On September 11, 2001, the city of Melbourne, Australia evacuated its World Trade Center.
This is a short building on the banks of the Yarra River, a short distance from Melbourne’s central business district, a little over ten thousand miles from New York. It used to have a casino; before that, it hosted an exhibition of waxworks from Madam Tussaud’s. If you ran a line from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan through the center of the Earth, you would exit the planet not so very far from here—closer, certainly, to Australia than to any other country in the world.
Australia is a long way from everywhere. A flight to Sydney takes 15 hours from Los Angeles, 21 hours from London, 14 hours from Johannesburg, and 10 hours from Tokyo. There is no stopping off in Australia on the way to somewhere else, unless you’re headed to Antarctica. You can’t take in Australia as a side-trip while visiting somewhere else nearby. It is an island continent that you reach only by making it your ultimate destination and exerting a concerted effort.
This isolation is the core of Australia’s identity: it is the reason the country has an aboriginal population that existed undisturbed for 40,000 years, and some of the world’s strangest and most inimitable flora and fauna, and why, indeed, it was chosen to be a penal colony by the British in 1788. It is a place you go to be removed from the world.
But on 9/11, terrorists were attacking World Trade Centers, so Melbourne evacuated hers. This didn’t seem silly at the time; that day made all horrors plausible. No precaution was too extreme when yesterday it had been inconceivable that terrorists might take thousands of lives in New York and across the US, and today it had happened. So for a while, Australia forgot it wasn’t part of the world. “We are all Americans,” Australians said on 9/11—September 12, actually, on antipodean time, since Australia is so far away it is usually a different day altogether. And we meant it: we were deeply shocked to see acts of foreign terrorism, always previously associated with unfamiliar people in unfamiliar places, happening somewhere Over There, become suddenly intimate and recognizable.
Over time, though, the War on Terror became the War on Iraq, and the American flags on TV reminded us that although 9/11 affected the Western world, at its most pointed and personal, it was an American story. Australia, as usual, was watching from afar. We sent troops to Afghanistan and to Iraq, maintaining solidarity with our American cousins, but ultimately, we came to realize that the US was Over There, too.
In 2002, 88 Australians were killed by a radical Islamist group bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali, a popular holiday destination. Bali is a mere six hours from Sydney, and only two and a half from Darwin, the closest Australian city. It was a traumatic event, but again, it wasn’t quite Here. More recently, there have been police terror sweeps in Australian cities, with arrests made and, apparently, plots foiled. The federal government warned us that groups had developed with the motivation and ability to carry out local attacks.
You live a charmed life in Australia. The streets are safe; the weather is terrific; the people are friendly. The ocean keeps everything out. Or, at least, slows it down. We complain about that, when a car costs thirty thousand dollars, or a TV show won’t hit our screens right away, but it’s the ocean that has allowed Australia to stay Australia in the face of relentless globalization. It’s given us more than a decade in which to rethink our ideas on society and our way of life, and the trade-offs between freedom and security we’re willing to make, without having to do so in the immediate aftermath of a national tragedy.
On Monday, a man with a gun took hostages in the middle of Sydney in what he claimed to be an attack on Australia by the Islamic State.
A self-described cleric with a history of antagonism
toward Australian military involvement in Afghanistan, he was, by all reports,
a dangerous loner rather than a member of an organized terrorist
group. By the time the siege was over, two hostages were dead.
If this man had claimed to be acting for some other cause—disgruntlement at
the tax code, or the high price of cars—we wouldn’t call it terrorism. We
would call it what it is: a lunatic with a gun. But that would overlook the deeper
trend, which is that Australia’s oceans are shrinking.
Today technology allows a man to be more connected to militant extremists across the
globe—in spirit, if nothing else—than he was
to his neighbors in Bexley North. He can latch on to toxic ideas from the other side of the globe
and bring them into Sydney, feeling he is part of a global cause.
Whether we call it a siege or terrorism,
this is something that used to happen Over There. And now it’s here.
It wasn’t unexpected, and arrived more benignly than it could have,
and today the country will get on with business as usual. But life is becoming a little less
charmed. We are no longer so far away.
Sometimes people pirate my stuff. Then sometimes they write to tell me they
pirated my stuff, because they feel kind of bad about it, and wonder if they
can pay me somehow. (Except one time when a guy said he’d pirated a compilation
of “100 Great E-Books” and he just wanted to let me know I was in it, as a compliment.
A kind of compliment.)
Now I had read your latest blog post about the movie the other day saying it had
been released on iTunes and some cable websites, so <pirate pirate pirate>,
so right now Syrup is 42% completed, and with my guilt (and procrastination,
as I’m still typing this email) growing with every percentage, I thought to ask your
I’ve been looking forward to the Syrup movie since I read the book and thought
“This would make a damn good movie!”, and then came the first rumours or it
actually becoming one, so of course I want to support the production company
and in turn future movies/series (I’m trying not to get my hopes up for Jennifer
Government), but I can’t wait.
Would there be a PayPal donation link I can use to throw you the cost of a movie
ticket? Or should I watch it now and when it eventually hits theatres and see you
as a waiter on the big screen? Buy the DVD?
What, as the writer of the source material for a movie, do you think is the most
beneficial method (to whoever you think deserves it. I of course, thought you)
of paying for my viewing pleasure?
The general answer is that you should tell people you watched it. Or that you read it,
if it’s a book. You should tweet, “Just finished <whatever>,
highly recommended,” assuming you liked it, or “Just finished <whatever>”
if you didn’t. Or post on Facebook. Or write a nice review somewhere.
If you do this, you are all square in my eyes. In fact, I’d bet most artists
and content creators feel the same way. Because the major problem they face isn’t
that people pirate their work; it’s that nobody knows they exist.
Getting people talking is massive. Enormous amounts of time and energy
are poured into getting people talking about every single book and film and song
ever released. You, talking about a book/film/song, is really valuable. I
can’t emphasize that enough. It can galvanize all kinds of great outcomes.
A Pirate Tip Jar (Jaarrrrr), on the other hand, would be a bad move.
Lots of people work on books and films, not just me; even on a novel, I’m
due no more than 15% of what you pay. I don’t want anyone thinking they can cut
those people out and pay me directly. Also, I suspect the number of
people who say they’d love to pay for X if only there were a more convenient
way of doing so is far greater than the number of people who would actually
pay. I mean, it’s a nice sentiment. But we generally pay for things because
we have to. That’s just how it works.
So instead of wishing you could tip an artist for something you pirated,
talk about it. That’s good for everyone involved. If you have nothing good to
say, even a simple mention is helpful. Not a bad mention. That’s not helpful.
But the difference between pirating something and saying nothing vs. pirating
something and mentioning it to other people is really, really huge.
Of course, piracy is kind of wrong. I feel I need to say that explicitly.
It’s kind of wrong because people who create something like a
book or movie or song should be able to decide if and how they’ll sell it.
Just because it’s more than you’d like to pay doesn’t mean it’s fair to pirate;
everything is more than you’d like to pay. If Justin Timberlake made a CD and
priced it at a thousand dollars a copy, such would be his right.
But it would be pretty silly of Justin to think people wouldn’t pirate that.
Especially fans, and especially if that CD was only released in one country
at a time and didn’t work on everyone’s players. I would be surprised if Justin
wasn’t fully aware that this situation would provoke quite a lot
of piracy. I have no idea why I’m using Justin Timberlake as an example.
That just happened. But what I’m saying is that while piracy is generally
bad for artists, and we want you to buy real books/tickets/MP3s/downloads,
I recognize that piracy happens sometimes anyway. And if it happened to you,
and you want to say thanks, you can do a lot of good by spreading the word.
1957, a psychologist named B. F. Skinner decided to see what happened
when you put a rat in a cage with a lever that made food come out.
He discovered that if the food came out whenever the lever was pushed, the rat
would settle into a healthy work-life balance of pushing levers and running
hamster wheels. But if the lever only delivered food sometimes—if
it randomly might or might not—the rat would work that lever like there was
underpinned much development of poker machines and gaming.
Now Diablo III reveals what happens when the rats have
internet access: they bitch about drop rates.
The Diablo series of games are simple:
you run through dungeons, hit monsters, and collect the items that fall
out. Usually the items are crappy, but sometimes, randomly,
they’re awesome, and allow you to fight even more powerful monsters, which can
randomly drop even more awesome items. The game ends when you starve to death
in your apartment surrounded by empty soda cans.
Actually, that’s not true: there is an end-game. Your character can’t progress
beyond level 60 and there’s a hard maximum to the potential quality of items. So there is
a diminishing returns thing: early in the game, you find better
items often, but as your equipment approaches the theoretical
maximum, your odds of finding something better become decreasingly smaller.
Diablo III had a few problems when it launched,
and there was
much bitching on internet forums. A great deal of the bitching was about
drop rates; that is, how likely food was to arrive when you pressed the lever. Players
thought drop rates were too low, if you were wondering. They
wanted food to come out more regularly. A very popular proposal, one
mentioned in almost every discussion, no matter how relevant, was
that more situations should deliver “a guaranteed rare,”
a “rare” being a high-quality item. That is, instead of food only coming
out sometimes when you pushed the lever, it would come out every time.
This feedback around drop rates was offered to the developers in the form of an unholy maelstrom
of teenage-grade internet fury that raged for many weeks. Players railed against the bitterness of
a life of inadequate drop rates, expressing their incomprehension that such
stupidity should exist and turning viciously against their former idol,
game designer Jay Wilson, who was now revealed not as a benevolent
provider of sometimes-food but rather the very face of evil,
Diablo himself, as it were, He Who Made The Lever Not Work Often Enough.
Some of the angst was understandable. Diablo III introduced an in-game
Auction House, which meant that
instead of throwing your old items away as you found new ones, you could
sell them to other players for gold. The marketplace being virtual
and therefore operating with a degree of efficiency rarely seen in the real
world, it was soon a lot easier to find good items on the Auction House than
to go around hitting monsters hoping that one would randomly fall out.
This in turn allowed players to obtain items approaching the hard maximum
quite quickly after starting the game, and rendering their chances of
thereafter seeing anything better randomly drop from a monster close to zero.
After sufficient buffeting, the developers decided to increase drop rates.
They also created more
“guaranteed rare” situations. This was very warmly received by
the community. It wasn’t enough, though, and since then drop rates have been raised
again, and “legendary” items radically overhauled to make them much
better, i.e. more like food. At the same time, a new reward system was introduced
called “Paragon Levels,” which periodically deliver such an enormous explosion of
congratulation to the player that it almost feels sarcastic. This has quieted
community angst, although at this point it’s hard to tell how many of them are left.
I suspect a lot have stopped pushing the lever.
The interesting part about the rats who like to gamble is that they don’t do
it for food. They don’t press the lever only as many times as required to deliver the
same amount of food as when food delivery is guaranteed: they press it more often
and more rapidly. They like to see if they can win. Although “like” could be the wrong
word; it may be more accurate to say that the uncertainty creates stress, which
they feel the need to resolve. I would imagine there are some pretty pissed-off
rats, when they press the lever a bunch of times and still nothing happens. They
would rage on the internet if they could. And they’d be justified, since it
wasn’t their choice to get in the cage.
Somebody put them there, who knew what would happen.
Blogs are dying. Not this blog. I mean in general. This blog’s
just fine. Okay, yes, it has been a little while since the last post,
but that’s just because I was busy writing. Well. Rewriting. It’s like
writing, only with less visible progress. With writing, you can
feel reasonably assured that what you put on the page is
better than what was there before. Not always! But mostly.
Rewriting, though, you can spend a good six hours on a scene,
sit back, and think, “Yep… that’s worse.”
Anyway. Blogs are OUT. They’re too long. That’s the problem. No-one
has the time for them. The middle is hollowing out.
Everything is polarizing. We want
things to be very. It doesn’t matter what. Whatever it is, only very.
There’s no place for mid-length writing any more. There never was,
of course. But blogs used to be short. Then Twitter. Now blogs
are like One Day Cricket.*
But here we are! And it’s already been more than 140 characters. So
let’s continue. This blog will summarize what I’ve been thinking
about over the last few months, while I was busy making my new
book not worse.
The first one or two were kind of shocking to
me, like a thought come to life. The next few were
disappointing, like repeated plot points.
we’re at, what, the seventh Nike sneaker riot? When
does it become less likely that they’re continually being surprised
by this kind of thing happening and more likely that they’re deliberately engineering it?
That’s just a question. I’m just wondering.
Now in post-production.
I have been shown a teaser-trailer thing and it is
heartbreakingly beautiful. I’ve watched it three hundred times.
I’m not joking. The only thing that sucks about the Syrup
movie is I’m not allowed to tell you anything. But soon. Soon…
This interests me because privacy is obviously very
important for reasons nobody understands.
Generally, there’s a much stronger incentive for companies
and governments to want to know things about you than for you
to keep your data private. That leads to an interesting place.
This is the most valuable skill in the world,
right? People who are good at persuading others
become rich and successful; people who are easily persuaded
by others do not. But nobody really thinks about this. Very few
people actually go out and learn how to be better at persuasion,
or more aware of its forms. Why is that?
Also, the US as a culture is very advanced at soft persuasion (i.e.
the forms of persuasion that don’t involve threats of bodily harm).
It is great at selling stuff. We have the Internet and free access
to vast stores of information but we’re still buying products with
the cleverest ads, and electing politicians with the most reassuring
voices. I wonder what happens if a culture becomes so good
at persuasion that there is no longer an incentive to produce
products that are just objectively good, as opposed to well-sold.
Privacy + Persuasion.
It’s easier to persuade people if you
know more about them. And if you can persuade them, you can
get more information from them. That’s an interesting dynamic, too.
But this is too depressing for now so I’ll blog about it later.
That’s a lot of Ps, for some reason.
(* This analogy works because even if you don’t know cricket, you
know it is stupid and anachronistic.)
This has been a great year for male writers, with women shunted
aside for major prizes and all-new hand-wringing about why it is so.
Because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but male writers get taken
more seriously. Also, stories about men, even if written by women,
are considered mainstream, while stories about women are “women’s fiction.”
This despite the fact that women read more than men, and write
more, and are over-represented generally throughout publishing.
As the father of two girls, one aged five and one ten months,
I know why. It’s because of dogs and Smurfs.
I can’t understand why no-one else realizes this. I see
these knotted-brow articles and the writers seem truly perplexed.
Dogs and Smurfs: that’s the answer.
Let me walk you through it. We’ll start with dogs. I have
written about this before, but to save you the click: people assume dogs are male.
Listen out for it: you will find it’s true. To short-cut
the process, visit the zoo, because when I say “dogs,” I really mean,
“all animals except maybe cats.” The air of a zoo teems with “he.”
I have stood in front of baboons with teats like missile launchers
and heard adults exclaim to their children, “Look at him!” Once I saw
an unsuspecting monkey taken from behind and there was a surprised
silence from the crowd and then someone made a joke about sodomy.
People assume animals are male. If you haven’t already noticed this, it’s
only because it’s so pervasive. We also assume people are male,
unless they’re doing something particularly feminine; you’ll usually say “him”
about an unseen car driver, for example. But it’s ubiquitous in regard to
Now, kids like animals. Kids really fucking like animals. Kids are little animal
stalkers, fascinated by absolutely anything an animal does. They read books about
animals. I just went through my daughter’s bookshelves, and they all have
animals on the cover. Animals everywhere.
And because publishing is terribly progressive, and because Jen and I
look out for it, a lot of those animals are girls. But still: a
ton of boys. Because of the assumption.
Here’s an example: a truly great
kids’ book is Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers. I love
this story, but on page 22, after being called “it” three times, an
otherwise sexless penguin twice becomes “he.”
This would never, ever happen the other way around. The only reason
a penguin can abruptly become male in an acclaimed children’s book
without anybody noticing is because we had already assumed
Then you’ve got Smurf books. Not actual Smurfs. I mean stories
where there are five major characters, and one is brave and one is smart
and one is grumpy and one keeps rats for pets and one is a girl.
Smurfs, right? Because there was Handy Smurf and
Chef Smurf and Dopey Smurf and Painter Smurf and ninety-four other male
Smurfs and Smurfette. Smurfette’s unique
personality trait was femaleness. That was the thing she
did better than anyone else. Be a girl.
Smurf books are not as common as they used to be, but Smurf stories
are, oddly, everywhere on the screen. Pixar makes practically nothing else.
I am so disappointed by
this, because they make almost every kids’ film worth watching.
WALL-E is good. I will grant them WALL-E, because Eve is so awesome. But
otherwise: lots of Smurfs.
Male is default. That’s what you learn from a world of boy dogs
and Smurf stories. My daughter has no problem with this. She
reads these books the way they were intended: not about boys,
exactly, but about people who happen to be boys. After years
of such books, my daughter can happily identify with these characters.
And this is great. It’s the reason she will grow into a woman who
can happily read a novel about men, or watch a movie in which
men do all the most interesting things, without feeling like she
can’t relate. She will process these stories as being primarily
not about males but about human beings.
Except it’s not happening the other way. The five-year-old boy who lives up
the street from me does not have a shelf groaning with stories about
girl animals. Because you have to seek those books out,
and as the parent of a boy, why would you? There are so many great
books about boys to which he can relate directly.
Smurf stories must make perfect sense to him: all the characters
with this one weird personality trait to distinguish them, like
being super brave or smart or frightened or a girl.
I have been told that this is a good thing for girls. “That makes girls
more special,” said this person, who I wanted to punch in the face.
That’s the problem. Being female should not be special. It should
be normal. It is normal, in the real world. There are all kinds of girls. There are
all kinds of women. You just wouldn’t think so, if you only
paid attention to dogs and Smurfs.
Is it the positive role model thing? Because
I don’t want only positive female role models. I want
the spectrum. Angry girls, happy girls, mean girls. Lazy girls.
Girls who lie and girls who
hit people and do the wrong thing sometimes. I’m pretty sure my daughters
can figure out for themselves which personality aspects they
should emulate, if only they see the diversity.
It’s not like this is hard. Dogs and Smurfs: we’re not
talking about searing journeys to the depths of the soul. An elephant
whose primary story purpose is to steal some berries does not
have to be male. Not every time. Characters can be girls just because
they happen to be girls.
P.S. Don’t talk to me about Sassette. Sassette was like the three millionth
Smurf invented. You get no credit for that.
I wrote some code to embed my tweets on my website.
There’s a statement that would have made no sense in 1990.
Actually, it barely makes sense now. But I did it. I’m proud
of my site. I built it myself. Occasionally
I get an email saying, “What software do you
use to run your site and how do I get it?” I think the answer is:
receive a Commodore 64 for your tenth birthday and no good
But that’s not why I’m writing. I’m writing because I decided
to grow my own vegetables. A few people I knew were growing
their own vegetables, and they kept yakking about
how wonderful it was, not depending on manufactured
supermarket vegetables, which are evil for some reason,
so I thought what the hell.
For a while I was intimidated by the idea of growing
vegetables. When I reach for a vegetable, I usually just want
to eat it. I don’t want to be intimately involved with its creation.
I worried I would end up spending more time tending
to the health of fragile, overly complicated peas than eating them.
Then I saw an ad for genetically modified seeds. These
promised to take the hassle out of growing vegetables,
which seemed pretty intriguing. The tomatoes would be big and red
and I wouldn’t have to do anything. So I got those.
This upset my hippy friends. Especially when I started
having problems. My frankenfruit was supposed
to be simple but after a few weeks the whole garden stopped
growing. My cabbages were flaccid. My carrots were anemic.
My spinach wouldn’t self-seed. It wasn’t supposed to self-seed.
The genetics company had engineered it not to,
so I’d have to buy new seeds each season. But I thought there should be
a way around that.
I asked my hippy friends for help.
Well! You’d think I asked for a kidney.
They kept bringing up the fact that I was using GM seeds.
Eventually they all got together and said, “Max… we can’t
help you any more. We want to. But you brought these
problems on yourself. And the thing is,
when you ask for help,
you’re actually asking us to use our skills and knowledge
to prop up a corporatized product that’s not just practically
inferior to the free alternative you ignored, but actually
bad for the world. We just can’t do that.”
And that was how I taught them to stop asking me for help