Friday, September 01, 2006

The freedom to be stupid, or, how to become an American billionaire

A friend of mine called me up this week and asked if I was going to attend Dragon*Con. Man, I wish I were, but I had taken so much time off my job this year that I didn't feel I could afford to take an extra day. So I made no plans to attend the convention, which is just as well, since losing my job on Monday has made me a little more cost-conscious for now.

Although I still have an income from my Internet consulting, every day is a new day for me. I wasn't planning on joining the ranks of the self-employed this year. I have been down this road before and it's as rocky today as it ever was. The challenges are often rewarding, but having to drum up business for myself is kind of a drag. When I was living on gambling, if I needed money I'd go down to a local casino and hit the slots.

That worked well for about 2-1/2 years, until the week I lost $3,000 and then I decided maybe I'd better get a real job.

As a writer I've made some money from books, articles, and work-for-hire projects. For the longest time, the most money I made from writing came from work-for-hire. I had to put up with hooty-snooty authors who supported themselves under their own names telling me I wasn't a real writer. Maybe not by their standards, but a check in the mail is worth the cash I can get for it. Some work-for-hire projects pay very, very well.

I have made money off my books (more off Visualizing Middle-earth than off Understanding Middle-earth, oddly enough. I'm not sure what it says about an author whose self-published reprint of previously published essays outsells a vetted, editorially chosen book (that is admittedly an update on mostly previously published essays). Understanding Middle-earth is, in my opinion, the far better book. It is certainly larger, but the essays were all revised and updated, and there is one essay in the book that you won't (legally) find elsewhere.

Well, the book sales have fallen off and I suppose I could write another book. I actually sent a manuscript to my agent last year but she asked me to find four others like it for comparison. At the time, there were no other books like it, so I let the project drop. Last fall, about six similar books came out....

I could, in theory, just get in the car and drive to Atlanta and show up for part of Dragon*Con. Maybe I could still buy a plane ticket, but the cost of airfare these days is outrageous. While I'm glad that the airlines are becoming profitable, I'm not glad to fly. Not only is it more expensive than it used to be, it is a great deal more inconvenient. The security measures we have to put up with are just not worth the hassle -- which, of course, is why many people insist on flying. They don't want to give in to Osama Bin Laden's terrorism. Me, I was never really a fan of flying anyway.

Now that I have the freedom to do what I want, go where I want, I'm still really not free. I have a responsibility to myself to keep paying my bills. So, it would be nice if I could win the lottery, but the chances of that happening are zilch. I don't buy lottery tickets.

People used to say to me, "Michael, you're a programmer. You should be able to get a programming job. There are lots of them." Yeah, lots of jobs programming in languages I never heard of. Most companies want to hire programmers who are at least aware of the basic syntax of their chosen programming languages. I was an expert in Business Basic, a language developed for mini-computers.

I used to work for Basis International, Ltd., one of the leading providers of Business Basic. Things went sour there when they brought in a new president who decided he wanted the company to go in an entirely different direction. He dropped their most profitable product (it brought in $600,000 in revenue in 1996 with virtually no support costs), fired over half the staff, and launched not one but two redesigns of the flagship programming language they offer -- redesigns which have driven most of their old customer base to a competitive product that was in many ways inferior to Basis' offering at the time Mr. Marketing Genius took over.

My Web design skills have never been more than adequate. It takes too long to design snappy, glitzy sites. I would never have built Xenite.Org into a huge mega site if I had stopped to make things look pretty. Now programmers, Web designers, and search engine optimization specialists snicker at my ugly pages. But I get more visitors than they do. And if I want a top ranking for a query, I can pretty much get it faster than most other people.

So, snicker away, dudes. You may have pretty products, but you're still looking to me for advice and analysis. What does that say about who is freer than whom?

We're all bound to each other. We're like slaves in a galley, chained to the oars of progress, forcing each other to keep rowing because none of us can really get ahead of the others.

Maybe it's just because I don't have much of the kind of savvy that makes a Bill Gates or Larry Page a billionaire. These guys are not particularly brilliant in a technical sense. In fact, their flagship products (PageRank and DOS) leave a lot to be desired from a technical point of view. But their marketing savvy is unquestionably outstanding. Anyone who can take an inferior product and sell it to an unwitting public for billions of dollars has to be smart in some way.

Or just really, really lucky.

Maybe my problem is that I haven't come up with enough stupid ideas. If I can just devise the next Really Stupid Thing, people will buy it and make me rich.

And then I'll be able to buy my own plane and fly anywhere I want to. I'll be free at last, free at last, free at last.

So, stay tuned, keep coming back, and cross your fingers. I'll do my best to come up with something really stupid for you to spend your money on. You're always free to buy some other idiot's dumb idea, so what have you got to lose?


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