel has tended to suffer by association. This is a pity because Hegal has a lot to teach us about art.

Whereas Nietzsche was [quite unfairly in my opinion] tainted by the admiration of the Nazis, Hegel was over-shadowed by Karl Marx--a much less perceptive thinker, IMHO--who drew on Hegelian concepts to lay the groundwork for the dialectical materialism of Lenin and that whole mess.

So Hegel deserves, I humbly suggest, serious reconsideration. Some of his thoughts and interests were very modern. He was very interested in why people think the way they do, why they hold certain beliefs , which have tended to change over time, and why they behave in certain ways, which also evolve over time (although he died the same year Darwin graduated from Cambridge and so never knew of the latter's theory of evolution).

In short Hegel was interested in explaining observed phenomena, so in some ways he was a very practical philosopher, although you don't really get that when you open up something like Phenomenology of Mind, with its dense prose and page long paragraphs.

One of the most useful concepts that I have drawn from Hegel is that of genuine and ersatz manifestations of the same phenomenon which tend to reinforce, not diminish the importance of the phenomenon. Take the modern obsession with the lives of other people. The latter half of the twentieth century was a golden age of biography. Some truly great biographies were written, genuine works of art. At the same time we saw the rise of People magazine and lower-brow populist knock-offs. In trying to understand what is happening to the human race, some philosophers might ignore populist or crass manifestations of what are, when you scratch the surface, the same yearnings as you find reflect in more serious works of art.

But to Hegel they were both of interest. The existence of the same yearnings in different forms only heightened the importance of spelling out those yearnings, in this case the desire to understand how other people live their lives, something that fascinates us because we somehow sense that the way we live our own lives is a work in progress, but a body of work nonetheless. My own interpretation of Hegel, and my own belief, is that our lives are works of art and we are hungry to know how other artists are doing.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Suicide is Painless? Ads need many changes...

I am by no means the first blogger to highlight the absurdity of commercial use of popular music out of context or toned town.

Probably the most glaring example is Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's use of Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life". The tune is there, big and bold, but the lyrics skip from "Here comes Johnny Yen again" to "With his lust for life" and thus bypass "With the liquor and drugs, And the flesh machine, He's gonna do another strip-tease...Well I am just a modern guy, Of course I've had it in the ear before, 'Cause of a lust for life." The whole thing is laid out nicely at Dick Mac's blog.

The incongruity has had a lot of people who respect Iggy's music outraged, amused, bewildered, and more (on the other hand it may have turned some folks on to Iggy, which would be a good thing). Still it was hard for some to accept the punk counter-culture subverted by commercial interests. But this is nothing new. The sixties were not over before the free love vibe was subverted by advertisers serving major corporations. Indeed, a lot of the cultural history of America over the last forty years has involved the commercialization ands mainstreaming of what began as anti-commercial, anti-establishment.

Remember how the biting 1970 anti-war movie M.A.S.H. became a TV sitcom and everyone was humming the word-less theme song blissfully unaware [in 99.9% of cases] that the title of the song, and it's refrain, is "Suicide is painless"?

p.s. The lyrcis to "Suicide is Painless" were written by Michael Altman, son of the late great Robert Altman who directed the movie. You can read them here.