December 13, 2013

Health can't be measured by a bathroom scale

About eight weeks ago I sprained my MCL, and I haven't been able to play soccer since. And ever since summer, I've skipped my early morning gym time, choosing instead to work on the third novel in my Semper - Forsada - To-be-titled series.

This means I haven't seriously exercised in a long, long time. But I know I'm still in great shape because the bathroom scale says I've only gained a pound or two in all those months. Right?

Actually, that's a pretty stupid conclusion. It would be like saying the economy is strong because the stock market is high.

Truth is, I am still reasonably fit, and if I only look at one indicator (the bathroom scale), then I think things are going great. But to judge my real health, I have to look at many other indicators and all the things that go into health--diet, activity, stress, etc. Same thing with the health of any complex system. I've blogged about this in my day job. You can't take one indicator, as important as it may be, and understand the full health of a complex system like a human body, a workforce, an educational system, a government, or an economy.

In the USA, we have a addiction to primary indicators. By that I mean we obsess over the one magical number we can use to grade everyone and everything. We see it in our obsession with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which leads every business news report but really doesn't tell us very much about the health of the economy overall. We see it in standardized test scores like the SAT, which determines so much about a student's college admission but really doesn't test education or ability; it only grades whether the child has the prepared to take the SAT. We see it in consumption, where price alone drives so many of our purchases.

Take, for example, the omnipresent fast food "meal deal." Most places offer options to upsize your meal, and the price delta is minuscule compared to the base price. Pay $6 for the regular, $6.70 for the medium, or $7.15 for the large. Or, "add chips and a drink" for just two bucks. Notice they call it a "meal," not "the healthy addition."

The American psyche looks at that and quickly calculates that the price per increase is negligible compared to the initial buy-in. Virtually no thought is given to how hungry the person is; the only indicator that matters is price. So naturally, most people size up. Best decision? Probably not, even though it might seem to make economic sense to get a lot more of something for just a little extra spent.

Because that makes it really hard to keep the bathroom scale steady.

December 9, 2013

Sometimes my son hates having a writer for a parent.

Out at dinner the other night, my younger son finally got fed up.

"Sometimes I hate having a writer for a parent," he grumbled.

"Only sometimes?" I asked. I got all warm and fuzzy. Not just because I succeeded (again) in ruining my children's life, but also because he recognized and appreciated the word-nerd sarcasm I had just unleashed in a teachable moment disguised as humor.

See, I love to call out two ambiguities in particular, and he had just stumbled into one of them.

One is the misplaced modifier, as in

Ugly and ineffective, teachers shun corporal punishment as a disciplinary tool.
Okay, I admit the above sentence is actually unambiguous. But how often does the speaker really intend to call teachers ugly and ineffective, do you think? (Hmm. Maybe I should have used a different example.) Anyway, I usually just enjoy these gems quietly, without comment.

The other one I love is more than/less than, as in what my son had just said:
I like bread more than my brother.
Even within the context of our conversation, the ambiguity of this sentence gave me pause. Did he like bread more than he liked his brother? Or did he like bread more than his brother liked bread? This was a toss-up, so I asked him, and we got into a lengthy discussion of the possibilities of this construction.

A particular pet peeve of mine is the frequent misuse of "more than me" when "more than I" is intended. Take a simple example such as
You like fish more than me.
While it may be true that the listener prefers the company of fish to spending time with the speaker, usually the speaker means that the listener enjoys fish more than the speaker does. If that's the case, the speaker should have said
You like fish more than I.
(Kids especially hate this because it sounds awkward and stilted, so they think it's wrong.)

The simple test here is whether the sentence holds its proper meaning if you add the verb phrase at the end. As in:
You like fish more than I like fish.
If, however, you really mean that the listener prefers fish to you, then go ahead and use the object "me" here. And of course, You like fish more than me like fish makes no sense.

Besides providing a way to titillate grammarians, this rule can also come in handy when ambiguity is what you're looking for. For example, if you wish to tell someone who doesn't like cheese that you find them distasteful, you could say something like this:
I like cheese more than you.
The listener will heartily agree, thinking that you meant to recognize their dislike of cheese. But you and I both know you meant something different. And who could blame you? I also like cheese more than people who don't appreciate this grammatical concept.

And no, I never did find out whether my son liked bread more than he liked his brother.

And finally, because I had no photos of fish or cheese handy, here are some kittens I've shown before:

December 6, 2013

how to waste a lot of money self-publishing a book

PAID FOR, biatch.
Last night I updated my spreadsheet totting up sales and downloads of Semper and Forsada. It never takes me too long; these are not big numbers. But each book earns enough profit to pay my whiskey and Starbucks bills while I write the next book. And that makes me happy enough, for now.

Between the two titles, my name adorns over 16,000 books out in the wild. I'll gladly admit that more than 15,000 of those were free downloads. Which proves that you don't need to sell a lot of books to make a profit when you self-publish. (My publishing goals are modest; I'm sure I could sell far more if I invested in promotion, but my life is focused elsewhere right now.)

Not a wheelbarrow
My point is that you don't need a wheelbarrow full of cash to self publish a book, and I get really frustrated when I hear people spending thousands of dollars to do something I did for a couple hundred.

A writers group I know of, for example, expects to spend $10,000 to publish an anthology. They're not paying the authors; just the opposite: they're asking friends and family to chip in. It appears, from what I can discern, that the majority of this huge wheelbarrow of cash is going to the consultants who are helping the group self-publish their anthology.

Granted, they definitely need an editor. And they certainly need a cover designed. And they probably need a layout tech. I'm just having trouble adding that up to get to $10,000. Maybe they're planning one hell of a launch party.

Anyway, if you want to waste a ton of money self-publishing, just hire a consultant without understanding what, exactly, they're producing. Anyone who tells you that self-publishing is hard is probably trying to overcharge you, and anyone that tells you they can make your book successful for some fee is probably lying. There is no need to spend a bunch of money on consultants.

Meanwhile, I'm raking in the profits like the guy who cleans coins out of the fountain at the Motel 6 in Soledad. Admit it. You wish you were me.

Not sold out. Copies still available.
The third book will be out in the first half of 2014.
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