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I Learned to Type on a Manual Underwood August 28, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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I realize I’m seriously dating myself, but there is a point to this story. At a time when typing was a part of the high school “business track” pursued largely by aspiring secretaries, I was convinced by a friend to use my only open period in my second semester senior year (when I should have been coasting to graduation) to take a course in personal typing. It turned out that I did reasonably well (around 40 words per minute, touch-typing).

I had a typewriter through college, that one an inexpensive electric. In my offices in the 1980s, I had ready access to the ubiquitous IBM Selectric models that made typing easy (as long as you had Wite-Out). I got my first computer (yes, an original Apple Macintosh, which I still own and still boots) in the mid-1980s, and didn’t need Wite-Out any more.

Of course, fast forward ten years or so, and personal computers are emerging as a force in business, and traditional secretaries have largely disappeared. And if you didn’t know how to touch type, or at least use all fingers (except the left thumb, as my high school typing teacher told us), you were largely left behind in this emerging world. Some learned in mid-career, but most never became that proficient. Today, if you don’t type reasonably fast, there are far fewer paths to becoming a professional.

The main point is that you never know what skills you need to move through life. I have certainly written millions of words for work and for pleasure, and the vast majority of those have been written on typewriter or computer. Without the fundamental skills I acquired in an otherwise nondescript existence at Hopewell High School in the mid-1970s, this thing I joking refer to as my career would have stymied long ago.

What is the skill needed by upcoming generations? In general, I don’t think it’s the ability to navigate social networks. But if I can draw upon my own past (which may not be a good vision of the future), typing is a very exacting skill; you either get it right or you don’t. I suspect that it will be more of the same concept in the future. Getting the right answer, or getting the process exactly right, will predominate the skills needed as young workers attempt to enter and advance in the workforce.

The other point is a minor but telling one. When typing using a fixed-space font (such as the IBM Elite), the rule was that every sentence ended with a <period-space-space>. Today, I am given to understand that with proportional fonts such as Times New Roman, the separation between sentences is only a single space.

Yet I can’t bring myself to do that. I tell myself that I need the double space in order to gather my thoughts before beginning the next sentence, but the fact of the matter is that it seems to be ingrained into my psyche. For those I have inflicted with my <period-space-space> mentality, I’m sorry, but it will not change.

Next time, let me tell you about Xywrite.

I Pushed the Button June 18, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing.
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While I spend much of my time advocating and evangelizing for technology, software development, testing, and the application lifecycle, I have an enthusiastic avocation, that of a mystery novelist. I simply find freedom and mental escape in building my own worlds, creating complex puzzles, and interacting with the characters I create.

It has been a long time coming, but last night I pushed the button to self-publish my novel Dead Code to the Amazon Kindle platform. As the title implies, it’s a tech mystery surrounding a series of murders at a fledgling software company. It weighs in at about 107,000 words, and will be available for download on Amazon for $2.99 US, or the equivalent in other currencies (Amazon sets those prices based on applicable exchange rates).

Dead Code was substantially finished about ten years ago, but I have only recently dusted it off, cleaned it up, and updated it for publishing.

Self-publishing is a challenge, but unless you are an established author, or a brilliant writer, or have a benefactor or simply very good luck, it is probably the best way of getting known as a new author. Now I have to get to work marketing it, which is the real challenge for any author, whether independently published or published with an established publishing company.

I’ll have the link to Dead Code up on my website in a day or two. In the meantime, you can read the first three chapters there. I have other works coming, in time, but certainly less than another ten years.

I May Need a Kindle February 15, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Software platforms.
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I don’t have anything against a Kindle.  Amazon is the world’s largest bookstore, the Kindles generally get decent reviews, and the company has released its ebook format so that others can adopt it.

The latter, of course, was my biggest concern about Kindle and Amazon, and it’s been over a year, and I’m seeing an increasing number of sites (I mean you, Gutenberg Project) making out-of-copyright books available in the format for free download.

I have a Barnes and Noble superstore down the street, and while I don’t browse that much anymore, there is a certain comfort in knowing that I still can.

But more and more interesting books are coming out in electronic, rather than paper form.  And more and more are coming out on the Kindle first, and ePub later, if at all.  I have already bought one book that is only available on a Kindle, and am considering two others.

I suppose I can get a tablet, and use the Kindle reader.  For the Kindle books I have bought so far, that’s what I do, on my laptop.  But I’m unready to commit to a tablet, wanting to see a little more maturity in the market before I make a selection (it probably won’t be an iPad; I just can’t see buying into the Apple ecosystem).

But I fear that this trend portends larger issues for Nook, and Barnes and Noble in general.  Authors are increasingly going to ebook formats only.  That’s a good thing, because it’s increasingly difficult to get a paper book published without going the self-publishing route.  There is nothing inherently wrong with self-publishing, but it does mean that authors are also their own marketers and publicists, which most would prefer not to do.

For those who are seeking an inexpensive way of getting interesting work out to a small audience, the ebook is a natural.  But there is a cost and time commitment to place an ebook in multiple formats on multiple reading platforms.  Some authors prefer supporting a single platform only.  Given that Amazon and Kindle have the majority of sales and readers (65 percent?  I’ve heard various figures that give about two-thirds to Amazon, slightly less than 30 percent to Nook, and a smattering elsewhere.), authors want their works to reach that majority.

As more individual authors make the decision to support the most popular platform, more readers will move to that platform.  There will always likely be a place for an alternative, but the best and most interesting work will appear on Kindle, and readers will follow them.

Is E-Reading a Dead End? January 8, 2013

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing.
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Nicholas Carr is the smartest consistently wrong person that I am aware of.  He may be contrarian because there is a lot more publicity in being spectacularly wrong than boringly right, but he’s still wrong.

You may remember him from his decade-ago tome entitled “IT Doesn’t Matter”.  The thesis was that IT did the same thing for every company, and no one had a competitive advantage, so it didn’t matter in the success of a business.

He was wrong, of course.  Amazon is a case in point.  IT is very much a competitive advantage to those who use it right, and that is impossible to deny today.  Why else do we have Facebook?  And why is Amazon steamrolling over both online and offline competition?

Still, it made a name for this Harvard Business School professor, and he seems to have found a way of keeping himself relevant through provocative but strongly misguided conclusions.

Well, he’s at it again.  Now he’s into e-reading, claiming that it will be a complement to paper books, not a replacement.  Certainly, his data offers pause, as he notes that e-books sales have slowed, and weren’t that large a part of the reading market to begin with.  I can appreciate this straw man idea.

But he once again doesn’t take into account the longer trend, rather focusing on a shorter-term blip.  Paper remains expensive, and the longer trend is toward low-cost delivery mechanisms.  Paper is also slow, and we are increasingly a society that values speed in our information.

And he offers no justification as to why paper may ultimately win out.  That’s even worse than the silly justifications I hear from my former colleagues in publishing; the best they can muster is that “they like the feel of paper in their hands.”  That’s just stupid.

Carr isn’t stupid, but there’s no substance behind his argument.

Apps Won’t Save Publishing May 13, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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What is it about the publishing industry that makes it so resistant to radical change?  Despite the clarity of changes surrounding the environment in which publishing operates, there has been little effective effort at transforming publishing in response.  According to one source, newspaper circulation and revenues continue on a downward trajectory.

There have been some successes at the edges, with a few digital models working adequately.  But MIT’s fabled Technology Review honestly recounts its unfavorable experience with its digital app, demonstrating that simply porting your paper (or HTML) version to an iOS or Android app is both expensive and unsatisfying for both readers and advertisers.  Ultimately, Technology Review dropped its app entirely.

There is certainly some question as to whether Technology Review approached the app question correctly, and whether it executed the strategy well, but this unusually frank commentary provides a picture that is probably pretty typical of the thought and effort a traditionally print publication might put into an app version.

I don’t think publishing professionals are any less smart than those in other industries that have had better success in adapting.  But there does seem to be a lack of imagination on how to leverage one or more digital platforms as both a reading and advertising platform.  Or how to find significant revenue streams outside of the advertising realm.  Until this happens, I think we had better prepare ourselves for the day when we as a society can’t afford an independent news and information service in the digital realm.

The Encyclopedia Britannica Has Gone Out of Print March 17, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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Kid Dynamite noted that the 2010 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica will be the last one printed.  According to the publisher, only 12,000 sets were printed, and only 8000 sold so far, for the somewhat lofty price of $1,395 a set.  At its height, in the early 1990s, 120,000 copies were sold.  About half a million households pay a $70 annual fee for the online subscription.

This article largely lays the blame at the feet of the wisdom of crowds in general and Wikipedia in particular.  While Encyclopedia Britannica disagrees, at least one study has found that the number of factual errors between Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica were similar.

But accuracy is only one part of the equation.  Encyclopedia strive for a neutral tone, but the Wikipedia reader is still getting discussion pages that often carry out a debate on facts and perceived bias.  It shows you the seamy underside of the so-called pure information presented in books.

I grew up learning facts that seemed to be more-or-less black and white.  As my education progressed, the facts became less absolute and more nuanced, and I gradually learned that the truth was considerably more ambiguous than had first been presented to me.  But it was a learning process that took years.  I wonder if my learning would have been accelerated if I had access to multiple points of view earlier in the educational process.

Print encyclopedias hold a special place to me.  As a youth with limited educational and experiential opportunities, I read encyclopedias – the ones my parents managed to acquire on a very limited budget, and after I obtained my driver’s license, those that were available through the local Carnegie Public Library in the western Pennsylvania steel town in which I was raised.

Reading encyclopedias didn’t make me a better person, but it did make me a different one.  I don’t regret the passing of print information such as the Encyclopedia Britannica.  In fact, when information first became available on products such as Microsoft Encarta, I marveled that I no longer had to read sequentially.  Instead, hyperlinks took me to related information far afield of the original topic, providing a sense of discovery that I didn’t experience in reading encyclopedias.

The Future of Advertising and Privacy February 25, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Technology and Culture.
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I’ve always hated dependence on advertising revenue.  When I was in publishing, that’s how we made our money, and I always thought it to be a cheap and fickle revenue stream.  I am, however, smart enough to know that I didn’t have any actionable ideas to improve upon it.  Publishers in effect leased out their mailing lists to companies that wanted people on those lists to buy their products.

In short, the mailing list was the publisher’s product – our names and addresses, specifically.  Early on (Byte, PC World), the volume of advertising was based entirely on numbers – hundreds of thousands, or even millions, who subscribed to these publications.  We didn’t know very much about them, but advertisers liked the numbers.

Somewhere in the latter part of the 1990s, advertisers became more discerning.  It wasn’t enough to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to have the subscribers view a succession of full-page ads.  We needed to know if they had the potential to consider purchasing our product or service.

Now we have Facebook.  The goal of Facebook is “frictionless sharing”, meaning that every single activity of our lives is available for sharing online.  Yes, everything we do.  In fact, Zuckerberg once famously claimed that if we didn’t want some information about us public, we must be engaged in something inappropriate.

Robert Scoble loves Facebook and the concept of frictionless sharing, but he acknowledges that there is a “freaky line”, as he calls it.  The freaky line is the point at which we get freaked out by what we expose to others.

He notes that Facebook routinely crosses the line, possibly to determine just where it is for many of us at that particular moment, so that it can gauge just how much information it can routinely share about its users.  For some reason, despite the mountains of criticism, users just keep coming back to Facebook.

I have a few takeaways from the ongoing debate about publishing, social media and privacy.

  1. Nothing will ever completely replace advertising as a media business model.  A few people will pay enough for certain types of content to be able to have a niche business, but that’s about it.
  2. Print publications were never free twenty years ago, and social media isn’t free today.  We’re paying for them with our information.
  3. We as individuals don’t own the data on ourselves that we provide or otherwise make available to social media sites.  The best we can hope for is to someday have visitation rights.
  4. This disclosure of information to advertisers is simply the next step in a long history of exchanging our information for value of some sort.  Nothing new here, folks.  With about 200,000 (give or take on any particular day) hits on my name on Google, I have long since abdicated any notion that I remain anonymous.

My problem with social media is not really any of this, per se.  I may have privacy in my own home (well, until I installed the IP camera last month), but I can’t count on no notice once I leave the house.

My problem is that I don’t really care what my friends and acquaintances are doing at any particular moment, what music they are listening to, what TV shows they are watching, or what bar they are at.  I simply don’t have the time to wonder about it, let alone track them through social media.  I marvel at people who do, and wonder what they are losing in the quest to have such knowledge.

I think the Toyota Venza commercial of last year hit the nail on the head here.

On Content and Relevance in Media February 17, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing.
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My first foray into technology publishing was at the end of 1988, joining Phil Lemmons, Cathy Baskin, Dave Betz, and other talented people in starting a new computer magazine.  Like most startups, it faltered for a combination of reasons, closing completely after about three years.  But I found what I was good at in life.  I spent the next 20 years doing it either full time or moonlighting.

There have been many changes in technology publishing, and publishing in general, in that time.  Much of that, of course, has been driven by the Web, which lets anyone be a publisher, provides unlimited space for stories, and offers the potential for worldwide content distribution.

In the 1980s and into the 1990s, tech editors and writers tended to be people with a technical education and/or experience.  We were paid fairly close to technical salaries (I actually got a nice raise over my previous software engineering job), and were expected to know our subject matter at a deep technical level.

The cost dynamics have changed a great deal, with $10K full-page, four-color advertisements replaced by ad impressions for a few cents.  Whenever I did it full time, I managed to keep close to a technical salary, but those around me became younger, non-technical, and far lower paid.  In most cases, they willingly learned enough to do what their corporate masters demanded, but never really understood what they were writing about.

I mention this because of several interesting articles recently have commented on the current and future state of content in the Web era.  MG Siegler notes that the culture of blogging and seemingly unlimited content in tech publishing has produced a plethora of blogs about other blog posts, rather than about technology.

Felix Salmon describes the quantity versus quality debate, concluding from more recent examples of broadly read, extensively reported and edited content is making a comeback over volumes of lightly reported, poor quality blogs.  However, Felix is known for drawing the conclusions he wants to draw, irrespective of available evidence, so I take what he says with a grain of salt.

And there’s Clay Shirky, who I respect a great deal, who finds himself fighting a rear-guard action against those who believe that the problems with publishing and journalism today are merely cyclical.

I can still speak fairly definitively of tech publishing, and noted a period of the mid to late 1990s where it became less about getting the tech story right and analyzing the implications, and more about interviewing company representatives and presenting those interviews as an industry debate.  That was when I started feeling less a participant in the industry, and more of an outside observer.  I wasn’t expected to (and was actively discouraged from) critically evaluate a statement or technology based on my own expertise.

Today, many of the articles I see are about technology users and their practices.  While any publisher will tell you that’s what people want to read, that’s simply not true.  Most want to read about cool new technologies, not a case study that is more about the personalities than the solutions.

The problem is that it takes people who understand the cool new technologies to write about them.  And publishers don’t employ them any more.  There are still some niche publishers and bloggers who understand the technology and can explain it to readers, but you won’t find it in any mainstream outlets.

It’s a shame, because readers aren’t being well served.  I acknowledge the fact that publishers had to find a way to stay in business, and editorial is always a place to cut costs.  And advertisers use media in a very different way than they have in the past, to gather sales leads, rather than promote their brand.

It’s a chicken and egg problem.  If publishers had continued to produce relevant technical content, would advertisers have spent more?  I don’t know, but based on some of the experiences of those niche publishers, my guess would be yes.

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