Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tiny tales of technology: Flash drives

The other week a writer friend took what looked to be a small, striped toiletry bag out of her leather purse, unzipped it and dumped its contents on the table. An array of flash drives poured out, in an assortment of neon colors, looking like so many flattened lipstick tubes. She said she backs up all her writing on these flash drives, color coded according to the type of writing, and carries them with her everywhere because she doesn't trust computers. 

"But what if you're mugged," I asked.
"Then I'd still have it on my computer."

"What if your house burns down the same day you're mugged?" I asked.

"Then I would be in a lot of  trouble," she replied.

This has inspired me to find a less home-based method of backup. I'm thinking of putting all my writing from all my computers and external hard drives onto one mega-flash drive and locking it up in a safety deposit box, at least until that thumb-size technology is eclipsed by something else.

Why I'm not buying an e-reader

I am not going to buy a Kindle. Not even if print newspapers disappear and "print" news is available only on such a device. Not even if paperbacks and hardcovers go away and all new books are issued electronically.

My obstinance in this regard is not from a tactile need to feel and smell a paper book, nor because I love getting black ink on my hands every morning when I read the Washington Post. The reason I won't buy a Kindle is the same reason I never buy anything but Dollar Store sunglasses anymore: I'm sure I would lose it. I would set it down on a Metro seat or leave it at someone's house and that would be the end of it. Not such a bad thing when you lose a paperback book that costs five bucks, but near tragic when the device you're reading it on costs more than $100.

Perhaps it is because I am a kleptomaniac when it comes to pens—my drawers are full of pens I've permanently borrowed from stores (to sign credit card receipts, etc.) and from friends—that the universe requires a balance. Thus, I constantly lose sunglasses. So many sunglasses that I now buy five to ten cheap pairs at the start of the summer, and feel lucky if I can get to the end of the summer with one pair left.

So, when the Kindle sells for a dollar, or it's as cheap as a pen and friends don't mind too much if I absently take it from them, I'll be glad to have one, no matter how temporary.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I am Big Brother

Although I vowed in a November post (Blog site counters—or spyware?)  that I wouldn’t use Sitemeter here, not long afterwards I added it to this blog. It’s the little green box at the bottom of the screen.

The information that Sitemeter provides was just too alluring. Among its many features are:

• a world map that shows the location where this blog’s readers were the moment they looked at it;
• which posting(s) they looked at;
• how long they looked at the posting (it’s disappointing to see that many readers only look at this blog for “0 seconds,” although that seems humanly impossible);
• the search terms they used to get to it; and
• the referring web sites that sent them here.

In case you're wondering why you don't see all of these things when you look at Sitemeter, I’ve blocked access to this info to the outside world.

Through Sitemeter’s World Map feature I see that in April alone I’ve had anonymous readers from more than eight countries including Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, Indonesia and India. (However, to be perfectly honest, many of the readers from other countries account for the “0 seconds” searches.) This is something I never achieved in my days as the publisher of a very small magazine. I had a few foreign subscribers, but not from such a breadth of countries. However, one might argue that my magazine subscribers really wanted to read the product; it was not something they just happened to click on, or which showed up in a list of search results. They actually paid for it, including the additional cost of international postage.

Sitemeter’s “By Referrals” feature has shown me which web sites have linked to my blog. This is something that cannot be easily found with a Google search, and which other bloggers seem to do quietly on their own. (I’ll list these in a separate post someday since I’d like to acknowledge and thank them).

It’s also through Sitemeter that I’ve discovered that I may never live down the “Beautiful Poem” I wrote on poetry.com—someone searching for “poems on flatulence” found my blog posting about that silly submission.

But Sitemeter gives me a little too much information sometimes. If a friend from Wyoming told me that he or she looks at my blog, I’d know they are lying—the Sitemeter World Map shows no readers from Wyoming. I try not to use Sitemeter to spy on people I know who may have looked at my blog, though sometimes I discover it accidentally.

The too-much-information category would also include details on what kind of computer system the person was using (Mac or Windows), the names of businesses and organizations in whose computers the person typed the search (if they didn't do it at home), and what their Internet provider is. The worst example of this is that I know that in April, someone at a specific YMCA in a specific town in Connecticut searched for “HBO real sex lick it” and wound up looking briefly at my essay, On getting free HBO for a month.

Sitemeter is quietly gathering all this information to use as I wish. I won’t use most of it. All I'm really curious about is how people find this blog. But I wonder, as I said in my previous post, who else might be gathering and looking at such information and for what purposes they might use it.  Perhaps there is a hidden cost to so much free information on the Internet, especially when it's being distributed by sinister or greedy people.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Markets for flash fiction

At the flash fiction seminar I went to last Saturday, which was part of the Conversations and Connections conference in D.C., the panelists mentioned the following markets for flash fiction. (I've looked up all the links, so you won't have to!):

Alice Blue

Vestal Review

[Note: These are current as of April 12, 2009. I am not planning to update the list anytime soon, but let me know if you find a dead link and I'll update or eliminate the listings, as needed. Also, I have listed these in alphabetical order; the panelists shouted out the titles as they thought of them; the list does not differentiate according to audience, genre, reputation, etc.]

Someone at the seminar also mentioned Duotrope as a search engine useful to writers. However, I checked the Duotrope list of markets for short fiction, and did not see some of the publications listed above, so use it as an additional but not exhaustive source for flash fiction markets.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Flash (in the pan) fiction?

Perhaps it was ironic—or appropriate—that I read from The Collected Stories of John Cheever during my train ride yesterday morning to a Flash Fiction seminar.

Cheever has gotten a lot of new press recently because of Cheever: A Life, the biography by Blake Bailey that was published last month. (In his review of the book, Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post pronounced Cheever "A Good Writer, Bad Man.") I wanted to revisit his stories, but the other reason I grabbed the book on the way out the door is that it's one of the few short story collections I have in a small paperback, which I can easily slip into my pocketbook.

Compared to Cheever's 23-page (and in tiny print) "Goodbye, My Brother," some of the flash and especially the micro fiction that was read at the seminar seemed like scenes from a short story, or just descriptive paragraphs. If Cheever's story can be compared to a long, handwritten letter, flash fiction would be a one-screen email message and micro fiction would be a Twitter. (I'm not sure where a blog post fits in here since it usually lacks the intention and the craft of even the shortest flash fiction).

That's not to say that I dislike flash fiction. Some of the flash fiction pieces I've read have been really powerful. And I probably would have liked what I heard yesterday morning more if I hadn't just read two long Cheever short stories. It's just that the juxtaposition was too sudden for me. I also have a sinking feeling that flash fiction may be the Twittering of literature.

With accessibility to vast stores of electronic entertainments and packaged information, and with people communicating with each other through text messages, Facebook status lines and Twitters, I think it's harder to sit down and read more than a few pages at a time. I do my best reading now when I am captive somewhere—the train, the doctor's office, waiting on a child's activity. Otherwise, I get too restless after reading a few pages, thinking there's something else I ought to do, some information or activity I might be missing out on.

I should have read Middlemarch when I was young, before everyone had computers and before I had kids; now I can't sit myself down long enough to read it. I've tried a few times, but each time, after a few pages, I say, "Oh, just get on with it..." and I put the book away again. The best I can hope for is to watch an adaptation of it on Masterpiece Theatre someday.

Its first paragraph, which begins:
MISS BROOKE had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters...
is 601 words, is about the length of most flash fiction stories, and serves mainly as a leisurely, extravagant description of Miss Brooke. It doesn't "set up the story," as writing teachers command their fiction students to do these days, except perhaps in the mention that Miss Brooke is orphaned. I can't imagine having the time to write that much detail, knowing that there would be readers eager to read every word of it.

Using a water metaphor, since Cheever's stories often have swimming, if "Goodbye, My Brother" is like swimming luxuriously across the rim of a lake, flash fiction seems more like a quick walk-in, or dip of the toe. It's the same water, the same chill temperature on the skin, the same summer day and blue sky. Is it better to try to fully describe the day, who else is swimming there, what events led to the day—or to concisely describe one intense moment there? I don't know.

Even with my misgivings about flash fiction as short-attention-span literature, I'm still interested in reading and writing it, but it would feel lazy if it's the only fiction I read and write. And I hope it's not the only fiction that will be written and read in the future.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Where will all the newspaper reporters go when the newspapers go away?

Apparently, it seems, to the Web, and to the blogosphere.

Recent news stories have been describing news reporters who have started their own blogs and/or web sites. The articles I’ve read so far have seemed cheerful, hopeful—perhaps the reporters who are writing these pieces want to see blogging as their own backup plan, their next career. Here are some I've read about recently:
  • Geoff Dougherty, a former Chicago Tribune reporter, got in on this trend early, in 2005, when he started the Chi-Town Daily News. He left on the Tribune of own accord, before its recent bankruptcy. Dougherty sees Internet publishing as a way to keep local news coverage after (he thinks) the regional newspapers disappear and only a few national dailies will remain. He now has a paid staff as well as volunteers. But, according to a recent Washington Post story, most of the money for his venture so far is coming from foundations and donors.

  • Former reporters from the recently defunct Rocky Mountain News have started  INDenverTimes, a beta web site that they hope to offer as a full-service news site if they can conjure enough subscribers to keep it going. The site calls itself "A Vision Based on a 150-year tradition." News on the site will continue to be free but its writers' blogs will be available only with a subscription.  According to the web site's FAQ page, subscribers will also have access to "Insight, perspective, live blogging, live chatting, commenting, interactivity with writers and other readers." An interesting model—having readers pay for the blogs, but offering the news for free. Subscriptions are $60/year or three months for $21. That's still cheaper than my print edition of the Washington Post, which is around $30/month, but I don't see how they are going to convince people to pay for something that people have grown to believe should be free.

  • Some reporters who were let go from the Seattle Post Intelligencer are creating their own web spaces and blogs that feature their fields of expertise. For example, the former food writer and restaurant critic has a blog called Eat All About It; the former children's book reviewer has a blog called Cover to Cover Kids, which currently lists 11 followers.  At the same time, the Intelligencer, which stopped publishing a print edition in March, is Web-only and now features staff and readers' blogs, as well as a prominent column of online advertising.
Is there going to be any money in these new kind of online ventures? From my limited experience, no. I haven't made a cent from blogging, despite my insertions of Google ads and Amazon widgets on my other blog (I've resisted putting them here). Readers want to read, not click on ads; or, they're like a friend of mine who is afraid to click on the ads because she worries if she is downloading viruses or making herself vulnerable to future spam mail.

And, who is going to read all these blogs, anyway? (She wrote in a post on her "Writing Home" blog). I am a blogger who rarely reads other blogs myself, since I want to spend my limited free time writing, or reading books or a print newspaper. Where are the readers? Maybe they'll be too busy writing their own blogs, or posting status updates on Facebook. 

It will be interesting to see what is going to happen with print and online media in the next year or so. I can't predict anything, but I have a sinking feeling that there will be more former reporters flooding the blogosphere until we're all sick of blogs and blogging and some, if not many of them, will begin to look for work in other fields.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Nostalgic for newspapers

Are there going to be jobs for newspaper reporters in the near future? Until recently, newspapers were always one of the few reliable sources of employment for writers. If you could write, you could get hired, or at least paid per piece. I know this from experience.

I got my first newspaper job, as a staff correspondent for the Spokane Review, by walking into its Idaho bureau and offering to write about all the teenagers who cruised up and down the main drag of Coeur d’Alene on the weekends. I’m not even sure I showed them clips from my college newspaper (all I had for my portfolio) and I don’t remember meeting with an editor. I was told to go ahead and submit an article. It was accepted and got a two-page spread in the Idaho edition’s tabloid weekend section, complete with photos of the teenage cruisers.

The pay for each article was almost as much as I made working all week as assistant manager at a local bookstore. [At $4.75 an hour, I was bringing home $190/week—around $150 after the government took its cut.] For medium-length articles, the Spokane Review paid $100, and $150 for longer articles. I thought I could get rich if I could write more than one article a week. (This was in the mid-1980s, when the rent for my three-room apartment, with free heat, was $160 a month). But then the cold weather started to get to me, and a longing to return to the South, so my freelance career there ended after only a few months.

A few months later, after a miserable job as a part-time waitress in my hometown—the only job I could find there—I applied to the Winston-Salem Journal for any job they would give me. This was without having a journalism degree and with only a few clippings to show from the Spokane Review. [I didn’t know it at the time, but most reporters hired at regional/mid-range dailies usually came with experience at smaller/local newspapers and/or with graduate journalism degrees in hand.] I was called in, it turned out, only because my hometown was near the bureau office that had had a recent opening and they figured I might know the terrain.

The managing editor at the Journal was an eccentric fellow who usually pulled out a spittoon during employee interviews, to see which potential hires flinched when he spit tobacco juice into it. He also happened to have graduated from Duke with a degree in Classics, so when he saw on my written transcripts from UCSC that I had studied Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he asked if I could recite any of it in Latin—which I did, though I only remembered the first five lines. He called me later and told me that he was hiring me primarily because I knew Ovid. Perhaps I’m the only reporter in the history of newspapers to be hired in this manner. At least he felt the Latin was intimidating enough—he didn't pull out the spittoon on me.

And so I was hired at the marvelous rate of $250 a week, with health (not dental) insurance benefits, the first time I’d had insurance since college, with my salary later raised to $300/week. But eventually, after needing a root canal and a crown and having to pay the dental bill in installments, I realized that maybe $300 a week wasn’t that much after all. Even with renting the cheapest apartment in Boone that I could find—7’ x 9’, with my bed hoisted on top of my chest of drawers to have enough room to walk into it—I was still unable to save any money. So I fled to graduate school, for the comparatively better paying career of librarianship (which I’m not doing now, either).

Yet always, in the back of my mind, I've thought that I could return to writing for newspapers, if needs be. Freelancing had been my backup plan until recent months, when the newspapers that are still around started slashing their staffs and closing bureau offices. A recent article in the Irish Times (of all places) reports the grim statistics for U.S. newspapers:
  • 120 newspapers have shut down in the last year
  • a number of major regional newspapers – including the Los Angeles Times and Philadelphia Inquirer - have filed for bankruptcy.
  • 16,000 American reporters lost their jobs last year
The upside of this is that perhaps newspapers will be in need of more freelance material, since freelancers earn no vacation time, get no benefits. That is, if there are still any newspapers around. Recently, I've mulled the idea of writing an opinion piece about re-living through the recession, but I'm hesitate to cart it around to area newspapers—I'd hate to take space away from any of the news reporters who are still left.