Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Society: 'Stuart, a life backwards'

Alexander Master's unforgettable book (Harper 2006) about a man who spent half his short life in prison and much else of it homeless is given extra fascination because it's a Cambridge story, involving situations and ministries I know quite well. Stuart Shorter apparently is one of the 'chaotic homeless'. Among the few staples in his life are drugs and alcohol.

Healing didn't reach him
Stuart does come across people or environments that were genuinely caring and healing -- this in the midst of much of the inadequate un-joined-up work that is called 'care' in our society.

  • HMP Grendon, a prison for the mentally ill that is uniquely therapeutic: he manages to get himself sent there (there's a waiting list), but then ships out, unable to face or bear the regime, even though they seemed perhaps to be getting to the roots of his chaotic behaviour
  • A girlfriend, who seemed to offer genuine love: his response simply was to take everything she offered, then disappear and get high on drink or drugs for a few weeks
  • The Emmaus community outside Cambridge, which offers a simple, working community, which he turns his back on.
The joy of solvents
The book describes the joy of solvents: amazing hallucinations from almost anything containing solvents: glue, Tipp-Ex, nail varnish, car paint and on and on. The typical gluehead is an adolescent,lower-class male with low interest and motivation, whose father left or died when the child was young, who is excluded or rejected by his peers, and short of stature' (p172) -- all of which is true of Stuart.

How it happened
The book seems to blame two things for Stuart's destruction:
  • Child abuse at the hands of his brother and his babysitter; then by some of those in the care system, including some of the most popular and respected social workers
  • Choosing violence and madness as a way to get respect when he was bullied and mocked for his physical handicaps as a small boy.
Neither Stuart nor Alexander Masters has much time for God. Stuart, at least, however, has no problem believing in the Devil. Near the end of the book, Stuart says this:

"You know, Alexander, I don't know meself how I got to be like this ... sometimes I think I'm the child of the Devil. Honestly, I do believe that. I've invited the Devil in, and now I can't get him out. I've tried burning him out and cutting him out and he don't take no notice. Why should he? He doesn't want to be homeless. He's got me. Little, skinny, violent me." (p 284).

Monday, October 23, 2006

History: John Milton

Rediscovering John Milton is a bit like stumbling over some ruined palace in an overgrown jungle: you have to hack through lots of classical allusions and conventions, but it's scarcely believable what you uncover.

Milton (1608-1674) was a polemicist for the Puritan government after the Civil War -- a job which cost him his sight. He achieved his life-calling, to write epic poems in English, in later life.

He fell somewhat out of favour with orthodox Christians after his death because of his apparently heterodox views on the Trinity.

Here's a couple of quotes from his earlier poems:

From On Time:
Then long eternity shall greet our bliss 

With an individual kiss,

From Lycidas (a lament to his friend Edward King, drowned in a passage from Chester to the Irish Sea, 1637; the ‘most perfect long short poem in the English language’)

So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,
Through the dear might of him that walk'd the waves

The 'dear might of him that walk'd the waves' is such a beautiful phrase, a bit of a class apart from your standard hymnody.

Now I'm tackling Paradise Lost itself, with two helps at my side:
  • Margery Hope Nicholson's book A Reader's Guide to John Milton (Thames and Hudson). I picked this up in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge; I expect such bookshops are full of them because it's probably a set text.
  • Then I'm using this annotated internet version of the great poem.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Internet: 'The Long Tail'

This insightful book, by the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, describes three trends that are changing the way we produce things and shop for them:
  1. It's easier to produce stuff (think of how much easier it now is to publish music, books, films, facts, opinions than it was in the days when traditional media ruled)
  2. It's easier to store this material (for example, Amazon can 'store' over approaching four million books, four hundred times better than the biggest Borders store.)
  3. It's easier for customers to find this material (through search technologies and recommendations, for example).
The result is the Long Tail, the idea that via the Internet we can all access an almost infinite inventory of products and ideas. It turns out that, when we are given this choice, we use it. This in turn means:
  • Bestsellers are less important, as are all the power-structures devoted to the care and feeding of bestsellers -- editors, agents, publishers, stock-buyers, advertisers
  • There's money in that there Tail. For example, Chris Anderson quotes the figure than around 750,000 Americans rely on Ebay as their primary or secondary source of income. All these people are supplying specialist goods and services that would be hard to find in the high street. He gives examples of self-published books that are selling between 5,000 and 50,000 copies without bothering agents or mainstream publishers or high street bookstores at all. This is fascinating because of 1.2 million books being sold in 2004, fewer than 25,000 titles sold more than 5,000 copies in that year.

His final chapter suggests some ways to succeed in the Long Tail world. Briefly:
  1. Make everything available
  2. Help me find
Or slightly less briefly:
1. Stock everything
2. Get your customers to help -- for example by holding stock themselves (like Amazon's marketplace) or by their input and criticism that helps people find their way around your site.
3. One product, price, and location doesn't fit all. Try to offer as many different flavours of everything that you can.
4. Stock everything, and track sales, rather than trying to guess what to stock
5. Don't underestimate the power of free. You can build a business that involves 90% of your customers not paying anything (like Yahoo or Skype).

Some random ways in which the Long Tail affects my little world:

Some book agents are going to get the idea soon that the best way to find a possible best seller is simply to look at the self-published books that are selling well on Amazon, and then offer the author a contract, rather than trying to figure out what we sell well (and usually getting it wrong).

We should adopt Long Tail thinking when we come to marketing ourselves and our books in the mission agency I work for. For example, we can target Google ads at people we want to recruit. Our website will be enhanced by free stuff and by areas where users can put in their own material, for example missions mobilization ideas.

I've worked in the past in writing and compiling information about the Church worldwide, putting the material into a series of books called Briefings. These were great fun to do and have sold many tens of thousands of copies. See, conveniently, my website. But they have many limitations. It would be much more authentic and quite a lot of fun to set up a Wiki system where people around the world could write about their own cities and countries, passing on information, asking for prayer, and supplying links to videos and so on.