November 29, 2010

Lying to The Mentalist


At first glance, Lie to Me and The Mentalist seem complementary opposites, the former left-brained and "scientific," the latter right-brained and instinctual. In fact, the "science" is sketchy in either case. They're really both about emotive superheroes, like those empathic aliens from Star Trek. The true differences lie elsewhere.

I've warmed to Lie to Me as I've cooled to The Mentalist. It took a season of Lie to Me for Tim Roth to figure out his character, for the writers to figure out Tim Roth, and to whittle down the cast and decide what they're doing there. But the improvements have been for the better, and the show's gotten smarter as a result.

A ongoing drama series needs a good thesis statement. On House it's "Everybody lies." On Lie to Me it's "But their body language tells the truth." The clearer the thesis statement, the easier it is for writers to produce good scripts. Unfortunately, the opposite is just as true. The thesis statement for The Mentalist?

Maybe someting like, "All the world's a stage." But the argument is never made or countered. There's no conflict where the conflict ought to be focused.

This made the premise predictable and the casting confused. But Simon Baker fits the part so well I've been willing to give it a pass, just as I stuck with CSI: Miami longer than it deserved to watch David Caruso do his excellent B-movie noir thing. After a while, though, the sum of the parts leaves a rancid aftertaste that's hard to stomach.

There is a point where, no matter how talented, the lead can no longer carry a show past its flaws.

The first and worst narrative mistake in The Mentalist is the diabolical mastermind plot device. The Dark Knight was ruined by it, and Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man II were made lesser movies by it. It's a disease of modern storytelling that makes the villains in hoary old James Bond flicks look good by comparison.

Hey, Hollywood writers, stop trying to remake The X-Files and Silence of the Lambs! You're not smart enough! As a result, the antagonists aren't smart. Everybody else is dumb. Coming up with two dozen strokes of brilliance a year is impossible. The decline of The Mentalist is typical: start smart, grow progressively lamer.

Too many "mind games" consist of little more than baldly entrapping a suspect who behaves more like a badly-programmed automaton.

The inherent advantage of science and medical shows like Bones and House is that there's a lot more knowledge in the world than there are geniuses. Lacking brain power, unbelievable luck becomes a substitute for intelligence, like Lister's "good luck virus" in Red Dwarf. Deus ex machina powers at the fingertips.

My advice is to stick to ordinary crimes solved in interesting ways. When CSI: Las Vegas goes back to the basics--revealing the mundane demons of human nature through empiricism and flashes of insight--is when it gets good again.

The Mentalist also makes the same mistake that Dutcher made in Brigham City. To create an "interesting" protagonist, he placed the character arc behind him. True, too much character arc turns a show into a soap, which is just as bad.

But knowing that down in his psyche resides a core of ordinariness makes a quirky protagonist come alive. Now, as Kate argues, a character can have a static arc that never progresses. Except we can easily imagine Columbo, for example, going home at the end of the episode. Even superheroes have the dry cleaning to pick up.

That's not true of Patrick Jane.  Not only does he have no arc, he evaporates after the closing credits. Based on what the viewer is presented with, his life is mind-numbingly dull and pointless.

Better casting could compensate, but Kang's Cho is the only character who has mental chemistry with Jane, a kind of left-brained Spock to Jane's right-brained Spock. Otherwise, this Spock has no McCoy. He's a House without a Foreman and a Wilson. Sherlock Holmes rises to his best when Watson really challenges him.

Cho is also the only law enforcement officer who belongs in a so-called "CBI."

I expect shows about ostensibly competent professionals to feature them doing things competently and professionally. What's the rest of the CBI staff doing there? CSI: Miami jumped the shark for me when it resorted to moronic malfeasance to gin up drama. The Mentalist has skirted out-and-out incompetence so far, but only barely.

Okay, they hung a lampshade on the Rigsby/Van Pelt romance from the start, maybe to get it out of the way. But professional it isn't. Sadly stereotypical it was. This season especially, Robin Tunney does nothing for me. She's phoning in a Dr. Cutty routine. Aunjanue Ellis (Hightower) outshines her when they're on screen together.

Besides, what does Lisbon actually do other than scold? A smart stroke of casting on Bones was Tamara Taylor as Cam, a superior Brennan has to report to, and a competent medical examiner in her own right (though they have a bad habit of making her play dumb when Booth isn't around so the other squints can explain stuff to her, meaning us).

I'm cottoning to the idea that Jane is the diabolical mastermind, a more sociopathic Dexter (talk about your unreliable narrators!). But that's definitely not prime time material. So the nihilism at the heart of the show sits there, growing stale even as it drags down the drama like an old boat anchor.

A few seasons ago, Bones wandered down the diabolical mastermind path and nearly wrecked the show. The next season they pared down the cast, reaffirmed the premise, and got things back on course. It could be done with The Mentalist too, and pretty easily. But that thesis needs articulating.

Related posts

The Big Bad
Superbad is superboring

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November 25, 2010

What sells an ebook


I remain intrigued by the fact that, helped along by the "free spree," The Path of Dreams had 2118 total Amazon downloads for October, while A Man of Few Words had 1900. And yet paid sales of the latter continue to outstrip the former ten to one.

It seems that people were more willing take a chance on the "exotic" looking The Path of Dreams when the opportunity cost was zero, but are more willing to actually pay for the familiar A Man of Few Words (this was true even when they were priced the same).

Joe Konrath emphasizes the importance a good story, a good blurb, a good cover, and a low price in making the sale. And like Dean Smith, a solid backlist.

The best promotion you can do is just get another product up and write more. And do better covers and better blurbs.

I would add that a recognizable fit with an identifiable genre can substitute for a backlist.

In the case of A Man of Few Words and The Path of Dreams, it seems that the cover and the blurb and the cost can lead the metaphorical horse to the water, but it's the content that makes it drink. Or to get more meta, it's the genre and thus the predictability of the content.

A Man of Few Words falls somewhere between fan fiction, criticism, and romance literature. It has a built-in audience, just as people who gravitate to Baen Books will read more books from Baen. Want to sell lots of books? Here's my big insight: write books that lots of people want to read.

When it comes to Mormon publishers, one other variable comes into play: orthodoxy. Cross that line, and you can end up losing the very market you wrote for. Except that exiting that no-man's-land, you've then got to find something that appeals to the secular market instead.

Angel Falling Softly also sells more Kindles than the rest of the Zarahemla books I handle (though, again, not as many as A Man of Few Words). People get vampires. They don't get Mormons.

UPDATE: cross-posted at TeleRead.

Related posts

Amazon innovates
Bringing the pirates on board
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eBook suicide

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November 22, 2010

Money for nothing


As I blogged here and here, during the first week of October, Amazon priced the Kindle versions of A Man of Few Words and The Path of Dreams at zero. Downloads shot through the digital roof--up by a factor of almost twenty for the former, and close to a thousand for the latter.

These gob-smacking numbers (well, for me) prompted two questions: 1) Does free sell? 2) How willing is Amazon to loss lead to promote the Kindle platform (will Amazon pay royalties on the list price)? Well, I've gotten the October sales report and the answers are: "Yes" and "Very."

Granted, we're talking a few hundred dollars in royalties measured against billions in revenue. But Amazon constantly discounts titles like this, not to mention the hit it was taking before the New York publishers threw a temper tantrum and demanded that Amazon charge more for their books.

How do you get them to discount your book? No idea. It came completely out of the blue. I speculated before that Amazon could be price-matching books offered for free elsewhere, such as at Smashwords and B&N. Except that Amazon paid royalties based on the list price, not the sales price.

Sales have slowed drastically since the free period expired, but were still up over previous months. For the rest of October, The Path of Dreams sold 14 copies--as many as I'd sold the whole rest of the year to that point. A Man of Few Words came close to doubling paid sales from September.

And that was after, mostly for simplicity's sake, I raised the price of The Path of Dreams to $2.99 to keep it in line with the other novels I handle on my account (the novellas are still $.99). Pushing a novel up the Amazon sales ranking can clearly make a big difference in subsequent sales.

And here the Matthew Effect rears its paradoxical head: you sell more books by selling more books. Though Dean Smith reassuringly points out that because ebooks never expire or take up shelf space, you're better off calming down, building your backlist, and playing the long game.

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November 18, 2010

I Want To Bite


One of my recent yaoi light novel translations has garnered some nice reviews at Amazon, which is always reassuring to see. Both I Want to Bite (I originally stuck a "you" at the end of that) and Better than a Dream are well-constructed novels, following dramatic arcs just as McKee prescribes (which goes to show that storytelling universals are indeed universal).

Though even as I was translating them, I couldn't help musing over the hetero possibilities. Better Than A Dream, in particular, could be tweaked a half dozen different ways, from a steamy Harlequin to a feel-good Hallmark postcard melodrama. And I Want To Bite could easily be turned into a reverse Buffy (she's the vampire). Hasn't anybody done that yet?

Once slash becomes mainstream, isn't the radical thing then to unslash the slash?

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November 15, 2010

Bringing the pirates on board


Only a tiny fraction of the almost $4 billion manga market in Japan is licensed and published in the U.S. every year (to say nothing of the backlist). As a result, websites that host "scanlated" (scanned and translated) manga have become a major source of supply to meet the growing demand by manga fans.

Acknowledging the considerable sweat equity contributed by these literary pirates, Hikaru Sasahara, CEO of Digital Manga Publishing, is offering a path to legitimacy by outsourcing the localization of manga to these same "scanlators." An opportunity to work on duly acquired properties for a share of the profits.

[Digital Manga Publishing] will work with the localizers and the publishers. [DMP will monitor] the quality of the finished product. We all agree to get paid via revenue shar[ing] when the books are read online, or sold as print editions. We all share in the revenue.

Sasahara has also proposed a new licensing model, stating that "tedious negotiations" with "very slow" companies and "prohibitively expensive" licensing fees, not piracy, are the biggest impediments to growing the U.S. market. Under the new model, publishers will also agree to take a percentage on the back end.

Sasahara explains this new publishing arrangement in an online video at the website hosting this new effort. [Disclosure: I freelance for DMP as a novel translator under the traditional work-for-hire model.]

UPDATE: Sasahara describes how the project is proceeding as of 12/7/10.

Related posts

Digital hoarders and literary snobs
eBook suicide
What the market will bear

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November 11, 2010

Old wine, new bottles


The real problem with CFLs--besides exposing the hypocrisy of environmentalists who have suddenly discovered the wisdom of regulating toxic materials at threshold, rather than detectable, amounts (though that might be a benefit)--is that their wide adoption encourages political busybodies to imagine that mandating a technology can make it an economic reality.

Rather, you can "mandate" something after it's been proved economically feasible. Fluorescent lighting technology has been economically feasible for fifty years.

A good example of a mandated failure is Japan's analog HDTV system, lauded as forward-thinking in the 1980s when everything Japan did was proof that whatever the U.S. was doing sucked (though that was true about the automobile industry). It ended up an expensive and wasteful white elephant. The U.S. implemented digital HDTV a year ahead of Japan.

There's a lot to be said for not rushing to embrace cutting-edge technologies. The CFL is based on quite old technology that now thrives through improvements in materials science and manufacturing (and, yes, regulatory capture). When I lived in Japan thirty years ago, the not-so-compact CFL was ubiquitous--because it was economical, not because it was "green."

Electricity in Japan is twice as expensive as the U.S. (and even more when factored as a percentage of real income in 1980; if you thought the oil shocks of the early 1970s were shocking in the U.S., they were heart-stopping in Japan). The same goes for automobile fuel efficiency. An old but refined technology like diesel blows away ultra-modern hybrids in raw MPG.

The Japanese make and drive fuel-efficient cars because gas costs twice as much and the registration fees and taxes on large engines ("large" meaning over a paltry 1.6 liters) are ten times as much, not because of government mandates. In fact, higher CAFE standards lower the cost of driving. Making something cheaper does not encourage its conservation.

Over the last quarter century, total vehicle-miles-driven in the U.S. has climbed three times faster than population growth and twice as fast as auto registrations. The only things that temporarily flatten the curve are big honking increases in the price of gasoline and big honking recessions.

Politicians can't raise the price of gas or tax vehicles to levels that would change the behavior of their constituents in meaningful ways (and get reelected), so they tell tall tales that only apply to hypothetical worlds where nobody lives. We go along with the charade because it makes us feel good. It's a substitute for religion--though tithing would be cheaper.

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November 08, 2010

Lights out


I mentioned previously that the television picture tube was the last true vacuum tube made for consumer electronics. At the same time, the household appliance department has seen huge growth in a specialized type of gas-filled vacuum tube: the CFL.

They've gotten to the good enough and cheap enough stage that I use quite a few. I just picked up some 100 watt-equivalents for a buck a piece at Home Depot.

Make cars more efficient and we drive them more. Make light cheap and we'll produce more light (that sounds very New Age). My kitchen nook doesn't have windows, so rather than turning the light off, turning it back on, turning it off--oh, screw it, leave it on. They're CFLs!

Except that CFLs don't like the heat generated in enclosed fixtures, which is what my kitchen has. Before long the CFL starts having an existential crisis: Am I on? Am I off? Should I come on right away or take a while? I'm alive! No, I'm dead. I'm alive! Argh, I'm dyyiinngg.

I end up replacing them with incandescents, but those nickles and dimes start to add up. Because I'm lazy and like gadgets, I bought myself some economizing behavior in a box: a Heath Zenith SL-6105 motion sensor, $13 online at Walmart (that was the price a week ago).

Installation is the same as a standard wall switch, using wire nuts. Considering the price, I'll trust the electronics but not so much the mechanical parts. The timer screw, for example, has to be adjusted very gingerly to avoid the always-on or 5 second test mode setting.

Most of the complaints on Amazon about the SL-6105 is that it doesn't work with CFLs. That's because its solid-state relay trickles a high-impedance current that conventional bulbs ground, but is just enough to charge an electronic ballast, causing the CFL to strobe.

A electromechanical relay would fix this, but the paradox of integrated electronics is that old-fashioned mechanical devices like relays are bulky and expensive. The easier solution is to pair an incandescent with a CFL. Or just screw in a cheap incandescent.

Hey, who cares about conservation? I've got a motion sensor!

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November 04, 2010

Election Day sheep


In Utah's senate race, I voted for Mike Lee. I liked Bob Bennett--if Obama had embraced the actually bipartisan Wyden-Bennett plan, his party might have fared better--but the attitude that politicians, themselves the offspring of politicians, have a "right" to a seat is repugnant.

Of course, that's also true of Mike Lee (son of former Solicitor General Rex Lee), though at this point nobody's saying it was owed him.

True, Bob Bennett never claimed that, and seemed genuinely hurt by the rejection, but a lot of status quo establishment types sure did. Those foolish children disrespecting their wise elders. Well, that's democracy for you. The political mop is often as messy as the mess its cleaning up.

What makes a democratic system rugged is that it's self-correcting, not that it never makes mistakes. And incidentally, it's advise and consent, not a gladiatorial thumbs up or thumbs down. Short of felonious behavior, presidents (of either party) should get the cabinet officers they want.

That's what elections are for. By the way, if you can't stand the biennial electioneering ad onslaught, come here to Utah County. The fights are in the primaries and things calm down afterward. I'm all for gerrymandering reform, but some districts will always be solidly red or blue.

I voted the Libertarian ticket for governor. A futile gesture, but here in the third district, Utah's gubernatorial race was the only boorish one on the ballot. The Republican Herbert has governed well enough that he wasn't going to lose in any case, so only a temporary pox on their houses.

Anyway, I was in and out in ten minutes (the touch screens worked fine). I got home and glanced across the street and said, "That's a funny looking dog."

It wasn't a dog. It was a sheep. Two sheep. A ewe and lamb, I surmised. I did a double-take. And then did another one. A guy--straight out of central casting, barrel chest and bib overalls and all--comes around the fourplex kitty-corner mine and waves his hat and shouts, "Git on home!"

He had a dog with him. The dog's attitude was, "Good grief, this is embarrassing. Your problem, bud, not mine."

Now, I live in a working-class neighborhood that's mostly fourplexes and condos, with a few single family homes mixed in, abutting strip malls and two highly-trafficked roads on the south and west. Not sheep farm country.

I've noticed a horse paddock in a residential neighborhood a couple of blocks west of State Street--some sort of grandfathered zoning variance for agricultural property. So maybe somebody around here keeps sheep. Or a 4-H exhibition at the nearby elementary school went awry.

And in fine Wallace and Gromit fashion, two sheep made a bolt for freedom!

The sheep trotted nonchalantly into the back yard directly across from my place. Farmer Joe ran after them and they nonchalantly trotted back and then disappeared behind another fourplex. I waited for a couple of minutes but didn't see them again, so they must have headed west.

Those sheep would not be shepherded! I'm sure that's a metaphor for something.

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November 01, 2010

Japan takes off (with or without us)


Steve Sailer notes that "Japan [from 1601 to 1852] was not taking off, accelerating, the way Europe did, with Britain increasingly in the lead, especially with the Industrial Revolution. Japan was much farther behind the West in 1852 than in 1601." So, he asks, "Without the West, would Japan have yet achieved science and the Industrial Revolution?"

I left a few comments, but here's my long answer.

The isolationism of the Edo Period lasted as long as it did was because the Tokugawa shoguns were so good at doing what they did. The Darwinian contest of the previous Warring States Period, combined with a fairly rational (for its time) feudal order and a high literacy rate pretty much left the best and the brightest in charge.

And later on, a blind eye was turned toward supposedly prohibited movement (up and down) between the classes.

Successful merchants bought themselves samurai credentials and samurai married into merchant families to bail out their flagging fortunes (the muko-iri marriage allowed a lower-class groom to marry a upper-class bride and take her surname). This replenished the gene pool and dampened frustrations over social mobility and primogeniture.

In Japan, Mr. Bennet would have found for his eldest daughter a man of means but with a slightly lower social status and adopted him into the family.

Japan staved off Malthusian pressures with infanticide and the occasional famine, which reduced the number of restless, unlanded sons running around starting revolutions.(1) As a result, the Edo Period is now regarded with great nostalgia. The Edo Period melodrama occupies the same cultural space as the American western and is a staple of Japanese television.

One reason Japanese don't worry that much about the "birth dearth" is that, hey, the Edo Period wasn't half bad! So maybe a Japan with half as many people would be an improvement! But this kind of contentment is inimical to "progress."

Satisfied citizens and competent bureaucracies do not prompt paradigms to shift, just as unstressed ecosystems tend not to promote evolution. However, by the early 19th century, the Tokugawa's hold on power was growing frayed. Inbreeding took its toll. Powerful domains like Satsuma chafed under the draconian trading restrictions, or simply ignored them.

The governor of Satsuma married his adopted daughter into the Tokugawa line. When that failed to change the political tides, Satsuma joined forces with the even more fractious Choshu, and the emperor (still a puppet in Kyoto) was convinced to do the unheard-of equivalent of dissolving parliament, with the promise of holding real power in the new government.

The Tokugawa regime subsequently collapsed in one of the shortest, most decisive civil wars in history.

Perry's arrival was the straw the broke the camel's back. But it'd been creaking for decades. The adventurous curiosity of the Meiji Era reformers--some of the most brilliant minds of the age traveled around the world gathering all the political ideas, science and technology they could lay their hands on--would have perhaps erupted later, but inevitably.

At which point those enormous reservoirs of pragmatism allowed the Japanese to make up a two hundred year industrial and technological deficit in a single generation.



1. The irony here is that Japan kept out of the Malthusian trap during its isolationist phase only to fall into one at the end of the 19th century, when the government started encouraging emigration to South America and the colonization of Manchuria. Japan's Lebensraum problem, more substantive than Germany's and similarly poisoned by a political ideology that was more a state religion, led to WWII.

Having learned its lesson, Japan's post-war baby boom was much shorter in duration than America's, which is why Japan is aging so quickly now. [return]

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