Welcome!

Important Notice! One of my duties as Piedmont Laureate is a biweekly blog. So, for the rest of 2015, I'll be posting only rarely here, usually exercise related posts that don't seem at home there. On the Piedmont Laureate blog, I'll mainly be focusing on topics related to speculative fiction. Check it out by clicking here.

I'm James Maxey, the author of the Dragon Age fantasy series of Bitterwood, Dragonforge, and Dragonseed, the Dragon Apocalypse series of Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker, as well as the superhero novels Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.

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Saturday, July 04, 2015

Happy Independence Day! Let's talk about freedom...

I woke up this 4th of July thinking about freedom, and whether the word still holds any true meaning at all after so many years of being debased by politicians and demagogues. So many current political debates seem to be driven by conflicting, and sometimes warped, views about freedom. For instance, I’ve seen more people waving the Confederate flag in the last two weeks than I have in the last decade. I defend the idea that they should and do have the freedom to do so, but remain puzzled that anyone would find it honorable to defend the notion of the Confederacy. A lot of the flag wavers say the flag has nothing to do with slavery, apparently having never actually read the Confederate Constitution that the flag symbolizes. It specifically denied all states within the Confederacy the power to abolish slavery, ever. If there’s still one person in America who thinks, wow, wouldn’t the world be better off if the Confederates had won… well, I don’t know their hearts well enough to label them racist, but I know enough of their brains to shake my head at their ignorance.

Another issue related to freedom is gay marriage. I don’t think that most conservatives understand how fundamentally conservative the Supreme Court’s ruling was. It’s a central premise of conservatism that government doesn’t create or grant rights. Instead, rights are innate to people, something they are born with. Basically, you have the right to do whatever you wish to do, wherever and whenever you wish to do it, as long as it doesn’t endanger or inconvenience others or our shared living space. There are rights you possess that our founding fathers never dreamed of. For example, they never imagined you’d have the right to wear the Confederate Flag on your hat. Or, more seriously, they never imagined that women had the right to vote. But, in the conservative framing, women always had the inalienable right to vote. It wasn’t a right given to them by the state. It was a right the state unjustly denied them, until the day it stopped doing so. So, for conservatives who keep saying that the right to same sex marriage isn’t found in the constitution, they’re right, but rights don’t flow from the constitution. The central question wasn’t whether the government should grant homosexual couple the right to marry. Instead, homosexuals possess the same innate rights to pair up and call it marriage as anyone else, and the central question was whether there was any plausible governmental case to deny them this right. Do they harm or even inconvenience others by their marriage? No. My preference would have been for the majority to come to their senses and recognize the right legislatively, even if this took several more years, but in the end, I think the Supreme Court made the right call.

Finally, thanks to Donald Trump, there’s been a lot of talk about illegal immigration this week. He’s taken a lot of heat for his comments, but intellectually, I’m willing to concede some of the points of his argument, assuming his meandering babble can be called an argument. By many, many metrics, Mexico isn’t sending us their “best” citizens, at least as measured in terms of economic and educational status. Mexico does have middle class, even wealthy citizens, but it’s pretty unlikely that an executive in the oil business or the owner of a chain of supermarkets in Mexico City is going to sneak across the desert in the middle of the night to live as an undocumented construction worker. If you’re a Mexican with a college education who knows computer programming, say, or architecture, you probably have legal avenues you can use if you’d like to come to America, but can probably also make a pretty decent living in your homeland. The people who sneak across the border are, on average, quite poor and likely poorly educated. The argument that our crime rates are higher than they would otherwise be without illegal immigration seems to be supported by the evidence (though, it can also be noted that our actual crime rates across the board have been falling during the same decades that illegal immigration has been rising). I’m also mostly in agreement that the presence of so many low-skilled workers depresses wages, and that large corporations favor an influx of immigrants as a way of keeping their payrolls low. If you’ve read the Grapes of Wrath, you’ll be aware that this trick has been around for a long time. Get enough poor people competing for a job, and you can pay them pennies. If the wages get too low for them, there are more desperate people waiting in line for their job.

Weighed against these arguments is the Statue of Liberty. Yes, I recognize that the poem inscribed upon her isn’t a legally binding document, but the aspiration should hold true: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” The American call to freedom wasn’t sent out to only wealthy, educated, elite citizens of other nations. We might welcome great musicians and financiers and scientists, but which country on this planet doesn’t want that sort of immigrant? Some of the people most opposed to the influx of immigrants are some of the same people who are quick to proclaim that America is a Christian nation. But, isn’t it a central tenet of Christianity that you invite the beggar at the door into your home and treat him like a long-lost brother?

Look, I get that there are shared societal and economic costs to opening our arms to anyone willing to ignore our laws in order to sneak in. I understand there are dangers to doing anything that encourages people to make the trek illegally. Women and children die in the desert, abandoned by criminals who they’ve paid their last few coins to take them across the border. People come here and live in fear, and get exploited by people who feel like they’re doing them a favor by paying them cash under the table at substandard wages. I get that many of them don’t speak English, and can’t read or write, and sometimes have children here that are entitled to tax-payer supported government handouts. And, I will acknowledge that there are health risks, importing large numbers of poor people who may not be vaccinated against diseases we've mostly wiped out in this country.

But you know what? They’ve proven that they had the courage to take a chance to go after a better life. They’ve proven that they actually want to be here just by coming here. Meanwhile, I know people born in this country living on taxpayer dollars who won’t get off their couches in order to take a low wage job, let alone walk miles across a desert at night. I know Americans who’ve graduated from high school who live within a mile of a library yet haven’t touched a book since the day they escaped from education. I’ve worked with American born college graduates who didn’t have enough command of the English language to draft an email that showed even a passing familiarity with the rules of spelling or grammar. There are beloved celebrities loudly telling Americans it's dangerous to vaccinate our children. And I know people born in the United States who glorify the traitorous Confederacy, and view breaking away from our constitution and our values as a worthy and noble cause. When they visit Civil War battlefields, perhaps they think wistfully, "If only more American soldiers had perished, today we might be living under a better flag!" They get to be American by accident of birth, but we want to turn away people who actually respect our country just because they were born a few thousand miles too far south?

Ninety percent of the troubles caused by illegal immigration are actually troubles caused by our confused and broken immigration policies. We could design a fairer, better system, one designed to integrate people into our society in a way that causes less harm to them or to our legal and economic systems. With our heads, we can and should debate how to reform our laws. With our hearts, we should welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. Let them breathe free.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Superhero Inside Us All


Next week on Wednesday, June 10, I'll be at the North Regional Library in Raleigh at 6:30 p.m. to lead a discussion called "The Superhero Inside Us All."

I've always been fascinated by superheroes. My interest spans several mental domains. First, I'm a big old geeky fanboy who has a massive accumulation of superhero comic books. It's been twenty years since I last made a serious attempt at organizing and cataloging my collection, and I owned about 10,000 books then. My wall of long boxes has only gotten bigger over the years. Most of my collection is dominated by DC. For a long time, well into the 1980s, they had simpler, more episodic issues. Since I frequently bought my comic books used at flea markets, odds were excellent that if I picked up a single random issue of a DC comic, I'd get a complete story, while a single random issue of a Marvel comic, at least since then early 70s, would be only part of a larger story arc that might be difficult to cobble together. Of course, things changed with the rise of comic book shops in the 80s and 90s. Then, it was possible to find all the back issues you needed to read a complete story, and by the 2000s, any story of significance from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, etc. was going to be collected into graphic novels. Ironically, the rise of graphic novels was a big factor in cutting me loose from my local comic store, which I used to visit with the regularity of church. Now, why bother collecting a story in bits and pieces? Wait six months or a year, and you can read it all at once for less than the sum of all the parts.

But, I'm getting distracted by the once dominant medium of superheroics, and neglecting to talk about the content. The scientific part of my mind is intrigued that superheroes have any hold on our imaginations at all. Evolution should have us programmed to understand the limits of a human body. We know we can't run faster than a car, know there's no use trying to pick up that car and throw it, and know that if a car is coming at us, we seriously need to get out of the way, since it's not just going to bounce off us. We know that we can't jump hard enough to launch into flight, and no matter how hard we stare at a wall, we're not going to see through to the other side. Yet, we accept all of these attributes in our superheroes. Tell a four year old that Superman can fly, and odds are good he'll believe you on the first try. Why? Even if we consciously reject the possibility of these things being possible, why are we so easily drawn in, so ready and willing to believe?

At the risk of getting overly metaphysical, I suspect that superheroes and religion share neural pathways in our minds. We've evolved to recognize patterns, even when none exist. If an old woman says she can make it rain by shaking a rattle at the sky, and it rains even once, we can be convinced there's something to it. This isn't just a habit of primitive minds. Even the most rational-minded people among us hold onto beliefs that they can control the uncontrollable with certain ritualistic behaviors. This primitive pattern recognition didn't evolve to recognize a difference between the natural and the supernatural, and, before the rise of the scientific method, it once must have made perfect sense that there were supernatural forces controlling everything. You didn't just want to accept that it was chance that determined if you were going to catch fish on any given morning. There must be river spirits who controlled such things. And, since we are excellent at projecting human characteristics onto inhuman things, it probably wasn't a big leap to think that the river spirits had vaguely human shapes, even if we never caught a glimpse of them. River spirits, cloud spirits, earth spirits, fire spirits... the world was controlled by powerful entities who chose to remain out of sight under most situations. But, we still felt in our gut that they were there, and this gut instinct now makes it possible for us to accept superheroes on a subconscious level.

Superhumans have always played a major role in the mythology of every culture I've ever studied. The Greeks, the Norse, Navajos, Egyptians, the Japanese... name a culture, past or present, and I'll find you some well loved hero with superhuman powers.

Of course, not many of them will be wearing capes, tights, and masks. This version of the superhero arose in the 1930's in America and quickly became the dominant shared myth of our nation. While I have no actual research to back me up, I suspect more people can name five founding members of the Justice League than can name our first five presidents.

How did the caped crusader style of hero come to such cultural prominence? It's easy to look to the spectacle, the bright colorful costumes, the violent adventures, the catchy code names. Flash! Spiderman!  Wonder Woman! All decked out in clothing indistinguishable from body paint, the products of our id escaping into daylight. But, I would argue that the real reason that the superhero template formed before World War II has endured has little to do with spectacle, and a lot to do with spectacles.

The genius of Superman was that he had a secret identity. When he wasn't fighting Lex Luthor, he was just plain old Clark Kent. Clark was kind of nerdy and clumsy. Ladies didn't give him the time of day. He wasn't rich; unlike Bruce Wayne, he had a day job. He paid rent, he paid taxes. He got yelled at by his boss. People ask, why bother being Clark Kent when you can be Superman? But Clark Kent isn't a disguise Superman wears. Superman is a disguise Clark wears, a coping mechanism that allows him to have a normal life. Clark isn't a god hiding among men. He's a kid from the mid-west, raised on middle class, middle American values. He's modest, he's honest, he's hardworking, and he's a team player. He's a journalist because he believes that a free press is vital to a democracy, and he's believes in democracy because he's an American in his soul. He had no desire to conquer the world, no desire to rule. He had the same fundamental power to change the world than any American has... he can vote, and I suspect he never misses an election.

Yes, he has amazing powers. Yes, he can fly. But he lives in the city, riding the subway, eating at lunch counters, because that's how normal people spend their days. And when rude people jump in front of him as he's racing to catch the elevator, or when his boss is nagging him about deadlines, and when for the hundredth time Lois has rolled her eyes when he asks him out on a date, he knows, deep down, that there's something inside his shirt that would make everyone see him differently, but he's just not ready to show it. I think this is the ultimate reason Superman (and other working class heroes like Spiderman or the Flash) resonates with us. As we put up with all the hassle of daily life, we can calmly smile, thinking, it's okay. These people don't know the real me. They don't know my secrets my true potential.

It's not the cape. It's not the invulnerability. It's the faith that, if the world truly knew the real you, they would be amazed. Deep inside, everyone has a little Clark Kent in their soul.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Million Step Journey to a Brand New World


 April 2010
 
 
April 2015
 
Last weekend, Cheryl and I drove up to Virginia. Our travels took us past places we'd visited five years earlier, on a road trip we'd taken when we first became a couple. The trip five years ago was a pleasant drive. Highway 58 through the Appalachians is a twisty road that rewards you with mile after mile of breathtaking views. Stick a camera out your window and take a random shot, and odds are good it would make a decent post card.
 
Our first road trip was purely an adventure in driving. It was a bit like watching television. We sat the whole time, looking at passing images through a sheet of glass. Save for the occasional stop to get out and stretch our legs, we didn't interact much with the environment beyond just looking at it. From our seated position, we saw hints that other people had a different experience with the surroundings. In Galax, we drove past the head of the New River Trail and saw people unloading bikes. We saw dozens of places to rent kayaks, and passed numerous entrances for trails, including the Appalachian Trail. In Damascus, we got out to take a picture of a railroad bridge that had been converted into a bike path and were almost run over by the bikes coming down the mountain on what we later learned was the Virginia Creeper Trail.
 
Zooming down the mountain on a bike sure looked like fun, but, let's face it, it was the kind of fun other people had. People who were younger, healthier, and, to be blunt, a lot thinner. Cheryl and I occasionally did hikes. We were good for a few miles along the Eno or on Occanneechee Mountain, but the hike to Moore's Wall in Hanging Rock wiped us out. As for biking, three miles around the abandoned golf course near our vacation spot in Myrtle Beach was a real work out. We liked getting outside, but liked getting back indoors to air conditioning just a tiny bit more.
 
This year when we went back to Virginia, it was a very different trip. Those places we drove past five years ago? Now, we got to experience them fully. On Saturday, we biked 50+ miles from Galax to Pulaski along the New River Trail. It took us 9 hours to make the journey, and my butt is still sore five days later, but we saw vistas that would have been forever hidden if we hadn't left our car miles behind. On Sunday, it was off to Grayson Highlands, to tackle two different hikes, one taking us up to the highest pinnacles in the park, another to take us up to the grassy ridges where wild ponies munched lazily on new spring growth.
 
Monday, we returned to the New River Trail for an 8 mile bike ride along a spur we'd skipped on Saturday. Then, on our drive home, we stopped by Hanging Rock and did two short trails we'd never done before, to the upper and lower cascades, discovering amazing waterfalls we'd passed by a dozen times without knowing what we were missing.
 
There's truly no comparison between the two trips. Five years ago, we experienced the world mainly with our eyes, and the vast majority of the things we saw had a strip of asphalt right down the center. This year, we experienced the world with six senses. We saw things we'd never have seen from a car, we heard waterfalls and birds and the crunch of leaves under our boots, we smelled blossoming trees and the lingering creosote of old rail beds. We felt the sun and the wind and the rough coolness of stone as we climbed boulders to get a better view of our surroundings. As for taste, you don't really appreciate just how good plain water tastes until you're about thirty miles in on your fifty mile bike ride. As for the sixth sense, it's proprioception, the internal sense of the positioning of your body, the relative position of all your limbs, and the amount of energy flowing to each muscle to keep you upright on a bike as you're bouncing along a rough downhill trail, or keeping you balanced as you ascend an impossibly steep wall of steps leading up to the peak of a mountain. It's not a sense that kicks in much when you're sitting on a couch, but when this sense is fully activated, I can only describe it as an acute and profound sensation that you're exactly where you're supposed to be in the world.
 
 
What changed in the intervening five years? We did. It didn't happen overnight. We didn't wake up one morning and think, hey, let's go ride 50 miles and then did it because we had the willpower. There wasn't an easy, five step plan to get us from couch potato to mountain climber. Instead, we've been on a million step plan. Results will vary based on the size of your stride, of course, but a million steps would take most people somewhere between 400 and 500 miles. To cover that in a year breaks down to roughly 8 to 10 miles per week on your feet, propelling your body forward across space with nothing but your own muscles. It's not easy at first. I won't even tell you it's easy later. Cheryl and I live a mile from where we have gym memberships, and we try to walk there when we can, but there are times when we just hop in the car, because it's too hot, or too cold, or we're just running short on time and have too much to do give up fifty minutes of our live to walking a mile there and back.
 
Fortunately, more often than not, we put on our walking shoes and hit the pavement. Every step adds up. The reward isn't just hikes in the highlands, or long bike trips between distant towns. The real reward is our triumph over those thoughts that haunted us when those bikes flew past us five years ago. I no longer feel too old to have new adventures, or too fat to accomplish amazing things. A million steps a year can reshape your body. More importantly, it will carry your mind to a brand new world.
 
 
That world is waiting. Take the first step.  

Monday, January 12, 2015

ORANGE COUNTY ARTS COMMISSION NAMES 2015 PIEDMONT LAUREATE

 
ORANGE COUNTY, NC (January 12, 2015)—The Orange County Arts Commission is pleased to announce James Maxey, a speculative fiction author from Hillsborough, as the region's 2015 Piedmont Laureate.
Mr. Maxey will appear at workshops, reading programs and speaking engagements throughout Durham, Orange and Wake counties, giving the public an opportunity to meet him and learn more about his body of work. He writes fast-paced, action-driven pulp fiction with strong emphasis on character growth and world building, dealing with larger-than-life characters adventuring in exotic worlds.
The Piedmont Laureate Program is dedicated to building a literary bridge for residents to come together and celebrate the art of writing. Co-sponsored by the Orange County Arts Commission, City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Durham Arts Council, and United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County, the program’s mission is to promote awareness and heighten appreciation for excellence in the literary arts throughout the Piedmont region. A different literary form is recognized each year– 2015 is speculative fiction.
Speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror fiction, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history in literature.
As Piedmont Laureate, Maxey will receive an honorarium and serve until December 31, 2015. His duties will include presenting public readings and workshops, participating at select public functions and creating at least one original activity to expand appreciation of speculative fiction. A schedule of the Laureate’s 2015 activities will be available online at www.piedmontlaureate.com
Readers who delve past the dragons and superheroes on the covers of Maxey’s books will discover stories that explore the deeper aspects of the human condition. In the course of introducing imaginary worlds, Maxey hopes to provoke readers into thinking more deeply about our own world and our shared responsibility to improve it.
Influenced by Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking, Mr. Maxey is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop where he studied with author-in-residence Harlan Ellison, and a graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. He honed his craft over many years as a member of the Writer’s Group of the Triad and continues to be an active part of the Codex Writers’ online community.
For more information about James Maxey, please visit www.jamesmaxey.net
For more information about the Piedmont Laureate Program, please visit www.piedmontlaureate.com or contact Martha Shannon at 919.968.2011or mshannon@orangecountync.gov or contact any of the other sponsoring agencies.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Future of Energy

Several years ago, I was a guest on Stephen Euin Cobb's The Future and You and one of the topics we discussed was the likelihood of local solar power generation replacing our present system of centralized power generation via fossil fuels. I was on the show just days after visiting Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, and I'd seen how the power gets run to the island from the mainland then fed through power lines that run the length of the mostly empty highway. Cheryl and I had gone out to the beach to do some stargazing, far out from the lights of civilization, yet still the night sky was bisected by power lines. It struck me as a somewhat impractical system. Ocracoke seemed like a terrific candidate for wind, solar, and tidal power generation. Why rely on miles of vulnerable cable to deliver something so essential as electricity?

At the time, a second factor made the rise of alternate energy seem just around the corner: I thought we were getting near peak oil. A lot of people did, as little as five or six years ago. We were nowhere near peak coal, but I thought the environmental cost of coal mining was something that would increasingly limit the growth of the industry. The pictures alone would hamper mountaintop removal mining, given that we are now able to summon before and after pictures of affected landscapes with a few keystrokes on Google Maps. The logic was simple: fossil fuels would get more expensive, making alternative energy projects more cost competitive.

Of course, today the price of oil is falling, and experts are saying there's vast reserves of accessible oil under America. Presumably, the fracking techniques we're using to free up previously inaccessible oil under our landscapes can be transferred to other countries. Not so long ago, I thought we might run out of affordable oil inside of twenty years. Now, I suspect technological advances will keep oil flowing for at least a century.

My hunch is that there will be no popular political movement to limit our use of fossil fuels. There might be a few hardcore environmentalists who are viewing our falling gas prices with a sense of terror, but I suspect the vast majority of voters are pretty happy to pay less to fill up their tank, and won't be eager to vote for someone who even hints at the possibility of implementing changes that will make prices go higher.

Despite the probable abundance of oil, I suspect we'll see prices go through many boom and bust cycles in coming years. As oil gets expensive, a lot of people are going to want to drill for it. But as a lot of people drill for it, there will be a glut, and prices will fall, and people will cut back on drilling. Then, prices will rise again, and so on.

What will finally get us off the roller coaster? I still suspect solar will be increasingly cheap and easy in coming years. I don't think plug in electric cars have much a future, nor will plug in hybrids. The impracticality of having enough charging stations to let everyone in the parking lot a the mall will keep plug in vehicles from being anything more than a niche market. But, what if solar panels can be sprayed directly onto a car like paint, and your hybrid charges anytime it's in sunlight? Just sitting in the parking lot at work, it could be getting enough of a charge to get you home without having to run your gasoline engine.

I'm already seeing a lot of tablet sized solar panels in camping stores made to charge cell phones while you're out camping or hiking. As we start carrying more and more smart devices that require charging, a lot of people will be glad to carry around portable panels to keep their gear running rather than constantly be on the hunt for the next outlet. Right now, when Cheryl and I go on long hikes or bike rides, we usually carry portable batteries. But, give me a solar panel with enough power to actually charge a phone and small enough to mount on handlebars, get the price down to where it's cheaper than the portable batteries, and I'll start using it. It won't require any tax subsidies to encourage me. I want to be mobile, and I want electricity, and I'll pay a fair price to have it.

Ultimately, I think that portability is going to be the real path to ubiquity for solar power. As vast as our power grid is, it doesn't go everywhere. Neither does the sun, but it goes a lot more places than a power line. Gasoline is also portable power, of course... but it's too heavy for a person to carry around a gasoline powered generator and gallons of gas. To supply a demand for cheap, mobile electricity for today's wired users who also like being outdoors, solar cells will continuously get smaller and more efficient. My hunch is that in a decade, solar power won't just be cost competitive with fossil fuels, it will be so cheap that consumers will flock to it for the most sensible reason of all: it saves them a boatload of money.

While I think there's a consumer market for portable solar, America and Europe will probably be the last places to have widespread adoption of solar power for houses and businesses. The problem is, we became wealthy on a fossil fuel grid and there's going to be a lot of inertia that keeps a lot of the country on that grid even after better alternatives arise. You see the pattern with cell phones. In a lot of poorer countries, cell phones far outnumber landlines, because it was easier to build a few cell towers than to run lines to every building. In America, I know lots of people who still have landlines, even though they make 99% of their calls on their cell phones.

In emerging nations that don't already have a widespread electric grid, it's going to be easier to build a house with cheap solar panels and energy efficient designs that make the house self sufficient than it will be to build a reliable grid to hook the house to. In the US, it will be much more difficult to retrofit old houses to take advantage of the new technologies. My own dwelling wasn't built with a south facing roof. Turning the house 90 degrees seems like more of an expense than it's worth. But, houses built a decade from now may well incorporate maximum solar exposure into the design plans.

Saving the planet is nice, but saving money is where you'll get actual behavioral change. I'm still hoping that, in the long run, we'll collectively be cheapskates enough to leave most of the fossil fuels remaining in the ground.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Future of Books

Picking back up where I left off a month ago on my predictions, today I'm going to talk about what books might look like five years, ten years, a hundred years out.

E-book growth has recently leveled off and print books are showing resilience, for now. Still, print books do face one major obstacle, which is the continued struggle of brick and mortar bookstores. Best sellers will continue to appear in big box stores like Walmart and Target, and romance and mystery novels can still be found in grocery stores and bookstores. But less popular genres, and books without proven track records, are going to struggle to find shelf space in print.

E-books will never replace print books, but e-books will become the launching platform for most new authors. Publisher's will likely grow conservative as shelf space becomes more precious, and rather than taking a gamble on a complete unknown, they'll be looking for indy authors who've built a fan base online to move into the mainstream.

The good news is that indy authors have tools available to them that big publisher's lack. While I originally published Bitterwood through a mainstream publisher, I retained the e-book rights, and have been managing them myself. Sales were pretty good for a while, then okay, then terrible. When sales of Bitterwood fell into single digits at Amazon, I figured, oh well, I guess I might as well give it away. So, I set the price to free, and in a one month period gave away almost 45,000 copies of the e-book. This has greatly revived the sales of the other books in the series, so that in one month I've sold more copies than I had for all the previous year. Mainstream publishers, in my experience, are reluctant to chase pricing to the bottom. Once you get to free, where's the profit? But for me, the boost in readership and reviews that comes from giving away my work leads to greater sales down the line.

Of course, I know I'm not the only author discovering that there's a vast pool of readers eager to read free books. Over the next few years, I think you'll see tremendous downward pressure on the price of ebooks, especially the first books in series. You see it already in music--Amazon Prime now lets me download thousands of albums for free (or, rather, for a one time annual fee.) I'm discovering new artists I hadn't tried before who I'm now willing to pay money for. Authors will soon have a similar mix of free and paid catalogs.

Which brings me to a prediction: Within five years, you'll start seeing in-text purchases available in books. You'll be reading a free murder mystery, get involved with a character who is obviously lying, and at the end of the chapter there will be a link saying, "Want to find out what Jack was really up to when he told his wife he was working late? Read his story for only 25 cents!" Just as gamers are willing to shell out micro payments for extra lives, I predict readers will be willing to pay small amounts to get bonus material, especially on popular series.

And publishers will know with great detail the material you want to read. Many smartphones and tablets already have sensors that can detect a viewers eye movements. Amazon already knows which sections of Kindle books readers zip through, and where they get bogged down, or abandon a book altogether. Soon, e-readers tracking readers eyes will be able to report what most engages readers, and what loses their attention. Eventually, I can foresee books that rewrite themselves automatically to match the tastes of the reader. Suppose you're reading a book on quantum mechanics written for a general audience. The book sees that you're skimming over all the passages with a lot of math or highly technical terms. So, the book suppresses the math and the specialized language and explains things in more general terms. Conversely, it might sense you're bored, and know from your reading history you prefer denser, difficult prose. Moving forward, it could present you with the most advanced version of the book in it's data base.

In the future, maybe as little as ten years out, readers will read books, and the books will read them back.

But what about the more distant future? Will it still be necessary to read? Or, if I want to know the text of Beowulf, will I just be able to place a mental request to a virtual library and have the book instantly streamed into my brain? I'll be able to remember every word of the manuscript without ever having my eyes gaze upon a single line of text, either on paper or on screen. But will instant delivery of knowledge equate to learning the material, or knowing it? Or will we just be recording media, able to recite back any bit of trivia we've absorbed without actually comprehending its deeper meaning?

It's almost scary to think about. But, it was probably scary for the monks copying manuscripts with quills the first time they saw a printed book. The printed word has been quick to adapt new technologies. I can't imagine that the paper book is mankind's final, best technology for storing and spreading stories.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Fitness update: Two years later

James and Cheryl 2014
 
 James and Cheryl 2012


Endomondo Training stats as of 9-6-2014
 
Two years ago, Cheryl and I decided it was time to alter our bodies. Doing so meant altering our lives. We started using a program called MyFitnessPal* to track the calories we ate each day. A few months later, we started using a program called Endomondo to track our exercise.
 
When we first started, our primary goal was to lose weight, and MyFitnessPal was the program we thought of as most essential to achieving that end. But, something curious happened last summer, a little before we reached the one year anniversary of our weight loss plans. That summer, we started really pushing ourselves on out exercise goals. When we began in 2012, walking for one mile on a treadmill was strenuous exercise. By the summer of 2013, hikes of five to seven miles were more suited to our fitness levels, and we'd sneak in 12 or 15 mile bike rides once a week in the evening after work. This year, all the orange you see is our new biking agenda. A 12 mile ride is still a decent workout, but if we have the chance, we'd much rather sneak in a 30 mile ride, or longer. On my 50th birthday this year, we did our longest single day ride up to that point, 50 miles in a single day. A few months later, over the Memorial Day weekend, we rode 100 miles in three days. Last weekend, we decided to ride the entirety of the Neuse River Trail, plus a few side trips down spur trails, for a single day's ride of 75 miles.
 
As a result, with a bike ride yesterday, I'd tracked 1000 miles of movement for the year. Last year, I didn't reach that goal until just before Christmas. I suspect we'll see a slowdown on our activity level in the coming months due to growing shortness of days, but it seems a not unrealistic goal to reach 1200 miles this year.
 
While Cheryl and I are thinner than we once were, being thin is no longer the driving force behind our activities. We've stopped being concerned about what our bodies look like and started being obsessed with what our bodies can do. We scour websites for State Parks and greenways, looking for our next big adventure. Being fit has let us see things that would previously have been beyond our grasp. The rolling, open fields just outside of Raleigh. The beautiful wetlands near the southern end of the American Tobacco Trail. The five peaks of Hanging Rock State Park, or the remote beaches of Sandy Island, which you can't reach by car. We've kayaked down rivers lined with eagle nests, we've witnessed ospreys flying mere yards overhead with a fresh caught fish in its talons, we've had deer cross the trail in front of us so close we can almost touch them, and its' impossible to catalog all the turtles and frogs and lizards and weird bugs and neon mushrooms and exuberant flowers we've passed among. We've lingered on still water watching the sun sink over marshes, scrambled over slick rocks to feel the spray of waterfalls, and craned our necks up to the peaks of rocky mountains, knowing we'd soon be standing upon them, looking out ten, twenty, thirty miles over our surroundings, where the horizon vanished in the haze of the summer heat.

 
In  2012, before we started getting fit, we attempted a 5 mile ride on the American Tobacco Trail. I'm not talking 5 miles out and back, for 10. I mean we were just riding from Herndon Park down to the next road and back. It almost killed me. There's a very slight grade coming back up the Herndon Park, and I had to get off my bike and push it back to the car. When I reached the car, I had to rest for twenty minutes before I had the energy to load the bikes. I honestly felt worse after that ride than I did last week after 75. How could I have let myself get so out of shape? You only get one body in this life. If you don't keep it tuned up, you've no one to blame but yourself.
 
Will you ever see me posting here about riding 100 miles in a single day? Probably not. 75 might be our practical limit, since we ran out of daylight and had to ride the last three miles in the dark, where we rode through a literal whirlwind of flying, biting insects. I suppose if we attempted the trip on the spring solstice, we might conceivably have enough daylight to make it without the bug apocalypse. Similarly, a few weeks back we hiked 15 miles in a single day, and that's very likely the longest one day hike we're likely to make. 15 miles hiking is much more draining than 75 miles biking, and accomplishing it uses up most available daylight. Cheryl is getting a lot of exercise running each week, and I wonder if she'll work her way up to marathons one day. I suspect I won't; running is definitely my least favorite exercise. Up do this point, I've been driven by outdoing myself. I just biked 20 miles, can I bike 25, can I bike 30, and so on. Now that I'm reaching the upper limits of what I can accomplish in a single day, I do wonder what's next. I've been mainly doing road biking, albeit more on greenways than actual roads. Last night, I found myself looking longingly at trail bike. Perhaps there are some off-road bike adventures in my future.

*On a side note, after two years of using MyFitnessPal, both Cheryl and I have decided to stop using it. It's useful for altering your eating habits, but it's algorithms for how much you can eat produce some ridiculous numbers once you start tackling 20+ mile bike rides and 10+ mile hikes. For instance, on the day of our 75 mile bike ride, I think it said we could eat 10,000 calories. I'm not sure that's even feasible. That's 12 large McDonald's milkshakes! Or 19 Big Macs! At this point, the keys to eating well are pretty much memorized. Don't eat a lot of starches or refined sugars, eat more vegetables, fruits, and lean meats, and stay away from empty calories like potato chips or soda. If you want to run a calorie deficit to lose weight, a calorie tracking tool like MyFitnessPal is pretty swell. If you just want to maintain a healthy weight while living an active lifestyle, it's not important to follow every calorie you eat, just don't eat crap.