Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Creativity is Radioactive

One of things I wanted to accomplish with my short story collection Shards was to unleash my creativity and push the envelope. I’d grown tired of the same formulaic plots and stories, both in literature, and on television and in movies. I recalled writer Harlan Ellison’s tales about Hollywood producers being unable to grasp creativity. To pitch them an idea for TV series, a writer had to give them a one-sentence tagline that analogized the proposal to a previously successful show. For Gene Roddenberry to sell Paramount on the idea of Star Trek, he had to describe it in terms Hollywood would understand. Wagon Train had been a popular Western show on television at the time, so he pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train in space.” Instead of the wagon train traveling to different towns where adventures would occur, a spaceship would travel to different planets where adventures would occur. The producers nodded and said “Ah.” Now they understood.

Today more than ever, everything in Hollywood is about taking something that was successful and cloning it. Hollywood is all about sequels and spin-offs and recreations of prior successes. Star Trek is a perfect example. Hollywood produced three more television series and umpteen movies and just when you thought they couldn't get anymore milk out of that cash cow, J.J. Abrams was brought in to re-create the show by rebooting the Star Trek universe.

The Hollywood producers do this because they are extremely risk averse. This might sound odd, considering how many millions of dollars they routinely lose on box office flops and TV ratings disasters, but they would rather attempt to re-create a successful concept than back an unproven creative work. Creativity and originality scare them because they don’t come with a track record. If a work is too different, too creative, too original, then it falls so far outside their comfort zone they won’t touch it. Creativity and originality, in their eyes, is radioactive.

What they've lost sight of is, the most successful shows had their genesis in creativity and attempts to re-create originality only result in successive degrees of mediocrity. If creativity truly is radioactive, then attempts to clone it produce mediocre work with its own inherent quality half-lives.

Creativity is often not recognized or understood. As Andy Wachowski, director of the film Cloud Atlas, said, “As soon as (critics) encounter a piece of art they don't fully understand the first time going through it, they think it's the fault of the movie or the work of art. They think, 'It's a mess ... This doesn't make any sense.' And they reject it, just out of an almost knee-jerk response to some ambiguity or some gulf between what they expect they should be able to understand, and what they understand.”

Perhaps the Hollywood producers are, in one respect, correct. Creativity requires the viewer or reader to step outside his or her comfort zone. Sometimes, the viewer or reader simply may not “get it” because the story is so far removed from that individual’s personal life experience. I remember a public reading I did several years ago, and what made it memorable was the fact it was the first time I had been booed by an audience at such an event. I was reading my short story, The Abuser, a first-person tale of a woman suffering through an abusive relationship with her boyfriend. I was only two paragraphs into the reading when the boos and derogatory murmurs bubbled forth from the crowd.

Yet, like Gunga Din I soldiered on, reading the short story to the end. The boos and murmurs had stopped midway through and turned to rapt attention. Still, I was not sure if I had won over my audience. Afterward, a crowd gathered around me and one woman approached me, complaining my story had been totally unrealistic. “No woman would put up with that,” she stated emphatically. “Any woman would have kicked him to the curb in five minutes.” She walked away, and a woman who’d been standing behind her came up to me and said in a voice barely louder than a whisper, “Don’t listen to her; she doesn't know what she’s talking about. You just described ten years of my life.”


Both women had heard the same story and walked away with completely opposite reactions as to its verisimilitude. They had listened with the same ears, but filtered what they heard through vastly different life experiences. For one woman, my writing fell flat; for the other, it had touched her very soul. That doesn't happen when you play it safe and give the reader a retread of familiar ground. When a writer pushes the envelope and boldly goes where no one has gone before, he runs the risk of alienating those who will never “get it”. But creativity is its own reward, and even those who don’t understand a creative work today may one day appreciate it when viewed through the filter of their life experiences yet to come. Beam me up, Scotty.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Standing Up to the Bullies

During this Passover week, Jews leaving their temple in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk were handed a leaflet ordering them to register with the (unrecognized pro-Russian) government, declare their assets, and pay a registration fee or face loss of citizenship and deportation.

Exactly who distributed the leaflets, and why, is uncertain. They might have originated with a pro-Russian separatist group, or they might, as Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed leader whose name appears on them, have been distributed to discredit his group. It could be the work of pro-Russia provocateurs, including those backed by the Russian government itself, or those seeking to discredit them, such as the American CIA or NSA. Or they could be the product of a hate-filled individual or group with no political agenda.  The fact that these leaflets went out is dangerous. Articles like Julia Joffe's in the liberal The New Republic magazine are also dangerous because they are ignorant, insultingly dismissive, and display a failure to comprehend the lessons of history. Joffe's full public display of her impressive ignorance ends with her flippant self-aggrandizing comment: "If that changes, I'll be all over it, but so far, you can breathe easy. No Holocaust 2.0 just yet.")

Snopes.com has the most accurate account, but whether the leaflet came from the government or a provocateur is irrelevant. It serves to fan the flames of anti-Semitism and to make the unthinkable thinkable. History shows this is how it begins. It also shows each time there are complacent, ignorant, or misguided individuals who proclaim "Relax, it could never happen." – as it is already beginning.

History is the most important subject you will ever study because, as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” History has taught us that when America foolishly involves itself in the wrong wars, the American public grows war weary and loses its enthusiasm for participation in future wars. Would-be conquerors know this. After World War I – started over the assassination of an insignificant archduke, with its death toll of 17 million, and another 20 million military and civilian wounded, making it among the deadliest conflicts in human history– war weary Americans turned isolationist and merely watched for two years, as England led the battle against Germany while France fell beneath Nazi jackboots. Americans are easily led into wars by jingoistic and patriotic propaganda, but when they go on for too long and the bodies start coming home in coffins, public sentiment not only turns against the current war but against all future foreign entanglements. We saw it with Vietnam, and we are seeing it again in the post Iraq-Afghanistan era.

Vladimir Putin sees it too. The opportunistic, ex-KGB, Russian president is a master of timing. He has waited 16 years since coming to power for an opportunity like this. He acted boldly and with impunity by annexing Crimea because he knew war weary America had lost its bluster and swagger of the Bush era and eschewed further conflict. Emboldened, Putin has initiated not-so-covert attempts to destabilize the Ukrainian government through local incitement by pro-Russia provocateurs. He saw the reluctance of the American populace and its Congress to follow President Obama’s expressed desire to intervene militarily in Syria, where the civilian death toll has now passed 150,000 men, women, and children.

Putin, like most political observers, has concluded America has entered an isolationist phase, allowing them free reign to do as he pleases, including possibly reconstructing the Soviet Empire from the ashes of history. And that is why, if America truly wishes to be and remain the world’s superpower, it must grit its teeth, suck in its stomach, and do what it finds distasteful and unwelcome. It must stand up to Putin and put all prospective would-be conquerors on notice that America, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, is “unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

Being a superpower isn't about having the biggest battleships or the most nuclear weapons. It’s about being the kid in the schoolyard who stands up to the playground bully. Only now, the bullies have grown up. They still pick on those who are smaller and weaker, but now their aim is to conquer countries or to commit genocide. We don’t have to be a superpower. We could be like Canada or Switzerland and use our great wealth, not for arms, but for domestic improvement. I've often argued we should. But I've lost that argument. For better or worse, like it or not, we have chosen to be a superpower among nations and thus we must live up to that responsibility.

As JFK said, “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it.”

The American Congress, its president, and its people, must unite in principle and challenge Vladimir Putin’s ongoing incursion into Ukraine. If challenged, Putin, like Khrushchev before him, will back down. Unchallenged, his voracious geopolitical hunger will be unchecked, and others will feel free to engage in anti-Semitism, pogroms, and so-called racial cleansing.

President Obama must develop a backbone and echo JFK’s words: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Stretching the Billion Dollar Rubber Band

Meet the poster child for the One Percent. Sheldon Adelson makes $32 million … a day.

Sheldon made his money in computers, casinos, and gambling. He’s the chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation. Some might describe him as a college dropout (City College of New York) who amassed his billions from the moral weakness of his fellow men. Others might call him a shrewd businessman. Or maybe he just had gambler’s luck.

Sheldon’s hobbies include journalism (as a boy, he sold newspapers in Boston; today, he owns the Israeli daily newspaper Israel HaYom); computers (in the late 1970s, he and his partners developed COMDEX, the computer industry trade show); and politics (he spent more than $92 million to help GOP candidates in the 2012 elections).

While $92 million buys a lot of campaign ads, to Sheldon, that’s a drop in the bucket. His net worth is $40.8 billion. If Sheldon Adelson were a country, his net worth would place him at No. 95 out of 183 on the International Monetary Fund’s list of nations ranked by Gross Domestic Product. That’s right, one man, Sheldon Adelson, is worth more than half of the world’s nations.

Now, Sheldon wants to use his money and influence to elect politicians who will support his proposed ban on Internet gambling. GOP candidates are scrambling to announce their disgust at the immoral practice of online gambling, as Sheldon has. Oddly, none, including Sheldon, have condemned offline gambling… an oversight that certainly has nothing to do with the fact that Sheldon owns a worldwide network of casinos.

We must ask two questions: First, Is it good for society for one man to wield so much power and influence that will affect the lives of all of us? Regardless of whether such an individual is well-intentioned or self-serving, should any single person have such power? “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as Machiavelli’s aphorism goes.

Second, Is it right for one individual to rake in $32 million a day – or $4 million per hour during the work day —  while millions of hard-working people struggle to pay their bills, often choosing between food and medicine? No one is begrudging Sheldon’s success; his Horatio Alger story of having made himself into one of the world’s richest men is as admirable as it is remarkable. But, as Jacobean poet and preacher John Donne (1572-1631) wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Every individual is part of something greater than himself – society.

We are all interconnected, as spokes to the hub of society. Like the rest of the One Percenters, Sheldon didn't grow his money on trees; it came to him, through the paychecks of ordinary, middle class men and women. Inside each of his casinos, members of society spent money gambling, served each other drinks and meals, performed as entertainers, and provided the utilities to keep the bright casino lights turned on.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865), a French politician and philosopher, wrote: “The social contract is an agreement of man with man; an agreement from which must result what we call society.” The social contract maintains a balance among members of an interdependent society. Like a rubber band, the contract may be stretched but its elasticity is finite. When the minimum wage worker earns $7.25 an hour while One Percenters like Sheldon Adelson earn $4 million during the same hour, the social contract is precariously out of balance. And we all know what happens when a rubber band is stretched too far.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Time to Pull the Plug on Comcast

Comcast Cable has the worst customer service for Internet subscribers and the second worst customer service for cable TV viewers. Not content to be No. 2 in lousy customer treatment, Comcast is trying hard to be Number One when it comes to being, as spoofed in this NSFW video , the company whose customer service motto is “We Don’t Give a F—k”. In 2013, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) surveyed 70,000 customers to come to that conclusion. Comcast is also No. 2 on MSN Money’s “Customer Service Hall of Shame."

It took me only one experience. I’m going to tell you about my experience with Comcast because right now Comcast is seeking legal permission to merge with Time Warner Cable. Trust me, your cable customer service experience will not improve if the merger is allowed to create a monopolistic entity.

For months now, whenever I come home and turn on TV, the cable signal is frozen on whatever the last channel previously viewed was. I must then call Comcast, push all the right automated  response buttons, and finally agree with the pre-recorded voice to receive a “refresh signal”. This resets my cable converter and unfreezes my channels… after a 30-minute wait. So, after the TV show I wished to see has ended, I’m now free to tune in to that channel.

I finally talked to a live Comcast representative – in the Philippines, of course, because with U.S. unemployment rampant, Comcast would rather pay wages to overseas workers. Comcast could afford to pay its CEO Brian L. Roberts $29.1 million last year, according the company’s 2013 proxy statement, but it is more frugal with its pay when it comes to hiring customer service reps, preferring to outsource those jobs.

“Jackie”, my Filipino liaison with Comcast, promised to send a new cable box to resolve the problem on Feb. 22. I read her the model number. “It’s a RNG150N.” Of course, when the converter arrived on Feb. 28 and bore no resemblance to my current cable box, I checked the model number and found Comcast had sent me a RNG100. I called Comcast and reached “Kellie” in the Philippines. Before she would assist me, she insisted on learning my name, phone number, address, and Social Security number. I told her I don’t give out my Social Security number to anyone, especially not to strangers in other countries speaking over my cell phone, but that I could give her my Comcast account number. That was when “Kellie” hung up on me.

My next phone call to Comcast was to complain about a Comcast representative hanging up on a Comcast customer of more than 25 years standing. Business Rule No. 1: When a customer has given you money every month for more than a quarter of a century, do not hang up on him. Especially not if he is a writer with a syndicated worldwide audience. Or to paraphrase Matt Smith in this Doctor Who clip :

“Oh, big, big mistake, really huge. Didn't anyone ever tell you there's one thing you never do, if you're smart, if you value your continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there's one person you never, ever hang up on:  me.”

I called Comcast back and spoke to “Eva”. Funny how everyone at Comcast has a Filipino accent attached to an Anglicized name. I suppose that is to distract our attention from the fact our phone calls are being routed overseas to cheap foreign labor by U.S. corporation Comcast while U.S. citizens go jobless. I ponder whether we could outsource Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts’ job to the Philippines, too, and use his $29.1 million compensation package to hire American workers, while I wait on terminal hold. “Eva” promises to send the correct model converter box.

On March 7, the new box arrived. It was a Model RNG150. Not an RNG150N. That might explain why I could not access Infinity on Demand, HBO on Demand, and the picture was not in High Definition and did not fit the screen. I stared at the growing stack of cable converter boxes, now numbering three, waiting to be shipped back to Comcast. It was like an episode of a bad TV sitcom… and also as close as I would get to one until my cable service was restored.

I called Comcast again, this time speaking to “Hadley”. Or “Hadleigh”. I’m not sure how she spelled it, not that it matters, since I doubt that was her true name at the Comcast call center in the Philippines, where Comcast does not have to pay employee benefits. “Hadleigh” said she would “escalate” the issue (tech speak for “I realize we’ve been pissing you off incessantly, this should placate you until the next round”). She set up an appointment for a Comcast service technician to arrive at my home between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. on Saturday morning… because, let’s face it, what better to do at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning than wait for a Comcast repairman?

At 10:15 on Saturday morning, March 8, after waiting in vain for more than two hours, I called Comcast to find out where the promised repairman was. Since Comcast didn’t have the courtesy to phone and say he was running late, I asked. “When might I expect him?” John answered my call. He sounded American, and must have been, because he was far ruder than any of Comcast’s outsourced Filipinos. He told me my appointment had been rescheduled to March 17th. It would have been nice if someone at Comcast had told me that before I wasted my Saturday morning waiting in vain. No one likes being stood up. Of course, one would also think Comcast would ask me if I was available on the new, rescheduled date that was more than a week later… unless they weren't planning to show up then, either.

I asked to speak to a supervisor. John continued reading from his script. I interrupted and demanded to speak to a supervisor. John ignored me and continued to parrot the stock phrases from his Comcast Level I Tech script. I repeated my demand to speak to a supervisor, 12 more times… and each time John ignored me and droned on from his script. Finally, I said something John couldn’t ignore… I am a creative writer, after all. I won’t repeat it here, but trust me, the graphic imagery was so vivid that John will have nightmares and wet his bed until he’s forty trying to forget the image I instilled into the vapid wasteland that passes for his mind. And then, I hung up.

My neighbor suggested I contact Comcast’s billing department and seek some redress by way of a credit on the next month’s bill. On March 13, I spoke to Francis in Comcast’s billing department and explained my customer experience and still unresolved problem, including the fact that I now had three incorrect cable boxes piled up on my kitchen table. I did not think there was anything Comcast could do at this point that would surprise me.  Francis’ reply left me flabbergasted.

“There’s no way to assure a customer will get the correct model unless he goes to local store. We just write up the orders and some else fills them. But your local store keeps all the models in the back room.” 

“Excuse me?” I shook my head. “Let me repeat that, so I can be sure I understood what you said. You’re telling me that Comcast can’t be responsible for sending the correct unit to its customers and if the customer wants the right box, he has to take time off work and drive to the Comcast office during business hours?”

“Yes sir. Is there anything else I can help you with? At Comcast, we’re here to serve you.”

“That’s the problem,” I replied. “You’re there, while I’ve been waiting here for Comcast to show up.” I asked about receiving a credit, but Francis said, “Comcast doesn’t give credit for "inconvenience" only for weather-related outages.” I would have classified my ongoing experience as far more than an inconvenience. But perhaps she was referring to me; maybe customers are inconveniences to Comcast.


Your cable TV service is about to get worse. But there’s still time to stop the Comcast- Time Warner merger. Sign the petition at WhiteHouse.gov.

eStorybooks

Author Keith B. Darrell has coined the phrase “eStorybook” for individual short stories published in eBook format.

Sometimes you want a full-course dinner; and other times you just want a candy bar. For those times when you can't squeeze in a novel, you can still fit in an eStorybook ... on your smartphone, during a cigarette break, or on the train ride home, you get a complete entertainment experience in a bite-sized portion timed for your busy lifestyle.

Keith's eStorybooks cross multiple genres and are written for varying ages.The stories come in all different lengths - as long as 15,000 words or as brief as 2,000 or less. The wonderful thing about short stories is length is not important (that's why they're called short stories); it's the beauty of the prose and the impact of the story that readers value. And what a value! Every Kindle eStorybook will be priced at 99 cents - the lowest price Kindle allows.

Click on any book cover to download the eStorybook from Amazon's Kindle store. For less than the price of a candy bar!

Click here to see Keith's selection of eStorybooks



Click on the logo to jump to Softcover and Hardcover book descriptions at the bottom of the page.

Follow via Networked Blogs

Stalk Me!

Join Keith on Facebook!