Saturday, February 25, 2012

16572--Never Thought I'd See the Day

Did you hear about the lost e-reader that was found in the basement closet of a guy’s great-aunt?  It seems that after she died, the family found the well-preserved piece of technology with its memory still holding electronic versions of hundreds of decades-old comic books and hardcover editions of classic novels.  The amazing collection is being appraised with the family expecting to take the e-reader to auction soon.  Early speculations anticipate that it should easily command a price well-above its original retail price point.

Wait, no…That’s probably never going to happen.

What was found was a comic book treasure trove that geek dreams are made of.   The collection was amassed by a boy decades ago who, in stereotypic geek fashion, remained a lifetime bachelor.  The books passed on to (insert moans of geeky anguish) family members who didn’t even know what they had!  Fortunately, the overlooked gems remained well-preserved until the uninitiated educated themselves and actually looked through the aged collection with discerning eyes.  That finally allowed more than two hundred Golden Age books to see the carefully filtered light of day once again, including such rare pieces as the first appearances of the Human Torch, Batman and Superman.   That alone is sufficient to set comic hounds salivating.

For those of you not capable of naming all of Earth’s Green Lanterns, telling one Flash from another or detailing the differences between Earth 1 and Earth 2 Superman, let me put it this way: the comics weren’t in perfect condition (some dating back to 1938) were still able to bring in more than expected at auction. Specifically, Marvel Comics #1 sold for $113,525; Detective #27 sold for $522,000; and Action #1 sold for $298,750 (still far from breaking the record on this particular book). Altogether, 222 Golden Age comics were auctioned at the kingly sum of $3,433,342 with the less significant remains of the collection to be auctioned online.

Why won’t this sort of thing ever happen with e-books?   Isn’t it obvious?   There’s no paper destroy or age and infinite copies means no scarcity.   A novice economics student should be able to solve that puzzle.   Likewise, those of you lighting up over the big numbers behind the dollar signs, don’t run out and start buying newer comics with the expectation that you’ll be able to duplicate the situation.   The conditions that turned those simple ten-cent coal comics into precious diamonds are super-unlikely to ever ever ever conspire to make it all happen again.   You’ve got better odds playing Powerball (195,000,000 to 1 for those keeping score).

You see, way back in the 1930s, there was a big, fat economic depression going on.  Comic  books were a new invention, created by stapling together pages of actual newspaper comic strips.   That’s why they came to be called comic books or funny books.   They were cheap to make and cheap to buy and not meant to last.   Little boys could roll them up, shove them in their pockets and carry them till they found a friend to share them or toss them when they were done with them.   Once they started to catch on, the publishers started producing original material for the cheap periodicals, but still nothing that was intended to last for decades.   When World War II came along, there was a huge push for paper recycling (it was important, trust me), comics were sent off in GI care packages and moms became notorious for disposing of the worthless junk.  After the big war, the popularity of the superheroes turned on them when psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent (1954), a book purporting that comics were a serious cause of juvenile delinquency.  The minor bestseller managed to create a parental panic and pressure the publishers who wanted to survive into self-censorship.   Some changed to magazines.  Some superheroes disappeared.

Later, in the 1980s, as comics returned from the shadows and began to loosen the reins on their own restraints, there was another surge in popularity.   The boom in the market came with a move away from traditional newsprint to brighter, heavier bond papers and new inks.   More customers came to the stores (the comic shops that hadn’t even existed a few years earlier), driving higher print runs.   So the modern era actually brought us conditions opposite to those seen in the earliest years of comics.    We have higher print runs, customers buying multiple issues of special issues, reprints of popular stories, comics designed to last for years without fading being stored better and not being disposed of…ever.   Ask that econ student about the value of a commodity that’s abundantly available rather than scarce.

Better still, ask a comic shop owner.  After you’ve picked up a few comics you like at a bargain price, you can go blow a couple of bucks on the lottery.  Or maybe just stay home and download some 21st century comics and have a good read.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

16556--Unintended Writing Advice

People will tell you that some of the things that we would like to have come our way will often take unexpected form--opportunity, random blessing, answers to prayers, new loves--so we should stay alert and open-minded to be ready to receive them.  For me, one of the most insightful bits of guidance to be tossed my way came in a manner that was not only unexpected, but unintended.

As I've stated before, I've been working on my writing for many years.  Along with that, when I was a kid, I learned the important truth that at their best magic and science were wicked cool.  I started learning more about both, but as I wasn't raised in a magical realm, there were no wizards available with whom I could apprentice.  A heavy diet of science, science fiction and comics gave me strong indications that being a science guy would be a great path.  Physics and engineering would be the keys to unlock the wonders of the universe and yield a life of adventure and paranormal activity.  Mortal flesh would be transcended.  Superhuman abilities would be embraced.  Weird science breakthroughs would herald an ascension that would allow me to rival the ancient gods we had cast aside and the monsters that had been relegated to the deepest shadows. 

Give me a break, I was eight.  The tall people I lived with had hidden my cape when I was four because it seemed like the best way to get me to stop diving off of things.  I think it had more to do with my being rough on the floors than sparing me disappointment.  Obviously, though, I had an established pattern of believing in the possibility of all things under the proper conditions.

Years of study took me on to college, having been scouted by a notable engineering school that I'll not shame by name here.  My first English teacher at said unsaid school lauded my writing ability as being clearly filled with imagination and creative energy.  In his next breath, he said quite matter-of-factly that they would crush that right out of me.  He said it with a smile and seemed decidedly unapologetic about it.  There it was: the unintended advice.  It was a school dedicated to science and technology, after all.  Writing was just another tool to them.  My second English teacher, Dr. Dyer, had a name that would've better fit a supervillain and an attitude to match.  Reading was to be dissected and analyzed and our writing was to reflect that.  He was a dedicated editor, cutting so many passages from papers that they looked as though they were slashed and bleeding.

Something wasn't right.  I pondered my lack of joy and came to realize that it had been months since I had written.  That is, I hadn't written my stuff since school had started.  The real writing that I cared about wasn't getting done.  It needed to be done.  There was a universe of possibilities going unexplored and that was making me miserable.  It certainly wasn't going to happen where I was.  The only other student I'd found who was doing any writing in scienceland had asked me to read a novel he'd been working on and...well, it told me about a character, an epic event and broke into an infodump of technical specifications for a giant spaceship that droned on very dryly for more pages than I was able to stay awake through.

I took the hints.  I changed schools and majors.  The clouds broke, the sun shone through and birds sang their songs.  More importantly, I had found a better path for me to walk where I would find all that adventure and unlimited potential waiting to be encountered. 

I never found that cape, but when I look to the skies (especially on big, fluffy cloud days), I remember flying.  If there's a look in my eyes that says I'm...somewhere else, well...I'm working on it.  Find your own proper path and maybe I'll see you up there, too.

Friday, February 3, 2012

16550--Falling Toward Nerdvana

I have a smartphone.  Yeah, I know, so do millions of other people.  So what's the big deal?

Yes, they've become commonplace and we're quickly being jaded to their presence, but they're still a fairly new addition to our lives.  For me, they're overdue.

As a kid, I watched a lot of Star Trek (the original series).  It was in syndication and there wasn't a lot of sci-fi competition on TV, so the show's status grew and became very influential.  Still, not news, but my letters to Santa included requests for phasers and communicators.  OK, maybe the phasers would've been irresponsible to hand to a ten-year-old, but did the big man come through on the communicators or what?

I predicted Bluetooth back then.  Dick Tracy and his kind may have shown us the wrist radio (optional video) first, but I figured out that the better way to handle it was going to be having that easily accessible control unit and a wireless microphone/speaker in the ear.  That system is now finally available, too.  (anyone caring to send royalty payments may contact me through this sight for Paypal info)

Things change.  I tried to explain to my teenager about personal computers that used to have 64K RAM, becoming organizers and watches, with more computing power than NASA used to get to the moon.  His eyes glazed over.  Oh, well.

Still, it's the smartphone that's achieving awesomeness.  In Star Trek terms, they're becoming communicator/tricorder hybrids.  In conventional terms, we have "large" cell phones/small tablet/mini-computers to carry around and help us through our days.  The PDA of fifteen years ago might as well have been a Dayrunner by comparison.  No, they're not perfect yet.  We still have dropped calls and signal coverage issues and I don't think the Klingons are behind it.  Kirk could carry on calls from half a mile underground with the orbiting Enterprise.  I guess I could say we'd been misled about our mobile communication future, but we haven't quite made it to the 23rd century yet.

I'm eager to see what's next.

Small laser-based scanning units have been developed to analyze the molecular structures of objects at a distance.  To me, sounds like all we've been missing to make a tricorder.

Cybernetic micro-electronic components are being created with increasing frequency to be incorporated into living nervous systems.  Cybernetic remote control and telepathy shouldn't be too far off.  Neither should medical monitoring and modification be something we're waiting long to see as it seems that new uses for nanotechnology are being experimented with every week.

A friend and I are waiting to see the Playstation 9 offered as a package of nanites that will be inhaled and integrate themselves into the user's biology, allowing for virtual reality and augmented reality functions, communication and play.  We'll have forced our own synthetic evolution to handle our smartphone functions, and anything else we use computers for, directly through our brains.  That big cyber data cloud floating in the internet ether will become part of the collective consciousness.  Of course, there may be a certain percentage of seizures and/or hemorrhages and other neurological side effects, but perfection is a path.  The road to Singularity (human fusion with technology) is likely to be as bumpy as any of our significant advancements have ever been.

Let's face it, we still lose control of fire on a daily basis and look at how long we've been playing with that.  Anything we cook up is likely to have hazards to go along with any benefits.  We should certainly be used to it by now.  We don't live in a padded world.  Fortunately, we learn from pain and failure.  That means, however things work out with our next bold steps, we should manage some measure of progress as long as there are survivors to figure out the next step.