Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Netbook vs Smartphone Smackdown

One thing the internet isn't short of is "product review" websites. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these are really just ads for retailers, while the rest are generally vapid and ill-informed. Even those offered by seemingly reputable sources, such as big-name newspapers or magazines, are often just regurgitated press releases.

Thankfully, with a bit of digging around you can find a few that offer intelligent analysis from people who use and understand the products they are writing. Some even have enough perspective to put forward the odd negative point of view. For example, I've been thinking recently about investing in either an iPhone or a more compact laptop, as my regular MacBook is a bit too heavy (and valuable) for me to carry with me all the time.

Then I read this excellent article on The Register comparing netbooks and smartphones, which put me firmly in my place. Am I a misguided geek who wants to waste a few hundred dollars on "a cheap, underpowered laptop", or am I a member of the "busy San Francisco digerati who needs constant access to the web to watch Facebook friend connections and Twitters his every vapid thought" via an iPhone?

Hmm. You know, I could always just buy a pad of paper and a couple of pens.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Death of Satire

Right now I'm re-reading Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, and feeling slightly disappointed. When I read it the first time a little over ten years ago, I was dazzled by its daring comic grotesques, but now the dread of modern life and apocalyptic "airborne toxic events" seem very dated.

One passage in particular stood out. The main character's wife is reading a list of ridiculous predictions from psychics in a National Enquirer–type magazine. They involve Bigfoot, UFOs, the ghost of Elvis, and so on. Then there's this one:
Members of an air-crash cult will hijack a jumbo jet and crash it into the White House in an act of blind devotion to their mysterious and reclusive leader, known only as Uncle Bob.
Of course, DeLillo wasn't alone in predicting such a thing, but it was still strange to see what was once a ludicrously far-fetched joke transformed by the passage of time into a sad piece of history. However, the best part of 20 years had passed between DeLillo writing the passage in the early 1980s and the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, which seems like a reasonable interval between comedy and tragedy.

The gap between reality and satire seems much smaller now, and it's increasingly hard to make comedy that is funnier or more extreme than what we see actually happening. I'm thinking of the fact that in 2003, Arnold Schwarzeneggger managed to release Terminator 3 and be elected Governer of California in the space of just three months. Or the way that it's often hard to tell the fake Bushisms from the real ones.

It's not just in politics. Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker stopped writing his brilliantly caustic spoof listings magazine TV Go Home because he was finding it increasingly hard to top the ridiculousness of reality TV -- which is perhaps no surprise considering he started writing it in 1999, the same year a UK garden makeover show travelled to South Africa to transform Nelson Mandela's herbaceous borders.

And, with the recent US election, satire was cast aside almost completely as the news itself became comedy. A trend started by the likes of the Daily Show reached its natural conclusion when Tina Fey won near-universal praise for her comic portrayal of Sarah Palin in a Saturday Night Live sketch which quoted the vice-presidential candidate verbatim.

Now the election is over, hopes are high that the incoming administration is going to have a positive effect on many aspects of life, both here in the US and further afield. However, I'm not sure that the appointment of a black man named Barack Hussein Obama as president is going to do much to help the struggling world of satire.

UPDATE: Fivethirtyeight.com

The New York Times has a nice profile of Nate Silver, the guy behind the political statistics website Fivethirtyeight.com, which I've gushed about before. The detail that caught my eye was the fact that Silver called the election an hour and a half before the big television networks did. (Indeed Silver actually predicted the result months ahead of time, but we'll skip that for now.)

This strange dance between election night reality and reporting is a subject I'll return to.

Monday, November 10, 2008

NaNoWriMo, No-No

November is National Novel Writing Month, an annual event which encourages participants to write a 50,000 novel in just 30 days. I took part for the first time last year, and to my surprise actually reached the end with 50,000 words. I hesitate to call what I ended up with a novel though, or even a rough first draft. It was condemned by several fatal flaws.

First, I attempted to write a thriller by mistake. I didn't start out intending to, it just turned into one. It turns out that it's very hard to write a successful thriller by accident. Thrillers take careful planning. Mine was an unplanned disaster.

Second, my writing kept slipping into a smart-arsed style that relied on a lot of slightly painful jokes. This was one of things I had always feared would happen if I ever attempted to write a novel. It wasn't pretty, and was made doubly frustrating by the parts where this didn't happen. Why couldn't I write like that all the time?

And, third, I never actually finished the damn thing. Sure, I wrote 50,000 words, but I reached that total without even getting close to an ending. This was mostly because, by that point, the plot made absolutely no sense and had pretty much collapsed in on itself due to the unbearable weight of its own contradictions.

So what could I do with it? In the words of Zoot, "If I had a match, I could put it out of its misery."

So this November I signed up to do it all again, resolving to learn from my mistakes. But I quickly discovered that it's pretty much impossible to write at such a furious pace while also working for a living (this time last year I was still enjoying the last few weeks of my immigration-enforced unemployment). No, actually, I'll correct that. It's possible to write at that pace, the question is whether you can write anything worth reading. And I clearly can't.

Both NaNoWriMo and its founder Chris Baty's "how to write a book" book No Plot? No Problem! are excellent exercises in encouragement, especially in the way that both drive home the central point that first drafts aren't supposed to be the finished article: indeed, they're supposed to be rubbish. But what I've discovered is that there is rubbish, and there is irredeemable crap that no amount of turd-polishing will help become anything other than shinier shite.

Forcing yourself to write more than 1,500 words a day, every day, is a good way to produce a high word count, but that means writing when you aren't in the right mood, when you don't have fully formed ideas in your head, when you're tired, when you'd really rather be doing anything else. Sometimes the results will surprise you, but not often enough to make it worthwhile for me.

So I've abandoned my November novelling ambitions. Instead I'm planning to write at my own pace, rejecting Chris Baty's high-octane approach in favour of following my friend Alison's more elegant advice. "Writing a book is simple," she says. "You just start writing, keep writing, and don't stop until you finish."