On the genesis of mad, complicated acts of fiction

I've been asked a few times now what my novel, The Last Iteration of Dexter Maxwell, is really about. Sure, there's the blurb on the back of the book which you can read out on Amazon?and BN.com. But as I explained on this blog a few weeks ago, blurbs are their own form of literature, laden with all kinds of crazy pressure to load in tight. Their like early versions twitter: how much can you pack into so few words?

But a blog by definition is a little bit more long form. And instead of telling you what happens, I thought I'd share some thoughts on where The Last Iteration came from, and what I want to try and do over the course of the entire series. Here goes.?

What I really wanted to do was write something like Jacques Barzun's book, From Dawn To Decadence: 500 Years of Western Civilization 1500 to Present. I should point out that I will never, ever, be capable of writing anything like that wonderful history book. But that's where this whole thing started.

See, when I was a kid, I wanted to write books about spaceships and dragons. But then I fell in love with history in college. And I don't mean dates and names and places-- I fell in love with the mad act of discerning meaning in what's happened to the human race up to now. And what Barzun's book did, reading it a few years after I completed my (formal) education, is it framed up for me so perfectly how civilization ebbs and flows across large stretches of time, but things pretty much carry on regardless.?

I wanted to do that about the future. If you took a look at how things unfold across bigger stretches of time, what does that tell us about who we are? Are we the same person if we lived in a different part of history? Is there a part of a person that is always with that person? What, in fact, makes us human?

And you can't ask that question, and apply it to the future, without staring our relationship with technology straight in the face.?What is technology for? What should we use it to accomplish??

That's when I discovered that if I wanted to tell the story that was coming together in my head, I was going to have to pull off a serious Rip Van Winkle event. And another. And another.?

Then, as I put my story across a massive scale of time, I realized I was going to have to come to terms with what does and doesn't change over a millennium. As one of my favorite professors in college once told me, "In medieval times, Matt, the saints made planes fly. And not in a metaphorical sense."?So I was writing a story about religion, too. Which is weird, for me, but cathartic too.?

The longer I worked at the premise, and the characters, and struggled with the timeline, and did my research, it came to my attention that, in the end, I was going to end up writing a story about family-- the one we are born with, and the one we choose.?

Which was sort of a nice surprise.?

So, what is The Last Iteration?

It's a love story that takes place on the surface of a mobius strip.

Oh, and it's also sort of about traffic on I-25 in Colorado. Cuz that shit totally sucks.


Google Nexus 7: Three months of living the dream

So I'm three months into my non-iOS device lifestyle, and I'm here to tell you, I'm still living the dream.

Oh, wait. When a dream has a bunch of bad stuff in it, they call it a nightmare, don't they?

Let's start with my first Nexus 7: I came to discover the amazing feature called 'phantom touching.' This is when the device goes all haywire because it thinks your touching the surface when you are not, in fact, doing anything of the sort. The customer service asked me to reset my Nexus. Having had an iPad and iPhone for years, I didn't think much of this.?

Whoops. Big mistake. Android doesn't bring any of your settings back. Half the battle of any device, especially an Android one, is getting it set up right to use the way you want to. Android's big advantage over iOS is customizations. All lost with a reset.

Worst of all, it didn't fix the problem, so I had to send it back anyway. Google then charged me for the new one before they received the old one back. Now, this may seem fair and customary, but once you are used to NOT being treated like a potential criminal (i.e., how Apple treats me), it feels ugly.?

In fact, that pretty much sums up the experience with Google and the Nexus compared to Apple and the iPad: its ugly.?

Yeah, Nexus has its uses, and some nice features. I like the size. I like the price. I definitely wanted to get my hands on Android. Live Wallpapers are neat. But the feel of the device is ugly, compared to Apple devices. The quality of craftsmanship feels like the very first iPhone I ever bought. Literally-- it feels like an iPhone 1.?

And I don't need NFC, the thing on the back that lets me share stuff with a touch, because I don't know anyone else who has one. It's aspirational building: things that might be cool. Same goes for the little 4 metal dots on one side. It might be useful if someone ever manufactures a dock.?

And then there's the apps. Sorry Android, but your apps just aren't as good. And its the wild west still: there are inappropriate apps mixed in that just aren't OK to come across as the father of small children. Bag on Apple's app curation all you want, but the upside is a decent environment for mixed family use.?

And there are still apps I want that I can't get with Android. Plain and Simple. Parallels Mobile (to manage my virtual machines on my Mac). Day One (Only the best journaling application ever). Penultimate. Paper. Etc.?

It's not all bad. But I'm here to say, its not as good. As uncomfortable as I was with my monogamous relationship with Apple, I'm being reminded very clearly why I was attracted to Apple in the first place, and why I've remained in the House That Steve Built for all these years.?

My second Nexus 7 does not suffer from phantom touching. That's good. But its turned out to be a glorified e-reader and airplane movie watcher. But little more. When I'm sitting in bed at night, I find myself looking over at my wife's iPad in envy as she surfs. Look how big that screen is! How much easier to type!

I really, really wanted to love my Nexus 7. But I just sort of like it.?

After years of loving my devices, that's a bit of a let down.


Love is Where the Minecraft Is

I had an interesting experiment play out over the holidays. This was caused by the fact that I took some time off from work, but didn't go anywhere, and my kids had time off, and didn't go anywhere. And it got cold out-- real cold. So, me being the magnanimous father that I am, I took the usual restrictions off 'screen time' for the day. (Around my house, this is called "Junk-Out Day," which my kids understandably love.)

With unlimited, unrestricted access to screens, the question became, what would they gravitate toward?

The 42 inch TV?

The 32 inch TV connected to the Wii?

the 4 inch iPod Touch they each have?

the 7 inch Nexus 7 tablet?

the 11 inch iPad 2?

The 27 inch iMac?

(Okay, a little consumer electronics guilt crept up my back when I made that list. Just a little.)

Here's the lesson for device manufacturers and parents alike:

It's all about the apps. This might seem like a 'duh' moment, but here's the fact: given access to every possible screen size and interaction type, my kids sat glued to their 2-year-old iPod Touches for most of the time they had. Why??

That's where the Minecraft is.

Yeah, bigger screens are better. Better resolution is better. Better speed, better blah blah blah. But if content is only available on one of the devices, that's where the eyeballs will be. Doesn't matter how many NFC chips you put in, or how many pixels you cram on the screen, how big, or how light. No app, no mas.

Here's the corollary, of course: if the app exists on multiple screens, then bigger is better. When my kids wanted to go into zombie mode and stop interacting, and just watch something: well, we have Netflix on every device listed above. But we watch it on the 42 inch TV. And once Minecraft was sync'ed to the iPad, iPods were discarded and the iPad became the in-demand device that the two kids fought over.

Which is always the signal for dad to draw Junk-Out Day to an end, and make the kids pickup a damn book.


The Blurb from the Alternate Universe

There's the blurb on the back of my novel, which you can read on Amazon here.

Then there's the blurb we wrote for folks in the Internet of Things group, which you can find?here, but I'm also including below. It's growing on me. It's made me realize that blurbs are like movie trailers: you can play up different parts to appeal to different interests.?


The Last Iteration of Dexter Maxwell
"It?s easier to hack things that are connected.?
Working beneath 22nd Century Denver, Dex and his outcast friends know how to take advantage of connectedness. But they also know that when everyone believes everything is connected, that?s when the real mischief begins. In the shadows cast by the bright lights of a highly interconnected society lies secrets for the taking.?
But there are networks that even Dex and his hacker friends don?t know about, and those are the ones to fear. Those are the ones that get them caught.?
When Dex gets pulled out of cryogenic stasis, he finds himself in the most interconnected world imaginable, with a single integrated network that has access to every place and every thing. Which is too bad, because Dex really needs to hide from the waves of assassins that would see him destroyed because he?s a copy. An iteration.?
But Dex also finds new friends, who remind him that the brighter the light, the darker the shadow.?
As Dex runs for his life, he is thrust into the middle of a deadly plot a thousand years in the making, with the fate of two worlds in the balance?and wondering who, exactly, he really is."

The Elephant in the Room

Any person's relationship with technology is, by definition, rather personal.?

No, scratch that.

I should start with my organization challenges. I'm always trying to get too much done in too little time.?

No, that's not right either. Hmm.

Okay, so here's the problem. Even trying to describe my relationship with Evernote is as baffling as trying to figure out what Evernote is actually for: I always feel like I'm starting in the middle.?

You can check out Evernote?here, or if you have any version of smartphone or Mac, there's an app for it as well. And it's typically featured, highlighted, or an "Editor's Choice." It is extremely popular, the company is growing rapidly, and it actually makes money. It has spawned a huge following and all kinds of pretty cool adjunct products.?

but I'm still not exactly sure what it is.

For a lot of people, I'm sure that's an easy question. But for those of us who've been using tech for 20 plus years, Evernote doesn't really fit into a category that we know. I have my word processor. I have my bookmarks in the browser. I organize my contacts already. I have all kinds of to-do lists and project management tools. Is it one of these? No, not really.

Is it actually just what it says-- a way to "Remember Everything?" That-- well, that's just sort of ridiculous. That's what Google is for.

I installed Evernote on my first iPad when I got it, as one of the 'iPad Essentials.' There it sat, unused, for a year. An elephant in profile, lurking in the hilariously named "Productivity" folder.?

Then, about six months ago, I needed to do a research project. I had a notional non-fiction book that I wanted to write, and I needed to pull together some research on the web. I thought-- maybe Evernote can help me organize my notes for a research project.?

As soon as I started getting used to its interface, and how to use it, I came across the Evernote Webclipper. Now, I'm sure a lot of people already knew about the magic of web clippers, but for me this was an epiphany of grand proportions. And just like that, Evernote was built into my professional life.?

If I came across a web page I wanted to remember, I didn't bookmark it (which is where a lot of my good discoveries have traditionally gone to die, and best summed up by this new yorker cartoon);?instead, I clipped it and then added a few tags in Evernote.

Low and behold, suddenly I could find the things I was looking for. I was remembering things!

From there, it was all downhill. Any time I thought of a blog-worthy topic, I jotted a quick note and tagged it. then, I could go back and write it in Evernote.

All in the cloud. All backed up and available from any device or browser. (This sentence is brought to you by the marketing folks at Evernote.)

All those pictures of white boards on my phone-- now I could tag ?them with metadata and actually use them again.

then I hit a snag: I was on a plane, and I wanted to look at my notes on my iPad. Nnnnnope. To view notes 'offline' (not connected to the interwebz), I needed to pay for Premium.?

Ah, the Freemium business model. A topic for an entirely separate rant. But, be that as it may, I wanted Evernote on planes.?

This problem was solved when I decided to buy the Evernote-branded Moleskine notebook. Moleskine products are best understood in this context, and this is no different, but when I buy it with an Evernote-green elastic band attached, Evernote promises that pictures of notes in the pad will be optimized for Evernote! Plus three months free premium!

Premium evernote is sweet. Offline notes, more storage space, and I can share notebooks with other Premium members.?

Now, the whole optimized notebook for handwriting recognition is weak (in fact the pictures I took of non-moleskine notebooks actually look better). But the simple idea that I should be taking pics of my notes, adding metadata, and then organizing it in the cloud? Genius.

And that, in the end, is what Evernote is. It's genius. The more I use it, the more it helps me out. And its not just an addiction, like FB or Twitter or Pinterest. Evernote is making me better. I'm more productive (don't snigger). I'm, well, I'm remembering everything. (Seriously. No sarcasm.)?

So, I had my kids get accounts. I'm interested to see if what young minds do with it. Of course, their first reaction was that they wanted to use it to communicate. They wanted to use it to share stuff with each other and with me. Then they started taking pictures of their drawings.?

In the end, what Evernote feels like is a real departure from how things got done back when I started getting things done. Born entirely from an always-connected, always mobile, multiple-device world, Evernote feels like something that Microsoft is about to pay billions of dollars for to remain relevant.?

And it reminds me our relationship with technology isn't just iteratively different then 15 years ago. It's entirely different.


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