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What We Lose in Reading Digitally October 14, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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I have almost never picked up a physical book in the last three years. Virtually everything I have read (and I am a voracious reader) has been digital, first on my Nook, and over the last year on my phone.  I prefer it that way.  I carry my library with me, and can read anything I want, whenever I want.  And I don’t have to fill my backpack with a bunch of paperbacks.

I discovered something today. I discovered that I could not, at least not conveniently, give the gift of a book in a digital format.  It used to be if I wanted to gift a book, I would go to a bookstore, buy the book, and give it to you.  I may end up doing that here (the Barnes and Noble superstore is only five minutes away, although I have no idea if they stock this particular book), but buying a digital book as a gift is almost impossible.  My accounts at Barnes and Noble, and at Amazon, are tied to my reading software and my devices.

I’m not even sure how I would gift a digital book. The reader often tells me if it’s possible to loan a book (sometimes it’s not, apparently), but doesn’t say anything about buying a book for someone else.  From the standpoint of the book economy, this doesn’t seem to make any sense.

It troubles me that I cannot easily gift a book in the digital era. This doesn’t seem to be a use case with either Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and that is to their detriment.  I have spent some time looking into this, and don’t see any good way of doing it.  And I have never had to spend any time doing it with physical books.  This is odd.  Books have often been one of the most popular of gifts, and we don’t easily allow that any more.

The fact of the matter is that while we’ve made it easier to buy (digital) books, we have made it more difficult to gift them. That’s simply wrong, and we have taken a step back in that regard.  Book sellers, are you listening?  I think not.

Once Again, Zuckerberg Demonstrates That He is Evil September 9, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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Those of you who know me also know that I have made it a point to never join Facebook. A large part of that is driven by an instinctive need to keep my professional side separate and distinct from my personal side.  You may know who I am, but it’s likely you know little about me (to be fair, it’s probably not like you care all that much, either).

But further, I disagree strongly with the arbitrary power that Facebook wields, in advertising, in shaping societal mores, and in editorial. This latter was never more evident than this week, where Facebook peremptorily and unilaterally, without any semblance of discussion or debate, removed a world-renown, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (and accompanying article) of the Vietnam War from a newspaper’s Facebook page.

The Norwegian newspaper that published the article and photo, and even the Norwegian Prime Minister, raged publicly about the action. To its (miniscule) credit, several hours after the story became public, Facebook agreed to repost the photo and article “sometime in the coming days.”  Until then, Facebook insisted that the iconic photo violated its user standards.  Facebook claims that it is a technology company, not a publisher, but when it can decide what a billion or more people can see, it is by far the largest publisher in the world.

In a larger sense, it bothers me because Zuckerberg’s actions, even (or especially) the stupid ones, cause increasing harm as Facebook becomes still more ubiquitous. And because Zuckerberg, still in his early 30s, is set to do harm for several decades ahead.

Over half a century ago, US Secretary of Defense and former CEO of General Motors Charles Wilson was quoted as saying, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”  (That quote, while well-known, is slightly bastardized; it is really the slightly less offensive “I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.  There was no difference.”)

I fear that Zuckerberg has taken this false maxim several steps further. I think that Zuckerberg feels strongly that whatever Facebook does is leading the world into a better place.  Thanks to business success, Zuckerberg and Facebook wield enormous power, and bear an equally enormous responsibility to use that power wisely.  Instead, we get gross stupidity.

I know he is wrong in the most fundamental way. And I refuse to be a party to it.

What Do We Want in Our News Media? July 15, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing, Uncategorized.
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Well, there is a loaded question if I ever heard one, especially during this interminably dragging election season in the US. News has changed greatly since my youth, I think somewhat for the better.  I am old enough to remember Walter Cronkite (barely), and was a young adult with the likes of Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw.  My newspapers consisted of the Beaver County Times and Pittsburgh Press.  Print, of course, either picked up at the pharmacy or delivered in the vicinity of the door.

I am certainly familiar with all of the downsides of our current news delivery. A variety of delivery sources means that we can choose one that represents our point of view, reaffirming our world view and stunting our knowledge growth.  And the proliferation of news outlets means that there is no time or money (and sometimes no inclination) for copy editing or fact checking, so we are engaged in a real-life rendition of “Believe It or Not”.

And the so-called newsrooms! At times it seems like the protagonists are more interested in bantering with each other rather than conveying information to their audience.  Of course, that is largely the fault of their employers, who today view news delivery as a source of entertainment.

But let’s not forget the positives. We can get news as it is breaking, not on a network or newspaper schedule.  I think that has awakened more people to their connection with the larger world around them.  News is less filtered; let me explain that one.  When half an hour at 6 or 11, or a daily newspaper, was our only way of getting news.  Out of necessity, news was rationed; and we never knew who did the rationing.  Who gave us our world view?  I didn’t know it at the time, but of course it had to be.

The ability to select from multiple news sources gives us the ability to see the same event from different perspectives, giving us a more complete picture of events. I’ve appreciated the reporting of Al Jazeera, for example, because of the complete different take on a lot of Middle Eastern news.  Not that one or the other is correct or incorrect, but rather it’s what they emphasize or downplay that is interesting.

I can’t speak for others, of course, but over the years perusing the Internet I’ve determined what I look for in news. For my needs, I have Felix Salmon to thank, for the period in which he blogged for Reuters.  To be clear, I rarely agreed with anything Felix said.  But his range of interests, and his ability to explain, meant that almost every day I learned something new.  I don’t have to agree with his point of view in order to discover new things.

In the same vein, I would add Justin Fox and Barbara Kiviat, former Curious Capitalist columnists at Time magazine.  Barbara in particular had a penchant for objectively looking at data, and could weave a story out of statistics like few others.  The web publication Quartz also enthralls me, for its ability to go in depth in an incredibly wide variety of topics.

Coding Error or Testing Error? July 12, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing.
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Today the news is full of the revelation that the mobile game Pokemon Go takes full permissions if you sign in using your Google account.  Niantic, the game’s developer, acknowledged this and said it was merely a coding error.  Neither Niantic nor Nintendo had any plans for full access to anyone’s Google account, and apparently a patch is being prepared to fix the error.

I am copasetic with the explanation (I am not a gamer; if I were, I may feel otherwise), and I see how it can happen. But is it an error in coding, or an error in testing?  I call it a testing error; here’s why.

Developers do whatever it takes in order to make an application functional. On more than one occasion in the past (I no longer code, except for fun), I have allocated too much memory, declared too many variables, and kept objects alive too long, in order to ensure that the application works as I expect it too.  My job is to get the application and its features working.

Grabbing too many permissions is similar. I have seen teams that bypass security restrictions because that seems to be the only way to add the needed functionality.  For example, an application may require that the user account have local admin privileges.  Are these required?  Probably not, but in many cases local user privileges didn’t work.  Rather than diagnose why they didn’t work, the developers simply open it up completely.  Their job is to get it working, after all.

I don’t know if Niantic has a formal testing program driven by professional testers, but this sort of problem is all too common. And testers need to step up and take responsibility for issues that fall into the category of access rights and security.

Granted, this isn’t functional UI testing, which even today many testers believe represents the scope of their responsibilities. Few testers look for permissions issues, and these are almost never discovered on development or testing computers, which typically have full permissions.

But they should. I was in a development lab that lost a major enterprise sale because our software required local machine admin rights in order to install.  That enterprise didn’t give any staff employees local machine admin rights, and simply installing our software would have required an IT person to go around to hundreds of computers to adjust permissions.

This is the sort of thing that testing is all about. Understand your customer.  And by your customer, I also mean the organizations you are selling into.  Test the login process, not only to make sure it works, but also to make sure it doesn’t create a security failing.

Yes, this is a failure of testing. To define this as a coding error is misleading.  A competent and curious tester should have caught this before it went out the door.  If you are missing this kind of problem, it behooves you to rethink how you do your job.

Where Are the Copy Editors? November 2, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing.
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As I read Internet comments (forgive me) on news stories, I commonly see that some posts that rail against poor grammar or typos. Where are the copy editors, they ask, in their own superiority of the English grammar.

Well, this isn’t a hard one. Copy editors existed when we published, whether daily, weekly, or monthly, for an audience that would pay for content.  Remember when you bought a newspaper?  I didn’t think so.  That business model is so dead.

And that is a big part of the problem. The cost structure of today’s online news outlets does not permit an army of copy editors to read and mark up editorial copy before it is published.  And that puts additional pressure on the writers to get it right the first time.  Because we want to see it now, not when on the daily printing cycle.

It’s really not a problem, except for the pedantic and inflexible among us. We should recognize that getting real time news, without actually, well, paying for it, is at the expense of other considerations.  By and large, those considerations are on the order of getting news out quickly, with accuracy and grammar taking a back seat.

At the same time, I curse the poor grammar and inexplicable typos of the 20-somethings who are minimally-paid assistant writers and editors charged with putting significant and often breaking news online. At the same time, I realize that, even with their level of experience, they should be better.  I still have a screen capture of a horribly-formed CNN narrative that purportedly exposed a significant headline story about the auto company “Suburu”; except of course that the company is Subaru.

That is inexcusable, and I hope that the writer and editor involved in that fiasco were summarily fired. Except that I doubt it, because to do so would require them to bring onboard other junior and poorly paid editorial people who are not up to this simple task.

And that is the real tragedy here. Our news outlets could do better, even with the talent that is available.  Most reporters and editors were never well paid, yet often felt a sense of obligation to get this story right.  But those outlets show no desire to do so.  As our news could be better, much better in some cases, if they would take an interest in selecting and developing their talent.  I do not believe that they are doing so.

Because of my significant background in tech publishing, I have an interest in publishing in general. I think I have an understanding of the issues here, and also think that our news outlets are doing it wrong.  Very wrong.

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.