Monday, May 6

Pushing AI: A Reduction In Creativity

In his book The Creative Act: A Way of Being, Rick Rubin praises artificial intelligence (AI). But he doesn’t find its strength in being creative as much as in seeing problems with a fresh perspective.

He highlights AlphaGo’s approach to the game Go as his example. AlphaGo, the first AI to defeat a Go grandmaster, applied a never-seen-before move that no human would have made. Indeed. Most humans saw the move as a mistake when the AI made it, failing to recognize anything beyond the two choices that the grandmaster expected the program to make. But the algorithm didn’t care about 4,000 years of Go history. It was programmed to win. It did. 

Rubin is right in that the AlphaGo win is a teachable moment for human beings. Sometimes, we carry too much emotional, intellectual, and historical baggage around with us to be truly creative. Ergo, divergent thinking is still king when it comes to creativity. 

Divergent thinking is also where the proliferation of AI ceases to interest me. Don’t get me wrong. I still pay attention, especially when my colleagues point it out.

Hugh Behm-Steinberg, who teaches writing at the California College of the Arts, recently did so when he mentioned: “One of the dark pleasures of teaching uncanonical work is reading the AI hallucinations my students think I won’t notice.” 

To be clear, Behm-Steinberg allows AI assistance if his students include their prompts with the work. He says it’s better than forcing them to sneak it into their assignments and then failing them when he spots what he calls AI hallucinations (something nonsensical, akin to those crazy hand defects that litter some graphics). 

I don’t know. After seeing the first official music video made with OpenAI’s Sora on LinkedIn, I still struggle to condone its broader applications that attempt to supplant human creativity. The video is largely unoriginal, with horrible camera angles and bad morphing effects that cause some people motion sickness — AI hallucinations that we can see rather than read. It’s a fail, propped up only by the crutch of AI infancy. 

So, what is the status of AI creativity? There isn’t any. I mean, using AI editors as a prompt to improve sentence structure is one thing, along with applying a photo effect that saves some tedious pixel tweaking or creating elements that can inform a component of a bigger project. Those are suitable solutions. This continued pursuit of trying to make it capture a human’s imagination, on the other hand, is faulty by design.

At its core, the true strength of art in all its forms is one human’s mastery over some medium so they may share their unique perspective of the world with others. These perspectives — a lifetime of experience and knowledge and, sometimes, the purposeful subtraction of said experience and knowledge — is more unique than a human iris. And this is why AI, programmed to mix and match other people’s work, will never truly obtain human creativity — even if it is constructed to be born and live like a human being. Because, even if it were built to be born, then it would still only represent a single point in an infinite ocean of stars. 

No. More likely, AI merely represents a reverse renaissance or a great reduction in creativity. As humans allow machines to copy processes, techniques, and rules, they may become even lazier in the pursuit of original thinking. And it will be only then that AI may succeed in simulating something superior, not because it’s creative but only because we will cease to be. 

Ho hum. I liked it better when programmers focused on teaching AI to wash the dishes and mop the floors so that we could have more time to be creative. Instead, this trend to program AI to be faux creative will only give us more time to wash the dishes and mop the floors. And we’ll all be too dumbed down to even know the difference. Good night and good luck. 

Thursday, February 8

Writing Romance: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

I met my first girlfriend in the third grade. She thought I was a rebel of sorts — a transfer from the public school system, repeating third grade. I wasn’t a rebel. I still couldn’t read.

We were “boyfriend and girlfriend” for three short months. I moved away after the school year ended. 

We might have been “together” longer, but she didn’t know I liked her. I always liked her. 

I finally worked up the courage to let her know how I felt on Valentine’s Day. I wrote it in the Valentine’s Day card I gave her — the biggest one in the box. They always came like that in a class pack. There were 23 or 29 regular Valentine’s Day cards in the box and one (sometimes two) super special ones. I gave her THAT one. 

The only problem was my writing. Because I didn’t read well, I didn’t write well either. So when she opened my card, she wrinkled her nose and joked about how she couldn’t read it. I made a joke about it, too. I didn’t want her to know it came from me. So she didn’t think I liked her because I didn’t give her a card. Or, so she thought. 

My second chance came a month later. We had an auction at the school, and she had donated a tapestry with a Native American on it. She thought it was cool because she was Native American, too. But nobody bid on it. So I did. I bid everything I had, which I didn’t have to do. She got the message. I liked her as much as anybody likes somebody in third grade. 

Love makes you do crazy things, even when you don’t understand it. It’s one part anticipation and two parts relief. There really is someone out there for you, at least until you move away. 

Young love in the novel Third Wheel.

While my novel Third Wheel is often described as a coming-of-age thriller that follows Brady Wilks along the fringe of the 1980s suburban drug scene in Las Vegas, it’s not without heart. In between the tension, Brady pursues two love interests in the book. 

The first is with an 18-year-old named Cheryl. The relationship is immediately problematic because Brady lies about his age, fearing she will lose interest, knowing this is the summer before his sophomore year. Brady won’t celebrate his 15th birthday until late fall.

He meets Cheryl early in the book. She is one of several satellites orbiting the parties hosted by his older friend group. Cheryl has every reason to believe he was in her ballpark — a soon-to-be junior or senior — until his adolescent awkwardness gives him away.

For Brady, he is drawn to the impossibility of the relationship and the promise of emotional stability, filling a void that can’t be found in his unstable life. Cheryl puts his troubles on pause, even if he never understands her interest in him. 

Because the story is told entirely from Brady’s self-centered point of view, most readers don’t either. Everybody’s best guess is that dating someone younger might even the playing field for a recent high school grad in the 1980s. Sure, while the 70s may have moved the needle on gender equality, the 80s dating scene didn’t know it. 

Brady’s perceived rivals drive this point home. They always appear more confident in winning over her attention and affection. With Brady, it’s an internal tug of war. She pulls him toward her and pushes him away at the same time.

She wants it to work but knows it will never work. Maybe Brady feels that way, which is why he leaves himself open for two alcohol- and drug-infused flirtations during the book. One doesn’t amount to anything, but the second one leads to the start of something, even if we never see what exactly that might be. 

Brady meets this second girl, Sandy, in a Mob-owned strip club. Despite working as a server and part-time stripper, Sandy is an underage runaway from California, much closer in age to Brady than the lie she tells him. 

“Twenty-one, hun.” “Beat you by a year,” he lies in return. 

The contrast in these two relationships has more to do with the girls than the boy. When Sandy looks at Brady, she sees a reflection of herself. Despite a facade of self-confidence that initially attracts Brady’s attention, Sandy is just as out of her league as he is out of his. 

Broken people tend to attract broken people, and Sandy is empathetic enough to see he’s broken. Together, being broken feels safe and normal. It leads to something much more casual, comfortable, and accidental. 

Each relationship is different but somehow gives Brady what he needs most when he needs it. That’s how stories go sometimes. 

Love is desperation, anticipation, and infatuation on the front end. It’s affection, acceptance, and attachment on the back end if it lasts long enough. But it rarely lasts long enough because the strongest thing in the world is also the most fragile; hard to find and easy to lose. Cherish every minute before you move away. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Thursday, January 4

Making Connections: Authors And Bookstores

Author Richard R. Becker
It isn’t easy, but there is something magical about it when it happens. An author’s connection with an independent bookstore can be something special. 

Since I’m tied to my daughter’s softball schedule, I can’t set up book tours like some authors do. Instead, I try to time my introductions with her tournament schedules, emailing or calling a few weeks in advance to set up a book signing or book drop.

The results are mixed. Some independent bookstores can’t be bothered. Others are aggressively disinterested as if someone taking an interest in their store is somehow bad. But then there are a few who are enthusiastically receptive. They know what their customers like and signed copies are easy to sell.

As an introvert, I prefer emailing or messaging bookstores over placing a call but calling is almost always better. I’m still surprised by how many bookstores neglect their Facebook pages and Instagram accounts. (One bookstore even contacted me three weeks after my area visit and arranged to have me ship books instead.) And when a Barnes & Noble employee suggests you email a store manager instead, I’m convinced the address is akin to digital purgatory.  

One of my favorite signed book drops occurred in the Bishop Arts District of Dallas, Texas. The store manager, Alan Yanes, was very receptive to having me visit and drop off a few signed books at his store. He was very understanding, too, knowing that we were restrained to the timeframes of the summer softball camp that my daughter was attending in nearby Fort Worth.

Poets Oak Cliff is a small, meticulously curated bookstore owned by writer and poet Marco Cavazos, and managed by a wizard of books and customer service. As fate would have it, Alan is also a Las Vegas native. So, he was especially interested in having an author from Las Vegas visit the store.

Since my visit to Poets Oak Cliff was in the summer, ahead of my release date for Third Wheel, I only had a few trade paperback copies of 50 States with me. Alan took them all. He loved the idea of 50 short stories with one story set in each state. Like many people, he read the story set in his home state first. Later, he read the one linked to Texas.

It was never my intention for 50 States to be read that way, but it’s reflectively common that readers turn to their home states first (or the ones they’ve lived in). Sometimes the story they read first dictates how well they enjoy the rest of it. The harshest criticism I ever received was from a New Mexico native. New Mexico is the shortest story in the book, and he felt I sold his state short. The irony is that there is plenty more to the New Mexico story. I just haven’t finished writing it. (I might finish the next installment for my newsletter in March. We’ll see.)

50 States by Richard R. Becker
Shortly after acquiring copies for the store, Alan staged a couple books on the shelf. They were placed in good company, Bukowski’s Ham on Rye to the immediate right. I saved that image to my computer’s browser as a backdrop, replacing the one I took at Bookends in Hawaii.  

After the visit, my daughter and I toured the Bishop Arts District. The area has more than 60 independent boutiques, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops in the area. It’s a pretty cool place, steeped in history. From what I understand, it was once the site of Dallas’ busiest trolley stops in the 1930s. I can’t wait to visit again. There was more to explore than we had time for because we had to catch a flight home. 

Poets Oak Cliff sold out of 50 States in a few days, and Alan ordered more from one of our distributors, IngramSpark. Copies of 50 States are selling briskly, he texted me.

I don’t think he had any idea how much I appreciated it. I told him so but then went a step further by picking up an advanced copy (signed) of Naked Gulls by Marco Cavazos. I loved it, finding it delightfully surprising. It’s a surreal read, breaking from the rules of reality. I reviewed the Hotel California-esque story about a writer who can’t remember checking into a hotel and isn’t allowed to check out, giving it a well-deserved five stars. A couple lines from my review eventually landed in his newsletter. 

As it turns out, Marco isn’t the only writer at the bookstore. Although Alan is still working on his manuscript, he had a solid concept in production. I learned a little bit about it when he was in Las Vegas visiting family. We met in a French bakery for a coffee and talked about books, bookstores, and publishing. What else would two bibliophiles do?

We also discussed a return visit to Dallas, specifically for a book signing event, as Poets Cliff Oak was one of the first bookstores to stock my debut novel, Third Wheel. I intend to take them up on it, too. As soon as my daughter’s softball schedule wraps up with a college commitment, my travel plans will be significantly more flexible. 

This is what I mean by something special. There is a natural synergy between an author promoting an indie bookstore and a bookstore helping to promote an author they appreciate. Doubly so, in that I’ve also become a fan of the owner’s work because his manager was friendly enough to extend an invitation in the first place, recognizing that authors are also customers. 

Whenever you are in the Dallas area, make it a point to visit the Bishop Arts District. Along the outer edge of it is one of my favorite bookstores in the country. Who knows? Maybe we can meet up there in some yet undefined month ahead for a proper book signing.  

Monday, September 18

Promoting Literacy: An Accidental Author

Last April, I was a guest speaker at the Kiwanis Club of Las Vegas as an accidental author. Why accidental? I didn't know what else to call becoming an author. I wasn't one of those book dreamers. I couldn't even read.

I grew up in what was then one street over from the wrong side of the tracks in Milwaukee, where my grandparents lived. They raised me. We were poor, and I had a handicap to overcome — having been born with club feet and relegated to casts and corrective shoes until I was 10. 

Early confinement has a way of stimulating your imitation. While I played outside more and more as I got older, I fancied myself more as an artist, like the father I lost when I was two. I loved telling stories, but most were acted out or drawn on sweeping rolls of painter's paper my grandfather sometimes brought home from his seasonal job as a trades painter.

I had some talent, but my artistic prowess was problematic. I would fill my spelling book with drawings instead of words — an exercise that landed me in what my school called the "barracks." These were outside portables where other undesirable students (primarily minorities) could be failed forward. 

The spelling book stunt wasn't the only reason I was relegated to the lower conveyor belt. Being a deceptively easy mark for bullies didn't help either. You learn to fight or flee early on. Yeah, I fought. What you don't learn to do is read. 

"Needs Improvement" as a Badge of Honor

I couldn't read in the third grade. It was one of the reasons I intervened in my daughter's education as early as I did. I didn't want her to land in the same place I did, failing forward until somebody caught you. 

In my case, it was my grandmother. She rejected the idea of sending an illiterate kid to the fourth grade. So, she pulled me from public school and re-enrolled me as a repeating third grader in a Catholic school. The school re-evaluated my skills, elevating me in some areas and getting me the help I needed in others. 

Say what you will about secular schools. They work well when they work. I don't just mean stricter discipline (although there was that too). I mean, being Christian trumping all other labels. Suddenly, it didn't matter that my skin was a little darker (I'm part Native American), my last name was ethnic (it wasn't Becker at the time), or my feet were in corrective shoes. It felt like a fresh start — for a year, anyway. 

Literacy comes from introductions, accidental and otherwise. 

With my grandmother dying of cancer, the family decided to reunite me with my mother and her new family. One of the benefits was my step-father figure enjoyed watching movies and ordered HBO through the apartment complex. 

I was hooked on fantasy after seeing the animated Hobbit (1977) and Lord of the Rings (1978). For those who remember, the first film only adapted The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. I had to save up $10 to get the four-book set on my 25-cent-a-week allowance. But it didn't matter. I was reading. I also played Dungeons & Dragons, which encourages reading, writing, and arithmetic. 

Fantasy caught my fancy, but I didn't become an avid reader until my family moved to Las Vegas by way of Minnesota. In the seventh grade, my reading teacher let me turn in a book report on the thinnest book I could find. But then he challenged me to read Dune by Frank Herbert. Maybe it was my own move from the land of lakes (Caladan) to the desert (Arrakis), but Paul Atredes was someone I could relate to. 

Art was still my first love, except for the fear and the doubt. 

My mother didn't want me to become an artist because that was what my biological father did. I gravitated to psychology instead. Writing wasn't even on my radar despite having had a few poems published, a short story serialized in junior high, and a one-act play with subject matter deemed too adult for high school. 

While I finished college only two classes shy of a dual major, I shifted toward advertising. I meant to do it with art, but the University of Nevada, Reno (by way of Whittier College) had an advertising track through journalism. They taught me to write — not fiction per se, but everything else: ads and articles. 

Most of it was short-form storytelling: Magazine ads, television spots, radio commercials, billboards, news articles, and feature stories. And then more stories, blog posts, websites, campaign strategies, core message systems, and integrated marketing communication. I told other people's stories and then taught other people how to tell other people's stories, too, when I taught classes at UNLV. 

It took almost 30 years and thousands of books before I realized I wanted to tell some of my stories. So that's what I did with the release of 50 States. And again with Ten Threads. And again with Third Wheel. 

Readers are the people who help others discover reading. 

Undoubtedly, my life would be very different had I not learned to read. Sure, I may have become an artist after all. Or not. I could have done a dozen jobs like those I did trying to pay my way through school. I might have been good at them, too, but I was never as satisfied as I am today. 

As a reader, I feel like I haven't lived just one life but hundreds and thousands of others. It was an amazing gift that opened my eyes to opportunities. And it's a gift I hope to pay forward. 

Sadly, right now in the United States, 48 million people cannot read above a third-grade level, which places our literacy rate at around 79 percent, which is a lower rate than it was in 1875. It peaked in the 1970s and has been declining ever since. Even among those who are literate, approximately half read at about a middle-school level. 

In some cases, all they need is a reason to read and the right book to hook them. I recently opened an online bookshop to promote some titles on the eclectic shelf. (I'll be adding two non-fiction shelves very soon; one specifically for writers.) This week, I've also discounted all digital versions of my books: 50 States, Ten Threads (free for Kindle Unlimited members), and Third Wheel in an effort to promote literacy. 

Maybe gifting the book or, better yet, promising to read along with someone can make a difference in their lives. That's how my children learned to love books — reading together with me, out loud, alternating paragraphs as we went. It's a technique that works at every age and one I hope you try with someone. 

You never know. One day they could become an accidental author too. Or at minimum, part of a national solution. What do I mean by that? Bringing all adults to the equivalent of a sixth-grade reading level would generate an additional $2.2 trillion in annual income for the country, and save between $106–$238 billion in health care costs. We can do better. Good night and good luck. 

Saturday, August 5

Reading Early Reviews: Third Wheel

I was having lunch on Balboa Beach when I received the review notification for my debut novel, Third Wheel, from Kirkus Reviews. A mist was over the water, and a dead seagull washed up in the surf. It didn't seem like the best of omens.

My daughter encouraged me to load the review anyway, a daunting task with only one service bar on my phone. She was amused to see me a little nervous and reassured me it was a good book. I shrugged. She had only read two chapters. 

Maybe I should have let it load in the parking lot. Maybe I should have just forgotten about it and enjoyed the view. I might have if it wasn't for the seagull. I already had two early reviews, both positive. And you know the old saying: Two in the pot is better than one caught in a tug of war between the sea and sand.

"Writers aren't supposed to care about reviews, anyway," she mused. She would say that. She's an artist.

Writers don't care about reviews, do we? Yes and no. You get good ones. You get bad ones. It's easy enough to weather reviews nine months down the line as readers express their impressions. It's a little harder to ignore the early editorial reviews ahead of a launch — you kind of need them to give your book lift on the front end.

My first editorial review came from the OnlineBookClub. I had steeled myself through the first paragraph, which is almost always a revised description before the hammer. You hold your breath for paragraph two.

"Third Wheel by Richard R. Becker is an exhilarating story... I rate the book five out of five stars." — OnlineBookClub 

I could breathe easy after that, insomuch as anyone can when there are still two or three more due. The second one was from Readers' Favorite. I wasn't sure what to expect because my debut book, 50 States, received a rave review, but only four stars there. 

"The best part is the way Becker’s storytelling technique incorporates realistic characters and subplots into a vivid story that is as engaging as it is thought-provoking. Becker deserves plaudits for the effort that went into creating this book and I enjoyed reading it." — Readers' Favorite

With reviews like this, my daughter was probably right. Don't worry about it, not even if the seagull washes right up to our newly purchased beach blanket. So I turned the phone over and then looked again anyway.

"A dark and skillful teenage crime novel with plenty of heart."Kirkus Reviews 

The review went several steps further, praising the prose and my my handling of a challenging protagonist. The verdict was to get it. It's a good book. I took screenshots and sent them to my wife anyway, asking if it was a good review. She smiled at the reviewer referencing John Hughes movies (except darker and more nihilistic) because there's some truth to it. We all lived like that in the 80s. I'll take it.

So my daughter and I decided to celebrate in our own way, dashing across town to catch a mere six innings of a Los Angeles Dodgers game against the Toronto Blue Jays. My book, Third Wheel, fared better than they did. They were trounced. 

Third Wheel will be released on Aug. 21, 2023. Members of Goodreads can enter a giveaway ahead of the release, with winners announced one day after. If the contest goes well, there may be another. Thank you for all the support!

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Friday, July 14

Comparing Customer Service: A Tale of Two Experiences

About four months ago, we bought a Whirlpool range from RC Willey. After a few weeks of use, the oven's computer board inexplicably rendered the oven inoperable. No big deal. These things happen, and it's under warranty.

Except, Whirlpool currently has a parts issue. The technicians could not get the needed parts, and Whirlpool was unable to provide an estimate of when these parts would be available. So we cooked on the stovetop and used a slow cooker for a few days. Then it became a few weeks.

After a month, with no foreseeable repair in the future, my wife decided to call RC Willey. She didn't expect a solution but wanted them to know about the issues related to selling Whirlpool products. RC Willey wouldn't have it. They immediately sent out a new range so we wouldn't have to wait anymore. 

Wow. That's customer service. And this is why we shop at RC Willey. 

Earlier this year, I was introduced to Pixellot, which focuses on AI-automatic video and analytics for sports. As a high school softball coach, I was interested in capturing player performance during games. 

Pixellot talks a good game. Even though their AI sports camera is not available for softball, they said they could set me up with a stationary camera solution with multiple angles and their VidSwap application. 

It was a pricey proposition with a three-year lease, but I decided to give it a go — even when they told me the analytics portion was not included in the camera lease. No big deal. I was already sold that this could somehow be better than a GoPro. It wasn't. 

For two months during the high school season, I lugged three heavy suitcases and two tripods to the fields. The setup of two angles took about 20 minutes (not five minutes, as I was told), plus an additional 20 to 30 minutes for the system to boot up and establish a connection (when it established a connection). On two occasions, the cheap plastic mounts that connected heavy metal cameras to heavy metal extension arms broke. The wind took the system out twice, one time blowing the tightly clamped arm clean off the fence and another time knocking over a tripod. 

Their software lacked too. It required me to strip my iPad of most other apps and content (to free up space for the footage), which would then be uploaded to the VidSwap platform. Overall, the capture-transfer success rate was about 20 percent with one angle and 0 percent with two angles. 

The first time I decided to leave Pixelott behind and film a game using my GoPro (and extended battery pack), it was a relief. I knew I would never unpack the Pixelott equipment again. I zip-tied the suitcases.

While Pixelott wouldn't hold me to the lease beyond the first year (I was still in the trial phase when I canceled), they weren't interested in extending any refunds on the unused analytics portion of the contract. I didn't expect it, but their explanation lacked. When I purchased the analytics, they charged me as an individual. But when considering the refund, they claimed the purchase belonged to my school. It also took a month to receive refund labels, which didn't correspond to the equipment I had to send back.

Wow. That's not customer service. And this is why I have nothing good to say about Pixellot. 

As owners and managers, we must always remember that customer service is a choice that directly corresponds to the choices that customers make in the future. More than that, it directly corresponds to what we tell other customers, too, and the overall reputation and brand of the company. Choose wisely. 


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