Sunday, September 29, 2013

Music and writing: creating a moment to last forever

I love writing and composing music. My books have sold okay but my music has been primarily for personal enjoyment and secondarily to serve as a plot device in my scifi novels, Socialite1. (The characters in those books wrote songs and comedy skits for a recurring neighbourhood variety night.) Recently, however, I began a new job, and my focus has been away from personal creative projects. I love my job, but haven't found that balance between working outside the home and working on my own projects. The dream of course, remains the same, to write something that will do for others what literature and especially music has done for me: create a permanent mental oasis in time.

Most of us have that one song we love, that most people have never heard. For me, it's "Chicago" by Sufjan Stevens (I attached it at the end of this post). It's my happy song: the song I play when I'm feeling down, because it provides a pure escape. It's one song that resets my mind.  It doesn't have to be just one song, though - on rainy days, for example, I always feel like listening to Supertramp.

In fact I am constantly finding a private oasis in the works of others. The NY Times ran an article today about Bernie Taupin and Elton John. Their relationship, of course, is magical and, now, pretty much legendary. The article doesn't really add much to what has already been said and written about the duo. It was motivated by the release of their new album , of which there undoubtedly will be at least one song that I will love. I saw Elton perform a new song, Home Again, at the Emmy's last week and was impressed: in my opinion it was one of the strongest songs he has written in a while. I probably won't like everything on the new album, but after that performance, I am sure their will be at least one song that will stick with me forever.

And that's how it is with music, a lot of it does not resonate at all, then we find something that transcends our life, removes us from today into a singular moment in which nothing else matters. Sometimes it's a whole performance that can do that. I watched Arcade Fire on SNL last night, and after SNL during the NBC special, Arcade Fire "Here comes the night time." WOW! The whole show was intense, unusual and creative. Tina Fey was right when she introduced the after-SNL music segment saying, "Things are going to get weird!" The music was amazing, the show, well a little weird. The song "We Exist" was phenomenal, way better than the disco-like "Reflektor" that is playing on the radio - it really doesn't do much for me. But even more outstanding was their last song, "Normal People." The whole show felt like it was about a minute long - despite it running a full half-hour.

Millions of people watched the same show that I did last night, yet each person felt the music in their own way. I wonder how many enjoyed it as much as I did.  But, really, who cares if the artist's music appeals to millions or not: any song has the potential to be important to each of us, and that is all that really matters. Even if a song doesn't sell millions of copies, it may still have that unique effect on just a handful of people. Like the Steven's "Chicago" - it didn't become a smash hit, but for me and many others, it is timeless and important.

And that is motivating for me: to know that even if only a few people ever get to hear my music, or read my books, time may stop for one of them, as it does for me while I am writing.

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Friday, June 28, 2013

Will we soon be encouraged to text and tweet during movies?

The financial incentive for movie producers to allow texting and tweeting during their films is obvious: free, broad spectrum advertising. 

The only reason they aren't encouraging it already is fear: many people will complain that the distraction takes them "out of the story." This fear will wane as mobile sharing becomes more ubiquitous in other entertainment venues.

The fact is, if we were given the opportunity to text or tweet during a theatre production or a movie, many people would - without hesitation. Many already are! Few theatres have ushers anymore so you can either complain or take matters into your own hands. Both options may make the situation worse than simply missing out on part of the show.

Theatres have been considering allowing texting for a few years now. An article on the website suggested that some entertainment execs are considering easing up on texting in theatres and possibly even encouraging mobile communication during certain movies (i.e., those aimed at a younger audience.)

Perhaps the first widespread adoption of live tweeting will come from live theatre. A recent NPR article discussed how a new theatre production is hoping to draw a larger audience by capitalizing on its patrons spreading the message during the show. The show, appropriately  called #HASHTAG is about "the daily struggle to stay engaged in the present moment." Its texting policy has already paid off by garnering nationwide exposure in an article on NPR (not to mention a tiny bit more exposure through this blog post.)

While we may not see this policy implemented on Broadway anytime soon, other theatre venues should see that the benefits can outweigh the risk.  For instance, the use of mobile devices would not substantially add to the many distractions that occur during outdoor productions. All outdoor productions, therefore, should consider announcing the following statement before each show:

"We encourage you to tweet and text during this production of (insert play title here!) If you laughed or cried, tell your friends right away while the feeling is fresh. Also feel free to use Vine or Instagram video to share a short clip of the production. Be sure to include our hashtag so we can link all of these great comments and videos to our website!"

This could be the slippery slope that persuades movie companies to ease up and allow similar behaviour  during films. I think under some circumstances it wouldn't be that bad. For example, if the movie is already a flop, or perhaps if all indications are that a soon-to-be released big budget film will most likely flop (as has been suggested of the new movie Pacific Rim), then the studio should make every attempt to boost attendance, including encourage texting, short video clip sharing etc.

Would you have a problem with that?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Jerry Seinfeld returns for coffee: great characters, no acting

Better than any sitcom on television: you will love Jerry Seinfeld's latest show. 

Unscripted (for the most part), off-the-cuff, and original, CCC (Comedians in Cars getting Coffee) is hilarious.

Seinfeld is more popular now than ever. On a recent episode of Jimmy Fallon (see below for video) Seinfeld walked on stage to deliver a short stand-up routine and was greeted by a prolonged standing ovation. He looked at the host and commented, "very nice. It's nice!" Genuine, truly genuine gratitude.

That's could be the hallmark of his new web video series. Several hours of recorded video is edited down to about 15 minutes of honest conversation, clever observations and touching reveals by Seinfeld and his guest.

It's original! The concept is simple. Jerry asks a friend, usually a comedian, to accompany him for a cup of coffee. Jerry then drives to his guest's house in a car specifically chosen to match the personality of each guest. (Part of the fun is to discover what vehicle Jerry has picked out for that day.) They drive to a coffee shop and talk.

Describing the show doesn't do it justice. You have to check it out for yourself. My favourites are the episodes with Michael Richards (Kramer from Jerry's sitcom) and Mel Brooks. The show just started its second season - the first show of the new set featured the hilarious Sarah Silverman.

I can't wait for today's show which features David Letterman. Check it out. The series is only available on the website - that's right, you don't need cable, or pay channels, just the internet. And all past episodes are still there for you to enjoy, free!

After you watch a few episodes, let me know which one was your favourite.

Seinfeld on Jimmy Fallon (June 17, 2013)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

NASA’s Grand Challenge: Science or Politics?

NASA just announced an initiative to collaborate with scientists and citizens around the world to 

1. search for asteroids that may threaten Earth and

2. develop an asteroid action plan. 

Is this a good thing? While reading the announcement I couldn’t help but think that something isn’t quite right here.


Is this “Grand Challenge” truly a new thing? Prior to today, how did NASA deal with announcements of a near Earth object from external agencies?

Farmer in Kansas: Hi NASA, I just spotted a previously unidentified asteroid on a trajectory that will put it between the moon and Earth? It may be heading straight for us!
NASA receptionist: That’s nice. (click!)

Will the Grand Challenge force this receptionist to put down her nail-file and press the red button to sound the alarm? Unlikely. I suspect NASA already has a long history of treating any credible observation of an asteroid with the respect it deserves. A new Grand Challenge isn't going to change that. 

Additionally, the options for dealing with an imminent threat from space are continuously being explored in science and fiction. I am sure members of NASA watch movies just as much as I do. They must have seen the elaborate attempts at diverting asteroids in films like, “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon.” Some of the brilliant minds at NASA have probably already “Mythbustered” these attempts to determine which of them are “Busted” and which are “Plausible.”


In the announcement NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver states that “we have found 95 percent of the large asteroids near the Earth's orbit.” This sounds like a number they just made up. After all, how could they know that the number of asteroids they currently have identified is equivalent to 95% of the total, without knowing the total?   Even as an estimate, 95% seems irrelevant given that just last week a truck sized asteroid was detected one day before it reached its closest point to Earth. Are we supposed to feel warm fuzzy comfort because only 5% of these extinction level asteroids have yet to be found?

The announcement included a statement from the White House deputy director for technology and innovation Tom Kalil that “… finding asteroid threats, and having a plan for dealing with them, needs to be an all-hands-on-deck effort.” What does that mean? If the White House truly believed that an all-hands-on-deck effort was needed, they would increase NASA funding so more experts in mathematics and physics could systematically search the skies, rather than rely on unpaid, unsystematic, haphazard stargazing.
NASA’s Grand Challenge simply reflects certain truths about space exploration and the current political climate: 
  • Giving space exploration more money is politically not feasible (after all, in the USA, even allocating money to health care is controversial)
  • While getting hit by an asteroid would be bad, getting hit by an asteroid without previous posturing about trying to stop it would be worse.
  • More eyes looking to the skies for an asteroid is a good thing, more eyes doing it for no more money is a better thing
  • Until someone proposes a full-proof plan for destroying or deflecting a near Earth object, with a working prototype of proposed technological innovations and test case data demonstrating efficacy in a real-world situation (in other words until someone actually saves the Earth on their own dime) the four letters that we will turn to when an asteroid is on a collision course will not be N A S A, they will be H O P E.

Monday, June 10, 2013

So Excited! Apple just announced iBooks for Mac

This is exactly what many Apple customers have asked for. Textbooks, magazines, and of course novels purchased through iTunes will soon be accessible, searchable etc. on your computer.

I've been waiting so long for this announcement. So far you could only read books downloaded from Apple's iTunes bookstore on a mobile device like iPhone, iPad or iPod.

This has been a pain since I spend much more time on my Macbook than on my phone. Also the full screen allows for an easier, more pleasant reading experience. Lastly, it just didn't make any sense for an innovative company like Apple that provides an incredible user experience to neglect user preference to read iBooks on their home computer. The soon-to-be released new OSX Mavericks operating system will include iBooks for Mac.

To celebrate, I will soon be making all of my books available on the iBookstore again. I had made them exclusive to Amazon to capitalize on Amazon's kindle select program. That promotion will be over at the end of the week so readers will then be able to download all four books of my scifi series, Socialite 1, onto their Apple devices. Similarly, my murder mystery Good Gladys, which continues to get rave reviews from bloggers around the world, will also soon be available at the iTunes Bookstore.

Read more, live longer!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Five crazy potential developments in Wearable Tech

I've been thinking a lot about new technology and where it is heading as I spent the last two weeks working on the next book in my SciFi series "Socialite". Part of the challenge of writing these books is determining where technology will be in ten or twenty years. One type of device that is sure to see an explosion in development over the next few years is wearable tech. 

Wearable tech is just beginning to gain momentum. Of course there is Google glass - the odd looking eyeglasses that will take a picture when you wink among other things. Nike, Motorola and many other companies have bracelets that monitor your heart rate and track your fitness progress in miles or reps. There are also clip-on pedometers and things you stuff in your shoe. One aspect of these technologies I don't like is that they are add-ons - something else you have to remember to grab as you race to pick up the kids or catch the train. We already have too much to remember to take with us. Wearable tech, for the most part is something else we'll forget at home and get annoyed with over time.

Often these devices don't even look appealing. For example, I hate the look of the Google Glass - I bet they made it so weird as a form of advertisement for Google. I appreciate the technology, but wish they designed it to be non-obtrusive, blending in with existing glasses, still functional, but not so much … in your face.

The same goes for the bracelets, watches, belt clips. Why not make the tech a part of the items we already wear?

To that end, I propose 5 Wearable Tech devices that make your life easier by being part of your regular wardrobe.

1. The techie tie

I guess it could also be a techie scarf, but for now we'll stick with the businessman's tie. It looks just like a regular tie, comes in a variety of styles and colours. Its large surface area is perfect for a faintly lit, touch activated bluetooth keyboard to appear on its surface. Even if you don't want another keyboard, you'll still appreciate the huge storage capacity of the battery that occupies the immense volume of the tie's interior. Who wouldn't want a readily available backup power source - plug in your smartphone and recharge!

2. Mood tuque

It monitors the heat rising from your head and your movements to assess your moment to moment mood. You can set it to change colour based on your mood or to send updates to Twitter when your mood changes. Integrated GPS could result in posts like, "I am hot and bothered at the 1st Ave Dairy Queen." Sure to generate a following!

3. Locator Belt

Belts are a part of everyone's wardrobe. And like a tie, they have a big surface area and volume to exploit. Belts also wrap around the person, making them ideal to be used as a locator. Currently companies like Hitachi and Murata offer Radio tags (RFID tags) small enough to be placed on almost anything. Imagine embedded tags in your keys, your wedding ring, the television remote. Tell the Locator Belt that you can't find your keys and the portion of the belt closest to the keys vibrates, orienting you in the right direction. Get closer to the tag, and it vibrates faster.

4. Sniffer shirt

Not only is it embarrassing when you realize that your deodorant didn't last the whole day, it's annoying for everyone around you when you don't realize it. "Nose Tech" is currently used mostly for explosive and drug detection in places like airports but as all tech is trending toward miniaturization it shouldn't take long for manufacturers to devise a shirt with integrated sensors for moisture and unpleasant odours in the underarm area. A text sent to your phone that says, "YOU ARE RIPE!" will help you avoid becoming a water-cooler gossip topic.

5. Porous Pants

Imagine you are at a tense meeting in a hot stuffy boardroom craving relief from the heat. Press an inconspicuous button on your pants and instantly the pant fibres expand slightly, allowing more airflow to reach the skin on your legs. This may not be too far fetched. Piezoelectric polymers that respond to electricity by expanding or contracting have been around for decades. PVDF, for example, is extensively used in sensors and other electronic devices, and is manufactured in all shapes and sizes, including as fine threads. Pants integrating such fibres could put airflow manipulation under user control. While everyone else swelters during stressful negotiations, you would be cool, calm and in total control.

Bonus #6 - Smart Purse

Actually, I'd be shocked if no one already thought of this. Most women carry their purses everywhere so it's an obvious choice for integrating many of the features that I listed above. Purses should include a backup power source that charges the phone sitting within. It could also display a full keyboard when desired like the techie tie. It should do GPS linked instant Twitter postings like, "Hey, I'm chilling at Starbucks!" Its 3-D shape would be ideal for multi-dimensional locator functions - pick up your purse, press a button and it leads you to your keys! With all of these functions, the man-purse might finally become a must have item as well.

So the possibilities really are endless for the future of wearable tech. What would you like to see on store shelves in the near future?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Research and Writing: Sharing discoveries

Research is an integral part of the writing process. Many of the components in the scenes I am writing come from my daily reading. Sometimes research is directed toward answering a specific question that arose while building a scene. More often it merely adds to the growing "things that would be cool in a novel" list. I spend a couple hours each day reading online: news, science, tech, politics etc. I thought I would share some of more interesting bits and pieces. I am sure that some of these things will stick in my head and eventually find a home in one of my novels.

1. smartphones with a dumb flaw

We've known for  a long time about "spyware" on smartphones that record the keystrokes typed into the phone. Creepy, yes, but also great fodder for a fiction writer! An article just came out is even more unsettling. It seems that smartphones automatically store everything you type in a special database, an unencrypted treasure holding everything that you entered on your phone.

In retrospect the existence of such a database shouldn't be surprising. Typing on one of those things is seriously simplified by the intelligent, learning software that each manufacturer has included with the device. The more you type, the easier typing becomes as the phones learn your habits of wordchoice. How? By accessing the database of your previous typing behaviour. The "dumb flaw" isn't the existence of the database, it's the fact that it is unencrypted. Encryption comes in many forms, but essentially it makes the information harder for a thief to use. If they gain access, encrypted data is unreadable. Encryption is older than me. It's been around for decades and continuously gets better. Apple, Google, Blackberry etc. should have included it to protect their customers, but apparently they didn't.  Clever, mischievous and most likely criminal app designers could include code in a smartphone app and gain access to this database, and therefore to every password, search topic etc that you have entered on the phone.

2. Apple applies for patent to enable iphone to predict your needs:

Again much of this isn't new or unexpected. Apple's latest patent would enable the iPhone to automatically brighten or dim, become silent or louder and many other things in appropriate situations. The phone would essentially "learn" your needs at certain times, in certain places. How? Again, the information of your past behaviour has to be stored somewhere. Based on their history with the keystroke database, we can assume that this data will also be unencrypted and susceptible to theft.

These two capabilities offer some interesting options for a fiction writer. What would a thief do with such information, beyond just the obvious choice of accessing your bank accounts and robbing you blind? Imagine if they could also modify the data stored on the device. Instead of having the phone simplify the users life, a prankster could have it do the opposite: alarms could go off during meetings, it could dim in dark lighting or use precious battery life unnecessarily all day long. I'm sure their are clever app developers already planning on taking advantage of this new insight into the lives of phone owners. If you had access to such information how would you use it?